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Shadows on the Wall

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It starts as a whisper during basic training, a little internal voice that chips in just before he makes a decision. Like when Myers, the hot-shot with the perfect scores, fires what everyone believes is a full clip and the little voice says wait. John is the only one who doesn't stand and so the last bullet (fired when Myers spins his pistol like a western gunslinger) goes through Hodges' leg instead of John's chest.

In the endless days after Afghanistan, when all he can do is think and limp on around on a perfectly sound leg, John thinks that it had to start with his own survival. Self-preservation – that was a trait that naturally selected, right? A trait like that is valuable. In the evolutionary sense, at least.

The voice popped up again and again and again during boot camp but those first few months, it was only 100% right when his own life was on the line. That only started to change when he started the intense period of study that would get him to the lofty heights of an M.D. Again, John rationalises that it makes sense; it is an instinct, a skill and training can adapt either of those, turn them cross ways and make them useful. Doctors are trained to put their patients first, over everything.

Again, it starts with the extremes; a whisper that makes him shout for suction three vital seconds before the machines scream the low blood pressure warning: a nudge that draws his eye to the spreading blood stain in middle of the black shirt. But it keeps coming, the little voice and later, in the real war, the growing sense of deja vu that swells up from his hind-brain whenever he's on the cusp of a critical decision.

He actually dodged the bullet that would have crippled his leg but by the end of his tour, John was sleeping maybe three hours a night, on a good night. Inevitably, his concentration eroded and the lines between what was and what might be became muddied; blurred past the point of distinction. John knows intellectually that he dodged in time, there's no scar under his fingers when the phantom pain spikes and he's a damn good doctor. He doesn't remember dodging. He remembers that he turned back when Callahan dropped his helmet, in profile for the crucial second after the sniper squeezed the trigger. He remembers how the bullet burned through flesh and shattered bone. He remembers the fever, the malaria that they didn't give him tablets for because he was vomiting his guts up every hour and the hushed voices as the doctors left him to God and blind chance. He remembers Harry's hysteria, that she and Clara don't divorce because Clara would never leave Harry with a crippled, half-dead brother and that their first son is called Hamish John because Harry is still a prat, even sober.

He hates himself sometimes, when his second-hand phone fills up with texts and voice-mails as Harry destroys herself, for making that choice. He thinks she would hate him, even if he could tell her, if he could explain that he had to make that choice or so many people would have died – will die, unless John makes the right choice again.

It makes therapy a bugger, that's for sure. He can't explain in a way Ella understands that he did choose to be shot. The only medic down with a bullet through the shoulder meant the Colonel turned them around and the 93rd were the first unit through the booby-trapped alley. Their demo boys were both rested and alert and spotted the IED before anyone could even be hurt. John clung to the memory of half his damn unit, alive and whole and bringing him crude 'Get Well Soon' cards instead of lying scattered across that stupid dusty track in strips of shredded flesh.

He clings to anything that helps him distinguish, anything that is difference and distinct. The tremor in his left hand isn't shell-shock, isn't PSTD or any of the hundred little things that Ella suggests but John pretends it is, waiting for the man who will tell him to his face that it isn't.

He goes back to London after Afghanistan and god, it's such a mistake. It started in London, started the day John Watson swore to give his life for for Queen and Country.

If he believed that it was anything but an unlucky genetic quirk, John's first month is London might have been a crisis of faith. He doesn't believe in God, not the God of bedtime prayers and Sunday services. If God exists, if God has something like it then He's mad. John believes that as he believes (in) nothing else. He falls into a rigid routine; no triggers means it doesn't flare up and he can pretend that it's gone.

Then Stamford crashes through his carefully constructed life with a single incredulous question. "John? John Watson?"

He almost keeps walking but it floods his mind and he's out of habit, can't push it away before he gets two distinct instants of possibility. One John Watson doesn't stop, keeps hobbling away and Mike, who is all blustering good intentions, lets him go and five days later, that John Watson shoots himself in the temple with his illegal service revolver. The other John Watson turns and lets Mike reintroduce himself and five days later, that John Watson is running down a street, fighting a giggle because he's said that they shouldn't giggle at crime scenes and he doesn't have a cane or a limp.

So, at last, John Watson meets Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock, his usual arrogant self, assumes John stutters after the question because he's stunned or offended. John doesn't tell him that it's because he has two distinct revelations crashing down on him. The first is He's not me. Not like me but he's brilliant! because yes, Sherlock is a mad genius who makes his brain do what John's 'it' can do but he controls it.

The second is I'm going to fall in love with you. When Sherlock shows him the flat and smiles that shy, happy smile, John smiles back and wonders if he'll ever even notice.

Sherlock is brilliant. John isn't lying when he calls his flatmate (friend?) fantastic. He races around problems, impatiently dragging John and the long-suffering Lestrade behind him. He has a brother who thinks John can be scared of men in suits and who will, unless John can figure out a trail for Sherlock to 'deduce', be assassinated in 2011 by Sherlock's real arch-nemesis. John likes him, even though he doesn't think he's meant to. Mycroft is proof that the only people for Sherlock are the mad and John slots into the whirlwind life of London's consulting detective like Sherlock has been saving his place for him.

John doesn't think like that often. He can't. After the hideously awkward conversation in the restaurant, he decides to put Sherlock's mind at ease. John needs Sherlock more than Sherlock needs John so the obligation is on John to keep things from getting awkward. He plays the straight bloke, asks out every woman he encounters (who doesn't actually want to date him) and tries to find the right future but maddeningly, it doesn't work. Not for this.

John steers a taxi, half the Metropolitan Police and emergency services to where the cabbie's taken Sherlock. But it whispers in his ear and John goes down the other corridor and watches through the window. Sherlock is going to take the pill. Sherlock will die. The cabbie poisoned both pills. Sherlock is going to die unless...

The gun feels feather light and John lines up the shot without even thinking. He knows he's going to make the shot, knows it isn't a kill shot (but the cabbie will be still be dead by the time Lestrade reaches the room).

He still shoots.

Sherlock figures it out naturally but to John's real surprise, he doesn't tell Lestrade. He covers for John and smiles at him like John is remarkable. John looks up at him and he knows this moment, can taste the adrenaline and oh, oh of course. This is the moment that John falls in love.

He hides it, deflects Sherlock into a petty argument with his brother because this is who John Watson is now. He knows to the millimetre how thin the line is that Sherlock walks between immortal fame and absolute ruin and he devotes himself to keeping Sherlock balanced. And it works and it is good.

Then John opens the fridge door one morning and the severed head sitting on the bottom shelf says "Good morning," in a raspy voice.
,
John stares at the head and closes the door, breathing harsh and sharp. Then he opens the door more cautiously.

"Much obliged, guv," The head says with some relief and John shouts at Sherlock for putting the head in the fridge.

"I don't believe you," John says and he can see the dull white eyes roll up like an overlay over the real head.

"He's a right plonker, in't he?" The head coughs. "Sorry, forgetting me manners, I am. Joe Hobson, down from Scunthrope. Pleasure to meet you, guv."

"And you," John says faintly. He closes the door and goes to pick a fight with Sherlock. Then, ignoring the blurry flashes of possibility, he goes storming out to Sarah's. He likes Sarah and right then, he likes Sarah a great deal more than he likes Sherlock. John feels a very strong need to surround himself with 'normal'.

So, naturally on his rare night off, some lunatic decides to blow up their flat. John comes racing back and steps straight into the umpteenth round of Holmes Brothers' Cold War. He flounders a little, largely because he can hear a muffled voice coming from the fridge and he doesn't have to look at either of the other two to know that they don't hear it. He's badly rattled; always a mistake when you're in the same room as one Holmes, much less both of them. He's suddenly terrified again; this time that they'll see something, that he'll do something to give himself away.

It's made a lot worst by Mycroft's presence. Mycroft doesn't even come to the flat usually, he sends his car and gives John time to prepare, time to sort out the dozens of possibilites for the one that leaves Mycroft satisfied and smugly certain that John is just another flavour of bland/normal human. John still isn't afraid of Mycroft but now, with flickering flashes of what Mycroft is capable of dancing behind his eyes, he is afraid of what Mycroft can do to him.

It's a relief when Mycroft tires of sniping back and forth with Sherlock and leaves. Sherlock's phone going a minute later is a more mixed blessing but Lestrade means station means people. If Sherlock really is feeling nettled then he'll make a point of ignoring John. If John is sensible then he'll have rebuilt the 'John Watson, dull sidekick' façade by then.

Sherlock sweeps out of the room and John hesitates. The head - Joe - is still complaining about the 'bleedin' dark' and his voice sounds like any querulous old fart in the hospital. John wavers. Then he hurries over to the fridge and hesitates before pulling out one of the battery-powered night lights from under the sink. Before he can talk himself out of it, he opens the fridge door and puts it on the shelf over the head (Joe). Then he closes the door quickly and scurries across the kitchen to the door.

"Cheers, guv. Yer a saint!" Joe's voice follows him back out to as he follows Sherlock out into the taxi.

John is grateful that Sherlock is on to full-on sulking by the time he catches up. It means that the cab is quiet and he can think.

Inevitably his thoughts circle right back to Joe.

John has known for weeks that Molly is going to be an award-winning research scientist who wins the Nobel Prize for Advanced Microbiology. He could tell Lestrade was going to fix things up with his wife and had carefully sabotaged Sherlock's phone last Friday so Lestrade made the all-important dinner with his wife and met Raphael who is going to make them both so happy. He reminded Sally to get her pap test over casual conversation, bringing up a patient who caught the cancer just in time and he's going to let her buy him dinner after the threat of cancer is averted.

John honestly thought that he'd hit rock bottom as far as freakish psychic powers went. He's never had a body talk to him before and between medic training and Afghanistan, he's seen more than his fair share of them. Not that Joe is even a proper body, just a chopped off head stuck in fridge by a sociopathic detective to traumatise his psychic flatmate.

It's enough to drive anyone barmy.

John thinks suddenly of the neat stack of prescriptions Ella writes and he fills then flushes down a public toilet every week, and wonders, for the first time since moving to Baker Street, if maybe he's just going mad?

The police station is a relief; the only things dead in here are the plants and John's had a black thumb his whole life. He's still relieved when none of the desiccated ferns say anything. Sherlock sweeps through the station, John nodding distractedly to the various people he recognises as he hurries after him.

Anderson isn't in (wife's started to suspect the affair and he's taken her on a 'spontaneous' romantic weekend. It might have worked but the B&B owner has a good memory for faces and thinks Sally can do better). Sally smiles at him and John bites his lip thoughtfully. (Time to introduce her to Harry, maybe?)

Then Lestrade (looking much better, Raphael must be nearly ready to move in) gives Sherlock a package and John's heart stops. He manages, somehow, to bluff Sherlock into believing it's embarrassment. Sherlock is too wrapped up in the parcel to pay enough attention to spot the misdirection. John's eyes are magnetised to the phone and all he can hear is the hiss of sand running though his fingers.

