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Promise to the Living

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

 

Ella was almost grateful for the rain that lashed against her office windows. Otherwise her voice would have been the only sound so far during the session with Captain John Watson.

She had read the tabloids, and wasn't surprised to see John back. He'd been the best friend, confidante, and some would say substitute heart of Sherlock Holmes for eighteen months. But now Sherlock was dead, and John was nothing. Or so he apparently believed.

He gazed at her while she spoke, the occasional nod or shake of his head the only indication that he was listening. Finally she laid her pen and notepad aside and leaned forward, elbows balanced on her knees.

"John, you need to say it. I know you don't want to, but please try."

John smiled weakly. One of Ella's former patients had smiled that way too- hours before he ate his own gun. She was on the verge of asking him outright if he was harbouring suicidal thoughts when he cleared his throat and spoke.

"My best friend, Sherlock Holmes, is dead. And I wish I were too."

"Are you thinking about suicide, John?"

"Not anymore."

"Why? What's changed?" she pressed gently.

"I just… don't think about it anymore. Simple as that."

Ella was worried. He hadn't made any admissions that would justify calling the police, but something was wrong. She'd seen John frustrated before. She'd seen him angry. But she'd never seen him so resigned.

Glancing at the clock, she realized that their time was up; the voice of her next client could be heard in the outer office, talking to her receptionist. But she was honestly afraid to let John leave.

"Have you booked another appointment?"

"No." John stood and zipped up his coat. "But I can."

"I'd like to see you tomorrow. Speak to Sally about scheduling you."

"Sure."

Ella stood too. "John… please take care of yourself."

The weak –no, sad- smile reappeared. "You too."

Then he was gone.

Ella's next client came in as he was leaving, preventing her from immediately confirming that he had indeed made an appointment. But when she saw him walking across the parking lot a moment later, shoulders hunched against the downpour, she knew he hadn't.

Excusing herself to the client on the pretext of going to the loo, Ella left the room and dialed the number she'd come to think of as the "John Watson 999". She'd never had to call it before, but instinct whispered that now was the time.

When the soft male voice answered with, "Yes, Doctor?" Ella voiced her fears.

"John has just left my office. I'm afraid that he's going to kill himself."

The cultured voice paused. Then: "Thank you for telling me. I'll see to it that he doesn't."

Ella hung up, sure that she had saved John Watson's life.

******

John took a cab to Bart's, staring at London through the rainy haze. He'd always said he'd never understand Sherlock's perpetual detachment, but now he did. At one time he'd have felt mild sympathy for the blonde whose hairdo was wrecked seconds after leaving the pricey salon, or the people who ran madly along the pavement with only a newspaper or purse to protect them from the storm. Now he only felt apathy tinged with contempt.

She's only getting wet. She'll dry off. I'll never get Sherlock back.

So I'm going to join him.

Reaching that decision had been a relief. No more solitude, no more pain, no more Mycroft checking on him. The latter had been especially hard to deal with, as John considered Mycroft's indiscretion with Moriarty to be a prime factor in his brother's suicide. Whenever the elder Holmes dropped in unexpectedly for tea or pulled up next to him in the street, John fought an impulse to break his nose. He didn't believe for a minute that Mycroft really cared; the 'British government' was merely assuaging his own feelings of guilt.

Imagining Mycroft's future reaction to his final act of defiance, John smiled for the first time since Sherlock died.

Fooled you, you pompous prick!

He had the necessary pills in his pocket. He was going to go up on the Pathology Building roof, sit on the very ledge where Sherlock had bid him goodbye via mobile, and take them. It wouldn't take long: fifteen minutes for the anti-nauseant to kick in and prevent his stomach from rebelling, then twenty at the most for the barbiturates to work. Then he'd see his best friend again.

Mrs. Hudson would be devastated, John knew. But she'd also understand. She was not a selfish woman: she'd seen the shell he'd become over the past few weeks, since the funeral. The untouched tea trays and hours of depressed silence reassured John that she would not be surprised, at least. Before leaving for his appointment with Ella, he'd written Mrs. Hudson a letter- the first time he used paper and ink to send a message since signing up for his first e-mail account years ago- thanking her for everything, and left it on the kitchen table at 221b. She deserved that much.

John instructed the cabbie to let him off in the parking lot adjacent to the building. The rain had tapered off, and now the night chill was setting in. John ignored it as he threaded through the ocean of parked cars. His face was pointed skyward, his eyes only seeing his final destination.

When men quietly emerged from a black Toyota he had just passed, he didn't notice. It wasn't until strong arms wrapped around his waist, pinning his elbows to his sides, that he knew his plans were being thwarted.

John twisted fiercely and tried to yell, but a large hand gripped his hair, holding his head steady as a soft, damp cloth was pressed down over his nose and mouth. Heady fumes shot up his nostrils, making him choke and his legs buckle. The last thing he remembered before descending into darkness was a familiar yet hated voice saying, "I can't let you do this, John. Forgive me."

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

When John regained consciousness, his first impression was of an upscale hotel room. The bed he was lying on had a soft mattress that molded itself to cradle his body, and sheets with a sky-high thread count. A down-filled duvet covered him up to the neck, keeping him warm and comfortable. The walls were painted a cool, soothing green. As his vision cleared, he saw a mahogany desk, chest-of-drawers, and upholstered armchair scattered strategically about.

There were no windows.

John's head throbbed, but the pain was tolerable thanks to the goose-feather pillow and a cold compress that someone had placed on his forehead. Running his hands experimentally over his body, he felt silk pajamas instead of his rain-soaked jumper and jeans. He wasn't grateful for these little courtesies: only the dizziness and nausea prevented him from leaping off the bed and breaking something, preferably a certain person's neck.

"Fuck you, Mycroft," he rasped.

His suspicion that the room was under surveillance proved to be correct when the door- which did not have an inside knob- opened and Mycroft Holmes walked in.

Sherlock's older brother looked as immaculate as ever in a dove gray Savile Row suit and handmade Italian leather shoes. A solid gold watch chain draped across his middle, and a pearl pin adorned his silk tie. His dignified poise and slick charm made most people –and that included diplomats, world leaders, and royalty- go along with his agenda, but when defied, Mycroft allegedly inflicted punishments that brought the term "Dark Ages" to mind.

With Sherlock and John, it had been different. Mycroft might bluster, turn red, and threaten, but he'd never harm them. Or so John had always thought. But when that horrible, intrusive story about Sherlock appeared in the Fleet Street tabloids, and he realized that Mycroft was an indirect source, John resolved to never put anything past the man ever again.

"John," he greeted in those genteel tones that now set the doctor's teeth on edge. "Good to see you finally awake. It took longer than I expected, but then again-" icy blue eyes surveyed his blanket-covered form- "you've not been in the best shape physically for awhile."

"Just fuck off." John felt too wretched to be physically aggressive, but his anger flared. Why had Mycroft done this to him? He'd been on the brink of saying goodbye to the loneliness, the nightmares, the grief. He'd been almost happy as he walked to his rendezvous with eternity, or whatever waited when the body shut down. Frustrated and distressed, he tried to shout, but a broken sob came out instead. "You interfering bastard."

The elder Holmes pursed his lips. "You were going to kill yourself, John. I had every right to interfere."

"I was not."

"No?" Mycroft reached into his waistcoat pocket and took out a small plastic evidence bag. John winced at the contents: the four suicide pills he'd been carrying. "Don't tell me these are for a headache."

"Maybe they are."

"I've already had them analyzed, John."

"Yeah, well, you know what you can do with your damn analyses." John removed the damp cloth from his forehead and struggled onto his elbows. The dizziness had receded, so he sat up slowly. When his stomach gave a warning twist he took deep, steadying breaths. "And I'm telling you right now that the moment I can walk without needing a sick bag, I'm leaving. You are not keeping me here."

"You don't have a choice." Mycroft was regarding him with pity as well as concern, which made John angry. "I won't abet self-destruction."

John laughed bitterly. "I find that hard to believe. The number of people you order killed every year would top the record of most soldiers I know. Does your hypocrisy know any limits?"

The older man sighed. "I don't blame you for thinking the worst of me. Talking to Moriarty was a grave mistake on my part, and one I will never forgive myself for." He paused. "Sherlock loved you, John. If I were to let you destroy yourself, it would be a disservice to his memory. Plus, I'm fond of you. Always have been."

"Oh, please. I know what you're really about. 'Helping' me will make you feel a little less guilty. Christ." John shook his head. "You really are a piece of work. Now, where are my clothes? I'd like to get dressed."

"I've already sent someone to Baker Street to collect some of your personal effects. They'll be back in a few hours."

"You're clearly not listening." John slid out of bed and stood up straight despite the weakness and nausea. "I'm leaving. Get me some street clothes and call me a cab."

Mycroft's mouth tightened. "You're not going anywhere, John. You need my help, whether you realize it or not."

"Yeah?" John's voice rose. "If I try to leave, will you call some of your minders in to stop me?"

"If I have to. But please, I'd really rather-"

John lunged.

He would later admit that trying to tackle Mycroft had been a stupid move for a number of reasons. One was that he was still weak. Another was that even when he was at his fittest, Mycroft could subdue him without breaking a sweat. The man was deadlier than his suave appearance implied. Sherlock once said that he had killed men in hand-to-hand combat during his days with MI6, and the steel edge that underscored his mannerisms hinted that he still could if the occasion demanded.

The struggle was brief. John managed to land one good punch in Mycroft's eye before he was flung face down on the bed, one arm twisted behind his back. He was vaguely aware of other people rushing into the room. Someone lowered the elastic waistband of his pajama bottoms before he felt a stinging sensation in his right buttock. The injection site burned for a few seconds. Then John's strength fled. His limbs relaxed and his head sank onto the duvet. He tried to holler abuse, but could only manage a guttural moan.

The duvet and blankets shifted beneath him. Strong hands carefully repositioned him with his head on the pillow, and covered him. He tried to open his eyes, but his lids were too heavy, and he finally gave up. Just before darkness took him yet again, cool fingers stroked his hot forehead and Mycroft murmured, "I care, John. I care."

Then nothing.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

The dream was so vivid that John talked back to it.

This was my room, John, when I quit cocaine for the last time.

"Is that why there's no window?"

Yes. I wasn't myself during withdrawal, and you're not yourself now. The room may feel like a prison to you now, but it really is a safe place to fall apart and rebuild.

"I don't feel safe. I feel like a prisoner."

You need to be here.

"You wouldn't be saying that if you were really here, Sherlock."

Death changes a lot of things, John, including your perspective.

Sherlock?

Yes?

"God, please don't be dead for real."

When John woke up, his face was wet.

Without a window or a clock, he had no way of guessing the time. His headache was gone, but in its place was something almost as bad: a general feeling of malaise and listlessness. If someone had come in and informed him that Moriarty was still alive and waiting outside with another bomb vest, he'd have shrugged and said, "Send him in." He wondered if he'd been dosed with an anti-anxiety drug while unconscious.

The door opened. Summoning enough energy to turn his head on the pillow, John saw Mycroft's attractive PA enter. Two large men hovered in the hallway, eying him carefully.

"Good morning," she said.

"Is it morning?"

"Mr. Holmes would like you to join him for breakfast. I'm to help you get ready."

"Tell your boss that this is not the way to convince me that he's a good guy."

"The bath is ready. Can you sit up?"

At one time, John would have coyly asked her if she would be washing him down, or at least doing towel duty. Now he just pushed the blankets aside and sat up.

"Put your feet in the slippers."

He looked at the floor, and saw a pair of expensive-looking fleece-lined slippers positioned neatly beside the bed. Shrugging as if they barely met his standards, he put them on and stood. Anthea handed him a linen handkerchief.

"What's this for?"

"Your face."

He touched his cheek and felt wetness. Memory of the dream returned with a jolt, and his mouth tightened.

Sherlock, the world is nothing without you in it. They all think you were merely my best friend, some thought we were lovers, but you were really my compass. You pointed the way to companionship, excitement, and purpose.

After taking a moment to get himself under control, he shuffled toward the doorway. Anthea stopped him. "One moment, John."

"What?"

She blindfolded him so quickly that the sudden loss of vision disoriented him. "Just a temporary precaution," she said in those polite, neutral tones. John understood: Mycroft didn't want him to memorize his surroundings and configure an escape.

"Can I at least ask where I am?" he sighed as she guided him out of the room.

"Mr. Holmes will explain everything."

Of course. These people probably didn't go to the loo unless 'Mr. Holmes' decreed they needed to.

He counted forty-four steps and two left turns before she directed him into a room with a tiled floor and moist, humid air. The blindfold was removed, allowing him to see the large, marble-walled bathroom with its sunken Jacuzzi. The latter was filled with warm, clear water. A shampoo bottle and soap lay on the ledge beside a neatly folded stack of towels.

John had to admit that the prospect of a hot bath was appealing. He approached it and began to unbutton his pajama shirt. "Thanks for the escort. I'll take it from here."

No one left. One man stood in the doorway while the other came in and stopped a few feet from John- close enough to grab him if he became aggressive. Anthea sat on a teak bench next to the door, took out her Blackberry, and started texting.

John blinked in disbelief. "What is this?"

"Please hurry up," said Anthea. "Mr. Holmes is waiting."

"Sorry, but I am not taking a bath in front of you three."

"John—" she began.

"Seriously! What am I going to do- drown myself? Sit outside and listen if you're that worried."

"You aren't to be left alone in here."

"I don't need minding! And I don't do peep shows!"

Anthea's polite façade slipped a fraction. "You do need minding, John. Now please- Mr. Holmes is waiting."

The man behind him moved closer.

John sighed, admitting defeat. He knew that they'd have no compunctions about manhandling him into the water and making the entire experience uncomfortable as well as embarrassing.

"Fine then," he snapped, pulling his shirt off so forcefully that the buttons tore loose. His pajama bottoms and pants were disposed of with equal spite. Sure that this room was monitored as thoroughly as the rest of the house, he called out, "Any special requests, Mycroft? Want me to dance around with a five-quid note in my teeth? Hang off the shower pole upside down?"

The man in the doorway actually laughed at that. John glared first at him, and then his other two pseudo-babysitters. "Anthea-whatever-your name is, eyes on your phone, please. And you two- I'd better not catch either of you wanking."

Anthea colored slightly. Both men smirked.

John turned his back on all of them and pretended that he was back at 221b, about to take a soak in the old clawfoot tub. He washed his short, bristly hair first and ran the rich-smelling soap (with the signature Harrod's stamp, which would never appear in the 221b bathroom) all over his body. He would only have admitted it under duress, but John did feel better when he stepped out and wrapped himself in the gigantic towel.

"Here." Anthea handed him a T-shirt, pants, and trousers, all folded neatly and stacked on top of each other. He took them and put them on, being beyond embarrassment at this point. When she blindfolded him again, he made an annoyed sound but did not resist.

Fifty-six steps and a right turn this time. The rich smells of a cooked breakfast became stronger: sausages, eggs, toast. John's mouth watered and his stomach rumbled. He hadn't eaten at all yesterday; his mind had really been on only one thing.

Focus, John. And while you're eating, wait for your chance.

Hidden in one fist was a nail he'd discovered nestled in a groove along the edges of the Jacuzzi. It had probably been there since the room was constructed, and no one had noticed it until now.

It would hopefully be a tool for future escape.

"Ah, John. Good morning. You're looking better. My dear, take the blindfold off?"

Or for teaching a certain someone a lesson.

As he stepped into the presence of Mycroft Holmes, both options appealed equally.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

Mycroft stood before the large room's floor to ceiling window, hands in his pockets. Beyond his silhouette, John could see a broad expanse of yellowing grass yielding to autumn's chill, and leafless trees clustered in small groves at the property's perimeter.

I'm in the country, then. Not London.

Mycroft's eyes flickered over him for a millisecond. Shaking his head ruefully, he said, "John, before you join me at the table, please dispose of that object you're concealing in your left hand."

Bastard. Should have figured he'd catch that.

John's lips tightened. He was sorely tempted to throw the nail at Mycroft's head, but didn't want to be drugged and locked in his room again. Instead, he tossed it onto the long oak table, where it chipped one of the two china plates laid out.

The one nearest Mycroft.

Got my point across anyway.

Mycroft sighed and gestured to a uniformed maid, who dutifully carried the cracked plate away and took another one from a small pile on a sideboard. When she laid it down, the elder Holmes approached the table and sat.

"Please," he said, gesturing toward the other plate. "The maids will bring breakfast out shortly."

John obeyed, scowling when he noticed the plastic cutlery and Styrofoam cup. On closer inspection, his plate wasn't china, but an authentic-looking paper version. Nodding at Mycroft's silver utensils and gold-rimmed china teacup, he said peevishly, "You are a bloody shitty host."

Another maid came in with a steaming pot of tea. After she poured them each a cup and departed, Mycroft said, "Surely, John, you don't expect to be given a knife and fork and breakable dishware when a mere nail becomes a potential weapon in your hands."

"Can you blame me?" Conscious of the hovering minders, John tried his hardest not to yell. "You kidnap me, drug me, and expect me to be happy about that?"

"Not at all. Hence the precaution." Mycroft paused again when a third maid emerged from the passage leading to the kitchen, balancing two platters of scrambled eggs and sausage. A man in a butler's uniform followed with a tray of toast and jar of strawberry jam. When John observed that the serving utensils were plastic, he shook his head.

"You're really that afraid of me?"

Mycroft's tone was mild but that blue-eyed stare was direct and faintly menacing. "No, I'd just rather not be forced to sedate you again. You're a doctor- you know it's unhealthy."

"There's nothing healthy about any of this." Yielding to the pleas of his growling stomach, John spread jam on a piece of toast and added milk to his tea. "People will miss me, you know."

"Pity that the thought of your friends didn't stop you from acting rashly yesterday. At any rate, they've all been informed."

