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(Life is) A Series of Risks

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John identifies Sherlock's body on a Thursday.

It’s a cold September morning, foggy and damp. The trees have begun to change color, and every street corner is a wash of red, yellow, and orange. It’s the last bit of color before the dreary gray of winter, and reminds John of his childhood, of his mother’s willow tree that would turn into a yellow as beautiful and golden as sunlight.

When he enters Scotland Yard Lestrade is waiting for him at the front desk. He is drawn, his lips bloodless. His hair is standing on end, and there is a dirty smudge along his jaw. It isn’t the DI standing before him -- it’s John’s friend, his eyes empty and exhausted.

The baby John gives to Dimmock, Andrew’s third favorite police detective in the world. He watches Dimmock cradle his son gently through the glass windows of Lestrade’s office.

He'd been the only one in the munitions lab at that hour of the morning, Lestrade says. No one could have predicted that the tear gas canister would go off like a bomb, setting off countless explosions around the lab. It would have taken down the entire wing of the building, had they not rebuilt with reinforced steel after Moriarty tried to blow the station up. No foul play at this time. The tech team was still analyzing the canister remains, but had already attributed the explosion to faulty manufacturing. Sherlock’s discovery had saved countless lives.

John accepts a police evidence bag from Lestrade, signs that he has taken it. In it are the melted remains of keys and a magnifying glass, both which he’d had on him at the time of the explosion and both of which cannot be salvaged.

And left to hang on a hook outside of the munitions lab, and now wrapped with infinite care, is his coat.

“I want to see him,” John says.

“I’m sorry,” Lestrade tells him. “There isn’t--” He looks down. His face is pinched tight. “John, there isn’t much left.”

“Dental records?”

“Come through already. But even if they hadn’t...” John watches his Adam’s apple bob. “Are you sure?”

He’s sure.

The body is completely destroyed. John isn’t startled by it -- hard to be, as an ex-soldier who’d spent the majority of his adult life in Afghanistan. He’s seen dozens of corpses pulled from the wreckage left by roadside bombs, from landmines. This one is just like the rest, little left but dried, withered bone; almost all the flesh and skin has been seared from the body, limbs drawn up tight from the heat of the explosion. The corpse is unrecognizable, save for the remnants of a single black curl behind the corpse’s ear. When John touches it, it crumbles into dust under his fingertip.

The funeral is beautiful, and attended by hundreds of people. John sits in the front row and holds Andrew, sleepy and still in his arms. Sherlock’s mother is on his left, Mycroft on his right. Neither of them cry, which, John thinks, is very British of them. Sherlock wouldn’t have liked a show of emotions -- they’d always made him so uncomfortable.

They bury Sherlock at the ancestral home, in a family plot where fifteen generations of the Holmes family are buried. Where his father is buried.

“Stay with me for a bit, John,” Adella asks of him that same afternoon. Her house is full of mourners, eating, walking about. Sometimes it’s hard to think that Sherlock was related to half of these people, that John was too, in a way. John has only met a few of them personally, at the party Adella had insisted on after John and Sherlock signed the papers for their civil union. John hadn’t actually remembered most of it, high on nerves and unrelenting joy and a parade of faces with that distinctive Holmesian brow and regal nose.

“Adella.”

“You shouldn’t be alone.”

“I’m not alone,” he replies. She’s been holding his hand for the past hour, curled in her lap. Her skin is paper-thin, soft.

“Harriet’s only just arrived in New York to support Clara’s endeavors,” Adella says, “and my son and his wife barely had time to spare before Mycroft’s change in position—”

“I’m not alone, Adella,” John interrupts calmly. “London is home. Andrew has his nursery, his tumble classes and swimming.” His son is his first priority -- his only priority, now.

She looks as if she wants to argue, but doesn’t. Her eyes are shiny, filled with some emotion John can’t describe. She squeezes his hand tightly in hers, and John kisses her cheek. “Thank you.”

They go home. John cleans the flat, and feeds Andrew even when his little face twists at the taste of peas, and plays with him like he always does. Every night when the sun goes down he bathes Andrew in the kitchen sink, washes his blond curls, lets him play with the bubbles and rubber toys, and afterward gently rubs lotion into his small legs and arms and belly until he falls asleep.

It's a week before he realizes he's still wearing his suit from the funeral. There is baby food on the sleeve.

Mycroft comes by two and three times a week to see how they're doing, to bounce Andrew on his knee. John answers him without hearing the questions, and sometimes during those visits, when he's very tired, he lets Mycroft take over for a bit, to feed and bathe and play with Andrew, to bring them supper, to surreptitiously direct one of his minions to clean the parts of the flat that have got away from John. Every so often, when he's so tired he can't fathom moving ever again, John lets Mycroft help him crawl into bed.

Those times, Mycroft will sit at John's side and look very old, and tell him all about when Sherlock was little, running around their enormous grounds like a tiny wild creature, with his raucous curls and his smile as wide as the sun. It will be so vivid that John will fall to sleep smelling sunshine and soap, hearing children laughing and screaming and playing.

