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There isn’t even a husk to identify.

Molly Hooper does not make eye contact when she hands Mycroft a duffle full of fragments and slivers. Tinder is what’s left of his brother. Mycroft, for his own part, finds that he cannot parse her thoughts by the state of her seams, her hair, the lines of her mouth. He admits it’s an off day.

“And his clothes?” Mycroft asks. They must have been all that was holding Sherlock together when the end came.

Molly is busying herself over some other corpse, shoulders tense. “Unsalvageable,” she says with forced brightness. “Blood’s a tricky thing, you know how it is.”

The bag of shards is heavy. Dead weight Mycroft thinks, unbidden, and a tendril of hysterical laughter bubbles from his throat. Molly whirls, pins stricken doe’s eyes on him. He composes himself by pinching the flesh of his cheek between his teeth until he tastes blood. The pain is sharp and cleansing.

“If you wanted a keepsake, Dr. Hooper, you had only to say.” Mycroft hefts the duffle onto his shoulder with as much dignity as he can muster. “I could have found you something less… soiled.” Molly’s face darkens, brow furrowing. He watches as her hands clench on the slab.

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Holmes. Have a nice day.”

“He couldn’t have reciprocated even if he wanted to,” Mycroft continues. “You understand why now, I imagine.”

“Actually—”

“I trust you can be discreet.”

“Please, Mr. Holmes. I have work.”

“Of course.” He inclines his head and departs with a murmur of her name.

In the Rolls he arranges the duffle beside him. The contents knock around inside with a levity Mycroft finds he resents, no matter that the sentiment is illogical. He has anthropomorphised wood, for God’s sake — and it’s not the first time. He shakes his head, and his left hand rests on top of the bag while his right comes up to cover his eyes. His breath catches in his throat. He can feel the blunted, oblong pieces of his brother gathered inside. These are Sherlock’s bones, in spirit if not letter. A shudder racks Mycroft’s body, and his hand clutches at the canvas handles. He cannot bring himself to unzip, to see. He bows his head and tries to regulate his breathing.

In Kent, Mycroft instructs the driver to stop at the groundskeeper’s cottage rather than winding all the way down the drive. There, he stands before Mr. Norbury’s door, Sherlock’s remains settled gently at his feet, and knocks with three decisive raps. After a moment, the door cracks open and a suspicious brown eye peers out. Roves over him and settles on the duffle.

There is no surprise there. He’s seen the news then.

“I’ll need another miracle, Mr. Norbury,” Mycroft says.

Mr. Norbury doesn’t open the door any further, nor does he let his gaze wander. Mycroft sees him swallow.

“Fresh out of miracles, Mr. Mycroft.” He tries to close the door. With a burst of something hot and painful in the vicinity of his diaphragm, Mycroft darts a foot forward and stops the progress of the door.

“I insist,” he hisses, and shoulders his way inside. Mr. Norbury steps back, mouth pinched and eyes hard. “You did it before; you can do it again. Bring him back.”

Mr. Norbury’s jaw clenches, and he turns his back and stalks into the kitchen. Mycroft’s spine sags, and he sinks into an armchair before the empty fireplace. He is trying very hard not to gather the bag of broken wood into his arms.

Mr. Norbury returns with far too many fingers of scotch in a glass, which he shoves at Mycroft without the pretence of decorum.

“Why can’t you?” Mycroft asks. His voice breaks; they both pretend it did not. Suddenly he is six years old, asking why he can’t have a brother right now. He hears the soft wheeze of Mr. Norbury’s exhalation. Emphysema, incipient.

“Just doesn’t work that way,” he says. “You can’t force the spirit into a place it’s outgrown.”

They pretend then that the cottage is silent, free from the consuming buzz of despair.

Sherlock wakes naked in a drawer.

He closes his eyes, opens them. The dark is full and thick, and there is no difference between wide-eyed shock and shutting out the world. He determines that he is not, thankfully, encased in a body bag, though a sheet keeps the illusion of modesty. His senses tip and tilt until he presses his hands to his face — which prickles, too warm and malleable and soft — and centres himself. Then, after a deep breath, he reaches up and taps S.O.S. on the metal of the door.

The door opens and he’s rolled out, blinded by the fluorescent light that halos Molly’s head as she hovers over him, taking all the space in his line of vision. Her smile is over-wide, agonising, and erases none of the dread in her eyes.

“Thought you’d like a bit of authenticity,” she chirps, then titters and wheels around to gather up some clothes. Not fast enough though — he has seen the lines the last few hours have carved into her forehead, the cracked grief in her brown eyes. He is reminded of Christmas, and the curious urge to ease a measure of her suffering.

“I’m fine, Molly,” he says. He watches her shake her head, the skin about her eyes and mouth tight, as she shoves a track suit at him. No Sherlock Holmes-looking bugger can be seen leaving Bart’s, after all. “I’m not really dead,” he continues, and his voice is rumbly from tears and sleep and horror. He clears his throat. They planned this, he and Molly, together. Orchestrated it, with all the minute detail of a composer. It went off just right, a symphony of deception, Molly its conductor. Of course she knows he’s not dead — obvious. He sits up with pained slowness, sheet pooling in his lap. His new spine cracks, and the sound of it echoes in the morgue. He stills in horror, but when he looks down at his flushed chest he can see faintly the steady beating of his heart. “It’s not real,” he murmurs.

