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Inscrutable to the Last

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*

"John?"

Mary's voice had gone strange. The tone made something lurch in his chest.

He looked up from his newspaper, from where he sat on the sofa. She was sitting at the little desk in the corner, staring down at her laptop—except—no, no, it wasn't her laptop at all. It was his.

"What's this?" she asked, and her voice was definitely strange, high and strained.

It set his heart pounding, thudding a steady beat of no no no, each jump of his pulse flooding him with a sickening dread. He wanted to throw his newspaper down, bolt for the door, flee into the damp evening air. He wanted to stand up and snap his laptop shut, like he'd done to Sherlock all those years ago—except, no, best not think of that.

He did none of those things. Instead, he rustled his newspaper, folded it neatly and set it down on the coffee table, and met her eyes. He sat very still.

"Hm?" he said. "What's that, then?" He feigned casual, did a crap job of it, and why did he even bother, she'd always been adept at seeing right through him, right from the very start. That's why he'd—

"This," she said. The mirth that was usually present in her voice (it was always there, always! even when she was angry it was there) had fled. All of the typical teasing cheer had drained out of her. There was no anger in her voice, no anger yet, but a flat bewilderment and strain that would almost certainly lead to anger, and soon, if he didn't do something to head it off.

He made a show of squinting over at her, still trying to keep up his miserable act, and then stood up from the sofa and walked over to hover behind where she sat, looking down at the screen.

"Oh," he said. He skimmed the words on the screen as if reading them for the first time, as if he didn't know them by heart, as if they hadn't been burned into his very soul. "Oh," he said again. "That. Just a—just some of that book I'd been thinking about writing. You know. Bit of a lark, really."

"A lark." Her voice was still flat, her face slightly incredulous.

"Yeah," he said, and rubbed at the back of his neck. His skin felt overwarm, his heart skittering in his chest. "You know—hey, where'd you find that, anyway? I haven't worked on it in ages."

In fact, he had titled it Unpaid Bills and hidden it away in a folder. That tactic had often worked on Sherlock, who had despaired of dull and ordinary responsibilities and who in fact seemed to conveniently go both blind and deaf when the subject of finances came up, but, apparently, it had only attracted the attention of his wife.

"The last save date on the file is two days ago, John."

"Right," he said. And hell, he should've known by now not to try and lie to her. She was too sharp for that, too quick on her feet, too—too computer literate.

They regarded each other for a moment, her sitting, him standing, the cursor blinking accusingly from the document.

"An assassin," she said, finally.

"Mary," he sighed. "Just wait a second—"

"That—" she shook her head, swallowed, tried again. "That's how you—"

"No," he said quickly. "No. No! It's just—it's just fiction."

"Fiction. Using the full name and likeness of everyone you've ever met."

"Oh come on, Mary, surely you don't think that everyone I've ever met—"

"Hyperbole, John," she snapped, and it was clear that she did not have patience for loopholes. There would be no edging out of this one with banter. "You know exactly what I meant."

His hand trembled, minutely, barely even noticeable. He noticed. Clenched his fist to stay it.

"It's just—" he frowned, feeling sick and sad and wrong-footed. "You know that—Ella. You know that Ella had suggested writing. That writing about it—that it might help."

"Oh," Mary said, and her voice had gone falsely bright. "Playing the therapy card, then. That's a good one, yeah."

"Mary—"

She held up her hand, and there was anger on her face, real anger, not just a fleeting temper. He had not seen this kind of anger in her, yet, not in all the time he'd known her. Again he was seized with the temptation to snatch the laptop away from her, to slam it shut and pretend that none of this had ever happened.

"Pretty sure that she meant the blog, John," Mary said. "Writing about what happened. Sorting out your feelings, since God knows you don't want to talk about them. Not—not this—this bizarre, self-insert, wish-fulfilment—"

"Wish-fulfilment?" He snorted. "You can't possibly—"

"It's a fantasy!" she said, pushing back the chair and standing up in a sudden rush. Her face had gone quite red. "A fantasy where your dead best friend magically isn't dead-- and is also somehow less of a prick than he was before—and where you can just pick up where you left off as if nothing happened—"

"Oh, you're right," he snapped. "I'm a monster, truly, wanting something like that."

She shook her head at him, and he startled at the sight of tears in her eyes. He had not noticed the pity starting to creep in on the anger.

"John," she said, and she reached out, took his clenched fist between her hands. "Doing this, retreating into this—this whole other life, it's not good for you."

"People read, Mary," he said, as she gently rubbed at his hand, pried his fingers loose from their tight clench, clasped his trembling appendage between her warm palms. "People go to the movies. People write. It's a hobby. Escapism. Nothing more than that."

"It's different," she said, calmer, still looking steadily at him.

"How?"

She shook her head, rolled her eyes a little bit. "You can't figure out why writing thousands and thousands and thousands of words about a world where your wife is an ex-assassin who shoots your formerly-dead best friend in the chest, setting off a chain of events leading to him martyring himself for us might be a bit upsetting?"

"You've read a lot," he said, and he wondered how long he'd been sitting there, oblivious, while she was peering into the darkest, most secret recesses of his heart.

"Oh, it's a real page turner," she said.

"It's just—" he sighed, defeated. There was no way to defend it. He knew that, had known it since he first sat down and tentatively tapped out the opening lines. Creeping off to write had felt as illicit as meeting a secret lover, something to feel guilty over, and now Mary had found out and had been hurt by what she'd seen. She didn't deserve that.

She frowned at him, waited for him to continue. He could feel the weight of her gaze. "I know I asked you," she said delicately. "Before. If—"

"I didn't lie to you," he said, because, God, he couldn't have that conversation all over again. It had been bad enough coming from friends when Sherlock was still alive. Coming from his girlfriend, who hadn't even known Sherlock, that had been worse. He'd taken her to the gravesite, once, tried to explain how it had been between them. He thought he'd done an all right job of it. "It wasn't like that."

"Really," she snorted, and jerked her head towards the screen.

He blinked, shook his head, baffled. "What are you even talking about? That's—that's not like that either."

And then she was laughing, but it was an ugly laugh, a hurt laugh. "Oh, John," she said, and her eyes had gone all red and damp. "He was right about you all along, wasn't he?"

"Hm?"

"You're an idiot." She spoke softly, gently released his hand. Then she turned away from him, walked out of the room, out of the house. She did not slam the door.

The silence she left behind was incredibly loud.

*

It was harmless.

It didn't even bear thinking about.

Everyone daydreamed. Everyone.

So, once in a while, when it all got to be too much, he would sit down and shut his eyes and—well—things would be different. He would still have a purpose. He would still matter. And Sherlock would—God, Sherlock would still be there, still incandescent and amazing and brilliant. Still annoying and frustrating and maddening. Still alive.

Christ, it wasn't fair that someone like that, someone brimming with life, with energy, with that much presence could just be gone, just gone, leaving naught but the dull and ordinary in his wake. And the dull and dreary ordinary was that much duller, that much drearier, for the loss of him. As if all of London had been briefly splashed with the most beautiful, vivid colours, only to bleed away to grey.

John realized that his hand was trembling again, and he clenched his fist hard, fingernails biting into his palm.

He only felt guilty because it was private. Just unorganized thoughts, a harmless daydream where he found himself once more swept up in mystery and intrigue, helplessly caught up in the orbit of someone remarkable. Vaguely embarrassing for the absurdity of it all. It wasn't as if it could actually happen.

He went to the kitchen, poured himself a drink. Just one, to steady the nerves.

His skin went all cold and clammy whenever he thought about Sherlock. About the real Sherlock, the best friend he'd ever had, the friend who had stood silhouetted against a steel grey sky and had flung himself off of a building and cracked his magnificent head open on the pavement. The sound of that body hitting concrete, the sight of that blood-soaked dark hair, those pale eyes that had seen everything wide open and seeing nothing—

Even now, three years later, he shied away from the memory. He didn't want to blog about that. He didn't want to think about that. There were no feelings to be sorted out on the matter—he knew damn well how it had made him feel to see his friend die in such a way. It was easier, better, to write about Sherlock as he might have been had he lived. Had he carried off one of the genius schemes he was known for, pulled one over on everyone, gone racing off to the far reaches of the globe to continue his beloved work.

Had he come back, come looking for John because he missed him, missed the life they had shared.

John shut his eyes. There. That, right there, was why. And yes, perhaps Ella would be horrified, because what he was doing wasn't so much healing as it was avoidance, but it made him feel better. And wasn't that the point?

And Mary—he had written in the bit about her having a dark and mysterious past because—well—because they lived a perfectly lovely, perfectly charming, perfectly dull suburban life together. And he just—he just—

"John?"

He started, his untouched drink sloshing over the rim of his glass.

Mary stood in the doorway, looking oddly tentative and apologetic. "Sorry, I—I thought you heard me come in."

"I thought you'd gone round Janine's."

They each had their respective corners to retreat to in the event of a quarrel. She would take a bottle of wine over to Janine's and vent. He would take a walk and let the fresh air clear his temper. Sometimes he'd phone Greg and they'd meet up at the pub, but those meetings always left him feeling slightly sick and empty inside, and he'd started to curtail them.

"I started to," she said. "But I—I don't want to be that person who storms out, John. Not when it's something important. This isn't the kind of quarrel that fades away with a bit of fresh air. We should talk about it."

He let out a bitter, miserable little laugh. "I don't want to talk about it. It's not— look, when I was eleven years old, I found my sister's diary. Read the whole thing in one afternoon. Teased her mercilessly, after. I was a bit of a dick."

Mary let out an amused, agreeing huff of breath.

"She was so upset," he said, shaking his head, wondering at it. "More than just usual sibling stuff. I didn't get it, at the time. But it was—those were private thoughts, unformed, not ready to be shared with the world."

"John—"

"Look, I—I get it. You're right. It probably isn't healthy. But it makes me feel better, Mary. To think about him still—still being here. Still doing what he does. What he did. To think that there could be something more than that—that senseless day when he—"

She held up her hand, shook her head. "John, stop. I know. I know that it was hard for you. That it is hard for you. But I'm not really concerned with what you've written about Sherlock."

"Oh," he said. "Good. That's—that's good."

"It's what you've written about me. About our friends. The people in our lives, John." She shook her head again, looking frustrated. "The real, living people that surround us."

"You're making a big deal about nothing."

"John," she said, and her voice was pained. "How long have you been writing this? How long has all of this—what we have—not been enough for you?"

"Oh, come on," he said. "Don't do that. Don't make it sound like that."

"Because you proposed to me," she said. "And it was lovely. You were happy. You seemed happy. And then you—did you just come home and revise it?"

"No," he said, and he felt sick at the thought. Because he had, hadn't he? "Of course not."

"Surely you can understand, then, what I'm talking about. Because what it looks like, what it looks like to me, is that you took a moment in our lives, an important moment, a moment entirely for the two of us, and felt the need to improve on it by the addition of someone else."

"Surely you can't think that what I wrote down was an improvement on the way it actually happened," he said, and tried for a little smirk. "With all the punching and the shouting."

In fact, it had been sweet and romantic and uneventful, him sweating and nervous and speaking too fast as he presented her with the little box. It had been fast, God, it had been fast, they had only known each other for six months, but she was the first person to make him smile since-- since, and she was sharp and witty and fun to be around, she made him feel human again, and that—well, that was what he needed, wasn't it? They hadn't been teenagers, rushing to the altar under the heady blush of first romance, after all. They were both old enough to know what they wanted.

And Mary had joked with him a little bit, there in that stuffy posh restaurant, had teased the nervousness right out of him, and he'd gone ahead and proposed. They'd gone home together in the cab holding hands, him looking down at the way her ring caught the headlights of passing cars.

"I thought it was perfect," Mary said, and her voice broke a little bit. "The way it happened."

She looked down at the ring on her finger, joined now with a slim wedding band, and he followed her gaze, stared at the metal against her skin.

It was clean, her ring. Sparkling. Well-maintained.

"I'm sorry," he said, still looking down at her hand. "That's not—I didn't—none of this was ever intended to hurt you."

"Well," she said, squaring her shoulders. "I'm afraid that bird has flown. So what are we going to do about it?"

He smiled a little bit, couldn't help it. She was direct. Bold. Had been from the moment he first laid eyes on her in the staff room at the surgery. She'd said something and his cheeks had ached and he'd realized that it was because he was smiling, really smiling, for the first time in what felt like ages.

Dating Mary had been easy. She had a way of filling silences that felt natural, not intrusive or invasive. She was glib, sometimes rude, often funny, and—well, she wasn't Sherlock, but being around her made him happy, and so he'd endeavored to be around her as much as possible.

"Look," he said. "The proposal—what I wrote—" He shook his head. "You didn't know me, before. When he was still alive. I couldn't—I couldn't go on a single bloody date without him finding some reason to interrupt. It was a nightmare, really. He chased women away in droves."

"Droves," she said dryly. "Pity."

He laughed, suddenly a little embarrassed, scratched at the back of his neck. "Yeah, well. Um. It's just—interrupting, on a night like that. That's just, it's the kind of thing he would have done. He would have found it funny. And I guess that I just—it was an important night, you know?"

"Oh, I think I have some idea, yes," she said.

"When we got home, you called Janine to tell her the news. I—couldn't do that. And, frankly, that's not the kind of thing I would have done even if he had still been alive. So I just—I tried to share it with him. In my head. In a way that made sense."

She gave him a long, level look. Finally, she nodded.

"All right, John. I think I can understand that. But—"

"Yeah, it's done," he said. "Deleting the file. No more."

"All right," she said again. "Takeaway? I don't feel much like cooking."

He smiled, nodded. She gave his hand a little squeeze as she passed him on her way to the telephone.

*

Later, after Mary had gone to sleep, he booted up his laptop and opened the file, sat staring at the words.

The narrative ended rather abruptly, with Sherlock, his face aglow with red sniper sights, executing the heinous blackmailer Magnussen like some kind of dark avenging angel. He threw the gun aside, held up his hands in surrender, and—

"Give my love to Mary," Sherlock half-turned, offered a sad, knowing smile over his shoulder. His hair whipped in the wind from the helicopter propellers. "Tell her she's safe now."

John let out a sharp little huff of breath, closed his eyes for a moment. It was ridiculous, to think that his absolute arsehole of a friend, a man who had once locked him in a lab while he was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs and tried to scare him half to death, would make some kind of grand, noble gesture of self-sacrifice.

It was—it was exactly the sort of romantic drivel that Sherlock himself would have mocked him for writing. Had mocked him for writing, on the blog, that terrible blog that had dragged his reclusive friend out into the public spotlight, made him a celebrity, provided all of the tools for his destruction.

His finger hovered over the delete key.

Wish-fulfillment, Mary had called it. And she was right, she was right. He had never wished for anything harder in his whole life.

He sighed, exited the document, renamed it and hid it in a new folder. Deleting it entirely was too final. He'd had enough finality, with regards to Sherlock.

He'd just—leave it, for now.

For now.

*

He lay awake well into the night, listening to Mary's steady breathing beside him.

Inhale. Exhale.

This—what he had, what they had—it was more than good. He knew that. It was worth holding onto.

They'd been married on a beautiful sunny day in August. Mary's bridesmaids were resplendent in purple lilac, and she herself had found the most lovely dress, all vintage ivory lace that suited her complexion perfectly. They drank entirely too much wine and danced and kissed and generally made a good show of being utterly gone on each other.

It had been good.

The reception hall had been done up in a cheery yellow palette. The photographs had a surreal, dreamlike quality to them, with all of that purple lilac and yellow, saturated colours and broad, beaming smiles. Their photographer was talented, no doubt about it, even if he had seemed a little shifty.

No one was murdered, or threatened, or even stabbed.

He'd hemmed and hawed and finally asked Mike Stamford to stand up as his best man. Mike had delivered a brief, heartfelt speech and had led the room in a champagne toast. John had found a moment to slip away and share a drink with Major Sholto, who had somehow accomplished the herculean task of looking more uncomfortable in a roomful of people than Sherlock ever had.

"You're happy," Sholto had said, looking at him seriously over the rim of his glass. "Good. You deserve it, John."

And he was. Happy. Happier than he'd been in over two years. Happier than he thought he'd ever be again after Sherlock had—after he'd done what he'd done. The wedding was a lovely day, a beautiful day, as nice as any wedding ought to be, and if he found it necessary to… spice up the narrative with a bit of harmless intrigue and action and humour, well, what of it? Plenty of blokes found weddings a bit boring. Even their own.

He'd brought his laptop on holiday, after the wedding. Sat on the beach while Mary took her scuba diving lessons and constructed a bit of fiction. It was—well, it was silly, really, to imagine what his wedding day might have looked like had Sherlock lived. He'd have been rubbish at the whole best man thing, he'd been the type who needed to construct elaborate lies to get out of a gathering of friends down at the pub. A sentimental speech in front of a crowd of people? Impossible.

But Sherlock was dead, and John missed him, and oh, God, he wished he could have been there at the wedding. So he wrote him in. And when Mary trudged back up the beach from the water, cheeks flushed with exertion and cheer, he—well he hadn't wanted her to see it, so he'd named the file Unpaid Bills and tucked it away in a folder.

"John?" Mary murmured, her voice heavy with sleep.

He started, heart jumping guiltily although he hadn't been doing anything, just lying there thinking for chrissakes—

"Hm?" he asked her.

"What you wrote," she said. "About the baby? What did you mean?"

"Um," he said. "Nothing—I—it was just. The plot."

"Because when we talked about children, you had agreed that it wasn't—"

"Mary," he said. "It was just a stupid little adventure story. I just—I just used our names because it was easier. You don't need to read something into everything."

"Okay," she said, sleepily burrowing her head into her pillow. "I just don't want—if we want different things, we should talk about it. So no one gets resentful."

"Sensible," he agreed. "Now go back to sleep."

He lay awake and listened as her breathing evened out again.

They had no children. They had no plans for children. He had—well, to be honest, he had written it into the book not out of some latent desire for fatherhood but because he thought their characters needed a bit of an anchor, what with all the shootings and upheavals.

Christ, what Mary must think of him now. He couldn't blame her.

Here he was, more than three years removed from a friendship that had only lasted a mere eighteen months, a veritable drop in the bucket for all that it had felt like a lifetime. He was happily married, had a steady job practicing medicine, owned a home.

And yet he still had a hard time closing his eyes at night, because sometimes Sherlock would be there, sprawled and bloody and broken, splayed out on the pavement like a rag doll. Like someone's discarded plaything. Sherlock, who had brought John back to life with a wink and a chase through crowded streets, dead on the ground.

Sherlock had—well, hell, it was as if Sherlock had been trying to kill himself from the very start, from the first day they met. And John had kept on intervening, kept on putting himself between Sherlock and the shadow of death. Until that last day, that terrible last day, when Sherlock had been sent reeling by the loss of his reputation, and John had looked straight at him and called him a machine.

He'd had one task, one simple, self-appointed job. Keep Sherlock Holmes safe. Protect that incredible, miraculous mind. Shield him from the consequences of the asinine risks he so frequently liked to take. And on that day he'd looked over at Sherlock, at his friend, his best friend, there at possibly the lowest point of his life, and he'd shouted at him. He'd said the most hurtful thing he could think to say, because as much as Sherlock liked to ramble on about his mind being a hard drive, he'd been human and John knew it, even if no one else did. He'd been angry, and he'd aimed to wound, and Sherlock had—

Well, then it was back to the blood and the cold skin and the blank empty eyes. A horrible, unending loop. One he kept trying to correct. But he wasn't Sherlock, he couldn't work miracles. All he'd ever been able to do was write about them.

And he—he apparently found writing about the life he wasn't leading more satisfying than actually living the one he was. No wonder Mary was upset with him. He was upset with himself.

He lay awake and listened to his wife breathing and willed himself to follow her into sleep. Instead, he watched the shadows play across the ceiling until dawn, tried not to think about Sherlock.

*

He and Mary danced carefully around each other for the remainder of the week, civil and pleasant and terribly uneasy. Unsettled. There was a tension between them that had never existed before, and it set his teeth on edge.

The undeleted file nagged at him, made a space in his consciousness and demanded attention. He wasn't sure whether the attention it warranted was guilt or regret or something else.

The story was unfinished. Much like things with Sherlock, the real Sherlock, the dead Sherlock, had been left unfinished. Permanently halted, mid-adventure.

Maybe that was fitting, in a way. That life, his old life, both fictional and real, forever left unresolved.

The tension eased, as the days went on. Mary began making jokes again, looking at him with the twinkle in her eye that had drawn him to her in the first place. He let himself breathe, tried to tell himself that the only thing he felt was relief, relief that he hadn't ruined everything.

Tried to tell himself that it wasn't regret, for all of those words left off the page.

It didn't matter, anyway. There was no one to read them.

*

The Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson

5th October A New Beginning

So it's been a long time since I've written anything here. A year to the day, actually. Funny how that works out. I didn't intend it that way. I know I said that would be my last blog, and to be fair I stuck to that for a year, but I guess I was feeling nostalgic.

If anyone out there is still reading, the past year of my life has been great. I met someone and we got married. That's the kind of thing that never would have happened if Sherlock was still around, because he had a habit of running off all of my girlfriends before anyone could get close. I'm pretty sure he would have found a way to interrupt my proposal if he could have! He was completely mad and I don't think anyone could really handle that, not that I blame them. There were times when I could barely handle it myself. It was never boring, though.

Anyway I didn't make this post to talk about Sherlock. I made it because… well, a lot of reasons actually. My life didn't end when Sherlock's did. I'm still here. Things are going pretty good. So maybe I should write about that instead of acting like everything interesting left with him.

So, sorry if you only want to read about cases and mysteries. I don't do that stuff anymore. Even if I could, I wouldn't be any good at it. He was the genius. I just wrote it down.

Mary (that's my wife!) says that I make a good risotto. Sherlock used to like it too. At least, I think he did. He used to eat it when I made it. Unless he was hiding it away for some experiment, which honestly was just as likely. So I was thinking that I'd start posting some recipes on this blog. Maybe some funny pictures and videos I find on the internet, too. No more of this doom and gloom.

If anyone is still out there reading this, cheers. Here's to a new beginning.

 

6 Comments

Cheers, mate. Haven't heard from you in a while. Glad you're doing ok.
Mike Stamford

ugh why did i even bother reading this what is the point if there are no cases
theimprobableone

LOL John I think you forgot to post the recipe! x
Harry Watson

I said I was going to start posting recipes, not that there was going to be one in this post.
John Watson

*comment deleted*
Harry Watson

It's good that you're happy.
Molly Hooper

*

October melted into November.

John wrote blog entries, little anecdotes about work. He posted recipes. He very carefully avoided writing about Sherlock.

I am happy, he told himself. He thought he just might be starting to believe it.

So he was surprised, thrown, really, when Mary touched his arm after dinner one Thursday night and murmured, "John, what is it?"

"What?" He said, rinsing off the last plate. He turned off the tap.

"You don't smile anymore," she said. Her eyes were plaintive.

He shook his head. "I smile."

She met his eyes with that direct gaze of hers. "You laugh at something on the telly. You'll chuckle at my jokes—and really, John, they warrant more than just a chuckle, I'm actually quite funny—but you don't smile. Not really." She shook her head. "You're a million miles away."

Indignation rose up. "People don't go walking around with deranged grins plastered on their faces," he snorted. "It'd be unsettling."

It was Sherlock's fake smile he was thinking of, the alarming one that showed too many teeth.

She sighed. "It's worse, I think, that you don't see it."

"Well I don't exactly spend each day looking into the mirror, do I?"

"That's not what I meant and you know it, John." She sighed again. "You can get irritatingly literal when you want to avoid a conversation."

"Who's avoiding anything?"

"John," she said.

"Mary," he said right back.

"Is it the, um, the thing you were writing?"

"Oh, Mary, come on, this again? I thought we'd moved past it."

"You're the one who's still upset," she said. Her voice was calm. Maddeningly so.

"I'm not upset," he said. "I'm just doing the washing up."

"You didn't delete it," she said.

"You've been snooping."

"No," she said. "I don't have to." She gave him a pointed look and turned away.

There was a slump in her shoulders, and he wondered when he'd begun to suck the joy out of her, too. He wondered when he'd stopped noticing.

"Mary," he said. "Things have been good, yeah? I've been posting on the—the blog, and the thing with the recipes—"

"Good," she said, rolling the word around on her tongue as if tasting it. "I don't know, John. Is this what you'd call good?"

He had, in fact, called it good. Repeatedly. But—

"I know you miss him," she said. "I know. I've tried to help in any way that I can."

"You have helped," he said, a sinking feeling in his stomach, the utter certainty that this conversation was headed down a dark path. "Mary, God, you know you helped. You turned my life around."

"And you wrote a novel where I turned out to be a homicidal maniac." She laughed, the sound sudden and startling. She clapped a hand over her mouth, as if surprised at herself.

He groaned. "It was just a plot twist."

"Well, why me? Why me and not Molly Hooper, or bloody Mike Stamford? Or poor Tom, God knows you don't like him very much, what with the pages and pages you went on about what an idiot he is—"

"Well he's not very bright," John snapped, then shut his eyes. "That's. That's not—"

"He's perfectly ordinary," Mary said. "And, frankly, I think that's the problem. You're offended that he dares to be tall and pale and dark-haired, that he wears a long coat and a scarf and looks like Sherlock, but he's ordinary. So you had to write him as some kind of buffoon."

"That's not—" he tried again, then deflated. He thought of Tom's cheerful demeanor, all of the ways that he wasn't anything like Sherlock, and how much he'd hated himself when his heart had leapt, just a little bit, the first time he'd caught a glimpse of the man standing next to Molly. "You're probably right, actually. Yeah."

"Yeah," she nodded. "So I ask you again. Why me? Why that particular plot twist."

"It fit, didn't it?" he blurted. "You know, you've got the whole—orphan thing—"

He had just enough time to see her wide eyes fill with shocked hurt before she was whirling away, slamming out the front door. And she really slammed it, this time, no quiet exit. The picture frames rattled on the walls.

"Shit," he said out loud, to no one.

*

The Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson

10th November Diamonds are Forever

But I'm a rubbish husband. I don't think I'm cut out for domesticity.

I was better when Sherlock was

I keep saying the wrong thing. I don't know what's wrong with me. Is this what it was like for him? Somehow always managing to say exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time? Though I don't think there would have been a right time to say what I said. Sorry.

 

10 Comments

youre not cut out for writing thats for sure
theimprobableone

Don't be so hard on yourself, mate. It can't be that bad.
Mike Stamford

also you already had an entry called diamonds are forever
theimprobableone

Have you been drinking?
Harry Watson

YES
John Watson

LOL You are going to regret this post tomorrow!
Harry Watson

Have to agree with Harry on this one. Bet you'll be deleting this entry as soon as the hangover clears up.
Mike Stamford

Oh John, please come round for tea one of these days.
Mrs Hudson

LOL Not cut out for domesticity? I could have told you that!
Bill Murray

Please don't publicize our quarrels, John. Delete this.
Mary Watson

*

His head was spinning when he fell into bed, sick with regret and shame. Christ, he had a good thing going. Mary was perfect for him. Why couldn't he seem to make this work? He couldn't blame Sherlock for this one, Sherlock was dead. This was his fault, and his fault alone.

He didn't dream of Sherlock. It was almost a surprise.

Instead, he dreamt of hot sun, of sand and scrub brush and clear blue skies. Afghanistan, then, a place where he'd always had a purpose, where he'd always known exactly what to do. The place where his life had last made any semblance of sense.

There was no terror, no gunfire, no explosions. Just sun and sand and a deep sense of peace. He stood with shoulders squared and just breathed.

"That was a bit not good, wasn't it?" Sholto said to his left.

John jumped and turned, a smile creasing his face at the sight of his friend. Sholto's face was unscarred, tanned, the way he remembered it. Except—

"That's not a thing that you say," John said.

Sholto tilted his head, frowned. His eyes were light blue, sun-bleached.

"Not good," John clarified.

Sholto smiled, a nice smile, his teeth very white against his tanned skin. "What I meant to say, John, is that you really cocked that one up."

"That's more like it, yeah."

They stood scanning the horizon, side by side.

"What do you want?" Sholto asked, finally.

John shrugged. "What anyone wants."

"You're not just anyone."

He looked up, surprised at the tone of voice. Sholto was looking down at him with a serious expression.

"I can't have what I want," John said finally, turning away.

"Can't you?" Sholto said quietly, his voice deeper than it had ever been, almost like—

John glanced back. Sherlock was standing next to him, pale and strange in fatigues. He was studying John with that intense, probing look, the one that left him feeling flayed open and exposed.

"No," John said, and suddenly his pack was very heavy, his limbs tired. "I don't think I can."

*

The Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson

10th November Diamonds are Forever

*entry deleted*

 

0 Comments

*

Chapter Text

*

It was not exactly silent treatment, there was no pointed avoidance, but they did not speak to one another unless they absolutely had to. They maintained a polite, professional working relationship.