The nightmares, when they come, are as startling as they are terrifying in their intensity. It’s the same, every night -- he’s in the field hospital in Kandahar dust bright death desert death and Sherlock is dying in front of him. Sometimes John’s in his belly like he was the night Moriarty tried to kill them both, the sense-memory of Sherlock’s blood and tissue and organs under his hands as fresh as if it were really happening, all over again. Sherlock is screaming and John can’t get the bomb out, slippery and hot, no matter how much he tries. Sometimes, Sherlock is trapped in a jeep that’s been caught in a roadside bomb and John is watching him burn to death, skin boiling, eyes liquefying, lips curling back from his skull until his voice is lost under the flames.

Life goes on. Meals still need to be cooked, clothing still needs to be washed, nappies need to be changed and floors need to be mopped. Andrew’s first birthday still needs to be celebrated; John bakes a cake for his son and helps him open his presents from Mycroft and his wife, and Mrs. Hudson, and Grandmummy, and a few little presents from the people John works with. The cake is a little dry but Andrew doesn't seem to mind, covered from head to toe in it. John tries to play the violin, badly, but Andrew is a sweet little soul and he laughs and claps anyway.

Slowly, inevitably, Sherlock disappears from the flat. Experiments left half-finished and incomplete thoughts left to waste are cleared to give Andrew space to play -- comb and aftershave and soap put away to make room for Andrew’s bubble bath and snugly towels. The bookcase is rearranged for parenting books and a place for Andrew’s music and DVDs.

John had thought, foolishly, that there was only Before Afghanistan and After Afghanistan, that the dichotomy of his life was severed along that fragile line between civilian life and the horror of war. Instead he’s widowed at thirty seven, with a young son and bills to pay, and so angry at the world that there are days he can’t function in it, hiding away in Baker Street until he can breathe without his chest feeling like it’s about to cave in.

**

Andrew grows so fast. He goes from being a fat baby to a tubby toddler to a precocious two year old, beautiful and clumsy and loud, prone to getting the giggles, and the one bright spot in John’s life. It doesn’t matter that both Sherlock and Harry are his biological parents, or that both Sherlock and John are the ones listed as his parents on his birth certificate; Andrew is all Holmes, from his curls to his nose to a set of brains anyone would be proud of. John’s child is not just clever -- he’s brilliant, literally. His nursery school teacher talks to John about it, and it isn’t as if John has been blind to how smart his child is, it’s just that it takes someone else noticing for him to take Andrew to the doctor and have him tested.

They check him for all manners of physical and psychological ailments, take MRIs of his brain, and do a whole month’s worth of tests before declaring that, vision problems aside, Andrew is perfectly healthy. “He isn’t a prodigy, John -- prodigies are usually only gifted in one or two areas like music, or art,” their GP, Doctor Smith, says with his distinctive American accent. “Andrew’s got the whole deal. Blew our psychologist away, we had to call a specialist from Oxford. He’s twenty-two months old, and your son reads at a second grade level. Not only reads, but understands what he’s reading. He’s starting to conceptualize abstract ideas and argue logically about perceived injustices, even if said injustices include his nursery classroom only serving chocolate milk on Fridays.”

John considers this for a moment. “You’re saying he shouldn’t be able to do all of that.”

David snorts, rubs a hand over his face. “John, you came asking for my medical opinion, so here it is. I’ve never seen a kid like Andrew. He’s almost two -- he should be picking his nose and eating crayons, not doing math in his head. Andrew is smart, a whole helluva lot smarter than we can measure right now, at this stage in his development. I can tell you this: your son is gifted, John. Profoundly so.”

David gives him pamphlets and books on the subject, and contact numbers for support classes for parents with gifted children.

On the way home, they stop at the Tesco and John buys Andrew a chocolate milk and a copy of Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs.

**

John makes the decision soon after that he isn’t going to treat Andrew any differently than he always has. The truth is he has no idea what he’s doing, lives his life utterly on the edge hoping he isn’t going to screw his son up too badly, but in this he thinks he’s made the right choice. He still makes Andrew help clean up his room, put away his toys, set the table -- he’d broken four plates before John finally realized they should switch to molded plastic. He still expects his son to have his schoolwork done, not looking too closely at the worksheets his nursery had provided or thinking too much on the fact that he’s the only student at Le Jardin à l'Ouest with homework. Andrew is so smart, and so young, and doesn’t have the fine motor skills to keep up with his mind, so John helps him fill them out as Andrew gives him the answers. This week they’re working on subtraction.

His son, John comes to realize, is a creature of the most unrelenting, unshakable habit, and it reminds John of Mycroft so much it’s frightening. As Andrew gets older his mind begins to work faster, like a car warming up. Sherlock had always let that wild intellect fly, but like his uncle, Andrew uses his schedule as a rudimentary control on his mind. Everything is alright so long as breakfast is promptly at a quarter to eight, and school begins at nine, and Daddy is there to pick him up, rain or shine or sleet or snow, exactly at four. Tea by five, bath by six, and then a bit of TV and reading time before bed, exactly at eight. There are no surprises with Andrew; any deviation to his routine sends him into hysteria.