“It’s real to the rest of the world,” Molly says. “The press. Your— your brother. And John.” Sherlock meets her eyes. She steels herself not to falter. “And I cleaned you, Sherlock. I pulled that, that shell off you and wiped your blood away and tweezed out splinters and stitched you together where you’d been torn apart. I ran your DNA, I signed your death certificate. I treated you like a cadaver.” Her swallow is audible, and her voice is threatening to crack. The new muscle in Sherlock’s chest is being difficult, racing, palpitating. “It’s only not real for a very narrow definition of the term.”

She turns her back to him and Sherlock realises she’s giving him the privacy to put on this jogging outfit. He’s decent when he reaches a hand out to touch her shoulder, but he stills and doesn’t make contact.

“Prosthetics?” he asks when no comforting words are forthcoming. John is better at those.

“Oh.” Molly pulls open another drawer, where there is no body but there is a backpack. She shoves it at him. “Your clothes were ruined but I saved the coat and scarf. All the make up stuff is in the front pocket.”

“I see,” he says. Skin adhesive. A wider nose, a forehead ridge, a stronger jaw, a shaggy wig in a nondescript brown. Contacts in a less vibrant shade of alarming. A key to Molly’s flat.

“The loo’s through there,” Molly says, waving a hand at a door marked ‘employees only.’ Sherlock’s already been, of course. Many times. “The mirror’s small, but it’ll do.”

“Molly.”

“Just go, Sherlock.”

Sherlock goes, and he doesn’t come back for a year.

When John returns to Baker Street, it’s because he has nowhere else to go. He can’t abide Harry’s company for a second longer, Stamford’s wife kicked him out after she caught him sobbing on her dark-haired, light-eyed, thoroughly confounded six-year-old, and Lestrade, well. It’s not particularly rational, but John’s not up for forgiving Lestrade for his part in this horror show just yet. He’s culpable in this, and John wants to hold that resentment like a kernel in his teeth for now. Wants to blame him, curse his name, beat his face to a pulp.

Wants to spread the guilt around.

John gets back to Baker Street and stands in the door to Sherlock’s bedroom. After a month, it still smells like him. John’s traitorous cock twitches like a filthy Pavlovian beast even as his throat closes around a thickness and his lungs feel misty and dark. He takes a single, staggering step inside.

Sherlock’s room is tidier than the shared living space just outside the door. It’s positively Spartan for a man who was the very definition of extravagant and hedonistic. Sherlock, despite his sneering denouncement of his “transport,” was a sensualist. The finest hand-tailored clothes, the fetishised Victorian syringes he thought John didn’t know about, these silk sheets.

Gingerly John sits on the unmade bed. He presses his palm to the pillow. His breath catches. Crumpled beside him is the blue striped dressing gown, the one Sherlock favoured most and therefore laundered least. John lifts it to his nose and inhales the acrid scent of Sherlock’s stale sweat. It’s not good, but its very vileness makes John bark out a sharp laugh even as his vision blurs. If Sherlock stank, that’s what John wants. If he was rude and dismissive and an utter terror, John would take a lifetime of it just for one hideous fact not to be true.

Sherlock is dead. Sherlock took his own life. John never saw how thoroughly despair had consumed him until he’d swan dived off a six-storey building and taken all the joyful bits of John with him.

John wants to blame Moriarty. Kitty Riley. The press. The Yard. Lestrade. Anderson and Donovan. Bloody Mycroft. But John knows the truth.

This is his own damn fault.

There’s the Browning, of course.

There was a time Before Sherlock but After Afghanistan that John knew precisely how the gun filled his mouth, big and cool, a metallic pang on his taste buds. Holding it there made his jaw sore. After he’d take it out and slide it back into its drawer, he’d rub his mandibles and remember the times in the barracks, in Bart’s, in uni when he’d been the enthusiastic bestower of furtive, sloppy blow jobs. The gun was nothing like a cock, but he found it easier to let the hard bite of it melt away when he could pretend the dull ache in his face was nothing more painful than the act of a needful body.

Once upon a time, John would prepare for bed by shoving the barrel right into the back of his throat. He’d fight the gagging and breathe around it. He’d hold it there for thirty seconds, finger on the trigger steady as a surgeon’s should be. He’d let the top of his head heat, and the saliva in his mouth slip out from the stretch of his lips. He would count.

When it was over, he’d slip into his narrow single bed and shake until he fell asleep. The next day, before bed, he’d do it again.

The story ends with a happily ever after. John found an otherworldly man and put the Browning to use protecting him as God intended. The end.

The sequel is more troubling. Once upon a time, there was a man who opened his arms and jumped. He turned into one million sparrows and left his friend behind. The end.

The Browning’s a heavy thing, loaded. It warms in his palm. It smells like blood smells, when so much of it has spilled that it consumes the senses.

The gun is rather light unloaded, but John wouldn’t know.

One night, John is staring at Sherlock’s inert violin when he realises that he will smash it to bits if it remains in his line of vision for one more moment.