At home, they went about their separate business. Sometimes Mary cooked. Sometimes John did. They sat at the table and read books or newspapers or magazines and did not make extraneous conversation.

They slept side by side, a careful distance between their bodies.

He was confused, unsettled, on edge. He woke from dreams of Sherlock with his chest locked up, his shout—so loud in his mind—trapped in his throat, escaping as a thin wheeze of anguished breath. He lay still, chest heaving, reorienting himself to his surroundings, struggling to rein in his galloping heart, swiping at the wetness on his cheeks and thinking resentfully: I was fine I was fine I was fine.

He was certainly not fine any longer.

Mary was a tense line in the bed beside him, night after night, pretending to sleep, pretending that his paroxysms had not woken her. Neither moved to bridge the gap of cool sheets between them.

He had asked her not to intervene, when they'd first begun their relationship. At the time, he'd been jolting awake on the regular, Sherlock's name trapped in his mouth, reaching out for him with hands that were never where they needed to be, running towards him with strides that were forever too slow.

"I've seen some terrible things," he had told Mary. He'd been brisk, matter-of-fact, heartened by the directness with which she seemed to approach their interactions. "Sometimes, when I sleep, I see them again."

She was a nurse. She was a caregiver. The urge to help practically vibrated out of her at times. She wanted to comfort him. Had wanted to comfort him. But she respected his wishes.

And he—well, it had helped. Having someone there. His relationship with Mary had been healing, a balm to his frayed nerves. She had been what he needed. Sherlock had stopped dying in his dreams, had slowly faded out of them altogether.

Boredom had crept in to fill the empty spaces left behind. He did not like to admit this in the light of day, did not like to feel ungrateful for the peace and happiness that had been granted him.

But he had been fine. He had been better. So why—why now? Why was he suddenly wracked with grief all over again as if it had just happened, as if Sherlock had only just taken his graceful swan dive into open air? It had been three years. Sherlock should have faded into a fond and sad memory, a remarkable footnote in the otherwise unremarkable life of John Hamish Watson.

Why now? Why now?

That tension, the stiff lines of feigned sleep, still vibrated off of Mary. But he doubted that it was out of any suppressed desire to comfort him, now.

He was not a loud dreamer. Screams that flayed his throat open in dreams, those anguished pleas that never, ever woke the dead, only escaped in painful thin hisses of air. Usually.

Had he spoken aloud? Gasped out Sherlock's name, reached out for him? Had Mary heard him and—misinterpreted?

He looked at her, at the unwelcoming line of her back, and thought about reaching out. Night after night after night, he thought about reaching out.

He didn't.

They woke, ate breakfast quietly in front of the telly, watched the morning news, drank their morning coffee. John caught himself perking up at mentions of interesting crimes, the way he used to—well, best be honest with himself—the way he'd never stopped doing. When Sherlock had been alive, he'd tossed headlines at the man to see what would stick, what would catch the fickle attention of that great brain. After, he'd hoarded headlines for fictional cases, starting points for the Sherlock who never was (and never would be) to continue his adventures.

He forced down the flare of interest at a corpse found trussed up with fairy lights in a department store Christmas display. Managed not to smile at a series of impossible burglaries committed by a man who seemed able to walk through walls. Successfully suppressed his shudder of revulsion at the next in a sequence of small explosions around the city, mainly in posh townhouses, presumed to be the work of someone covering up larger crimes. Bombings made him think of Moriarty, which made his mind go in directions he'd rather avoid.

Directions he needed to avoid, if he had any hope of salvaging his marriage.

So they ate their breakfasts and they drank their coffees and they watched the telly. Then Mary would go off into the shower, and John would stow his clothes in a backpack, would get on his bike and pedal to work. It was cold, his breath steaming in the air in front of him, icy sweat slipping down his back as he pushed himself harder and harder. There was a rush in cycling through London traffic, his heart rate spiked with every bus, every cab that roared by close enough to make his clothing flutter.

He'd shower and change at the office, wash off the sweat and city grime, be dressed and ready for the first patients by the time Mary and the rest of the staff arrived for the day.

It all had a terrible feeling of inevitability. The collapse of his marriage, slow motion, irreversible, like watching Sherlock plunge from on high. He was the one careening, now, helplessly watching the pavement rush up to meet him.

*

"So," Ella said. "How are you, John?"

"Good," he said. "Yeah, good."

She waited. They eyed each other from across the room, seated in their respective chairs.

"I don't think you made this appointment because you wanted to tell me you're good," she said finally.

He looked down at his hands. The left one was trembling, ever so slightly. He slid it under his thigh, wriggled his fingers against the vinyl cushion.

"It's been four months since I've seen you," she said in her maddeningly placid voice. "When we last spoke, you were getting married. Did you?"

"Yes," he said. "I did. Mary, ah, my wife, is a nurse. We work together. It's how we met."

"Do you find that difficult?" she asked him. "Working with someone you're in a relationship with?"

"No," he said, and shifted in his seat. "No, not—that's fine. It's fine. That's good."

"Good," she said. She crossed her arms, looked expectantly at him.

"I'm not—" he stopped, looked down at his lap. There was a small stain on his knee from where he'd dropped a bit of his lunch. He scratched at it with the edge of a fingernail. "I thought I was doing all right."

"And you don't feel that any longer?"

He looked up, offered a pained smile. "I've spoken to you about—about what happened. You know that it was, um, difficult for me. After."

"Yes," she said. "And when we last spoke, you told me you were moving on. That you'd met someone, started a new chapter. That you felt like you had begun to heal."

"I don't think—" his voice sounded small, hollow. He cleared his throat. "I don't think that's entirely true."

"You no longer feel that you're healing?"

"No," he choked out, shaking his head. "No. If anything it's worse. I—how can it be worse? He's been gone for three years. Twice the amount of time I actually knew him."

"He was a significant part of your life."

"So is my wife," John said.

"Do you feel that your grief is affecting your relationship?"

"You could say that."

"In what way?"

He laughed, leaned back in his chair, shut his eyes. "It will sound crazy."

She raised her eyebrows.

"Right," he said. "Crazy is sort of your job. Um. I've been writing."

"Your blog?"

"Not just the blog." His face had begun to heat up. Christ, he was blushing like a schoolboy. "A book."

"Writing can be very therapeutic."

"It's—it's about Sherlock."

He half expected her to roll her eyes and state: obviously. Instead she simply sat, watching him, waiting for him to continue.

"Fiction, and—not, I guess. I've been writing what might have happened if he came back."

"If he rose from the dead?"

"Not like—more like if he'd faked his death."

"You spoke about that possibility when we met months ago."

"Yeah," he said. "Not really, um, not really a possibility. More like wishful thinking."

"So you've been writing about him as if he were here now?"

He nodded, looked up at the ceiling. His eyes were stinging. "I've tried imagining what it would be like, if he came back. How he'd fit in with, um, with the way things are now."

"You mean your relationship with your wife."

"My life is good," he said, blinking hard. "I have what I'm supposed to want. I shouldn't find it boring."

"You've mentioned that boredom is something that would come up a lot, when you lived with Sherlock."

"Yeah, everything was boring to him. Breathing—" his voice cracked and he suddenly felt at once overwarm and chilled, his skin prickling. "Breathing was boring."

"This book that you're writing—"

"Not boring," he said.

"Would you say that it's helping you? With your grief?"

"Mary found it," he said in a rush. "She read it and she doesn't understand it, because I've written things in there that are—a bit unflattering. To say the least. It's made her question a lot of things."

"Do you find yourself focusing on your wife's unflattering qualities?"

"No," he breathed. "No, she—she's great. I was in a terrible place, and she—meeting her was like stepping back out into the sun. She turned my life around. I thought—I thought that I had put all of this behind me."

Ella sat, watching him with her quiet considering gaze.

He didn't know, he realized. He didn't know exactly when this had all started crashing down around him. He could put the blame on Mary for opening the file, for using his laptop and clicking on Unpaid Bills and bringing his unhappy secret to light. He could put the blame on himself for feeling so numb and dulled by the monotony of suburban life that he needed to write Sherlock into the world he was trying to build with Mary. But he couldn't quite pinpoint the moment when writing about Sherlock had become something he did not just to enhance his monotonous life but to escape it entirely.

He thought about what it had felt like, losing himself in that other world for a little while. His proposal to Mary, a bright spot, made even brighter in revision. The catharsis of being able to shout at Sherlock, to hurt him back a little bit, for all of the pain and misery and darkness he'd left behind when he'd died.

And Christ, if he were honest with himself—and that was the point of therapy, wasn't it? To be honest?—he'd been half expecting Sherlock to show up that night. He'd been on his mind all day. He'd gone to Baker Street, for Christ's sake, the place he'd sworn to himself he'd never set foot in again. He'd tolerated Mrs Hudson's (much deserved) scolding and had stood amidst dust and memories and the odd detritus of Sherlock's life, strangely suspended in time. He'd gone ahead to dinner and he had been nervous and tense and utterly thrilled to ask Mary to marry him but he'd kept one eye on the door.

If Sherlock were coming back, surely he'd choose a big moment to make his big reveal.

But nothing had happened. Nothing could happen. Because Sherlock wasn't the protagonist in a spy novel, he wasn't running around the globe solving crimes, he wasn't coming back to once again wreak havoc on John's romantic life, he was dead. Dead.

He hadn't realized that he'd spent years hoping for a miracle until the day he'd stopped.

"It's helping," he said. "The writing."

"Yes," Ella said. "But is it helping you to let go, or is it helping you to hold on?"

*

He went out into the chill air, pulled his coat around him, collar turned up against the wind. He felt edgy, raw, the way he always did after a session with Ella. He had been in the same state when he'd bumped into Mike Stamford, when—

God, he couldn't stop himself. It was as if his brain had been rewired to route every thought back to Sherlock.

Mary. Mary was alive. Their marriage was—floundering, but it wasn't dead yet. If he could—if he could find a way to shut this off, this strange need to embellish, romanticize, improve, then maybe he could manage to fix things.

He had nurtured a fiction, had allowed it to grow up between the cracks in his heart and take on a life of its own. Perhaps excising it would allow room for normal emotions, normal feelings to return.

The idea gripped him, seized hold, and suddenly it was something that had to be done. Immediately, for his own sanity, if he were to have any chance of getting on with his life. He couldn't keep on pretending that it was helping, in any meaningful way, to throw over real life experiences in favor of sensationalized, revised ones.

He had never done much writing in coffee shops, but something about the anonymous bustle of the crowd soothed his edgy, jumpy mood. This did not feel like something he could do at home, amidst the furniture that he and Mary had picked out together.

He sat down with a cup of tea, booted up his laptop. He opened the file, renamed Afghanistan—Mary had displayed limited interest in his wartime activities, and he suspected that the minimal interest she had shown was out of politeness and a sense of obligation on her part—and settled in to write.

Sherlock, his Sherlock, the construct he'd dreamed up, had just murdered a man in cold blood, in full view of a dozen heavily armed witnesses. There was no coming back from that.

He thought about those laser sights, the whirring blades of the helicopter, the rushing noise and wind and Sherlock's hair whipping around his face. They would fire, he thought. He was holding a weapon and had just shot a man and they would fire. He'd go down in a hail of bullets, his last act being one of protection, of sacrifice.

John's heart clenched and he gripped at the table. Laser sights over Sherlock's heart made him think of Moriarty, of the stink of chlorine and the eerie blue glow of poolwater lit from below. Sherlock's face, going slack and briefly unguarded, all shock and dismay and—Sherlock RUN— but he wouldn't run, he'd been prepared to meet his death even then. And John had been prepared to go with him.

He opened his eyes, glanced around surreptitiously to make sure he hadn't attracted any undue attention. His heart was pounding, palms clammy.

Right. No climactic hail of gunfire. Even if the Sherlock in his head was fictional, he had too much reality to draw on for that. Too many nightmares waiting to bubble up from the depths of his subconscious.

An exile, though—

He thought about that for a moment, let the idea take shape in his mind. That was—that was better than having to write about, having to imagine Sherlock's death. A fond farewell, a departure, an off-screen demise. Closure.

His mobile buzzed with an incoming text and he glanced down. Mary, of course.

Will you be home for dinner?

He hesitated, glanced at the time. Typed out a reply.

No, I'll grab something while I'm out.

There was no response. He sat staring at the silent phone for a long moment, feeling uncomfortable. Finally he picked it up and sent one last text.

I love you.

He set the phone back down on the table, waited. The screen remained dark.

He sighed, looked back at his laptop. He took a sip of tea and began.

*

The Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson

24th November Pink Elephants

Sorry about that last entry. I'd had a few drinks and wasn't exactly at my best. Bit embarrassing.

Anyway, it turns out that sometimes, even when you convince yourself that you're over something, it can still creep in and upset you anyway. I've been trying so hard to make these past few months not about Sherlock, and it turns out that only made me think about him more.

What is that thing that people say? Don't think about a pink elephant? If you try not to think about it, suddenly that’s all you can think about. That's what happened to me.

And I've been so focused on not focusing on Sherlock, and consequently it's all I can think about, which means that I've been a bit of a mess without realizing it. I can't keep doing this. I keep saying that I'm letting go, and moving on, but those are just words.

I think part of me always thought that if anyone could find a way to cheat death, it would be him. So I've been waiting, in a way. Waiting for him to work his miracles and come back. And that's not healthy, and it's not fair to the people that I have around me. So I'm saying goodbye, Sherlock. For real this time. You were my best friend, and you made such a difference in my life in the short time I knew you. I will never forget you, but I have to focus on what I have in front of me now.

 

9 Comments

Really, John?
Harry Watson

What?
John Watson

*comment deleted*
Harry Watson

Oh for God's sake, Harry, it's just an expression. I think I've heard it with polar bears instead of elephants, too, would that make it better?
John Watson

*comment deleted*
Harry Watson

HARRY
John Watson

Aw, Harry, it's not funny to tease him about that stuff anymore. Bit mean, really. Not like he can do anything about it.
Mike Stamford

i must have missed the part where this was about sherlock because all i've seen the past few months have been boring recipes
theimprobableone

also you are talking about ironic process theory not just a 'thing that people say'
theimprobableone

*

John leaned back in his chair, spine popping. It had taken four cups of tea and the evening shadows had begun to gather outside, but he was done. Done. He had written Sherlock out of his life, for good this time, sent the madcap adventures and danger and adrenaline packing. He had felt such an overwhelming sense of relief and peace upon typing the last words that he'd fired off a blog entry too.

Sherlock's life—his life with Sherlock—had come to such an abrupt and horrid end. Everything that Sherlock was to him, hell, everything that they'd been to each other, it had all gone to waste, dashed brutally against the ground. It had been so sudden. One moment running around London together, united in the face of adversity, terrified, absolutely terrified but at the same time utterly convinced that Sherlock would find a way out of the mess they'd gotten into.

Instead—well.

He'd taken the long way around, certainly, but he'd finally managed to get himself to a point where he felt comfortable letting go. This, what he'd written, it was a long and careful farewell. The goodbye he never got to say, a good bye to Sherlock and a good bye to the life he'd led up to that point, the life that had ended with a broken body on concrete.


The second funeral of Sherlock Holmes was considerably less attended than the first. It was fitting, this way. The fanfare of his first, faked death was matched by the flurry of intense media and public interest, the steady stream of false friends who had come to gape and gawk. The second affair, the real thing, was known only to those who had known him for real, who had really cared.

It was a lovely June day, mild and sunny. Almost six months to the day from his departure, from his ascent into the sky, bound for one final adventure.

It hurt, thinking that I'd never see him again. There was a part of me, there would always be a part of me, that wished I could have gone with him. That I could have been by his side one last time, as he'd once wanted, the two of us against the world. That hurt was eased—not removed, but eased—by the clasp of Mary's warm hand in mine, by the burble of our daughter against her chest. He had done this, had selflessly given himself over to keep us safe.

It was the kind of sacrifice that you wouldn't expect from a sociopath. But, then again, he had never been a sociopath. Not really.

I was glad for having known him. He had enriched my life in so many ways, had pulled me out of my own head and the dull monotony of life after Afghanistan. And I was glad for the time we had together after, when he came back after those two years away. Losing him the first time had been a horrible shock. Losing him the second time had been inevitable.

We stood there in the sun, Mary and I, Mycroft, Molly, Greg, Mrs Hudson, even Anderson. The people who had known him. The people who had loved him. We stood and we said our goodbyes, and this time it wasn't with the awful incomplete feeling that been so strong in the wake of his suicide. This time, death had beckoned, and Sherlock had squared his shoulders and had gone where he was called.

I wouldn't spend days by his grave, this time. Talking to his headstone, begging for miracles. I'd gotten my miracle already, and, in typical Sherlock fashion, it had swept in, disrupted my life and then put it back together even better than it had been before.

To say that I'll remember him fondly would do him a disservice. There was too much of him to wrap up in a neat package that way. All I can say is that I will remember him. And I will do my best to honor that memory by living each moment, appreciating each breath that I continue to draw because of his sacrifice.

It won't be the same, of course. But it will be enough. It has to be.

He saved the file, shut his laptop. His stomach rumbled cautiously, reminding him that he'd been steadily imbibing caffeinated beverages without anything solid.

He looked down at his phone. Mary had still not responded to his last text.

It was early, yet. Dinner was not out of the question.

He had shrugged the heavy weight of Sherlock's ghost from his shoulders, had edited him out of his life. He wanted, suddenly, to see his wife. To talk to her, more than the brittle pleasantries they'd exchanged in the weeks—Christ, it was going on two months now—since she'd found the file.

Mind made up, he moved quickly, packed up and left the coffee shop with a wave and a smile to the barista who had kept him supplied with hot beverages while he'd typed. He tipped up his coat collar against the bite of winter air, a salute of sorts to his dearly departed friend.

The sky was clear, a smattering of stars visible. He smiled up at them.

*

His key was just scraping in the lock when he heard it—a muffled giggle. He hesitated, juggling the takeaway bag, and then steeled himself and pushed on inside.

Mary and Janine were on the sofa, heads together, laughing. There was a half empty wine bottle on the coffee table. It felt like ages since he had heard Mary laugh, and for a moment he stood there, just letting the sound wash over him.

"Hello," he said, feeling suddenly awkward. He had forgotten how to make his wife laugh.

"Oh," Mary said, glancing up. She looked surprised, but not—he hoped—displeased. "I didn't know that you were—"

"I wasn't," he said quickly. "But—" The words he'd wanted to say had evaporated at the sight of Janine. Instead he held up the takeaway bag.

"Ooh," Janine said, unfolding off of the sofa and stalking towards him with a mischievous smile. "What are we having, then?"

He felt pinned, alarmed, like a small animal that had attracted the attention of a larger predator. He didn't much like Janine.

No, that wasn't true. He did like her. Janine was pleasant, funny, quick-witted and sarcastic just like Mary. He could see why the two of them got on, why they'd been friends for as long as they had. It was just—he'd always gotten the sense that she didn't quite like him. Even before the wedding, when he and Mary were dating, he'd detected a strain of disapproval beneath her jolly laughter and ribald jokes. And the accent, that lovely lilting voice, it—well after Moriarty, he couldn't hear it without a feeling like someone had drawn an icy finger up along his spine.

And he—he wanted to talk to Mary. He'd had a revelation. He'd taken steps to change his life. He didn't want—

"I'm not sure if there's enough for—" his words died in his mouth at Mary's warning look. "You know what, ignore me. I'm sure there's enough to go around."

"Excellent," Janine said, taking the bag from him. She bustled into the kitchen, looking completely at home. He wondered how long she'd been there. "Mary, how's that wine looking?"

Mary upended the rest of the bottle into her glass. "Empty."

"Good thing I brought reinforcements." Janine produced another bottle, busied herself with uncorking.

John found himself settling uncomfortably in an armchair and picking at a serving of lo mein while Mary and Janine chattered away.

"Mary," he said, after what had felt like an appropriate amount of time. "I was hoping we could talk."

"Yes, I can see that," she said. "But you told me you weren't going to be home for dinner, so I made plans. I'm not throwing Janine out because you've changed yours."

He sucked in a breath, looked down at his dinner, suddenly no longer hungry. He set it aside and reached for the wine.

*

Somewhere into the third bottle of wine, John became aware of Janine giggling and shooting him knowing looks.

"What?" he said.

Mary swatted at her. "Stop it."

"Oh, come on!" Janine said, laughing. "He crashed our party. The least he can do is be entertaining."

He frowned, stood up with some effort. "You know what, forget it." He started for the door.

"John, no," Mary said, and she sounded somewhat contrite. "I'm sorry, come back. Stay. Janine—behave."

"Where's the fun in that?" Janine grumbled.

He sighed, looked at his coat hanging on a hook by the door.

"It's been a while since you've wanted to be here," Mary said, looking at him with big, serious eyes. "It's nice, John. Really."

He nodded, sat back down. Poured himself another glass of wine.

The evening grew hazy, his eyelids grew heavy. He and Mary traded off telling Janine some of the more amusing anecdotes from the surgery.

"God," Janine gasped over her glass, shutting her eyes and laughing as he was attempting to describe a man whose wife had stabbed him with a fork at a wedding reception. "Don't tell me that shite. You know I can't handle blood."

"It's true," Mary laughed. "She lasted all of a week in nursing school."

"Surprised I made it that long, honestly."

They'd laughed and laughed, and he'd tried to tell himself that he was imagining the sick hollow feeling in his chest.

Later—minutes? Hours?—he found himself in the kitchen, rummaging through the cabinets for more alcohol. Surely there was a bottle of scotch—

He did not hear Janine come in behind him and jumped when he turned around. She gave him a sharp smile, backed him against the counter.

"Um," he said, holding the bottle out at an awkward angle in front of him. His movements felt sluggish, uncoordinated.

"Mary asked me to behave," she said, the smile fading from her face. "So I'm playing nice. But you should know—she's my friend, and you hurt her. You're still hurting her. And I don't let that shite go. Are we clear?"

He blinked at her, his head slow and heavy with wine. "Yes. No?"

Her eyes flashed. She opened her mouth.

He held up a finger to ward her off. "Mary and I—we're working out some issues. I'm not sure what she's told you, but—"

"See," Janine cut in. "The thing is, I don't really care what you have to say. Be good to my friend, or you'll deal with me." She took the bottle from his hand. "Thanks."

He watched her retreat into the living room, his heart thudding in his chest. After a moment, lacking any other options, he followed.

He sat back down, leaned his head back against the chair and watched his marriage fall apart. Their carefully constructed façade of normalcy buckled and collapsed, slowly, painfully, groaning under its own weight. He was drunk and dizzy and he missed Sherlock and suddenly he wanted to cry.

Janine and Mary seemed to have run out of things to discuss. The silence was syrup thick, weighty. He hoped Janine would leave. He wanted to go to sleep, wanted to wake up and have coffee and shower away his inevitable hangover and finally, finally talk to Mary. If it wasn't already too late.

"Oi," Janine said, her eyes sparkling. She was moving with the sort of manic lack of coordination some people got when very drunk. He was suddenly very glad that he had not known her in her university days. "I have an idea."

She had her phone in her hand, was pulling something up on the screen, still smiling that shark smile of hers.

"The fire was burning low, casting the sitting room in a warm, cozy light. Sherlock was drunk, smiling, soft-edged and slumped in his chair. The great weight of his public persona had fallen away, leaving only the man beneath. He looked young, happy, utterly at ease there, giggling into his drink."

"Oh, no, don't—" Mary said, laughing a little bit and casting a nervous eye towards John. She reached out for the phone but Janine tugged it out of her reach.

"Don't," John said, his heart wrenching.

"The wine had gone to my head. I tipped forward in my seat, overbalanced, and wound up grabbing his knee to keep from falling on my face. His skin was warm through the thin fabric of his trousers, a startling reminder that he was human, flesh and blood, not the cold and remote machine he tried to emulate. He was alive. Alive and happy. And in that moment, I—"

"ENOUGH!" He stumbled up and out of his seat, blood roaring in his ears. The world tilted and he thought for a moment that he might be sick right there on the rug.

Mary was looking down, not meeting his eyes.

"Overall, it's a bit heavy-handed with the whole romance/unrequited love angle, sorry to say. At least you nailed the characterization of my boss," Janine grinned from her perch on the sofa. "Pervy old bastard. Wouldn't mind if someone did him in for real."

"You," he said, ignoring Janine and looking straight at Mary, his voice locking up. "You emailed it to her? You just—sent it out? So you could have yourself a laugh?"

"No," she said, looking up. She looked stricken. "Of course not."

"She emailed it to me because she was upset, you complete arse," Janine said. "And because she didn't think she could trust her own judgment on what she'd seen."

He was trembling, he realized. With anger and—something else. Some terrible, long buried emotion, one that could find no outlet here. Or anywhere, ever. Because the person who had triggered it was long gone.

Gone. That was a good idea, right about now.

He went for his coat without speaking, his movements clumsy. He slung the bag with his laptop over his shoulder. The door came up quicker than he was expecting and he put his hand out against the wood, righting himself. He did not say a word, did not slam the door behind him as he went out into the night.

Where?

The street was dark, quiet, empty. He had no idea what time it was. Late, certainly. Or early. Regardless, an inappropriate time to show up intoxicated and unexpected at the home of anyone he knew.

It was cold. He put his head down and walked. Walked and walked and walked. After what felt like hours, he spotted a cab, waved it down, mumbled the first thing he could think of to the driver. His cheeks stung from the icy wind.

Baker Street was quiet as he spilled out of the cab onto the kerb. His fingers were numb, his legs throbbing.

He pressed his palm reverently against the black door, used his key, the key he'd never been able to make himself give up. He stumbled up the stairs and crossed the threshold into his past.

The sofa was as comfortable as it had ever been.

*

Chapter Text

*

"John," Sherlock said. "Pass me a pen." He was at the kitchen table, shoulders slouched, peering into a microscope.

John glanced over his shoulder, poised to say something cheeky—he had always found it simultaneously endearing and infuriating the way that Sherlock seemed to think he could just issue commands—and at once felt his words die in his throat.

Sherlock was—he wasn't doing anything unusual. He was perched on the edge of the chair, had probably been there for hours. He was wearing one of his nicer dressing gowns, trousers and crisply pressed shirt underneath. He meant to leave the flat at some point, then. Likely as soon as he was done with whatever experiment he was conducting.

And John— couldn't stop staring. His heart stuttered in his chest. There was a smile spreading across his face, seemingly of its own volition, a real smile, the kind that strained his jaw and made his cheeks ache. It was utterly nonsensical, this, but the very sight of Sherlock was like a balm to some heretofore undiscovered ache and he could not tear his eyes away—

"John?" Sherlock had not looked away from the microscope, but his voice had lost its commanding edge, had softened into something questioning, unsure.

John couldn't move. Couldn't speak. Couldn't possibly begin to understand how or why the sight of him, the utterly commonplace and unremarkable sight of him, had caused his heart to swell with such happiness. There were—for God's sake, there were tears prickling at the corners of his eyes.

His continued silence must have alarmed Sherlock, because he pushed back from the microscope with a scrape of chair legs on linoleum and advanced into the sitting room. His face was inscrutable but his eyes were bright, curious, the full intensity of that stare turned towards John.

John started laughing at the sight of him. It was not a mocking laugh. The sound that spilled helplessly out of him was one of pure, unfiltered joy. He turned his head, following Sherlock's progression as he came around the side of the armchair. His movements were slow, deliberate.

Sherlock's brow furrowed up, his nose scrunched the way it did on the rare and wonderful occasions when he found himself confused, and he crouched down in front of John. His eyes had not lost that laser focus.

Still laughing, unable to stop, John let his newspaper drop to the floor. He tipped forward in his chair and wrapped his arms around Sherlock, pulling him into an embrace. Sherlock uttered a charmingly surprised "oof" sound as he lost his balance, and then, thrillingly, wonderfully, his arms were around John. He did not pull back. His touch was stiff, tentative, hands spread wide and braced against John's shoulders as if simply keeping his balance.

John smoothed his hands down Sherlock's back in a gentle, comforting motion and all at once the tension in his spine relaxed and he folded forward. He was warm. The tip of his nose slid against John's neck in something dangerously approaching a nuzzle. John's head pressed against his chest. The steady thud of his heartbeat was soothing.

Abruptly, John stopped laughing.

He turned his head, his face sliding along the silky softness of Sherlock's dressing gown, breathed him in. The smell of him, so familiar, why, why did it suddenly seem to pull at him in such a way? It made no sense. It made no sense. He breathed in again, and again, deep lungfulls, dizzy and happy and desperate for more and—suddenly—melancholy. The sound he breathed out was suspiciously close to a sob.

Sherlock made a questioning sound against his neck at that unhappy little hitch in his throat. John leaned back ever so slightly, meeting Sherlock's befuddled gaze, feeling Sherlock's soft breaths puff against his cheek. He had never looked this deeply into Sherlock's eyes, never for this long. Their colour was inexplicable, indescribable. He never wanted to forget it.

