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After All

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This is one way it might happen.

There are, of course, many.

New universes are born every time we take a step, however small, or make a decision, however unintentional. Potential futures flow forth from our actions like ripples in water. Perhaps, amidst infinite possibilities, these exact events will take place.

Whether or not they do, the following is true.


Part 1: After the (Reichenbach) Fall

"Mrs Hudson's worried about you," Lestrade said, as he loosened his scarf and removed his gloves. "So am I, for that matter."

"There's no need." John refused to meet Lestrade's eyes. "Nothing's going to happen to me."

Ever again, he added to himself.

He understood this to be true, but he couldn't feel it. He couldn't feel much of anything at all.

"Tea?" John limped toward the kitchen.

Lestrade blocked his way. The detective inspector knew how to use his body to send a message, to provoke a response – John still remembered his studied, dramatic sprawl during that fake drugs bust – and now Lestrade was crowding him, forcing him to stop and confront the words of concern.

To be here, now.

John saw the scene distantly and imperfectly, as if watching it from across the street through weak and dusty binoculars. His own body responded with a soldier's muscle memory, tensing at the threat, readying for conflict.

The vague warmth of anything, even this anaemic excuse for a fight or flight response, came as a shock. Baffled and confused, he blinked up at Lestrade – and, Christ, the man looked wrecked and old as well as tired.

"Don't care if you hit me or hug me," Lestrade words came thickly. "For God's sake, John, do something. We already lost him, and we don't want to lose you, too. You're walking and talking, but you're gone. And you're needed back here with the rest of us poor bastards."

It was a generous thing to say, but no one needed him: ex-soldier, ex-doctor, ex-blogger, ex-flatmate…

Ex-everything.

"I won't insult you by saying I know how you feel," Lestrade continued. "'Course I don't. No one does. But I can sympathise. Lost someone of my own, didn't I? And now – well, I miss him, too. You must know that."

"I know." The voice might've belonged to someone else. "I know."

Lestrade backed away. John moved forward toward the kettle, a single-minded wind-up toy now freed to follow its original course.

It would've been different if there was some action he could take, someone he could hunt down and – no, John Watson wasn't above revenge. But there was nothing left to him but getting on with the business of living. He'd been making a bad enough job of that before Sherlock, and now…

"I was in pieces, before." John was surprised to realise he'd said this aloud. "He fixed me."

"You fixed him, too. He was better, in every way, after you."

"Now I'm…" A shrug. It hardly mattered.

"We're all broken, John," Lestrade said, with more patience and kindness than John expected he deserved. "Join the club, yeah?"

Even compensating for the newly-returned tremor in his left hand, John's motions were automatic as he busied himself with the tea and the mugs.

Lestrade had his own problems. John didn't mean to be a bother, truly he didn't.

"I don't want bring out the big guns, John, but I will if I must."

"Big guns," John repeated. Funny choice of words for a man who, at the worst of times, carried only a baton. "You know Mycroft isn't in any—"

"I'm not talking about Mycroft," Lestrade murmured, slumping against the doorframe like it was the only thing keeping him upright, twisting his gloves in an unsteady grip. "I'm talking about my daughter."

***

"Today, anything you want," John promised.

Sofie frowned, and John almost believed that she could see the layers of ice that had frozen around him, sealing him in and the world out, thickening each day since Sherlock's fall.

Crossing her arms, she studied him with her young-old eyes, brown within brown within brown.

She took her time in responding.

"I'd like to visit Mum. With you, John."

Lestrade nearly choked on his coffee. "Sweetheart, that's not, now's not a good—"

"It's fine," John said, and for Sofie's sake he tried to smile, tried to pretend he was the man she remembered. "Like I said, anything Sofie wants."

"And some cocoa, too," she added. Then, a beat later, "Please."

***

Sofie handled the introductions at the gravesite.

"Mum, this is John. He's a doctor and a soldier and our friend. He's like a ninja meerkat. I'll explain later."

Her voice grew hushed, catching now and then as it rose and fell. "He's really sad now, like we all are, because our friend Sherlock died. If you see him, Sherlock I mean – he's tall with curly hair, and he's probably wearing a scarf and a long coat, and looking as if something smells rather bad – please tell him John and Daddy and I miss him and won't ever forget him."

