Work Header

Be Here Now

Chapter Text



My love and I are inventing a country…

But there is a problem: if we put a river in the country,
it will thaw and begin flooding. 
If we put the river on the border, there will be trouble. 
If we forget about the river, there will be no way out.

From Larry Levis’ “In a Country”




The war had taught him many things.

First, he’d learned there were some things he’d seen that he would never unsee. The burst of red and black and white that a man became when he stepped on an IED. The incongruent sight of teeth blown into brains.

Second, he’d learned how not to cry. He’d learned to stand at attention as men he’d just watched die were loaded onto planes – really watched die, the pulse monitors clamped to the wrists of the lost causes (the ones whose hearts didn’t have the sense to stop, despite that most of the brain was gone) beginning that long, terrible note.

And last, he had learned to love. Really love. With all of his heart. He thought he’d loved before, of course. His mother, especially. But even that felt like nothing when compared to the feeling of his hand on the back of Paul Killian’s neck, the squeeze he gave it as Paul – the younger medic – broke down and finally righted himself. The strength of the man, how John realized he’d seen all of him, even the parts Paul would have wanted no one to see. The way Paul realized it too, tears pulling clean streaks in the bomb’s black smoke on his cheeks.

What a wanker I am, eh? Paul’d said, trying to break the moment, punctuated by the nervous laugh of exposure.

No, John had replied, tightening his hand on Paul’s neck and looking into his eyes. Not at all.

What had the writer said? Every war story is a love story…


These things the war had taught him were not serving him now. He could not unsee the black coat furling out behind Sherlock as he fell, and fell, and fell. The long note he heard in his head now was the cry that needed to come out of him, caught bird-like behind his chest. And as for love…

“John, you’re doing it again.”

John Watson snapped his eyes up. His mouth was working in that way he did when his control was slipping, and he swallowed hard. His therapist’s eyes were like like drops of oil, wet and sad and boring into him. She was leaned forward over her notebook, holding her own hand.

“Yes,” he said quickly, clearing his throat. “Sorry.” He sat up straighter. “What was the question again?”

She smiled faintly. “There wasn’t one.”

He felt color come up on his cheeks. “Right. Sorry.” He looked out the window, feeling suddenly even more awkward in his too-big clothes. His shoulder had inexplicably begun to ache.

Now she leaned back, sighed. “You know, John, I could be much more help to you if you’d actually say the things you’re thinking.” A beat of silence. “I’m very worried about you. You look…unwell, and I want to be able to help you.”

He looked down, feeling that he’d somehow disappointed her, and that was something he never did if he could help it. He bit his lip, shook his head. “It’s too…“ He trailed off.

“I know you loved him, John.”

As though by reflex, he rolled his eyes. “Not you too.” He tried to push a laugh out. It sounded like a faint, pained cough.

“Stop trying to name it, John, or worrying about other people naming it. Stop judging it. I think doing that’s getting in the way of you talking about what’s happening with you. You can just have loved him and leave it at that.”

The words bloomed warm in him, a tiny bit of light in all that dark. He cleared his throat and looked down.

“It’s not just him,” he said. “It’s all of it.” He shook his head, drawing in a huge shaking breath.

She spoke into the quiet. “You’ve been through a lot. It’s okay that the war is still with you.”

Now a tear did find a way out. “It’s all come back,” he said, and his voice broke. “I see Sherlock falling and, my God, it hurts so much…and then it all comes back.”

“Tell me,” she urged quietly. “Tell me what’s come back, John.”

He looked out the window into the seemingly perpetual rain, sheeting down the thick glass pane.

He shook his head sharply. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”



Prague was a dark city, even in the daylight, but at night it was nearly impenetrable. It seemed to fit both Mycroft Holmes’ mood and the errand for which he’d traveled all this way. His private jet was fueling at the airport and on stand-by for immediate return to London. With luck, no one would even know he’d gone.

One of his men was by the door to get it when the knock came, a soft tap. As the door swung open, it was as though a piece of the Prague night unfurled into the room, Sherlock’s coat trailing a bit behind him as he stepped quickly into the room. He was all in black – his shirt, jacket beneath his coat, pants, shoes. Only his scarf– striped with sapphire blue—gave any relief. His raven hair was now cut short, the longer hair on top falling to a long fringe that was windblown. The pupils of his pale eyes were huge, eclipsing most of the watery blue.

Six months since Mycroft had last seen him, and somehow Sherlock already looked older, harder. It was the day after his leap from the hospital roof, the laundry truck’s contents padding his fall but not breaking it entirely. Outside Suffolk, after Mycroft received a text with nothing but an address.

There he’d found Sherlock alone in a tiny hotel room, sitting still on the side of the bed, his shirt open and revealing tight bands of tape around his broken ribs. His chest rose and fell with an unnaturally slow rhythm. There’d been another bandage over his left eye where he’d gashed his forehead down through the eyebrow, and a bruise the most exquisite shade of violet was blooming around the bandage’s white.

Molly had taken care of it all, then left him alone to heal at his request.

Sherlock had cocked his other eyebrow at Mycroft as he’d entered by way of greeting. Mycroft had covered his mouth, shaking his head, and breathed. “Oh Sherlock…” with the tone not of relief but of what have you done…

The gash over his eye had scarred, likely from lack of medical attention as it healed. There was now a thick pink line cutting through his dark brow, extending up into his too-long fringe.

“You appear to be on your way to becoming a pirate after all,” Mycroft said mildly as Sherlock stopped in front of him. He did not sit, his gloved fists balled at his sides.

“What do you want.” It was not a question, and the statement was loaded with rebuke.

“I know,” Mycroft said patiently, nodding. “I know I was not to contact you, I know I was not to attempt to see you.” He met Sherlock’s eyes gravely. “But I believed the circumstances warranted it.”

Sherlock stood still, saying nothing, but his head cocked a fraction in both interest and in a challenge.

“Please sit,” Mycroft said, gesturing to the other chair, and though Sherlock hesitated another fraction (never one to do what Mycroft asked, as if on principle), he did sit. He was curious, and a curious Sherlock could be more pliant.

Mycroft turned to the figure at the door. “Wait outside, please,” he said, and the man nodded and left, the door snicking closed behind him.

There was tea, fresh from room service. Mycroft poured himself a cup and looked at Sherlock, the spout poised over the other cup. When Sherlock nodded, he poured.

“What progress have you made?” Mycroft began conversationally as the tea poured.

“Not enough,” Sherlock said softly, tightly. “Obviously.”

“You need to work more quickly,” Mycroft said, pouring a swirl of milk into the tea and handing it over.

“Obviously,” Sherlock said again, slower and more sour. He blew on the tea, his eyes boring into Mycroft with disdain. “Now. What?”

Mycroft had been rehearsing what he was going to say on the plane. He knew he must tread carefully for many reasons, not the least of which was that he was responsible, at least partially, for this whole situation. Not to mention that he had his own difficulties speaking about anything related to matters of the heart.

He gave a wincing smile as he picked up his own cup and saucer and re-crossed his legs.

“It’s John,” he began, and Sherlock stilled with his cup resting on his bottom lip.

“Yes?” Clipped. Trying for impatience, but not quite hiding the anxious spike underneath.

“It’s…not going well, I’m afraid.”

“Explain.” Sherlock finally took a sip, his eyes locked with Mycroft’s still.

Mycroft looked down. “Sherlock,” he began, trying his best for kindness and not condescension. “John is a wounded veteran who has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder since his return from combat. He is also as intensely empathetic and sensitive to the needs and feelings of others as you and I are oblivious to them. But his military training and upbringing block his ability to adequately address his own pain.”

“Thank you for the painfully obvious summation,” Sherlock said, sotto voice and full of annoyance and…something else. “Now get to the point.”

“All right. The point.” Mycroft set the cup down, untouched, breathed out. “Have you seen him?”

“Of course not,” Sherlock sneered.

“You have him under surveillance, yes?”

Sherlock nodded.

“No photos?”

“No,” Sherlock said darkly. “Why?”

Now Mycroft reached into his inside pocket and pulled out a plain brown envelope closed with a red string.

He handed it over and Sherlock took it with just a touch of hesitation. He unwound the red string and took the photos out, lingering on each for a few beats.

Mycroft watched his face closely, how the corners of Sherlock’s mouth pulled down, how his full lips pursed then drew to a thin line. Something clouded his eyes, and they shone conspicuously in the room’s dim light.

“So he’s lost weight.” His throat sounded tight. There was nothing in his tone to convince anyone of its attempt at nonchalance.

“Two stone, perhaps more,” Mycroft said, nodding. “He’s not working. He’s been prescribed tranquilizers, anxiety medications, for sleep. Mrs. Hudson says he wakes her up most nights shouting, doesn’t eat…” He trailed off, letting his words sink in.

“His mental state is not my concern at the moment,” Sherlock said tightly, handing the photos back. “Keeping him alive is.”

“He may die while you’re doing that, Sherlock,” Mycroft said, leaning forward. “I’m deeply worried about him.”

“Oh please—“

“Sherlock, you jumped to your ‘death’ in front of him. A very convincing death as I understand.”

Sherlock’s eyes flared with rage. “You know I had no choice,” he hissed.

“You did not have to do it in front of him,” Mycroft shot back, his voice rising.

Sherlock’s voice rose in response. “I tried to send him away. You know that.”

“And when he came back, you—“

“He wouldn’t have believed it any other way!” Sherlock roiled. “I couldn’t protect him if he sought me out—“

“Sherlock, he loves you,” Mycroft cut in, something plaintive in his voice. “And it’s been too much to bear with everything else. I know it’s hard for you, but you must try to understand that.”


“He loves you,” he repeated, enunciating each word. “And unlike you, John will not survive the fall he’s about to take.”

“Spare me the melodrama,” Sherlock slammed the cup down on the table, harder than he intended. “And since when have you given a damn about anyone but yourself?”

Mycroft nodded. It was a fair charge to make. “You know why. John is…different. And besides…you love him, as well.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, a faint twitch starting beside his nose. “I’m going,” he said quickly, standing and moving toward the door.

“John’s therapist believes it’s only a matter of time before he does something to cause himself serious harm. You must tell him.” Mycroft’s voice was sad, urgent.

“I’m doing all I can, as quickly as I can,” Sherlock said, but something was broken in his voice. He stopped, whirled on his brother. “What else would you have me do? If I’m seen in London—“

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” Mycroft said quietly. “Let me bring him to you.”

There was a long moment of silence. Sherlock turned slowly, went to the hotel’s vast window, looking out over Prague and its sleepy lights. He crossed his arms over his chest before the window as though he’d taken a sudden chill. Then he shook his head.


Mycroft let out a frustrated breath. “I can ensure he will not be followed. I can assure absolute secrecy.”

Sherlock’s gaze hardened again. “Oh yes, I know just how much I can trust you for absolute secrecy.” It was a mumble. Almost a growl.

It cut deep, as it was intended to. Mycroft looked down, nodded toward him. Touche.

“This is different, Sherlock,” he said softly. “I made a terrible mistake. I will not make it again, and certainly not with this. You have my word.”

Mycroft could almost hear his brother’s mind working from across the room. He was quiet for a very long time, looking out into the blue-black night.

“My plan. My location.” Sherlock said finally, his words hard as flint. “Nothing but transport and logistics from you.”

Mycroft let out a slow breath. “Of course. If that’s what you wish.”

He swept toward the door again, his gait determined. “I’ll text what I need and then the details when they’re in place,” he gruffed.

“Very good,” Mycroft said, formal once again, the wall back in place between them.

His hand on the knob, Sherlock turned back to him. “Mycroft…” He hesitated, his eyes down.

“You’re welcome, ” Mycroft said softly, and Sherlock closed the door behind him.




The Thames was beautiful, the setting sun burning the water’s surface, the long shadows of the skyline, everything a glowing red.

John Watson stood at the window of his hotel room, his arms crossed over his thin chest, his eyes on a boat moving off on the water. He’d never stayed in a hotel in London before, always having Mike or Harry or the Army accommodations to use when he was in the city.

But tonight, he’d splurged. The view, the food he’d ordered from room service, the large room… it had been lovely. In any other circumstance, he would have said he was having the time of his life.

And perhaps he was. On this, his last night on earth.

He turned and looked to the bed where his single, large suitcase lay at the foot. He would like to say he’d packed with care, but in fact, he’d simply packed everything he owned, leaving a note for Mrs. Hudson on the mantel between Sherlock’s skull and the framed, yellowed engraving of the taxonomy of plants. He’d thanked her for her kindness and given her his best, leaving the last month’s rent and the next’s in the envelope.

Earlier in the day he’d gone to see Molly and Mike at Bart’s. As usual, he brushed off Mike’s concern and invitation to tea at his house. But when John shook his hand, he held it perhaps a bit too long. He told Mike he appreciated all his worry but that he was “on his way to being better.” When Mike’s brow furrowed a bit at that, John had forced a soft laugh.

“Really,” he said softly. “All is well.” He couldn’t stand the worry on his face, and he would have said anything to smooth it away. And strictly speaking, it wasn’t a lie…

When he saw Molly, she was still wearing that pained and oddly guilty expression she always seemed to have when she saw him. She hugged him so hard as he left that when John pulled back, he felt his eyes welling up. There was something so anguished in her eyes, and it tugged at him.

“Molly,” he said quietly. “It’s not your fault, you know.”

“What isn’t?” she asked softly, her hand on his arm.

“Sherlock…I know you were here. I know some part of you thinks there might have been something you could have done—“

“No, no,” she rushed in, shaking her head. She averted her eyes. “I…know there’s nothing I could have done.” She swallowed. “I’m still so sorry, John. For you.”

He forced a smile, a shrug. “I’m…fine,” he said, and drew in a breath. “I’m feeling much better. More…settled.”

“I’m glad.” She looked close to tears again, and her eyes darted away.

“Take care of yourself, all right?” John said, squeezing her arm in return.

She nodded. “You too. I’ll see you soon.” And then she was gone.

In the cab, he’d tried to call Harry and got no answer. It was fitting. A fitting end.

The meal he’d eaten – a steak with all the trimmings, a glass of Scotch – was the most he’d had in a week. His stomach was vaguely boozy with it, too full, and it made him sleepy and warm and slightly queasy.

He turned to the window, the sky now going purple edged with gray.

Time, he thought to himself. No use waiting…

He went to the bed and unzipped the suitcase. On top of all his clothes and the folders of paperwork (his will, his insurance, his pension information) lay his dog tags, his battered phone, and his pistol. He lifted the pistol and tags out, holding them in one hand, the metal clinking.

Breath in. Breath out. A huge space opened within him, his mind too full but his heart somehow completely hollowed out.

Tucking the pistol in the back of his jeans, he pulled his long-sleeved shirt out of the waist of his jeans, unbuttoned it and tossed it on the foot of the bed. Then he slipped the tags over his head, shifting them beneath the collar of his khaki undershirt. They felt right there, settled on their usual place.

He reached for the gun, looking down, and a sob caught in his throat now. He made a strangled sound. Biting his bottom lip, he pulled back the gun to shift one bullet into the pipe. He clicked the safety off.

He’d chosen a room that had both a shower and a tub. The shower would be easier to clean, and John Watson was nothing if not polite.

The room was silent, only the sound of traffic reaching far up through the glass.

Then, with one long look out the window again, he blew out a breath, nodded to himself, and turned toward the bath.

His phone beeped as a text came in. He glanced at it as the screen lit up.

“John. Stop,” the screen read, white words on black.

It stilled him, his eyes widening. His head swiveled, taking in the room with a start, the window. Nothing. No one anywhere.

The gun in one hand, he reached down and lifted the phone. The return number was blocked.

“Answer the door,” the phone buzzed again, and just as he read it, there came the quiet knock. He started, his heart racing, his fists squeezing around the phone and the pistol’s grip. His breath picked up as he stared at the door for a long moment.

Another soft knock. The phone buzzed in his hand. “John. Answer it.”

His eyes were wide as he took a hesitant step, another, then moved quietly to the door. He leaned in, licking the sweat that had formed over his lip, laid a hand on the door and looked through the peephole.

Nothing. No one there.

I’ve lost it, he thought, shaking his head, and had convinced himself of it until the knock came again, and this time he felt it beneath his hand.

It was pissing him off now. He grit his teeth, hiding the gun behind his back as he jerked the door open.

“Who in the hell—“ And the words disappeared in his mouth, his eyes wide.

Irene Adler, a mink coat’s collar gathered up at her neck. She had a strange half-smile, her eyes showing something akin to amusement at the surprise in his gaze. Then a gloved hand shot up and slapped him harder than he thought a woman her size could manage across the face.

The shock and the hard blow staggered him back into the room. As he struggled to remain standing, his arms windmilling, she was suddenly in the room, moving on him again, her left hand darting out. He didn’t even see the syringe until it had sunk in, a blossom of strange warmth spreading out from the needle prick.

Knees down hard on the carpet, the room swimming in a swirl of blur and color and sound. He was vaguely aware of the door closing, of Irene Adler following him as he threw himself back, crawling toward the bed, the gun sliding from his grip.

“Relax, Dr. Watson,” she was cooing from what sounded like far away. It seemed to echo in the air around him.

A phone was ringing somewhere then stopped.

John’s face hit the carpet, his legs gone numb, the limpness moving up. One lolling eye caught sight of the gun, and his arm flopped toward it.

“No no no…” she said from her tunnel of sound. “You won’t be needing that.” Her hand lifted the gun away and out of sight.

Then, her voice changed, all business. “I’ve got him. Send them up.” She huffed out a breath. “Yes, he’s fine. Well, he will be...”

The weight that had stolen his legs moved up, his arms going limp. A pain started behind his eyes, his head feeling as though it was filling with lead. He managed to turn his face to the other side just as it settled in.

“Go to sleep, Dr. Watson,” she said, leaning into his view there on the floor.

He blinked, a small sound coming from his throat.

She smiled faintly. “When you wake up, I promise…you’ll be in a better place.”

Then she reached out and closed his eyes with a black-gloved hand.



Continued in Chapter Two.

Chapter Text




The world outside the huge foyer windows was an impossible swath of white, the ground’s snowy surface unbroken, the high-altitude evergreens’ branches loaded down. In the distance, Sherlock knew the Alps were pushing up even higher into the heavy gray sky, the storm more remarkable for its quiet than the steady rhythm of its snow.

Mycroft’s life certainly had its privileges, Sherlock mused, not the least of which was a home of some sort in nearly any country in the world. This, his private hideaway high in the Alps, was one of the smaller ones at six bedrooms. To Sherlock, it felt cavernous – a bit too richly decorated, a bit too warm, a bit too…TOO. But its security was impeccable, its on-call staff had been attentive without being annoying, and true to his brother’s rich appetite, the chef was excellent.

It was also more than he needed. And certainly more than John had been able to make use of, the third shot Irene Adler had given him still working its way out of his system a full day after he’d arrived.

At least that’s what he’d been told. He hadn’t really seen John yet, beyond the circle of his face in the mummy bag he’d ridden in on the stretcher from the helipad. The flight staff had wheeled him into the large entrance foyer, past Sherlock inside the doorway.

“Last room at the end of the corridor,” Sherlock said softly to the attendants, his eyes locked on John’s pale face until the stretcher moved out of sight, the wheels gliding on the stone floor. Then Sherlock met Irene’s eyes as she came in behind them. The doorman shut the wide wooden door, and the sound echoed up the long stairs toward the beamed, peaked ceiling high above.

She pulled the ruff of her mink coat down from around her face, the doorman suddenly behind her to help her take it off. She smiled up at Sherlock as the servant disappeared.

He realized with a start that he’d missed her, that he was glad to see her. But it wasn’t the time. In fact, it might never be.

“That hair makes me think naughty schoolboy thoughts,” she said by way of greeting, her brow arching. “I’m not sure it suits you.”

His mouth quirked. “Ease, not fashion,” he said, his voice dropping. Then he cleared his throat, said: “I assume you’re staying for a few days to recuperate from your travels.”

She angled her head at the formality in his voice. “If it’s…” He could hear “welcome” hanging, but instead she finished with “…convenient.”

He nodded. “I’ve arranged for you to stay in the guest quarters just behind the house. Quite comfortable and quite up to your usual standards. There’s a covered walkway that connects them. The staff will see to your every need. I will, of course, have someone let you know when meals are being served.”

“Thank you,” she replied, somewhat terse. He knew she was aware of being dismissed, but at the moment, it was all he could manage. Still, she moved to him, leaned up, kissed his cheek.

“Until later then,” she said softly, and the doorman picked up her bag and led her out.

He did not dine with her at breakfast, nor at lunch. He did not, in fact, dine at all. He was too keyed up, caught in the waiting. That’s what he was doing now, there in front of the foyer window, watching the snow and its blue light cover the grounds in its silence.

“Has he awoken?”

Her voice behind him almost startled him. He’d been too deep in his thinking to even hear her approach.

“Not as yet, no,” he replied. His tone tried for nonchalance – failing – as he put his hands behind his back and turned to walk toward the drawing room on the right. “Did he regain consciousness at all on the flight?”

“Just for a moment,” she said, following him. “Somewhere over water. He went back down like a dream.”

Sherlock folded himself into a leather armchair that could only have been of Mycroft’s choosing. Adler took the opulent red couch across, her tight black dress moving with her as she crossed her legs. Her eyes didn’t leave his face.

“How… did he seem?” He was picking a speck of lint off his black wool trousers as he asked it.

Adler’s brow creased for a moment, as though something had pricked her.

“Confused,” she said, as though stating the obvious. “Though not as confused as he’s going to be, I’d wager.” Sherlock’s mouth quirked in a pained half-smile. She considered. “Frightened. But only for an instant.”

Sherlock nodded, met her eyes. He could tell it was a concession, what she saw there, and he let her see it.

“Oh my,” she murmured. “You’re in trouble, aren’t you?”

He didn’t answer her for a long moment as he looked at the fire. Then all he said was: “Thank you for bringing him here.” Flat.

“I owed you a favor,” she said. “Anything you could want or need. I could have brought down a government, made you an obscenely rich man, and look what you’ve chosen? Bringing John to you.”

“Leave it,” Sherlock bit out, his eyes flaring.

Her eyes narrowed. Her expression was somewhere between hurt and deeply pleased. “Wasn’t it you who called love ‘a dangerous disadvantage?’”

“I said leave it.” He bolted up, stalking to the fireplace.

There was a long silence as he stood with his back to her.

“No,” she said finally. The word hung for a moment, then she pressed on. “There’s not much left of the person you knew, from the looks of him.”

“Irene—“ He closed his eyes, a reflex, forced himself to open them again. She had a way of cutting so quickly, so far to the bone. She had his way of doing it.

She continued. “I can’t imagine what it was like for you, listening to what was happening and you so far away, so out of anything like control.” She paused. Her tone was more like needling than the rumination it appeared to be.

He swallowed. His eyes slid closed again, replaying it:

“Target is going into suitcase,” a voice crackled on the satellite handset he held. Sherlock was still in Prague, headed to the airport, the dark cab weaving in and out of light traffic. Normal. Maddening.

Mycroft had sent a whole team to tail John, including two surveillance snipers on two different floors of a building across from the hotel. The high-powered scopes they usually used for kill shots were trained on John through the open hotel window.

“He’s got a pistol,” the second man added after a puff of static.

“Tell me what he’s doing.” Sherlock had said into radio, urgent, gripping the device hard. “Tell me exactly what he’s doing.”

“Not sure…wait, he’s putting something on. Looks like…dog tags? Spec 2, can you confirm?”

Sherlock’s chest clenched. Christ...

“Dog tags, affirmative.”

Something was freefalling in Sherlock’s belly. He grabbed his phone from the seat beside him, the call to Irene still connected. He heard her footsteps on the line.

“Irene, hurry,” he bit out.

“I'm going into the elevator now,” she said breathlessly. “What is it?”

“He’s got his pistol. He’s putting on his dog tags. You’ve got to hurry.”

He knew she would understand. Dog tags. For identifying the body. A shot to the skull, probably through the roof of the mouth or straight into the medulla oblongata. John would know just how to do it. He wanted it done as quickly as possible, an open and shut case. Clean and easy for everyone.

“Mr. Holmes, he’s got one down the pipe now. He’s going toward the bath.”

“Irene, now!”

“I'm almost there. Just down the hall now…” She was moving fast.

“Mr. Holmes….if he goes into the loo, we’ll lose sight of him. Do you want me to wing him?”

“Don’t you dare!” he roared into the handset, the cabbie's head snapping up and staring in the rearview mirror. Sherlock's eyes were wild, wide at the vision of a bullet ripping through John’s flesh, his already-scarred shoulder, his arm.

He looked down at the phone, an idea snicking into place as he minimized Irene’s call, called up the message app. John’s number was a physical memory, his thumbs dancing quickly. Send.

John. Stop.

Puff of static. “He’s stopped moving. Looking at his mobile.”

He heard Irene knock. His fingers moved again quickly. Send.

Answer the door.

Maddening beat of silence. Then another knock. “Damn,” Irene breathed close to the phone.

John. Answer it. Send.

“He’s going toward the door.”

“Irene, don’t let him see you.” The cab was nudging through more traffic. Sherlock clenched his teeth. Everything was moving so painfully slowly, stretching him too tight.

Another knock, and he heard the door swing open, John’s angry voice….

Then the call went dead.

“She’s in,” Spec 1 puffed into the handset.

“Oi, Jesus!” Spec 2 added in surprise, then: “Target down, he’s down,”

Sherlock grabbed the phone, redialed. The connection hung for a long moment.

“DAMN YOU—“ he fumed, squeezing the phone as the cabbie looked back again.

Irene picked up after three rings. “I’ve got him. Send them up.”

“Is he all right?” he rushed in. “What did you do to him? Is he all right?”

“Yes, he’s fine. Well, he will be…”

There in front of the firelight, Sherlock’s eyes slid open again. Irene had let the silence settle, letting him relive it, seeming to enjoy it. It was all over her face as he turned to look at her again.

She opened her mouth to speak, but before she could say anything else, one of the house staff appeared in the doorway, half-in and half-out.

“Mr. Holmes,” he said in the quiet voice of servitude.

Sherlock turned, trying his best to compose his face. “Yes.”

“Dr. Watson is awake, sir,” the man replied, his voice as pressed as his lapels.

“Full of questions, I suppose.”

The servant nodded. “You could say that, sir,” he said with a strained smile.

“I’ll be there in a moment,” Sherlock replied, and the man angled his head as he left. Sherlock wasn’t aware that he had pulled his jumper down to straighten it until he saw Irene’s eyes following the movement.

“If you’ll excuse me,” he said quietly as he moved toward the door.

“Walk softly, Sherlock,” she said and he paused, looking back at her, his brow creased.

“What do you mean?”

“You think you can explain this and all will be well,” she murmured. “You’ve considered it and deduced it and reduced it in your mind so that it all makes sense.”

He stared. She quirked a sad smile and continued.

“But the truth is, my love, John Watson is nothing like you. The truth is that you have no idea how to manage what you’re about to get.”

Sherlock drew himself up to his full height, his hands clasped behind his back. The thought had clearly occurred to him, as well.

She looked at the fire again. “A little unsolicited advice?” He angled his head a fraction, questioning. “Don’t think,” she finished. “Feel. Do what feels right.”

He considered this for a beat, looking down. Then he nodded and left her there in the mix of dark and light.



Sherlock Holmes had been certain of many things in his life, very certain. And as he stood listening to the fury in John Watson’s voice just beyond the thick wood of the door, he was more than certain that Irene was right.

“Get your bloody hands off of me--”

You have no idea how to manage what you’re about to get…

He steeled himself, opened the door.

At the far end of the large bedroom, John was sitting up on the side of the high bed. He wore his military-issue sweatpants, a khaki T-shirt, his feet bare, a plain tan bird in the room’s opulent nest. Two of the house’s security staff, young men in dark suits, were standing in front of him with their hands on his shoulders, blocking his attempt to rise. John’s arms were shaking as he pushed them away, his face red, his teeth grit.

“Mr. Holmes will be here momentarily, Dr. Watson,” one of them was saying firmly.

“You keep saying that,” John shouted. “You keep saying—“

“Mr. Holmes is here,” Sherlock said quietly.

John turned toward the sound, as did the other two men. And once John saw that it was not the Mr. Holmes he’d expected, there was no more need for the men to hold him.

He’d grown stone-still, his eyes widening.

“Leave us, please,” Sherlock said, looking at the two servants. They nodded to Sherlock and went out through a side door that connected the room to a private sitting room and the hallway again. Sherlock heard it lock behind them.

John said nothing, just kept staring as Sherlock came closer, his shoes clicking softly on the room’s stone floor until he reached the edge of the rich oriental rug beneath the bed. He moved to stand in front of John, drinking the sight of him and the relief that it brought in.

“Hello, John.” It was barely more than a whisper. He did not smile. His eyes stung.

John’s entire body was trembling. His wide eyes were rimmed with tears. One hand reached up and covered his chest, squeezing as though something excruciatingly painful had entered there. The dog tags he still wore clinked softly against his chest.

Sherlock’s eyes took it in, cataloging each detail of his friend’s face and body with his usual, involuntary precision. John’s harsh breathing. The heaving of his much-thinner chest. The way John’s brow had creased over his eyes in an expression not unlike pain.

Something dark washed through Sherlock’s chest – guilt and regret.

“I…I watched you fall,” John whispered, the tears spilling over. “I saw you…I saw—“

“I know,” Sherlock replied, his voice quiet. “It was necessary, John. It’s important that you understand that.”

John didn’t move for a long moment, his chest still heaving. He shook his head.

Then suddenly he was up off the bed, a scream clawing from his throat as he threw himself at Sherlock, hitting him square in the chest. Both of them tumbled back in a tussle of arms and legs onto the floor, John’s fists swinging at Sherlock’s body, his face, anything he could reach.


John’s body was tight as a cable on top of him, his fists’ blows wild but having an effect. Sherlock felt blood bloom in his mouth as a stray punch hit his bottom lip, a sharp pain at the bridge of his nose and in his ribs where fist struck bone, and some part of his mind sent up a warning that, in this state, John could really hurt him.

Adrenaline, rage, had made John freakishly strong. Sherlock struggled to grasp the flailing arms, finally got his hands around John’s wrists, shifted his weight and rolled John beneath him, his knees on either side of John’s thin hips. He pressed his weight down, pinning John’s arms to the floor.

“Stop it!” he shouted straight into the other man’s face. “JOHN, STOP IT!”

Beneath him, John looked up into his face, the rage still etched in his haggard features. He swore again, straining up, and in a jolt he jerked his head forward, catching Sherlock on the jaw with this forehead. Sherlock was thrown off balance by the sharp burst of pain, just enough for John to get a knee up, fast and hard, between Sherlock’s legs.

A wave of full agony and nausea rushed in, blooming from Sherlock’s groin and traveling to his gut. He groaned loudly, gagged out a breath, his arms wrapping around his midsection as he hit the floor hard. Beside him, John’s hands had come up to hold his forehead as he rolled the other way, his back almost touching Sherlock’s back.

Sherlock’s knees came up, curling him into a tight ball around the pain in his groin and middle. His eyes squeezed shut against the wave of nausea. Faintly through the blood rushing in his ears he could hear John gasping behind him, heard the first sob jerking him, then another. A keening cry rose from John’s chest.

Sherlock coughed, finding his voice. “It’s all right,” he said hoarsely. “John, it’s all right…”

He didn’t know what to do.

Sherlock coughed again, forcing his body over to move first onto his back, then over to his side, pressing himself close to John’s back. Then he reached out, sliding an arm over John’s waist. John responded by curling smaller into himself, but Sherlock kept up the gentle pressure, pulling John close against his chest.

Pressing his face into John’s hair, Sherlock let out a shaking breath. John’s body was still trembling, his body wracked with jerking, harsh sobs.

“Let it go,” Sherlock whispered.

Do what feels right…

Sherlock leaned forward until his cheek was against the sweat-slicked skin of John’s temple. Then he pressed a slow kiss there where his cheek had just been.

He tasted salt from tears and sweat. He tasted his own blood on John’s skin.

“I’m sorry,” he rasped faintly. “Forgive me. Please.”

John was silent for a long moment, his breathing slowing. Sherlock kept his face pressed against John’s, the leaden ache and swim of nausea warm in his belly. Then he heard John’s faint voice.

“No,” he said, shaking his head, turning his face into the rug so that Sherlock was left with a cheek on the back of his head.


“I…don’t want to see you,” John said quietly. “Go. Please.”

John’s turn toward the floor had loosened Sherlock’s grasp on his waist, and Sherlock rolled away, his stomach roiling, his arm sliding away from John’s body. He made it up onto his knees, coughing again against the bruised feeling in his groin, pulled himself up to his feet.

He looked down at the tight curved shell of John’s body on the floor.

“The staff will see to anything you need,” he said, still breathing hard. “And I’ll be here…when you’re ready to speak to me.”

John said nothing, kept his face away. Sherlock took one last, long look at him there on the floor, curved an arm around his waist as made his way to the door.

Sherlock turned the lock behind him. He straightened himself against the sting, the hurt behind his eyes. He made it halfway down the hall before his stomach gave into the sick feeling rising within him and he vomited against Mycroft’s broody foyer wall, the tasteful wall portraits’ eyes politely averted as he wretched.


* * *


Chapter Text



For the first day after Sherlock had come to him, John Watson did nothing. The second day was the same.

Well, strictly speaking, John had moved at what Sherlock decided was a typical rate from the wing chair by the window to the loo and back throughout the day.

And as the second day waned from bright morning of sunlight on the lovely snow to mid-day, Sherlock – sitting before the monitor that was connected to the surveillance camera in John’s room – had started to vaguely entertain himself by trying to predict when John would need to go.

Meal times were another source of suspense. First, Sherlock watched whether John would acknowledge the servant who brought his tray of food (he didn’t), then sat in rapt attention to see if John would move toward the tray on the table beside the bed.

Not even tea. Damn.

From the single camera’s vantage point, Sherlock could only see John’s left side, the camera set high on the ceiling. Sherlock had it zoomed in as close as it would go, but the picture pixilated the closer he tried to look. This left John’s face as half of a grainy, firmly set mask. Only John’s lids moved as he blinked, his hands folded in his lap, his legs straight out with his ankles crossed. Whether he cried or not, the camera could not tell.

For his part, Sherlock’s body had begun to ache the longer he sat there watching. He’d had the monitor moved to the wide desk in his own bedroom, there next to his own laptop and the larger laptop that acted as the security console for the house and grounds.

He had to stand in the midst of his work to stretch, his joints feeling the disuse and his face and ribs aching. His lower lids were slightly puffed, accommodating the swell oozing from the blow to the bridge of his nose. The middle of his face throbbed distantly, as did his lip beneath the small Steri-strip that held it closed where it had split. A puff of swelling marked the widening bruise at the corner of his chin where John’s forehead had hit.

“There…” Irene had tsked softly after he’d eventually made his way from the foyer to the drawing room again. As she’d spoken, she’d dabbed a cotton ball at the blood on his face. “You know, you might have fared better if you’d actually tried to defend yourself.”

Sherlock sat stiffly, enduring her ministrations, staring straight ahead. Most of his attention was frankly focused below his waist. The last time he’d taken a shot like that had been when he was 16, playing football. He still couldn’t quite recall the second half of the match.

“I’ll try to remember that for the next round,” he said hoarsely after a beat. His throat burned from vomiting.

“Oh, there won’t be a next round,” she said easily, reaching for another cotton puff. “He’s got it out of his system now. Give him some time and he’ll come round.”

He looked up at her now. “You sound very sure.” It was impossible to hide the defeat from his voice.

She smiled faintly. “That’s because I am,” she replied. With that, she finished dabbing up the blood on his chin, set the cotton down on the tray of supplies the head servant had brought in at her request. Then she leaned forward, curling her hands around his forearms, squeezing faintly in a way that he found…reassuring. Kind, in a way.

“I’ve seen you two together, you know,” she murmured. “And let’s just say it’s part of my…professional expertise…to understand the things people want but won’t allow themselves to say.”

Sherlock stared, his mouth open a bit. She smiled, and it reached her eyes for a warm beat. Then they both looked away.

“There,” she said, leaning away and tightening a cap on the peroxide firmly. “All sorted. Except for your…” Her eyes flicked down. “…other injury, which I imagine you’d like to see to yourself.”

His lip curled and he met the teasing challenge in her gaze. “Thank you, yes.”

For a few beats, she stood, her arms crossed as she studied his face.

“I’ve seen worse,” she pronounced finally. Then, a bit of her mischievousness sparking in her eyes, she added. “I’ve done worse, in fact.”

He smiled faintly again, but his eyes drifted away. She leaned forward the rest of the way, kissed his forehead, releasing his arms.

“Tomorrow will have its way with you soon enough, Mr. Holmes,” she said softly. “Try to rest…”

Before him on the monitor, the servant entered with John’s dinner.

Sherlock had asked for a steak for John – “special occasions,” John had once said – in the hopes that it might tempt him on this, at least his second day without anything to eat. That John had barely moved all day made Sherlock less than optimistic his idea would work.

He watched with his precise gaze. No movement from the chair as the servant entered and sat the tray down, removing the dishes’ silver hats. Nothing as the man retreated again, locking the door behind.

A moment of stillness. Then, John’s head turned toward the plate.

“Take it, John,” Sherlock mumbled, his eyes piercing into the screen. “Come on….”

No. John turned his gaze to the window again.

Sherlock was reminded suddenly of the hatchling he and Mycroft had found beneath a tree in the garden when Sherlock was a child. Thin skin, impossible bumps of eyes, the red throat…

Sherlock had been fascinated, and more than that, deeply moved by the thing, and Mycroft (seeing this) had told him not to take it home, not to get attached.

“They never live,” he’d said.

Sherlock hadn’t listened. He brought it home to his room, made a nest of flannels over the top opening of his lamp to keep it safe and warm. But when he tried to feed it egg with the dropper, it would turn its head away, its mouth stubborn and closed, the egg stringing from the end of its beak.

When it died, Sherlock dissected it.

Then, almost as an afterthought, he’d put it back together again.

“CHRIST.” Sherlock cupped his forehead in one hand, slapped the other down in frustration, the motion jostling his phone. His eyes locked on it and he snatched it up, his thumbs racing over the keyboard.

Eat. Send.

He watched the screen. John had placed his phone on the nightstand. He could hear the wooden buzz through the camera’s audio.

John heard it too. He turned toward it.

Sherlock grabbed the phone again. Please. Send.

John rose and went to the phone, picked it up and read the screen. His face blank, he typed, sent.

Special occasion.

Sherlock thought of the hotel, John with his gun and dog tags going off alone to die in the shower (easier to clean). Sherlock’s eyes stung with tears.

Yes. Send.

Very. Send.

John looked at the screen for what felt like a long time. Then he tapped, sent, put the phone down.

Sod off.

It was better than nothing, Sherlock supposed, biting his lip.

John sat again, going still, his face turned down. Sherlock heaved a sigh, resigned himself to it and returned his attention to the string of emails he’d been dealing with.

Thirty minutes came and went.

And then, John Watson did something Sherlock Holmes did not expect.

He rose, sat down in the chair beside the dinner tray, and began to eat.

* * *

It was their only direct contact for the next two days, but it was enough for the tension that had been coiling inside Sherlock since his meeting with Mycroft to ease a bit.

Then, on the third day while he was reading email from his contacts, Sherlock’s phone buzzed.

Want to go out. Won’t run.

Sherlock considered it for a long moment, then tapped two words back.

Of course. Send.

He did not mention that John would be closely watched, nor that he would only be allowed to go so far from the house. He would hope John would know that was a given by now.

He picked up the phone and told the house staff to alert the security personnel and let John out.


A week passed in relative quiet this way. Sometimes the servants reported that John was awakened at night by nightmares. Sometimes, if Sherlock was awake, he saw with his own eyes the toll the dreams could take.

It was hard to stay away, but for once, Sherlock listened. He stayed away.


* * *

It grew slightly warmer over the next few days, and John had taken to spending more and more time on the grounds, finally venturing off into the open meadows beyond the house’s immense snow-covered gardens.

There were arched, gated entrances in the two of the four walls, manned by guards in civilian dress. They offered polite greetings to John as they opened the gates.

A herd of dairy cows moved across the field several times a day, from one barn through the meadow and back again, an old man and what were probably his grandsons and two good, pied herding dogs going with the animals as they went. The cows wore huge pewter-colored bells on wide collars, and their deep sounds carried through the cold air as they went.

John, wearing his jeans, brown boots, and black Haversack coat (which hung on him now) with a thick gray scarf, had taken to sitting on a large stone wedged in the melting snow to watch them as they passed.

He liked watching the work, the normalcy of it. Part of him envied the old man and the boys their simpler task here on this lovely landscape.

His mind had been a slow, dim place. After the initial shock of seeing Sherlock again (there something different about him…John couldn’t put his finger on it), the outburst he could barely recall at this point, he’d simply opened some numb door in him and gone in.

Not the hopelessness he’d had before. He was too stunned for that. Just some sort of cotton-wool silence and sense of space.

Sherlock had kept his distance, which was itself surprising. But John knew he was there, watching. He swore sometimes he could feel Sherlock’s gaze on him everywhere, following him around his quiet room, through the gardens and out past the gates.

John tried to decide if he resented it. He hadn’t come to a conclusion as yet.

One thing he was certain he resented was the presence of Irene Adler in the house. He’d seen her walking with Sherlock off on the wooden fence line in the distance several times over the past few days. At times, she walked slightly ahead of Sherlock, her hands in the pockets of her fur coat. Sometimes she was on his arm, the two small dark figures moving as one on the pale landscape.

Sometimes they just walked, disappearing over the ridge or back into the privacy of the garden wall. He could tell they were often speaking. John would see them on other occasions stopped, leaning for long spans of time on the fence railing and looking at him.

Sometimes, John would turn and stare right back.

It was hard for him to choose which element of Adler’s presence pricked him the most. Perhaps it was that she was a reminder of yet another lie by Sherlock, one that had the added bonus of John lying to the all-too-informed Sherlock to spare his feelings, thus making John look like an arse. Or it could be the lingering aftertaste of Adler’s treatment of him in the hotel, his sudden jolt from suicide accomplished with the hard slap of her hand.

Or was it simply the way she walked locked arms with Sherlock now just at the fence line again?

Or, truth be told, the thought that perhaps Sherlock had spent the last six months here with her, hiding in this beautiful place?

John was staring at them where they’d paused in their walk, the two of them at the pasture’s far edge. His face had set into something angry that he couldn’t quite hide, so he looked away again.


* * *


Even at this distance, Sherlock hadn’t missed the look on John’s face.

“It’s not you,” Irene said from beside him.

“That he’s furious with? I disagree.” He was getting better at reading her as she read him.

“Oh no, love, not this time. This time, it’s definitely me.” She shook her head, the small smile of satisfaction surety brought her curling her lips.

They’d spoken little since leaving the house. The silence, the work on the project, it was beginning to wear him thin. Irene had herself been quiet and contemplative beside him.

The low bells were coming up the rise as the dairy cows made their way across the white meadow. The old man and one of his grandsons – the younger one, Sherlock noted – followed, waving to John on his stone and calling out to him in English. John, polite as always, raised a hand and called a greeting back.

The boy was holding something, and he called to John again. John said something, waved him in. Sherlock watched as the boy trotted over to John and stood close, showing John something cupped between his hands. John leaned in, indulging.

The sight tugged at Sherlock in a strange way. His face fell with it as he watched John and the boy, the animation of them, John’s face as he spoke…

“What is it?” Irene asked. Her voice was gentle, curious. No challenge.

“I was thinking…” Sherlock began. He didn’t take his eyes from the scene before him, his mouth working as though he were reaching for words from new language.

Finally he said: “I was thinking...what a fine father he would have made.”

Irene looked at him, her brow creasing. Sherlock saw her look back at John, where the boy was now walking away with his little prize, happily calling to John over his shoulder. Then she turned back at Sherlock.

“I’ve never seen you like this,” she murmured. “I didn’t know you could be…opened…hurt like this.”

Sherlock looked down, feeling his face flush (shame?). “A lot has happened since last we met.”

“What?” Her tone was urgent, excited, as though she had to understand -- to solve -- this.

Something in Sherlock closed at the tone. He shook his head, his eyes darting toward her, then back to where John was back to watching the two of them watching him.

“I’m going to go talk to him,” Irene said suddenly, bending to go through the wide slats in the fence.

“Irene—“ Sherlock said softly. “He’s made it clear that it’s best to let him be.”

She started walking, said: “He didn’t make it clear to me.”


* * *


“I have some things to say to you,” Adler was saying to him as she got closer.

John found himself gaping, his body tense, his face screwing up in confusion. He’d been watching her approach with a feeling somewhere between fury, fear, and disbelief. But what she said? That took the cake.

“Wait, what? You’ve got some things to say to me?” He rose to face her as she stopped a few feet from him.

“Yes,” she replied, more calm now that she was closer. “Let’s start by setting the record a bit more straight. First, Sherlock and I are not shagging.”

Anger flamed behind John’s eyes. “I don’t give a good goddamn—

“Shut it!” she burst in, pointing at his chest. It surprised him so much that he did.

“Second, I have not been here with him all this time. In fact, if you must know, I had no contact with him until a month ago when he asked me to repay a favor by helping him get to you before you shot out your brains.”

John swallowed, though the rage still simmered in his chest.

“Right,” she said, seeing her words starting to have an effect. “Third…has it occurred to you to ask why he did what he did?”

“Of course it has,” John said sourly. “It’s not like there’s been much of a chance.”

“That’s been your choice,” Irene said. “How about I tell you myself.”

John crossed his arms, once again taken back by her absolute gift for trampling into things. “Go on then. By all means. Explain it to me. Do that for him, as well.”

Her hand shot up toward his face, but he was expecting it this time. His own snapped up and gripped her wrist just before it touched his cheek. He yanked her close to him, speaking directly into her face.

“Never. Hit me. Again.” His teeth were grit. Her eyes narrowed and he let her go.

She rubbed her wrist, pinning him with her eyes instead. “There were snipers following you and two of Sherlock’s other acquaintances that day. Jim Moriarty had set it up that if the snipers didn’t see Sherlock jump, all three of you would be dead.”

John’s brow creased, soaking that in. He shook his head as the enormity of it began to bloom in him. “What? How—“

“Yes, Dr. Watson,” she broke in. “He did it to save your life. That life. The one you were about to leave all over the walls of that hotel. I’m glad you’ve got that clear now.”

John was silent, his breathing quickening a bit. The shaming of her words stung him, and his eyes were going to betray him yet again. He bit the tears down, swallowed hard.

“That wasn’t…only about this…” he said, and he hated the way his voice shook. He didn’t even know why he’d felt he had to say it.

With that, her face fell. Something appeared to blow over in her eyes, and she flushed, looked away for a beat.

“I know,” she said faintly, meeting his eyes again. “I do know. Forgive me. I shouldn’t have implied that was the case.”

John nodded, accepting it. But something in him was painfully opening, like a fist too long in a clench. He felt vaguely sick.

“Please speak to him,” she said softly into the beat of silence.

Her eyes implored him in a way he didn’t expect. It disarmed him, and his shoulders eased a bit. He looked back up to where Sherlock was standing stone-still at the fence.

Finally, he nodded. “All right,” he said. "I will."


* * *



Chapter Text



John had said he would do it because he knew Irene loved Sherlock, and she knew John did, too. He could pinpoint the moment he’d been certain of this fact, as well:

In case anyone out there is still interested, I’m not actually gay.

He could still remember the amused, challenging look on her face.

Well, I am. Look at the two of us?

Sherlock had made his presence known almost immediately, but John knew that even if he’d been given an hour to think about it, he wouldn’t have been able to come up with an adequate reply to that.

When she’d implored him to speak to Sherlock in the field, that piece of her was warm in her voice. That piece of her had spoken directly to that piece of him.

And while he might not trust her, he trusted that.

She stood there after his answer, seeming to be unwilling to move until he’d done something. So he’d taken his phone from his pocket, tapped a message out.

Dinner this evening.

He changed the full stop to a question mark, then back again. He didn’t want it to sound negotiable or like a request. And just as she had done to him all those months ago, John held the phone up so she could see the screen.

“Let’s have dinner,” he said coolly, then hit send.

Irene’s eyebrow climbed. “Now if you only meant what I did when I said that to him.”

John’s lip curled, amused. Despite everything, he liked her. Somewhere down deep.

That afternoon, the house staff delivered his laundry, pressed and folded (even his boxer briefs?), and John stood at the wardrobe, neatly placing the clothes in. Fifteen years in the army and he still kept the perfect stacks. It comforted him to put things in their proper place.

By the time it was close to dinner, it was too warm in his room, the staff having added wood recently in the fireplace for it to burn down before evening. John moved about, restless, stripped off the thick jumper he was wearing to the worn plaid shirt beneath. It had grown far too large for him. He buttoned it up to the top button, tucked it into his jeans, tightening it down.


No, he realized. It was anger roiling in him again.

There was a tap on the door, the servant leaning in to let him know dinner was served.

“Thank you,” he said stiffly, and he straightened his shoulders, nodded to himself, and made his way toward the door.

* * *


The dining room was another of the house’s deathly formal affairs, a hearth and paintings of horses. Lamps that looked heavy and wallpaper the color of wine mixed with rust.

At its center was a large, long table, but the staff had made the place setting close together, one at the head of the table and one right beside it. Sherlock had taken the seat to the side, leaving John the head. He stood and faced John as he came in.

“Hello, John.” As soft as he’d said in his room on John’s first day in the house.

John paused, taking him in. Sherlock had dressed for dinner – white shirt, velvet suit jacket, black pants, black shoes. His shorter hair was slightly damp, and in the low light, his pale eyes looked translucent around the large pupils. They were flicking over John, cataloging, storing...

Diagnosing… Dissecting… The words rose unbidden in John’s head.

The smile on Sherlock’s face was fond, but tense. Something like…concern…there, as well.

“Hello,” John said at last, held Sherlock’s eyes. He did not return the smile.

“Please,” Sherlock said, gesturing to the head of the table. “Sit.”

John angled his head and joined him at the table, both of them tucking in and placing their napkins in their laps like civilized men.

“I had them bring you an ale,” Sherlock said, gesturing to the bottle and the tall simple glass. A half-filled wine glass sat beside his own plate. “But if it’s not what you’d like—“

“Thank you, yes, it’s fine,” John said, reaching for it. This polite, tentative version of Sherlock made him profoundly uneasy. He popped the cap off the brown bottle, pushing aside the glass. He looked at Sherlock as he took a draught from the bottle. “No need to dirty another dish.”

“They’re servants, John,” Sherlock said mildly. “That’s what they’re here to do.”

“So I see,” John said, gesturing to the silent men just outside the door. “How many of them are there, anyway? Or is there just a different set for every day?”

“There are quite a few,” Sherlock said softly. “Do they actually make you uncomfortable, or is this just your working class upbringing objecting to them on some sort of principle? If that’s the case, I can assure you they’re paid well above the going rate.”

John put the bottle down. “Actually they do make me uncomfortable,” he said. “They may be servants to you, but they’re men to me. Men I don’t know, trying not to watch me while they’re watching me. There’s no sense of privacy.”

Sherlock seemed to consider this, and John could tell that the other man had never thought of it that way before. “I see,” he replied, his eyes flicking as his mind parsed it down. “All right.”

He gestured for the two older men to bring them their meal, which they did promptly on two immense trays covered with plates. Once they’d set everything down and out, Sherlock leaned in and spoke to the grayer of the two men softly in German.

The man looked concerned at first, said something in return, and Sherlock shook his head, kept talking. Sherlock raised two fingers as he spoke, his hand touching the other man’s forearm softly, and the man nodded, said something back again.

Danke,” Sherlock said, and the man angled his head at John, looked at the other servant, and they both left through the door to the kitchen, closing it behind them.

“Thank you,” John said, lifting his fork and knife. He meant it, too. The sudden sense of it being just the two of them felt something like relief.

Sherlock looked at him for a beat, accepting his words with a nod before lifting his own fork and knife and beginning to eat.

Roast chicken, potatoes specked with rosemary, good peas, nice bread. Simple, but very well made.

John stole glances at Sherlock while he ate. The bruising was mostly gone from his face, the split in his lip like a vague echo of the deep scar through this brow that extended up into his fringe.

“I’m sorry about the other night,” he said. “It was just…a lot to take in.”

“Understandable,” Sherlock replied, taking a sip of his wine.

“Particularly sorry about the blow below the belt,” John said, and he had a hard time hiding his amusement. “Though if anyone’s had a shot in the bollocks coming…”

“Well,” Sherlock said, his mouth hovering above his glass. “That one should have done for three or four others besides yourself, so…”

Not a speck of humor in it, really. John grimaced, looking down. “I am sorry.”

“Think nothing of it,” Sherlock murmured. He cleared his throat, closing the subject, and John returned to his plate.

“You have questions,” Sherlock said, sounding like his old self for a beat (Let the lesson begin), but John could tell by the way he moved the food around on the plate that he was nervous, more interested in having somewhere to look than something to eat. And the worry was still in his eyes.

“You seem to have a few, as well,” he replied into the relative quiet of fire and forks and plates.

“Yes. But you first,” Sherlock said, took a bite.

John chewed, swallowed. “All right. Let's start with the obvious. How did you survive the fall from the roof?”

“The lorry for the hospital laundry was there, filled with bags of linens. I landed there. A bit hard, obviously--“ He made a slicing motion down his brow—“but nothing too serious. You couldn’t have seen it. I made sure the outbuilding blocked your view.”

Keep your eyes fixed on me…

John felt his jaw working, his lips thinning. “I see. And then you just…?”

“Rode the lorry out.” Sherlock took another long sip of wine. “It was gone by the time you got to me. I made certain of that.”

John nodded. “The bloke on the bike. Meant to hold me up so you could get away.”

Sherlock nodded. “I understand he hit you quite hard. I'm sorry.”

“No worries,” John said numbly. “I didn’t really notice. At that point.”

Sherlock looked up at his tone. John felt his eyes hardening, the anger flaring, but he kept talking anyway.

“So who was that on the ground then?” He sawed into the chicken, took a bite.

“No clue,” Sherlock said softly. “John Doe. Shot execution style and brought to the morgue the night before.”

John’s teeth grit down. “Well, he looked a hell of a lot like you. Same build, same clothes…same face.”

“Of course he did,” Sherlock said, meeting John’s eyes. “As did the person who held poor Hansel and Gretel in the factory, if you recall.”

John’s eyes widened and he was stunned into silence. The piece that had never made sense, the first sign of something terribly wrong. The girl’s reaction to Sherlock when he came in to question her had been so instantaneous, so extreme...

“Are you telling me…you had a mask of your face?

Sherlock seemed pleased John had worked it out. “Yes.”

John stammered. “How--?”

“It was found in the factory by one of my homeless contacts. Well hidden, though a bit unnecessarily given that we didn’t know when the children were found to look for it. But it was part of Moriarty’s plan – the fail-proof evidence of one of the victims pointing her finger and screaming at the man who’d taken her and locked her away…”

“Wait, wait,” John said, interrupting the rush of detail. “So who was that man?”

“The corpse? I would imagine someone selected by Moriarty for his height and thin build. Too bad about the eyes not being right, though. When he got to the morgue, he was found to be wearing an unusual shade of blue contact lens.”

He looked at John, watched the realization come over his face, then continued.

“I supplied his clothes, since he’d been stripped when he was found.”

John gaped. “You supplied…” A piece fell into place, like a hammer blow. He winced, his eyes closing. “Molly. Molly Hooper helped you do all this.”

Sherlock rushed in. “Don’t be angry with her. She saved my life.”

“Jesus…” John’s head was reeling. He couldn’t sit any more. He couldn’t listen to any more of this. He pushed his chair back and stood, nearly knocking over both the chair and his beer in the process.

“John, please!” Sherlock said suddenly, loud, his hand reaching out as his fork clattered and he half-stood from the chair.

John pulled in a ragged breath, his voice rising as he spoke. “’Please?’ Please what? What the bloody hell could you possibly want from me?

“Please…don’t leave.”

John stared as Sherlock sat back down. His pale face was suddenly so open, so…broken with fear that John grew still, his chest heaving.

“Then keep talking,” John said, and his voice cracked a bit. He didn't sit.

Sherlock rushed to speak. “I knew that Moriarty would want the perfect ending to his fairy tale – my ‘fall,’ my suicide in disgrace. Revealed as a kidnapper and a fraud and probably a lunatic. I sussed that out on the street outside Richard Brook’s house, after reading all the things Mycroft had told Moriarty and the lie Moriarty had wrapped it all in.”

“You said there was something you had to do,” John supplied, the reel of memory in his head spinning.

Sherlock nodded. His eyes were rimmed with red. “I went to Bart’s and I found Molly and I asked her to help me.”

“Why on earth didn’t you ask me?" He couldn’t help the frustration that spiked the words.