He halted in mid-pour. "What?"

"Mrs. Hudson, Molly Hooper, Detective Inspector Lestrade, Sarah Sawyer, your sister Harriet. They've all been contacted. They know you're here with me for the next month at least."

John slammed the milk pitcher down. "What the bloody hell did you tell them?"

"They weren't even surprised. They were all quite relieved, actually. You've been worrying them for quite awhile."

"Goddamn it, what did you say to them?"

The men in the doorway must have moved forward, for Mycroft raised a restraining hand. "I told them that you weren't well and needed time away to recuperate."

John was furious. "Did you tell them that I would be held here against my will?"

"No, but Miss Hooper did beg for me to do whatever it took to keep you safe."

Mycroft leaned forward to blow on his steaming cup. John glared at him- and froze, noticing for the first time how casually the elder Holmes was dressed and groomed.

Instead of his trademark three-piece suit and tie, Mycroft wore a black turtleneck jumper made from a soft material that could only be cashmere, and dark wool trousers. His reddish brown hair, while not as curly as Sherlock's, had a decided wave to it when not weighed down by expensive product. Without all the outer trappings of power, he looked more… human. The harsh lines blurred, flesh and blood replaced ice.

Without looking up, Mycroft said, "I miss him too, John."

The doctor tore his eyes away. "I don't think I should be talking to you about Sherlock. Because of you, his last moments were hell."

"On the contrary, John, it was because of you. When he was on that ledge, he suffered terribly thinking about how you would take it." The elder Holmes swallowed heavily. "His death, I mean."

John lowered his toast. "What?"

"As I told you last night, Sherlock loved you. Before you came along, he confided in a skull. And I didn't exactly discourage him." Mycroft leaned back in his chair and rested his chin on his steepled fingertips. Sherlock used to do the same thing when thinking, John remembered, his throat tightening. "He was a sensitive child. Cried at everything even remotely sad: a dead butterfly, a broken Christmas ornament. When our grandfather died, he was so hysterical that our parents sent him to a psychiatrist. We honestly doubted his ability to survive in this harsh world."

John listened. He'd lived with Sherlock for over a year and a half, and had loved the man in a way that went beyond friendship alone, yet he knew precious little about Sherlock's formative years. What had turned him into a self-proclaimed sociopath who made an exception to his 'not caring' rule only for John?

"We told him that none of it matters. Everyone dies. All things eventually break or turn to dust. It was best to accept that at the start. So he did. Sherlock saw everyone who came into his life as someone who would eventually leave, possibly under tragic circumstances. So he learned to not care. And then you came along."

Mycroft paused, regarding John with admiration and faint accusation.

"You made him feel. And I don't know whether I should give you a knighthood or a punch in the face."

"I wasn't the one who sold him out to Moriarty."

"Sherlock forgave me for that, John."

"Did he now? When?"

"When he asked me to watch over you after he was gone."

John's heart lurched. "What are you talking about?"

"Before the fall." Mycroft paused again. "John, you were the only one he spoke to before he jumped. But you weren't the only one he called."

Then, looking sadder than John had ever thought possible, Mycroft took out his mobile, accessed his voicemail, and turned on the speaker.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

After the funeral, once the comfortable numbness had worn off and the soul-draining despair set in, John had started dialing Sherlock's mobile, just to hear the recorded voice haughtily requesting the caller to "leave a message, but only if you're offering something worth my time." Once the indicator beeped, he would weep and curl into a fetal position on the sofa (or bed, bathroom floor, wherever he happened to be), phone pressed to his ear and babbling all sorts of nonsense that gave voice to his grief and loneliness and distress.

"Hi Sherlock, it's me. You mind picking up milk and beans while you're out? And please- no more fingers in same fridge compartment as the fruit?"

"You bloody idiot. How am I supposed to sleep when you play the violin at all hours? Christ, we have to sort this before I go mad."

"Tell your brother to stop pulling up to me on the street. People are starting to think I'm for rent. AND that I don't have standards."

"Sherlock? I know you're not dead. You can't be. Pick up. Please."

John knew, of course, that Sherlock would not pick up. But that never stopped his heartbeat from accelerating whenever he dialed that familiar number and listened to the ringing. Finally, the recorded message lost its ability to soothe, and his despair was complete.

Now here was Mycroft, clutching a Blackberry that contained a message from the grave. One made before Sherlock jumped. About him. He leaned forward in his seat, fingers clutching the table's edge so tightly that color bled from his knuckles.

Mycroft, it's me. The time we both knew would eventually arrive is upon me at last. Dying's not the hard part, but leaving John is. Please, Mycroft- take care of him for me. He's going to take it hard, and he'll need you. More than I ever did. Keep him safe, and forgive me, brother. For I've already forgiven you.

John could feel painful fissures coursing through his heart, snapping it soundly in two before desiccating the rest of him, body and soul. He slid off the chair onto the richly embroidered rug, arms crossed over the invisible fractures in his chest and gasping. He wanted to cry- he was desperate to cry so that the agony would stop building, tightening his throat and suffocating him. But his eyes only burned without brimming over.

Someone touched his shoulder. Mycroft.

"FUCK OFF!" he yelled, lashing out and feeling his fist connect with a lean bicep. "Just leave me alone!"

Mycroft's hand remained in place. "John, I know objectively what grief is. I've seen it expressed, and I've been going through the closest version that I'm capable of feeling. It's painful. But it will pass."

"When I went back to Baker Street after he… died… Mrs. Hudson hadn't tidied up," John babbled. "All of Sherlock's chemistry gear was still on the kitchen table. On the table beside his chair there was a plate… with crumbs. Traces of his LAST MEAL for fuck's sakes."

Mycroft drew an audible breath but was otherwise silent.

"I not only saw him die, I had to pack him away!"

Strong arms gathered him up and held him against a warm, jumper-covered chest. John was on the verge of erupting when something made him go still. It felt like déjà vu, but that didn't make sense. He'd never been here before, and couldn't remember any tragedy or loss that had crushed him so completely. Frowning, he struggled to pinpoint its source.

Then he realized.

It was Mycroft.

Before now, the elder Holmes had never touched him except to shake his hand. Sherlock, on the other hand, John had known physically on a number of occasions, although never in the way that people seemed to think. He'd stitched Sherlock's cuts, prodded him for cracked ribs, dumped him on his bed to sleep off one drug or another, and on one occasion, punched him in the face at the detective's own request.

He realized that his familiarity with Sherlock's body made that of his older brother hauntingly familiar. Their appearances and personalities were different, but an identical basenote thrummed through them both. Feeling it now, John was strangely comforted.

"Let go of me," he said, although his weak voice lacked conviction.

But Mycroft only lifted him off the floor and gently placed him back on his chair.

"Eat, John. Please."

The doctor just shook his head and stared dully down at the plate of toast.

"This is not what Sherlock wanted for you."

"I didn't want him to jump, and he did it anyway. Why should I care what his plans for me were?"

Mycroft did not answer.

"It's all bullshit. Everything is. He calls you and asks you to watch over me? If he cared that much he wouldn't have killed himself and left me, would he? You're supposed to be a fucking genius, Mycroft. I'd love your bloody take on that one."

The elder Holmes drew back the chair next to John's instead of resuming his former place. "You're a soldier, John. You've been in battle. Surely you've had to follow game plans you didn't understand."

"Yeah. So?"

"So this is another one. Only it's for your own good instead of Britain's."

John stared across the table, out the window toward the lightening sky. "In Afghanistan, a soldier I knew lost his best mate on the battlefield. He said to me, 'It's the survivor who really dies.' He's right. I was the one who had to go back to Baker Street alone, to face the prospect of years without that sense of purpose, that intellectual companionship that Sherlock gave me. I had to walk through the flat and see his stuff everywhere and know that there'd be no more rooftop chases, no more body parts in the fridge, no more texts from Lestrade that made him do his own insane version of a happy dance. Bloody Sherlock was lucky. He never had to watch me suffer afterward."

Out of the corner of his eye, John saw a strange expression flit across Mycroft's face. But the other man said nothing.

John banged his fist on the table.

"I had one friend, Mycroft. One best friend. And he jumped when I begged him not to. What's the greater purpose behind that? The game plan that's supposed to make me think that it's all right somehow?"

Mycroft just watched him. "There's more you need to say, isn't there?"

"Fucking right there is!" Tears were flowing freely at last and words shot from his mouth like shrapnel. "During the days after the funeral, moments from those eighteen months with Sherlock kept hitting me- him playing the violin, dragging me out of bed because there was a sudden case development, hailing a cab outside Baker Street to take us to a crime scene. And knowing that I'd never experience them again as anything but memories- it was torture."

"Yes, I imagine so," said Mycroft softly.

"Oh, I managed for awhile. I'd hear someone coming up the stairs- Lestrade, Molly, Sarah, you- and I'd pretend it was Sherlock. I'd tell myself that it was all a bad dream. Then the door opened and it wasn't him. People came and went and I kept hoping and-"

John buried his face in his hands.

"I think we're getting somewhere, John."

"Oh, so you're my therapist now? In addition to being my jailer? Fuck, you are versatile."

"No. but I do understand."

"How can you possibly? You only ever spied on your brother. You never spent time with him, probably never appreciated what a fantastic human being he was."

John got up. He needed to leave this room -and Mycroft. Now.

Mycroft intercepted him. John placed a hand on his chest to push him away, felt wet fabric, and exclaimed.

Drawing his fingers away, he saw that they were covered by blood.

And it wasn't his.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

John frowned, bewilderment temporarily subduing his anxiety. "You're bleeding." He stared at Mycroft's face, and his confusion increased.

The elder Holmes looked exactly as he did the night John confronted him about the tabloid leak. Cornered. Evasive. Cold blue eyes darted about like minnows, skimming everything in the room except John.

"I have a… cut… which apparently has more healing to do than my personal physician thought," he said testily. "I'll retire now and see to it."

"A cut?" How on earth could Mycroft have been hurt? Although he had done a masterful job of disabling John last night, such altercations were rare for him nowadays. Had there been a recent attempt on his life? An accident?

As a medical man, John knew that he should offer to examine the injury. The red smear on his fingers was not heavy, but an open wound that had bled enough to soak the cashmere was a serious infection risk. One look at the man, however, warned him to keep his distance.

"You may stay here and finish your breakfast," Mycroft said, all hard edges and cool manners once again. "Perhaps we will speak this evening, during dinner."

"I've had enough." John's appetite was gone, replacing by a rolling in his stomach that he couldn't blame entirely on his meltdown.

"You've had one piece of toast. That's far from enough." Mycroft stared past him, at the two minders. "Dr. Watson is to remain here until he's eaten… more than my brother would have."

Despite his anxiety, John bristled about being forced to remain at the table like a willful child. "Or what? No Little Red Hen before bedtime? Shame- you must read it so beautifully."

"I'm sure you know what a nasogastric tube is."

"Not first-hand."

"Let's keep it that way then, shall we?" Mycroft smiled, but there was no warmth or humour in it. "Good day, John."

After he left, John reluctantly sat down and spooned some eggs and sausage onto his plate. He wasn't hungry, but he didn't want to be force-fed either. Wiping the remaining tears from his face and refusing to look at either bodyguard, he ate automatically, tasting none of it.

He felt better when he finished. His head ached slightly from the crying jag, but on the whole he was calmer than he'd been in a long time. In five minutes, he had told Mycroft things that he'd been unable to discuss with Ella. She was a compassionate professional, but had never personally witnessed, and therefore could not understand, the emotionally-charged hybrid that Sherlock and John had been. With those painful revelations came a sense of release. Maybe he would be back in hell once the pain and tension rebuilt, but right now, his mind was quieter.

He kept thinking about the message Sherlock had left for Mycroft. Asking his omnipotent older brother to take care of John. Would the younger Holmes have done that if he blamed his misery entirely on Mycroft's indiscretion?

Was there more to this than he'd ever been allowed to know? With the Holmes brothers, it was a distinct possibility. He pushed his now-empty plate away and rubbed his temples.

"John?"

It was Anthea. She stood behind him, a glass of water in one hand and a paper cup in the other. Peering into it, he saw two pills.

"Diazepam? At that dose? No thanks."

"You have to take them, John. Or you'll be injected."

Mycroft wanted him compliant. Or at least too relaxed to bother finding new ways to escape or kill himself. Sighing, John placed the anti-anxiety pills on his tongue and chased them down with the water. He wasn't surprised when Anthea made him open his mouth, lift his tongue, and massage his face over the gum area.

"You've had to do this before, haven't you?" he asked.

The pretty brunette smiled wanly. "On occasion."

John remembered the dream from last night. "My room," he said, feeling strange using such a domestic term for his luxurious cell. "Sherlock stayed there before, didn't he? When he was detoxing."

"Mr. Holmes is the person you should address questions like that to, John."

"Of course. God forbid you should speak for yourself."

Anthea frowned, but her voice remained pleasant. "Are you finished with breakfast?"

"Yes. And I cleaned my plate, see? Do I still have to go back to my room?"

"For now. But you have some books and newspapers, as well as items brought from Baker Street."

John hated the thought of Mycroft's agents roaming through the flat, grabbing things they thought would entertain him during his captivity. But at the same time, he wanted something of his own here, an island of familiarity in this palatial but alien country house.

"Let's go, then," he said.

He allowed Anthea to blindfold him again and guide him into the hall. The diazepam was already having an effect: he felt languid and his nerves were not as raw. When he was back in his room and the blindfold was taken off, he glanced down at his hand and saw the blood still there. In his consternation, he'd forgotten to wipe it off.

"See this?" He held up his fingers. "Know where it came from? Your boss's chest. I might not be the only one who needs watching."

Anthea's mouth tightened when she glanced at the blood, but she merely said, "Someone will bring you a towel."

"Don't. Really. It's actually a pleasant reminder that even Mycroft Holmes bleeds."

John turned his back on her and approached the pile of books and newspapers on the chest of drawers.

"You think you know everything," Anthea snapped.

Her voice sounded so different from what he was used to that John halted in mid-step. He turned around slowly. She was glaring at him, her back ramrod-straight and a storm brewing behind her pretty features.

"Mr. Holmes is the reason why his brother didn't die a teenaged drug-addict. He's also the reason why you're still alive. Nothing he's ever done has been for himself. It's all been for Britain, or Sherlock, or you."

John just stared. He had never seen her so animated. There'd been times when he thought she ran on Duracell batteries.

"Talking to James Moriarty about Sherlock- what color does that make his halo?"

She shook her head. "You really understand nothing."

"You'd be surprised what I can understand, when someone gives me a straight answer instead of lines from a Boss's Day card."

That was harsh, and John knew it, but residual anger still boiled beneath the surface. He resented his freedom being curtailed, which was ironic, considering that he'd sent dozens of suicidal people, both military personnel and civilians, for mandatory psychiatric observation over the years. At the time he'd been relieved to know that they were safe and getting help. Now that he was the one being 'sectioned', he understood the hostile desperation behind their protests when they lost control of their own lives.

"I've said too much already." Anthea's mask reappeared. "I have to go now. Guards will be outside. If you need to use the toilet or require anything within reason, just knock."

When she was gone and the door's bolt slid noisily home, John sat on the edge of the bed. Perhaps it was the anti-anxiety meds at work, or maybe the pseudo-session with Mycroft had been more exhausting than he'd thought. He felt tired. Taking off his slippers, he stretched out on the bed and closed his eyes. At least in his dreams there were no locked doors.

Why did you ask him to watch over me, Sherlock? Why do the mysteries persist even though you're gone?

John wasn't sure how long he'd been sleeping before someone shook his shoulder.

"John, wake up." It was Anthea.

"What? What do you want?" He sat up, poised to snap at his sleep being interrupted. Her haunted expression made him hesitate. "Has something happened?"

"If you want to know why Mr. Holmes was bleeding this morning, come with me. And please don't think about running. You'd never get far."

Without waiting for a response, she walked out the open door into the hall. John hesitated only long enough to put his slippers on. Then he followed.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

Out in the hall, two new bodyguards lounged on comfortable armchairs, perusing newspapers. They glanced at John before going back to their reading, finding the sports pages more interesting than their prisoner-guest.

Before John could examine his surroundings more closely, Anthea blindfolded him and guided him to the left. "This way," she said. He didn't ask her if Mycroft knew about this excursion, suspecting that he knew the answer already.

Forty-six steps, and up a flight of stairs. John's nostrils tingled at the lemony scent of freshly polished wood. Now they were on a landing, and turning left. Twenty more steps. Multiple beeps as an electronic code was entered into a keypad. The sharp snick of a door unlocking. Five steps forward. The door closing behind them with a low thud. Quick fingers at the back of his head, undoing the blindfold.

Like his cell / bedroom, this large, high-ceilinged room had no windows. John understood why right away: so much expensive computer equipment shouldn't be seen from the outside, even accidentally.

Flat-screen computer monitors covered one wall from floor to ceiling, each one playing surveillance videos in real time. Their cumulative effect was dizzying, and he pitied anyone who had to stare at them for any length of time.

John's stomach clenched when he saw that one was trained on the front door of 221 Baker Street. While he watched, Mrs. Hudson suddenly stepped into camera range. She paused on the doorstep to fish the key out of her bag, allowing him to see in painful detail her drawn face and stooped shoulders.

Shame flooded John. She would have read the goodbye note he'd left by now, and known how close she'd come to losing him. For the first time since Mycroft had thwarted his plans, John questioned the wisdom and fairness of his determination to die. Sherlock had clearly wanted him to go on, and one look at Mrs. Hudson hinted that if he'd succeeded, she might not have outlived him for long.