She took a deep breath, held it for several heartbeats, and then released it in an explosive huff.

Then, matter-of-factly, Sofie threw out her arm in an expansive, unselfconscious gesture. "John, this is Mum."

"Right," he said. "Um. Pleased to meet you, Mrs—"

"Jenny," Lestrade supplied. He'd arranged the flowers over the cold ground and then eased himself down to kneel beside them. "She'd want you to call her Jenny."

Sofie nodded her approval, as if her very few, blurred impressions of the woman – more wistful imagination that true memory, Lestrade suspected – confirmed his assessment.

"Hello, Jenny," John said.

"I think," Sofie said, in a whisper that was every bit as loud as her speaking voice, "we should give Daddy some 'alone time' now. Can we go for a walk, John?"

At Lestrade's nod of consent, John allowed himself to be led away like a sleepwalker, one hand in Sofie's, the other clutching his cane.

The man appeared to be wholly numb, inside and out.

Lestrade watched them leave. "Aw, Jenny." The rest he said without words.

A good while later, he rose stiffly, stretched feeling back into his limbs, and set off in search of the two. He knew each turn and every bench in the cemetery, but his first sweep by the most obvious spots proved fruitless. Not for the first or tenth time that morning, Lestrade hoped this hadn't been a terrible mistake.

He didn't know exactly who or what to be for John now, any more than Mrs Hudson did, but he reckoned that several brisk laps amidst the dead and buried probably wasn't the straightest path to the man's emotional health.

But Sofie had asked.

Finally, just as Lestrade was making up his mind to ring one of them and ask their whereabouts, he found them. They were underneath an aged tree that sat gnarled and twisted and devoid of leaves, its smallest branches splayed like arthritic fingers groping at the sky.

John rested his back against the mighty trunk, his legs folded to his chest and encircled by an arm, his face buried against his knees. Sofie sat beside him, her head pillowed against his other arm, both of her hands wrapped around his. John's broad shoulders shook with muffled sobs.

The ice had broken at last.

Taking great care not to make a sound, Lestrade drew closer, until he could hear his girl's quiet murmurs.

"Easy," she said, patting the hand that held hers as she gave John's words back to him. "I've got you, soldier."

As if sensing her father's presence, Sofie looked up and offered him a red-eyed and watery smile.

***

It had required some work, but perseverance finally paid off, and Lestrade persuaded John to join a few of the Yarders for a pint. The result could hardly be called a hilariously good time, but everyone worked at it – John included – and after a few games of darts and a few colourful anecdotes, it felt comfortable and right.

The message, Lestrade thought, had been received loud and clear: even without Sherlock, John was part of the team. Valued. Liked. Needed.

Last-minute logistics had threatened the evening when Julia asked Lestrade if he might take Sofie. Fortunately for all concerned, Mrs Hudson volunteered to save the day, brightening at the prospect of a "girls' night in."

Upon returning from the pub, John and Lestrade found them curled on Mrs Hudson's sofa in the dark. The flickering lights from the telly played across two faces, one wide awake and one sound asleep.

Mrs Hudson put her finger to her lips.

As they entered the room, Lestrade gave a soft moan.

"Mrs Hudson," he whispered, "what have you done? I try to share things with her that we can enjoy together – Doctor Who, Star Wars, Harry Potter. This? I can never relate to this. I mean—"

She raised a hand.

"I had my lecture all prepared," she answered, primly and softly, "about how it set feminism back a century, and how she mustn't take such role models to heart. But Sofie beat me to it, Dear.

"She said, and I quote, 'Bella should get a hobby, and forget those stupid boys who follow her everywhere and sulk all the time.' Needless to say, I agreed wholeheartedly."

"I take it back," Lestrade said, hand over heart, with a bow. "Mrs Hudson, I love you."

"As well you should, Dear," she said, grinning. "Oh wait, just a moment." Her attention returned to the telly. She made an impatient gesture, shooing John out of her line of sight.

"If it's so awful, why are you still watching it?" John asked, keeping his voice low as he moved aside.

"Just when I think I can't endure another moment, the werewolf boy takes off his shirt, and I forget my objections." She gave him a mock stern glance. "At my age, John, I've earned the right to be shallow whenever I choose."

