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Recovery Position

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“Forgive me, John, but you look like shit. Did you check out Against Medical Advice, or are you still getting care for that concussion?”

“I feel like shit. I go for my checkups, but as far as I can make out they drugged the crap out of me for the better part of a week.” I missed his funeral. Thank God. Don't think about it. “Not what I learned to do for head injuries. The first thing I remember —after— is arguing with Harry about taking my pill.”

I see it cross Greg’s face: We both know where you learned that, mate and see his expression change, sink almost the way I know mine does, a hundred times a day. I try to smile, but … “Yes,” I just say. “Exactly.”

For a minute we just sit there in our pain. I pull out of it and go on. “So I made her get me out of there as soon as I could walk without the floor spinning under me. It’s all right. She yells a lot.”

“You could stay with me,” he offers.

“That’s really going to help you with the enquiry, having Confirmed Bachelor Watson on your couch.”

“Fuck them all.”

Yeah. Oh very much yeah, but then if it weren’t for the IPCC Committee of Enquiry I wouldn’t be sharing pints with him. Harry had to take a day off work and bruise my wrist holding it too hard, making sure I behaved, sitting there the first time I went in to testify. The pain helped. Pain I understood, pain from somewhere real, threatening, present, instead of this bloody emptiness. Made me look outside and see Greg, and Molly, even sodding Mycroft, all of us in our best clothes, on our best behavior, listening to those superior bastards belittle the times Sherlock and I and the rest of them gave our blood and sweat to trying —to fight the bad guys, to play the Game, to dance the Game, whatever, track it? Because no matter how much good he was doing, and sometimes he did admit he was, it was all about the Game, the Work: pulling a shape out of the smoke and making a narrative out of chaos. We don’t blame a foxhound for yearning after the scent. Can you blame a man loving to do what he was made for? I think of the poor twisted people who seem to have no choice, the molesters and the true sociopaths. They say ‘perverse,’ literally twisted; Sherlock may have been, more than a bit, but he twisted the other way. He said once he did it it because it was harder. I like to think better of him-- Don't think about that.

I ask, “Why do they even think you would do something like that? Fake a bunch of crimes, sell out to a fraud?”

“Because bent coppers come in all possible shapes. Money, promotions, publicity. Impressing the women.”

We can both laugh at that. Apparently his ex turned down an interview with Kitty Riley, showing, he said, that she loved him more than he’d ever have guessed. “You could have split the money,” I’d said.

“But mostly,” Greg goes on, “because they have to be seen to be doing something. Dealing with the fallout— God, sorry— from one consulting detective is a hell of a lot easier than finding out why so many guys feel the need to beat up immigrants and take bribes from Rupert Murdoch.”

“You’re handing it better than I would.”

“Not really.” He takes a pull on his pint. “But you haven’t seen how many coppers support me—him. Us. Hell, everyone hates Professional Standards. Some of the lads telling me to stick it to them aren’t men I want on my side. But most of them are. And not to sound overly modest, but I am known to be —“ he hesitates.

“The very model of a modern Metropolitan DI?” I needle him, because, except for his weakness in the matter of consulting detectives, Lestrade always reminded me of the better officers in the army. He cares more about the people under him than he cares about the people over him. And the Work, of course.

“That’s why they let me get away with the shit Sherlock gave them for so long. And they want the same things they think I do — money, promotions, some good publicity for a change.”

“Witch-hunting won’t get it for them.”

“Neither will exonerating me. Thanks for showing up, by the way.”

“I was bloody subpoenaed.” The first couple times, while Harry had to guide-dog me. Until I realised how often I heard Greg say, slowly and clearly, over and over, one of the samples wearing a track in my brain: He was not a fraud, he was not a criminal, he was a great man. Heard someone saying that besides my own voice. I hear it more often now, but Greg was the first.

“The first couple of times I saw you I was afraid you’d pull out your illegal weapon and make them see reason.”

"What illegal weapon?” We smile together quickly, painfully, old exes with a shared sentimental pang. I shake my head. “Not likely. But Harry’s so worried about me she’s taken the pledge.” Not for the first time, Greg probably knows, but it’s something. I didn’t know she cared.

“You still don’t have to stay there.”

Is he offering because he’s lonely? Because he feels guilty? Because he feels sorry for me? It was weeks before I noticed how much pity there is in people’s faces when they look at me. Before I really saw myself in a mirror, saw what they were seeing. I’ve given out enough sympathy myself — Christ, how many times did I offer double when, when, when—Mr. Cheekbones was being an arse? Now I know what it’s like on the receiving end I don’t know if I’ll do any better; but I can tell when people offer their regrets because they’ve been somewhere like this instead of because they’re afraid they’ll be somewhere like this. Like someone who’s been to war, not just seen it on the telly. I look at Greg, really look. He’s in better shape than I am, but a long way from all right. But he cares, my God, he cares. He knows, or thinks he knows— so much less to know, really, than people think— and whatever loss he thinks I feel is close enough to his own that I can’t fob him off.

“I’m having nightmares,” I say finally. And the occasional crying jag, which he can infer if he needs to. “Right now I’m not fit company for anyone with a steady job — my sister owes me a lot of sleepless nights. And I’m not—“ Ah, CHRIST, the pain cracks through me like an MI and it’s all I can do not to roar with it.

Greg grabs my hand, squeezes tightly as my muscles cramp and I wish the pint-mug handle would shatter, cut me, let the pain out in a bright red— breathe, John, BREATHE, Dr. Watson. I’m shaking like a leaf, still trapped in a squeeze inside my thorax that darkens my eyes.

“Outside any better?” Greg asks quick and urgent. I shrug, follow him out the side door, dragged really, as he snags a pile of napkins off the bar. There’s a bench in the fading sun; bright enough to make anyone close their eyes. Maybe not so bright that anyone else would hide their faces in their hands. Getting more familiar than I like with the Stages of Hysterical Sobbing. First time outside the house; well, Harry’s house. My body has demanded more of a say in my life than I like since the army. The pain, really— physical pain— wants all of me for a moment. Finally it loosens enough I can trust myself to exhale without screaming.

I can feel Greg’s indecision, fluttering like a proper Englishman between two centuries — late nineteenth Stiff Upper Lip or early twenty-first Sensitive Metrosexual? Always these questions.

“Fucking hug me, all right?” I snarl, and take the paper to keep from getting snot all over his shoulder. Letting down the side, Watson. Except I’m not the only one in pain here. There’s something to be said for being the identified widower. Getting back to regular breathing, except that I can hear myself keening. Softly, anyway. Greg has jettisoned his guy-credentials to hold me like a tall child, holds me tightly. I can hear a stray few sobs fight their way out his chest, against my ear, and as my breath starts to come more regularly I find I am patting him gently on the shoulder. Damn you, Sherlock. How could you do this to him? The iron band around my ribs loosens again but the sorrow takes the space to bite harder. Now it’s just my shoulders shaking, but smaller loose hiccuping sobs pour out of me. It’s best not to try to fight them, and Greg, frankly, is a mess. I’m crying for both of us, but he’s doing all right on his own. 'Let it out.' One more person tells me and that I _will_ use the gun.

I get the first decent breath in ages, a break in the clouds. I’m not used to being in a man’s arms. Not anyone’s, really, these days, Harry and I are not all that good at familial affection and I’ve told her to fuck off too many times. Greg is not as tall as, as Sherlock-- damn, crying again. It’s like being a building in an earthquake. I’m getting some of those springs in my foundation from practice, but Greg is like something made out of old-school masonry. Mind you, save enough sorrow up it starts developing interest, and between, between that, and his career on the line. and his divorce, he’s probably got a pile. Are you pleased with me, Ella?

Both of us are gasping less and breathing more and Greg loosens his death-grip on my shoulders. I offer him a napkin. “Allergies?”

“Oh, right, ta very much Dr. Watson.” He blows his nose. I blow mine. We sit on the bench, our shoulders mashed against each other. I’ll take the comfort. Six weeks in, now, I have learned not to be picky. My body doesn’t want sex particularly but it wants touch so very much, so empty inside sometimes, something outside helps fill me a little.

“Sorry,” I say.

“Fuck off. That happen to you often? No wonder you look like shit.”

“The headache afterwards’s the worst part, “ I tell him. “Want coffee?”

I can tell he doesn’t want to go back into the pub with his mascara running but I have no pride anymore, and coffee helps, so I give him a one-armed hug — I am a doctor, damn it, and he needs it, screw his pride— and pop back inside long enough to get some. And more napkins. Sit back down, as close as before. No pride.

Greg doesn’t pull away. We don’t talk for awhile, as the last light fades. I could rest my head on his shoulder but I don’t think either of us wants to go that road. If I weren’t so ground down I wouldn’t have thought of it, but it was nice to be held by someone. Tall and broad, anyone, really. I hold myself up so often I can feel it in my back these days. I check that my breathing is normal, not like it’ll trip over an emotion, and say: “If I moved in with you it’d be-- another flatmate, and I can’t now.” I’m pleased I could say it, breathing again carefully.

“See your point. Sorry.”

“Nah, thanks for the offer. Ask me in a few months if you want.” Oh, that was a bit much. I make myself breathe, stretch my neck and shoulders, concentrate on the cobbles at our feet. River-tumbled, poorly sorted, probably local. Post-war aggregate, this pub is older than it looks. At least the garden is. I’m trying to observe. You really can see more. Christ, I miss you.

But one melt-down is enough for the evening. “So what now?” I ask. “You go back to work, with the thanks of a grateful nation?”

“No. I go back to work with a big red blot that’s not supposed to be on my record and try to solve a bunch of cases the Met’s been too busy to look at properly. Without any civilian help, if there was any I wanted, and without half my team. If I wanted them, either. I’ll talk to the other DI’s, see if we can trade, but Donovan and Anderson have somehow acquired leprosy in the last few days. I think they're trying to go elsewhere.”

I shouldn’t be happy about that. “What is it, ‘if you try to kill the king, you’d better succeed’?”

“Pretty much. How about you?”

“You remember Sarah Sawyer? She called me up out of the blue to ask if I could be locum in her practice again. I’m not sure she really needs one. But I need to do something; I'm still a doctor and that still matters, and I won’t have to explain things to her. Start out with a few hours a week.”

He hesitates. I can hear him wondering if I’m in any shape to tend anyone, because I wonder that as well.

“Go ahead. Say it.”

Greg shakes his head. “No one for her to be jealous of now. Nor to put her in harm’s way.”

“Or me, either. Not that I think we’ll be dating anytime soon.”

“Christ, _dating_,” Greg said, sounding like, like a disdainful schoolboy. “I’d almost rather be helping IPCC with their enquiries. No excuse now. You want to be my wing-man?”

“You’re watching too much bad American TV.”

“True.”

“Shall we see if they left our pints on the table?”

As easy as that, or as hard, we pick up our friendship to try to make it live. After Sherlock.

Chapter Text

Lestrade and I meet for drinks again, a couple weeks later. Not even properly autumn yet, but it’s twilight already. “How are things, John?”

“Better. Less hysterical sobbing.”

“Glad to hear it. Me, too.” I can't tell if he's serious or not, which means he is. Lovely, Sherlock; you'd like knowing you could make grown men weep.

“But you picked the darkest table in the place, so you weren’t sure.”

Greg looks at me mildly. “If that were the case, I’d have chosen the one nearest the door." The seats are comfortable, and I wanted to ask…” He saw that I’d noticed the ellipsis and shook his head. “In a bit, all right?”

“Dark for dark business?”

“If you like. How’s Sarah?”

The seats really are comfortable; generations of good British drinking has beaten the cushion into submission. Faded chintz from someone’s gran? “Better than I deserve. She keeps trying to doctor me and I keep biting her head off.”

“Doctoring must be kind of a professional habit, though?”

“True, but she needn’t be so clinical. I can be fucked up without having PTSD, right?”

He raises his mug. “To honest, human, unlabelled behaviour.”

“‘Idiopathic, subclinical, fucked-up.’ I should write something for The Lancet.” There must be Latin for 'fucked-up.'

“Do you want to do the research?”

“We’ve been doing it all our lives, it’s everywhere. Look at them.” There’s a couple, a man and a woman, off in the brighter-lit portion of the room.

Greg looks, gazing from behind his glass. “She’s nervous, and he’s a git.”

Which was more or less what I thought. I’ve learned, a little, about backing my instincts, trying to see why I have a hunch; but I don’t have Sherlock’s database. Cheap clothes? Things about a person that don’t match? It’s actually easier if I don’t know them; I think I’m less likely to be biassed, though she is certainly too attractive for him. “Body language?”

“Yeah. He’s selling himself and she’s not sure she’s buying it.”

“First date.”

“And likely to be their last, if he doesn’t back off. She’s too young for me,” Greg says.

“So you are looking?”

“ 'A man has needs.' ” Greg glances up at me, wondering if he should apologise. I shake my head a fraction and he relaxes. “Wants, anyhow. Things are rushed at the Yard. The brass are getting shaken up, the gangs are killing each other, and people still manage to find time for a nice domestic murder. I say nice; not nice at all. Wives who should have left years ago leaving feet first. Occasionally husbands.”

“You have a new team together yet?”

“‘Team’ might be an exaggeration. We fight crime, and we try not to fight one another. Sally Donovan was with me for four years; I encouraged her to go for detective when she was just a constable. Now she’s in Leeds.”

A better man than I am would say that was punishment enough, but… “Anderson?”

“Also Leeds.”

We roll our eyes. The git buys the young woman— I don’t think she’s a secretary, something a bit more independent — a drink with an umbrella. And enough fruit to stave off acute scurvy. She’s not as impressed as she’s meant to be.

“Everyone else?” I ask. “I saw some faces I recognised testifying on your behalf, but I didn’t know their names.”

“I usually have two DS and two DC working with me, a forensic pathologist from the stable we keep in the cellar — no, really, and whoever else I need. When I came back after administrative leave, Sally and Anderson were in the process of leaving London, which saved me the trouble, and my other sergeant and one of the constables had been snaffled up by other DIs. The only one who’s still around is DC Ackroyd. He doesn’t say much, but he’s keen enough.”

I vaguely remember him. “Pink shirt during the kidnapping case, at the end?”

“That’s him. Very competent, by-the-book guy. He misses Sally; they used to have lunch. But he doesn’t seem to blame me for her departure.”

“Nice to have some continuity?”

Greg shrugs. “Most of us move around.” He starts to ask something about whether I had ever thought of doing forensic path., but the Git sees an Old School Pal coming into the pub and makes a great show of excitement. The girl, politely, turns to see the Pal— and the git passes his hand over her glass. I push myself up, trip over the carpet and land with my weight on the Git-and-Girl’s table. Knocking over her drink. I apologise profusely. The git glares at me.

“I’ll get you another MaiTai,” I tell the girl. “But you might want to keep it closer to your side of the table.” I point at the half-melted pill in the dregs on the table. The girl looks at it; then, smoothly, she picks up the Git’s drink and pours it over his head. We’ve attracted quite a lot of attention by the time the Git and his Pal storm out of the pub. The girl’s eyes are bright, but she’s surprisingly calm about the whole thing. She introduces herself. She’s an actuary for a firm in the City.

“I knew he was a bit of wanker but I didn’t think he was a creep. Thanks, Dr. Watson.”

“Sorry?”

“I read your blog? I wish you’d keep it up.” This conversation would have been exactly what I wanted a year ago. Not so much, now. Something shows on my face and she puts her hand on my sleeve. “I know — I’m so sorry for — but the story’s not over.”

“Isn’t it?” I try to put her off.

“If you hadn’t blocked your 'comments' you’d know. You must have seen the graffiti, ‘We Believe in Sherlock Holmes.’ “

What’s the obligation here? I put my heart out on the Internet before I knew what I was doing, but I’ve never known what to do with the people who send me bits of theirs in return. I don’t know what to say to fans. Trying to channel my inner Neil Gaiman, I aim for sincere affection and a fervent hope she’ll leave me and Greg to our beer. “Thank you. Yeah, I have seen it. As of a couple weeks ago Scotland Yard believes in him too, but it’ll be a cold day in hell before The Sun prints a retraction.”

“Which is why you should. Put up the bit about Scotland Yard. Clear his name.”

That’s occurred to me before, but it’s always been followed by a wave of nausea. I’m supposed to be ‘moving on.’ “It’s complicated.”

“He’d do it for you.” She flushes; by any standard, that was a long way out of line. “I’m so sorry, Dr. Watson,” she says. “I just — he did some work for one of my cousins. I’m saying— he didn’t just belong to you. I’m sorry, I know I shouldn’t — but you’re the one with the bandwidth to make a difference. Look, here’s my card. If you ever want to talk. Call me?”

I take the card, stick it in my wallet; she hastens out of the pub. I return to our table, where the bartender is putting down two whiskies. “Courtesy of the gentlemen in the corner. They say ‘no obligation.’”

Greg and I lift the shots in thanks toward the ‘gentlemen in the corner.’ Football fans. Not the hooligan kind. One of them wants to make eye contact. No.

“So we’re drinking these?” Greg asks, doing so.

“I deserve it.”

“You smell of almond and roofies.”

“I think it was Ambien. Should you have arrested him?”

“You prevented the crime. And you got her number.”

“Sherlock’s blogger got her number, not me. She wants me to update.”

“Sherlock’s blogger, John…” Greg hesitates. I nod. “Sherlock’s blogger is still alive.”

The evening is just going that way. I’m not in tears and not nauseated, a GOOD DAY in my book, even if someone has also declared it ‘Tell John Watson How to Live Day.’

I am alive. I am beginning not to resent it so much. “Do you know how long I’ve stared at the damned screen? Wondering what to say?”

“Do you know how long I’ve stared at the damned screen, wondering what actually happened?”

Chapter Text

“No. What?” Everyone knows what happened. It was in all the papers, and weeks later, it’s still showing up.

“John, did anyone ever try to take your statement? About… any of it?”

“About the day Sherlock died?”

“Or the night before, when you punched my boss in the teeth? Have you ever given sworn testimony about Moriarty--or Richard Brook, for that matter?”

“I did last year, with the pips and the Semtex—“ not about the pool, our own involvement in Moriarty’s game; but I blogged that. People know. “No. No one ever said anything about charges or tried to interrogate me, after. There weren’t any crimes — is suicide—?”

“No. Can be a breach of the peace. But running away when you’re under arrest, with a hostage, yes.”

“There was no one to charge.”

“There was one hell of a suspicious death. No whisper of an inquest.”

“Is this what you wanted to talk about about somewhere dark?”

“I wasn’t intending to dive so straight into it, but yeah. I need to talk about Sherlock’s death. With you, because you’re the only source I have. I’m sorry, John, is this okay?”

Greg is concerned: should he go on? He has reason to be worried after the last time we were here. But I was only halfway back into the world. Blame the head injury, if you like; blame the meds. When I look at myself from outside I know I’m taking it hard, but I’ve had friends who took …things —and I was in Afghanistan, for God’s sake, where Sherlock’s death would have been among the cleaner ones— much harder, and I thought no less of them.

Of course, being sub-clinically fucked up, I can’t possibly give myself as much slack as I’d give anyone else, and I wish I’d pull my socks up and get on with life. Ella’s job is to tell me not to be impatient.

(And there’s the other voice that says that Sherlock’s death deserves every wrench, every pang, every sob it draws out of me. If I sometimes pay for losing him, it’s what I pay for having had him, and I’d do well to pay more attention to what I have before it becomes what I’ve lost… but I don’t think that’s human nature.)

I’ve gone through all this in my head before, and telling Greg the whole thing is too long. I opt for reassurance so he’ll get to his point. “It’ll never be okay. But if you mean, am I all right to talk about the events now? Yes. I think so. Don’t you want your tape recorders?”

“If we ever get to something that needs to be official, maybe. This is anything but. When I got back, it took me most of a day to get my desk sorted out enough to see what was on it. And really, I wouldn’t expect them to let me have anything to do with Sherlock’s affairs; the point of the whole enquiry was that my affairs should have been more separate from his. But still— I expected something more than a note from HR about confidential psychological counselling. I imagined they might have put Dimmock on it, but he and Gregson and the others say no, no one’s asked. I talked to friends in Records and IT and there’s nothing, not even any records of of people calling in a disturbance at Bart’s.”

“Sherlock was dead at the scene,” I say, asking, really. I can’t really remember the sight, just the touch. The warmth of his wrist, the stillness, the blood.
“Yes. It was quick, John. He wasn’t drugged or shot.”

“No, I know he wasn’t. He was talking to me. On the phone. Just before. He said I was his note. I saw him fall.” No, I saw him leap.

Greg’s face, even in the gloom, is a study in professional detachment and horror. The Last Outrage Of Sherlock Holmes. “Christ, John. I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”

“How would you have known? No one’s asked. Except the bloody reporters.” And Harry. And Ella. Whom I haven’t answered. “I don’t even know what the papers say. Besides ‘Fraud Sleuth in Love Plunge Horror.’ Somehow they know I was there. When the Royal London discharged me we left through the deliveries dock. There were reporters all over the lobby, Harry says.”

“Someone called me from outside Bart’s about three hours after he fell, I think; maybe they called the papers. No one in the papers claimed to have been there, but there were a couple of phone snaps. I think they must have been an ambulance crew or something around outside, because they got him inside pretty fast. ”

I try not to feel sick. I am not fine, but I am functioning. My mouth is dry. I’ve gone over those fragments of memory as best I can, though every time I play them I know I’m losing a little more of whatever objectivity I could conceivably have. Sherlock’s profile, with the damned coat, against what seems like an impossibly blue sky. The awful sound. Trying to reach him, walking into the damned cyclist…And then him on the pavement— I drink. The tang of the bitter is real and present in my mouth. Which hops are the citrussy ones, again? Deep breath. This is just another case, of course it is. No.

I square up and meet DI Lestrade’s eyes, ignore the worried softness in the rest of Greg’s face. “So someone called the Met to say your fugitives from the law were at Bart’s?”

“It was on my own phone, not my office line. I looked it up, the call, just the other day —the number was from the phone box outside the hospital. I don’t remember the exact words he used — the voice didn’t register on me at all, just someone saying there had been an accident, and Sherlock Holmes was at St. Bart’s Hospital. Then they rang off.”

“A little odd? Or very?”

“Maybe a little. My number’s out in enough places. They know me there well enough, it could have been anyone on the staff.”

I can see a ghost of the time crossing his face, slackening the muscles. I reach out for his arm; touch matters these days, at these moments. I doubt he’s talked much to anyone either. Somewhere I notice again that I am not the only one who lost Sherlock.

“Then what happened?”

“I didn’t know what to expect, really, but I went alone. There weren’t any reporters yet. The people at the desk said how sorry they were, and I must have looked confused. They asked if I hadn’t heard, and of course I hadn’t, but … it didn’t take long to figure out something awful had happened, but they didn’t seem know to it was Sherlock who’d… fallen. Mike Stamford came in—” I remember they’d met that time last August, when Mrs. Hudson had decided we needed to have a barbecue, in the little dark garden we share with Mrs. Turner. “He looked terrible. He said, 'Sherlock Holmes is dead.'”

Greg looked into the distance.

“Then he told me you had been hurt, clipped by a cyclist, he said someone told him; you had passed out. He rode with you in the ambulance to the A&E and called your sister. He stayed till they were sure you were stable and came back to Bart’s. He didn’t know how anything had happened, though I gathered that Sherlock had spent the night at the lab.”

“Part of it,” I say.

“After your visit to Kitty Riley.”

“And Rich Brook.”

“So she said. She called, of course, but you had gone. They had pulled me off the case by then, but Gregson let me know you were still on the loose.”

He’d like me to tell him, and I will, but I want to hear his story. “Go on.”

“I went to Molly Hooper’s office but she wasn’t there. No one was around, until that eerie bastard Mycroft came out of a corridor.”

“What did he say? How did he look?”

“Like he always looks. Like he looked at the funeral. The fully-clothed civil servant. He does this waiting thing that really annoys me.”

“You use it on every poor bastard you interrogate,” I say.

“Yeah, that’s why it annoys me. I usually ask a question before I start waiting, but with him, he just looks at you like he knows what you had for breakfast this morning, and who you had in the back of your car twenty years ago.”

“Because he wins if you show what you’re interested in.”

“Exactly,” Greg says. “I told him I was sorry to hear about his brother. I thought he was about to make some crack about my solve rate, but then his face just fell and he said ‘thank you.’ I asked what had happened; he said, as far as he knew, ‘his brother had cracked under the pressure,’ which I know is bullshit. I asked what pressure he meant? He said, and I quote, that 'Sherlock needed more attention than anyone could ever have gained being sane, and when the attention he sought turned hostile, he just…'” Greg shrugged. “But Mycroft wasn’t a suspect and I couldn’t ride him very hard. He’d have me shot. I asked if there was anything I could do, and he said my colleagues had already done more than enough. I said I felt that way too and he looked marginally less like an android and said he was waiting for his brother’s body to be released, and did I want to come to the funeral? I told him I did, and he said I would be informed, and then damn if I didn’t find myself leaving. And when I got back to the Yard I was asked very nicely to leave there until enquiries could be undertaken. Anything else I know, I read in the papers. Some of it was not stomach-turning. I should have come to visit you in hospital, John, and I’m sorry.”

“If you want to know why there was no inquest, I don’t think you need look any farther,” I said. “What Mycroft doesn’t want, doesn’t happen. And it’s not like there’s any mystery to solve, we know who he was and what happened.”

“No, John, we don’t.” Greg was DI Lestrade again. “I couldn’t find a single person at Bart’s who saw anything, who knew anything except what someone else told them, or what someone else had heard from someone else who heard it from their aunt. I couldn’t find anyone who had even seen Sherlock’s body. I went back again last week and all the right documents had been filed. Cause of death was a fall from a height.”

“Not ‘while the balance of his mind was disturbed’?”

“That would have been the coroner’s verdict, perhaps. Death certificate just says how, not why. You know this, John. I got a copy of the autopsy later; there was nothing to say he was under the influence of anything. Died clean, anyway.”

He was clean, had been since I knew him, barring the time Irene had filled him up with veterinary anaesthetic. I know it’s important to Greg, I know it used to be important to me. Would a few hours of opiate bliss have kept you away from the roof, Sherlock?

“Who signed the death certificate? Who did the autopsy?”

“Molly Hooper."

“What the Christ?”

“I thought it was a little strange,” Greg begins.

“No,” I say. “No, they drum it into us: ‘Don’t practise on your friends or your family. Your objectivity will suffer and so will their health.’”

“But a pathologist—“

“She’s not the only one on staff.”

“She loved him. It was something she could do?”

“I loved him and it’s not something I could do. And Molly’s all kittens and dear little bunnies.” I rub my face. “Jesus, he must have still been—“ I break off. Greg’s face has changed from grave and sorrowful to something more present and stricken. Funny how unspeakable things vary. You wouldn’t think a cop would be so different from a soldier (Commander Vimes’s objections notwithstanding). He looks at violent death at least a few times a week, been shot at himself. But the dead he sees were not alive the moment before, joking and sharing a canteen with him. I doubt that he knows how very little it would have taken for the world to be without me and with …Jim and Neal and Arjun, for a few. I have opened the bodies of my friends to try to keep their souls inside, felt them go from live to dead. But to do it in cold blood, myself, while my friend’s body was still shutting down? Or did she leave him there in a bag and come back once he was cold?

Kind of what-goes-around, comes-around, though it doesn’t bear much thinking about. Sherlock would not have minded if his hands ended up in someone’s fridge, as long as they were doing good science.

Our glasses are nearly empty. “I think we need air. We can walk and talk and we’ll be less likely to alarm the populace when I threaten grievous bodily harm against the British press corps.”

Chapter Text

The shortest way to the river from a pub near NSY involves walking past the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben and all that. Usually the thickest concentration of tourists and security cameras easily available. But it's night. There are still a few tourists, but nothing like the usual crush, and it seems quieter. The cameras are probably full-on night-vision but I really don’t care anymore. I stop to look up. The repeating patterns, pointed arches, all the symmetry are lovely.

“You’re gawking,” Greg informed me.

“I defy anyone not to be impressed.” The lights are a bit much— they have to be, to compete with the rest of the lights bleaching the sky. But the buildings are engraved on every Englishman’s mind, images from a thousand biscuit-tins in their gran’s kitchen to the location shots on the nightly news. While they didn’t speak of _my_ home where was my home now? [Don’t think of 221B] to me when I was in the army, they spoke of something bigger, the idea of home. Of England, all it has been and once was and still is, and may be, even with the disappointment and outright stupidity that is the daily lot of anyone living in … anywhere, really. To stand by the Palace of Westminster is to feel part of two thousand-plus years of history, good and bad. And it’s mine.

I finish having my moment of un-ironic patriotism; Greg and I continue east. Something about his silence has changed, so I think for a moment. “Sherlock hated them?” It’s not really a guess, but Greg’s shoulders change again. Relax, I think.

“You’re getting spooky,” he says mildly. “I don’t know. He was off his head at the time, must have been just a few months after I met him. He showed up at a crime scene near here with his pupils like a 10p and talking so fast I couldn’t understand a word. I stuck him in back of a car and waited for him to come down a bit, and the next thing I understood was ‘Neo-Gothic pastiche,’ ‘colonialist triumphalism’ and ’Tudor details on a classic body.’ But he liked The Monument.”

“I’ve never been.”

“It’s better than you’d think. It was designed partly as a giant telescope. No, honestly. Sherlock had a huge crush on the designer who wasn’t Christopher Wren. Someone who got on the wrong side of Sir Isaac Newton.”

“I know what Sherlock thought about him. The optics and the motion were sound enough, but the alchemy and the magic… he could be just as scathing about someone three hundred years dead as someone in the same room.”

“Puts me in good company, really.”

“He didn’t think you were an idiot, you know.”

“Well,” Greg says, “not so much as some, and I never asked for more. I couldn’t have lived with him any longer than I did. Just a couple of months after he came out of getting clean. When I found myself wanting to ask him about hiding his own body I called Mycroft — we spoke more often then, but he was still an eerie bastard— and suggested it was time for Sherlock to get a place of his own. Not long before I met Cyndy and we got married, possibly just because Cyn was so much easier to live with.”

“Really?”

“Not toward the end, actually.”

We’re getting within sight of the river (which I know for a fact Sherlock did love, and not just for the bodies and the general mudlarking opportunities) and I’m still trying to decide how much to tell Greg. Who am I protecting (besides myself, for all the good it will do)? “Right, I’ll try to do this then, Greg. Just slap me or something if I get wobbly.”

He snorts, and we walk quietly. I begin. “It’s a bit hard to know where to start. So … did you know there were four internationally-known assassins living on Baker Street that month?”

I can hear Greg’s breath catch, and then it’s like I can hear the wheels turning. “No, missed that memo. But there were two dead internationally-known assassins found not far from your flat, around then. I checked the ballistics reports but they weren’t killed by any guns I knew…. Not that that would signify…?”

“It wasn’t me.”

“Never thought for a moment it was, though perhaps I should have.”

“I see… saw, anyway, more of Mycroft than you have lately, certainly more than Sherlock did. He hauled me into his club just before—it was the day Kitty Riley’s first article came out, I remember him reading ‘The Sun’— and showed me pictures of these four assassins who had all moved to Baker Street.”

“That was the day we got the kidnapping case.”

“That was the day it all began to go so very pear-shaped. After we came home from the Yard, I found Sherlock standing over a body in the middle of the street. I don’t know what he was thinking about but he was damn nearly run over when he left his cab. The first assassin— Sulejmani — pulled Sherlock out of the way of a car and then someone— NOT ME— shot him where they stood. I can get the cabbie to testify, I wrote down his number.”

“I know it wasn’t you, you called it in. I should have left the Yard and come to help sort it out. If I hadn’t been there the DCI couldn’t have called me on the carpet.”

“Don’t start—“

“—This isn’t starting, this is the same set of ‘if only’ I’ve had for the last two months—“

Right now I do not feel like hugging him. Being angry at the Metropolitan Police may get me through the next few minutes. “You know the next bit. Well, except for Sherlock prowling around 221B like a very anxious tiger, looking for bugs and biting my head off every time I tried to say anything.” Oh, God. That was the last time we were with Mrs. Hudson, the last time we were at 221B. “You showed up the second time —“

“Why the hell didn’t you run when I called?”

“Excellent question. I asked him that myself. Particularly in light of his running away after he’d been arrested. After we’d been arrested. He had pretty much altogether stopped talking to me by then; not in one of his unkind ways, just thinking, furiously. Oh, I forgot, that was after the second dead assassin — Sherlock spotted him while we were still running in handcuffs and pulled us in front of a Number 74 bus.” Even in the crush of other images from that day I still glimpse the bus bearing down on us.

“Wait, dead?”

“Not until a couple of minutes after we spotted him — Sherlock let him get a bit closer and pulled us in front of the bus and this guy pulls us out of the way.”

“Kind of a theme—“

“Sherlock asked why they were after him and he told us it was Moriarty’s key code, the one he used to get into the Tower and the Bank and Pentonville. Some computer thing Moriarty was supposed to have left with Sherlock. And then, while he’s talking, someone shoots him. Your lot were all over the place in cars—“

“Gunshots, I should hope we were—“

“We scarpered and someplace, I showed Sherlock a copy of Kitty Riley’s article. So we went to her apartment. She was so full of herself for her big story, the one that came out the next day.”

“The one that said Sherlock had made Moriarty up and had pushed him into breaking into the Tower.”

“The one that said he had never been anything but a fake.” Which was when everything stopped making any sense. It was so strange; the air had seemed to go out of Sherlock. The night before, when he was asking me if I thought he was a fraud, when he refused, twice, to ‘go quietly,’ he was still full of fire. I sigh. “Sherlock was asking who her source was, when he came in through her door, some terrified bloke named Rich Brook, only we knew him as Jim Moriarty. He had convinced Kitty Riley he was a sweet tortured actor who’d been placed in an untenable position by an evil manipulative megalomaniac detective—“

“Which is exactly Sally’s description of him—“

“Oh, hell, sometimes my description of him too. But he would never have gone so far. All the annoying things Sherlock did were entirely his own—“

“Yes, not that he didn’t have the material—“

“But he’d never have hired anyone, he was perfectly capable of annoying the living shit out of everyone—“

“Without ever needing to tell a lie,” Greg says.

We smile at one another, veterans of Having Lived in Proximity to Someone Too Smart For His Own Good. Whom we had loved, because he really was everything he thought he was, and because he was so alive, and he had loved being alive, in the way he liked to understand that.

I continue. “So there was the man who dressed me in Semtex. In between gulling Kitty Riley to protect him from Sherlock, he was still giving me the authentic batshit glare.”

“I haven’t had the pleasure—“

“You do not want it,” I say. “Most of the crazy you meet is just a bit unfocussed, the sort of person you wonder if a tinfoil hat might not be just the ticket. Moriarty left me feeling I might be the insane one. No one glares at you with his eyes all unfocussed with malice; I mean, who even makes you use words like ‘malice’?”

“He seemed a bit creepy at the trial, what I saw of him, but not… supervillainish.”

I shrug. “He didn’t want to freak out the mundanes, then. He can pass for normal. Has anyone, anyone tried talking to the members of that jury, by the way?”

“Not that I heard about,” Greg says. “You might want to ask some of the pro-Sherlock journalists. Yes, there are some.”

I have become newspaper-free over the last month and a half. They were always more Sherlock’s medium-of-choice than mine, not that he paid attention when he ought to have. The radio is mostly safe. I do not want to talk to any reporter, I can imagine the headlines (‘Fraud Sleuth Love Plea’); but I can see why Greg doesn’t want to make it a police matter. “So the Tower/Bank/Prison things are officially unsolved?”

“Cold, I think; we know he did them, but we didn’t get a conviction.”

Key code, I suppose. Another thing someone should be looking into. Like Mycroft. I don’t want to talk to Mycroft, either.

Greg breaks into my thoughts. “I’m sorry, John. I need to know what happened next.”

“It’s all right, I was hating Mycroft. He was what happened next. Moriarty took off; Sherlock didn’t want to chase him, said he’d have back-up waiting for us to go after him; but we left soon after so I wouldn’t strangle Kitty Riley. Sherlock had barely flicked through the article but he’d gone really strange and he took off, too.”

Greg makes an inarticulate noise. “He did it all the time, during cases,” I say. “Sometimes he’d send me off to check something out, sometimes he’d just go. It was all right. By then I had an idea I wanted to check out without him and I went to find Mycroft. There was just too much about Sherlock’s life in Kitty’s story— which term he’d left Cambridge, how many times he was in rehab — things I didn’t know, and that I doubted she would have researched.”

“Mycroft? What the hell? What?”

“Yeah.” Now Greg and I are walking along the river. I am sure there are security cameras, and I am sure that whatever Mycroft wants to know about me he will, but I have had enough of the Official Secrets Act. I nod. “He —held— Moriarty for awhile. He— his people, whoever they are— heard about the key code before the Tower and so on.”

“Of course, they wouldn’t tell the poor bloody Met anything in advance. Not that it would have made much difference, I suppose. But they let him go?”

“Mycroft said they interrogated him for weeks.”

“Without charging him, of course.” Greg’s tone is dry. I think he feels sickened. Odd to know a cop so passionate about civil liberties.“I know this is how the game is played these days, not even as clean as war. I hate it.”

“War’s not what it was,” I suggest.

“Oh, I know, more or less since Agincourt. Don’t think I’m that naive. But if Mycroft and his lot can do what he likes, what’s left to protect? I really think that was the other reason Sherlock wouldn’t work for him.”

“Did he need another reason not to work with Mycroft?”

“Leave me my illusions, John. So they tried to stop the crime before Moriarty committed it, and?”

“Well, they didn’t succeed. He never would say much about the rumour of the code they had heard. But apparently he would talk about some—plots? Some of Sherlock’s spider-web-with-a-thousand-radiations stuff when Mycroft offered him —“ I stop to swallow. This is still so hard to take.

“Offered him what?”

“”Oh, you know. Mycroft has no first-born son, so he gave Moriarty his brother.”

Chapter Text

It takes more than a few metres walking for either Greg or me to calm down. I’ve been doing a slow burn, with flare-ups, since that night, and it seems that Greg has regarded himself as Mycroft’s polar opposite for years, each of them trying to bring Sherlock to his own side of the Force. As it were. The only thing they’d ever agreed upon was Sherlock’s need to get clean.

“The utter crap Mycroft used to try to fill him up with; I could always tell when it was something he’d said coming out of Sherlock’s mouth. ‘Caring is not an advantage,”’ Greg sneers.

“I heard that one, too. Sherlock coming all over Vulcan. We argued.”

“Well, don’t,” Greg said. “He never listens to a thing you say about his brother. You can’t beat a Holmes at words and you can’t fool one with actions. You’ve done more for him in couple years just simply being a decent bloke — and he’d never have kept you as a flatmate if he didn’t think you were interesting— oh, Christ, if he hadn’t, damn. Ah, just…” Greg trails off, shaking and inarticulate. Not a case for a hug. He wants to kill someone. He stops and puts a hand out to lean on a lamppost, looking at the water, calming down slowly. “What I said that night, the first time I met you, John — I was right, and you made a better job of making him a good man as well as a great one than anyone could have hoped. He knew it too. I wish you’d had longer.”

This is quite certainly the most perfect thing anyone has ever said to me. I do my best to ignore it. Moratorium on tears in effect as well.

After a bit more time Greg sighs deeply. I touch his shoulder. “You all right?”

“I’ll do. Thanks. Let’s walk.” We walk. “So then what happened?”

“Sherlock texted that he was at Bart’s. I met him there. He was really silent, in one of his fiddling-with-things moods. Wouldn't talk. I fell asleep." It's getting harder to talk about this. I haven't before.

"You'd had quite a night."

So many nights chasing around after Sherlock chasing someone else. Never with this sense of choking before, never without the joy. Never without knowing Lestrade or someone like him was backing us up. That's the only reason I could have been so short with him. Moriarty always made him distant from me. They were not alike at all-- well, no, facing it, I always worried because Sherlock thought they were so much alike. Which wasn’t right. Sherlock never wanted to sit in the centre of a web of intrigue; he liked being out there, looking. He’d have been one of those hunting spiders that jump on things. Or off them.

"I woke up in the early morning when someone called my phone to tell me Mrs. Hudson had been shot at 221b." I wave off Greg's confusion. "And like an idiot, I fell for it. I didn't call her, I didn't wonder why the paramedic didn't tell me to meet them at the A&E, I didn't wonder how they got my number. I told Sherlock he was a machine when he wouldn't go with me, and we parted in anger." I'm trembling again, just like that morning. Deep breath. "And when I got there, she was fine. I'd done the stupid human thing and left Sherlock alone."

"John--"

"'Alone protects me,' he said when I was going. I told him friends protect people, but I left him alone." There's a bench. I sink onto it, feeling sick, put my face in my hands. Greg sits next to me, not quite not touching. "So then I went back to Bart's, and he phoned me, and he was on the roof."

"John--" Greg has a hand on my shoulder now. I shake my head.

"I'm not too good at what happens next, Greg-- I don't know if it was the knock on the head or just-- it didn't make any sense; it doesn't. When I left there he was still thinking, and it wasn't like him to give up that way. I know what he looked like when he gave up, and he was still in for all he was worth when I left. I was gone for less than an hour. Something happened while I was away, something big. The phone call--he was trying to tell me Kitty Riley had been right, that he'd made up Moriarty and that everything he'd ever told me was a magic trick. Everything, from the day we met-- he said he'd researched me and my sister --" except he'd got that wrong, hadn't he? He thought Harry was my brother's name-- "he told me to tell you and Mrs. Hudson and Molly that he was a fake. And then he said the phone call was his note, and he said goodbye, and he jumped." I swallow a couple of times. "I don't really remember anything else, until after when I was in hospital." Not quite true. I remember the sound, and the stillness, and the blood. His wrist was still warm. But that wasn't Sherlock anymore.