Sherlock swallowed. “You had seen Moriarty’s performance in the apartment. I was afraid—“

“—that I doubted you?” God…

“Yes.” Sherlock said. “But only partly that.”

John covered his face with this hand. “Sherlock, for fuck’s sake—“

“I kept seeing you at the pool,” Sherlock cut in. “Wearing that vest. I wanted you safe and Molly was…Moriarty didn’t know of her. She said it herself…she didn’t count in the same way.”

John turned his back, his hands on his hips, looking toward the ceiling for a long calming breath.

“So,” he said at last, turning back to Sherlock and trying to get the story going again, get it going and get it and its pain out. “The dead body came in…you saw it…you saw the eyes…made the connection to the factory.”

Sherlock continued. “Yes, a professional hit, clearly. Too professional to be random, and the timing was just right. I remembered the girl and I thought of the possibility of disguise—“

“You set a trap for Moriarty on the roof,” John interrupted. Keep it going, keep it going, I can’t hold it together for much more of this…

“No, I set a trap for myself,” Sherlock said. “If I let Moriarty set it for me, there was a chance I couldn’t get out of it. If I set it myself, I could ensure my escape. So I arranged for the lorry should I be forced to jump. Had Molly have the body dressed and masked and rolled out the second story window to land behind the lorry I’d fallen in. Gathered the Homeless Network contacts as bystanders, paramedics. Disguised orderlies as doctors to fetch the body off the street.”

“All those people…they were fake?” John’s head felt light. He wondered faintly if might be sick.

“Most of them, yes. I made sure some of my closer contacts—Helen, the Jamaican woman with the dreadlocks who held you back—were there just for you, to stop you from getting too close…and to…be there to help you, should you need it.”

John closed his eyes for a beat. He could feel Helen’s hands—she had a name now, Helen – on him. He could smell the warmth of her as he’d leaned his forehead on her shoulder.

“I needed you to believe it was real, John,” Sherlock said, his voice low and weighted down. “You had to be convinced. I know you. I know you would have come after me if you’d had the slightest doubt.”

John was still replaying it. “The call about Mrs. Hudson…” he murmured.

Sherlock swallowed. “I wanted you safe,” he said again. “And I knew it would get you out.” He paused. “And you are safe.”

That was it. That same pain that had run through his chest when he first saw Sherlock alive. There it was again.

“Is that what I am?” he asked softly, his voice breaking. He could feel the tremble in his lip.

“They would have killed you,” Sherlock said quietly, firmly. “Right there on the street. And Mrs. Hudson. And Lestrade. Detective Inspector Dimmock was the one Moriarty paid to do Lestrade, the only one he could get with full access to him. Dimmock’s dead, by the way.”

John gaped, well and truly speechless, tears finally starting.

Sherlock stood, coming slowly around the table. “So yes, you are safe. And I am alive. And Jim Moriarty is dead. And I am working to make sure he can never touch anyone I care for again.”

John shook his head, put his hands up, looking for all the world like a man signaling surrender. Sherlock was close now and John needed distance. Space.

“No more,” he said. “No more of this.” He headed for the door, still shaking his head.

“But I didn’t get to ask my questions,” Sherlock called, and the urgent plea was there again.

It wasn’t what he expected Sherlock to say. It made John pause by the door, turn again.

“At the hotel,” Sherlock began, his face stricken. “Were you going to go through with it?”

John heaved in a breath that shook as it came out.

“Yes,” he said, nodding. No doubt. “What else?”

Sherlock’s eyes were brimming over now. “Can you…will you forgive me.”

And because John didn’t know the answer to that particular question, he turned and walked back toward his bedroom, leaving Sherlock alone there.



Late in that night, the fire had burned down to faint light, and after hours frozen in the wing chair by the dark window and its wedge of starlight, John Watson was finally asleep.

He dreamed.

Night in Afghanistan, the Milky Way like a splash of white. John was standing in a circle of light, his helmet under his arm (against regulations – helmets always on outside the Forward Operating Base), and someone was coming toward him in the distance from the far ridge.


Paul Killian. He could tell by the gait. He could tell him in the dark.

Something was pulling against his shoulders, like someone was holding him by a strap and pulling him back. He glanced back in the garish light at the medical kit slung low around his back.

Heavy. God it’s heavy…it’s too heavy

Then he was on the road again, the high mountain road lipped with snow, and Paul and Robin Pearson and Joe were laughing. Walking from the broken-down truck behind them to join John in his. Ten miles to go to the FOB, ten hours at this rate.

“I’m sure it’ll be here when they come to fetch it,” Pearson was saying. They all laughed.

The same prickling sensation in John’s neck. The same movement high on the ridge. The same--

I can’t, God no. Don’t make me, not again…

The slicing sound of the long sniper bullet entering in his shoulder close to his neck, a millisecond before the echo of the shot reached him.

Then Pearson and Joe and Paul – kind Paul, who John had loved, really loved – in a jumble of sound and sudden gore and flame.

Blood. Theirs, his. Everywhere.

Sherlock turning over, his dark curls dragged through the blood’s thickening, stripes of it across his alabaster face.

Someone in the truck was screaming:

What’s happening my God what’s happening

John crawled toward what was left of Paul (torso, right arm, half of his face), blood gushing from the nicked artery in John’s shoulder with every heartbeat…

Sherlock was falling, and John ran toward him—

Too late. He was always too late.

Don’t… my God what’s happening

Then John bolted up, breaking the dream’s thick red surface with a choked scream.

The house. Switzerland. I’m in the house--

He was drenched with sweat, his shirt sticking to him, and for an instant it felt warm and blood-like, and he tore it off over his head.

“Jesus…Jesus…” Bile was boiling up, hot. He threw the shirt, the covers aside and ran for the bath.

He heaved until his stomach ached, sobbed until he began to choke with it, the deep coughs stabbing his chest. His temples pulsed with pain.

Finally, moments later, he pulled in a breath, forced himself to clear his head.

“Get up,” he said, dragging himself up from the floor by the edge of the sink. He reached for his toothbrush, brushed, rinsed. He grabbed the soap and washed his face.

Then he walked to the bedroom, but not to the bed. Rather, he went straight to the corner where he knew the camera was hidden almost perfectly. Almost.

“Sherlock.” He was breathing heavily, his hands going to his forehead, swiping at the cold sweat there.


“Sherlock, I know you’re there.” A sob broke in him. “I…” He shook his head against it. He covered his face.

The click of an audio line, then:

“It’s all right, John. I’ll be right there.”





Chapter Text



Another storm that night, and just after dawn, Irene Adler moved quietly into John Watson’s room of snow-blue light.

Every nerve was tweaked, on alert, a state that had begun in her when she risen early and used the intercom to call for someone to bring more wood for the fire in her quarters.

For the first time in the days she’d been there, no one answered.

Then she’d moved to the window, looked out for the usual activity inside the tall windows of the house. Even late, she could usually see lights on, and occasionally she’d see Gregor (the senior butler whom Sherlock seemed to genuinely like) moving from one room to the next.

Now when she looked out, there were no lights on. No movement. No one there.

“Shit,” she breathed, her eyes darting over the landscape. She moved to the drawer beside her bed where she kept her Ruger LC9. She didn’t want to take the time to dress but did. She didn’t want to be caught in her nightclothes if someone had taken control of the house.

Armed now and dressed and in her thick fur coat, she moved as quietly as the silent garden and snow would allow out to the covered walk that connected her quarters to the house. Still, no one was about. The house loomed before her with its persistent dark.

She did a quick inventory of the main rooms. Drawing room, foyer, side sitting room undisturbed. Only one lamp on that she hasn’t seen because it was a window in the back of the house. But the dining room table was still covered with the ample remnants of last night’s meal. The door to the kitchen was closed.

Her tension, breathing, ratcheted up a notch.


Up the stairs on her toes, her hand on the gun in her pocket, her eyes wide in the charcoal light. Sherlock’s room empty, tiny bedside lamp on, phone in the charger, the bed only vaguely rumpled, his dressing gown still hanging on the poster bed.

He’d left in a hurry, and wherever he was, he hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep.

Back down the stairs in the dark like a cat. John Watson’s room. Door closed.…

The light had surprised her when she’d come in. The room had the best windows in the house. Two, floor to ceiling, on one side of the room, the thick panes wreathed in deep blue drapes and letting all the snowy light off the mountains seep in.

She scanned the room, the gun out now. The bed was a jumble of sheets and blankets, empty. It was too quiet in the room.

Then she saw them, on the floor against the window. Both still. A lump bloomed and lodged in her throat.

No…please no…

She moved, knelt in front of them, put the gun down. She held her breath.

Sherlock was sitting with his back against the glass, snow drifted outside to the middle of his back. He wore a heather gray T-shirt, dark blue pajama pants. His face, eyes half-open, was a blue-white mask.

He was holding John face-down against his chest, John’s legs – clad in worn plaid pajama bottoms that used to be red – were jumbled awkwardly over Sherlock’s left thigh so that it looked like he rested, at least partly, on his knees. His arms were draped on either side of Sherlock’s body, the backs of his fingers resting on the floor, his palms cupped. His face was turned away from Sherlock’s, bowed against Sherlock’s chest.

Sherlock’s arms were locked so tightly around John’s back that John’s shoulder blades were drawn up, making him look smaller, frail. Something was tangled in one of Sherlock’s hands, something on a string. Dog tags. John’s.

This was not a lover’s embrace, Adler thought. This was desperation, the grip reserved for a drowning victim pulled into a boat.

Jesus Christ, tell me he hasn’t done it…

Her hand slid around John’s cold wrist, her fingertips pressing in. Slow pulse.

“Oh thank God…” she breathed aloud, her eyes sliding closed with relief. Then she opened them and turned her attention to Sherlock.

“Hey,” she whispered, leaning closer. He hadn’t moved or acknowledged her presence in any way. Not even the glassy eyes, open and the color of ice, shifted at the sound of her voice.

Her brows creased with worry as she reached out and cupped his cheek – so cold – in her warm hand.

That did it. His eyes opened wider and he drew in a deeper breath. They flicked over to her face.

“Irene.” Hoarse, faint.

“Are you hurt?” she asked softly, her thumb stroking his cheek.

“Hurt, no. Cold though.” His teeth chattered faintly now that his jaw had released.

She looked down. “Is John?”

“No,” Sherlock replied, his voice clearing a bit but still soft, low. “Two Valium. Out since 3:00. Nightmares. We thought it would help him to sleep.”

“Oh, he’ll sleep,” she said wryly. “Till 3:00 again, I should think.”

His mouth quirked, and she blew out a breath, unhitching. “Christ, Sherlock, I thought you were both dead when I came in. All the servants were gone and I thought—“

“I sent them off,” he cut in. “Except for two in the kitchen, of course, but they rarely come out.”

She shook her head. “Tell a girl next time, will you?”

His eyes slid closed, his teeth chattering harder now. “Sorry…I didn’t think…I’m sorry.”

She shook it off. “Let’s get you up before you freeze to death,” she began as she reached for John, but Sherlock’s arms clenched more tightly, his eyes opening wider.


“Just to the bed, Sherlock, and you need—“

“No.” There was something clouding his eyes. He wasn’t making the best sense. Exhaustion. Good rope pulled so tight it had begun to fray, and she wondered what had happened in the night.

“Listen to me.” Her voice was kind but very firm, the tone used for drunks or a crazy man. Her eyes bore in until his gaze and hers met.

He nodded.

“Are you listening?”


“How do I call Gregor?”

“P-pocket.” He glanced down at his side, and she rooted in his pocket, pulling out the small two-way radio. Once she’d gotten him, she spoke to Gregor in German, told him to bring some men. Then she slid the radio back in Sherlock’s pocket again.

Bless them, the staff didn’t bat an eye at what they found in the room, Irene dressed in her coat and armed and the two men in their pajamas, half-frozen, against the window. John was completely unresponsive as Irene helped unfold Sherlock’s stiff arms so two men could lift John’s limp form away. The dog tags were still clenched in Sherlock’s fist.

Bitte,” she said to the men, gesturing to the bed. She heard them settling John in beneath the layers of blankets. She slid out of her coat and tucked it around Sherlock.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“No, you’re not,” she replied, rubbing his arms through the coat. “You’re cold and exhausted and I want you asleep upstairs.”

He shook his head. “I can’t leave him just yet.”



“The bed here then,” she said.

Sherlock shook his head again. “He wouldn’t—“

“He’ll sleep for hours,” she said, growing frustrated. “But if you’re worried he’ll be upset to find you there…I don’t think you need to be.”

He looked at her, searching her face. She smiled softly.

“Come on,” she murmured, and he took her hand to find his feet again.



John heard music.

The first thing he became aware of as he kicked to the surface of the drugged sleep was a soft series of faint notes mixed with breath. The sound was so soft, in fact, that John allowed himself to simply drift, deciding it was part of a dream that was receding down into the deep.

Then the touch: the backs of fingers just barely brushing the skin of his chest. A long stroke, then fingertips – slightly rough with callous – slowly following the trail made by the fingers’ backs. Warm on his collarbone, his shoulder, the center of his chest. Over the sickle-shaped scar, pausing on the tough mound at the arc’s center where the bullet had sliced in.

Sherlock. Sherlock was lying beside him, humming faintly under his breath.

The previous night was disjointed, somehow incomplete. Sherlock entering his room, coming toward him. John standing there, sobs jerking him, as he stared at his open, empty hands.

He remembered Sherlock standing close, heard himself say God what’s happening please… Then Sherlock’s arms going around him and pulling him tight against his chest.

As John remembered this, he turned his face to the left, toward the sound. Sherlock was close, close enough that John could feel the warmth of his breath. The backs of the fingers touched his cheek now, a slow brush. Fingertips over one brow, the place where forehead met hair. Soft touch to his stubbled jaw. Fingertip tracing warm over his lips.

It felt good. Somehow familiar. Richly warm. Safe.

He opened his eyes, looking into Sherlock’s face. Sherlock, propped up on one elbow, went silent, drawing in a deep breath and letting it out. Pale, dark circles, gray-blue eyes shot faintly with red. Searching John’s, looking for…something. Permission. Disapproval.

His finger still rested against John’s lips. John pursed them lightly against it, a silent kiss.

The tired smile Sherlock gave at that was worth anything that could come of this, John decided. The relief… He cupped John’s jaw, his thumb smoothing down his cheek.

If there was any resistance to this left in John, it had fallen away. Some part of him had always known this was where the two of them were going. And here they were.

He leaned up the few inches and touched his lips to Sherlock’s, a soft surprised sound catching in Sherlock’s throat.

John held still, letting Sherlock pull back if he wished. No need. Sherlock used the hand on John’s jaw to pull him in, carefully deepening the kiss.

Once. Twice. Mouths drawing the other in. Again. Tongues touching for a beat. Lips open, breath on breath. Sherlock nipped lightly on John’s bottom lip, then slowly drew his face back.

John kept his eyes on Sherlock’s so that Sherlock wouldn’t doubt how he felt about what had just happened. It’s fine, it’s all fine… That door opening. Opened. And it would stay that way.

Sherlock inched closer, relaxing a bit, his hand moving back to John’s chest and smoothing absently over the skin, the scarring there.

“Are you all right?” Exhaustion soaked Sherlock’s deep voice.

John nodded. “Tired though. Like if I could somehow manage it, I could sleep for a week.”

Sherlock’s lip quirked fondly. “You can, if that’s what you need.”

John huffed a laugh, his eyes slipping closed as his head lolled closer to Sherlock’s, which was closer now.

“This isn’t a shoulder wound,” Sherlock said, his fingers tracing the curve to the entry point in the center. “It’s a shot to the chest.”

“Same thing,” John murmured, his eyes still closed. The fire had filled the room with its woodsy smell. The heat from their bodies had made it decadently warm in the bed. John felt himself drift…

“Not quite,” Sherlock continued, his voice taking on that speed and tone it got when his mind began mapping things. “The entrance wound is easy to pinpoint, obviously, but this wide, arced incision…done in a hurry. Arterial pumper, I should think. I always wondered why you were invalided for something you made sound like a shaving nick—“

“Don’t. Please.” His eyes opened as he reached up, cupping Sherlock’s chin, his thumb touching the full lower lip.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock said instantly. “I’ve just…not seen it before. You always move around the flat dressed. In your dressing gown at least.”

“I don’t like for anyone to see it,” John said softly. The sadness was there again, the pain right behind it.

“Oh, don’t be foolish,” Sherlock said expansively. “It has enormous character. Looks like a crescent moon with a star in it.”

“No,” John said, shook his head, and his voice broke. “No, it doesn’t, it—“ He closed his eyes against it, the words caught like a bone in his throat, the tears right there. Too close.

He felt Sherlock’s arm curl around his chest, drawing him close. Sherlock’s lips on his temple, his cheek, his forehead pressed to John’s.

“Shh…I’m sorry, John…I’m sorry…” A hand stroking his hair. “This is ‘Paul,’ isn’t it?”

John didn’t remember telling him anything, but last night he could have said anything. It was a shock to hear Sherlock say it. He’d never told anyone else, not even Ella. The sound of it in the warm, smoky air seemed to lift a bit of its weight.

John jerked a nod. “Yes.” He drew in a deep, shaking breath, so deep his ribs felt like they would break with it.

“Yes …shhhh…let it out.”

He did, trembling, next to Sherlock’s mouth.

“What can I do for you?”

John shook his head.

“Anything. Tell me.” Sherlock’s grip tightened around his chest.

John opened his eyes and looked at him. He whispered: “Nothing just yet.”

Sherlock seemed to understand. He nodded, a faint smile on his face. “Of course.”

John reached up and wiped at his own face, forcing Sherlock to lean slightly away.

“Except,” John said, squeezing at the bridge of his nose. “No more bloody dinners.”

“Oh no, dinner was absolute pants.”

John covered his eyes with his hand now, sniffed, a smile blooming. “All that rosemary in the potatoes—“

“And the chicken, Good God, what were they thinking--“

John let the pained laugh bubble from his chest, Sherlock joining in.

Afternoon now, the mountains covered in snow out the window. Sherlock called for cheese and fruit, bread and tea, and they ate, still together there in the bed.





Chapter Text



“I told you, I don’t know what happened.”

Irene Adler, fresh from a two-day trip to Zurich, was folded into a velvet chair in the corner of Sherlock’s bedroom, her long hair pulled up around the shoulders of the black cashmere jumper she wore, enjoying the feel of nothing underneath.

Sherlock was leaned over the desk, scrolling through emails on his laptop. He looked like a ghost clothed in charcoal wool and silk, only marginally less weary than he had when she left, the day she’d found them in the bedroom, two white sculptures there on the floor against the white glass.

“You’re being evasive,” she pressed.

“I’m never evasive.” Sherlock said quietly. “In fact, I’ve been told I have problems with being too direct.”

“You’re being deliberately dense then.” She crossed her legs, emphasizing the word dense, baiting him.

Sherlock’s eyes didn’t leave the screen, but he sighed. “I am dense,” he said under his breath. “In this case at least.”

She leaned forward. “Well, there’s a statement I never thought I’d hear you say,” she said, and decided on a different tact. “Just describe it. Perhaps I can help explain what you’re seeing in him.”

Sherlock was silent for a moment. He stood, tilted the computer’s screen closed.
“I’m not sure it would be…appropriate,” he finally said.

She leaned back again, irritation and something else rising in her. Something tender she couldn’t stop. “Sherlock, let me help,” she said.

“You can’t help him.” He moved to the window, looking out.

“I’m not talking about him. I’m talking about you.

He slid his hand into the pockets of his dark pants. “I’m fine, Irene.”

Now frustration was rising. Her whip hand itched.

“No, you’ve been compromised.” Push, she thought. Push.

His brow creased, but he still didn’t look at her. “’Compromised?’” he murmured, his voice far away. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Oh for Christ’s sake….

“Tell me,” she shot suddenly, leaning back in the soft chair. “Have you fucked him yet?”

Now Sherlock’s head shot towards her, his eyes widening with anger.

She went on. “Yes? How was he? Tender?” The word dripped sickeningly sweet. “Oooo…I bet that mouth is--.”

“Don’t you ever--“ he roared.

That’s what I’m talking about,” she interrupted, matching his volume and pinning him in place with her eyes.

He was stunned into silence. His mouth opened and closed like a fish on the dock. Understanding fell, and his features slid back to their tired mask.

“Yes,” he said softly, cowed. “I see.”

He returned to the window, looking out.

“Now,” she said finally, the softness back in her voice as she relaxed. “Describe what happened. That night you had dinner.”

He seemed to think for a long beat. “The closest I’ve seen is watching someone who’s been exposed to poison. It’s as though it’s slowly working itself out of him.”

She nodded, waited. “Go on. Tell me how.”

His hands moved as he spoke, as though he were shaping the words in the air. “He dreams, but it’s clear they’re not dreams.”

“Of course,” she shrugged. “He has PTSD. He’s going to relive things.”

“Yes, yes, I know that, I’m familiar with the syndrome,” he said irritably. “But they…they tear him to pieces. He talks about things and people, to people, and there’s such anguish in it. He’s out of his mind. Can’t even see me, right in front of him, talking to him.”

She nodded. “It’s not your fault, Sherlock.”

“No?” he said, looking at her now, coming forward to the center of the room. “He was fine before what happened at Bart’s.”

“Rubbish. John was never fine. Nor are you. Nor am I, if we’re going to be completely frank.”

That stopped him. Sherlock stared, shook his head.

“Oh, please,” she said. “Just look at the three of us. You understand absolutely everything, don’t you? Except those ghastly feelings, that is. You see everything. And even as a child you knew the only way to endure living was to not let yourself feel what you learned from the things you saw.”

Sherlock blinked. “Which was what?”

“That this world is an infinite source of pain, my love. And since you couldn’t control the enormous things you felt as you watched that unfold around you, you learned to defend by offending and took being a prick to an absolute art. You walled off your own feelings so completely that you don’t even appear to have a heart. To most people, at least. Your brother knows. Worries him sick. I know, obviously. But no one knows better than John, I don’t think.”

His shoulders fell a bit. “Go on.”

She warmed to the subject, laying out her arms on the chair’s soft arms. “And John Watson. John, the great healer, goes at the world with nothing but his heart. It’s the only thing he trusts. That’s why he’s now the first of us to truly break. Straight into battle, literally and figuratively, with no armour, no protection for that remarkable center of him, and then, bless, absolutely stunned when something hits him and he bleeds.”

A small smile spread on Sherlock’s lips. His hands still in his pockets, he came toward her. “And you? Go on. Let’s hear it.”

“Oh,” she dismissed. “I’m the hard, hard case, aren’t I? Badly damaged early on, as I’m sure you’ve surmised, and left spending my life doing – what did you say? ‘Catering to the whims of the pathetic?’ Yes, they are, all of them, and by controlling them, I control what they can do to me.”

Sherlock had reached her, knelt down in front of her. He took her hand as he spoke, his voice a long, low note. “Because in you is a heart that is so warm but so afraid of being hurt that no one can get a finger on you without you having enough on them to tear their world apart.”

Her eyes shone as she looked down at her hand in his.

“Well done,” she said softly, bowing her head in mock defeat.

He squeezed her hand, smiled. “Ms. Adler, you are by far the cleverest person I’ve ever met.” Then, leaning in, he pressed his lips to her cheek.

Her hand came up to cup his cheek, her eyes closing. She held him there for long beat.

“I know you can lead him out of this place he’s in,” she said softly. “I know you’re going to do it somehow. But will you do one thing for me?”

He nodded against her. “Of course.”

“I need you too,” she whispered. “So please…don’t lose yourself along the way.”

Sherlock pulled back enough to look into her eyes. He nodded, and she turned her face enough to touch a kiss to his full lips.

Then she pulled back, her hands sliding to his shoulders. “I return from Zurich with gifts,” she said grandly, waving the moment’s heavy emotional smoke away.

“Thoughtful of you,” he said, standing again. He offered her his hand and she took it, stood.

“Down in the drawing room.”




Down the stairs into the day’s sleepy light. It was cold, bitter cold again, no snow melt. The central heat whirred in the house.

As they entered, Sherlock saw that there were two large bags—one red, one black—sitting by the couch, near where she’d draped her fur coat on coming in.

Irene went to them, lifting the red one and offering it to him. “These are actually for John, but I’ll let you give them to him.”

He cocked a quizzical brow. “Why?”

“They’re new clothes – a few jumpers and shirts, some pyjama bottoms, a few new pairs of pants. He’s grown so thin that everything he’s got is hanging off him, so I picked him up a few things. Thought he might be embarrassed if they came from me, particularly the pants. I didn’t want him thinking I was dressing him.”

Sherlock lips curled as he glanced into the bag.

“Are you?”

“Well, yes,” she said, her voice lowering, softening. “I don’t want the first things you slide off him to be frayed at the waist.”

That sent a wave of heat up Sherlock’s cheeks and down his chest. Flustered, he reached in, pulling out a decadently soft black jumper and a dark green shirt in thick, brushed silk.

“These are quite nice,” he said, clearing his throat. “Thank you.”

“Well,” she said, sounding regretful. “I’m afraid Zurich’s selection of John’s Christopher Robin jumpers was a bit sparse, so I was forced to branch out.”

Sherlock threw back his head and laughed.

As he tucked the clothes back in the bag, she reached for the other bag, this one larger, thicker. “And this, I picked up for you.”

Sherlock looked at her, seeing a hint of the heart he’d spoken about earlier flash across her face. Not wanting to make her self-conscious, he reached into the bag and drew out…

A very old violin case.

“I can’t speak to its quality, per se, but the man in the shop said it was quite a good one,” she was saying.

Sherlock sat in the wing chair, lay the case on the small table between it and the couch. He clicked the latches, creaking the case open.

Beautiful. Maple and spruce, the wood grain lined with waves, the sides intricately carved with scrollwork. It smelled like oil and wood and old, old books.

He lifted it up, took the bow in his hand, tightened it, still gazing at the instrument.

“I know you miss your music,” she said quietly. “And we’ve got a lot ahead of us. I thought you could use its company again.”

Sherlock looked up at her, into her lovely face. “How…how well you know me,” he said softly.

She nodded. “Yes. Now play for me.”

He lifted the violin to his chin, pressing in. Then, taking in a deep breath, he drew a first high, exquisite note.

Bach. Violin Concerto No. 2. in E Major, BWV: 1042.





The grandson’s name was Remy. He spoke almost perfect English, and he and John had become fast friends.

Today, out in the frigid air, there beside the stone where John had sat, he was helping Remy with a cow whose hoof had split on a sharp rock on the way across the field.

Remy’s grandfather and the two good dogs had continued the other animals’ movement across the pasture, the snow giving them all a lazy pace. The bells rang around them faintly with their low notes. The dogs were up by the fence, barking at something up on the rise on the other side. There was a bit of wind, making it colder, and John shivered in his coat and scarf.

“I’m not a veterinarian, but I think she’ll be fine,” John said to Remy, his hands pressing together the two sides of the split. The cow jerked its leg, lowed a complaint near John’s face. There was a bit of blood, but not too much.

“But I don’t want her to be lame,” the boy said.

“She won’t be, Remy,” John said. “They’re very sturdy, you know. But I’ll come back out tomorrow and check her, tape this up if your grandfather thinks it’s a good idea.” He smiled kindly at the worried expression on the boy’s pale face.

Remy’s grandfather was calling him, and Remy looked up, scanning the white and gray landscape. “Look, your two friends.” He pointed.

John turned, saw Sherlock walking with Adler along the line of the fence. They were right where a gathering of large rocks crouched inside the fence, Sherlock with his dark coat perpetually billowing around him, and Adler on his arm again.

They were watching him, talking back and forth. Adler let go of Sherlock to walk a bit ahead. Sherlock raised an arm in greeting to John.

That’s when the sound of the shot tore through the bitter air and Sherlock crumpled and fell.

“Oh Jesus…” John breathed, the blood leaving his face. “SHERLOCK!”

He grabbed the boy, threw him down. Then, his legs pushed off, arms pumping, straight across the field. Cows were scattering off everywhere.

Adler had thrown herself forward toward Sherlock, crawling, covering him with her body. She spread her mink coat around his writhing form like a great brown wing, hiding Sherlock from another clear shot. Her head swiveled, searching the hillside. She was screaming John’s name.

He heard nothing but that and his fast breath and the staccato sound of his feet pounding the snow. Head unmoving, eyes locked on the two of them on the ground.

God, he’d forgotten what it was like to run like this...

And at the same time, his mind was reeling off tactics, analyzing the sound.

Sniper rifle. Barrett M90. .50 caliber bullet. Close. Fifty to 100 feet away to the northeast, counting for bullet drop…

He shot up the incline, threw himself to the ground beside them, reached beneath Adler’s coat to Sherlock as she rolled out of the way. John grabbed Sherlock by his shoulders, his hands digging into the dark coat.

“Cover, we need cover up here!” Another shot rang out, sending up a puff of snow nearby.

Crouched, he lunged back, dragging Sherlock back by the coat, a smear of blood slushing the snow.

Once behind one of the huge stones, John tucked Sherlock close behind it so that it was between him and the direction of the shots. Adler had crouched down on the same side, fumbling with Sherlock’s coat.

“Let me,” John snapped, and a bullet hit the stone, a chunk coming off. He grabbed both sides of the coat and tore them to the sides.

Where is it where is it where--

Left side, at his waist. Above the hipbone (thank God – would have crippled him for life). Far left on the torso, off the mark. Missed the stomach. Missed the kidney. A very poor shot.

But it had done enough. The huge bullet had torn right through Sherlock’s body, leaving a garish, bloody hole behind.

As John ripped his scarf off and wadded it, pressing it to the wound, Sherlock cried out for the first time.

“Don’t—!“ Long fingers clawing at John’s arm.

“I’m sorry, Sherlock, I’m sorry,” John said quickly, looking down at Sherlock’s face. He was completely white, his eyes clenched. His teeth gritted against the pain, he rolled into a ball, burrowed his face into Adler’s coat.

“Nope, sorry, on your back…” John forced him back over onto his back, returning the pressure, murmuring to him as the pain caught in a choked sound in his throat. Then John looked into Irene’s face.

“I need you to keep pressure on this to control this bleeding -- both sides, front and back. It’s going to hurt him, but you have to keep it up. Do you understand?”

“Not a problem,” she rushed to reply, replacing his hands. Any other time he would have laughed.

“And call the house and get some of those bloody useless fucks who are supposed to be protecting this place out here. You’ve got to get Sherlock back to the house before he bleeds out.”

“Where are you going?” she said, her eyes wide, her face terrified. Blood was spattered on her face.

“Give me your gun,” he said, his red-drenched hand out.

“John, you can’t—“

“GIVE ME YOUR GUN!” he shouted as another shot rang out. It startled her enough that she reached into her pocket, pulled the Ruger out.

He took it, popped a round into the chamber.

“Now I’m going out to kill that son of a bitch,” John growled, breathing hard, his eyes hooded darkly by his brow, his mouth an angry line on his face. “Stay with him. Take care of him. Keep him safe.”

Rolling back, he took two turns down the hill. Then, crouching and using the rise as cover, he ran toward the northeast.

Get behind them get behind them

Every cell in him was singing with energy. This. He knew this.

He made it to the foot of the hill, hearing engines roaring from the house.

He knelt down, his breath puffing fast. When the shooter saw the security force coming, he would break cover and retreat.

The SUVs were tearing across the field, almost reaching Sherlock and Irene. John leaned around the stone he hid behind, head low, watching the outcroppings above him. His jaw clenched.

A voice. Not English. Sounded like…Turkmen?

“Show me…” he whispered, gripping the pistol to his chest. “Show me…”

A figure moved, dressed in Arctic camouflage. White face mask. Sniper rifle painted white.

John stood and squeezed off a shot. A puff of blood at the top of his head and the man was gone.

Someone else was calling, panic in the voice at the sound of the shot. Further away. John wasn’t even aware he’d moved until he was halfway up the outcropping, scrambling up.

There in his nest, the sniper had fallen to the side. John slid Irene’s Ruger in one of the coat’s cargo pockets, reached for the M90. It was heavy and cold. Perfect in his hands.

“Mine,” he said.

The other man was running off in the distance. Five-hundred yards away. John set the gun on its brace, the two legs scraping on the rock’s face. The stock fit just into his shoulder. He lined up the sight. Three clicks for wind…

The man danced in and out of the sniper’s crosshairs as he ran. John honed in on the back of his neck. Right below the jaw.

Medulla oblongata. The Apricot.

He fired.




“A bit more light here, please. No, at the end of the probe. That’s it…”

The drapes in John’s bedroom were pulled tightly closed to protect the room from anything on the landscape. Even with the lamps, the firelight, it was dim in the room. Three of the servants – all masked – were holding huge flashlights, pointing them down.

John was standing, leaning low over the bed’s left side. Irene was beside him, her face hidden behind a surgical mask. In front of her, John’s surgical and suture instrument kit was unrolled flat on the sheets.

Blood was smeared or soaked into everything nearby. The room – the heat turned to the point of inferno to keep Sherlock warm -- was thick with the iron smell of it. Irene reached over with a cloth and mopped sweat from John’s face.

Sherlock stirred, his belly flinching where John had forceps and a probe in the packed wound. A low moan rose in his throat.

“More, Irene,” John said quickly from behind his mask, and Adler reached for a small bottle on the night table – chloroform – and sprinkled a bit more on the gauze covering Sherlock’s nose and mouth.

John had had no idea how they were going to keep him under while he got the bleeding under control. They were moving fast through the foyer, Sherlock’s long limbs dangling over the arms of the men carrying him, when he mentioned this under his breath.

“I’ve got nothing…” he said, frustration rising.

“Oh, I do,” Irene had said from beside him, and he found himself chuckling, surged with relief.

“Irene Adler, I never thought I’d say this,” he said, his hands cramping on the wound as they moved. “But God bless your kink.”

Now, John moved the forceps, the silver surface gathering light. Blood seeped. “Gregor, I need that clamp – small one on the left.”

Gregor leaned forward and lifted it, placing it awkwardly in John’s gloved hand.

The door opened behind them, the sudden sound of feet and motion.

“John, how is he?” Mycroft Holmes' voice carried in. He sounded breathless, as though he’d run the two hours from London rather than flown in the house’s helicopter and his private jet.

“Holding,” John said. “Did you bring everything I asked for?”

“Yes, of course,” Mycroft said tersely. “Coming in.”

Monitoring equipment was rolling in, two nurses in scrubs, an IV stand, an overhead lamp. John glanced at all the people and things moving toward the bed.

“Thank you all,” John said, looking up at the servants. “You all can step back. Well done.” He turned back to the wound, leaning in. “And everyone coming in? Put on a bloody mask.”





Chapter Text



In the low, static sound of the jet at night, the air too warm and far too dry, John Watson dozed lightly in one of the Patient Transport Compartment’s monitoring chairs. It was a tiny space – just enough room for two airplane seats that faced a wide Intensive Care gurney and a wall of monitoring machines – that was separated from the rest of the plane by a sliding door.

Mycroft and Irene were the only two in the passenger compartment of 12 seats. When John had last seen them – to request tea from the flight staff – they’d each been on their own side of the plane staring out a window, pretending the other wasn’t there.

John had turned the lights off over Sherlock on the gurney, the small space of the compartment bathed in the faint glow of the monitoring lights. They threw Sherlock’s sleeping face into red and gold relief.

Even half-asleep, John’s mind was running like a garish highlight reel.

Red-tinged water streaming off Sherlock’s sides to the catch towels on the bed as the trauma nurses who’d come with Mycroft sponged the blood off his belly and hip. So much blood. So much lost before Mycroft’s team had arrived.

Severe shock. John’s hand as it curved over Sherlock’s clammy ribcage, Sherlock’s face pale and sweaty, his lips beneath the plastic oxygen mask tinged a faint blue.

John worked hard to keep the fear from his voice. “Sherlock, I need you take some good, deep breaths,” he murmured.

The ghost on the bed drew in a breath, cringing as his chest rose, trembling, beneath John’s hand and pulled where the bullet had gone in.

Mycroft stood at the foot of the bed. At the sound of the ragged breath, he curved a hand around his brother’s foot and kept it there.

Midnight. John standing by the side of the bed. Things were too close for him to sleep. Irene stayed with him off and on, standing so close John could feel the heat of her against his skin.

Mycroft moved around the room the whole night just outside the bright circle of light over the bed, his arms crossed tight over his chest. Sometimes, like John, he’d seemed rooted in place, worry humming off him. Sometimes he talked low on his phone by the door. Sometimes he simply sat in the wing chair and looked for John to nod when John looked at him. John didn’t even ask him to step out when they were bathing Sherlock and dressing him.

And later, as John was checking the wide, thick bandage, Sherlock had regained consciousness for a bit and tried to speak. John leaned in close.

Sherlock’s hand came up, resting heavily on the back of John’s head, fingers curving through the hair at his nape. Then Sherlock turned and touched his dry lips to John’s stubbled cheek.

John had taken a deep breath as tenderness swept through him, then let it out, his eyes burning.

“You’re welcome,” he whispered, tilted his face up to press a kiss to Sherlock’s forehead, leaned his own forehead there, looking into Sherlock’s half-opened eyes. Clenching his jaw, John bumped their foreheads lightly. Once. Twice.

“Scare me again like that and I’ll kill you myself. Understand?”

A tired smile curved Sherlock’s lips as his eyes slid closed. John heard Mycroft huff a faint, amused sound from the chair.

Dawn. Mycroft pulling John aside. Neither had slept.

“We’re going to have to move him.”

John gaped, blinked. “What?”

Mycroft looked hard at him. “I have reliable information that this location is no longer safe.”

“I assume you mean besides your brother lying there half bled-out on the bed.” It came out sharp. His nerves were frayed.

“That shot was not meant for Sherlock,” Mycroft said. “But the next one will be. We’re moving him this afternoon.”

John shook his head in confusion. “Who the hell was it for then? Because if that wanker was aiming at me--”

Mycroft shook his head, and as understanding dawned, John looked over at Irene in the wing chair, sitting in the tableside lamp’s tiny pool of light. She looked up at him, something sad and guilty in her face.

John’s temper sparked, but Sherlock stirred a bit in his sleep, bringing John’s mind back to the issue at hand.

“Have you understood nothing about how close we came--“ He cut himself off, took a deep breath. “I’ve just barely got him out of shock and you want to risk taking him out of here?” He stood his ground, glared into the other man’s face. “I’m not moving him.”

“No,” Mycroft said softly, that dangerous burr in his voice. “But I am.”

John’s eyes hardened, but Mycroft didn’t move. Finally John blew out a frustrated breath.

“Somewhere bloody warm then, if you don’t mind,” and John turned and went back to the bed.

The plane’s engine hissed. The darkness of the Patient Transport Compartment pressed in. John drew in a deep breath, opened his eyes, his gaze falling on Sherlock’s pale face.

Floating. John was floating in that place right before sleep, the murky film of Paul and Afghanistan playing again. The panic and rage of the past day had pushed it down, but not away.

That familiar choke of a sob as it entered his throat, his eyes rimming with tears. His hand went up to cover his face as a small sound worked its way out.

Paul…I’m so sorry…

Sherlock drew in a deep breath. “John.” His eyes opened.

A blue grief bloomed in John’s chest. “No,” he whispered, his hand coming up to cover his face.

“John,” Sherlock breathed.

John took his seatbelt off. Two steps and he was over the gurney. He pressed his face to Sherlock’s chest.




Their time outside Tunis began with another night that John spent without sleep. Instead, he sat in front of the open window in Sherlock’s bedroom, sheer curtains blowing in the ocean breeze, watching boats move in and out of the harbor in the distance and listening to the faint, fitful sounds of Sherlock as he slept. The air smelled of spice from the vast house’s kitchen, preparing food for the morning’s meal.

Sherlock lie beneath layers of wheat-colored linen on a bed against the far wall. There he slept in a small lamp’s light and the glow of machines. Ceiling fans spun on the white room’s high ceiling, but the space still held the North African heat. John had stripped down to his white undershirt and jeans and bare feet.

He heard the wooden door creak open, a nurse coming in with a pan of cool water and a stack of flannels John had asked her to get. Irene was behind her, dressed coolly in a sleeveless shirt and a long, thin skirt, her hair down around her shoulders. John nodded to her as he took the pan and cloths.

“Thank you, Susan,” John said to the nurse. She was good. He’d come to trust her skills a good bit.

“Can I get you anything?” Susan said. “You’ve got to be so knackered.”

“I’m all right,” John dismissed, smiling faintly. “I’ll catch up tomorrow night.”

She smiled back and withdrew from the room, leaving Irene standing by the bed as John soaked a flannel in the cool water and leaned toward the bed.

“You’re up late,” John said softly, stroking Sherlock’s forehead and face. It could have been early for all he knew. With this little sleep, his concept of time had been reduced simply to dark and light.

“How is he?” she said, her arms crossed as she looked down at Sherlock on the bed.

“Stable.” He bit out the word. Something in him clenched with her being in the room.

“He’s going to make it then,” she said, relief washed in her voice.

“Of course he is,” John snapped, opening the flannel and laying it flat on Sherlock’s pale chest.

“I didn’t mean to give offense,” she said softly, looking down at him until he glanced up and met her eyes. “I know how close it was the other night—“

“I…” He sighed, frustrated with himself. He was giving too much away. “I’m sorry. I’m just running on fumes a bit here.”

She took a step closer to him, rested a hand the thin fabric of his shirt. “Why don’t you let me sit with him for a few hours so you can sleep?”

“No,” he said instantly, and hastily tacked a “thank you” on to ease its tone. He didn’t mean to do it, but he tensed beneath her hand and she drew it away.

“You don’t trust me at all, do you?” she said, her face taking on an all-too-familiar, too-sharp gaze. “I see it in your face. You don’t even like me standing this close.”

John looked away, feeling like his face was being lifted away by that look, the cogs of his brain laid bare. He dipped the cloth, squeezed it out again. “Why should I? You knew someone was after you and you never said. That’s why you came here. That’s why you stayed.”

“Only partly true,” she said, nodding. “As I’ve said, I didn’t think of finding Sherlock until he asked me to bring you to him. But yes, I stayed because it’s become clear that we all appear to be in the same boat, and there is likely safety in numbers right now.”

“Did he know that?” John bit, lifting one of Sherlock’s thin arms and stroking it with the cloth. “Before he went wandering over the hillsides with someone who has a target painted on her arse, that is.”

“I don’t think there’s much that Sherlock doesn’t know,” Irene said softly. “And if he didn’t see the sniper team, that’s hardly my fault.”

“Right, we’ll blame the cows,” John said, peeved. “Go on, whose fault is it?”

“Yours,” she said, and it stilled him.

He turned his face toward her and stared. “Mine?” Anger was rising in him, tinged with the bitter edge of defense. “And just how the bloody hell does that work then?

“Don’t be stupid, John.”

His eyes narrowed. “Maybe you should explain it to me, Irene,” he rumbled. “You being so brilliant and me being so dim.”

“He’s not meant to feel the way you make him feel,” she said evenly.

“And I am certain that’s none of your business,” he shot back. His voice was soft, dangerous.

“You’re distracting him.” She matched his tone.

He looked at her, his head tilting as he took this in. “’Distracting’ him…hmm. Well.” He pinned her with his eyes. “Why do I have the sneaking suspicion that the only reason you care about any of this is because you need him to cover your arse and fix whatever mess you’ve stepped in?”

“Oh bollocks,” she sniffed. “You know all too well why I care. Though you’re right that he really is the only one person who can get us out of this.”


“Because it’s his problem we’re in. His and Mycroft’s, that is.”

John sat back now, tossing the cloth in the pan with a faint splash. “You know, Irene…I don’t trust you enough to believe a fucking thing you say.”

“You can though, John,” she replied.

“Right.” He wouldn’t look at her.

“I’ll prove it to you. Let’s play a game.”

He shook his head. “No. I’ve had enough of your games to last…a lifetime, thanks.”

“Ask me three questions,” she pressed. “I promise I’ll answer them truthfully. And if you’re satisfied I’ve done that, leave me with him and go get some rest.”

“No.” John leaned over, straightening the blanket over Sherlock’s arm.

“Three questions you’ve always wanted to ask.” She gave him her best annoyingly challenging look. “Come on, John. Can’t pass that up…”

He heaved out a sigh, looked at Sherlock, then down. It was true. It was hard to pass up.

“All right,” he said, turning to face her. He kept his eyes down as he considered for a long beat. As she waited, Irene sat in a white, soft chair a few feet back from the bed.

“Have you ever had a normal relationship?” he asked.

“Define normal.” Her voice was measured but amused.

He shrugged. “Oh I don’t know…let’s say something that didn’t involve tranquilizers and whips.”

Her brows climbed. “Ah, I see we’re a touch judgmental. A bit…traditional.”

John’s lip quirked. “Because I don’t think that one needs to be beaten senseless to enjoy a shag? Yes, guilty. I’m positively vanilla.

She smiled. “The answer to your question is no then.”

John nodded. Not really a surprise. He realized dimly that he’d only asked her because he wanted her to know his disapproval of who she was.

The understanding of his own cruel intent deflated him a bit. Sherlock cared for her. He should try to be kinder for his sake.

John looked at Irene for a long moment – really looked at her – and she let him. He could tell she saw something relenting in him.

“Does it make you lonely?” he asked into the quiet.

“Is that really your second question?” She seemed genuinely surprised.


She nodded, impressed. “Does it make me lonely…” she repeated, seeming to consider it carefully for a long beat. Then she met his gaze, unwavering. “Desperately, yes.”

He cocked his head. More than he expected, much more. The words and the soft, vulnerable expression on her face.

“Okay then, why—“

“Why am I letting you have him?” she cut in. “When I could humiliate you, crush you to nothing, and simply take what I want?” Her eyes shone in the dim light.

He swallowed, nodded. “Yes.”

She leaned forward. “Because I’m in love with him. But I know that a life with me would destroy him…and a life with you will save him in the end.”

His brow furrowed at her words. It was not at all what he expected her to say. But the look on her face, her steady gaze shining with a hint of tears, told him that every word of it was true. He angled his head, a gesture of respect.

“Thank you,” he said quietly.

She returned the motion. “And you.”

He smoothed his hand over his knees, pushed himself up, reaching for his phone on the nightstand. “Right, okay,” he said, clearing his throat. “I’ll have a kip then. But wake me if there’s any change?”

Irene nodded. “Of course,” she said. “Sleep well.”

She watched him go, his tired gait, his bare feet padding faintly on the stone floor. He creaked the wooden door open, went out, and closed it again.

Irene reached for the pan on the nightstand, brought out the flannel and squeezed it out. Then she sat on the edge of the bed carefully, leaned over Sherlock, stroking the cloth over his pale face and sweat-soaked hair.




Light streamed through the entrance hall’s tall windows, the stained glass climbing toward the ceiling a hundred meters above and leaving swaths of color splashed across the floor in red and gold and indigo.

Sherlock loved to linger here, his arms outstretched and the colors bathing, warm, on his shirt’s white. Right in front of him was the seemingly endless spiral staircase that gave him access to the hundreds of room above, each one holding its secrets and priceless artifacts. He had only to move from the warm blue light and climb the steps.

Waggle. Waggle run dance.

The dance done by honeybees. Now why was he thinking about that?

He climbed the stairs, and just as that thought came to him, a bee buzzed over his shoulder, hovering right ahead of him. He followed it up and up.

At one landing, the bee turned to the left and Sherlock followed to one of the hundreds of doors along the corridor. It smelled old. Like books and wood and something sweet.

The waggle part of the dance. The bee’s fat abdomen shaking back and forth, the pattern indicating the direction of a food source. The run, a line to show the distance. With that information, all the bees could fly off to mine the source and bring it back to the hive.

The hive. Sherlock opened the door and the bee flew in ahead of him, joining the gold honeycomb the room had become, the persistent whispers of the thousands of bees.

He moved to the center of the room, his eyes closing, his hands held up like parentheses just in front of his face.

The texts of hundreds of emails streamed in the air in front of him, words streaming as he sifted them with his hands. Whispered words of contacts, a dozen meetings in cafes and hotel rooms. A tumble of seemingly inconsequential bits of information connecting with lines as they fell.

You should see me in a crown…

Jim Moriarty’s insane, bored, and pale face. Dear Jim…won’t you please…

Irene Adler sitting in front of him in his bedroom, just back from Zurich. Walking with her at the fence line. Then a glint on the hillside that he turned to face.

A bee dancing on the surface of the comb, the others pressing in to touch it, measuring, reading the route, the sign.


“Yes, but for what?” Sherlock said aloud, shaking his head. “For what?

The bee dancing on the combs, the others pressing in. The one that had led Sherlock in buzzed in front of his face like a gadfly.

Sherlock opened his eyes, looked at the seemingly uniform surface of the comb. But there was one place where the bees clustered around an opening like guards, something large and still and utterly protected hidden within…

You should see me in a crown…

The queen. Or, this case, a king.

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed. The bee buzzed. He slapped it away.


His head lurched forward as though something had lodged in, his eyes squeezing closed.

“No,” Sherlock whispered. “You didn’t owe me, dear Jim…”

The walls dripped around him, sickeningly sweet. The burring buzz rose until it blotted out everything else. Sherlock closed his eyes against the onslaught of noise, and then—



How tired John was, Sherlock thought, as the soft, kind voice floated in. Sherlock turned his face toward it and opened his eyes. John gave him one of those fond smiles that creased the lines Sherlock so enjoyed at the corner of his eyes.

“You were talking in your sleep,” John said, his voice wrecked with fatigue. “Something about…bees, I think?” His hand cupped the side of Sherlock’s head, his thumb worrying his hairline.

Sherlock stared at him, his eyes darting from John’s eyes to the room and back again. Painkillers. He felt like his veins were filled with sand.

“You were shot,” John offered to his confusion. “Do you remember?”

Sherlock hadn’t, but it wasn’t important, really. He shook his head.

“A bit dodgy for a bit there, but you’re going to be okay. How’s the pain?”

Sherlock shook his head. My God, who cares? It was warm and smelled of ocean, the light from the window too bright, too white. “What…what is this place?”

“We’re in Tunisia. Mycroft said it wasn’t safe to stay where we were, so he flew us here.”

“Mycroft,” Sherlock said, his eyes widening. “Where…?”

John’s brow furrowed and his thumb stilled. “He’s gone to the embassy for the day, I think he said,” John replied. “Sherlock, you okay?”

Sherlock shook the concern away. “John…Moriarty…”

John’s tired eyes grew a bit wider at the mention of the name. “What about him?” he asked quietly, his voice on edge.

Sherlock took in as deep a breath as he could manage, his eyes on his friend’s face.

“He’s not dead.”





Chapter Text



The wide window in Sherlock’s bedroom had a magnificent view – a bit of the house’s well-kept garden (a favorite feature of anything to do with Mycroft), a white private beach down a flight of stairs carved into the rise, and beyond that, the cerulean blue of the warm Mediterranean.

Sherlock had spent the morning in the soft white chair by the window, a glass of ice water sweating on the mosaic table on his left. He looked the perfect invalid – no shirt, white robe, white pants, both in the linen that appeared to be the uniform of the place. Given the heat, it made sense.

His torso was circled by a wide wrap that helped to hold the thick bandage over his stitches in place. He kept his left elbow tucked in around the nagging pain there. It felt like something had taken a huge bite from his side.

John had done a remarkable job on the wound though, and even now, just a week on, he was on the mend, well enough to move around on his own, even walk a bit.

Sherlock reached and took a sip from the glass, set it down, smoothing his hair back from his face. Then he tented his fingers in front of his lips, closed his eyes, and set the one-word command in his head again.


“Who is he?” he’d demanded from the bed the instant Mycroft had walked in. His eyes had narrowed on seeing his brother’s pale face. John, who’d been standing nearby, crossed his arms and shifted his weight, a physical manifestation of Sherlock’s tone.

Mycroft dug his hands into his prim suit pants, looked down, expelled a breath. “Moriarty?”

“Yes,” Sherlock snapped, his voice fast and rising. “Who was the Jim Moriarty I watched shoot himself?”

“Sherlock, please—“

“Don’t you dare condescend to me!” Sherlock roared and John took a step toward him. “How long have you known about this?” His chest was rising and falling rapidly, pulling in oxygen through the canula every few breaths as the exertion sent his vision to a blur.

Mycroft came forward; Sherlock imagined his pallor must have changed alarmingly. “I will tell you everything I know if you will please try to calm down.”

“Yes, please,” John said softly from beside him, and Sherlock looked into his worried face. It was enough to make him unhitch.

“All right,” Sherlock said evenly, nodding to John. Mycroft sat in one of the chairs beside the bed, cleared his throat, and crossed his legs.

“The man you had your dealings with was Jim Moriarty, just as he said. But he misled you when he made it sound as if the entire criminal network he claimed was under his control. It was not. It is not, in fact. Rather, it’s controlled by his father, James.”

John gaped. Sherlock’s eyes narrowed on Mycroft’s face. “A friend of yours, I gather.”

Mycroft gave a wincing smile. “I would say a longtime acquaintance, but yes. Jim was his only son.”

Sherlock nodded. He’d gathered that, as well. “Go on.”

“James and I have had dealings in the past…on a bit of a grander scale than what Jim dabbled in.”

Sherlock nodded. “Jim’s little puzzles…even the Crown Jewels and the bank. There was something in them that seemed too…prankish. Too much like overly clever games. Beneath the resources clearly there to put them in place.”

“Yes, Jim was always a bit...prone to boredom and outbursts.” Mycroft gave a pained smile. “Perhaps you know the type.”

John smirked. Sherlock did not.

“He was insane,” Sherlock said.

“Quite,” Mycroft said. “James has always known his son was a touch…erratic in some ways, prone to anger, but I don’t think he was aware of how far it went.”

“Nor were you, I don’t think.” Sherlock said darkly.

Color rose on Mycroft’s cheeks. “No,” he said softly. “I certainly wouldn’t have been as forthcoming with him about you as I have been.”

“This wasn’t about Sherlock at all, was it?” John said, and Sherlock was impressed that John’s propensity for emotionalism was staying in check. “It’s something between you and James.”

Mycroft looked down. “James and I have our dealings on…an international scale. A number of years ago, I and several colleagues had to work quite diligently to stop James from…governmental machinations in a certain region that would have destabilized our interests.”

“Interests in…?” Sherlock prompted.

“Let’s just call it our collective existence and leave it at that,” Mycroft said.

“Nuclear technology,” Sherlock said softly. “India or Pakistan.”

Mycroft went on as though Sherlock hadn’t spoken. “James’ interests in the region were, thankfully, compromised quite seriously, and it was the one time he told me there would be consequences for my interference. This was some years ago, and I believe his wider interests eventually leveled his head and stopped him from following through on this threat.”

“But not Jim,” Sherlock murmured, his eyes darting back and forth, moving pieces of the puzzle in place behind them.

“I have been reliably informed that the younger Moriarty’s actions were not officially sanctioned, though Jim had ample access to the resources necessary to accomplish them. I’ve also been informed that the boy was specifically told not to move against me or anyone involved in the previous difficulties between James and myself. To confine his activities to his somewhat…lesser realm.”

Mine, Sherlock had thought then.

Mycroft sighed, went on. “The world being what it is at present, the elder Moriarty has had many things with which to occupy himself, and I don’t think his son was perhaps as prominent on his list has he should have been.”

“So Jim decided to go for Sherlock instead,” John said.

Mycroft uncrossed and re-crossed his legs. “James was the only person for whom Jim had ever shown genuine affection, if you will, though ‘affiliation’ is more what he was capable of, I think.” At Sherlock’s raised brow, Mycroft nodded. “Yes, I met him once when he was only a boy. It was clear even then that Jim idolized him. Like a king and his little prince.”

“So he left the kings to their game and went after the rival prince,” Sherlock said softly. “Another fairy tale trope…”

“Yes.” Mycroft replied, looking down.

John spoke into the beat of silence that followed. “So the ‘I.O.U’ was for what you’d done to his father, not for anything Sherlock had done.”

“Oh, I’m certain he was angry at me for spoiling his games,” Sherlock replied, reaching up to wipe at the clammy sweat on his face that exertion seemed to bring. “If they were puzzles, things he was doing to stave off boredom, I’m sure my coming in and knocking over his little towers began to annoy him.”

“If by ‘annoy’ you mean it drove him to ruin you, threaten all our lives, and try to murder you," John quipped. “Not to mention hurting Mycroft by hurting you.”

Sherlock’s lip curled bitterly. “The flaw in his plan. Clearly he didn’t know us as well as he thought.”

Mycroft had looked up then, his face sad, grave. “I think he knew me very well, Sherlock. You are the only family I have left. It would…affect me deeply were something to happen to you.”

The brothers’ eyes met, hung there. John looked back and forth between them and let the moment stretch. For the Holmes brothers, Mycroft’s declaration and Sherlock’s not cutting it off at the knees with a vicious retort was a moment of bald, weeping sentiment.

