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Walking with Azrael

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Chapter 1 – The Fall

“That is what people do, don’t they? Leave a note?”

John’s stomach lurched, the meaning behind Sherlock’s words suddenly becoming all too apparent.  A surge of adrenaline flooded through his endocrine system, making his heart race; it hammered painfully in his chest, feeling like a shard of glass slicing into his ribcage. Everything could hinge on what he said now, only at that particular moment he couldn’t even breathe properly, let alone speak. The words caught in the back of his throat, captured up with little gasps of air and making an odd stuttering sound. He tried desperately to compose himself and run through his command training: think rationally, assess the situation, take in all the known parameters and then choose the best course of action. Except what was the fucking best course of action? He swallowed hard, his mouth completely dry. Deflect and distract.

“Leave a note, when?” he feigned ignorance, trying to prevaricate.

“Goodbye John.”

What? No, stop. None of this made sense. What the hell had happened? He knew Sherlock. Knew he hadn’t made everything up. Why was he doing this? Please, just don’t let this be happening. John closed his eyes momentarily to steady himself. He had to take back control of the situation and get Sherlock down from up there, or at least away from the edge. How? What was he supposed to say? He futilely searched for the words that might engage that brilliant mind and keep it focused on him for a few seconds more. Just long enough to break through and find a path back from whatever abyss the idiot had convinced himself he was looking into.

The figure on the roof stood balanced on the parapet. Impotently John reached out a hand, “No, don’t…” It was all playing out so fast. Think John, THINK. Christ.

“Sherlock!”

Then he fell: time contracting and expanding in a single instant.

John tracked the path of his descent; an awkward and ungainly arch, long limbs flailing in the air and that ridiculous coat flapping in the slipstream. It was ugly, desolate and so very lonely. And he should have been able to stop it.

He never saw the body land, but he heard it, a dull sickening thud and muffled crack. In that moment he knew that nothing in his life would ever be truly remarkable again.

 

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Chapter 2 – Stunned

John had been sitting for hours in the empty flat, listening to the tick of the clock and trying to blot out the noise of the press camped outside on the street below. Images of the fall played constantly through his mind. He kept re-living that final conversation. Going over and over what was said, wondering if at any time a different tone, a different intonation or a subtle change in inflection, might have resulted in Sherlock sitting right here next to him. Such self-emollition was ultimately pointless, he knew that, but he just couldn’t stop. He needed to put it all back together again: to step outside this miasma of loss, if only for a moment.

Of course he had seen death before. As an army doctor on active service he had seen far more than his fair share, and much of it considerably more gruesome than a shattered skull on a London pavement. There had been men blown apart by antipersonnel devices or roadside bombs: some still conscious, their torsos thrashing about wildly though their limbs were a haemorrhaging mass of bloody ribbons.  Countless gunshot and shrapnel wounds - red hot twisted metal embedded in too pale flesh. And battlefield infections, slower and more insidious but just as effective - death carried bone deep in putrification.  In fact, the vast myriad of ways concocted to shatter, rupture, exsanguinate and burn the human body never ceased to amaze him.  If nothing else, Iraq, and later Afghanistan, had instilled in him the fragility and transitory nature of the corporeal. That life could be blinked out in an instant by the click of a detonator or the staccato of gunfire.

He had lost friends before too. On the second week of his first tour of Basra, a transporter had been hit by a mortar, taking out a whole medical team: paramedic, doctor and three nurses. He’d known the doctor, a bloke called Alex, since basic training at Otterburn. They had spent many a drunken night together out on the town in nearby Newcastle, trying desperately to pull some pretty university student by convincing them there was a world of difference between medics and squaddies. Invariably, their amorous attempts had failed and the evening ended by downing metallic tasting larger in an Indian restaurant with wallpaper the colour of afterbirth. 

Alex’s remains had been shipped back to the barracks in a body bag, together with those of the rest of the team; the fragments of flesh and bone too charred and indistinguishable to be identified separately. John could clearly remember the shock of that first loss. How he had trembled from head to foot for half an hour after they had unloaded the bodies from the helicopter, feelings of loss and fear knotting together in his stomach. Gradually, over the subsequent months and years he had learnt to deal with death, had almost grown used to it. Like almost every other serviceman he knew, including his father, he had learnt to bury everything deep and never let it surface. It kept you safe.

As for friends, after Alex he never really allowed himself the liability of friends. Colleagues yes, and even mates, but not friends. Never anyone he would think twice about once his discharged papers had been stamped. It wasn’t callous, it was just self preservation. But then Sherlock had come along and muddied the waters.

Images of the fall came flooding back, unbidden, into his mind: the eerie silence of the descent; his own desperation to get over to the crumpled figure on the ground; the feeling of time slowing down; the bike running into him; hitting his head; the impenetrable wall of people; searching hopelessly for a pulse, flesh limp and lifeless; arms pulling him away; people blocking his vision; snatches of white pavement framing dark, matted hair. And blood, blood seeping everywhere, pooling and congealing. Blood thick, dark and visceral. John’s breath caught in his throat. He screwed his eyes shut tight and pushed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, the pressure blocking out the images in bursts of yellow light behind his eyelids.

He felt cold and clammy, his head spinning and his breath shallow. He knew it was shock. That his circulator system was working overtime, futilely preparing him for either flight or fight. At Bart’s they had tried to keep him in overnight for observation - particularly given the blow to his head - but he had refused, discharging himself against medical advice. He’d be alright. He just needed to calm down and keep warm. He was in shock: in shock but without a blanket. A memory seeped into his head of Sherlock sitting in the ambulance outside the FE college on the night of their first case together, a scarlet blanket draped around his shoulders and look of bemusement on his face. Soon after, he had watched this strange man fold himself into a taxi while talking ten-to-the dozen in adrenaline fuelled frenzy. John had been wired too, swept along by the mood.

It was odd to think now that he had taken his part in someone’s death so coolly then. With a clean conscience, he and Sherlock had headed off to a surprisingly good Chinese, returning to Baker Street sometime in the early hours of Sunday morning. Trying desperately to be quiet, John had stumbled in the dark, upsetting the recycling bin and sending bottles clattering to the ground. It had woken the sleeping Mrs Hudson who, Kraken-like, had berated them from her bedroom window, claiming that they were making enough noise to ‘wake the dead’.

“I sincerely hope not,” Sherlock uttered in a poor stage whisper, “I wouldn’t much fancy meeting that cabbie again.” 

After much over-emphasised ‘shushing’ while the key was fitted in the lock, followed by a scherzo of creaks as they failed to creep up the stairs silently, they had eventually made it back to the flat. That had been their first night as flatmates, and the two of them had sat up talking until morning - Sherlock energised and manic. Looking back on it, John had probably found out more about the man in that one evening than over the course of the subsequent two years. Sherlock had been his usual arrogant, self-opinionated and infuriating self, but John had found him strangely compelling. Maybe it was his blazing intensity, which hinted at times of a high fever, but had an astonishing clarity of focus which was, frankly, disconcerting. Whatever the cause, John realised the following day, as he tried to navigate his way back across London to pick up his things, that the friend embargo had most definitely been lifted.

But that was all over now. Sherlock, you stupid fucking idiot, John thought. What had been so truly terrible that they couldn’t have solved it together? Why had he been sent off on a wild goose chase to help the, supposedly, dying Mrs Hudson? That had obviously been Sherlock’s doing, though John had no idea how.

Not for the first time, he felt a pang of regret at the bitterness of their last proper conversation together, of calling his friend a ‘machine’. He should have sensed that something was wrong then. That there was no way Sherlock would have ignored a threat to Mrs Hudson, but John had been too quick to jump to conclusions, too willing to see the calculating sociopath that everyone else had come to expect. Sherlock had played that doubt against him. Had that been the final straw? Had it been a test? Is that why the idiot had felt unable to confide in him? It had never been easy to understand what was sparking across that baffling brain. Sherlock’s emotions were a foreign language which John had only just begun to decipher, although most of the time he still felt he hadn’t progressed much beyond basic greetings and asking the way to the railway station.

Sucking at his bottom lip to deflect the sudden surge of emotion that threatened to overwhelm him, John steadied himself. He had to stop this: had to get a grip. He was frightened that if he didn’t sort it out then he would be right back where he had been after the attack in Khandahar. His hands trembled at the thought of those months of night terrors. No, he owed it to Sherlock not to let himself return to that state again. He had to get it together.

He drew his hands down across his face, tenting his fingertips together beneath his nose, his palms a short distance apart; a gesture inadvertently picked up from the Holmes brothers. Inhaling and exhaling slowly, he blew air across his index and forefinger.

“Right then, time to stop stewing,” he said out loud, hauling himself out of the armchair.

His knee was stiff as he stood, a twinge of pain shooting up into his thigh. Gingerly, he put his weight onto it and winced, before limping off awkwardly in the direction of the cluttered kitchen.

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Chapter 3 – Doubts

Four days later and the press were still outside. He leaned against the wall, his fingers interleafed between the closed curtains, opening them just enough to catch a glimpse of the commotion below.  Suddenly a battery of flash guns went off and the pack jostled forward, each elbowing the others out of the way to get as close as possible to the front. Next thing he knew, several of the journalists were recoiling back, and one of the TV cameras shorted out with a loud bang and a shower of sparks.

“Go on, get out of it all of you. It isn’t decent, hounding the poor man like this. You’re like a pack of dogs. Get away with you, or it won’t be just water next time!”

Craning his neck, John could just see Mrs Hudson standing on the step, a red plastic mop-bucket in her hand. He smiled and watched her retreat back inside the house, hearing the latch click and her sharp little steps hammering up the stairs.

Can I come in dear?” she asked, knocking gently on the door.

“It’s open,” he called back.

The door knob twisted and she walked smartly into the room.  “It’s shocking the way they carry on out there. They have no respect. And poor Sherlock’s barely cold...” she tailed off. “It’s just not right. Those awful things they’ve been saying about him. They shouldn’t be allowed to print such things…its just…”

A sob caught in the back of her throat and she raised her hand up to her face, snuffling her nose in the balled up tissue she held in her fist. He took a step towards her but she waved him away, spinning on her heel and marching off to the table on the other side of the room, where she busied herself putting things into boxes.