I practice breathing for a bit; surprising, but I still can do that. I haven't finished crying for my friend by any means, but that's not what's happening now. It was all so strange; that hadn't struck me before. It does now, with Greg flickering in and out of Greg and somehow mostly into Detective Inspector Lestrade. This is the first time I have considered Sherlock's death as a mystery instead of just a sense of howling wrongness. I can feel that changing things inside my head. "I'm sorry, I can't imagine that was much use, Greg."

"it was more than I had before. Forgive me, John. Bullying you for information. A bad professional habit." Lestrade's mind is half-somewhere else; I can see speculations passing through his eyes, adding facts onto one another.

"No, it's who you are. God knows it was who he was."

"Oh, ta very much. I can't see him liking you putting us in the same class."

"I think he'd have liked being looked at as a crime scene."

Greg snorts. "He would have loved being the centre of attention, he always did... That's what's been bothering me; this was just not like him. Shame Sherlock and all he did was sneak away and come back later, hoping you'd forgot about it."

That was undeniable. It had been insane-making. Many times.

"I mean," Greg continues, "self-destructive, certainly, yes, of course. The coke was just part of that, it almost made sense compared to the rest of it, the not-eating and not-sleeping and the deliberately offending anyone who might be useful to him-- not sources or favours, I mean important people--"

Like Mycroft—

"But self-destructive is not the same thing as suicidal. At least not the way he was doing it. This is going to sound crass, but I never would have thought Sherlock would want to deprive the world of Sherlock.

"I know exactly what you mean. I once said he’d outlive God trying to have the last word."

"That's it. His opinion of himself was the only one that mattered. Unless that was a front...?" Greg defers to the expert witness.

I shrug. “Bit of both? I think he'd have rather that'd been true; but he liked ... having the respect of the people he respected."

"Don't we all? Or something more than that. Warmer." Is that Greg fishing? Surely not.

"Sherlock bloody Holmes, remember? Warmer would not be an advantage." Wanting anything more would not be an advantage, if you were sure enough you wouldn’t get it. Sure enough to torpedo most of the world before they could do it to you. He could be really good at making sure his prophecies self-fulfilled.

I am spending too much time with Ella.

“You still seeing that therapist?” Greg asks.

“Mostly to keep Harry off my back.” Mostly to prove I have more sense than my idiot flatmate who never asked for help. Not that I am much good at accepting it.

“She do hypnosis?”

“I think so. She wanted to try it on my leg a long time back. What for?”

“We’ve got it straight that I don’t want to cause you unnecessary pain, yeah?”

“So you want to cause me necessary pain?”

“Bullying you for information, right? Anyway, she could maybe — buffer it, somehow? But if she could get that phone call in more detail…word for word…I can’t help wondering if there was something he was saying that might make this make sense.”

At least, even if Greg were fishing for emotional crap that would be none of his business even if there had been any, there wasn’t any. Unless you count ‘Goodbye, John,’ which I sometimes do. He usually just rang off; no use for small talk or social niceties, or sentiment.

I do remember him saying that.

I wonder what he looked like when he said goodbye.

I do know how desperate I am for scraps.

“I’m sorry,” Greg is going on. “I am to the point of hurting you and looking under stones but I can’t let this go yet. My own coping mechanism, I know, but what you said about how strange it was— that was catnip to him, things that didn’t fit, clever people who left the wrong trail— and it just seems wrong not to try to, to —“

“To look at it like he would have?”

“I know I’m not him.”

“That doesn’t matter. The Met just said, officially, that you are very good at your job. They’re not always wrong. You’ve been a detective longer than Sherlock was.”

“Quantity rather than quality, as he never tired of reminding me.”

“And you’ve made me feel actually less God-awful.”

He looks slightly pleased at that, but it doesn’t last long. “Look, you know it may not come to anything. We could both be imagining—“

I hold up my hand. “I am in no position to say anything about your way of coping.” It’s rather sweet of him, in the perverse black-humour tradition all three of us enjoyed. “And at this point feeling less God-awful for a little while is very welcome, I don’t care if it turns out to be a mistake; I can always go back to feeling terrible later.” Actually, grief and depression don’t work that way; any sign of light, no matter how brief, changes the neurochemical pathways. Feeling better makes you feel less bad. I’m not mad enough to think being incapacitated is any kind of memorial, particularly not to Sherlock. “The worst thing about …this kind of death is being so helpless. I can’t think of anything more comforting than going through the motions as though we weren’t. And I don’t care if that sounds confident, or just desperate. I don’t think it can make anything worse. Believing for ten seconds that Sherlock was a fraud was infinitely worse.”

“You? That long?”

“Yeah, certainly. Maybe. If you added them up.” Moriarty as Rich Brook was weirdly convincing.

He looks unhappy. “Maybe about… twenty minutes. If you added them up. No. Not really, but Sally was very persuasive, and when the little girl screamed at him…maybe ten. He really didn’t help.”

“I know. But I lived with him, and he can’t ever have thought I would ever believe he wasn’t real. He’d sit around figuring things out for fun. Cases from a hundred years ago, just to keep his brain from rotting.” I shake my head. “I want to see the path. report. In fact, I want to talk to Molly.”

“That’s a bit difficult,” Greg says. “She’s in New Zealand.”

“Why would anyone go to New Zealand?”

“It’s spring there? They just told me, when I tried to call her the other day. Seemed vague about when they expected her back. But I can get you a copy of the autopsy.”

“Can you send me a link to IPCC report as well?”

“No one reads those, what on earth? It’ll just raise your blood pressure.”

“I don’t have to read it to link it to the blog. If they did a press release, I’d like that as well, please?”

“Really. The blog?”

“You told me Sherlock’s blogger was alive and that woman at the pub said I should … I don’t know, not leave it where it is. I’m not saying I’ll write anything, mind. And don’t think for a moment I’m posting the autopsy report.”

“No, definitely not, but the other thing— that’s good to hear. It really is.”

I can feel my face in one of the expressions Sherlock used to deride as my tells; here’s hoping Greg can read it as well — I’m touched by his care for me and he can just back off for a bit, all right?

“No guarantees about anything.”

“Here either, mate.”

He’s going to investigate whatever he can find down to its molecules. Even if it’s me. This is (not even oddly) reassuring; it’s like both of us are suddenly in better focus.

Chapter Text

It rings, it’s Greg, I answer.

“Is this a good time?”

“In between patients, someone missed their appointment. ’S fine until someone else shows up.”

“I got the file you sent me.” The file Ella transcribed of the hypnosis session. Hypnosis may be better than tranquillisers; I left her office that day feeling more peace than I have since the summer. Some of it has stuck. She was kind enough not to crow over this; I think she feels I am working out some of my trust issues. This is probably more true than I would like, and less true than she would.

She wanted to press when I gave her roughly the same story about that last conversation that I’d given Greg at the river. She would have liked to hear how I felt and all that, but I suggested we had a limited time and I wanted to get Greg his evidence. So then of course we had to discuss about my feeling better putting Sherlock’s death into some kind of familiar context, and she was, as Ella goes, very excited.

I don’t think I’m one of her easier clients.

“I haven’t read it, “ I tell him. “She didn’t think it told her anything new, which was good enough for me.”

“You’re not even curious?”

“Not enough, no. I have an .mp3 to listen to if I’m ever feeling too cheerful." Technology is strange these days. Her laptop was transcribing while I was talking; she sent me the file before I left the office. "Was it any help to you?”

“I don’t know yet. But thank you.”

“No trouble. I spent ten minutes feeling very calm and hearing someone speaking in my voice from a long distance away; I wasn’t listening. It was excellent.” I suppose I couldn’t do all of my sessions like that. Almost certainly not. “Oh,” I say, remembering. “I got the file you sent me. If I link to the IPCC report, and anyone actually reads it, you’ll be outed.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I blacked out your name in the cases we worked with you, remember?”

“It wasn’t like it was a secret from anyone. Everyone at the Yard knew I was working with Sherlock.”

“Everyone at the Yard is not _everyone_. Not even if all the journos know as well.”

“You sound grim. Was working with the blog as bad as that?”

“I linked to the press release and reopened ‘comments’ the day after I saw you. Five days ago now. The response has been… unsettling.”

“Unsettling.”

“Overwhelming. Do none of these people have lives?”

“You don’t sound happy.”

“All of my patients today, including an 87-year-old non-English-speaking Indian grandmother, are so pleased I’m blogging again. Her daughter interpreted for her. She was pleased too.”

“At least they like you.”

“I am an intensely private person.”

“Apparently not, John.” Greg sounds amused. Fine, I’ll link to the enquiry commission report. I hope it has pictures.

“I used to be able to respond to people. Then it all took off last Spring and I had to switch servers and … then it stopped being fun.”

“Well, what do you want from it now?”

I want Sherlock back telling me what crap it is. I want not to have to deal with people telling me how sorry they are. I decide that I can tell Greg the second one and I do. “But people have sent me some really good stories about him, cases he’d never mentioned to me. I’d like to ask them if I can post those. It’s just a lot to sort through.” Something around thirty-five hundred comments, the last time I looked. Two days ago.

“Maybe you need a PA. I don’t suppose Harry—?”

“No, you should definitely not suppose Harry. She snarls when Sherlock’s name is mentioned. I was thinking of calling the pretty actuary in the pub, the one who was on about how I needed reopen the blog.” I’ve looked at her card more than once, wondering what I would risk giving someone else some privileges. There are entries I probably shouldn’t have written, even if they’re queued under ‘Private.’

“It might have unexpected benefits.”

“Shut up, Greg. Was there something in particular you wanted?”

His tone changes. “I’m at St. Bart’s. I could use your eye, but I wasn’t sure you… Well, I’m asking.”

“You’re worried about causing me necessary pain again.”

“Will you come? Can you come?”

“Not today. Tomorrow afternoon?”

 

And then I arrange to have lunch with Mike Stamford, something else I’ve been putting off.

 

We meet the next day at one of our our student haunts, now a cleaned-up version of itself where the sandwiches come with salad and disturbingly sensual descriptions. Tasty, nonetheless. He’s called, I haven’t called back. He’s been worried. “I tried to come back and see you that night, but they said family only.”

“I was pretty far out of it,” I say, wondering how much Ativan someone had pumped into my veins. “Thanks for looking after me. Harry wants to take you to dinner.”

“I was glad to be of help,” Mike says. The formality of the words doesn’t sit right on him. “It was very nearly the only part of that day that made sense.”

“It was like that for you, too?”

“It was all strange that morning, and stranger the longer I look at it. Whatever story that Richard Brook was putting around, I think we all know Sherlock Holmes was no faker.”

“You and I, but not all,” I say. I don’t want to go into that last conversation with Sherlock with him; it’s not like I have any doubts, but…Greg’s looking under stones; I can as well. “You never spoke to him about me before the day you introduced us, did you?”

“No. I mean, it’s not that you weren’t on my mind, after I found out you’d up and joined the army. I know I noticed your name, mentioned you to my wife, when you earned that medal; but I had no idea you were in London. Even in England. Why?”

“A conversation we had just before,” I say. “He tried to get me to admit I might think he was a fraud; suggested he might have researched me and faked all that deduction that first day to impress me.”

“Rubbish. You didn’t believe him?”

“No, not at all. He was worried a bit that people would believe —, no, I have that wrong, I was worried people might believe the papers.”

He shrugs. “No one at Bart’s. Not even the students, they ran into him often enough. I was so glad to see you open up your blog again. The good news never gets covered, or at best it’s buried on page 10.”

“I’m hearing that a lot. I didn’t realise how many people were following—“

Mike snorts. “We at Bart’s are under no such illusions, believe me. You’re a voice of sanity. No, really, you’ll see when you get here.”

That sounds ominous. He continues.

“What do you plan to do with the blog next? I’d like to see you to hang, draw, and quarter Richard Brook.”

A pleasing image; what Tower Hill is all about, once you get past the tourists. “I haven’t thought much about it; l feel like I’m just getting back on my feet—“ Mike grunts sympathetically—“but there were some cases I hadn’t written up, and some people have sent comments I’d like to post properly. Apparently I’m supposed to clear his name. It’s difficult because I never thought it needed clearing.”

“The end—looked very bad.”

“The end makes no sense at all, and I don’t think I’m just the bereaved flatmate when I say that.” I eat the last forkful of salad aggressively. I’m torn between wanting to talk about all of it and not wanting to talk about any of it. And then Greg meets us and we recycle our tableware and walk together toward St. Bart’s Hospital.

People have mentioned how quiet it can be there, for a place in the thick of the city. This was one of those days. We’re coming to it from a different route than my cab did, the last time I was here: the main road, not the ambulance station. I’ve walked into Bart’s many, many times, mostly when I was young and tired and behind on my reading. I kissed a girl in the Henry VIII gate. There may have been an incident involving the statue and a Crystal Palace T-shirt (size 3XL). Fortunately that was before camera phones. If I were by myself, those days might have been the ones on my mind, but I can feel Greg and Mike half a step behind me being concerned. The aura of simple kindness both these men are feeling towards me is more likely to undo me than—

“What is that?” I ask. It looks like one of those places where someone’s been gang-banged, or a child was killed by a car, or… where someone publicly loved died on the pavement. Flowers and candles and signs. “Oh, my God. It’s for him?”

Stamford nods. “Yeah. We try to keep it tidy. The first weeks were overwhelming. We had to get security standing by all the time to keep the graffiti artists at bay. Then someone in Reception suggested we get a book people could sign; that helped a lot.”

“He wasn’t Princess Di, do these people realise that?”

“Part of the appeal,” Greg says. “Not a royal, not a football player, not a film star.”

“One of the students said he was ‘a nerd’s nerd,’” Mike says. I can’t help smiling, nor can they. “We have pictures of the bouquets and some of the messages and so forth; one of the guards has undertaken to record it every day. I thought you might want that for the blog.”

I might. I’m so utterly surprised to see all the… feelings people have left. I’m staring. Mike and Greg are giving me ’space.’ “It’s —incredibly touching, actually. But … teddy bears?”

“Yeah, well. It’s the public. Not everything makes sense,” Greg says.

“Let’s get you inside. The ground-keeping crew can’t wait.”

The staff inside greet me with a small flurry. Kindness, concern. Tact. The grizzled man in charge of the grounds is a fan, he tells me— “So glad you’re blogging again, Dr. Watson— and now you’re here perhaps you could tell us what you want done with some of the things people have left.”

Why me? I look at Mike and Greg. “You’re his literary executor,” Greg offers.

“The keeper of the flame,” Mike murmurs.

I am briefly irritated, horrified, resentful. Resigned. “I suppose no one’s thought of asking Mycroft? His brother,” I offer to the groundskeeper.

“He had a brother?”

No, of course not, Sherlock Holmes was birthed from a volcanic hot-spring, how could he have had relatives?

“Can you see Mycroft dealing with this?” Greg asks. “Sentiment.”

“I suppose not.”

“He was taking it hard, I thought, at the funeral,” Mike says. Greg and I are both astonished. Cracks in that perfect facade? “No, really.”

“I was too busy keeping my distance from him to notice.”

Not really able to deal with Mycroft’s sprouting a conscience just now. “Perhaps you could send the plush toys to the children’s ward at the Royal London?”

A few minutes later it’s as sorted as it’s likely to get— would St. Bart’s-The-Great Church like a gross or so of glass vigil candles? Some of those are quite carefully decorated and one or two are …Not Safe for Worship, you might say. Greg is studying one when he thinks I can’t see. I’m not quite too burnt around the emotional edges not to feel embarrassed, but the thought of sending that to Mycroft makes my day. It would have delighted Sherlock.

Mike drifts away, back to the teaching side; I promise to stay in better touch, and I will. His kindness is not intrusive. With him gone, I feel Greg regaining DI Lestrade. “What did you want me to see?”

’Necessary pain’ warning flattens his face. “Did you ever go up to the roof, when you were a student here?”

“I did about everything stupid I could find, yes. Do you need me to go up again?” This is not about my friend, this is about a case. My friend who is a case. A case. Greg’s friend, too. “Well, come on, then.”

The lift takes us up three floors; our steps echo in the stairwell; there’s an alarm on the rooftop door that Greg asked them to turn off. It looks as though it would be easy enough to disable. Bit of a wind. Greg watches me. “It’s all right,” I say. “I’m not about to do anything. I promise.” He’s still oddly silent; I wonder what I am supposed to see here, or if it is really some kind of desensitisation plan.

The view over this part of London has changed quite a lot in some twenty-years, though not St. Paul’s. I’m not sure I was ever here by daylight. Trying to show Greg I am not about to do anything rash, I walk closer to the edge, to Sherlock’s edge. I can see where I stood that day; I must have been a blob coming out of a taxi, but he knew it was me.

There’s a very old bouquet of roses weighed down with half a brick about twenty feet away. I can’t decide whether to move it to the right place or take it back down with me, so I leave it.

“What am I supposed to see?”

“Just look, and then we’ll go over there.” He points at another flat roof in another part of the complex. All right. I’m used to this sort of test, though I’ve not become any better at them.

After a minute or so more, Greg leads me back down and through corridors and staircases to the other roof. Bart’s suffers from the different-eras-of-construction cacophony as much any old building that’s been added onto rather than demolished; it’s not simple to get from A to B. B is more modern altogether, fewer chimneys. A few bits of paper soaked in many rains. Feathers; a pigeon’s foot, it looks like. “One of those London peregrines must hunt here,” I suggest. Greg looks noncommittal. “All right, talk.”

“Well,” he says, “You’ve noticed.”

“What have I noticed?”

“The roof of the Old Pathology Building. It’s clean.”

“Yes. It was.”

“Really clean. No pigeon shit, anything. Well, a trace. Maybe a few weeks’ worth, but nothing like this one.”

“I don’t know that even hospitals keep a clean roof; we usually use rooms for surgery.”

“Only the path. building. And when I say clean, I mean Luminol clean. Nothing. The other roofs here light up quite well. You should see the blood spatter around that pigeon, umm, limb.”

“But Luminol would show up the pigeon shit, right?” I ask.

“It does. And a fair amount of God-knows-what on the buildings here, except that one roof.”

I am not going to ask if he tested the pavement on Giltspur Street. “So you think someone cleaned the roof of the path. building? With bleach?”

“Quite a lot of bleach. The groundskeeper looked at me as though I were insane, and actually, it’s a better clean-up than I would expect anyone normal to do.”

“Crime scene?”

“I think so.”

Chapter Text

A mess someone felt serious enough to clean up with bleach could well be unconnected to the puzzle we’re looking at. Of course it could. Both of us mention that half-heartedly, but another — anomaly, in the same place, is hard to fathom.

“But you know who this stinks of,” I said.

“Mycroft.”

“There’s no reason to believe he’ll tell us what happened, either.”

“Rather the opposite,” Greg says. “I want to leave him till last.”

Because having to ask Mycroft for anything seems unlikely to be productive. “So he won’t be in a position to stop you looking at things?”

He nods. “Likely to send a car for us as soon as we get back to ground-level, you think?”

“If he keeps as close an eye on us as that, this—the whole thing might not have happened.”

“Unless it suited his purposes.”

“You can’t think that. Can you?”

Greg shrugs. I stare at him. “I get quite angry sometimes, in the middle of the night,” he says finally. “Back downstairs, shall we?”

We thread our way back to the main entrance, where we thank the groundskeeper and the security staff again, and I promise to be in closer touch. “Where are you off to now?” I ask him.

“I don’t have to go back to work just now, if you have anything better in mind.”

“I’m not sure it’s better, but I was thinking of visiting Mrs. Hudson. Actually, having you there would be very helpful.”

Sympathy flashes across his face, and I growl. “No, it’s not that bad, we’ve had tea two or three times, it’s all right. But I’d like to go upstairs to 221B for a bit by myself. Don’t look stricken, Jesus, Greg, really.” I call Mrs. Hudson to make sure it’s not inconvenient — still making up for a certain flatmate, I suppose; she’s nearly always home this time of day — and by the time she’s rung off to make scones we’ve caught a cab.

 

It’s not bad to be fussed over occasionally, and she seems nearly as pleased to see Greg as she is to see me, which I think surprises him. “The good tea set,” I remark.

“_And_ scones,” says Greg, with the hunger of a man who did not have a calorie-enhanced, disturbingly sensual sandwich for lunch.
Mrs. Hudson looks at both of us, assessing. “You’re looking a bit better, dear,” she tells me. “But you’re much too thin, Inspector. Almost as bad as poor Mr. Holmes.”

“Mycroft’s looking too thin?” I query, adding jam to the cream melting into my scone. “Not that he’s ever looked as doughy as his brother implied, but--”

“He says he’s lost a stone, but I would have thought more. He was here last month, taking a few more things, poor dear.”

The idea of anyone, even someone as blindly charitable as Mrs. Hudson, calling Mycroft Holmes a ‘poor dear’ is hard to manage with all the crumbs in my mouth and I have to cough a bit, and then Mrs. Hudson gets me a glass of water and asks Greg if he can do the Heimlich manoeuvre and I have to wave frantically and nearly break a teacup.

“I’m so glad to see you’ve started up the blog again, dear,” she says when order has been restored.

I thank her and try not to feel hunted. “I don’t really have any idea what I’ll do with it. There were a couple of cases we did I might write up.”

“Mrs. Turner tells me a lot of blogs have advertising these days—“

“Not going to happen—“

“That’s what I told her, dear, and anyway, I said you ought write a book. She thinks books are on their way out, but she just likes that Kindle thing because you can make the print any size you like. I told her no one ever reads Kindles in the bath and that proper books would be around for a good long time, but she says her niece puts them in a really thin plastic bag—“ For a few minutes we learn a reasonable amount about the market for e-reading devices among OAPs in the southern half of the UK. I am aware that Mrs. Hudson’s apparent dottiness is concealing any awkwardness Greg may feel about being there, as well as avoiding any topic that might make any of us feel, well, anything, actually. Although it might be worth getting Harry one of those things for Christmas.

“I’m just going to pop upstairs, all right?” I say, and we all pretend that this is perfectly normal. She nods and makes a small ‘all yours, dear’ sort of wave. Greg discusses the black market in stolen iPods, as I go up the seventeen stairs and open the door.

 

I haven’t been back since the awful ten minutes on the day Harry took me home from the hospital. I waited by the fireplace while she tried to find a pair of trainers that did not have Sherlock’s blood on them. Also some other clothes. She ended up buying me some, I think; I wasn’t paying much attention that week, and I have more shirts than I remember.

As soon as I close the door behind me, I can tell. Home.

It smells of dust and being empty; underneath, it smells like coal-fire and chemicals and takeaway. Mrs. Hudson must have cleaned out the fridge…ah, and my heart stutters. I’m less used to that than I was a week ago. But on balance…yeah, it’s good. I have Harry to thank for that, of course, eight weeks in anyone else’s place will leave you tired of tiptoeing about. And her musical taste is rubbish and unrelenting.

221B is quiet. It often was. I left the radio on mostly in the mornings, catching the news, trying to stay awake; afternoons Sherlock sometimes had a concert on if he was doing chemistry, or argued with Radio Four when he was in the mood. If I looked at him really hard he would grudgingly use earphones and mutter. There are the usual outside sounds of London, people talking on their way in or out of Speedy’s. I keep expecting it to be quieter than it is, knowing no one else will step out of the downstairs bedroom or shout on the stairway. But despite the unusual emptiness on some of the surfaces, nothing echoes. The flat doesn’t care.

Pathetic fallacy is unusual outside of literature. He said that once when I was trying to cope with a horrible bloody murder in one room of a house and complete normality in the others. I should have asked him about that after Baskerville. Though Dartmoor was lovely that week during the day, sunny and bright.

If I come back here, I will think more often about Sherlock. But that’s only right. And trying not to think about him hasn’t been any use. And this is my home, apparently. It’s not that I feel like a new man, or the one I was last spring; just a little closer to where I should be, a direction I feel rarely enough…—well. Home.

The kitchen’s clean; fridge is empty, of course, chocked open, turned off. That stain I never quite managed to remove from the cooker has also gone, unless she’s replaced —, no, the oven still shows signs of trauma. The cupboards are much the same, though missing the more dubious plastic boxes. The chili powder he brought back from that trip to Karachi is still there.

If anyone’s made an effort in the living room I can’t tell. Mrs. Hudson said Mycroft took the violin straightaway, which is a relief. I was never sure whether it was really a Stradivarius Sherlock had found in a junk shop, but it was good enough and old enough I wouldn’t want to have to try to take care of it properly. The room seems to need another bookshelf if I want the floor back.

I suppose that’s up to me.

I suppose I could have a shelf or so on one of the old ones.

I always could have, if I had asked. Or better, taken. Living with Sherlock didn’t make me an easier flatmate, my sister assures me, but it has made me more direct.

My bedroom, upstairs, looks roughly the way I expect. After my sister looted it, someone vacuumed and made the bed.

There are no feet in the bathtub. There are unlikely to be more than two at any time in the future. Dwelling on the positive, here, I go into what used to be Sherlock’s bedroom. It was the only place in the flat he made any attempt to keep tidy. Beyond that now; it’s stripped. A bare mattress, all his clothes are gone, nothing in the drawers, on the walls. And that turns out to be hard.

 

Mrs. Hudson and Greg are still gamely making conversation when I come back to her flat. She gets up and hugs me, and Greg joins in. It’s warm. I don’t want to let go anymore right now, so I disengage fairly quickly and go for the comfort of my teacup.

“I’ll make more,” Mrs. Hudson says.”That’ll be cold.”

“Great, thanks,” I say. “So Mycroft took a lot of his things? Is he coming back for the rest, do you know?”

“It’s been two weeks since he was here, or that nice girl Anthea. I don’t know that he wants to deal with it all.”

“Not much help if you want to rent it again.”

“He’s been covering that, dear. And I’m not sure I really want to rent it again, really.” She pours boiling water onto fresh leaves. My heart sinks lower than it has been all day. “Not to anyone else. Oh, John, did you think— of course I didn’t mean you--would you really consider—?”

“Are you thinking of moving back in?” Greg asks at the same time.

“I never moved out,” I say, eyes on my teacup. It is by any standards hideous. And much too small. “Would you have me back, Mrs. Hudson?” Then there has to be hugging again. I glare at Greg before he can stand up.

“Will it be all right?” she asks. Because dotty sweet old women are allowed to ask whatever they like.

“I think so,” I tell her. “It will be infinitely better than Harry’s spare room,” which is not really spare, in a boring neighbourhood, and entirely lacking Mrs. Hudson. “I don’t want to live anywhere else.”

I have made Mrs. Hudson very happy, which seems to make my eyes fill up again. “And don’t worry about the rent, dear,” she begins, just as I say, “I can handle both halves of the rent—“ and both of us look closely at one another and agree to discuss that later. I hope Greg is not as close to saying 'God bless us, every one,' as he appears to be. I tell him, “You can help me move a few things into the bottom bedroom, if you like,” in hopes of forestalling him. “I’ll need to go back to Harry’s for tonight, but—“

“Let me run the vacuum—“

“You don’t have to do that right now,” I protest, wanting my tea, but in a few minutes we are all raising dust.

“You’re sure about this, then?” Greg asks, carrying my (unindexed) socks and an armful of jumpers.

“Yes, very. Does it seem that mad to you?”

“No, not at all. Bastard could have left you the periodic table though, you would think.”

“If he hasn’t given it away to an OXFAM shop maybe he’ll give it back.” But I don’t really need the periodic table on Sherlock’s wall to remember him.

Chapter Text

Yesterday morning it had crossed my mind hastily, like a guilty cat. By the time I’d met Mike it had settled onto the armchair in front of the fire and glared if I wanted it to move. I hadn’t noticed when thinking of the flat went from a blare of pain (Sherlock) to a persistent tug, but once I found I was considering moving back home, I knew I would be.

Harry was great. She found me a duffle I could manage on the Tube and made sure all my laundry was done and folded before we crammed it in the bag.

“You know you ARE welcome any time,” she said. “It was quite nice having you about, and you make very acceptable shepherd’s pie.”

“So you’d give me a good reference?”

“Of course I would, John. No marks off for toilet seats up or dirty socks on the floor. But I’m glad you feel better enough to be on your own. You’re sure you want to go back—there, though? Not a fresh start?”

“I don’t need one. Don’t want one, come to that.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t nicer, you know, to him.”

“He put a lot of people off.” And you terrified him, I think. Would have terrified me, in his place. Both of you, velociraptors with hair. Worst Christmas dinner in memory.

“I was afraid he was going to break your heart. And he did, even if it wasn’t the way I expected.”

“We weren’t—“

“WhatEVER,” she said, word-perfect the same brat she was twenty-some years ago. Mm, that would be twenty-lots.

 

Sarah looked at the bags I was carrying and frowned. “You homeless now? Couldn’t take Harry anymore?”

“Neither, just ready to go back where I belong.”

“I thought you were looking better lately, I’m so glad.”

“Harry thought I would want a new start, but I don’t.”

“Good. There aren’t any such things, anyway.”

There really aren’t. I have what I have, thank God. More of a home than I’ve had since I went to university. More of a Holmes than anyone else did.

 

Mrs. Hudson looks just as delighted to see me as she did yesterday. The flat smells of recently-baked chocolate cake, one of which is on the counter, and the fridge is running and contains milk, beer, butter, bacon, eggs, a steak and a bag of salad.

“Almost nothing good for me at all,” I say, hugging her. “Thanks, Mrs. Hudson.”

“You have to eat, dear. There’s bread and some Weetabix in the cupboard. You didn’t to need to go out again, getting settled.”

“I seem to have the materials for supper. Will you join me?”

She ends up cooking, which makes her happy, and I put my clothes away. In my bedroom. Which is now downstairs, closer to the loo, and I won’t have to think of someone else in Sherlock’s room. The upstairs bedroom is empty, but it doesn’t feel like an aching void. I’ve moved a couple of pictures from off the walls there downstairs, but I am going to have to get something more for in here. Considering the number of times the flat filled with smoke, it’s surprising the periodic table in its frame didn’t leave a shadow on the wallpaper.

The sitting room is more of a challenge. Simply putting my head down and getting on with it, as I told Sherlock to do possibly thirty times, I take the box from next the doorway to the upstairs bedroom. It looks like someone’s unpublished chemistry thesis. I don’t have to do the whole room now— or ever. But something has to give, and it’s the clutter. Not me. No books on the floor. No books in an unsafe pile on the tea-table, and no books sideways ruining their bindings sprawling open on the shelves. My God, there really was another bookend. And Sherlock, _my_ side of the table, not yours…

Sometime I may reclaim both sides, perhaps at the same time I figure out what algorithm he used to arrange the books. I wonder if he had read them all, or only intended to? He moved them in here; I’m fairly sure the patterns of tumult and abandonment changed sometimes. So many different kinds of books. If he’d eaten as much as he read…

The chairs. Same problem, same solution. Mrs. Hudson says she’s almost ready to serve when I finish changing them from one side of the fire to the other. I know mine’s comfortable enough; people can sit in that and I will have the modern stainless-steel industrial-chic chair-surrogate. Oh. Surprisingly comfortable. I suppose that ought not to be a surprise. Good.

 

Mrs. Hudson has done something startling favorable to the steak, involving butter and lemon juice. “And shallots, dear, I saw them on a cookery show… they’re like garlic, but much milder…”

If I ever need her attention, I know I can have it, but it’s very soothing to let the words just flow over me. And to know how many varieties of Allium are within my grasp, as well. I am considering this when I notice the topic has changed at some point: “…and the holes in the wall won’t mend themselves—“

“I beg your pardon?”

“The holes in the wall, just as you come in. I’ve called the Gas Board time and again but they say they don’t know anything about them. You must remember—well, perhaps not, it was just when everything began to get— I know I shouldn’t have left it for so long, but if something really needs to be done…”

There are holes in the wall. I vaguely remember something about ladders and workmen, but it was just when things began to Get, as she says; the day of the kidnapping, the day Before.

“Would you like me to try to sort the Gas Board out? They can be patronising bastards. Wait, did he say he was from the Gas Board?”

“It was on the van, dear, when he first came by.”

The day Mycroft told me four internationally-ranked assassins had moved into my immediate neighbourhood. First thing in the morning, I shall call the Gas Board, and then I shall call Greg. Or possibly Mycroft. Damn.

 

I insist Mrs. Hudson leave me with the washing-up, and she does.

My laptop falls onto Mrs. Hudson’s network though it has never left… and networks. It’s a thickly settled area, more than one network per building, not all of them secured. I don’t know whether Mrs. Hudson’s network had been protected before Sherlock had moved in, but it had layers by the time I did. Sherlock had done something — a lot of things— to get my computer onto it. I looked for the Cyrillic and the other ones Sherlock had claimed were new with the move-in by Mycroft’s assassins. Nothing like them. Any new threats had established themselves more subtly in Quenya or Klingon or good English geek language.

The camera Sherlock found on the last night was gone now. I thought suddenly of the way he’d been as he left, putting on his scarf with all the deliberation of a man out to antagonise the police—the friends—arresting him for no reason at all but some innuendo and a management clone out to cover his arse. He’d been such a fool. So I had followed him, of course, going well beyond his refusal to cooperate, ‘striking a superior officer.’ Not what Captain Watson would have done at all. But you get more choices in civilian life; it’s not supposed to be a war.

I sit there longer than I mean to. It’s strange; I’m home, have said it was home, without Sherlock. I’ve been on hold for weeks now, but I’m acting again, not going through the motions and not just bleeding. I’m not getting over it, but I am getting used to it. Not drowning. It isn’t disloyal to live, I remind myself, the threads of a hundred chats with survivors going through my head.

It was easier in the army, when we were at risk, and death was something that happened frequently enough to other people that none of us was surprised. Unhappy, horrified, but not surprised. Here at home people seem to think they and their relatives will live forever. Greg has used me often enough when Family Liaison wasn’t on the scene; even as spotty as my time in Sarah’s practice has been, I’ve had patients dying, and patients living through someone else’s death.

You can’t hug a flat, so I told the skull good night, and went to bed.

 

I miss him so much in the morning.

I need more hours of work. Not for the money (another thing to discuss with Mycroft, not that the letter on heavy water-marked paper has left me in any doubt that resistance was useless), but for the time. I don't want to waste what Sherlock did putting me back together. Even though he left both of us there in pieces, I was better than I had been when I met him at St. Bart's the first time.

There are continuing-education classes, and I sign up for one, even though it won’t start for a month.

The Gas Board is quite clear that it never sent anyone to 221 Baker Street, and has not since the incident that traumatised the oven eight months ago. There are holes in the wall just inside the door. The meters are in the cupboard under the stairs; the holes in the wall are nowhere near. I text Greg. Old cold strange thing I’d like your opinion on when you get time.

Aren’t they all? Call you tonight all right?

Then I go to the blog, where I have something like seventy-five hundred comments. Whatever Sherlock has been to me, he seems to be something to more people than I can imagine. I don’t owe them anything, I am very clear on that. But if even a quarter of them are the cheerful decent folk like Jacob Sowerby or my patient-of-earlier-this-week’s daughter, I would like to do well by them.

I take the card I from my wallet and call the number of the girl whom I’d met in the pub that day with Greg, the one whose virtue had been threatened by a drugged MaiTai. I expect to get her work phone, but apparently it’s her own mobile.

She goes by ‘Polly,’ and she is terribly enthusiastic. “You started the blog up again! I’m so glad!”

I immediately wonder what in hell I am doing, and why I am doing it. “You said something about clearing his name,” I says. “While I don’t think that’s my responsibility, I did agree with you about saying the Met had officially done so.”

“What are you going to do about the newspapers?”

“Nothing, arson is illegal and would only express my feelings. But the blog— look, this doesn’t sound like something I’d say, but as far as I can make out, people aren’t done with him. People who liked him, I mean, who were on his side.”

“You don’t like saying ‘fans,’ ” she said.

“No, I don’t. I can’t say whether it diminishes him or them, umm, you?”

“I don’t think most of us would feel diminished by being called fans, actually, but — well, what about us, then, not being done with him?”

“There are a few cases we did last year that I wanted to put up. And then I was trying to look through the comments, but they’re overwhelming. I wondered whether you could help me just go through them, sort them — help me find the ones where people have stories to tell themselves.” She’s thinking for a moment. “Or if you know anyone who would like to help.”

“Please pick me,” she says at once.

“You were unwise enough to volunteer.”

“Dr. Watson, can I ask you a tremendously personal question? You don’t have to answer.”

Oh _God_, again. This phone call is possibly over. I wonder if Jacob Sowerby could be harnessed to some kind of usefulness? When did I start wanting to use people? I make a discouraging permissive noise.

Her voice has gone all small and inoffensive.“Can I … just spruce up your website?”

“What, I mean, I beg your pardon, what?”

“Your website. Umm. I’ve probably read about half of the recent wave of comments—“

She has no life.

“And I really like your blog entries—“

“There’s a massive ‘but’ coming, isn’t there?” I ask, relaxing.

“Your site looks like something from 2001.”

“You don’t mean the movie or the book.”

“Ah, no?”

It gets much easier after that.

I offer to meet her in a public place that evening so she can size me up, but she dismisses any need for caution. “I’ve met you already, and was that Detective Inspector Lestrade?”

We meet at a fairly quiet café with WiFi and our laptops anyway. Even if neither of us is a potentially murderous stalker, I don’t feel like discussing the skull or the spray paint or my flatmate. I soon realise that discussing my blog makes me feel as vulnerable as one of my more skittish patients. Fortunately, Polly has dealt with people like me before. She's quite professional.

"So, Dr. Watson, are there blogs out there you follow, that you like the look of?”

“No.”

“Twitter? Tumblr? Facebook?”

“My sister’s on Tumblr, so I look in on her feed every week or so. Facebook just to stay in touch with people from the Army.”

“Only you don’t much, do you?” she says, looking at my Facebook page.

“I’d rather be in real touch with people,” I say. We both know I am lying. I feel like a chlamydia patient.

“No point in even asking about Twitter, then, is there?”

“Why do I care what people have for breakfast?”

She sighs. “It’s for more than that, you know; the Arab Spring? Avoiding traffic jams?”

“I’m not planning a revolution. I take the Tube.” I have disappointed her, not that I care deeply. “It’s probably an age thing.”

“It’s not, and you’re not that old, more of a what-year-were-you-at-uni thing, and even then…Right, we were talking about your blog. Who’s the host?”

I tell her, and she looks less pained. “That’s good. Actually… why do you even have a blog?”

“My therapist wanted me to set it up when I came back from Afghanistan. She said it was an inherently less honest but more sociable medium than keeping a journal.” I was supposed to consider that as well, but there’s a limit to how much reflection I can do. And when times were good, there wasn’t any.

“Do you want it to be sociable?”

“It doesn’t look as though I have much choice.”

“No,” she says. She doesn’t mean the choice. “Look, Dr. Watson, I dumped my fiancé because I can’t stand passive men. If you don’t want to take any responsibility for your choices, I’ll help you through this wave — I doubt it will be quite so overwhelming as this often, unless you were helping out Kate Middleton—are you choking? Here, take my napkin— and then I’m out. If you want me to do something useful like sort the comments into threads, we can do that. But I am not doing anything structural without some actual input from you.”

I translate this as quickly as I can into medical, and it makes sense. “How do I learn what the options are?” I ask. “Chemo or radiation? Surgery or physical therapy?”

She beams at me. “Antibiotics or hyperbaric chamber?”

“I didn’t mean to be being passive.”

“I shouldn’t have been quite so unkind. I love the Web, that’s all. And you think it’s basically TV or maybe magazines on demand.”

“Yes—“

“But you’ve fallen into hosting a community and you want to do right by them. It’s very sweet.” She looks at me. “It might be nice for you as well.”

“I don’t understand it,” I tell her. “I didn’t understand it when it was happening. I don’t now, really. This thing outside St. Bart’s —“ I show her a few of the files the grounds-keeping staff has sent me. Her face gets softer. Mine, too.

“Some of these pictures are lovely. As art, I mean, not just as…”

“As memorials.”

“This is difficult,” she says suddenly. “This can’t be easy for you, thank you for inviting me in. I’m so sorry, John, I’m wanting to argue about fonts and templates and your friend is dead.”

If she cries there’s an even chance that my protective-male habits will keep me from it myself. Or, equally even chance, that mirror neurons will betray me, but crying together is my new definition of a crap first date, even if this is not a date (Yes! Another couple I can NOT be part of! I want a thirty-nine year-old divorcée, not this sweet charming ridiculously young woman. Although the whim of steel she showed is not unattractive).

Right. That’s better.

“Yeah. I don’t intend to deny any of that, it’s not going to make me any easier to deal with. But I am sure I can be pointlessly difficult without having to go there, as such, and really, I need to do both. I mean deal with my friend’s death, and deal with this website I can’t blame anyone else for. I didn’t ask to lose him and I didn’t ask for twenty-thousand followers—“

“Fifty—“

I roll my eyes. “But here I am.”

“When I know you better I’ll ask if having company helps, but right now, will you look at some sites and see if you like the way they work?”

The next couple of hours are harrowing. I try not to make remarks about decadence and the complete downfall of Western civilisation, and she tries not to call me old. We do a bit better with the science blogs. And she has a startling grasp of cats on YouTube, though I can hold my own there. We both enjoy the distractions and eventually she stops calling me by my title altogether and we agree to meet the following week.

“Should I be paying you for this?”

“No, I’m not all that good at it.” Though by now she’s shown me some of her friends’ blogs and explained what she’s helped them do, and I disagree. “And it’s an honour.”

I look at her wanting more. She looks at me as though I’ve caught her out. “I’m one of those people on the pages of comments, too. Just a fan. I can’t talk about this with you, John. I feel — when one of my friends’ parents died in a crash, I went round and made sure people got enough to eat and the dog was walked and my friend had clothes to go to the funeral in. Helped her argue with people she didn’t have the spare energy to take on. I’d had meals with her parents and gone shopping with her and her mum, and I knew I was useful, but I still felt like I was intruding when I started to cry myself.”