He pulls on some unwashed clothes and leaves the flat quietly so as not to alert Mrs. Hudson. He goes to a pub for men who have sex with men — he knows Stamford won’t be there, and the likelihood of encountering Harry on a bender is almost equally as low. He’s not on the pull and gets no play, though what he does get is flamingly pissed, and it is in this state of inebriation that he staggers round to Lestrade’s flat, pushes his fingertip into the doorbell and doesn’t let up until the man himself answers, disgruntled and rumpled from interrupted sleep.

“Jesus, John,” he says, and he’s irritated, exasperated, but the fury with which he’d stomped down the steps to the door is gone. “What are you on about?”

“There he is! Greg Les-ter-ade! Defective Inspector extraordinaire!”

“Oi, mate—”

“I am not your mate!” John is distantly aware that he’s slurring, but his lips and tongue require a dexterity that’s currently far from reach. “You are a parasite, an ungrateful fuckpig of a man who let Sherk — Sher Lock — do all your heavy lifting. You don’t lift. You don’t heavy anything left.”

As John rants, Lestrade drags him inside the entrance hall with fistfuls of jumper. He staggers up the steps into Lestrade’s flat and swears at him when he shoves John onto the sofa.

“I’m making you a coffee, John.”

“Can you make coffee without someone holding your hand?”

Lestrade is far away and blurry but John thinks he’s making one of those stern faces he has for keeping his team in line. Back when he had a team. He doesn’t respond, only disappears into the kitchen.

“Not on your team!” John calls at his back. “I will never — on your team.”

Lestrade comes back and braces his arms on the top of the chair across from John.

“Look, mate.”

“Fuck. Pig.”

Lestrade barks out a single laugh and rolls his eyes.

“S’not funny, fuckpig.”

“You’re right pissed, John. Tomorrow’s not going to look very nice.”

John feels his face pinch inward. Of course tomorrow’s not going to look very nice. Every day he wakes up and Sherlock is dead. How can any tomorrow be something even remotely bearable? He tries to tell Lestrade as much.

“We. Are all. Shit.” He flings his arms out. “Shit skeletons walking around in the shit of the world.”

Lestrade pulls the chair he’s been leaning o n out and settles heavily into it.

“Awright, Nietzsche. Very eloquent. Want to tell me why you’re here?”

“I hate you,” John says. “This is your fault.”

Lestrade turns his head and stares off in the direction of the kitchen. John can smell the coffee brewing.

“Yes,” Lestrade says. “I know that.”

“So.”

“So.”

“So you should take it back,” John says. “Undo it.”

Lestrade sighs heavily.

“John. I really wish I could. But it doesn’t work like that.”

“Fuck you,” John says, enunciating perfectly. He gets up, but sways. “You can keep your coffee. Your blood coffee! How do you sleep at night?”

“I get by.”

“Well, don’t,” John says. “Just — stop.”

Lestrade can’t convince him to stay, and the next morning, John’s back in 221b and disappointed to find his head still attached to his body.

Ella asks how John is sleeping these days. Harry tells him he looks like utter shite and needs a kip. Mrs. Hudson knows better than to mention it.

John sleeps. He sleeps a lot, in fact. All the time. John sleeps, but not in Sherlock’s bed. He can’t bear the thought of Sherlock’s scent evaporating, blending with his own until it’s gone forever. John sleeps in his chair, on his own side of the sofa, beside the toilet and the bath in the loo, under his bed, on top of his bed. John sleeps when he’s tired and he sleeps when he’s wakeful. So often lately, he wakes up tired, and just lays his head back down. He even sleeps on the train when he visits Sherlock’s grave once a week. What he never does is turn on the telly or buy a newspaper.

Once, Sarah brings casserole, and John isn’t sure what day it is. He’s in a tatty terrycloth dressing gown and is suddenly quite aware of his own stench and his decided lack of pants. He wraps the dressing gown around himself more securely and presses further into the seat. She bangs around the kitchen looking for plates, silverware, cups for tea.

Eventually she brings out a pair of plates and sets one in front of him. It’s a mess of sauce, potatoes and vegetables. It turns his stomach.

“Come on, John,” Sarah says in a low voice. She is peering at him with imploring blue eyes. Once, he was fond of her eyes. Fond of her whole face, and the slightness of her body, the gentle flare of her hips. He can no longer grasp the distant feelings he once had for her, over a year in the past and blown to dust anyway. He snorts to remember the sweet notes of his attraction to her. It was nothing like the terrible consumption of his desire for Sherlock. “What’s funny?” Sarah asks, cocking her head.

“Me,” John says. “I’m bloody hilarious.”

Sarah sighs, poking her food a bit with a fork. She tucks a modest bite into her mouth and John watches her chew without reaching for his own.

“Listen, John,” she says. He watches her straighten and gather her nerves. “I know this is a hard time for you—” John snorts again, and she stops. “God, I’m sorry. Of course it is. Just — I don’t know how to say this properly.”

“You’re firing me, yes? There’s no proper way to go about it.”

“You had a shift yesterday. I called to remind you.”

John blinks, but it’s slow as molasses. He looks away from her as she takes a breath to continue.

