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Infiltrate (tear down the walls and the gate)

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Mycroft loves India in the spring.

Monsoon season is over but it has done its work, leaving the land fertile and arable. From the sky India looks green, a wash of color across the continent. Mycroft knows when they land it will be vibrant oranges and reds and every shade in between, colors that don’t exist in nature burning in his eyes, and there will be beautiful women wearing delicate sandals and beautiful sari’s and oh, oh, oh, how he loves India in the spring. That touch of the exotic, paradise; when they leave he’ll smell saffron and galingale and star anise in his hair, cinnamon and cumin in his clothes for weeks.

“You’re smiling again,” Elizabeth remarks across the way. She hasn’t looked up once from her phone, a rather bad habit he’s going to have to try to break her from. Again.

“There is a lovely little hole-in-the-wall around the corner from the embassy I’m going to take you to. They serve the most incredible breakfast of idli-sambhar.” Mycroft hums as he thinks of it – can almost taste it in the corners of his mouth already, the spices and textures and delight. India, Mummy had always said, was a continent to take into the mouth and savor, for to savor it was to know it. “Tell me, Ms. Rosenthal, have you ever been to India?”

“I went out with a boy from Bangalore at university,” Elizabeth says.

“You never went out with a boy from Bangalore.”

“He was from Mumbai, actually,” she answers, and shoots him a smile without actually looking at him. “The ambassador is waiting for you on the tarmac.”

“Press?”

“Limited. BBC and Sun.”

“Excellent.”

The jet – private, posh, paid for by no one and maintained by the private sector, whisks into Delhi International. Tomorrow, there will be no record of its landing – in fact, the only people who will remember it are the children plastered to the glass while their mums and dads read in the waiting room lounges. They’ll tell their friends about all the airplanes they saw, the many different sizes and types, including a funny looking one that landed between the jumbo jets, small and sleek like a toy.

Ambassador Clark is waiting, serious and tall in front of his limousine, as if Mycroft won’t remember what a girl’s blouse he’d been in primary school. It makes him smile, breathe in the sweet, dense, humid air of spring. “Mr Clark.”

“Mr Holmes,” Clark says, and only the smallest crack in his expression shows how pleased he is to see him. “A pleasure, as always.”

“Likewise. I see New Delhi has been treating you kindly,” Mycroft says, eying the ambassador’s spreading middle with a knowing smile.

“New Delhi treats everyone kindly, if you’ve got the money to be treated,” Clark replies. “I wish I could say the same of you, old friend.”

Mycroft is far too cultured to touch at his jaw, where even he has seen his weight loss in recent months. “Understandable, under the circumstances.”

“Completely,” Clark says, without a trace of expression. “Shall we?”

The drive is lovely, disturbingly so. Clark’s asked the driver to take the long way around, Mycroft knows, to keep the slums that pepper New Delhi a secret, as if the homes of three million could ever be kept a secret. It is a curious thing, Mycroft suspects, to feel as he does – to wish so terribly he could somehow fix it, while uncomfortable with the very same notion. The time for ethnocentric British solutions is long over.

“Jeffrey, we don’t have to be at the consulate for another few hours, do we? You simply must join me for breakfast,” Mycroft says, turning away from the window. “It’s a little hole-in-the-wall sort of place, barely more than four sticks, but it’s positively to die for.”

“Not that hole-in-the-wall you took me to last time. I don’t think I stopped being sick for a week.”

“You were sick for a week because you drank the water,” Mycroft says, and laughs. “Your delicate British sensibilities can’t take it.”

“My wife wouldn’t disagree,” he grumbles with a twitch of his mustache.

The place is still there, just like Mycroft knew it would be, and the owners kiss him on the cheeks and make a to-do purely to embarrass him. He lets them, pleased, and they give him a lovely table on their second floor with a fantastic view of the river and the city just beyond. The chairs are rickety, and the table doesn’t sit even, and his shoes are sticking a bit to the floor, but it’s worth it, entirely worth it when they bring out heaping plates of food – idli-sambhar, roshogullahs, and sandesh bathed in honey and roasted almonds. A lovely meal with lovely company, catching up with old Clark and telling stories of their boyhood days.

There’s a commotion downstairs, a terrible ruckus, shouting voices and angry yelling, and Mycroft dips his roti in the exquisite cinnamon syrup made in-house as the third of their breakfast party joins them. He’s brought in with careful regard to his safety, which is a nice thing of the New Delhi commissioner, Detective Raheed, and shows what a fine, upstanding gentleman he is. The detective even seats their breakfast guest himself, though of course Mycroft knows that is perfectly impossible because Detective Raheed is at police headquarters even at this moment.

“Terribly sorry to have started without you,” Mycroft says sincerely, motions to the heaping plates of food. “Please, help yourself.”

The man stares back at them, hollow eyed and pale. He’s thin, with the gaunt look about him of a man who’s been on the run and not eating properly. He looks nothing of the well-dressed businessman Sherlock described, just a bit sunburnt around the edges, with an anger so deep it’s transformed into something not quite sane.

Mycroft smiles pleasantly. “The owner, Mr Gupta, keeps a lovely earl gray just for my visits. It really is exquisite, can’t be compared to even Fortnum’s own blend.”

“What is this?” the man hisses through his teeth.

“This? What ‘this’ are you referring to, my good man?” Mycroft asks, glances towards the ambassador. “I thought this was breakfast between friends.”

“Long-time acquaintances?”

“Oh Jeffrey, you wound me.”

“Though I must say, this idli-sambhar is really quite incredible.”

“Isn’t it just?” He spears a dumpling with his fork and feels deliciously plebeian. “I must insist you try this, Mr Moriarty, you’ll find the pastry delicate but substantial.”

Moriarty stares at him, wild-eyed and twitching, and Mycroft sighs, put upon. He dabs at his lips, lays his napkin down on his thigh. “My dear fellow, I’m offering you your last meal as a free man, with all my regard. Surely your mother – Margaret Ann Berkshire of Surrey, owns the little flower shop below her flat, Perfect Petals, and has exquisite taste in flower arrangements – taught you better manners than that.”

Moriarty’s eyes narrow, and Mycroft laughs pleasantly. “She’s wonderful, made me a lovely cup of tea when I came in for a chat. It’s been some time since you’ve been home; she’s painted her dining room walls a lovely wine color. Adventurous in her golden years, she said – reminds me of my own mother, minus a thing or two. It’s a shame that you’ve been lying to her all this time, both about your work and your private life. All she wants are a few grandchildren to spoil. Though, of course, we both know that’s never going to happen.”

The ambassador chuckles with deep, rich amusement. “Come come, Mycroft, you must admit he was a pretty little thing.”

To Mycroft’s extreme pleasure Moriarty has gone quiet and pale, pinched and sealed off and expressionless. “He was indeed, Jeffrey. Sin in smooth skin, as they say. Nothing like a private relationship with a call boy to put your morals in perspective. Mother would never approve.”

Mycroft took a sip of his tea. “Then, of course, there’s the matter of your assistant, Pearl – jog my memory, Jeffrey, but don’t work visa’s expire?”

“They do when one has been caught working for a criminal organization,” Clark says pleasantly. “Gorgeous, that one.”

“All leg,” Mycroft agrees. “Not unlike your young sister Rebecca, James. A beautiful name for a beautiful woman. Most models don’t have much going on between their ears, or so I hear, but not so with Rebecca – aside from her cocaine addiction she’s a rather well spoken, fetching young lady, and I enjoyed our evening together very much.”

If looks could kill, the glare Moriarty sends his way would strip him dead. “If you touch my—”

Mycroft slams a fist on the table so hard that the cutlery rattles and glasses almost spill and his fury comes seeping out of the edges of himself like water through a crack. “You touched my little brother. You kidnapped him, and tied him to a chair, and beat him and shot him full of drugs and you’ll find, James, that while I let me brother run about entertaining himself there is a line that is drawn in the sand, unspoken but seen by every bit of rubbish crawling below London’s surface.”

He leans in, very close, until he can see the white around Moriarty’s eyes, can smell his panicked, fetid breath, can see the sheen of sweat that’s popped up over his upper lip, his forehead. “Sherlock does not stand alone -- he has big brother, in every sense of the word, watching out for him.”

“You aren’t—”

“Scotland Yard?” Mycroft leans back. “My dear fellow, as if I’d leave anything of this importance to the Yard.”

Elizabeth is waiting at the door, as are Charles and Richard, and Mycroft’s wonderful collection of secret intelligence servicemen. “Darling, we aren’t expected in London with James until day after tomorrow. Please… see to his comfort and entertainment.”

She smiles, all teeth.

***

221 Baker Street is quiet.

The light over the oven has been left on, warm golden-orange light casting the rest of the rooms, quiet and empty and dark, into shadow. It reflects off the telly, a pinpoint of dancing color like fireflies in late summer; it reflects off the laptop screen, left open and gone to sleep, as if the owner’s attention had been caught elsewhere before he could shut it down. There are books and magazines everywhere, bills and papers and scraps and bits of things needed and forgotten about, and less than unimportant now, in the dark of early evening. The skull of Thomas Baker is gruesome in the half-light, smiling, macabre, familiar. He’s wearing a pair of sunglasses with pink rhinestones that John bought on a whim, because he liked the symmetry of it, a reminder of their first case together.

In the kitchen there are remnants of a meal still on the table, takeaway and tea amongst the disaster of half-completed experiments and the mess of two men who didn’t quite care enough to clean up. Comfortable in their home and with each other. Just comfortable.

Beyond the kitchen, down the short hall where the kitchen light doesn’t quite reach, is Sherlock’s bedroom. It is there, in the glow from the streetlights, that Sherlock has retired. It is there, in the dark, that he has John Watson.

They haven’t spoken, not for a while. Sweat has cooled, muscles have relaxed, and sleep has come and gone. They’re tangled in the sheets, and before long they’ll have to retrieve the blanket from the floor, but John is reluctant to break this bubble of silence. Or maybe, maybe he’s just reluctant to move and shake Sherlock’s fingers from his hair where they’ve been for hours now, from his shoulder where Sherlock’s touched every inch of the twisted, ruined muscle. Maybe he doesn’t want to move away from the hollow of Sherlock’s side, where he fits so well, or stop touching the curls on Sherlock’s chest, sparse and thin and like silk under his fingertips.

“I taste you,” John says in the dark. His throat is burning. “In my mouth.”

“Do you.”

“Yes.”

“And how do I taste, John?”

He closes his eyes. “Dangerous. Good.”

The fingers in his hair stroke down to his nape and linger there, over the line of his shoulder, the ruined muscle, the puckered tissue. “There’s no reason to be afraid.”

There’s every reason to be afraid but God help him, God help him, he’s reaching up for Sherlock’s mouth anyway.

Sherlock registers the hesitancy in John's response, even as his tongue roams enthusiastically in Sherlock's mouth. He hasn't yet been able to decipher any real pattern to John's responses. His reactions are certainly predictable enough for Sherlock to have tracked with little effort; John's responses are consistently inconsistent. It's intoxicating. Which reminds him-

"-It was the night clerk." He sits up and John collapses on the bed, easily more defeated than annoyed. His only comment is to call out "Trousers!" as Sherlock heads for the door.

Sherlock grabs a pair off the floor at random and proceeds to drop them again as soon as he's made it to the kitchen. His phone is in the living room, and he spends the next ten minutes sending a flurry of texts before digging out his laptop to verify a few facts.

John's approach is a less subtle version of an elephant trampling through the brush. "For fuck’s sake, Sherlock." Trousers are shoved in his direction. "I knew you'd do that."

"Then why do you insist on wasting both our time?" Sherlock answers, typing furiously.

"Because I don't feel like putting Lestrade through the trauma of walking in to find you like this."

"Wouldn't be the first time," Sherlock retorts, pressing impatiently on the keyboard. He doesn't need to be looking to see John's expression.

"Put on the bloody trousers and you will be explaining that later."

Sherlock stands and attempts to ignore the proffered clothing, but John is immovable. He finds John's insistence on unnecessary propriety frankly obnoxious, and immediately contrives eleven different scenarios to get John naked in front of at least half the Yard. Four he dismisses outright as impractical, four as extreme enough to put John off him for far too long, and three as just petty. He realizes he may have to alter his parameters.

John is still holding out the trousers, right against Sherlock's chest. "You're being a hindrance," he grumbles. John presses harder.

Sherlock puts the damn trousers on.

When he's buttoned up and tucked away he fairly flaps his hands at John. "Better?" he snipes.

John has used the intervening time to find a wrinkled shirt near the couch with a suspicious stain near the fourth button. He flings it at Sherlock's head. "Forgot this too."

Sherlock snatches it out of the air and glares. John is only saved from his reply by a sudden but steady knock on the door. "That was fast," John comments.

"That's not Lestrade," Sherlock responds. He'd know that knock anywhere. "That's Mycroft."

***

Mycroft isn't entirely shocked when his brother opens the door, for nothing truly shocks him anymore, but he is for the first time in memory surprised, and entirely tickled by it.

It's a glance, two-point-two seconds, and already he knows what his brother's been up to. Granted anyone would, what with the dubious stains and the trousers five inches too short in the leg, but Mycroft sees more than that: the tiny lines at the corners of his eyes that speak of stress not entirely erased, yet at the same time the way his brother is holding himself, the tension that has finally eased in the long line of his frame.

There's no trace of the good doctor, but then there wouldn't be. The tell-tale tick of pipes, of water running somewhere in the flat, has Mycroft smiling and Sherlock saying, "One comment and you'll be asked to leave.”

“Can’t I be pleased for you?” Mycroft asks, and lets himself in when Sherlock makes no invitation. “The last time was, what, six years ago? The ginger lad from Kent?”

“We’re not talking about this,” Sherlock announces, cuts a hand through the air as if he can sever the conversation in half by sheer will alone. “What are you doing here at this hour anyway, Mycroft? Don't you have cauldrons to stir, babies to eat, nubile young virgins to bleed?”

“Your rudeness is entirely uncalled for.” Mycroft glances at the laptop open on the desk as he sets an envelope down next to it. “Possibly the limo driver, more likely the night clerk.”

“Of course it was the night clerk,” Sherlock answers, crosses his arms, and Mycroft wonders at the domestic he must have interrupted. He’s amused, despite himself, for if anyone could keep his brother on his emotional toes it was John Watson. “Is Mummy alright?”

“Last I heard. She said she’d ring when she got to Monte Carlo.”

Sherlock studies him for a moment in that shrewd way he had that made him look exactly like father. Mycroft remembers him doing it as a child, brilliant narrowed cat’s eyes and that mouth set in annoyance. “I trust your trip to India was acceptably lucrative.”

“In a manner of speaking,” Mycroft says, smiles like a cat that got the cream.

“One bride from India is enough to be going on with, don’t you think?”

“My eye would never wander,” Mycroft replies with a wave of the hand. “No, no, I brought you home a present. I know how much you like presents.”

Sherlock frowns, irritation furrowing his brow. “Surely you didn’t bring me a bride.”

“Why would I do that, when you’ve already got one?”

“I tire of you.”

“And I, you,” Mycroft says, squeezes his brother’s shoulder even when he prickles. Especially when. “Well, I'm off. Try not to call before eight; you know how I hate it when you interrupt my morning toilette."

***

Sherlock eyes the manila envelope on his desk with equal parts distaste and resignation. Mycroft is by and far the laziest human being Sherlock has ever known, but if there is one thing his elder brother can always work up the energy for it’s the opportunity to watch his machinations drive Sherlock to the brink of madness. There was a ten year span where Sherlock is fairly certain that's the only exercise Mycroft ever got, plodding over to Sherlock's flat and deliberately setting him off.

Mycroft had put an envelope on the desk and then left. This is not good news.

He stares, annoyed with his brother and the time and quite possibly the world at large for not providing enough of an alternative distraction. John approaches in jeans and a jumper that could double as pyjamas; it's as though he had no idea if he was going to bed or the shop. Given their lifestyle it could be considered intelligent forethought. "Mycroft sends his regards," Sherlock tells him.

"Kind of him," John replies, following Sherlock's line of sight. "Souvenir?"

"Probably just as unwanted," Sherlock intones. He's not usually this indeterminate. It's just that there is a part of him that wants only to shove John against the wall and forget Mycroft and Lestrade and this flat and this boring little world and every boring little person in it. He'd pose it as a challenge: Make me forget my own name. It will never happen, but there are so many brilliant ways to try.

John meanwhile has decided to follow through on his own agenda and crosses the room to pick up the envelope decisively. He's gotten more comfortable taking charge as of late; their duet of kidnappings had apparently made him much less likely to accept Sherlock's opinion of any given situation as infallible. It's annoying, but also works out in Sherlock's favor a great deal of the time.

Sherlock turns to pick up his violin, but doesn't get the chance to do anything with it; John's breathy, “Fuck me," stops him in his tracks.

John is holding a large, glossy photograph; at Sherlock's look he turns it around. James Moriarty stares back at him, handcuffed.

"That son of a bitch," Sherlock spits out. He's going to kill Mycroft.

***

To say Sherlock goes on a rampage is something of an understatement.

John’s known Sherlock long enough to know that he’s a man of great passions, positive or negative, and at times those passions got the best of him. John’s far from surprised when Sherlock prowls about the flat like an angry bear throughout the early hours of the morning, slamming cabinets and kicking chairs and making a general to-do. He mutters nonstop, half of which barely makes sense, and what does make sense doesn’t seem to be anything approaching English.

John, God help him, understands the rage. Part of it is for the absolute shit Moriarty put them both through. Even now Sherlock’s still got bruised bits of him that have run the full spectrum of the rainbow and settled into a mottled, ugly green. There’d even been an emergency stop at St. Bart’s one evening when Sherlock had meandered out of the loo, pale and unfocused, and said, “I seem to have suddenly started urinating blood,” and John had overreacted and put the skills the army had taught him in caring for men who insisted lopped off arms were just a scratch to good use.

Another part of Sherlock, a deeper part John thinks, doesn’t care about that at all -- not what Moriarty put John through, not what he put Sherlock through, and certainly not what he put London through. Rather, he’s furious because he wasn’t the one to catch Moriarty – perhaps even that Moriarty got caught at all. Not because Sherlock wishes anyone else hurt, far from it, but because Moriarty, in a truly fucked up fashion, is the only man who has ever entertained Sherlock. Like a child with a game that’s taken away for a transgression, he’s throwing the ultimate temper tantrum. John expects him to throw himself on the floor crying any minute now.

John sighs, steeps the tea, and hates himself for thinking such uncharitable thoughts.

Then again, they’re only uncharitable if they aren’t true.

It’s half five and Sherlock has finally stopped stalking about 221, has instead thrown himself onto the sofa, and John brings him a cuppa because that’s what one did at half five when there was a crisis going on. And this is a crisis, no mistake – John has never seen Sherlock so despondent and so furious in turns.

He presses a kiss into Sherlock’s hair just because he can, sits beside him and waits until Sherlock’s taking a furious sip to ask, “Better now?”

Sherlock gives him a look like a wounded bear. “You’re remarkably calm,” he says, drags the coffee table forward with his foot so John’s legs will reach too.

“Course I am. Murdering psychopath’s been caught, world is a safer place.”

“I will never tire of your idealistic little world view,” Sherlock snaps.

"It will be your cross to bear," John agrees, looks down at their hands where the sides are brushing. "I'm sorry, then, about him."

"For?"

"You know what for."

And the best part of it is that Sherlock does. He says, "I'm going to kill Mycroft when I see him. It will be spectacular. There will be fireworks."

"How else did you expect Moriarty to be caught, Sherlock? A proper wild west shootout?"

"We already had one of those. I won."

"Relatively speaking. We almost did drown."

"Yes," Sherlock says, and runs his thumb over the side of John's face where the stitches were long gone, the line of the wound faded to pink. It will never, ever get old, this freedom of touch. John closes his eyes.

***

At six the news reports start filtering in, details and collages of the bomb sites on every channel. Moriarty’s smirking face is right up front and center, which is exactly how he’d want it. At eight John heads downstairs to pick up the morning paper; at eight-oh-one Sherlock calls Mycroft, who picks up halfway through the first ring.

“Your control issues know no bounds,” Sherlock starts, but Mycroft immediately cuts him off.

“Yes, yes, I manipulate everything and you hate it, you’ll never forgive, never forget, all the usual. I’d let Detective Inspector Lestrade know you were due to arrive in thirty minutes, but I’ll make sure to push it back to nine. That covers all the details, yes? I’m sure I’ll see you soon, brother mine, whether I want to or not.” Sherlock is then summarily hung up on. He stares at the phone and contemplates fratricide; not from a moral standpoint, no, he’s bypassed completely over into the logistics of the thing.

The one and only clip of Moriarty replays ad nauseam on the telly. By his own standards he looks ragged, worn down at the edges, but his smile is now sharper than ever. “It’s good to be home,” he jokes as they hustle him in.

It’s just past eight and Sherlock has already had just about enough of this day; the next few ahead are not looking promising either. He glances at the sofa but there’s a strong possibility if he lies down he won’t get back up for at least the better part of the week. This was his, James Moriarty was his to catch, and if he’s stuck IDing night clerks for the foreseeable future he really will do something drastic.

When John walks back in Sherlock pins him to the wall. “What the hell?” John asks, dropping the paper as Sherlock grabs him by the arse and lifts. His mouth descends on John’s neck, climbs up to the underside of his jaw. “Sherlock,” John tries again.

“Trying something new,” Sherlock mumbles, unwilling to fully separate his tongue from the space below John’s left ear.

John often says it's ridiculous how many times sex between them has turned into some sort of experiment, but Sherlock has yet to see a downside to the arrangement. "Is complaining really the appropriate response to this situation?" he pulls back to ask, somewhat distracted by his own plans. He sinks to the ground, takes John with him. He's already pulled off the jumper; he’s now started in on the jeans.

John huffs. "I didn't say anything."

"You were thinking it," Sherlock tells him. When John is fully sitting Sherlock straddles his thighs, splays his legs out and around John’s torso. He has John's dick out of his pants with an agility and speed even he finds impressive; upon contemplation he realizes he’s not sure entirely sure he gave John enough time to close the front door.

"I'm not twenty-five, Sherlock, and this floor is uncomfortable," John says, though from the way he has to gasp the words out his heart is clearly not in it.

"Both are true, certainly, but in ten seconds you won't care,” he replies. John doesn't question the pace, doesn't make Sherlock explain why he's playing all John's favorite tunes, why his hand is slicked up with spit and rushing down John’s cock. He loves finding ways to exploit John's adaptability, his openness to the world Sherlock wants to bring to him. It will never be enough, there will always be too much, far too much and much too little, but the futility isn't enough to keep him from trying.

Never enough, he thinks, and moves to drop his mouth to John’s cock, all the way down in one long smooth motion. John sucks in a breath and grasps at Sherlock's hair, pulls it hard. The tremor in his hand is no longer purely psychosomatic, and it makes Sherlock groan, though John probably doesn't realize that's the cause. His cock is strained against his trousers and this is no good, he wants more, he’s still thinking shut up shut up shut up. He pulls off of John to sit up and tug at his own trousers, pulls them as far down as he can. John takes the change of position in stride, places hot open-mouthed kisses along Sherlock's neck and collarbone. The two spit-slicked fingers Sherlock moves inside his own body are the very definition of perfunctory, still so wet with lubrication from their earlier activities, and it’s more to appease John than any real desire on his part. What he really wants he takes only a moment later: he unceremoniously holds John's cock and shoves down on it.

"Jesus Christ," John breathes, like Sherlock has just punched him in the solar plexus, or he's fallen hard and had the wind knocked out of him. It burns, oh god it burns, but somehow it’s the best thing Sherlock has felt all day. It’s bizarre, Sherlock thinks, that this attempt at intimacy only makes them seem too far apart, and that every place they're touching just reminds him of all the places they're not. His hips shift desperately and his hands are sliding across John's shoulders, slipping down to finger his hole, flitting everywhere in between. He can’t focus on what he wants to, can’t make things line up the way they should. He wants so much more than John could ever give him.

John has moved to meet him and every thrust is now a punch of sparks that goes frying along Sherlock’s nerve endings, a build up of energy that centers low and feels like it could burn him from the inside out. Sherlock is so nearly gone, but there it is, Moriarty’s voice replaying yet again, ignominious glee enacted for the masses, and the onslaught of despair is very nearly a physical pain.

Then John suddenly grabs the back of Sherlock's head with one hand and decisively directs their mouths together, silently commands Sherlock pay attention, while the other hand goes down between them. He holds them together hard enough to hurt and Sherlock shouts into John’s mouth as he finally feels the vice grip in his head loosen a fraction, or no, that’s not it, it’s just crushed him, weighed him down and shattered him apart.

There, he thinks, splintering into pieces, that's better. His thoughts dissolve like grains of sand in the waves, a million of them, always so many, but right now so very, very small. There are times when he hates this feeling, loathes it with every fibre of his being. Then there are days like today, when the only thing keeping him together is John breaking him apart.

***

It's raining, but that's nothing new.

Bloody fucking dreary, actually, how the day had gone from light freezing morning rain to heavy freezing morning rain blowing in sideways. Made using an umbrella a exercise in futility, and keeping dry a fish monger’s dream. It's the kind of day where one was meant to call in and curl up in bed next to one’s wife.

Not that Geoffrey even knows what that fucking is anymore, not since he inherited Sherlock Holmes and all the problems that went with him.

Sherlock had always been something of a wild card, even when Geoffrey was still a Detective Sergeant. Young and reckless, Sherlock hadn’t ingratiated himself to Detective Inspector Lane in the slightest, and when he was discovered one time too many poking around a murder scene -- how he always got past the tape was a mystery Lane, and then later Geoffrey, had never been able to solve -- he’d been tossed into a cell for the night. One would think that a night amongst ruffians would teach anyone a lesson, but Sherlock just solved two break-in’s, implicated the leader of an embezzling ring, and made life-long friends with Richard, the homeless man who lived on the corner of the building and got dragged into the station every few weeks for a wash down and a decent meal.

Didn’t matter that he kept getting thrown into jail – he kept doing it. Neither did it matter where in London they happened to be, Sherlock would soon follow, sticking his nose where it didn’t belong, young and so skinny a good wind could blow him away. It didn’t help that he was a bloody smartarse either, always with the comments and pointing common sense out to them like they were the children in this scenario.

Then one fine and fateful day Geoffrey stumbled into work on an hour’s sleep, Maryann’s sobbing, colicky screams still echoing around his skull, made a mistake with some paperwork, and accidentally lost several thousand pounds in cocaine. Didn’t matter that it was discovered soon after (or, well, relatively soon after, anyway), because by then the damage had been done. Half the Yard had searched for it for the better part of two days, only to be discovered by Sherlock bloody Holmes when he came round to pester them and deduced in ten seconds flat that of course the cocaine had accidentally been stored with the ‘k’’s instead of the ‘c’’s, the most elementary of mistakes.

Lane had dragged him into his office, and smiled beatifically, and that had been the end of Geoffrey’s life at the Yard as he knew it, because he’d become the officially assigned babysitter to a newly installed Consulting Detective Sherlock fucking Holmes.

Sherlock was, understandably, as thrilled as Geoffrey was horrified. Like a child showing off, in their first conversation he’d deduced that Geoffrey was married with a new baby (“Judging, of course, by the faint splatter pattern of formula milk at the hem of your shirt where you’ve tried to tuck it in to hide it”), had finished second in Academy (“It doesn’t speak well to the standards of the British government, thank God you lot have me around”), was missing two toes on his left foot because of a birth defect (“Which you’ve compensated for admirably”) and that his wife came from a long line of barbers (“Hair is cut with almost surgical precision, though the scissors used are of plain quality meaning you must get it done at home”).

He’d also insinuated he’d cheated on said wife once before, and Geoffrey had stopped being so helplessly impressed and given Sherlock Holmes his first black eye.

It wouldn’t be the last.

At 9:19 Sherlock comes stumbling out of a cab in that ridiculous greatcoat he’d taken to wearing last year, collar up and head ducked down into the rain, trailed by Doctor Watson. The media pays neither of them much mind, entirely too consumed by the horrid weather, and Geoffrey would be amused if anything about this was in the least bit funny. As it is he feels a bit like a snake handler, one locked away and the other coaxed, angry and spitting and not a little scared, out of Baker Street.

“Geoff, they’ve just buzzed from downstairs. The freak’s here.”

Geoffrey pretends Sally’s pet name for their pet detective is still laced with bitterness, for her sake. Neither she nor anyone else on Geoffrey’s squad would ever admit to their reaction when they’d cleared Moriarty’s building and come out to find the paramedics working frantically, Doctor Watson alongside them, as Sherlock seized violently and bled from every hole in his face.

He pretends because he’s a professional, and because all these years working with Sherlock have taught him that the man is fragile in all the wrong ways, as deep as the mottling where the bruises have only just begun fading out of that ugly green into bright, sick yellow.

He sighs, rubs at one eye. At this very moment his wife’s getting the kids off to school, ready to start her own day, but fuck all if it isn’t the sort of morning for a lie-in.

“Lestrade.”

“Sherlock,” he tells the reflection in the glass.

***

This shouldn't be a long conversation; in truth he doesn't even need to be here at all. He already knows all the answers and given that he wasn't the one to catch Moriarty he has no excuse to gloat. Sherlock’s really here because he’s always been more interested in satisfying his curiosity than surrendering to efficiency, and Mycroft has that covered anyway.

Lestrade lets him in with a look that serves as a silent warning, but Sherlock’s summarily dismissed it almost the moment it’s sent. John is watching him too, concerned and protective in a way Sherlock has never had anyone direct at him before, and it’s in his direction Sherlock nods before striding in alone.

"This is a bit of a disappointment,” he calls into the poorly lit cell.

"Oh, don't count me out just yet." Moriarty's voice carries much like it did across the pool, which already feels like a lifetime ago. He is shrouded in the corner, shirking off the grey light that limps in from the cell's one window. It's melodramatic, but Sherlock is hardly in a position to comment on someone else's theatrics, and it is undeniably effective.

"You really think you'll have better luck the second time around?" Sherlock asks.

"I think the first time isn't quite done yet." Moriarty finally emerges from his darkened cavity. "Here by yourself?" He sounds almost hopeful, scans the room in an exaggerated search.

Sherlock smiles disparagingly. "They wouldn't let John in with a weapon and I'd hate to have him dirty his hands beating you to death."

"Good." Moriarty twists that one word so it sounds grotesque and proprietary, and while there's a wide smile on his face his eyes are completely dead. It occurs to Sherlock that this is the point where most people would be terrified, that terror is the appropriate reaction. All he feels is intrigue at the display, and a vague sense of disgust. He wonders absently if John would find that a bit bad. "I like being the sole recipient of your attentions."

"I had noticed," Sherlock responds. There is something in Moriarty's expression, something that flashes in and out, a flickering light bulb of feeling that exposes images authentic and hideous. Sherlock tilts his head in wonderment when he figures it out. "You really believe..." He lets a disbelieving laugh slip. "Don't think for a second you are ever going to be enough to interest me. Your puzzles were a unique way to pass the time, granted, but you yourself present little else of value. And in any case those games are over."

"Nothing is over," Moriarty growls, all hints of pleasure falling away. "Not until I say it is." He stalks forward as far as the bars will let him and then grips them unconsciously in his fists. "Just watch," he hisses, "I'll be out of here tomorrow night. You can tell everyone out there - I'll even give you the exact time. Tell them to be here at five in the evening, and you can all see for yourself what I'm capable of."

"The only change in scenery you'll experience will be when Mycroft awards a special dispensation for the Yard to kill you." Sherlock affects a pleased expression. "I'm sure he can be convinced to let John put his knowledge of lethal doses to good use."

"I'll kill him first," Moriarty bites out, his rabid edge breaking through the cracks. "If it's the last thing I do, if it's the only thing I do. I will have you to myself."

This is a moment Sherlock will look back to time and again as the future stalks forward; an instance he will use to justify his actions, the decisions he will make. He'd known Moriarty was working solely for his attention, even John had recognized as much during the first go-round. But Sherlock has been a fool, a dangerous, incompetent fool, because this is so far beyond all that. It always has been, he realizes. Only the distance he's cultivated from his brain to his body keeps him from shuddering when he realizes just how unlikely it is that John is still alive.

He answers without the slightest forethought. "You touch him again and I will snap your neck."

"I look forward to seeing you try," Moriarty breathes, gleeful. He pulls back from the bars, content now to return to his shadows. "See you soon, Sherlock."

Sherlock leaves, his mind whirling so fast it's utterly silent - and that is what terrifies him. Last time he felt like this he'd nearly drugged himself to death; he somehow doubts John would be as understanding as Lestrade, who was in fact not understanding in the slightest.

They are all waiting right outside the door, but Sherlock can't look at them, can't seem to focus on anything. "What did he say?" Lestrade prods, when no report is voluntarily forthcoming.

Sherlock forces himself to speak but mentions nothing about John, details only the threat of escape. It sends the Yarders into a frenzy. John meanwhile just looks at Sherlock, evaluates him with a stare that means he knows Sherlock's hiding something, but doesn't know what it is. Sherlock says nothing because it would be utterly pointless.

He considers again the idea that he and Moriarty aren't all that different in the end: Sherlock would tear apart almost anything to keep John with him, including James Moriarty himself. Not from devotion, or fear, or concern. John is his, and the only way someone will take him is if Sherlock is dead first.

***

Sherlock emerges from the cells like a specter of evil: dark hair, pale skin, his expression as terrifyingly blank as his eyes. It reminds John of when he first met Sherlock, an enigma within a puzzle within a riddle, so terribly hard to read on his best days. Only now John’s seen the life behind those eyes, can tell when Sherlock is angry or bored or tired with a glance, is fucking fluent in Sherlock, and John can see Sherlock’s just suffered a paradigm shift as easily as if he’d experienced it with him.

He strides to the lift beside Sherlock, angry, furious, that a man like Jim Moriarty would have this sway over Sherlock, could hurt him with a word, could make him doubt with a glance, could break down and rebuild Sherlock’s idea of the world and leave his skin just a little thicker, his heart a little more cynical.

Sherlock is at his most beautiful when he’s running about playing like an enthusiastic kid, fascinated by the world, and that Moriarty could taken that from him is more than John can possibly bear.

Sherlock holds the lift door open with a hand. “His effects,” he says, eyes never leaving John’s even as he speaks to Lestrade.

“What?”

“His effects, where are his effects? I need to examine them,” Sherlock replies, deigns a contemptuous look in Lestrade’s direction. “Surely he was brought in with something.”

“Ah, well, your brother—”

Sherlock doesn’t sigh, but only just. “Bring it to me, down to the forensics lab.”

“Sherlock—”

“Do as I ask, and stop asking pointless, stupid questions,” Sherlock snaps, and lets the lift door close.

It’s silent on the way down, save the rasp of Sherlock’s coat around his legs, the tinny muzak overhead.

“Sherlock.”

“No, John.”

“Sherlock—”

“I said no.”

“Just no. That’s all you’ve got to say to me.”

“At this precise moment, yes, that is all I have to say to you,” Sherlock says, and catches John’s fist before it can slam into the ‘stop’ button. He squeezes once, in warning, before gentling his hold, uncurling John’s fingers. “You know, one in five lift-related deaths are caused from faulty pulley gears failing,” he says, presses John’s hand to his chest. “Do you trust me?”

“That’s a hateful thing to say.”

“Nevertheless.”

“Of course I trust you, you idiot,” John says, and wants to say more but the lift dings and the doors open and Sherlock is Sherlock again, and John would almost have thought he imagined all of it, except his fingers are still warm from Sherlock’s touch.

Sherlock sweeps in and appropriates the basement lab, all but bodily throws everyone out. It’s a nice lab, relatively speaking, large and roomy and a bit CSI with lots of glowing lights and tall, ergonomically fashioned stools. John can’t help but notice it’s also in the off-corner of the basement, where the fewest people could get hurt if something were to suddenly explode, which, knowing Moriarty, isn’t as far-fetched as one might imagine.

Sherlock snaps on rubber gloves and for a fraction of a second John is back in Afghanistan, almost wants to shout at Sherlock for not wearing his body armor and vest, as if he were one of John’s young, trusting doctors, as if this is in any way comparable to doing surgery in the middle of a war zone.

He really needs to fire his therapist.

The elevator doors open again and Lestrade strides out, carrying a box that seems altogether too plebeian to be holding Moriarty’s things, especially when all that’s inside it are keys, a phone, a wallet, and a watch: the normal things any normal man would carry.

Sherlock takes out the wallet first and puts it under the magnifier, treating it as if it were a live explosive, which might be terrifyingly paranoid but is more likely perfectly sensible. “Designer, double-worked leather, silk stitches. There’s no label, meaning it’s a custom job – Gucci,” Sherlock says. “Habitually worn in the back left pocket.”

The wallet contains ten different bank notes, currency from all over the world. John recognizes Euros, Canadian dollars and American dollars, but other bills he can’t place, let alone read. Every single note has a small phrase written on it.

“Is that Shakespeare?”

Hamlet,” Sherlock confirms. “I am thy father's spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night and for the day confined to fast in fires till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away.

There’s a long silence.

“So, this bloke’s sane,” Lestrade says calmly.

***

The isolated location of Anderson's lab has proven useful in a variety of ways, not the least of which is being easily amenable to the periods when Sherlock wants as little to do with the rest of humanity as possible. He doesn't even want John's presence right now, but he'll put up with it. Lestrade is more an instrument than a person, a slightly less useless tool. Doesn’t mean there’s been an invitation extended to anyone else.

"Get out," he orders the second Anderson wanders in, bumbling around with an incompetence that grates on Sherlock's very nerves, like nails on a chalkboard.

Anderson starts at the tone, then immediately shifts into aggression. "What? No. No, I'm not just leaving. You can't just barge in whenever you please, some of us are paid to be here."

By Anderson's standards that's actually a fairly token argument. Sherlock still feels like there are only minutes between him and his physically dragging the weasel-faced walking shrine to failure out the door, which would probably get Lestrade in a huff. He wheels around so sharply Anderson actually moves away from him. "I am sick of telling you this, so I won't say it again: I do your job better than you do, I do it faster than you do. My worst days supersede your best. Should I ever have the urge to conform to the tedium of this profession I would have your job handed over without a second thought. You've one promotion coming down the line but ultimately you will always be overlooked, and rightly so. Nothing you're working on, now or in the future, will change that. And apparently you also need to be reminded that you weren't so keen to have this lab when you were banished down here originally. Get. Out."

He turns away from Anderson, enraged by his very face. There’s some sort of silent exchange between Lestrade and Anderson, which Sherlock ignores in favor of reconsidering the most likely confounds to the various escape scenarios he’s thought of. He hears the door open and shut, the footsteps fade away. Sherlock starts up eight different programs on one of the computers and waits for it to catch up.

He's almost forgotten John's in the room, except that John is radiating reproach and concern in equal measures, waves that fan out and ruin all of Sherlock's focus. He harbours such resentment towards John for that; there was quite enough to keep track of before John Watson decided to jump the queue and sit right atop the list.

Sherlock decides it’s best to ignore that particular line of thought. He picks up the phone and raises an eye at Lestrade, who sighs. "It's all encrypted; we've got the boys upstairs going over the data now, trying to break in."

"Tell them to work faster."

"They're going as fast as they can." Lestrade is so very patient, so very nice. It's why he's never going to be in a position of real power and he doesn't even know it. Sherlock resists the urge to spell it out for him, how he'll lose his wife and then the kids - slowly but surely as he misses games and recitals and birthday parties - and all for nothing because he's reached the glass ceiling for kind Yarders. It's a disgusting waste.

Sherlock is gearing up for a fight but John surprisingly cuts him off. "Is this something Sherlock can help with?"

Lestrade looks between them, openly frustrated. "Not this time- wait." He pulls out his phone, vibrating in his jacket. "They have it. They have something." He passes it off to Sherlock, who glances down and then hands it to John.

"October 12th, SISOS. 11:23am, plus six." John looks up. "What is that? SISOS?"

The gloves come off; Sherlock heads for the door. Computer analysis will have to wait. "Nonsense. But that's not what it says."

"What does it say?" John asks, impatience peaking through his admirable self-control.

"That Mycroft needs to answer a few questions." He's sure John and Lestrade share a look - they love to commiserate how their continual displays of ignorance make Sherlock more difficult to deal with, rather than the other way around - but he's too busy thinking to be bothered.

John joins him in the lift, silent all the way to the street, silent while they get a cab, silent for half the ride. They've only ten minutes left when he suddenly breathes out a quiet "Oh."

Sherlock glances at him. "What?"

"SIS. Secret Service. He killed someone at Vauxhall? Six people?" Sherlock stares at John, who is looking back expectantly, not a hint of disdain or resentment. A wave of relief floods his senses, so intense it momentarily drowns everything else out.

"No, I'd know about that. This was different, something outside of London, possibly even the UK."

"But you think it's a NATSEN threat." John's left hand is trembling, a minute movement that he's clearly not even aware of.

Sherlock feels something similar reverberate through his whole being. "I'll know more when I talk to Mycroft."

***

There are but three things in the entire world that John Watson is scared of.

1. Camel spiders. One couldn’t serve two consecutive tours in Afghanistan and not leave with a healthy respect for the beasts – John had often come across them curled up in his helmet, hiding under the latrines, caught in the engine of the medical Humvees. By nature he wasn’t an arachnaphobe, and sure the spiders were enormous and fast and covered in fur, but they didn’t bother him overly much – that is, until he did a dirty, in-and-out autopsy of a soldier who’d been found dead and the bastards burst out through his belly button like fucking John Hurt in Alien.

2. His mother. Of her much can be said, but John doesn’t remember where he put his rosary and stake, and anyway, the subject cannot be breached without a priest present.

3. The British bureaucracy.

Case in point, Mycroft’s office -- there’s something about it that is entirely off-putting. John hasn’t known the man long, granted, but anyone who spends even five seconds in the company of both Sherlock and Mycroft knows that the brothers are cut from the same cloth. Sherlock’s personality is the more dramatic of the two and splatters out every which way like a water balloon dropped from a second-floor flat – he is in everything he touches, his brilliance spilling into every corner and crevice of his world. Everything, from the way he takes his tea to his frequent bouts of insanity, to the fingers in the fridge and the cut of his jacket and the smell of his hair, is Sherlock .

Mycroft, John’s learned, has just learned to hide the Holmesian personality under a veneer of posh indifference.

It’s creepy is what it is, sitting in that perfectly ordered, perfectly sane, perfectly plain office, on uncomfortable government chairs that dig uncomfortably into his uncomfortable backside, to which they were led by a perfectly normal-looking young woman named Rachel, who was not Anthea, and John wonders after her a moment before remembering he’s entered the fucking Twilight Zone.

The minutes tick by quite literally, the clock on the wall inhumanly loud, and John thinks perhaps Mycroft really has gone barmy to sit in a room hour after hour with that infernal ticking.

Sherlock is a study in anxiety, tense to the point of snapping. Even his hair is standing on end, wild around his face – it makes him look a bit deranged, and John considers his proclivities when he realizes that he finds that unbearably erotic.

Finally, after several eons, the door finally opens and admits Mycroft in one of his understated, dull suits. Sherlock comports himself admirably, waiting until the door is closed again before snarling, “I’m sure you think you’re funny. A great joke – let’s all laugh at Sherlock, the bumbling idiot.”

“Of all the many, many unsavory things you are, Sherlock, an idiot isn’t one of them,” Mycroft says calmly, dropping a file that looks like a dossier on his desk. “You liked your present, then.”

“You know very well I didn’t.”