“When my parents died a year apart, when I was in medical training, my sister and I had friends like that, and we didn’t feel they were intruding.”

“I never met Sherlock Holmes,” Polly says. “I couldn’t do those helping sorts of thing for you, but I wanted to. I only knew him through my cousin’s story, and the papers, and your blog, but it was different from reading about, I don’t know, Heath Ledger or David Tennant. And sometimes I’d run into someone who had met him.
"It was comforting to know there were people like him in the city. I don’t know what to say: that he made London more like London? if that makes any sense, if London didn’t eat people the way it did poor Princess Di. His own blog made him seem so stuffy, all edges. And yours made him a person for me, not just something like the Eye or Boris Johnson or Nelson's Column.
"What I’m saying is, I feel small and foolish saying to _you_ that I have lost someone; but it’s you who let me have him. I had the—the insolence to tell you you should be doing something in his memory, and I can’t be sorry I did, but — it really is an honour, and forgive me for saying, in the same room as you, I have sorrow of my own for him at all.” She makes herself smaller. "But I do."

I can’t say anything for a second. I remember when Diana died, just at the end of the summer holidays. Aldershot was gutted. I was in my early 20’s and just surprised. It seemed like everyone’s mum had lost a favourite niece. A thousand years ago. I still don’t quite get how Sherlock had become something like that, maybe just for London.

“Please don’t think I’m going to be angry, I'm not. Umm, I'm touched.” I say eventually. Becoming a very useful word. “I’ve said I don’t understand, but I’m trying to get better at taking what’s offered. If you’re up for having your illusions shattered, I’m sure I can manage; he certainly would have, he told me not to make him into a hero. I don’t know how long I’ll need to keep this blog going; your work may not last very long.”

“A year and a day? That’s traditional.”

“Websites have traditions?”

“Mourning does."

Chapter Text

Kenneth Crayhill seems like a name designed for ‘Sir’ in front of it and a string of initials after, although that may just be what I expect in a distinguished barrister. He’s too young for distinction, anyway, and clients like Moriarty will scarcely get him any farther along that road. He asked for this meeting. I am unsure how he knew that I might be someone he needed to see. We looked him over at the time of the trial, and found no reasons other than competence and availability for his chambers to be given Moriarty’s brief.

“I work with Legal Advice fairly often, when they have something out of the ordinary,” he says when I ask him how they became associated.

“Moriarty was certainly that,” I say.

“I didn’t like him, and I didn’t want the case. The security tapes from the Tower seemed to present an insuperable obstacle to any reasonable defence, and he wouldn’t cooperate. I never saw any evidence to support his contention that he was remotely involved in the security breaches at Pentonville or the Bank of England.”

“With which he was never charged,” I point out. “If he wanted bragging rights, he needed to put in the effort.”

“He claimed that he’d done that, and he claimed a great many other things.”

Looking at me significantly is not going to get him anywhere. I’ve been looked at, more or less significantly, by men and women both with far more particulars of what they perceive as my misdeeds. “We had reason to believe he was connected to a string of attempted bombings, and one successful one. He wasn’t able to prove his innocence, but we were unable to prove his guilt, so he was released.”

“Held for how long, under what circumstances?”

“Is that relevant? If it were more than twenty-eight days what did you imagine you were going to do about it?”

“Arrogance and power are a very unattractive combination, Mr. Holmes. Nor are they untypical of you, if my informant was correct.”

“Your informant?”

“I was very sorry to hear of your brother’s death.”

“Thank you,” I say, feeling wrong-footed.

“No, I didn’t mean to offer you condolences, I meant _I_ was very sorry about it. He was a remarkable man, though I was not as well-acquainted with him as I should have liked.”

People who knew Sherlock do turn up these days. I encourage them to send their reminiscence to John Watson, although that is almost certainly unkind. Unkindness is part of my description, and listening to stories of my little brother’s ante mortem exploits is more than I really wish to undertake. It’s been weeks since I’ve heard anything of his life post mortem. If I am to be realistic, it’s unlikely in the event of his true, unofficial death that I would hear anything for months, longer, ever. Whether or not there’s an alert for his DNA, his retinal scan, his finger- and toe-prints-- so many bodies simply disappear.

I’ve slipped away for a moment longer than I ought to have; Crayhill’s deep brown eyes are on me.

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t sure you needed condolences; I was wrong.”

“I don’t, usually, “ I say. “How did you know him?”

 

Soft dissolve to early May, 2012

 

Kenneth Crayhill noticed Sherlock Holmes trying to leave the Old Bailey without being seen. “Mr. Holmes?” he called out softly and hurried after him. Holmes turned in answer, ill-grace in every line of his body.

“Mr. Crayhill. These are rather different circumstances from the last time.” The last time, barely two weeks earlier, had involved Holmes being cited for contempt of court. Crayhill had been Moriarty’s barrister.

“For which I am very grateful. He was the client from hell.”

“In many ways, I believe.”

“I know. I would have liked to hear more of the testimony you were prepared to give.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference.”

“Are the Met — is anyone looking into the possibility of his tampering with the jurors?” Holmes raised his eyebrows just enough that Crayhill knew he appreciated the distinction. Holmes was very well-known to be vain as a parrot. Not, Crayhill reflected, that he was without reason to be, whatever his mind was like.

“No one has been willing to testify.” Holmes was bleak. “Off the record, I’ve heard Moriarty’s threats were wide-ranging and entirely credible.”

“I’ve heard that as well. I can’t blame the jury for their verdict, nor for their reluctance to reveal their reasons.”

“How conventional of you. I can’t excuse them so easily.”

“People do what they must for love. Or reputation, or livelihood.”

“So I am given to understand. It’s unfortunate.”

“I do most of my work for Legal Aid. I see it all the time.”

“Was there anything in particular you wished to discuss, Mr. Crayhill, apart from your philanthropic endeavours?”

“I wondered whether you knew anything of my late client’s whereabouts. I doubt that you will be surprised to hear he never paid his bill.”

“When I catch up with him, I shall be sure to remind him.”

“They arrested Al Capone for income tax evasion in the end. I’d like to do what I can to help you. If I am ever in a position to do so, or you can imagine a way in which I might be.”

Holmes looked at him. Crayhill tried to keep his chin up; he’d heard about Holmes’s legendary, ruthless critique, but apparently the detective was not in that frame of mind today. It was slightly disappointing.

“Something of a conflict of interest, isn’t it? You couldn’t tell me anything he said without violating professional ethics.”

“True enough, but since he refused to speak privately to me or to his solicitor about anything regarding his defence or anything substantive of any kind, I have no privileged conversation to protect.”

“I would never have thought he could keep quiet that long,” Holmes said.

“In the meantime, I have a client whose case —“

“Not interested.”

“You don’t know what it is.”

“It’s already been solved, has it not? Or he wouldn’t be your client.”

“She, and I’d heard you were in the habit of calling the police idiots.”

“Only the ones I respect. Most of them don’t even reach that standard.”

“I would call upon your sense of justice, but no one to whom I have spoken is persuaded that you have one. I did think, however, that you would prefer Legal Advice London not to squander the anonymous donation of last month.”

“‘Anonymous’ would appear not to be the correct term.”

“I’m on the board, and I am friends with the treasurer. I believe my client is innocent, which is less usual than I would like. As well as her freedom, she stands to lose custody of her children if she is found guilty.”

“I’m surprised your attempt to persuade me to examine the case didn’t lead with that, rather than the point about wasting Legal Advice’s meagre resources.”

“I see retaining her children more importantly as evidence she’s unlikely to have been dealing with such extraordinary quantities of heroin as she is accused, having no previous history concerning anything stronger than low-grade marijuana.”

“Dealing?”

“Using. That case was dismissed.”

“When you say extraordinary quantity—?”

“Half a kilo, uncut, pure Afghani heroin.” Crayhill would have said he saw a flicker cross Holmes’s face, but it passed so quickly.

“An extraordinary quantity indeed. Does she have any explanation for how it came into her possession?”

“I have her permission to disclose the facts of her case. Would you come see the documents, at my chambers?” Crayhill hesitated, opted for stick rather than carrot. “Or would you prefer it to be known that you also indulge in ‘philanthropic endeavours’?”

“Was that a threat, Mr. Crayhill? Will it be ‘proffering-with-embarrassment’ next?”

“I am a desperate man, Mr. Holmes.”

And whatever angel looks after single mothers in dodgy circumstances smiled on them, and Holmes nearly did. “I must send a text; then I can accompany you to your chambers.”

“This isn’t Gray’s Inn by any means,” Holmes said, as they climbed the fourth flight of stairs.

“No, it’s where I actually work.” After the dinginess of the stairway, Crayhill was always relieved to open the door to the office. Light poured in from the leaky windows, over the desks and bookshelves and the worn carpet. Cherry was making tea.

“Mr. Holmes, may I present Theresa Williams, a solicitor who is kind enough to employ me on occasion?”

Cherry’s face lit up. “A great pleasure, Mr. Holmes. Tea? Kenny, take off your wig, you’re talking like that again.”
Crayhill went to put the gown and wig in the cupboard where they belonged, trying to get his tongue back out of the courtroom. Holmes seemed to speak in copperplate as well. It made it difficult.

“—A client in common, Mr. Holmes; Maddy Wiggins?”

“You’re Cherry Williams, then; Wiggins speaks of you very highly. And you make it possible for her to continue the erratic existence she finds to be—“

“The only one she can lead. You’ve helped her a great deal.”

“I would have said she helps me a great deal.”

“And how many people ask a homeless schizophrenic for help? Or the rest of her friends, the ‘Homeless Network’ she said you called them?”

“Mental illness doesn’t mean incapacity, any more than so-called ‘normal’ behaviour indicates competence. As Mr. Crayhill’s recent client certainly demonstrates.”

“Oh, God, Moriarty. A right nutter, villain of the old school he thinks himself. Do you take sugar?”

“No, thank you, just milk.”

“Oatcake? Hand-carried from Edinburgh last night, buttered.”

“I thought half of that was for me, Cherry!” Crayhill could not suppress a yelp.

“You may have half, Ken, if Mr. Holmes eats the other.” Cherry looked at the detective with gentle inquiry. “If you are not on a case at the moment, Mr. Holmes? Poor Ken gets so hungry after a morning in court.”

“Please call me Sherlock, Ms. Williams. Are all of Legal Advice London so accustomed to using threats and outright blackmail?”

“We do what we must because we can,” Cherry told him. “Here, Ken, you may eat after all.”

“The cake is delicious, thanks,” he said, taking the small plate. Holmes watched them; Cherry pointed to his portion.

“Bargain?”

“What makes you so invested in my nutrition, other than Maddy Wiggins?” Holmes bit into the crumbling oatcake.

“Your blogger threw a wobbly yesterday, said you were down by his estimate at least 5000 calories over the last four days.”

They heard him exhale deeply through his nose, but indignation is hard to convey without getting crumbs everywhere. “John will hear about this. Why do all of you even read it?”

“Because he’s funny and gentle and clever and it makes my day, usually,” Cherry told him. “And it’s interesting to hear about something besides people stealing one another’s benefit, or knifing one another over someone’s motorbike, or being charged for drunken and disorderly because they’ve been kicked out their poky little room—probably for being penniless, drunk, and disorderly--and nowhere private to go sleep off what they’re desperate enough to use for a moment away. If you can understand that kind of need.”

“Better than I like to admit,” Holmes told her. “Thank you for looking after Maddy and the rest; I don’t mind becoming your recreation so much, if it helps with your work.”

“I need a holiday.” She shrugged. “Maddy will be happy to hear I’ve met you. I’ll be seeing her today, she gets post here.” Holmes looked at the file box by one wall: half a hundred plastic bags arranged by alphabet. “It makes it a bit easier being of no fixed abode if you can still have an address," she explained.

“And much easier on some of their families,” Crayhill said. “Cher, he said he would look into Jenny Tannahill’s case.”

“That’s worth an oatcake, I’ll go back and bring you more, Sherlock, if you can do something for her. One of the most — sorry, I’ll let you see what we have. I’ve gathered from your blogger we’re not to impose our opinions on your facts.”

“Something gained then, to offset your unwanted solicitude.”

“But Sherlock, I am a solicitor!”

“Unsolicited solicitude.”

 

Soft dissolve back to the present, late September 2012

 

“What happened with Mrs. Tannahill?” I ask, when Crayhill seems to have run down for a moment.

“He cleared her. He looked through the statements, asked me if we could go visit my client, talked with her for a little and then insisted we go for a pint in her local. Where he picked a fight with a stranger, nearly got himself knifed, and finished up with glassine bags all over the bar. Jenny Tannahill’s boyfriend’s brother Bobby, it turned out to be. Your brother said he had only wanted to search his house, but this turned out more effectively.”

“He generally felt his suspicion was probable cause enough,” I say.

“It didn’t stop there. Bobby swore he’d never put half a kilo in anyone’s house. Your brother believed this, and the SOCA agent for the area was willing to push a little more. It turned out one of Bobby’s fellow dealers had thought this was a chance to take over his spot as the local distributor, making it look like Bobby had planted it on the woman who spurned his advances. _Their_ boss thought it was all a terrible waste of heroin— a hundred grams would have framed anyone well enough— and the repercussions and betrayals are continuing to this day. I spoke to your brother about it a week before he died, to let him know how much damage he’d done to quite a large ring with one afternoon’s work. I thought he was pleased.”

I wonder what part of ‘nearly got himself knifed’ had failed to show up on Sherlock’s surveillance reports. One cannot really have one’s brother tailed constantly; he was insistent, and from a practical point of view, I suppose he was right. And for now, the horse is gone and the stable burned down behind him; no door to bar.

“I’m sorry,” this man says again, when, again, I have slipped unforgivably away. “I can’t imagine how it must be for you.”

He certainly can’t. “No,” I say meaninglessly. “Excuse me. I imagine it did please him; I don’t know that people called him often to follow up. He tended to treat them more as cases than individuals; you seem to have surprised his fellow-feeling.”

“I think — well, besides Cherry, who would make friends with a stone, and came with references — I think he was inclined to give me a slight edge for having dealt with Moriarty. He wanted to know every detail I could give him of our interactions, though they were mostly boasting and unkind remarks. Cherry had a list of medications she wanted to see Moriarty on.”

“If he _were_ to have been held—extralegally, it might be reasonable to assume some of those were tried.”

“Not quite to the point of feeding him LSD and showing him a window?” Whatever kindness Crayhill wanted to show me is in abeyance.

“No. Even the Americans have eased off those lines.”

I wish we had. I know I am not to indulge in empty speculation, in trying to redo the past. It would have been so very easy to see whether beheading the monster would have killed his network, and in the end he killed himself, in such a way as to leave his network flourishing. It wasn’t justice that stayed my hand— no. I suppose it was. Though likely only my brother would have dared take me to task for it. In a very real sense, I can tell myself, if this operation kills my brother it will be his own fault as much as mine. If it kills him again. If it has already killed him again. It will have killed me.

“What was he like?”

“Moriarty?”

“Your brother, Mr. Holmes. As I say, I knew him for barely more than one afternoon, but he — forgive me, suicide was not a word I would ever have connected with him.”

“Mr. Crayhill, after the hours of euphemism I have endured, a simple remark like your own needs no forgiveness.”

Talking about Sherlock with someone who isn’t angry at me, who doesn’t know how my discussing him complicated my life, and his… and I’ve seen Crayhill’s dossier. If there’s anyone in London who is no more or less than he appears—

He has really lovely eyes. And diction.

"Your family are notorious for neglecting their blood sugar, Mr. Holmes. Would you have lunch with me?"

This is not good at all.

Chapter Text

From the Blog of Dr. John H. Watson:

It’s very kind of so many of you to respond to my blogging again. I hadn’t realised how many people cared so much about Sherlock, which was probably stupid of me; I thought he was larger-than-life, and I lived with him.

I miss him so much.

Without him I’m not sure what I’ll be blogging about (if anything), but there are cases we worked that I never wrote up, and so many of you have sent me stories about him; I’ll try to get some of those up here as well.

As for my life (I do have one), I’d say things were getting back to normal, only my normal for the last couple of years included explosives, guns, knives, dead bodies (it sounds like Afghanistan, doesn’t it? Less dusty. Many fewer bombs, actually), Luminol, and a mad flatmate. It’s much less exciting now. I stayed with my sister for a few weeks, but I am back at 221B. Being here doesn’t make me miss Sherlock any less or any more; it’s not like those things people say where you think someone will be back any moment, or that you hear them moving about in another room. Though I am surprised every time I notice that there’s space on the kitchen counter. Some people thought I would want to make a fresh start, but I’d be lying if I said I wanted one. When it gets too quiet I turn the stereo up loud until Mrs. Hudson comes to say she’s always enjoyed a good banjo, but perhaps I could turn it down a bit? (Can you tell I’ve been playing the last Mumford and Sons but one? Does anyone understand the lyrics?)

 

This page (the whole site) looks a bit different; I hope you find the changes helpful. The new web mistress (there never was an old one, or a webmaster either; I have been let to know I was living in the past, sometime in the early ’00’s) is Ms. Mary Morstan . Since she told me off in a pub for not making sure everyone knew about the report from the Met, I thought she deserved some of the work to try to keep this current. I was luckier than any blogger deserves to find someone as knowledgeable and enthusiastic as she is—

 

“A bit different?” says Greg. “It’s gorgeous. How did you get him to let you do this?”

Polly smiles, still a little shy.

 

She had called me two days after our first meeting, in something of hurry as the comments continued to pile up. We met in the café again. “I went with a ‘forum’ model, rather like Neil Gaiman’s,” she said.

“I’m not Neil Gaiman.”

“No, but it’s a lovely model. At least you know who he is.”

“I’m old, not dead. I actually read, you know.”

“Hard copy?”

“You’re judging me.”

She sighed. “If we can get them sorted into threads, you’ll be able to respond to the ones you want to and the rest of them can respond to each other.”

I am familiar enough with the internet to know that meant there would be blood in the water; she was very pleased I understood that much. “This sort of response can’t go on forever, but I have a few friends who’ll moderate with me till it cools down. One of them curates a ‘worst things on the Internet’ thread on SomethingDreadful and she’s like death from above.”

“Do we need death from above?”

“Almost certainly. Now, how do you feel about fan art?”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“Do I have to?”

“No, John. Nothing you feel uncomfortable with.”

“Is there a way we could politely send them somewhere I never have to see any of it?”

“Probably a good choice. If there’s something really nice I’ll let you know. Same thing about poetry?”

“Less weird, but …”

“Okay. And fiction’s right out?”

Flames came out of my nose and ears. “RPF is the most complete mind-fuck awfulness—“

“RIGHT, wow, okay. I didn’t expect you to know about that.”

“Don’t ask. Although some of the stuff with the Leveson inquiry was actually quite funny. No. I just want a nice non-fiction non-art blog like an ordinary man. Don’t snort like that.”

“So I imagine you want it to look familiar; the front page will still be your blog. I’ve cleaned up the graphic a little, or we could go to something like this—“ She clicked to a page and I caught my breath. Sherlock in living colour. I had almost no pictures of him myself— why would I have needed them, before?

“Where did you find these? I’ve never seen most of them--“

“Flickr, bit of Google. There are some nice ones of you, as well.”

“Some of these have to have been taken by people in the Met… that’s an old one, it must have been years before my time; God, he looks young—“ I tore my gaze away.

“I’m sending you the link to this, it’s on a kind of scratchpad for my blog,” Polly said. “If you click on the individual pictures you get links and credits. These are just the ones that had blanket permissions or Creative Commons licenses; there are a bunch more who would probably be flattered if you asked.”

“I really like this, but it’s kind of too much.” This was an understatement. I didn’t want to face some of those shots, where he was looking through the camera straight into the soul of the photographer. I didn’t want to get used to them, either; they stirred memories I hadn’t known I had.

Polly nodded as though I was coherent. “I thought we might have some on the inside pages, the actual forums. We can put them on a long repeat and keep the opening page more like the one you have. In the sense of ‘not much like the one you have,’ because, well.” She clicked to something that matched her description. I could see why she thought the original one was old-fashioned; this was cleaner and in fact prettier and easier to read.

“It looks a bit like Tumblr.”

“Well, Minimalist Tumblr, yeah. We can do a bit of colour like this—“ clicking “— and please can we change the picture of you? I liked these or this one or we can take a new one. And this counter works.”

“I found it rather comforting for it always to be 1895.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine, we can keep the broken counter maybe here? And have one that actually does something over here. Do you want one of those maps? I thought ‘below the fold’ so it doesn’t get too messy. You’re sure you don’t want to make money out of this?”

“Yes. I don’t want to push advertisements on my friends.”

“Not even an Amazon link? I mean, I understand about integrity and all that, but this must be costing a fortune.”

“Not that I know of. I had to go up from a free platform last year, I think I’m paying about fifteen quid a month.”

“Oh no, you’re not. More like fifty, seventy-five. There’s no way you could still be getting all this traffic.”

“I’d know if it was that much—“ or maybe I wouldn’t. _Bloody_ Mycroft. “I may have a mysterious benefactor.”

“That’s the most reasonable explanation, honestly.”

“I wouldn’t call it reasonable,” I muttered. “So when can we do this?”

Her face lit up. “You really like it?”

“Yes, I do. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble and it’s really better. And, mm, thank you for the pictures of Sherlock. I had no idea.”

She looked into my face and knit her eyebrows a bit, rather carefully squeezed my shoulder. “Thank you for letting me help. You know.”

“Yeah.” We’re English. It’s good.

“We can do the opening page whenever, and we can do the sorting pages to get the comments under control — that’s going to take some time. The real forum pages— what?”

“Just weird, I don’t get it. I know.”

“I’m so used to people who want _more_ traffic; I mean, you don’t really want _less_, do you?”

“I just want to blog in peace.” And dodge some bullets and examine a body or two, and argue about the contents of the fridge.

“You won’t have to go there unless you want to, I promise. So now we log onto your provider’s website— my God, John, do you call that a password?”

“Don’t you start.”

That was when we found we could not, in fact, do anything, which is par for the course in my experience of the Internet. My phone rang. A number I hadn’t seen in awhile. I excused myself from our table.

Not, thank goodness, the man himself. “Hello, Dr. Watson. This is Anthea.”

“No, it isn’t,” I said. “But hello anyway. What does your boss want?”

“You can’t do anything structural to your website except through 221B, so you need to go home if you’re changing anything. Which is a good idea.”

“I know, 'it looks like 2001, not in a good way.' What do you mean, needing to go back to the flat?”

“It’s part of the security. And it will take longer to upload than your associate expects.”

“Too many layers?”

“‘Checking for malware’ would probably be the best way to put it.”

“Ah, thank you?”

“Ms. Morstan seems to be what she says she is, but there are protocols.”

“For my blog?”

“For everything.”

“By the way, is Mycroft paying for my bandwidth somehow?”

“He thought the expenses you incurred looking after the younger Mr. Holmes were quite high enough without paying for his business advertising. He said to tell you it was family money so you would be less likely to turn him down.”

“He’s not wrong. Tell him thank you. Don’t tell him about the tone of seething resentment.”

“He infers that automatically, Dr. Watson. Be seeing you.”

 

“Welcome to the rabbit hole,” I said to Polly. “You can apply to see your file under the Freedom of Information Act, but they lie, so I wouldn’t bother.”

“What are you talking about? I have your website provider on hold, we may be here some time.”

“That was the mysterious benefactor. Sherlock’s brother does something for the government and it makes him insanely security conscious. Apparently you’re all right, but we have to go to 221B to alter my website. At least you can stop being on hold.”

 

Polly prowls around 221B, not quite sniffing the air. She’s not someone who asks about the spray paint; she looks at the skull gravely and strokes its cranium like a cat’s head. I can see she’s trying to be polite; I tell her to look around while I make tea. When I come out she’s reading the bookshelves. “Those are yours, over there,” she says when she’s done looking. I have taken one set of pre-war (Great War, I think) encyclopaedia up to the spare bedroom and installed enough fantasy and science fiction to identify me as the nerd I somewhat am. All my medical books and any nonfiction were mixed in with Sherlock’s long ago.

“What gave it away?”

“The real question is whether you have a copy of ‘Flood’ on your iTunes.” I queued it up. She showed me hers.

After her computer fought its way onto the network, we had no trouble opening the backstage of my website. “See this? That’s your blog content. You’re giving it a separate password, so you have control and privacy.” Except, very likely, for Mycroft.

“Thank you,” I say.

“A better one than that.”

“How can you even tell?”

“Not enough keys, no shift. All right. In real life, we would not be starting from a backlog like this, and the threads would mostly spin themselves. I’ve set up four mailboxes? sort of, for you to just toss the comments in, and then I’ll make threads later. From the panic in your eyes I thought the important thing was to get you feeling as though you could just write your blog again, mostly—“

“I’m quite good at insurgents and murderers, but numbers over a thousand—“

“You really are a good site owner, John, it’s sweet. Thank God you had the sense to let someone take care of you; you shouldn’t have to worry your pretty little head about these things. Just provide content.” We both enjoy the change of stereotype, and she continues. “So look, here—“ They’re labelled ‘John needs to deal with,’ ‘John or Polly may deal with,’ ‘For God’s Sake Polly,’ and ‘DIAF.’

“Die In A Fire,” she explains. It seems extreme. “Oh, and I’ll set up another one for ‘completely spam.’ Here’s how you can put in subsets, like “People I Actually Know” or “People Offering Me Money or Sexual Favours.”

“Those will probably end up in DIAF.”

“And yet you complained about the lack of action— Do you want to start on page 14? I’ve had a look at most of the earlier ones so they should sort fast for me.”

It works surprisingly well, and Polly starts finding threads among the “John or Polly may deal with.” The last two boxes are a relief, only she laughs every time I throw something into one of them. I am about to suggest we order in, when Greg and Mrs Hudson come to the door.

“Mrs. Hudson, Greg, this is Polly Morstan. She’s helping with the blog. Polly, this my amazing landlady who made that cake, and Detective Inspector Lestrade of the Metropolitan Police.” Polly turns bright pink and shakes hands. Mrs. Hudson makes hospitable remarks and goes home, having satisfied any perfectly reasonable curiosity she may have.

“I came by to look at the holes in Mrs. Hudson’s wall,” Greg says. “No one else reported any fake repairmen or similar in this area or in that time frame, although if Mrs. H is typical we may not hear about them until Christmas.” It’s only just mid-September.

“Another one for our friend in Whitehall, I’m afraid.”

“Do you remember seeing this guy?”

“Not really well enough to identify him. Bigger than me, bald. Tattoos.”

“So Mrs. Hudson said. I will look into it.”

“I was about to ask Polly if she would like Indian, you could join us?”

“Interrupting—?”

“No, I took your advice to ask for help about the blog and I think I’m very lucky indeed—“ This pleases Polly and she shows Greg the new front page.

 

After we eat, Polly exercises either feminine wiles or some kind of web-master voodoo and persuades Greg that he would like nothing more than to sort ten pages of comments: “Detective Inspector, I don’t suppose I could persuade you to help us, could you? Only I’d really like to get to at least page fifty, then we’d be less than a week behind—“

“You may call me Greg, you know.”

Polly’s eyes twinkle fiercely, an expression I am beginning to recognise. “Go ahead and say it,” I advise. “That’s your fan-girl look, isn’t it?”

“It’s just so amazing to meet the people in John’s blog—“

“Greg, why don’t you fetch the people in John’s blog a beer from the fridge, including yourself?” Beer is a calming influence.

“Polly, I would be happy to read John’s mail, but unlike you I don’t carry a computer.”

“Oh, I have a spare,” she says, pulling an iPad out of her bag. We look at her. “It’s like having a dagger in your sock,” she explains.

 

Greg seems to enjoy flicking comments into the various columns, although he and Polly are having, I think a better time at it than I am. I can’t tell if the sheer number of condolences is getting me down or just numbing.

“Another coded one,” Greg says.

“There’s a subheading under ‘weird’ in For God’s Sake,” I tell him.

“Have you looked at them?”

“Not really. There’s an A-Z next to the skull. Knock yourself out.”

Polly giggles. I cannot blame her. Greg finds a pen and paper and sighs. “I can’t decide if I should be more disturbed that people have taken the time to make these or that I’ve taken the time to read them.”

“You’re being thorough,” I say.

“I think they’re talking to each other.”

“It’s not Chinese gangsters?”

“I _think_ it’s Dr. Who.”

“May I see?” Polly asks. ‘Oh, it’s them. They think they’re clever.” She notes the usernames and knocks them out of the queue. “Less than thirty-three hundred to go,” she says encouragingly. “We can stop if you want.”

“Or we could have more beer,” I suggest. I am well into automatic mode. It had once seemed like a good idea to try to keep up with people. Possibly the ‘John Needs To Deal’ list will look more compelling in the morning, or in two weeks.

“I’ll drive you home if you like,” Greg says to Polly. We all have more beer.

“This one’s a different code,” Greg announces suddenly.

16-3-112-10 2-9-41-3 16-6-57-7.

Chapter Text

Lestrade is working. He would rather be outside; the weather is holding but the daylight is shorter than he likes. And he’s doing paperwork, which is the price he pays for decent holiday and retirement benefits, should he live long enough to use them. The security hassles of _epic_ proportions earlier this year are mercifully over. If he never sees another set of rings (royal wedding or Olympic) he will die a happy man. The effects of the shake-ups among the gangs and his own superiors are beginning to calm; the man who tasted John Watson’s fist is shuffled far to one side now.

It’s nearly normal, or it will be until the next weird-arse suicidal murders or similar take place and no lanky consultant will be there to sneer at his efforts and throw his team a bone now and again—all the while, Lestrade thinks with a quick crease of pain, looking from behind the curled lip and the _hauteur_ (who even makes you use words like ‘hauteur’?) for a gleam of approval. Sherlock had finally begun to accept gleams of affection, Greg thought. Not that anyone who hadn’t known him for years — from the time he’d been nothing but razor edges and one fix away from psychosis— would have been able to tell.

 

Timesheet: fortunately he kept up with that. A notebook always in his back pocket— one of the fifty things Cyn had resented, carrying the damn thing when they went out for dinner or a movie, but he he needed to have it— where he jotted the barest notes of his location from hour to hour, keeping in mind that a journal might become evidence or testimony in court as to his whereabouts. Time spent at St. Bart’s was not currently payable, but he had written ’inquiry into death of Sherlock Holmes and associated events’ in clear letters. Mrs. Hudson’s wall is clearly police business, as her complaint about disappearing fake gas maintenance men is logged and filed. He thinks she would be less annoyed if the man had at least patched the holes. Driving John’s web-mistress (for God’s sake. PA was simpler) home: not payable.

 

'Thank you for the lift,' Polly had said, once they had sorted out her address.

“It's late, and no trouble,' Lestrade said. “And I'm John's friend and you're the best bit of luck to come his way since mid-June."

"Thanks! Of course that's true for me, as well. I owe him something huge. You were there, that evening.”

“That I was. We were talking about human nature and neither of us thought you were right for your date.”

“I’d come to that conclusion too. But John made it very clear. Would that pill in my drink, the one John spilled for me— would Reg really have been able to ... seduce and despoil me?"

“Probably not,” Lestrade squeezed out optimism. Not everything goes as badly as it possibly can. “It's harder to drug someone than people think and you weren’t drunk to begin with, as far as I could see. You told all your friends and relations to avoid him, right?"

“And all of his Facebook friends, and Match.com and--need I go on?"

“Your wrath is terrible. But about John-- it's good to see him moving again. I don't think he had any idea how many people read the blog, and it's something he can still do, that he did before.”

"And it has to do with his friend. I'm hoping he can see it as helping the people who read it, that working on it again is actually doing something worthwhile. Not just being sad. So he'll know he's not the only one missing...” her voice trailed off.

"You can say Sherlock's name, you know."

"It seems—” she had hesitated. “Presumptuous? Rude? Like I’m trying to push?” He had given her a look. She had returned it. “I was trying to explain to John. I'd have said-- I did say, to a lot of people, that it hurt me when Sherlock Holmes died. I mean, I cried. But you both actually lost a friend. I feel like I'm trespassing. On someone else’s sacred ground."

"Good way to put it," Lestrade had said. "I do it all the time, only I dig ditches in the sacred ground and tell people things they don't want to hear. Whether it helps them or not. I can't speak for John, Polly, but while I was there…you seemed to have your shoes off, walking gently. Giving real help."

"What about you? You knew...Sherlock longer. How are _you_ doing?"

From his instant, unspoken response —“why are _you_ asking?” Lestrade knew what she meant. From what he’d told her before, he knew she wasn’t prying. “Odd to meet someone kind enough to ask. Well enough, I suppose." Or not. Sherlock’s had not been the kind of death Lestrade accepts as a hazard of the job. Still fucking devastated by the loss of the man Sherlock was becoming. "I measure myself against John like you do, but yeah, I miss Sherlock badly. And professionally, as well." Both of them sighed. Greg could hear her plucking up her nerve.

"I need to ask because I don't want to hurt John," Polly said. "Were they--?"

"No one knows. I tend to doubt it, but —“ He shrugged. John's grief speaks to him of missed opportunities. He wants to tell John that everyone does what seems best at the time, that second-guessing the past doesn't credit anyone, that Greg knows neither Sherlock nor John would have taken any decision like that lightly, for or against. If it had crossed either of their minds. "I can tell you it's something you'd best not ask him. Not that--"

She was nodding. "I know. One of my flatmates knows John's sister's ex."

"It's not so big a city as it seems, is it?"

“No, it isn’t. Have you lived here always?"

"Just since uni. Around the time you were born."

They talked generally until he was dropping her off, when Polly thanked him again for helping sort out the comments on John's blog. "I don't imagine it will be this bad again, and we'll have things in place."

"Sooner you than me, but it was interesting, in its way."

"I wouldn't spend too much time on the code, if I were you. Even on Sherlock's blog, most of them were just idiots."

"Professional curiosity, but I won't let it get to me. See you again, I hope."

 

Much too young for him. Would have been nice to have a daughter like her, but it's late to be considering that. Cyn would have been a dreadful mother. Lestrade doesn't think what kind of father he would be, though there are more than a few officers at NSW who have a good idea and are grateful.

 

Four copies of the same form. He fills them in with better grace as they attach to receipts and a large enough sum of money back into his pocket to ... What? Replace the bottle crate currently in use between the settee and the television? Codes for different kinds of expense: he knows the ones he uses most often by heart, the ones that really mean ‘coffee to stay awake. Sticky rolls to keep his team alert. Tea to calm a witness.’

 

The snippet of code from John's blog sits on a scrap of paper at the bottom of his computer screen. It’s a small distraction, running in the background as Lestrade performs routine. It was different enough from the other messages that it pokes at him. The yoicks on about Dr. Who (what were they doing on John's blog anyway? Not a sodding playground) used the code from the Blind Banker case, simple enough to guess since breaking the cipher was discussed the same place that the commenters were waving it about, looking for attention from others of their kind. Blogsite as social space, as Polly kept trying to explain.

This wasn't the same cipher: not the same key, not the same groups of two, not the same purpose. Or at least trying to get attention from different people. Polly had promised to send him any more coded messages that turned up not using the Blind Banker system, but nothing had come in. He trusts her attention to detail and what looks like devotion to John's cause that there were no others. Not much waving, then. But does anyone post anything without looking for a response? And so short, it had to be easy.

 

Form explaining need for expedited DNA analysis: because we need to prove who did it before the criminals die of old age. Jesus. He supposes they need to make a rush job difficult or everyone would be using it and it would slow back down to the glacial creep it usually was. How much of his soul would Mycroft want in exchange for just a few favours? It’s the sort of thing Lestrade suspects Sherlock's brother could do; has done, in fact. Something he never told his brother about, but smoothed his way. Probably saved them up for some time Sherlock was flaunting his independence.

Time spent brooding about the Holmes brothers: long enough he could have been justifying extra forensics hours (to elicit facts Sherlock would have grasped in a glance). Break.

 

His team was out in the open area, getting on with things. Ackroyd met his eyes; Lestrade walked over. “Got the details about the car-dealer robbery?”

“Sending them right now,” Ackroyd told him.

“Did you ever come up with anything about Richard Brook?” Lestrade asks, Sherlock on his mind.

“Nnno,” says Ackroyd with the split-second hesitation Lestrade recognises as ‘because I forgot entirely that you ever asked me.’ Lestrade himself has forgotten he ever asked him, in fact, for the last month or so.

“Never mind, then. This afternoon we need to go see about that mess in Barnes again. I’ll see you after lunch, about two?”

Ackroyd nods. From across the room Lestrade sees Colin Lamprey looking quizzical? Distressed? His youngest sergeant, at least in looks and demeanour. He’s terrified of Lestrade, which is unnecessary, as he is competent and intelligent. Not his fault he’s posh. Lestrade tries to be particularly attentive when Colin actually seeks him out, as it rarely happens, so he crosses the room.

“Richard Brook?” Colin asks, keeping his voice low. Maybe the IPCC gave him a Holmes-related phobia?

“Yeah. Why, do you know anything?”

Colin indicates a desire to be elsewhere, in a reasonably discreet fashion, and Lestrade follows him out of their own part of the cube-field to a more open one. “I e-mailed you something last week. Didn’t you get it?”

“No. I would have noticed.” Actually he would have noticed anything from Colin that wasn’t strictly regarding matters under immediate investigation. Everyone else sent around ’stupid criminal’ videos, or photo-sets of horrifying accidents, but Colin seemed to obey IT’s guidelines. It was strange and overly earnest of him.

“I’ll resend it. Inspector…is there something I should know about all that?”

“‘All that’ covers a great deal of ground, Colin. You were around for the enquiry— or no, you came to me just after, didn’t you?”

“I took my detectives’ exam the week before Sherlock Holmes died.” Which tells Lestrade a lot just from the one sentence. He must have applied to be in Lestrade’s division while hell was breaking loose.

“I didn’t know you were a fan.”

“It didn’t seem relevant.”

Lestrade reflects that ‘No, but it’s kind of sweet’ is not what a young, idealistic detective wants to hear. “What makes you ask? And what made you want to send me information about Richard Brook?”

Colin nods. “Yes, both, exactly. Ummm. Holmes. That was strange. How he died. And no one looked into it, there are no records which is why I asked if there was…”

“You’re not quite the only one who’s noticed that. No, I haven’t heard of any official request being made to keep anything quiet.”

Colin is looking at him, so damn young.

“Yes, I have been looking into what I can. I haven’t finished, but all I have now are … sins of omission. Blanks where no blanks should be.” Things I need to go ask Mycroft Holmes about, and I am not going there without backup. And it will be Watson, not you. Mycroft could break your career like a crisp on a dance floor.

“That’s what I keep finding too, sir. Inspector Gregson had files copied from that reporter, but his copies have gone. I think some of his notes have gone since I first looked at them.”

“They should be on the database—“

“They aren’t, sir. And I asked Inspector Gregson if he had backups of his notes on his own computer and it had crashed the week previous.”

“And he didn’t think that was strange? No, sorry, he wouldn’t.” Gregson is one of those people whose fear and hatred for computers is reciprocated by every machine he comes near. “His originals, in pen?”

Colin shakes his head. “With the copied files from the reporter.”

Lestrade doesn’t like this. Paperwork is dull, sometimes hellish, but it’s the bony underpinning of the law. Records should not disappear. And if they do disappear, you wonder what made them interesting enough to be worth the trouble. “I think you and Ackroyd are going to call on Kitty Riley and ask her nicely if you can have a fresh copy of her documentation. We don’t have a warrant, but she was reasonable enough last time to let Gregson— what?”

“Please sir, not Ackroyd? Willowes? Fremantle?”

“Why not Ackroyd?” This is interesting. Colin doesn’t usually speak up.

“He didn’t like Sherlock Holmes. He didn’t like him at all. There’s something not right there--I don’t think it would be the most effective use of his time.”

“Are you saying this officially, Detective Sergeant Lamprey?”

Damn if the kid doesn’t square his shoulders. “I have no basis to make such a statement, Detective Inspector Lestrade. Constable Ackroyd has never been anything but professional in his conduct.”

“But if I were asking young Colin, off the record, at the pub…?”

Young Colin gave him the look of a level-headed equal and said nothing. Lestrade looks back at him.

“Or you could take Keira Fremantle, she knows a good bit about the local journos. Ackroyd is busy with the car dealership robberies, you’re right, shame to disturb him. And resend that e-mail before you go.” Lestrade clouts him gently on the shoulder as he heads off to the cafeteria. Very, very wrong to play favourites. Very pleasant to have been chosen as someone’s favourite. Particularly when so much of Sherlock’s public conversation with him had included the word ‘idiot.’ Or perhaps Colin just thought his partiality for Sherlock Holmes meant Lestrade was unusually patient with difficult people, which was true enough.

 

Lestrade had just successfully avoided the siren call of a cream cake with Chilean strawberries and was paying for his coffee when Colin showed up in the cafeteria. “I couldn’t resend that email, sir. It wasn’t there.”

“And you’re sure you sent it?”

“I am, sir. And it’s not on my external hard drive either. I back up every other day."

“You’re very thorough, Lamprey.”

“I learned the hard way in uni, sir.” He’s on the verge of saying something else he knows he ought not to say, Lestrade thought. Something to do with the hard drive. Something not according to guidelines, but not _wrong._

“Sometimes, you know,” Lestrade says, “it’s really convenient to have some of your files at home. Completely wrong, very insecure, very common, often, as I say, very efficient. Makes it hard sometimes to know if IT’s security guidelines are entirely… I suppose it would be easy and relatively secure to take them home on a hard drive, maybe even with a bit of encryption. Do you know, your ears turn red? So you’re not saying that it might be worth looking on your computer at home, because, of course, you wouldn’t… but if you did?”

“I’d want not to send it to your Met email address.”

“G dash mail at Outlook dot co dot en.”

He watches as Colin digests this. “Easy to remember, sir. Are we really,” Colin asks slowly, “…acting like the Met’s e-mail might be compromised?”