She had been doing that off and on for the past couple of days but nothing really seemed to have changed in the room. Every surface was still littered with Sherlock’s ephemera: a half eaten apple; several cups of black coffee (mostly half drunk); a dog-eared edition of Das Sprach Zarathusta and a slightly singed copy of Huysmann’s  À rebours; a well worn block of dark bow rosin; several screwed up packets of Quavers; test tube racks filled with an assortment of coloured liquids, and a copy of Murder on the Orient Express with the word ‘Boring’ scrawled across the cover in Sherlock’s unmistakable easy-flowing hand. John knew that, like him, she really couldn’t bear to part with a single piece of it. Still, this ‘sorting’ seemed to offer her some comfort, so he left her to it and sat down in front of his laptop. 

Mrs Hudson was right; the press really had gone to town on Sherlock. It seems that there is nothing that Joe Public likes more than a nice lurid tale of human failing, especially when it concerns a celebrity. After all, they had created the Reichenbach hero and, as such, their faux indignation and injured righteousness knew no bounds. John had tried to warn him that the press would turn, they always did, but despite his insouciance, Sherlock just couldn’t resist an audience. He had basked in all the attention; a mass following of acolytes holding onto his every word. Lord, did he love to show off. 

True to the old adage, with pride there had come the inevitable fall. The ‘fans’ turned on him in an instant, the press fuelling the fires of public vicissitude, having had nothing so explosive since the MP expenses scandal. They pandered to the nation’s sense of outrage with headlines like: ‘Reichenbach hero is a fraud’ - The Times; ‘Consulting detective thought to be hoax’ - The Telegraph; ‘Shylock Homes: victim or villein’ - The Guardian, and his own personal favourite, ‘You’re S*!T Sherlock’ - The Sun. No, they weren’t dogs; at least dogs were capable of loyalty. This lot were bloody jackals and the carcass of Sherlock’s reputation was being ripped apart between them. 

At least he had brought Moriarty crushing down with him. In the eyes of the public if Sherlock was a psychopathic con-man, or at best a deluded fantasist, then Moriarty - the greatest criminal mastermind the world had ever known – was little more than a figment of a warped imagination. He had been reduced to a character in a plot: a fairytale told by a madman. Oh Sherlock, that was a stroke of genius, to use his own stratagem against him. John had to appreciate the elegance of such retribution, the sheer bloody poetry of it.  He still half expected the door to bang open and Sherlock to stride in with a flourish spouting, ‘Smoke and mirrors John, nothing but smoke and mirrors,’ but that was never going to happen. 

Mycroft, as next of kin, had identified the body - thank Christ, because John just couldn’t have faced it. But there had been no mistaking that crumpled, broken figure on the pavement. God knows, the image was frozen in his mind with crystal clarity. He had gone over and over it a thousand times, looking for a spark of hope, yet always drawing the same conclusion. Sherlock was dead. He wasn’t coming back. 

One of the things that gnawed away at John the most was most was why Sherlock had tried to convince him it was all just a complex lie. Did he really expect John to sell out to the press?  ‘Tell anyone who will listen’. Well, fuck that! Even if it had been true - and he knew absolutely it was not - then did he really think John would hand his reputation over on a plate to be mauled by that lot? Whatever Sherlock had been - whatever - he was still his friend: his greatest friend. Christ, for someone with an IQ off of the scale he was bloody thick if he didn’t know that. 

It slowly dawned on John that maybe Sherlock hadn’t been so sure. ‘Alone is what I have, alone protects me,’ had he really believed that? Felt that in the end John would turn on him like everyone else? It was that thought which would keep him awake at nights. That if only he had been able to tell Sherlock when it mattered, instead of leaving it too late, then maybe he could have talked him down from the parapet. John stared off into the middle distance. ‘If ifs and buts were fruit and nuts then we’d all have a Merry Christmas,’ Harry’s needling childhood voice floated into his head, but he couldn’t help it, he physically ached with regret for the things left unspoken. 

Hunching over the laptop, he rested his head in his hands. 

“John, love,” Mrs Hudson touched his shoulder, concern etched on her face. “Are you ok?” 

“What?” he startled. “Yes, yes, Mrs H, I’m fine. I was just…” he let the sentence peter out, not really sure what he was just doing. 

 “Oh, my dear, it really does get better you know. It may not seem like it now, but one day you’ll wake up in it won’t feel so…,” she floundered, “it won’t feel so raw. Then the next day will be slightly better still and then, in time, you’ll be able to remember all the good things. That was what it was like when my first husband died. You just have to let it take its own time.” She squeezed his shoulder reassuringly. 

"Mrs Hudson, we weren’t...” She looked at him quizzically, waiting for the end of the sentence. He smiled sadly, “You know what? It really doesn’t matter.” 

She lent forward and kissed the top of his head. “I am going to give you some time on your own dear, but you know where I am if you want a bit of company.”  

He nodded and, giving his shoulder one more quick squeeze, she left the room.  

Once the door had closed behind her, he took a deep ragged breath and, with resolve, opened the lid of the laptop and flicked it on. It whirred through its start-up routine, a dialogue box scrolling onto the screen requesting his password. He didn’t know why he even bothered to use one since Sherlock always managed to crack it sooner or later. It had become an exasperating game between them, John using more and more obscure references but, no matter how tenuous the link, the bastard would always be able to hack into it. He’d then delight in dropping not so subtle hints that would prove he’d been rifling through the hard drive. In retaliation, John had recently started to create locked files with names like ‘Piss of Sherlock’ and ’10 reasons to look for a new flatmate’.   

The machine finally finished booting. Despite himself, John couldn’t fight the urge to log onto Sherlock’s website, ‘The Science of Deduction’. Though he knew it was impossible, he still half-hoped that there might be a message waiting for him, some hidden clue to say that Sherlock was not really dead but that this was all part of some convoluted plan. John gnawed at his bottom lip while he waited for the site to load. An error message blinked up onto the screen telling him the URL link was missing or broken. His heart sank; it was as if another little bit of Sherlock had been rubbed out. Mycroft had almost certainly had the site taken down in an attempt to preserve what little remained of his brother’s reputation. John’s own blog had been hacked several times over the last few days and old entries peppered with vitriolic comments like: ‘Fucking lying arse bandit. It’s a bloody good thing he’s dead,’ and a few entries later, ‘You should follow that piece of shit over the edge, you fucking nonce.’   

John thought seriously for a moment about just switching the damn thing off. Nevertheless, there remained the small hope of a message sent to his personal email account. Steering clear of the web and its torrent of strap lines, he scoured through the hundreds of new entries in his inbox, looking for anything which might be a cipher or a clue. Most of it was further abuse, alongside a handful of messages of condolence. He was just about to switch off, when one name caught his eye: Bethany.Stapleton@brc.mod.uk. Adjusting the tilt of the screen slightly, he double-clicked to open the message. 

Subject: Death of Mr S Holmes  

Dear Dr Watson,  

My daughter, Kirsty, has insisted that I write to you in order to offer our condolence on the recent death of your friend and colleague, Mr Holmes. She was quite distraught when she heard the news, and we are both sorry that he felt driven to take such extreme measures.  

Kirsty is very adamant that I convey to you that she does not believe, and I quote, ‘Any of the nasty things they are saying about him on the telly,’ and that, although he was not successful in recovering Bluebell, she still believes he was, ‘A really clever man and an absolutely brilliant detective’.  

The message concluded with a few awkward platitudes, which sounded as if the writer had googled ‘In sympathy etiquette’; however, the last sentence caught his attention:  

I am sure that one day Mr Holmes will be remembered for all of his considerable achievements. For myself, I shall always be indebted to him for the memory mapping techniques he introduced me to which I have since found to be quite useful in my own work.  

Best Regards 
Bethany and Kirsty Stapleton

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Chapter 4 - Acceptance

After the funeral, John just couldn’t go back to Baker Street. He had finally faced up to the fact that there would be no sudden denouement, no graveside revelation, no waking up to find that he had dozed off in front of the fire and there was Sherlock, remarking on how deeply unattractive it was to see a grown man with drool running down his chin.

It was over. That brilliant man - his friend - was dead, and John really needed to accept it and get on with his life. He had to stop checking his phone every five minutes in the hope of a text message. Give up the relentless scrutiny of newspaper articles, train timetables and advertising hoardings. End the daily inspection of all surfaces for minute changes in accumulating dust. There was going to be no codicil, no messages written in lemon juice. The hero wouldn’t sweep in at the last moment and save the day with a dramatic swirl of his cloak. Justice didn’t need to prevail. After all, this was real life and not a Victorian crime novel. People died, and when they did, they stayed dead.

Sherlock was gone and he just had to deal with it, but he couldn’t do that at the flat. Without that tenuous hope of a resurrection, 221b Baker Street had become just a clutter shell, full of things he didn’t quite want to remember at this point in time. It was best to just walk away. His therapist didn’t agree of course. She believed that he had to face his guilt, embrace the loss and ‘experience his emotions fully’, only then could he get past them and ‘move on’. As a professional, John had the greatest respect for Dr Stewart. As a junior doctor, he had undertaken a rotation on a Pysch ward himself, and knew first-hand the physical and mental havoc that emotional stress could wreak upon the human body. Nevertheless, at this particular moment in time, he wished his esteemed colleague would shut the fuck up about ‘moving on’. If he heard the phrase again, he swore he would batter her to death with her own copy of Studies in Hysteria.

She kept trying to get him to talk to Sherlock. To say all those things he had failed to say when his friend was alive. Well, he had tried that after the funeral but it hadn’t helped. Yes, on one level he fully understood the significance of the cognitive approach she was advocating, but an appreciation of the validity of the therapy still didn’t stop him feeling like his guts had been eviscerated and stretched out in the air like the strings of an Aeolian harp. No thanks, he had he own ways of dealing with loss. It needed to be screwed down tight and packed away. It was his own personal coping mechanism and had always served him pretty well in the past.