“Pity, it was ever so thoughtful.” Mycroft touches the dossier, pushes it lightly across the desk towards John without looking away from Sherlock. “Landstuhl.”

“Obviously,” Sherlock snaps. “Isn’t that against the UN’s mandates?"

“Of course,” Mycroft replies. He isn’t smiling, but it’s perfectly clear just how amused he is. “John, how are you?”

There’s a large, shiny photograph of Moriarty in the dossier, which John had half-expected, but nothing can quite drown the intense feelings that come up in him when he sees that face – anger, disgust, and a tiny, tiny touch of fear. “Been better, to be honest.”

“He’s from a small coastal village near Brighton.” Mycroft leans back in his chair, steeples his fingers. “History of childhood violence – a fondness for sharp implements, killing insects and small animals, torturing and then later hacking apart the family dog. His childhood psychologist says,” and at this he perches a small pair of silver frames on his nose and peers at the dossier, “‘A pathological inability to feel that points to fledgling psychopathic tendencies with possibility for schizophrenia.’ Things tended to die in his wake, no matter where he happened to be. He’s rather textbook actually, when it comes to a diagnosis.”

“I don’t care if he was brought up by wolves,” Sherlock snaps, sounding as if he’s five minutes from a psychotic break himself, or shaking Mycroft until his teeth rattled in his head. “Tell me about the six satellite murders.”

Mycroft goes utterly silent in a way that is beyond words, his entire expression shutting down, and Sherlock crosses the room in an instant, shoves a finger in Mycroft’s face. “No, you don’t get to do that, not now, not about this. He left it in his phone for me to find, Mycroft, and you’re going to tell me what I want to know.”

“The only way I could even begin to pretend to know what you’re talking about is if you had the highest security clearance, and they don’t give those out like sweets you know. If you worked here it would of course be a different matter, but as you don’t...”

Sherlock snorts an ugly laugh. “Oh, if that’s the game you want to play – fine, Mycroft. Fine. Tell me about Vauxhall or I’ll tell Mummy about the Lladró.”

Mycroft’s eyes go enormous as all the blood drains out of his face. “You wouldn’t.”

“Wouldn’t I?” Sherlock takes out his phone, begins to dial, and John doesn't think he's ever seen a human being move as fast as Mycroft practically leaping across the desk to snatch the phone away.

"You really are the most insufferable human being," Mycroft announces, as if it's news.

***

"October 12th, Mycroft." Sherlock reiterates, suddenly gleeful in his minor coup.

Mycroft falls into his chair like the weight of his aggravation has pushed him there, but he finally drops the pretense and starts explaining. "Three years ago SIS became aware of a very extensive, very dangerous smuggling ring. Two lead agents and four officers were dispatched to evaluate and shut it down in the manner they deemed most appropriate." He's staring at Sherlock intently, but clearly less than half his attention is on the case at hand; Sherlock resolves not to waste time arguing on the details when he's getting what he wants. "Eight months after the initial investigation all six members of the task force were found dead."

Sherlock hurls his question out like a grenade. "How?"

"Six single gun shot wounds to the head." Mycroft nearly sighs the information out, and that's the only clue that he's bothered at all.

"Assassins?" John asks.

Mycroft shakes his head. "Ballistics indicated they were all killed by the same weapon."

"What aren't you saying?" Sherlock pushes, strained very nearly beyond his limits by the previous interminable wait. He starts pacing, physically follows his train of thought.

Mycroft acts exceedingly put out. "They were all lured to the same off-site location under false pretenses, though no one knows what that contrivance actually entailed." He looks between Sherlock and John. "Every one of those men arrived at the same time, and they all stood there and let themselves be killed by one individual with a single gun."

"Christ," John breathes.

"I can see why he was proud of it," Sherlock comments absently. He knows exactly the way it must have looked, the way Moriarty would have lined them all up, gleefully pulled the trigger again and again and again.

"James Moriarty didn't come onto our radar for smuggling until the following year, but apparently that was due to misinformation." In his periphery Sherlock sees John's eyebrows go up and suppresses a smile; occasionally watching Mycroft's slow burn spill over onto others can provide a solid half hour or so of entertainment.

Mycroft is giving him the same chastising expression their mother had perfected by the time Sherlock was capable of independent mobility; Sherlock resists the urge to roll his eyes. "How far away is the site?"

"An hour by train."

Sherlock turns and heads for the exit, John scrambling up behind him. He's nearly as eager as Sherlock to get out of the office, thought they're both aware it's for entirely different reasons. He looks exhausted and is unconsciously stretching his bad shoulder; judging by the number of times a day Sherlock has seen him make that sort of move it's getting worse. If it continues at this pace Sherlock is going to have to say something, and John has yet to respond well to any insinuations of weakness on his part. He’ll make sure to do it on a day he wants John to just leave him alone.

On his way out Sherlock snatches the phone off the desk and points it at Mycroft. "Send me everything you have on this case and I'll make sure no one else knows exactly how long Moriarty has been slipping your net." Mycroft doesn't actually agree, but that's fine, everyone in the room knows Sherlock has won this round.

He strides out the door but has to wait for John to catch up at the lift; he could guess at what Mycroft had said to delay him but finds he really doesn't care.

Sherlock spends the taxi ride searching for information on his phone, fingers flying over the keys, and resisting the urge to hurl the damn thing out the window altogether. John spends the vast majority of his time staring at Sherlock. When they are no more than five minutes away Sherlock finally snaps. "What?"

"I think I can actually see you becoming more deranged as time goes on," John says, nonchalant.

Sherlock nearly throttles him. "Don't talk to me again unless you have something useful to say - acceptable topics include having deduced the details of the escape plan, or deciding to get on your knees and fellate me."

The cabbie coughs loudly, but John just looks considering. Sherlock goes back to his phone, granted blissful silence at last.

When they've just about settled into their private train compartment (because Mycroft can be petty but he's not bloody stupid) Sherlock gets a phone call. ”Next entry says Valentine's, last year, plus one. There's a grid reference as well.” Lestrade starts.

"To where?" Sherlock responds.

"Peacehaven, small town about ten miles east of Brighton."

Sherlock nods, unsurprised. "Old flame, shot him down when he was still an adolescent. He's probably had this planned for years, maybe decades." John is staring at him, and Sherlock puts Lestrade on speaker phone.

"Exactly how long is this victim list going to get, Sherlock?" Lestrade asks.

"Longer than your PR people are going to be happy to hear about," Sherlock replies. The train whirls to life around them, pulling out into a dreary and grey afternoon. "Has he said anything?"

"Not a word. Just smiles, looking relaxed as you please."

"We'll stop by Peacehaven on our way back; should leave us plenty of time to get to the Yard for his supposed escape."

"Where are you going now, exactly?"

"On a detour," Sherlock responds, his tone designed to shut down further questioning.

Lestrade just sighs. "Let us know what you find."

Sherlock hangs up, confident in the fact that Lestrade knows he will do no such thing. Why he even bothers making such stupid remarks is beyond Sherlock.

He registers John getting up and locking the door, but he doesn't start paying attention until John shoves in between Sherlock’s legs and says, "I've decided to get on my knees and fellate you.”

***

The stunned guppy look on Sherlock's face is entirely worth it.

John's never done this, never had much of an opportunity to -- the military frowned on sex in general, let alone public sex, let alone public gay sex, but it's been six months since he was active service and there are no airs left to maintain, nothing standing in his way. Instead there's Sherlock, wonderful, terrible, lovely Sherlock, who seems impossibly young staring up at him.

"I'm going to lose myself in you, but it seems entirely unfair that I be alone. After all, sex should be about both parties, don’t you think?" John murmurs, brushes his fingers gently through Sherlock's curls, then fists and yanks Sherlock's head back, baring that lovely throat. He runs a finger lightly up the bobbing apple, across the tripping pulse, up, up, up over that mouth. "You're going to suck with me."

“John—”

“At no time did I say you could speak,” John says softly into Sherlock’s hair, his temple, the gentle brush of his mouth there a counterpoint to his tightening fist. “Suck.”

The beautiful bow of Sherlock’s lips spread around his fingers, and John can see the white all around the gray-blue of Sherlock's eyes, inhuman eyes, breathtaking. His tongue curls, almost tentative, around John's fingers, but John waits until he starts to suck softly, leading a line right down to John’s cock, before he drops down to his knees.

He brushes Sherlock's coat open and is immediately gratified to find him already hard beneath the zip of his trousers, to smell his arousal. John runs his thumb down the length of him and Sherlock’s hips buck, and he can feel the way Sherlock’s breathing speeds up around his fingers, along the back of his hand where Sherlock’s dragging in air through his nose.

It’s impossible to open a belt and fly with one hand so Sherlock helps, shakily popping open the button, dragging the zipper down. If John didn’t know any better he’d say Sherlock were shy, so John murmurs, “Open it.”

Sherlock makes an almost silent noise, low in his throat that vibrates right across John’s fingers, but he opens his pants wider as John has asked.

“Take your cock out for me.”

He looks obscene, mouth stuffed full of John’s fingers, coat opened and shirt untucked and trousers undone, a healthy flush to that pale, pale skin, and for a second John thinks he won’t do it, that he can’t bring himself to admit his own arousal, until Sherlock reaches into his trousers.

John almost groans at the sight, of those long, elegant fingers tugging his cock out, bloody gorgeous cock, long and lean and so good when it’s rutting against him, but he catches himself just in time, arches a brow up at Sherlock. “Remember how I said you’re going to suck with me?” John says, and then drops his head down between Sherlock’s legs.

Sherlock’s brilliant, the most brilliant man John’s ever met, but it’s somehow reassuring that even he would lose his brain cells even momentarily when a hot mouth is on his cock. Christ and it’s good, intoxicating to bend low over Sherlock’s lap, to lick and suck and seal his mouth tight over that long length, to have his senses filled by Sherlock in every way.

It’s so good he almost gives up the game, almost, and the only reason he doesn’t is because he’s got a point to prove, and if John doesn’t do this Sherlock’s going to implode and say or do something entirely unforgiveable.

Oh yes, Sherlock’s brilliant, but even he needs a moment to understand why John’s got his mouth sealed tight around his cock but won’t suck, and when he realizes it his groan vibrates through the both of them.

Sherlock sucks at his fingers like a man possessed and John matches him over his cock, hard and tight and fast, so fast. He’s only done this to Sherlock once before and it had been a study in finesse, in making Sherlock fall apart, in making him tremble and arch into him, lovely on his cool sheets. Now it’s a race to the finish line, saliva running down his chin and down his wrist and John uses his other hand to stroke between Sherlock’s legs where his sac is tight and hot and full.

Sherlock slows, gasping around John’s fingers, and John slows too, mouthing sweet around the weeping head, along the edge of the crown. He’s got salt in his mouth and he swallows and swallows, drags the tip of his tongue along the slit when Sherlock drags the tip of his tongue along the sensitive pads of John’s fingers.

Sherlock moans like he’s dying and John looks up to see his eyes closed tight, brow furrowed in concentration, beautiful, and thrusts his fingers shallowly into Sherlock’s mouth, the tight, wet heat. Sherlock sucks once, hard, as if he can’t quite help himself, so John does too. The heat builds up again, faster, harder than before, the back and forth playing between them, the drag of teeth along the sensitive joint of John’s finger, the way Sherlock shudders when John does the same to the length of his cock. Totally in-tune, totally together, building and building and building until Sherlock’s got a death grip on John’s wrist and John’s so hard he hurts everywhere and all he can taste, all he can smell, all he can feel, is Sherlock.

Sherlock comes without warning, violently, bucking and shuddering, and John’s mouth is flooded. He can’t catch it all, couldn’t hope to, sucks and swallows until his eyes are watering and he can feel Sherlock’s come dripping sticky from the corners of his lips. Through it all Sherlock hasn’t let go of his fingers, sucked tight into that beautiful mouth.

He barely waits until Sherlock’s stopped coming, standing so fast his head swims, and almost tears his fly with his haste. He pulls his fingers free of Sherlock’s mouth and fists them tight in his hair again, and without hesitating even a moment pushes Sherlock down on his cock, fucking that gorgeous, obscene mouth once, twice, three times before coming so hard his knees buckle and Sherlock grabs at his hips and chokes, beautifully, on his cock.

***

When Sherlock thinks of people surprising him, it's usually with their incredible stupidity. John - independent and loyal, curiously kind and casually lethal, bright and steady and everything Sherlock has never found before, not all at once, not all in the same person - is consistently more than Sherlock expects. One of these days he'll get around to resetting his presumptions about the man.

John watches him, tracks his movements as they head into the SIS satellite office. They get unimpressed looks but unrestricted access; if the tediously predictable children working up here are surprised by the lack of outrage or embarrassment at the isolated dump of an office they are brought to they hide it decently. The most Sherlock can provide is thoughtless dismissal. He shifts through the piles of information, John next to him, consistent and trustworthy and perpetually useful.

It's well past midnight when John finally caves, mumbles, "Sherlock."

Sherlock looks up as John stands, stretching yet again. Sherlock has the image of John in the train hit him like a flash bomb: his own come trailing down the side of John's mouth, John's eyes flashing, his wet fingers twisting in Sherlock's hair.

He hadn't been able to think for at least twenty minutes. He may have fallen asleep. This is so far outside Sherlock's frame of reference he has no idea what to do with it.

"Look at what we have," Sherlock says, deliberately ignoring all the cues John is sending him. "London, Brussels, New Delhi, New York. It never stopped. They found the mole - the most obvious red-herring I have ever seen - but they never uncovered the real structure."

"And you have?" John asks, impatient. He's holding his left shoulder in his right hand, and his eyes are red.

"Enough of it. New Delhi is clearly out, and Brussels is too close to London, which only leaves New York. It has to be in New York," Sherlock replies, digging through the stacks.

"What does?"

"Whatever it is he's working towards, whatever it is he's hiding." Sherlock holds up an expense report. "He's secreted away something over there... what are you hiding? " Everything is coming together so beautifully, like a melody with all the right notes.

"I'm going to find a place to sleep tonight, if you're interested."

"I'm not," Sherlock replies, eyes scanning the form and yet not looking at all. He still feels on edge but it's less urgent, less intense - he's standing over the ledge now instead of hanging on by his fingertips. "Be back by 9:30, we have a train to catch."

"Yes, about that. What are you even expecting to find in Peacehaven?" John asks, leaning down next to Sherlock, close enough to brush against him.

Sherlock wonders if he could taste himself on John's tongue still. As Sherlock looks John licks his lips. "I'm expecting to find the ghost of Jim Moriarty," he answers. "People don't forget a man like that, no matter how much time has passed."

"No," John answers, "I suppose they don't."

Sherlock can see every thought on John's face, the words nothing could ever induce him to say. It will never happen again, Sherlock will never let it, and perhaps a day will come when he could say as much and have John believe him. Never again, he thinks, and refuses to consider why it sounds less like a promise and more like a death knell.

***

John's a military man, and while he had long ago perfected the art of sleeping sitting up (and, for that matter, sleeping while half-conscious) he feels all his thirty five years and he leaves Sherlock to his hunting.

The sex, it helped. Not that John had thought it wouldn’t, but Sherlock had slept at least (which was more than he’d done in two days), and he’d woken up talking, piecing together all the clues Moriarty had left like breadcrumbs, barely able to look John in the eye for the first ten minutes until John went and washed his face and got them both a drink.

Peacehaven is a lovely town – and he uses the term ‘town’ with tongue planted firmly in cheek – sleepy and small and the kind of place where everyone knew everyone else, families inter-married for generations and kids went off to Uni but always came back. It has a nice, home-town feel to it that reminds John of the village were he grew up, with lovely cobblestone roads as old as the crumbling ruins over the hill and a single doctor who birthed the babies and tended the ill and buried the dead. His father had loved it with all his heart, and John wonders, idly, what would have become of him if he’d followed in his father’s footsteps.

He checks a room down the road from the satellite office, close enough that Sherlock will easily be able to deduce where he went. The hotel keeper gives him a sleepy-eyed look up and down but John overpays and that’s the end of that.

The room is neat and most importantly clean, and John shucks off his clothing, careful to hang it over the chair for morning, and heads right straight to the shower. He grits his teeth and works the rippled and knotted muscle in his shoulder under the hot water for as long as he can stand, and then a little longer.

And he hates himself, for glancing over his shoulder, out of the shower curtain into the bathroom, the door beyond open to the hotel room. Something tickles up his spine, something he hasn't felt in a long time, and abruptly he shuts off the water, towels off.

There's no one in the room.

It's two rings before Sherlock answers, impatient and annoyed. "Go to sleep, John."

"Going to be much longer, then?"

"Much. Stop bothering me," Sherlock says, and hangs up in his ear.

John checks everything, including the locks on the door and window, and then, in a fit of paranoia, tucks towels along the bottom of the door, over the air vent, and over the window sill.

It's an hour before he lets himself curl up in the bed between cool sheets, where he does something he hasn't since he was in Afghanistan -- he tucks his gun under his pillow.

***

There’s a man sitting in a bar, and his name is Michael Landon. He has no idea how important he is.

There isn’t much to say about him, Sherlock would remark; in fact he’d utterly dismiss him as a waste of space, of oxygen, and not worth a second thought –not even worth the first one. And perhaps he’s right on that account.

Michael Landon is an ordinary sort of bloke who has an ordinary sort of face, of average height and build, with average dirty blond hair and average dark brown eyes and a face like so many other faces. He’s a bit thin on top and a bit thick in the middle, and no one calls him Mike, or Mikey, or Michael, because no one can ever remember his name despite him sharing it with a famous actor; they look at his uniform and call him Constable. He’s a man who coasts right along under everyone’s radar without thinking to make a name for himself, to distinguish himself as a good investigator, or a good beat cop, or a good bloody paper pusher. He doesn’t speak up, and he doesn’t make a fuss, and most of the time people forget he even works at the Yard, which is alright by him because Michael Landon is perfectly content to be perfectly ordinary.

Michael Landon also has an ordinary set of problems. His wife leaves him for another man, taking their two children with her, and his mother dies after a long battle with breast cancer, and he gets passed over for promotion again.

And then Michael Landon arrives first at the scene of a car accident that left a teenager’s head in the backseat of her car while the rest of her was still in front, and Michael does what so many other policemen have done before him – he begins to drink. Not a lot at first, just here and there, except Michael is so used to his ordinary problems that without his being aware of it he’s begun drinking heavily, enough that he spends most of his days off in a stupor, waking up more than once on his bathroom floor in a pool of his own vomit.

After that, Michael Landon’s problems aren’t so ordinary anymore, but he’s reached a point where he doesn’t care. Not about the drinking, not about the way his work has suffered, not about the way his few friends have stopped calling and no woman wants to get within five feet of him and that his children don’t have time for him anymore, too busy with their new life in their new town with their new friends and their new step-dad.

In the fall Michael Landon starts to have not so ordinary black outs. When he realizes he’s losing time, first a few minutes and then in longer and longer stretches, Michael reacts with a sense of resigned detachment and the most curious emptiness, as if the whole of his insides have been hollowed out and all that was left was a yawning void. He works, and stops taking street assignments that require him to drive, and when his partner is promoted he doesn’t make a point to remind his Captain that he exists. He has no idea where he got the bruises on his knuckles, the scratches down his back, or the neat row of shallow stitches down the side of his belly, but he doesn’t let himself think about it, just wills himself to forget until he’s passing through his life as if he were in a fog.

Michael Landon considers himself a forgotten man, which is a funny thing, because of all the plain, ordinary men in the world, the one thing Michael Landon will never be is forgotten.

***

Their search of Peacehaven is fascinating but of little empirical value. People remember James Moriarty, and those who don't still know of the name, but unsurprisingly no one is inclined to talk. Sherlock is, against his own will, becoming more impressed by Jim's obsessive ability to control nearly everything he sets his sights on. He can't be returning here more than once every eighteen months, and yet his presence lingers, hovers over the town like a fog.

John can sense it too, is jumpy and tense the whole day. Of course for him 'jumpy' manifests in snapping at Sherlock for his every perceivable shortcoming, but Sherlock has always been able to see through that and lets it go largely unremarked upon. He instead sends John off to interview old ladies and former classmates while Sherlock spends the day at the Peacehaven police station. They are unsurprised to have him asking after Moriarty, but give him nothing of use. Sherlock almost pities them, forced to live like this, submissive to a man who doesn't even know their names.

It all leaves him with the utter conviction that if Moriarty does manage to pull off an escape he'd come here, wherever he'd swan off towards afterward. He'd want to reassure himself he's still in charge of something, even if it is only this sleepy little village.

A quick stop at the shop and a short phone call later ("No need to investigate this one," Lestrade says. "It's the last bombing.") and it's suddenly well after lunch. Sherlock consents to food purely to shut John up, and spends most of the meal reveling in the back and forth of their information exchange. It still amazes him that he has someone to do this with, that he has someone who wants to do this with him.

"Back to London, then?" John asks, setting his napkin by his empty plate. Sherlock raises an eyebrow. "Missing the telly that much?"

"No place like home," John deadpans, but Sherlock knows in some ways he means it. John is the kind of man who finds a home and settles. He finds it unexpected just how often and far John will follow him, and he can just hear Mycroft's admonishment that if he had any common sense he'd stop testing John's limits.

"The train leaves in twenty minutes," Sherlock replies absently.

"What?" John sputters.

Sherlock huffs in mild annoyance. "We have plenty of time."

They don't actually sprint to the station, so clearly Sherlock is correct, whatever John's expression as they board may otherwise convey. Once inside Sherlock shuts and locks the door to their car, while John gives in to his own paranoia and pulls the shades. He looks wound up, wrung out, lopsided or just off-kilter. He makes Sherlock want to investigate so he does, presses up close behind John, so close he can't turn all the way around.

"Sherlock?" John asks, curious but entirely unafraid. Then again he's unafraid of most everything; what Sherlock really enjoys is the trust. No one gives that to him, not like this.

"I thought this was expected behavior in private train compartments,” he murmurs low, leaning in to speak in John's ear and make him shiver. His hand slips under John's jumper, under his shirt; glides around to reach down the front of his jeans.

"Expected?" John lets out a thrilling little laugh. "No, can't say I expected this."

"You really must start paying better attention," Sherlock answers. He's got both hands around John now, unbuttoning and unzipping, tugging all those barriers out of his way. John groans when Sherlock fondles him, tugs lightly at his hardening cock, reaches down to play with his sac.

He tilts them towards one of the wide seats and John bends over it willingly, a bright flush trailing from under his jumper to the tips of his ears. Sherlock tugs down his own trousers, sends his pants after them, snags the shop bought lube and condoms from his coat pocket. He's hard, already so hard, finds all this strange and unsettling and gorgeous, something new and wonderful for his brain to chew on.

The lube slides onto his fingers and he slips one into John without warning, who in turn shudders and gasps out, "Sherlock."

"What do you think I'll do to you next, John?" he answers. "Finger fuck you until you come? Pull you onto me, push myself into you? Maybe I'll leave you like this," he says, crooking his finger just right, "and let you think about it a while."

John looks over his shoulder at Sherlock as understanding dawns. "You're upset because I distracted you?"

Sherlock adds another finger at John's hole, rubbing along the edge in a patternless rhythm. "Very. Imagine if I interrupted you during a surgery."

"Bit unhygienic, don't know if - ah, fuck - the nurses would appreciate the show."

"You're done talking now," Sherlock replies. He pulls his fingers out and wraps his hand around John's cock, and pushes his other thumb flat against John's arsehole, pressing on but not in. John thrusts forward and then back, caught between both sensations, trying to move in two directions at once.

Sherlock does this as long as he pleases - teases with a finger at the edge, pushes his thumb all the way in, adds a finger, pulls both out again. His other hand roams the rest of John's body, down his cock, across his chest, pushes the back of his head. John writhes beneath him, frustrated and desperate, his jumper rucked up, his skin pink. His low groans are drowned out by the hum of the train on the tracks.

Sherlock suddenly presses three fingers in, all the way in, and spreads them; John blurts out "Fuck," and presses back as far as he can. Abruptly Sherlock's had enough of this game. He bends his fingers and slides them out roughly, listens to John gasp like he's been shot. Sherlock opens the condom and puts it on, then presses his way in relentlessly.

Once he's buried inside there's no more control, all of that easy distance abandoning him. His hips thrust obscenely, an onslaught of feeling that screams from his cock through his body like a fire, making him press faster, push harder. John is breathing shallow and so fast he's nearly hyperventilating, has his left hand up over his mouth to stifle the continuous noises he seems incapable of controlling. Sherlock makes a fist in the front of John's jumper and pushes him up, makes John sit on his cock, and ends up biting the jumper himself to muffle his own groan. His fisted hand opens, slides down to John's cock and pulls.

John clenches, comes hard, and squeezes Sherlock so tight it’s almost painful. He gasps "John," like he's falling over a cliff, like John's just pushed him.

Long moments hang suspended in time before John finally slumps, drained. The movement shifts Sherlock's cock inside him and makes them both groan. Sherlock never wants to be disturbed from this position again. "Now you know," he breathes into the back of John's neck, pausing to lick a stripe through the sweat pooled there, "Don't. Interrupt."

***

It's terrifying is what it is, the ease with which Sherlock unravels him, the mastery with which he plays him. It's terrifying, and thrilling, and John hopes with all his heart that Sherlock doesn't know how easily he could always have this, that John has no shame, none, that Sherlock could unclothe him and open him up in the middle of bloody fucking Scotland Yard and John would bend over and pant for it like a bitch in heat.

It’s terrifying, and thrilling, and so, so dangerous, because John’s become much too attached much too soon, and he knows Sherlock, knows that he’s a curiosity to him, that John is a plaything, a fabulous game Sherlock can unravel and study but ultimately will grow tired of.

Oh but he wants it for as long as he can have it, can’t get enough of it, of Sherlock’s attention, especially when all of it is centered on him.

Goosebumps fly up John’s back, along his scalp and down his cheeks, when Sherlock begins to grind against him with slow, circling little thrusts that make John squeeze the arms Sherlock has slung around his waist, lean his head back against Sherlock’s chest and pant. “No, wait.”

“Didn’t I say you were done talking?” Sherlock murmurs into the shell of his ear, and then without even a by-your-leave hoists John up off his feet, leaves him dangling for one terrifying minute Sherlock is going to pay for and sits down on the bench, taking John with him. Sherlock likes seeing John half-splayed in his lap, legs caught in his trousers, grasping at his arms for purchase, John knows he does because he bucks and fucks into him and it’s too much, and he goes to say so when Sherlock suddenly shoves his come-covered fingers into John’s mouth in glorious retribution.

Salt explodes over his tongue, familiar, and he groans, arches his hips away from Sherlock’s steady thrusting, pain and pleasure too tightly coiled. It’s too much too soon but Sherlock doesn’t give one whit, that much is apparent, grinding John’s hips down against him and making him take it.

It’s good. It’s so good, and John’s never felt this, never known someone he could master and be mastered by, who would all but gag for his cock and fuck him stupid in the same thought. Dangerous, oh yes, too dangerous by half, but he can’t help licking Sherlock’s fingers, sucking at them, feeling terribly exposed, and so embarrassed, and uncaring at all that Sherlock’s hand is around his sac, squeezing rhythmically, working his cock until he’s hard and leaking again too fast, an arrow of sensation right down to the marrow of him.

He shakes his head, moans around Sherlock’s fingers, muffled, “No, no, I can’t,” but Sherlock’s working his cock hard, squeezing and tugging at him in the ways John likes best, as if he’d watched him masturbate at some point, and the thought of that, of Sherlock spying on him, watching John wriggle and writhe with his own fingers stuffed in his arse makes all the blood rush into his head and he jerks and comes, tiny dribbles overpowered by an orgasm so good his ears ring and his toes curl in his shoes and he makes a sound so embarrassing he’s glad he could barely hear it.

He feels Sherlock come, the hard rocking and the slow, languid thrusts in afterward glorious, and the last forty-eight hours come crashing down on him.

Sherlock pulls out of him, uncomfortable and big and wet, and does up John’s pants and his trousers and his zip and button and belt, as if he weren’t wet with lube and fucked open, hot and grasping and, even now, wanting. He sits to one side, groaning in his throat at the feeling, and watches Sherlock remove the condom and fold it into his kerchief.

He reaches up to catch at Sherlock’s mouth, kisses him wet and lovely and sleepy, shares the salt on his tongue and shudders and murmurs, “Thank you.”

Sherlock freezes momentarily, as if surprised, and then kisses the corner of his mouth and says, “You’re welcome.”

***

The rest of the train ride proceeds in silence and relative comfort; Sherlock would be lying if he said it didn't please him in some indefinable way every time John shifts awkwardly across from him. John glares at him again but it's half-hearted. Sherlock tries and largely fails not to smirk.

"Solved the case, have we?" John asks pointedly. Sherlock frowns, but quickly adopts his favorite expression of airy indifference. "It's only a matter of time."

"Well time is one thing you're fast running out of," John retorts, checking his watch. "It's already twenty past three, and there's at least another half an hour before we arrive in London."

It reminds Sherlock to finally pick up his mobile, and starts pursuing the missed phone calls, emails, and texts. "I've done more with less," he throws back. He doesn't need to be looking at John to know he's rolling his eyes.

There's a missed call and a text from Lestrade - sent right about the time Sherlock was buried to the hilt in John's backside, panting imprecations while John utterly fell apart. Unexpected, that. So little throws John, much less stops him altogether. Why Sherlock presents as a perpetual surprise to the man is the real question; even Mycroft and his assorted catalogue of eccentricities no longer make John react more drastically than the occasional raised eyebrows. And Sherlock may not know everything but he does know that Mycroft is far stranger than he will ever be.

The text itself is short, to the point. Last entry decoded: NSY. Today. 5pm. >40+

It hits Sherlock, punches him in between the eyes and makes him look up in surprise. I don't like getting my hands dirty Moriarty said, but clearly that just isn't true. Sherlock had been convinced, convinced that Moriarty wouldn't risk his own harm, not like this, but he was wrong. He's not like Sherlock, who enjoys winning only when it counts - Moriarty just wants the title, and doesn't care what he has to do to get it.

"John," he says, and sees the look of instant alert that crosses John's features. "He's going to blow up the Yard."

Now John looks shocked. "That's not possible," he says, but he sounds unconvinced of his own argument. "They've been on high alert since he came into custody."

"He knew that. He knew this would happen - he wanted it to happen." Sherlock's talking faster now, stringing the words together before they spin out and become scattershot. "He's probably been planning this for months, since right after his escape the first time. That bomb is already in the building, somehow it's been planted and he's just waiting to set it off."

He's dialed in the intervening time, and spits out his orders as soon as Lestrade picks up. "Evacuate everyone now." He doesn't give Lestrade time to argue. "All non-essentials, everyone in the vicinity of Moriarty's cell. He's got a bomb planted in there somewhere."

Lestrade's shocked reply is infuriating, and Sherlock immediately cuts off his stuttered arguments. "So put a few guards around his cell in protective gear, but get everyone else out. You've less than an hour to evacuate half a city block before it all comes literally crashing down on your head."

He hangs up and stands, starts pacing the four and a half steps between the wall and the door. "This is good, this is... brilliant."

"I wish you'd stop calling him that," John replies, though he doesn't actually disagree. "You figured it out," he adds, "even if there's only fifty minutes left to find the thing."

"I'd have had more time I wasn't busy proving a point to you," Sherlock snaps. He ignores John's sarcastic, "Yes, that was clearly my fault," because he's already made the mistake of getting sidelined by John one time too many today.

Sherlock is nearly climbing the walls by the time the train releases them; news reports of the sudden evacuation are blaring on the radio, all on the major web pages. Some of the more intelligent reporters are already linking it to the mysterious bomber Moriarty. Rather than try to catch a taxi in the horrendous traffic Sherlock bolts out of the station at a run, dodging pedestrians and cutting through traffic, only distantly aware of John following right behind.

They've just rounded the corner to the Yard, past the bustle of people standing too close, much too close, when his phone rings.

"Sherlock," Moriarty purrs, "You're late."

Sherlock looks up just in time to see the building convulse, and then New Scotland Yard explodes.

***

For a single moment in time John has no idea what’s happened, and knows only a peaceful blankness. He can’t hear – or at least, he can hear very little: the rushing of his blood, the muffled sound of screaming, the crumbling of mortar. All he can see is sky, and billowing smoke, and far away a helicopter he can’t identify does an immediate u-turn in the sky towards them.

His shoulder hurts something terrible, and he can feel the tell-tale heat of blood underneath his tac-vest, but as he sits up, takes in his surroundings, he can’t take even a moment to tend to it.

The med Humvee looks more like a crumpled tin can than a transport, and he swings his rifle back around from his back, crouches low and runs towards it as fast as he dares. There are but minutes, seconds before the gas ignites, triggering what other landmines there might be in the area, and he can hear the quiet gasping, can see blood, curly dark hair.

“What the fuck are you doing without your helmet?” John snarls, wrenches at the door until he can shove it away. He tracks his hands immediately over the dark haired man’s shoulders, chest, sides, down his legs, checking for breaks. Neither of the other two men nearby are alive, and he searches for their dog tags until he hears the click of the gas starting to heat. He hopes his fast-and-dirty search had been good enough and grabs the man about the shoulders, drags him bodily away from the Humvee as far as he can.

He pulls his rifle from his shoulder back in front and feels like a cockroach exposed to the sunlight, looking around him, then up where the helicopter has gotten closer in the minute-ten he’d taken to drag the man out. Behind him the building crunches and metal screams, pops of breaking mortar shooting like gun fire, and the locals are running and screaming, women, children, men. He can see the rest of his brigade on the other side of the wreckage but there’s a lot between them and John and all he’s got are fifteen bullets in his rifle and a clip in his side arm – the rest of the ammunition in the Humvee he can’t go back for.

He grabs the man tight under the shoulders and hefts him up as much as he can – he’s light, which probably has more to do with not wearing regulation body armor than anything else – and drags him as quickly as possible into the hollow of the building across the street, pock-marked with bits from the explosion. Fire is still raining down – fluttering with millions of sheaves of paper – and he pats at the man’s jacket until it goes out.

The man shivers, head jerking. “John,” he croaks without opening his eyes.

“Hush now, there’s a lad,” John says, opens one of the pockets on his tac-vest with a rip of velcro. “Nothing too bad here – it’ll need some stitches. Nothing like your arse, which I’m sure the Colonel will rip open until you’re staged like an example of fucking medieval torture. Why the fuck did you take off your fucking helmet?”

“What?” the man asks, woozy, opens his eyes and closes them again with a hiss, and John searches his vest pockets desperately -- where the fuck are his supplies? -- until he finds a kerchief which will do. He presses it tightly against the man’s head and clicks his radio S.O.S. before hissing, “Ten-one-four, ten-one-four, this is Watson, do you copy.”

It’s static, complete static and John curses bitterly, the dirty-grit crunch of sand between his teeth so familiar, so awful, the pull of sunburn on his lips, his cheeks. “Ten-one-four, this is Bambi, fucking copy! We’ve been hit, I repeat, we’ve been hit, local HQ exploded to fuck-all, three men unaccounted for, one down. Where’s my team? Copy, ten-one-four!”

“John,” the man says again, more lucid, eyes gray like London fog and filled with something primal, and deep, and nothing John would ever describe as horror.

The man sits up, faster than he should be able, and shakes John so hard his teeth rattle in his head. John snarls, “What the fuck are you doing?!” and gets slapped in the face, once, twice, hard enough to make him bite the corner of his lip and snap his head back. “John!” he hears again, and John inhales so hard he can't draw breath and looks up at Scotland Yard in ruins, at the London sky line, at BBC News flying overhead and Lestrade bellowing into a walky-talky twenty feet away and Sherlock, the side of his face drenched in blood, his eyes hard and emotionless. John would have punched him if there'd been pity, even a drop of it.

But there isn't, and John presses his face into Sherlock’s scarf because a scream is rattling around in his throat and his arm hurts so much he can barely move it and he can smell blood and feel Sherlock’s heart beating and he chokes, muffled, “Oh God, oh Jesus, oh God.”

He can hear sirens now, and the voices shouting, the chopper as it flies overhead, and Sherlock says, “John, John,” and John says, “Go,” because he has to, he has to go and find Moriarty, if he's even still alive.

John will follow, as soon as he stops shaking.

***

Eight hours later, the final count is forty nine dead, to include Sally Donovan and one Constable Michael Landon. John stands beside Lestrade, who’s got an arm in a sling and is holding himself in a way that speaks to broken ribs and the possibility of internal hemorrhaging. They watch Landon come into work on the security footage, watch him sit at his desk and do paperwork and, at five o'clock on the dot, rather suddenly get up from his desk, vomit a bucket’s worth of blood, and blow up.

“No matter how many times you watch it, you never quite expect that,” Lestrade says, pain all around his eyes.

John can’t quite get how a man blows up, how an ordinary sort of bloke just explodes. He’s seen men blown up, and men stand on mines and get torn apart, but he’s never seen a man explode from the inside, for his matter to spray in a million directions at once until there is nothing left of him. He can’t even begin to conceptualize it but he hurts, and he’s exhausted, and he can’t, he can’t, he cannot, and so John says, “We’re going home.”

Lestrade snorts quietly. “I’d like to see you try and pull him out of here, John, but more praise to you if you can.”

The Yard has been gutted. Entirely, painfully, terribly gutted. Most of it is still standing because someone got something right somewhere and built it correctly, but parts of it are completely inaccessible, and parts of it are too dangerous, and parts of it are still on fire.

Sherlock is where he’s been for the past seven and a half hours, in the jail cell where Moriarty was kept. The four men in explosive armor are dead, but the most terrifying part, the most utterly terrifying part, is that the jail cell is still locked from the outside. It has not been tampered with, and the only one with the key was Lestrade, and John hates Moriarty so damn much it is all-consuming.

Sherlock is stalking the room, muttering manic under his breath, and the temporary bandage John put on Sherlock’s head has soaked through, and the smell of death and destruction is so thick he can barely stand it.

“Sherlock,” he says.

***

Sherlock looks up to find John wading through the wreckage towards him, a glassy-eyed look of determination on his face that suggests he no longer believes sleep to be an option, however badly he needs it. He's also limping and covered in blood, most of which is probably Sherlock's.

"Ah, there you are," Sherlock says, stepping over what remains of a desk. "We're leaving."

"I- What?" John replies. He's too tired to be properly startled, but the intent is there.

"He's gone and there's nothing in here that will help me find him. We're leaving."

"Sherlock," John says, turning his name into a kind order, or maybe a firm request. "You need to - your head." John waves haphazardly at his own in demonstration. Sherlock raises an eyebrow.

"You're bleeding all over the place," John tries again. Sherlock touches his own chin, rubs his thumb against the fresh blood dripping off of it. "What would you have me do about it?"

"Come on," John says, tugging at him gently with his right hand. His left hangs there, inanimate, as though John has given it up as a lost cause. "What did you find?" John asks as he motions for Sherlock to sit on half a bench and shakily begins putting a patch on the hole in his head.

"No indicators as to where he went, no clues about his intentions. Someone on the payroll strategically placed that Constable down there and set the bomb off; probably released Moriarty with one of the Secret Service issue lock picks. In fact I'm fairly certain it was the fiancé of that woman he had killed in Peacehaven. That whole relationship had to have been a setup designed to emotionally break her down before he had her killed."

"How do you know that?" John asks, stopping to look down into Sherlock's eyes.

"Makes sense," Sherlock counters. "This is one big puzzle to him and he's made sure all the pieces fit. Using tools from all his previous crimes is just another way to rub it in how well he's got this all figured out."

"People aren't tools, Sherlock," John replies quietly, taping the bandaging on as securely as he can. It might just be the blood loss, but Sherlock is truly unable to tell if John's even aware of how much pain he's in, how badly his hand is shaking. He resolves to expand his research on nerve damage and its treatment.

"We're all instruments of will, our own or otherwise. He certainly doesn't see them as anything else," Sherlock answers, genuinely confused. John always prefers Sherlock to be accurate, right to the letter. He says it's because otherwise he comes home and isn't sure which kettle is safe to use, but he's been like this right from the start - he always wants to know the little details. He's really the only one who does.

"Yes, well, one person with that mindset is plenty." John finishes and his left hand drops down like a bag of bricks. Sherlock stands and looks around: for all that this is a giant crime scene there's nothing else to be garnered here. Moriarty has made sure to wash the stage clean of any advantageous evidence.

It shouldn't take them an hour to get back to the flat but it does; the news reports, the clumps of people trying to organize and classify and evaluate; the family members searching for loved ones. Sherlock looks at John, who seems to be soaking it all in like a sponge and almost wishes he was still flashing back to Afghanistan.

Mrs Hudson isn't waiting by their door, twittering over the story and their appearances, but it's that hour of the night that breaches the space between late and early, so it's not unexpected.

What is unexpected, however, is walking into their flat to find James Moriarty sitting in their living room, a gun in one hand and a beer in the other.

Jim is settled in Sherlock's chair, scratching at his temple with his own gun, his other hand resting around the neck of one of John's beers. He looks bored, and pleased, and underneath it all slightly worn, undeniably human. "Hello, Sherlock,” he says, and gestures with the gun. "Have a seat."

Sherlock doesn't move and Moriarty doesn't ask again, lazily waving the gun around. "Lovely home - I mean it's mediocre and claustrophobic, but I do enjoy the wide variety of spare body parts you've managed to accumulate."

"I'm sure you and the skull had a grand time practicing Hamlet's soliloquy," Sherlock replies. Blood is dripping irritably under his collar, the wound itself seems to be pulsating, and beside him John is so angry he's nearly vibrating. Sherlock wants Moriarty out of his flat now.

Jim takes a long drag from his beer and makes to put it on the side-table, but John calls out, utterly expressionless, "We'd prefer you use a coaster," which is an utter lie but makes Sherlock choke on a laugh. Moriarty's expression is priceless; he slams the bottle down on the table where it immediately starts to fizz over. "Are you impressed?" he asks Sherlock, gesturing to himself.

"It was well orchestrated, I'll give you that," Sherlock says. Beside him John stiffens, bothered by something in Sherlock's tone.

Moriarty grins like Sherlock's just lavished high praise on him. "Admit that you want to know how I did it."

Sherlock's vision is starting to fuzz around the edges and informs him that if he’s not going to incapacitate Moriarty and end this farce - which is so unlikely its’ not worth the time it takes to consider - then he had better make this conversation quick. "What I want to know is why you're in our flat and what it will take to get you out again."

"Such manners! I'd be offended, but I do have to hit the road. Don't worry, I'll keep in touch. In fact –" He pulls a blank envelope from inside his jacket. "I came here because I've gotten you a little goodbye gift, and wanted to deliver it in person. I'd hate for us to fall out of touch." He places it on the arm of the chair, an obnoxious smirk blossoming on his face. "I'm heading to the States, Sherlock. Business comes first, you know how it is. You really should come join me over there – much looser gun laws, we'd have so much fun."

Sherlock tries to raise an eyebrow but it hurts his head too much, so he settles for a disparaging look. "I'm not your puppy, Jim. I won't be trailing you around the world looking for entertainment."

Moriarty's smile stays firmly in place. "That ticket on your desk says you were about to trail me to India before your brother beat you to it; I'm sure they'd let you switch out your destination without too much trouble."

Sherlock feels John's shock like the distant rumbles of some massive, far-off earthquake but shelves it for later. "Mycroft can handle you; I've important things to do."

Moriarty laughs. "You don't care about important, you care about interesting and fun." He stands and straightens his jacket, his tie. "Come find me all by yourself and I can promise you both."