Computer codes, Lestrade thinks. They don’t all have to unlock Pentonville Prison or the Bank of England. “We are. And we are doing so in a completely legal, completely quiet way so as not to alarm anyone.”

“Well, of course.”

“And if anything happens to me, tell John Watson. We have enough sense to use back up. Now, off you go.”

Lestrade sips his coffee. He know he needs to call on a higher power. He hates him.

Chapter Text

I still haven’t heard anything of Sherlock. We needed him out of sight as soon as he could walk without a limp; I know he checked in with my contacts in Spain a week after his death. That was in June; I heard from UCLAT at the beginning of August, Spain again a week later. It’s October 10th.

His silence should not be on my mind the way it has been. If he were a normal agent of my department’s will, I could be more certain what had or had not happened to him (only _more_ certain; not altogether). I would know there were more eyes and ears than the very few I wholly trust looking out for him, looking after him, looking for him benignly. I care too much to endanger his mission by risking its exposure. Before mid-June I would have said it was because of Moriarty’s business; I can’t tell myself that these last weeks. But the cause he is pursuing and his safety are inseparable.

The ‘freelance consulting criminal’ is a business model likely to rise in popularity, as patriotism fades. I’ve tried to make my department aware of this; some of my counterparts in other countries share my concern. Multinational corporations replace kingdoms, and loopholes in international law, constitutions. Moriarty is a harbinger, a pioneer species, and my brother has gone to play weedkiller.

He would never even train for the eventuality, never allowed me to give him what I could, until he found one day—or rather was shown— our interests coinciding in the person of James Moriarty. A name that had indeed crossed my desk, but it wasn’t something I thought to ask Sherlock about until the incident in Glasgow. Even then he was mulish. So was I, of course. I’ve had easier negotiations with powers who had offered to bury us than I did with him.

A few weeks later, the ‘scandal in Belgravia’ forced us together once more. He was, I believe, contrite; his affairs in Greater London—even England as a whole—had rarely crossed into my sphere, and we were content — no. He was content, more than content, to refuse my interest, my concern, my offers. I never (intentionally) tried to consume him, never intended to show him disrespect (much), but he felt threatened by my supervision and stifled by my concern. The more because once or twice he has had to accept my interference: he’s never forgiven me for helping him get off cocaine, for —he _has_ admitted this in so many words— saving his life. I bear the burden of his inability to forgive himself for the excessive indulgence in the drugs and for the remarks that effectively ended our childhood.

 

“What a terrible thing. He must have felt like a gun he hadn’t known was loaded,” Kenneth said at our lunch. One of our lunches. I’ve become aware that his interest in my brother has become a tool for prying me open, like an oyster. I have been amazed to notice I don’t mind. Talking about Sherlock is still easier than saying anything about myself.

“No one knew he was loaded. I should have done, but—“

“You could not have known that a child would make a childish remark.”

“We, all of us, knew Sherlock observed things. We rather enjoyed it. He was six, for heaven’s sake, we didn’t think anything of it when he went from paying attention to cat-footprints to human ones, and our father ought to have had more sense. Lipstick on his collar was — he was asking for it.”

“Do you know, that’s the first time you’ve put any of the blame on your father, where it belongs? It’s all been ‘what a bad brother you are’ for not somehow censoring a little kid.”

“Sherlock was never a little kid.”

“Of course he was. Just as you were a self-centred adolescent. I wonder how much either of you changed since that dinner? Sherlock, from everything I’ve heard, never quite learned when to keep quiet; and you still feel everything that happened to him like broken glass on your own skin. Bleeding yourself makes giving first-aid to anyone else rather hit-and-miss.”

I’ve learned lately that some barristers are more psychologists than the actors people make them out to be. Very useful in cross-examinations. It is delightful to see someone in front of me who deserves to be smug; most of the time they are fools, whom I dismantle. Delight soothes the sting when I am the object of his scrutiny.

 

We talk about Sherlock again today, about the more recent past. I am at a loss to understand how Kenneth discovers my preoccupation or how he persuades me to explore it. It’s a strange form of conversation for me: neither giving orders nor taking them, neither briefing nor being brought up to date. They are more like philosophical discussions, of unpacking a mission that has lasted since the tenth year of my life, a very theoretical kind of debriefing. Less theoretical than Kenneth knows; I hope with a pang that my relationship with my brother has a future.

“One of the difficulties with the level of power I have is that I am responsible for a great deal, and I failed him.” I haven’t said this to anyone before. Some of my department might understand it, though, again: very few are familiar with the details. It’s not a vulnerability I would show them. No one but perhaps John Watson is in any position to respond. He would be almost as severe upon myself as I am; it would be welcome. But even though I don’t deserve Kenneth’s cool mercy, I listen to him. He challenges my perceptions.

“One of the difficulties with the level of responsibility you erroneously assume is yours is the amount of power you have accrued. It’s pathological, Mycroft. It’s an unwholesome habit. You continue to believe you could have changed the outcome. From what you’ve said about Moriarty and Sherlock, they would have torn one another to pieces with or without your department’s involvement.”

“I should have had Moriarty killed. Or done so myself.” Things not to say to your date. (He is not my ‘date.’ I don’t have dates.) Things not to say to civilians. Things not to say to anyone but your lunatic, equally amoral, brother. Perhaps he will take it as a normal man’s hyperbole. No. He’s looking at me. Not in the appropriate horror. He’s thinking several different things, weighing which to say.

“Leaving aside, for as long as you wish,” he begins slowly, “whether you _could_ have done so; and leaving also the much larger question of whether you _should_ have done so, or not, with its many grounds for discussion: tell me, why _would_ you not have done so?”

“You recall my brother’s self-sabotaged testimony at Moriarty’s trial?”

“ ‘A spider at the centre of a criminal web with a thousand radiations’?”

“Close enough. He wasn’t exaggerating. We wanted know more.”

“You wanted information; Moriarty wasn’t forthcoming. You interrogated him in ways I personally and professionally despise and disapprove—“

“I, too,” I interrupt. Kenneth looks at me. He is too carefully focussed to glare. “Though yes,” I admit, “much less than you disapprove.”

“Methods to no avail, even while you came to understand his weakest point was the same as yours: your brother.”

“May I speak in my defence?”

The barrister recedes from front and centre, leaving a quiet, serious man. He must be quite terrifying in his natural habitat. “I do apologise,” he says. Mildness, courtesy. Not warmth. It’s all right; I don’t like myself much either.

“I do understand.”

“It’s wrong to attack people with whom I am sharing food.”

“An anthropologist’s morality.”

“You take it where you can find it. Ethnologist, really.”

“Does it help that Sherlock told me he was Moriarty’s weakest point? That he _asked_ to blunder into the web, in hope of drawing the spider out?” Yes, it does. His face snaps out of some of the coldness the ‘barrister on attack’ has left in it. How strange; he doesn’t want to loathe me.

“But if you believe that mattered, why are you so—“ he pauses, allowing me to choose the least harmful, most accurate adjective.

I need to be careful now. I walk the sword’s edge every day, enjoying my balance, but I have not wanted to speak truth so much to someone in many years. I don’t doubt he’s worthy of it, but it’s not my call. There, that’s my absolution — Sherlock, one day I hope to tell you: I kept faith. Perhaps I’ll have the chance. Perhaps you won’t laugh. Perhaps by then you’ll have learned kindness, among the dead. Perhaps then love won’t hurt you so much, not even mine.

The sword’s edge is wide enough to tell a deal of truth. “Why am I so—guilty? Because we learned less than we hoped. Because I didn’t expect him to have to die. Possibly to be shot or knifed or poisoned, but not…the way it happened.” All true. Because I had no idea how much it would hurt.

“You couldn’t have known—“

Actually, we discussed the possibility at length, in the little time we had for preparation. It was Moriarty’s personal threat to Sherlock (my stupid, brilliant brother. How you hated giving hostages to fortune. I saw all of you, and they were keeping you alive in ways you never wanted to admit you needed. Caring’s not an advantage; denying that you do is much more foolish), sealed by his own death, that made it all so much harder. Not that, as I told Sherlock, TOLD him, it would in any way be easy. He was always convinced he knew best. I sigh.

“Mycroft, I’m sorry—“

“You’re entirely right to—“

“No, the question I asked the first time we had lunch— suicide? Why did he jump?” And that really is the question, and one I may answer.

“This part—“ I say. “This part may soon be less of a secret, because I owe it to — but for the moment—?”

“You have my word.”

“It isn’t defence of the realm, it’s not even defence of myself, and as I said, soon enough it may be in _News of the World_—“

“Well, hardly—“

“_The Sun_, then —but for now, it’s not known, and we may be able to get farther into Moriarty’s web the longer it stays unknown.” Kenneth nods. “Moriarty told my brother there were assassins waiting, and if they did not hear of his death, they would kill three of his dearest friends.”

“Your brother _believed_ Moriarty wouldn’t have them killed just as soon as he was dead? Because I wouldn’t have.”

“I wouldn’t have either, but Moriarty killed himself rather than call his snipers off. Sherlock felt he had no choice but to trust him. He jumped.”

Kenneth flinches. “It’s a bloody story,” he says, after a moment. “It would make a good opera. God, that’s awful.” He shakes his head a little. “How do you know what happened?”

“We bugged his phone, of course. His coat. He was observed, surveilled, wired. And after, we doubled what surveillance we had on his friends. For all the good that would have been against a sniper.”

“Are they all right?”

“So far. One of the assassins is known dead. One’s in Slovakia, cashing in on the leadership vacuum, or he was two weeks ago.”

“And the third?”

“The third is going to disappear, I believe. We think he’s the only one in a working cell of Moriarty’s left in London. We’d like to get the others in the cell, if we can.”

Kenneth shakes his head again, and I ask for more coffee. Though depressants sound more attractive than stimulants, we both anticipate returning to our offices. “Do Sherlock’s friends know?”

“Not yet.” Gregory Lestrade called my office this morning, asking me to meet with him and Dr. Watson: tomorrow. I’ve been let off lightly so far.

“I assume one of them is John Watson.”

“Of course it is.”

“How is he doing, do you know?”

Of course I know. I keep a close eye on him because I believe him to be in more pain than I am, which means he’s not doing well at all. “Better than he was, I think.”

“Have you considered how he’s going to take this news?”

“That my brother wasn’t motivated by the loss of his reputation to take his life? I should think it would be welcome.”

“That your brother was motivated to protect him, at the cost of his life? Better lean pretty hard on the other two people’s involvement, if I were you.”

I acknowledge this, he’s right. But I can’t take as tender care of Dr. Watson as I might like, because I have to break another man’s heart.

Kenneth looks at my expression and asks exactly what I mean about the third assassin’s proposed ‘disappearance.’

 

“This is much pleasanter than a parking garage,” Watson tells me, unfolding the snowy napkin and putting it on his lap. He sits at attention, not so much stiff as poised for flight or fight.

“I hope to put you more at ease than on that occasion.”

“Because three-star restaurants are our usual environment,” Lestrade says. “You’ve still chosen the ground.”

“I am told people are less likely to attack one another if they’re sharing food.” They look at me gravely. In despair I have ordered all of us the day’s luncheon special. Fumbling with the menu would be more than any of us could endure. “You’re not denying that attack is a reasonable likelihood.”

“It seems too much to hope it won’t come to that,” says Lestrade. He must be playing the good cop today. I suppose he would. “I wanted to do a number of things after John told me how you spilled Sherlock’s secrets to a madman who wanted him dead. Though he didn’t seem clear on why you had Moriarty to interrogate in the first place.”

“The bombing in Glasgow. Some extremely ill-advised incursions into our counter-terrorism schemata. An alarming number of extortion, money-laundering, and drug-trafficking connections.”

“And yet none of these were made known to the Metropolitan Police? Was Moriarty somehow avoiding London, and asking about him in Leeds or Birmingham, perhaps, would have given my department information that might have been useful in the case where he was actually brought to trial?”

“It’s not always advantageous for the right hand to know what the left hand is doing, Inspector.”

I’m wondering whether the roles are about to switch as I watch Lestrade attempt to control himself. Watson watches us both. Lestrade succeeds. “It may seem a little strange, Mycroft, being what I am, but I dislike being told I live in a police state.”

“Not nearly so much of one as both of us might like.”

“You have me wrong there, you know. No more than John wants to live in a military dictatorship. But that might be too subtle for you to understand.” He smiles. He’s preparing a move. “John told me that you had exchanged information about your brother for some kind of information from Moriarty. We were very disappointed in you. Bargaining with terrorists. Endangering a civilian, let alone a relative.”

“I don’t know,” says Watson. “Disappointment would mean I expected something better from him.” Alone of the three of us, he’s eating. He really doesn’t like me.

“And yet,” says Lestrade. The earlier remarks were a feint. Here comes his move. “What was really interesting was that most of the information Mycroft gave Moriarty— at least, as quoted by Miss Kitty Riley—was wrong.” Very nice, Inspector. “Sherlock was only in rehab formally twice, not three times. He did, in fact complete his Cambridge degree; a couple of years late, and without any apparent pride, but at least one of his professors insisted—Sherlock was co-author with him of a scientific paper and he wanted him to have respectable credentials. Things like that. Facts that took some digging, though I knew those two from having been around at the time. It didn’t take particularly vigorous investigation to find IMDB and BBC1 had been hacked, not even very convincingly. That wouldn’t have mattered to Riley, who doesn’t give much of a damn for the facts as long as she has her scoop and her front pages.”

Dr. Watson has stopped chewing. This is news to him. Lestrade, having made his move, is able to pick up his own fork. Enjoy the free-range pork with Calvados and cream while you may.

“So that’s why Sherlock was so…unsurprised by the things Kitty Riley was publishing. He knew you had stuffed Moriarty full of lies. And that you could prove the fraud accusations were —“

“Entirely without basis, yes.”

“You might have said something before the IPCC,” Lestrade says. Watson is processing, speechless.

“I would never interfere with the Met on an internal investigation. They had doubts. They have none, now, and you have a pay rise.”

“You _let_ all this happen. You _allowed_ your brother’s reputation to be destroyed—“

“Not in the long term, Dr. Watson, as I think you are well aware—“

“The ‘short term’ was the rest of Sherlock’s life.”

Watson is within a moment of stalking out of the dining room. Lestrade is less choleric; he’s used to dealing with someone he hates. Watson is still shocked by the indecency of my actions, or my inactions. What will give him more peace? What will further the work? The second question is always the one that matters to me, but sooner or later—

“Please stay,” I tell him.

“Why?”

“Because you prefer more truth to less.” Because that was how Sherlock lived, and one of his qualities you admired, even though it hurt you often enough. Why should that be any different after his death?

“And I’m going to believe anything you say?”

“You may decide which improbable thing is more or less likely. It doesn’t reflect much better on me than what you believe now. It may make you think differently of my brother.” Oh, Dr. Watson, you think Moriarty wanted information about Sherlock? His mania was nothing compared to your…dedication. Your very stillness gives you away.

“What happened while John was away, Mycroft? What happened on the roof?” Lestrade is there, picking up the thread while his friend is too fascinated to respond.

“My brother was quite wrong about you, Inspector. You’re far from an idiot.”

“Someone cleaned up quite a lot—of blood? It wasn’t the grounds-keepers, they knew nothing about it. I saw you there the day of Sherlock’s death. I don’t imagine I would have smelled bleach on your own hands, but you use other people’s most of the time, don’t you?”

“Far more efficient.” This part is difficult. Sherlock would never have offered his life for stupid men. I’m only relieved Mrs. Hudson’s not here; she’s nearly as good at misdirection as I am. Every day that Sherlock can stay safely dead, he’s more likely to succeed in his mission (always assuming he’s still only _safely_ dead). “Dr. Watson was drawn away so Sherlock could meet Moriarty alone. On the roof.”

“Why?” demands Lestrade.

“Because it was the way both their minds worked, “ I say, truthfully. “Because Moriarty wanted to see Sherlock abject, and Sherlock wanted to know if he could tempt Moriarty into making a mistake. By then he’d realised the computer code was an entirely different sort of Trojan Horse, a trick played on Moriarty’s clients as much as on my department. Moriarty had run many proof-of-concept raids on computers in Central Europe and North America; even though our experts said there could be no such thing as a key to open every programmed door, he kept pulling off what appeared to be just that.
"Some of it was hacking, some was sleight of hand. He persuaded us and half the Secret Services of the industrialised world, and the assassins on Baker Street I told you of, Dr. Watson. A splendid occasion for threats and international extortion. But given what happened, I think all that was secondary to the assault on my brother. He wanted him dead, in as messy and dishonoured a fashion as he could devise.”

“He made it look like Sherlock cared what people thought of him,” says Watson. “And we know that, for the most part, Sherlock didn’t. Not nearly enough. In that one way—making Sherlock look like he cared what people who read _The Sun_ might think of him—Moriarty made him look like a fraud.” I need to get him away from the barest thread that might catch on his fingertips. If he pulls too hard on Sherlock’s final words to him, the whole fabric might unravel. Too soon.

“_You_ believed he cared.”

“Not once I caught my breath. Not once Lestrade pulled my head out of my self-pity.”

Misdirection. Well, a lie. Well, worse, the truth. “Moriarty did not rely on my brother’s concern for his reputation to be his undoing. He had hostages of a kind; three targets, three gunmen trained on them. If my brother would not follow his reputation into destruction, and right at that time, they would be killed. My people were aware that some kind of threat like this was likely but we were unprepared.”
For which my brother was as much to blame as anyone. Or perhaps Lestrade’s colleagues. The events of the night before compressed the timeline in Moriarty’s favour. Putting all of them—anyone my brother had ever looked upon with anything less than scorn, interning Southern England—protective custody was out of the question. It would only have delayed Moriarty’s threat until the next opportunity and this time, we had a plan. My brother lived through his death that time, at least.

“He was bluffing,” said Lestrade. “He might have been bluffing.”

“He might have been, but my brother thought not. And then Moriarty made sure no one could ever recall his order, by shooting himself. Deadly earnest.” And very messy. We had not expected any death but my brother’s. We reacted; Molly Hooper coped; Moriarty was buried. Watson and Lestrade look stunned. It won’t last. It doesn’t.

“Are you sure?” Watson asks. “No offence, Mycroft, but your record with dead bodies is not …”

“We never had any DNA to match for Moriarty to begin with, nor for Richard Brook. He blew the back of his head off, Dr. Watson. You know better than I how much that disfigures a person. We have audio of Sherlock greeting a man as Moriarty, and of their conversation, ending in a single gunshot. There was one body, and the evidence my people removed—and documented, Inspector—was consistent with a self-administered wound. We are reasonably certain that there was no one but those two on the roof. Fingerprints on the dead man match those that of Jim Westlake, formerly employed by St. Bart’s Hospital Information Technology Department. I am confident that the man you knew is dead. For whatever that turns out to be worth.”

For a couple of heartbeats, Watson sits, his expression of studied not-quite-neutrality unchanged. Then he glances at the waiter, who hastens over from across the room. “I think we will have that wine after all, please?” He dismisses the ritually offered sip for approval. The waiter pours for us all and retreats. “I know it’s not quite done to toast someone’s death,” Watson says. “So I won’t say ‘better late than never.’ Here’s to your forensics department, Mycroft. May their accuracy be unparalleled and the targets of their investigations always have had it coming.”

I think even Kenneth could approve of that. Lovely paraleipsis. Watson looked like such a quiet, ordinary man when I first met him; nothing like his army records. I’m still not sure what made my brother so very loyal to him so very quickly; it wasn’t just response to Watson’s own ridiculously rapid allegiance. Or maybe it was, but how did Sherlock recognise its value?

Lestrade and I raise our glasses to his; we drink.

Chapter Text

No one could call the atmosphere now cordial, but at least the (delicious) pig has not died in vain. They know me here well enough to bring me smaller portions.Watson seems to be relieved; Lestrade is more thoughtful. “And we’re hearing this now, why?” he asks, when satiety began to take a stand against gluttony.

“Because you asked,” I say. “We’re still working on Moriarty’s organisation. Mopping up is not a strong enough expression. We believe that it’s to our advantage not to make Moriarty’s death widely known as yet, so I would appreciate—“

Both of them nod. “Will we ever hear the full story?” Watson asks.

“When my department and I believe it’s come to an end, if you wish. Ask me a year from now?”

“I’ll hold you to that,” he says. God, how I hope my brother will be home to tell it him by then.

“Does this have anything to do with the shake-up among the gangs over the last two months and the shortage London’s heroin addicts are now complaining about?” asks Lestrade.

“More with the first than the second, though of course they are not unconnected.”

“Would it be too much to ask for some kind of information about these events to trickle down to the Met? Possibly sooner than after the last rats are caught?”

“That’s very likely,” I say. Along with things you don’t want to hear. I want to offer the man a cream cake. “Dessert?”

“Not usually at lunch,” says Watson. “Though not usually wine either, come to that.”

“Love some,” says Lestrade. He has a cream cake; I have raspberry sorbet; Watson has coffee. He’s still adjusting to the implications of Moriarty’s death; he had reasons to have been afraid.

Lestrade has something else on his mind—more than one thing—to discuss. He’s been paying attention, and he’s reluctant. Meeting my eyes, looking away. About to pull something shady. “You might want to just … run along, now, John. I have a few things to ask Mycroft about Scotland Yard. Not really relevant to your interests.”

Watson is not offended, rises from his chair. “If it’s a matter of security, Greg, of course. I’ll—“

Lestrade can’t pull it off. Fun to watch him try, I must say. “It’s not bloody security, John. Or there’s that too, but I don’t give a damn if you’re in on it. It’s the elephant you’ll have to push past to leave the room, and if I didn’t know your denial would pop before tea-time I’d let you go. Tell us about the hostages, Mycroft.”

Watson turns white and sits suddenly and ungracefully down once again.

Lestrade continues. “It wasn’t some ambassador’s kids this time, was it? Sherlock wasn’t all that public-spirited. They had to be people who meant something to him. Might’ve been Molly—that’d explain her sudden desire for distant shores—“ it would, wouldn’t it? — “But not just her. Someone called John to—“

“Mrs. Hudson? the man from the Gas Board — the one I bumped into in the doorway of 221b?” Watson is putting pieces together now.

“Yes.” I’m not being dramatic here, as I know I could easily be perceived. I don’t want to add to the sorrow these decent men are already carrying, to be the voice that changes the colours of the past. Both of them would understand that, both have brought news to near kindred. Kith. Let their chivalry sit for a moment content with the preservation of two women. Sherlock might possibly have died for them, might well have. But he didn’t.

“Three hostages, not just Mrs. Hudson. And not Molly Hooper at all; she fell under the radar of her ex-boyfriend’s regard.” Which proved well for us and for her.

“Three?” asks Lestrade. He has no notion. “Who was the third?”

“Three people made London Sherlock’s home, not just his hunting ground. His landlady, his flatmate, and the man who slaked his most potent addiction, who gave him work.”

“Rubbish,” said Lestrade.

Watson rouses himself from whatever fresh hell he’s landed in. “No, it makes sense.”

“Not me—“

“I’d know,” says Watson. “And I say yes. It would have killed him—well, half-killed him, the way we say it — to be responsible for Mrs. Hudson’s death. I don’t think he’d accept yours. And if it wasn’t just you at stake? I can see it. You and he went back to when he was a skinny, strung-out kid with track marks. I’ve seen pictures of him the way he was back then. He was lost.”

“An addict who maintained that his remaining family hated him, would take nothing from me,” I say. “He didn’t detox for me, and certainly not for himself. Someone who thought there was something worth saving; that he was a wonder, not a freak.”

“I don’t want to be part of this,” says Lestrade, slowly. He’s been bludgeoned. Neither Kenneth nor I thought about his reaction. John Watson, of course, identified widower whether lover or not; focal point of the city’s sympathy, such as it is. I wonder if either of them will lay this burden on Mrs. Hudson.

“Welcome to the club,” says Watson. Then he touches Lestrade’s shoulder. “Greg. I’m sorry, that was heartless.”

They might be alone in the room. “I never needed this from Sherlock,” Lestrade says.

“It’s not from him, it’s one of Moriarty’s poisonous little gifts,” Watson tells him. “Something perfectly true that you didn’t need to hear. It was sick and wrong and hateful and Sherlock would have done it easily for any two of us. Really, overkill. You were right, I blanked out on the idea of hostages because…of course it was about me, Moriarty knew us too well from that night at the pool. But if I think of you and Mrs. Hudson…I can bear it. Just…go for two out of three.” He watches Lestrade’s face go from horror to something softer again. “Better?”

Lestrade makes an exasperated snort. “Christ almighty, John. Can this get worse?”

“Yes,” I say, but he isn’t listening. He’s already on the path.

“The gunmen," Lestrade says. "The snipers who were supposed to kill us. What’s happened to them? Does anyone have any idea?”

“The tattooed man who made the holes in the front hall of 221B was found dead a month ago.” He was also found alive shortly before that, but… “The man we believe was instructed to kill Dr. Watson is in Bratislava, under surveillance. The man instructed to shoot you, Inspector, was taken into custody this morning, along with five other men. They are all, indeed, connected to heroin distribution. Here’s what I want to ask you.”

I inhale, reminding myself that his remark about police states was not—well, actually, he was quite serious, and it was indeed aimed at me; but I had originally intended to offer him this choice out of something other than malice. Only it’s hard to see much else. My high-handedness—what I believe Kenneth characterises as unwarranted responsibility—saves decent men like Lestrade from choices like this.

“Would you prefer your would-be assassin to be charged publicly and tried in what you would consider the normal fashion, or tidied away quietly, extra-judicially? And before you answer, you should know the crimes are nasty, took place over a period of three years, include murder and extortion as well as importation, dealing, and distribution of controlled substances.”

“Fair trial,” Lestrade says immediately.

“He is Detective Constable Joseph Ackroyd—“

“SHIT,” Lestrade says, frightening the waiters. “Damn. Oh. Oh. DAMN.” He has lowered his voice. It is amazing to see the restraining powers of a three-star restaurant. Watson and I watch him, curled in on himself, striving for breath. “Fucking hell,” he mutters finally. “Are you enjoying this, Mycroft?”

“No. Really, no. I would have spared you this, but then you would have wondered what had become of your constable, and you would—“

“You’re right. I'd've asked you. And I don’t like to be in the dark. I take it your evidence is good, then.”

“The stakes would have to be much greater than anything here before I would fake evidence,” I tell him. “It isn’t necessary. We don’t need him to make the charges stick to the other five men. Your part of the Met has just finished lengthy and moderately scandalous enquiries into your conduct and that of my brother. There has been considerable blow-back over police response to—“

“Everything,” Lestrade replies. He’s been rocked again, but no longer to his knees. “I know. I don’t suppose there’s any doubt about this?”

“The case is air-tight. But then I believe we would all have said the same about the attempted theft of the Crown Jewels.”

“I wanted to ask you whether you knew anything about some kind of hacking into the Met’s e-mail system.”

“Which one?”

Lestrade sighs. Watson glares at me.

“Yes,” I say. “New Scotland Yard’s e-mail and records were hacked by part of Moriarty’s organisation. We are aware that messages on a variety of subjects, Richard Brook among them, have been diverted; it became more blatant after Moriarty died. It was useful in identifying the man assigned to you, though my department is prepared to make its case without going into the full scope of the… contamination.”

“Publish and be damned,” says Lestrade. “And my answer’s the same. No disappearances. Fair trial. Shit. Shit, shit, shit.”

“Or it could all go away,” I say. “Because that is an option. If I asked your superiors most of them would agree to it with speed and gratitude. The Met has had terrible publicity over the past two years; making the public aware yet again that their protectors include fallible people, people who do bad things, people who do not serve in the public interest is not a path anyone wants to take again.”

Lestrade makes a single, eloquent gesture. “Fuck off, Mycroft. Or get behind me.” He takes a long draught from his water glass and sighs again. “You want it spelled out? No one is above the law, or below it either, not even a bent copper. Maybe the Met needs to take its medicine. Maybe we need to hear Moriarty’s name once more to give Sherlock his due. It’s not that I entirely trust the system, but it’s the only thing we have.”

“That’s very innocent of you. Do you have any idea how much effort is put into preserving your naiveté?” He lives within an hour’s worth of signals for events that would freeze his heart and lay his life in ruin.

“No, and if you tell me, you’ll have failed.” Still kicking. Not someone for whom I’d give my life, but recognisably someone from whom my brother would accept his own.

“Have we finished learning unpleasant truths for this afternoon?” Watson asks. “Or do the two of you need to discuss plea bargains?”

“Sod that,” says Lestrade. “If Ackroyd was meant to kill me I’m in no way going to suggest there were extenuating circumstances. Nail him to the wall. I don’t like police who are involved with drugs, either. It’s not mercy I want, it’s due process. His due, what’s owed him. Speaking of which, thank you for the amazing food. Not a lunch I’ll forget anytime soon.”

“I hope someday to give you one that does not involve such painful conversation.”

Watson looks at me just slightly harder than is usual. “Asking about Sherlock’s death made that likely enough. I wasn’t sure you’d answer.”

“Despite what he so often said, I am not your enemy, Doctor.”

“I’ve never thought you were anything as formal as that. Just blessed with a double share of your brother’s humility and tact. You didn’t enjoy this; you wouldn’t be pointlessly unkind.”

 

I would not. Lestrade thinks I am something not unlike a bent copper, dedicated to a system where the end justifies the means. I neither deny that nor agree; if I’m dedicated, it’s the way a goat is dedicated to a god before its throat is cut.

But these good men—who live complicated enough lives—have no idea of the way other good men and women live complex lives, dishonest lives where their names and motives are untrue, who lie when they kiss and die unmourned. I am tired of righteous accusations. It’s not easy being the shape in the dark, or living waiting for a voice in the night that may be the last we know of any company at all. If our lives are the wrong shape, at least we do what we can. My brother fought me for years, strutting in the light. He chose to step into the world of the dead, and I fear for him. But he was honest enough not to tell me I was unnecessary. We bear our necessity, while good people hate and scorn and fear us. I could love Kenneth Crayhill—he doesn’t make it difficult--but could he accept me?

Chapter Text

Greg’s lost in his thoughts somewhere as we walk back toward NSY. For a change, I’d rather be lost in my own than his.

“I don’t imagine,” he says finally, “that I’ll have to testify against him. Seeing as how I wasn’t aware of anything until after he was arrested. Could be a character witness, I suppose. And Christ, won’t I look a fool saying he worked hard and kept his hands clean.”

“There’s nothing I can say to that, Greg, but I doubt you’ll look like a fool. Or that they’ll call on you.”

“A criminal web with a thousand fucking radiations. In my department. JESUS. And I suppose he was filling Sally up with lies all that time, too. If I call and tell her she’ll never forgive me.”

Why he’d care about Sally Donovan’s opinion of him is beyond me. We reach the NSY doors.

“Do you want to come up, John? I’m expecting a nice little briefing from my superiors, assuming they’ve been let in on the details by now, and then I’m taking the remains of my team and getting falling-down drunk.”

“Glamorous as it sounds, I think you need private police-officer time. I’ll call you tomorrow and ask you about your hangover.”

“That’d be great.” He’s on the verge of going inside when he remembers. “Ah, John? You doing all right?”

“Well enough, I think. I’m honestly not sure if it makes any difference.”

“Hmpf. Definitely call me tomorrow.” He looks hesitant again, mutters, and finally hugs me in a completely not-New Scotland Yard way. “Right. Take care.”

“I will.” Of course it does make a difference. You great idiot. You could have said. I wouldn’t have liked it, but you could have told me, before you said goodbye. You probably thought you were sparing me. Or maybe you weren’t certain whose wires you were wearing.

It’s a pleasant enough day, so I make my way toward the river. The great buildings aren’t calling today, but the water is. I’ve walked to Blackfriars before I realise I have a destination, and I leave the river and turn north. Past the Old Bailey, with Justice standing on top of the dome. Greg’s lady friend, not that she looks at him. On the way there’s a convenience store advertising the kind of food people eat in warmer climates, who have more solid ways of expressing emotions than I grew up with; they have what I need.

The usual group of people is waiting in front of the hospital for the bus on Giltspur Street. There are still a dozen-odd candles burning in tall glasses by the wall, and one’s about to gutter out. I’m not treading on anyone if I put a fresh candle into the glass. I take a light from another one. It’s not hard to pretend I’m unobserved. A simple thing to do. Apparently more than that, it’s almost too much.

I haven’t anything I can say to him. I try. “Thanks. I love them too.”

 

I pay the cab and step into my home, carrying the box from St. Bart’s. It clinks a bit. Mrs. Hudson’s own door is open. “Hallo?” I call. Tomorrow I’ll ask at the hardware shop if they know anyone to fix the wall. I should have asked Mycroft.

“John, come in! I just made tea. You look a bit tired, dear. How was your lunch?”

“Traumatic,” I say. “Well, not so much for me, really.” I accept a large mug from her with gratitude. Plum cake, too. Preferable to any three-star patisserie. We sit on either side of her kitchen table, with not quite a view of her rubbish bins.

“You never find Mycroft Holmes to be restful company, do you? I shouldn’t think anyone does. So the roof of the hospital being clean wasn’t… good news?”

I’ve told her what Greg and I get up to, because I can. There’s never been any doubt she was Sherlock’s chosen family; sensory issues or not, he leaned into her touch. And of the two of them, I’d trust Mrs. Hudson more to know what not to talk about.

“It depends. I suppose it was. Jim Moriarty died there. Mycroft’s people cleaned it up and kept it quiet.”

“I can’t say I’m sorry to hear that he’s passed. I know I should be, but if Sherlock’s gone…a bit like those things on the physics programme the other night, really.” My landlady’s just compared my flatmate and his…nemesis to a particle and an antiparticle. Of course she has. And now she’s thinking about cause and effect, which is at least Newtonian, thank God. “How did that happen? Why would Sherlock— was there someone else there?”

I can’t think of any way to tell this gently, or even very coherently, so I just put the words out for her to examine. Maybe her antiparticle theory has some merit: “Moriarty wanted Sherlock dead, and apparently he wanted himself dead as well. Mycroft had the conversation recorded. Moriarty told Sherlock there were three gunmen on three of his friends, and if Sherlock didn’t jump, they—we’d be killed. And then Moriarty shot himself, leaving Sherlock to draw his own conclusions. Which he did, about the time I got back there.”

She knows I saw him fall. I don’t think I’ve spoken to her about the phone call. There’s only so much pain I feel like opening and spreading about.

“Three friends,” she says. “You, and—?”

Quicker than I was. “Greg Lestrade, and the only woman I know he really trusted.”
She looks a question at me still, so I pick up her hand and bring it to my lips. “Our landlady. Not our housekeeper,” I say, returning her hand to the table. Her fingers grip mine with surprising strength. More than twice Sherlock’s age, almost too old to have been his mother. “The holes in your wall weren’t from the Gas Board. Mycroft says your tattooed man was found dead last month.”

“He was here to kill me if Sherlock..?” she asks, slowly but evenly.

“So Mycroft believes. I think he’s telling the truth, as far as he knows it.”

“What a horrible man.”

“Mycroft? The man from the—not from the Gas Board?”

“No, he seemed nice, I gave him tea and biscuits.” Assassination as a routine social difficulty; dead man not a subscriber to Mycroft’s idea about bread/biscuits broken together making peace. She continues. “Moriarty. I wonder if he was jealous, wanted Sherlock all to himself so they could be brilliant together.”

This is so much like my worst fears of last year I can only gape. Except that Mrs. Hudson seems to have had more faith in Sherlock than I did. But she always has, in everyone, I think. “That makes as much sense as anything else.”

“And Mycroft thinks we’re safe enough to be told about this now, is that it? Have they hunted down these gunmen?”

“The man here was found dead a month ago, he said. Mine is in Slovakia, under surveillance. And they arrested Greg’s this morning, with five other men.”

“That’s good. You’ll not be headed for Slovakia yourself?”

“No. Definitely not. I wasn’t trained for that kind of warfare. Let Mycroft’s people do what they’re for without me underfoot.” I am saying too much and I do wonder whether she hasn’t called me on an idea before I knew I had it. He died to keep me safe, anyway; not good to…no.

Mrs, Hudson watches it all pass across my face and relaxes at the end. Apparently, for the moment, I won’t be going. “The traumatic bit was when Mycroft told Greg it was a man in his department, someone who worked with him.”

“How would someone in New Scotland Yard have shot anyone, with all those security cameras and metal detectors?”

“Asked him to lunch, perhaps? Out to the pub?” Security is stiff through the whole neighbourhood; Greg would have been the hardest target among us.

She shakes her head. “I don’t like whoever it is Mycroft works for, but this seems as though it was worth doing. A police officer! It takes years to make detective. I wonder, was he Moriarty’s man all along or, or—don’t they say ‘recruited’?”

“Corrupted? Brought on board? And someone was fiddling the Met’s e-mail and records as well.”

”Oh, not the records! When they’ve just finished that enquiry about all of Sherlock’s cases! What a good thing he wouldn’t take credit for most of the ones in the early days!”

“He wouldn’t?”

“Not the ones he helped the police with, dear, not until your blog. Well, and his, of course, but not very many people read that. He told me he wanted his name kept out of it.”

“He never said anything about that. Nor did Lestrade.”

“He used to be a great deal more—nervy, might be a good word. Anxious. I think you helped him a great deal just being there, being calm. And arguing with him, of course. Most people didn’t like it when Sherlock bit back. Or bit in the first place, more often than not.”

“Bit of a stable pony.”

“Don’t say anything unkind about either of you, John Watson. Sherlock wouldn’t stand for it and neither shall I.” She squeezes my arm.

And if it kept him from kicking himself to pieces I don’t mind being a stable pony. If it had kept him from it.

“Don’t think about that,” Mrs. Hudson says. “You did everything you could, we all did. And I am so very glad you were able to come back here. Your home, not just Sherlock’s.”

“My home. My landlady, not just Sherlock’s.”

And even though she’s not my housekeeper, she’s making supper and we have it together, and some truly dire television.

 

The flat is quiet. As it would be, as it always is; I don’t know why it’s so welcome. I light the fire Mrs. Hudson has left in the grate. Something very strange in recognising the smell of fossil fuel as homelike. The one thing I want to do doesn’t take long; I shut the computer and throw myself onto the couch, rolling up in a crocheted throw. It doesn’t have the same air as a silk dressing gown, but I don’t have the body-type to flounce and hurl myself about with any style. As a way to tell the world what I think of it, it’s not bad. The fire moves the shadows in the room, whispering and crackling softly to itself, getting on with combustion. Trees older than the dinosaurs going back to air and earth.

Polly’s ringtone. “Hey,” I answer.

“You all right then?”

“Another of the endless number of shoes Sherlock left in the air hit the floor, that’s all. So I lit him a candle and said ‘thanks’.”

“And you put it up.”

Really stupid; it’s not as though he’s more likely to see it if it’s in the virtual world. Ghosts in the wires. “I did. Maybe I’m turning into one of you.”

“What, ‘Pics or it didn’t happen?’”

“I want you to show me how to make a GIF, I wanted to have the flame moving.” Art? It does feel right, somewhere, to have some of the feelings outside me.

“Easy. And I can make the flame move tonight, if you want.”

“Please. Only a bit; he was definitely not a candle in the wind, right?”

“No, I know what you mean. Just enough to make it look alive. Oh, John. You sure you’re all right? You want company?”

“I don’t know what ‘all right’ means but I’m okay, Polly, thanks. Just some time to myself.”

 

Finally I get up and go to the box I brought home from Bart’s. The dark green candle-glass, definitely, and after some indecision I take the one someone’s painted wings all over and fill them both with fresh candles, put them on a plate on the table under the bison skull, light two more flames. “More romantic,” Angelo said that night. I snort. It wasn’t like that. There was soft music in the air (a violin) but it was just as often something by The Clash and I don’t think I’ve ever heard music that would work for the numbers of times we laughed.

So for awhile I just hold onto the laughing, and though that fades into sorrow the couch turns out to be an excellent place to sleep.

Chapter Text

Another week passes, with no word of Sherlock. I found myself thinking of Mrs. Hudson again. I know she’s well, and I was able to find her a plasterer with enough other skills to ensure that 221 Baker Street is as safe as houses are supposed to be. (Dr. Watson texted his thanks.) But I thought of the day I brought her the news of my brother’s death, and how I hope, I must continue to hope, that one day I may go to that door and tell her he lives.

Another lunch. Something different about Kenneth today. I ask after his well-being, his professional life. Which tends to make the sort of cases Sherlock dealt with look like epic struggles with powers and principalities in high places. He knows I don’t really want to hear the details of this man’s house-breaking and that woman’s cheque forgery, but I do enjoy his enjoyment of the chase. Strange, considering that he’s usually representing the fox. He sweeps these enquiries aside quickly.

“Mycroft. I need to tell you: I don’t like being vetted behind my back. My parents were not happy having your outfit interviewing their friends, and I wasn’t happy about them interviewing mine. My _headmaster_ called to warn me.”

Oh, _sodding_ hell. I had no idea that chokepoint would come so soon. I had had to tell Anthea formally that I wanted to know Ken Crayhill better; I know the rules, and I’ve seen enough of the consequences to ignoring them. They tend to quash romance, but not so much as discovering the object of one’s affections in the pay of the Kremlin or Mossad. It’s as though my department were to insist on inspecting the kitchen of any place I want to consider reserving a table: preventing food poisoning, before one becomes too interested in the menu. Anthea must have seen more than I intended, unless the mere admission of my interest were enough. The courtship of a family of Renascence nobles: spies and swordsmen to determine a suitor’s worthiness, putting me in the role of the simpering heiress. Kenneth doesn’t seem concerned about my dowry.

He continues. “I don’t mean to demand an explanation— well, actually, I do, but I’d prefer it didn’t sound like that. I assume you had something in mind, but you know I don’t do international law.”

“What _I_ had in mind was asking you to dinner and a film. Apparently my masters were thinking further ahead, and I am deeply apologetic.”

