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Midnight Blue Serenity

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John shoved a couple of twenties at the taxi driver, too busy thinking about a hot cup of tea and a warm bed to bother demanding any change as he stumbled onto the pavement. His shoulder ached beneath the weight of his bag and his leg twinged with the cold, but he ignored the discomfort as he trudged across the rain-slicked ground and huddled at the threshold, groping for his house-keys.

Doveish dawn light shaded the world in pearly tones, and he screwed up his tired eyes as he nudged the door open and eased his way inside. At least the place was still standing. The medical conference in Dublin had only lasted four days, but Sherlock could do untold damage in the time it took John to go to the shops. He'd half-expected nothing but rubble.

Mercifully, Baker Street was tranquil, and John crept through the hall and up the seventeen steps to the flat. His hips were stiff from the cramped economy seat on the dirt-cheap two a.m. flight, and he felt unnaturally tired and travel-worn. All his thoughts were honing in on the promise of a peaceful day at home – Sherlock-permitting, of course.

He pushed his way into 221B, lowering his bag with a sigh before glancing around. No blood stained the walls or floor – always a good sign – and no experiments graced the table with their macabre presence. In fact, the whole place was moderately tidy, with a certain abandoned feeling that suggested Sherlock had not been home much in John's absence. Was he even here now, or was he out in London somewhere, neck deep in trouble and without any back-up?

A sound from the sofa answered John's question, and he stepped forward, craning his neck to get a better look. Of course, he should have known that just because the flat seemed empty didn't mean he was alone. Sherlock could be absent and present at the same time, his body a statue while he wandered his mind palace, lost to reality.

He expected to see Sherlock, perhaps in his blue robe or a suit, pristine as always, with his hands steepled under his chin and his eyes shut: a monument to himself. Yet as soon as his gaze fell on the figure, his breath jolted hard in his chest, caught up in a baffling mixture of surprise/alarm/confusion as he stared at the almost-stranger, fast asleep and oblivious to John's presence.

It was Sherlock. It had to be, because people didn't break into strange houses and doze off on the furniture, but John had never imagined he could look like this.

His flatmate was either presented in a way that would make the people in Vogue seem shabby, or he was lounging around in silk and cotton sleep-wear: a spoiled Pasha. This was like nothing John had ever thought to associate with Sherlock: stubble, skin-tight jeans and three small silver rings gleaming at the crest of one ear. For Christ's sake, he was wearing sturdy, serious, stamp-on-someone's-foot-and-break-all-their-toes boots. It was unnatural and unbelievable, like stepping into an alternative universe.

And John couldn't stop staring.

Sherlock looked younger, significantly so. Part of that could have been because he was relaxed, his face wiped clean of that cold arrogance that made him seem both ageless and wise. Yet the clothes, for all their softer, ragged edges – a million miles from the sharp lines of the suit – somehow stripped fifteen years from Sherlock's appearance. It looked so artless, thrown together as if he had dragged himself out of bed and put on whatever was at hand.

Except Sherlock never selected clothes with anything but diligence, and it was that knowledge that made John look harder, seeing beyond the dishabille to the careful construction beneath. There was plenty of product in his hair, controlling those curls into something that looked tousled but alluring, deliberately ruffled, and the ebony shadow of growth across his jaw was neatly groomed, rather than the general mess that came from a man neglecting himself.

John's fingers twitched at his side, itching to reach out and feel the rasp of facial hair that, before today, he had not even been sure Sherlock produced. Even in the deepest fits of ennui, the man remained clean-shaven. John was amazed at the change – dark hair against pale skin, strikingly monochrome.

Then there were the clothes. At first glance they looked like normal off-the-rack fare, but somehow John doubted anything you could get on the high street was so perfectly cut. The jeans fit Sherlock like a second skin, so much so that he gave a fleeting, giddy thought as to whether he wore anything underneath them. The t-shirt was not much better, but where the suits were tailored to emphasise Sherlock's slender frame and conceal the lithe strength of him, the black cotton did the opposite, giving him a striking outline.

'It's for a case.'

John almost managed to hide his guilty start as the rasp of Sherlock's voice shattered the peace. He sounded like he had been shouting for hours or chain-smoking in John's absence. Both seemed equally likely. However, before he could ask, he made the mistake of meeting Sherlock's gaze.

Over the time they had known each other, he had grown used to the brightness of Sherlock's eyes. Blue, green, grey and a dozen shades in between the three, they changed as often as the weather. Now, though, hazy and half-lidded, they looked nothing short of sultry – storm-silver outlined with the faintest hint of –

'Are you wearing eye-liner?' John managed, biting his lip as Sherlock stretched, long and languorous like a cat in a sunbeam. The hem of the t-shirt rode up, revealing a slender expanse of pale stomach and a line of dark hair leading down into the low slung waist of Sherlock's jeans. John could make out the peak of his hip-bones, twin ridges framing the soft flesh above his crotch.

Oh, God.

He was torn, because while all he wanted to do was stand there and admire him, part of John was painfully aware that this glimpse of a new, beguiling Sherlock was not going to make it any easier to think of him platonically. It was bad enough that visions of feminine curves and warm, wet heat had a tendency to dissolve into fantasies of Sherlock's strong body and wicked eyes whenever John took himself in hand. Now he was lying there looking like sex personified, and John had to bite his tongue and focus on the pain as he beat a tactical retreat to the kitchen.

'Tea would be good.' Sherlock's voice husked over the words, and John swallowed, wondering what he had done to deserve this.

Ignoring Sherlock was never an easy task. He seemed to take up all the space in a room – and in John's God-damn head – merely by existing. However, before now, there had always been an air of something untouchable about him. John had assumed, perhaps mistakenly, that Sherlock was beyond the reach of carnal interest. Now, dressed like he was, he looked– well, like a man on the prowl, actually. Still Sherlock, but sexually charged, inviting, sumptuous and...

John swallowed, bracing his palms on the kitchen surface as he waited for the kettle to boil. He dragged in a deep breath, the air burning down his throat and adding to the heat that was pooling between his legs. He had come home hoping for a relaxing day, and instead he was fighting a growing erection and trying to understand how Sherlock could look so different.

He wasn't shamming and pretending to be normal, which John found more disturbing than attractive. He was still just a mad, annoying nutter of a flat-mate. The fact he was wearing unusual clothes should not be enough to shatter all of John's good resolutions and leave him gaping in helpless lust, should it?

'I hope you enjoyed your ridiculous conference,' Sherlock muttered, his footsteps unusually heavy as he sauntered into the kitchen. The boots should have looked stupid: more hardware than footwear, but actually, they suited him. 'Though why you bothered going, I don't know. Pointless.'

'Useful,' John corrected, concentrating on making tea and very much not looking in Sherlock's direction. 'We already had this discussion before I left, remember?' He added hot water to their mugs, letting the tea bags steep as he tilted his head, attentive without actually meeting Sherlock's kohl-lined gaze. 'Tell me about the case.'

Sherlock waved a hand, and John noticed the bracelets around one wrist. They looked like soft leather, well-worn and comfortable. 'An old acquaintance asked for my help just after you left. Four regulars at his club have gone missing over the space of the past two months. At first there was no cause for alarm. People change their socialisation spots all the time, but then two of them were found.'

'Dead?' John pulled a face when Sherlock nodded.

'He came to me about ten minutes before Lestrade called about the same issue. The bodies were dismembered and hidden in shipping containers at Banning Street. Identified by dental records. No personal effects were present, and decomposition made it difficult to judge cause of death. However, there were traces of a drug combination including Gamma-hydroxybutyrate in their system.'

John's stomach twisted uncomfortably, and he added milk to his tea before passing Sherlock his mug, finally examining that thoughtful profile. There was no empathy in those features, not that John had expected any. Instead, Sherlock's expression was locked into a familiar mask of consideration. 'GHB? Raped then murdered?'

'Hard to be sure; it could have been consumed recreationally, though its use as a date-rape drug means that sexual assault is included in the current assumption. Lestrade's initial suspicions lay with the employees of the storage grounds, since the killer must have had access to dispose of the bodies, but all the obvious leads have turned up nothing.' Sherlock shrugged, sipping his tea. His quiet hum of appreciation was gratifying, and John wondered if he had actually made any for himself while he had been away.

'Sounds a bit run-of-the-mill for you.' John hated to say it, but it was true. Murder in London was hardly a rare occurrence, and Sherlock made a point to only take cases that would interest him. 'I would have thought you wouldn't have bothered.'

Something twitched across Sherlock's face, a brief downwards tilt of his lips and a wrinkle at the bridge of his nose. 'There are a couple of interesting facets. I've not seen the drug combination before, and it's not something that's available for purchase on the streets.'

'How do you know?' John paused, his jaw tightening as he realised that, in his absence, Sherlock had probably been locating old connections – dealers, most likely – and getting information. His face must have given away his train of thought, because Sherlock rolled his eyes in annoyance and set down his mug before stretching out his arms, underside-up.

John wished he could decline the offer and say he trusted Sherlock not to return to his mind-sharpening methods of choice, but it would be a lie. If nothing else, their honesty with each other mattered, and he carefully relinquished his tea before grabbing Sherlock's elbow and tilting his arms, first one, then the other, to the light.

There was nothing to see: no tiny punctures or lingering bruises from intravenous administration. John wasn't stupid, he knew that Sherlock could have used a different injection site somewhere else on his body, but even as he followed the broad blue roadmap of Sherlock's veins, John doubted Sherlock would have bothered. He was not being deferential to John's wishes with his abstinence. It was self-serving restraint. He didn't take up his old habits because he wanted to help the Yard with their cases; pleasing John had nothing to do with it.

'My contacts couldn't tell me anything that would lead us to the buyers. I don't know every dealer in London, but Molly conducted a few quick tests for me.' Sherlock did not move to pull away as he continued to explain. 'The pharmaceuticals are high-grade, suggesting they are either being bought directly from the manufacturer, or the murderer is skilled enough to make their own. My associate's club is probably their hunting ground –'

'And you're using yourself as bait.' John had not heard his own voice sound like that for years: clammy and horrified. His fingers tightened where they were still wrapped around Sherlock's wrists, and he felt the jump of his radial pulse. It was not a huge leap of deduction, but Sherlock was giving him a strange look, his brow pleated and his head cocked to the side as he gleaned God-knew-what from John's expression.

'What makes you think that?' he asked at last, and John suddenly realised why he couldn't quite identify the pinch on Sherlock's features. It was confusion – not something often seen on the consulting detective's face – as if he could not fathom John's intuitive, plain-as-day assumption. 'I'm there to observe, at least as much as I can while working behind the bar.'

John blinked, because he had never seen Sherlock drink a pint, let alone pull one. 'Why don't you just... mingle?'

'Why bother searching the club when I can get everyone there to come to me?' Sherlock asked. 'GHB is often administered orally via the medium of an alcoholic drink, which the killer will no doubt purchase from the bar. Even if I don't serve the perpetrator directly, I'll always be close enough to deduce the essentials. It should be adequate to give Lestrade some leads.'

'You see everyone, and everyone sees you.' John did not add “dressed like that”, but the words were on the tip of his tongue. 'How do you know whoever's doing it won't take a shine to you?'

'The victims have all been below six-foot, under twenty-six and pale-haired. The murderer has a type.'

So did I, John thought. It used to be flirtatious, female and friendly. Now look at me.

Out loud, he said, 'He could still break his pattern. You don't look like you've been out of university long in that get-up, and you can't tell me it's not meant to be eye-catching.' He gestured to Sherlock's outfit, lifting one eyebrow when he only saw continuing puzzlement rather than understanding. It was ridiculous. Sherlock knew he was attractive. For God's sake, he spent enough time looking in the mirror...

Except, now he thought about it, John realised that maybe appreciation of his looks was not something to which Sherlock was frequently exposed. There was Molly of course, but everyone else of their acquaintance treated him like a convenience at best and a freak at worst. Anderson and Donovan did their best to spread their vitriol, and even to someone as apparently-indifferent as Sherlock, it had to have some effect on how he perceived himself.

He used his appeal to get the truth out of suspects or chase down the details of a case, but that was more about his behaviour and body language– attentive and enthralling – than Sherlock deliberately using his physical assets to get attention. Not that they needed emphasis, but perhaps it was a factor Sherlock was failing to take into account.

'I'd look out of place in a suit,' Sherlock replied, a defensive edge to his voice. 'It's easy to dress down to a certain age. People make assumptions based on clothing – they always have done, from class and background to sexual proclivities.' He shook his head, gently easing free of John's grip before grasping his tea and gulping down the last of the cooling beverage. 'Besides, people who tend the bar are also in the spotlight – not exactly wise to drug someone who is the centre of attention.'

'So that's what you've been doing? Doling out drinks and playing “spot the murderer?”' It sounded ridiculous, but judging from the expression on Sherlock's face, those were the bare bones of it. 'Any luck?'

'So far there have been no obvious suspects, but weekdays are slow and I've been using the time to acclimatise to the role. Tonight should be another matter.'

John, befuddled from flying and time away, took a moment to realise that it was Friday, the end of the working week for most and one of the busiest evenings in any club. 'So, what? You're just going to keep moonlighting as a bar-tender until you catch this guy? You said it was three months; you could be waiting a while.' He followed Sherlock through to his room without thinking, barely seeing the neat order of the bed as he frowned in thought. 'Are you even getting paid?'

The envelope hit him squarely in the chest, and John fumbled it in clumsy hands before frowning down at the grubby bank notes within. 'And this is?'

'Tips. Once the murderer's caught there'll also be payment from the club owner and, if I fill in the paperwork, the consulting fee from the police.'

'You never fill in the paperwork,' John mumbled, but he was too busy counting to push the issue. All right, it was mostly fivers, but there was nearly four hundred quid tucked into the bulging, tatty envelope. What was Sherlock doing at that bar, serving drinks naked?

'What sort of club is it?' John asked, clearing his throat when Sherlock looked up from where he was perched on the edge of the mattress, taking off the monstrous boots.

'A loud one.' Apparently, Sherlock realised that was not the quite the answer John was looking for. 'Relatively mainstream, standard fare. Writhing on the dance floor, sex and drugs in the toilets. The usual.' He rubbed the pad of his index finger under one eye, smudging the liner before screwing his eyes up tight and opening them again. 'I only got home about thirty minutes before you walked in, and I have to return in a little over twelve hours.'

'Is that your way of saying you need your beauty sleep?' John asked, a faint smile crossing his lips when Sherlock merely gave a half-hearted glare. Now that he mentioned it, John could tell that not all of the colour around Sherlock's eyes was cosmetics. The biological hues of exhaustion also lingered there; discussing the details of Sherlock's plan and John's reservations would have to wait. 'It's unlike you to rest when there's a case on.'

Sherlock grimaced, raking his fingers through his curls and leaving them in further disarray. 'Tending the bar is surprisingly exhausting. The noise, the people – it's overwhelming. I need to be alert tonight, and if that means I have to sleep, then so be it.'

He spoke of slumber as if it were a battle to be fought, rather than a peaceful respite, and John pursed his lips. Of everyone, he was least likely to complain about Sherlock breaking the habit of a lifetime and actually getting a decent amount of shut-eye.

With a nod of understanding, he turned to go, one hand on the edge of the door and the other still curved around the packet of money. 'Good night then, Sherlock, sleep well.'

'You should do the same. The unsociable hours of your flight have left you deprived, and I might need you.'

It wasn't an invitation, no matter how much Sherlock's still-rough voice made it sound like one, and John swallowed tightly as he shut the door behind him and left Sherlock in peace. He glanced around the flat, barely registering his familiar surroundings. So much for a quiet day at home. What had been leaden tiredness was now a mix of tight-gutted anxiety and lingering need, the cocktail of which made him edgy and tense.

John washed dishes and tidied up in an effort to calm himself. He left the money propped up behind the kettle, promising himself that he would pay it into Sherlock's account later. It was only once the place was neat and he found himself at a loose end that John resigned himself to the challenge of trying to get some sleep. Sherlock was right, it would do him good, and maybe when he woke up again he would be ready to face his flat-mate with only friendly sentiments in mind.

Once in his room, he got changed and made sure the curtains were drawn against the morning sun before settling into bed. With a grunt, he pulled the quilt up to his shoulders and wished it was as easy to turn off his whirling thoughts as it was to close his eyes. Time and again the memory of Sherlock sprawled on the sofa was presenting itself to his mind's eye, and his erection, which had flagged when Sherlock explained about the case, put in another appearance.

Stubbornly, he ignored it, keeping his hands above his own waist as he fought to succumb to slumber. Thankfully, exhaustion worked in his favour. Sounds grew faint and the world took on a misty quality. At last, on the indistinct border of wakefulness, John could only hope that Sherlock was not underestimating the killer, whoever they may be.

If he was, the consequences would be more than either of them could bear.

Chapter Text

Sherlock sighed as water from the shower drummed over his body, washing away the patina of stale sweat and sticky alcohol that clung to his skin, even after hours of sleep. It would be renewed by the end of the night, replenished by the heat of the club and the clumsy eagerness of the patrons as they snatched their glasses or bottles from his hands, but for short while, at least, he could be clean.

The rhythm of the cascade was a soft wall of noise. It blotted out the lingering percussive memory of the thudding bass and the shouts of customers as they leaned in to yell their requests: all boundaries of personal space disregarded. He had not been lying to John when he said it was overwhelming. Only the lure of the case called him back.

Ordinarily, the puzzle would be inadequate – a skeletal wraith of a mystery. There was limited intrigue beyond a few glimmering details. If something more interesting came along, Sherlock would leave it for the police. They would solve it in the end. However, at the time, it served a purpose. With John away at that wretched conference, Sherlock had needed something – anything – to occupy his mind.

Smoothing shampoo suds from his curls, he acknowledged the white-lie. Four days of boredom was not quite beyond his mental endurance, but when John had left, he had taken away more than the audience for Sherlock's genius. The flat had been cold and two-dimensional in his absence. It was merely a place with a bed in it, rather than a beacon calling Sherlock home.

He needed John, the truth of that was inescapable, and it seemed like a weakness – a breach in his armour. He had spent years on his own, but the memory of that time was washed out in shades of grey, drab bar the frequent fireworks of illegal stimulants. John's presence had brought with it the nuance of colour, a new, unknown facet, and suddenly Sherlock found that forcing himself to say no to the allure of cocaine was not a constant battle.

His mind skipped to John's gentle examination in the kitchen, warm hands wrapped around his wrists and fingertips tracing the lines of his veins. Perhaps someone else would have been offended by John's suspicion, but Sherlock knew it was a valid concern. The temptation had been a ghost at his side as he tracked down old dealers and delved for information. More than once he had almost made a purchase, but the thought of John's inevitable disappointment held him back.

Every time he had considered it – the quick dart of a silver needle into yielding flesh and the release it could bring – he could only think of John's praise falling silent beneath a shroud of disappointment. There was nothing amazing about addiction, nothing incredible about dependency, and without that, what would there be to keep John here? Friendship and loyalty only went so far.

No, the case had been the perfect distraction. It had allowed him to feed his mind and carry on being the man John thought worthy of admiration and respect.

Sherlock turned off the taps and stepped out of the shower, drying his body with a cursory swipe of the towel before tugging on his jeans over his bare skin, letting them hang loose and unfastened on his hips. After the flattering and spacious cut of his suits, they felt uncomfortably restrictive, little more than a layer of denim painted over his legs. Still, they were necessary. He had to blend in with the clubbing crowd, even if he was set apart from their mass through the simple act of standing behind the bar.

Besides, it made him more accessible. People felt able to relate to those of similar tastes and were less careful about what they said. So far, all he had gleaned were splinters of information and a feel for the regular clientèle. Mostly, they were young adults aged twenty to twenty-eight; students and professionals present in equal measure. Iso was considered an alternative club, but truthfully it was a free-and-easy half-step away from the mainstream: neither banal nor hardcore, but always crowded.

The perfect spot for a predator.

Sherlock brushed his teeth as he considered the data, lining up the sparse evidence and hearsay he had gathered. Only Price, the owner, knew Sherlock's true purpose for being there, but he had been able to ask the staff the right questions all the same. The bouncers were cooperative, eager to point out any trouble-makers, while the various individuals behind the bar knew who would flirt and tell them to keep the change, and who got rough after a few pints.

He had been told straight-off to be alert for anyone spiking drinks, but after an hour of harried work, Sherlock had realised how impossible it was for the employees to observe the details of such behaviour. Even with four of them on at any one time, it was non-stop, hence his need for sleep.

Dozing on the sofa had not been part of the plan. He had stretched out for a few minutes, intent on organising the facts, only to wake when he sensed John's presence at his side. Immediately, he had noticed the faint rain-scent that clung to his jumper and the irregular sound of his breathing, fast as if he had sprinted up the stairs. Yet as soon as he opened his eyes, he realised it was more shock at Sherlock's attire than physical exertion which had staggered John's normal rhythms.

He expected some vague remark before John continued on with his day, but instead Sherlock had found himself the subject of searing scrutiny. He was used to John's occasional looks and the strange, shared moments that sometimes caught them both in their grasp: a meaningful gaze that grew inexorably deeper until one or the other of them looked away. Those had become a part of life, guilty pleasures. He knew he should be focussing on the case, the Work, the puzzle, but he still allowed himself some fleeting enjoyment of the fact that John, at least, found him scintillating – for his mind if nothing else.

This morning was different. John had not contemplated him with astonishment and pride at his deductions. His expression had not been idle observation, but bare-faced hunger ill-concealed behind the mask of his curiosity.

Even now, the memory sent a sharp thrill through Sherlock's stomach, and he met his gaze in the mirror. He was well-aware that people stared at him because he was arrogant and insensitive to the petty shields of their secrets. They watched him because he could – and did – unravel their lives with the flicker of a glance, and no one liked to take their eyes off a threat.

Those few who regarded him with carnal interest were the type who enjoyed a challenge. They were easy enough to dissuade or entice as he so chose. Each were temporary, transitory individuals in his life who, if they lasted any time at all, fled as soon as they realised his behaviour was not an act to keep the world at bay.

John had lived and worked with him for more than a year, now. He was aware of Sherlock's many faults, and yet he still behaved as if he were someone worth the admiration, not just for his intelligence, but for who he was, as well. He had seen a myriad of sentiment in John's eyes over their time together, but never anything quite so base – obvious appreciation of Sherlock's physical form, rather than his cerebral abilities.

He tried to remember if he had seen John so undisguised before. Other than that first meal at Angelo's, he had been subtle in his approach. Sherlock's efforts to rebuff John's advances had not needed repeating, though he often found himself wondering what would have happened if he had behaved differently. If he had known this was how they would progress, from strangers to brothers-in-arms, comrades and best friends in no short order, perhaps he would not have been so absolute.

Yet John had taken Sherlock's response to heart, and even if his attraction remained while Sherlock's steadily unfurled in unacknowledged reciprocation, it never encroached on their friendship. If Sherlock wanted to, he could have ignored it. Instead he found himself sabotaging John's dates and seeking his approval with every flourish of a solved case.

It was an enjoyable equilibrium, one of beautiful potential, and he was reluctant to disturb what they had in favour of pursuing the possibility of more. While he had a great deal of confidence in his abilities, communication of sentiment was not his area. Making the first move was not something he could do with anything like grace, and so he held back. More than once he had considered trying to entice John into action. When he had stretched on the sofa and seen John sway forward, he almost thought the moment had come, but instead it passed, like so many before it.

With a sigh, Sherlock picked up his razor and set about neatening his stubble, keeping the edges sharp and defined. The bristles no longer itched and had taken on a softer, more flexible nap. Facial hair was never something he considered, and the entire purpose of growing it had been to toy with the age of his appearance. Young men had a tendency to grow a beard simply because they could: it flaunted their masculinity and maturity, while perversely making them seem younger in their need for such symbolism. Sherlock hated it, but the case had its requirements.

A knock on the door made him change the angle of his gaze in the mirror. 'Sherlock, how much longer are you going to be? I need the loo!'

He could hear John shifting from foot-to-foot like a toddler testing the limits of his bladder control. Picking up the eye-liner pencil, Sherlock opened the door, almost slamming into John's chest as he stepped over the threshold. Reaching out, he grabbed John's shoulders, stopping him from stumbling back even as John froze as if mesmerised.

Not that Sherlock was any better. His mind was always working, picking out the details of the world around him, and John was an ever-changing landscape to be explored and devoured. Now, he was rumpled from sleep, his hair flattened on one side and spiked on the other while a pillow-crease struck a line across one cheek. He wore a baggy t-shirt and boxer shorts – both comfortable, tired cotton that draped over his body. A low collar revealed the ridge of his clavicle, and short sleeves showed off the power of his arms.

The drowsy haze had cleared from those blue eyes, which had taken on a darker, more intent focus, and John's ungroomed jaw worked as he swallowed and stepped back from Sherlock's grasp. 'Er, sorry. I can wait if you need to –' His gaze flickered down across Sherlock's bare torso before darting up once more. 'Finish getting dressed?'

'It's all yours,' Sherlock replied, stepping around John's shorter form. 'Don't be long. I need to go to the morgue before heading for the bar.'

'I'm coming with you?' John shrugged when Sherlock glanced his way. 'I mean, the morgue, fine, but I'm not exactly going to blend in at a club, am I?'

'Let me worry about that. You've got half-an-hour.' He smirked at John's obvious sigh as he padded through to his own bedroom. A quick glance at his reflection reminded Sherlock that his jeans weren't fastened; that was probably the reason for John's embarrassment. Not that there was anything visible beyond the deeply shadowed vee and the suggestion of dark curls between the fly. A lack of underwear was hardly shocking. Surely John must have suspected there was no room for even a small concession of fabric beneath the trousers? However, perhaps the confirmation had been a step too far.

With a shrug, Sherlock did up his jeans before scooping up his t-shirt from where he had left it, frowning at the tell-tale pattern of spills and the scent of alcohol and sweat that imbued the cotton. With a grimace, he abandoned it in favour of a spare, tugging the clean garment down over his bare chest. It was the matter of a minute to smooth some gel through his hair and wrap a couple of the more wayward curls around his finger to get them under control. Not much could be done about the one that persisted in falling across his brow, so he ignored it as he reached for the kohl.

There were still echoes of the previous night's careful application between his eyelashes, and Sherlock drew over the line with a steady hand, blending it artfully. The black was chosen to contain a hint of red base to its colour. The effect was subtle, but it was enough to push the hue of his eyes towards viridian green: steel and glass. It was a small fraction of obscuration – part of a greater whole. If someone he knew saw him at the club, they would still recognise him, but anyone who had just caught a glimpse of him in the paper would overlook him entirely.

Toeing his way into his boots, he left the laces trailing. The aglets clattered against the uppers as he shuffled through to the living room, grunting in annoyance when John, freshly showered and wearing his tatty robe, shoved a plate of toast in his direction. 'Drink something as well. You've been dehydrating in a hot club all night,' he ordered.

'Make me some tea, then.'

Instead, John held out a glass of water, meeting Sherlock's gaze in a stubborn glare. Normally, he would maintain eye contact until Sherlock relented, but this time he looked away, his shoulders dropping. 'Please? You'll feel better for it.'

'I'm fine.' Reluctantly, he took the glass, realising as soon as the first sip flooded his mouth that he was parched. The pint was gone in no time, and he refilled it from the tap before sipping it with more care. 'How much longer are you going to be?' he asked. 'You still need to get dressed.'

'All right, all right.' John chewed on his breakfast before putting the plate down and taking his tea with him, only to pause as Sherlock continued speaking.

'There's a black t-shirt in a carrier bag in your room. Wear a pair of dark jeans and boots that won't make your feet ache if you have to stand up all night. No jumpers.' Digging his phone out of his pocket, Sherlock sent a text to Price, followed, after a moment's thought, by one to Lestrade. 'No jacket either.' Out of the corner of his eye, he saw John glance out the window at London's dreary mid-afternoon, all drizzle and misery.

'It's February,' he pointed out, as if he honestly believed Sherlock had forgotten that fact. 'I'm not walking around London in short sleeves.'

'We'll pick up some more suitable attire for you before we head to the bar,' he promised. 'You might not fit in among the clientèle, but you won't look out of place on the door.' He could sense John's reluctance from across the room and glanced up to find himself the subject of an unamused expression. 'Problem?'

'You want me to be a bouncer?'

'It's logical.' Sherlock twirled his phone in his palm before slipping it back in his pocket. 'You'll get a good view of everyone who enters the club, as well as those who leave it. Your military experience should serve you well in the event you need to throw anyone out, and as for the rest, you fold your arms and look like you've just found half a kilo of human entrails in the fridge.'

'Repulsed?'

'You've yet to look disturbed by any of my experiments. At most, you acquire an expression of resigned annoyance.' Sherlock looked at John's face. 'Yes, just like that. See? You'll have no trouble.'

His lips twisted in a half-smile as he heard John's weary groan, knowing he had already won. Not that there was much of a fight to be had. Despite a restful night, John was still tense as he headed for his bedroom. Judging by his assumption that Sherlock was using himself as bait to catch a serial killer, it was unlikely he would have stayed at Baker Street while Sherlock worked the bar. At least this way, he kept John's intervention under his control, planned and prepared, rather than an ill-advised effort at protection.

By the time he had finished the second glass of water, crammed a quarter of cold, greasy toast in his mouth and fastened his boots, John was clomping down the stairs. It was gratifying to know that Sherlock’s analysis of his physique had not been obstructed by those woollen monstrosities he always wore. The snug fit of the t-shirt was flattering without being explicit, yet it had the desired effect, defining the shape of John's body rather than hiding it under a thick barrier.

'I feel like mutton dressed as lamb,' John muttered, leaving his mug by the sink and casting a wistful look at his jacket. 'Is this really necessary?'

'Yes.' Sherlock allowed his eyes to skim the broad line of John's shoulders and the subtle bulge of the muscles in his arms. The evidence of a few too many biscuits and beers lingered around his midriff, but it simply lent a softer silhouette to his abdomen, detracting nothing from the strong presence of his hips and thighs. He would be neither as tall nor as bulky as the other bouncers at Iso, but he had the advantage of army training. Perfect.

Abruptly, he realised he was staring and quickly looked away, reaching for the jacket he had worn the night before. 'Come on. I need to look at Molly's reports.' He noticed the pinched expression on John's face as he shrugged into the garment, trying to ignore how strange the hip-length, fashionable cut felt in comparison to the Belstaff's length.

'That's not your normal coat.' John blushed at the simplicity of his observation. 'I mean – it's just – you don't look quite like you.'

'That's the point.' With a splay of his fingers that hovered above the small of John's back but did not touch, he urged him down the stairs and out onto the pavement, his hand already lifted for a passing cab. Drivers were more reluctant to stop for someone in jeans than they were for a man in a suit, but Sherlock had learned years ago that it was more about height and confidence than attire. An arrogant wave of his arm and even the most reluctant cabbie would pull up at the kerb.

By the time they arrived at Bart's and exited the taxi, John was huddling in the lee of Sherlock's body, clearly trying to avoid the bitter wind that raked through the city. He enfolded himself in his arms, barely concealing nipples that had peaked in answer to the chill. 'Couldn't we have made getting me better clothes the first priority?' he demanded. 'It's not like the bodies are going anywhere.'

Sherlock did not reply as they entered the hospital and paced the corridors before pushing open the doors to the morgue with a squeak of rubber seals. Molly and Lestrade waited within, both cradling cups of coffee and chatting to each other. Their conversation seemed to be about the usual inanities people spoke of, children and love interests, even something about football, which was strange, since Molly found the boisterousness of many athletic men off-putting.

'Did you bring it?'

There were a few moments of stunned silence as they took in his appearance. Lestrade looked more amused than anything, but Molly's face had taken on a faint flush that did not bode well. Her eyes widened before she stared at her clipboard, her hands shaking as she adjusted her pen.

'Yeah, though what do you want it for? You've got your own, and it wouldn't fit you anyway.' Lestrade held up the jacket in his hand, a comfortable leather affair, well-worn but bordering on too small for the DI now that he spent more time behind a desk than on the beat.

'It's for John. I've arranged it with Price for him to be on the door. He needs to look the part.'

Lestrade snorted and handed it over into John's grateful care. 'You sure?' he asked. 'You don't have to give up your clothes just because Sherlock says so.'

'It's fine. Suits you actually.' The DI scrubbed a hand through his hair, indifferent to the disarray he left in the wake of the gesture. 'Are you two certain you know what you're doing?'

'It was a private case before it was a police investigation.' Sherlock took the papers Molly offered him, ignoring her smile as he examined the test results and tuned out her nervous hovering.

'And now it's become a criminal situation, which means my authority beats that of whoever hired you to sort out their problem.' Lestrade looked at John, attempting to appeal to someone with more emotion and less logic. 'I don't much like you doing this on your own. The only reason you're anywhere near that place is because I don't have the evidence to justify an official stake-out.'

'Then work on getting it,' Sherlock instructed, turning the page and frowning at the information. 'There are still two bodies to find, and the more time you take locating them, the less evidence will survive.'

Lestrade shook his head. 'We searched every shipping container in that depot and got nothing. Unless you can tell me something more?'

Sherlock hesitated, hearing the stress that formed a bitter foundation beneath Lestrade's words. No one wanted to wait for the next corpse to give them what they needed, but all he had were snatches of hints and the first glimmers of a pattern.

'I can tell you that the two victims were probably selected with care, but their disposal was more haphazard and opportunistic. Butchery of the bodies seems hasty, but competent. My first instinct is that the killer was faced with a logistical problem regarding how to hide the most obvious evidence.' He narrowed his eyes, latching on to the details. 'Traces of low-quality polyethylene on the skin suggests their remains were initially placed in economy-range bin-bags. Thin and cheap, they would have been the only thing to hand. Whoever murdered these men economised on household essentials. Their money was probably going elsewhere.'

'The drugs?' John asked.

'Or the necessary ingredients if the murderer is cooking their own. That kind of drain on the finances means they are unlikely to have a method of private transport. The bodies were dismembered and carried to the container depot in rubbish bags.' Sherlock scratched his chin, factoring the obvious limitations of the situation. 'Even the most determined individual wouldn't be able to drag a body far, and repeat trips would raise suspicion. Look for CCTV of someone carrying several thin, heavy bin sacks along one of the surrounding streets.'

Sherlock turned the page again, skimming the text as he continued to speak. 'He takes time selecting the victim, but the haste of how the body was hidden implies that the murder was born of necessity, not design. Initially at least, killing was not part of the plan.' He held out the report, tapping his finger over the level of GHB and oxygen saturation levels in the tissue. 'The results are open to interpretation, due to the damage to the corpse, but the first victim appears to have died from asphyxiation.'

John's small sound of comprehension was exquisitely satisfying, and Sherlock watched as he made the necessary leap in intuition. 'GHB is a depressant. One of the main problems with dosage is that its effects are manipulated by the amount of alcohol the person has consumed. The more drunk they are, the more effective the drug.' He held out a hand for the report, which Sherlock surrendered without question. 'The problem is, if someone takes too much they can sedate the diaphragm and the muscles between the ribs, as well as the reflexes involved in breathing. You end up suffocating.'