Nodding at Sherlock and continuing to entirely ignore John's existence, Jim smiles. "See you soon,” he says, and strolls past them out the door like an old friend, like his very presence in their house is not anathema.

Once the door has closed Sherlock immediately moves towards the envelope. Ostensibly it's to look at the clue, but in reality Sherlock is trying to put himself in a better position to ward off the punch John is clearly gearing up to throw.

***

John, in fact, does not throw a punch. Perhaps if the anger hadn’t been so consuming he might have considered it, but for the first time in his life he understands what it is to be incapacitated by rage, thick and clinging to his insides and so overwhelming he can’t do what he’s always done – catalogue it and file it away into the dark.

John runs down the steps two at a time, out into the street where a car is peeling away. The gun’s weight is like an old friend, and John crouches, steadies himself, and shoots. The back window of the car explodes in a shower of glass and John shoots again, and again, the trunk, through the back window, the bumper, until the car turns the corner with a scream of tyres.

He can hear police sirens in the distance but doesn’t wait for them, thanking Christ he finally got around to putting Lestrade on speed dial, and rushes back inside to pound urgently at Mrs Hudson’s door.

”John?” Lestrade asks in his ear.

“He was here. Just now, at the flat,” John says, feels a momentary sweep of relief when Mrs Hudson opens her door in her dressing gown and curlers. “He’s left something for Sherlock,” he adds, running back up the steps with Mrs Hudson calling, “Who left what for him?” behind.

Sherlock is sitting in his arm chair, doesn’t so much as bother looking up, and John feels true, visceral hate for Jim Moriarty, for the grip he has on Sherlock that is tightening, noose-like, around his neck, and the helplessness John feels at stopping it.

In Sherlock’s hand there’s a slice of a finger, as if someone had cut it in half. John can see the yellow parchment of bone, the stretch of tendon and nerve, the tip white with scarred tissue where someone had burned his fingerprints away while the finger was still very much attached to its owner.

“Look, John, a clue,” Sherlock says, blood dripping down the side of his neck to catch in the gray of his scarf.

***

Lestrade picks the flat apart.

John is grateful for the man’s diligence, at least – he has bomb-sniffing dogs, explosives experts, and every free body on the force combing their rooms for anything hazardous. They’re exhausted, and still reeling from the destruction of the Yard, their friends, should be at home with their children. One more thing Moriarty has taken tonight.

At one point, John goes up to his room for his medical case and finds the entirety of his possessions destroyed. Not tossed, not looked through, but methodically and intricately taken apart, from the shattered frame of his bed, to the coils of his mattress, to the entire contents of his closet, which look as if a pair of scissors were taken to it. His books are torn from their binding, his photo frames smashed beyond recognition, and his medical case has been filled with what can only be acid, judging by the smell and the spreading stain in the carpet.

John’s a military man – he doesn’t feel naked without his possessions – but he mourns his case terribly, his father’s and the only thing John had left of the man.

He exhales, slowly, shakily, and puts it out of his mind.

He drags Sherlock into the kitchen, doesn’t take no for an answer when Sherlock tries every excuse in the book to get out of it, but John’s had enough of looking at Sherlock’s gaping head wound. He borrows supplies from the EMTs who’ve tagged along and angles Sherlock’s head under the long kitchen light, florescent and bright enough to work by.

Sherlock’s hands are tight fists in his lap, and John thinks it’s because of the army of police officers searching the flat until he says, “You haven’t said anything.”

“About?” John asks, carefully shaving around the wound without sacrificing too much of Sherlock’s hair, and then disinfects it to within an inch of its life. Sherlock hisses at the burn of alcohol.

“I expected you to – well.” Sherlock’s leg jiggles ferociously, until John admonishes him with a quiet, “Keep still.”

After a while, John asks, “Expected me to what, Sherlock?” giving him a local anesthetic in the scalp to dull the pain.

“About India.” Sherlock exhales, shivers when John puts the first stitch in. “Aren’t we going to have a row about India?”

“No one is going to be having a row about India, Sherlock,” John says quietly, carefully tugging the thread through the torn flesh – it’s a nasty wound, small but deep, and John wonders what it was that hit him to cause it. “You’re a self absorbed twat. Nothing you do surprises me anymore.”

Sherlock shudders underneath his hands in indignation but he doesn’t move – sense between those ears at last, as if he’s just realized he’s sitting in a chair in the middle of his kitchen with a furious doctor holding a needle the size of his hand. “So now we’re at the childish name-calling portion of the evening.”

“It’s five in the morning,” John replies, tugs the thread through. “You should have told me. I would have gone with you.”

“What would I take you along for? You barely sleep, you've lost half a stone, your shooting hand is no longer entirely reliable. What possible good would have come from your involvement? If you wanted to help you'd do as I ask, not what feeds your ego,” Sherlock has the unmitigated gall to say, throwing common sense out the window, and John has to pause and get control of his emotions with that deep well of iron will the military had gifted him with, because his first instinct is to punch Sherlock in his arrogant mouth.

It’s all he can do to stop, and breathe, inhaling slowly and exhaling slowly, before resuming his careful stitching. “It isn’t about my capacity to help or not, Sherlock, it’s about you and me and this thing we have. Don’t you understand? Christ Jesus,” John mutters, tilts Sherlock’s chin up with a gloved fingertip. “You don’t get to swan off to India without telling me. You don’t get to run about anymore thinking about Sherlock and only Sherlock. You don’t get to behave as if I’m not one half of a working relationship anymore.”

He lets go suddenly, a horrible thought occurring to him. “That is, unless that’s what you want.”

Sherlock opens his mouth and behind them Lestrade says from the kitchen doorway, “Sherlock, your phone,” holding it out to him.

***

There are many voices Sherlock is prepared to hear on the other end of the line. Mycroft makes the most sense, or one of his assistants; any one of Sherlock's many contacts, people who want help or the chance to provide it, to pay back jobs Sherlock's completed over the years. Less likely but still within the realm of possibility is Mycroft's wife, who likes to wish him well on bank holidays and his birthday no matter how many times Sherlock tells her to stop. Even Moriarty's continued gloating over his escape wouldn't be entirely unexpected.

This is entirely unforeseen.

"Sherlock,” he hears, his name clipped short around the edges, "do you have any idea what time it is?"

"Almost six o’clock," Sherlock answers automatically, brain derailed in an immediate and utterly horrific fashion. He's so distracted he actually flinches when John makes to clean off the stitching, and John subsequently looks at him like he's lost his mind.

"Do you wish to know what time I arrived home last night?"

"I have a feeling you're about to tell me," Sherlock replies thoughtlessly.

"Don't get smart with me, child," his mother says sharply. "I should be able to come home and enjoy a night's uninterrupted rest, I've earned that."

"Yes, Mother,” he appeases. John has thankfully finished working and is staring at Sherlock's mouth with undisguised fascination; under other circumstances Sherlock would enjoy the attention.

"I expect you here immediately," she asserts, and Sherlock's whole body, every muscle in his face, gears up to protest, pulls at John's neat stitching.

"I can't, I've work to do here." He eyes the flat, at the unstructured and exhausted investigation surrounding him. "I've got a severed finger to analyze."

It is to no avail, and the mention of the finger doesn't give her the slightest pause. "You know perfectly well the lab here is superior in every way to that underfunded, overstaffed box you spend most of your time in. This is not up for debate," she warns him. Hasn't had her coffee yet, then.

"Yes, Mother,” he answers dutifully, though he sounds blatantly resentful.

"Bring your Captain with you,” she answers, then hangs up. Sherlock drops the phone on the table with a deathly finality.

John watches him, looking more entertained than he has in at least a week. "That was your mother?"

"Yes, obviously, thank you for keeping up," Sherlock snaps. He stands smoothly, thumbs pressed to a point on his top lip. "There has got to be a way-"

"Sir!" someone calls to Lestrade, who is speaking to someone in Sherlock's room, "There's been a package left at the door." All eyes swivel towards the stairs. Sherlock and John share a look and stride to the entrance.

There are in fact two boxes, both over-sized and unadorned. "There's a note," the officer says, passing it to Sherlock.

Thought you might need something more appropriate for a visit with Mummy.

Sherlock snarls, honestly snarls, and several of the officers take a step back as he flings the note on the ground. "Who was it?" Lestrade asks, as John bends down to pick it up.

"Mycroft," John answers from his crouch, sighing tiredly. He opens the top box, revealing three perfectly tailored suits in what is clearly John's size, a pair of shoes packed neatly on the side. Underneath are no doubt three suits for Sherlock as well. Sherlock strides off down the street, so he misses Lestrade's confused look but hears his relieved order sending everyone back inside.

When Sherlock turns around it is only John, lit by weak early-morning sun, sitting on their front steps looking worn out and unexpectedly bemused. "Best get showered and ready to go," he comments, to what appears like less of Sherlock's direction and more the street at large.

Sherlock frowns at him. "You'll be coming with?" he asks, half a question more than he would normally make it.

"Unless you think I'll be useless there as well," John affirms, his voice laced with an acidity that startles them both. John is angry with him, and understandably so; why he continues to stay Sherlock still doesn't know. There has to be a line John won't let him cross, but they all seem the same and Sherlock's not sure he'll spot the difference before he does it.

"John..." he starts, haltingly. "Let me make it clear, I... do, that is - I would prefer you come with me. If you like." He forces himself forward, why is this so difficult? "I want you... with me. Wherever that happens to be."

John runs a hand through his hair, smiling like he'd laugh if he wasn't so bone tired. "That was very clear," he says, then smiles properly anyway.

***

It’s half seven before Geoff is satisfied.

He’s combed over every inch of the Baker Street flat, and while he’s found a multitude of horrible and unsettling things, not the least being a quarter of a severed head in the crisper (“It’s to test fridge burn on exposed brain tissue, I got it from the morgue with Doctor Hooper’s consent, and why are you looking in there for a bomb anyway?”), he can say with comfortable certainty that there isn’t a bomb in Sherlock’s flat.

What Geoff does discover, however, is that Moriarty is one sick fuck, even sicker than he’d realized.

His profiler, Marta Sampson, grows more and more unsettled as the morning passes until by sunrise she’s a ball of tension, and for a woman who holds professionalism above everything else it’s more than a bit disquieting.

“What have you got?” he finally asks, though he isn’t sure he wants to know the answer.

“Narcissistic above all else, even his rampant and unchecked psychosis," she tells him in the privacy of the kitchen. "This is a man who not only loves himself but loves to see reflections of himself in others. He yearns for justification at the center of a disturbed and unstable mind -- he seeks out those like him so he can prove himself, not unlike a child seeking approval from a parent, and then acts out in violence against that approval when he gets it.” She removes her gloves with a snap, rubs her face. “I would also say that the narcissism that guides his actions does not differentiate between men and women – when he finds someone who he can see his reflection in, he pursues them doggedly, without restraint. I’ve seen indications of this here.”

“How?”

“Sherlock’s clothing has been disturbed. There are traces of ejaculate in the drawers of his dresser, and his bedding has been urinated on. The team is going over the bathroom now, but I am almost certain we will find traces of the same.”

Geoff grimaces. “And it isn’t just Sherlock being himself.”

“No,” Marta says, shakes her head, and sits on one of the stools at the small kitchen table covered in bits of experiments. “The urine is not sprayed out in the typical fashion we find from other territorial markings. This was precise – if I had to guess, I’d say the suspect urinated and spread it across the bedding manually. The same for the ejaculate.”

Geoff exhales, shoulder whinging something awful in its sling, and looks to the living room at Sherlock, holding the evidence bag with the half-finger up to the dawn light coming in through the windows.

“And Doctor Watson’s room?”

“Violent to the extreme,” Marta says. “I would say that the state of John Watson’s room is an indicator of Moriarty’s latent homosexual frustration. He’s found a man who, for all intents and purposes, is the opposite side of him. Sherlock Holmes is brilliant, and he does something few have ever done for Moriarty – not only kept up with him, but matched him wit for wit. Include that brilliance with a beautiful face and Moriarty can’t help himself. He likes what he sees in Sherlock because he can see his reflection in him.”

“John Watson has nothing to do with that,” Geoff insists, looks back to the living room where John is sitting, slumped, asleep. “They’re friends, Marta.”

She gives him a look before she can control herself, one that is utterly female, and Geoff feels a bit like when his wife tells him she cannot believe how dim he can be.

“Regardless,” Marta replies after a moment. “It doesn’t matter what is or what isn’t, but what Moriarty perceives.”

“You think he’ll attack again.”

“It isn’t a question of if, but when. He loves Sherlock and he hates him, because Sherlock is everything he can never be. He will kill him, violently and without the slightest remorse, because Jim Moriarty is a psychopath and the only thing he can feel is a deep and sadistic hate of himself.”

Geoff exhales slowly through his nose, rubs his face. “All right. Thank you, Detective Inspector.”

Sometimes, he really hates this job.

He goes into the living room where Sherlock is trying to pretend his eyes are a microscope, the evidence bag so close to his face it’s fogging with his breath. It’s ridiculous, and utterly charming, and Geoff forgets sometimes how blasted young Sherlock is until he unwittingly reminds him.

“You’re going to have to phone and cancel with your mum. I’ll be sending a helicopter out to get her in less than an hour, and we’re sending you all to a safe house.”

Sherlock snorts loudly, ignores him pointedly.

“I’m not joking about this, Sherlock. This is a matter not only of national security, but your security.”

“Geoff, my father was the head of the Bryant and Smith project,” Sherlock says, a touch of cold amusement in his voice. “I assure you, the only place safer than my family home is a bunker under the ground.”

“Sherlock—”

“Detective?” one of the young constables says from the doorway. “There’s a car out front.”

“Ah, just in time,” Sherlock says, nudges Watson’s knee. “Up we go, John.”

“What? Sherlock!” Geoff snaps.

“Oh, calm yourself, it’s the car Mycroft sent.”

Geoff has no fucking idea how he even knows that until he checks out the window after Sherlock, sees a bloody Rolls Royce sitting on the curb. “Sherlock, you can’t just go off half-cocked, Ascot is an hour away.”

“Then send an escort, if you think a police car would be safer than the bullet proof monstrosity outside,” Sherlock says, glances over his shoulder. “And please, don’t give Moriarty more credit than he is due Detective Inspector. I’m sure even with his skills he wouldn’t have had time to plant mines down the M4.” He helps John stand, and just like that they’re gone, before Geoff can utter another word.

It takes him an hour to realize the finger wasn’t returned to the evidence bag.

***

John drives like he does everything else - efficient, sure of hand. He'd blinked at the Rolls as it idled in the street but took to it like he'd been born behind the wheel, raised to send them through throngs of impatient traffic to the countryside beyond. The sun flashes at them in between stubborn clouds, scattered like a shoddy patchwork pattern.

Sherlock spends the first half hour running through possible outcomes for each scenario, decides which is least offensive to his sensibilities. There's no point wasting his energy in a fruitless fight against the inevitable, particularly when inevitable wanders the country in the form of his mother.

"Is your father still around?" John asks, for what must be the seventh time. He keeps at it with an air of forced casualness, trying and failing rather hideously to hide his intrigue.

"No," Sherlock answers shortly.

They lapse back into silence, for which Sherlock is gratef-

"Should we stop for a gift? I don't want to be rude," John questions. Sherlock considers yanking the wheel and sending them into the nearest ditch. He settles for making what must be a heinous face, judging from John's reaction. "That's a no, then." He looks like he's deciding between amusement and concern, which is par for the course with him as of late. As of their introduction, actually. At this point Sherlock would be justified in calling it John's default expression. Yet underneath there is a line of tension, tethered to the crease between his eyes, that makes it clear how not good things are between them.

Sherlock did what was right under the circumstances. He's not going to apologize for it.

His shirt has been starched within an inch of its very existence and scrapes at his chest, making him scratch absently. John notices every time, strangely at ease in his long coat and black shirt. He looks unexpectedly old and much too young; the haircut he'd insisted on before leaving London serves only to heighten the difference. It's military style, precise along his forehead, but he looks ten years younger. Sherlock eyes it with distaste.

"I didn't realize your mother was still alive," John says conversationally. "You only mentioned her in the past tense."

"When was the last time you went to see your mother, John?" Sherlock replies, caustic. Just because he doesn't want John anywhere else doesn't mean he wants him here either. "Planning to see her at Christmas this year? Chat her up about your failed military career?"

John purses his lips in a way that says more to Sherlock than a thousand hollered words. They don't talk again until they arrive.

***

Adella is in the south garden enjoying a book, a gin and tonic, and the afternoon sun when her youngest child and his partner finally arrive. "Please sit down Sherlock, Captain Watson." She makes it an order by way of greeting, though it is not unkind.

They settle on the patio furniture, Sherlock churlish and John cautious, though that quickly gives way to curiosity. She finishes her chapter and puts the book down, picks the gin and tonic up. "It's been quite some time since I last saw you, Sherlock," she opens, "so I'll give you a choice: we can begin with a discussion of this case that has so knotted you and your brother up, or we can discuss your new-found domestic narrative."

John blanches but Sherlock looks merely resigned. "I really don't see how the latter is any of your business, Mother."

She raises an eyebrow at him; Sherlock winces minutely. "Dear child, please. I've long been aware that of my two children you have always been the romantic-" the wincing increases, while John raises his eyebrows nearly into his hairline, "-as well as possessing a near unending penchant for drama. Believe me when I say I understand your reasons for excluding me from the circle of people who know the details of your day to day life. But really it's rather unseemly to be informed of these kinds of things from your brother."

He looks exceedingly put out. "I'm sorry, Mother."

She sighs shortly. "I'm not looking for an apology, child. I want to know what's going on in your life." She takes another sip from her glass and stands, silently approves when John immediately does the same. "Well then, let's give Captain Watson the grand tour."

***

"This is the main library, feel free to peruse it at your leisure," she offers.

"Thank you," John replies, eyes scanning the many aisles of books. They have already passed through the conservatory, south parlor, one study, and the billiards room. Sherlock's response was to become more antagonized with each passing minute, while John progressed from polite interest to outright exploration, more emboldened with the advance of yet another new space.

She finds it is really rather dull to already know everything about this man. She certainly appreciates his potential, and the positive influence it’s clear he has already made on her son. But she wonders how long he will hold Sherlock's attention; he may have far too many tendencies that tilt towards the quixotic, and is apt to let his passions blind him thoroughly, but he is still a Holmes.

"We really don't need to go through the whole house Mother, surely he's got a sense of the place by now," Sherlock pushes, trying to make for the exit. "There are several matters John and I need to discuss."

"Mycroft will be here for dinner, we can review the details of this arrangement then," Adella responds absently, pointing John in the opposite direction. Sherlock looks frustrated, and trapped, the latter of which is ridiculous but unsurprising. She's given him every opportunity, shown him the world - as it really is, not just the superficial sheen most people skim across. None of it has ever been enough for him.

It's not his fault, of course. He can't help but be who he is. Still, it is a singularly frustrating quality.

"That will be unnecessary, Mother. We'll be leaving first thing in the morning." John looks surprised at this pronouncement; apparently he'd taken Sherlock's token acquiescence in coming here at face value. For her this stubbornness is to be expected.

"That seems highly unlikely child, unless you think you know something about this case that I don't." She says it mildly, but Sherlock looks uncomfortable nonetheless. He doesn't like being reminded of just how much she knows, particularly about him.

He chooses an indirect challenge. "There's more to this case than meets the eye, this latest clue is showing more than it’s meant to. I'm sure of it. With some proper investigation I-"

"Sherlock I realize it is not your habit to think outside yourself," Adella snaps, startling him into silence, "but I am well aware of what happened the last time you went off to 'investigate' this Moriarty character. Now I have already lost one family member to that sort of nonsense, and I absolutely will not repeat the experience." She cuts herself off, straightens her jacket and makes to regain some composure, though no one outside of her sons would ever have noticed anything amiss to begin with. "Excuse me," she says to John, who is wide-eyed, glancing at Sherlock in concern, God help him. "I find myself in need of some air."

She steps out, her shoes making perfectly precise clicks on the stone.

***

The Holmes estate is not what John expects.

He’s been to Ascot, many times. His own village is only a few short hours away and his father was one of the best heart surgeons in England – John had come along with his father many times in the years before his death, to help, to observe, to learn. He remembers Ascot as a sleepy, well-to-do town, the kind of place where he had to leave his tatty trainers at home because dad insisted he wear proper gentleman’s coats and shoes. He remembers the horses, so many horses dotted across the sprawling country landscape, beautiful sleek animals he stuck his nose against the window to see as they drove past. As a child it had seemed like a dream to him, that anyone could live there right in the middle of so much nature, that his father had been called to doctor someone who woke up each day and had that be their life.

John just has no idea how he could have known Sherlock for this long and not known this.

Sherlock shows him where to take a left on a tiny, non-descript road, and very suddenly they’re atop a hill and the Holmes estate sprawls in every which direction below them. In the center of the spectacular grounds is an enormous country manor, in a mishmash of styles that nevertheless exudes old money and regality. A lake cuts across the woods on the far left of the grounds, leading to an equestrian keep. John can see horses nibbling on grass, a trainer leading a gorgeous Arabian over a hurdle. The grounds aren’t manicured – flowers grow wild, trees do what they like, but nevertheless it has a planned feeling, as if the owner of all this knew exactly what they were doing.

The manor is unlike anything John could have imagined, a sentiment that can also be used to describe Sherlock’s mother. She is a handsome woman, with a pixie-style haircut that nevertheless must have cost what John got in pension in an entire year. She is thin-boned and short, shorter even than John, but she carries herself as if a giant and her eyes are Sherlock’s eyes, deep as the ocean and as sharp as glass. She doesn’t miss a thing, and throughout the entire tour of her home John can’t help but think she’s making an opinion of him that will stick. He’s self assured enough not to care whether she finds him suitable or not as a partner for her brilliant child, but a small part of himself wants the good opinion of this woman. He can’t help but respect a woman who gave birth to two men like Mycroft and Sherlock.

Mrs Holmes takes her leave with the rustle of her Chanel following her, and they’re left in the library, late morning sunshine falling all over the antiques and seventeenth century furniture.

“You didn’t tell me.”

“What?” Sherlock demands, scraping a hand back through his hair, and John doesn’t know how he could have missed it – Sherlock fits here in a way he doesn’t quite fit at Baker Street, or for that matter in London. His surroundings compliment him, from all that pale regal skin to the cupid’s bow of his mouth to the raucous curls, tussled and meant for country air to blow through them. Those features are meant to be surrounded by opulence and luxury, and he can easily imagine Sherlock here as a boy growing up, reading his brain full in this very room.

John feels immensely, terribly out of place; he clears his throat. “I should have brought a gift.”

Sherlock snorts, mean, sullen. “Nothing you could have brought would have been good enough. Nothing you could have spent an entire year’s pay on would have been good enough.”

He looks around at the opulence around him and can do nothing but concede the point. “You didn’t tell me you had money, Sherlock.”

“Why, would it have changed your opinion of me? Made you tolerate my moods a bit better?” He peers at him. “Is that it, then? When we get home you’ll think twice about commenting over the fingers in the toaster, because my family is part of some pretentious, aristocratic nonsense?”

“That’s not fair,” John says, and it isn’t, not in the slightest bit, but since when has Sherlock ever played fair? “I just wish you’d given me a heads up, that’s all. ‘Oh, by the way, don’t be startled by the mansion,’” he says, lowering his voice several octaves and poshing it up in a decent mimicry of Sherlock’s voice. “‘My father was a baron.’”

“An earl, actually.”

“What?”

“Do I really sound like that?” He makes a face. “I don’t really sound like that.”

“Sherlock.”

“Since when is it a crime to speak properly?”

“Sherlock!”

He sighs, put-upon, yanks his coat off. “Oh, shut up, you’re giving me a headache,” he says, and he tosses himself on the seventeenth century sofa which should be in a museum in the same way he throws himself on their tatty, second-hand sofa John found in an advertisement.

It’s also, John recognizes, classic self defense.

He’s uncomfortable, he thinks, looking down at the tense line of Sherlock’s body. For all that he is feigning languid disinterest there are tells in the clench of his fingers where his arms are crossed over his chest, the stiff way he’s holding his hips and torso.

He crouches down beside Sherlock, sighs when he turns his face away like a surly kid. “Sherlock,” he says, brushes his thumb along the rigid line of his shoulder. “Is that what your ginger lad from Kent did? Treat you differently, once he found out you had money?”

“Why do you even speak sometimes? It’s as if you have no idea how stupid you sound.”

John continues as if Sherlock hadn’t spoken. “I’ll still be furious when I find heads in the fridge, and eyeballs floating with the pickles, and my laptop disassembled on the kitchen table. Just because you have money doesn’t mean that changes, it just means that I won’t feel so guilty when I demand you go out and buy another toaster after I find fingers in it.”

Sherlock doesn’t say anything, churlish and cross, and after a long moment John sighs, stands. “I’m going to go rest for a bit, if you don’t think your mother will mind.”

“What do I know what she’ll mind?” Sherlock snaps, turns his back to him.

It isn’t the first time Sherlock has done it, but it is the first time John wants to take him over his knee and wallop him on the backside, for all that he’s behaving like an absolute infant. A sweep of emotion curls up John’s throat, and he swallows at it until it’s back under his Adam’s apple, where it can do no harm. “Fine,” he says, and leaves the room.

***

Adella needs only five minutes to restore her sense of self-possession, though she frivolously uses ten. It’s a cool but lovely day, and she is somewhat loathe to leave it. The estate always seems to echo Sherlock’s moods, and she has become unused to the intensity with which it careens down the halls.

Delaying things only makes them worse though, and that, more than anything, provokes her feet to send her back indoors. She walks in the west entrance, eyes scanning the rose bushes through the windows, and finds herself facing both Sherlock’s soldier and his uncertain expression.

“You seem a bit lost, Captain,” she calls out from the other side of the room. He turns around, surprised but not startled. She’s seen this response so many times she could say to the week how long it’s been since he was unwillingly removed from active duty.

“I didn’t want to intrude,” he responds, his face so honest and open it momentarily throws her. It’s been a while since she met someone who wasn’t too stupid to hide their feelings but was deliberately choosing to share them instead. She almost wonders if it’s a ruse, but dismisses the idea as ingrained paranoia bred from years of classified exchanges. “I’m just not sure where you wanted me to stay,” he continues, seemingly at perfect ease with his own ignorance. He doesn’t look like he’s intimidated by her, which is unusual, but neither does he present any noticeable disrespect.

She points a finger to the doors on her left. “Down the corridor is the main staircase; take the left set at the top and you’ll find Sherlock’s wing.” He tries to hold back a wry smile, but she can see trails of it flicker through his eyes. “He was always very... expressive. It was best to give him the appropriate amount of space to engage in his creativity.”

“That was understanding of you,” he answers, and she is, against her own intentions, amused by the slideshow of thoughts that pass across his face. He’s angry at her son, a far-reaching anger she’s seen break up marriages and create messy international incidents; he’s also already forgiven him, wants to talk to him, is still curious about what he’s thinking, what all the details of his childhood are.

“Thank you,” he says, having realized what she’s discerning and becoming uncomfortable with the intimacy of it. She considers assuring him she has no interest in her son’s sex life - outside knowing it is healthy, of course - but it’s likely to only make him feel more uncomfortable. Instead she just nods and turns to inspect the dusting of the two hundred year old globe that sits near the windows. When she looks back he is walking away, looking both perfectly suited to and completely out of place.

It fascinates her that Sherlock should pick someone so unexpected, so far removed from who she believed he would settle with, if there was to be anyone at all. Perhaps fascinated isn’t the right word, but being accurate right now unnerves her, because the correct word would be startled. She’s startled by this man, and all he represents, all the things about her son she will likely never know.

“Captain,” she calls right as he is about to disappear from view. He stops and turns, standing at attention while she walks over to him. “Let’s take the long way around. There are some things I think you’d enjoy having the chance to see.”

He follows her without hesitation, eyes scanning the art on the walls, the rugs, the furniture in the smaller reception room and the small staircase that leads to a sitting room. They are on the far side of the house now, and she precedes him inside their destination. “This is the second library, where we keep most of the technical books. One of Sherlock’s rooms is up that flight of stairs, the last door in the hall.”

“This is beautiful,” he says, already wandering forward. The spiral staircase in the corner immediately catches his eye, and for a moment he looks like a boy ready to scramble up the trunk of a tree. Then he spots the photos.

“Is that him?” he asks, forgetting himself entirely and abruptly swerving direction to head for the mantle.

She follows placidly behind. “Yes, that’s Sherlock, when he was still young enough to be obliging and not ruin photographs.”

He smiles. “Never thought I’d hear the words ‘Sherlock’ and ‘obliging’ in the same sentence.”

She raises an eyebrow at him in the way other people shrug with one shoulder; if her children had seen it they would stare in utter shock at the unimpeded informality. “Despite the impression he likes to give Sherlock is nowhere near as stubborn as Mycroft - just infinitely more temperamental.”

He nods in absent agreement, then spots the photos at the end of the mantel, eyes widening. “Is that...?”

She nods shortly. “Yes, that’s my late husband. Andrew. As Sherlock doesn’t often employ the manners drilled into him in this house, let me introduce myself properly. My name is Adella.”

“John,” he replies, and as she inclines her head at him he adds, “You’ve been calling me Captain.”

“Of course,” she says, her hands laced in front of her. “From what I’ve seen you’re much more a fighter than a doctor.” His expression falters, as though he’s taking that to be an insult. “I can certainly call you by another title if it makes you uncomfortable.”

“No, no,” he says, and unlikely though it is it seems he means it. “I’m just not used to having it directed at me now.” He smiles with no small degree of bitterness. “I’m not technically a Captain anymore.”

“You have a very funny idea of retirement then, Captain,” she replies. His smile becomes so real and vivid it makes her look away, right to the picture of her husband. Oh, she thinks, and immediately on its heels: Oh, Sherlock.

When she looks back John is also examining the pictures again, staring like he could spend days doing just that. It’s not a matter of reading his thoughts on his face - they’re so clear that to speak any of it out loud would be wholly redundant. He sees Sherlock sitting in this room with its dark wood and tall windows, curled up with a book, impatiently flicking through the pages. He sees so clearly, she realizes.

Were she forced to choose she would say John looks more like her, but she knows, if anyone, who he reminds Sherlock of.

“Dinner is at seven,” she tells him, clearing her throat softly to get his attention. “If you would be so kind as to inform Sherlock? He’ll be finished sulking and meet you in his rooms in about thirty-five minutes.”

John laughs before he can help himself, but reins it in with admirable speed. “Of course.”

“Thank you,” she says as she leaves, and if it holds too much gravitas for the situation it is nonetheless not undeserved.

***

The rooms Mrs Holmes had given them for the duration of their stay (and ‘duration’, John thinks, is going to end up being the apt term) are exquisite. John’s a soldier, has been since he was twenty, and he is much more used to sleeping on his rucksack in the dirt than between Egyptian cotton sheets, but he can see why the other half lives as they do.

Earlier, with the setting sun shining in through the windows, it had been all glossy finishes and superb linens, and now, in the dark of the glowing lamps, it’s like something out of a storybook. He can see the grounds for miles, lit with tea lights and torches and the rich glow of lights that set off the water fountains, the wild, unplanned-yet-so-very-planned trees, flowers, bushes. It’s a bit like looking out at a fairy garden, as if he’s in the turret of a castle rather than the third floor of the Holmes Estate.

He wonders what it must have been like to grow up here – wonders what Sherlock and Mycroft were like as children, handsome little boys, all this space and all this unending freedom to do as they pleased. Wonders at the story behind Sherlock’s father – why he won’t speak of him, why he clams up if John so much as mentions him, when John had been able to see the pride in Mrs Holmes’ eyes, the eyes she’d given to Sherlock.

Sherlock had been in a right awful mood when he’d finally oozed his way up the steps – thirty five minutes on the dot – but John, fed up with being the sole recipient of that annoyance because he was a good target and didn’t have the ability to argue with him about logic for any length of time, had simply said, “I’m going to go wash, and when I come back out you’re going to be the man I know again and not this ridiculous, sulking teenager you turned into when your mother phoned you at Baker Street.”

He showers, lets the water beat down on him until he’s a little dizzy, until the heat has worked its way into his muscles and back out again, and ignores the door opening, the sweep of the curtain as its pulled aside, but it’s impossible to ignore Sherlock when he climbs into the clawed tub behind him.

Those enormous mitts of his slide down John’s arms; John tenses, glowers through the water falling in his eyes, and tilts his head to the side for Sherlock’s kisses along the column of his throat. “Bloody prat is what you are,” he mutters, closes his eyes. “Don’t think you’re off the hook. You’ve been rotten.

Sherlock doesn’t respond, presses his mouth into the angle of John’s shoulder.

“It’s not as if I don’t understand,” he says, rubs the washcloth absently over his chest. “I do understand, more than you think. The family thing. Mothers, siblings, the way they can turn your life upside-down and make you feel like a child again, and not in a good way.”

“Stop talking,” Sherlock says, and now John can feel something pressing against his arse, hard and wet. He closes his eyes and turns his face away because –

Sherlock brushes his thumb, feather soft, down the flaccid length of him, and after a long moment he says, “How much does it hurt?”

“Sherlock.”

“Since the explosion? Or before?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John says, though of course he does, and of course Sherlock does, because just like that he presses the same thumb that had swept down his soft cock right in the middle of the worst of the pain in his shoulder, and the sound he makes is mortifying. “Stop.”

“John.”

“Stop!” John says and shoves away from him, grabs hold of the curtain with two fists. “Leave me alone, leave it, leave it.”

Sherlock waits a beat before inevitably, unstoppably reaching for John’s shoulder again. The constant pain has been nauseating, and two of his fingers have been periodically tingling for the last twenty four hours, and Sherlock unerringly finds the source, the twisted, knotted muscle that burns with the slightest brush of fingers against it. John tries to jerk away but Sherlock holds him still easily. “You’re in pain,” Sherlock says, matter of fact. “You don’t have to be. Let me help you.”

“Sherlock—”

“I know it hurts,” Sherlock says, merciless in his touch until John’s almost weeping, knees shaking and body trembling at the waves of pain that seem to go on forever, shooting down his chest and up his neck before being soothed, addictive pangs of relief that explode like the first bite of chocolate across his senses.

Sherlock continues his touch well past the moment John feels normal again, a steady, relentless working of his hands that slowly loosens every muscle in John’s body until he’s quiet and pliant, resting his cheek against Sherlock’s collar bone. The water runs over them and Sherlock makes the pain, for the first time in many, many months, disappear almost to nothing, and the breath in John’s chest hitches without his control.

“To call you stoic would be a compliment,” Sherlock says into his hair, lets his hands fall away to John’s back, around his waist. “Your obstinacy is something I am simply going to have to endure, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” John says.

***

That night Sherlock comes up with no less than fourteen different excuses to miss dinner, but John will hear none of it. He harangues Sherlock into dressing and to ‘leave the bell tower for a little human interaction’. Sherlock’s reply is to wonder aloud if John is deliberately removing himself from that demographic because tiny elf-people are not technically human, and John glares utter death at him, and that is as auspicious a start to the evening as they’re likely to find.

Mycroft arrives at six on the dot, his wife in tow, and Sherlock watches John take an instant liking to her the moment she turns her wide, guileless smile in his direction. Of course John finds most women appealing for one reason or another, enjoys them on a basic, aesthetic level; Sherlock has on several occasions wondered just what the hell John is actually seeing when he looks at Sherlock, because while he is many things he has certainly never been pretty.

“Sherlock!” she says, leaning over to kiss him soundly on the cheek. “Mycroft has told me all about John, I’m so happy to finally meet him.”

John’s smile widens as he takes in Sherlock’s blatant discomfit. “John, Doctor Mahdavi Holmes. Dr. Holmes, Doctor John Watson.” She kisses John too, who takes it with a great deal more grace. As everyone sits she starts in on her questions - where he trained, what kind of medicine he specializes in, whether he’d done any of the pediatric field work she’s known for. Sherlock swears at one point it devolves into a discussion of her favorite brand of travel bag. If having John at his side will save him from those kinds of conversations then he’s already proved himself worth the trouble of having around.

“Sherlock,” his mother intones, and he realizes he’s shredded his dinner roll into a million and three pieces. Mycroft looks patronizing, his wife has her traditionally ignorant expression pasted on, and John looks like he’s failing to hide how entertaining he finds all this.

Sherlock drops the bread and glances in his mother’s direction. “What’s the name of this week’s model?”

She stares back, unimpressed. “Peter - or Patrick, I can’t be bothered.”

“Is he out of nappies yet?” Sherlock snipes.

“Yes, and unlike yourself he generally acts as such,” she ripostes.

“I’m happy for you,” Mycroft says, as he always says.

“Thank you dear.”

“Yes, clearly a match for the ages,” Sherlock mutters. Since that hits the upper limit on his capacity for small talk he starts in on topics that actually matter. “We can’t stay here much longer, I’m afraid. Very important case to resolve.”

“Oh Sherlock, we’re not going to discuss this at dinner,” she informs him, impatient.

“You’ll be too soused to talk about it after we’re done,” he snaps back.

“Sherlock,” John hisses, and yes, he would know about ignoring that particular elephant in the room, but intentional ignorance is not Sherlock’s style.

His mother deliberately takes a slow drink, eyeing him all the while. “You make it very difficult,” she starts, “but I do actually desire for you to outlive me.” She doesn’t say anything else but she doesn’t need to; they’re all on the same page.

There is no argument he can come up with that she hasn’t already thought of, never a point to debate, and he hates it, hates it to his soul, the way she makes him feel. It’s as though his life is fated to her and there is nothing he can do she won’t expect, wouldn’t have had a hand in, his life orchestrated via her design commanded down from on high. He's thirty-one and feels all of nine and it's suffocating.

Mycroft eats his meal and manages to make every bite a smug dig, while his wife twitters away next to him at John. Sherlock considers reminding Mycroft of Christmas 1994, just to be petty. Then their mother looks between them, says “Mycroft”, and that’s all it takes.

Sherlock is unwillingly sucked into one of their conversations, half a test and half just lazy shorthand. Mycroft says, “The term election,” and Sherlock comments, “the garden is five hundred square feet,” and his mother replies with, “A scandal,” and that constitutes an in-depth exchange. It’s a release of pressure on one valve while simultaneously turning up another; Sherlock is invariably left feeling lopsided and wound-up, unable to concentrate. There is no one around to make them talk, anymore.

He’s aware of John next to him, silent and staring in blatant fascination; aware and loathing every minute.

“You’re underestimating again, Sherlock,” his mother comments.

He shakes his head. “Unique circumstances.”

“Hardly,” Mycroft interrupts, and really Sherlock has had just about enough of his interference.

“Oh, no one asked you,” Sherlock snaps.

Their mother sighs. “These are advantageous circumstances, Sherlock. Stop being so resistant to good news.”

When their mother finally releases them an hour later John looks a little dizzy. “We can leave in a week,” Sherlock tells him, because he doesn’t want to hear any of what John has to say.

***

“Your mother is lovely,” John says, later that evening in the golden evening light of Sherlock’s suite. Across the room Sherlock gives him a look like the grim reaper, and John amends helplessly, “I can see where you get your personality from?”

Sherlock grunts, shoves back the blankets on their bed. Not for the first time today John is pleased that Mrs Holmes put them together. When John had asked her (as politely as possible) where he would be sleeping, her simple remark of, “You will be sharing Sherlock’s suite, of course,” had spoken of fundamental understanding, a degree of acceptance John could never expect of his own mother. The most simple of acknowledgements, and it had lifted John’s spirits and calmed a nagging little voice in his head, had made everything feel so much more normal, if a relationship with a self-proclaimed sociopath could ever be normal.

“Mahdavi is a lovely woman, I see why Mycroft enjoys her company,” John offers.

Sherlock snorts loudly from the bed. “Mycroft’s wife is the sole representation of my brother’s life-long fascination with India. Whether he cares for her or not is irrelevant,” Sherlock says, shoves the thousand decorative pillows off the bed with a sweep of his arm. “How could you even think so, anyway?” he adds, almost shrill, and John isn’t mean enough to get satisfaction out of Sherlock’s fraying nerves, not when he sounds so on edge. “She’s a vapid, self absorbed, utterly—”

“Lovely woman, who is doing her level best to survive in a family that holds entire conversations by osmosis,” John finishes for him. “You should remember that not everyone can understand you when you talk Holmes at the dinner table – and by the way Sherlock, discussing the Prime Minister’s sex life is not roasted duck conversation. Mahdavi is one of the premiere osteo-pediatric surgeons in England; she’s done things with bone transplants in children most didn’t think possible. You should be proud of her.”

“Oh?” Sherlock says, narrows his eyes. “Best friends now, are we? Did she tell you all about her shoe collection?”

She had, but John wasn’t about to tell him that. “And you should be nicer to her.”

“Like I’m nicer to you?”

“Fuck you,” John snaps, then catches himself, breathes out slowly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that.”

But Sherlock is standing by the bed with an expression that says he does think John means it, and agrees with it, and John can’t have that, not when he’s standing in his jimjams, hair a raucous mess, mouth twisted down and frowning. His feet look very long against the dark wooden floor, and his eyes look very pale – almost translucent –beautiful, beautiful. “Can I tell you something?”

Sherlock doesn’t quite look at him, frowns at the floor. “It’s unlikely that I don’t already know it, but yes, you may.”

John nudges Sherlock’s chin, brushes his thumb down his cheek. “I’m jealous of you. What you have here.”

Sherlock stares at him. “I don’t quite understand how it is everyone thinks you’re the sane one.”

“True,” John says, steady and sure. “But the fact remains. I also understand why you didn’t want me to come, and why you’ve behaved the way you have. I understand all of it, Sherlock, as much as you might think otherwise. But you aren’t alone now, don’t you see?”

He does – John can read it all over his face. John brushes his thumb over the bristles of stubble on Sherlock’s jaw, down his neck. “Turn off the lights.”

“John.”

“Sherlock,” John murmurs, presses his thumb Sherlock’s Adam’s apple. “In a moment I’m going to show you how much I remember of my training. I’m going to take your knees out from under you, and spread them apart until your thighs and hips ache with the stretch of it, and it won’t matter how much you struggle because I’m going to slip right into the core of you, make you forget this day ever happened -- make you forget everything but me.” He brushes the curls gently from Sherlock’s brow. “Is that what you want, Sherlock?”

Sherlock shudders, presses his mouth into the palm of John’s hand.

John smiles. “Turn off the lights.”

He does.

***

That night, for the first time in many long months, John doesn’t dream of Afghanistan. There are no roadside bombs, or flying dust storms, or screaming women with blood matted to their dresses. There isn’t the hot cotton scratch of his uniform, or the heavy weight of his vest and rifle, or the suffocating press of his responsibility. There isn’t bad food, or the constant blister from his helmet’s chin strap against his skin, or the smell of petroleum jelly that coats everything.

John dreams of Baker Street, a quiet, rainy afternoon. He’s in his chair, for it is his chair now, pillow curved just right against his back. It’s dark, gloomy, just enough light to read by. Thomas Baker smiles at him with his pink sunglasses, and when John looks up Sherlock is in the chair opposite him, reading his newspaper. There’s tea on the table between them, and rain pounds against the windows in blowing torrents, and John’s so glad to be home in his stocking feet, to be home with Sherlock.

“Your eyes are wet,” Sherlock says in his dreams, and leans forward to kiss each one. “Better?”

“Yes,” John says.

He wakes up swallowing, and swallowing, and rubbing his cheek against the pillowcase. Sherlock is a warm, heavy weight against his back, breathing deep and even against John’s neck, overwhelming him in the best way possible. The peace of the dream lingers on, even when it is overshadowed by less innocent thoughts, the danger they’re in, despite this welcome respite.