Sherlock cocked his head in a silent question, eyes huge and unblinking, alarmed and—something else. The movement bumped his nose against John's, brought their lips close, so close. John breathed out and Sherlock shivered.

And—oh. Oh. This was—was this what he'd wanted all along? Christ, this felt good. When was the last time a hug had ever felt this good?

He grinned, and Sherlock grinned right back at him, the reaction automatic. The furrow remained between his brows. John was seized with an inexplicable desire to kiss it away.

"I've missed you," John said, his palms spread out on Sherlock's warm back, Sherlock's warm breath against his face. His voice cracked. That—that was a silly thing to say, why would he—

"That is an utterly nonsensical and, frankly, alarming thing to say," Sherlock said. Ever the voice of reason, that one. He did not move away. "I've been in the kitchen."

"For a very long time," John said. "And you missed me too, you—see?" He shrugged his shoulders, around which Sherlock's long arms were still snugged. One of his thumbs was making slow circles against the skin at the back of John's neck.

Sherlock shifted, looked down. He seemed to be staring at his own hands. The little wrinkle over his nose deepened. He did not stop moving his thumb. He did not pull his arms away. "I—"

"Oh!"

He jerked out of sleep all at once at the startled exclamation, his body halfway into a defensive crouch before his brain caught up with the rest of him. His head screamed in protest, a sharp band of pain tightening right over his eyes. The light in the room was bright—too bright. His eyes struggled to focus, stomach making itself known and duking it out with his head for which part of him felt worse.

"Mrs Hudson," he mumbled, letting out a relieved breath, slumping back against the armrest. His back ached. Christ, he'd spent the night on the couch. The shadows on the floor put the time somewhere in the late morning.

"John," she said, clutching one hand against her chest. The other was holding a rather formidable cast iron cooking pan. She sagged against the wall, breathing rather hard. "It's you."

"Of course it's me—" he blinked, looked around. The warm familiarity of his surroundings and the lingering traces of his dream coalesced into something else. Something harder, colder. He was on the couch in 221B, yes. But this wasn't home. It hadn't been home for a long time.

"Jesus," he said. He scrubbed his face with his hands. His mouth tasted terrible. His stomach roiled. He felt as if he still might be halfway drunk. "I'm so sorry. Last night I—I must have—"

She went into the kitchen, set the frying pan on the table. She turned on the tap, came into the sitting room bearing a glass of water. "Hush, now, John. You know you're always welcome here. This is your home."

He sat up the rest of the way, shut his eyes against the wave of vertigo. He took the water, sipped. It was cool against his dry tongue. He could remember walking—the cold—vague fleeting impressions of a cab ride—

"Was my home," he corrected, opening his eyes and looking at the coffee table. His laptop sat open. When had he—?

"Home isn't always where you live, John," she said briskly. "Now. You take a few minutes. Pull yourself together. I'll get you some fresh towels. When you're feeling a bit more yourself, come down and I'll start breakfast."

"I couldn't possibly—"

"Nonsense," she said, and there it was, that steel in her that was so easy to overlook until suddenly it wasn't. "I believe you owe me an explanation at the very least, crashing about up here at all hours of the night. I'm just grateful not to have a repeat of last month!"

She went out of the room and down the stairs, still muttering to herself.

He sat for a moment, willing his stomach into submission. Then he glanced over at the kitchen, where the heavy frying pan still sat on the table. Last month?

He shook his head, regretted the motion. Leaning forward carefully, he pulled his laptop across the coffee table towards him, waited while the screen woke up. He ached. That terrible, terrible evening with Janine and Mary. She had—they had—they had looked right into his flayed open heart and laughed.

He only hoped he hadn't blogged about it.

He had left his book file open. His stupid, ruinous, wish-fulfillment fantasy.

He looked down at the screen, blinked. Scrolled up and down. Then he started to laugh. It was a bitter sound, ugly and rusty to his own ears.

He had deleted his last chapter, the bit about Sherlock's funeral. All of that triumphant coffee shop effort, gone. In its place, he'd written, simply:

COME BACK.

"If only it were that easy," he said. He did a quick check to make sure he hadn't posted anything mortifyingly personal on his blog—he hadn't, thank God for small miracles—and slammed his laptop shut.

He should have known that he never really wanted to be rid of Sherlock in the first place.

He picked up the little throw pillow he'd been sleeping on. On impulse, he lifted it to his face, breathed in. God. God, it still smelled like Sherlock. Three years gone, and he still left little traces of himself around, a terrible and wonderful minefield of memories.

Well. That explained the dream, then. He'd spent the night happily and drunkenly mashing his face into the pillow that had cradled Sherlock's head through countless sulks and nights watching crap telly and forays into his mind palace. Great. That was—not helping his situation.

He went into the bathroom, turned the shower on as hot as he could bear and stood under the pounding water, let it work on his headache.

There was a half-empty bottle of his shampoo on the ledge of the tub. He hadn't taken it with him when he'd left. Mrs Hudson had never thrown it out.

For a moment, if he let himself, he could almost pretend that the last three years of his life hadn't happened. That he could step out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam and find Sherlock sitting at the kitchen table with his nose pressed up against a microscope.

He'd never just—spontaneously hugged Sherlock. Wasn't the sort of thing one did and expected to live through, really, dream or no dream. But—

He shut his eyes.

All of those mornings. A year and a half's worth of mornings. How had he never taken the opportunity to be grateful for what he had? How had he never looked over at Sherlock and thought: this isn't going to last forever, you know. Because he had thought—he had. He had thought it would be forever.

Christ, that dream had felt so real. Just holding Sherlock, feeling the steady comfort of his heartbeat, the warmth of his skin, the incontrovertible proof of his humanity.

He shut off the water, stood breathing in the dissipating steam.

Mrs Hudson had left folded towels and a bottle of paracetamol just outside the bathroom door. He dried himself briskly, stood regarding his reflection in the mirror. His face was haggard. Haunted. He thought about Mary telling him that he no longer smiled and tried for one now. The result was alarming, and he let his face drop back into its default expression.

He'd been smiling in his dream, holding Sherlock, just breathing his air. He had felt good. Content.

Was this it, then? Was he doomed to spend the rest of his life haunted by regret? Regret for not having realized, not having known what he wanted?

Had he known? Had he known on some level and just—been too afraid to act?

He had never—he'd never been with a man. Not like that. And Sherlock didn't—he didn't seem interested in anyone. Ever. So that was that.

Except—there had been that thing with Sholto in Afghanistan. Until he met Sherlock, he'd have named it the most meaningful friendship in his life. The most meaningful relationship in his life, even. Until. Well. Everything paled next to Sherlock. That's just how it was.

He'd never really thought about it, never really pulled it out and examined it. Afghanistan had happened, and then it had been over, and that had been that. Now, standing in front of the mirror in the humid bathroom air, he forced himself to do so.

He and Sholto had gotten on well from the start. But there hadn't been anything between them.

But that wasn't exactly true, was it? Just because nothing had happened didn't mean there hadn't been anything there. There had. There had, it had simmered just below the surface, a ghost of a possibility. But the timing was wrong, and the circumstances were wrong, and it had continued on as just—just a thrillingly pleasant hum of something that could be.

He'd already—he'd already felt more alive, there in Afghanistan, than he had anywhere else in his life. Every moment was razor sharp, his senses were finely tuned, his body hard and ready. And he got on well with everyone around him, he always had, he'd always been friendly and quick to toss off a joke or a smile. People liked him, but, if pressed, he'd guess that none of them ever really felt like they knew him. He'd always kept a bit of distance. Kept plenty of mates but very few real friends.

For a while, for a good long while, Sholto had been a friend. A real friend. That persistent tug of more was just enough to keep his senses sharp, to make their every interaction take on a hyperreal quality. It had felt dangerous, just thinking it, letting his thoughts show on his face when their eyes met, and he'd always been drawn to danger. So they shared quiet conversations and the occasional cigarette and he'd dropped his voice teasingly when he said "Sir," just skirting around the edges of insubordination, and he'd thought vaguely about what might happen when this was all over, if when they were back home and away from explosions and gunfire and—the biggest hurdle, really—differences in rank. He'd wondered if they'd have anything to talk about, once the threat of death no longer loomed over them, once Sholto was just a man and no longer his commanding officer. He'd wondered and he'd wanted to find out. He'd very much wanted to find out.

He never got that chance, of course. It all went to hell, he watched a good man get eaten alive by the very people he'd nearly died trying to protect. They didn't have anything to talk about at all, after that.

He'd been pleased and happy to see Sholto at the wedding, had felt that warm tug of nostalgia when they'd stolen a few moments to speak privately. But if that spark between them had ever really existed, that possibility of more, it had long since gone cold.

Would he have pursued it? Back then? Had things turned out differently?

He looked hard at his own reflection, demanded honesty from himself. He squared his shoulders.

Yes, he decided, and the realization stunned him. His shoulders sagged. He would have. He would have. He would have seen if more was really what he wanted, and maybe it would have worked and maybe it wouldn't but—he would have.

And if Sherlock had—if he'd ever shown even a glimmer of interest—?

Yes, he realized. Yes, yes, oh Christ, yes. Because if the thought of more with Sholto had always been dangerously appealing, a magnetic pull that was certainly possible to resist but which always made itself known, the thought of more with Sherlock was—it was a tidal wave. It was consuming. It was everything. Sherlock had been everything.

The thought sent a wave of guilt and regret washing over him, and his knees buckled.

Sherlock had been everything. And he'd never even known.

"John?" Mrs Hudson's voice floated up the stairs.

He blinked, his hands gripping the sink to hold him upright. The steam had faded, and his damp skin pebbled in the cooling air.

"Be right down," he called. His voice was not as shaky as he feared it would be.

He went upstairs to his old room. The air was slightly stale, but it was otherwise exactly as he'd left it.

He opened the wardrobe, was unsurprised to see the handful of shirts he'd left behind still on their hangers. If Mrs Hudson had not cleared the flat of Sherlock's belongings in the three years since his death, he doubted that his own few abandoned personal items had ever caught her attention.

He dressed quickly, ignored the fact that the last time he'd worn any of these clothes, Sherlock had still been alive.

He went downstairs to the smell of frying bacon. Mrs Hudson beamed at him, set a plate and a cup of tea down on the table. He sat, picked up a fork.

"I'm sorry for just—barging in here last night," he said, spearing a bit of egg.

"Scared me half to death," she scolded. "I waited until the sun came up. Didn't want to run into someone in the dark."

He thought about the heavy frying pan she'd been carrying when she'd woken him, thought about her lying awake and afraid as he'd stumbled drunkenly around upstairs in the dead of night. At least she hadn't called the police. He'd been spared that embarrassment.

"Sorry," he said again, wincing.

"No," she shook her head, came over, touched his shoulder. Her face was pained. "You know I'm always happy to see you, John. Are you all right?"

He smiled without humour. "Well. Um—"

"If you'll be needing a place to stay, you know you can always stay here," she said. "It'd be nice to have a bit of noise upstairs again."

He scratched at the back of his neck, considered it.

"I told you, you know. Do you remember?" she said, studying him, seeming to read the truth in his reticence. "Back when you first proposed. It was so much like with my husband—such a whirlwind! But we didn't really know each other at all."

He swallowed, put his fork down. "You did say that, yeah." He had tuned her out, then, thinking that her objection was just another manifestation of that odd hang-up she seemed to have, that insistence that he and Sherlock had been—something they weren't.

"I could tell," she said. "At the wedding. Your heart wasn't in it."

He looked up at her in surprise. He had been happy on the day of the wedding. He had held Mary and pledged his life to her, they had kissed and danced and—

"You were smiling," Mrs Hudson continued, her gaze gone distant and faraway. "You did all the right things, of course. It was lovely. But you kept looking around. As if you expected—well."

Her eyes had gone bright and damp. She sniffed, turned away.

He felt a sick lurch of shame in his stomach. She was right.

"Is it done, then?" she asked after a long moment, turning back. "Or are you just taking a bit of a break?"

"Done, I think," he said quietly. He mulled that over for a moment. He could fight for it, he supposed. Make himself and Mary miserable for a few more months, or maybe years if they got comfortable and settled enough in their unhappiness. No, this was better. Would be better. Eventually.

"Well," she picked up his mug, refilled his tea. "Better to know now, before you wind up spending years trapped in something that makes you miserable."

He supposed she knew more about that than most.

"Oh," he said, eager to turn the conversation away from Mary, away from his own miserable failures. "You said something earlier. Um, about not wanting a repeat of last month? Did something happen?"

She shuddered. "Oh, that. There was a bit of a break in."

"What? Are you all right?" She hadn't called him. He'd been—he'd been so removed from everything that she hadn't even thought to call him.

"Oh, yes, fine," she waved him off. "To be honest, they were much more polite than those horrible American agents. I think they were looking for—well—something of his. To sell. Gave me quite a fright, though. Tied me up and left me in the hall cupboard."

"They what?"

"Took me over an hour to slip out of the ropes. They were gone by the time I got free."

"Jesus," John said, feeling sick. "Jesus."

"Don't worry over it," she said, patting his hand and settling back down in the chair across from him. "They didn't even take anything, in the end. I worried over his skull, you know. That's the kind of thing that people see and covet, dreadful thing, but he was so fond of it. I'd have felt terrible if—well. But they didn't even bother with it."

"Tell me they were caught," he said. Christ, and he'd gone and frightened her half to death by stamping around upstairs in the middle of the night. No wonder she'd been ready to brain him with a frying pan. He deserved it.

"Scotland Yard came out, but. Well." she shrugged helplessly. "There weren't even any fingerprints. And since nothing was taken, there really wasn't much they could do."

"But—"

"I've seen worse things, believe me," she said. "Although at my age I could stand to have a little less excitement in my life. Finish your breakfast."

The doorbell rang. He paused with a piece of toast halfway to his lips, watched Mrs Hudson get up and bustle into the hallway. He heard the door open, the sound of muffled voices. He swallowed his toast, washed it down with a sip of tea, stood up.

Mrs Hudson came back into the room, Mary behind her.

She looked tired, drained, as if she hadn't gotten any sleep. There were dark circles under her eyes. He clenched his left hand to keep it from trembling.

"Hello," she said. Her voice was hoarse. "I thought you might be here."

He nodded, watched her warily.

"Can we talk?" She clasped her hands in front of her, rocked a little bit on the balls of her feet. She was nervous.

He cleared his throat, glanced over at Mrs Hudson, nodded. "Yeah. Um, upstairs is probably best."

She followed him up the steps to the flat he'd shared with Sherlock. Her silence was very, very loud as they stepped through the door into the sitting room. She turned in a slow circle, taking it all in.

She paused in her slow inspection when her eyes fell on the skull. She kept her gaze on it as she began to speak. "Last night, John—"

"Mary—" he tried.

She shook her head, still not looking at him. Her voice was wooden, but he chalked that up to nerves more than any lack of emotion. "Last night was horrible, and I'm sorry. It was very unfair to you."

He thought about the way he'd felt leaving the coffee shop, the buoyancy of his own naïve hope. And it had been naïve, God. To think he could just delete Sherlock that way, to think he could somehow live with that. He nodded, looked down at the ground.

Mary turned towards him, hands fidgeting in front of her. The rest of her was very still. "Maybe we should sit down."

He nodded. She moved towards the nearest chair, towards Sherlock's chair.

"No," he said quickly, startling himself. He shook his head. "Um, the couch. Please."

She settled next to him on the worn leather. He caught a faint whiff of her perfume, pleasant and familiar. He looked straight ahead, across the room, listened to her breathe. He did not want to see the expression on her face.

"I need you to know, John, that I didn't—I didn't send your file to Janine because I thought it was funny. I wasn't—I was never making fun of you. That wasn't my intention."

"I know," he said. And he did know. She wasn't malicious in that way.

Knowing didn't make it sting any less.

Mary breathed out through her nose, a heavy exhalation. "This is hard."

There was a familiar swooping, sinking sensation in his stomach. She'd reached the same conclusions he had, then. He'd had more than his share of conversations that began this way. Hell, he'd sat on this very sofa for plenty of these exact conversations—the kinds of conversations that inevitably boiled down to you're great John, really, but I can't compete with Sherlock.

It was fitting, in a way. To do this here.

She shifted towards him, pulling her leg up under her on the couch so she could face him properly. He reluctantly lifted his eyes to meet hers.

"We rushed this a bit, didn't we?" She offered him a sad, tentative smile.

"Which part?" he said, and then horrified himself by laughing.

She goggled at him for a moment, looking utterly stunned, and then she was laughing too. It was a wet sound, not entirely happy, but it was genuine. She swiped at her eyes. "All of it. God, all of it."

"It took knowing me for six months for you to decide you wanted to marry me, and being married to me for four months to decide you wanted to divorce me. So. I'm, uh, not sure if I should be flattered or offended," John said, and he laughed again.

"Well," she shrugged. "When you know, you know."

And then the two of them were laughing, and at some point he realized they weren't laughing so much as crying, and eventually silence settled between them again.

"What are you going to do?" he asked.

She smiled. "Oh, I plan to go out and find myself a scandalously young, shockingly attractive rebound. What about you?"

He snorted. "Um. Probably not that."

She ducked her head. "That—was probably not appropriate to say."

"I think we're past appropriate, don't you?"

She huffs out a laugh. "I didn't actually say I wanted a divorce."

"Was I wrong?"

She smiled, shook her head. "We've been married for four months, and have barely spoken for two of them. Of course you're not wrong. But I had a speech prepared and everything."

He settled back against the arm rest, crossed his arms. "Let's have it, then."

"I'd rather not, honestly. It was a bit stilted. I practiced it on the cab ride over. This feels a lot more appropriate for us."

"I think you mean inappropriate."

"Exactly."

They were laughing again. Jesus, he wished this could have worked between them.

"Fine," she said, her laughter trailing off. "I won't go through the whole thing. Just the one bit."

He nodded, waited.

"You—and please don't take this the wrong way, John—you have so much that you still need to work through. About Sherlock. When I first met you, I knew you were grieving, and you were grieving, of course, but I don't think you were grieving the right thing."

The smile slid off of his face, the odd giddiness of the moment beginning to dissipate. "What—"

"You were grieving the death of your best friend," she said. "And I think—we both thought—that you'd worked through that."

Obvious. The ghost of Sherlock piped up from his corner of the room, voice dry and unamused.

"But that wasn't it, was it?" She reached out, took his hands in hers, her eyes searching his face. "There was more than that, but I don't think you'd ever even come to terms with it, so you couldn't properly grieve for it."

"You think I was in love with him," John said flatly. Well, her and everyone else. It stung, coming on the heels of his own belated realization.

Too late, too late. Too late for Sherlock, too late to stop things from going to hell with Mary. Too late.

"I should have seen it," she said. "I did see it, to some extent, I suppose. But I was besotted enough to ignore it." She paused, squeezed his hand. "That was a compliment, by the way."

He looked up, studied her face. There was a mischievous little smile playing on her lips that he couldn't help but return. "Well. Yeah. I am somewhat irresistible. So I've been told."

"You should know that—I don't think you lied to me. Initially, when I first read—well. I was upset. But I—now I think that you had no idea you were in love with him," she said, serious once more. "And I think you're just starting to realize. What you wrote, John, that—that wasn't letting go. That was waking up. You already grieved for your friend, but you're only now starting to grieve for that potential."

He frowned, looked away. His eyes skittered past Sherlock's empty chair and he shut them, took a steadying breath. She had always been perceptive. That was part of why he'd liked her, initially. It had reminded him-- Jesus, there was something wrong with him that he was only realizing this now.

"You were drowning, in a way, when I met you. I was a life raft," she said. Her voice was matter-of-fact, blunt. She was not patting herself on the back, she was simply stating a truth. A well-rehearsed truth. "You grabbed on, and for a while it worked. But you weren't ready to get to the shore, John. You were too far away. So we stayed afloat for a little while, and then we just… we just sank."

He blinked at her. "Did you stay up all night thinking that one up?"

"Yeah, I might have," she said. "Did you like it?"

"Nah, not really," he said, but he smiled anyway. It was a pained smile, sharp at the edges.

"I have an appointment with a solicitor this afternoon," she said. "To talk it over. We haven't been married a full year so we can't officially file until then, but—"

"Yeah," he said, waving her off. "I won't fight you on anything. You know that. Of course you know that."

"Your book—" she started.

He winced, shook his head. "Can we just—"

"All I want to say," she said hurriedly. "Is—you'd written it so that he and I liked each other. We got along. We were friends." She hesitated, grimaced a little. "Well. Aside from the bit about the shooting."

"Sorry," he said.

"I wouldn't have," she said.

"Christ, Mary, I know that—"

"No!" she laughed. It had a strained, startled quality to it. "Of course I wouldn't have shot him. What I mean is that I wouldn't have liked him."

He blinked, shook his head.

"I appreciate it, you know. That you tried to find a place for me. But he—he has a piece of you that I never could," she said. "I'd have hated him. Even if he were the most delightful person on the planet—which you've well and truly assured me was not the case— I'd still have hated him. We'd never have gotten along. It'd be back to those dark times for you, with the women being driven away in droves."

He snorted. "You're never going to get over that, are you?"

"The fact that you used the word 'droves' to describe the women who were apparently clamouring for your attention? Not likely, no."

He gave a slightly exaggerated sigh, gratified to see that it made her smile. Silence stretched thick and heavy between them.

"I don't really know what else to say," he said finally.

"And that's why we're saying goodbye," she said. She lifted his hand to her lips, pressed a soft kiss to it. She stood up.

He followed her to the door, feeling an absurd need to be polite, to show her out. He was nervous, his palms sweating. His stomach felt like it was full of bees.

She stopped him with a hand on his arm. "I hope you don't mind if I don't—um—if I don't keep in touch. For a while. It's—I'd like to be friends, someday, I think. But not for a while."

He nodded. It would be too easy for them to fall back into it, he thought. They got along too well. But he had latched onto her for the wrong reasons, and now she knew and he knew and—and they'd wind up right back where they'd been: angry, resentful, silent and hating all of the things the other couldn't say.

"Um," she said. "The flat—"

"It's yours," he said. "I just—I'll come by for my things."

"Yeah," she nodded. "Right. Just—let me know when. I'll clear out for a little while."

"I'll leave the key," he said.

"Good. Yeah," she nodded.

They stood by the door, facing each other. He wanted to look away, this stilted awkwardness between them uncomfortable after their shared laughter earlier.

"So," he said. "Call me, I guess, when you have paperwork you need me to sign."

She let out a little laughing breath. "Right. Use this time to work on your handwriting a bit, yeah? You could use the practice. It's kind of messy."

"Sorry, can't. I'm a doctor, it's all wrapped up in my identity."

They smiled at each other. He thought his might be cracking at the edges a little bit.

"Well," Mary said. She looked like she wanted to say more, but turned away instead. She squared her shoulders and went on down the stairs. She hesitated at the bottom, but didn't look back.

"Fuck," he said quietly as the door shut behind her. "Fuck."

He turned away, regarded the quiet sitting room, that wonderful familiar room that had hadn't changed at all in the years he'd spent away. He breathed in and looked around and tried to imagine a life in this flat without Sherlock, a life where there were never any unexpected body parts in the fridge, a life where the kitchen table remained free of cluttered petri dishes and flasks of chemical substances.

"I hope you're happy, you bastard," he said to Sherlock's empty chair.

*

"It's good to see you," Greg said over his pint. "It's been a while."

John tipped his glass, tried not to let his words feel like an indictment. "Been a bit busy," he said, his eyes sliding away.

"Tell me about it," Greg said. "This town's gone crazy these last few months. There have been more murders than I know what to do with, and that lunatic who keeps blowing up townhouses—"

"Oh, yeah," John said, frowning. "I heard about that on the news. No leads?"

"He's like a ghost," Greg shook his head. "Reminds me of that thing, you know, with the mobile phone and the puzzles? Same kind of explosive. Except there's no puzzles this time, and no warning. Just boom."

The memory of Moriarty was enough to turn the beer sour in John's mouth. He managed to swallow without grimacing too much. "I hope you catch him."

"Yeah," Greg said. He looked tired. There were deep, dark ridges under his eyes, his face paler and a little thinner than usual. "I'll be happy when all this overtime ends."

"Anything else, uh, interesting, going on in your life?" John asked, wondering when the hell he'd become such a stilted conversationalist.

"Oh," Greg said, offering up a wry grin. "This is a good one. It didn't make the news, so I doubt you'd have heard anything. Went and got myself kidnapped."

John blinked. "What?"

"Yeah," Greg nodded. "Right outside the Yard, if you'd believe it. Couple of blokes threw a bag over my head, knocked me out with something. Spilled my coffee, too."

John shook his head, leaned forward, realizing with another little guilty lurch that it had been much too long since he'd last seen Greg. "You're right, I didn't hear anything—I would've called—what happened?"

"It was the damndest thing," Greg said. "Took me to some half-collapsed warehouse, kept me tied up in a cold room for hours. Wouldn't tell me anything. No ransom, no demands, they didn't even ask me any questions. Sally found me. Said an anonymous call had come in with my location. Whoever had done it was long gone."

"And you didn't find out why?"

"No idea," Greg said, shaking his head. "One of the many times I wished that Sherlock was still—you know he'd have come into that warehouse and had the whole thing worked out in minutes."

It stung. More than three years on and it still stung. But Greg was right, and John nodded. "Yeah, yeah probably. But—"

Greg laughed a little, leaned back. "I can laugh now," he said. "But at the time it was bloody terrifying. Had me thinking all kinds of dark thoughts about my own mortality. Even thought about trying to patch things up with the wife for a while there. Terrible idea, glad I came to my senses."

John smiled tightly.

"Look," Greg said, the smile slipping from his face. "I've been through it. I can tell when a bloke's having marriage trouble."

"Ah," John said, looking down at the scuffed tabletop.

"That is why you wanted to grab a pint, isn't it? I assume you didn't ring me up out of the blue because you wanted to hear more about the cases we can't seem to solve."

"Yeah," John said. "That's—yeah." He had considered pouring himself a drink or ten and toasting Sherlock's empty chair, but that idea had been seductive enough that he'd shied away from it out of some kind of last ditch self-preservation instinct.

"See," Greg smiled again, took another sip of his beer. "I'm not entirely useless as a detective."

"I think it's over," John said, and just saying the words out loud made him feel cold and leaden inside. "I mean, it is over. My marriage."

"She cheat on you?"

"No."

"You cheat on her?"

John laughed bitterly, shook his head. "No."

"Ah," Greg said. "So it's one of those—what do the celebs call it these days? Irreconcilable differences?"

"Something like that, yeah." He drained his pint, waved over to the bar for another one. "I'm, uh, back at Baker Street, now."

"You did move kind of fast," Greg said.

"It had been two years," John snapped. "How long was I reasonably expected to wait?"

Greg paused with his glass halfway to his lips. They regarded each other quietly for a moment.

"You," John said, feeling heat creep up into his cheeks. "You weren't talking about Sherlock."

"Well I am now," Greg said, taking a large gulp of his beer and leaning forward, elbows on the table. He was smirking.

"You meant it was fast, meeting Mary, marrying her," John felt absurdly, infuriatingly slow.

"And you thought I meant you rushed into something too soon after Sherlock died," Greg said. "Well, that's interesting."

"It's really not."

"No, it really is." His eyes twinkled a little bit. "Were you two…?"

"No. No! Why does everyone think that?" John put his head in his hands. Christ, he really had been the last one to figure it out, hadn't he?

"Oh, I really can't imagine." Greg was smiling. For a moment it was infuriating, that smile, but then—Sherlock had been gone for three years. His loss wasn't—it wasn't still a gaping wound to Greg, to Mrs Hudson, to anyone else, really. It was possible, for most people, to look back fondly at someone who had been gone for that long. After three years, most people were moving on, not just starting to realize what, exactly, it was that they'd lost.

John sighed, then let out a miserable little laugh. "The bastard doesn't even have to be alive to wreak complete havoc on my love life."

"Yeah, well, that's fitting, isn't it? It's very him," Greg's smile was a little sad. He held up his beer. "To Sherlock."

John tapped their glasses together. "To Sherlock."

"Say," Greg said after a long swallow. "Anderson's not still bothering you, is he?"

John coughed, looked down. "No. It's been a few months since—well. I think he got the picture."

"You weren't too hard on him, were you?"

"I might've punched him a little bit."

Greg barked out a laugh, and then John was laughing too. The two of them hunched over their beers, shoulders shaking. His jaw ached.

The memory of Anderson at his door, the man's infuriating nasal drone, that hateful face, deigning to stand there and attempt to list off all of the reasons why Sherlock was surely still alive—well, it had enraged him at the time. After it had happened, Mary had held a bag of frozen peas against his bruised knuckles and had listened to him shout for what felt like hours. They had only been dating for a few weeks. Had she suspected, then, what she was getting herself into?

"You know that group of his, those conspiracy theorist nutters he gets together with every once in a while?"