'Blood alcohol is severely elevated, and there are also trace amounts of ketamine, already processed by the body before death,' Sherlock added

Lestrade shook his head, sighing as Molly spoke. 'There was more in the first corpse than the second.'

'Both are significant doses,' John pointed out, leaning over Sherlock's shoulder to read the part of the document he still retained. 'Could have contributed to cause of death.'

'Ketamine's not as popular as it used to be on the drug scene. I imagine it was combined with the GHB to amplify the effect, which does rather indicate rape as a motive,' Sherlock concluded, offering Molly a faint nod of approval for her information. 'Though whether any sexual acts took place is still unknown. It's possible that the compounds were implemented to make the victims more pliable and easily coerced for alternative purposes.'

'So, describe who I'm looking for,' Lestrade challenged, folding his arms and lifting his chin as Sherlock added together the fragments to form a whole.

'A rapist, still perfecting their technique. At least, that was once the limit of their crimes, but now murder seems to have become part of their signature. They will live within a short distance of the club and the container compound. Male, probably a similar age to the victims.'

He hesitated, knowing the likelihood of a female serial killer indulging in this behaviour was minuscule – not even worth mentioning – before he continued. 'Low to medium income bracket, since all disposable money is likely to be spent on the pharmaceuticals or components thereof. Run a search for prior offenders living within a limited area. You're unlikely to find anything based on sexual-assault, but check for unfamiliar dealers or manufacturers on the street scene.'

'You think they're selling what they make on the side?' the DI asked.

'It's an avenue worth consideration.'

Lestrade was impressed; it was written all over his face – probably because Anderson had no doubt read the same information and come up empty-handed. 'Anything else?' he asked, not bothering to keep his gratitude hidden.

Sherlock glanced at the clock before taking the rest of the report from John's grasp and returning it to Molly. There was nothing left to glean from the narrow black text. Instead the answers would be waiting for him within the close, humid confines of Iso – and with any luck, so would the killer. All Sherlock had to do was pick him out of the crowd.

With a flick of his hand, he motioned for John to follow, leaving his answer hovering behind him as they made their departure.

'Ask me again tomorrow.'

Chapter Text

'Iso-Bar. Really?' John looked up at the gleaming insignia of the club, brash and flashy in one of London's more popular hotspots. 'Who came up with that?'

'I believe it's part of a themed franchise. To the regulars, it's simply known as Iso.' Sherlock gave the frontage a fleeting glance as he led John around the side of the building, through an alley littered with cigarette butts and other questionable detritus before hesitating at the side door. 'Speaking of names, don't call me by mine. It's too recognisable. Everyone here knows me as Lee.'

John tried not to pull a face. It was all right, suitably middle-class, and if he wasn't aware of Sherlock's true identity then he could almost say it suited him. Still, John knew better, and the idea of calling him anything new rankled. 'I take it I'm okay with mine?'

'Of course. It's about as indistinct as possible.'

John scowled at Sherlock's dismissive tone, following him across the threshold and through a warren of corridors filled with the endless junk a club needed to run, like spare chairs and a mysterious mass of sound equipment. Wires were taped to the bare concrete floor to stop people tripping over them, and unforgiving fluorescent lights shone overhead, stripping away the shadows and leaving everything stark and institutional.

'Is there anything else I need to know?' he asked quietly, wary of being overheard by any of the other employees as Sherlock began to climb the stairs towards the main floor of the club. 'What exactly do you need me to look for?'

'Anyone behaving suspiciously. People coming in alone or obviously hanging back from the crowd and observing the dance floor. Basically, anyone who looks like they're here for more than social reasons. If you spot anything, send me a text.' Sherlock led him into a small room full of hooks on the wall and the scatter of people's possessions. From the looks of it, they belonged to the staff, and one young woman with pink hair looked up from rummaging in her bag to give them a smile.

'Hey, Lee. Ready for your first weekend?'

'It's a bit late if I'm not,' Sherlock replied, the sharp, intelligent edges sanded away from his words to leave something open and friendly in their wake. John had seen it before, but that didn't mean he liked it when Sherlock shammed at being ordinary, and he fought hard to keep his expression from falling into a stormy glower. 'This is John, my flatmate. He's going to help Tomas and Will on the door.'

'Thank God for that! The two of them were dreading trying to keep the Friday rush under control.' The girl waved her unlit cigarette in greeting. 'I'm Jane. I'll be behind the bar, for half-the-night at least. Speaking of which, I'll be there after I've been out for a smoke, all right? We need to check the taps before everything gets started.' She grinned in John's direction as she slipped past them, humming something inane under her breath as she groped in her pocket for a lighter.

Sherlock pitched his jacket over one of the hooks, emptying out his keys, phone and, John noticed with a frown, a half-empty packet of Marlboro cigarettes.

'I thought you'd quit.' He went to grab the box, but Sherlock quickly held it out of reach, stretching up and spreading his hand over John's chest to keep him at bay.

'I have. However, almost everyone who works here smokes and they spend any breaks they receive out the back. I need the same excuse if I'm going to get anything worthwhile from them.'

'Sherlock...' John closed his eyes as he tried to rein in his frustration. 'At least tell me you're not plastered in nicotine patches?'

'I ran out yesterday.' Sherlock slipped his phone and the box into his pockets before handing the bulkier keys to John. 'Hold onto those for me, will you? I've got nowhere to put them.'

John did as he was asked, privately marvelling that Sherlock's sleek mobile had managed to fit in the scandalously tight jeans. He had seen for himself just how little space there was within their confines earlier that day.

The memory of him half-naked in the bathroom doorway, his fly undone, sparked across John's mind. Immediately, his mouth went dry, and he fought valiantly to keep a flush off his face as he backed away from Sherlock's fingers where they lingered against his chest. 'Are you going to show me where I need to be?' he asked, thankful that his voice did not rasp over the words as he tried to focus on the task in hand.

'Come on.' Sherlock beckoned him to follow, slipping into character as easily as if he were getting into a hot bath. His walk changed – no longer a confident, arrogant stride but something less commanding. His steps were fractionally shorter, with a hint of swagger that drew John's eye automatically downwards to the curve of his arse.

Sherlock had slipped those long fingers into his back pockets, casual and relaxed, as if his only concern in the world really was tending the bar. In comparison, John fell into his default march, each pace measured as he tried not to get lost in the volatile mix of his own appreciation and growing unease.

He attempted to take in the details of the club, memorising its layout as if it were enemy territory. The dance floor was a broad expanse of barren space. With the lights down, it would no doubt be an enticing dais of heavy bass and tempting rhythms, but right now it looked bland as a couple of men, brothers, from the look of them, pratted about sweeping the floor and laughing over dubious stains. The DJ was fine-tuning the altar of the sound system, checking cables and doing tests as an entourage bustled around him.

The bar itself was well-lit, an affair of matte black and glass with chairs and tables arranged in front of its sinuous, arched form. John saw the girl, Jane, talking animatedly to a woman with dark dreads and a ring through her nose, who looked distinctly unimpressed.

Glancing away, he noticed steps leading upwards in the four corners of the club towards another lounge area that filled the balcony all around the dance floor. 'Who's that?' John asked, jerking his head towards a thin, nervous man who leaned on the railing, viewing the club with a frown. He kept running his hands through his hair and checking his watch.

'Our employer, Price,' Sherlock murmured. 'Forty-eight, successful and easily stressed. I was able to prove he was falsely imprisoned for fraud about eight years ago, but by the time he got out, his reputation was shot. He's afraid Iso is already losing its good name.'

'With four punters believed dead, that's not a surprise.'

Sherlock hummed in agreement, pointing out people in quick succession, and John found himself struggling to remember their names as the information surrounded him. 'That's David and Matt,' he said, gesturing to the men on the dance floor. 'Twins working through university and in need of the cash.'

John squinted, realising that what he had taken for family resemblance was far more marked. The two men were identical to each other in face structure and build. Only the clothes they wore varied.

'Jane you've already met, and that's Lyra with her. She won't tell you anything much. She just does the job. The DJ calls himself “Zappa” but his real name is Lesley. He's on the payroll and here every weekend. They do spot-talent during the week.'

'New people are in charge of the music each night?'

'No, there are some patterns, regulars, if you like, but there's nothing that links one musician to the days the victims were last seen.' Sherlock shook his head, narrowing his eyes at the cluster of people around the extensive sound deck. 'The boy with the pointy hair organises it all.'

John raised an eyebrow, pausing at the top of the black staircase that led down to the main entrance and observing the youth Sherlock had pointed out. He was skinny and energetic, rushing around without complaint. Even when he stood still, he was bouncing on his toes as if eager to be on the move again. 'That's quite a big job. He barely looks old enough to drink.'

'Nineteen. Price is his uncle. He's the only one I've not had a chance to question, but from what the others have said he doesn't have an interest in anything that's not musical equipment.'

John glanced at Sherlock as they descended, knowing that he wouldn't be content with second-hand information. 'If I get the chance, I'll talk to him. I'm guessing after the initial rush, I'm going to end up doing damn all for the rest of the night.' He glanced over his shoulder towards the waiting bar. 'I don't think you're going to be so lucky.'

'Build a rapport with whoever you can. I haven't had the opportunity to speak at length to anyone who doesn't serve drinks.' Sherlock hesitated, speaking low and quick as they approached the front door. 'I haven't told anyone much back-story about us. If asked, stick close to the truth, but don't give away our real reason for being here. That way we won't get caught out.'

John nodded, smiling a greeting as they approached the two men at the door. The one on the right, taller than Sherlock and seemingly three times as broad, gave a toothy grin, revealing a gap at the front as he grasped John's hand in a beefy mitt, pumping his arm enthusiastically. 'You must be John. The boss said Lee was bringing in fresh meat!'

Sherlock received a slap on the back that made him stagger, and John tried not to smirk at the faintly strained edge to Sherlock's smile.

'I hope you're not expecting much. I've not done this kind of thing before.'

'How hard can it be to stand around?' Sherlock asked, giving a cheeky grin that made him look years younger and so much like a stranger that John had to tear his eyes away.

'Yeah, yeah. Being on the door's nothing but looking tough, and serving at the bar's just chucking drinks in glasses,' the bouncer muttered good-naturedly, as if it was an old quasi-argument he'd experienced dozens of times before. 'Go on with you, we'll take care of yer friend.' He shooed Sherlock away, turning back to John and speaking in a booming voice as Sherlock trotted up the stairs and out of sight. 'I'm Will. This is Tomas.' He gestured to his partner, who was marginally closer to John's height. The man nodded in welcome, giving John's hand one quick, firm shake before returning his attention to the clipboard in his grasp.

'It is about time Price found someone.' His voice was accented with a hint of something from Eastern Europe, his English flawlessly precise in a way that suggested it was not his native language. Pale grey eyes and white-blond hair seemed at odds with the weather-beaten tan of his skin. He was probably ten years younger than Will, still lean and fit where the older man's muscle had given away to the encroaching mass of fat. 'We have managed, but we have had no fights to deal with lately.'

'Are we the only three?' John asked, leaning against the threshold of the open door and viewing the queue already beginning to form in the street.

'We have one more,' Tomas supplied. 'Vanessa. Always late but always smiling.'

'She makes the job worthwhile,' Will chuckled with a wink before gesturing out the door. 'Crowd's not normally this big yet. It looks like word's got around.' He gestured to the laughing women and men gathering outside the door. 'The punters love a pretty face. They'll be talking about the bouncer with blue eyes almost as much as “the new bloke on the bar” by the time the evening's out.'

John laughed, shaking his head. 'I doubt it. Besides, they all look a bit young for me.'

'They do not appear to consider age a concern,' Tomas informed him, his pallid eyes taking on a hint of warmth as he glanced back inside, where the lights dimmed and the first drugging beats of the music burst forth. 'Enjoy the attention. Appreciation does you good.'

'You would say that. The worst you get is girls fluttering their lashes and twirling their hair. I get my arse slapped!' A young woman stepped over the rope that showed people where to wait, throwing a warning glare over her shoulder as a few men whistled. She couldn't be much older than twenty-five, with short brown hair and a mischievous gleam in her eyes. Unlike almost every other woman outside, she wasn't shivering and showing skin. Instead she was dressed in practical boots, jeans and a jumper, and as John watched she pulled some gloves out of her pocket and wriggled her fingers into them.

'And they get pain for their troubles, as they should.' Will smiled, speaking for John's benefit. 'If anyone does something that riles up either the staff or the other patrons, we throw 'em out. How much yer willing to put up with is up to you. Price lets us set our limits.'

'How bad does it get?' John asked, turning as the young woman gave a snort.

'That depends how drunk people are. We're actually all right out here. Anything we get's pretty fleeting. A pinch or a pat. The serving staff get all the innuendo, and all the tips.' The woman grinned, holding out her hand. 'I'm Vanessa by the way.'

'John. I'm Lee's flatmate. He said you needed help, and I need the money.'

'Good to meet you.' The fabric of her gloves was soft against his palm as he returned the sentiment. 'If these two told you anything nice about me, it's all true. Otherwise ignore every word they've said.'

'Nothing uncomplimentary,' John assured her, looking up as, somewhere, a huge gong rang and the queue surged forward. 'What exactly am I meant to do?'

'Come on,' she urged him, grabbing his elbow and stepping back over the ropes. 'These two can handle intake. We patrol the line, check no one's dealing anything or drinking.' She gestured to the prohibition signs and the CCTV cameras along the street. 'Once they're in the club, they can do what they want within reason, but out here that kind of behaviour just means the police show up, and that ruins everyone's night.'

Together, they walked down the serpentine twist of waiting people. Vanessa would sometimes stop to chat to a couple of the regulars, occasionally introducing John as “the new guy”, but mostly she kept her attention on him, her words lively and happy while her gaze lingered on the patrons.

'There's a rumour going around that you've been in the army,' she said eventually. It was not the aggravated challenge of a pacifist, which John had occasionally had to suffer in the past. Instead, Vanessa seemed honestly curious, her head cocked to one side as she looked at him before returning the enthusiastic wave of a group of young men.

'Well, unlike most rumours, that one's true,' John said, deliberately skimping on the details. 'I was out in Afghanistan and got shot. Came home and ended up sharing a flat.' He bit his tongue at the last minute, choking back the “with Sherlock” that tried to add itself to the end of that sentence. He had managed to remember to call him Lee earlier, but only because he concentrated on it. It would be so easy to make a mistake in casual conversation and blow this all to shit. 'What about you?' he asked, quickly changing the subject. 'You don't seem like the type to be a bouncer.'

Vanessa gave him a half-hearted glare, her lips trembling around a smile as she acknowledged the point. 'I started behind the bar, but it wasn't for me. I broke so many bottles that night, and it was just –' She shook her head. 'Not good. Out here, people are still mostly sober. In there... Let's just say it's loud, horny and intimate. Jane and the others don't mind it, but by the end of the night I was ready to punch the next person who touched me.' She frowned, reaching out and snagging a bottle of beer from one of the girls waiting, ignoring her shouts of protest and giving a curt explanation of why she couldn't have her drink back.

The answering abuse was surly, but a cold look from Vanessa muffled it to silence, and the threat to ban her from the club did the trick, leaving them to walk on to the end and turn back. 'I'm guessing Lee doesn't mind the personal space issues. He doesn't seem to struggle with any of it. Has he worked in a club before?'

John thought of Sherlock's normal behaviour, disregarding the boundaries of others but strangely defensive of his own. He rarely initiated physical contact, and he only accepted the occasional pat or embrace from a select few like John and Mrs Hudson. Most of the time he stepped into people's spheres as an act of intimidation, getting answers through the sheer force of his stare and the leverage of his height, but beyond that, he kept his distance.

He tried to imagine Sherlock younger than he was now, lighter and brighter and serving drinks for anything other than a case, but he couldn't picture it. 'I have no idea,' he said at last, shrugging his shoulders. 'He might've done. Does it really get that bad in there?'

She laughed, shaking her head. 'It depends on the crowd, mostly. If you want to avoid getting groped, don't try and cross the dance floor. People will cop a feel.' Her gaze flickered down over his frame appreciatively, and John gave a huff of embarrassed laughter as her smile widened. 'No doubt about it.' Her eyes sparkled before she waved a hand back towards the club. 'The problem inside is that people have to lean in and shout. It starts off fine, but give it a couple of hours and then go and have a look. You'll see what I mean.'

It made John wince inwardly as he wondered what Sherlock had been forced to tolerate in the name of the Work. As it was, more than once he had heard an appreciative remark about the new bartender from those waiting. Sherlock's idea might have been to blend in, but it seemed he'd caught the eye of more than just one or two of the patrons.

'Do you ever get any trouble? The staff I mean.' John watched her face, seeing a darker shadow skate across her features. 'Anything I should watch out for?'

She stopped, folding her arms and frowning down at her feet before giving John a speculative look. 'What exactly have you heard?'

'Nothing.' John shrugged, giving her a warm, friendly smile and seeing some of the wariness which had appeared so rapidly slacken away. 'Though now I'm wondering what I've missed.'

'Oh, it's not much.' She huffed, pursing her lips before speaking up. 'There were a few things going around – rumours about one of the girls – Amanda. One day she came into work crying, an hour later she was gone. David and Matt, the twins, were friends with her. They said they went to check and her place was empty. Like she'd just split.'

'Sometimes people leave...' John pointed out, seeing Vanessa's awkward expression. 'Don't they?'

'Apparently she went in such a hurry that she didn't even bother with her car.' Briefly, something worried eclipsed her smile before she shook it away. 'It was before I got here though, and it's all just back-room chat, you know? Don't worry about it. The punters behave, most of the time. Expect drunken fights and a bit of low-grade drug-use and you won't be surprised.'

John nodded, wondering if she was keeping the disappearance of the regulars to herself or if she was unaware of the situation. He knew that, so far, the murders hadn't received any particular news coverage, and it was possible things were being kept quiet in the hopes of catching the perpetrator. Still, what she'd said about Amanda was enough to make John hesitate. Maybe Sherlock knew something, not that he'd get much chance to ask.

By the time they got back to the door, the club was heaving. Even down here the music was an assaulting thump on his eardrums, like the heartbeat of a distant giant making itself known. The herd had dwindled, but impatience was growing amidst the stragglers as the place reached capacity and Will and Tomas were forced to stand guard, keeping the numbers within safe levels. John had never given much thought to being on the door of a club before, but it was more about health and safety than elitism. They kept out some of the more unsavoury types, but mostly it was about ensuring there weren't more people inside than there was space for them.

Time slipped past, punctuated by occasional conversation and a couple of brawls which were soon neutralised. John tried to keep an eye on those coming and going, using all his latent instincts of analysing threats to pick out those who stood out as more suspicious than the average party-goer.

There were only two he saw worth telling Sherlock about, and his texts were perfunctory: a brief description – one ginger, one blond, neither particularly distinctive. Yet there was something about the way they did not quite meet John's eyes and shifted their weight around that made him remember their faces for later.

Within five minutes, he had a one-word response from Sherlock's number. It wasn't even signed, but John suspected that had more to do with him being too busy than trying to keep his identity hidden.

“Dealers.”

John winced to himself, pocketing his phone and catching sight of Vanessa's raised eyebrow. He gave her a shrug and stood at ease, his body unconsciously falling into a comfortable stance as he continued his surveillance. He tried not to dwell on the reasons for Sherlock's certainty. Either he was simply aware of the general tells of someone selling drugs, or he knew them personally. Neither option sat comfortably in John's stomach, and by the time Will told him to take a break, he was shifting restlessly on aching feet and longing for some peace and quiet.

'Help yerself to something from the bar,' Will instructed as he walked past. 'Thirty minutes, all right?'

John gave a nod as he eased towards the stairs, nudging his way through the people drinking and laughing in the relative calm of the club's entrance before heading to the next floor. With every step the noise grew; not just the primal percussion of the bass, but the chatter. It was a wall of sound, so dense that the air became like humid lead, burdened and claustrophobic. Compared to the chill of the night outside, the place was sweltering, and sweat beaded the nape of John's neck as he approached the glowing beacon of the bar, haloed as it was by bright lights.

The illumination made the bottles gleam in a thousand hues, from glassy clarity to smoky black with blue, green and amber added to the mix. The drinkers were waiting almost ten-deep all the way along, and John paused, leaning his back against a pillar and taking a moment to observe. Vanessa had been forthright in how unappealing she had found doling out the drinks, and it took only a few moments for John to realise how right she had been. The noise forced people close simply to be heard, and while some would limit themselves to leaning in and keeping their hands to themselves, others were less reserved.

He watched as a girl in her early twenties gave Sherlock her drinks order, laughing coquettishly when he cocked his head in a clear “I can't hear you” gesture. Immediately, she reached out, her fingers clasping over the back of his neck so she could press her lips closer to his ear and repeat what she had said. It could almost have been benign, something born of necessity, but John saw her tweak a dark curl playfully, and the flirtatious kiss she gave left a lipstick mark on his cheek, bold and brazen.

Something in the pit of John's stomach twisted at the sight. He told himself it wasn't jealousy, because that was ridiculous. No, he just hated seeing Sherlock forced to act against his true nature. Chances were the woman would never have dared to approach him in the first place if he were being himself. She wouldn't appreciate his quirks or his intelligence. He was just a pretty face and a pair of tight jeans to her.

As for Sherlock, a kiss from a stranger would normally make him recoil and disparage, his tongue his sharpest weapon. Instead he smiled and laughed, a hint of colour gracing his skin as he got her drinks, his hands competent on bottles and non-breakable glasses. He did not obviously reciprocate, but even the easy acceptance of her behaviour grated along John's nerves: false in every way and yet perfectly convincing.

Clenching his jaw, he tore his gaze away, glancing across only to freeze as a pool of tranquillity amidst the dynamic flow of the drinkers caught his attention. A man was leaning against the opposite pillar, almost mirroring John's position. His hair was brown, his clothes were unremarkable, and while he was taller than John, he wasn't quite Sherlock's height. There was a tattoo of something on his bare forearm, but John could not make it out from this distance.

There was no drink in his hand, and John pursed his lips. There could be a logical explanation; perhaps he was waiting for a mate to get back? Yet he seemed too intense for that, his expression intent rather than distracted and idle. He did not fiddle with his phone or try to look busy, as most people would do alone in a social situation when expecting their friends to turn up.

Abruptly, the stranger's head shifted to follow someone's movement, an obvious switch from one end of the counter to the other, and John's stomach sank. The man was not looking out for an acquaintance's return, or even observing the legion of would-be drinkers forming a chaotic and demanding crush in the arena of light in front of him. His eyes were instead glued to someone on the other side of the taps.

He was watching Sherlock.

Chapter Text

Alcohol lay tacky under feet and fingertips alike, a slick sibling to the imprint of the woman's lips on his cheek. Sherlock's smile was making his jaw ache: a subtle, strained rictus that lingered beneath the surface but remained genuine at first glance. It was the best he could manage. The previous nights of the job should have prepared him for how it would be, but he estimated the number of patrons had almost tripled in honour of the weekend. It was a bombardment, and all he could do was ride the wave and try and remember to deduce rather than merely endure.

There were tricks to analysing crowds, where the plethora of information assailed him at every moment. He had to be selective, to discard individuals from his investigations on the spin of a second, and for most it was a simple matter. They were people: normal with their petty little secrets and exuberant in their unconscious demands for attention – a tilt of the head, a curve of the lips – irrelevant.

It was the others he picked out, the ones who were shadowy behind their false smiles. Here for business, not pleasure. There were a few drug dealers, and Sherlock wondered if Price was aware of how deeply entrenched the culture was in his club. The owner had openly acknowledged some trade went on, but that it was more trouble than it was worth to report it. Bad news all around, so they turned a blind eye.

One of those who John had described as suspicious – a man named Peter and a regular in Sherlock's past – caught his eye and gave him a single nod, one which he returned. It was an open acknowledgement: I see you, I see what you're doing, but I'll stay quiet if you will. The next moment Sherlock disregarded him, maintaining the smile and the mask, pouring drinks and always reading the scene before him.

There, up on the balcony, a man was leaning casually against the railing. Pale skinned in the insouciant boundary of bright light from the bar and the more atmospheric illuminations of the dance-floor, he was positioned to observe both the drinkers and the writhing mass of worshippers in front of the DJ. It was the most logical place for the club's owner to examine his domain, but that was not Price.

His clothes were casual and comfortable with no pretensions of professionalism. A lethargic twitch of his fingers every few moments gave him away as a smoker craving his next fix, and yet he lingered inside rather than abandoning his post. It was challenging to pick out more details from this distance, and Sherlock mentally tagged him for further study, noting how he seemed less at ease than those around him.

Then there was the other one: ground level, closer, his gaze more focussed. The tattoo on his arm bore the style of one of London's top artists, and the watch on his wrist highlighted him as someone who did not belong: Rolex, high-end, expensive – too wealthy to mesh with the evidence their serial killer had left behind.

Interesting.

Someone tapped his shoulder, breaking into his thoughts, and he glanced around to see Matt, one of the twins, jerking his head along the bar. 'You might as well go on break, your flatmate's waiting.' There was a hint of a familiar smirk and a lifted eyebrow: it seemed that even here, amidst almost-strangers and hiding behind a manufactured façade, he and John could not escape the implication that their relationship extended beyond the platonic.

John was trying to stay out of everyone's way, a soldier at ease. Except his apparently relaxed posture was a front. A low line of tension hummed in those leather-clad shoulders, and his blue gaze kept flicking back out across the crowd.

With a quick grin and thanks in Matt's direction, Sherlock grabbed a couple of bottles of water and nudged his way past Jane, ignoring the swat she gave his backside as he grabbed John's elbow and half-dragged him through the club. They skirted the narrow path around the dance-floor towards the back door, and headed down through the corridors to the alley. More than anything, he longed to escape the noise and heat: a few moments of sanity and peace might just get him through the night.

'You were being watched,' John muttered, following Sherlock out into the cool petrol tang of London's dark hours and accepting the water. He leaned back against the pitted brick wall of the building, his gaze idly taking in the few smokers and couples lingering nearby. 'You, not anyone else.'

Sherlock grunted, flinching away in surprise as John reached out before holding himself steady. Warm fingers smoothed across his cheek and pulled back, revealing a shimmering pink stain. 'Not quite your colour,' he said by way of explanation, but his smile was strained at its edges, not genuine at all.

'What have you found out?' Sherlock asked, attempting to ignore the way John's touch was so different from all the others he'd received tonight, spreading a gentle heat across his face where everything else left him cold. 'Anything?'

'Not much. I only really spoke to Vanessa.' John shot a dark look in his direction as Sherlock huffed. 'What?'

'“Flirted” is perhaps the more appropriate word,' he pointed out, waving the hand holding the water bottle dismissively. 'Did you get anything interesting other than her phone number?' John stayed silent, his scowl taking on a more petulant tilt. 'Oh, has she not given it to you yet? Well, there's plenty of the night left.'

'Shut up. It's not like that.' There was too much bluster in John's reply – not quite a lie, but not the full truth, either – and Sherlock pushed down hard on the ill-defined ache that oozed in a chilly commute between his heart and his stomach. 'She was just showing me the ropes, patrolling the line, that kind of thing. She did mention something about one of the other girls who used to work here.'

'Amanda Coleridge.' Sherlock nodded his head, having heard variations of the same tale more than once since he started behind the bar. 'She left town about five months ago. Price says it was family business, everyone else thinks it was something to do with a love-affair gone south.'

'And you don't?' John cocked his head, looking along the alleyway as someone shouted a curse at a woman walking away from him, the abuse vitriolic and more than a little slurred.

'It's not worth my time. No missing person's report was filed, and there was no indication of foul play in her apartment according to the landlord. The police can't do much about it. Sometimes people need to disappear.'

'Yeah, but – no one checked up on her?' John frowned as Sherlock shrugged. 'Don't you think it's strange?'

'Not really. She was twenty: a student with family overseas who was struggling with her university course. Either her education or her personal life became too much and she left. It happens.' He screwed up his nose as John continued to frown. The silence thickened, taking on a definite pressure, and in less than a minute Sherlock relented. 'If I text Lestrade and ask him to look into it, will you be happier?'

It was worth the tangent to the investigation to see John's heartfelt smile, and Sherlock's fingers danced over the keys of his mobile, sending the DI a curt missive. 'It's unlikely to have anything to do with our current case.'

'Had any luck there?' John asked. 'The only ones I saw you seemed certain were dealers.'

Sherlock hummed in agreement, pocketing his phone again. 'I've been keeping an eye out; there are two I'd deem suspicious, one more so than the other.' Hastily, he outlined their general appearances to John. 'Once the line's calmed down, Will tends to patrol the club. Go with him and try to get a closer look, particularly at the one up in the lounge. I need to get back. We get shorter, more frequent breaks than you do. I'm only allowed fifteen minutes.'

'Wait.' John's hand on his elbow stopped him, and deep lines of worry carved themselves into that familiar, weather-beaten face. They bracketed his lips and furrowed his brow, feathering his eyes downwards into fearful glimmers of blue. 'The guy in front of the bar was definitely staring at you. He wasn't there for any other reason.'

'Tattoo on his arm, expensive watch?'

'Do you know him?'

John's question seemed to hover between them, invisible words with a presence Sherlock could not understand, as if that one query were somehow a culmination of a dozen other things left unspoken.

'I don't believe so, but he doesn't fit the profile.'

'Fuck the profile, Sherlock.' John's fingers tightened in emphasis, and he shook his head in a sharp, abortive motion. 'You've told me yourself how useless they are: a crutch for the police. It's not like you to lean on things like that.'

Sherlock closed his eyes, silently acknowledging the point. He hated to limit himself, but the situation forced his hand. Normally when he took on a persona, it was to fool one person: a pre-selected target who had something he needed. This was a concerted effort to deceive a veritable cohort of strangers, all the while distilling the details of their lives. There was so much to be deduced, readily on display or half-hidden from sight. It made his head hurt just thinking about it.

'He might not be our guy,' John admitted, not giving Sherlock the chance to speak, 'but he could still be a threat. He wasn't the same as the others.'

'Others?' Sherlock asked, fearful that he had somehow missed something relevant. 'What others?'

John gave him a baffled look as he gestured towards the club. 'Pretty much everyone who's wanted a drink tonight. Giving you looks, touching you... They're just admiring; he wasn't.' John shrugged, the weak trail of his commentary failing beneath his obvious aggravation. 'It was worse, somehow. I just –' He stammered to a halt, letting go of Sherlock's arm to drag his hand through his hair. 'You can't write people off as harmless when they could be anything but. Down at the door or out the front, I'm too far away to help you if something happens.'

Sherlock wanted to point out that it would be unlikely in a well-lit, crowded part of the club, but the argument stayed silent on his tongue. John was right. It would be foolish to ignore one potential threat because he was too busy seeking another.

'I'll be careful,' he promised, pitching the empty bottle of water into one of the bins against the alley wall before nudging his way back into the club and up the stairs, trying not to wince as the assault on his ears strengthened. 'There's a good chance that whoever's behind this isn't here yet. The blood alcohol level in the bodies suggested both had been drinking for several hours before being drugged.' He pursed his lips, knowing that wishing for a fresher corpse and the evidence it could provide would be frowned upon, but it was rapidly becoming their only hope.

'I'll keep my eyes open,' John said as they stepped back out into the club, both hovering on the threshold as they girded themselves and parted ways. Sherlock wove his way back towards the bar, collecting up the empty plastic pint-glasses as he went and taking note of the number of unaccompanied drinks. The women were more aware of the issue than men, probably out of necessity and thanks to gender-slanted awareness campaigns; few of them allowed their beverages to leave their hands. It was enough to make Sherlock wonder if the male victims were indicative of a preference or simply a matter of ease for the perpetrator.

There was no sign of any residue in the vessels he collected, but that did not mean much. GHB could be delivered in either powder or liquid form, the latter of which would leave no trace once consumed.

He forced himself to remain outwardly cheerful at the occasional wink or leer that was sent his way while his thoughts continued to spin around the nucleus of the case. It was too loud in the club for flirtatious repartee, and the language of attraction became purely physical, all slanted looks and touches that hinted at more. Sex was readily available, but consensual gratification was not what their killer wanted.

It had started out as rape, of that Sherlock was sure. Someone who got off on the helplessness of their victim. However, there was too little evidence to form a pattern, and too much data in the people that surrounded him to allow him to divine a path forward. John thought he hated the boring cases, which was true enough, but it was ones like this that he truly loathed, where there was too much meaningless information and no way to refine it into something he could use.

He slipped back behind the bar, shoving through to the kitchen to dump the glasses before returning to the endless task of keeping Iso's patrons socially-lubricated. Jane had vanished, her half-shift over for the night, and Lyra was on a break, leaving him and the twins to do their job.

David flashed a grin in his direction, sweat glossing his brow and wilting the waxed spikes of his hair. 'About time you got back! Someone's been asking about you.'

When Sherlock raised an eyebrow, Matt interrupted his brother with a wave of his hand towards the pillar where, sure enough, tattoo-and-Rolex was still staring, his face impassive and his eyes half-hidden in the flickering shadows. 'Someone you know?' he asked, the large ring he wore on his middle finger clanking on a glass bottle as he passed it to a customer.

'Wanted your number,' David added, giving a lewd chortle. 'Looks like he could afford you!'

'I'm not for sale,' Sherlock managed to wrap the words in a laugh, grateful that John was not nearby to hear what was being said. He leant in as a man in his twenties shouted for four bottles of Grolsch and a JD and Coke, his body going through the motions of taking money and grabbing the drinks as the twins continued their banter.

'Told you!' Matt crowed, patting Sherlock on the shoulder as he passed to get to the tequila. '“Flatmates” my arse! I saw him – John was it? – giving dark-and-mysterious over there the evil eye.'

'That means fuck all. You were doing the same thing when he came over here. There's something weird about him.' David nudged his elbow into Sherlock's waist, ignoring a customer waving a couple of bank-notes under his nose as he cocked his head inquisitively. 'Seriously, if the weirdo's giving you trouble, we can get Will and Tomas, John too. I bet he'd love to throw him out.'

Quickly, Sherlock smiled, chucking money in the tip bucket as someone urged him to keep the change. 'He's not doing anything. Did he give you a name?'

'Nope. He didn't know yours, either, and we didn't enlighten him.'

Sherlock gave a nod of appreciation, keeping all sign of his annoyance off his face. The stranger's identity would have been useful, a way to indicate whether the person was interested in the so-called Lee, or if it was some unremembered face from Sherlock's past about to blow his cover. It did not seem likely, but the possibility set his teeth on edge, and his gaze kept darting back, unconsciously coy from beneath his lashes, to try and discern more.