He's twitchy, hyper-alert in a way that he hasn't been since before he was shot. Old habits resurface with a vengance, even his gait falls into the familiar military cadence and his thigh twinges with just enough pain to make his steps uneven. It would be a dead give-away to anyone that knows him but Sherlock's the only person that does now, and he's too enchanted with his new puzzle to notice a beat-up old soldier throwing a strop.

(In the back of John's mind, a countdown starts. Tick-tick-tick...)

He follows Sherlock down into the bowels of their home and goes tense and still in the small mouldy room. The shoes feel like booby-traps, like bombs and he's careless, tense and jittery when he speaks. He nearly jumps out of his skin when the phone goes and the room goes grey for second.

The conversation is agonizing. John has to clamp his mouth shut on a scream.

The woman (Elaine Dugs, 39, single mother (two boys, one in college, one doing his A-levels), works in Barclay's and her co-workers are planning a huge surprise party for her fortieth birthday and her team are paying for a proper holiday) is almost hysterical. She's praying, soundless heaving gasps of piety underneath the sobbing words and god, John can't do this.

He has to though, so he follows Sherlock out to the taxi, shoes tucked with great care into a brown paper bag that John charms out of Mrs Hudson. Lestrade gives him a significant nod as Sherlock hails the taxi, keep me informed, yeah? and John smiles awkwardly and nods.

Naturally Sherlock drags him straight to Bart's and John honestly wants to kill him for it. A whole lab full of pieces and fragments of humanity and all of them are fucking talking. As if that wasn't enough, John can feel Elaine Dugs' desperation seething around the fringes of his mind and he's snappish, short-tempered and Jim, sleazy nasty little Jim, passes him by completely.

John might, even then, have been able to stop it. He might have known, given some time, that Jim was Moriarty and the faint chlorine reek wasn't from Jim visiting the pool but instead, Sherlock hands him the shoes. John's been able to swim all his life; mostly in rivers or at the sea and god, he never thought of how much chlorine burns or how horribly bloated lungs full of water would feel, the way a heart would race and pound and struggle against the mass.

It takes three minutes to die of drowning. It feels like three years. John can almost taste the boy's confused panic, the hundred and one tiny things he wanted to have done better.

He offers a terse summary of what he can prove the shoes are telling him. Boy, big boy who took care of his shoes (first thing he bought with the money from his job down the supermarket), old style sneakers (80's and god, John had forgotten how foul hair spray smelt) and how worn they'd become (loved to swim but running was something he could do with his dad).

What John doesn't say is: his name was Carl and he was a good boy (occasionally thoughtless, occasionally cruel) and someone had killed him, in the most agonising, torturous way they could and he'd never even known who it was.

"I mean, you missed almost everything of importance."

######

There should, John decides bitterly, be rules.

He's never been around Sherlock this long while it's been flaring up and it's harder to keep being the dumb sidekick when the truth is jabbering away in the back of his mind. John isn't like Sherlock - the meeting with the 'widow' (who is only partly outraged and mostly afraid that this police-sanctioned nut job is going to mean more interviews, she doesn't like the cold at this time of year) proves that beyond all doubt.

John can't shrug on or off emotions like that; the best he can do after nearly sixteen years in the Armed forces (seven and a half in the sandy hell that was Afghanistan) is to pretend that he's himself when his mind is screaming that something is going to happen nownownownownow. Even with all that, he's only just able to fool a sociopath who isn't looking at him for more than three seconds per minute.

It still makes him shiver in reaction. The guy in the car isn't dead, John knows that immediately. The blood is too old and there's no pain rising from it; this wasn't an attack, more a gruesome graffiti attack. It's only just starting to coagulate which doesn't make sense and John barely glances at his phone when Mycroft's insistent texts start coming.

He's stamping down the clamour in his head when Sherlock drags him off to Janus Cars. They're running for the Tube when Sherlock's scarf comes loose, baring a modest triangle of pale skin at the base of his throat. John gets a high-definition snapshot of the salt/sweet taste of his skin and how it flushes a delicate rosy pink under the lightest pressure from John's lips.

John nearly falls off the platform and Sherlock has to bodily haul him onto the train. He's too close and John closes his eyes and tries to beat back the avalanche of images. He's not opposed to men, sexually speaking (even if it has been largely hypothetical for the last 10 years) but Sherlock is so far from his type that it's ludicrous. John likes his men to be bigger, built and gruff; the sort of people who can pin him to a bed and hide him from the world if he's in the mood or take up all the space beneath him if he's not.

Quite why it is insisting on filling his mind with the burning stretch of interior muscles and the bruising grip of clever, long fingers on his hip, John doesn't know. He shifts in the seat as Sherlock demands to know how in the world John managed to trip over the measly two inch gap between train and platform. John mumbles something unconvincing about his leg and Sherlock huffs. John trails after him in a daze.

The interview is skin-crawlingly creepy. The man behind the desk (real name Bernard Copen, thirty four convictions, wanted on parole charges but he'll be gone before Lestrade arrives) is something poisonous. It isn't actually his company but someone very nearly as clever as Sherlock has gone to a great deal of trouble to make it look like it is. John wouldn't have seen the signs either but he was watching for them.

Sherlock wants to go to back to the lab, John – already exhausted – can't face the idea of listening to the thready, confused whisper of Mrs Cavendish's kidneys asking where she is and if her grandchildren have been. "Well, not like you need me for that, I suppose?"

Sherlock looks at him lips (that taste of bitter coffee and ginger biscuits) compressed. "I suppose not. You can do some checking for me. I need you to-"

John notes what Sherlock wants, already filtering out what he's really looking for and where John's going to have to go to find it. (He's going to have to hack MI6 again. Better use Sherlock's laptop so Mycroft doesn't suspect). He gets the bus home and feels a short vicious tug when it passes a small traffic island. There's some guys standing around – one with a mobile pressed to his ear but nothing suspicious that John can see.

John climbs the stairs to the sound of Joe's singing coming from the fridge. His leg is screaming;.the pain is wrong, muscles knotted wrong and John stops, panting, halfway up the stairs with Joe's nasal singing floating down and his blood runs cold with realisation. It's not the old wound, not a mixed-up old memory; it's not a memory at all.

It's a wound that's waiting to happen.

####

By the time Sherlock finally calls, John is pretty much certain that he's snapped. He's huddled on the couch, hands pulled up inside the sleeves of his jacket and arms wrapped around his legs. He can't touch anything, doesn't dare.

(In the kitchen, the cup that Sherlock had on the table in his room while he was wanking and saying John's name is in shards on the floor. In the hallway, John's cane is lying where Sherlock and Mrs Hudson will never see it but Anderson will trip over on the next-but-one drugs bust; the one where he calls John a deviant in the kitchen while John taps at his laptop on the armchair...)

He can't even use his laptop any more and there's the tiny part of John that clings to denial even now which is proud that he got the information Sherlock needed and sent it to him before he stopped being able to read what was on the screen.

(The front page on his blog is a notice from Harry giving the date for his funeral. The front page of the newspaper cycles through headlines about 'UNEXPLAINED EXPLOSION'/'BOMB VICTIMS IDENTIFIED'/'POLICE CONFIRM COUNSULTANT AMONG THE DEAD'. The television keeps playing that daft make-over show and that stupid Connie Prince woman keeps stopping in the middle of the clip to look at him and say "Aren't you going to sort it out, dear?")

Sherlock's ring tone makes John startle and he's got his gun in his hand and pointed at the table. Joe's singing cuts out and he starts complaining about the racket.

"Come at once," Sherlock demands. "I have it!"

"What?" John sighs. "Fine. Where are you?"

He lets Sherlock give him directions and isn't entirely surprised that Sherlock is waiting for both him and Lestrade in a theoretically secure lock-up. He is surprised when the visions and the dizzying feeling of seeing how every action triggers a wholly predictable chain of events just ...stop as soon as he hears Sherlock's voice.

It disappears, not even flashes of Sherlock naked and instead of being relieved, John's pulse kicks up a notch. He stays as close as he can justify and watches Sherlock explain the case to Lestrade. John stays in the background, mind racing.

There's something more here; John doesn't dare touch the car because there's bitter dread on the back of his tongue and even ducking to look at the too-perfect blood stain makes his skin prickle like he's in front of a bonfire.

He lets Sherlock have his moment of triumph and they're leaving when Sherlock says "I am on Fire!"

John's brain whites out – there's the smell of chlorine and mould again and a high-pitched mad giggle and Sherlock, all stark lines as the air goes orange/red and the explosion sweeps towards him.

"John? John!" Sherlock sounds annoyed but with the inflection John has learnt means that he's actually feeling worried.

"I'm fine," John lies. He sees Sherlock's eyebrows fly up and gropes for an explanation that will satisfy Sherlock long enough for his mysterious opponent to start the next stage of the game. Right on cue, his stomach rumbles.

"When did you last eat?" Sherlock demands, expression already smoothing into irritation now that he believes he knows what the problem is.

John shrugs. "Head in the fridge, remember? I wasn't going to risk the rashers after that."

Sherlock looks cross which John automatically translates to 'guilty'. John pinches the bridge of his nose. "What did you do to the rashers, Sherlock?"

"I needed humanoid biological tissue and pigs are an acceptable substitute," Sherlock lectures him on the genetic similarities between pigs and humans the whole way to the nearest greasy cafe and hovers until John orders enough food to satisfy whatever random quantity Sherlock believes constitutes a 'proper' meal.

The food helps and John relaxes a little. The deluge of information has stopped and he's feeling more grounded now that he isn't half-fainting with hunger. He isn't stupid and he's dealt with it for years.

"Is it him? Moriarty?" John asks and feels the rushing heat of the explosion when Sherlock shoots him that shy/enchanted smile. The food in his stomach feels like a lead weight and John swallows the taste of his own blood.

The phone goes again and oh, oh god, no. Connie Prince smirks out of the small screen and John makes a light-hearted comment about his continued (permanent) unemployment and Mrs Hudson's viewing habits (Mrs Hudson never watches Connie Prince; thinks she's a vapid old bitch but he's safe; Sherlock won't ask if he thinks the presented evidence is plausible)crosses to turn on the TV. (Connie's voice hisses through the static. "Number fifteen, lovey. They're just showing me on the BBC again.")

John twitches and smiles blandly at the girl (Anne) behind the counter as he picks out one-five on the remote, looking down so he won't see Connie's face until the TV shows her clip with Tyra ("Lovely, lovely girl. She's going to be married soon, did you know? All thanks to me.") and the newsreader's voice droning over her. Connie's voice – the one that talks to John through static and background noise – fades away. The phone rings a second later and John swallows. He fumbles for the volume control and turns it down.