Which is why the very last place John wants to be in the entire universe, at five in the evening on a Monday, is the bloody Tesco.

Sundays were his shopping days, early in the morning before the worst of humanity rolled out of bed. The Express right by the flat was all well and good, but most weeks they’d run out of everything by Sunday, so John would bundle Andrew up and they’d get the Tube to the Edgware Road Metro. Sunday mornings are always quietest at that hour, just him and a few old ladies, and so he’d get a coffee, and settle Andrew into the shopping trolley with a box of cheerios to keep him occupied, and armed with infinite amounts of patience, he would get the shopping done.

This week, however, the surgery had been open for emergency hours Sunday morning, to patch up those sterling examples of humanity who’d been a bit overzealous in their World Cup celebrations. Broken bones, lacerations, even a case of internal hemorrhaging. It’d been like Afghanistan all over again, only instead of putting soldiers back together he’d been doctoring drunken idiots, two of whom had grabbed his bloody arse and one he’d had to put in a headlock.

Andrew is a sweet child, a wonderful child, but this deviation from their routine -- and he knows his routine, keeps moaning about what he should be doing in that exact moment -- is sending him round the twist, and from the moment they get off the Tube and into the overcrowded Tesco his child, the love of his heart, is driving him insane. He’s uncomfortable, he’s sleepy, he doesn’t like the noise – I don’t want those crackers Daddy even though they’re on sale this week, and pease no cheese I don’t like cheese it is horrible please forget that I eat it every day, and no, no, no pasghettis and no chickens and no food, I will not be eating this week Daddy.

Add to that John’s forgotten his vouchers on his desk at home, meaning they’ll be paying full price for everything, something he hasn’t done since the first week he moved in with Sherlock. What’s worse, the shop hasn’t restocked the shelves since the weekend so there aren’t nappies, or the wipes John, and Andrew’s backside, like. The price of coffee has gone up, the price of sausages, John’s least favorite meal, has gone down, and there is a truly, unholy number of people packed into the store.

John doesn’t do well with crowds on a good day, and this is absolutely unspeakable. Mums with children and men in business clothes and loud teenagers and even louder twenty-somethings from the closest uni and Andrew, a furious, squirming mess. “No, Daddy,” his son sobs. “No, no, no.”

“Andrew,” John says calmly, clutching the shopping trolley tightly and staring down at his child, who is looking back up at him, red-faced with angry tears. “You have to eat.”

“I don’t like these foods,” Andrew bawls, twisting in his seat to get to their shopping. He throws a tin of beans out of their trolley, a bag of pasta following it. “I don’t wanna eat these foods!”

“They’re healthy for you, you’re going to eat them and like them,” John replies, picking up the beans and pasta, which thankfully survived their unexpected trip intact.

When he straightens Andrew is holding their milk, looking furious and worse, mutinous, and so exactly like Sherlock that it takes his breath away. Sometimes, sometimes John forgets that Andrew inherited more than his curls and his brains from his papa. He grabs the trolley tightly with one hand, the milk with the other, and leans in very close. “If you throw this milk, Andrew Holmes, I’ll be very, very upset.”

The look that crosses Andrew’s face very clearly says Good, so John goes for the jugular. “Not only will I be upset, and I will be no mistake, but I will be disappointed.”

That stops his son up short. John had learned long ago just how much his good opinion meant to Andrew, and he gave it often and freely, but lord above in these moments he wasn’t above using it. “I’ll be disappointed that my big boy not only caused such a scene in the middle of his favorite shop, but that he destroyed something that took many, many people to create.”

Andrew’s face screws up again with fresh tears, but John cuts them off at the pass. “Where does milk come from?”

His baby snuffles horribly, chin wobbling, and John’s heart feels like it’s breaking. Andrew goes from looking like he’s going to fling it to hugging the milk to him, and John, after a moment to see which way it’s going to go, continues on to the next aisle. “M-milk come from cows. Moo.”

“That’s right. How do we get the milk?”

That past spring Andrew’s nursery had gone on a field trip to a dairy farm in Kent. Andrew had been fascinated ever since, and every toy he’d got for his birthday had been somehow farm related. They even had a bedtime storybook about farming John had read ragged, the page corners soft with use. “The cow’s mudders.”

John bites his lip, picks up a tin of tomato paste. “That’s right. And once it comes out of the cow, what then?”

Andrew presses his cheek against the top of the milk bottle, woeful. “Then the farmers they clean it.”

A woman knocks into him at a bad angle and John grabs the trolley, waiting for his foot to stop throbbing. “Pasteurization,” John reminds him, flexing his toes carefully until they stop screaming at him. Farmer Bob certainly fucking talked about it enough in his book. “And then?”

“And then they make it in a carbon and put it out for kids.”