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Chapter 5 – Breathing Space

John went to stay with Harry for a few days, though it was never going to be a long term solution. She rallied round and did her best but after a week or so she had gradually begun to drive him up the wall. Initially, it had been her over concern and mollycoddling, then, bit-by-bit, her old self obsession and negativity began to resurface. Things eventually reached a crescendo when she told him how she wished her ex was ‘bloody dead’ because that was the only way the bitch would ever stop trying to get money out of her. John didn’t reply but the flash of anger he felt was like a slap.

To be fair, pretty much everything made him angry at the moment. He hated living with his sister; hated not having anywhere to go; hated being invalided out of the army; hated south London and more than anything he hated Sherlock. He hated him for being such a selfish, egotistical, hubristic bastard who, obviously, hadn’t given a damn about anyone else when he’d thrown himself off that roof. More than once he had found himself sincerely wishing he’d never gone to the Criterion coffee bar all those months ago, because then he might not have ended up passing that bloody park bench and running into Stamford, and just maybe this whole sorry tale would have never unravelled. Thankfully, these flashes of self-indulgent misery never lasted. It wasn’t really in John’s nature to feel sorry for himself for too long. Once they had subsided he would be left with an awful feeling of guilt for days.

It was after one particularly violent outburst - when he had spiralled off into a rant because he couldn’t find his house keys - that Dr Stapleton’s email came back to him. Sitting at Harry’s kitchen table, wondering how he was going to explain the fist hole in the living room door, he remembered her comments about Sherlock’s mind mapping techniques. It struck him that if the method could be used to recall information then it might as easily be applied to forgetting, or at least temporarily mislaying, certain memories. 

Over the next few days he tried hard to put the technique into practice. Sherlock had previously spent one heinously long, and rather wet, Wednesday afternoon trying to explain the method to him. Although on that particular occasion John had ended up storming out of the flat in exacerbation, he felt he had a fairly good grasp of the basic tenets. Now he found that if he concentrated very hard on a location, he could construct the appropriate network of neural pathways necessary for the technique to work. However, for him it had to be a real place. No celestial ‘mind palace’ for John Watson then it seemed, but rather a quirky two bedroom London flat: 221b Baker Street to be exact. He smiled in a self effacing way and tried again to picture Sherlock folded up like a praying mantis in one of the armchairs. Over the next few hours, he repeatedly went over conversations, events and emotions, pinning each one down to a separate room, item or feature: the smiley face sprayed on the wall; the skull on the mantelpiece; the discarded Cluedo box; the harpoon in the corner. In this way, he ensured that every memory was assigned a safe place. That each was kept secure until the day he could face them all again. Then he locked the front door, put the key in his mental pocket, and walked away. 

The technique worked pretty well in general. Well, at least it gave him breathing space and a way to start moving on. Damn it, he was using that bloody phrase now! Sarah was also a huge help. She had come to see him soon after the funeral and they had struck up a friendship again. She’d been a real mate, never pressing him to talk, but always there if he wanted some company, despite his mood swings; and he had been pretty surly with her at times. It had actually been her idea that he should take some time away from London. Just a short break to get his head together and work out what it was he wanted to do in the long term. She had offered him more locum work if he wanted it, but they had both agreed that he needed a bit of time and distance in order to make that kind of decision. Harry - no doubt in a desperate bid to put some distance between them before a familial Armageddon broke out - suggested he should use their parent’s old place up near the Borders. He had jumped at the offer, relishing the idea of some seclusion for a while. 

Lestrade gave him the heads-up on an ex police 4 x 4 going cheap at auction, and with that packed with the few belonging Mrs Hudson had retrieved for him from the flat, he set off for Rothbury. He had always enjoyed the drive up North, especially the final part of the journey where the road skirted around the edge of the of the Northumberland hills - bleak and unforgiving but utterly beautiful. He found the wild, blasted expanse of the place immensely cathartic, although, with a hint of sadness, it reminded him a little of Dartmoor. 

By the time he reached the village it had begun to snow, not much, but it was starting to settle. His mum and dad had bought a place just on the edge of Rothbury back in the 1980s. Originally intended for family holidays, his folks had moved there permanently when his dad retired from Catterick Garrison. John had a handful of fond memories of the old place but it had never really been his home. The family had moved around a lot when he was a growing up, his dad being stationed all over the world, so John had never really developed an attachment to any single place or area. Harry had had more to do with the cottage than him, especially since their parents had died. There was evidence of her numerous visits in the hallway: two Gortex jackets hanging side-by-side to the left of the door, below which were matching pairs of hiking boots, one pair slightly more worn and larger than the other. 

The inside of the cottage was surprising warm and aired. In the small living room a fire was banked up in the grate, the embers still glowing. On the table next to the TV there were several family photographs. Central was one of him in his Fusiliers uniform, taken at his passing out parade at Sandhurst. He looked absurdly young, his parents flanking him on each side and all three squinting slightly in the bright sunlight. 

Slinging his bag down on the armchair, he hunted round for some wood to build up the fire. There was a small pile set neatly to the right of the grate, and he carefully threw on a couple of likely logs, stoking the fire back into life. After a few minutes warming his hands in front of the crackling flames, he took his coat off, threw it on his backpack and moved over to the dining room table where he noticed a bottle of red wine. There was a note propped up against it. Unfolding the crisp white paper he read the message, written in a neat schoolroom script: 

Dear John,  

Harry asked me to look in on the place and get a few things ready for you. There is milk in the fridge and bread in the cupboard. I have also put a few bits and bobs in the freezer to keep you going for a few days. Eric has chopped some wood and stacked it in the shed. There should be enough for a week or so and just give us a bell if you need any more. It looks as though the weather might turn, mind, so make sure you get yourself stocked up.  

I have left our number on the notice board. Just call if you need anything. Feel free to pop over whenever you fancy. Eric is always up for any excuse for a pint.  

All the best  

Rosabelle Weiss

He was touched by the generosity of the note and the provisions. He wasn’t sure who the Weisses were but he made mental note to call in and thank them when he felt a bit more sociable. He unscrewed the wine and glugged a generous amount out into one of the enormous glasses he had found in the kitchen cupboard. Then, settling in front of the fire, he sat staring into the flames. Outside the snow had begun falling heavily, sealing the village off and shrouding the landscape in silence.

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It snowed on and off for about two weeks; the snow drifting thick and heavy or swirling in icy torrents on a bitter north wind. On brighter days, John would take long walks across the fells, finding solace in the isolation and needle sharp air. Sitting on an outcrop of the rock, overlooking the shrouded valley below, he sometimes mustered the strength to unlock the door in his mind and venture up the stairs of 221b, where he would find Sherlock pouring over a microscope or stretched out languidly on the sofa. Steeling himself, John would try in these moments to say all of the things he never got around to saying when his friend was alive. But even in the relatively safety of his own psyche, he found such conversations awkward and stilted, and more often than not they faltered as soon as they began. Instead, he would just sit and tell Sherlock about items in the news, or small observations he thought would peak the other man’s interest: the line of stick figures drawn on the gatepost outside the Queen’s Head in Rothbury which appeared every morning but had disappeared by mid afternoon; the empty 50 gallon vat of orange concentrate - marked ‘Exportación de Valencia’ - abandoned outside the ruined barn to the north of the village, and the perfect circle of newly turned soil - approximately 60m in diameter - which had recently turned up on the west face of Tosson Hill. He could envisage Sherlock pacing around the flat, pontificating on the ‘obvious’ reason behind these strange occurrences and bewailing, yet again, the lumbering tedium of the average brain.

In the midst of these exchanges, John would sometimes question whether conducting an imaginary conversation with your dead friend – particularly one in which you were constantly insulted – was necessarily conducive to good mental health. Still, his therapist had told him to do ‘whatever felt right to get himself through’ and he couldn’t see any long-term harm in the practice. It was a mild psychosis, nothing more, although there were times when he genuinely felt that Sherlock was nearby: a palpable presence. More than once he could have sworn he had caught a glimpse of raven dark curls in the passenger seat of a passing car, or the swish of coat tails disappearing down one of the narrow village side streets.

Apparently, such hallucinations and visitation were a perfectly normal part of the grieving process, according to Dr Stewart. She had recounted how one of her patients had been so convinced that their dead husband was alive, that on their wedding anniversary had booked a room in the hotel where they had had spent their honeymoon, absolutely certain that he would turn up. Of course, the poor woman had ended up keeping a cold vigil alone and was forced in the morning to finally accept the reality of her situation. At least, thought John, he wasn’t that far gone. He just found these windswept chats a way of re-establishing a connection with the past. Of remembering Sherlock as he had been, rather than those images of the shattered body on the pavement of Bart’s. And, when the sky began to darken and the cold grew too much for him, John would make his apologies and leave the flat; mentally locking the door behind him. He would then hike back to his parent’s cottage and fall asleep, exhausted.

Chapter Text

Gradually the weather improved; the snow melting into dirty grey patches of ice on the lower slopes, though the hilltops still remained capped with white. On the second Sunday in March, John made up his mind to make a pilgrimage to the Rose and Thistle at nearby Alwinton. It was Mother’s Day, and all of the great and good of Newcastle were bound to flood into Rothbury for Sunday lunch. The prospect of so much concentrated familial forbearance was daunting, so he decided to escape into the wilds. Alwinton was located at the arse-end of nowhere and was a likely safe bet to escape the throng.

He knew the Rose and Thistle - or ‘Plant and Prickle’ as it was known - from his days at the Military of Defence training camp at Otterburn. The pub was quite some distance from the barracks, but it had been a favourite of the Northumberlands, and the venue of the legendary ‘Fighting Fifth’ versus ‘The Durhams’, darts match. This was an annual contest between the Fusiliers and the Durham Light Infantry, though, generally marked by rather more drinking than darts playing. He vividly recalled one particularly heroic session, when there had been a lock-in at the pub and not a man from the Durham’s had been left standing by one o’clock. He winced slightly, remembering the carnage that had been his head the following day. At least he had managed to escape a charge on that occasion, while a number of men from both teams had not been so lucky.