Sherlock's expression doesn't change as the latest puppet starts to speak. Then he ducks his head and suddenly, John needs to be closer. There are ...reflections – thin, sepia-coloured memories flooding the cheap plastic walls. A woman, in a wheelchair – one of those old iron carriages, probably in her eighties. Not the caller (Ruth-Elizabeth Darlington, 72, widow. Living alone though her son has wanted her to move in with him since she was declared legally blind. She doesn't want to be a burden; isn't staying where memories of her George are everywhere. She'll be dead in less than a day.), but someone else. Someone more important.

The old woman he can see has white eyes and long nervous fingers. There's a boy, blurry and out-of-focus, just tall enough that his head is on a level with her lap. He's holding up a fistful of flowers and the old woman accepts each one and runs her fingers over it, smiling small and proud. John takes his seat opposite Sherlock, the visions (memories) shifting with him. The lady fades again, leaving the empty chair for a split second as the boy looks at it then turns to face John. He's got turbulent curls, pale guarded eyes and John's breath catches for an instant.

Then the boy shifts and morphs, sinking into the real and present Sherlock and John thinks oh.

Not Mummy, John is certain of that. The woman was too old, too obviously frail. Sherlock couldn't have been more than five. A grandmother? Great-grandmother, maybe?

"Why are you doing this?" Sherlock demands and John's eyes fly up. Sherlock's expression is still virtually blank but his jaw is set. John can hear the woman (Ruth)'s voice, soft and breathy and starting to break under the strain as she parrots Moriarty's words. (He's there with her, in the flat, sitting just across from her. He'll leave after this message but he can't resist being this close, hearing Sherlock's voice without the added distortion from the phone tap.)

Sherlock keeps eye contact as Ruth laboriously reconstructs the sentence; Moriarty's high-pitched giggle and the steady breathing of the sniper are distracting her. Then, finally finished, she breathes out an 'ohhh' that is pure mortal terror and Sherlock looks away. For a second, John sees the boy, curled in the big old wheelchair with red, dry eyes, then Sherlock lowers the phone, flicks John an inscrutable look and sets the phone down, turning to look at the television.

John wants to say he's sorry, wants to offer Sherlock a shoulder and a welcoming ear for his child's memory of his (great-grandmother, French, they called her 'Grand-mère P' because Mycroft had a lisp, kept mispronouncing the 'V' and Sherlock stubbornly refused to believe his big brother had made a mistake.).

But he doesn't because Sherlock won't accept either, even if they weren't in public; even if John could explain how he knows.

Sherlock is staring at the clip of Connie Prince again, breathing a little faster and thumb twitching. John looks away, feeling intrusive just by being there, and takes out his phone to call Lestrade.

They have to go to the morgue and John, still caught by that momentary flicker of emotion doesn't think of an excuse for why he should wait outside or go back to the flat until it's too late. There are dozens of bodies in the drawers of the morgue. (Cassie, who just wants her mum and is swearing that she'll never touch the hard stuff again (true)/Shaz who saved ten quid on that beat-up old helmet and bitterly regretting it/Marge who is waiting for her funeral and the chance to pass on the same way she waited stoically for the cancer to kill her.)

"You all right?" Lestrade asks while Sherlock rifles through the official autopsy report.

"Fine," John lies. Lestrade sighs, unconvinced but he's got more on his mind than a beat-up old war relic (Raphael is going to agree to move in with them tomorrow night. His wife, Beth, is going to book them a table at the posh restaurant in Holburn. Lestrade will be ordering their desserts when the call about the explosion comes in-)

John closes his eyes, lets the excess information stream away. He can still hear them but the voices fade into background chatter for a minute. Sherlock's watching him when he opens his eyes again. For a second John thinks Sherlock is going to ask him something, then the orderly comes back to tell them Ms Prince's body is ready. John braces himself and sure enough, Connie starts talking almost before he's in the door.

"I don't see why they couldn't at least have made me up. I look so pale and ugh, it simply isn't right. I should never have trusted Mark with anything." There's more along the same vein but John's listening to what she's saying. "Could barely stand," Muscle spasms. "Such a hard time speaking. I thought George – our sound producer – was going to have a fit. I couldn't breathe for nearly a whole minute." Laryngospasm. "You know, I think it was a heart attack"

It wasn't, John knows that. He looks down at her body and can see where the bacteria is thickest; tiny red points. There's none near the thick gash on her hand. She was gardening, Lestrade said but John has been listening to Connie since last night and her idea of gardening seems to involve her brother doing the hard work and her supervising with a drink at her elbow. (Gardening. Raoul who looked so delightful without his shirt. Such a waste, Connie always thought.)

Sherlock says something about the cut and John turns to look at him. "How long would the bacteria have been incubating?"

"Eight, maybe ten days?" John guesses – she'd stopped being able to hide the spasms four days ago.

Sherlock smirks and John feels slow and stupid as all the pieces slot into place. The wound has to have been inflicted after death. He goes when Sherlock sends him off to investigate the brother, leaving the whispering dead behind. He calls Mrs Hudson to ask if she can find the address for him. He tells her a little about the case and Mrs Hudson is quiet for a moment. "I'll just put the tea on then, shall I?"

"That would be lovely, thank you Mrs Hudson." John smiles. Bloody useful thing, having a former MI6 agent as a landlady.

Mark Prince takes one look at John and insists that his assistant let him in. John follows him into the living room with a growing sense of dread. He nearly fumbles his temporary cover (thank you, Mrs Hudson) when the man sits down beside him. There's no visions or anything which is why it takes John several seconds to realise Mark is chatting him up. John hasn't been in this position since his last tour and he's caught completely off-guard.

The blasted cat crawls into his lap again, radiating shame and misery and John has an idea. It's a pretty good idea so of course not only is he proven wrong but Sherlock bloody Holmes had ruled it out before he started talking in the morgue. John thinks for a second of punching Sherlock in the face; that awful house, that poor cat but Sherlock wanted time, wanted to one up the bomber.

It still takes every ounce of self-control not to ask if Sherlock would have been so fucking clever if the hostage didn't remind him of his great-grandmother but Sherlock's following Lestrade into the office and there's nothing John can do but follow.

It comes flooding back the second he steps inside the door.

Lestrade has been doing background work too, 'useful work' Sherlock calls it. Sherlock explains the evidence in detail, showing the records from his Home Office pal (Susan who owes Sherlock for introducing her to his brother who is going to make her Prime Minister in ten years) and Lestrade sets the official wheels in motion. John thinks of Raoul (Mark didn't love him, never did love the boys his sister brought him but they were so pretty, so kind but he liked them which was why she did it. He loved her first, of course. First and only and poor silly Raoul is going to die in a prison fight a month before the trial, never knowing.)

John stands off to one side of the desk, eyes on the carpet and lets the two experts work.

"Do stop sulking, John." Sherlock has appropriated Lestrade's laptop and is busily hopping through the encryption hooks on his website. (Only looks like 32-bit password encryption on first pass. Moriarty's computer-literate and has probably already spotted the traps and tracks on the first two levels of encryption. He's going to miss the third.)

"Sulking?" John wants to laugh. "What could I possibly have to sulk about?"

"Your discomfort at being the amorous target of a gay man does make your previous claims about being 'fine' with gay men somewhat less plausible." Sherlock observes and Lestrade heaves a sigh.

"My discomfort, as you so quaintly put it, wasn't because he was gay and you aren't gay so you don't count," John says, ignoring the flash of images and the phantom feel of Sherlock's long, clever fingers on his inner thighs.

"What makes you think so?" Sherlock is tapping away, not looking up and John snorts.

"Well, you might be but, fashion sense aside, I really doubt it." John says before he can catch himself. Lestrade hides his smile by scowling down at the files. Sherlock looks up at John, fingers pausing over the keyboard and his eyes narrow for a second. Then his website comes up and he turns back to typing out the answer. The phone goes immediately and Lestrade and John watch him bring it to his ear.

Ruth cries out for help and Sherlock relaxes (wasn't sure Moriarty would have left her alive. He'd have hunted the man across every continent if he had). John can't; Ruth sounds exhausted, despairing and she's going to do something. Sherlock asks for the address and he's not listening, not paying attention. John feels his heart sink. (She's not alone even now. The sniper is next block over but the man who has been guarding her is still in the room. Ruth hates him, hates him more than she hates the drunk driver that killed her George and she thinks, she thinks it would be worth it-)

John doesn't hear what she says, just the note of panic in Sherlock's voice when he tells her to stop, to be quiet, not to tell him anything. He knows that in the cheap, dingy flat the man is clawing at the door's deadbolt. Too late.

Sherlock goes very still, eyes wide and he calls out once. Then he holds the phone away from his ear. John pushes away from the wall, ignoring Ruth's last viciously satisfied thoughs. "What's happened?"

Sherlock sets the phone down and doesn't look at either of them. Lestrade swears and John puts a hand on the back of Sherlock's chair. He can guess (feel) the echoing, hollow pain already being ruthlessly suppressed and it terrifies him to watch as Sherlock's icy mask descends again.

It's terrifying because now John understands. Sherlock isn't a sociopath; John's met sociopaths before and they were nothing like Sherlock. This is something more horrifying and John understands suddenly why Mycroft is so worried for his brother. Sherlock isn't a sociopath but he's so clever, so passionate about his work that he's trying to make himself a sociopath through sheer force of will.

John bites his lip and takes over getting Sherlock back to Baker Street and out from under Lestrade's feet. His mind races the whole way home. He's going to have to fix this, no question. Sherlock is such a fucking over-achiever; if he decides to be a sociopath for real then there's no way of telling what he'd do and John has so little time left.

The clock is still ticking but time's running out.

####

Sherlock doesn't talk at all for the whole cab-ride home. John doesn't try to make him, too distracted by the dizzying flashes of potential futures. Almost none of them make any sense which means, John thinks as he follows Sherlock up the stairs, that there must a million possible futures spinning off from what happens next. There must be so much depending on the conversation John knows they need to have.

Inside the flat, Sherlock paces around the room, throwing off his coat and refusing to turn on any of the lights. John takes his own coat off and goes into the kitchen. Joe is still singing and there's a shrill harmony coming from the skull. John goes back out into the living room and turns the skull away from the kitchen. The skull stops singing and starts complaining in a nasal tone that grates down John's nerves like an angle grinder. "You're a bloody wanker, you know that?"

John grits his teeth, doesn't answer, doesn't even fucking twitch and goes back into the kitchen instead. Sherlock's gaze drags over him as he moves but it's distracted and god, John can practically see Sherlock repressing emotions and memories and he has to bite his tongue bloody to keep from asking why Sherlock is doing this. He needs more time to plan but watching the façade of Sherlock-bloody-Holmes being rebuilt so fast is leaving him with a sinking feeling that his window of opportunity is being slammed shut.

He doesn't react when the skull calls him a poofter and a tosspot from the mantlepiece. Instead he puts the kettle on and opens the fridge.