He’s smiling, which is rather nice. Beautiful. A relief. “Not a…professional matter, then?” he asks.

“Not so far as I am concerned. Well, no; it was entirely because I am concerned. My life is not my own, and I’ve agreed to allow my choices to be narrowed. I am sorry, Kenneth, it’s a disagreeable job—“

“You like doing it—“

“I do, and I’m good at it. But it means that I’m not trusted to protect my own interests. I’m awfully sorry if I’ve caused you any embarrassment.”

“Usually people’s family just threaten to break my legs.”

“The department really don’t care if my heart gets broken, as much as they do about the cordon sanitaire, and there aren’t any more of us—“ though Anthea would possibly oblige, if I admitted to a broken heart. Not likely. “But even if you don’t want dinner with someone whose employers are the nosiest in the world, a good security clearance is a useful thing.”

“You seem very confident of my probity.”

“‘Hopeful’ would be a better word.”

“Hopeful regarding dinner, as well?” Kenneth asks.

“Considerably less so. Most people dislike being investigated. I’ve barely had a chance to lead you on, give you any reason to put up with the invasion of your privacy.”

“Oh, come now, what about power being the ultimate aphrodisiac?”

“One of the reasons I wanted to ask you to dinner — which I feel I need to say was indeed what I meant, not a metaphor—at least in the short term— was that power doesn’t seem to interest you particularly.”

His eyes dance, damn him. “No, not power itself. In terms of what it’s doing to you, actually, it does interest me.” He continues with only a trace of self-consciousness, “You see, Mycroft, you may want to possess my body, but I’m after your soul. While it’s still up for grabs. When I first met you, I didn’t think it would be.
“And as to invading my privacy,” he continues, “I was looking forward to your personal attention along those lines, actually.”

I’m much more bent than I realised. This is the most arousing thing I’ve encountered since my sixth form visited the British Museum. Even though Kenneth looks nothing like Mausolus. I can feel my cheeks heat. Desire I could and have dealt with, but concern for my spiritual well-being? No one’s accused me of having a soul in a long time. Dr. Watson, among others, seems to think it has been signed, sealed, and delivered to the inferior address.

I’m still slightly flushed. He still has something on his mind, but he isn’t approaching it right now. In fact, he’s changing the subject, giving me a chance to catch my breath, to eat my salad. To pretend to be unmoved. “You spoke to Inspector Lestrade?” he asks.

“And Dr. Watson.”

“How did that go?”

“About as well as anyone could expect. No one hit me. Painful for everyone. Useful. Interesting. I was afraid I’d be banned from La Rosette at one point, but Inspector Lestrade’s manners overcame his unhappiness and his ideals remain unshaken.”

“How did Watson…?”

“I think he’s punch-drunk. He barely spoke; as soon as he thought properly about a threat to people my brother…cared about, he knew he was in the line of fire. Hardly the first time.” If caring’s not an advantage, neither is being the object of care? “It was Lestrade who took it hard. He didn’t seem to think Sherlock thought very much of him. I suppose being told he was an idiot on a weekly basis would give him that impression.”

“A dreadful way to find out someone loves you.”

The response I might typically make (“Is there a good one?’’) is neither apt nor applicable. My brother would probably make it anyway. “Watson said Moriarty gave poisonous gifts in the shapes of a truth no one needed to hear.”

“I wonder what he gave your brother.”

“A cure for boredom, certainly, over the past year and more; one he paid for more dearly than he wished.” Rather like his relationship with cocaine once was. “An insight into what constitutes necessity?”

“Did _he_ know he loved them?” Kenneth asks.

“Oh. Yes. But they were his least complicated relationships, not like the one he had with me.”

“Did it help, working together over this case with Moriarty?”

Perhaps I'll be able to answer that better in a year. “Yes, after we both became serious about it. It’s hard to stop baiting someone; we were both so very good at it. But we enjoyed—“ we enjoyed trying to devise a trap that would catch Moriarty and his associates without hurting Sherlock too severely. We could have done a better job with more time, with a less stubborn younger brother…with more trust on both sides. With more chance to weigh the scales in our favour. “I wish he were here to help with the details now. I don’t know whether we shall press charges relating to Moriarty, but the involvement with the internal affairs of the Metropolitan Police will make it a messy case.”

“The detective who was indicted with the others, last week, was that the man who was supposed to-?”

I nod. “The man who was supposed to shoot Lestrade in the event of my brother’s…failure to die. Lestrade doesn’t seem to have been friends with him, but they did work closely together over the past year or more. It's disheartening to hear of betrayal so close as that.”

“Just what the Met need, another scandal.”

“I agree. I offered to make that aspect of it go away but Lestrade refused. He seemed to think…it was part of Nature’s wonderful plan, really.” I don’t make any remarks about the childlike nature of his faith in the judicial system; Kenneth has inferred that and the slight roll of his eyes suggests we take that part of the discussion as performed.

“That wasn’t very kind.”

“It was a possibility. He can feel good because he resisted. And I can feel good because I didn’t just do the easiest thing.” Or because I hope to impress someone who believes in Justice’s wonderful plan: a temptation I shall have to watch closely.

“Do you really have that much latitude?”

“This particular investigation is only moderately important on a national level. Perhaps less than that.”

“And to you?”

This stops me. “I am concerned with matters relating to James Moriarty, true, because they relate to my brother, even if I complain that they are locally significant, rather than strategic on a global scale.”

“I love England, Mycroft. But I can’t love my country unless I care about the people who make it real. A place for them to live. Thank you for making London a safer place, even if it barely affects your long-term strategy.”

“I love…more than England. I have to care for it on a larger scale than a human one." Do you understand? This is what you are considering taking on.

“And so you were prepared to offer your brother.” Not quite a question.

“It was never something I would have asked of him; he's not in my line of work. But he offered himself." Kenneth nods, remembering my only justification for not protecting Sherlock.

"If it came to it, to his doing something against the national interest I hope I should have—had, the guts to betray my brother rather than my country. But there’s never been a real conflict.” Irene Adler came close. I can’t say the fiasco over the cancelled Bond-Air flight made Sherlock easier to deal with, between guilt and anger and something very like an adolescent crush. There was a time when he didn’t look at me with calculation and bitterness. “He never wore his patriotism on his sleeve, as I do, but he had a streak of feudal chivalry a mile wide."

I can’t help remembering when we were young, very young. We argued for days about pledging fealty to anyone. It was after we finished reading _The Lord of the Rings_ together, after the pirate phase; he must have been seven or eight. Despite my protestations, he didn’t want to be a page; he was doubtful about being a squire. In the end we agreed Faramir was the most stable option. Denethor was too much like our father, and neither of us were fond of horses. Perhaps that’s why he wouldn’t accept the knighthood; he never liked limiting his options.

And if ever I might have said we had no idea where Sherlock’s loyalties lie (or lay), and that we were not sure he had (or has) any, he disproved that handily on the roof of St. Bart’s.

Kenneth must think I have petit mal. His face is kind. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I don’t mean to get lost. It’s a difficult time, but I can usually manage a conversation without—“

“I have brothers and a sister, and I’ve never found it strange that you should care about Sherlock. Even though I only met him the once.” Now we come to the crux of it, whatever has been on his mind. He hesitates.

“You’ve been playing this very close, but I don’t think you ever really lied and I want you to know I’d have understood if you had, about that. And I don’t know how to do this right, and perhaps I should have handed it to you as soon as we met; but I did want to discuss the check your people are doing upon my background. What I found interesting right away,” he says gently, “was that over time, thinking of Sherlock distressed you more, not less. So perhaps this…?”

He places a postcard in my hand: St. Martin’s Cathedral in Bratislava. The back reads, in French: Have you told my brother about Jenny T? I put flowers on our 3x great grand-mother’s grave. Tell him I’m well. It’s postmarked two days ago, signed with the paraph of a needlessly literate pirate, knight, cartographer—we both loved _Kim_, damn you Sherlock, thank God you’re alive--

My blood pressure falls like a rock, my vision…Kenneth is holding my shoulders. “Mycroft? Are you all right?”

“Very irrational response,” I croak.

“What?”

“Kissing the messenger,” I say, and I do.

Chapter Text

Time passes.

Greg’s team, what remains of it, reels, and begins to recover. PC Ackroyd and his cell—apparently it’s a cell of international gangsters, though none of them have been farther than Calais in generations; even the _Telegraph_ is hard put to blame foreign elements—make headlines for week, but only for a week. I hate the whole thing, though not as much as Greg. So far, his name has been kept out of it; I suspect Mycroft’s hand in that, an unusually welcome move. We know Greg's time below the level of public scrutiny is unlikely to last, but as he says, a comet could hit the earth in the meantime. Might be worth it to miss out Christmas this year.

 

I brought Polly in on Mycroft’s news about Moriarty and our personalised assassins because she needs to understand my hunted look when this particular case breaks. She thoughtfully waits to cry about Sherlock until I'm out of the room. She’s much more reliable inside a secret than outside of it, and Mrs. Hudson is fond of her. I hate to disappoint both of them, but—

Polly and I are about to have one of _those_ conversations. She’s confirmed my suspicions half a dozen times, and I can’t do it any longer. It’s not any less awkward because I am as sincere as I’ve ever been. I like her very much, she’s wonderful. But I don’t like her that way.

She is, as ever, typing in the sitting room, and I’ve made both of us tea and brought it from the kitchen, which saves time, at least, though I hadn’t known as I was boiling the kettle how much we’d need it. Something about the set of her shoulders and the careful way she doesn’t touch my hand. If I were ever to say I understood Sherlock’s accusing someone of thinking loudly— “Polly,” I say. “I can’t say this any sensible way—“ while I’m flattered by your interest — “but it isn’t going to happen. Not anytime soon, and I don’t want you to waste any more time on me.” Her eyes fill up. “I really, really do like you—“

“I know,” she says into the tea mug. Salty tea.

“Well, good, but … I can’t give you what you want, let alone what you deserve, and I really wish— but just, no, try not to think about it. Oh, God, get up.”

I cannot watch her cry over the keyboard, and I gather her up all into my arms and completely fail to cover her face with kisses. One. On the forehead. I owe the universe some tears on my shoulder. It’s just embarrassing because it’s me she’s crying about.

I do not smooth her hair; well, not much, it’s lovely hair. I offer a handkerchief, though displaying how well-trained I am is probably not helpful at this point. The worst of it is that my body’s reaction to this beautiful woman sobbing up against me is to wish I could reach my tea before it goes cold. The sign I’ve made a good call, I suppose. I wish I were just being noble.

“The worst of it is I still need your help, so I won’t tell you how much better it would be not to see one another again,” I say.

“I don’t want to not see you again!”

“I, umm, I know you don’t, but it won’t make getting over me any easier.” I replay the words.“Is there any possible way I could make that sound like it was less about me?”

“You’re supposed to say ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’” she sobs. “Only it’s all me. That’s the problem.”

“The emotion is all you,” I say as gently as I can. “The person not accepting it is all me, and I’m sorry. But I thought it would be better if I said something.”

Because it is perfectly obvious she was prepared to go on loving me behind my back for months, and there are limits. Both to what I can put up with, and to what I should take advantage of. And Christmas is coming: the ghost of Spurned Molly Hooper will fill the flat, along with the scent of pine and mixed spice, and all the other ghosts.

If I could love again, Polly, it would be you. You can type 75 words a minute and you know ALL the HTML. “Do you really want to be Rebound Girl, anyway? Because that’s all I have to offer, even if I were back in the market.” Not even that yet, apparently.

“How do you know you aren’t Rebound Boy, anyway?” she sniffles. “You might very well be.”

“I don’t think you’re that messed up and I can’t believe anyone would be stupid enough to…Did someone?”

“No. Bit of a dry spell, lately.” She’s beginning to pull herself back together. “At least you haven’t told me how I should be looking for someone closer to my age.”

“I was going that way next, actually.”

“Just shut up.” She goes to the bathroom to repair her eyeliner. I suppose that could have been worse, but I feel like butter that’s been scraped over too much bread. Which is, of course, better than feeling like toast, but still doesn’t speak well for my emotional resilience. Ella suggests spending the holidays somewhere warm. I suggest Afghanistan, and she tells me not to be flippant. I would be very glad of more flippant in my life.

Greg comes in, reasonably feeling that an open door is an invitation. He looks at me. “Bad time?”

“FINE,” says Polly, returning to her chair and keyboard. “Perfectly FINE time. Good day, Inspector.”

“Good day, Ms. Morstan. You may call me Greg, you know.” He’s said this before.

“You’re old enough to be my father,” she observes without looking at him.

“That was unkind,” I say.

“All men are beasts.”

“I could come back another time,” Greg says. “Or not, whatever you prefer.”

“I am twenty-eight years old,” Polly announces. “I have a graduate degree and an ex-fiancé. Almost two. I do my own income tax.”

“I’m forty-one, I have a medical degree and I used to kill people whose language I couldn’t understand.”

“I am forty-nine, and I don’t know what the hell is going on.”

“Dr. Watson is trying to do things for my own good,” Polly explains. “He has no idea of his own good--oh, sorry, I’m not supposed to have an opinion.”

“You can have an opinion, and I can disagree.”

“Did you turn her down?” Greg asks me.

“Yes, I did.”

“I’m sorry he’s an idiot,” he tells Polly.

“I was taking O-levels when she was born!” I protest.

“He’s intelligent, handsome, and he has all his teeth,” Polly protests to Greg. “You have to admit that kind of preference narrows the field. And he only talks about football when a match is on.”

“She makes a good case, John. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“I have sub-clinical PTSD, a shoulder that tells me the weather, diagnosed dysthymic depression I’m not interested in treating, and she’s the only person in Greater London who isn’t convinced I’m gay.”

“Not true,” says Greg loyally.

“Rubbish.”

“No, honestly, I have always said you were probably bi.”

At this point I am not sure that really helps.

“Oh, good, now I’ve made _that_ mistake too,” says Polly. “Because it’s always good to hear your gaydar is defective.”

“Though I’ve only ever dated women!”

“Let’s see, does that make it better you won’t date me, or worse?”

“Polly,” says Greg. “John’s a mess. An honest mess, which I understand is very attractive; and a mess in pain, which I understand is more of a turn-on than chocolate; but if he says no, he means no. Which I understand is also enticing, but both of us think you could do better, and John is one of the stubbornest men I have ever met. You are absolutely delicious, enough to make someone miserable and possibly sinful, but it won’t be either of us. I have a really charming detective sergeant whose heart you could break if you want to be introduced.”

“I’m not interested in breaking anyone’s heart,” mutters Polly.

“You should consider it, it would make you feel better,” says Greg. “It’s much healthier than having a broken heart yourself.” He is carefully not giving me a look. I ponder gestures. Despite what I told Polly, I don’t think my heart is broken, as such. It’s just worn.

“Is he literate?” Polly is asking. There may be a way out of this.

“I will find out. What are your criteria?” Greg is a greater man than I have ever realised.

“You should bring him with you and come see the movie with us,” Polly says. “Although really, it would help if he’s read the books already. If he wants to score with me, I mean. If he won’t see the movie there’s no point in his even trying.”

“Which movie?”

“The one with fourteen short men and no women at all,” I say.

“Oh, that one,” Greg says. “I believe Colin would be up for that.”

“I’m not quite sure why she’s so keen, when I put it that way. Me, either.”

“In the first place, “ Polly blows her nose one last time, “I like a good chase scene as much as anyone, and the sets make me want to crawl inside them. In the second place…there are swords, and valour, and honour, and if I want those sometimes I’m going to have to put up with being told—“ she pauses, and her voice goes into a different mode— “ ‘I’m a woman, and my part is in the house. But when the men have died in battle and honour, I have leave to be burned in the house, for the men will need it no more.’ That part Tolkien had absolutely right. I love Buffy, of course I do, but there are no swords, and the honour is all subtext and it’s mostly love which is all _right_ but not the whole story, and the clothes are frankly crap even for the Nineties.”

She’s trying not to sound as serious as she is, but Greg and I hear it. “I’m sorry,” I say.

“You got to be in the army and lead men and nearly get killed.”

“It hurts.”

“I know. It hurts not to have that as a possibility. Anyway. That’s why I can like boy-type movies if I want. Probably why I put up with you lot, for that matter. Even without swords.”

“I’d quite like swords on occasion myself,” says Greg. “It all went to hell when they invented guns.”

“Oh, God, not Agincourt again,” I say.

“Wasn’t that longbows?” says Polly. “I mean, of course the two of you remember it—“

“Shut up. Same argument, different day.”

“I solved that little cipher,” Greg says, reducing the level of childishness in the room.

“Nice,” Polly says. “Is it about Dr. Who or _Skyfall_? No, it was from before _Skyfall_, wasn’t it?”

“Do you want to tell us what, or how, first?” I ask.

“How takes longer. It was just one of those things—actually Colin looked it and said ‘dates?’ Because the first number in each group was less than 32, and the second was less than 13, and after that it was easy, because the thing the person writing and the person reading both had at hand—no matter where they were—was the blog, which is also in dates. So I counted lines and words in the lines. The first time it didn’t work because you have to count the breaks as a line.”

“Very nice,” Polly commends him.

“So what did it say?” I ask.

“It said ‘Changed not ended.’”

“Hm.”

“I’m sorry, does that mean something?” asked Polly. She really is young.

“You haven’t been to enough funerals,” I said.

“Roman Catholic service for the dead. ‘For your faithful people, life is changed, not ended,’ “ Greg expands.

“Hmm,” she says, agreeing with me. “That was…well-meaning of someone. Better than Dr. Who references.”

“Why would they bother to put it in code?” Greg asks her.

“Because some people yearn after codes the way I do after swords, and we attract them. Look at Sherlock’s site. He provoked them.” Polly is securely on her own turf once again. I hope she won’t be offering me melting glances or any more tears.

“You don’t think it’s strange?”

“Umm, forgive me, but you think the whole Internet thing is strange. How would we identify something strange?”

“That’s why I’m asking a native speaker of the future I’m told I live in.”

I don’t often get to see Greg interrogating anyone. I don’t understand why I’m seeing it now. Polly recognises the change somehow as well; she looks a little desperate, off her balance.

“I code—not code like this, computer code—” she says, “and I write a bit, and this isn’t the first site I’ve helped moderate. The usual answer about weird is that ‘I get stranger things than this with my breakfast cereal.’ Mostly people who want to look clever or outrageous. This doesn’t look like that. John’s had a lot of good wishes, that was in the first batch after—“ she pauses.

“After Sherlock died,” I prompt. She nods.

“After that. So I would think it was what I said, someone wanting to be kind but also just a little bit clever. Someone probably not very good at people. Which, sadly, is about half the people on the Net. Well, except for Facebook. Are you going to answer it?”

“Back when we found this, you said the username was a front,” Greg says.

“It came from one of those fake e-mail sites, yeah, but we’re threaded now, you could just post to the thread. If they want a response, they’ll be looking there sometimes.” She’s watching him. “If you thought this was something serious, you’d be getting evasive just now, and hoping I’d change the subject. Fortunately I have enough sense from things John has said to know I don’t want to be involved in anything too serious, even if Moriarty IS dead, to the best of your knowledge, so I’ll play along. John and I were going to go see the movie next Tuesday, if you want to bring your cute sergeant.”

“Or even if you don’t,” I add. “Though it would make things much less awkward.”

“Maybe for you, but Colin won’t know which way to look,” Greg says. “Great fan of yours.”

I snort. Polly looks dangerous. “If he’s not sure which way to look five minutes after he meets us, I’ll leave him to John.”

“He’s too young for John.”

“You both do know I hate you, right?”

 

Polly declines takeaway to go home and write resentful things in her blog, she says. I think she and I will be all right. “Stay here or go to t’pub, quaff pints, play darts, be old manly men not bothered by women’s fancies?” I ask Greg.

“Beer sounds excellent, but I’d rather stay in, sorry,” says Greg. “Fancies of my own I need to discuss, I’m afraid.”

He insists on waiting until after we’ve eaten, which I find annoying until I realise how uncomfortable he is with whatever it is on his mind. I pour him a double shot of the whisky Mycroft sent me last Christmas and wait for his eyes to un-focus.

“Look, Greg, I told a dear, intelligent, lovely woman who was hoping she could heal my heart using only a mattress and masala massage oil that I was’t interested. Nothing you have to say could be as awkward as that conversation. Out with it.”

“Necessary pain, John. Well, I.” He gestures at my whisky. “Toss it back.”

“It’s roughly Polly’s age and if I toss it Mycroft’ll have us both shot. And blurring anything about Sherlock doesn’t help.” Or I’d be in rehab by now.

“I think he’s alive,” Greg says, absolutely miserably.

“Mycroft?” Not that we all haven’t had doubts—

“The other one.”

I can’t even shape the words.

He continues. “The transcript of your phone call; I got it from Mycroft, your hypnosis-memory was word-perfect—“

“He has that, too?” What difference does it make, anyway? Of course he does, and if there had been any emotional content that would be none of Mycroft’s business even if there had been any, there wasn’t any. It hurts all afresh for a moment. I miss him so much. I loved him so dearly.

Greg is talking. “He tells you to tell all of us who, who loved him that he invented Moriarty. Oh, except his brother, who had Moriarty in the dungeons of bloody MI too-secret-to-have-a-number, because Sherlock paid Richard Brook enough to put up with ‘enhanced interrogation.’ We know not even Sherlock at his worst would think we’d believe that for more than a second; even he knew we had that much brain. He tells you some nonsense about researching your sister when he hadn’t so much as heard your name before Stamford brought you into the lab that day. Transparent bullshit. TRANSPARENT, John.” I’m still speechless. Maybe this will make more sense when he’s finished talking about it.

He takes a long breath and goes on. “So when he says he’s a fake, that it’s a magic trick—I just wondered. Misdirection. It’s the opposite of the way his mind works. He doesn’t look at anything, he looks at everything: every detail has as much weight as every other so he sees things we know are too unimportant to matter. That conversation, when you gave me your transcript: it screams confusion, it screams ‘look over here, _here_. Don’t watch the other hand.’ I thought might have just been what you could take in of it at the time, but the memory is accurate, unless Mycroft is snowing me. I suppose he could be, but I got the impression he was lying less than usual that day. It barely makes sense. We never thought Sherlock killing himself made sense. What if it really didn’t, because that wasn’t what it was about? He needed to make the gunmen believe he was dead long enough to let his brother clean them up, long enough for him to go, I don’t know, hunting spiderwebs. And the one after you is still alive in Eastern Europe. They only just locked mine up because they were satisfied I was safe enough they could wait and get all of them. Sherlock needed you to believe so they would believe.

“And then you get this fucking little tease on your site, from someone who meant well, who wanted to be kind but also a little bit too clever, who isn’t really good at people. When she said that, my hair stood on end. Someone who also knew it wasn’t safe to be more obvious. I don’t know if that means safe for him or safe for us, but that’s why I don’t think I’m going to respond to it.”

The whisky doesn’t make my throat less dry, but the burn seems to help the lead in my stomach. I can’t say anything, I just shake my head. Greg still looks miserable, as though he’s afraid he’s brought me news of Sherlock’s death. I suppose he has. He means well—probably the best friend I’ve made since the army, except— One the best friends, best men I’ve ever known. But now I can see what I thought I’d forgotten, see what lay on the pavement, near where the bank of candles stands in the cold now.

“You weren’t there,” I say. “You didn’t see the blood on the pavement, in his hair, on his face. His head, Greg. His head, his hair was matted with blood. I could smell it, there was blood dried on my shoes when I was released from the hospital. I checked his pulse. There wasn’t one. I fainted or passed out or whatever it was, from banging my head when the cyclist ran into me. But I was there. I saw him fall. I heard him land.”

“You didn’t see him land?”

“No, I was behind the bloody ambulance building—“

“He said to stay where you were—“

“Don’t. I saw him seconds later.” And Greg didn’t. Am I glad he didn’t? Am I sorry I did? Is there even any point in wondering about this kind of sentiment? Because Holmes brothers aside, that’s all that kind of wondering is, the most heart-sapping, brain-ruining kind. Deal with what is. And what is, right now, is Greg, _thinking_. It’s what he’s for. It’s what I cannot do, because my heart has had it.

“But think about it—“ Greg says.

“I really can’t.” Something in my tone makes him back off, drop his eyes from my face, and I am intensely grateful. Just outside the edges of my mind it’s whirling, it’s full of razor-edged sand, I cannot go out there.

“If you can find more facts you want me to look at,” I tell him, “I am there. Cause me necessary pain? It’s fine. Give me dusty records to go through that have no Richard Brook in them whatever, or that do, and prove Moriarty was Richard Brook’s creation. We both know he wasn’t Sherlock’s. But I can’t help you think about his death. Forgive me, Greg, but I am not the man to do that.”

I feel like I’m leaving him alone, in a way; I’m not alone, knowing Sherlock is dead. They’re keeping me going, Polly and Mrs. Hudson and Sarah and Harry— everyone who’s had trouble meeting my eyes because the death of a love is contagious, unspeakable. They curl their hands into mine and tell me to raise my eyes, look ahead. I can’t start looking down and hoping to see Sherlock’s eyes open and look into mine.

Greg’s voice breaks in on me. “Ah, John, I’m sorry, forgive _me_. It’s not — maybe I’m as bad as he was, sometimes, it’s how I manage. I have no right —“

“Don’t talk about rights,” I say. ‘You’ve been more than I could have asked through all of this, at least since that IPCC thing. Before which there wasn’t much of me but a blood-coloured smear slowly becoming human again. And I do mean it— I will look at facts, anything. But don’t speculate with me. One day you’ll be sure and then you can tell me about it.”

“As long as you don’t say we’ll look back on this and laugh.”

“Not unless we’re very very drunk, I don’t imagine, no.” It’s almost interesting to think that someday this could—will, if we’re spared (is this being spared?)— all be unimaginably distant and almost painless. Six months on and that isn’t in sight.

 

That night when I go to bed, more than halfway to sleep, I hear Greg’s side of the conversation again and I see the world like a huge dandelion clock, blown into the night: each floating seed a might-have-been, this-could-have-happened, what-if-I…

... had not found the right window to shoot Jeff Hope the cabbie…

...had not left Soo Lin alone…

…if Moriarty’s phone had not rung…

...if the shot in Afghanistan had been just a bit more to the centre…

...if Sherlock had told me the call at the morgue was a fake…

...if Greg had argued more forcefully with Donovan…

...if Jennifer Wilson had not hidden her phone…had not colour-coordinated…if Rachel had lived…

...if Sherlock…

...if I…

...all the possible lives we might have lived, floating away from the spot in front of St. Bart’s Old Pathology Building, no longer collapsed into one moment, wet and still, on the pavement. I look away with my heart’s eye, dreaming, see each story we might have had drifting upward from streetlight into starlight, floating, reflecting in the dark, myself acting in each one of them, not knowing what to grasp, what to value, how to hold.

Chapter Text

Time passes.

Late summer once again. The surgery is air-conditioned. I weigh the length of time before London is inundated by rising sea-levels with the human body’s ability to maintain hydration and realise once again, with gratitude, that it’s Sarah’s decision, not mine. Doctors outside of combat and crap telly should not be sweaty, anyway. Sarah comes in, looking at me— it’s her ‘are you more trouble than you’re worth?’ look, which I haven’t seen for awhile.

“What’s up?”

“You are, apparently. This morning someone hacked the rest of your appointments and the rest of your day is free. Really, John.”

“Nothing to do with me, I’m sorry.” Bloody Mycroft.

“Don’t be. Someone also put two hundred pounds into the petty cash.”

“I’m worth more than that.”

“I know you are, but placing the adverts and writing on the walls is so much trouble.”

A text clinks on my phone. Your ride is waiting, Dr. Watson. MH “And there’s the afternoon gone. I’ll see you next week, Sarah. Or you can just see if the appointments change.”

“Be careful,” she says, patting my shoulder.

 

Mycroft himself is in the car; Anthea’s up front, though it’s a huge car with two sets of seats in the back. She gives me a little wave and a smile. Mycroft seems very pleased with life in general. “How about that coup in Burkina Faso, then?” I greet him.

“Really, Dr. Watson. We’re beyond that kind of small talk, are we not?”

“I know you’re going to be all mysterious and annoying, I just thought I’d put it off as long as possible.” I look at him harder. “You don’t look as much like something the cat’s dragged in as you have been.”

“Is that a euphemism for my gaining weight?”

“No. You look healthier in a good way.” I suppose I shouldn’t begrudge it him; people tell me I’m looking less shattered these days, the few who have the right to be so personal. It’s conventional wisdom that bereavement edges into something duller after a year. I shouldn’t begrudge it for myself. Mid-June was pretty bad. “How long it this going to take?”

“Quite hard to say.”

Polly was supposed to meet me at Baker Street to do something to the website. I text her: Abducted by HMGovt. May be some time, don’t wait supper. JW Adding my initials is half-arsed code for my being with Mycroft. If she gets JHW she’s to call Greg Lestrade at once.

Real people don’t live like this.

“Where are we going?”

“East.”

I can see that. Another text on my phone. It’s from Greg. I personally believe you deserve a warning.

What am I supposed to have done? I ask him.

Not you. I’m sure now. And, not helpful. Until we are driving into Heathrow, using service roads I am sure are closed to mortals, and the bottom drops out of me. Don’t think about — don’t think.

Terminal Four. We go in a back door, past a guard who apparently expects Mycroft or someone like him; she scrambles to look alert and respectful. Mycroft beams at her. We’re inside the glass, just outside immigration control. Meeting someone coming from outside the EU, then. Oh, good, here are Greg and Mrs. Hudson. She is hugging Mycroft. He’s permitting it.

“Your face,” she says to him. “When you came to the door this morning.”

“You always know,” he tells her.

“You’re not a bad man, Mycroft Holmes.”

“I do prefer bringing good news.”

Oh, Christ.

“There,” says Greg, as the doors open to let a new flood of passengers in.

For a moment I can’t see who he means. Students, business types, hiker with a small pack— oh. Oh.

My God, he’s thin. And his hair’s shorter than I’ve ever seen it. Walking a bit off, as well, though that could just be from being stuck on an airplane, his legs were always too long to be comfortable—

I’ve seen Greg’s expression before, though not on him; he looks just like the father of a newborn. Mrs. Hudson grabs my arm.

“You all right?” Greg asks.

I can’t answer, but I nod.

“You told me not to say anything until I was sure.”

“Good. Yes. I did.”

Sherlock, SHERLOCK (!) reaches the head of the queue, gives his passport to the officer, who does a classic double-take. I can read Sherlock’s lips. “…Greatly exaggerated.” Well, he would say that. He looks happier than I think I have ever seen him. Someone must be dead. Besides him. The passport official is shaking his hand. Repeatedly. He lets go and gives Sherlock back his passport. Sherlock crosses the line on the floor tiles. He’s home now. He looks out at the glass, searching, and Mrs. Hudson jumps up and waves. He sees the motion, looks at us—

Rugby pileup, though no one quite ends up on the floor. “Put me down, oh GOD, you’re too thin— Sherlock—“ He’s real. He’s real. He does pick Mrs. Hudson up completely and twirls her. She’s laughing like the girl still inside her and kissing him.

“You’re quite shameless,” he tells her. “Lestrade—“

I think Greg is crying. They hug a lot. I’m trying to breathe. Mrs. Hudson kisses me. I twirl her to hear that laugh again. I’m crying. “Oh, John,” she keeps saying. Holding her keeps me able to stay upright.

Mycroft’s been standing a little back. Terrifyingly benign. Sherlock and Greg part—honestly I think Greg’s quite shameless as well—and there’s Sherlock standing in front of his arch-nemesis, both of them smiling and happy and not plotting. “Mycroft,” Sherlock says.

“Well met, little brother,” and something between them has healed and now they are hugging and Mycroft looks like a living man, not just a very good imitation.

We are—all of us—alive.

This is a moment I would stay in forever, if only I could breathe better.

 

Sherlock’s only luggage is the carry-on sized haversack he had with him. Mycroft gets us through the secret ways of Terminal Four, all into one car. Sherlock’s on the seat between me and Mrs Hudson. “Is this a secret?” Greg asks.

“No,” Mycroft says. “That’s over, for whatever it was worth.”

“It was worth enough,” Sherlock says. “And it cost enough.” His eyes flick to me, checking me over, assessing. He’s not entirely happy; I suppose I’m thinner as well. Greyer. He meets my eyes for just a second, darts away: later. “Do you know, the passport official actually asked that too? Your people are very well-trained, Mycroft.”

“They’re not _all_ my people,” Mycroft says. “But I’ll tell his…rather remote supervisor.”

Greg sends a text and within thirty seconds I have one. From Polly. She’s forwarded me what must be a shot Greg took in the airport: Sherlock, looking radiant. And much too thin, Christ. I grab his wrist and suck in my breath.

“I’m sorry, John. I’ve been busy. I don’t have anorexia and I would be happy to have a snack before dinner.”

I hit him gently in the head. I grab his head and hug him. There are stitches in his scalp; I’m immediately much gentler.

“That’s a couple of weeks old, you can take the sutures out when we get home. It’s still home? Lestrade hasn’t moved in? I could live in 221C.”

“The upstairs bedroom is empty,” I say. “I took yours.”

“I spoke to Mrs. Hudson earlier, Sherlock. Your clothes are in the upstairs bedroom by now.”

“John has a life, you know.” He means it, I think. Where is my Sherlock, the selfish arrogant one? Gone, with one-stone plus that he really didn’t have spare to lose?

“That’s the first time you’ve ever taken it into consideration, why start?” I am about to hit him on the leg when I remember the wrongness in his gait. “Is it safe to hit you here?”

“That leg, yes.” So I do. He’s still solid. He smiles again. “Thank you for not making me come back to an empty house, John, Mrs. Hudson.”

Mrs. Hudson coos something about his favourite cake. I didn’t know he had a favourite cake. We can have his favourite cake together.

Emotion hits me like a falling wall for a second and I find he’s gripping my hand. I look and he’s looking at me, closely, deducing what, I wonder?

Another text. John, WTF?

“You’ve broken my PA, Greg. I don’t think she can even.”

“‘Has she ‘lost the ability to can?’ ” We both laugh more than it deserves, until Mycroft hands each of us a tissue.

“Continuing the debasement of Shakespeare’s tongue, Doctor Watson. I think it would be entirely appropriate for your blog to ‘break’ the story.”

“That would require content, wouldn’t it? I have no idea—” except he’s back, he’s real, he’s here. And he has his arms around me and Mrs. Hudson as though he will never let us go. “Or we could go with the Mark Twain quote again.”

“We’ll figure out something over dinner at Angelo’s,” said Sherlock. “Can we figure out something over dinner at Angelo’s? With everybody? After I have a shower?” He’s asking me. As if he needed—I look at him incredulously and nod.

“I’ll drop all of you off then—“ says Mycroft.

“No, you have to come or John will get in trouble over the Official Secrets Act, because I have no sense of what’s supposed to be secure and what isn’t—“

“So I have come to understand—“

“And you can invite your young man,” Sherlock says, twinkling furiously. Possibly it was a bad head injury. Or no, I can see just a touch of younger-sibling malice. “And John can bring his PA so Mrs. Hudson won’t feel like she’s caught at a stag night.”

What are the words? I text Polly. Yes. We just met him at the airport. He’s alive and he’s back. We have permission to post it.

Is he staying?

“Polly wants to know if you’re staying.” I want to know if he’s staying. I want to know that this is not the best hallucination anyone has ever had.

“If you will have me. Right now I never want to leave London again.”

 

Traffic has begun to thicken. Polly pings me once more; she’s updated the site. I click on the link. The new page just has the picture Greg sent her of Sherlock, ‘: In Arrivals at Heathrow this afternoon:’ and a quote. I pass my phone first to Sherlock, who looks something in the same Sherlock-galaxy as embarrassed; then to everyone else.

“Tolkien,” says Mycroft. “Somewhat overstating things, but rather charming.”

I don’t think it’s overstating anything.

‘….a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is _evangelium_, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.’

Chapter Text

And it’s, oh, God, it’s good, it’s so good to have him back, this strange new sight, this Sherlock 2.0, this thin, darkly tanned (as Sherlock goes, anyway) short-haired man whose face lights up, who lights my whole body with his smile, with a laugh I don’t know that I have ever heard. Sherlock. Happy. Touching people, reaching out to all of us as though he’s been starving for us — Sherlock, who’s never needed anyone in his life. “Sutures first, or shower first?” he asks me.

“Shower,” I say. “If it’s going to reopen when you shampoo—“

And he’s off upstairs for clothing and into the bathroom and we’re all standing like people in freeze-frame in the sitting room. Polly met us here, as bad as the rest of us, standing, staring. Mrs. Hudson recovers first, goes to make tea. Mycroft is phoning his young man, whoever the hell—? “Yes, please, Kenneth, I mean it, he asked for you. Bring Cherry by all means. It’s still less than the Muses—“

And Polly has Greg cornered. “You knew? You didn’t tell John—“

“I didn’t _know_, not for the longest time, not until this morning when Mycroft called me to Baker Street and said he was coming home,” Greg says. “I thought, maybe, perhaps, but I didn’t want to ask—and John told me not to think about it where he could hear me. Damn you, John, it’s been killing me—“

“I couldn’t,” I say. “And if it was—if there was the smallest chance it was true, then he’d done all of it for a reason. And I couldn’t, Polly, I couldn’t think that maybe, because he—I couldn’t lose him twice, if he couldn’t come back. Or if he wouldn’t.” And my voice cracks, and she and Greg are holding me in the kitchen, just for a moment because it’s all too bright, and I’m really not sure if she’s crying on me or the other way around.

And there’s steam and the smell of soap and his voice fills the flat shouting “Sutures now, John!” and I find the snipping scissors in my kit and Sherlock sits on the tea table with everyone around, parting his hair for me. Twelve stitches I take out, dropping them into Polly’s hand and feeling his hair and his scalp—nasty blow, not something very sharp, healing well and God, his shoulders are too thin. His shirt more than fits.

“By the way, Lestrade,” Sherlock murmurs, idly pushing up his sleeves. His arms are less tanned than his face, one crossed by a scar I recognise— ‘Thin!’ my medical training shouts— but nothing else. Was I expecting a tattoo?

“I would never have doubted it, Sherlock,” Greg says.

“You really should have.” But Sherlock sounds proud for that moment, buttoning his cuffs. “Sooner or later I’m going to have the mother of all nic fits, _everyone_ smokes in Eastern Europe.”

Mrs. Hudson brings him tea and a slice of cake from somewhere. Polly comes up, all small. “Sherlock, this is Mary Morstan, known as Polly. She keeps trying to bring my blog into the twenty-teens—“

“So you’re John’s web-mistress,” Sherlock says, with his mouth full. “You’ve done a good job. I like what you’ve done with the site.”

Polly is as close to ‘unable to can’ as I’ve ever seen her. Sherlock watches her shrink behind me and looks—indulgent, is the only way I can express it. “Leave the poor girl alone,” orders Greg.

“Mycroft tells me you’ve been giving him a hard time. Well done, Lestrade.”

“I told you those remarks would ruin it,” Mycroft said. He’s full of something unrecognisable, the gracefulness his brother has when he’s relaxed—and he’s not the least of those who can’t seem to touch Sherlock enough. Mrs. Hudson only leaves Sherlock’s side to refill the kettle and cut more cake. Mycroft keeps resting his hand on his brother’s shoulder and I am fairly sure he’s tousled Sherlock’s hair at least once.

“The crime scene on the roof was the real tip-off,” Greg says.

“There was no crime scene on the roof,” says Mycroft.

“Exactly,” says Greg. “It was much too clean.”

“You observed!” Sherlock says.

“I can’t help picking up _some_ of it,” Greg says.

“Where’s Molly?”

“Wellington, on a forensics post-doc course,” I say, since no one else answers. “She’s been there for the past year. Left without saying anything to anyone.” I can’t help if the last words come out a bit odd. Sherlock meets my eyes. I have the feeling that at least one other person in this room knows how much of the iceberg is underwater. But his face still keeps lighting up, and so does mine, along with the other feelings. And a third part yet of me is with Polly, stunned by his presence and trying to find shelter. He reaches out and grabs my hand and squeezes. He’s real. And he looks at me and he’s thinking You’re real.

“Can we call her?”

“It’s not quite five in the morning there, Sherlock,” Mycroft says.

“Oh, call her,” I say. Mycroft pulls a mobile out of his pocket. Sherlock looks at him before he takes it.

“It’s charged. Latest security release. I thought you might want it back.”

“So calls are routed through Ulaan Baatar and anyone hacking them hears me reading—“ Sherlock’s clicking through the menus, frowning, smiling, finally choosing a number, speaker mode.

“Cricket scores?”

The phone almost exactly halfway across the world rings. I can hear Molly snarl sleepily and halfway through she must have realised who was calling because she shrieks his name. Sherlock is pleased.

“I can tell you how it turns out, now,” he says. “I did what needed to be done, and Jim from IT’s work is unravelled, and my friends are safe. Thank you so much, Molly Hooper.”

“Tell her her job at Bart’s is still an option—“ says Mycroft, redundantly.

“Are you home?” she asks. “Was that your brother?” Her voice is still half-asleep, but there’s is a definite Kiwi accent.

“I’m home—“

“But she can’t come back until Rangi’s old enough for his rabies jab—“

“Shut _up_, Mycroft, stop showing off—“

“Is John there?”

“Yes, Molly, I’m here—“

There’s a noticeable lag but less than I’d expect, from so far. “I’m SO sorry, John, I’m so, so sorry—“

“Molly? Please don’t cry, it’s all right, please stop crying twelve thousand miles away—“

“I’m so sorry— tell Sherlock what an utter bastard he is— is he all right? Did his knee — his shoulder— are all of you all right?”

“He’s too thin but he looks reasonably fit otherwise— are you, Sherlock?”

Sherlock nods, remembers to speak. “Yes, Molly, I’m fine now.”

“You owe me fourteen months’ worth of lunches.” She’s pulling herself together. Something small meows in the background.