The plan was to drive the Land Rover over to Thropton, walk the eight miles to the pub, have lunch and a pint or two and then walk back and pick up the car, or maybe hitch a lift. It would be quite a hike there and back in one day, but he had been walking quite a bit over the past month and felt he had some of his old army fitness back again. It was amazing to be back in shape; to know he could rely on his body again. He felt solid and grounded.

Early Sunday morning, with the dawn just cracking the horizon, he threw his rucksack into the back of the Landy and cranked the key in the ignition. It was a cold outside, his breath misting in the air and the frost crunching under his walking boots. The engine coughed momentary into life and then spluttered to a standstill. He tried again. The starter motor whirred and span but the engine refused to fire.

“Come on you bastard,” he shriek at the vehicle, turning the key futility in ignition but still no joy. Afraid of flooding the engine, he stopped, crossed his arms over the steering wheel and rested his head on the cold moulded plastic; his good mood dissipating along with the ice crystals on the windscreen.

After a few moments, he reached under the steering column and popped the bonnet catch. Hauling himself out of the car, he walked around to the front and peered into its innards, checking that all leads and wires were attached where they should be. He knew his way vaguely around an engine, well, at least enough to diagnose the more common ailment hindering internal combustion. He checked fluid levels – oil, water, break fluid – all seemed ok. Greg had ensured him that the vehicle had been fully serviced before the auction. “Well, so much for that!” he muttered to himself and wished a number of minor, but humiliating, medical inflictions on the police mechanics.

After five more minutes of freezing his fingers off, he concluded that the damp had probably seeped into the spark plugs, so headed back into the cottage to root about under the sink for a can of WD40. This search proved in vain, producing only a dried up bottle of Mr Muscle sink un-blocker and can of furniture polish. He had higher hopes for his dad’s shed but, unfortunately, it seemed to have been recently cleared out. Sighing, he went back out to see if the vehicle had miraculously fixed itself in his absence. It hadn’t. Leaning against the passenger door, the frustration welling up in his stomach, he cursed and awaited divine intervention.

“Having problems,” a female voice drifted over the small paddock which separated the cottage from the adjacent farmhouse.

John squinted, the morning mists partially obscuring a tall figure crossing the frosty grass. As they drew nearer, John made out the shape of a young woman - around mid thirties - with a small child hitched up on her left hip. Rosabelle Weiss, he thought.

“She won’t start,” he replied, gesturing towards the defuncted vehicle.

Expertly opening the paddock gate with her elbow, the young woman drew up beside him, swapped the baby to her other hip, and offered John her right hand.

“Rosebelle,” she said, introducing herself. “And I am assuming you’re John. You look quite a bit like your sister”.

John frowned.

“This is Gaby,” she continued, bouncing the blond haired girl on her hip. “Say hello darling,” she encouraged but the child just looked bemused and slightly wary.

John smiled, as politeness warranted. “Hello Gaby,” he cooed in the voice he reserved for Mother and Baby clinics. The infant, who must have been about eighteen months old, turned her head away, hiding her face in her mother’s neck. “Shy,” the woman mouthed as if uttering the word out loud might result in untold psychological damage to the infant.

Rosebelle walked over to the car, peering half-hearted under the open bonnet. “Any idea what’s up with the beast?’ she asked, her accent clearly more Home Counties than Borders.

“Damp,” John replied, shoving his hands in his pocket to try and warm them up a bit.

“I think Eric might have some WD40 in the workshop. If you want to come over to the house I’ll see if I can find it,” she nodded back across the paddock.

“You’re a life saver!” he ejaculated, relief clearly evident in his voice.

“We try,” she smiled. “Where were you heading off, this early in the morning?

As they walked over to the house, John explained his plans and they soon struck up a conversation about some of the best walking routes in the area. She had apparently seen him heading off out on a number of occasions but hadn’t liked to disturb him. Although she never mentioned it directly, John had the impression that Harry must have filled her in on his recent loss.

The farmhouse door was on the latched and she pushed it open with her foot, leading through a rather messy hall - strewn with boots and outdoor gear - into the welcoming warmth of an enormous kitchen. Gesturing for him to sit down in the chair in front of the agar, Rosebelle busied herself with Gaby, taking off her jacket, settling her in a wooden high chair and producing a rusk from an open packet on the kitchen counter.

“If Eric had been in he would have given you a lift to Thropton,” she noted. “But he’s been out since first light checking on the ewes in the top field.”

Ignoring the offer of a seat, John remained standing and nodded in a way which, he hoped, made him seem knowledgeable in the ways of animal husbandry.

“Would you like some tea?” she offered. “You must be frozen solid! How about some breakfast? Have you eaten?”

“I’m fine thanks,” he said, interrupting her stream of questions. “I think I need to get a crack on if I want to make Alwinton for lunch.” He flashed his best smile in the hope of not sounding too rude.

“Yes, right,” she said, “WD40. Can you look after Gaby for a minute while I pop out to the workshop? Won’t be long.”

She disappeared out a door at the opposite end of the kitchen which, presumably, led into the farmyard. He paced up and down in front of the agar, trying to restore some feeling to his frozen toes. Gaby let out a piercing high pitched laugh and he walked over to her high chair to see what was so amusing. Lowering his face down to her level, he received a sticky finger in his eye.

“Whoa there bruiser,” he smiled, taking a step back. The child gurgled in delight for a moment but then lost interest, turning instead to suck intently on her rusk.

The chair was positioned in front of a vast fridge-freezer, and John couldn’t help but cast his eye over the various notices and pictures pinned to its front by a variety of novelty magnets. There were bills for livestock feed, tradesmen’s cards and several children’s drawings. Unless Gaby was an infant protégé, John deduced that the Weisses must have at least one other child. This was confirmed by a holiday snap he found half hidden under a child’s drawing of a smiling pig, the size of elephant and basked under the rays of a super nova sun. The photograph showed Rosebelle, Gaby and two twin boys - about six years old - standing next to a man who must have been Eric Weiss. He was tall and lean; kitted out in a shabby Barbour jacket and worn hunter wellingtons, however, his hair looked neat and newly cut and his faced showing none of tell-tale weathering which marked out most of the farmers in the area.

That’s funny, thought John, and with his interest piqued he turned his attentions to the calendar on the wall next to the fridge. It was one of those monthly planners given away at the end of the year by suppliers to their clients. This one was from an agricultural equipment wholesaler and featured a rather impressive looking seed drill and accompanying tractor. The calendar was marked with the usual type of thing you would expect of a young family – clinic dates for the baby, school trips, dental appointments and a discreet little ‘P’ marked on the 10th of March. John turned back to the previous month and saw a similar annotation at around the same date. Rosebelle was obviously keeping a close eye on her cycles, he thought, so either they want more kids or are trying to avoid them.

After a quick glance towards the back door and a conspiratorial nod to Gaby - who was mashing bits of biscuit into her highchair tray - he flicked through the upcoming months. The first three pages were similarly filled with notes and reminders, but all the pages after were empty which struck him as a bit odd. You might expect the number of appointments to be reduced, but most busy families still marked key dates throughout the year – school term, holidays, anniversaries, clinics, car tax due, income tax returns, MOT – yet there was nothing. Unfortunately, before he could investigate any further, he heard the door handle turn and Rosebelle came back into the room.

“It’s still freezing out there,” she huffed, stamping her feet to restore circulation.

John stepped away from the fridge, trying not to look too furtive. He schooled his face in an expression of calm conviviality: a look he had mastered when dealing with civilians on the streets of Basra.

“Here you go,” she continued, proffering a can of WD40. “That should do the trick.”

He took the can. “Thanks, you really are a godsend.”

He felt a twinge of guilt about snooping around, particularly as the Weisses had gone out of their way to make him welcome.

“Are you sure you won’t have some breakfast, John?” Rosebelle asked as she scooped up the baby from the highchair.

“No thanks, I had something before I left,” he replied.

“Quick cup of tea then? It will warm you up for your walk.”

“No, really, I should go and see if this works,” he waved the can. “I’ll be cutting it fine as it is if I want to make Alwinton by two.”

“Ok then, but come back here if you have no joy,” she smiled. “You can keep the can. I am sure Eric has others,”

“Cheers. Oh, and thanks for the wine and wood and everything,” he added, feeling slightly awkward.

“It was no trouble. You must come over for dinner or something one night – meet Eric. Are you ok seeing yourself out? Only I need to give this one her porridge, don’t I?” she jiggled the child who grinned and blew little bubbles of spittle.

“That would be nice. Thanks again for this,” he put the can in his pocket and headed out towards the hall.

Chapter Text

Thankfully, the WD40 did the trick and the old Landy gasped and spluttered back into life. John slammed the bonnet down, leapt into the driver’s seat and headed over to Thropton. Parking up on the grass verge, he finally set off walking at a keen pace; trying to make up some of the time he had lost. A bracing north-westerly was blowing in from the sea, cutting right though his jacket and making his skin tingle. The walk was invigorating, but he had to admit to being pretty glad when he at last spotted the pub in the distance, a thin column of smoke rising from its chimney.

Arriving a little after one, John made his way over to the bar. He didn’t recognise the landlord or any of the staff, the pub having changed hands at least twice since his day. It felt a bit strange to be back and his mind skittered briefly over everything that had happened since he had last stood there with a pint of Cumberland Ale in his hand. The main bar was much as he remembered it. A modest affair with green mock-leather vinyl seats and a fag burned carpet of indistinguishable colour. It seemed that little had changed at the Plant and Prickle despite the intervening years, and he found the familiarity rather reassuring.

Settling down at a corner table, John felt pleasantly tired and was looking forward to the prospect of lamb shank and all the trimmings. Pulling out yesterday’s newspaper from his rucksack, he casually skimmed thorough the front page, supping his pint contentedly. Concealed behind his broadsheet, he couldn’t stop himself from discretely scanning the room - old habits die hard. The place was pretty empty. There were a couple of old blokes propping up the far end of the bar and a small group of squaddies in the opposite corner, who all appeared slightly the worst for wear. The only other occupants were a family of six - four adults and a couple of kids - who were also in for lunch. The pubs at Otterburn must have all been fully booked too, he thought idly.