"Queer sort, ain't he?" Joe comments, so loud that John's shoulders tense for a moment, irrationally certain that Sherlock will hear him.

"There's no milk, John," Sherlock says, petulant and exasperated, like John is being obtuse on purpose.

"So there isn't," John says calmly, breathing in deeply and he turns back to switch the kettle off. Sherlock's turning on the tv when Joe says "Bit of an arse, really, your boy."

John stops for a second and closes his eyes. The skull sniggers. "Matched set, if you ask me."

No-one did. No-one is going to ask you. John thinks viciously because the fucking news is coming on and the news anchor is telling the world about the 'gas leak' and thinking all the while about how he wants to call his old mum and how he's going to drop into the church across the way at lunch time to say a prayer for the victims and how guiltily relieved he is that it wasn't his mum's block of flats.

Mycroft isn't behind the cover story, not directly. John can see how Mycroft will frown when the report finally crosses his desk. (He's just back from the hospital and this proof that his carefully arranged network failed to detect this threat to his brother in time will drive him into a rage. The underling responsible will be found in the Thames, Cole, Ingrebourne and Brent rivers and no identification will ever be made.)

The news reports are all vague and there's an expert talking knowledgeably about the unreliability of London's gasworks and how Boris Johnson should be ordering commissions to have full inspections. John takes a seat, watching the television but still hyper-aware of Sherlock's ruffled, feline impatience.

"Old block of flats," John points out uselessly because he can't think about Ruth or how satisfied she'd been. He's somewhat surprised to discover that he's still capable of anger, slow and smouldering. Moriarty is going to pay for this, and pay, and pay and pay. (Ruth had been an old woman but the flat underneath had been a family and somewhere in London, Rashid Imhran is being called away from his crappy little desk to be told that his wife of fifteen years and three of their five children were in their flat when the 'gas leak' exploded. He's never going to recover properly and after his eldest daughter is married in December, he'll let himself just slip away one night.)

"Obviously I lost that round," Sherlock says peevishly, stabbing at the remote. "Although technically, I did solve the case."

The sound from the television snaps off and John turns to Sherlock who is staring into the middle distance. It's fascinating, in a 'bad accident on the M1' sort of way to watch Sherlock compartmentalising away Ruth's death.

"He killed the old lady because she started to describe him," Sherlock says thoughtfully. John watches as his eyes brighten with the light of revelation and feels his stomach twist. He turns to watch Sherlock, watches the shadows flickering and darkening around him. "Just once, he put himself in the firing line."

"What d'you mean?" John asks. Yes, of course Moriarty was in Ruth's apartment; John can still remember the disgusted snapshots from Ruth. (How he'd giggled and his shoes had squeaked when he'd bounced on his heels in excitement.)

"Well, usually he ...must stay above it all," Sherlock says, picking up speed and confidence as the connections form and his brain – that brilliant machine that runs like a Rolls engine – kicks into gear. "He organises theses things, but no-one ever has direct contact."

"What, like the Connie Prince murder," John asks as his mind flashes to the furtive gleam in Raoul's eye. Raoul who loved not wisely but too well and who grew up on stories of a great-uncle who had walked into Schirmeck concentration camp with a picture of his lover sewn into the inside of his coat. Raoul had only seen the monster in Connie and he'd killed her but he was a personal assistant, not a member of the SAS. Murder by botox wasn't something he was capable of dreaming up. "He arranged that?"

John gets a shivery feeling down his spine and a sense of something like a huge foul spider's web, organic and messy and everywhere. He can see the shape of it and Sherlock's distracted, focused on the evidence and the effort of peeling away his emotional responses to Ruth (and Rashid and Martha and Mary and....). John can tip his hand, ramble a little because Sherlock's already worked it out. "So, people come to him wanting their crimes fixed up, like booking a holiday?"

"Novel," Sherlock breathes and for a second, just one second, John wants to vomit. There's something so beguiled about the breathless comment and Sherlock's smiling (not with his mouth, that's for witnesses and police officers who don't know better. Sherlock's mouth lies like a candle in a draft flickers. His eyes are smiling, bright and alive and he's halfway to being in love with this Moriarty.)

"Huh," John is numb for few seconds, turning back to the television to hide the sting of his eyes and his face from the nearly-perfect sociopath who's sitting in his best friend (the man John loves because he's never known how to stop loving once he falls, only how to soldier on with the gaping void that used to be his heart tucked away under khaki or the white coat)'s skin. They're showing Raoul's arrest and John watches him run for the car, like he can be safe if he finds the right place to hide. (He's not going to make it past the arraignment; Moriarty will be vastly put-out and Joe Downs, the homophobic cellmate will take most of the night to die, pissing himself and begging for a mercy that will never come).

John's last image of Raoul is his face (so young, so very young and so very bloody stupid) and John can taste, thick and clogging his throat, the blood that will fill his lungs and drown him and- god, Jesus, no! There has to be something, some clue, some hint that John can give Lestrade. Raoul de Santos doesn't have to die.

The future can be changed. John has to believe that.

Behind him, Sherlock says something. His face settles into a more familiar exasperated expression and John clears his throat, coughing away the lingering feel of blood as he watches Mark Prince stare out the window at the black car. (He knows the number, isn't stupid, isn't blind and somewhere in London, in a blank empty office, a phone that even Mycroft doesn't know exists is ringing and Moriarty's newest voicemail message greets Mark by name...)

John's surge of anger is explosive and he swallows it down. Sherlock owes John nothing; John shouldn't be angry that Sherlock didn't (doesn't ever) see that John is in love with him: that John loves him enough that Sherlock never has to love him back.

He shouldn't be angry but he is.

John keeps his eyes on the television and forces his voice even. Sherlock still isn't looking (not at him) and John has done this before and survived it. (His dad spent every moment he wasn't drunk explaining why he wasn't an alcoholic. His mum tried to make them a functional family by sheer force of will and never admitted there was any such thing as a problem. Harry, with the night-life sparkling off her broken edges, who wants a brother when she's desperate or sober or lonely or all of the above and pretends he doesn't exist when she's happy.)

He asks about Carl Powers because Carl is important. He doesn't see how, not yet but even when it isn't clear, John's learnt the weight of important information, how the distortions and echoes shape around the thought of Carl Powers suffocating in the chlorine and clamour of the pool with the lifeguard screaming for an ambulance. (Her name was Katy. She blamed herself for it until she died saving a kid from a drunk driver. There's a plaque up to her in her church, pristine among the graffiti and-)

-and none of this is relevant. If John were Sherlock, maybe all this mental clutter would be useful. He'd know who Moriarty was, why Carl died and he'd stop this. John keeps watching as the television shows the flats again and there are figures, people huddled together at the very edge of the police tape.

John asks about the classmates and still, he's angry, fists loosely clasped and eyes resolutely turned away. Sherlock answers languidly, unable to bear not being the centre of attention but equally incapable of feigning a genuine interest in anything but his blasted precious fucking cases.

"Maybe the killer was older than Carl?" (Not right, wrong way around, Sherlock's going to-)

"The thought had occurred."

-miss the point completely? John waits a beat, two but Sherlock is still staring into the middle distance, smiling.

Oh, oh no. Sherlock doesn't get to do this to him. John is used to just being the sounding board for everything from Mycroft's latest diet lapse (he only had hot chocolate on Friday because he'd eaten nothing else) to Sherlock's vaguely interested assessments of handsome young men – and wasn't that excruciating, John thinks because whatever else he is he's honest with himself. John knows more about Sherlock than anyone realises, just because he's always there.

It hurts worse than either of the bullets, burns like the phantom searing pain that promises John's future isn't going to be boring (or very long-term) to realise that Sherlock isn't going to talk about Moriarty. Moriarty who is different, Moriarty who is special and Jesus, John is jealous.

The skull is cackling like an old woman with a fifty a day habit and Joe in the fridge is calling Sherlock 'a right plonker'.

Pride wars with the need to know and John asks because this is important and if he waits for Sherlock to realise that John is feeling excluded, they'll be here until Doomsday. "So why is he doing this then? Playing this game with you. Do you think he wants to be caught?"

"I think he wants to be distracted," Sherlock says in a tone that John has never heard him use before, rough and wanting and John can't take it any more. He can't keep loving Sherlock while Sherlock destroys himself (again. Last time it was drugs, saved by Mycroft who can panic and make human mistakes like screaming at a stupid, selfish little brother who has nearly died and it's a toss-up whether Sherlock hates him more for the save or the too-true dressing down in the middle of the hospital.)

"Oh," John pushes up, away because if he doesn't get something solid between him and Sherlock right this second, he's going to kill the bastard. "I hope you'll be very happy together."

Because this is a line John has to draw, now and as unambiguously as possible. If Sherlock wants Moriarty, well, John's just another in a long line of idiots and he'll try to stop them and probably fail but Sherlock cannot - will not - ever be able to have Moriarty and John.

(It's not a choice, Sherlock's already chosen) and John's never been good enough even for a 'normal' person.

Pain bleeds into anger, hotter, stronger and fuck it, John thinks.

Sherlock's perturbed "Sorry, what?" stops John in his tracks.

He sounds perplexed in that annoyed way he has when John is being too mundane to bear and John erupts. Sherlock will make use of John's knowledge, the hard-earned skills of his profession but at times like this, John wonders if Sherlock is really so staggeringly ignorant of what a doctor is.

["I solemnly pledge myself to consecrate my life to the service of humanity; "]*

"There are lives at stake, Sherlock," John shouts and in his head he hears it as an echo of Major Doctor Reginald Daziel who had taught him how all the 'fancy-pants school learning' translated into life or death on the front lines. He had taken to John over the Scottish connection, even if it was more theoretical than anything else in John's case. He was the best doctor John has ever known. "Actual human lives!"

["I will give to my teachers the respect and gratitude which is their due; "]*

Daziel was the only person John ever tried to tell; he'd been barely twenty-three, still a wet little medical student scuttling after the Major/Doctor and terrified and awed by Desert Storm and the reality of war. He'd stammered and fumbled his words, trying (and failing) to warn without giving everything away and Reginald Daziel died in the sand surrounded by the Army and life he'd loved. John still goes to put flowers on his grave every Thursday he's in London.

["I will practise my profession with conscience and dignity; the health of my patient will be my first consideration; "]*

"Just so I know, do you care about that at all?" John demands because he's dying here. He needs some sign that Sherlock's sociopath act is still only skin-deep because god knows he's getting nothing to hang his hopes on from the rest of the case.

"Will knowing about them help save them?" Sherlock demands coldly, like John is being wilfully stupid just to antagonise him. More than just that, he looks offended as if John has said something that isn't true.

["I will maintain by all the means in my power, the honour and the noble traditions of the medical profession; my colleagues will be my brothers; "]*

"Nope," John says tightly. It's the logical, rational truth after all.

