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Oasis

Chapter Text

His hand felt good. Warm, secure.

Frustrating.

"Yes, you've got it." Sherlock stepped back just in the direction John intended him to go. It was good to be able to steer him, for once. Hell, after the last few years, it was good to be doing anything with him at all. John smoothly waltzed them once more round the lounge, then promptly tripped over his feet. Sherlock caught him: even going backward he seemed to have more grace than John ever did, but there was no time for jealousy. They laughed instead, Sherlock holding him up as they teetered precariously toward the sofa.

Mrs. Hudson pushed into the kitchen to leave them some shopping. She did one silent circuit of the floor, like a bird flitting inside the flat from kitchen to lounge to landing then was gone, shaking her head and pretending she wasn't laughing too.

"Ridiculous," John gasped out, and he pressed his forehead to Sherlock's shoulder for a moment as he regained his footing.

"I wasn't the one who tripped."

"I didn't do it on purpose," John said. He grinned up at the brilliant smile, the lines wrinkling the corners of Sherlock's eyes, those human, human eyes, and the particular way his mouth twisted in a smile, as familiar as breath. John’s heart thundered in his chest. Sherlock's gaze flicked down to his mouth, then back up.

They stared, and slowly their smiles melted away. They left the music playing to disguise their speech, speaking close and quiet, their bodies still clinched. Sherlock pulled John back into the dance. His arms were posed as if he were following, but he led just the same.

"You're ready to do this, John," Sherlock said with tremendous, monstrous certitude.

"I'm not sure if I am." John swallowed.

"You promised."

"I know. I know I did. But." John tried very, very hard not to look at Sherlock's mouth in return. "Are you sure this is the only way?"

"You have to. We agreed."

"But—"

"After all this, you can't back out now."

"I'm not saying I'm going to back out, but…"

"You have to marry her, John." Sherlock caught his eye. "You must." He laughed, and it sounded forced. "I certainly can't be the one to do it." John felt Sherlock's hand twitch on his shoulder.

"No. Obviously."

"She didn't ask to marry me."

"No, I know."

"She's the last of his network. Remember that. The last."

"Oh," John said in a dry, humourless laugh, "I'm aware, Sherlock."

"So you know how dangerous this is. You know what I'm entrusting you with."

Just once more, just for this minute, John let himself feel the warmth of Sherlock's back under his hand. He felt the flex of his breath. He stroked his shirt. "I do."

"It's not…too long." Sherlock's face was so close—too close. They needed to stop soon. It was mortally important that they let go. Sherlock stared at John's cheek. "When this is over. When this is over, we can…"

Sherlock seemed lost, his sentence abandoned. His loneliness was even louder from this distance, and it made John's heart crack.

John no longer counted the rhythm in his head. His body had taken over, meting out these stolen moments three heartbeats at a time. They danced, and John let himself be carried away in the feel of Sherlock's body as the constructed waltz became something softer, sensuous, sinuous, seductive. The pulse in Sherlock's throat jumped. The blood in John's veins felt the same: barely contained by his skin, barrelling out of control with every iota of strength he used to keep them apart.

Sherlock sighed, and his breath shook. The sound of it made John's stomach roil with a dark-tinged, desolate longing. He wanted so badly he was momentarily nauseated with it. But they'd promised themselves, and it would be disastrous to lose sight of the goal now: so close to being free from Moriarty’s web. So close to having a chance.

"It's not too long," John whispered. "Just a few weeks."

Sherlock’s breath came quicker. "May be more." His chest brushed the front of John’s shirt. John’s breathing sped to match it.

"I won't let it be more."

"I'm sorry, John, but you have no way of—"

"I won't let it be more." John could feel Sherlock exhale in response, his breath stirring the fine hairs on John’s neck. There was faintest brush of skin under his ear. It might have been the tip of Sherlock’s nose. It might also have been his lips. John shivered.

Their cheeks skimmed together, setting up ripples of emotion that echoed into the pit of John’s stomach. "Mycroft tells me that there may be complications,” Sherlock said, and John could feel his resolve beginning to melt with the intensity of Sherlock’s closeness. He couldn’t see; he could only feel. He wanted.

"Bugger the complications," John murmured. Tension twisted like a knot at his groin.

"That's…not…"

Only when he felt Sherlock’s speech against his lips did John realise their mouths were a breath from touching. "Sherlock,” John said in a puff of air. They froze. After a heart-rending moment John swallowed and collected himself, backing out of the embrace and staring over Sherlock's shoulder at the far wall. Then he looked down at his feet. Then he looked at the door. His hands shook. "I just. I just got you back. Two years, and I feel as if just got you back. And I know that was the plan, and I know what my job is, but. The hell am I going to let this go on one single day—no, one single hour longer than it has to, do you understand?”

"It's only for a few weeks more, John."

"And then I can come home. We can both be home. Here. Together."

It was clearly the wrong thing to say. Sherlock's face did something subtly wrong and his shoulders jerked. "John…" he whispered in a voice as fragile and strained as cracked glass.

"I'm sorry."

Sherlock stared into his face, open misery in his eyes, for only a moment. Then he shook it off. He stood up straight, pulling himself out of John's grip and reassembling himself from the ground up. When he was through he looked like Sherlock Holmes, the detective. Sherlock Holmes, calculating machine. His expression was shuttered, and any warmth, any humanity he'd shown John was gone. "Into battle," he said.

John already missed him. He tucked his hands away behind his back. "We're good at battles."

"We are."

"And this one has been no different. Just a longer campaign."

"One I'm very much looking forward to being over."

"Same," John said. He envisioned the past few years, with their expected dramas and carefully laid plans unfolding like a map from Moriarty to freedom. He envisioned his role in it: loving husband, unwitting dupe, luckless pawn. And at the end, he envisioned relief, and breath, and a brilliant, incandescent love. John swallowed. "You don't even know how much."

"I think I do." For a long, drawn-out moment Sherlock stood so close John could feel his body heat spread like warm honey through his bones.

Then the song ended, and Sherlock took a breath. He spun away to the stereo then faced John. "Ready?"

"As I'll ever be." John firmed his shoulders. He nodded at Sherlock, a captain to his SO.

Sherlock took in John's stance, toe to head. Then he dipped his head toward the stereo, a tiny smile playing at the corners of his mouth. "One more dance?"

"Just one." John allowed himself a smile.

Sherlock started the music over and stepped in to hold John in his arms. John tried to memorise the feeling of security to take with him as he went willingly back into Mary's—Moran's—trap. They grasped at each other's hands, moving as one unit in a pattern around the room as Sherlock's fingertips pressed against his neck and John tucked his thumb into the waistband of Sherlock's trousers.

Just this dance. Just one more, and then back into the fray.

Chapter Text

Before The Fall

“If these were handcuffs, I would have us out already,” Sherlock said in a low hiss, his frustration twitching his shoulders.

“Would you just wait a moment?” said John. “Jesus.”

“We don’t have much time before they come back.”

“I know that. Don’t you think I know that?” John shoved his chair back harder against Sherlock’s in a vain attempt to get closer, and slumped down to try, once again, to reach for Sherlock’s hands. On the third attempt he brushed against skin and plastic, and on the fourth he hooked one finger into the cable ties locked onto Sherlock’s wrists. The plastic round John’s own was digging into the skin, but no matter; it would heal. “Sherlock, I don’t suppose there’s any way you could make this easier on me.”

Sherlock sucked in a breath, grunted, and did something with his shoulders that suddenly put his hands an inch or two closer. He was breathing heavily.

“What did you just do?”

“Flexible shoulders, John.”

“You just popped one out of joint, didn’t you.” There was a telltale lack of conversation; only the sound of Sherlock’s heavy breathing answered him. “Sherlock…”

“Close.” Sherlock spoke under strain.

“Oh for—“ John hurried, feeling with arduous and clumsy movements for the latch of the tie, then wedging his fingernail under the ratcheting mechanism. It cut to the quick, as hard as he was pushing, but a bit of blood was nothing when compared with possibility of the collector’s security detail coming back before they’d gotten free. In a trice he’d slipped the ties off Sherlock’s wrists, and had to sit there and listen to him groan as he stretched his shoulders. If only he could hear the sound in a nicer scenario. Perhaps during a massage. Or a restaurant. Or in bed. Somewhere not under threat of captivity. “Please tell me you didn’t actually put your shoulder out of joint for that.”

“I told you, John,” Sherlock said from his position kneeling behind him. John felt the ties yanking against the cuts on his wrists and stifled a hiss as Sherlock managed to free him. “Close, but no.”

John shook feeling back into his arms, and felt the abrasions. He’d have to examine their injuries in the full light. Sherlock was putting something back into his pocket with one hand and grabbing at one of the jade elephants with another. “Sherlock,” John said as he went to grab the other two, scanning the rest of the million-dollar elephant collection filling the room. The detail was idiotic, leaving them in here; they had no way of knowing he and Sherlock weren’t just going to up and steal whatever they fancied. The whole household deserved to go down, if only for crimes against basic intelligence. “What’s that in your pocket?”

Sherlock shrugged. “Handcuff shim.”

Handcuff shim. In his coat. Of course. “And you couldn’t have told me you had one of those before I cut myself on the plastic freeing you?”

“I couldn’t get to it with my hands locked, John,” Sherlock said, peeking low from the doorway and establishing there was no one in the corridor. “Think it through.”

John rolled his eyes and followed. They high-tailed it down one corridor then another, up the stairs and down, sticking to security blind spots. Then Sherlock pulled up short, and John nearly collided with him.

“What?”

“Erm.” Sherlock looked left, then right.

“You’ve got us lost in here, haven’t you.”

“No…”

A chortle bubbled up. “I feel like we’re in the centre of the labyrinth and I’m relying on the Minotaur to get us out.”

Sherlock gave him an exasperated look and chose left, then trotted silently down the stairs. “Am I meant to the Minotaur here, or is Eastin?’

“You know, it’s a toss up.”

“Eastin’s obsession notwithstanding, the Minotaur had the head of a bull, not an eleph—“

He’d opened a door off the corridor, but rather than another stairwell it opened onto a large atrium. In the centre of the space was a large—and very real—elephant. The smell of hay and dung was overpowering.

Sherlock stared. John stared. The elephant trumpeted, which seemed a very unlikely coincidence of timing, but rather than examining that fact Sherlock pulled the door shut and blinked down at John with a stunned expression on his face.

“Not a bull, then,” John said, and started to giggle. Sherlock stared through the closed door for a moment and joined him, and for a lovely few seconds the danger was superseded by Sherlock’s chuckle and the adrenaline of the chase and the stupid, bizarre fact of a large mammal living in an atrium at the heart of a billionaire’s mansion.

The entire situation was ridiculous. The two of them laughed and laughed until John’s intercostals ached. He felt drawn into Sherlock’s gravity, unable to stop himself drifting closer with every moment that passed, until the giggles finally cleared and left them so close John could feel the heat of Sherlock’s body and catch the scent of his skin. Sherlock’s gaze dropped down to John’s mouth. John felt buoyant, affection simmering like cinnamon through his veins. He watched Sherlock’s expression go a bit soft-focus as it overflowed with fondness and, entranced, he reached a hand toward John’s face.

John welcomed it. It was about time.

Sherlock’s dawning smile was slow and steady and brightened the corridor like a sun. He dipped his head, and the last thing John registered before their lips met was the shaking of Sherlock’s breath on John’s cheek. The kiss was gentle, a bare press of mouths that shot an electric awareness under John’s skin, spreading out his limbs and pooling in his groin. John grabbed a fistful of Sherlock’s coat to tether them together as the kiss carried them far, far away from reality.

Happiness flared in John’s chest behind the thundering of his heart. He pressed Sherlock back against the wall with his body, knee to chest to mouth, and swallowed Sherlock’s moan. John had been right; it was far better hearing it now than in captivity, with the sound echoing in their chests and both Sherlock’s hands threaded through John’s hair. He was cradled, protected. Loved.

He was also, as it happened, about to be spotted by the security guards. They both were. The sound of shouting chased them from another floor, and reluctantly John pulled away. But even as they broke the kiss Sherlock was chuckling, and the sound was so gorgeous John felt joy press up into his throat and steal his breath.

“There’s that, then,” Sherlock murmured. John stole another quick kiss, inspired by the look of elation on Sherlock’s face, and followed him toward another exit from the house. They ran and dodged, and all the while John grinned so hard his cheeks ached. This was going to be glorious.


The anticipation carried them through the arrest, the meeting with the museum director where they’d given back the set of jade elephants, and the cab ride home. It last lasted precisely until the moment when they walked into the flat and saw a note pinned to the jamb with the penknife.

John’s euphoria was dashed like cold water over a blaze. Sherlock examined both sides, sniffed it, then looked up. There was no expression on his face whatsoever. Outwardly, John straightened his spine even as his heart cracked, broke to pieces, and fell away.

There were only three letters, written in marker pen.

I.O.U.

Chapter Text

“You…” Sherlock slid his gaze back and forth and shook his head, as if assessing the damage. “You spiked my drink.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did, John. I wasn’t meant to be this drunk yet.”

“How can I spike an alcoholic drink, Sherlock?”

“I’m sure you have your ways.”

“My ways.”

“Yyyes.”

“My ways?”

“Your doctor ways.”

John giggled. “What are you talking about?”

“This is going to make the next part more difficult,” said Sherlock.

“What next part?”

Sherlock grinned, and the lack of control in his face was terrifying. He looked as if he might try to eat John’s head.

He reached underneath his chair, felt around, and came up with a plastic bag containing white-green plant shit and a packet of Rizlas.

John stared. “You’ve got to be joking.”

“Am not.” Sherlock plopped them both in his lap and set to work while John stared, uncertain whether he was really seeing what he was seeing.

“You can’t possibly believe I’m going to—“

“Oh come on, John. Stag night.”

“Drugs tests, Sherlock.”

He made a noise which indicated precisely what he thought about that.

“Sherlock—“

“You smoked at medical school.”

“Well. Yes, but that was…” John didn’t have the head to do the maths at the moment. “Years ago.”

“Stag night, John. It’s my responsibility to show you what I’m reasonably sure will be a good time.”

“I’m already drunk.”

“I can’t help that you spiked our drinks, John. You were supposed to be far less drunk than you. We. …You are.”

“We are.”

“Yes.” Sherlock held up a neat joint as if it were a trophy.

“You’ve got another think coming if you expect me to smoke that.”

“That’s the thing about my thoughts, John. They come so quickly.”

The phrase struck John just as if he were a thirteen-year-old with a filthy mind, and he started giggling. He flopped back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. Across from him, Sherlock began to chuckle as well. John heard the flick of a lighter and something smelled awfully, nostalgically familiar.

“Here,” Sherlock said.

John didn’t move. “Nuh-uh.”

“John.”

“No.”

“John.”

“There is no way on god’s earth I’m smoking that, Sherlock.”

“If you say so,” Sherlock said.


John couldn’t stop giggling. The air in the room was exactly like warm champagne. “She never did.”

“Yes. It came from Mrs. Hudson.”

“Did you just—“

“She pressed it into my hand like a secret and made me promise not to tell you it was from her.”

“Like a secret?!

“What?”

John laughed again and turned his head from side to side, enjoying the way the world felt, enjoying the way Sherlock talked like an arsehole. “You're such a twat.”

“Don’t know what she thought she was buying,” Sherlock muttered to himself, spinning his hand loosely on his wrist, expounding into the middle of the room as he rolled the words round his mouth. “It isn’t true skunk. The pistils are all wrong, for one thing, and the ash… Ash is wrong. I know ash. Don’t think for a moment tobacco is the only ash I’ve extensively—” He blinked, then, as his brain caught up with his mouth. “I probably shouldn’t say that to you.”

“No, probably not.”

“My tongue is pretty loose.”

Which, of course, set John to laughing once more. “That’s not something you should say either.”

“My tongue is loose?”

John finally got it out between giggles. “It puts things in my head that shouldn’t be there.”

“About my tongue?”

“Yes about your tongue.”

Apparently Sherlock had to think about that for a second. “Ohhh…”

“Yes.” John kicked off his shoes and scrubbed his stockinged feet along the floor. “Mmm…” he moaned.

“John.”

“Mmm…”

You probably shouldn’t make noises like those.”

Between the drink and the pot, Sherlock’s speech was getting delightfully slushy. John grinned at him. “Your lips, er, lisp is showing.”

“Shut up,” Sherlock said.

John leaned forward to prop his weight on his elbows. “Say, ‘she sells seashells by the seashore.'”

Sherlock scowled. “No.”

“Yes,” John said. He crept forward in his chair, then scooted it toward Sherlock to get even further in his face. “She sells—“

“I’m not doing that, John.”

John’s blood felt like liquid light as he tilted forward and allowed his weight to carry him onto his knees between Sherlock’s legs. He grinned. “Say it.”

“No.”

“Say it.”

“No.”

John was close enough to feel Sherlock’s body heat all down his front. Sherlock’s legs closed on John’s torso and rocked him back and forth. “Come on, Sherlock.”

“Not going to happen.”

“Say it.”

“I said no.”

John started giggling and rubbed his palms up and down Sherlock’s thighs. “You said said.

“I often do.”

“Mmm.” Sherlock’s warmth and solidity were tremendously comforting. John let himself lean into his body and hum.

They lapsed into a sort of contented silence as John continued to stroke the outside of Sherlock’s trousers. He hummed again.

“John.”

“Hm?”

“You need to stop.”

“Which?”

Sherlock trailed his fingertips up and down John’s spine, making him shiver and arch into the contact.

“Mmm. Which?” Words were increasingly hard to form, and the longer Sherlock was touching him the worse it became.

“Yes.”

John chuckled, then gasped as Sherlock ran the backs of his fingers around the base of his neck and round the side and up to his jaw. Each touch felt like fire. He groaned.

Sherlock stroked his fingertips down John’s throat, across the base, and up the other side. His breathing became heavier and heavier, and even with all the intoxicants in John’s system warning bells were starting to peal. Still, he lifted his chin as Sherlock touched his neck and his face, lightly, carefully, as if committing it to memory. It was affectionate and arousing both at once. It felt shatteringly good.

John let his jaw drop and moaned. Sherlock’s fingers stuttered to a halt.

They both breathed heavily for a few seconds, and John tried to pull his consciousness back into his body. “John,” Sherlock murmured. “You’ve got to sit back down.”

John stroked his hands on the outside of Sherlock’s thighs again, feeling the slight tremble. “Why?”

“You know why.”

Because otherwise I’m going to fuck you. John blamed the whole damn night for lowered defences and letting the thought through. “Uh-hunh,” John said, eyes closed, and he didn’t move while he gathered himself together. In one quick breath he shoved himself back from Sherlock’s body and onto his chair, safe from temptation. He adjusted his trousers.

Sherlock, too, sat back and rearranged himself. “This might have been shortsighted.”

“We need a distraction.”

“Suggestions?”

John scanned the room. “A game. And don’t say Cluedo, or so help me god I’ll punch you.”

“You wouldn’t. Not tonight.”

“Try me.”

“Operation?”

“What the fuck do you have an Operation game for?”

“A case.” Sherlock tossed his chin as if daring John to say something more about it.

But John’s gaze had fallen upon the pile of paraphernalia on the floor. “Ah.” He reached for the packet of Rizlas. “Yeah, no. I know what we’re going to do next.”


"Your go," John said. He slid forward on his seat, misjudged the distance, and fell onto his knees in front of Sherlock again. He craved. He wanted to press his body down and into Sherlock's, to grind away against him, to let all the hormones and chemicals flooding his system carry him away. They'd been waiting so goddamn long—ages, really—and John was sick to the teeth of holding himself back. He'd lingered on the edge of arousal ever since the touching earlier, and why the hell couldn't he just—

"John?"

"Mm."

"You have to actually—" Sherlock swallowed, and John was mesmerised by the movement at his throat. "Guess."

"Right."

"This idea was your…er. Idea."

John watched Sherlock stare at his mouth. He felt reeled in. Entranced, he reached out and held his fingertips over Sherlock's lips as he asked his question. "Am I a woman?" said John.

He felt a huff of air; he'd surprised him. Good. "Yes," Sherlock said. John didn't dare look him in the eye.

"Am I ... pretty?"

Sherlock's breath shook. His tongue darted out to wet his lips before he spoke. It brushed John's fingers. He felt the touch shoot like lightning down to his groin, stabbing him with desire. "Er, b-beauty is a construct based entirely on childhood impressions, influences and role models."

"Yeah, but am I a pretty lady?" The lick had left John's fingertips just slightly damp. They stuttered and skidded as he dragged them round that gorgeous, plush, delectable mouth. John's head was swirling with filthy, filthy things. If he'd been twenty years younger he'd have been hard as a rock already, but even as it was his groin thudded with earth-solid beat of his heart.

Sherlock wasn't unaffected either. His breath was quick and shallow, and his gaze was vague. "I don’t know who you are. I d-don’t know who you’re supposed to be."

"You should."

"I don't."

"You picked the name."

"I picked it at random from the papers."

John remembered to breathe. "You’re not really getting the hang of this game, are you, Sherlock?"

With his middle and ring finger John pulled down Sherlock's lower lip—just a bit, just a fraction of an inch—and Sherlock's eyelids fluttered."So. I'm h-human." He swallowed and lipped John's fingers. "I’m not as tall as people think I am. I’m nice-ish. Clever. Important to some people, but I tend to rub them up the wrong way. …Got it." Then he nipped at his middle fingertip. When John didn't immediately pull away, he sucked it all the way into his mouth. It disappeared to the first knuckle.

"Go on, then." John was speaking solely on instinct. He was becoming one raw nerve, jangling with every pull of Sherlock's mouth.

"I’m you, aren’t I?"

You think I'm clever? It was all John could do to keep from bearing him down to the ground and having it off with him, right on the spot, agreement or no. Danger or no. He swayed forward and caught himself on Sherlock's upper thigh, nearly at his groin.

"Sorry," he murmured, but he made no move away. He couldn't shift his hand.

Sherlock spoke, and his voice had gone soft and dark: danger held in reserve, a panther lazing by the fire. "I don't mind."

And then, John could move his hand, and he did. It would have been dishonest not to. The bulge he cupped under his palm was tantalising and solid. John felt his own bloodflow turn decidedly downward in sympathy; Sherlock was hard, and the feel of it made John hard, too.

Though it oughtn't have been a surprise, still John was startled when Sherlock cupped him in return. Gently first, then with mounting pressure, Sherlock stroked John's groin over his jeans. John gasped. He felt his cock fill further, felt it rise to meet Sherlock's hand in a world-tilting flood of arousal. His head fell heavy on his neck and his vision swam. The steady stroke was hypnotic. John spared some focus to notice that under his hand Sherlock’s cock was jerking with arousal, and the constant squirm of his hips told John that all he'd have to do is unfasten his zip. Then he'd be welcome to reach in and—

The door buzzer rang.

The scramble to separate, to straighten their clothes and smooth their hair, to adjust their trousers, was figuratively painful and literally depressing. There hadn't been nearly enough moments alone with just the two of them, and now that this one had disintegrated John wondered how long he'd have to wait for the next. He wondered how long he'd have to wait, full-stop.

There were footsteps up the stairs, and in the last few moments before the door opened John took a deep breath and closed his eyes.

He really wished there had, at the very least, been time for a kiss.

Chapter Text

They scurried mouse-like down the staircase to slip in between the heavy, red-velvet curtain and the concrete wall of the theatre. For several minutes they froze there breathing in dust until it was certain they weren't being followed by any of the Yard, then Sherlock began scrabbling for something in the dark. John’s hand, having been cuffed to Sherlock’s, was dragged around after it.

"When did you set up this one?" said John.

"A month ago."

He considered the timeline. "The IOU left in the flat?"

"If Moriarty was stepping up his game, I was going to have to step up mine. Now do shut up."

There was a click, and with the quiet susurrus of wood against wood the wall behind them slid sideways a foot or so. Sherlock tugged John through after him, and once the panel was shut again they were plunged into full darkness. It was very close, and it smelled strongly of wood-shavings and mould. John heard a scraping noise. Suddenly he could see, and everything was bathed in a reddish light; they were standing in a tiny alcove with Sherlock holding his hand over a torch so the light shone through it.

"Not long from here," Sherlock said. "Keep close."

John raised his eyebrows and held up their wrists to shake the handcuffs linking them. "Seriously?"

They slid sideways through a few narrow corridors until they came to a metal ladder set into a brick wall. John caught a whiff of ozone and fresh air, and then it was gone, as was their light. He heard Sherlock sigh, then his wrist was jerked upward and forward toward the ladder.

"Fuck," he heard Sherlock mutter when he came to the end of John’s arm-span.

John rolled his eyes into the dark. "Didn't think this through, did you?"

"Shh."

"If you expect us to go up that, we're going to need to work together."

It was awkward and painful, and not remotely safe, but they managed to find a way for the two of them to climb the ladder. Unfortunately, it involved being pressed front-to-front while the small of John's back bumped each rung on the way up and Sherlock's hips pinned his in between steps. Both of these brought John discomfort, but for very different reasons. The last thing he needed was to have to fight off arousal in the middle of escape. This still wasn’t the right time to expand on their kiss outside the elephant room.

Sometimes, John feared it would never be the right time.

"Did you plan this?" he gritted out, his arms shaking with effort as they moved in tandem, step by step, hand-hold by hand-hold, upward.

"Did I plan for them to handcuff me, for you to take a swing at the chief superintendent, and for us to go on the run?"

"You say ‘swing’ as if I didn't connect."

"No, this I didn't plan."

"Ah. That means you have another plan."

"When we—ow—when we get to the top I'll—damn it, John, slower—I'll explain."

John stopped and stared into the darkness where Sherlock's face should have been. "Promise?"

"John." He was so close he felt the sigh more than he heard it. "Just fucking climb."

Only once they poured out into a wider space on level ground did Sherlock flip the torch back on. They were in a small room furnished with a sofa, a rack of sundry clothes, an antique dressing table, and a large metal cabinet.

"How the fuck did you get the sofa up here?" asked John, but Sherlock ignored him. Instead he dragged John to the cabinet and extracted what looked suspiciously like a bone saw. He arranged their arms just-so and carefully went to work on the cuffs.

"Do I want to know why you have this?" said John.

"Absolutely not."

John accepted that at face value and instead turned his attention to scanning this newest of Sherlock's bolt-holes. But before he could ask any questions Sherlock interrupted his thought process.

"It's time,” he said.

"…For?"

Sherlock was making more headway on the cuffs than John would have expected. "I've figured out Moriarty's end-goal. So far it's been a steady escalation of hostilities. He's taken away my work, then driven me from my home, and I'm afraid the next stage is—"

"Me," John said. "You think he's going to try to take me away from you next."

"Yes."

"How do you think he plans to do that? Hell, we’re cuffed together."

Sherlock gritted his teeth. "I don't intend to find out."

"I can take care of myself," said John.

"John. He manipulated me right where he wanted me. He twisted Mycroft's plan and it backfired. He’s planted the seed to turn the Yard against me. Nothing we've been able to come up with has been enough to keep me out of this position. Why do you think you'd fare any differently?"

"I'm not like you. Or Mycroft. And I'm not like him. I don't think the same way. I'll be okay."

Slowly, Sherlock shook his head. "I'm just not willing to risk it."

"So you're just going to—"

"We."

John narrowed his eyes. "Explain."

"The bus."

"And the now-dead man who saved us from it, I hope."

"He—the others who’ve done similarly—pushed us out of the way as if his well-being depending on us being saved. Me being saved. Either these men's lives are forfeit if I'm killed, or they're meant to keep me alive for another reason. But they’re not allowed to talk to me, because each time they try someone assassinates them. There are redundant layers to this sort of security, but I can’t pinpoint why. Moriarty wants me to think the code is the clue to his break-ins, clearly, but how? I can't be certain. It's not a universal computer virus. It's not any kind of digital loophole that we can figure. But it doesn't have to be real for Moriarty to convince others of its value. Particularly if he puts it about that it's dangerous to test it, and it can only be deployed on spec. That's why his little show in the court was so important."

Sherlock was thinking aloud, now. John loved being part of this process. "So you think…what, that he's advertised he wants to sell it?"

"And that I have it."

"And you have to be alive for it to be accessible."

"It would appear so, yes."

"That means you're safe as long as they want the code."

"It also means they won't stop looking for an opportunity to use me for it."

"Unless you're no longer available."

"Precisely." Sherlock appeared pleased. "Well done."

John ignored the patronising tone in favour of making plans. "So you need to disappear."

"More than that. I need to die."

John stared.

And Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Don't be ridiculous, John. I need to fake my death."

"Ah right, of course you do. Obviously."

Sherlock gave him a flat look, and went on. He described a plan he’d formed, a plan with a cushion, a plan with blood and a ball and a bike. It seemed perfectly plausible.

…Which was, John mused, a good sign that his life had gone completely mad.

"And I'm meant to do what?"

"Come with me." With a snap, Sherlock cut the cuffs clean in two. He looked up, and the fire in his eyes glowed brightly. "With the boring aspects of life out of the way—"

"And without the press everywhere.”

"—we can easily clear the board of our mercenaries. And perhaps tackle a few of Moriarty's associates as well."

"Not to mention clear your name," John added.

"It will be efficient, if nothing else. Honestly, Moriarty might be doing me a favour."

“And they won’t suspect me? If I disappear after—”

“They’re not looking at you.”

“You’re certain.”

“They’re looking at me.”

“And they won’t find you.”

“People do all manner of things in their grief. You can take a trip. No one will suspect.”

"What if we need backup? Or money? I know practicality isn't always on your radar, but—"

"We'll have a system,” Sherlock said. “Mycroft has a way."

"What, I’m supposed to rely on Mycroft?"

"We can always rely on Mycroft."

We.

Sherlock seemed to reconsider his statement. “Don’t tell him I said that."

In spite of the churn of nervousness in his gut, John grinned. It didn't feel like a nice grin. "I like this plan."

"It's only a start. We have a lot of work to do."

"I like this. Working together. Striking at the root." The renewed pre-battle feeling began to sizzle again in his bones.

"Yes."

"We can fix this."

"If we act well."

John stepped in close, drawn in inexorably by the light in Sherlock's eyes. "It's going to be rough."

"Undoubtedly."

"Our own campaign. You and me." He slid his hands into the lapels of Sherlock's jacket. The heat of his body warmed all the way down John’s front. Just the idea of it made him feel more alert, more hopeful, more alive than he had in months. They’d escaped arrest, escaped the cuffs, and now they had a plan.

Sherlock's eyelids lowered. He leaned in, and his breath was so heavy his chest brushed John's. "Fighting back to back."

"Together." John licked his lips, and Sherlock swooped in for an intense kiss, deep and hot and raging as a bonfire. John clutched at him helplessly, at his arse and back and hair, and when Sherlock rocked him up against the arm of the sofa John laughed with exhilaration. "How does Hansel and Gretel end?"

Sherlock's eyes flashed. "They push the witch into the fire."

"I don't suppose Molly knows where there's a crematorium furnace going spare."

Sherlock stared at his mouth and chuckled. His colour was high. "It would be fitting."

John giggled back, basking in the blaze of their connection. "This is going to be a hell of a holiday."

"It seems about right."

"We're mad."

"Absolutely."

"I'm going to love this."

"We're going to love this."

A thought sobered John. “But you have to promise me something.” The expression on Sherlock's face indicated had no idea what he was about to say, and John revelled in the chance to hold his attention. He let the silence sit for a moment before continuing. “You have to promise me you won't leave me in the dark. Not for any reason, Sherlock. Not if you think it’d protect me. Not if you think it's too difficult. Not if you just want to seem clever.” Sherlock blew out a breath, and John knew he was about deny he ever did that. John didn’t want to hear it, so he grabbed Sherlock’s chin to force eye contact. “No rationalising, Sherlock. You cannot…leave me…in the dark.”

“Okay.” Sherlock swallowed, and his voice was soft. “Okay, John. I won’t leave you in the dark.”

“You have to keep me informed. As much as possible. At every moment. Not to protect me. I don’t want to be going on and find out later that…you could have used me to do something. You have to communicate. We have to work together. Like the ladder. Together.”

“I will, John. I promise.”

“Okay.” He still had Sherlock’s jaw in his hand, and he added the second hand as they stared at each other. The free cuff flopped on his wrist. “Together. Or not at all.”

Sherlock’s expression wavered, only a bit. If it were anyone else, John would be afraid he was going to do something horrible like burst into tears. When he spoke, his voice was rough. “Yes.”

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

"Good."

"Let's get started, then. It's going to take some doing, to kill you without killing you."

John let go with only a short kiss, consoled by the fact that later there would be plenty of time for more of the same. Once they were on the road—away from London, fighting and investigating and taking back their lives, together—they'd have all the time in the world.

Chapter Text

The night do might have been a fun party if it were happening to someone else; if the overwhelming grief at what he'd been forced to do and the dread of things to come weren't combining to make him feel constantly ill. John slipped out the back during the obligatory Madonna song, craving peace. For a moment he considered developing a smoking habit, if only to have an excuse to get away.

Sherlock's voice echoed through his head.

…redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship.

…The bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing.

…I will never let you down.

…Whatever it takes, whatever happens, from now on I swear I will always be there, always.

It felt as if they'd reached a pivot point, and from now on things were going to be different. The felt the world was changing, filtering the universe round them with another colour of lens. He supposed he’d have to learn to deal with the shift.

He sighed when he heard the door open behind him, not relishing the idea of being interrupted. But when he looked up from his perch atop one of the stone retaining walls to see who it was, he relaxed. Sherlock settled beside him and took out a cigarette. He didn't light it.

John didn't know how to touch him. “You rather showed your hand there, Sherlock Holmes.”

“I was told to make it personal—“

“I don’t think you were meant to admit you love me in front of god and everyone.”

“They presumed I meant—“

“They presumed you were head over heels,” John said. "Particularly after the vow."

"The vow?"

John blinked at him. "You're kidding me."

Sherlock tucked his collar up closer around his neck. It wasn't nearly cold enough for it. "It seemed appropriate."

"It's not."

The look Sherlock gave him was heartbreaking: fear and worry and sadness all at once. "I don't think it ruined anything."

Oh, only my heart, John thought melodramatically. He gave in and leaned against Sherlock's shoulder. "I'm sure it didn't."

"I just…" Sherlock's swallow was audible, and he stared at the ground at their feet. He kicked at a patch of grass, which popped the head off a dandelion and sent it tumbling into the dark. "I couldn't let her have the last say."

It was sweet. More than sweet. It wasn't just an simple statement of commitment; it was a way of having his vow be the superseding vow for the length of this charade. John craved the comfort of Sherlock's arms, the affirmation, but he had to make do with his body heat soaking through the thin wool of John's dinner jacket.

“You never told me about Sholto,” Sherlock said, startling John so fully that his brain seized for a moment. He'd expected the question sooner or later. He just wasn't banking on tonight.

“There’s not much to say.”

“You were close.”

“You could say that, yes.”

“Closer than…” Sherlock shook the question away.

But John answered it. “Not the same as you and me.”

“Not as close, then.”

“Jealous?”

Instead of answering, Sherlock fumbled the cigarette in his fingers and lit it.

“Different,” John said, giving in.

“Did you have sex with him?”

John’s stomach churned. “No.”

“But you wanted to.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“What, then?”

John frowned. “It’s different.”

“Because something else held you two back besides a diabolical bastard with a penchant for dramatics?”

John’s mouth curled. “Which one of you are you describing, here?”

Sherlock coughed a dry, humourless laugh. “Not me this time.”

“There wasn’t a Moriarty, no. No Moriarty, no Mary, no Magnussen. No Ms.”

“What was it?”

In the coloured light of the setting sun, John studied Sherlock’s profile. “Are you really asking this?”

“I’m really asking.”

For a long moment, John stared down at his hands and considered what to say. “We were very, very close. We'd formed a bond over there. Death. Loneliness. Companionship. We see things very different to most people.”

“He’s a recluse.”

“Now. Though he had always been reserved. And the most honourable man I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.” Next to him, John could feel Sherlock’s spine tensing. “You have your own accolades. I’m not going to say them right now.” Best. Wisest.

“Pity.”

John pushed harder against Sherlock’s shoulder, just for a moment. “You have nothing to be concerned about.”

“Who said I’m concerned?”

“I'm not sure what put that idea in my head.”

“I’m not.”

“If you say so.”

“He cares about you,” Sherlock said.

John shrugged.

“Hard not to,” Sherlock added quietly.

From inside the hall came the echoing strains of "Celebration". They sat immersed in their own thoughts, touching at the shoulder and hip, as the song wound up. On its heels was the Jackson 5's "I'll Be There", and John immediately felt a lump form in his throat.

"I know this isn't a waltz, but…” he murmured, then stood and rounded the edge of the low wall to find the shadow created by the outbuilding behind them. "Come here."

"John." Sherlock adjusted the collar of his coat again. "I'm not sure this is a good—"

"Just come here."

After a moment of hesitation, Sherlock ditched the cigarette and followed. When he was in reach John looped one arm about his waist and pulled him close, then rested his other hand on Sherlock's shoulder.

"What are you doing—"

"Shh." The song was in itself a vow, and John felt it with his entire body. It literally moved him, and after a moment Sherlock echoed his position and swayed. The give and take was more fluid than ballroom dance, and more organic, and John fancied they were promising themselves to be there no matter what the future held. That one day they'd make it. Some day, they'd pass through the trial and be rewarded with each other.

The longer it went on, the worse the idea of letting go became. John's grip on Sherlock tightened and the dancing slowed until they were simply clinging to each other, breathing erratically through a suddenly overwhelming flood of desolation.

"I don't want to do this," John murmured.

"It's too late now."

"What if something goes wrong?"

"I'll be there," Sherlock said, echoing the song.

"I don't want to do this."

"I know."

John held on as tightly as possible, and Sherlock wrapped his arms round him, almost swamping him in his coat. "Things might change. And I'm—"

"I promise you," Sherlock rumbled into John's ear. "No matter what, we'll get through it. Even if something happens, we'll solve the problem."

"We." John exhaled, and it shook.

"Us."

"The two of us together against the world."

Sherlock huffed a laugh. "The two of us, yes. Together. Against the world."

John swallowed his emotion and jerked a nod. “Okay,” he murmured.

“Okay.”

And slowly they began to sway again, holding on to each other in the shadows, putting off just a little while longer the inevitable moment when they’d have to rejoin the crowd.

Chapter Text

Mrs Hudson’s been shot," John told Sherlock’s voicemail as he flailed for a cab. “And I can’t get through to her.” He assumed Sherlock had his hands full setting up the jump, but it would have been nice if he picked up anyway; they’d enough help from the homeless network to wrangle the crash mat next to the dumpster, sure, but if she'd actually been hurt they'd need to make alternate arrangements for the rest.

He didn't really believe she had been. But he'd never forgive himself if he didn't check it out.

When a cab finally pulled up, John waited only for it to slow before he jumped in, and he drummed his fingers on the armrest until Baker Street hove into view. John's first confirmation that they were being played came once the cab turned the corner. It was business as usual there, with no traffic, emergency vehicles, or first aid detritus littering the pavement. Nevertheless, the calm didn’t decrease his worry; if anything, his unease increased. If she hadn't been shot, had she been kidnapped instead? Tied up and left for dead? Killed quietly? What was he going to find inside her flat? John barely had the presence of mind to pay the cabbie before he pelted up the steps and burst through the front door.

Mrs. Hudson was in her flat, unharmed and baking.

“I’ve been here all day,” she said. “And the phone hasn’t rung once.”

John scanned the kitchen, but it looked the same as always. Moriarty, he thought. Who else would have had the resources to block it coming through? Who else would have wanted John out of the way so desperately?

Suddenly terrified of the implications, John spun round again and prayed he'd get back to Bart's in time—in time to stop whatever Moriarty was planning, or if John was wrong about his involvement, at least in time for Sherlock’s jump. It was all meant to run like clockwork, and John couldn’t play his part from the ground if he was stuck in traffic.

Once he was in another cab and on his way, John pulled out his mobile again.

Careful: M is fucking with us. Don't know what he's planning. Left, but coming back to Bart's now. More when I get there.

He twitched and fidgeted, and pressed his back hard into the seat to ground himself until they got to the hospital. A moment later, however, his mobile rang. It was Sherlock.

"Sorry, I'll explain later. How is it all going?" John said. In answer, he heard the muffled rustling of being pocket-dialled. He rolled his eyes, wondering how Sherlock had managed it despite a locked phone, and was about to hang up when he heard a familiar laugh. His stomach plunged.

"Two minutes-twenty one seconds, Sherlock," Moriarty sang, his voice faint but audible through the thick wool of Sherlock's coat.

"Two minutes until what?"

"Until BANG." Moriarty laughed, and John curled his fingers harder round his phone. "Aren't you wondering where John went? No?" He laughed again, and clicked his tongue. "You'd forgotten about them all, didn't you? Johnny, your landlady, your favourite pet policeman. I've got them all."

"Liar."

"Well, obviously. But I'm afraid for your sakes I'm not lying. Not this time. I've got them in the palm of my hand, and unless you jump, I'm going to close that hand. Squiiiiiish. What a mess you'll have made."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"We've only been playing until now. But I'm through playing. This game is boring me."

"Wait—"

"Oh, look at you. Panicked. Afraid. You've changed so much over the past few months, it's really quite disappointing. I'd thought we were the same, Sherlock, but you're just like them. Ordinary. Soft. On the side of the angels."

"I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one."

"Then it's time for some proof, isn’t it? You, or your friends. Angel, or…you know. The other thing."

"Sherlock?!" John said into the phone. His heart beat nauseatingly hard.

"All you have to do is stay alive," said Moriarty. "Stay alive, and little Johnny's dead. Dead before you can blink. Buuut, just in case that's something you don't want, I'm afraid the answer is just as simple: kill yourself, Sherlock. Do it now. Time's a-ticking."

"And you'll release them?"

"Well, I'd hope so." Moriarty chuckled. "But you never do know with me, do you? I could decide to. I could decide not to."

There was a moment of silence. John pressed his phone to his ear so hard it hurt. Then Sherlock chuckled. "You have some sort of release code. A switch. Every bomb has an off switch. Your mercenaries didn't let me die because of the information I had in my head, and likewise, I don’t have to die…if I’ve got you."

"That's easily fixed. I'll have to deny you the off switch."

"What do you mean, 'deny me the off switch?'"

John's stomach sank as he realised what was coming; it was precisely what Sherlock had been about to do.

"If you won't make a decision otherwise, I'll help. This will be my gift to you, Sherlock. My last gift: no more painful choices. No more choices at all."

"What—"

"Say goodbye to Johnny for me. Too bad he never got that kiss he wanted. You were almost there, weren't you? Almost there."

"No—"

"But I got there first."

There was a thunderous report that left John's ear ringing. "SHERLOCK," he yelled into the phone. "SHERLOCK." He panicked, trying to see how close they were to Bart's. He was about to ring off and phone 999 when there was the sound of movement over the line.

"John," came Sherlock's voice, thready and dark.

John's spine went rubbery with relief. "Are you okay?"

"I'm sorry."

His heart was in his throat. "What’s going on?"

"I'm sorry. This isn't how I wanted it to go."

It was intolerable. He was still streets away. "Sherlock, where are you? I was just—"

"I…I can’t come down, so we’ll…we’ll just have to do it like this."

"Moriarty—"

"I don't have long."

So he'd heard. "Sherlock—"

"I need to jump. Now."

"But he was lying about having me."

"I can't trust that he's lying about the others. I'm not willing to take that chance."

"I don't…" There was nothing useful he could say over that line. Subterfuge had become almost second-nature, but at that moment all John wanted was to be able to speak plainly. They hadn't been able to speak freely over that line in months; Mycroft had never been able to guarantee who might or might not be listening in. And now, more than ever, he just needed truth.

If he said it was okay to jump now, John would trust him. But he didn't have to like it.

"John. I know it's going to be rough, but you'll be fine. Promise me you won't do anything rash and…do what I'm doing. Where I'm going, you cannot follow."

Sherlock sounded, more than anything else, terrified, and his fear was contagious. Suddenly, John's stomach twisted. He leaned forward, willing the car to get there sooner. They were only round the corner. "Wait. Wait. What?"

"I'm sorry. I have to do this. I know this is going to hurt you."

John grit his teeth. "No. All right, stop it now."

"I don't have a choice. I wish I did. I don't want to fight this on my own, John. I really don't." It was the threat of tears in Sherlock's voice that did it; suddenly John felt all their plans, all that hope, drain away from him. The frustration melted, leaving only urgency.

"Then don't." That was it. John started to open the door. The cabbie cursed and slammed on the brakes, and John pelted out of the car and round the corner to the base of Bart's, ignoring the shouting behind him. There was a crowd of their helpers gathered at the jump site, milling about, and the lorry was parked perfectly against the dumpster to shield the airbag from view. If John didn't know what was going on, he wouldn't have suspected a thing.

"If you'd just consider, you'll see why I'm right."

"Why are you saying this?"

"We had such plans, didn't we, you and I?"

"It's not too late."

"Please. Stop there. Keep your eyes fixed on me." John looked up. Sherlock lifted out a hand toward John, as if he could touch him if he only tried hard enough. John found himself reaching back in distress. His footsteps obeyed Sherlock and stuttered to a halt. "It could have been lovely. But life gets in the way, doesn't it." Sherlock forced a laugh. "Well, not in this case. Life is certainly not the problem, this time."

"No, Sherlock." John was shaking. Between the frustration and the anger, the sadness and the worry, he couldn't stop himself.

"Don't miss me. You'll be fine." It truly sounded as if Sherlock were speaking through tears, and the sound of it sloshed John's stomach. "I'm sorry."

John grabbed at the air in between them, and shook his head. "No. Don’t."

"Goodbye, John." Sherlock held up his mobile in a strange sort of toast, then tossed it aside.

Sherlock jumped.

As his body fell, so did John's hope.

The sound of Sherlock hitting the pavement sounded wrong for an airbag, and it spurred John's feet to action. Panicked, he pushed through the crowd to reach Sherlock's body. When he got there, Sherlock was already lying still on the ground, surrounded by a pool of blood.

“Sherlock…” John murmured as they rolled him over. "Nooohgod…" He moaned and elbowed the fake doctors out of the way to take his wrist. It felt jarringly wrong with no heartbeat in it. Reeling, John pressed his fingers to Sherlock’s carotid, and to his overwhelming relief there, as it should have been, was Sherlock’s pulse. He’d hit the bag, then. Sherlock was playacting. The missing pulse was down to the ball in his armpit.

Despite that relief, John’s heart-rate didn’t slow.

His hands felt clammy against the hot skin of Sherlock's neck, and the wide-staring eyes, the dark red smeared across his pale face, were just a bit too familiar. There had been too many friends, too many men with sightless eyes in John's past. To many kind faces gone slack and wrong. Too much life-blood spilling across their skin that John couldn't hold in with only his hands. He saw Sherlock's face and remembered them all. He was helpless against the onslaught of memory. John stomach protested everything that had happened in the last hour—everything that happened in the last few years, everything that was about to happen going forward—with a world-rocking lurch.

"Sherlock…" John swallowed the rest of everything he wanted to say, realising that in this muddled state he could compromise their cover. He tried to reset his game face, then realised that he didn't have to; the expression of sick horror he was showing was perfectly acceptable. He swallowed again, hard, trying to get a hold of himself, but the desolation he felt wasn't false. There was nothing to do. Sherlock had jumped, and the clockwork was set in motion, and now it was too late for John to fight for his place at Sherlock’s side. More than that, if he’d interpreted correctly, he couldn’t. Sherlock needed to go, and John needed to stay, and it would be John's job for the foreseeable future to figure out why and to wait for him. He would have to accept uselessness until Sherlock's return.

The doctors lifted Sherlock's body onto the gurney, and John's mind swirled with loss and anger and questions. He watched the future he'd been so looking forward to roll away from him.

Sherlock was gone. Gone for an unknown number of months. Gone off to fight the mercenaries and Moriarty's network, alone, with no one at his back. John's place was there, and yet he wouldn't be.

Just before Sherlock was pushed through the double doors his hand fell limp outside the sheet. It was convincing. It was too convincing. John's stomach gave a final lurch and emptied itself on the pavement. He heaved up his breakfast as the stark, painful awareness dawned:

No longer a holiday, no longer together, their missions had nevertheless begun.

Chapter Text

How dare he.

How fucking dare he.

Isaac preceded them out of the den of drug-addled, listless bodies, but Sherlock was dawdling. John took the opportunity to shove him. It was satisfying, but it didn't make Sherlock walk any faster; it only made him trip, his lack of grace highlighting how much he’d utterly ballsed up this time.

"I wish I could assume you were faking this," growled John.

"I'm not faking it."

"This really should be a joke."

"It's not, John."

"I KNOW." John stopped and pinched in between his eyes, and Sherlock spun to face him. "I’m aware of that, Sherlock."

Sherlock stared over John's shoulder as if he didn't have anything to do with the conversation, which only served to feed John's fury.

"Is this to do with while you were gone?" he said.

That got Sherlock's attention. All his focus zeroed in on John’s face. "What?!"