Finally, Mycroft cleared his throat, breaking it. “Your recording of Jim’s confession on the roof with your phone will, of course, take care of your reclamation when – or if – this is resolved. And its revelation will ruin the last of Jim Moriarty’s reputation as a sane man just as thoroughly, as well.”

“Your recording of what?” John asked, looking at Sherlock. “Why haven’t I heard this?”

“Because I have the recording,” Mycroft said evenly. “And James has heard it. He is aware of his son’s…misbehavior, but as you know, that awareness does precious little to alleviate pain.” He looked hard at Sherlock. “You see the problem.”

Sherlock nodded. “We’re all now owed for Jim’s death. The evil king’s revenge for the death of the prince.”

Mycroft nodded. “Yes. You. John. Ms. Adler. Mrs. Hudson. Detective Inspector Lestrade. Jim’s unfinished business, plus anyone who has aided you in the past or shown you regard. Jim knew of Ms. Adler’s feelings for you, and the loss of the phone due to your endgame with her hindered him badly.”

“Irene went to Zurich…” Sherlock breathed.

“And she was seen, of course,” Mycroft finished for him, giving the same wincing smile again. “Never one to keep a low profile, Irene. There’s a contract out on her life with quite a high reward. She was tailed back to the safehouse by bounty hunters who were fairly unskilled. Thankfully, greed does not automatically grant great skill. But their ineptitude gave me important information about how widely news of the contracts has spread. And it’s given me the time to put certain precautions in place.”

“Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade?” John asked. Sherlock could see his shoulders had tensed.

“They’ve been under my protection for some time, naturally, but they’ve been moved into my custody at this point. Very comfortable, I assure you, and impeccably safe. As the three of you are here in this place.”

Sherlock nodded. It explained why Mycroft had brought Irene along from the Alps. The threats against her were there because of him. Even if Mycroft disliked and distrusted her, he was civilized.

Sherlock studied his brother’s inscrutable face. “You’ve spoken to him. He’s agreed to…something.”

Mycroft nodded. “A truce of sorts. For the moment. He and I will be meeting to have a chat about all this.”

“You’re not going alone,” John snapped, shaking his head.

Mycroft shook his head. “That is not your concern,” he said. “But suffice to say that there is a certain amount of…honor still left in the man, even if some of it is held in place by the promise of rather severe consequence. I assure you that for the purposes of our discussions, I will be quite safe.”

“And you’re certain?” Sherlock asked, a challenge in his voice. “You’ve miscalculated quite a bit.”

“Sherlock—“ John cut in.

“Ah. Fair enough, yes,” Mycroft said, though the look his brother had given John at the moment showed how much he appreciated the defense. “I have made a number of rather large mistakes.”

“You have, yes,” Sherlock pressed, anger starting to slow boil again. He wanted to hear them. All of them if he could.

As though he could hear his thoughts, Mycroft nodded, stood and moved around the room. “I did not understand what the boy I met all those years ago had become. I assumed Moriarty the elder understood him and had him under control. It wasn’t until the Bond Air incident that I began to see that the dabbling he was doing had moved…into something of greater scale. But he had the information from me he would use to destroy you by then. I could do nothing but hope he would not find a way to make use of it, would just keep up his silly games with you while I worked to both contain the wider damage he could cause and to protect you.”

“’Silly games?’” John repeated, his expression appalled. “How many people died while he played them with Sherlock?”

“Oh I have no idea, John,” Mycroft said dismissively. “I don’t have the luxury of your vantage point on these things. If I felt every death as keenly as you do I would have become both mad and ineffectual by now. And a few deaths are inevitable when your scope is as broad as mine.”

John’s jaw was working, his teeth clenched. But he relented, turned his back and began fussing with the monitor on Sherlock’s IV stand.

Mycroft moved closer to the bed, looked down at Sherlock, and Sherlock could see the regret, the fatigue in his face. “You’ve deduced a great deal of this already,” Mycroft said.

“Some, yes,” Sherlock said, dejection in his voice. “There was a pattern of the things I was doing to dismantle Jim Moriarty’s network being deftly undone. But I didn’t see it all,” Sherlock said dejectedly. “And I most definitely didn’t see it quickly enough.”

Mycroft smiled gently. “You may have had other, more important things on your mind.”

Sherlock met Mycroft’s eyes, but he noticed John shift slightly toward them at that, looking and then quickly looking away.

John had gone quieter after that, even after Mycroft took his leave, noting that Sherlock looked tired and should rest. With Mycroft gone, Sherlock had expected John to pepper him with questions, to give into his emotion, to rage…anything.

But instead, John had simply agreed with Mycroft, offered more pain meds (Sherlock refused) and checked all the readings. Then told Sherlock to sleep. Even then, Sherlock had noticed that John was having a hard time meeting his eyes, and he hadn’t touched him at all as he left.

In the days since, the more Sherlock’s health improved, the more distant John became. It had grown worse when Mycroft had come in and announced that now that Sherlock was clearly out of danger, he was returning to London in preparation for his meeting with Moriarty.

“I will return when I can,” Mycroft had said, and nodding to them both, he’d gone.

A few nights ago, Sherlock and John sitting over the remains of an excellent meal, Sherlock had asked him straight on if he was all right. John had deflected it, telling him he was fine but that he “had a lot on his mind.”

There in the chair, Sherlock huffed a faint laugh, remembering that. How like John that an unspoken truth was the closest to a lie he could get.

Except for their quiet meals, John had been keeping much to himself. Irene had even mentioned it, sitting with Sherlock the night before, though she had seemed more interested in John’s absence in the room than truly concerned.

In particular, John had started spending time alone on the beach below. Sherlock had seen him there in the mornings sometimes, swimming in the turquoise water in a pair of dark trunks. John swam for a long time in the water each time with strong, purposeful strokes.

He looked for all the world like someone in training for some event.

This seemed to be reinforced when Sherlock noted that John had taken to running along the beach, disappearing off to the west where it extended for a long stretch. When John got out of sight, Sherlock would find himself tensing as he stood or sat by the window, waiting until John appeared again and sat in the surf to cool down.

That’s what Sherlock was doing now as he sat in his chair, the ice in his glass long gone to melt. He was waiting for John to return from his run.

John had been adding minutes every day, so he was later than he’d been the day before when finally appeared, jogging with his short strides to the center of the beach and checking his watch to measure his pace. Then he moved toward the water, clearly spent, his chest heaving and his hands on his hips.

Sherlock watched all this from his chair, fascinated. He’d never seen John like this, remote and driven and strangely…tentative. Shy, even?

Something was wrong somewhere in that strange country of feeling where a language was spoken that Sherlock couldn’t fully understand. Unfortunate since John seemed to be from that place.

Sherlock was curious. More than that, he was concerned and a bit of what he’d heard people sometimes describe as hurt.

It was this that got him up from the chair for the slow walk down to the beach.



John had always loved the feeling of weightlessness he got from the sea. Not just the actual sensation of floating, but the way it made him feel infinitely small in some way, as though both him and his concerns were just fleeting, tiny things.

That’s what he thought as he bobbed a dozen feet from the shore, floating on his back as the waves lifted him on the crests and lowered him again. He could also feel the hot center of himself cooling, and he leaned his head back further to submerge his hot face.

For a long moment, he simply hung there, suspended in all that blue. It felt good, all the worry and—he was unsure what else to call it. Confusion? Blame? – seeming to float out of him.

His mind had been a tumult since the conversation with Mycroft. Actually, if he was honest with himself, it had started earlier than that, with the near-argument with Irene Adler and her insistence that Sherlock was being distracted by what was going on between them.

It had been so clearly accusatory. You’re distracting him… As if John was both doing it on purpose and that it had endangered Sherlock as a result.

Then Mycroft: You may have had other, more important things on your mind…

John sighed, took a breath and submerged himself in the waves for a long beat, listening to the muted world underwater, suspended in the column of water like he belonged there in its gentle rise and fall.

What they’d said had bothered him because their words were like tiny mirrors held up to his own fears, fears that what had started between Sherlock and him would be ultimately destructive to them both.

John broke the surface of the water again, went back to floating, his arms outstretched under the sun as it made its first moves to set. The light was going from white to gold.

It surprised him to realize that it actually wasn’t that Sherlock was a man. Sherlock was Sherlock, and his gender – always a bit ethereal – seemed irrelevant even to Sherlock himself at times.

He partly had Irene to thank for that. It had been her oddly resolute (and angry) declaration in the warehouse that day that Sherlock and John were a couple that made denying it seem pointless after that, regardless of what John thought of classifying it or not classifying it as gay.

This was not to say that John didn’t find Sherlock attractive in a physical sense. But Sherlock’s physicality was, to John, simply an extension of the strange intensity the man had, and it was this that John was at first fascinated and infatuated with. Somewhere along the way those feelings for Sherlock had simply become…something else, something deep and undeniably physical and significantly more intense.

He did know what it was, though. Desire. He led with and trusted his heart completely, and he knew that feeling well.

Stop trying to label it… Ella had said all those weeks ago. And once he’d found Sherlock alive again in some otherworldly miracle second chance, something in John had vowed to do just that.

The question now was that if it was indeed true that Sherlock’s feelings for him – and John’s clear return of them – made Sherlock vulnerable in the face of all the danger they were in, could they (could he) turn them off again?

John sighed, shaking his head. “Fuck,” he muttered, and submerged himself again.

By the time he broke the surface, he’d managed to quiet the racing thoughts. He’d long ago found that he was able to clear his head best when he’d run himself out.

As he opened an eye to check his distance from the beach, he saw someone standing there. Sherlock in his open robe and loose trousers, his skin nearly as white as the bandage around his waist. He was holding John’s towel that he’d left at the steps to the house.

John righted himself in the water, standing, his arms floating out at his sides. He hadn’t cleared Sherlock to walk this far – especially alone – and it irked him.

“Sherlock, you okay?” he called over the sounds of the water, and Sherlock stayed there, not speaking, looking at John with a determined expression on his face, the shore breeze moving through his dark hair.

Well, John thought, wiping water from his eyes. I suppose we’re going to do this now then.

He started half-swimming, half-walking toward the beach.



How did I miss, all that time, how lovely he is?

The thought floated unbidden from deep within Sherlock as John reached the break and walked up the beach, water streaming from his nut-brown body and the dark trunks clinging to him.

Don’t stare. Am I staring?

He could tell from John’s expression that he was. Just in case it wasn’t welcome, he looked away, down at the edge of the waves.

“You shouldn’t have walked down here on your own,” John said as he closed the distance between them. “If you needed me, you could have sent someone down and I would have come.”

Sherlock shook his head. “I wanted…some air.” It was a lame finish and sounded it. John had even cocked his head at the way he’d trailed off. “I brought your towel from over there.”

Even worse. For God’s sake…

“Something’s on your mind,” John said, and now he did smile. “Clearly.” He took the towel with a small laugh.

“Yes,” Sherlock said, color heating his cheeks. John went to scrubbing at his hair to dry it, slicking it back with his hand, then rubbing at his chest with the cloth. Sherlock did his best to only watch for an instant, his eye just flicking over the scar high on John’s chest as the towel rubbed it white, then red.

“What is it?” John asked.

“You,” Sherlock said. “You’re pulling away from me.”

If John seemed put off by his directness, he didn’t show it. He merely looked down, shifted his weight. “I probably am a bit,” he said.

Sherlock looked down, something sinking in him. “The way you feel about me has changed then.”


“No, it’s fine. I understand.” There it was. He had changed his mind...

“Will you shut up and listen to me?” John’s voice cut through, and Sherlock returned his gaze to his face. John looked miffed and amused and fond all at once. “I feel exactly the same. That’s not it.”

Sherlock wanted to rush in, fill in the blanks. At least he’d know then what went in them…

“I’m just not sure…” John began, moving his gaze from Sherlock’s face to settle somewhere in the center of his chest. “…now is the best time for us to be doing this.”

“Why?” Now we’re getting somewhere.

John shrugged, slicking back his hair with the towel again. He looked down. “I’m distracting you.”

Sherlock’s brow came down. “Distracting me? From what?”

John still wouldn’t look him in the face. “You’re not meant to feel for me the way you do.”

Sherlock’s jaw clenched. “According to whom?” he snapped.

“Something Irene said,” John replied. “But I’m not convinced it’s not true. Even Mycroft mentioned you’d not made the progress on sussing out all this business with Moriarty because your mind was on ‘other things.’”

Ah. Sherlock did his best to tamp the anger down as he said: “First, I am certain that is not at all what Mycroft meant. Frankly, I think if my brother could find a way to have you connected to me surgically, he would do it to ease his tedious nerves. So you and I spending more time together is cause for celebration for him, not concern.”

John nodded, accepting what Sherlock said. “Okay,” he said with a vague uncertainty in his voice.

Sherlock pressed on, his voice hard and intense. “Now let me say something about Ms. Adler. And it's important, John, that you remember this, because this is something of which you were once aware. She has one priority and that is herself. Her safety, first and foremost. Her needs and desires and her bloody whims after that. If it serves her, she will do it; if it doesn’t, she absolutely won’t.”

“Yes, but be that as it’re much alike, the two of you,” John said softly. “I thought when she said it that…she might understand you better than I do.”

Something pulled in Sherlock until it hurt.

“You thought Miss Adler might know me better than you do?” He took a step closer, the toes of his bare feet nearly touching John’s. “Not possible.”

Their eyes met. “But you care for her,” John pressed. “I know that.”

Sherlock reached out now and curved a hand around the side of John’s neck, his thumb stroking his cheek. It had grown dark enough that the lights on the house were coming on, throwing John’s face into gold relief.

“Not even close to how I care for you,” Sherlock murmured. He’d never been this open before. Ever. He didn’t know how people just did this without feeling as if their skin had come off.

Then he realized that they did it because it created the look coming on John’s face. Drawing in a deep breath, John – open face, eyes bright – closed the scant space between then and drew Sherlock into a kiss.

John’s hands on his face, his neck, his chest. Slightly rough against the curve of his ribs, his back. Sherlock searched his mouth with his tongue, his hands moving from his face to his chest, memorizing. John’s belly shivered as Sherlock’s fingers trailed over it, feeling the faint trail of hair that started there. When Sherlock reached his hands around to the small of John’s back and down into the waist of his trunks, John pressed his face into Sherlock’s throat.

“We need to stop,” he whispered, warm against Sherlock’s skin.


“You’ve been shot, for starters.”

“Dull…” Sherlock’s attention was currently focused on the feel of his hands trapped between the tight waist of the trunks and John’s body as he slid his hands from the small of John’s back to that lovely trail of hair on his belly again.

John shivered, took in a breath, his head dipping until his forehead was touching Sherlock’s chest. His voice was deep when he spoke again.

“And there are probably at least 20 cameras on us right now, and I don’t exactly fancy your brother seeing all this on film when he gets back...”

That broke the spell. Sherlock stilled, leaned his face against John’s temple and smiled.

“Good point. Where?” he asked, his hand resting possessively on the back of John’s neck.

“Your room is good,” John said, and Sherlock nodded, taking his hand.



They’d taken the walk to the house slowly, John’s arm around Sherlock to help steady him as they took the steps back up.

We’re doing this, John thought as they walked. The thought left some part of him thunderstruck, though feeling Sherlock beneath his hands, the feel of his lips against John’s mouth still fresh, he was having a hard time recalling why they’d waited this long.

“Are you certain you’re all right with this?” Sherlock asked as they reached the top of the stairs and stopped to rest.

John nodded, gave Sherlock a warm smile. “Yes,” he replied. “But…thanks.”

By the time they’d reached Sherlock’s bedroom, the door locked behind them, John noticed that the walk had made Sherlock even more pale, his face sheened with a cool sweat as he stood beside the bed

“I can wait until you’re more healed, you know,” John said gently, looking at him as he finished drawing the curtains. “We don’t have to do this right now.”

Sherlock smiled faintly to him. “I think we do.” He eased his robe off and draped it on the chair.

John watched Sherlock watch him as he came back around to the bed. His trunks had all-but dried on their slow walk back up from the beach, so he sat on the bed’s edge, his knees a loose vee. Sherlock came closer until he stood between them.

John’s hands came up to rest on Sherlock’s hips, his eyes focused in the center of his thin chest.

“Tell me you’re all right,” Sherlock murmured, and John looked up to see his brow creasing down.

“Of course, yes,” John said softly. “It’s just that…well, I haven’t actually done this before.” He shrugged, and he could feel himself actually blush.

“You’re not going to attempt to tell me you haven’t had sex.” Sherlock’s eyes glinted with amusement.

John laughed. “Of course I’ve had sex, you idiot. Just not…with a man.”


John shook his head, and he could tell that some part of Sherlock was pleased with this. His gray eyes had taken on a hungry look, his pupils going even more wide, his hands on John’s ribs and trailing down. It sent a fresh flush of warm desire through John’s chest.

“Have you?” he asked on a breath.

“Not important.” Sherlock’s eyes were concentrating intently on the areas of skin that were still covered by the trunks. John felt the gaze like heat between his legs.

John ignored it for a moment, swallowed. He had to know. “Sherlock, you have--”

“Of course I have,” Sherlock chided gently. “But not with you. And that’s all that matters to me right now.”

John smiled, his eyes softening. It was one of the most strangely…romantic?...things anyone had said to him in bed. He leaned forward and pressed his lips to Sherlock’s.

“Thank you,” he said against Sherlock’s mouth as he pulled away.

Sherlock hummed softly against his lips just before he went for John’s trunks again.

“You’re welcome. Now please take these off…”

Together, they did. John slid Sherlock’s trousers and pants down over those thin hips, and Sherlock stepped closer, pressing in, his hands on John’s belly again. They were both already hard, Sherlock’s belly flushed.

“Don’t do anything that hurts you,” John whispered, his hands smoothing from the bandage wrapped around Sherlock’s middle to the warm skin beneath.

“I won’t…” Sherlock breathed, leaning in, his mouth finding John’s as he took the thick weight of John’s cock in his cool hand.

Oh God… John’s breath caught against Sherlock’s mouth. Then his hand curved around Sherlock’s cock, easing it away from Sherlock’s belly as his thumb smoothed over the slick, smooth head.

Sherlock drew back from their kiss, bit his lip, closing his eyes. His head dropped until his forehead rested on John’s shoulder, his cheek against John’s throat.

“Okay?” John whispered, his thumb tracing the thick line on the underside of Sherlock’s cock.

Sherlock nodded, raised his face and leaned John back into a deep kiss, working John slowly with his hand. John felt himself swallowing a moan.

“Tell me what you want,” John breathed when they came up for air. “Tell me and I’ll do it…” He bit his lip as Sherlock’s other hand slid between his legs, cupping the warm weight there.

“We’ll do what we always do.” Sherlock kissed his brow, leaned their foreheads together as their bodies pressed in. “Just listen to me…and I’ll watch your face…”



As night fell, they shifted so that Sherlock was on his back on the bed. John, standing by the bedside as he helped Sherlock get settled, flicked on the small lamp on the night stand and climbed carefully back onto the bed, then over Sherlock, his knees on either side of Sherlock’s hips, one hand out to brace himself over Sherlock’s shoulder while the other took Sherlock back into his fist, working him.

“More…” Sherlock whispered as they kissed, both his hands stroking between John’s legs. “John, more…”


He let go of Sherlock’s long cock long enough to ease Sherlock’s thighs open a bit more, moved his knees between them now, holding his weight on both hands on either side of Sherlock’s head. He slid down carefully until their bodies were flush against one another, his belly to Sherlock’s belly, his hips to Sherlock’s hips.

Sherlock slid his hands between them and released a shaky breath. John’s face twisted in pleasure as he lifted his hips enough for Sherlock to grasp both their cocks. The space between them was slick with fluid from both of them, with the beginnings of sweat.

“That’s it,” Sherlock said on a throaty moan. “That’s it. Now move…”

John gave a gentle rock of his hips, thrusting into their pressed bodies, into the cup of Sherlock’s hand. He groaned, biting his lip. “Christ…

“Again,” Sherlock whispered, his voice shaking, and John ground against him, beginning a slow rhythm with his hips. “Just like that…yes….”

He leaned up to capture John’s mouth with his, their tongues twining, teeth nipping the soft skin of lips. John’s eyes were open as they kissed, and Sherlock felt something lodging in his throat at the raw tenderness he saw there.

“You’re so lovely,” he whispered as their lips parted. John’s eyes slid closed, a faint smile on his lips. John’s breathing was growing faster with the thrusting of his hips, sweat darkening his hairline. Sherlock wanted to taste it and did, bringing John's mouth to his again.

John moved from Sherlock’s lips to his jaw, then to the long line of his throat. Sherlock jerked as he felt John’s teeth there. He moaned, and John caught the skin gently between his teeth again.

Moonlight washed in through the window on the night air. Both of their breathing picked up, chests rising and falling. John’s hips were a liquid rhythm now. Sweat slicked them. John was flushed and shaking above him, his brow creased.

“Sherlock…” he breathed, urgent.


“I can’t--”

Sherlock pressed his face against John’s, against the tension there. “Let go…”

John buried his face in Sherlock’s throat, his hips shifting, finding the perfect friction between their cocks and bodies and Sherlock’s hand. He moaned the word yes. He moaned Sherlock’s name.

Pressure was building at the base of Sherlock’s spine, a warm and urgent rush.

“Come on, John…” he whispered against John’s temple. “Come on…”

A few more hard thrusts and something in John gave, a stillness and then a jerk that washed him in tremors. He cried out with something not unlike pain, and Sherlock felt the hot rush of liquid on his belly and hand. Two more thrusts and a twist of his hand and the ache in him crested, a pulse of exquisite, warm pleasure filling him as he bit down on John’s shoulder, shuddered, and came. John’s name wrung from him on a ragged breath.

“Beautiful,” John breathed, his hips sliding slow and gentle against him. “So…” He swallowed, drew in a trembling breath. He was still shaking, the sweat on him cooling.

Sherlock curved his hands from between them, one hand going to the nape of John’s neck, the other pressing him close at the small of his back as John’s hips grew still. Sherlock found his forehead for a long kiss.

“Mine,” he whispered fiercely, holding John as his trembling finally began to ease. “Mine...” He kissed John’s temple, his soft brow, his lips.




Chapter Text



After midnight, the house silent, but a breeze still coming in off the ocean through the open window. Sherlock was still, curled partly on his back and partly on his side. John was up on one elbow, looking down, hands moving over Sherlock’s skin like Braille.

“You’re hurting, aren’t you?” John asked softly.

Sherlock made a non-committal sound. “I don’t care.” A weak smile etched his lips and his eyes closed. Of course that would be John’s concern. Some strange, warm feeling welled in Sherlock’s chest and he concentrated on John’s touch on his arm, his side.

“I do,” John replied. “I’m going to get you something for it.” He shifted as if to roll away and rise, but Sherlock stopped him with a hand running over his navel down between his legs, his fingers closing around—

“Sherlock, Jesus—“ John squirmed, covering Sherlock’s hand with his.

“I’d rather see what it’s like having you in my mouth.” Sherlock’s lips curled faintly like a cat’s.

John’s face flushed and he swallowed hard in an embarrassed and aroused reaction that nearly made Sherlock laugh. But then John shook his head, looking into Sherlock’s face and speaking quickly with that firm voice he used when he was trying to order Sherlock around.

“No. No, we’re not going to do that right now. Twice has been…well, absolutely fantastic, for one, and you’re having pain—“

Sherlock’s smile widened as his hand gently squeezed.

Later, when John came, both of them lying on their sides with Sherlock’s forehead pressed against John’s belly, one leg straight and the other thigh trapped under Sherlock’s arm, Sherlock looked up and found himself fascinated. At John’s shaking; at the low, happy sound that seemed to rise up through the center of his chest; at the open, vulnerable expression on his face.

“So good…” John panted, hoarse, his fingers running slowly through Sherlock’s hair. “Oh god Sherlock, so…” and the strange feeling in Sherlock’s chest grew even more watching John lose himself.

Sentiment? Sherlock thought, watching. If so…I’m beginning to understand the appeal.

It was short-lived, John coming back as the movement of his hands in Sherlock’s hair slowed.

“Come here,” John murmured. Together they shifted Sherlock slowly back up onto the pillow, even with John’s face. John pressed his lips to Sherlock’s forehead, then his lips.

“You okay?” he whispered, and Sherlock nodded.

“That was…very good.” Sherlock closed his eyes as he spoke, a soft smile on his face.

John threaded his fingers through Sherlock’s hair. When he spoke, Sherlock could hear the smile on his face. “It was amazing, that’s what it was." His knee moved gently between Sherlock’s legs.

Sherlock opened his eyes to look into John’s face. “Too tired…” His voice was graveled and faint. John nodded, and Sherlock added: “A tablet might be a good thing.”

Sherlock saw the guilt in John’s expression as it changed. “I’m going to give you a shot instead,” he said softly, then pulled away carefully, sitting on the side of the bed and reaching for the towel he’d brought up from the beach. He stood and wrapped it around his hips, and Sherlock felt as though he were watching the curtain fall on a particularly enjoyable show.

John went to the corner of the room, clicking on the lamp there near the mobile cabinet that had come with them from Switzerland, the one that held the surgical kits, tubing, wraps, and other medical equipment John had needed for Sherlock’s care. John drew out a vial and a syringe, pulling the clear liquid into the body of the syringe against the lamp’s light.

“This is going to make you a bit unsteady,” he said, still watching the dose fill.

“I need to shower,” Sherlock said absently. The night had been remarkable -- physically, mentally, some other way -- but he was exhausted now. He wondered if he would already be unsteady on his feet.

“I’ll take one with you then,” John said, coming toward the bed. He lifted the covers that were already low on Sherlock’s hip, slid the syringe into the flesh there. Then he curved his arms around Sherlock’s chest. “Let’s get you up…”

Ten minutes later, Sherlock stood with his arms braced against one of the corners in the shower as John washed him briskly in the spray. Since they’d entered the bathroom, John had seemed to transform into his physician self, cutting the bandages and gently unwrapping Sherlock’s wound, his calloused fingers probing the stitches, the red and angry skin. Sherlock, nude, had begun to tremble.

“Right,” John said, worry in it. “I want this quick.”

Sherlock hated the smell of the antibacterial soap John insisted on using, but he did like the feel of John’s hands moving over him. He found himself drifting as John worked efficiently over him.

As John moved up his legs and back, Sherlock reached for the shampoo and John stood, squeezing some into Sherlock’s right hand so that Sherlock could work it through his dark hair. Sherlock’s movements were lazy, drug-slowed.

His eyes slid closed as John moved to his front, a faint humming coming from Sherlock’s throat.

“So clearly,” John said, levity in the worry now. “What Mycroft said about you not having sex was just taking the piss.”

Sherlock leaned his head back into the spray, letting the water stream down his face, his eyes closed. “That depends on how one defines ‘sex.’”

A small smile touched John’s lips. “So you got that good with your mouth and hands doing…what then?” He was smoothing the soap from Sherlock’s shoulders as the water ran down Sherlock’s face.

“Oh, I traded sexual favors for cocaine.”

Sherlock didn’t notice that John had stopped moving for a few beats as he rinsed the last of the lather from his hair. But once he did, he opened his eyes, looking into John’s quietly stricken face.

Oh. Sherlock thought, suddenly feeling painfully lucid. Damn.

“No, don’t look like that,” he said quickly. “It was nothing. It was years ago.”

But John was shaking his head. “It wasn’t nothing,” he replied, his voice raw.

He stepped closer, his arms going around Sherlock’s chest, pulling him in. Sherlock slid his arm around John’s back and they stayed that way for a long moment.

Then John pulled away, his eyes on Sherlock’s, a hand going to Sherlock’s cheek while he slid the other lightly down Sherlock’s chest and belly. The back of it brushed the sparse, dark curls at the juncture of Sherlock’s legs, stroking there with the base of his knuckles.

No one. Will ever touch you like that again.”

Sherlock swallowed, stroked the side of John’s face. John, he thought. Dear John… Believing he could stand between Sherlock and the whole dark world.

“Let’s get you to bed,” John said, breaking the moment as he twisted the water off.

Sherlock stood by the white chair by the window, the warm breeze coming in, as John helped him dress again. Then John stripped the sheets, remade the bed with clean linens from the trunk at the end of it. John pulled on a pair of Sherlock’s pyjama bottoms (far too long, with no pants) and they settled back down, John curving his body against Sherlock’s beneath the thin, soft sheets.

“Well…” John murmured, sleep-drunk, into Sherlock’s shoulder. “Now people will definitely talk.”

Sherlock smiled. “If that doesn’t do it, nothing will.”

And the last thing they did before sleep took them was laugh.




“Good morning.”

It wasn’t one of the voices Sherlock expected to hear as he woke from his doze, bright Mediterranean sun streaming in through the window as he blinked. John, of course. Perhaps Amir, the head of the house staff who had knocked earlier to ask John if they’d be wanting breakfast.

But not Irene Adler, standing there in a white linen dress, her hair down around her shoulders and an all-too-knowing smile on her face.

“Hmm…” he said, clearing the sleep from his voice. “John wouldn’t want you in here like this.” Too warm, he tried to shift on the white sheets, but he’d grown stiff.

“John isn’t fond of me being on this planet, I think.” She moved to sit down on the bed, crossed her legs.

John had gone into the bath to rinse and shave, chagrined by the red marks on Sherlock’s pale skin. Sherlock could hear the water running in the sink.

“He’s warming to you,” Sherlock said softly. His voice was still weak. “When he says your name, he no longer grits his teeth.”

Irene laughed. “That is progress.”

He huffed a laugh, closed his eyes as his side pulled. “His mind might be more at ease.”

Irene’s eyes were mischievous, pleased. “So I see.”

His cheeks flushed and he looked away. Fortunately, he was saved from responding by the bathroom door opening and John coming out, a towel around his waist. Sherlock noticed John also had his dog tags looped around his hand.

John stopped short on seeing Irene on the bed, his face becoming a stiff mask. Irene regarded him intently, her eyes taking him in.

“You hide a lot that you shouldn’t in those buttoned-up shirts and loose jeans, Dr. Watson,” she teased. “We’ll have to see about getting you something more fitted.”

Sherlock was impressed. Well, with many things about the sight of John, wet, in a towel. But mostly he was taken with the dignity with which John just stood there, not taking the bait. He just drew himself up to his full (if slight) height, his shoulders flexed, the dog tags’ chain hanging down. He flushed, but his eyes bore into Irene’s.
“Is there something you need?” he said at last.

“No, no, I’m just checking in,” she said innocently, standing. “You weren’t at breakfast and I worried he’d taken a turn.”

John angled his head, acknowledging her concern, though his expression changed little.

“That’s kind of you,” he said, as gently as Sherlock knew he could manage.

Irene turned to Sherlock. “Kate’s just arrived, bless Mycroft’s heart. So I might not see you until...much later.” She licked her lips as they curled in a lascivious smile.

Sherlock smiled. “Until then.” She took his hand and squeezed gently.

“John,” she said, both of them nodding to each other as she left.

When the door closed, John turned to Sherlock, held up the dog tags, essentially cutting off any discussion of Irene. Sherlock was glad and let it go, steeling himself.

“I found these in your shaving kit,” John said. His tone and face were unreadable. “I’d wondered where they went.”

“I’m holding them,” Sherlock replied, his eyes on John’s.

“Right,” John said, something flaring in his eyes. “I’ll be having them back now, thanks.”

“No.” The words rumbled out of Sherlock from somewhere deep. “Not yet.”

John tensed, his hands going to his hips. His tongue came out to touch his lower lip. “Why.” Angry now, flat.

“Because I know why you put them on in the hotel, and I’m not certain you won’t do something like that again.”

“Um.” John shifted his weight, flushed. “First, I’m not a fucking toddler standing here--”

“I know that.” A rumble in it, like far-off thunder.

“—and second, what the bloody hell do my dog tags have to do with that?”

Sherlock’s face went blank as a trance. “Everything,” he said.

John glared. “I don’t know what you’re on about,” he said, the anger stark now. It was a desperate attempt to shut Sherlock down, and Sherlock rather thought John should know better by now. He began to speak.

“I know you never would have chosen that hotel if it were an ordinary stay -- too expensive, something luxurious, too good for you.”

John’s face stayed hard, but he swallowed. Sherlock went on, words spinning out.

“You said goodbye to Molly and Mike, I’d wager. Didn’t say anything to Mrs. Hudson – easier, you thought. I know you had a steak, probably with a potato and dessert and a glass of the best scotch they had in the place because you have to have a good reason to give yourself anything nice, and this was a special occasion, after all, this was the day you put on your dog tags so that they could identify you without a fuss, so that you could die like a soldier after all. This was the day you did it, did what you’d been afraid of doing all this time: gave into what you see inside your head every night.”

John’s eyes filled and he swallowed again. He shifted after a moment, looking at the tags in his hand.

Sherlock’s voice dropped, hoarse as the words kept tumbling out. “We’ve never talked about it, why you wanted to end your life. You won’t speak of it and I can’t stand to think on it, frankly, how close I came to not being able to stop you, how I nearly lost you that day. And it’s not gone from you, I can tell that. It’s like a shadow over you, even at night. So I will not let you have those tags, John, because you’re not all right. Not yet. You’re mere weeks away from putting your gun to your head and I will keep those tags until I am absolutely certain you are safe, that you won’t even think of putting them on and going off to harm yourself like that again.”

They stared at each other for a long moment. Then John moved toward the bed.

He sat where Irene had sat just moments before, leaned over and slipped the chain over Sherlock’s head, settling the small round tags onto the center of his chest. Sherlock curved a hand around the back of John’s neck and drew him down for a kiss, Sherlock’s hands moving through the soft strands of John’s damp, close-cut hair.

They kissed and kissed. Slowly at first, then becoming deep and urgent. When they parted, John’s lids were heavy, his eyes foggy with tears and want. He leaned in and nipped at Sherlock’s bottom lip.

“Let me taste you,” John breathed against his mouth.

“You don’t have to,” Sherlock whispered, shaking his head.

“I want to…” John’s hand smoothed down Sherlock’s chest, drifting over the bandages and down between Sherlock’s legs. “I want to learn you.”

Sherlock hummed in this throat, nodded. He liked the sound of that. He nuzzled John’s cheek, nipping at his mouth. John smiled against his lips.




Chapter Text




It was becoming the first word Sherlock said each morning, early, long before dawn when John jerked suddenly awake, breath coming in ragged gasps, sweat soaking either the sheets or the back of his thin shirt.

How did John move so quickly, silently into shocked wakefulness from that nightmare world? Sherlock had even tried to simply doze, anticipating, hoping to head the dream off before it settled in John's body again. But the dream was simply there and then gone, as though John had managed to seal off whatever it was that terrorized him completely before startling awake.

“I'll be back…”

Almost the same words every night as John retreated from the bed to the bath, the shower coming on almost instantly and remaining on for a few minutes. Then John would come out, dried off, and slip back into bed. If Sherlock tried to get him to speak, John would tell him it was nothing, tell him to go back to sleep, or distract him with sex.

Five days, six. The same every night. John grew quieter, his eyes bloodshot, during the day.

A week. No word from Mycroft, but Sherlock's wound was healing well. John took the black stitches out one afternoon, and the site itched but only faintly hurt.

It was the ninth day when whatever rope John was holding onto finally snapped.

Sherlock had heard most of the sounds John could make - his laugh, his shout, the deep sounds that rose from him during sex. But he had never heard the terrible sound John made that night.

Sherlock had fallen hard asleep, a storm coming in, lightning far off over the sea. The breeze had been picking up. The night had started with an especially long session of intense sex, and Sherlock was still pressed up against John's back, his arm across John's chest, their legs in a tangle.

Then Sherlock was shocked from sleep by the sounds tearing out of John as John drew in sudden, too-fast pulls of breath and screamed on each exhale. His body had gone so rigid that Sherlock wondered for a beat if John was seizing. Not since Baskerville had he seen John this afraid.

“It's all right…” Sherlock nearly had to shout over the sound, John's screams starting to go hoarse as he strained his throat. Sherlock held John hard, his cheek on John's temple. John's eyes were wide and wet and unseeing, his face drenching suddenly with cold sweat and going pale.

“JOHN!” Sherlock roared it and something shook loose, John blinking quickly and the sound vanishing into breath. The panting kept up, moving both of them as his chest rose and fell with great, trembling gulps of air.

“Christ…oh Christ…” John's voice was ruined. He croaked it out. But as Sherlock tried to pull him closer, John shook his head and pushed his arms away.

“No,” John said. “Leave me--” The breath choked out of him as he stood, pulling his pyjama pants on in a rush.

“John, don't-“ Sherlock nearly got a hand on his arm as John stumbled by the bed.

“No-“ John choked, shook his head, covered his mouth with a shaking hand, headed to the bath. He was limping as he went.

The shower came on, just the same as before.

Not tonight, Sherlock thought, and slid off the bed, pulling on his flannel bottoms and going to the bathroom door. He didn't knock.

John was sitting on the floor of the glass shower stall, still wearing the bottoms, the shower steaming as the water drenched him. He was slumped against the wall with his face toward the door, eyes wide and vacant and far away. He looked like a ragged toy whose strings had been cut.

Sherlock moved toward the shower quickly, alarmed. “Hey…” He reached for the handle of the shower door.

“Don't…don't come in here.” The way John's eyes pinned him as he said it made Sherlock stop. Something very confused there. Very afraid.

“All right,” Sherlock said over the sound of the water, his hand coming up to touch the barrier between them. He slid slowly to a sitting position directly in front of John, his legs folding under him. John's brow creased.

“I'll…just sit with you here then,” Sherlock offered. “We'll have a talk.” His palm stayed pressed against the glass. John said nothing, simply watched him as he moved down.

Uncharted territory, all this. A land Sherlock had never visited and never known. He set the course by what he knew of feelings alone.

“What did you dream?” he asked.

John met his eyes. “You,” he said. “You were falling again. You were falling and I heard that sound…”

Sherlock tried to hide the wince. “The sound of the body hitting the ground.”

John nodded. Somewhere in the water on his face were tears. “I was trying to say something to you. I was calling to you and you turned away.”

“It wasn't me,” Sherlock offered, useless.

“I know that now,” John bit out. “I didn't then. So when I dream it, the feelings are the same. It doesn't work like that, you know. Those feelings will always be the same…”

Sherlock swallowed. “I know.” He knew that was only partly right. But he had John talking and he didn't want him to stop, despite the apologies crowding in his mind, trying to tumble out. “What else were you dreaming about?”

“I…” John shook his head, his eyes squeezing shut.

“Paul,” Sherlock said firmly. “You dreamed of Paul.”

A long pause. John's mouth twisted on a quiet sob. He nodded against the slick wall. “Don't…”

“He was killed,” Sherlock pushed. “In front you.”

John's chest jerked on a breath. “Yes.”

“The day you were shot.”

John nodded, eyes squeezing shut. “Don't make me tell-“

“You are going to tell me,” Sherlock said. “This is going to kill you if you don't let it out. This is why you put the gun to your head. What happened with me simply brought it back.”

John turned his face toward the wall, his forehead against the tile. He was crying in earnest now.

“I promised him…” He keened. “I promised his wife.”

Sherlock's brow wrinkled in confusion, concern. “Promised what?”

“I said I'd take care of him.” John's voice was rising, anguish seeping in. “That I'd keep him safe.”

“That was foolish considering the circumstance,” Sherlock said. He couldn't help himself.

“You don't understand-“

“I understand that you promised someone in a war zone they wouldn't be hurt. It would be a foolish enough thing to say to someone in normal life. John, why would you place that sort of burden on yourself?”

John's face twisted, his forehead knocking against the tile. “Because he was so afraid.” The sob caught in it. “You don't understand, Sherlock - I loved him and he was so afraid…”

Sherlock could see it scrolling out, the tragedy: the young man looking to John - older, an officer, second tour. Looking to the John he knew so well, the man who would put him and his remarkable heart in harm's way to take someone else's pain away. The intimacy of the battlefield, everything but the most powerful emotions burned away. John's desire to hold and protect doubling and doubling again.

“I've read your Army records,” Sherlock said. “I know you were shot by a sniper at the site of the explosion of an IED on a mountain pass.”

John nodded, choking on another sob.

“Paul was one of the six casualties of the IED that day.”

John shook his head. “Stop…”

“It was instantaneous and gruesome and final,” Sherlock said, words rushing out as his other hand came up to press against the glass. “You had no chance to get to him, to do anything. He was already gone.”

John keened. “What they put in the coffin could have fit in a shoebox.” His breath caught. “The rest of him…chunks. All over the road. All over me…”

Sherlock winced, not at the image (he was morbidly interested, in fact), but at what seeing such a thing would do to John. He swallowed hard.

“When you were able, you went to his wife, didn't you? To apologize.”

John nodded, wiping at his face. “She was in base housing…a flat at the top of a metal staircase. When she opened the door she was furious…she told me I'd lied to her, that she would never…forgive me. She shoved me, pushed me back, and I was so…fucking shocked…I took a bad step and fell down the stairs.”

Sherlock nodded, everything snicking into place like tumblers on a lock. “You injured your leg in the fall.”

John closed his eyes, choking on a sob.

“And the chest shot healed,” Sherlock finished. “But not the leg.”

John turned his face away and cried. Sherlock's chest ached. He stood and reached for the shower door's handle again, and this time John didn't protest.

The handles squeaked faintly as Sherlock shut off the water, moved to sit in front of John on the soaked shower floor. He whispered softly to him, making soothing sounds as he folded John into his arms. John leaned forward and cried against his chest.

If I'd known…God… Sherlock thought. The leap from St. Bart's in front of John. Mycroft and his constant instructions for John to keep Sherlock safe. Without intending it, John's life with Sherlock had repeated the whole scenario with Paul again. And worse, for months it had appeared to have ended the same way. John standing there, helpless, by the broken body of someone he loved. It was no wonder despair had nearly taken John away.

Christ, what have I done? Sherlock thought.

“I am so sorry…” Sherlock breathed against the top of John's head. “What I did, it seemed the best way to protect you. But I never would have done it if I'd known. I would have found another way.”

John leaned back and Sherlock cupped his head in his large hands, smoothing the water away from his cheeks.

“You know that I feel for you as I've never done for anyone,” Sherlock whispered, and John nodded.

“Yes,” he replied. Water dripped in the quiet. “It's called love, I think.”

Sherlock felt something warm crack open in him. “It is, isn't it?”

John's lips curled, though his eyes were still red. He nodded. “And I you.”

Sherlock smiled, brushing at John's temples with his thumbs. “What can I do to help you heal from this?” he asked, and felt his lips tremble.
John gripped his wrists, eyes boring in. “First, never keep me in the dark like that again. If you do, I promise you…you'll never see me again.”

Sherlock swallowed, something cold in his belly settling in. He nodded. “I understand,” he murmured.

“As for the rest…” He looked down, considering, and Sherlock let the silence hang, thunder rumbling faintly as the storm moved in.

“I need our life back,” John said finally, his hands moving to curve around Sherlock's waist. “And I don't care what it takes.”




Chapter Text



The Stranger’s Room at the Diogenes Club was a quiet place. Not as quiet as the rest of the club, of course, since it was the one place where conversation was allowed, but it still had a heavy feel to it, the air smelling of well-oiled leather and old wood.

Mycroft Holmes felt quite at home in such a space. The quieter the better, as far as he was concerned. Better to allow his mind to turn its wheels as he sat to think. The grandfather clock – twice as old as him – ticked. Ten minutes until it struck three.

He was alone in the room. In fact, the entire club had been closed for the afternoon. James Moriarty would have it no other way. And once he had told the other members (via handwritten cards, as was the convention) that the closure was due to a visitor, “expected promptly at 3:00,” there had been no complaint. Only a few people in the world qualified for such an announcement, and none of them were people the Diogenes members wanted to mingle with anyway.

They’d agreed to the private meeting – Mycroft and Moriarty both coming completely alone. No aides, no security. No cameras, no surveillance, no recording at all. It had taken several days to clean all the devices from the entrances and the room.

Mycroft had asked James on the phone if he preferred more “neutral ground,” and James had laughed.

“Where would you and I be able to find that?” he said, and Mycroft had huffed a faint laugh.

“Very true,” he’d replied. After all, there was a hardly a corner of the globe that one of them didn’t touch.

Mycroft had found James unexpectedly reasonable, from his stand-down call on the bounties for Sherlock and the others’ lives to quibbling very little about the meeting arrangements.

But there was a vaguely amused edge to Moriarty’s voice each time they spoke, and Mycroft would swear James was smiling each time he ended the call.

Not good, Mycroft had thought, and that feeling of dread was still draped over him there in the leather chair, the clock beginning the Westminster chimes to strike the hour.

He heard the front door open, steps in the hall. He waited for the soft tap on the Stranger’s Room door before he rose, went to it, and swung it open like the door to a house.

James Moriarty – thin and lean and a bit short, like his son – stood there in his usual gray suit, white shirt, and black tie. His close-cropped black beard was shot elegantly with silver, as was his stylishly close-cut hair. He carried a small black leather folio in one hand and a cane in the other that was capped with a handle in the shape of a silver fox.

“Mycroft,” James said, his navy eyes glinting, his Irish accent lilting in the word. He reached out his hand and Mycroft took it with a reserved smile.

“James, you’re looking well.” Mycroft let go of his hand, gestured him into the room toward the chair with its back to the door. “Please, sit. I’ll just let the kettle warm.”

“I’d prefer something with a bit more strength,” James said, coming in and taking the chair, his eyes scanning the room. “Long trip and all.”

“Of course,” Mycroft said, though he did not, in fact, know where James had come from. He went to the bar to the side instead. “Whiskey on the rocks, yes?”

“Please.” James smiled, sat, laying the folio on his lap. The cane, he kept in his hand.

Mycroft poured two highball glasses, dropped two cubes in each and returned to the chairs, handing James one glass.

“First, let me say how much I appreciate your willingness to meet,” Mycroft began diplomatically.

James smile widened stiffly. He took a sip of his drink. “Well, of course. After all, I would also like a satisfactory resolution to this business between your brother and my son.”

Mycroft heard the vagueness in that response, his eyes narrowing a bit. “I’m glad to hear it, James,” he replied. “When we last spoke, you mentioned that you had given the matter of a resolution a great deal of thought, and I want to assure you that I have as well.”

“Naturally,” James said, and Mycroft could hear something creeping into that soft, Irish voice now. “You still have something to lose.” The smile disappeared.

“So do you, James.” Mycroft’s smile waned. “And I feel I must remind you that it’s been established that Sherlock did not kill Jim.“

James stared. “He didn’t pull the trigger. But beyond that…”

Mycroft sighed. “This was your son’s game. If it ended badly, the fact remains that he initiated it and it was played by his rules.”

“Yes, well. Not anymore.” The words fell from James’ mouth like a hammer blow, their implication clear.

“The game is over,” Mycroft said, his eyes hard.

James shook his head. “No, Mycroft,” he said softly. “It’s just begun.”

Mycroft stared. The clock ticked, chimed the quarter hour with its strangely unresolved notes. “Tell me what you want.”

“Just for Sherlock or for all of them?” James asked, taking a sip of his drink. He gently twirled the ice in the glass.

“All,” Mycroft replied. He kept his eyes pinned to James’. “Since I assume the price for Sherlock would be the lives of the other four.”

James studied his drink. “I understand Sherlock and the former Captain Watson have become quite…close.”

“I don’t believe that’s anyone’s concern but theirs.” Mycroft’s tone feigned nonchalance.

James’ predatory smile showed his teeth. “My, my. A ruddy poof in the noble Holmes family tree. How proud you must be.”

Mycroft took a sip of his drink. “My brother is an extraordinary and brilliant man. And I know John Watson. So yes, I am very proud.”

They stared. Time seemed to slow in the old-book air.

“I’ll abandon my interest in the Hudson woman and Lestrade,” Moriarty said indifferently. “I think Jim only chose the old woman because he was desperate to find Sherlock another friend. The Detective Inspector is essentially a bumbler and is barely worth my time.”

Mycroft angled his head. “I thank you. Now Adler. She is in no way involved in this.”

“She’s not, no,” James replied, and that same amused tinge was in his voice again. “But she’s frankly been a thorn in my arse. After that amazing cock-up with the camera phone, it’s been hard for me not to find her and kill her myself. Plus…” His eyes hardened even more. “You wish her spared. And that’s reason enough to keep her in this.”

Mycroft sighed, pursed his lips. “I’m authorized to pay you up to—“

James cut in, his voice rising suddenly. “I don’t want your fucking money, Mycroft.” He spat the name. “I want my son back.”

“I cannot give you that.” Mycroft’s voice grew softer as James’ rose.

Moriarty’s face fell a fraction and he breathed out. “Then finish his game.”

Mycroft set his drink down. “My brother’s life is not chess piece.”

Everyone’s life is a chess piece,” James shot back. “You know that. And if I don’t have these to play with, I can easily find others -- a million, if I so choose.”

Mycroft tried to keep his expression neutral. “Even you wouldn’t do that,” he said quietly.

“Oh, I would for payment for my son’s life,” James replied, picking imaginary lint off his pants. “Ask yourself, Mycroft: how many bombs need to go off in the Underground or on planes before you’re convinced? How many drones gone off course or missiles accidentally launched?”

Unmoving, Mycroft narrowed his eyes. “Enough,” he said. “You have something in mind. Out with it.”

Pleased, James crossed his legs and leaned back in the old chair. “Did you know what James’ favorite book was?”

“Beyond Grimm’s Fairy Tales?” Mycroft replied, his lips curling. “No.”

James huffed a faint laugh. “Close. It was Paradise Lost.”

“’Better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven,’” Mycroft ran a finger over the lip of the glass. “He seems to have taken that particular passage quite to heart.”

“Yes,” Moriarty said softly. “That was my boy, a delightful demon moving in the dutiful angels’ world. But there are all sorts of demons, aren’t there, Mycroft? All sorts of things that possess each of us.”

The words made Mycroft feel slightly cold. He tried a direct tact. “I do hope you’ve got something more sporting than simple executions planned.”

“No, that would hardly be fair,” James said dismissively. “As with all true games, I promise you they do have a chance to win.”

Better than no chance, Mycroft thought grimly. “I’m listening,” he said aloud.

James opened the leather folio on his lap and slowly pulled three envelopes out. Fine paper, heavy stock, a name handwritten on each one’s front. He leaned across and handed them to Mycroft, who looked at them in turn like cards in a hand.

Mr. Sherlock Holmes. Dr. John Watson. Ms. Irene Adler, a.k.a. The Woman.

“In each of those envelopes is a card. On it is written a word. It is the name of a place,” James began. “Different for each. It is the name of a destination where that person will play the game.”

“Which is?” Mycroft waited.

“It’s very simple, really,” James continued. “My own personal version of…’Capture the Flag.’”

Mycroft cocked a brow. “Go on.”

“At each location, there will be an operative – carefully chosen – who will have possession of an item. Sherlock, Dr. Watson, and Ms. Adler will make contact with one of my associates at each location who will tell them the names of this operative and the item. They then have only to find the operative and take possession of the item. The moment I receive that proof that they have done this, the contract on that person’s life is considered fulfilled.”

Mycroft nodded, his face a mask. “Will any other of your operatives also be in pursuit?”

“None,” Moriarty replied. “The ‘hands-off’ they’re under while we’re meeting here will remain in place. Provided, of course, that they reach the destination city and play the game and that no help is provided by you or your associates while they’re there. Should they remain in Tunis or attempt to flee, I will make the bounty on them so high that every hunter in the world will be after their heads.”

Mycroft narrowed his eyes again. “I see,” he said flatly. “And if these parties refuse?”

James leaned forward, his elbows balanced on his knees. “Then you and I will finish the game.”

Mycroft sat like a statue for a beat, a small quirk in his lips. Moriarty leaned back and re-crossed his legs. Waiting.

“In an effort to avoid further…escalation of this situation, I will deliver these and leave the choice up to them,” Mycroft said at last. Then his voice dropped. “But if something happens to my brother in all this, James…you and I will have a round.”



John Watson ran.

Arms pumping, he sprinted down the beach, his head pushed forward, his chest heaving beneath the too-big T-shirt with great breaths. He ran so fast that only the balls of his feet struck the sand, the surf streaming by in a blue-white blur.

Go go go go…

He reached the curve of the beach he’d used as his starting point, leaning forward as though breaking a finish-line tape. Then, staggering to a stop, he hunched over, hands on his knees, and checked his watch, panting in the morning light.

Damn, he thought, shaking his head. Still too slow…

It made him feel good to run like that. His body was finally putting on the lost weight, and he was feeling stronger and more alive every day. He had grown to love the feeling of freedom and ease he had each morning as he ran along the beach.

Sherlock had taken to rising early, ordering croissants and a carafe of sweet, heavily creamed African coffee from Amir. After John stretched awake and joined him in the chairs by the window, Sherlock often played the violin.

John would listen for a long time, read the English papers, glancing up occasionally at Sherlock’s back as he played. Then, depending on Sherlock’s mood or his own, John would either go to the beach to go running, or one of them would tempt the other back into bed.

They’d spend the day alone or with Irene and Kate. Sometimes they stayed out on the beach or were driven into Tunis, walking in the elaborate marketplace. One day they’d taken a ferry to see ruins just to have something to do. Some days Sherlock would work on the computer for hours while John read or swam.

There on the beach, his breathing leveling out, John pushed himself up, standing straight. Trying to reach his Army physical time was his new way to reduce stress.

And stress they all had, despite the distractions of their days. They could all pretend they were all just on holiday, but John could tell by the house’s quiet tension that they all knew they were waiting, like the accused waiting for the jury to come in.



48 hours.
Make the most of the time. MH

Sherlock was sitting at Mycroft’s desk in the house’s sparse office, working on his laptop when the phone buzzed. He read the message. He picked up the phone and read it again.

Mycroft’s tone seemed to point to a very poor compromise. Thumbs tapping.

What have you agreed to? Send.

No reply.

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed. I will not leave John. Send.

No reply.

I won’t agree to it, Mycroft. He punched the “send” button hard.

Then: Yes, you will.

The phone was out of his hand before he was even aware he’d thrown it. It crashed against the wall, glass breaking, as the rage flooded him.

Breathing hard, his jaw clenched, he forced himself back into the chair, his hand covering his mouth. He squeezed his eyes closed.

“Too soon,” he whispered fiercely. “It’s too soon.

He wasn’t sure what he meant.

Sherlock had never been one to be afraid of death. He’d parsed the experience down to its molecule and knew what to expect. And it wasn’t just that John was only now – days after his revelations about Paul – beginning to sleep through the night.

Sherlock had never been what he’d call a happy man. He could recall times of being unhappy – long periods in fact – but he wouldn’t use that adjective to describe himself either. Moods were irrelevant, after all, as was optimism or its lack.

But that had not been what he’d been experiencing since the night he planned his demise with Molly at Bart’s. The anguish he felt as he stood on the roof, the tears that John would mistake for despair or fear...and something exquisite and painful had split open in him and refused to heal.

He still had no fear of death, beyond the anguish he knew now it would leave behind. But Sherlock Holmes had become, in some deep place within him, a happy man. And it was too soon for him to have had enough of that.

He would make the most of the time.


Night flight over water. The cabin lights of the private jet dimmed, Mycroft Holmes’ face bathed in the blue-white. Both hands were pressed together, his fingertips touching his lips.

His phone rang and he lifted to his ear.

“Yes,” he said.

“He has agreed to meet with you, Mr. Holmes. Tomorrow at 9:00 a.m.” A deep voice drenched with accent.

Mycroft paused. “Give him my thanks, if you will,” he said formally, and the call flashed “end.”

As he lay the phone down, he caught sight of the three envelopes on the briefcase beside him, all three still sealed. Beside them, the scans the MI6 had taken, the cards’ contents reconstructed on a printout.

Sherlock Holmes -- Amsterdam.

Irene Adler, a.k.a. The Woman – Minsk.

Dr. John Watson –

Mycroft sighed deeply.






Chapter Text



Sherlock didn’t tell Irene all through dinner. It was just the two of them this night, Kate gone back to London and John sleeping through the meal.

“Is he all right?” Irene asked, skewering a chunk of lamb. The dining room was dimly lit, the sun just setting, and the candles on the table put there by the staff put off a faint glow onto her face.

Sherlock took a sip of Boukha, a rich fig-infused brandy he’d grown to like with his evening meals. His own plate was nearly untouched, and he knew she’s noticed this.

“Yes,” he dismissed, the goblet still close to his lips. “He slept poorly last night and ran this afternoon. Amir will bring him something later.”

“I thought he wasn’t having the nightmares as frequently.” He could hear genuine concern in her voice.

“’As frequently’ doesn’t mean not at all,” Sherlock said softly, setting the glass down. “But he’s fine...better.”

Irene nodded, lifted her glass of Selian wine. “I’m sorry for him. Haunted like that.”

Sherlock angled his head, fingering the rim of the glass.