When she went inside, John tore his eyes away from the monitors and took in the rest of the room. A crowded bookshelf occupied the wall opposite the video display, most of the volumes dealing with political science or the lives of famous leaders. A desk bigger than most boardroom tables stood in the middle of the floor, its entire surface littered with bulging folders, notebooks, and stacks of loose paper. A laptop huddled in the midst of the chaos, a screensaver flashing psychedelic patterns across the screen.

John stared: that desk and its disarrayed contents could have come straight from Baker Street. (When Sherlock was alive, anyway.) On impulse he approached it and picked up the pad closest to the laptop. Notes written in a graceful script covered the entire page.

4:25 p.m.- Camera 16- Cressida Road, Archway. Man with obvious military background lingering near drop-off location. Pass to A. to identify. Could be Subject 237891.

9:25 p.m.- Camera 1- Mysteries New Age shop, Covent Garden. Suspect that woman with black braids may be K. Livingston. Uses right hand awkwardly, so probable left hander in disguise. Fits profile. Send footage to oversight.

Swallowing heavily, John put the book down. Written observations, deductions, and strategies like these had once been more common that dust motes at 221b. All of them were in boxes now. Like their creator.

His eyes stung.

Goddamn it. When will I stop crying?

Anthea sat at the desk, tapped on the laptop's mouse pad to bring the machine out of sleep mode, and typed a command into a DOS window that popped up. Seconds later a video image filled the entire screen.

John wiped his eyes and peered over her shoulder. The camera overlooked a small room that was empty except for a sturdy-looking wooden chair positioned directly in the center, beneath an overhead light, and a long table pushed against one of the walls. It resembled a makeshift interrogation room.

"What are you showing me?" John asked.

"You'll see."

Sure enough, the door opened a moment later and a man entered. He appeared to be in his middle thirties, and wore a tailored wool suit that John now associated with all of Mycroft's male employees. In his right hand was a duffle bag, which he set on the table and unzipped. He was still rummaging through it when the door opened again and Mycroft walked in.

The elder Holmes wore a white dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and dark pinstriped trousers. No tie, waistcoat, or jacket. He nodded at the other man, walked directly to the chair and began unbuttoning his shirt.

"We will proceed with the usual session at once," he said crisply. "Understood, Jenkins?"

"Yes, sir."

"Good."

Mycroft removed the shirt, folded it neatly, and handed it to Jenkins, who placed it on the table. His back was littered with freckles and deep red marks. John peered at the screen, trying to identify the latter.

"Are those abrasions?" he frowned. He glanced at the video's timestamp: 11:30 p.m. last night.

"Just watch," Anthea replied.

Mycroft rotated his shoulders a few times, grimacing when a sensitive area protested, before approaching the chair, straddling it backwards, and resting his crossed forearms on its back.

"I'm ready. Proceed."

Jenkins, who had removed his jacket and rolled up his sleeves, peered closely at him. "Begging your pardon, Mr. Holmes, but not all of the welts have-"

"I said proceed." Mycroft turned his head and glared daggers at him. "Need I remind you how much I despise repeating myself?"

"Yes, sir. Right away, sir."

Jenkins reluctantly reached into the bag and produced a riding crop that was longer and thicker than the one Sherlock had owned. He flexed it and gave the broad, flat tip a final check for any small tears or fraying that could make its bite more vicious than normal. Then he assumed a position behind his boss, took aim, and brought the crop down on that already-damaged back.

The crack of leather against flesh was deafening. Anthea flinched. John's jaw dropped. "Jesus Christ!"

Mycroft blinked rapidly and his lower lip disappeared between his teeth, but otherwise he remained immobile.

"Keep going. And harder, please."

Jenkins hit him repeatedly, heavy blows that sliced into the freckled skin and raised enormous welts.

Mycroft's fingers clutched the chair back until they whitened. "Remember my front," he ordered when the other man paused to wipe sweat from his brow.

"Yes, Mr. Holmes."

Jenkins moved in front of him, and Mycroft sat up straighter, rolling his shoulders back and exposing his chest. The younger man struck twice, the second blow causing the elder Holmes to jump a couple of inches off his seat. John quickly saw why: the crop's edge had broken the skin over the left nipple, sending a rivulet of blood coursing down.

"Sir?" Jenkins asked anxiously.

Mycroft rose, stepped away from the chair, and touched the wound gingerly. "It's all right," he said, a smile tugging at his mouth. "Well done, actually."

"What in God's name is this?" John stared at Anthea. "Why is he doing this? Is he insane?"

Her eyes met his. "Insane? No. Remorseful? Yes."

"Remorseful?"

"His brother forgave him for that incident. But he hasn't forgiven himself."

John felt sick. Although furious with Mycroft for taking his freedom away, he was horrified that the man subjected himself to voluntary torture. What was going on in that brilliant mind that needed horrible pain to calm it?

"How often does he do this?"

"Once a week."

"That's not nearly enough time for wounds like that to heal. He's going to destroy his skin."

"I know. But Mr. Holmes doesn't care about that." She stared down at the keyboard. "He says that the marks left on his brother's reputation are indelible, so he should have permanent scars of his own."

On the screen, Jenkins waited, looking visibly uncomfortable. "Sir? Do you want to continue?"

Mycroft sighed. "I suppose not. This needs tending. Thank you, Jenkins. Well done."

Anthea closed the laptop. "So now you know."

"I think," John said slowly, "that he's the one who needs to be under lock and key, not me."

"Mr. Holmes is not suicidal, John. He's atoning in the only way that makes him feel properly punished." She stood up. "I'll take you back to your room now. I trust this will all remain between us?"

John nodded. As she re-applied the blindfold, he understood why she wanted him to see that footage. Sherlock may have begged Mycroft to keep John safe, but John wasn't the only one who was suffering inside.

He wondered what Anthea thought he could do about it. He was on the verge of asking when she grasped his arm and said, "Please be quiet. We're stepping out now, and someone could hear."

John let her lead him into the hall. They'd only gone eighteen steps (two more until the landing) when Anthea exclaimed, "Mr. Holmes, sir! I thought you'd still be resting."

"I'm glad I'm not, actually," John heard Mycroft reply. "Because otherwise I'd have missed the rare spectacle of John walking in a restricted area of this house. I'm sure the explanation is a good one, though." Then, voice going dangerously low, he added, "Enlighten me. Now."

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

John decided to follow the excellent advice provided by one of his training officers so many years ago: "Never let the bastards see you sweat." And combine it with another old adage: "Baffle them with bullshit."

Praying that he could achieve the miraculous and baffle Mycroft Holmes, he stiffened and snapped, "I won't be locked in my room like a child, even if you do leave me with some toys from home. At least let me have some exercise."

"Begging your pardon, sir," Anthea said, "your orders were to keep Dr. Watson as comfortable as possible. I saw no harm in an escorted walk. He's not a flight risk with the guards about."

John hated not being able to see. Technically neither he nor Anthea had lied. But they hadn't told the whole truth either, and inability to see Mycroft's face left him in a horrible state of suspense. He didn't know whether to start swinging (for all the good it would do) or continue the façade.

Tension-laden seconds passed before the other man spoke.

"Very well. If it's a daily constitutional you require, I'll be happy to accompany you. But not indoors. My dear, please locate a coat and shoes for John and meet us down in the foyer?"

"Right away, Mr. Holmes."

Anthea's slender fingers withdrew from John's upper arm, to be replaced by Mycroft's heavier ones. John went still: the other man's very touch resurrected images from the video and conflicting feelings- concern, shock, and residual anger- temporarily paralyzed him.

"Come, John." Mycroft nudged him toward the landing. As they slowly descended the staircase, the elder Holmes added in a low voice, "I know what you were up to. I should reprimand both of you severely, but I won't."

"Oh?" John swallowed. "What makes us so special?"

Mycroft paused. "Because with Sherlock gone, you two are all that matter to me on a personal level anymore."

John didn't know what to say except "I believe you."

And he did, which surprised him.

"Do you really?" Mycroft asked, his voice strangely thick. "Perhaps I should thank you for watching my expurgation session then. My words of regret never persuaded you, but the footage apparently has."

They reached the foot of the stairs and turned right.

"You're still conflicted, John. I can tell. We'll discuss it more during a stroll on the grounds."

"Can I ask where I am?"

"Yes, of course. The Holmes family estate in Yorkshire Dales. Sherlock and I grew up here. One moment." Mycroft stopped, so John followed suit. A knob clicked and a heavy door swung open on creaky hinges. "Here we are."

John's slippers now touched tiles instead of carpeting. Then the door closed behind them, and Mycroft undid his blindfold.

They stood in a bright, airy foyer, beneath a massive chandelier that threw rainbow patterns across the cream-colored walls. Frosted glass windows on either side of the hand-carved oak double doors flooded the room with natural light. A huge floral display sat on a marble-topped side table, its delicate fragrance adding to the overall impression of elegance.

John took it all in before looking at Mycroft. The elder Holmes had shed this morning's semi-casual garb in favor of his usual powerhouse attire: navy blue wool suit, waistcoat, and silk shirt and tie. Knowing that those pricey clothes covered bruises and cuts made him uneasy. Mycroft caught his once-over, and smiled tightly.

Anthea stood before the doors, with two coats over one arm and a pair of walking shoes in her other hand. She offered the latter to John immediately.

"I hope these will fit. I had to guess your size."

He put them on. Not surprisingly, they fit perfectly. She worked for Mycroft, after all.

"Well done," her boss praised. She smiled and handed him a black overcoat that John had seen once in a Harrod's display window. It was a cashmere-chinchilla blend that cost nearly five thousand pounds.

"Thank you, sir."

When she offered a second, identical coat to John, he exclaimed, "I've never even touched anything this expensive before."

"Now you own one." Mycroft buttoned up and adjusted his tie. "I had it messengered from London this morning."

He ran his fingers over it in awe. "Thank you."

Once John had donned the wearable fortune, Anthea approached him with a light pair of handcuffs, looking apologetic. He stepped back. "I'm not going to run for it."

"It's all right," Mycroft told her. He had taken his umbrella from a corner stand, and slid his other arm through John's. "I don't think those will be necessary."

"Yes, Mr. Holmes." She pocketed the cuffs with visible relief. "How long shall you be gone, sir?"

"I don't know yet. I'll text you when we're twenty minutes from returning."

"Yes, sir." She opened the double doors and stood aside to let them pass. "Have a nice stroll, gentlemen."

Outside, the autumn wind felt cool and bracing on John's face. He inhaled deeply and smelled freshly cut grass, burning leaves, and clean earth. When had he last been in the country? Then he remembered: the Baskerville case. He gazed at the rolling countryside, which was studded here and there with tree groves, and in his mind's eye saw Sherlock everywhere.

That coy grin that remained identical whether he was proud of John or mocking him.

The dark curls that blew easily about in breezes like this one.

The tall, lanky form that cut through crowds like an icebreaker, Belstaff hem flapping in his wake.

Feeling moisture on his face, John glanced up at the cloudless sky, puzzled. It took him a second to realize that the droplets were tears, not rain. He drew a ragged breath.

"Christ. Look at me. One minute I'm fine. Now this."

Mycroft guided him along the circular drive, past a large graveled parking area, and onto the driveway, which was flanked by immaculately maintained lawns and shrub beds. Looking over his shoulder, John got his first exterior view of the manor: a three story, stately-looking stone building with mullioned windows and a gabled roof. Wild rose bushes bloomed along the walls, and pair of ancient oaks cast cool shadows across the lawn. Taken in its entirety, the Holmes manor looked like one of those elegant old homesteads that played host to summer weddings and corporate retreats. But John sensed that no happy events had taken place here in years.

"Sometimes I wish I could cry too, John. But it's not in my nature. So I cope in other ways."

"Like torturing yourself." John shook his head.

"Various world religions practice corporal mortification. Some Roman Catholic monks self-flagellate to make penance for their sins."

"Oh, come on. That was during the Dark Ages."

"Human nature has changed little since then. We still have wars. We continue to kill our enemies slowly and painfully. And we still make horrendous mistakes that apologies alone cannot atone for."

John said nothing.

"When you occupy the position I do, and have my responsibilities, your choices are never easy," Mycroft continued. "Moriarty used to call me the Ice Man, and I've had to fit the description when making decisions that cost lives. But that doesn't mean I never felt anything at the time or afterward."

He stopped and released John's arm long enough to pull a package of cigarettes and a lighter out of his coat pocket. John had seen him smoke once before- the day he broke the news about Irene Adler's fate- but indulgence in an addictive habit wasn't something he typically associated with Mycroft.

Not so with Sherlock. Cases, nicotine, danger…. The younger Holmes had lived only to satisfy his cravings and impulses. John only had one, and it (or rather, he) had been torn from him by death. He'd tried, and failed, to cope. Hence his presence here now.

"I'm not only devastated that Sherlock's gone, I'm also angry about it," he said. "I needed someone to blame for driving him to it, and you were the most convenient target."

Mycroft took a deep drag on his cigarette, and resumed walking. "I usually am." There was no bitterness or irony in his tone.

"But it wasn't just you. Fucking Donovan and Anderson lit the fuse. You just added fuel to the fire."

"I also didn't stop the explosion. And that probably upsets you the most."

"What do you mean?"

"I didn't prevent Sherlock from jumping."

With a start, John acknowledged the truth of that gently worded accusation. He had been angry that the omnipotent Mycroft Holmes had not appeared at the last minute with a helicopter, net, anything that could have pulled Sherlock off the ledge or broken his fall. The man had always been around, it seemed, picking him and Sherlock up for inconveniently timed chats or visiting the flat to chastise his brother or offer him a case. But when he was really needed, where had he been?

"Contrary to popular belief," Mycroft continued, "I am only the British government. I'm not God."

"That's not the impression you always give, though."

"Touché, John."

They continued along the drive in silence, the only noise coming from the gravel crunching beneath their shoes. Finally John asked, "When will you stop doing it?"

"Voluntarily submitting to corporal punishment, you mean?" The elder Holmes gazed in the direction of the main road. "Now that we've spoken like this, it may not be necessary anymore."

"Good. Watching you do that to yourself was terrible."

"So was watching you walk toward the Pathology Building that day, John."

Before the doctor could answer, the faint noise of an approaching car reached their ears. John didn't bother to look, but Mycroft said, "That's odd. Someone from my office is coming." He released John's arm and extracted his phone. "But I've received no notification."

The vehicle drew nearer. It was a black Renault Kangoo, the same vehicle type that John had often seen Mycroft's people use for stakeouts and strike team transport. When it turned off the main road onto the drive, Mycroft quickly tapped something onto his phone keys. Then he pocketed the device, stood up straight, and watched the van approach.

When it was about twelve feet away, John saw Mycroft stiffen. "John," the elder Holmes said, keeping his voice level, "go back to the house. Now. Run."

"What?"

Mycroft swerved and shoved him. Hard. "Run!"

The van pulled over abruptly. Doors opened. Five men jumped out and rushed at them. They wore jeans and leather jackets, and their haircuts and maneuvers hinted at a military background.

One of them rushed John, but Mycroft was between them in an instant, swinging a sword that had formerly been his umbrella. The blade sliced across the attacker's chest, tearing leather and flesh indiscriminately. John tried to help, despite the physical lethargy caused by the high diazepam dosage, but two men seized his arms and easily pulled him to his knees. His hands were jerked behind his back and secured with twist ties.

When Mycroft tried to go to John's assistance, he was jumped from behind by the remaining two men and, during the ensuing struggle, fell against an ancient stone sheep wall that ran along the drive's lower length.

John heard a sickening thud. He saw Mycroft's head slide down the wall, smearing the stone with blood in its wake. When the older man reached the ground and rolled onto his back, moaning faintly, John saw it again. The same thing he'd been seeing in his nightmares since the funeral.

A white face, streaked with blood flowing from an ugly head wound. Wide, staring eyes. This time the hair was straight and reddish brown instead of dark and curly, but the horror was as paralyzing as before.

The last thing John was conscious of before blacking out was his own voice screaming.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

When John opened his eyes and stared groggily about, his initial reaction was confusion. He was in a dimly-lit room with concrete walls and a single door. A camera was mounted in one of the ceiling corners, its lens trained directly on him.

"Fuck," he groaned. He tried to stand, only to discover that thick ropes bound him to a folding metal chair. How had he managed to offend Mycroft greatly enough to be banished to a chilly basement room?

Then he remembered. The ambush. The fight. The blood.

John cried out and started struggling. Where was Mycroft?

Was he alive?

Swearing behind clenched teeth, John hurled himself forward so violently that the chair tipped and crashed, taking him with it.

The door opened then. John froze and stared as a tall, stocky man with a military-style haircut entered.

"Hello, John," he said, sounding friendly. "Good to see you finally awake. I've wanted to meet you for awhile."

"Where's Mycroft?"

"Here too. He's not in the best shape, granted, but he's alive."

Oh, thank Christ. "Who are you? Why are we here?"

The man cocked his head and smiled. John guessed his age as thirty-five or slightly younger. Like his minions, he wore jeans, a plain cotton shirt, and leather jacket. "My name is Sebastian Moran," he said. Then he waited, clearly expecting a reaction.

"I have no idea who you are."

Moran sighed. "Maybe you don't. Jim never shared his private business with anyone."

"Jim…." John went cold all over. "You worked for Moriarty?"

"I worked with him. He was my partner. In every sense of the word." His left hand caressed a wide gold band he wore on his right. "We were together for five years."

Good God, Moriarty was his husband.

"And when Sherlock Holmes made him eat his own gun, I no longer had a life. I had a mission." Moran bent over, grasped the back of the chair and unceremoniously hauled it- and John- upright.

"You're a soldier," John blurted, seeing dog tags shift about under the other man's shirt.

"Used to be. Just like you. Lieutenant-Colonel Sebastian Moran. Formerly a sniper with the British Infantry."

"You brought us here to kill us, then?"