John had positioned himself, quite sub-consciously, in the only seat with a view of both the public bar and the saloon beyond. The lone inhabitant of the other room was a middle aged man, dressed in tan trousers and a green jumper, who was sitting staring directly at him. Startled, John put down his newspaper. The man, seeing his presence had been registered, rose from his seat and started to walk into the bar, carrying his pint. He wove around the tables, obviously heading in John’s direction. John, for his part, desperately looked around in the futile hope that the unwelcomed visitor was heading over to someone else. Unfortunately, the only thing he could see behind him was the window recess - the sky outside beginning to cloud over and turn grey.

The stranger was within a few feet of him now. John’s eyes darted around looking for an escape.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, but is it Watson? John Watson?” the man asked proffering his hand forward but looking slightly embarrassed. Instinctively, John rose and shook his hand, nodding politely in response to the question while all the time fighting the urge to say ‘No. Piss off’.

“I thought it was you,” the man continued. “I recognised you from your picture in the papers,” he gestured his head towards the copy of the Guardian, folded on the table.

John recoiled slightly, ready to hurl abuse at his assailant, but the man swiftly interjected, “Absolutely dreadful business. That detective chap seemed a decent enough sort. All an awful bloody witch-hunt if you ask me.”

Relieved, John mumbled a response, but was saddened that his pleasant anonymity of a few moments ago was now lost. There was the sounds of chairs shifting at the adjoining table, the residents trying to surreptitiously catch a glimpse of the infamous ‘bachelor’, while at the other end of the bar the squaddies openly gorped.

“Dreadful, dreadful business…”the man lowered his voice mid sentence but then just tailed off. They stood in embarrassed silence for a few moments. “Terrible imposition, I know, but would you mind if I joined you? Only I am feeling a bit on my lonesome back through there.” John looked uneasy. “Oh I am sorry, I should have said before, I am a friend of Mike Stamford’s. He mentioned he knew you and your…your friend.” Faltering a little he suddenly blurted out, “Name’s Bryant, James Bryant. Chief Medical Officer, Royal Bucks. Hussars,” visibly stiffened at the mention of his rank and unit.

John felt a ridiculous urge to salute but instead gestured to a nearby seat, “Please sit down.”

They began a stilted conversation, exchanging a few vague pleasantries, during which James downed the dregs of his pint.

“Pint?” he offered, standing up and gesturing towards the bar.

“No thanks,” John replied. “I’m ok with this,” he held up his half full pint glass, “have to drive later.” This was partly true, although he had intended to have another swift half as it was a good three hours before he’d be picking up the car, however, he now felt he needed to keep all his wits about him, despite the apparently innoxiously nature of his new found companion.

The food arrived while James was at the bar. John picked at it half heartedly, his appetite tempered by an escalating bad mood. The day really wasn’t turning out how he had hoped. He rallied himself a little on his companions return, trying to make the best of a bad situation. “So, how do you know Stamford?” he asked with feigned interest.

“We’ve organised a few night courses together over the years. Simple field first aid mostly. You know the kind of thing - stemming bleeding, applying dressings, treatment for shock.”

“Not sure I get you,” John replied, puzzled. “Surely that kind of thing is usually covered in basic training for the…Signals I think you said you were in.” He leant forward, a spark of intrigue igniting in his brain.

“Territorial Army” James replied, in mid gulp. “Sorry, sorry, I should have made that clear. I am with the Reservists.” He set his pint down and continued, “I run courses across London and the Home Counties for the TA. Stamford gives me a hand when he can. Used to work with him at Barts.”

“Hmm, must have been after my time,” John mused, a hint of suspicion in his voice. “I don’t remember you. When were you there?”

“Oh yonks back,” James replied.

John was about to press him for a more definitive answer but thought better of it. What the hell did he think this was? A military tribunal? He had problems remembering what he did yesterday, so it was completely understandable if James was a bit vague on exact dates. There was no reason for all this suspicion and mistrust. He really needed to stop thinking that absolutely everything was duplicitous. It was a habit of a lifetime, honed to the point of paranoia by two years with Sherlock.

“So,” John continued, trying to sound a bit more cordial, “you just visiting, or are you on business at the camp?’

“The latter,” James replied, taking another gulp of beer. “The Terras are out on manoeuvres. Some talk about sending us out to Afghanistan.”

John couldn’t help it, he visibly winced.

Noticing the reaction, James asked, “You’ve been out there?”

John nodded pensively, “a couple of tours.”

“But you’re not on active duty now?”

“Invalided out just over two years ago,” John found himself rubbing his injured shoulder and stopped the instant he recognised he was doing it.

“I see,” James replied. “I am so sorry.”

“Just one of those things,” John continued. “I was lucky in some ways. At least I’m here”

There was an awkward silence.

“Do you miss it?”

“What, freezing my bollocks off on night manoeuvres in those hills?”

James smiled, “You know what I mean. I haven’t seen active service but I hear it’s a thing that gets in your blood. I know some of our lads are pretty keen to go.”

John inhaled. He felt he owed James an honest answer, given that the man could well be sent out there any day.

“Yes, I miss it.” He paused. “Not the constant fear of getting your bloody head shot off. No one misses that, well except for a few danger junkies, and I have met a fair few of them in the service. No, what I miss is being relevant, I guess, having to make those split second decisions that make a difference between life and death.” He looked over at the other man, “Bloody hell. That sounds a bit cliché doesn’t it?”

James angled his head slightly. “A bit, but I think understand what you mean. Can’t you get that in a civilian hospital, though? Just ask anyone working in A & E on a Saturday night.”

“Yes, but it is not the same thing. It is like everything is heightened a hundredfold out there.” John looked wistful for a moment. “A good friend of mine once likened it the rush of cocaine.”

“That’s a pretty distasteful simile,’ James retorted, rather taken aback

“Not if you knew the friend,” the other man smiled ruefully.

They both sat nursing their pints in silence, each caught up in their own thoughts.

“Do you think you will get a chance to go back?” James asked after a short while.

John laughed. “Not bloody likely. I said I missed it but I wouldn’t want to go back. I have lost the stomach for it. Seen the reality up way too close and, to be honest, I’m not sure why we are there anymore.”

James looked at him doubtfully. “So what do you do now?” He asked.

“Not much of late, not since… well,” John turned his head to look out of the window, wishing James would just vaporise.

“Yes, of course. Oh God, I am sorry, that was a bit tactless of me. It was just that what you said reminded me of one of my ex-army pals. He was invalided out of Basra after an IED exploded and took half his foot off. He came back and, well, sort of lost it for a while. Just couldn’t adjust he said. Had an awful time of it. It got so bad that his wife nearly left him. In the end they both decided to volunteer for the Red Cross overseas - she was a radiologist. They’re in Libya at the moment. Hospital in Tripoli. Been the making of them they say. Can’t get them to bloody shut them up about it! I just thought maybe…well…”

“No,” John retorted, rather too abruptly. “It’s just not me,” he gabbled, trying to explain away the vehemence of his initial response which had, frankly, come as a surprise even to him. “Look. Thanks for the thought and everything…but really no. “

James shrugged. John nodded and looked out the window again. Then he down the last of his beer and stood up.

“I really better get going. It’ll be dark in an hour or so and I’ve got a hell of a walk ahead of me.” He laughed awkwardly. “End up on those night manoeuvres after all if I’m not careful!” The fake joviality sounding so false it made him cringe. He offered his hand again. “It was nice meeting you, James. I hope it all works out for you.” Taking a step back, he nodded once then threw his coat on and grabbed his rucksack. Throwing a quick wave of thanks at the landlord, he beat a slightly shambolic retreat out through the door and back into the numbing cold air.

Chapter Text

Over the next few days he allowed James’s suggestion to percolate in his mind. His initial reaction had been one of fear. Contrary to what he had said, John was attracted by the idea of some form of foreign aid work. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more sense it made, given his past experience. It had the potential to be challenging and fulfilling work, something he could really excel at. That was what spooked him initially, it represented a tangible path to a new life: a step forward and away from the past. It would also mean leaving England, and part of him had panicked that if he left the country, left London, left 221b Baker Street, then Sherlock wouldn’t be able to find him. It was bloody stupid of course but, nevertheless, there it was.

He spent time recognising these fears for what they were and laying them to rest. He had also been worried that the old nightmares might return but they hadn’t. He did find it hard to sleep but only because night after night his thoughts were racing with new plans and ideas. He read up on the internet about the work of the British Red Cross and even took the bus into Newcastle to talk things through with staff at the office there. Unfortunately, they couldn’t help him very much regarding overseas work but suggested he contact their head office at Moorfields in London. It took him a further two weeks to finally reach an absolute decision, but early one morning, in the first week of April, he packed up the Landy, locked up the cottage and posted the keys through Rosabelle’s door. He sat in front of the wheel, composed himself for a moment, then turned the key in the ignition and set off on the five hour drive back to London.

Chapter Text

On his return, he drove over to Sarah’s flat, only to find Mycroft already there waiting for him. John didn’t bother asking how or why, having long ago accepted that there was little that escaped the scrutiny of the elder Holmes brother. At some stage a dossier on John’s enquires at the Red Cross would have winged it way across Mycroft’s desk: it was inevitable.

The meeting was strained, even more so than usual. Mycroft purveyed his customary sagacity, although John thought there was a slight tremble in his voice. It was barely perceptible but betrayed his apparent equanimity. The older man sat in Sarah’s favourite armchair, the impeccable cut of his dark grey Saville Row suit, incongruous amongst the rich purples and reds of the scatter cushions.

John just stared at him, a rather abortive greeting having dissipating into awkward silence. Sarah made a swift exit into the kitchen, leaving the two men alone.

“John, I do hope your…” Mycroft searched for a word, “Retreat, proved restorative”.

John was rankled by the use of the word ‘retreat’. Was Mycroft implying a sub-text? He was still furious with the man over his brother’s betrayal and had refused to have anything to do with him since Sherlock’s death. Mycroft, to his credit, had not resorted to using his MI5 lackeys, but kept a respectful distance, even at the funeral. Later, John had noticed a wreath of white lilies placed in the Chapel of Remembrance, and a black edged card written in Mycroft’s elegant looping hand - ’S. Truly so very sorry for everything. M.’