The breeze picked up through the windows, fluttering the flames on the candle tops. “Are you going to tell me?” she ventured finally.

He didn’t look at her. “Tell you what?”

“Something’s changed,” she said, running a finger around her wine glass’s rim. “Shifted…you’re concerned in a way you weren’t before.”

The way she read him was maddening and gratifying at once. He both wanted and didn’t want to talk about Mycroft’s message. “I know very little at this point,” was what he said.

“You clearly know enough to be carrying a weight,” she said. She leaned across the table and covered his hand with hers, venturing up to stroke his forearm where his white linen shirt was cuffed.

Sherlock looked down at her hand, his fingers worrying the goblet stem now. He told her about the texts from Mycroft, what they said.

Irene nodded, her bottom lip between her teeth as she considered it. “Well, we’ll soon be leaving, that’s clear,” she said finally. “And not together, or he wouldn’t have encouraged you to use the time.” She sighed. “Are you afraid?”

Sherlock shook his head. “Afraid? No.” His eyes bore into hers. “But I am concerned. For John. For you. Some threat obviously forged the agreement for Mycroft to cede to anything that carries risk.”

Irene nodded. “Yes, there’s obviously more at play here than just our lives.”

Sherlock took another sip of brandy, staring into the candle flame. “I want this over,” he said, something dark creeping in. “It’s been so many months of something hovering just above me, casting a shadow…I’m ready for it to end.”

Irene’s hand squeezed. “Sherlock, look at me,” she said fiercely, though to him, she sounded very far away.

With effort, he met her gaze. Something felt like it was burning behind his eyes.

“I want you to have control of your anger before you leave,” she said, her voice quiet and deathly serious.

“I’m not angry,” he said softly.

“No, you’re bloody livid,” she replied. “And when you’re like this, I know what you’re capable of doing. The same things I’m capable of doing in that kind of state. You’ll do anything. You’ll put yourself in danger to end this, and I won’t have it.”

“Oh for God’s sake, Irene—“ He sat back, jerking his hand free of her grip.

“Tell me I’m wrong then,” she cut in.

“You’re wrong,” he shot back.

“And you’re lying,” she said. “I want you fighting, not dead. More than that, I want you safe and whole again.”

Sherlock glared. “You do? And just who in the hell are you?”

“I am you,” she nearly shouted, then relented. “Or, better put, a shadowy reflection of you.”

He grew very still, looking at her.

“You know this, Sherlock. Neither of us has ever belonged to anything or anyone. Neither of us has known love the way normal people do or given the slightest thought to our future because we’ve had nothing to bring into it and thus nothing to lose.”

Her eyes were shining. Sherlock watched the tears well in them and it surprised him. It made something in his chest grow heavy and ache.

“But you do have those things now,” she whispered. “And if I can’t have them, I want them for you.”

He leaned across the table, taking her hand in both of his. “You can have them,” he murmured.

She forced a wane smile. “I told you, Sherlock,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I’m a hard case. Lost.”

He shook his head. “Not more than I was, Irene.” He squeezed her hand as she shook her head.

“You have your brother,” she murmured. “You have John.”

“And you have me,” he said, determined that she believe him, mostly because it was true. “In whatever this way is we’ve had one another since we met.”

She looked down at his hands. “Oh Sherlock,” she whispered, shaking her head as a tear escaped. “We both know I won’t be coming back.”

“You will,” he said firmly. “I promise you that you will. I promise you that if you need it, I will find you and bring you back myself.”

She pulled her hand away and covered her mouth as she pushed back the chair and stood. She came around the small table, leaned down and kissed him – his forehead, beneath his eye, his cheek.

“Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” she whispered against his temple. “You’ll break my heart at last.”

When he started to protest, she touched her lips to his, the words caught like a bone in his throat.

“You’re wasting time,” she murmured as they parted. “Now go. Keep nothing from him. And for both your sakes, leave nothing undone or unsaid.”

When she was gone, Sherlock stood for a long time at the window, considering what she’d said. He could still smell her perfume when he left.

John was sleeping curled on his side with his back to the door when Sherlock entered what had become their bedroom. John had pushed the blanket and sheet down in his sleep, revealing just the waistband of his pants and the smooth skin of his waist where his T-shirt had rumpled up. Sherlock closed the door quietly, not wanting to startle John awake.

Once he’d turned the lock, he stood there, just watching John in the soft evening light. His shoulders were hunched forward, broadening his back and revealing the muscle there. John was thinner, but he was strong. The close haircut he’d gotten in the marketplace was mussed from the way he’d turned in his sleep.

Sherlock reached for his own shirt, undoing the buttons as he went toward the bed. He toed his sandals off as he sat carefully on the edge.

John drew in a deep breath, turned his head, his eyes coming open.

“Hey,” he said, his voice hoarse with sleep. He cleared his throat, his eyes focusing on Sherlock’s face. “All right?”

Sherlock nodded, gave John a soft smile as John rolled onto his back and Sherlock leaned over John’s belly. Sherlock’s elbows bracketed John’s torso and he kissed John through his shirt, then pressed his forehead where he’d just kissed. He let out a long sigh as he felt John’s arm curl around him, John’s hand resting on the back of his head.

“It’s starting,” he heard John murmur, something resigned in his voice. “Mycroft’s on his way.”

Sherlock nodded once, his hand sliding up John’s t-shirt at his side. His skin was sleep-warm, and John’s shirt smelled faintly of spice.

“Then it’ll be over soon.” John stroked his hair as he spoke. “And we’ll be home again.”

A smile tugged at Sherlock’s lips, but his eyes burned. “John.”

John’s other hand came up, threading through Sherlock’s hair. “Yes.”

“I don’t know what I will do if something happens to you.” He said it just above a whisper and fast.

“Shhh…don’t.” John’s hand stilled, cupped his crown. “Let’s think about something else.”

Sherlock’s nails grazed John’s side as his other hand gripped the shirt and pulled it up. “I’m…sorry,” he breathed against John’s warm skin.

“Shhh,” John whispered again. “It’s fine. Just tell me what you need.”

Sherlock kissed John’s belly, then looked up and met John’s eyes. “You. Inside me.”

Sherlock saw John’s eyes widen slightly, but then his face flushed, his pupils going wide. Then he licked his lips and nodded.

“Of course,” John said, his voice low. “Just show me how.”




It had been what he wanted. He knew that down to his bones. That’s why it came as such a surprise when he felt himself beginning to lose control.

John was over him (“I want to see you,” he’d breathed as he moved Sherlock onto his back), arms braced over Sherlock’s shoulders. They were flushed, sweat-slick, John’s hips moving in short thrusts between Sherlock’s bent legs. Sherlock’s hands were gripping the side of those hips, his eyes on John’s face.

John’s bottom lip was caught between his teeth, his brow creased down, a low moan starting in his throat. “Yes…god yes…”

“John—“ Sherlock choked the word out, swallowed a deep groan, a tremor starting, his orgasm spilling between their bodies onto Sherlock’s belly and chest. For an instant everything was specked with light behind his closed eyes.

John was smoothing a hand across Sherlock’s belly now. “Oh god, that’s gorgeous, Sherlock, yes…”

Sherlock kept his eyes closed as he struggled for breath. He could feel John holding back as Sherlock’s orgasm waned, knew that John was looking down to where their bodies were joined.

He tried to open in his eyes, but something in him stopped him, a voice in him that was pleading Less….Less…. And instead of easing, the trembling that was surging through him grew worse.

A moan. “Sherlock—“

Even as he was, Sherlock knew what the choked sound of his name, the tautness of John’s back, meant. He was so close, holding back. So Sherlock reached up and held John’s forehead against his, urging him on. John’s hips quickened, body growing hard and tight. His breath was hot and fast against Sherlock’s face, his neck corded.

“Come,” Sherlock breathed. “Come inside me, John…please…”

Two more thrusts and John’s hips jerked as he gasped. Sherlock could feel John twitch inside him, a low cry rising from his chest.

“Oh god…” he panted as he came. “Sherlock…Sherlock…”

Sherlock’s hold on John’s head tightened, his own trembling growing worse. As it washed through him, he bit his lip, turned his face to the side, fighting for control of it.

“What?” John murmured, breathing hard and growing still. “What is it?”

Sherlock could say nothing, only shake his head, his eyes clenched shut. His head felt like a storm had sparked in it, a bright jumble of sound and image and light. He couldn’t handle it. He couldn’t—

“It’s—“ he said, hoarse. “I—“

John was moving now, making soft, reassuring sounds. “It’s okay…it’s okay…”
Sherlock felt John slip from him as he moved to Sherlock’s side. That’s when Sherlock pulled his legs up and in, curled his arms down and around his body and turned on his side, facing John.

“Here,” John said, and Sherlock could hear he was alarmed. “Let’s cover you up.”

John moved off the bed, cleaning himself up quickly with his pants. Then he reached down and pulled the blankets up to Sherlock’s shoulder, tucking them around him with care. John murmured to him as he did it.

Sherlock shook and shook. John carefully climbed back onto the bed.

“Shhhh….” John was lying right beside him now, facing him. The only place he was touching Sherlock was a hand resting gently on the side of Sherlock’s head.

“I—“ Sherlock tried again, but he shook his head when nothing came out.

“It’s too much for you, isn’t it?” John said, caressing Sherlock’s hair. “What we just did. Too much. Too close.”

Sherlock managed to get his eyes open, though he had a hard time looking into John’s face. He jerked a nod, still shaking.

John nodded. “It’s all right,” John replied in a whisper, still only touching Sherlock’s hair. “Just relax…do you want me to leave you alone for a bit?”

Sherlock shook his head, managed to meet John’s eyes. “Unless you want to go.”

John’s mouth curved in a sad smile and he shook his head. “No, of course not. I would never leave you like this unless you asked.”

Sherlock nodded. He felt…relieved somehow? “Thank you,” he whispered. The tremors ran through him.

Night was falling, the room growing too dark now. John leaned back and turned on the lamp on his side of the bed, pulled the blanket that was folded at the end of the bed up and spread it over himself. Then he returned to lying in front of Sherlock, his hand just barely brushing his hair.

Sherlock felt his breathing evening, the shaking getting less. “I’m sorry,” he said softly.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” John replied. “We’ve all got places we can’t let other people in. No matter who they are. I just wish I’d known—“

“Before I invited you in?” Sherlock finished. “It’s not your fault. It’s mine. I did this to myself.”

John sighed. They were quiet again for a bit.

“Someone insisted you let him do this,” John said finally. “Right?”

Sherlock nodded. “Yes. As my…cocaine ’fee.’”

John’s face reddened. “Even knowing it was too much for you?”

“I doubt he noticed.”

John’s expression hardened.

“That was wrong, you know. No one should do that.”

“He didn’t force it,” Sherlock hastened to add. “I always agreed.”

“I don’t care,” John said, shaking his head. “It was wrong to do that to you seeing how it made you feel.” He stroked at Sherlock’s temple with a rough thumb. “Why did you want me to do it?”

Sherlock gave a half-hearted shrug. “I…thought it might be different with you. And I know you’re used to penetration—“

“With women, yes,” John cut in.

Sherlock looked at him. “But you enjoyed it.”

John nodded, curling his fingers around the back of Sherlock’s neck. “Yes, yes it was gorgeous. And we’re never doing it again.”

Sherlock’s eyes stung. He leaned in and touched his mouth to John’s, just a brush, a thank you that John seemed to hear.

“Come here,” John said quietly, and Sherlock inched forward, pulling the blankets up. They moved together until their bodies were touching again, John’s arms around Sherlock and Sherlock’s hands stroking John’s stubbled face. They pulled each other in, Sherlock tucking his face beneath John’s chin.

“Just rest for a bit…” John whispered, his own breathing slow and even. The sweat on them had cooled, and Sherlock felt John shiver against him as Sherlock traced his jaw, trailing down.

They were quiet for a long time then, their breathing nearly synchronized, John growing warm and languid against him, Sherlock’s trembling finally fading away.

“You’ve met him, you know,” he said against John’s chest, and he felt John go still.

“Have I?”

Sherlock nodded. “Yes. Sebastian. At the bank.”

John remained still for a few more beats, and Sherlock could almost feel John remembering their meeting. Sebastian’s mocking. John – so afraid then of people looking strangely at his connection to Sherlock – contradicting Sherlock’s naming of him as a friend.

It had hurt. Especially with Sebastian, whom he’d been keen to show he could actually make such a friend. Sherlock remembered how his usual pride over his deduction of Sebastian’s travel turned to shame. He remembered John looking at him as he backed down with confusion and something like concern on his face.

When John finally spoke there in the quiet of their bedroom, Sherlock could hear the forced nonchalance and the anger simmering underneath.

“Ah. Well, I know it’s bad manners to speak ill of formers and all, but he was a right prick. I wish I’d smashed in his face for how he treated you that day, and I would have done for sure had I known this.”

Sherlock couldn’t help but chuckle.

“What?” John asked, smiling despite himself.

Sherlock laughed openly now, the tension melting out.

“Are you laughing at me?” John asked, faux-angry, leaning in to nip Sherlock’s ear and starting to chuckle himself.

“No, no,” Sherlock got out. “But what I would have given to have seen the surprise on his smug face…”

John laughed, squeezing him close. “Like Christmas, eh?”

Sherlock nodded, pressing a kiss to John’s throat, still fighting down the punchy laugh. “Christmas and New Year’s, John. Indeed.”




Chapter Text



Mycroft had handed them the envelopes, told them what the elderly Moriarty had said. He sat with his legs crossed in his usual prim black suit. His blue tie was stitched with tiny snowflakes, making him look even more out of place in the Mediterranean light.

None of them had opened them. Irene had lain hers down on the table, her arms crossed. Sherlock had refused to take his. John held his in both hands, looking down at it.

“You already know what they say,” Sherlock said into the silence and the sound of the waves. He was sitting across from his brother, white shirt open in the heat, black pants pressed, black shoes shined. John realized that except for the shorter hair – which, like John, he’d gotten trimmed in the market -- Sherlock looked like he could be back on Baker Street.

Especially with the look he was giving Mycroft just now.

“I have some idea, yes.”

“Where.” It wasn’t a question. He didn’t blink.

Mycroft sighed, looked at Irene. “Minsk.”

The corner of Irene’s eye gave a faint twitch. The place clearly meant something.

Back to Sherlock. “Amsterdam.”

Sherlock’s face went to more of a stiff mask. Mycroft glanced at John. John looked back, his face grim. Don’t say it, John thought, his eyes closing.

“Afghanistan,” Sherlock murmured. “Korengal Valley, I suspect.”

John squeezed the envelope in his hand. It was just his imagination, he knew, but it felt hot in his hand.

Mycroft looked down. “Yes.”

“He’s not going,” Sherlock snapped.

“I’m afraid he is,” Mycroft replied softly.

“God damn you, Mycroft, he’s not!” Sherlock shouted, standing. “None of us are!”

John could feel his breathing quickening. Not Korengal…please. Not The Korengal… He was vaguely aware of the shouting continuing around him as he felt his heart hammering against the bars of his chest.

“You all are going. I’m sorry.”

Footsteps. Sherlock pacing, voice rising even more. “Why? What does he have on you? Tell me what on earth is worth our lives?”

“Sit down.” Mycroft. Dangerously firm.

“Go to hell—“

Sit down!

“You send us to slaughter—“

“We are talking about the potential loss of millions of lives, the destabilization of—“

“You useless bastard--“ Sherlock boomed, the sound echoing off the walls.

Irene’s voice now, shouts on shouts stacking, all shrill or deep and loud. “Stop it, both of you—“

“God, how I despise you, you—“ Sherlock snarled.

“How dare you talk to me like that—“

“I said stop it! This is getting us nowhere--“

Too much… There was a ringing in John’s head like a terrible alarm, blotting the sounds as though he’s submerged in water. His throat burned. Too much too much too much…

Sherlock was hovering over Mycroft now, their faces reddened masks of rage as they continued to shout.

John’s eyes darted to the table. The teapot, the cups, the sugar bowl. The silver pot of heavy cream. John’s hand closed around the teapot and sent it flying. The sound it made as it crashed into the far stone wall was amazing, breaking him out of the murky place in his head.

“Shut it, all of you!” he screamed. “FUCKING SHUT IT!

Cups followed, and by the time the silver creamer had jangled its white mess on the far wall, the others were staring at him, quiet now, their eyes wide.

John’s chest was heaving as he pulled in huge, deep breaths. His mouth had gone dry. Running a hand through his hair, his eyes darted back and forth, his mind taking a familiar inventory.

“Mycroft, I’ll be needing some metal paint, black and brown. Full combat gear – British, American, merc, I don’t care which. A Browning side arm. 9mm. Two clips. Make it three.”

Mycroft swallowed, nodded. “Of course, John. You’ll have anything you need.”

“Right, thanks,” John said, glancing at the others as he fought to slow his breathing. Sherlock’s face was paler than usual, stricken.

“No,” Sherlock said uselessly.

“Yes,” John replied. And he turned on his heel and left the room.




They spent the day apart. All of them.

Sherlock had felt his entire body clench into something that felt like a fist as John left the room, and when he looked at Irene, he could tell the same had happened to her. Mycroft was staring down again, his hands clasped in his lap.

“Well,” Sherlock said in the coldest, flattest voice he could manage. He let it hang until Mycroft looked up again. “Why don’t you say that you’re sorry again. That seems to be all you can do.”

Mycroft looked at him. The corners of his eyes twitched. “You’re going to have to do something that I don’t think you’ve ever done before,” he said softly, not taking the bait.

“And what’s that?” Sherlock asked, the chill growing worse. “Die? And actually do it this time?”

“No,” Mycroft murmured. “You’re going to have to trust.”

“In what?” He narrowed his eyes. “Fate? Luck?”

Mycroft shook his head. “In me.”

Sherlock hadn’t dignified it with a reply. Irene called to his back, but he slammed the door before she finished saying his name.

The weeks with John as his lover had taught him that now was a time for Sherlock to leave John be. John so seldom got angry, and hardly ever to the point he lost control of his temper at all. Sherlock knew it was best to gather his own control back around him into something that could be of use before he approached John again.

He had never known anyone the way he knew John. He’d never felt so inside someone’s body and mind. It was remarkable and exquisite, and it hurt as badly and was as dangerous right now as a serrated blade to the heart.

He had to shut down. He knew that now.

Irene would be closing down just the same. They all would. What they were being forced to do, they would have to do on their own.

Sherlock could feel his own shell forming, hardening, as he sat on the house’s wide deck. There was a stillness that he hadn’t been able to manage since before he’d taken Jim Moriarty’s fall. He’d forgotten how much like a stone he could become.

As the sun moved, he vanished into his mind’s familiar, quiet halls. Taking in a deep breath, he pushed away the persistent visions of mountains, of roads and rocks and fire and sand…


For hours, he walked its streets behind the shuttered windows of his eyes.

Sometime during the day, the house staff had pulled the awning over him to protect him from the sun, and Amir – a kind, older man with wool-colored hair – had kept checking on him throughout the day. A fresh glass of ice water with mint was sweating on the table beside a tray of dates when Sherlock finally opened his eyes.

He drew in a deep breath, looked down at the sea. The sun was moving toward the horizon, turning everything to flame.

John looked small down on the beach. He was sitting with his legs crossed, facing away from the house toward the waves.

Sherlock rose, his spine straight. He descended the stairs evenly, so different from the way he’d done to find John before, right after John had stitched him back together with his own hands. Sherlock was whole and stubborn and strong again.

He closed the distance between them. He knew John heard him coming, but John did not turn. The sun had had all day to bake John’s skin a reddish brown.

Sherlock stood beside him for a long time, neither of them moving or making a sound. The waves kept breathing in and out.

Finally Sherlock edged closer and reached out his hand, and John looked up at him at the motion, his eyes taking in Sherlock’s face.

“Please come with me,” Sherlock murmured. “Before we both…disappear.”

John nodded, a ghost of a smile on his lips. He rose as he took Sherlock’s hand.



Mycroft Holmes was a man who was owed a great many favors. And it was times like this that he was grateful for this.

Nine phone calls over the course of five hours, the sky outside the open window gone black. A conference call with certain American State Department officials who were all too eager to repay a rather large, recent debt. Two to Cyprus. One to a hard-to-locate agent in Madrid. An hour on the phone with MI6, his computer scrolling information as they spoke. One to a former CIA agent-turned-mercenary who was now living outside Amsterdam. One to Moscow, another to Bagdad. And a final terse call to confirm a meeting in Pakistan.

Carefully chosen operatives, James Moriarty had said.

Not as carefully as these, Mycroft thought, steepling his fingers with a long sigh.

He wanted to talk to his brother, but he knew now wasn’t the time. An inquiry to the security staff had revealed that Sherlock and John had retired to their room at dusk and not come out again.

It was for the best, he thought. He could tell Sherlock nothing of what he’d discussed this night. And besides, Sherlock wouldn’t want to see him, nor would he be willing to listen to anything he said anyway.

All that time ago he’d said John Watson might be the making of his brother, and that had indeed been the case. Sherlock now resembled the person Mycroft had known as a child – the one who was so very different from everyone else but who still dared to trust and to wonder, the one who still believed in the warmth of human touch. Long ago, Sherlock had been forced to slam a cold steel door to protect himself.

Now, that person Mycroft had known had peeked out from behind that door, opened it to John, trusted and loved him in a way that Mycroft had only faintly hoped his brother would one day be capable of.

But the timing. Good Lord. He’d worried enough when Sherlock had been closed and angry and remote. Now?

The thought tugged at him. Sherlock was hurting in a way Mycroft hadn’t seen him do since—

No, Mycroft thought, sighing into his fingertips, something heavy sinking into his chest.

He wouldn’t think about that.





Sherlock whispered it against the slick skin of John’s back, pressed a kiss between his shoulder blades, holding his own body completely still. Beneath him, John’s arms trembled where they were supporting his weight, his hands clenching the sheet as he drew in a shaky breath.

“Relax…” Sherlock murmured, his voice soft and deep. “Breathe out.”

John’s head dropped further toward his chest and he nodded, let out the breath. Sherlock was kneeling behind him, their bodies joined. He had draped his upper body over John, his arms wrapped around John’s belly and chest.

As John let out the breath, Sherlock felt John’s body open to him a bit more, the muscles of his belly easing, chest swelling as John drew in another breath and let it out.

“That’s it.” Sherlock rubbed his stubbled cheek, his forehead against John’s shoulder as John moved back. “Slow…that’s it…”

John’s back arched as he pushed Sherlock further in, biting his lip. Sherlock felt and then heard the moan rise from his chest. He held still as John rocked forward, then slowly back again. Sherlock stifled a groan, his eyes clenching shut.

“God, Sherlock...” The words shook from John, pleasure and pain mixed in.

Sherlock pressed an open-mouthed kiss on the back of John’s neck. He touched the skin with his tongue, tasting the sweat that had risen there.

“It’s all right…slowly. That’s it…” He breathed the words against John’s skin.

They found their rhythm, Sherlock’s control stretched thin as John set the pace. Finally Sherlock had to lean up, his breath quickened, his hands going to John’s hips, John’s head craned back as the new angle pressed Sherlock further in.

“God…oh God…”

“Let me--” Sherlock gasped. “Let me touch you?”

John spread his legs wider, pushing back. “Yes…”

And Sherlock’s hand slid around to the hot, heavy weight between John’s legs.

In a few more moments, John trembled, gasped. When Sherlock came, he gripped John’s hips hard with his free hand and cried out.

Then he was draped back over John, both of them panting, his arms squeezing tight around the strong, solid shape of John’s chest.

“Come here,” Sherlock said hoarsely, rubbing his slick forehead in the sweat on John’s back. “Come…come here.”

They moved to their sides then, Sherlock still wrapped around John, their legs in a tangle. Sherlock reached to the bedside table for the damp cloth he’d left there. When he’d cleaned them both, he tossed it to the floor and John drew a sheet over them.

Sherlock’s buried his face in John’s short-cropped hair and breathed him in – sweat and ocean and John’s own warm, spiced scent. John gripped Sherlock’s arms, pulling him close.

“I know it hurts the first time,” Sherlock whispered, his breathing slowing at last. “Are you all right?”

John jerked a nod, drawing in a deep breath. “Yes…that was…"

“Good?” Sherlock said softly into the curve of John’s ear, lips tracing there.

John huffed a laugh. “God yes, you git.” He craned his head back, seeking Sherlock’s mouth. They kissed, Sherlock coming up on one elbow to better slide his tongue between John’s lips.

They stayed like that for a long time, all lips and tongues and breath. John slowly moved onto his back, Sherlock leaned over him.

When they parted, John’s reached up, stroking Sherlock’s cheek, then sliding his hand into Sherlock’s damp hair. Sherlock watched John’s brow furrow as something painful played over his face.

“I love you, you know,” John said softly.

Sherlock grew still. He swallowed over a sudden lump in his throat.

“I do, yes.”

“And I know you love me,” John added. His voice was gentle, but his face was nearly grim.

“More than you’ll ever understand,” Sherlock replied.

John nodded, touched Sherlock’s lips with the rough pad of his thumb. “Then I want you do something for me.”

Sherlock nodded. “Of course,” he said softly. “Anything.”

John swallowed. “When you leave here tomorrow, I want you to forget about me.”

Sherlock’s brow creased down as he grew still. “How would I do that?”

A smile ghosted John’s lips. “When I met you – and I mean this fondly, mind you – you were a right prick. Never asked for anything; just took it. Never bothered with thinking of anyone else, never said you were sorry, even when sometimes you bloody well should have been. Never thanked anyone for anything.”

Sherlock looked down to the center of John’s chest. “I was…” He trailed off, shaking his head.

“You were afraid,” John whispered, stroking Sherlock’s hair over his ear as he nodded. “Of letting people in, I think.”

“Partly that,” Sherlock replied, the words coming haltingly, his eyes going down. “My upbringing wasn’t…People didn’t…And Mycroft…” He trailed off, shook his head.

“Tell me what’s between the two of you,” John murmured.

Sherlock looked down, shook his head.

“I believe he cares for you a great deal, Sherlock. And I believe him when he says he worries about you. Why can’t you?”

Sherlock closed his eyes, feelings rising in him like a great black wave. He was quiet for a long time, swallowing and swallowing the pain, the rage.

“Please tell me,” John said. His thumb was still stroking Sherlock’s lips, his chin, and Sherlock opened his eyes, but he couldn’t look into John’s face.

“It was…years ago. Back when I was on cocaine. I could never get away from Mycroft’s surveillance completely of course, but for awhile I was on my own more or less, moving from place to place. I met…someone. We were lovers, though most of what kept us together was the drug, of course. I see that now. But—“

He stopped himself. John’s arm curled around his back. “Go on.”

Everything in Sherlock told him to be silent, to swallow the dark wave again. But John’s gentle voice called to him and he pressed in. “He was good to me, but he wasn’t…what he seemed to be in the end. He’d been assigned to me. To gain access...”

“He was a spy then,” John offered.

“Yes,” Sherlock said softly. He hated the way his eyes burned. “But I didn’t know that. All I knew was that I was in love with him, as much as I could be with anyone then. I was an absolute fool. I told him things about Mycroft and what he did that I knew I shouldn’t.”

John nodded, urging him on with his eyes. Sherlock managed to look into them for a beat, marveling at how much, in this light, they looked like the sea.

“Mycroft intervened,” John said quietly.

Sherlock nodded, bit his lip. “Mycroft more than intervened,” he said bitterly. “He had him killed.”

John’s eyes widened, his mouth clamping shut for a beat. “Christ, Sherlock…”

“No, it’s all right,” Sherlock rushed in, the words like a reflex.

John's hand came up to his brow as understanding washed in. “Jesus, no wonder he had me in a car to see him 12 hours after you and I met. No wonder he offered me money like that.”

Sherlock nodded, tracing John’s jaw with his fingertips. “God only knows what would have happened to you if you’d said ‘yes.’”

John cupped Sherlock’s cheek, his eyes stricken. “I’m so sorry, Sherlock.”

“Why?” Sherlock said bitterly. “I was an idiot, as I said. But Mycroft and I…after that…it had never been good, per se, but…” He usually prided himself on being articulate, but he certainly wasn't when talking about this.

As always, John seemed to understand. “Yes. It’s hard to believe someone has your best interests in mind after hurting you like that.”

Sherlock pushed it all back, cleared his throat. Enough, he thought. Enough of this. “So yes, I shut down. Caring about someone had been the reason the whole thing had happened, after all. And it was easier to stay closed. The world…the people in it…they do infuriate me most of the time.”

John nodded again. “I know. And you’ve made yourself vulnerable again by being with me.” His eyes shone in the dim light from the tableside lamp. “So listen…when you leave here in the morning, this is what I want. While you’re on your own, if you hurt someone, don’t apologize. If someone gives you something, don’t thank him. Only be accommodating to people if they have something you want or need.”

Sherlock smiled faintly. “So be the prick I was before?”

“Be alone,” John whispered. “Alone is what protects you. Remember?”

Sherlock swallowed, the lump rising again, curling his arm more tightly around John’s waist. “I shouldn’t have said that to you. Not ever, but especially then.”

“But it’s true in a way, isn’t it?” John replied. “If you didn’t have anyone but yourself to worry about, you could keep yourself safe. You could have then.”

He traced the scar that cut through Sherlock’s brow as though it proved his point. Sherlock was silent as John’s finger traced over it.

John’s voice was urgent as he continued. “So I want you to forget me while you’re gone and be alone again. Because I know you that if you’re not distracted, you’ll close over again. And when you’re like that, you’re amazingly ruthless and a bit cruel and you’re more than able to take care of yourself.”

Sherlock didn’t know what to say, so he kissed John instead. He put everything he wanted to say into it, his lips urgent and warm against John’s soft mouth.

“What will you do?” Sherlock asked when they parted.

John leaned his head back on the pillow and let out a long exhale. “I was a soldier for most of my life,” he said softly. “I can be a soldier again.”

“But your nightmares—“

John cupped the back of Sherlock’s hair, meeting his eyes. “Afghanistan’s been visiting me a for so long now, I think it’s time I went to it.’s what I need to do to finally put it to rest.”


John gripped Sherlock’s head. “I was a bloody good soldier, Sherlock. I need you to trust in that.”

Sherlock stroked the back of his fingers across John’s cheek. He nodded. “I do. I will.”

Then Sherlock leaned back to the bedside table where his open shaving kit sat beside the tube of gel. Sherlock reached into the leather bag, drew out the thin chain of John’s dog tags and turned back.

John huffed a soft laugh as he leaned up so that Sherlock could draw the chain down around John’s neck. He settled the cool tags against John’s warm chest.

“Trust me with myself again, do you?” John said, but his eyes were wet.

“With yourself and anything else,” Sherlock whispered, pressing his ear to John’s chest.




Chapter Text





The Blackhawk helicopter rose through the mountains, the pilot – a jovial but weathered man in his early 30s whom the other soldiers simply called “Gris” – banking hard around the peaks’ tight corners to make the men in the hold whoop from the thrill.

John was getting his proverbial “sea legs” back under him after an hour of flight, though the Medical Corps choppers would never have taken a ride like this. But he was riding with Spec Ops, American SEALs no less, and making “getting there half the fun” seemed to be the order of the day.

“Hang on, ladies!” Gris called from the tiny cockpit, and the 12-man team and John grabbed for the hand-hold rings on the helicopter’s sides, a cowboy-like cry and a chorus of “hoo-yas!” rising as the helicopter turned nearly on its side, clearing the craggy mountain top by about 20 feet before righting itself again.

John, wearing identical uniforms to the SEALs – digital camouflage, Kevlar body armor encased in tan mesh, no insignia or sign of rank – found himself grabbing the wall face-to-face with the man he knew only as Mick, one of the team’s senior members whom he’d noticed the men deferred to as a matter of course. From this and the man’s age – weathered but still-young face, scraggly beard – John assumed Mick was the senior operator on the team.

The 12 men all looked strangely the same – smallish, about John’s height and weight, all with unkempt hair and beards of various lengths. John had long known the Hollywood image of the beefed-up Special Forces operators was shite, but his ability to blend in this well with this group surprised him nonetheless.

Smiling inwardly, he made a decision right there to start growing a beard.

“How you holding up, Doc?” Mick called over the chopper’s din. He nearly had to shout, the side door long ago opened to cool the interior down and give the men a better view of Gris’ flying technique.

“Fine, yeah,” John shouted back, hanging on and swaying as the chopper turned again. And he was fine. Something in him actually thrilled at this.

“Not your first rodeo,” Mick said, smiling. “That much is clear.” They hadn’t had time to do much more than exchange brief introductions as John had met them on the tarmac at the airbase in Kabul. Mick only knew his name and that he was retired RAMC.

John shook his head. “Two tours here,” he shouted. “Home two years.”

The helicopter took a hard right, and by this turn both Mick and John leaned easily into the steep bank, both of them looking like they were nearly hanging off the wall by an arm. Equipment that had been lashed to the wall swung, clattering. Eli, the team’s German Shepherd, began a happy bark from where he was strapped to his handler Lopez’s chest.

“Who the fuck did you piss off to end up back here?” Mick smiled as he said it, showing his perfect, all-American teeth.

“It’s a long and distinguished list,” John replied, smiling back.

“I bet,” Mick laughed, a glint in his eye.

John had always liked the American soldiers he met, found them an open, adaptable, and cheerful lot. And they had a strange sense of innocence about them, as though instead of war, they were just playing very seriously at some huge video game. They were loyal to a fault, they worked hard, and they loved to fight. So many were doing multiple tours that John thought this attitude was likely as healthy as it got.

Mick was looking out the open door as the helicopter straightened out over a wide swath of valley. “Our orders are to drop you 10 clicks east of Asadabad, right off the Kunar River and then pick you back up there in two weeks?” It was a question, as if Mick was hoping he didn’t have it right.

“Right, yeah,” John replied, and Mick nodded and looked away.

Those were the coordinates written on the card he’d had waiting for him three days ago in the sparse hotel room in Kabul. Beneath the numbers were written a name, “Malik,” and beneath that, two lines:

Acquire one of his flowers.
You have 14 days.

He remembered reading those lines and nearly breaking out in a bitter laugh. Clearly the rotten apple of Jim Moriarty hadn’t fallen far from the tree if his father would risk a man’s life for something as trivial as a flower.

Mycroft had arranged his transport to the coordinates. John only knew that he would leave the hotel in three hours. He was too keyed up to rest after the flight from Tunis. There was nothing to do then but wait.

Sitting there on the thin, worn blanket of the bed, John had wondered what Sherlock would have made of the note, and then what Sherlock’s card – tucked somewhere in Amsterdam for him – would say.

He’d hung his head thinking of Sherlock then, recalling the way Sherlock had pressed his forehead so firmly to John’s in the private hanger, rubbing back and forth slowly against John’s brow as the four planes waited outside. John was already in his uniform, the freshly painted sniper rifle slung over his shoulder, his boots tightly laced.

They’d said their private goodbye that morning in bed before dawn. There in the hanger, people milling about, they’d stood face-to-face and held still, gripping each other’s arms, their foreheads touching, both men’s eyes clenched tightly shut.

For a long time, John hadn’t trusted his voice, he was so drenched with grief. Then he’d whispered to Sherlock, the words like a secret.

“I want you to know what an honor it’s been,” he said. “Every minute I’ve known you has been a gift.”

“Don’t,” Sherlock had replied, his voice breaking.

John nodded against him. “It’s true,” he breathed.

Sherlock drew in a shaky breath. “The honor has been all mine, John,” he whispered back. “You’re the best I’ve ever known.”

The tears were threatening, and John could not allow it. Not here with Mycroft hovering by the door and Irene folded in a chair by the wall, looking lost. So he cleared his throat.

“Take care of yourself,” John said, sniffing sharply, then he added in a whisper: “And come back to me soon.”

He bumped Sherlock’s forehead with his gently. Once. Twice. Then he pulled his face away, looking into Sherlock’s eyes. Sherlock nodded, his throat working, his eyes rimmed with red. He couldn’t speak, but his eyes said what he needed to say.

With one final squeeze of Sherlock’s arm and a brush of his cheek, John nodded, turned, squared his shoulders and trotted toward the plane, its engine revving in the bright sunlight. He nodded to Irene, returning her raised hand, swallowing as he saw the fear on her face.

Mycroft gestured for him to come to him as he reached the door. He had something in his hand. A mobile phone of some kind with a strange, squat screen. John looked at it, then into Mycroft’s face.

“This transmits through a classified satellite,” Mycroft said softly. “And it’s my hope that Moriarty will not be able to track messages using that frequency. I am not certain, however, so I would caution you against using it…frivolously. I’m giving one to Sherlock and Ms. Adler, as well, with the same instructions to use them only in the most dire emergency.”

“So we can contact each other?” John had perked at this, feeling for a beat like he wasn’t quite dropping off the face of the earth.

Mycroft nodded. “And you may contact me. But as you know, my assistance is expressly forbidden in this. But…I will trust your discretion about informing me of things you believe it would be helpful for me to know.”

John nodded, looking down. Things felt on an edge, and Mycroft’s quiet worry was only making the feeling worse. He slipped the device into one of the many cargo pockets in his trousers.

“Ta,” he’d said, and met Mycroft’s eyes. He reached out a hand and Mycroft shook it once.

“My best to you, John,” Mycroft had said…


There in the Blackhawk, Mick cleared his throat, striking John out of the memory. He’d been staring at the bleak, familiar landscape that streamed below. He hoped he’d been able to hide what he was feeling from his face.

“So…is this mission coming from British Spec Ops?” he pressed. John could tell the man had been dying to ask him since he’d piled onto the chopper with the rest of the operators to hitch the ride.

John hesitated, and Mick put up a calming hand. “Look, once we’re in the field, we all tend to get real honest here,” he said. “Especially when we’re working this far out. There are only about four teams that even work The Korengal anymore, and we like to know what we’re all up to and where we’re all at.”

John nodded. It made sense that a “all for one” mentality would blot out even top-secret protocols out here where only a few friends could be found.

“Less of a mission than an…errand, I guess you could say. Picking something up.”

“Just you by yourself?” Mick asked, looking confused.

“I’m meeting a translator and a guide, I’m told, but…basically yes.” John tried to look confident, the same game smile on his face.
Mick wasn’t buying it.

“What branch of intelligence are you from? For real.”

“None,” John replied. “I’m RAMC. Retired. Just like I said.”

“Why the M90 then?” Mick asked, nodding to the freshly painted sniper rifle secured with John’s gear to the wall. “And no med kit?”

John shrugged. “The rifle’s a good luck charm,” he tried.

“Uh huh,” Mick replied, gnawing on his bottom lip. Then he shifted, looked down. “Begging your pardon, but…you do know what’s up there where you’re going, right?”

Not the thing one wanted to hear from a SEAL who’d clearly been doing operations in the region for a while. John swallowed, tried to sound easy when he replied. “Someone called Malik.”

Mick nodded. “Malik, yeah. And he hasn’t exactly been welcoming to Western visitors in the past. We’ve lost four guys up there in the last year. You can’t just go walking up there, ‘good luck charm’ or not.”

John cleared his throat, leaning into the chopper’s turn. “Well…you know how it is,” he called as the engine whined. “That’s the job.”

“Doc,” Mick said, scratching at his beard. “I’m telling you, it’s fucked up. I might as well just shoot you now and save you the walk.”

John pursed his lips. “It’s the job,” he said again, more firmly. “And while I appreciate the concern, it’s not your problem. You’re just giving me a ride.”

Mick narrowed his eyes at John, and John knew his secretiveness was irking the other man. Mick nodded slowly, taking John in. Something about Mick’s appraising look reminded him faintly of the way Sherlock took things in. It made sense. Among their many reputed traits, SEALs were known to be quite clever men.

“Maybe so,” Mick said finally. John looked out the doorway at the valley again, wishing he’d never said a word.

Then he felt a hard slap on the Kevlar plate across his chest, snapping his attention back to Mick’s lined, kind face.

“Sit tight,” Mick said, letting go of the hand ring and starting a wide-stance walk to the cockpit. “We’re on a recon milk run. I’m gonna make a call.”





Irene Adler’s room at the Hotel Europe was a nice one, a beautiful view of the city, night washing over the lights like a dark blue wave.

The flight from Tunis had been a long one. She’d arrived at the airport and met her driver – a suitably inscrutable man holding a card that said “Adler” past the Security gates – who said he had orders to take her to the hotel. She had nodded politely and stood aside so that he could take her bags.

He’d said nothing to her on the drive to the hotel. When they pulled up in front of the wide glass doors, he’d gotten out to open her door, then left her bags on the curb and driven away.

A long nap. A shower. And now she was sitting in front of the wide windows, waiting for…something. The pebble in the still night’s water that would start the ripples going out and out.

And there it was. A knock at the door.

She rose in her thick white dressing gown, her wet hair pulled back. She checked the peephole and found a very young bellhop standing there, a white envelope in his hands.

“Yes, miss,” he said when she’d opened the door. “This arrived for you just now, marked urgent. I hope you’ll forgive the disturbance for my bringing it up.”

“Of course,” she said, charmed by the flush on his cheeks. She took the envelope and let the door hang open while she got him a tip from her purse. “My thanks.” He smiled and scurried away.

The door closed, she looked at the envelope. “Irene ‘The Woman’ Adler,” it said. She opened it and drew out the heavy cardstock.

Crown Plaza, Minsk. Suite 419.
Play the game to open the box.
You have seven days.

Irene stared at the words for a long moment. She had been to Minsk before, some unfinished business left when she’d fled. She’d known the minute she heard where she was going why she was here.

And she had a very good idea who she would find at the hotel.

Play the game…

It was early evening. She turned towards her bags, let out a long breath.

No use waiting, she thought, especially with only seven days in which to play. If this was the foe she believed it would be, she would need every hour of those days.

Irene straightened her shoulders, her jaw clenching as she took up her makeup case. She unzipped her garment bag, taking out her best black dress, the strapless one covered with sequins as bright as starlight.

Hello my armor, she thought, and she went to the bath to prepare.






The smoky air of the club was pulsing with every flash of the blue and violet lights. Sherlock moved through it, his coat still closed tight around him despite the heat, his collar turned up.

Around him, the dance floor was crowded, bodies moved in time to the heavy, almost sexual beat. The music, the space overwhelmed Sherlock’s senses with smells (perfume, cologne, cigarette smoke), the music and laughter, a dozen conversations going on simultaneously, the flashes of light strobing everything into stop-action like strange photographs. Sherlock could even feel the bass rumbling deep in his chest.

As he pressed through the bodies, both men and women looked at him, sizing him up, asking and offering with their eyes or a subtle move of their waists and hips. He felt hands brush against his back and waist.

One woman – jet-black hair tinged with blue, high on hashish from the smell of her – didn’t move to let him pass. She blocked him, stood close, her hands curling up over his shoulders, thumbs brushing his cheeks.

“You…” she purred close to his ear. “I could positively swallow you…”

Sherlock’s lip drew to a thin line and he held very still, his hands stiff at his sides.

“Taken,” he said coldly.

She pursed her lips. “You sure?”

“Very,” he replied with a stiff smile. “But no offense.”

As her face fell, he stepped to the side and left her behind.

He made it to the edge of the dance floor and turned his back to the wall. For a long moment he scanned the room, his fingers touching the cardstock in his pocket, worrying it.

Vincent at The Nebula.
The formula, please.
You have 10 days.

A waiter glided by as if carried on the wave of sound. Sherlock touched his arm.

“Meneer?” the man asked. Sir?

“Vincent, alstublieft?” Sherlock asked, letting his lip curl into a faint, friendly smile.

“The blue door,” the waiter replied in English now, nodding toward the back of the club. He looked vaguely nervous. “Though they may not let you in.”

Sherlock thanked him, moving along the wall. He snapped his collar down and opened his coat as he approached the blue door. Straightening his spine, he pulled himself up to his full, imposing height, tapped his knuckles on the wood.

There was a long pause, then the door opened a crack.

“Yes.” A quarter of a face. Dark eyes. Bloodshot. Some sort of bodyguard. The face of a man who carried a gun.

Roll the dice, he thought.

“Mr. Sherlock Holmes to see Vincent,” he said with his best imperious voice.

“Do you have an appointment, Mr. Holmes?” the man asked, unimpressed.

“I believe I do, yes.” Sherlock’s lip quirked.

“One moment,” the man said, and the door clicked shut again.

Sherlock waited, looking around. Only one person watching him now in the whole place, a dark-haired man at the bar who smiled a come hither as Sherlock met his eyes. Sherlock gave him a cool glance and looked away.

The door opened, the bodyguard standing there. Bad haircut. Good suit. “Come in, Mr. Holmes.”

“Thank you,” Sherlock said, nodding, and entered the room.

It was darker in the room than it was even in the club. Expensive older paintings. Rich wallpaper. Oriental rugs. Very much unlike the club itself with its garish neon and slick, modern look. Smoke hung in the air – American cigarettes, cigars, the faintest hint of hashish.

And at the center of the back wall, an expensive desk – an antique, 18th century Dutch – with a man sitting behind it. Late 30s, though it was hard to tell his exact age. Dutch but with something else (Southeast Asian from the brow?) mixed in. A suit more tailored than Sherlock’s, no rings, but an impeccable manicure on his soft hands. A Breitling watch -- this year’s. The man nearly breathed power and wealth.

And he was relaxed, his hands folded on the desk. The look he gave Sherlock was bemused and vaguely impressed.

Wreathed around the room, chairs that held other men. No women here, though there was the faint trace of perfume in the air. Sherlock scanned the room and saw two doors. The women had gone through them to rooms on the other side.

Some of the men were talking, a soft din of conversation in the room. Some were watching Sherlock with curiosity, but most paid him no mind. The security men were the usual lean, suspicious bodyguards of the very rich, easy to pick out from the group by how much they were trying to blend in.

But Sherlock deduced that only the man behind the desk knew who Sherlock was. That was good. He felt less…outnumbered. Though he was certain anyone in the room would do whatever the man behind the desk asked.

“Mr. Holmes,” the man said, and he stood. Sherlock approached the desk and took the outstretched hand. “Vincent Luong. A pleasure, sir. I’ve heard a great deal about you.” He looked at one of his lackeys. “Bruno, take Mr. Holmes’ coat.”

Sherlock smiled a stiff smile, showing no teeth. “I hope to be able to say the same soon, Mr. Luong,” he said, shrugging out of the coat. “On both counts.”

Bruno, the blondest of the security personnel, took the coat and hung it on the rack by the door.

Luong, Sherlock replayed. Vietnamese…

“Ah, no formalities,” Luong dismissed, waving it off. “We’re going to get to know each other quite well, I think. It’s Vincent, please.” He gestured to a seat and Sherlock sat stiffly, crossed his legs, tugging his tight, velvet jacket into place over the white silk shirt.

“Thank you, Vincent,” Sherlock said. He did not offer his first name, and at the slight, Vincent’s smile grew.

“I understand you are you looking for something,” he said, taking his seat behind his desk again.

“Yes,” Sherlock said. “And you know what it is.”

“Of course,” Luong said. “A formula.”

Sherlock kept his face composed. “Yes.”

“You’re a chemist, yes?” A waiter had moved over from a knot of men in the corner, carrying a silver tray with espresso cups. Luong took one, and the waiter offered the tray to Sherlock. He took one of the small cups, held it by the handle on the palm on his hand.

“Among other things.” Sherlock smiled as he took a sip.

Luong nodded, impressed. “Well,” he said, blowing on dark liquid. “I’ve been instructed to give you all the samples you request, but access to the necessary equipment will be your affair.”

“One sample should be sufficient,” Sherlock said, taking another casual sip.

“Oh, I think you’ll change your mind about that,” Luong said, and he smiled over the cup’s white rim.

It happened quickly then. Luong’s eyes fell on one of the men by the wall, and then there was a rush of movement and sound. Sherlock tried to rise, but they were on him too fast.

Not that he didn’t put up a fight. He had height and reach and wiry strength to his advantage in most fights, and it was on that five men lit on him at once that canceled these out.

He was up and out of the chair, kicking out, crushing his forehead into the face of one of the security men with a sharp crack.

The man fell back, but another was there to take his place.

“Mr. Holmes, please,” Luong was saying, coming around the desk. “Please. There’s no need for all that. I honestly think you’ll find this whole thing more pleasant than you expect.”

It only took a moment more for them to crush him to the floor, his arms pinned on both sides and another man with his knees dug into the backs of Sherlock’s thighs.

The conversation kept going along the walls. Sherlock craned his head up and saw only a few vaguely interested looks over wine glasses before they looked away.

Luong was standing in front of him now, his feet an inch from Sherlock’s face. “Let me go,” he growled from low in his chest.

“The Grey Room, please,” Luong said quietly, and Sherlock was up suddenly, being dragged across the rug to one of the doors in the wall. He could hear Luong following behind.

Through the door into a dining room of sorts. Chandelier over a black, wide table with high-backed chairs. There were women lying on chaise lounges around the charcoal-colored room’s edge. None one seemed surprised at the sight of five men hussling Sherlock in.

“On the table, please,” Luong said, maddeningly polite. He was moving to a cabinet on the side, opening a drawer. “And see to his sleeves.”

Sherlock was slammed down face first, the impact with the table stunning him and splitting his bottom lip. He turned his face against the wood, his eyes lolling as his head spun. Four of the men held him while the fifth took advantage of his disorientation to get his jacket off. The white shirtsleeves were unbuttoned and pushed up.

Sherlock shook his head clear, trying to pull his arms free from the vise-like grips on his wrists. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he shouted, furious.

Luong was on the other side now, just out of sight when he craned his neck.

“Giving you your sample, of course.”

Sherlock felt cold suddenly as Luong’s hands smoothed over his arms.

“Lovely veins,” Luong said, real appreciation there. “And some scars already, I see.”

The cold, tacky feel of a rubber tourniquet snaked around his upper arm, just above the elbow, tightening painfully with a snap and pinching the median nerve down. Sherlock’s fist gave an involuntary clench.

Sherlock arched his neck and saw the glint of the syringe, thick liquid in it that looked nearly black.

“What…what is that?” He felt his heart rate pick up. No…

“Not your usual brew, I assure you,” Luong said, tapping the syringe with a well-filed nail, checking the dose. “This is one of my private concoctions, Sherlock. May I call you Sherlock now? We’re going to be wonderful friends, after all.”

“Fuck you,” Sherlock spat, struggling against the men who held his legs and wrists. A hand came down from the side opposite Luong and slammed his head back down.

“Hold still,” Luong cooed. “I’d hate to leave an unsightly mark on that beautiful skin.”

He felt the needle slide in with a prick. A warm rush, and then…

“A type of heroin, Sherlock, twice as powerful as what’s currently for sale. I haven’t tried it myself, of course – bad business, that – but I’m told it’s quite…extraordinary.”

The warm, sweet wave crashed into Sherlock’s mind. His chest grew heavy, his diaphragm giving out. When he tried to pull in another breath, he found it stalling in his chest. A small sound rose from his throat.

“No, no, it’s all right. Give it a few seconds and your breath will come back.”

Luong’s voice was echoing from somewhere far off now. Like waking up from anesthesia, or that feeling after one had nearly drowned…

Drowned. Water…water everywhere. So warm. So terribly blue.

“Let him go.”

He felt the pain from the tourniquet vanish, the grips on his arms disappear. His nails scratched on the table as he vaguely considered pushing himself up. Nothing would listen to him though. Not even his hands.

Wonderful, isn’t it? Not a care in the world.

He finally managed a breath that didn’t make him feel like he was dying. It puffed out on the table’s black surface in a wet circle of steam.

Your first sample, Sherlock. Now. I’ll leave you to your work.

There was singing in Sherlock’s head, something rich and warm as the most delightful memory swimming in his chest. He hummed and hummed.

Somewhere far off he heard a voice saying something about get his coat, something about take him out.

Something about not caring, something about leaving someone or something out on the street.




Chapter Text

Author’s Note: So that the voice in your head that reads won’t keep tripping on it if you don’t know the name, “Iarla” is pronounced “EAR-la.” :-)








“Absolutely not.”

It wasn’t the first time John had said it since the helicopter had landed. He’d said it when he’d noticed the SEALs beginning to gather their equipment after a huddled meeting with Mick at the far end of the helicopter’s cramped belly. He’d said it again – punctuated with a hard shake of his head – when the chopper had begun its slow hover to the ground and they’d all started whooping it up like they’d just arrived at an amusement park. He was saying it now, standing in front of Mick and the second-in-command, a tall, thin African-American man called Quince.

And they were ignoring it just as much this time as they had before.

“Where to, Doc?” Mick asked, the others gathering around as they clipped and tucked and shouldered into their gear. Even Eli the dog looked eager to, as the SEALs had said when they hit the ground, “get it on.”

“Look,” John said, his voice leveling off to something slow and kind as he tried a different tact. “It’s all very good of you all to want to come along—“

“Not good at all,” Quince said, shaking his head. “As I see it, you’re a Geneva-Convention Classified Non-Combatant being sent into harm’s way without an armed escort. And we’re just taking up that place.”

“In case you haven’t noticed,” John said, pushing the rifle off his shoulder a bit for emphasis and pointing to the holster at his hip. “I’m fairly well armed and more than capable of defending myself.”

“Those aren’t weapons,” Mick said, shaking his head. “Just things you’re bringing along for luck. Like you said.”

“Mick, for Christ’s sake—“ John stopped himself, frustration clenching his jaw as he looked up for strength. “Listen to me.” His hand came out toward Mick’s chest as though he were calming someone about to jump from a ledge. “You have no idea…no idea…what you’re getting into.”

“Yeah, it’s FUBAR for sure,” Mick agreed. “But we’ve been officially assigned as your escort for the duration by U.S. and Joint Intelligence Command in Kabul, so here’s the time when you let us know what the mission is and what’s what.”

John blew out a frustrated breath. Fucked Up Beyond All Repair, John recalled, and he silently concurred.

“And begging your pardon, Doc,” Quince added in his deep Southern drawl. “But we’re the ones who’ve been up there before. So we might have a better idea of what we’re getting into than you do.”

That brought John up a bit. No argument there, he thought. Still, he shook his head. “It’s not going to make any sense to any of you.”

“Oh, I think you’ll be surprised what makes sense up here,” Mick replied. “Give us a try.” Then he raised an arm, his index finger pointing up, and he made a slow circle in the air. “Everyone on the Doc for Mission Brief,” he called, and the team began rallying, forming a circle around John.

John watched them as they gathered around, taking in the men’s faces. They were so young. Even Mick couldn’t be over 35. And though he didn’t mean to go there in his mind, it was a bit too familiar in many ways. Familiar in a way that made him warm, like a worn leather glove. Familiar in a way that caused him pain.

“Introductions first,” Mick said, and started around the circle of the 12-man team, pointing at each man as he spoke. John nodded to each as they were introduced by name (or nickname) and position on the team. Four riflemen -- Blink, Sam, J.C., and Junior, the latter a wiry blonde boy who couldn’t be more than 20 and looked 15. Sam was tall and freckled, and Blink—going prematurely gray—had a strange stare.

Next, the communication man, Kip, who carried the satellite radio and wore a rosary around his neck. A heavy gunner who was a bear of a man aptly called “Bear.” Lopez, the dog handler and scout, who had Eli on a short leash. Silk on Demolition (John shuddered to think what was in those bags at his waist), and Taylor, the sniper, whose rifle made John’s look like a toy.

The last to be introduced was “Mamma C.,” who was also the closest to John. He hadn’t put his helmet on yet, his dark hair cut short but his black beard long. He reached out a hand, which John shook.

“Medic,” he said, smiling. “In case the name didn’t give that away. And it’s Chris.”

John returned the smile, but something in him hitched. Nice to meet you blokes. Now let’s all go get shot...

“John Watson,” he said, smoothing down his short fringe self-consciously. He cleared his throat. “Retired RAMC. Two tours here. Wounded—“ He gestured to his shoulder. “Um…”

They waited. He looked down. The men waited some more.

“Right. I’m here…on a sort of errand.” He thought hard how to phrase it in a way they would understand. “Essentially, I and…others are being coerced by a man with a great deal of power…real power, military bring back certain items from different regions or face the consequence.”

The team looked at him. Junior and Chris were biting their lips. “What consequence?” Quince asked. “What’s at stake here?”

“Well,” John continued, nodding. “If we’d refused the errands, two things would have happened. First, this man would have probably have dropped a bloody nuke on India or Pakistan. And then I and these other people would have been hunted down and killed.”

The group grunted, looked at each other. “Fucked up,” Blink muttered.

“All right then, so what are you after here?” Mick pressed.

John hesitated, looked down. “Well, it’s not going to make a bit of sense, I don’t think. But I was told to get…one of this man Malik’s flowers.”

It was as if all 12 men straightened subtly simultaneously. They looked at each other, at John, and finally at Mick.

“What?” John asked, his eyes widening, looking from one to the next. “What does it mean?”

It was Mick who spoke. “Malik’s the biggest poppy grower in the region. Really the only one left in the Korengal.”