"Someone's going to die today, but it won't be you, John. You're here because you were in the wrong place at the right time. My business is with Mycroft Holmes. Once it's over, you'll be allowed to leave. I know you and Sherlock Holmes were close, but you're not the one who could have prevented Jim's death."

"I don't understand."

"If Holmes had managed his little brother more diligently, you and I would both be happier men right now."

John was incredulous. "You're saying that both Sherlock and Moriarty would still be alive if Mycroft had Sherlock on a tighter leash?"

"We both know it's true."

John laughed bitterly. "Stop Sherlock Holmes from doing what he wanted? You'd have to keep him on ice."

"Maybe he should have been!" Moran's voice hardened. "The man was a menace. The smartest thing he ever did was kill himself."

"And Moriarty was a poster child for mental health and civic duty? How much of the Kool-Aid were you forced to drink?"

John never saw the blow, but he felt it. His head snapped back and light exploded behind his eyes.

"You know nothing," the ex-sniper hissed.

"On the contrary, I think I know everything." John licked the blood from his split lip. "You really want to kill Mycroft because he's Sherlock's brother. You can't murder a dead man, so you go for the closest substitute."

"I'm going for the guilty party. Speaking of which, it's time to take care of business." Moran checked his watch.

"You don't want to do this," John said desperately.

"What's right is right." Moran paused. "Are you going to sit there and tell me that you never once blamed Mycroft Holmes for Sherlock's death?"

"Yes. I did. And then reality set in."

"I'd say you lost touch with it." Moran headed for the door. "But if it's any comfort to you, he won't go as painfully as he deserves. You're going to see to that."

Then he was gone, leaving John alone with his panic.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

John wasn't sure how much time passed before the door re-opened, but each second was pure torture.

He had no illusions about a last-minute rescue, not when the traditional rescuer was a prisoner too. Straining against his bonds and choking back furious tears, he cursed the fact that this had to happen just when he was softening toward Mycroft, whose life appeared to have been one long series of impossible choices and tough decisions. He'd given himself permission to try liking the man. A rewarding relationship with Sherlock's brother could have been healing for both of them.

Now it could never happen.

Sebastian Moran was in the throes of obsessive grief, which corroded proper judgment and demanded blood for blood. It needed a victim, a sacrifice, and with Sherlock gone, it would seek satisfaction in his brother's death.

As a doctor, John had seen this terrible impulse at work time and again, when patients died and grief-stricken survivors attacked the attending physicians physically and in the courts. They couldn't harm the real culprits- the cancer cells, vanished hit-and-run drivers- so they compensated in ways that often defied sanity.

Two men wheeled in a large, padded contraption that resembled a dentist's chair. A third followed them, pushing a portable table with a black briefcase on top. After positioning both items around four feet from John, they departed.

Oh, Christ, this isn't real.

John had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out when Moran came in, followed by two more men half-carrying half-dragging Mycroft between them. The elder Holmes looked terrible: blood streaked his normally pristine white shirt and caked his hair, his face was a roadmap of bruises, and his left arm hung strangely, as if broken or yanked out of socket. He did not resist as they pulled him over to the chair, manhandled him into it, and strapped him in place.

John let out a noise that was halfway between a sob and a moan. Mycroft's swollen eyes opened and he managed a weak smile.

"John," he rasped. "I imagine I look dreadful. These gentlemen didn't find my observations about their sexual preferences or their parents' marital status amusing."

It was too much. John turned frantic eyes toward Moran. "Please don't do this. What do you want? You've got to want something."

"He's got what he wants, or he thinks he does," Mycroft said. "It won't be long before he sees that when one seeks revenge, a single grave never settles the score. Or calms the mind."

"You're intelligent, Mr. Holmes, I grant you that," Moran said, nodding a greeting at a fourth man who entered the room. This party laid a leather physician's bag next to the padded chair and rolled up Mycroft's sleeve with the quiet efficiency of a medical professional. "But unfortunately not so smart when it came to monitoring your brother."

"Sherlock always said the same, Lieutenant-Colonel Moran."

"You shouldn't have indulged him for so long, then."

"That's what older brothers are for. Perhaps you'd understand if-" Mycroft's eyes skimmed him briefly "-you weren't the youngest yourself, and hadn't called any of your siblings in at least six months."

Moran frowned. "You're not afraid to die, are you, Holmes?"

"Not really. I occupy a government position. I learned that two things in life are inevitable- taxes and death."

The man attending Mycroft threw John an uneasy look as he swabbed the inside of the trapped man's elbow with an alcohol wipe and tied a length of rubber tubing around his upper arm, making the veins stand out.

"You should feel guilty," John snapped at him. The man looked quickly away and opened the suitcase on the portable table. Inside was a mechanism that he carefully took out and positioned upright.

It stood roughly a foot and a half tall, and resembled a tiny coat rack. But instead of spring fashions, three plastic canisters hung from it, each one filled with liquid and attached to a length of surgical tubing. All three tubes terminated in a syringe connected to a single IV line.

John knew exactly what it was: a custom-made lethal injection setup. He'd never seen one, but knew that some doctors quietly used them on suffering, terminally ill patients at the latter's request. One canister held plain saline. The second contained an anesthetizing agent like sodium thiopental. The third, which would be activated once the patient lost consciousness, was filled with a lethal mixture of barbiturates.

The probable-medic took the cap off the IV needle, inserted it in Mycroft's arm, and secured it in place with clear tape. Then he untied the rubber tubing, picked up his bag, and left. Whoever the man was, he wasn't keen on watching the result of his handiwork.

Mycroft eyed everything curiously, as if he was about to undergo an ordinary surgical procedure. "I could have handled a bullet just as well, Lieutenant-Colonel. You really didn't have to go to all this trouble."

"Oh, this isn't for you." Moran approached the table and took a second item from the suitcase: a small box with a single red button, which was attached to the execution apparatus by a long black cord. "It's for John's benefit."

John couldn't believe his ears. "What?"

"You watched Sherlock Holmes fall several stories and in a split second, turn from your best friend into a broken corpse. I'm going to spare you a similar scene now, and make it easier for Mr. Holmes here in the bargain. But there's something I want in exchange."

John tried to swallow, and couldn't. "What is it?"

Moran's eyes shone. "I want you to hunt me down afterward. Like Sherlock did to Jim. Give me something to fight against. A contest. A game."

"He wants you to turn him into James Moriarty's worthy successor," Mycroft translated. "Chase him down; devote all your energies to avenging me. It will do his ego good to have Dr. John Watson, erstwhile companion of the great Sherlock Holmes, following him to the ends of the earth. Poor man doesn't know that it takes more than strong enemies to create an arch-criminal."

Moran whirled and landed a solid blow on his stomach. Mycroft groaned and wheezed, "At least you hit me where I have some padding. Thoughtful."

"We can still do the painful route," the ex-sniper snarled.

"And if I refuse?" John blurted.

"I'm sure you noticed that one of my men has a medical background. A word from me, and he'll break a single bone in this man's body every five minutes. In a couple of hours, Mr. Holmes here will be a rag doll."

The image made John sick. "Goddamn it, I'll do it!" The blood roared in his ears, burning them like the tears now streaking his cheeks. "You want me to force you to live on the run? It will be a fucking pleasure."

Moran smiled. "I look forward to it."

"You won't if you're smart." John trembled with the force of his rage and grief. "In fact, the smart thing to do would be to kill me afterward. Otherwise you'll never have a safe minute."

Sebastian Moran actually looked happy. "I'm sure we'll make each other's lives extremely interesting. Now, down to business. In a moment, I'm going to turn the machine on. A saline drip will start. Five minutes later, enough sodium pentothal will be released from this third canister to cause unconsciousness in less than a minute. Then a mixture of potassium chloride and pancuronium bromide will start flowing. He'll die within two minutes."

"Fucker!" John shouted, heaving his chest against the ropes. "You're as sick as your boyfriend was."

"That remains to be discovered. And now, I'll leave you two alone. I'll be back in ten minutes, after it's over." Staring down at Mycroft, he added, "Goodbye, Mr. Holmes." Then he pressed the red button, saluted John, and departed, leaving Mycroft with eight minutes of life and John with a new definition of hell.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

When the door closed, Mycroft relaxed in the chair, as if it were a seat on his private jet. He met John's horrified stare with a calm smile. "It's all right, John. I'm not afraid."

Miraculous rescues from past cases flashed through John's frantic mind. He remembered the Blind Banker affair, when Sarah had nearly been skewered by a Chinese circus prop. But Sherlock would not be coming now, and even if John managed to struggle over in his chair and knock the IV out of Mycroft's arm, it would only mean a painful fate for the man afterward. There was also his first case with Sherlock, a Study in Pink, when he'd shot that deranged cabbie (as it turned out, Sherlock only needed rescuing from himself that time). But he had no gun, and no use of his hands, for that matter.

"Christ, Mycroft." John could barely speak. "I'm so sorry."

"Don't be. I always knew something like this could happen to me one day. It's one of the risks associated with the job. Frankly, I feel fortunate. One of my predecessors was blown up by a car bomb. Another was found in bed with his throat slashed. This is positively benign."

John was too distraught to debate the merits of one execution type over another. "I never gave you a chance. Being pissed off at you was the only way I could cope with losing Sherlock. I'm sorry. I really am."

"John, it's all fine. I forgive you."

"Even if I don't deserve it?"

"You do."

John stared at that proud face, with its aquiline nose, pale blue eyes, and gentle smile. Although bloody and bruised, Mycroft looked almost serene. When he arched one eyebrow at the desperate scrutiny, John said, "I'm memorizing you."

He took in everything: the way Mycroft's chest expanded and contracted with each breath, the graceful limbs that shifted beneath the leather straps, and the eyes that gleamed with almost-supernatural intelligence. In a few minutes the latter would close and everything else would go still. All that would be left of an amazing man was a cooling shell.

"You won't be alone when you go after Moran," Mycroft said, keeping one eye on the machine as he spoke. So far only saline was flowing, flushing out the IV line. "You'll have powerful assistance."

John shook. Mycroft obviously didn't need comforting, but he did. And now words were failing him, when they were all he had.

The machine clicked audibly. They both looked as the saline drip stopped and the second one –the sodium pentothal- started. "Phase Two," Mycroft said. "Please don't be offended if I fall asleep during our conversation. It won't be because I'm bored, I assure you."

"Mycroft."

The elder Holmes turned his head. Their eyes met.

As a doctor, John had always been excellent at comforting the dying. His compassion was legendary wherever he worked, and soldiers and civilians alike often requested his presence during their last moments in addition to (sometimes instead of) a spiritual advisor. But now, he was at a loss. He'd never felt more useless.

"Keep looking at me," was all he could say.

Mycroft nodded. After a final glance at the ceiling camera, he settled back in the chair again and focused his attention on John.

"I will kill the bastard," John whispered. "I swear it." He was trying not to vomit. The elder Holmes would be unconscious momentarily, and then what was left of his life could be measured in seconds. John wanted to scream, weep, and curse Sebastian Moran to hell. But the man in front of him deserved a show of decorum until the very end.

"I have every confidence that you will. Sebastian Moran is a tin soldier. You're the genuine article, John. He doesn't stand a chance. I actually feel sorry for him."

"He's going to burn."

"I'll be disappointed in you if he doesn't."

Mycroft's fingers, which had been idly tapping on the wooden armrests, started moving more slowly, and then stopped. His stare remained on John's face, but his lids flickered. When they actually closed, he shook his head sharply, opened them again, and yawned.

"Sorry."

"For what?"

"I don't think I can stay awake much longer."

He sounded like he was apologizing for nodding off at a boring lecture. Struggling to stay composed, John laughed brokenly.

"Sherlock always said you were lazy."

Mycroft's eyes had closed again, but his mouth quirked in a smile. "Now I have an excuse to doze off."

John's feelings of grief and helplessness were giving way to white-hot rage. He watched the other man's slowing breaths, digging his nails so deeply into his palms that the skin broke. "I'll kill him," he whispered, turning it into a mantra. "I'll-"

Gunfire interrupted his litany, followed by the sound of men running around and yelling. He listened in shock, finally daring to hope, before shouting, "Help! Someone! I need help in here!"

Emboldened by hope, he turned back to Mycroft, intending to struggle his way over to the machine and tear the IV out with his teeth. He exclaimed when he saw the elder Holmes sitting upright, alert and smiling in obvious satisfaction.

"Ah, perfect timing," Mycroft said, voice clear and strong. "Pretending to fall asleep was easy enough, but I don't think I could have faked a heart attack very convincingly."

"What the bloody hell?"

Raising his voice to be heard above the commotion outside, Mycroft said, "Anger may be powerful, but so is forgiveness, John."

"I don't understand."

"That gentleman who set up the IV line was a former army medic who deserted when he wasn't granted leave in time to go to his dying wife. I had a couple of private moments with him when he looked me over after they beat me, and could see the entire story in his military bearing, his wedding ring, and other signs. I could tell he wasn't happy with Moran's band of murderous deserters, so I offered him amnesty if he'd help us. Dismissal of all outstanding charges. Forgiveness."

"You mean-"

Mycroft nodded at the canisters. "Right now I'm getting a rather refreshing vitamin drip. And Mr. Penner has let my people know where we are."

John believed in miracles again.

He dragged himself, chair and all, over to the older man and tackled one of the wrist straps with his teeth. When it came undone, Mycroft undid the other restraints, pulled the IV needle out, and untied John. He winced when using his left arm, but assured John, "A sprain, nothing more, but it does hurt dreadfully."

Before John could reply, the door burst open and Sebastian Moran, wild-eyed and clutching a Glock in his left fist, strode in.

"What the fuck did you do?" he shouted at Mycroft. He was so enraged that the gun barrel trembled wildly in his grasp.

"You have eyes and ears, don't you, Lieutenant-Colonel? The answer's obvious."

"Don't give me your high-handed shit! Eyes and ears, huh? When I pull this trigger, Holmes, you won't even have a fucking head!"

John lunged, but Moran was too far away….

Then the room rang with gunfire, followed by the cry of a man mortally wounded.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

Moran toppled forward, gun hitting the floor as he clutched his shattered shoulder. At the same time, three men in dark uniforms and Kevlar vests piled into the room, automatic weapons ready. They were followed by a fourth man, this one in civilian clothes and clutching a police service revolver. His dark eyes were wide and sweat plastered his silver hair to his forehead.

Lestrade.

"John!" he exclaimed, lowering his weapon. "Thank God you're all right."

"Greg? What are you doing here?"

"I came up from London to visit you, see how you were making out with Mr. Holmes, and arrived at the house in time to see part of the cavalry head out." He nodded over his shoulder at Anthea, who now hovered in the doorway. "I invited myself along for the ride."

"We're glad you could make it." Mycroft sat slowly back in the chair that had been his intended funeral bier. "Pardon me if I sit, gentlemen, but I'm feeling a little faint. Our hosts didn't exactly give me a warm welcome."

Moran struggled weakly when two of Mycroft's men pulled him upright. Blood streamed down the left side of his chest; John didn't need to examine the wound to know that it would be fatal without immediate treatment. Although he must have been in tremendous pain, Moran seethed, "This isn't over."

"Over?" Mycroft echoed. "I don't think it ever really started."

"Who's this?" Lestrade asked. John saw smoke curling slowly from his gun barrel; he must have fired the lucky shot.

"Friend of Moriarty's," John said grimly. Every fiber in his being screamed at him to rush Moran while he still had the chance, and beat the ex-sniper into a bloodier mess. The horror of the past few hours demanded retribution. If Lestrade hadn't been there, he wouldn't have hesitated.

John realized with a start that he had crossed a line. Transformed.

As a doctor and soldier, he'd been on intimate terms with violent death for years. At medical school he'd seen the aftermath of murder, suicide, and accidents, and on the battlefields of Afghanistan his own weapon had blown men apart. Then he met Sherlock, and dangerous cases prompted him to take equally drastic measures: shooting the cabbie, for instance. But he'd never actually wanted to kill someone.

Now he did. He actually trembled with the urge to close his fingers around Moran's neck and press down until life was extinct. Men like Sebastian Moran and James Moriarty could only be dealt with one way. Prison was useless. Even stringent military detention would only make Moran laugh.

He noticed Mycroft watching him. Mycroft understood.

"You're nothing," John told Moran in a voice he scarcely recognized as his own. "No wonder Jim never mentioned you to Sherlock or I. You're a houseboy. A pet."

Mycroft smiled.

"When you leave here, you're going to be interrogated. And when that's over, you'll receive the same treatment that all inept criminals get."

He wanted to say, "You'll get a bullet in the head and an unmarked grave" but once again restrained himself for Lestrade's benefit. The DI was unconventional compared to his more regimented brethren, but he would probably find Mycroft's methods unpalatable.

Moran screamed, "Fuck you, Watson!" Despite his wound, he jerked free from his captors, reached into his pocket, and lunged for John. Something metallic flashed in his grip. John felt a sudden pain slice coldly through his right arm, sending him stumbling back against Lestrade.

Mycroft was out of the chair in an instant. Although he looked- and probably felt- like he'd survived a train wreck, his moves were lightning fast. He grabbed Moran by the back of his head and the base of his chin and twisted sharply, snapping his neck. The knife that had been intended for John's throat clattered loudly to the floor, followed by a much-heavier corpse.

Lestrade's jaw dropped at the speed and brutality of the deed. Mycroft stood over the now-silent body and said calmly, "He attacked Dr. Watson, Detective Inspector."

"I know, Mr. Holmes. I saw. But…. Christ."

"Are you all right, John?"

John peeled the sliced fabric away from his right bicep, which throbbed. The wound was ugly but superficial. "I'll need stitches and it hurts like hell, but I'm fine."

A loud exhale of relief. "Good. Now, if you don't mind, I think I'll have my long-overdue fainting spell."