"Yeah," John said, wracking his brain for a moment before coming up with the name. "The Empty Hearse. For a while they kept sending me pamphlets, trying to get me to come to meetings."

"Oh Christ," Greg shook his head. "Never had any tact, that one. Even worse after he got sacked. Too much free time. Too much guilt over the way things went down. But his group did a lot of—well they did a lot of good work. Private investigations. They were a big part of why Sherlock's name got cleared, you know."

"No," John said, looking down. "I didn't know that. I—I had no idea."

He thought about Anderson's face, the nervous smile the man had shot him before launching into a rapid-fire monologue about some mysterious globe-trotting crime solver. At the time, the only thing John had been able to think with any coherence was you killed him.

It wasn't entirely fair, that. He'd had his own part in Sherlock's death, hadn't he? Greg, too. Mycroft. They'd all failed him. Failed to shield him from those that would do him harm.

A phone buzzed, and they both looked down. Greg's mobile screen had lit up. John's remained dark.

He held up a finger with an apologetic look—John immediately forced away thoughts of Moriarty with those big black eyes and that comically exaggerated SORRY— and tucked the phone against his ear.

He looked around the pub, let his gaze linger on the various patrons. They were mysteries to him, by and large. No matter how hard he tried, he would never be able to see what Sherlock saw.

"Sorry about this," Greg said, setting his phone down and standing up, plucking his coat from the back of his chair. "There's been another one of those shootings. I've got to go."

John nodded, drained the rest of his pint. He felt an odd tug of longing. "Shootings?" he asked. That was rare enough in London to be notable.

"Yeah, this one's a real head-scratcher. Someone's been executing investment bankers. In addition to the bombings. Two—well, now three—so far." He shook his head. "Did I mention that these last few months have been hell?"

John sighed. "Yeah, you did."

"You don't—" Greg laughed and finished buttoning his coat.

"What?"

"You don't want to tag along, do you? Be a bit like old times. Some of the guys have been asking about you."

"Um," John said, hesitating although his heartrate had already picked up in anticipation. "Not sure I'd be much help."

"Suit yourself," Greg said, turning towards the door. "Talk to you soon, all right?"

John watched him go, looked back down at his empty pint glass. He considered ordering another. He considered halfheartedly trying to flirt with the barmaid. He thought about Mary and Janine, probably getting ready to go out on the prowl for that scandalously young, shockingly attractive rebound, and felt a fleeting stab of amused pity for whatever poor bloke got caught in their path. He wouldn't know what had hit him.

Who was he kidding? The guy would likely have the best night of his life.

He looked down at the ring on his finger. The gold band caught the reflection of the dim pub lighting. Had Mary taken hers off? What was an appropriate length of time to wait?

If she'd left him, he'd have kept it. People do. Sentiment.

"Right. Not this time, Sherlock," he said out loud, startling a waitress as she passed by collecting empty glasses. He slipped the ring off his finger, tucked it into his pocket. His thumb immediately rubbed at the naked skin. It had only been a few months, but he had grown quite used to the weight of the band.

He stood up, pulled on his coat, hurried for the door.

Down the street, Greg was slipping into the back of a cab. John caught the door just as he was pulling it shut, slid in beside him. He grinned.

His grin must have been a bit maniacal, because Greg's return smile was a bit alarmed, but then he laughed and slapped John on the back and said "All right then" before turning to give the address to the cabbie.

*

The last traces of the late November sun were just fading on the horizon when they pulled up to a row of posh townhouses. John followed Greg out of the cab, weaving through the crowd of bystanders and ducking under the police tape.

He tried not to smile. He was pretty sure, upon catching sight of Sally Donovan's horrified face, that he wasn't quite succeeding.

"Really?" she called out to Greg as they passed.

"Just—trying something a little different," he said cheerfully.

She shook her head at them and went back to arguing with a news vendor who kept trying to duck under the tape.

They went inside the house and straight upstairs, John taking a moment to admire the detailed woodwork on the bannister. He had forgotten, a bit, what this was like. Stepping into other people's homes, their lives, for a fleeting amount of time.

"John," Greg said as they reached the top of the stairs. "It's a little weird to have to ask you this, honestly mate, but…"

"Hm?" John paused next to him, waited.

"The smiling. It's a bit creepy."

Shit.

John coughed, assembled his expression into something he hoped was more appropriately solemn.

"You sure you're all right?" Greg sounded like he was regretting inviting him along in the first place.

"Sorry," he said. "It's just. It's been a weird day."

Greg scrutinized his face for a moment, seemed satisfied by what he saw. They stepped through the doorway into a small room that had been furnished as an office. There was a man splayed out, prostrate on the wooden floor. A half-dried pool of blood had spread beneath him.

There was a forensics examiner crouched on the ground near the body. She nodded at them as they entered the room. Not Anderson. Anderson was years removed from Scotland Yard. Anderson had lost his job and grown a beard and gotten a divorce and had devoted his life to clearing Sherlock's name, apparently. Anderson had once shown up on John Watson's doorstep and had gotten a punch in the nose for his troubles.

"Gunshot wound to the chest," Greg said. "Just like the other two."

John looked down at the corpse. "This man wasn't shot at close range."

"He was shot through the window," the forensics examiner said, tilting her head in that direction. There was a neat hole punched in the windowglass, deceptively small.

John swallowed down his mounting sense of unease. He looked through the window, down at the crowded street below. It would be a steep angle for anyone standing on the pavement. Too steep to get off a good shot. They'd be exposed, visible. Someone would have seen. He eyed the row of townhouses across the street. Lights were on, curtains drawn.

There could be anyone there. Anyone in those rooms. Anyone behind those curtains.

Greg had his phone out, was speaking rapidly with someone outside. When he finished, he joined John by the window, peered out.

"They didn't fire up from the ground," John said.

"No," Greg agreed. "We think someone set up in the townhouse directly across. Maybe with a—with a sniper rifle or something. It's vacant. We have people knocking on neighbors' doors now, see if anyone heard or saw anything."

"No," John said. "I mean, yes, but—" His mouth had gone dry. He swallowed, tried again. "That wound wasn't caused by a large caliber sniper rifle."

It was a pistol shot, he'd bet his life on it.

"Well," Greg said. "I guess you would know."

"Yeah," John said, turning back and looking down at the corpse. "I would."

"Well, whoever it was is long gone. We've got a team in there now—they're saying that he didn't even open the window. Have to be a hell of a shot to fire through two panes of glass, at that distance, and still hit your target."

John, who had made exactly such a shot a lifetime ago, his heart in his throat and Sherlock's life in the balance, managed to keep himself relatively steady as he nodded. "Yeah. Hell of a shot."

*

Sally was still arguing with the news vendor when John and Greg emerged onto the street. The man had managed to duck his way under the police tape and was yelling and gesticulating wildly while she kept a firm hand on his chest, keeping him from getting any further. She looked on the verge of arresting him.

"Hey!" Greg shouted, jogging over to assist, John on his heels.

The man dropped his hands at the sight of them and turned around, ducking back under the tape.

Sally huffed out an irritated breath. "Oh, sure, now you listen."

The man was bedraggled, stooped and elderly. He had a patchy grey beard, overlong and unkempt. Grey, wizened hair poked out at wild angles from under a filthy knit cap. His breath steamed in the frigid night air. "My mistake," he said, his voice low and hoarse. He went back to his little newsstand, began fussing with a stack of magazines.

John felt a stab of pity. The man looked homeless.

"Hello, John," Sally said quietly.

"Sergeant Donovan," he nodded stiffly. There had been a time when the sight of her would have triggered anger in him, anger for what had happened to Sherlock and the part she'd played. Now he just felt sad. Sad and tired.

"Heard you got married," she tried. "Congratulations."

He held up his left hand, newly bare. "Didn't work out."

She winced. "Sorry."

He was distracted by the news vendor, who had turned away and was moving off through the crowd at a fast clip, abandoning his cart. As he watched, the man lost his footing and careened off of a woman pushing a pram in the opposite direction. He went down hard on one knee.

Happy to have a reason to extricate himself from the conversation, John ducked the tape and hurried over. He crouched down, took the man's arm.

"Are you all right?" he asked. Sherlock had always had a certain way of dealing with the homeless, and it—like everything else Sherlock did—was inimitable, but John could try. There was something about the old man's guarded posture, something fragile and familiar, which had awakened some long buried protective impulse.

He had seemed terribly interested in the crime scene, and then in quite a hurry to get away from it. Maybe he'd seen something. Maybe he knew something. Maybe—

There was a faint buzzing, the hum of a mobile phone on vibrate. The man looked up at him in alarm, fumbling for his pocket. His eyes were owlish, dark brown, almost black. There was something familiar and terrible about those eyes.

He withdrew a phone, sleek and new, incongruous with the rest of him. Whatever he read on the screen caused his face to blanch.

John shifted away, finding something in that expression unnerving. He glanced over his shoulder towards where Greg was standing with Sally, hoping to catch their attention, only to be jerked backwards by a sudden, fierce grip on his bad shoulder.

"No," the old man said, with what seemed like genuine panic. He clasped onto John with a strength that belied his frail appearance. "RUN!"

And he seemed to anticipate John's attempt to break away, used the opportunity to tighten his grip, and then he was on his feet and hauling John along the pavement, knocking people out of the way, and they had only gotten a few steps when behind them there was a great eruption of sound and breaking glass.

Heat pushed against his back and sent him sprawling, the weight of another body landing on top of him. There were hands over his head, shielding him? and for a moment he flailed against the pressure, his brain firing confused signals.

Get down—it was another IED and he was face down in the sand, cupping his hands over the back of his head as dirt and dust rained around him, shouting out orders to his men even as his words were swallowed by the noise and confusion—

Please, God, let me live.

The pebbled street surface pressed against his cheek and he needed to—Sherlock had fallen and he needed to reach him—needed to help—Sherlock was bleeding and he needed help—

Please, God, let him live.

He rolled hard to the left and finally succeeded in dislodging the weight from his back, sat up into chaos. This was not a war-torn Afghan street, this was London, and all around there were people in the mess of broken glass and rubble, staggering dazedly in the road, weaving past stopped cars with shattered windows. It was dark. Someone was screaming but the sound was distant, tinny, almost inaudible through the ringing in his ears, and oh Christ, this was something he thought he'd never have to experience again.

Explosion—he'd been running. No, he'd been being pulled—

There was motion next to him—the vendor, he realized absently—and suddenly the man was crouched in front of him, had him by the arms again. John batted at him ineffectually, too stunned and sluggish to do much else. Except he—he—

The man's knit cap was gone. His beard had tugged away from his skin and flapped like a bit of loose cloth. And suddenly the explanation for that inexplicable familiarity was inescapable, he'd seen it, he'd seen it but he hadn't observed.

Something lurched sideways in his chest. The noise, the people on the street, it all faded away. Blood roared in his ears and he just sat and stared and stared.

The colour was wrong, utterly wrong, but the eyes themselves— that face, that strange and lovely unforgettable face with all of its sharp angles—it was—it was—

"Sherlock," he said, or tried to say. He felt the vibration of words in his throat but could still hear nothing past the roaring in his ears. He reached out a hand towards that fluttering beard. There was a dark smudge on Sherlock's chin where dust had begun to cling to the still-tacky adhesive.

There was a minute quirk of lip, barely visible to the untrained eye, but John knew that face. And oh, God, how he'd missed it.

The ringing in his ears started to subside. There were car alarms blaring, sirens wailing in the distance, muffled shouts and screams.

"Sherlock," he said again. He couldn't tear his eyes away.

Sherlock blinked and shuddered, jerking back slightly. His expression hardened. He scrambled to his feet.

"Sherlock," he called, struggling up from the ground. There were shards of broken glass in his hair. "Sherlock, wait—"

Sherlock—Sherlock!— had disappeared into the crowd. It was like he'd never been there at all.

*

Chapter Text

*

It was dark.

The lights had cut out, the illuminated windows, the streetlamps. Headlights from the snarl of confused traffic—all of those cars that had slammed on brakes, zig-zagged, tried to reverse when the windows of the townhouse had blown outward and were now hopelessly gridlocked—cast eerie shadows as people ran by through clouds of dust and debris.

John stood, frozen and immobile a way he'd never been during a crisis situation. He had always, always, first and foremost, been one to move.

He felt as though someone had cut his strings. There was a terrible taste in his mouth. His tongue was gummy. Dust. Grime. The iron tang of blood. He'd bitten his lip when he'd first hit the pavement. He worked his jaw and was relieved that all of his teeth felt like they were still in place.

His head was ringing like a struck bell. He blinked, tried to focus, blinked again.

He had seen—he thought he had seen—that had been Sherlock.

His mouth was dry. He realized it was hanging open and promptly shut it. There. That was a start. He worked his jaw again, spat onto the pavement. Better.

There was—there was something he was meant to be doing. An explosion. Explosion. Broken glass. Yelling. Confusion. Sherlock. Explosion. Gas leak? Bomb?

The townhouse.

Greg. Greg had said there was someone blowing up townhouses. There had been a crime scene. A shooting, that banker face-up in a pool of blood.

Townhouse. Bomber. Greg. Greg.

He turned around slowly, ears still ringing, and blinked at the crumpled facade of the building he had been standing in front of moments before. The ground lurched underneath his feet. He looked down. The ground hadn't moved. He wondered how hard he'd hit his head.

There were people, a lot of them, crowded on the pavement. It felt as if the world had exploded, but there were people standing. The buildings. The buildings were still standing. The explosion had been—it hadn't been devastating, then. Localized. The townhouse. Just the townhouse.

He'd been standing close. Very close.

He pressed his hand against his forehead, started walking. Greg had been closer. He had been standing right there. Greg and Sally both. They'd been by the police tape. He'd ducked under to follow Sh—to follow the news vendor—

There was a woman sitting on the kerb, holding her hand over her mouth. She was covered in dust but appeared unharmed. He stepped gingerly around her, scanning the ground. Behind him, car horns blared as drivers attempted to yield to arriving emergency vehicles. A little red Mini had rear-ended a cab. The drivers were screaming at each other. The cacophony was dizzying.

Greg was sitting on the ground, his back against the brick wall. The left side of his face was wet and dark with blood but his eyes were open, aware. Sally was crouched next to him, pressing her scarf to his forehead. John's knees nearly buckled with relief and he compensated by dropping down into a crouch next to Sally.

Greg grinned at him, his teeth startlingly white behind his dust-and-grime-covered lips. He blinked slowly. His pupils were very large.

"You're all right?" John asked, nudging Sally's hand away so he could get a look at the cut on Greg's forehead. Not too deep.

"Yeah," Greg waved his hand away. His voice was much too loud, his hearing must still be shot. "Piece of roofing shingle, I think. I knew I didn't like this neighborhood."

"He's been making jokes since I found him," Sally said, shaking her head. Her dark hair was nearly grey, heavy and coated with dust. "I think he hit his head harder than he wants to admit."

John sat back on his heels. "Is—is there anyone—" He looked around, squinting through the gloom and harsh shadows. There were people all around, standing, gaping, crying, some sitting on the ground nursing injuries. His senses were slowly returning to him. He very deliberately did not think of Sher—of what he had seen.

It had only felt like the world had exploded, he reminded himself. Now that his head was no longer ringing, he could see that it wasn't as bad as he'd feared. Loud. Disruptive. Horrifying. But not devastating. Not—

"It's the same as the others. Big mess, but a localized target. No one's leveling city streets, thank God." Greg shouted. He frowned, shut his eyes. When he spoke again, it was in a lower voice. "I think. I wasn't this close to any of the others." He blinked up at John with some measure of confusion. "My head hurts."

"Not exactly the same." Sally's face was grim. "All the other houses were empty."

John blinked, not following. Then he remembered the forensics tech in her blue suit. His stomach lurched. He'd paid her only the briefest of notice, hadn't even gotten her name.

He looked at Sally, struggled to find words.

"Can you stay with him?" she jerked her head towards Greg, climbed unsteadily to her feet. At some point she had lost her shoes. She wobbled for a moment, then squared her shoulders, shoved her way into the crowd barking orders, taking control of the scene. He could see the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles moving closer. The driver of the red Mini had finally reversed enough to let them through.

"Greg," John said, shaking his friend a little. Greg's eyes fluttered open.

"Bit tired," he admitted.

"That'll be the concussion. Try to stay awake."

"Kidnapped, nearly blown up—who could sleep with all this excitement?"

John let out a humorless laugh. To their right, the little newsstand had been upended and scattered by the blast. Torn magazine pages fluttered in the breeze. That man—Sherlock—had reacted like he'd known what was about to happen. He had looked at his phone and he had grabbed John's arm and he had shouted RUN.

Sherlock was dead. It couldn't have been Sherlock.

It was Sherlock.

He'd been thinking about Sherlock a lot. A lot lately. The nostalgia of the crime scene, the heightened adrenaline—surely he'd just seen what he'd wanted to see. More wish-fulfillment. A real life page torn from his book.

It was Sherlock.

The eyes were wrong.

People changed their eye colour with contact lenses all the time. It was Sherlock.

He nudged Greg again. "Stay awake."

Paramedics were moving towards them, no doubt sent in their direction by Sally. As they crouched down next to Greg, John stood up, backed out of their way.

He scratched at the back of his neck, filthy and itchy with clinging dust, while one confusing and disturbing thought circled round and round in his mind.

Out of all of the disguises Sherlock could have chosen, why had he opted for contact lenses the exact shade of Moriarty's soulless eyes?

*

Later, after minutes blurred into hours, after he had done all he could to assist paramedics and emergency personnel, after speaking nonsense words of comfort and holding compresses on bleeding wounds and holding trembling hands, later he found himself walking away from the crowd, hands tucked into the pockets of his battered coat.

He flagged down a cab. It took him longer than he would have liked.

He sat in the back, nodded without speaking when the driver asked if he was all right. His ears felt raw, abused. His entire body ached, his joints sore, his skin dry and cracked. He needed a shower. He needed sleep.

He needed—he—

He directed the driver to the Diogenes Club instead, leaned his head back against the headrest and watched London slide by. The rest of the city seemed unaffected, unaware of the small but stunning horror that had just played out.

The night Moriarty had blown up the flat across the street from theirs, his idea of a cheerful little "getting to know you" gift, John hadn't even known. Sherlock could have—he could have—and he hadn't even known until he'd seen the news the following morning.

It was dark. It was late—was it? He fumbled for his phone, looked down at the screen. Nine o'clock. It was only nine o'clock. The sun had just been slipping below the horizon when he'd arrived at the crime scene with Greg. Mycroft might not even be here. Surely he had other… places he went. Other offices. A home, somewhere. A family? John considered and rejected that idea. He couldn't picture it.

Did the Diogenes Club even have set hours? Or did it welcome in the wealthy and unsociable regardless of the time of day?

He fumbled some notes out of his wallet and lurched out of the cab, his head spinning. God, he needed sleep. He tried the door, was pleased when it opened. The air inside was warm, welcoming, a relief from the chill of the night.

He stood for a moment, eyes closed, orienting himself. Mycroft had eyes everywhere. If all else failed, John supposed he could just go to one of the big rooms and create enough of a racket that someone would drag him off. He'd get to the right place eventually.

He nodded to himself, course of action set, and started down the hallway, intending to accost the first stodgy old bastard he came across.

He didn't have to.

A door opened and a dark-suited man beckoned for him to follow. They did not exchange words.

He supposed it shouldn't have surprised him, there were cameras everywhere, and his entrance had almost certainly been registered. He followed the man down a winding hallway, every step feeling like a herculean effort. He wondered if he could get away with slumping over for a brief nap.

The man held open a wooden door, gestured wordlessly inside. John stepped in. The man did not follow. The door shut with a soft snick behind him.

Mycroft Holmes was seated behind an opulent mahogany desk. The room was dim, the only light coming from a small desk lamp. He watched John's approach with steady eyes.

"This is a surprise," he said after a long moment. His brows rose ever-so-slightly, indicating that he spoke the truth. He did not stand up.

John had not seen Mycroft since the funeral. They had not spoken. John had spent a significant portion of the service grinding his fingernails into his palms in an admirable effort to hold back from shouting at him. Or punching him. Or possibly killing him. Mycroft had said I worry about him constantly but had still sold his baby brother out in the worst possible way. He was culpable, more culpable than anyone in Sherlock's death because he of all people should have known better.

Except—

Except maybe he had known better.

"How long?" John stepped forward, a hot flush of anger rising along his neck. The crushing fatigue that had crept over him began to recede in the face of fresh adrenaline.

Mycroft's eyes flicked up and down, taking in his appearance. "It would appear that you've spent an unfortunately-timed evening in Notting Hill. A bit unusual for you, isn't it? Not one of your typical haunts, Dr Watson."

John looked down at his filthy clothes. He had ceased noticing the sharp odour of smoke and concrete dust, but suspected it had not faded. "That's good, yeah. Even I could have figured that one out without any help. Want to tell me how many times I kneeled down to treat someone, maybe? How many pulses I checked, how many bandages I wrapped? It's probably obvious to you, yeah? Based on the—the mud splatter on my knees, or—"

"I assume," Mycroft said, standing up, resting the tips of his fingers on the smooth wood of his desk. "That you have a reason for being here other than to discuss the unbearable tedium of domestic terrorism. The point, Dr Watson?"

"How long?" he asked again, his hands clenched in fists at his sides. He was grinding his teeth, had to work hard to get the words out. "How long has Sherlock been in London?"

Mycroft gave him a long, level look. "My brother is dead, John."

John smiled. It was not a nice smile. "That's the story you're sticking to, then?"

Mycroft looked almost bored. "Unless presented with evidence to the contrary—"

"Notting Hill," John said. "You said it yourself. Go ahead, pull up the footage. Lovely row of townhouses. While you're rolling your eyes at the tedium of the bombing and all of those boring very human things like bleeding and screaming, maybe you can spare some attention for the fact that Sherlock is VERY MUCH NOT DEAD AND IS ACTUALLY RUNNING AROUND AT THE BLOODY CRIME SCENE!"

He sucked in lungful of air. Mycroft looked shocked.

"So," John said, his voice calmer. He squared his shoulders. "I'll ask you again. How long has Sherlock been in London?"

They stared at each other. Mycroft drummed his fingers on the desk. He did not say a word. John's breathing was harsh, very loud to his own ears.

Mycroft sagged abruptly, folding backwards into his chair. He looked all at once ten years older, his skin sallow, his eyes sunken.

John knew that look. He didn't want to admit it, but he knew it. Grief.

"You'll—" Mycroft's voice was soft. He sounded unsure in a way that was unfamiliar and terrible. "You'll excuse me if I don't take your word for this."

John held up his hands in surrender, sat down in one of the chairs in front of the large and imposing desk. The chair creaked underneath him. It was old, stiff, uncomfortable, like everything else in the room.

Mycroft picked up the phone on his desk, spoke softly into it. He replaced the receiver in the cradle, folded his hands primly in front of him.

"It isn't that I don't trust you, Dr Watson," Mycroft said. His face had not lost its haunted, hollow look but his voice was once more cool, composed. "But it has been three years. Your therapist documents that you are finding it difficult to move on."

"And you're still nosing into my confidential medical files," John said. "So what does that say about your ability to move on?"

Mycroft pursed his lips. "You're no longer wearing a wedding ring. You've not lost any significant amount of weight, so it didn't slip off during the—" he smiled, a thin, shark smile "—tedious aftermath of today's unpleasantness. Giving up on married life so soon, Dr Watson? Doesn't seem the hallmark of a particularly stable and grounded individual."

John's lip curled. He did not respond.

The desk phone trilled, the sound sharp and sudden in the heavy stillness of the room. Mycroft flicked his eyes towards it. It rang again.

"Yes?" his voice was calm as he brought the receiver to his ear. He did not speak again, merely listened, his eyes boring straight into John's.

After an unbearably long moment, Mycroft set the receiver back down in the cradle. He stood up.

"Excuse me." He disappeared through the door.

John shifted in the chair and it let out another pained creak. He folded his arms across his chest. The room was dark and warm and he was so tired—

He startled awake at the sound of a door closing quietly behind him, stumbled out of the chair with his heart pounding and hands curled into fists. He blinked, his groggy, aching head finally registering where he was. His breathing calmed.

Mycroft did not seem perturbed by his outburst. He stepped quietly into the room, went to the sideboard and poured two generous glasses of brandy from an absurdly ostentatious crystal decanter. His movements were controlled, precise.

John took a steadying breath, sat back down. He had no idea how long Mycroft had been gone. His neck ached, and he supposed it had been lolling at an uncomfortable angle while he dozed in the chair.

Mycroft came back over with the glasses, handed one to John without a word. He went back around behind his desk and sat, took a small sip of his drink. His face had gone ashen.

"I believe," he said. "That I may owe you an explanation."

*

His knee-jerk reaction had been to decline Mycroft's offer of a car back to Baker Street, but it was late—past midnight—and the repeated flood and recession of adrenaline and stress hormones had taken their toll on his body.

So he settled himself in a pristine black leather seat, tipped his head back against the headrest, stared numbly up at the ceiling. The day seemed endless. He had woken up on the couch in his old flat just that morning, had spoken with Mary, had ended his marriage. Their conversation felt distant, inconsequential, as if it had happened years in the past.

He was exhausted. He thought he may never sleep again.

Sherlock was alive. Sherlock was somewhere in London. Right now, at this moment, his heart was beating. His chest was rising and falling, his lungs taking in air.

John rolled down the window, breathed in that same air. The breeze was cold on his face, refreshing.

"Where do I begin?" Mycroft had asked, his voice very quiet. All of a sudden his large dark office had felt suffocating, much too small to contain the enormity of what he was trying to say. The very air had seemed to crackle with tension. "You have, at this point I'm sure, worked out that my brother did not perish in his fall from atop Barts Hospital."

John had leaned forward in his chair, his heart aching, aching.

"He knew there was a strong possibility that things with Moriarty might—" he paused. "Escalate. We had planned for several likely scenarios."

John had listened with an increasing sense of unreality as Mycroft laid out what had happened on that day—that terrible day—

He listened and he fumed and he took in all of the ways that he had been tricked, that he had been so cruelly deceived into thinking that Sherlock had—

His mind still rebelled against it, even now, knowing it was false. He still cringed away from the memory of that cracked open head, of those bright eyes gone dull. There were some things too terrible to bear contemplation.

"—a good deal of trouble that could have been avoided, of course, were he not so at the mercy of his own emotions."

"Sorry, his what?" John had lifted his head at that, had looked at Mycroft through the haze of disbelief and anger that had been slowly descending.

"His emotions. His feelings," Mycroft pronounced the word as if it tasted sour. "He's always been ruled by them, although he does so hate to admit it. I realize that you will undoubtedly have a differing opinion on the matter, Dr Watson, but the fact remains that things would have been much easier had he simply refused to jump."

"But he did jump," John said, and he was pleased that his voice was so calm, that it gave away so little of the deep rage that had begun pooling somewhere in his gut. Of course, this was Mycroft-bloody-Holmes he was sitting across from, so it was likely that his secrets would not remain such.

"He did," Mycroft said. "And made quite a good show of it, so I've heard."

John had laughed without humour. The sound had been brittle and cold to even his own tired, pained ears.

That cold, lifeless, bloodless wrist, so still under his desperate fingers. A good show, indeed.

Mycroft had taken another sip of his drink, gestured for John to do the same. "He was abroad for much of the next two years. Dismantling Moriarty's network. I provided assistance where I could."

"And no one," John said, taking a too-large swallow of his drink and grimacing as it burned all the way down his throat. "No one thought that maybe this is the kind of thing I'd like to know?"

Mycroft had regarded him with a baffled stare. "Whatever for?"

The car pulled onto Baker Street, idled in front of 221B, and he sat motionless for a long moment, just staring at the door. Then he finally roused himself and stumbled out of the car, made his way inside. He made an extra effort to be quiet, not wanting to frighten Mrs Hudson for the second night in a row.

He went up the stairs, his steps slow and heavy. His limbs felt sluggish, uncoordinated, exhausted past the point of functionality.

The flat was quiet, empty.

He went into the sitting room without turning on any lamps and stood for a moment, just looking at the mantel with its strange clutter. The curtains were drawn back from the windows. The skull grinned back at him, teeth very white in the moonlight.

"A little over a year ago, I lost contact with Sherlock," Mycroft had said. His voice had taken on a flat, robotic quality.

John had wondered if that meant he was in pain and trying to hide it. Sherlock had always seemed to shield himself by going overboard in the opposite direction.

"Intel pointed to him being captured, held somewhere in Eastern Europe."

John had felt a momentary thrill, a brief, inappropriate jolt. He'd written that. Something in the news, something, he'd seen something that had tickled the back of his mind, something that had made him sit up and think Sherlock. He'd sobered from that thought almost immediately, remembering that he'd written about Sherlock being tortured, beaten half to death and that had been fine when it wasn't real, when it was just him alone and angry and sad and working out his frustrations on his laptop because he couldn't do anything about it in real life, but to think that he—that Sherlock—that his friend had actually endured—

Mycroft had been watching him curiously. "I attempted to intervene. Unfortunately, I received communication that my efforts were—" he hesitated. "Well, that I was too late."