“I’d give you all the leave you want, John, but the other senior doctors...”

“Sarah.” He looks towards her, but pins his gaze on the spray-paint smiley behind her. “It’s fine. I know I’m no good like this. I don’t need coddling.”

“I’m not coddling you.”

He glances at her, and her eyes have grown sharper. Ah — he’s being ungrateful. He finds he doesn’t much care.

“I do care about you, John,” she says. “I know what he meant to you.”

“I really doubt that.”

Sarah flattens her mouth.

“You’re not the only person who ever lost someone, John Watson.”

John sinks further into his chair. Sarah sighs again and stands. She picks up her handbag and slings it over her head.

“Take care of yourself,” she says. “Eat something, and have a wash.” She’s too British to gesture around the flat to the filth that Mrs. Hudson hasn’t been able to clean up yet, but it’s implied in the restrained twist of her lips. “What you’re doing to yourself, John, it’s — not worthy of what you shared with him.”

At least she doesn’t tell him to get some sleep.

Turns out, Sherlock left John enough money to choke an earl. Settling the estate takes remarkably little time and John senses greasy Mycroft prints all over the entire business, but there is no fanfare, no meeting, no confrontation — just a check in the post for an unholy wealth. John resolves to give most of it to Oxfam and pay Mrs. Hudson’s mortgage in full. An unexpected windfall is no reason, he reminds himself, not to do good honest work for a living.

“Is that what you’ve been considering?” Ella asks three months after Sherlock’s departure. She still tries, even though John sits stony, surly, and silent before her every Tuesday afternoon. “Returning to work?”

“I suppose,” John says. It’s not true. “Yeah. Yes. Work.”

“Good,” Ella says. “That’s a good sign. Do you feel like you’re getting your purpose back?”

Ella talks about purpose like it’s a bud that will come back with the spring. He stares at her and after long moments, she unfurls her long legs and recrosses them the other way. She sits back in her chair and takes one of those cleansing breaths she once tried to make him imitate.

“John, I’m going to ask you something. And I want you to really think about it.”

John lifts his chin.

“What do you hope to get out of these sessions with me?” she asks.

People off my back, he thinks. He casts his gaze out the window, over the greenery. Ella is exceptional at letting silences bloom between them. She doesn’t prompt him, she doesn’t wheedle answers from him. Last week they sat across from each other and no words passed between them for the entire hour. He likes her, he thinks. It’s why he chose her from myriad others he’d initially been assigned when he was discharged. They didn’t work out, and he chose Ella. He likes her, but he can’t stop resenting her, either. She makes him say things like “Sherlock Holmes is dead.”

“There’s nothing,” he says.

“Nothing.”

He nods.

“You mean there’s nothing that would help your grief.”

Another nod, single, sharp.

Ella props her elbow on her knee and cradles her chin in the crux of her hand.

“You think about suicide.”

John squares his shoulders in the chair.

“Stray thoughts. They pass.”

“You’re lying to me.”

“Don’t.”

“John, these thoughts are normal. You’ve nothing to be ashamed of.”

“I’m not ashamed. Shame is for Catholics and naughty schoolchildren.”

Ella lifts an eyebrow, and John drops his gaze down to his hands.

“Sorry,” he says. “It’s just — people act like I should shake it off, like a nap and a good meal’ll set me to rights. Of course I bloody well want to kill myself, surrounded by such idiots.”

Ella smiles. “Well,” she says. “That’s as much truth as I’ve heard from you in months, John. Possibly ever.”

He shrugs.

“It’s a good place to start,” she says.

John sees Mycroft six months to the day after Sherlock’s death. He is standing at Sherlock’s grave at St. Woolos fondling his umbrella, and he appears to be talking to a figurine he’s placed on the headstone. John didn’t ride a train all the way to Wales in December just to wait for some arsehole to take his sweet time at the grave he’d helped to fill. John gathers his soldierly resolve and marches right up to the git and says, “Gaining weight again?”

“Losing it, actually,” Mycroft parries effortlessly, but it takes only a glance to see that it’s no idle declaration. Mycroft has lost at least a stone and a half if not two. He’ll never have the sharp, ethereal beauty that Sherlock had, but right now he’s all prominent angles, skin stretched thin over bone. His clothes hang off him; he’s not got them taken in. John swallows and looks away, but all John can see is Sherlock’s name etched in marble.

He finds he can’t insist that Mycroft bugger off.

“Who’s this, then?” he finally asks, nodding at the little wooden man who adorns the headstone. It’s a crude carving, nothing fancy.

“I’ve taken up whittling,” Mycroft says after a moment. John hazards a glance into Mycroft’s face. He’s pale, practically translucent.

“That’s… bizarre,” John says. He can’t imagine stuffy, posh Mycroft sitting in his Old Boys’ club with naught but a pocket knife and some gumption. That’s wrong, of course — he’d have some ceremonial dagger, gifted by the queen. Nothing less would suffice.

Mycroft lifts one shoulder in a delicate shrug. “I find it calms me,” he says. “I’m given to understand my skills will improve with practice.” He reaches into his suit coat and produces another little man, a shade lighter, a different kind of wood. John’s brow furrows when Mycroft hands it to him. “That’s willow. I made it for you.”