Coming here was far more dangerous than staying in London would have been, John realizes. Now he’s met Sherlock’s mum, and seen his home. Now he knows what Sherlock looked like as a little boy, all summer-freckles and wild hair, and how handsome Sherlock’s father was – now he’s seen where Sherlock comes from, and it’s a little bit like a puzzle piece has fallen into place.

So dangerous, John thinks, because knowing all of this about Sherlock has filled him up full with so much love he doesn’t know what to do with it all, choking him and blinding him until his hands shake and his heart beats wild in his chest.

He doesn't want this revelation. Not now.

He closes his eyes and forces himself back to sleep.

***

Sherlock times his escapes with the kind of precision usually found in neurosurgeons or bomb squad officers. He has no intention of being on his mother's version of lockdown - Mycroft had learned his tactics from somewhere, and even at his best they were a pale imitation of her skills in that particular arena.

Of course John wouldn't be too happy either, but that was more easily remedied, and more likely to go in Sherlock's favor anyway. John sees what he wants to, and Sherlock has quickly come to find that if there was something John didn't want to acknowledge then it wasn't there at all.

It's a wonderful escape though, to be sitting in the dingy garden cottage, eyes scrolling along the cracked wood, the glass panes so dirty they blend in with the wall. Everything is enmeshed now, thoughts bleed into each other and moments drag together, leaking at the edges.

He can let his mind wander here, because it doesn't matter, nothing matters, everything is limned with color and such presentation sufficiently distracts him from unwelcome content. He would like to see John like this, his pupils blown wide, his mouth open, breath ghosting past his lips and into Sherlock. If he could work up the energy Sherlock would be annoyed that John wasn't here, that he's forcing Sherlock into this kind of subterfuge.

His timing is off he realizes, uncaring. He’s not pacing himself as well as he should, but then again there are mitigating circumstances. Two days in and he’s already started this; it’s only a matter of time.

***

It’s 12:47 in the morning when Sherlock snaps.

It takes four days, which is three days and fifteen hours longer than he’d expected it to. Three days of avoiding the kitchen, the lab, of disappearing from the grounds for longer and longer periods of time trying to find something, anything to occupy his mind. Three days of John being strangely distanced, even as he proclaims the opposite, as he falls into bed mumbling ridiculous things when lapsing into sleep.

He feels like he’s going to crawl out of his skin if that’s what it takes for him to get out of this house. The thin tether that's been holding his thoughts in an orderly line finally unravels completely. It's nearly a physical sensation - he feels all his hard work float away from him, feels his mind drift further and further afield. It's horrendous, and he hates it, and he really can't seem to care.

John is still subconsciously unused to the surroundings, and wakes as soon as Sherlock rolls out of bed. “What’s going on?” he mumbles, voice still muzzy.

“Go back to sleep,” Sherlock orders.

It’s apparently the wrong tact to take, he’ll have to remember that for next time, because instead of listening John instantly goes on high alert, sliding out of bed to follow. “What’s wrong?” he asks, completely unlike a bed partner and entirely like a commander ordering his troops to report.

“I just need to leave for a bit,” Sherlock replies, damning the house and its’ ridiculously over-sized rooms - if he’d been in their Baker Street flat he’s already have made it out the door.

“Wait, wait,” John orders. Of course if this was Baker Street chances are Sherlock wouldn’t have to go anywhere, but that’s the nature of these things.

"This isn't working," he blurts out, startling John. "None of this is working."

"What isn't... what do you need?" John asks, trying to piece this all together into something logical. He'll be one up on Sherlock if he can. Sherlock stumbles up, his brain already disconnecting from his body, and oh, when he falls back down it is really going to hurt.

"Where are you going?" John appeals to him in a way that Sherlock distantly recognizes as unexpectedly frantic.

"Out. Away,” he mumbles, heading for the door.

"Where?" John pushes.

Sherlock can not deal with him right now, the insistence he brings to every interaction, the sharp lines he cuts. "To drug myself into a light coma," he snarls back. "Don't touch me," he says as John grabs him by the arm; he shoves John back sharply, regretting it belatedly when it hits squarely on John's bad shoulder.

John's reflexes are still better than Sherlock's though, and he uses both hands to barrel Sherlock into the wall and pin him there. "You're not going anywhere," he orders in the same calm tone he uses when threatening to shoot.

Sherlock tries to push him off but finds he has no leverage. "Let me go."

"No." John won't look away, and Sherlock can't take it, there's too much in every blink, every breath, John says so much and right now it sounds like screaming.

"John," Sherlock tries again, and ignores the part of his tone that sounds almost like pleading, "I can't stay in this house."

Why?” John asks.

Because it’s everywhere,” he yells back. “It’s like being in a house that smells of nothing but violet, I know you hate that, but that’s it, nothing but violet, until you’re nauseous, until it’s the only thing you remember ever smelling at all. And just when you think you’re used to it, that you’re finally coping, a window opens, or a door and it hits you all over again.”

John’s backed off just far enough while Sherlock was ranting in his face, and Sherlock takes advantage of the distance, pulling up his arms to snatch at John’s clothes wildly. He shoves at the collar of John’s shirt and sucks at his neck, then drags it over John’s head, his fingers eager, too eager, leaving scratches, scraping across one of John’s nipples, making him cry out. He tosses it aside with a ferocity only shown the last time someone strapped John with a bomb.

Sherlock drops to his knees, finesse gone, too busy with John’s trousers, with getting everything out of his way. When Sherlock has John free, his cock jutting out, quickly going hard and hot and smooth, Sherlock swallows it down, breathes out his nose like he’s only now been allowed to breathe.

“Sherlock,” John gasps, almost worried, almost concerned. Sherlock doesn’t want to think of the why. He just sucks harder, makes John groan instead. He takes John’s hands and puts them on his head where they immediately curl around his hair. Pull Sherlock thinks. Pull.

The hands tug but it’s not enough, not even close. Sherlock pulls back on John’s cock and slides back down roughly, almost too fast, too far. John grips tighter, so Sherlock does it again. It becomes a pattern and John gets bolder, less restrained, but it’s still intolerable. Sherlock pulls off of John’s cock entirely, a calculated risk. He’s rewarded when John pulls his head to the side unthinkingly, hard enough to make the tendons in Sherlock’s neck stand out, then pulls Sherlock back again, makes him take it down, all the way down.

It’s perfect. For one instant, one single glorious moment there’s nothing else - just the need to breathe, John’s fingers in his hair, the sounds they’re making, the way it smells. Visceral and inescapable, there’s no room for anything else. John fucks his mouth and Sherlock reaches around to pull him closer still, the thrusts becoming a staccato of sensation that sends shock-waves down his spine to his own aching cock, makes him feel like he’s going to shiver apart.

Sherlock gets a hand down the back of John’s trousers, under his pants, and presses a finger hard against his hole. John shouts and comes almost instantly, his hoarse cry echoing through the room. There is nothing, there is nothing, and if Sherlock could die right now he would, would gladly go. This is the closest to getting what he wants as he knows it will ever be, and in twenty-five seconds it will be gone, Sherlock will be right back where he was, and it will feel infinitely worse.

***

Sherlock’s touch leaves him stunned, like a flash grenade just went off by his ear. He feels as if he’s been struck deaf, dumb, so sensitive every inch of Sherlock’s skin where it’s touching his is sending electric sparks directly to his brain. In a dark place of himself he’s horrified by the way he just treated Sherlock, the way Sherlock just let him.

Heat swims up to flush his face, bright and hot, and he feels a tumble of emotions – shame, anger, lust, and over it all a swell of love so bright it makes his chest feel tight. He thinks perhaps he’d feel used if Sherlock wasn’t on his knees, lapping at his spent cock desperately, eyes wet and devastated.

He wants to stroke, to pet, to gentle Sherlock into a sweet orgasm that would leave him pliant and breathless, but that isn’t the way this has to go, not if John wants to keep Sherlock from doing something that they’ll both regret.

John fists his fingers tight in Sherlock’s curls, yanks his head back. In the golden light from the bedside lamp he looks beautiful, pale and flushed in all the wrong places, pajama pants tented and caught at the elastic of his waistband. “That wasn’t very nice,” John forces himself to say, squeezing his fingers tighter.

“No,” Sherlock croaks against John’s foreskin, then lower against his sac, which feels so sensitive even the lightest brush of Sherlock’s stubbled cheek makes him jump. He makes a sound that is far too close to a pained moan than John can handle.

Oh yes, he wants to gentle Sherlock into orgasm, wants to leave him trembling and drenched in sweat, and perhaps one day Sherlock will let him.

That day is not today.

“You’re going to regret that,” John says, pulls at Sherlock’s hair until it hurts, until Sherlock stumbles to his feet, unsteady. “You can’t go around using people just because the sounds in your head won’t stop.” He shoves Sherlock back a step, then another, makes him jump, makes him lurch unsteadily on his feet until with one practiced move he’s swept Sherlock’s legs out from under him, made him land, bouncing, on the bed.

A part of him is horrified by what he’s saying, but another, deeper part is responding to the way Sherlock is relaxing in some indefinable way, as if a tension that had been snapped tight was suddenly loosened. He’s squirming under John, restless and aching and longing, John knows, to be fucked, even if he doesn’t know it. He needs John to take him down, and John has no experience with this at all, but for Sherlock he’ll do anything.

Christ, he needs supplies.

He shoves Sherlock down on the bed, hard, pushes him at the shoulders until he stops his squirming, and hisses, “Don’t move.”

Once he’s sure Sherlock is going to listen (eyes enormous, pulse racing in his throat, gasping for air, Jesus, Jesus) he stands, yanks the tie from Sherlock’s robe free, and shoves Sherlock’s arms up over his head, knots them quick and dirty to the post. Sherlock’s a gifted detective, could probably get out of them in a second, but by the way he’s looking at John, glassy-eyed with shock, it’s unlikely he’ll try. Still, John leans down and, with the voice he hasn’t used since he was a Captain, hisses, “Get out of this and you’ll regret that, too.”

Sherlock’s breath hitches on a cry and John shoves his legs up and open, like he did earlier in the week. The bite mark he’d left on Sherlock’s thigh is vivid and bright, as are the bruises he’d pressed into those lovely, narrow hips.

Sherlock is hard, hard as rock, skin stretched tight and flushed dark red. It’s shiny with his own pre-come, dribbling in wet clear strings down his belly, and John murmurs, “Isn’t that lovely,” just to see Sherlock turn his face away. John reaches up, pinches a nipple hard until Sherlock turns his face back with a sharp inhale. “You don’t get to disappear into yourself. Stop trying.”

“John, I need—”

“I’ll be the one to tell you what you need,” John says.

There had been, much to John’s amusement that first day, condoms and lubrication in the bedside drawer. He’d showed Sherlock, who’d gone crimson with horror, and John had entertained himself for a solid hour commenting on the many different varieties.

He knows exactly what he wants now, unflavored, unlubed, generic and basic. He rips open the condom, but he has no intention of using it. Rather he shoves it into Sherlock’s mouth, and Sherlock moans with disgust but John doesn’t care one whit, not one. “You concentrate on that,” he says into Sherlock’s ear, watching the ring of latex as Sherlock moves it around his open and gaping mouth, beautiful, gorgeous, and utterly fucking filthy. “Your tongue is good for one thing and one thing only right now. Very shortly I’m going to take it out, and that’s all the lubrication you’re going to get, so you’d better make it wet, Sherlock.”

He waits until Sherlock starts to suck, until he begins to run his tongue frantically over it. His eyes narrow and go far away, hazy with what he’s doing, and John feels so out of his depth he falters, just for a moment. He’s never done this, never had to do this to someone to bring them back to themselves, and the responsibility consumes him, sits right on top of his heart like a lead weight. What if he did something wrong? What if he hurt Sherlock in some indefinable way, and ruined whatever it was they had between them? What if—

He stops. Goes cold. Because his hands have had a mind of their own, stroking mindlessly over Sherlock’s tied hands, wrists, arms, and there, in the hollow of his left elbow, is a needle puncture. Not one, not two, but three, four, done by a practiced hand that wasn’t his.

“You bastard,” John breathes. It can’t be, it simply can’t, but of course it is, needle tracks down the inside of both arms, the left more so than the right because of course Sherlock is right handed. For a moment he can’t seem to catch his breath; before he’d just been playacting at anger, but now it’s so hot it chills him, shivers right down his spine to collect at the core of him.

He realizes he’s squeezing Sherlock’s wrists when Sherlock makes a noise underneath him. Whatever hesitation he’d felt, whatever uncertainty, is over.

“Who do you think you are?” John asks, voice thick with rage. He can barely even categorize this rush of new information, as if his entire world has been pushed off-kilter and reorganized in ways he doesn’t understand. He knows Sherlock did drugs before him, knows because Sherlock told him, but somehow… somehow he’d been stupid enough to think perhaps Sherlock had changed now that he knew John – stupid, self-centered, egotistical to have ever thought that, stupid, because the evidence was right there for John to see.

He’s moving before he realizes it, shoving Sherlock over onto his belly so fast Sherlock makes a sound high in his throat. He must have spit out the condom, because he says, “John? John, what are you—”

“Stop talking,” John snarls, furious and shaking so hard he almost can’t do it, but no, no, it’s easier than he thought to find the right position, to slap Sherlock’s backside so hard his hand burns, and he feels it all the way up into his bad shoulder, but it doesn’t stop him from whaling down on him, time and again. Sherlock is crying out, talking, trying to say something but John can’t hear it through the roar of his blood in his ears, far too busy spanking Sherlock’s arse until it is red and hot to the touch, until it almost glows in the lamp’s light.

Sherlock’s shaking under him, and John loves him so fucking much he doesn’t care if he’s crying or not, because he can’t, he can’t, he cannot. Not this. Alcohol took his family from him; he’ll be damned first before drugs take Sherlock. “You seem to not understand something, Sherlock,” John snarls, shoving Sherlock back over onto his back. He can’t look him in the eyes, not now with the hurt so bright inside him. He bullies between Sherlock’s legs, pushes them open high and as wide as they’ll go, then wider, hot skin stretched taut. “You don’t get to do this anymore,” he says, rips open a condom and slicks himself with fingers he doesn’t feel, pounding and numb. “You don’t get to fuck off wherever you like, or fuck off to meet whoever you chose, or fuck off to put whatever you want into your body. This?” He runs a hand, possessive, over Sherlock’s cock, squeezes it in a grip almost too tight. “Is mine. All of you, every inch of you, is mine.”

He looks up at Sherlock, then, at his sweat-soaked face, his wild eyes, his red bitten lips, and says, “This is the second time I’ve had to remind you, so let me be as clear as possible.”

He shoves himself in as far as he’ll go, and listens to Sherlock howl beneath him.

***

There is rain pounding on the windows when Sherlock wakes up. He’d fallen into a graceless, twitching sleep, deep but uneven, and woken with a startled sense he’d done something wrong but no way of knowing which item on the list of his many recent bad ideas his dreams were making reference to.

A two-second glance made it obvious John had slept only minimally, if at all. He was out of bed and in the bath the moment he realized Sherlock was awake, had dried off and was dressing when Sherlock walked in. Sherlock lets him, an unnatural distance still pulling him away from everything, too busy following pointless trains of thought to notice the important things right in front of him.

But now, at least, he has a plan.

When Sherlock emerges from a long shower - his backside protesting every step of the way - he finds John waiting for him. He’s studiously avoiding the bed, eyes scanning out the windows at what is truly miserable weather.

“I don’t use people,” Sherlock says while he picks up his clothes. When John immediately shoots him a look he amends, “Not like that. Not to shut up ‘the sounds in my head’.”

“About that,” John says, straightening in some indefinable way.

Sherlock cuts him off. “That was the point, in fact, if you’d bothered to notice.”

“Apparently there were a few things I didn’t notice,” John replies, his voice growing hard. Some of his mortification is sinking beneath the still-present rage, the whole thing wrapped up in a layer of regret. He’s wasting so much time, Sherlock thinks. They both are.

“That’s par for the course,” Sherlock acknowledges, impatient.

John takes a deep breath, gives the little ironic smile that means he’s about to start in on a conversation he wants no part of. “Sherlock. What happened last night - that won’t happen again.”

“Why not?” Sherlock asks, annoyed by John’s insistent focus on what is once again the wrong topic.

“Because - you -” John sputters for a moment before regrouping. “You were okay with everything that happened?” He makes it sound like he spent the night repeatedly punching Sherlock in the face. It’s more than a little insulting.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” Sherlock responds, pulling his shirt on. If he’s a little slower dressing than normal it’s understandable. His back is sore; he must have twisted at some point while John had him tied to the headboard.

“It was a little more... intense than is the norm for us,” John says, forcing the words out with the kind of grit in his tone that suggests each word is a physically painful ordeal.

“I can handle it,” Sherlock replies. John blinks disbelief in his direction. Sherlock sighs, finishes doing up the buttons on his shirt. “I need to start working again. I need a real distraction, something substantial. And I need you.”

John swallows but says nothing. Sherlock forces himself to pay attention. “Just ask the right questions. Don’t let my attention drift, don’t let me stop thinking about this case, not even for a second.” He’s decided if he keeps pretending it should be less jarring when he finally falls back down.

“What questions?” John asks.

Sherlock bends down to put his shoes on, both ignoring and reveling in the ache that fans out from his hips and his thighs. “You’ll know when they come up.”

John frowns. He’s hesitant, angry still, but there nonetheless. Sherlock’s not gone too far then after all. There’s still some room left to maneuver. “This can’t happen again, Sherlock,” John orders, clearly referencing Sherlock’s little solitary excursions. “I mean it.”

“You always do,” Sherlock says, hit with a sweeping brush of affection. John still looks angry as Sherlock turns to leave, but he is absolute in the knowledge John will follow anyway.

He directs them to the kitchen where unsurprisingly his mother is waiting, one hand around a mug and the other on her laptop. Insultingly she is not alone; sitting to her right is an obnoxiously dull boy in business casual dress plowing through a full English breakfast.

“Good morning,” she opens. Somehow she manages to make the greeting a commentary on both of them. Sherlock sullenly refuses to dart his gaze away as she looks him over. For his part John seems to be simultaneously standing straight enough to hurt Sherlock’s back and attempting to melt into the floor. Sherlock tries not to roll his eyes.

His mother closes her laptop and stands. “Patrick, up,” she orders.

“It’s Perry, ma’am,” the boy says, scrambling to his feet. Sherlock looks around for a treat to toss him.

“Yes, yes, of course,” she replies, looking at the two of them again. “I have some business I need to attend to, have a lovely day Sherlock, John.”

John looks almost amused once she leaves; when he catches sight of Sherlock’s face that amusement fades, tension lining his brow. “Full of surprises, your mother.”

Sherlock ignores that and turns to walks around the counter, calling behind him. “I haven’t shown you the lab yet. We need to get started on this case, this finger analysis.” That he’s ignored it for as long as he has is ridiculous, and frankly the most terrifying thing about the entire situation.

He stops near the refrigerator and John stands in front of him. “Why am I not surprised to know you have a full lab here?”

“It was my father’s,” Sherlock replies, even. “He was a biochemist.”

John smiles lightly, just around the edges. “Taught you everything you know?”

“Hardly,” Sherlock says, his gaze drifting away. “I was only eight when he died from a bullet to the head.” He forces himself back. “It happened about three feet to your left.”

***

To say he’s surprised is something of an understatement.

Sherlock is a study in tragedy, has been from the moment John met him. He’s most beautiful when his brow furrows and London reflects gray and pale off his skin, every facet of emotion he could never express written in the premature lines around his eyes, the bow of his mouth, and the set of his jaw. Sometimes it’s as if Sherlock was as old as the dust itself, and other times, like now, standing in his mother’s kitchen with his hair in disarray and the rain’s reflection superimposed like shadowy tears running down his face, he is so painfully, hideously young.

It hurts worse than anything, the mirror of old pain that had never quite healed. He sees in Sherlock his own self destruction all those years ago, and it feels like the crisp cotton of a new uniform, the aching pain of breaking in new boots. Sherlock’s response had been fucking textbook, and what had John done? Beat him until Sherlock’s skin had gone hot and tight and red, until he’d spent his own anger and left Sherlock shaking and mewling his name. Oh, but no, he hadn’t stopped there – he’d fucked him hard and merciless and deeper than Sherlock had ever taken him, barely prepared as he’d been, until he’d left Sherlock a sticky, sopping mess. That Sherlock had also had an orgasm had been of no consequence; he hadn’t sought Sherlock’s pleasure at all, had only even noticed when he found the evidence all over Sherlock’s belly.

Sherlock stares at him as if the answer to the universe is transcribed on the face of John’s guilt. Shoving it back down is the hardest thing he’s ever done, but John does it until he tastes bile on the back of his tongue. Sherlock doesn’t deserve having to bear that, too. “Sherlock.”

“Your pity is misplaced.”

“It isn’t pity,” John says quietly, though it is, of course it is. “What happened?”

“What always happens. Mad men the world over flock to this name like flies to honey,” Sherlock says dismissively, pours them both a cup of tea with water from the kettle on the enormous stove.

John watches Sherlock work, no misplaced action in his movements. So graceful. So beautiful. “That isn’t an answer,” he notes quietly, but doesn’t push. He nudges Sherlock to sit at the stool his mother vacated, ignores Sherlock’s questioning grunt of “Hmm?” to gently card his fingers through those beautiful curls, sweep them aside to look at the neat little row of stitches. Some have already dissolved, but a few are still hanging on. “I’ll cut these out for you later.”

“I’d almost rather you didn’t. I look rather roguish, I think.”

“Funny. Still hurt?”

“Some.”

John presses his lips along that little line, the smell of Sherlock’s hair intoxicating. That morning when he’d woken up he’d been terrified Sherlock would freeze, or worse jerk away from his touch, but he does nothing of the sort – if anything he leans in to John’s body, trusts him to take some of his weight.

John murmurs, there into his hair, “I’m sorry, about your dad.”

“It was a long time ago.” Sherlock tilts his chin back to look up at him.

“Doesn’t make it any less painful.”

Rather abruptly Sherlock’s on his feet and it’s a confusing mix of signals, because Sherlock’s body language is screaming ‘back off’ even while he’s grabbing John’s hand tight in his, dragging him out the side door of the kitchen, to a domed sunroom, and then beyond to the covered patio. “Sherlock, what in the worl--”

“My mother hated having the lab inside – dreadful smell after Mycroft almost burned the house down – so my father had one built outside of the house common where he could blow things up at his leisure,” Sherlock says, all nervous energy, and points to a small building across the main grounds. The enclosed walkway is covered with falling ivy, and rain hits the path stones so hard the water seems to be bouncing. Sherlock’s hair has gone frizzy around the edges with the humid rain, and his eyes are startlingly green in the dreary morning light.

The door to the laboratory is unlocked, but instead of the state-of-the-art equipment John expects the door opens to an empty room that looks like a bunker. Concrete walls, floor to ceiling, no windows, no doors, empty but for a small keypad mounted on a wall-to-wall mirror.

“You might get dizzy,” Sherlock says.

Before John can ask just what he’ll be getting dizzy over, all the hair on his body stands on end, sending a skitter of energy across the surface of John’s skin and setting all the hair on his body on end. He doesn’t even get to open his mouth before it’s over, and across from them a projected x-ray-like readout appears on the concrete wall. The shorter skeleton is John’s, but even if he weren’t standing beside Mt. Holmes he’d still be able to recognize his life all over those bones. He can see the tibia break from his fourth year footy game, and the badly healed shoulder socket, and the screws in his thigh.

He can also see other things. “Gun, two knives, ankle pistol – really John: overkill, look it up – and one rather handsome pen,” Sherlock hums. His skeleton looks much less… armed, though that is of course an illusion. John doesn’t doubt there’s something sharp and deadly in the perfect fold of Sherlock’s suit jacket.

Sherlock taps in a long sequence of numbers into the wall-mounted pad, and the doors separate with a controlled hiss of pressurized air.

There is something soothing about this space, an undefined atmosphere that filters out distraction. It is cool and quiet, even as Sherlock switches on the computers, as giant blocks of machinery whirl to life.

John stops three steps into the room, eyes comically wide. “This isn’t a lab.”

“What would you call it, then?” Sherlock asks, setting the evidence bag on a counter.

“I feel like we’ve taken a secret entrance into CERN.” He starts walking around, inspecting various instruments with no discernible pattern.

“Which would, in fact, still be a lab,” Sherlock replies.

“What’s through that door?” John asks, inclining his head to the back. “A clean room?”

Sherlock puts on a pair of latex gloves. “If only. I’m not here enough to warrant the expense and in any case it would have meant adding on to the building, which my mother thought would ruin the external aesthetic of the place. It’s just cold storage.”

John huffs a small laugh and meanders his way to Sherlock’s side, watching Sherlock remove the envelope. “You take the finger,” Sherlock instructs.

“What am I looking for?” John asks.

“You’ll know when you find it.”

They pass the next few hours in relative silence, wrapped up in their own investigations. John occasionally asks where to find pipettes or slides or reference books, what kind of agonists he has stored away, but he’s never uncertain about what he’s doing. It’s rather refreshing, Sherlock finds, to be able to rely on John for this, to focus on his own investigation. It’s so useful having him around Sherlock thinks, not for the first time. He’s fairly certain this must be endearment, the feeling that coils inside him. No one has ever stuck around (admittedly almost always by his own design) long enough to engender such a distinctive sentiment. He acknowledges he’s really going to find Anderson’s ineptitude intolerable after today.

“You never wanted to do this?” John asks suddenly, his back to Sherlock.

“Exclusively? No,” Sherlock says, uninterested in everything outside of properly staining the envelope’s pollen residue. “Not nearly enough excitement and too much sitting around waiting for things to happen.” This can’t be a surprise to John, who has seen enough half-finished experiments abandoned in their kitchen.

“I don’t know, wondering who was going to nearly burn the house down week to week must have been pretty exciting,” John teases.

“Accidental fire-setting was Mycroft’s domain; it was quickly apparent to my mother that I was partial to accidentally creating toxic fumes.” John snorts. “She’ll thank you for not mentioning that, though,” Sherlock says, comparing the sample mounted pollen off the envelope with the national registry.

“Why’s that?” John asks, head down as he examines a blood culture through one of the many microscopes.

“The timing of the last incident - we had to repaint the walls in here - was unfavorably close to my second accidental overdose and she’s since become somewhat sensitive to the topic.” Sherlock frowns down at his results. It’s possible he should have done a few more centrifuge spins; more likely he just didn’t have an ideal sample to work with.

“I’m sorry?” John asks sharply. Sherlock can tell by the sound of his voice he’s no longer looking at the microscope.

“Keep an eye on that,” he warns.

Sherlock,” John reiterates.

Sherlock adjusts the magnification. “You don’t actually have to be looking at me for us to have a conversation,” he calmly debates. After a beat he can hear John shift, tutting under his breath like an old maid.

“What overdose?” John asks once he’s settled to look at his sample again.

“The first or the second? I was twenty-seven the last time.” He shifts the slide. “The particulars of my eventual profession hadn’t solidified just yet and in the meanwhile I overestimated my tolerance as part of a long-term study.”

“Who found you?” John says, doing a valiant impersonation of someone who isn’t incredibly upset.

“Lestrade. Well, Mycroft the first time. Hadn’t met Lestrade yet, I was only nineteen.”

“And once wasn’t enough?” John presses.

“Different circumstances,” Sherlock replies. It’s somewhat surprising but matches do pop up for his sample, and even more unexpectedly they might be of actual value. “There’s much less room for error with fentanyl than I had expected.”

Jesus Christ,” John blurts out, abandoning all pretense of work. “You’re lucky to be alive then, that’s what you’re saying?”

“Are you really surprised?” Sherlock asks.

“No, not at all,” John replies, and Sherlock can see that he means it.

“So why the air of betrayal?” It makes no sense, and Sherlock doesn’t want to argue about this, not when things were going so well. “You went through your own ‘experimentation’ phase right around the same time, you know what it’s like.”

John sighs wearily but doesn’t feign innocence. “How’d you figure that one out?”

“Easy enough when you know what to look for,” Sherlock replies, already bored to death of this topic. He’s not sure what propelled him to share the information in the first place; he knew exactly how John would react.

There’s a beat of silence, then John says, quiet, “What made you stop?”

I’m not going to do it again. Sherlock thinks, exasperated, though of course he’s already tried to break his own rule once this week. “Costs outweighed the benefits,” he answers instead. “It’s not as heroic as your own reasons, granted, but we can’t all ship off for Queen and country as an escape route.”

“Got it mixed up,” John says, and his voice sounds far off, like he’s pulling it from someplace Sherlock hasn’t found yet. “I didn’t start until after I’d made up my mind to join the army.”

Sherlock looks up at him, stares at the side of his head as John pretends he’s the one focused on his sample. “What happened?” he asks. This is new, this is interesting.

John shrugs but doesn’t look up. “Keep an eye on it,” he instructs, in an obnoxiously posh imitation of Sherlock. If John is going to start using that as a defensive maneuver Sherlock is going to start making more references to John’s diminutive size, because that tone is frankly repugnant.

Sherlock is gearing up to force a confession when John makes a small noise of triumph. “What?” Sherlock asks.

“I was right,” John says, looking up at him. “The victim had BSS.”

“Which is?” Sherlock asks, standing up to sidle over to John’s station.

“Bernard-Soulier syndrome - it’s a hemolytic condition.”

“How can you tell?” Sherlock presses.

John moves out of the way and gestures for Sherlock to sit and look for himself. “Well the platelets are massive, so it had to be some kind of blood disorder, and it really wasn’t even a surprise to find that you have collagen in storage so I did a platelet aggregation to narrow it down. It’s definitely BSS. What?” John finishes, because Sherlock is staring at him unblinkingly.

This is not affection, Sherlock realizes. Not endearment, or concern, or obsession, or any of the asinine things he’s labeled it in the time since he met John. Well, no, that’s not right either. It’s all of those things, they are all necessary but none are nearly sufficient. He needs John, he wants John, and if he’s capable of being in love then this must be it, there’s no other description that comes as close. He’s in love with John Watson. He understands this now, and the moment is one of the most horrible of his entire life.

“Sherlock, what? What is it?” John asks. He still thinks it’s to do with the case.

“You,” Sherlock says. The havoc running through his mind must be plainly writ on his face, there’s no point in prevarication. “It’s you.”

“What is? Sherlock, what’s going on?” John pushes, terse.

“This is terrible,” Sherlock answers, blindsided by his own foolishness. “I can’t have you around.”

“Why the bloody hell not?” John replies, and though he’s starting to get angry there’s a sliver of panic creeping in.

“What am I going to do when something happens to you?” Sherlock asks. It’s when, not if, the odds are what they are and nothing ever happens the way it’s supposed to anyway. He feels panicked too, a deep well of it springing up like a geyser, exploding from some depth he hadn’t even known was there.

“Nothing is going to happen to me,” John answers, though he’s clearly only grasping this conversation by his fingertips, completely unaware of how they’ve jumped from blood disorders to John leaving forever. If he starts in on his guilt about what had been the best sex of Sherlock’s life to date Sherlock will have to hit him.

“You don’t know that,” Sherlock snaps.

“You don’t either,” John fires back.

“I don’t know if the sun is going to rise tomorrow, but it’s pretty damn likely,” Sherlock says, and the words just wind him up tighter.

“It’s not the same thing, Sherlock, Sherlock, everything will be fine.” John has his hands on either side of Sherlock’s face, is looking down at him with panic that’s being reigned in from years and years of training, from his own natural temperament.

“You’ve ruined me,” Sherlock says, devastated.

John’s face crumbles so completely it takes Sherlock’s breath away; in the next instant there’s a mask in place, a calm cover that is probably more for John than Sherlock. “I’m sorry,” he says as he pulls his hands back, takes a step away.

Sherlock grabs at his hands and drags him in again, has him standing between Sherlock’s legs. “Do you have any idea what I would do for you? Where I would go, what I would take, who I would hurt?” There has to be a way to fix this, to make orderly something so seemingly unmanageable. “I can’t even solve cases without you, nothing is the same, it’s all less bright, less sharp.”

“You don’t need me, Sherlock,” John argues, his voice washed out with some emotion Sherlock has never heard before, much less had directed at him.

“Shut up. I do. You could go anywhere and find someone, settle down and be happy but I can’t, there’s only you. You can’t leave me, John.”

“I don’t intend to,” John replies instantly.

“Moriarty wants you dead,” Sherlock blurts out. “He wants to break you into little pieces and smash each one to dust because he knows, and he’ll do it, and where will I be then?” He lets go of John’s hands to grab at his face, reversing their positioning once again, they do that so often, he never knows which of them is who anymore. “Promise me you won’t go, you won’t leave, not ever, not unless I’m already dead.” It’s an irrational request, and he knows that, and he hates that, and it’s another thing John has done to him, made him into someone who says irrational things and expects them to come true.

Doesn’t matter; he means every word.

***

Mycroft knows, immediately, that he’s interrupted something he has no business interrupting.

He’s a government man, carries himself with the tact and discretion expected of those in power, and the emotional bombardment echoing around the room like a scream has him freezing in the doorway to the lab. There is his brother, sitting at his father’s stool, a maelstrom of emotions written across his face like a painter attempting to recreate chaos with the end of his paintbrush, and there is John Watson, standing between his legs, holding Sherlock in a passionate embrace.

He is, quite honestly, shocked out of his socks.

Oh, not about the kissing, Mycroft knows they’ve been having copious amounts of sex he’s horrified by on a deep and British level. There are simply some things one shouldn’t know about one’s brother, which made it very difficult to simultaneously keep up surveillance and one’s dignity. And certainly not about the plain fact that John is a man, for they’d all known years ago that Sherlock would not be the one to pass on their family name.

John has become the single most precious, irreplaceable component of Sherlock’s life, and that Sherlock has just realized it breaks Mycroft’s heart, his love for his little brother overwhelming.

Mycroft exhales, finally satisfied.

He knows the instant Sherlock becomes aware of him, the instant John picks up the cue from Sherlock, and it’s a beautiful thing to see, so like himself and Mahdavi – a single unit operating together at maximum efficiency. Mycroft remembers marveling at the feeling, as if overnight he’d grown another pair of eyes with which to see. Remembers the terror in it, and doesn’t envy what Sherlock has yet to go through. “Really, Sherlock, the garden cottage?” he opens, no nonsense, as if he hadn’t just caught them kissing, as if Sherlock’s face wasn’t white as a sheet, as if John didn’t look about ready to fall over.

Sherlock’s eyes narrow dangerously, and Mummy always did tease how much like a cat he was, all ruffled fur and uptight self importance. Just this once, Mycroft lets him connect the dots on his own – the good fortune on finding the stash he’d secreted in his suite the year before last, the needle still in packaging, the not-quite-right high he’d gotten, the garden cottage still unlocked at this time of year.

Mycroft is momentarily insulted. As if he’d ever let Sherlock put poison in his body right under his nose.

John’s pressed his face against Sherlock’s neck, a step behind and still wallowing in embarrassment. Such a delightful little thing, John Watson, and Mycroft would feel a twinge of guilt but for the way his brother is holding onto him like he’s never done to anyone. He smiles at them both, watches Sherlock’s face pink up with outrage, cycle through anger, then fury and a small twinge of humiliation before settling, gratifyingly, on contempt. “I see your addiction to under-handed manipulation continues apace.”

“I never use people. I simply alter their circumstances until they open their eyes,” Mycroft says, and sets the box he’d lugged from the house common on top of the bench. “I’ve brought you a present.”

“I don’t like your presents.”

“You love my presents,” Mycroft counters, and pushes it across. “What have you found out so far?” he asks, nudges his chin towards the dissected finger.

“Bernard-Soulier syndrome,” Sherlock says, and then with an endearing mix of tenderness and confusion adds, “John found it.”

“Of course John found it, he’s an educated man,” Mycroft says, turns his back to find a knife and give them both a chance to get a hold of themselves. He is a Holmes, after all, and known for his tact. “So our victim bled out heavily, and quickly.”

“Likely killed him,” John says from behind him, and when Mycroft turns back with lab knife in hand he’s standing beside Sherlock rather than between his legs, though he won’t quite meet Mycroft’s eye. “BSS causes severe, prolonged bleeding and difficulty in clot formation. In a normal person losing a finger would cause massive bleeding with a less than ten percent chance of death, but in this case the bleeding never stopped. An excruciating way to die.”

“Fingerprint?”

“You think you’re funny,” Sherlock says, and alright, yes, Mycroft’s done teasing him.

He slits the box open, lifts the flaps, and after a single shocked moment John exclaims, “You’ve stolen Moriarty’s things from Scotland Yard.”

“You make it sound so base.” Mycroft sniffs. “I merely relieved them of this particular part of the investigation.”

Sherlock’s too busy pulling out the contents of the box to remark one way or the other. There’d been more than Lestrade had told them, though of course only to a Holmes. The blackberry, the strange collection of currency, a tie clip, cuff links, and the clothing he’d been wearing, an obscenely expensive suit, a silk tie. Oddly enough, there is also a tattered pocket-copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and a woman’s engagement ring.

Like pieces of a puzzle coming together. He hasn’t felt this alive in ages.

***

Mycroft and Sherlock quickly fall into the shorthand they use purely, John's sure, to annoy everyone around them. That John isn't remotely annoyed (is, in fact, charmed) speaks to the many and varied things wrong with him, but c'est la vie. The brothers go on to the science bit immediately and John lets them, concentrating instead on the less practical side.

The ring is gold platinum, with a crown of diamonds and green emeralds surrounding a larger diamond in the center. The platinum is lightly scratched from use, and under a magnifying glass John thinks that one of the emeralds was lost and replaced with green glass, but he isn’t certain.

The small, pocket-sized Hamlet has been heavily thumbed – the leather cover is old and filthy, the gold lettering almost worn away. It’s an 1879 copy, and the pages are extremely thin, but still Moriarty has written all over it, in the margins, between the tiny lines of text.

“My uncle was a prison psychiatrist years ago,” John says after a bit, the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. “One of the best in his field – he revolutionized group therapy treatments and did a research study on the effects of placebos that eventually helped shift incarcerated psychiatry to a less medicated field. Handsome old man, wore enormous glasses, always had a sweet for me when he came to visit. I think, if he were still here today, he would declare, ‘John, my lad,’” John says, in a passable west country accent, “‘I don’t care what kind of brilliance he claims, this man is utterly barmy.’”

Sherlock comes around his other side to read over his shoulder. “‘Her name was Maryann. I tasted her as she unraveled like wool pulled from a torn jumper. Her colors inside are so beautiful.’ The Peacehaven murder, of course.”

“Sherlock, the thing is, that night at the pool he was very – I hesitate to use the word ‘normal’, because nothing about that was normal. But this. Surely we should have seen some sign of this?”

“But we did, John,” Sherlock says, picks up the little book. “Moriarty is very, very good at seeming normal. He’s a master actor, as all true psychopaths are. He’s had many years in which to hone his craft, to pass by undetected in society. He has no true feelings, mimics them with expertise. What makes him so exceedingly dangerous, and above and beyond the normal garden variety psychopath, is that he truly is brilliant.” Sherlock leans a hip on the table, crosses his arms thoughtfully, and John’s overcome, just for a moment, with how extraordinarily lovely he is. “IQ tests are a poor measure of intelligence – created solely for the pseudo-intellectuals who need a bit of ego stroking – but I would say with complete certainty that Moriarty tests at least 150, possibly more. That brilliance, wielded by an unstable mind, has created the monster that doesn’t mind orchestrating bombings and killing people simply because they fit in rather nicely with his psycho-sexual belief that he is Hamlet.”

“You’re not making me feel any better.”

“I wasn’t trying to,” Sherlock answers.

***

Sherlock looks at John, who is studying the evidence with distaste but not derision, and considers the idea that with this he’s not only found that line he shouldn’t have crossed but trampled it with all the grace of a stampede. He’d ask John, just to be certain, but that would probably be a bit much.

There’s nothing he can do about it now though, not until he knows what John’s thinking - what he’s really thinking, not just what he’s letting himself think. He’s still here, that has to mean something. He’d been kissing Sherlock desperately before Mycroft came in, like he was trying to crawl inside Sherlock and never come out. Which, incidentally, was exactly where Sherlock wanted him. None of it makes any sense, and if Sherlock thinks about it too long it’ll send him right round the bend. It may just be a cowardly escape, but Sherlock focuses on his work instead.

“There was a multi-divisional conference in Canterbury last week; someone disappeared,” Sherlock says to Mycroft, more confirmation than question.

Mycroft nods. “Two aides, one to the Secretary for the Treasury and one for the Parliamentary Undersecretary to the State.” He thinks for a moment. “They were both seen leaving together after a function last Tuesday night, no sign of either since. The general consensus has been that it was an accidental drowning in the nearby river.”

“No bodies though,” Sherlock says.

“Not yet, but there are plans to drag the river,” Mycroft replies.

“Don’t bother, just figure out which one had the bleeding disorder,” Sherlock answers.

It takes Mycroft less than three minutes on his phone to get an answer. “Calvin Bynum, aide to the Undersecretary.”

Sherlock is already on the computer, typing furiously. “The same Undersecretary who is currently traveling to New York City for an international energy conference?”

“I’ll get my people on it,” Mycroft says instantly.

“No, no, don’t, it’ll just tip him off. We need more information - I need to go.”

“Not going to happen,” Mycroft says, in that deceptively gentle tone meant to remind Sherlock he always gets what he wants.

“Don’t think you can stop me, Mycroft. I’m not wasting more time on this and you can’t afford to. Your political entanglements must be in shreds from inattention,” Sherlock hits back, an edge sliding into his tone. John is glancing between them like he’s refereeing a fight.

“Your premature demise would be equally distracting, I assure you,” Mycroft answers, as though verbal force alone can end this line of discussion.

“Then let me fight him on my terms, Mycroft, not like this, dragging in every random bystander who happens to fall in the way.” He can tell Mycroft is caving and revels in the victory

There is an extended pause before Mycroft answers. “Mummy isn’t going to like this.”

“I’ll deal with her,” Sherlock answers blithely.

Mycroft laughs. “I’ll schedule a flight for you this evening,” he answers. He takes a moment to nod at John in his unfailingly polite way, and makes a quiet exit, somehow managing to make it look like he’s the one who planned the whole thing.

Sherlock waits until he hears the door close to jump up, almost giddy. “We have to pack,” he tells John, who is looking at him like he’s grown an extra head and it’s now telling jokes.

“Sherlock, what about your mother?”

Sherlock starts loading up the evidence, sealing slides into cases and piling everything into the box Mycroft brought. “You’re going to talk to her.”

“What?” John bursts out. “I’m going to talk to her? She’s your mother.”

“I have things to do, John, you don’t, it’s more efficient this way,” Sherlock says.

“Oh sod off, that is the biggest pile of shit I have ever heard.”

Sherlock does not smile, he’s sure of it, but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t like to. “Then grab a shovel,” he says, looking over at John and loosing that grip on his smile. John caves like a wet paper bag.

***

It’s 2:35 in the morning when Jim finally lets him off the leash.

He’s lying shirtless on a hard hotel bed, eyes on the ceiling in the dark. The text shines bright in the room. 12pm. Go.

He rolls off the bed, booted feet silent on the thin carpet. Shirt first, then coat, fingerless gloves, everything black. He loves the darkness, wishes it could always be like this. He finally flicks on the lights out of necessity - his case is waiting for him, open, across the room.