"So you just gave up and left him there?" John asked.

Mycroft studied him for a long, wordless moment. Then he swallowed down the remainder of his drink, opened the top drawer of his desk and withdrew a large brown envelope. He slid it across the desktop.

"Be my guest," he said. "I have no desire to view the images again, myself." He gave a brief, bloodless smile. "Once was enough."

John had felt a sick creeping dread as he'd thumbed open the envelope, slid out a small stack of black and white photographs. Oh—oh Jesus it was Sherlock, unmistakable, pale and thin and very, very dead. He rifled through the pictures, unable to look at any one for more than a few seconds. Sherlock's throat had been cut. His body had been tossed carelessly into a shallow grave, an awkward jumble of limbs that had once moved with such easy grace. Discarded, tossed aside, like he was nothing. Like he was no one. He had been half-covered over with dirt in the last photograph. There was dirt in his mouth, his eyes.

John's hand was shaking, not just trembling but outright shaking as he fumbled the pictures back into the envelope. He threw it back onto the desk, wanting it as far away from him as he could get it. His breath was coming very fast through his nose. Black spots danced in front of his eyes.

It can't be real, he told himself. You saw him. You saw him.

"I had the photographs verified, of course," Mycroft said quietly.

John did not respond, just breathed and breathed and breathed.

"A year ago," John said, finally, when he stopped feeling like he might list over out of his chair and sprawl, face-first into the expensive carpeting.

"It has been a significant source of grief for me," Mycroft said, looking down at his empty glass. His expression was distant, contemplative. "So you will, of course, understand my reluctance to believe your somewhat unlikely tale of this evening's events."

Now, back at the flat on Baker Street, John stood staring numbly at the skull on the mantel. He turned away with considerable effort, went into the bathroom. He dropped his soiled clothes on the floor, stood in the shower and watched filthy water circle the drain. He scrubbed at his hands, his fingernails caked with dirt and grime. Only when his skin was pink and stinging did he shut off the water and step out.

He dried himself off, wrapped a towel around his waist. He did not look in the mirror.

"I apologize," Mycroft had said. "For doubting you."

"It's him, then," he did not like the hope that had crept into his voice, hoarse and trembling.

"Oh yes," Mycroft said. "The man you encountered this evening was almost certainly my brother. Although I am afraid I cannot speak to his current whereabouts or—motivations." He had stood up, all traces of the near-human emotion in his posture and face slipping away. "You should go home, Dr Watson. Rest. I'll phone for a car."

He'd opened his mouth to object and just as quickly let his complaints drop. Instead, he'd leveled what he'd hoped was a rather severe gaze at Mycroft. "Don't leave me in the dark on this," he said. What he'd hoped to issue as a command wound up slipping from his lips sounding more like a plea.

"I'll be in touch," Mycroft had said, solemn and direct, and that was that.

In the steam-clouded bathroom, he went on stubbornly ignoring his reflection. Instead, he regarded the clothing he'd strewn on the floor, sighed, decided to bin the lot.

He carried the bundle of clothes out into the kitchen, holding it away from his body. There were trash liners under the sink and he crouched down to retrieve them, wrestled his armload into one. The smell of smoke hung in the air, sharp enough to make his nostrils twitch. He wrinkled his nose, started to tie off the bag, hesitated.

Well, shit. That was a hell of a thing to have forgotten.

He reached into the bag, fumbled around until he found the stiff denim of his jeans, probed at the pocket with his fingers. For a moment his stomach clenched but then there it was, the cool metal band of his wedding ring. He tipped it into his palm, looked at it. Then he reached up to set it on the counter, tied off the bag.

He straightened up, turned around.

Sherlock was standing right behind him, silent and pale as a ghost.

"Jesus!" John hissed, recoiling at the shock of the sudden proximity. His lower back struck the counter, igniting a bright flare of pain. Then—then his brain caught up with what his eyes were seeing and he staggered, suddenly lightheaded.

"Hello, John," Sherlock said. His voice was very quiet. He was dressed entirely in black; black jeans, black hooded sweatshirt, nothing at all like the posh suit-and-coat getup in which John remembered him best.

He was alive, alive and breathing. Not dead on the ground in front of Barts. Not mouldering in a coffin under a black marble headstone. Not lost forever in an unmarked Serbian grave.

He had, John noted almost absently, removed the contact lenses. His eyes were once more their natural colour, startlingly pale and bright in the shadows.

John let out a whoosh of breath, dropped the bag he'd been holding. His hands scrabbled behind him, gripped the countertop hard.

Sherlock did not move from where he stood. He clasped his hands behind his back. His eyes were very wide, unblinking.

"So—" John's voice came out hoarse, broken. He cleared his throat, tried again. "So. Not dead, then."

"No," Sherlock agreed. There was no inflection in his voice, nothing to be gleaned from his still face. There was nothing but the sounds of his quiet breaths in the dark. "Not dead."

John wanted to laugh. He wanted to throw a punch at that infuriatingly expressionless face. He wanted to grab Sherlock and shake him, wanted to demand an explanation. He wanted to haul him forward into an embrace and hold on, keep holding on, breathe him in and feel the miraculous proof of his heartbeat. He wanted to kill him. He thought that maybe he'd also like to kiss him.

He did nothing. He flexed his left hand out of habit. It was quite steady.

The silence stretched on.

"Love what you've done with the place," Sherlock said dryly. He raised his brows, inclined his head to indicate the rest of the flat. He was not smiling, not exactly, but there was the potential for a smile, twitching there at the corner of his mouth.

"Yeah, the previous tenant was a bit of a dick," John said. "Left all his crap behind when he left."

A smile bloomed on Sherlock's face, slow and tentative.

The air seemed to thin. John did not think he could possibly draw enough breath.

"You—" John said. He could feel the thundering rush of his own pulse. He thought he might need to sit down. "Um—I need—I need you to tell me what—to tell me why—"

Sherlock's smile flickered and faded. He did not speak.

Three years stretched between them.

John did not quite realize what he was about to do until he was already in motion. He reached out, yanked Sherlock into a rough embrace. He did not miss the flinch, the tiny, fleeting flicker on Sherlock's face that indicated he'd been bracing for a blow.

Sherlock was stiff in his arms—really, had he expected anything different? Even when he'd dreamed this, Sherlock had been tense and rigid—and John hugged him hard, almost aggressively, his hands fisting in the back of that sweatshirt. He could feel Sherlock breathing, each rise and fall of his chest as it pressed against John's. After a long, long moment, Sherlock let his head drop onto John's shoulder. He breathed out with a small sound that might have been a sigh.

John tightened his hold, his own breath snuffling wetly in his nose. He spared a thought for his poor heart, once more thundering in his chest. His knees voiced their intention to quit supporting him so he leaned back against the countertop, letting it bear some of his weight as he drew Sherlock back with him, still squeezing tightly, unwilling to relax his grip lest he slip away.

Instead of trying to worm free, Sherlock slowly brought his hands up to rest lightly on John's waist, then snatched them back. They hovered uncertainly at his sides, just shy of touching.

The towel, John realized belatedly with a flush of embarrassment, his fingers still crushing the fabric of Sherlock's shirt, his face nosing into the back of those dark curls. Christ, he was standing in the kitchen practically naked. He could not see Sherlock's face, only feel his hot breaths against his neck. His entire slim frame was trembling.

The lino was cold against John's bare feet. Sherlock's hair was damp. It smelled clean, no trace of smoke or dust or grime. He'd been somewhere for a shower, then.

John felt a fresh flare of anger, swelling up and rushing through him like the tide, but even as he made to shove Sherlock back and shake him and demand answers his body rebelled and merely crushed Sherlock ever closer instead. His breath was hitching in his lungs, little gasping sounds, and oh, God, this must be what a miracle felt like; painful and wonderful in equal measure.

The fresh horror of those photographs was still right there, waiting to accost his senses every time he closed his eyes. He could be angry later. He would be angry later. But right now—right now his godforsaken desperate wish-fulfillment had somehow become wish-fulfilled, and he had Sherlock in his arms, warm and alive and alive and alive.

Sherlock's hands landed once more on his waist, gripping lightly against his bare skin, tentative. His respiration had sped up, his chest heaving as he pressed his forehead into the hollow where John's neck met his shoulder.

John was helpless against the tide of this, could do nothing more than hold on. He did not want to step away, did not want Sherlock to look at his face and read him. By the way Sherlock was making his best effort to bury his own face in John's neck, he thought the same might be true for him as well. He wanted to freeze time, wanted to suspend himself forever in this moment, with everything he so desperately wanted and feared he'd lost forever pressed tightly against his chest, encircled in his arms. He was warm where Sherlock was touching him, chilled where his skin was exposed to the air, so tired and achy that it was something of a minor miracle that he was still standing.

He listed slightly, losing balance for a fraction of a second before he corrected himself, leaned even more of his weight back against the kitchen counter. Sherlock stiffened in his arms, lifted his head from where it had burrowed against John's skin. His hands trembled slightly but he did not withdraw them from their light perch on his waist.

"You're hurt," Sherlock said, his voice emerging hoarse and slightly choked. His eyes were red-rimmed, dark hollows beneath them etched across the pale canvas of his skin. His face very briefly contorted, just a faint ripple, it could have been anything, could have been the shadows, could have been a hint of all of those emotions he claimed not to feel.

"No," John said, shaking his head and lifting a hand to cup Sherlock's cheek. "Just very, very tired." He brushed a thumb gently across the paper-thin skin under Sherlock's right eye. Sherlock shivered, shut his eyes.

I missed you, John had said in his dream, that wonderful inexplicable dream. Had that really been only last night? Had he really awakened this very morning sick with grief and nostalgia and that horrible draining sensation of regret, that dull numb realization that he'd been mourning for all the wrong reasons?

"I'm angry with you," John said, and it came out soft, no real venom behind it. He was angry, he was so angry, but Sherlock's skin was warm and soft underneath his palm, and he'd had the chance to look into those unusual eyes again after fearing that for the rest of his days he'd only ever remember them the way they'd looked the last time he'd seen them, wide and blank with all the life bled out of them.

Sherlock nodded, cheek rasping against John's palm. He made a small noise of agreement, kept his eyes closed.

John cupped his cheek for a moment longer before sliding his hand up, moving without thinking, fingers probing through damp curls, feeling his way along the fine bone of Sherlock's skull. It was whole, unbroken, had never shattered against concrete. Mycroft had told him, of course. But to feel it for himself—

The staggering enormity of it was suddenly too much, huge and weighty, and he released Sherlock from his grasp and stepped—well, leaned back. He couldn’t step back, not pressed against the counter as he was.

Sherlock swayed a bit on his feet, his eyes still closed. His hands still resting loosely on John's waist. His skin was so very pale in the shadows, stark in contrast against his black clothing. With his eyes closed he was devoid of colour, almost like—

John reached up, yanked at the neck of that hooded sweatshirt, tugging it to one side and then the other, revealing nothing but smooth, unblemished throat.

He hadn't—he wasn't—those horrible photographs hadn't— Jesus. His mind banished half-formed thoughts of Sherlock, grievously hurt but not quite dead, clawing his way out of the unmarked ground. Whatever had happened, it wasn't that.

"Ah," Sherlock said, his voice low, heavy with realization. He stepped back, not far, but enough to give John space. His hands slipped away to once more clasp behind his back, leaving chilled skin in their wake. "I should go."

"Yeah, no, you really shouldn't," John was still leaning heavily against the counter. He suspected he might never be able to stand up on his own again. "Sit down, Sherlock."

Sherlock did not sit. He went on standing, standing and staring. He was so completely, carefully blank.

"Sherlock," John said. He wasn't shouting, ever-mindful of Mrs Hudson, but there would be no mistaking the steel in his voice. It was the voice he'd used in Afghanistan, his Captain's voice, the voice that brokered no argument. "Up until a few hours ago, I was operating under the impression that you'd made me watch you kill yourself. Your brother—"

Sherlock rolled his eyes, the motion painfully familiar.

"—your brother was under the impression that you'd had your throat cut in some—in some Serbian dungeon. I've spent—" His voice cracked, but he pushed on. "Three. Three years grieving you. So. No. You don't get to just go. Not this time."

His entire body trembled with rage and fatigue. He wondered if he was in any shape to restrain Sherlock, should he decide to turn and walk away. He'd try. It might get messy, but he'd try.

Silence from Sherlock. Silence and staring and blinking.

"You came here," John tried, half-desperate, his temper warring with the more rational part of his brain for control. He wondered if he might not wind up throwing that punch after all. "You came here. You obviously had a reason, you don't do anything without a reason, even if it is bloody incomprehensible to the rest of the world. So. Talk." He waited for a moment. "NOW, Sherlock."

Sherlock put one hand up to his mouth, turned away. John tensed, but he made no move to leave, simply stood there, his shoulders hunched. There was a hesitance in him, an uncertainty that seemed new. But it had been three years. Maybe John had forgotten what he was like, what he was really like, all of those edges smoothed over by the haziness of memory. Maybe he'd—maybe he'd never really known him at all.

"I needed to be certain," Sherlock said, still facing away.

"Certain of what?"

Sherlock turned back around, and even as bone-tired as they both were, there was no mistaking that face, that despairing Why-is-Everyone-so-Dull face.

"Certain of me?" John tried, and was encouraged when Sherlock did not roll his eyes or make any derisive noises. "I'm here, Sherlock. I'm right here. What about you? Where have you—God, where have you been?"

Sherlock's mouth turned down, making him look deeply, desperately unhappy for a moment. Then he blinked, composed his face once more, met John's stare head on. When he spoke, his words were dispassionate. "With Moriarty. Of course."

 

*

Chapter Text

*

John blinked. Shook his head. Clenched his fist and released it, pressed his palm against his leg through the towel. He was suddenly quite cold. His bare skin had come over in gooseflesh.

"Moriarty," he said. "You've. You've been with Moriarty."

"Yes, John." Sherlock's voice was quiet. Steady.

"Right," he said. He nodded, stepped around Sherlock, walked out of the room. He walked quickly up the stairs to his bedroom, shut the door behind him.

For a long moment, he stood in the middle of the room, eyes shut, fists clenched, just breathing. Finally he opened his eyes, relaxed his hands. At some point during the day, Mrs Hudson had replaced the bedding. The room no longer smelled musty; she must have opened the windows and aired it a bit.

His skin prickled with cold. Clothes. He could do nothing more until he was dressed.

He went to the wardrobe, looked inside. The selection was limited. He really needed to go back to the flat he'd shared with Mary, pack up his things. Tomorrow. He'd do that tomorrow.

He dressed quickly, hung the towel over the wardrobe door to dry. Took another deep breath, squared his shoulders, went back down the stairs. For a moment he lingered on the landing, terrified that he would turn the corner and find Sherlock gone, that he'd vanished into the night or, worse, had never been there at all.

He went through the doorway. The kitchen was empty.

His stomach gave a sickening swoop before his eyes caught on Sherlock, standing by the window, hidden away in the deep gloom of the sitting room. The curtains were drawn. He had not turned on any lights.

"You closed the curtains," John said.

Sherlock was a barely discernible shadow, the mere suggestion of a shape in the darkness next to the bookcase. He did not chide John about stating the obvious. "I can't risk being seen."

John went over to his chair, sat down. He crossed his arms over his chest.

"You're angry with me," Sherlock said quietly.

"I said that already, yeah."

Sherlock shook his head, moved slowly away from the wall, sat himself at the very edge of his own chair. He looked tense, skittish, ready to bolt. He folded his hands under his chin, blinked at John in the darkness.

"Not about that." He glanced at John, frowned, seemed to reconsider. "Not only about that. You're angry about what I said. About Moriarty."

John smiled without humour. "Am I?"

Sherlock made a frustrated sound and leaned back in his chair. For a moment, for a beautiful, fleeting moment, it was as if nothing at all had changed. The sight of him there—

"You have no idea what I'm angry about, do you?" John's voice sounded very calm to his own ears. "Can't you deduce it?"

"I lied to you," Sherlock said. "I tricked you."

"You lied to me," John agreed mildly. "You tricked me. All so you could, what, spend the last three years running around Europe with Moriarty? Some kind of sociopath grand adventure?"

"What?" Sherlock's brow furrowed up. "No!"

"And now you're—you're bored? Blowing up townhouses for fun? Someone died, Sherlock." John's fingers dug into the armrests. He felt sick; hot and cold and nauseated and furious all at once.

How could you? he wanted to ask. He wanted to shout it, wanted to grab Sherlock by the shoulders and force him to recognize exactly what he had done, to make him bear the weight of his own betrayal.

Sherlock was studying him quietly. His face was all scrunched, expression bewildered. John had once found that expression incredibly endearing. But Sherlock had told him not to make people into heroes, and John had gone ahead and done just that in his own mind.

You said you weren't a hero, he thought. But you were. To me, you were.

What had Sherlock betrayed, exactly, beyond John's own idealized version of the man?

"Someone died," John said, and he couldn't keep the disgust out of his voice this time. "But that's what people do, right?"

He stood up, unable to bear it anymore, unable to sit there and look at Sherlock there in his chair, at everything he'd wanted and yet—

"John," Sherlock said, and Christ, the man moved fast. He'd forgotten, in a way, just how quickly and gracefully Sherlock could move when he wanted to.

He caught John at the doorway, fingers curling around John's bicep, pulling him backwards.

John tensed, jerked back, his arm still grasped firm. "Sherlock, this is a warning. I will punch you."

"John, please," Sherlock said, and it was the please that did it, spoken hoarsely and desperately and without a hint of manipulation behind it.

Of course, he'd likely spent the last three years honing his already prodigious manipulation skills, so nothing was certain.

John sagged against the doorframe. Sherlock crowded in close, his face beseeching, his eyes boring into John's.

"You have it wrong," Sherlock said.

"Yeah," John said wearily. "I guess I did."

"No." Sherlock's brow furrowed up again. "I haven't been—what you think. With Moriarty."

"Did he blow up that townhouse tonight?"

"Not directly."

"Did he employ the person who blew up that townhouse?"

Sherlock nodded slowly.

"And you knew the townhouse was going to explode." John held up his hand. "Don't try to lie to me, Sherlock, you were there at the scene. You grabbed my arm and you told me to run."

"I didn't do it, if that's where you're going with this," Sherlock snapped.

A lifetime ago, Sherlock had looked at John looking at a pink suitcase and had felt the need to clarify that he wasn't a murderer. John had laughed it off as if the idea hadn't even occurred to him.

"The thought had occurred," he said.

Sherlock drew back slightly, looking stunned and not a little hurt. He opened his mouth, shut it again. Scowled. "For God's sake, John, think."

John pushed off of the doorframe, crowded right back into Sherlock's space. "I've been thinking. I've had three years to think. So how about you stop making me guess and start giving me some explanations?"

"James Moriarty killed himself on the roof of Barts Hospital the day that I jumped," Sherlock said flatly, straightening up, lifting his chin. "He put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger."

John blinked, stepped back, mind reeling. No one had ever said anything about a body on the roof. No one had ever—

"I was very close to him when it happened, John. I was quite confident that he was dead." Sherlock's mouth turned down again, twitching into that unhappy little frown. "Obviously, I was mistaken. He wanted me to believe that he was impulsive. Changeable. When in fact he had clearly put a great deal of forethought and planning into his little performance."

"So you, what, decided to take a swan dive off a building because life wasn't worth living without an arch nemesis? Too boring for you?"

Sherlock whirled around and lashed out with surprising speed, kicking over the little table that sat next to John's chair. It hit the floor with a terrible clatter. "DAMMIT, John, are you even paying attention AT ALL?"

He turned back to face John, chest heaving. His face had flushed red. He took a half step forward, froze, made a helpless little gesture with his hands and then continued in an ungraceful rush, fingers—surprisingly gentle—splaying out against John's cheeks, lips—not gentle at all—crashing against John's own.

John made a startled noise. Sherlock's hands were warm, his lips dry and chapped and frantic. He allowed himself to be walked backwards, the back of his head thumping against the wall, the edge of the doorframe digging between his shoulder blades. He brought his hands up, intending to shove Sherlock away, but his hands tangled up in the front of that hooded sweatshirt and pulled him closer instead. Something like a sob caught in his throat.

Sherlock was shaking against him, kissing him like his life depended on it. John loosened his grasp on the sweatshirt, slid his hands around to Sherlock's back, ran them up and down in a vaguely soothing gesture. Sherlock's lips mashed clumsily against his. He could feel his heart jackhammering through the soft material of his sweatshirt.

John pulled back, ever so slightly, pulled in shuddering breath. Sherlock tipped forward as though drawn on his inhalation, eyes shut tight, pressed their foreheads together. His hands still cradled John's face, his own breaths puffing warm against John's lips.

His lips were moving, air escaping, barely forming words. He kept his eyes clamped shut. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I can't stay, John, I can't stay."

"What?" John left one hand curled at Sherlock's back, moved the other one up to cup the back of his head. Soft dark hair tickled his palm, snagged around his fingers. He breathed in, deeply. Sherlock smelled good. Sherlock smelled familiar. It sent an abrupt, shocking bolt of arousal through him, flooding his body with heat, and it was all he could do to keep himself from surging forward and reclaiming Sherlock's mouth. Instead, he tilted his head up just a little bit, barely grazing their lips together.

Sherlock made a broken little sound. His fingers twitched against John's cheeks.

John's thoughts were treacle slow. Jesus. Jesus. They were still entwined, close like lovers, breathing each other's breath. What was he—

"I'm sorry," Sherlock was still murmuring against his lips. "I can't stay. I can't stay. I'm sorry."

"Hey," John said, untangling his fingers from that dark hair and placing both hands on Sherlock's face, thumbs running along the sharp ridge of his cheekbones. He leaned forward, pressed a firm, closed-mouth kiss on Sherlock's lips, halting the quiet babble of apologies, and then released him, stepped away, his back sliding against the wall.

Sherlock swayed on his feet. His face was flushed, his lips swollen. He blinked slowly at John as though waking from a dream. "I—" he said.

"Sherlock," John said. He caught himself wanting to drift forward again, back towards that warmth. Instead, he folded his arms across his chest. The hot flare of anger that had nearly driven him from the room had faded. Whatever Sherlock had done, whatever he was doing, it wasn't—it couldn't be—

Sherlock came stumbling back towards him in an uncoordinated rush, hands closing over John's biceps again, gripping hard. The stunned look had slid off of his face and his expression was suddenly urgent. "You have to understand that I had a reason to do what I did, John."

"Mycroft told me," John conceded. "About the—contract out on my life. I know. But he didn't say anything about Moriarty being dead. And why the hell would you have jumped if you didn't have to?" He shook his head. "It doesn't make any sense. And why would you—with him—three years, Sherlock. Not a word for three years, and you turn up in London again running around with bloody Moriarty. How—"

"Stop talking and listen," Sherlock hissed.

John stopped talking. He listened.

"I was abroad. For almost two years. Moriarty was a spider, and spiders have webs. I was taking it apart." One side of Sherlock's mouth gave a faint twitch upwards. "One thread at a time."

John nodded, jerked his chin in a go-on motion.

"Near the end, I—miscalculated."

"Eastern Europe. Serbia," John said, when it appeared that Sherlock was not going to speak further.

Sherlock's eyes flicked upwards to meet his. "Mycroft told you that much."

"Yeah and—" The time didn't seem right to add in and I guessed, actually, wrote about it in my book so John stopped, nodded. "Yeah."

"Not a highlight of the trip, to be honest," Sherlock said. "Rubbish accommodations."

John let an amused breath huff out of his nose. Then he sobered. "Sherlock, those photographs—"

"I was in the third day of an, ah, increasingly unpleasant round of questioning," Sherlock said. "When things got interesting."

John frowned, because he and Sherlock did not always agree on what constituted "interesting."

"As it turned out, I had," Sherlock looked down, seemed to realize he was still gripping onto John's arms and released him. He folded his hands in front of him. "Miscalculated. A bit more than my original estimation."

John took a deep breath, waited. Silence stretched between them.

"To say that I was surprised to see Moriarty," Sherlock said finally. "Would be an understatement." He stepped back, turned away, hand going back up to his mouth. He paced, back and forth, not straying far. He was wearing trainers. His footsteps were whisper-quiet on the floor. "I'd been stupid, John. Inexcusably so."

"You went with him," John said.

Sherlock stopped pacing, looked up. "He'd been following my progress for some time. Found it amusing." He scowled, stalked over to his chair, folded himself up in it. His trainers squeaked against the leather. "Said I did him a favor, weeding out those in his employ who were too stupid to conceal their tracks. Said he wanted to do me a favor in return."

John stepped forward cautiously, slipped back into his own chair. Across from him, Sherlock's chin was resting on his knees. His eyes were distant.

"He did offer the firing squad. Said it was only polite to provide a choice."

John couldn't help but see it in his mind. Sherlock, blindfolded, final cigarette smoldering between his lips, his back against damp brick and all of his acute senses attuned to the breaths of men, the cocking of rifles, the rustle of clothing. Sherlock, alert and doomed and just waiting. He shuddered.

"We staged photographs. He had a man—more of an artist, really. It was good work. Very convincing."

"Yeah," John bit out. The visual was one that would never leave him. "They convinced your brother."

"Ah," Sherlock said, mouth tight. "I had wondered."

John leaned his head back against the chair, shut his eyes.

"John."

He straightened back up. Sherlock's face was serious, intense.

"I have to leave." He stood quickly, but with less of his typical enthusiasm. He brushed past John, hesitated in the doorway. John very deliberately did not think of kissing him in that very spot. Already it felt unreal, distant. "I shouldn't have—I've been here for too long." He started out, turned back yet again, oscillating, unusually hesitant. "It's a game, John. All of it. Just a game. I'm being watched."

John glanced around in sudden alarm, but Sherlock was already shaking his head.

"I was able to buy some time. I think. Homeless network. There's a man, dark hair, approximately my weight and build. We've switched in the past. For a few hours. He takes my mobile, keeps his hood up."

John didn't ask where he'd gone, who he'd felt the need to see in those few hours of stolen privacy. Not me was really all he needed to know.

He thought of Sherlock's unbridled glee through that first set of bombings, all those years ago, how his eyes had lit up, how he'd thought the whole thing was so exciting, so novel.

Just a game.

"Well," he said finally, voice calm, very level. "Glad you're not dead. Good luck with—with all of that, then."

Sherlock opened his mouth, shut it again. The fingers of one hand curled around the doorframe. He stood very still for a long moment, not blinking, just staring. John did not let himself be fooled into believing that the minute fluctuations in his expression were down to anything more than the play of shadows across his face.

When Sherlock turned and went down the stairs, it was silently, swiftly, as if he'd never been real at all.

*

John opened his eyes into slanting sunlight.

He blinked, looked up at the ceiling, utterly disoriented. His muscles ached. He was—he wasn't at home, he was—

He shut his eyes, breathed out. Baker Street. He was in his old room at Baker Street. Mrs Hudson had replaced the linens. He had come back. He was moving back in. Sherlock had—

Oh, God.

He sat up, his back screaming in protest, and Jesus, it felt like he'd been hit by a lorry. At his age, getting tackled into the pavement and nearly blown up was near enough.

Sherlock.

Sherlock wasn't dead. Sherlock was alive and walking around London and—

He eased his way out of bed, mindful of his sore limbs. He waited for the anger to come, because he had sure as fuck been angry the night before, he'd gone up to bed shaking with rage and regretting that he hadn't thrown a punch, wishing he had knocked that infuriating inscrutable expression off of Sherlock's face.

Just a game.

He'd lain down in his old room, in his old bed, staring up at the same old ceiling, clenching his fists and gritting his teeth and he'd thought I'm not going to fall asleep, but then the exhaustion of the day had grabbed hold and he'd gone and fallen asleep anyway. And now he tried to call back that anger, wanted it to flood through him and carry him through the rest of this day, through this one and every day after, but it wouldn't come.

Instead, what came was relief. Crushing, devastating relief. Sherlock was alive. That heart was still beating, that brain was still firing, he was whole and unharmed and not sprawled and shattered on concrete, not mouldering under a marble tombstone (or worse, worse, anonymously in an unmarked grave.)

Relief.

Christ, there was something wrong with him.

He stretched, slipped into the jeans and shirt he'd worn for a short time the night before, and made his way stiffly downstairs to see about a cuppa. He did not look at the doorframe at the sitting room entrance, did not think of the way Sherlock had surged forward and kissed him, did not think of the stunned look on Sherlock's face when he had finally stepped away.

Just a game.

And okay, yeah, there was the anger. Finally.

Sherlock had been alive, all this time.

He'd been mourning and grieving and stumbling his way through each day, making a mess of his own marriage, for chrissakes, over a man who had never been dead at all. Not dead. Just gone.

