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They settle into a routine easily enough. John works Mondays and Wednesdays at the surgery, keeps the flat tidy, does the shopping. Sherlock harasses Lestrade, works on her experiments and spends a great deal of time staring at the wall, her fingertips steepled, thinking.

Except this time there’s no comedown. Usually there’s a grace period between cases, where Sherlock is elated, high on her own brilliance; then she quickly spirals into restless, destructive boredom. But this time, Sherlock remains tightly wound and precise, her intellect absorbed and bent toward some unspoken end. For the first three days, he’s grateful for the quiet; after that, the ambient calm makes the back of his neck itch.

This time, Sherlock will disturb their still evenings by sliding into his lap, by pricking the itch sharply with her fingernails, by kissing him until he is breathless and hard; he learns the contours of her body as if he has always known them.

It takes him until the middle of the second week to realize that she’s planning something in earnest. He knows better than to ask too many questions. The uneasy tingling in his skin recedes, to be replaced by the taste of electricity, the expectation of lightning.

*

A friend from med school is in town, and suggests a pint. It’s perfectly normal and ordinary, and it makes John perfectly uneasy at first. Alys chatters on about her work with Medecins Sans Frontieres; while it is all objectively quite fascinating, John is distracted, trying to formulate sensible, comprehensible answers to the inevitable questions about what the hell he’s doing these days.

“So how’ve you been?” asks Alys. “It’s a shame about your injury,” she adds gently.

To buy time, and because he likes Alys but he doesn’t tell-her-about-his-nightmares like her, he shrugs and makes light of it. “It’s not all bad. Nice to be back to hot showers and regular working hours. “ He hasn’t quite given up the getting shot at bit, though.

Alys shoots him a puzzled look. “John Watson, gone domestic? I hardly believe my ears.”

She’s quite pretty, he realizes, and no longer wearing her wedding ring. Alys is a genuinely kind person: she cares about people and takes an interest in them and is one of those tortured souls who got into medicine to heal people. If he wanted, he could lean in closer and let his hand casually brush hers, ask her to meet him for dinner tomorrow; visit her on weekends and move out to be with her within the socially sanctioned timeframe of six to eight months. If he wanted.

John shakes his head. “You shouldn’t.” And because he’s had a couple of pints and feels, inexplicably, the need to account for himself, he adds. “I’ve taken up freelance detective work. Of a sort.” And then somehow he’s sketching the outline of the bizarre story of him and Sherlock, condensed, edited and editorialized to seem humorous and not at all terrifying.

By the time he’s done, Alys is gaping at him. “So, not at all domestic then.” she says.

“Well.” It depends on one’s definition of domestic.

Another half pint into the evening, and Alys leans in conspiratorially and asks the question he’s been dreading. “So, any women vying for your affections? I bet with the wounded hero bit the girls come flocking.”

John blinks, momentarily caught off guard. “Ah. Well.” This part is the impossible-to-explain-part, the strange part, the unwise and ill-advised part. Unconsciously, he presses a hand to the fresh bruise under his collar.

Then Alys reminds him why she was ahead of him in med school, and it is because she is much smarter than him: “It’s Sherlock, isn’t it?”

John nods, doesn’t bother trying to explain himself. There’s not much of it that fits into words anyway.

“You always did have a strange sense of adventure.”

Later, when they part, Alys gives him a hug and tells him to be careful; he lies through his teeth and promises he will.

The walk back home isn’t far enough to justify the tube; John lets the walk and the cold night air slough the ordinariness off him. The strike of his feet on the pavement reverberates into his bones, shaking the core of him, concealed under the woolly jumpers and politeness.

He’s three blocks from home and lost in thought; and despite the near-constant tension running through him these days, it’s still closer to calm than blood in the desert. With Sherlock he might see the battlefield, but it’s not a war. Despite the snipers and the semtex and the corpses, his soldier’s instincts have relaxed.

This is what he tells himself when he’s taken by surprise.