Poppies, John thought. Of course…

“He’s been working on some new strains, hybrids, in the past few years,” Mick went on. “Really blown the roof off the market here. They sell for five or six times the usual price.”

“So wait,” Bear said, holding out a hand. “We’re gonna take you up there so you can pick one of these fucking things and take it back?”

“But that whole area’s like a goddamn fortress--” Lopez interjected.

Bear huffed a laugh. “Christ, half the shit we get sent on here doesn’t make a fucking bit of sense.”

The team gave another low “hoo-ya” to that.

“Hey, hey.” Mick pinned them all with his gaze. “I’m not listening to that. That’s the job. Doesn’t sound like he wants to be on this run either.” He nodded to John.

“We can’t go up there cold,” Sam said, shaking his head. “We need intel, we need logistics—“

“Ideally, yes,” Quince said loudly. “And those four fucking years you were in SEAL training, Sam—what were you doing then? Because I remember a metric shit-tonne of intel and logistics going on in there.”

“I am so sorry—“ John tried into the fray.

Everyone! Shut it down!” Mick roared it over them, and the whole group went silent. “Now we’ve got a four-day walk up there, so we’ll have plenty of time to piss and moan about it. Gear up. We’re off in five.” He dismissed them with a nod.

John looked at Mick as the men disbursed a bit.

“I’ll get on the horn and see if I can get us some transport for part of that.” Mick pulled on his helmet as he spoke. “It’ll have to be ground though – even our Spec Op choppers couldn’t drop us completely quiet.”

“I agree,” John replied. “Ground it is.” He followed suit with the helmet, wincing a bit as he pulled the chinstrap tight, pledging again to grow that beard. “And I know this is bloody meaningless, but thank you for all this. I wouldn’t have survived this otherwise, I don’t think.”

Mick’s mouth quirked. “We’ve got four days up and four days back. With a helluva ride in between. So don’t thank me yet.” Any doom of that statement vanished in the smile he gave John, the gleam of anticipation in his eyes.

John gave a gallows-laugh bark and shook his head as Mick moved off to lead the men.

John stood still for a long moment, looking up at the scrubby mountains, the dirt road, the sound of a river somewhere to his right. There was a coolness in the air that he could feel in his bones. Winter was coming, and he swore he could smell it in the air.

Jesus, he thought, swallowing. How I hate this place.






It had started innocently enough, Sherlock awake before dawn and giving John until nearly light before he woke him again. Sherlock had leaned over John, the weight of his body pressed onto John’s chest, and when John squirmed, Sherlock had given him an evil grin and pinned John’s arms at the wrists.

“Trust me on this,” John said, breathing hard. “You do not want to go head-to-head with me.”

Sherlock had considered that for a split second before pushing harder on John’s wrists. “If memory serves, I already did.” A bad joke, but John liked it all the same.

“You think you can take me, Holmes?” John’s eyes glinted as his mouth curled into a mischievous smile, and Sherlock could feel his compact body beginning to coil.

He leaned closer until his lips were nearly touching John’s, their eyes locked, grey to ocean blue. “Oh, Watson, I know I can,” he breathed, smiled.

And it was on.

Off the bed they rolled, struggling, both of them wearing nothing but pants. Sherlock winced as he pulled his side as his back hit the floor, John coming down hard on his chest, but he didn’t let up, using John’s momentary hesitation to pin John beneath him again.

They were still laughing a bit at that point. And then something changed. At some point, the need to break the pins grew more urgent, the attempts to evade tighter and done with more skill. In short, it had gone beyond simple horseplay into something far more grave.

Sherlock would think back on it later on the way to Amsterdam, a twinge in his shoulder and low back still. At their hearts, neither John nor he was one to yield. Sherlock found he was relieved to think that that part of John – and himself – was still there.

They’d nearly knocked over the table, each still trying to get the upper hand, when Sherlock found himself under John once again.

“Give up,” John grit out, both of them trembling with the effort to either hold or break the grip John had on Sherlock’s arms.

“No—“ Sherlock gasped, face red.

“You stubborn arse!” John hissed.

“NO!” he’d growled back. Their faces were nearly touching at this point, John bearing down.

Then John kissed him, his mouth hot and open and his tongue in Sherlock’s mouth.

The surprise that coursed through him was like an electric shock, his eyes flying open and his mouth going slack. When their lips broke, he gasped out. “Not fair…”

John huffed a warm laugh against his throat, his tongue stroking there. Sherlock could feel the hard, thick shape of John’s cock as he ground down between Sherlock’s legs.

“Oh,” Sherlock moaned. “Not fair, not fair….”


Blue tinge to the whole memory. Something smelled like salt.

“It’s all right.”

Not fair…not fair…

“No, you’re right. It’s really not.”

Not John’s voice.

John…where did you go?

The Not-John voice spoke again.

“Just relax, all right? Try to relax. You’ve only got another hour or two.”

Open your eyes, he said to himself. He complied.

Small room. Dawn light. Rain. Cold rain. Cold room. Fairy lights on the window. Fire in the fireplace across the cramped space.

Comfortable. Personal. Well used.

He was lying in a soft bed, covered to his waist with something much-washed and thick. The dark-haired man from the bar was sitting on its edge.

Sherlock’s mouth was dry. His throat hurt like he’d been talking for hours.

“Where…?” he tried, but when he lifted his head, the room swam.

“No, stay down,” the man said. Irish. Republic. Western side. “You’ll fall if you try to stand.”

Sherlock looked at him. Black hair. Pale skin. Eyes, dark green. Thin. Gay. Strongly built. “Who are you?” he croaked.

“Iarla Brennan. I saw you at the club?” When Sherlock nodded, thinking Galway…speaks Irish at home, the man went on. “You went back after Luong and I had a good idea what was going to happen in there. When they took you out to dump you, they had to do it through the bar, telling people you’d been drunk and misbehaving in the back. I followed them in my car, waited for them to dump you in the Red Light district, then picked you up.”

Sherlock took in a deep breath. The room still had that otherworldly blue tint, the rain coming down. “Why?”

Brennan smiled, shrugged. “Maybe I just like the way you look.”

Sherlock shook his head. “Not interested.”

“Oh, I’d guessed that,” Iarla replied, his smile widening. “You’ve been talking to someone named ‘John’ half the night, and not about tea and biscuits the whole time, if you catch my meaning. I didn’t think I had a chance.”

Sherlock put a hand on his head, a dull ache starting to melt behind his eyes. “Luoung…he gave me something. Heroin…” It was all sloshing back.

“Aye,” Iarla said, standing. “His new brew, from the looks of you. And quite a bit of it, too.”

Sherlock’s eyes shot open wider. “How long? How long ago?”

“Been about eight hours now,” the other man said, checking his watch.

Eight hours!--

“I need a syringe—do you have a syringe?” Sherlock was trying to sit up again, and this time he did make it to the edge of the bed.

“I’m not fucking shooting you up again!” Brennan cried, aghast. “Even if I did keep shite like that lying around—“

“Not for drugs, you imbecile, for my blood! I need a sample of my blood!”

“Whoa, whoa,” Brennan said, his hands going to Sherlock’s shoulders. “You need to calm the fuck down, you hear me now? You’re starting to scare me a bit.”

“Get your hands off—“

“You’re still flying, angel,” Brennan said with the too-calm voice of someone Trip Doctoring. He pushed Sherlock back gently. “Now lie down.

Sherlock was back on his back before he knew he’d moved, Brennan back on the bed’s edge. His head told him to stay there, bile rushing in his throat.

He looked at Brennan, really looked. Nails (manicured), clothes (trying for bohemian, but the labels were too nice), face (skin too smooth, not even marks in his pores from his beard). Something off about the flat. Something--

“You’re not who you want me to think you are,” Sherlock said, narrowing his eyes.

“Is that right?” the other man said, cocking his head, amused. “Who am I then?”

“Mycroft,” Sherlock said, and he watched Brennan shake his head, standing again.

“I don’t even know what that is,” he replied. “But I’ll tell you again. I’m Iarla Brennan. I saw you at the club and fancied you and figured you were about to be in a bad way. So I picked you up out of a skip because you’d last about five minutes before someone came along and buggered you over a crate given the state you were in.”

Sherlock blinked and blinked, remembering the hands beneath his arms, dragging him out to a car out on the street....

Brennan continued at a slow, patient pace. “I took you back here to my flat and laid you down in my own bed – which you haven’t thanked me for, by the way – and I’ve been watching you all night to make sure you didn’t choke on your puke or have a seizure or otherwise find a way to go tits up. And seeing as you’re taken, you can stay here until you’ve dried out and then you’re free to go, back to this John of yours or wherever you want to be.” He paused, his eyebrows raised. “Got it now?”

Sherlock’s brain caught up, like a buffered tape. Finally he nodded.

Back to John, yes…but wasn’t there something about blood and a syringe…?

“All right,” Sherlock said softly, his lids drooping over his heavy eyes. It was too much to think about just now. “And…thank you.”

He breathed the last just as a warm, dark space opened back up in him and he fell in.

“You’re welcome, pretty thing. Now go to sleep and have a nice trip.”






Just after midnight, Irene Adler entered the lobby of the Crown Plaza, the limousine she’d come in from her own hotel gliding off into the rain that was turning to snow. Irene glided herself, letting her mink coat fall open as she approached the desk, her small overnight bag trailing silently behind. Each step revealed her long legs as they peeked out the front slit of her black dress.

The concierge looked up, his eyes going (as she’d wanted) to her legs. He was suitably flushed by the time she reached the desk.

“Mademoiselle?” he asked. French, she thought, filing the information away.

“Could you ring Suite 419 for Ms. Irene Adler, please?” she asked, blinking slow to him as she spoke. She watched his Adam’s apple bob as he swallowed and made the call.

“Monsieur Petrovic is expecting you, Ms. Adler,” the man said, as he hung up the phone. He seemed vaguely afraid. “Please. The elevators are to your right. May someone take your bag for you?”

“No, merci,” she said. “I like to keep my hands on it.” She winked.

The elevators to the fourth floor were made of glass, polished metal and flowers and white lights everywhere Irene looked as she rode it up. The finest hotel in Minsk, for certain. Finer than even hers, and her taste was quite rich.

Down the dimly lit corridor, the carpet thick and new. She stopped before the door quietly. She didn’t knock.

The door opened an instant later, a man in a tuxedo standing there, lit from behind. She could barely make out his face.

“Come into the light, my dear, so I can get a better look at you,” he said, the voice heavy with a Croatian accent.

She reached out her hand, a terse smile on her face. He took it and gave it a kiss as he drew her into the room and closed the door.

They turned to one another, Irene taking in the face. Miran Petrovic. Still so handsome and so intense. Older, of course, but still stunningly attractive, despite that his face was lined with something beyond years. Alcohol, drugs, too much of both. His eyes were bloodshot and dim.

“You haven’t aged a day, Irene,” he said with genuine admiration. “What’s your secret? Tell.”

“My wholesome living, Miran,” she replied, smiling. “As you know so well.”

He chuckled. “Come into the sitting room, please. Would you like a drink?”

“Red wine, please,” she said, leaning her bag near the door. “Sweet.”

She followed him further into the room to the circle of couch and chairs as he went to fetch their drinks. There was a low table between them, an ornately carved box on it. Irene looked at it as she sat.

“Yes, the puzzle box I believe your card spoke about?” Petrovic said, handing her one of two glasses of red wine. He sat in the chair across from her.

“What’s inside?”

“I have no idea,” Petrovic said, shrugging. “I’ve only been paid to play the game.”

“For the combination to open it, I assume.” Irene’s eyes narrowed on Petrovic’s, who smiled.

“Of course.” He leaned forward, smiling and showing teeth. “Which only exists inside my head.”


“Sixty minutes each. Alternating.”

She pursed her lips. Long. She leaned forward as well, trying to sound business-like and light. “Hmm. How many rounds?”

The smile dimmed a bit. “Six, with one digit of the code for the box given per round. We play until you have the combination or…”

“…Or until one of us can no longer play,” she said, and tried to compose her face. She knew the nervous swallow gave her away.

Petrovic nodded, an apologetic half-smile on his face. “Yes. I’m sorry for that, by the way, but…it’s the contract he chose.”

This she did understand. Extreme requests on contracts were the norm, after all, and Petrovic was known to be one of the most accommodating as well as one of the best. Precisely like Irene herself.

So she nodded. “Of course.”

But another part of her was sinking, and sinking fast. This is it… The thought crushed into her. Petrovic had already been paid. He would never back down from the job now.

“You have brought your own things, I assume?” he asked, breaking her thoughts. He took another sip of his wine, watching her.

She nodded toward the bag she’d left by the door. “Yes.” In fact, she’d carefully selected her things.

“Those are the tools you may use. None of my equipment. Nothing from the room.” He reached into his pocket, drawing out a folded sheet of thick white paper. “This is the rest of the contract. If you agree to the terms, countersign there.” He pointed to the long line.

She held out a hand, leaning forward, nodding. “I’ll take it then.”

But Petrovic flicked the letter back.

“Irene,” he said, lowering his voice. “Look at my eyes, please.”

Reluctantly, she did, doing her best to hide the fear.

“It’s not too late, you know,” he said, soft and urgent. “If you run, I promise you…I will not follow you. I will tell him you did not come at all.”

She shook her head, gave him a small, grateful smile. “Not this time, Miran,” she said, her voice equally as soft. It was as though they were both afraid of someone overhearing what they said.

“Tell me why.”

She shook her head. “I can’t,” she said, finding her voice again.

“I could kill you, Irene.” he tried again. “You know the risk.”

She sighed. “You have a job to do, Miran, as do I. We’ve both played it. We both know the risk.”

The threat was there. Petrovic heard it. He nodded.

“All right. Just so things are clear. If you sign, you consent to everything in the contract.”

“Clear. As do you.” She said it flat and didn’t blink.

“Of course,” he said coolly. “I have signed, after all.”

He handed her the piece of paper at last.

There was a pen on the table and Irene unfolded the paper carefully, smoothing it out to calm her nerves. She read the three short paragraphs, cold settling into her as she read.

He had indeed signed at the bottom of the page, so she put her name beside it with the sharp nib of the heavy fountain pen, acutely aware of both Petrovic’s gaze and the strange, bird-like race of her heart.




Chapter Text





Sherlock had every intention of leaving Iarla Brennan’s flat when he awoke the next day. He’d risen, stood for a long time under the water in the cramped but clean shower. He’d carefully put his clothes back on in the bathroom before going back into the bedroom to gather his other things.

But somehow, he found himself simply sitting on the edge of Brennan’s bed for a long time, stroking the knot of the injection site with his fingertips and trying to clear his head enough to think.

Damn you, THINK…

It wasn’t until Brennan had come in from the kitchen and called to him that Sherlock even remembered where he was.

“You all right there, Mr. Holmes?”

Sherlock jerked his face toward the sound, specifically to the sound of his name. “How the hell do you know my name?”

Brennan – wearing a black sweater and jeans, just socks in the flat – held up both hands, though the “surrender” effect was lost since one of his hands held his mug of tea.

“Your wallet was in your coat,” he said. “I was trying to suss out your address from your driving permit to take you home, but London was a bit of a steep cab fare for a first date.”

Sherlock wanted to reach for his shoes. He wanted to do a lot of things. But he found trembling faintly as he stared back at the other man was all he could manage right then.

“Thank you for getting me off the street.” He said it quickly. John had said not to thank anyone, hadn’t he? But at the moment, it felt wrong not to do it.

“No problem,” Brennan said. “And this isn’t a proposition, but…you look like you should stay.”

“I’m fine.” He reached for the shoes, but his head swam, his stomach lurching to his throat.

“Oi oi…no sick on the rug.” The other man had appeared beside him, hand on his shoulder, steadying him. “Just lie down.”

The room seemed to swivel as Sherlock found himself once again flat on his back, staring up the old water stains on the low ceiling of the flat.

“Look,” Brennan said quietly, leaning over him. “I don’t know how much Luong gave you last night, but I do know that it doesn’t take much to put you in a bad way. If you know what I mean.”

“I do,” Sherlock replied. And he did know. He wanted more of what was in the syringe. Much more. Part of it likely due to some unique property of this type of heroin. Part of it, he mused, his own body’s handshake with something that was, still, an old friend.

Sherlock stared at the ceiling as Brennan shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. “Um, look…what’s the ‘S’ stand for? In ‘S. Holmes?’”

Sherlock kept staring at the ceiling, counting cracks.

“You want me to guess?” Brennan asked. “Okay, um…Sam. Stephen, though you look more like a Stefan to me. Too posh for Seamus…How about—?”

“Sherlock,” he said, cutting off the list. He met Brennan’s gaze.

Brennan nodded, his lips pursing. “All right, well, not in my Top Five guesses, that, but...” He cleared his throat. “So. Sherlock? I think you might consider going to a clinic and getting on some buprenorphine. I can take you there if you want when you’re more steady on your feet.”

“I’m not an addict!” Sherlock shouted. “I didn’t go in there looking for a high, for God’s sake.”

“Well, what the bloody hell were you after then?” Brennan’s pale face was going pink, his voice rising to match Sherlock’s.

“I’m looking for the formula,” Sherlock spat.

“The formula for what?” Frustration creeping in, the other man’s eyes locked on Sherlock’s.

The drug, you idiot!” Sherlock roared.

“I’d watch who you’re calling an ‘idiot,’ mate,” Brennan replied, his voice dropping. “I’m not the one who walked into Luong’s place all on my own looking for his recipe.”

Sherlock blew out a frustrated breath. “It was an errand,” he said, his voice deflated now. “I didn’t know.”

“If that was the errand,” Brennan said. “Then someone wants you either strung out or dead.”

Sherlock went silent, his mind racing, pushing back against the drug’s lingering, heavy weight. How…how how how…

“That’s why you asked me for a syringe last night,” Brennan said, moving away to retrieve his tea from the desk where he’d set it. He sat in the chair, facing Sherlock on the bed. “I thought you were just high and talking jibberish, but you wanted your own blood. While the heroin was still there.”

Sherlock closed his eyes. “Yes.”

“Can you do that?” Brennan pressed. “Figure out the drug from a sample like that?”

“If I can extract it before it’s too far metabolized, yes. I’m a chemist and a bit of an… amateur pathologist.” Sherlock blew out a breath, mumbled to himself. “Of course…each of the tasks is something each of us is uniquely capable of completing. But in my case I’ve got to use my greatest weakness to solve the thing.”

That brought him up short.

Perhaps we all do… For John it was the war. For Irene? Sex. Sex and control. Damn.

Brennan was talking. “Wait, if your only way of getting this drug is from your own blood, you’re not going to have your wits enough about you to do it, are you?”

Sherlock looked at Brennan hard, ignoring the problem he’d posed. “It can’t be bought on the street?”

Brennan was shaking his head, looking down. “Not that brew. Invitation only, in that room where they hauled you out.”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. “How do you know all this?”

Brennan shrugged. “I live here. I go to that club a good bit.”

Sherlock shook his head. “Many people live here and go to that club and don’t know Luong’s affairs, I’d wager.” His eyes narrowed. “Who are you?”

Brennan sighed, a frustrated expression on his face. “Oh Jesus, not that again.” He set his mug down, reached for his boots, pulling them on. “Look. My name is Iarla Brennan. I’m a literature professor at the University of Amsterdam. I was at The Nebula last night looking for a date and saw you were in a bad way. I followed you and tried to take you home, and since I couldn’t, I brought you back here.”

Sherlock wasn’t put off by the slow condescension of Brennan’s voice. “And Luong? How do you know so much about Luong and his drug?”

Brennan stood, taking his coat off the hook by the door. “Let’s just say I’ve been in the back room myself a time or two and leave it at that.”

That did close Sherlock’s mouth.

“I’ve got a class at 2:00,” Brennan said, breaking the silence and lifting the worn briefcase by the door. “I’ll be back around 5:00. If you’re still around when I get back, fine. Help yourself to anything in the fridge, though I know you probably don’t feel up to eating just yet. If you’re not here, well…just pull the door hard so it locks and the best of luck with your…whatever it is.”

And with that, he was gone.

Sherlock stared at the door for a long time, blinking slowly as his finger worried the knot under his skin again. He could still feel the heroin…singing. He didn’t know how else to describe it. When he closed his eyes, he had to stop the hum that rose in him.

“No,” he said aloud.

He shook himself clear, stretched out again on the bed, his fingers steepled underneath his chin. He wished for a nicotine patch. Or two. Or four. He would get some at a shop later. Yes. That was it.

Blowing out a breath, he tried to clear his mind, to tamp down the murmur of the warm caress in his veins.

“Think,” he said softly, needing to hear it aloud. “Think…

The halls were soft-focus in his mind, the sunlight through the high windows too bright. When he looked up at the spiral staircase – room on room on glorious room above – the perspective was off, vertiginous. Even the version of him that his mind created to walk there felt ill…

He opened his eyes again, his eyes taking in Brennan’s flat. A computer’s fan burred faintly in the corner of the room, the swirl of a screensaver spinning on the display. iMac, he cataloged automatically. Older, from 2008 or 2009…

If it was connected to the Internet, he could—

He rose, moved to it. The wooden chair creaked as he sat, toggling the space bar to wake the screen.

Password protected. Sherlock rolled his eyes.

Oh please…

The flat filled with the fast click of keys. Five minutes later, Google. Search terms: laboratory equipment suppliers amsterdam





The theme for the first round had been a simple one: restraint.

But then this game always started simply. The basics must, after all, be gotten out of the way. And Petrovic was a straightforward and very skilled man.

In the bedroom beyond the French doors to the suite, Petrovic slept. Irene stood by the matching doors that opened onto the balcony, smoking one of his harsh Russian cigarettes. She hadn’t smoked in years, but this morning – even the light looking wan as morning turned to afternoon – she had sought something to do with her hands, something to even out her breath.

Irene Adler was afraid.

It wasn’t just the pain, already starting in the muscles of her sides, her shoulders, her back, her chest. It wasn’t the feeling that everything in her had been stretched to the point of breaking, though Petrovic had been careful (as he always was at first) not to leave a mark.

But there was something about the thoroughness of the ache that filled her with dread. Petrovic was reputed to have been been a doctor before he’d taken up the bondage trade. It was clear he knew not just how to hurt, but how to hurt in precise increments, like the tiny slices of a very sharp knife.

I could kill you, Irene, he’d said, and she’d heard the regret.

And taking an inventory of her body, she had no doubt about that.

Irene went to the cluster of furniture in the center of the room, eased herself onto the corner of the sofa, her spine protesting where it had been arched back. Her hands shook slightly (over-exertion) as she poured a glass of scotch from the decanter at the center of the table into a highball glass, took a large sip and felt it burn as it went down.

The puzzle box sat before her, its combination’s first digit a “6.” She had earned that knowledge with the successful completion of the game’s first round.

Snuff, the game was called. Fitting, since she already felt brittle and thin, like a match waiting for a puff or a pinch of fingers to put her out.

Only a few Doms in the world would play this game, the ethical, moral, and legal consequences keeping most away. Inflicting pain, even severe pain, was part of the job, but to dominate to the point of killing…well, it was something one was either born with the ability to do or it was a taste that one eventually acquired.

The immense fee for such a service also helped to ease the way.

Irene had thought she had the taste for it at one point in her life, though she had never played to the point of true danger. Part of the erotic thrill was the knowing that things could escalate to the point of real danger, but few actually went so far to look down from that ledge.

Well, never had to play to true danger except once.

It was years ago that she’d gotten a text from Petrovic asking her to play. She hadn’t been surprised. She had, after all, developed a certain reputation for ruthlessness in the circles of the trade. And Petrovic had long been considered the best there’d ever been, so the challenge was too much to turn down. And good for business, if nothing else.

So she met him in a hotel in the east of Berlin and he was dark and dashing with an enigmatic smile and something almost…kind...behind his nut-brown eyes. Irene had been unable to help being utterly charmed by him. In some different reality, the two might have been friends.

She’d made it four 30-minute rounds, alternating giving and receiving as they were doing now. Then she’d risen the second morning, grabbed her things, and fled.

Across the room, Petrovic was still sleeping. Irene could only hope this was because she’d doled out the pain to him as efficiently as she’d taken it in.

Her mind drifted as she swirled the amber liquid in the glass. She wondered how Sherlock was faring, what task he’d been given. Swallowing another sip of the rich liquid, she wondered if he would end up a corpse, as well.

The doors opened, rousing her with a start. Petrovic came forward, walking stiffly, and gave her a smile. She was struck once again by how much he’d aged in just five years.

“Good morning,” he said, clearing his ragged throat. “Or is it afternoon by now?”

“Afternoon, but just,” she replied as he approached the couch. He leaned down and touched his lips to her cheek, lingering there.

“You have had one of my nasty cigarettes,” he teased, and kissed her again.

She made a faint, affirmative sound. “I couldn’t resist.”

He chuffed a laugh, moving to sit across from her again, his robe tied tight around his paunchy waist. She noted with some satisfaction how slowly he sat down.

“You are too lovely for such a bad habit, my dear,” he said. “You should give it up.”

She usually enjoyed the barbing, the give and take. But it was unnerving her now. The kisses he’d given her were still tingling on her cheek.

He looked at her with his hound-dog eyes, red rimming the lower lid. “The second round won’t begin until after dinner,” he said softly. “You should get some rest.”

“I will, Miran, thank you,” she said, finishing the scotch in the glass. “I wanted to find out the theme before I did. So that I could adequately prepare.” She smiled faintly. She tried to say it playfully. Mostly, she failed.

He poured himself a glass. “Round two is fire,” he said softly.

She didn’t breathe for a beat. “I see,” she said at last. It was such a huge escalation, coming so fast. Dear God… she thought…

“You should sleep,” Petrovic said, looking at her, his face grave. She knew he’d seen what she was feeling flash across her face.

Forcing a stiff smile, she rose, went to him, pressed a kiss to his stubbled face.

“Until later then,” she said, and she was proud of how steady she held her voice.





John Watson had never been more grateful that he’d started running again in his life.

Sure, it had only been a few weeks up and down the beach in Tunis, and sure, he’d never even gotten close to his Army times, but if he hadn’t been doing it at all, the SEALs would have had to leave him in a ditch a long time ago.

As it was, his feet were screaming, and he was taking every rest break they did as an excuse to rub his arches and change his socks.

“Dogs barking, Doc?” It was Blink who spoke from beside him, and John started at the sound. The man seemed appear right next to him when he least expected it, and it was starting to unnerve him. No wonder he was always on Point.

“Dogs?” John said, then noticed Blink nodding toward John’s feet. “Oh, oh. Yeah, a bit. Out of practice. It’ll all come back.” He smiled in what he hoped was a friendly, dismissive way.

“I don’t have to tell you to keep ‘em dry and see to the hot spots right away, I guess.”

“Nope, those I know.” John smiled again, turned his attention back to his feet. He suddenly missed his rank.

Blink finally took the hint and wandered away.

The truth was that a day and a half of walking the roads with 30-plus pounds on his back was taking a toll. He remembered the sergeant’s calls of toughen up or die that they’d used on the new troops, and looking at the men around him – all eating MREs or smoking or chatting in ones and twos – he gave himself the same advice.

He would not be a burden to these men. They operated as they did, at the level they did, for a reason. He would bloody well do his best to keep up with them.

Mick was on the radio, standing close to Kip as he spoke on the headset. He dragged from a cigarette that the two men were passing back and forth.

John rubbed the whiskers on his face, feeling the dirt that had crusted on the short stubs powdering off. He’d forgotten the close, stiff feeling of a two-day-worn uniform and its salty, thick smell. He’d forgotten so much that was now just suddenly there again.

Like the cold and the odd quiet that settled in at night, the stars a vivid swath. How good it felt to hear the others breathing and snuffling in their sleep as they all lay close together in their simple cloth shelter in the dark.

They were quieter, more serious than his men, but they still laughed, still told crass stories of sexual conquest peppered with words that most men dare not use in their civilian life. They tossed food back and forth and smoked off each other’s fags and shared their things as if everything they had belonged to all of them.

And they had a fierce regard and respect for each other, a familiarity borne of years. He’d gathered at the mealtime chat last night around the dim lamps that many of them had known each other since they’d first become SEALs.

And they didn’t keep their distance from John, but nor did they exactly let him in.

They’d welcomed him into the conversation the night before though, listening to the stories he told of the places he’d been on his tours there. They asked where he’d been shot – both on his body and on the map – and they’d made a general low sound when he told them.

“That whole area is fucked,” Junior said. “It still is.”

“The whole country’s fucked, man, what are you talking about?” Quince said, his face all eyes and shadow, briefly lit by the flame of the cigarette as he inhaled. “We’re all basically using this for a training ground until the folks back home get bored enough to call the whole thing off.”

“Serious,” Bear added, tossing his spoon into the MRE can – he’d traded John chicken pot pie for his chipped beef, which made John frankly wonder about him. “Look at Malik up there – we fly around, swinging our dicks, and what’s he doing? Getting rich while we pick off the people who’d give anything just to get close enough to shoot him.”

“Is that true?” John asked, looking at Mick. He was sitting beside him in a crouch, smoking a pipe. It smelled faintly of mint.

“That’s what they say,” Mick replied, and the men grunted. “If we weren’t controlling the Taliban, he wouldn’t be up there with his gardening, running the opium trade. He’d be too busy trying to cover his little pink ass.”

“Well, we’re getting a shot at him this time, aren’t we?” Junior said, a bit too loud for John’s liking, and the men sent up a general (if quiet) “hoo-ya” to that.

“Wait, whoa,” John said, leaning back. “That’s not what this is about.”

“Not for you maybe,” Quince said, staring him down. “But we’ve lost four guys – four good guys—“

“Fucking great guys—“ Chris interjected.

Quince continued. “—and I’ll be damned if we’re just walking up there without taking a few shots.”

“Now hang on—“ John tried again. The men began to grumble at him all at once.

“Don’t worry, little Doc,” Quince said, standing and looming over John now, his voice dripping condescension over the sounds. “You pick your little flower and then go hide behind a fucking rock while we all go get it on.”

John was standing before he knew he’d done it, as close to Quince’s face as their height difference would allow. Chin raised and jutted out, chest close to Quince’s chest.

“Are you implying that I’m afraid?” he rumbled.

Quince moved in, his nose touching John’s as he spoke. “I’m saying only a fucking cooze would run from a fight with Malik. And if you’re going to be the one to put us all in this shit, you better understand that we’re not just walking your nary ass up there where four of our brothers gave it up without getting something back.”

“Sit down, Quince,” Mick said softly. “Doc, you too.”

John didn’t move until Quince did, and then they both sat down. Things got quiet after that, and Mick suggested that it was time they all turned in.

“He’s a hothead,” Chris had said over breakfast, handing John a cup of acrid coffee that John drank with a wince. “Don’t mind him.”

Quince had kept his distance all day, though John had done what he could to smooth it over, even walking with him for part of the morning before they stopped to rest at lunch. He didn’t want to be the cause of tension in the group.

Mick finally hung up the receiver on Kip’s radio. “Good news, ladies,” he called. “We’ve got a ride to the second pass.”

John had to do everything he could to keep the 40-year-old in him from weeping with joy. A few more miles and his stoic cover would have been blown.

“Who got the job?” Bear called back from where he was watching the curve of the road up ahead.

“ANA,” Mick called, referring to the Afghan forces the U.S. was in the process of training.

“Great,” someone moaned.

“Hey, would you rather walk?” Mick shot back.

No, John thought, but he didn’t say it, thank God.

“Thirty minutes,” Mick called. “Coming in from the North.”

John worked on his boots, tied them tight. He tucked his gear back in, cinched the straps, put his backpack and helmet back on. He went to relieve himself out of pure nervous energy, then came back to sit on a rock with the rifle across his lap.

The engine rumbling could be heard in the quiet from a mile away. Large troop carriers, he guessed from the sound of them. And though he thought seeing the hulking vehicles would cause him pain, when they came into view around the corner – all wheels and barred windows and holding seats he knew would reduce his arse to tears – he’d never been more grateful to see something in his life.

They stopped in front of the team, the side doors sliding open. An Afghan officer hopped out and Mick and Quince came forward, saluting and then shaking the man’s hand.

Chris had come forward and John took a place next to him. Since they were both medics, they had a natural understanding for one another and seemed to be near each other a lot.

“All aboard the Falafel Express,” Chris said, smiling, and John laughed.

Just as the sound left him, he heard the all-too-familiar hollow booms close by, followed by the tell-tale whistling sound.

RPGs!” Bear was yelling. “RPGs!

The first explosion rocked the road in a black, choking blast, bodies scattering and gunfire peppering as all hell broke loose.





Chapter Text





Bear was still screaming about RPGs as he ran, and John watched with a dull, familiar sense of horror as the man, in his attempt to get further from the initial blast by the vehicles, ended up not 15 feet from where the next one hit.

There was a sound a body made when it fell from any height. Add the armor and the weapons and the dozens of tiny pieces of metal in the man’s pockets, the pits of rock and dirt raining down and the sound of a scream of surprise and pain, and it was terrible thing.

John was already running. He’d lost the rifle the minute he stood, instinct and his body’s memory taking over as he shot toward Bear, writhing on the ground. Fifty feet. Forty…

Eli was barking, running around. Someone was yelling get down. Someone was yelling Doc and Blink and up there, then suppressing fire and holy shit

His feet beat out that impossibly fast rhythm he remembered from Switzerland, Sherlock on the ground, his dark shape curling into the sea of white.

Another explosion. Another. The air smelled like burning fuel and smoke and some unidentifiable but familiar chemical smell.

The SEALs were moving everywhere, the ANA drivers scattering to the ditches, into the scrubby tree line that led down to the river below. The staccato sound of gunfire, splintering, obscenities echoed all around.

He hit the ground by Bear on his knees, sliding a bit. He reached to the small of his back on reflex before he remembered that the 25-pound medical kit wasn’t there.

“Son of a—“ he hissed. Bear was curled over, his hand pressed to his neck. Blood was oozing from between his fingers. John grabbed his wrists.

“Let me see!” he shouted over what sounded like a tree coming down, and he jerked Bear’s hand down. A deep hole, but blood just seeping, not the rhythmic spurting he’d feared. Somehow it had missed the larger vessels, but he could tell the metal was still in.

Someone ran into him as they hit the ground, nearly scaring him out of his skin. Chris. He had his kit out, a pressure bandage, a small lollipop made with fentanyl. He slid it into Bear’s mouth between his cheek and gum.

“I don’t—I don’t want that shit,” Bear spat, but Chris held it in with one hand. He shook out the bandage for John, who pressed it down on the wound to stop the flow of blood.

“Shut up, I don’t care,” Chris replied. The gunfire, the sound of Eli barking, was moving off a bit as the SEALs pursued whoever had fired at the vehicles up and to the right. “Let’s get him off the road.”

John nodded, one hand gripping the strap on Bear’s shoulder that held his body armor in place while the other kept the pressure on his neck. Chris took the other side as they stood and began to drag the huge man toward the ditch.

“Next time…” Chris panted as they went. “…lose a fucking leg or something, Bear. You’re breaking our backs here.”

“Hey, fuck you,” Bear said, grinning boozily. The fentanyl was kicking in.

Little high-pitched ricochets all around for a few seconds, someone getting off wild shots as they moved. Something like a bee sting nipped John in the arse. Wincing, he hissed out a breath.

“You hit??” Chris’ head jerked at the sound, his eyes going wider.

John clenched his teeth, shook his head. “No, no, something just…it’s fine.”

They grunted as they got Bear off the road, all three of them ducking down behind a mound of stone at the road’s edge. Then the two of them worked in tandem, tying the pressure bandage down and checking Bear for other injuries. The covering on his body armor was frayed, but it looked as though the Kevlar had absorbed most of the blast. There were a few little ripped, bloody hole in the thighs of his pants, but nothing to worry about.

Sixty feet away, one of the troop carriers burned and burned, filling the air with the black smoke of a tires on fire. Between the smell and the adrenaline, John fought the urge to gag.

“That’s got it,” he said, carefully tightening the pressure bandage down a bit more without turning the thing into a garrote. “Hand it over and I’ll start an IV.”

Chris pulled the small clear bag out, the tubing curled tight. He handed it over and produced a pair of bandage scissors, began cutting to expose Bear’s arm.

“Bear, you’re going to get a ride all the way back to base,” Chris was saying as they worked.

“No way, man,” Bear slurred out. He’d started to drool where the lollipop’s hard stick stuck out of the corner of his mouth.

“Oh way,” Chris said. “But the bad news is, you’ll live.” He smiled and patted Bear on the helmet.


“Definitely,” John said, smiling down. Bear grinned up, his eyes lolling. He pointed right at the middle of John’s face.

“Hey Momma,” he said to Chris.

“Hey what?” the other man replied, looking down where John was inserting the IV into the fat vein.

“This new dude…I like him.” Bear chuffed a spitty laugh.

John couldn’t help but be pleased. He grinned.



Mick called in an evac helicopter, a tricked-out black Apache that came within 45 minutes and touched down for just long enough the SEALs to load Bear. John stayed behind out of respect, letting them say goodbye privately to their mate. He watched as they carried Bear over and slid him into the chopper’s belly like a loaf of bread, talking the whole time, their hands on him. Then the helicopter lifted off and pattered away.

Chris came back over and sat down, handing John the rifle he’d dropped. John held it on his lap again, and they both watched the helicopter get smaller and smaller as it moved off.

“So,” Chris broke the quiet, his tone conversational, light. “At what point are you going to acknowledge that you’ve been shot in the ass?”

“I thought I’d wait until after tea,” John replied, his eyes still on the sky. It was really starting to hurt.

Chris chuckled. “How about you let me see.”

John stood, wincing at the burn as he did. Chris moved behind him, scissors out.

“It’s just a nick,” John said as Chris snipped around the heart of the blooming wet spot just above the juncture of his arse and thigh.

“Yeah, that’s what they all say,” Chris dismissed, then went to work.

Junior, J.C., and Quince walked by at one point, back from the hillside where they’d chased the insurgents. J.C. pronounced the enemy “officially decaffeinated.”

“Get a room, ya’ll,” Junior teased as he looked at them, John bunked over and Chris’ head behind him, even with his right hip.

“Warming him up for you, Junior,” Chris said, distracted, pulling a stitch through John’s skin. “He’ll be all ready for you in a sec.”

The three men guffawed. John wanted to play along, but then realized with a start that because of his relationship with Sherlock, he shouldn’t. It made him feel unsettled and strange, both in realizing his instinct was to join in and in knowing that he should probably take offense at finding himself the unintentional butt (no pun intended, he thought darkly) of the all-too-familiar joke.

He put his head down and exhaled. Shut it, brain. You’ve got enough on your plate…

“He all right?” Quince asked as the other two men moved on.

“Yeah, fine,” John said, looking back up. “Barely feel it, in fact.” Lie lie…

“Momma?” Quince said, ignoring John’s assessment of his own arse.

“Shh,” Chris said, mock-somber. “I’m doing brain surgery back here.”

John huffed a laugh.

“Seriously, it’s just a flesh wound,” Chris said. “Three stitches and an ice pack and he’s good as new.”

Quince nodded. “All right, good.” He gave John an appraising look. “You ran like a fucking rabbit to get to Bear, Doc, and with shit still flying everywhere. Pretty good for an old man just back Down Range.”

“Ta, thanks,” John said, and gave him a smile. It was close to a compliment or thank you that John was going to get.

Quince’s lip curled in something approximating a friendly look. “Ten minutes. Get yourselves situated and be ready to go.” He moved on toward the one remaining troop carrier where the men were gathering.

“You being a medical man, I don’t have to tell you how swollen and stiff this is going to get,” Chris said, snipping off the sutures and reaching for a bandage and tape.

“Yeah,” John said. “And I know without showers and fresh clothes, the risk of infection is quite high.” It had occurred to him that flesh wound or no, this was both a bit risky and was going to slow him down. “Doesn’t matter,” he added, both to Chris and to himself, and shrugged.

“Tell me that tomorrow morning after you’ve been in the carrier all day and on the ground all night.” Chris ripped off a piece of tape.

John grimaced as he felt Chris press the tape down. A few more strips and he pronounced John done by smacking his hip. John straightened, sucking in a breath at the burn that surged back. He reached back and touched the area, felt the six-inch square missing from his trousers and pants.

“Sorry about the hole,” Chris said, noting John’s hand. “But look on the bright side. You were already walking around The Korengal with your ass hanging out.”

John chuckled, shaking his head. “I had to land with you all, didn’t I?”

“Yep,” Chris said, gathering his gear and taking a little bow.

John shook his head. “God help me,” he said. “What a bunch of twats.”


He was still thinking about the joke that night when they’d stopped and secured a relatively “safe” location halfway up the mountain pass. They were all clustered around the low lights to smoke and talk and laugh before turning in. Eli was splayed out on his back in front of Blink, Taylor, and Lopez all rubbing the dog’s belly, the animal’s legs in the air and his tongue lolled out.

The early-autumn cold was moving in as the night went from cobalt to pitch, pitch black. John brought his metal cup of tea closer to his mouth and let the steam warm his face.

“Wonder what Bear’s doing tonight,” Sam, one of the riflemen, said as a joke died out.

Mick was smoking his pipe, his eyes moving to each of his men at the mention of Bear. John watched him as he watched them.

This guy is good, he thought. Very, very good.

“High as a kite and watching America’s Top Model with his dick in his hand,” said Blink, his large-pupiled eyes on the fire. They all laughed again.

“Lucky bastard,” Kip said. “I could do with some of that myself…”

“Everybody zip your bags tonight,” Silk called. “Kip’s on the prowl.”

The bloom of laughter again. John would never do it – not in this circumstance, for certain, when he was an outsider already – but he found a gallows-humor sort of enjoyment in imagining the looks on their faces if he announced right then that his lover was male.

He looked back and Mick and found Mick watching him now. A little curl of smoke came out the corner of his mouth. John cleared his throat and looked away, toward Eli, blissed out on the ground.

“That’s quite a dog you have there,” he said, taking a sip of his tea. It both served the function of changing the subject and getting his mind off his sore arse.

“That dog is smarter than anyone here,” Taylor, the sniper, said.

John laughed, but he wasn’t surprised. He’d seen a few Spec Ops teams come into the hospitals where he’d done surgery on his tours, and many of them had had dogs with them. More than once he’d been told that it was the dog who’d saved someone’s life.

“Yeah?” John replied. “What can he do?”

Lopez, Eli’s handler, spoke. “Everything but fire a gun,” he said proudly. “And we’re working on that.”

“That fucking dog has been on 27 jumps,” Sam said, shaking his head. “Didn’t piss himself once.”

“Unlike you,” Blink laughed.

“He can scout, find snipers, find IEDs and mines,” Kip added. “Lopez has this crazy infrared camera set-up that Eli can wear on this harness on his back, and you can send him in anywhere and get the live images back.”

“How many times has that saved our ass?” J.C. said, and the men grunted in general assent.

“Jesus, remember that time Taylor got hit and the dog found him down the ravine?” Silk said. They all nodded, and Silk looked at John. “He brought back his glove and put it in Lopez’s hand.”

“He took it off me,” Taylor said. “I mean, I was out.”

John looked down at Eli. Eli looked at him, wondering why this new guy didn’t lean down for a pet.

It struck him like a jolt, a warm rush going up John’s back. “Can he…fetch?” he asked quietly.

“Well, sure, but…” Lopez laughed. “You want to throw a fucking ball for him or what?”

But Mick was blowing out a stream of smoke, the pipe coming down. He looked at John, at the dog.

He smiled. John smiled right back.





Irene was not going to survive this. She was sure of that now.

She was thinking this, lying back on the couch in the morning light, her white robe draped limply over her, her legs curled under her like a child’s. The cigarette she smoked was almost too bitter, and she was put off by its smoke and heat.

Nearly every inch of skin on her torso, her back, was one long, high note of pain.

She stared at a spot on the ceiling above the bedroom’s doors, her eyes glassed and unseeing, her body weak from adrenaline and pain. Her thin chest rose and fell, too fast, distressed as a caught bird’s. The ash from her forgotten cigarette was too long and fell.

What to do…, she thought for the thousandth time. I need a plan…

She could run. She had done it before with Petrovic, the last time she’d played this game, and he’d been kind enough to let her go. After all, he slept late after a night with her, and it had been easy enough to throw everything not in the bedroom in her bag and go.

What would happen to Sherlock, she wondered? What would happen to John? Would Moriarty simply consider her as defaulting on the contract or would her refusal to complete her task endanger them as well?

Mycroft’s satellite phone was tucked away in her coat, hanging in the closet. Perhaps she could—

No. She took a drag from the cigarette, held the smoke in .

The only hope she had was that they were remarkably well matched in skill and technique. After last night, it was clear that Petrovic wasn’t going to survive this either, so there was a bit of hope there, hope that she might outlast him at least long enough to force the rest of the combination from him.

She shifted and immediately tensed, tears coming. Her robe had stuck to the skin of her waist.

He had agreed to leave skin that would be visible in a short-sleeved dress untouched. She was at least grateful for that. Particularly when room service came with the light meal and coffee she’d ordered and she was spared the garçon seeing anything amiss.

She was pouring when Petrovic came out, moved toward her, his robe tied loosely around his waist. He was moving slowly, his face pale and sheened with sweat. She felt it when he leaned over to give her a soft kiss on the white skin of her neck.

“I smelled coffee,” he said, his voice tired and rough.

“Why don’t you sit?” she replied, smiling stiffly. “I’ll pour you a cup.” The feel of his lips on her neck had sent a curdle up her spine like a warm chill. He touched her (high, just at her neck) and turned and sat in the chair, the same place as before.

She brought him the cup and took her place on the couch in front of the box again, the second digit in place. Three.

“I must say, you are very good, my dear,” Petrovic said.

She made a faint sound of assent, smiling the same smile that made her face feel it might tear apart. He sipped, wiped at his face with his sleeve.

“Tonight’s theme?” She hurt too badly for small talk and niceties, and she ventured it was the same for him.

“Blood,” Petrovic said softly. He did not look up.

James Moriarty had chosen the themes and their order. It was becoming increasingly clear that he did not intend for her to survive. Perhaps for either of them to.

Irene wondered how much blood she could lose in the one-hour round and still be able to stand. She wondered the same about Petrovic. Before this, she had never thought she could lose at any of the games she played, that she could be someone who would cry no more and allow someone else to win. She knew that Petrovic’s reputation was the same.

Now, looking at Petrovic, at the clay-like pallor of his strangely aged face, she was not so sure about him. Feeling the choking pain of her ruined skin, her muscles’ ache, she was not so sure about herself.

“I have medication if you’d like it,” Petrovic said, looking at her with those sad, fond eyes of his. “For pain. If it helps you to know, I do plan on taking some myself.”

It was a concession, a small crack in the sizeable door of his strategy, his defense. She angled her head, acknowledging this.

“Thank you,” she said, then taking a deep breath, she added: “Yes.”

He nodded, smiled sadly at her, and went to get the pills.





Iarla stayed in his office well past his class, his laptop open on his neat (but crowded) desk. A stack of papers – essays on Joyce’s Ulysses that he frankly couldn’t face – were hidden by the computer’s raised screen.

Besides, he had much more interesting things to read.

He’d never been a man to follow news particularly closely, growing up during the tail end of The Troubles having made doing so too much of a depressing affair. Plus, he’d decided long ago that the world was basically going straight to hell and there was no use watching the spectacle unfold in any detail.

He was even less aware of anything that wasn’t politics or economics, things he followed distantly because he felt he should as an educated man. So anything that was lurid or pop-cultureish was lost on him. His students could attest to that.

But when Sherlock said his odd name, some small bell had been struck. He’d heard that name somewhere, hadn’t he?

He turned to Google to find out.

“So, Mr. Holmes,” he said aloud in the dark of his office (the sun had long ago gone down). “That’s who you are.”

He was that “genius detective” who’d been somehow involved in that fellow who’d broken into the Tower of London and tried on the Crown Jewels. When it had happened, a colleague from Maths had mentioned it to him while they were in line for coffee before class, and he’d thought she was taking the piss.

She’d brought it up again at the copy machine a few weeks later, telling him the whole thing was apparently a hoax. The genius detective had cooked it up and had since gone flying off a building and killed himself.

He’d smiled politely, acted interested as his copy job whirred, initially worried she was bringing it up again in an effort to hit on him (again). He was relieved to realize that she was just feeling the need to correct the bad information she’d passed along before.

So what on earth was a fake, dead genius detective from London doing coming down off a high in his bed?

Just what have I stepped in here?

Brennan snapped the laptop shut, the room going dark. He was going to go home to find out.


The first thing Brennan discovered, opening the door to his flat, was that Sherlock Holmes was still there. The second was that apparently his kitchen had become some sort of lab.

Everything he’d had on the table – dishes, teapot, letters, bills – had been cleared to the side. Now a microscope, Bunsen burners, and a neat line of tubes and instruments had taken their place. There was also a metal dish in which Sherlock had placed a number of syringes in what smelled like alcohol.

Iarla stood there dumbfounded for a long beat, his bag still over his shoulder and his coat still on. Then he called.

“Er…Honey, I’m home?”

Sherlock appeared in the doorway. He was wearing the same clothes, though he’d clearly ironed them. His long fingers were buttoning the cuffs of that lovely shirt.

“I needed a few things,” he said softly, and though Iarla didn’t know him well, he could tell he was tired.

Brennan nodded, letting his bag slide off his shoulder and down. “So I see,” he replied. “I take it you’re planning on doing this here?”

Sherlock didn’t say anything, just reached for his jacket, brushing it off.

Iarla continued, irritation brewing now. “And you clearly didn’t think to ask if you could set up your fucking lab here. So you could take on the biggest heroin dealer in Amsterdam at my kitchen table.”

Sherlock looked down.

Iarla nodded, continued speaking as he shrugged off his coat. “I see. You didn’t think it was worth discussing a little thing like that.” He could feel anger rising in him like bile, closing his throat.

“I can’t be alone for this,” Sherlock said softly. “I’m sorry.”

Iarla pursed his lips, his hands on his hips. “I know who you are, you know,” he said, waving in Sherlock’s general direction, his voice sharp. “I looked you up on the Internet because your name was familiar somehow.”

Sherlock had stilled, and a sad look that Iarla was sure had nothing to do with his Google search fell across Sherlock’s face. Iarla watched him as he swallowed hard, then tucked whatever crossed his face away.

“Yes, the ‘disgraced genius detective,’” Sherlock said, clearing his throat. “The ‘Reichenbach Hero,’ or whatever else you saw.”

“You’re dead,” Iarla said slowly. “Would you care to explain to me how a bloody dead man is standing here?”

“Because he’s not dead.” Sherlock’s mouth quirked.

“You fucking know what I mean,” Iarla snapped. He felt for a brief flash like he was going insane.

“Look,” Sherlock said, putting up his hands up and toward him. “Mr. Brennan—“

“Iarla,” he said. He wasn’t even really sure why.

Sherlock nodded. “Iarla, there are a great many specifics about this that it’s better you not know. Suffice to say that my getting that formula is a matter of life and death – and real life and death – for potentially many more people than me.”

Brennan wanted to scoff, but something held him back. “Part of me wants to think you’re a nutter,” he said. He could feel his heart racing.

Sherlock nodded. “Yes, and another part of you has begun to piece together what you saw last night and what you’ve discovered since in such a way that you are beginning to believe this could actually be something quite grave.”

Brennan nodded. “Yes.” He stared at the other man, narrowing his eyes. There was something about the way Sherlock was looking at him, his strange, strange eyes boring in, that made Iarla want to believe him.

“Iarla,” Sherlock said, his voice low. “I need your help.”

Iarla swallowed, some little bird in his mind tweeting mistake, mistake… But there was something about Sherlock, something in that face.

“Please,” Sherlock added, his voice going soft.

Iarla looked and looked, at Sherlock, at the table, at his own warm and quiet and completely unremarkable flat.

He shook his head. Mistake…

“All right,” he said at last.





Chapter Text





Iarla was at his window, the fairy lights throwing a double gleam, one from their tiny bulbs and one on the glass, and he could see his own dim reflection staring back.

One hand in his pocket, the other on a glass of whiskey he’d poured and promptly forgotten about. He was staring at the street, watching for any sign of the strange, dark figure coming back in from the cold autumn night.

Sherlock had gone out just after nine, and he had insisted that Iarla remain in the flat.

“What if they dump you like they did the other night?” Iarla had said, frustration flooding him, and he’d watched Sherlock’s face flush, as well.

“I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself,” Sherlock had peevishly replied, looking away to reach for his coat.

“Yes, really seemed that way last night,” Iarla said, matching his tone. He couldn’t help the barb. The whole thing was pissing him off.

Sherlock had stilled, heaved out a breath, looked at him.  “Iarla,” he said, clearly trying a softer approach.  “I appreciate this…protective streak of yours, but it’s really not something I need right now. I’m better off doing this on my own.”

“I’m trying to help you, Sherlock,” Iarla had replied urgently.  “Didn't you say you needed my help?”

“I will need your help when I get back.” Sherlock was putting on his scarf now, tucking it into a neat loop.

If you get back,” he’d shot back. “Look, you don’t know what you’re getting involved in and you’re being rash—“

 “I know exactly what I’m doing, I’ll have you know—“ Sherlock shot back.

“No, you don’t. You’re so desperate to have this done that you’re going to get yourself killed!” His voice had risen with his frustration, gesturing hard at the door as he spoke.

“And why is that your business anyway?” Sherlock had roared, and the tenor did nothing for Iarla but prove his point. “You just met me last night! Why do you even care?

The question had silenced him for a beat. He remembered breathing hard, asking himself yes, Iarla Brennan, you sad fuck, why do you care?

“Because…” he began, his spine straightening with determination as he answered both Sherlock and himself. “Because something tells me that what you’re doing is important. Something tells me you’re a good man.”

Sherlock looked down at that, and Iarla saw something dark cross his face. “Were I a truly good man, I wouldn’t be in this.”

“I don’t believe that,” Iarla had replied. He felt sure of it.

“And you don’t know me,” Sherlock snapped, anger rumbling beneath. “So I don’t care what you think.”

Iarla had smirked, anger flaring like a quick flame in his chest. “You make quite a show of being a prick, don’t you?”

“I’ve been told, yes,” Sherlock said bitterly, pulling on his gloves.

“I’m trying to help you and—“

Sherlock’s pale eyes blew to black as though they turned to flint.  “Dammit, Iarla, you’re not helping me, you and your bloody sentiment is getting in my way! Now leave me alone so I can concentrate!”

He’d shouted it, and the sound stunned Iarla into silence for just long enough for Sherlock to turn and go out the door, slamming it as he left.

Which left Iarla standing there in front of the window, asking the same question again.

Why did he care?

He knew some part of it right off hand. This was the first truly interesting thing to happen to him since he’d taken the job in Amsterdam, something different than the predictable pick-ups at the Red Light District clubs, the awkward fumblings, the desperate nights of sweat and kisses, then rising in the morning for even more awkward breakfasts before sending the transient lovers on their way.

Then the days filled with lectures his students barely paid attention to, the stacks of papers that seemed to live on the corners of his desks, the way he was turning into a caricature of himself, all slumped leather bag and elbow patches and dear God when had he stopped loving what he did?

He’d seen Sherlock hustled out of that club and something in him had watched the movement, the danger of it, and couldn’t help but rise and follow. This was a man who clearly inhabited some realm where something was still at stake.

He sipped the whiskey, warm as his hand now. It burned as it went down.

The second piece of this, he realized, he’d found in his office that night. “The Reichenbach Hero” standing by the painting, hands folded in front of him, looking stiff and uncomfortable, a facsimile of a smile cracking his face. And beside him, a smaller, handsome and strongly built man in an unfashionably striped shirt and jacket looking up at Sherlock with a vaguely fond, chastising look.

Blogger John Watson, the caption said.

Iarla had smirked. Blogger, my arse.

So this was John, he’d thought. The name that Sherlock had moaned last night, his breath coming heavy in the midst of his high, hands reaching beneath Iarla’s blanket to touch between his legs. Long minutes as his fingers idly stroked and Sherlock burrowed his head into the pillow, whispered John and more and love and yes…

More than desire. More than the heroin’s sensual rush. Sherlock’s voice carried a sort of longing that only came from shared difficulty, from something essential as breathing, from an aching kind of need.

Iarla had had to go into the bathroom and toss one off, something in him strangely jealous as he re-entered the room, his face flushed. Sherlock had stilled again, his hands over his head in a languid stretch, his erection not sated but gone.

Sherlock loved and was loved as well. More than Iarla had been able to manage, and he felt the irrational (and pathetic, he chided himself) urge to protect what he wanted but could not seem to have.

He sighed, sipped his drink. It had been hours, and his worry was blossoming into something he couldn’t quite manage now. The silence of the building (all the young hipsters out on a Friday night) was starting to press down on him like a hand.