Mycroft sat spinning the handle of his umbrella from one hand to the other while looking at John expectantly. Glancing over at the one surviving Holmes brother, the doctor realised that he didn’t feel angry any longer, just sad. While he wasn’t sure if he could ever forgive this man for his role in Sherlock’s fall, John had the distinct feeling that whatever reproach he directed at him would be only fraction of the guilt and remorse Mycroft reserved for himself.

To anyone who knew them, it was obvious that the two siblings shared the same gene pool. Each, on the surface at least, having the emotive capacity of a jackdaw. Nevertheless, John never really doubted Mycroft’s deep seated affection for his younger brother. Theirs had been an odd relationship but, then again, don’t most families operate in a way that seems unfathomable to an outsider? Just look at him and Harry. He had no idea what made his sister tick and very little desire to find out. John wondered for a moment if he could bring himself to ‘bargain’ her secrets away for the good of the nation. No, maybe not, but then he wasn’t Mycroft Holmes. Perhaps a more pertinent question was whether Sherlock would have done the same if the positions had been reversed? The answer to that would be an unequivocal ‘Yes’ and, undoubtedly, with much less conscience than displayed by his more remorseful older brother.

In truth, Mycroft hadn’t really provided Moriaty with anything that any tabloid hack worth his salt couldn’t have pieced together from school records and hospital files, if given enough time and a sizeable budget for bribes. There was a staggering amount of personal information held digitally, and it was relatively easy to access if you knew where to look. Even someone as careful as Sherlock still left ‘virtual’ fingerprints everywhere, stored in little bits of codes littered across the internet and imprinted indelibly on government hard drives. All Mycroft had done was speed up the process, and John was pretty sure he must have known that before he had agreed to speak to Moriaty. It was just unfortunate that his timing was so bloody lousy. There was no way he could have anticipated that Sherlock would take it quite so hard. No one could have predicted that.

“I see that you have been looking at the prospect of gaining a position overseas, John. In a medical capacity that is,” Mycroft tried once more to engage him in conversation.

Lord, he looked like Sherlock at times. His face all hollows and angles and with the same slate blue eyes that could root you to the spot: at once penetrating and impassive, animate yet circumspect. But somehow Mycroft now seemed less than he was before. Not physically, on the contrary, he had become decidedly jowly over the past few months. It was just that he seemed fractionally less self-assured. The change would have been indiscernible to most, but to John it rang out louder than the bells of Southwark Cathedral. He couldn’t help but take pity on the man and accept the olive branch that Mycroft, in his own peculiar fashion, was so obviously offering.

“Yes, I’ve been asking around a bit Mycroft; as I am sure you’re aware,” he said, rather more acerbically than he intended. “Just testing the water really. Seeing what’s out there. You know, weighing up what my options are,” he shrugged and moved over to the sofa, sitting down just as Sarah returned with tea.

“Well, I may be able to help you there. I have only limited capacity, as you know, but there are one or two contacts who owe me a favour.”

John never quite understood Mycroft proffered humility regarding his role in the government, but he knew that ‘contacts’ could mean anything from the cloakroom attendant at the Diogenes club to the Director of the CIA.

“Well, that could be very useful, Mycroft” he replied.

“I would be glad to assist you in any way I can, John. I think this might be just the thing to help you get over…” he paused again considering the phrase. “Well, to help you get on.”

The three of them spent the next couple of hours formulating a plan. John didn’t think it would necessarily be a good idea to go back into a combat zone just yet, but was looking for something in the Middle East or Turkey, given that he was familiar with the culture and climate. He eventually settled on Gaza. Despite Mycroft’s deep seated reservations about the stability of the region, he remained true to his word, and the following day John was offered a position as doctor with Medecins Sans Frontieres, who ran a series of operation on the West Bank. By the end of the week he was packed and waiting at Heathrow for a flight to Tel Aviv.

It felt strange to be heading abroad again, especially to that part of the world. It stirred up mixed emotions. He remembered what life had been like when he had first arrived back from Afghanistan, before he had run into Stamford and met Sherlock. Fleetingly, he worried that he might be doing the wrong thing - just going backwards - but he soon dismissed the idea. This was something new, something exciting, and he was eager to see where it took him. Sarah had come to see him off which was kind of her, but he wished she hadn’t. He just wanted to leave England and put everything behind him.

After what seemed an age, his flight was finally called, and he could exchange the stifling heat of the departure lounge for the chill drizzle of the runway tarmac.

“Here we go then Sherlock,” he muttered to himself, “Wish me luck.”
He took a deep breath, tugged at the bottom of his jacket, adjusted his sleeves, and without glancing back, turned smartly on his heel and marched up the flight steps.

Chapter Text

On the first anniversary of Sherlock’s death, John had intended to hike out to the desert at Har Ramon, however, a bus bomb in Jerusalem two weeks earlier meant that his team were placed on special alert. All leave had been cancelled, fearing an escalation of hostilities. Oh, and the military reprisals came: six long days of air strikes, all along the strip, bringing a huge influx of casualties pouring into the city hospitals. John worked tirelessly, running on pure adrenaline and very strong Arabic coffee, which he had finally acquired a taste for - a bitter stimulant, laced with cardamom and made palatable only by spoonfuls of sugar.

Given his previous battlefield experience, John worked predominantly in triage, making split second decisions on priority and a pragmatic course of action. It was a balancing act between compassion and realism. His gut instinct was to first treat the most severe trauma cases but he had to keep his emotions in check and use his knowledge and experience to prioritise those with the highest potential for survival. If he failed to do this properly, it could mean that others would die needlessly.

His reactions were fast. He could run through a set of diagnostics in the blink of an eye: weighing up possible outcomes and assessing a myriad of variables in his head, calculating a range of different scenarios and prognosis. There were times, especially when faced with a particularly complicated or catastrophic array of injuries, when he would hear Sherlock’s voice in his head, as clearly as if he were standing right next to him.

‘Think John. Look at the angle of the entry wound. Good God, what is it like being you? It must be so taxing. You’re seeing but you are not observing what is plainly in front of your eyes! His fingers: look at the capillary dilation of the nail bed. Now, couple that together with the crust of dried spittle collecting at the corners of his mouth and the discolouration down the front of his shirt. Might be food, but looks more like drool. The shirt has been washed numerous times, but the staining on the front is still there, ingrained. Long-term malady then; a condition producing excess of saliva which would indicate a systemic problem, not trauma, something up and above the six inches of metal embedded in his chest. And look at his clothes, John, they’re old but everything is at least three sizes to big for him. They could be second-hand but in this part of the world it’s unlikely: people hang onto their clothes here. So the man has lost a lot of weight recently. All of this, together with the slight jaundice in his face, would suggest advance Acinic cell carcinoma. He’ll be a goner in less than two month - dead man walking - no point in surgery. NEXT.’

Chapter Text

The following spring, John was seconded for two weeks to the medical centre at Nablus. Ostensibly, the purpose of the trip was to train the teams on the ground in incident management using the Smart Incident Command System, but he had the distinct feeling that running through simulated emergency protocols with staff who had been operating pretty much in a war zone for years, was a little like trying to teach your grandmother to suck eggs.

He was also scheduled in to spend some time at one of the MSF trauma clinics in the city. This was largely in a surgical capacity – he already had a escharotomy, tibial osteotomy and several skin grafts on his list – though he had expressed an interest in shadowing one of the psychiatric support teams. They were implementing some pioneering new techniques in the treatment of those suffering from the long-term psychological impact of conflict and he was keen to see their work first hand. He couldn't deny that there was a bit more than just professional interest behind his request. The majority of his PTSD symptoms had subsided over the last three years or so, but elements had re-surfaced briefly after Sherlock’s death, and he still had the odd night when he’d wake up shouting, drenched in sweat. Oddly enough though, things had improved considerable since his arrival in Gaza: a place where conflict was endemic. His therapist would no doubt claim that placing himself in the firing line again, albeit at some distance, was helping to assuage the guilt he felt at having outlived all those he'd lost over the past ten years.

He still thought of Sherlock every day, but not every second of every day. That was progress. The way he thought about him had changed too. The images of the blood spattered pavements had now receded and been replaced by more convivial memories of shared companionship, peppered with moments of irritation and flashes of sheer bloody mindedness - Take him for all and all, I shall not look upon his like again. John no longer sought to control or escape from these remembrances. They weren’t painful any longer but quite welcome. He wasn’t sure exactly when it had happened, but at some stage the door of 221b had been unlocked for good, and it felt pretty liberating.

Chapter Text

The trip down the valley to Nablus was beautiful. It had never ceased to amaze him that at this time of year the desert could be so green. Acres of grass, flecked with wildflowers, stretched out to the horizon, where the previous month there had been only an arid wasteland.

The convoy stopped for lunch in small Arabic cafe just outside of the city of Ari’el. After a light mezza, the others headed off into town to chase up some last minute supplies but John offered to stay behind and look after the second van. Settling himself at an outside table, he sipped a glass of mint tea and looked out over the shimmering landscape. The sun was warm on his back and a gently breeze blew down the valley. Closing his eyes for a moment he let his mind wander.

“Dr Watson I presume,” a low voice whispered into his left ear.

Its timbre was instantly recognisable, resonating through every molecule of his being and turning his insides to flux. He nearly passed out.

“But…,” he managed to stuttered, frantically trying to claw back some sense of reality. “You’re dead. I mean, you’re supposed to be…They all said you were dead.”

The figure stood directly in front of him, haloed by the glare of the sun, the brightness momentarily blinding him. He squinted, trying to make out the features of the face, but there was no mistaking the familiar outline of that tall, slender figure.

“I fear the news of my death has been greatly exaggerated,” the visitor retorted, stepping into the shade.

“Irene Adler,” John declared, shaking his head in disbelief.

“Pleased to make your re-acquaintance Dr Watson,” she proclaimed. “Or can I call you John since we are such old friends?” Without waiting for a reply she continued, “May I sit?” gesturing towards the empty chair on the other side of the table.