"Then I'll continue not to make that mistake." Sherlock's practically sneering at him and John will grant that Sherlock is smarter than him, more confident and better in countless ways but John will not ever concede that being a normal, empathic human being is something he should be ashamed of.

"And you find that easy, do you?" John asks before he can calm down enough to think or consider tactics or a measure approach.

"Yes, very. Is that news to you?"

"No, no."

["I will not permit considerations of religion, nationality, race, party politics or social standing to intervene between my duty and my patient; "]*

"I've disappointed you," Sherlock says, looking at John in a way he hasn't since that first case.

"That's good, that's a good deduction, yeah." John laughs a little, everything so clear in the light of his burning bridges.

"Don't make people into heroes, John. Heroes don't exist and if they did, I wouldn't be one of them."

["I will maintain the utmost respect for human life from the time of conception, even under threat, I will not use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity; "]

The blasted phone goes and Sherlock abandons the conversation in favour of his new fascination and John stands and stares at him. He wonders, a tiny echoing thought in the hollow where his heart used to be, if Sherlock will even notice when John is gone.

"Oh, you're angry with me, so you won't help." Sherlock sounds amused, condescending. "Not much cop, this caring lark."

["I make these promises solemnly, freely and upon my honour. "]*

John comes slowly to attention, puts back his shoulders and crosses slowly to the pile of papers. Sherlock will believe it was his ability to manipulate but John is a doctor before he's anything else and someone, somewhere, needs his help if they're going to survive the day.

John can save them, or help at least and John took an oath to save every life he could. What's a broken heart compared to saving a life?

The papers are all blotchy, dull grey and John has to work to focus on the words. There's a suicide (Rachel Caine, 15, taking the only escape route her bullies hadn't closed off. For the last few seconds of her life, she was flying free and that was enough to make anything that came after worthwhile.) which Sherlock dismisses out of hand.

"Two kids stabbed in Stoke Newington," John says dully. (Michael Brady and Mohammed Bartholomew who played football together and died when a pack of chavs with too much cheap cider and meth frying their brain attacked them because they were walking down the street together.)

"Man found on the train line, Andrew West," John looks up from that one. Andrew West is going to be important; just like Carl was (is) and he's hoping Sherlock will see it now that Mycroft isn't hovering over him.

"Nothing!" Sherlock spits as if he's reading John's mind (he's not) and calls Lestrade.

John looks down at his pile of papers and isn't surprised when Sherlock's impatient phone call gets results; Lestrade may not like Sherlock a lot of the time but he respects Sherlock's instincts. John doesn't listen to Sherlock's side of the conversation, just stares down at the newsprint and waits for Sherlock to fuck right the hell off.

It will be...not better because nothing is going to make this better, but easier if John has time to recover. He just needs the time to rebuild the mask, to sort out what Sherlock wants John to be when he needs someone to send scurrying off to do the boring, necessary work that the great Sherlock Holmes can't be bothered to do himself. He needs time to collect himself, time to hide and he's not going to be able to keep a lid on his hurt unless he has some time.

"John?" Sherlock is hovering by the door with his coat on and his scarf tucked into the collar.

"Lestrade's found you something then?" John says matter-of-factly.

"Yes, weren't you listening?" Sherlock's frowning a little now and John closes the papers and steadfastly refuses to look up.

"I try not to listen to conversations that aren't my business," John replies carefully.

"Useless niceties," Sherlock huffs, coming a little closer until he's towering over John. It would be intimidating if John hadn't had his whole life to get used to being the smallest kid in his class and later his unit. "If you had listened, you'd have heard that he's found it!"

"It?"

"The body, John," and now Sherlock's exasperated and John breathes in even and slow. He will not be responsible for what he does to Sherlock if Sherlock has the fucking gall to lose his temper at John now. "Do keep up!"

"I wouldn't want my 'caring about him' to disrupt your case," John snaps and Sherlock rears back like John has slapped him. "Don't feel the need to hang around on my account."

Sherlock is staring at him, hands twitching and eyes narrowed as if John is being perplexing again. John isn't sure what Sherlock expects him to say here but he's damned if he's going to be the one to break the tension suddenly thrumming between them. He looks back down at his hands, watching them curl into fists as the skull starts to whistle the theme from Jaws. Badly and out of tune.

"The police have found a body," Sherlock says again. "This is what he wants me to solve. Moriarty."

"Still not seeing where I come in," John points out coolly.

"John," Sherlock says, all exasperated tone but his eyes are fixed on John with the sort of intensity that he normally reserves for crime scenes. "Stop being so childish and get your coat."

John has to bite back a completely inappropriate giggle. Sherlock wouldn't know a pick-up line if John tattooed it on the back of his hand which really only makes it funnier. Sherlock loses some of the nervous tension and the corners of his lips rise a little.

"Do hurry up, John, or Lestrade will have to let Anderson start working on the scene and he'll destroy all my evidence."

John blinks up at Sherlock who is holding out John's coat and for once not commenting on the patches or the frayed inside pocket. He has the feeling, barely discernible under the hurt and amusement, that there's another conversation here he's missing. John sighs and pushes himself up.

"Oh, all right."

The taxi ride passes in an odd silence. John is watching through the windows. He doesn't like taxis, stupid big black boxes that feel like some nightmarishly fragile APC and John is watching for snipers, prickly with the awareness of how exposed and vulnerable they are. (Moriarty will escalate, has to escalate to prove that he's better/smarter/in control. It's his weakness.) Sherlock doesn't even look at him and John tries very, very hard not to let that bother him.

####

The body belongs to Alex Woodbridge, who is glumly resigned to being dead and the brisk, invasive scrutiny Sherlock subjects him to. He's not bitter; one of life's 'keep calm and carry on' types, John thinks. He was a security guard, tumbled something he shouldn't have and he's certain it's the curator's doing. John feels that he should be congratulating Alex on how well he's taking it all.

"Suppose it's to be expected," he confides in John who stares down at him while Sherlock spins his web of amazing deductions and Lestrade thinks longingly about his warm (and decidedly occupied) bed. John almost congratulates him before remembering that he's not supposed to know about Raphael. Alex is still talking. "Tell you what though, like something out of Frankenstein he was. Did my best but, well, you should have seen the size of the bastard."

Lestrade is rubbing his hands together and John smiles distracted, feeling the expression freeze when Alex says "Here! He just swiped me bloody tickets! I could get in trouble for that!"

Sherlock's too fast for John to see it happen but Alex is sputtering indignantly and John hasn't met a corpse who can lie to him yet. (And, Christ, isn't that a depressing thought?)

John looks frantically for a distraction, the crime scene is turning into a minefield of things he shouldn't know and can't talk about and it's a relief when Sherlock spins away to play with his phone. John gets Lestrade's nod of approval and a chance to practice sorting out what he can admit to knowing from what he shouldn't mention.

Alex Woodbridge for normal people; mid-thirties (actually only 33 but between his obesity and the incipient diabetes, he looks older), not in the best condition (he's only been going to the gym for a fortnight, barely scraped the surface of the diet) and he was choked to death (by a man that looked like a waxwork monster and didn't feel even the most casual interest in him as an individual). John thinks he's doing pretty well when Sherlock interrupts with his wild prediction and even Lestrade's benevolent (well-shagged) mood isn't proof against Sherlock's unthinking arrogance.

John hasn't seen the painting but Alex's contemptuous snort tells him Sherlock is, however aggravating it feels, once more onto a winner. So he steps in, breaking up the looming fight just before Lestrade actually snaps.

Old habits die hard and John was never much of a drill instructor; too soft. Still Sherlock responds, unravelling the whole thing, step by step. He directs the flow of genius towards John, dismissing Lestrade almost completely. It's bloody marvellous and John tells him so.

"Meretricious," Sherlock shrugs it off, eyes flicking away and they both startle when Lestrade chimes in.

John looks down at Alex Woodbridge and promises silently that this Oskar Dzundza is going to pay for this.

"Tell Meg," Alex hesitates and John gets a flash of what he means, (Meg who was sweet and funny and who persuaded him to go the gym and take that astronomy course he always wanted to. Meg who is synonymous with love and good things) and feels the borrowed euphoria drain away. He looks at Alex and remembers why he's doing this and why it's never going to be enough. "Poor sod."

Sherlock shoots him a split second glance before Lestrade starts the wheels of officialdom rolling. (The Golem already has his ticket booked. A quiet, no-fuss exit where no-one's looking.)

"Pointless, but I know a man who can," Sherlock beams, bright and cruel. "Me."

He sweeps away, leaving John to follow. He looks at Alex and hurries after him. Sherlock's used to John falling behind so he doesn't notice when John pulls out his phone or the way his left hand is so absolutely still while he taps out the text.

####

"Why hasn't he phoned?" Sherlock demands in the taxi. "He's broken his pattern. Why?"

John spares him a distracted glance, humming non-committally. He's back to watching the passing traffic through narrowed eyes. (Moriarty has been distracted by Sherlock. Moriarty's network is full of men who don't like having their mastermind distracted. It's not profitable, after all. They want to make sure Sherlock...ceases to distract. It's a percarious balance that tips too fast for John to be sure where they stand; Moriarty's inevitable and ingenious retribution versus the resumption of business and profits as usual.) John's on high alert, apprehensive and fingers itching for the gun that he doesn't have with him. Afghanistan left him with more than just a limp and shaking hand, John remembers the feel of a sniper lining up the shot.

"Waterloo Bridge," Sherlock snaps at the cabbie, catching John's attention.

They're going to the gallery, apparently. Not that Sherlock's admitting it just yet. John bites back the acidic comments about how Sherlock's daily dose of drama should surely have been met already today. He doesn't say anything like that because his phone is still a guilty weight in the pocket of his coat and even if John knows there is no way Sherlock could know about the text message.

"The Hickman's contemporary art, isn't it?" John asks, trying to redirect Sherlock before he says or does something to attract attention. (A deliberate misstep, dating from Moriarty's more subtle courtship.)

The flash of insight leaves John's mind frozen; he tries not to analyse the way his mind interprets its feedback but where the hell did 'courtship' come from? What sort of crazy, insane mind would consider this courtship?

Aside from Sherlock? John thinks and hates himself for it.

Thankfully Sherlock isn't in the mood to chat, too busy scribbling in that ratty little notebook John bought him at Sainsbury's to engage with John's blatant red herring. He's careful not to let John see what he's writing and stops the taxi so he can get out at the bridge itself. There's a girl (Margaret) sitting on the bench, a couple of boxes and the better quality plastic bags beside her. (She's twenty six, doesn't look it and lives on the street because it's better than going back into her husband's house or worse, her father's.)

Surprise, surprise, John winds up stuck with the taxi fare when Sherlock sends him off to speak to Meg, not that Sherlock knows or cares to know her name.

"Lestrade will know the address," Sherlock says, dismissing the matter as entirely John's problem. John doesn't need to call Lestrade so he doesn't. It's not just about efficiency even if John does prefer having Sherlock where he can see him or at least close enough that he can call for help if the situation goes to hell. It's reassuring, from time to time, to be able to prove to himself that it isn't just a delusion.