Then the sound of the door downstairs opening. A disorganized set of footsteps on the old wooden stairs. He went to the door of the flat and swung it open just in time to catch Sherlock as he fell heavily across the threshold straight into him.

“I…” Sherlock slurred, eyes lolling as he took in Iarla’s face. “I—please. Please…”

“Dear God, Sherlock,” Iarla said, panicked, getting his arms around his waist and lowering him to the floor. He looked down into Sherlock’s face, taking it all in. Breath coming in tiny puffs, face covered with chilly sweat. His lips were faintly blue, and when Iarla grabbed his limp hand and checked his fingernails, they were going blue as well.

“No,” he breathed, stomach twisting. “Fuck, no—“ Sherlock’s eyes were unfocused, and when he pushed one lid up, the pupils were the size of pencil tips.


He forced his voice into something resembling calm. “Sherlock, I’ve got to call an ambulance.”

"Don’t…“ Sherlock was shaking his head, reaching toward the kitchen. “Get…”

But Iarla was already rising, his hand pushing back his hair from his forehead, adrenaline sending his thoughts racing as he scrambled to the desk for his cell.

Then he heard the door downstairs banging open again, the sound of more than one set of feet pounding up the stairs. Then three men were suddenly just there, looking at Sherlock and him and the space.

“What—“ was as far as Iarla got before one of them was on him, pushing him back against the wall with an arm across his chest. He was tall and short-shorn and wore an expensive suit beneath a more expensive coat. His leather gloved hand closed around Iarla’s throat and the rest of his words died there.

The other two men knelt beside Sherlock, one of them dropping a dark bag beside him as the two men began to check his eyes, his wrists, the pulse in his throat.

“Who—“ Iarla tried around the pressure on his throat.

“You,” the fellow who had him snapped. “Shut the fuck up.”

American, Iarla thought. What the hell--?

The other two leaned further over Sherlock, pulling at his coat and talking tersely but quietly to each other. One of them (black, close-cropped beard, also dark coat) propped Sherlock up into a sitting position and peeled off his coat and jacket. The other (blond, older, icy blue eyes) spoke urgently into some sort of handheld radio so quietly that Iarla couldn’t hear. After a puff of static, the man listened to a mumble of sound in a reply with the radio against his ear, looking at Iarla the whole time.

“Got it,” he said, and nodded to the other man, who laid Sherlock back down. They ripped up Sherlock’s white sleeve, exposing his arm. Two angry punctures marred the smooth white.

The black man who’d removed Sherlock’s coat pulled out a length of rubber tubing and began to wind it around Sherlock’s upper arm as a tourniquet. The blond fellow had a black kit of some sort inside his coat that he unrolled on the floor. Iarla could see it held several syringes and a labeled vial of something clear.

The blond man popped the cap off the syringe, began filling it carefully from the vial, his eyes squinting at the dose, the plastic cap gripped between his lips.

“Hurry,” the black man said, his fingers on the pulse point on Sherlock’s throat.

“I know,” the man replied, concentrating. “Start with the BVM.”

The man who had Iarla by the throat was watching, his brow creased down in something like concern. Iarla took advantage of his distraction to throw his weight forward to try to break the hold.

“What are you doing to him?” Iarla snarled as the man’s hand slipped. “Get the fuck—“

But the man holding him now slammed his forearm across Iarla’s throat and he froze. His breath rasped in his tight throat and his ears began to roar.

He could do nothing but watch the blond man insert the needle into Sherlock's arm and slowly push the plunger down. The black man reached into the black bag and pulled out what looked like an oxygen mask attached to a thick, oblong rubber bag. He tilted Sherlock’s head back, put the mask over his nose and mouth, and began to squeeze the bag.

“Go slow,” the black man said, keeping a rhythm like breathing with the bag.

“Got it,” came the reply, the blond man’s lip caught between his teeth.

Narcan, Iarla thought. Oh thank God…thank God…

After a few moments, Sherlock’s eyes opened wide and wild. Iarla heard his muffled cry of terror as his head spun toward the man holding the bag against his face.

Iarla pushed against the man again, his teeth gritted down against the pain.

“Sherlock!” he called, meaning to go to him, to give Sherlock something at least more familiar to ease his fear.

No use. The last thing Iarla saw before the world went black was the man’s fist as it came flying toward his face.





Dying…so this is dying…

Irene was on the couch again. The morning sun was coming through the windows a dull gray. The entire room was cotton-wool quiet. She looked at the painting of a florid bird on the wall above the unlit fireplace, the colors washing in between each slow blink.

She’d made it to the couch with much effort, her robe on again and two towels from the bath wrapped beneath it around her belly and chest. Her head rested heavily on the plump pillow by the couch’s arm, the box in front of her, the third number (7) in place.

When she’d left Petrovic as the sun began to come up, the two of them having slept curled with their backs facing each other on the wide bed, she was not sure if he would ever rise again.

Even from the couch she could smell the metal tang of blood in the place. She did not call Room Service this time. The odor would give them away.

Pain was layered on pain in her now. Burns and slices had opened dozens and dozens of places on her bruised skin. She had bled in rivulets all down her body that had dried in thick, crusting streaks.

Her mind drifted, clouds in her head. She thought of Kate, her beautiful, odd lover’s face swimming behind her eyes. Tears came.

Forgive me, dear she thought, closing her eyes. You were good to me, loved me, and I treated you like a toy.

“Sherlock,” she whispered, her head swimming. Surely he would find her, just as he’d promised he would. Surely he would come?

The door to the bedroom opened and Petrovic’s blood-streaked hand appeared on the frame. He emerged from the darkness where the blinds had been drawn for days. He stood there, regarding her beneath gray, heavy lids. His skin was sallow. He swayed.

She once again held some small satisfaction that he had gotten as good as he gave. She had opened up a thick vein in his groin and blood had crusted down the inside of his leg.

“Give up, Miran,” she said, a hint of her old self in her voice, though she was hoarse.

“I cannot,” he replied, shaking his head. His eyes closed as if the room was spinning at the movement, which is probably was.

“Why?” She looked at him, something desperate rising in her. “Christ,why?

“You don’t understand James Moriarty,” he said, and now he did manage to come forward to his chair, though he was winded by the time he reached it. He settled down.

“Explain him to me then.” Please, she thought. I need a way out of this…

Petrovic sighed. There was a pitcher of water on the table beside him from the day before, the liquid faintly clouded. He poured it into a used glass and drank.

“A confession,” he began.

“You’re dying,” she interjected. “Cancer, I’d guess.”

His eyes flicked to hers, a weak smile on his face. “Astute, as always. Yes. Pancreatic.”

She nodded. “Terminal, I assume.”

“Of course.”

“So,” she said softly. “You came into this knowing you had nothing to lose.”

He took another sip, shrugged. She nodded again.

“There’s no way for me to win,” she said, her eyes welling. “You won’t give in because the worst that can happen to you is that I will end your pain.”

He looked down. “If I give up the combination and leave here, he will torture me to death. And though I am dying, I have no desire to die like that.”

She nodded. “No, I wouldn’t wish that for you,” she murmured, and was surprised to find she meant it.

“I’m sorry, my dear, but you must earn this.” He swallowed, looked at her. His face was etched with sadness, regret.

She struggled into a sitting position, tears falling from her eyes. “Please give it to me, Miran,” she pleaded, and hated herself.

He shook his head. “Not while I live.”

She rose from the couch on shaky legs. He watched her as she came to him, kneeling slowly before him, her hand on his knee where his robe has slid aside.

“For all you feel for me – and I know you do, Miran -- help me,” she said. “Please…”

He gazed down, his eyes soft. Her tears fell freely, and he reached down and touched one with a red-smeared fingertip. Then he covered her lips.

“Shhh….” he whispered, barely a breath of sound. His lips barely moved. “Lower your voice.”

Her eyes widened slightly. Camera. “Where?” She matched his volume, the stiff set of his mouth.

His eyes flicked to the corner of the room by the bookshelf. He reached up and covered his mouth as though for a cough. “Bedroom,” he whispered behind his hand. “Fireplace.”

She did not nod, but she told him she understood with her eyes.

“Play the next round,” he said, his hand dropping and his tone going normal again. The tease, the challenge was gone, and there was something…knowing? his eyes.

She swallowed, hope spiking in her in a rush. Her mouth had gone dry. “What’s the next round?”

“Roulette,” he said, and her face fell, her mouth going more dry.

“I don’t want to wait until tonight,” she said, defiant. “If we’re going to do it, I want to do it now.”

He nodded. “All right,” he said softly. “I will get everything ready. Then we will play.”



Twenty minutes later, they sat at the dining room table. The revolver sat in its center, the muzzle pointed to the side.

Irene couldn’t imagine how they looked, two deathly pale, spent people with mussed hair and blood soaked in strips on their robes. Her hands were pressed flat on the cool surface, which both calmed her and kept him from seeing her hands shake.

“Rules,” she said, meeting his gaze. Her chin was dropped, but her eyes burned into his. “Six chambers, so it surely can’t be the full hour.”

He shook his head. “No. Two pulls each. We survive, we go to the next round.”

Jesus… Her eyes slid closed.

If she was wrong about him, there was only a tiny chance she would survive this. She swallowed around her dry tongue again, hiding the wave of nausea that rose with his words.

“All right,” she said, keeping her voice as steady as she could. “And the combination?”

He nodded toward his side. “The rest of the combination is in an envelope in the pocket of my robe,” he said. “If I die, you can find it there.”

She nodded. “I understand,” she murmured, still studying his eyes. He nodded in return.

She swallowed nervously and decided she would trust him. She would trust the comfort he sent with his eyes.

And either way, she thought darkly, this would be over soon.

“How do we decide who goes first?” she asked.

Petrovic looked down at the gun. “My dear,” he said softly. “I am nothing if not a gentleman.” He gestured to the gun with his hand. “Ladies first.”

She looked down at the revolver (.38 caliber, more than enough for the job), her eyes flicking to it and then to him. He looked at the gun and back to her face.

She reached for the gun. She put it to her head. Biting her lip, she clenched her eyes shut and pulled the stiff trigger.


She fought the urge to vomit. She spun the gun around to him.

“Go,” she said. She burned him with her gaze.

He nodded, fumbled with the grip. He lifted the gun. He put it to his head.


“Go,” he said. His voice was shaking. His voice was weak.

She lifted the heavy gun, felt the cool metal against her head. If she was wrong about him, she wanted it over, all of it. She pulled again.


That’s it… she thought, a brittle smile coming to her lips. A trickle of cold sweat came down her temple and dropped on the table. She shook and shook. She knew what this meant.

Turning the gun around slowly, she looked at him. “Go, Miran.”

He reached for it, his fingers closing firmly around the grip. He lifted it to his temple and she admired so much how it didn’t shake.

“I always loved you, you know,” he said with a watery smile. “Always. And I’m sorry for what I did.”

She nodded. “I know,” she whispered. “And you’re forgiven, Miran. I know you were just playing the game.”

His smile faltered. “Be well, Irene,” he whispered. “Live. Find your way.”

His eyes shut as he leaned his head into the muzzle’s tip, his teeth clenching and a grimace coming to his face.

She closed her eyes, turned her face away from the sound and the sickening spray.


She cleaned herself up, dressed in a black dress that would hide any further traces of blood. Then she sat on the couch before the puzzle box, the envelope from his pocket in her hand.

She slid a nail into it to open it, removed the slip of paper, and moved the dials to the numbers written on it.


The lock snipped open and she peeked inside. A simple piece of paper, the handwriting on it showing through even from the back.

She lifted it, read. She read it again. The shaking of her hands grew more pronounced.

You get nothing for your suffering, Irene.
And for the trouble you caused me, caused Jim,
you deserved every single bit of it.

Her eyes moved over the room. The blood on the couch where her body had lain. The pool of blood by Petrovic’s body, the clots of bone and brain on the fireplace’s white bricks.

She stood on her trembling legs, tears coming freely now. She put on her mink coat slowly, ignoring the agony the movement put her in. She pulled the handle of the bag she’d packed in haste out from the suitcase’s top and wiped at her face.

Going to the corner of the room, she scanned the bookshelf until she saw the round eye of camera tucked in the façade of the spine of a book. She stood in front of it, pulling herself up as straight as she could and held the slip of paper up above her head toward it.

“I’ve opened your box,” she said firmly, though her voice quivered. “I found your note.”

She shook her head, looking down.Don’t, she said to herself, and wiped at her face, struggling with her breath for a long moment as she covered her mouth.

Then, fury and weakness and hurt sent an edge into her, her eyes rising to the camera as her teeth clenched.

“That makes my contract complete,” she said, the rage seeping in. “You evil, heartless son of a bitch.

She folded the paper and slid it into her pocket, took her bag, and left.




Chapter Text





They’d taken the vehicles close to the valley where the man called Malik’s compound and poppy fields were sheltered by the mountainsides, and it had cut more than a day off their travel time. Sure, they’d traded the risks of the long trek up the mountainside for the risks of IEDs in the roads, but they’d gone fairly slow through what Mick and the team knew were trouble spots and they’d made excellent time.

Plus, the way John’s hip and ass were settling into an exquisite, black portrait of stiffness and ache, the ride had saved him from inevitably slowing the rest of the team down. He was eternally grateful for that.

The team had sat in a huddle of bodies around Mick and Quince and Kip as the sixth day turned to dusk. In the middle of the group, maps and charts and drawings on slates and in the sand, arrows and Xs for objects and places and men.

Lopez was off to the side with John, who’d decided to let the SEALs plan the best way in. He was a soldier, yes, but not a tactician and certainly not trained as they were in covert ops. Plus, he could not help but be angry at all of them for taking the mission he’d been given beyond what was strictly required, and he was worried they’d pick up on it if he joined in the planning of the approach.

He’d already told Mick he wasn’t happy about it again as he’d eased his sore body from the transport.

“Look,” Mick said quietly to him, drawing him close with a hand on his arm as the men piled out and began organizing their equipment for a night march. “We’re not doing a frontal assault or anything, so relax. This is mostly recon, getting the new lay of the place since he’s expanded his production facility near the ridge to the north.”

“I understand that,” John had said, matching his volume and tone. “But I will not have anyone taking unnecessary risks and getting hurt over what’s basically some fuckwit’s grudge game for me.”

Mick sighed. “First, we both know that’s bullshit,” he said, his voice going hard. “I’m not saying I understand everything about what you’re doing, but for starters you’ve admitted there could be much more at stake in this than just you. And second, at some point someone in D.C. is going to have the balls to send in some drones and burn this Malik fucker out, and I want them to know exactly where to send them so they go straight up his ass.”

John looked down, huffed a laugh. “No complaint there,” he said, shaking his head, though he hadn’t quite let the worry and irritation at their enthusiasm for the mission go.

That’s why he was with Lopez and Eli, watching Lopez working with the dog on their new game of “fetch.”

Lopez had velcroed a knot of camo cloth onto a scrubby rod of a plant at the road’s edge, then put a little tuft of leaves on its top like a crown. It was the best he could do to approximate the shape and size of the tennis-ball shaped poppy pod, the bulbous container that held the seeds and produced the flower.

“If he says he wants the flower, he really wants a pod,” Mick had explained. “They keep those once the flower’s gone because it’s got the seeds for the next crop inside.”

It was impossible for them to get close enough to any farmer’s field without raising suspicion, so this would have to do. Lopez promised John that Eli would get the idea.

“I’m telling you, Doc,” Lopez said, smiling. “He’s smarter than you.”

Eli did pick up on the idea very quickly indeed, listening to Lopez as he sent him across the road, the night-vision camera strapped to his dark back. There was a tiny speaker that hung close to Eli’s ear, and as he reached the target, Lopez whispered the “retrieve” command (”get”) to the dog.

Eli got it on the third try, though at first he grabbed the cloth ball itself, and Lopez had to clarify that he needed to snap the stalk and bring the whole thing back.

“Why can’t he just grab the pod?” John asked, his arms crossed over his chest. The cold was moving in as daylight waned.

“Well, for one thing,” Lopez explained, “he might damage it, and we don’t know what sort of shape this dickhead you’re getting it for wants it in. For another, the pod’s got liquid opium in it, and if he gets it in his mouth…well…”

“It could kill him,” John said, nodding.

Lopez gave a strained smile, stroking the dog’s broad head. “Or, you know, he might come back all grunged up and listening to Nirvana.” John laughed.

When Eli did it four times in a row, John and Lopez rejoined the group. Mick was talking, pointing at the map.

“…we’ll be getting some live satellite intel that will give us some heat signatures around the perimeter of the compound. We should be able to tell where people are, how far they are from where we are, get some accurate numbers of security forces and their proximity to the buildings.”

Heat signatures… Anyone alive would light up on the screen as a glowing red shape. John had seen them before in training videos in the RAMC, since the satellite images could be used to find the body heat of injured soldiers who couldn’t be found. He’d seen them on programs on the telly that contained declassified satellite streams, and he’d always thought it amazing how a satellite orbiting in space could capture images of people running across terrain, their bodies’ heat lighting them up like Christmas trees.

So odd to think he’d be one of those red, moving shapes himself this time. He had to stop himself from puffing his chest as he thought about it, a rush of adrenaline going through him as he stood in the briefing huddle with the SEALs. Between the knowledge he’d be just one more Spec Ops Operator on the intel screen and the scruffed beard he was growing, he was feeling particularly badass at the moment.

Even the pain in his arse made him feel like…what did these blokes call it? Oh yes. “A swinging dick.”

If only Sherlock could see him now, he mused. The way Sherlock’s body had straightened, his lip and brow quirking when he’d seen John give an order in Baskerville all those months ago?

Christ, we’d miss the mission for all the shagging…

The smile that thought brought to his face melted away with a sudden, sharp ache in his chest. He’d been trying not to think about Sherlock as much as he could, following his own advice to Sherlock about distraction and focus in the face of all this.

But so close to him getting what he came for here, it all seeming attainable and soon-to-be complete…he let the image of Sherlock swim behind his eyes. Sherlock in his chair on Baker Street, his face pressed to the eyepieces of his microscope at the kitchen table; the great wings of his coat as he ran in front of John down a London alleyway; the set of his face that could be mistaken for exquisite pain as he came…

Sherlock, John thought, closing his eyes as they burned. Please be all right…

“All right, Lopez,” Mick said, breaking John’s thoughts and forcing him back to the here and now. Mick was shining his flashlight at Lopez’s feet. “Eli all set?”

“You bet,” Lopez replied. Eli was sitting pressed against his leg, the camera assembly still strapped on his back. “We’ll have what we need on the first go, I think.”

“All right, we’ve got five klicks over the ridge to do in the dark. Night vision, Silent Protocol until we’re settled here.“ He pointed to the X on the map that trailed the dotted line of their approach route, and all the SEALs leaned forward, clearly memorizing the coordinates. “Everybody watch where they’re putting their feet as we go. Once we’re there, we’ll start our recon, let Eli do his thing, then we’ll move back and rendezvous here. If shit starts flying for some reason, this is where we’re at.”

“Hoo-ya, “ the group murmured.

“Doc,” Mick said, looking at John. “I’m assuming you’re light on night vision gear.”

John nodded, feeling somewhat chagrined. “Right, not in my usual pack. But I’ve used it before.”

Mick nodded, gave him a small reassuring smile. “Good. We’ll hook you up. Let’s get on it, folks.”



It was a long slow walk in the dark, everyone keeping dead quiet, the landscape eerie in its silence and perfect black. Five klicks was about four miles (if John did the conversion correctly), and everyone had to be careful of anything that resembled or felt like loose earth or booby traps as they picked their way across the terrain. It made for a tense and long and exhausting walk.

By midnight, they started to smell the smoke of campfires, though they still couldn’t see their lights. John was glad for the slow pace because his hip was complaining the longer they went, but the constant flush of adrenaline in his system was also starting to give him the shakes. He wasn’t used to being this jacked up for this long, and while his mind was exhilarated by the danger, his body was starting to show the strain.

The sniper rifle was slung over his shoulder, and Quince had given him his M4A1 assault rifle so that he could carry Bear’s heavier M240 machine gun. John carried the sleek weapon in front of him like a shield.

Eli moved back and forth in front of them, his nose to the ground. Lopez had explained that this fanning pattern was what he’d been trained to do, to look for spots of ground that had particularly strong concentrations of scent, places where a person might have stood or sat for a long time, long enough to bury a mine or an IED or to set up a trip wire or other booby trap.

“If you hear him whimper, that’s his signal,” Quince had said. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll walk the other fucking way.”

Three times he’d heard the sound, and all 12 men had moved as one motion in a diagonal line away from where the dog had made the sound.

They stopped to “hydrate” at around 2:00 a.m., resting for 30 minutes in a silent huddle for warmth. John was exhausted, but the adrenaline kept him keen and alert. The trembling, the nerves, had passed, and he was grateful for that.

“Just over the next ridge,” Mick whispered into the circle of them. “Intel coming in. Darken me up.”

He held the tiny monitor – like a handheld television – out, and Blink and Sam pulled out one of their large ponchos and fed it around the circle of men. They held it over their heads, draping it around the circle so that it formed a makeshift roof over all of them, blocking the equipment’s light.

The screen lit up, and to John’s eyes it looked impossibly bright. Nothing on the screen but vague shapes of types of terrain.

“The field’s about 1000 feet to the northwest,” Mick said. “Lopez, go ahead and send Eli out.”

Lopez nodded, touched Eli’s head. “Come,” he whispered, and the two of them disappeared. John felt guilty as he realized he was more nervous about the dog than the man.

“Looks like…a platoon? Maybe two, around the compound wall,” Mick said, and Quince made an affirmative noise. “Three platoon-sized groups due east, just sitting there.” He shook his head, and John tensed at the shift in Mick’s voice.

“You’d think they’d be asleep,” Kip offered from John’s left, leaning in.

“No, not asleep. Just hanging out there.”

“Could they have heard us coming?” John asked, his brow creasing down.

Any reply was interrupted by Lopez returning with the monitor that picked up Eli’s camera feed held close to his face.

“He’s on his way,” Lopez murmured, the screen lighting up the space. John looked down at the “dog’s-eye” view glowing the night vision camera’s strange green glow. Eli was moving in the pitch dark, his body waving slightly from left to right as he moved.

Everyone seemed to be holding his breath. Eli whined, pivoted off to the right, still moving forward. “Good boy,” Lopez said into the pickup. “Good Eli.” John realized the dog had detected a mine and changed his course.

Whimper, left. Whimper, left again. Right. Left. Right again. A long move to the right, whining the whole time, then forward again.

We’d all have been blown sky-high if we’d tried to go in there, John thought. When he got home, he was both buying a dog and going to church.

The edge of the field danced into view on the camera feed. There they were – thick stems a little over two feet high topped by either blooming flowers or the bulbous green pods wearing their little yellow caps.

Eli stopped in front of them. No one moved. Lopez spoke.

“Eli, get.

The camera moved forward, the top of the dog’s head coming into view as he nosed into the stems. They heard the snap of a stalk, the camera moving back.

“Does he have it?” John breathed, his eyes wide.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure,” Mick said, looking hard. “See if you can get him to raise his head again, Lo,”

Lopez nodded. “Eli, scan.” The dog raised his head.

The pod was there, bobbing on the right edge of the screen.

“He’s got it,” Kip whispered, and it felt like everyone exhaled.

“Eli, come,” Lopez said softly into the mike. The view spun as the dog started his slow return.

John found himself putting a hand in the center of the Kevlar on his chest. Somehow that had been more anxiety producing for him than being shot at.

Lopez noticed the movement of John’s hand. “I know,” he said, smiling tensely. “Kind of like sending in a little kid.”

John nodded, glad he didn’t have to feel like a tit for being upset. Right, he thought, feeling like he could breathe again. Easy enough…

“Wait…” Quince said softly, and everyone turned back toward Mick’s intel monitor. All their eyes had been on Eli while he retrieved the pod. Now, they all returned their gaze to the intel monitor.

“What…what the fuck?”

Red glows. Men moving. All five platoons, and more behind. Not running but moving fast. Mick widened the field until the SEALs shapes showed as an orange-tinged clot on the screen.

“They’re coming toward us,” Chris said, his voice going up half an octave.

“Eli tripped something,” Mick growled, stuffing the monitor inside his Kevlar vest. “A motion sensor, a plate, something. Fuck Let’s get the hell out of here.”


Eli had caught up to them by the time they got through the rockiest part of the ridge, the pod hanging on the stem still bobbing by his ear. He brought it to Lopez, trotting next to John, and Lopez stroked the dog’s head quickly, put his hand out and Eli laid the stem in his hand.

“God, you’re a good boy,” Lopez said, panting. “Now go, Eli. Go.” Eli wagged his tail and ran up ahead of the retreating SEALs, resuming his fanning pattern with his nose to the ground.

“Here,” Lopez said, and he handed the flower to John, who was struggling to keep up, every step agony to the wound in his arse. “Merry Christmas. Don’t drop it, cuz we’re not going back.”

John’s lip curled as he took the hated thing. “I won’t,” he replied, huffing. “Ta.” He stuffed the tough pod inside his Kevlar as Mick had done with the intel screen, lodging it tight.

Goddamn you, James Moriarty, he thought bitterly. And God help you if any of these men get killed for this fucking thing…

Mick had the monitor out again, the device beeping as new intel came in. “Shit,” John heard him hiss. “They’re in pursuit. At a run now. Everybody, double time, and make sure everything’s ready to fire. We may be in for a fight.”

“Fuck, come on,” Lopez said, pulling back the hammer on his assault rifle with a satisfying schick. He started running, and John fell in beside him, clearing the chamber of Quince’s M4 as well.

He was grateful for endorphins more than he’d ever been. His arse could have fallen off for all he cared.

Eli was having a hard time staying ahead of them and catching the scents. They were down to luck now and the hope that the few “hot spots” the dog had found on the way up were not in their path. They ran in a tight cluster, as close to trailing the dog’s trail as they could.

“Mick, how many are there?” Taylor called over the sound of their running feet. Mick was about 10 feet to John’s right.

“Something like…25 or 30…” Mick huffed. “More than us. Let’s leave it at that.”

John felt the urge to laugh, that punchy crazy laugh you couldn’t let out. He especially felt it when he saw the sky beginning to glow off to the east as sunrise approached.

Lovely, he thought. We won’t even have the dark…

Eli whined. They pivoted to the right like a herd of sheep, running with the sound of heavy breath and metal equipment shifting with every fast step.

The sun began to rise.


Adrenaline could only overcome John’s age and relative sloth for so long, and he was having a hard time keeping up by the second mile at the flat run. Chris and Junior fell back slightly to stay with him, and with them setting a pace for him, he pushed, pushed the wound, pushed the pain in his hip. He pushed and pushed.

“You’re doing good,” Chris panted from right beside him. “Most guys would have died by now.”

“The day…is young,” John huffed. His lungs were on fire.

“No way…” Junior said, heaving breaths between chunks of words. “Didn’t you already get shot…the last time out?”

John nodded, pounding the ground. Eli had shot to the left and everyone followed him, Quince and Taylor and Blink (who was freakishly fast) out in front.

“Well…that’s it then,” Chris said. “You only get to get shot…once…”

“Full of…shite…” John was too winded to laugh.

“The transport…right over the ridge,” Junior said. “We’ll outrun them…once we’re in it.”

The thought of throwing himself into that rickety piece of shit, the Afghan driver smoking as he peeled away, gave John an extra burst. Get there get there get there… he droned in his head, ignoring the burning in his lungs and the pain.

They hit the ridge, Eli starting to bark as they came up the other side to the road.

The entire group pulled up short, stunned expressions on all their faces.

“Oh Jesus Christ,” Mick cried.

The transport wasn’t there.

“The fucking Afghans chicken-shitting out—“ Taylor shouted.

“Like that’s new,” Blink hissed.

“What the fuck—“

For his part, John wanted to either scream or sob. He couldn’t make it. He couldn’t outrun the men in pursuit. He couldn’t keep up with the SEALs. They would have to leave him behind.

“Everybody shut up!” Mick screamed, fury in his voice. “Kip, get over here,” and Kip did as he was told. Then Mick tossed the intel monitor to Quince.

“Give me distance updates,” he said, then pulled the handset from Kip’s satellite radio link and began speaking into it. John heard a string of code and then the magic word -- extraction -- in the stream.

“Up to 40 targets,” Quince called to the group of panting men. “They’re closing fast. One klick.”

“Fuck,” Chris said, shaking his head. “Forty-five minutes for extraction. We’re going to have to fight.” He looked at John, both of them knowing it likely meant they’d be trying to save at least some of these men.

“Yeah, well, they’re dicking with the best,” Taylor said from John’s left.

“I don’t like the odds,” Blink said bitterly. “But fuck them anyway.”

There had to be something, John thought. Something… If they were in London, Mycroft would…


He dug into his Kevlar vest, drew the strange phone out. He clicked it on, the screen clearing and coming to life. He hit the “info” button and Mycroft’s number – along with Sherlock’s and what he assumed was Irene’s – coming up. He hit “send.”

A strange ring. Another. Then a click.


The normalcy of Mycroft’s voice sent his head into a twist. He pulled in a breath. “Mycroft, I have Moriarty’s item, but I need help to get out.”

A beat. “Where are you?” John had never heard that much tense emotion in the other man’s voice.

“Fuck only knows,” John said, forcing calm. “Somewhere in The Korengal. I’m with a SEAL team and we’re being pursued. We’ve lost our transport and are 45 minutes from extraction. Is there anything you can do?”

Another pause. “The device you’re holding is also a GPS. Do not lose it. I will have someone on the way to you momentarily, though I can’t give you an accurate time estimate. Hopefully less than the extraction, but I can’t be sure.”

“All right, ta,” John said, gripping the device tight. “Sherlock…Sherlock’s all right?”

“Yes,” Mycroft said. “I’m doing all I can to keep a close eye.”

John heaved in a sigh of relief. “Tell him—“

“Let’s move!” Mick shouted, interrupting John as he reattached the handset.

“John—“ Mycroft was saying, but John hung up. He kept the device’s power on though, his coordinates lit in blue on the screen.

“We’re going to close some distance to shorten the extraction time,” Mick shouted, fumbling with the equipment at his chest and belt. “If we’re lucky, we can cut 10, 15 minutes off. I want Retreat Protocol. If it doesn’t shoot, blow up, stop bleeding, or tell you where you are, drop it. We’re going fast and light. Let’s go!”

Everyone started dumping things from their pockets, dropping packs.

“Lose the M90,” Chris said, pulling on the sniper rifle at John’s back.

John shook his head. “No—“

“John, it takes too long to line up a sight with that thing. You’ve got the M4 that you can fire in a spray. Plus, you’re hurt. We need you light.”

John knew he was right, but there was something about leaving it that bothered him, like losing a good luck charm—

You’re being ridiculous, he growled to himself, and nodded to Chris as he let the gun slide to the ground.

Some of the men had dropped everything but what was in their arms and were already taking off. John stuffed Mycroft’s phone in the pocket against his sternum beneath the Kevlar pad, the flower also hidden there. Beyond that, he was down to sidearm and assault rifle and his helmet and that was it.

“Come on, John,” Chris said tersely, moving the med kid around to the small of his back where it wouldn’t impede his legs as he ran. He grabbed his rifle, gripped John’s arm hard. “Stay close, all right?”

“I will,” John said, his tone serious, “but I’m fucking old and my arse is buggered and I’m out of shape, so promise me you won’t wait.”

Chris swallowed, nodded. “Okay.”

They were the last to take off, Eli in the front of the group, their feet kicking up dust as they beat a path down the road.



The problem with the road is that it left them exposed, though at least it was relatively smooth (by Afghanistan’s standards), and they were able to move fast.

They ran and ran. Twenty minutes. Thirty. Dropping the rest of the equipment had helped John make better speed, his lungs not feeling quite so badly on fire. He wished he could drop the Kevlar to give his arms and chest freer movement, but he’d seen enough patients who’d made that mistake to know the stuff was worth the extra weight.

“Almost there,” Chris panted. They’d caught up to Kip, still carrying the radio. He’d taken a bad step somewhere and was trying his best to hide a limp.

“I hate this,” Kip huffed. “You know…I always hated…the fucking running…in BUDS…”

“You always sucked at it too,” Chris said. “Come on…”

There was gunfire behind them, the unmistakable tatt-tatt of an AK-47. Malik’s forces were catching up, trying to get them to take cover and stop their retreat.

“They can see us on the road,” John panted.

“COME ON!” Mick was screaming from up ahead. “The chopper’s here!”

And sure enough, John could hear the distant sound of a helicopter’s blades.

“Gotta be Gris,” Kip puffed. “He probably…flew straight through the mountain…to get here that fast.”

They could see the chopper now, black in the morning light, a shadow coming down. The AK-47 fire started up again, closer now. Too close.

It was a Blackhawk that was coming for them, John noted distantly as they moved off the road to the clearing where the helicopter was coming down, slowing as it neared the ground, now only a few dozen feet above the ground.

The others were ahead, waiting in a cluster with their heads down. Eli was curved under Lopez’s arm as he protected the animal’s head. The helicopter seemed to hover, kicking up dirt and leaves and grass as its rotors beat the ground. Chris and Kip and John were the last to arrive, just as the Blackhawk touched the ground.

The side door was open, one of the crew waving them in.

“GO! GO!”

A gunner in front of the cabin doorway started firing toward the direction they’d come, AK-47 fire answering. Bullets started kicking up dirt.

Christ… John winced. Malik’s men were nearly right on top of them.

Lopez tossed Eli up into the cabin, all of them scrambling in, pulling at each other by the shoulders and arms. John pushed at Chris, someone grabbing him, then he felt strong hands close on his own forearms and shoulders, heaving him in. The 12 of them struggled off each other as the gunner fired at what John could see now were dozens of men, all carrying AK-47s and the long tubes of RPG launchers.


“Oh,” he breathed. “Oh FUCK…

The helicopter was lifting off, but there was only so fast the things could take off. John had always had a sneaking suspicion that’s how he would get hit, waiting the endless seconds as one of the things’ engines revved up to lift away.


Time seemed to slow and slow again as he heard the whistle of the rocket coming in.

He slammed his body back against Kip and Chris and Lopez, Eli in Lopez’s arms. The rocket hit the upper corner of the Blackhawk’s body, the explosion ripping through the metal where the heavy door was slid back.

He saw the flames. He heard the screaming as the helicopter whined and pitched back, barrel-rolling in the air.

A burst of fire, his arms covering his face as they all tumbled back. He saw the door break free of is grooves, coming toward him in a blur of motion, then—

A sudden sharp pain, a crushing feeling on the left side of his chest. He heard the sound of something breaking, an agonizing series of snaps. He couldn’t breathe—he couldn’t—

A tearing sound of metal as the helicopter hit the ground with a crash. Everyone tumbled. Someone was screaming fuck


It was like being underwater, everything slow and quiet. Daylight above him. He blinked and blinked.

It’s okay, he thought. Everything’s…

Tussle of movement. Chris’ face above him, blood on his cheek. Kip. Taylor. Mick.

JOHN!” He felt something hard strike his face.

It was like falling, as though he’d crashed back into his body, the agony of his chest rushing in.

He screamed.

“Oh Jesus, Jesus—I can’t…I can’t…!” His voice was high, unrecognizable.

Can’t breathe, he tried to say, but the words wouldn’t come out.

“It’s okay,” Chris was saying. “You’re okay, you’re okay. Here, I’m going to put this between your gum and cheek.”

The fentanyl lollipop slid into his mouth, tasting faintly of—

Butterscotch. Sundae. The shop after school where he’d—

Stay with us, Doc… Mick.

Something exploded. He could hear it, close, smell the smoke. Rockets were being fired, but away from them. Away. The air vibrated with helicopter rotors, the air displacement pounding his ears. Someone shouted something about Pakistan.

Pneumothorax, Chris was saying close by. There were hands all over his chest. Tube in...hold him down…

An immense explosion, Mick and Taylor and Chris crouching over his body and face. Little pieces of sharp, burning things were raining down.

Somehow it seemed distant, and with every second seemed further and further away.

Chopper, Mick was saying. Got to go…

John felt himself being moved, then his body drooping into something like a sling. He felt very small all of a sudden, his arms folding over his belly like the petals of a flower.

Hands on the edges of a dark piece of cloth, a confused flurry of motion, the morning sky disappearing as his back was settled gently down in a dark space.

He tilted his head back, seeking the light again. Something was blocking his throat. He coughed and it bubbled up around the sweet taste of the lollipop.

“Sher…” he whispered. “Sher…?”

Chris over him, suddenly clear. “Can you hear me, John?” he asked. His face was very grave, blurring as someone slid an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth.

John forced his eyes to focus. “Yea.” Muffled sound.

“Then pass out,” he said firmly. “But stop before you die, okay? Stay right above that. Just pass out.”

John looked at him, nodded. “’kay,” he whispered, and he did as he was told.





Chapter Text





“Easy…easy now…”

Sherlock lurched against the toilet, dry heaving now, head falling toward the raised seat as his stomach muscles tightened in a hard knot. Just before it hit, he felt Iarla’s cool hand pressing against his brow, steadying him.

“It’s bound to be over soon,” Iarla tried from behind him, but Sherlock could hear the worry in the other man’s voice.

It was just after 3:00, and the vomiting had started an hour after the CIA operatives left just after midnight.

“It's fine…” Sherlock rasped.

“It’s not bloody fine,” Iarla snapped. “If the Men in Fucking Black hadn’t shown up, you’d be in a bag somewhere. You look like you still might end up there.” He was shifting Sherlock now, leaning him back against the wall. The wall felt good. Cool.

Sherlock smiled faintly. “When you’re angry…your accent… It’s much more pronounced.”

“You’re fucking right it is,” Iarla said, in front of Sherlock now, crouched. He wiped at Sherlock’s face with a damp cloth. “I’m telling you right now that if this goes on for much longer, I’m taking you in.”

Sherlock felt drenched in it, the way Iarla cared. Is this where he was now? Some new land where the only language spoken was sentiment?

“How can you stand it?” he whispered, focusing on Iarla’s face, at the swelling of his eye and jaw where he’d been hit. “Will it always hurt like this?”

Iarla’s expression twisted in confusion for a flash before leveling off again, and Sherlock turned his face away in frustration. It had made sense to him, though he hadn’t meant to say it aloud.

“Listen to me,” Iarla said, a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder now. “Whatever this…game you’re playing about getting this recipe and all. You’re not doing it any more. You’re not going back to the club and you’re not taking another dose.”

Sherlock smiled softly again. “If I don’t get the formula, my life is forfeit anyway.”

Iarla blew out a breath in exasperation. “I won’t let you do it.”

Sherlock shook his head. “Don’t.”

Iarla looked at him hard. “Would John?”

The name hung in the air. Sherlock’s eyes hardened their focus as a flush rushed in. “You are not John.”

Iarla’s face reddened too. “I’m aware of that,” he said, something tucked underneath.

Sherlock’s anger crested, words rushing out. “You’re just a frightened little man. Your family rejected you when you came out. I’d wager your father refused to ever speak to you again. You teach because University was pathetically easy for you and because you wanted to be an actor, a writer, but you were too afraid.” Sherlock panted, turned away.

A crackled silence hung. Iarla blinked, his jaw clenched. Finally he said: “Is that fun for you? Taking someone’s inventory like that?”

“I get nothing from it,” Sherlock rumbled. “I simply observe. I tell the truth.

Iarla nodded. “I see. Well, here’s another truth for you then. You just gave me that huge shove back because I mentioned your lover to you. You tried to hurt me – and you did, by the way – because bringing John up hurt you. So I’d watch who you’re calling afraid, Sherlock. Because the way you shame people with what you see does nothing but show you’re the most frightened man in the fucking room.”

Sherlock swallowed, looked at Iarla, his eyes widening. The words sunk and sunk in him like a stone.

“Touche,” he murmured, hoarse.

If Iarla was satisfied with the victory, he didn’t show it. He simply huffed out a breath and ran a hand through his dark hair. “How do I find John?” he asked. “Bring him here?”

Sherlock’s brow squinted down, pained, and he looked away. “You can’t.”

Iarla’s expression mirrored his. “Dead?”

The word pricked. “I…don’t know.”

He heard Iarla still, then say: “Bloody hell, he’s doing this same thing somewhere else.”

Sherlock looked back at Iarla, at the anguish in his face. One nod. “Afghanistan.”

Iarla’s full lips thinned, his eyes suddenly shining. He swallowed, hand tightening on Sherlock’s shoulder.

“You’re not going back to Luoung’s place,” he said again. “For starters, he’s out to kill you. Maybe that was the idea in the first place.” He paused, looking down for a beat, then back into Sherlock’s face again. “And for another…you want another hit already, don’t you?”

“No,” Sherlock said quickly. He said it too fast.

“Sherlock,” Iarla replied, shaking his head, his expression serious and vaguely sad. “I’ve been where you are. With this same brew, in fact. I know. God help me, I see it on you.”

“No,” Sherlock said again, but he’d seen the other man’s arms when he’d pushed his sweater up to wet the cloth to wipe his face. Iarla did know. About this rich craving like warm, dark water, rising in him….

“Iarla,” Sherlock whispered, shaking it away for now. His head swam. “Understand this. There’s not enough time and I’m not…capable of doing anything else.”

Iarla looked at him, swallowed again. Then he nodded. Sherlock noted the other man had grown suddenly tense.

“Well, at least you’ve got the day,” Iarla said, cleared his throat. “You should sleep while your stomach’s calmed down a bit. Let’s get you back to bed.”



Despite what Sherlock said, Iarla Brennan was a determined man. At least that’s what he told himself after he’d settled Sherlock down and given him some shite story about needing headache tablets and eggs and left the flat.

That’s what he told himself as he flagged down a cab and told the driver to take him to a cash machine.

Christ, there goes the trip to Dublin for Christmas, he thought, stuffing the wad of bills into his jacket and re-entering the too-warm cab.

“The Nebula,” he said, and the driver nodded and headed to the club, which would just be hitting its height of throbbing debauchery on a Friday night.

As they drove, Iarla tucked his chin further into his leather jacket. His knee jumped in a fast rhythm to the beat of his nerves. He forced himself to breathe. In and out.

The cabbie looked back in the rearview mirror and asked him if he was all right in Dutch. He nodded, wiped his face.

It made sense, didn’t it? Luong knew him, trusted him and the pull of the addiction (even now) enough for his sudden reappearance not to raise a red flag. He had some tolerance to the drug (or at least he used to have). And Sherlock would have enough of it out of his system that he’d be able to work on the sample with a reasonably clear head.

“Ach, Jesus,” he whispered, covering his eyes with his hand and trying to figure out the exact moment his life had gotten so incredibly fucked.

Had what Sherlock said to him really cut him so deep that it made risking his life worth it to prove to Sherlock (and perhaps, more importantly, to himself) that he was wrong about him?

Or was it the kernel of truth in it that had prompted him to leave the flat? Had he actually grown so tired of waiting to the side, quiet and unnoticed; of sitting at the bar and watching; of hunkering at his desk in his tiny office in this city he didn’t even want to live in that doing something – even this -- was a better choice?

Was that what was driving him now?

The cab turned into the Red Light District. There was still time to turn back.

He squared his shoulders as the sign with its blue neon planet came into view and answered his own question.



Sherlock was awakened from his bottomless sleep by the sound of his own phone ringing, the room lit by the multicolored glow of fairy lights. It had been so long since he’d heard the sound – and the tone was different, unchanged from its default since he’d replaced the one he’d hurled against the wall in what seemed like a lifetime ago – that he almost didn’t recognize it.

He’d taken his shirt off after Iarla left, though he still wore his black trousers – open at the button and fly – as he staggered from the bed to his coat.

Mycroft. He hit “answer.”

“Sherlock,” Mycroft’s voice floated to him after a beat as the satellite pinged his voice from thousands of miles away. “Are you all right?”

Sherlock took a quick inventory of his brother’s voice. No bad news, he deduced, and his stomach unhitched.

“Yes,” Sherlock replied, flat. “And…thank you for that.”

He could almost hear his brother gape.

After a beat, Mycroft cleared his throat. “I’m calling to tell you that John is on his way back to Kabul with Moriarty’s item. They should be arriving at the American military base there within the hour.”

Sherlock felt as though his entire torso deflated with the news. “Wait, ‘they?’ Who’s ‘they?’”

“He’s been traveling with a team of Navy SEALs and was extracted in the midst of a firefight with either private security for the farms in the area or the Taliban.”

“Is he all right?” Sherlock asked quickly.

“He was when I spoke to him before the extraction team arrived. I’m having difficulty getting any more specific information. The Commando team I sent was Pakistani, and I’m afraid I’ve been quite busy convincing the American and Afghan armies along their route not to shoot them down.” Mycroft sighed. “I’m sorry I don’t know more.”

“No, no,” Sherlock said, his voice easing. “It’s…fine.”

“I am assuming,” Mycroft continued, “that what happened last night was part of Moriarty’s game.”

“Of course,” Sherlock snapped, and he hated the way his cheeks flushed at the familiar sound of worried disapproval in his brother’s voice.

“I thought as much,” Mycroft said, sounding drained. “Well. We were fortunate. Let’s hope we have no need of Fortune again.”

“Have you heard from Irene Adler?” Sherlock said, shifting the subject away.

“No,” Mycroft replied, his voice returning to business. “Though a body was found yesterday in a hotel in Minsk that showed extensive signs of the marks of her trade. I am doing what I can from here in London to locate her, but she has not turned on the satellite phone. I’m afraid she could be anywhere.”

The relief Sherlock had felt at the news about John’s escape ebbed away at this news. What could it mean that she had to kill to escape?

“I must attend to other matters,” Mycroft said softly. “Please, Sherlock. Take care of yourself and know that I am…” A pause. “…as near as I can be.”

“Thank you, Mycroft,” Sherlock said softly, and meant it. Then he ended the call.

It wasn’t until he did so that he stilled, listening, and realized Iarla was not in the flat. He checked the clock. 4:17 a.m.


His eyes slid closed. No…

He buttoned and zipped his pants, reached for his shirt on the floor and slid it on. He was fumbling with the buttons, his head light, when the door opened downstairs. There was a long beat of quiet before it closed again.

Throwing down the coat, he went to the door and jerked it open, starting barefoot down the stairs.

Iarla was on the second landing, leaned against the wall, and Sherlock would know the look on his face anywhere.

“Take it,” Iarla was whispering, eyes wide and wet, face pale. He was holding out his arm, fumbling with the sleeve of his leather jacket. “Sherlock…take it…”

“It’s all right,” Sherlock said softly, putting his arms beneath Iarla’s arms to lean him up off the wall. “Come upstairs…you’re all right now.”

They staggered up the steps and into the flat, Sherlock closing the door behind him and locking it. He angled Iarla to the edge of the bed, sitting him down as gently as he could. Iarla’s head was lolling slightly on his neck as his gaze danced on the specks of light. He licked his lips as Sherlock peeled him out of his scarf and jacket and checked the pulse in his throat.

“Just lie down,” Sherlock said, and Iarla let him lay him back on the bed, covering him with a blanket from the foot of the bed. “You’re all right.” Then something – some potent concoction of exhaustion, frustration, and fear – spiked in him.

“What in the hell did you think you were doing?” he asked sharply.

Iarla closed his eyes. “What needed to be done,” he said softly, a dreamy tinge to his voice. He was still in the euphoria, Sherlock realized with a touch of longing. That first beautiful rush.

“It was moronic and a foolish risk,” Sherlock snapped. “He could have killed you and you’re not even involved in this!”

Iarla seemed to find that funny, and he giggled faintly for a few beats, looking away. Then he turned back to Sherlock, and Sherlock saw there were tears there now.

“Sherlock, you’re so… Jesus, everyone’s involved in this.”

Sherlock shook his head, but there was some truth in it. If it was James Moriarty’s game, everyone was playing it.

Iarla swallowed. “What are you waiting for?” he said softly. He held his arm toward Sherlock again. “Take it.”

Sherlock looked at him, into the sadness of his face. Finally he nodded and went to the kitchen to get a syringe.



By 8:00 in the rainy morning, Sherlock was leaned over the table with a ruler from Iarla’s neat desk, alternating his drawing of the complex chemical formula with black, red, and blue pens. His careful script drew in the letters: C. H. N. O

Nearly the same chemical formula of normal diacetylmorphine, but which somehow triggered a greater concentration of the metabolite 6-MAM as the body broke it down. Likely due to a genetic mutation in the plant. It would cause an incredibly high and rapid dependence, not that he needed the chemical signature to tell him that.

He was vaguely interested, but he was defeated more than anything else. He completed the drawing of the chemical structure, feeling like a school boy in detention being forced to write his letters again and again.

Which had, apparently, been Moriarty’s intent.

Finishing, he picked up his camera phone, pulling the desk lamp he’d brought to the kitchen table closer to illuminate the intricate lettering and lines on the page. He opened the camera app and snapped the picture, tapped the options, and chose “message.” He filled in the photo’s caption:

Your formula. Not that you didn’t have it already.

In the “To:” line he typed Jim Moriarty, then hit send.

As he heard the picture transmit, he unhitched, so exhausted suddenly that it was as though he’d been dangling an impossibly long time from a rope. As it flooded into him, he dropped the phone on the table, covering his face. His hands had begun to shake.

Iarla moaned faintly on the bed. Sherlock looked back him, wiping his face, the gray light falling across Iarla’s pale face. The other man’s chest rose and fell, steady if a bit too fast. It struck him back to himself again.

He picked up the phone, messaged Mycroft.

Formula sent. All for nothing, I think.

Mycroft’s reply came almost instantly. Best not to think of that. A jet will be ready in roughly one hour.

Back to London, Sherlock thought. He was going back. He was having a hard time getting his mind around it. He wiped roughly at his face.

As he was gathering his things, he looked at Iarla on the bed again, his face turned toward him and half-shielded in a shadowy light that made him look very young. The swelling in his jaw and around his eye was darker and more pronounced.

Sherlock realized then that he couldn’t leave Iarla alone, coming down from the high. It was risky, but worse…it was unkind. And Luong would most likely kill him if he discovered he was the key to Sherlock beating Moriarty’s game.

He went to the bed and gave Iarla a gentle shake. “Time to wake up,” he said softly.

Iarla made a soft sound as he opened his eyes, taking in Sherlock’s face.


“Get up and gather your things,” Sherlock said. “It’s not safe here any more.”



In the cab, they both sat stiff in their seats, Iarla’s hands on his knees as though he needed to hold onto something to steady himself. From the look on his face, Sherlock had an idea that Iarla only barely understood that they were leaving the city at all.

For his part, Sherlock’s body was beginning to wade through the deep, strange pain that came from withdrawal. His thighs and back had grown heavy with the ache, and the nausea that had caused all the vomiting was coming back.

He was trying to remember the names of the upcoming streets in an effort to distract himself when his phone’s screen lit up with a text.


He checked the number. Irene. He snatched up the phone, his thumbs shaking as they flew over the keys.

Where are you? Are you all right?

A long pause while the ellipses showed she was typing a reply.

Berlin. Not all right.

He swallowed hard. His mouth was dry, running new tables in his head.

Will come to you. On the way to airport now

Another pause. It was taking her too long for the two words that came out.

Too late.

He clenched his teeth, his breathing picking up. He’d survived the game. John had, too. He would find a way to get her through. If they could all survive, something in him felt they would have won.

And he had not forgotten that he’d promised her he would not leave her on her own. He typed.

Coming to you – send the address. No argument. On my way. Send.

He waited. She wasn’t typing a reply.

Irene. He hit the "send" key hard.

After a moment, the ellipses again, then the address lit up the screen. He tapped back Soon, then slid the phone in his pocket again.




The table in Mycroft’s office was perfectly clear. The chairs were pushed in, their backs straight and uniform. Mycroft sat at the head of the table, his back to the stained glass window, his fingers steepled over his lips in the gesture he had learned from his father and his brother had learned from him.

He and the American Secretary of State had managed to ease the nerves of the Afghan and Indian governments, and all appeared to be ruffled but generally well.

He’d received a text from James Moriarty that said simply:

I’m a man of my word. Flower from Watson and it’s done. That I do actually need.

Mycroft had leaned back in his chair, his chin coming up. It had been a long time since he’d felt this much rage, but its path out had been closed in him long ago.

He has it. You will have it soon.

The game was over, but Mycroft was undecided if Sherlock and the others had lost or won.

It had been two hours since he’d texted Sherlock to let him know the plane had arrived. And despite the morning’s delicate political mea culpa exercise, it was the familiar hoarse strain in his brother’s voice brought on by drug use that was the cause of the dull headache behind Mycroft’s eyes.

He could not help the feeling that somewhere outside the prim office there was an enormous shoe about to drop. Thus, when his phone rang, it was not a surprise.

If it had been John, it would have been the satellite phone. If it was about John, his own phone would ring.

It was his phone that rang.

“Mycroft,” came the American Secretary of State’s low, serious voice. “I have a report coming in from Kabul.”

Mycroft’s eyes closed. Her voice urgent but not dire, he thought. “Captain Watson has been injured,” he said.

“Yes,” came the reply. “Their Blackhawk was shot down before the Pakistan team arrived. We have nine injuries among the SEALs, two critical, including your man. Some kind of crush injury to his chest. He’s in Kabul at the moment; they’re going to need at least 24 hours to get him stabilized before they can put him on a LifeFlight to Landstuhl in Germany.” A pause. “Things have been a little chaotic there, which is why there was a delay in getting the news.”

“Of course,” Mycroft said, forcing a smile into his voice.

“If it’s any comfort,” the voice on the end of the line offered kindly, “he couldn’t be at a better place than Landstuhl with an injury like that. If they can get him there, he’ll be in remarkable hands.”

Mycroft took a deep breath. Sherlock… He shook himself out of it with a blink. “Yes, well. Please keep me apprised. I’ll be flying to Ramstein as soon as I can.”

“I’ll pass along anything I hear and get rid of any clearance issues at the base. Travel safely and be well.”

They said their cordial goodbyes, and Mycroft hit “end.”

He sat for a long time, stroking his brow, dread enveloping him at the thought of the next call he had to make.





Chapter Text



The cabbie had looked at Sherlock with a bit of alarm when he’d climbed into the taxi at the airport, getting rid of any doubt that the withdrawal was now showing on his face. He felt cold and clammy, his eyes too wide and too wet. His back and legs were feeling like they were trapped in a vise.

Sherlock gave a faint smile. “Grippe,” he said softly (flu), then gave the address: Hardenbergstrasse 28, Berlin.

“Ah, Waldorf-Astoria, ja,” he said, and they pulled away.

It had been a bit over an hour’s flight from Amsterdam, the jet cleared for a Priority Flight. Sherlock had not asked permission to divert the plane, which Mycroft had said (the pilot explained) was to return Sherlock and his “guest” to London.

So when he and Iarla had climbed the stairs onto the private jet, Iarla’s face still showing the strange mix of euphoria and disbelief as Sherlock pointed him toward a seat, Sherlock had been forced to baffle the pilot with his best obfuscation and MI6-sounding shite.

He’d taken in the set of the man’s face, the way he wore a pilot’s uniform despite the fact this was a private jet. Authority meant something to him, as did his own importance as a pilot for the Intelligence division, so Sherlock waded right in.

“There’s been a change of destination,” he’d said, standing close and speaking in a low voice, as though afraid someone would overhear. “An operative is in danger in Berlin. We must extract her immediately.”

“Mr. Holmes gave instructions that—“

Sherlock had cut him off with a hand up and a shake of his head, looking as steely eyed as he could manage with the shakes. “The situation is both critical and very fluid at the moment. National security is at stake. It’s not advisable for me to contact him at this time, though he would be of course be amenable to saving our operative’s life. It will only be a short diversion and then we can be on our way.”

He spun imperiously, sweeping his coat off his shoulders like a cape. He could feel the man hesitate a bit behind him. Finally, when Sherlock did not appear to have the subject up for further conversation, the pilot turned and went back to the cockpit.

He would either contact Mycroft or change their flight plan. Sherlock tried not to look like he was listening or holding his breath.

The pilot called the tower. Flight plan.

Sherlock sat facing Iarla, the seats wide and cushioned in the opulent way his brother so liked.

“All right?” Iarla asked, his eyes lidded, and Sherlock looked at him, jerked a nod. He looked out the window to avoid the other man’s gaze.

“Your back and legs hurt, don’t they?” Iarla asked softly, and Sherlock kept his eyes away. He didn’t reply.

After a beat, Iarla blew out a breath and dug into his pocket, still looking at Sherlock. He brought out a carefully folded square of foil, a lighter, and a capped syringe.

“I got this outside The Nebula for you,” he said. “Not Luong’s stuff, but it will take the edge off. The syringe is new.”

“No,” Sherlock whispered, shaking his head.

“Sherlock,” Iarla said, urgently. “Your body’s fucked. I can see it. The good news is that your mind’s not yet.”

Sherlock reached up and wiped his face. “Iarla…”

But the other man shook his head. “Look, I know you don’t want it, Sherlock. But if you need it....” He pushed his hand closer in the space between them.