Mycroft, whose face speedily lost what little color the adrenaline rush had provided, closed his eyes and pitched forward. John caught him with his uninjured arm before he could hit the floor and gently lowered him onto his back.

Anthea exclaimed and hurried over. She dropped to her knees and grabbed her boss's hand. Lestrade pulled his jacket off and folded it under his head. "John? Is he going to be all right?"

John checked Mycroft's pulse, which was weak but steady. "I think so. He was beaten quite badly earlier, and sustained a head injury. He needs to go to hospital."

"Begging your pardon, Dr. Watson," one of Mycroft's men said. "Mr. Holmes has standing orders to be treated privately. No public facilities."

"I'm ringing for a medical team to meet us at the manor." Without letting go of Mycroft's limp hand, Anthea took out her Blackberry and dialed. Her manner was efficient and calm, but John could see that she was struggling to contain herself. Mycroft, like Sherlock, could inspire intense devotion, it seemed.

"Fuck." Lestrade shook his head. "Sherlock always said that his brother was important, but I never thought it was like…" He gestured at the room, the armed guards, and Moran's body before staring directly at John. "I presume that since everything seems to be well in hand, there's no need to mention this to my superiors?"

John smiled gratefully. "None at all, Greg."

The ultimate authority already knew everything.

******

Mycroft regained consciousness when the medical retrieval team arrived, and refused to get on the stretcher. "No thank you, I can walk," he said in a huffy, stubborn manner that brooked no argument.

"Are you sure, sir?" Anthea asked.

"Quite." The elder Holmes got carefully to his feet, with John and Lestrade supporting either arm. "But I would appreciate it if we moved slowly, gentlemen."

Anthea and a pair of armed guards led the way out. John saw that Moran had taken them to an abandoned factory approximately fifteen miles from the Holmes manor. As they emerged into the fading daylight, he spotted the former army medic –who had essentially saved their lives- standing to one side, talking to more of Mycroft's men. The elder Holmes nodded at him and called, "Our agreement holds. Please go with these gentlemen, Mr. Penner. I'll make the necessary calls."

The man looked sincerely grateful. "Yes, Mr. Holmes. And thank you." Then he saluted John, who automatically returned the gesture.

For the first time, John willingly climbed into the sleek government car that waited for them. Anthea sat beside the driver while Lestrade joined John and Mycroft in the back. Official-looking documents were scattered all over the seat; the DI cleared them up apologetically.

"Sorry. These are mine. Recent cases I brought up with me. Thought you might want a look, John."

"Me?"

"Of course you. Maybe you have some ideas. Sherlock wasn't responsible for all the good you did as a team, you know."

John understood. Lestrade attributed his depression not only to grief, but also the loss of excitement and purpose: the emotionally crippled soldier missing the war. And maybe he was right. When they were all seated and the car began to move, John reached for the folder automatically. Lestrade smiled and handed it over, while Mycroft rested his head against John's shoulder and closed his eyes.

The first file pertained to a jeweler, allegedly murdered, whose body had been found in Highgate Cemetery. John was scanning the forensics report when Mycroft murmured, "Bit obvious, that one."

John started: he hadn't been aware that the other man was reading over his shoulder.

"It is?" Lestrade frowned, bewildered.

"Yes." Mycroft stifled a yawn. "Look into his financial background and you'll find that he had difficulties. He was robbing graves, and hit his head on a stone."

"But no stones in the vicinity were bloodstained."

"Because he didn't drop immediately. John, look at the report. How far could a man walk after sustaining that kind of head trauma?"

John chewed his lower lip as he considered. "I don't know about how far, but he could have staggered along for five minutes at most. Then the bleed in his brain would have done him in."

"Just so. Detective Inspector, if you search within a five-minute radius of where the body was found, I'm sure you'll find the location of the accident. Death was by misadventure, not murder, and hardly worth your time."

Mycroft closed his eyes for a few seconds, allowing John and Lestrade to have an unobserved moment.

"Just like old times," Lestrade said.

John nodded sadly. "Almost."

Mycroft stirred again. "Who was your man on forensics, Mr. Lestrade?"

"Anderson."

The elder Holmes snorted. "That explains a lot. Every village needs its idiot, I suppose, even Scotland Yard."

John was about to laugh when he saw- or thought he saw- a dark-clad figure standing beside the hedges that marked the entrance to the manor's private drive. It disappeared quickly, but his immediate impression was of a tall man with a white face, high cheekbones, and curly black hair.

Is that you, Sherlock? Welcoming us back, in spirit?

John's throat tightened. If he'd been alone, he probably would have wept. But he did not despair, like he would have only days before.

Perhaps there was hope after all.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

When the Audi purred to a stop outside the manor, which was ablaze with light, the front door flew open and the private team of doctors and nurses hurried down the steps. John was able to walk unaided but after grumbling that he was "fine", Mycroft fainted a second time and had to be carried into the house by a male nurse who could have been a Schwarzenegger body double.

"One would think the Prime Minister had been shot," Lestrade exclaimed, blinking in awe at the bright lights and mad activity.

"That's not too far from the truth," John replied.

To his relief, he and Mycroft were treated in the same room- the spacious chamber where they'd dueled over breakfast that morning. Only now the long wooden table was pushed against the wall and two gurneys stood in its former place with a medical supply cart between them.

While his arm wound was stitched, John watched three doctors hover over the unconscious Mycroft, prodding his ribcage and cleaning the caked blood from his hair and face. Noticing his scrutiny, one of the physicians said, "He's going to be all right, Dr. Watson. His left arm is sprained, and he has three cracked ribs and a concussion, but barring unforeseen complications, he'll recover."

"Hell, John." Lestrade shook his head. "He's as disaster-prone as Sherlock was."

John opened his mouth to object, but had to concede the truth. Mycroft routinely courted annihilation, just as Sherlock had. The elder brother might not have played poison pill games or chased giant Czech hit men through dark tunnels, but he ran in circles that left him vulnerable to the assassin's bullet or a car bomb or men like Sebastian Moran. And if he was anything like Sherlock in that respect, he wouldn't have it any other way.

Mycroft regained consciousness while the doctors were applying tape to his ribs. He moaned loudly in pain until his sense of dignity kicked in. Then he bit his lip and hissed, "Fuck, that hurts."

John had never heard him swear before: the pain must have really been horrific. "It's alright, Mycroft. Cracked ribs are a bastard. They'll get you sorted with some painkillers."

"That would be lovely." The elder Holmes tried to sit up but collapsed against the pillows with an agonized grimace. "Suspended animation until it all passes would be even better."

Lestrade smiled at that. "Suspended animation sounds perfect right about now. Another reason I'm up here, John: the Superintendent is being an arse, has been for months, and I needed a vacation. I've got a room at an inn in Harrogate for the next two weeks. You should come for a pint when you're feeling up to it."

John realized that as recently as this morning, he would have welcomed Lestrade not merely as a friend, but as a rescuer. In fact, if he tried to leave with the DI now, it was debatable whether Mycroft would try to stop him. But he couldn't bring himself to take that first step.

He wanted –no, needed - to stay with Mycroft. They were essential to each other's healing. He saw the red welts that still dotted the older man's bare chest and something within him clenched.

"I'd be happy to take you up on that offer, Greg. Maybe in a couple of days."

"You've got my number." Lestrade rose, rubbing at his eyes. "It's late, and I'd best be getting back. Maybe I'll drop by tomorrow, Mr. Holmes, if that's all right?"

"Mycroft, please. And yes. Of course."

John stood too. As he extended his hand, he said, "Thanks for coming. It really means a lot. I know I've been worrying my friends for a long time."

Lestrade accepted the handshake. "Yeah. You have. But I can tell you're going to be all right now."

John nodded. "I think so too."

******

John Watson had a lot of healing to do in the days that followed. His arm bothered him, but his real suffering continued to be mental and emotional: every night he dreamed about Sherlock, and couldn't shake the persistent feeling that his best friend was still present and watching him. Once he woke up at midnight and actually smelled Sherlock's cologne in the room.

Or thought he did, anyway.

As Mycroft had promised, it did get easier. Not as quickly as John would have liked, but any progress was better than the black depression that had nearly killed him. He voluntarily took anti-anxiety medication, conceding that it allowed him to think more clearly and process his grief without destructive impulses rising to the forefront. He also went for long walks on the grounds, sometimes alone but usually with Mycroft, who listened to him talk and commiserated when appropriate.

After verifying that Mycroft had indeed been right about the jeweler's death, Lestrade began sending other challenging case files via fax or e-mail attachment. John would grab the printouts and peruse them, focusing on the forensic reports. He was pleased to discover that his medical expertise and familiarity with Sherlock's methods allowed him to see things that the police investigators didn't. But when something didn't make sense- even if it was just a small, niggling detail- he showed the file to Mycroft, who invariably explained its significance and, when he was in a spoilsport mood, solved the case entirely.

"Transparent," he would drawl. Then he'd close his laptop or lay his mountain of paperwork aside and they'd talk some more. About Sherlock. About John's feelings. About the future.

John believed that these chats benefited Mycroft as much as they did him. Before Sherlock's death, Mycroft had limited all conversation to the matter at hand. John always assumed that the genteel abruptness had been a personality flaw or the result of bureaucratic brainwashing, but now he recognized it for what it was: a shield. A fence that kept everyone else out of Mycroft's own mind palace. When he and John were alone, the drawbridge was lowered, and the elder Holmes exhibited normal, even enthusiastic behaviour: showing teeth when smiling, sitting in a chair with his legs tucked beneath him, and laughing with genuine warmth.

They were better for each other than any psychiatrist could be.

"I'd like you to work for me, John," Mycroft said one afternoon.

"Doing what?"

"This sort of thing." The elder Holmes waved gracefully over the police reports. "The matters that I'm required to deal with are not only dangerous but highly confidential in nature, and I can trust you in a way that I can few others. You don't have to decide now, but do give it some thought."

"You just want someone to do your legwork," John kidded him. But he knew what his answer would be when his left hand steadied.

******

The following afternoon, Molly drove up from London for a visit, bringing Mrs. Hudson with her. After greeting John with a huge hug, she excused herself for twenty minutes, saying she needed to speak to Mycroft. John enjoyed an emotional reunion with his former landlady until she returned.

"Mr. Holmes says that you're helping out Scotland Yard with cases again," Molly said cheerily as they sat around an elaborate tea spread.

"A bit."

"Just like old times," Mrs. Hudson sighed. "Except for Sherlock-" She caught herself. "I'm sorry, John."

"Don't be."

Molly regarded him solemnly. "He's proud of you, you know. Sherlock."

John smiled wistfully, but Mrs. Hudson frowned. "Don't you mean 'was', dear?"

"Sorry?"

"You said Sherlock is proud."

"Oh." Molly flushed, and gave her trademark nervous giggle. "I'm sorry. Poor choice of tenses."

"It's all right." John touched her hand. "I didn't even notice. I don't know if it's this place having an effect on me, but I sense him everywhere. Sometimes I'm okay with it, other times I just want to…." He trailed off.

Mycroft came in then, moving gingerly because of the stiff tape wrapped around his ribs. "You want to, but you don't do it, John," he said as he sat down. "That's progress."

"It feels more like coping."

Mycroft smiled and exchanged an indecipherable look with Molly. "Sometimes they're one and the same."

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

Six months later

As the Audi halted front of 221 Baker Street, John resolved to go to bed immediately. It had been a grueling day: Mycroft had received intel that three Romanian terrorists were holed up in a dodgy Ealing flat, and John's investigation not only confirmed it, but also resulted in his being tied to a chair (yet again) and pummeled until Mycroft's forces arrived.

He'd definitely had more painless days.

But despite the bruises and occasional broken bone, John loved working for the elder Holmes. He reviewed medical reports for suspicious deaths (which usually turned out to be assassinations), used his military experience to lead threat removal teams, and investigated reports of terrorist activity all over London. It wasn't very different from working cases with Sherlock: the element of danger prevailed and the consequences of failure could be far-reaching. But now John worked mostly alone, the only connection to his boss being the tiny Bluetooth earpiece that he wore constantly.

The two men still met regularly. Mycroft always called him into the office whenever a new mission began or an existing one underwent a challenging detour. They had lunch and dinner together several times a week. At any rate, Mycroft was only a text message away when John experienced the occasional emotional crisis.

John was doing better in that respect. After spending two months at the Holmes estate, he moved back to Baker Street. Mycroft had cleared the flat of any items that could trigger devastating memories and Mrs. Hudson was a loveable nuisance, fussing over John despite protests that she was "not your cook / housekeeper / whatever". He continued to take medication, but thanks to his supportive friends and new sense of purpose, he anticipated coming off it soon.

"You did well today," Mycroft said.

John rubbed one bruised cheek. "Does this mean I get a raise?"

He actually had no idea what the elder Holmes was paying him. He'd been given a new debit and credit card, and although he never saw statements for either, they always worked, even at the chip and pin machines that used to hate his own card on contact.

Mycroft chuckled and followed him out onto the pavement. "Do you mind if I come upstairs, John? I need to brief you on another assignment."

"Is it urgent?" John winced. Even his bruises had bruises.

"Yes. But it won't take up much of your time. Don't worry."

John shrugged acquiescence and let himself into the building. Mrs. Hudson was away for the weekend, so the place was unnaturally quiet. Otherwise he might not have heard the violin music that stopped playing the instant he and Mycroft stepped across the threshold.

John froze. "What was that?"

The elder Holmes looked in the direction of the staircase. "What was what?"

"I heard a- never mind, probably someone's radio or telly."

He flicked on the lights and climbed the stairs, with the other man following silently. Although he'd grown extremely fond of Mycroft during their months together, he still hoped that their discussion would be short. His head was starting to ache.

When he unlocked the door to 221b and stepped inside, the first thing he saw was a ghost.

A tall, pale ghost with curly dark hair and the most incisive stare he'd ever encountered.

"John. Good to see you."

The phantom might have said more, but John didn't hear it. His legs crumpled, the floor rushed up to meet him, and he knew nothing more.

******

When John woke up, his first thought was that his rescue had been a dream, and he was still tied to the chair in that grotty Ealing flat, waiting for the Romanians to start using him as a punching bag again. Desperate to stay pain-free as long as possible, he kept his eyes closed and pretended that he was still unconscious.

"Sherlock, he'll be fine." Mycroft. "It was just too much for him, is all."

"Was tying him up like this necessary though? John's not one of your 'guests of the government'."

Sherlock.

"You know I don't see him that way at all." Mycroft's voice hardened. "It's for his own safety- and possibly yours- until we know how he's going to react to you being alive after all."

John opened his eyes with a gasp. He was lying on the sofa, wrists and ankles handcuffed together. Sitting in the chairs, watching him like a pair of benign hawks, were the Holmes brothers.

Both of them.

"John!" Sherlock sprang out of his seat and knelt beside the sofa. His grey eyes scanned his one-time flatmate's face with something resembling joy. Mycroft remained in his chair, but watched the proceedings intently, gripping his umbrella handle with unusual force.

John's mouth was dry. "Sherlock?"

"Yes."

"H-how? I saw you fall; I felt your pulse…. You had NO pulse! You were dead!"

"I had to disappear for awhile. You were in danger, John. So were Molly, Lestrade, and Mrs. Hudson. I had to let certain people believe I was dead."

"Moriarty's gunmen had all three of you under surveillance," Mycroft supplied, gaze never wavering from John's white face. "If Sherlock didn't commit suicide- or at least appear to- you'd have been killed. Moriarty's last game was his most vile."

"Molly and Mycroft helped me," Sherlock supplied. He continued to talk, saying something about falling onto a padded truck bed, an unclaimed corpse completing the deadly descent, and one of Mycroft's men knocking John down with a bicycle long enough for Sherlock to switch places with the corpse on the gore-spattered pavement.

"I put a rubber ball in my armpit and squeezed down- that's why you couldn't feel any pulse in my wrist," he concluded.

"And the medical team that took him off the street worked for me," Mycroft added.

John closed his eyes and breathed slowly through his nose. His heart pounded hotly but his entire body felt cold.

I'm in shock….

"Why now?" he whispered. It was all he could think of to say.

"Because it's safe for everyone concerned now."

John stared at him blankly. "What?"

"John," Mycroft said gently, "Moriarty left an empire behind. Sebastian Moran wanted you kept alive for self-serving reasons, but if Sherlock had made an appearance, Moran would have fixated on him instead and you'd have become disposable."

"Moran's been dead for months. You killed him!"

"He had successors. An organization that size would not have left its well-being in the hands of two individuals. It took time to track everyone down and neutralize them."

"John." Sherlock sounded surprised and a little hurt. "It's over. I'm back."

"You're not back. You never really went away. All those times I dreamt about you, thought I heard your voice at night or smelled your cologne in the morning… it was you, wasn't it? You were watching me."

The younger Holmes nodded. "I couldn't stay away. I… care… more for you than anyone else. I'd have lost my mind if I couldn't see you, touch you."

John exploded. Struggling against the cuffs, he yelled, "I did lose my mind, Sherlock! I nearly killed myself. Nice to know you thought you deserved opportunities that I didn't."

Mycroft stood up but said nothing. His eyes shot back and forth between the two men.

"And you!" John hollered at him. "I trusted you! And you kept this from me!"

"It was for your own good, John."

"Why the hell did you think I couldn't be told the truth?"

"Because you're not that good an actor. There's no way you could have kept up a façade that would have fooled Moriarty's successors."

John went limp against the sofa cushions and shook his head. "I can't believe it. You all kept me in the dark. Let me suffer. Christ, even fucking Molly knew."

"The entire situation was terrible, and unfair to you," Sherlock conceded. "But it's over."

Mycroft frowned at that, but John interrupted before he could speak.

"My God, Sherlock, I've been through hell. And you just say, "It's over"?"