He looks over every piece, is still madly in love with the deadly, beautiful precision of it. He takes five minutes examining all the contents, and then the case is sealed shut.

Ten hours later he’s sitting in a bedroom on the third story of a house, a quiet building on a quiet street. He’s eating a decent sandwich, and he’s got a cold beer within easy reach, next to the feet of the house’s owner, who is bleeding into his own hardwood floor. It was a real pleasure to drop him to his knees, to watch him slump over on the ground. Every time he looks over at the body he smiles.

He puts his sandwich down as one, two, three cars pull up at the house across the street. Subtle, his sneer says. People start to step out and he adjusts his scope.

He likes to think each shot says something, tells them something about himself. Hi, I’m Sebastian. I’m going to love watching you die.

***

An hour later they’re both in the car, heading north. John had been tight-lipped about his conversation, but Sherlock’s mother had met them at the door, pulled him down into a quick and light kiss on the cheek he’d had no idea what to do with. She’d nodded at them both and walked away, and Sherlock had stared after her. When he’d looked over he found John loading things into the car, a gesture of propriety that was somehow startlingly intimate. All these nonsensical interactions were going to continue, it seemed.

They’ve already spent twenty minutes in the car when John gets a call. Sherlock fishes the phone out of John’s pocket and frowns at the display.

“Who is it?” John asks as Sherlock sets it to speakerphone.

“Lestrade.”

“Doctor Watson,” Lestrade’s voice carries out, strident but collected. “You need to come up here immediately. Shots were fired at your family’s safe house.”

John’s face blanks out. Sherlock’s never seen anything like it - blood and color and every emotion drained away, wiped clean in an instant. John’s driving continues to be perfectly steady.

“Are they alright?” Sherlock asks instead.

If Lestrade is surprised to hear Sherlock’s voice he doesn’t show it. “Your mother and sister are okay John, but two officers are dead.” There is such anger in his voice; he’s lost so many men in the last few weeks.

“We’re on the way,” Sherlock says, then hangs up. Lestrade’s directions show up a moment later.

It’s a three hour drive but John makes it in two, directing the car like it’s a tank, ready to roll over anything that dares to stand in his way.

***

John would like to say that he doesn't remember a thing about the drive to Oxford. Any other person, any other normal person, would be worried half out of their minds at such terrible news, but all John feels is a curious blankness, as if someone went into his mind and swept out the cobwebs, dusted down the furniture, scrubbed the floors, and left it hospital-clean and white. He can hear an echo in there, rattling between his ears.

The two hours pass in a haze of suburban and countryside, and John does nothing but stare straight ahead at the road. Sherlock doesn’t say a word, for which John is eternally grateful – for all his social apathy there are times when Sherlock understands the need for silence, if not tact.

Oxford is as John remembers it, beautiful old architecture and clean streets. The safe house Lestrade had moved his family to was a lovely flat in a quiet back street, with trees and old street lamps and the air of well-to-do.

He parks the car, turns the ignition off. His hands are effortlessly steady. “I’m sorry,” John says, after a moment.

“For?”

“This. What’s about to happen.”

Sherlock makes a noise, low in his throat. “You’ve been at my family’s estate for the better part of—”

“Your family,” John snaps, snatches Sherlock’s wrist. “Don’t speak of them so. They’re mad as hatters and utterly insane and – you have no idea how lucky you are.” Though it was very likely before the day was out he would realize it.

He hates this, the pretentiousness in showing up here in a Rolls Royce, and that he’s wearing a shirt so fine it had to have put a hole in three hundred pounds. Hates that his coat is made of such fine wool, and that he smells of the decadent soap Mrs Holmes insisted on for the entire house, and that he went and got the bleeding haircut before they left London.

The door opens, and his mother stares at him for all of ten seconds before slapping him so hard his ears ring.

He expects it when she bursts into tears, and he breathes very deeply and very evenly until Harry appears in the doorway, gathering the older woman up. It’s the oddest feeling of déjà vu, because of course they’ve been here before, so many years ago when John came home with his enlistment papers. Then Harry had given him a look of disdain so powerful it had broken his heart, but a lot has happened between then and now, and her eyes scream the commiseration it took many long years for them to work towards, so that’s something.

He can feel Sherlock staring at him, but he doesn’t dare look up, not now, when every emotion he’s kept so carefully bottled up all these years has spilled free, covering the white walls of his mind with black and gray and the sickly pale green of bile. It settles over him like a blanket, dull and heavy and sucking the life right out of him.

He glances over at Sherlock without meeting his eyes, smiles a bit, and says, “I never told my mother I was home from Afghanistan, so I suppose I had that coming.”

Sherlock’s stare doesn’t let up, burning right through him as if he can see every facet of his mind, as if he’s piecing together something that will change his perspective completely. It’s the worst feeling in the world, being on the end of that gaze, because John knows he will come up wanting, that so much will make clear and sudden sense and that this is how John will lose Sherlock’s interest.

He can hear his mother crying somewhere in the house, but it’s Harry who comes to find them. She looks good, if a bit on the thin side. “You cut your hair,” John says.

“Yeah, had to, not much could be done after one of the students got gum in it,” she says, pulls him close into a hug, her cheek against the heat of his mother’s hand. “Are you alright? We’ve been so terribly worried.”

John doesn’t answer – instead, he pulls away to motion back to Sherlock. “Harry, this is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, my sister Harriet.”

***

Harry is slender and attractive, small like her brother, with finer features. She looks between them, equally wary and curious, but holds out her hand nonetheless. Sherlock shakes it solemnly, and she stares back, evaluating him.

“It’s about time,” she opens.

“Indeed,” Sherlock replies. John steps away from them with an air of finality, heading to put the kettle on, searching around for cups. “I’m sorry you’ve been dragged into this.”

“Are you?” she says, then instantly waves away his response. “Sorry. I’m worn a little thin lately.”

“I can’t imagine why,” John calls out, his back to them. Harry smiles lightly and sits at the kitchen table. She gestures for Sherlock to follow suit, and eventually Sherlock agrees. There’s no reason not to, other than that the position doesn’t allow him to see John’s face.

“What’s going on?” Harry asks, serious but calm. “They won’t tell me anything, they won’t let me call anyone. I had to hand over my classes to two other teachers, with no way to tell them if I’ll be back in time for finals.”

“We’ve been targeted by a criminal organization with exceptionally long reach,” Sherlock says absently. He’s watching the set of John’s shoulders, the way he holds himself. It’s like looking at a different person. “This is just one step in retaliation for holding ourselves outside of arm’s length. Don't worry, you’ll soon be forgotten.”

“How reassuring,” Harry replies, desert dry. Sobs echo through the house and she stands, sighs. “I suppose I should go calm her down.”

She steps out of the room while John is pouring the tea and acting as though he has suddenly gone deaf. When Harry’s footsteps fade John turns around and carries two cups over, holds one out for Sherlock. He wears that same curiously empty expression, as though nothing at all is amiss. Sherlock hates the sight of it already.

“What do you want to know?” John asks, leaning against the counter. “Or have you already figured it out?”

“Most of it,” Sherlock confirms. “You don’t like to deliberately mislead if you can avoid it, so you didn’t inform your mother you’d returned because you knew it would spark some negative reaction, which is obviously unusual for a mother with a war hero for a son.” The first signs of life flicker across John’s face, and it’s such deep anger Sherlock actually pauses in his monologue. He has to retrace his thoughts to find where he’s left off. “A month ago you made me wait an hour and a half because you didn’t want to leave an older patient who came into surgery needing an emergency procedure and was too terrified to go it alone. You haven’t even acknowledged your mother’s wailing - means you don’t think you can do anything about it, which means it doesn’t have anything to do with you, it’s about her.”

“Caught that, did you?” John replies, as though he really doesn’t care. The smile he forces is so off it must spend the rest of its time setting up shop in the uncanny valley.

“That coupled with the drug use after enlistment suggests a long history of this kind of behavior - I imagine that was right after your father died, yes?”

John stares at the counter-top and drinks his tea. Sherlock might as well be talking to the wall.

There are footsteps on the stairs again, two sets, and Sherlock talks fast and low because he doesn’t have enough time. “Generally people have a few incidents they look to when conceptualizing their most intimate relationships, good or bad. So what is it for you, John? What did she do?”

John finally looks at him, but his expression might as well be in Basque for all the sense it makes. Sherlock doesn’t even have a chance to begin breaking it apart when John’s attention slides past him, behind him. “Hello, Mother.”

***

He hasn’t seen her in over two years, but even in that small window of time she’s changed. Her hair is shot through with more gray than before, the lines on her face seem deeper somehow. He wonders how much of it is real, or if it’s just another trick in his mother’s arsenal of smoke and mirrors.

That she ignores him utterly is nothing short of expected. She’s carrying tissues, hanging onto Harry and hobbling as if her very soul were wounded, and the flash grenade of loathing burns up his throat, bubbles somewhere by his Adam’s apple. Harry looks over their mother’s head at him, wills him to stay quiet, and John gnashes his teeth together, stares down into his tea.

His mother and Sherlock in the same room is John’s worst nightmare, as if two galaxies were colliding with the kind of universe-altering impact that could only end in an explosion that would burn everything away. It’s only made worse by Sherlock, who is staring at his mother, studying her in that uncomfortably severe way of his as if she is the answer to life.

Lestrade saves them all from horrifying small talk, snapping his phone closed and striding into the kitchen. “I’ve been authorized to move you to another safe house this evening, Mrs Watson.”

“A dreadful fright, just dreadful,” his mother says, collapses into a chair at the kitchen table. “Waking up to all those policemen dead in the street! I never thought I would be in this state in my advanced years, never. A woman ought to be able to live her life peaceably and not have the… problems of her adult children spill over onto her this way.”

John’s mouth is flooded with the bright, iron tang of blood. He takes a sip of his tea, feels it burn down his throat. Beside him, Harry has gone tense, hands slowed where she was washing the tea cups.

When his mother finally turns her attention on him, it is with the full power of her disapproval. His therapist would be very upset with him, John thinks, if she were here and privy to the thoughts tumbling like building blocks in his head. “Just what kind of hooligans have you gotten yourself mixed up with?”

“Just the one,” John says calmly. “Mother, this is Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock, my mother,” and he wants, so badly, to tell her just what it is Sherlock is to him, just how beautiful he looks spread open and wanton under him, but Lestrade is there and John would never, ever betray Sherlock’s confidence in such a way. Even though he wants to, and damn the consequences.

“Enchanted,” Sherlock says.

“Detective Inspector Lestrade told me about you,” his mother says, eyes narrowed in on him. “That you’re a consultant for the Yard. Is it you I have to thank for mixing my son up in this business?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, tips his head. “Is your family still in Finland?”

“I beg your pardon?” his mother asks, and John cuts Sherlock off before he can continue. “Not now.”

“But surely—”

“Goddamnit, Sherlock, now is not the time,” John snaps out. His mother makes a high noise of distress and John’s hands are shaking around his tea cup. “Detective Inspector, when will you be moving my mother and sister?”

Lestrade blinks at him, but he’s far too much the professional to get side-tracked by this little domestic. “As soon as they both have their things, I’ll get them on their way.”

“Good. Harry, go get yours and mother’s things,” he instructs.

His mother’s face crumbles and John hates himself, and her, and his father for dying and taking everything with him. “Why didn’t you tell me you were home?” she asks, voice hitching. There’s no question what she means. “Did you simply wish for me to suffer? Do you hate me that much?”

John’s skin burns under her gaze, and Lestrade’s, and Sherlock’s. There’s so much he wants to say, but like always it gets stuck somewhere on the way to his tongue, as if his words have been caught in quicksand.

“No, mother,” John says instead, quietly.

***

There is never an expectation that they remain with his mother overnight, and the invitation is never given. John’s been to Oxford many times over the years, and he knows of a little B&B across the Thames that will be more comfortable than a rented room, so by nightfall, once he’s sure that his mother and sister have been moved and will be protected, he and Sherlock leave.

He can practically feel Sherlock vibrating with questions in the car, marveling at the fascinating little facets of knowledge he’s just learned, but John is so far from being able to deal with Sherlock and his curiosity he might as well be on the moon. He feels fragile in a way he hasn’t felt for a long time, because it’s all just too much: the explosion, the deaths of all those police officers John knows Sherlock would never actually call his friends, the drug use, the constant cat and mouse Moriarty was playing with them that had slowly become psychological torture. John can’t stop the feeling from pricking at his neck that they were being watched, and that constant fear, mixed in with the entire nonsense of his family… it’s too much.

If Sherlock says one word, John thinks he might strike him.

There is space at the B&B, thank Christ, and within ten minutes they’re shown to a lovely room with an adjoined loo. The small suitcases Mycroft had provided them with when they left the Holmes Estate contain ample toiletries, necessities John can’t help but be touched Mycroft remembered about. If he had to go out and find toothpaste at this hour he might have cried.

Sherlock is silent behind him, and very suddenly John is itching for a fight, can feel it nipping at his mind with mean spirited glee. “How many questions you must have,” he says, sets his suitcase carefully on the bed. “Aren’t you dying to ask?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, eyes narrowed in on him. “But you’re in no state to answer them.”

“State? And what state is that?” he asks coldly.

“You know very well what state,” Sherlock says calmly, peeling off his gloves. “I won’t indulge you.”

There is the anger, sharp like glass in his throat. He wants to scream, wants to tell Sherlock off for always being indulged but never returning the favor – not that he wants to be indulged, the opposite, but it’s all so bloody unfair, always so unfair. Everything has been, up to now, but it’s never hurt him this bad, made him feel this awful.

Sherlock remains unflappable, bastard, John’s emotions lapping at him like water on the shore, just as unmovable, just as unshakable. “Oh,” he says, voice bright with insulting affection, “is that what you want?”

“I don’t want anything -- but for you to leave me alone.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrow to slits, and John feels like a bug under a microscope, caught and pinned under that gaze. His whole life, his whole being is right there for Sherlock to see, and he’s never felt more exposed, more naked, in his life.

He moves to get around Sherlock but gets blocked, once, twice. “Sherlock,” John says, as calmly as possible, “Get out of my way.”

“No.”

“Get out. Of my way.

“I don’t think I will,” Sherlock answers, carefully peeling out of his gloves.

John tries to get around him twice more, and anger is starting to get the best of him. “Do you think this is funny? Stop this utter nonsense, move.”

“Your mother mistreated you for the better part of twenty years and irreparably damaged your psyche. Nothing about this is funny.”

“How dare you, how f—as if your mother is a prize!”

He hates himself immediately for saying it as Mummy is, in fact, one of the most wonderful people he’s ever met, but he wants to wound, wants to hurt. The opposite happens. There is no outward sign of triumph, but John knows he’s still lost some important part of the game, especially when Sherlock leans forward and whispers in his ear, “My mother didn’t give me a psychosomatic limp.”

Brutal honesty. He could always count on Sherlock to be nothing less than brutally honest, even when it punched the breath out of him.

Sherlock nips his earlobe, down his throat. “That you are as well adjusted as you are is surprising,” he murmurs, brushing his mouth over the cold sweat dotting John’s temple, his forehead, “and that you are disturbed is no longer a question. Your mother’s lifelong campaign in emotional manipulation has left a scar on you, as clear as the one on your shoulder, your thigh. She’s a liar who enjoys her cruelties and feeds off the pain of others, and what pain could be more delicious than yours?”

John feels cleaved, right to the heart of himself. He wants to bury himself in Sherlock’s long coat and punch the hell out of him in equal measure. He does neither – refuses to give Sherlock the satisfaction – and says, “No, you’re wrong.”

“Am I?” Sherlock murmurs, fingers long and beautiful and clever down the line of John’s shirt buttons. “I don’t think I am. On those grounds, I won’t indulge in your need to pick a fight I would ultimately lose, so you can beat me again and then wallow in the guilt you don’t feel normal without. You don’t know what you need, John, but I do.”

“You don’t,” John chokes out, hands fluttering at Sherlock’s wrists. “Please, stop, please.”

But he doesn’t, he doesn’t. He spreads John’s shirt open, pushes it gently from his shoulders to catch at the hollow of his elbows. “Tell me,” Sherlock says quietly, over the puckered scar in his arm, “does your mother even know you were shot?”

“You know that answer already,” John moans, and twists against the knot of his shirt, the knot he didn’t even feel Sherlock making. He realizes with an explosion of emotions just how fast he’s been caught, how secure he’s been tangled up in this, in Sherlock. There’s no getting loose. There’s no escape, and his heart beats a rhythm so fast he feels dizzy, anger and pain and the beginnings of sweet, aching relief echoing inside him. “Please,” he begs, anxiety making him talk too fast and stutter over his words. “Please don’t do this. I don’t want this.”

“This is exactly what you want.” Sherlock reaches down to stroke between John’s legs, which is when John realizes that he is harder than he’s ever been in his life, so hard that the first brush of Sherlock’s fingers hurts, and that hurt feels so, so good. “I’ve been remiss in this, haven’t I? So obvious -- the train. I’d wondered why you thanked me for fucking you, why such an odd response. I am rather hopeless when it comes to personal relationships, and I’m sorry it took me this long to understand.”

He brushes his mouth, sensuous, beautiful, along the corner of John’s mouth. “You are my echo in everything, aren’t you? As if you were made specifically for me. This,” he strokes down John’s fingers, his wrists which are helplessly knotted tight, “is exactly what you need. You don’t have to feel guilty, or angry. You want what you shouldn’t, but that’s okay.” He pulls his scarf from his neck and gently, gently gags him, until all John can taste is wool and sweat and Sherlock. “So do I.”

***

The day starts on an ignominious note. John wakes them both up with his mumbling, unintelligible snatches of conversation or terse orders of some kind. His first coherent words are an attempt to apologize, which Sherlock simply can’t stomach so early and makes apparent by striding into the loo mid word. He spends all of eight minutes in the shower, thinking the entire time of the night before, of John’s wide-eyed stare, the moth on the glass, pinned between Sherlock and the wall.

There was something about that expression - dark and exposed, unfathomably deep. Sherlock had never seen anything like it, not from John, not from anyone. He’d done obscene things to keep it in view, pressed against John, pressed fingers into him, whatever it took to drag him along the sharp edge of his orgasm without toppling over. When he’d get close and his eyes would slide shut Sherlock would tug sharply, bite lightly, anything to get John to look at him once more.

Enraptured is not too strong a word. Few things compel Sherlock to that place: the concerto from Sibelius, the single moment when a complicated case coalesces, the perfect freedom from existence while drifting on the wave of a high. He has never been addicted to a response before, though he can clearly now add it to the list. He wants to see John tied up still, this moment, this very second, because the memory is already not nearly enough.

He steps out as John comes in to take his turn, his demeanor still unsettled and off-key. His shower is somehow even shorter than Sherlock’s, and he comes out looking distracted, like he’s disappearing into his own skin.

“Are you going to be like this indefinitely?” Sherlock asks, sliding on his shoes.

John's pause in pulling on a dark green jumper momentarily muffles his voice. “Is there an expiration date on your willingness to be understanding?”

His hair is mussed as the jumper comes down, and it’s appealing, so Sherlock crosses the room to tilt John’s head back and kiss him, sifting his fingers through the soft spikes. John goes along freely, no hesitation, his mouth soft and wet, his breath light and clean.

Sherlock pulls back only far enough to see John’s whole face, to more carefully scrutinize. “I don’t like you like this,” he announces.

John doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “I don’t either.”

“There are eighty-four minutes until your mother is moved again and we’re on our way out of the country. We won’t see her again after that.”

It’s not the kind of statement that should make a person smile but John does, like Sherlock is being endearingly childish and silly. “She knows I’m back now,” he says. He pulls away and Sherlock is forced to let him go. “That’s the end of all that.”

Sherlock frowns; quite honestly he doesn’t care what she thinks she knows. It’s not going to stop him from successfully intercepting her every attempt at communication. He doesn’t argue the point, just lets John shrug into his coat so they can leave.

John’s mother is dry-eyed and critical when she meets them in the hall. “You’re not coming with us, are you?” she says, just sadly enough that labeling it as the accusation it clearly is would sound ludicrous. Sherlock has to give her credit; she’s very, very good.

“Can’t slip anything by you,” he interjects instead. For a split second it looks like John is torn between hitting him and laughing. His mother sniffs delicately but seems to think it would be unwise to approach real conversation with Sherlock, and keeps all her attention on John.

Sherlock is fascinated by them, is hoarding interactions to analyze later. He’s been waiting for an opportunity like this since he met John, a chance to gather some relevant data, to break down John’s behaviors into something he can actually understand. Sherlock’s own participation in these events may be a confound, but it’s unlikely. Even compensating for interaction effects John’s responses to Sherlock are predictably unpredictable. As for his mother she’s probably more honest this way - with an audience to goad her on.

“I’ll do my best without you,” she says. “I’ve had enough practice, these last few years.”

“Pity you couldn’t work out why,” Sherlock replies, then glances over when John furiously hisses his name.

Sherlock sighs, runs through the formulas in his head again: establish the variability not explained by the two independent variables. He does it twice, just to be sure, but it’s wrong, he knows it is, far too low to establish any real validity. The numbers never add up where John is concerned.

“If your father was alive-”

“Well he’s not,” John snaps. “He hasn’t been for almost twenty years, and even if he was I’d have done the same exact thing.” His mouth shuts like a trap. She looks stricken.

Harry comes up the corridor and to Sherlock’s utter delight John steps around his mother to hug her goodbye. He whispers something that makes her smile and nod in affirmation, leaning her forehead against his. This is how they survived, Sherlock knows. Together.

When John lets go and turns back to his mother he’s pasted that same strange smile on his face, the one Sherlock has already come to know and hate. “I’m sorry about all of this, Mother. That you got dragged into our mess. We’re going to fix it now, and then you’ll be able to go back home.”

“If you say so,” she answers, then unconsciously sniffs. She doesn’t hug him goodbye, doesn’t say another word, just turns and faces the kitchen. John sighs, quiet enough that she can’t hear, and turns to go.

“Come and see me again,” she calls when Sherlock is already out the door and John is on the threshold. “I’m your mother,” she adds, desolate.

“I know,” John says, which is nothing like an answer.

***

They only make it ten minutes down the road when there is an explosion, and then suddenly there is no more road, just a wall of noise and flames.

John swerves the car to a hard right and ends up on the pavement, skinning them past a tree before lurching to a stop. Sherlock is out of the car in an instant and running towards the wreckage of what was a parked sedan, John behind him, yelling for Sherlock to be careful.

“Hello!” they hear, and swivel around simultaneously. There is a man strolling down the walk of an adjacent house. He has a gun in one hand and a grenade launcher tilted on his shoulder, and he saunters towards them in obvious glee. He has close-cropped hair and dark eyes, a tan much like the one John came home with. He’s military, high rank, no living family but was close to his father, is in his early thirties, Sherlock assesses, scrambling for information.

“Colonel Sebastian Moran,” the man opens, mock-saluting them with his gun hand.

“Against the law to use that title when you’ve been dishonorably discharged,” Sherlock tells him.

Moran’s grin turns sharp. “I earned that title, I’m not about to just let it go. You’d understand that, wouldn’t you, Bambi?”

***

This is what John thinks, as Sebastian Moran strolls past marigolds and poppies armed like a bloody tank: fuck my life.

“Is it too much to ask for peace and quiet? A police investigation once in a while, a dead body or two? I am thoroughly sick of this,” John snaps.

He’s come to a realization, these past few months – Sherlock, for all his mind and his brilliance and his deductive reasoning, really does think his body is merely the vessel with which to carry his brain. As such, he has no sense of self-preservation whatsoever. If John didn’t know for a fact that said protective instinct had never even developed, that Sherlock wasn’t doing it on purpose, he’d have labeled him suicidal. In this case, all he could term him was a tall gothic lamb with unruly hair being led to the slaughter.

He vaults over the remnants of a street sign, grabs Sherlock round his bloody dramatic coat, and hauls him down behind a car an instant before another grenade goes off. It whistles overhead, the sound of nightmares, and John shuts his eyes tightly so he won’t get sand in them, instinctive, ingrained.

The explosion rocks the concrete under them, a blast wave under John’s shoes, and Moran laughs uproariously. People are screaming in English, in Dari, and in the far distance John can hear a mash of past and present -- sirens, the roar of Humvees, the patter of guns. “Shit, shit,” John whispers, unsnaps his baby Beretta from its ankle holster, and shoves it into Sherlock’s hands. A flick of his thumb and the safety is off. “Nine rounds, the first is already chambered,” John says into his ear, and cocks the gun as quietly as possible. “Small recoil – use two hands. Only when I tell you.

He glances up, into the car’s side view mirror. Moran is walking leisurely towards them, but John sees all he needs to – ear piece and the M32, multi-shot, six grenades. He’s got four left, plenty of ammo to see them blown up. The situation is critical, but John takes a moment, lets himself think – Moriarty’s used innocent bystanders before. There is a chance, however small, that the man is a patsy, that they’re being tricked.

Killing the man will be option number 2.

John heaves up, aims, fires through the broken car window three times in quick succession. The recoil feeds up along his nerves into his shoulders, the back of his neck, an almost comforting feeling. His aim is purposely off, just enough to wing the man’s shooting arm with a spray of blood.

Sherlock makes a move as if he’s about to follow suit and John yanks him back down with all his strength, until Sherlock all but sprawls back on the cement. Moran is laughing behind them, voice unsteady, and John risks another look only to see the man still casually walking towards them as if he hadn’t been shot at all, as if rivulets of blood weren’t rolling down his arm. “Oh, he did tell me you were good!” he says, full of admiration. “Granted, he doesn’t like you much, though I can tell why. Moriarty, Holmes, they’re a different breed from us, aren’t they? Men like them don’t understand.”

Alright, killing the man is now option number 1.

John glances at Sherlock, wills him quiet, and then calls over their heads, “And what don’t they understand?”

“Ah, he speaks!” Moran cries. “And here I thought Jim had it all wrong. Stoic, aren’t you?”

“Tend to be, yeah, most often when I’m being shot at.”

Moran laughs, as if John has said something hilarious. “Oh, John, John, John. Or should I say, Bambi. That’s half the fun, isn’t it?”

“You find it funny, then?” John says, waits until Sherlock is looking at him, and points with two fingers around the other side of the car. “To shoot up a perfectly normal street?”

“Normal? Have you taken a look ‘round?” Moran says, grins as he cocks the grenade launcher again. “Johnny boy, this isn’t the middle class.”

He shoves Sherlock to get him moving and races in the opposite direction. The whistle, the metallic grind, and then the wall of heat shoves against his back Too close, far too close, because his hearing is muffled, the whomp whomp of his blood pounding and the high ringing of temporary hearing damage he’s experienced so many times.

He looks back immediately, wills Sherlock to be something other than a dead and burnt husk, to be whole and well but he can’t see him anywhere, not anywhere and his throat burns and he roars, “You’re a piece of work, you bastard. Stop this, stop, just tell me what you want.”

The sirens have gotten much closer, and just over them he can hear another whistle. He turns and runs as fast as he can, but even so the explosion knocks him off his feet. He hits the ground hard, blood flooding his mouth.

And as he lies there, dazed, staring up at the billows of smoke, he realizes with a sick twist in his guts that he just successfully made one of the most elementary mistakes a combat officer could make. He’s been nudged right out into the open.

Slowly, he turns his head. Slowly, Moran smiles and points the grenade launcher right at him, so focused that he doesn’t see Sherlock behind him.

Blood is running down his throat, and he thinks, very calmly, that it’s a good thing he’s about to die because if not he’d tell Moran just what a bloody idiot he is for thinking he could fuck with them and live to tell about it.

He smiles, all teeth.

***

Sebastian hikes the launcher up to sit more comfortably on his shoulder and stares down at the bloody, somewhat concussed man in front of him. “Come on, John,” he coaxes. “Let’s go for a ride.”

It’s a minor surprise when Holmes grabs him from behind, shoves a Beretta against his temple, and snarls, “You’re not going anywhere.”

“I forgot about all you,” Sebastian admits shamelessly. He should be embarrassed, getting caught out by a civilian, much less one so obviously unsuited to armed combat. But he was enjoying himself and hey, it happens. He doesn’t fight Holmes in the slightest, only lowers the launcher and smiles broadly. “I just want to talk for a bit!” he directs at John, who rolls sideways to a crouch. Sebastian feels inordinately proud when John spits blood on the pavement.

“The M32 was doing an excellent job of speaking for you,” Holmes replies, pressing the gun in harder.

“Aw, don’t take it personally sweetheart, just reliving old times,” Seb answers. He keeps looking down at John, who is now on his knees and slowly making to stand. “The Boss says I can’t kill you yet, which is convenient since there was so much I wanted to talk about! I figure we can compare notes - I’d love to know how you got out after that capture near Pakistan, remember that?” John grimaces and Seb grins, lights up with an idea. “I’ll never be caught, I’m better than that, but it’s helpful information to know.” He lights up with an idea. “Maybe we could recreate it! I could snatch a couple of Paki-looking fuckers and have them dress up for you, make it more real.”

“You’re a sick bastard,” John replies, finally on his feet. Seb laughs; he can’t help it, John looks so serious.

“That’s not news, Bambi,” he answers honestly.

“You’re coming with us,” Holmes interjects.

Sebastian snorts. “You really don’t seem as clever as the Boss makes you out to be.”

“Why’s that?” Holmes says.

“Because you didn’t notice them,” Seb says, as a car starts across to pull out of an adjacent garage. Before anyone can move a projectile is lobbed out one of the open windows and Sebastian is almost beaming, feels giddy with excitement.

The M84 hits in a blast of sound that jars Sebastian out of Holmes’ grip and knocks him sideways into the ground. Everything is noise and light and pain and beauty, absolute beauty, he’s down and he’s sideways and he’s right-side up again, and then he’s in a car, screeching away from the wreckage. He basks in the glory of it all. When things die down in his head and he can float above what’s left he asks why John Watson’s not in the car with them.

“He was firing, Sir, we couldn’t get close enough.”

This is the best thing Sebastian’s heard all day. “He just, what, started shooting blindly?”

“Yes, Sir.”

Sebastian laughs, completely cracks up. He respects the Boss and all that he’s going to do, but as of this moment he likes John Watson. He hadn’t achieved his mission but that’s alright - he knew John now. Knew the way he moved, what he tried first, what he saved for last. What he was afraid of. All the things the reports couldn’t tell him. He knew John Watson better than the Boss, better than Holmes even, who was bending over for him six days out of seven. Next time, Sebastian would really get to show off his skills. Next time, he’d win.

***

That they end up in the nick surprises no one but Sherlock.

It’s rather nice, actually, as jails go. John spent some time on the wrong side of the law during his misspent youth, and he doesn’t remember any of the cells he slept in being this posh. Even the lav’s got a little screen, when before he’d had to take his chances with pissed up chavs enjoying the view.

His tongue is swollen, and he suspects it will hurt like bloody hell fire as soon as the morphine wears off. The paramedic did a nice enough job of the stitches for a second year EMT, and John worries at them lightly with his tongue, traces the three little lines of thread. He wants to lie down very badly, but every time his eyes close Sherlock calls his name sharply in an exact imitation of Colonel Redding, the leader of his battalion in Afghanistan. It is exceedingly annoying.

Sherlock is in the second hour of his rant, and John swims up to tune into him again. He has, so far, traced the family names of both guards sitting at the table across them (one to a Dutch sailor and the other to an English courtesan, and really the amount of vitriol Sherlock can bring up in a man is stunning to behold), recounted with perfect accuracy each of their lives (one divorced, the other married, five children, eight sisters, and three living parents between them), and pointed out that two supposedly hetero-normative men might share socks, but they certainly didn’t share underwear.

“We share underwear,” John interrupts.

“Yes but we’re having frequent intercourse, the very antithesis of hetero-normative,” Sherlock says sensibly.

John considers being embarrassed when both police constables turn wide eyes at him – dismisses it a second later as an exercise in futility. “You just like my pants.”

“Your voice isn’t slurred anymore,” Sherlock answers instead, looking over his shoulder. “How are you feeling?”

Lying would be easy, but honestly John’s exhausted. “Has anyone ever told you that you have no sense of self preservation?”

“No. …Well, Lestrade. My brother. Mummy.” Sherlock looks entirely agitated at that, an expression that shouldn’t be nearly as charming as it is, especially in light of their being blown up not an hour ago.

John says, “We got blown up an hour ago.”

“It’s been four hours, and you were the only one blown up,” Sherlock amends, flops down next to him in a move that is all grace and nothing like what John would look like, all wild limbs and knees akimbo. He peers at him, tilts John’s chin with thumb and forefinger. “Your eyes are still glassy.”

“I am very comfortable,” John agrees, closes his eyes as the stitches bother against his teeth. “I suspect they won’t give me my guns back.” He frowns. “I rather like my guns.”

“I know you do, they’re very useful.”

“They are. Not nearly as useful as they ought to be against an M32, however, but then again, what is?” John titters before he can stop himself, bites the inside of his cheek. “Sherlock, that silly bastard had a grenade launcher.”

Sherlock’s mouth twitches. “He had extra ammunition strapped to his chest.”

“Pistol holders!”

The chuckles build in Sherlock’s chest. “Denim.”

Trainers,” and John loses it entirely, laughs so hard he tastes a fresh wash of blood in his mouth but that’s alright, Sherlock is laughing too. A couple of loons they are, and the constables are looking at them like they’re one card short of a full deck, and Mycroft chooses that exact moment to stride in with his bloody ridiculous umbrella and an expression like the bottom of a baboon and John can’t seem to catch his breath, and Sherlock’s skin is flushed pink at the apples of his cheeks, eyes wet with honest amusement only the two of them could ever understand.

Mycroft sniffs. “Shall I leave you to it then?” and John almost falls off the cot.

***

Despite threats to the contrary Mycroft breaks them out. It is less ‘escape under the cover of darkness’, and more about the police chief falling all over himself to apologize, which is a nice change of pace, if rather unexpected. He seems to be under the misconception that John and Sherlock are undercover M16 agents, and as they drive away tucked in the back of Mycroft’s limousine, John says, “We aren’t really M16 agents, are we?”

Mycroft doesn’t answer, merely glances over the top of his briefcase with a look that says just how naive he thinks John is. He’s got dossiers for them, bloody dossiers and John says, point of fact, “I thought you had to go to M16 school to train in black ops, how to kill a man with your pinky, that sort of thing.”

“You already know how to do that,” Sherlock says absently, flipping through the dossier. “The B.S.S. victim, Calvin Bynum.”

“Aide to the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State. One of the most prestigious positions for a young man beginning his career, especially one like you, Oscar Phillpot.”

Sherlock wrinkles his nose. “Richard.”

Oscar,” Mycroft says, and flips open John’s dossier.

There’s John’s picture right there, in his dress blues, with the name Michael Thorpe typed underneath. Honorably discharged and wounded in action and combat trained all pop out at him as he skims, reams and reams of his life altered just enough. “Mycroft, I’ve got to tell you, sometimes you scare the bloody hell out of me.”

“Thank you, Agent Thorpe.” Mycroft beams. “I’ve taken the liberty of changing our flight to tonight – in four hours, to be precise.”

“Flight – hang on, what do you mean ‘our’?” Sherlock demands.

“I was, in fact, a guest of this conference long before your little friend blew you up in that swimming pool,” Mycroft replies amiably, leaning back in his seat. “I had hoped to leave last night, but with the to-do with your mother – how is Mrs Watson, John? Safe now, I hope? – I thought perhaps it best to leave tonight instead. Undersecretary Willhelm agreed.”

“He’s in on it?” John asks.

“Of course he’s ‘in on it’,” Mycroft says. “His aide was murdered, Secretary Fischer’s still remains missing. He has been informed of the base necessities – he is entirely unaware it is you, Sherlock, filling in.”

“And why exactly is it Sherlock filling in?” John demands. “Why not a real M16 agent?”

The Holmes brothers give him a look of pity so profound John has to think back on what he just said, and he’s exceedingly annoyed when for the life of him he can’t figure out what caused the reaction.

***

The flight over is gruesome. They’re driven to a USAF support station where a behemoth military aircraft is waiting, American soldiers on leave queuing up to re-board. Sherlock considers, not for the first time, shoving that ridiculous umbrella down Mycroft’s throat and then opening it.

John looks around, seemingly content to play the role of quaint naïveté to the hilt. “We’re taking a RAF flight?”

“It was that or a private jet, which would be a gross waste of resources and far too conspicuous for three low-level government employees,” Mycroft answers, just a hint of disappointment that John is making him expend the energy necessary to explain.

“Yes, because war-mongering when you’re bored is so much less costly,” Sherlock snaps.

“Really Sherlock, let’s not, it’s been a tiring day,” Mycroft doesn’t roll his eyes but he doesn’t have to, his tone says the same thing.

John spends the first six of the seven hour trip in the back of the plane, chatting with a bunch of twenty-something kids who are too easily impressed by his fake rank and too eager by a half. Sherlock argues with Mycroft for most of the flight, then decides to drive him insane by pretending to be this Oscar character - a man who Sherlock has decided is, in the tradition of most members of government, abysmally, unforgivably stupid.

When Mycroft starts getting snappy John abandons his new legion of fans and quite literally sits in between Sherlock and his brother, tutting like their mother. The arrangement works until the kids in the back start yelling their questions up to John, who answers and smiles and generally acts nothing like a man who could kill an overgrown weed, much less a fully-armed combatant. Sherlock can see Mycroft despair and that largely cheers him up for the remainder of the trip.

They land outside of New York City and are driven in by an unmarked black car, the landscape grey and dull and cold. “Feels like home,” John jokes weakly, then looks amusingly embarrassed when Mycroft and Sherlock turn to stare blankly at him.

The New York CIA office is noteworthy only for its ordinariness, located right in the middle of a city just as busy, noisy, and dirty as Sherlock remembers it. Mycroft leads them blithely around all the various security checks and towards the lift while John leans closer to Sherlock and whispers, “Your brother is bloody terrifying, you know that right?”

“It’s not that difficult when you have Mummy’s connections opening all the doors for you,” Sherlock stage-whispers back. They’ve reached the elevators and when Mycroft jams the up button much harder than is necessary Sherlock feels a surge of triumph.

“Her contacts haven’t been relevant since the end of the Cold War,” Mycroft argues, while Sherlock smiles blandly at him in the lift. He makes a noncommittal noise and Mycroft glares harder. A glance at John indicates he’s too busy worrying about his new persona to care about their little game of one-upmanship. He doesn’t think he looks commanding enough for this new role, and Sherlock would have to agree. The idea of it is fairly ridiculous. Lucky for all of them it won’t matter, not when everyone who would care has been trained to look at a badge before a behavior.

The doors open on the thirty-second floor and Mycroft leads them to a corner office, the corridor brightly lit and utterly silent. He knocks perfunctorily and opens the door, where a woman is standing near her wall of windows, reading a file. Her smile at their entrance is small but sincere.

“Mycroft, welcome,” she greets, closing the file.

“Ms. Adler,” Mycroft answers as she makes her way over. Sherlock scowls.

“Hello, Sherlock,” she says to him, her entire countenance completely placid. Her dark hair now only just reaches her chin, and there are maybe five new lines in her warm brown skin - around her eyes and on her hands - but she’s the same as always, seems to have barely aged in the intervening time.

“Irene,” he mutters, turning his gaze towards Mycroft. He should have expected something like this, it’s just the kind of stunt Mycroft would pull.

John is looking between all of them and Mycroft makes introductions, glancing at Sherlock as if to say he’s being a bad host. “Doctor John Watson, may I introduce Ms. Irene Adler. Ms. Adler, Doctor Watson.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” John says, shaking the hand she proffers.

“Tell me, did they stick you behind a desk because they were tired of seeing you go native?” Sherlock asks.

Irene holds onto John’s hand for entirely longer than is necessary as she replies, “You know, Sherlock, it still really amuses me to know you’ve never been able to spot the difference between a job and the real thing.”

“That statement assumes you’ve been honest for any length of time in any interaction we’ve ever had, which is clearly untrue,” Sherlock replies as she finally lets John go.

Her laugh is airy and musical. “He’s still bitter that I managed to fool him for as long as I did,” she tells John.

“I was preoccupied,” Sherlock argues.

“Didn’t stop you from noticing all the others,” she counters, as though this is not up for debate and he’s wasting time arguing over trivialities, like a child trying to convince his parents the moon is green. “Sherlock, Mycroft will take you through the particulars of your assignment and to meet Secretary Willhelm; John, if you would please come with me.”

“What?” Sherlock blurts out, making everyone, John included, stare at him.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mycroft admonishes, because he knows Sherlock well enough to know exactly why he’s protesting. And if he wants to treat Sherlock like a child then Sherlock will be happy to oblige and throw a fit of unprecedented proportions.

“We’re… not to be working together,” John says, looking at Sherlock, who is biting his tongue so hard he’s going to have a set of stitches to match John’s. He looks like he understands Sherlock, which he should - he was the one nearly blown up, after all. The one shot at, and almost blown up again, and the person next to Sherlock when he woke up and when he went to sleep and when he had to get stitches in his head or deal with the farce of his familial relationships and dear God how had Sherlock not got sick of him yet?

“Your skill sets are entirely different and can be better utilized approaching this problem from separate directions - I’m sorry, what’s the problem?” Irene asks, and there it is, that steel look that Sherlock has come to associate with her, the one that says she doesn’t care who Sherlock is or what he can do, she’s just interested in getting the job done.

“Just tell me what I need to know,” John says. Mycroft looks annoyed, Irene unreadable. Sherlock doesn’t much care what she thinks so long as she starts talking.

***

“For god’s sake stop fidgeting,” Mycroft finally snaps.

His brother stops, which is a godsend, but within ten seconds he’s back to twitching, like a live wire had been shoved up some inappropriate part of his anatomy. John and Irene have been gone for five minutes; Mycroft has never seen his brother like this, ever, as if an integral part of his being has unceremoniously been ripped away, and finally he asks, “Are you worried about our role here, or are you alarmed by the old and the new having gone off together to gossip about you?”

“No, Mycroft, I'm worried that you and Irene have once again decided that conspiring to annoy me outweighs actually doing anything of use. I can say with confidence Moriarty isn't working on your schedule, not everyone has time for 5 full meals a day.”

The insult pings off him like he’d twitch away a fly, and screams altogether louder than words how shaken Sherlock is. “And how is celibacy working out for you, Sherlock?”

His brother graces him with a grimace so cantankerous Mycroft almost smiles – catches himself right in time. “As fantastically disturbing as it is to know you have such a vested interest in my sex life you could have had this conversation via ignored text messages or phone calls back in London. Do get to the point, Mycroft.”

“The point is that you and I have to work together, and this petty squabbling has gone on long enough. You’re a grown man and I expect you to act like it, now that you’ve got the responsibility of another life on your hands,” Mycroft says calmly. “Irene Adler is the finest law enforcement agent that this godforsaken country has to offer, and we will take her help as it has been freely given, and because we have no choice. I refuse to spend the rest of my life running after you, wondering if today is the day that filthy hovel you call a flat is going to detonate with a planted bomb. I won’t live like that, and neither will I allow Mummy to.”

"Still dancing around the details, let me know when you get to the part of the conversation I can actually participate in.” Sherlock burrows deeper in his coat, fiddling with his phone and pretending he isn’t looking at the door John and Irene just left through, even though they both know he is. “You want me to play this ridiculous role fine, I'll do it and we both know I'll get whatever information I want from whoever I want whenever I want it. But I want to know you won't take us out of this once we start getting close.”