Meg turns out to be a pleasant, dumpy woman who talks about Alex and his job easily and openly. She's at pains to assure John that they weren't sleeping together, that Alex was a good man who "didn't deserve it, Mr. Watson."

The only possibly interesting clue is the break-in and John asks about the message because...because it's important and there's a life at stake. Not Sherlock's, not his and John is about certain it's another poor sod who didn't ask to be involved in Moriarty's webs which doesn't make it any easier to contemplate. Meg leaves him in Alex's room and John can think for a second, explore the feeling. It's not a certainty, there's still a chance – a very, very slim chance – that John can stop whoever it is from being murdered. Mycroft texts him, prodding him with yet another reminder of shattered lives.

Andrew West loved his country, John knows and died an innocent man. John has no idea how to prove that or if he even can without tipping Mycroft off about it. John puts his phone back in his pocket and declines Meg's offer of tea. Sherlock hasn't summoned him back and there's no text from Lestrade. John pulls up the address, carefully book-marked in Google for him and well, he's got nothing better to do, really.

He might as well attempt the impossible.

####

"I knew Westie, he was a good man." Liz Harrison says, voice wobbling on the edge of a sob. "He was my good man."

She leaves John standing in the street and vanishes back into the drab house. Her brother is waiting for her in the hallway and he gives John a flat, unfriendly look before the door closes. John looks at the red door for a second and turns away.

Liz Harrison didn't know anything new and John's willing to bet every penny of his pension that she told him everything she knew. Everything that supports her assumption, perhaps, Sherlock's voice echoes in his head and John turns away, frowning. He'd considered that she might be lying from the moment she said hello. He doesn't see victims when he asks these stupid, repetitive questions these days. Nowadays, he sees suspects and it is somewhat terrifying to think that Sherlock's ...Sherlockness might be contagious.

He still doesn't think Liz Harrison lied to him.

John starts walking. What he got out of the interview isn't as worrying as what he didn't get. It is still there, still filling his head with cluttered impressions but he got nothing from Miss Harrison. A jumble of what might have been memories or dreams of her and her fiancé or ...anything, really.

The last three days have been insane, literally insane but John is horrified to realise just how quickly he's come to depend on it: Sherlock's influence, no doubt. John's learned to treat 'normal' as a situational variable since he moved into Baker Street which - yeah, okay - isn't a bad thing. Most of the time.

But it isn't something he can rely on and John forgot that in the rush of needing to be Sherlock bloody Holmes' safety net. He isn't Sherlock: isn't anything but a beat-up medic that even the Army doesn't want and a ticking clock that's rapidly running down.

Andrew West needs a genius detective to clear his name and John stuffs his hands in his pockets and goes back to the case Sherlock actually cares about. There can't be that many Professor Cairns in London, surely?

It takes until the evening to find the woman, who turns out to be some sort of astronomy professor; ridiculously busy and doesn't believe in mobiles. After two frustrating hours, he finds out that she's going to be at the planetarium later tonight. Much later tonight, in fact.

Sod that John thinks and goes to find Sherlock.

Sherlock's coming out of the flat just as John arrives. He wants everything John's picked up about Woodbridge which is not enough, apparently and he wants the cab. Of course he does, because god forbid John should be able to to have a cup of tea or a sit down. Sherlock doesn't actually get in the cab, so he's probably planning not to pay for it (again), instead he goes to talk to someone standing by the railings. It's Margaret and John blinks.

(she likes this, he's a daft bastard but he's better than any bleeding copper. makes her feel that she's making things better, being a good soul like her nan used to say. doesn't need her to actually go near the bloke, which is good. she reckons he's a bad lot.)

Sherlock sweeps back into the taxi and John sighs and follows. It's not like he has a choice, after all. Sherlock sends the taxi off through the late traffic and John watches through the window, eyes narrowed. (Moriarty is currently ascendant but that doesn't mean the threat isn't still there)

He doesn't speak to Sherlock. There's nothing worth saying after all and if Sherlock wants to know what John's found out, he can damn well ask. Sherlock keeps glancing at him as the taxi veers around buses and John pretends not to notice. When they finally arrive, Sherlock pays the fare which is a pleasant surprise and floors John completely by noticing the stars.

"I thought you didn't care about-" John starts.

"Doesn't mean I can't appreciate it." Sherlock says crisply and John's reading too much into that. After all, Sherlock might genuinely just like stars or...maybe, just maybe he might not be a lost cause. John doesn't press the point.

"Listen, Alex Woodbridge had a message on the answerphone at his flat." John says instead because Sherlock caring, even if it's just about stars, deserves positive reinforcement.

Sherlock brushes off the information which is good, fantastic because as soon as John steps in past the first archway, it comes roaring back. This is old London and John jolts as years of history boil up. It's a quiet, secret place. (Drunken prostitutes, desperate souls and all the flotsam of the city pass through here. The man in the corner, Jack Mills, used to be top boy at his school but there was no money for university and bitterness poisoned his life. He's dying of heroin; doesn't eat, doesn't sleep if he can avoid it. He's dying of pneumonia but he'll die of exposure first.)

John is astonished but not genuinely surprised to find that Sherlock can interact so seamlessly with the homeless. (It started in university, Sherlock intrigued and attracted to the outcast, those who didn't merely fail to live up to society's standards but were actually incapable of doing so. A reminder of how well he could choose to integrate and the price if he didn't.)

He turns to look, just as Dzundza stands up and bloody hell, Alex wasn't kidding. He looks like the master vampire off Buffy crossed with a giraffe. John staggers a little; just as he starts to move. The man taints everything he comes within a hundred miles of and why in God's name didn't John bring his gun? Sherlock could have waited three goddamned minutes because John is pretty much certain that going up against the Golem with a gun is going to get them both killed.

John gets them both flattened against the wall, feeling hopelessly for where his gun should be, if he hadn't been so goddamn stupid and left it in the flat. Then Sherlock - infuriating, crazy, wonderful Sherlock - slips John his gun and you know, they might actually manage this.

They don't because Moriarty isn't willing to tip his hand just yet. It's one thing to surrender some petrified client but letting Sherlock get his hands on the Golem would be an entirely different matter. Dzundza's got minders, a whole team of gunmen. (Ukrainian with nothing to go home for. They aren't evil but their utter indifference to normal morals has made them invaluable to Moriarty. No trained snipers but they're all good shots.)

John knows - knows - that they won't be able to save Professor Abigail Cairns in the second that the red lights of the car vanish into the London night. He still tries because he's not Sherlock, mercurial and brilliant or Lestrade, jaded and intelligent but he's John Watson and as Harry used to say, he has stubborn where he should have common sense.

The fight in the planetarium is chaos; Dzundza isn't stupid and problems like Sherlock are serious problems. John lets his gun fall; Sherlock will miss, even this close where John wouldn't. Cairns is already dead, John can hear her voice wavering on the edge of hearing and John wants Dzundza to face the consequences.

The police arrive too late and John doesn't notice that Cairns' voice has faded until long after they have loaded her body into an ambulance.

Lestrade is distracted as Sherlock unravels the scheme, the latest hostage providing the countdown. (The boy isn't in danger. Seventy percent certain. Moriarty doesn't normally touch children but even his West London boss' kids aren't necessarily safe. Snatched from his mum's house, the kid's spent the last eleven and a bit hours playing games and sleeping and he's only now starting to realise something isn't right.)

Sherlock solves it, literally at the very last second and John's voice is breathless and funny as he and Moriarty's client are left staring at the painting. John leaves her to the uniforms and goes outside to find that Lestrade on the phone to Dover.

"Yes, Dzundza, Oskar Dzundza. Sounds like him all right."

John dips his head to hide the flicker of pride and relief. Lestrade got his text message, thank god and listened to it. Sherlock is pulling on his gloves, eyes intent on the woman being led out in handcuffs. He doesn't even look at John, waving him away before John can come up with a plausible reason for not wanting to come to the interview.

John gets home and goes straight up to his laptop. He opens Outlook and takes a deep breath before he starts to type.

####

The only thing left to deal with after John's typed out the emails is Andrew West's murder.

Not for Mycroft because John doesn't have enough time left to be afraid. Even Big Brother needs some prep time after all. He's not even doing this for Sherlock. He's doing this because Andrew 'Westie' Westwood was a decent, loyal bloke and John might be able to help clear his name. There's a window of opportunity that is begging to slam shut and John sits on the couch as his laptop goes into standby and the skull sings 'Waltzing Matilda' like it's forgotten he can hear it. It's discordant, off-tempo and frankly, bloody pathetic.

John doesn't mention the singing; at least it drowns out the tick-tock of the clock running down. John has the mean little thought that the skull clearly learnt music from Sherlock's violin playing which is unfair. Sherlock can play and play beautifully. He just never does.

Perverse bloody wanker, John thinks affectionately as he shrugs into his coat and goes to bully the Transport Police into letting him view the crime scene. He's lucky and Hugh, the rail inspector who lets him onto the line, rants about suicides being selfish (not properly angry but when he was eighteen and his da and he were fighting every night and one night he looked at the trains flying past at the bottom of the hill and saw a way out that no-one could take from him). John ignores Hugh until he goes away and John fishes out his notebook and starts slowly trying to think his way through the crime.

Finally, John gets it, sees the whole bloody shape of it in one glorious moment...and Sherlock is there. The bloody great ponce has already solved it, of course and John feels just a little bitter. Then Sherlock is off and flying and John is sucked into his wake and they're hurrying down the road as Sherlock rattles off the whole thing in a breathless monologue. John interrupts once or twice and he only notices when Sherlock bounds up the stairs that he's been marching down the street.

John's already sinking into the cool battle-ready detachment of the trained soldier when Sherlock levers the door open and a tidal-wave of emotions and images come gushing out. They're incredibly potent, like the whole flat has been hermetically sealed since West came charging through the door.

"Jesus," John breathes (So much anger/pain/betrayal-God, what will Liz think? Brother-friend—I TRUSTED YOU!) Sherlock sweeps into the flat ahead of him and John fumbles for the right questions. (Shame-pain-FEAR, can't find the words, can't stand the way you look at me, don't. Look. at. Me. Like. That.) and Sherlock's peering at a bloodstain on the windowsill.

John can't think past the burning question (West's furious, grieving need to know). "Then why'd he do it?"

They're interrupted by the rattle of keys in the door. He draws his gun without thinking, without hesitating as Andrew West's dying thoughts loop endlessly in the back of his mind and John could shoot this man, right now and never feel guilty. But that's West's thinking, his emotions and John pushes them away and he stands back and lets Sherlock flay the truth from this snivelling wreck of a man.