And gone with no intention of coming back, so it seemed. Gone but not gone, gone but still right here in London. Gone off with James-fucking-Moriarty, of all people. And, oh, the two of them must be having a grand old time, playing their games on London streets, blowing up townhouses and God knows what else—

Except. Except.

Sherlock hadn't looked like he was having a grand old time. Sherlock had looked tired and conflicted and miserable. He wasn't lit up with glee the way he had been years ago, when Moriarty had first appeared on the scene, like he'd gotten a giftwrapped nemesis for his birthday and Christmas all rolled up into one.

He'd looked at John and said it's just a game, and wasn't that damning enough? But he'd also grabbed John's arm and said RUN and he'd done it at the expense of his disguise and his secrecy and—

He had no idea what any of it meant. He had no idea what Sherlock was doing, what he had already done. He should have punched him. He should have kissed him again. He should have kept him from slipping out the door and back into the night.

It's just a game, Sherlock had said, but which part? All of it? Some of it? Was his clandestine visit what it seemed, or just his next move?

He stood over the kettle with half-closed eyes. He fixed himself a cup of tea with mechanical motions. He leaned back against the kitchen counter, next to the crumpled trash bag with his discarded clothes, and breathed in the steam as it steeped.

God, he had forgotten this, the uncertainty that followed Sherlock everywhere. Constantly questioning motives, wondering what was genuine, what was for show. He'd thought he'd known. He'd thought he—

He was furious.

He was relieved.

For God's sake, how had Mycroft missed this? He had eyes on everything, how had he not seen his own brother running around London with Moriarty? Were a few dodgy photographs really all it took to shut down the giant brain behind the entire British Government?

He thought about Mycroft's face, lined and tired, half lit in the warm dim light of his office. The bob of his Adam's apple as he swallowed down brandy from a heavy crystal glass. He thought about Sherlock saying bitterness is a paralytic. He thought about the way he, himself, had been in the months following Sherlock's suicide, numb and sleepwalking through his every move.

It was—uncomfortable, to imagine the same of Mycroft. If Sherlock had at times seemed inhuman, Mycroft was on an entirely separate plane, remote and removed and utterly cold. And yet.

I have no desire to view the images again, he'd said, and John believed him, Christ, he wished he had never seen them either. But Mycroft had kept them tucked in the top drawer of his desk. He'd kept them close, those final images of his baby brother, that reminder of failure.

Mycroft hadn't noticed Sherlock, because he hadn't been looking.

And that—Sherlock had seemed surprised by that, hadn't he? His response hadn't been smug, not at all the way he should have reacted to catching his brother off guard. Why had he been surprised? Had he—had he been hoping that someone was looking for him? Had he been out there, this whole time, drifting, waiting for someone to notice and throw him a lifeline?

John groaned, scrubbed his hand over his face. His tea had cooled somewhat and he took a sip, then another.

He hadn't known what to make of Sherlock on the best of days. He'd done his best, he'd always done his best, and he thought that maybe he'd gotten closer than most. But in the end, Sherlock was inscrutable. And if he hadn't been able to completely decipher him after a year and a half of cohabitation and close, close, close friendship, he certainly wasn't going to be up to snuff after three years apart.

Sherlock was alive. He no longer had to torture himself with what-ifs and regrets over what had happened. He no longer had to cleave to desperate, impossible thoughts. He could let it go.

And beyond that—well.

He set his empty mug down in the sink. It was useless to stand around while his thoughts chased each other in circles through his poor befuddled head. Sherlock's motives were indecipherable by his own design, he couldn't begin to sort it out even if he'd wanted to. But there were problems he could solve.

He sought out his mobile phone, thumbed off a quick text to Mary.

Mind if I come by the flat this afternoon for some things?

He rinsed and dried his mug while he waited for her to respond. His eye caught on his wedding ring, still sitting exactly where he'd placed it on the counter. He picked it up, held it in the palm of his hand, tried not to wonder if she was, just now, waking next to that scandalously young, shockingly attractive rebound she'd hoped to find. Was she entwined with him in the warm late morning sun, nude and languorous, stirring at the sound of his text alert? No. Nope. Not imagining that.

His marriage was over, certainly, it had ended long before either one of them had had the guts to say it out loud—hell, it had been doomed from the start—but he still had some measure of pride.

His phone beeped sooner than he'd expected.

Sure. I'm going out around noon. Flat will be empty.

He dropped his ring into his mug where it could avoid being accidentally swept down the drain, put the mug away in the cupboard, looked at the clock. An hour or so. That was good. He could get it over with. He had a little box of keepsakes back ho—back at Mary's flat. A trinket or two from his childhood, a particularly ardent love letter from a university girlfriend, his medals and dog tags, press clippings of him and Sherlock. Memories of a time gone by. His ring could join them.

He went into the sitting room, drew open the curtains, bathed the room in golden sunlight. Dust motes danced in the air, reminding him of the day he'd proposed to Mary, when he'd come back to say goodbye to Sherlock's ghost.

It felt like eons ago, that day. But he'd done it—he'd said goodbye and then not really meant it at all. And he'd gone and pledged his life to Mary, and he'd gone and said his vows and, as it turned out, not really meant that at all either. His marriage hadn't even lasted a full year. Not even half a year. Christ, and he'd gotten on Harry's case after the way things had gone down with Clara. Her train wreck of a marriage looked like a brilliant success next to his own.

And it had all been for nothing, hadn't it? Sherlock had never been dead. All of that grief, all of that—longing that he'd felt, everything that had made it impossible for him to truly commit to his wife, to someone who loved him—it had been a waste. He had torpedoed his marriage for a fictional construct, a manifestation of his own desperate guilt.

He turned away from the windows, looked at the bookshelves still stacked with all of Sherlock's eclectic clutter, still coated with a layer of Sherlock's eloquent dust. His chair was still there, still empty. John stared and stared at the leather, tried to find some trace of Sherlock's imprint, some clue that he really had been there only a few hours earlier, that he'd sat in his chair with his knees under his chin and breathed his breath into their shared air.

The room yielded no answers to him. It was just a room, just a familiar room full of memories. Sherlock would have been able to point out innumerable tells—some kind of flattening of carpet fibers in a particular pattern, or creases in the leather of his chair, or oils from his fingers on the doorframe. John could only trust that his own subconscious, regardless of how much it wanted, could not spin so realistic a fantasy while he slept.

Sherlock had kissed him.

Granted, Sherlock had done a lot of inexplicable things in pursuit of his own ends. John had seen him don and doff personalities like clothes. He'd seen him smile and sham and flirt. But he'd never quite seen an expression on Sherlock's face like the one he'd worn when they'd stepped apart.

It—

He didn't know what to think. None of this made any sense.

I'm sorry, Sherlock had whispered against his lips. John had swallowed down those whispered apologies. I can't stay.

The flat suddenly felt too small, assaulting him with a claustrophobic press of memories. He had always loved the smell of the place, old books and dust, it reminded him of the libraries he'd sequester himself in during his school days, of late nights poring over medical textbooks with bloodshot eyes and his system singing with too much caffeine. Over time, those associations had been supplanted with new ones, he still running on too much caffeine and too little sleep, but this time shoulder-to-shoulder with Sherlock, poring over case notes or evidence or bloody crime scene photographs. If he closed his eyes, now, he could fool himself into detecting a trace of Sherlock's scent, lingering ghostlike in the empty rooms.

It was too much. It wasn't enough. He didn't know what to think. He couldn't even try to think, not surrounded by all of this—by all of this Sherlock.

He put on his coat, went outside. There was a crowd inside Speedy's but no one braving the cold to sit outside. He couldn't blame them. His breath misted in front of him as he waved down a cab.

The cabbie had the heater blasting. John unzipped his jacket, shifted on the seat to get comfortable. The city slid by as they moved through traffic. There were people all around, pedestrians, motorists, cyclists. All of them going about their lives, utterly unaffected by the earth-shattering changes the last twenty-four hours had brought.

He wondered what Mary would say if he told her he wanted another chance. Honey, guess what? Sherlock was never dead. And he's—likely become one half of some kind of terrifying supergenius criminal duo. So it turns out I'm emotionally available after all! Maybe. Probably. Want to give it another go?

He laughed out loud, clamped a hand over his own mouth. He was cracking up. It appeared he'd finally found his mental limit, and it was three years of wallowing in grief followed by one surreal snog in the darkened sitting room of his own flat with the dead-not-dead cause of said grief. He wondered what Ella would say if he went to her with that story. He wondered what anyone would say if he went to them with that story.

There was movement from the front of the cab, a flicker of eyes in the rearview mirror, and he felt his face heat up. "Sorry—it's just—been a rough few days."

"Oh, don't worry about it," the cabbie said in a singsong Irish lilt. "They say that laughter is the best medicine, after all."

And John registered too late, much too late, that the eyes that had flicked towards his in the mirror had been familiar, dark and soulless, and he lunged for the door, yanked on the handle, made the cursory effort even though he already knew, he already knew it wasn't going to open.

"Of course, you're a doctor, so you'd know all about that, wouldn't you?" Moriarty said in a conversational tone, taking a hard left that threw John against the window. His temple connected with the glass and bright spots exploded in his vision.

"Oops!" Moriarty crowed. "Sorry!"

John flung himself backward onto the seat, kicking at the glass, not caring if he cut himself to ribbons, but his shoes thudded harmlessly against the surface. Not regular glass, then. Reinforced. Something twinged in his knee.

Moriarty rapped the knuckles on his left hand against the partition, the other hand still on the wheel. The cab leapt forward, weaving through traffic, hopping the kerb, sending passerby scattering out of the way. He did not turn around. "I admire your energy, John, really. I do. But surely you didn't think I was going to make it that easy for you?"

John left off kicking uselessly at the window, fumbled his phone out of his pocket.

"Ugh," Moriarty said, and slammed on the brakes.

John put his hands out to brace himself as the partition rushed forward to meet him. The phone dropped to the floor and he swore, bending to sweep his hand under the seat to retrieve it. His fingers closed around hard plastic and he sat up, just as the door nearest him flew open and strong hands had him by the shoulders.

He caught a glimpse of Moriarty watching in the rearview mirror, loathsome face contorted in amusement.

There was a brief taste of cold air as he struggled—Christ, whoever had him had arms as thick as tree trunks—a bag was jerked roughly over his head, and then a sharp stinging sensation in his neck and an encroaching darkness he could not fight off.

*

His mouth was dry, cottony. His shoulder ached, his head swam, his eyes felt gummy and glued shut. For one terrible, illogical moment he thought it's all been a dream, was certain that he'd pry his uncooperative eyes open to stare up at the sterile white of a hospital ceiling, that he'd turn his head and see the thick surgical dressing over his shoulder, and, on the small table next to his bed an anemic bouquet of flowers and a cheap get well card from Harry. She hadn't even written a message, he recalled. She had just signed her name.

He let out a miserable groan, because he couldn't, he couldn't do it all again. He was so alone, and London was so grey and he couldn't—he—

"John," Sherlock said.

He cracked open his eyes, found himself staring straight into the strange, fathomless depths of Sherlock's. The hazy, confused memories faded, melted away, and his stomach swooped at the sight of Sherlock, crouched in front of him.

He, himself, was tied to a chair. A wheeled office chair, with a stiff back.

He looked around. The room he was in was fairly large, cluttered, filthy. There was a mattress in the corner, a nest of blankets. It looked like someone had been squatting here.

"Are you all right?" Sherlock asked him, drawing his attention back. There was an alarming level of urgency in his voice, John thought. He was normally so very calm. Well. No. Not always calm. He—sometimes he got himself all worked up and shouted and shot holes in the walls and stood on the furniture.

He was normally very calm in life or death situations, John amended. The thought amused him and he found himself chuckling out loud.

Sherlock had worked his wrists free of their bindings, was holding both of them loosely in his hands. At the sound of John's laughter he managed to look even more alarmed, which didn't seem possible.

John laughed again, shook his head. The motion unleashed a tidal wave of vertigo and he shut his eyes. He pulled one of his hands out of Sherlock's grip, flailed at the air in front of him until his fingers closed over Sherlock's shoulder instead. "Well. This figures."

"What are you talking about?" Sherlock hissed. "Wake up."

"It's been boring. These past few years. Then you show up and here I am—" he giggled again, his voice slurring. His tongue didn't seem to want to unstick from the roof of his mouth. "Kidnapped again."

"Yes, it's inspiring to see that you've learned absolutely nothing from past experiences—"

"Sorry," John said drowsily, his head tipping forward to rest against Sherlock's shoulder. It was comfortable. A bit bony, but comfortable. Sherlock smelled nice. Familiar. Hadn't he just been thinking about that? "Cabbies aren't to be trusted. Won't happen again."

"What are you—WAKE UP!" Sherlock commanded, giving him a little shake.

John blinked, lifted his head from Sherlock's shoulder. He gave his head a little shake in an effort to clear his thoughts. "What did he give me?"

"It should wear off soon," Sherlock said.

"That's not an answer." He pushed up out of the chair cautiously, gave himself a moment to reorient. There was a dirty little throw rug on the floor, the weave an interesting pattern of greens and blues. It might have been pretty, once. He looked up. The dizziness was starting to recede.

Sherlock stood as well, fixed him with a wary look.

"Well," John said. "What now?"

He looked around. The room was spacious, but had a residential feel. The wood floor not covered by the rug was scuffed, dirty. Mouldering wallpaper had begun to peel away from stained walls. It was faded and tattered and he could barely detect what kind of pattern it had once been. There was one door, and a window on the far wall, covered over with a sheet. Anemic light filtered through.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," Sherlock said. That wide-eyed, alarmed look hadn't left his face. It made him look terribly young, and so very, very far from the self-assured, acerbic genius John had once known.

"Shoulda coulda woulda, Sherlock," Moriarty chirped, positively bursting in through the door. There was a skip in his step, his shined shoes tapping merrily as he made his way across the room towards them.

John wondered how long he'd been listening at the door, hoping for a good line on which to make his grand entrance.

Sherlock whirled around to face him, his face rearranging itself into a sort of furious blankness. John wondered briefly if he could manage to bludgeon Moriarty to death with the wooden chair before being cut down by hidden snipers or blown up by concealed explosives. It'd be worth it, he thought. Well worth it.

"We had a deal," Sherlock said. His voice was cold steel. All of that urgency and concern had dissipated like smoke.

"We did," Moriarty agreed, rocking back on his heels a little bit, looking for all the world like a bored schoolboy. "Although I don't really know why you feel compelled to remind me, seeing as you're the one who broke it."

"Just," John said, holding one hand up to forestall further conversation. Sherlock had bristled up like an angry cat. "What—what deal?"

"Look at him," Moriarty said, never once taking his eyes from Sherlock. "He's so angry. You should have seen him in the cab. He put up SUCH a fight!"

Sherlock's eyes flicked to John, seemed to take stock of him. It was oddly comforting.

"Of course, you'll be filling him in on all of the details, won't you Sherlock?" Moriarty drew the name out, turned it into something almost obscene. He stepped forward, reached up and gave a firm, affectionate ruffle to Sherlock's hair.

Sherlock did not move, did not speak, did not react in any visible way.

John's heart sank.

Something must have shown on his face, because suddenly Moriarty was laughing, doubling over with the force of it, one arm out and clinging to the edge of Sherlock's shirtsleeve for balance.

"Oh my God," he said. "You have no idea what's going on, do you? Oh my God." He straightened up, wiped at the corner of his eye, grinned up at Sherlock. "He is absolutely adorable. Truly."

"Can we skip the theatrics, please?" John said, all forced politeness. "You seem eager to share, so I'm all ears. What is going on? You're, what, teaming up?"

There was something, a tiny flicker on Sherlock's face, but John couldn't be arsed to figure out what it meant. Not with his heart in his throat and Jim-fucking-Moriarty standing right in front of him. He was ready for this. He'd been bracing himself for the truth of this all day.

Moriarty gave an exaggerated shudder, his face contorting into a grotesquely comic display of horror. "Oh God, no. Is that what you think?"

John gave a tight smile, did not respond.

Moriarty let out a sharp little giggle. "Oh you are fun. I had forgotten. Forgive me, please, it's been far too long since we last met."

John squared his shoulders, met Moriarty's gaze head-on. "I can't really say that I've much missed you."

Moriarty ignored him. "Teaming up," he said instead, looking suddenly thoughtful. "That would imply cooperation. Collusion. Sherlock and I have a rather different arrangement. A bit unconventional, I suppose, but I've always admired those who think outside the box." His dead, dark eyes seemed to spark. "Something I believe we have in common."

"Enough," Sherlock said. His voice was flat, almost bored.

"No," Moriarty said. "Nope. You don't get to decide the rules anymore, Sherlock. You lost our little game. It wasn't even close."

"John," Sherlock said, turning away from Moriarty. There was something urgent in his expression. "You want to know what's going on? Think about it. What is he?"

John blinked. "What?"

Sherlock edged closer. "What is Moriarty?"

"What are you talking about—"

"John!"

"A psychopath," John blurted. "A-a consulting criminal. A spider."

"Flattery will get you everywhere," Moriarty drawled from somewhere behind Sherlock.

"Good, John," Sherlock said. "Keep going."

"Keep—what are you on about?"

Moriarty let out an exaggerated yawn. "This is getting boring. I'm going to change the channel."

"He's a collector, John," Sherlock hissed. "I didn't—he doesn't just consult on crimes."

"You said," John shook his head. "You said he had a criminal empire."

"He did. He does. But that's only part of it. He collects people, John. Interesting people. He collects them and he funds them and he waits to see what they'll do next." Sherlock frowned, glanced over his shoulder at Moriarty. He looked back down. His eyes were hard. "Serial killers. Bombers. People with quirks or unusual tendencies. He finds them and he—he nurtures what he sees in them. In a way. Makes it easier for them to throw off any natural inhibitions. And then he sits back and he observes."

"People do the funniest things," Moriarty agreed. "Are you done talking now?"

Irritation flashed across Sherlock's face. He set his jaw.

"Good," Moriarty stepped around him. He was smiling again, that unsettling wide grin. "What our dear long-winded Sherlock is trying to say, John, is that I never wanted to team up with him. God, I can't imagine anything more boring. Might as well shoot myself for real."

"Well. Don't hold back on my account," John said.

"You know, I didn't, before. But I think I might be starting to understand what he sees in you," Moriarty said thoughtfully. "Hm. Anyway, I don't want to work with Sherlock, or fight with Sherlock. I want to watch him dance. Most people are so boring, John—I can't expect you to understand, you're boring too, so ordinary, I want to fall asleep just looking at you—but Sherlock, oh, he dances so prettily. Don't you, Sherlock?"

Sherlock said nothing.

"I could make you dance right now. Shall I?"

"Don't," Sherlock said, and the choked, bitten-off tone of his voice made John look up in alarm.

What the hell was going on?

Moriarty grinned at him for a moment before redirecting that unnerving gaze onto John. "I like watching him dance. What I don't enjoy is his performance interfering with my finances. You know what they say about mixing business with pleasure."

"I'm not following," John said. His head ached, he was still slightly dizzy from the drug. Having two geniuses talk in circles around him was not, exactly, what he needed at the moment.

Sherlock stepped forward, right into his space, looked down at him with pale, urgent eyes. "We made a deal, John. He'd arrange for a crime to be committed. I was given a set amount of time to get myself onto the scene, deduce what had been done and why. Then he'd blow the place up."

"So you were, what? His performing monkey?"

Sherlock's looming figure blocked out Moriarty entirely. It made John uneasy, not being able to see him.

"It was a game," Sherlock said, and John couldn't recall ever seeing him look more tired. "Just a game."

"You broke the rules," Moriarty said.

"You altered the terms." Sherlock did not turn away from John as he spoke. His eyes flicked rapidly, as if cycling through his mind palace or—as if memorizing John's face.

There was the click of hard-soled shoes on the ground. Moriarty crept into John's peripheral vision, stalking in a slow circle around where he stood with Sherlock.

"Why don't you fill John in on our terms? He can decide for himself if they've been altered in any way."

Sherlock said nothing, just went on scanning John's face. His mouth had tightened.

"Or we could play a different game?"

Sherlock shut his eyes. When he spoke, his voice was flat, mechanical. "Unrestricted movement within the city. Heavily disguised, of course. No contact with anyone I—with anyone who was a part of my life, before. In any way. Should I encounter anyone who displays signs of recognition, they will be—handled."

"I've got a few people on hand who enjoy that sort of work," Moriarty said, his tone conversational. "Very creative about it."

John shuddered.

"No contact," Sherlock said again. "Especially not with anyone who might have been construed as a—as a friend." He extended one long pale hand, ticked the names off on his fingers. "Molly Hooper—"

"I have to tell you, I did not see that one coming," Moriarty snorted. The teasing smile faded from his face, leaving it once again almost terrifyingly blank. "I was angry, you know. At first. But now I think I'm mostly impressed. I'm not easy to surprise."

Sherlock ground his teeth, did not respond. He ticked off a second finger. "Mrs Hudson. My brother, for obvious reasons, and any members of my immediate family. Lestrade. And you, John."

John looked up at him, at that weary, familiar, deeply-missed face. Anger and confusion and sadness pulled at him, but overriding all was the simple desire to gather Sherlock up in his arms and just leave. Walk away, somehow, get clear of Moriarty. He could get properly furious and commence with the shouting and the anger and the disappointment later, when Sherlock was safe. When he was home.

"What happens if you transgress?" John asked quietly. He suspected he already knew the answer. He suspected he was about to experience it firsthand.

Sherlock answered with silence.

Moriarty began to giggle. And giggle and giggle.

Sherlock twitched slightly. He did not take his eyes off of John. "Depends on the nature of the transgression. But. Well. Executions. Starting from the bottom of a predetermined list ranked by—ah—by perceived importance."

"Importance?"

"To me, John," Sherlock said, his voice quiet and defeated. "Importance to me."

"I really think I've been more than fair," Moriarty said. "I let you off with a warning, the first time."

Sherlock opened his mouth to say something, seemed to think better of it. He kept his face deliberately turned away from Moriarty.

"He's very impressed with himself," Moriarty said, coming around to stand right next to John. He elbowed John in the ribs, friendly, like a mate in the pub. "You know all about that, of course. So of course he was going to test our terms. I would have been disappointed if he hadn't."

"Oh. Well. I'm sure he'd hate to disappoint you," John said with a small hard smile.

Sherlock cut his eyes towards him, and they were crinkled at the corner, a faint flicker of their old inappropriate amusement in tight situations.

Moriarty droned on as if he hadn't heard. "I could have crushed him, right there, you know. But—well, all toys break eventually, of course they do, but you don't want them to crack right out of the packaging. Where's the fun in that? So he thought he was being all clever, sneaking out, and I let him. He's so funny when he thinks he's being sneaky." He elbowed John again. "And I understood, of course. It's considered terribly rude to miss a friend's wedding."

It took John a moment, looking from Sherlock's suddenly stricken face to Moriarty's maniacal grin.

"Wedding," he said. "You mean mine. You were—"

"Waiters," Sherlock said. "Operate under a certain level of anonymity. Uniform dress, deferential demeanors, all designed to blend seamlessly into the background."

But I was looking for you, John did not say. He had sat there next to his wife and smiled for photographs and eaten his dinner and kissed her when the urge struck, but he had kept his eye on the door, his last flicker of hope that Sherlock might have survived, that Sherlock Holmes might Make an Entrance finally guttering and dying as the night wound on.

"I served you your roast beef," Sherlock said quietly.

"I didn't notice you," John said, and it felt as if his heart had cracked in two. His knees nearly buckled. He forced himself to remain upright, pinned by Sherlock's intense stare.

"Of course not. I was in disguise, and you had other things on your mind. You weren't meant to notice me, John. It would have been rather disastrous if you had."

"I thought about it," Moriarty said. "Your blood, splashing on all of that pretty white lace. Your little bride never would have seen it coming, wouldn't even know what had happened. But Sherlock would have known. He'd have known right away that he'd killed you, just by being there." He giggled. "I wonder if he'd have dropped that plate he was carrying. CRASH!"

John shut his eyes, focused on breathing. "Jesus," he said.

"No. There would have been no rising from the grave, not for you."

"Enough," Sherlock said. "That's—that's enough."

"Oops, got a little bit carried away." Moriarty nudged John with his elbow again, gave him a broad, friendly, we're-just-two-mates-having-a-good-time grin, stepped back. "It would have been fun, sure, but like I said. No sense in breaking your toys before you have a proper chance to play with them."

"Sherlock," John said, stepping forward, edging Moriarty away. He dropped his voice. "How long have you been back in London? You said he found you in Serbia about a year ago—"

"FOUND him?" Moriarty snorted, edging his way right back in, nudging John aside. "Is that what he told you? Oh, that's good. I'd been watching him for a while—I told you that he's entertaining when he thinks he's being sneaky. He went and got himself caught, and I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for him to do something clever." His face rearranged itself into a pout. "And he didn't do much of anything at all. And I finally had to face the fact that he hadn't even gotten himself caught on purpose. It was just a mistake. Ugh."

John took a slight step back, uncomfortable with Moriarty so bloody close.

Moriarty followed him, evidently enjoying the effect his proximity was having. "I had to intervene, because WHAT would be the POINT in letting him die without ever even knowing that he'd failed?"

John reeled without thinking and punched Moriarty right in the nose. There was a satisfying, wet spurt of blood and Moriarty made a shocked, nasally sound.

"John!" Sherlock said.

"That was cathartic." His knuckles ached in a pleasing way. God, he'd wanted to do that for a long time. He turned towards Sherlock, grabbed his arm, jerked him towards the door. "Let's go. Now."

"No," Moriarty said, his hand over his nose, blood dripping between his fingers. His voice had lost its frightening edge, the word coming out sounding more like "Doe."

He didn't sound at all threatening, but Sherlock froze mid-step. John did not have to look down to know that his chest had just lit up like a Christmas tree. He breathed out, steady as could be, let go of Sherlock's arm.

*

Chapter Text

*

The room had fallen silent, save for the sound of indrawn breaths.

Moriarty was breathing hard, his breath rasping in and out of his ruined nose. John thought that perhaps he'd never heard angrier respiration in his life.

"You got blood. On my suit," Moriarty said. His voice was strangled, furious, all traces of that strange lilting mirth vanished. Those pitch-dark eyes did not blink. "I don't like blood."

"Well. You're in the wrong line of work." John gave him a hard smile.

Sherlock made an impatient sound next to him, and John tamped down the urge to elbow him in the ribs. Leave it to the bastard to decide now was the time to develop a sense of decorum.

John looked down.

It was as he suspected. Three red lights, dead center on his chest. He took a breath, looked over at Sherlock. Two lights. One of them slid, almost teasingly, over Sherlock's heart, up his neck, centered on his forehead. John resisted the urge to reach up and touch the little dot, as if he could wipe it away, protect that precious brain.

"How many snipers do you have out there?" John asked mildly. There were holes in the wall, in the ceiling. Drifting dust motes reflected the faint light filtering through. Plenty of places for someone with a sharp eye to set up in the hallway. Or the attic. Or both.

He turned around to face Moriarty, slowly, very slowly, mindful of snipers with itchy trigger fingers.

"Does it matter?" Moriarty snarled. His teeth were red. "It only takes one."

"I suppose that's true," John said. His patience had fled. If he was going to die here—and he almost certainly was—he was not going to do it cringing and cowering. "But if you were going to have me shot, you would have done it already. One of your little team out there would have blown my head off the second I swung at you. So—"

"John, shut up," Sherlock said.

"So," he said again, ignoring Sherlock. "You've told them not to shoot. These—" he gestured at the dancing spots on his chest. "Are just for dramatic effect. Because you geniuses just love being dramatic."

"John," Sherlock said again.

"You have something else in mind." He turned back towards Sherlock, his stomach giving an unpleasant little lurch at the expression on his face. He tried for humour. "See? I pay attention when you talk sometimes."

Moriarty fumbled a handkerchief out of his pocket, pressed it against his nose. He fixed them both with his dead-eyed stare, did not speak for a long moment. Then he smiled. With his red-stained mouth, the effect was chilling.

"I had it all planned out when I went to fetch you," he said. He spoke slowly, thoughtfully. "I was going to bring you here, let him watch you die. Maybe even let him pick who got to do the honours—I've introduced our dear Sherlock to so many interesting people over the last few months."

"Yeah," John said, his tone dismissive. His hands were perfectly steady at his sides. "Where exactly is 'here,' by the way?"

Moriarty's eyes lit up. "You mean you don't recognize it?" He lifted the handkerchief away from his face, spat a wad of blood onto the ground. "Oops. Sorry about your rug, Sherlock."

John looked around the room again. Peeling wallpaper. Scuffed floor. Mattress in the corner. Small piles of books and papers. A duffel bag spilling clothing onto the ground. He shook his head, at a loss.

"Sorry Sherlock," Moriarty said again, sounding anything but. "Not so memorable after all."