She was wearing a dark abaya with matching hijab, though her face remained unveiled. Her arresting blue eyes were concealed behind a pair of large sunglasses which she quickly took off, pinioning John with a scrutinising stare. Realising he must have been gawping like an idiot, he snapped his jaw shut and nodded his assent. She sat down opposite, with surprising elegance for one generally used to wearing much less restrictive attire.

He caught the café owner’s eye and ordered two more teas, choosing to ignore the man’s inquisitive looks.

“So John, what brings you to the ‘Hearth of God’?’ She purred.

“Sorry?” he replied, confused.

“Ari’el.” She gestured around her, “The ‘Hearth of God’ or ‘The Lion’ if you prefer the more bestial interpretation,” she winked at him suggestively.

Ignoring the gesture, he leaned forward. “Just…just a minute” he snarled, “Mycroft told me you were executed, and Mycroft is not a man known to get his facts wrong.”

“Oh come on John, you know that it’s not the first time I have slipped through the clutches of the grim reaper,” she rolled her eyes melodramatically. “Let’s just say I had help from a guardian angel all of my very own,” she whispered.

“Wha…,” he looked at her blankly for a fraction of a second before it dawned on him, “Sherlock!”

“The very same,” she leaned forward conspiratorially. “Turns out he was rather dashing with a sword. Who’d have thought?”

John felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle. He loathed ‘The Woman’ and the affect she had had on his friend. Worse still, is now seemed that Sherlock had blatantly lied about his involvement with her. Why the hell had he felt the need to do that?

“John,” a marked shift in her mood was apparent, her tone pensive and hesitant. “I really am so sorry about what happened in London.”

He looked into her face, trying to work out whether she meant the incident in Belgravia or…

“Sherlock’s death,” she dropped her head forward on her chest, a slight tremble in her voice. He seethed, wishing he could immolate her by the power of thought alone. Looking up, she continued, “I know you think I played him John. That I was working with Moriarty, but the truth is that it was… Well, it was complicated.” She gave a sad smile.

“Please,” he spat mordantly. “I really don’t care what little game you were all playing – you, him and Moraity. You were all as bad as each other in the end. Jesus, you lot all really got off on it didn’t you. The whole pitching of egos thing, like it was some great game” he lent forward menacingly. “The problem was, Ms Adler, that people ended up getting hurt… and getting dead,” his words fell over themselves. “He ended up …. Sherlock ended up being dead.”

There was a moment’s silence. She continued to hold his gaze but then looked away. “As I said, I am truly sorry John. If I could have done anything...”

“Huh,” he snorted wiping his hands across face.

“One thing I think you should know.”

He looked up.

“He had the greatest respect for you, John. You were very dear to him.”

Just at that moment a black Mercedes drew up beside them. Irene stood up quickly, “I have to go I’m afraid," she said, "can’t stop in one place too long. Besides, people might talk if they see me taking tea with a handsome stranger,” she quipped, though she couldn't disguise the real fear apparent in her eyes. “Goodbye John, I would kiss you but best not. Not the done thing in these parts. Don’t want to draw attention to myself. I am incognito,” she whispered and drew her hijab across her face.

He stood up, largely because he felt a bit stupid just sitting there, but she had already moved away in the direction of the car. A tall man, wearing a black-checked Kafera, held the door open for her as she slid into the rear seat. For just a second, John caught a glimpse the man's slate blue eyes. Strange, he thought, must be Circassian.

Chapter Text

He was contemplating a second Christmas in Gaza when he received a card from Molly. It was one of those National Trust cards: a snow covered landscape featuring a herd of deer grazing peacefully in front of some old stately pile or other. It was romanticised and twee but he nevertheless found himself ridiculously homesick for a moment. His skin prickled to feel the tingle of snow melting on his face as opposed to this bloody awful heat; even in December it was still 22 degrees. He also found himself missing Molly.

Since Sherlock's death he had only seen her in person once, and that was at the funeral when it had seemed she spent the whole afternoon trying to avoid him. When he had finally collared her in the corridor, she had hugged him so hard it was like her life depended on it. Then she had mumbled something or other about Sherlock being in a better, safer place and away from harm. That riled him. Having had no cause to question what Molly's religious beliefs were, he was a bit surprised to find that a scientist like her had faith in all that 'gone to live with the angels' bollocks. Still, he was prepared to grant her a certain amount of latitude at the time, knowing just how much she had felt about Sherlock, but he didn't want to stick around and hear a raft of stale platitudes. Oddly, she had seemed almost as relieved as him when he had made his excuses and left, giving him a peck on the cheek but avoiding all eye contact.

Poor Molly, she was awful at concealing emotion, Couldn’t keep anything a secret. Everything she felt about Sherlock was bloody written all over her face whenever the lanky git entered the room. It was so bloody obvious, even Mr Aspergers himself had eventually picked up on it.

Despite the weird incident at the funeral, Molly had remained in constant touch with John, sending him notes, emails, and an assortment of funny little cards she thought might amuse him. For his part, he found himself increasingly looking forward to these messages, perhaps more than he wanted to admit. She was his link with life back in London, keeping him filled in on all that was happening amongst their small circle of friends.

He set the card down on his desk and picked up the letter which had been folded neatly inside. It was hand written, a tightly packed script covering three pages of lavender coloured, bonded notepaper. The texture of the paper was pleasant to feel; it was thick, clean and crisp - expensive. On a sudden impulse he lifted it to his nose and sniffed. It smelt of her: formaldehyde and coconut.

Settling down with a cup of Nescafe – he really missed descent filter coffee – and a couple of pieces of toast, he read through the letter. Mike Stamford had got married! No bloody way! John would have been willing to bet his pension that that old bastard was destined to remain a confirmed bachelor. The sly dog was a quick mover too. The last time John had seen him - which was admittedly about two years ago - he had been planning a wine tour of the Alsace region. It seems he had met his wife-to-be on that trip. Romance and Riesling! Jesus, John couldn’t decide what was worse, the thought of Stamford getting down and dirty between the sheets, or the equally alarming prospect of them drinking that bloody awful German wine.

Molly’s description of the wedding had him laughing out loud in places, spitting toast crumbs all over his papers. She went on to tell him other bits and pieces of news with similar good humour and he was again amazed at just how perceptive and witty she could be. Nervous little Molly, who’d have thought? It wasn’t till he got to the last paragraph that his mood changed abruptly. It started by telling him he mustn’t worry - which of course he instantly did - but that Mrs Hudson was going into hospital in the New Year to finally have a hip replacement. Molly assured him that the prognosis was good but that she would need to take things easy after the operation, and probably use a walking frame for six weeks or so. That had apparently gone down like a lead balloon. Mrs H. had been adamant she wouldn’t need any such thing and that she would be ‘back on her pins’ in no time’, though Molly had sensibly tried to dissuade her from booking Sirroc classes at the local community centre just yet.

Sarah had been attempting to sort out some form of home help for her, just until she was back on her feet, but the old stalwart was absolutely refusing to have anything of the kind. Molly had even offered to move in herself for a short while but that suggestion had also received short shrift.

I don’t mean to be a bother or worry you John, she wrote, but I am really worried about how she will cope in that flat all by herself. Of course, I will look in whenever I can, but I think she will need someone there all the time, at least for the first couple of weeks. Could you maybe phone and talk to her? You know she has a soft spot for you. Could you try and get her to see sense about the home help? She might listen if you suggest it.

Much love (I mean as a friend of course, not that I think you would think anything else) and Happy Christmas.

Write when you get a chance.

Molly x

P.S I bet it is lovely there with Bethlehem being so close by and all that. It must be really Christmassy.

John shook his head in amusement and glanced out of the window at the barricades and street patrols.

Putting the card on his desk, he folded the letter back in the envelope and walked down the hall to the Chief of Operations office to verbally tender his resignation. It was time to leave and return to London. He had made peace with old ghosts and done his level best to make some difference in this fractured place, but Mrs H needed him now and he suddenly had an all consuming desire to be back in the old flat at Baker Street. It was time to leave: time to go home.

Chapter Text

John watched the flames flickering in the grate and wondered just how long he could put off loading more coal onto the fire. He was so terribly comfortable and the prospect of hauling himself up out of the armchair was, frankly, not at all attractive. However, now that the distinct lack of coal had been brought to his attention it was proving impossible to relax, no matter how hard he tried. Acknowledging defeat, he sprang up and sat on his haunches in front of the guttering flames, tipping in coal from the scuttle and grabbing the poker from the nearby companion set.

 

He’d been back in London for two months now but time seemed to be interwoven and non-linear. He always experienced that feeling when he travelled. I was like the days and months he had been away had contracted into a matter of hours, as if he had just strolled down to the shops or popped out for a coffee. Yet at the same time he also felt out of sequence with those around him: an absence from the succession of their shared experiences. He knew it was ridiculous, but he sort of imagined that life in London stopped when he was away – Molly, Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, Mycroft, all sealed in aspic: suspended. It was weird to see them all again, each spinning in their own ellipse. If he had ever doubted it in the past few months, he was now sure that these people made up his life. Their centre may have been shattered, but some gravitational pull still held them together in a single orbit.

From the very first moment that the black cab from Heathrow had pulled up outside Baker Street it had felt right to be back: to belong wholly and completely once more. Mrs Hudson had dashed down the steps and hugged the life out of him, fussing around him like the proverbial prodigal son. She hadn’t had her operation at that point and it was blatantly obvious she was in considerable pain, but she didn’t let that stop her. In fact she was so busy interrogating him about his journey, the food on the flight and how much he must have missed a decent cup of tea, that he almost completely failed to register that first fateful step back across that threshold. But just inside the door he paused, blocking her voice out for a moment, and too stock. He gazed around the flat to see if it felt bad or weird but, no, it all felt fine.

Everything was how he had remembered it. Mrs Hudson hadn’t changed a thing, except for the few bits and bobs she had half-heartedly put in boxes before the funeral. Apparently, she had had great difficulties letting the flat because of the cracks left by the gas explosion, together with the odd smell she thought might be rising up from 221c. John hadn’t noticed anything of the sort and suspected that she hadn’t actually tried too hard to find a replacement tenant. He also had a vague suspicion that Mycroft had kept up payments on the rent. Mrs H was adamant that John should only pay what he had paid before, despite the fact that he was the only one living there now. In fact it was only under extreme duress that she had accepted any money from him at all, that coupled with veiled threats to leave her walking frame out on the front step where everyone could see it.