Sherlock whisks him away and John marches the whole way back to Baker Street with his back straight and his eyes forward while Sherlock watches and taps away on his mobile. It takes hours and a piping hot curry to purge West's memories but John is able to watch Sherlock, still bundled up in his coat and scarf yell at the TV and smile when he jokes about Connie Prince. It's domestic, pedestrian and...nice. John plays around on his computer, draws the moment out as long as he can. He looks at Sherlock, at the flat and thinks I was happy here and he smiles at Sherlock before he leaves for a fictitious date with Sarah (who's safely on a date with Tim from the x-ray clinic and it would have been nice if he could have said goodbye but she's safe and that's good enough)

Halfway down the street, he stops; just a split second before the gun comes to rest against the back of his neck. He looks up at the smirking, horribly familiar figure in front of him, All around them, the CCTV cameras are dark and dead. John breathes out, even and calm.

"Hello, Jim."

John gets bundled into the back of a white van with four big brutes (the Ukrainian minders that got the Golem out of the Vauxhall Arches, they're all carrying guns and they're loyal to Moriarty because they're out of other options – there are six figure bounties on each of them in the Baltic).

"John, John, John," Moriarty – because it is Moriarty, the last lingering traces of 'Jim the gay computer techie' were discarded as soon as he was sure John understood - has his hands clasped in front of him and he's smiling. "How nice to see you!"

John licks his lips and says nothing. His heart is racing and the tick-tick-tick of the clock is getting louder every second. He's keeping his breathing even with an effort; it's like the first time parachuting into a hot spot all over again. He knows he's done (almost) everything he could, taken every reasonable precaution but now he's in free-fall and the only thing he can do is hope he's done enough.

"You're being very quiet, Johnny-boy," Moriarty's tone is darker. He's still gleefully playing the supercilious little bastard but John recognises the tell-tale signs of a genius feeling under-appreciated. "I thought you'd have more questions."

"You're Moriarty," John says flatly. "I think that tells me everything I need to know, don't you?"

"Oh very good, John," Moriarty claps slowly, dark eyes contemptuous and his smile showing too many teeth. "It's like seeing a dog who's learnt a trick. Adorable but really, it's rather pathetic to watch. Do you know what happens now, Johnny?"

"Fifth pip," John says automatically and Moriarty looks at him sharply.

Fuck, John clearly wasn't meant to guess that. John stares back, stomach clenching as Moriarty regards him and he has to dig his fingers into his leg where Moriarty can't see to keep his expression from giving the game away. Moriarty giggles.

"Oh, well done, Johnny," he pats John's head like John really is a dog and John has to dig his fingers in harder. "Did it hurt, thinking that hard? Or is dear Sherlock rubbing off on you?"

His fingers brush the side of John's head as he pulls his hands back and John gags on a sudden surge of bile. (so much he wants from Sherlock, his attention, his focus, his brilliance, his mind, his long pale legs spread wide, his pleas, his tears, his soul...) John wrenches away from the sickening images and swallows hard.

"Not getting sick, are you, Johnny?" Moriarty coos and John nearly is sick this time. He can't feel the future shifting before him anymore; it's gone. John's rigid expression makes Moriarty smile, cruel and exultant and he has to work very hard not to throw up for real.

As Moriarty starts to laugh, John feels the gaping hole of uncertainty open around him. Has he just been mad all this time? No, there's the Golem but-but Lestrade could have gotten information from anywhere! He could have just stumbled across the Golem. John's delusions aren't proof of anything. Oh God, what sort of damage has he done?

He's in shock, John thinks, as Moriarty's thugs drag him out and strip away his own jacket. He doesn't fight when the nervous kid who reminds him of Molly straps on the vest. It's Semtex or something close to it and John inhales the familiar reek of explosive. He can't even begin to calculate how much damage this will do.

"Sherlock's invited us for a swim," Moriarty purrs in John's ear. He's crowding into John's personal space, has been since John got strapped into the vest and he fluffs John's hood and checks the earpiece is in place. "Such a good idea. Do I need to remind you of the rules, Johnny?"

"No," John rasps. "I know this one."

"So biddable," Moriarty smirks, thumb rubbing along John's ear as the snipers take up their positions. "I can almost see what he sees in you."

Moriarty's phone rings and he puts it to his ear. The slow smile that spreads across his face tells John all he needs to know; Sherlock's here.

"Time to dance, Johnny-boy," Moriarty pushes him back into the cubicle. John doesn't resist, hyper aware of the weight of the bomb. Moriarty checks the earpiece is securely tucked into John's collar before he closes the door, leaving John alone with his fears.

Sherlock is, John thinks, a bloody melodramatic wanker. If he was going to get out of this, John would kill him. Maybe Lestrade will beat some sense into him after this. Or Mycroft, at least. John can hope and wish he'd added that in a postscript. Moriarty waits until Sherlock is waving around the sodding USB key – so much for 'Mycroft was ecstatic to have it back' – before he orders John out to say hello.

"Evening," John says evenly. Sherlock spins to look at him and he looks stunned. "This is a turn-up, isn't it, Sherlock?"

John's prepared for Sherlock's anger. Moriarty's set-up is beautifully done; Sherlock will already be pulling back into the role of 'great consulting detective', clipping away any lingering emotional connections and reducing John to just another idiot with information Sherlock wants. Data to be analysed, nothing more. John's ready for that.

"Bet you never saw this coming," John braces himself as Sherlock turns to face him full on.

He's not ready for the devastation, the so-human incredulity. Sherlock sways towards him, breathes his name like John can fix this; like even now, John can make everything all right again. Sherlock looks at John like he wants to save him. John's heart contracts, a sharp stabbing wound that burns like wound fever. John looks straight into Sherlock's eyes as he continues to parrot Moriarty's taunting words. He can't let himself think of how open, how hurt, Sherlock looks or he'll break the rules and they'll both die.

What would you like me-" and John's voice only cracks a little as he takes his hands out of his pockets and opens the stupid coat. Sherlock's pupils blow wide as he takes in the wires, the Semtex – the bomb. "To make him say next?"

Sherlock starts looking around immediately, back straightening as he tracks the laser sights, looks around the apparently abandoned pool. Moriarty's voice hisses in his ear and John obediently parrots "Gottle o'geer. Gottle o'geer."

His voice cracks on the third repetition and Sherlock isn't even looking at him but he responds immediately. "Stop it."

Sherlock's coming closer, turning to look at every inch of the pool but always coming closer to John. Closer to the damned bomb! Moriarty is still talking and John has to concentrate to keep the words coming.

"This is a nice touch, the pool where little Carl died," John remembers the way the chlorine had burned, the desperate straining for air. "I stopped him."

That's important, John knows, that should mean something but all he can do is stare at Sherlock who is tight-lipped and furious and still coming closer. His eyes are so bright, so tormented and how in god's name did John ever think this man was a sociopath?

"I can stop John Watson too," John repeats, monotone because he can't – won't – let Sherlock hear the aural venom of Moriarty's tone. It's an act of will to keep eye contact with Sherlock as the red dots shift pointedly across his chest. "Stop his heart."

John lets his gaze fall away as Sherlock spins to look out over the pool again.

"Who are you?" He demands.

Moriarty answers; of course he does. There's no point in all this foreplay unless you mean to follow through after all. John hears Moriarty laugh and the earpiece goes quiet behind him. Sherlock is still looking in the direction of the snipers which means he's looking the wrong way.

"I gave you my number. I thought you might call." Moriarty strolls out from the door at the other end of the pool and John angles his head away, can't look at Sherlock and keep his heart beating. The last shred of 'Jim from IT' vanishes from his voice as he comes out into the light.

"Is that a British Army Browning L981 in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?"

Sherlock draws John's gun from the back of his trousers in one fluid motion. "Both."

John doesn't expect the gun, never even looked for it. Sherlock points it straight at Moriarty and keeps it trained on him as he finishes his introduction. It's more dramatic than effective and John taught Sherlock better than that. Sherlock adjusts his grip, free hand coming up to the proper position as Moriarty starts to pace along the side of the pool. Sherlock's fingers tighten on the gun as Moriarty comes closer.

The red dot flickers up across John's face and he catches Sherlock's nervous sidelong glance with grim resignation before looking away again.

"Don't be silly, someone else is holding the rifle," Moriarty drawls, pulling Sherlock's attention back to himself. "I don't like getting my hands dirty."

Fucking liar, John thinks. Moriarty is still talking but John's breathing in the memories of Carl Powers, Elaine Dugs, Connie Prince, Ruth-Elizabeth Darlington, Rashid Imhran, Alex Woodbridge, Professor Abigail Cairns and all the other faceless victims and he tastes blood on his tongue. They weren't saints or heroes but they were good people who tried as hard as they could just to get by. They didn't deserve what Moriarty did to them.

John hates Moriarty more in that one incandescent second than he would ever have believed possible.

"Dear Jim, please will you fix it for me," Sherlock breathes, the light of revelation shining in his eyes and John focuses fiercely on the exit door behind him. It's about five metres away, he thinks. A straight line and John looks up at Sherlock for a second then back to the door. He's seen Sherlock run; how fast could he cover that distance? Five seconds? Seven? Surely not more than that.

Sherlock and Moriarty are still talking, Sherlock unwinding the whole sordid web and that's-that's good. Now Sherlock knows everything he'll need to know for the war ahead and as Moriarty starts walking again, John closes his eyes and works out the angles and the speeds. The pool building is old, solid brickwork. It won't survive the explosion but it'll absorb most of it. Anyone outside should be fine.

"-have loved this game," Moriarty's saying and John's fists clench. He can't help the frown and Sherlock shoots him another glance, eyes snapping back to Moriarty again. "Playing 'Jim from IT', playing gay. Did you like the touch with the underwear?"

"People have died," Sherlock says, quiet and intense like he means it; like those people mattered.

"THAT'S WHAT PEOPLE DO!" Moriarty screams. The echoes die away.

"I will stop you," Sherlock says and it's a promise. Thank fucking god, it's a promise. Sherlock will stop Moriarty; break the strands of his web and be an even greater man than Lestrade can imagine. John tenses a little, ready now for his last move. "You all right?"

Moriarty comes up behind him and John is icy calm. His left hand is steady and he's ready. Just a little closer, just a little-

"You can talk, Johnny-boy," Moriarty says in his ear, still relishing being the puppet master. "Go ahead."

John looks at Sherlock and nods tightly. He wants to talk – wants his last words to be of love and understanding – but even if he was willing to give Moriarty the satisfaction of obeying him, he can't risk it. He hopes that Sherlock will be able to deduce what John wanted to say. After.

He's not expecting Sherlock to all but shove the memory stick up Moriarty's nose. He's definitely not expecting Moriarty to throw it in the pool but it puts Moriarty in front of him. It puts him between John and the sniper for one crucial second and John shifts his balance. Moriarty is distracted by his grand little gesture and John lunges forward. His arm locks around Moriarty's neck as he shouts for Sherlock to run.