Oh yes, it’s a good thing Sherlock is his younger brother, that he’s seen him crying and laughing and vomiting and bleeding, that he’s seen his brother at his worst and at his best, because at that moment he finally understands what it is to want to reach across the table and smack sense into that mop of a head. Honestly, he has no idea how Mummy hadn’t killed them both.

He says, “Fine, fine,” though of course they both know it isn’t, not in the slightest, that as soon as Mycroft catches a whiff of danger he’s dragging Sherlock and his unexpected doctor back to England, by the scruff if need be. Nothing is more important – not New York, not the whole of England, not the world.

Sherlock isn't feeling charitable, or congenial, or remotely willing to compromise. If John were here he'd have forcibly ended this conversation, but he's not, and that's just one more reason for Sherlock to lash out. "And now let's try for an answer that's remotely convincing. I swear to you Mycroft I'll slip the net if you try anything, we both know I can do it."

Mycroft’s eyes narrow dangerously, but he sees where this argument is going from long experience – after all, it isn’t the first time they’ve had it. He’s won every time before, but there’s John to contend with now, an unknown entity in a game that has always been Mycroft’s to checkmate. It’s dangerous how out of control it is and if there is one thing Mycroft doesn’t like, it’s to feel out of control.

Calmly, he says, “Oscar Phillpot, thirty two. Bachelor in International Communications and Business Law. Moonlighting as a temporary stand-in during the conference until a more suitable replacement can be found.”

“Yes, yes, yes, parents alive and living in Hertfordshire, younger sister in her final year at university. I don't need a recap, Mycroft, we both know I had plenty of time to acquaint myself with the role on the flight over. If you're going to attempt to divert me at least make it convincing; who's Willhelm, where did he come from?"

“Undersecretary Willhelm? I’m certain I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mycroft says coolly.

“Don’t play your British Secret Service card or I swear to you, Mycroft--”

His brother does look a bit frazzled around the edges, a bit wild around the eyes, so Mycroft finally relents. Just a bit. “I was not given authority to endanger Undersecretary Willhelm in any way,” Mycroft says, leans back in his seat and steeples his fingers. “As Charles is rather robust in age and temperament, this didn’t stop him and he came anyway.”

Sherlock purses his lips. “Ex-Army.”

“Lieutenant Colonel in her majesty’s armed forces, before he worked his way up through government,” Mycroft affirms, then leans forward warningly. “And if you get him killed, I will be very cross.”

***

John doesn’t like New York.

He’s sure the city is lovely, that there’s a lot to do and see, but John’s been a Londoner for most of his adult life and nothing about the city impresses him. In fact, the most peculiar sensation of foreboding settles over him, pricking at his nerves like fingernails scraped up his spine and only growing worse as the day goes on. While he hadn’t been given back his guns, he’d been given a gun, a legal gun, a Smith and Wesson 9mm he wishes had more heft but which feels natural in his hand, so that’s something at least. It’s a warm weight against his ribs, holstered tight, but he wishes his coat hid more. Like a grenade launcher. Everyone liked a grenade launcher, came in bloody handy.

No, John doesn’t like New York. He also doesn’t like Irene Adler.

The woman is all leg, warm dark skin and beautiful glossy hair, with the kind of body women would kill for and men would kill each other to possess. She’s sensationally beautiful, confident, and intelligent, if the diplomas on her wall had been anything to go by. It’s clear she and Sherlock have a history, and for an instant he is so overwhelmingly jealous he’s sure little green horns spontaneously sprout from his temples. She’s precisely the kind of woman he could see Sherlock going for – cold as ice and starkly, sharply beautiful, with an exceptionally keen mind that showcased an intelligence that could only ever heighten Sherlock’s, not hinder.

Next to her John feels like a podgy middle aged man with post traumatic stress, undergoing the biggest sexual identity crisis of his life only made worse by the fact that it wasn’t a crisis at all.

John says, “So.”

“So,” Irene answers, a perfect mockery in a tone that didn’t imply mockery at all, but oh John is well versed in smart people and their biological imperative to belittle.

“We don’t have to actually make small talk, do we?”

He thinks he sees a smile twitch her lips, but he can’t be certain. She’s so stony, so severe, so terrifying, as if she’s merely playacting at humanity. If John didn’t know for a fact that she’d been cut from the same cloth as both Mycroft and Sherlock he’d think her the kind of woman who wore the part, who went home at night and curled up to eat biscuits and watch romantic comedies. Somehow, he doesn’t think Irene is the romantic comedy type.

“Tell me, Doctor Watson—”

“John, please.”

“John,” she says, coolly amused. “How much combat have you seen?”

Enough to hear the washing women singing in Dari outside the sky rise window. “A bit,” he answers, leans back in his chair. “But you know that already, that’s my dossier in your hand. The real one, not Michael Thorpe’s.”

“That it is,” she answers without a hint of embarrassment. “I’ve learned many things about you tonight, Doctor Watson – when my favorite detective takes up with someone, it’s for the good of humanity to see what could have struck his fancy.” She glances up from his dossier. “Usually only dead things do.”

John refuses to give her the satisfaction of seeing his irritation, and slouches a bit in his seat, carefully careless. “Sometimes the dead make better company than the living.”

“Spoken to any dead bodies lately, Doctor Watson?”

“Just the head in our fridge.”

His pocket beeps rather loudly and the tension reaches the breaking point and snaps back, hitting him in the face, startling him. He shifts into his pocket like he’s swimming through molasses.

Mycroft exceedingly
annoying. Considering
fratricide. Come quick.

SH

John worries his stitches along the edge of his teeth, tries not to smile. Sometimes he wonders if Sherlock’s super power isn’t deductive reasoning at all, but telepathy. “Tell me, Ms. Adler, what exactly are you fishing for?”

She looks surprised he’s asked, and John wonders how often men aren’t bowled over by her exterior. Wonders how gone he is on Sherlock that those incredible breasts and enormous doe eyes don’t phase him in the slightest. “Doctor Watson, how long were you in Afghanistan?”

“You know that answer already.”

“I know what I can read through the blacked out lines.”

“First tour twenty eight months, second tour sixteen.”

“But that isn’t exactly true, is it?”

John’s eyes narrow. “It’s what you’re getting.”

Irene sighs, tuts lightly as if John is in any way phased by it, comes around to sit at the edge of the desk. “If I’m going to let you in on this, Doctor Watson, you’re going to have to be honest with me.”

Urges quelled, barely.
Expression: sucked lemon.
Victory is mine.

SH

“My time in Afghanistan is not up for discussion,” John says, stands straight and as tall as possible. “It has no bearing on this, any of this, and I won’t indulge your curiosity. I’ve seen combat – if I can orchestrate a supply run through enemy territory, if I can do surgery in the middle of a skirmish, if I can kill men before they kill someone charged under my protection, the answer is yes, I can handle a conference and this role you’ve asked me to play. This is not my first dance, Ms. Adler.” He sets his jaw, wills himself to be calm. “To address your curiosity about other, more private matters between myself and Sherlock: you will kindly keep your nose out of my business, before my first trip to America is soured forever by your unbelievable rudeness.”

There’s a beat of silence. Two.

Let’s go.

SH

“When should we be in tomorrow?”

Irene is still staring at him, but finally she says, “Four o'clock. The convention starts at seven – dinner party. That will give us enough time to get you both prepared.”

“If that’s all, then,” Sherlock says from the doorway.

She nods.

“Aright, then, tomorrow at four it is,” John says. He meets Sherlock at the door, glances up and reads the last twenty minutes all over his face. "Bloody hell, I need a drink," he mutters.

***

“Sherlock,” she calls him and he stops at the door despite himself, despite the dark look John sends his way.

“Wait for me,” he tells John, however inexcusably redundant that is to say. John is obviously frustrated but equally unsurprised when Sherlock steps in and proceeds to shut the door.

Irene gestures at the door from her position on the edge of the desk. “This is different.”

Sherlock stands in front of her, more at ease in her presence than he can remember being in years of unexpected encounters. “Disappointed?”

“Hardly,” she says, like he’s a resourceful toddler or particularly clever pet.

“Is this the part where you try to recruit me for - let’s see - the seventh time?”

She smiles. “Something tells me that would be a waste of everyone’s time. No, this is related exclusively to the case at hand.” She’s put down John’s file and reached back without looking away, unerringly selecting the one she wants. “Mycroft doesn’t want you to know this, but I think it’s important.”

She hands over a photo of a corpse, a man pasty white and shirtless, laid out on his stomach. There are words etched into his back in neat block letters, and the excessive bleeding has been wiped away. I.v.159-160.

“It’s from Hamlet,” she says, eyes scanning the photo for clues.

“Yes, obviously,” Sherlock replies. She hands him a paper with the line written out. Swear by my sword/Never to speak of this that you have heard.

“Where did you find this?”

“In the back seat of one of our cars - this one was meant to transport the convention’s political guests.”

“Which ones?” Sherlock looks up at her, and she stares calmly back.

“It hadn’t been assigned yet, which leaves us in the unenviable position of having to guess.” She frowns at him. “You know how much I hate guessing.”

“So someone at the convention is a mole - I had assumed you’d figured that much out already.” He’s fairly sniping at this point, though she doesn’t bat an eye. “Why would Mycroft keep this from me?”

“Because of what we found underneath the body,” she says, passing him a card in an evidence bag. The same neat typing is the only thing marking the comparatively expensive card stock. To help you adjust to the idea.

“How do you know this has to do with me?” Sherlock asks.

“Well we've ID’ed the body," she says, and stares at him in a way he knows means he won’t like what she’s going to say, "and this man’s name was John Watson.”

Sherlock stares down at the card again, then back up to Irene, who is too collected to be serene, too calm to be considering. “Mycroft was worried you’d do something rash, something to give away your role.” She makes Mycroft sound like Scarlett O’Hara. “His concern for you is clouding his judgment, and in any case his role here is consultative.”

Sherlock smirks, because that’s easier than trying to parse through the wedge of sensation lodged in his chest. “You’re still the only person I know who considers him overly-emotional.” He hands the picture and the card back. “I had hoped he’d at least wait out the day before lying to me.”

Irene stands to organize her files, half her mind on the case, the other half entirely uninvolved in this latest Holmes domestic squabble. “It’s Mycroft; he’s always hiding something.” She glances up at him, the same unimpressed look on her face as always. “Get some rest, Sherlock. Tomorrow is going to be a long day.”

John is quietly livid when Sherlock finally steps out, though he’d deny it to his last breath if anyone were to ask. "What was that about?" he asks as they head towards the lift. He's trying and failing to sound unconcerned; Sherlock really can not be bothered with whatever is riling him up right now. He really needs to get John another gun.

"Just a friendly reminder of how utterly untouchable she remains," Sherlock answers as they start down.

The response seems only to unsettle John, so Sherlock continues, "It's not as though she would ever condescend to fraternize with either of us Holmes'."

John lets out a puff of air that means he's trying to laugh so he can't yell instead. "That's wonderful, Sherlock. I'm so happy to know her restraint will forever keep your feelings unrequited."

"What?" Sherlock answers as they reach the ground floor. John's incoherence on this is starting to shift from mildly amusing to genuinely annoying, but then the facts begin to line up. “You think I’d leave you for her.”

John says nothing, just strides to the door as though he’d like to leave Sherlock behind instead, preferably right this second. He’s forced to wait on the sidewalk though, since while it may be obvious to Sherlock which boring black sedan is theirs John is too antagonized to spot the details on his own. Sherlock waits until they’ve settled inside before he continues. “You do realize if we were to initiate a relationship I’d be using again within six months.”

John turns so fast it looks painful. “What? Why?”

“It’s not obvious?”

“No, of course it isn’t - she’s perfect for you, she’s brilliant and focused and bloody gorgeous. You’d never have to explain anything, you’d never have to wait for her to catch up.” Sherlock stares at John, but John looks honest, and open, like he really believes what he’s saying. Sherlock once again wonders what goes on in his head; it’s clearly not the bastion of logic or common sense he makes it out to be.

“Oedipus Rex was never my favorite Greek myth, John,” he answers instead.

“Oh,” John says, and Sherlock turns his attention back to the other John Watson, the one found mutilated and dead in a car just like they’re in.

They’re driven to the Waldorf for the night, the only time they’ll be in the same hotel before Sherlock is shipped off to play busboy for an over-privileged imbecile while John acts as a security consultant. John’s not joking about the drink, directs them straight to the bar and asks for a forty year old Scotch. He only laughs when Sherlock raises an eyebrow at him.

John doesn’t drink often, though he can hold his drink like any good soldier. Sherlock is curious to see how this will go.

Five drinks later and they’re kissing before they make it into the lift.

“Wait, wait,” John groans, shoving at Sherlock’s shoulders, the crooks of his elbows, but Sherlock just leans in harder, pushes in closer, using the half-foot he has on John to bully him right where he wants him. It’s lovely, the feel of Sherlock’s stubble on his skin, the smell of his hair. “Wait,” he chokes, the muscles in his neck going like so much water as Sherlock sets his teeth right there. “Sherlock, not in the lift, we can’t—”

“Why-ever not?” Sherlock growls, and it’s a good thing he’s got such a good hold on him, because there go John’s knees. He pushes John up and back against the lift wall, breathing hot against his mouth as John moans. “Why not?”

If John can remember his reasons he doesn’t share, just laughs as Sherlock slides his palms along John’s waistline, under his clothes. The lift opens and they stumble out, trip over each other on the way to their room. Sherlock lets them in while John runs his hands across Sherlock’s body, greedy and pushy and overwhelming. It’s all mouth and hands and the planes of his body, everything pressing on and against and in, like he suddenly can’t get enough fast enough.

Sherlock does most of the work of removing John’s shirt while John sucks on whatever body part of Sherlock’s is closest and in between rambles nonsensically. “Sherlock, Sherlock. Sherlock.”

“What?” he asks, finally getting John still enough to pull off his other shoe.

“I’m sorry, I just - I keep elbowing you.”

Sherlock looks up from his crouch against the bed. “I’m fine.”

John is leaning over him, eyes unnaturally wide and bright. “No, it’s not okay, I’m sorry about that. I just suddenly seem to have too many elbows. Or no, that’s not right. People only ever have the two. It’s just that they’re extra... pointy.” To be honest John doesn’t seem particularly contrite - he’s more concerned with sliding his right hand down the collar of Sherlock’s shirt and licking his way into Sherlock’s mouth, but nonetheless it seems prudent to resolve his worry. Sherlock surges up and shoves John down on the bed crossways, pins his hands at the wrists above his head.

“Better?”

John smiles, wide and open and utterly intoxicating. “Much.”

Then - because John is full of surprises - he lets his legs fall wide open and wraps them around Sherlock’s middle. Sherlock groans and lets go of John’s wrists with one hand, reaching down to unzip them both. John pushes up against him, all wanton abandon, and if this is what five rounds of Scotch will do Sherlock can make sure to keep the flat well stocked.

He shoves his trousers and pants down and tugs at John’s until they’re both exposed. The line of John’s neck, corded as he strains under Sherlock, is irresistible, and Sherlock presses down, mouths under his jaw line. John drops his legs back onto the bed and turns his head to catch Sherlock’s mouth, sucks on his tongue. “Get in me,” he gasps.

Sherlock swallows and thrusts, the sense memory of being inside John momentarily flooding his mind. John pushes up to meet him and Sherlock has to pull back, uses the excuse of lube and condoms to get some space, to stop feeling like he’s drowning. To stop being concerned with how little he cares.

John has completely shucked his pants when Sherlock gets back and Sherlock follows suit, tugging his shirt off and climbing over John to sit at the top of their oversized bed. Instead of sitting up John tilts his head as far back as he can, and with his cock jutting out looks completely ridiculous. “You’re going the wrong way.”

Sherlock shakes his head and slides a condom on. “I want you up here.”

“Why’s that?” John asks, turning over on to his knees.

Sherlock smiles. “You’re the jealous, prissy tart, you can come to me.”

John knee walks his way up the bed until he’s straddling Sherlock, staring down at him with a look that promises retribution. “I am a doctor and a soldier, in case you’ve forgotten. I am not a tart.”

“You forgot prissy and jealous,” Sherlock goads. He barely gets the words out before John is crushing their mouths together, hands on either side of Sherlock’s face. Sherlock’s hands flutter up of their own accord, slide down John’s back to his arse, are drawn even further down to his sac and up again. John groans into his mouth and pushes back, unselfconscious and eager.

Sherlock casts around for the lube and finds it without John letting him go; he gets it everywhere and John chuckles, sending shock waves down Sherlock’s spine. Sherlock presses two fingers at John’s hole in retaliation but John just gasps open-mouthed and pushes back until Sherlock’s most of the way in.

“Aren’t we eager tonight.”

“Every night,” John replies, thrusting back and forth languidly, down on Sherlock’s fingers and up against Sherlock’s cock. Sherlock adds a finger and John thrusts back sharply, breathes wet and obscene against Sherlock’s lips. “Now,” he says, grinding down. “Now.”

Sherlock pulls his fingers out and John shifts up before sliding down slowly, right where Sherlock leads him. The feel of John pressing around his cock is incredible, all wet, tight, heat, and the pressure builds in the base of his hips like a ticking bomb. John leans forward, then presses down, then seems to decide he wants to make things easy on both of them and starts fucking himself on Sherlock’s cock. He pulls up and slides down again, his chest against Sherlock’s, his cock hot and hard between them. He huffs light breaths and smiles, his thighs tense and release, his hips twist in small circles that drive Sherlock mad. He looks utterly gone, and it’s the most gorgeous thing Sherlock has ever seen.

“You know,” John says, his hands now gripping the headboard, “this is probably the most vanilla sex we’ve ever had.”

Sherlock’s got one hand on the base of John’s back, and the other around John’s cock. “Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

“I’m just surprised you’re not - fuck, fuck - you’re not bored.”

Sherlock groans as his hand on John makes John go tight around him. “You think I’m doing this to pass the time?”

John breathes out what would be a chuckle if he weren’t so turned on. “One of the better ways to stave off boredom, I’ll give you that.”

Sherlock leans up, drags his tongue across the sweat on John’s temple and whispers in his ear. “You’re wrong.”

He abruptly puts both of his hands on John’s shoulders and presses him down, hard, until John is moaning aloud, his hands startled off the headboard. Then Sherlock shoves up and pushes John back onto the mattress, leans over him and hikes him up at the knees with no warning whatsoever. “I can find more efficient ways to entertain myself, John.”

John shivers, spreads his legs wider. “Then why-”

“Because,” Sherlock says, rearranging them so he can pull John up higher into his lap, thrust deeper, “this is about you. It’s always been about you. I want to be the only thing in your world, the only thing you know anymore. I don’t want you to remember where you’ve been or who you’ve been with or your own damn name, just mine, just me.” He leans down, licks John’s lips for him, speaks into his mouth. “Lock your feet tight; you’ve gone slippery.”

Sherlock is pressed so close, too close -- his cock is big, bigger than the normal, and John feels stretched tight around it, swollen and hot. He shudders; Sherlock’s pressed so deeply into the cup of his hips he feels like he’s never going to get free, and his hole pulses, dragging a whimper from him. “Sherlock,” he says, hates himself when he can’t stop from writhing against the sheets. “I didn’t mean--”

“You did, but you see, things have changed since our first night. I’ve been remiss, but I already told you I’m no good when it comes to these emotional things.”

“Deleted off your hard-drive?”

“Years ago. Updating it has been a pain you see,” Sherlock murmurs, carefully leads John’s legs up around his chest. “Lock your feet,” he instructs again, quietly, and John can do nothing else. “But I think I’m nearly at the end of it.”

“Yeah?” John whispers. He can’t take this, Sherlock inside of him and not moving -- he feels like he’s going to shake himself to pieces.

“It’s been difficult, making room for this in my mind. Trying to incorporate you. But now the update is almost done, it’s almost finished, and I can see you from the other side. You need an update too.”

Sherlock leans in, forehead to forehead, elbows round John’s ears and fingers in his hair. “You’re mine.”

The words are so trite, so stupid, the dialogue of a million porn videos, but coming from Sherlock it isn’t something said in the heat of passion.

Terror crawls up his spine. “Sherlock,” he moans, suffocating under his weight, under the stretch of his cock that feels lodged into his throat. “Please, Sherlock.”

“You’re mine,” Sherlock says again, not a question, not a demand -- a promise. “You can never leave me. You’re mine as easily as my slippers are mine, my sofa is mine, my clothes are mine. You belong to me.”

He pulls his hips back and drives home so hard John almost bites through his lip, howling, fingers scrabbling up Sherlock’s back. “Sherlock,” he cries, but his token protest isn’t answered. Sherlock drives into him, again, again, thrusts harder and harder until John feels the ache in his hips, until he feels as if he’s drowning, choking on Sherlock’s cock.

Sherlock only stops to rearrange him, to unlock John’s legs from around his back and drag his good knee up onto his shoulder, folding John nearly in half. The strain pulls every muscle in his body but when Sherlock thrusts back in the only reason he doesn’t scream out loud is because Sherlock clamps his mouth over John’s, kissing the cry right out of him. His cock jumps violently between them, twitching helplessly and John fists his fingers in Sherlock’s hair, scratches his shoulders, his flanks, down to his arse so he can feel the muscles move under the skin as Sherlock drives into him with as much force as he possesses.

Sherlock snatches his hands, drags them up over John’s head and John can’t endure this, he can’t breathe, and the cries Sherlock doesn’t swallow are tiny, breathless.

“Don’t you see, John?” Sherlock says, voice gone rough like sandpaper until his voice is so deep, so cracked John can barely understand him. “All I care about, the only thing that is relevant at all anymore, is ensuring that I’m the only thing in your entire world.”

“Don’t, don’t,” John cries, he can’t, he can’t do this -- already he feels as if he’s standing at the edge of a precipice with a death drop before him, but now Sherlock’s gone and had his epiphany, now Sherlock’s beside him, counting to three and ready to jump. “Please, Sherlock.”

“I want your only thought to be me. I want to be the only thing you can see, hear, smell; I want to consume you, to drag you into me.”

When the epiphany comes it crushes him, rearranges all his thoughts into perfect order, an order he could never have foreseen. Sherlock doesn’t have to explain himself, but he doesn’t need to -- John is already the center of Sherlock’s universe. He’s only returning the favor.

John shudders under Sherlock, bucking his hips up into him, and Sherlock smiles against his cheek, whispers, “Yes, yes, like that,” hand under John’s hip and encouraging his thrusts. “Keep going, more.”

It’s all coalescing, a rapid-fire burst of information -- everything he’d said in the past several weeks, his reaction to John’s anger about the drugs, the almost protective way he’d stood between John and his mother. The way every conversation seemed to be solely directed at him, the way Sherlock spoke to him as if his opinion mattered, when no one else’s did. Even his amusement at John’s reaction to Irene, his disgruntlement over John’s guilt when John had spanked him. What he’d said, that day in his father’s lab, the devastation written plainly across his face.

It all makes perfect sense. John’s been operating under the assumption that he’d gone and stupidly fallen for his ridiculous roommate without ever considering that perhaps his ridiculous roommate had gone and fallen back.

He shudders and Sherlock leans low over him, strains the muscles in John’s hips and back and it’s good, it’s so good. Nothing exists but the two of them -- they’re sweating, moving, less a rough pound and now a writhing pulse, meeting each other in the ways that feel better than anything. Sherlock is so good in bed, uses that brilliant mind of his to the best possible use, touching John just when he wants to be touched, kissing him just when he wants to be kissed. He plays John’s body like he plays his violin in the middle of the night, beautiful and haunting until he can hear the music in John’s cries.

He sits up, the drag of his cock slipping from John’s body painful, but nothing so painful as the abrupt emptiness he feels in the center of himself. Sherlock hushes him quietly and pushes him over onto his belly. John goes readily, hips hitching up and he hates himself for it even as he can’t help it, nor the way he spreads his legs, begging without words.

Sherlock leads himself in and it feels different, warmer, slicker, and it’s only as Sherlock bottoms out again that he realizes --

“Oh God, oh God, Sherlock.

“You are mine,” Sherlock murmurs, blanketing himself over John’s body and snapping his hips deep until John buries his face in the sheets and screams. “Mine in every which way, to touch and to mark. You will never be free of me,” and John can barely understand him, the rush of emotion choking him, too. “Say it.”

“Sherlock--”

“Say it!”

Sherlock slides his hands under John’s shoulders and John folds them in tight against his chest, until Sherlock’s breath is gusting hot against the back of his beck, the only thing John can hear over the roar of his blood, the pounding of his heart. Abruptly he’s close, so close, just a little more --

He shudders wildly, goes taut, and comes rough against the blankets, swell after swell like it’s never going to end, a razor's edge between pain and pleasure. Just when he thinks its over Sherlock starts thrusting again, and the pleasure threads out hot across his body until it hurts so good, until John is shaking and blank.

When Sherlock comes with three sharp snaps of his hips John knows, without a doubt, that he’ll never be the same again.

They collapse, Sherlock along his bad side. He presses fevered kisses down John’s shoulder, across his pitted scar, up to his neck, and when his cock slips free the wet rush of come that follows makes John shudder so hard he has to clench his eyes shut. He feels scraped raw, heart open and bleeding. He whispers, “What have you done to me?”

“Returned the favor,” Sherlock counters softly, and brushes his thumb along the edge of John’s eye.

***

The shower is running.

John blinks up at the ceiling, strips of light bleeding through the heavy curtains. It’s morning, barely, and he can hear the beginning of a new day outside – cars, taxis, honking horns and people talking on their mobiles, as well as the sound of steady rain pinging against the glass windows. The hotel room is quiet but for the sound of water falling in the ridiculous, decadent tub.

He shifts under the sheets, cheek pressed into his pillow, groans. He’s hurting. Not overbearingly so but there’s an ache in his lower back, in the cup of his hips, that he’s never felt before.

For a second, sleepy and barely awake, he can’t quite recall how he came to acquire that discomfort, if Sherlock had him running about all London at all hours of the evening, before he remembers that while he has this pain because of Sherlock, they aren’t in London and no running was involved whatsoever.

It rushes back – the hard pound of Sherlock inside him, his own response, and the way Sherlock had, singlehandedly, ruined him forever for anyone else. Terror clutches up inside him, mixed in with love so profound and overwhelming it chokes in his throat. He’s a brave man, has looked death in the face and not backed down, but this. This.

“You’re awake,” Sherlock says from the doorway.

He’s so pale, long and slender, and John thinks he’ll always be surprised about the curls that cover more than his head. Water is still dripping down his skin and the towel he’s wrapped around his hips is precarious at best. The muscles go tense in John’s thighs from resisting the urge to let his legs fall open, and heat blooms sharp into his chest, his neck, his face.

“I hurt,” he says, and doesn’t recognize his own voice.

Sherlock’s eyes go dark, and he crosses the room to sit at John’s side. “Where does it hurt?” he asks, slides his hand under the sheets. It catches damp on John’s skin, down over his hip, his thigh. “Here?” he asks, thumbs over John’s cock, the head, the slit, and twitches the sheet back. “Or here?” He cups John’s sac, drags a nail feather-light over the loose skin. “Oh, no, I know,” and he slides down John’s inner thigh, down between his cheeks. “Here.”

John inhales, stiffens when Sherlock rubs his thumb right where he’s most sore. “You fucked me,” John croaks, cock going so hard so quickly it echoes in his sac. “At the end, you fucked me without a condom.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says.

“Why?”

Sherlock hums quietly in his throat, and John cries out when he pushes his thumb all the way in. “Because you’re mine.”

The feeling is indescribable. He bucks his hips because it hurts, it hurts and he doesn’t want it to ever stop. He’s mortified by the sounds he makes, the way he cants his hips and lets his legs fall open, the way he would pull Sherlock into the core of himself if he could. The way he already has.

He tugs at Sherlock’s forearm, mutters curses and prayers, “Sherlock,” and Sherlock swoops down on him to murmur in his ear, “You’re so wet inside.” He slips his thumb free, rubs along the rim where it burns, and pushes in two fingers. “Wet because of me.”

Goosebumps fly all over him and his back arches all on its own. His thighs shudder and he chokes on his own tongue and he says “Sherlock, Sherlock,” but Sherlock is content to work his fingers slowly in and out, to lean down and kiss John. “You’re beautiful like this. I never want to stop looking at you, or stop enjoying the voracity of your response. Your emotions are written so clearly all over your face.”

Sherlock just pushes deeper, scissors and spreads his fingers until John can feel the muscle, so abused, loosen and give. He catches at Sherlock’s hand between his legs, stills him, and says in a voice he doesn’t recognize, “Get in me, then.”

Which is, because that is just John’s life, exactly when someone knocks at the door.

***

Sherlock considers ignoring the interruption but there’s naught for it once John disentangles himself and disappears into the bathroom. Sherlock rolls out of bed and snags his clothes on the way to the door, sliding into them with a peculiar sense of foreboding. Everything about this case sets him on edge - being forced to suffer under Mycroft’s ‘concern’ and Irene’s coolly dictatorial rule; the threats and the moles and Moran, whose presence remains a complete unknown. Mycroft’s impromptu scavenger hunt on the topic of the Colonel had turned up almost nothing useful; the records weren’t locked away or blacked out - they just didn’t exist. In other circumstances Sherlock would have been happy to gloat over his failure, but it figures the one time Sherlock needs his help he’s unable to do anything of value.

When he’s finally dressed he swings the door open to the world's most unsurprising visitor, Mycroft’s ever-present assistant. “Elizabeth, your timing is truly appalling.”

She only raises an eyebrow at him. It’s obvious that if she hadn’t been holding two garment bags she’d be on her phone. “It’s Zoe this week.”

“I really don’t care,” he says, eyeing the bags.

“He sent me along to make sure you both put these on,” she answers, holding out the top bag. She hasn’t asked to be let in and he doesn’t invite her, because they both know how this is going to go and discussing it would be a waste of time.

“What difference could it possibly make?”

Elizabeth shrugs one shoulder. “Wilhelm is particular about these sorts of things, says you can tell a lot about a man by the way he wears a suit.”

She’s still holding out the bag and Sherlock concedes to taking it, if only to move things along. For the first time he wants a case solved not because he’s bored, but because he wants to take John and go home. He’s under no illusions about how much longer Moriarty is willing to drag this out.

Elizabeth strolls past him towards the loo, where she opens the door and unceremoniously drops the suit inside, ignoring John’s startled “Oi!”

“Wear this, please,” she tells him, shutting the door behind her.

Sherlock changes right in front of the door while she types on her blackberry and ignores him completely. His suit is dull, dull, dull, but it’s also exactly what someone would expect from a middling level government employee, especially one with as little imagination as Oscar Phillpot.

When John steps out Sherlock, to his own horror, does a double-take. His suit is perfectly tailored, the grey color so dark it’s nearly black, the shirt almost too pale to be truly blue. But what’s startling to Sherlock isn’t the four thousand quid worth of fabric, it’s seeing that while traces of him remain John The Slightly Rumpled Doctor is largely gone, and in his place is someone Sherlock's only seen before in bits and pieces. Someone used to being in charge, someone used to giving orders and only once at that. Damn you, Mycroft Sherlock thinks, and mentally adds Caraceni on his list right next to the scotch.

“Hello, Anthea,” John says wearily.

“It’s Zoe,” Elizabeth replies without looking up.

“Of course it is. I suppose we’ll be heading over to see Mycroft now, get the specifics of our assignment - Sherlock, what?”

“Nothing.” Sherlock says, and stands rather abruptly to snag his coat off the back of a chair.

Elizabeth glances up from her mobile. “He’s three rooms down on the left.”

Sherlock nods as John shrugs on his own overcoat and God, Sherlock really hates his brother.

“Why didn’t he just come down here himself?” John asks.

And of course now Elizabeth chooses to look up. “Because this room smells disgusting.”

John makes a face like he’s not going to be discomfited if it kills him, but given how hard he’s trying the effect is largely the same. “Some day you’ll learn not to ask the obvious questions,” Sherlock tells him.

Elizabeth stands to leave and both Sherlock and John follow; as soon as she’s out the door Sherlock slams it shut and presses John against it. He swallows John’s surprised yelp and invades his mouth like it’s his one chance at redemption, like maybe if he tries hard enough he’ll somehow fit inside. John is taut against him, in a war with his own propriety, but the way his hands are curled into Sherlock’s hair give him away.

After thirty minuscule seconds Sherlock forces himself back, his eyes on John’s. “What was that?” John asks, his pulse still racing under Sherlock’s thumb.

Sherlock turns them both and then lets go to open the door. “Just a kiss.” He leaves without waiting for John to follow, mostly to make sure he can.

As he expects Elizabeth is down the corridor waiting by Mycroft’s room; she opens the door as they start towards her.

***

John doesn’t want to go to Mycroft’s room. He doesn’t want to even be here, so far from home, not when he feels like this – fragile, broken open. It’s a familiar feeling, not unlike the wash of emotion that had cut out his heart when he’d gotten to his basic training course and realized that his family would never speak to him again, that he was, as of that moment, utterly alone. This time, his emotions are in reverse and just as horrifying. This, this thing that’s taken over his mind and his heart, makes him want to wrap himself up and crawl somewhere under Sherlock’s arm and stay there for a month at least, wants to make him open up and tug Sherlock in right to the center of him. He wants the time to explore every facet of this new feeling, to analyze it and turn it over and over in his mind, to deal with the total paradigm shift he’s experienced. He wants a moment to breathe.

It’s a good thing he’s so used to life being dreadfully unfair.

“Ah, good morning Sherlock, John,” Mycroft says from his small table, where a spread for ten at least is laid out. “Come in, please.”

“You know I don’t eat while on a case,” Sherlock intones with the usual gravitas he employs when he’s dealing with his brother. That it fans the belly-deep reservoir of arousal John’s still got lit is no small embarrassment – he wants to mewl and stretch and roll around in the feeling, spread his legs wide and ask Sherlock to finish what he started earlier.

He flushes – feels himself go hot – and because the absolute British core of him can’t handle it, sits at the table despite the pain and discomfort that spikes up his spine.

Mycroft is smiling like a cat who got the canary, and as Sherlock sits across from him, cross and silently furious, he says, “Mummy sends her regards.”

“Of course she does. Did you phone her after John’s first orgasm or the third?”

John chokes on his tea, can’t help it, even though he hasn’t taken a drink yet. He coughs mightily, and Mycroft, ever the gentleman, waits for him to finish before telling Sherlock, “You’re embarrassing your doctor, Sherlock.”

“He’s got nothing to be ashamed of. You on the other hand—”

“Mummy rang around midnight,” Mycroft says with a little hand wave, as if he’s batting away Sherlock’s severe lack of decorum like he would a fly. “She wanted to make sure we’d made it alright, and to offer a warning.”

Sherlock leans back in his seat, sipping at a cup of tea. “And that would be?”

“That something isn’t right.”

“Mummy’s been working in government for far too long, Mycroft, you know she sees danger where there isn’t any.”

“I also know she’s rather too informed for anyone’s good and if she says there’s trouble, we should heed her warning.”

Sherlock, surprisingly, doesn’t take exception to this. His face smoothes out a bit, and he looks less a cranky toddler and more the detective that he is, pondering the words. John leaves him to it, nibbles at bangers and mash even though every minute spent sitting is getting more and more uncomfortable. His hips ache, and just the thought of it sends his cheeks going hot again, and he knows Mycroft and Sherlock are silently holding an entire conversation about it as he stares at his plate but for the life of him he feels entirely too fragile to take them both on at once.

Instead, he says, “When we left the estate, Adella told me something.”

That breaks them up nicely – both men startle and stare at him, a pair of stunned guppies, and John wonders if it was the use of her name or the fact that she’d told him anything that shocks them more. It’s a wonderful feeling, and he leans back a bit, pours himself a coffee. “I’m sorry?” Mycroft asks, at the same time Sherlock says – “When exactly were you going to tell me?”

“Well, you told me to go give her our apologies that we were taking off like a pair of criminals in the night. You didn’t notice I was gone for nearly an hour?”

Sherlock blinks – plink-plink go his eyelashes, and John can’t help the quick flash of amusement. “You were not gone for an hour, I’d have noticed.”

“You were packing half your father’s lab, you didn’t notice,” John says, sips his coffee.

Mycroft, who is genuinely smiling as if he can’t help himself, says, “You spoke with Mummy. For an hour.”

“Sure, yeah,” John says. “She was in her garden. I told her we were leaving, but she wanted some opinions on flower arrangements. Did you know that she can time you both down to the minute? ‘Forty six and a half minutes’, is what she said it would take you to get everything situated to your liking, Sherlock.”

Mycroft snorts and John points at him. “And she said it would take you sixty eight minutes, and that it’s a good thing you’re on your diet because it used to take you sixty one.”

That takes the wind out of Mycroft’s sails nicely, and Sherlock smiles at him like he’s a saint, which is funny considering their activities last night. John smiles back, all teeth. “She also said if you’d ever grown out of your two left feet you’d be quicker, but we can’t all be perfect.”

Sherlock gives him a look like he’s just bitten into a lemon and John smile morphs into a real one, gently amused. “Your mum is fairly fantastic, you know – knows more about everything than you’d imagine.”

“My mother is Sauron, the all-seeing eye. I spent half my childhood convinced she had the power to look directly into my soul.”

“Well, course she can, she’s your mum,” John says, nudges a basket of biscuits a bit towards Sherlock. “She told me that Moriarty is irredeemable, that by all counts he's not only completely insane but absolutely brilliant, and that's the only reason he hasn't yet been caught -- but that predicting his moves is going to be next to impossible, because he's just too deluded. She said that your only chance of success is to be there at the moment when Moriarty is changing his mind, the exact moment when he wavers, and that he is at his weakest when he’s undecided.”

He doesn’t add what she’d said next.

“I know my son,” Adella says, tipping her watering can into her azaleas. “Tragedy affects children differently -- they learn to cope in ways we as adults cannot understand.” She sets her watering can down, takes off her sunglasses and crosses her arms across her chest. John thinks that for such a small woman she takes up acres of space, as if her personality can’t be contained, and for a single, sharp moment John envies Sherlock this woman for a mother. “I know he fancies himself psychologically damaged, and perhaps in a way he is; a part of my son died when he saw his father killed, but he is far from unfeeling. Of my boys he is the romantic, passionate and idealistic and hopelessly impractical about everything -- the most like my Andrew.” She picks up her watering can again. “Sherlock needs you, John.”

John blinks, shifts a bit. “Oh, I – Mrs Holmes—”

“Adella.”

“Adella,” John says, cheeks going hot.

“You’re not the type to go about letting your passions consume you. This is not meant as an insult,” Adella adds calmly, “merely an observation. You’re steady where Sherlock is impulsive, calm where Sherlock is rash. You are his compliment, Captain Watson, and if Sherlock is determined to see this through he’s going to need you to survive it.”

It’s really rather startling how alike Sherlock and Mycroft are when they decide to stare. It’s all about the eyes. “You’re both lucky,” is all he says, and drinks his coffee.

***

It’s no more than ten minutes after John’s little bombshell - the topic of which Sherlock refuses to acknowledge in the presence of Mycroft - that he’s shucked off to work with Irene and her cronies, leaving Sherlock to accept his fate and play the role of Imbecilic Aide to the Parliamentary Undersecretary of State.

Wilhelm is fifty-eight, tall and round and one of the most obnoxious people Sherlock has ever had the misfortune to meet. Another Cold War relic, he’d stayed in power by making concessions to every lobbyist and fellow politician who could potentially sustain his career, generally without looking down the road to see how those promises were largely lacking in any kind of logistical feasibility and were often contradictory in nature. Sherlock quickly discovered that while he wasn’t entirely incompetent he was exceptionally myopic when it came to his own shortcomings.

“The blue file, Oscar.” He meant the green file, but the last time Sherlock had made an unasked for substitution Wilhelm had just sighed and commented on how poorly Mycroft must think of him to send such a sub-par replacement for the duration of this trip, while Sherlock bit his tongue and tried not to stalk away.

Sherlock gave him the blue file.

The day was interminable; boring, pointless meetings with horrid, useless people, none of whom seemed to realize the danger they were in, and none of whom stood out as a potential mole. It was possible Moriarty had placed someone on the security side of he proceedings - was fairly a given, considering his propensity for going overboard - but he would like the thrill of pushing around someone more high profile than that.

He saw John only in passing as the convention made their way from the meeting room on the thirty-seventh floor to the hotel’s reception hall, where a stage had been rigged for the musical entertainment and the masturbatory comments of congratulations between invitees. John had been dressing down an agent - CIA by the look of him - about something he found unsatisfactory, all his lines sharp and brilliant. Sherlock had nearly tripped over a chair and Wilhelm looked at him like he was hopeless, while Sherlock bit back the impulse to alert him that his mistress had in fact left him for someone ten years younger and still capable of getting it up. He conceived of new ways to torment Mycroft every fifteen minutes.

The reception itself is utterly pointless, one hundred and twenty odd people dressed to impress each other and strengthen their political alliances over three thousand pounds a plate. When Irene made an appearance at their table it wasn’t a complete surprise, given the looks she started sending Sherlock’s way the moment they sat down. She wasn’t happy, though to be fair Sherlock couldn’t remember a time when he’d seen otherwise. She made a casual approach, asking Wilhelm if she could appropriate Sherlock under the guise of obtaining the Undersecretary’s schedule. “Try to keep it straight,” Wilhelm warns, turning back to his cohorts and his drink, while Irene not so subtly drags Sherlock away.

“What have you got?” she asks right in the middle of the crowd, where absolutely no one is paying them any mind.

“He’s a buffoon and a mediocre politician at best, and none of his holdings seem interesting enough to have earned Moriarty’s interest.”

“Nothing to indicate why there’d be a target painted on his back?”

“No more than the rest of them,” Sherlock replies, absently scanning the crowd. While Wilhelm had some likely illegal connections to a petrol group and some definitely illegal holdings in overseas accounts, that hardly singled him out in this crowd.

“So the focus should be on Fischer then,” Irene says.

“Oscar.” Sherlock turns to see John, who’s made his way to Sherlock’s side and is now standing at attention, looking serious but not upset. His gaze hovers over the point on Sherlock’s arm Irene was holding on to - likely to keep him from stampeding back to Wilhelm and blowing his own cover - but he doesn’t appear bothered by it.

“What do you know?” Sherlock asks.

John keeps his voice low. “I’m not sure if the security here is intentionally daft or if you’ve just hired a bad lot,” he directs at Irene, “but this is a disaster waiting to happen.”

Irene’s expression is glacial, but it’s not directed at John. “What’s the most likely threat?”

“Perimeter breach, south entrance. I sent people over there but quite frankly I wouldn’t trust them to lock a door properly.”

Irene nods and takes out her cell phone; almost immediately people start moving, though Sherlock can guarantee they are the only guests to notice.

“Keep an eye on Fischer,” Irene tells John, pointing him out with her line of sight. “Detail assignment was taken out of my hands for this event.”

“Why?”

“I wasn’t given a reason,” Irene answers, and a look flashes across her face that could cut glass.

John looks almost commiserating, for a moment, before turning his attention to Sherlock. “Did you find anything?”

“I’ll text you later,” Sherlock answers, and John nods, then turns to disappear back into the crowd.

“You doctor,” Irene comments, “is full of surprises.”

Sherlock is cut off from answering when noises of shock and confusion start rippling through the crowd, a wave of fear that passes over everything like a fog. Sherlock turns around just in time to watch a young woman step gingerly across the stage. Her right eye is swollen shut, and her lip is cut and still bleeding. She’s got a bomb strapped to her chest.

There are screams in the audience and shouts of outrage; Irene is gone before Sherlock can pinpoint what direction she’d left in. The woman stares sightlessly out toward the crowd; when she speaks her voice is hoarse and cracked.