He had triggered John's instincts, honed as they were to pick out threats, and even the twins – happy, moderately intelligent and often cheerfully oblivious – seemed aware that there was something off in the situation. Part of him wanted to question them more, but the noise and rush of the bar was too great for much conversation, and Sherlock was left endeavouring to pluck the man apart via observation.

Matt swore, and Sherlock looked over at the invective. He was shaking his head in annoyance as he set two shots down on the back of the bar. 'I fucking hate it when they do that. Order mixed drinks and then bugger off.' He chuckled as his brother snagged one and swallowed it in a single gulp. 'Price will take it out of your pay.'

'He won't know!' David laughed. 'It's that or throw it away. Can't put it back in the bottle.' He gestured to the ranks of glass behind them, each with special devices attached to measure out precise amounts and prevent tampering with the fluid inside. 'Waste not want not.' He downed the other one and returned to the taps whistling and cheerful, practically bouncing on his toes as he set about serving.

'I'm going on break, all right?' Matt called, grabbing Sherlock's shoulder and dropping his voice to a normal volume, his breath tickling Sherlock's ear as he leaned in close. 'Don't let David drink anything else while I'm gone.'

'Because of Price?'

Matt laughed. 'Fuck Price. Dave's diabetic.' He grinned and shook his head. 'A couple of drinks won't kill him, but he needs to be careful.'

'I'll do my best.' Sherlock hoped his grin did not look false as he got back to work, noticing with absent irritation that the man leaning on the pillar had gone, as had the one who had been up on the balcony. Will and John were ambling around, drifting, darker shapes up in the more intimately lit bowers of the lounge. With any luck, John was getting a deeper insight into their suspects than he was.

The night was in full swing, and the demands on the bar had only increased. David had no time to misappropriate any more alcohol, but Sherlock found himself longing for the easy buzz a shot would bring – anything to slacken the increasing tension of his battered self-restraint.

Lyra was working at his side, silent and calm, but she cast a sympathetic look in his direction before reaching out and dragging her thumb along under one of his eyes. The constant physical contact, not just from drinkers but from people he worked with, was grating on Sherlock's last nerve, but he forced himself to be still and obliging as she pulled back. 'Don't think panda eyes is the look you're going for,' she said in a shy voice, scowling when the twins both made suggestive noises behind them. 'Fuck off you two!' She shook her head, the sinuous dragon earring that curved around the arch of her left ear gleaming in the light. 'Idiots.'

A sudden noise from up in the lounge made them all hesitate, and Sherlock saw Will go sprawling backwards. The people shifted like a giant creature, some moving towards the fight while others fled. In an instant, Lyra had flicked the lights up, flooding the upper areas with illumination, and Tomas was already pushing his way through the patrons, no doubt called in by the walkie talkie clipped onto Will's belt.

Not that he was needed, Sherlock realised, the brief spike in his heart-rate – worry for John's safety – giving away to smug pride as the crowd parted to give him a good view. John was straddling someone's back near the railing, holding him pinned with the brutal ease of someone who knew the precise limits of their strength and how to put it to use. He barely even blinked at the curses coming from his captive and kept his attention focussed, professional and stolid, on the man he was restraining.

'Tough thing for a little bloke,' David said, sounding genuinely impressed. 'Think we need to call Price?'

'Nope. He's on it.' Lyra pointed to where the manager, along with a couple of men in suits, had emerged from his office. A phone was already clamped to his ear, and a group of women were talking quickly to Will and Tomas. Judging from their body language, they were casting accusations, but they were too far away for Sherlock to parse what was being said. One of them had a glass in her hand and was pointing at her drink, while the expression on Price's face was growing increasingly worried. Her implication was clear – she had caught someone spiking her beverage.

It seemed everyone could tell that the police were about to be called, and Sherlock saw several less savoury individuals begin to make their way discreetly towards the exit. He quickly took note of faces, but he doubted it would do him much good. They would be the dealers or the occasional pickpocket, people known to the law, whereas the rapist could easily melt into the crowd and avoid all suspicion, if he was even here.

Of course, it was entirely possible that the man currently being held in place by John's weight was their murderer. However, it would be a breach in pattern – a switch of victim-gender – and Sherlock was not stupid enough to believe the case was over before all the evidence was in.

'Be closing early tonight, then,' Lyra said, not sounding too put out. 'Cops don't half kill the mood.'

'Think they'll let us go? It's not like we were close enough to give witness statements.' Matt winked at Sherlock. 'Your John, on the other hand... He knows what he's doing, doesn't he?' The innuendo may as well have been in flashing neon, and Sherlock gave him a slow, blank look that gave away nothing and made David snigger. Still, he had a point. John had been right there, perfectly positioned to observe all the data to which Sherlock required access. He only hoped that John would be able to tell him everything he needed to know.

In the lounge, Price glanced their way. He made a “keep going” gesture, indicating that just because the music had stopped it didn't mean the bar was closed. A moment later, he pointed at Sherlock and crooked his finger, leaving Lyra to look at him inquisitively while the twins hissed in sympathy. 'Whatever he says, just ignore it,' David advised, shaking his head and looking a little fuzzy around his eyes. 'Probably thinks John shouldn't have jumped a customer, regardless of what he was doing. Twat.'

Sherlock shifted out from behind the bar, easing his way through the crowd that now mingled like lost sheep with no music to lead them through the dance. His boots thumped up the steps, one lace trailing and clattering, and he caught John's eye for a meaningful heartbeat, taking in the entire scene with the flicker of his gaze.

John was still sitting on his prisoner, but now Sherlock could see a bruise starting to darken the hard chine of John's jaw and the swelling on the knuckles of his left fist. He had nullified the threat quickly, but not before receiving a ring-decked right hook. The man on the floor was the one Sherlock had seen earlier, leaning on the railing and viewing the club.

His head was almost shaved, flocked with only a thin layer of glistening, golden stubble, and his young face was currently twisted beneath the weight of his fury. Lean muscles strained uselessly against John's grip, and there was a tear in the cargo-style trousers he wore. No doubt he was carrying plenty of evidence in his pockets, but Sherlock doubted any of them would be the kind of drugs they were searching for.

John's head was angled to one side, an unspoken question written across his features. The only real response Sherlock could give was a shrug before he approached Price's side.

'I asked you to get him without causing a scene,' the man complained, his voice low and tense as he crowded into Sherlock's space, smaller but driven by sheer nervous energy. 'Now I'll have the police crawling all over this place.'

'Problem?' Sherlock asked, raising one eyebrow.

'Of course it's a problem. It's bad for business! You think people will come back here tomorrow night after this?'

Price's concerns were all about money and reputation, but Sherlock was more worried that the case was beginning to tangle, threatening to grow increasingly obscure. The youth in John's grip was a dealer, judging by the state of his fingernails and teeth. New on the scene, hence Sherlock's initial failure to identify him and correctly interpret the evidence littering his frame. He was not who they were looking for. Shifty-eyed and pallid, he had probably been sampling his own wares for more than a few weeks, and his addiction was leading to frailty. He would not have the mental cognizance for the – albeit impulsive – forethought that their killer exhibited.

'You want people to come back, then give them free drinks for the next hour. Your crowd will be double tomorrow night in the hopes for a repeat. This isn't over; he's not the one responsible for your missing regulars.'

Price looked like Sherlock had just knifed him in the gut, physically pained at the thought of giving away beverages, and he garbled a choked off growl. 'So there's someone else still out there fucking up my business?'

'If he was here tonight, he'll already be gone. I'll try to control the police situation, and you make sure this place is prime hunting-ground tomorrow night. John and I will be leaving. We have some leads to investigate.'

He did not give Price a chance to argue as he stepped away, melting into the shadows in the back corner of the lounge and dragging his phone from his pocket. Lestrade was probably asleep, so a text wouldn't do, and he bit back a sigh as he dialled the DI's number. He continued to survey the people in the club and sensed the change in the air when Price took his suggestion. Free drinks and suddenly the atmosphere of confusion and uncertainty became one of renewed celebration.

'Lo?' Lestrade's sleep-roughened voice answered on the third ring, gravelly and hoarse.

'I need you down at Iso-bar. A dealer spiked a woman's drink. If you let the whole narcotics team in here they'll be crawling all over it for days and we'll never catch whoever's behind the murders.'

'Sherlock.' It was a groan of misery, pure and simple, and he could easily picture Lestrade trying to rub the sleep from his eyes and glaring at the clock. 'Can't you just take him down the station?'

'There are witnesses. John took him down, but we have leads to follow. You can have his statement tomorrow.' He heard another sigh down the line, followed by the hush of covers and a muffled moan like the DI was stretching. Either that or he had company with him, but no. He did not seem cheerful enough to be receiving a regular source of gratification now that he was separated from his wife.

'At least stay there until I arrive, all right? Don't you dare fuck off somewhere else and leave me to try and sort out the mess.'

Without a word of promise, Sherlock disconnected the call. For all his complaints, Lestrade would be here in twenty minutes, but they did not have time to wait that long.

He almost strode out to John with his usual flair, remembering at the last minute that, within these walls, that was not who he was. Instead he modulated his pace, keeping his steps light as he eased through the press of people towards the epicentre of the action.

'I just saw him with his hand over my glass. I only turned away for a minute!' The young woman sounded more outraged than frightened, more sober than inebriated, and the chemical stains around her fingernails suggested she was a student working in a lab. Dull.

Turning away, he saw that Tomas had taken over, easily keeping the dealer pinned with his greater weight. That left John standing off to one side, looking around as if searching for someone. It was subtle, more sideways glances than an outright hunt, but as soon as he saw Sherlock, the rigid set of his muscles eased and his face softened with relief.

'Price wants to see us,' Sherlock told him, his voice loud enough for Tomas' benefit. 'Something to do with your statement.' It was a weak lie, but no one was in the right frame of mind to question it as Sherlock led John down from the lounge, through the loose scatter of people chatting on the dance-floor and towards the door that led to the back of the club.

As soon as they were in the quiet corridor, Sherlock began to speak, shrugging off Lee's persona with ease. 'Lestrade's on his way, probably with a few members of the narcotics team. Our killer's already left the club, if he was ever here in the first place.'

'Don't I need to –' John gestured back over his shoulder, shaking his head in disbelief when Sherlock grabbed his wrist. He followed like a dog on a lead as Sherlock pulled him along, going into the staffroom to grab his jacket before clattering down the rest of the stairs.

'No time. We had two suspects tonight. The one that looked most promising is currently face down in the lounge upstairs, and a complete waste of space. Definitely not the murderer.'

'How do you –?'

'Too weak to carry even half a dead body through the streets for one thing. He's already sinking into addiction. Malnourished. He wouldn't have left a bruise if it weren't for the rings he was wearing.' He gestured to John's jaw before shoving his way out into the alleyway: empty now. 'That leaves us with the other one.'

'Who didn't fit the profile?'

Sherlock hesitated, hearing the hint of a dig in John's tone. 'He still doesn't, but –'

'But what?' John's voice took on a clipped edge as they continued to walk, leaving behind the silhouette of Iso and picking their way through London's streets. Even at this time of night, where the early hours bled away, the pavements were still full of people, laughing, joking and occasionally vomiting in the gutters. 'Sherlock? What happened?'

Sherlock paused, considering his next words with care. John was often protective, which could make him belligerent at times – prone to over-reaction where none was required. 'I have learnt not to dismiss your instincts,' he said at last, which was partly true. 'Something about him disturbed you. Besides, he asked about me while I was on my break.'

'I knew it,' John muttered, but he did not sound triumphant at discovering that it was likely he was right. 'What did they tell him?'

'Nothing of importance. Everyone who works behind the bar knows better than to give out third person information.' He took a deep breath of the cool night air, feeling the quicksilver rush of the case begin to flow through his mind. 'Still, the twins also had their doubts over the nature of his character. Nothing concrete, they just indicated that he was discomfiting.'

'You think he could be our guy after all?'

With a roll of his shoulders, Sherlock picked up his pace, knowing John could keep up. 'Perhaps. Either way, he is a lead that cannot be left unexplored.' He grinned over his shoulder and saw John's answering expression, earnest for the first time all night as they both sensed a hint of potential progress. 'And I know just where to start.'

Chapter Text

John rounded his shoulders, huddling in the leather jacket as he tried to keep up with Sherlock's long stride. Anyone else would look like they were fleeing the scene, and John winced as he realised that Greg had probably ordered Sherlock to stay at the club. They'd get an earful about that later, he was sure. Still, it wasn't like he had a choice. Sherlock went, and he followed. That's how it always was, and after tonight...

He clenched his jaw, his hands tightening into fists in his pockets as he felt the rising surge of aggravated anger return. It was stupid, so fucking stupid to feel this way about other people touching Sherlock. It wasn't as if he enjoyed the contact, and even if he did, what business was it of John's?

Perhaps it wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for the man with the tattoo, the one of whom Sherlock had been so dismissive. Everyone else looked at Sherlock with pleasure, as if he were an enjoyable sight and not much more, but the stranger had watched him like a wolf eyeing up a lamb.

It made John itch for a fight. Taking down the twitchy blond up in the lounge had relieved the urge somewhat. Now Sherlock was leading him through the twist of London's streets to God knew where, and John found himself glaring at every shadow and wishing they could attract the wrong kind of attention just so he could throw another punch.

'Here we are.' Sherlock gestured up at a glassy white building: high class premises in one of London's better commercial streets. Designer boutiques lined each side, most closed and locked up tight against the creatures of the city's night, but this place was open still.

'A tattoo parlour?'

'Stained has three internationally renowned artists on staff; every design is custom-made. It's where the man with the Rolex got his body art. I recognised the style.'

John raised an eyebrow. 'You did?' When Sherlock shot him a questioning look, he carried on. 'Knowing where a tattoo came from sounds like something that you might have deleted, if you bothered to learn it in the first place.'

'Of course I did, which you would know if you read my blog. The provenance of deliberate markings and modifications is eminently useful in our line of work.'

The bruise on John's jaw twinged as he smiled at the look on Sherlock's face. 'You're hoping to get a name off them?'

'Hope suggests a chance of failure.' Sherlock's expression was all arrogant confidence, comfortingly familiar after the masks of the night. John chuckled as he led the way inside, sauntering in as if he owned the place and approaching the girl on the reception desk.

'Can I help you, sir?' she chirped, the two rings through her lip gleaming in the surgical lights. Behind her, a riot of tribal colour, graffiti so good that it should have been in the Louvre, splashed across the wall. At first glance it was basic geometry, but John's eye kept being drawn back to it, noticing deeper intricacies. 'I'm afraid we have no appointments left for tonight.'

'I know,' Sherlock's smile was subtle and seductive, and John watched him glance away in a parody of remorse, 'and I'm sorry to be of any inconvenience, but I'm looking for some assistance.' He pulled out something from the inside pocket of his jacket, and John kept his face carefully motionless as he recognised one of Lestrade's badges. Sherlock's fingers were obscuring the picture, but the girl didn't notice. Instead her expression faltered, and she glanced towards one of the studio doors. 'I just need some help identifying the creator of a distinctive tattoo, that's all. Do you have a pen and paper?'

Mutely, the girl nodded, handing over a blank sheet with a shaking, ring-clad hand before offering Sherlock a biro. John tried to give her a reassuring smile, and she tucked her hair behind her ears, her brown eyes wide. 'Is someone in trouble?' she asked quietly, turning to John when Sherlock didn't answer.

'No one who works here, I'm sure.' He wasn't as observant as Sherlock, but he saw the relief drift over the girl's face. Guilty conscience, perhaps? Sherlock would know, but right now, he was busy sketching out the tattoo, the pen moving with slow care to form a replica that made John raise his eyebrows at its proficiency.

'Priss did that.' The receptionist's grin could have lit up the room, as if she was delighted to be of help and happy that their query had nothing to do with her. 'I remember her working on the preliminaries. Hang on, I'll go get her for you.' She hurried off, her pace quick despite the towering platforms she wore, and John admired the wiggle of her backside before looking back at Sherlock.

'Oi, what are you doing?'

He was standing on tiptoes and leaning over the high desk, which easily came up to John's chest. The expression on Sherlock's face was one of amused intrigue, and he reached down the back of the computer screen, pulling free a clear plastic bag full of what looked like marijuana.

'That would explain why she looked so worried,' John muttered, looking up as he heard voices approaching. 'Put it back, it's not what we're here for.'

Sherlock rolled his eyes but did as he was told as the girl returned with an older woman in tow. She was about John's age, her hair cut in an angular bob of white-blonde, and the look she gave them was quick and professional.

'What is it? I've got someone waiting on my bench.' She peeled off her gloves and threw them in the bin, pursing her lips and giving a shrug as Sherlock held up the design. 'What of it?'

'I need to know who's walking around London with this on their skin.' His face remained impassive as he added, 'And who commissioned it, if they're not the same person.'

The woman, Priss, glanced at John and then back at Sherlock, looking over them both with a disbelieving eye. 'You're with the police?'

'Please feel free to call New Scotland Yard if you require confirmation.'

The woman snorted, rolling her eyes before snatching the page from Sherlock's grasp and glancing over at the receptionist. 'We don't take too many details here, but the man I did this for was called Nick Shaw.'

'Nicholas?'

Priss shrugged, and the receptionist's long nails clattered over the keyboard before she added, 'He paid in cash, but we did see identification. We'd have been looking for confirmation of his age, rather than his name.'

Sherlock's face twisted in annoyance, but he didn't seem surprised by the lack of information. With smooth movements, he folded the paper and slipped it back in his pocket. John was left to utter a quick thanks as Sherlock turned and departed, leading the way back out onto the street. His phone was in his hand before John crossed the threshold, and he watched those long fingers waltz over the keys, spelling out a message at lightning speed.

'It's not much to go on.'

'Better than nothing; we have a name, assuming it's not a fake, and he appeared to be between thirty and forty years old. That should be enough.'

'If Lestrade can't find him, you could always ask Mycroft.' John grinned at the flinch that twitched across Sherlock's face, but his mirth was short-lived as his worries bubbled to the surface. 'I know you said you didn't know him, but are you sure? Could it be someone you've deleted, someone from when...' He trailed off, unwilling to bring up the time before their lives had collided.

When Greg had turned up for that so-called drugs bust, John had struggled so hard to believe Sherlock could have fallen into that lifestyle. He could still remember the leaden feeling of his heart in his chest. Not blame or censure, but sorrow. He wanted to ask how it happened, how Sherlock ended up in the dark twilight of life that led to addiction, but he never had the courage. He wasn't sure what scared him more, the thought that he had done it for some stupid experiment in the name of curiosity, or that there was some deeper reason behind his choices.

'When I was using?' Sherlock smirked, making John feel small and ridiculous for his tact. 'It's possible, but unlikely. I wasn't a social addict; it was never about trying to fit in with a certain crowd.'

He looked like he found the idea amusing, and that only made something cold crack like ice in the pit of John's stomach. 'What was the point then?' he demanded, hard-edged. The question burst forth from him before he thought to hold it back, and he bit his lip as he glowered at the ground that passed beneath his marching feet.

'Stimulation. It helped me focus.' Sherlock shrugged, waving a hand. 'There's always so much information. The drugs acted like a lens, filtering out the dross and leaving me with the salient facts I needed. They allowed my brain to work at maximum capacity.'

John would have to be deaf to miss the faint edge of longing in Sherlock's voice, and he swallowed against the tight knot that caught in his throat, trying to choke him. Sherlock spoke of it as if it were a desirable state to achieve: some kind of deductive nirvana, but John knew enough to realise where that addiction could lead. After all, the stars that burned the brightest were the first to fade. Did Sherlock even see that, or did he think he was immune to it?

A hand settled in the vee of his elbow like a bird finding its nest, pulling with gentle, questing fingers until John stopped walking. He dropped his shoulders as he turned back, lifting his gaze to take in Sherlock's expression. He expected irritation perhaps, or a calculating stare, but it was confusion that cinched his brow and darkened his eyes, still lined with tempting feathers of kohl.

'John?'

That tone of voice was well-known to him. Sometimes it was more imperious than the current, plaintive demand, but its message was always the same. Sherlock had found something he did not understand, and for which his deductions were of no use. More often than not, it seemed John was the only thing in the world to hold that dubious honour – an unsolvable mystery to the great detective.

All the things he could think of to say felt like too much. Sherlock derided sentiment at every opportunity, and John felt too strained tonight to be able to take his indifference with good grace. Instead, the words got caught in his throat. 'It's nothing, Sherlock.' He tore his eyes away, choosing to look along the lamp-lit street. 'Where now?'

Sherlock's tense silence wrapped around him like a shroud, and John forced himself not to face him. If he did, he'd end up saying something stupid, like “You don't need drugs to be brilliant.” It might be the truth – for fuck's sake sometimes Sherlock shone with such intensity that it took John's breath away – but that didn't mean his words would be appreciated.

He heard Sherlock open his mouth to speak, but whatever he had been about to say was cut off by the buzz of his phone in his pocket. It sounded like a hive of furious bees, and when Sherlock connected the call, John could hear the rasp of Lestrade's voice over the line. Not enough to make out the words, but the tone was there: pissed off, aggravated, tired and probably in desperate need of coffee.

Sherlock didn't say much, but John saw short-tempered disinterest sharpen into something more. It was like a picture sliding into focus, and suddenly the blurred impression of Lee that lingered around Sherlock's person faded, entirely replaced by the rapier edge of intelligence.

'Where?' He looked around them, getting his bearings and switching direction so abruptly that John stumbled to match it. 'We'll be there within ten minutes.'

'What is it?' John raised an eyebrow at Sherlock's smile, reading the guilty edge to it as if he believed John would disapprove.

'A pair of bodies have been found at an industrial site a few streets over. They match the description of our last two missing regulars.'

'In bits?'

'No.' Now John could see the light of enthusiasm in Sherlock's face, as if all the stress and annoyance of the club had been washed away. 'No, not butchered at all. But why? As methods go, it lacked finesse, but it clouded the evidence. Why are these two still intact?' He waved a hand expansively before grabbing John's cuff and tugging him along. 'Come on!'

He led them through London's twists and turns, down streets that were barely wide enough for one man and past forgotten scraps of urban wasteland until the flicker of blue lights and the police cordon came into view. Lestrade was waiting for them, his arms folded and his expression more hacked off than John had seen him in a while.

'I'm tempted not to let you look at them at all!' he growled in greeting as Sherlock ducked under the tape, holding it up for John and stepping into the warehouse space. 'I told you to wait for me at the club!'

'Stained would have been closed if we waited any longer, and I needed to chase down a name,' Sherlock replied with chilly indifference as John offered Greg an apologetic shrug.

'I tried,' he muttered, which was vaguely true. 'You know what he's like.'

'A pain in my arse.' Greg shook his head, a hint of a smile creeping onto his lips. 'Been having fun?' He gestured to the bruise on John's jaw. The rings the dealer had been wearing were heavy, and more than one sharp edge had cut into his skin.

'Yeah, right. Noise, people, crap music... I couldn't hear myself think. God knows how Sherlock managed to keep an eye out for anyone dodgy. There was barely time to blink watching the line, let alone serving at the bar.'

'Well maybe he can find something on these two and point us in the right direction.' Greg gestured along one of the narrow shelf stacks to where two shapes lay like discarded dolls. 'Someone with a dog found them. This place is owned by some offshore company that went bust a few months back. It wasn't locked – there's nothing in here worth nicking.'

Sherlock was already observing the remains under the acid fluorescent lights, his curls gleaming as he tipped his head to one side and narrowed his eyes. John approached with his hands in his pockets, trying to glean what he could. It just looked clumsy to him, as if the bodies had been dropped with no effort to hide them. Thanks to the cool night air and the exposed nature of the warehouse, they were in fairly good condition, almost like they had been kept in a morgue.

'They've not been here long. It's not cold enough to keep them so intact, and even if it were, there would be more predation from foxes and rats.' Sherlock pointed at the floor. 'Drag marks match the post-mortem wounds on the heels. The grit in the injuries will be from the tarmac outside the door. Probably driven and then dragged from the vehicle.'

'I thought you said the killer didn't have their own transport?'

'They didn't. Clearly they have acquired some.'

'There are obvious indications of sexual assault.' John swallowed, seeing blood on the pallid stretch of inner thighs and the storm clouds of bruises across their hips, ribs... everywhere. 'Christ.'

Sherlock crouched down, his hand spanning above the distinctive print-pattern. 'Smaller hands than mine, but still fairly large.' His brow creased in a frown and his lips drew into a thin, firm line as he absorbed all the minutiae that John knew would pass him by. 'These are definitely the other missing men?' he asked, looking up at Lestrade who gave a nod.

'Then why are they so different?'

John looked around, mutely accepting the latex gloves Greg offered before kneeling at Sherlock's side, his hands ghosting over the first body as he searched for cause of death. 'No petechial haemorrhaging and nothing to suggest they died from a depressed breathing response. They're still whole, and...' He picked up a hand, revealing torn nails. 'He fought back.'

'The same as this one,' Sherlock added from where he had shifted to inspect the second body. 'Though not at first and not with much effect. If they had been aware of the danger, there would be damage to the knuckles – punches thrown. Their attacker was too close to allow anything but scratches.'

'There's nothing obvious under their nails,' John said, watching Sherlock sniff at the fingertips and wrinkle his nose. 'Soap?'

'Bleach.'

'So they went to some effort to clean the bodies and then just dumped them here?' Greg sounded as mystified as John felt. 'Why not dispose of them properly? Bury them or what have you?'

'Why not cut them up as before?' Sherlock added. 'People committing serial crimes often evolve in their methodology, but this is almost illogical.' His voice was rough with aggravation, and John recognised the intense gleam in Sherlock's eyes. It was that hunger for an answer – to make sense of the discrepancies that this case had thrown into his path. 'The pattern has advanced in some aspects and regressed in others.'

'Any idea what killed them?' Greg asked, looking at John hopefully.

'Nothing obvious.' He pursed his lips, wishing he had more to offer, but the truth was simple. Both men were under thirty, in good physical condition and bore no injuries serious enough to cause their death. He had expected to find that the drugs had been responsible, compromising their ability to breathe and resulting in suffocation, but there was no blue tinge to their faces nor burst blood vessels in the eyes. Nothing to suggest that lack of air had caused their demise. 'I'd still put my money on something pharmaceutical.'

'We need lab results, and quickly.' Sherlock glanced over at the DI, frowning at the team that hovered around, awaiting their orders. 'Are we not to be graced with Donovan and Anderson's presence tonight?'

'I was tempted to spread around the misery of being dragged out of bed at an ungodly hour of the morning,' Greg admitted, giving Sherlock a glare, 'but someone's got to be awake when the working day starts. Besides, if they saw you in that get up I doubt they'd hesitate to blow your cover, and I was expecting you to be at the club.'

Sherlock straightened up, waving his hand dismissively before stripping off the latex gloves. 'There have been no personal effects with any of the bodies. Either they have been disposed of separately or kept as trophies. The killer finds enjoyment in the moment of sexual assault. Murder still appears to be logistical, rather than the goal of these crimes.'

'What makes you say that?' John asked, getting to his feet.

'Killers who take pleasure in the act create a visual representation of that passion in the wounds they inflict.' Sherlock gestured back to the bruises. 'All of these were acquired in the pursuit of sexual gratification. They indicate non-consensual force: deliberate marking, but the cause of death is invisible. Leaving evidence of it would ruin their fantasy.' Sherlock shrugged. 'People who dispose of their spouse for financial gain tend to exhibit a similar pattern. Poison is their weapon of choice. They are disposing of something inconvenient, rather than exacting vengeance or lashing out in anger.'

'So it's still not about murder?' Lestrade put his hands on his hips, ducking his head and closing his eyes as if he were trying to marshal his thoughts. 'What the fuck is going on?'

'I need those reports as soon as they're available, and find their possessions. I'll be waiting in the morgue.' Sherlock was already striding away, ignoring Lestrade's frustrated questions as he made his exit, dramatic and eye-catching despite the lack of the Belstaff. It made a grin skate across John's expression, one that rapidly died when he saw a member of Greg's team, a pretty young girl with strawberry blonde hair, give Sherlock's departing back a salacious appraisal.

A scowl clouded his face, twisting his lips and furrowing his brow. Quickly he looked away, tasting the spiteful words that wanted to spill forth from his tongue. It was only when Greg caught his eye, his mouth curved in amusement, that John muttered a half-hearted apology, for his behaviour as well as Sherlock's. With a weak, false smile of farewell, he made his escape, too weary to make an effort to keep up with his flatmate.

Not that he had to. Wandering out the door and rounding the corner he almost collided with Sherlock. He was leaning against the metal wall of the warehouse, the glow of his phone lighting his face as he examined the screen. Pale eyes were made luminous by the harsh light, and they shifted to take in John's face. His eye-liner had smudged a bit, and John wished he could say Sherlock looked like crap. Instead it just made him look artfully ruffled.

'You're hungry.' Sherlock tossed his phone from his right hand to his left before slipping it into his pocket. For a moment, his fingers lingered over the fatter bulge of the packet of cigarettes, but a heartbeat later they flicked away, plucking at John's sleeve instead. 'Come on. Molly won't be at the morgue for a few hours yet, and I need you focussed, not brooding because you require sustenance.'

It was tempting to snark that not everyone could run on empty for days on end. He'd managed to scarf down something at the club, but he couldn't for the life of him remember what it was beyond a sandwich of some kind. Now his limbs felt fatigued, and his head was thick and treacherous.

John followed Sherlock down the road, into a taxi and out again. It was not until a cup of steaming coffee and a butty that was more bacon than bread materialised in front of him that he perked up enough to engage with the world once more.

Ignoring Sherlock's amused expression, he bit into his breakfast/dinner, a hum of appreciation murmuring from his lips as he chewed. The coffee was strong and could have been used for paving roads. Just what he needed to bring him back towards the land of the living.

'Have you got any new ideas?' John asked, keeping his voice down so as not to disturb the few other people in the early-morning café. Dawn was blooming in the east, and the place seemed to cater to those who worked strange hours. The food was hot and greasy. Nutrition came second to those basic comforts. 'It almost looks like it's two different cases.'

Sherlock hummed in agreement, frowning down at his phone where it sat next to his empty plate. 'Everything I have at the moment is speculation. All I can surmise is that something happened to make the killer change their modus operandi.' He drummed his fingers on the tabletop in lazy restlessness, staring unseeingly out of the window as a scowl darkened his features. He looked tired, not lit up and carried along by the complexities of the case, but ground down by it instead, and John nudged Sherlock's own coffee closer.

'Drink that and cheer up. You'll get it. You always do.'

'Almost always.' Sherlock picked up the mug, his eyes wrinkling at their corners as he took a sip. The steam curled upwards from the rim, mirroring the serpentine twist of the curl falling across his forehead. 'All I have are theories, and even they are hard to consider objectively with so little information. The mutilated bodies can offer us practically nothing thanks to their condition, and God knows how long it will take Anderson and his trained chimps to get the results we need from the fresh ones.'

John smiled an apology to a horrified looking woman at the next table and kicked Sherlock in the ankle. 'Try to be a bit less descriptive, will you? People are eating.'

Sherlock groaned in annoyance, scrubbing his hand through his curls and leaving them sticking up in random directions. The fidgeting was getting worse – a sure sign that his patience was running out – and John took a massive bite of his sandwich in case he was rushed out of the door before he had the chance to finish it.

'Tell me what we know. Discreetly!' he added quickly before Sherlock could open his mouth.

Rolling his eyes, Sherlock shifted position, leaning in over the small table as John did the same, their noses barely a hand-width apart as Sherlock's rumbling baritone outlined the scrappy details.

'As far as we are aware, Iso is the only place this individual is targeting his victims. Probably a matter of convenience. They're drugged, removed from the premises, taken elsewhere and assaulted. The first two appeared to have died accidentally but were disposed of with precision. The death of the second two seems more deliberate, and no real effort was made to hide proof of the crime, though the bodies were cleaned in a rudimentary fashion.'

'They left the blood though, from...' John trailed off, staring unseeingly at a smear of ketchup on his plate.

'A reminder of the part in which they took pleasure,' Sherlock told him dismissively. 'I doubt any of the more obvious DNA evidence will be present.' He finished his coffee, leaving some cash on the table before getting to his feet. 'When it comes down to it, the most concrete link is likely to be found in the drugs they were given. If I am right and they're manufactured, they could be as telling as a fingerprint.'

John sighed, closing his eyes before nodding his head. After the racket of the club, he ached to return to the flat and simply curl up in his bed, finding replenishment in solitude. He could always leave Sherlock to the lab analysis, but he knew how it would be. Without John there to remind him of reality, Sherlock would work for hours, even days over a microscope, barely aware of the needs of his body or the outside world. If left to his own devices, it was unlikely Sherlock would remember that their cover at Iso would be seriously compromised by their absence, if it wasn't already.

'Are you coming?' Sherlock asked, his head tilted to one side as he stood by the door. He looked a million miles from his usual self, his jacket undone and the t-shirt creased and clinging. He hadn't bothered to tie the lace of his left boot, and yet, beneath the wildly different clothes, he was still the man John always followed without a second thought.

The smile on John's lips was tired but genuine. He downed his coffee before gesturing to the city beyond the threshold, bathed as it was in the break of day.

'Lead the way.'

Chapter Text

The body of the pen pressed to his bottom lip like a metronome: a steady pulse of smooth plastic against plump flesh. If Sherlock had given the sensation conscious thought, he would have realised it measured out the slow beat of his heart, a conductor to the rhythm of his life, but he was too lost in his mind palace to register the correlation.

Baker Street had become a mere veneer, a backdrop to the flow of information that stuttered through his head. He could feel the hard floor beneath his backside. The seat of the sofa was a ridge against his spine, supporting his vacant weight, but while his body was locked in one location of space and time, his consciousness was untethered, racing through the wealth of data as he searched for the way forward.

Yet like trying to find a drop of pure water in the vast stretch of rasping desert, it was a task that fell beyond his capabilities.

How could he weave a delicate web of connections between the salient points when he was so weighed down by the extraneous? Insights into each customer and passer-by had lodged in his field of view like fingerprints on glass. Now, instead of channelling his efforts into solving the case, he was too busy trying to remove the unnecessary blemishes from the hollows of his memory. Worse, Sherlock knew that they would return. Every hour spent in Iso filled his head with useless trivia, until it became impossible to know what was relevant. Infuriating.

Time passed, measured out by the tap of the pen – a faulty, fleeting tether to London and his home – as he doggedly persevered. At last the tight, claustrophobic bands around his brain eased. Order became visible within the chaos as he pared away the inconsequential facts: a sculptor seeking out the image locked inside its tomb of stone. His focus, shattered like light cast through a diamond, resolved itself into something functional. He still could not see the solution painted before him like a masterpiece, but at least he could discern the pieces that potentially made up its whole.

The lab had yielded little to assist. Molly had obliged him with the decimated corpses, her lipstick-smudged smile tremulous as she murmured her surprise at him needing to look at the reports twice. Necessity had nothing to do with it. Instead, desperation played its part. He had been hunting for something he had missed – a pale allusion, a subtle interpretation – anything to flip the angle of his perception and show him the way through the labyrinth this situation was threatening to become.