Five seconds; the best sniper in the SAS couldn't change targets fast enough to hit Sherlock before he's out the door. John's dead the second he starts to move, of course but it's worth it. He knows with every fibre of his being that it is worth it.

Sherlock doesn't even move. John struggles to keep Moriarty in place as the madman laughs. He looks up. The gun is still trained squarely on Moriarty.

Sherlock isn't running.

John makes the best of it, struggles to keep Moriarty in place long enough for the daft bloody genius in front of them to run. Moriarty is still supercilious and aloof. He doesn't even look at John, talking to Sherlock like John's not there and calling him a pet.

Then he is talking to John. "You've rather shown your hand there, Doctor Watson."

A red dot appears, dead centre, on Sherlock's forehead. John looks into Sherlock's eyes and goes stone still. There's a split second, a flicker around his thoughts-...and John lets Moriarty go, stands back despite Sherlock's head shake. Moriarty threatens Sherlock like he's forgotten John is even there.

"I'll burn you, Sherlock. I'll burn the heart out of you."

"I've been reliably informed," Sherlock answers coolly, some of his familiar hauteur creeping back in. "That I don't have one."

"We both know that's not quite true."

Sherlock looks at John, just one tell-tale flicker of a glance then back to Moriarty. John's heart gets snagged somewhere around his Adam's apple. He doesn't even dare to breathe. Sherlock can't just let Moriarty go, of course. Too simple. He has to threaten Moriarty right back. Moriarty doesn't even bat an eyelash, half-daring Sherlock to pull the trigger.

"Ciao, Sherlock Holmes," Moriarty says as he turns to walk away.

"Catch. You. Later." Sherlock covers him the whole way out, crossing so he's closer to John again. He keeps the gun on Moriarty until the door clicks closed and the red dots wink out. Then he drops the gun, right into a puddle and he's tearing at the coat/the bomb/John himself like a madman.

"All right? Are you all right?" He demands and the tension floods out of John like a tidal wave.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," John manages as Sherlock strips him and hurls the coat away from them. "Sherlock, Sherlock!"

Sherlock bolts after Moriarty. John gets an instant of respite. Then his leg buckles and his head explodes with images and thoughts and visions. He has to grab for the wall of the cubicle, staggering under the sudden deluge.

It's back, with a vengeance.

"Oh, Christ!" John's leg is still agonizing, thigh burning with pain but he barely feels it under the crushing weight of the visions. The clock is still ticking, not as fast as it was but still counting down. He pants for breath and Sherlock comes back in an explosion of fretful energy.

"You all right?" Sherlock's pacing, John can't even look at him without getting motion sick. He nods though, waves the gun around like he's forgotten it's there. He stammers a little, relaxes after forcing out the most awkward thank you John's ever received.

"That thing that you tried to do...that was...good."

John nods and cracks a weak joke about Sherlock stripping him, just to see Sherlock smile. He feels punch-drunk, hazy with the psychic residue of the whole thing. He tugs at his cardigan and tries to stand. The dot is stark against the dark wool and John looks up in horror.

Sherlock goes blank and Moriarty throws open the doors. (never left, Sherlock only had time to check the outer door, not the door to the family changing rooms) "Sorry, boys! I'm so unpredictable!"

Sherlock looks at John, then up to where the snipers are waiting. (same place, they didn't move even though they should have.) Moriarty is still running his mouth and John breathes in deeply.

"You can't be allowed to continue," Moriarty says fondly. "You really can't. I would try to convince you but everything I have to say has already crossed your mind!"

Sherlock looks at John. He waits for John's slight nod before he turns to point the gun at Moriarty. "Probably my answer has crossed yours."

Then Sherlock aims at the bomb. John's leg gives an agonizing pulse of pain. Moriarty is smiling and John's mind kicks into gear at last. Sherlock will pull the trigger (won't regret it, won't hesitate now that John's given his consent) and the bomb is real. They're all going to die here.

John's eye flicks to the clock on the wall. Three minutes. He just needs three minutes. John glances at Sherlock then back to Moriarty. He's known that this was coming. He's done everything in his power to make sure this worked out properly.

What's one last sacrifice?

Sherlock's finger tightens around the trigger. John doesn't have time to think, much less plan. He simply reaches out for the voices and for the second time that night, his lips shape the words of the voice in his ear.

"Jimmy More-y-farty," John's voice comes out a pitch higher and in the taunting sing-song of a child. "Teacher's pet. Going to cry, Jimmy-boy?"

The effect on Moriarty is electric. The smug expression cracks and peels away. He's looking at John now, Sherlock forgotten, eyes wide with horror like he's seeing a ghost. (Not that he's looking in the right direction. Carl's standing behind him, eyes alive in a bloated, rotting face.)

"Shut up!"

"Mori-arty, always late to the party," John mocks, not looking at Moriarty (or Carl who is starting to get angrier and his anger is as cold and bitter as rotten lemon juice, souring on the tongue), "Always laughing, always trying to be one of the big boys."

"Stop talking! Shut up!" Moriarty is pale and sweating already. In the tiny kernel of his mind that is still him, John is surprised at how fast Moriarty is breaking. The price of genius, he supposes. All that brilliance is dazzling but crystalline and every crystal has its resonance frequency.

Less than a minute and Moriarty is shaking with the resonance of shared memories. John wants to throw Ruth in his face, tear and worry at Moriarty until he comes apart in bloody chunks, but Ruth is too much later. Ruth was killed by a man without a conscience, she's no use against the boy who couldn't even kill a goldfish.

"He laughed, so I stopped him," John repeats, Carl's contempt curling his lip. "But you didn't do it, did you, Jimmy boy? Too cowardly, too frightened."

"I killed him! I did! ME!" Moriarty sounds unhinged, now.

"Liar," John snaps back. (curly hair and a frilly dress. She wasn't a girly girl but her father wanted her to be.) "All the blood on your hands, James Arthur Moriarty but not this, not Carl's. You wanted to do it, you planned to do it but you didn't have the balls to do it.."

"You're LYING!!"

"She had to do it for you, didn't she?" John mocks. "You brewed up the cream but you couldn't kill Carl. Your da would have had your hide if he'd known so she had to and you messed it up."

"Shutup!Shutup!ShutUP!"

"Did you cry, Jimmy," John's trembling now, shaking with the chill and his breath comes out in clouds of vapour. "Did you cry into your teddy bear while your da beat her? Did you cry when he left her to bleed to death on the floor?"

Sherlock is watching them, gun forgotten in his hand. He doesn't react in time and Moriarty snatches the gun out of his hand and points it straight at John.

"SHUT UP!"

John stares up in the gun (angle's all wrong. He won't die cleanly, he'll feel the gaping hole, the blood draining out and the pain) and his leg twinges. John focuses on the pain, uses it to drag his mind back under his own control. His vision greys out (Carl wants revenge more than he ever wanted anything while he was alive) and John is looking at the clock when his eyes open.

12:18 and John looks up, past the black hole of the gun bore, past the mad rictus of Moriarty's face to meet ghost-pale eyes and he smiles.

"Out of time again, Jimmy," he says. His own words in his own voice and his smile inches a little wider. "Allow me to introduce you to the most dangerous man in London."

"My blushes, Doctor," Mycroft. Right on time, thank God. The smarmy bastard just strolls in, umbrella swinging casually. His eyes are hard and intent. John's seen eyes like that before, usually over the barrel of a gun and a shiver runs down his spine.

Moriarty is distracted for a crucial split-second and Sherlock does something complicated and vicious that breaks Moriarty's wrist (clean fracture of the radius and ulna, depriving blood flow to the scaphoid) and the gun falls to the tiles.

John is already lunging up and he catches Sherlock around the waist just as the (last) sniper pulls the trigger. Pain explodes up his right leg and they hit the water like an express train. John tastes chlorine as he sucks in a lungful of water.

Then everything goes black.

######

The sound of his heartbeat, echoed back by an electronic monitor and thumping steadily in his chest, drags John back to the light. He can smell antiseptic, bleach and the thousand little smells that add up to 'hospital' in his mind, even around the cannula's stream of oxygen. He's hazy, floating in a grey-black limbo and he's afraid to open his eyes.

He can't feel anything below his shoulders, recognises the haze of really good drugs. He can't tell if he still has his leg (53.4% chance he still has his right leg, 32.8% chance of regaining limited mobility, 6.1772% chance of regaining full mobility)

"John," and John digs deep and tries to claw his way back to conciousness. Sherlock wants him.

He manages to open his eyes, wincing at the too-bright lights and he definitely has his left hand at least because Sherlock's griping it so tightly, John's half-afraid something's going to break.

"John," Sherlock breathes and when John manages to get his eyes open long enough to focus, Sherlock looks relieved. His hair is still soggy and he's wrapped in an obnoxious orange blanket.

"M'croft called L'strade then," John slurs. "G'd"

Sherlock frowns, hands tightening around John's as John peers fuzzily around the room. There are five IVs: two of blood, three of saline and drugs. John's right arm looks like part of the plumbing. Bugger. Must have nicked the femoral artery after all.

"How did you know that?" Sherlock demands. John must have said that out loud. Double bugger.

"Knew it was a possibility," John says honestly.

"How could you have known that?" Sherlock snaps, frustrated. He doesn't let go of John's hand. "And if you knew it was a possibility, why didn't you avoid getting shot!?"

"My other options were through the heart," Sherlock's hands tighten again," The spine and the heart," Sherlock goes chalk white "Or through your head. Figured a consulting detective without a brain is a bit of a lost cause, yeah?"

"How could you possibly know-" Sherlock stops, head tilting as he thinks. "You knew how to find the drowned man's flat. You knew exactly where Professor Cairns was,. Lestrade thanked me for the anonymous tip-off that Oskar Dzundza would be hiding a shipping container heading to Gibraltar which I didn't send him..."

"-but you left the encryption program on my phone," John says. "Password is your mother's birthday in year-day-month format. I didn't realise that until I found out that Mycroft's password is the same date."

"How do you know what Mycroft's password is?" Sherlock looks equal parts frustrated, intrigued and worried. "How could you possibly have been in a situation where you could learn Mycroft's password?"

John hesitates. He knew complete confession was the price of saving Sherlock's life. He can't regret that but it's not easy. Sherlock leans in closer.

"John, you must see how dangerous your position is! Mycroft did not rise to his current position by being kind and he-" (is smarter than Sherlock, even if the knowledge burns like hydrochloric acid. He can do what even the escaped and vengeful Moriarty can't. He will take John who is wonderful, kind, friend? blogger, companion, comrade. Loved.)

John blinks then blinks again. It might take Sherlock another year to figure out what he's feeling. It might take another ten years after that before he shares that revelation with John but John knows. John will know and he doesn't care if Sherlock never says, never acknowledges it outside these private terrified moments because John will always know.

Sherlock is in love with him.

Heart so light, it feels like it's floating, John clears his throat. "It started in basic training...."