Sherlock had hesitated, chewing his bottom lip. Finally he reached across and took the things from Iarla’s hand, slipped them into the deep pocket of his coat. He thanked Iarla with his eyes, and Iarla nodded and looked away.

His fingers were stroking the foil square and the cool plastic of the syringe in his pocket as the cab pulled up to the modern, Art Deco hotel.

“I need you to wait,” Sherlock said in German. “It might be a few minutes.”

“The meter is running,” the man replied, gesturing toward it. He was older, looked tired, and seemed pleased to be able to reach for his smokes.

Sherlock climbed from the cab and went inside.

Into the quiet elevator, up to the sixth floor. Down the white carpeted hallway to room 632. He knocked, waited.

It took a long minute but the door opened a crack. He was relieved to see her face was undamaged, though she was deathly pale.

“Irene,” he said softly.

She looked and looked. Something was terribly wrong. Her eyes seemed wide and lost.


“Irene,” he murmured, putting a hand on the door between them. “Let me in. I’ve come to take you home.”

The word seemed to prick something in her. Her brow squinted down in confusion. “Home?” she whispered. It was as though she’d never heard the word before.

He nodded. “Please let me in.”

She stared into his eyes, then swung the door open. He came in and closed the door behind him, turning back to look at her and taking her in. She was wearing one of the hotel’s white robes, the collar turned up and close around her neck. Her hair was down, disheveled, and there were dark circles under her eyes.

He reached for her and she shied away.

“Don’t,” she said quickly, her voice raw. “Don’t touch me…please.” His brow creased down even more.

His phone rang in his pocket and she jumped.

“It’s all right,” Sherlock said, holding up his hands. She watched his pocket until the call went to voicemail.

“Irene,” he said, speaking slowly, his hand up. “I’m taking you to the airport. Then we’re going back to London. Do you understand me?”

She bit her lip, nodded. Tears started in her eyes, and when she took a step back, he could see she was unsteady on her feet.

“Can you walk?” he asked, taking a step toward her in case she fell. “Are you hurt?”

Her hand went to her face, covering her lips as the tears fell. She sucked in a ragged breath. Then she reached down and untied her robe and slowly opened it wide, looking straight into his face.

Nausea washed through him and he felt the blood leave his face. His hands balled into fists and he felt something in his chest go into freefall, tears rushing in.

“Dear God…” he breathed.


His phone was ringing again as they entered the elevator, Irene curled against Sherlock’s body, her arms tight around his waist. He was half-holding her up with an arm curved carefully around her back.

He'd found her clothes in the bathroom, but he couldn’t find her suitcase. When he asked her where it was, she murmured: “I was trying to get to you. To Amsterdam. I think I…left it on the train.”

He'd told her not to worry as he gently helped her get dressed, that there was nothing lost that couldn’t be replaced.

He was grateful for the thick weight of her mink coat, for its warmth and its cut that made it the perfect camouflage. It hid all of her above her mid-calf, all the way to her chin.

Leaning her against the wall, Sherlock fumbled for the phone as they descended to the street. Then someone got into the elevator on the fourth floor and he had to let it ring. The passenger, an older man (bank executive of some sort), was looking from Irene to Sherlock, taking in Irene’s pallor and pinning Sherlock with his eyes as his brow came down.

Sherlock quirked his lip at him, leaned in and pressed his mouth close to Irene’s, whispered: “Put your hand on my face.”

She looked into his eyes, reached up, her hand shaking. She stroked at his temple and cheek, angling her mouth toward his as if for a kiss.

The man turned back around, disapproving and embarrassed. The phone went to voicemail again.

They moved as quickly as he could manage her through the shining lobby, the cab still idling at the curb. Sherlock opened the door, leaned in with Irene, moving her slowly and carefully into the seat. He could tell that touching her torso caused her terrible pain.

The cabbie was looking back, alarmed. “Das Krankenhaus??” Hospital?

“Nein, der Airport, bitte.” He slid in carefully beside her and slammed the door. The cabbie looked at him uncertainly, but finally pulled away.

She leaned onto his shoulder and he curled his arm around her, his other hand going into his pocket for his phone. Two calls from Mycroft. He rolled his eyes, rang him back.

“Yes, I know we’re not in London,” he began when the line picked up.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft cut in, his voice low and too even. “Get back to the plane. There’s been an…incident.”

“An ‘incident’?” Sherlock replied, going colder than he already was. “John?”

Mycroft continued in the same tone. “He was in a Blackhawk helicopter that was shot down. He’s at the Bagram Air Base hospital. They are working to stabilize him and send him on to Landstuhl in Ramstein.”

Sherlock swallowed, swallowed again. “How badly…” But he trailed off.

“He is critical. Go back to the plane. You’re quite close to Ramstein in Berlin, though it will be tomorrow before they can move him, I was told. We are not permitted in country in Kabul.”

Sherlock nodded uselessly. “I’m…” He cleared his throat. “I’m in a taxi to the airport now. I have Irene.”

A pause. “I assumed she was the reason for the diversion. You could have told me, you know.”

Sherlock’s shaking intensified. “Mycroft,” he whispered. “Not now.”

A beat. “John is very strong, Sherlock. Trust that, as well.”

Sherlock clenched his jaw, fighting to hold onto his control.

“I will be in Ramstein when you arrive, Sherlock. Be well,” Mycroft said, sparing Sherlock’s tenuous control by ending the call.



He hadn’t wanted to do it. He’d told himself he wouldn’t.

But the sight of Irene’s ruined body, the image he was conjuring of John in the crash and the sudden ragged hole that seemed to tear open in him at the thought of losing John snapped what control he had left.

Iarla was asleep across his row of seats as Sherlock moved Irene onto the plane, settling the two of them into one of the large reclining sleeper seats in the back. She was half in the seat and half in his lap, her head on his shoulder, feeling terribly small beneath his arm. They both still wore their thick coats and trembled faintly against each other.

The plane moved, moved fast, then left the ground. Iarla didn’t stir as they took off. Sherlock looked down at Irene, noted she was paler, her eyes closed, her cheeks shining with sweat.

My fault, he thought, closing his eyes against it. All of this. What a useless man…

She was drifting in and out of awareness, had been since the walk to the taxi, so he hadn’t told her about John.

He leaned her off him gently, angling her by her shoulders and the tops of her arms where the pain seemed to be less. She opened her eyes and looked at him.

“I’ll be back,” he said softly, and she nodded, closed her eyes again. Moving to the back of the jet, he passed the tiny galley. Unlatching the silverware drawer, he took a spoon.

The plane leveled off as he slipped into the loo.


Forty minutes later, Mycroft stood on the gray tarmac on the Ramstein Air Base in a steady, cold rain, his black umbrella open above his head. The white, sleek private jet looked out of place among the blue-gray transports as it taxied up the runway, past the neat lines of small fighting jets.

His phone beeped with a text. He glanced at it. Ambulance.

Mycroft swallowed, tapped back. Already here. The white vehicle sat behind his black car, the back doors open, the crew crouched inside out of the rain.

As the plane stopped in front him, Mycroft scanned the windows for signs of movement. The door opened, the steps coming down slowly, and a man emerged –mid-thirties, dark hair, pale, in a leather jacket with a leather briefcase slung over his shoulder. From the expression on his face, he looked like he’d just landed on the moon.

“Mr. Brennan,” Mycroft said to him, reaching out a hand, and Iarla descended the stairs in the rain. Dumbly, he reached out his hand in return.


“All will eventually be explained,” Mycroft said gently. “I am Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother. Welcome to Germany.”

Iarla nodded, still looking vaguely stunned. “Mycroft. Right.”

“If you’ll make yourself comfortable in my car, we’ll follow the ambulance to the main hospital as soon as everyone’s settled in.” Mycroft gestured to the car’s open door, and Iarla looked at him, at the car, and then walked to it like a sleepwalker and got in.

Mycroft’s eyes on were on Sherlock, who had emerged from the plane carrying the unconscious Irene, her head tucked beneath his chin. He saw his brother, their eyes meeting, and Sherlock carefully descended the stairs.

Mycroft’s brow creased with worry, and he gestured to the paramedics, who came forward, wheeling the stretcher. All of them converged on Sherlock as he reached the tarmac.

“We’ve got her,” one of the paramedics said softly, reaching for Irene. Sherlock clenched her more tightly. “It’s okay, sir. You can let her go.”

The two men eased Irene out of Sherlock’s arms, gently settled her onto the stretcher, buckling straps over her. She didn’t stir or move, her face nearly the color of the pillowcase her head now rest on. The paramedics nodded to each other and moved her into the ambulance.

Mycroft stood before Sherlock as Sherlock watched Irene go. He took in his pallor and the way he seemed vaguely unsteady on his feet. Sherlock blinked slowly, licked his lips. He looked up, seeming confused by the rain.


“Sherlock,” he said softly, stepped forward so that his brother stood beneath his umbrella. They were standing close.

“Mycroft, I…” Sherlock began, then trailed off as though he’d forgotten what he meant to say. “John?” he asked.

“He has had surgery at Bagram. They removed his spleen, which was ruptured, and repaired a punctured lung. As soon as he is out of recovery and stabilized, they will be bringing him here for further surgery on his ribs and chest.”

Sherlock blinked. Mycroft wasn’t certain Sherlock had understood until he nodded, his eyes flicking back and forth on the ground as he cataloged what Mycroft had said.

“I am high,” Sherlock said suddenly, looking into his brother’s eyes. “Heroin. Addicted, I think.”

“I know,” Mycroft said gently.

“It’s not my fault,” Sherlock said, something desperate in his voice. “Not this time.” His eyes were bloodshot, rimmed red, and tears were gathering there.

Mycroft felt a slow, burning ache in his chest. “Sherlock, it’s all right. And it was not your fault before either. Not really. I’m sorry if I have made you feel otherwise.”

Sherlock’s hands came up, trembling, and covered his face. Mycroft hesitated for only an instant before he stepped forward and pulled Sherlock stiffly into his arms. He pressed a hand to the back of his brother’s head, leaned Sherlock’s forehead to his shoulder, gripping him hard, the dark umbrella sheltering them from the rain.



Sherlock was taken first to Intake, where he was given the once-over from the emergency medical staff. Iarla was with him, lying in a curtained area across the hall, and Sherlock could hear the staff speaking to him quietly and him answering from time to time. Mycroft hovered in the corridor, his hands in his pockets, and spoke to the doctor when he finished his exam.

Dehydrated. Malnourished. The words floated to him as they passed between the doctor and Mycroft. They’d told Sherlock they would start him on Suboxone when his high wore off. They had ordered him moved to a room where he would receive IV fluids and rest.

Sherlock had listened to them absently, staring at the ceiling and feeling wrung out and spent. The euphoria of the high had been replaced by a vacant feeling, as if he weren’t home within himself. He was cold in his hospital gown, but he couldn’t even be arsed to pull the blanket up from his waist.

“Sherlock,” he heard Mycroft say from the other side of the curtain. “May I come in?”

“Yes.” Flat.

Mycroft entered, and as Sherlock forced himself to look at his brother, he could actually see the weariness in his face.

“You will be fine,” Mycroft said with a terse smile. “But you need care and rest.”

Sherlock blinked slowly. “Until John is here.”

Mycroft looked down, breathing out a frustrated breath, though he finally nodded. “That gives you at least 12 hours. I’d like you to use all of them.”

Sherlock swallowed. “Irene?”

“Still being assessed. There was a great deal of damage and blood loss, as I’m sure you’re aware.”

Sherlock nodded. “Torture?”

Mycroft shook his head. “Technically, no. Consensual.”

The thought made Sherlock ill. “But she was able to acquire the item?” he asked, hoping for some small comfort there.

Mycroft pursed his lips, his hands sinking into his pockets again. “There was apparently no item to acquire. Her opponent committed suicide.”

Moriarty... Sherlock thought, his eyes sliding shut. Rage burned in him.

“Rest,” Mycroft said, cutting off his train of thought before it ran off with him. “I must attend to a few…matters.”

That gave Sherlock a faint smile. “I imagine so,” he murmured, and closed his eyes.


Sherlock and Mycroft stood outside the ambulance entrance, two dark, grim shapes attempting to stay out of the way of the assembled medical staff.

Men and women in a mix of uniforms, scrubs, and white coats were gathering stretchers and other supplies all around them. They had lined the stretchers up in neat and efficient lines, three rows of five and a row of one. Sixteen wounded coming in.

Sherlock had stolen a glance at the manifest. They were all listed as wounded in action: Afghanistan. He’d seen John’s name at the bottom of the list and he didn’t know whether to be filled with dread or relief.

An ambulance bus was bringing them from the airfield. As they waited, as the staff was putting on gloves and milling about, Mycroft stood a bit closer to Sherlock than he normally would.

Finally the blue bus came into view, doing a wide turn and backing into the bay. As it neared, the men and women lined up in two rows even with the back door. Then an older man -- African American, a bit heavy, graying hair, kind face – took his place at the end of the line with his hands folded behind his back. A stretcher was wheeled up behind him.

Chaplain, Sherlock deduced.

The chaplain now turned to Mycroft and Sherlock as though he’d had been speaking to them since they’d come onto the bay. “Kin?” he asked.

The word caught Sherlock off guard and he hesitated. Was he?, he suddenly found himself thinking. What was he to John really?

“Yes,” Mycroft answered, hands sunk in his coat pockets. “Kin.”

The chaplain nodded. “Which patient?” Formal but soft.

Sherlock’s throat was suddenly tight. “Watson,” he replied, hoarse. “John.”

The chaplain nodded, and the bus opened its wide back door.

“I’ve got two Critical coming out first,” came the efficient voice of a uniformed orderly inside the bus. “One backboard, one ventilator. Ambulatory coming out the side, plus one dog with a cast on his leg. We need stretchers there."

“Understood,” came the reply from the ground, and a few of the orderlies trotted off to comply.

After a few moments, the first end of a stretcher emerged from the back of the bus. It was black and padded and had a silver rail on each side of its underside. As it was passed from the men on the bus to the people below, the ground personnel grabbed the rail. As each gripped the rail, he or she called “got it” and then passed the stretcher down.

“Slow,” one of the doctors said softly. “Don’t bump him.”

“Name?” the chaplain asked the men inside quietly as this was going on.

“Sam,” came the reply after a beat.

The chaplain, nodded, moved aside. The orderlies lay the stretcher with its wounded occupant onto its rolling counterpart, locked the rails down, and stepped back.

As the straps were latched, the chaplain moved forward until he was leaning into the young man’s line of view. The patient’s head was braced and taped. Some sort of injury to his neck.

“Sam, my name is Chaplain Kellerman,” the chaplain said gently, touching the young man’s forehead. “I want you to know you’re safe, all right? God be with you, son.”

Sam thanked him in a whisper, and he was covered up and wheeled away.

Men were emerging in blue robes from the side of the bus, men with bandages on their heads, arms in slings. They all looked vaguely stunned or lost, their eyes taking in the new place, and the staff went to them, speaking quietly and ushering them up onto stretchers so they could be wheeled inside and out of the cold.

Sherlock watched, silent. It was efficient and insular, both sad and kind. Very military and regimented, down to the chaplain’s quiet welcome and reassurance. But it was also somehow moving and real. Sherlock realized it was what war and its aftermath looked like from the inside.

“Look at them,” Sherlock murmured, watching it unfold. “’Caring is not an advantage.' Isn’t that what you once said to me?”

Mycroft smiled vaguely there next to him. “I was trying to protect you, of course,” he said. “As you know now, that is not the case.”

“Ventilator coming out,” the man inside the bus called, and a few more people pressed to one side of the door. Then the stretcher began to emerge, the small red box of the ventilator simultaneously handed down.

“Name?” the chaplain asked.

“John,” the man with the manifest called down.

“Watson?” the chaplain asked.

A beat. “Yeah, that’s him.”

Sherlock felt a fit of…something. Nerves? Whatever it was, it hit him in a wave. He started forward, but the chaplain put up a hand.

“Let us do our job first, all right?” he said, his dark eyes on Sherlock’s, and Sherlock stopped, nodded, chewing his lip.

The soft litany of “got it” went down the line, then they lowered the stretcher onto the rolling gurney and locked it down, and John was suddenly there.

Sherlock’s mouth went dry, something going tight behind his eyes.

John’s face was scraped and scabbed, one eye swollen nearly shut and his top lip deeply cut. He’d grown days of graying beard, and it made him look older and somehow frail. A ventilator tube was fed into his mouth, held in place by a red strap around his head and neck, and its clear hose wound around to the matching red box on the side. It beeped faintly, hissed with each inhale and exhale.

And John’s chest (his chest… Sherlock winced) was encased in bandages and tape, but even all that couldn’t hide the dark bruising that seemed to bleed from underneath. The entire left side of John’s torso was swollen and nearly black, as far as Sherlock could see. Even the crescent scar was vaguely discolored on top of the plum-colored skin.

How many times had he watched John hold his hand on his chest as he huffed in breath after a run through London or after a good laugh? How many times – tucked in the bed with him in Switzerland or Tunis – had he pressed his own hand there?

As the medical staff got John situated, only a few feet from Sherlock now, Kellerman moved in as before.

“John, my name is Chaplain Kellerman. You’re safe now, okay?”

Sherlock saw John’s eyes flicker open, heard him make a soft sound in his throat.

Kellerman smiled, brushing his forehead. “God be with you, brother,” he said. “You’ve got some folks to see you – look here.” And he waved Sherlock forward at last. Mycroft nodded to him and stayed back.

“Just for a minute, sir,” Kellerman said softly to Sherlock as he approached. “We need to get him to Intensive Care.” With that, he stepped back.

The ventilator was on one side and the orderlies were fumbling with the latches and straps on the other at John’s legs. This left Sherlock having to lean into view upside-down from over John’s head.

He reached down and cupped John’s crown between his hands, stroking down the mussed hair. He leaned in until he could see John’s sleepy, half-closed eyes, stroking John’s temples with his thumb’s rough pads.

“John,” he called softly. “John, look at me.”

John’s eyes struggled open, focusing on Sherlock’s face. Sherlock saw the moment he’d managed it because the edges of John’s mouth curled up in a breath of a smile. He tried to speak, but it was lost in the machine’s exhale.

Sherlock smiled back, a real smile, his first in weeks. He kissed John’s forehead, then leaned down close to his ear.

So much he wanted to say. So much nearly lost.

What he said was: “I love you.” He breathed it so that only John could hear, stayed there. “I’m sorry I haven’t told you before now.”

John nodded once beneath his cheek.

“Don’t go,” Sherlock whispered. “Stay. Be here now. Be here with me.”

John nodded again, and Sherlock felt John press his face against his, the brush of John’s lashes as his eyes closed.

Sherlock trailed his hand across John’s forehead as he leaned back, moving away as the orderlies pressed in. Draping John with a heavy blanket, they briskly wheeled him away.

“Are you with MI6?” someone was asking Mycroft from behind him. One of the walking wounded had approached with a cane and a limp.

“Yes,” Mycroft said automatically, though it wasn’t quite the case.

“Chief Petty Officer Chris Hastings,” the man said. “Medic. U.S. Navy SEALs.” He shook Mycroft’s hand when Mycroft offered it with a stiff smile. Then Hastings reached into his robe and brought out a plastic bag.

There was a poppy pod inside, its stem crushed and its crown off. The pod itself was bruised but still intact.

“I think someone’s looking for this,” he said quietly, anger tinging his voice. Mycroft took it from him.

Sherlock stared, the anger roiling again.

All this, he thought bitterly. All this suffering. And for such a wisp of a thing.




Chapter Text



John had surgery early the next morning to place metal “cuffs” on his broken ribs.

Sherlock, lying in his own hospital bed, listened to Mycroft’s reports on this with a strange detachment, the words conjuring images that made him ache: flail chest, pulmonary contusions, chest tubes…

“They’ve also implanted a continuous thoracic epidural to help control his pain for the time being.” Mycroft looked down, pursed his lips. “Apparently—“

“Without the epidural, the pain would interfere with his ability to fully expand that lung when he breathes,” Sherlock droned, interrupting. “This would likely lead to pneumonia, which would in all probability be fatal given his condition.”

Mycroft nodded. “From what I understand, yes. They are taking every precaution, I’ve been assured.”

“When can I see him?” Sherlock asked. He was cold. His skin felt thin. But he was too detached from himself to bother to reach down and pull the blanket up from his waist.

“He is still in Recovery,” Mycroft replied. “But once he’s come out of it fully and been moved back to Intensive Care, they will let him have visitors for 15 minutes, every three hours.”

Sherlock scowled at this, but he understood their caution. John’s breathing was compromised. Reducing his exposure to others when he was so vulnerable made the most sense.

Sherlock noted as Mycroft picked at an imaginary piece of lint on the shoulder of his black suit jacket, realized his own detachment was making his brother unnerved.

“I understand,” he replied, out of synch. He turned his face toward the window. It was difficult for him to lie in his bed in another part of the hospital knowing John was close by and hurting but, even if just for the moment, out of reach.

“Sherlock, his prognosis is quite good,” Mycroft offered quietly. “It will be a long recovery, to be sure. Several months at least. But he will come back around.”

Sherlock nodded. “Yes.” He hoped that put an end to his brother’s ham-handed attempt at comfort. At the moment, he couldn’t handle the mournful sound of it.

He heard Mycroft sigh, close the space to the bed. “I see they’ve removed the IVs,” he said.

“Earlier, yes,” Sherlock replied. The pitying look on the nurse’s face as she’d removed the needle, dabbing alcohol there and then swabbing at the three punctures on his other arm made him curl up inside still.

“How is the Suboxone working?” Mycroft pressed.

“Very well,” Sherlock replied, too fast. It might have been a lie. It was difficult to tell if the desperate feeling gnawing his chest was due to heroin withdrawal or something else. The last few days had frankly staggered him, leaving him muddled and something he could only describe as sad. Not even the death of his parents had left him feeling like this.

Mycroft took in a breath, let it out. “You will let me know if you’re experiencing any…difficulties?”

“There will be no such thing,” Sherlock replied, and now he did look his brother in the eye.

Mycroft forced a smile, but it quickly disappeared. “Yes, well…I’ve brought your things from Tunis and Amsterdam. Someone should be up shortly to bring them to you. Perhaps you’d like to shower and dress?”

Sherlock answered him by pushing back the covers and throwing his legs over the side of the bed. The floor was cold as he stood.

“I will text you when I’m told that John is settled in,” Mycroft said, and, leaving Sherlock there by the bed, he withdrew from the room, snicking the door closed behind him.

When Sherlock came out of the shower, his suitcases were there. One large bag from Amsterdam, two smaller ones and the violin case from the house in Tunis. Sherlock swore he could smell the salt air on them as he shifted through the clothes for something to wear.

Black shirt, black jacket, black pants, all a bit rumpled but clean nonetheless. Black socks and shoes. He sat in the chair by the window, breathed deeply, feeling more like himself. He watched the comings and goings of the planes at the base, his fingers steepled in front of his lips.

After awhile, he texted Irene. Mycroft had located Kate, told her that Irene had been injured and arranged transport. She was on her way.

Yes, she was all right, Irene told him. No, she did not want to see him just yet.

Are you certain being alone is best? he tapped back.

No, she replied. But I know I need it right now. A pause. Your brother told me about John. How is he?

He considered. In ICU. I am waiting to see him. Send.

He has such spirit, she replied. He will be fine. I know it.

He considered this, feeling useless and hollow and starkly wrong inside. This was a feeling he knew. His body’s desire for the heroin’s euphoria was under control because of the medication, but his mind was still desperate for it.

His phone’s screen lit up. Are you all right, love?

Yes. Send.

Then he slid the phone in his pocket. He felt the vibration of her reply, then another, but he didn’t look at them.

The image of John’s broken body swam behind Sherlock’s closed eyes.

Forget, he thought, rubbing his forehead. Forget…



Iarla Brennan looked out the window of the base hotel, out toward the hospital where the black car had picked him up that morning to “settle him in.” The woman who’d been sitting next to him – a beautiful, dark-haired woman who seemed hard-wired for condescension – had used that phrase, though he wasn’t sure what it meant.

His situation had felt strange enough when he was with Sherlock, the other man acting like a bridge between where he was now and where he’d been before. With Sherlock still in the hospital and Iarla here, that sense of connectedness was gone, and he felt adrift in this oddly sterile, ordered sea of the military base.

Sherlock’s brother had explained what he could of the circumstance that had brought them all here, though what he’d told Iarla hadn’t been much more than what Sherlock had shared. But Mycroft did tell him that his flat in Amsterdam had been ransacked, and that Mycroft had on what he called “good authority” that Victor Luong was looking for him.

“So I’m fucked, is what you’re saying,” Iarla had said, feeling his shoulders drop as though someone had let the air out of him.

Mycroft had given him a strained, formal smile. “I am saying that it would be unwise for you to return to Amsterdam.”

Iarla, at that point sitting in a hospital bed he didn’t feel he had a right to be lying in, had turned his face away. “That’s bloody wonderful, Mr. Holmes. Ta for that.”

“I’m sorry for your trouble, Mr. Brennan,” the other man had said. “But if it’s any comfort to you, I am absolutely certain that without your assistance, my brother would be dead.”

Iarla looked back at him. “I doubt it,” he said bitterly. “He’s clever enough that he’d have sussed something out.”

But Mycroft was shaking his head. “No,” he said, soft. “Not this time, I don’t think. I owe you Sherlock’s life, which is a debt that even I with my rather extensive resources can never fully repay. But I would very much like to help you, if you’ll allow me to.”

Iarla’s brow had creased with confusion at that. “Help me? I…I don’t know what you mean.”

“Don’t you?” Mycroft had asked, a knowing look in his eyes. “Look at you. You are an extraordinary man who has settled, Mr. Brennan. Settled because you have lived your life in…well, forgive me…a state of fear. And now here you sit, with nothing left behind you to go back to because for once you’ve gone and done something spectacularly brave.”

Iarla couldn’t help the bitter chuckle that came from him. “You talk like I’m some kind of bloody hero, Mr. Holmes,” he said. “My reasons weren’t the kind of thing the Nobel Committee would be cheering about. What I did, I did I because your brother is beautiful and I wanted to fuck him.”

Now it was Mycroft’s turn to laugh. “Yes, well,” he said, still amused and clearly non-plussed. “Perhaps at first. But I’m sure it quickly became apparent that would not be the case. In the end, you and I both know your continued involvement was due to much more than that. ”

Iarla swallowed. It was getting too real, this conversation. He wanted it to end.

Mycroft’s eyes took him in, darting around his face. “You had been an addict in Luong’s grasp for quite some time, I’d wager, and it had taken everything you had to break away. And there, right in front of you one night, walked Sherlock, head up and straight into Luong’s lair. Not as an addict – you could tell – but as something else, something you’d never encountered before. You wanted to be that something, didn’t you? And as you were saving my brother, you were.” His chin dropped to his chest, but he kept his eyes on Iarla’s, stilling him. “And what I want you to consider is that you are that person, that you were always were. And you can live the rest of your life as him.”

Iarla swallowed again. He had nothing to say to all that. It was as though Mycroft had peeled back his skin. It was too much, far too much, and yet it intrigued him like nothing in his life had before.

“I must see to a few matters,” Mycroft had said abruptly as he checked his watch. “My assistant will arrive shortly for you with a car to take you to the base hotel. I will find you later this afternoon to discuss…things. Think about it between now and then.”

“Think about what?” Iarla asked faintly. His thoughts were jumbling around on themselves.

Mycroft smiled. “On how this person you are would like to live.”

And then Mycroft – the only man odder than Sherlock, by Iarla’s reckoning – had simply left.

Anthea (as she’d called herself, though she’d said it with a lie’s amused glint) had come just as Mycroft had said, ushering him back into the dark car and taking him by the Exchange. She told him to purchase anything he needed for “his stay,” then pushed a Visa card issued to Mycroft in his hand and urged him out the car door.

He’d picked out some pants and socks, three turtlenecks, a shaving kit. He’d gathered the necessary toiletries and that was it. Then he’d paid and gotten back in the waiting car and had been brought here.

He turned from the window now and looked back at the rumpled bed, at his coat and briefcase slumped on the desk. He’d put the television on earlier and it sat in the corner, talking to itself.

Papers, he thought suddenly. Jesus, I’ve got papers to grade…

Whether it made sense or not, he didn’t care. He sat down, tossed his coat to the side, then pulled out the stack and a pen and started to read.

Three-quarters of the way down the first page, something in his chest seemed to give way.

What the fuck am I doing? he thought, dropping the pen and covering his face with his hands. He’d never see these students again, never see his cramped office or his fairy-light flat with its worn bed and worn quilt. But there he was, reading a 19-year-old’s take on Joyce as if not doing it would cause the world to end.

“Jesus, what a wanker I am…” And couldn’t tell whether to cry or laugh.

A knock at the door and Iarla lowered his hands. A moment later, the sound came again. Finally, he stood and went to the door.

“Mr. Brennan,” Mycroft Holmes said mildly. He had an umbrella and his coat folded like a flag over his arm and a knowing look on his face.

“Aye, yeah,” he said awkwardly, stepping aside. “Come in.”

The elder Holmes stepped inside and Iarla closed the door, walked past the other man to stand in front of his table of papers and his briefcase again.

Mycroft was taking in the bad wallpaper, the military art with a dyspeptic look on his face.

“How’s Sherlock?” Iarla said, breaking the awkward beat.

“As well as can be expected, I think,” Mycroft replied. “I don’t believe you’ve been told that Sherlock’s partner, who was also involved in this little ‘game,’ was gravely injured and is here at the hospital at the base.”

“John?” Iarla said, concerned. “John is here?”

The other man seemed pleased for some reason that Iarla knew the name. “Yes. In Intensive Care. Sherlock is with him as much as they will allow.”

Iarla shook his head. “Christ, the poor man,” he replied, though even he wasn’t certain of which one of the two he meant. “Well…give him my best, will you? When you see him.”

“Of course,” Mycroft said, and brushed it away. “So,” he said, clearing his throat. “Have you given any thought to our discussion and the offer it implied?”

Iarla felt something nervous turn in his chest. “What offer?” he asked, his hands going to his hips. “Of a place to dump me out of Luong’s reach? Because I don’t want—“

“I know you don’t,” Mycroft cut in. “And that wasn’t the issue I asked you to consider when last we met. I asked you to consider how you – the real you -- would like to live.”

Iarla turned to the table, looking at the stack of papers, the bad tea in its paper cup and the leather jacket that was the nicest thing he owned to wear. He looked out the window as a plane engine roared at the airport. He felt his chest rising and falling as though he were learning how to breathe.

“Perhaps the answer is instead for you not to think,” Mycroft said from behind him, and Iarla turned back to face him again, his fists balled at his sides.

“Not to…?”

“Yes,” Mycroft replied, nodding slowly. “I’m going to ask you a question and I don’t want you to think before you answer it. Respond solely from instinct.

Iarla hesitated, then nodded. “All right then.”

Mycroft looked straight into his eyes, stilling him. “What do you want, Mr. Brennan?”

Iarla took in a breath, another. Don’t think…

“I want…to work with you,” he said, and once it started, the words came tumbling out. “Well…for you. I’m a former addict and I’m probably shite at everything you’d need and Jesus I tend to put things off—“

“Thank you, yes,” Mycroft interjected, sounding bored. “There’s no need to cover your many qualifications at this time. Particularly since you’ve already been hired.”

Iarla was all wound up for another go, but Mycroft’s words stopped him. “I have?”

“Yes, of course,” Mycroft replied, adjusting his umbrella in his hand. “You will accompany me back to London and begin working in one of my offices at the end of the month. If the position is agreeable to you and you feel London is a place you can live, that is.”

“Aye,” Iarla said, holding up his hands. “It’s…yes.” He looked at Mycroft with some mix of confusion and awe. “But why?”

“Mr. Brennan,” Mycroft looked down, his voice like that of a professor giving the solution to a problem on the board. “I am very selective about the people I allow to work with me. And you have proven yourself more than qualified.”

Iarla stood still for a beat, then finally nodded. “Aye, yeah. All right.”

Mycroft angled his head, smiled his terse smile and went to the door.

“I’ll be in contact with you soon,” he said, and out he went, leaving Iarla standing there, looking around and contemplating the new world he found himself in.




John’s eyes came open, the dim room coming into focus like a camera lens being turned. He blinked, his lids impossibly heavy. He smelled soap and alcohol and that strange sweet smell he associated with bandages and medical tape. He was warm and strangely leaden and numb, and there was something down his throat that hurt.

His name again.

Sherlock. Thank God it wasn’t a dream…

He turned his head, found his face only a few inches from Sherlock’s now. Sherlock was smiling. He was pale and thin with red-rimmed eyes. He looked like hell.

“Hello, old friend,” Sherlock said. His voice was soft and hoarse.

John’s lip curled around the ventilator. He tried to answer and could only manage a faint sound.

“Don’t try to talk,” Sherlock said, stroking at the hair on his forehead. “You have a ventilator in. You’ve been in an accident…flail chest, a ruptured spleen, a punctured lung…spleen was removed…repaired.”

Flail chest? John thought. God, whoever the poor bastard he was talking about was, he was in bad shape…

Sherlock was still talking. “…thoracic epidural implanted. That’s why you’re not feeling much of the pain.”

Oh Christ, it’s me… The ventilator hissed in, then out again. John could see his chest moving up and down with it, but he couldn’t really feel it.

Sherlock was still talking, but the only words John managed to take in were London and stable.

“Do you understand anything I’m saying?” Sherlock asked, leaning in and stroking his temple with the backs of his fingers. The fingers were warm, almost electric against him. Sherlock sounded amused.

Good… The thought drifted in John, somewhere above the thick feeling of painkillers in his brain. It felt good to have Sherlock touching him again. Sherlock smelled warm and clean and like home.

“Go back to sleep,” Sherlock whispered, sighing and kissing his brow.

John shook his head slowly, Sherlock’s lips still against his skin. He forced himself to concentrate.

“No?” Sherlock replied, his voice deep. John could feel the smile in it, so he shook his head one more time, his lips curling again.

“All right,” Sherlock said, leaning back. “Do you remember what happened to you?”

He thought for a long moment about that. An explosion. He remembered realizing that Chris and Kip and Lopez were behind him. He remembered Eli curled with such trust in Lopez’s arms.

He nodded once. Then Sherlock began to chuckle, a strange, strained sound. It didn’t touch his stricken eyes.

“The SEALs are saying that your throwing yourself in front of the cargo door when it broke free likely saved four of their lives. You’ll be the one to walk away with the Knighthood after this.”

Then Sherlock’s voice suddenly broke as he tried to laugh again, and John saw the tears were coming now.

“What a remarkable idiot you are, John, playing the hero like that,” Sherlock’s voice was rising, frustration and sadness seeping in. “Nearly crushed to death trying to protect a bloody dog--”

The sob broke Sherlock’s voice, lurched him. He bent down until his forehead rested on John’s shoulder, effectively hiding his face.

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock was whispering against him. “I shouldn’t…I can’t…”

John’s eyes welled. He turned his face against Sherlock’s dark curls, nuzzling as Sherlock wept.

“Shhh…” he managed into the quiet sounds. “Shhh…”




Chapter Text



Two things were different this time when John awakened. First, there was light, and a light that so familiar he could even recognize it with his eyes closed.

London. He was in London again.

The air was heavier and cooler and the late-November light had a woolen hint to it that spoke of fires and warm tea and the soft weight of scarves and coats.

Yes, he remembered now: thanking Dr. Kellerman as night came on as Kellerman gave him a sedative so he would sleep through the transport and 45-minute flight. Sherlock stood in the corner as he always did as the doctor and nurse worked on John, his eyes cataloging everything done to John as he stood with his arms folded across his chest.

“You’re a tough man, John Watson,” Kellerman said, smiling as he handed the syringe off to the nurse and gripped John’s right hand. “Thanks for putting up with so much from us. We’ve run you through the ringer, and I’m sorry for that.”

John had smiled back as the sedative began to kick in. He shook his head. “You saved my life,” he said in his ruined voice. “Thanks. Sorry to be a hard case…”

But the words were going now, between his ragged throat and the drugs ebbing in.

“Nah, piece of cake,” Kellerman lied, and patted his shoulder. John knew that look, the one doctors gave patients who had scared the living shite out of them.

He remembered Sherlock coming forward as Kellerman and his nurse had left, Sherlock leaning close, his warm breath on John’s cheek.

“When you wake up, you’ll be in London,” Sherlock said softly.

John hummed. What was it Irene had said to him all that time ago? Oh yes… “Be in…a better place…”

Then Sherlock – and everything else around him – had disappeared.

Royal London Hospital. Whitechapel. That’s where Mycroft had told him he was going. That must be where he was now.

The other thing that was different about this new place – John heard music.

Sherlock was playing the violin, his own violin. John was surprised to find he could tell the difference between the one Irene had given him and the worn, well-tended instrument he’d played in their flat on Baker Street. And Sherlock was playing it in that way he did when he thought no one was listening, more florid and more lovely than he had in the past when John was around. Sherlock’s heart was in this mournful but hopeful tune, each measure like a sentence Sherlock spoke with his bow.

There in the gray light, John opened his eyes, turned toward the sound. Sherlock was in a deep purple shirt and dark trousers and was silhouetted against the open window. He was looking out over the city as he played.

“Lovely,” John whispered, and Sherlock stopped and turned. “One of yours?”

Sherlock fussed with the bowstring in what John now realized was a self-conscious sign as he came toward the bed. “No. An Irish tune – ‘An Clár Bog Déil.’ I heard it years ago and never got it out of my head.”

“Sounds like…the past few weeks to me,” John said, managing a bit of his voice now.

“Not that dire, I hope,” Sherlock replied, a flash of mock-horror on his face. If John had not been aching as badly as he was, he would have laughed.

“No,” John said hoarsely, his hand reaching up and ghosting a touch on Sherlock’s sleeve. “Sounded like…the good in the ‘hard.’ We’re all still here.”

Sherlock smiled. “True,” he replied, and he sat down by the bed.

It was a little more than two weeks since the crash. John had spent five days on the ventilator, then three more with the epidural still implanted in his back. The next morning, John still unable to talk because of how long the ventilator had been in his throat, Kellerman had come in with what he called “good and bad news.”

“The good news is that we’re going to take the epidural out,” he said, eyeing the silent Sherlock, sitting on the other side of the bed. He’d been quiet and ubiquitous and looked like he was in training to haunt houses.

“And the bad?” Sherlock had asked.

“Pain,” John had breathed, his eyes closed against the thought. He’d already been able to feel a bit of it, and what he could feel was bad enough. But once the epidural was removed…

“Yes,” Kellerman replied. “We’re going to put you on a morphine pump, but…you’re going to feel it. And we’re going to need to start moving you toward sitting up, then getting up.”

Sherlock had started to speak, clearly alarmed at the thought, but John shook his head. “Have to,” he whispered, cutting him off.

Kellerman nodded, speaking to Sherlock. “We’re in a bit of a ‘damned if you do…’ situation at this point. He can’t move with the epidural in place, but the longer he’s on it and flat on his back, the higher the pneumonia risk.”

Sherlock had nodded, returning his gaze to John’s face. John had given him his best it’s all right look as Kellerman went on.

“I’m not going to lie to you, John,” Kellerman said, looking at John seriously again. “It’s gonna hurt.”

And that had turned out to be perhaps the biggest understatement John had heard in his life.

He’d endured being rolled to his side as the anesthesiologist took the epidural out, his chest taped and bandaged tight for support. The numbing agent still in him, he’d barely felt it at all.

Sherlock, still paler and looking brittle in his fitted white shirt, had hovered around the room the entire day. When John was awake, he knew Sherlock was watching John’s expression for any sign that the pain was setting in. The best John could do was to attempt to compose his expression and hope the oxygen mask he wore hid the worst of it.

Around nightfall, two nurses and an orderly had come in with the look of a reluctant firing squad on their faces. Sherlock, sitting by the bed, had stood as they came in, looking concerned.

The orderly started taking down the rail on the opposite side, and John vividly recalled the chill that ran up his spine.

“You ready to sit up, Doctor Watson?” the nurse asked, a bit too cheerily for John’s liking as she removed the mask and hung it on the tank beside the bed.

John had nodded, swallowing, as the other nurse prepared a nasal canula and slipped it over his head. As she settled the prongs into place, John had looked at Sherlock.

“Go for a walk,” he whispered.

Sherlock looked back, his face grave. He shook his head. “No,” he said softly, firm.

“Sherlock, please…”

Sherlock shook his head again, coming closer as the nurses and the orderly worked. “If our positions were reversed, could you ‘go for a walk?’”

John swallowed again nervously. “…Don’t want you to see this.” He felt his eyes sting.

Sherlock leaned down as the nurses began arranging and rearranging all the cords and IVs.

“John,” he murmured. “What is it you do want me to see?”

John had looked at Sherlock -- at the raised eyebrow, the determination and the worry and the stark fondness in his expression -- and seeing what he saw there, he’d let him stay.

In the end, after one nurse had raised the head of the bed (John breaking into a sweat, his breathing picking up), after the other had uncovered him and dealt with shifting the catheter from where it protruded from the slit in John’s pyjamas (John despaired, as his bits were manhandled, that Sherlock would ever want to have sex with him again), they’d let Sherlock be the one to steady him.

First, they got his legs turned toward the side of the bed. Then – two behind and two in front – they’d shifted him until he was sitting up on the edge of the bed.

John had prepared himself as best he could for the feeling that exploded in his bandaged chest. But even so, he couldn’t help the sound that burst from him.


Everyone began making soothing sounds all at once, but his ears were ringing as the agony crashed in.

“I have you,” Sherlock said urgently into his ear. He steadied John against his belly and chest, hands gentle on his back. “Relax. Just relax against me.”

“See if you can make it a full minute,” came a voice behind.

“Doing good, John, doing good,” came another.

“No let me down…please let me down…!”

Who in the hell is that? some distant part of his mind had wondered. Because he was certain that high-pitched pleading wasn’t coming from him--

“It’s all right,” Sherlock’s voice came to him through the roaring in his head. “I have you, John. Just breathe.”

“Christ…oh Christ…”

Then he’d passed out.

When he’d opened his eyes, he was again on his back in the bed. Sherlock was over him and the nurses were tucking the blankets over him and under his legs.

“That could have gone a bit better, I think,” Sherlock said softly from above him, all strained smile and stricken eyes rimmed in red.

They hadn’t made him try again for another day, giving him time to be put on more pain control meds. But he had eventually managed the full minute, though it was only slightly more dignified the next few times. Just before they’d left Germany, he’d made it a full 15 minutes in a chair, though two orderlies had essentially had to carry him back and forth with a transport belt from the bed.

Now, John touched the controls on the hospital bed, raising himself roughly into a sit. His ribs complained bitterly, his breathing going shallow for a few breaths, but it was nothing like it had been.

“S’okay,” he said to Sherlock, who’d started to rise again. “It’s all right…it’s normal for it to hurt.”

“I’m aware,” Sherlock said quietly. “But that doesn’t make it any more pleasant to watch.”

Sherlock was sitting on John’s left, and one of the many things John was dealing with was the temporary loss of the use of that arm. Otherwise he’d have reached for Sherlock’s hand.

“I’m worried about you,” John said, his voice raw and rough.

Sherlock checked the tuning pegs on the violin before setting it and the bow down. “I’m fine, John,” he said softly. “You…Irene. You’re the ones to worry about.”

“Because we’ve been hurt in some acceptable way?”

Sherlock’s jaw clenched once, his cheeks flushing.

“You’re not fine,” John went on. “The fact that you didn’t just snap at me for saying that proves as much.” He was quiet until Sherlock looked at him again. “Are you having problems with cravings? Because I can adjust your dosages. No one need know but the two of us.”

Sherlock shook his head, stood, and went to look out the window again. The fact that Sherlock was putting distance between them as they discussed this wasn’t lost on John.

“I can’t stand…to see you acting so ashamed of this,” John said haltingly, but with as much frustration in his tone as his throat would allow. “This was done to you. You can’t help the way your body has responded to it.”

“Damn it, John, don’t you see?” Sherlock roared, suddenly spinning on him. “I’m not going to be the same again. My mind is ruined! I’m bloody weak!

“No,” John said patiently, lowering his voice as much as Sherlock had raised his. “You’re human, despite all your bloody efforts. The only thing that’s different now is that you allow yourself to feel..”

“I didn’t feel at all before,” Sherlock countered, condescension dripping off the word.

“No, you didn’t let yourself feel,” John said, his tired eyes imploring Sherlock’s. “And I know it’s got to feel like shite to you. But there’s nothing there in you that wasn’t there before.” He took a breath, his voice going soft now. “You’re the same man I’ve always known. You might even be a…truer version of him. So welcome to the human race.”

Sherlock was looking at him as John caught his breath. Talking was killing his throat and chest. Sherlock had gone very still.

“You love me so, John,” he said quietly. “And sometimes I can’t fathom why.”

“God help me, yes, I do,” John said, feeling the warmth of all he felt for Sherlock bloom in his sore chest. “And when you get a handle on all this and turn back into an arrogant prick, you’ll remember why.”

It worked. Sherlock gave a tired laugh and came back toward the bed.



Evening. In the dimly lit glass-enclosed hallway around the courtyard at the center of the medical complex, Sherlock and Irene walked, his arm around her shoulder, her arm around his waist.

They’d done their nightly ritual mostly in silence this evening, taking matched, slow steps. Irene’s eyes seemed fixated on the bare tree at the courtyard center, which someone had clearly spent the day stringing – just a bit too early -- with multi-colored fairy lights.

“Almost Christmas,” she said, sounding distant.

He hummed a vague affirmative. “Do you like it? Christmas?”

She seemed to consider for a beat. “Yes,” she said softly. “When I was young, I believed all those things about ‘peace on Earth and goodwill towards men.’ I always felt that one year it would simply come true.”

He pulled her closer against him. She seemed cold, though she wore a thick robe in an opulent green, silk pyjamas, warm slippers on her feet.

“Well,” he murmured. “Perhaps this is your year.”

She smiled for a beat, then leaned her cheek against his chest as they walked.

“You seem better today,” she said.

Sherlock smiled warmly. “As do you.”

“What’s changed?” she asked.

“I think you know the answer to that,” Sherlock replied quietly, leaning down to press a kiss to the top of her head.

“Hmm, let me see,” she teased. “You’re back in London, even if you can’t yet go out and about. You breathe this city in through your very skin.”

“Excellently deduced,” he replied. “And?”

“John,” she said, smiling.

“What about him?”

“Oh…everything.” She gripped his waist.

“Fair enough,” he replied, quirking a smile. “And?”

“And…I’ve decided where I’m going next and you approve.”

“Very good, Miss Adler. Full marks.”

“Thank you, sir,” she said, angling her head in a little bow.

He took a deep breath in, let it out. “The house in Switzerland is a lovely place. The staff is excellent, and they will care for you and Kate exceptionally well. You’ll be able to rest and continue your recovery in peace.”

“I need time,” she said softly. “That’s all.”

They walked in silence for a few more steps, his arm tightening around her a bit.

“You know, I never told you how much I…admire…what you did.” It came out hesitantly. He wasn’t sure how she’d react.

She was quiet for a long moment. “You shouldn’t,” she said at last. “It was sadistic and horrid, and a man whom I think would have been a good person in some other life is dead.”

“Yes,” he replied, leaning down to put his lips against the top of her head. “But a woman who is a good person in this one is still alive.”

She stopped walking, turned and held him tight.

“My body is ruined,” she said against his chest, and her voice broke.

“No,” he whispered into her hair. “You’re stunning. That will never, ever change.”

She squeezed him tighter and they were quiet for a long time there in the glow of the tree’s gentle light.

Finally she leaned back. “I’d like to see John, if you don’t think he’d mind.”

Sherlock smiled faintly, nodded. “I think he’d like that, actually.”



They rode the elevator back up the top level of the hospital, a floor with large private rooms that were typically reserved for MPs or other people of note. As the door opened, they met Mycroft, who was stepping out of the other elevator, his phone to his ear. He was finishing up some obviously formal conversation with the words “very good,” and the look on his face matched the words.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft said by way of greeting, then took in Irene’s face. “Miss Adler, you’re looking well this evening.” He voice was soft and a bit warm as he said it and angled his head.

“Thank you,” she replied, returning the nod. “I’m feeling well.”

Mycroft turned to Sherlock, all business now. “All is in place for your…resurrection,” he said, giving Sherlock a cautious smile. “The story will break in the newspapers the day after tomorrow, and the television news outlets will inevitably follow rather quickly from there. My official office will begin arranging interviews as the calls come in.”

Sherlock nodded, feeling exhausted already at the mere thought of starting that particular boulder rolling down its hill. “I’m sure it will be an…interesting few days.”

“To say the least. I have also, as per our discussion, spoken to Mrs. Hudson and Detective Inspector Lestrade and let them know your current state and John’s condition.” Mycroft looked amused. “To say the Inspector was particularly verbally vivid in his reaction would be an understatement. He will be dropping by at some point tomorrow. I’ve specifically asked him not to strike you. I’ve explained that we’ve just gotten everyone into something approximating ‘one piece.’”

Sherlock smirked. “Indeed.”

Mycroft continued, rocking back on his heels a bit with his hands in his pockets. “As for Mrs. Hudson, she was quite shocked but ultimately immeasurably pleased. She’s been quite worried about John’s sudden departure, though I had assured her he was well. She and I have arranged to move your things from storage back to the flat.”

“She didn’t let it again once John disappeared?” Sherlock asked, and Mycroft shook his head.

“No, I’ve kept the rent up in your absence, not that she would have anyway, I don’t think. I’m sure she’s dusting up a storm as we speak.”

Sherlock smiled at the familiar image, at the quiet, warm space of the Baker Street flat. He pushed it back, looking toward John’s door. “Ms. Adler wanted to visit John,” he said, and Mycroft nodded, gesturing to the door.

“After you then, please.”

They walked quietly past the nurses’ station, only one woman working behind the desk as night settled in. The others were gathered for what looked like a shift-change meeting in a room behind.

“How is he?” Mycroft asked softly.

“Improving,” Sherlock said as they reached the door and pushed it open from the crack Sherlock had left it in. “I hope he’ll be able to walk unaided before—“

Whatever he was going to say died in his throat as the three of them drew up short.

A man was sitting in the chair that Sherlock usually occupied in the corner, his legs crossed and two bunches of flowers on his lap. The lamp was on beside the chair, the only light in the room beside the glow of monitors on the other side of the room.

On the bed, amidst the quiet hissing of the oxygen cannula, John slept, looking small and vulnerable beneath the blankets. Sherlock looked from the man to John and back again, calculating the exact distance from the chair to the bed. Close. Too close. Irene had stiffened beside him, poised.

“Mycroft,” James Moriarty said softly. “And Sherlock and Ms. Adler.” He smiled his strange smile. “How nice.”

“How did you get in here?” Mycroft asked, his voice dangerously soft.

“Mycroft, you know there’s no such thing as a private place,” Moriarty said, amused. “I wanted to pay my respects, of course. Doing it before everything hits the papers seemed best.”

He stood. Gray Westwood suit, white shirt, black tie. The flowers were Birds of Paradise. Colorful, stalky, and utterly strange.

“As a girl who likes a power play, Mr. Moriarty,” Irene said quietly, “I must say this one is very good.”

Moriarty smiled at her. “I thought you would appreciate.” He came forward now, edging intentionally close to John on the bed. Sherlock stayed stone-still, meeting Moriarty’s wet, red-rimmed eyes as he came toward them.

“You’re not welcome here,” he said as the other man stood before him. Sherlock was much taller, but it didn’t seem to matter.

Moriarty ignored him and looked at Irene. “You’re looking well, Ms. Adler,” he said graciously. “Surprisingly so, if you don’t mind me saying. I watched the recordings of you and poor Petrovic and I must say. From one sadist to another? I am impressed.

He smiled again, showing his teeth, presented her with the awkward bunch of exotic flowers.

She took them, and Sherlock could see her flush, shamed at the thought of someone watching what had happened in Minsk.

“These are for Dr. Watson,” Moriarty then said, handing the flowers to Sherlock. “Why don’t you give them to him when he wakes?”

Sherlock took them but said nothing. He could feel his eyes narrow for an instant in anger, and he forced himself to calm down.

Moriarty seemed pleased. “You’ll forgive me if I didn’t bring any for you, Sherlock. Your affliction, well…it’s simply not the same as these other two, now is it? Hardly worth tea and sympathy and all that.”

“You’ve made your point, James,” Mycroft said, stepping forward. He did not quite insinuate himself between Sherlock and Moriarty, but it was close.

Moriarty turned to look at Mycroft now. The smile he gave the elder Holmes was less falsely kind. “Quite,” he said, and stepped back. “I came to congratulate you all on completing your task. And to gather the poppy, of course.”

Mycroft reached into his jacket’s inside pocket, drawing out the plastic bag with the poppy inside. He handed it to Moriarty, who took it between two fingers at its corner and looked at the flower inside.

“Ach, Mycroft. Really. You could have cleaned off the blood.” He tutted for effect.

Something burned in Sherlock. He wanted to snap the man’s neck, and the only way he kept from doing it was by promising himself that he would one day have another chance.

“Apologies,” Mycroft said, his voice dropping even further, down into a note that only Sherlock would recognize as rage. “We had…other concerns.”

“Yes, of course,” Moriarty replied, tucking the bag into his pocket, then patting them as though he were an awkward houseguest looking for his keys.

“Well. That’s that, then.” He smiled to Sherlock. It was not a kind smile. “For now, at least.”

“Forever, I should think,” Mycroft said. “The debt for your son is paid.”

Moriarty took another step toward Sherlock, intentionally crowding into his space much as his son had done. Sherlock didn’t move an inch.

“Oh, I don’t know, Mycroft,” he said, but his eyes were on Sherlock’s alone. “Men like us…we’re destined to meet in this world of ordinary people, aren't we? ‘Exceptional moths to exceptional flames.'”

Sherlock didn’t move. He didn’t even blink.

“You want so badly to say something to me, don’t you, Sherlock?” he said softly, straight into Sherlock’s face.

Now Sherlock nodded.

“Why don’t you then?” Moriarty cocked his head.

Sherlock felt Irene’s hand grip his arm. He was aware of his brother standing close.

Finally Sherlock leaned closer until his nose was nearly touching Moriarty’s.

“Your son told me once that if I didn’t stop meddling in his affairs, he would ‘burn me.’ ‘Burn the heart out of me,’ was what he said.”

Moriarty smiled. “That sounds like Jim, yes.” He turned his head again. “And did he, Sherlock? Or did I do that?”

Sherlock shook his head. “No,” he said softly. “Quite the opposite, in fact, though it was a good attempt. What you and your son have done is inform me in no uncertain terms that I have a heart. It is a powerful weapon which I did not know I possessed.”

Moriarty’s eyes narrowed. His odd smile twinged.

Sherlock felt a curl come to his lips. His voice dropped to a whisper. “And that, Mr. Moriarty, is something I think you will come to regret.”

They stared, nose to nose. Finally Mycroft put a hand on Sherlock’s back.

“Now if you’ll excuse us,” Sherlock said, stepping back. Then he led Irene around toward the chair, helping her sit.

Moriarty stood, looking at Mycroft for a long beat, then turned back to Sherlock as he moved to stand between the older man and the bed.

“Until we meet again,” Moriarty said, angling his head.

Sherlock nodded once.

Moriarty looked at Mycroft, cocked his head again.

“Mycroft,” he said.

“James,” Mycroft replied. He didn't smile.

And with that, James Moriarty – for the time being, at least – walked out of their lives.

Mycroft turned to Sherlock, blew out a breath. “Well played,” he said, and Sherlock could tell he was both rattled and impressed. It felt…good to hear that coming from Mycroft just then.

Bloody well played,” John said in his hoarse voice, eyes opening as he turned his face toward Sherlock now.

Sherlock looked back him, grinned, and Irene, for the first time in weeks, laughed.




Chapter Text



Warm water of the shower, heavy steam and early morning lighting the stall. Sherlock smoothed the cloth over John’s back, suds streaming down. John was braced against the wall with his right arm, his face turned up toward the spray and letting the water drench his face and hair.

Sherlock studied the skin carefully as his fingers smoothed over it. The bruising had faded, and even the bullet wound in his buttock had healed to a red line. John was so thin, his skin the grayish pallor of someone who’d been nearly immobile for weeks. He’d lost muscle and looked frail.

But to Sherlock, John looked vibrant and alive. He smiled.

“Turn toward me,” he said softly over the sound of the spray, his hands resting on John’s waist.

John dropped his arm slowly, turned in Sherlock’s grasp, leaning his back against the shower wall. His chin dropped down against his chest.

Sherlock had seen the incisions at various points through the weeks, of course, and he’d gotten another look when the nurse had come in that morning to tell John they were changing his bandages and ask John if he wanted to shower while they were off.

