"All right, mate?"
The cabbie has every right to wonder. They've arrived, after all. They're in front of 221B Baker Street, and John is simply sitting, staring straight ahead, giving no indication he's going anywhere.
He's a fly caught in amber, a fossil in stone. He can't move.
The cabbie turns, an expression of growing concern replacing his impatient scowl.
"Give us just a mo', please," John mutters. He pulls out his mobile with grim determination, as if he's drawing his sidearm.
Mrs Hudson's greeting is warm and grounding, but it doesn't hold the key to unlock his traitorous legs. He kneads a hard fist into his thigh and imagines a bruise blossoming beneath the sturdy denim.
"Hello, Mrs Hudson."
"Oh, John. It's good of you to ring." After a beat, "I came across some things, dear. Tidying up."
Not packing, bless her. Nothing so final.
"Detective things, you know, mementos from your cases," she continues. "I thought… well, he'd want you to have them. I put them in a box for you."
He squeezes his eyes shut.
Those few tragic seconds play before him in continual loop, projected against the dark screen of his eyelids. Sherlock's spreading his arms, pitching forward, falling…
When he opens his eyes once more, he's grateful that Mrs Hudson doesn't know he's sitting there, just outside her door, paralysed. The fingers that clutch his mobile are shaking.
"I can't," he manages at last, not even finishing the thought, not naming what it is he can't do. "Not. Just. Now."
There's understanding and sympathy in her pause as well as grief. He can hear them above the sound of his own forced, measured breaths.
"Of course, dear." Her voice grows hushed as she agrees. "There's no hurry."
The doctor in John whispers that deep cuts bleed out or fester if not quickly tended. The soldier shouts him down, exhorting John not to confuse a wise tactical retreat with surrender.
There will be other opportunities for this battle. There's no need to send the wounded to the front line today.
When he speaks again, his words are for the cabbie, not Mrs Hudson.
"Take me back. Now. Please."
She's hugging herself so tightly she can scarcely draw breath.
There are words she must get out – she can feel them rising up to choke her, sharp and agonising, like razorblades in her throat – and she prays to God she hasn't missed him, she's not too late.
A young man is planted outside the DI's door. He looks bloody miserable there. The new lad: yes, of course it's him. Lestrade has too much history with anyone else.
The higher-ups might be celebrating the chance to see the back of Lestrade for a time, but they're in the minority. The rank and file of the Yard show him the kind of respect that's won over time, not freely given. Sally doubts another officer could be found on the premises willing to escort him to the exit.
This man – boy, really – shifts from foot to foot as she approaches, as if he feels guilty for following the orders he's received.
She pretends he isn't there and peers over his shoulder into the empty room. It looks exactly as it did before Lestrade left. Before that message from St Bart's drained all colour from his face and sent him running.
No, her first impression wasn't quite accurate: the office doesn't look exactly the same. A cardboard box sits on his desk atop the stack of papers.
"I'm sorry, Sergeant," the young man blurts out. "He's already gone."
She's damned if she knows what her next move is.
Hell, she's damned anyway, isn't she?
He seems to take her silence as an invitation to unburden himself. "They said to tell him he could take his personal effects with him. I brought the box. But."
"But," she prods.
"He said his case files and notes aren't just personal, they're his life." He fidgets, and Sally fights the urge to slap him. "Those stay here, you know. He'll have no access. Protocol. I told him so, and he… he just walked off. Told me to bin anything that was left. Said it didn't matter."
She gazes back into the familiar room – not just vacant now, but soulless, and it's her doing, God help her – and she swallows.
Personal effects. Like a litany, she recites the list to herself. There's a dark tie he keeps in the left-hand bottom drawer of his desk. He wears it to funerals, and to visits with bereaved families when delivering bad news, and to meetings with superiors when receiving bad news.
Beside it there's an empty picture frame Sally salvaged from the rubbish bin after removing the photo of his ex-wife. The glass is broken, but it's quite a nice frame. She's hoped someday he'll have need of it again. Molly in the morgue always has a smile for him, it seems.
God knows he deserves…
His stash of nicotine patches and emergency cigarettes migrates according to his mood and need, but it's somewhere in there.