Flushed with the night's drink and camaraderie, John actually giggled. Lestrade and Mrs Hudson shared a conspiratorial look of triumph at the sound.

Bundled in Mrs Hudson's fluffiest peacock-coloured dressing gown, Sofie slept on undisturbed.


Part 2: After the Hiatus

"Once I told her, I had to bring her," Lestrade said, his hands resting protectively on Sofie's shoulders. "You understand."

John nodded, rubbed his hand across his face, and drifted toward one corner of the sitting room.

In its centre stood Sherlock Holmes.

Paler and thinner than before, if that was humanly possible.

Then again, perhaps it didn't have to be. The man had returned from the dead, after all.

He seemed unsure what to do with himself in this flat that had once been a home. He ran his fingers through his hair. He tugged at his sleeve. He steepled his fingers together and pressed them to his lips.

"Hello, Sofie," he said.

She stepped forward, out from under the shelter of her father's strong hands.

"It's really you," she said.

"Ah, yes. It is. Me. I'm not. Not dead." He licked his lips, looked to John, to Lestrade, and then back at the child.

Only she wasn't such a child anymore, John thought. Her rounded porcelain-doll face had grown leaner and longer. Now it was impossible to look at her and fail to see the teenager and young woman she soon would become. Dressed in her dark uniform-that-wasn't-a-uniform-but-really-was, her hair pulled back in a long braid, she seemed grave and intent and undeniably adult.

"Daddy said you did this to keep everyone safe."

"I did." He nodded. "I had to."

"It must've been hard for you."

"Yes." Quietly. "It was."

"I should…" Her bottom lip trembled. "I should feel sorry for you. I know I should."

Hearing the raw grief in her choked voice, both Lestrade and John moved forward, but she sidled out of their reach, making it clear that she wanted no consoling.

She wrapped her arms around herself. "If this was a movie, there'd be brilliant music playing, and the camera would go 'round and 'round the room, and then I'd hug you." Tears began to slide down her cheeks.

Sherlock went utterly still.

"But it isn't," she continued. "And all I can think of is how sad I feel – sad for myself and Daddy and Mrs Hudson and your brother, Mr Mycroft."

"Mycroft knew," Sherlock said, and his gaze dropped to his feet.

"Oh." A pause. "Then I guess I feel even sorrier for him."

Sherlock blinked, as if the thought had never occurred to him that this might've been difficult for his brother, as well.

"But most of all" – Sofie sobbed once, a broken-hearted sound that was almost more than John could endure – "I feel sorry." Little, gasping hiccups of breaths interrupted her words. "Sorry. For. John."

For several agonising seconds, the three men stood paralysed as Sofie wept.

"I'm glad you're not dead," she said, when she could continue. "I'm so glad, Sherlock. But right now, I don't want to hug you. Or talk. I just… I just want to go for a walk, I think." She threw a quick glance at her father. "Is that all right?"

"Yeah, Sweetheart. It's fine." She went to him, slipping her arm through his, and they turned to the door.

"John," Lestrade said, with a stricken look over his shoulder, and then, "Sherlock. Later."

Sherlock stared at the door in silence after they left.

Sofie didn't appear at 221B for almost two months.

The next time she did visit, she went to Sherlock as if he'd never been gone.

After throwing her arms around his neck, she thrust a book before his face, saying in a rush, "What do you know about ants? Because they're fascinating. I've been studying them. And I started an ant farm. I have a webcam set up, so you can watch it, too. I have some experiments planned."

For a long moment he considered her, and then he replied with equal fervor, "Excellent. I've long wanted to extend my research into the habits of ants."

Moving as one, they assumed their customary places on the sofa.

"Tell me everything you know," Sherlock demanded, "and then I'll tell you all about bees."


Part 3: After the Knife

It was perhaps the most surreal sight John Watson had ever seen – and considering who John was, and all that he'd witnessed, that was saying something.

In the course of his continual experiments, Sherlock had made a breakthrough that solved one of the cold cases Lestrade had showed him some months – or was it years? – earlier. Sherlock, being Sherlock, couldn't wait to share the triumphant news; he'd texted Lestrade for the address of the man's current location, and Lestrade, being Lestrade, gave it to him.