“Yes, they put milk in cartons, and jugs, and jars, for the children to drink. So after all that hard work, both for the cow and the farmer, would it be nice of us to throw it on the ground?”

“No,” Andrew says, voice pitching up in an aborted wail. His eyes are filled with tears again. “I don’t want those cereals,” he adds.

John exhales slowly through his nose. “You love this cereal. I think you’re upset that we have to be here at this hour buying it.”

“No I don’t like it,” Andrew bawls, and they’re at it again.

He cries throughout the rest of their shopping. He sobs as John picks out meats, and wails when John gets orange juice, and positively howls as John gets their yogurt.

By the time he’s ready to pay Andrew has literally cried himself to sleep, clutching the milk to him fiercely as it shoves his glasses up on one side and into his hair, and John’s hands are shaking so badly he drops his bank card as he hands it to the woman at the till. She smiles at him, sympathetic, and doesn’t make him have Andrew let go of the milk, giving it to him, with a wink, for free.

Getting home is another adventure entirely. John’s got six shopping bags and as they leave the shop one newly hysterical toddler, who cries brokenly into John’s bad shoulder where he’s sprawled, half asleep and miserable. Hailing a cab in this traffic at this hour is a near impossibility and the Tube is an idea so bad it’s not worth thinking about, so John walks the mile home, Andrew a dead weight in his arms and the shopping cutting off circulation to everything else.

Later, after the shopping is put away, and Andrew has been bathed and fed and finally put to bed, John sits at the kitchen table and puts his head in his hands and cries until his face feels swollen and his joints tremble. He only allows himself ten minutes of that nonsense before he picks up and carries on. There’s no other choice, really.

That night Andrew crawls into bed with him, squishing himself up against John’s chest, and, voice wobbling, whispers, “I’m sorry for being a bad boy and almost throwing milk in the shop.”

“It’s alright,” John mumbles back, arranging them both comfortably so Andrew can snuggle into the warm spot he’d created. “You’re a good boy because you didn’t throw it after all.”

“A really good boy?”

“A super good boy,” John replies. “Go to sleep now.”

Andrew snuffles, and wriggles, and finally, finally settles. John is on the cusp of falling back to sleep when Andrew whispers, “I love you, Daddy.”

“I love you, Andrew,” John whispers back, and kisses his soft baby hair and tugs the blankets up cozily over them both.

**

The nightmares never really stop.

John doesn’t have time for a therapist anymore, but he uses the coping mechanisms she taught him to try and get control of himself. There are good days, spent laughing with Andrew, taking him to the park, or just staying at home baking, one of his son’s favorite things to do. Those days aren’t as often as John would like. Most of the time it’s the daily grind of get-up-go-to-work, Andrew whining for most of the hours he’s awake, something in the flat breaking, or enduring Mycroft’s visits, which are surprisingly often given the man's decision to move from a 'minor' position in the government to one of its official leaders -- deputy prime minister is a decidedly major position. John would have been shocked by the move if he'd had any energy at the time, and now it just doesn't seem worth it. Nothing has really changed, after all.

And it isn’t that John doesn’t want Mycroft to see his nephew; nothing could be further from the truth. John cares for his brother-in-law, but the man is far too perceptive for his own good, and he’s a bit of a bad influence on Andrew, who has become obsessed with his uncle’s pocket watch and now has their routine down to the minute.

He spends all of his non-working time with his son, and learns to cope with a child who, while unbelievably intelligent, is still a child. All of his conversations begin to revolve around Andrew, and with Andrew, and about Andrew -- his son is already the center of his universe, but his world narrows down until it’s only Andrew. They go to the park, and to museums, and for long walks; they spend hours every Saturday at the library, until Andrew has a mountain of books, picture books and First Reader books and as they edge past his second birthday, chapter books. They’re reading Harry Potter every night, and John wonders how long it will be before Andrew catches his dad editing out the scary bits.

Things are so bloody difficult. He didn’t realize how difficult it would be, raising a child by himself, trying to afford a flat he never expected to be paying for on his own. Neither did he have any idea how much work went into making sure his boy was washed and fed and cared for to his standards; keeping up with the house, and working full-time, and making sure Andrew’s mind was stimulated in these most crucial years. It seems most days that no sooner does he fall into bed than it’s time to get back up again, and each time he’s just that fraction more exhausted.

The second winter after Sherlock’s death is one of the worst on record. It gets so cold in London that the city nearly shuts down, and the surgery is full to bursting with patients every day. Even though John gets his flu jab, and takes care to wash and scrub at every opportunity, he’s still run-down, still exhausted, and so it’s without any sort of surprise that he wakes up one morning and realizes he can’t get out of bed.

It’s terrifying, how ill he is. It seems to take a herculean effort to sit up, to push his legs out of bed, to stand, and when he does the world goes sideways and he finds himself on the floor, retching last night’s dinner.