On top of the file cabinet sits the mug she got him for his last birthday, the one that reads "London's Finest." It mocks her from its solitary perch.
Before she knows what she's doing, she presses her hand to the glass of the door.
"Sergeant," the man says.
She ignores him.
It matters not one whit that the others don't speak. He can hear them thinking. Of course he can.
He can hear them reading the headline to themselves, rolling the words off their mental tongues, tasting its scandal: "Suicide of Fake Genius."
The Diogenes Club resounds with the silent echoes of its members' scorn and contempt for his baby brother, a man none of them is worthy to judge.
There is far more to the story than even this intelligentsia knows. Then again, Mycroft muses, there always is.
In Mycroft's mind there are many mansions; he enters the distant one on the horizon and follows a labyrinth of stairways and corridors to an underground chamber that houses a secret, soundproofed room.
Hardly a room. A cell, rather. A box.
Access requires a retinal scan, a digital fingerprint, and the recitation of an arcane code phrase in both Classical Latin and Old English.
He folds his long bulk into the cramped compartment and seals the door behind him.
In that most hidden space, Mycroft screams.
His hands are thrust deep into his pockets. His shoulder rests against the wall. He's not hunched, exactly, but braced, as if unsure of his welcome. His gaze is fixed on the pavement as she opens the door.
"Mrs Hudson." He straightens and nods his head in that respectful way he has outside of crisis moments, giving the impression of a bow. Then his eyes are on hers, dark and shadowed and more than a bit bloodshot. "How are you?"
"Oh, you know, dear," she says. "As well as can be expected."
She doesn't return the kindness of the question, because it's clear that he can't say the same.
She's no consulting detective, true, but she can deduce from his unshaven face and his casual trousers and shirt that he isn't on the job. That's another aftershock from the recent tragedy, she guesses.
For someone who lives for his work as the detective inspector so evidently does – she knows that sort well, doesn't she? – exclusion from it must be a form of slow torture, if not death. Especially now, with so many unanswered questions, so much that wants explaining.
She regrets handing him disappointment. He has the look of a man who needs no more of it.
"I'm sorry, Detective In—"
"Greg," he offers.
"—Greg, but John's not here. He's… taking some time away. I can get you his temporary address, if you like."
"No. No, actually, I knew he's gone. I thought I'd drop by to see how you were getting on." His shrug is somewhat self-conscious as he runs a hand through his silvering hair. "To ask if you need anything."
"Oh, that's very kind of you, dear."
It's good of him to trouble himself, but she realises what he, perhaps, does not: he's the one in need. He's here because he doesn't know where else to go, what else to do with himself.
The signs are all too familiar. Hardly the first broken man to turn up on her doorstep, is he?
Her boys. They'd healed from their past hurts so well, each growing stronger in his own way, it seemed, and growing together in the process.
Then one fell from the roof of St Bart's, and three shattered.
She recalls Lestrade at Sherlock's funeral, at the morgue as John related the confusion of Sherlock's last message, here at Baker Street on the terrible evening of the arrest…
The thought of that night nearly moves her to tears.
And if it affects her that way…
"Right then," Lestrade says into the awkward silence. He withdraws one step, then another, broad shoulders sagging. "Good to see you. I'll just—"
Oh no, this won't do.
"He knew. Sherlock," she interrupts. "John told me that you rang to warn him that night. You'd never have done it if you doubted him. If I can see that, dear, you can be certain he did."
Lestrade goes perfectly still. Then he slumps, seemingly fascinated by the sight of his own shoes.
"That message he told John to give us – what was he thinking? I can't imagine – was meant to convince us. Because he knew we still believed in him, you and I. He knew."
Perhaps she's crossed some line of propriety, but age has its privileges, and she trusts her instincts about this. She can't mend the situation, but she'll do what she can to mend its other survivors.
Finally he turns a searching gaze on her. "You think so?"
"I do," she says.
He nods and ducks his head.
"Thanks." One simple, gruff word.
"And as for what I need, Greg," she says, extending her hand to him, "I need some company for tea. You'll join me, won't you? I do insist."