Nothing. The information was the same as it had been the first time he had looked: set in stone. The bodies themselves were of little use. Far from fresh, there was only the bruising to solidify the assumption of sexual assault, and hints to suggest death had occurred soon after the act. However, the jigsaw pieces of the human body had something to add. Butchery blighted each major joint, the strokes hesitant at the ankles, but confident by the hips. Almost expert at shoulders and neck. Competent, too. They had known how to angle the blow to slice cleanly, rarely striking any thick complexes of bone: anatomical knowledge or access to Google? Impossible to say.

The only debris found on the remains was sandy grit and a bit of dry mud: a perfect match for the loose detritus of the storage container in which they were found. It told him nothing about where they were dismembered, or raped, or where they lost their lives. How could he be surrounded by so much information, almost drowning in its oceanic abyss, and still lacking anything like an answer? He did not have anything to latch onto. No threads to follow!

Well, none that required his active pursuit. Those few that existed, Amanda Coleridge and Nick Shaw, were both in Lestrade's occasionally capable hands, and Sherlock questioned the relevance of either aspect to the current situation. Coleridge was gone; her departure removing her from the picture before the murders began. Her absence did not even correlate to the disappearance of the first victims. Unless some additional details came to light, she was simply another piece of the gestalt that made up the club's gossip scene.

Shaw was another matter: challenging to extrapolate. He had never been close enough for Sherlock to clearly see his face. His features had remained obscured in the name of ambience. There had been nothing in his general stance or appearance that Sherlock recognised beyond a certain type: powerful thanks to his wealth, rather than due to some inner strength of character. It was obvious in the way he flaunted his money, not just the watch but the art etched onto his skin. Stained knew the value of their motifs, and clients paid as much for the prestige as the mark itself.

However, there was something else about Shaw, something that tweaked at misty memories: not hazed by drug-use but simply obscured by time and irrelevance. A face in the crowd, soon deleted only to leave an imprint of its presence. The feeling had been nagging at the corner of his mind, yet he could not alleviate it, not unless Lestrade could find something to tie Shaw into this web of intrigue.

Sherlock blinked, emerging from the veils of his mental landscape and back into the reality of Baker Street. The lidded pen was pinched between his steepled fingers while files and copies of autopsy reports fanned around him where he sat, as scattered and useless as his deductions.

With a quiet groan of frustration, he dropped his head back to the sofa cushions behind him, jolting in surprise when he hit warm flesh rather than giving upholstery. There was a snuffling noise, followed by a deep breath that gradually fell back into a steady rhythm, and Sherlock rolled his head to gaze at John's face.

He was curled up on the double-seat of the sofa, fully dressed, his body forming an inverted apostrophe so that his knees were almost touching Sherlock's right shoulder while his torso curved close to his left. It seemed strangely protective and meant that Sherlock's head was resting on the uncertain transience of John's hard hip and the softer dip of his waist.

John smelled of leather and London, with a subtle tang of beer and sweat which mingled with his unique fragrance: one that never failed to make Sherlock feel anchored, rather than caged or adrift. Briefly, he tried to recall John lying down. He must have done so, since his general posture was fairly comfortable. He had not been sitting there and dozed off, but had deliberately reclined. However, the last thing Sherlock could remember were the comforting sounds of tea being made and something derogatory about the bills that had been waiting on the doormat when they got home: dull.

Yet, all night, John had been both essential and fascinating. It had been a risk, bringing him in to help. The more people involved in a lie, the greater the chances were of shattering the illusion. However, he had proven himself invaluable: an extra set of eyes and ears. John knew what questions to ask by now and could often gain more information through honest, friendly advances than all Sherlock's false efforts.

Yet it was not John's logical, intelligent self that Sherlock had found so captivating. Instead it was the base realm of his instincts and the strange flux of emotions that had enslaved his attention. Initially, he had assumed it was the club, with its primitive, pounding music, that had pushed back the façade of John's civility to reveal an edge of aggression, but it had remained on show even after they had left Iso behind.

Oh, John was always in control of it, but it wrote its story in the rock of his muscles and the lines of his face. Reading people had never been something in which Sherlock took pleasure. It was a necessity, understanding the vagaries of body language and appreciating their meaning, but with John it was intriguing.

He shed so much of himself in those tiny gestures and unconscious movements, and yet still managed to surprise Sherlock time and again. He limped and winced but whispered “Amazing”. He tightened his hand on the trigger and shot a man, then giggled at a crime scene. He was a contradiction, scowling his fury at a shadowed figure in the darkness of a club and rubbing lipstick from Sherlock's cheek with a doctor's gentle hand.

Tonight, he had been itching for conflict. There had been no casual parade rest nor indolent relaxation, not until now, in the sanctuary of the flat. No, John had been on-edge all through the hours of darkness: a hunter threatened. It seemed unlikely that he felt personally endangered. He had taken down the dealer with professional ease, barely breaking a sweat. Illogically, John appeared convinced that Sherlock was the one at risk.

With a sigh, Sherlock shifted, slouching down and angling his body to the side so he could rest his head in the small space left by the curve of John's belly. It put him on level with John's face, distant enough not to offend any sensibilities, but adequately near to read the echoes that might linger in the slumber-softened lines at the corners of his eyes and between his brow.

Concern: it left its legacy on John's face. Yet that was not the only sentiment to have made itself known to Sherlock tonight. John's protective urges were not normally so visceral. That was not to say he was any less reliable or trust-worthy, but there had been an extra level of intensity which had seemed at odds with the relatively benign nature of their surroundings.

Pursing his lips, Sherlock closed his eyes, giving the facts his consideration. A change in John's response indicated a variable which had moved beyond standard parameters. Usually, the danger in which they found themselves presented an immediate threat to their lives, and John's reactions were clear, cool and professional. He had been trained in how to respond.

Yet, despite the deaths, the entire focus of this case was – Oh. Sherlock opened his eyes, his lashes hushing against the leather of the couch as he took in John's features. The threat was sexual. His first deduction, ghastly and slick, was that there was some corresponding event in John's past, an assault in his youth, perhaps, that made him respond with defensive body language and constant tension.

However, reason interceded; the evidence pointed in a different direction. From the minute he had learned the particulars, all of John's fears had been for Sherlock, not himself. He had challenged every aspect, from the necessity of going under-cover to Sherlock's dismissal of Shaw as a suspect, not out of self-preservation, but because he was genuinely worried that Sherlock would be a target.

The realisation made him pause, the whirl and clatter of his mind falling still. He had been aware of it previously, of course, had subconsciously taken note of John's behaviour and disregarded it as non-essential. However, now the tarnish of disinterest had been swept away to reveal something that caught the light: a polished lens that threatened to tilt his perspective and show him another angle – not of the Work, but of John.

His behaviour had not simply been about keeping Sherlock safe, though that was the largest contributing desire. There had been times when it bled into something more. Take the lipstick. John wiped it from Sherlock's face when he could have just reminded him of its presence. He had banished the stain with a stroke of his thumb, as if he felt it imperative that he were the one to remove a potential mark of ownership left by another. Possessive: stripping away another's claim even if he did not move to stake his own.

Something fluttered in the pit of Sherlock's stomach, soft and rapid like the beating of a moth's wings: equal parts thrill and uncertainty. Was that what he wanted? John to claim him? To be owned and own in turn?

It would be a scurrilous lie to state that sexual attraction played no part in their dynamic, and a further atrocity to convince himself that this was the first time such an idea regarding John had crossed his mind. It caught him unawares at the most inopportune moments, rarely at first, and then with increasing frequency, but each time Sherlock retreated from the prospect, at least mentally.

Emotionally and physically, it was another matter. He tried hard to ignore the bitterness that bloomed whenever John selected another girlfriend from London's abundant female populace, and attempted to dismiss the relief when she inevitably fell by the wayside. Vanessa at Iso had been an obvious choice, but Sherlock had not been prepared for how seeing John flustered over her would make him feel. Worse, it encouraged him to react. He kept reaching out, grabbing John's elbow, his cuff – needy little demands for attention – but he could not bring himself to stop.

Sherlock frowned, his breath whispering between his lips as his thoughts turned sharp with reproach. Now was not the time for this; the same as that first night at Angelo's, those moments in the hallway and every other instant where the world seemed to pause and wait for the choice to be made.

He had a case to solve.

Sherlock tried to straighten up and drag himself back to the endless crop of data laid out on their living room carpet, but his efforts were met with little reward. His body had fallen torpid despite his uncomfortable, half-curled pose, and his head felt too heavy to lift. Unaccountable exhaustion prickled along the seams of his lashes, and Sherlock gave a quiet sigh. He was overwhelmed, that was all. After the noise of Iso and the unexpected twitch and sway of his musings between the call of the Work and the lure of John, his body was in need of brief respite: five minutes to appreciate the relief that the peace of Baker Street could bring.

He could afford that much.

The next thing he knew was the weight of a palm cradling his head. It was a timid, butterfly touch, but it did not take flight. Instead it lingered, neither stroking nor soothing: a simple, vivid connection. It was the ignition of wakefulness – the first spark that sent an electrical storm firing along his neurons and brought his brain back online with a spasm of disbelieving guilt.

His eyes shot open, immediately taking note of the different quality of light coming in through the windows. Mid-afternoon, rather than late morning. The second thing to penetrate his awareness were the complaints of his body: a numb arse from the hard floor and a stiff neck which complained bitterly as he shifted to look up into a mellow blue gaze.

'You fell asleep?' John's voice was rough with disuse, and tatters of slumber still whispered at the corners of his eyes, leaving his face soft and honest in its regard. 'That's not like you. Not with a case on.'

Sherlock jerked upright, groaning as his back protested and his vision gave a giddy whirl at the change in position.

'Hey.' John's hand found its place on his curls again, giving them a ruffle that made Sherlock want to lean into his palm. Instead, he scowled as John gave a little laugh. 'It's all right. It's not a crime to get some rest if you need it.'

'Need is irrelevant,' he muttered, glaring at the mess around him before reaching for his phone. 'I wasn't asleep. I was thinking.'

'You were snoring.' John shook his head, biting back another smile as he sat up and stretched. Muscles shifted beneath his plain black t-shirt as the hem rode up to reveal a band of paler skin at his midriff. Sherlock could just see a faint treasure-trail of golden hair leading down into John's jeans, and he tore his gaze away, staring blankly at the messages awaiting his attention.

He could feel the weight of John's gaze on him: a tender brand which he studiously ignored until warm fingers pulled his hand away from the back of his neck. There was no time to protest as John poked his shoulder, nudging and prodding him until he was settled into the space between John's spread knees with his back against the edge of the sofa once more.

'Leave your phone for a minute,' John said. It was a request, but there was an edge to his voice that suggested he could make it an order if Sherlock did not do as he was told. 'Look straight ahead.'

Sherlock tried to cast a disparaging glare over his shoulder, but John's hot, dry palms on the back of his neck curtailed the motion. They began to press and rub, seeking out the knots in the longitudinal muscles stretching down into Sherlock's back and the wide flanks of those that curved up and over his shoulders.

John moved with unapologetic confidence, as if he were blind to the intimacy of the prolonged contact and each firm, sweeping caress. Perhaps he viewed this as merely medicinal, but the faint rasp of each breath – a little too quick and deep – suggested otherwise. It was not sexual, though there were connotations lingering in the whisper of skin over skin and strong hands dipping beneath the cotton of Sherlock's t-shirt to splay over the planes of his scapula. However, the effort spoke of much more: comfort and care.

Sherlock tried to think of anyone else who had touched him like this, not as a prelude to getting him on his back or between their legs, but just for the sake of it. Yet who other than John had he ever permitted close enough to bother with the attempt? Sex involved the satisfaction of a need: mutual gratification. This – how was John benefiting from this?

His eyes fluttered closed again as he awarded himself a minute of guilty enjoyment. The pressure of the puzzle still burned into his mind like a weight, but John's ministrations smoothed away its sharp edges even as they eased the gnaw of pain in Sherlock's stiff muscles. He revelled in every meditative brush of John's skin across his, feeling the rasp of the occasional callus and allowing his breathing to fall into deep tandem with John's. A hum of appreciation rumbled in his throat, resisting any effort to stifle it, and Sherlock could hear the answering happiness in John's voice as he spoke.

'Better?'

Reluctantly, Sherlock sat forward, checking the range of motion. A twinge still echoed in his neck now and then, but it was a massive improvement. 'Thank you,' he murmured. 'You didn't have to.'

'Going back to Iso will be hard enough without you suffering a tension headache all night.' John's expression was soft, easy and relaxed behind the closed doors of Baker Street, and there was something grateful lingering in his eyes. Perhaps he had been expecting Sherlock to rebuff his assistance. However, before Sherlock could seek to clarify what he saw, John looked at the documents strewn around and the moment was broken. 'Any luck?'

Sherlock pursed his lips, turning reluctantly back to his phone with a sigh and a shake of his head. 'Lestrade's not had time to chase up anything about Shaw yet. Molly's struggling to get any further viable test results from the first two victims and hasn't been given clearance to perform autopsies on the latter two.'

'So we've stalled?' John's expression pinched with pity at the rough noise of frustration which caught in Sherlock's chest.

'If we have to wait for them to do their jobs, we'll never solve this.' He looked over John's rumpled clothes and stubbled jaw, taking in his appearance with a considering eye. 'Do whatever you need to do to get ready for the night, and be quick about. We have to go.'

John blinked at the clock, his face wrinkled with confusion. 'But the club doesn't open for hours yet.'

'I want to investigate the container yard where the first two bodies were found. I wasn't called in at that point, and Anderson's photography is as inept as always.' He picked up the glossy photos in emphasis before letting them fall to the floor again. 'I need to see it with my own eyes.'

'It's been a while. I doubt there's going to be anything left to find.' John raised his hands in surrender at Sherlock's pointed look, getting to his feet and heading for the bathroom. 'Fine, I'm going. I'm going.'

The comforting sounds of everyday life washed over Sherlock as he fired off generic “get a move on” messages to both Lestrade and Molly before checking his reflection in the mirror. Part of the beauty of Lee's persona was that it was somewhat more forgiving of neglect. Unlike a creased suit, a t-shirt which had not been ironed wouldn't raise any eyebrows, and the stubble simply grew darker and more dense.

John was in the bathroom, so Sherlock washed his face in the kitchen sink, scrubbing away the blemishes of eye-liner and the film of grime from the club. The idea of a long, hot shower held huge appeal, but time was not on his side. John would insist on tea and food before they left, and if Sherlock was not there to chivvy him along, he would savour his simple breakfast.

Wriggling into his boots, he tied the laces before going to his bedroom to reapply the kohl. His hands shook fractionally, and more than once he made a mistake, resulting in smudges that he had to banish from the canvas of his skin. By the time his eyes were lined to his satisfaction, John was out of the bathroom and making breakfast.

Sherlock was just about to join him when his phone buzzed, and he retrieved it with a sigh, narrowing his eyes at the text that awaited him.

“Coleridge went home to the States back in the autumn. Flunked her uni course. Nothing criminal. Was she important? - GL”

With a frown, he pocketed the device, not bothering to reply as he heard the pop of the toaster and the bubbling hiss of the kettle. The instant he walked out of the bedroom door, a plate was thrust in his hands, the single slice of toast on its surface glistening with a liberal layer of honey.

'Eat it.' John ordered. 'I know you're on a case, but Iso's not exactly a health-friendly environment. Between the heat and constantly being on the go, you need sustenance, Sherlock. You can't solve anything if you keel over.' He took a large bite of his own toast, as if showing willingness to eat would somehow encourage Sherlock to do the same.

When Sherlock simply put the plate on the table and turned away, he sighed, clearly realising that capitulation was not forthcoming. 'Fine. I'll have it. That way maybe one of us will make it through the night. Drink your tea at least?'

Sherlock gave a half smile, accepting the compromise. The warmth of the beverage did something to jolt his mind into top gear, and by the time he had drained the mug, John was reaching for his leather jacket. 'So other than the obvious, what exactly are we looking for?'

'The containers are available to hire, but the one in which the bodies were found was vacant. It hadn't been rented out for at least five months.' Sherlock trotted down the stairs and out of the front door, flagging a cab with minimal effort and ushering John into its confines before directing the driver. 'The corpses were discovered when someone signed a new lease. Until that point, it should have been kept locked.'

'Lestrade would have searched for signs of forced entry.'

'None are listed in the report, so we must assume none were found, or if they were, their significance was overlooked.'

'So what?' John shrugged. 'Whoever did it had a key?'

Sherlock pursed his lips, glancing out of the window at the skimming streets and the leaden, overcast sky. 'The keys are kept by the security team at the compound. The ones that would open the container were still in their possession. Lestrade suspects a member of staff.'

'And you don't?' John was frowning down at the floor, no doubt following the easiest path from crime to perpetrator. 'You've got to admit, they're the ones with the means.'

'Just because the employees have access to the keys, it doesn't mean they were put to use.' Sherlock pulled out his phone and showed John a picture of a padlock: a brutal piece of hardware as big as his hand. It was still intact with no signs of tampering. 'Look at the corrosion. The galvanisation has worn through with time, resulting in ferrous oxide. It would have flaked off to the touch. I'll need to check the rust pattern on the container, but I doubt it's been disturbed for months.'

'So the killer didn't get in through the main hatch.' John sighed, straightening in his seat as the taxi slowed to a halt by the high, chain-link fence surrounding a barren stretch of land. 'A locked room problem – right up your street.'

Sherlock hummed in agreement, paying the driver and stepping out onto the pavement as he quickly analysed the scene. He should have come here sooner, but he had already been working under-cover when the bodies were found. By the time he was able to invade Lestrade's crime scene, the DI was off on a wild-goose chase.

'There are four watchmen occupying a caretaker role. Two work the day shift and two more cover the night. All are over fifty, male, and unlikely to have anything to do with a place like Iso.'

'Maybe they found their victims somewhere else?' John suggested, though judging from the look on his face, he doubted his own words. 'Have you actually checked for another link?'

'Of course I have. The only discernible commonality they share is the club. Come on.' He strode towards the run-down building at the gate, a temporary, portakabin construction, and pushed open the door. The air inside was stuffy and stale, and two pairs of bored eyes looked up at him as he and John entered.

All it took was a flash of Lestrade's badge for the atmosphere to change: frustration and uncertainty came to the surface, and the younger of the two – just over fifty, balding, with the line of his shoulders suggesting a back injury – got to his feet with a stammer.

'We already told the other one everything!' he said, knocking over an empty coffee cup in his haste. 'No one here did that to those people.'

It was easy to allow an understanding smile to spread across his lips and to guide the tone of his voice into agreeable pacification. 'No, of course. I just need to take another look at the storage container.'

With a shaking hand, the man scrabbled at a rack system, undoing the security lock before pulling free the key.

'Actually,' Sherlock said with the flicker of a glance at the name badge pinned to the man's barrel chest, 'Edward, I also need the paperwork for the last three people to rent the container from you. I know it's been vacant for some time, but the information could mean my colleagues at the Yard will be able to leave you in peace.' It was an empty promise, but the effect was instantaneous. Edward's worried face cleared into something blissfully cooperative. 'When you find the relevant documents, could you meet us there?'

A stammered agreement was all Sherlock waited for as he took the key from Edward's outstretched hand and walked off with John in tow.

'I can't believe you got away with that,' John muttered as the wind buffeted them, whipping around the sharp angles of the large metal boxes that filled the grounds.

'Everybody trusts a policeman. It's implicit.' Sherlock shrugged. 'Even those with petty crimes in their pasts, like those two, still put their trust in law enforcement as long as they aren't being accused of anything.'

John looked back over his shoulder. 'Is there anyone in this bloody city who's innocent? Everyone we meet has something to hide.'

'It's human nature. There are always some laws an individual will perceive as irrelevant or unnecessary, but they still fear punishment for breaking them, even if their indiscretion is long-forgotten.' He glanced up, noting the CCTV that went with the monitors in the cabin. The array was sizeable, but clumsy, concentrating on the entrances and ignoring the perimeter. 'This way.'

He led them onwards towards the far back corner of the site. At this distance, the sleek line of the road was a distant memory and the security building was hidden from view by the stacks. Unlike the others, these storage units were not placed on top of one another, but lay in a neat line along the fence.

The lock on the door of number three-seven-five was shining and new, replacing the one that the Yard had no doubt taken in as evidence. The police tape still sealed it up, and Sherlock rolled his eyes. Disturbing it without justification would only aggravate Lestrade, so he focussed his attention on the exterior of the container first, checking for weak points.

John split away from him, taking the other side and mentioning any spots of corrosion. 'There's nothing here bigger than my palm, and no sign of repainting.' His voice drifted to Sherlock's ears, almost snatched away by a gust of wind as they both rounded the back end and stared at the undisturbed metallic wall in front of them.

Sherlock glanced over his shoulder at the chain-link fence, a solid six feet away. As a CCTV blind-spot, it made the most sense as a way in for the killer, but there was no hole in the wires, nor any sign of a repair. There was inadequate room for anyone to squeeze under it, and steadily Sherlock let his gaze wander until he found the evidence he was looking for.

There were two small, deep pits in the loose ground near the fence and, a few feet away on the exterior side, lay another matching set. When he peered closer, he could see faint, linear scuff marks, shallow and almost gone from the rain. 'The killer used a ladder, wooden, possibly, and slender.' He pointed out the details, speaking quickly. 'Propped it against the fence, dropped the bagged body parts over, then climbed down and slid the ladder underneath before clambering up themselves by hand. Ungainly, but effective.'

'What did they need a ladder on this side for?' John asked, spreading his hands in confusion as Sherlock tipped his head back. The container was perhaps eight feet tall, high enough for the roof to be out of anyone's line of sight.

'Give me a leg-up.'

John rolled his eyes but did as he was told, cradling his hands together and boosting Sherlock up onto the top. The metal clanked beneath each step like a gigantic drum, and puddles of collected rainwater in the worn surface rippled with the vibrations. However, Sherlock paid them little mind. 'The murderer got in up here. The rust's worse. A few minutes with a pocket blow torch and he had a way in.'

'How could Lestrade miss the fact there was a hole in the roof?' John asked.

'The killer patched it.' Sherlock bent down, examining the newly-applied paint and the frankly atrocious welding job. 'Badly. The report said there was a puddle of fluid inside the storage container. It turned out to be nothing but water. Of course, no one did the basic arithmetic and figured out there was a leak.'

'Er, excuse me?'

Sherlock got to his feet, walking to the front of the container and peering down to where the watchman waited with a sheet of paper clutched in his hand. 'I got the information you wanted.' He stood back in alarm as Sherlock swung down over the edge of the roof, hanging suspended before dropping to the ground just as John rounded the corner.

'A bit more patience and I would have helped you down,' he muttered before looking over at Edward, who hovered nervously as Sherlock took the documents.

'It's not been used for months. The previous people were mostly foreigners who brought too much stuff over with them.' The man shrugged, tugging at his belt where it strained across his belly and clearing his throat, but Sherlock paid no attention to his unease. He was too busy skimming the details of the page.

Most were irrelevant, meaningless people merely passing through, but the last one on the list caught his eye. A hand over his made him tilt the paper so John could get a better look, and Sherlock knew his gaze would be drawn to the name.

John sucked in a breath, looking up at Sherlock in surprise. 'Somehow I doubt that's a coincidence.'

'Possibly not.' Sherlock tapped his thumb against the neat typeface, his mind arcing with frantic possibilities. 'The question is, what does a young woman who hasn't even been in the country for five months have to do with the assault and murder of four British men? However unlikely it seems, the details keep coming back to her.' He frowned down at the name in confusion before shaking his head.

'I think it's time we found out exactly what happened to Amanda Coleridge.'

Chapter Text

John shifted his weight, his hands locked behind his back and his fingers drumming an idle tattoo as he watched the line. He had thought last night was busy, but it was nothing in comparison to the throb and heave of Iso now. The serpentine twist of the queue was spilling out around the ropes: a bulging mass of people eager to get in. John didn't envy Sherlock. At least out here the air was relatively fresh. Inside it was like being in the caverns of some tempestuous, beastly heart, all pulsing rhythms and humid, living heat.

He and Sherlock had arrived with barely a minute to spare before opening time, still buzzing from their discoveries at the container yard. It was the first solid lead they'd found. Sherlock had been like a horse at the starting gate, all restless energy and endless desperation. However, if they didn't show up, there would be too many awkward questions, and John suspected that it was here, amidst the idle gossip of the staff, that they would find the answers they were looking for.

It had only taken a minute to convince Sherlock of that fact. A hurried call to the Yard had summoned Lestrade, and at least Sherlock had found some delight in pointing out the information that his team had allowed to pass them by. The DI could chase up whatever concrete information the storage company had to offer, and that left Sherlock and John here, poised to plumb the nebulous depths of speculation rife in the club.

'Where did you bugger off to last night?' Vanessa grinned at him in greeting as she returned from patrolling the queue with Tomas. There were several bottles of confiscated beer in her hands, which she judiciously tucked out of harm's way by the door. 'Someone told me you and Lee did a runner!'

John shook his head, grinning down at the ground as his mind raced for an excuse. 'Nothing that exciting. Price wanted to see us in his office, but he kept us waiting for a fucking age. By the time we were done sorting that out, it was too late to catch the police. I went down the station to give my statement.'

He tried not to cringe at the lies and held in a sigh of relief when Vanessa merely nodded her acceptance. 'Yeah, the cops didn't stay more than an hour in the end. Normally, they turn up and the place dies, but with the free drinks...' She shrugged, nudging him in the waist with her elbow. 'You should count yourself lucky. Clean-up took hours.'

John managed an exaggerated wince: half-relief, half-sympathy. 'Well, it doesn't look like it'll be much better tonight. I guess we'll still be here to give you a hand.'

Vanessa shook her head and chortled. 'Luck's on your side, then. Price closes this place on Sunday. Says its more trouble than it's worth to open.' She shrugged. 'He pays some professional cleaners to spruce it up, and we don't have to work.'

'That's pretty good of him.' John raised an eyebrow at the dark look Vanessa threw in his direction. 'Isn't it?'

'He doesn't want to pay us any more of the Sunday rate than he has to, that's all. It's not about the goodness of his heart; it's about his bottom line.' She sighed. 'Still, it means you get out of clearing up tonight, too. Jammy bugger.'

'No one stays late?' John asked, filing away that titbit of information as Vanessa shook her head.

'We all leave when we can. To be honest, after a night here, the last thing any of us want is to hang around longer than necessary.' She rubbed her gloved hands together, bobbing up and down in an effort to keep warm as the queue steadily shuffled onwards. 'I never got the chance to ask you yesterday, but you're coping all right, yeah?' She waved a hand around in emphasis. 'I mean, I know it's not rocket science, but it can get a bit...'

'Exhausting?' John asked, thinking of Sherlock curled up on the floor by the couch, his head pressed against the curve of John's belly as he slept. It was a rare sight, and that made it twice in the past forty-eight hours that John had found himself witness to Sherlock's slumber. Except this time, he had been close enough to touch: dark curls sinuous beneath his palm, soft despite the lingering product in their depths.

Then Sherlock had awoken and distance yawned between them. Now, in the clarity of the waking world, John blamed his own weariness for the fact that he had reached out again, rubbing the tension away from Sherlock's svelte muscles as if it was his right. He had honestly expected him to pull away or shake himself free, but instead, after a moment of uncertainty, it seemed the choice fell in his favour. Sherlock had relaxed back into his ministrations, accepting and –

'I was going to say overwhelming.'

John blinked, dragged back to the present – London's pavements and the dark night air – by Vanessa's words. She was watching him thoughtfully, a sad-edged expression in place before she bit her lip and looked away. Her toe scuffed against the pavement in a gesture that reminded John forcefully of how young she was. 'Thinking about someone special?'

Most women of John's acquaintance would have made that seem coy, but there was none of that in Vanessa's voice. It was more matter-of-fact, like a person who already knew where they stood and was fully aware that it wasn't in the spotlight of someone else's attention.

'Something like that,' John managed, feeling like he should apologise. 'Is it that obvious?'

'You were smiling as if you meant it.' She laughed at his concerted grimace. 'That's not to say you don't the rest of the time, but you're more... contained? Like you're always standing back and watching to see what happens.' She reached into her pocket, fiddling with something before she pulled it free and offered it to him: a slip of paper with her number on it. Sherlock was right, as usual, though now it seemed that any idea of a date had dimmed from Vanessa's mind; a lost cause.

'It could come in useful,' she explained with a shrug. 'If nothing else, we all realised when you vanished yesterday that none of us could get in touch with you or Lee. You work here for any length of time, and you learn to look out for each other.'

'Thanks.' John pulled out his phone, quickly dialling and putting through a call so she had his number in return. 'I did wonder about you girls walking home at night.'

'It can be as dangerous for the guys,' she pointed out. 'We tend to go in pairs. Will and Tomas, the twins, then me, Lyra and Jane stick together.' Now her eyes held a hint of mischief, any lingering disappointment rapidly fading from sight. 'I guess you won't complain about having to keep Lee company?'

'We're flatmates. Of course we're going to go home together,' John pointed out, studiously ignoring her snort and Will's quiet chuckle from where he was hovering by the door. 'I wouldn't let him go on his own anyway. He's a bit of a trouble-magnet.'

Will shifted, tapping John's elbow and jerking his head in the direction of the line. 'The twins told us he was being watched last night. Reckon he's come back for an encore?'

John followed the bouncer's gaze, a flash of anger sizzling through his veins as he saw the man from the previous night: Shaw. He was on his own, cocky and confident as he waited, but now and again someone would pat his shoulder or give him a nod. Not completely unknown then.

Out here, the light was better, and John memorised what he could of Shaw's appearance. His clothes were casual but expensive, and it seemed that he paid a lot of attention to the way he looked: not a hair out of place that wasn't by design. He was about Sherlock's age, but with a hint of a tan and a dusting of freckles over his nose.

However, it was the look in his eyes that John recognised the most. Utterly mercenary. Vanessa and the others complained Price was all about money, but Shaw was a long way up the scale. He looked like his gaze measured everything and everyone, and it made John's skin crawl to remember that Sherlock had captured his attention. He was a man used to buying what he could and taking what he couldn't, and John was almost overwhelmed with the urge to dash into the club and drag Sherlock home.

'Want us to keep him out?'

John's first, visceral response was a resounding yes, but logic caught up before the word escaped his mouth. Shaw was still the closest thing they had to a suspect. Blocking him from Iso may keep Sherlock safe, but it could stop him making the deduction or finding the one piece of evidence that brought this case to a close.

'No, just – I'll make sure Lee keeps an eye out, that's all.' His phone was still in his hand, and he clumsily typed out a new message. As soon as he hit send, he looked up to see Shaw watching him: cool and disinterested. Their eyes met, and John clenched his teeth against the pressure of his own loathing. Like someone staring down a threat, he could not bring himself to look away, and he did not bother to hide his distaste as Shaw shot him a twist of a smirk and sauntered through the door.

'Prick,' Vanessa muttered, craning her neck as John's phone buzzed a reply and the screen lit up. 'You told him?'

John nodded, wishing he could find comfort in Sherlock's one word acknowledgement. He tried to keep his expression blank and his frame relaxed, but clearly indicators of his discomfort were getting through, because a few minutes later Will patted his shoulder and gestured for him to follow. 'Come on,' he urged. 'Let's put some of yer energy to good use. Price wants us to patrol more after last night. We don't need the cops here again.'

'Did I miss anything?' he asked as Will led him inside, raising his voice to be heard over the music. 'What about you? Your ribs all right?'

'Course!' Will gave a gappy grin and rolled his eyes. 'Little shit took me by surprise. Not you, though. Guess army life never quite leaves you, right?' He jerked his head towards the bar, smiling at a couple of women who called his name. 'What with the free drinks, most people forgot anything off had happened in the first place. Price made sure the girls got home safe, and the kid was taken away. God knows what'll happen to him, but I doubt it’ll put him off for long.'

'Vanessa said you keep an eye out for each other,' John called back. 'She made it sound like you expect trouble.'

Will bobbed his head from side to side in an uncertain way, his lips twisting in a grimace as he reached out and removed someone's lit cigarette from their grasp, stubbing it out and pointing to the no-smoking signs. 'It's easy to be paranoid, but people get stupid when they're drunk. Think they don't have to take no for an answer or act on some kind of grudge.' Will gave him a measured look, his expression clouded with sorrow as he continued.

'I heard Vanessa telling you about Amanda. You know she left? Headed back to the States. Everything went downhill for her at once, poor kid. Uni got too much, the bloke she loved up and left, then to top it all off some twat started getting creepy.' Will shrugged. 'Nothing much, nothing in yer face, but that can be worse, in a way. Police don't take it seriously until someone's bleeding.'

'Sometimes not even then,' John muttered. 'Who was the bloke? A regular?' Unease erupted down his spine, an ice-cold shock of discomfort as he thought about Shaw. Surely if he'd been bothering a member of staff before, he would have been barred?

'Nah, he was just some kid. We stood up to him, all of us, let him know it wasn't on. Me and Tomas are big, but no one's as scary as Lyra when she's pissed off.' Will's grin looked proud, like a dad talking about his daughter, but it soon faded. 'We didn't see him again. Still, I guess it wasn't enough to make Amanda feel safe. She left a week later. Stayed in touch, though – postcards and things. Jane gets phone-calls. I know she didn't go because of what happened here, but we still feel bad about it, you know?'

John nodded, glancing towards the bar and catching sight of Sherlock laughing obligingly at something a customer had said. The wrongness of it – that approachability and friendliness that opened onto such a deep well of insincerity – chafed against John's nerves, and he tore his gaze away.

A sudden squawk in the music, followed by the jeers and complaints of the dancers, made him look towards the sound system. People were hurrying around, checking connections while the DJ threw his hands up in frustration. The kid with the spiked hair was bouncing on the balls of his feet, and Will chuckled, his voice loud amidst the din of people chatting. 'Dennis will be nagging Price for new equipment again. One day, that kid'll get what he wants and wet himself with excitement.'

'Keen, is he?'

Will rolled his eyes and shook his head. 'That doesn't cover it. He's a good lad, used to hang out with us more, but he pretty much stays with the talent these days.' He jerked a thumb towards the dais where the DJ paced up and down, only to clap as the music returned with a rumbling rush. 'First here and last to leave, other than Price of course. Kid's probably looking after his inheritance on the sly.'

John grinned at the amusement in Will's voice, then winced as the pressure of the tea he'd gulped down before leaving the flat made its presence felt in his bladder. With a gesture towards the staff bathroom door hidden off in the shadows, he let Will know where he was going, listening as the big bouncer shouted some instructions. 'Once you're done, go over to the sound deck. Make sure there's no problem over there. Radio in if you have any trouble.' Will unclipped the walkie-talkie from his belt and handed it to John, who accepted it gratefully. 'Someone'll come and find you when it's your turn to watch the line again.'