The mystified “thanks” is out of John’s mouth before he knows what he’s saying. The figurine fits snugly in his palm, smooth and worn. The wood itself is old, he realises. He passes a thumb over what would be the face, and the pad fits there, just right. John remembers suddenly what his grandmother once said willow is for: healing, wishes, grief.

“He’d have wanted you to have it,” Mycroft says. “That’s… what is proper.”

“He would have wanted me to have a bit of wood?”

Mycroft’s mouth tilts up in a pained smile. It occurs to John that he has no idea what a sincere one looks like on Mycroft’s face, but he can picture all of Sherlock’s, clear as starlight in the countryside. John hoarded them, kept them for himself. It’s a bit selfish, but he can’t regret that Sherlock was so free with them in his company.

“He was a peculiar man, my brother. Singular.” With a graceful motion Mycroft plucks up the figure on the headstone and John sees him squeeze it before placing it into the same inner pocket from which he’d produced his gift for John. “I’ll leave you to it. If you don’t want to ride the train back to London, my car will be waiting outside the churchyard. Take your time, Dr. Watson.”

John clasps his hands together in front of him, the figurine warming between them. He dips his head and clears his throat. It’s always awkward at first.

“My therapist wants me to stop coming here,” he says when his nose has gone numb. “I got so angry when she said so. I looked at her hair and the soles of her shoes and I told her her daughter has diabetes and her husband is a faithless shit.” A giggle threatens, inappropriate as always. “Maybe if I wish hard enough I’ll turn into you and I won’t have to live like this anymore. It can all just stop.”

His breath stoppers suddenly, and he chokes in oxygen beyond the lump in his throat. He presses on hand to his forehead, and in doing so Mycroft’s little wooden man collides with his nose.

“Please, God,” John says. “Just let it stop.”

John names the little man “Little Man” and keeps him in his coat pocket when he’s out, or by his bedside when he’s sleeping, or next to the skull when he’s in the sitting room. He doesn’t tell Ella about him. He holds him when he’s thinking and tells him the small, inconsequential things he might tell Sherlock if he were here, except when he remembers that he shouldn’t be sitting here talking to a bit of driftwood.

“I’ve finally cracked,” he’ll say to the little man. “Look what you’ve done.”

He and Little Man are in a staring contest a month into their acquaintance when John gets a comment notification from his blog.

Believe, it says, and John sighs. In the weeks following Sherlock’s death and the media circus that resulted, there erupted a guerrilla support campaign that manifested itself in acts of vandalism all over the city. Sherlock’s fans, his homeless network, all the people who owed him favours, or their livelihoods, or even their lives mounted an underground effort to express their ongoing faith in Sherlock’s work and abilities. Some had tried to rope John into it via his blog, but he had been too paralysed by grief to register anything other than a faint annoyance that Sherlock’s name was being used as a talisman, a politicised weapon, a metaphor for justice in an increasingly justice-less London. He’d deleted every comment on his blog that hinted he should join their ranks, and soon, the spray-painted messages dwindled until they stopped altogether. Fucking pigs, he’d read on a blog somewhere after he’d risen from his wallow enough to wonder what had happened. There’s a conspiracy and never think otherwise, the blog went on. Never give in, never forget. Believe in Sherlock Holmes.

John thinks it over for thirty solid seconds before responding to the new comment instead of deleting.

Always. But it’s over now. Leave me, and him, in peace.

A minute later: There is no peace without the truth.

The IP address is blocked. John deletes all three comments and closes his laptop. Little Man is looking at him reprovingly.

“Don’t,” John says. “Don’t even.”

Little Man does not budge. John sighs.

“Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I guess it’s overdue.”

He fishes in a pocket for his mobile and rings, for the first time in seven months, the former Detective Inspector Lestrade.

Lestrade comes into the flat and sits at the table and stares at the skull. He looks good, Lestrade. Relaxed. He’s doing better than John himself, with his increasingly haggard face and increasingly silvered hair. Not policing has done wonders for Lestrade.

He’s been there four minutes and some twenty seconds, tea in hand, before either of them says anything.

“You know where he got that?” Lestrade asks with a nod at the skull. He doesn’t look at John.

“No, sorry.”

“He used to crash with me. Before he was clean. He’d look like death warmed over and I’d find him somewhere completely off his head. Knew he was brilliant when he was actually using his brain, didn’t I? He’d solved this gruesome case the first time I met him, and he was fucked up and skeletal and I thought he could barely be out of secondary school. God help me, it created a blind spot a mile wide, even when I found out he was years out of uni and an utter arsehole. So I’d haul him in to get sober, and I was too soft to let him stay in the drunk tanks. He’d come kip on my couch, sometimes for days on end. Laurel hated it, hated him, kept leaving me over it. But that was the excuse, you know? He was… this convenient thing she could blame for us not working out.”

John doesn’t know why Lestrade is telling him this. He is conflicted — on the one hand, he wants nothing more than to soak in stories about Sherlock, to know everything about him, to collect anecdotes as if they could make up for the real thing’s absence. On the other hand, John called Lestrade for a reason and it certainly wasn’t to get his nose rubbed in the fact that the man had five extra years with Sherlock.