He hears Andrew calling his name from the doorway, and the patter of small feet as they race up to him. “No, no,” he mumbles, pushing his son away. “No, love, you’ll get sick too. Get Daddy’s phone, please.”

God help him, he can’t get up. He tries once, twice, and then gives up the ghost, leaning back against the bed frame, exhausted and drenched in sweat. It seems to take forever for Andrew to come back, and John keeps hearing him, close and yet somehow far away. He needs to get up to find his son, but his legs won’t seem to work. “Andrew,” he croaks, terror clawing up his throat. “Andrew!”

“Daddy,” Andrew says, appearing in the doorway with John’s phone, the wall charger still attached. “I couldn’t take it off!”

“It’s alright.” His eyes are burning with double vision, and he can barely see the screen and the bloody fucking touch-buttons. He keeps misdialing, so he hands the phone back to his son. “Push and hold number five.”

It’s useless. Andrew doesn’t have the coordination, and his little fingers keep slipping off. John curses Apple to the furthest reaches of hell. “Daddy,” Andrew sobs, and John calms him gently. “Shh, shh, it’s alright, it’s okay. Try again, baby.”

He does, and this time he’s able to get the call to go through. John takes the phone from him, but after five rings the call goes to Mrs. Hudson’s voicemail, and he remembers abruptly that she‘d left for Cornwall yesterday, to visit her niece. “Damn,” he mumbles.

Andrew gasps, and John cracks one eye open to look at his boy, who’s staring at him with a hand over his mouth. “Daddy,” he says, hushed. “You said a bad word.”

“I did,” he answers, thoughtful, swiping a hand over his eyes to clear the sweat from them. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Andrew replies. “Daddy, are you very sick?”

“I think so,” John says, leaning his head back against the bed. “I’ll be able to get up in a moment. I was trying to call Mrs. Hudson.”

“Mrs. Hudson went to Corny’all,” Andrew tells him sensibly.

“I know, I just remembered,” John says. “And your uncle is in India, for Aunt Mahdavi’s sister’s wedding.”

Andrew’s eyes light up. “He said he would bring me something.”

“Yes, he did.” John thinks. “Well, nothing for it. Let’s call Uncle Geoff.”

This time he can see the screen enough to dial, even though it burns his eyes and makes them water. Andrew stares at him as if he’s never seen his father before, and John hates that his boy is seeing him like this.

He hates it more when his call goes right to Geoff’s voicemail, and John’s world narrows down, once more, to himself and his son.

He wants to bury his face in his hands and cry, but Andrew is crouched next to him, Ribbit tucked under his arm and worry all over his face. John swallows until he can speak. “I guess we’re going to have a little holiday this week, love. No school today, and no work for me. What do you say?”

“I want to go to school, we leave for school at eight-oh-nine,” Andrew says. “I want to finish my project.”

“I’m too sick to leave the house, Andrew,” John tells him, keeping his voice as calm as possible. “And there’s no one here to help us. I’m sorry, love.”

Andrew chews on his lip in an effort not to cry -- seeing his dad like this isn’t helping, John knows. Why don’t you go and get into your play-clothes, love.

“Daddy?”

“Mind me, please.”

“You didn’t say nothing.”

He blinks his eyes open. “Go and get dressed. I’ll make you breakfast.”

He hears Andrew leave, socks padding on floor, and begins the long, messy process of getting to his feet. He can hear Andrew in his bedroom, and the safety alarm is still turned on at the front door, but he leaves the bathroom door open anyway and struggles to get himself out of his sopping-wet clothes. The world is swimming but he just needs a shower, a shower will help.

He wills Geoff to call back, because he has his pride -- he can’t call him twice in one morning. Asking Lestrade to leave the Met anyway is beyond selfish, and John wishes he hadn’t called him at all. What could the man do that John wasn’t doing already?

He hears the telly come on in the sitting room and stumbles into the shower, shaking with heat, and then when the water hits him, cold. He trembles and shudders and groans into his arm, leaning against the shower wall. After a moment he forces himself upright, scrubbing the sweat off of himself as fast as he can manage.

How he makes Andrew breakfast, he’ll never know, nor does he remember. When again he swims up to consciousness he finds himself stretched out on the sofa without a clue as to how he got there. He’s never been so sick in his entire life, and never been so scared of his body’s failure. Andrew fades in and out in front of his eyes, restless and agitated.

The world narrows to a gray, formless space, splashes of color swimming across his vision -- Andrew’s red shirt, Ribbit’s green fur -- and always, Andrew’s voice. He talks to his son, tries to keep him calm, and finally, after a long time, says, “Andrew? Get Daddy’s phone again.”

“Are you waked now?”

His son is crying, and John mumbles, “Shh, it’s alright. I’m just not going to be able to take care of you very well today. Let’s call your grandmummy.”

Andrew sniffles, and John opens his eyes and watches his son, superimposed three times on his vision, fumble with John’s mobile. As God as his witness, he’s throwing the blasted thing away as soon as he could make it out to buy a different one. “Grandmummy?”

“Yes, love.”