With a quick nod, John pushed his way through the crowd and used the small key he'd been given to get into the bathroom. Smaller than the main ones throughout the club, it was a tiny haven of calm. There were a couple of stalls and urinals, sinks and a fire-exit, and John quickly answered the call of nature before washing his hands.

He was drying them off when one of the twins – David, he thought – hurried in, a syringe pen clenched between his teeth. It was already in his thigh and the plunger depressed before he noticed John, and he gave a guilty start of surprise as he stammered to explain.

'Oh, God. This always looks so dodgy, but it's just –'

'Insulin?' John grinned as David nodded. 'I'm a doctor, I recognise the brand-name.' He nodded towards the logo inked on the side of the plastic. 'You all right?'

'Yeah. It's a bit hard to keep track of the time working in here. If it were up to me, I'd do it behind the bar, but, you know, health and safety.' He rolled his eyes at the inconvenience. 'Besides, most people freak out if I dose in front of them.' David rubbed at his leg absently before sorting out the sharp, sheathing it safely and putting it in his pocket. 'Lee's gone on his break by the way. Jane's with him.'

'I thought it was all hands on deck. Can you manage all right if two of you leave the bar at once?'

'We make exceptions,' David said, giving John a knowing look. 'That creep's back. Being a bit less obvious about it this time too, which means we're struggling to keep an eye on him. None of us exactly think it's a great idea to let Lee go outside for a smoke on his own. Since you weren't about, Jane offered to keep him company.'

John nodded, smiling even as he hoped that Sherlock wasn't indulging too heavily in his lapsed habit. 'Good plan.'

'No problem. Look, I'd better get back. See you later?' With a quick wave of farewell, David departed, leaving John to follow and stare at the churning horde on the dance-floor. It was absolutely packed, crammed with a veritable orgy of people writhing to the beat. Worse, it was so full tonight that the narrow pathways around the edges had all but vanished. The only way to get to the sound deck was to go through them all, and he grimaced at the thought.

He started off trying to stick to the fringe, where there were at least small spaces to infiltrate, but it was like some bizarre maze, dragging him ever closer to the centre as he tried not to step on people's feet or be trodden on in turn. The third time someone pinched his arse, he realised how right Vanessa had been. Next time, Will could do this. The big man would part the crowd like an iceberg in the sea, but John lacked the physical presence to do the same. He was just getting lost. Fifteen years ago, the looks he was getting would have been welcome. Now, he felt a bit too much like meat on a slab, with the crowd pressed in on all sides and every step becoming more of a battle.

A hand on his shoulder made him stiffen, ready to ward off whatever advance was coming his way. However, a familiar voice purred in his ear, and John melted in relief.

'You'll find it easier if you move in a syncopated rhythm,' Sherlock said, his lips tickling John's ear. He pressed himself close, the expanse of his chest against the breadth of John's back and his hands firm against John's shoulders as he demonstrated, swaying with the beat that reverberated around them. 'Go with the flow, rather than against it.'

'Is that your way of asking me to dance?'

Sherlock's laugh sounded surprised, and a tremor of heat shuddered down John's spine as he turned to find that he was right there, so close that John could feel the swell of every breath pushing Sherlock's ribs against his. 'If you like.' The smile that curved his mouth was Sherlock's, not Lee's, and John swallowed tightly as Sherlock's hand shifted, gripping his waist. 'It could be of mutual benefit. Moving with the crowd will get us out quicker, and being together could stop any additional, unwelcome advances.'

His fingers skimmed the top of John's back pocket, as if he could sense the ache that lingered there from one grope too many. The touch could have been perfunctory, Sherlock ignoring the boundaries of personal space as usual, but John couldn't bring himself to believe it. It definitely didn't seem platonic. Instead there was a tender nuance to it, underlined by the possessive curl of Sherlock's grip as he began to dance.

It was the easiest thing in the world to let old memories unfurl. They were not even kept in John's brain, but locked up in his muscles and unleashed by the duet of the music and another body's tempting proximity.

It wasn't fair that Sherlock could be so good at everything and knew how to move as well. He must have had a clumsy stage, but there was no sign of it now. Lithe muscles shifted under the thin mask of his t-shirt, and slim hips twisted and twitched to the fast, peaking rhythm of the music. John was tempted to stop and stare, because he had never seen Sherlock this unrestrained: easy and confident as if he was aware of everything that his body could do and found none of it lacking.

Steadily, John fell into the same pattern, mirroring in such a way that would leave no one in any doubt that they were two blokes dancing together, rather than just occupying the same space. His breath was stuck in his throat, caught around a knot of need. Every time they brushed against one another or Sherlock's hand skimmed down his arm, a jolt of raw electricity arced through his stomach to clench between his legs, and John struggled to think around the thickening cloud of desire.

People said dancing was sex with your clothes on, but John had never believed that. Not until now, anyway.

'You've done this before,' Sherlock murmured in his ear, and John's frazzled brain scrambled for some kind of reply. It was challenging when all he could picture was a bedroom rather than a dance-floor and a vivid, favourite fantasy of his where Sherlock's cock was in his mouth and those same words were gasped at the ceiling.

'So've you,' he managed. The thought of Sherlock doing this in the years of his youth, not quite as far away as John's, made him inch closer, pulling a little of the control from Sherlock's possession. John's hand fell on his waist, touching bare skin where the t-shirt had ridden up, and he saw the jump of Sherlock's chest as he sucked in a breath at the contact. God, if Sherlock had been anything like this back then, eyes half-lidded in the flickering light and his body caught up in the sensual worship of the dance, it must have been like feeding time at the zoo. Even now, John could feel the weight of other eyes watching them as if they were waiting for an opportunity to intercede.

Fat chance.

Gradually, the music was growing louder, rattling its message through his bones and rippling in his blood as they neared the sound deck, but all thought of getting to the DJ had fled John's mind. There was no room for anything but the scent of Sherlock's skin and the scorched air between their bodies. Every whisper of Sherlock's frame against his ignited John's nerves, leaving him completely breathless.

Waves of sound rose ever higher, reaching their crescendo, and John moved in instinctive time. He barely registered the guidance of Sherlock's palm splayed in the small of his back or the soft dip of Sherlock's waist beneath his touch as the clinging throng of dancers steadily released them to the frontier near the speakers.

Someone bumped into John's back, their apology lost in the noise, but John barely heard it as that last inch of distance between him and Sherlock vanished, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination for either of them. Any kind of excuse died in his throat as he felt a matching hardness to the one in his trousers pressing against him, obvious in a way that made John's spine ache with the urge to arch and grind.

They were both breathing hard, their stomachs fluting with each gasp. However, for John at least, it was far less about the effort of dancing and more about Sherlock being so close, filling every inhale with silken temptation. The world and the club could have vanished entirely, and John was certain he would have remained oblivious. His entire being was focussed on the press of Sherlock's body against his own and the striking intensity of those eyes, which darted down to John's mouth when he licked his lips before lifting again, pupils wide: dark discs surrounded by a band of silvery green.

The sudden thump of the next song resonated through John's body, a rude awakening which he tried his best to resist. However, it was enough to burst the bubble of solitude that had grown around them, bringing the reality of their situation rushing back in like a freight train: the crowd, the music, the case...

John bit back a curse as Sherlock stepped away, leaving him bereft. He half-expected Sherlock to turn and leave, fleeing all the risky sentiment he hated so much. He was not sure whether to feel relief or trepidation at the fact that he lingered, his head cocked to one side as he looked at John as if he was seeing him for the first time, all confusion and intrigue.

Not that John was much better. He was staring, and yet he could not bring himself to look away. If felt like, if he did, if he so much as blinked, then whatever had just happened could unravel: nothing but a dream. Instead, he watched Sherlock watching him, recording everything from the flush on those high cheekbones to the bulge in his jeans, still gratifyingly evident. At least his arousal seemed sincere and involuntary, though John wasn't sure he could trust even that. Sherlock was able to control his body down to a finite level. For all John knew, all this was another mask – more about trying to solve the murders than anything to do with him.

'No.' Sherlock's grasp against the side of his neck held him in place, his palm cupped timidly over John's nape as he spoke straight into John's ear, denying accusations that had never been given voice. 'It's not – It wasn't –' Belatedly, John realised that Sherlock was shaking – gentle, delicate tremors – and he unconsciously reached up to grip his wrist, skimming his thumb over his ulnar process as Sherlock's eloquence failed him. 'I wanted to get you away from other people's groping hands.'

There was a shadow of a growl in those words, an emotion that echoed deep in John's body every time he watched Sherlock laugh and flirt over the bar. Yet in himself, it was expected. From Sherlock.... thrilling didn't begin to cover it. His stomach thrashed with sultry, bloody butterflies as Sherlock shifted, skimming an agile caress over John's pulse and hesitating there.

No doubt he could detect the heavy, carnal rhythm telegraphing itself through John's veins, and his grip drifted to cup John's jaw. For one, heady moment, John thought that he would kiss him. His lips tingled and his heart raced with anticipation, but they were never claimed. Instead, Sherlock spoke again, turning John's head to direct his gaze across the club.

'To escape, go up those stairs and onto the balcony. That way you avoid the dance-floor all together.' His voice was deeper than normal, gruff and enticing, and it took John a moment to register his words. It was only when Sherlock raised his eyebrows, clearly waiting for some sort of acknowledgement, that John managed a dazed nod of understanding.

Slowly, Sherlock dropped his hand. 'I have to get back. See what you can find out about Coleridge. Jane suspects Dennis had feelings for her. He might be able to tell us something we don't already know.'

Stupidly, John nodded again, hoping that Sherlock's reluctance to step away wasn't all in his imagination. 'Right, okay.' He pursed his lips, swallowing back a dozen questions which reverberated through his head. He was desperate to cement what had happened, to give it some kind of name, a reason, a future, but Sherlock was already gone, trotting up the stairs, walking through the upper lounge and back towards the bar.

John watched him leave, still struggling to steady his breathing and his skittering pulse as need was replaced by the bitter tide of disappointment. He tried to ignore the way his skin thrilled with the memory of Sherlock's touch as he stumbled around the corner of the sound deck, and he had to take a moment to will the throbbing ache between his legs to ease.

If anyone else had just danced with him like that, the message would be loud and clear. John would be happily ensconced in their bed before the night was out, if that was what they wanted, but with Sherlock nothing was ever that straightforward. He could have claimed the kiss he longed for, could have pressed and pushed and seen if Sherlock rose to the challenge, but if he was reading things wrong...

With an aggravated shake of his head, John ducked behind the speakers, looking around for Dennis. Normally, he had no problem judging whether someone was attracted to him, but Sherlock was a master of mixed signals: long looks after the thrill of a solved case and sneering disdain a minute later. His body said one thing while his mouth said another, but that... He'd never been that blatant before.

John thought a silent curse, wondering if he should have followed his gut instinct and taken what seemed to linger in the air between them with all the promise of opium smoke. Maybe then Sherlock would have let his instincts do the talking while his mind fell still. Except that wasn't what John wanted. He didn't want to chuck in a bloody good friendship for the spark of a quick shag.

He desired the man himself, not just his physical frame but the person within the vessel. Stolen moments of affection and the trappings of a relationship held as much appeal as the thought of more carnal pursuits, but he wasn't convinced that Sherlock felt the same. John could just about fathom the consulting detective wanting sex – fulfilling the rare, impossible-to-ignore demands of his transport – but anything more?

An hour ago, John was fairly confident of his position in Sherlock's life: flatmate, blogger, friend with the additional glimmer of something glowing between them, always unmentioned. Now, though, whether by deliberate choice or accident, Sherlock had made it more obvious than ever, and John ached to find out where it could take them.

Except that this was not the time. Sherlock's Work mattered, and currently it made its demands. John had no intention of getting in the way of that, not deliberately. He just hoped that, once the time was right, his chance hadn't passed him by.

'Oi, don't touch that!' He looked up in surprise, seeing Dennis scurrying towards him where he was hunkered down by one of the cables, which looked ragged and worn. 'This is staff only back here!'

Quickly, John pushed all thoughts of Sherlock from his mind. Whatever else he was or was not, he knew he mattered when it came to ferreting out the information Sherlock needed to do what he did best. Now, he just had to work out how to get Dennis talking about Amanda. 'I am staff,' he said with a friendly grin. 'The name's John. I'm normally working the door. Will sent me to check you didn't need any of us over here.'

'Oh!' Dennis flushed bright red, the colour clashing with the blue dye in his hair as he shyly shook John's hand and stammered an apology. 'Sorry. I've not really been keeping up with the turnover. There's nothing wrong back here but faulty equipment.' He reached up behind his ear to the rolled joint tucked there, fingering it nervously, and John wondered if it was tobacco or something more illegal. 'I keep telling my uncle we need to get some replacement parts, but...' He trailed off with a shrug, his expression pinched with frustration.

'Yeah, I know how that goes,' John replied, aiming for commiseration. 'Will and Tomas were saying they've been needing more help for ages. I'm guessing people don't stick around for long.'

Dennis shook his head. 'It's the nature of the job. You get a lot of uni students who come and go. No one behind the bar's been here for more than a year. We lose one every couple of months.'

'That many?' John forced himself to look surprised, though from what he'd heard from the others Dennis was exaggerating. He quickly seized his moment, watching the kid's face carefully. 'The only person I know about going was that girl Amanda, and that sounded like fairly unusual circumstances.'

The noise Dennis made was almost blocked out by the din from the speakers, but John picked up the irritated huff. 'Yeah, well, her boyfriend fucked off one day. Good riddance if you ask me, but she didn't see it that way.' Skinny shoulders lifted in an aggravated shrug, old jealousy still evident in that young face. 'The cute girls always fall for the pricks. He used to treat her like crap and she still whined for more. Silly cow.'

John kept his expression neutral and open, keeping his judgement to himself. Dennis looked harmless enough, but he wasn't hesitant in his vitriol, and it sounded like he blamed Amanda as much as the boyfriend. John knew the type, the kind who pointed the finger at everyone but themselves.

'Still, we don't see either of them anymore. Nathan used to be around all the time when Amanda was here. Getting in the way, distracting her –' His face twisted in a snarl, but it quickly vanished as he sorted out some cables, the repetitive motion seeming to calm his temper.

'Nathan?' John asked, his voice casual as he hoped that Dennis would fill in the blanks.

'Nathan Brantley. You know him?'

John shook his head, his fingers hovering over his phone in his pocket. It wasn't much, but adding another name to the mix could give Sherlock the edge he needed. 'No, but I know plenty of people like him.' He wanted to give the impression of agreement without actually committing himself to a clear response. Dennis sounded hard and bitter beneath a thin gloss of youthful exuberance, and John was only too happy to make his excuses. 'Well, if you don't need me here, I'd better get back. Shout if you have any trouble?'

Dennis nodded, already distracted by what he was doing, and John ducked around the sound deck and headed towards the stairs, ignoring where he was putting his feet as he sent a text. There was really only so much they could ask about Amanda Coleridge without raising suspicion, but her departure seemed to prey on everyone's mind enough that, so far, no one had started wondering about his and Sherlock's questions. That was probably just as well, but John had to remind himself that he was supposed to be here as a member of staff, rather than someone chasing leads.

Glancing out across the club, his eyes were drawn to the bar. Sherlock and David were working as frantically as ever, both always in constant motion while Jane and Matt restocked, moving with the swift proficiency of two people who had done the job a thousand times. Tomas was also by the till, several bottles clasped in his hands as he turned and began to walk towards the front door.

He was just reaching the bottom of the stairs from the lounge when John trotted down. 'Need some help?' he asked, gesturing to the drinks.

'Take two. It is tradition. When one of us has a birthday, we buy a round.' The man smiled shyly. 'Today is my day.'

'Oh, happy birthday!' John grinned, accepting the beer. The caps were all still in place, and as they both headed down towards the front door and the dwindling queue, John saw Will waving a bottle opener. 'Looks like I got back just in time.'

'Everything all right with the DJ?' Vanessa asked, grinning as she reached out and flattened a bit of John's hair. 'You look kind of ruffled.'

'I made the mistake of trying to cross the dance-floor,' he explained, trying not to dwell on the memory of Sherlock coming to his so-called rescue as the others hissed in sympathy. 'Yeah, it was a bit of an adventure, but everything's fine. There's no problem other than dodgy old kit.'

'Told you,' Will crowed, taking a swig of his beer as he hovered in the doorway, his feet firmly inside the club.

'Is it okay to have this here?' John asked, gesturing to the prohibition signs along the street. 'Seems a bit off considering we've been taking booze from people all night.' He jerked his head towards where the bottles stood by one of the drains, awaiting disposal.

'As long as you're inside, you're fine,' Vanessa promised. 'But you can't take anything out there. Normally, it's frowned upon if we drink on the job, but Price knows when to make exceptions. Besides,' She grinned, chinking her bottle against Tomas'. 'What he doesn't know can't hurt him!'

Time pulsed away, measured out by the irreverent beat of the music. Late Saturday turned into the early hours of Sunday morning as John stayed by the door, mellowed from a bit of beer and talking with contented ease to the others. They came and went, doing their jobs, patrolling the crowd or monitoring the door, but they always returned to congregate on the threshold.

'You can take a break,' Vanessa called out as she approached for the third time, helping Tomas carry a second round. 'Lee went about two minutes ago, said he'd be waiting for you. Don't be too long, though. We shut in an hour and a half, and it'll be our job to herd the stragglers out.'

'Sounds like fun.' John chuckled, rolling his shoulders and blowing out a breath. His breaks had been few and far between all night. Everyone was too busy to spare more than a few minutes down time. It was probably just as well, because it meant John was too occupied to give more than a fleeting, longing thought to what had transpired between himself and Sherlock on the dance-floor. Now, his stomach wobbled at the thought of getting him alone in the relative peace and quiet of the alley. 'Is he out back?'

'Yep. Behave yourself!' Vanessa's words followed him out of the front door. John sighed as he walked down the length of the building, his boots scraping on the pavement as he dragged Greg's leather jacket tighter around his body. The air was icy after the heat inside, but the low-level hum of a little alcohol in his veins compensated somewhat. Part of him wondered about the sense, if not the legality, of drinking on the job, but he had seen Jane and the others knocking back a shot or two that someone hadn't claimed. Whether Price liked it or not, it seemed that consumption among the staff now and then was fairly common.

Rounding the corner, John froze. The light out here was dim: a ghastly, second-hand delivery of illumination from the street-lamps and the single fluorescent strip above Iso's back door, but John could see a familiar silhouette. Sherlock was leaning against the alley wall about ten feet away, and he wasn't alone.

Another man had his hand braced by Sherlock's head, his body angled inwards so close that their noses were almost touching. All one of them would have to do was change the angle slightly and someone else would be stealing the kiss that had tempted John only a couple of hours ago.

Quickly, he stepped sideways behind one of the bins, hidden from anyone's direct line of sight. His heart thudded painfully, and his hands twisted into knotted fists without conscious thought. Each breath burned his throat, and his shoulders rounded, hunched and belligerent as he swallowed tightly and tried to think around the drone in his head.

It probably wasn't what it looked like. Sherlock was still in role; someone was trying it on and he'd give them the cold shoulder any second now. It was just poor timing on John's part, that was all. Yet even as he thought it, he realised that the two men were speaking. Their voices were low and intimate, and John bit his lip, peering around the corner of his hiding place for another look.

The man shifted, the fingers of his left hand trailing down over Sherlock's hip. John couldn't see what he was doing, but he didn't care. That touch was all about possession, and John's gut clenched, sick and hurting, as he watched a shiver run through Sherlock's frame.

Yet still, he did not push him away, and John dithered where he stood, locked in indecision as the interloper tilted his head and stepped back. It allowed a shaft of light through, casting their faces into relief, and John's stomach dropped.

That was no stranger brushing his fingers along Sherlock's arm like a lover.

It was Shaw.

Chapter Text

Sherlock tightened his jaw and tipped his head back against the alley wall. Rough stone and cold air made their presence known, helping him anchor himself back in the reality of the mundane as he savoured the smoke that coated his tongue and curled its bitter poison in his lungs.

In there, amidst the dissonance of the club, he was adrift. Glass passed, slick and transient, beneath his fingertips, replaced with the brief flash of coins and the rasp of bank notes before they too, were gone. The music wove through everything, a drumming stampede of sound, intangible yet overwhelming, blurring the outline of his being and leaving his thoughts to seep outwards, never to return.

Only on the dance-floor, interwoven with John’s corresponding form and tied up in the shift of hips and the glide of his hands did he find himself locked in the here and now. It was as if everything crystallised into piercing clarity – one moment that made perfect sense amidst the scatter of his confusion.

Yet it was neither logic nor higher thinking that grounded him, but the visceral, organic thud of low rhythms and basic need. It had not been his intention to reveal so much, but when he saw other people with their grasping, ghostly fingers on John, every pure ideal had been overwhelmed with the urge to ensure that he did not answer their beckoning call. Sherlock had been compelled to step closer, to show John that everything those strangers could offer was already there between them, waiting to be realised.

And John had responded in kind.

All evening, Sherlock's thoughts had returned to that moment like a compass pointing north. Every nerve had acquired an eidetic memory for John's presence: strong muscles and fluttering breaths, the hard press of his erection and the electrical storm of their potential reaching deadly intensity. For the first time in years, Sherlock had wanted someone to the exclusion of everything else, and that desire burned him still.

The recollection made him swallow hard, and he shifted his weight as his body responded, reducing the already limited space in his jeans and heating his blood with the possibilities that lay before them.

It was not something that they could ignore, not for long, anyway, and Sherlock pressed a hand to his stomach where the familiar thrash of excitement made itself known. Normally, such sensations were only awakened by a thrilling case and occupied a steady pitch: a single melody compared to the crashing symphony that currently shook his frame.

John would be here soon, their breaks aligning for the first time all evening, and then – what? Would he want to talk about it – put all their cards on the table when Sherlock wasn't even sure what kind of hand was being dealt – or would he step closer and finish what they had almost started?

The scuff of someone's boot against the pavement made Sherlock look up, breathless and keen. A heartbeat later, the rush of exhilaration died in his chest.

Shaw swaggered closer, his hands hidden in his pockets and a smirk curving his lips. Brown hair fell artistically over his brow, matching the eyes that observed him from beneath lowered lashes. The muscles under the tattoo on his arm bunched and flexed, strength held idle, and Sherlock subtly readied himself for whatever was about to unfold.

He had been expecting John – trustworthy and loyal. Now he was faced with someone more threatening, and the urge to straighten up and retreat thrummed beneath his skin. His current stance – neck bared and body slumped nonchalantly – was too vulnerable and inviting. Only thoughts of the case made him hesitate.

Shaw had information and, one way or the other, Sherlock needed to get it. If nothing else, that meant distant or aggressive behaviour wasn't an option. However, neither was submission. The best he could do was remain as he was, apparently unconcerned as Shaw stopped in front of him.

Sherlock's memory stuttered, trying to place his face. He was relatively nondescript, neither unusually good-looking nor particularly ugly. A faint scar ran through the tip of one eyebrow, and Sherlock quickly took in other details, more noticeable in their absence: no mud on his boots or any pet hair clinging to his clothes. The scent of dry cleaning chemicals lingered beneath expensive cologne, suggesting he had no inclination to do his own laundry, but other than that he was surprisingly bare of information.

'Struggling?'

The single word shivered through Sherlock's awareness, stirring his thoughts into a chattering flock of starlings. Dark feathers of fear flashed through his mind, because he recognised that voice. Much like the man's face, it had been part of the background once, something that barely registered, except for one moment. The recollection was poor, but he remembered that same tone growling in his ear.

'Gorgeous, but you'll look even better on your knees for me.'

It was like someone turning on a light in his head: University, where he'd learned far more “applied chemistry” than any course had to offer. Shaw had always been there, hanging around on the periphery but never impinging on Sherlock's life. There had been rumours about his father's connection to drug lords and the source of the family's wealth. People claimed he could get hold of anything for anyone, but he had never supplied Sherlock directly.

Nick Shaw. Not Nicholas at all, but –

'Dominic.'

Shaw grinned like a shark, taking a step closer and leaning in. He braced his right hand on the wall beside Sherlock's head as he nodded his acknowledgement and murmured a response. 'Sherlock Holmes. The prettiest addict in Trinity,' Something shadowed clouded his face, 'and the most unobtainable. Everyone else couldn't wait to shoot up and get their kit off, but you...'

'I wasn't interested,' Sherlock interrupted. Other people got high to lower their inhibitions and dissolve their social reservations; he had more intellectual reasons for the stimulation.

Something scraped at the periphery of Sherlock's hearing: John. He had not registered the approaching footsteps, but now their soldierly cadence identified the new arrival, one who had frozen in shock and then ducked behind the bins. He would be too far away to hear what was being said – a minor blessing, since conversations about Sherlock's illicit past drew down shutters on John's expression and left him darkly distant – but his presence still made Sherlock's heart clench.

Could John even see who was speaking to him? He and Shaw were silhouetted against the light, and while the alley was not completely dark, it was a crepuscular haven. Would John realise the truth about the scene before him, or would he think Sherlock was conducting some kind of liaison: fickle with his attentions?

'No, but you were amazing.'

Sherlock blinked. It was eerie hearing John's sentiments falling from someone else's lips. Most would have said it with sarcasm, an insult crudely disguised as a compliment, but Shaw appeared chillingly sincere. Those dark eyes were intense as he swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing and his voice turning deep as he continued.

'You were already too clever for your own good, but when you got high you left everyone else in the dust.' The hand by his head twitched, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes as he tried to see where this was going. 'Even after uni, I used to hear about you from my associates.'

'You mean the dealers in your employ,' he retorted, his voice flat. 'You shouldn't put stock in idle gossip.'

'Hard not to. You were a good customer, Sherlock. You knew what you wanted and what to do with it when you got it; you paid on time and everyone could see that it was good for you.'

'Medical opinion would disagree.'

Shaw sneered, and the expression on his face changed, taking on a disdainful fugue. 'Other people made you stop; they held you back, tied you down and here you are. You've been here for days. This isn't your scene so you must be on a case, but you've still not solved it. If you had you'd be gone.' A sigh whispered from his lips: false pity. 'Anyone can see you're struggling. Your light's going out; is that what you want?'

His left hand shifted, cool fingers burning through the thin cloth of Sherlock's t-shirt as Shaw skimmed a knuckle down the line of his waist. The gesture was insipid, utterly lacking in the torrid appeal which had been present in John's touch, and Sherlock's spine coiled, pushing him back against the wall as he tried to retreat.

However, the sensation of something being slipped into his pocket made him pause, and Shaw's next words tantalized him for an entirely different reason.

'You need to shine again, and I can give you a helping hand with that.' Shaw grinned. 'On the house, just the way you like it.'

Sherlock trembled with the surge of his realisation. His fingers ached to trace the outline of the vial Shaw had given him, distinctive even cloaked as it was in a thin sheath of denim. His mouth turned dry and a faint, pricking sensation – phantom pain – bloomed in the skin at his elbow. Addiction was never cured. It lingered on, a biochemical memory in receptors simply waiting to be awakened.

Now, his body hummed at the thought of guiding a loaded needle into his vein.

'Why?' Sherlock asked, swallowing as his voice came out cracked. 'Business can't be so bad that you're personally trying to lure old addicts back into their ways. So what, I start using or you blow my cover? You think that matters?'

Shaw shook his head, as if Sherlock were being obtuse. 'This isn't business. It's personal. I've always –' He paused, his gaze flickering down Sherlock's body before drifting lazily back up to his face. '– admired you, and I follow your career with interest. It's within my means to give you what you need, and I know you will put it to very good use.'

He stepped back, his hands shifting to touch Sherlock's forearm. Fingertips skimmed reverently from the crook of his elbow down to his wrist, and Sherlock stared at where they rested over his radial pulse, half-hypnotised. 'Not a mark on you. Of course, you always knew better than to damage the real estate.'

'Get. Off. Him.'

Sherlock flinched at John's growl, his body ripping itself free from the trance Shaw had woven around him. The alley snapped back into focus, the gravitational centre of the world shifting away from the gift in his pocket to the short, bristling army doctor who stood nearby.

If John had his gun, it would have been pressed to the nape of Shaw's neck, but its brutal emphasis was unnecessary. Every line of his body radiated threat and lethal force. Even Shaw couldn't miss the implications of danger, and he stepped back with his hands raised in mock surrender.

'Your bit of rough?' he asked Sherlock. 'I'm surprised. You could do far better.' Shaw gave John a disparaging glance, but Sherlock noticed that he remained judiciously beyond the reach of those nimble, clenched fists. For the duration of a few, thundering heartbeats, Shaw and John stared at each other, two dominant creatures waiting for the moment that the balance tipped them over into fight or flee.

At last, it was Shaw who saw the benefit of retreat. 'Think about what I said, Sherlock,' he ordered as he stepped away. 'You know I'm right.'

His receding footsteps echoed off the close walls in a casual, lazy beat, as if nothing of consequence had occurred. In contrast, Sherlock was shaken and tense, his mind thrown into disarray. His cigarette had burned itself down to the filter, unnoticed, and he dropped it to the floor before obliterating the embers with a vicious scrape of his boot.

When he looked up, it was to find John watching the mouth of the alley as if he were seeing a challenger off his territory. Every inch of his stance screamed his anger, and Sherlock wondered how much he had heard. Not all of it, certainly, or he would already be asking for the offering that felt as if it were burning a hole in Sherlock's pocket.

'What was that about?' In theory, it was a question, though John didn't couch it as one. Blue eyes, hard and cold, swept back to pin Sherlock beneath their scrutiny. Normally, John's glares had little effect, but this time there was a pained shadow in his gaze, and Sherlock couldn't bring himself to prevaricate with any skill.

'Shaw was kindly reminding me where I'd seen him before. His name is Dominic; he went to Cambridge at the same time as me.'

'So he knows you?' John pursed his lips, his expression dark as Sherlock nodded. 'Pretty well, from the looks of it.' His jealousy could not have been more obvious if he had written it across his forehead, and a dizzy flutter skittered beneath Sherlock's ribs as he hurried to correct John's impression.

'Barely at all, and not nearly as intimately as he would have liked.'

He would have had to be blind to miss the softening of John's shoulders. It wasn't quite relief, but it was reassuring to know how implicitly John trusted his word. However, it was that same show of faith that made guilt twist uncomfortably in Sherlock's belly as he explored his options.

Curving his fingers around the small bottle of solution, he considered whether to relinquish it to John's care. That would be the safest thing to do, the sensible thing, and yet...

Sherlock licked his lips, staring unseeingly at the ground as he rubbed his thumb over the glass. He only had Shaw's word that it was cocaine, and even then, that fact had merely been implied. Sherlock had leapt to the most pertinent conclusion himself: an unwise move.

For all he knew, Shaw was still the perpetrator in their current case. If he was, then he could be looking to dispose of Sherlock by any means necessary, and he was adequately informed of Sherlock's weaknesses by his network of dealers. Was Shaw hoping that he would scurry off and load up a syringe without checking the provenance of what he was pushing into his blood?

It was an elegant choice, if flawed, hinged on the belief that Sherlock was desperate for another hit. True, in some respects. Expectation sharpened throughout his body and anticipation clenched in his gut, different from something carnal, but not without its parallels. However, he was not a sweating junkie feverish to end his withdrawal; he was still the master of his self-control.

If he gave the substance to John, he would probably over-react. It would be whisked away and disposed of without proper analysis. Any protests from Sherlock would be seen as the keening cries of someone trying to prevent the loss of their crutch. No, he'd hang onto it. A few quick tests at Bart's, and he would know exactly what Shaw was playing at.

'Sherlock?'

John's hand around his wrist made him jerk his head up, briefly fearful that John has somehow read his train of thought and knew what was clenched in his fist. Yet he made no move to pull Sherlock's hand free and reveal the vial within. Instead, his thumb trailed over the vulnerable underside of Sherlock's arm, a steady, slow sweep that seemed at odds with his expression: angry and confused, shaken and worried.

'Are you all right? Did he – ' It occurred to Sherlock that John was checking him over for injuries: a quick, visual interrogation as if he was trying to hunt out bruises or signs of a struggle. 'What did he do?'

Sherlock unwrapped his fingers from the bottle before pushing it deeper into his pocket and pulling his hand free, twisting so that he could grip John's sleeve. 'Nothing. Shaw's all talk. I would have left him here to enjoy the sound of his own voice, but I was hoping he would give me something I could use.'

Which he had, but he couldn't tell John that. Not yet.

'What did he want you to think about?'

'He was simply attempting to re-establish a tenuous connection.' Sherlock waved a hand dismissively, trying to ignore the lank weight in his chest. It was not a lie, not technically, but there was no way he could believe that John would take his obfuscation with anything like a level-head when he found out.

And John was no fool. While he may look at a crime scene and miss almost everything of importance, he was not so conveniently unobservant when it came to Sherlock. Their time together had attuned them to the nuances of each other's behaviour, which meant hiding anything was a monumental challenge. Particularly now, when there was nothing to distract John from his study of Sherlock's face.

He was being watched with a mixture of trust and disappointment, as if John wanted to believe that Sherlock was being honest with him, but his instincts told him otherwise. The air grew tight with unspoken accusations and unacknowledged guilt. The only sound in the alley was the whistle of the wind and the rustle of a newspaper where it lay on the ground.

Abruptly, John's radio crackled, and a tinny effigy of Will's voice rang out. 'Hate to interrupt, but yer time's up, you two.' A thin phantom of amusement underscored his words, obscene amidst the high-strung seriousness that permeated the narrow space in which they stood. 'You got five minutes before someone comes lookin'.'

John sighed, grabbing the radio and depressing the button that would change the direction of the channel. 'Be right there.' His voice was cold and flat, without a hint of answering amusement. It got the message across, because the speaker fell silent, leaving John to run his hands through his hair before meeting Sherlock's eyes.

'You need to be careful,' he said at last, shifting his weight. 'I know the case matters. I know you need answers, but –' He trailed off with a glance after the spectre of Shaw's long-gone form and sighed before shaking his head. 'Never mind. Just, do me a favour?'

'What?'

'Don't keep me in the dark? I know you're normally miles ahead and I'm racing to catch up, but you don't have to do anything on your own. I'm here, and I can help. Haven't I proved that to you by now?'

If he didn't know better, Sherlock would think John already suspected what hid in his pocket. He was like a parent giving their child a chance to confess to a wrongdoing of which they were already aware. It was an opportunity to be honest, but Sherlock allowed it to pass. 'Of course you have. Why else do you think you're with me, rather than back at the flat or out on some wretched date?' he demanded, struggling to keep his tone indifferent instead of defensive as he turned towards the back door to the club. 'I need to get back.'

'Sherlock...' John's frustration was clear in his voice, but it softened as Sherlock turned back with one eyebrow raised. 'Be careful, all right?'