What they saw when they arrived was… in a word, surreal.

First, there was mayhem. Lestrade ran a calm and methodical crime scene, especially when Sherlock wasn't present. Here both his team members and various uniformed police were running about and shouting and projecting general confusion in a manner that instantly put John on his guard.

Louder yells then sounded, and bodies parted, and a rough-looking young man broke free from the crowd at a run, heading for the street, directly toward John and Sherlock. A second figure pursued – Anderson, of all people, still gloved and suited in full forensics gear. Anderson's face twisted into a portrait of fury, and with a terrible cry he lunged and managed a singularly graceless but effective tackle.

The young man went down hard, brow striking the kerb with a sickeningly wet crunch. John stood perfectly motionless for a moment, still on the wrong side of the police tape, registering the fast-growing pool of blood and the random jerking of the body. The young man, he realised, had no need of a doctor.

Anderson scrambled off of the youth, white-faced and panting. He blinked for several seconds, made an inarticulate sound, and then fumbled on his hands and knees toward the gutter, where he retched until he was empty.

John would've moved, either to check the body or to tend to Anderson, but as others on the force shifted or kneeled, he caught sight of a different scene, one his muddled senses couldn't quite comprehend.

If it had been anyone else but Lestrade and Donovan, anywhere else but a crime scene, John would've guessed they were lovers preparing to part.

Lestrade's face was pressed into Sally's shoulder, his arm around her back, his hand clutching her jacket in a fist. He shoulders hitched as if he were weeping. For her part, Sally had an arm around Lestrade, as well, and her free hand rested on his neck, her fingers in his hair in a pose that spoke of tenderness and consolation.

When she turned her cheek against Lestrade's chest, John could see her tears. Catching his eye across the distance, she mouthed, "Help!"

Sherlock was already running. John was right behind him.

As they drew near, Sally took a half-step back from Lestrade, and all became clear; he wasn't weeping, he was gasping for breath. His shirt was a bright crimson.

The attack wasn't a mere stabbing; it was an ungodly tearing, as if the youth had tried to gut Lestrade like livestock.

Over the next minutes, as they waited for an ambulance to arrive, John added a new nightmare to his repertoire: being fingers-deep in Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade, quite literally holding the man together.

On the bad nights, the nights with dreams, when he wasn't reliving the war in Afghanistan, or recalling the feel of Moriarty pressing back against the semtex vest, or watching Sherlock fall, John would recall hearing the inhuman sound Lestrade made in his throat as he fought not to scream whilst John applied pressure to his ghastly wound.

Sally stayed at John's side, following his every direction without hesitation. Together they did all they could to keep her boss alive.

The man fixed his wet-eyed attention on John, clearly in agony but stubbornly refusing to panic. John said firmly, "It's bad; you know it is. But it's survivable. You can live through this. Just hold on, yeah? Keep fighting. Help's on its way." Lestrade nodded his understanding, and a ribbon of blood spilled from the corner of his mouth.

Sally took up where John left off. "We got him, Sir. The team's fine. No one's hurt. We'll contact Julia. Don't worry about Sofie. We're all here for her. Every step of the way. Just stay with us, Sir."

Several paces away, Sherlock gazed down at Anderson as the man sat on the kerb, shivering beneath a shock blanket, attempting to give a statement about his actions. Loud enough for all to hear, Sherlock said, "We witnessed the whole thing. It was unintentional. But, I might add, wholly deserved."

Hours later, Anderson joined them in the hospital waiting room, uncharacteristically subdued. Sherlock gave him a nod but said nothing.

Sofie's name was the first word Lestrade spoke when, against the odds, he regained consciousness.

***

There was a reason the fairer sex was John's department. Well, several reasons, and bloody good ones, truth be told. One of them was that he was capable of making that delicate transition from boyfriend to friend once a romantic relationship had reached its conclusion.

This was especially true in the case of his colleague Sarah Sawyer, a woman he both liked personally and respected professionally. His work with the clinic kept the two of them in contact. It was only natural that, when John heard she was headed to the same hospital where Lestrade was a patient, he asked Sarah to check in on the detective inspector.

Lestrade's stay had proved quite lengthy, thanks to the seriousness of the original wound and the severity of the infection that followed it. Sarah visited him two or three times on John's behalf; she visited him many more on her own.