He takes the phone from Andrew, sitting up enough to focus his eyes on the screen. The light burns into his brain, and he squints, eyes watering, going through his contacts list until he reaches Adella.

She’s the last person he wants to call, the last person he wants to know what’s happening, the last person he wants to be weak in front of. But he calls her, because there isn’t a choice in the matter, not when John can’t bloody get up, let alone care for his son.

There’s an answer on the second ring. “Mrs. Holmes’ office, Demetrius speaking, how can I help you?”

“Adella.”

“John?” He hears a rustle, the mechanical noise of a phone switching out of speaker-phone. “What an unexpected surprise. Is everything alright?”

“I...”

“John?” Adella says again, and John’s head swims badly, darkness curling in around the corners of his eyes. He struggles against it, forcing himself back into focus, only to realize that he no longer has the phone.

“--es, Gra’mum,” Andrew is saying. The phone is as big as his head, smushing his glasses to one side. John takes a second to thank God his child is still wearing them at all, with how often he lost them. “He went blaugh all over the floor, and his eyes are red and pink, and he’s sweaty too.” He looks up at John. “Yeah. White all over.” His chin wobbles, badly. “He was sleeping and wouldn’t wake up, and then he waked up and told me to get the phone. Is Daddy going to be okay?”

Whatever Adella tells him reassures him -- he scrapes a hand across his eyes. “Okay, I love you too.” He kisses the receiver and then hands the phone back over.

John is mortified, right to the heart, but before he can say a word Adella tells him, “John, I’ll be there in less than an hour. I want you and Andrew to stay right where you are, am I understood?”

“Adella--”

“Am I. Understood.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Good.”

She hangs up in his ear, and John exhales slowly, full of shame. He looks at his son, whose chin is still wobbling, and reaches out to squeeze his hand. “You’ve been very good, helping your dad. I’m sorry I haven’t been able to take much care of you today.”

“It’s okay,” Andrew says, snuffling, and rubs his nose dry on Ribbit’s head.

John’s awareness on his surroundings fade, but he’s only dozing when the door opens downstairs. “John?” Adella calls, punching the alarm code in, though he can’t remember ever giving it to her, and making her way up the steps. Andrew starts to sob the moment she steps into the room.

“Andrew,” she murmurs, and his son throws himself into her arms. She lifts him as if he doesn’t weigh half her own body mass. She smells like home, and Sherlock, and John swallows convulsively so he won’t vomit. “John,” she sighs, sitting on the sofa beside his hip.

“I didn’t want to call you.”

“That much is obvious,” she replies, running a hand over his forehead. “How long?”

“Less than twenty four hours,” he says, closing his eyes with relief -- her hand is so cool, and he’s so bloody hot. “Mycroft is in India.”

“I’m well aware of the fact.”

“I thought I could--”

“That is also obvious,” she answers, and after kissing Andrew on the forehead, sets him on the floor and stands to take her coat off. “Stupid, foolhardy, but obvious. I have the family doctor driving in, he should be here in less than ten minutes.” She takes a look around the flat, wrinkles her nose, and John wishes he could die, just curl up and die.

She doesn’t leave for two weeks. John survives the flu and comes out on the other end shaken and weak but all in one piece, with another set of nightmares but thankfully none the worse for wear. He almost doesn’t survive her visit, and by the time they wave her goodbye from the front stoop to Baker Street, even Andrew says, “I love gra’mum, but it’s better just you and me.”

He couldn’t agree more.

**

Andrew often says brilliant things, to the point that John stops being surprised by the words that come out of his son’s mouth. Less when, a month before the second anniversary of Sherlock’s death, Andrew asks about his papa for the first time.

The sun has started to go down and the news is on -- apparently David Beckham and his wife are having another child. He's got chicken frying, and noodles boiling, and a pot roast in the cooker for tomorrow because he's picking up an extra shift at the surgery while Andrew's at his uncle's house. Andrew's been quiet for days now, almost as if he's mulling something over, but John had promised himself long ago that if he were ever lucky enough to have children he wouldn't try to smother them, as his own mother had done. He knows Andrew will tell him in his own time, brilliant as his child is, and so it isn't but half a surprise when Andrew abandons his blocks and toddles into the kitchen. "Hello love," he says, and hands him a bit of tomato from where he's chopping them. "Having fun?"

"I’m building a rocket ship," Andrew says matter-of-factly, as if it were perfectly normal for two year olds to be building rocket ships to scale out of legos. "It's gonna go vroooooom," he thrusts a hand into the air, "up in the sky!"

"Brilliant," John says, smiling, and sweeps his thumb over a bit of tomato that has run down Andrew's chin. "What are the things you like?"

It's a game they've been playing since Andrew was old enough to respond. The little boy's face lights up like Christmas and he spends the next ten minutes dashing about the flat, pointing out each thing that he likes, and then each thing that his stuffed bears like, the ten of them that live on the sofa, and then each thing that the lego rocket ship likes. By the time he's finally winding down the chicken is done and the noodles are cooked, and John decides that, as a special treat, they'll eat cross-legged at the coffee table so that Andrew's battalion of fuzzy friends can partake in the rugby match about to start on the telly.