It was not a hollow platitude, and he was reminded that all John's anxiety took root firmly in his fear for Sherlock's safety. Annoyingly, that only made him feel worse: sentiment's victim.

With a nod of his head, he turned away, a quiet, “you too,” escaping his lips before he took the stairs two at a time, hurrying back to the bar. The patrons realised that the club would be closing soon, and everyone on-shift was working hard to provide the last-minute beverages. At any other time, Sherlock would have admired the easy dance of five people in the confined space. They all moved instinctively. Even he, as the newest cog in this particular system of gears, could easily see where to go.

It was oddly reassuring: repetitive motion which left his mind free to sort through the details of the case, analysing and re-examining everything in constant surveillance for new information and connections.

At least now there was a way forward. Amanda Coleridge, Dennis and the lover who walked out on her: an extraneous detail or something more sinister? The possibility could not be ignored.

Then there was Shaw. On the surface, he appeared to be nothing but an isolated individual pulled into the orbit of the mystery by Sherlock's presence, but there was potential for his involvement. The contents of the vial would be telling in that regard, and Sherlock was already thinking ahead to the lab at Bart's when the last drink left his hands and the bar finally closed.

At Matt's request, he began gathering up abandoned glasses and bottles. Price had already told him that he hired a professional cleaning crew on Sundays. He had a reputation to maintain, and nightclubs were filthy places. Sweat and alcohol was the least of anyone's worries. However, it did mean that any evidence pertaining to the victims' disappearances was at first overwhelmed in a slew of other data, and then banished entirely.

'Here.' Lyra nudged his elbow as he got back to the till, offering him an envelope as he put the glassware down. 'Tips from yesterday. Jane's sorting out the bucket from tonight.'

'You can never, ever leave here,' Matt said happily, waving his fair share. Coins had been exchanged for notes, which at least made them easier to transport, but there was still a sizeable amount of money each. 'We never got this much before you showed up.'

'The benefits of a pretty face,' Jane called out with a wink. 'Remember when Lyra wore that corset? We were rolling in it that week.'

The young woman blushed as the twins wolf-whistled in perfect unison, shaking her head when Sherlock raised his eyebrows in false amusement. 'Never again,' she muttered. 'It wasn't worth it. Got any plans for the weekend?'

'The whole one day off I get, you mean?' Sherlock asked, falling into Lee's cheerful tones easily. 'I'm back in on Monday.'

'Ah, to be new and keen,' David chuckled. 'We'll be with you, and Lyra's on the late half as well. Besides, Monday's not so bad. Fewer people.'

'But those that are here are the heavy drinkers. We get more fights on Monday than any other day of the week,' Jane pointed out, handing out another batch of envelopes before turning to Lyra. 'Come on, Price stopped paying us ten minutes ago. Let's grab Vanessa and get out of here.'

There was the usual round of farewells, loud and boisterous despite the lateness of the hour, and Sherlock trotted down the back stairs to get his jacket. He pulled it from its hook and shrugged it on before continuing out into the alley. There were a few people finishing off shady deals or gasping wetly into their lover's mouths, too needy to wait until they could find a bed, but Sherlock ignored them all as he walked out and round the front of the building.

Here the pavement was crowded. People milled around, debating whether to hunt out another watering hole or head home. Taxis queued at the kerb, their drivers aware of every closing time. Tomas and Will stood in the doorway monitoring the rush, and they both grinned when they saw him. It was Will who called over his shoulder to John. 'Go on, finish that beer and get yerself gone.'

Sherlock folded his arms, vaguely remembering Tomas saying something about it being his birthday. There had been drinks behind the bar as well, but he had been too busy to consume his. Now, his throat was parched and his lips chapped from a lack of moisture: his transport making its demands.

John slipped out of the door with a few shouted farewells, lingering for a few minutes to chat with Will about inanities. Sherlock noticed with some satisfaction that Vanessa's promising glances from the day before had fizzled away, replaced with something regretful, but firmly in the boundaries of friendship.

It was particularly obvious in contrast to the look that John gave Sherlock as he finally turned away from Iso, one that he met in equal, searing measure: a volatile mix of lingering memories from the dance-floor blending with the newer uncertainties of what had transpired in the alley.

'Where to?'

Sherlock blinked. He had expected John to pursue the issue of Shaw, or alternatively bring up the shared attraction that had made itself so plain inside the club's hypnotic confines. This – the closure of both subjects – left a chimera of relief and disappointment growling in Sherlock's chest. He swallowed back a sound of confusion and reminded himself that John's decision was for the best. There was nothing more he could tell him about Shaw at this juncture, and now, outside in the cold clutch of the city's night, what had happened on the dance-floor seemed like a lifetime ago.

'Bart's,' he replied eventually, pursing his lips when John made a rough noise in his throat.

'At this time of night?'

Sherlock hesitated, frowning at the undeniable practicality of the question. It was creeping up to three in the morning. Technically, the morgue never closed, but getting into the associated laboratories would be challenging. He could waste precious time attempting to negotiate with whichever belligerent individual was currently on the night-shift, or he could wait a few hours for the more agreeable Molly to arrive at work.

John smiled at Sherlock's sigh of irritation, nudging his shoulder into Sherlock's arm. 'Come on, grab us a cab. We'll go home, get something to eat, and then you can try and charm your way in. If you go now and end up getting thrown out, you'll sulk about it all day and have to rely on Anderson's results.'

That had the desired effect, and Sherlock grunted in annoyed agreement. 'Fine, but we'll have to walk. I won't be able to get a taxi to stop for us dressed like this. Not at this hour.'

John pulled a face but didn't say anything as he followed Sherlock's lead, trusting him to shave time and distance off their journey home. They walked in silence for a while; however, the calm was neither companionable nor easy. With every pace, Sherlock's thoughts ticked back and forth between John and Shaw, his own being the pivot on which they swung. The vial had gained a psychosomatic, guilt-ridden weight, and John's every breath seemed somehow accusatory to his ears: all the worse for being justified.

'Did you get my text? The one about Amanda's boyfriend?' John's question sounded strained, as if there were other, more important things he would rather be giving voice, but didn't know how to broach. Still, it was a safe area of conversation, and Sherlock seized it gratefully.

'Mmm. Promising.' He took a sharp right, trailing down a quieter, residential street before emerging back onto one of London's thoroughfares. 'I'll investigate when we get home. See what I can find.'

'People leave their girlfriends all the time,' John pointed out. 'Dennis implied he was a bit of a dick. Not that he was a glowing example of a decent bloke himself.'

'He holds a grudge?' Sherlock asked, pushing the curl across his forehead out of the way and huffing in irritation when it fell back into place.

'Yeah, though it's a bit hard to tell who he blames more. He wasn't exactly complimentary of Amanda's choices.' John stumbled, glaring at the smooth pavement and mumbling an apology when he bumped into Sherlock's side. 'Seemed to think her bad luck was her own fault.'

'A fairly standard point of view in most young men. Why assume the blame themselves when they can pass it on to someone else? The way the others talked about Nathan suggested his departure was rather... abrupt. He left her a message saying that it was over, and that was the last she heard of him.'

'That could just be him taking the coward's way out, rather than anything supish – shuspish –'

'Suspicious?' Sherlock suggested, raising an eyebrow as John stopped and scrubbed a hand over his eyes. 'How much beer did you drink?'

John gave a confused growl-cum-whine, and Sherlock quickly closed the distance between them, examining the data slowly unfurling across John's body. His pupils were too small for the amount of ambient light, and a sheen of sweat glossed his hairline. A faint tremor was present in both hands where they remained, trusting and limp, in Sherlock's grasp. Idly, he tightened his fingers, noticing how John made no complaint nor struggled to break free.

'John?' Sherlock bent his knees so he could examine his face, realising that his blink reflex was slow and bleary. To a casual observer, he seemed to be no more than moderately inebriated. However, Sherlock knew John's habits well. A history of alcoholism in his family meant he rarely drank himself into oblivion, but a healthy level of consumption had given him a good tolerance. For John's body to react this way, he would need to drink more than he had at Iso.

'John, listen to me. I need you to think. The bottles Tomas gave you – were they still sealed? Did you leave it unattended, swig the dregs of someone else's, anything?'

'I don't –' John shook his head, screwing his eyes up tight and letting out a breathless giggle. 'I can't remember. I think the lids were on?' He shrugged, swaying as the movement disturbed his equilibrium and blinking when Sherlock swore quietly. 'Why?'

The fact that John was not doing the basic arithmetic of cause and effect made Sherlock hesitate, and he blew out a breath before delivering his verdict. 'I think someone's put something in your beer. Did you taste anything odd?'

John shook his head again before shrugging his shoulders: an imprecise testimony. He might have noticed something out of place but dismissed it just as quickly. In the distraction of people leaving the club, it was easily done, and Sherlock clenched his teeth as he realised that closing time had probably provided the perfect cover for someone to spike the right bottle.

Pursing his lips, he tried to remember what he could of Tomas picking up additional rounds. They had all been sealed when they left the bar, and the big man's hands had been too full to allow him to contaminate them. Still, had John been given his beverage immediately after opening, or had someone had a chance to tamper with it?

The fact that John seemed predominantly indifferent to Sherlock's statement only increased his worry, and he looked around the street as he dithered over his options. Any evidence would be back at Iso, one bottle among many potentially containing traces of something dubious. Each would need to be processed to track down the proof of what had happened.

It could take days, and even then there was no guarantee the evidence had not already been removed from the scene. Every second he wasted made it more likely that the clues he needed would never be found, and the urge to bolt back to the club and tear the place apart made his thighs ache. However other, more important factors interceded a heartbeat later.

John stood in front of him, his expression unguarded and trusting. It was chilling to see him so vulnerable. The naivety made him look younger, as if the caution life had taught him had been sloughed away, and it would only get worse as the drug permeated his system. Really, there was no decision to be made. Sherlock could grudgingly believe others were capable of chasing clues and gathering evidence, but he couldn't leave John in someone else's care. Not like this.

Quickly, he grabbed his phone, dialling Lestrade without a care for the time of night. Without Sherlock holding onto his hands, John swayed where he stood. Disorientation and vertigo were common effects of a variety of chemical compounds, and Sherlock reached out, pressing a hand against his shoulder to hold him steady as Lestrade's gruff voice came on the line.

'Whatever it is,' he grumbled in a rusty voice, 'it can wait until the fucking morning.'

'John's been drugged and any evidence of it is at the club, which is probably already being cleaned.' Sherlock paused, his memory flashing up pictures of the bottles in Tomas' hand. 'Get Anderson, Donovan and whoever else it takes, and collect every brown 330 millilitre bottle you come across. They all need processing for contamination. If we're lucky, we'll find it.'

'Is John all right?' Lestrade's question was immediate, his voice alert. Judging from the rustling, he was throwing on clothes. 'You think the killer targeted him?'

Sherlock paused, a shudder ripping down his spine. The consideration hadn't fully infiltrated his mind. All he had cared about was finding out who had done this and meting out a relevant punishment. However, Lestrade's words drove the possibility home, and he chewed his lip. 'Perhaps. If the drug in John's drink matches what was in the victims', then it's a viable conclusion. I need to get him somewhere safe.'

'A&E?' the DI suggested. 'Is he having trouble breathing or anything?'

'Not currently.' Sherlock frowned at the pavement, 'but with no idea what he's been given or how much, medical attention is the logical option.'

'What? No. Wait, wait, wait.' John was shaking his head, holding up a finger as he screwed up his eyes. 'I'm a doctor.'

'And you've been drugged. How exactly do you plan to help yourself if you start to deteriorate?' Sherlock snapped, his irritation only increasing when John had the audacity to roll his eyes.

'It can't go on thingy – record,' he managed, giving his head a slow shake. Abruptly, John stepped closer and leant against Sherlock's chest: a solid, heavy stretch all down his body that made Sherlock stagger.

'He has a point,' Lestrade said in his ear, clearly having heard John's last sentence. 'It doesn't matter if he didn't deliberately dose himself. As a doctor, his drug history is of interest to employers. It could come back to bite him in the arse.' There was a pause as if he was considering his next words with care. 'If he's not in obvious distress, Baker Street might be the best place for him.'

Sherlock grimaced. It was of no concern to him if John could never work again. In fact, it could be of benefit. He would always be around to assist with cases, and John would never be called upon to tend to the ills of London's populace. However, the selfish thought withered before it could bloom. Whatever he may think of John's occupation, he knew how fulfilling John found it – a use for his training, albeit not the original intention of his years of study. To have that taken from him would not be a kindness.

'Fine,' he muttered at last, lifting his chin as John nestled his head under his jaw with a peaceful sigh. 'But if he gets worse I'm taking him in.'

'I'll see what I can turn up at the club, and Sherlock?' Lestrade's voice became firm. 'I shouldn't have to say this, but don't take advantage, all right? No experiments on the poor man.'

He did not bother to deign that with a reply, hanging up the call with a punch of his thumb before turning his attention back to John. It could be worse, he supposed. Rather than jittery or paranoid, he was completely relaxed. John looked like he would be happy to stay right where he was all night, propping himself up against Sherlock in the middle of a dark London street.

Gently, he lifted his hand to cup the back of John's head, feeling the coarse scatter of a few greys amidst the softer blond hairs. John felt so small against him, bundled up in his arms, defenceless and exposed. The impression made his heart clench fiercely beneath his ribs, and Sherlock swallowed against the unusual rush of protectiveness as he spoke.

'Come on, let's get you home.'

John hummed, making a sound of complaint as Sherlock stepped back out of reach. With one lazy blink, he wobbled forward, following without question. Was this what the other victims had been like, trailing happily after someone whom they didn't know, yet trusted without hesitation thanks to the chemicals in their system?

Sherlock stopped when John staggered, looping his arm around his waist and steadily guiding him the short distance back to the flat. All the way, he watched John for emerging symptoms – anything that could help him identify what was currently casting its influence. Mild dis-coordination and moments of dizziness were the primary indicators that something was amiss. His reflexes were sluggish and his skin was hot to the touch, but there were few other physical signs beyond some minor slurring of his speech.

Yet it was John's mentality that showed the most drastic changes. He was not normally distant, but Sherlock would have classed him as reserved. While he had no trouble finding lovers and appreciating their charms, he was not a tactile man. He touched Sherlock on occasion, to get his attention or offer reassurance – and lately in more inviting, attentive ways – but he rarely bridged that frontier of physical contact with anyone else.

Now it was another matter entirely. John was practically fused to his side, not just leaning on him for support but effectively nuzzling closer to him with every step. Their feet kept trying to occupy the same space, and more than once they almost ended up sprawled on the pavement. If anything, John found their stumbling progress amusing, his laughter lilting the air as his hands got everywhere. They slipped under Sherlock's jacket and t-shirt to splay and stroke across his hip and back with confident, uninhibited pleasure, perfectly distracting. Sherlock wasn't sure whether to be amused, aroused or annoyed.

'Stop that,' he huffed as he propped John against the wall by the front door, groping for his keys and sighing when he instead found his arms pinned to his side by John's embrace. A second later, those talented hands shifted to bracket Sherlock's waist as John nudged under his chin again and gave a contented, rumbling sound.

'You smell good.'

'I stink of sweat and alcohol,' Sherlock corrected, trying to keep his breathing steady when John arched his spine and rubbed against him like a cat, languorous but for the noticeable hardness in his jeans. 'John...' He closed his eyes and tried to focus on the basics: get inside, get John settled and figure out the best way forward. However, such convictions held little sway when all he wanted to do was return John's unashamed attentions.

'Sherlock...' John murmured, mimicking the faint whimper that had wobbled in Sherlock's voice. He leaned back, looking up with dark eyes and swollen pupils. There was a moment of thought in that gaze – a brief flicker of calculation – and before Sherlock could breathe a word of response, John had tangled his fist in his t-shirt and dragged him down to claim his mouth.

It was a delicious onslaught, neither chaste nor timid. The way John moved – clumsy but eager, stroking, teasing and tasting – was an undeniable prelude to sex, and Sherlock's body melted closer as his brain shuddered offline. His thoughts went blank, drowned out by a sharp flood of unadulterated need. It was as if his body took control, beating aside any input from his mind as instinct came to the fore.

Their lips parted wetly around a breathless gasp only to reconnect a moment later, and Sherlock leaned in, crowding John shamelessly back against the door as he chased the surging, cresting pleasure of the kiss.

He had not been prepared for the way this would affect him. It narrowed his whole world down to the humidity of John's skin beneath him and the grasping, shaky worship of his wandering hands. There was nothing but the desperate writhe of John's hips against him and the firm slide of his tongue lapping into his mouth, tasting of John and traces of the beer he'd had.

Beer which was probably drugged.

He jerked back, his breath catching in his chest as reality crashed through his head like breaking glass. The full impact of what he was doing sliced through his awareness: snogging his incapacitated best friend on the doorstep, and potentially dosing himself as he did so. It was unlikely that any considerable amount of the substance lingered in John's mouth, but that wasn't the point. Could John say no right now, even if he wanted to? He might have initiated the kiss, but did he even know who Sherlock was, or was he just a convenient body, warm and inviting?

'Hey, come back. I wasn't done with you yet.' John's voice was husky as he reached for Sherlock again, only to look confused when he stumbled out of reach.

'John.' Sherlock rubbed a hand over his face as he fought for one clear breath not haunted by the scent and flavour of the man in front of him.

John was still leaning against the door – his head tipped back, throat exposed and obviously aroused. Everything was being offered up for him to take, and Sherlock had to muster the strength to decline.

He didn't want to. That knowledge burned beneath his ribs like a brand and flared between his legs, making him shift where he stood and fold his arms across his chest in an effort to hold himself in place. His mouth felt swollen and needy, and he could sense an invisible cord tightening between them, trying to drag him back onto a collision course.

'You're drugged,' he managed, reminding himself of that basic truth as much as John. 'You can't – you don't know what you're doing.'

'I was kissing you.' John 's smile was wicked as he stepped forward, hands outstretched to grab Sherlock again. 'Then I was going to take you upstairs, get you out of those clothes and –'

Sherlock pressed his fingers to John's lips, shaking but firm, sealing the rest of his sentence inside; he did not need confirmation of all that he was turning away. Just because it was the right thing to do – the only morally viable choice – that didn't make him pleased with the decision. How could he be, when the nadir, animal part of his mind was telling him that John's apparent desire was consent enough?

'No.' He let out a shuddering sigh, noticing how there was no hint of disappointment in John's face at the rejection; either because he didn't understand or it didn't matter to him. 'No, not like this.' He met John's gaze head-on as he spoke, his voice deep with helpless promise. 'When you come to my bed, I want all of you. Not just your body but your mind as well. You can't give me that tonight.' He dragged in a deep breath, feeling as though he was revealing too much but painfully aware that John may not comprehend or even remember it come morning. 'I won't accept anything less.'

John cocked his head, his eyes narrowing in a way that reminded Sherlock of when he was trying to follow the particularly convoluted details of a case. However, there was some shadow of understanding there, and Sherlock grasped his moment, darting around John to unlock the front door and holding it open in invitation.

The way he obeyed without protest only cemented Sherlock's certainty. His body could complain, his erection could ache and his lips could plead for one more taste, but he wouldn't touch John again. Not like that; not tonight.

It was impossible to be sure whether the drug John had consumed had inspired sexual desire, or if it had simply lowered his inhibitions and allowed him to act on his pre-existing attraction. Unfortunately, the only concrete data available lay in the chemical composition of whatever was currently surging through John's blood, and Sherlock frowned as they both made their unsteady way up the stairs and into 221B.

'Sit down and stay there,' Sherlock instructed, guiding John into one of the chairs at their cluttered table. Once he was settled, he paced through to the kitchen, trying desperately to clear his head of passion's lingering wisps and think.

Years of experimentation in modulating a high resurfaced, and he quickly began to gather supplies. The body's reaction to drugs could be unpredictable, but there were a few foundation stones that applied to metabolising substances. A person well-stocked with fuel and adequately hydrated would process them more quickly. John hadn't eaten for a while, and anything in his stomach could help protect him from the worst of the drug's after-effects.

Clumsily, Sherlock poured a large glass of water and made two slices of toast, scraping off the burnt bits and smothering them in both butter and jam. Balancing it all in one hand, he grabbed a bucket from under the sink, placing it at John's side before offering him the make-shift meal. 'Eat it slowly. If you become nauseous, vomit in that.'

John nodded, his obedience automatic. He concentrated on the task with alien intensity, and Sherlock watched, fascinated. When John ate, he tended to show small signs of appreciation or distaste. A particularly flavoursome piece of meat would spark a delighted expression, while a stray bit of sage often led to a wrinkled nose. Now, there was no change in his face at all. He seemed to be cruising on an even-keel of contented ambivalence.

He shook his head, needing to know what was in John's blood. Not only could it be integral to the case, but the idea that John may have been targeted by the killer preyed on Sherlock's mind, chilling him to the bone. Risk was part of what they did, but the thought of John becoming victim number five...

Sherlock's stomach clenched, and for a dizzying minute he thought he would be the one making use of the bucket. The colour drained from his face as sweat prickled on his upper-lip. If he were himself, John would have noticed instantly, but he remained oblivious as Sherlock swallowed back the sharp taste of bile and took a deep breath.

What he was about to do probably came under Lestrade's dubious label of an experiment, but the collection of time sensitive evidence was not something that could be delayed until John was in a position to give meaningful consent. Many substances left limited traces of their presence once the body had degraded them. A small sample of blood taken now could tell them all they needed to know. If it meant putting someone who was a threat to John behind bars, then Sherlock would happily bear the brunt of John's anger, should it materialise.

'I'll be right back,' he promised, resting a hand briefly on John's shoulder and meeting his eyes. 'Don't go anywhere.'

John did not reply as Sherlock walked into the bathroom and retrieved his extraction kit: sterile, sealed needles, vacuum tubes (not syringes) and a heavy duty tourniquet. There had been an argument about that a few months after John moved in. The doctor was of the opinion that keeping such paraphernalia around the flat was a bad idea. It was only when Sherlock pointed out that the equipment could only be used for taking samples, rather than dosage, that he grudgingly relented on the condition that it was all kept in a box in a shared space.

Sherlock had reluctantly agreed, fighting the urge to point out that John had syringes upstairs, supposedly hidden, in case of emergencies. Even if he hadn't, Sherlock had his own kit, beautiful in its disuse and well-concealed from the prying eyes of others. The fact that, if he were desperate, he could just buy powder and snort it had also been best left unsaid.

Returning to the kitchen table, he set the container down, shrugging out of his jacket and pitching it aside before washing his hands thoroughly and gesturing to the coat John wore. 'Take that off.' He nudged a chair over towards where John still sat, looking up in surprise when the heavy hush of leather was joined by the whisper of cotton as John stripped off his t-shirt as well. He was already reaching for his fly when Sherlock finally snatched in enough of a breath to manage a weak protest.

'Stop! That's – that's fine.' He cleared his throat, forcing himself to notice the chilling vacancy in John's gaze rather than admire the expanse of his bare chest and the glorious web of the scar at his shoulder. John took surprising care to cover himself, either with shirts and jumpers or that despicable terry robe of his if he had just come out of the shower.

As such, this was the first opportunity Sherlock had been given to examine the legacy of the wound that had brought John to him. However, there was a distinct difference between being shown something so personal and glimpsing it in this situation.

Quickly, he tore his gaze away, concentrating on wrapping the tourniquet around John's bicep and tightening it in place. 'Do you understand what I'm doing?' he asked, watching John shake his head. 'I'm taking some blood. It'll help us find out what you've been given.'

'The drug. In the beer.' John stated that as if it was his only certainty. 'You're good at this.'

Sherlock hesitated as he tapped for a vein, realising that John was not capable of deducing why he was practised at finding a suitable injection site, but he made no comment as he worked. He was just lining up the needle when John leaned forward, resting his forehead against Sherlock's down-bent brow and breathing a shaky, tired sigh. He did not speak, and Sherlock tipped his head, watching those blue eyes close in a long blink before returning his gaze to what he was doing.

Working swiftly, he slipped the hypodermic under John's skin, careful to go into the vein without piercing the opposite side. The vacuum tube clipped in and immediately darkened with red fluid. It seemed oddly macabre within its glass prison, and Sherlock waited for it to fill before putting some cotton wool over the wound. A few moments of pressure was enough to stem the tiny drop that welled up in the puncture's wake, and Sherlock set the sample to one side.

'Hey,' he murmured, supporting John's head with a hand on his jaw and shifting position so he could get a better look at him: almost unconscious now, but not beyond rousing. His pulse was normal and his breathing seemed fine, but bed was clearly where he needed to be. 'Come on, up you get.'

John groaned a protest, blinking as if his eyes hurt. 'Need sleep.'

'I know, but you can't pass out here.' Sherlock grunted in surprise when John stood up and practically fell into his arms, his coordination shot. He was pliable and cooperative, but it seemed walking was almost beyond him, and Sherlock ended up half-dragging him to the nearest bed. If John cared about the fact that this was neither his room nor his normal sleeping place, he said nothing about it. Instead, he collapsed onto Sherlock's mattress with a pitiful moan and buried his face in one of the pillows as if the scant light from the lamp was too much to bear.

He seemed content to stay there, on top of the covers and half-dressed, including, Sherlock noticed, grubby boots. With a sigh, he set about untying the laces, pulling them off John's feet. The socks could stay, as could everything else. Bad enough that John would wake in Sherlock's bed, best that he didn't do so without a stitch on, for both their sakes. After some nudging and prodding, Sherlock managed to pull the quilt out from under John's body and lay it over him instead.

'Where y'goin?' John asked, rousing at the sound of Sherlock pulling the door open and screwing up his eyes in an effort to clear his vision. 'Don't. You need to –' He wrinkled his nose as if he couldn't string the words together, and the next noise he made was an aggravated growl of frustration.

Sherlock hesitated, watching John nuzzle into the pillow again as if admitting defeat. Staying with him did not seem like the best idea, not when he was like this and Sherlock was itching and conflicted with slick temptation that would not fade. However, abandoning him was not an option. Just because John was all right now, didn't mean he would be fine in an hour or two. He needed Sherlock here, with him, not out in the living room or lost within the depths of his mind palace.

'I'll just be a couple of minutes,' he promised softly, leaving the door ajar in his wake in case John called for him before getting to work. The sharp was disposed of while the tube of John's blood was quickly labelled and put in the fridge before Sherlock composed a text to Molly.

Ideally, he would rather test it himself, but it required equipment he did not have in the flat, and he couldn't leave John. The longer the fluid remained unprocessed, the more data would be lost. Molly was his best option, and she could also treat the sample for better preservation if necessary. If he charmed her adequately, she could pick it up on her way to work and have some results for him by mid-morning.

The message sent, he got another glass of water and the bucket, restoring both to John's side before shutting the door and climbing cautiously onto the bed. He smothered a faint smile as John mumbled something and moved, apparently seeking out Sherlock's heat. The result was that, with Sherlock's back to the headboard and his legs stretched out, John was mashing his face into Sherlock's thigh and hugging his knees possessively.

'Stay?' John asked, his voice a plaintive whisper. He sounded lost, not scared precisely, but confused, and Sherlock dropped his hand to John's head, brushing his thumb over the border of smooth skin and golden hair at John's temple. 'Please?'

'Don't worry,' Sherlock murmured, settling in for the long wait ahead as, beyond the window, the darkest hour before dawn held court. 'I'm not going anywhere.'

Chapter Text

Sleep swaddled him like a shroud, clinging and dark. At times, it was smothering, stealing his air and his freedom in the same instant. Others, a clammy slick of sweat would make its presence known: a distant patina of discomfort. However, neither sensation fully permeated the veils of John's unconsciousness. They were fleeting impressions, overwritten by the straightforward certainty that, wherever he was and whatever was happening to him, there was someone at his side to keep him safe.

The surface on which he lay dipped, and a hoarse moan of protest escaped his throat. Instantly, a gentle hand pressed to his brow, easing away the approach of wakefulness. 'It's all right,' a rich voice murmured, as soft and holy as if its owner were speaking in church. 'I'll return in a moment. Go back to sleep.'

A couple of brain cells fired, assembling the protest that it wasn't that easy. Once he was awake, John rarely managed to reclaim his slumber, but oblivion took him again before he could voice the words. It was a blissful kind of rest: a comfortable occupation of the fringe just beyond the waking world, and he allowed himself to linger there.

Something niggled at the back of his mind, a shadow across the sun. He felt as if there was something urgent he was meant to be doing, but every time he tried to focus on the possibility, it slipped from his grasp and left him lost once more.

When he finally came to, it was in a slow, care-free way that he rarely had the chance to enjoy. Normally, if he was lucky, he was dragged back to reality by the cry of his alarm. Otherwise it was the shock of a nightmare or the squawk of Sherlock's violin that jerked him upright in the bland cocoon of his bed.

Now, tender sunlight caressed his face and the heavy weight of a thick feather quilt lay across his back. The mattress was wonderfully comfortable, and the pillow beneath his head was plump and luxurious. John hummed, nuzzling into its depths as he chased the wraiths of his doze and took a deep, delicious, Sherlock-scented breath.

Indolent sparks of consciousness blazed into thorny bright light – a clattering, clamouring mess of confusion as pertinent facts distilled themselves for his examination. This wasn't his bed: too big, too posh, too Sherlock.

Shit.

It was as if his body had realised he was awake, and a backlog of complaints smashed through his languor. His mouth tasted foul and pasty; his throat was dry and his muscles carried an enduring ache. His head throbbed with a sonorous pain, and his eyes were gritty and sore. God, how much had he drunk last night?

He tried to remember, but where he would have expected blurry images and the uncertain cloud of swinging emotions, there was nothing. A black hole yawned in his mind. It was as if a chunk of time had been wiped out, and a fresh sweat burst across John's forehead and itched between his shoulder-blades as, at last, he dragged open his eyes.

Diffuse sunlight turned the room misty, the rays held back by the white curtains drawn across the window. A line of darkness interrupted his vision, and John blinked swiftly, pulling his protesting head back with a groan. The image resolved itself into the lean silhouette of Sherlock's denim-clad thigh, bent slightly at the knee to support his laptop. The fingers of his left hand danced over the keys almost silently, while the right was holding out a glass of water.

John accepted it gratefully, the first sip tasting like life itself as it washed down his throat. There was a moment where his stomach considered repelling the intrusion, but he managed to push on through. He consumed half the drink before placing it on the bedside table and easing himself back down to the pillow with a pitiful whimper. Christ, his head hurt, and the questions clattering around his skull weren't helping to ease this distress.

'What's the last thing you remember?'

Sherlock's question was a murmur, the volume modulated and the words lacking any of his usual impatience. Delicate shadows lay in the crease between his eyebrows and the lines bracketing his mouth. He seemed tense, as if preparing himself for a difficult conversation, and chills swooped threateningly through John's stomach.

They hadn't done anything, had they? It seemed like the most logical conclusion. He was in Sherlock's bed after all, but... Christ, no, he couldn't possibly have shagged Sherlock Holmes only to have no memory of it. Life was not that unfair.

Quickly, John drew in a breath, forcing himself to take stock of everything beyond the bitching of his flesh. He was still wearing jeans and socks, though he was bare-chested and had no idea where his shoes were. There was no sticky residue on his skin or the sheets around him. Besides, while he might be ensconced in the nest of Sherlock's bed, Sherlock himself was fully dressed and sitting on top of the covers: more sentry than seducer.

So, no sex then. John ignored the contrary flash of disappointment that cramped low in his gut and instead focussed on Sherlock's question, bullying his mind to move beyond the blank slate that occupied the near past and dredge through the events of the night: Vanessa giving him her number, Shaw at the door, Sherlock pressed against him on the dance-floor – God, yes – then...

The alley, Shaw all over Sherlock like a damn rash and the strange, off-balance certainty that there was something that Sherlock wasn't saying. John could remember wanting to shake an answer out of him – to know what it was that made him look closed off and distant: a different man.

'Do you remember leaving?' Sherlock's head tilted in enquiry, his pale eyes fixed on John's face as if he thought he could pluck the answer from his expression alone. 'Do you even remember getting there?'

'Yes,' he moaned as he dragged the pillow over his face, not caring if he was too muffled for Sherlock to hear as he sought some relief from the way the light made his eyes ache. 'Closing time's a bit of a blur, but everything before that's fine.' He wanted to carry on, to remind Sherlock of the way they writhed together to the rhythm of the music and then glared at each other in the alley, lost in the mire of silence Shaw left in his wake. However, John did not feel strong enough to deal with the consequences of that conversation.

He complained when his fluffy shield was lifted away, draping his arm over his eyes instead and vaguely wondering if he should just cut his head off and be done with it.

'Nothing else?'

Sherlock's voice was a touch too casual, and John dropped his hand to squint up at the man next to him: the one who probably held all the answers but was still asking bloody questions rather than filling in the blanks.

'No, why? What –' John sighed, grimacing in disbelief as an answer breached his mind. 'Oh, God. Please tell me I wasn't drugged?' Sherlock raised a vaguely impressed eyebrow, and John continued in a grating voice. 'It's not exactly a brilliant deduction. I feel like road-kill, and I'm missing a chunk of last night.' He scowled at the ceiling, not seeing the white plaster but instead staring down the barrel of empty space that occupied his memory. 'Fuck.'

Sherlock's hand twitched in an aborted gesture before falling still, as if he had considered offering comfort and changed his mind. Instead, he began to speak, laying down the facts as cornerstones of reassurance. 'It probably happened ten to twenty minutes before you walked out of the door of Iso.' He tapped a key on the laptop and set it aside, shifting until he was sitting cross-legged. 'Most date-rape drugs are quick to take effect; it's part of their charm. I noticed symptoms shortly after we left. Slurred speech, poor coordination...'

'Just like almost everyone else after a night out,' John muttered, swearing under his breath as he scrambled for something he could work with to build up an idea of the absent hours. They were more horrifying than the fact he'd been under the influence of something chemical. 'It was in my drink?'

The bed shifted as Sherlock shrugged, his gaze slipping away to stare blankly at the sheets. 'I sent Lestrade and his team over to find what they could, but even if the evidence isn't already lost, locating it will probably be a challenge.'

'I'm surprised you're not there yourself.' It was an idle comment, one that made John pause as it slipped past his lips. 'Have you been with me all night?'

'Morning,' Sherlock corrected, gesturing to the window and the daylight beyond it. 'You weren't yourself. I couldn't leave you on your own, and you were adamant about avoiding A&E.'

John winced. It was only too easy to picture how that could have gone. Not that medical staff could do much for the moderately drugged, beyond basic care, but it would have ended up in his file. Every employer present and future would have questioned him about it, quietly judging as they tried to hide their suspicions. 'Thanks – this... ' He swallowed. 'I'm glad I don't have to explain this to anyone.'

'It wasn't my first choice,' Sherlock admitted. 'You were drugged with an unknown dose of a mystery substance. My mastery of life-saving skills is rudimentary, and medical attention seemed like the ideal course of action.'