Sherlock looked genuinely confused. "But it is. What's the problem?"

"Christ." John didn't know whether to scream, weep, or laugh. "You're a fucking detective without a fucking clue."

Sherlock's mouth twisted. Then he leaned forward and put his arms around John, gathering him close. Overwhelmed by the sight, scent, and touch of a man he'd long since mourned as dead, John burst into tears and yelled, "Fuck off! Let me go! Get out of here! Fuck off!"

Sherlock just held him.

"Fuck, you're alive, fuck, Sherlock…."

Finally John stopped struggling and went limp again. His face was red and tears soaked his cheeks, dripping onto his jumper.

"Fuck, Sherlock," he kept gasping over and over.

Mycroft took his Blackberry out. "I have to make a call," he said softly. "I'll leave the two of you alone."

He went into Sherlock's old bedroom, which now served as John's study. When the door closed, John whispered, "I need to hug you, you fucking selfish prick. I should break your neck, but all I want to do is hold you."

Sherlock drew back, took the handcuff keys out of his pocket, and released John's ankles first. When he removed the wrist restraints, John sat up and rubbed his skin, which had bruised and reddened during his hysterics.

"Thanks," he whispered. "Now excuse me while I get out of your life as easily as you did mine."

With that, he swung one tightly clenched fist and punched Sherlock in the face, catching his right cheek and sending him reeling to the floor. Then John was off the sofa, and heading for the door.

Or rather, he tried to. Instead, he ran right into Mycroft's waiting arms.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

"No!" John shouted as Mycroft tried to restrain him. "Let me go!"

"John," the taller man said in remarkably calm tones for someone grappling with a human whirlwind, "now is not the time for rash behaviour. Please calm down and hear us out."

"No, I need to get out of here! This is too fucking much!"

Mycroft herded John toward the sofa, where Sherlock still sprawled, mouth agape and hand pressed to his bruised cheek. "Sherlock, the cuffs, please," he grunted. "John, I'm sorry but you really need to hold still and listen to-"

His order was interrupted by a loud tearing noise. John, in his struggle, had grabbed Mycroft's shirt collar and pulled so hard that the fabric tore and the buttons popped. Another fierce tug obliterated the waistcoat buttons too, baring Mycroft's scar-littered chest. The wounds had healed, but marks remained. Vivid ones that stood thick and white against the soft pink flesh.

When Mycroft hesitated, John broke free and shoved him toward his younger brother. Sherlock's jaw dropped even lower and those normally deadpan eyes registered shock.

"Mycroft, what are those?"

Taking advantage of the distraction, John bolted out of the flat. He had no idea where he was going, but such practical considerations took a back seat to his flight instinct. He had to get out of there, find someplace where things made sense, and decide what to do. Sarah's, maybe. Or Mike Stamford's. He needed to think.

When he burst out the front door into the night air, he was intercepted immediately. Two more government cars idled behind Mycroft's at the curb; they had brought the four men who now grabbed his shoulders and arms and pushed him back toward the building.

Fuck, Mycroft knew I'd react this way. That's who he was calling when he went in Sherlock's room: backup.

John's left fist connected neatly with one man's jaw, reducing the odds to three to one. Then his legs were raised and held firmly together while another minder gripped his wrists and the third clasped him around the chest, dragging him backward. Out of the corner of his eye, John could see Mycroft in the open doorway, buttoning his overcoat to cover the damaged suit.

"Easy, gentlemen," Mycroft ordered, looking worried. "John, please stop this."

"YOU stop it! Tell them to lay off!"

"Hey! What the bloody hell's going on here!"

Lestrade was running up Baker Street, spring coat flapping behind him and weapon drawn. John paused in his struggles and watched the DI's approach with mingled relief and dread. What's he doing here? A case? Christ, if he sees Sherlock...

Mycroft swore under his breath and stepped out of the doorway. "Take John inside," he ordered his men before walking briskly to meet Lestrade, umbrella swinging without its usual lassitude.

John complained loudly as they conveyed him up the stairs to 221b like newly delivered furniture and dropped him back on the sofa. Mycroft's men secured John with their own restraints: plastic zip ties that confined his wrists and ankles without biting into the skin. When they finished their task and stepped back, Sherlock said, "John, I swear to you, I didn't do this to hurt you. I never realized-"

"That's right, you didn't! You're too self-centered to realize what losing my best friend could do to me!" John shifted on the cushions so that he was sitting upright. Just looking at that pale, finely chiseled face made him want to do so many things at once: cry, laugh, hug, run, and punch. (All of which he'd actually done in the space of fifteen minutes.) Even though Sherlock was back, and alive, the memories of those horrible months washed back through his consciousness like blood seeping stubbornly through an expertly bandaged wound. Along with the corresponding pain.

Mycroft had applied that figurative bandage, and he remained grateful for it. John tried, but could not summon anything stronger than disappointment at the elder Holmes for his role in the deception. The rudely unveiled scars bore silent witness to the man's ability to feel sentiments that Sherlock didn't, and probably never could, understand. Mycroft sincerely regretted keeping John in the dark: he knew that without having to ask.

He'd be able to forgive Mycroft. Sherlock, he wasn't sure. Yet, John acknowledged, being angry with Sherlock was akin to yelling at a child for breaking adult rules. He'd understand the punishment, but not the reason behind it.

Sherlock approached again. John started to recoil but stopped when he saw the tears brimming behind those thick lashes.

He had seen Sherlock fake tears on a number of occasions, but knew instinctively that these were real. He'd never seen his former friend look so lost, so unequipped to deal with a situation.

"I didn't realize what Mycroft had been doing to himself," Sherlock half-whispered. "I already told him he was forgiven." Then, suddenly remembering that his brother's employees were in the room, he said in a clearer voice, "John, why did you run?"

"Because I needed to get out of here, Sherlock. I still do. I need to think about all this." He held up his bound wrists. "And tying me up is not going to change that, or make me regard your viewpoint more favorably. But I suppose it's all the same to you, isn't it, whether this is against my will or not."

"Would it make you feel better if I actually showed you how much I regret hurting you, instead of just saying it?"

"What do you mean?"

Sherlock glared at Mycroft's men. "Any reason why you lot have to hang around and listen to everything?"

One of them answered, "Mr. Holmes has requested-"

"Well, Mr. Holmes the Younger is requesting that you step out onto the landing. My upcoming debasement will not be a spectator sport."

The three men glanced at each other, clearly wondering whether leaving the flat would violate their boss's orders. Finally one shrugged and walked out, and the other two followed, but they could be heard pacing on the landing, talking in low voices.

Sherlock moved with remarkable grace for someone whose hands trembled so badly. He strode across the sitting room, grabbed John's old military clasp knife from its spot on the table, and cut the plastic ties off.

"Thanks," John said as he rubbed his wrists. "But this doesn't-"

He would have said more, but Sherlock said hoarsely, "Maybe Mycroft had the right idea, John. Punishing oneself is the most convincing show of contrition."

"What are you talking about?"

Sherlock didn't answer. But he did take several steps back and extend his arm until the sleeve rode up, exposing one thin, pale wrist. Then, eyes never leaving John's face, he dug the point of the knife into his flesh and sliced it open.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

John was off the sofa in an instant. He smacked the knife out of Sherlock's hand, sending it clattering across the floor. Then he grasped the other man's wrist above the injury, clamping down to minimize the bleeding, and wrestled him to the ground.

"You fucking stupid wanker!" he seethed, heart hammering in panic and horror.

Sherlock was struggling too much for him to get a good look at the damage, so when Mycroft's men ran up, John yelled, "Hold him, goddamn it!"

They complied. John could practically smell the fear oozing from their pores: when Mycroft came back and found his younger brother with a cut wrist, Armageddon was a distinct possibility.

The cut was ugly, but not as serious as the blood loss implied. By miracle or intention, no veins had been injured. "My medical bag is in my room, next to the bed," John said, keeping his voice military-sharp. "Someone bring it."

One of the men disappeared. Sherlock stopping battling the hands on his body, but his distress remained evident. "Do you believe me now, John?" he demanded between pained gasps.

"Believe what? That you're an idiot child? Sure- you've convinced me just now."

Mycroft and Lestrade appeared in the doorway. The DI already looked shaken, and when he saw Sherlock's injury, he paled further. "Fuck! What's happened?"

"I deserved it," the detective said, normally deep voice barely a whisper.

"Oh, Sherlock," Mycroft groaned. He tossed his umbrella onto the sofa and knelt beside his brother. "I warned you this could happen."

The younger man's breath came out in shallow gasps; he seemed stunned and exhausted by the sudden and uncharacteristic outburst. Concerned that he might hyperventilate, John said in gentler tones, "Sherlock, I need you to calm down so I can treat your wrist."

Sherlock shook his head. "I don't want you to. I want it to hurt, since I can't feel sorry like you want me to."

John felt a resurgence of the old frustration and yes, affection that used to be his daily lot when they were flatmates. Sherlock was brilliant, in many ways a computer chip made of flesh and blood. His uncanny ability to deduce and predict motives came from keen evidence analysis, not innate understanding of the passions and emotions involved. He wasn't a complete robot: he did care about John, and deeply. But he was incapable of understanding why John continued to hurt now that he was back.

Was punishing him fair?

No. But had letting John think he was dead, the victim of a bloody suicide, all these months been fair either?

Mycroft was watching him, knowing what he was thinking. "There were reasons, John," he said gently. "This wasn't just a frivolous jaunt in search of adventure."

John didn't answer. He just took the medical kit when the minder appeared with it and said, "No more of that, Sherlock. I haven't the patience. Hold still, and count yourself lucky you don't need stitches."

Sherlock stilled, pale eyes gleaming with tears that he held back. John grasped the very wrist that he had checked for a pulse that terrible day, and wrapped pristine white gauze around it. This time a pulse was very much in evidence. His fingers paused over the softly throbbing beat, absorbing its warmth, relishing its vitality.

Lestrade let out the breath he'd been holding. "Fuck, Sherlock. I don't even think I want to know."

"Good. Because I'm not inclined to talk about it."

That comeback was so quintessentially Sherlock that everyone smiled a little despite the situation's gravity. Lestrade cleared his throat and continued, "Those charges against you are no longer-"

"I know. Mycroft told me." Then Sherlock paused, as if self-conscious about his snappy delivery. "It's good to see you again, Lestrade."

"You too, mate." The DI bent down and touched his shoulder. Then he glanced at John. "Is he going to be okay?"

"Physically, yes. Emotionally, I think he's like the rest of us tonight: severely fucked up." John secured the bandage with a clip and sat back on his heels. Performing a medical procedure that he had undertaken thousands of times in his career had a curiously calming effect. "Get up slowly, Sherlock, and sit on the sofa. The floor's too filthy."

Mycroft took his brother's arm, helped him rise, and guided him to the sofa. Sherlock sat down heavily, wincing as the movement sent pain shooting through his wrist. John and Mycroft sat on either side of him while Lestrade took John's usual chair.

"Well," the DI said, voicing the thought swirling through everyone's mind at the moment, "what now, eh?"

"What now indeed." Sherlock turned to John, his expression quietly beseeching. "Please… will you forgive me?"

"You know I will," John said quietly. "But you have to understand that I need time."

"You do? But we've been apart for a year already. And I already let you hit me."

"Just trust me on that one. All right? And no more stunts like the one you just pulled. Please- it doesn't help."

The younger man nodded, but his eyes still signaled confusion and apprehension. John appreciated the magnitude of his anxiety: Sherlock could easily tell what he'd had for breakfast and dinner and whether he'd spoken to Harry in the last six months, but had no way of predicting when their relationship would go back to what it had been.

If ever.

"I took the liberty of ringing the Lanesborough this morning and requesting that they reserve my usual suite," Mycroft said as he took out his pocket watch and glanced at it. "I think it's best that we all remove ourselves to more neutral surroundings and get some rest. This night has been trying for everyone. Mr. Lestrade, there are three bedrooms: Sherlock can share mine and you're welcome to come along and use the third. This has been somewhat of an ordeal for you too."

The DI whistled. "Thanks, Mr. Holmes. The Lanesborough? Wow."

John was grateful. Baker Street was no place for him to process his feelings right now, even though the flat bore little resemblance to its old, chaotic self. He also wanted –no, make that needed- Mycroft's calming presence. John had long since started thinking of the elder Holmes as his anchor, his shelter in the storm. "That's fine by me," he said. Then, smiling wryly, he added, "Do I have the day off work tomorrow?"

Mycroft stood and gestured for his younger brother to follow suit. "I think that can be arranged, as long as you make up the time," he said, a twinkle in his eye belying his semi-severe expression.

Sherlock frowned. "Do you have to work him that hard? You-" Then, seeing John's answering smirk, he relaxed. "Oh. You're joking with each other."

"Yes, Sherlock," Mycroft answered mildly.

"Good. Because John will be coming back to work on cases with me, and he won't have time to run your errands any more. Nothing personal."

Lestrade bit his lip. "Actually, Sherlock, we have to talk on that one." He hesitated before coming out with it. "I'm afraid that Scotland Yard won't be engaging you on any more cases."

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

Sherlock responded to the news with a dismissive wave of his uninjured hand. "Of course they can't. No one at the Yard except you knows that I'm alive yet."

"Sherlock," Lestrade said patiently, "that's got nothing to do with it. Your name was cleared after you died- I mean, while you were away. The kids remembered what really happened. But the whole debacle resulted in a direct order from the Commissioner himself: no more civilian investigators. I can't involve you in future investigations without the brass interfering." He looked genuinely stricken. "I'm sorry."

"Don't be." Sherlock faced his brother. "I'm sure you can fix it."

Mycroft turned to his bodyguards. "Please wait for me outside." When they left the flat, he said, "I can influence institutions, but not the public. Granted, it would be a simple matter to persuade the Commissioner to reconsider, but the dailies and their readers would be all over any case you work on, Sherlock. You'd be shadowed constantly, and evidence might be corrupted or even planted by unscrupulous reporters. Lives could be jeopardized as a result."

"He's right." Lestrade's expression darkened. "Fleet Street makes a sport out of showing up or embarrassing the Yard. I wouldn't put it past Kitty Reilly and her ilk to interfere for the sake of a scoop."

John watched his former flatmate with concern. "But you supplied me with cases to look at, Greg. And Mycroft helped me with them."

Sherlock arched an eyebrow at his brother and looked displeased.

"Yes, I did. And the upper echelon never had to find out, because you only gave your opinion on the evidence my people collected. You never actually went to a crime scene or became actively involved in the investigation."

Sherlock got off the sofa, cradling his bandaged wrist, and paced in front of the mantel, his movements nervous and quick. "There must be a solution," he muttered. "No problem exists without one."

"There's always the public," John offered. "We took cases from private citizens all the time."

A snort. "For every interesting case brought by the common citizen, there were dozens of requests to check up on cheating spouses and find lost pets. Sitting through their tales of woe made me crave nicotine. Or something stronger."

The threat was implicit. John, Mycroft, and Lestrade exchanged glances. Boredom was anathema to Sherlock. It had driven him to cocaine, gun play, and other dangerous pursuits.

"You could always be a government investigator," Mycroft said.

Sherlock's eyes narrowed. "No. I appreciate all you did for John and I, Mycroft, make no mistake about it. But I will never work for anyone but myself."

"Nor should you." The elder Holmes stood too. "I'm proposing that you accept contracts from my office. You've done it before: the Bruce Partington plans, for example."

John spoke up. "What kind of contracts? You mean the type of work I've been doing for you?"

"No, he means REAL cases," Sherlock said. "No offense, John, but you've just been another one of his well-paid errand-runners."

Mycroft bristled. "John was, and is, much more valuable to me than that. Don't let your childish resentment diminish him like this."

"The only one who's been diminishing him is-"

Lestrade shook his head and sighed. John raised both hands.

"All right, please stop. Both of you. You're squabbling like… like you used to."

"We've been squabbling all along," Sherlock corrected him. "You just didn't hear it."

"And I don't want to hear it now." John's head spun. The night had taken such a heavy toll on his stamina and nerves –beaten by Romanian thugs, finding Sherlock alive and all the accompanying hysteria- that he was dangerously close to collapsing. "Look- can we all just discuss this in the morning?"

"I think that would be wise." Mycroft checked his watch. "Do you need to pack an overnight bag, John?"

"Yeah." He rubbed his reddened eyes. "Let me grab a change of clothes."

As he headed to his room, John heard Sherlock grumble, "I'm not working for you, Mycroft. And don't waste your breath trying to order me either."

He waited until he was alone, with the door shut, before sinking to the floor and yielding to the emotions storming within him: shock and ecstasy at Sherlock's return, delayed horror at the wrist-cutting, and fear for his old friend's future. He tried not to panic: Sherlock had refused Mycroft's offer, but he would deteriorate without cases. John predicted that without diversions of the magnitude Scotland Yard had always offered, Sherlock would have to be institutionalized before the year was out. To protect the public and himself from boredom-induced rampages. Even the thought was unbearable.

His ruminations were interrupted by a hand on his shoulder. "John?"

Mycroft.

John's eyes flew open. "Sorry," he muttered. "Just needed to have a bit of a meltdown. I'm sorry, this is so much."

"Yes, I'm sure this evening would be enough to traumatize anyone who-" Mycroft hesitated. "Anyone who's not Sherlock or me."

"I'm worried. I really am. You know what'll happen if he doesn't have cases." John thought of something. "In fact, how have you kept him from self-destructing all these months?"

"He's been too focused on watching you."

John didn't know what to say to that. Mycroft gasped his elbow gently and helped him to his feet. "Come on. I told them I'd see what was keeping you, but if we don't hurry, Sherlock will investigate."

"Yeah, of course." John retrieved a sports bag from his closet and grabbed a change of clothes and some toiletries. Mycroft sat on the edge of his bed while he packed.