“Evening, ladies and gentlemen. We have some very important business to discuss.” She pauses, and Sherlock knows with absolute certainty she’s just waiting to hear what Moriarty will tell her to relay next. “I’ve made it very clear to all of you what was expected, and in return received nothing but failure.” She swallows, a nearly audible sound in the sudden silence. “It has been... disappointing.”

No one in the audience moves. “Know that if you should survive this time... you won’t the next.” She gasps and tears trail from her eyes, but she’s blinking herself awake, and her last words are clearly her own. “Patricia, I love-”

The vest goes off and the room explodes.

***

Of the many ways John has envisioned his death – for he has envisioned it, many times – he thinks an explosion would be the worst way to die. Not because he fears pain, but for the singularly horrible fate of being wiped from the Earth as if he’d never existed, unremembered, unburied, and stripped away as if he’d never even lived. Forgotten.

She’s torn to pieces, the young woman. She takes thirty four with her, wounds a further sixty. There’s very little left of her but for bits here and there, and a portion of her skull that a paramedic finds in the chest cavity of one of the dead men who were closest to the blast. It isn’t that odd, regardless of what the young, vomiting MI6 agent beside him thinks – John’s seen it before, found all sorts of things in the wounds of blast victims. This doesn’t even make it into the top five.

It’s a small piece of skull -- a bit of hair, gristle, the yellow bone parchment of her severed jaw. The portion of her ear that somehow wasn’t destroyed has a small diamond earring through the lobe.

“I’m so dreadfully sorry,” he tells her, careful not to let the earring fell out as he places the skull fragment into the coroner’s bag, too empty by half.

Seven hours of this and he’s just about reached his capacity of what he can handle in a single go. It would be different if Sherlock were there, and that John is measuring his life in Before Sherlock and After Sherlock speaks to the tangled web they’ve woven through each other’s lives, to that new, terrifying feeling John can’t think about, let alone name. Still, it would be different if Sherlock were here. He would make some sense of this pointlessness, would give John some kind of perspective. Instead, he’s off running after Willhelm without so much as a scratch on him, thanks be to Christ, so at least there’s that.

He unsnaps his gloves, stares down into the dead man’s gaping chest cavity. Something about the explosion hadn’t sat well with him, not since he’d heard it in the service entry, felt it under his shoes and vibrating along his ribs. John’s seen, heard, felt many explosions throughout his military service, and this was different from what Moriarty had used before. It had lacked finesse, stability, symmetry, just enough that John wondered, offhand, if it had really been Moriarty at all.

“But it’s the same M.O.,” John mutters to himself.

“What?”

“You say it was a vest? Strapped to her?” John asks the MI6 agent, Lawson, for what feels like the tenth time. “Nothing else on her?”

“I—that is I’m not certain what--”

“For heaven’s sake,” John snaps, stands up. “Go and help Agent Miller.” He thrusts out the coroner’s bag. “And so help me, if I find out you were too queasy to get as many pieces of her back as possible, I’ll have your job.”

Lawson pales with satisfying speed and doesn’t so much as grimace as he takes the bag. Just so, John thinks, watching him scurry off.

“You’re enjoying this,” he hears from behind, and he turns, gives the woman the sort of look he’d forgotten he knew, the kind of look he’d so often used on the new recruits he’d been saddled with. He feels a vicious stab of satisfaction when she freezes.

“Thirty four people are dead, nothing about this is entertaining,” he says calmly. “You’ve got one of those smart phones, yeah?”

Irene’s eyebrow climbs up. “Yes.”

“Probably plugged in to all sorts of government things.”

“Where exactly is this going, Doctor?”

“What does your government know about Colonel Sebastian Moran?”

Never has John seen a woman’s face shut down so completely as Irene’s does at the mention of Moran. If this wasn’t deadly serious he’d accuse her of playacting because it reminds him, eerily, of Mycroft. “No, no, no, you don’t get to do that, Ms. Adler.” He slashes a hand through the air. “Government secrets are all well and fine, but people are dying – have died -- because of this. This isn’t a time for espionage.”

“This is exactly the time,” Irene says, takes a step back. “This is as far as I can help you, Doctor Watson. The CIA isn’t even here – and even if it were, I’m not going to jeopardize the United States by shifting your bomber’s focus away from you.”

John feels a rush of hatred so strong it burns the back of his throat. “You mean you won’t help us. You won’t help Sherlock.

“As of this moment the FBI is on its way in. We’re going to coordinate with them and your MI6 to find out who the bomber was, how they got in past our security, and the identity of the woman. Until such a time as we can identify either James Moriarty or Sebastian Moran as the bombers, this problem remains solely yours.”

It’s cold, hard, calculating, and above all brutally honest, and John has to turn away before he does something he’ll regret.

His phone vibrates, and he tosses the gloves to the ground, digs into the pocket of the ridiculous suit until he can find it.

There are four missed calls from Lestrade, and a text from Sherlock.

Found something. Back
alley, left of service entrance.

SH

The back alley is deserted, nothing like the throng of service personal and police inside. Sherlock is nowhere to be found and John hisses through his teeth, pulls out his phone again. There are bars out here, at least, this far out of the blast zone.

Lestrade answers on the second ring. “Bleeding Christ, why won’t either of you answer your fucking phone?” he bellows down the line. “John he—”

***

This is how it happens:

Sebastian has had a great time with the Boss so far - getting to fly all over the world, being given access to weapons that make his mouth water and plenty of people to test them on. There’s no need now to conserve ammunition or pretend to care about the differences between an ally or an enemy. Hell, Jim let him blow up half a room earlier tonight and only smiled when Sebastian said he wanted to suit her up himself. Sebastian’s pretty sure he’ll be dead before his next birthday, and if he was the type to explain these sorts of things to others he’d tell them he finds that fact absolutely brilliant.

This moment, however, is a whole new level of fun.

John is finally outside, talking on his mobile and scanning the alley, searching for someone who isn’t there, who doesn’t even know he’s supposed to be. “Sherlock!” he keeps calling out, unaware of how ridiculous he looks, how ignorant. He’s still wearing the Caraceni suit that made the Boss scowl and complain that there were only seven hundred created in a year and John Watson shouldn’t be allowed to have one of them. Sebastian is looking forward to ruining something that valuable.

He lifts his L115A1 slightly and when he pulls the trigger the recoil is better than any kiss. In less than an instant he sees John tilt sideways and drop to his knees, watches him fall hard against the nearest skip. Sebastian is immediately up and running, just leaves his gear and takes off, because for whatever reason the Boss wanted Holmes to see this.

When he gets to the ground John’s already been hauled into the van and is splayed out, shuddering uncontrollably in pain. “Get the coat off him, take it off,” Sebastian orders, jumping in and closing the doors. The van skids away as the boys drag the jacket off and John groans in agony. Blood is seeping into his shirt and waistcoat.

It’s close, it’s so close. Sebastian tears the shirt open and pulls it back. “Get a light on it.” A torch shines in their direction and Sebastian crows in glee. “Look at that John - look at it, I did it, I got it right in the same exact spot.”

He leans forward to get a better look at the hole in John’s shoulder, entranced by his own handiwork. He can barely tell the old wound from the new one. “That is so fucking ace,” he breathes over the damage.

“Moran,” John gasps out, starting to go into shock.

“At your service,” Sebastian pleasantly agrees. “Wrap him up boys, we’re not allowed to let him bleed out just yet.” He pats John’s damaged shoulder and sits back to look at his face, at the glassy-eyed expression of torment as his shoulder is manhandled into a bandage. “The games are just getting started.”

***

Sherlock has thoroughly exhausted his supply of patience with Wilhelm, and is rapidly depleting his reserves. The Undersecretary has spent nearly every moment since the explosion gibbering in panic and near incoherence to anyone who will listen, and requesting Sherlock bring him yet more tea. Sherlock is wholly occupied relaying information to and from various other aides - all of whom are too harried to be petrified by their own near death experiences - and translating it back to the Undersecretary in terms basic enough for him to understand. Currently Wilhelm is on his phone bemoaning his reputation; by all accounts his response had been to skitter out of the room at a break neck speed before attempting to monopolize the attention of as many of the EMTs as he possibly could for his decidedly minor injuries.

Sherlock has learned enough through these phone calls about the deceased to establish a connection to Moriarty between far more of the attendees than he would have initially suspected. Whether Moriarty had recruited these people knowing their connections or put them together once they’d become ensnared in his plan is uncertain, but Sherlock has enough evidence to track the man down through them. He just needs something to narrow down the suspect list, just one damn thing.

When the phone rings for the eighth time in the last three minutes Sherlock snatches it up as a way to stop the sound rather than from any desire to speak to whoever was on the other end. “This is the aide for Undersecretary Wilhelm.”

“You lost your phone,” Irene opens, if one could call that an opening. “At the scene of the accident, yes?”

“Obviously, and why is that of value?”

“We needed to know.” She sounds cool but distracted - Sherlock is guessing she’s had some kind of argument with Mycroft, because he’s the only one who really gets under her skin. “In twenty-five minutes Undersecretary Wilhelm will be attending a meeting with several of the other surviving delegates. As soon as he leaves come here, alley nine twenty-three. John’s been shot.”

Sherlock grips the phone tighter than is normal, but otherwise does nothing unusual or noteworthy; Wilhelm was too busy nattering on down his mobile to bother with Sherlock anyway. “Where is he now?” he asks, trying to mentally pull up the map of New York City he’d studied on the way over, figure out which hospital is closest.

“We don’t know; he’s missing.”

What?” Sherlock snarls, drawing a moment of silent surprise from Wilhelm. “Since when?”

“Evidence suggests some time between two and three thirty this morning, but no one noticed until almost five.” Irene doesn’t sound remotely bothered by Sherlock’s outburst, but she’s not giving an inch either. “Twenty-five minutes, Sherlock. You come one minute earlier, or blow your cover in any way, and I will keep you out of the scene and make sure you are no longer appraised of any information relevant to this case.” Her voice is like iron.

“Very good,” Sherlock replies, and calmly hangs up, because Wilhelm is still looking at him warily. Sherlock stares at the desk until he’s no longer completely consumed by the noise in his head, a sudden cacophony of sound that he knows won’t go away until he’s found - until John is- until he knows-

“Who was that, Oscar?” Wilhelm asks, his mobile pressed against his shoulder.

Sherlock looks up. “Reminder about your meeting.” He affects concern, though it’s probably a poor showing. “You hadn’t mentioned it.”

“I didn’t think you’d remember it anyway,” Wilhelm replies, already turning back to his phone call. Sherlock runs a hand across his face and starts counting down the time.

Twenty four minutes later he sprints the entire way to the alley. There are agents around, but no indication that the NYPD are involved at all. It looks like an entirely CIA affair, for all the good that will do any of them. Irene is at the end of the alley, her eyes scanning everything with a display of distaste that presents as the only discernible way to tell she's bothered. Her very presence at the site when there's so much else to do makes Sherlock wonder if she considers John already dead.

"Sniper shot to the shoulder, knocked him back into the dumpster, he was picked up by three men, the shooter joined them after," she recites as he approaches, not looking at him, calmly watching her men work. "They were in and out in under five minutes."

"Which shoulder?" Sherlock asks.

Irene's expression is one of annoyance, which means she's very, very upset. "The left."

"It's Moran," Sherlock replies, turning to crouch next to the skip; John's blood is splattered against it. Sherlock can see the way he fell, the expression on his face, the way each second must now be a torment. There is a startling moment when Sherlock almost vomits.

"Sherlock," Mycroft says as a greeting, his approach having been drowned out by the work going on around him. He sounds bothered but it’s the way someone sounds when they've been stuck in traffic, when dinner is late. There’s nothing Sherlock could even generously title as concern.

Sherlock has never hated him more, he thinks, as he surges up to shove his brother against the brick wall. "We trusted you, I was actually stupid enough to trust that you wouldn’t use us solely as pawns for once, Mycroft. You knew something like this was going to happen and you did nothing to stop it."

"I wouldn't allow this to happen if I could avoid it, surely you know that," Mycroft says, infuriatingly calm. Sherlock shoves Mycroft into the building harder, hard enough to bruise. But it doesn’t get his point across, isn’t nearly an accurate enough depiction of what he’d like to say, so he makes a split-second decision, and punches Mycroft hard in the jaw.

The agents have him restrained before he can move again, but Mycroft’s expression is enough to make him try anyway. Pity, there's such a disgusting display of pity on his face, and if nothing else Sherlock would really feel better getting to beat it out of him. Mycroft knows everything but what matters, the way he always does, he’s utterly useless and if there is one thing Sherlock will never forgive him for it will be that.

"Sherlock," Irene says, then steps up to Sherlock, all 5'6" of her, and arrests his attention. "Go back to Wilhelm and figure this out, because right now you're the best shot he has." The agents let him go and Sherlock stares at Mycroft, who rubs a hand across his jaw and gazes back. For the first time Sherlock can remember he looks a little lost.

Sherlock turns on his heel and strides back up the street.

***

Once, not so long ago, John had been fascinated by pain.

Not the physical state of pain, of course -- of that he remained steadfastly against -- but rather he’d been interested in the concept of pain: why, evolutionarily speaking, the mind used pain as an essential part of its natural defense system across almost all forms of life. In human beings pain was a language unique to each person, from the tell-tale aches of a bad mattress, to the sharp heat of appendicitis, to the suffering of childbirth, and even then it couldn’t be quantified -- someone’s torture was another person’s lesser pain, and vice versa. This fascination with pain was what prompted him to become a doctor, an answer the soul-deep call to do everything in his power to stop that pain in others, to understand the reason behind pain’s existence.

It took for him to go to Afghanistan to realize pain wasn’t nearly so interesting when one was experiencing it.

John wakes up in agony. It’s terrible, and terrifying, and he has no idea what’s happening – only that he hurts pain, pain, pain unbearably. His lungs are fisted in a vice grip, and his muscles are cramped all along his left side, and as he tries to move the pain that hits him is overwhelming. Blood, he’s covered in blood too warm to be anything but his own, and when he breathes in he smells desert and dust.

He’s on the floor – gray concrete, ice cold – in a cramped room that smells of piss and death, and dark but for a thread of light under a steel door. There isn’t room to stretch out, or stand, and lights go off behind his eyelids, bees buzz in his ears. Outside he can hear the Afghanis arguing rapid-fire and furious.

He’s bleeding terribly under the bandage Moran muscled him into. The pain is a lit fire up his left side, centering in the furrow of his shoulder, and if he were in a place to wonder at it, he’d realize the feeling was far from familiar – before he’d been fighting for his life in the middle of a desert, had barely even felt the wound. Now it was everything he could think of, the center of his universe in which he rotated. The last thing he wants to do is touch it, he doesn’t want to touch it -- such a stupid natural defense, pain – but no one is there to do it for him. If he doesn’t do something, he’s going to bleed to death.

Reality flickers behind his eyelids, meshing and mixing with the past. He shoves himself up until he’s sitting against the concrete wall don’t think about the room the size a coffin oh Christ can’t get up and watches his hand reach into a vest he knows isn’t there, past a gun whose weight is but a phantom. He blinks rapidly to clear his eyes, mind swimming, and stares down at the suit, the bloody fucking suit without enough pockets. There’s nothing in the pockets, when he digs into them – nothing, but for the pink phone.

He inhales so hard he chokes, coughs violently what is this what is this how and turns it on, ignores the smear of red he leaves on the screen when he dials Sherlock’s number by heart.

The ring doesn’t go through.

He tries every number he can remember -- Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, his mum, the old flat they lived in when he was twelve. He tries 911, 411, every variation; he tries the operator.

Eventually, he slides to one side. He holds the phone in front of him, stares at the over-bright screen, and giggles until it turns to laughter, until it doesn’t sound funny anymore, until hysteria kicks in, until he’s kicking the door with all his strength and pounding the walls to either side of him. He shoves his wrist into his mouth as the scream burns up from his chest, rips out of his throat with such force he feels like he’s been torn open, and breathes with such violence his entire body shakes. Murder is all he can think about, until that part of him he kept so tightly shut away – the side of him that had leveled guns and taken lives, the soldier -- is all he sees, all he feels, becomes all he is.

The world goes away, and later, later, when John opens his eyes again, Sebastian Moran is smiling at him.

Moran is also snapping his fingers right in front of John’s face, once, twice, three times, catching his attention. "Hi Bambi." When he notices the recognition in John's eyes he leans back, smiling and eager like a puppy. “You with us now?"

For an instant John has no idea what's happening. He expected Moran, of course he had -- the man had been the one to kidnap him, after all. What he doesn't expect is to wake up lashed to a chair, so cold he's shuddering. It’s dark, very dark but for a single light bulb over his head, burning into his eyes. "Moran."

"I didn't give you too much, did I?" Sebastian asks, in a freakish parody of real concern. "You looked pretty fucked up - I swear you started having some sort of seizure or something, I don't really know."

John makes a noise, low in his throat. It feels like he’s swallowed crushed glass, and on the back of his tongue he tastes the bitter metal flavor of his own blood. The muscles in his neck loosen and he lets his head fall forward, staring down into his lap, at the ropes across his thighs. It’s almost a compliment, to be tied this securely.

Moran walks back to his chair - right inside the single circle of light - and splays out on it. "Do you see what I did?" he says, nodding his head in John's shoulder. "Fucking amazing, right?"

It makes John remember, all too suddenly, that he’s been shot, but the horrible pain he’d woken up to is muted somehow under layers and layers of wool. Everything is, including his hearing, his eyesight. There are colors dancing along his corneas that don’t exist in real life, and his hearing is muffled and gray and sharp on the high notes. He squeezes his eyes shut and tries to focus. “What…what did you give me?”

Moran laughs. "You're the doc, Bambi, you tell me. Something in a syringe; we're supposed to hang out together until you're no longer under threat of asphyxiation." He sits forward in his chair, suddenly intent. "Do you think you survived your capture because you had the medical experience, or were you one of those guys who'd suck a dick to live?"

John rolls his head back, to the side, stares into the dark corners of the room. He has no idea where he is, if the echo of Moran’s voice is the drugs or reality, only that the light above makes adjusting his eyes to the dark impossible. He shudders, bucks back against the chair back once, twice, clenches his fists where they’re tied to the chair arms. He hears the Afghanis talking behind Moran somewhere, past and reality mixing with violent beauty. Their voices are red and orange and yellow; John struggles, chokes out, “Sherlock.”

"I mean it's pretty obvious since you're sucking dick now for free, but you never know, maybe they fucked you up in the head somehow, made you think you like that sort of thing." When this fails to get a response Moran frowns. "Hey, doc, I'm talking to you here." He drags his chair a little closer. "Don't be such a fucking pussy, it's just a few drugs and some blood loss. Fuck, you'd think I cut off your fucking arm."

John yanks at his bonds harder, writhes. “Sherlock. Where is Sherlock? What did you do to him?”

"I bent him over and fucked him stupid," Moran snipes. "I haven't done a damn thing to him, he's for the Boss - now can you stop being such a fucking faggot for one bloody minute please?" If Moran were capable of pleading this is probably what it would sound like, and it's really nothing even close. "I want to know what happened near Pakistan."

“Kabul,” John says, can’t quite help himself. The feeling is familiar, so familiar, makes his tongue loose and his muscles feel like he’s trying to move through quick sand. He rolls his head back again, glares through watering eyes. “Sodium Pentothal. You bloody bastard.”

"Oh come on John, it's only a little fun. If you'd just tell me I wouldn't have to." Moran grins, wide and freakishly guileless, as though he genuinely has no idea he's done anything wrong, as if he's unaware of the concept altogether. "How'd they get the drop on you?"

John bites his tongue until it hurts, squeezes and opens his eyes in a vain attempt to get them to focus. He thinks maybe he hears footsteps close, but he can’t be certain – his heart is beating so fast. For a second John thinks he’s back in the tiny room – he can hear his lieutenants screaming from far away. They have children and families, not like him, it should be him. “T-the caravan. Supplies. Ambush.”

"You know Jim got me the records of your capture, and you were one of the only ones to survive. And the other one, well he's dead now anyway, so it's really just you." Moran stands up, because there is someone coming closer, footsteps clicking in a corridor. "You're a fucking hardarse, Bambi." He mock salutes John in a way that is probably more insulting because he's actually means it. "I'm really going to enjoy seeing how this goes."

The footsteps are loud, so loud, echoing like shots going off. There is a part of John, cowardly and small, that wants to beg and plead, to tell Moran that he and Sherlock will go away, that they’ll never bother anyone again, that they’ll go and set up a shop someplace where no one even speaks English.

“You don’t have to do this,” he tries, swallows until his throat clicks.

Moran stops in his departure, turns back. "I don't have to do anything, John." He leans in close until their foreheads are nearly touching, close enough that John can't look away. "But I really, really want to."

***

It is ten seconds after Sherlock punches him that Mycroft decides he’s rather had enough.

He’s done as he was supposed to. He toed the party line, made nice with the Americans, let the little mice scurry about at their work. He even listened to Irene, which was a miscalculation on his part, he sees now – sometimes Mycroft forgets she’s a young woman of barely thirty three, and hardly has the life experiences he does. She’s very innocent, in her own way, measured by his own standards.

He’d done as he was supposed to do. But now Mycroft is rather tired of it all, and he wants to rescue John and tuck him and his brother away in some dusty corner of the family estate until such a time as Sherlock stops looking so terrified.

Mycroft does what Sherlock never wants to do but which is, of course, completely necessary.

He phones Mother.

Adella is perusing a story to be printed in tomorrow's Guardian and starting on her nightcap when her eldest phones. It's barely noon in New York, and he should be far too busy trailing around after some freakish child with poor impulse control and too much access to explosives to phone her. "What's he done now?" she answers, because, as ever, this will be about Sherlock.

“Things have gone pear shaped Mummy,” he answers calmly, sliding into his car. “I need you to please make contact with that chap you know from the American cabinet. I need information on a criminal everyone is refusing to admit exists.”

“I don't know why you insist on involving me in these things Mycroft, you're a full grown man and I am retired, despite what you like to think when it's convenient for you." She loves her child, but as she takes another sip she thinks there are days. "What difference should it make to me that another one of your or your brother's plans has hit an inevitable snag? If I've taught you anything it should be how to handle these sorts of concerns on your own."

Mycroft breathes in slowly and silently, counts to five in his head, then to ten, and wonders at parents and their ability to make one feel an inch tall while missing the point entirely. Should he ever be blessed with children he thinks he’ll always have an ear for them, regardless of how ridiculous their plans and schemes were. “Mummy, you don’t understand—”

"That's highly unlikely, but do feel free to explain anyway."

Dad always did say Sherlock got his personality from Mummy. He hears her words and it’s Sherlock, and unexpectedly a well of emotion rises in his chest, no matter how hard to tries to shove it back down. “John Watson was shot and kidnapped tonight. His blood, phone, and keys were discovered at the scene of the crime, eight hours after an explosion ripped apart the energy conference we were attending in an effort to track down James Moriarty."

There’s a pause while Adella calmly puts down her drink and picks up her other mobile, sending out a short message. "Expect this situation to be resolved in the next twenty four hours - in the meantime do you think you can keep your brother from being shot, stabbed, maimed, or killed?"

“No,” Mycroft says, far too much a Holmes to wince, even in tone of voice. “An unfortunate piece of miscommunication lead Sherlock to strike me not ten minutes ago. I doubt very much that there is anything I can outwardly do to keep him safe. You didn’t see his face, Mummy,” he blurts suddenly, clenching his teeth.

After a tense moment, he adds, “Sebastian Moran. The CIA won’t give us any information.”

Adella pinches the bridge of her nose, since no one is there to see her do it. "I'm tired of telling you not to make yourself into such a convenient target for him." She opens up her laptop, where a series of files are waiting for her. "Sebastian Moran, dishonorably discharged from British Special Forces in June of last year for the murder of unarmed civilians while in Afghanistan. Volatile, disrespectful of command - goodness, they'll let in just about anyone these days -" She pauses, because the words on the page tell her exactly what's going to happen next. "Elizabeth should have received the files, Mycroft, but quite frankly they're not going to do you any good. Unfortunately, Captain Watson is on his own now."

“That’s not the news I wanted, mother,” he answers calmly, reaching out instantly for Elizabeth to snap her blackberry into his hand. He takes a moment to read, closes his eyes. “There’s nothing you can do? Twenty four hours from now John could be long dead.”

“That seems the most accurate assessment.” She puts a hand to her lips, thinks. “I’ll do what I can but truthfully you should begin preparing for the worst. If you stubborn children would just listen every once and a while-”

“Yes mother, I know,” Mycroft cuts her off. It just slips out, he can’t help it -- and neither, he suddenly decides, will he apologize for it. “Please, do all you can to help Sherlock. I fear what will happen to him if John should die. Or perhaps more accurately, what will happen to all of us.”

“That’s the first intelligent thing you’ve said to me all day,” she answers, then hangs up so she can begin to make arrangements.

***

Jim gets to make his big, dramatic entrance, not that John is alert enough to really notice. Still, it’s gratifying to see the look on his face, the underpinnings of fear the drugs won’t let him hide. He’s so entertaining Jim momentarily considers altering his plans, but really that just won’t do - there’s far bigger game out there to catch. “Hi, John.”

John Watson is a very special part of his plan. The most special, in fact. Jim had let Moran have his fun, because Sebastian always knows how to have a good time, but he’d warned him to keep John alive and coherent. There’s so much more they could do to him, things Sebastian’s little mind couldn’t fathom, things that Jim had been planning for ever so long.

He sits, adjusts his suit carefully along the natural folds. They make quite the pair, the two of them -- one soiled and bloody and sweaty, and of course himself, clean and pressed. Jim’s going to take great delight in watching the rest of that suit John had the unmitigated gall to wear unravel before his eyes.

He watches John’s eyes track his hands. Ever the soldier, he’s trying to figure a way out, to see if Jim’s carrying weapons. He is delighted. “We’re going to play a game.” he says as he nods at Sebastian, who grins and steps out of the room. “I’m going to ask you questions, and you’re going to answer them, and if you’re very, very good, at the end you’ll still have all your fingers and toes. Sound like fun?”

John stares at him, mouth resolutely shut. Jim steps forward and very slowly, very deliberately, presses a finger in John’s bullet wound. “That was the first question, but you’re a little tired, and a lot slow, so I’ll give you another try.” He pulls his hand back and John gasps, his entire left side shaking. “Question one: do you know what I want from you?”

John stares up at Jim, his eyes unfocused, his mouth a little slack as he tries to control his breathing. “You want me dead.”

“Come on, you can do better than that. Of course I want you dead eventually. That’s not on the agenda just yet though, I’m afraid. You see, John, you have somehow come to possess something most people aren’t aware even exists.” He starts walking around John, examining this filthy, old, used waste of time and energy. “You have Sherlock’s heart.”

“And you want it for yourself,” John murmurs, sounding almost drunken.

“No,” Jim says, as Sebastian steps back into the room, “I want it gone.” He tucks his hands into his pockets. “You see, hearts are meddlesome things, Sherlock’s in particular. That twisted, beautiful mind is weighed down by emotions, so many emotions, and somehow, John, they’re all tangled up in you. It’s the perfect solution, don’t you see?”

Sebastian sets down the duffle bag -- it clinks, loudly. “Not that we can’t have a little fun in the meantime,” Jim adds, smiling. “Killing you is simply too easy.”

He watches, fascinated, as Sebastian opens the bag and starts setting his toys out one by one, lovingly caressing each instrument. John, so stupid and stoic, starts shaking hard enough to rattle his teeth. And why not? After all, Sebastian was a master with his toys, and he learned from the best.

“Oh, didn’t you know John?” Jim asks. “Tell me, Seb, how long did the Afghanis have you?”

“Two years.”

“Two years,” Jim says, smiling brightly. “You learned a lot from them, didn’t you?”

“You know it Boss,” Sebastian answers, beaming, setting down a wrench the size of a man’s forearm.

The next few hours pass in a delightful back and forth. Sebastian does his job superbly, as usual, and John gradually loses his ability to withhold anything of value from them. Lucky for him Jim already knows all the facts; it’s not as though a damaged ex-soldier ex-doctor would know more in his life than Jim has forgotten in a day or dismissed as irrelevant. What Jim’s looking for are the intangibles, the things that make Sherlock look twice at this worthless animal, that make him consent to relations with John.

The idea makes him angry, furious, that John Watson should have his handprints over something that Jim has staked as his own. Things get a little hairy, then, and eventually John passes out from pain. Jim takes a moment to compose himself but that’s a failed attempt once John wakes up and is insane enough to spit in Jim’s face after Jim makes a comment about John’s sister.

John’s shirt is gone, his trousers are stained and ripped, but his shoes, his eight hundred pound shoes are perfectly preserved. John is nothing but a dumb grunt dressing above his station, wrapped up in things that don’t belong to him, that he doesn’t deserve. Everything about his very existence is an insult to Jim, and he wants nothing more than to rip John apart until there’s nothing left. “Take them off.” Jim orders Sebastian, his hands clenched into fists in his pockets. “What do you think, John - right, or left?”

He watches Sebastian muscle the shoes off, pull the wool socks. That he can feel the cold of the concrete under his own shoes speaks to how freezing it is -- he can’t even imagine what it’s like in bare feet. He feels his mouth turn up, unable to help himself. “It’s a tough choice, I’ll give you that. You’re left handed, after all -- you step first with your left. Crushing every bone in your foot would give you the most hilarious limp for the rest of your life. Captain Gimpy, they’d call you.” He goes around behind John’s back, leans down over his ear. “On the other hand, your right foot is the one you use to steady yourself when you shoot. Taking that foot out of the equation would be better for everyone involved, don’t you think?”

“Oh!” Jim says, mock surprise. “That reminds me - I gave you a little gift earlier.” He reaches into John’s pocket and pulls out the pink phone, watches John grimace at the sight of it. “My sincerest apologies; I forgot to unlock it before I handed it over.”

“Let’s make a phone call, how about that? Find out how Sherlock is doing without you hanging over him.” He dials, pleased at the speed with which his call is picked up on the other end. “I’d like to see how our favorite consulting detective is doing, if you don’t mind.” Almost immediately there’s a live feed, Sherlock sitting in front of a desk, bent low, scrambling frantically through papers. Jim grins and turns to show John. “Look at that, our boy hard at work.”

John’s roar of rage is surprising -- and hilarious -- as is the way he fights violently in the chair that isn’t going anywhere. He struggles and yells even though his voice is almost gone, and Jim smiles, soaks it right in. Yes. Yes, this is what he’d wanted from the beginning, and that John is giving it to him feels like a gift.

He laughs outright when John’s struggles upend the chair sideways, sending him crashing to the ground. John screams until the pain and the rage mix into a delicious swirl, like the chocolate butter pecan ice cream Jim loved as a child. He swears if he were to lick the sweat pouring from John’s face he’d be able to taste it; as it is he can smell it, sticky sweet. That Sherlock will soon see John like this, a shell of a man, is the whipped cream on top.

Jim grins, nudges John’s face with the toe of his shoe. “The club, Sebastian.”

***

If Sherlock looked distracted before he must now seem completely absent. Wilhelm’s words only filter through the mental chaos about sixty percent of the time, and never with any sense of priority. Sherlock is too busy sorting through the data, dragging up phone records and charming other aides into revealing schedules and enemies and their bosses’ various infidelities. None of it is enough.

He can’t focus the way he usually does, is distracted by the internal sirens constantly wailing in the background. He hasn’t sleep in nearly three days, hasn’t eaten for longer and John’s not here to distract him, to point out the tedious and the monotonous and the unavoidable necessities. John’s job is to notice all the wrong things so Sherlock can focus on the right ones. There are tendrils of panic snaking down his veins, tying in startling, frozen knots around his organs because the odds are that John is as good as dead, whatever Sherlock does to track him down in the giant haystack of New York City. Moriarty isn’t going to let John walk away from him the same person, if he makes it that far at all.

He shudders in spite of himself.

Oh, my,” Wilhelm murmurs behind him, gasping with his natural theatricality. “That’s just awful, Oscar.”

What?” Sherlock snaps, not bothering to turn from the desk. He drags his hands through his hair think, think harder. “What now?”

“I’m just so sorry,” Wilhelm says, and wonder of wonders as he approaches the regret in his voice sounds genuine. “That poor boy; they’ve started breaking the bones in his foot.”

Every hair on the back of Sherlock’s neck stands on end. His eyes flick up to look out the window, to see in the reflection Wilhelm’s approaching figure behind him, pistol in his right hand.

“I’m so sorry, Mr Holmes,” Wilhelm says. “But I really have no choice.”

Sherlock goes up and the gun comes down and everything very quickly goes black.

 

***

Sherlock wakes with the sense that something is very, very wrong. It’s immediately apparent he has a head injury, and his insides feel somehow rearranged, like they'd been beaten into different shapes. It's surprising because Moriarty isn't the type to do that, he likes Sherlock in his own perverted way. He already knows Wilhelm was too guilt-ridden to inflict such excessive damage, which just left - Moran. Sherlock sits ups slowly, aware that his shirt is no longer tucked in, aware of the way the dried blood lining it scrapes across his skin.

"Welcome, Sherlock! You've no idea how pleased I am you've made it."

Sherlock turns around, wincing as his head and stomach protest. "John," he blurts before he can help himself.

Moriarty, standing with his hands in his pockets, utterly at ease, casts a disgusted glance down by his side. John is on the ground, tied up and gagged and laying on his right side, looking mostly dead.

Jim drinks in Sherlock’s horror like he would lemonade on a hot summer’s day; wants to bathe in it, rub it all over himself, soak in it until his skin tingles. The concrete is painted in beautiful swirls of color, red and pink and brown, and all the shades in between. If Jim were so inclined he’d use all that color to recreate Sherlock’s expression, that gorgeous, stunned look on his face when he sees his stupid little pet.

The symmetry -- the beautiful symmetry. “Oh Sherlock, Sherlock, you’ve made me so happy, I can hardly stand it.” He beams.

Sherlock drags his gaze around the room, tries to take in everything he can, searches for alternatives, any alternative, anything at all. As it stands there’s no way they’ll make it out of the room alive. “What’s the point in all this?”

Moriarty grins, pleased with the obvious opening Sherlock’s given him. “To show you what I can do.” He leans forward on the desk, his hands flat, his expression eager. “The money didn’t impress you, the people didn’t make you blink. But don’t you see? There’s nothing I can’t do, nowhere I can’t go - you’d never be bored again.”

Sherlock stares at Moriarty. “You want me to, what? Be your partner in crime?”

“Of course I do. Just imagine the entire world as one big playground, Sherlock. Imagine the fun we’d have.”

Sherlock shakes his head, half in disbelief and half to try and clear out the incessant fog. “You think I’d be inclined to play along with you now? After all you’ve done?”

“Of course after everything I’ve done. Everything I’ve done is the entire point.” He leans one hip against the desk, tucks his hands in his pockets. “Don’t you want to know? I can spell it out for you, every moment. Getting myself arrested, setting the net for the trap that would be your undoing. You keep falling for the same game, Sherlock, keep underestimating me. Underestimating everyone.”

He jostles John’s head with one foot, watches with satisfaction as it lolls backwards, then settles back where it had been. “It’s a delicious flaw. And after today the only one.”

Moriarty smiles so hard his cheeks must ache, grin stretched across his face. “I led you on a wild goose chase across half of England, and you followed, just like the good boy you are. What’s wonderful about you and that brilliant little mind of yours is you knew all along it was a trap, didn’t you?”

Sherlock coughs, something inside him complaining loudly at his mistreatment. “You weren’t what anyone could politely call subtle.”

“This has all been for you, dearest, the crown jewel on my fabulous career. All my little plans and schemes, my little games -- I’ve been building towards the grand finale, the culmination of my hard work all these years. For a while I thought I’d have to spend my golden retirement with Moran, but then you showed up, a wonderful present just for me.”

Moriarty huffs, fondly exasperated. “Sherlock, don’t you see? I built our playground, but there’s only room for two. I could be anything you want me to be. I could give you anything, or anyone -- you could have me, you could have this.” He leans down a bit, conspiratorial. “I would fuck you, Sherlock, as much as you wanted. You'd never want for that -- I could please you in any way you wanted. You’d never need for anything, ever again.” He straightens. “There is, of course, only one matter of business left to attend to, and I’ve decided to make this easy on you.” Moriarty reaches under the desk, and reemerges holding a gun and what looks like a remote.

Moriarty looks between Sherlock and John, seems to come to some kind of decision. Sherlock can’t read his movements the way he does other people; Moriarty is too unpredictable, too unstable. With him nothing ever means what it’s supposed to. To be honest a part of Sherlock has been loathe to try, because he’s afraid of what he’ll find, and how closely it will resemble what he sees in himself. “Sebastian,” Moriarty calls.

Moran steps into the room with a rifle in his hands and Sherlock feels his entire expression contort into something ugly and violent. He doesn’t bother to hide it. Moran ignores him and waits placidly for Moriarty’s orders. “Wake him up. I don’t want him to miss this.”

Moran steps to John’s side and bends over, slapping John sharply in the face. John grunts quietly but seems unable to surface further; Moran shoulders his rifle and drags John upright. John snaps awake and tries to flail but the rope doesn’t give enough, the knots around his wrists completely unforgiving. He flinches away from Moran and knocks his damaged shoulder into the desk, gasps in pain. Sherlock’s stomach clenches, and then does something wholly unpleasant, spikes him so sharply Sherlock has to blink his vision back into focus.

John mumbles Sherlock’s name around the gag. He looks like he’s been in a car accident.

Sherlock stares at him, tries to visually force John to look less like he’s going to bleed to death at any moment. “John.” The word comes out of his mouth in broken shards.

“This is lovely and all, but I’m going to have to interrupt,” Moriarty announces. Sherlock looks at him but finds his gaze dragging inexorably back to John. His distraction is going to get them both killed.

“I know you Sherlock, much better than you think I do. I know you won’t be able to just walk away from this - you have your pride, after all.” Moriarty puts the gun and the remote on the desk, leans in between them. “So here are your options: you can bin the old and maimed pet here,” he says, tilting his head to gaze contemptuously in John’s direction before staring at Sherlock again, “or I can kill us all at the same time.”

Sherlock swallows, feels his body shaking as if from far away. “Bombs again? Your bag of tricks is getting embarrassingly repetitive.”

Moriarty laughs. “It’s a trick I’d like to see you try - it’s not that easy, fitting an explosive device inside an abdominal cavity without setting it off.” He stands up straight. “You’re taller than the last one though, so that made it a little easier.”

Sherlock stares at him, because for the first time in as long as he can remember he doesn’t want to know, he doesn’t, but his hands are pulling his shirt up, he should have realized, why didn’t he notice-

There’s a long line of stitching extending across his abdomen, like a flap that had been peeled back and resealed, and below it a protruding square. “John.”

Moriarty laughs again, a pleasant, terrifying sound. “Michael was a bit easier in other ways - all that policeman weight he’d gained from sixteen years of being useless. He didn’t even know about it, which we can all attribute to Sebastian’s brilliance.” He golf claps and Moran gives an ironic little bow. “You, on the other hand, are much too lean, and while I dislike the way the symmetry of your body is thrown off you must admit it’s a nice touch.”

John jerks violently in his bonds, and Moriarty seems positively thrilled. “Choices, dearest. I’ve made this as easy as possible for you, because I like you that much. There's John-" and he kicks him as he passes, "-or there's me. Or, more accurately, you."

He leans a hip on the desk casually, crosses his arms. “On the one hand you can choose the bomb, which I will detonate, Sherlock, make no mistake, and you will die, and I will die, and Sebastian will die, and the mongrel will die, and whoever is unfortunate enough to be within a block of this house will probably die as well. Problem solved, and you get to leave this earthly realm knowing you’ve taken that madman with you.” He titters, can’t help himself. “Or, you chose the gun and you put a bullet in his head, in his fucking head, and finally rid the world of John Watson. If you do that, Sherlock, I can promise you that you will never be bored again. I’ve found ways to entertain myself after all these long years, games you cannot even conceive.”

He slides the two instruments forward, then comes around the desk, kneels down and runs his fingers tenderly through Sherlock’s hair. “Choices, Sherlock -- your pet, or the bomb inside you. I know you’ll make the right choice. The only logical choice. You’re a logical man.”

Sherlock forces himself back and to his feet, stomach roiling as the thing inside him shifts, as the dull pain continues to sharpen and fan out in waves from the incision site. It wasn’t supposed to be this way, none of this was supposed to happen. He’s been an unforgivable fool. Moriarty rises next to him, stands behind him as Sherlock looks down at John, who stares silently back.

“Really, Sherlock. Does such an obvious choice require so much consideration?” Moriarty walks around Sherlock, fingers trailing across his back. He goes behind the desk, leans against the cinder-block wall. “Look at him,” he says, a dismissive hand waved in John’s direction. “What is there left to save? You’re really just putting him out of his misery--”

“Stop,” Sherlock says. “Just stop.”

“I can stop it Sherlock, I can make it all better -- you just have to ask.”

Sherlock staggers the few feet to the desk, swallows back bile as the device moves and drives spikes of pain into his side, his back. He knows he’s bleeding internally -- it’s a fiery agony like no other, coiling around his organs like barbed wire.

He drops down on his knees to look John in the eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says, and if it sounds like a plea for absolution then so much the better. “I’m sorry, John.”

John doesn’t appear scared or angry or even bitter, just resigned and impossibly sad. Sherlock opens his mouth to say something, anything, finds that he’s breathing too fast, is almost hyperventilating, and what a waste of a final moment this is, all those things he’ll never get to know--

There’s a loud crack and the entire building shudders, trembles even down in the cellar. They all look up, watch flecks of the ceiling drift down like snowflakes. Moriarty straightens up off the wall and directs a look at Moran. “Go investigate; can’t have anyone interrupting our party down here.”

Moran nods and takes off, like he’s hoping there’s someone up there to kill.

Whether he makes it or not they’ll never know. There is a cacophonous explosion, and plaster rains down, the walls shake and moan, and the very earth sways under their feet. It's so loud, so overwhelming that the scream of metal on metal, and the scrape of the desk as if skitters across the floor, and the shouts of three men go entirely unheard.

It is in that singular moment that the story of Jim Moriarty comes to an abrupt end.

Five gunshots, lightening fast and confident. When his body slumps to the ground John is standing behind him, holding the gun at eye level.

As Sherlock follows Moriarty down, hand still clutching the bomb's remote, all he can think is that he’s never seen anything more beautiful than John Watson splattered in another man’s blood.

***

The silence is astonishing, and John can hear his heart beating from very far away. In the distance there is the pat-pat-pat of gunfire, the rocking explosions of bombs going off somewhere above wherever they are, but John’s less than concerned about that right now.

John doesn’t go to Sherlock first, far too good a soldier to make such an elementary mistake; no, first he limps frantically to the door, using the walls and the furniture as support. Somewhere on the other side Moran is still an active enemy, and as such he throws the bolt, pushes the metal desk across the door, even though his pain has become thumping agony, and the world has gone numb.

He can’t make it across the room again on his feet and so he crawls, dragging himself with his good arm when he can’t make it any further. Moriarty’s chest is still rising and falling, stuttering, blood bubbling at his lips, and John shoves the man’s jacket open, stares down at the carnage his bullets have made. Aortic blood -- mortal wounds, and John grunts, bats Moriarty’s hand, kitten-weak and flailing, out of the way, digs through his pockets. The man tries to make sound but seems to have not yet realized that his esophagus has been destroyed, that he would never speak again.