"Brixton," Sherlock said. His voice was quiet. "We're in Brixton."

"Brix—oh," John said, realization flooding in. "Lauriston Gardens. The—the Pink Lady." And it suddenly all clicked together; the peeling walls, the scuffed floor.

Slowly, carefully, all too aware of the pinpoints of light centered on his chest, he sank into a crouch on the floor. His hands smoothed across the wood, pulled up the edge of the filthy little throw rug.

There, there it was. RACHE in the wood. That long ago message, painfully etched by ragged pink fingernails. The edges had been worn down, the grooves darkened with dirt and grime.

He looked up at Sherlock, who was frowning in his direction but seemed lost in thought.

"Er," John said. "Why are we in Brixton?"

"I live here," Sherlock said.

John glanced again at the mattress in the corner and the little pile of blankets. The stacks of books and papers. The duffel bag. "You—"

"Nice digs," Moriarty interrupted. "I bought the place as soon as I realized its significance. One never knows when one might need to make a point, after all." He twirled in a slow circle, eyes roaming over the walls. "Has all the amenities. Electricity. Heat. Running water. Couuuuuuld use a bit of sprucing up. Afraid our Sherlock isn't much for decorating." He paused, and then his entire face lit up with glee. "Now that's an idea!"

Sherlock went absolutely rigid next to John. His hand twitched forward, halted only when the lights on John's chest gave a warning dance.

Moriarty let loose with a wet, nasally giggle. He flapped his arm like a performing magician, pulled a gun from his pocket. It was a tiny thing, easily concealed. Certainly still deadly. John found himself staring straight down the short little barrel.

"There's so much to deduce from blood spatter patterns," Moriarty said, his voice gone slow and dreamy. He spat another mouthful of blood onto the carpet. "You can look at a few streaks of crimson on a wall and read exactly what happened. Heights of the shooter and victim. Angle of trajectory. Whether the shooter was left or right handed. Point of impact." He licked his lips. "It could fascinate you for days, Sherlock. Just think about it. You could watch me, right now, as I shoot John here—" he tapped John on the forehead. "Right between those cartoonishly angry brows—would you just look at him? He's so angry! It's adorable—and then read all about it on the wall. I wonder… would you see it happen when you close your eyes? Would you dream about it? The color changes when it dries, you know. Oxidation. It's very pretty. Like art."

"Ah, but you don't like blood," Sherlock said, drawing himself up to his full height. "So the sight would be wasted on you."

"But not on you," Moriarty said. "You'd appreciate every last drop, wouldn't you? Hm. I wonder what would be worse for you. The rounds in this gun are small, you know. It'd leave him mostly intact. A bigger round would take most of his head off. Wouldn't leave you with much recognizable."

Sherlock breathed in, breathed out. There was a hitch in his breathing, barely detectable, but there.

"What would be worse?" Moriarty mused again, his thumb moving across the handle of the pistol in rhythmic circles. "You, looking down at John as he is now, almost exactly the same only—empty? Or you, looking down at a ragged piece of meat, knowing that a few seconds ago it was walking and talking and—well, doing at least some rudimentary version of thinking—but not quite being able to see him?"

John breathed through his nose, stared straight ahead. There was nothing to be gained from reacting. It would only spur Moriarty on.

Moriarty and Sherlock stared at each other, faces blank, shoulders rigid.

"But," Moriarty sighed, looking away. "You're right, of course. Murder is so base. So vulgar. I mean, needs must and all, but if it's at all possible I really don't like to get my hands dirty."

"No," Sherlock said. "Much easier to have others do the heavy lifting." He pronounced the 't' in 'lifting' sharply, his face haughty, sounding so much like his old self that John's heart flooded with sudden and unexpected warmth.

Christ, they weren't going to walk out of this room together. This—this was a countdown. And as angry as he was, as confused as he was, there was a measure of relief in knowing that his final moments were going to be spent by Sherlock's side.

"Still—" Moriarty cocked the gun.

Sherlock moved fast—too fast—placing himself between Moriarty and John. John held his breath, and the snipers held their fire.

"You changed the terms," he said. He stepped forward so the barrel of Moriarty's gun was pressing into his own chest.

John reached out, put one tentative hand on Sherlock's back, felt him shudder at the contact through his sweatshirt. Tried to convince himself that Moriarty wouldn't fire, not on Sherlock, not if he could help it.

"Oh dull, are we back to that again?"

"Yes," Sherlock spat. "You think I've transgressed. You want to see me punished. I don't agree with your assessment."

"I said no contact, Sherlock," Moriarty threw his arms out, pistol clasped loosely in his hand, gestured towards where John stood. "What does this look like to you?"

"You broke your pattern," Sherlock said. "The crime scenes you sent me to. The explosives were meant to detonate before a crime had even been reported. Those scenes were staged for my benefit, not for Scotland Yard. No one else was supposed to know."

"Your point?"

"The most recent scene. The site of my supposed transgression. You wanted that body to be discovered."

"Did I?" Moriarty sounded bored.

"Everything about that scene deviated from the expected pattern. There was a corpse, not just well-concealed evidence. It had already been called in—Scotland Yard was on the scene. You knew the odds were high that I'd encounter someone familiar. Those weren't our terms." Sherlock's shoulders were rigid with tension.

"The shootings," John said, realization flooding in. He tightened his grip on the back of Sherlock's sweatshirt. Sherlock shifted even as he spoke, head down, keeping him shielded. "Lestrade said there had been other shootings. Similar."

Sherlock's head snapped up. "Of course. You were—you didn't just break the pattern, you were setting a trap."

Moriarty was still holding the gun, but a smile had begun to work on the edges of his mouth.

Sherlock glanced over his shoulder, bright eyes alighting on John's face before turning his attention back on Moriarty. "If the prior shootings were similar, that was on purpose. Jefferson Hope, the cabbie, my first case with John. Shot through the window. Through two panes of glass." Sherlock huffed out an exultant breath. "You were planting seeds in Lestrade's mind. A subconscious reminder. You wanted Lestrade to invite John along."

Moriarty was smiling now, a full grin. There was still a small puddle of blood crusting on his upper lip. The majority of his teeth had wiped clean.

"You would have had no idea how long it would take, of course, average minds are really quite slow at processing subconscious hints. You were just waiting for your moment."

"Very good," Moriarty breathed. "Oh, very good. I do love it when you dance."

"I didn't see it," Sherlock said. His voice had gone distant, rapid, speaking more to himself than to anyone else. "I was surprised by the police presence at the scene. I assumed—I assumed you had grown bored and raised the stakes. Not so easy for me to slip in and solve the case if the scene was already occupied. I was doing a bit of reconnaissance, trying to determine the best point of access for the building. Then—" he turned around again, blinked at John as if awakening from a dream. "You turned up."

John thought of the way the news vendor had grown suddenly belligerent with Sally, trying to push his way past. How he'd stopped trying to push through when Greg and John had emerged from the building. He looked at the scene in his mind a second time. Sherlock, panicking at the sight of John going up into a crime scene wired with explosives. Settling down when he was clear. Trying to flee before he was recognized. John, pursuing, trying to help. The text. The horror on Sherlock's face. RUN.

"You thought he was going to blow me up."

Sherlock pursed his lips, looked back at Moriarty. "I didn't seek John out. You set a trap, brought him to me."

"Hm," Moriarty said. He tapped Sherlock in the chest with the pistol, ran it in a loving circle around his heart.

John tensed, still crushing the fabric of Sherlock's sweatshirt in his fist. He's changeable, he thought, suddenly half-panicked. Sherlock had put himself between John and an unfired bullet and Moriarty was changeable.

"You make a good point, Sherlock. Maybe I'll let you keep him instead. He can move in, share your mattress." His grin turned into a leer. He took the gun away from Sherlock's chest, let it drop to his side. "You'd like that, I think. And I'm of the mindset that one can never have too many doctors on the payroll. Maybe he could go along on your little missions, help you solve your little cases. Like old times. Your mind really does work faster when he's around. I used to think it was just the contrast, but—" He looked up at Sherlock's face, stopped speaking, began laughing instead. His laughter was wet, nasally. John hoped it hurt.

"You already know my answer," Sherlock said, his voice cold, flat.

"Same as before, I suppose," Moriarty rolled his eyes, turned his attention over Sherlock's shoulder to John. "I offered, you know. When he first arrived back in town. Told him he could have you on a silver platter. In response, he invited me to reacquaint myself with my pistol. So PREDICTABLE, Sherlock." He twirled the gun on his finger. "But—you never know. Someday I might just surprise you." He slipped the barrel of the gun into his mouth, eyes never leaving Sherlock's face, the gesture startlingly lewd.

John felt his heartrate spike. Do it, he willed silently.

Moriarty slid the gun out of his mouth, worked his jaw. A string of saliva clung to the barrel. "Then again, maybe not."

"Pity," Sherlock said.

A flicker of motion caught John's eye. He glanced down. One of the red lights on his chest had gone out. As he stared, a second flickered and disappeared. Then the third. He felt a flare of hope.

"It appears we're at a bit of an impasse," Moriarty said. "Frankly, it's down to you being unreasonable. And I don't have much patience for negotiations, Sherlock. I can't let him go, now that our little secret is out. But you don't want to keep him. It's a shame, but you know what happens to unwanted pets." His face contorted into a grotesque display of sadness. The drying blood on his upper lip cracked. A fresh dribble of blood spilled from one nostril. He lifted the gun. "So—"

"NO—"

The gunshot was deafening.

Sherlock threw himself backwards, crashing into John, momentum driving him straight into the ground. His head cracked against the hardwood floor, Sherlock's heavy weight sprawling over him.

"Sh—" he tried to say, the breath rushing out of him as Sherlock rolled up and off of him, elbowing him in the sternum for his troubles.

Sherlock scrambled to his feet with an angry snarl, rushed at Moriarty, or—where Moriarty had been standing just a moment prior—

John blinked, struggled up, joined Sherlock in looking down at the ground.

Sherlock was breathing hard, his face pale, sweat broken out along his brow. His eyes swept the walls, looking at all of the gaps where a clever sharpshooter might have set up. He looked at John, eyes flicking over his form for a bit longer than necessary. There was relief there, in his face. Relief and terror. The shot had not come from inside the room.

Moriarty was dead, a small neat hole right between his eyes. Blood oozed sluggishly out onto the floor, pooling against the edge of the rug. The pistol was still clasped in his hand. He had not had a chance to pull the trigger.

Sherlock looked away from John, to the wall, where a splash of Moriarty's blood had adorned the wallpaper. It was vivid red, not at all interesting, not at all like art. John shifted where he stood, looked at Sherlock looking, wondered if he should speak. Sherlock closed his eyes.

"Took you long enough," Sherlock said.

John blinked, turned at the sound of the door opening.

"My most sincere apologies, dear brother," Mycroft said, stepping into the room. He frowned down at Moriarty's crumpled form, up at Sherlock's back, still turned away, facing the wall.

John breathed out in a rush, looking from Sherlock to Mycroft. "You—he—?"

"Oh, please don't attempt to think," Mycroft sighed. "It's distressing to watch."

"I assume that you had John followed after you met with him yesterday," Sherlock said, still facing away, eyes still closed.

Mycroft gave a small nod. "A team moved into place as soon as Moriarty acquired John."

Sherlock took a breath, turned around to face them, wrinkled up his nose at the sight of his brother. "Gaining weight again, I see."

"I wish I could say the years had been kind to you, brother mine, but alas…" Mycroft inclined his head, gave a rueful smile.

"There were snipers," John interrupted. His hands went to his chest, smoothing over the fabric of his shirt, as if he could still feel the ghosts of those little red lights.

He could now make out voices in the hallway, the sound of heavy boots on stairs.

"Neutralized, of course. While Mr Moriarty was engaging in his—histrionics," Mycroft said. "There is a second team in the field as we speak, wrapping up any additional loose ends. I can assure you that your landlady, Miss Hooper, and DI Lestrade have all been secured."

Sherlock seemed to sag slightly. "I can provide names. Last known locations. For some. Not all."

"We're mostly interested in his inner circle," Mycroft smiled without much cheer. "The true believers, if you will. They are the ones most likely to pose a problem and, fortunately for you, they are few and far between. For a man who sponsored serial killers and criminals, he had very few personal dealings with them. I expect that the rest of his… curiosities… will scuttle off back into the woodwork."

Sherlock grimaced, and John wondered exactly how many of Moriarty's little curiosities he'd encountered over the past three years.

"There are some that won't be content to stay hidden for long," Sherlock said.

"Fortunate, then, that London has a consulting detective willing and able to sniff them out."

Sherlock blinked, looking incredibly weary in the dim light. "Is that what I am?"

"The last time I checked, yes," Mycroft said, raising his eyebrows. "A contingent from Scotland Yard should be arriving shortly, and my team will be handing over control of the scene. You'll both need to remain on site for some time, I'm afraid. There will be questions."

He turned and started for the exit, then hesitated. "Welcome home, Sherlock."

He shut the door behind him.

John breathed out, sat down in the chair he'd first awakened tied to. He put his head in his hands, scrubbed at his face, breathed. Sherlock stood next to him, still and silent.

He was looking at the wall again, John realized.

"Sherlock," he said. "Are you—are you all right?"

Sherlock blinked. "Why wouldn't I be?"

John inclined his chin towards the wall, shrugged. "You're staring, a bit."

"Ah." Sherlock slipped his hands into the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt, slouched his shoulders. He looked down at the ground.

He hesitated, not wanting to say more. Was Sherlock—upset by what had happened? Moriarty was a hateful bastard, but Sherlock had always held a certain fascination—and they had spent a good deal of time together—

"I was certain he had shot you." Sherlock reached out towards the wall, his finger hovering just below the mess. He did not touch it, let his hand fall back to his side.

Oh. Well. That—wasn't exactly what he'd been expecting to hear.

"Well, yeah, so was I, to be honest," John said. The sound, the impact of Sherlock crashing into him, the crack of the floorboards against his head and back. He laughed a little self-consciously. "Never thought I'd say this, but—thank God for Mycroft, yeah? I didn't really expect to be leaving this room alive."

Sherlock's lips pursed together in an unhappy line. "If my brother had done his job in the first place, none of this would have happened."

Suddenly self-conscious about sitting while Sherlock loomed over him, he stood up from the chair. "Is that—is that it, then? It's over? All of this?"

"The immediate threats have been neutralized," Sherlock said. "And I think we can be reasonably certain that my brother will saddle us with an excessively zealous security detail until he is confident that there is little remaining risk." He pursed his lips again, looking sour. "He'll feel obligated, of course. Guilt."

John, who had looked up from a stark black-and-white photo of Sherlock's corpse to see Mycroft's face, drawn and distraught, thought that there might perhaps be a bit more to it than just guilt.

"He should have noticed the moment I set foot in London. Inconceivable that he let almost an entire year go by before picking up the trail—and only because you put him onto the scent in the first place." Sherlock shook his head, frustrated. "I was counting on his cameras, was absolutely certain that I'd only have to maintain this façade for as long as it took him to mobilize an extraction."

What it must have cost him, John thought, to admit that he'd been counting on Mycroft for anything.

"I couldn't send him a message directly, not without compromising your safety. The safety of others." Sherlock's voice was bitter, angry. "Stupid. Stupid."

"Your homeless network. Couldn't they have—" John blurted, needing to say something, unable to stand there and watch Sherlock castigate himself for caring of all things. Not when—

Sherlock rolled his eyes. "Years ago, Mycroft and I established no fewer than five separate methods for exchanging coded correspondence. Of course I arranged to get a message out. But, as I'm sure you can imagine, the entire system is pointless if one fails to check the preordained exchange locations."

He was so alone, John thought. And then: I was so alone.

He must have thought himself abandoned. Waiting and waiting for the intervention he'd expected, and instead—

Just like John had waited and waited for Sherlock to walk through the door, and had finally had to admit to himself that it wasn't going to happen. Not ever.

And then—God—Sherlock had sought him out. He'd tried to explain. He'd kissed him, clutched at him with a sort of half-stunned desperation. He'd stood hidden in the shadows at Baker Street and confessed his secrets and—and John had said Glad you're not dead, good luck with that, had turned away from him.

And still, still, Sherlock had stepped between John and a changeable maniac with a gun.

There were sirens outside, now, growing louder. Weak flashing light filtered through the covered window.

"They're going to be surprised to see you," John said, trying for light. His words hung heavily in the quiet room. He wanted to hug Sherlock. Wanted to grab onto him and not let go. He didn't move.

Sherlock gave a short, sharp nod, moved towards the door with quick strides. He did not glance back.

John felt a sudden flare of panic, certainty that Sherlock would disappear through the doorway, that he'd never see him again. He had—the terrible things he'd thought of him, the anger that had grabbed hold when he'd heard the name Moriarty. He had thought the worst of Sherlock. The person he—the person he cared for most in all the world. He'd looked into those eyes and believed he could have sold away his very soul.

"Sherlock," he said, reaching out, touching his arm. Just a touch, fingertips grazing against the soft material of his sweatshirt.

Sherlock stilled, looked down at him, did not speak.

"I'm—" his throat was suddenly thick. He turned his gaze away, stared at the ground. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

Silence. After a moment, John lifted his head, dared to meet Sherlock's eyes.

Sherlock was still studying him, blinking. His pale eyes were nearly colourless in the dim light. Whatever he was thinking (and he was thinking, if John was sure of nothing else he was certain that Sherlock was always thinking), it was not reflected in his expression.

"For doubting you," John said, swallowing down his pride. He looked down at where his fingertips were resting against Sherlock's sleeve, not holding, just touching. "For thinking that you were—that you could. Um."

"It was a perfectly sound assumption, John," Sherlock said. He frowned. "Completely wrong, of course, but, to be fair, that's less due to your own paltry observational skills and more due to the skill of those orchestrating the deception."

John smiled without any mirth in it. "I know you're a good liar, Sherlock. I've always known that."

"Right," Sherlock said. "Settled, then."

"No," his fingers curled lightly against that sleeve, still not restraining. Sherlock was free to walk away at any moment.

He didn't move.

"I know that was the point," he said. "And that's great. Yeah. Well done. But I—I should have known."

"Jo—"

"No," he said, firmly this time, shaking his head. "No—no. I should have known. I should have known."

Sherlock fell silent once more.

"I know you, Sherlock. I know you. And I—I stood at your grave," he said. There was a commotion in the hallway, loud voices, footsteps. He inched closer to Sherlock, anxious to get this out before they were interrupted, before they lost hours to questions and statements and God knows what else. Before he lost his chance. He sucked in a determined breath. "I stood at your grave and I spoke to you, because I was too much of a coward to say any of it when you were alive. You. You were—are—the bravest and wisest man I've ever known, Sherlock. The most—" his voice cracked.

Sherlock opened his mouth to speak. John held up his hand, forestalling him.

"Just—just let me," he said. His face was hot, his tongue thick. "You are the best—the best man I—and I called you a machine before you jumped, Sherlock. I never forgave myself for that. I couldn't—I needed to take that back, and I couldn't. And then I—I got my second chance, the thing that everyone asks for and no one ever, ever gets, and—and the first thing I did was doubt that. All of it. I doubted you. It's unforgivable. So. What I'm asking you is impossible, but I'm asking it anyway. Forgive me?"

"Of course," Sherlock said, brow all furrowed up. "You—"

The door swung open, banging against the wall.

Sally Donovan blinked at them from where she stood in the entranceway. Her jaw dropped.

"You have got to be fucking kidding me," she said.

*

He had no idea what time it was. The sky had gone dark.

He had been separated from Sherlock almost immediately, finding himself amidst a sea of people bustling around the police tape that cordoned off a good chunk of the road. First there had been medics, who had fussed over him until he'd managed to chase them off, then there had been Donovan and a slew of questions interspersed with disbelieving exclamations of profanity (delivered with the barest hint of a smile).

He'd had to stand there while she rang Greg at home to break the news. Greg had loudly questioned whether the concussion and the painkillers were combining to provide him with a vivid hallucination, and was only convinced when John got on the line and confirmed that yes, Sherlock was back amongst the living. Then he'd made the mistake of mentioning within earshot of one of the medics that he'd been involved in the townhouse explosion the previous day, and found himself bundled up in the back of an ambulance on his way to A&E on the grounds of two head injuries within a twenty-four hour period.

He'd put up a token protest, scanned the crowd as they'd shut the doors in his face, hoping for one last glimpse of Sherlock. His chest had locked up, his skin prickling with cold, needing one last glimpse to reassure himself that Sherlock had not melted away into the shadows and disappeared back into the underbelly of the city, alone forever, lost forever.

He could not find him in the crowd. The sick cold feeling persisted all the way to A&E.

He had finally, finally managed to get himself free after what felt like hours spent in the waiting room, after examinations and conversations and the eventual all-clear. He had gone out into the cold dark night feeling at once more weary and more energized than he ever had in his life.

There was a dark sedan idling at the kerb. Someone inside unlocked and pushed open the door as he approached.

Well. This was the sort of thing he was going to have to get used to all over again, he supposed.

He climbed in and all of his breath left him in a rush at the welcome sight of Sherlock, not Mycroft, waiting for him, tapping nervous fingers against soft leather.

"Did you get checked out?" John inclined his head back towards the brightly lit A&E entrance. His face flushed hot. His eyes prickled. He steadied himself, breathed in and out through his nose.

"No need," Sherlock said. His voice was stiff. "I'm not injured."

"Well. That excuse didn't get me very far."

"I can be persuasive."

The car eased into traffic. John was painfully aware of Sherlock's breathing, each quiet indrawn breath, each muted exhalation. He was seized with the irrational desire to lay his head against that narrow chest, to listen to the steady thump of his heart, to take up his wrist and seek out a firm pulse under his fingers, to breathe him in until there was nothing left.

He kept himself in check, curled his fingers against his legs. He looked out the window, surreptitiously studied Sherlock's profile in the glass.

"Is it—" Sherlock started, uncharacteristically hesitant. He did not look at John. "Would you mind if—"

"I'm not turning you out of your own flat," John said. "Just—of course you can come back."

"Right. Good."

Silence fell between them again.

"All of your things are still there."

"Yes," Sherlock said. "I know."

John sighed, looked out the window. "Mrs Hudson couldn't bring herself to throw them out."

"A sentimental gesture not at all in keeping with her best interests," Sherlock murmured. "But one I'm grateful for, nonetheless."

John flexed his hand, looked down at his fingers. An unpleasant thought had occurred to him. "Your—um. Warning. For attending my wedding."

Sherlock did not speak, regarded him with steady eyes.

"Lestrade told me an—um. Interesting story."

"Did he?"

"Said he'd been kidnapped a little while back. Held for a bit. No ransom, no explanation. He wasn't hurt."

"Hm."

"So, given what I know now…"

Sherlock continued to look at him impassively. He did not offer any additional information.

John hesitated. "One might think that his experience was arranged to send a message."

Sherlock took a deep, slow breath. He looked away. "Not a terrible deduction."

"And Mrs Hudson had a story, too."

"Everyone has a story, John."

"Except her story was a lot like Lestrade's, now that I think about it. Only it happened about a month ago."

"A reminder," Sherlock said, so quietly he might not have spoken at all. He kept his head turned away.

I thought the worst of you, John thought, his chest flooding with shame. Sherlock had, repeatedly, stepped into the crosshairs to shield the people he cared about, and John had been so very willing to believe that he'd done it for fun.

"Don't," Sherlock said. His voice was clipped.

John blinked. "What—"

"You've had enough time to consider the events of the past three years, and are almost certainly about to offer up another unnecessary apology. Pointless. I've already forgiven you—at your insistence—in spite of the fact that your guilt is little more than a misplaced reaction to being taken in by a deliberate deception. I abhor repetition, as you well know."

John opened his mouth, shut it again. Sighed. "Right."

Silence fell between them. The car crawled through traffic.

"Sally was—pleased to see you," John said after a moment. "I think."

Sherlock furrowed his brow. "What?"

"I mean, she was shouting and swearing a lot," John conceded. "But. Well. There's a big difference between not liking someone and wanting them dead. So."

"Oh, so it was the happy sort of shouting and swearing," Sherlock said.

John huffed out a small laugh, scratched at the back of his neck. "Possibly, yeah. Greg did some of that happy shouting and swearing, too, over the phone. He's home recovering. Took a roofing tile to the head, missed all the fun."

It might have just been the light from passing cars playing across his face, but for the briefest moment Sherlock's lips appeared to twitch upward in a smile.

They climbed out of the car and stood together in front of the black door marked 221B. For just a moment, John let the years slip away, pretended they were returning home from just another case, that they would call out greetings to Mrs Hudson and tromp up the stairs and hang their coats by the door, finish the evening eating takeaway in their respective chairs.

"Hm," Sherlock said, reaching out to touch the door handle. There was an odd expression on his face.

Whatever means he'd used to access the flat the night before, John realized, he certainly hadn't come in through the front door.

Sherlock turned around, his eyes scanning the building across the street.

John tensed. "Trouble?"

"Third window from the left," Sherlock said. "Mycroft's team. Just a precaution, presumably."

John squinted up at the darkened windows, saw a curtain flutter.

"You're sure?"

"Reasonably certain."

Sherlock's reasonably certain was better than most people's absolutely certain, and that was good enough for him. John reached out, unlocked the door, pushed it open. Suddenly, inexplicably nervous, he looked up, met Sherlock's steady gaze.

"Well. Welcome home."

Sherlock stepped inside, and John watched his eyes flick over everything, taking it all in, absorbing years' worth of data. He had not had time to linger on his last visit, had clearly not taken the time to read the state of Mrs Hudson's hip in the scuff marks on the floor, or—

Mrs Hudson's door cracked open, and she peered out. "John? Is that you? OH!" Her eyes flew wide at the sight of Sherlock, and she took a stumbling step back. Before John could even think to try and steady her, she came rushing out of her flat, face all flushed red, and threw her arms around Sherlock.

He reeled a bit, blinking, blinking, blinking, and slowly brought his hands up to settle on her shoulders. She was weeping.

"Oh you—you silly man. You silly, silly man. I'd hoped—"

John smiled, his chest warm and full to bursting with something he was not quite able to name. He left them to it, went up the stairs to his room. There were boxes stacked neatly against the wall under the window. They had not been there when he'd left.

He already knew what he would find, but he lifted the lid of the first box anyway. His own belongings, neatly and carefully packed.

He sat down on his bed, threw back his head and laughed.

*

He rose with the sun, spent a moment lying on his back in bed, just breathing. For the first time in—well, in a very long time, his heart quickened with the thought of what the day might hold. He had nearly forgotten what that felt like, that mingled anticipation and joy.

There were sounds coming from downstairs. Furtive sounds, but definite signs that someone was awake and alive and moving about in the flat.

He sat up, stretched. The surreal feeling he'd had the night before, standing with Sherlock at the door to their flat, persisted. He could almost—he could almost imagine that the last three years hadn't happened. That he'd gone to bed after staying up half the night chasing some miscreant or another around the city with Sherlock and had fallen into a terrible, vivid nightmare.

But the pile of boxes was still over against the wall, and his room, while familiar, no longer looked lived in.

He picked up his phone from the nightstand, looked at the screen, sighed at the sight of missed calls, messages. Mary, he supposed. Undoubtedly bewildered and surprised by whatever minion of Mycroft's had been sent to fetch his belongings. He would have to call her back, he knew. His and Sherlock's faces were going to be splashed all over the news very soon. He didn't want her to find out from the headlines.

Best get it over with. He had always preferred to bully his way through painful situations, leap into cold water rather than easing in, rip off a plaster rather than worry gently at the edges.

Mary picked up after only one ring.

"John," she said, her voice tense. "What on earth—"

"I'm sorry," he said. "Things went a little pear-shaped yesterday."

He tried to explain. Without going into too much detail, without sounding breathless with excitement and wonder, without laughing or weeping or shouting. And he could hear it in her voice, the moment she realized that he wasn't delusional, that he hadn't finally cracked under the stress of his grief and their failing—failed—marriage. Sherlock was alive. He was home.

"I'm happy for you," Mary said later, as he sat on the edge of the bed, holding his phone to his ear like a lifeline. "I really am."

He let out a disbelieving little laugh.

"Well," she said. "More or less. I might have a photograph of you on the back of the door and I might throw darts at it on occasion."

"Well. That's fair. Better a photograph than, you know, my actual head."

"The thought had occurred."

"Right."

"Well," she breathed in, let it out slowly. He could hear it in her voice, the restraint, the forced lightness. "I can now say that I've had MI6 show up at my door. With guns. And empty boxes."

Oh for God's sake Mycroft.

He groaned. "Not an experience many can claim."

"Yeah, I'll be milking this story for a while, I think. Be the center of attention in any conversation."

"Right," John said again. "Well, I—I just wanted you to hear it from me. Before the news breaks. Because—"

"John," she interrupted. "You and him. Are you—?"