"I wanted to speak to you alone anyway, John," he said. "Sherlock will accept my offer, you know."

John paused. "How can you be sure?"

"Because you will. And where you go, he will follow. Surely you see that."

Before John could reply, footsteps sounded in the hall outside. Then Sherlock opened the door. "John?" His eyes canvassed the room before darting back and forth between the two men. "What's the delay?"

"Mycroft came looking for me." John zipped the bag. "Sorry, I'm a bit out of it. Overwhelmed, actually."

"I can imagine." Sherlock's mouth tightened. "John, I am sorry for this too." He held up his wrist. "You didn't deserve that."

"Thanks." John knew he meant it, and wanted to offer stronger words of reassurance, of forgiveness, but fatigue left him ineloquent. "Let's go now. We'll talk in the morning, or whenever the hell we get up."

Sherlock took his arm as they left the flat, the grip anxious and clingy and affectionate. "It'll be alright," John murmured wearily when they stepped into the chilly night. He stumbled on the doorstep and would have fallen, but a strong hand gripped his other arm and kept him upright.

It was Mycroft. Preventing him from hurting himself yet again.

Keeping him safe.

While one of the bodyguards drove Lestrade to his flat to collect some overnight items, John rode in Mycroft's Audi, temple resting against Sherlock's shoulder. Traveling through London by car, Sherlock at his side in the back seat, aroused fond memories of their eighteen-month crime-busting spree. He wanted to sleep, but the old worry that Sherlock might do something reckless if not monitored constantly kept him semi-alert.

Mycroft was in the front seat, conversing with the driver in low tones. John gazed at him through half-closed eyes, and the watchful tension subsided a bit. When the elder Holmes was around, he didn't need to be so vigilant. The relief was powerful.

They all needed to have a serious talk tomorrow, because from his perspective right now, John had no idea what the future held.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

The Lanesborough was foremost among London's premiere hotels, but Mycroft treated it like a mere home away from home, and the staff bent over backwards to accommodate him. Despite his exhaustion, John perked up when he realized that the elder Holmes had reserved the Royal Suite, which was normally occupied only by visiting dignitaries and celebrities.

The massive suite had floor-to-ceiling windows that looked out onto Buckingham Palace and Constitutional Arch. The three bedrooms, sitting room, and study were richly furnished in vintage style, and the kitchen and dining room were sleek with amenities that looked like they could self-operate. A basket full of ripe apples sat on a small entryway table, their crisp scent sweetening the air.

Mycroft looked pleased. "They always remember that I eat Adanac apples every morning."

"A whole basket of them?" Sherlock asked dryly. "And all this time I thought it was cake making you fat."

At one time John would have laughed at the Mycroft weight jokes. Now he frowned, but Sherlock didn't notice. Mycroft sighed. "At least I can stop eating too much. You can't stop being a silly child."

Lestrade stared about, lips parted in amazement. "Unbelievable. I've heard so much about this suite, but never thought I'd see the inside unless someone was murdered here. I feel like stealing something," he said. He was only half-joking.

"Go ahead," Mycroft yawned. He took off his coat and hung it in the huge hall closet, but kept his umbrella. John remembered the sleek sword it contained, and how Mycroft always had to be ready to fight for his life at any moment. "Just let me know whatever it is, so I can replace it in the morning."

Sherlock, as usual, was not sleepy. His bright eyes were fixed on John, and he shifted restlessly about. When Mycroft whispered something to him and nodded toward the hallway, the younger man hesitated. "All right, I suppose we should," he finally said. "John, please, you'll be here in the morning, won't you?"

So that was it. He was afraid something would change during the night, and John would leave. John remembered the Baskerville case, when fear had nearly undone the normally composed detective, and hastened to reassure him.

"Yes, Sherlock. I'll be here. I promise."

After the brothers retired, John turned to Lestrade and said, "I don't even know what to say, Greg. This night…." He gestured, and then let his hands fall.

"I know," Lestrade said.

"Maybe it will all make sense in the morning."

"I wouldn't count on it, John. But at least we'll all have the energy to deal with it properly."


John's bed was perfect, as if it had been built to specifically accommodate his physical idiosyncrasies. But after sleeping fitfully for a few hours, he woke up and could not get back to sleep. He'd been dreaming about Sherlock and Mycroft, and the dilemma that involved them both.

He finally got up, put on the spongy-soft robe, and walked to the window. As he watched early-morning commuters begin their journey to the tube stations and bus stops, he thought of how unpredictable and chaotic his own life was compared to their regimented existences. When he worked cases with Sherlock or missions for Mycroft, he never knew each morning where he would be by nightfall, or what he would have accomplished or failed at. And he loved it that way.

Last night had been overwhelming, even for someone who thrived on uncertainty. But now that the shock of finding Sherlock alive had lessened, joy surged through him. As he smiled and wiped his eyes, John was tempted to search for Sherlock and Mycroft's room and peer through the keyhole (presuming there was one) to satisfy himself that it wasn't all a dream.

But something was different now too. A year ago, Sherlock had left him without warning and set him on the path to self-destruction. He understood that Sherlock had only wanted to protect him. But the fear that it could happen again made him hesitant about picking up where they had left off in their friendship. He never wanted to suffer that way again.

He also had feelings for Mycroft that Sherlock's unexpected return forced him to confront and examine now.

No sexual element was involved; of that he was fairly certain. Gorgeous women still turned his head, and he didn't fancy men. But whenever he met the elder Holmes for dinner or a mission assignment, his heartbeat would increase the closer he got to the rendezvous site. He liked –no, make that loved- the other man's company.

Frowning, John crossed his arms and made some comparisons. With Sherlock it had been thrills and danger all the way, which cured him of his psychosomatic limp and gave his life much-needed excitement. He loved the younger man, but also felt like a babysitter cum bodyguard. John accepted that they would never be equals emotionally, that Sherlock wouldn't understand half of the feelings that motivated John and, for that matter, the rest of the human race. Mycroft did understand, because he felt them too, despite the occasional claim to the contrary.

He sighed as he recalled last month's mission to retrieve a government agent being held hostage by Black Cell terrorists. John's team had liberated the hostage but the teenaged daughter of one of the rogue group's leaders was accidentally killed during the crossfire. Mycroft had held him when he wept bitterly over that senseless death afterward. Even if he didn't share John's grief, he understood it. Sherlock could never offer that occasional nurturance. He might go through the motions because of his affection for John, but the sincerity and sense of commiseration would be absent.

There was also the stark fact that Sherlock had left him, and Mycroft had stayed. That would always matter.

Would Sherlock accept John's closeness to his brother? And if he didn't, what would happen? The thought of being forced to choose chilled him.

As he turned away from the window, he smelled something burning. Then he realized what it was: cigarette smoke. Someone was up.

John opened his door and saw light spilling from the sitting room into the hall. He also smelled freshly brewed coffee. Intrigued, he padded quietly out of his room to investigate. He was half-expecting to see Sherlock enjoying an illicit cigarette while brooding, but to his surprise Mycroft lounged in one of the massive armchairs, gazing out the window and absently flicking ashes into a crystal tray.

"Hello, John," he said without turning around. "I heard you in your room. Glad to have you join me."

John gazed about, but they were alone. "Where's Sherlock?'

"Sleeping."

"Really?" John sat on the brocaded sofa. "How'd you manage that? Rohypnol? Blow to the head?"

Mycroft chuckled. "Drugged his tea before bedtime. I needed rest."

Now John laughed. He felt himself relax. "Is that coffee I smell?"

"Yes. The hotel staff set the coffee machine to automatically brew at five-thirty. I never sleep later than that." Mycroft ground out his cigarette, tightened his robe sash, and stood. "I'll get you one."

John started to protest that he could get it himself, but Mycroft gestured for him to stay put and disappeared into the kitchen. He was back momentarily with two steaming mugs, one of which he held out to John.

"I'm glad you're up," he said as he resumed his seat. "We have important things to discuss."

"I agree." John took a sip. The coffee was perfect: Mycroft had remembered how he liked it.

"I've been thinking about the dilemma of how to keep my brother busy enough for all of us to remain sane, and believe I have a solution."

"Yeah? Let's hear it."

"I've decided to purchase a business, and I want you to run it."

That was unexpected. "A business?"

"Yes." Mycroft regarded him thoughtfully. "A detective agency. You'll have your private investigator's license by the end of the week."

"And Sherlock?"

"He'll get one too. Maybe with some kind of credentials he'll no longer need to steal my ID or Mr. Lestrade's badge. Unless he's bored."

"You're serious."

"Absolutely." Mycroft sipped his coffee. "When I need investigation work done –and I will, frequently- I'll go to you directly. After you accept the cases, Sherlock will join in after throwing an obligatory strop or two. He'll love being the investigative lead on some of the scenarios that are being brought to my attention. He just won't accept anything from me personally."

"Wow." John shook his head. "It's genius, actually, and will be just the thing to keep him –us- busy and challenged."

"I concur. I take it you accept?"

"Oh God, yes." John paused. "Mycroft, I've never said this before, but thank you for everything. For saving me. And keeping Sherlock alive all these months. I'm so grateful to you. I just need to know that this isn't the end of our close… association." When he met Mycroft's eyes, his expression was pleading.

The elder Holmes smiled. "On the contrary. You'll be seeing me more than ever. Protecting my investment, you see."

Relief flooded John. "Oh, naturally."

A third voice joined the discussion. "Got room for another investigator?"

Lestrade appeared in the sitting room entrance, dark eyes darting from Mycroft to John and back. He smothered a yawn as he came into the room and sat down.

"What do you mean?" John asked. "Do you know someone?"

"Yeah. Me."

Even Mycroft looked surprised. "Your position at Scotland Yard wouldn't permit private investigations, Mr. Lestrade."

"So I leave the Yard. I've already qualified for a pension, and I've had enough of the red tape that the upper echelon is wrapping me in. I got into police work because I wanted to solve crimes, not worry about breaking the rule of the week." He grimaced. "I mean it, gents. I want in."

Mycroft nodded his understanding. "We'd be glad to have you aboard. John?"

"Oh, Christ, it would be fantastic." John wanted to exclaim with joy. Everything was coming together better than he'd dared to hope. Before he could say anything further, a door opened in the hallway.

"Here's my brother now," Mycroft murmured. "Shall you tell him, John, or would you like to see a fraternal spat first thing in the morning?"

John was about to say that he'd do it, but Sherlock stalked into the room, glaring daggers at Mycroft.

"Count me out," he snarled.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

 

For one fleeting moment John thought Sherlock was going to punch his brother. His eyes snapped silver fire and his fists tightened. Sleep-rumpled hair and creased pajamas added to the general wildness of his appearance.

"Why must you always interfere?" he snapped. "John and I will manage just fine without your so-called help."

Lestrade was indignant. "You're out of line, Sherlock."

"I'm not. And mind your own business. This is between me and my brother."

Mycroft crossed his arms. "You say you want to keep this between us, yet you barge at me like an irate mongrel with John and Gregory watching. Not one of your most logical moments."

Sherlock blinked. "John and who?"

"Me," Lestrade snapped. "My name is Gregory."

"Sherlock," John protested, "I think it's a brilliant idea. Once the public knows you're back, and that your name is cleared, we'll have our pick of cases. And don't give me that rubbish about public offerings being boring- the Baskerville case was anything but. As for accepting files from Mycroft- we've done it before."

"John, it's a horrible idea. Directly or indirectly, we'll be under his control. How could you-" He paused. Then his face darkened. "What the hell have you done to him, Mycroft? You have him supporting your schemes like one of your lackeys."

"Hey, now!" John stood. "That's not fair to your brother OR me."

Sherlock touched his arm. "I don't blame you. You were in a bad space mentally and emotionally. I asked him to help you through it, but he went too far and took advantage. He's rather good at manipulating weaker minds."

John had heard Sherlock speak this way countless times in the past, and reluctantly accepted it as the down side of friendship with a socially inept genius. He'd even gotten used to apologizing to others for his best friend's bad manners. But now he was angry. Had the long separation lowered his tolerance? Or raised his standards?

Mycroft stood gracefully, and kept his voice controlled, but his frustration was detectable. "Must you always think the worst of me, Sherlock?"

"Must you always act it?" his brother shot back. "Does everything exist to serve your purpose, including John now?"

"Sherlock," John hissed.

"It's all right," Mycroft reassured him, without swerving his gaze from his brother's. "Despite his blather, Sherlock is grateful for everything I did for you. And him. But he feels immensely threatened that the nature of our relationship has changed, John. You've been working for me for months, and he sees that you enjoy my company. Now he hears you eagerly accepting an offer that will keep you and I in close association, and he wonders what will happen next. Will you leave Baker Street and move into my Knightsbridge flat? Decide that as much as you care about him, you no longer want to be his blogger and babysitter?"

Lestrade's jaw dropped. Sherlock erupted.

"You always have to take what's mine, don't you?" he shouted. "Always."

"Sherlock, in case you've forgotten, we're not four and eleven any more, and John is not a toy to be fought over."

John had heard enough. He strode between them, hands waving, and exclaimed, "Shut the fuck up. Both of you."

Lestrade smirked and strolled off toward the kitchen for coffee. Sherlock's brow furrowed. Mycroft looked impressed.

"Enough's enough. You make me crazy when you both carry on like this. Any more and I'll say sod it with everything and leave." To Mycroft, John added, "And if you message anyone to grab me in the street and force me back, I swear I'll-"

The elder Holmes raised both hands. "No need. Last night you were in shock. You're perfectly capable of deciding now whether you want to leave or stay."

Slightly mollified, John continued. "Sherlock, it's true that Mycroft and I are close now. But that doesn't affect our friendship. I told you last night that I needed time to absorb everything, but that doesn't mean time away from you. On the contrary, I'll need you to stay close by, as part of me hardly believes you're really here. Alive."

The ghastly memory of Sherlock lying on the pavement outside the pathology building, bloodied and apparently broken, lunged into his consciousness. He winced and shoved it back, wondering if it would ever lose its power to devastate him.

Sherlock's lips tightened. "I told you before, John. I have only one friend. I'm… fond… of Molly, Mrs. Hudson, and Lestrade, but you're very important to me. Even when I was supposed to be in hiding, I couldn't stay away from you."

That was as close to saying 'I love you' as Sherlock was capable of expressing. John squeezed his shoulder.

"And you're important to me too. For awhile I didn't even want to live without you. But your brother stopped me from doing something foolish." He glanced at Mycroft in silent gratitude. "Now listen. I'm going to accept Mycroft's offer. So is Greg. I can't make you do the same, but I'd be really happy if you'd join us."

Lestrade returned, blowing on a steaming mug. "Yeah, I suppose I'd be chuffed too. No one insults me as cleverly as you do, Sherlock."

Sherlock hesitated, clearly trying to convince himself that he would be doing John and Lestrade a favour instead of capitulating to Mycroft. He rubbed his hands together and started pacing. For awhile he said nothing. Then he stopped abruptly and faced his brother.

"Are you going to rent an office?"

"I was planning on it."

"Where?"

"I've not decided."

"It must be near Bart's. And I want to see it before you sign any lease."

John tried not to smile. Sherlock hardly had standards when it came to his living environment, so why would he care about the office particulars? He probably didn't, but didn't want to appear to be caving in so easily.

Mycroft nodded. "Fine. You can review the listings with me."

"Boring. Just show me something you know I'll like." He resumed his pacing. "And I don't want anything dull handed to us just because you can't be arsed to look into it yourself. Interesting cases only."

"Sherlock, really. I'd never order you to take anything I bring you. I know what a waste of energy that would be."

"Good." Sherlock nodded sharply. "Then fine. I accept. It could be rather fun, actually."

"Unbelievable," Lestrade declared, rolling his eyes. "You don't hate the idea at all. You just wanted to because your brother thought of it."

"And why would I do that?" Sherlock scowled.

John spoke up. "Because you're an idiot."

Sherlock stared at him. Then his lips quirked in a smile.

"And you." John turned to Mycroft. "You're as presumptuous as he is, and a scheming power-tripper to boot."

"Really, John," the other man chuckled. "You're complimenting me."

"I suppose I am." He looked from one to the other, knowing that that the Holmes brothers would always interfere with or control his life. But they'd also supply excitement, friendship, and most of important of all for a former soldier, purpose.

Lestrade said it for him. "Can't live with them, can't live without them, eh?"

John sighed. Living without them would never be an option.

After excusing himself, he headed toward the kitchen for a coffee refill. Mycroft stopped him and held his own empty mug out. "Would you mind?"

"Sure." But when he accepted it, John felt warm fingers glide gently and deliberately over his hand before letting go.

He didn't dare look at the elder Holmes, not with Sherlock and Lestrade in the room, but his pulse jumped, his heart started pounding and warmth flooded him, sending a blush to his cheeks and a strange heat through his body. As he hurried into the privacy of the high-tech kitchen, he knew that at the earliest opportunity, he and Mycroft needed to talk.

Alone.

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

John didn't get that chance for over two weeks.

Mycroft and Lestrade left the Lanesborough after breakfast, saying they had to go to their respective offices. Sherlock and John remained in the suite, which was designated their temporary home until the anticipated media frenzy over the 'dead' detective's return abated.

Sherlock rarely left John alone: one morning he even walked into the bathroom while John was showering, leaned on the sink, and chattered about the new office he and Mycroft had decided to lease for the agency.

"It's right off Barbican Underground Station, close to Bart's. I might be able to do some experiments at the office now. It's close enough to the hospital for me to carry any heavier body parts I might-"

"Sherlock." The shower curtain rings rattled noisily as John threw it open. "No anatomy specimens in that office. We want people to believe we solve mysterious crimes, not commit them!"

Sherlock nodded and pouted, but he had a gleam in his eye that warned John to check the fridge regularly.