'But you brought me back here.' John wasn't an idiot. His locum work aggravated Sherlock at the best of times. It would have been the perfect opportunity for a little sabotage masked behind good intentions, and yet Sherlock had listened. More to the point, he had done as John asked.

With a huff, he rolled on his side, trying to clear the fog from his eyes so that he could examine Sherlock properly. At first glance, he looked much as he always did. Still dressed in Lee's outfit, he seemed comfortably at ease, his long fingers picking idly at the quilt where its valleys began the gentle climb over the mountain-range of John's body. However, on closer inspection, John could see hints of something he could almost believe was fragility.

His expression was not one of indifference. Rather, it was the face of someone who had sat around and lost themselves in helpless worry. Judging by the books and reports strewn around the room, as well as the laptop, Sherlock had still been working on the case. Was he fighting boredom or attempting to distract himself?

Cautiously, he reached out, nudging Sherlock's knee with his knuckles. It seemed inadequate, ridiculously chaste after what happened back in Iso, but right now the events of the dance-floor were ethereal: distant and dreamlike. 'Thanks. For looking out for me, I mean.'

Perhaps other people would have been offended at the suggestion that there was any other option, but the same logic did not apply to Sherlock. It meant something that he had made the decision to stay home with John, rather than rushing back to the bar. He could easily have asked Mrs Hudson to watch him, or simply locked him in one room to minimise any damage.

Yet here he was.

'Did I –?' John scowled as he considered the wording of his next query. 'What happened, exactly?'

Sherlock looked up before turning away again, staring at the wall as he spoke. 'Nothing untoward, which is perhaps the most surprising aspect. I called Lestrade and got him to head to the club while I brought you home. You were clumsy and very passive, though more affectionate than usual.'

'Affectionate?' John repeated, frowning as Sherlock dismissed him with a flick of his hand. 'No hang on, what do you mean, affectionate?'

Sherlock sighed, his shoulders heaving in a melodramatic show of impatience. 'Tactile. Friendly. Indifferent to the boundaries of personal space.' He paused, and John wondered what other synonyms were being choked back. He'd clearly done something, though what, he had no idea, and his face darkened with mortification at the possibilities.

He almost demanded some kind of clarification, but a glance at Sherlock's face stilled the words. Pale cheeks were graced with a touch of pink, and he was studiously avoiding John's gaze as he cleared his throat and hurried on. 'I fed you, gave you water.' He reached out, his finger brushing very lightly over the bend of John's elbow. 'It was necessary to take some blood. There's no guarantee we'll find the drugged bottle, and I needed to know what substance was used.'

John frowned, unfolding his arm to inspect the vein. Sure enough, there was a tiny dot of a scab. No bruise, though: a professional extraction. No doubt Sherlock's skills had been practised on himself over the years. The fact Sherlock had harvested blood from him would have been harder to tolerate if it weren't for a logical cause. As it was, any protest would be a waste of time. He had acted out of necessity; John could not fault him for that.

'What did you find?' he asked, dragging the quilt higher over his shoulders, wishing he could bury himself and never emerge. The dull throb of embarrassment was mixing with the ooze of anxiety, leaving him low and wretched.

Sherlock unfolded himself from the bed, ignoring the papers strewn across the floor as he began to pace. 'Molly will text me when she has the results.' He clawed his hands through his hair before whirling around. 'None of this makes any sense! If you were drugged by the killer, we must assume his intentions towards you were the same as the previous victims, yet no effort was made to intercept us.' Sherlock's thumb rested on his lips, and John belatedly noticed the tan blemishes of several nicotine patches on his forearm. 'No one tried to influence you or remove you from my care – not that they would have had any success. Why dose you and then allow you to escape?'

John sighed, his brain slipping in the gears as he tried to think. He wanted to get up and take a shower – wash away the enduring smell of Iso and ease the pain that gnawed at his body – but he was too weary to move. If he didn't know better he would say he was wretchedly hungover. Either way, he was suffering too much to be of any use to Sherlock now.

The crinkling pop of plastic reached his ears, and he looked up to see Sherlock pressing some tablets free of a blister pack. 'Paracetamol,' he explained, holding the pearly capsules out to John. 'They'll help if you can keep them down. Shall I get you something to eat?'

'Toast would be good. No butter. Just plain bread.' John wasn't convinced his stomach could handle sustenance. Nausea churned beneath his navel, but he was willing to try anything to stifle the ache in his head. 'You sure it's all right to take these?' He raised his voice, wincing at the volume as Sherlock departed.

'Paracetamol won't react unduly with anything you're likely to have been given, though whether it will be strong enough to offer relief is another matter,' Sherlock called back. His trailing criticism of over-the-counter painkillers was heavily implied, and John sighed as he struggled to rearrange the pillows, propping himself up so he could take the pills without choking on them.

They slipped down his throat easily, and he closed his eyes, dragging the quilt up to his chin and trying not to dwell on how wretched he felt. There were, after all, plenty of subjects to choose from. Perhaps he should start with the fact that he was an idiot. Here he and Sherlock were, investigating a case where victims were drugged via their drinks, and John hadn't even thought to be concerned. He'd absently checked the bottles were lidded and watched Will undo his, but he had hardly stood sentry over it. The necessity hadn’t even permeated his consciousness.

This was the result.

It could be much worse. In the end, he'd been in good hands and stayed safe. Sherlock wasn't even chastising him for his stupidity, but he still wished he could remember something. Even a glimmer would be better than nothing.

Retrograde amnesia was common with a number of drugs, but John had never realised it would be so absolute. He could have done anything – anything could have been done to him – and he would have no idea. All he had was the evidence of the present, and that was inadequate to bridge the gap: a void which contained, it seemed, him being “affectionate” and Sherlock taking care of him, whatever that involved. Jam, judging by the smudge of dried blackcurrant on his wrist. Glasses of water, gentle blood extraction, a comfortable bed and seemingly constant observation.

'Here.'

John took the offered plate, nibbling the toast carefully as Sherlock resumed his pacing: all restless, manic energy. 'Did they just lose track of you? Seems careless, the other attacks appear to have some element of premeditation and planning. Also, why choose a member of staff? High profile and easily missed by colleagues, unless it was someone on the door.'

'You can't think one of the others working at Iso did this?' John asked, shaking his head.

'Why not?' Sherlock challenged. 'They were perfectly placed to contaminate your beer. They offered it to you in the first place.'

'Because it was Tomas' birthday...' John trailed off, setting down half of his toast uneaten and slumping back. 'Why would they bother? I mean, they all knew I was going to head home with you, and you said it yourself: no one tried to stop us leaving together.' He shut his eyes. 'More likely it was someone taking advantage of the rush as people left; for all you know they spiked the wrong bottle. I notice you're not pointing the finger at Shaw.'

That came out sounding more bitter than he intended, and John swore inwardly as he sensed the mood of the room change.

'You're right.' Sherlock sighed at John's look of surprise. 'Not about Shaw. Useless. Theorising about motive without available facts is a fool's game.' Sherlock pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, coming to a pause in front of the window. The weak light framed his silhouette, outlining slumped shoulders and a curved spine. Perhaps it was the lack of a suit, but he looked as close to defeat as John had seen him since that moment he stepped out at the poolside wearing a coat accessorised with Semtex.

A fool's game, he'd said, but Sherlock was still playing it, racing ahead for answers before he'd managed to cement the questions. John wondered if he was missing some detail: a facet that was slowly picking apart the threads of Sherlock's aloof control and leaving him like this – frantic for an answer.

Blearily, he looked around at the mess of paperwork. There appeared to be order amidst the chaos, notes and photographs connected by their proximity, but it was hard to see the method to Sherlock's madness. He wanted to ask the right questions – the ones that could lead Sherlock out of the briar and onto the road that led to the solution – but he could barely think around the thud of his head and the continuing sullen burn of humiliation. Every time he shut his eyes, it was a challenge to open them again, and John only noticed that he'd dozed off when Sherlock prodded him gently in the ribs.

'You'll make you head worse if you sleep like that. Lie down properly.'

'Ugh, I should get up and –' John waved a hand at Sherlock and the reports, wincing as his neck protested from the short time he had spent half-slumped against the headboard.

'You can help when you're recovered.' He sounded faintly amused, as if the thought of John being of any assistance now was ludicrous. 'Sleep a bit longer. It will do you good.' He dragged at John's shoulders, bullying him down the bed until he was prone once more, flat on his back and, admittedly, far too comfortable to consider leaving this nest.

'Don't go anywhere without me?' he asked, clammy fear clenching around his heart at the thought of Sherlock haring off back to the club or out into the sprawl of London by himself. Sherlock thought John had been drugged as a target, but he wondered if someone was actually trying to get him out of the way. It was the perfect opportunity. Anyone who knew Sherlock at all – and Shaw's face sprang instantly to mind – must at least suspect how unlikely it was for Sherlock to make anything else a higher priority than the Work.

Sherlock hesitated in the doorway, his laptop clenched in his hand. Bright eyes gleamed as he glanced over his shoulder and a faint smile haunted the corner of his mouth. 'Stop worrying,' he instructed. 'I won't leave the flat. Not until you're back on your feet.'

It was as much of a promise as John was going to get, more than he had dared to hope for, and he watched Sherlock step out of the room, leaving the door open a few inches. It was a small concession, but it allowed John to feel connected and involved, rather than excluded. If any sounds of alarm or frustration slipped past Sherlock's lips, he would hear them. For now, that would have to be enough: a tenuous finger on the pulse of his flatmate's well-being.

John nestled under the covers. It felt right to be here – not upstairs in his own room, but ensconced in Sherlock's domain. It was barely a stretch of the imagination to envision a different kind of Sunday morning, lazy and relaxed; Sherlock getting them both tea before returning to slip between the sheets and wrap himself up in John's arms.

Would he do that? John wondered as he closed his eyes. Here, away from the observation of others, would Sherlock demonstrate simple affection, or was it something for which he had neither time nor desire? A month ago, John would have been sure of the answer. However, he would also have bet good money that Sherlock would not stay at a drugged friend's bedside.

Wrinkling his nose, John allowed his thoughts to continue their lazy spin. Around him, the noises of Baker Street took on an echoing, distant quality. The throbbing of his headache lost its intensity as he slipped back into a shallow slumber. At first, it was blank and blissful, but at some indeterminate point, the dream began.

Cool air bathed his face, lilted with laughter as his feet seemed to float over the pavement. Something strong banded his waist, someone's arm perhaps, but then it was gone: its absence fundamentally wrong, and John could think of nothing but seeking it out once more.

Hands, clothes, heat... It boiled in his stomach and chest as the kiss seared his lips, branding them forever in some unknown, unremembered ownership. Someone was pressing him back against something, but John was free rather than caged, unleashed for the first time and passionate in his pursuit.

A wet gasp, half-orgasmic in itself, and John's entire body shook beneath the pull of his longing. Nothing mattered, not one damn thing except reaching out for his partner again and taking what he wanted.

The shock of distance, so abrupt, was an Arctic blast against his skin, and consciousness spooled across John's mind. His lashes fluttered as his indrawn breath hissed in the peaceful air of the bedroom, sibilant and disquieting as he took stock. He was lying on his front, thighs parted and cock hard as the dream shimmered through his memory, luminous and wraith-like.

For all that it wasn't visual, it seemed achingly real. His partner may have been faceless, an entity of sensation more than anything else, but he still knew it was Sherlock starring in the strange, shattered fantasy.

John brushed a hand against his lips, making the sensitive skin tingle. His erection twitched, and he rolled onto his side, adjusting his jeans. If he was in his own bed, he would have been happy to have a wank. It didn't matter that, technically, he had only dreamt of a kiss, his entire body was primed for more.

With a muffled groan, John tucked his hands under his armpits as he tried to will away his arousal. He couldn't do anything about it – not here, not now – and he couldn't even make an effort to bolt for his own room, not without causing himself terminal embarrassment. He tried to think about boring, mundane things, like grocery shopping, but he kept skipping back to the hot flash of Sherlock's tongue skating over his lip and into his mouth.

He could almost taste him, like it wasn't a dream at all, but a –

John froze, staring at the empty stretch of mattress as Sherlock's statement from earlier repeated in his mind. “Affectionate.” Now there was this, an imagining constructed from his memories of dancing with Sherlock and their latent yearning, or some unrecalled fragment of reality?

Had he kissed Sherlock last night?

His stomach lurched, torn between exalted thrill and cold, bitter dread. If he had, then it would explain some of what Sherlock meant. Had he – had he stolen something Sherlock wasn't happy to give? Was that why he waved away John's efforts to clarify precisely what had happened?

He concentrated, trying desperately to construct something more concrete from the vaporous fog, but his efforts were fruitless. There was nothing solid for him to grasp, and he was left hunched in Sherlock's bed, his desire swiftly ebbing beneath a tide of worry.

John chewed on the inside of his cheek, bogged down in his internal debate. He could ask, but that was the first step on a road of questions he wasn't sure he wanted to put into words. Maybe if the case didn't cloud everything with toxic smoke he wouldn't have hesitated. However, the mess with Shaw was just one of a veritable herd of elephants in the room, unaddressed but always on the edge of everyone's awareness.

With a quiet curse, he pressed his thumb and finger to his eyes, effectively pinching the bridge of his nose as he wavered between bold confrontation and craven silence. The latter would be easier – so much easier. He still ached and his head felt thick and stupid, but his heart thudded out a heavy, sick rebellion at the thought. He couldn't do this to himself. He had never been good at leaving a decision unmade, and this – it could be the biggest one of his life – but he needed information.

Sherlock possessed the answers; John just needed the courage to ask the questions.

He threw back the quilt, wobbling to his feet and wincing at the hollow grind in his head. His throat was raw, like someone had filled it with barbed wire while he slept, and he reached for the glass of water, draining the remnants. Cold air brushed over his naked chest, and he looked around for something to wear.

His t-shirt from last night was folded at the bottom of the bed, and he dragged it on, ignoring the scents that clung to the cloth as he pushed his way out into the main flat. His socked feet barely made any noise, but Sherlock still looked up from his laptop, pinning John with inquisitive silver eyes and halting the words that coated his tongue.

Sherlock was dressed. Not in casual clothes as John had grown used to over the past couple of days, but in the immaculate lines of a tailored suit. The jacket fit the breadth of his shoulders and concealed that svelte strength, but it also took away the traces of something more vulnerable. Sherlock looked like himself, the consulting detective through-and-through: distant, analytical...

Unemotional.

He was still the same man who had pressed against him and led them both through a searing dance amidst Iso's crowds. He was still the friend who kept watch at his bedside, yet his brain struggled to marry that kindness with the vision before him. This was his Sherlock, the one who disdained all sentiment, and John quailed at the idea of asking him anything about last night.

'How do you feel?'

Defeated, John wanted to say, but he could not surrender even that small grain of truth. Instead, he shrugged, looking around the flat and trying to keep the misery off his face. 'Still pretty hungover, but better than I was.' His voice cracked, hitching as the pressure of everything unspoken seemed to grow within his chest. He cleared his throat, clenching his left hand into a fist before releasing it again and turning towards the kettle: a coward after all.

'Found anything?' He kept the question light, as if this were just a normal day in Baker Street and nothing had changed.

There was a moment of silence, thick and loaded, uninterrupted by anything but the sounds of John making tea. Sherlock wasn't even typing, and John glanced over in time to catch the tail-end of some vanishing expression that he didn't understand. However, before he could dwell on it, the clatter of keys resumed and Sherlock spoke in a level, even voice. 'Nathan Brantley is turning out to be difficult to pin down. He was in the care of social services until he reached majority. There's a brief period of employment, no further education, and then he's listed as a shared tenant with Amanda Coleridge.'

'They lived together?' John glanced over at Sherlock, noticing how the screen's light made him seem almost ghost-like. 'For how long?'

'A year. Judging from what I've heard at the club, they were flatmates who became lovers.' John swallowed, trying not to draw inane parallels as Sherlock continued, 'Then one day he disappeared. Nothing in missing person's, no employment records or evidence of relocation...'

'If he was with social services then maybe there was no one to miss him?' John pointed out. 'If he told Amanda he was leaving her, she could have written off the lack of communication as disinterest.'

'Do people really do that?'

John looked up at the curious note in Sherlock's voice, regarding the puzzlement on his face. Yet it was more than intellectual confusion. There was something beyond a thirst for mere understanding, and he scrambled for a response.

'Sometimes.' He thought back to his relationships, which normally ended with the “don't bother to call” routine. 'Quite a lot, actually. Either you didn't care about them at all and privately think you're better off without them, so you don't try and maintain contact –'

'Or?' Sherlock demanded when John hesitated.

'Or it hurts too much to see them enjoying life without you, so you protect yourself; avoid them, get a new job, leave town, that kind of thing.' He shrugged, shifting where he stood. He'd always suspected that Sherlock's experience with relationships was limited, if not non-existent. The fact he was asking for clarification only provided proof, and John's heart ached as he thought of what a lonely life Sherlock must have had. Sex was one thing, and John was reluctant to assume that Sherlock had not experimented in that area, but it was a tiny part of a much bigger whole: something of acceptance and devotion – of mattering to people for more than your mind.

A beep from Sherlock's phone interrupted John's thoughts, and he watched him swipe his thumb down the screen, a frown clouding his brow as he read the message. With every word, a new mask settled over his face, rigid and uninformative, and John straightened his shoulders as Sherlock got to his feet.

'I need to get to the morgue.'

'Molly got some results for you?' John folded his arms as Sherlock hummed in agreement. 'Well? I think I have a right to know, considering it's my blood and everything.'

'They're inconclusive. I need to run some additional tests.'

'I'm coming with you.' John had already set his mug down and started looking for his boots, only to be stopped by Sherlock's hand on his arm. The physical contact was like sunlight melting away the ice of distance between them, and he shifted closer as Sherlock shook his head.

'There's no point. You can't test your own blood, not without calling the evidence into question. As it is I'll need to leave enough for Anderson to validate my conclusions.' His eyes darted around John's face, no doubt scavenging every crumb of information. 'Besides, you're still experiencing the after-effects of the drug. Your time would be better spent recovering so that you're ready for work at the bar again tomorrow. I'll call you if I need you.'

'Sherlock –' John shook his head, but warm fingers against his jaw stilled the movement. The touch ignited sparks beneath his skin, leaving him breathless and entranced as Sherlock's thumb rasped, just once, over the boundary of his stubble.

'An hour or two is all it will take to help you recover, but if you rush off to the labs with me now, you'll suffer all day.' Sherlock wet his lips, the tip of his tongue arresting John's attention before it withdrew, hiding once more behind the cage of Sherlock's teeth. 'I'd wait for you if I could, but we need to know precisely what you took last night, and the sooner the better. I –' He blinked, dark lashes briefly obscuring the earnest gleam of his gaze as he bit back more words and settled instead for a quiet, 'Please?'

John hesitated, cocking his head as he regarded Sherlock's face, trying to separate honest emotion from the subtle slide of manipulation. He wished he couldn't see the latter, but it was there: the upwards curve of Sherlock's brow was too imploring. When he was being genuine, his voice deepened and his eyes blazed. This was not entirely manufactured – John could perceive a solid bedrock of truth – but there was more to it than Sherlock's regard for his well-being: something he wasn't being told.

Sherlock wanted to keep him away from the lab, but why?

The urge to challenge him was almost overwhelming, but John knew a dead-end when he saw it. Sherlock would either feign ignorance or simply turn and walk away. Instead, he endeavoured to arrange his face into an expression of capitulation. Sherlock wouldn't answer anything directly, and John was too tired to join in what would no doubt be a war of attrition. No, if Sherlock refused to tell him outright, then he'd have to find the truth for himself.

If that meant tailing his bloody flatmate through London, then so be it.

'Fine,' he grunted at last, breathing out a reluctant sigh and turning towards the stairs to his room. 'I'll have a shower and catch you up: an hour, if that. Text me when you get to the morgue?'

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. Perhaps he expected more of a fight, but he let it slide as he nodded in quick agreement, already grabbing his coat and scarf as John trotted to his room to get clean clothes. He considered changing straight away. Perhaps then, he would only be a dozen steps behind Sherlock, but caution stayed his hand. Better to be sure. If he ran downstairs now, changed and unwashed, and Sherlock was still there then the game would be up.

Grabbing what he needed, he hastened back down to the living room, barely blinking when he saw Sherlock standing in the doorway, apparently sending a text. 'Thought you were in a hurry?' he asked lightly.

'A moment ago you were desperate to join me; now you're eager for me to leave.' The corner of Sherlock's lips tilted up as he raised an eyebrow. 'Were you planning to follow me immediately, or wait a few minutes first?'

John clenched his teeth, mentally cursing himself. He should have known better than to hope that Sherlock wouldn't see right through him. 'Why would I need to do that?'

'John …'

'No, Sherlock.' He shook his head, cutting off whatever lie or platitude was about to pass Sherlock's lips as his temper ran out. The ache in his temples intensified and the sad, hollow pain in his stomach grew. 'Forget it, just – You know, whatever's going on, keep it to yourself. That's what you normally do, isn't it? Why bother informing me? I was only drugged, that's all. What have I got to do with it?'

Sherlock pocketed his phone, his expression closing off in such a way that suggested any further conversation would be met with nothing but disdainful silence. He pulled on his gloves without a word, those full lips pressed together and his head turned away, taking in the floor, the wall... anything but John.

Sherlock didn't do guilt, at least not often. However, John recognised the petulant signs of someone who knew they were in the wrong, and that evidence only enhanced the dread that filled the hollows of his bones. He wished he could find the right thing to say to make Sherlock confide in him, but words failed him.

'Sherlock –' John swore as he swept out of the door, the clatter of his footsteps down the stairs heralding his departure. The growl of a taxi pulling away echoed from the road below, and he breathed a sigh, his fingers twisting in the knot of clean clothes as he stared around the empty flat.

Scratching his eyebrow with his thumb, he shook his head, entering the bathroom and flicking on the shower. He still wanted to pursue Sherlock, to hunt him through the streets and make sure he was safe, but the last five minutes had opened the wound of everything that was being left unsaid. Sherlock was hiding something from him, but his outburst had been precisely the wrong course of action. He had retreated in both mind and body. Now the chances of him volunteering any of the information that John craved was slim-to-none.

He was inclined to lunge out of the door in Sherlock's wake, but logic held him back; another confrontation would do them no good. He'd sort himself out and follow on behind. Maybe Sherlock was right, and a couple of hours would be enough to pull John's wobbling confusion and aching body back into equilibrium.

Quickly, he stripped out of his grubby, creased clothes before rescuing his phone from his pocket and considering the blank screen. Sherlock might not forget to text out of spite, but it was possible that he might take shelter in his own distraction and allow such a triviality to slip his mind. However, there were other, more grounded people within the walls of Bart's who could keep John informed.

Molly was fairly reliable, and Mike even more so. It felt dodgy, getting acquaintances to check up on Sherlock's story, but John shook it aside. Sherlock could be trusted with many things, but his own safety was often disregarded in pursuit of the case. If he was telling the truth and Bart’s was his destination, then John would leave him to it for a while. If not?

He'd know in half an hour when Sherlock failed to show up at the labs.

Setting his mobile aside, he stepped under the shower's spray, allowing the warm water to dislodge the grime that clogged his skin. It ousted the last vestiges of pain from John's body, leaving him wishing it was as easy to cleanse himself of the tense, dank sensation that settled below his ribs.

He should be used to it by now, yet it never got any easier when Sherlock took off, following a lead through the warrens of London or the corridors of his mind palace. John was always left feeling small and insignificant: a minor detail in Sherlock's life, rather than something integral.

Perhaps that was why, today, it hurt so much. He couldn't stop thinking about the twist and slide of Sherlock's body on the dance-floor or the moments where the air turned tight and hot between them. It had been happening with increasing frequency, like minor quakes that led up to a single, world-altering event, and some part of John honestly hoped that they were about to take a step forward. Instead, it was as if nothing had changed. Sherlock still acted alone, and John was left behind

With a sigh, he stepped out of the shower, turning off the flow of water as he braced himself for the day ahead. He cleaned his teeth and shaved the stubble from his face before clothing himself in his more normal fare, his mind constantly spinning as he sought out the words that would bring him and Sherlock back into balance. Ridiculously, he felt he should be apologising, and he squashed down the urge as he pulled open the bathroom door. He wasn't the one keeping secrets or trying to cut people out of the loop, so –

'I trust you are well, Doctor Watson?'

He jolted sideways, whipping around in shock to stare at the man settled comfortably in Sherlock's armchair as if he had every right to be there.

'Bloody hell, Mycroft!' John snapped, scrubbing his hands over his face before gesturing to the door. 'Don't you know how to knock? How did you even get in?' He shook his head, not sure he wanted to know. 'Forget it, never mind. If you're here to annoy your brother, you're too late. He's already left.'

Mycroft smiled politely, rubbing the fingers of his right hand together in an idle gesture. 'So I am aware. Best he doesn't know I was here, really. It's you I came to see. I assume you are recovered?'

It was pointless to ask how Mycroft knew what had happened. There were plenty of cameras between Iso and the flat. The chances were that John and Sherlock had stumbled into the field of view dozens of times on their journey home.

'I've been better,' John admitted. 'Why the sudden interest?'

Mycroft reached into his jacket, pulling free a small notebook and parting it to the relevant page. The older Holmes was even harder to read than Sherlock, his expression perfectly crafted, but John noticed the downward tilt of his lips as he uttered a name which set John's teeth on edge.

'Dominic Shaw. I believe you've met him.'

John pinned Mycroft with a hard stare, trying to distil anything useful from his appearance. Needless to say, he had successfully caught John's attention: he was all ears. 'Unfortunately,' he agreed at last. 'He's involved in the case we're working on. At least –' He shrugged. '– I think he is. Sherlock's not exactly explained much.'

'Nor is he likely to do so.' Mycroft got to his feet, retrieving his umbrella from where it rested against Sherlock's chair. 'He will have furnished you with a few details, perhaps enough to set your mind at rest.' Blue eyes, muddier than Sherlock’s crystal gaze, considered John carefully. 'Or perhaps not. You're suspicious.'

'So who is he?' He ignored Mycroft's statements: veiled attempts at fishing for information. The man could guess all he wanted; he'd get nothing from John. 'Shaw I mean.'

'The question is not whom, but what. He, and his late father before him, were strongly tied to the drug trades running from South America to England.'

'Dealers?'

'Facilitators. Suppliers. The upper management of the illegal pharmaceuticals business.' Mycroft's smile was gone now, lost beneath a wash of something cold and punishing. 'Shaw went to university with Sherlock. As far as I have been able to discern, their interactions were limited, but there is no doubt that he has some personal knowledge of my brother's tastes, including a clear understanding of one of his biggest weaknesses.' He dug the point of his umbrella into the floor, grinding it into the rug beside his foot. 'Efforts to bring him to justice have fallen flat. The evidence to tie him into the web he has woven around himself has yet to be found, though not for lack of trying.'

John hesitated, folding his arms and bowing his head as he blew out a steadying breath. Perhaps he should have been surprised, but honestly, it barely registered. He kept picturing Shaw leaning into Sherlock's space, whispering promises into his ear. It had looked so intimately erotic, but what if it wasn't sex that Shaw had been offering? What if it was something else entirely?

'This case has placed Sherlock distressingly close to acquaintances from his past. People whom I would prefer were kept at a distance, if not eradicated completely.' That last was added in a murmur, as if Mycroft had been inclined to make various individuals disappear for good.

'It's the nature of what we do.' John swallowed, licking his lips before he continued. 'Your brother can't solve all crimes except those relating to drugs. It doesn't work that way.'

'Indeed.' He turned, giving John a steady, measuring stare. 'Yet you do not trust him any more than I.'

'Now, hang on a minute –' He stammered to a halt, silenced by the supercilious lift of Mycroft's eyebrow as his denial fell flat. 'There's a difference. Me and Greg, we try and keep Sherlock away from temptation, you know that. The same as you and your damn “danger nights”. None of us want to see him in the position where he has to say no.'

'Because it is possible that he might say yes instead. The war is never won, John, and Sherlock does not always have the strength to withstand the assault.' Mycroft pursed his lips, breathing in through his nose before glancing at his watch. 'He should be at the laboratory by now, don't you think?'

John glanced at the clock on the mantelpiece, realising his mobile had stayed silent in his pocket. No texts. 'You reckon he's gone somewhere else?'

'Possibly. I imagine that depends on his priorities. If he has succumbed to his need for illegal stimulation, then he could be in any number of places. If, on the other hand, he is more concerned about what happened last night and your continuing welfare –'

The rasp of John's phone interrupted, and he let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding as he dragged it out to check the screen. Two messages, one from Molly, one from Mike, both telling him the same thing. Sherlock was in the labs, glued to a microscope as usual.

He shot a triumphant glance in Mycroft's direction, noticing how the older Holmes looked surprisingly satisfied for someone who had just been proven wrong. 'He's exactly where he should be.' He tightened his hand around the device in his grasp, trying not to let his relief leave its legacy on full view for Mycroft to read. 'I know you and Sherlock don't get on, and this is how you work – sneaking around behind his back and everything – but maybe a little faith wouldn't hurt?'

'Really, John?' He huffed a laugh, swinging his umbrella idly as he turned away from the window. 'Faith is blind.'

'Love,' John corrected absently. 'The saying is “Love is blind”, not faith.'

'So it is.' Mycroft smirked, contemplating him in a way that made him feel as if he had put every last piece of his sentimental heart on display.

Broad shoulders straightened, and he nodded his head as he turned to depart. 'Do look after my brother, won't you?' Mycroft headed for the door, hesitating on the threshold and speaking over his shoulder. 'I sincerely hope that your belief in him is not misplaced.'

John pursed his lips, holding his tongue as Mycroft's footsteps departed down the stairs and vanished from earshot. He was too tired to play the Holmes' games, but that didn't mean he could ignore what Mycroft had said. Knowing that Shaw occupied such an enticing facet of Sherlock's life – not sex after all, but something Sherlock no doubt found much more stimulating – was enough to make the hairs prickle on the back of John's neck.

He was not an idiot, and nor was he blind, no matter what Mycroft implied. He knew Sherlock struggled – had seen the siren whispers of need at times – and experienced quiet, euphoric pride every time he pushed beyond it. John liked to believe he'd helped with that, providing distractions and keeping that whiplash mind from flaying itself to pieces in the quiet times between cases.

The idea of someone – some arrogant little shit like Shaw – undoing all of Sherlock's hard work with empty promises made John's skin itch with anger, and he paced in a frantic, tight line before reaching for his jacket.

Pocketing his wallet and keys, he switched off the lights and trotted down the stairs to the front door. If Sherlock was being tested by someone from his past – enticed by a promise he might not have the strength to resist – then John would do whatever he could to help.

He would not leave Sherlock to struggle on alone.

Chapter Text

Sherlock stared at the computer screen, his face bathed in its glacial light as he examined the spectral analysis. There was nothing inconclusive about Molly's results, regardless of what he had said to John only an hour ago. The bleak truth was there for anyone to see, undeniable.

'I can run it again, if you like?' Tremulous, Molly's voice seemed to shiver in the quiet air, her slender fingers twisting in a nervous dance as she wavered at his shoulder. He hadn't enlightened her about the origin of the sample, but she must realise that it belonged to one of the occupants of 221B. Perhaps that was why she spoke with such a soft tone. Whether it was him or John, the evidence held dire implications.

'That won't be necessary,' he murmured, trying to push aside the chill that seeped through his skin and flowed like liquid ice within his veins. 'You won't get an answer more definitive than this. It's a match.'

'Yes.' Her hand shook as she pointed out the peaks and troughs of the relevant chemical signature. 'Well, part of it is. I mean the others had more than one foreign compound in their blood. The first two were also injected with ketamine.'

'They were drugged with the GHB first.' Sherlock indicated the report. 'It was in the victims' systems the longest, therefore it had suffered significant degradation. Once the effects started to fade, other chemicals were added in an effort to modulate the high. They wanted to increase the length of time each individual was incapacitated. An incorrect dose killed the first two, but what about the others?'

Molly glanced around for the relevant file, scurrying off to her office to retrieve it and leaving Sherlock to press his steepled fingers to his lips. He tried to think, but his intellect was occupying a single track, racing around in maddening panic. John had been targeted; the synthetic prophecy was spread out for Sherlock's divination. If he had not been there to take John home...

The hard clench of his stomach made him grunt, and he swallowed thickly as he wrested his mind free of its captivity. He could not help but care for John, anything else was ridiculous to consider, but he could not let it paralyse him. He could not succumb to endless, twitching worry now that his fears had been realised, not if he wanted to catch who was responsible. That was the way to make sure John was safe, and to stop the near-miss of last night becoming a delayed inevitability.

'Here we are.' Molly held out the paperwork to him. 'Cause of death remains unclear. Whatever they used, it's not leaving much trace. GHB is still present –'

'Their intoxicant of choice.'

'– but it was hard to find it. There was almost nothing left. The same with the alcohol; neither of them were more than a bit tipsy.'

'That would reduce the potency of the drug.' Sherlock frowned, his eyes darting over the salient facts as questions formed. 'The latter two should have required additional dosage, more so than the first, but there's nothing to indicate that the killer attempted it.' He turned to the crime scene photos, taking in the signs of a struggle: weak and ineffectual. That wasn't right. By the time of their deaths, they should have been in a similar state to John this morning. Groggy, yes, but strong and cognizant.

'Why didn't they fight harder?' He flicked back and forth through the pages. 'What else? What about sustenance – the last thing they ate?'

She took it from his grip, turning to the relevant folio and reading it over. 'All variable. They'd eaten within three hours of death. Bar food, mostly. Crisps and things. Peanuts.'

'Nothing else? Come on! There must be something!'

Molly jumped, her mouth pressing into a thin, aggravated line of coral pink as she blinked rapidly, clutching her clipboard to her chest. Her chin went up, pugnacious at the most inconvenient moments, and defiance wobbled in her words. 'I know you're scared, but I'm doing all I can.'

'Scared?' He almost spat it, his nostrils flaring as he shook his head. 'You're mistaken. I'm not in any danger.'

'No, but he is.' She drew in a breath, her shoulders straightening as Sherlock hesitated, glancing at her with narrowed eyes. 'It's okay to be frightened.'

'Molly –'

She turned away, flipping open the dossier and clearing her throat. She appeared to be one step away from putting her fingers in her ears to block out his protests, and Sherlock subsided. It was not as if he could put forward a convincing denial, not when she was right.

Her brow cinched as she consulted her notes. 'There were flakes of metal in their stomachs. Tiny, I almost missed them. I sent them off for analysis but –' She skimmed the page and shook her head. 'They've not got back to me yet. I'll go and chase it.'

'Get the bodies out as well,' Sherlock ordered, softening his voice when she glanced sharply in his direction. 'Please? I need to take a closer look.'