"When you were gone. Were there drugs?"

"No." Sherlock quickly stepped forward. "No, John. Believe me."

"Can I?"

Sherlock reacted as if he’d been hit, which was rich, coming from him. "Of course."

John studied his expression. He seemed sincere, but he always could seem sincere when he wanted to. I believe in Sherlock Holmes, my arse. "So this is new."

"It's for a case," Sherlock hissed.

John stared at him for a moment longer before deciding he’d had enough for the moment. "Go," he said, gesturing with his chin. "Go out to the car."

"What are you going to do?" Sherlock said warily.

"GO.”

He stepped forward and scanned John’s face.

"I needed to talk with you," he said quietly.

"What?"

"It was time to speak with you."

"It was time?"

"Why else do you think I’m here? Next mattress over from your neighbour? Really, John, I'm not that high. If I hadn't said anything you wouldn’t even have known I was in the house. Think."

Not that high. John's jaw twitched. "You could have texted."

"I needed Mary to think she was succeeding."

It had been a month with no contact. Technically, she was succeeding. "And you thought, hey, while I’m here, might as well shoot some drugs into my veins, on a lark?"

Sherlock shot him a foul look. "Must you always be so…dramatic?"

"What?" John huffed out a laugh. "I’m being dramatic?"

"There aren’t many places we can talk anymore. I’ve examined this house thoroughly, and it serves our purposes."

"And also there’s available heroin. For when you get peckish."

Sherlock made a frustrated noise. "John, I need you to listen to me."

"I’m trying. But it’s tough to suss out what’s you being you, and what’s you being a doped-up bastard."

Sherlock’s gaze stroked over John’s forehead, his temples, his cheeks, and his mouth. He was close enough John could feel his body odour press palpably against him. The pheromones would have been nice—familiar, comforting—had they not also been smothering, and overlaid with the scent of something acrid. John swallowed.

Still, Sherlock was there, and close, and John felt the warm oil of relief trickle down his spine.

John reached up and gently touched his cheek. "You look like hell," he murmured.

"Good," Sherlocks said.

"Good?" said John, raising an eyebrow.

"All the better to convince Magnussen I’ve given in."

"What are you talking about?" John dragged his fingers down Sherlock’s jaw and let his arm drop. His skin felt strange: cold and too hot, all at once, and John imagined that his fingers slid through pools of drug seeping through Sherlock's pores. John blinked back his illusions to stare at Sherlock’s face, searching for the reality. His stubble was real, as well as the fact that he was thinner. Drawn. Strained.

"If you’d stop causing a fuss, I could tell you."

"You can’t. We have to go outside. I’m meant to be furious with you."

"You’re not?"

John allowed himself a tiny smile. "Oh, of course I am. But when has that stopped me letting you get on with it?"

"You stop me all the time," Sherlock said, his breath touching John’s mouth from several inches away. It stank.

"Well. Not this time."

"That’s a pleasant turn of events."

John should step away. He didn’t. "Where have you been?"

"I’ve said."

"Surrounded by…" John searched for a better word, but ended up again with the one that expressed the correct amount of vitriol. "…smackheads. On a mattress."

"I told you. It was for a case."

John’s heart pounded. "And you’ll tell me about this case when we get another moment alone." It wasn’t a question.

"Of course."

A floorboard settled and John became aware of how close they were standing and how near their mouths had become. He stepped back, fear churning his stomach. Sherlock scanned him once and his expression slammed shut.

There was a chasm opened up between them, and the longer they stood in close proximity the farther away Sherlock felt. John was suddenly afraid—devastatingly afraid—of what they’d done to themselves with this ruse. His stomach was hollow. "No more abandoning me for a month, without a sodding word."

"Of course not," Sherlock said, curt and cold.

John stepped back to breathe air not warmed by Sherlock’s body, letting himself feel the ground under his feet and his own self-sufficiency. Sherlock was right there, but John felt remarkably alone. He’d thought that once he found Sherlock again things would get better, but no. Apparently not. John tried to keep his breath from shaking; he didn’t want to give Sherlock the satisfaction. "Good. Go on then. Out to the car."

"And you’ll act angry."

"Oh, don’t worry." At a distance, John followed Sherlock. "It won’t be an act."

"You’re coming back to the flat with me."

"First we’re going to see Molly."

"Molly?"

"I have two words for you: Drugs. Test."

Sherlock spun, his expression shifting with betrayal. "What?"

John knew precisely how he felt. He swallowed, wishing the lump of cold ice in his stomach would dissipate. "Go. Now, Sherlock."

A muscle in Sherlock’s jaw firmed and he whirled out the car. John took a moment to inhale all the way down into his gut, then slowly exhale. It didn’t work. It didn’t settle him at all; he still felt the betrayal, the loss, the anger, and the fear. His reaction to Sherlock may have been stronger than what was really called for by the situation, or maybe it wasn’t, but one way or the other he couldn’t bring himself to care.


The trip to Barts only confirmed what John already knew about Sherlock’s state, and once again his anger was stirred up. Why hadn’t Sherlock called? Was he ignoring John for a reason? What the hell sort of case could possibly have caused him to forget the promise they’d made to each other when all this began?

Together. Or not at all.

Well, apparently that message had only held while Sherlock was travelling. Now that he was home, now that he was in the same damn city, it was lost somewhere in transit.

John really should have expected this. But that didn’t make it any easier to swallow.

Once outside the hospital he shoved Sherlock into the cab and went round to the other side.

"John," Sherlock said once they were underway, folding his hands in his lap as if this all were an everyday occurrence. "Now that we’re alone, I’d like a second chance to speak."

John stared at him a moment before he could dredge up some words. "Excuse me?"

"This should be as safe a place as any to have this discussion. This is the third cab that stopped for us, yes?"

John stared at him. "Er. No, Sherlock… Why do you think that?"

Sherlock focused on him, furrowed his brow. "It’s not?"

"…No."

"Well." Sherlock examined the back of the cabbie’s head. He was a large man with dreadlocks, and he seemed more interested in humming along with the radio than paying any attention to them. "Okay. It’s likely fine. John, I wanted to tell you about Magn—"

"No," John interrupted. He couldn’t take it anymore. "No. Wait. Sherlock, first I need you to explain to me what’s going on. With the drugs. Where you’ve been. Use small words."

Sherlock looked round the cab as if John had hidden a camera somewhere.. "I thought that’s what I was doing."

"No, you were trying to sidetrack me."

"The case explains the drugs, John, and both explain where I’ve been."

John stared at him and set his jaw. He smiled, just a little: humourless. Cold. "You know, I’ve tried, but I just can’t come up with a scenario in which you had to use drugs for a case."

"I can’t be held responsible for your failure of imagination." Sherlock’s hands fidgeted.

John clucked. "Aw, what? Are we coming down a bit? Getting tetchy?"

"No," Sherlock whispered, as if trying not to spook the driver. "I think the cab is taking us the wrong way." He moved slowly as he gazed out the windows, but John took a quick look and sighed.

"Sherlock, it’s fine. We’re on our way home. Look."

Sherlock frowned. "Ah."

"The paranoia is a nice touch. Really sells it. I feel quite safe now."

"You don’t understand the gravity of this, John."

"Then tell me."

"I’m trying to. If you’ll just shut up for a moment, I can get on with it." They frowned at each other.

"And this information includes where you’ve been for the last month."

Sherlock didn’t immediately answer. "In part."

John studied his face. He might as well swallow his anger and listen; it was likely to be the only way he’d get any answer at all. "Okay," he said quietly. "Explain."

Sherlock cleared his throat and took a moment to collect himself before he spoke. "You’ve heard of Charles Augustus Magnussen, of course."

John shrugged. "Yeah. Owns some newspapers. Ones I don’t read."

Magnussen, it turned out, was responsible for what John internally called "The Hedgehog Incident." When Sherlock admitted this, the anger came surging back as if it had never ebbed. John wanted to punch his hand through the window.

"What the fuck was that in aid of, Sherlock? What? Kidnapping? Attempted murder."

"Fire exposes our priorities," Sherlock said quietly, giving John a sideways glance. "Of which you are well aware."

"So, what? He wanted to expose your priorities?"

"He wanted to…" Sherlock swallowed. "He wanted to make me dance for him."

As had another bastard. A dead bastard.

"He’s been collecting information about me since I’ve been back. I don’t know why, yet. Maybe it’s to do with Moriarty. Maybe not. Whatever the point, I haven’t been able to pinpoint it. Which is why I decided to make my move."

"The drugs." It was starting to come together.

Sherlock nodded. "I’d needed someone to report my habits to the papers. I needed him to notice me. Give him my…false priorities, as it were."

"False."

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Of course false, John."

"You certainly had enough in your system to—"

"Make it look convincing, yes. You were certainly convinced."

John scowled. "Remember post-acute-withdrawal syndrome, Sherlock?"

Sherlock waved that away. "I’ve dealt with it before, it’s not a big…" He noted the fury on John’s face and stopped. "Well," he swallowed. "It’s worth it to catch Magnussen."

I doubt it. "Is it."

"It—" Sherlock glanced out the window as they pulled up to 221 and heaved a sigh so heavy John fancied it caused a breeze. "What is my brother doing here?"

"I called him."

Sherlock scowled as he pushed out of the cab. "He’s going to throw off the whole operation."

John watched him go up to the house without a look back, and sighed. "I’ll just pay then, shall I?"

Sherlock might have been blessed by the presence of his brother with a brief reprieve and a change of subject, but this wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. John was going to get to the bottom of this, one way or another.


It was going to take longer than he'd expected to get his answer. He watched Sherlock flirt, and he watched Sherlock kiss, and all the while John felt himself held in suspension, watching from afar as a terrible play was enacted just for him.

Only once Janine was gone could John move at last.

He stared out into the darkened stairwell, blinking and sucking air into his lungs as Sherlock walked past him into the kitchen. "What was…" he pointed in the direction she had gone, his mouth moving but no sound coming out.

"John, can we get back to the case, please?"

"She was…"

Sherlock sighed.

"Janine," John said.

"You’ve got questions."

"One or two, yeah, pretty much."

"Naturally."

"You’ve got a girlfriend."

"Yes."

"Janine. Janine is your girlfriend."

"Well…yes. In a manner of speaking."

"In a manner of…" John pointed again. "I just saw you. Her. You and her. In the. In the bath."

"There’s no need to implode."

"No need to…" John felt he’d only had a slippery grip on his sanity to start with, and it was at this point that he lost it. "Sherlock. You and Janine. You’re both. You were in the bath together. I heard you." John couldn’t breathe. His chest was on fire and he couldn’t breathe.

"Yes, and you and Mary are having a child." Sherlock walked straight into John’s personal space. "Would you like to tell me all about how you have exclusive claim on—"

"That’s not the same at all."

"No?"

"Sherlock, Mary was my mission. It was what I had to do."

"But you didn’t have to—" Sherlock’s chest heaved once, twice, and he stepped back. It looked to John as if something were about to slip out, but with a tremendous amount of effort Sherlock buttoned it all away again. "I don’t think we should be talking about this right now," he said.

John set his jaw. "What. While you’re high?"

"Among other reasons."

They stared at each other, breathing heavily, before John waved Sherlock away. He couldn’t look him in the face. "Fine."

He stalked round the room and tried to swallow down his anger. The fact that his chair was gone was a mixed blessing at the moment: there was more room to pace, sure, but John felt a stunning betrayal at the fact that he’d been so easily exiled. Did Sherlock never plan for him to come back? What the hell was happening? John's head spun.

They'd been anticipating things would change. He just hadn’t expected everything to change so much, so fast, and in such a way that left all the closeness they’d built up between them scattered in the dirt like road debris.

Mourning, John wandered over to the mantel. He needed a moment away from Sherlock’s direct scrutiny and some space to grieve. His gaze wandered idly over the dust and clutter, but when it hit something unfamiliar tucked away next to the skull, his churning stomach sunk to his shoes.

It was a tiny, brass elephant. He stared at it.

An elephant.

A living elephant in the middle of a mansion. A postcard about a pet pachyderm containing a hidden message from Sherlock. A spam email about an elephant’s trunk, uncoded to reveal Sherlock’s support and strength and trust. A set of eight dinner napkins with a parade of Indian elephants on, a wedding gift from Sherlock.

All the gnarled memories twisted in John’s mind. At some point since he’d last been there, Sherlock had procured an elephant and quietly given it pride of place among the detritus of their lives. Clearly he hadn’t completely given up on them—even if, after the last month apart, John felt more divided from him than ever.

John thought his heart might break.

Behind him, ignorant of the small revolution building in John’s gut, Sherlock lowered himself into his chair and cleared his throat. "Charles Augustus Magnussen. Magnussen is like a shark—it’s the only way I can describe him. Have you ever been to the shark tank at the London Aquarium, John? Stood up close to the glass? Those floating flat faces, those dead eyes… That’s what he is. I’ve dealt with murderers, psychopaths, terrorists, serial killers. None of them can turn my stomach like Charles Augustus Magnussen."

John swallowed and stared at the statuette. "She’s the only one who really knows what you’re like?"

Sherlock blinked at him. "I beg your pardon?"

"She’s the only one who—" John spun. "What is she talking about, Sherlock?"

"Who, Janine?"

"Ye—" John shook his head at Sherlock. "Yes, Sherlock, I’m talking about Janine."

"Ah."

"Why did she say that?"

Sherlock gave John a shrug, but he also looked across the room instead of at John’s face. "I have no idea."

"What have you been telling her?"

"Nothing damning."

"What does that mean?"

"Mostly half-truths. Come on, John. I’m hardly going to tell her about Mary and the plan, am I?"

"And you’ve cleared her?"

"What do you mean?"

"Well, after all your…" John waved his hand around. "…To-do in the cab, with the secrecy and all, I presume we can talk here? She’s not a…I don’t know, a secret agent or something?"

Again, Sherlock blinked at him. "This isn’t a film, John."

Which was such a ridiculous thing to say John could scream. "Excuse me, but several years ago we were nearly blown up in a pool. You faked your own death. I’m in a false marriage with a woman who used to work for your arch-enemy—"

"Your arch-enemy now too, John."

"—Our arch-enemy, but really. For god’s sake, Sherlock. In what way does suspecting someone of being a spy tip the needle too far into fiction?!"

For a moment, Sherlock just blinked at him. "The flat is clean, John."

"But how do you kn— No, you know what? Never mind. I’ll just trust you, shall I?"

"I wish you would."

John glared. After a moment, Sherlock looked away and steepled his fingers under his chin. After a full minute of silence, John prompted him. "Fine. Magnussen?"

"Magnussen. Charles Augustus Magnussen," Sherlock said again, is if he enjoyed saying the full name. "You know Magnussen as a newspaper owner, but he’s so much more than that. He uses his power and wealth to gain information. The more he acquires, the greater his wealth and power. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he knows the critical pressure point on every person of note or influence in the whole of the Western world and probably beyond. He is the Napoleon of blackmail, and he has created an unassailable architecture of forbidden knowledge. Its name is Appledore."

During his speech Sherlock had crossed the room to open up his laptop, revealing blueprints and photographs of a large, modern home. John stared at him.

"You didn’t enter your password."

"What?"

"Your laptop wasn’t password protected. It’s always password protected. Or was that just when I was here?" John pointed toward Sherlock’s bedroom. "And Janine was here all night. What if she wanted to use your laptop, hm? She would have seen everything."

"John." Sherlock scowled. "I’ve just told you that the western world is run from Magnussen’s house, but you’d rather discuss Janine?"

Yes. No. It wasn’t any better a situation now than it had been five minutes earlier. John swallowed and backed down. "Fine. Tell me about the house."

Unfortunately, however, John couldn’t manhandle his brain off the topic of Sherlock and Janine. He kept rehearsing the look on her face, and the sound of them kissing. His skin itched. His stomach turned over. He and Sherlock had experienced just the one—

He stopped that thought in its tracks.

The longer John thought about it, however, the more antsy he became. "I’m making some tea," he announced as he stomped into the kitchen and filled the kettle, interrupting Sherlock in the middle of his speech. At least the kettle was in the same place he expected it to be.

As the water heated. John leaned back against the worktop and tried to set everything to rights in his mind:

Sherlock and Janine were dating. She spent enough time over the flat to know that Sherlock and Mycroft argued, and often. Furthermore, Mycroft had been over often enough for her to have seen him. She was there a lot, then.

She had slept there last night, in fact. And naked, if Sherlock’s shirt was any indication. But if that were the case, where had Sherlock been? Had he slept in his bed as well? Did he sneak out in the middle of the night to get high? He smelled rank, and looked as if he hadn’t showered in days. Did he stay here, in bed with Janine, like that? Or did he have some sort of "body odour" scent that he could spray on at will? What the hell had happened?

John pinched in between his eyes. It didn’t seem likely he’d ever find out, either. It wasn’t as if he could just ask. Sherlock had made it more than clear he wasn’t going to answer.

"Together. Or not at all," John had said, and Sherlock had agreed. Yeah. Right.

He heard Mrs. Hudson come up the stairs as the kettle clicked. John got out a third cup for tea. Just then, a large man—a large man who looked like nothing so much as a solid lump of bodyguard—strolled into the kitchen and began casing the flat.

"What the—" John started to say.

Annoyed but apparently unworried, Sherlock stood in front of the fireplace and spread his arms so one of the three security men could search him. John was forced to abandon the tea and join them in the sitting room for his own pat-down. Excellent. Fucking excellent.

Apparently, like it or not, John was about to meet Charles Augustus Magnussen.

Chapter Text

John rode alone to the gravesite. He’d meant to go with Mrs. Hudson, but at the last moment he chickened out; he didn't think he wanted to do this with an audience. Not quite yet. He didn't want his first visit since Sherlock’s funeral to be for show.

The site looked more stark than John remembered. A month's worth of grass had sprouted up over the burial plot, and the newly-planted headstone was a dark mirror of the world around it. The pull to touch the memorial was strong, but John fisted his hands, closed his eyes, and took a stabilising breath.

"This is so bizarre," he murmured. "I'm not sure how you think I'm going to be able to keep doing this." John scrubbed his face with a hand and stared at Sherlock's name, carved sharply and deep into the stone, as it cut a path across the sky. Though John knew the truth, no amount of mind-over-matter seemed to be enough to convince his throat not to close or his eyes not to mist over. Something in his brain couldn't accept the idea that this was an empty grave. It all felt too real. It felt too much like he would never hold him again. Never touch his hair or smell his skin. Never hear his laughter. Never gaze back at him while they were both calm and relaxed, while Sherlock's eyes were so soft and so young and so clear. "I find it—I find it difficult, this sort of stuff. Which you know. But you… Mycroft said you wanted me to do it anyway. So…here I am."

He sucked in another breath. Doing so was more difficult than it should have been.

"I suppose I should say the funeral was beautiful, but it wasn't. I kept seeing you in the corner of my eye, imagining any one of the billions of people there could be you in disguise, and it was distracting. Couldn’t stop myself. Because that’s just the sort of thing you’d do, isn’t it. Haunt your own funeral.” John pressed his lips together for a moment. “And yes I said billions, you egotistical dickhead. Loads. You make— er, made quite an impression on people. And they weren't all there to goggle. Some were, but a lot of them came to tell me they didn't believe the rumours, and knew the truth. They don’t…" John swallowed hard to push his heart out of his throat. He imagined the eyeroll he'd be getting once Sherlock heard this recording, and the impatient twitch of his fingers as he waited for John to get a hold of himself. He gritted his teeth. "They don’t believe the papers at all. They…appreciated you, Sherlock. They did. You achieved great things. Amazing… Amazing things."

The more John thought about what Sherlock had accomplished—no matter his stated motivation for doing so—the more the pain in his chest grew. It became yawning, hollow ache. He wasn't sure he'd be able to get the rest of the words out. The image of Sherlock's dead face and the pulse-free chill of his wrist kept replaying through his mind on a nauseating loop.

"You told me once that you weren't a hero. Fuck, there were times I didn't think you were human. But now…I know…differently. And no one will ever convince me otherwise. So…there." The breath John sucked in shook wildly. "I don't have much faith anymore. But I do think… I think if you are doing something right now, I bet it's something good. And I…I wish I could help." More than he could literally or figuratively express. The urge to fight his way back to Sherlock's side was a constant twitch at John's fingertips. His impatience and dissatisfaction, his helplessness and pointlessness, his anger and sadness and black mindless fear had all spiralled up to become a powerful motivator that he only held in check with the sound of Sherlock's voice as he’d instructed John to stay.

Sherlock needed him to carry out this facet of the mission, and John was determined to surpass expectations on that front. But that didn't mean he was ever going to like it.

He wished for the millionth time there was something that could ease the persistent sense of emptiness at his side. "I'm so alone, and I miss you so much."

After a few moments of silence, John started to walk away. He only got a few strides away before he turned back again. "No, please, there’s just one more thing, mate, one more thing." He gave in to the overwhelming desire to trace his fingers across Sherlock's name. It felt icy cold, and the edges were sharp. His stomach clenched on the words he needed to say. "You were the best and wisest man…that I have ever known." And you'd better fucking come back to me. Please, please don't leave me alone.

He pulled himself up straight, nodded in acknowledgement of his assignment carried out, turned on his heel, and dragged himself away.


Sherlock had been gone nine miserable months when a card came in the post, stuck between a mailer from a vision company that John didn’t need and a booklet of coupons which, unfortunately, he thought he might. The rent in the shitty place was almost more than he could handle, but it beat trying to put up a false front for Mrs. Hudson every damned day.

Hello from Spain!

I’ve had three vodka tonics, so forgive my scrawl.

It’s been more fun this trip than I’ve had in ages! Could spend months here instead of three weeks, but then I wouldn’t be back on time, and that would be tragic of me.

You'll be happy to know that I bought you a little something. The best birthday gift I could find. I’m just sorry I couldn't bring Pachyderm with me, but I don't think having a cat on board would work well, and I know you appreciate the company. ;)

Love,
Gladys

The address was scribbled out twice as if Gladys couldn’t remember it under the influence of the vodka tonics, and the card had therefore become misdirected. Or so anyone might have thought.

But the use of the word "pachyderm" made it plain; he'd finally got another note from Sherlock.

John set it on the kitchen table and went to put the shopping away. He made himself some tea, sat on the sofa, and began to solve it. The message resolved after only a few minutes, which gave John a momentary flash of pride; he was getting faster at this. A month ago Sherlock had sent him a message embedded in a crossword, and it had taken two days to figure out the cipher. All in all, the messages Sherlock sent weren’t difficult—they wouldn’t have stopped a trained codebreaker from working it out in the breath of a moment—but they were enough to keep the casual observer from noticing John was being contacted, and that was enough.

This one was the most obvious of the lot. Perhaps Sherlock was getting tired of the subterfuge. John hoped not: Sherlock needed all the stamina on that front he could scrape together.

When John read the message, his stomach dropped to his shoes.

Three more months. Happy birthday. Sorry.

Between the postponement of his return, the ease of the code and the blatant sentimentality of the message, John was suddenly more afraid than he’d been in a long, long time.

Something was wrong.


The sense of foreboding didn’t get any stronger. But it never faded either, becoming instead low-level background static that hummed along as John went about his business. The days turned to weeks and weeks to months. John expected Sherlock to contact him any day, but he never did. He was waiting for a sign—any sign—that Sherlock could just come home.

But no signal came.

He worried at the pain like a bruise, like a loose tooth, and while he knew it didn't do any good to keep poking at it, still it seemed to John that this was his penance for letting Moriarty force him to stay behind. Sherlock was out there fighting the fight with who-knows-what sort of danger, and John was home working at the clinic and ordering in a curry. He was barely shouldering any danger at all. The least he could do was maintain the constant ache of missing him.

John opened up his email, poured himself a glass of Scotch, and prepared to comb through his spam: a daily ritual made worse and worse by the fact that there wasn’t anything new. There hadn’t even been any real spam in the last week; filters were getting too good. He feared maybe a message which only looked like spam had been caught by one such filter, and deleted unread. He was beginning to worry that he had passed over something.

This time John was taking a sip of his drink when the page loaded, so at first he missed the blue dot highlighting something new. When he finally saw it, his throat closed so tightly he had trouble swallowing.

Fancy growth hormone! Put an elephant's trunk in your pants

Again the code was simple, and after he'd deciphered the text John finished his drink, set the glass aside, and buried his face in his hands.

trouble in Lebanon
alive and well
three more months

There was panic, sure, but also relief: Sherlock would be home in three months. Three months. If all went well, it would only be three months.

In his mind, John imagined Sherlock strolling around the sitting room, looking at the bare walls and modern furniture. He would have hated it here. Too modern, too streamlined. Too clean.

An imaginary Sherlock strolled round the room. ”I don’t like it."

“You don’t have to like it. You’re not here."

“What did you do with all your things?”

“These are all my things, Sherlock. Most of the shit in the flat was yours.”

“Ah yes.” The smirk imaginary Sherlock flashed him warmed John’s belly. “Now I remember.”

“You'd see so yourself if you just came the fuck home.”

“Three months, John.”

“You said that last time. It's been a year."

“I was wrong.”

“Well, that solves it. Now I know I’m imagining you. You don’t say things that in real life.”

Sherlock smiled. "Are you going to visit me today?"_

John looked at the clock. It was half past six. "It's a little late for that now, don't you think?"

John blinked away the fog and scrubbed his hands over his face. He badly needed a shave. And to get something in besides old cheese and small packets of crisps. Perhaps it wouldn't be such a bad idea to drag himself into the shower and out to the gravesite. Report in. Have a conversation that wasn't, technically, with himself.

If he did that, he might actually get to the shops. Shopping wouldn't be so bad if there was a single place within striking distance where he'd be guaranteed to be left alone. Some days he had the fortitude to withstand questions about Sherlock, but today…today didn't feel like one of those days.

Not by a long shot.

"Think of me…" Sherlock called to him as John plodded toward the bath. In his mind John flipped him off over his shoulder. Only by mustering all his strength did he manage not to look back.

Chapter Text

John ran after Sherlock at a brisk trot, scattering a group of middle-aged tourists hogging the pavement. The bastard wouldn't slow the hell down for love or money. Or good manners. Or for John either, apparently. “So. We’re breaking in to Magnussen’s office.”

“Yes.”

“Just…without a plan.”

Sherlock snorted. “Of course I have a plan.”

“So…?” Finally John caught him up as he turned a corner. “Are you going to tell me—“

“In due time.”

“No, Sherlock.” John spun him round by the elbow. “Tell me now.”

“This is not the best time or place.”

John barked a laugh. “And when would be better? When we’re actually in the middle of it? Tell me what we’re doing, now, or…”

“Or what. You’ll drag me home?” It was Sherlock’s turn to laugh, and the sound made something cold and uncomfortable trickle down John’s spine. “I’ll tell you when it’s time to tell you, and not a moment sooner. If you can’t wrap your insipid brain round those terms, then you’re not coming.”

“Then you’re not going.” John folded his arms and gave Sherlock a rigid stare. “You will tell me, and you will tell me now, or I’m calling Mycroft and then we’ll see how you talk your way out of it.”

Sherlock appraised him. “Fine,” he said eventually.

“Fine?”

“Yes.”

“So you’ll tell me now?”

“In here.” Sherlock gestured into a small coffee shop tucked away into the alley. He entered and John followed. As usual.

“We can talk in here.”

“Yes.”

“You were leading me here to tell me all along, weren’t you.”

“Yes.”

“You’re an arsehole.”

“And for the record,” Sherlock said, sweeping off his scarf as a concession to the heat of the fire burning merrily away in the corner, “Mycroft knows what we're about to do.”

John frowned. “He told us not to—“

“He said that while Janine was listening at the door.”

The reminder of Janine made John’s stomach clench, and it cancelled out any good feeling he'd got from Sherlock saying ‘we’. “So we have his blessing?”

“I’m not sure I would go that far,” Sherlock said, twisting his mouth, “but he knows what we’re about to do.”

“And you’re sure Janine doesn’t know—“

“He won’t help, of course, but he’s aware.”

Sherlock continued to speak, while in John’s mind Janine grinned and wandered out of Sherlock’s bedroom dressed only in a shirt, her bare thighs peeking out from the tails. She leaned on the doorjamb and batted her eyelashes. I’ve just woke up in Sherl’s bed, he imagined her say. The spectre of Janine winked at him. It's lovely. You should try it sometime.

John let his head fall and scrubbed his face with both hands.

“John, I need you to pay attention,” Sherlock said.

A flare of frustration, of anger, and of jealousy flashed thorough John, temporarily highlighting the worst parts of his personality before letting them fall back into shadow again. Still, he lent voice to something he’d been holding in. “Are you aware…” His voice was coming out strangely—weak and thready—so he tried again. “Are you aware what this looks like?”

Sherlock was taken aback and suspicious. “What what looks like?”

“What… You. You and Janine.” Sherlock’s expression closed. “Together. Letting her sleep in your bed, and… In your bed, while you’re not even there. Taking a bath. Kiss—“ John cleared his throat. “Kissing.”

“Yes John. I am aware what it looks like.”

“And has this been going on the whole month? That’s why you haven’t texted me back?”

“I told you John. I was working on the ca—“

“Yeah, the case. The case. Right. But also you’ve been dating Janine.”

There was nothing readable on Sherlock’s face: not even a twitch of eyebrow. “You want to do this now.”

“YES, Sherlock, I want to do this—“ John looked at the rest of the patrons in the small coffee bar. “Yes, I want to do this now. I want to talk about this. I’m finished not… Not talking about this.”

Sherlock swallowed and fidgeted with his hands, then spun his cup on the tabletop, before speaking. “You’re worried this is going to be a…problem.”

“It's not?"

“No.”

“No? Explain to me how.”

“It’s not.”

“But tell me how Sherlock. Because as far as I’m concerned, we had a—“ John whispered. “We had an agreement.”

“An agreement? We're in a Restoration comedy, now? We have an understanding between us? Dr. Watson and I are to be joined after Michaelmas?”

John gritted his teeth. “I see. So you’re going to be an arsehole about this, too. I should have figured.”

“This isn’t exactly the right time to get the desired effect from me, is it?”

“What desired effect do you suppose I was aiming for?”

“I’m assuming you wanted complete assurance that this was only for a case, and Janine didn’t get any substantial promises. Yes?”

“That’s a start.”

“Jealousy looks ugly on you, John.” Sherlock stood and dumped his full coffee in the bin. “We have things to do.”

John sucked in air and let it out again, trying to regain control of himself. He fisted his hand against his leg. “So that’s it?”

From on high, Sherlock studied him. “Let’s go.”

The door closed behind him before John finally dragged himself out of the chair and followed.

Sherlock took off at a brisk walk. John felt like a spaniel following after him. “So what, exactly, is the plan? Are you actually going to—“

Sherlock spun, his coat flaring, and held up a plastic key card. “Standard key card for the building. Nicked it yesterday. Only gets us as far as the canteen.”

“No thanks. Not hungry.”

“More’s the miracle,” John clearly heard Sherlock say as he continued to head toward Magnussen’s building. “I can’t just use it to go up Magnussen’s private lift. Even if it would activate, there are fourteen levels of security between us and him. Two of which aren’t even legal.”

“Wait,” John said, and when Sherlock kept walking he grabbed him by the elbow and yanked him round. “Wait. He’s up there? Right now?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Do you know what would happen if I decided to break in while he was actually there?”

“Alarms. Klaxons. Dragged away by security.”

“Right.”

“Get your head kicked in,” John added with not a little vicious glee.

Sherlock raised his eyebrow. “Are you finished?”

“For now.”

As he headed toward the building again, Sherlock sighed. John imagined punching him right in the occipital. Then he imagined kissing him with teeth.

“But what happens if the magnetic strip is damaged?” Sherlock said.

“Damaged?”

“If, say, someone had gone at it with a newly-cut key?”

John screwed up his face. “It still wouldn’t get you up there.”

“No.” This time, Sherlock spun round of his own accord. “But it doesn’t read as the wrong card now. It reads as corrupted. And if it’s corrupted, how do they know it’s not Magnussen?”

“They don’t.”

“Would they risk embarrassing themselves by making a scene?”

“Probably not.”

“So they have to check if it’s him or not.” Sherlock smirked. “There’s a camera at eye height to the right of the door.”

With that, he turned round again and pushed through the double doors to the building.

“Huh,” John said, and followed.

“A live picture of the card user is relayed directly to Magnussen’s personal staff in his office—the only people trusted to make a positive ID. At this hour, almost certainly his PA.”

John shook his head. “So how does that help us?”

The smile Sherlock gave him sent a cold thrill of misgiving down to the pit of his stomach. “Human error.” Sherlock punctuated this by swiping the card through with a flourish.

“Whenever you say that, it makes me want to punch you,” said John.

“You often want to punch me,” Sherlock said.

“True.”

Shhh.” Without warning, the camera feed flickered to life.

“Sherlock, you complete loon. What are you doing?”

The woman's lilt was painfully familiar. “Hang on,” John said. “Was that…”

Sherlock held up a hand out of range of the camera, and John stepped back to watch the show.

“Hi, Janine,” Sherlock said. He glanced around with the most laughably-covert expression and gave the camera puppy-dog eyes. “Come on, let me in.”

She smiled and flirted. “For what, then, hmm? I’m not sure this is an appropriate time, you joker.”

“You know what. This can’t be a surprise to you.”

“…Oh? What can’t?”

Sherlock gave her a sheepish grin and produced from his pocket a ring box. He flipped it open and nearly batted his eyelashes. Inside was a not-inexpensive diamond engagement ring. Janine gasped in shock, and around John the world fell into a muffled hush of static.

What was he— When did he— What.

John wondered if he was going to be sick.

The light turned from red to blue, and in a daze, John followed Sherlock into the lift.

“What–“ he managed to croak out. His throat was closing up. “What. Was that.”

“As long as there are people, there’s always something exploitable.”

John punched him.

Sherlock tried to wriggle away, wide-eyed, the corner of his mouth bleeding, but John grabbed him by the lapels of his stupid-arse coat and slammed him up against the wall. “What. Was that,” he growled.

“John, get off me. Now.”

“What are you doing.”

“John, you’re going to want to get off me. The doors are going to open in five seconds.”

Reluctantly, John shoved him away and uncrooked his fingers. “You’d better explain.”

“No time.”

John went for the emergency button but Sherlock blocked it with his body. “Later, John. I’ll explain later.”

It wouldn’t be a surprise if John cracked a molar, as hard as his jaw was clenched. “You’d better.”

“I will.”

Before John could add any more threats, the lift dinged and the doors slid open. Sherlock whirled to present Janine a broad smile.

It was a shock, to say the least, to find her bleeding on the floor.


While John ran to examine Janine, Sherlock strode about the office and the adjoining room, taking everything in, examining the desk and the chair and the blinds. He breathed in deeply through his nose, then did it again. John spared part of his attention for the wound on the back of her head, and took in a deep breath himself. The smell was familiar.

"They're still here," Sherlock murmured, and went up the stairs, two at a time.

"Sherlock!" John said after him, watching the tails of his coat disappear upstairs. There was a groan at his side. Janine started to push herself into a sitting position, making small sounds of pain, and John momentarily pushed his concern for Sherlock to the side. "Does anything else hurt?"

"No, just my head." Janine slumped back against the windowed wall, pulling a face. For a split second John worried about presenting her back to the world through the window, but he realised it was paranoia and dismissed it. He wanted to check her for concussion.

"Who did this?"

"I didn't see."

John pulled out the torch he had brought for the burglary and shined it into her eyes. "Hit from behind," he said, examining her pupils.

"Yeah. Bastard."

"Don't worry. We'll find whoever did it."

"No, I mean Sherlock. What a bastard."

John tried to stifle a laugh. It came out as a huffing noise. "Well, him too."

"Can't believe he just…" She flapped a hand away up the stairs.

"Clearly you don't know him that w—" There was a complicated and suspicious thud from upstairs, and suddenly John's hackles were raised. He stood, all his attention focussed, hound-like, on the stairs.

"No, no, that's fine. Only hit on the head here,” Janine said sarcastically as John stepped toward the staircase.

Then instinct kicked in, and he ran.

Upstairs, in what must be Magnussen’s inner sanctum, two figures lay on the ground. John ignored Magnussen and swallowed down his heart to examine Sherlock. His hand reached for his mobile before a moment passed.

"Yes," he said, and tried to breathe. "My…f-friend has been shot."

Chapter Text

On the way home from the clinic one evening, preparing himself for another night alone with a boring turkey sandwich and reruns of Top Gear, John was sideswiped by a guy in a flat cap carrying a saxophone. It had been a long fourteen months that Sherlock had been gone, and John was in such a state he nearly didn't feel the impact.

“Hey, sorry man, that’s not cool.” The guy looked over his sunglasses and grabbed John’s upper arm. John stifled the urge to jerk away. “You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m, er, I’m fine.”

“You sure, man?” The guy raised an eyebrow and held John’s gaze. His proximity finally tripped something in John’s hindbrain and he pulled back. The guy tilted his sunglasses and John caught the barest twitch toward his own pocket.

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“That’s good.” The guy flicked his glance once again at John’s pocket. “Stay copacetic,” he said as a parting shot, and he was gone, off down the pavement.

John checked himself over for his wallet and keys and notebook, but nothing seemed to be missing. In fact, he’d come away from the encounter with something extra. In the pocket of his jacket was a balled-up postcard advertising a band, and on the back in marker pen was a note.

Monday, 1:30
British Museum multimedia guide
press code 2369

After glancing at it for only a moment John stuffed it back into his pocket for later study. It wasn’t Sherlock’s handwriting, that much was obvious, but it wouldn’t be, would it? He doubted it was Mycroft’s, either. So whose? The musician? Possibly. Or it could be a trap.

John squared his shoulders and stifled a dark smile as he continued toward his flat from the station. It could very well be a trap, yes. He’d have his gun, but there were always other fantastic ways to defend oneself at a museum: strangling someone with an audio cable, crashing someone’s face into a brass barrier, stabbing someone with a sharp bit of ancient art.

His heart was suddenly beating like a drum. It was only Saturday, so John had a bit of a wait ahead of him, but regardless he already heard a familiar echo in his chest. The game, whoever you are, is on.


John took a half day on Monday. He grabbed lunch, ate only part of it, and ended up at the museum an hour early. He told himself he’d done that intentionally. He told himself it was for recon.

There were several school groups there at that hour, and he assessed them pretty quickly before he set to playing Sherlock Holmes with a bit more seriousness. The French couple seemed to have eyes only for themselves, though John wondered if the wedding rings they wore really indicated that they were married to each other. He watched a tour group of OAPs for about twenty minutes before he realised the suspicious woman hiding in back wasn’t doing anything worse than sneaking sweets out of her bag and passing them round to her cohorts while the docent’s back was turned. Other than that, the few other tourist families appeared to be nothing more than what they seemed: mothers and fathers and grannies dragging their children from pillar to painting, inflicting culture on the young.

The middle aged guy walking round alone could be suggestive, however. As could…the guy with a cart full of cleaning products washing a display case in the middle of the day.

Wasn’t that sort of thing usually reserved for after-hours?

Heartbeat increasing, John watched him go about his business with one window, then followed him at a discreet distance to another floor, where he washed another case. John examined a bust with great focus as the cleaner pushed past, but just when John was about to ask him what he was doing, he disappeared through a locked set of doors marked for employees only.

John heard Sherlock’s voice in his head. Oh, dull.

Disappointed, John checked his watch. It was only ten minutes until he had to pick up his device at the station. He might as well make his way downstairs.

The young woman at the Multimedia Guide desk took one look at John and smiled broadly. “Hey.”

Suspicious, John glanced round before responding. “Erm. Hello. I’d, er, I’d like to rent a…one of those guide…things.”

Her smile broadened. “Coming right up.” She dimpled at him and lowered her eyelids for a moment before turning away. He stood ready for whatever she presented him with, but she only plopped a guide onto the desk between them and gave him another warm smile. John forced himself to smile back. He examined her hair, her stance, and the way she’d selected that one guide from the others, but came up with nothing incriminating. No surprise there; he’d never been particularly good at that sort of deduction. Then she bit her lip at him, and it occurred to him that she might not be an agent, and she might not be a foe. She might actually be just a museum worker, and she might actually be flirting. Christ. That’s exactly what John needed: more complexity in his life. One paramour, absent though he might be, was enough.

He passed over his ID as a deposit and considered the situation. If she wasn’t agent or foe, how was this particular guide she’d given him guaranteed to be the correct one? Did all of the guides have the same information? Did Mycroft set this up? Did Sherlock? Were agents going to descend upon him the moment he activated the code? Was the guide going to zap him into another dimension so he could speak to Sherlock himself? Was he only meant to key in the code and see what happened next?

Fucking Holmeses.

John looked all around the Great Court, avoiding eye contact. The worker sent him on his way with a listless “happy exploring” before grabbing her bottled water and chatting to a colleague. John spared the energy to feel badly for only half a second before he wandered out into the hall, ready for the next stage of his mission.

A young school group was gathering in a raucous gaggle, and more visitors were pouring in all the time. The constant comings and goings from the main entrance left him far too exposed for a communique more intimate—and clearly more important—than their usual cryptic crossword clues. Feeling a little like James Bond, John headed up the stairs in search of somewhere more secluded.

He swung immediately into the first side gallery with no one nearby. His heart pounding in his throat, almost nauseated with apprehension and excitement, John put on the earphones and keyed in the code.

There was only silence.

For several moments John wondered if there had been some mistake, but just when he decided something had gone wrong he heard the rattle-clunk of someone picking up a recording device off a hard surface, and a voice spoke.

It was a voice John hadn’t heard in so long that tears instantly caught in his throat. He’d scarcely allowed himself to hope.

“I hope you didn’t do anything foolish like toss the first device into a fountain in case it exploded,” said Sherlock, the intimacy of his voice in stereo almost too much to bear. “Then again, that might have been a good idea. Can’t be too careful, especially now.” He cleared his throat. “Which is to say, I suppose I have news.”

“Clearly,” John murmured, and had to press his fingertips to both eyes for a moment before he was fit to be seen by anyone. He collected himself, took a deep breath, and wandered along the gallery as if listening to the tour.

“While I’m talking you might as well pretend you’re looking at art, John. Go look at…I don’t know. Something Greek. Or Etruscan. You might actually like Etruscan.”

John tried not to look too much an idiot, grinning at nothing. He was smack in the middle of the Ancient Greece and Rome exhibits. Love ballooned in his chest.

“Right, so. Here’s what I need you to know, John. It’s a bit too much to get to you through the usual channels, so… No, I mean.” He made a noise of frustration. “Start again. Right. Hello, John. I hope this finds you…well. Very well. Quite well. I have, er. I’ve got news for you. I need you to do something, and it’s very important, and it’s got to be you even if neither of us is going to like it. For one thing, you’re there and I’m here, and for another, I’m meant to be dead for a while longer, so of course it’s going to be… I mean. And you’re you, so…”

John covered his mouth with a shaking hand to hide what he was sure was a bizarre expression of humour and love and affection and wistfulness, all mixed up. He pretended to cough and moved to the next case. He shifted to turn his back to the room.

Sherlock cleared his throat. “Right, sorry. Getting down to it. Erm. Well, I’ve recently come into some intelligence, and I. I arranged to have it sent to Mycroft, because it seemed too coincidental. Too odd, John. But unfortunately, he’s assured me that it’s true, and so we have to act. We both have to act.”

His voice had taken on the emphatic tone it usually did when he was convincing John to do something dangerous in the name of a case. The tiny hairs on the back of John’s neck were already at attention, and he broke out in gooseflesh. He’d missed this.

“Moriarty, John, Moriarty had a gun hand. She’s always remained firmly in the shadows, which is why we’d never heard of her before. Neither Mycroft nor I knew she was still in operation—it had been so long since her name had been on the wind—but chatter says she’s reappeared now.

“When she was working with Moriarty her name was Moran, but now she’s going by the name Morstan. Mary Morstan. According to this source she’s being moved into place at your clinic within the next few weeks. I’m not sure what the endgame is—yet—but she’s going to make a move for you. And this is important John: you have to let her. I know that—“

What.

Sherlock’s voice had tumbled to a halt, and it was a long few seconds before he spoke again. John’s heart was thundering in his ears.

“You have to let her. You have to… We believe she’s going to try to ingratiate herself into your life, and if so you need to follow her lead. Mycroft will be watching from there, and…” Sherlock was quiet again. “You have to let her, John. Until we know what her game is, you…you have to keep her close.”

John had no idea what he was hearing.

“We’ll get more information to you when we have it, but for now this is…” Sherlock trailed off into nothing for a moment, and when he spoke again his voice was fragile, but he forced it out. “You must do this, John. I’m sorry.”

John stared sightlessly at a vase. He had to let one of Moriarty’s agents become friends with him? Or…more than friends? John swallowed down a burst of emotion and tried to maintain a placid expression, though all the while inside his guts were roiling.

“I… I’m sorry. I just… I hope to be home soon, John. As soon as possible.” He was silent for a moment, and John imagined all the things he wasn’t saying. “Press the same code again, and follow the prompts to delete this message. I’ll… Erm. Goodbye, John.”

For several seconds, John stared down at the device in his hand, at war with himself whether to erase the message as instructed or to make a run for it so he could keep the recording. He wanted to listen again, but when he keyed in the same code once more he was only prompted to delete it or to cancel. There seemed to be nothing for it. John followed the prompts to erase the only new record he’d had of Sherlock’s voice in over a year. It felt like falling.

When it was done, John blinked at the space in front of him.

There were more questions than answers. Who was Moriarty’s agent? What had she done for him? "Gun hand", Sherlock had called her. Where had she been since his death? Why now? And why John? Was she just there to establish that Sherlock was really dead? Was she there to threaten him? Kill him? But why go through the trouble of establishing a ruse if she was just going to kill him?

What the hell was her plan?

A voice spoke up from several feet away. “Do you enjoy Roman pottery?”

John jumped out of his skin. He curled his hands into fists instead of his first instinct, which was to throw the device at her head and make a break for it, but it turned out only to be a museum docent.

“Sorry,” she laughed. “Didn’t mean to startle you. Just making conversation.”

“Oh.” John shook it off and forced a laugh. “No, sorry. I was just…”

“Miles away?” She chuckled and stepped closer. “Well, let me know if you have any questions. Not all the interesting things are on the tour, obviously.”

John looked down at the device in his hand. “Ah, right.”

“Most people are more familiar with Hellenic pottery, but I like the Black Gloss-ware myself,” she said, gesturing to the case in front of him. “I think it brings out the sculpture of the form. It’s tableware, and…”

Her voice went on, but John had attention only for the figure in front of him. You’ve got to be kidding me. In his woolgathering about his mission, he’d stopped in front of an oil vase in the shape of an elephant.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, interrupting her. “Do you have the time?”

She looked at her watch. “It’s just gone two.”

John gave her his most apologetic smile and backed toward the exit. He needed to get out of there as soon as physically possible. “I’ve got to run. Thanks, though.”

The docent clearly didn’t believe him, but half-shrugged regardless and quirked the corner of her mouth. “No problem.”

“Maybe next time,” he said, softening it.

“Here’s hoping,” she said. It didn’t sound as if she were about to hold her breath.

Chapter Text

The next hour was a blur: a fugue state of countless remembered bullet wounds in strangers and friends, blood on his hands, the smell of iron, instinct guiding his hands while he forced himself not to identify too strongly with the body he was resuscitating. Panic was bitter in the back of his throat. His brain played the horrors over and over until they spun into fiction, bent time, and swirled into one single flood of nauseating emotion. For a timeless while, he didn’t know what was reality and what was memory. When he came to, he was sitting in a plastic chair in a waiting room somewhere, staring at the red-brown under the nails of his left hand. Someone was speaking to him.

"He's still in surgery."

"Hm?"

"I said, Sherlock is still in surgery."

John blinked himself back into current reality. He felt…nothing at all. There was a familiar pair of shoes next to him, and the tip of an umbrella. He looked up, and up, and up, to find Mycroft standing next to him, glancing at his mobile then handing it to his assistant.

“Mycroft."

"Did you see who shot him?"

“Excuse me?"

"I asked—"

"Do you think you can hold off on giving me the third degree until we know whether or not he’ll…you know…pull through?” Fire blazed in his chest, making it tough to breathe.

“Of course he will.”

“I’m sorry, but you can’t know that. You can’t just fix this like you fix everything else, Mycroft. This isn’t something you can mend with a legislative act. Sherlock,” John pointed in the general direction of the operating room and fought to breathe. “…Is in there with a bullet in his gut, and he…” He felt his anger burn into Mycroft like the sun through a magnifying lens.

For a few moments, Mycroft just stared down at him. “Perhaps you should go for a walk, John.”

“I’ll stay here, thanks.”

“John. I suggest you take a walk. You know how long these things can take.”

“No, Mycroft.” He gritted his teeth. “I’m fine.”

John thought for a moment Mycroft was going to… Well, John wasn’t sure, but he thought perhaps it might involve Mycroft’s assistant manhandling him out the door. But after a breath, Mycroft’s jaw relaxed and he looked out into the waiting area. “If that suits.” He played with his umbrella tip against the floor. “I’m afraid I have some things to take care of.”