He snatches the pink phone out of the breast pocket, digs deeper until he finds a wallet, and then finally his prize -- a Swiss army knife. There are no other weapons, John triple checks, and then he leaves Moriarty to die, as he had left them to die in the swimming pool.

Sherlock is slumped on the ground, eyes open and catatonic, and John chokes on a sob, sweeps shaking fingers through Sherlock’s hair over and over and leans down to kiss his slack mouth. “Sherlock,” he croaks, “Sherlock love please don’t do this, don’t do this to me.”

He pulls open Sherlock’s shirt awkwardly, spreads it wide. The line of black stitches is horrific, the lump underneath doubly so. Ice cold sweat springs up all over his body. “It’s alright, it’s alright now, I’m here, I’m going to help you.”

Sherlock stares across the floor, watches dirt fall from the walls and the ceiling, flecks of mold and rat droppings skitter across the cement every time the building trembles. There’s blood splattered across the ground - his and John’s and Jim Moriarty’s. The room looks like it’s held a massacre.

John is rambling, the words distorted by the swelling already growing in his jaw, the obvious concussion, and his even more obvious pain. He’s giving orders and making requests and unconsciously explicating all manner of endearments, and all of it washes over Sherlock, slips away beneath the waves of his panic -- sheer, unfiltered panic. Sherlock’s drowning in it.

John’s right hand moves to the incision site and Sherlock snatches it, flings it away so sharply it’s only luck he doesn’t snap John’s wrist. “Don’t,” he croaks. “Don’t touch it.”

“Sherlock,” John says, low and urgent, “I have to get that thing out of you.”

“No,” Sherlock argues, though he’s not sure why or what he’s even arguing about. “You can’t.”

“I have to, Sherlock, please, let me.”

Across the floor Moriarty gasps, a wet, bubbly sound. Sherlock thinks about Moriarty’s hands inside him, opening him up, and he gags, can’t stop the vomit that rises up and nearly chokes him. John tilts him to his side and tries not to jar the device, which stabs into Sherlock as his stomach clenches. There are a few moments when he blacks out from pain, and when he opens his eyes the world is momentarily awash in red. “What if it goes off?” Sherlock pants. “Leave, get out. Let the bomb squad do this.”

John is already shaking his head. “They’re not doctors, and I’m not going to let you die. Bodies aren’t meant to hold bombs in them, and you'll be dead long before they make it here.”

The words make Sherlock’s stomach roil again; he looks to the side at his puddle of vomit and realizes it’s mostly blood. “John, I -- I can’t--”

John knows this like the back of his hand -- the sick panic that could grip a man, turn him from an intelligent adult into a gibbering, terrified child. John stopped talking to his Sherlock the moment he collapsed. He runs his fingers through Sherlock’s sweat-soaked hair, thumbs gently at his temple. “Shh, it’s alright. Things are going to be alright. I won’t insult your intelligence by asking if you trust me -- I know you do. I was a field medic for ten years, Sherlock. A bit of live explosive is old hat.” As he says this he flicks open the knife, wishes like hell he had some sort of disinfectant -- anything to combat god only knows what Moriarty has on the blade. But he can’t, and he doesn’t dare get up and go find something. “I’ll tell you just what I’m doing, alright? Whatever anesthetic they gave you has already begun to wear off -- please, Sherlock, let me help you.”

The first cuts are like pin-pricks, tiny spots of pain that disappear when queued up next to the burning in his abdomen. It isn’t until John reaches the end of the stitches and begins to peel back the skin that agony starts shrieking along Sherlock’s veins, screaming up his spine and causing him to shudder and groan.

“You’re doing great, just hang on.” John has become abnormally calm; it would be disturbing if Sherlock didn’t know him, if John had been wrong and Sherlock didn’t trust him as much as he was capable of trusting anyone.

There is a clap like thunder above them, but John doesn’t seem to notice, just keeps working. For a single, impossible moment it seems like they will do this -- John will get this thing out of him, the Calvary will arrive, Moriarty will continue to bleed out onto the floor until he’s dead and Sherlock can quite literally pick him apart into a million pieces.

Then John touches something, and what he feels can no longer be defined so basely as pain. It’s more than that -- it’s all encompassing and inescapable and entirely beyond even his vaunted comprehension. He shouts hoarsely, just incoherent sounds merged with John’s name, and now, now John pauses, just momentarily, just long enough for Sherlock to see his very real terror beneath all that calm. It’s the last thing Sherlock sees, because everything else disappears behind a wall of black that rears up and slams into him like a blow to the head.

John’s world narrows in to his hands and the flesh and bone under them. He works because there is no choice -- better that Sherlock is unconscious now, much better, his muscles have relaxed and they stop tensing and tearing under his touch. Sherlock’s scream is still echoing in his ears, and John doesn’t dare look up at his face again, doesn’t dare, because if he does he’s certain he’ll burst into tears and run around in mad circles.

The tissues give under the sharp edge of the knife and John can see it immediately, a small black box, coated in blood. Hemorrhaging, internal bleeding. He can’t see the bleeder, there’s so much blood, an impossible amount of blood, but it’s somewhere, it’s --

The box hasn’t been sewn to anything -- too fucking ham-handed for his own good, Moran, which is a stroke of good luck for them. He’s careful when he reaches into Sherlock’s belly, careful when he wraps three fingers around the bomb, careful not to jar it too much or nick at Sherlock’s fragile organs. It’s small, compact, wedged into a block of C4 so slick with blood he almost drops it. A similar bomb took out Scotland Yard, so John doesn’t try and move it to another part of the room. He and Sherlock will die regardless if it detonates.

There’s nothing he can do without sutures or suction -- just as he knows that there is far too much internal bleeding. He cuts Sherlock’s shirt off and wads it into a tight ball, packing it into the open cavity to soak up some of the blood so he can see.

He checks the major organs he can see through the incision first. There are nicks everywhere, cuts from the sharp edges of the box, seeping blood, but he has no time for them right now. The right kidney has lost some of its color. The blood steadily filling the open cavity again is arterial blood, so John traces it until he spots the source -- a deep gouge in the renal artery, behind the head of Sherlock’s pancreas. He reaches in and clamps down on it immediately.

His left hand isn’t working so well -- particularly now that his thumb is bent at a frankly hideous angle, the only way he could get out of his bonds -- but he does his best, looking for other bleeders. There are several, but none so fatal as the renal artery, and with that he packs the wound around his wrist as tightly as possible, wishing he had more cloth, wishing he had his medical bag, wishing that this wasn’t happening, that he wasn’t kneeling in a pool of Sherlock’s blood.

Another boom, closer, followed by the tinny, muffled sound of men yelling to one another.

He stares across the room, Sherlock’s blood pumping under his fingers. Very suddenly, John hits his wall of what he can take. The world goes fuzzy and dark around the corners, and the tunnel vision retracts until all John can see is a pinprick of light, but he never lets up on the artery under his fingertips, never moves his hand an inch.

After a while, he becomes aware of an unrelenting pounding at the blocked door, like a battering ram hitting it. He thinks perhaps he might be scared, should be scared, as Moran is still out there somewhere, but he can’t quite work himself up to it.

When the door finally bangs in, it is followed by enormous men in black SWAT gear, and Lestrade, and Mycroft. He hears Lestrade yell for paramedics, and Mycroft goes very, very white very, very quickly at the sight of them, like he might faint.

John says, in a voice he doesn’t recognize, “Moriarty put a bomb in Sherlock. I took it out.” The rest of what he has to say is lost under the sudden multitude of voices all speaking at once, and the room clears in an instant, Mycroft dragged out and yelling, until John realizes he’s been left alone again.

He stares down at Sherlock, at his strange face and his strange eyes and the strange way it all fits together to make something so helplessly beautiful. It becomes very difficult to keep his head up, so he lays it down on Sherlock’s chest, listens to the weak pounding of his heart. “I want to go home,” he whispers to him, and closes his eyes for just a moment.

***

Sherlock will never remember most of the following week. Occasionally there will be flashes of light and noise, but mostly it’s dark, and the only real constant is the pain. It’s an unending agony that fragments his thoughts and sends them skittering, a pain that unhinges his mind from everything else, that drags his attention from the entire world. There are stretches of time when he's very certain he's going to die.

When he finally comes to -- really sinks back into reality instead of just skimming across it's surface -- everything is cool and quiet and calm, blissfully calm. His mind is playing at a grave pace, his thoughts rolling along a gentle, peaceful rhythm. He blinks up at the ceiling -- he’s in a hospital, one co-occupant in his room, both of them in critical condition -- and eventually manages to turn his head.

John's in the bed next to him. He’s red and blue and black, and below all that utterly white. Sherlock can only tell it’s him by the nose and the hair - everywhere else has been mutilated with wraps and tubes and wires, with the overabundance of other people’s concern. He's disappearing beneath it all.

He needs to wake up, Sherlock decides. He needs to immediately stop looking so impossibly small and misshapen and so very insignificant, as if there is nothing at all left to save.

Sherlock’s well aware this is the way all people in critical care look -- like it’s more effort to keep them alive than not, all their systems supported by some form of machinery. Sherlock probably looks much the same. He tries to find that reassuring.

Sherlock watches John's heart monitor until, against his own will, he falls back asleep.

***

Eventually, John wakes up. It isn’t like the sudden gasp of consciousness one might see in a movie (or the way their lives had been progressing, a soap opera) but a gradual resurfacing. He’s been aware, more or less, for a while, swimming under a haze of very good drugs and his consciousness’s very stubborn nature.

When he can finally lift his eyelids, the first thing he says is, “Sherlock.”

It’s Mycroft, however, who is there, and seeing his drawn and haggard face immediately makes it suddenly very, very difficult to breathe. It’s only when Mycroft points and John turns his head that he sees Sherlock in the bed opposite -- sleepy gray eyes and skin covered in bruises, brow arched in its typical haughty line. John hadn’t stopped looking at him since, whole and beautiful and alive.

That was twelve days ago now, before John was informed of their surprise trip to Boston -- where Mycroft ‘knows some people’, all of whom seem to be running departments at Harvard’s School of Medicine -- via emergency med flight. John thinks that their extended stay first in intensive care, and then finally in their own room, has taken the romance out of their relationship once and for all. Still, John doesn’t want anyone else there, couldn’t handle it if Sherlock weren’t by his side watching him vomit, commenting on his urine output, snarling at the nurses - and the occupational therapist, and the internist, and the nutritionist, and the physical therapist, and the nurses’ aides, and the half dozen other people who come in at all hours to poke and prod and examine without the slightest inclination to ask first. Sherlock very quickly goes from looking like he’s on the verge of death to resembling an injured and trapped bear, snapping at anyone forced to spend time in his immediate vicinity.

Today they’ve graduated to having a bizarrely picturesque midday meal seated at the small table in their room, next to the enormous windows that overlook what John’s been informed is the Charles River. The food is nothing like John has ever experienced, and if he were of a mind to enjoy it he’d probably say it was better than most of the meals he’d eaten in restaurants. As it is he doesn’t have much appetite, and even if he did, his left arm is strapped tight to his body, casted and wrapped up. The bloody indignity of trying to eat with his right is wearing steadily on his nerves. Sherlock, across from him, is tethered into his wheelchair -- lest he miscalculate the strength of his mending abdominal muscles and fall out of it again -- and picking steadily at his food. John’s been watching him, and all Sherlock is doing is making new little piles here and there without any of the food making it to his mouth.

After a while, he says, “You should eat.”

Sherlock doesn’t look up from his work, if it could be called that. “You’re not in a position to talk.”

Neither of them are -- they’ve both lost at least a stone each, if not more -- but John isn’t about to let Sherlock off the hook. “Nevertheless. That protein you’re using to build the Leaning Tower of Pisa is what’s going to get you back on your feet, so eat it.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes but does start to direct food toward his person every now and then, which can only be considered a win. The pleasant thrill of victory lasts until John realizes what’s actually happening. “What are you doing?”

Sherlock pauses in his food stacking to stare at John as though he has the brain power of an amoeba. “I’m going to assume you do have a legitimate question and just haven’t gotten to it yet.”

“You’ll have to shut up first and give us a chance, then,” John snaps back, because he knows what this is, even if Sherlock doesn’t want to admit it. “You don’t ever listen to me when it comes to self-care. I think half the time you’re deliberately being difficult.”

Sherlock doesn’t say anything, but his twirl of the fork suggests John get to the point.

He’s bloody infuriating, and a bit like a spoilt child -- no, he’s exactly like a spoilt child, for all that he’s a grown man in his thirties. Sherlock never did age past four, at least emotionally. It makes him particularly lovely, and particularly maddening, and John doesn’t know which emotion he feels more strongly. He’s certain that if he argues the point for even one more minute Sherlock will throw a tantrum and eat nothing at all, so John, being the adult, doesn’t say a word over the fact.

After a bit, he says, “Mycroft was here earlier, while you were at the scanners again. He said your mother will be here on Tuesday.”

There is an extended pause, and then, “The first time I slept with someone,” Sherlock says, “I was fourteen, and so was he.”

John blinks.

Sherlock seems to take John’s silence as interest, if not understanding. “Right before the act I realized I had condoms in my coat pocket.”

“...Good?” John shrugs with his good shoulder. “So you’re not entirely averse to basic harm reduction, then.”

“I didn’t put them there,” Sherlock says, flicking his glance up to John. “My mother did.”

John grimaces slightly, because Harry had been bad enough, and she barely knew which way was up. “Well that’s certainly awkward, but I fail to see how that’s a bad thing.”

“When I was sixteen and she didn’t approve of the directions my attention went in she conveniently had the classmate accepted to a particularly prestigious boarding school.”

“Well that’s... less appropriate,” John hedges. Sherlock doesn’t seem bothered by this series of events, but that means next to nothing. “What does this have to do with her visit?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes and really, if he does it again John is going to fling a spoon at him. “Mycroft’s little announcement was a hint, though apparently it went right over your head. She’s giving you an out, John. One you’re quite free to take if you want.”

“What? What are you talking about? Why would I need an out?”

“We all know you don’t approve of what happened, of the - the decision I made. If you want to, well, say your piece and leave, that’s... understandable.” He’s building his food towers with the kind of tension that would be a prelude to upturned tables and chairs if he were physically capable. “You’re stable enough to, now.”

For one breathless moment John is utterly, completely appalled, and then so offended he almost can’t believe that actually just came out of Sherlock’s mouth. That Sherlock -- that his mother--

“Surely I’ve earned better than that from you,” John replies quietly, staring down at his carrots as if they were the most fascinating vegetables in the world. They are the only thing standing between himself and tossing the whole lot over Sherlock’s stupid head.

A terrible thought occurs to him. “Is this your way of asking me to leave?”

"If that were the case I'd just say it. This is just being realistic - after all, there’s a limit to every person’s tolerance.” Sherlock shifts in his chair and his hand flutters over his stomach unconsciously, but he doesn’t otherwise acknowledge the damage. “But what’s interesting, what's really interesting, is for most people being up to your elbows in someone else’s insides would be it. For you there's something else entirely.”

John considers Sherlock’s words, looks out the window where Boston is still passing by. He watches it, soothed by the people, and the sounds of cars, and the whistle of the wind as it rustles the curtains. “You are,” he says quietly, “the most insufferable bastard. So clever, you think you’re just so bloody clever.” He clenches his teeth, looks down at the plate again. “Would you rather I hadn’t saved you, then? Is that what you’re saying? I’m a simple sort, Sherlock, explain yourself.”

"Don't be intentionally stupid. That was the best possible result given the circumstances. Certainly better than what I was going to do."

Sherlock so often speaks in riddles that it takes John a moment to figure out what he’s trying to say. “Sherlock, I don’t blame you, not in the slightest – surely you can see that? The man surgically implanted a bomb in your abdominal cavity. That you chose the gun was the only logical choice. I didn’t blame you then, and I don’t blame you now.”

"My God you're an idiot," Sherlock says, staring at him with a degree of contempt that is somewhat startling. "Or has the trauma actually altered your perception of the events themselves?"

John glares back at him. "I was there, I think I know what happened."

Sherlock makes an odd sort of move, dropping his fork on the table with enough force to send it clattering to the floor. "This is a ridiculous waste of my time, since you obviously aren't going make the intelligent choice and adopt a lifestyle that doesn't include torture and maiming and inevitable early death." He tries to wheel himself away, though it's clearly still a huge effort. "Believe what you want, I can't be bothered."

In an instant John twists his own chair so that the only way Sherlock will be able to get by is if he goes through John’s propped up, be-casted leg. He doesn’t think Sherlock will hurt him, but he doesn’t care if he does -- nothing could hurt worse than the fluttering, clenching feeling around his heart, or the panic squirming like snakes in his stomach. “You don’t get to run away.”

“Oh, and you’re going to stop me?” Sherlock asks, glaring down at John’s leg. “Move.”

“No.”

Move.

No. Your guilt is entirely misplaced, Sherlock -- as soon as Moriarty gave you the ultimatum I knew you’d make the right choice. Detonating the bomb would have killed you in such a way that there would be nothing left -- you’d be like that poor girl at the energy conference, gone, just gone, not to mention everyone in the building and surrounding streets. That we didn’t die was a stroke of good luck and your brother’s excellent timing. I don’t blame you, Sherlock -- I never did, and never will.”

Sherlock yells like something in him has snapped. “I was going to detonate the bomb, you complete and utter imbecile.”

It’s as if the entire room freezes, the very building holding its collective breath. John blinks, tries to process what it is Sherlock just said -- surely he didn’t -- “I’m sorry?”

Sherlock, however, is beyond answering, quietly seething in that way of his. John’s sure if he knew the tips of his ears got red he wouldn’t do it anymore, and so neglects to tell him.

He reaches out, touches Sherlock’s arm, doesn’t get offended when he tenses. “Sherlock, you were going to kill yourself for me?”

“That suggests you would have somehow survived the explosion. No, I was going to kill all of us at once, because...” He looks utterly lost, and strangely betrayed. “The alternative was unacceptable.” His expression makes it clear he doesn’t find this to be a satisfactory explanation.

It’s a nightmare, the picture Sherlock has just painted with so few words -- Moriarty still loose on the world, playing his mind games, a never ending nightmare of chasing him across the globe, from port to port, people dropping like flies in his wake. “Moran is still out there,” he says quietly, rubbing at the bridge of his nose. It feels strange doing it with his opposite hand -- his fingers on his left keep trying to tense, sending twinges up through the muscle and nerves. “Mycroft told me, a few days ago. Were you ever going to say anything?”

Sherlock stares at him. “Depends entirely on whether you were still around once we were both back on our feet.” He still sounds insultingly uncertain.

“Sherlock, I’m not going anywhere. Not now, not later, not next week,” John says, then rolls his eyes a bit at himself and uses his one good foot to scoot forward. Once he’s close enough he sweeps his fingers through Sherlock’s hair, thumbs at his earlobe. He smells like hospital, and disinfectant, and sickness, and underneath that all Sherlock. “I’m the staying sort.”

“Everything about your behavior this past week would suggest otherwise,” Sherlock argues, serious and straightforward. It’s what John has mentally dubbed his Analysis Voice.

“My behavior?” John repeats.

“Yes - unusually quiet, distant, closed-off. Social withdrawal can be a symptom of distress but this isn’t generalized, it’s been directed solely at me. You’ve been through dangerous situations with me before and you’ve never responded this way, so it can’t be the nature of the incident, it has to be my response to it. It has to be me.”

“Not in the way you’re thinking.” John pulls back a bit, fingers falling from Sherlock’s hair. He’s trembling, he knows he is, but he can’t help it -- it’s been happening on and off since he woke up. “I had you open. You were screaming and screaming and I couldn’t do anything about your pain. I had you open and you were awake and lying in your own blood and screaming, because of me, because of what I was doing. I had no choice,” he says, the last bit firm, as if through the power of repetition alone he’ll believe it at some point. “But you were...” He swallows hard, thick and dry. “When I was a soldier I never found myself without my supplies. Even in the worst circumstances, in the worst places, I could help soothe the pain of my comrades. I couldn’t even --” He clenches his teeth. “I had my hand in you and there was a pool of blood around your body like I was witness to your own murder and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.”

Sherlock tilts his head and looks at John as though he’s finally seeing him for the first time in days. “You saved my life.” His eyes are raking over John, scraping across his every thought and feeling and fear. “And I was going to kill us all to avoid being without you, because I love you.”

It’s as if the words have taken with them his ability to breathe, and when the anger comes it’s sharp as glass. “You unbelievable arse,” he says, body gone nerveless, muscles gone like water. He realizes he sounds a bit hysterical, and that perhaps it’s a bad thing he’s equally as tethered into his wheelchair because he feels like he’s about to throw up. “Now, right now, that’s when you say it? I can’t believe you, honestly I can’t believe you,” John says, or maybe yells that last bit, heart beating so hard in a chest that feels two sizes too small.

“How is my telling you now a problem?” Sherlock asks, and god help him he’s actually serious. “Isn’t that what you want?”

“What I want? What I want? Christ almighty,” John says, really does think any minute he’s going to give them both a show on today’s lunch menu. “I’m phoning Adella, I’m phoning your mother and I’m not going to ask her if you were dropped on your enormous head as a baby, but how many times, like a bloody bobble head, you toppled over. Cerebral damage is the only explanation. Truly, that you’ve existed in this world for thirty two years is a mystery for the ages,” John yells.

“Do you want me to pretend I didn’t say it?” Sherlock replies, one or two decibels below yelling himself. “Okay, fine, I said no such thing. The world is exactly as it was ten minutes prior. Now will you please stop crying?”

“No,” John shouts, and he hadn’t even realized he was crying, but now that he has he decides they’re tears of anger. “You don’t get to take it back, what kind of idiot are you, this isn’t primary school.

“This, this is why I don’t do emotions,” Sherlock says almost desperately, and the look is a foreign expression on his face, as is the painfully lost pinch of his brow that caps the whole business off. “I have taken it back, I swear.”

“You almost died, I couldn’t save you, you don’t get to say that to me now, not now, not on this kind of day.”

John can see the hundred different facts throwing themselves at Sherlock all at once, reads it in his suddenly alarmed expression. “He put a bomb in me, John, John.”

“I know, I was there,” John chokes out, wet everywhere and he can barely breathe through his broken nose. He throws his arm around Sherlock’s shoulders, and the wheels on their chairs bang into each other and John’s arm is at a bad angle and Sherlock’s belly has got to be in pain, but for the life of him he can’t make himself go -- just buries his face there in the crook of Sherlock's shoulder.

Sherlock mumbles into his hair, “We’ll have matching night terrors now.”

John, insanely, starts to laugh.

***

“Sirs Holmes and Watson, Detective Inspector Geoffrey Lestrade,” Richard intones from the door.

If Lestrade is surprised at the grandiosity of the Holmes estate, he’s hiding it well. Or, more possibly he thinks he‘s hiding it well, but Sherlock can read it all over his face. He’s far too British to stare, though with the way his eyes are about four times too large for his face it’s obvious he wants to. Sherlock finds it simultaneously amusing and annoying -- no doubt by tomorrow the entire precinct would have a slew of pithy comments waiting in the wings to spring on him at any moment.

John exchanges pleasantries with him before his concentration is once again on Franz, the physical therapist Mummy had insisted on. Though perhaps ‘insisted’ is rather too nice a phrase for just how she’d shanghaied them both out of Boston, brought them halfway across the world, and then arranged for them to be rather comfortably cared for at the estate by her army of private doctors.

Franz is very large, and very Swedish, and he makes John utter sounds that would send Sherlock into a frenzy of jealousy if he were the sort. He does not keep an eye on the two of them, not at all, not even when Franz has his hands far too close to parts of John that are strictly speaking off limits -- John has improved by leaps and bounds since the gargantuan blond had set his sights on him, so any and all discomforts are summarily dismissed.

Lestrade sits at the small tea table Sherlock is ensconced nearby. He’s graduated from being tied into his chair like a toddler to sitting up on his own, which is, at this point, a major improvement, but nowhere near where he’d expected his body to be by the second week. Once again it has betrayed him, and he sips at his tea, doing his best not to let John become aware of the sour mood Lestrade’s presence has inspired.

Lestrade opens his mouth and before he can utter a word Sherlock says, “Moriarty was dying.”

Lestrade blinks at him, a bit like he had all those years ago when Sherlock had first met him and deduced what he’d had for breakfast and how long it had taken him to get to the Yard that morning and how many children he had and what his wife did for a living. “I beg your pardon?”

“You’re here for my final report, correct?”

“Yes, but--”

“Moriarty was dying.”

Lestrade leans forward. “Sherlock, I know you haven’t had access to the autopsy report.”

“Of course I haven’t, I’ve been recovering from having a massive bomb planted in my insides.”

“It wasn’t -- that -- big,” John gasps from their left, and Sherlock makes a face at him.

“It was enormous,” Sherlock corrects, and leans back carefully into the cushion supporting his back. “I knew from the moment we met the night at the swimming pool, but it took a while to figure out his game. Enlarged lymph nodes, his careful posture, the red discolored patches he hid under the cuffs of his suits. There were other symptoms -- the weight loss that took place in such a short span of time, the fatigue that could easily be read in the bags under his eyes, the less than crisp line of his trousers. Perhaps it was simply the stress of being on the run, but no, Moriarty was far too good for that. My final clue came the night he kidnapped us both -- he was flushed, skin spotty with cyclical fever, and his eyes had darkened and begun to turn yellow. Hodgkin’s lymphoma, final stage. He had perhaps another month until his enlarged liver shut down completely.”

Sherlock leans back a bit more, settling his hips in a straighter line, and presses a palm into his belly until it stops aching. “He’s known about the lymphoma for some years now, diagnosed in Peacehaven at twenty seven by his doctor, a woman he befriended, then courted, then murdered, and whose green emerald ring he kept as a souvenir. He killed her because she had, in his eyes, killed him -- but it was not enough to kill her, he had to destroy her, to have her last minutes be as terrifying as possible. It was the only way to pay her back the devastation she’d wrought.”

Tea is brought in by Cook, and John is whimpering beside them as Franz takes him through the cool down, stretching his abused muscles. Sherlock watches them for a moment, gathering thoughts that still feel too scattered by the trauma his body has gone through -- not quite sharp enough, not yet. “It was at that point that Moriarty began building his network of informants, using the trust fund his father left him as bribe money. Like a chess match, he built his own nest egg of high level government officials all over the world, using their strategic positions as points of interest in his little crime syndicate, which soon grew to be an enormous crime syndicate. That’s why he kept all of those banknotes from all over the world in his wallet -- a private joke. The men he kept in his back pocket.”

Lestrade’s shock slowly gives way to anger. “Don’t you think this is something you should have let me in on?”

Sherlock snorts unkindly. “And what exactly could you have done?” Lestrade’s expression sours further and Sherlock shakes his head, rolls his eyes heavenwards. “All of you, ignorant to the point of criminality. Think Geoffrey -- what role would you have played? There isn’t any evidence, and even on the slim chance there was, no one will come forward. Moriarty never had any problem eliminating those he felt could give his game away.”

“Sherlock, you’re talking about international espionage, fraud, treason.”

“Actually it’s none of that. Your case is restricted to a series of bombs detonated by a psychotic dying man whose goal was to take as many people with him as he could. Not particularly shocking, when you think about it.”

Beside them Franz is helping John up from the workout mat, settling him, unbearably small, into his wheelchair. Sherlock pins Lestrade with a look. “Are we finished?”

Lestrade sighs, and that’s all the answer Sherlock needs.

“You forgot to tell him about New York,” John says, glowering slightly when Franz pushes him over. He looks a bit like a disgruntled Pekingese, with the sticking-up hair to match.

“There’s nothing to tell,” Sherlock dismisses.

Lestrade looks like he’s ready to argue the point, but there’s nothing for it, and just as quickly common sense exerts its influence. “Take care of yourselves,” he instructs them both, serious and concerned.

John watches him leave, wiping at the sweat on his face with a towel. Franz sets an enormous glass of orange juice in front of him, even though John despises orange juice, and with a hard look at the two of them takes his leave. Like a particularly vile disease, he’d be back for them before too long. “Why’d you lie?” he asks curiously, takes a sip from Sherlock’s tea.

“Because it’s a waste of time for him to investigate, and there’s no doubt he would were he aware of the facts. Drink your juice.”

The comment is an interesting one; John considers it for a moment, lets it run its natural course -- that Sherlock had known Lestrade for a long time, that he was saving him the trouble of investigating because -- he freezes. “Sherlock, Moriarty is dead, right? You saw the corpse?”

“There’s no coming back from that, John.” Sherlock says, and though it’s completely flat and even distracted, by Sherlock’s standards it’s practically reassuring. “The parts of his body not at the Claudius Institute are now the property of the British government.”

“Well, then,” John says quietly. “What weren’t you telling Lestrade? There’s more here, something you figured out that you didn’t want in his report -- that you haven’t told me.”

Sherlock’s eyes drift past him, out to the enormous windows overlooking the grounds. Mycroft is walking in the distance with Mahdavi on his arm, their two dogs racing and playing in front of them. It looks like rain. “Would you agree that it is part of a man’s drive to leave a legacy?”

“I would,” John says. “Of course I would -- it’s biology.”

“What then does a man who has in fact never been able to achieve sexual gratification do?”

The question startles him. “Well, there are injuries, of course, that prevent a man from having sex -- psychologically, another aspect of their life becomes the center of their focus. Family, work, a hobby. There’s a veteran I treated who lost all sensation below the sternum -- he’s a writer now, in Edinburgh.”

“And in your work did you ever research the experimentation being performed by a Doctor Jonathan Hillis?”

John’s gaze drifts left, thinking back, trying to pinpoint the familiarity. “He’s a--” John pauses, because it can’t be that simple. “He’s an oncologist.”

“One of the best in the world, though widely considered almost dangerously unconventional,” Sherlock answers. “I found correspondence between him and Moriarty's doctor, the Peacehaven woman. She'd contacted premiere doctors all over the world in an effort to find something that would at least delay the onset of Hodgkin's in her lover. Instead, she found Hillis, who has been known to be a little too eager to use the unfortunate circumstances of patients with other illnesses to further his medical expertise.”

Beautiful, to watch the realization bloom on John’s face. “The cabbie. The old woman. Calvin Bynum. Michael Landon.”

“The link no one thought to consider,” Sherlock replies. “Brain aneurysm, diabetes, B.S.S., and stage two pancreatic cancer.”

“Hillis was working with Moriarty?”

“With, for -- whatever their arrangement, it’s clear Moriarty had given Hillis quite a tall order in regards to his own treatment.”

John connects the dots Sherlock has so kindly painted for him, but the ending theory is insane, and his mind refuses to consider it even when it’s the only explanation available. “You think Moriarty was trying to leave behind a legacy. He knew his criminal empire couldn’t continue on after his death without him... so what, Sherlock? He was letting Hillis experiment on him? He was trying to find a cure for his Hodgkin’s?”

“That’s part of it, certainly,” Sherlock says. “But this was so much more, John. Moriarty’s plan was always first and foremost to find the cure to his Hodgkin’s, but consider the repercussions of that effort.”

John’s brow furrows. “You think he was close?”

“I think he thought he was close,” Sherlock corrects. “There was nothing and no one who was going to stand in his way. The crime syndicate he built was a means to fund the experiments -- impossible to get that much capital that quickly through conventional means. That and he was insane and thought the whole affair was grand entertainment.”

“But to what end?” John asks. “He kept talking about his ‘golden’ retirement.”

“I can only hypothesize, John, but going on what I know of the man, I think his goal ultimately was to find a cure and sell it. More likely on the black market,” Sherlock says. “That’s why New York was the stage for our final encounter with him,” he adds, patient, waiting for him to understand.

It only takes a second. “The laboratory, the lab where he was conducting his experiments – it’s in the hospital in New York,” John blurts, and bangs his leg against the bottom of the table, trying to jump out of his seat. He twists the wheelchair, reaches for his phone.

Sherlock snatches it before John can get there, reaching out so fast John’s stomach twists in sympathy. “There’s no point, surely that’s obvious.”

“It isn’t obvious to me!” John says, tries to reach out for the phone but Sherlock has arms that match the rest of him, far too long for his own good. “Sherlock, we’ve got to phone Lestrade back, he needs to get it shut down--”

Think John – Moriarty’s death was the kill switch. When Hillis didn’t hear from him after leaving to dispose of us, he did what any self-serving, morally ambiguous scientist would do – he destroyed the evidence. Irene will find the lab if she hasn’t already, or more accurately what’s left of it. Destroyed by now without a doubt, along with every bit of research that might link Hillis to the crimes against humanity he willfully engaged in.”

But John is thinking past that, dizzy with understanding. “He tortured them,” he says, voice thick. “All those people. He experimented on them – it wasn’t just about strapping bombs to them to lead you on a merry chase. He used them until he didn’t need them anymore, didn’t he? Until they were reduced to entertainment.” John makes a noise, low in his throat, and Sherlock puts the phone down when it seems clear John isn’t going to go for it again. “He tortured them to find a cure for himself, and Hillis helped. All those people died for nothing.”

It doesn’t suit, this new information, and settles uncomfortably in John’s heart. He frowns at the tabletop, and the glass of juice slowly going warm. There’s a ring of condensation on the table top he thinks Adella would disapprove of. “And Moran?”

“He won’t be bothering us again - it was a job, not a personal investment.” Sherlock sounds completely convinced, and somewhat uninterested in the line of conversation. The giveaway is that he isn’t looking at John, is instead fiddling with the mobile without actually employing it for anything useful.

“You’re lying.”

That startles Sherlock enough that he glances up away from his phone. Being frank sometimes has that effect, so John doesn’t use it often, only in the strictest moments of urgency. “A few months ago you might have fooled me, Sherlock, but I know you far too well now -- what’s that look you’ve got on your face? What aren’t you saying?”

“It would hardly be left unsaid if we discussed it, don’t you think?” Sherlock snaps, rubbing absently at his stomach, which is a right terrible thing to do, because he’s being deliberately distracting.

“Please, Sherlock.”

“And what happens when you don’t like the answer? I’m not in the mood to play the penitent right now.” Not about this, he leaves unsaid.

“Moran put a bomb in you,” John says, tips his head, and stares at Sherlock as if he’s being a bit slow. Which, granted. “There isn’t a lot you could say about him that I would find distasteful.”

“A man who’s been systematically tortured more than once is unlikely to grant any leeway when someone else deliberately employs similar tactics.” Sherlock smiles, and it’s not pleasant. “Even if, in this case, that someone was me.”

It sends a chill through him, a shiver that spreads out from his center and fans to every part of his body. It’s disturbing and grotesque and John is too honorable a man, has seen far too much pain and destruction and death to find the notion even remotely acceptable.

But there is another part of John, a deeper part of John, the part that has watched his men die and has felt rage so powerful it robbed him of speech. For Moriarty, for Moran, John thinks he would not only watch them hurt as he hurt, but he would help.

He knows Sherlock can read his reaction all over his face, and he’s not ashamed of it. He meets Sherlock’s eyes square on, tilts his head slightly. “Bit not good,” he murmurs.

“You’re better than you think,” Sherlock replies. “You wouldn’t help -- not once you knew what I had planned. What I have planned.” He doesn’t look guilty, or even particularly concerned. He looks empty, drained of everything, and it’s so very, very ugly. “If it helps at all I’ll do my best not to worry you overmuch.”

John closes his eyes, lowers his head. He’s so tired, just so very tired. “I want to go home,” he says quietly. “When can we go home?”

There are fingers in his hair, gently carding through in a way he realizes is intimately familiar. Sherlock’s trying one of John’s own moves on him, emulating his attempts to comfort. “Any time you want. Mycroft and my mother can gibber all they like; I’m tired of this house, its very smell has become intolerable.”

The fingers slip down over his temple, his ear; such a big hand, such long fingers, brilliant fingers meant to do brilliant things. John catches them as they slip down his face, presses his mouth to the heel of Sherlock’s hand, the swell of the base of his thumb. “The flat’s been destroyed, Sherlock,” he reminds gently, tucks Sherlock’s hand against his neck to rest his cheek against. “We’re in no condition to go about making those repairs. You can’t bend over, and I’m Captain Gimpy.” Small, self deprecating smile.

“You’re so quaint,” Sherlock replies, not nearly sharp enough to be an actual insult, not when he’s very noticeably not moved his hand. “Repairs were done before we got back in the country. This trip is courtesy of my family’s overprotective paranoia.”

John huffs, low. “Pity. I was hoping this would give us the excuse to finally rip out the cabinets. Mrs Hudson wouldn’t have been able to stop us -- could have refinished them, painted them.” He smiles a bit. “That would be nice. Spruce up the place a bit. God knows it needs it.”

It takes a minute for the rest of Sherlock’s comment to register, and when it does he starts to giggle -- can’t help it -- until he’s full on laughing, and it only sounds just a bit strained. “Did you just call your family overprotective and paranoid? You?”

Sherlock frowns, his entire expression just drops in a way John can never let on amuses him if he wants to see it again. “It’s an accurate description based on the overall assessment of available history, particularly given--”

“--Okay, never mind.” John shakes his head slightly, as if that will order everything the right way again. Sherlock’s hand doesn’t pull away, and instead his thumb touches the corner of John’s mouth, almost too light to feel. He seems amused, of all ridiculous things.

John smiles softly, lets Sherlock feel it against his thumb. Sherlock likes that, sometimes, sense-evidence of emotions he always finds so difficult to understand. “You’re amazing,” he says quietly, looks down at the cuff of Sherlock’s dressing gown, the way it falls down his wrist, so slender. His watch had left a light tan line on his wrist. “Often extraordinary, usually brilliant, fantastically lovely, and honestly I’ve no idea how the whole of London hasn’t fallen at your feet.” John feels himself go hot, laughs low in his throat. “That’s the secret behind the body parts, isn’t it?”

“What do you think you know?” Sherlock says, and the bastard’s actually teasing John.

“I know plenty, and one of these days I’m sure I’ll even know the fine art of frying up a human eyeball when it happens by accident,” John teases back, and reaches forward to kiss him.

Sherlock tastes of the tea, and toast, and a bit medicinal, but underneath all of that is the smoky, umber-spice of Sherlock. He licks Sherlock’s lower lip, the corner of his mouth, and doesn’t feel quite so desperate, so overwhelmed. “If we both weren’t so high on codeine, and you could stand sitting up for longer than an hour, and I had use of my arm back, I’d pack us in the car and take us straight back to Baker Street this minute.”

“But you aren’t,” Mycroft says behind them, closing the French doors behind himself and Mahdavi and the onset of afternoon drizzle, “and so you’ll have to impose on Mummy for just a bit longer.”

Sherlock’s expression is easily the best thing John’s seen all week, and that includes the bothered and unwillingly confused looks he shoots Franz every time he starts in on John’s PT. “You,” he flings at Mycroft, “really are the bane of my existence.”

***

221 Baker Street is quiet.

It’s raining outside; not a torrential downpour, or a light dusting, but a steady, cleansing sort of rain that came down relentlessly but calmly – very British. Sherlock’s kept the window open to get some fresh air, and from his seat John can hear cars driving along Baker Street outside, the sound of water on tyres.

The flat is silent, gloomy in that gray evening light. Sherlock sits in the seat opposite him, reassuring in his own way, with his newspaper and his stocking feet and his robe. That he’s comfortable enough to sit up for long periods of time is a good sign – means the rough cut he’d made, and the neater incision his surgeons corrected is healing nicely. John doesn’t let himself think of that right now, though, hands up to the wrist in Sherlock’s insides, or he’ll start bawling. His eyes burn anyway, and he stares down at his own half of the newspaper until they stop.

Sherlock, though, he notices anyway – always does. “Alright?”

“Yes,” John says, voice rough, and clears it lightly. “Yes, I’m fine. You?”

That his partner can look right through him gives him a lovely sort of pleasure, highly unexpected. He doesn’t ask if John had taken his medicine – they both had, like a pair of little lambs, with their tea. Mrs Hudson had turned out to be a vicious taskmaster and an even stricter nurse. “Would you like me to loosen the strap?”

John stares down at his arm, lashed tightly to his chest. He isn’t supposed to move it, not until he heals, but he’s a damned good doctor and he already knows that, despite the work Franz had done with him, there will be no healing from this. His fingers are constantly numb now – the nerves are deadened irreparably, up one side of his arm and down to his shoulder blade. In time the muscles would deteriorate, and to keep them working would be a constant fight for the rest of his life

“No,” he says after a moment. “It’s fine.”

“Yes, it always is,” Sherlock answers.

If he’d been goading, John might have bitten his head off. Instead, he stares back down at his paper without reading a single thing.

The rain starts to come down heavier, and he hears Mrs Hudson moving about downstairs – before long she’d be up to close the window and make them supper, which neither of them would contest. The kitchen was almost habitable at the moment, as was the rest of their flat. John has no idea who it was that cleaned up Moriarty’s destruction – who had replaced the broken furniture, and the soiled clothing, and the carpets. He suspects that the culprit’s name begins with ‘M’ and ends with ‘ycroft’, especially since his clothing is hanging beside Sherlock’s in the closet, and the upstairs bedroom had been transformed into a perfectly serviceable lab, but he doesn’t dare mention it aloud, not when Sherlock hasn’t said a word about it. As peace offerings went, it is rather lovely.

“You’ll have to phone the surgery soon.”

John knows it. He just doesn’t want to think about it. “Yes.”

“Hand in your resignation.”

He stares down at his paper without seeing it. “Yes.”

Sherlock flicks his paper to straighten it, folds it neatly. “I did some thinking while flat on my back.”

“Did you?”

He hums the affirmative but doesn’t elaborate, and John knows him enough to know that Sherlock’s pleased as punch and trying not to show it. He sets his own paper down. “Well?”

“Well what?”

“Sherlock.”

If he were well enough he’d be a flurry of activity – but he isn’t, and he’s very careful with his movements. Even so, John can read the excitement all over him. “Don’t you see, John? We’ve been hopelessly stupid this entire time.”

“While I can’t argue that with you, I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Money!”

John arches a brow. “Money.”

“Of course!”

“Still not seeing what you’re getting at, love.”

Sherlock huffs theatrically, trying to hide the flush John’s slip of the tongue has brought to his cheeks. “We should be charging for our services.”

“What services? You go about helping the police, I follow blindly behind you, and we eat an exorbitant amount of beans.”

“Exactly! What if I opened it up to the general public? Took cases and such? You’ll never believe the amount of work I’ve turned down over the years because I thought myself under Lestrade’s thumb. It took this entire fiasco with Moriarty to see that I’m not – never have been. This would be the perfect solution to a multitude of problems.”

John blinks. “You mean start a detective agency?”

“Precisely!”

“You’re mental.”

“Am I?”

“I’m a doctor, Sherlock, not bloody Jacques Clouseau.”

“You are a fine doctor, and a better investigator than you might believe.” Sherlock smiles at him and it transforms his whole face – he looks so pleased with himself, and the pallor has fled his cheeks for the first time in a week at least. “Between my mind and your shooting skills we make an unstoppable team. Oh come on John, don’t you see? At the very least it would be great fun.”

God help him, because it would, too.

Sherlock’s face settles into something relaxed, as if everything had finally fallen perfectly into place. He straightens his newspaper with a flick of his wrist. “I knew you’d agree.”

“I haven’t said yes yet.”

“Yes you have,” Sherlock replies from behind his paper.

After a while, John opens his laptop.

Got up at half six, doing better at sleeping in a bit now. Ate a toast with marmite, just because S hates it. Started private detective agency. Needs a good name.

“You should make it clear suggestions from the public are not needed and will be summarily dismissed.”

John glances up, gives Sherlock a glower, and then after a moment adds, Suggestions welcome.