Which led to the current discussion John was having with his friend.

"I may not always do the smart thing, John," Lestrade said, plucking and worrying at the hospital bedsheets, "but I try to do the right one. Dating your mate's girl isn't the right thing to do; I know that much. Not" – he indicated himself with a frown of disgust – "that anyone, especially a fine young woman like Dr Sawyer, would be interested in the likes of this."

John shook his head and sighed. Lestrade's ordeal had taken weight from him and given him more silver hairs in return. For God's sake, even a straight man like John could appreciate the detective inspector was gorgeous, and the wounded hero angle certainly didn't hurt his appeal, either.

"For one thing," John said, "she's not 'my girl.' We dated years ago, just long enough to know it wouldn't work. I spent a few nights on her sofa, when I was still learning to endure Sherlock" – Lestrade snorted – "but the operative words there are 'on her sofa.' It never went farther than that.

"There's nothing romantic between us. Both of you deserve to be happy. I'd lock you two in a cupboard together if I could, just to stop you mooning over each other and force you to do something about it. So don't blame your cowardice on me."

He paused in his pacing and held Lestrade's gaze.

"Second, I know for a fact that she fancies you."

Lestrade tried so very hard to appear as if this news didn't thrill him that John had to fight the urge to pat him on the head.

"She said that? Her very words: 'I fancy him'?"

Rolling his eyes, John said, "No. Her very words were, 'When he finally gets out of hospital and heals up, I want to jump his bones.'"

"Who's jumping whose bones?" Sofie asked, giving John a wave before making herself comfortable in the chair at Lestrade's side.

John quivered with a sudden mad desire to flee the room. Lestrade blushed and tried to sink deeper into the bedclothes.

"It's the twenty-first century, and I'm a teenager. I do know what shagging is. Now, who are we talking about?" When neither man answered, she gave a sly grin. "I hope it was Dr Sawyer. She fancies you rotten, Daddy."

"She does?" Lestrade smiled, then frowned. "I mean, how could you possibly know that?"

"We talk sometimes. Usually while you're asleep. She asked me how I'd feel about her asking you out, once you're well again. I told her I thought that would be brilliant."

Crossing her legs and swinging the top one merrily, Sofie winked at John.

"You did?" Lestrade asked faintly.

"I did. She's smart and she's kind and she thinks you're fantastic."

"Sweetheart," he said, his voice deepening to a gentle rumble, "I still love your mum."

She rose then and resettled on the edge of the hospital bed. "I love you," she said. "And Gran. And John. And Mrs Hudson. And Sherlock. And Orlando Bloom. And Rupert Grint." She shook her head, as if she was trying to explain a complicated idea to an imbecile. "You don't have to stop loving Mum. You've got a big enough heart to love Sarah, too."

John finally took pity on his friend, who looked more than a little overwhelmed.

"She passed the Sofie test," John said, granting his amusement and approval full play in his voice. "So what else can you do?"

When Julia's stroke took her a year later, Sofie moved in with Lestrade.

So did Sarah Sawyer.

***

Only one other woman in their created family passed the Sofie test, and her name was Mary Morstan.

She was Molly Hooper's friend. Once Molly introduced John to Mary, things progressed swiftly. Neither John nor Mary needed any convincing that this was true love.

One of John's fondest memories was dancing with his glowing wife on their wedding day, as friends and family drifted past in pairs. He could still remember Sofie's laughter as she threatened and cajoled Sherlock from the sidelines. By the time she succeeded in shepherding the consulting detective onto the dance floor, the slow ballad was ending. "Twist and Shout" came next, and attendees were treated to a spectacle none would soon forget – although no doubt many tried.

John posted footage, but Sherlock hacked into his blog and removed it.

The joy – and it was joy – was short-lived.

When he looked back, John would wonder why he'd ever believed that he could have it all: a loving wife, a warm home, and a successful practice, as well as Sherlock and his game.

If he'd told Sherlock "no" one night or a dozen, if he'd stayed at home with Mary instead, observing her rather than murder victims at crime scenes, would he have recognised the first signs of the cancer earlier? Would his doctor's instincts have told him that something was wrong?

His trained intellect knew the answer, and it offered him absolution. His heart would have none of it.