John’s just opened his mouth to interrupt when Lestrade continues, eyes fixed in a long stare on the skull.

“Once, I found this in his stuff. He always had so little — his works, and the clothes on his back, and a book or two, once in a while some cash. I was right pissed off, you know, thinking he’d got this off some crime scene, or a body in the street, and I started screaming at him. Almost arrested him for, I don’t know, desecrating graves or summat. But he didn’t even react, just lay there on the sofa looking up at me with his weird face and his weird eyes. When I’d run out of steam he just said that he’d not stolen it, that it was old and his and he’d come by it honestly and could he have it back, please?”

Lestrade passes a hand over his face, and when he drops it again, he’s aged ten years.

“I gave it back to him,” he says. “He held it so gently, like a normal person might hold a kitten. I just… let it go.”

“Greg.”

Lestrade rouses from his stare, and he looks surprised to see John at all.

“Bloody hell, sorry.”

“It’s fine. It’s just… I’m sorry, this isn’t really a social visit.”

“Yeah.” Lestrade clears his throat. “Yeah, I figured.” He turns and rummages in the messenger bag he brought before withdrawing an accordion file and handing it to John. “Internal affairs went over all the cases I shared with Sherlock with a fine-toothed comb. Dimmock got the treatment too, and a couple other guys.”

John rifles through some of the papers, barely absorbing the words.

“All clean,” he says.

“Aye. Of course.” Lestrade dips his head.

“The bloody cold cases,” John says. He shakes his head. “How could they think he’d be involved in things from twenty, thirty, forty years ago? It’s ridiculous. And look at these ones — just accidents that look like crimes. Jesus.”

“They offered me my job back,” Lestrade says suddenly. John looks up from the words he’s not reading. “I told them where they could stuff it.”

“Jesus, Greg. You don’t want to go back?”

Lestrade shrugs and tips the chair back precariously. He reaches out to place his palm on the smooth dome of the skull’s crown.

“Wouldn’t mind, to be honest. But I am, occasionally, a fifteen year old boy.”

John feels a smile tug at one corner of his mouth.

“Proud,” he says, “and profoundly stupid.”

Lestrade laughs, and it eases something brittle in the flat. He brings the chair down with a loud clatter and settles his elbows on the table.

“Bit of the old ‘cut off your nose to spite your face,’ innit? But I just — you don’t know how it is, John. The mission, I like. Solving crimes, helping people. But there’s also politics. Everything’s about money, not justice. There’s corruption, cover-ups, crooked coppers. Paperwork. I’ve half a mind to Sherlock myself out, you know, set up a private investigations firm. Get out from under all the utter bullshit.” He shrugs and shakes his head, eyes closing. “But part of me thinks if I can’t do it as well as he can, I’ve no business doing it at all. Another part of me thinks: ‘Christ, Greg, you’re turning fifty soon. Leave the chase to the young bucks.’ And the last part of me thinks I’ve got a pension that’s owed me, and a brain that needs exercise, and a city that could use my protection.” He scoffs at himself. “That idealistic shite is what only the greenest punters think when they join the Yard.”

“You should, you know,” John says. “Go back. They don’t deserve you, but life’s not much about deserving, I’ve found.”

Lestrade’s grinning. “Let’s not get too deep just yet,” he says. “I’ve not even had a pint or five.”

John grins back, and, easy as that, he resuscitates his blog.

He’s going to clear Sherlock’s name.

By the time the anniversary rolls around, Sherlock’s a media darling again. They’ve skewed the story in the other direction completely — he’s now the tragic genius, sacrificing himself for love of common folk — but John finds he doesn’t much care. It’s a version of the truth closer to his own — sanitised, romanticised and sanded of its sharper edges, but essentially in accordance with the facts. The frenzy of the original breaking of the news has calmed, but all the major news outlets are marking the anniversary somehow. John declines the interview inquiries, the TV spots, everything — he knows what he has to do today.

He doesn’t bring flowers. He never does. He does, however, bring Little Man and a newspaper clipping about Lestrade being reinstated as Detective Inspector. There’s even an unflattering little photo, a candid of Lestrade and Sherlock in conversation. John doesn’t know who could have taken it.

“Hey, there,” he says to the grave. “I thought you might like this.” He puts the bit of paper on the headstone and settles Little Man on top of it so it doesn’t blow away. “What it doesn’t say is that Greg wouldn’t go back without a formal apology from the Chief Superintendent and everything.” John laughs a little. “Made them grovel for the pleasure of his company. You would have liked that, I think.

“The world knows, now, Sherlock. What you did. Back when it first happened, and the media made a villain of you, God. I couldn’t stand it. It was insult to injury. Not only were you gone, but I had to endure all manner of tossers talking out their arses about things they had no idea about. It was — not good.