"Now you!" Andrew says, slurping a noodle up into his mouth, and when that doesn't quite work stuffing it in with his fingers.

"Me?" John asks, just like he always does. He pretends to be shocked. "Why, there are only three things that I like."

Andrew giggles, holds out his three fingers. "Me!"

"You," John agrees. "I like you more than anything else in the whole entire world."

“The football team.”

"Good lad, that's the national spirit."

That funny look crosses Andrew's face again. John watches the thoughts go through his little mind, filter over his face as he looks at the frames of Sherlock on the mantle, and the photo album they take down from time to time. He knows what Andrew is going to ask before he even says it. "What things do Papa like?"

“Lots of things,” John replies, gently feeding Andrew a spoonful of peas. “He liked you most of all.”

“And you!” Andrew says sensibly around his peas.

“And me,” John says, propping his chin up on his hand. “He also liked his violin, and the laboratory upstairs, and having grand adventures.”

Andrew hugs his Ribbit to his chest. “Will he be back soon?”

He isn’t expecting the hot flash of grief, or Andrew’s big eyes. Too smart; he’s simply too smart by half. “No, love. He isn’t going to come back.”

“Why?”

It’s a question John simply doesn’t have an answer to. He doesn’t want to lie to his son, but neither can he tell him the entire truth. “Well,” he says, setting his glass down. “It’s like Mr. Gold.”

Mr. Gold had been a kindly sort of goldfish, if goldfish could be kindly, gifted to Andrew by his uncle and aunt. Andrew had loved that fish as if it were his own child, feeding it, playing with it, and insisting it accompany them everywhere – John had quickly learned that London cabbies didn’t generally approve of sea creatures, let alone live ones. For a while he’d thought the Head at the nursery was going to have words with him about it, or that Tesco would throw him out for bringing beloved family pets into their supermarket.

Mr. Gold had inevitably met his end through peaceful and natural circumstances, as goldfish were wont to do, but Andrew had been so utterly devastated that it had become their first discussion on death. They’d had a little ceremony in the garden and buried Mr. Gold under the azalea bush that Andrew had insisted had been his favorite, and then John had sat his son down and explained to him that though they couldn’t see Mr. Gold anymore they would always love and remember him.

Mr. Gold’s passing is too fresh, and Andrew’s eyes film with tears. “Mr. Gold is in heaven.”

“That’s right love,” John says, gently brushing his curls back. “Mr. Gold is in heaven, with your papa. He’s taking care of Mr. Gold now until we can go and see him.”

Andrew’s lower lip quivers. “Will we see Papa soon?”

It hurts, like a knife to the heart. “Not yet,” he says, kissing his forehead. “You have so much to do still. But one day, a long long long long time from now, you’ll go to heaven, and I’ll go to heaven too, and we’ll be together, the three of us.”

His son thinks about this, mulls it over – he is so beautiful, and so intelligent, and so perfect. John sweeps him up into his arms, gives him a tight, fierce hug. “I love you so much, Andrew.”

Andrew’s arms link around his neck and squeeze, and then just like that he’s running off to play and John is left there at the coffee table, unsure if his knees can hold him.

**

Time keeps dragging forward, one day melting into the next and the one after, a relentless progression, until they’re more than halfway to Andrew’s third birthday. A lot has happened in the intervening time, and yet it seems like nothing has changed except Andrew himself, who is bigger and smarter and more in need of things John’s not sure how to give him. Andrew’s fine motor skills are still lagging behind his peers, and his vision issues are a nightmare for both of them. It’s a battle every day to get him to keep his glasses on, despite the clear band that is supposed to wrap around his head and keep him from pulling them off. He hates wearing them but hates it more when he can’t see things properly, and doesn’t always seem to accept that there’s a relationship between the two. John is sick to death of worrying about what Andrew’s going to walk into next -- he’s had bumps and bruises and one time a black eye, which made John feel like the worst parent in all of creation. The months he had to wear eye-patches it was outright war.

And despite Andrew’s insatiable curiosity about almost everything else he’s overly-wary of strangers, of anyone who might interrupt his routine. It makes it hard to get Andrew to socialize, for John to socialize.

John had tried to introduce someone new, and it hadn’t gone well.

So, as usual, it’s just the two of them heading towards the park. It’s Andrew’s favorite because it has lots of climbing ladders, and a big boy slide, and brand new teeter-totters of Elmo and Cookie Monster, both of whom Andrew admires greatly for their ability to count to a hundred. John likes it for the benches and the thick playground rubber underfoot, rather than the pebbles Andrew thinks should go into his various orifices.

Really though, John should be less surprised to see Mycroft sitting on their favorite bench, completely unbothered by anyone who might recognize him.