It was tragically easy to flee his house and its memories and resume life with Sherlock. John would make his home with the consulting detective for the rest of their lives.

Mary's funeral was a small and intimate affair. Sofie was studying abroad as part of her programme in international relations at university; it came as a surprise – but only for a moment – when she appeared at the graveside service, immaculate in her black suit, tall enough in her modest heels to look John in the eye.

Harriet Watson stepped aside without being asked, and Sofie took John's hand in hers.


Part 4: After the Bees

"Shall I leave the room, so you can interrogate John about me?" Sherlock asked over tea.

The cottage was cosy and welcoming, a mixture of John's homey touches and Sherlock's organised clutter. It suited the two men well, Lestrade thought.

"Would you tell me how you are if I asked?" Lestrade countered.

The expression on Sherlock's features suggested that many scathing and condescending answers came to his mind, but at last he said simply, "If you must."

Lestrade sighed and ran a hand through his white hair. "So? Gimme."

"At this stage, I am all but unchanged. You know my habit of deleting data that isn't immediately relevant to the work."

At Lestrade's nod, he continued. "Now it's as if another finger controls the delete key. I lose random information. Sometimes I regain it, and other times I don't." A shrug. "I leave myself lists and instructions. John helps with the rest. He doesn't seem to mind, and neither do the bees." A tight grimace of a smile. "I manage. And may yet for a number of years."

Somehow the dispassionate self-assessment hurt Lestrade almost as badly as the initial news had done. Sherlock was only in his mid-fifties. That remarkable brain had so many puzzles yet to solve.

Before Lestrade could reply, John entered with a tray.

"Scones from the village bakery. And Sherlock's honey."

"It's not my honey, John," Sherlock offered with a wry twitch of his lips. "I didn't make it. The bees did."

"Yeah, I did make that leap, Sherlock," Lestrade said.

"So what's this about retiring? Or not?" John asked. Lestrade saw the plea shining in John's eyes – to keep things as they were, as they could be for some time yet, and not to make this the first step of an overlong journey toward losing this remarkable man.

As ever, Lestrade tried his best.

"They want me to be – get this – a consulting detective." He couldn't help chuckling at Sherlock's look of outraged horror. Yes, this was the Sherlock he knew. "That is, consulting with various DI's teams around the country about how to liaise with members of the press and public, get the community involved in new initiatives, promote goodwill."

With a cheeky grin, he added, "They say that, beyond my years of experience, I have people skills."

"People skills," Sherlock began with undisguised disgust, "the last refuge of the—"

"That sounds brilliant," John said. "Have you made up your mind?"

"Still thinking it over. I do have options, thank God. I'm married to a successful doctor, after all. I could retire and become a kept man" – with a wink – "like Sherlock, here."

"The difference," Sherlock pointed out, "is that I do not have to – how would you put it? – shag for my room and board. John loves me for my mind, or whatever remains of it." With a wicked look of his own, he added, "Besides, on a regular basis he's sleeping with the woman who owns the local pub."

"Really?" Lestrade said. "John 'Three Continents' Watson strikes again!"

"Oh God." John groaned, dropping his head into his hand. "One stupid comment in one stupid blog post…"

Lestrade laughed, a deep sound from his belly.

"If you didn't notice," John said, pointing a finger at Lestrade, "he just called both of us whores."

"Better whores than idiots, mate." Lestrade helped himself to a scone and honey. "Before I forget, I have a serious question for you, Sherlock. I never can seem to get a straight answer from your brother."

"You and the rest of the human race," John said.

"What exactly are Mycroft's plans regarding Sofie?"

"Explain," Sherlock ordered.

"Well, when he offered her that internship that had them flying all over the world, I asked him not to show her any special favouritism. He said he was doing nothing of the sort: she had the highest recommendations of anyone in her class, and her language skills were invaluable to him. Fine. Fair enough.

"But now, the moment she's out of grad school, he's asked her to join his staff. I told her not to feel pressured, but every time he opens a door, she plunges forward, keen as can be. She even has that new retina-fit BlackBerry now. So…" He gestured, inviting Sherlock to respond.