“No, no,” John said. Go away. “That’s fine.”

“Don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s something you need.”

I need your brother not to be shot. “Thanks.”

With a nod, Mycroft turned away and strolled down the corridor towards the nurse’s station. John faced the large plate-glass windows, staring into the night, examining the goings-on of the traffic and the pedestrians and the rooftops below. He scanned for snipers before he knew what he was doing.

Frustration nagged at him, plucking at his skin and tightening every muscle surrounding his ribcage. He wanted to be in there, doing something. Fixing something. Helping. He stared at the blood under his nails again. Behind him, a teenager with a bleeding cut on his hand came in with his mother. She screeched to the nurse about something or other, her voice carrying over the 24-hour news network playing on the television. There had been a boy who’d looked just like him, once, who had cut his hand on a fence in Afghanistan. John had patched him up and sent him on his way, only to find him back in John’s care half a day later with his lower right torso shredded by an IED. He hadn’t made it.

All of a sudden that walk Mycroft had suggested didn't seem half bad. John left his mobile number with a nurse at the desk and headed out into the night.


There were two people who needed telling first off. He decided to phone Mrs. Hudson later in the morning or after Sherlock was out of surgery, whichever came first, and Molly would be told after Mrs. Hudson.

Mycroft could tell Janine, if he thought Janine ought to know, and Mary… Mary, John would think about when he had more brainpower to think. He wandered the streets for half an hour before realising there was another person to tell—and one, he decided, who might even be helpful. He glanced at the time on his phone, then made a decision that Lestrade was going to hate.

"What?" Lestrade said over the line, just when John thought the call was going to be sent to voicemail.

"Greg, wake up."

"Nn?"

"Greg, Sherlock's been shot. I need you to focus.”

There was a rustling noise, and then Lestrade's voice was just a bit clearer. "Wait, what? Shot? When?"

"A few hours ago."

"What were you two doing?"

"Listen. I need you to find out what the Yard knows."

"I can't just swan in and ask about the investigation, John."

"They'll tell you."

"Well yeah, they'll tell me, but…" Lestrade sighed. “Explain what happened.”

“I’m sure you can guess.”

“…I probably can, yeah.”

“I need to find out what the Yard knows about who did this.”

“Did you see?”

“Of course not.”

“He ran on ahead.”

“What do you think?”

"Some day you'll manage to make him wait for you."

"Like hell."

“So tell me details.”

"He's still in surgery."

"You're at the hospital?"

"Yes." As good as. The building loomed into view.

"Stay there, then." John heard Lestrade make a muffled, disgruntled noise. "Seriously, stay there. I'll look into it, but… God, John. How bad?"

John swallowed. "He's still in surgery.”

“I know, but where did— Never mind. I'll look into it. I don't want you to… Listen, just relax. As much as you can."

"Yeah," John said vaguely.

"Is Mary there?"

No. Thank god. "She's at home." Last thing he needed was to have to keep up the charade while Sherlock—

"You're there alone?"

"Yeah."

"I'll be right there."

"Christ, no, just." John wanted to be out doing something useful to fix this, or barring that, to be left the fuck alone. Why didn't anybody understand that? "Find out what you can and tell me."

"Let me know when he's out?"

"Out?"

"Of surgery."

"Right."

"You will, John."

"Yes."

"Good." Lestrade sighed. "Well, that's a fuck of a way to wake up."

"Sorry."

"No, I mean, just… Go get some rest. Let me know when you know something."

"Same."

"I will. Good luck, John."

I'm not the one who needs luck, thought John as he prodded off his mobile and headed into the building. I’m not the one who’s gonna need to get bloodstains out of his favourite goddamn coat.


When John got back to the waiting area the televisions had been turned off, and the teenager and his mother were gone—as were all the other patients who had yet to be seen. He glanced around the empty waiting area in a combination of perplexity and relief, then sat with a groan.

The serenity around him should have been calming, but instead it only highlighted the stormy mess in his chest.

Just then, Mycroft appeared round a corner, his mobile in hand.

"If you'd like to come with me," he said with no preamble, "there's a place for you to wash up. I am presuming, of course, you won't be persuaded to go home."

John stared up at him. Mycroft seemed a million miles tall. "Why?"

Mycroft twisted him a pale smile. He answered not the foremost question, but the question John was really asking. Why are you doing this? “Because my brother would want me to."

"Since when do you do what Sherlock wants?"

But Mycroft was already at the door. "Come, John."

After a breath, after stretching his neck, John stood. He followed Mycroft out into the corridor and down. "I'm not your damn dog, you know."

"I would never suggest it."

John snorted. “Of course you would."

There was a small, industrial room with a shower and sink which John supposed was meant for staff, hidden down a warren of corridors. Mycroft held the door open for him as if granting a boon, and if John weren't so exhausted he would have rolled his eyes. Fortunately, Mycroft shut the door and let John have some peace.

John stared at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands. He looked as inside-out as he felt: his eyes half open, his hair a wreck, and with a streak of blood drawn across his forehead where, at some point, he had brushed his hand. Small wonder people on the street had looked at him oddly.

It occurred to him that he should be hungry, but even as he had the thought his stomach reminded him with a flutter of nerves that Sherlock had been shot, and that he was on an operating table somewhere.

John washed up and headed back outside. Mycroft was still there reading his phone, looking just as nonchalant as if he'd been standing on a street corner.

“I presume you know the status of his surgery,” Mycroft said.

“How would I? They won't tell me anything."

"Have you asked?" Mycroft slanted him a look, his eyebrows raised.

"No, but. I mean. I'm not a family member."

"I think you'll find, John, that they'll tell you anything you are entitled to know."

"No, but that's what I'm saying. I'm not entitled."

"Trust me, John," Mycroft said, strolling away down the corridor.

"I don't," John muttered to himself.

For a few hours he paged through one pointless magazine after another, biding his time, before he broke down and requested Sherlock's status. He was too tired (and too familiar with Mycroft's power) to be surprised when they promised to send someone out to him with information as soon as there was anything to relay. It was quite a complicated surgery, they said in soothing tones, clearly not having the foggiest fucking idea who they were talking to.

John ambled back to his seat, and let his head fall back to stare up at the fluorescents above him. He supposed he was glad someone, somewhere, was doing something. I'm just sitting here. Doing nothing. Doing nothing at all.

But at least now it was quiet.


After seven hours of surgery, John was let back to where Sherlock lay. There was a moment of apprehension before he entered the room; as much as he should be used to this, as often as he had been sickrooms of many kind and size and colour, this was Sherlock. He steeled himself and pushed into the room.

Sherlock was hooked up to the usual machines. There was the usual sound of breathing, smell of disinfectant, and the expected kiss of dry air, but what was unusual was the nauseated thrill of panic instilled by the sight of Sherlock's wan face there in the middle of it all, flat and grey and without any animation whatsoever. John settled down in the chair next to Sherlock with a leaden lump in the pit of his stomach. He stared at Sherlock's profile while he scrubbed his hand over his mouth.

"They said you were asystolic,” he said. "You know what that means? There's a joke to be made, there.” He tried to breathe. “You, without a heartbeat.” He huffed a dry laugh and stared at Sherlock's chest, moving up and down beneath the dressings. "I could have told them you'd only be finished living when you decided you were finished, and not a moment sooner."

John stared at Sherlock’s stubborn, strangely-coloured face. He'd looked almost the same when he'd been high, but at that point he'd been full of life—brimming with it, in fact, energy and anger and frustration twitching in every muscle. John would trade this for that any day.

For the briefest moment John allowed himself the thought: Sherlock could actually have decided he was finished, tonight. Decided he was too tired to continue, or he was in too much pain…

John’s stomach churned, and he pushed away the thought before it went any further.

If the last interaction he ever had with Sherlock was punching him in the lift, he would never forgive himself.

Memories of those desperate minutes at Magnussen's came flooding back, and John gritted his teeth. He was fairly certain this was Mary's doing; the timing was suspicious, and there was something in the way Magnussen looked at him while he was waiting for the ambulance… If it hadn't been Mary, he would be very much surprised.

And now he had to pretend he didn't suspect the woman who had, for all intents and purposes, murdered his…whatever Sherlock was. His love. Sherlock was his love. The reigning, presiding love of his life.

John slipped his hand into the curl of Sherlock's fingers lying there slack on the blanket. He brushed his thumb over Sherlock's knuckles. Affection made John's skin feel tight. Itchy. His teeth ached. He remembered the look in Sherlock's eye as they sat in the low glow of the lounge with the smell of whiskey ringing round them, winding them together and stoking their desire. He remembered the flare of shared exhilaration as they made plans in the newest of Sherlock’s bolt-holes, hidden away safe above a theatre. And he remembered, long, long ago, a perfect kiss outside a room housing an elephant. John bent his head down and pressed Sherlock's knuckles to his forehead. He swallowed down dangerous words until they burned in his chest. "Sherlock…"

A nurse bustled into the room and started checking Sherlock's tubes. John retracted his hand and wiped it on the side of his jeans. "No, no, you're fine," she said. "You’re Dr. Watson?"

He frowned." Yes…"

"You're fine then."

"I'm sorry, you need me to go, don't you? I'm sure visiting hours aren’t for another couple of…”

She raised her eyebrows pointedly. "You're fine." She assessed the status of several Sherlock's lines then turned for the door. "You're allowed."

"Mycroft?"

But she didn't answer. For the first time, John realised they were in a private room, and a nice one, too. It was certainly Mycroft's doing. He yawned, the stress of the night finally starting to settle in. He leaned forward and rested his head on the bed, his forehead just barely brushing Sherlock's shoulder. He didn't smell like Sherlock at all, but the warmth coming off his body was a comfort. He thought about taking Sherlock's hand again, but before he could convince himself to move his arm, relief—and the steady noises of the machinery—lulled him fast asleep.

Chapter Text

She didn’t look like an assassin.

But then again, looks weren’t necessarily an indicator of that.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, shaking her hand. She’d been introduced as a new nurse in the clinic. It was a good gig.

“Mary. Mary Morstan.”

“Watson. John Watson,” he said, accidentally falling back on his standard naff joke for flirting before he realised invoking the name of a famous spy might not be wise. Fortunately, she laughed. His heart was pounding like the bass at a third-rate disco and he dropped her hand. It was so small. He wondered if that was of benefit to an assassin: precision work. Cloak and dagger. Compact guns.

“Bond-James-Bond.” she said, her eyes sparkling.

“Oh, so you’ve heard of me?” John said.

“Hasn’t everyone?”

"I’m only sorry I’m not dressed the part right now.”

“I think James Bond is more…a way of being.”

“And not a way of dress.”

“Not everyone in a tuxedo is James Bond,” she said.

“And not every James Bond wears a tux.”

“Too right.”

John felt ensnared by her eyes. It was tough to tell: were they actually compelling, or was he just terrified?

She blinked, then, and grinned, and he was released from their spell. “I’ll see you round, John Watson.”

It might have been a warning. Or it might have been simple courtesy. It would take some time to be sure.


A week later, on his way to lunch, Mary swung in alongside him so they walked together out the door.

“See, the way I figure,” she said without preamble, “You like Connery enough, but your secret favourite is Craig's arse.”

John coughed a laugh. Adrenaline kicked through his veins. “Excuse me?”

She grinned. “I’m just looking for an excuse to take you out to lunch.”

“Ah. Is that it.” John fought to keep his smile natural.

“Lord, I thought you were meant to be a heartbreaker. You’re tough to flirt with.”

“Who told you that?”

“That you were a heartbreaker? Oh, the nurses warned me. Tragic and sad, they said, and a heartbreaker. Word is you’ve had girlfriends on three continents. I don’t personally find that impressive, of course, but most people haven’t travelled as much as I have.”

“Have you?” John said, finding himself drawn in. He swallowed the electrified thrill pulsing against his heart.

“Oh lots.” She steered him toward the Pret over the road. “India, South Africa, Hong Kong…”

“Afghanistan?”

She narrowed her eyes, but the smile hadn’t left the lower part of her face. “No, I left that to you.”

“I see my love life isn’t all the nurses have talked about.”

“You’re a very charismatic character, Watson-John-Watson.”

“Bullshit.”

“Hmm.” She appraised him. He felt like a melon in the produce section. Or a side of meat. Something to be consumed, anyway. “I wonder what it would take for you to believe that?”

John wondered what it would take for her to leave him alone.

They went into the shop, and he let her buy him a sandwich.


“No. Nuh-uh,” John said through a mouthful of kung pao. Over the past month they'd established a loose ritual: Thursdays for takeaway in the break room, and Mondays for having their lunch out. It worked, mostly. As long as he didn't acknowledge his guilt. John pointed at her with his fork. “Not possible.”

“Oh completely possible.” She grinned and stole the last spring roll.

“No.”

“Yes.”

“You never learned to ride a unicycle.”

“When I was eight. My teacher brought it into class and offered lessons to anyone who wanted.”

John snorted. “I would love to see that.”

“Well,” she gave him a sideways smile, “I didn’t say I still could.”

“Ah-HAH.”

“Can’t juggle anymore, either. I don’t think.”

“Try.”

She blinked at him. “No.”

“Come on.” He flashed her his most ingratiating grin. “Are you afraid I’ll laugh?”

She huffed and tossed the spring roll back onto the plate, then scanned the breakroom. She zeroed in on a bowl of apples with a little “ha!” and grabbed three. “Prepare yourself.”

It went surprisingly well for the first three seconds. But then she must have grabbed an apple in just the wrong way, or the strain on its structural integrity hit its threshold, because one of the apples landed in her hand with a sick splat and smashed on her fingers. She stopped in surprise and the other two tumbled to the ground, where a second apple disintegrated, spraying bits and juice over a three foot area. She froze in shock, her jaw open.

A beat of silence held them in its grip for a moment, then John threw back his head in helpless laughter. Scowling, she crammed the remainder of the spring roll into his mouth, but her other hand was still full of apple, and the sight hadn't stopped being funny. He spat the roll into his container of fried rice and continued laughing.

“Are you finished yet?” she said.

He shook his head.

Mary huffed and flung the apple bits into the bin, and used the sink in the corner to wash up.

He let his giggles clear before he spoke. “I didn’t plan that, I swear.”

She turned her head sideways, and he could tell from her profile that she was smirking. So she was just playacting angry. Good. Because it probably wouldn’t do to seriously piss off a murderer, would it?

The thought fully sobered him. What the fuck was he doing?

“Listen, I’ve got to get back,” he said. He binned his leftovers and wiped his hands on his trousers rather than push past her to use the sink. He had one in his office, anyway. It was solitary, there. Safer.

“Right,” she said, and nodded.

“I’ll, er. I’ll catch you later?”

“You’d better,” Mary said. John’s heart fluttered in his throat.

They looked each other square in the face for a long, terrifying moment, and he fled.

He had no earthly idea what he was doing.


It took two weeks more before John could bring himself to talk about Mary at the gravesite.

"She is…" John didn't know how he'd planned on finishing that sentence. He took a pull from his coffee, stalling, trying to figure out what he could communicate to Sherlock that wouldn't seem too odd delivered to a grave. "Interesting. I'm not sure if you'd like her. You might; She's funny. A little odd, but, well." He cleared his throat. "Hello. Anyway, she started talking back to the television the other day, and it made me think of you. And then apparently I had a strange look on my face, because she asked me what I was thinking, but I didn't know what to tell her." I miss you. "I blamed it on the programme."

There was a fresh bouquet of flowers that morning. Mrs. Hudson's, John thought. She liked bringing tiger lilies, for some reason. Maybe they made her think of Sherlock. John felt a fresh stab of guilt over lying to her, but pushed the feeling aside in favour of his own guilt at not entirely hating his friendship with Mary.

He felt like a traitor.

"I don't really know what to think of her sometimes. I wish you were around to tell me what you see; she holds her cards so close to her chest. I know I've learned something from, er, living with you, but I can't even imagine what else you could tell me."

Of course you can't imagine it, he heard Sherlock say. You've never been particularly inventive. Or observant.

Sherlock would be surprised how much imagination John was exhibiting these days. He rolled his eyes at himself, ignored the pouting Sherlock in his head, and drank more coffee. Reporting to a headstone had never ceased to be weird. It was even weirder when he heard Sherlock talking back. "I think I'm going round the bend," he muttered, and shook it off. "Anyway, that's all that's going on here. Very little. Which is either good or bad, I'm never sure." He shrugged. "Probably good."

John scrubbed a hand over his face and grunted. "Ugh. This never gets easier, sorry. I know I probably shouldn't complain." He wasn't the one running around Eastern Europe or Central America or who-the-fuck-knows where, running from danger, but walking on eggshells all the time was wearing him out. He didn't know why he'd let Mycroft push him into this, or why Sherlock assented. So often these days he just wanted to punch them both in the face.

"I'm having a bit of trouble sleeping, but that's not really a shock. Bound to happen." The only way John could get to sleep these days was to imagine Sherlock in his bed. He usually pictured him sprawling, taking up more than his half, stealing the covers, then blaming John when he was too hot. It made him smile. Sherlock snoring, mouth open. Drooling on the pillow. Farting. Scratching his bum. Pretending he was better than that. Knowing that he wasn't.

For a moment, John let himself feel the weight of Sherlock's absence press down on his solar plexus. He dragged in shallow, heavy breaths for a while, then gripped the cool headstone for support. To bring him back to reality. "Okay. Enough. I need to get to work, but I just wanted— I needed to stop by, because…" He cleared his throat. I miss you. "I'll…er, I'll see you next week. Well, not see… You know what I mean. God." He scrubbed at his face again. "I need to get more sleep."

He pressed his palm fully against Sherlock's name, breathed for a moment, and pushed off. As usual, he nodded his salute and turned.

He didn't bother to say goodbye.

Chapter Text

John had been enduring a dream of the clinic when it melted and reformed. He found himself creeping along a maze of familiar, twisting, murky corridors with no idea how he'd arrived, and the place so smelled sharply of mould and chlorine that the pong crawled into his sinuses and clung there, itching. He panted through his mouth. When he passed a row of plastic-curtained shower stalls the dark gave way to a blinding, yellowing light. He stepped into it, breath loud in his ears.

“Hello?” he said. The acoustics had changed; he was now in a huge, hard room, with the sound of water gently lapping at tile. Squinting, he took one step forward, then another.

John grabbed at the back of his tuxedo trousers for his gun, but he was startled by the sudden pull of the bomb strapped to his torso and the ponderous weight of the overcoat. He turned his head, but still he couldn’t see through the blazing light that surrounded him. The fur at his collar tickled his nose. Everything was too hot.

There was the sound of a door opening and closing, and the sound of shuffling feet. No one spoke.

“Who’s there?” John said. Gingerly he edged forward, and the noise of the water got louder. The light suddenly eased. Across the room stood Sherlock, looking like death in his tuxedo. There was a grey top hat dropped to the ground beside him.

“Say hello, John,” said Mary. She stepped out of the shadows and grinned. She was eating an ice cream. It matched her wedding dress.

“Hello, er, John,” John said, nervousness making his jaw tight. “What are you doing here?” he asked, unsure whether he was asking Sherlock or Mary. He stepped forward. The straps on the bomb chafed. A trickle of sweat dripped down his spine.

Mary put her hand on Sherlock's shoulder and steered him forward. “I didn’t want you to see him before the wedding,” she said. “That’s why we used the women’s changing area.”

John didn’t understand.

“But it’s time,” she added. She took one last lick of the the ice cream, then tossed it into the pool. “We won’t be needing that, now, will we? Not where you're going.”

John watched the way her nose crinkled in its familiar smile, and the way her mouth quirked. “Where?” he asked, keeping his eyes on her: wary. Alert. As prey eyes a predator.

“You’ll see.”

In the pool beside them, Mary’s ice cream disintegrated. The melt spread out slowly, a mesmerising, opaque mess creating visible eddies and whorls in the water, forming the shape of a face screaming in pain. When John looked back at the two of them, Mary had a gun levelled at Sherlock’s head.

“Shotgun wedding,” she said, and then sang a lighthearted few notes of the Wedding March. “Well, not a shotgun, but you get my meaning. I couldn’t fit a shotgun under this bodice.”

“But I already married you.”

Sherlock stepped forward. He held out a ring box toward Mary and popped it open. He plastered on a vacuous smile.

Mary pressed one hand to her chest in a horrific pantomime. “I thought you’d never ask.”

“What—“ John looked between the two of them. “Sherlock, what are you doing?”

“Sherl is amazing,” Mary trilled in Janine’s voice, smoothing down her hair until it turned long and black and tumbled over her shoulders. “The way he kisses… Meeting him at your wedding was the best thing for my sex life.” She dropped her hands and gave John a wide-eyed, demented grin.

“Sherlock, please—“

“Sherlock can’t come to the phone right now,” Mary sang. Next to her, Sherlock’s expression had settled into vagueness. “Ohh, look at him.” She stroked his cheek. “He could have had what we have, John. Too bad he won’t now.” She tossed the ring over her shoulder into the pool, where it hissed and spat as if melting in acid.

John sidled sideways toward a bank of switches on the wall. “Why are we here?”

“You really don’t know?” She mocked him, a tiny smile at the corners of her mouth. “Of course not. You’re not very intelligent when it comes to emotions.”

“How would you know?”

Mary laughed. “Don’t you understand why we’re here? This is where you first betrayed yourself to Sherlock. You would have given up everything for him. Even your life.”

“You didn’t have to bring us here to prove that,” he said, sudden anger making his hands twitch. “It's true every damn day of our lives. But that’s not the important part.”

“Oh? And what is?”

“He would do the same.” With that, John threw the switches: all of them, all at once. The pool began to bubble and steam, and fog rolled out from the water.

“What are you doing?” Mary asked, fear touching her voice for the first time.

Hot, chlorinated water vapour began to obscure John’s vision, but he could still pick Sherlock’s silhouette through the clouds. He crept toward him. “Heat. Heat will drive out the infection.”

“Infection?”

“You’re dangerous to our health.”

The air in the room was becoming unbearable, thick and wet and sticky. Mary's face shone in it. "Turn down the heat, John,” she said. She seemed to be melting like wax on a summer's day. She slid toward him. Sherlock, on the other hand, appeared untouched, collected, beautiful as ever. The moisture was turning his white shirt translucent. "Turn it down, and we can talk."

“Sherlock, you have to go. Go." But still Sherlock stood there blankly.

John took a step toward him, and Mary spun round and pointed her gun unerringly into the centre of Sherlock's chest. When John tried to reach them, he found his way blocked by a wide stretch of pool, a bubbling cauldron and overflowing its banks. “Sherlock,” he said. The fog was obscuring his view.

"It’s over," Mary said. She pulled the trigger.

John looked down to see red blooming over Sherlock’s chest, stark against the wet shirt. The waves of the pool were thigh-deep, and John ran as hard and fast as possible toward him, pushing against the weight of the water. He was too late to catch Sherlock before he hit the ground on the island created by streams of pool-water. John knelt beside him to assess the damage, the waters lapping against the soles of his shoes. His hands quickly became slippery with blood, but as he pressed on the wound with all his weight he was grateful they weren’t shaking.

Mary had melted entirely into a pool of tar-like goo. It began to rippling and morph, then rose up in a pillar to coalesce into the form of a small man in a sharp suit.

“Yeaaah, I shot him,” Moriarty said, smoothing down the front of his jacket. There was a massive wound at the back of his head, and it stained his collar red. He glanced at the man bleeding out at his feet, and his eyebrow only raised a millimetre. He shrugged. “Well. I had Mary do it. But it’s all the same in the end, isn’t it.” He smirked. “How’s that pressure working for you, Johnny-boy?”

Everything was red and white except for Sherlock’s eyes; they were blue and clear and dark as the sea. “It was Moriarty, John,” he said. He sounded calm.

John was not. “It was Mary.”

“Think it through,” Sherlock said, and let out a groan as he shut his eyes. “Think it through.”

He subsided into the little island in the middle of the pool, relaxing, as if he were giving up the ghost. John was instantly pinned with horror. Blood spread out around Sherlock’s head like a halo. John grabbed his wrist but felt nothing; it was as cold and wrong as it had felt outside Bart’s.

John screamed.


…And awoke with a start. He cracked his neck and stretched in his chair, wincing. The dream was slipping away, but the horror it inspired still pulsed through his bloodstream with every beat of his heart. It made the air in the room feel still. Stifling.

“Dr. Watson.” A nurse was standing four feet away, trying to get his attention. It clearly hadn’t been the first time he tried.

“Muh?” John scrubbed his face with both hands. “I’m. Hm?”

“I’m sorry to wake you, but it’s time.”

“Time for what?”

The nurse curled his mouth in a tired but indulgent smile. “I’m going to get the anaesthesiologist in a moment, Dr. Watson. It’s time to wake him up.”


“Sherlock…” John said softly, watching his eyelids flutter like trapped butterflies. “Sherlock, wake up.” He doubted Sherlock would stay conscious for long, but all John wanted was one glance. One glance, a dazed flash of grey, however hazy, and Sherlock could slip back under for a while. One glance. That was all he needed. “Come on, Sherlock.”

As he let the anaesthesiologist do his job John kept his hands firmly tucked into his armpits; he wanted so badly to help that he was afraid he’d make a nuisance of himself. He stared, too much adrenaline and too little food over the last seven hours making him feel nauseated, and he was sure he stank of dried fear and hospitals. But it was easy to ignore it all when faced with the hope of Sherlock finally, finally blinking awake.

Sherlock’s eyes creaked open and his focus zeroed in on John’s face for only a brief moment before it slipped sideways again. His lips moved as if he were trying to speak.

“Your throat might still be a bit rough, love.” John gave him a gentle smile. “Spare us the speech for a little while?”

But Sherlock was trying to get something out, trying to construct a word somewhere behind the gaze. Then his focus fogged and he was out again, slipping away into a more natural sleep. In spite of his curiosity, in spite of his frustration, John was glad to see it. Whatever Sherlock wanted to say would wait. In the meantime, his even, unsupported breath was a comfort.

The staff finished up and left them, and John settled into his place seated at Sherlock’s elbow. He cracked open a magazine from the gift shop.

“What’ve you done.”

Jesus fuck. John had to let his heart settle again before he could respond. He took a few deep breaths and reclaimed the magazine from where he’d dropped it. “What, er, what I’ve done?” John felt the adrenaline in his palms as he took Sherlock’s hand. “I haven’t done anything. I’m right here.”

"They'll see us, John. Go into the shadow."

"I'm right—"

"Too much light. Pink carries. Too much light." His voice had been gone over with a cheese grater.

"You want me to see if I can make it darker?"

John,” Sherlock moaned, and the sound made every hair on the back of John’s neck stand on end. “No…”

“You’re okay.” John pressed his lips to Sherlock’s knuckles. “You’re fine.”

"They'll see the dandelions tomorrow…"

Sherlock’s mumbling grew quieter, and he slipped back into unconsciousness. “Go back to sleep, love,” he said, though clearly he already had. John allowed himself a brief moment to worry about brain damage as a result of being asystolic, and then added to it the likelihood of post-acute withdrawal after he’d healed. Two plus two equaled a very uneasy time ahead.

But. No sense borrowing trouble.

John settled back with his magazine to page through it one-handed, leaving the other wrapped round Sherlock’s. He felt lucky they’d made it into surgery in time, and lucky Sherlock’s heart had restarted, and lucky the hospital staff were allowing John to stay. He felt very, very lucky. Emotion rose up in John’s throat and he relieved it with his lips pressed momentarily against the back of Sherlock’s hand. I love you, he brushed against Sherlock’s skin, and squeezed his hand, and laid it gently next to him on the bed.

He ought to consider resting when Sherlock rested, in effect treating him as if he were a child. Amused with himself and full to brimming with affection, John smiled. Sleeping when Sherlock slept, eating when he ate. And someday, running when he ran. As it once was, so must it ever be.

John went back to his magazine.

Chapter Text

It took some doing to capture the attention of Sherlock's damn brother. Which was ironic, since for nigh-on two years it was all John could do to avoid him.

His final idea was to stand in front of a CCTV camera with a big sign that said, "MYCROFT HOLMES IS A TWAT", but before it got to that point John finally found a number listed for an "M Holmes, Whitehall" on the internet and figured that would be safe enough for their purposes. He left a message and sat back to wait. He waited for three nerve-wracking days, but was walking home from the clinic when a black car finally pulled up to the kerb half a block ahead.

"Get in, John," Mycroft said when the door swung open.

Just as demanding as always, then. How comfortingly familiar. "Given up all use of the magic word, have we, Mycroft?"

He sighed. He sounded just as weary as John felt. "You contacted me."

John allowed himself a moment of hesitation before he slid in. Mycroft had barely pulled the door closed before they were off.

"Where am we heading?" John asked. "We getting pizza? I mean, you're not really my type—"

"John—"

"—and technically I suppose I am taken, but—"

"John. You contacted me."

John set his jaw and relented. "Fine. Do you have an end date for this charade?"

"An end date?"

"Yes, a fucking end date. I want out of this. I'm starting to become—well, I was already pretty concerned, but now I'm more concerned."

Mycroft assessed his face and, apparently, found him serious. "Explain to me what's happened."

"She's thinking of proposing." John scrubbed his face with his hand. "Why, I don't know." What could she hope to accomplish being married that she couldn't otherwise?

Mycroft's eyes narrowed. "What makes you think she's thinking of—"

"Her search history. Things she's said. Oh…" he added lightly, "and the pair of goddamn rings in her makeup bag."

This apparently, was something Mycroft hadn't anticipated. He leaned back in his seat, looking way too pleased for the situation. "Interesting."

"It's not interesting. It's not interesting, Mycroft. It's terrifying. I want out. I'm not marrying a serial killer."

"An ex-spy, John."

"Oh, and we know how stable those always turn out to be."

"I don't believe she's an immediate threat to you."

"No, she wouldn't be, because if she were you wouldn't have forced me into a relationship with h—oh, wait! You would!"

"As a matter of fact, I wouldn't. Please don't underestimate your importance to—"

"What, the cause? The big, overarching plan no one's let me in on, but I'm still meant to follow?"

"I was going to say 'my brother'."

It took just a little bit of the wind out of John's sails. "What does it matter to you, though?"

"Don't insult me."

"Oh, I'm just getting warmed up."

Mycroft frowned. "I wouldn't ask if I didn't think it was important, or that you could handle it."

"Funny, that's just what Sherlock said to get me into this mess."

"Doesn't that indicate to you that it's true?"

John stopped, and breathed, and thought. "I am so goddamn sick of this."

"If she plans to propose, it can only be because there's something she needs that she can only get by securing your hand."

"Yes, I had figured that out, thanks."

"The only answer is to go through with what she wants. Don't give her any reason to change her plans. We will figure out what she's doing."

"Forgive me if after nearly six months of this shit I'm unconvinced of your miraculous powers of figuring things out."

"She's been in contact with someone, but covers her tracks impressively well. She's likely in league with them, and it's likely she's picking up where Moriarty left off. With Sherlock coming home soon, that means we're going to need you to—”

"Wait. Hold on. Sherlock's coming home?"

"I suspect he'll be finished in two months."

"Two months?" After everything, it will only be two months until Sherlock comes home? "You couldn’t have said that sooner? How sure are you?"

"85% positive. But I wouldn’t have said anything unless I believed it was true."

Whatever. Sherlock is coming home. John’s stomach flipped. “So what does Sherlock have to do with Mary?”

“It will be a dangerous time, especially if she hasn't been anticipating his return. Solidify your position with her. She's going to be feeling unsteady. Insecure. It's likely you have her scared, but we don't want her to do anything rash. We need her to remain on her path without deviation, so—"

"This is ridiculous. You really think she’s going to, what, go off half-cocked if I don’t accept her proposal?"

"You've done an excellent job following your instincts so far, John. I suggest you continue the trend."

"That's not a yes or a no."

"Correct."

"You're not going to give me any more guidance than, 'keep her feeling secure."

"Yes."

"You're a bundle of help, Mycroft."

"So it's been said."

If it weren’t for the source, John might have thought that was intended as a joke. "Right." He cleared his throat. "Okay. Right."

"Shall I drop you here at your flat, or were you intended to do your shopping tonight?"

He had been considering a run for milk and essentials, but the fact Mycroft knew that was so disturbing he didn't want to give him the satisfaction. Plus, he was too angry—at Mycroft, at the situation—to shop. "Home will be fine, thanks." Creepy bastard.

"As you wish."

They rode in silence for the next few streets, and pulled up into a no-parking zone at the corner next to John's building. He couldn't get out of there fast enough.

"Good luck," Mycroft said. "You're doing admirably. I'm impressed."

Great. Because what I really wanted out of life was to impress you.

As John was closing the door behind him, Mycroft called out, "Oh, and John?" John froze, and against his better judgement peeked back inside. "The moustache. It's an…interesting choice."

John slammed the door shut and headed to his flat for a good think and an inordinate amount of alcohol. "Fuck you, Mycroft," he growled, then went inside.

Chapter Text

John set the book aside and scrubbed his hands over his face. It had been a long night, broken up only by numerous cups of coffee and a frightening moment when Sherlock's vitals had taken a dip. They'd recovered, and so had John's heart-rate, but that had only made him more antsy for Sherlock to wake up. To show some signal that everything, eventually, was going to be all right.

But come the morning, with Sherlock stable and the hospital starting its day, John was desperate for a walk—or at the very least, to get out of the damn chair. He considered heading down to the canteen to find himself something more substantial than instant coffee. Maybe something they had for breakfast would look appetising.

He doubted it.

Nonetheless, after a brief word with one of the nurses to make sure the morning rotation had his number, John headed out to do a circuit of the hospital. He ran into Mycroft after only about twenty feet.

"I heard there was a bit of excitement,” Mycroft said.

John's jaw jutted. "You could say that, yes. Nice of you to join us.”

Mycroft rolled his eyes. “Spare me the sarcasm, if you please. There are greater things to deal with at the moment.”

“Greater than your brother being shot?”

At this, Mycroft blinked. “I certainly hope you’re joking.”

"So what wou—"

"He already has one angel looking over his shoulder. I fear he'd struggle with two."

John narrowed his brow. "Listen, did you want something?"

Nonchalantly, Mycroft watched his hand turn the umbrella handle, spinning its point against the floor like a top. "Thank you for staying, John."

Of all the things John expected him to say, sincerity did not rank among them. "I beg your pardon?"

"I'm thankful he has your…support."

John had no idea what to do with that. With that, or Mycroft’s strange solicitousness. For the first time, his curiosity gelled: how much did Mycroft know, or not know? Did he too suspect Mary was the shooter? Did he finally know her plan? Was he just holding back?

Was there something he wasn’t telling them?

There was no way John was dealing with this at the moment. Not on an empty stomach, anyhow. “Excuse me," he said, heading back toward Sherlock's room, but he stepped aside to allow one of Mycroft’s women—the dark-haired one who always seemed to be smirking and texting on her mobile—to pass him. She handed a hold-all to Mycroft and left without so much as a nod to John. John blinked at her back as she left.

“Ah, excellent timing,” Mycroft said, and held the bag out to John.

“What is it?”

“This should carry you over for the next few days.”

“What—“ John unzipped it to reveal a pile of clothing, a small toiletries bag, and the paperback that, up until recently, had been on his nightstand. “What the hell?”

“I took the liberty of providing a few things for your comfort.”

“Did you go into my house?”

“Technically, no. However, I did send—“

“Other people to do your legwork, yeah, of course you did.” John pawed through the contents. “And Mary just let you in?”

“Ah.” Mycroft looked falsely-chagrined. “Your… 'wife' was not at home. She is already at the surgery for the day.”

“So you broke in.”

“Such an ugly phrase.”

“Is there another phrase?”

Mycroft’s mouth twisted. “Gained access?”

John almost laughed. Instead, he huffed out a strange noise and zipped up the bag again. “Well, I guess… Thank you.”

“Sherlock will need you by his side as consistently as possible. I presume that was already your plan?”

“You’re afraid Mary will finish the job,” John said, baiting Mycroft into an answer.

Instead he only raised an eyebrow. “I’m afraid I have insignificant data.”

Yes, then. “That’s not really very helpful.”

“And yet.” Mycroft took a few steps down the corridor, then turned back. “I’ve arranged for you to have access to the showers on this floor. You might want to avail yourself of them sooner rather than later; after all, I don’t expect you’ll be content unless you’re there when he wakes, and I shouldn’t want you to miss the opportunity.” His mouth twisted in a pantomime of concern, then he set off again. “Thank you again, John,” he said, a parting shot over his shoulder, and then he was gone.

John stared down at the bag in his hand and coughed a dry laugh. Apparently there weren’t limits to Mycroft’s jurisdiction. But at least John would be clean if he had to play bodyguard. And at least he would be presentable whenever Sherlock finally managed to stay awake and talk.

He went back to Sherlock’s room to stash the bag. "Your brother is an insufferable arsehole,” John said to a sleeping Sherlock. “Please wake up soon. Save me from having to punch him.” Someone had thought it through enough to provide him with a phone charger along with all the other items, and he plugged his phone in. Then, thinking better of it, he decided to keep it with him while he ate. “You'd probably want to do it yourself anyway,” he added, continuing the conversation. “Sibling privilege. It is your right. You know all the best ways.”

John studied the angles of Sherlock's face. First food, then a shower, and perhaps by then Sherlock would be awake enough to assess any brain dam—

No. It didn't bear thinking about.

John brushed Sherlock's curls back and kissed his forehead, as if through his lips he could divine the presence of injury. “Rest well, Sleeping Beauty,” he murmured, and headed to the canteen to hunt down something edible for breakfast.


“John?”

John abandoned Candy Crush to focus on a bleary but comfortingly-lucid Sherlock. “Yeah, it’s me. Good morning.”

“Morning.”

“Actually afternoon, but who’s counting?” He smoothed a lank curl off Sherlock’s forehead.

Sherlock groaned. “Feel like shit.”

“No doubt.”

Mary, John.”

Getting to the point, then. “Yeah, I’d guessed.”

“T’ll Mycroft.”

“I presume Mycroft already knows, or he would have been up my arse about it already.”

“Mm.” Sherlock snorted and winced. “Yes.”

“Anything else to know?”

“Mrr’ called the ambulance.”

That didn’t make any sense. “Why would she do that?”

“Bit too busy to puzzle it out.” Sherlock smacked his tongue to the roof of his mouth, and John took the hint.

“Right, yeah.” He handed Sherlock his own water bottle and sat back. “So she wanted you to…what, survive?”

“If she wanted to make a point,” Sherlock said after a few mouthfuls, “grazing my arm would have done.”

“She’d know as well as anyone the percentages on surviving a shot like—“

“Yet more mystery surrounding your Mary.”

“She’s not my Mary.”

“Mm.” Sherlock handed the bottle to John and settled back, closing his eyes again.

The brief flash of anger sizzled out rapidly, leaving John feeling hollow. “Tired?”

“Blurry.”

“Pain?”

Morphine.”

John pressed his mouth into a line. If the injuries were any less severe, he might have petitioned for something other than an opiate, but being what they were…

He didn’t enjoy the loving way Sherlock said ‘morphine’.


Slowly, they turned over the situation until the few facts they knew had taken on a high gloss. Eventually Sherlock’s voice lost most of its grog, and he seemed a lot more on top of the situation.

“So Mary was upstairs talking to Magnussen,” said John.

“On his knees.”

“She’d knocked Janine on the head. And you’re sure that wasn’t a front.”

“I told you. Yes.”

John still wasn’t sure Sherlock was being entirely forthright about her, but he let the subject alone. The whole thing still made him nauseated. “Fine. So she got past Janine—“

“Not very deftly.”

“—And was talking to Magnussen,” John continued, ignoring him.

“Standing over him, whispering something. Angry. In black clothing of some sort. I didn’t see the details. Likely enough her combat gear, hidden wherever she keeps her gun.” He adjusted his head against the pillows. “I wonder if she has bolt-holes, too.”

“What do you mean you didn’t see?”

“I’d barely entered the room.”

“And she just shot?”

“Bam.”

John stifled a wince at Sherlock’s cavalier attitude. “You don’t know what she was doing there?”

“It’s not as if we had a conversation, John.”

They sat in thought. John listened to the muffled hustle of the busy hospital while his brain spun. He couldn’t get purchase on anything. What if it had been Janine and not Sherlock? Would she still have shot first and not asked questions later?

Sherlock broke into the quiet. “She had discovered something that pushed her to move. What?”

“Something with Magnussen.”

“Yes, obviously.”

John hated to bring her up again, but— “Maybe Janine knows if he had an appointment that day.”

“Unlikely. He seldom kept that kind of visit on the books.”

“How do you know—“ John stopped the sentence in his tracks when he saw Sherlock’s expression. “Right. Sorry. …Wait, no, how do you know?"

“Magnussen has a private diary.”

“Well, if you think I’m sneaking in there to find it—“

“No!”

“—you’ve got another think coming.” Belatedly, John was startled by Sherlock’s vehemence. His feelings were slightly hurt. “Why not? You know I could do it.”

“Stay away from him, John.”

“You don’t think I could—“

“I said, stay away.” In his agitation, Sherlock had shifted too far to face John, and he winced as he settled back down. He closed his eyes and breathed heavily through his nose. “Promise me.”

John frowned. “I promise.”

“I’m serious.”

“Fine,” John said, allowing himself to be a bit short with him. So it was all well and good for Sherlock to go after him alone, but if John wanted to do it…

Silence spun out for several awkward moments before Sherlock breathed a laugh that was as harsh and dry as the mechanical huff of a working ventilator. “The two of us, John.”

Together. Against the rest of the world. Yeah, I got it. “Fine, I said.”

Slowly, his eyes still shut, Sherlock unfurled his hand toward John. After a breath, John took it. “If this is just a way to butter me up so I’m less insulted, it’s not working.”

“Noted,” said Sherlock with a twist of a smile.

“I mean it.”

“No doubt.”

They sat again in silence, then Sherlock lifted their hands to press a lingering kiss to John’s knuckles. It was…unexpected. John wondered if he still would have done it if he hadn’t been drugged to the gills and bone-weary. “I’m feeling pretty good about my decision to stay,” John said. “Mary won’t make another attempt when I’m here.”

“I’m not sure she’ll want to make a second attempt at all. She didn’t want me killed, remember.”

“You only presume that. It seems a far jump from the wound location to—“

“It’s the only solution that fits the facts. Mary shot immediately, on instinct, but chose a nontraditional target. Not the head. She pulled her punch because she didn’t want me killed. That suggests she has a reason for that, and for being there with a gun and Magnusson on his knees, though I don’t know what it is. Yet.”

“Feel free to deduce all this again when you have less morphine in your system.”

“My analysis will be the same.”

“I’ll wait to see, thanks.”

“That might be a while.”

“I’ll be here keeping watch, then.”

“I don’t need a guard, John. I can take care of myself.” In answer, John simply disentangled their hands and gently poked Sherlock, not close to his wound, but in the stomach. Sherlock hissed. Then he sighed in capitulation. “Fine.”

“Good.”

“You can keep watch.”

“I think I will, thanks.” John took his hand again.

There was a brief silence.

“You know we’re going to have a do an assessment for brain injury, don’t you?” John said.

“Unnecessary.”

“No, Sherlock. Necessary.”

“I’m fine.”

“I think I’ll wait for a trained neurologist tell me that before I believe it.” Sherlock made the most delightful, disgruntled face, and John squeezed his hand with the tightness of all the affection in his chest. “I need you to be fine.”

“I will be.”

“Let the doctors do their jobs, okay? Don’t be a brat.”

“Fine, John.”

“Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes.”

John studied the side of his face, and as far as he could tell, Sherlock was in earnest. “Okay.” He kissed Sherlock’s knuckles. “Well…” He was going to have to take his word for it. Time would tell whether he could make good on the promise. “I look forward to seeing the kinder, better-behaved you.”


“Mr. Holmes, please focus.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“Please just touch—“

“Ugh. Fine.” With sarcastic movements, Sherlock poked the doctor’s fingers and his nose alternatively, following their motion, then glared. “See?”

“Now please grasp these two fingers and try to—“

“My god, this is pointless.”

The neurologist glanced at John in a plea for help.

“It’s not pointless, Sherlock,” John said. “These are standard tests designed to—“

“I’m fine.”

“We won’t know that until you let him—“

“He’s an idiot. Look at his shoes.”

Boggled, the neurologist’s gaze bounced back and forth like a pinball. His jaw was slack.

The expression sort of helped Sherlock’s case.

“Sorry. Listen, I can run a general assessment,” John said, taking pity on the poor bastard. “And I can talk to you later if there’s anything else you’ll need to do?”

Giving Sherlock a wary look, the neurologist sidled toward the door. “Y-yes. Sure. That should be fine.”

Sherlock didn’t look at the man, but waved him out with one hand while poring over a newspaper John had bought for him. He seemed almost to dismiss the ordeal before the door closed.

John sat on the edge of his bed. “You promised.

“I may have offered more than I was willing to deliver.”

“You will have to have tests,” John said.

“As you said. You can do them,” Sherlock said. He turned a page.

“I shouldn’t have to, Sherlock. I’m not a neurologist.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“I hate you.” John scrubbed a hand over his face. “Stop reading so we can do this.”

Sherlock let the newspaper fall to the blanket and narrowed his eyes. “You’re serious.”

“Yes, Sherlock, I’m serious. Your brain was starved of oxygen. I have to—“

“Fine.” Sherlock shoveled the paper over the side of the bed, where it settled to the floor in messy grey sheets. He held out his arms. “Go on.”

John pursed his lips. “You’re sure.”

“I’m sure.”

“You’re not going to suddenly decide you have to…I don’t know…”

Sherlock gestured at the IV in his arm and the monitors around him. “Where do you think I’m going to go?”

“With you, who knows.” John stripped off his jumper and tossed it on the chair next to the bed, then rolled up his sleeves. Sherlock was eating him up with his eyes, and John tried to ignore how the heat in them made his heart race. “All right, arsehole. Let’s get this done.”

If he tried very hard, he could focus past Sherlock’s smirk. And if he tried even harder, he might manage not to smile back.


John had just finished giving Sherlock his cursory neurological exam when Mrs Hudson knocked at the threshold.

“Hoo-hoo, can I come in?” She stepped carefully into the room. “Hello? Oh Sherlock, look at you.” She rushed over to start primping at his bedding. “How are you feeling?”

He groaned and let her. “Like I’ve been shot.”

“Sherlock,” John said, gathering up the newspaper so Mrs Hudson didn’t walk all over it, then arranging the pile in a paper tent over Sherlock’s feet.

“How else am I supposed to answer that question, John?”

“For starters, you could—“

She waved the argument away. “Never mind that. Look. I’ve brought you some flowers for your room—“

“Clearly.”

“Sherlock.”

“—I’ll just put them over here,” she continued. She spoke to John in a laughable attempt at a whisper. “He’s certainly in a mood, isn’t he? He’s usually more civil when he’s on drugs.”

“Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock said, and he made a feeble attempt to slam his head back against his pillow a few times. “Perhaps next time you might bring my violin—“

“You’re not allowed,” said John.

“Or maybe a cigarette…”

Sherlock,” both John and Mrs Hudson said at the same time.

Sherlock sighed. “Spoilsports.”

“This is going to be a very long convalescence,” she said, more for John’s benefit than for Sherlock’s.

“You’re both hateful,” Sherlock said.

Mrs Hudson moved John’s jumper from the chair, folded it, and placed it in the next seat over before settling in. She folded her hands in her lap. “So,” she said. “Which one of you is finally going to tell me how it happened? In detail,” she said, forestalling any of John’s explanation that he’d told her already. “Don’t leave anything out.”

John blinked at her, then at Sherlock. “I have absolutely no idea what to say,” he said.

“It’s simple,” Sherlock began. “We were continuing the investigation into Magnussen—“

“Wait, she knew about that?” John sat down on top of the folded jumper.

“—and in the process of breaking in, I was shot by another intruder.”

“Oh, dear. Did you see his face?”

John waited to see what Sherlock said. The revelation that Mrs Hudson knew about the Magnussen case had thrown him for a loop. What else did she know? He flicked his gaze over her as Sherlock lied.

“It all happened too fast.”

“I should say it did,” she said, but narrowed her eyes. “But you aren’t curious?”

“Could I go anywhere if I were?”

“You don’t want to know who shot you, Sherlock?” This time she looked at John.

“He says he doesn’t want to know.”

Mrs Hudson didn’t appear convinced. “If you say so. I don’t believe you for one moment, but if it makes you feel better to say it—“

“It does.”

Her eyes narrowed again, but then she shrugged it off. “Well, I’ve smuggled you in some biscuits.” She turned to John. “Is he allowed to have biscuits?”

John rolled his eyes. “He’s supposed to stick to the meal plan laid out by—“

“Give me.” Sherlock threw out a hand.

John sighed as Mrs Hudson dug through her bag to pull out a plastic container. “But since the only thing he seems to be eating is the jelly—“

“The rest of it is revolting. The jelly is the only thing they can’t destroy.”

“It has zero nutritional value, Sherlock.”

Sherlock made a noise. “What do I care?”

“You should.”