“I remember, Molly, one a week, but not until you’re in the same hemisphere.”

“I’ll come back but it may take a while to get sorted—“

“You have my number, Dr. Hooper—“ Mycroft is being helpful. To Molly. Explains everything, doesn’t it? Always the quiet ones—

“And this one works again—“ Sherlock says.

“You are an utter bastard, Sherlock, and I’m going to call _you_ at four in the morning when I start thinking this is all a dream. Are you really all right?”

“I’m home, Molly, and soon I won’t even be officially dead. Closer to all right than I have any right to be. Thank you. Again.”

“UTTER. BASTARD. Thanks for letting me know — it’s all right to tell other people? That you’re not dead?”

“Yes.”

“I hate you so much. Thank God you’re all right. I’ll talk to you again soon. John — I’ll talk to you as well?”

“Of course—“

“I hope you hurt him a great deal, try not to leave marks. Right then. Bye everyone.”

There is a moment of silence. Greg breaks it. “Someone’s grown and changed through her experience.”

“I had no idea New Zealand was such a savage place,” Mycroft says. “It never has been when I’ve visited.”

“She sounds very well,” I say.

“Aside from the appalling effect on her accent, yes,” Sherlock says. He drops his voice. “I hope you’ll take her advice, John, about not leaving marks?”

He actually understands, I think. No; impossible. “No more than you’ve left on me,” I say as quietly as I can. “Is there more cake, Mrs. Hudson?”

Thank God for social smokescreens; everyone stops pretending not to listen. This party will soon need to move on from tea to beer. Wine. Something distilled. IV drugs sound good.

Polly is opening the door to two people. I don’t know the woman; she reminds me a little of Clara, and it clicks into ‘solicitor, down-market clients; heterosexual, completely comfortable with, mm, decidedly not heterosexual —barrister?’ — Moriarty’s barrister? Who is looking all round the room, first at Mycroft and then at Sherlock. Mycroft is pulling what was his name? forward—

“John, Mrs. Hudson, Inspector Lestrade — this is Kenneth Crayhill—“

And Sherlock’s uncoiling from the couch to stand and shake his hand, both of them are smiling — Crayhill looks happy but not amazed, and he hands Sherlock a carrier bag. “Postes restantes.”

Sherlock accepts it like something precious. “Thank you,” he says, very formally. “I am greatly in your debt.”

“Good. I have a client— but I think the matter can wait a day or so.” He steps back and I see probably the least believable sight of the whole day: Mycroft placing his arm politely and carefully around Crayhill’s waist. Sherlock looks at them like a cat who knows he will corner the entire dairy market of Cheshire and surrounding counties as soon as trading resumes. Greg kicks at his foot.

“Leave it, Sherlock.”

“I thought they’d get on well, Lestrade, that’s all—“

 

Meanwhile Polly is talking to the woman who came in with Crayhill. “—Polly Morstan, web-mistress for John’s blog—“

“Theresa Williams, I _love_ John’s blog, you’re amazing— I’m Tcherry—“

“Tcherry? Oh my GOD,” and Polly is hugging her. “I’m Pollyp and I’m SO GLAD to meet you IRL, you’re a voice of sanity —“

“Pollyp? I LOVE you!” They hug some more.

“Pollyp? I’d figured out you were probably Monstrapolis but I couldn’t see why you wanted to be a coral animal—“ Sherlock is looming over my PA. He and Williams are both looking at Polly, who is, I believe, dying all over the floor.

“You’re Monstrapolis?” Williams asks, her eyebrows rising all the way through her fringe.

“Sorry, did I out you?” Sherlock asks, not sorry at all. “Anagram, not much of nom-de-plume, really—“

My PA is an improbable shade of red, muttering “Shutupshutupshutup.”

I go and hug her. “Polly. It’s all right. I don’t want to know.”

“I don’t think you do, no,” murmurs Williams. “She looks so nice, too.”

Mrs. Hudson pats Polly’s back. “Come help me fetch more cups, dear, and I’ll tell you the name I use on that site.”

Polly pulls herself off my shoulder, looks at Mrs. Hudson and says, “I want to die,” as she follows toward the stairs.

“I really don’t recommend it,” Sherlock says. “John, this is Theresa Williams, the solicitor who works with—” he raises his voice just enough “my brother’s boyfriend—“

“I told you to leave it—“ Greg is joining us.

“Known as ‘Please can you post my bail,Cherry?’ to half of the Homeless Network. Cherry, John Watson and Greg Lestrade—“

Cherry meets my eyes and indicates 'hug?' I assent and she falls on me enthusiastically. “I’m so glad to meet you and so, so, oh, Dr. Watson— my heart nearly stopped when I saw the blog an hour ago, I wasn’t expecting an update—“

“I wasn’t either— you weren’t in on this?”

“No, not on the ‘need to know’ list apparently. Kenny looked years younger when I showed him”—Mycroft is resting his forehead on ‘Kenny’s’— “I had so many things I wanted to say to you if we ever met and now—“ she doesn’t quite crush me. I don’t understand all I am to my readers; she seems to need me in order to deal with this. I’d have thought she’d be all over Sherlock. Kenny and Mycroft are disappearing to the hallway. Everyone else is watching them fondly. It’s lovely to see Sherlock looking fond of his brother.

Cherry turns to him. “Maddy Wiggins’s going to have your guts for garters. AND be over the moon.”

“It will make a change, being savaged by my friends. It seems there will be a queue.”

“Were you being savaged by your enemies?” Cherry asks.

Sherlock shrugs. “No. They were relatively impersonal.”

“That must have stung,” Greg says.

“Are you all right, mostly?” Cherry asks Sherlock.

“Yes.”

“Will we get to hear about all of it?”

“Not all. I was with too many secret services.”

“Will you stay, now?”

“I didn’t _want_ to leave in the first place. Why do people think I would not stay?” He really sounds like he does not understand. I can't hear it enough, myself.

“Probably because the last time anyone pulled this stunt he buggered off after forty days.”

“Very nice,” says Greg. Cherry looks at him, shakes his hand. Lingeringly, on someone’s part. Well.

“Sorry,” she says. “Bit of a fan of John’s blog. Lovely to meet you, Detective Inspector, I don’t think you’ve ever arrested anyone of mine—“

“John, “ Polly says, reappearing, “the site’s going bugfu— umm, lots and lots of hits.” She swallows desperately, trying not to look Sherlock in the face. She keeps going red.

He sighs deeply. “I know John’s not told you I entirely consume people who are good at what they do. What has he said about me? Speak up.”

“That you were incredibly difficult to live with and cleverer than anyone else he’d ever met. And terrible at human relationships and more alive than anyone else, ever—“ Sherlock’s hand flicks out to rest on her shoulder.

“Has he ever said I’ve been ashamed of anything, ever? Ever embarrassed even when I ought to have been? I thought not. You’ve helped keep my blogger going when I couldn’t; I’d forgive you anything for that, if you needed it. Now will you pull yourself together and act like John Watson’s web-mistress? He won’t need you any less now than he ever has.”

I have never seen anyone literally spill over tears of happiness before. I reach over and hug Polly, and reach over and pull Sherlock in on the other side, and Polly makes a little sound that will live in my memory and my bone-marrow and snuggles into us both. “Honestly, John,” Sherlock says. He’s only ninety percent comfortable— Polly has melted into a boneless mass— but his face is as happy as hers was.

“Let her go, gentlemen, before you ruin her for life,” Cherry Williams says. I realise I’ve been staring, and release Sherlock. Or he does, and releases me. Cherry takes hold of Polly. “Smelling salts, darling? Or cold water?” she says to Polly.

“Sandwich,” murmurs Polly.

“There’s only cake, dear. More tea?” Mrs. Hudson refreshes everyone’s tea. The mug in Sherlock’s hand was on that ofrenda table Polly made for the website. It’s in his hand now, and he’s here, not on the screen.

“Mycroft! Quit snogging Legal Assistance London and come back and tell us what we’re not supposed to say on John’s blog so we can go eat!”

“You’re a horrible brother-in-law,” Crayhill tells him, towing Mycroft back into the sitting room.

“Am I?” The full silky cat-and-mouse intonation; Sherlock is very pleased with his prey.

“You will be.”

To see Sherlock hugging his brother again is to doubt… well, everything. Crayhill touches my hand. “It’s very good to meet you, Dr. Watson.”

“I don’t know whether to congratulate you or wish you luck, honestly, but — both?” We shake hands. It doesn’t seem polite to ask him if he’s insane. Mycroft is not looking like the most dangerous man I will ever meet, today.

“Mycroft… I know I’m biassed, but I hope you won’t hate him. Or his brother. I hope you won’t hate me, now I think about it. Sherlock’s been using my office as a dead drop since August last year. Though it was awhile before I realised it was him. I was supposed to wait a year and a day from the last envelope I received and bring them to you, if things went sideways. Mycroft respects you very deeply, he’s been sweating bullets—“

“Really?”

“Metaphorically but yes, really. He says his brother has always asked too much.” He’s honestly concerned; in the middle of all this embracing and joy, he has a clue. Well ahead of me. “Cherry reads your blog aloud every time you update. I don’t think there’s a word for flatmate’s in-law, or for business-partner of flatmate’s in-law but… neither of us knows Sherlock, we only met him the once…if there’s ever anything I or Cherry can do—be there for you—let us know? It can’t be easy. It won’t be easy?”

“It’s never been easy.” I wouldn’t even know easy. But I look at the Holmes brothers laughing and think that perhaps anything is possible. Sherlock is home. Sherlock is alive.

“Mycroft isn’t easy either. I think I’m going to get a pre-nup that he agrees not to have me killed if we ever divorce.” Which does make me laugh.

“Is your engagement a … recent development?”

“I asked him in the hallway just now. Hey, Cherry, will you stand up with me at the registry office?”

“You jammy sod, Kenny,” she says, and kisses him considerably.

 

Polly seems to be largely recovered from her swoon. She’s stuck me in front of my laptop on the kitchen table. She keeps looking at me and her face crinkles up.

“Would you stop that?” I ask. “I’m supposed to write a credible blog entry and you keep… have a tissue, all right? And shoo. You know I can’t do anything when you hover; go be fannish with Cherry Williams.”

“Go be fannish (what a word) with Mrs. Hudson,” says Sherlock. “I’d like to give Lestrade a chance.” Polly goes, leaving Sherlock and me and my laptop alone in the kitchen.

“You thought so too?”

“Both sides seem inclined. I’ve heard that ‘journeys end in lovers meeting’ but the hormones are a bit thick on that side of the room.”

“You seemed happy enough about your brother.”

“Crayhill is one of the most truly good men I think I have ever met.”

“What an awful thing you did, then, introducing them.”

“Some experiments are hard to resist. Awful to which one of them, anyway?”

I know what he looks like when he’s nervous. I never thought I’d see it again. No matter what my second thoughts are I hear…my heart, I guess it must be, underneath: ‘joy, as poignant as grief.’ It’s like that. I keep being stabbed, repeatedly, I can’t say if it’s pain or pleasure. “Sit down, here,” I say, and take both his hands. “Don’t worry. It will be all right.”

“It’s not all right.”

“Of course it isn’t. And of course it is, too; don’t you see that?”

“It’s what kept me alive. John.”

“Don’t stop that now, I beg you. After this, you have to live.”

“Will it be all right?”

“Yes. I think so. You’ve had more time to deal with this than I have.”

He looks, in repose, just terrible.

“It’ll be all right,” I say again. I squeeze his hands and let them go. “Now, for God’s sake, tell me what I am to say to your public.”

 

I can’t write with him hovering there either, of course, I never could. Mycroft has a press release on a thumb drive. He says he’ll send it out formally before the morning deadline, but we’re posting it now. I’m not particularly satisfied with my blog entry but Polly and Mycroft (in what universe are they even having a discussion?) say the main thing is to get something out there.

[Picture: John Watson and Sherlock Holmes, (©G. Lestrade Creative Commons/Attr,NonComm,NoDeriv)]

If you’re here, you’ve heard.
Sherlock is alive. I found out when we were taken to meet him at the airport this afternoon, his business with Jim Moriarty finally concluded (well, they say finally).
So I was wrong: Sherlock did lie to me once. He had reasons; he did not do so lightly. My life was one of the reasons, and some of our friends’ lives; I’ve known for a few months that he had, as much as anyone can, laid down his life for ours. It was more than I could bear to talk about, and people who knew suggested it was not the right time for me to do that. So I’ve been keeping secrets too.

Today I learned a better one, one that I can share: sometimes you can offer your life and get it back—more or less the worse for wear—when you’ve finished the task: as I did in the army, as our friends do in the Met, as people do every day, without looking like heroes or anyone noticing. Or, if you’re incapable of doing anything in a small way, completely unable to be unnoticed whether you want to be or not (this should be starting to sound familiar), it may turn out that it’s your death, not your life, that’s needed; and if you can deliver the one you may be allowed to keep the other.

Moriarty was real. Sherlock’s death was not. It was what Sherlock paid to keep us alive, and until he had taken out some of the lines in the web he mentioned at Moriarty’s trial [hyperlink to transcript of Moriarty’s trial] he needed to stay dead. He wants me to be clear that he wasn’t working alone; under a variety of names, he worked with police and secret services in Europe and North America. He hopes to receive permission to tell some of the parts of the story that don’t belong to him. Here’s a link [hyperlink to press release from the Foreign Office/MI6/Department of Commerce] to some of the important parts that do.

I hope to be able to tell some of the less formal parts of his story. Did you know Dr. Who is released in Basque, Spanish, and French and pirated in Slovakian, Ukrainian, and Hungarian? Sherlock didn’t know much Basque before, but he says now he can discuss the menace of weeping angels quite fluently. He’s promised to be less of a flaming elitist about pop culture, which may make the task of living with him again easier. (I should publish a picture of the kitchen table while it’s still clear of biohazards.)

As part of that, I think, he wants me to tell my readers that he thanks them for their faith in him — yes, he loved the candles at St. Bart’s, he saw the pictures we put up— and for their support of me. I don’t know if anyone but me can understand how much kindness I have received from so many of you, but he seems to have noticed. So, both of us are grateful (if puzzled).

People asked me how I was doing after Sherlock’s death, and already they are beginning to ask me how I am now he’s not dead — it’s still after his death, but that’s turned out to be temporary. I’m stunned, delighted, confused. Over and over again, and it’s been less than a day. Sherlock’s not the first friend I’ve seen die; I hope he’ll be the last. I am certain I’ll never be so lucky again, to have someone I have lost come back. I couldn’t say it before, but don’t wait to tell people, the real people in your lives, that they matter to you. It’s embarrassing and not really British, but make an exception.

Thank you again for believing in Sherlock Holmes.

Chapter Text

We left half our party still going on at Angelo’s.

It was like Christmas crossed with—a demented spaghetti Western, maybe? Mycroft said something about a movie called ‘Big Night’ but added that it was, thematically, completely wrong. I think I am starting to like him; he’s a funny drunk.

Angelo did not quite drop a glass when we came in and Sherlock greeted him; he swept Sherlock into a ferocious hug and would probably have twirled him if there had been enough room. Then he had shouted “Wine for everyone, on the house! My brother was dead, and he’s alive again! Lost and now found!” and the other patrons had broken into applause. Sherlock asked whether he was serving fatted calf and been lightly slapped before being hugged again.

“Will it be like this all over town?” Polly asks me.

“Not quite as good.”

“What the hell happened, Sherlock?” Angelo bellows. “Never mind. I’ll read the blog.”

“Christ,” I mutter. “No pressure.”

“Did you phone your sister?” Polly asks.

“_Jesus_, no, thanks for reminding me, lifesaver, Polly—” and I hurry to dial Harry. Fortunately she’s not in, so I leave a mostly coherent message, the same as I have for Mike Stamford. Now if they hear from someone else first it won’t be my fault. “Did you call Colin?”

“Ages ago, but he’s working tonight. You said you wanted to call Sarah, as well?”

“You really are my personal assistant.”

“I know. Mycroft’s going to pay me for eight hours a week with you and hire me the rest of the time for his department. Do I want that?”

“We’ll talk.” I dial Sarah, diving into the antipasto before all the artichoke hearts are gone, so my mouth is full as I attempt to explain to Sarah why I had been kidnapped that afternoon.

She is as calm and kind as ever, just as suspicious of Sherlock whether he’s dead or alive; says she will wait for a full explanation (“I’ll read it on your blog”); and that I should tell Mycroft that she now charges five hundred quid for rearranging her surgery’s appointments without her knowledge and consent. Although she wishes he would pay off our chronic hypochondriacs and they must discuss tactics, soon. She cackles and rings off, and then I am done with behaving socially outside of this room.

 

We decide it’s easiest to move Sherlock down another chair every five minutes, so as to share him properly. Greg takes a picture of him between Polly and Cherry, all of them laughing and almost certainly at me. I don’t mind at all.

 

And then it's late. Mycroft buys dessert for everyone in the restaurant except himself. Ken gives him one bite of tiramisu off his own fork. Sherlock proclaims it revolting and Greg kicks him fairly hard under the table. Polly walks Mrs. Hudson home a bit after that, taking herself off home in a taxi, still blushing occasionally and smiling at me. Sherlock had drawn her into an argument of unparalleled esotericism about ‘Xena, Warrior Princess’ (“In Bulgarian, John”) and loosened some of her awe. I was simultaneously astonished he would put someone at her ease and touched that he would bother with her, and when he noticed my noticing, he murmured he had been lost without his blogger. I damn nearly cried into my panna cotta. It is an evening of near misses like that, and fantastic highs: each of us every so often with our eyes too bright; sudden hugs and handclasps everywhere; exhausting. I'm glad to be alone. With Sherlock, which is not the same as alone, and better, and quiet at least for now.

“An age of wonders: Lestrade is buying my brother vodka shots,” Sherlock muses.

“The solicitor and the barrister are ravers. Whether truly good or not.”

“I don’t have a key. I suppose it may be upstairs. Is this as odd for you as it is for me?”

I unlock the door to 221 and we walk up the seventeen stairs. I’m trying not to make noise, but Sherlock squeaks the step deliberately and smiles at it. “I don’t know how odd you’re finding this,” I say, opening the door to 221B.

“I haven’t had keys to anywhere real in a very long time. I went up to—my room, I suppose now—and Mycroft had had the contents of my pockets left on the chest of drawers. The contents of my pockets from a year ago June, before Lestrade arrested me. For a moment it was as though no time had passed.”

“I know. You flick in and out: you’ve never been gone, you can’t be here. Do you want any tea?” I’m putting the kettle on; standard procedure for rehydrating after quite an amount of delicious Chianti.

“That would be lovely. Do you know, in America they think tea at night keeps you awake?”

I watch Sherlock as he walks slowly around the sitting room, touching things, adjusting the skull on the mantlepiece. Someone has set a violin case next to it. He opens it with a quick, dazzling smile, touches the neck of the instrument.

“Play?” I ask, setting out mugs.

“Not tonight. I’m too tired to do anything delicate, and I’m slightly drunk. I haven’t slept in several days and I need to be in better shape by Monday, I promised Ken Crayhill I’d look at one of his clients….” He lets his attention drift back to the present. He sees the two vigil candles I’ve kept burning under the bison skull. I relit them last night, when he was still dead. I had wondered how long I was going to go on feeling like lighting them was something I needed to do.

I wonder, as I’ve never needed to before, what the things I have done and left undone--in this room, in the flat, in my life—say about me, say about what he is to me. There was no one I cared about who I thought could read any of it. I hope he’ll tell me.

There’s still a knife holding down some very old letters on the mantelpiece. The television re-emerged long ago on its shelf to the left of the fireplace. Polly’s organised a shelf of DVDs; I think she watches them more than I do. But we’ve only moved as many of Sherlock’s books as we had to; I wonder if Mycroft’s people have added a bookshelf to the upstairs bedroom?

He’s noticed the chairs. “Help me switch them back,” I say.

“If you want?”

“Sherlock—of course I do. What do you think?” It’s much easier with two to lift them into their old places. He still needs to stalk around sniffing and touching, a cat making itself familiar in its home once again. I settle onto the arm of my chair and watch him read the spines of the DVDs as he talks.

“I think I did something horrible to you, and I was away for nearly as long as we lived here together, and you and Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade were in danger because of me, and it would not be unlikely or unkind for you to want me to find another flat.”

“My best friend, in a hundred different ways, made a very bad enemy, and died to keep me safe, and I missed him terribly.” My voice has been doing very well, so it’s a surprise when it dries out. I breathe a moment while he thoughtfully (!) doesn’t look at me. “Now it turns out he’s managed not to stay dead, and he wants to come back to where I’ve been—missing him. I mean—you do, don’t you?”

“Yes, I thought I’d been clear—“

“I didn’t really think you wanted to live in C.”

“No. I have fifteen different Flickr accounts—different identities--and none of them show anywhere I wanted to be as much as I wanted to be here.”

He waves a hand at the two candles. They are excellent for staring at; we can talk without having to look too much at one another. “What do they mean?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” I say. “This was closer than the ones at St. Bart’s. It did something for the pain when missing you hurt. Something about being alive, I think.”

“Two of them.”

“Both of us.”

He nods. “Angels’ wings, really?”

“I don’t think so; just wings. And that one was for me; you were always the dark green one.” Maybe I wanted the wings so I could catch him; I really don’t know.

“Much better. Yes.” He likes being dark green and flickering and mysterious.

“I brought the best-decorated ones home from the hospital, there’s a box in the hall closet.” In silence we both consider the oddness of Sherlock’s lighting a candle to his own memory, though I think there were Roman emperors who did… they would probably liked the the more intriguingly decorated glasses in the box…I, also, am slightly drunk.

“You lit one there, one day, I think?”

I find myself bristling just a little. That was private. Which is insane. “That was the day Mycroft told us why you’d jumped. That you had died for us. And that Lestrade’s constable had been ready to shoot him if you hadn’t. He was not in great shape, after.”

“How were you?”

“Actually, I was relieved to have an explanation for some of the strangeness. Not a helpful note, the one you left.”

“The form, or the content?”

“I can’t talk about the ‘form’ right now, because—but I meant the content. You were babbling. Not that I could tell at the time.”

“It was all going quite differently from what I had expected. Worse, I’d have to admit.”

“I can’t think of a scenario in which you jumped off the roof of St. Bart’s that I’d have called ‘going well’. But you’re here, so it … it must have gone very well. For a given value of ‘well’ that tore off all of our skins and burned our homes and salted the ashes.”

“You’re angry.”

“Oh God, yes.” It blazes in me as hard as the sorrow did. “But I couldn’t be angry if you weren’t here to be angry with; maybe I was, but I missed you so much more. And I wouldn’t trade having you here for anything.” I try to think of some way to tell him. “You were dead when I lit those, and now you’re back. I had a thousand things I wanted to ask you, a thousand things to say, and in between being angry with you I’m still…I wasn’t dead, Sherlock, but the part of me that was twinned to you—the part that you made able to walk without a limp, the part of me that you made able to feel alive and happy even while I was yelling at you for leaving dead people in the fridge—You gave me that part of me, of you, and it didn’t die when you did, I was damned well not going to let it go. But it was having to learn to walk by itself, and it was hard. If you’re not dead, there’s more in the world. If you’re alive, it’s so strange, so wonderful…I can almost forgive you for having had to be dead, for the way you died.”

“Will you, eventually? Forgive me?” He looks at me, short glances at me and away. He’s uncertain. How can he be uncertain of me?

“I think so. I hope so. I’m the reasonable one, remember?”

“It’s a horrible burden, John, I’ve learned that. I had to act nearly all the time, to play a cool spook, at best a sinister consultant, and when I most wanted to shout at people I thought about you trying to keep me from doing that. Or just you, being you. With certain exceptions.” Glancing at me, smiling.

“Even I’m not reasonable all the time.”

“No consequences for hitting the DCI?”

“No legal ones. People bought me pints. I did notice you were being unusually patient tonight. Friendly. Will it last?”

“Tonight was easy. Tonight was not acting. I must admit it will be good to be in my own skin again, with no one’s life depending on how low a profile I can maintain. A better incentive to learn to pass for normal than school was.”

“Don’t. Don’t be anything less than you are.” A glance. Still uncertain. Oh, my Sherlock.

After all the touching going around this afternoon and tonight, it’s almost easy to stand and take him in my arms and pull him close and rest against him. And he doesn’t mind, either; I can feel his back and shoulders slowly relaxing into me. And I into him; I realise I’ve been clenched in every muscle for every moment since he was arrested.

“Is being ‘normal’, less?” He’s still so tall; his voice stirs the hair over my ear. He’s resting his cheek on top of my head.

“For you. Maybe not the part about becoming patient, you could keep that.” I laugh into his collarbone, which is far too exposed. So thin.

“That’s one place I’d say I’m twinned to you. It will be easier now. It _is_ sometimes more efficient.” We stand like that just holding one another, until I feel him sway. I steady him and look into his face.

“It’s the end of a case, isn’t it? How long has it been since you slept?”

“A whole night, or a couple of hours? What day is this?”

“Go to bed, you fool, I’ll see you in the morning.” And I start to move away, but he pulls me back in, close and hard for just a moment.

“I love you too, John.”

“I know,” I say. “I’ve never doubted it.”

Chapter Text

And if we could only have just stopped there: peace and joy I’ve hardly felt before, except immediately in advance of being the object of peacetime surgery. Very like that.

The next day I awake and wonder what’s different, why my guts are no longer full of lead, and lie for half an hour in bed smiling at the ceiling. Polly texts to see whether I’m awake, then assuring me she has her crack team of moderators working on the blog again, but could I…? Because some of the comments are from the news media…? And they seem rather insistent…? I log on.

Just as I’m coming out of shock and a certain amount of horror—by this time I’d have hoped I’d be more jaded—and am starting to wonder what to do with the reporters, Mycroft phones. His timing is suspect but welcome and he’s helpful, not irritating. I wonder how he can be so functional after what I recall him drinking last night.

Except that, reasonable though I am said to be, I have come round to Sherlock’s indifference to the press and a wholehearted hostility of my own. Talking to anyone who takes notes about anything I say makes me clench my teeth (though I feel entirely different toward the non-journos who read my blog, possibly because I can ignore anything I don’t want to discuss). Mycroft won’t offer me an easy way out, though I ask him to kidnap us. He just offers to lend us a publicist with an excellent security rating and a complete briefing on the whole matter (putting him or her well ahead of me).

Finally, before I ask to see it, Mycroft says he will send me the proposal he’s offering Polly. I hope Ken Crayhill has not come out the loser when they swapped personalities.

The publicist is due to arrive in a hour (threat of press conference at three); I’m reluctantly considering waking Sherlock when he stumbles into the kitchen, hazy in his dressing gown but smiling brilliantly upon seeing me, the coffeemaker, the toaster, the view from the window. Then he looks at me again.

“What now?”

More than somewhat to my surprise all that happens is a flattening of his face and an immediate return to alertness. Not so much alertness as a hunted look. He takes his coffee and his mobile to the sitting room, which translates as ‘you can listen if you like’ and calls his brother. No shouting follows. Half an hour later he returns to the kitchen, fully dressed and focussed. It’s not quite my flatmate.

“This is you being the ‘cool spook’?” I ask.

“Yes. He still has his uses. Not what I wanted to be today. Or ever again.”

“Toast, eggs,” I say.

His eyes roll.

“Bacon?”

“If I must. I know; your face says ‘too thin’ before anything pleasanter every time you see me.” He accepts breakfast without any of yesterday’s enthusiasm. “John. Mycroft says there is only so much he can do, or will do, since I want to be alive again; but he’s sure this can be contained to something reasonable.”

“His definition of ‘reasonable’?”

“He used the phrase ‘nine days’ wonder.’ “

“About eight days more than I think I can stand,” I say. Or Sherlock either, to look at him. By daylight, he does not look healthy.

“He says it’s possible Harry may announce his engagement sooner than that. Not your sister, the spare. Spare heir. Now more than ever.”

“Oh, right. Helicopter Harry Wales. That would improve my impression of him.”

“The steadying influence of proposed matrimony and domestic life?”

“Actual usefulness to me, personally.”

Before Sherlock can ask me what I think of Harry’s service record in Afghanistan, Mrs. Hudson announces the arrival of a dark-haired, lovely, ruthlessly efficient woman named Isadora Klein, Mycroft’s promised publicist. She has the least traces of a Brazilian accent. Sherlock looks at her and they talk while I go to shave and find suitable clothing. Sherlock walks into the bathroom. “Don’t even think of it.”

“What?”

“Isadora Klein. Just don’t.”

“I wasn’t.”

“You might have. Don’t.”

She has come through the back door by way of Mrs. Turner’s. There are thirty-two reporters (photographer, camera operators) camped at the front door. We are officially under siege.

 

The press conference goes as well as anything that Mycroft sets his hand to usually does. Even tamped under a layer of security and bureaucratic blandness, it curdles my blood and distracts me from my uneasiness in the spotlight. Moriarty specialised in human trafficking schemes, although he would consult for anyone and was very good at drugs.

The American news clips (on a giant video screen) about the thirty-five kids, ages five, for God’s sake, to fourteen, whom Sherlock tersely describes as having been ‘spared the worst of their possible futures, now in the the hands of the Department of Social Services in Monterey’ reduce everyone to silence for a moment. Isadora, at the back of the room, looks triggered. Mycroft gives her coffee.

We hear in detail about finding and securing a lab in Montpellier on the French Riviera that made designer drugs (offering the user a planet whose sea was finally the right shade of pink?). It had synthesised stuff too expensive for the average street that caused fourteen deaths (and associated media frenzy) among minor European and major Hollywood royalty over the past five years. Sherlock had had every chance to indulge in enough confiscated opiates and alkaloids for a ski slope.

Three brothers in Serbia, all running guns, none knowing the others were competing with him. Moriarty had helped each of them while playing them against one another, covertly and intricately. It had ended bloodier than anything since the house of Atreus (_The Independent_ informed me of the comparison, with a lovely sidebar explaining how that that meant really very bloody indeed). Sherlock had been there to still the last thrashings of their private armies, but much too late to do anything but document the slaughter.

There was more. Not everything had been high-profile: just efficient, lucrative, and (it seems whenever possible), horrifyingly creepy.

 

Sherlock continues to play crisp and quiet and refuses any questions about deerstalker hats. If Mycroft had hoped for a kinder, fuzzier Sherlock, he’s unavailable. But he’s better than he was at the press conferences for the Turner and Ricoletti cases, possibly because no one is offering him gifts. Reporters ask him about accusations of his fraudulence; he refers them to the IPCC report and says he has no further comments to make concerning the allegations of a known (in some places, convicted in absentia) international criminal. He believes major dailies have an obligation to better fact-checking, but despite having spent time recently in America, he does not intend litigation.

“If the Metropolitan Police believe I am who and what I have always said I was, I don’t see why you have any further questions.” He has great confidence in Scotland Yard. I worry that his tongue will turn black at this point, but he says later he’s told much bigger fibs.

I am content to play dumb, as is accurate. No, I never had any doubts, but I had seen him working up close. Yes, Moriarty as well. Yes, of course I am delighted Sherlock is alive, he helps cover the rent. (Laughter.) No, I was not aware until a day ago that his death had been faked, and no, I have no real desire to know how it had been done. Yes, I hoped we could continue his? our? career as consultants. No, I did not want to comment on any proposed changes to the NHS. Yes, I will continue to blog his cases, and might I say how very kind how very many people have been in the previous months?

“You hate this,” Isadora says to me after.

“Yes, very much.”

“You could build on the publicity and end up quite rich.”

“We’re doing well enough.” (Note to self: return inheritance.)

“Mycroft warned me you were like this. So you really want this over as soon as possible?”

“Yes. Why aren’t you asking Sherlock?”

“He’s left me in no doubt. All right. He’s booked solid for the rest of the day and tomorrow; they’re expecting both of you. Don’t go.”

This is too close to what I want to be acceptable. “Why not?”

“Because you humanise him. Because people can relate to a blogger better than they can to a—“

“Cool spook?”

Agent déprovocateur? Firefighter? I don’t know. Anti-gangster. Whatever. He’s answering questions in as few words as possible; you can’t help being polite and you respond to friendliness. Also, you’re cute together. He’s much less mediagenic alone. Go home.”

Sherlock is standing next to us throughout the conversation. He comes back into focus. “She’s right. Are sure you won’t feel left out?”

I want to see whatever records there are on his head injuries over the past year, I really do. “I feel like I should be supporting you. And if you say ‘Alone protects me’ you really will be dead this time,” I add.

My real flatmate comes out for a moment, like the sun through clouds. “I thought it might be too soon.”

“It is, yes.”

“But really, John, she’s right. I’ll bore them to death and when Harry gives that woman a ring I can go back to behaving badly and enjoying your disapproval.”

There are too many people and too many cameras nearby to do anything more than nod. We’ve communicated more with a glance than the news anchors will in a lifetime, so I remind him to eat, and try to slip away as someone comes and asks him whether he just said Prince Harry was officially engaged. Even without his coat Sherlock looks mysterious. He feeds her a completely plausible line about how one hears things one really cannot repeat.

 

I catch Sherlock on a number of news shows, still playing ‘cool spook’ to the hilt; an earpiece and an American accent would complete the look and I swear I catch a hint of one a few times. He comes home after the late night news, refuses food, and goes directly to bed.

 

And that night the bad dreams begin again in earnest. Mine do. I don’t know how long Sherlock’s been having them but if they go on like the ones I hear drifting down from upstairs for more than another week we’re going to discuss medication.

 

I had missed everything about him, but I had forgotten what it could be like, what it had been like just toward the end. This week brings it all back. Without Moriarty in the wings, Sherlock is not nearly so remote as he was then, but he’s plainly exhausted and strained. With Polly, rather than me, reading the papers, and advice filtering through Mycroft and his publicist (whose budget, Mycroft told me happily, was coming out of the British government’s share of Moriarty’s nest-egg), I don’t have to worry, don’t have to nag, not that I was ever aware of having made any impression on him.

We have a sense of surviving the media storm together. For there is one: it’s August, News of any substance (other than the photogenic six-week-olds third and fourth in line for the throne) is hard to come by.

Curiously, there is a new crop of rumours concerning a royal wedding in the spring. Greg swears when it’s mentioned and wishes we were a republic.

 

Sarah blandly and resolutely blocks any new patients who cannot prove they are related to people we already see; the surgery is an island of calm, when I can get there on Monday. Fortunately none of the patients who insist on hugging me are contagious with anything. Three of them ask me outright if Sherlock and I are to be married now; as they are all more than forty years older than I am I thank them for their good wishes and ask how their hips/grandchildren/tomatoes are doing. Sarah kindly joins in me hysterical laughter but refuses a quickie in the supply closet. “You’ll have to resolve your doubts by yourself.” The possible replies to this set us both off again, and the receptionist comes to see what is the matter.

 

I don’t see Sherlock that day at all, but I hear him pacing when I get up for a drink of water in the night. He won’t talk about that in the morning.

 

I do see him Tuesday night. He has cleared Ken Crayhill’s client and provided Legal Assistance London with a number of new, different cases. “People do the same things whether they’ve stolen five pounds or five thousand,” he says. “Surely it would be easier to take the rap, it’s not like being hanged for goods worth more than a shilling anymore.”

“Is it better than no case at all?” I ask.

“I’m not yet bored,” he says, and for a moment I can see exhaustion sweep across his face.

 

On Wednesday, five parental figures and three solicitors decide that Mycroft’s offer to Polly as a media consultant/trainee is solid and unthreatening, and she quits her job as an actuary and starts a new professional website. Apparently she changes a number of her pseudonyms in the parts of the Web I don’t visit. In the weeks to come, other than that I see her in slightly better clothes, I don’t notice any difference, but she says what she’s learning about ‘ice’ is rocking her world. She’s also paying some of our moderators so I can continue a blissful life ignoring people with really strong feelings about Sherlock’s hair (and mine; they want it longer). We’ve established a zero toleration policy for questions about how he faked his suicide (and anyone’s sex life, but that’s nothing new).

 

On Thursday, Sherlock fights with Mycroft and refuses to do any more television appearances. Mrs. Hudson and I can hear Sherlock’s side of it from her kitchen.
“Unless that thing happens in Sarajevo. Only then, Mycroft. No. Bulgaria can go be eponymous for all I care. Yes, I do still want the briefings. You would say that. No, I don’t think I owe you—“

Both brothers seem to have a separate peace with the city editor of _The Independent_, with whom Sherlock, Greg and I enjoy a long drunken dinner. (Sherlock eats.) The editor assures us everything we say will be ‘deep background’ only, but ruins our confidence in his professionalism with a filthy story about Tony Blair. I suppose there is a statute of limitation on gossip.

 

On Friday, Sherlock writes a short entry updating his blog and reopens to comments. Within half an hour he’s on the phone to Polly offering her twice whatever his brother is paying her. His blog was already set up for threads but it crashes anyway; Mycroft calls him, cackling, and Sherlock throws his mobile across the room. Shock-resistance is apparently one of its special features.

 

Ella is fascinated, amazed, appalled by Sherlock’s reappearance. She’s too professional to go on about it as much as she would like, which means she wants me to.
“Overwhelmed by what?”

“People,” I say. “It’s like it was when he died. Everyone wants to talk about it. ‘Didn’t you know? Are you surprised? How did he do it?’”

“What do you say?”

“‘No, yes, not really sure, goodbye.’ I really liked having the publicist for the first day, she was very helpful.”

“Helpful in what way?”

“If Sherlock was going to come back from the dead—from being a real genius, but a fake suicide—he couldn’t just reappear one day in town claiming nothing had happened. It was much too big a stink, too much public scrutiny for him to just say, ‘oh, that never happened.’ Not if he wants a life anything like the one he had before.”

“Uh-huh.”

“So she helped us make sure we--he--said and did whatever would get him there most effectively. She was good at figuring out how the media things worked.”

“So you’ll want to bring him with you here next week?”

I take a minute to wonder how she’s arrived there. “No?”

“If your friendship is going to come back from the dead, it can’t just reappear claiming nothing has happened, not if you want it to be anything like it was before. And sometimes specialised help is useful.”

“Thank you _so much_, Ella, I’m glad you enjoy being a therapist and getting to throw my words back at me.” She’s smug. “I think we’ll muddle along amateurishly for a bit.”

“Thinking about what part of this is making you roll your eyes?”

“All of it, “I say, “but particularly the part where he gets defensive and tries to tell you what you should be asking me.”

“The people you live with can have very useful insights, sometimes. And have you taken this unique opportunity you have, to say any of the things you didn’t get to say while he was alive? I mean, the first time?”

“Some of them, actually, yes.”

“How was that?” she asks.

“A start.”

When I’m about to leave, she asks me again to consider bringing Sherlock with me next week; she’s concerned about the sleep disorders.

 

On Saturday, St. Bart’s calls; there’s a huge ‘Welcome Home’ piece set up and they want their pavement back. Polly chivvies both us there for pictures, which prove that Sherlock actually can, on very special occasions, be embarrassed. I look a bit strained in them because I can’t catch my breath. But the one of us with Mike Stamford and the grounds crew and the receptionists and all the roses is lovely. A taxi driver pulls up to warn us that a news camera-van is half a block away; Sherlock gives him a very long look before allowing us to hurry inside and be delivered home.

 

That night, Sherlock picks up his violin for the first time I’ve heard him since he returned. It’s four in the morning; I hear it coming very softly, as violins go, from the upstairs bedroom. Probably we should change those back as well; he used to do quite a lot of chemistry while I was asleep, and I liked the security of knowing I was as distant from the fumes as possible. I don’t recognise the piece. When he finishes it he opens his bedroom door, where I am sitting.

“You could have come in, you know. I’m sorry I woke you.”

“Didn’t,” I say. “More?”

“My callouses have gone. A little more. Go back to bed?”

“I thought I heard you too often while you were away. Prefer to see you.”

He tsks very quietly and plays something as warm and soft as cashmere, and when it’s over I can go back to sleep.

 

On Sunday, the ‘Week In Review’ news hours show clips of Sherlock and discuss ‘entrepreneurial terrorism.’ Hurrah for the private sector. The last of the reporters camped on Baker Street depart as softly as snowflakes in summer, leaving a delicate tracery of cigarette ends on the pavement and a bump in Speedy’s revenues. Mrs. Hudson’s remarks are pointed. Almost exactly nine days.

 

Detective Inspector Dimmock calls Sherlock out for a case after I’ve left for the surgery on Monday. I don’t find this out until ten that night, when texts and telephone calls to Sherlock over the past several hours have brought no results and I finally have the wit to call Greg.

“He didn’t call you? Text you?”

“No. I think he’s been feeling a bit hunted. God knows I have.”

“I liked it when you told that reporter your favourite colour was camouflage.”

A lot of people had. “The best thing that came out of that—I’m invited to join the board of Combat Stress.”

“I’ve heard of them, they do good work. Even with us, sometimes.You going to take them up on it?”

“Yeah, I think I will. Something good to do with this fifteen minutes of fame. It’d be less ironic if I weren’t closer to having PTSD symptoms now than I was in 2009.”

“So I don’t need to ask you how you’re doing. Spoken to Ella about this, of course?”

“She knows neither of us is sleeping very well.”

“So what doesn’t she know?” I don’t answer right away. “John, I know you’re lying because your lips aren’t moving.”

“Very funny. It’s been less than two weeks. Clinical concern kicks in after a month.”

“But if two of you aren’t sleeping for two weeks, doesn’t it add up? I’m trying to be light-hearted and helpful here, but I don’t think either of you were in much good shape to start with. He wasn’t, certainly.”

“I was doing well enough,” I say. Measured by what I’d been before I met Sherlock, I had, indeed, been doing well. My standards might have been low. But I had been nearly nightmare-free.

“Only because all of us were used to you being three shades paler and two shades quieter,” Greg is saying. “Have you talked to him at all about…”

“What?”

“About him being dead, and what it was like for you,” Greg says.

“A little. There hasn’t been a great deal of time.”