It’s a rough grab out of an alleyway, accompanied by a glancing blow that clips John’s good shoulder instead of knocking him unconscious. His adrenaline is instantly up, the world becoming crystalline around him, body humming along to the tune he remembers so well. His assailant lunges for him again, gets a punch to John’s jaw that splits his lip and another to his gut that near winds him.

The other man is bigger than him, but John’s done hand-to-hand and has had more than enough of this; he hooks a leg behind his attacker’s and pulls until the other man’s head connects solidly with the brick wall. There’s a noise, the tender protestation of bone, but John doesn’t check, doesn’t even look back.

He hurries the last few blocks home, his senses scraped raw with awareness, anxiety a messy knot in his chest.

When he finally bursts into the flat, Sherlock looks up from the violin in her hands, changeable eyes wide. To anyone else she’d seem distant and preoccupied, but to John she looks the very picture of an anxious lover, worrying the instrument in her hands.

“Oh thank god,” he says, sagging against the door. The lines around her eyes relax a little at the sight of him, but she all but leaps to her feet and crowds him against the door.

“John,” she says. “John, John, John.” She runs her fingers lightly over him, checking for injuries. There’s no question in her face, none at all. Late, didn’t text, superficial injuries, madman hunting them. Even John can figure it out.

“I’m fine,” he says. Her mouth tightens and he wonders why he even bothers trying to lie to her. “Bit of a scuffle in a back alley. It could have been much worse. I fought him off without too much trouble.” He pauses, still trying to wrap his head around the evening, trying to think past the blood still thundering distantly in his ears. “I think he was trying to kidnap me.” The way he says it, as if it’s an ordinary feature of his existence, makes him shudder.

“No. If he wanted you, he would have taken you. He’s toying with me.” Sherlock almost spits it, and he honest to god cannot tell if she’s angry about his injuries, or about the fact that they are apparently an affront to her person.

John lets out an irritated huff despite himself. “Glad to know that my randomly being accosted by hired thugs isn’t personal. It’s delightful being a pawn in this little game between the two of you, you have no idea.”

“It wasn’t random, and what did you expect?” She’s got the high-handed tone on again, the really John, just think one. “Moriarty has no interest in you. If you were just going about London living a boring little life working at the surgery and watching telly, he might accidentally blow you up, but even that’s statistically unlikely. He wants me. You’re just a way to get to me.”

There is a long, long moment where he is just completely at a loss as to what to say next. “Right, then. As it appears not to have worked, I think I’ll go up to bed.”

Which is exactly what he does, using his irritation and fading adrenaline to fuel his retreat to the bedroom that is nominally his--and he resolutely does not turn back to look at her.

He doesn’t sleep here much anymore. Usually only when Sherlock’s being an insomniac violinist (rare, these days) and each time he’s woken to her pressed against his back. The sheets are dirty (well-used), and a few of her distinctive curls linger on his pillow. He shucks his clothes and lies down in the casual dirtiness of their intimacy. Tries to calm his breathing and his mind and his galloping ill-temper.

Some time later John starts out of his doze at the creak of the bed springs as Sherlock sits down beside him. He reaches out to touch her without thinking.

When she speaks, her voice is small and quiet and even. “If he touches you again, John, I’m going to cut his heart out. I’m going to cut it out myself and feed it to him.” From anyone else, John would dismiss such a threat as violent braggodoccio; in Sherlock’s earnestness, it sounds closer to a promise.

She plants her hands on his shoulders and leans over him. “I will end him, John. Whatever it takes, I will,” she whispers. His mind stutters for a moment, caught somewhere between shouldn’t and will.

He pulls her down on top of him, holding her against his chest. “Not alone,” he murmurs.

She nods, begins to speak; her words wash over him, pooling in the hollow of his throat. This is how it begins in earnest: his palms against her back, feeling the blood and breath in her moving.

*

Dinner at Angelo’s one rainy evening is more a concession to necessity than a proper date--John’s too tired to cook and Sherlock is incapable--but it feels good to sit close to her in public and let their knees brush under the table. She spends as much time looking at him as she does compulsively watching the street outside, and as far as these things go it’s positively intimate.