Mrs Hudson turned to John as Sherlock began ploughing through the assortment she’d brought him. “These have flour. And butter.”

“And probably a lot of sugar, I’m guessing.” John pinched the bridge of his nose.

“Better than gelatine, dear.”

“Are we hoping he’ll just turn into one giant pudding and become invincible?”

Sherlock snorted and dusted off his hands, getting biscuit crumbs all over his bed.

“I don't think that would be so terrible, I don’t mind telling you,” said Mrs Hudson.

“Why’s that?” John gave in and nicked a biscuit.

“I wouldn’t worry half so much with him invincible. Like a jelly.” She tittered and took a biscuit of her own, then mock-whispered to John behind her hand. “Unless I were to worry someone special would eat him all up.”

The twinkle in her eye made John’s stomach flop. Janine. He pasted on a smile while Sherlock audibly rolled his eyes. “Mrs Hudson,” John admonished.

“What?” She tried to look innocent. “Don’t think I don’t know. He’s an awfully bad actor.”

“I’m a fantastic actor.”

“Maybe to some, dear.” She patted his leg over the scratchy hospital blanket. “I can always tell, with you.”

“Nonsense.”

“If you say so. That’s okay,” she said, and finished off her biscuit. “I'll keep your secret.”

Her gaze slid sideways and pinned John, and for a horrible moment he wondered whether she wasn’t actually talking about him and Sherlock after all. Did she know about them? Did she know about Mary? What was she trying to say?

It was a tense two seconds before she looked away again. John realised Sherlock didn’t look concerned in the slightest, which John supposed was a good enough reason to unclench. More than that, the corner of Sherlock’s mouth was turned up as if he were amused by the assertion. Suddenly John wondered about the sorts of conversations he’d been having with Mrs Hudson now John was gone. He stared at the side of Sherlock's face as if he could siphon off his thoughts only through looking.

Mrs Hudson rested a hand on Sherlock’s knee, then gently grabbed John’s elbow, as if she were acting as a conduit between them. “I’m just glad you’re both okay. I couldn’t bear it otherwise.” She squeezed John’s arm, and he could practically hear it. My boys.

Chapter Text

When Greg Lestrade knocked on the door, John was checking his look in the hall mirror for the twentieth time before his and Mary's six-month anniversary date; he’d been ready to go for an hour, and the nervousness was finally beginning to get a grip.

Greg’s company might be a pleasant diversion.

“Er, so what’s in the, er…?” John asked reluctantly. Greg had left a shoe box on the table by the door.

“Oh, that, yeah. That’s, er. I was having a bit of a clear out now I’ve been promoted—thanks for the note, by the way, that was nice—and I found all that in my desk this morning. Some stuff of Sherlock’s. I probably should have thrown it out, but I didn’t know if…”

“No, fine, yeah.” This was excruciating.

In the box was some detritus from previous cases, as well as a DVD of, apparently, the uncut version of Sherlock’s birthday message from the year before he left. John remembered being furious Sherlock had cancelled on him, and that Greg had been complicit.

Clearly Greg didn’t remember it the same way.

There must have been something about it written on John’s face, because Greg stopped in the middle of some reminiscence how funny it all was. “What?”

“N-nothing.”

“I shouldn’t have brought it, should I.”

“No, no. That’s fine. Don’t worry. I probably won’t even watch the damn thing.”

“Mm.” Greg studied him. “You’re sure?”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s fine. It’s been, what, two years?” John said with studied nonchalance, and shrugged. “No big deal.”

“Hmm.” Greg obviously wasn’t buying it, but true to his nature, knew when to back off. Literally in this case, because he paced away and scrubbed his hands down his thighs. “Well, I need to get back. Just wanted to leave that for you.”

“Hey, Greg, thanks.” John tried to look serene. “Really. Any good plans for the weekend?”

Greg described a dinner out with his daughter, and a match on Sunday. John let him go with only a few more minor pleasantries; he was going to need as much time as possible before the date to deal with the gift left at his door.

Whenever John received a message from Sherlock he always required the same items: a quiet flat, glass of whiskey, and a deep breath to centre his nerves. He didn’t expect this would be very different. The content on the disc was only a bit of reminiscence from a time before it all went to hell—tough, but not world-shaking.

Once the DVD was playing, however, he knew he’d been dead wrong. The video wasn’t familiar at all, not even as an extended version of a file he’d already seen. Hell, the Sherlock he was looking at wasn’t even from two years ago. His hair was a bit shorter, and there was a large bruise across one cheek.

He looked…haunted.

Sherlock stared directly into the camera. “Hallo, John,” he said, once the file was rolling. He scrubbed his hand across the lower half of his face and looked around. “I’m sorry. I don’t have much time. I’m trying to evade the… No. Not now. Later. I just wanted to give this message to you like this, because you need to see my face. It's the best way to get you to accept facts.”

He cleared his throat and looked at the camera again with monstrous sincerity. John’s heart plunged to his shoes. "If Moran proposes, you must say yes." Sherlock was putting up a good front, but John knew him. He knew him. The maelstrom in his eyes was heartbreaking. "You need to convince her you’ve bought her story, because I want her complacent as long as possible. I need her complacent. It's the best way to keep you safe. And I need you to be safe. If that means accepting her marriage proposal…" Sherlock swallowed. "Please do it.”

Sherlock stepped in toward the camera so John was staring into his eyes from only about ten inches away. Moving to the very edge of his sofa, John put down the glass and pressed his hand to his mouth. “I know you don’t want to. But we’re in the home stretch, and it won’t be much longer until I’m with you and all this will be over. I can’t even be sure you’ve got this. I mean, I hope you have. But if not… That’s…that’s fine. Because I trust you. You understand what’s at stake. You wouldn’t let me down.”

From so close to the microphone, the sound of Sherlock’s swallow was loud. “I…” He swallowed again. “I hope this finds you well, John. Be well. I’m…I’m going to be with you again. Very soon.”

The video went to black, and John pressed his hand harder against his lips. He forced himself to breathe steadily round his fingers, in and out, mechanically. Thoroughly.

It took several minutes sitting in silence before John could move, and even more before the prickle at the corners of his eyes had eased. He knocked back the last slug of scotch and stood. Getting that message in person—as close to in person as it got, these days—was either perfect or terrible, and John didn’t know which.

He really had no idea which.

In a daze, John turned off the dvd player and the television, broke the disc into handful of pieces, pocketed half of them to scatter between the flat and the restaurant, shut off the lights, and headed for the door. He took deep breath after deep breath, hoping each one would bring him back to cold reality. If Mary proposed tonight, he had to accept. He had to accept, and he had to make it believable. She'd been nothing but sweet so far, and strangely suitable as a companion, but that didn't erase the image of Sherlock’s eyes so fresh in his mind, now: close-up. Familiar.

Damp.

He wondered if maybe Judas Iscariot had also had a mandate to do what he did. John grabbed his keys and headed out for his date.

Chapter Text

He tried to put it off as long as possible, but eventually John admitted that in order to keep their cover he had to invite Mary to visit. When she arrived downstairs, he didn’t hesitate before sweeping her into a big hug. He was proud of himself. “Hey.”

“Hey.”

“You’ve missed the commotion. They only just moved him out of the ICU, and Mycroft’s arranged for him to have his own room.”

His arms around her, John felt the barest twitch in her spine as she stifled a reaction to Mycroft’s name. Interesting. What did she know about Mycroft? Furthermore, what did she know that Mycroft knew about her? “I’m glad.”

He pulled away and with one hand at her back led her upstairs to Sherlock’s room, poised to register any response. “You, Mrs. Watson. You’re in big trouble.” There it was: the tiniest bit of stiffness, a hitch in her step he wouldn’t have detected unless he was looking for it.

“Really? Why?”

It was a deadly chess game, and John had never been particularly good at chess. He was, however, pretty damn good at cards. “You didn’t come bearing mochas. You know as well as I do the coffee here is shit.”

She relaxed and laughed. “Ahhh, yes, you're right."

"You knew that, and you didn't stop at Starbucks?"

"I wanted you to suffer."

"Clearly."

"It's payback."

"For?"

"You were supposed to take out the trash last night. I got home late from my meeting and the kitchen was stinking."

"And how is that my fault?"

"You promised."

"Well, maybe I did it on purpose."

She grinned, and her eyes sparkled. For the thousandth time, John marvelled at her acting skill. "And what could you possibly have against me that would make you retaliate in that way?"

"You didn't take it out last week."

"Oooh." The corner of her mouth quirked, but it didn't seem much like a smile. "You're playing a long game, Dr. Watson."

He caught her eye for the barest moment, and enjoyed the thrill of fear as he grinned. "Absolutely." And you’ll have no idea.

"I like that about you."

"Good thing, too."

"Oh?"

"Because you married me."

She grinned and laughed back, and they continued up the stairs. John reflected—yet again—that he held a rather dangerous hand.

Up in Sherlock’s room, they found him sleeping again. Mary sighed and settled into the chair next to him.

“Hon, I know it’s no Starbucks, but would you mind getting me a tea?”

John had been watching Sherlock’s face, but at this he snapped his head up to look at her. “What? Oh. Sure. Yes. Of course.” He patted his pockets for his wallet. He wished one held his gun, too. “Right.” He stopped at the door. “Anything else?”

“No, just tea.” She gave him a tight-lipped smile. Warning bells went off, and his heart began racing again. He really didn't want to leave her alone with him.

Feeling sick, he gave her that tight-lipped smile right back and headed directly for the nurse’s station. “Listen," he said to the nurse on duty, "could you send someone to check his lines? We’re in room—“

“I remember where you are, Doctor Watson,” she said, not unkindly. “Sure. We’ll send someone in.”

“Fairly soon?” He was swallowing down panic, and tried to give her a placid expression.

With the extra sense possessed by nurses everywhere, she glanced at his face and frowned. “Is everything all right?”

“Yes. Sure. Yes. Just…”

“I’ll ask someone to look in on him now.”

“That would be great,” he said, stifling a sigh of relief.

She nodded and picked up the phone, and she watched him all the way out to the lifts.


He tried not to look as if he were rushing to get back, but nonetheless his breathing was a bit ragged by the time he hurried back into the room bearing two teas and an eager expression.

“How is he doing?” he asked, studying him.

“Still out of it,” she said. She pulled a face and mock-snored.

“Ah,” he said, too nervous to sit down. Instead, he stood at Sherlock’s head and restrained himself from stroking his hair.

Mary rested her hand on her stomach.

“So, er.” He swallowed his tea as nonchalantly as possible. “How are you…feeling?”

“Fine,” she said, and shrugged. “Early days, and all.”

“Sick this morning?”

“As usual.”

He had some more tea. “But nothing you can’t handle.”

She gave him a curious smile. “You’re coming round to the idea of it, then?”

John blinked at her, stunned. “What are you saying?”

Mary laughed a bit and lifted her cup to him. “You’re not a great liar.”

Like hell I’m not. Still, his heart pounded. “What do—“

“You pretended you were okay with whatever decision I made. But I can always tell when you’re lying.”

John tried not to freak out. He pasted on an expression of concern. “I wasn’t pretending.”

“John.” She set her cup on the table at Sherlock’s elbow, plucked John’s tea from his unresisting hand to set it down next to hers, then wrapped her arms about his neck. “Stop.” She hugged him and pressed a kiss to his cheek. “I appreciated the out, but really. Of course I want to see this through. I want this.”

“Well.” He actively loosened his jaw, which was feeling tighter the longer this conversation wore on. “Good. That’s good.”

“I hope so, because you’re in it now, John Watson.”

John’s stomach churned. “Yeah.”

She held him for a moment, then pressed another kiss to his cheek. “You look done for. I need a pee. So it begins, huh?”

He gave her a smile which he hoped didn’t look as sick as it felt. “So it seems.” He nodded. “You, er. You have fun with that.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Mouth twisted with humour, she rolled her eyes and let the door close behind her.

John settled into the chair and scrubbed his face with both hands. “Sherlock,” he murmured. “We are so, so fucked.”


Sherlock's eyes fluttered, immediately snagging John's attention away from his muted discussion with Mary. "Hey, lll…oh." It was a near miss; the word 'love' was halfway out John's mouth when he called it back, and his hand was already on its way to smooth Sherlock's hair when he halted it in midair. Until that moment, he hadn't realised how much of a habit both had become. Innocent as the epithet might be with anyone else, he couldn't help thinking it took on a different tone when he used it with Sherlock. It made him self-conscious. Someone might know. "Hello." He continued the movement to adjust Sherlock's pillow. "How are you feeling?"

"Mmm…" The noise Sherlock made could be called nothing less than contented. Eyes closed, he nestled down further into the bedding. "I had a dream about you. I dreamt—"

"Mary's stopped by to see you," John cut in. “Why don’t you tell us both about it?”

Sherlock turned his head to look at her, and John watched his focus go from vague to razor-sharp. Then he slumped back into the pillow and stared at the ceiling. “I dreamt we were on a case. The one a few years ago, with the postman and the ears. I dreamt you were collecting a selection of ears to mount on the wall. Like butterflies.”

“Grotesque,” John said. His smile felt transparently false.

“Yes, that’s the word for it,” said Sherlock, and he pressed his mouth into an unamused line.

“The ears?” Mary said, darting looks between them, the only one of the three of them who looked as if she were enjoying the conversation.

“Woman received two ears in the post, packed on ice,” said John.

“Salt,” Sherlock corrected.

“Right, salt. That’s right.” John didn’t know where to look, or what to do with his hands. He played with his mobile. “They were sent to her accidentally. Meant to be for her sister. Awful stuff, really. Domestic violence case.”

“Double murder, obviously,” said Sherlock.

“Oh obviously,” Mary said.

Sherlock shot her a sharp look sideways out of the corner of his eye, to see if she was teasing him. Which she was, and John could have told him so from the tone of her voice. “He was a drinker with jealousy issues. It seemed clear she wasn’t cheating, but nothing could have convinced him otherwise. He followed her to…“ Sherlock’s voice faded out in John’s awareness, superseded instead by the sight of a curl of Sherlock’s hair bouncing over his forehead with every gesture. John followed the movement of Sherlock’s hand as he tilted his head back and brushed it away, exposing the long column of his neck. He must have had too many blankets on, because the skin at his suprasternal notch was glistening with sweat. The urge to touch it was near-overwhelming. John could feel the gentle give of Sherlock’s skin against his tongue. His smooth skin. His smooth skin, vibrating with a moan as John worshipped him with his mouth, striving to communicate how cherished and adored—

John was pulled out of his reverie by a change in Sherlock’s voice. It no longer had the usual cadence of his storytelling; instead, it trailed slower and quieter, and John examined his profile. He seemed…thoughtful. “We found him on board his ship, having been relieved of his duties. He gave us a full confession, but I remember thinking how pointless it all was. His fight to keep her had just driven her away more, and she was more willing to listen to her sister’s lies than hear him out. It had all gone too far to walk it back. And instead of being a rational animal, he… I remember thinking how his life had become ruled by misery and violence and fear, and he took innocent lives because of it. It was all so pointless.”

The three of them sat in silence for a heavy moment before John felt it necessary to claw them all back from the edge. “Anyway, a proper result, but it wasn’t pretty,” he said, his guts twisted. The look in Sherlock’s eyes was one of desolation. Emptiness. It was like nothing John had ever seen before. “What, er, what made you think of that case, I wonder?”

“Maybe you dreamt about the butterfly cards because the image appealed to you,” suggested Mary lightly. “Catalogued. Ordered.”

“It’s possible,” said Sherlock.

“Maybe you ought to do a study of ear shape,” she said. “Unless someone’s already done it.”

“He’d want to do another one anyway,” said John. “He wouldn’t trust anyone else’s rigour.”

“The current state of medicine can be horribly unscientific,” Sherlock said, taking the bait. He looked at John only for the barest moment, then blinked away to stare once more at the foot of his bed. “No one catalogues quite as thoroughly as they ought to. They don’t notice the important details.”

“Well, if you want to do a study, I’m not going to stop you,” said John. “I don’t need the space in the fridge for food anymore.”

“No you don’t,” Sherlock said. “Thank god. I can get so much more done, now.”

John swallowed hard and continued to hold his mobile instead of doing what he really wanted, which was to grab Sherlock’s hand and press it to his face and kiss his palm. He craved Sherlock’s touch more than he’d thought possible. He could feel Mary’s attention on the side of his face, and reached for his cold tea for lack of anything else to do. “Well, I’m glad to provide.”

Mary glanced at her watch and gasped. “Oh, hell. I’m meant to be at the clinic in fifteen. You won’t mind if I head off?”

“No,” John said. He gave her a soft smile, hoping he didn’t sound too grateful and that his smile didn’t seem too sick. “Work is work. I’ll…I’ll see you off.”

“No, no. That’s fine,” Mary said, gesturing for him to keep his seat. Instead, she dropped a kiss on the top of his head and smiled at Sherlock. “Glad you’re…doing better,” she said.

John looked at Sherlock to see if he was going to respond in any sort of polite way expected by the whole of civilised society, but of course he didn’t. “Thanks,” he spoke for Sherlock as a matter of habit, but John realised Mary hadn’t even been waiting for the response at all. She was just swinging her bag over her shoulder and downing the rest of her tea to bin the cup on the way out the door.

Right, he thought. Because she might not actually be glad he’s doing better. She shot him, then called 999. Who _knows what her feelings are on the subject._

“I’ll see you back at home,” she said, and pushed her way out the door. “Be good…” The door swung shut behind her, leaving the air in the room feeling stifled and too warm all of a sudden, as if they were both swaddled in cotton wool.

John gulped his own tea and thumbed his phone on to pull up his game. He didn’t particularly feel like talking at the moment.

Thankfully, neither did Sherlock.


The idea of sitting in the room while Janine visited was intolerable. And logically, if she were going to do anything to Sherlock she’d have had ample opportunity during the month they were shagging, so John made the excuse that he needed a bun and left them to it.

When he came back, he had enough sugar in his bloodstream to power a small team of five-year olds. He figured being able to handle Sherlock and his—now ex?—girlfriend would be less of a feat if running on a stream of simple carbohydrates.

Unfortunately, he caught them in the middle of something, Janine half out of her chair in the effort of murmuring into Sherlock’s ear. When he opened the door, they both looked toward him with shock, then relaxed.

“Oh. John,” she said.

“Yes, John,” John said, and debating the merits of a possible sugar coma rather than having to put up with them and their clandestine whatever-it-was.

“I was just leaving,” she said, gathering up some newspapers and tossing them onto the bedside table. “Reading material,” she said to Sherlock.

“A brilliant work of fiction,” he said, and quirked her a smile.

“A romp,” she grinned, and she left them in peace. John took a breath once she was gone.

“Fiction?” John asked, and sat in the other chair from the one she'd recently absented.

In answer, Sherlock tossed him the stack of papers. John juggled them and his cup before setting down the latter and not spilling either.

The headlines proclaimed, “SHAG-A-LOT HOLMES” and “7 TIMES A NIGHT IN BAKER STREET”. John’s stomach swam. Perhaps the extra slice of sponge had been a bad idea. “You said…”

“Fiction, yes,” Sherlock said, and folded his hands over his stomach with a groan. “Turn the tap up a notch or two? She turned it all the way down when she came in.”

“What would she…” John frowned as he realised what Sherlock was talking about, and dove to turn his drip up. “Jesus. She does realise that pain can— Why would she do that?”

Sherlock waved it away. “Payback.”

“But why—?” John said, but his attention was snagged once more by the newspapers. “Wait. You said fiction.”

“Yes.”

John’s brain stuttered. “All of it?”

“Most of it.”

“What part isn’t?”

Sherlock frowned. “I did let her wear the hat.”

“It says here you made her wear the hat.”

Sherlock shrugged. “She thought it was hilarious.”

John blinked. “I’m being serious. What, precisely, was fictional?”

“The whole…” Sherlock painted circles in the air. “…thing.”

“The whole thing.”

“My relationship.”

“Was a sham.”

“Yes.”

“Sherlock.” John moved his mouth, but he couldn’t find the right combination of consonants and vowels to adequately portray the turmoil in his head. “Your relationship was a sham.”

“Do keep up.”

“What for?”

“Because you’re boring me.”

“No, Sherlock, why…” John made a frustrated noise. “When were you going to tell me?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Don’t be tiresome.”

Tiresome?!”

“Listen, John,” Sherlock said, and winced as he attempted to turn his body more toward him, but immediately gave up and lay back down again. He nestled his head with careful precision into his pillow. “When you were off being married…” John winced. While Sherlock wasn’t looking at him, he sighed anyway. “Don’t pull that face, John. While you were off with Mary, I decided several things. Foremost, I needed to manoeuvre myself into Magnussen’s field of vision sooner rather than later. He had already started glancing my way, but I needed him to start watching more closely. To that end, I developed the appearance of a drug habit—“

“—While also taking the drugs, I notice.”

“—and took up a relationship with his PA.”

“Sherlock, if you were just going to use her to break into Magnussen’s–“

“Wouldn’t it have been better to misdirect his attention elsewhere?” Sherlock inclined his head. “That’s actually a common misunderstanding, put about by lower-level pickpockets and thieves and stage magicians. The art of misdirection isn’t solely about giving someone something else to look at in order to direct attention away from where the magic is happening. Misdirection is more the science of controlling someone’s attention in total. There’s a subtle distinction.”

“So you were with Janine for…misdirection.”

“Of course.”

“Not because you…” John didn’t want to say it aloud. He suddenly realised how insulting it might sound.

“You really did think I was with Janine in retribution.” Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “Really.”

“Well, it did seem likely.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed even further. “Likely.”

“You know. With…” John didn’t know how to finish the sentence.

They sat quietly for a few long, uncomfortable seconds.

“With what, John.”

“With…” John swallowed, and he gestured out the door as if Mary were waiting outside.

“With the baby.”

John was shocked into a verbal and physical silence for a moment. “No, that’s not what I.” John shifted. “No. I wasn’t thinking about that at all.”

Sherlock’s expression closed down. “Well. That's clear.”

“Excuse me?”

“It was clear you weren’t thinking at all.”

Anger flared behind John’s eyes. “It was an accident.”

“You’re a doctor.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You’re telling me that you…you and she…you didn’t think this was going to happen?”

“As a matter of fact, no. I didn’t.”

“What, did you give her belladonna and have her squat over a basin?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I just thought—“

“It’s never 100% safe.”

“You could have—“

“You think I didn’t?”

“Do you think she could have sabotaged—”

“This is pretty inconvenient for her too, Sherlock.”

“And too bad there isn’t something you could have done about it, something that fortunately is still le—“

“She didn’t want to, okay? She didn’t want to.” John spun to his feet and started pacing the short length of the room. “I couldn’t just—You think we didn’t talk about it?”

“Well, I don’t know. You seem so cozy and comfortable there, with everything you’ve ever wanted. House, child, estate car, a murdering sociopath for a wife. Perfect for Doctor John Watson.”

John couldn’t breathe. “Everything I’ve ever— What?!”

“It seems clear to me that things are going swimmingly for you. Why let a little thing like our plans stand in the way.”

“They're not standing in the way of anything, Sher—“

“After all, it’s not as if I spent two years in the field being shot at and stabbed while you were here pretending to cry on attractive women’s shoulders…”

“I beg your fucking pardon?”

“…Because that would be ridiculous.

“How…” This was the first time Sherlock had mentioned anything about his time away in anything but vague descriptions. The picture of him being shot at and stabbed, without John being there, turned his stomach. “How was I to know that—“ John curled his hands into fists and tried very, very hard not to slam them on the foot of Sherlock’s bed. “How was I to know that was going on? You never said a fucking word.”

“When was I meant to do that, hm? Standing in the back of your house near the bins? ‘Oh hello John, nice to see you again, oh by the way, did you know I was nicked in the thigh by a bullet while I was gone? Nice scar, but you won’t be able to see it until, well, who knows when, because you’re married now. Toodle-doo!’”

“You were shot?!”

“Yes, and stabbed in the back. Narrowly missed my kidney. Want to see the scar? Ukrainian medicine is lovely, but unfortunately not when you’re in hiding. Actually, no, you won’t be able to see the scar. I think that was obscured by the lash marks from when Mycroft was watching me beaten in a Serbian bunker.”

“He what.”

“Oh, he didn’t tell you that in between bringing your clothes and directing you to a shower?”

“Well, no, that didn’t come up.”

“I think that would be a good conversation. You should have that conversation. Perhaps right now.”

What?”

“Why don’t you just go, John.”

John blinked. “What.

“Go. Go talk to Mycroft. Or go to work. Go be with your wife. I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine. You’ve just been shot.”

“I survived while I was gone.”

John’s jaw hurt. “Yes, and apparently that went extremely well—”

“—I’ve been fine for the last month—“

“You were using—“

“So I really think it would be better if you were to go.”

John stood and stared. His heart beat like a wild bird in his throat, the gusts from its wings drying up his tongue. “You want me to… No. No, I’m not going.”

“Leave, John.”

“I’m not leaving—“

"What do you expect to do? You're a middle-grade GP who's spent more time diagnosing flu than healing bullet wounds. If you're thinking—"

"Middle grade…"

"—you'll swoop in and…what, save me? I'm afraid you're vastly overestimating your usefulness."

"Usefuln—What the fuck is wrong with you?"

"I'm irritated by your presence. If you truly wanted to help, you'd leave."

"I can't imagine this is anything to do with the painkillers—"

“GO!” Sherlock yelled, the force of his anger driving John back toward the door.

John watched Sherlock’s ribs heave with his breath—ribs covering the fragile internal organs, the organs so recently pierced and sewn up, the ones that had bled all over his favourite white shirt. He imagined the stitches pulling open, imagined the damage done internally. Imagined ripping. Imagined the pain.

He felt the echo of it in his own chest.

Sherlock’s eyes followed him round the room as he gathered up his book and his bag, and John grabbed his jacket from the hook near the door.

“You really want me to go.” The base of his sternum echoing cold and hollow, John took in Sherlock: dark curls wild, his face pale but for two spots of colour high in his cheeks, his eyes glassy and intensely angry.

“Yesterday would be good.”

John tried to swallow. “I’ll. Erm.” He said quietly, turning for the door. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Just before he closed the door, he heard Sherlock respond very, very quietly. “Let's hope not.”

Chapter Text

When Sherlock returned from his mission, John was relieved on multiple levels. He revealed himself to Mary and John without warning, appearing before them at a posh restaurant wearing a tuxedo, a painted moustache, and a watery smirk. Not only was John consoled to see Sherlock in the flesh, alive and well, but he was certain Mary had been tap-dancing around a proposal, and John would grab with both hands any chance to stall the inevitable.

The reunion was bound to be a good time regardless; John got to throw himself at Sherlock like a berserker with a revenge fantasy, channelling all his relief into his fists. It was divine catharsis. His violence got them tossed out of two restaurants and thoroughly glared at in a third. His enjoyment was only tempered by the fact that he was only raising hell to keep himself from bursting into embarrassing tears. Dangerous tears.

By the time they’d ended up at the kebab place he felt less like sobbing, but there was still enough emotion bottled up in his throat that it felt as if something spiky were lodged there.

“Seriously, it’s not a joke?” Sherlock pointing at his own lip, referring to John’s moustache. “You’re really keeping this?”

John just barely kept a straight face. “Yeah.”

“You’re sure?”

“Mary likes it,” he lied. She hated it. But the moustache had limited their sex life by half, so it was well worth the snickers from his colleagues.

“Ermmm, no she doesn’t.”

“She does.”

“She doesn’t.”

John wished Sherlock would let it alone. He glanced at Mary, and was immediately sorry he did so; from the look on her face he realised the moustache was going to have to go. He covered the offending thing with his hand. “Oh. Brilliant.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, and winced again. “Sorry. I didn’t know how to tell you.”

“No, no, this is perfect. Oh, I’ve really missed this.” For the first time that night, he wondered if he might be laying it on a bit thick. “One word, Sherlock. That’s all I would have needed. One word to let me know you were alive.”

“I’ve nearly been in contact so many times, but…” Sherlock didn't look him in the eye. John twisted his laughter into a scoff. “I worried that, you know, you might say something indiscreet.”

“Indiscreet.”

“You know. Let the cat out of the bag.”

“Oh, so this is my fault, now?”

“Well…” Sherlock scrunched his face. Mary just looked amused.

“Why am I the only one reacting like a human being?” John said.

“Over-reacting.”

Over-reacting?!”

“John,” said Mary, and she put her hand on his arm as if to reel him back.

“OVER-REACTING. So you fake your own death—“

“Shh,” Sherlock said.

John ignored him; he was on a roll now. The shouting felt amazing. “—and you waltz in here, large as bloody life—“

Shh.

“—but I’m not supposed to have a problem with that, no, because Sherlock Holmes thinks it’s a perfectly OKAY THING TO DO!

“Shut up, John!” Sherlock shouted. “I don’t want everyone knowing I’m still alive!”

It gave John pause, but the horse was already out of the barn. “Oh, so it’s still a secret, is it?”

“Yes, it’s still a secret. Promise you won’t tell anyone.”

I swear to god.

“London is in danger, John. There’s an imminent terrorist attack and I need your help.”

The tenor of Sherlock’s voice was so beloved John’s heart skipped a beat. He obscured the smile creeping in at the corners of his mouth with an incredulous glance at Mary. “My help.”

“You have missed this. Admit it. The thrill of the chase, the blood pumping through your veins, just the two of us together against the rest of the world…”

Sherlock captured John’s gaze and held it. The look in his eyes was intense. Pleading. And so close John could see the variation in his iris, stark under the fluorescents.

He was there. Right there. Warm. Alive. He smelled different but familiar, and all John wanted was to press his face to his neck and never let go. All that, and he was offering in plain language for John to have his real life back. Together.

There was only one thing for it.

John attacked him again.


The next night, John lugged the household rubbish out the back door and down the stairs toward the alley. As he swung the bag the last few feet toward the bins a form emerged from the shadows, startling his heart into his throat.

Jesus,” he hissed, and ducked out of the line of sight from the house.

“Sorry.”

“You're early."

"Are you disappointed?"

Rubbish forgotten, chores forgotten, everything but the sight in front of him forgotten, John studied Sherlock's face more intently than he could before. He didn't look different, precisely—not in terms of features or hair or clothes. But something in his eyes and the way he held his mouth said horrifying things about how he'd spent the last two years. John swallowed down a sob.

"God, look at you."

Sherlock's jaw clenched, his lips curled in, and he looked away.

Gingerly, John reached toward the cut on Sherlock's mouth. "I'm sor—“

"Don't you dare apologise. It’s fine. It’s my…” Sherlock's expression faltered. “It’s my fault. Two years, John. It’s my fault.”

"No."

"I was only meant to be gone nine months."

"Yeah, I know."

Sherlock's mouth trembled for the barest moment before he locked it down again.

"I wish I could have been there," John whispered. "I wanted to help. So many times."

"You had a job to do."

"I know."

"I needed you here."

"I know."

From a foot away, standing in the half-dark, all John's senses were attuned to Sherlock: the rumble of his voice, the scent of damp wool and hair product and cigarettes, the warmth rolling off him. The combination unlocked something in John’s chest and he stepped in to clasp Sherlock in his arms, bury his face against his shoulder, and breathe.

Sherlock squeezed back so hard John could only inhale shallowly. He didn’t care. “I’m sorry,” Sherlock whispered. His voice was thick, and John wondered if, hidden by the dark, Sherlock’s eyes were wet. If nothing else he was shaking, and John didn’t want to see his face. “I didn’t mean to be gone so—“

“Shut up.” Relief rolled down John’s spine in a massive wave, leaving him feeling slightly ill. “Just shut up.” His hands curled into fists, John punctuated it with a soft punch to Sherlock's back. Sherlock sucked in a breath and shied away from the touch. John tried to pull away, but Sherlock didn't allow it. "What did I just do?"

"It wasn't you."

"What the hell is wrong with your—"

"Later." Sherlock reaffirmed his grip round John and sucked in a shuddering breath. "I'll explain later."

They held on to each other for so long John was afraid Mary was going to march out of the house and come looking for him.

“Mary’s going to wonder where you are,” Sherlock said.

“Let her.”

“John…”

John pressed his face hard into Sherlock’s neck in preparation to release him. “I know.”

It was hard enough to let go as it was, but when Sherlock buried his nose in John’s hair and inhaled it became impossible.

“You’re back now,” John murmured. “We don’t have to do this all in one night.”

Sherlock coughed out a strange, wet, desperately-sad noise. “True.”

“We have all the time in the world.”

It wasn’t true at all. He likely still had to get married to ensure their security. He had to figure out Mary's game. He had a job to do, but all he wanted to do was roll round in how warm and alive and present Sherlock was. He didn’t want to let go ever again.

“I’m sorry my timing is so horrible."

John huffed a laugh against Sherlock’s woollen shoulder. “Yeah, you cock. Couldn’t make it easy, no. Had to be standing right there while she prepared to ask.”

“With that ridiculous thing on your lip.”

“You don’t get to say a word about it.”

“I don’t know why not. It's terrible.”

Instead of saying something obvious and pointless like you left, John stuck his nose against Sherlock’s neck and breathed. His knees almost buckled. A tiny noise came from Sherlock’s throat, clear as crystal from that close, and his arms tightened around John. He let out an uneven breath.

“I…temporarily…retract that statement.”

“Which?”

Slowly, tentatively, Sherlock lifted his jaw, stretching his neck out long, baring it for John’s mouth.

Oh.

John tasted Sherlock’s pulse with his tongue. It sped the longer John ran the slick inside of his lips over the stubble in soft, gentle kisses. Sherlock drew breath faster and faster, and John’s heart thundered in his ears, but he couldn’t stop himself. He kissed a shaky line up to Sherlock’s jaw and down again, tasting the salt-chemical tang, smelling him, letting his moustache catch on the rough-smooth grit of stubble and skin, drowning in sensation. “I’ve always wondered what it was like to kiss someone with a moustache,” Sherlock murmured. His voice was thready and gentle, as if speaking with any force was beyond him. It very well might have been; for his part, John wasn’t sure he could even respond. He sucked in air and knew without a shadow of a doubt that if he kissed Sherlock on the mouth he wouldn’t be able to stop. This was bad enough. And he still wasn’t sure Mary wasn’t going to come looking for him.

The thought was like a dash of cold water. John stepped back and tried to breathe on his own, without the aid of Sherlock’s warmth and scent. It felt wrong. His blood raced through his veins, his skin was too tight for his body, and his groin was heavy with desire. The world tilted. John curled his hands into fists and dug his nails into his palms.

“John” said Sherlock.

“I need to go,” John said. He set his jaw and closed his eyes, then breathed deeply through his nose, finding his centre and replacing Sherlock’s scent with the wet, clean smell of the night air instead. He heard Sherlock spin and pace, and he felt the breeze from his coat. Then Sherlock stopped in front of him again.

“Yes. Right. Yes.” John opened his eyes as Sherlock noisily scrubbed his hands through his hair. “You need to go.”

“We have another date planned in a few days,” John said, and he suddenly felt nauseated at the thought of it.

“I see.”

“She’ll probably try again.”

“Likely.”

“You’re not invited.”

Sherlock gave him a sick smile, and they stared at each other for a moment. “Quite right, too.”

John took him all in, hungry for the sight of him. He licked his lips and it tasted like Sherlock’s skin. He shivered. “I’ll speak to you tomorrow?”

“You’re supposed to be angry with me.”

“Ah.” John had temporarily forgotten, swept up as he was in the gloriousness of Sherlock’s return. “Right.”

“The day after tomorrow, then.”

John allowed himself to smile. “Yes.”

After a moment of staring, Sherlock gave a sharp nod. He turned on his heel, then melted back into the alley next to John’s house. John took a moment by himself.

Right.

Yes.

Okay.

He’d thought it would be a relief, having Sherlock back to keep him grounded in reality while he played out this massive fiction, but at that moment he realised he’d been wrong the whole time: it was going to be infinitely worse.

He binned the rubbish and headed back inside to Mary.

Chapter Text

John trod up the stairs to 221B, carrier bags in both hands. For the solid month Sherlock had been home John had forced his presence on him, looking for a break in the fear and hope and frustration, and just as he had all those other times, he stopped at the door and knocked.

He knocked on the door to his own flat.

“Who is it?” came a familiar female voice.

“It’s John,” he heard Sherlock say.

“Oh!” There were footsteps toward the door, and it opened up on Janine, who gave him a bright grin. “I didn’t know he was coming over today. Come on in.”

“Erm. Thanks,” John said awkwardly, and he stepped inside. It was cleaner—much cleaner. There wasn’t much in the way of dust floating through the air, and it smelled of some detergent company’s idea of spring rain. The windows were cracked open and autumn light filtered in. It was good for Sherlock’s healing, sure, but it made the place feel foreign. Wrong. “I brought Sherlock some…” His voice trailed off when he saw the pots steaming on the cooker. “Ahh.”

“Oh, John, you shouldn’t have gone through the trouble. That was sweet, though. I’ll just bung this in the fridge and Sherlock can eat it later, okay?” She looked at across to where he was sat at the desk and raised her eyebrows. “You will eat this later?”

Sherlock waved the question aside and turned to look out the window.

“Sorry about him. He’s being a bit of a cranky bastard today…” Her voice rose at the last part. “I don’t know what crawled up his drawers, but I wish it'd crawl out.”

“Er. Erm.” John looked at the cleanliness of the kitchen. “How’s he, erm. Doing?”

“Fine, I suppose, but you know him. He wouldn’t say if he wasn’t, would he?” She quirked her mouth and dropped the containers of Chinese in the fridge.

“No.” John swallowed and stared down at the cleared table. Guilt and fear spiralled through his chest. For the millionth time, he wished he could have moved back in and been done with the whole Mary mess altogether. "I guess not."

“How’s Mary?”

John's stomach lurched. “Fine,” he said. “She’s, er. She’s fine.”

“And the baby?”

John felt very ill indeed. “Everything was fine, last ultrasound."

“That’s good.” She pottered around, stacking mugs in the sink and collecting her keys and phone from the table. “Well, I'll leave you to it. He'll be pleased to see you, I'm sure.”

“Yeah,” John said. “Right. Okay.” He straightened his shoulders. “Thanks, by the way.”

“You've got to stop saying that,” she said as she put on her coat.

“Yeah, but…”

“You wouldn’t understand, John, but…I’m glad to do it.”

What I still don't understand is why you're not furious with him, John wanted to say, but he didn’t. Instead he just watched her sling her bag over her shoulder.

She stopped with her hand on the doorknob. “Listen,” she said, and paused to compose her thoughts. “Thank you for…being patient.”

John didn’t know what to say to that. It would belittle the situation to say something as obvious as, ‘I never stopped’, and the idea that he would have was so insulting it made him furious, so instead he just gave her a sharp nod. He wanted her to leave.

Janine’s expression softened. Her eyes flicked to the sitting room before they returned to John. “Good luck,” she mouthed, and then she was gone.

“It’s almost as if she thinks I can’t hear her from ten feet away,” Sherlock said, and John squared his shoulders to meet the patient.

“She didn’t say anything.” John strolled into the living room as if it wasn’t awkward to be there—as if it wasn't always awkward, these days.

“She mouthed words to you before she left. Probably something insipid like—“ He described quotation marks in the air, and his face was brightly sarcastic. “—‘Good luck’ or ‘have fun’.” His moment of animation through, Sherlock’s batteries went flat and he glared out the window.

Once again, John went to sit in his chair but found he couldn’t. It was still missing. John wondered again whether Sherlock had thrown it out. “What the hell do you do when other people visit?” he asked with a familiar flash of anger, finally annoyed enough to ask.

“Hm?” Sherlock didn’t seem interested in answering the question.

With my chair gone. “Where do they sit?”

Sherlock deigned to pull his attention from whatever was outside so he could roll his eyes at John. Silently, he pointed to the desk, his chair, and to the space he was taking up on the sofa.

“Right.” John smoothed his hands down the front of his thighs and stood in the middle of the floor. “Of course. Why would you need any other seating. Ridiculous. I’m sorry I asked.”

Sherlock turned his head to stare at the back of the sofa. John supposed he was grateful that at least it was a quiet pout; the last time he was there Sherlock had relentlessly sawed away at the violin until John needed to leave or he’d have been in danger of breaking the damned thing.

"Mrs. Hudson has it."

"I beg your pardon?"

Sherlock heaved a sigh. "Mrs. Hudson has your chair."

This was…a development. "Oh." John didn't know how else to respond, but his stomach was roiling.

"I told her to get rid of it, but she refused. Might want it at your new place, she thought."

There were several options: yell, throw something at Sherlock's head, cry, or vomit all over him. John wasn't sure which seemed most likely, but they were all vying for dominance. "Oh."

Silence fell opaque, heavy, obscuring any connection between them until John felt Sherlock had at some point become a stranger.

He tried once more. "So. How's your wound today?"

Sherlock grunted. "Fine."

"Didn't lift anything?"

The only reaction that garnered was a grunt.

John's fist twitched closed. "You're still not going to let me help, are you."

"It doesn't seem likely, does it."

The feeling of loss, that something precious was being denied him, surged in his chest. He'd wanted to help, desperately, but that privilege wasn't his to claim. It was given instead to Mrs. Hudson, which John supposed was fine, but also to Janine, which was definitely not. Indignation rose like heartburn. "You know what," he said around the sensation of fire, "you're being a real brat."

"Imagine my surprise."

"Sherlock."

"You could just leave," he said, a paragon of reasonability.

"No." John snorted. "I really can't."

"I'm healing just fine."

"Yes, sure you are, but I'm also sure there are things that need doing."

Sherlock frowned and shook his head as if at a loss. He said with forced lightness, "No, I don't think so, no."

John stared at him, so far beyond desperation, beyond sadness, that he couldn't feel anything but anger. Anger was easy. "So I'm still just meant to leave you alone. And if you need something I'm to…what? Wait until Mrs. Hudson or Janine are back? Or even better, let you redo some damage doing it yourself?"

With a huff, Sherlock turned his head to scowl at him. It was the first time he'd looked at John the entire time he'd been there. "What do you imagine I'm doing in this scenario, John? Replacing all the light bulbs in the flat? Scrubbing the floors?"

"I'm just saying that I want to—"

"You want to be needed, and you're not needed, John. So please. Just go."

The brittle lead on John's patience snapped. "Why are you doing this?"

"I'm not doing anything. Surely that's the point to this damned recuperative—"

"Why are you constantly trying to push me away?"

"Go home, John. I need to take a nap."

"Sherlock."

"Go." Sherlock gingerly rolled over to face the back of the sofa, dismissing John from the conversation and from the room. For several minutes, John stared at the narrow angle of his shoulders. He looked so small. Smaller than he ever had been before.

An image flashed up in John's mind of what things could have been like: making meals for Sherlock, ignoring good-natured grumbles until he ate, helping him dress, helping him wash his hair. Kissing his palm, his arm, his shoulder as he lay in bed. Spooning up behind him as he fell asleep.

And this is what he got instead. No picture of loving recuperation, no help, but rancorous visits that had petered out to three times a week because John didn't have the fortification for more. Fighting every time. And a sense of loss that was only highlighted by how helpless John felt, by how much he was being denied.

Fear stabbed at him as he stared at Sherlock’s back, and he couldn't bring himself to say anything. He was afraid what his voice would sound like if he did.

John turned off the flame under the pots in the kitchen and left Sherlock to nap in peace.


He and Sherlock were running down one aisle then the next, chasing after a criminal. All three of them sprinted full-pelt on the polished lino floors, the vibrations of his shoes sending chills up John’s calves.

John reached the front of the store and squeezed into the queue. A tinny instrumental version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” blasted over the intercom as Sherlock ate a Lion Bar and John stood quietly, trying desperately to blend in. He could feel the steady approach of the criminal behind them. At any moment, surely they’d be discovered.

Sherlock leaned forward to whisper into his ear. ”He sees you.”

A man in back of them made a disgusted noise, and a little boy in the waiting crowd stopped playing with a toy horse to point at them.

"Mummy, are they married?"

She stared at John. "What gives you the right?"

"I'm just touching his back," said John, stroking his hand down Sherlock’s spine.

"Don’t make people see that."

John peered at the reflection in the shiny chrome surface of the register and saw the criminal behind them; he was young, but a plastic sort of youth. He looked rather like a ventriloquist’s dummy. As John watched, the face twisted from placidity into a monstrous sneer, all sharpened teeth and red eyes. He locked John’s gaze and stared. Being spied shocked John’s stomach down to his shoes and, heart racing, he burst away from the queue and into the blinding daylight outside the store.

"Sherlock," John panted at Sherlock’s back as he pulled farther and farther forward. He held onto the tails of Sherlock’s coat as they ran. "Wait for me."

His grip slipped. The wool between his fingers was damp and squeaky as he fought to keep contact. Sherlock went faster and faster, and John's breath burned like shelling fire in his throat. Failure crept up the back of his neck.

There were suddenly behind the walls in the theatre, curtains hemming them in on both sides. The air was heavy with dust and hush. Everything held its breath, waiting.

Sherlock spidered up the ladder on the wall, all stick-like arms and legs moving in a blur, and John had no choice but to follow. He bound up the first rung, but the air immediately became tar. His limbs felt like lead, and each attempt at movement was a battle he lost. First John wrenched an arm, then a leg, but he felt gravity plucking at his muscles. He was going so, so slowly. Fear pricked the back of his neck again, and he felt their pursuer flying behind them, a hovering plastic doll getting closer and closer. Carrion breath hit between his shoulder blades like a target. And John's climb wasn't becoming any easier.

Sherlock's voice called down from the darkness above them. "Come on, John!"

John struggled to breathe. "I'm com—"

When John awoke, he was on his side with Mary fitted up behind him, breathing softly against his skin. He willed his heart rate down.

The girl ringing up their groceries at the shop today had smiled at Mary and him and said they were a cute couple. He didn't respond, 'Why, because she's an assassin and I daydream about sucking my best friend's cock?' but he very, very much wanted to.

The dichotomy was chafing. There was a time he would have wanted this: a woman in his bed, domesticity, shopping together, a wedding ring. Working at the same clinic and having shared reference when something ridiculous went down. Possessing a similar pragmatism and forthrightness and darkness of humour. But it felt spectacularly hollow, not only because it was a sham but because he had something rich against which to compare it; life with Sherlock seemed miles away, both in the past and into the future, and the feel of it was something John ached for every moment.

Throughout John's life, time had been divided into discrete chunks marked by a certain feeling, like a coloured filter over a lens. His time in med school sat one way in his head, and his time in Afghanistan felt like another. In school, sixth form felt wildly different to fifth form. He remembered remarking on it to someone—that everything felt weird and strange—but they looked at him as if he'd grown a third head. He'd decided it was a very subjective sensation.

When he compared his life now with his life lived with Sherlock, everything felt so painfully foreign that he longed for that comfort and familiarity. He couldn't go back in time, but he prayed that someday in future he could live once again in a place that felt similar: warm as a freshly-drawn bath, soft and perfect, refreshing, soothing, a great relief from his time here in the parched desert.

As he waited for his once-and-future bliss, however, he wished Sherlock would stop being so goddamn horrible. He needed an oasis, and Sherlock was denying him relief.

Chapter Text

The reek of petrochemicals sawed at the inside of John's sinuses even after he'd been pulled from the bonfire. Likely they had soaked into his jacket; it was going to be a complete write-off. Shame. He'd liked that jacket. He'd bought it when—

"John," Sherlock said again, bending down to stare into his face. "What did you see?"

John shook his head, and the world rocked with him. "Didn't."

"You're sure?"

Through the pounding in his head, vague images arose. "Beard. Dark. Dark hair, dark…clothes. Guy bumped into me."

"Where."

Sherlock's intensity was a laser cutting through the fog, burning into John's brain. It hurt. "Home—" He scowled. No. "Baker Street. In front of Baker Street."

A line formed in Sherlock's brow for a moment before it cleared. "Bumped into you."

"And then…" John felt a deranged giggle bubble up. "I felt a prick. A little prick." He couldn't quash it, and he giggled into Sherlock's face.

"John…" he heard Mary say beside him.

"John, I need to you focus," Sherlock said, and shifted his hand. John realised the heavy weight on his shoulder had been Sherlock's hand. It felt…nice. "They were wearing dark clothing. What sort of dark clothing?"

"Base—baseball. Cap." John's head was throbbing down into his neck, now.

"Casual."

"Mm." He was very thirsty. "Thirsty."

"Mary, could you fetch him some water, please?"

"I'm not going to leave—"

"Water," Sherlock barked.

In the corner of his eye, John saw her waver, then felt a hand squeeze his upper arm. "I'll be right back, love," she said, and her voice was soothingly soft and cool.

Then she was gone, and Sherlock bent down to touch John's face. "You're all right, John," he said, and his voice was warm. Rich. Brown. Chocolate. Or perhaps like a blanket. A blanket I could wrap myself in, he thought with half a woozy smile.

"John?" Sherlock said, concerned. He took John by the chin to examine his eyes in the light of the bonfire.

"Bait," he said. "Again."

A hint of amusement touched the corner of Sherlock's mouth. "There does seem to be a pattern, doesn't there."