They talked about Sherlock's hiatus activities. These discussions were often punctuated by an emotional outburst from John, but as time passed, their old camaraderie stirred to life. After an initial awkward phase, Sherlock began ordering John around again and John grumbled to hide his contentment. When he found acid spills from Sherlock's new chemistry set (courtesy of Molly) eating into the kitchen's marble countertop and scolded his friend for ten minutes straight, John realized that their mutual healing was progressing nicely.

After publicists carefully chosen by Mycroft announced Sherlock's survival and return, the Fleet Street presses nearly ran out of ink. Journalists and camera crews hovered outside the vacantBaker Streetflat and eagerly investigated all 'Holmes sightings'. Friends such as Angelo and Mike Stamford, alerted to Sherlock's real location, visited in droves. When Mrs. Hudson, after weeping and clinging to Sherlock like an octopus, insisted on moving into the suite's third bedroom and looking after them during their stay, they could not bring themselves to refuse her.

Throughout it all, John thought about Mycroft constantly. The elder Holmes came by often but with Sherlock or Mrs. Hudson always around, they were confined to trivial discussions about the media circus and the private detective license applications. The forced banality drove John crazy, and Mycroft wasn't handling it much better. His composure remained impeccable, but he shifted and stirred in his seat, a restless gesture John had never seen him exhibit before.

Something had changed between them, yanked suddenly and violently to the surface by the churned-up emotions surrounding Sherlock's return. Mycroft had sensed it first, and tested the waters with that discreet touch. John's physical and emotional response to the non-platonic gesture had left him in turmoil ever since.

Was he in love? It felt like it. When the elder Holmes visited, John's focus sharpened, his senses heightened, and he felt invigorated. But he wasn't attracted to men (at least not before now), so how was it possible? And why now, after all these months of close friendship?

Maybe things would be clearer when they spoke.

John knew he could always text. But the discussion they needed to have couldn't be properly conducted via mobile. 'MH' and 'JW' were no substitute for Mycroft Holmes and John Watson in the flesh, their very nearness mandating total honesty. There was also the possibility that Sherlock could –no, make that would- scroll through John's messages when bored, find the exchange, and go nuclear.

God, if Mycroft validated and returned John's feelings, what would Sherlock do? Would it shatter their resuscitated friendship?

Why did life have to be so complicated?

The stalemate was finally broken when he and Sherlock donned disguises, slipped out of the hotel, and accompanied Lestrade to the Superintendent's office so the DI could hand in his resignation. The man, who'd had it in for Lestrade since Sherlock's involvement in Yard cases became a public scandal, sneered at the letter and brushed it off his desk.

"Good riddance," he commented.

Lestrade glared. "Likewise, sir."

Sherlock eyed the man up and down and asked casually, "Have you been using anal beads for long?"

The Superintendent's face colored. "Shut your mouth, you demented bastard."

John stepped forward. "Go fuck yourself."

The police official rose abruptly, clearly intent on signaling for their forcible removal. When Mycroft appeared in the doorway, looking icy and dangerous in a steel gray suit, he paused and said warily, "Mr. Holmes."

"Good afternoon, Superintendent Thomas." Mycroft's sharp eyes mapped the room and everyone in it. "I take it I missed the formal presentation of the letter."

"Yes, but you're welcome to stay and watch us all get tossed to the pavement," Sherlock said.

"Oh, I don't believe that's going to happen." The elder Holmes set his umbrella on an empty chair and tightened his leather gloves. "Would someone mind closing the door?"

The Superintendent looked uneasy. "What's going on?"

"You called my younger brother demented, Mr. Thomas. This conversation is not for the uninvolved."

John, who was closest to the door, shut it. The tension in the room elevated.

"I wanted to be here earlier, but my lunch with your Commissioner went overtime." Mycroft casually approached Thomas' desk. "But you don't need to know about that, do you?"

The official looked both irritated and uneasy. "I know the Commissioner is a personal friend of yours, Mr. Holmes. If you need to speak with me, I'll be happy to talk to you in private."

"I'm not giving you that option. These three gentlemen stay. Now, Mr. Thomas- down on the floor. Hands and knees."

Everyone, even Sherlock, registered amazement. When the Superintendent didn't respond immediately, the elder Holmes leaned across the cluttered desk until their faces were inches apart and said in soft, shadowy tones, "If you don't want to be demoted to janitor, I suggest you do as I tell you. Now."

John was transfixed. Mycroft would have made a hell of a military commander. He didn't scream orders like the lower ranks did. He scared the shit out of you with the right words, spoken in a silky-smooth voice. The calm threat before the proverbial storm that smashed you against the rocks.

Lestrade's lips parted in shock when his despised supervisor emerged from behind the desk and fell heavily onto all fours. The man's eyes were riveted to the floor and sweat dripped freely off his pale face.

"Very good," Mycroft told him. "With three sons to put through uni, I'd have hated to ensure you lost your position. Now bark."

Thomas stared up at him in disbelief. "I beg your pardon?"

"When you speak, you're rather rude and condescending. Like you were to my brother just now. So I'd like to hear you bark and see if it's an improvement."

Mycroft was using lines Irene Adler would have seized as business assets, but he wasn't playing or trying to turn anyone on. He wanted to bring an arrogant sod low without preamble. Sherlock once described him as "the most dangerous man you'd ever want to meet", and John had seen enough since then to believe it, but watching him bring a high-ranking police official to all fours –in front of witnesses- as punishment for abusing his brother was a blatant demonstration of his power's scope.

The Superintendent made a noise that sounded more like a weak cough than a bark. Sherlock rolled his eyes and Mycroft ordered, "Pathetic. Again, and better."

This time the official barked. Lestrade grinned broadly, Sherlock sneered, and John reminded himself to breathe.

"Good. Now get up before you ruin your suit. And if you ever speak again in such a disgusting manner to my brother or anyone dear to me-" he glanced at John "-the only thing you'll ever be in charge of is the cafeteria help."

Thomas, trembling in rage and humiliation, got up and straightened his suit. "Can I help you with anything else, Mr. Holmes?"

"Kind of you to ask. Please ensure that Detective Inspector Lestrade receives a very golden handshake, would you? Generous pension, perhaps a few retroactive bonuses?"

"I'll see what I can do."

"Splendid. Good afternoon." Mycroft linked his arm with John's and nodded toward the door. "Shall we?"

The elder Holmes had touched him before, but aside from that light brush of fingers in the suite sitting room, it had never affected John like this. His nerves thrummed and gooseflesh broke out. These were all physical signs he'd experienced during the two times he'd genuinely been in love, but Mycroft lacked a major asset that usually grabbed his attention: namely a hot female body. He had everything else though: a sympathetic ear, loyalty to those he cared about, and an engaging personality that came out of hiding when John was around. He was overly fond of forcing his will on people, John included, but no one was perfect….

John was confused, excited, and to his alarm, growing aroused.

As they approached the lift, Lestrade exclaimed, "That was hands-down the best retirement present anyone could have given me. Too bad there was no video."

Mycroft gave a crocodile grin. "Perhaps there was."

During the ride down to the lobby, Lestrade kept chuckling and even Sherlock gloated, but John and Mycroft remained silent. When they stepped out of the lift, Mycroft said, "I need to talk to John. Alone. Gregory, if you'd be so kind as to escort my brother back to the hotel after you have lunch? I've arranged reservations for you both at the Dorchester."

Anticipating an explosion from Sherlock, John braced himself. To his shock, the younger Holmes regarded him with quiet affection and resignation.

"I'm not oblivious, John," he said. "I don't know what you find so compelling about Mycroft, but you've made it plain that whatever it is, you don't intend to leave me out of your future plans."

"I'll never leave you period," John replied hoarsely.

Sherlock nodded quickly. "Now do return before six. I'll need your help with an experiment. And if Mycroft annoys you too much – it's guaranteed that he will- just slip him a peanut somehow. He's allergic."

Mycroft sighed and shook his head. "Always the same with you, Sherlock."

John was gobsmacked at his best friend's atypical docility. Had Mycroft drugged his tea again? Or did Sherlock really understand?

"We'll meet you at the Lanesborough shortly," Mycroft told Sherlock and a bemused Lestrade. "Good afternoon."

He pulled John discreetly across the polished floor, out the glass doors, and into the spring afternoon. As they walked to the black town car idling at the curb, neither of them spoke, but the air between them was dense with an anticipation that felt positively electric.

Seeing them approach, Anthea emerged from the car and held the rear passenger door open. She winked at John before nodding respectfully at her boss. John slid into the dark interior, where the smell of polished leather was quickly replaced by the scent that he'd come to associate exclusively with Mycroft: freshly dry-cleaned wool suit, premium cologne, and body heat amplified by a constantly working mind. When the seat shifted under Mycroft's weight, John shuddered.

"John," Mycroft said gently.

That dulcet voice made him shiver again. John glanced toward the front seat, and remembered that dark bulletproof glass separated the two sections of the vehicle, giving them semi-privacy. "I don't know what I'm doing," he finally blurted. "I only know that I... I have feelings for you. I don't understand why it's all come upon me now-"

"Has it really? Not from my perspective."

Mycroft didn't need to elaborate. John knew how emotionally dependent he'd become on the elder Holmes during the months prior to Sherlock's return. But this burning need was different. He'd felt it before, but never for a man.

"Please," John whispered, "show me what to do."

In response, Mycroft leaned toward him and laid a reassuring hand above his knee. "Of course."

He remained motionless, expression patient but blue eyes alight, until John's breathing evened out. Then he gently grasped John's chin and claimed his mouth in a warm, possessing kiss. John gasped as one strong thigh draped over both of his, holding him in place without immobilizing him completely. Then John yielded to impulse and returned the kiss, his fingers burying themselves in that sleekly styled hair. Mycroft groaned deep in his throat, wrapped his arms around John, and drew him closer.

It was different from kissing Sarah, Jeanette, and John's other flings. But at that point John just stopped questioning the wisdom or rationality of what he was feeling.

"This is insane," John murmured. "I'm not into blokes. I'm not gay. I-"

Mycroft put a hand to his lips. "Stop applying labels. They're useless, and self-defeating. Just go with what you feel."

John did. He lowered his hands from Mycroft's hair and touched the other man's chest. Beneath the linen shirt and wool waistcoat, he detected a quivering.

"You're trembling," he said in wonder.

"This is new territory for me too, John. You know by now that I'm not exactly the Ice Man. I've been with men before, but for… assignments during my MI6 days." He licked his lips. "Never with anyone I really cared about."

They kissed again, slowly, tentatively. Mycroft leaned forward, pressing John onto his back on the seat. John found his bulk strangely comforting.

When their lips parted, he said huskily, "How did you get Sherlock to let this happen without a fight?"

"Oh, there was a fight. But eventually he accepted one reassuring reality."

"Which is?"

"He's always going to be the focus of your life, John. Just not your heart."

They said and did nothing further, just laid there until the car stopped and Anthea piped, "The Lanesborough, sir." Then they slowly disentangled themselves.

"I'll come up with you so you can pack a bag," Mycroft said as he straightened his suit and tie. "We leave London as soon as Sherlock and Gregory return and get ready."

"Huh?" John's fingers paused on his shirt buttons. "Where are we going?"

"To Exeter."

"Out in Devon? Why?"

"Our agency has its first case." He picked up his briefcase and umbrella. "Come- I'll explain in the suite."

Chapter Text

Promise to the Living

 

Lanesborough patrons turned to look as they crossed the ornate lobby and waited for the lift. John spied their reflection in a gilt-edged mirror and noticed that he and Mycroft glowed, like they'd done more in the car then just snog and cuddle. He was still staring at it when Mycroft's fingers laced through his and grasped tightly.

"We'll take our time, John," he murmured.

John squeezed back. He was grateful for the other man's understanding. So much of this felt strange because he didn't know what the protocols were. When he was in love before, he'd taken the girls to dinner, bought them flowers, and in general treated them like princesses. How was he supposed to court Mycroft? Treat him like a prince when he already had more power and money than the Royal Family en masse?

Mycroft, as usual, knew what he was thinking. "Just be you, John. I neither want nor desire anything else."

The suite was empty. Lestrade and Sherlock were still at lunch (even if only one of them was probably eating), and Mycroft explained with a wink, "Mrs. Hudson has been working so hard that my assistant booked her an afternoon at the spa downstairs."

They entered the sitting room and sat side by side on the sofa. When Mycroft's knee brushed John's thigh, they both went still. After taking a deep breath, the elder Holmes opened his briefcase, extracted a file, and held it out.

"It seems that the devil has returned to Devon," he said.

John opened the bulging dossier and willed himself to concentrate.

What he read made his brow furrow. On the morning of February 8, 1855, hoof-like marks appeared in the freshly fallen snow throughout Devon County, with a few sightings also being reported in nearby Dorset. The footprints, which resembled those of a horse, travelled in a single line, precluding them from being of equine origin. What was even more mysterious was that the tracks would lead toward a house or haystack, stop, and then reappear on the other side. Some residents claimed to have seen a sinister figure in the area, but a mass hunt turned up nothing.

"Seems like a superstitious hysteria, doesn't it?" Mycroft commented. "But turn the page."

John did, and found a classified government report dated yesterday, with color photos attached.

Earlier in the week, footprints similar to those reported in 1855 appeared in the village of Woolsery in North Devon. Instead of snow, the marks showed up in muddy laneways and even a segment of newly laid cement in the village itself. John peered closely at the photos, observing that the tracks were small –three inches wide by four inches long at most- and they looked like tiny hoof prints. They also traveled in a perfectly linear fashion, which no four-legged animal could have done. One young woman insisted she'd seen a devil-like creature with spindly legs hopping along a laneway where marks were later found.

"It was written up in the Fleet Street dailies," Mycroft said. "A few paranormal groups are out there, studying the marks left in the cement, but most people think it's a hoax."

"I agree." John put the file on the coffee table. "So why are you saying this is our first case?"

Mycroft reclined against the cushions and steepled his fingertips. "My office has long suspected that this area is being cultivated as a weapons depot site for Black Cell. It's remote and mostly farmland, making thorough video surveillance problematic. A week before these prints appeared, we received word that men were seen unloading a small boat on an isolated shoreline near Plymouth. The party who witnessed it told the local police that the cargo looked like machine weaponry. The police uncovered nothing, of course."

"Of course," John said.

"This wouldn't be the first time a resurrected legend was employed as a frightening distraction for something ominous."

"I know." John nodded. "Baskerville."

"Just so."

A pause. Then John asked, "So you really think there could be more to this than just a prank?"

"We'll soon find out. We leave after Sherlock and Gregory return and get ready."

John nodded again. He wiped his dampening palms on his jeans and shifted to face Mycroft. Heart thudding again, he whispered, "How much time do you reckon we have before they get back?"

Mycroft took one look and easily saw it all: the dilating pupils that signaled John's arousal, the fear and desire that made the smaller man's face alternately blush and go pale. Those searching blue eyes drifted lower and, seeing further proof of John's imminent loss of control, grasped his hand and stood.

"They'll be awhile," he said gently. "Come with me."

******

John had sworn once, not so long ago, that he could never trust a man who sold out his own brother to an arch-criminal. Now, after trial and repentance and forgiveness, he trusted Mycroft enough to lie back on the man's bed after a slow and careful undressing and preparation, and surrender his body.

When he felt the slow and steady burn, which was accompanied by endearments gasped hotly against his neck, he sighed and wrapped his arms around those broad, sweaty shoulders. A bit of shifting and soothing and then Mycroft angled his movements to send sudden shocks of pleasure through John's body. When John cried out, Mycroft did it again and again, until they were shaking and moaning and convulsing in synchronized release.

Afterward, when exhaustion left them boneless, the elder Holmes whispered, "Thank you" into John's sweaty hair.

John turned his head on the pillow and brushed a stray red hair off Mycroft's damp cheek. "No, thank you. For saving me. For everything."

"Life can surprise us, John. That day we spoke in the warehouse, when I asked you what your intentions were regarding my brother, who would have thought this would come to pass?" Mycroft waved a hand over them both. "I certainly didn't, probably because I didn't want to have those feelings for anyone. I had, and still have, responsibilities that prevent the usual domestic arrangements."

John understood. "I know that we'll never live under the same roof. Or marry, even. And I'm fine with that, honestly. I have responsibilities too, namely Sherlock. I could never leave him on his own."

"And I wouldn't want you to. You and Sherlock complete each other. When I reassured him on that front, he calmed somewhat, although he still wasn't happy. The backhanded endorsement he gave us at Scotland Yard took effort on his part." Mycroft sighed. "But when he sees that I'm not moving you into my town house or setting up a permanent outpost at Baker Street, he'll come around."

John hesitated. "Do you think he sees this as a betrayal?"

"He knows you'd never betray him. He's merely going to be more difficult and demanding than usual until he realizes that your friendship won't change."

They would have said more, but the suite door outside opened. After a brief hesitation, they heard Sherlock call out in edgy tones, "John, come here. Now. I told you I need your help with an experiment. Mycroft, you can stay in there. For the rest of your life, ideally."

"Charming, Sherlock," Lestrade chided.

"He'll be doing this for awhile," Mycroft grumbled as he sat up and reached for his trousers. "Just bite your tongue and bear it."

"I do nothing but bite my tongue around him. I'm surprised I have one left."

"Let me see." The elder Holmes smirked playfully as he turned around, grabbed John's face, and kissed him. "Yes. Investigation confirms the presence of an intact tongue."

"JOHN!" Sherlock hollered, this time with a faintly anxious undertone.

"Christ almighty." John hopped out of bed and pulled his trousers up. "Calm down, I'm coming!"

Mycroft laughed. "Go deal with the devil outside, and then we'll prepare to confront the one in Devon. There's no time to waste. As my dear brother is often fond of saying- the game is afoot."