He sighs. “Families who don’t talk after someone dies don’t do very well. Even the ones who do—“

“No one actually died, remember?”

“I’m not sure it makes any difference. I mean, of course he’s alive, but it seems like there might be a kind of draped, invisible body with you in the sitting room. Denial anger bargaining and grief, that sort of thing. Worth discussing.”

“I cannot imagine talking with Sherlock about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.” We both laugh, but Greg isn’t giving it up.

“I’ve talked with some very hardened cops,” he says. “And it’s worth a try, actually. Doctors are the worst, of course.”

 

Not as bad as consulting detectives. Who do not call.

 

Dimmock is back at NSY the next day. He says Sherlock said something about a lead; he hasn’t seen him since Monday afternoon. He isn’t concerned. I know my mobile won’t take being thrown against the wall, but I understand the impulse.

 

Sarah sees me after I ring off. She’s already made remarks about my looking the worse for wear that morning. “Call his brother,” she says.

“I can’t do that.”

“Why not? I’ve had enough of these Holmeses messing with my patients and my staff. He could do something useful for once. If you don’t I will.”

I text. It seems less intrusive. Do you have any idea where Sherlock is?

I have probably interrupted something of international significance; it takes Mycroft four minutes to call back. “Why do you ask?”

I explain. By the time I’ve finished, Mycroft makes a satisfied noise. “His phone is moving. It’s in Scotland. But it’s turned off, not accepting anything.”

“And you don’t know that he’s carrying it.”

“No. We could find out.” I can’t tell if that’s an invitation or a threat.

“You lot have protocols, don’t you? Timetables for when to get concerned?”

“He’s not an agent; I have no idea what he’s doing. He’s told me very clearly that I am not his keeper. I had hoped you were.”

“After the last fourteen months? I think he’s used to being off-lead.”

“Very likely,” Mycroft says. “I’m sorry.”

‘I don’t think you’re responsible for his being an annoying dick. Are you?”

“He would tell you I was, at least partially. What do you want to do, John?”

The police would give him forty-eight hours. It’s been almost twenty-four. Sherlock is not a normal civilian. Mycroft’s department are not the police. “Can you find him without blowing his operation? If he has one, that is?”

“Obviously, I can’t guarantee anything, but—“

“Am I being reasonable?”

“Yes. Though Sherlock may not see it that way.”

“He’ll have to settle for two out of three of us thinking it is, then.”

“Will you hold for a moment?” It’s not a proper ‘hold’; I can hear Mycroft’s voice and others, softly, unintelligibly, in the background. “There,” he says. “We should have some word for you in a few hours at most. John, I am so very glad that—“ he pauses, searching for the perfect euphemism, “—the recent hiatus has affected your opinion of me in a relatively positive direction.”

“I am always, ALWAYS, Sherlock’s friend first,” I say. Even when I may have to remember not to leave marks when I see him again.

“I know—“

“But yes, it’s been a relief to find out you’re not nearly the son of a bitch I thought you were, just before he died. And you’ve been very helpful since. Mrs. Hudson speaks highly of you.” I wonder whether Mycroft is aware how much of a change that is from before Sherlock’s death.

“It’s probably easier to get her good opinion than yours, but I am glad to hear it. Thank you for calling me. I know you would not do so lightly.”

“I hope more than you can imagine not to need to call you again anytime soon.”

“Socially, perhaps. Someone will be in touch with you in by five whether we have news or not.”

 

Anthea calls me at three. “He’s fine, and he believes he will return to London tonight. And he’s charging his phone.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry I disturbed—all of you.”

“No,” she says. “I agree with Mr. Holmes, you were quite reasonably concerned.”

“You mean Mycroft Holmes, not Sherlock, right?”

“Of course I do! The younger one is impossible, John, and we all admire your fortitude.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Be seeing you,” she says, and rings off, and it is much easier to tend to my patients.

 

“Caring’s not an advantage,” I remark to Sarah, when she asks whether I’ve heard anything.

“I know,” she says, “but we have to do it anyway.”

I know she’s right, but I can’t catch my breath.

Chapter Text

The text reads: John is poorly. Will you come? SH

 

It’s early enough that there’s almost no traffic, the first wave of commuters only just beginning to trickle in; the sun is a promise, not yet a certainty. Lestrade waves to the constable on the beat, passes the grate rolling up at Speedy’s, comes up the stairs two at a time, trying to blend speed with stealth. The door of 221B stands open; light spills out of the downstairs bedroom.

Sherlock appears briefly. “In here,” he says, returning to the bedroom before the words finish coming out.

He is fully dressed, wide awake, and agitated. It’s hard to say what John is, because he seems to be a tight lump in the centre of the bed, wrapped in the crocheted throw from the sitting room and an extra duvet, holding his knees and ducking his head in an ineffective attempt to make himself invisible and invulnerable.

“He won’t talk, he doesn’t move. Is this some kind of army thing to protect yourself from artillery?”

Lestrade peels the blankets back from the silent man’s head. John doesn’t react, unless to shrink deeper into himself. “It’s Greg, John. Can you uncurl a bit?” He puts his arm across John’s shoulders; rock-hard with tension, unmoving.

“Foxes are supposed to roll them into water but I don’t think—“

“Sherlock, your filters are completely off,” Lestrade says tiredly. “For God’s sake, shut up. I think he’s in shock.”

“Hence the blankets,” Sherlock points out. “I made him tea but he’d have to uncurl, as you put it. Can he hear us?”

“Probably, I don’t know. Can you hear us, John?” John gives no sign that he has heard.

Greg sighs deeply, makes himself as comfortable as he can next to John and puts both arms around his shoulders, trying to offer enough compression to be felt through John’s own attempts to squeeze into the smallest possible space. Sherlock looks at them with less insight than he usually displays for spattered shoes, and cautiously follows Greg’s example, leaning into his friend’s side. “Is this supposed to help?”

“Maybe. It seemed to, while you were gone.”

“Was he like this?”

“No. He just cried.” They hold their friend. Greg can feel John breathing, a tiny irregular motion. ”What happened, do you know?”

“No. He came in from work at the usual time yesterday, said he wasn’t interested in eating, and went to bed. I thought it was rather early for him, but… then this morning I saw his light was on, still on, and he was like this.”

Lestrade wonders about keeping confidence, decides it hadn’t been in confidence—more like casual conversation. “Did he say anything to you about…sleeping badly? PTSD?”

At least Sherlock seemed to recognise the acronym. “He’s been rather tightly wound ever since I returned. I’ve encountered him wandering around the flat in the middle of the night more than once.”

“I talked with him Monday and he said something about stress, is all.”

“Mmm,” says Sherlock. “Well. Then, Tuesday night.”

“What happened Tuesday night?”

“I got back from Inverness. That thing with Dimmock’s robbery, that turned out to involve stolen bicycles and smuggled cocaine.”

“It’s always cocaine with you, you have a gift…what happened Tuesday night? I know John was wondering where you were on Monday.”

Silence.

“You must have called him eventually.”

Silence.

“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sherlock, really?”

“I didn’t know my phone was off, I’m not used to having one anymore, at least not one anyone will use to call me unless we’re about to go in somewhere and then John sent Mycroft’s people after me so he knew I was all right and I was going home that night so I didn’t—“

“You were annoyed he’d called Mycroft, and you knew you were in deep shit, and you knew you deserved to be, so instead of calling John and telling him you were a thoughtless git who didn’t deserve to have friends, you thought you could sneak home and avoid the consequences, correct?”

“Substantially, yes.” There was more silence. “Lestrade?”

“Words are failing me.” Lestrade sighs at last. “Monday night, you’re in a hotel room, you plug your phone in, you don’t check for messages?”

“I wasn’t in a hotel, I spent the night reading the police blotter for the past three months. I’ve been working alone. I know. The word ‘thoughtless’ has been overused.”

“This is how you’ve been working then, all that time you were away?”

“Some of it. Hours and hours trying to see patterns. Day or night doesn’t matter in a big-enough city.”

“I suppose that’s some excuse. But not nearly enough of one.”

“I didn’t have a charger.”

“They’re mostly standardised now.”

“And I didn’t know it had run out.”

“So Tuesday night was loud and bitter?”

“Mostly just bitter. He left early on Wednesday; we usually have breakfast together.”

 

Greg has been around times when John and Sherlock had been fighting: usually after the acute phase, when Greg gathered there was shouting and slamming of doors; usually in the ‘still sullen and cross’ phases, when unkind remarks were made with a veneer of impersonality. One of the most persuasive arguments against 221B being a love nest was the absence of anything like afterglow from makeup sex. They just stopped sniping at one another. At least, that was how it had been. It was a long time ago, now.

Greg tries running his thumb along John’s spine, hard enough to feel it bump over knotted muscles. “You’ve been back what, two weeks?”

“Tomorrow it will be, yes.”

“Has he… Have you—how long have you both been pretending everything is normal?”

“There hasn’t been normal since I came home,” Sherlock says. “The reporters only left Sunday.”

“That’s outside. What’s it been like inside, here, between the two of you?”

Sherlock looks at him as though one of them is an intelligent nonhuman, perhaps a talking cow.

Lestrade considers what he knows of both his friends. On his own, even in deep grief, John had been amazingly sane and relatively open. But that was when he was a separated part talking to a good friend; not trying to talk within, part to another part, of a weird but functional system (at least at one time) with whatever Sherlock is to him: a phoenix or a meteor; or bread, salt, and oxygen.

He’s fairly sure that John Watson is something in the second category to Sherlock Holmes. Neither of them had died before the other came into his life, though in Sherlock’s case it had been near indeed…possibly John’s as well, given the number of veterans who survived the war but could not survive after it.

And in their recent separation, Lestrade would never have gambled much that the old Sherlock could survive fourteen months without his brother and his support system (the whole of Greater London, really), let alone done useful work. But he had done so. A crash course in living with someone like John—faith, hope, endless charity, prudence (of which Sherlock had always had a potentially terminal deficit), strength, whatever the others were--seemed likely to have been what improved the odds.

No question, then, that Sherlock knows he needs John, or that John is unaware he needs Sherlock.

Considerable doubt that either would have been quick to say the other needed him, though. Actually, Greg thinks, he could very nearly hear John and Sherlock proclaiming the other one’s complete autonomy, and then Sherlock would say anyone who cared about him really was at a disadvantage.

It is not _entirely_ outside the realm of possibility that they would have discussed, oh, things: death and loss and longing and the cost of carrying on; time and change and not living through them together. Gratitude and guilt and anger and resentment and fear of more loss.

Discussion is not outside of the realm of possibility, but not, it seems, anywhere near the realm of things that have actually taken place.

 

“Before you bollixed it up, did you make any effort to talk about what it was like—for either of you—while you were dead?“

“You’re both always on me to give people ‘space,’” Sherlock points out, flashing back as they do to a state of ‘always’ two years previous.

“True. Two weeks is long enough. Probably less than a week, if you’re living with someone. If you rise from the dead again you might keep that in mind.”

“You’re angry, too.” Lestrade isn’t sure if this is a clever deduction, because Sherlock is no good at the subtleties of live humans, or a really stupid one, since--

“Of course I’m angry, and I’ve had some idea you might be alive for months. I bet your brother’s even angry, and he was in it up to his eyeballs. We’re not all angry at you, though; just angry, generally. Mostly not at you. But then, the rest of us weren’t made to see you jump.”

He lets Sherlock sift through this for bit. It seems as though the tight ball between them might be relaxing a little, breathing with them.

“Molly’s not angry, though she says angry things,” Sherlock suggests.

“No, she’s so glad to get out of Wellington and back to London she wouldn’t be. Not even at you.”

“I didn’t tell her to self-exile to New Zealand. It’s done terrible things to her accent, even in such a short time.”
“Did it feel like a short time to you?” The gaunt, exhausted face Sherlock wears when he’s not fully engaged is answer enough. “That might be a place to start. Because you have to start. If you haven’t talked about both your sides of living through this—“

“We haven’t had an opportunity.”

“You haven’t made one. My guess is that neither of you want to deal with the feelings. It will break the two of you if you don’t.”

Sherlock picks at a splice in the crochet.

Lestrade sighs. “On the blog: ‘changed not ended.’ That was you?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says. “I wondered whether anyone had seen that. It wasn’t a good idea, but I wasn’t in very good shape then.”

“I figured it out eventually, around the time Mycroft explained what you had done, and around the time I looked hard at your suicide note, which ranks very high on a list of shittiest things I have ever heard of anyone doing in any circumstances by the way, even if I know why you had to—“

“Another county heard from, yes. Yes, Lestrade, I know it was, and I’ve spent parts of the past 14 months trying to see if there might have been another way, and I still haven’t found one, and regretting the pain I caused John is true but so far as I can see useless. But I’m regretting it anyway, in case it isn’t.”

Lestrade can see Sherlock’s eyes on the back of John’s head, and he doesn’t look superior or even weary, just unhappy. Lestrade doesn’t think Sherlock talking about his regret is useless, maybe not even useless to Sherlock; definitely important to John, if John will hear it.

“I think it’s important,” Lestrade tells him. “Even if for you regret is like, I don’t know, the sawdust left over after you make something. Hearing about it keeps people from just feeling like lumber.

“Anyway, ‘changed not ended’; I still think it’s true, but I don’t know that either of you are working with the ‘changed’ part. If you want to go on being friends—whatever the hell that means to you, it’s seemed both good and important from my side—you need to stop and discuss it. Honour it, if you can hear that. You can’t just move the chairs in the sitting room back to the old sides of the fire and say everything is fine, all water under the bridge.” Greg wonders if it would make any sense to tell them they can’t step onto the same carpet twice.

“It really has been busy. And John likes talking about feelings I should have, but he likes talking about his own as little as I do.”

“It isn’t a choice. You’ll drive one another away. And this,” Lestrade points at John’s back.

Sherlock sighed. “John said he was angry because I made him believe I had died, but that he was more glad to have me home. Is this ‘more glad’?”

“This is ‘wanting to scream’, or ‘overwhelmed’, or ‘paying dues for acting sane for the past fourteen months’. Or, most likely, ‘my flatmate says everything is fine and it isn’t so I’ll be the identified patient and act out.’ ”

“Does it matter at all,” Sherlock asks, in a voice so deadly level Lestrade has to stare, “that I was trying to save lives? His? Yours? The one he left me too outraged to be civil, when I made believe I was being uncaring about her?”

“Yes,” Lestrade says. He tries to put all he has into his words. He tries to will the words into Sherlock’s brain.“Yes, it matters. It’s making it worse. No, not that you shouldn’t have done it, Sherlock, no; I’m glad to be alive, and I am glad John and Mrs. Hudson are as well, and I am glad about the thirty-five children in California. But can you understand that we might feel—“ he looks for a word—“ _uncomfortable_ about it? Even if we agree with you that it made the most sense?”

“Mycroft said you and John seemed to think it was all right as long as you thought about the other two.”

“Right,” Lestrade says, seeing an opening. “So you understand it was….awkward, if either of us thought you were putting yourself on the line for one of us? Unbearable, more like?”

“I understand that you thought it was, but not why.”

Lestrade manages not to swear. “Guilt?”

“Don’t be silly. It was my life and my choice.” Sherlock watches Lestrade try to maintain calm. “I’m sorry, Lestrade, I don’t see what’s not good about that.”

“I don’t care if it’s good or not, but just be aware it’s not how most of us operate. Gratitude and guilt and resentment all hang really tightly together.”

There was a short silence.

“I’ll never understand this.” And there he was again, the terribly confused boy Lestrade had first met, at least in between intervals of Ranting Abusive Coked-Up Arrogant Brilliant…terribly confused boy.

Lestrade had never yielded to the impulse then (he would have expected biting) but now he can reach over and put a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder and only receive a look.

“What?” Sherlock asks, not even very sharply.

“Just—I’m sorry it’s hard. Being angry at you is a lot easier than feeling guilty, or even feeling grateful. You don’t have to understand that, really, just accept it as information received. Add it in when you’re trying to decide whether you want to determine speed, or position.”

Sherlock snorts softly, acknowledging the metaphor. And he hasn’t thrown off the hand, so Lestrade ventures a squeeze before he finds the place before the digression.

“So—you said Molly had gained an accent in a short time, and I asked if it seemed like a short time to you.”

Sherlock takes his time to answer. Perhaps he’s realised they aren’t just making conversation.

“No,” he says at last. “It felt like it did at school, but I didn’t know— I couldn’t be sure— that the term ever would end. It started to feel like I had been gone for most of my life. Until the time before seemed like something I had read once long ago. I started to dream in Russian about two months in; that was bad. I dreamt of you and John and Mrs. Hudson drinking tea in glasses with jam and pryaniki. I was speaking English but none of you would talk to me. You kept doing that in my dreams, talking in Russian and ignoring me. And that was on the nights I could sleep.”

“Were you working alone the whole time?”

Sherlock thinks about it. “Both yes and no. Do you want any tea?”

“If you’re making it.”

Sherlock uncoils and stalks out toward the kitchen. Greg takes the opportunity to uncover the back of John’s head and smooth his hair.

“Come on now, John, it’s all right. Do you need me to keep him away for a bit?” There’s a faint noise he thinks is probably a negative. “Do you need me to leave?” A slightly stronger no. Greg decides not to push his luck and sighs again, provoking, as he had hoped, an echo. John breathes a little more deeply. “That’s better. You could breathe some more, you know, your back’s going to feel like hell when you do relax.”

No,” John says distinctly, and his shoulders shake as he does breathe.

“Better to let it out? Okay, not, then.” John rocks a little. Greg watches him. “Does that actually help?”

Sherlock returns, dangerously carrying three mugs too full of hot tea. Lestrade mouths at him to be quiet as he puts two of the mugs on the bedside table by Lestrade.

It does help, yes Sherlock mouths back. He settles onto the bed again, one leg lightly in contact with John as he leans back against the headboard to drink his tea.

Lestrade looks at him enviously, takes an arm from around John’s shoulders and picks up one of the mugs on the table. “All right, John, two hot drinks here; no sudden violent motions, right?”

“He’s not mentally impaired, you know,” Sherlock says. “There’s tea for you as well, John. If I were as heartless as Lestrade believes I am I would have microwaved the previous cup I brought you, but it’s a fresh one.”

“Fuck OFF,” John says distinctly. Sherlock looks delighted. Lestrade wonders, for the first time in Sherlock’s new life (five hundredth some-odd in total) if Sherlock is aware how much people let him get past them because he’s so pretty. Almost certainly yes.

John offers no further signs of communication, not even when Sherlock mentions that Lestrade is now drinking John’s cup of tea; but the tight feeling of emergency and fear loosens in the room. It’s calmer: two men on a bed drinking tea, flanking a third in a slowly relaxing foetal position. Not unpleasant.

Chapter Text

“You asked if I worked alone the whole time,” Sherlock says softly into the silence. “In the first place, it wasn’t me.” He gulps his tea, looking irritated, shakes his head, looks deep into the cup.

“It wasn’t _me_, because I was dead. It was a slew of thin identities that would hold up to some superficial examination, or break through into a slightly thicker one; often I was another man, who had died already doing the same sort of thing I was doing. Americans call spies and secret agents ‘spooks’ for a reason: we live in the shadow and we don’t bear being seen very clearly. Many of us are dead. We work with ordinary men and women who can afford real names and real homes and real histories; we appear because there’s unfinished business and we go when it’s over and leave not a rack behind. And we envy the living.

“I wouldn’t have said ‘we’ for weeks, I resisted being dead. But except for very, very few moments, and the rare times I felt safe when I was alone, it was like that, looking into a warm window from a cold street. And that I would start by saying something so completely subjective, so emotional should tell you—“ Sherlock breaks off, shifting, aligning closer along the lumpy outline of his silent flatmate.

“Whoever I was. I had access to some of Mycroft’s counterparts, but there were too many of them he didn’t trust, or who didn’t trust me, and the same applied all the way down through the police and civil servants. Moriarty’s outfit had taken over or…interbred, perhaps, with some of the local mafia — and the international ones too, of course. One of the problems from the outset was figuring out where to stop. There were some gangs in Spain who had nothing to do with Moriarty that I ended up helping the local police dismantle because I couldn’t extract myself. I wanted to come home, John.”

He takes a breath, releasing some of the intensity growing in his voice. “I had MI5 and 6 and the CIA and the FBI and so forth alongside me some of the time, in the right places. The infighting among agencies dealing with crime and terrorism is worse than anyone conceives of, with an accompanying level of distrust and mutual sabotage on a breathtaking scale, not even mentioning the corruption. I’m not easily surprised but sometimes it was all I could do not to betray everyone, encourage them to dismember one another and let God sort it out. …Or Mycroft, I suppose, someone like him. I hope there are more. I wasn’t that high up.”

“That must have made it worse for you,” Lestrade says. “You keep expecting people to make sense.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Not ‘expect’, as such; at least, not in the way where that means I think that’s what will happen—that people will act in intelligent self-interest. But I can’t imagine anything else—I know I’m missing a chip of some kind, I can’t really envision anything different. I understand when people make bad decisions based on inadequate data, but not when they make them on no data at all. Or ignore good data. And these were the people who were supposed to be on my side.

“And, Lestrade— I realised I am relatively provincial. I know London as well, I think, as anyone alive, and to some extent the rest of what used to be Great Britain. France well enough. I was all right in North America and mostly competent in Australia, but in Central Europe, Eastern Europe? I was rubbish. Three to five ethnic groups, two or three kinds of Christianity, four languages? Not even the people born there know for certain how they rank whom they hate. Thank God the East is so resistant to Westernisation. Moriarty’s kind of cleverness stopped in Morocco and fizzled out in Turkey.”

“Singapore? Japan? China? Africa?”

Sherlock shakes his head again. “I didn’t go farther east or south. General Shan was an exception, looking outside. China and Japan have their own relatively robust criminal networks. Like an immune system…” Lestrade sees him disappear into his mind, seeming to forget the other two. In stillness, Sherlock’s face looks much more than a year and a half older since Baskerville. The morning sun is harsh. He clicks back in, but the impression lasts. “Moriarty specialised in the worse-disturbed parts of Europe. He didn’t really didn’t have time to take over the world; he wasn’t active for more than eight or nine years, not in an organised way.”

“About the same length of time as you, really.”

“Yes—“

There is a rippled explosion of crochet as John emerges, smacking Lestrade on the shoulder. “Loo,” he says. Lestrade gets out of his way. John staggers out of the room, Sherlock’s attention following him.

“I don’t think he’s throwing up, that’s good.”

“Has he been?”

“After some of the nightmares.”

“Christ, Sherlock, have you talked to him about that, if nothing else?”

“I’ve tried. A bit. He didn’t welcome enquiries.”

Greg goes to meet John in the completely fictional privacy of the hallway. “Are you all right?”

John smiles briefly, mirthlessly. “No.”

“Are you going to go like that again right away?”

“I don’t think so.” John is polite, but not really convincing.

“You look like you’d like to run.”

“I would, but it’s the inside of my head that’s the problem.”

“Not the consulting detective in the next room?”

“I really don’t want to talk about it. But you seemed to be getting him to, which is more than I’ve managed.' John walks toward the kitchen, awkwardly—not limping, just stumbling, and Greg catches him and realises John is shivering.

“Get back in there and wrap up.”

“I want tea.”

“I’ll make it. Your teeth are chattering.” Greg sees him back to the bedroom.

“Oh, John, you’re back.” Sherlock’s voice is unconcerned, but his face is screaming that this is a lie; he’s as intense as Lestrade’s ever seen him.

“I’m not speaking to you.” John clambers back into the bed, wraps himself up, and turns his back on Sherlock.

Lestrade sets up a proper tea tray (well, no; a proper one includes doilies and there are limits) with a plate of biscuits and bread-and-butter. The fridge is still largely user-friendly, though he doesn’t like the look of one of the containers.

“Calamari, in tomato sauce,” Sherlock’s voice comes from the bedroom.

“Is this thing really a tea-cosy?”

“Yes. Fan of John’s made it. The tusks glow in the dark.”

Lestrade clears a couple of books and the lamp off the bedside table and sets the tea tray down. John has wrapped himself in several layers of blanket but remains upright enough to accept some tea. Greg moves to lean against him once more in sympathy.

“So. Moriarty. Did he spend the better part of a decade researching recreational chemicals, like you did?” he asks Sherlock.

“I saw the tox screen Molly did as part of the autopsy—“

“Which you should be glad didn’t come back with your name on it —“

“Molly is much too good a scientist for that. He was full to the brim with MDMA when he died. Traces of many years of almost everything else. Except not lithium, which might have done him some good.”

“The bipolar patients I know say it makes you feel dead.”

“It does,” Sherlock says. “E is infinitely preferable.”

Winning that round, he takes a biscuit and eats it slowly, casually letting one arm settle against John’s side. “Well, preferable to lithium, but even lithium’s better than being dead.

“Being dead’s awful. Mycroft kept trying to warn me, but I wouldn’t listen. Which was just as well, because I don’t think we could have done it any other way. I didn’t know about the snipers on you until just before my death, but it was part and parcel of the whole. We kept trying to think of any other way to get Moriarty to show all of his hand. Mycroft suggested I could pretend to join him; Moriarty wanted that, wanted me in the worst way to come to his side and wreak havoc.”

“We worried about that once upon a time. More than a bit,” Lestrade says. John had spent one evening with Lestrade in pub by the river summer two years past, talking in pain and concern about Sherlock’s fascination with the man who had dressed him in Semtex. Sherlock’s glance and eyebrows tell him plainly he knows it wasn’t Lestrade who had come up with that.

“It wasn’t flattering. Another reason that I told Mycroft I’d sooner die than be thought Moriarty’s creature. Instead, of course, Moriarty decided to make it seem as though he were mine. Mycroft claims he figured that out by last spring, I mean the spring before.”

“Before you died. Do you believe him?”

“I have no reason not to. He’s always wanted us to work together. Teach him to be careful what he wishes for.”

“Were you in touch with him while you were—”

“Dead? Not often, not directly; hardly at all. But the people I worked with told him when someone had shown up in his name, or with his letter of credit. So as for working alone: I wasn’t most of the time by any means, but not with anyone, any agency, for very long. There was no reason for them to trust me; they had no previous results from me to incline them to listen when I tried to explain something. They didn’t know me, didn’t know who I had been.”

“None of them?” asks Lestrade.

“I looked different. And Sherlock Holmes was so very well-known to be dead. People believe things, particularly when the dead man’s friends are mourning him.”

There’s a rustle as John starts to curl up again. He turns his face onto Lestrade’s shoulder. Greg can’t tell if John is breaking down or just furious; he gathers him in closer.

“Actually there was a ‘turned’ ETA member who might have recognised me, but he was either cautious or tactful,” Sherlock continues. “He mentioned one day that the blog about Sherlock Holmes was working again, did I know about it?”

Basque terrorists are glad John has started up the blog again, Greg thinks. Of course they are.

“Being dead wasn’t as much…it was very different from what I expected. My brother started to get strange by the time he’d buried me, that should have been a sign. But I didn’t expect it to wear on me the way it did. I had the work. But I didn’t have…London, or, or either of you—“

“Not even Anderson,” says Lestrade. He wonders why he’s making it easier for Sherlock, even as he realises the pain in the room isn’t all John’s. His arms are not long enough to hold both of them, even if Sherlock were to accept.

“Limits to nostalgia,” Sherlock says. “Wait a minute.” He vanishes into the hall.

 

“Do you want some air?” Lestrade asks John, who is emerging from his seclusion.

“Not really. Tissue. Thanks,” John says, blowing his nose. “Does he have any idea, do you think—“

“Yeah, actually, I do,” Greg tells him. “Are you any closer to all right? I was thinking ‘industrial strength sedatives’ when I first got here.”

“Which is why I don’t keep any in the flat,” John says. “I wanted very much to put my head through a plate-glass window last night. Whisky was not even in contention. I thought my head was going to explode, I wanted to scream so much.”

“You might consider doing that the next time. Or calling me. Even Sherlock had that much sense.”

“It’s like shouting into the wind, like being angry at the weather, or gravity. Exactly like banging your fist on the wall, except it’s not the knuckles that hurt. And it’s not just him.” John drains his mug of tea, vengefully.

“You remember I felt hunted when people told me how glad they were I’d started the blog up again? This is worse. They’re so kind, so happy for me, and I can’t say, ‘look, we’re not doing too well just now, could you give us a month or so?’ Or, ‘look, I’m still in shock, it’s a bit like it was when he died in the first place and my life is trying to move its pieces around until they fit, and I don’t trust him not to just go off again,’ and then he fucking DID go off again, as far as I knew. I can’t be in the same room with him and I can’t be anywhere else and I am just,” he breathes, “walking very carefully where there’s a path. Much more like PTSD than when I actually came home. Nightmares every night.” John exhales. “This was a fairly non-destructive cry for help, at least. Thanks for coming.”

“You should tell him.”

“Tell him what? He’s never wanted to put his head through a shop-window,” John says bitterly.

Lestrade is surprised how angry he feels. At John, for a change. “What the _hell_ do you think the cocaine was about? It wasn’t because he was at peace with himself. And now this…jaunt around the trouble spots of Europe. I am fucking astounded he survived, given what he’s just told us. All we said, when we talked about how unlikely it was he’d kill himself? He did, for all practical purposes. Except he still had to be there and still do the work, without the posing, without the perks, without someone telling him to eat or keeping him from insulting the people he was working with. In just eighteen months living with you, he became a mostly functional adult. Or at least learned enough to pass for one when he had to, under pressure, alone, for months.”

“He said something like that. He said he had a very strong motivation.”

“I know you’re angry, I don’t blame you. I know it’s a lot having him back. But you should be so damned proud of him; we all should. He should know that, not just the anger.”

 

They hear Sherlock descending from the upstairs bedroom. He is carrying what appears to be a leather-covered shoebox. It looked like it had come from someone’s posh office, £19.95 at John Lewis. It’s almost full of envelopes, blue air-mail paper Lestrade is surprised to see is still manufactured.

“It’s called mail, Lestrade, and it’s one of the most private forms of correspondence in existence. I was careful not to lick the envelopes.” Sherlock flips through the pile and hands him a postcard.

‘Thinking of you and our old friend in Ibiza,’ it reads, despite being a photo of the courthouse in Barcelona. It was addressed to Kenneth Crayhill, at Gray’s Inn.

“You wrote to the barrister who defended Moriarty? Mycroft’s ‘young man?’ ” Lestrade remembers him from the celebratory dinner. The edges of the whole evening are on the blurred side. More from shock than from alcohol. And the very charming dark-haired solicitor. Whom he needs to call.

“He wasn’t, then. I sent things to his office because I knew he would have the wit to hold onto them. It was stupid of me to take the risk, but sometimes writing them helped.”

Sherlock slits open the first envelope. It bears Spanish stamps and is addressed to a ‘John Walters,’ care of Crayhill’s chambers. Sherlock is avoiding Lestrade’s eyes and starting to talk faster, not looking at John at all; then he makes an effort to slow down, as though he were reading for a larger audience.

“‘Dear John,’” he begins. “ ‘It’s been almost four months. It was never supposed to be more than three. I haven’t been able to say anything to you because of being dead. I’m not supposed to have put that, about being dead. Very likely you’ll never receive this anyway, because I’ll have the intelligence I am supposed to have, that’s brought me to this impossible place, and I won’t send it. I talked to you often when I was alive and you were across town, or in Dublin or New Zealand or wherever else it was, but that was different because I knew you would eventually answer. I don’t know whether you ever will now or not.

“‘When I talked to you then I hope I made more sense. This is a very old-fashioned sort of blog, but I gather it served for hundreds of years. Yours is open again; it looks as though you have thousands of comments. I can’t tell if I want to be lost in the crowd or not, and that’s dangerous. Not just to me, though I doubt you know that; I don’t want you to know that, I want you to be safe. Tell Mrs. H. I was thinking of her. I’ll go and post this before I start going on about whether there is honey still for tea. I thought I had deleted Rupert (no relation) Brooke. I remain—‘

Sherlock makes a face. “I knew I was off my head when I wrote that, but I hadn’t remembered how much.” He puts the letter back into its envelope, tossing it on the bed. Takes the next envelope. This one has a French stamp, and seemed to be addressed to James Watteau.

“I was feeling better in Paris. I used to spend summers with my grandmother’s family there when I was teenager, and it was home of a kind. Was once, at least.

‘Dear Cousin,’” Sherlock reads, changing his body language completely. Now he’s someone whose emotions, in fact his whole life, are well in hand. Who might be French, at that. “‘It has been a long time since we have spoken, and I hope this finds you in good health. The business I have come to attend upon has been going well enough, though more slowly than I would like. I am sure it would go faster if you were here, but it was necessary that someone remain safe at home. Paris is lovely, of course; no time to visit museums, but the architecture is everywhere. Last night I seemed to hear you reprove me for missing too many meals, so I lingered at a café over steak frites and salad. There was a street violinist playing Saint-Saens; it made me unbearably homesick. I hope to finish my work here soon; then I fear it will be Italy or Greece and God only knows how long that will take. It is good to know you are working and that your landlady continues to protect you. I wish you could let me know how you are, but we shall make up the time when I return.’

He folds the letter and places it in its envelope, back in the box. “I was lying, of course; it was Marseilles and then New York. Want another?”

“Yes,” says Lestrade, fascinated. He’s seen Sherlock act before, but the quick change of character is, he fears, amazing. John’s sitting up and taking notice as well, eating a piece of bread-and-butter. His expression remains neutral.

American stamps: addressed to ‘Jack Whistler.’ Sherlock’s frame fills out a bit; he occupies more space. His accent remains more Mid-Atlantic than straight-up Yank, but being English is no longer the first thing you’d notice about him.
‘Dear Jack, this town is bigger than they give it credit for. It’s not like home, of course, but I think you’d see a resemblance. I’m in Central Park feeding pigeons exactly like the ones in the square where you are. I visited New York before, when I was much younger and there was more money in the streets; the economy and 911, I guess, have changed things. Now there are almost as many security cameras as you’d expect, but no one has any idea who’s behind them. On the plus side, there’s free WiFi everywhere, and an insane number of shoe stores. And pizza. The coffee is good, but you’d go crazy trying to find a decent cup of tea.

“‘I haven’t mentioned the guns. I can’t say whether the guns accompany the drugs, or whether everyone has both, or it just seems like they do. I ran into a guy who hangs with a fairly cool lady cop; he writes books instead of blogging, but I think you’d enjoy meeting him. Business here just drags on but you know how things like this can be, and they tell me it’s going pretty well. You take care, and say hi to your landlady for me. I could sure use some of her cupcakes. See you soon, with any luck.’” Sherlock realigns himself to EU-standard and puts the letter away.

“Cupcakes?”

“I should have said ‘cookies,’ but... Here, Lestrade, this one’s for you.” He tosses Lestrade a letter addressed to ‘Greg Lightman.’ Lestrade accepts Sherlock’s penknife and opens it, looking at the postmark.

“Where’s Nebraska?”

“Rectangular, midwest. I think it’s one of what they call ‘the flyover states.’ I spent four days in a hospital in Lincoln after I began bleeding on an airplane. While flying over.’”

“Aren’t you going to read it to us?”

“I was hoping to avoid some of the humiliation, but you are entitled to every ounce of flesh. ‘Dear Greg,’” Sherlock begins, in his own starchiest persona. “ ‘I know on many occasions I have reproved you and your workmates for lacking what I considered the basic acumen to navigate successfully in a major city, let alone to conduct your business within it. I have expressed doubt that many of them are competent to undertake anything more complicated than obtaining caffeinated beverages and Indian takeaway, and surprise that some others are apparently able to function outside a therapeutic environment.

‘Nonetheless, I am forced to take this opportunity to apologise as deeply and sincerely as I can ever recall, and to admit that, on their worst days, your firm has grasped many of the niceties of the legal system of our country and the laws governing the physical world, whether or not I have always believed that to be necessary or agreed with you upon your areas of inquiry. Although some individuals displayed, and likely continue to display, both ham-fisted clumsiness and pig-headed stubbornness, as well as a stunning—‘

“You’re starting to ruin the mood, there—“

‘Disregard for the variations to be found in human nature—‘

“Are you talking about you, or the criminals?” John asks.

“Or the victims; does it matter? ‘On the whole, you and your associates are reliably coherent within their limitations; punctilious about their prescribed ethics and often more than that; able to speak reasonably and to understand most of what is said to them; and despite what I have said all too often, recognisably responsible and well-meaning. I have rarely had difficulty distinguishing them from those we have jointly pursued. If I have been harsh in the past, and I know that I have been, it was because my expectations were unrealistic and perhaps poorly expressed. In the light of my recent experience, my understanding of the level of their professional behaviour has soared, and with it, my esteem. If we should be granted another opportunity to collaborate, I hope this will be obvious from my changed behaviour. I have been unaware of my good fortune, and I hope you will accept my sincere regret for my intemperance and ingratitude.’ It’s unsigned, because of the circumstances, but I shall be happy to sign it if you like.”

“Yes, please, we’ll have it framed,” said Lestrade. “That’s… comprehensive, if not really flattering. What happened?”

“Three weeks in Los Angeles. I had begun wanting to apologise much earlier, but those three weeks were a particularly vivid illustration. And I had the time to write it, in hospital. I wrote one from there to you as well, John, but it was mostly about the virtues of socialised medicine. I was on some lovely drugs for most of a day.”

“And the bleeding, in the aeroplane?” Lestrade asks.

“Stabbed during the takedown. Missed the vest, nicked an artery; they missed that while they were sewing me up, but I was in somewhat of a hurry to get out of state. The FBI let out that the man I was supposed to be had died, which was kind of them, but Mycroft nearly had a stroke before I called him from the hospital.”

“Not funny,” says John.

“I know it’s not funny.”

“None of this has been funny.”

“No.” They are quiet for a moment.

“How many more of those letters do you have?” Lestrade asks.

“Eighteen. Three of them are for you. One’s for Molly.”

Despite himself, Lestrade feels touched. “Three?”

“Two of them are more or less abusive. It was you I promised I’d stay off ‘recreational chemicals.’ Opportunities were plentiful. Being strung out on almost anything would have helped. I suppose I mean it wouldn’t have; but I wanted to, very much.”

“If writing me abusive letters helped you stay clean, I’ll read them very happily indeed.”

Sherlock selects the envelopes out of his file-box; Lestrade accepts them: evidence he has never asked for (but so much more welcome than a four-storey leap) that Sherlock didn’t work alone, didn’t even think of himself as working alone. Evidence that he could feel things, and could dislike feeling alone. What more can John want, with fourteen more envelopes—solid, probably articulate evidence that Sherlock couldn’t function without some pretence of being in touch with him—intended for him? It seemed, looking at John, that some of the anger might have softened.

Sherlock moves his eyes toward Lestrade. “Could I possibly ask you to make breakfast? John needs to eat.”

“I thought that was his line.”

“It’s his turn to be the identified patient today.”

Chapter Text

Greg leaves the room. As far as I’m concerned he takes most of the safety with him. I can’t look Sherlock in the face, and when I think he’s about to try to take my hand I move mine aside. He stands up, and paces.

“I thought this would get better with time,” he says. “I didn’t know how much…you didn’t say. Well, except on Tuesday night.”

“I may not have been easy to hear, Tuesday night,” I say. “I know the shouting doesn’t make anything clearer.” I can feel an echo of the storm still rattling around in my chest. “I think I was afraid you were dead again. It was a bad time for you to be—“

“Thoughtless. I gathered that. I may not have understood—“

“What isn’t to understand about calling home, say once every twenty-four hours? When you’ve disappeared without any notice?” I notice my voice is rising, and Sherlock is not shrinking, exactly, but becoming more rigid. His face is distant godlike marble, remote and stylised.

“Sorry. Still angry, sorry. I am sorry, Sherlock, come back. Here. Sit.”

He’s not persuaded, he stays leaning against the chest of drawers.“I didn’t expect it to make that much difference to you.”

“Whether I knew you were all right?”

“Any of it. Anything for the last year. You were doing well enough without me.”

I find I am out of the bed and across the room to him before I notice going. Kiss him? Pummel him? No idea. I’m standing there with too many limbs and he’s radiating noli-me-tangere. Words aren’t coming. Finally I shut my mouth, and breathe, very gratefully, because it seems I can for the moment. I pace a bit.

“Either your powers of deduction have gone to crap, or you have a very low standard of ‘well enough’,"I say finally.

“I thought you were going to marry Polly for a few months.”

“Yes, so did Mrs. Hudson.” I think Polly was looking for something less formal.

“You were certainly managing. The blog looked—“

“Of all people _you_ should know how much that doesn’t tell—“

“And Mycroft said you were working regularly, walking all right, seeing your friends and Harry, involved with some odd things—“

“Trying to find a life worth living, to want to live—“

“You were finding it--”

“I had to.” I had to live without you, because otherwise you'd done so much for me for nothing.

“And I did come back, and it’s half-killed you.”

“Seeing you die, having you dead, half-killed me!”

Deep breath. Shouting does not get my heart across. Even less to a person who hears too much, sees too much. Feels too much, so much more than even he can sort and make sense of. Someone to whom a message comes across most clearly in small portions. I need to use fewer words, walking, not tumbling over one another. Another deep breath; I start to try, fairly softly.

“This isn’t so bad, can’t be more than quarter-killing me. No, less than that. What Greg said: this was my body—me—the parts of me that don’t often get to say anything—demanding a huge pile of back-taxes all at once. And now, I’m angry. It feels like all the time; I think it’s better than being sad for the rest of my life. But if this is what Ella calls being ‘in touch with my feelings’ I don’t like it.”

I exhale and try to make sense. “I want to be happy like everyone thinks I am. Even though--compared to the way I feel, to know you’re alive—words like ‘happy’ and ‘glad’ are for children and birthday parties; there’s no word for what I feel. So grateful, so amazed, so—perfectly at home, to have you back. You know that?”

“You’ve said that.” Which means he doesn’t know that. At least he’s listening, I can see he is. And this mess would be hard enough to understand for someone who was good at understanding other people. It’s hard enough for me.