Sherlock was there when she came in, though John had insisted Sherlock sleep in the adjoining room he’d lived in since their arrival. He hadn’t managed more than a few hours, and he’d been spending the pre-dawn hours sipping tea in front of the window and listening to John stir in his sleep.

“Yeah, a shower sounds good,” John had replied with a sleepy, friendly smile.

The nurse patted him. “I’ll get an orderly to come help you in and out then.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Sherlock had said instantly, setting his teacup down. The nurse turned to him, surprised, and he gave her his best cordial face. “I’ll see to him. He and I will manage fine.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “We don’t want him falling, after all.”

Sherlock gave her a tepid smile that said he would brook no argument. “Of course,” he said. “Not to worry.”

She glanced down at John, who nodded. “He’s sturdier than he looks,” John said, and this made her smile.

Sherlock had stood close as she pulled the blankets back and began working the tape off John’s skin, peeling the thick bandages back. The crescent of the old bullet wound, then, a few inches down, an incision about eight inches long slashed just above John’s left nipple and dotted on either side with staple scars. A matching one down his sternum. Then the wide grin of an emergency incision in his torso where his spleen had been removed.

“They’re looking very good,” the nurse said softly, laying a hand on one that appeared slightly red on one edge. It must have felt cool because she did not seem concerned.

There in the shower, Sherlock recalled her motion and checked the incision himself, his hand curving around John’s ribcage so that his palm rested on it. Warm from the water, but otherwise fine.

“Look at me, I look like bloody Frankenstein,” John said, huffing a self-conscious laugh. He was looking down at where Sherlock’s hand covered the incision, avoiding Sherlock’s gaze.

Something swept through Sherlock’s belly then – something deep and warm and full of something he couldn’t quite name. “Look at me,” he said in his softest voice.

As John’s head came up to look at him, Sherlock took a step closer. Their bodies were nearly touching. He smoothed a hand down John’s cheek and jaw, then let it rest at the curve of his shoulder and neck. The other, he moved down John’s side to his hip. He was growing hard and he could feel the flush.

The first kiss was tentative, Sherlock leaning down to nip at John’s bottom lip. The tickle of it made John smile and pull back, then change the angle so that he could nip back. Sherlock opened his mouth and their tongues met between their open mouths. John moaned.

“How does this go again?” he whispered against Sherlock’s mouth. His hands had settled on Sherlock’s hips, gently tugging him close. Their cocks brushed against each other, water warm on their skin.

Sherlock hummed deep in his chest, his hand sliding from John’s hip to the coarse hair between his legs. “It appears to be coming back to you now…” He curved a hand around John’s cock, flushing red and growing hard now. John smiled against his mouth.

They kissed and kissed, Sherlock pressing their hips together, both their cocks in his wet hand, his thumb teasing their foreskins back. The feel of them together like that was exquisite, and having John so close again put a lump in his throat.

“Let me…” he breathed when they came up for air. “Don’t move…just let me…”

John nodded. “Please…”

When Sherlock came, John’s hand covering his as he stiffened, he barely managed to stifle a shout against John’s throat. When John came, it was with a low, almost pained moan. He shook and shook.

“Yes…oh God, yes…yes…” It was half pleasured babbling, half strangled sob.

“I have you,” Sherlock whispered, breathing hard. He watched the mottled flush climb up John’s chest, John’s nails scrabbling against his hips. The heaving breaths John was gulping were clearly straining his chest. “Shhh...”

For a long moment, John struggled to calm his breathing, jerking in shallow lungfuls of air and letting them out. Sherlock held him by the hips and whispered to him.

Finally John said: “I forgot—“ But he stopped himself, shaking his head.

“’Forgot?’” Sherlock traced small circles on the juts of hips.

“I forgot I could feel…” John’s voice broke, his forehead coming down to rest on Sherlock’s chest, trying to pull in a breath.

“’Tell me,’” Sherlock urged, arms around him now, curving around to press his hands against the small of his back.

“…Good,” John bit out, and a sob wracked his chest.

Sherlock’s brow creased down, his chest aching. He slowly rubbed his cheek, his lips against the spikes of John’s wet hair, nodding against him.

“When we’re home,” he whispered against John’s temple. “I will not let you forget it again."

John gave a laugh and nodded, but the tears were still there. His legs had begun to tremble, his breathing shallow and clearly pained.

“Come on,” Sherlock said, reaching behind him to shut off the water. “Let’s get you dried and dressed and back to bed.”



They had two visitors that morning, just a few hours apart, and both were good and difficult in their own ways.

The first was Molly Hooper, who came just after 9:00. She was wearing her usual ragtag collection of clothing, her purse overlarge and patterned something like a clown. She knocked before she entered, and at Sherlock’s “come,” she edged into the room with her hands at her sides in trembling fists.

Sherlock stood as he saw it was her, buttoning his jacket as he came forward, a small smile on his face.

“Hello, Molly,” he said softly, and the emotion on her face broke a bit and allowed her to nervously return his smile.

“Sherlock,” she said, taking in his face. “I’m so glad. I mean, not glad at what’s happened, of course, but I’m so glad that, um—“

He nodded, coming closer. “I understand,” he said, cutting off the burble of words. “I’m glad, as well. And I can never thank you enough.”

She looked up into his face, her lower lip caught between her teeth, her eyes wet. She took him in for a beat, her eyes cataloging his face. “You’re not…sad anymore, are you?”

He met her gaze. “No,” he said, shaking his head, and her arms went up around his neck.

The embrace was short but far less awkward than Sherlock had thought he could manage with anyone but Irene or John. She was tense when he started, but then more relaxed.

When she pulled away, she wiped her eyes. “Your brother said that John had been hurt?”

Sherlock nodded. “Yes, quite seriously and quite some time ago. But he’s doing much better now.”

“I’m sorry,” she replied, shaking her head. “How did it happen?”

Sherlock shook his head. “He was in a serious accident. I’m afraid I can’t say more.”

Molly nodded, though her cheeks flushed as though she’d broken a rule. “Yes, I’m sorry. Your brother…he said there was a lot you can’t talk about.”

Sherlock brushed it off with what he hoped was a reassuring smile. He’d forgotten how he made her a nervous wreck. He gestured to the bed. “It’s all right,” he said. “John’s been resting a bit this morning, but I know he’d like to see you.”

Molly’s face flushed even deeper scarlet and she shook her head. “I…it hurt him so much, you know. When he thought you were dead.”

Sherlock nodded. “I know, yes.”

She drew in a breath, looked down. “He came to see me right before he disappeared. He said goodbye to me. I was worried he—“

No, Sherlock thought, closing his eyes against it for a few seconds. He couldn’t go back to that.

“He’s fine now,” he said, cutting her off again. He smiled kindly. “Come say hello.”

They stood on opposite sides of the bed and Sherlock softly called his name. When his eyes opened, John looked first at Sherlock and then to his right when he sensed someone else standing there.

“Molly,” he said softly in his sleepy voice. Sherlock could feel the trepidation coming off of her in waves.

“Hello John,” she replied. “You’re looking…you look…”

“Like hell, yes,” he finished, giving her a wry grin.

She laughed. “Well, no. Not your best.”

John’s hand came up toward her, reaching for the hand she had curved around the rail. She grasped it, and from the white knuckles of her fingers, the creases in John’s skin, she gripped it hard.

“John, I’m so sorry.” Her soft voice was hoarse. The tears were coming now. “I—“

“I know,” he whispered back to her, nodding.

“There was so little time and Sherlock—“

“I do know, Molly,” John interjected gently, a sad smile on his face. “And it’s all right.

Sherlock watched as she searched John’s face, looking for any sign of hesitation there. Finding none, her shoulders dropped as though she’d been holding them tense for months.

She squeezed his hand harder. “Okay,” she said, letting out a breath. “Okay then.” She smiled wider and wiped her eyes. “Sherlock said you’ll be home before Christmas? We should have a party. Like that one we had before.” She stymied. “Well, not exactly like that. It was—“

Sherlock forced a chagrined smile at that. “We should,” he said before she could go reminding them all of that night. “A little celebration to reopen the flat. Why don’t you plan it? You and Mrs. Hudson could—“

“I will!” she said brightly, sniffed. “That would be nice.” She looked down at her watch, letting go of John’s hand. “I have to go to work, but…we’ll talk more soon, yes?”

“Yes,” John said fondly. “We will. Take care.”

And Sherlock watched as Molly moved toward the door, leaving in a flurry of awkward but happy words.



Detective Inspector Greg Lestrade’s arrival was a bit less subdued and exactly what Sherlock expected.

John had just been brought a lunch tray and Sherlock had helped him move to a chair, the tray wheeled close to his chest and a blanket across his lap when Lestrade came through the open door, his hands dug deep in his dark trouser pockets and his coat still buttoned against the cold outside.

“For Christ’s sake, Sherlock,” Lestrade nearly yelled. “Why don’t you fucking tell a man what the bloody hell you’re playing at?”

Both Sherlock and John jumped at the sound, John having been intent on his awkward eating with his right hand, and Sherlock checking a text from Mycroft when the sound blurted through the air.

“Pleasant to see you, Detective Inspector,” Sherlock said, turning to face Lestrade as John brushed at the beans he’d just knocked off his toast onto his pyjama top.

“Don’t give me that,” Lestrade snapped. “Jesus, the last time I see you two, you’re handcuffed together and Sherlock’s got a pistol to your head. Then the next thing I hear, you’ve bollixed yourself jumping off the roof at Bart’s.”

“I didn’t jump to my death,” Sherlock said evenly, sorry that some part of him was enjoying this. “Though I’m sorry you were upset.”

Upset?” Lestrade parroted, reaching up to unbutton his coat. “And I know you didn’t jump to your death, you arse. Christ, Sherlock. Next thing I know I’m on Mandatory Leave, sitting around watching football with my thumb up my arse and wondering what the fuck—“

“Hiya Greg,” John said from the chair.

“John,” Greg said, looking around Sherlock to make eye contact with John. “You look like shite. Glad you’re not dead.”

“Ta, mate,” John said, hiding a smirk. “Fancy some toast?”

“No thanks,” Lestrade turned his attention back to Sherlock. “Where was I?”

Sherlock looked consternated for dramatic effect. “I believe you were reaching the point where my brother drove up in a black car and told you to come with him.”

“Yeah, right,” Lestrade said, blustering on. “And then I’m in protective bloody custody if you can imagine in this posh hotel – not complaining too much, mind you, me being a bachelor now and cooking for myself was Christ -- but then I’m told—“

He stopped, narrowed his eyes. “Why the hell am I telling you all this?” he asked peevishly. “Especially when you’re both clearly enjoying it. You already know all this.”

Sherlock cleared his throat, hiding the faint smile on his face as he looked down. “I did not, strictly speaking, know about the thumb up your arse, but as for the rest....” Now he did look up, his eyes warm. “And it is good to see you, Lestrade.”

Lestrade heaved out a great sigh, shaking his head and returning the smile. “You always were a bastard, Sherlock,” he said, taking off his coat and tossing it on the bed as John began to laugh.

“John, I’ve changed my mind. Give us the toast while you all tell the tale.”


They sat in a cluster of three chairs with a steaming pot of tea, and it was the first truly easy moment Sherlock could remember having in quite some time. Because of Lestrade’s position, Mycroft had told Sherlock that he could be told more specifics about where they had been, including the identity of James Moriarty and the “game” he had played.

“Did you ever meet Irene Adler?” John asked. “I can’t recall now.”

Lestrade shook his head, blowing on his tea. “No, I just remember the trouble with that bloody phone of hers, and the two of you spending six months in something like an old married couples’ tiff.

Sherlock cleared his throat awkwardly as John put a hand on his belly and gave another painful bark of laughter. “Jesus, we were, weren’t we?” John said, shaking his head.

“You might get the chance to meet her still,” Sherlock said, changing the subject before John egged Lestrade on. “She’s staying here until the end of the week, then returning to the house in Switzerland.”

“Staying to watch the resurrection of The Reichenbach Hero, eh?” Lestrade asked. “Should be a laugh.”

“Oh yes,” Sherlock said tiredly. “I’m sure it will be a sight to behold.”

“I’m to be with you for the initial conference, you know,” Lestrade said. “Your brother’s got it all arranged. I get to stand next to you while we tell the world you were right about Moriarty. I get to say I was right about you. And then I think we stand there together making a rude gesture and tell the world to bugger off and leave us alone.”

“That should do it,” John said, sarcasm dripping. “I’m sure they’ll wander off after that.”

“Hardly,” Sherlock replied. “It will be several weeks before things even begin to calm down.”

“Well, comfort yourself with this, if you will,” Lestrade said, a gleam in his eye. “Some of it will at least be entertaining. I think your brother’s planning a particular humiliation for that reporter, Kitty Riley. And for Donovan and Anderson, as well.”

Sherlock’s eyebrow climbed and he looked at John. Lestrade looked between them and stifled a laugh.

“Bloody hell,” John said softly, demurely holding his tea. “Three wankers in one go at Mycroft Holmes’ hands? It is Christmas, isn’t it?”




Chapter Text



Hey Doc.

Paul in his helmet that seemed too big for his head, trying to smile through tears.

“What a wanker I am, eh?”

John remembered the precise feel of his throat, the strong shape of it against his palm.

“No, not at all,” he’d said. There was something like a breeze. It smelled like oil and something burning and diesel fumes.

Then the dream shifted, like a blue wash going over the image. Night. A blue night. Paul was speaking to him now, standing on the road. The stars were coming out, cold and shining and far away.

“Let it go,” Paul was saying. He had his helmet beneath his arm, his eyes bright. “Let it go, John. You did the best you could. You did brilliantly.”

A shake on his shoulder. Gentle but firm, and just one shake. John recognized it dimly as a soldier wanting another to wake.

Paul put on his helmet now, the medkit slung low on his back as he turned and walked away.

“Hey Doc.” Sing-song. “John.”

“Paul,” he replied.

“Nope,” someone answered. “Guess again.”

Dreaming. I’m dreaming again.

He’d gone deep into sleep. He realized that now. As he kicked toward the surface, the voice kept talking to him.

“Right here, Doc. Come on…”

And John opened his eyes.

Three men were standing around the bed. Tan uniforms, closely cut hair. Ribbons on the upper left of their chests and the gaudiest trident pins he’d ever seen.

Chris and his huge smile. Quince’s quirked lip. The wry, knowing gaze of Mick.

“Hoo-ya,” he said softly, smiling back.

“HOO-YA!” They said it fast and ear-splittingly loud, then broke into a rowdy laugh.

“How the hell are you, John?” Chris said, taking his outstretched hand. The other two followed suit as John answered.

“Much better, thanks.”

“Why are you still looking like an old lady lying there?” Quince asked, but his eyes glinted with humor.

“Ach, sod off…” They laughed again as John raised the head of the bed.

“Gentleman!” a nurse poked her head in the door. “If you could please lower your voices!”

“Oh, oh…” The three of them made a show of shooshing each other down. It was Mick who spoke, his cap folded in his hand.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” he said, contrite. “We’ll pipe down.”

She gave them a disapproving look and closed the door again. The snickering recommenced.

“You’re going to get me thrown out of here,” John said fondly, looking at them in turn.

“When are you getting out anyway?” Chris asked, reaching down and lowering the rail. He sat on the bed’s edge. “You’ve been in the hospital for what…a year?”

“Even Sam’s back home, for Christ’s sake,” Quince added. “And he broke his damn neck.”

“A few days, they say,” John replied. “Can’t be soon enough. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sleep through a night straight through again.” He looked at them, going serious. “How is Sam? He was on the Critical Care flight with me, I remember. And everyone else? I never got word when I was in Landstuhl because I was too—“

“—Busy trying to croak? Yeah, we know.” Chris shook his head. “A miracle you’re talking to us, man. A fucking miracle. I’ve never seen someone take a hit like that and not be four-in-the-air or on a ventilator for the rest of his life.”

“Well, I am British,” John said nonchalantly, and they rolled their eyes.

“Everybody got banged up some, as you can imagine,” Chris said. “Sam’s out for good. Paralyzed from the mid-chest down. They’re not sure it’s permanent, but we won’t know for awhile yet. I broke my wrist and tore up my knee. Mick here separated a shoulder and tore up his back.”

“All better now,” Mick said, waving it off.

“So he says,” Chris corrected, looking at him. “Lacerations and burns and fractures all around. Kip broke his femur and has been lying around like it’s his dream come true. Three pretty serious TBIs, including Quince. Now he pisses himself every time a plane flies by.”

“Hey, screw you, man, that happened once and I was out of it and it was fucking loud.” Quince gave John a wink.

“Other folks with broken ribs beside you,” Chris continued. “Junior broke his jaw.”

“What a gift,” Mick said with real relief. “We all didn’t have to listen to him whine like a little candyass while we were all healing up.”

“And Eli broke his leg,” Chris finished. “But he’s good. He’s with Lopez on base in Germany.”

“And the helo crew? No casualties there?”

“Nope,” Mick replied. “Gris let it roll and it ended up bottom down again. Landed hard but it kept us from completely breaking apart.”

John couldn’t begin to describe his relief. No one had died. No one had died. Oh, thank Christ… He felt emotion rising in him, his eyes beginning to sting. He cleared his throat.

“What are you all doing here?” John asked, composing his face. Mick had seen it though, and smiled kindly, nodding to him. Chris had reached out to touch his arm.

“We got an invite to spend Christmas here,” Chris said, regaining a bit of the boisterous tone. “And on your government’s tab, no less! We’re all on leave until the team’s recovered and replacements come in, so we thought we come see how much of MI6’s money we can spend in a week.”

John grinned. “Knowing you three, you can probably run through quite a bit. Where are you staying then?”

“This awesome hotel on the river,” Quince said. “Great view of the city. And man, the room service? It has the best steak I’ve ever had.”

John felt his face blanche. He could see it in his mind, that view, could feel the disconnect between its quiet beauty and the gun in his hand…

“Yeah,” he said, forcing a smile. “Yeah, I know the one you mean. It is a nice place.”

“Hey,” Chris said brightly. “I know you can’t come up there and tear it up with us, but…maybe we can find a time to come see you when you get out?”

“I’d like that,” John said, smiling warmly. He reached for a piece of paper and a pen on the nightstand. “Let me give you my mobile number. And tell me what room you’re in.”

They exchanged their information, and Chris stood, tucking the number in his pocket. “We’ve got to go on the prowl,” he said. “We’ll be in touch.”

“Hey, look,” Mick said, his tone changed. The other two looked down at John, taking their leader’s cue and going serious and still.

John met their gazes, swallowed a lump in his throat.

“We all saw what you did,” Mick said, rubbing his thumb along the edge of his cap. “If you hadn’t caught that door the way you did, we probably would have lost some guys.”

John shook his head. “None of you would have been there in the first place if it wasn’t for me,” he said quietly.

“Bullshit,” Quince said. “We live half our lives out there where we were.”

Mick put out of a hand and touched his elbow, silencing him.

“We put you in for a medal,” Mick said. “They sent it up through Command.”

“You didn’t need to do that,” John said, though he was deeply touched. “I…didn’t do anything. I just…” He shrugged, groping for words. “It was instinct.”

“That’s why you deserve a medal, shithead,” Quince said, winked. Chris and Mick grinned.

John smiled. Leave it to him to stick a pin in the sentiment as it threatened to roil over.

“Right,” John said, clearing his throat again. “Thanks. Thanks for that. Now go find some nice ladies and have a good shag.”

“Uh huh,” Quince said, narrowing his gaze at Mick. “Works for me and Chris, but we’ll have to find a nice dude for Mick here.”

Mick rolled his eyes. “Secret’s out now, I guess,” but he gave John a knowing look.

“He spooks off all the nice ones by being scary,” Chris laughed. “So I go talk to them first.” He made a leveling-off motion with his hand. “Smoothes the way.”

“Gross, man,” Quince said, making a face, but he threw an elbow at Mick anyway.

“Hey, you gotta use every weapon to your advantage, man,” Mick said. “You know how this works.”

John couldn’t help but gape. “Well…good luck with that then.” He smiled at Mick and offered his hand.

“We’ll find you soon,” Mick said, and took John’s outstretched hand. The other two did the same, Chris holding on a bit longer and giving it a squeeze.

And with that, they were gone.

John rubbed his forehead, smiled past the lump in his throat. Then he checked the time.

It was just after 2:00. Sherlock would be on his third television news program of the day now, he and Mycroft and Lestrade. John had watched the first with deep satisfaction, hearing for the first time Jim Moriarty’s confession on the roof of St. Bart’s.

Listening to him scream at Sherlock, taunt him, had made John so angry that he wanted to kill him again.

But by the second interview – Sherlock sticking rigidly, at his brother’s insistence, to the script – John had found the whole proceeding nerve-wracking. So he’d checked to make sure Sherlock seemed all right (he did – clear and collected, and less haughty than John had ever seen him in public before), then he’d turned the television off and tried to rest.

John’s name had come up in both press conferences, with news he’d been involved in clearing Sherlock’s name but had been severely injured in the process. It had taken all of an hour for someone in the hospital to sell the information about where he was to a journalist, and Mycroft had clamped security down even further on the place in case the press came looking for him. Only a group of Navy SEALs could have possibly gotten permission to enter his floor.

He flicked on the television from his remote, the channel still set to the news. There were he and Sherlock, the day Sherlock went to testify at Moriarty’s trial for the break-ins, John holding his hand out to clear the photographers from their path to the waiting police car.

Then the view changed to Sherlock and Lestrade in the studio, the white-haired anchor gushing to both of them.

“This story just gets more extraordinary by the moment,” he was saying, and Lestrade nodded. Sherlock tried to smile agreeably, but mostly he looked tired and bored.

“It’s been quite a difficult few months, yes,” Lestrade said, covering for Sherlock’s silence. John would have to thank him when they returned.

“I think a good question at this point, Sherlock – may I call you Sherlock?”

“I believe you just did.” Sherlock sipped a mug of tea that had been sitting next to him.

The anchor laughed nervously. “Well…I think the question on my mind is whether you bear anyone any ill will over this?”

Sherlock cleared his throat. “’Ill will’ isn’t quite the phrase I would use,” Sherlock said, his voice low and serious. “But I will say there were several people whom I believe willfully overlooked evidence that would have at least raised suspicion over Richard Brook’s accounts of my affiliation with him. The journalist – and I use the term loosely – Kitty Riley, for example, seemed far too easily taken in by Jim Moriarty, and I do hold her responsible for much of what’s transpired because of her slipshod journalism driven by what I believe to be personal animosity toward me.”

The anchor seemed to love this. “I understand she’s been sacked as of this morning, is that correct?”

“That’s our understanding, yes,” Lestrade said, unfolding and refolding his legs. “Two members of my department – Sally Donovan and Nigel Anderson – have also been placed on Administrative Leave pending an investigation into their behavior on this case.”

“And the Chief Superintendent as well, we’ve been told,” the anchor added, nearly salivating now.

Lestrade cleared his throat. “Yes, though I’m not permitted to speak to that.”

John, alone in his quiet room, grinned.

Nothing could have made the suffering they’d all gone through worth it.

But this? he thought, leaning further back in the bed, his chest aching. This was one hell of a salve.



Five o’clock and Sherlock still hadn’t returned. John sat in his chair now, the tray with his barely touched food on it pushed to the side. He was tired of the bland food, the bland walls, the bland place. Even the quiet felt white in a hospital, and after so many weeks, he was ready for color again.

A soft rap at the door. “John?”

John looked up from where he’d been staring unseeing at the muted television again. “Yes? Oh, Irene.” He gave a small smile. “Yes, come in.”

She entered the room, and he realized it was the first time in quite some time since he’d seen her dressed. A red turtleneck jumper, black wool pants with lower heels. Her hair was soft and loose and down.

“How was your dinner?” she asked, eyeing the tray.

“The same as yours?”

She smirked. “Rubbish, yes.”

“Well, tomorrow morning you’ll have breakfast served by Gregor at Mycroft’s house again.” He smiled fondly at the memory. “Still the best tea and scones I’ve ever had.”

That made her grin. “Yes.” She gestured to the chair opposite, the one where Sherlock usually sat. “May I?”

“Please,” he said, and she did.

He met her gaze, and their eyes hung for a beat.

“You and Kate are off soon?” he asked.

“Yes. Our flight’s at eight.” She looked at him, then down. “Glad to see me go, are you?”

John laughed softly. “A bit, yes,” he replied, nodding. “I’m ready for life to get back to some semblance of normalcy, and, well…that’s a bit hard when you’re around.”

“True,” she replied, and he could already hear the amusement in her voice. He was glad he hadn’t hurt her with the truth. “Still,” she went on. “I remember a time – and not all that long ago, mind you – when you wouldn’t have even wanted to sit with me like this.”

He looked away for a beat, blushed. “Yes, well, I’ve had good reason not to trust you, you know.”

“I’m sorry.”

His brow creased. “About which part of it?” He really did want to know.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “For a lot of it. But mostly should I say…jerking your chain about Sherlock. How he felt for you. How you felt for him.”

“Right, yeah, I noticed that.” John looked up, struggling to keep his expression kind. He couldn’t help the little tinge of anger that came over him.

Irene swallowed, meeting his eyes. “John, I never meant to fall in love with him,” she said. “And once it happened, well…I couldn’t help myself. I knew he was yours, and—“

“I didn’t yet,” John finished, nodding.

“Right,” she said. “And that gave me a bit of hope that you wouldn’t figure out or wouldn’t go along with it.”

She was treading more carefully now, hearing the anger still there. He could see her backing off and, knowing it wasn’t usually her way, he appreciated it.

She continued. “But what you have with him…what I do now... It’s right, I think.”

He nodded. “I do, as well.” And he squeezed her hand. “Hard won on both sides.”

She laughed softly. “Yes. Clearly.”

They sat in silence for a few beats. It wasn’t exactly companionable, but it wasn’t awkward either. John let it stretch. He was tired in so many ways.

“I do want you to be all right,” he said finally. He couldn’t look at her as he said it. “To be…happy.”

“I am all right,” she said, and he could tell she meant it. “I need time to suss out what I want to do, where I want to go from here. And Mycroft has been so kind to give me the place.”

“I believe, despite himself, he admires you,” John said, looking at her profile as she looked down. He smiled.

“No, I don’t think that’s true,” she said, shaking her head.

But John was nodding. “I really think he does. You put him on his arse once and I gather that doesn’t happen very much. I think he’d very much like to see you doing well--”

“--And on his side?” Her eyes glinted with their familiar mischief.

“Oh, we all definitely want that.” He gave a stiff laugh.

She laughed too, but it didn’t last. Her gaze fell to her lap again, a blush tinting her pale cheeks. “That…pleases me for some reason,” she murmured. “How strange.”

He looked at her, and their eyes met. He felt a tiny crack in the melting ice for her there and gave her a rare, unguarded smile. She saw it and gave it back.

Then she stood, leaned down to press a long slow kiss to his cheek. “Take care of him always, John,” she murmured, leaning away. “And yourself too. He would be absolutely lost without you.”

“I know,” he said softly. “I will.” Then he reached for her hand, gave it a gentlemanly kiss.

Someone cleared his throat at the door, and John looked up to see Sherlock and a man he didn’t know standing there.

“I’m not interrupting, I hope?” Sherlock said, but there was a smile on his face that touched his tired eyes.

“Not at all,” Irene said, straightening and turning to Sherlock and the other man as they came further into the room. “I imagine you’ve had quite the day.”

“Yes, it’s been just grand,” Sherlock replied, the fatigue in his voice.

John looked closely at Sherlock as he neared, taking in his posture, the set of his face. If they’d had any privacy at all, he would have taken him to bed and just held him in complete silence for the rest of the night.

Sherlock looked at John and his lip quirked as though he could read John’s mind and was saying yes. Then he turned to the man who’d come with him – young, dark haired, pale skin and bright eyes, wearing the expensive black suit and formal, hands-folded stance of someone who worked for Mycroft.

“I’d like to introduce you both to…a friend of mine,” Sherlock said, hesitating a bit at the designation, but choosing it nonetheless. “This is Iarla Brennan.”

John caught on a breath, surprised. He felt something warm and fond open in him.

“Iarla,” Sherlock was saying, smiling as he watched John’s face. “This is Irene Adler.” Irene reached out as Iarla took her hand and greeted her. Then Sherlock turned back to John. “And this is John. John Watson.”

John started to stand, his eyes on Iarla’s face.

“No, no,” Iarla said, fast, coming forward. “Jesus man, don’t get up.” He reached his hand out and John took it and held it tight.

He started to speak, but the words seemed caught in his throat. He tried again. “I am…so glad to meet you,” John said. He cleared his throat.

Iarla smiled. “And you, John. I’ve heard so much about you. Sherlock’s ‘John.’”

“Iarla’s been one of my minders today,” Sherlock said, putting on a peevish tone, but his heart wasn’t in it. “Taking me hither and yon to these junkets and generally helping to keep my manners.

“Tough job,” John said, finally releasing the other man’s hand.

“You’d know,” Iarla replied, and gave John another smile. “Glad to have had the Detective Inspector helping with his gun.” John laughed.

Then Iarla turned to Irene. “Ms. Adler, I’m to accompany you and your partner to Switzerland, make sure everything’s in order there.”

Irene nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Brennan. I’ll just go and gather my things.”

“Very good, miss,” Iarla said formally. “I’ll meet you downstairs then.”

Sherlock looked at John. “I’ll join her,” he said softly. “See her off.”

Then he did something he’d not done in front of anyone before. He bent and gave John the ghost of a kiss.

“Back in a bit.”

John smiled, nodded, and the three of them moved toward the door.

“Iarla?” John called, and Iarla turned. “I…” He hesitated again, emotion welling. There was so much he wanted to say, but he didn’t know where to begin.

“Don’t worry, John,” Iarla replied, his eyes warm. “I know we’ll have plenty of chances to talk. And I look forward to it.”

John smiled. “Good,” he said. “That’s good. Until then? And travel safe.”

Iarla nodded. “Until then,” he replied and followed the others out.



Sherlock and Irene were not ones for goodbyes, per se. In the past, Sherlock had always found the convention drenched with syrupy sweet sentiment and avoided it at all costs.

But now, as he stood in the hotel lobby with her – Kate in the back seat of the car watching them, Iarla in the passenger seat on the phone and the black car’s idling exhaust sending up little puffs of steam – he understood the importance of leaving things with someone in a certain way. Something done for sentiment, yes, but also as a gesture of respect.

He had both for Irene, so he did his best.

“This is…hard for me,” she said. The tears were there already.

“For me, as well,” he replied. “But we’ll see each other again.”

She nodded, then came forward into his outstretched arms for a long embrace.

“You promised you’d come for me,” she whispered against his throat. “And then you did.” He still heard the surprise, the disbelief in her voice.

He nodded. “Of course,” he replied.

“No one’s ever kept their word to me before.” She kissed the hollow of his throat just at the vee of his open collar. “I can’t thank you enough for that.”

He smiled, gave her a soft kiss on the forehead. “I’m not the only one you can trust, Irene,” he said quietly. “I just have the distinction of being the first.

They parted, and she leaned up and kissed the corner of his mouth.

“Be happy, love,” she said softly. “Safe and warm and never alone.”

“And you,” he said, and his eyes filled. He squeezed her hand.

They lingered there for a long moment. Then, finally, they let each other go.



The media circus continued unabated for the next several days. Sherlock continued to do interviews in person or via phone, and John grew increasingly restless. He was ready – more than ready – to be back home.

Sherlock had noted that, during the daylight hours, the hospital was watched by a small collection of journalists in cars and vans. But both he and Lestrade had noted that even the reporters seemed to get bored after about 10:00 each evening and move on until morning, so they made plans to move John back to Baker Street in the middle of the night.

Rather than use one of Mycroft’s cars or a police cruiser, Sherlock simply engaged a cab. Lestrade would accompany them in case anyone approached them, and Mike Stamford – who had since visited John in the hospital, red-faced and chuffed and nearly in tears – would meet them at the house. John was still using oxygen at night when his breathing grew shallow from constriction in his chest, and Mike would be there to help get the equipment settled in.

John refused a wheelchair, saying he was “not a bloody invalid.” But he had agreed to the transport belt, a wide neoprene thing that clipped around his hips and had handles on each side and on the back. With it, Sherlock could support his body without having to lift him around the chest.

“That’s right stylish,” Lestrade had quipped as Sherlock snapped it on. “Sort of turns you into a suitcase. Well, a carry-on at least.”

“You’re a bloody laugh, Greg,” John said, biting his lip as Sherlock helped him into his coat, his left arm still curled against his belly. The physical therapy would start in a week.

Sherlock left the coat open to better reach the handles on the belt. “Are you ready?” he asked, and John met his gaze.

More than,” he replied. “Let’s go.”

It was slow going, but they got down to the street without incident. A light snow was falling as they moved John carefully into the cab.

“All right?” Sherlock asked as John leaned back. John nodded, but Sherlock could tell some pain was starting from the shallow rise and fall of John’s chest. He and Lestrade climbed in, Lestrade taking a flip seat facing, and with the slam of the door, they were off.

A week until Christmas, and London was decked out in greenery and fairy lights. Sherlock watched John stare out the window, a Christmas child’s smile on John’s gaunt face. It pleased Sherlock to see the happiness there.

“We’ve been away for so long,” John said as they crossed through Regent’s Park, the snow falling more steadily now. “Feels like a lifetime, in fact.”

Sherlock kept watching his face, and he felt himself smile.

“Go on and kiss him if you want to,” Lestrade said from across.

Sherlock jerked his eyes away to look at the Detective, and John did the same.

“I beg your pardon?” Sherlock said primly.

“Go on,” Lestrade said, waving his hand toward them. “I’ve worked out you two are lovers now. I’m not that dense. And it’s about bloody time, might I add. Christ, the Shag Vibes at crime scenes before were enough to taint the evidence.”

John burst into a laugh, holding his chest. “Jesus, Greg,” he choked. “Five points for tact.”

For his part, Sherlock simply glared. Lestrade looked right back at him, gave him a fond smile, and winked.

“Glad for you, by the way,” he said softly, and Sherlock blushed as an embarrassed smile crossed his face. Then he looked away.

Baker Street, Speedy’s Café in view. Sherlock hadn’t been back to the flat yet himself yet, and as he looked up at the dance of multicolored lights Mrs. Hudson had put around the windows overlooking the street, something in his chest took hold and squeezed.

The cab pulled up and the driver called out the fare. Sherlock tossed him some bills and told him the keep the change.

“Happy Christmas to you then,” the old man said, smiling. It must have been a large tip.

After some gentle maneuvering, the two of them got John out onto the sidewalk. The door to 221B opened, and Mike Stamford was standing there in a dark jumper, snow immediately dusting his dark hair.

“How goes it, John?” he said, and John began walking toward him, Sherlock and Lestrade on either side.

“Good, yeah,” John replied. “Freezing my bollocks off at the moment.”

Mike laughed. “Inside then,” he said. “Let’s get you up these stairs.”

Sherlock followed John in, barely managing to interpose himself quickly enough between John and the onrushing form of the sobbing Mrs. Hudson.

“Oh Sherlock,” she was saying, a flurry of chartreuse cashmere and running mascara. “John, I’ve been so worried.”

Sherlock felt her vice grip of a hug, her nails scratching on the back of his coat. She was crying in earnest now and he patted her back.

“It’s all right,” he said as patiently as he could manage. “We’re very glad to see you as well. Just don’t grab John like that or he’ll be back in hospital.”

“Hiya,” John said as she let go of Sherlock and turned to him, crying and saying, in one long garbled, high-pitched sentence, something about scared and worried and brave. Then she curled her hands around the back of John's head and held his face against hers so she could kiss both his cheeks.

“Mrs. Hudson, please,” Sherlock said. “Let us get him upstairs before you drown him.”

“Right, right,” she said, sniffling and wiping at her eyes. “Oh, I must look a mess…”

“You do,” Sherlock said bluntly. “Now please, if you could go up ahead and make sure the path to the downstairs bedroom is completely clear.”

“Of course, dear, of course.” And off she went.

John moved to the foot of the stairs and Lestrade got in front of him to go up a step ahead. The stairs were too narrow for anyone to walk beside him, so Sherlock and Mike took up their places to follow behind.

“One step at a time, John,” Mike said, all “encouraging doctor” with his tone. “You can do it, mate.”

“Right,” John said, taking in a deeper breath. “Seventeen steps. Right. Let’s do this.”

And slowly, painfully, up he went.



It took awhile to shoo them all out, both of them enduring too much fussing and cheering up. But Sherlock was aware that the long, uncertain months had been hard on all of them, that they’d all suffered grief and hardship and fright, and that there was something about being together that acted like an antidote to all of it.

Mrs. Hudson had decorated the flat for Christmas, the fireplace strung with garland and sleepy, multicolored lights, a fire crackling in the hearth. There were cards that John had received, and she’d opened them and put them around just as he would have done had he been back at home. She’d even put up a small tree in the corner and decorated it with what appeared to be her own ornaments, since he and John didn’t have any of their own.

“I wanted it to be homey,” she said, smiling as she’d brought out a pot of decaffeinated tea and a tray of biscuits for Sherlock, Lestrade, and Stamford. “What with John in hospital so long, and you…well.” Her eyes filled again.

“Thank you, yes,” Sherlock said, trying to head off her tears again. “It looks…very welcoming. Very nice.”

That seemed to please her, and she again covered her mouth. “I’ll just get—“ and she hurried back to the kitchen to fetch the cream and sugar and to blow her nose.

For his part, John had gone straight to Sherlock’s bed since he’d made it up the stairs and, as Mike was checking the oxygen flow through the cannula, he’d fallen dead asleep, still in his clothes.

Sherlock had closed the door behind them so that the talk in the living room wouldn’t wake him, though from John’s utter stillness, there didn’t seem to be much chance of that.

A pot of tea later and it was Lestrade who took the hint.

“We should let you get some rest,” he said, putting his cup and saucer down. “Get settled in.” Sherlock, perched in his odd, comfortable chair, legs crossed and hands gripping the familiar arms, had given him a quick, grateful smile, and stood.

“Yes,” he said, making a show of sighing. “I’m afraid I am a bit…tired.” Had he ever said that in his life? It sounded odd coming out of his mouth.

Mike was eating his fourth biscuit and popped the rest in his mouth. “Right,” he said, still chewing, and stood.

They went for their coats dumped over the couch, put them on. Mrs. Hudson was talking about a party, the one she was doing with Molly, which Sherlock had forgotten about. He sighed.

“If there’s any trouble, just give me a ring,” Mike said, smiling to Sherlock.

“I will do, Mike,” Sherlock replied, and Mike shook his hand and went down the stairs.

“I’ll be in touch,” Lestrade said, nodding to him, and turned and left as well.

Mrs. Hudson didn’t seem capable of looking at him without her eyes filling with tears, so Sherlock gave her a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek and told her goodnight.

“I’m just downstairs,” she said, her voice watery, and beat a hasty retreat, sniffing the whole time.

With great relief, Sherlock closed and locked the door.

He turned back to the living room, taking it in. The fire was dying in the fireplace, but it was still giving off both light and heat. Sherlock reached down, unbuttoned his jacket and took it off, laying it carefully across the arm of the couch.

Then he began a slow circle of the room, touching everything as he went. The bowl on the coffee table filled with bright red apples. The smiley face high on the wall, the bullet holes never repaired and the wallpaper ragged where the slugs had gone in. At the mantle, he tapped the Lucky Cat’s paw, and it slowly waved back. The Cluedo board still pinned to the wall with his knife in its heart.

A microscope was back on the kitchen table, but it wasn’t his. John or Mrs. Hudson must have sold his other, which only made sense. John would have had no use for it, and he’d long ago complained that he’d like to use the kitchen table from time to time.

All and all, it was like a tiny museum to his life with John, and he very much liked it that way.

He went down the hallway, unbuttoning his shirt, pushed the door open and entered into the dim light from his bureau on the far side of the room.

John hadn’t moved at all, still tucked in his coat, but there was a sheen of sweat on his face. Unsurprising, since between the fire and Mrs. Hudson not being stingy with the heat (for once), it was incredibly warm in the flat.

His shirt open, Sherlock leaned down over John, moving John’s arms off his stomach and unbuttoning his coat. John stirred, made a small sound of protest in his throat.

“John, let’s get you changed,” he said softly.

“I’m fine…” John breathed.

“No, you’re in your coat,” Sherlock replied. “Let’s get you on the edge of the bed and undressed.”

John roused himself now, putting an arm around Sherlock’s back as Sherlock pulled him up. After weeks of this, the two of them had a fairly good system, and John was soon on the edge of the bed. He peeled the cannula off to make it easier to undress.

Coat, shirt, vest. Shoes, socks, trousers, leaving him wearing just his white cotton pants.

“Bloody hot,” John said, yawning, still half-asleep.

“Yes, Mrs. Hudson would like it ‘homey,’ I think,” Sherlock said, peeling his trousers off and tossing them on the floor by his shirt. Cooler now in just black boxer briefs, he helped John get the oxygen back on.

John sat up a bit straighter, fumbling with the wide belt of elastic velcroed around his chest. “Help me…get this off.”

“Are you sure? Don’t you need it on?”

John shook his head, appraising Sherlock’s body with a half-smile on his lips. “I want us skin to skin,” he said softly, and Sherlock liked the sound of that.

A few moments later and John got his wish, him on his back and Sherlock curled against his right side, one long leg bent over John’s thigh and his arm draped low over John’s belly. Sherlock reached down and covered them with his thin gray sheet, his fingers trailing lightly over John’s chest. With all its scars, Sherlock thought it looked like a map of rough terrain.

“So…” John said, the oxygen hissing beside the bed and through the band on his upper lip. He was so exhausted that it was hard for him to even move his hand over Sherlock’s back. “Fancy a shag?”

Sherlock huffed a laugh. “Yes,” he murmured against John’s cheek. “But not tonight.”

He pressed a kiss to John’s lips, then buried his face in the warm space between John’s right shoulder and his throat.

“We have all the time in the world,” he whispered, to John and to himself. He felt John smile. “Go back to sleep.”






“Sherlock,” Mrs. Hudson fussed, and once again Sherlock was amazed at how she could turn the sound of his name into such an incredible whine. “Why are you hiding here in the kitchen when you have guests?

“I am not hiding,” he snapped. “But there are just too many bloody people in there.” He straightened his coat. “We didn’t have this many people last year, you know, and I found that a crowd.”

“You’ve more friends this year than last,” Mrs. Hudson said, her voice edged with rebuke. “And for most people that’s something to be happy about. It’s only five more.”

Sherlock sighed. Friends again. Bloody hell…

“Now take this tray of little sandwiches out and put them on the coffee table, will you? And make sure—“

But he missed the rest as grabbed the tray and charged from the kitchen with what he hoped was a cordial smile plastered on his face.

The living room was uncomfortably full. Lestrade was in Sherlock’s chair, talking to John and Mike and Quince, one of the SEALs. Another of the Americans was talking to Molly, and the third had found Iarla over by the window.

Molly and her SEAL (Mick? Chris? Some other monosyllabic name? No, Mick was the gay one, Sherlock reminded himself, so this was Chris) were close to the coffee table, and as he walked to it and began clearing a space for the tray, he couldn’t help but eavesdrop.


Molly was smitten, that much was clear, but Chris, Sherlock deduced, was likely married, or at least engaged. Still, Chris was polite and genuinely interested and Molly was enjoying it. She had some silly drink with a straw and she was talking over the top of it.

“Oh, I work on dead people,” she said, with her usual tact.

“What a coincidence,” Chris said, laughing and unphased. “My friends and I have had to kill a few this year.”

Molly blushed as though he’d just told her he liked her hair. “That’s…nice. That must be nice.”

It was all Sherlock could do not to roll his eyes. He quickly withdrew.


“So how do you know John and Sherlock?” Mick was asking, and Iarla couldn’t help but watch his mouth as he spoke.

Stop it, he snapped at himself. He’s a bloody SEAL, for Christ’s sake…

“I met Sherlock in Amsterdam,” Iarla said. “While he was…doing some work.”

Mick nodded, and Iarla could have sworn that Mick was studying him as well. Mick was in blue fleece top and jeans, the chain of his dog tags just showing on his chest. He looked like a tourist, somebody’s older brother, or a young father of three.

Not gay, Brennan Iarla chanted inside his head. Not gay…

Mick was talking again. “Something with this…thing they were doing, right? The thing we worked on with John?”

Iarla nodded. “Aye, though I came into it by accident.” Iarla sipped his drink, feeling the damn thing go straight to his pale Irish cheeks.

“Oh, okay,” Mick said, clearing his throat. “So what is it you do?”

That stopped him. Mick was the first person to ask him, so it would be the first time he said it aloud. “I’m with British Intelligence,” he said, and he really, really wanted to laugh, especially when he saw the impressed look cross Mick’s face.

“Really? Wow. That’s gotta be—“

He was interrupted by Sherlock breezing by with a tray of tiny, fussy cupcakes, each one adorned with a tiny ivy leaf.

“Yes, you’re both gay,” he snapped, then kept walking toward the table next to John and Lestrade and the other two men.

Both Mick and Iarla watched him go, then turned back to each other.

“Well,” Mick said, smiling, and picked up his drink. Iarla was laughing already. “I guess that answers that.


Sherlock set the tray of cupcakes down hard on the table, straightening his jacket.

“Check please, waiter,” Lestrade said, and Sherlock gave him a narrow-eyed stare as Mike Stamford nearly choked on his tea.

“Sherlock,” John said from his usual chair. “You are being nice, I hope.”

“I’m always nice,” Sherlock snipped, then turned and went back to the kitchen again.

Quince looked at him, looked at John. “Dude, is your boyfriend always such a dick?”

“No bloody comment,” Lestrade said, taking a swig of his scotch and chewing the ice.

John laughed. “Around other people? Most of the time, yes.”


“Sherlock, play something for me now,” Mrs. Hudson said awhile later, the party winding down.

It had become their tradition, the song Mrs. Hudson’s preferred gift, yet this year, Sherlock obviously hadn’t had time to prepare.

Still, he retrieved the violin from its case, Mrs. Hudson shooshed the room down, and Sherlock suddenly found himself at the center of everyone’s attention. The radio was playing carols of its own, and Molly went to turn it down.

Sherlock listened in the sudden quiet and put up a hand. “No, Molly,” he said, his head cocked. “Leave it on.”

A French horn was playing “Auld Lang Syne,” one instrument playing a simple solo. He listened for a measure, then lifted his violin, closing his eyes. After a moment, he began to improvise.

He started by first playing along to the song, then, at just the right moment, he switched over to another tune. “Dona Nobis Pacem,” one of the first simple songs he’d learned to play, flowed from his bow and he seamlessly wove it in.

The song had just started, so he had ample time to play. When he chanced a look at Mrs. Hudson, she had her hands clapped together in front of her face, a smile of pure joy on her face.

As the horn finished, he lowered the bow. The room erupted in applause.

“Bravo,” John called, smiling at him.

“Here, here!” Mike said, raising his (third) drink.

“Sherlock, that was so lovely,” Mrs. Hudson said, laughing with delight. “So lovely. Thank you so much, dear.”

He bent down and warmly kissed her on the cheek.



The next morning – 23rd December – Sherlock arranged for Lestrade to take John to his first physio appointment, saying he had an “errand to run.”

“M’kay,” John said, a bit puzzled. “Everything all right?”

“Yes, yes,” Sherlock had fussed, sipping his morning tea and passing his second piece of toast across the table. “Should be back just a bit after you are, I should think.”

Then he’d gotten his coat, tucked his scarf in its stylish noose and set off to hail a cab.

Once inside, he took out his phone.

At home today? Send.

A long pause. Yes, is something wrong? his brother replied.

No, nothing is wrong. He hesitated, then took a breath and tapped away. Thought I’d stop by.

The pause was epically long this time. Then: I’ll put the kettle on.

The cab took them out of the city, out to the countryside. By the time they were close, Sherlock had to tell the cabbie which of the unmarked roads to turn down.

Finally they pulled up in front of the huge house, the circular driveway still wearing a crust of the light snow. The house was quiet, but the windows were warm.

“Can you wait?” Sherlock asked. “There’s an extra twenty quid in it if you will.”

The cabbie laughed. “For that, I’ll move right in.”

Sherlock got out and went to the familiar door. He started to knock, but the door swung open just as he raised his hand.

Sherlock looked at his brother in his stiff dark pants and his dress shirt and his knit vest. Mycroft’s brow was creased down as he looked at him.

“Sherlock,” Mycroft said. “Won’t you come in?”

In the foyer, they stood facing each other for a long moment, Sherlock’s hands behind his back.

“May I…take your coat?” Mycroft said, and Sherlock obliged, taking it and his scarf off. Mycroft held them and gestured to the large sitting room. Sherlock led the way in and they sat, their mother’s tea set on the small table between them.

“Is John all right?” Mycroft asked as he poured.

Sherlock cleared his throat, added sugar to the brittle cup. “Yes, he’s doing well. Off to physio this morning with Lestrade in case any reporters make a nuisance of themselves.”

“I see,” Mycroft replied, fixing his own cup.

The fire crackled. They both took a sip.

“Sherlock, forgive me, but…what’s wrong?” Mycroft asked.

“Wrong?” Sherlock asked.

Mycroft heaved a patient sigh. “You haven’t been to my house in more than 10 years.”

“Yes, that seems about right,” Sherlock said, looking around. “Odd that it looks exactly the same.”

Mycroft gave a terse smile. Sherlock could see he was waiting for an answer still.

“Nothing’s wrong, Mycroft,” he said softly. “I just thought…it being Christmas, we should…have a visit.”

Mycroft looked at him like he’d grown a second head. “A visit,” he said softly. “For Christmas.”

Sherlock huffed impatiently. “Yes, a Christmas visit. That’s what people do, yes?”

Mycroft set his cup and saucer down, shrugged rather helplessly. “So I’m told.”

Sherlock sat back further in the cushions of his chair. “So yes, let’s have a visit.”

Mycroft sat there, looking down, his hands carefully cupping his knees. “All right,” he said after a long beat. He seemed to be weighing things in his mind. “Perhaps I could show you my garden. Though it naturally doesn’t look its best this time of year.”

Sherlock nodded, leaned forward, setting his cup down. “Yes. Your garden. Let’s… look at that.”

Together, they stood.


“Why in the bloody hell did you take us through The City at lunchtime?” Lestrade snapped at the cabbie through the little holes in the glass.

“Sorry, sir,” the man said, gesturing to the radio. “Tied up the other way. I thought this would get you back quicker.”

Lestrade huffed as he sat back. “God, we’re going to grow old, sitting here until this moves…”

John was looking out the window, at the teeming of businessmen coming out of their buildings for lunch meetings or a quick bite. He hated it down here. In fact, he hadn’t come down here since…

“Oh God,” John said, sitting up straighter.

“What?” Lestrade said from beside him, immediately on edge.

But John wasn’t paying him much attention. Because Sebastian Wilkes was crossing the gridlocked street in front of the cab, turning to head down the street back to his bank.

Oh. OH…

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and he opened the door and slowly climbed out.

“John, where the fuck--“ But the door shut Lestrade’s protest off.

He was moving slow, but Wilkes didn’t seem to be in much of a hurry either, talking on his phone.

“Sebastian!” John called, holding his side. “Sebastian Wilkes!”

Wilkes stopped at the sound of his name, turned. He saw John coming toward him and smiled a strange, amused smile.

“Well, I don’t believe it,” Wilkes said as John drew close. “Aren’t you John…sorry, can’t remember your last name. Sherlock Holmes’ colleague, yes?”

John was finally standing in front of him now. “Watson,” he said. “And not his colleague. His boyfriend.

Wilkes guffawed, looking supremely condescending and amused. “Yes, well. Congratulations are in order then, I suppose? Is there something I can help you with?”

It took everything John had to put some power into the punch, but it was enough. Before Wilkes even knew what had hit him, he was flat on his arse, his hand on his jaw and his eyes wide as moons.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing??” Wilkes nearly shrieked.

John, pain ripping through his chest, was breathing hard. “Now you and I both know what that was for, yeah?”

Wilkes looked at him, speechless.

John pointed straight into his face. “Don’t you ever. Ever. Contact him again. We clear on that? If you do, I’ll make sure everyone, and I mean everyone, knows what a pathetic bastard you are.”

Wilkes still stared, rubbing his face.

“Happy Christmas, you prick,” John said, and turned and dragged himself back to the cab.

Lestrade was looking at him with his shocked face nearly pressed against the glass. Once inside, John nearly crumpled in on himself from the pain, but, blowing out a breath, he managed to sit back again. Lestrade gripped his shoulder.

“Christ, mate, what the hell was that all about?”

John said nothing for a few beats as he struggled to catch his breath. “Probably you should arrest me for assaulting that man.”

Lestrade thought it over for a beat. “Good reason for it then?”

John looked at him, nodding. “Very,” he said.

Lestrade sat back, shrugged, and the cab finally started to move again. “Then I didn’t see a thing.”



Christmas Eve Day was spent quietly, John and Sherlock sleeping in. Then they rose and showered, dressed, and Sherlock put on his house uniform of black trousers and white shirt and his blue dressing gown.

John’s arm made it too hard to get into one of his dreadful Christmas jumpers (Thank God, Sherlock thought…), so he was in a button-up shirt and jeans and socks, tucked in his favorite chair with a stack of newspapers and a blanket tossed across his lap.

Then, at around lunch time, Mrs. Hudson came upstairs, tapping on the door. Sherlock called to her to come in.

“There’s someone here to see you, dear,” she said, her face concerned.

“Reporter?” Sherlock asked from his chair, closing the newspaper, his brow creasing down.

“I think it’s a client,” Mrs. Hudson said. “She said she had heard on the tele that you were alive and back in London and she thought, well…She’s quite upset.”

Sherlock looked to John, who looked back and shrugged.

“Why not?” John said, and a smile touched his lips.

They listened to her for a long time, the story spooling out amidst her tears. Mrs. Hudson gave the woman – Sarah Jacobson – tea and sympathy and kept her supplied with tissues. Her husband was missing. She was convinced it had to do with a stack of spreadsheets about foreign accounts he’d seen at work.

Sherlock sat and listened, his fingers steepled in front of his face.

“Are you certain he’s not simply run off with another woman?” Sherlock snapped, his mind turning its elegant cogs. “He’s done it before, yes?”

Jacobson gaped, stricken. “How did you--?”

“That’s not important,” John cut in. “Has he been showing signs that he could be…well…”

“No, none,” she said, composing herself. “That was a long time ago. We…we worked it out.”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. She was telling the truth.

“I assume you’ve brought the spreadsheets with you,” he said.

She nodded, fumbling with her overlarge purse. “Yes, they’re here.” She drew the thick stack out.

“Leave them with me and I’ll look them over,” he said, leaning forward to take them. He began thumbing through them immediately. “I’m not doing any field work at the moment – my assistant has been ill.” He nodded toward John, who seemed surprised. “But I will look at these and let you know if I see anything.”

Then he immersed himself in the data and promptly forgot she was there.

“We’ll be in touch,” he heard John say softly, and Mrs. Hudson began to fuss around her to get her out. He heard Jacobsen thank her and blow her nose.

Oh, he thought. Oh…

“Mrs. Jacobson,” he called, looking up. She was nearly out the door, but she turned and looked back at him, a tissue against her face.


He stood, taking in her face. He went toward her, stopping right in front of her. She looked up at him with her wide, wet eyes.

“I’m sorry for your trouble, particularly this time of year,” he said softly. “But I can assure you I’ll do all I can. It will be all right.”

Her hand dropped and she came forward, wrapping her arms around his neck. It surprised him, and the best he could do was awkwardly pat her back.

“Thank you, Mr. Holmes,” she murmured as she let him go, and she told the astonished Mrs. Hudson she’d show herself out.

Sherlock cleared his throat, straightened his gown. Then he went back to the chair, picked up the spreadsheets, and lay them on his lap.

John was looking at him, still as stone, a small, fond smile on his face.

“What?” he asked in his best irritated voice.

John shrugged with his good shoulder. “Nothing. I…nothing.” He smiled wider and picked up his book.

“She was upset,” he said quietly. “I thought it would…” He trailed off, let out a frustrated sigh and buried himself in the numbers.

Until he felt Mrs. Hudson standing next to him, her hands curving around his face. Then she leaned down and pressed a warm, long kiss on his cheek.

It was so disarming that he let it go on. Not since his mother had died had anyone given him such a loving, maternal kiss.

“I missed you so, Sherlock,” she whispered. “Welcome home.”

Then she let him go. He looked up at her, flushed red, and then averted his eyes. John was doing his studious best to pretend he was reading, the smile still on his face.

“Thank you,” he said, clearing his throat where something seemed lodged there all of a sudden. “A cup of tea, if you please.”

She smiled, gave his arm a little tap. “Just this once,” she said. “I’m not your housekeeper, you know,” then she went to put the kettle on.




Thanks for reading. :-)