“But, anyway. You’ve been gone a year now. I know I’ve not been by in a while, but proving your innocence in all those crimes is kind of a full time job. And it’s Wales. I never did figure out why you’re buried in bloody Wales, Sherlock, and I don’t exactly fancy calling Mycroft to ask why. Just one of your foibles, I guess. I — I liked that about you, you know. That you had them, and you owned them, and fuck everyone who couldn’t accept that. I know it seemed sometimes like I was one of those people, but. You were exactly who you were meant to be and I really appreciate that. Appreciated. Appreciate. Fuck, tense confuses me. I mean to say, just because you’re gone doesn’t mean these things I felt for you are confined to the past. My appreciation is present-tense and ongoing, Sherlock. I will never stop being grateful for having met you. I will never stop being proud. I will never stop believing in you.”

John clears his throat and shifts from foot to foot.

“Anyway,” he says. “I just — wanted to check in. I wanted you to know that I’m—” His voice threatens to crack, and he takes a moment to clear his throat and gather himself. “I’m going to be okay. Doing this one last thing for you, righting what was wrong, that’s lifted a great burden from me. I feel lighter. I don’t… wake up wishing I hadn’t. So. It was good. A good thing to do, for the both of us.

“Oh, and did I tell you? I’ve got a publisher interested in my accounts of our cases. I’d rewrite them properly, you know, like stories or memoirs or what have you. But. Yeah. That’s what I’m going to be doing for the foreseeable future. Also got a bit of a teaching job at Bart’s with Stamford, if you can believe that. Trauma surgery. But don’t worry. I’ll still visit.”

John says his goodbyes and puts Little Man back in his jacket pocket before turning to walk out of the churchyard. A breeze takes the news clipping.

It’s Irene who sends Sherlock the text that forces him to check the British news sources: You’re a saint and a martyr now. Let’s have dinner.

He doesn’t text her back.

Moran has been a slippery fish, but the need to see John suddenly overwhelms him, and he redoubles his efforts. In the end, dispatching of Moran just over a year after he set out to destroy Moriarty’s web is almost anticlimactic in its simplicity, though it comes with a slew of injuries. Sherlock is unconcerned about them, however; he has a doctor who will tend to them.

When Sherlock arrives back at Baker Street, it is the morning of what will prove a sweltering July day, and his science equipment is gone from the kitchen table and the place smells thoroughly, wonderfully, ecstatically of John, but John isn’t there. Sherlock moves to the table in the sitting room, where the skull sits beside John’s laptop, and picks it up. A simple figurine tumbles to the ground from inside, and when Sherlock bends to retrieve, he sees exactly what it is. He passes his thumb over the face, then turns it over and over in his hands. His heart stumbles underneath the slats of his ribs. Suddenly each moment that passes without John is a nauseating one, and he swivels, take the stairs to John’s bedroom two steps at a time, and flings the door open. John is still not there, but Sherlock throws himself into John’s bed, which is full of epithelial cells, and burrows into the nest of bedding. He wants to breathe John in, absorb all his cast off bits into his own organic material, and be united to John in that small, simple way that regular people have with each other. Connection, chemical entanglement. He’s never had that before.

He stays in John’s bed breathing deeply until he hears John stump up the stairs. He sits up, but before he can get to his feet, John is in the doorway and freezes there. He stares unblinking at Sherlock in his bed, and Sherlock finds this human body to be inconveniently impeding his means of communication. He cannot speak with his throat closing, with his unseasoned heart like a hummingbird in his gullet. He can, however, deduce that John has been at Bart’s in a professional capacity, that he’s had three cups of coffee and two cups of Earl Grey, that he went to the loo before catching the tube back to Baker Street, that he’s lost almost a stone since last he saw him, that his eyes cannot get any bluer.

“What have you done?” John whispers.

Sherlock swallows with some difficulty, then rises to his knees and lifts his shirt up to reveal the bruises on his ribs.

“Got into a fight,” he says.

With stilted steps, John approaches him. When warm fingertips make the lightest contact with his bruises, Sherlock hears John’s breath stutter.

“Oh fuck, Sherlock.”

“John.”

“Shut up. Just — don’t talk.”

He pushes Sherlock back down on his arse with a nudge of his shoulders and gets doctoring. He runs his hands over Sherlock’s ribs checking for fractures, he grasps Sherlock by the jaw to inspect his facial bruising, he peers closely at every laceration on his scalp, on his arms, on his back and chest. He doesn’t look Sherlock in the eye. When he seems to be finished with his examination and satisfied that Sherlock won’t expire of his injuries, he steps even closer, so Sherlock’s nose brushes the collar of his woolly jumper. He reaches up and begins to trace the sutures and notches of Sherlock’s skull, vulnerable since he shaved his hair off as part of a disguise. The sensation is prickly-soft, and sparks of electricity travel up Sherlock’s spine. Slowly, Sherlock is folded into an embrace, arms around John’s middle, head beneath John’s chin, and John keeps feeling his half inch of hair, and neither of them can speak.

Eventually, John says, “When you’re all healed up, I am going to thrash you so hard.”

Sherlock feels the vibration of his low chuckle through John’s body.

“As long as you’re touching me.”

“Good lord, Sherlock. Sentiment?”

“Sentiment.”