"Drugged up. Tied up."

"Or in this case—"

"Lodged like a hedgehog in the woodpile."

"I thought it was supposed to be elephants with us, not hedgehogs." Sherlock's expression was fond, a calm centre in spite of the chaos going on round them.

"Not in the woodpile, no."

"No." Sherlock laughed a dry chuckle and stood, looking over his shoulder and out over the crowd. "I guess not."

A wave of…not nausea, exactly, but something else sloshed John's brain and stomach sideways for a few seconds before running off again like seawater. He wanted a drink of cool water, and a shower, and his pyjamas, and bed. He wanted to curl up next to Sherlock and bury his face in his hair—no woodsmoke, no burning chemicals—just familiarity and shampoo and softness against his lips.

The craving was so strong John had to close his eyes.

"Do you want them to take you to A&E?"

"Huh?" There was crew coming up behind Sherlock, solicitous looks on their blurry faces, jaws set. "No," John waved them off. He sucked in a breath, but the fumes from the burning were still sharp. They felt oleaginous in the back of his throat. "No, m'fine. Just need some air."

"What did they drug you with?"

John shook his head vaguely.

Sherlock tried to tug him toward the ambulance. "Come. Let's find out—"

The urge to lean on Sherlock weakened John's joints. He wanted to sink down against Sherlock's body and rest. "M'fine." John heard himself slur, and pushed himself straighter. It took a bit of effort to extricate himself from Sherlock's grip. "M'fine."

"You're not—"

"Just need air." He pushed Sherlock off again. "Let me have some air."

Even drugged, danger broached John's awareness. He wanted to hang on Sherlock—wanted it almost as much as he wanted fresh air—and that was why he needed Sherlock to leave him alone. Right now.

"John—"

He heard rustling beside him, and the sound of Mary's heavy breathing as she ran back up to them.

"M-Mary," John said, and reached out into her direction. "Mary, I need…" He swallowed. He needed comfort, and to know he was alive and safe, and he needed not to be tempted by Sherlock's presence right now. "I need to walk." He needed a lot of things, but there weren't a lot of things he needed that he was going to get.

She pressed a water cool bottle into his hand. He pushed the thing hard into the back of his neck. "You're sure?"

"Walk." He took a few stumbling, straight-legged strides away from the fire.

"John—" Sherlock said again. John didn't want to look at him. "Are you sure…"

"I'll be fine, Sherlock." John set his jaw as Mary slipped an arm about his waist. She wasn't Sherlock, and she wasn't safe, but she was safer than Sherlock at the moment. Lord knows how he'd betray them before the drug had cleared his system.

"Have some water," she said. "After we walk I want to check your pupils."

"I'm fine."

"I'm going to check your pupils," she said, in a tone that would brook no argument whatsoever even if he'd had the energy or the focus to do it. Even if his head hadn't felt like two forces were fighting World War Three inside it.

Perhaps it might be a good idea to be checked out.

"Fine," he gritted out. The further they got from the bonfire, the better he felt. Sherlock was staring a hole into the back of them, he knew, but he was committed to the retreat. He would see it through.

Despite the threat. Despite his longing for Sherlock. Despite the danger from Mary. He would see it all through.

Just as soon as he stopped feeling like he was going to vomit.

Chapter Text

They were doing another Sherlock-minding hand-off that afternoon. Janine gave him a tea when he got there, and they lingered in the kitchen as usual while she got ready to leave.

“You’re, er. You’re looking…well,” he said, casting about for a topic. He was trying to like her, and after more than two months of this shit he thought it might finally be beginning to stick.

“You mean I don’t look like I’ve just gone ten rounds with a lanky badger?” She smirked. “No, he's being surprisingly fine today.”

John looked over her shoulder. “No, I didn’t mean that. I meant…”

“Oh John, stop. Really. You’re embarrassing yourself.”

He played with the tag from the teabag. “So, erm.”

“So I bought a house.”

A welter of emotions swirled in John’s chest. “A house?”

“On the Sussex Downs. It’s lovely. Former owners kept bees, but that’s no trouble. I can have the hives taken out. Plan to.”

John remembered a journey he and Sherlock once took to Brighton for a case, and the bees that had gathered round Sherlock’s melted ice cream. He recalled Sherlock’s hands as he brushed them away—gentle, long-fingered—and John’s stomach churned. “Oh.”

“I’ll have you two visit when it’s all cleared.”

“No, no, that’s…” John imagined visiting, and every molecule in his body recoiled.

“Nah, just joking.” She laughed. “That would be awkward, wouldn’t it?”

“Well.” Sheepishly, helplessly, he smiled. “A bit.”

“Best keep business and pleasure separate.”

It was a blow. “This is all business to you?” His hackles rose.

“John, don’t be like that. That was another joke.”

John stalled for time by dumping out the teabag. He had no idea what to say. If Sherlock had entered into a relationship with him under false pretences, he’d have been furious. But here she was several times a week, having a more-than-equal presence in Sherlock's life to John. “You don’t seem very broken up about…you know.”

Her smile hadn’t dimmed, but she did raise an eyebrow as she put on her coat. “Why should I be? I did get quite a lot out of it.”

“Such as?”

She stopped and took a breath as she stared into the middle distance, choosing her words and hiking her purse over her shoulder. “Money. Fame. And it was a very pleasant lie.” Janine pinned John with a smirk. “He is hot.”

John gulped his tea. It burned going down. “But he’s…he's an arsehole.”

Janine cracked up. “True. But that’s not a deal-breaker, John. Hell, you stick around.”

“It’s different.”

“What, you’re the only one who gets him?” She made a rude noise. “I think you’d be surprised how transparent he can be.”

“Sure, with some things, but…”

“With the things that count.”

John frowned at her as she flashed him a crooked smile and trotted down the stairs. What the hell was she saying? He thought about running after her, but before he could make a decision the front door slammed shut. He blew out a breath and composed himself, then pushed into the lounge.

“Blanket,” grumbled Sherlock, stretched out on the sofa, still mostly asleep.

He sipped his drink. For a brief moment John considered asking Sherlock for details of his relationship with Janine, but kept his teeth together. He suspected he might not want the answers.

Sherlock started to snore gently. Affection clutched at John’s chest, and he closed his eyes against the ache of it.

But… In what way did Janine know the real Sherlock? Had she gotten to hear him breathe as he slept? Unguarded? Serene? Shagged out? With great effort, John swallowed. Had she got to see him naked and open, soft, hard and wanting, vulnerable? John could still smell her perfume, and jealousy made his stomach roil. It wasn’t okay. They weren’t okay.

John was afraid they’d never be okay again.

Next to him, Sherlock made a quiet snuffling noise and shifted. “Cold. I need another blanket, John.”

John nearly pretended he wasn't in the room, but the pain of love stoppered the words in his throat. He went for the closet. “Just a moment,” he said. "I've got you."


Another month passed.

John showed up at the flat just as Lady Smallwood was leaving.

"Yes, yes, I'm sorry to hear about your husband, but there's nothing you can do," Sherlock said from his perch on the rolling chair at the top of the stairs. "Go home."

"But you're not saying there's nothing you can do," she said, narrowing her eyes.

Sherlock made an equivocating hand movement.

The corner of her mouth turned up. She looked decidedly evil. "I'm going back home, Mr. Holmes. As you've suggested."

"Congratulations," said Sherlock.

She gave John a once-over. "Dr. Watson," she said, and disappeared down the stairs.

John plodded up toward Sherlock. "Is this about…"

"She wants to take revenge," Sherlock said, and launched himself backward in the rolling office chair. He came to rest in the middle of the sitting room and paddled his way to the desk.

John raised an eyebrow at him. "Surely that's more strenuous than the walking you're meant to be doing."

Sherlock completely blew that off to pick up his violin and pluck at it. "What are you doing here?”

"The same thing I was doing the last fifty times, Sherlock."

He rolled his eyes and settled onto the sofa.

"I'm fine."

"Are you taking cases?"

Sherlock heaved a sigh. "Only if I can solve them from here. I'm not a complete moron."

Which was laughable. "Excuse me, but you haven't exactly been careful about your health in the past."

"This is different."

"Oh, is it?"

Sherlock pinned him with a look. "I was shot, John."

"Oh, that's good. Good. I'm glad you noticed." John pushed off the sofa and went to make tea. The sound of Sherlock's tuning followed him into the kitchen.

When John came back with two steaming cups, he set one down for Sherlock on the coffee table and settled back at the desk with his own. He interrupted whatever Sherlock was playing. "Tell me about the cases."

"Nothing worth discussing," Sherlock said, continuing to play.

John peered at him. "You're bored, aren't you."

He snorted. "Extremely."

John didn't know what to say to that, since by all rights Sherlock should be bored. His idea of activity rarely encompassed anything within parameters recommended for healing, and if he wasn't bored to tears John worried what that meant for his level of strenuous behaviour. This was the most dangerous time of the healing process, at least if your patient was Sherlock Holmes; he had the energy, and might feel fine, but internally his state was less than 100%. He wasn't ready for full capacity yet. John hoped that even when he wasn't present to monitor him Sherlock remembered that.

John selected a newspaper from the coffee table. "Tell me about the Pratt case."

Sherlock stopped playing and stared. "How did you know I was looking into that?"

"You've got three papers here, all turned to articles about it." John shrugged. "It wasn't a difficult—"

"It's coming along," Sherlock said, showing more interest in John than he had since the shooting. He continued to stare, an intense light in his eye. "I'm having some research delivered here this afternoon."

"Homeless network?"

"Not inexpensive, but it's easier than putting up with all of you whinging at me if I so much as move."

It was meant as a dig, John was sure, but he couldn't find it in himself to be that upset about it. Instead, he revelled in the glow of Sherlock's attention. He'd missed it. A warm sense of pleasure spread through him. "Pardon me if I don't assume you're following the path of least resistance."

The smallest of smiles quirked the corner of Sherlock's mouth before he looked down at the papers, and John felt them take a step closer to fine. "What…" Sherlock looked at him, shyly calculating, and licked his lips. "What would you say if I asked you to search something out for me?"

A thrill passed through John's chest. "Yeah. Er, yeah, of course." He scooted to the edge of his seat and leaned forward. "What can I do?"

Sherlock threw one of the papers to John. "I need you to go to Pratt's house. I know there are things the papers aren't reporting, and they're obviously not going to speak directly to any of my network, but you…I think they'll speak to you."

"Yeah, definitely." John tried not to look as eager as he was. He stood. "Right now?"

Sherlock looked at his phone. "In a few hours. They won't be there right now."

"Oh. Right." John sat again and looked round at the room, at a loss. "So, er… What should I do in the meantime?"

Sherlock shuffled the papers back to front, taking a long time to do so for only three being of them. "I could… I'm actually a bit hungry, as it turns out. I don't suppose…"

John dug his fingertips into his knee in lieu of jumping to his feet or making some embarrassing noise of jubilation, but his chest was an expanding riot of emotion. "Yeah, right. We should, er. We should take care of that."

"Curry?" Sherlock said, and he his gaze flicked up under a messy lock of hair.

John almost couldn't breathe for the relief of it. "Absolutely," he said.


The Pratts were a foster family under investigation for fraud. They swore up and down they were innocent of all charges, but the authorities were tearing through their lives anyway.

"Can't be seen to be soft on this sort of benefits fraud," said Sherlock through a mouthful of biryani. As far as John could tell, he'd been grazing through the leftovers the entire time John had been at the Pratts’. He would have been put out that there wasn't going to be much left for him, but he was more pleased that Sherlock was eating at all. "Not in this political climate."

"So what's the next step? They didn't seem particularly hopeful that you could do anything. I mean, truthfully, this isn't the sort of thing you're known for, benefits fraud."

"Simple," Sherlock said, tossing the empty container aside and grabbing a papadum. "We wait to see what the auditors turn up, and when they do, we find out if it's valid or if it's a smokescreen to cover up something else."

"A smokescreen?" John said dubiously.

Sherlock gestured with the food. "Obviously. Either they've done something wrong, or they haven't. And if they haven't, there must be some other reason the authorities are going after them."

"Let me guess. You suspect there's some other reason."

Sherlock gave John a puckish look before crunching down.

John snorted and grabbed the container of rice to scavenge the last forkfuls for himself. "So you're saying we're just supposed to…wait."

"Yes."

"As in…'hang out'."

Sherlock stretched himself along the sofa, taking ownership of all its space, and rested one hand on his distended stomach. "Problem?"

John blinked into the middle distance. "Er, no. Not at…" He cleared his throat. "Not at all." He didn’t understand why, and why now, but if Sherlock was inclined to let down his barriers John was not going to look that particular gift horse in the mouth.

"Antiques Road Trip is on," Sherlock said. "If you would?"

John wanted to blink some more, but instead he turned on the television and settled back into the seat. It was shatteringly domestic, sitting there at the desk with the warm smell of curry filling the flat and Sherlock nursing an incipient food coma on the sofa. He allowed himself a flutter of happiness as he scraped the fork across the bottom, the grating sound of telly far more comforting than it ever had been before.

It was more at home than John had felt in years.

Chapter Text

John barrelled up the stairs of 221 and nearly smacked full-tilt into a greying couple with cheerful eyes and comfortable clothes.

"Oh! Sorry," he said distractedly, eager to see Sherlock.

They sized him up, and the corner of the woman's mouth quirked in a way that tugged at the back of John's mind. "Not to worry," she said, and the two of them were down the stairs and gone before another second had passed. He pushed into the sitting room to find Sherlock struggling up from a sprawl over his chair, violin clutched in one hand and bow nowhere to be seen.

"Where have you been? You haven't answered my texts," Sherlock said.

"I answered a few."

"You answered one."

"Mary's been a bit…present, lately."

Sherlock had managed to gain his feet, and he pressed into John's personal space. His eyes flicked over every inch of him, from his hair to his belt to his shoes. "How are you feeling?"

"Yeah, not bad. A bit…smoked."

"Right." A hint of smile teased at the corner of his mouth, and then was gone. And suddenly John know—he knew why the woman's expression had seemed familiar.

He pointed toward the door. "That was… Wait, that was…"

"My parents, yes."

"Your parents." John hurried to the window to stare out after them, but they were gone.

"Yes."

"Your parents."

"In town for a few days."

"Those were your parents. Who I just ran into. On the stair."

"Mycroft promised to take them to a matinee of 'Les Mis'. Tried to talk me into doing it."

"That's not what I…" John continued to search out the window, but they really were nowhere to be seen. "That's not what I…"

"What?"

John turned to look at Sherlock, then back out the window. "I mean, they're just so…" He scrubbed a hand over his mouth and turned to Sherlock again. "Ordinary." A laugh pressed up into his throat.

"It's a cross I have to bear."

"I'm sure."

"I see you shaved it off, then," Sherlock said, changing the subject.

"Yes."

"Pity."

John raised an eyebrow. "Oh really?"

"No." There was that twist to his mouth again. Knowing it was an inherited trait somehow made it more dear. It also explained its similarity to one of Mycroft's expressions. Perhaps all the Holmeses had that same sort of dry, acerbic humour. Their household, while the boys were growing up, must have been a horror show.

"I didn't think so."

"I prefer my doctors clean-shaven."

"Doctors, plural? What, do you have a collection?"

"Hardly." Sherlock stepped into John's personal space again. "I seem to be having enough trouble with only one." He inhaled John's hair. "You smell of fuel."

"I did say."

"Mm." Sherlock smelled him once more, then stepped back and cleared his throat. "So. Yes. No other…lasting effects?"

"Besides the odour?"

"Nightmares?"

John looked up into Sherlock's eyes, surprised. "No. No nightmares."

"Good. That's good. I'm…" Sherlock cleared his throat. "I'm glad."

"So am I."

They gazed at each other in silence, the depth of which expanded in John's chest for several long seconds before Sherlock broke eye contact and went to prod at his laptop with one long forefinger. John's heart continued to pound. He opened his mouth to say something—about the kidnapping, about his relief, anything—but before he could find the words Sherlock spoke.

"You said something about Mary being overly present."

”Er, yeah. Yeah, she seemed…concerned."

"Concerned."

"Worried."

"That's…" Sherlock's brow furrowed. "Worried? Why would she be worried?"

"Why would she have brought you to me?"

"I've been wondering the same thing." Sherlock strode to his chair and swept into it. "What is her plan?"

"Set me up to be roasted, and then have you rescue me?"

"But why now? She’s had ample opportunity.”

“Because you’re back?”

Sherlock scowled, considered it, then shook that away. “No.”

“So you’re not worried?”

“I can’t afford to be worried. I need to think.”

John decided to be flattered Sherlock continued to trust him to take care of himself, rather than offended that Sherlock didn’t seem more concerned about his continued welfare.

“What if…” Sherlock drew out the thought. “What if she wasn't the one who did it?"

"You mean, what if she genuinely wanted me found?"

"What if she didn't set up the bonfire round you—hard to do, all by herself—but instead, someone else did it?"

John leant on the back of his chair. "You think there's someone else, here. Another player."

"I think it's a possibility, yes."

"Who? What about the guy she visits in Kensington. What's his name…John Hardy? Maybe him?"

"Possible."

"You said that was a burner identity."

"All the more likely he's involved."

"Terrorism?"

"I don’t know. I can’t see the pattern. It’s too nebulous."

"Reminds me of Moriarty."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"Isn't having her tailed everywhere costing a fortune?"

Sherlock dusted that away with a flap of his hand "Ask Mycroft." He turned toward the spread of clippings pinned to the wall over the sofa. "The question is, why would an agent give his life to tell us something incredibly insignificant? That’s what’s strange."

"Give his life?"

"According to Mycroft. There’s an underground network planning an attack on London. That’s all we know." Sherlock gestured to the wall. "These are my rats, John."

"Rats."

"My markers. Agents, low-lifes, people who might find themselves arrested or their diplomatic immunity suddenly rescinded. If one of them starts acting suspiciously, we know something’s up. Five of them are behaving perfectly normally, but the sixth…”

John peered at the photo. "I know him, don’t I?"

"Lord Moran, peer of the realm, Minister for Overseas Development. Pillar of the establishment."

For a moment, the world tilted, then it righted itself again. "Moran."

"Yes."

"Moran. That's a…common surname. Isn't it?"

Sherlock grunted.

"So they're not related."

"Not according to Mycroft, no."

"But you don't believe him."

"What have I said about coincidences, John?"

The universe isn't that lazy. "Yeah, but surely Mycroft would have—"

"In any event, this Moran has been working for North Korea since 1996. And he’s not only a rat, but the big one."

"Ah."

"Rat Number One,” he over-enunciated. “And he's just done something very suspicious indeed."


Sherlock showed John a video in which Lord Moran boarded the Tube at Westminster and vanished.

"Odd,” said John. ”There's nowhere he could have got off?"

"Not according to the maps."

"Hm."

"There’s something. Something, something I’m missing. Something staring me in the face."

Sherlock's phone beeped, and he fished it out of his pocket.

"Case?"

"Mycroft."

John sat down at the computer and began to poke around aimlessly, hoping for inspiration. "I don't suppose he could tell you more about that underground network. He must have a list of the more obvious ones."

"Our rat's just come out of his den."

"Do rats have dens?" John muttered to the screen.

Sherlock didn't appear to have heard him. Instead he scrolled through whatever Mycroft had sent him, when suddenly his breathing changed. "Ohhh."

John hated when he made that noise. It set every nerve alight. "What?" he said irritably.

"YES. Yes. Yes, yes, YES."

Though that might be even more arousing. "Sherlock."

"I've been an idiot. A blind idiot."

"What? What are you on about?"

"Underground." Sherlock's face was incandescent. He pulled John out of his seat, and for one horrifying moment, John was washed with a mix of fear and excitement, thinking Sherlock might kiss him. It was a tempting thought. "Mycroft’s intelligence. It’s not nebulous at all. It’s specific. Incredibly specific."

John let himself lean closer. "What do you mean?" He watched Sherlock's mouth as he spoke.

"Not an underground network, John. It’s an Underground network."

"Right." He blinked, distracted. "What?"

"Sometimes a deception is so audacious, so outrageous that you can’t see it even when it’s staring you in the face." He played the video again. "Look. Seven carriages leave Westminster, but only six carriages arrive at St James’s Park."

"But that’s ... I ... it’s-it’s impossible."

"Moran didn’t disappear: the entire Tube compartment did. The driver must have diverted the train and then detached the last carriage."

"Detached it where? You said there was nothing between those stations."

"Not on the maps, but once you eliminate all the other factors, the only thing remaining must be the truth. That carriage vanished, so it must be somewhere."

"But why, though? Why detach it in the first place?"

"It vanishes between St James’s Park and Westminster. Lord Moran vanishes. Mary may or may not be related to him, but I do find it suspicious that someone tries to make a hedgehog of you…" Sherlock froze. "What’s the date, John? Today’s date?"

"Hmm? November the… My God."

Sherlock stalked toward the wall. "Lord Moran. He’s a peer of the realm. Normally he’d sit in the House. Tonight there’s an all-night sitting to vote on the new anti-terrorism bill." He stopped in front of the sofa. "But he won’t be there. Not tonight." Sherlock grinned. The lines of his face were wild. "Not the fifth of November."

"Remember, remember."

"Gunpowder Treason and Plot."

"That's it, then," John said, and he dragged in air. Though he should have been worried, he felt more exhilaration than anything else.

"That's it." Sherlock looked just as invigorated as John. "Ready to stop a modern-day Guy Fawkes?"

"Always."

"Could be dangerous." Electricity crackled between them and along John's skin.

"Looks like you're going to need me, then."

Sherlock bit his lip. His eyes shone. "More than you could possibly imagine."

"Then let's go. I've been waiting two years. If you think I'm letting you do this alone, you're an idiot."

"I don't know what we're going to find down there."

"Doesn't matter. Whatever it is, you'll suss it out."

"We will."

John's grin ached. "Absolutely."

Sherlock reached for his coat, and as he swirled it around his shoulders he intoned, sing-song. "November, November. The fifth of November…"

"…The Gunpowder Treason and plot." Euphoria bubbled up in John's chest and tightened his throat.

Sherlock caught his smile, then led him out the door. They chanted the last line together, trooping out the door like two schoolboys embarking on a hunt.

"I see of no reason why Gunpowder Treason should ever be forgot."

Chapter Text

John called for his last patient. When the door opened, his stomach turned to ice.

One of Magnussen's goons scanned the room while the man himself strolled in as if he owned the place—which, considering his net worth and the money chain, he very well might.

John settled his face into an expression of boredom. "Well. This is a surprise. Here for a bladder infection?"

Magnussen ignored the salvo and began stroking the plastic heart on the worktop. John curled his fingers into a ball to stop himself grabbing it out of his hands. "Anger doesn't become you, Dr. Watson. When did you last speak with Sherlock Holmes?"

Fear stabbed John's gut. "Or you could have a kidney stone, perhaps."

"Considering your…relationship, I would have expected you to be in touch on a regular basis."

That brought John up short. "I beg your pardon?"

"Come come, Dr. Watson. We have no secrets between us."

"No, seriously. I beg your pardon?"

"I am fully aware that you and Sherlock Holmes have an understanding between you. 'An understanding.' Funny sort of phrase, isn't it? Let us put it this way: I would like you to precisely understand the position you're in."

"And what position is that, exactly?" If John had thought his stomach was icy before, it was frozen solid now.

"Keep Sherlock Holmes in line, Dr. Watson. I would like him to stop tearing through my affairs like a badly-behaved weasel, and you need your relationship to stay secret. Do we have an understanding between us?"

John firmed his jaw, though inside his heart was battering his ribs. He could feel his pulse in his throat. "Clearly your intelligence is wrong."

"I doubt that sincerely."

"I can't be held responsible for your lack of imagination," John said, echoing Sherlock from months ago. "We don't exactly talk these days."

Magnussen raised an eyebrow. "From what I've learned, you don't need to talk to communicate."

The ice flipped immediately to fire. "What is that supposed to mean?"

Magnussen headed for the door. "Control your boyfriend, Dr. Watson," he said over his shoulder. The goon, who until then had been standing quietly at the side of the room, held the door open for him. "Or I might have to drop in on lovely Mary."

"If this is the sort of intelligence you've got, I have no idea how you…can…have…" Got this far, John wanted to say, but the door had shut between them and he was so wrong-footed he didn't think to follow Magnussen out to the waiting area until it was too late.

What the fuck had just happened? As far as John know the only case Sherlock was working on was for the Pratts, and the likelihood of that being related to Magnussen seemed…slim, to be honest. But if Magnussen was getting nervous enough to flash round his advantage like a badge, Sherlock was clearly doing something to force it, and John needed to know what.

And the only way John was going to figure out what was to trundle over to the flat and press him for information—no matter his mood. It was a 50/50 chance these days whether Sherlock was going to be spoiling for a fight or docile as an overstuffed armchair, but a potential row was a small thing compared with the idea of Mary finding out that he and Sherlock had something simmering on the back burner, or—even worse—sussing out that he and Sherlock knew her identity. They might still be in the dark as to her plan, but John was sure that if she knew her cover was blown it would spell trouble.


When John got to 221b, Sherlock was playing the violin.

This, in itself, wasn’t a particularly rare event. What was rare, however, was the emotion with which Sherlock was playing: instead of the usual scratchings and noodlings up and down the neck, soaring between one register and the next like a particularly excitable honeybee, Sherlock was playing something…plaintive, for lack of a better word. John's heart clenched a moment before he stepped up the stairs. Sidetracked by the music he hadn’t even thought to skip the noisy fourth step from the top, and when he moved the squeak halted the song in its tracks. As he finished climbing the staircase Sherlock moved from his position near the window to pace about the room and play something Wagnerian instead.

Wondering just what he'd interrupted, John walked in and began without preface. "We've got a problem."

"And when do we not?"

"This is different."

"Oh?" Sherlock hadn't stopped playing.

"Magnussen came to see me at the clinic."

That seemed to slow him down. "Did he."

"He didn't piss in any of the corners, much to my surprise, but he did have something to say I think you might be interested in."

Sherlock sighed, violin still at his chin. Bored already. "Did he."

John didn’t have much patience for the attitude. "Magnussen…Magnussen knows. About…us."

"Us?" Sherlock creased his forehead.

"Yes—Yes, us,, you idiot. You and me. Kissing." John seemed to have stumbled into a children's rhyme and he tried to sidestep past it. "Magnussen knows, and he's threatening to tell Mary."

"Magnussen knows about us."

"He called you my boyfriend."

Sherlock, at last, spun. "Boyfriend."

"And he's threatened to tell Mary unless you stop looking into his business. I thought you were only—"

"Boyfriend?!"

"If Mary finds out, isn't she—"

"Boyfriend. Clearly he just wants to infantilise it. I don't think—"

"You need to stop fixating on that word. Now."

Sherlock looked at him. "So if I don't stop looking into his affairs…"

"Yeah. What is he talking about? What are you working on? I thought the Pratt case—"

"The Pratt case is a shining tip of a very large iceberg, John."

"An iceberg."

"Magnussen has his fingers in many pies, remember."

"I remember, but what does the Pratt case—"

"The Pratts have become the unfortunate scapegoats in one of Magnussen's most recent pies. You found no evidence that Bill Pratt was skimming because Pratt hadn't been skimming. Magnussen had."

"That seems pretty small—"

"It's part of the bookkeeping procedure at any number of Magnussen's properties. It may only look small to you because you're only looking at one business. When combined with the hundreds of similar ventures, that's quite a hefty chunk of change."

"So what are we going to—"

"I'm thinking," Sherlock cut him off once more. John wondered if he was going to get to finish a sentence ever again. "As of yesterday I still had no plan, but maybe…" Sherlock painted wide circles with his bow as he searched for a way to finish that sentence. "…today's the day."

"No, Sherlock, today's—" John cut himself off this time, and stepped closer to Sherlock in order to make his point, narrowly avoiding being speared by the bow. "Today's not the day. We have to stop."

"Do we."

"Yes. Of course we do."

"That's not what I take away from his threat."

"Oh?" John crossed his arms. "Do tell. Please. Go right on ahead. Dazzle me. Because it seems obvious there's a straight line from 'investigate the Pratts' to 'Mary finds out we know about her and escalates her plan'—whatever her fucking plan is—and I know it isn't good. Hell, Magnussen knows it isn't good, or he wouldn't have thought it a very good bargaining chip."

Sherlock moved in closer. "If we don't do something about him, Magnussen's power is only going to get worse. We have to find a way, John. Some chink in his armour."

"And what if he doesn't have one? Has that even crossed your mind? That Magnussen could be completely bulletproof in this?"

"Of course not," Sherlock scoffed meanly. "No one's bulletproof."

So say we all. "You haven't found a way in yet, and you've been looking for, what? Months? Since before the shooting. Since the drugs den at least. It's been months, and you haven't found a damn thing."

That seemed to shut Sherlock up. He stared at John, colour high in his cheeks. His gaze flicked down to John's mouth, then he licked his lips and leaned in for a kiss. It was the last in a long series of last straws. John's temper shattered.

"Excuse me?" John stepped back. "What do you think you're doing?"

"I thought that would be obvious."

"We're— What about— It's more important that—" John spluttered. "Excuse me?!" he settled on again.

Sherlock's expression shuttered and he moved even further back. "I see."

"No, Sherlock. No you don't." John advanced. "You don't get to kiss me right now. You don't get to. Ever since you were shot you've been a dick. A gold-plated, opiate-flavoured dick. I was only trying to help, but instead goddamn Janine gets to be here, Janine of all people, and I just— Do you know what that was like for me? Being replaced? I was supposed to be here, and instead—"

"Do I know what it's like?" Sherlock's expression twisted. "Do I know what it's like? Being supplanted? Having someone else in my place? No. No I don’t. Please tell me."

John imagined how nice it would be to have his hands wrapped around that goddamn throat of his and to squeeze until all the manipulating bastard oozed out. “Oh, we're going to do this now, hm? Hm? The Mary thing was your idea, Sherlock. Your idea."

"No, that was Mycroft."

"When she wanted to marry me, you told me to say yes."

"That doesn't mean I enjoyed it."

"So Janine was payback."

"No, Janine was a way to get inside Magnussen's—"

"Yeah, Magnussen's offices, yeah, you've said. And you, as always, without any regard for people's emotions, exploited her. Maybe you and Mary are a bit alike after all, hm?"

"I didn't exploit Janine, you moron. She knew."

"No, I distinctly remember you telling me the relationship was a sham for the papers. For Magnussen. What did you call it? Misdirection."

"It was misdirection."

John held out his hand, palm up, and said nothing.

But Sherlock only looked more angry and frustrated. "Oh, for fuck’s sake. Janine knew, John."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm trying to explain, but apparently your brain has trouble processing this: Janine understood completely what was going on."

"She did."

"It was practically her idea." Sherlock scowled. "She came to me because she wanted her own retribution against Magnussen and thought I'd be able to help her."

"So you're saying it was entirely her idea."

Sherlock waved that way. "What I'm trying to tell you is that Janine and I concocted the entire relationship. Staying over, the dates, the engagement."

"What about at the flat? Whose benefit was that for?"

"That doesn't matter. The point is you can't accuse me of 'exploiting' her—" Sherlock drew exaggerated quotes in the air. "—if she was the one who instigated the entire thing."

"Don't change the subject, Sherlock. Whose benefit was that for? Not Mycroft's. You told me Mycroft knew. For me, then? That whole…pantomime was for me? Why? What was that supposed to prove?"

"Janine didn't know who to trust."

John was rocked back. "Me? She didn't trust me?"

"Well, at that point she didn't know if…" Sherlock seemed to think better of finishing that sentence. "Never mind."

"No, Sherlock. She didn't know what?"

"No." Sherlock stalked across the room to the desk and threw himself into the chair. He opened up his laptop so hard John thought he might have snapped the hinge.

"Sherlock—"

"No."

"Sherlock, what didn't—"

He slammed the poor laptop shut and stood. "She didn't know if you'd give her away."

John felt the words like a gut-punch. He nearly left the flat right then and there. In fact, he took two steps toward the door before swinging around again and pushing up into Sherlock's face. "What, to Mary? Oh, fuck you. Fuck you both. I think I'd been doing a pretty goddamn good job of lying to Mary, for a long goddamn time, and the idea that I—"

"You got her pregnant, John."

"Not on purpose, you di—" John blinked at the spin the conversation had taken. "Not on purpose."

"Do you have any idea what that…" Sherlock swallowed and didn’t continue.

"What that what, Sherlock? How does that sentence end? Do I have any idea what that feels like? To see I've had sex with someone else? I had to stand there and watch Janine come out of your bedroom, wearing your shirt and nothing else. I had to hear you two in the bath."

"She was just sitting on the side, John. She didn't come in—"

"And Mary and I were careful."

"Not careful enough."

"No, apparently not." John struggled to breathe, the flames flickering behind his eyes making them burn. "Apparently not."

Sherlock paced away and scrubbed his hands through his hair. John watched him, trying to figure out what the hell they were going to do. Was this it? Had they finally broken past the point it all could be mended?

"Is that why…" John fought for the words. "Is that what happened at the hospital?"

For a moment he thought Sherlock was going to play dumb, but mercifully he didn't. John wasn't sure he wouldn't have given in to the desire to wrap his hands round his neck if he'd tried. "No."

"No."

"It was…tactical."

"Tactical?!"

"John." Sherlock stepped in close, pleading. "I was drugged."

"You're blaming what you said to me on the drugs."

"Not directly. But… John, opiates… They're dangerous."

"No shit."

"Oh, for crying out… No. I mean, I might have said things. It was dangerous to have you round me too much. I might have compromised our cover."

John's entire world froze, and his stomach with it. "Let me get this straight: you said those things—you were a raging arsehole to me—because you thought you might compromise our cover."

"Exactly."

"Sherlock." John formed words, but they wouldn't flow past the anger stoppering his throat. "Sherlock. You could have told me this at the start."

"I didn't know who might be listening."

"So it was preferable to drive me away for months."

"Yes."

"It was worth it?"

"In the long term. Yes."

"You are unbelievable."

"I don't think you're fully understanding. I'm saying I care about you too much to trust myself when my defences are…lowered."

"Oh, no, I got that."

"I'm not sure you do."

"You're saying you didn't back me up with Janine, and you didn't trust me enough to find a way to tell me why you were being an unremitting arsehole…"

"No, I'm saying I was not in my right mind."

"If you ask me, you haven't been in 'your right mind' since…" The penny dropped a few more inches into the machinery. "…I got married."

"Of course not." Sherlock stared at him as if he'd lost his mind. "How could you possibly think this was easy for me?"

"Because it was your idea—"

"I couldn't find any other option!" Sherlock again agitated his hair with both hands. "Do you honestly think that given any other choice I'd push you into the…bed of Moriarty's second?"

"I don't… No."

"I was gone, and I didn't have enough data to be able to find a different way, so I had to let you go. I didn’t know what her plan was, and I had to trust that you'd be okay. I trusted you, John. I may have been out of sorts since the wedding, but please don't let that diminish the fact that I pushed you to her knowing full well that it couldn't be the two of us together against her. I had to trust you to be safe. I believed you would be."

John stared at him and took a deep breath. Letting it out slowly barely helped settle him at all. "I wish you'd just told me what was going on."

"I didn't trust myself not to do something inappropriate."

The problem was, his reasoning was just a little bit sound, much as John hated to admit it. If the tables were turned, he wasn't sure he wouldn't have done the same thing. "Do you have…any…idea how much I wanted to be here to take care of you?"

Sherlock's expression was suddenly very open. "…Yes." Because I missed you, his eyes were saying, and John couldn't look away.

“The time was stolen from me, and I'll never get it back."

The corner of Sherlock's mouth curled. "I suspect the way our lives are going, there will still be a chance to take care of me when I've been hurt."

John huffed a laugh and looked away. "Shut up," he said, but Sherlock wasn't wrong.

“John.” He stepped up close and ducked his head down as if trying to surround John from a foot away. When he spoke, it tickled the hair at John’s temple. “I wanted you here.”

“Did you.”

“Very, very much.”

“You really couldn’t have said.”

“No.”

“You really are a bastard, you know that?”

Sherlock huffed a laugh. “So I'm told.”

They were standing so close now that it took less effort to release the tether on his self-control than to fight it. Like letting go of a balloon to watch it float up into the sky, before he knew it John had wrapped himself round Sherlock and was trying to mould their bodies together. He felt Sherlock sag into the contact as if his strings had been cut.

“Thank god,” he heard Sherlock murmur.

John placed his hand on the back of Sherlock’s neck to hold his head down, crooked into his shoulder. “You’re not going to push me away again.”

Sherlock rocked his head. “No.”

“Promise me.”

“I can’t.”

“After all this, you can’t prom—“

“No. I mean, I can’t push you away again.”

John knew it was untrue, and that Sherlock would do it again the moment it ever became necessary, but he appreciated the sentiment nonetheless. “Good,” he said, accepting the lie for the intention that supported it. He kissed Sherlock’s hair. “That’s good to know.”

"…John?" Sherlock mumbled into his shoulder.

"Mm?"

"I'm… I'm sorry. I didn't know you would be so affected."

It would have been insulting if not for the way Sherlock was clinging. "That's because you're an idiot."

You were affected too.


The rest of the afternoon was spent sitting on opposite ends of the sofa, drinking tea, letting comfort grow up round them again. John felt raw, exposed, as if they'd scrubbed a wound which had scabbed over an infection so real healing could begin. He ached deep into the pit of his stomach, but he truly felt that this time they might stand a chance of rebuilding the connection they'd once had, long ago. Before the fall.

"So are you going to stop investigating Magnussen?" John asked, holding onto a fresh cup of tea like a talisman.

"Of course I'm not," said Sherlock. "What a ridiculous question."

"What are we going to do, then?"

"I'm thinking." Sherlock had been sitting sideways on the sofa, back against the arm, and with this he adjusted his legs and buried his toes underneath John's thigh.

John let his hand, hot from the mug of tea, wrap round one of Sherlock's ankles. "And I'm just supposed to wait for you to tell me about it?"

"I don't have anything to tell you yet."

"Imagine my shock." Under John's leg, Sherlock's foot twitched, as if he'd tried to kick him. John stifled a dry laugh. "Just don't leave me out of the loop this time. I mean it."

"You've got a text," Sherlock said, and he wriggled his foot again. He must have felt the vibration coming from John's pocket.

When John dug it out, he was surprised to find himself feeling shy about letting Sherlock see it.

"It's Mary," Sherlock said. "You wouldn't be acting this awkward if it were anyone else."

"It could be my girlfriend," John joked, and then immediately regretted it.

"What does she have to say?"

John thumbed open the message, and his stomach turned over. "She's coming over here." He stared at Sherlock. "Now."

Sherlock's interest was loud and direct. "What did she say? Specifically?"

"Presuming you're at Sherlock’s. I'll be there in half an hour. I have to speak with you." John's entire body seemed to be churning with fear. "Is this it? Is this the—"

"Did you bring your gun?"

"No. No, I only just left the clinic."

Sherlock swung to his feet and paced. "We have to assume she's got a plan, and she intends to enact it. But we can't be too obvious, in case we're premature."

This was a new take on being besieged. "Fuck. I can't believe I don't have my gun. Wait." He frowned at Sherlock. "Why don't you have one? What did you use when you were…gone? I just assumed you had one."

Sherlock pulled a sour face. "Mycroft took it."

"Oh of course he did."

"Couldn't just let me keep it, of course.”

"Even knowing Mary was—"

"And yet."

John blew out a breath. “I’ll say this,” he muttered, looking round the flat to see what he could use for their defence. “This is turning into a really interesting day."

Chapter Text

They found the railcar abandoned round a bend in the tracks, deep beneath the Palace of Westminster, in a disused tunnel. Secreted away. Malignant. Waiting.

At first John couldn't read the situation—there was no obvious bomb waiting in the centre of the carriage, though there were certainly charges set along the vent rising above them. Then Sherlock opened up the floor, and there it was; a textbook example of modern bomb, complete with a countdown timer dark and poised to begin.

John’s heart skipped two beats. "2:30," he said.

"Yes."

"Two minutes thirty."

"Yes, John."

John stalked to one end of the carriage and then the other while he waited for Sherlock’s customary gasp of revelation. None came. "Well?"

Sherlock paused in his scrutiny, on his knees and bending over the hole in the floor, to look up at John. "Well, what, exactly?"

"Don't you know how to defuse it?"

"Why do you think I know how to defuse a bomb?"

"Because you're Sherlock Holmes!” John tried not to shout. What if the thing were sound sensitive?

Sherlock's mouth twisted, and he went back to studying the device. "Flattering as that is, no. Don't you know how?"

"I wasn't in bomb disposal, Sherlock. I'm a bloody doctor."

"And a soldier, as you keep reminding us all."

John let that slide and pulled out his mobile to see what the internet had to say on bomb disposal.

"No service," Sherlock announced, not even looking at him.

And he was right. John gritted his teeth and swallowed round the lump in his throat. "We should have called the fucking police. Why do we never call the fucking police?"

"They just get in the way."

"Listen, let's go. Further up the tunnel there may be service, and we can—"

The lights on the carriage switched on all at once in a shocking flood, kicking John’s adrenaline production into high gear and ruining his vision. But even through his squint, John could see the countdown timer on the bomb begin to move.

"Er…" said Sherlock.

"Fuck. Fuck. Goddamn it, Sherlock. Why do we never call the police?"

"Well it's too late now."

John threw himself across the carriage to examine the wires running up the sides and underneath the seats, infesting the carriage. "I don't suppose we could—"

"It would set off the bomb."

"Of course it would."

"We could always—" The tone Sherlock's pause made John turn. "We could always try to run for it."

They could. But they might not be successful, and besides which: they could try, and fail, and they would die along with hundreds of others. Or they might survive, and hundreds of others would die anyway, and John would never forgive himself. Nor would Sherlock, much as he might insist otherwise. And they both knew it.

John's heart clogged his throat as he stared into Sherlock's eyes. The corner of Sherlock's mouth quirked, and he blinked. "Quite right," he said, and he bent to the task before him.

John knelt next to Sherlock, quickly but gingerly. He couldn’t catch his breath. "Mind palace."

"Hmm?"

"What's in your mind palace?"

Sherlock frowned at him. "You think I haven't checked?"

"Well, you never did your—" John closed his eyes and waved his hands about. "So I don't—"

"Shut up."

"I'm just saying—"

"No, shut up." Sherlock sat back on his heels, shut his eyes, and waved his fingertips in distinct patterns as if sifting through information.

At a loss for something to do, John scanned the bomb before them. Clock, wires, machinery… And then he spotted something, something along the side beneath Sherlock's knee. Something probably hidden from his sight. But not from John's.

John laughed.

He laughed, and Sherlock's eyes opened. He wore an expression as perplexed and concerned as John had ever seen on him. "John, what the—"

Still chuckling with relief, John reached over and toggled a switch which was clearly, unambiguously, blessedly labelled. He switched it from "ARMED" to "OFF", then sat back on his heels in relief as the clock froze in its countdown. The laugh bubbled up even more freely as tension ran from his bones like water in a deluge.

Sherlock scrambled into a better position to see what John had done. The cartoonish shapes of his face as he stared in astonishment made John laugh even harder. At last Sherlock began to chuckle, and his expression finished the transformation from shock to awe to something much, much more glorious.

His eyes shone. The lines round his eyes deepened and creased his cheeks in a smile like no other. He looked at John as if he were the most wondrous creature in all the world.

The sight of it filled John's chest to bursting. Laughter fizzled out, replaced with a glorious sense of joy and calm and completion and power. He was suddenly twelve feet tall, though there on his knees. At some point Sherlock had discarded his scarf, and the sight of his chest heaving between the lapels of his coat was startlingly human.

"That's it, then," John said, trying to clamber back to equilibrium and failing.

"Well done, John."

"Off switch."

"Terrorists can get into all sorts of problems unless there’s an off switch."

"But you didn't see it."

"I didn't." The intensity of Sherlock's gaze was as powerful and impossible to ignore as finding an active bomb set in a disused tunnel below Parliament.

"I'm…" John tried to clear his throat. "I'm glad I was in the right place to see it."

"As am I."

"I don't suppose there was anything in your mind palace if I hadn't."

Sherlock shook his head slowly before he spoke. "Only that there should have been an off switch."

John didn't think he could smile any broader if he tried. His gaze was still locked with Sherlock's, and the brightness, the brilliancy of Sherlock's focus on him, was so intense that he wished he could roll around in it like a warm, heady, pool of light. "We should call the police now." He didn't look away.

And neither did Sherlock. "Yes."

"They'll need this for evidence."

"Yes."

It felt as if the rapid pounding of John's heart was resonating along a line directly from his chest to Sherlock's, and it was tugging them closer. "I guess you're officially back, now."

"…Yes."

John stared at Sherlock's mouth. It was, somehow, only a foot away. He could feel Sherlock's body heat in the cold of the carriage. "Wonder if they'll—"

Sherlock struck with a kiss, and the words were dashed from John's head. All words. He moaned as his system was flushed with hormones like flooding an engine. Sherlock. Momentum carried John backward in between the seats, and Sherlock's body pressed him into the floor with a delicious, angular weight. Without thought, John lifted a leg up beside Sherlock's hip, seeking friction, seeking closeness, and in return Sherlock wrapped one warm hand round the meat of his thigh to hold it in place and grind down. Sherlock made a sound like a splintered cello and his fingers tightened into John's flesh.

"Yes," John gasped, and his eyes fluttered closed on the sight of the railway carriage ceiling. He buried both hands in Sherlock's hair and moaned as Sherlock's hips made small circles against his. He no longer cared about any of the reasons they shouldn't do this. Sherlock was back, and they were together, and this felt too glorious to be bothered about anything else. Arousal roared through his system in a wildfire.

Sherlock's breath rasped loudly, the sound trapped in the narrow aisle. On each exhale was the tiny, perfect tail of a whimper. Frantic, John detangled his fingers from Sherlock's curls and shoved his hands between them to unfasten his trousers. The movement only seemed to startle Sherlock for half a moment before he pushed up to his knees and worked at his own flies. He shoved his bottoms down to his thighs and threw himself back onto John.

Sherlock’s skin was on fire. John grabbed one lush handful of arse, buried the other in Sherlock's hair, and moaned. Sherlock's rapid inhale sucked the air from John's mouth an instant before they crashed together, as violent as a roadway collision but infinitely more pleasant. They shoved and gritted and skidded against one another indiscriminately, gracelessly, passion making each movement clumsy and imprecise. But gorgeous. Each scrape of their bodies seemed to exorcise a day spent away from Sherlock and yearning for him, and the destructive burn of friction became a form of healing.

Their kiss broke down to cries, bitter and painful, fed to one another on every breath. John imagined that with all this heat and light their bodies might somehow soften like wax in the sun and melt, mix, meld into one flesh. He gripped harder at Sherlock and willed it to happen.

Sherlock began to shake. "John…" The noise curled up at the end like a question, as if he were pleading for comfort while the raw emotion and pleasure stripped him bare. "John… John…" His fingertips were beginning to dig into John's thigh with bruising strength. John tried to soothe him, but it only came out as a sort of desperate pawing until he gave up and fisted handfuls of Sherlock's jacket to hold on as Sherlock rocked harder and harder against John's hip. Passion threatened to spill over as tears as Sherlock's noises turned plaintive, no longer John's name but just a tortured sound poured over and over against John's cheek. It was painful to breathe.

Their movements became louder and louder, frantic, necessary, until all of a sudden Sherlock choked on a whimper and froze. Then he overflowed, pulsing against John's skin, groaning. John shoved up against him, over and over, reflexively, and the slick friction caused Sherlock to ease out a beautiful series of moans, the sound and sight of which sent John's arousal stratospheric. The evidence of Sherlock's gratification was so gorgeous that John crested a shocking wave of pleasure and, after a suspended moment of weightlessness, tumbled down after him.

The orgasm was so deep it wrung him dry. He held on to Sherlock with both hands as he rode out the hormone buzz in his blood; it left him shivering and soul-raw.

Sherlock's breath came in a heavy huffs with moments between them, as if he were too worn out for more. He was plastered against John from his shins to where his forehead pressed into John's temple. He shuddered with an aftershock.

"Sherlock…" John whispered, afraid to wreck the moment.

"Sh-should we not have done that?" Sherlock said in a rumbling murmur.

"I don't care." John rocked his head. "I don't care."

"I'm smothering you. I ought to…" Sherlock moved as if he were about to press up, but John tightened his arms and cradled Sherlock's body to his chest. Although Sherlock really was starting to be heavy, John was unwilling to let him go.

Sherlock rolled sideways and carried John with him, but was stopped three-quarters of the way over with his back against a row of seats. They scooted until John was stretched over Sherlock like a blanket. He had a moment of awareness that they were lying bare-arsed, with their bottoms down around their knees, on the filthy floor of a disused railway carriage, surrounded by an inactive bomb, but John couldn't scrape up the energy to give a shit. It seemed fitting, somehow.

He giggled in a mildly deranged manner and he melted down onto Sherlock's body. "I'm suddenly very glad we hadn't phoned the police yet."

Sherlock's chuckle was a low series of puffs against John's neck. "Same."