Andrew squeals and throws himself into his uncle’s arms for a quick hug before running to the swings. John watches until he assures himself he’s safe, and then glares down at his brother-in-law. “Has anyone ever told you that you’ve got a serious problem?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Mycroft says breezily, and offers him a coffee, which John takes only because he’s already dead on his feet.

It’s a beautiful late summer day, warm enough for short sleeves. It’s early enough yet in the afternoon that there are only a few children with their parents, and John can see Andrew easily, zipping in and out of the jungle gym in his bright red shirt. He’s so clumsy, his son, forever tripping on things and trying to keep his feet, even as excitement has him dashing around with the pent up energy that John had been desperate to siphon off.

He sits next to Mycroft, sighs into the coffee. “What brings you over here?”

“A favor.”

That surprises him. “A favor? What favor?”

Suddenly, he notices the lines in Mycroft’s face -- the man is never anything less than utterly pristine, and nobody else would even notice the ruffle at his collar, the slight smudge on a shoe, the tension written in his muscles, but John does. “Everything alright?”

Mycroft sighs, taps his long fingers along the handle of his umbrella. “It depends on what you’d describe as ‘alright’.” His mouth purses, and John sees echoes of Adella in that expression. “John, my sister-in-law called this morning to let us know she’s pregnant.”

“What? Mahdavi’s sister? Didn’t she just get married?”

“Exactly four months ago,” Mycroft affirms. There’s a lull in their conversation; children are running and laughing and screaming, little voices raised with joy to be playing. “I’m not certain if I’ve ever told you this, or if my brother let on, but Mahdavi and I have been trying for almost five years.”

John frowns sharply. “No, I didn’t -- have you been to a doctor?”

“Doctors, specialists. Mahdavi has a mild form of endometriosis, which doesn’t make conception impossible, just difficult. We’ve been through two ectopic miscarriages.”

It’s startling to hear him talk like that. Normal. Human. “I’m so sorry, Mycroft.”

His brother-in-law glances across at him. “Tanvi’s news couldn’t have come at a worse time.”

John leans back into the bench. Andrew falls, chasing after a little boy, and after a moment where he’s unsure if he’s going to cry, takes off running again. “Mycroft, I don’t know what I can do to help you. My specialty is in emergency medicine -- I can put you into contact with some specialists I know, and the clinic that Sherlock and I used for Andrew, if you and Mahdavi are interested in something like that.”

Mycroft shakes his head. “That isn’t what I was asking, John, but I thank you.”

“Then what? What help could I be?”

“Just you, and Andrew.” Mycroft sighs. “Last month, when you stayed with us for that long weekend -- I haven’t seen my wife that animated and wholly herself in longer than I care to think about. Having the house full of life did wonders for her. She is one of twelve brothers and sisters, and I fear that the silence in our home is beginning to wear her nerves thin.”

“You want us to come and stay?” It’s a surprising request, but not one John thinks he can -- or would -- turn down. Mahdavi is part of his family, and if having he and Andrew for a visit would help... “Of course. But I -- how long?”

“As long as you would be comfortable with.”

John frowns. “You do know what you’re asking, right? A two year old running around your house, breaking your things, experimenting on the dog? The screaming, the arguing, the whining, the smell?”

A smile breaks out on Mycroft’s face. “Yes. All of that.”

And John, god help him, knows he means it.

**

It’s unsettling, how well Andrew takes to Mycroft’s home.

Downing Street is lovely, a world far removed from the way John grew up, a world that suits Mycroft, and Andrew, to the ground. His son is young still, but John can already see the fine bold features he would have, the tumble of wild blond curls the girls would go crazy over. He watches Andrew running and playing with Mycroft's dog and sees his son as a young man, elegant and handsome and impossibly aristocratic.

What unsettles him most, however, is that Andrew is flourishing in a way he hadn’t been when he was alone with John. Almost overnight he blossoms -- he has play dates with the children of politicians and romp classes with Mahdavi, and an enormous bedroom of his own with his books and his toys and his blocks that he keeps clean without being prompted. His speech and vocabulary grow by leaps and bounds, and he finally conceptualizes multiplication, scribbling out numbers on the enormous rolls of butcher paper Mahdavi gets for him to color on. He's happy in a way he hasn't been for a long time, and as days turn to weeks, and John watches him grow and thrive, a thought he’s been trying to ignore for longer than he cares to admit takes seed. It’s a stupid thought, an awful thought, but as he lies down to rest every night it’s with him, whispering in his ear. Andrew is young still, young enough not to remember, even as his third birthday comes ever closer. In time he would forget, as all young children did.

One Sunday morning, two months after going to stay with Mycroft, John leaves Andrew at home with Mahdavi and goes to the shop for nappies, and without actually realizing what he’s doing, finds himself at a solicitors, drawing up a will. He’s been meaning to do it for so long, and now is a good a time as any. He has it notarized by a man Sherlock had once helped, Mr. Turney, a lovely old chap who does it for him free of charge.

When he returns to Mycroft's house, Sherlock is standing in the foyer.