At that, he attempts a smile.
She wipes her eyes as he follows her inside.
He pales at the sight of Sherlock's freshly-washed test tubes and beakers in boxes on her kitchen table. Without being asked, he stacks them neatly in a corner, handling each with the fierce protectiveness due a newborn child.
He likes to call them "boltholes," these invisible pockets of safe haven he has secreted about the city. They're grotty flats and dismal bedsits wedged into dark corners where no respectable citizen would wish to peer for long, camouflaged by general deterioration and not-so-benign neglect.
They're just the thing when Sherlock needs to disappear for a time, to conduct his hunt from a private base of operations.
Mycroft discovered a few of them years ago during one of his more infuriatingly interventionist periods, instantly ending their usefulness. Sherlock hasn't yet forgiven his big brother for that.
Lestrade stumbled upon another on a night Sherlock doesn't recall too clearly; he resents this intrusion rather less, although he'll never admit it, since the good detective inspector's interference alone likely kept Sherlock from becoming one more of many junkies who'd overdosed and died in that particular ruin of a building.
This is one of the oldest of his boltholes; it has survived Mycroft's meddling and Lestrade's do-goodery and his own various experiments with the most effective ways to make untraceable use of the family funds.
It's now paid for itself, many times over.
It smells of dust and disuse and less wholesome things, but Sherlock isn't fussed. His thoughts are decidedly elsewhere.
Primarily on the safety of three ordinary, boring, brilliant individuals.
His tasks are as straightforward as they are challenging: collect new data, analyse the power dynamics within Moriarty's now-leaderless organisation, and make certain key figures from said organisation are dead.
Only then can Sherlock be sure those three lives are no longer at risk.
To focus on this driving imperative, he fights to ignore the inconvenient and shockingly potent emotions he scarcely admits to himself: the loss and loneliness he feels at the severing of those three ties, the regret at the pain he's caused. The anguish of this caring lark.
He fights to ignore the mental image of Lestrade slumped at his desk, Mrs Hudson collapsed at home, and John, his John, splayed on the pavement at his feet. Lifeless.
He also fights to ignore the small box under the fourth floorboard behind the bed that promises to make the burden of his new existence bearable. The box is still there, after all this time, singing its siren song with exquisite clarity. Sherlock appreciates that he could open it and disappear in every sense, and his three friends would carry on without him, and it would be so simple…
It won't happen. He has investigations to conduct, plans to make, criminals to kill.
A game to win.
A life to resume.
He drowns out the box's song with the sound of his own voice. It rises and falls in a perpetually one-sided conversation with his absent blogger.
EPILOGUE (A BONUS BOX)
It's a charming cottage, and John imagines it will require little effort to make it feel like home.
As he waits for the kettle to boil, he wanders to the sitting room. He's found the perfect spot for his desk, near enough to the fire to be cosy on winter evenings. Perhaps he'll finally do as Greg often suggests and edit his old blog posts into book form.
For now a maze of boxes dominates the space. If he doesn't unpack them, the chore won't be done. The beehives have Sherlock's full attention.
He turns to the nearest box and peels back its flaps.
And he is ambushed.
He stares. Time passes.
"John?" The pitch of Sherlock's voice suggests he's already said the name several times.
With a deep breath, John pulls himself back to the present. "Look what I found." He holds his discovery up for inspection.
"The ear hat, John? Really."
"I don't suppose there's much call for deerstalking 'round the apiary."
"None at all, actually."
"Right." John continues to study the hat in his hand, even when his vision goes a bit blurry.
"John?" Softer this time.
"I asked you, you know." After several heartbeats, John blinks up at his friend. It's an old man's self-indulgence, this, but he is an old man, after all, and he reckons he's earned it. "For one more miracle. And you gave it to me."
Sherlock considers him with a pale-eyed, unreadable expression, then shifts his weight, clears his throat, and twitches his long, manic fingers. "Yes. Well. I asked you for a cup of tea. It seems one of us must live with disappointment."
For a moment neither speaks. At last John shakes his head.
"You," John says in a solemn tone, "are an idiot."
And there it is, that half-mad grin that John would follow anywhere.