"Might be a bit awkward." As around them stillness fell, so did John's smile. He cleared his throat. "Er." Reality was starting to creep back at the edges.

"Perhaps you're right."

"About?"

"We shouldn't have done that."

"I said I didn’t care."

"But you thought it."

"I did." John cleared his throat. "Of course I did." He was afraid, suddenly, that they'd just made the situation worse.

After several moments of silence Sherlock let go. John sighed, gathered himself, and pushed himself up. There wasn't as much mess as he'd feared, but it was far more than would be comfortable.

He couldn't help thinking that sex with women was cleaner.

They both put themselves as much to rights as possible. John squirmed, hoping the slimy feeling would pass or he'd become used to it. "I'll, er, I'll go call the police." Stifling the urge to shuffle his feet like an embarrassed schoolboy, he pulled out his mobile and headed for the door.

"Wait."

Sherlock stepped in far, far too close, captured John's face in his hands, and kissed him: slow, sweet, languorous. John closed his eyes so Sherlock might not see them roll back into his head. The kiss ended just as John was getting into it. He had to take a minute with his eyes shut before he got ahold of himself enough to move on. "Er. Thanks."

The way Sherlock bit his lower lip ought to have been illegal. "Go call the police, John."

"Right." Uselessly, John patted his pockets, though his phone was already in his hand. "Right. Er, be right back."

He trotted out to where he could get reception, hoping that focussing on the case would help him get past this recent speedbump; as cathartic as that was, John worried it would haunt him for the foreseeable future, and he didn't know what it would be like to enter back into the game knowing what Sherlock felt, looked, and sounded like in orgasm. He didn't know how much longer those memories would have to last.

Chapter Text

Mary arrived in a flurry of sleet and takeaway bags, trundling up the stairs as if every step was an effort. Which, John supposed, it was. Perhaps the kitchen knife he'd hidden underneath Sherlock's chair might not be necessary. If it was to be pistols at dawn they didn't stand a chance, but in her condition fisticuffs was right out.

The knife would have to do.

"Thanks for the help." She dripped sarcasm and set several bags of Italian food on the kitchen table, shoving aside Sherlock's experiments as if either unaware or unafraid of the corrosive danger to her jacket cuffs. John was betting on the latter.

"I didn't expect…"

"Dinner?" Mary smirked. "Well, I'm a wonder."

"I agree," said Sherlock from the sofa, dolorous and applying rosin to his bow with over-exaggerated diligence.

"I didn't know when John was planning on eating, and it didn't matter to me whether I ate at home or here, so I figured I'd do something nice."

John heard Sherlock's eyes roll. "That's not why you're here."

Mary snorted. "No?"

"You did text John you had to speak with him."

With a sigh, Mary lowered herself into one of the kitchen chairs and rested her chin in her hand, looking up at John and over to Sherlock in turn. "You're up to something." The light of curiosity brightening her eyes completely snared John's attention. "Tell me."

"We're not up to anything—" John said, at the same time that Sherlock said, "What makes you say that?" On edge, John adopted a nonchalant pose.

"Oh, very smooth," she said. "Would you like to try coordinating that again?"

"What did you have to tell John?"

"You're just presuming I'm going to tell him in front of you," she said.

"If you weren't planning on it, you wouldn't be telling him here."

She pushed her lips into a moue, but it was twisted with her attempt not to smile. "Fair enough."

"Mary—"

"I'd like to hire you."

John blinked at her and shook his head as if that could somehow cause the understanding to bounce a few notches down and settle into comprehension. The day just kept getting more and more bizarre. "What?"

"Both. I'd like to hire you."

No, it wasn't much clearer the second time. Sherlock stood. "What for, exactly?" His expression was astounding; a mix of curiosity and concern, with a touch of confusion. He’d abandoned his bow at his side.

"I have a problem I think you two could solve."

"…You do."

Mary pushed back from the kitchen table and stood with only the tiniest, "oof". She settled back down onto the sofa, nestling in and getting comfortable as if both John and Sherlock weren't staring at her. As if John's heart wasn't currently trying to claw its way up his throat. When she finally appeared to have reached equilibrium, she looked up at them. "So?"

Sherlock snapped into motion, pacing to the fireplace and back. Mary raised her eyebrows at him, amused, and twinkled at John. "Speak," Sherlock said. "If you're going to."

She seemed to collect herself, then, pulling everything inward and solidifying before their eyes. When she looked up, her gaze was harder. Cooler. "It's time for Charles Augustus Magnussen to die.”

The world tilted, and suddenly John wished he hadn’t forgotten about the scimitar behind the sofa. Behind her. He stood back from the table, wondering whether she knew it was there, or if there was a chance to retrieve it first. Surely she had a plan…

Mary laughed: a short, dry thing that sounded like her but also somehow not like her at all. "Come on, John. Seriously. If I'd meant to kill you there were thousands of times I could have done it. I think you can assume you're fine. Sit down, for christ's sake."

John swallowed.

She looked up at him. "Seriously, please. Look at me." She spread her arms to indicate her body. "I do need your help."

Tentatively, John sat himself at the desk. Sherlock, on the other hand, had stood poised near the fireplace for the last minute or so, and John wondered what sort of weapon he was hiding over there. "Sherlock," Mary said. "I'm serious. Pretend I'm an ordinary client. Would you be this rude to a client? Wait—don't answer that," she said, and the corner of her mouth quirked. "Of course you would."

Sherlock took a few steps toward her and flipped his chair round so both he and John were aligned, facing her. He perched on the back of the seat, nearly vibrating with tension.

Mary looked at him and John, a jury of two waiting to hear her case, and nodded once. Her face was stony once more. "Magnussen."

"Needs to be stopped," John said.

"You already know how he operates, so there's no reason for me to give you further background. We need to develop a plan that declaws him before he can scratch up the furniture." Her lips pressed out. "That possibly wasn't my best metaphor ever. Sorry, mission briefings were never my thing."

John wondered what was her thing. Besides assassination attempts. And lying.

"Why now?" said Sherlock.

Mary pressed her lips together and nodded once, as if steeling herself for something unpleasant. "Right. Why now." She sighed. "Well, for starters, he knows about you two."

John blinked at her. "What?"

"You two." She gestured between them. "Your…thing. The thing you're trying to pretend isn't a thing."

"Our…thing," Sherlock said.

"Yeah, you know. The thing no one else is supposed to know about. With tongues."

"Our thing," Sherlock repeated. John's heart was back to a fair sprint.

"Well, I don't know what else to call it, so yeah."

"What in the…" John huffed, trying to pull in air. "What in the hell is going on, here? You know? About…us?"

Mary gave him a soft—if still pitying—look. "John. You two are not exactly subtle."

"Excuse me?" said Sherlock.

"How long?" John said, trying not to panic.

"Have I known?" She grimaced, full of teeth. "Honestly? Ages. Years."

"So we've thought—" He stopped. "Wait, years?"

"Ohhh." Sherlock's sound of revelation was barely enough to penetrate the maelstrom in John's head. "The pool," he said.

Mary turned her look of chagrin on him, and John buried his face in his hands. Mary had been at the pool? He groaned. "I can't deal with this right now."

"Too bad Mary's not through telling us everything she needs to tell us."

"Ah. Well," Mary started. John scrubbed his face with both hands and looked up just in time to see her expression cycle through a mad series of contortions. "Here's the thing…" She seemed to consider. "No, wait, let me start… Right. Okay." She nodded decisively. "So yesterday, I received a visitor."

"Magnussen." Sherlock's voice was firm.

"Right," she said. "Let's just say…he made it clear to me I was to convince you two to stop looking into his shit."

Sherlock looked smug. "Yes. He's panicking."

"Wait, how were you meant to convince us?" John asked.

She snorted. "He left that conveniently up to me. But his intentions were clear."

"And you decided to tell us."

There was a moment where Mary just bit her lip. "Well, there's more."

"You want me to ask you what information he's using for leverage," said Sherlock.

"I wouldn't say want you to ask…" Mary said, looking at them both and waiting. But then she took in the expectant expression on John's face, seemed to realise neither of them were speaking, and squared her shoulders. "I don't think this will come as much of a shock to you, John. But you’re not the baby’s father."

The news rocked him with relief. John could feel the weight of Sherlock's gaze on the side of his face, but couldn't bring himself to meet it. His head was filled with static. "Oh."

"There was… There is, someone else."

"Who," demanded Sherlock.

"You don't know him," Mary said quickly.

"I don't understand," said John. He shook his head. "Wait a minute. Sherlock, why haven't you asked— What I don't understand is…" Fuck. The entire universe was turning inside out, and John wasn't sure where anyone stood anymore. "No, that's wrong. I don't understand any of it."

"It's really not that complicated," Mary said.

John scoffed. "Then you didn't explain well enough."

"I told you briefings are not my specialty."

"Oh," said Sherlock, like a cough, cutting through the potential bickering. They both looked at him. "Ohhh. Kensington."

Mary blanched. "Oh, clever you."

"John Hardy, the burner identity of Robert Adair." Sherlock was quietly smug. "The man you've been visiting for months lives in Kensington. We'd thought you were doing…something else. I never figured what."

"I never picked up a tail."

“They're surprisingly good."

"So am I," said Mary.

Sherlock's eyes were gleaming now. "And Magnussen knows the father of the child is this man in Kensington."

"Yes."

"He's using this information to convince you that it's in your best interests to manipulate the two of us into backing away from his business."

"I believe the actual words were 'give them something else to focus on for a while.'"

"So he knows about…your…" John wanted to say 'former job with Moriarty', but the words stuck in his throat.

"He knows what my specialty actually is, yes." Mary's mouth was a line.

"But how is this your pressure point?" Both Mary and John looked at Sherlock, and he looked at Mary, his eyes narrowing. "Did he honestly believe John was going to be upset that he's not the father? As you said, he knew about John and I. He knew he'd likely be relieved. So why would he assume…" He trailed off. "You haven't told us the rest of the story, Mary. Finish."

She looked at Sherlock, then sidelong at John, swallowed hard, then looked at Sherlock. "You're not going to be pleased about it."

"Imagine my shock," said John. This entire thing was mad.

Once more, she glanced at them both. "The baby is my pressure point…Well, no, to be more accurate, my relationship with the father, and the baby, are my pressure points because of who he is threatening to tell."

Sherlock sat up straight, and if John didn't know him as well as he did, he probably wouldn't have noticed the colour changing behind his standard pallor as he both blanched and shifted green with nausea at the same time. "Moriarty," he said, his voice dry. "This is to do with Moriarty."

Mary stared at him for a solid ten seconds. "I hate to be the one to tell you, Sherlock, but you weren't the only one to fake your death."


This was a bit much to take, all at once. When Mary excused herself to the loo John decided it was a prime time for him and Sherlock to have a tete-a-tete. But Sherlock got there first.

He crowded John into the corner of the sitting room. "Do you believe her?" he hissed.

"I don't know what to believe. Why are you asking me?"

"I trust your opinion, John."

"Well, that's a first." Sherlock looked at him flatly, and John immediately regretted being so flippant. "Sorry."

"You've been the one pretending to be with her for a year and a half. You know her far better than I do."

"I don't know." Everything Mary had just said was swirling round in his head. And he was angry—incredibly angry—that after all this, Moriarty was somehow still alive.

If he was angry, Sherlock must be livid.

"Do you believe her?" John asked.

"It's the only explanation that fits all the facts. She hasn't been doing anything suspicious but going to Kensington. We know Adair is a card player, and good enough to make a living at it online, but it's likely that after all this time we've found no ties to Moriarty because there were none to find. She's been going to the gym straight from every meeting to cover why her hair is wet from showering afterward. We never discovered what she was gaining by marrying you because she wasn't gaining anything—she was under orders, and Moriarty was the one with something to gain."

Privately, John thought it also would explain why underneath all the fear and confusion he still liked her. He kept that to himself. "So you think her mission was just to tie me up in a relationship? Why?"

"Because this was his next step. He's wanted to separate you from me this whole time."

"Ah. Right."

"He knew how much it would bother me. And assumedly he still wanted me bothered."

It would have been a sweet thing to say, if not couched in so horrifying a scenario. "Wait. What did Moriarty think she was doing there?"

"Cheating on you with John Hardy? Perhaps that was one reason for the alias? I need to know how she was getting information to Moriarty. And what his plan is. What he knew. My instinct is to believe her, but I need more data."

"You know what she also needs to explain?"

"I want confirmation why she shot me."

"And an apology." John touched Sherlock's mouth softly. Longingly. Wistfully. "You understand what this all means?"

There was a tiny, barest, microscopic trace of a smile on Sherlock's face. "Do you?"

"It's almost over."

Sherlock brushed his mouth back and forth across John's fingertips, electrifying his nerves with the friction. "Very nearly."

"If this is true, we can—"

"We're not there yet." Gently, Sherlock kissed his fingers and held his gaze.

"Don't get my hopes up?"

Apparently, something about that was mildly amusing. "I'm more worried about mine."

John smiled. "That's uncharacteristically sweet."

"No. I just don't want to anticipate an end to this charade so blindly that I can't see what's really going on. I don't want to relax until I'm sure."

John desperately, painfully wanted to kiss him, but instead he stepped back and took a breath. There would be plenty of time for kissing when all this was over. "Let's see if some of her answers can't help you with that."


First, though, tea. Mary came out out of the bath and joined him in the kitchen as he leaned back against the worktop to wait for the kettle, thinking. Sherlock was still sat in the sitting room, lost in thoughts of his own.

"Sorry," she said, and gave him a weak smile.

John examined her. She looked pale and strangely, distressingly, hollow. Her eyes were red. "Are you feeling all right?"

"I'm just so tired. So tired." She looked defeated. "I just want…" Mary sighed. "For once in my life., I want to control my own— I just… I just want to be left alone. To live my life. With…" Her eyes flicked to his for the briefest moment, then away, shy. "Yeah."

"The man you love." She pressed her lips together and looked at him, holding his gaze this time. She looked so desperate that John only hesitated for a moment before he reached over and rubbed her shoulder, trying to comfort her. "I get that."

Mary nodded, then she coughed as if deflating and wrapped her arms around him. She made a strange, wet noise against his neck. "Sorry," she said after a moment, crying again. "Fucking hormones."

"Don't worry about it," John said, and rubbed her back as his heart went out to her. After all this, after a year and a half of play-acting, it somehow wasn't surprising he actually cared. "Don't worry about it at all."

"I was just trying to retire." He squeezed her. "I was done. So done. I can't… I don't really want to admit aloud what I've… Well. You can imagine."

"What you've done."

"You've probably been doing a lot of imagining since we met."

"Pretty much constantly, actually, yeah."

"I was done."

"You…" John looked down at her stomach. "So you were still with…him, while you were with me."

Her mouth twisted ruefully. "Yes?"

"Damn it,” John said with sudden anger, like a flashbulb going off. It very quickly melted into sadness.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"No, it's just… I've wasted so much time, when I could have been with Sherlock."

She snorted. "Babe, he hasn't even been letting you make him lunch. And you think he'd have sex with you?"

John considered this. He sniffed a laugh, but it really wasn't funny. "Maybe you're right," he said. Behind him the kettle clicked, but he ignored it for the moment. He stared past her shoulder. She seemed to be studying the dust gathering on the the tiles. Finally he spoke. "Well. This is bizarre."

"No shit."

"So we were both faking this."

"John, we were always both faking this."

He huffed a laugh. "I guess you're right."

"I usually am."

He snickered and turned to pour tea into three mugs. "Well. I guess this explains why… I mean, I did think we'd been careful…"

“Very. Unlike Rob and I."

John stirred sugar into Sherlock's tea. "Rob," he said lightly.

"How long have you known his name?"

"That it wasn't Hardy? Long before the wedding. We just didn't know what you were doing with him."

"I'm guessing you don't want me to paint a mental picture."

"Please don't."

She gave him a sheepish look and picked up her mug. "As long as Moriarty doesn't find out about him. That's all I care about now."

John considered this and held his tea up to his face, letting the steam soothe him. It was thoroughly bizarre, the sea-change of emotion churning in his belly. All at the same time, he was celebrating the potential end of this farce with Mary, mourning the loss of what had become a familiar situation, feeling a strange combination of sadness and relief about the child, terrified about Moriarty's return, and furious at Magnussen for being a foul, disgusting little toad. All that, and he felt unspeakably horrible for Mary.

"Come on," he said. "Maybe some food will help." He picked up Sherlock's mug as well.

It gave him no small comfort when Mary rested her hand on his back as they went into the sitting room together.


"I have faith we can dismantle Magnussen's structure," said Sherlock, pulling his hair and ignoring the food John had placed in front of him. "But you have to give me more data on Moriarty."

"You haven't had that much luck finding Magnussen's achilles heel before," Mary pointed out to Sherlock, gesturing with her fork. "So why, exactly, do you think you'd be able to now?"

"We have one less problem to solve," Sherlock said.

"Oh, that's what I was? A problem to solve?"

"Yes."

She smiled at his frankness. "Well, fair enough." As John sat with his bowl he tried to find a way to word it that was a little more diplomatic, but she shook her head. "Nah, it's true. I tried not to be, but I'm sure even that made me seem more suspicious.”

John cast a sidelong look at Sherlock. "Well…"

"Moriarty," Sherlock said, to pull them back on topic.

"Right." Mary seemed just as amused by his sharpness as she had before the revelation, and John began to reframe all their past reactions with this new information in mind. Perhaps all the times she'd appeared to like him and Sherlock she had actually liked them. His mind reeled.

"So what's his plan?" John said.

"Honestly?" She shrugged. "I don't have the foggiest. Since he came back, I haven't exactly been his best friend."

"You're still alive though," said John.

He flashed him a look that said, 'for now.' "There is that."

"Start at the beginning," Sherlock said, steepling his fingers. "Tell me in as much detail as possible."

Mary described how relieved she'd been when she'd thought Moriarty was gone for good. "It had been a slippery slope," she said. "One initial paying job taken in desperation became two, became a trap I couldn't get out of. When I found out I was finally free from him I can't tell you how happy I was."

"Until you found out it was a lie," Sherlock prompted her.

"Worst day of my life." She caught John's eye; he didn't believe her for a minute. Surely there had been worse. "Fine, not worst-worst, but it was pretty fucking upsetting."

"Because the leverage hadn't changed."

"My past wasn't suddenly not my past anymore," she said. "He still had all the proof of the things I'd done. All he had to do was waggle the threat of torture or jail over me, and it was impossible to refuse."

"No wonder you don't want him knowing about…the father."

Mary looked at John. "You have no idea."

"And he wanted you to marry John."

"He wanted you to be miserable," she said.

"Ridiculous," scoffed Sherlock.

"You wouldn't be miserable if I'd married her for real?" John said, not sure if he were hurt or angry or just entertained with Sherlock's obvious lie.

"You did marry her for real."

"No, I mean—"

"What's ridiculous is that Moriarty is making grand gestures for such small aims. Surely he has a further plan than 'make Sherlock Holmes sad’. I need to know his next step." Finally Sherlock dug in, shovelling forkfuls of pasta into his mouth as if he hadn't eaten in a week. The last dregs of the healing process had stoked his appetite higher and higher. It had never stopped being a refreshing sight to see.

"If he does, he hasn't shared it with me. But he's not in the same position he had been in before his disappearance," said Mary. "It's more tenuous. Someone had dismantled his web, remember, so he's only just now beginning to build it back up."

"So it's just you," said John.

Mary shook her head. "I don't know who's doing it, but he's been having us watched the entire time. He'll use me, but he doesn't trust me."

"Wait, this whole time?" John pointed out the window. "Moriarty's been watching us this whole time?"

"Between me and Magnussen, you've been presuming someone has been watching you for years, John," said Mary. "Why is that such a—"

"Mycroft is going to lose a hand." Sherlock was furious. "And maybe an eye. Violently."

"I thought you'd cleared his web," said John.

"So did I," Sherlock said in a throaty growl. He rifled through a basket of magazines, pulled out a phone, and started texting.

"You're saying…this isn't over," said John.

"I'm afraid not," Mary said.

"It's odd," John murmured. Desolation lowered down on him like thick fog. "For about thirty seconds, I thought I was free again."

He glanced up to find the softest expression of pity on her face. "We'll solve this," she said. "I promise."

"Oh, you think so? The last time Sherlock and I took Moriarty on we ended up here. And that was before we had Magnussen to deal with, too."

"Secrets are just words, John. They only have power when someone uses them. If we make it so Magnussen can't use them, he becomes powerless."

"So you don't just want to…" John didn't want to point out that didn't clear any of them from the troubles with Moriarty. But one thing at a time. “From what you said, I figured you'd want to take him out."

"I can't say the desire isn't there."

"If not that, then…"

"I was hoping you and Sherlock would be able to help me with that," she said. "Honestly, my plans are excellent only if you want to put a hole in someone and not get caught." She gave him a weary, tight-lipped smile. "This isn't really my, er, milieu."

John cast a sidelong glance at Sherlock and wondered when he was going to broach the subject of her putting holes in a specific someone.

With a grumble, Sherlock tossed the mobile on the sofa and scrubbed his hands through his hair. "My plan was to break into Appledore."

"And not get shot this time," said John. He held Sherlock's unamused gaze.

"To…?" Mary prompted.

"To steal whatever I found that I could use. Proof about clients, proof about us." Sherlock pressed his mouth into a line. "Proof about him."

"So that's what you were doing with Janine." Both Sherlock and John blinked at her in shock, and she laughed. "I mean, seriously Sherlock, did you expect me not to wonder what the hell were you doing? I knew perfectly well who… I mean…" She looked at John, raised her eyebrows, and let the corner of her mouth turn up, an expression which plainly was intended to say, I know who you really wanted to be with.

"Ah yes," said Sherlock, looking only mildly discomfited. "Right."

"So you and Janine had some sort of plan for breaking in."

"She was going to help me, yes."

"Do you think she still is?"

"As far as I know."

"Excellent," Mary said, spreading her hands as if it were done and dusted. She picked up her bowl again. "I guess that means we already have a plan."

Chapter Text

The two of them left the awkwardness of the engagement party behind and headed downstairs to the reporters.

Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

John stopped Sherlock on the ground floor by grabbing his hand and pulling him round to Mrs. Hudson's, out of direct sight of the front door. He started giggling. "Tom looks like you."

A smile twisted Sherlock's mouth. "I had noticed that, yes."

“Not as over her crush as she’d thought?”

“Perhaps not.”

"So…do you think maybe she’ll figure it out, then?"

"Figure out…?" Sherlock looked genuinely stymied.

John blinked at him. "Us, Sherlock. Do you think Molly will figure us out.”

"What about us?"

"What about— Sherlock, what in the hell are…" He noticed then a telltale sparkle in Sherlock's eyes, something he'd not seen in so long he'd clearly forgotten what it looked like. "You berk."

"I think Molly sees more than she thinks she does."

"So Tom is supposed to soften the blow?"

"I couldn't begin to assume."

Sherlock smelled familiar, so close and so warm, and John fought the urge to bury his face in Sherlock's neck and inhale. Instead he replayed the memory of his needy cries in the railcar.

It sufficed until Sherlock leaned in and pressed his face to John's hair, and the memory scattered into soft flecks of colour and light. "You no longer smell of fuel."

"Thank goodness for small favours?"

From this close, the sound of Sherlock swallowing was audible. "Indeed."

"Sherlock." John wanted to pull away to have this conversation, but lacked the strength. "Are you going to tell me what you know about the bonfire?"

"When I have a clearer idea, of course I'll tell you."

"Does that mean you have a vague idea, then?" Sherlock's silence went on so long John mustered the strength to pull away. Sherlock wouldn't meet his eye. "Is that a yes or a no?"

"I don't know yet."

A kernel of worry formed in John's chest, but he ignored it. "Okay."

"I've thought about it, but I don't know. Was it Hardy? Someone else? And I just—"

"It's okay."

Finally, Sherlock met John's gaze. "You're not concerned?"

John fiddled with the lapels of Sherlock's coat. "I have faith we'll figure it out."

The corner of Sherlock's mouth turned up. John wanted to kiss it. "That's good."

"Just remember to tell me when you find out something. Immediately."

"I will."

"You promised, Sherlock."

Sherlock's face was all seriousness. "I did."

"This is life or death now, Sherlock. It's not just withholding the solution to the case until the dramatic reveal, all right?"

"I'm well aware of that."

"Because let me tell you, being drugged inside a flaming woodpile—"

John's mouth was abruptly covered by Sherlock's, and it wiped all concerns from his mind. The kiss was soft, quick, and perfect. "Stop," Sherlock said quietly.

There was no way John could have kept the smile from his face. Happiness spread across his skin and filled his head with helium. "Do that again."

"No." Sherlock smiled.

“What, did you learn to embrace discretion in the last twenty-four hours?”

"Yes."

They grinned at each other from inches away, and a small bit of John's worry melted. "You're back."

"I'm back."

"We should. Er." John gathered together his scattered thoughts. "The reporters are waiting."

"Do I have lipstick on my collar?"

John giggled, unable to stop himself. "Should I go borrow some?"

"Best not. They'd ask why, and I'd rather not have to explain."

The look of fondness on Sherlock's face, the look of adoration and joy and affection, was almost too much to bear. "Maybe next time, then."

"Maybe next time." Sherlock licked his lips and stepped sideways toward the front door. "Anyway.” He cleared his throat. “Time to go and be Sherlock Holmes."

John adjusted his collar, primping him and not caring a whit whether it was appropriate. Touching him was a reminder and a promise, both at once. "I like it when you're Sherlock Holmes."

"You always like me."

"Well-spotted." Especially now you're back. I think I could forgive you anything. John plucked the deerstalker from coat rack and plopped it on Sherlock's head at a jaunty angle.

Sherlock smile broadened. "Too right," he whispered, and adjusted it before opening the door. A cacophony of flashbulbs and voices greeted them. John stuck close by Sherlock to present a single unit to the media: a united front of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. Together again. The two of them against the world.

Chapter Text

"It's Janine," Sherlock said, staring at his mobile a week later.

"What does she say?" John chopped up carrot for the salad while Mary sat behind them at the kitchen table, playing solitaire.

Sherlock pocketed his phone and spun to grab his coat from where it was thrown across the back of John's chair. "Forget dinner. We don't have the time."

"For what?" John asked, and slid the vegetables into a large bowl on top of the greens, barely listening.

"John." Sherlock grabbed him by the shoulders and spun him round. The cutting board was a shield between them. "Stop. Janine says that Magnussen is on his way to Appledore for the holiday, and his security will be lowest tonight. We have to move."

"What? Wait. Now? What the— Sherlock." John dug his heels in as Sherlock began to push him toward the sitting room. "Stop. Just stop. What the hell is going on?"

"I just told you."

"Stop whinging, John, and get your coat on," said Mary, who had stood remarkably fast for being in her third trimester, and who was already shrugging on her own.

"Wait. But we're not ready yet. Not even close."

"Doesn't matter, in the end," Mary said. "If Janine says this is the best chance, I believe her."

"Oh, you do," John said, staring at Sherlock, who had grabbed John's coat and was holding it open for him. "Well that's excellent. I'm sure Janine has a perfect grasp of what's needed for this to go off smoothly.” He frowned, but pushed his arms into the sleeves anyway. His frown deepened at the patronising way Sherlock settled the coat over his shoulders and smoothed it down.

"Relax." Mary was putting her hair up into a tiny bunch at the nape of her neck. "We need to stop off at the house to change first. I'm not wearing this bright red monstrosity to break into a fortress, and then we can grab our bags and be on our way."

"I haven't packed anything yet," said John.

"Yes you have," said Mary. "It's in the den, next to mine. It's the thing you used to keep your shirts in when you thought you had to be ready to run to Sherlock's side with no notice." John blinked at her. "Oh, come on, you thought I didn't know that either?"

John sighed heavily and pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Is that where you keep the baby bag, too?" Sherlock smirked at her, smoothing down the front of his shirt as if making sure it hadn't suddenly turned any other colour than black.

"Absolutely," she said, and twinkled at him. "Baby bag and two burglary kits, all ready to go."

"As much as I'm pleased you two find this so funny, I wish you hadn't gone and—"

"Oh, come on, you big girl’s blouse." Mary clapped him on the shoulder. "Let's go."

"You're not concerned about this at all."

"Nah." Mary grinned at him as they headed for the door. "Worse comes to worse, I'll just shoot him. Nice thing about his particular biometrics: the guy doesn't need to be alive for the keys to work."


Between John and Mary, they made quick work of the two guards at the gate. According to Janine's information, that only left the one on the roof and five more inside.

"Easy…," Mary said on an exhale, as she shot a tranquilliser at the roof guard's head as it hove into view over the edge of the building.

…Peasy,” she added when she took out the guard in the side corridor, seconds after Sherlock keyed in the door’s override code Janine had given them.

Mary shouldered the gun and slid a sideways grin at John as all three of them snuck into the house. She looked desperately excited. John wondered if she was more excited to be back in the saddle than she was to finally be doing something about Magnussen.

The two guards watching over the security cameras went down with a pair of heavy thuds, and John tied them up while Sherlock poked at the computers.

"I've gotta say," Mary said, "this way is a whole lot cleaner than I'm used to."

"That's what happens when you don't use bullets," said Sherlock, not turning from the monitors.

It occurred to John that Sherlock was speaking from experience, and John wondered at the turn his life had made. Not a month ago, Sherlock was still recovering from a wound which had nearly killed him, and Mary was still the wife he expected at any moment might knife him in his sleep. And now not only were they all working together, but they were all getting along.

If John had ever doubted that there was something seriously amiss in the way he was wired, those doubts were gone now.

Then again, even if there was, at least he had company.

The main monitor feed abruptly shifted mode, and they were looking at bits of the house lit up in infrared. "Well, Janine's info was good, at least." John watched one guard pacing in a far corridor, and, deep in the heart of the house, a person sleeping in a bed who could only be Magnussen. "But he's gone to bed ridiculously early."

"It's tiring, being a repulsive pig," Mary said. "Got to get his sleep. Keep his strength up. Dream of all his nasty little schemes."

"Please don't make me think about it," said John, trying to shudder away the feeling of his skin crawling entirely off his body in disgust.

"Too late," Mary said.

"There." Sherlock pointed to a heat signature stationed just to the northwest. When they looked to the normal camera for that area, it was a young, fit man, leaning against the wall next to a door, looking bored with his lot. "That's the entrance to the vault."

"What about the other guard?" said John. The infrared feed for that area of the house showed a man standing far at the end of the corridor.

"His path is constrained to that half of the house, most likely guarding the east entrance. We don't have concern ourselves with him."

"So we just have to get past that guy there," Mary said, pointing to the last guard, whose path was between them and the vault. "No problem."

"Their rounds seem more erratic than Janine led me to believe," said Sherlock, his eyes narrowing.

"Well, it's Christmas," John shrugged. "We knew it was going to be a smaller detail. He's probably trying to do three guys' jobs at once."

"Yes…" Sherlock didn't sound very sure.

Mary pulled Sherlock's shoulder, tugging him away from the screens. "Come on. Let's go." She checked her ammunition and patted her sides, presumably making sure her backup weapons were in place. "I want this done and dusted. My ankles are killing me."

"Glad I rejected your abseiling plan?" John said.

"Oh, fuck you," Mary said, but she grinned back anyway. She smoothed her hand over her stomach as they headed out the door.


The sleepy guard at the entrance to Magnussen's vaults became even sleepier once Mary shot him with the tranq gun, and then it was only the barriers on the door itself standing between them and the keys to liberation. Sherlock hunched over the keypad to type in the long, 32-digit code Janine had fed them.

"What?" Mary said. She had noticed the wary expression on John's face.

"This feels too easy."

"This?"

"Yeah. All that security, but then only locking the vaults using a keycode his assistant knows? This doesn't make any sense at all."

Mary considered it. "Probably not."

"Shh," Sherlock said.

"It would be a ridiculous cliche to say, 'I've got a bad feeling about this,' wouldn't it," said John.

"Yeah, but don't let that stop you,” she said.

The acoustics of the corridor were strange; they sounded larger than the space John had envisioned from the blueprints, but Sherlock had focussed John's torch on his work, and it was too dark otherwise to investigate. He was about to ask Mary to borrow hers when Sherlock made a quiet noise of victory and the light at the side of the keypad switched from red to green. A panel slid back, revealing a dark glass square with a blue light coming from the centre of it. John had seen enough spy films for his heart to sink.

"I thought the fingerprint scanner was the only biometric—" Mary said.

"Apparently not," said Sherlock. He cursed under his breath. "There's always something."

"So what do you want to do?" John said, back to the wall, keeping a lookout even while feeling his temper rise inside his veins like hot water.

Sherlock looked at Mary, and the corner of Mary's mouth quirked.

"No, you don't get to kill him," John said.

"You're no fun."

John shook his head. "There's no way we're prepared for any sort of physical assault—" Mary raised an eyebrow, and it stopped the sentence in its tracks. "I don't want to know what you've brought in your bag, do I."

"No. You really don't."

John looked at Sherlock. "And you're prepared for this?" The gleam in Sherlock's eye was slightly terrifying. "Why do you care about this so much?" John asked. "I wouldn't have thought—"

"You'd have thought wrong." Sherlock's jaw set. "Magnussen is the worst man in London. Crimes of passion, crimes committed without forethought, are nothing compared with his methods. He carefully and maliciously wrings his victims for power. He's a torturer, John. I've said it before: he is lower than a snake, and colder, and I am through with letting him squeeze his way through this city. He preys on anyone who is different, and that's…" He seemed to become aware that both Mary and John were staring at him, and swallowed the rest of that thought. "It's time he's stopped."

The passion in Sherlock's speech had stirred up something warm and violent in John's chest, and he was powerfully inspired to do something rash. It wouldn't have been the first time they'd snogged in the middle of a break-in, but this situation was different than the one outside the elephant atrium, and they very much weren’t alone, so he controlled himself. It was enough to finally witness Sherlock motivated by something human. He hoped he didn't look too besotted when he gave Sherlock a nod.

He also refused to look at Mary, afraid of some knowing look or teasing quirk to her mouth. Mary knew too much, and knew him too well, and it was starting to become discomforting to have her watching him with Sherlock while he knew that she knew that he had fallen madly in love, and she knew that he knew that the baby was Rob's, and—

Fortunately Sherlock had spun off into the direction of Magnussen's bedroom, and John could allow himself to be distracted from the messiness of his life by the job at hand.


They navigated through the labyrinth of corridors. When all of a sudden Sherlock threw out a hand, John was forced to stop short. Mary’s pointy shoulder bounced off his back.

John strained his ears to hear what Sherlock had heard, but there was nothing. Still, all three stood silent, breathing shallowly until Sherlock mimed that Mary should ready the tranquilliser gun. At first the controlling part of John’s personality had chafed that Mary was the one wielding it, but now he was now glad; it made sense to give her the ranged weapon, since she wasn't moving too quickly these days, and she may very well be the better shot.

At that moment he was particularly glad about it, because it meant he had both hands free to handle whomever Sherlock was expecting round the corner.

Sherlock held up a forefinger, then his forefinger and his thumb. John poised to jump. When Sherlock added his middle finger to the others John leapt out and Mary curled round the edge of the wall.

Immediately John held up a hand to stop her. He slumped.

"Smallwood," Sherlock hissed. Lady Smallwood was standing guiltily at a door, her hand reaching for the knob. She'd frozen, her eyes wide, but when Sherlock spoke she broke away to approach them. She was dressed in a security guard's uniform, and her hair was pulled back, but there was no mistaking her elfin features or the lissome manner of her gait. She looked incredibly pissed off.

"What the hell are you doing here?" she whispered as she came round the corner, nearly spitting in anger.

"I could ask you the same thing."

"I'm taking care of what you seem unwilling to do."

"I told you. We are taking care of it."

"Not quickly enough." A muscle twitched in the corner of her eye, though her face was stony. "No more lives need be lost to that…creature."

"I was sorry to hear about your husband," whispered John.

"Not as sorry as Magnussen will be."

Her aggressive posture pinged something in John's consciousness. “What are you planning to do, exactly?" he said, suspicion bubbling.

"Take care of him."

"Yes, but what does that…"

In one quick movement, Mary whipped an old-fashioned revolver from where it had been holstered at Lady Smallwood's hip. Smallwood spun to retrieve it, but Mary stepped back out of range and John moved between them.

"I told you to go home," Sherlock said.

"Yes, but I thought that was an idiotic idea."

"You hired me to take care of it."

"Yes, to take care of it. Not to…do whatever you'd been doing."

"He'd been shot," John said.

"So he wasn't even doing a very good job."

John blinked at her in astonishment, but Sherlock only started chuckling. "There really is always something." He shook his head.

"I'd like to do what I came here to do," she murmured under her breath. "Give me back my gun, if you please."

"Not a chance," Mary said.

"Who is this?" Smallwood said, her whisper more harsh and loud than perhaps she'd intended.

"John's wife," said Sherlock.

Smallwood glared at Mary. "You have no right—"

"I have every right.” Mary was a sight to see. Her bearing was rigid and her eyes were cold, and John was reminded that, much as they'd developed a complicated but affectionate relationship over the last months, this was a woman who had likely done unspeakable things in the course of her career and had lived to tell about it. A chill went down his spine.

"I want to kill him," Smallwood growled.

“You're the type who has trouble killing a spider in the bath. You know what will happen if, by some chance, you actually make it to Magnussen? Even if you manage to cock the gun and point it at him? You will fail to pull the trigger. You'll have tipped your hand, and he will steal every last thing you have left in your life. Your husband is gone? You're angry? Good. Stay angry. Anger is good for focus. But let those of us who are good at killing do it. Believe me when I tell you that you're not getting this gun back. You'll only end up in a world of misery. And I'm not going to let that happen."

Smallwood's face had frozen in an expression of stunned fear. "That filth ruined my husband."

Mary's sternness resolved into a hard sort of pity, and she squeezed Smallwood's shoulder. "I know. But I'm not going to let you kill him. There are other methods of retribution. I promise."

For a moment, Smallwood simply stared and swallowed.

Eventually, Sherlock broke the silence. "I need you to go home,” he said to Smallwood. “As quietly as you came in."

"Wait. How did you get in?" John asked.

"How did you?" said Smallwood.

"You broke in?" said John.

She tipped her head in a shrug. "No one questioned my identity."

"You'd have thought, being on a reduced roster, each of the guards would know the rest."

"I didn't run into anyone else," she said.

John's brow furrowed. "Well, that's worrying."

"No kidding," said Mary.

"Janine told us it was a holiday schedule," Sherlock said, and he peered round the corner to Magnussen's bedroom door. "Right. Leave," he instructed Smallwood. "Don't speak, just go."

Smallwood's expression darkened, but John interrupted the storm. "We could promise you a chance to hit him." This seemed to give her pause, and Sherlock turned from his survey of the corridor to give him a disbelieving look. "What?"

"A chance to hit him?"

"What? It might be cathartic. Think what she's been through. If it were you, and I had been a victim…"

This appeared to soften Sherlock. "He wouldn't make it out of this alive." He nodded once. "Yes, I see your point."

"If we’re caught, we’re all caught together." John envisioned the scene: Magnussen waking up from being tranquillised, bound hand and foot, and Smallwood belting him across the face with a solid punch, the rest of them gathered round, watching. It was an entertaining image. “It’s much less of a risk than being caught with a gun to his head on her own.”

"Fine," Sherlock said, though he didn’t seem entirely pleased about the latest addition to their band. He looked to both sides of the corridor again to make sure the coast was clear. "Let's go."

They crept over, and Sherlock bent to the lock at the door with his picks. John stood with his back to the wall as lookout, while Mary leaned nonchalantly beside him, tranq gun at the ready. Smallwood stood by, hands alternately balling into fists and biting at one thumbnail.

In a few moments Sherlock stood. "Ready?"

"That's it?" John whispered on the barest of breath. "You're sure there's only the one lock?"

"No," Sherlock replied, and in his eyes there was a hint of excitement. "But I'm fairly sure."

It would have to be good enough. "On three?" John mouthed, preparing himself low at the other side of the door, ready whenever Sherlock finally opened it.

Sherlock nodded and counted down with his fingers. One…two…

"You should listen to Dr. Watson more often," said a sickeningly familiar voice from the end of the corridor. John's heart shot into his throat and prevented him from inhaling for a few seconds. He turned. "It really was too easy."

Sauntering toward them was Magnussen, wearing a smug expression, barrelling down upon them at a steady but stately pace. John's instinct was to grab the tranquilliser gun out of Mary's hands and shoot the fucker, but something held him back. Perhaps it was the simple fact of his flat, dead eyes pinning him in place. Perhaps it was a morbid impulse to see what was going to happen next.

"Magnussen," Sherlock pronounced.

"I suppose I should welcome you into my home. Since you're already here. It only seems polite."

“And politeness is always your priority,” said Sherlock.

“Of course,” Magnussen said.

“Tell that to my fireplace,” said John.

Magnussen ignored him. “That being so, if you’d all follow me to my lounge where we can be comfortable, I’d welcome a…civilised discussion. There’s no need to conduct this conversation on our feet while standing in a cold corridor.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” said John, not sorry at all, “but I have a question.”

"Oh?"

"If you're out here…" John pointed at the bedroom door. "Who's in your room?"

“There is no one in my room, Dr. Watson."

"No, but we saw someone. On the infrared camera."

"Impossible."

"He's right," Mary chimed in. "There was definitely someone in your room."

"I have been walking the corridors this entire time. Following just behind you. It's been immensely entertaining, I must admit.”

"There's one way to solve this," said Sherlock, and he reached for the doorknob. "If I may?"

Magnussen gestured magnanimously. "Be my guest."

John took a deep breath, and Sherlock swung open the door.

Chapter Text

“Well, that’s it.”

Mary put down the last box of her things and scrubbed her face with her sleeve.

“Good timing.” John finished dusting down half of the bookshelf and stood back. He gestured to it with all the imagined grace of a stage magician. “For you.”

“What did you do with the magazines?”

“Binned. I’d read them all anyway. And if not, I wasn’t likely to.”

“That’s sweet.” She stepped in to kiss him, but instead rubbed her sweaty cheek along his.

“Ugh. For fuck’s…” Chuckling, he mopped himself off with the shoulder of his t-shirt. “Yeah, thanks for that.”

“You’re welcome,” she trilled, and he heard her snickering all the way into the kitchen.

He looked down at the box of books. “You want me to do all this, then?”

“Nah, I’ll get it in a moment.” She emerged from the kitchen with a glass of water and plopped down onto the sofa. “Thank god that’s over. Why do I have so much bullshit?”

“Condition of the modern man?”

“The modern woman?” Mary raised an eyebrow over the rim of her glass.

“That too.”

John made himself busy binning the used cleaning cloths and washing his hands. When he came back Mary was just putting her glass on the coffee table and assessing the boxes of books in front of her. “Want help?” he said.

“Nope.”

“Let me, er. Let me know.” He stared round the room. He had no idea what to do with himself. She’d already integrated most of her belongings with his, and each item stood out in neon, blaring that it didn’t belong. Letting her move in felt like escorting an invader into the city with a printed invitation, gates wide open. Even the Trojans had to go through the time and expense of building a horse. All Mary had to do was ask him to marry her and hope he'd say yes.

John’s mouth twisted. It might be a flawed metaphor, except if Mary truly was planning to kill from within. If that were true, it would be horribly on point.

“If you’re bored,” she said, “why don’t you go see what Sherlock is up to?”

He blinked himself out of his reverie, heart suddenly pounding. “What?”

“You could see Sherlock today. I’m going to be at this for hours yet, probably, and was just planning on pizza for dinner. Might be good for you to get out of the house a bit.”

Why? he wanted to ask. Suspicion prickled at the edges of his consciousness. “You’re sure?”

She rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t have said it if I wasn’t. Go have fun.”

John was torn. Was she planning to bug the flat while he was gone? Wouldn’t she have done that already? What was she planning? Did she think there was something incriminating hidden for her to find? There wasn’t. He had more than half a mind to say no, but he'd been gagging to see Sherlock. It had been nearly a full week since they’d seen each other last, and he still wasn’t used to being in the same city and not being with him every day. It was slow, steady torture.

He broke. “Yeah, sure. That. That sounds good. Good idea. Thanks.”

“Excellent,” Mary smiled at him, and it actually looked sincere. John really, really wanted to believe it was. It wasn’t, obviously. But it would make things so much simpler if it were.

He went looking for his keys.


“I was terrified, you know.” John stretched his arm over the back of the park bench. The wood was weathered under his fingertips, and he rubbed it over and over until the roughness made his skin numb.

Several feet away, separated from John by the armrest and too much empty air, Sherlock inhaled slowly through his nose and let it out before speaking. “I know.”

“I had no idea if you were okay.”

“I’d rather not discuss it here, John.”

“Where the hell else_ are_ we going to talk about it?” John turned sideways to stare at his profile. “Really. Where?”

Sherlock studied his hands. He curled and uncurled them in his lap. “That’s a very good question.”

“This was your plan, Sherlock. And I think I’ve done pretty well—“

“You’ve done an incredible job.“

“But I don’t think it’s too much to know what the next step is.”

Sherlock gazed across at the guards and the tourists. “Your marriage.”

“Yes, Sherlock, I’d got that. But what next?”

John heard Sherlock take another steadying breath. “Then we see what her next move is.”

“And what if her plan is murdering me in my sleep, hm?”

“Ridiculous, John. If she’d wanted to kill you she could have done it already.”

“Comforting.” John huffed a humourless laugh. “Very comforting.” But it was true. It was why he’d consented to her moving in, after all.

"Have you found anything new on her computer?"

"No. Is she still going to see…what's his name. Hardy's real name."

"Rob Adair."

"She's still reporting to him?"

"We don't know that's what she's doing."

"Yeah, but it seems likely, doesn't it? Reporting to him? Or picking something up and dropping it off at the gym when she goes there afterward. And you still don't know if this is a long game to assassinate him as well."

"There's no evidence either way."

John went on, talking out loud to get a better handle on it. "There's no connection to what she carries with her each time, or how long she stays, and he seldom does anything more interesting than go to the shops after she leaves. He doesn't even seem to be employed, so you don't know how he affords the flat."

"No."

"And you still don't want to just…like…arrest him."

Sherlock pinned him with a flat, sharp look. "Softly softly."

"Yeah, sorry if that doesn't feel very reassuring when it's my neck in the tiger trap and she's aiming a gun at my head."

"Your metaphors are particularly horrible today."

"Let me tell you how much that bothers me right now."

"Any new friends?" Sherlock asked.

"Her or me?"

"John…"

"Not unless when she went out to lunch with Delphinia the other day they were really plotting to assassinate Adair."

"Doubt it. She had a hamburger and a lemonade and bought a new top. That's all. If it were anyone but Delphinia I might be concerned, but such as it is…"

A dog walker passed them by, and a helicopter went overhead, and the world spun around them as John enjoyed being frustrated once again in Sherlock’s presence. "This is annoying as hell."

“Once we know what her plan is,” Sherlock said, “we can take steps to counteract it.”

“I had worked that out, thanks.”

“I thought it needed saying.”

“Nope. Just fine.”

“You were irritated, so I thought I’d—“

“I’m fine, Sherlock.”

After a breath, Sherlock started chuckling.

“What?” said John.

Sherlock shook his head. “Nothing.”

“Not nothing. What?”

“I was just… I was just thinking that even annoying you feels good.”

John couldn’t keep the smile from his face. He turned his head away so people on the street wouldn’t see the hearts in his eyes and connect them directly to Sherlock. “Twat.”

“Idiot.”

Affection set up shop in John’s chest and made it tough to breathe. He spotted a gelato shop and fancied a distraction. “Come on,” he said, scrubbing his hands on the thighs of his corduroys and standing up. “I’ll buy you an ice cream.”

Sherlock wasn’t moving. John turned to look at him, and his breath was stolen away by the fond, twisted, half-smile on his face.

“What?” John said, trying not to grin and completely failing.

“Nothing,” Sherlock said, and he stood up. He adjusted his collar, that smile still playing about his mouth, and set off for the shop. His words floated back. “Come on, John.”

The grin that split John’s face felt better than anything had in a long, long time. He hugged his coat round him and followed, electric joy sparking across his skin.

Chapter Text

The door swung silently on its hinges. The lack of sound was notable; all doors creaked, simply by virtue of time and material. They creaked unless they were specifically maintained not to.

John found it unnerving, to say the least.

At first it looked like Magnussen’s room was empty. It was large, with a more generous bed than strictly necessary—a fact which conjured mental images John would rather do without—and not a lot of furniture besides. The expanse of space, along with the weirdness of the silent door, raised gooseflesh on his arms. Mary charged in to clear the room and the en suite, and came back to the group gathered in the doorway when she was through.

"There's no one in here," she said.

"As I told you," said Magnussen.

"Wrrrong." It was a muffled voice, almost sing-song, and John tasted bitterness in his mouth. The bedclothes moved. The duvet must have been terribly thick, because even though it had appeared completely flat, out of its depths rose the slim and maddening frame of James Moriarty. His hair was tufted up in back. Dwarfed by the monstrous size of the bed, Moriarty gave them a cheeky grin as he rolled out and put on a massive, fake yawn. "I just had the most delicious dream. You were there and you were there and you were there." He pointed to Smallwood. "You most certainly weren't there, but I wouldn't be offended. Who are you?" He looked at Magnussen. "Who is she?"