"A BlackBerry," John muttered. "Reckon he's grooming her to be the next Anthea?" Anthea had never been the woman's actual name, and several successors had followed her over the last two decades, but he knew Lestrade and Sherlock would understand his meaning.

"The new Anthea. Ah, perhaps," Sherlock said with obvious reluctance. "Initially."

"What? What aren't you saying?" Lestrade asked.

Sherlock seemed to take a sudden and intense interest in his teacup. "I believe, in fact, my brother is grooming Sofie to be the next Mycroft."

It was a lot to process. Eventually Lestrade made use of his open mouth by filling it with a bite of scone. John did the same.

For several heartbeats, all was quiet.

Then, "This" – Lestrade stared at his plate in awe – "this honey is amazing."

"Yes," Sherlock said, straightening in his chair with a serene smile. "It is, isn't it?"

***

Sherlock never let a chance to visit London pass him by, even if he thought the reason for it to be ludicrous. He told John that it was an outdated and meaningless gesture, storing a copy of his electronic files in a safety deposit box. John replied that it made him feel better to know that all of his blog posts, including the ones originally locked for privacy, were preserved somewhere more secure than their modest home.

A gesture could be meaningful in its own right.

He didn't want Sherlock Holmes to be forgotten, even if Sherlock Holmes forgot himself often enough these days. Saving the files was an act of defiance against a disease that refused to surrender its hold despite the best efforts of the medical community, and one Dr Watson, in particular.

They didn't split up and pursue their own time in the city as they would've done only three years earlier.

Between one moment and the next Sherlock could grow suddenly disoriented. He claimed he could deduce his way across London, if only John would leave a note with the time and place of their scheduled reunion in his coat pocket, but they never put this to the test. In fact, Sherlock seemed to feel most like himself when he was beside the man who had embodied safety to him for more than a quarter of a century.

This day had been an adventure. They'd followed their trip to the bank with lunch and a visit to Mrs Hudson's and Mycroft's graves. ("They aren't really here, John," Sherlock had protested, but he'd brought flowers, all the same.) The afternoon had turned to early evening as they wandered and browsed though little shops and took in the living hum of the city both had loved for so long.

At last, John explained that they needed to go if they were to catch their train.

As they passed by glass windows, John considered their reflections. Sherlock's curls were threaded with grey. He stood as tall and slender as ever, still intimidating in the latest of his many long, dark coats.

John's hair had faded more than turned; thanks to arthritis and the returning echoes of his past wounds, he once again used a cane, but this was a delicately carved work of art wrought in dark mahogany, a gift from Sherlock. John carried himself with the usual straightforward sense of purpose, but more slowly now, in deference to his own limping gait and to Sherlock's wide-eyed fascination with all he observed.

So many things that should've been familiar appeared new to Sherlock now.

As they made their way together, shoulder to shoulder down the pavement, John had the increasingly worrisome sensation of being watched.

The old CCTV cameras were no more; their almost invisible replacements had no need to swivel in order to follow his footsteps. John glared upward, imagining countless electronic eyes staring back down at him.

It reminded him of the time…

Three steps later a black sedan with tinted windows pulled up beside them.

The back door opened, and a shapely leg emerged. John huffed a sigh of wonder.

"I was hoping you handsome gentlemen could assist me," the brunette said as she straightened her elegant suit and strode forward with an air of authority.

She paused before Sherlock, and John held his breath, praying that his friend would remember.

Sherlock stared at the lovely young woman for several seconds, and then his cold countenance transformed into the warmest of smiles.

"Sofie."

"Daddy and Sarah send their love." She kissed his cheek and then John's.

"I find myself with three tickets for tonight's Wagner concert," she said, "and I've no one to escort me. Care to help a damsel in distress?"

John laughed. This one had never, not once in her life, been a damsel in distress.

"I love" – Sherlock glanced tentatively at John, who nodded encouragement – "I love Wagner." He looked back to Sofie. "Yes, let's go."

Sofie beamed.

Music was the greatest balm to Sherlock's troubled mind, a fact John was certain that Sofie knew well.

"Sure you don't have something important to be doing, y'know, like being the British government?" John said, blinking against a sudden dampness in his eyes.

"Don't be ridiculous." She turned, smoothly inserting herself between the two of them and linking her arms in theirs. "There's nothing more important than this."


THE END