“I am. Please, please understand that that is true, about how much I want you back. Want you here. Want you not to be dead. But part of me’s—“ I have to take a deep breath to keep from screaming—“murderously, hate-filled, furious. Betrayed more than anyone else was. Fooled, tricked, thrown under a bus. Kicked to death with spiked boots. By you. Angry.” That’s actually a little satisfying, but it’s incomplete.

Abruptly, I feel less embarrassed about flaking out. I’m so used to watching him while everything—water, acid, blood, tears—runs off his back. How long did it take me, the first months, to realise that was not a pose, but a stance, a way to defend himself, to minimise the blows? I’ve only curled in like that a few times, nearly all just before my injury or just after. How much of Sherlock’s life has he been on some kind of internal lockdown, the cocaine providing a cover from too much incoming fire (unfortunately eating his nerves and his brain and degrading his circulatory system…)? Even if nothing comes in while you’re curled in or turned to contemptuous stone, nothing gets out either. The emotions rattle around the way a bullet under body armour does, wounding in trajectories no one ever aimed for. Coming out just as unexpectedly. No wonder he mis-steps sometimes.

“Until this morning, _you_ haven’t said a damned word about being miserable while you were away. Covered with half-healed wounds, but I’ve seen you half-dead and perfectly happy. I thought you’d been all the way dead and perfectly happy.”

“You were all so glad to see me—it’s… more than I know what to do with, being welcomed so warmly, being missed so badly… Apart from not wanting any more attention, it seemed ungracious to complain.”

“We could tell, all of us, that you like being back. We liked that.” Ah, God. It hurts to remember him that night, the sublimely happy, confident man who came home; and to see him now, the brittle, more anxious one I first met. Older. I hope it hasn’t all been my doing, my hurting him. I know I haven’t helped. At least we’re trying now, both of us. It’s much easier to chase criminals than speak my mind, or for either of us to speak our hearts.

I continue.“It’s not that you came back looking tanned and fit and rested, I can see you haven’t. But I did imagine you’d had fun being a secret agent. I don’t know what you were doing for Mycroft that time in Karachi, but you were very pleased with yourself when you came back from that one.”

“That wasn’t for Mycroft. But it was fun,” he admits. “This wasn’t the same.”

“No, I finally get that. Next time you should complain more.” I hear what I am saying and freeze.

“There will be no next time,” Sherlock says, before I can take back my words. “And that’s another thing, isn’t it?”

“Oh yes. I’m afraid you’ll do this again,” I say.

“I won’t, not if I have any choice in the matter.”

“You’ll find some other way to disappear.” The words come out of my mouth without warning.

“Would it help if I promised never to come back from the dead again?” he asks sharply, angrily. “I could have stayed somewhere else, been someone else. New York wasn’t bad. Paris. I do love Paris. It’s full of French people, but I could have learned to forgive them.”

“No, you couldn’t have.”

“You’d be surprised. Sometimes I don’t want to faire le queue.” He means those signs in bus shelters they used to have, advising European tourists how not to enrage the natives. I can completely see Sherlock not wanting to be orderly. Have, often.

“Yes, but you’d rather behave poorly in English.”

We’ve taken a breath now. He’s loosened through the shoulders again; I can still breathe: we can return to the point. As far as I can see there’s two of them.

“You thought I was doing all right, and that maybe you shouldn’t have come back,” I say. “And I thought you had been doing very well, and that maybe you didn’t want to come back.”

“I thought you were doing all right, and that maybe, no matter how much I wanted to come back, it would have been easier on you if I had not,” Sherlock said carefully. “And I underestimated the anger.”

“Degree of anger in this case is very closely related to degree of affection,” I say, sounding to myself like Introduction to Human Psychology. But of course it’s the way to his heart or wherever he hears things, because he blushes, actually blushes, and won’t meet my eyes.

“Oh, God, John, you really do love me.”

“Oh, Christ, Sherlock, yes, and for God’s sake you should know that was a terrible way for me to show it—“

“I don’t think this is an abusive relationship, John, you aren’t undermining my confidence or cutting me off from sources of emotional support or hitting me—“

“Molly told me not to leave marks—“ I’m almost light-hearted for a moment, relief, but that’s left him once again.

“I’d infinitely rather you left marks than just…leaving.” His eyes sweep the bed, the crocheted throw, flick over me in worry. “You don’t usually lie. And I know, 'I lied to you for fourteen months', don't say it. But it’s one of the things I value most about you, John. You don’t make polite, socially approved remarks; you only care about people you don’t know and unimportant things because you _do_ care, not because you think you should. So, even though I don’t care, I believe you when you tell me I’m out of line. When you tell me things are—at least all right, if not fine—it’s very confusing when you, of all people, are saying two things at once. I thought you were _good_ at emotions,” he ends, sadly.

He’s not trying to make me feel bad; he’s not spitting the words at me. It’s more like he’s sorry to have to mention…that I was letting him down.

“Apart from my being an ex-Army Englishman, which means I’m really, really not,” I say, “I don’t think anyone on earth is good at this many strong, contradictory feelings at once. I don’t know if that makes any sense to you.”

“It’s like—being torn apart by kraken with your own face. Loud ones.”

If this were another time I would say that my brain exploded, but since I know all too well these days how much it can hold I just admit I am surprised. “Very loud ones?”

“Extremely. And if you’re surprised by my using a fanciful simile, imagine how I felt. In rehab. Someone slipped me LSD before an art therapy session. Not anyone from whom I should have accepted drugs, but it was very effective.” He gives me a moment to process this.

I’d love to see the art.

He is searching my face, which is uncomfortable from anyone, and worse from him. “Why _is_ it uncomfortable?” he asks. How can he read that so easily and not understand the things underneath?

He goes on. “What are you afraid I’ll see in your face? What has it been the last two weeks, that you’ve driven yourself to try catatonia to avoid telling me?”

“It’s not about telling _you_. Not just you, anyway. I think it’s that I feel so strongly that I am glad you’re back, and that I am so angry you…killed yourself in front of me, and went on, without a backward glance into the world to fight evil. No, just listen, I know it wasn’t that way — I’m beginning to know that—I’m telling you how it looked, not how it was.”

He nods, trying to understand. It can’t be easy when I don’t understand myself either.

“But you were dead, and it was awful. It was ridiculously awful. I knew how much you meant to me when you were still alive, and even having known that, I wasn’t any better at handling the losing of you. And I was just beginning to feel—I’d say better, but it was like losing a leg. You don’t get better, it doesn’t grow back. You get different. You get adapted. Then one morning you find the leg back attached. Maybe it hurts to feel the blood flowing back into it. Sometimes it seems like so much trouble you wonder about getting it removed again, it’ll probably be gone again one morning. My kraken are yelling at me not to be…attached.”

He’s stopped looking at me. I might say he doesn’t want me to read anything in his face; he might be offering me a moment where he’s not reading mine. We try so hard not to be inconvenient to one another. Before, I’d have let him be; but since he’s come home, he likes to touch. People he knows, at least. So I take his hand, and apparently I have it right. He grasps back, and looks up again when I speak.

“But I missed you more than anything and every time I see you it’s like my life is back in colour. And it’s still better than having lost a leg.”

“Your leg hurt when I first met you…” When metaphors fight back.

“And it got better. I haven’t forgotten that.”

His face has come back alive. So many different ways to lose someone. As awful as talking about it may still be, it's better than any of the ways he can be dead.

 

“Should I cook the eggs or wait twenty minutes?” Greg shouts from the kitchen. Sherlock looks at me.

“Food is important?” he asks.

“Have we got the hang of this? Can we keep talking?”

“Can you?” he asks. “I know, I’m not much better. But will you?”

“Yes.”

“Please cook the eggs, Lestrade!” Sherlock grabs my wrist, starts to pull me toward the kitchen, looks at me. “You’re freezing. Shivering. Do you even have a dressing gown? My God, it’s a Victorian patchwork monstrosity. But it looks warm. Have another pair of socks.”

 

“That must be from Polly, “ Greg says. “I hope it’s warm.”

“It was from her and the moderators and I like it and it is warm, yes. How did you manage to make all this, Greg?”

“I borrowed a few things from Mrs. Hudson, but neither of you had any Spam,” he explains. “You want mushrooms?”

“Give most of mine to John,” Sherlock tells him.

“You like mushrooms, too,” I say.

“Not so much as you do. I’ll take the extra tomato, though. Lestrade, I have never seen a breakfast like this outside a transport café. It smells amazing.” Greg and I watch him dig in, which he does with concentration and vigour. “And crunchy bits, too. You’re wasted as a copper.”

“I cannot get used to your being thoughtful,” I say. “It’s good, but it’s strange. I mean, I can tell you’re not lying, but you never used to articulate things like that.”

Sherlock relaxes enough to grin. “Don’t worry, it only extends to a very few. And it won’t last unless I practise.”

“Things are better, then? The two of you?” Greg asks.

I twitch, reflexively. “I’m breathing, and we’re talking.”

“Not a very high standard of ‘better’. Did you tell him you wanted to put your head through a shop-window?”

“Not as such, no. He thought I was doing very well without him.”

“ That he was doing ‘Well enough,’ ” Sherlock corrects me. “John thought _I_ was doing very well without _him_. Everyone.”

“There is a difference,” Greg says. “ ‘Well enough’: I could agree with that. Doesn’t mean it isn’t much, much better to have you back. I read one of the letters you sent for me, Sherlock; saving the other two for when I need a lift. Chronological by postmark.”

Sherlock does an excellent impression of insouciant toast-eating. I try to remember to eat, myself, rather cautiously, but it’s sitting fairly well. Greg has not been stingy with the butter.

“The mixture of ‘Thank you for saving my life’ and ‘If I could right now I would cheerfully strangle you’ in posh indignation is one of the funniest things I’ve ever read. You’re not pretty when you’re bored, are you?”

“So I have been told.” Sherlock slants a look at me over his fork.

“It’s good to know not everything's changed,” I murmur.

“As a special favour I won’t frame it.” Greg puts another pair of toast on his plate, paying it most of his attention. I can’t tell whether he’s leaving us space or just very hungry. Then I see he’s thinking hard. “You were gone, and for awhile I felt like I’d pushed you off that roof,” Greg says at last.

“No,” Sherlock says softly. “You were being pushed yourself.”

“I believed it would all be sorted out. It wasn’t the first time I’d arrested you by any means. But God, when you died like that, I couldn’t— it’s not something I’ll do lightly again, I’ll tell you.”

“I won’t say you won’t have to, but I can’t see it having a similar result.”

“Most of the time you’re just profoundly irritating until your brother or John posts bail.”

“I’ll have to get your team used to me somehow.”

“As much as anyone ever gets used to you. There aren’t that many at the Yard who remember you back when you first showed up.”

“Just as well. I was surprised no one at the enquiry brought up my drug use.”

“Despite the games you and I play—they’re mostly games—I think that’s water under the bridge. No one was accusing you of stealing from the evidence rooms, and don’t tell me it’s because you don’t trust the quality of most of what’s seized.” Greg eats the last of his fried bread.

“I meant,” he goes on, swallowing, “that not many of us know how much you’ve changed. I rather liked you when you were a skinny Cambridge dropout with a gift for insults and an eye for murderers, and I hoped you’d make it to thirty. You did, surprisingly, and by the time John showed up, you passed for professional, even if you were still stupid enough to play all-or-nothing with that damned cabbie. You’ve smoothed out a bit since, enough we knew it wasn’t like you to jump off the path. building. But nothing I knew of you—forgive me, Sherlock, because obviously I was wrong—would have let me hope you’d make it through an operation like this thing the past year. I can see it’s cost you, but that press conference—it was amazing, what you did, and I can’t help believing some of what you mopped up will stay clean. ”

Watching both Greg and Sherlock avoid one another’s gaze is a marvel; they glance up from their plates toward one another almost perfectly out of sync. Both of them are fine, of course, I’m the one who feels teary.

“Now I want to see you make it to forty, and ideally have some kind of happy reasonable life, but whether any of us is around to see that or not, you should know—you pulled off something no one else would have been able to see was there to need doing. You seem to think I helped you get to being someone who could do that, and if I did I’m prouder of that than anything else I’ve done.”

Greg eats the last of his breakfast and rises to put more water on, moving with a kind of completely-unselfconscious-studied-ease; he's tense as hell. Sherlock watches him, wholly battened down, so I kick at his foot.

“The identified patient wishes you’d hug him.”

Sherlock startles and leaps across the kitchen in almost one move. I know from personal experience that both of them can hug like human beings, the best of them. I contemplate my monstrous Victorian patchwork sleeve. Siger Holmes, whatever eventually happened to him, missed the best thing in his life; and Greg, for all that he has no little Lestrades, filled a hole in a very difficult heart.

Chapter Text

I go to brush my teeth and leave them to talk, if they want to, and when I return Sherlock is washing the dishes. “I’m showing off for Lestrade,” he tells me as I stare.

Greg is offering a few last pieces of advice before he leaves us to it.

“Another thing, Sherlock—I know you’ve heard all that ’stages of grief’ stuff, and I don’t care if you think it’s too low-brow for you; it’s a reasonable description of a lot of people’s experience.”

“I know that,” Sherlock says quietly.

“And I know you hate repeating yourself, but it’s not something you just cycle through once. But you’re both going to think you’ve talked this out enough, and then one of you—hell, maybe both of you—will find himself going through it again, being unreasonable and in pain; and the other one will have to realise that and be whatever kind of supportive or understanding you can offer."

“I don’t understand why ‘stages of grief’ are appropriate. No one is dead.” It’s clear Sherlock really doesn’t get it; I don’t blame him. An interesting feeling.

“You keep saying things like ‘when I was dead’. More than once. We’ve all been making jokes about it—you’re lucky no one has been calling you a zombie, though I imagine you think remarks about Christ are just about as bad—“

“Very different level of melodrama—“

“But it doesn’t have to be death, there are all kinds of loss and you and John just lost fourteen months, during which he knew—KNEW, Sherlock, the way you know what you see means who the murderer was—KNEW that you were dead. Knew he’d never wander off with evidence from a crime scene again, never watch you do one of those deductions where the words pour out of you like a broken pipe again—“

“Never leave feet in the bathtub again,” I add, as Greg seems to be slowing down, “never leave eyeballs in the microwave.”

“Did you really miss that?” Greg asks.

“Sadly, yes.” And thinking of it still gives me a pang, even though Sherlock is here and I know Molly will be back with spare parts from pathology any time now. Greg shakes his head.

“Stockholm syndrome. Sherlock, I know you’ll resent this, but all of that you’ve gone through hasn’t left you unmarked, your own stages of getting back to regular life. I hope to God you’ll talk to John about it, someone besides MIVerySecret, because it isn’t just the facts you’ll need to debrief on. True in the army, John?”

I nod. “Not that anyone does a remarkably good job seeing that it gets done.”

“I’ll go drinking or go see Ella or whoever you like, with either of you or with the two of you, as long as you never expect me to pick a side. And please, call before one of you gets into a state again. It’s not that you don’t have every reason and every right, but it’s been a long hard year and your friends would rather stop you falling than pick up the pieces.”

“A bit ad hominem, there,” mutters Sherlock. I’d thought Greg was aiming at me. Nice.

“Most people do it metaphorically, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Do I need to tell you to be kind to one another? Yes, all right, I’m telling you that; both of you are too damn clever and both of you know just where to put the knife. So be very careful not to. I’ve lost too many people and I’ve never had one come back again before. I want it to be a happy ending. Middle. Whatever. All right?”

 

It’s very quiet after Greg leaves.

“Sitting room,” suggests Sherlock. Orders? I don’t care, the couch is warmer and softer than the kitchen chairs. And we don’t have to face one another.

“Okay, yeah,” I say. I’m still having long, hard chills. When I start to shiver again, Sherlock almost clucks. He finds a hot-water bottle I've never seen before in the flat, wraps it in one of my jumpers and tucks it and me in with his duvet into the far corner of the couch.

We sit for long minutes. He looks lost. I feel empty. It’s much, much better than it’s been.

“Are you all right?” Sherlock asks. “At the moment, I mean?”

“Not entirely. Mostly. I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry. I knew I wasn’t saying so often enough, but it’s taken time to understand why I should be saying it. Getting a much better idea what they mean by ‘regret’. I’m sorry for what I had to do. I’m sorry it hurt you most of all. I’m sorry it took so long to come home. I’m sorry I keep hurting you now.”

I want to cry all over again. Lovely; I am.

“No, damn, Sherlock, no—could you pretend this is a nosebleed?” There are tissues. “Christ, I’m a mess.”

“Whatever you are it’s better than when I saw you this morning. You frightened me.”

“Don’t for a moment imagine it makes us even—please don’t ever be dead anymore.”

“No,” Sherlock says, “no, don’t worry about that, I don’t want to be dead.”

He’s crowded against me and laced our hands together, at least the hand I’m not using to blowing my nose. The contact really helps. I try to keep taking deep even breaths that flush oxygen into my blood and CO2 out, to fool all the ‘flight or fight’ glands into thinking life is serene. It helps; I stop shaking. I hate coming to understand medical facts from the patient’s point of view. Delayed shock, PSTD, whatever; it’s disgusting.

“I hate it when you’re the identified patient,” he says, as I wonder about sedatives.

“This is, mostly, old pain. Relief.” He looks at me and wants more data. “Old terror. Old fully-realised dread. Old living with the certainty it was as bad as it could be, as though I didn’t know how bad until it was better. At least if I’m shell-shocked, it’s you and not what the Taliban threw at me.”

“ ‘Friendly fire’, don’t they call it? I’m sorry.”

“You can stop apologising for the moment.”

“I am sorry, though. But I couldn’t do anything other than what I did, and that wouldn’t change even if there had been a way I might have done it differently.” He’s assessing my condition again, taking my pulse.

“How do I look?” I ask.

“Better. Your colour’s more normal. Bit late to start checking your blood pressure. What can I do that will help?”

“Just talk, I think.”

“You’re having nightmares,” Sherlock offers. Not what anyone would have called a safe easy topic, but something we have avoided.“You had them when I first met you, and then you mostly stopped. Are these the same kind or different?”

“Well, you died, and for a while they came back. Different. Sometimes bits of Afghanistan mixed in. Sometimes about just the way it was when you fell; sometimes I’m on the roof trying to stop you. I can feel your coat go through my fingers. These are a lot like those, again, only more visual, which really…I’m sorry if I seem to be obsessing about your head. I was sure I saw it broken like an eggshell.”

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock says. He hates repeating himself, but I don’t get the feeling he resents this. He puts my hand on his head. “All yours,” and settles back against me. “Stroking cats has been proven good for the circulatory system.”

“Is it good for the cat?”

“Yes. I’ve been tense…since the trial. It became worse after. Rigor mortis, I would think, rigor vivendi. And being frozen isn’t the best state for staying alive, for keeping watchful.”

“And, now,” I say, “you’re having nightmares. What are yours like?”

“Apart from the ones where none of you will speak to me? Falling. Moriarty shooting himself. Moriarty in the room wherever I am, with or without the back of his head, telling me about killing very nearly everyone I have ever met. Seeing you without the back of _your_ head. Holding you dead. And the ones where I’m being chased. And the ones where I walk into the wrong room and they’re waiting for me. Which.” He stops.

He’s guarding something there. “How long has that been going on?” I ask.

“Since about a week after I left. Not usually every night until— well. Later. It varies.”

“Christ, Sherlock, that’s a long time.”

“After your nightmares, _you’re_ throwing up. I think you’re winning.”

“Yeah, but you’re not going back to sleep and you look like death and your shirts are loose.”

“You’re just being unkind now, that’s better.”

“You used to prefer the other corner of the couch,” I say. It seems important. He’s not happy I said it.

“I need to have a clear line of sight to the door. A bit. Lately. Everywhere.”

“I should have noticed that.”

“I didn’t want you to.”

“How, ‘lately’?”

“About the past six months. Los Angeles. And then… well, before then I was only being sensible and _choosing_ to be cautious.”

“Hyper-vigilance generally?”

“Oh yes. But I’m much less depressed now that I’m home. I can swallow food without it turning to sawdust in my mouth. Why won’t you let Ella prescribe you medication?”

No point in asking how he knows that. “Because I was relatively well after I came out of a war zone and there’s no IEDs and no mortar fire here. I’ll take meds if you will.”

“Mm. Do we have to?"

“We can wait another couple of weeks, see if it gets better. You sound as though you’ve had the symptoms for long enough, but I never found it was much use trying to treat PSTD in situ. You could start a blog.” I’m not serious, but then I am, a bit.

“I have one.”

“Not that sort.”

“No. And never. That was what the letters were, in a way. I knew I ought not to comment on your blog, after that one time; it was a terrible idea. There was no response you could make that might not endanger both of us, and I believed it would be harder for you to suspect I might be alive and be unable to know for sure.”

I catch the ‘believed’; he’s open to correction. I shake my head. “I thought about whether you might be alive somehow once or twice and it…just no. I shut Greg down when he tried to talk about it. For the most part I’d been convinced by your…appearance on the pavement.”
My fingers tighten in his hair for a moment. I let up as soon as I notice. “Sorry if I pulled.”

“No, much better. Don’t _skritch_, stroke.”

“Oh, sorry, right, sensory issues. How was that?”

“Different degrees of hell. Don’t get me started on polyester shirts. But lots of spies are on anti-anxiety meds and they shared. So, letters, blog…May I get you another one?”

“Yes, of course.” Mycroft gave me a copy of his complete physical. Despite months of self-prescribed medication Sherlock managed not to poison himself, although he’ll be back on the nicotine patches for awhile. He’s right about my blood pressure becoming more normal; I’ve started to warm up, and I shed the hot-water bottle and the blanket.

“Good,” Sherlock says, putting his file-box on the table. “Here.” He passes me an envelope. The stamps are utterly unrecognisable, even the bits in Roman type.

“Aren’t you going to read it?”

“It’s not me pretending to be a comic-opera Balkan. You can read it to yourself.”

“I won’t get the intonations of scorn right.”

“You can really be impossible, John, you have no idea what you’re asking. Can we set a time limit so I’ll know when I have can begin rebuilding any shred of self-defence?”

Silently I indicate the dead tissues on the floor.

“Fine,” he mutters, tearing open the envelope.

Eight months now. I’ve had the realisation this won’t be a a matter of weeks, as I had supposed; then the one that it won’t be just three months; then the one about Christmas—entirely borrowed sentiment, but all the fairy lights reminded me it was significant to you. I don’t have any real hope of Easter, either. St Swithin’s Day? I think that’s in the summer.

I have trouble sleeping and trouble awakening, dreaming in monochrome, taking too long to recall where I am when I do wake up. Lately I have found myself looking for things in the places I put them in the hotel three countries back.

I’m in another place again. No point in pretending I’m local; all I can be is foreign, from somewhere other than here or my home. Easy enough so long as I keep the story simple. I had the words to make the officials I need think I’ll be helpful to them; they’ll be helpful to me.

When I get to a place I am almost always given a phone. Sometimes I’m given a computer; nearly always, I buy one of my own from a pawnshop. I go somewhere public with wifi and access one of the places where people like me can access disinfectant for the computer, make it almost invisible, put pablum on the hard drive. I read the newspapers from home, look at a few journals, some background on the place I am now apparently sworn to defend. Then I check your blog.

Not long before I left on this trip I met some people in an office who explained they like your blog because it’s different from their own work, a mini-break from their lives. I believe Cherry said ‘gentle and funny’. Does this really describe accounts of crime and deduction? Perhaps the intervals between? It was inexplicable.

That was when I was rich. Now I am poor enough to look for crumbs.

It’s still not my kind of writing; I tell myself that, and then I see whether you’ve updated. You haven’t, but I reread the latest entry. Mrs. H is well, but you’re worried about the neighbour. You’re trying something new, I can tell, but nothing you want to disclose. I wonder if you’re dating the webmistress. She seems relatively intelligent, though I really cannot countenance some of her other online activity. A better knowledge of anatomy and desire would help. You might enjoy that. She’s certainly adventurous.

I interrupt. “Hang on a moment, what do all of you know about Polly online that I don’t?”

“A remark I made while in insufficient possession of the facts, nothing to see there, forget it.” He doesn’t always lie well. I raise my eyebrows.

“Ask Mrs. Hudson, if you must,” he says. “Believe me, you’ll wish you hadn’t. She’s a perfectly nice twenty-first century woman, just leave it at that. Please.”

I’ve rarely listened to Sherlock’s advice about my girlfriends, usually to my cost. And Polly isn’t one. I’ll leave it for now. “Go on, then.”

He continues to read:

“Now to the discussion fora, though you rarely venture into your own back garden. I’m like the ghosts at the beginning of Dickens’s Christmas Carol: lurking, unable to participate for weal or woe. Over the past few months the names have become familiar. I can guess some of the tipping points, watch someone try to resist the bait and then fall into hyperbole and character assassination. I’m missing a magnificent flame war—not the one about the pattern of your jumper; that was quite a good discussion of intellectual property and copyright law (and the relative qualities of wool from different breeds of sheep; yet you scorn my tobacco ashes?). This one began with something you deliberately left obscure (I think it was deliberate; persons in power would certainly agree that it was best left unexplained). Somehow the omission has touched a nerve; debate exploded, metastasised. In perhaps another half day someone will bring up cultural appropriation and DeathFromAbove will ban them.

But the greater part of your regulars are inclined to peace; you’ll be able to put out a cookbook someday. With jumper patterns. It’s like admiring a village pond: swans, lilies, dragonflies: all serene, until you become aware of the life and death going on in the water and the muck. England in miniature.

 

Then I look back into your archives, the cases. When I read what you’ve written, I remember them. You and I live in entirely different worlds. To me it seems as though all you see and hear and smell and touch is blurred, a Technicolor smear; no wonder, then, that you don’t sift the information the way I do. But the facts of people’s hearts—everyone says they’re facts—are only blurs to me at best. People shout at me on a regular basis for ignoring the information I don’t see clearly enough to include, whether it has any bearing on the crime or not. You in particular sense these things keenly. Did the medical training or your life-experience make you good at noticing impalpabilities, or did your innate gifts push you toward something that would make them useful? I suppose they’re useful—‘bedside manner’? I would rather have a good anatomist sew me back together than someone who appreciated any possible emotional consequences. Fortunately you are both—.

I snort, softly, so as not to interrupt.

--But the rarer quality that sets you apart from most of the rest is the way, seeing these emotional stumbling-blocks that I do not, you bother to explain them to me, without very much anger or disgust or disbelief. I suppose I ought to do the same when you overlook some detail in the physical evidence. It’s very hard to imagine how it is to be any way other than my own; if I say I really can’t imagine how it is being you, it’s not meant, this time, to show up the superiority of my own way of being. Not even to keep the fearful thing at a distance. It is fearful to find myself the freak—

“You’re not a freak.”

“I rather am. But ‘statistical outlier’ sounds kinder, and that’s important to you.” He meets my eyes for just a second and returns to the letter.

To find myself—an outlier, then—when I cannot imagine any other way to be. You have found me fearful sometimes but the way you deal with fearing other people is much braver than most, you speak gently.

 

Most of the time, anyway. I’m sorry I pushed you into anger and disbelief that last morning. I needed the time to meet Jim, and I could not make you leave me with any other means at my disposal. Afterward I hoped your desire to protect Mrs. H might help you understand mine to protect her and you and Greg. Or perhaps you need no help to understand that; I would have taken the leap without any hope of a soft landing if I had had to. Not so soft as I expected, as it turns out; maybe it will be in the end.

This life I’m in is not at all about emotional information (unless perhaps hostages are concerned) so you might think I’d be ideally suited. Perhaps this life would be more comfortable if I knew the surroundings here the way I know our home. It still would not be my life.

That’s the other part. Not what you write, but knowing how it is, how you are when you write. You hardly blogged at all when you were staying with your sister. I was worried; the papers said you had been discharged from hospital, and then almost nothing, as I’m sure you preferred. Then you reopened the blog to make sure anyone who cared would know—exactly the opposite of what I had asked (discretion here is likely useless, but still—). That was all a bit of a mess, what I asked; but by the end of the enquiry I was out of the picture and you were out of the gunsight, so it no longer mattered for the plotting, and I know it mattered to you."

“You’re wrong about that,” I say. “Other than giving me a better response than hitting people who said you’d been a fake. But it mattered to people like Polly and our friends, to have who you were put right.”

He looks at me insufferably and says, “There’s nothing wrong with being a member of society, John; it’s not a uniquely human failing. Even an outlier can see the attraction.”

And then, after more time, you went back to the flat and to your own words, writing in your usual places. I could hear the sounds from the street and our landlady in the background of them, your voice and almost taste the tea. It was like haunting my own life. I doubt that most ghosts get updates; would they notice? It isn’t like being there, but it reminds me home exists.

You don’t seem quite so desperately unhappy as I feared; perhaps whatever of me is haunting you is less demanding than I was. I am too selfish to want you to move on while I still believe I shall be coming back. In the interim, I live aware of being half-alive, waiting for you to tell me a gentle and funny story about violence and ratiocination and barely restrained impatience and tea and Indian takeaway, and affection and admiration for someone who often deserves neither, but would send you both."

Chapter Text

I hear what he’s saying, through the pre-war? Pre-Great War? turns of phrase. There is a lot in that letter to unpack, if you like. But I want to stay with the image of Sherlock, somewhere indistinct, holding a clear picture of our sitting room in his mind. While I was trying to hold one of him, in the same place. He lets me have a moment, or takes one himself. I don’t know any more.

“That was written on one of the quiet days,” Sherlock says. “One of the days I could believe you might receive it, one of the days I thought I might even be able to give it to you. I had spent the night before on a stakeout with the sheriff of a tiny little border town in Arizona, waiting for the federal agents to move in. We stayed on the margin of the action, sitting in her car for nine and a half hours. She folded paper cranes and I ate all of her nicotine gum, and she talked for a long time about her dispatcher who was much farther into the spectrum than I am. It was interesting; she never once implied she might be saying anything about me. But it made me think more about you. And I wanted to say— it seemed important to tell you your blog was like letters from my real life, when I was having trouble believing I had ever had one.”

“If they were home for you, then you heard what I meant,” I tell him. “Home for me, too. While I was telling stories about the older cases, you were alive.” And of course, when I finished the case I was writing he was gone again. I’d write something I thought was reasonably cut-and-dried, and find Polly weeping over the rough draft. Sherlock does not need to hear that.

“It felt like that. Not the way I remembered, but very like you. Much more detailed than the blog was before, when I was here.”

“Polly made me go back and write the things I hadn’t bothered to, descriptions of the places, the rooms we were in; she wanted me to write a book.”

“Don’t let my being alive stop you.” He’s not being dismissive; it’s strange. This is not the man I remembered, from before Moriarty.

“Do you think this has changed you?” I ask him.

He’s quiet for awhile. “Would I be able to tell? Do you think I have?”

“You’re tired in a gut-deep way I haven’t seen since I left the army. And you’re talking about something besides London and chemical pathology. Not that I was tired of either, but it’s interesting to hear you talk about yourself.”

“There was nothing but myself I could take from place to place,” Sherlock said. “It was very strange to find my home was a corner of the Internet, and nothing else was the same from one month to the next. Not my name, not my country. And most of the time wasn’t very interesting. Analysis, then boredom punctuated by terror. I am never working formally for Mycroft or any other kind of spy agency again. If I can help it. Well, perhaps the analytic part. But even that gets old. Too much of intelligence work is just looking for patterns; they aren’t necessarily interesting patterns at all. Over the long term they may amount to something but…no. With a crime, you have a better idea what you’re looking for, and it’s shorter term. Unless you have a Moriarty behind it.”

“Boredom punctuated by terror?” I ask. “Would that be the stab in your leg, and the gash in your scalp?”

“Oh, those were pure adrenaline, great fun as you know very well. The terror was not fun.”

I look at him, remembering time times he had gone off by himself on the grounds that he didn’t need backup or he hadn’t expected resistance or he thought I’d be in too much danger. There had been shouting on those occasions that I couldn’t regret even now. He had either been more resilient then or more sure he was right.

“Do I want to know? Yes, of course I do, you made it home.”

“Sometimes I was certain I wouldn’t. I was surprised when I did, more than once…One more letter,” he says. “The rest of them…for the most part, you should read them when you ‘want a lift’, like Lestrade, or an essay about being expatriate. Or you can make me read them aloud when I am thoughtless.”

“I’d prefer not to make you think communication is a form of punishment.”

“Is that why you haven’t jumped on—“

“I’m saving that.”

“You’re feeling better.”

“You can still read whatever this one is aloud.”

Sherlock snorts, and slits open an aerogramme. Even from here I can see how closely written and how much more untidy his words are than in the letter before.

 

Oh, this was the worst, John, the very worst. I write from an airport; I’ve switched planes twice already, airlines, dropped one passport into a gas-fire in a fake German pub and another into a container for medical waste. You can find those in an airport if you know where to go. I’m down to one, now, still a name no one knows from a country I have only visited. And oh, God, this one was close, I can’t stop thinking that, I can’t stop thinking how close it was, I hope it’s not any worse than I think it was.

Jim had part of a government, close enough to all of one. Most of them didn’t know, most of them didn’t see how many of the other ministers were frightened, the executive never saw the looks that passed behind his back. Every country has a little CIA, Big Brothers of its own not so good as mine. This one Jim ran like a model train, and I walked into it. You’ll hear about what happened this time: a government toppled; some kind of coup and suicides and reprisals though you won’t know it was me and someone like Greg who blew it open. And someone like Irene, really, but not a woman; homophobia makes such a fertile ground for corruption.

I was always told it was bad form to destabilise a government, we really talked about things like that sometimes before my brother and I went utterly to hell. It messes with the lives of ordinary people and nations of shopkeepers are our best allies. Hitler said that about England. I’d rather shopkeepers than Sebastian at the bank. I tried not to hate the man I killed. He can’t have been the only one

(I didn’t really know him, can you hate someone you don’t know? I don’t think he hated me, he certainly didn’t know me but I was in his way and he knew how much was on the line—his life, his reputation, maybe even his view of his country. He must have had one, he can’t have been in just for himself— though that almost makes sense of the amount of money he skimmed, he extorted, the people he ruined. I really like having a country)

but he’s the only one I’ve seen drop—explode, convulse, and die--and know for sure I killed. I mostly find patterns and look at names, not see the real people fall. Sometimes I’ve been in at the distal end of drugs operations, found someone cornered, someone who tried to fight back. Never shot to kill. I like the chase, being part of the net. Not being a fish though, no.

This time I walked into a room and found I was expected. He had no idea who I was except that I knew too much about him—not the mistresses the lovers the drugs he was on—it was the place he occupied and what he was using his authority to secure for his own, that was what he cared about my knowing. What he would have killed me—lightly—to protect. I know it wasn’t much trouble to him, he’d already killed the lover and a journalist and another minister and it was so very close. I haven’t needed the guns they give me, though I thought of you and went to the trouble to try to learn to shoot, but handguns are horrible things, not that rifles are so much better—

I don’t know whether the greater part of the national police knew who pulled their strings. I hope none of the ones who are alive but really ought not to be know whom they bear a grudge. Even if the better side somewhat better anyway end up in power it will take months. But I’ve made it this far, I can be cautiously hopeful now. I hope the men like Greg and Irene are all right, I hope they will make it back to a quiet life. Their kind of quiet lives.

My flight is called, I need to finish this, post it, in this real limbo where we all wait to be reincarnated at our destinations. Paris for me this time, anywhere but here—no, it’s _there_ already, thank God, and I’ll native-speak the language more or less. It will be better, I think, I believe; it was the last time. I can call my brother. I wish I could call you. I can’t say how much. I want to go back to my quiet nation of shopkeepers and very personal murderers, people who usually only steal money to afford better cable TV and stronger drugs, not palaces usually, and my flatmate the quiet doctor who only kills people under extreme provocation and has never taken a bribe in his life.

Whether you ever speak to me again, whether we ever can, whether you choose not to or not, you should know you make all the difference. I thought I meant, to England; I mean, I realise, to me. I’m so sorry I had to leave you like that, had to lie to you like that, but honestly, the chance to feel bad about those things is sweet as honey now I begin to feel I’ll have a chance to be concerned about some kind of future when I shall be home.

But I need to say, in case this is all you ever have of me again, how much your presence in my life has made me happy, has made me more whole, no matter how unwhole you think I am, so much more whole, and I am very truly yours, though I cannot sign my name. I don’t think you’ve had any other mad flatmates. If I can’t return, I hope you will have them, if that’s your kind of quiet life.

 

Sherlock’s voice has levelled out through the last few sentences, just enough expression to carry the punctuation; his face has done the same. He’s putting the letter down on the table; rising slowly and purposefully toward the kitchen and the kettle; carefully moving in just such a way as to prevent anything from showing that might quite simply, perhaps even beautifully, reveal how he feels. He does hate repeating himself.

I give him time to get there and follow, looking at the contained line of his back, which is beginning once more to fill in the cloth of his shirts. For a moment I wish there was more I could do than rest my hand on his shoulder, but we neither of us seem inclined to it, at least not now. He’s gone too remote for hugs.

“I don’t want any other mad flatmate than you. Particularly not now I know you can do the washing-up and make tea.”

“You did ask if I had changed.”

“You’ll delete it.”

“Might be worth a try. Milk tastes different in different countries, too. And the water you use, even if it’s the same kind of tea.”

“You didn’t know that?” I ask.

“I _knew_ that, but I hadn’t observed the differences, nor known what difference the differences made to me.”

“Now you know?”

“More than I wanted to.”

I watch him fuss through warming the pot. He doesn’t measure the leaves, just reaches in and grabs a standard handful.

“You’re not shivering anymore,” he half asks.

“I think I’m over that for the moment.”

“I never thought I would want to ask to know when you were angry. Mind you, I never had to, so far as I could tell. Will you get it over with, the bollocksing about the call about Mrs. Hudson, please?” Apparently secure in the knowledge I won’t throw it at him, he hands me a mug of tea, avoiding my eyes.

“I thought it was Moriarty at the time, but it didn’t make any sense. Why did you do it?”

“I needed the time—I needed you out of there. I couldn’t think of any other way—having you to look after at the same time as Moriarty—I couldn’t. And I needed you to be sure that I was dead. You wouldn’t have believed anyone else.”

He’s clearly expecting me to start shouting again, and I have given him every reason to expect so little from me. Or so much. It is about feelings, and he’s right; I have them. I sigh, consciously let go. If I do this right maybe my voice won’t break again. Stare out the window and breathe for a minute.

“You know that I think this whole operation,” I begin, breathing regularly, “was about as badly thought out as it could possibly have been. Even though you and your brother are the two most frighteningly gifted plotters in the English-speaking world. And apparently you did surviving all right in Former Soviet Everywhere. So I’m probably wrong and just thinking about it from my point of view, which is all I had then and all I really care about now, despite the thirty-five children in Monterey and everyone else—“

“I cared about them, you know—“ he means he had an idea about their fear and their loneliness and their abandonment clearly enough to feel some kind of sympathy and I am bloody glad it didn’t compromise his efficiency.

“I know, and when I’m farther back in my right mind I will too, I hope—“ although I won’t, properly. I care about the Sherlock that I can see, again, and Greg, and Mrs. Hudson, and Molly, and my webmistress and sodding Mycroft and the people I didn’t know who left candles for him in front of St. Bart’s.

I continue. “But I was never frightened of anything Moriarty could do, although I ought to have been; I hadn’t really understood you were both in it to the death this time. And I have to admit I am glad you and your brother were playing a long game; I didn’t want to be killed and if I can ever get to the point of really believing you aren’t dead—“ deep breath, and then another one—“I may be able to say you did an amazing job. If it took manipulating me for the five millionth time—“

“Less than that--” he protests.

“—It worked out in the end. And I can’t be any angrier at you about that than I have been at myself for my last words to you being so unkind.” This has been a lot to say, and my heart is pounding; I am so relieved to have the words out and not be a wet mess on the kitchen floor. I glance over to him with an effort.

Sherlock looks at me with mild surprise. “Oh, were you worried about that? I knew that wasn’t you. I’d just pushed every button you have while you were half-asleep and emotionally exhausted. You’d never say anything like that.”

“Actually I did.” And I remembered saying it as many times or more as the days he’d been gone, in the Top Five Things I Wish I Had Never.

Sherlock is making himself what appears to be a cheese and Branston-pickle sandwich, which seems unlikely but requires most of his attention. “There’s surveillance on my gravesite. I thought what you said there was much more characteristic of you in your right mind.”

“Christ, is there _no_ bloody privacy left in this country at all?”

“Mycroft didn’t want someone rolling the stone away and finding a gunshot victim instead of … anyway, he didn’t put it on YouTube. He sent it one of the rare times we could be in direct touch. Without any comment. Do you want a sandwich?”

“Maybe some cheese, thanks.”

Sherlock cuts me off a slice of Cheddar. “Are we done for the moment?” he asks, after we’ve eaten in silence.

“I think so. Until it comes around again; maybe it won’t. What do you have in mind for the day?”

“If you’re up to it, I thought…I want to go feed the ducks in the park. I have a nearly complete series of picture of ducks I’ve fed in the places I’ve been. A spy in Paris told me it was de rigeur. It made as much sense as anything else. I’d just like to be back in London again. Or if you want to stay in I can go online. My God, I can comment now,” Sherlock is saying. “I missed some lovely flame wars.”

“Don’t troll my fans,” I tell him. “My moderators will shut you down if you try anything.” Although given his IP address, perhaps not. He isn’t gone now. It’s like stretching and having some injury, some long, deep chronic injury not hurt.

“Hey. You’re not dead,” I say.

“No. Is that good?”

“Yeah--“

“If you have to relive the stages of grief will you also get to relive the stages of joy? Are there stages of joy? It sounds exhausting.”

Surprise, I think. Amazement. Incredulity. Acceptance.

“You tell me.”