All in all, she was recovering well from the hip replacement. He had taken her into the hospital for the operation and made sure he was there when she came around from the anaesthetic. She was woozy for a while, holding his hand and calling him Gilbert, then giggling like a girl about sneaking off to Skegness. He smiled and summoned a nurse to check her obs. Within an hour or so she was sitting up in bed, running through a list of errands he needed to run and asking for the umpteenth time when she could go home.

Back at Baker Street, she had been largely bedridden for three days. John had wheeled the telly in and the two of them would spend the afternoon eating Milk Tray and trying to out do one another at Countdown. However, he was well aware of the dangers of thrombosis and the importance of getting her mobile as soon as possible, encouraging her to take a few steps each day. Despite being in obvious discomfort, she refused to take any strong pain killers, complaining that they made her ‘head feel fuzzy and her tummy a bit peculiar’. One night, she was so restless that he had convinced her to take some Co Codamol but afterwards she was so sick that he thought he might have to call an ambulance. Luckily, she was ok after an hour or so but begged him to go get her some ‘herbal soothers’. And that was how he found himself down by Vauxhall Bridge arches at two in the morning, trying to score an ounce of Red Leb from a girl he thought he recognised as one of Sherlock’s homeless network. Thank god he hadn’t been arrested; he could only imagine the look on the duty officers face as he tried to explain he was buying it for his septuagenarian landlady with a bad hip. Lestrade would have had a field day!

Thankfully, not much could keep Mrs H. off her feet for too long, and within a week she was hobbling around the flat with something of her old sparkle back. Despite her protestations that it was ‘only a temporary arrangement till she was back in the swing’, they had establish a comfortable domestic routine. John helped her with her physiotherapy and various tasks around the house, and she provided meals and attempted to shrink every jumper he owned to the size of a postage stamp.

The old Land Rover was also back on the scene. He had retrieved it back from Harry a few weeks ago and used it to run Mrs H. round to the shops and to visit her friends. Occasionally they took longer trips – a jaunt out to Brighton for some fish and chips, or tea at Richmond Park. She and John generally ate a meal together in the evening, after which he would wait for her to doze off halfway through Coronation Street, before slipping back upstairs to work on his own projects.

Sarah had offered him his old job back at the surgery, but the prospect of an endless round of haemorrhoids, glue ear and seasonal flu, had left him cold. It was Lestrade who came up trumps with a solution. He had come round one evening, soon after John’s return, to see if he wanted to go to The Volunteer for a couple of pints. Three pints of London Pride - God how he had missed real ale - and a whisky chaser later, John had started to wax lyrical about his time in Gaza; admittedly laying it on a bit thick for dramatic effect. Lestrade seemed mesmerised, though that might have had something to do with the second round of chasers.

“You know what John?” the DI slurred, following a particularly lurid account of how John had diagnosed a ruptured spleen from the pattern of brick dust on a soldier’s body armour. “You don’t want to go back to all that GP crap. That, my friend,” he clapped John’s shoulder, “would be a bloody waste. You wanna get yourself into forensics, my son. You know what?” He leaned forward conspiratorially, “I am gonna have a word with Anderson and see if he can’t sort you out something. Fast track you, like.”

In the cold light of morning, John hadn’t set too much stead by their conversion. This was possibly because of the barrage of artillery fire which was going on inside his head, coupled with the effort of trying to keep down the fried egg sandwich he, misguidedly, thought would settle his stomach. Nevertheless, Lestrade was true to his word and, after some intensive training in procedure, John found himself assigned to the Special Crimes Division of the Met. It didn’t take long for him to start bringing work home with him, and he would spend hours hunched over Sherlock’s old microscope on the kitchen table.

“Oh John love, not next to the Sunday joint. It’s not hygienic. Bloody hell, what are you like?” Mrs Hudson called out in agitation, vials of blood and sputum samples once more jostling for shelf space in the Baker Street fridge.

Chapter Text

And this was him now, this was his life. A life deconstructed in the most brutal way, but somehow put back together. Sitting in his armchair he could still feel Sherlock’s presence everywhere in the flat. It was like he was just on the periphery of John’s vision - perched on the radiator, kicking his heels against the wall in an annoying broken rhythm, or pacing backwards and forwards in front of the window sawing at the strings of his violin. At times, John could have sworn he’d seen a familiar shadow pass across the light in the doorway, or heard the key turn in the lock in his distinct manner – once left, pause, then to the right, pause, then left again with a flick - but these were all just memories and recollection, or perhaps the resonance of the ghost in the machine. Alternatively, he was just working too much and should cut down on his ‘little nightcaps’ with Mrs H. Whatever the reality of the situation, it didn’t bother him, in truth it was kind of nice to feel Sherlock close by: at times just a distant echo, whispering at the back of his mind, and at others a whirlwind, stomping around in his psyche like a spoilt child wanting attention.

John glanced over at the other chair, where Sherlock’s violin lay propped up against the Union Jack cushion. He had found the instrument packed away carefully under Sherlock’s bed. No doubt Mrs Hudson had put it there, fretting that it might get damaged amongst all the clutter. John couldn’t bear to leave it there, shrouded in the deep blue velvet of the coffin-like case. Carefully, he had liberated it and brought it back into the front room. A few days later, Molly had noticed it there when she was visiting, and had tuned it for him the best she could and rosined the bow. Apparently she had played the viola a little as a child. It was funny she hadn’t mentioned it before, but then John could imagine Sherlock’s reposte to such a revelation.

Restored, it somehow seemed appropriate that the violin should once again take up residence in the flat. It did cross his mind that this might be a bit unhinged but he chose to ignore it. More often than not, the instrument could be found in Sherlock’s old chair and, though he would have been mortified to admit it, John often found himself talking to the bloody thing, particularly when trying to work through a case. Still, it was slightly less mawkish than talking to the skull. Looking over at the slender line of the neck and graceful curl of the scroll, he deliberated about moving it away from the heat of the fire but decided to let it be. Instead, he reached down to pick up the half finished crossword from the floor where he had left it.

He wasn’t doing too badly, just a few clues left to solve. Tapping the end of the pen against his lower lip he read - six down – Beware those troublesome Greeks or you could end up getting blown sky high.

 He pondered what he knew already - three words: four, two and seven letters

 _  _  E _ / E _ / _ A _ C H _ N A

Sky high? Greeks? Maybe it could be a reference to the Cypriot war. No, just a minute…oh of course, he should have known that! He took up the pen and wrote DEUS EX MACHINA in the spaces. 

Feeling pretty pleased with himself, he eagerly moved onto the next clue - eleven across - Angel or devil? Seek and you will find me outcast in the desert. What the hell could that be? He’d been stuck on this one for ages and had gone through all the angels he knew, which to be honest wasn’t that many - Gabriel, Michael, Raphael. Oh and wasn’t there a Muriel? He remembered a line from an old Kate Bush song. Pretty odd name for an angel though, Muriel. It was no good anyway, the answer had to start with and ‘A’: 

A _ A _   _ L 

It was beginning to drive him to distraction and he started to wish he had opted for the quick crossword rather than the cryptic. He point blank refused to be reduced to googling it, but did go over to the bookcase and picked up Sherlock’s copy of Paradise Lost. Several of the pages were marked and in one he came across the passage: 

Of trumpets loud and clarions be upreared
His mighty standard; that proud honor claimed
Azazel as his right, a cherub tall:
Who forthwith from the glittering staff unfurled
The imperial ensign, which full high advanced
Shone like a meteor streaming to the wind.

The footnote at the bottom of the page noted that Azazel was a fallen angel, one of the watchers and associated with the Rabbinical ritual of the scapegoat.

Well there you go, thought John. You learn something everyday. He placed the book back on the shelf and returned to his chair, writing the word AZAZEL in the largely completed puzzle. Over the course of the next hour or so he managed to solve all the unanswered clues except for one. Despite wracking his brain, he just couldn’t seem get this one - nineteen across - Those who seek me John, they will find me at al-Eizariya. He had gone through all the permutations of his own name – Johnny, James, Jonathan, Jo – but all were too long or short. Maybe it was Ian, wasn’t that Scottish for John? But that didn’t fit either. Seven letters: 

_  _  _  A _ U _ 

Suddenly, his concentration was interrupted by the soft chirrup of his phone receiving a text. He looked around for it but couldn’t see it anywhere in the gathering darkness of the room. Deciding to ignore it for the time being, he turned back to the troublesome cryptic clue.

 Al-Eizariya, where the hell was that? He felt sure he had seen the name on a road sign somewhere, but for the life of him he couldn’t think where. However, it must have been written in English and not Arabic or he wouldn’t have recognised it. It was likely to have been in Israel then, or possibly Iraq. He was still getting no closer to a solution, just going round in circles. Maybe the ‘John’ in the clue was a biblical reference? 

His mobile chirruped again, and he peered around the flat, trying to pinpoint the sound. A ghostly luminescent glow on the desk indicated the location of the device. He sat looking at it for a moment, debating whether it was really important enough to warrant him getting up. Who the hell would call him at this hour? The fact was, he knew it was probably Lestrade trying to get hold of him about a case, but he was loathed to have to leave the warm comfort of the flat and go outside into the filthy rain at this time of night. 

The phone flickered into life again with another text. Damn it, he couldn’t ignore it any longer. 

“Okay, Okay. Keep your hair on,” he shouted out aloud, taking one last glimpse at the tantalisingly nearly complete crossword, before standing up and setting it down on his chair. 

The phone buzzed again, insistently. 

“I said I’m coming. Bloody hell, where’s the fire?” He ranted at the loathsome object. 

Annoyed, he snatched up the phone, pressing the button at the side to illuminate the tiny blue screen. Five texts flashed across the display, casting a pale light across John’s face. All were from the same unrecognised number. All said exactly the same thing. A single word, seven letters: 

LAZARUS
S.H.