When her plate is cleared, there’s a little folded square of paper left under it. Sherlock frowns. She unfolds it carefully (cream stationary, a thick, fine weight that John mistrusts on instinct). The lines around her mouth and eyes tighten as she reads. John braces himself.

Sherlock starts up, swings on her coat and John scrambles after her. She’s silent on the walk back, brisker than usual. Their hands touch and she presses the paper into his palm.

Do hope you enjoyed the linguine. Did you have the chianti or the pinot? I would have loved to watch your mouth as you drank it. Red becomes you, darling.
- JM

John goes cold. He’s aware, distantly of something in him howling in rage. But what settles in him is a hard certainty, as ordinary and incontrovertible as the steel and cement of London.

When they arrive home, he finally turns to Sherlock--who is smiling.

“Care to let me in on the joke?” he says tightly.

“They all do it, even the brilliant ones, and he has,” she mutters.

John waits.

“A mistake! He’s shown his hand, his weakness. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. It’s a love note, John. ‘Red becomes you’--it’s intimate, sensual. He’s not just intellectually obsessed, he’s in love.”

“With you.” And it’s weird, because John has taken this for a given, that Moriarty wants Sherlock the way John does, with his blood and bones But to Sherlock it’s revelatory; it rearranges the three of them into a constellation with story and shape.

“Yes. Has been for years probably. I imagine it must have been you moving in here that set him off.”

“Ah.”

In a low, earnest voice she sketches out the outline of a plan, her words coming fast as she rearranges her thoughts around this new information. John stands in the middle of their living room, letting this take form around them: Seven riddles for seven days and three nights for three buttons add up to one chance for two people. John interjects with questions like “What the hell do you mean?”, and--

“How can you be sure it’ll work?” he says when she’s finished.

“It will.” He’d accuse her of not looking at the details, but Sherlock is all details. They’ll never be caught, if they manage to make it out alive.

“Sherlock. Moriarty isn’t an idiot, and he’s not going to agree to meet you alone somewhere.”

Sherlock sighs in exasperation. “Yes, he will.”

“How can you be so sure?” He has no doubt she’d been just as sure the last time. Sherlock being free with her life is something he’s come to accept as part of being around her; her being idiotic about it is not.

“You, John.” Her eyes soften and she brushes her fingertips across his jaw. “If it was you, I’d do the same.” She says it like it’s the most obvious, ordinary thing in the world, and maybe it is.

He presses his forehead to hers, seeking from contact what she can’t give him with words. She kisses him, gently at first; as soon as he opens to her, she bites down on his healing lip until it splits again and licks the coppery, startled gasp out of his mouth. Delicately, she touches her tongue to his bleeding lip; it’s swollen and irritated again, but John holds himself perfectly still under her curiosity.

When Sherlock pulls back, her urgency has dissipated; she has the quiet look of someone standing in a church.

All you had to do was ask, he thinks. All you ever had to do was ask.

*

After that, the sense that they’re hurtling towards something inevitable accelerates. Sherlock hangs a red scarf in the window and spends a great deal of time on the phone with Mycroft; She’s never restless or bored, even in the everyday clatter of the flat on a weeknight; when she moves she’s animated by thought. John is expansively, forcefully calm; he buttresses the ebb and flow of her mind with his two hands pressed against her back.

She only ever touches him in the dark these days, with the blinds down and the lights out. John presses a kiss to her neck and she sighs appreciatively--but when he goes to nip at the lovely jut of her collarbone, she pushes him away abruptly.

“Don’t be foolish, John” she says. She’s right, of course. So much hinges on the pale and easily-bruised expanse of her neck.

“Do it for me, then,” he whispers. He presses his fingertips to her collarbone, the top of her breast, the curve of her hip. She leaves a mirror of his touch on him with her teeth: she is the territory and he the map.

The next day, Sherlock posts the first riddle.

***