"Oh," he said. His face reddened and he shut his eyes, the warmth of the phone seeping into his skin. How to answer that? How, when he didn't even know? There had been a kiss under the cloak of darkness, a kiss that had been as much about frustration and desperation as it had been about anything else. Beyond that—he didn't know.

But he did know. Even if they never—even if it didn't work out. He knew. And he was done hiding it.

"Um. Yeah. I think so? Yes."

"Good."

He sighed. "Mary—"

"No," she said, and there was a small tremor in her voice. "I'm being completely honest here, John. Just—we made a bit of a hash of things, you and I. And I'm sorry for the way that things happened, and I know that you are too. But reading what you wrote about him, all of that laid out there on the page like that, it—it just wouldn't have been healthy for you to leave that unsaid. So. It's good."

"Thank you," he breathed.

"Doesn't mean that I don't still want to throw something at your head," she said, that false cheer creeping back into her voice.

He smiled in spite of himself. "Mary, if it could have worked out between us, I would have wanted it to. Believe me on that."

"Yeah," she said. "Same here, I think. But it's—" she laughed, the sound a little sad. "It's a good thing we didn't, huh? Because you got to be the person whose daydreams came true."

"And you didn't have to shoot anyone over it," he said.

That startled a genuine laugh out of her. "Well thank God for that. I have no basis for comparison, but I imagine I'd be a terrible shot."

He smiled, squeezed the phone in his palm. "Good bye, Mary."

"Good bye, John."

He held the phone to his cheek for a good long while after she rang off.

Finally he stood, made his way over to the boxes, rummaged around until he found what he was looking for.

His wedding album.

He wondered if Mary had handed it over, or if one of the nameless MI6 agents that Mycroft had assigned had simply bundled it up into a box without asking.

He sat back down on the edge of his bed, opened the book. It creaked a little. It was still quite new. The photographs were as nice as he remembered, well-composed, sun-drenched and vividly coloured. There they were, standing in front of the church, Mary radiant and beautiful in lace and he looking handsome and—not exactly radiant in his tuxedo. He was smiling, of course, had his arm around her, but his eyes—

Well. There was a sadness there, lurking at the corners of his eyes, making his face seem older. The face of the man in those photographs was not a face that said happily ever after. He wondered how he had never seen it before. He wondered if Mary had.

Perhaps that was why she'd been willing to part with the album. Their failure was telegraphed in the lines of his face.

He turned the page, then the next, then the next. And there— there.

He and Mary, seated at their table. Mary, caught mid-smile, touching him on the arm as she leaned over to whisper something in his ear. Him, looking out into the crowd of guests, a distant and half-dreamy expression on his face. And behind him, only partially in focus, a tall waiter in a black tuxedo stooping to set a plate on the table.

The air rushed out of his lungs, hissing through his teeth. He shut his eyes for a moment, hands tightening on the album.

He opened his eyes. Looked back at the photograph.

Sherlock was wearing a rather convincing blond wig, long, tucked back in a ponytail. His face was lightly stubbled. He wore glasses, thick black frames. There was a hemp necklace peeking out from the collar of an ill-fitting white dress shirt. He looked like a university student, or an artist, or a musician, just an anonymous soul working a catering gig for a bit of extra cash on weekends.

Sherlock was looking at him.

John's eyes were cast out, at the guests, at the crowded room of well-wishers. He'd been scanning their faces, hoping, wishing for the one face he'd most wanted to see. And behind him—

Sherlock-the-waiter was wearing an expression he couldn't quite parse out. It looked a good deal like longing. But, then again, he wasn't quite in focus.

John shut the album, breathed in and out until he stopped trembling.

He went downstairs. Sherlock was sitting at the kitchen table, dressed in one of his old suits, looking into the microscope. The sight stopped him dead in his tracks.

"What?" Sherlock said, when his staring became uncomfortably obvious.

John's throat had gone all tight. He found he could not answer. He could only smile, went on smiling without speaking as he went down the hall.

The bathroom smelled of Sherlock's shampoo.

John showered and dressed. When he emerged, the kitchen was empty, microscope and test tubes and beakers abandoned. Sherlock was at the desk in the sitting room, laptop open in front of him. Mycroft was in John's chair, legs crossed, a large brown envelope on his lap.

They appeared to be engaged in a silent, epic battle of wills.

John hesitated. This was normally the kind of scene he would have gone out of his way to avoid, but—three years away had made him nostalgic for everything, apparently, even this. So he made his way into the sitting room and settled down on the sofa.

Both Mycroft and Sherlock glanced up at his approach. He wondered if that counted as breaking up the staring contest.

"A year, Mycroft." Sherlock folded his hands under his chin and stared his brother down. "You really are slowing down."

"Sherlock—"

"Right. Under. Your nose."

"The evidence suggested—"

"There were at least four exceedingly obvious tells in that photograph, if you'd only bothered to look."

"I looked," Mycroft said, and all of the ire had gone out of his voice. He cleared his throat, stood up, smoothed a hand over his suit jacket. "I—I do apologize, little brother."

John glanced over at Sherlock, whose eyebrows had gone quite high.

"Your plan was sound," Mycroft pursed his lips. "I had the photographs analyzed. I—I chose not to study them myself. I should have. Forgive me. If I had recognized the forgery, I would have interceded immediately."

"You had the photographs analyzed," Sherlock scoffed. He looked back down at his computer screen. "I should have anticipated. You always have been lazy. Why expend the effort yourself when you can delegate?"

"It wasn't laziness, Sherlock," Mycroft said. "It was something much worse. Far more insidious and troubling."

He waited for a long moment without speaking before Sherlock finally raised his head. "Hunger pangs?"

"Sentiment," Mycroft said. His voice was very soft. He turned away, moved towards the door. Stopped. "Oh, John, I do believe that this is for you."

He turned back towards where John sat on the sofa, extended the envelope.

"What's this?" John asked, a bit leery given the contents of the last envelope that Mycroft had handed him.

"Nothing gruesome, I assure you," Mycroft said, with one of those falsely polite little smiles, the one that looked like it was pinching his face in an uncomfortable and unnatural way.

John glanced over at Sherlock, who had turned away in disinterest, was back to clicking away on his laptop. He thumbed open the envelope, slipped out a small stack of papers.

He looked down, read the words, blinked, read them again.

"These are divorce papers."

"I never fail to marvel at your aptitude for stating the obvious. It knows no bounds," Mycroft said.

John sighed. "You can just do that? Circumvent the entire British legal system?"

"Of course not," Mycroft sniffed. "Good lord, how would we ever get anything done if our methods were so on-the-nose?" He fixed John with that unnerving stare, faintly disapproving. "But if those documents were to be signed and submitted, the odds are very good that a clerical error may result in your paperwork being filed earlier than is strictly legal."

John smiled a little bit, shook his head, filled with a sudden fond amusement.

"Sign the papers, John," Mycroft said. "If that is what you want, of course." He gave another one of those thin smiles, made for the door. "Good day."

"Sentiment," Sherlock scoffed as Mycroft disappeared from view. There was less of an edge in his voice than there might have been.

John listened to his slow footsteps on the stairs, huffed a small laugh, turned back towards Sherlock. "Did you know about that?"

"Hm?"

He waved the stack of papers in Sherlock's direction.

"Oh, that." Sherlock's tone shifted from mildly interested to bored. He did not look up.

He set the papers down on the coffee table, intending to give them his full intention later. Then he leaned back against the comfortable, well-worn cushions. "Doesn't seem real now," he said, not realizing he'd been planning to speak at all.

"Hm?"

"Any of it. You—gone. Me, getting married. Moving to the suburbs. And now we're back here and—and your brother can just magically wave away my marriage like it never happened. It feels a bit like I took a three year break from reality."

"It's a divorce, John, not an annulment."

"You know what I meant."

"Mm."

"Hard to believe that it did," he said thoughtfully. "Happen."

"At the rate you were working your way through the female population of London it was only a matter of time until you found someone who could tolerate you."

"Right, no, Sherlock, the problem was never finding someone to tolerate me. It was finding someone who could tolerate you that was so bloody difficult." John laughed and leaned forward, picked up a folded newspaper from the coffee table, studied the headlines.

Tomorrow, the papers would likely be shouting out Sherlock's miraculous return from the dead. There would be photographers camped outside on the pavement again, yelling things up into the windows and irritating Sherlock with flashbulbs and questions.

And after that—after those headlines had faded, there would be other headlines. Eventually. Heinous crimes. Gruesome murders. Complicated robberies. It was not hard to imagine himself, once more, scanning through the papers and cherry picking the interesting ones for Sherlock's consideration. The thought made something warm expand in his chest.

He was suddenly all too aware of the silence in the room.

John glanced over at Sherlock, who had paused in whatever he was doing on his laptop and was studying him with those laser-focused eyes and that utterly inscrutable expression. Right. They had been talking about Mary. His marriage.

"She was very good for me, at first. I needed—something. She was exactly what I needed," he said, thinking of Sherlock at the wedding, Sherlock who he hadn't seen even though he'd been looking for him, dreaming of him, wishing for him, missing him. Sherlock in his disguise. Sherlock, whose face had been right there in his wedding album, hidden in the background, passed over each and every time he'd thumbed through the pages.

John looked down at his hands, suddenly ashamed, unable to keep looking Sherlock in the eye. "And then I guess I just sort of clung on, you know? She'd made things better, so I expected that she'd keep on making things better. And that—that's not how you build a relationship. Not one person grasping on trying not to drown. So we tried and—it didn't work. There was no way it could have worked. But—" he glanced up. Sherlock was no longer watching him. "—you're not actually listening to a word I'm saying, are you?"

Silence.

After a long pause, as if perhaps noticing that John had stopped speaking, Sherlock slowly raised his head from the computer screen. His expression was slightly guilty.

"Not a word," John said, shaking his head. It should have irritated him, but there was a twitching at the corner of his mouth that seemed to indicate a smile was trying to force its way through instead. "You absolute dick."

Sherlock straightened slightly in the chair. "It was taking you far too long to get to the point."

"Distracting you, am I?" John smirked. "From what? Another overly detailed essay on tobacco ash that no one will ever read?"

Sherlock gave him an affronted look. "I do not write essays." He shifted in his seat, scowled. "I write monographs. There are important distinctions between—"

"Right, yeah, no," John shook his head, stood up from the sofa, still smiling. This—this was his life now. Again. Somehow. He was the luckiest bastard to ever walk the face of the earth. "I still don't care about the tobacco ash, Sherlock. I really can't think of many things that I care less about than tobacco ash. So."

He went around the side of the desk, and Sherlock moved fast, minimizing a window on the screen. It took John half a second longer than it should have to realize that Sherlock wasn't using his own laptop, he was—

"Oh," John said, stopping in his tracks, his hand halfway to Sherlock's shoulder. He groaned. "Oh, no, you aren't—"

But of course he was. Of course he was. Because John had moved the file to a folder labeled Afghanistan to discourage Mary from coming across it again. The Unpaid Bills folder had always been relatively Sherlock-proof, but this... Christ, he might as well have just titled the damn thing READ ME.

Sherlock turned towards him slowly. His cheeks were pink. How long had he been—and John hadn't even noticed—

"It's—" Sherlock said.

"Don't," John shook his head, let his hand drop to his side. He thought he might melt into the floor out of sheer embarrassment. "I know. It's sentimental and maudlin and utterly, completely humiliating, so could you just do me a favor and—"

"It's nice," Sherlock said, and then made a face as if he couldn't quite believe what had come out of his own mouth.

John stopped speaking. He pursed his lips, folded his arms across his chest. "Nice," he said finally.

"That is," Sherlock frowned. "What I said. Yes."

"Nice."

"Are you just going to keep repeating that word?"

"Nice. You said—nice."

Sherlock shut the laptop, stood up too fast, brushed past John on his way towards the door. John would have let him go but for the fact that those cheeks were still flushed pink, the tips of his ears, too, and that wasn't anger sending him fleeing from the room but—

"I'm sorry," he blurted. It was the first thing that came to mind.

Sherlock froze, turned around, his hand halfway towards his coat. "You're—sorry? Why are you sorry? What for?"

"You weren't supposed to find that. No one was ever supposed to find that, except I keep—leaving it in places where it somehow gets found." He laughed, a little self-deprecatingly. "I shouldn't be surprised, this time. Respect for privacy isn't exactly one of your strong suits."

Sherlock was watching him like he was some kind of exotic and dangerous animal. His eyes were narrowed. His cheeks were still flushed. "Not my fault you keep leaving things lying around."

"I didn't leave it lying around, I had it hidden in a folder. On my laptop. Which happens to be password protected." John corrected, shaking his head. As if that had ever stopped Sherlock before.

Sherlock rolled his eyes, managing to look haughty in spite of that spreading flush staining his cheeks progressively darker. "If you truly didn't want me looking, you would use better passwords. Honestly, John, it's like you're not even trying at all."

"You said it was nice," John said, stepping forward slowly. Left to his own devices, Sherlock could run him in verbal circles for hours, and they'd never get any closer to a resolution. Sherlock had said nice, a bland compliment at best, but his face had told a different story. His face had frozen up and pinked, as if he thought he'd revealed a bit too much with that one little word. And that was very interesting indeed.

Sherlock huffed, rolled his eyes, but he didn't move away. "Utterly ridiculous, of course. Over-romanticized, containing an absolutely appalling number of adverbs. I've had to correct your spelling on a number of occasions—you do know these machines come equipped with a spell checker?"

John nodded, took another step. He could feel the smile spreading across his face, was powerless to keep it in check. He must look deranged. Hopefully not too deranged.

"You used emoticons. In your narrative. Emoticons, John." Sherlock looked pained just saying the word.

John cocked his head at him, took in his body language, chanced another step forward.

"Clear signs of deeply suppressed aggression," Sherlock said, watching his approach. His voice had gone a bit breathy. "You had me beaten to a pulp and shot in the same narrative."

"Yeah, well. You made me watch you kill yourself. I was angry. It was bound to come out." John let out a humourless laugh, stepped forward again. Sherlock's eyes were fixed on him, unblinking, his focus steady and intense and slightly alarming.

"Was," Sherlock said, rolling the word around on his tongue. "Past tense. Implying—that you are no longer angry?"

John considered this, took one final step. He was close enough now that he could feel Sherlock's breath, see the jump of the pulse in his neck. He wondered when he would get used to this, when the sight of him alive alive alive would stop surprising him. He wondered when he would start to take it for granted again, as if it were a given. He hoped the answer was never.

"No," he said, his voice low, barely above a whisper. "I'm—I'm not. Angry. Anymore."

"Right," Sherlock swallowed. He blinked at John, looking almost startled to find him so close, even though he had not taken his eyes away from him for so much as a moment. "Ah—your naming of characters leaves something to be desired. Baron Maupertuis?"

Slowly, very slowly, John raised his hand to cradle Sherlock's cheek. "What's wrong with Baron Maupertuis?"

"It sounds like—" Sherlock swallowed again. His pupils had gone wide and very, very dark. "One of those—um. Ridiculously named villains from the films you made me watch. That time."

John gave up efforts to keep his expression in check, grinned a little harder. Years ago, back before Sherlock had—before he had died, back when things had felt permanent in a way he hadn't even begun to comprehend or try to put name to, when they were still forging those first tenuous bonds of friendship—he and Sherlock had spent a long weekend holed up in their flat gorging on takeaway and watching Bond films. Sherlock had somehow gotten into his thirties without ever having heard of James Bond, which John had found particularly objectionable.

Sherlock had groaned and complained and had offered up such tidbits as "Good God, is that what people think they do?" and "You'd be surprised, John, fieldwork is actually quite tedious" and "There is such a thing as suspension of disbelief, John, but I fear this requires the suspension of all higher functions" and had at one memorable moment sat up and yanked at his own hair and simply shouted "NO, NO, NO" but had stayed and watched each and every film, pausing his entertaining dialogue only to banter with John about it in the comment section of his blog instead.

Sherlock had sat there for hours, half-watching the telly, fingers flying across the keys to his laptop, his lips curving up seemingly of their own accord. He had smiled, those small, genuine smiles that he was usually so careful to hide away. And John had watched him and wondered, then, whether anyone else had ever just wanted to spend time with Sherlock, had insisted on his presence for a few hours of crap telly or a board game or, anything, really, just to have the privilege of remaining in his company. He'd thought the answer might be no.

Sherlock deplored boredom, but he'd stayed and he'd smiled, and it had seemed for all the world like he'd actually enjoyed himself. And John had thought about that, had thought about it a lot, after Sherlock had died. He'd wondered if—if maybe—if they had had a few more of those kinds of nights, if Sherlock had known, really and truly, how much his friendship and his—his entire presence was valued, if he wouldn't have—

"John," Sherlock said, drawing him out of his own head.

He looked up at his very much not dead flatmate, friend, favorite person in the entire bloody world, who was currently staring down at him with an expression caught halfway between confusion and concern. That much-adored little furrow had appeared between his brows.

He shook his head fondly.

They'd sat together on the sofa, bloody emailing each other snide little remarks, trading amused glances as they did so. Christ, he'd been an oblivious bastard. If he'd ever done something like that with a woman, he would have recognized it for what it was almost immediately. He'd been flirting with Sherlock, a blindingly obvious flirtation, a fact that somehow both he and the world's most observant man had managed to miss.

"It does kind of sound like a Bond villain," John agreed, the hard edges of his grin softening, gentling into something tender. "But I actually got the name off of a bottle of wine, if you'd believe it."

Sherlock sighed, a dramatic sigh, as if this was at the absolute upper limits of his tolerance. He shook his head, just a little nudge in each direction, his cheek not leaving the gentle cradle of John's palm. "Then it's just back down to the atrocious spelling, John. Inexcusable, really, the name is right there on the bottle—"

John kissed him. It was a soft kiss, a quick light press of his lips. He pulled back almost immediately but did not go far, resting his forehead gently against Sherlock's.

Sherlock had not closed his eyes. Sherlock, it seemed, had not even blinked.

"Was that?" John asked. "All right?"

Christ, John didn't like to think of him as a machine, not even in a fond way, not after that terrible day and those terrible words that he thought had been the last things he'd ever said to Sherlock's face, but he'd be hard pressed to describe what Sherlock did as anything other than rebooting. He blinked once, then several times rapidly, and seemed to come back online with a sudden widening of the eyes and his lips parted on an exultant exhalation, as if he'd just solved some particularly gruesome and fascinating crime.

"You kissed me," Sherlock said.

John raised his brows. "Well. Not the reaction I was expecting, honestly. You're usually a bit upset when someone states the obvious."

"Why on earth would you kiss me?"

John considered his response for a moment, then nodded to himself. He was smiling again. He couldn't seem to stop. "You kissed me the other night. Turnabout's fair play."

Sherlock blinked at him, blinked and blinked, and his brow furrowed up and then smoothed over and just as John was beginning to wonder if he'd made a grave miscalculation Sherlock lunged forward, grabbing at John's jumper with both hands, dragging him in and kissing him hard. Their teeth clacked together.

John's fingers curled against the hard ridge of Sherlock's cheekbones and the two of them stumbled back against the doorframe, and they—they were standing in exactly the same place they had been the other night, except this time it was Sherlock with his back braced against the wall and the sun was streaming in through the windows and Christ, Sherlock was a terrible kisser. It was delightful.

The absurdity of it all broke over John like a tidal wave and he let out a bark of laughter mid-kiss, startling Sherlock into jerking his head away. Sherlock stared at him, looking utterly taken aback, and John snorted. For one terrible moment it looked like he was teetering on the edge of offense, but then his mouth twitched up and he was chuckling too, a wonderful deep rumbling sound that John could feel in his very bones.

They stood there, foreheads pressed together, giggling and giggling while the golden late morning sunlight warmed John's back. Sherlock's hands were fisted in John's jumper, John's hands still gently cupped around Sherlock's face.

"Is this—?" Sherlock asked, his chest still shaking with suppressed laughter. His face had creased up, his smile crinkling his eyes in a way that was almost unfairly becoming. He giggled again, helplessly, a silly little high-pitched sound. "Is this, um, what you meant by—by that?" He jerked his head in the direction of the forgotten laptop.

John nearly doubled over with laughter, tears prickling at the corners of his eyes because—oh God, all that time. He'd been so obvious to everyone. Everyone but himself. It hurt to breathe. His thumbs made little circles on Sherlock's cheeks. "I—" he snorted again, shut his eyes, rolled his forehead against Sherlock's. "I think so, yeah. So it seems."

"Ah," Sherlock said. "Well. Good."

"Don't you mean nice?" John smirked, and then they were cracking up again. John's hands slipped down from Sherlock's face to seek better purchase, landing first at his shoulders before he thought why the hell not and hooked his fingers around Sherlock's slim waist instead. He held on as though his knees might give out at any moment, and for all he knew it was a distinct possibility.

"John, don't say that," Sherlock's voice was dead serious. John lifted his head in sudden alarm. "It's not—nice."

Again they dissolved against each other, laughing, gasping for air. Sherlock's head thudded back against the wall and suddenly they were kissing and kissing and kissing, smiling against each other's lips, swallowing each other's gasped exhalations.

There would be a time for serious, later. A lot had happened in three years. A lot that needed to be talked out, smoothed over. But right now, Sherlock was alive and warm and alive and laughing and alive and all John wanted to do was celebrate.

"I'm in love with you," John said, between kisses. "Have been for years, apparently. Seems like the kind of thing you ought to know."

"Oh," Sherlock said. He paused for an instant before seizing John's face between his large palms and drawing back to look straight into his eyes. "That's—"

John turned his head just slightly and pressed a kiss to the inside of Sherlock's left wrist.

"That's—" Sherlock said again, his eyes gone a bit glassy, looking down at where John's lips met his wrist. John smiled, kissed him again, felt his pulse jump under his mouth. "Um."

"Right," John murmured, tilting his head to the other side so he could kiss the inside of Sherlock's right wrist. Sherlock sucked in a sharp breath.

"A madman had taken out a contract on your life so I jumped off of a building," Sherlock said, his words tumbling out in a sudden rush. "I spent two years dismantling his global crime syndicate. I spent another year as his—as his personal jester. I served you roast beef at your wedding, John."

"What are you saying, exactly?" John abandoned his mouthing along Sherlock's pulse point and looked up, meeting that pale, intense stare.

Sherlock made an impatient little huffing sound and actually had the nerve to roll his eyes. "You're an idiot, John, of course I love you. It's—it's why—" He shook his head. "Just. Of course I do. It's inconvenient, to the extreme. But I—well."

"Oh," John said, and he smiled. "Good, then."

"Good," Sherlock echoed, his tone flat.

"Good, yeah. Very. Can you come back over here so I can kiss you, please?"

Sherlock blinked, dropped his hands from where they were holding John's head in place. "You wrote several paragraphs about groping my knee."

"Yes," John said, crowding back against Sherlock, bumping their noses together. Sherlock flopped back against the wall again, his eyes very wide. "You have very nice knees." He frowned. "I think. Actually, I don't know that I've ever really paid much attention to your knees. Call it artistic license."

Sherlock tipped his head forward, nipped John's lower lip.

"Ow," John said, rearing back. "Clearly, that is an unforgivable oversight. One that I intend to rectify immediately."

"Why—" Sherlock interrupted himself to press another kiss against John's lips, softer this time, no teeth. He sounded utterly confused. "You want to look at my knees? Why would you want to look at my knees?"

"You are absolute pants at this flirting thing, you know that, right?"

"Is that what we're doing?" Sherlock made a face. "Flirting?"

John kissed the scowl off of his lips. "Attempting to."

"Oh." Sherlock kissed him, another endearingly wonderful clumsy mash of his lips, and then pulled his head back. He was frowning again. "Attempting to? You said attempting to. So it's not—"

"Sherlock."

"I'm only trying to ascertain—"

John kissed him again, tangling his hands in that soft, thick hair. He could feel Sherlock's heart thundering in his chest, a slight trembling in his limbs. Sherlock did not seem to know what to do with his hands.

He pulled away, nosed along Sherlock's cheek until his face was up against his ear. "I would. I'd like to look at your knees."

"Oh—kay?" Sherlock, turned his head, fixed him with a hesitant, questioning look.

"And all of the rest of you." John moved his hands to the lapel of Sherlock's suit jacket, gave a gentle little tug. "Which means that, as nice as it is to see you looking like your old self, this has got to go." He pressed his palm against Sherlock's chest, feeling the warmth of his skin through the thin material of his shirt, the frenetic thud of his heart. "Assuming that's all right with you, of course."

"This—" Sherlock said haltingly. "Is something you want?"

John brushed his lips along the shell of Sherlock's ear. "That seems like something you ought to be able to deduce at this point."

"You've never—" Sherlock swallowed. "Displayed interest. Before."

"Apparently, I have," John said, huffing a little laughing exhale through his nose, making Sherlock shiver. "If you ask the opinion of—well—pretty much everyone who isn't you or me."

"And you're certain this isn't just a—reaction to, um, certain heightened emotions surrounding—"

"Almost certainly," John said, kissing a spot just behind Sherlock's ear. "Doesn't make it any less true."

Sherlock was sliding along the wall, slowly tugging John in the direction of his bedroom. Their feet tangled up and he reached out, fingers once again grasping at John's jumper, steadying them both as they stumbled.

"That makes sense, then," Sherlock breathed.

"Hm?" He was barely paying attention.

"You wrote your wife as an assassin. Who shot me. Clearly you were experiencing an inordinate amount of guilt over your attraction to me."

John groaned, shut his eyes. "Sherlock, shut up."

"You don't really want me to shut up."

"Yeah, I really, really do."

Sherlock smirked, a half-curve of his lip that slowly melted into a genuine smile. He gave John another little tug, resuming their stumbling, slipping progression along the wall. They reached Sherlock's bedroom door, managed somehow to navigate through the doorway without letting go of each other.

Sherlock's skin was hot under John's hands. He was trembling again, his hands shaking as he slipped out of his jacket, tossing it aside with a proud little flourish. His pupils had gone very wide, swallowing up all but a halo of pale iris.

He was nervous. Very nervous.

It was all right. John was nervous too.

He reached out and cradled Sherlock's cheeks in his hands again, watched as Sherlock's eyes slipped closed. All of those words that he'd written, all of those daydreams and half-realized fantasies, he'd never allowed himself to think of this.

The supposed happy ending he'd written up for himself couldn't possibly compare.

He made a pleased sound in the back of his throat.

Sherlock's eyes fluttered open, bewildered. "John?"

"I just—" He shook his head, still smiling. "Just feeling lucky, Sherlock."

"There's an appalling sexual joke in there somewhere that I simply refuse to make."

And just like that, the nervousness between them cracked, and they were laughing again, John's fingers working at the buttons of Sherlock's shirt, Sherlock tugging impatiently on his jumper, their motions uncoordinated, limbs hopelessly tangled.

I'm sorry. I can't stay. Sherlock had whispered against his lips the other night, clutching on to him in the darkness, trying to tell him something he wasn't quite ready to hear.

John kissed him again, now, in bright daylight, pulled his slim strong frame in close and listened.

*

The Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson

28th November Christmas Comes Early

So unless you've been living under a rock, you've all seen the news by now. It's even trending on Twitter. #sherlocklives.

I can't really go into too much detail, because there's still an ongoing investigation, but it turns out that Sherlock was never dead. He faked his death, because Moriarty had threatened him and those close to him. And then he went on the run, taking apart Moriarty's crime network piece by piece. But Moriarty wasn't done with him.

So, in typical Sherlock fashion, as soon as he reenters my life I wind up nearly getting blown up and then kidnapped. Completely mad. I think I'd forgotten, a bit, what it was like being around him. The adrenaline. The constant danger. It was brilliant, though. Sherlock was brilliant. And Moriarty's really dead this time, which means that Sherlock can come home. :)

There has been a part of me wishing and hoping for this for so long that it doesn't quite feel real now that it's happened. But it is. It's the best news I could have ever asked for.

#sherlocklives means #johnwatsonlives.

 

17 Comments

You do realize that not being subjected to your blog was likely the best part of my time away?
Sherlock Holmes

Shut up, Sherlock. You don't have to read it. :)
John Watson

If not me, who? Someone has to take you to task on your grammar.
Sherlock Holmes

You can complain all you want, I know you love it. :)
John Watson

I KNEW IT!
Philip Anderson

Answer your phone!
Harry Watson

I can't believe it.
Mike Stamford

Actually, I can. This is Sherlock we're talking about.
Mike Stamford

will you be posting about cases again now? i tried your recipe for scones and they were terrible
theimprobableone

Do you think Sherlock would be willing to speak at one of my groups? There are a lot of theories I would like to run by him.
Philip Anderson

Probably should mention that I'm not holding a grudge over that punch.
Philip Anderson

John punched you?
Sherlock Holmes

Might have done. Sorry again. It was a bad time.
John Watson

:)
Sherlock Holmes

Not really the appropriate time to start using emoticons, Sherlock.
John Watson

:) :) :) :)
Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock!
John Watson

 

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