While browsing his repurposed CCTV cameras, Mycroft catches sight of a lanky, skeletal man in 221b who bears a striking resemblance to a pile of wood Mycroft used to know. He pauses the image when there’s a good shot of his face. Zooms in. Mycroft’s innards do acrobatics at what he sees, and automatically his hand enters his trouser pocket to clutch at the figurine there. He’d got better at crafting them, as expected, and some weeks ago, from the spruce of Sherlock’s torso, Mycroft produced the finest of the lot. He kept all previous efforts, save the one he’d given Dr. Watson, and he continues to while away at it every night from the remains he keeps very far from the fireplace, but this one, with its imperious nose and recalcitrant curl of hair, with its delicate hands and well-styled clothing, stays on his person always.

Mycroft alerts his assistant and commissions a driver. Upon arrival, he walks into the flat without knocking and finds Dr. Watson and the spectre of his brother sharing a plate of toast and arguing about what’s better on: jam or honey. They pause at his entrance, and Sherlock — Sherlock — knits his mouth closed and just stares at him, unblinking.

“How did you do it?” Mycroft asks. If Norbury’s been keeping secrets about what he’s been up to at that lathe, he will have that man out of a job, out of a house, out of any semblance of a comfortable life.

“Come off it, Mycroft,” Sherlock says, and God, to hear that voice. In a fraction of a second, those eyes flicker over him, deducing, and he says, “Mr. Norbury’s got nothing to do with anything, so don’t bother harassing him about it.”

“Then what is this? Where did you get that body?”

“Yeah, actually,” Dr. Watson chimes in. Sherlock furrows his brows at him. “The body on the ground at Bart’s. Looked like you, I could’ve sworn it was you, Sherlock. So how’d you do it?” The good doctor crosses his arms over his chest and sits back, eyebrows raised expectantly.

Mycroft leans on his umbrella and finds, despite the weight of the past year, he very much enjoys seeing Sherlock’s acute discomfiture. He too raises his brow and levels it at Sherlock.

Sherlock scowls at him before turning to face Dr. Watson.

“John,” he says. “Go away.”

“Not good,” Dr. Watson says with a clench of his jaw.

“Oh.” Sherlock swallows. “John would you please afford my brother and me a bit of privacy, and I promise I’ll provide you with a full explanation later, and with less invective?”

“Better,” Dr. Watson says, and he gets up to leave, nodding rather grudgingly at Mycroft as he passes him to go upstairs.

When they hear Dr. Watson’s bedroom door shut, Mycroft take a seat and says, “Why do you insist on the secrecy? Surely he, of all people, deserves to know why an… embroilment between the two of you is ill-advised?”

Sherlock grinds his teeth. His willowy — once, they were maple, though Mycroft can’t guess at what they might be now — fingertips drum on the table and his lip curls into a sneer.

“And why is that, Mycroft?”

Mycroft sighs and twirls the umbrella. He looks away from those sea eyes — they are just as they always were, down to the fleck of amber in the right one. Who did this work, Mycroft wonders? Whose alchemy brings the pink to Sherlock’s cheeks? This work is crude, in some ways, skin too close to bone, but Mycroft suspects that this work might be superior to Norbury’s.

“Must we flog a dead horse?” he asks mildly. “You are incapable of looking after the happiness of another person — a real person. Look at what you’ve done to him over the past year, Sherlock.”

Sherlock stiffens and contorts his face into his deepest scowl.

“Despite your play-acting, Mycroft, you are not omniscient. Obviously. The work I did over this year was to protect—”

“He almost ate his gun, you know. Before he decided proving your innocence was something to live for. Quaint, isn’t he?”

Mycroft watches Sherlock catch his top lip between his teeth and chew it. His eyes close and don’t open for a full four seconds. Mycroft takes the opportunity to continue.

“Oh, he’s cheerful now, looking at you with his heart in his eyes, poor man. Can’t believe his luck — a miracle, tailor-made for him. A manifestation of all his wildest dreams. But then the reality of it all will settle in. He spent a year in mourning — that doesn’t just go away because you popped out of a box somewhere. And you’ll call him an idiot and forget he feels things and be an inconsiderate arse, and you will break that heart of his, Sherlock, time and time again. There will come a day when he realises that’s all you’ll ever do, all a puppet like you can do, and he will be done with you.”

Sherlock’s eyes are narrow and flinty.

“Do not,” he says, voice low, “confuse John with yourself.”

Mycroft’s own heart clenches.

“Don’t you dare—”

“You are so thick,” Sherlock goes on. “You’re pathetic, you can’t see what’s right in front of your fool eyes.”

“I see a pitiful wooden man, animated by dreams and incantations, who couldn’t possibly—”

“Shut up,” Sherlock snaps, and he’s up out of his seat and far too close for Mycroft’s sensibilities, close enough to smell, and Sherlock is yanking him to his feet, forcing his hands to his chest, and this is the first time he’s touched Sherlock since he was a child, and it’s less a touch and more of an assault really but — there. There it is. A living, beating heart.

Mycroft’s breath leaves him all at once, his knees buckle, and the scope of his vision narrows such that all he can see Sherlock’s chin and neck. How flushed he is there. How the warmth of him seeps into Mycroft.

“Sherlock,” he gasps.

“You absolute wanker,” Sherlock says. Cautiously, awkwardly, Sherlock puts his arms around him, and they sit together on the floor, listening for proof of life.