“Lady Elizabeth Smallwood,” she answered instead, stepping into the room and pulling herself to her full height. She towered over him like a queen.

Moriarty cracked an amused grimace. “Not very pleased I don’t know her by sight, is she?” he joked to the rest of the group, but his expression soured. “I know her name, though, don’t I, Charles darling?”

Out of the corner of his eye, John caught Magnussen taking a deep breath, presumably to keep from strangling him. It appeared that urge was universal. "I'd asked you not to—"

"What?" Moriarty snapped, jumpstarting John's heart to an untenable pace. "How is that sentence meant to end, hmm? Are we feeling a bit invaded?" Moriarty dragged his gaze from Magnussen's perfectly-glossed shoes to the shine on his high forehead. "Or just trying to defend the sanctity of your bed? Afraid I'll sully it? Seems unlikely. I know where that mouth has been. Well…" He snorted and looked round at everyone as if bringing them in on the joke. "No I don't. I doubt even you can keep track."

Magnussen's face showed nothing—not even his frustration. "I prefer if you keep to our agreement."

"And to the colder parts of the house. Ah, but I forget myself, don't I. You've asked me not to come back here at all. Well don't forget, my Lord Tongue: I OWN YOU." The switch flipped, and everything in the room went cold. John could hear a pin drop. Moriarty's fierceness melted to a sweet smile. "I can do anything I like."

"What are you doing here?"

"What am I doing here? You don't know? You invited me to the party."

"I'm sure I would have remembered."

"No?"

"And I did not."

Moriarty shrugged, off-handedly. “No, I guess not. But you should have. You really, really should have.” He scanned the group, one by one, as they stood clustered in the doorway. “You are, all together, a gathering of my favourite type of people, my dears. People I own.” When his gaze fell on John, his eyes were dead. Deader than they’d ever been, and flatter than Magnussen’s by far. Sherlock might want to revise his position on who was the worst man in London. "I thought it might be nice for all of us to have a little chat together. Efficient. Get all the boring threats out of the way, then we can have some fun. You won't believe the fun I have planned." Then he got to Sherlock and he licked his lips. Sherlock stepped into the room by Smallwood’s side, advancing despite the hunger in Moriarty’s gaze. There was a stiffness in his movements, as if the sight of Moriarty made an echo of his injuries come flooding back.

“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me…” Moriarty sang. He twisted a wry, dangerous smile. “But you did, Sherlock, didn’t you?” For a moment, John was frozen in the headlights of Moriarty’s gaze, but was freed a moment later as Moriarty gazed at Sherlock again. “You and Johnny were sitting together. K-I-S-S-I-N-G.” John strangled down the urge to vomit.

He felt something brush his hand; it was Mary, shifting her weight to his right and behind, nestled in the space between him and Magnussen. There was a flash of cold. After a few moments he identified it as the barrel of a gun. Not the tranquilliser gun, though, no. Smallwood’s gun.

“Poor Mary,” Moriarty said. “Poor, sweet, lethal Mary. She never stood a chance, did she?” His gaze travelled sideways to pin her. “Still, I never thought to see you here. Were my adorable little wedding gifts not good enough? Or perhaps I left you alone a bit too long. Tell me, my dear." A smile stretched across his face: humourless, a thing of acid and promises. "Did you miss me?"

Without turning his head, John felt her shift her weight. Then she spoke very calmly. Very reasonably. “Vatican Cameos,” she said.

John threw his weight into the room, knocking Smallwood sideways like a bowling pin, clearing Mary’s line of sight. Sherlock hit the floor. There was the stunning report of an older gun fired indoors, and Moriarty dropped like a bundle of old clothes.

Slowly, almost gently, Mary lowered her arm. The corner of her mouth turned up, but her eyes were cutting and cold. "I never miss," she said. The smile spread to include teeth.

Helping Smallwood up, John couldn’t help but snicker. Sherlock got to his feet, looking at Moriarty’s body, stunned.

Silence ticked over. Magnussen began to giggle. "Well, that was…decisive."

"Listen, you disgusti—" John started, but he want on speaking over him.

"No no. Clearly it needed to be done. Who am I to judge?" He seemed to soak in Mary's visage, Moriarty's body, and the gun in her hand. "No one. I’m no one. I'm just a witness. It will be quite a pain to get the stains out of the carpet, but…well, obviously it was something you felt you had to do." John was certain Magnussen was considering just how to add this to his total list of offences committed by Mary. He also realised that, though Magnussen had lost the ability to pressure Mary by threatening to tell Moriarty, he nonetheless had gained the knowledge that he could turn her in for his murder. Surely there was surveillance video footage. It was an incredibly bad position to be in, and he wondered if Mary had thought it through at all.

Probably not.

And yet. And yet John suspected she didn’t care one bit.

In four quick steps he was there, feeling for a pulse and examining the entrance wound punched through the centre of Moriarty’s forehead. This time—this time—he was unquestionably gone.

Sherlock knelt down across from him. His hands skittered over Moriarty’s body—pulse point and wound, his wide-staring, glassy eyes—to examine whatever minutia he could read. He met John’s gaze. There were worlds of emotion in his eyes, but John suspected foremost was the same bitterness twisting John’s chest as well:

If only they’d been able to verify Moriarty’s death the first time, the past few years might have gone very differently.

"And you all witnessed her do it, too," Magnussen went on, pleased. John went to Lady Smallwood, who was staring vacantly at Moriarty's crumpled form, and woke her out of her reverie. She gave him a sick smile clearly intended to convince him she was fine. It didn’t work.

"Come," Magnussen said. He managed to herd them out the door by simply holding out his arm and guiding them like a sheepdog. No one wanted to touch him. He closed the bedroom door on Moriarty’s body, then led them down one corridor, and another, then past the door to the vaults they had tried before. He flicked on a light, revealing a clean, spare, huge room set out to be the sitting room. A large, uncomfortable-looking sectional backed up against a plate glass window. He clapped his hands together once as if delighted to play host, and John felt like he was trapped in a tank with a shark. "I'm afraid I don't have much in the way of staff at the moment, due to the holiday, but… Oh, that's right." His eyes sparkled, and the sight made John feel ill. "You knew that already, didn't you."

"You knew we would come here," said Sherlock, and the pieces snapped together in John's mind.

"I counted on it," Magnussen said.

John spoke up. "That's why you were following."

"You knew we were looking for a way in, so you let most of your staff go for the holiday and told Janine you were doing so. She in turn told us, and here we are."

"I regret that I used her in such away, but she was being such a naughty girl, telling you about my security. I appreciate having confirmation of her betrayal."

"Are you going to sack her?" John asked, suspecting he knew the answer.

He regretted it immediately, as Magnussen turned that glass-eyed stare on him. "Oh, no. Why would I do that?"

"Even more fodder for blackmailing her into doing your dirty work," said Sherlock.

"Blackmail. Such a simplistic word, isn't it?" Magnussen said. He went over to a sideboard and poured a finger of brown liquor into a highball glass. "I would offer you a glass of this, but it’s very rare and expensive."

Sherlock had barely moved. He was standing at the large entranceway, his back to the vault's door. "You prefer 'arrangements.'"

"So do you, I'm told." Magnussen toasted John with the glass. John curled his hands into fists.

"But why would you want us to be able to break in?" Sherlock's eyes narrowed speculatively. "You'd have wanted us to see something we could only see here. It's not the house; it's been adequately documented in magazines and in your own periodicals as a show of power. No, you'd have wanted us to see something specific to this house, that could conceivably convince us to back off. The vaults? No, that doesn't make any sense. Why would you have wanted us to see…" Sherlock's monologue fell off as something occurred to him. "I don't suppose you'd show us your vaults if I asked you to."

"But of course," Magnussen said, putting down his drink, and John was suddenly quite afraid of what they'd find.

…Or wouldn't find, it turned out, because after Magnussen had keyed in the code and bent to the pad for the retinal scan, the only thing they found behind the door was an empty room harbouring a single chair.

"Your blueprints indicate otherwise," said Sherlock

"Blueprints can be forged," Magnussen said, "if the right people owe you favours."

"If you have them under your thumb, you mean."

Magnussen spread his hands. "As you say." He smiled, and John wanted to knock his teeth in.

"So where do you keep your—" Sherlock let out a breath. "Oh, of course."

"There are no vaults beneath this building, Mr. Holmes." He touched the side of his head. "They're all in here." With a start, John understood, and as his stomach sank his mind spun. "The Appledore vaults are my mind palace. You know about mind palaces, don’t you, Sherlock? How to store information so you never forget it: by picturing it. I just sit here, I close my eyes, and down I go." Magnussen sat in the chair and closed his eyes. "I can go anywhere inside my vaults. My memories."

Magnussen began to move his head, eyes still closed, as if physically walking through his mind. He reached forward into midair, fingers moving with a spider's spindly grace. "I’ll look at the files on your…partnership with John." As he paged through invisible files, he hummed pleasantly. It would be, as Mary would say, 'easy peasy' to take him down right the hell now. Surely no one in this room would mind a bit.

"Ahhh," said Magnussen, as if he had found the file he was looking for. "This is one of my favourites. So romantic." He paged through the invisible file, and John stepped forward, fists ready. Sherlock grabbed him by the shoulder to pull him back, and he shook his head just once. John's nostrils flared. "Sharing an ice cream on a park bench. Reconnecting after being so long away." He turned a page in the air. "But where is your wife, John? Oh, that's right, she wasn't your wife yet. Such a shame. All that time, wasted. Having to pretend, when she was pretending too." He turned yet another page, and chuckled. The sound raised gooseflesh on John's arms. Across the way, he saw Mary shift the weight of Smallwood’s gun. Sherlock shook his head again, and while her jaw firmed as if to disobey, after a moment she subsided. "How good you all were, dancing your little dance. All for nothing. Here's Wicked Mary, showering at the gym after an assignation, just so you wouldn't smell him on her. And you, John, stuck grasping for titbits of affection from an addict." He clicked his tongue and moved as if to shut the invisible file drawer. "Such a shame."

"What is your point," Sherlock said, voice dark and cold as an arctic night.

"You have no proof," said John.

"Proof? What did I need proof for? My business is news. I don't have to prove it. I just have to print it. But now with the body upstairs…oh, I have so much proof now that…that…"

The sound of a helicopter broke into John's consciousness, and from the way Magnussen trailed off, it seemed it did his as well. John realised he'd been hearing its approach for a long time, but he'd been so preoccupied with Magnussen's theatrics that it hadn't properly filtered through. They all turned to witness a pair of helicopters alighting on the lawn outside Magnussen's window. Behind them, Magnussen stood and closed the doors to his 'vault'. Without speaking, he walked to the french doors and stood, head tilted, watching as a handful of people in uniform came walking towards the house.

As they approached, John became aware that they were all security service personnel. And that one of the men was Mycroft Holmes.

Without saying a word, Magnussen opened up the door to allow the agents to enter. "I can only presume this is about James Moriarty," he said when Mycroft came within range.

Mycroft's eyebrows raised. "What makes you say that?"

"I have no other explanation for your presence here. What can I do for you and your team, Mycroft Holmes?"

"Oh, I'm not with them," he said, waving a hand at the agents swarming around securing the room. "I just wanted to observe."

"Observe?" Magnussen said.

"Charles Augustus Magnussen." A woman in a black suit grabbed his wrist and curled his arm behind his back. "I'm arresting you under suspicion of blackmail with menaces, racketeering, and general bribery offences. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence."

Magnussen laughed, and the scorn pulsed the anger in John's veins. "What proof could you possibly have of all this?" said Magnussen as they handcuffed him and began to usher him toward the doors. Lady Smallwood reached out and flicked his cheek as he went by, a look of vengeance burning its way across her face.

"I think you'll find we have more proof than we need, really," she said. "Your assistant has been most helpful."

John's brain turned this over as they led Magnussen to the helicopter. His assistant—Who? Janine? What did Janine do? "Sherlock, what did Janine do?"

"Oh, we've been used. Isn't it lovely?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"While we’ve been digging into Magnussen's affairs, Janine has been using our efforts to distract from some efforts of her own. She must have finally found enough to call it in. Beautifully done. Perfect timing."

"Wait. Did you know about this?"

"I strongly suspected."

"Sherlock." John took a few step closer, more than a little frustrated. "Not that I'm not pleased with the result, but you promised. You promised me. No more secrets."

"You told me you didn't want to hear another word about Janine."

"I meant about you and— I didn't mean this."

"Well, you should have specified. How was I meant to know—"

John made a bovine groan of anger and stifled the urge to slap him. "So all this breaking in was…what, fake?"

"No, no, John. I genuinely wanted to see the vaults."

"Turns out you could have just asked for a damn tour."

"It certainly appears so, doesn't it." Sherlock's brow furrowed and his head tilted as he stared into mid-air, thinking.

"Listen, I hate to break up your pleasant little bicker," said Mary, "but I think there's something…er…deadly important you're forgetting." She raised her eyebrows and tilted her head.

Sherlock spun to her. "Deadly imp— Yes. Quite. Oh Mycroft, if I might have a word." They stepped into the corner and had a whispered conversation that lasted a grand total of ten seconds.

"No," Mycroft said aloud in disbelief. He turned toward Lady Smallwood, Mary, and John in turn. "Well," he said, and blinked his face into a benevolent expression. "It's fortunate, then, that one can't be convicted for murdering a dead man." His face was glacial: placid, cold, hiding miles of secrets below the surface.

"You're having far too much fun with this," Sherlock accused him.

"Not at all."

"Too much fun."

"I'm simply pleased to be able to bear witness during such an important development." He thumbed something into his mobile.

"Oh, go away, Mycroft. Your smugness is getting all over the floor."

"As it happens, I do have quite a bit of paperwork to do, what with this new information you’ve handed me.” He finished typing and turned for the door, but then stopped when his gaze fell on Mary and the tranquilliser gun. Her spine straightened. But Mycroft only inclined his head. "Mrs. Watson.”

“Mycroft.”

They stared at each other for a few seconds before Mycroft spoke. “I have some forms you might be interested in filling in, when all this is through."

"Forms?" she asked.

He continued toward the door. "Divorce papers," Mycroft said over his shoulder, and he pushed out into the night.

"Overdramatic bastard," John said under his breath, but without any particular venom. He couldn't find it in him to be angry—not tonight, not with Magnussen being arrested and Moriarty finally dead as dead could be. Confused, yes. Angry, no.

Mary’s face was expressionless. "He’s had them drawn up the whole time."

"Oh, probably," Sherlock said, and shot his cuffs from within his coat. "His efficiency is somehow both annoying and useful. I don't know how he manages." He, too, headed for the exit.

"So that's it?" said John, trailing at his heels. He stopped him before they reached the french doors.

Sherlock turned. "What did you expect would happen?"

"I don't know." John shrugged. "…More?"

"Moriarty is dead. Magnussen is a guest of the authorities. The vaults aren't vaults, and there's nothing left for us to do."

"It just feels like…there should be more."

Before John could react, Sherlock took his face in both hands and laid a soft, sweet kiss on his mouth.

The moment was over before it had begun.

"There. Better now?" There was the barest twinkle in Sherlock's eye before he strode off. John stood there at a loss, wondering what had just happened.

Mary came up beside him and clapped him on the shoulder, apparently having recovered from whatever had passed between her and Mycroft. "What did you expect? It's all finished for you," she said. “Deus ex…everyone else.” She supported her stomach and made her way outside. Then Lady Smallwood was the only one left. She said nothing, but only gave John an amused look and trailed Mycroft, Sherlock, and Mary out the door.

John stood in the cold sitting room, ignored by agents gathering evidence. "Right," he said, and nodded. "Right. Yes. Good." And he followed Sherlock into the night.


The ride back to 221B was oddly serene, for all that had just passed.

"I liked her," Mary spoke into the dark from the front seat of the car. Mycroft had insisted on sending them home in one of his own vehicles.

"Who?"

"Smallwood. I liked her."

"But she didn't let you keep her gun," John said.

Mary snorted. "I didn't expect her to. Still had to ask, though. It's a nice gun."

"Well." John shrugged and looked out the window. "True."

"I'm impressed she had it in the first place."

"Her father's, she said?"

"Grandfather's. Not a bad heirloom, as things go."

"You know how those old families are. Rooms full of hunting rifles and dusty furniture."

Sherlock made a noise which sounded like he was stifling a snort, but he didn't add to the conversation. He'd barely spoken since they left Magnussen's. John had assumed he was processing everything that had happened: taking every moment out, studying it, and filing it away.

"Is that what Sherlock's ancestral manse is like?” said Mary. “Hunting dogs and an old Range Rover?"

"I don't know. I’ve never been there." John smothered a smile with his hand, but doubtless Sherlock knew it was there anyway.

"It's nearly Christmas. We'll have to invite ourselves over. See for ourselves."

"That depends. I'm not sure you'd be able to convince Sherlock to—"

"Okay fine." Sherlock broke. "Fine. We can all go to Christmas dinner. Will you two shut up now? I'm thinking."

John considered for a moment before he spoke. "I wonder if you might bring Rob." The silence that suggestion brought on made the night outside the cab seem endlessly dark. "…Okay, maybe that's not a…" He sighed.

Mary turned as far round in her seat as she could manage, and John could hear her looking at them. "You'd want that?"

It took a moment of further thought, but eventually John nodded. "Yeah. I think so. Yeah."

"Knowing my parents, once they learned of him they wouldn't have it any other way," said Sherlock, sounding sidetracked once more.

All of a sudden, John could feel his pulse in his palms. Sherlock's parents, Mary and Rob, and…him and Sherlock. Even with Mycroft there, being paired up with Sherlock suddenly seemed way too real. He grasped for a change of subject. “Sherlock’s never going to forgive you, you know,” he said, forcing a smile.

There was a heavy moment before Mary answered. Belatedly, John realised how that sounded, and he felt the whole world waiting on her response. “…Oh?”

John swallowed, but pressed on. “Moriarty never got a chance to tell us his plan.”

The silence in the car dragged out for endless seconds. Mary shifted. “Oh, you know Big Brother will suss it out, given half a moment with that arsehole’s stuff. He wouldn’t be able to help himself.”

“I suppose…” John coughed. “I suppose that’s true.”

“Besides which, it’s better than the alternative.”

“Which is?”

“Once the bastard got to talking, he never shut up.”

John couldn’t help but laugh, even nervously. “We also never learned how he faked his death.”

“Does it matter? He’s dead now.”

“No.” John quietly mourned the last few years. It was time he’d never get back. “No, I guess not.”

Even in death, Moriarty could continue to make John sad.

“I don’t care, as long as he’s fucking gone,” Mary said.

"So…those creepy dolls of us that we got for our wedding, in the unmarked purple box. Those were from him, too."

"I'd wondered."

“Taunting?”

“Another thing we’ll never know.”

"What did we do with them?"

"I threw them out."

"Damn,” John spat.

"Why?"

"I want to set them on fire."

Mary sniffed a laugh. "Or use them for target practise."

"Haven't you had enough target practise tonight?" John smiled.

"If I can't shoot him again, I'd gladly shoot his stuff."

John giggled, trying to shush her in front of Mycroft's driver. She just rolled her eyes, unconcerned. John was suddenly glad Sherlock hadn't won his bid to take a cab. “Don’t know why you can’t do both. You didn’t seem to have a problem earlier shooting a dead man a second time. Overkill is your—” The light dawned. “Oh. That was why you hadn’t wanted her to shoot Magnussen.” He turned to Sherlock. “Technically Moriarty was already dead.”

Silhouetted against the rolling flare of the passing street lamps, Sherlock’s profile barely moved. “Mm.”

“Mycroft could deal with that paperwork, easy, but he might have had trouble plastering over the murder of a living publishing magnate.”

“Mm.”

“Oh.” It wouldn’t even have occurred to him, but it made sense. What’s more, so high on adrenaline, anger, and Moriarty’s death, he too might have killed Magnussen without a second thought. If Sherlock hadn’t have held him back, he would have. It was a near miss, and it made John feel ill. "I don’t really want the salad."

"Huh?" said Mary, bemused at the change of subject.

"Back at the flat. The salad. Before we left?" It was years ago, and John had just abandoned the carrots to their fate. They didn't sound appealing in the slightest.

"Thai," Mary said. "Or Ethiopian." She nodded briskly and leaned back in her seat.

"Sherlock?" John looked at Sherlock’s profile. "Any preference?"

Without a word, Sherlock reached across the seat and interlaced their fingers. The leather of his gloves was smooth and warm.

"Okay," John said, holding Sherlock's hand with both of his and bowing to the sudden compulsion to kiss his knuckles. "I guess if it's my turn to choose…Ethiopian it is."

Chapter Text

Mary was laughing: head back, mouth open, full-voiced. It sounded like bells.

John couldn't help laughing back.

"He's such a fucking wanker," she said. "He came in there all cock-of-the-walk, demanding I get him a new coffee because his was cold. Cold. Meaning, he'd just not bothered to drink it. And now it was my fault."

"What did you do?" John said, gleeful.

"Mmm." Mary wrapped her legs round his hips and he sunk down deep, deep. "I dumped the entire cup into his lap. Turns out it was cold."

John rocked forward and back, a lifeboat rapping against the pier on every wave. Her eyes went foggy with pleasure. "Serves him…right," he got out between gasps.

She moaned. "Serves him right." She tossed her hair and it spread out against the pillow; black, black as feathers, raven-dark and rich. It flowed over the side of the bed. She chuckled, and it was Sherlock's chuckle. Her neck was long, and masculine, and when she cried out her adam's apple bobbed. It was Sherlock's throat, and Sherlock's voice. John pushed in harder. He curled his hips.

"Perfect. Perfect. Perfect," Sherlock gasped. A litany. A testament to John's sexual capabilities. The act of fucking Sherlock wasn't strange at all. He was inside, finally, and Sherlock thought it was perfect.

John dropped his head to watch what he was doing and was surprised to find nothing but bedding underneath him. Wondering where everyone was, he rolled out of bed and padded out into the garden. It was a rooftop garden, like in films. Standing near the edge was Moriarty.

He was spinning, his arms raised up like a sorcerer, raising a high wind. It caught at his scarf and swirled it in undulating curves, rising and falling with physics-defying slowness, a physical embodiment of the storm. His gaze snared John's, and though he stopped spinning immediately, his clothes kept moving. He looked as if he were underwater. John realised Moriarty was wearing Sherlock's coat and scarf. It was too big for him; the sleeves nearly covered his hands.

"This is your fault, you know," Moriarty said.

"What is?"

Moriarty ushered John over to the side of the building, his body giving off energy like a force field. It made the hairs on the back of John's neck stand on end. John was entirely unable to fight back; he stepped toward the edge and looked down.

Sherlock was there, floating, falling in slow-motion at a single foot per second. There was terror plastered all over his face. He reached out to John with one hand. John reached back.

"You did this," Moriarty hissed. "You didn't do as you were told."

"But I did." John pushed the words out past his heart as desperation clogged his throat. "I'm doing it."

"Not well enough. You're a failure, Watson. And that's why Sherlock has to fall."

"It's not real."

"It is too." Moriarty pouted. "You shouldn't doubt me. Bad things will happen."

Far below, Sherlock's mouth was moving silently. With the entire strength of his will, John tried to catch him and bring him back, but still Sherlock fell. Agonising, slow-motion falling. Endless. Eternal. John felt the tears streaming down his face, but there was nothing he could do. No amount of wishing was going to bring him back again.

But John wasn't going to give up. It was the least he could do, to follow Sherlock down to the bottom. He would watch until the end came. He would hope and hope and hope, and keep his eyes on Sherlock to the last. The ground was coming up closer now. Panic spread through John's chest like contagion as he stretched his arm out and Sherlock—

John slammed his eyes open. He was awake but couldn't move. In his mind he jerked his head down to see what was holding him fast, but he was aware that his head was moving only a fraction of an inch at a time. The panic from his dream was thudding through his blood and squeezing his throat shut. He was suffocating. Someone was trying to kill him.

Out of the corner of his eye John saw Moriarty lurking. John could feel him move closer, but the harder he fought to defend himself the more his body resisted, like pushing his toes into the fine sand at the edge of the surf. His heart thundered so hard he had trouble hearing where Moriarty was. Any moment he expected to feel a knife in his chest or his gut slit open, or for flames to engulf the bed.

Seconds passed. Terrified, John struggled to see the attack coming.

Slowly, ever so slowly, John’s ability to move crept back. He realised he could move his neck, and as he turned his head to look for Moriarty he began to move his thigh, then his elbow, and eventually, with agonising slowness, his feet and hands. John swallowed down a sob as relief flooded through him; it was only sleep paralysis. Normal. Absolutely normal. He hadn't been poisoned or drugged, and there was no Moriarty. This was all perfectly normal.

With that awareness came grief that filled him like a warm tide. He rolled over away from Mary and grimaced into his pillow.

Why didn't I fight to see the body. John bit the words tightly up against the back of his teeth. It was no surprise he kept having nightmares about him; there hadn’t been any sort of closure. Even all these years later, he was having trouble believing Moriarty was truly dead.

"Mmm. John?"

John pressed his face harder into his pillow. This is not what he needed right now.

"Bad dream?" She rested her hand on his shoulder. Instantly he jerked away.

"M'fine." He rolled out of bed and made a beeline for the en-suite, grabbing his mobile on the way, hoping she didn't turn on the light. This would be fractionally easier so long as the room wasn’t illuminated. He locked the door and slid to the ground, repeatedly cursing his inability to keep it together and Sherlock for putting him in this situation, then not being there to pick up the pieces.

He texted the emergency number Sherlock had set up back when John was going to come with him. The one John wasn't supposed to use. The one John had never used. The one John hoped was still a secret even though Sherlock was only across the city now, instead of across the world.

I miss you.

So much.

Just wanted to make sure you're okay.

I love you, he thought, but that was too far even for a text into the aether. Then he had a mild panic that the line was being monitored or that Mary would hack his phone and see what he'd been sending.

Sorry. Wrong number. he texted, then went back through and deleted all the sent messages. He debated restoring his phone from factory settings in the morning. He could do that now; the past few years had done wonders for his technological growth. John would have been proud of himself, if he weren't so bitter that it had been necessary.

He splashed some cold water on his face, flushed the toilet as if he'd used it, and headed back to bed. If only Mary would stay quiet, he could fall back asleep and pretend none of this ever happened.

Thankfully, she did. John curled up on his side away from her, hugging his pillow, pretending that the warm body on the other side of the bed was Sherlock. He envisioned the length of his naked spine, from the curl at the nape of his neck to the crack of his arse, smooth and graceful. He envisioned the jut of his shoulder blades, and the curve of his hip. He envisioned him scratching his arse. It made John's heart feel a bit lighter, and he forced a watery smile.

Eventually, gradually, John fell into a dreamless sleep.


When he woke in the morning there was a new message from an unknown number.

Sleep well and dream of elephants. -Gladys

Chapter Text

After a subdued late-night meal, John directed the cab to 221B and tried not to anticipate what might happen afterward. But as he got out to follow Sherlock into the flat, Mary gave him a knowing look from the back seat. It sent adrenaline fluttering through his stomach. He shut the door between himself and her tiny smile.

John took a deep breath as the cab pulled away.

He and Sherlock both leaned heavily on the bannister and dropped their coats on the sofa without looking. "What do you…" John tried to swallow. The muscles in his throat ached. "What do we do now?"

"You'll want to shower, I expect," Sherlock murmured.

“Why does Magnussen always make me want to scrub my skin off?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?”

“No…” John licked his lips and fumbled for the next thing to say. “Are you going to take one?”

There was a long silence. "Are… Yes, but…"

"You go first," John said, blowing past any question of showering together. Not yet. Not now. Besides which, if Sherlock went now it would give John a chance to dig up some pyjamas.

He waited until the shower was running before heading into Sherlock’s bedroom. It looked largely the same as it had during Sherlock's convalescence except for one thing: there, tucked into the corner and nearly hidden by a gigantic construction of piled books, was John’s chair.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” John sat on the bed and stared, rooted in indecision, stuck between laughter and tears. Had that arsehole kept the chair back here the whole time? John sat and stared and wondered, too wrung out to do much else. It took several minutes for him to gather himself together to grab some clothes, and he only just made it back to the sitting room before Sherlock emerged in a cloud of steam, pointedly saying nothing and making a beeline for his room.

John stared at his closed door. Then he went to take his own shower.

Afterward, John found Sherlock reading in front of the cold fireplace, his wet hair darkening the silken collar of his dressing gown. John came to a stop in the middle of the room, absolutely at a loss for what to do. "So…" he started. He stared at the angle of Sherlock's shoulders and willed him to look up. "I'm exhausted. I don’t expect you’re…tired at all?"

“No. But don’t let me stop you.”

"I…" What was he meant to do with that? Where was John meant to sleep? In Sherlock's bed? Upstairs? On the sofa? Disappointment spread through him like ink in water.

He watched Sherlock turn a page. But before he turned another Sherlock's gaze flickered up to John. "Is there something you wanted?"

Are you serious? John blinked in consternation. "No."

"Fine." Sherlock went back to reading.

Or perhaps not reading. John watched Sherlock stare into the middle distance just past the edge of his book, his eyes barely glancing over the pages before he turned them. Sherlock was thinking. Sherlock was stalling.

John hadn't the foggiest idea how to instigate this, but he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was going to sleep—at least sleep—next to Sherlock tonight. Scenarios spun through John's head, and he examined and disregarded one after another until finally he gave up. Schemes weren't going to get this job done. But truth might do.

It had been such a painfully long time since truth was possible, John was a bit surprised he even remembered it was an option.

He held out his hand. "Come on."

Sherlock looked up at him in shock. "I beg your pardon?"

John beckoned. "Up. Put the book down. Let's go."

"Don't be ridiculous," Sherlock scoffed.

"Up." This time, John allowed a trace of the officer to tinge his voice, and though Sherlock had gone back to pretending to read, with that one word John saw Sherlock's chest heave with a sudden breath. "Stand up, and come to bed."

Sherlock hadn't been moving much to start with, but with this John saw every muscle in his body go still. "I'm not tired," he said quietly.

"Good," John said, and felt dark pleasure at the way Sherlock's ribs flared again.

Slowly, Sherlock set the book down on the floor next to his chair, but he still didn't look at John. He stood, eyes averted, then gestured down the corridor to his bedroom.

John was suddenly too nervous to feel any sense of accomplishment. He turned to lead the way, the back of his neck prickling with the awareness of Sherlock following behind. Once in the room, he wasn't sure whether he should dive in and take his clothes off, or…

With that thought, John was stabbed with a thrill of nerves so strong he was nauseated. Perhaps they really should just sleep.

John left the lamp off, so the only light in the room was the pale glow under the door and from the en-suite. As John's eyes adjusted he just barely saw Sherlock slip out of his dressing gown and fling it into John’s chair, then crawl directly into bed. John followed his lead.

They had lain there in an awkward silence for several minutes before John finally broke it to say goodnight. Sherlock didn't respond. In fact, he hadn't even moved since getting into bed. John reached out touch his shoulder, and was startled when Sherlock jumped a mile.

"Jesus, Sherlock. Sorry."

Sherlock kept silent, settled back down against his pillow, and pulled the duvet up closer round his neck. John heard the rasp of his breath being stifled, and he wondered just how fast Sherlock's heart was beating—if it, like John’s, was going so quickly it had become a persistent flutter marking out the seconds of quiet between them.

He nestled further into the bed, noting the firmness of the mattress and the chill of the room and the comforting smell of Sherlock's sleep-sweat in the sheets. The room seemed larger in the dark and from the unfamiliar angle. Next to him, Sherlock was just a lump with his back to John.

This was not how John had imagined their first night together might go. Nonetheless, he rolled over to put his back to Sherlock and willed himself to sleep.


He woke to a feeling of heat. Of humidity. Of breath on his cheek.

Awareness dawned, bit by bit, a dreamy fog like the mist rolling back. John realised in their sleep he and Sherlock had become clutching vines, wrapped and entangled, grown round each other. He dared not move for fear he’d break the tenuous peace they’d brokered.

Sherlock's breathing became more shallow. Good morning crystallised in John's mind, but something held it back in his throat. He brushed his lips against Sherlock's cheek and exhaled. Ever so slightly, he felt the thigh between his own shift: tantalising. Arousing. Again, he grazed his mouth along Sherlock's cheek and ghosted air on his skin. There was a click in Sherlock's throat. His hips shifted.

Before John's next thought they were kissing: sweet as molasses, soft as silk. Each kiss slid into the next, forming an endless cycle of press and retreat, press and retreat, dry morning mouth and texture and an unbearable, perfect intimacy. The only sounds in the room were the shifting of bedsheets and their tattered breath and the tiny stifled noises of passion too overwhelming too contain.

When Sherlock finally let loose a gentle moan, John’s world tilted with an excess of love. He gripped hard to Sherlock’s body until he recovered his equilibrium, then slipped his hand up beneath Sherlock's t-shirt for further stability. Then stopped.

"Let me see," he whispered.

From four inches away, in the low light of that ragged edge of dawn, it was too difficult to read Sherlock's face. He was still and quiet. John listened to him breathe. Just when he was about to rescind his request Sherlock swallowed.

"If you like."

The only good reason to allow Sherlock to pull away was to let him strip off his top and lie face down, limned by the pink-tinged light slanting through the window. The angle highlighted the scars cutting across his back: an artist's violent hatch-marks which told the story of Sherlock's time away.

"Are there more?" John said into the quiet. He traced between them with his fingertips. Sherlock shivered.

"Many."

"Let me see."

Their time in the train carriage had been wrong for exploration. Too bright by far, and too fast, all adrenaline and hurry and force and fire. There hadn't been time to catalogue scars. Now, however, Sherlock allowed John to strip him down to nothing and trace the healed marks, the still-healing marks, with lips and tongue. Thigh, stomach, bicep, calf.

It was only fair afterward to let him do the same in return.

"Oh christ," John gasped, head shoved back into the pillow and his fingers pushed into Sherlock's curls while he explored a scar on John's side with his mouth. He felt every exhalation ruffle the hair on his lower belly. The ache in his groin pulsed with his heartbeat. They were learning each other, he realised; their familiar bodies had become unfamiliar once stripped down, when touched with such intimacy, and they required relearning. Inch by agonising, pleasurable inch.

John tugged Sherlock up. He needed to kiss him very, very badly.

They met in a desperate clash. Sherlock caged John’s face in his hands and gulped at John’s mouth, making a plaintive noise that was so urgent it spun John’s world on its axis. It shattered his control. The kiss turned frantic, intense, blazing. John clutched at him in an attempt to maintain coherence, but the passion scattered him to the winds.

Sherlock trembled. John slid his hands down his back, slid his leg between his thighs, and slid his tongue into his mouth. He skated his fingers down the perfect curve of Sherlock's spine and marvelled at how much harder it made him shake; he was wildly affected.

John rocked Sherlock back and released him onto the bed, and the movement made his eyes open. John was stunned at the sight; Sherlock was so doped with neurohormones he looked high. Love drunk. John trailed his fingers up over Sherlock's hip and round his cock. The reaction was electric—silent but undeniable, and Sherlock's spine arched and his jaw fell open with the shock of it all. John felt pride stab through his chest.

Greedy for more reaction, John stared as he stroked, watching how it felt: the tiny widening of his eyelids, the repeated tightening and loosening of his jaw, the telltale flutter of his eyelashes, the tremble at his mouth. He drank in the bob of Sherlock's throat when John swiped a thumb over the head. He had Sherlock literally in the palm of his hand. His pleasure was entirely in John's control, and it was written there, plain, all over Sherlock’s face.

Keep your eyes fixed on me.

It was one of the most gorgeous things John had ever seen.

Sherlock didn't break eye contact even when John heard his breathing hitch, or even when he felt him become impossibly hard and fist one hand in the rumpled duvet. It was the only warning he had before Sherlock's cock jerked and his mouth went slack. Even while he spilled hot over and over, slicking John's hand, still he stared into John's eyes.

As his orgasm unfurled its tendrils through his body, Sherlock melted into the bed. He groaned, deep, from the pit of him. The sound curled John's toes and he surged over to take Sherlock’s mouth with a kiss. It was full, indolent and unctuous, with no haste. Pliable and satisfied. He’d done this to Sherlock; turned him into this bliss-soaked creature. The thought turned John mindless with need.

Sherlock's hands were large. It was something John had been aware of for years. What he hadn’t understood was that Sherlock’s hand on John’s cock felt so much larger than his own, covered so much more, that as Sherlock stroked it felt as if every inch were being touched at every moment. There was no beginning or end. The tide rose higher and higher, and John bit down on Sherlock's shoulder to keep from being washed away. He scrabbled for purchase, ending up with one hand clutching Sherlock's hip and the other sweating palm curled in the sheets. He could barely focus his eyes, but he tried to hold his head up to meet Sherlock's gaze nonetheless.

The depth of love he saw there was shattering. How did Sherlock usually hide all of it away? How could he stand it? Little wonder he had so many walls; it must take a lifetime of construction to protect that much heart. And all of it was focused on John.

John stared into the well and fell in. Love swamped him, closing over his head, stealing his breath. He was lost. Everything took on the dully-buzzing, sharply-pleasured point of no return, and John screwed his eyes up and clamped his teeth down on Sherlock’s shoulder against the overflow of feeling. He cried out as the tension unwound in pulse after pulse after pulse.

It left him spent. Serene. Empty. Silence enfolded them as they curled round each other, muffling the world, cradling them in comfort. Before he could gather enough focus to speak, John tumbled into sleep.

It was the best rest he'd had in a long, long time.


For the second time that day, John awoke in Sherlock’s arms.

The winter afternoon light coming through the window was strong, crystal-bright and sharp-edged. The haziness of dawn had burned off as they slept, sculpting everything with an unreal clarity—including what had happened in that dreamy, early morning fog.

One thing was more clear than anything, however: John had to piss like crazy.

Carefully, he unpicked himself from Sherlock’s clutches and skulked off to the en-suite, smiling to himself. There were all manner of things surprising him that morning, not the least of which was that he’d never have figured Sherlock a cuddler. But there he’d been, holding on as if John’s body was the only thing keeping him afloat, and John felt like the luckiest bastard on the planet.

When he got back Sherlock rolled out of bed and made a break for the en-suite himself, leaving John to nestle back down in bed to soak up the warmth and wonder if Sherlock was planning on coming back. To John's pleasant surprise, he did.

“‘Morning,” Sherlock muttered, and slipped back underneath the covers with a groan. John wondered if he’d opened his eyes during that entire trip; he still looked mostly asleep. That was something familiar in all this, at least; Sherlock wasn’t going to be a morning person whether they were shagging or not.

“Good afternoon,” John said. He scooted in and kissed Sherlock’s shoulder. Sherlock pulled him close into a lazy hug and snuggled in, clearly planning on going back to sleep. “Not finished sleeping yet?”

“Nn-nnh.”

“Making up for lost time?”

“Mmm-hmm.”

Affection tightened John’s throat. He kissed Sherlock's hair and smoothed it back from his face. “We need another shower. And I was considering breakfast. A real, cooked breakfast. Not cereal. I bet I could beg something sweet off Mrs. Hudson, too. You want a scone?”

“Nnn-hn.” Sherlock’s arm tightened round John’s waist.

John chuckled. “Fine.” He lay back down and resigned himself to a rumbling stomach for a while longer.

"I keep expecting someone to barge in on us with a gun,” Sherlock murmured in low-amplitude vibrations along the bed.

"Or a marriage license."

Sherlock chuckled. "A court order. No fraternisation. Send us to the brig."

"I think you're mixing your metaphors."

"Don't care."

John giggled. Sherlock’s eyes opened, and the humour in his expression transmuted into quiet awe. From six inches away, the effect was astonishing. John's smile dropped. "I don't know what to say now," he murmured.

"Are you supposed to?"

"I feel like I should." Idly, John stroked his fingertips along the marred skin of Sherlock's back.

"Am I meant to?"

"I don't have the foggiest."

"Of the two of us, you’re the one with the most experience."

"And yet."

"So we can just lie here in bed, then."

"I guess so."

"Good." The conversation faltered. The noises of the flat were different from this room; John could hear the hum of the refrigerator and the distant sound of water moving through pipes. The awkwardness was broken by Sherlock’s stomach growling.

John laughed into his pillow. “Are you ready for food now?”

“Shut up,” Sherlock said, failing to quash his smile.

“Shower, then breakfast, and then we can come back to bed so you can get a top-up on sleep. Good?”

Sherlock traced his fingers along John’s smile. Slowly, the corner of Sherlock’s mouth curled up in a mixed expression of warmth and amusement and incandescent love. “Perfect.”

Chapter Text

"She's really going to go through with this," said John.

He paced the length of 221B once Mary had gone out to some appointment with someone, somewhere. It was possible it was to do with table skirting. Or flowers. John hadn’t really been paying attention.

"It seems so," Sherlock said, focussing on his laptop instead of John.

"What is she doing?"

"I don't have the foggiest idea." Sherlock said. It didn't seem as though he knew he'd said it aloud.

John stopped. "And that doesn't worry you."

"It’s extremely…" He trailed off.

"Sherlock." His head jerked up from the screen. Perhaps the terrified tone in John's voice had grabbed at him.

"I'm trying to find out. I promise you, John. We'll figure this out."

"We? Because it still feels like I'm the bait in the centre of a trap and all you're doing is calculating odds."

"I'm working. I promised. Didn't I promise? I promised."

"Work faster."

"I'll try."

"I don't want to wake up dead in my bed."

"…Do I really need to explain what I ridiculous sentence that—"

"No, Sherlock." John started pacing again.

After a moment, Sherlock shut his laptop with a decisive click and sat back to steeple his hands in front of his mouth. "Is there anything else you can report?" Sherlock asked.

John scrubbed his hands on his jeans, wracking his brain for anything else she'd done over the last week. "Can report? Or feel I need to?"

His eyes narrowed. "Is there a difference?"

John considered. The trouble was, Mary hadn't done anything suspicious. She'd been fine. Nice, even. It had actually become tiresome, being on edge for so long, and John had begun to vacillate between weariness and anger almost on an hourly basis. He was half hoping she would make her move if only so that he no longer had to wonder anymore.

More than anything, he craved comfort in his life. He wanted to be able to crawl into bed with Sherlock at the end of the day without fear it would endanger their lives.

All these unsteady years filled with adrenaline were making him ill.

"She… She bought me a new pair of socks," John said.

"Actual socks, or were they— Did you examine them for—"

"They were just socks, Sherlock," he said, snappish.

"Ah."

He looked so disappointed that John tried to give him something else to grab ahold of. "We went out to eat at that new Indian place down the road."

At that, Sherlock perked up slightly. "What did she get."

"I don't… Lamb. Vindaloo?"

"And what did you get?"

What did it matter? "Cauliflower Bhaji."

"Spicy, or—"

"Sherlock, are you being serious about this?"

"Of course I am, John." Sherlock unfolded from his chair and stepped well into John's personal space. "If she's got a plan—which she certainly does, or why would she be doing this?—then we will figure it out. I will figure it out."

"But you're not there all the time."

Something flickered across Sherlock's face. "I'm well aware of that."

"I try, arranging to work on the wedding plans over here, but…"

"And that's appreciated."

"Not that that’s the only reason I come over here.” John realised how very close Sherlock was standing.

"I'm aware of that, too."

"Are you?"

Sherlock loomed even closer. He needed a shower, and something about it started a fluttering in the pit of John's stomach. "Incredibly."

With only half a step, John was near enough to feel Sherlock's body heat. It was almost like touching. He hummed with the pleasure of it. It would be incredibly nice just to lean in and take some rest from Sherlock’s body. So nice… Sherlock's lips parted, and John heard him inhale. John closed his eyes. "I need to be with you."

"I'm right here." Sherlock's voice was hushed.

"As much as possible."

"As much as you need."

"What I need, is—"

Downstairs the door opened, and then there was the distinctive sound of Mary's footsteps storming up. John whipped himself out of Sherlock's orbit and scrubbed his hands over his face as he retreated to the kitchen to put on the kettle.

"Sorry to interrupt. Forgot to bring the book to show the florist." She kissed John on the cheek and stroked her hand down his spine once. It wasn't the touch he'd just been longing for, and his nerves jangled. She backed up. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, sorry." All of a sudden, he was terrified. She could always tell things about him. Things she shouldn't have been able to tell. It was worse than with Sherlock, because at least with Sherlock he knew what his game was. With Mary, who the fuck knew. He might not find out until…

John tried very, very hard not to imagine a bullet wound in his chest.

Her mouth twisted, but a moment later immediately abandoned the thought to begin digging through her bag instead. "I almost forgot. I grabbed myself a Lion bar earlier, and bought three in case you…well. Here.” She put two on the worktop at John's elbow. "Right," she said, and snagged a book off the table on her way to the door. "Okay. Have fun. I might be gone a little while, but I'll be back later."

"Cheers," John said. He hoped he didn't sound as sick to his stomach as he felt. Sherlock didn't say anything. Presumably Mary was used to that already.

But the moment the door closed Sherlock sprung into action, snatching up both bars and diving fully into lab mode.

"You don't seriously think she's—"

"Do you want to take a chance?"

"…No."

"Then be quiet."

"Fine." But if Sherlock was wrong, and they really were just chocolates, John was going to be cranky. He suspected that any step she would finally make would be more grandiose than a simple goddamn poisoned chocolate, and after all this bullshit he desperately needed something sweet.

Chapter Text

John was completely uninterested in getting in the middle of…whatever the hell Sherlock and Mycroft were talking about outside, so Mrs Holmes pressed a cup of cocoa into his hand and sent him to read by the fire. He was paging through some reprint of a Victorian Christmas Annual when Mycroft came in.

"You left him all in one piece, did you?" John said, trying to look as nonchalant as possible.

Mycroft didn't quite roll his eyes, but it was a near thing. "How droll." He continued past into the corridor with their bedrooms, and John smirked down at the magazine.

"How droll," John mocked. "Twat."

Sherlock banged into the house, shaking out his hair and stomping the feeling back into his toes.

"You know if you wore sensible shoes you wouldn't get so cold," John said. "Or maybe if you ate more than biscuits every once in a while."

"I'm fine," said Sherlock. He dropped his coat over the hook and loomed over the back of John's chair to peek at what he was reading. He stank of cigarette smoke.

"I thought you'd quit again," John said. He turned another page, even though he hadn't read the last one.

"Mycroft made me."

"Child."

"Mmm-hmm." It was subtle, but Sherlock was playing with the hair at the nape of John's neck.

"What were you two talking about?"

"You don't want to know."

"I'm pretty sure I don't, but I was being polite."

"Why do you bother?"

John sighed. "Habit." He turned another page.

"Are you even reading that? You can't have—"

Satisfied he'd distracted Sherlock enough, John reached up to hook his arm round Sherlock's neck and yank him down into a surprise kiss. It was messy, muddled by the fact that John couldn't keep a lid on his giggles.

Rather than fight it as John had expected, Sherlock cupped his face and deepened the kiss for several luscious seconds before abruptly stepping sideways, twisting around John’s shoulder, and laying himself across his lap. John scrambled to ensure he didn’t catch an elbow to the groin. "Ow, for fuck's—"

"You asked for this." Sherlock's voice was an earthquake in spite of his mischievous smile.

"You're crushing the magazine."

"I don't care."

"Oh right. It's not yours, so why would you?"

Sherlock licked his lips as if tasting the kiss again.

"See, that's what it's like kissing someone who hasn't been licking an ashtray," John said. "Nice, isn't it."

"I don't know. I need a better example."

Sherlock leaned up for another kiss, but John dodged out of the way, pushing at him, trying very, very hard not to laugh. "Get up. You're far too big for this."

Sherlock ignored him.

"You're going to break the chair."

No reaction.

"Mycroft could come through at any—" Before John had even finished the sentence, Sherlock swung up to standing. "—moment." He shook his head. "You are a menace to furniture."

"As a matter of fact, I've had some ideas in that vein I think you might enjoy."

The sound of the doorbell saved John from the need to find a suitable response. He waited for someone to answer it—Mrs Holmes, Mr Holmes, Mycroft, anyone who might rightly take the liberty—but no one was coming and Sherlock didn't move. He just stood there preening himself back into place. "Sherlock, are you going—" John knew the answer before he finished the question. "Nevermind. Shall I?"

"Feel free."

John snorted and opened the door. Standing on the front step was Mary. Next to her was a man who John supposed must be Rob. He looked so…average.

"Happy Christmas. Come on in." He ushered them into the house.

"Sorry we're early," Mary said.

"Not a problem."

They stood in silence for a moment before John offered his hand to the stranger.

"John Watson," he said.

"Rob Adair." They shook, and John was impressed when Rob simply nodded at Sherlock instead of offering his hand. He must have been warned ahead of time.

"Mrs Holmes kicked us out of the kitchen because Sherlock was eating all the pies. Mrs Hudson and Mr Holmes appear to be hiding out in the shed. They're getting along like gangbusters. They've been out there all day talking about…I don't know."

"Gardening," Sherlock intoned. It sounded as if it were the dullest conversation imaginable.

"Gardening, I guess," said John with a shrug. "Come on in. I'll introduce you to everyone. They've been very…keen to meet you both."

Mary snorted. "Your diplomacy is getting better."

"I've been practising." John grinned and shut the door. "Come on. Let's get you settled."


Dinner was delayed—something to do with potatoes, John was told—so they were left to their own devices for a while longer. Mycroft and Sherlock disappeared out front again, and Rob announced that he was going with them.

“No smoking!" Mary called after him, picking up John's magazine from where he'd left it on the armchair.

"I wasn't," Rob called back.

"Yes you were."

Rob poked his head back into the room. "A whole pack. All of them. Then a cigar for afters."

"Ugh. You're going to reek," Mary said, her mouth twisted with amusement.

"What else is new." He gave her a cheeky grin and disappeared.

John experienced a strange twinge of jealousy before he could dismiss it as ridiculous. Mary saw it, though, and she smirked.

"I know," she said. "This is weird, isn't it."

"No," he tried to say, but she talked over him.

"Come on. It's a bit weird."

After a moment, he capitulated. "It is, a bit."

"It's a bit weird." They sat in a companionable silence. She sighed and placed both hands on her stomach. "But good-weird."

John glanced over his shoulder as if he could see through the wall of the house and out to where Sherlock and Rob and Mycroft were probably smoking again. "Yeah," he said finally. "Yeah. Really good." Far more strange a life than he'd ever imagined, but then again, it was probably far from what Mary had expected as well.

She clapped a hand on his knee and squeezed. "Go on. Ask me."

"Ask what?"

"You've been dying to hear the story. How I met Rob."

"I wasn't gonna—"

"No, you wouldn't have asked, but that doesn't mean you didn't want to know. I can always tell, remember?"

John coughed a laugh. "Can you blame me?"

"Of course not. Come on, let me tell it. I like this story. It's a tale for the ages,” she said, all ego. He laughed. Mary grinned and took a sip of her tea, then handed it to him to put on the coffee table. She cleared her throat and took a breath before beginning her story. "So. When Magnussen came to threaten me, he said, 'I know all about AGRA.' I don't know how, but he did. The important parts about it, anyway."

"Agra?"

"American Gaming and Resort Association."

"American?"

"Are you just planning to repeat back to me everything I've just said?"

"Sorry, I'll shut up."

She quirked him a flash of a smile. "I had been hired for...you know. My usual thing. The target was the owner of the resort-casino. Don't ask me what he'd done; I don't know. Or if he'd done anything at all. I realised a long time ago it was best not to ask.”

“Of course you met Rob during a hit.”

“Oh, you don't know the half of it.”


Mary was slipping away from the body on the floor when she almost walked face-first into a guy’s crotch. He was hanging from between the ceiling tiles, and she had her gun up before he landed; the fall was the only thing that kept him from getting two in the chest. Her aim must have been thrown by the surprise. That was happening way too much these days. Far more than she was comfortable with. She didn't like to think that perhaps she was losing her edge.

“Jesus christ,” came a male, Melbourne-accented voice. He rolled to the side and behind a metal file cabinet. “Watch where you’re pointing that thing.”

There was a moment of absolute quiet. Then he stealthily peeked his head up above the cabinet. She shot at him.

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “White flag, white flag. Listen, I don’t suppose it’s too much to hope that Baird is dead, is it?”

She cleared her throat. She didn’t necessarily want to reveal her voice.

“Because if he is, and you’ve done it, you’ve done me a serious favour.”

Is this guy for real? she thought, then shifted her feet to be planted more firmly.

“You don’t believe me. No, of course not. No reason you should. Listen, I’ll tell you the story, and you can decide whether to…” He snorted. “…Ventilate me.” He seemed amused by the word choice. “Good? …In the absence of more bullets I’m going to take that as a yes. Let me just sit back here and tell you what’s going on. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.”

The intruder—though the irony of Mary considering him an intruder was not lost on her—began to tell her a long, winding tale about card sharps and poker and pool. Apparently he’d been trying to make an honest living as a cheat (“Now, would I admit this aloud to you if I didn’t want you to trust me?”) but had fallen on hard luck in the past month. Finally he’d found himself at the end of his rope. Baird had all the cards in the relationship, and the intruder just wanted to make a clean break of it. Unfortunately, not only did Baird hold all the financial cards, but he also had so much dirt on the intruder that the threat of incarceration was going to be hanging over his head for the rest of his life. He didn’t want that. He wanted out. So he’d made a plan to break in, break his rule, break Baird’s head, and make a break for it.

“Break your rule?” Mary asked.

“I don’t kill,” the intruder said firmly. “I’ll steal, I’ll spy. I’ll play a nasty game of cards. But I won’t kill.”

“But you were going to tonight.”

“To get free of this fucker?” The intruder huffed a dry, humourless laugh that she could hear even from behind the cabinet. “Yeah. I’d kill him. I half wish you hadn’t beaten me to the punch. I don’t suppose it makes much sense for me to kill him again.”

There was silence.

“You’re a woman,” he said.

She realised that she been so caught up in his story she’d forgotten not to speak. “Problem?”

“Not in the slightest. What do I care, if you’re only going to kill me? I figure I’ll be forfeiting my right to care about anything at that point.”

Mary took a deep breath. “Get up.” He didn’t move, and she rolled her eyes. “I’m not going to kill you.”

“How can I believe you?”

“You seemed pretty sanguine about your death a minute ago.”

“I was bluffing.” A laugh bubbled up in Mary’s chest. “Listen,” he added. “I’ve had an idea. I think we can help each other.”

“…Why would you help me? What do you want?”

“Consider this thanks for doing the thing before I got here. Saved me the trouble.”

“One more life on my conscience, and one fewer on yours?”

“Do they sit on your conscience?”

She found herself telling him before she thought better of it. “Like you wouldn’t believe.”


“So what did you do?” asked John, sipping a coffee.

“What do you think we did?” Mary said. “We covered it up.”

“Just like that?”

“Well…” Mary’s smile was both cheeky and just a little bit embarrassed. “We were both professionals.”

“Were?” Rob’s voice startled John. He hadn’t even realised he’d come back into the room. Rob kissed Mary on the forehead and sat on the arm of her chair.

Retired,” said Mary.

“I don’t think I want to forfeit my professional status, even if I’m not…you know.”

“Cheating and stealing everything you can sneak out from under other people’s noses?”

“Oh, I think I was a little more discerning than that.”

“Uh-huh.”

Rob grinned. “I’m not interrupting. Just came in to refresh my glass.”

“What are you guys doing out there?”

“Secret things. Spy things.”

Mary snorted. “You’re talking about…” She cocked her head. “What are you three talking about?” Mycroft. Sherlock. Rob. Even John had no idea where they could all find common ground.

“I’m not at liberty to say.” Rob stood and stared in an overly-nonchalant fashion at his empty highball glass. “But it might have something to do with top-of-the-line alarm systems.”

“You are all ridiculous.”

“Yes.” Rob grinned. “Have fun talking about…what are you talking about?”

“How we met.”

“A tale for the ages.”

“That’s exactly what I said to John.”

“See?” Rob kissed her and headed for the door. “Exactly. A tale for the ages.”

John marvelled at Rob’s security; not a whole lot of people would be so unconcerned as to leave their partners to chat with their exes. Then again, Rob had had to live with the knowledge that his partner was in a sham marriage to another man, so John supposed he’d had a whole lot of practice.

However you sliced it, Rob was remarkably self-possessed.

“Where was I?” asked Mary.

“You two covered up the murder.”

“Ah, right. We did a damn good job of it, too. The police cleared him pretty quickly.”

“But they did have to clear him.”

“Yeah.” Mary grinned. “He’d had a public altercation with Baird earlier that week, so he would have been high on the list of suspects already. We took advantage of that by concocting a story about him finding the body. Cops already look upon those who find the bodies with suspicion, so we just rolled all that together and squeaked past, leaving just enough evidence that it couldn’t have been him. It became clear pretty quickly that we made a good team.”

“So he covered for you.”

“Yeah.”

“How did you know he wasn’t going to double-cross you?”

The smile that touched the corner of Mary’s mouth reminded John of the Mona Lisa. “I had a feeling.”


Mary surveyed the crime scene, assessing down to the inch what forensics was likely to focus on and what tale the room would tell.

“I think that’s it,” Rob said.

She agreed. She shouldered the bag that contained both her and his stuff. “You know what to do.”

It made him snort. “Not my first rodeo.”

“Right.” Mary had no idea what to say now.

“Listen, I have an idea,” Rob said, cutting into the awkwardness. “How about instead of doing a drop so I can get my things back, we…” It was the first time that night he seemed uncomfortable. Even when she’d had a gun pointed his way he’d taken it all in stride. “This is going to sound ridiculous, but… Maybe you’d have coffee with me.”

“Coffee.”

“There’s this place I love, and…yeah. Coffee.”

“Where?”

“It’s near the Plantage—“

Amsterdam?”

“What?”

“You want to have coffee in Amsterdam?”

“Is that a problem?”

Mary blinked. Staring into his face—comfortable, mildly-handsome, open, striped by the low light trickling in through the blinds—she had her answer. “No." She marvelled at herself. "Not a problem at all.”


“Obviously it worked out,” said John.

“It was a bit genius. I fretted about it all week. Worked it all up in my mind. Thought over everything he’d said and done, and what I’d said and done. The job haunted me. So in order to go to Amsterdam I really had to make a choice.”

“You’d already had to decide.”

Mary smiled down into the fireplace. “By the time I sat down at the table across from him, I knew. He was it, for me.”

“Romantic rubbish,” said John, teasing her.

“Says the man who had reunion sex in a disused railway carriage,” she smirked.

John was stunned silent for all of five seconds. Then he burst out laughing; he hadn’t known she’d figured that out. A voice echoed up from out of his memory. I can tell things about you. John grinned, and fondness pressed up into his throat. “…You're a horrible person. And I hate you very much.”

"You don't. You and I make a good team, too."

He had to hand it to her; she was right on that account. The memory of that silent communication at the doorway to Magnussen's bedroom was still too fresh to ignore: the cold flash of metal, the quiet breath, the code phrase. Then he wondered, not for the first time in the last few days, why she hadn't had the presence of mind to be so patient all those months earlier. His good mood evaporated, boiled off by the roil in his stomach and the heat of his indignation. It might not be the time or place, but he couldn't hold it in anymore. If Sherlock wasn’t going to bring it up, he would. Christmas or no. “At least you didn’t shoot Rob. That must be a real relief to you.”

Mary winced.

“You thought I was just going to leave that alone, didn’t you,” he said.

“I’d hoped.”

“You shot him, Mary.”

“Oh yes.” She huffed out a humourless laugh. “I remember.”

“What—“

“It was an accident.”

John blinked. The world went muffled and pale while he tried to understand. “It was a what?”

“I was scattered. Magnussen had threatened Rob and I thought he was going to tell Ja—“

“Mary, you just finished telling me about how very carefully you didn’t shoot the man dangling from the ceiling, and now you—“

“John, I was a wreck.

“You were a wreck.”

“Tell me: how calm do you think you’d be if someone was threatening your partner and your unborn child?”

“I’d be…fine. Calm. I’d figure it out.”

“That’s bullshit, John. You tend slightly more towards sacrificing yourself than murder, but you sure as fuck wouldn’t be calm.”

John set his jaw. “So you’re telling me you literally went off half-cocked.”

She leaned forward, eyes wide. “I am. I did."

"Why didn't you just tell us?" he said, ragingly angry but keeping his seat, feeling like a dog only barely tethered. "You held all the fucking cards, and I didn't—"

"How could that possibly have helped?"

"We could have worked together. Like we did last week."

"And you would have been happy waiting for the right opportunity?" John opened his mouth, but before he could speak she pushed on. "Of course not. You two would have gone off half-cocked as well, and the results could have been just as deadly. Sherlock wouldn't have believed me until he'd seen evidence with his own eyes, and you would have followed along, and it would have compromised my position. Which would compromise Rob. There was no way in hell I was going to do that, especially once I knew I was pregnant. Are you kidding me?"

"What about when Sherlock had just come back? You could have said something then. You didn't have to shoot him."

"I just explained that was an accident."

"And you expect me to believe that?"

"How is that any harder to believe than any of the rest of this shit we've got ourselves into?"

This was edging remarkably close to a conversation he'd had with Sherlock, months ago. Excuse me, but several years ago we were nearly blown up in a pool. You faked your own death. I’m in a false marriage with a woman who used to work for your arch-enemy. In what way does suspecting someone of being a spy tip the needle too far into fiction?!

It seemed so long ago: after the marriage but before Sherlock was shot. When their relationship had fallen to shreds then had to be stitched together anew.

"What was your mission?" he said.

She blinked. "Pardon?"

"What were you ordered to do?"

"I'd thought you knew."

"Indulge me."

Mary huffed with a dry sort of laugh, presumably in her attempt to come to grips with the turn their discussion had taken. "I was told to keep you away from Sherlock."

"So explain: why wouldn't that have been easier if Sherlock was killed?"

"Because the other thing I was told was that Sherlock had to remain alive at all costs."

"Or else…?"

"You have experience with what Jim is capable of. What do you think would happen to me?"

"Jim, huh?"

"John…" She looked at him, her eyes wide. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I saw how hellish that was for you. There was no way I could see to undo the damage, but if I did, I would have. In a heartbeat."

"Heartbeat." He huffed. "Nice choice of words."

"Please. I panicked, but I had my orders."

The thing was, John had no idea what he would have done if the truth had been out in the open like that, with no way to change it and no safe way to act. Her actions may have been reprehensible, but John knew orders, and knew Moriarty, and she was right: could John say he wouldn't do anything to keep Sherlock safe?

But even as he had the thought, he remembered the hole punched through Sherlock's body, and the hours of panic while he didn't know if Sherlock was going to live, and he couldn't tell where he stood anymore. Where was the line?

John swallowed. "I don't know that I can ever forgive you."

There was a long moment before she spoke. "Right now, I can't think of any reason you should."

They sat in silence. He heard her sigh and shift in her seat. "John." She reached out for his hand, and waited for him to shrug permission before she took it. "I know it doesn't help," Mary said, "but if I could do it over again, I'd—"

"Shoot Magnussen?"

She coughed a laugh, and John felt the tension that had solidified between them begin to melt again. "Would have saved us a lot of bother, wouldn't it."

"Next time, shoot the dickhead, please."

Mary blinked at him, a smile twitching the corner of her mouth. "You're just gonna let that lie there, aren't you."

"Yep."

From outside, the sound of men's laughter filtered in. John squeezed her hand once, then let go.

"You okay?" Mary asked.

John thought about Sherlock, then thought about Moriarty. He realised that, Rob notwithstanding, Mary’s ‘shoot first, react later’ methodology was ingrained and likely never to change. He realised she probably didn’t want it to. And he realised she would never tell him—truthfully—what had made her that way.

He didn’t think it actually mattered.

The discomfort in John's stomach had eased, and he didn't think it would ever completely go away, but it was manageable now. And besides which; when had he ever embraced the easy road? She still needed to apologise to Sherlock, but John suspected that now the ice was broken, a real conversation could start. "Maybe. You?"

In answer, Mary looked over her shoulder toward the front of the house. If John listened carefully, he could hear Sherlock telling Mycroft off as dramatically as an amateur actor. Mary smiled: a weary smile, but a smile nonetheless. “Yeah,” she said. “Eventually, I think we’re going to be fine.”


They sat down to dinner only two hours later than the invitation stated and only one hour later than Sherlock predicted it would happen, even after Mrs Holmes finally accepted Rob's help. The gathering was much larger than any Christmas celebration John had experienced since his childhood, and the house seemed full to bursting.

It was lovely.

"Have you heard from Janine?" John asked Mary.

"Not much," she said. "Quick email. Her new non-profit is going well."

"Non-profit?" said John.

"It's such an admirable goal." Mrs Hudson put down a plate of bread rolls and went back for the cranberry sauce.

"Huh?" John said, looking back and forth between Sherlock, Mrs Holmes, and Mary.

Rob nodded. "Harm-reduction isn't exactly—"

"Oh, it's a bit more comprehensive than that," Mrs Hudson cut in blithely, spearing some turkey from the platter before passing it on. "Methadone, needle exchange, recovery services…"

"Huh?" said John, staring at her.

"It's a big job," she continued.

"Well, she can afford it now," said Rob. "She made a pile on the press circuit. So if that's where she wants to spend it…"

Mrs Holmes stood next to him and made sure all the dishes were out and circulating. "And why wouldn't she want to? After all she did for her sister—"

"Sister?" said John. He wondered if he was the only one at the table who didn't know what the fuck they were all talking about. Even Mrs Holmes was nodding, and she looked sidetracked by the stuffing. "Sherlock," John hissed. "What the hell…?"

"Later," was the reply.

John stared at the side of his head, but he just continued eating. "Later?"

"I'll explain, but not now."

"You're not getting out of it."

Sherlock rolled his eyes, and John supposed that would have to be a good enough answer for the moment.

"New non-profits need lot of organisation," said Mr Holmes. "Between running that and Magnussen's company, she certainly has her work cut out for her."

"Plural," Sherlock corrected him, piling more potatoes on his plate. "Companies. More than one."

"There wasn't much of a fuss when she took over?" said Mrs Hudson.

"Surprisingly little," Mary said. "Things being what they are."

"And whose companies they were," Rob said with a quirk to his mouth.

"Apparently the only people left standing after the authorities went through were the decent ones who realised how much she did to run them in the first place," said Mary. "She got a lot of last-minute holiday fruit baskets."

Sherlock piped up. "No doubt the innocent ones were only too pleased that Magnussen was gone, and they didn't stop to consider the motives of the woman who put him away."

"Sherlock," John nudged him. He ignored the careful way Mycroft was coughing into his napkin. "Stop."

"I'm just saying it's naive. We know her motives were good, but they don't."

"We've been over this."

"It's idiotic."

"So you've said."

"I just—"

"Boys," Mrs Holmes butted in. She gave them both an amused look. "Do you really think this is the time?"

"Sorry," John said. Sherlock just huffed.

"I'm just glad it all came out all right," she said. "I worry. It's not that I'm not proud of you, of course not, but… Well, you know. It's a little more dangerous than I'd like."

"You'd rather I sat behind a desk like Mycroft so my arse spreads."

"It's a damned sight better than the alternative," she snapped.

"Not for me."

She set down a bowl of sprouts with a clatter. "Perhaps it's time for it not to be about you anymore. Bomb threats, travelling lord-knows-where for two years, and now this unsolved murder attempt."

"Margaret," Mr Holmes said, and put a hand on her arm to calm her down.

"I'm sorry, but somebody’s put a bullet in my boy, and if I ever find out who, I shall turn absolutely monstrous."

John’s supper turned to lead in his stomach, and he had to force down his mouthful. He purposefully didn't look anyone else in the eye, but he could feel the awkwardness settle in the spaces between them. Two seats down, he heard Mycroft clear his throat. Rob took a big gulp of his wine.

"Sherlock," Mr Holmes said into the silence. "Didn't your mother request you not read at table tonight?"

There was a loud clatter as Mycroft dropped his fork. "Sherlock! Where in hell did you get that file?"

Sherlock's expression was smug as he ate a mouthful of turkey and turned the page. The iciness in the air rapidly warmed as Mycroft sputtered his indignation and demanded the file back.

John knew he shouldn't find it funny, and he did make an attempt not to smile, but he really didn't try that hard. And not-smiling became completely impossible once Mycroft made a grab for it, missed, and got his elbow in the mashed potatoes. It may have been petty, but John still hadn't forgiven him for his snark about the moustache.

Right about it as he may have been.


After the gift-giving, John found Sherlock in the far corner of the dining room, curled furtively over a piece of cake. John slid into the seat beside him and slipped his hand onto Sherlock's thigh.

John smiled fondly. "You've got icing on your chin."

"Shh," Sherlock said through a mouthful.

"I see," John said with a squeeze. He sipped his coffee with his free hand and turned to shield Sherlock from the rest of the room as he watched the small circus pile in after them.

Mrs Hudson brought out the Christmas cake with great ceremony—only to find some snitch had already nicked a piece from it—and Mrs Holmes revealed flaming plum pudding which nearly brought down the curtains, but even those missteps kindled a homey warmth in John's stomach. It certainly wasn't the sort of family he'd expected to have, back in his early thirties when he'd hoped for such things. And yet.

Sherlock had finished his cake and was theatrically demanding a tax from every plate that made its way past him, and Mycroft was fighting to keep his pudding unmolested, which Rob clearly thought was the funniest thing he'd seen in ages. Full of laughter, he tipped back in his chair, overbalanced, and clattered to the floor. Mrs Holmes chastised the three of them, while Mycroft insisted he hadn't done anything wrong.

John, giggling, caught Mary's eye. She was giggling too.

No, a house and a wife and 2.3 children weren't in the cards, but an ex wife and 2.3 adults who acted like children might be.

It might not have been the family he'd planned on, but it was the family he needed all the same.


John slid into bed beside Sherlock, shivering. He chafed his feet against the sheets for warmth.

"You're not supposed to be in here," said Sherlock mildly.

"The guest room can get fucked."

The sound of Sherlock's snort seemed louder in the pitch-black middle of the night. "I'm fairly sure fucking is what my parents hoped to avoid."

Smiling, John pressed close to Sherlock and tried to absorb some of his body heat. He kissed Sherlock's shoulder. "Not the plan. I just wanted to…" He cleared his throat. "I have something for you."

"We did gifts earlier, John."

"Yes, I'm aware. But this one…" He licked his lips. "This one is a bit special."

"I thought you said sex wasn't on the menu."

"Shut up." Smiling, John scooted backward and dug out a small cardboard box from his pocket. He held it up between them.

"You didn't bother to wrap it?"

"Just open the damn thing."

Sherlock flipped on the bedside lamp, and John hissed at the sudden brightness. He heard rustling as Sherlock opened up the box and felt for what was inside. "Jewellery?" Sherlock said, confused.

"Why don't you wait until you can see it?"

After a few moments, John's eyes adjusted to find Sherlock staring down at the small, black object in his hands. He didn't move.

"You okay?"

"Is this jet?"

John nodded.

With grace and care, Sherlock lifted the tiny, carved elephant six inches from his face to study it, mesmerised.

"I thought you might keep it—"

"In my jacket pocket." Sherlock swallowed. "I agree."

"Do you…" John shifted. "Do you…understand what I mean by it?"

Sherlock continued to stare at the thing for so long John actually became uncomfortable. John sighed and thought about leaving him to his thoughts, now that the mission was accomplished. "Well, just wanted to—"

"Thank you, John." His voice was thick. Clearly, he did understand. I love you.

"You're welcome," said John, feeling somehow sheepish now that he'd made his feelings so plain.

Sherlock placed the elephant gently on the bedside table and turned off the lamp, then lay back down. Even in the dark it was clear he was lifting his arm, so John took the hint and rested his head on his chest. Sherlock's heart was pounding.

John absorbed Sherlock's silent regard for a few minutes before he shattered it with a question. "So now will you explain what's going on with Janine? Why was I the only one who didn't know about the non-profit?" When Sherlock didn't immediately answer, John jogged his ribs. "Sherlock."

"I'm never sure how much you want to hear about her."

"I told you, I just didn't want to—"

"I know what you said, but it still bothers you."

"Tell me what's going on."

He could feel Sherlock taking a deep breath before he spoke. "Janine's sister was why Janine was under Magnussen's thumb in the first place." It wasn't exactly an overflow of information. John shook his head, so Sherlock continued. "She went through rehab twice before it…took. Janine did a lot to help her."

John considered all that implied. "…Ah."

"She seems to have been more successful than Mycroft was on that front."

"I doubt Janine's sister is as much of an obstinate prat as you are."

"I'm not sure I'd take that bet. Her whole family seems to be—"

"As headstrong as she is?"

Under John's head, Sherlock twitched a shrug.

Further ramifications trickled down. "So when you had Janine help you after you were shot…"

"She seemed the logical choice. If I couldn't have you with me, the safest option was someone who had some experience in that area."

"Your pain meds."

"She's really very good."

"Goddammit, Sherlock. Why didn't you tell me?"

"You know why."

"It really should have been me."

"And I've explained over and over why it couldn't."

John sighed and deflated. His stomach churned. "I know."

"You do." Sherlock pressed a hard kiss to John's hair.

"Next time, though."

"Yes. Next time I'm shot and I have to come off of opiates again, I'll be sure to save you the honour of dealing with my bowels."

John rocked his face against Sherlock's bony clavicle. "I shouldn't find that funny."

"But you do."

"A little."

They lay there for a while in comfortable silence. John listened to the cold, winter wind whistling against the house. Somewhere, someone was running water, and it trickled through the old pipes. "So…"

"I should have told you," Sherlock interrupted, his voice low. "I promised I wouldn't hold anything back from you. But I did."

John blinked into the dark. "…Yes. You did."

"I promised."

It had never occurred to him that Sherlock would consider that first promise at Bart's—back in the beginning, before the fall—still valid, now that everything was over. But John wasn't going to naysay him. Not a bit of it. "Apology accepted."

Sherlock huffed. "To be fair, I spent nearly six months holding things back from you. I'm not sure you can expect me to immediately break the habit, John."

And there the contrition ended. Ten seconds. It was nearly a record. "Change the subject, please."

"You reek of sprouts."

John snorted. "Why does your mother insist you like sprouts? You hate sprouts."

"The depth of her self-delusion is staggering."

"Is that why she bought you socks and pants?"

"I thought I asked you never to speak of that again."

"And you thought I was going to pay attention?"

"No."

John smiled and pressed his face against Sherlock's shoulder. A thought occurred, and he snickered.

"Don't even think about it," Sherlock said.

"What?"

"You're wondering how long before you're buying my socks and pants for me."

"…No?"

"Some things should remain private, John."

"I already wash them. How much more private do you think—"

"The point stands."

"All right, love." John grinned. "I promise."

"Is this your sort of promise, or my sort of promise?"

"Just go to sleep, Sherlock?"

Under his ear, John heard him chuckle. His arm curled round John's shoulders to hold him close. "Happy Christmas, John."

A flare of happiness expanded in his chest, and he snuggled into Sherlock's body. This—all this—had been a long time coming. Love warmed him from the inside out. "Happy Christmas to you too."

Chapter Text

"What the hell is this?" Sherlock hoisted a giant porcelain bowl with a red damask print of babies on it.

John looked up from his list of gifts and rolled his eyes. "You're meant to be helping, not judging."

"It's hideous."

"Well, that's my great-aunt for you." He noted the name on the next package and added it to the spreadsheet. "I feel like we're bilking people out of their money."

"People like giving wedding gifts."

"No they don't."

"They don't?"

John looked at him to see if he was serious. Guileless, Sherlock looked back. "No," John shook his head. "They don't."

Sherlock shrugged and brushed the topic aside with a sweep of his dressing gown. "What's this?" he asked, and picked up a parcel wrapped in amethyst-coloured paper.

John sighed. "I don't know, Sherlock. Since I haven't opened it yet."

"There's no name." He sniffed it, then examined it from inches away. "Where did it come from?"

"The post. Same as all the rest of these." Sherlock's tendency to act like a five-year-old was more grating than usual. John really did feel people were giving them these gifts for no reason.

"Where's the packaging it came boxed in?"

John opened his mouth to answer, then pulled up short. "Actually." He glanced around the sitting room at the piles of boxes and bags. "I have no idea. Maybe it just came that way."

"Impossible. There's no directing address."

"Maybe it's the last of the pile Mary was given at the clinic. I wouldn't worry about it, to be honest. Or you can open it, if it bothers you so much. I don't really care." There was too much else to think about, and, to be honest, John was getting terribly sick of Sherlock's jumping at every little question mark. So far, his suspicion had never amounted to anything but inconvenience.

Sherlock narrowed his eyes and stared at it. "Hm." He used the penknife from the mantel to slit open the paper and extract a set of two seriously-ugly handmade rag dolls, a tow-headed boy and a girl, both wearing black.

"What the hell are those?" John asked.

"Suspicious."

"Going to test them?"

"Of course."

John tried not to roll his eyes. While Sherlock was making mountains out of molehills, John flipped over the tag on the next item. "Mycroft sent us something?" He frowned and opened it. "That's…unexpected."

"Ah." Sherlock set down the dolls and stood closer. "That's not from Mycroft. It's from me."

"It says Mycroft on the tag."

"I wanted to deflect suspicion."

"Why? What is it?" John pulled out of the box a set of earthtone napkins. They each had an Indian-style print of elephants on them. Oh god. "Sherlock…"

"I just wanted you to…remember."

John stared up at him. For a second, Sherlock looked so lost. "You thought I might forget?"

"I wanted to be sure."

Stomach sinking, John slid out of his seat and pulled him close. "I'm not going to forget, idiot."

"And now you won't," Sherlock said into John's shoulder.

"Stop." John thumped him on the back and held him tighter.

Sherlock nosed up his neck, across his cheek, and took him suddenly in a kiss so passionate it rocked John back. Against his better judgement he let him, even going so far as allowing Sherlock to grab his arse with both hands, lift him up onto the desk table, and nearly lay him backward against it. The warmth and urgency of Sherlock between his thighs and along his front, all loose cotton and silk over hard muscle and bone, was delicious enough that John easily lost himself in it for countless minutes.

When he finally collected himself to break the kiss, he could feel stubble burn blooming hot over his lower face. "Sherlock…" He nipped at Sherlock's mouth. "This is a terrible idea."

"Mmm…" Sherlock fisted both hands in his shirt and deepened the kiss. His groan vibrated through John's body. Jesus.

A thought occurred to him—a horrible, shattering thought: each time they did this could be the last time. Maybe this was the last kiss until after they discovered the plan against them. Or maybe until this was all over.

Or maybe something would go wrong. This could be the last time, full-stop.

Desperation flooded through John and he clutched hard at Sherlock's waist, his hips, his arse. The kiss turned violent and shocking, full of the need to push up and in and through. A sob expanded in John's throat. He squeezed his eyes shut hard against it. Sherlock responded with mirrored urgency, biting John's mouth and digging his fingers into John's body with bruising force. Tears prickled behind John's eyelids.

Passion and arousal were scuttling his rationality. John pressed up against Sherlock's hips, seeking friction, craving release and connection. Sherlock writhed in distress, the growing line of his cock slipping beneath his pyjama bottoms. He whimpered, and the misery in it startled a gasp out of John.

On the ground floor landing, John heard Mrs. Hudson open her door. Like a shot Sherlock was across the room, examining his bookshelves, and John plopped into a chair to disguise his erection. He heard her hum as she grabbed the mail, and only when she went back into her flat could he breathe again.

He scrubbed his hands over his face. "Fuck."

In two steps Sherlock was in the kitchen and John heard the tap running. When Sherlock reentered the room, he was drying his face. John did not look at his groin. Instead, he hid his face in his palms.

"We've got to stop this," John said, muffled.

Sherlock didn't answer.

"You know we do."

Sherlock said nothing.

"I like living with danger as much as you, but this is…there's a line."

When Sherlock still hadn't responded, John looked up. Sherlock was standing, spine bent, staring at the mantlepiece. John's heart lurched.

"Sherlock—"

"Not to worry," he said. "No more. Not until this is all over."

"It's just too tempting." John wanted to apologise, but wasn't sure how. Or whether it was even his place to do so.

"Of course."

"Sherlock…" Damning all consequences, John forded through the awkwardness to press his face into Sherlock's neck and hug him as firmly as he dared. He bit back several declarations and one affirmation, in favour of a simple, "I'm sorry."

To his shock, Sherlock was trembling. Very, very slightly. His arms clasped John, and he took several deep breaths. "All the more reason to solve this soon."

"Right." John was trying his damnedest to breathe evenly.

"Good thing we're both stubborn."

"Exactly." They held each other for a few long, sad moments, then John shook himself out of it. "Come on. Let's do something different. Fun." He pressed a dry kiss to Sherlock's cheek and stepped back, going over to the stereo. "You promised to teach me to waltz. No time like the present."

"Fun, I thought you said."

John rolled his eyes, but didn't miss the tentative humour in the set of his eyes and mouth. He hunted through a stack of cds, searching for something suitable. Or maybe not so suitable; it might do Sherlock some good to be able to mock John for not knowing what a waltz is. "You promised."

"More fool me."

All John had to do was helplessly wave a cd of Sousa marches over toward the cd player before Sherlock huffed and nudged him out of the way. Grinning to himself, John cleared the floor while Sherlock got the music set up. Something lilting and lovely filled the room, and Sherlock floated across the floor to him, burning with intensity; it was tough to look him in the eye. Then he smiled, and everything softened. John felt a familiar flutter in his chest.

"Okay, John." Sherlock stood in front of him, reporting for duty. The music wrapped round them, temporarily cushioning them from the desolate sadness of their situation. Sherlock took one of John's hands and placed the other on his upper arm. "The waltz. Lesson one. Let's begin."

Chapter Text

The house looked curiously like one John and his parents had stayed in during a holiday when he was a kid, but that was easy to forget when Sherlock was running through the garden, picking blackberries and eating them. Purple-red juice stained his mouth and fingers.

"You look like a vampire," John said.

"I vant to suck your blood," said Sherlock, and he sank backward, disappearing through a doorway into a giant tree trunk that John hadn't noticed. Inside, the entranceway opened up into a giant room, panelled wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with smooth, blonde wood, its grain curling. The room smelled of sawdust and honey.

"Do you like it?" Sherlock asked, spreading out his arms and twirling so his coat flew up like wings.

"Where are we?"

"This is our house now."

"In a tree."

"Our tree."

"Our tree." John smoothed his hand along the wall. He could barely distinguish between one board and another, they were joined so tightly and planed so smooth. They were velvety, almost. Satin. Like a dress.

"The hives are on the outside, so I don't have far to go."

"Isn't that dangerous?"

"Not if you know what you're doing." Sherlock grinned cheekily and ran up and up and up a spiral staircase in the corner of the room. John could hear his feet clomping on the steps all the way. "John!" Sherlock called down. "Are you coming?"

"Not yet," John murmured to himself. He looked out the window. Though glassless, the bees swarming outside didn't seem to be flying in. Maybe there was a force shield keeping them out.

The landscape outside was brimming with wild carrot and broom and lavender. There was a faerie ring of dandelions round a cracked birdbath. Instead of water it held old bones.

"This is our house now," John told the bees. "Take good care of it."

John blinked awake. It was still full-dark, and the flat was otherwise silent. He rolled over to press his face in between Sherlock's shoulder blades.

"Mm. Okay?" Sherlock mumbled, his voice half-smothered by his pillow.

"Didn't mean to wake you." The quiet buzz of pleasure kindled by the dream still hummed through John's veins. He wallowed in it, as well as the familiar scent of Sherlock's sleep-warm skin.

"No." With a slight grunt, Sherlock rolled and spread himself over John, head to toe. His hair flopped in John's face. "Can't get comfortable." He wriggled and grumbled, adjusting his limbs.

"And I suppose this is better," John said. He spat out a curl that had fallen into his mouth.

Sherlock finally found a position and, sighing, nestled in, moulding himself to John. "Much," he said. He nuzzled his face into John's neck, but his hand wandered between John's legs.

"What are you doing?" John asked, chuckling.

"What does it feel like I'm doing?" Sherlock gently stroked his fingertips along the skin of his balls, then began prodding his cock from side to side. It was still soft, but it Sherlock kept that up it wouldn't stay that way much longer.

"Starting trouble."

"You don't want me to stop."

Sherlock was dragging sensation all round the head and just underneath his foreskin, and John sucked in a breath. His blood flow was making its sluggish and sleepy way southward. "No." He rolled his head on his pillow, stretching his neck. "I really don't."

"Good." And Sherlock got down to business, gnawing gently on John's neck and pulling him steadily to full hardness.

Soon John could feel his pulse beating heavy in his groin, and he bit down on a groan. In spite of the haze of hormones, Sherlock's dark chuckle still made him smile. "Mm-hmm?"

His answer was a fluff of the duvet as Sherlock ducked down fully underneath the covers and took the head of John's cock into his mouth. John had expected it, but it still made him suck in a shock of air.

"If it's too warm down there, jjjuh—" John's sentence stalled momentarily when Sherlock's tongue fluttered against the slit and his hand slipped easily up and all the way down to the base of his cock. "Ngh. Just kick off the duvet. Or come back up and we'll deal with the mess after."

Sherlock's growl was perfectly clear. John shut up.

He did play with Sherlock's curls, however, and eventually allowed himself a moan on every breath as Sherlock built sensation upon sensation. He couldn't help but writhe. Pleasure began to glow hot, to twist and spin and tighten. John was soon over-warm and sweating, but he was too in love and too caught in deep pulling pleasure to care. He drifted, tossed in waves of sensation, while dreamy images of beehives and warm wood, of elephant tusks and tiger lilies, of wet wool and cordite flitted through his head like soft projections on a screen. Sherlock's mouth was hot and wet. Sherlock's mouth was perfect. Sherlock's mouth was getting a lot of practice, these days.

He kicked one leg out from the covers at the same moment that Sherlock tugged gently on his balls, and that was it: the final, inevitable cascade began. John's fingers tightened in Sherlock's hair as the orgasm coalesced, a screw turning the last few notches. His spine curved and the angle pressed him harder into Sherlock's mouth. At once all that beautiful tension broke, and half laughing, half moaning, John shouted his pleasure into the night-dark room. He convulsed with each renewed twist of sensation as Sherlock attempted to suck him dry. His toes curled and his thighs shook.

The slow burn was still simmering through his veins when Sherlock pushed off the duvet and flopped next to him, panting. John hummed, low and lazy and content. "Thank you."

"Shut up," Sherlock said, but John could hear the smile in it. John smiled too.

"Give me a moment."

"Mm." From the movements, John had no doubt Sherlock had the matter well in hand until John could gather himself together enough to reciprocate.

Which was almost immediately. The flood of hormones had left John relaxed and doting and brilliantly, catastrophically happy. They spurred him up to slide down Sherlock's sweating body and to kiss his hip. "Ready?"

"Now."

"Now what?"

"John." Sherlock rolled his hips, prodding him with his cock.

With a month's worth of near-daily effort, John thought he'd become fairly good at this. Sherlock appeared to think so too. The key, John had always suspected, was enthusiasm, and that theory seemed to be borne out. As long as John didn't swallow him down too deep and gag himself, everything was just lovely. There could be sex in the middle of the night with fairly little mess. It was ideal.

The intimacy of the act, and the way it gave John a direct line into the state of Sherlock's pleasure, was also a credit in its favour.

At that second, John estimated Sherlock was bare moments away from orgasm. He was so hard, and his breathing was so rough, that he had to be close. John hummed happily, eager for Sherlock to come. Eager for his gratification. Eager for his release.

Although this precise act had featured in his fantasies for years, he'd never expected it would become one of John's most favourite activities of them all.

Sherlock's breath hitched. He jerked, whimpered, then pulsed hot into John's mouth, moaning. John held his hips down and nearly laughed with the joy of it; after so much struggle and so much pain, Sherlock's pleasure was a gift.

John let him alone to float on his hormone high, lying quietly next to him and waiting for him to come down. After a minute, Sherlock poured himself over John's body again, like molten wax.

"Think you can sleep now?" John said.

"Mmhmm."

"You're half asleep already, aren't you?"

"Mmhmm."

John stroked his back. "Sleep well. Busy day today. Okay, not busy. Just…eventful. I guess." He kissed Sherlock's hair. "I know you're pretending you're not bothered, but I'm not buying it." Sherlock's breathing slowed, deepened, and John was twisted in a sudden painful grip of affection. He squeezed his eyes closed. "I used to think about this, you know," John murmured into the dark. "Lying in bed with you. It was the only way I could get to sleep, some nights. Never quite conjured this up, but it's better than anything I had imagined." He shifted one of Sherlock's knees so it wasn't pressing so awkwardly into John's shinbone, then went loose once more.

Much, much better, he thought, and soon Sherlock's full-body relaxation pressed him under into sleep.


"Hurry up," John said that afternoon, Sherlock trailing behind him like a sidetracked eight-year-old with a Gameboy. "Stop looking at your phone, and let's go."

"Might I remind you that you were the one who wanted to do this, and not me."

"Shut up. You wanted to see them too."

"I doubt it."

"No, but you did." John stopped just short of grabbing Sherlock by the arm and hauling him the last twenty feet. "You weren't fooling me."

"Ridiculous," Sherlock said, but he pocketed his mobile and followed him into the hospital room.

Mary was awake and nursing a tiny newborn. Her face lit up when she saw them. "Hey, look who's here," she said in a gentle voice, presumably talking to the baby and not to Rob.

"How are you feeling?" John said

"Well, you know." Mary pointed down with her chin. "I managed this."

"And well done, too," said John, unable to keep the grin from his face. "It went okay?"

"Emergency caesarean." Rob grimaced.

John pulled a face right back. "Ow."

"Drugs are lovely," Mary said to her daughter. "You'll love them. They make everything all soft."

John groaned and pinched in between his brows. "Perfect."

"What did they give you?" Suddenly Sherlock had tuned in to the conversation with disturbing interest. John wanted to nip this conversation in the bud immediately.

"Sorry we couldn't help with the move," John said.

"You were busy, I heard."

"Case with missing jewels. Fun one, actually."

"Simple, you mean," said Sherlock. "Barely worth our time."

"That's not what you said when you had to go undercover as a card counter."

"You should have called me," Rob said. "I could have helped." But he sounded sidetracked, and the gentleness in his face as he looked at the baby was heartbreaking.

Mary snorted. "I think you were a bit busy."

"True. I had to finish the rest of the move by myself." Rob looked a bit moon-eyed, but he still managed to sparkle with humour. "Someone was feeling laaazy."

"Someone was feeling nine months pregnant."

"Excuses will get you everywhere."

They stared at each other, the picture of a brand new nuclear family, love-sodden and—rightfully—self-involved. An awkward silence fell, into which Sherlock cleared his throat. "I. Er." He dug into the pockets of his coat and pulled out a translucent bag with pink and blue stripes, which he started to hand to Mary before realising her hands were occupied. He handed it to Rob instead. "Here."

"When did you buy that?" John murmured.

"You were in the loo," Sherlock rumbled back.

It turned out to be a soft baby toy in the shape of a round bumblebee, complete with floppy wings. Mary made the most ridiculous noise. The baby was still too preoccupied with feeding to notice the bee her dad danced at her, so Rob sat back into his chair and gestured at them with it. "Erm. Thanks." It was dwarfed by the size of his hands.

John offered up the simple card he'd brought, feeling like an arsehole. Leave it to Sherlock to remember his manners only belatedly and still show John up. Rob read it, then held it for Mary to read, and she smiled at the boilerplate, saccharine message printed inside. John hadn't really known what to say. There hadn't been a card for, 'to my soon-to-be-ex wife, congratulations on the baby I thought was mine until a month ago, best wishes.'

"Thank you guys," she said, smiling at them. John was still marvelling that he trusted that smile. The baby started fussing, and Mary transferred her from breast to shoulder with a smoothness which indicated she'd already become a pro. "Hey, hey. Shh."

Sherlock was staring at the child as if he'd never seen one before. John desperately wanted to take his hand, and had no idea if he could. It seemed odd to, there and then, with those people and in a hospital room. Then it occurred to John that no, Sherlock perhaps hadn't seen a newborn before. Awkwardness be damned, John slipped his hand into Sherlock’s. Thankfully, Sherlock not only didn't pull away, but he squeezed it in return.

Rob took the baby from Mary, and when he had her cradled against his chest, Mary could finally speak again.

"How's Mycroft?"

Sherlock scowled. "I don't know."

"He's fine, thanks," John answered for him. "Machinations galore."

"People free to move about the cabin now they're no longer hamstrung by blackmail?"

"Something like that."

"He's gleeful," pitched in Sherlock.

"Which is of course disgusting," Mary nodded, indulging him. John quashed a snort.

"I heard Lady…Honeywhistle? Entwife?" Rob said, adjusting the towel over his shoulder. "What's her name… Smallwood. I heard Lady Smallwood is standing as an MP."

All three of them looked at him. "Where did you hear that?" Mary said.

"It was in the paper this morning." He shrugged. "You slept through your vitals, but I couldn't get back to sleep so I bought a paper and went down to the canteen."

"I didn't know that."

"You were still asleep when I got back."

"Sorry I've been so groggy."

"Yeah, I'm pretty disappointed you're not more on your game right now," Rob said.

"Oh shut up," she said, weary but smiling.

The usual thrill flickered through John's stomach when he recollected his news; it had been nearly a week, but he hadn't become used to it yet. He squeezed Sherlock's hand. "Did you hear about the house?"

She shook her head.

"You know the house in Sussex? The one Janine bought?" He waited for her nod before continuing. "She's given it to us."

Mary looked gratifyingly shocked. "What?"

John grinned so hard it ached. "She said she had enough on her plate, so she gave us the house. As thanks for getting her there, she said."

"Congratulations!" Rob said.

"Thanks." John slid a look sideways. "There are bees everywhere. Sherlock wants to keep them."

"I said I may keep them."

"He called them fascinating."

"They are fascinating."

"They sting, Sherlock."

"I've said: only if you're not doing it right."

John snorted. "I'll be stocking up on ointment, then."

Mary gave them an amused look and shifted. John detected the tiny flicker of pain on her face; no doubt moving was hell on a fresh c-section wound, even if three days healed.

"Sorry," John said, feeling himself turn pink.

But Mary only looked at them both, then down at their linked hands, and smiled.


As they headed out of the hospital main doors, John hesitated, then took Sherlock by the arm. He refused to be cowed by any sense of cultural judgement or fear. For today. Each day was a new step, and he'd had enough hiding for a lifetime.

Beside which; the warm look in Mary's eye had given him a flush of courage.

"That was a nice gift, Sherlock."

He shrugged. "It seemed appropriate."

John huffed a laugh. "Yeah. That's what I mean." They walked on towards the cab stand, but before they got there John pulled back on Sherlock's arm. "I think I'd like to walk."

"You would."

John looked round. It was a gorgeous, blue-skied, crisp winter's day, and their breath fogged. He craved the clarity in his lungs, and the burn of energy, and the exhilaration of walking beside Sherlock again through the city they loved. John unlinked their arms long enough to pull on his gloves, then he took Sherlock's hand. Suddenly, he was so happy it hurt.

A little kid toddled ahead of his father, and the dad ran a few steps to scoop him up. The kid shrieked with laughter as his dad swung him up off the pavement and out of the way before John and Sherlock passed.

"She was so tiny," Sherlock said, almost so quietly John missed it.

"She's only three days old."

"I've never seen someone so small."

"I'd guessed."

"I know it's a cliché, but…her fingernails, John."

John grinned. "Ridiculous."

"Are you…" John could hear Sherlock thinking how to verbalise something, and he squeezed his hand to urge him on. "Are you at all upset she's not yours?"

No, was the immediate response that came to mind, but John wanted to give it the reflection Sherlock was asking for. "I'd finally got used to the idea, and then it was turned round on me. It was an adjustment. But no, not upset."

"Something milder than that?"

John frowned. "Perhaps." He stroked his thumb against Sherlock's fingers. "I think I got something good in the bargain."

"Hm? Oh." The corner of Sherlock's mouth twitched. "Right."

An urge to kiss Sherlock swamped him for a moment. "No. Not disappointed. But I bet you're relieved."

"I am…" The sentence trailed off. "It's strange. The past few months have seemed so surreal, it's only just now I feel I'm waking up. Perhaps because everything was false for so long."

"Surreal?"

"Dreamlike."

"A good dream?"

He saw Sherlock looking at him through the corner of his eye. There was a smile teasing the corner of his mouth. "I'm quite content with the way things turned out."

"Mmm. Diplomatic."

"It's what I'm known for."

"Ah yes. Absolutely. Everyone says so." John grinned and tugged Sherlock down a side street to the left.

"The Great Tomato?"

"Necessary."

"You didn't want to eat in the canteen?"

John was poised to remind him just how he felt about that canteen when he recognised the set of Sherlock's mouth. "Dickhead."

Sherlock chuckled. "Pizza, then."

"We're getting a pizza."

"Right."

"And I won't hear a word otherwise."

"And then we'll go home and watch Bargain Hunt?"

"What's with you and antique shows recently?"

"Research."

In lieu of a hug, John just squeezed his hand again. "Fair enough. Pizza, and Bargain Crap, and you can finally clear out the space on the shelf so I can put my damn books back." He didn't answer right away. "Sherlock…"

"Fine."

"Good." John grinned. Ultimately he would win, of course, much as Sherlock might complain. With an unexpected flash of longing John was suddenly looking forward to getting back to the little pool of light in the middle of the city where they were rebuilding their lives—huddled up safe and wrapped up close, finding their feet in this new dance they'd begun. Where they could embody something resilient and supple and strong, something that would bend with opposing forces but never break. A pair that would move as one.

Whether against the world or away from it, at last it would be the two of them. Together.