Molly ducked her head in agreement, the weight of her presence diminishing until he was alone once more, glaring at the screen as if he could somehow change the data. He had yearned to discover that his initial assumptions were wrong. Far preferable that John was drugged by mistake – an innocent bystander – but these results refuted the possibility.

He closed his eyes as he considered the new information, slotting it into to the twisted, ghastly construct of his theories. It was one piece of a much larger whole, and far from being the key to the puzzle, it only complicated the issue, leaving him scavenging for a weakness that would collapse the edifice of the mystery and bring it crashing into a solution.

Reaching into his pocket, he felt the slick weight of the vial. He had switched it from his jeans while John was asleep, and now it pressed against his hand, fitting neatly into his palm as he pulled it free. There had been inadequate time to investigate its secrets. Even the thought of a rudimentary visual examination had not occurred to him: not with John lying in his bed, oblivious and vulnerable, or standing in their kitchen, his expression a mask of emotion that Sherlock could not name.

Now, he lifted the bottle to the light, appraising the clear fluid for impurities and noting the lack of viscosity. He preferred to purchase cocaine in powder form and mix it himself. It was easier to distinguish good quality from cheap crack by watching it dissolve. Most additives, common in street purchases, would be visible to the naked eye. This was flawless. To the uninitiated, it appeared no more ominous than water.

With quick movements, he got to work, withdrawing some of the substance for identification. He filled two micro-centrifuge tubes, setting one aside – a spare sample – before concentrating his efforts on the first as he began his experiments.

His methods were instinctive: checking concentrations and preparing the necessary liquids. There was something calming about his actions – footsteps on the path of progress – a blessing after the tense, endless waiting of the early hours of that morning.

He had tried to focus on the investigation, but the task was a monumental effort. Too easily, he had been distracted by the gentle, snuffling breaths of John sleeping at his side. The pressure of strong fingers tangling in the denim of his jeans was a phantom memory against his thigh, and Sherlock smiled as he remembered the way John had roused himself, groggy and grasping, when Sherlock had risen to answer the door to Molly.

Sleep had found him again by the time Sherlock returned, and John had not even stirred as he reclaimed his place on the bed and picked up his laptop. One hand rested softly – guiltily – in John's hair while the other continued its hurried dance across the keys in a quest for information. However, the pursuit was unsuccessful. When John awoke again, Sherlock had been no closer to finding a resolution, and his return to consciousness was a welcome distraction. It allowed Sherlock to pull himself free from the swamp of his musings and regard the man in his bed.

Unsurprisingly, John's memories of the night before were non-existent after his consumption of the drug. Sherlock expected relief, but instead the heavy, lank weight of disappointment lingered in his gut. It had been easy, with John open and trusting, to lose himself in that stolen kiss and give an oblique confession of how much he hoped for a change in their relationship. In the face of John's vulnerability, finding his courage had been simple.

The cold light of day brought with it a harder reality. The idea of John saying that his actions were a mistake or being repulsed by what had happened sat like putrescence in Sherlock's mind, and he could not bring himself to utter the necessary repetition of his sentiments. Instead, he had given John the facts he required to feel safe but obscured the details, even though his heart took up a punishing ache as he did so.

A few months ago, he would have sneered at such a psychosomatic ailment; now there was no choice but to acknowledge its presence. The hurt had only increased as John's quiet queries of the morning gave way to the sharper edge of his anger. He never took well to being excluded, and today was no different. Both Molly and Mike Stamford had sent surreptitious texts, no doubt informing John of his whereabouts. It would not be long before the man himself walked through the doors, bullying his way into the investigation despite Sherlock's urgings to the contrary. In this, John was a predictable entity, and that was as comforting as it was frustrating.

The obliging beep of the computer breached the silence, and he turned towards the screen, reading the information with a practised eye and blinking in surprise. He had hypothesised about the potential identity of the substance in the vial, but he had never given more than a fleeting, wishful thought to the possibility that Shaw was telling the truth.

Now, the answer was plain: seven percent high purity cocaine, Bolivian in origin, mixed with saline.

Just the way you like it.

Sherlock swallowed, pinching his bottom lip between his teeth. For a few, thundering seconds, he could see nothing but the distinctive spectral signature of the chemical he craved. It made his body hum, a finely tuned instrument awaiting the first chords of the concerto. It was like standing on the lip of a chasm and longing to fall – only vaguely aware that there would be no way back. Perhaps it would kill him, taking the plunge, but for a short while at least, he would soar...

A deep breath filled his lungs, more like water than air, but he held it in anyway, ordering himself to take the metaphorical step back from the edge. It was a familiar sensation, that lethal fascination and endless longing, but there was a different kind of thrill to be found in resistance. Unexpected strength – moral, not physical, mental, not muscular. It was nothing in comparison to the aria of cocaine in his veins, but it was more acceptable to other concerned parties than the alternative.

With a shake of his head, he directed his attention to the facts, absorbing the details as if he were reading a fingerprint. Everything, from the soil in which the coca was grown to environmental factors left their mark. It was a forest of undulations, some fractional, others marked, but there was one particular peak, staggered towards its summit, that sparked recognition.

Grace abandoned him as he lunged for the report Molly had left on the desk, nearly tearing the pages in his haste as he rummaged for the image. There, the profile of the GHB in the victims' blood. It was a different set of waves – a unique molecular story – but the same distribution was visible. Dropping the file, he snatched up the results of John's blood test from the printer and held them up next to the screen, reading the same correlation. It was more obvious, the GHB still relatively intact, and Sherlock let out a shuddering breath as the connection revealed itself.

The cocaine Shaw had provided and the GHB used by the murderer shared an element of commonality. An ingredient of both underwent treatment in the same place, creating an indelible link. However, even as Sherlock's heart surged with relief, the truth began to impinge upon his success.

Making drugs involved many benign components, as well as the toxic and illegal active ingredients. He would need a more in-depth study to isolate the precise nature of their parity and evaluate how incriminating it was; it could take days – precious time that he did not have to spare.

Besides, Shaw may not be the brightest of individuals, but even he would not be so stupid as to hand over damning evidence of his own culpability to a man known to work with the police. He had not survived so long in an illegal trade by taking unseemly risks. Had his ego obscured his judgement; did he truly believe Sherlock would choose not to check the contents? It seemed unlikely. Stupidity was the downfall of many criminals, but surely Shaw knew better than this?

Sherlock drummed his fingers on the table, reaching absently for the vial's lid. He was about to replace it when something caught his eye. An oily residue on the interior, faintly discoloured, gleamed in the discordant fluorescence of the lab. Tilting it to get a better view, he could make out the faint whorls of a partial print. It was not much, but Lestrade and his team could derive a conviction from less, and its presence sparked the glimmer of an idea.

Whether Shaw was the killer or not, he was still a lynch-pin in London’s drug scene: a key supplier to the street. The police had been trying to tie him down for years, but he possessed the sense to hide his tracks.

Until now.

'They're ready,' Molly called out, gesturing over her shoulder. Her eyes darted to the screen and the printouts as Sherlock got to his feet, peeling the gloves free from his hands before grabbing an uncontaminated pair. 'Maybe you'll find something I missed.'

Anyone else would have issued that as a challenge, but Molly sounded comfortable with the admission. Her stride was quick but professional as she led him into the next room, where two bodies, garbed in draped sheets, awaited his attention. 'If you hadn't said so, I wouldn't think they were connected to the first pair.'

'What makes you say that?'

'They're not in bits?' Molly's eyebrows lifted before she looked down at her clipboard, standing back to let Sherlock inspect them more closely. He took in everything: tan lines and bruises, defensive injuries and the placid, deathly set of their features. Both were blond, like the first two, though the shade of their hair varied from ash to wheat.

However, it was the puncture low on the neck of the man on the left that caught his attention. Bloodless now he had been washed, it was almost invisible. His pocket magnifier was in his hand a second later, and Sherlock grimaced as he examined the wound. It was made at a shallow angle: a prick that tapered into a scratch on the skin's surface. Whoever administered the shot had been in a hurry, possibly battling a struggling target.

He reached out, palpitating the flesh and drawing in a breath as he found something. It was lodged in the dermal layer. Sherlock picked up a scalpel, barely paying attention to the sound of the morgue doors swinging open as he sliced through dead skin to the splinter of metal beneath.

'What is it?' Molly asked, tucking her hair behind her ear as she leant in for a better view, considerate enough not to block Sherlock's light.

'Needle tip. My initial impression is that it's a standard hypodermic. Indistinct, but it might be possible to identify what was in it if you can retrieve anything from the bore.' It was a long-shot; the steel had been lodged in place for days. Any chemical contained within it would probably have already decayed. 'Check the tissue around the wound for anything unusual. If he died not long after this happened, there could be something we can use.' He gestured to the other body. 'See if he has a matching mark.'

'Anything I should know about?'

Lestrade's voice was tired to the ear, and Sherlock glanced up to see him and John at the end of the table. The DI's gaze was fixed on the corpse, his expression one of exhausted pity. John, on the other hand, was watching Sherlock, inquisitive and aware.

Initially, he appeared as healthy as ever. His skin, so pale that morning, had regained its usual warmth. His head was held high, his frame falling into its normal at-ease pose, though Sherlock did not miss the aggressive line of his shoulders: determined, rather than relaxed. The only sign of a night spent in less-than-ideal circumstances was the pinch around John's eyes, implying the last vestiges of a headache throbbed at his temples.

Sherlock straightened up before shaking his head. 'A few trace deposits that we're trying to identify.'

'Lab says another twenty-four hours for the flakes I found,' Molly added apologetically, shrugging her shoulders. 'There isn't even anything left for us to examine. The sample was too small.'

'Then we'll have to wait. What about you?' Sherlock turned to the DI. 'What did you get at Iso?'

Lestrade pulled a folder out from where it was tucked under his arm. 'You're not exactly popular right now. I nearly threw the owner in a cell for being an interfering git. We got all the bottles we could, but we didn't find any contaminated empties.'

'So what's this from?' Sherlock held up another page, the staggered line on the chart an identical match for those found in John's blood.

'It was in among a load of full ones the cleaning team were tipping down the kitchen sink. There's no way to tell where it was in the club. The bottle was green: a Pilsner.'

'Mine were all brown,' John interceded. 'At least, I think they were.'

'That's what Sherlock asked us to look for,' Lestrade agreed, 'and he normally knows what he's talking about. Sally yelled at the cleaners for chucking evidence, grabbed it and put it down with the ones to be tested. It's the only bottle that was dodgy.'

Sherlock sighed. 'Then John's was disposed of before you got there. The chemicals in his blood match what we found in the victims.' He glanced at John. 'If you had been in the main room of the club, I could be convinced you were drugged by accident, but by the door –' He shook his head, scowling at the information Lestrade had given him. 'The question is, who was this for? Why contaminate a drink that wasn't yours?'

'Maybe they were after someone else as well?' Lestrade shrugged, indicating the corpses. 'We have been finding them in pairs. Is there anything to suggest whoever's doing this isn't taking two at once?'

'Actually, yes.' Molly ducked her head as she became the centre of attention. 'The first two were pretty manky – you know, decomposed – but one was worse than the other. He'd been dead longer.'

'By how much?' John asked, pacing closer. In theory, it was probably to concentrate his attention on the pathologist, but he stopped at Sherlock's side, close enough that their shoulders brushed.

'At least a week. It's the same with these two, except they've been somewhere cold. There's frost damage in their deep tissues: they'd been killed and put in a freezer or something. The second one's suffered less ice-damage, so he hasn't been in cold storage as long as the other one.' She ran a nervous hand through her ponytail, but her voice was steady as she continued, 'There's no sign of long term restraint on either of them, so I don't think one's being kept a prisoner while the other's...used.'

'They're being taken at different intervals.' Sherlock flipped the file shut and tapped it against his palm. 'The fact we have found two pairs of victims is a coincidence, nothing more. That welding job on the roof was amateurish – what if it had been cut open more than once? The first corpse hidden and left to rot, then the second added at a later date. Easy enough to get some sheet metal, a blow torch and some paint.'

'You think if we hadn't found it they'd have kept putting the bodies there?'

He nodded in response to John's question. 'It's a safe, secure dump site, or so the murderer believed; there was no reason not to continue using it indefinitely. We can see from the evidence that victims three and four were killed before we discovered the first two in the storage container, yet they weren't placed inside it. The killer didn't stop using the unit because it had been discovered. There must be some other reason.'

'Wonderful,' Lestrade muttered, closing his eyes in frustration at the additional nuance. 'Why freeze them? Why not get rid of them as soon as they're dead?'

'It's hard to be sure,' Sherlock admitted. 'Perhaps it's a logistical issue to do with transporting the bodies, but without more concrete information...' Sherlock closed his eyes, frustration roughening his voice. 'This whole case is becoming increasingly senseless.'

Molly pressed her lips together, her eyes taking on a remorseful gleam as if she were somehow to blame. Lestrade looked lost, too used to Sherlock knowing the answers before they'd even come up with the questions. Only John remained solid and dependable, his confidence in Sherlock's abilities unflinching, even as Sherlock himself wondered if it was misplaced.

'I got nothing else for you,' the DI murmured. 'We've found no personal effects, and there's no additional information on Coleridge or this Nick Shaw bloke.'

'Dominic.' John glanced at Sherlock before facing Lestrade. 'It's Dominic Shaw, not Nicholas.' He ducked his head, his voice softer as he added, 'Mycroft dropped by the flat and filled me in on a few details about Shaw's... business interests.'

Sherlock scowled. Of course his brother felt it necessary to interfere. Was Shaw all that he discussed with John, or had other, more personal matters been dragged into the light? After all, Mycroft's CCTV covered most of London, including the front door of Baker Street. The hope that he was unaware of what had passed on their threshold was ludicrous, and something cold oozed through Sherlock's belly at the thought.

However, a quick glance at John allayed his fear. His posture was neither uncertain nor embarrassed. Everything about him was defiant, as if he were bracing himself to confront an issue he'd long hoped to avoid. Either Mycroft had told him and John was unconcerned, or he was still unaware of what they had shared. However, it was not the issue at hand, and anything else John may have said was held back as Lestrade spoke.

'Dominic Shaw? The Dominic Shaw? Christ, you're kidding me.'

'You know him?' John asked, cocking his head as Lestrade gave a snort of agreement.

'I know of him. Everyone at the Yard does. Big on the drug scene, filling some kind of supply role. We all know what he's doing, but none of us can prove a damn thing. Slippery little fuck. Sorry.' His apology was directed at Molly, who blinked and blushed at the courtesy.

'That's okay, I don't mind. Why's he important? I mean, drugs are awful and everything, but...' She gestured to her charges, indicating a different arena of crime.

Sherlock turned away, barely hearing John's response as he returned to the space where he had been working. The glass vial, only a third full now, gleamed in the lab's caustic illumination. With a quick buff of his sleeve, he wiped away any prints that might linger on its surface: all his, no doubt. They would only complicate an investigation. Lestrade could be trusted to keep any suspicions in unofficial channels, but if Anderson or anyone else found anything to link it back to him, they would have a field day. There wasn't time for that sort of distraction. Besides, there was still the partial on the interior of the lid – probably Shaw's – undisturbed.

He looked up as John and Lestrade followed him, nudging their way through the door. 'If I can provide you with due cause for a proper warrant on Shaw, will you put it to good use?'

His question cut through the air, neither loud nor sharp, but definitive. John blinked, his brow creased and his expression unreadable. However, it was Lestrade who needed to reply, and Sherlock watched the flicker of suspicions across the DI's face.

'Yes,' he said at last, dragging the word out and burdening it with his hazy assumptions. 'Why? You telling me he's a suspect in all this?'

Sherlock ran his tongue along the edge of his teeth as he considered his next words. 'Superficially, that would appear to be true. However, I'm not convinced he's guilty of murder. That said, with the right warrant, we can no doubt remove him from the picture for a considerable length of time.'

'How long?' Lestrade seemed intrigued, but there was a sallow hue to his face that Sherlock associated with concern. He had seen it, in years past, when he turned up at a scene skating the knife-edge of a high. It was worry both professional and personal. Back then, it had been an aggravating sight; now it was moderately gratifying, if inconvenient.

'That depends on what you find and how you push the prosecution. Ten years minimum, unless your narcotics squad makes a real mess of it.'

Triumph flashed in Lestrade's dark eyes. It didn't matter that this didn't fall under his jurisdiction; if he was seen to orchestrate the imprisonment of a major player like Shaw, it would go well for everyone involved. 'What have you got for me?'

Sherlock glanced at John, noticing the intensity of his gaze. Had he guessed what Shaw gave him; had Mycroft told him, or did he deduce it for himself? No matter; it was John's reaction that he dreaded more than Lestrade's. The DI would bluster and fret, but in this, John was an unknown quantity: a man of strong moral conscience who already struggled with the addictions of his family members and the consequences thereof. Would their friendship survive, steadfast and reliable with that frisson of something more, or would this be the catalyst that eventually drove him away?

His heart stuttered at the notion, but there was no turning back now.

'This is all off the record. My name's not to be mentioned on official documentation; not if you want a chance of conviction.' He waited for Lestrade to nod his understanding, ignoring the way the lines around the older man's eyes deepened. 'Last night, Shaw gave me this.' He held out the vial, watching Lestrade's scowl deepen before the DI reached into his pocket for an evidence bag and held it open.

Sherlock surrendered it with a twinge of regret, his gaze clinging to the tube in its sheath of plastic before he looked away. 'He heavily implied it was cocaine for my personal use. A rudimentary examination shows that he was telling the truth. More importantly, that and the GHB used to incapacitate the victims, or some component thereof, was processed in the same location. It would be easy to convince a receptive judge that Shaw is using his connections to the drug industry to dope, rape and murder young men, thus securing you a powerful warrant.'

Lestrade blinked, considering the small bottle before looking up at Sherlock. He could see the cogs turning, but it was nothing compared to the weight of John's gaze, which felt as if it were burning a hole into Sherlock's cranium: iridescent and unrelenting.

'But you just said you weren't convinced he was responsible for the murders,' the DI said, trying to keep up.

'Think!' Sherlock snapped. 'You've struggled for years to find data to incriminate him. For someone to avoid detection for so long, they must have some level of intelligence. He knows what I do; if he was the killer and suspected I was investigating the situation, he wouldn't have risked handing this over. He has no idea what I'm working on. He met me by chance at Iso and took advantage of our previous acquaintance to stroke his own ego.'

'Shaw went to university with Sherlock,' John added, his voice quiet and clipped as he filled the DI in on that small detail. 'He knows he helps the police.'

'So why give you this at all?' Lestrade tipped the bottle between his thumb and forefinger, protected from contamination by the bag around it. 'If he was aware you were tied to the Yard, then why risk you doing, well, exactly what you're doing now?'

Sherlock pressed his fingertips to his temple as he hastened to explain. 'I believe he assumed I'd use it, rather than analyse it; even if I did, on its own it's not particularly damning. The only reason you'll be able to get that warrant at all is because that drug ties Shaw – albeit questionably – to the murders, either through supplying materials or direct perpetration. It's only in comparison to the GHB that the cocaine becomes more than a minor illegality. Shaw didn't realise what I could do with it.'

'Beyond getting high, you mean?' Lestrade squared his shoulders, his lips down-turned. His next question was soft, as if he didn't want to ask. 'Sherlock, where's the rest of it?'

'Used for the tests.' Sherlock had been expecting the question, and he rolled his eyes at Lestrade's doubtful expression. 'For God's sake, if nothing else, consider the logistics. Last night and early this morning I was with John– '

'A drugged flatmate isn't a good witness.'

'No, he's a dependent, one who may have required emergency medical attention at any moment and needed my sober observation,' he corrected. 'Since then I've been here. I'm unlikely to shoot up in a public lab, especially one watched by CCTV.' He indicated the cameras in the corners of the room. 'The only opportunity would have been in the taxi, if the driver didn't object. That's a seven percent solution. While the initial euphoria would have faded by now there would still be clear signs of my intoxication.' He dropped his voice, looming into Lestrade's space and staring him in the eye. 'Do I look high to you?'

The DI sighed, shaking his head and dropping his chin in submission. 'Sorry, but I had to ask.' Even now, he didn't seem convinced, and Sherlock saw the guilty flicker of his gaze towards John before he turned back and carried on, leading the conversation onto a more comfortable track. 'So the point of the warrant is –?'

'Ostensibly, it's to hunt for proof of the murders: personal effects, appropriate knives for butchery and such. However, you could slant it to include drug evidence.' Sherlock thought quickly, trying to attack the problem from every angle. 'Make sure it covers all Shaw's residences, and includes electronic records. You'll not catch him hiding a kilo of coke under the bed. Everything you need to take him down for his dealings will be in the form of invoices and documentation. That's where you should concentrate your search.'

Lestrade nodded, taking the information that Sherlock offered him and reaching for his phone. 'Got it. If I can get him booked on possession off the bat, I will. It'll keep him out of everyone's hair.' He gave Sherlock a meaningful glare. 'Yours, as well as mine. I'm just stepping outside. The quicker I get the right team onto this, the better.'

His mobile was already clamped to his ear, and his gruff words echoed off the walls as he pushed his way out of the door and into the corridor beyond. Molly had busied herself once more, visible through the observation window taking samples as Sherlock had asked. That left him, John, and the uncomfortable silence that spread between them.

It was second nature to sort through files – to look busy, even though there was nothing new any of them could offer him. It meant he did not have to read whatever wrote its story on John's face: disappointment, perhaps, or resignation. However, it did nothing to stop his flesh resonating with the warmth of John's nearing presence, nor did it turn him deaf to the quiet, hard tone of his voice.

'Would you have told me?' John stopped so close that he was almost pressed against the profile of Sherlock's arm. 'If you hadn't needed to inform Greg about what Shaw gave you, would you have said anything?'

Sherlock pursed his lips, considering the merits of a dishonest platitude versus frank honesty. John would probably appreciate neither, but the choice had to be made. Social lies had their uses, but Sherlock rarely bothered with them. He was not about to start now. 'If it had been relevant, then you would have been informed.'

'Relevant?' John repeated. 'Is that your way of telling me that it's none of my business?' He didn't give Sherlock a chance to reply, his voice low and lethal as he carried on. 'I live with you, I help you with your work, I –'

Sherlock glanced up, trying to determine the nature of the words John had bitten off. However, the action merely meant he met John's gaze: blue irises turned to steel – the bluster of anger half-obscuring deep-seated unease. He looked like a man betrayed, and Sherlock almost whined at the sight. Only the set of his jaw prevented the sound from escaping, and he endeavoured to hide the way his fingers twitched against the lab bench. Strange, how his body gave away his guilt.

John sighed, scowling at his boots and pressing a hand to his brow, changing tack. 'You must see what it looks like. Greg's first assumption was that you'd been using.'

'He should have known better.'

'Should he?' The sharp blade of enquiry made Sherlock flinch. 'A dormant addict carrying around a half-empty bottle of his favourite drug: doesn't take a genius to do the maths, does it? The assumption is a given, Sherlock, and it's not a stupid one to make.'

'Yet it was not one you shared.' He swallowed as John shook his head, wincing at the dank, heavy weight that had settled under his ribs.

'Wrong,' John whispered. 'I wish I could say otherwise, Sherlock, but there's a big difference between wanting to trust you and actually managing it. I don't want to believe you'd take anything, but that doesn't mean it didn't cross my mind.' John unfolded his arms, scrubbing his hands across his face and pressing his fingers briefly against his eyes. 'I know you better than anyone, and if that's the first thing I suspected, what chance have other people got? They're going to think –'

'What does it matter?' he hissed, waving a derisive hand. 'Why should I care what pathetic suspicions dwell in their tiny brains?'

'Because it could get you kicked off the case,' John retorted. 'Not just this one, but all the rest as well. What then? You'd be so bored you'd tear yourself apart, and I –' He took a deep breath, his throat pulsing. Sherlock could hear the rasp of John's teeth as he ground them together. 'You could have told me, back in the alley. You could have given it to me to take care of and removed yourself from any suspicion, but instead –'

'Would you have kept it?' Sherlock demanded, peering into John's face to read his answer. 'Would you have held onto it because I asked you to, or would you have disposed of it the first chance you got?'

A telling pause halted John's voice, accompanied by a subtle rigidity in his frame: denial and rejection? Or understanding? 'If I thought it was a temptation, I'd have made sure it was no longer an issue.'

'And we'd have nothing! The case –'

'Damn the case!' John turned away, his hands clenching before he whirled back. 'I don't care about the Work, I care about you.'

Sherlock swallowed, his head whipping around at an embarrassed squeak from the doorway. Molly was hovering on the threshold, her eyes huge as she stammered apologies. 'I – I – sorry, it's just another body's come in. Could be related to what you're working on. But it can wait. I mean, it's not like he's going anywhere.' The flush on her face deepened. 'I didn't mean to – I'll be –' She gestured over her shoulder towards the room where corpses were initially received before turning away, all but fleeing the lab.

John slumped, his breath leaving him in a rush as his anger apparently did the same. Sherlock had never wished more earnestly for the ability to read people's minds, as so many believed he could. If he understood John's anger and hurt, as well as the more tender things that formed their foundation, then he would have all the answers he needed but, as ever, it remained a mystery.

'Go.' John cleared his throat and spoke again, louder this time. 'Go on. See what Molly's got for you.'

'I thought you didn't care about the Work?'

'I don't – not the puzzle, or the elegance of it – but I do give a shit about the victims.'

Sherlock hesitated, because surely John's previous statement required some kind of response, vague as it was? “Care” could mean so many things, only one of which held the depth and intensity for which he hoped. Yet it seemed as if it were the last thing in the world John wanted to clarify. Instead, they were left like this, awkward and lost.

'Aren't you coming?' he asked, meaning so much more than those three mere words might suggest. Would John hear it? Not only the obvious, but the undertones: I need you, I want you, I care about you too, though sometimes I think it would be easier for both of us if I didn't.

John flinched in surprise; had he been expecting to be banished for his outburst? Perhaps so, because now he was staring as if he could read a library's worth of information from Sherlock's expression. Whatever he saw, it appeared to offer both comfort and cause for distress, because John's body language changed. The anger did not leave, but it seemed to shift away from Sherlock and outward on to some unseen, unmanifested threat. In the space of one breath, John moved from the role of challenger to protector, and his nod was resolute.

'I'm right behind you.'

Sherlock led the way, urging aside the twisting, nervous thrill of sentiment's chaos as he pushed through the doors with John on his heels. The bright white lights only gained intensity in the clinical processing room, and their illumination highlighted the bloody mess of the remains. They had yet to be cleaned or lain out in state, and brutality carved its mark across silver flesh.

Donovan and Lestrade stood a short distance from the slab, grim-faced. Sally's lips were pursed in a disapproving line, but her usually sharp voice was matter-of-fact as she began to explain. 'We found him a couple of hours ago in an alley two blocks from the club. Blood all over the place. Up the walls and everything. He was left with the rubbish.' She gestured weakly before folding her arms. 'I don't know if it's to do with the others or not, but –' She met his eyes, reluctance clear in her gaze. '– but I decided you needed to take a look.'

She lifted an eyebrow, as if expecting him to challenge her decision. Normally, it was Lestrade that turned to Sherlock for assistance. The fact that Sally had brought this in of her own impetus spoke volumes for her professionalism, even if her conduct still left a lot to be desired.

'Why do you think this is related to the others?' Sherlock asked, meeting her gaze head-on. 'You're probably right, but what parallels aroused your suspicions?'

'He's been sexually assaulted. Location had a lot to do with it, too; it was so close to the bar. Also, his hand.' Sally grimaced. 'It was cut off. I know some of the others you've found have been in bits. Beyond that – ' She shrugged. 'It was just a hunch.'

'Could it be a copy-cat?' John asked as Sherlock huffed at Sally's assertion.

'I don't see how,' Lestrade replied. 'We've deliberately kept this out of the press. No one should know about it. We'll have scene photos for you in a couple of hours, but for now this is all I can give you.' He waved towards the mess that had once been a human being.

Sherlock stepped up to the table, standing opposite Molly but barely aware of her as he took in the details. 'Clothing and possessions are still intact, and these injuries –' He poised his hand over the slash bisecting the man's face and the deep, brutal stab wounds to his chest and stomach. '– repeated and forceful: furious. Bruising around the hips and bleeding suggests rape, but there are defensive injuries. He fought hard.' He gestured to the swollen knuckles, red and purple stark again papery skin. 'You'll need to do the blood-work to confirm, but I doubt he was drugged.'

'Maybe you were wrong and he was the second target for the night?' Lestrade asked. 'The one the green bottle was meant for?'

Sherlock frowned absently, taking in the darker hair, more brown than blond, as he spoke. 'No. For all the others, the point of the crime was rape. The wounds they sustained revolved around penetration. Dismemberment was post-mortem, and all about convenience.' He paused, searching beyond the obvious to the subtle nuances that lay beneath. 'In contrast, this was about causing pain – punishment. For the first time, the sexual aspect was secondary to the murder.'

'Are we sure it's the same killer?' Molly asked. 'Couldn't it be something unrelated but sort of –' She shrugged. '– similar?'

'Possible, but unlikely. If it weren't for the hand, I'd give it further consideration.' He pointed to the mutilated wrist before indicating the slashes at the shoulders and shallow, diagonal cuts on nude hips. 'These are cardinal points for butchery, but they've not been cleaved apart, only marked. The minimal damage of the severed hand is clumsy because he was murdered on the spot, not taken to a preferred location and disposed of in the usual manner. The attacker didn't have his normal tools with him and worked in haste.'

'So he had a weapon that could do a wrist but not a shoulder?' Donovan asked, craning her neck and grimacing. 'Why not do the other hand?'

'It's not really to do with the knife, it's more about finding the weakest point and applying enough pressure,' John explained, moving to stand at Sherlock's side and shaking his head. 'He knows what he's doing, the other bodies show us that. This is like he was interrupted, or he couldn't be bothered to finish.'

'The victim wasn't worth it.' Sherlock glanced at Donovan. 'You said it yourself, he was left in a litter-strewn alley. Either whoever did this didn't think the remains would be found, or they are confident that it cannot be traced back to them. None of this was about him.' He indicated the corpse. 'John was the chosen target, and he got away. Whoever this was bore the consequences.'

Silence hollowed out the room, thick and tense until John spoke with a soldier's practised control. 'So is this what he'd like to do to me for getting away,' His voice creaked, and the next words emerged gilded with fear. 'Or is it what he wants to do to you for taking me away from him?'

Sherlock tightened his jaw, trying to swallow back the sharp taste of horror. Not for himself, but for John. Normally, it was easy to distance himself from such things; a stranger's corpse was meaningless. However, this did not merely indicate murder, but an obsession turned to hate. Serial killers developed patterns, and some found an element of reverence for their prey. Whoever did this had wanted John, not as some random decision, but as a pre-selected essential. John's escape turned desire to anger, and that was unlikely to be assuaged by this surrogate.

'It's useless to theorise without more data,' Sherlock replied, peeling off the gloves that still clung to his hands and throwing them in the bin. 'Molly, I need you to investigate for indications of drug use and any further similarities that would tie this victim to the others. If you find anything, text me.'

'Wait, where are you going?' Lestrade demanded. 'Sherlock, stop a minute.' His hand grabbed Sherlock's elbow, pulling him up short with no hint of apology. 'I know this was your case to start off with, and I’ll admit, I wasted time chasing the blokes at the storage yard, but this is getting dangerous.' The DI raised his eyebrows in a sharp jerk: a challenge. 'We need you, and you need us. I'm putting some officers in Iso. This requires more than just you and John, and –'

'All right.'

He blinked, jaw hanging slack around an unfinished sentence before he scowled suspiciously. 'All right?' he repeated.

Sherlock rolled his eyes before nodding his head. Normally, he would fight to keep the interference of the police to a minimum, but there was more at risk than blowing his cover. John was a target, and now he had become the perfect bait. The murderer would be unable to resist his lure, but Sherlock had no intention of allowing John to suffer. If that meant seeding Iso's crowd with every member of the Met, then so be it. 'Have your officers pose as patrons. Keep it subtle. John and I start work at eight pm tomorrow.'

'You're letting him go back?' Donovan demanded, pointing to John. 'That man, who for some unknown reason is your friend, was drugged by some freak in that place, and you're going to drag him into danger? Are you insane?'

John moved to join the fray, lips parted and expression grim, but Sherlock beat him to it. 'It is insanity to think that John would willingly remain in a safe location while I work the bar. Both of us staying away is inadvisable; the abrupt disappearance of two staff members would only alert our murderer to the fact that we're onto them.'

'If he goes, I go,' John added, folding his arms as Donovan shook her head.

'I take it back, you're both mental.' She turned to Lestrade, but found no support in that corner. The DI simply shrugged his shoulders, knowing a lost fight when he saw it. 'Sir!'

'Leave it, Sally,' he implored before directing his next question to Sherlock. 'What are you going to do between now and then?'

'Keep looking.' Sherlock glanced back at the occupied mortuary slabs, a buzz of stress building behind his eyes. 'There's still something I'm missing. Something that's obvious!' He whirled away, his strides long and quick as he hurried back to the lab. Dimly, he heard Lestrade call John back, but he did not dwell on what was being discussed: irrelevant.

His hands flew over pages and files, rustling the paper like the clatter of insect wings. Useless – useless! He had it all anyway, every fact and facet was locked up in his head, disparate pieces of a shattered whole. All he needed was the rope that would tie them together, and it was nowhere to be found.

Stiffly, he sat on the lab stool, retreating to his mind palace. An inspection of his memories, tracing the sylph-like networks back and forth, revealed neither solace nor a solution. His vision was overcast and his body heavy with his own failure. Worse, his focus, that which he prized so highly, was distorted. Only images of what could have happened to John – what could still happen – possessed any clarity, and they scattered his deductions far and wide, leaving him empty of anything he could use.

It was imperative that he wrapped up this case. No longer was it a matter of pride; this was about John's safety. If he couldn't figure it out, Sherlock would not be the one who paid the price in a pound of flesh, but he would suffer all the same. The concept of a life where John was not only absent, but never to return – not even alive in the world they both shared – made him shiver and his head throb.

This was why victims were best left faceless, a collection of evidence in human form and nothing more. This was why he kept his distance, because how could anyone think over the shrill cry of the hormonal cocktail that drove such an emotional response? Other people wandered through their lives blinded by their feelings, seeing through the compassion-tinted lenses of the heart. He was used to the clear-field of view offered by the higher level of the intellectual, not his current state of near-panic.

Yet sentiment did not request permission. It was insidious, creeping in and taking root in the sparsest piece of fertile soil until it became a vine, choking everything. John cared, and try as he might, Sherlock was helpless to ignore his own reciprocity. He could not stop himself and maintain indifference, and without that, he was rendered as oblivious as the rest of them. The answer he needed was somewhere right in front of him. He was just too stupid to find it!

The slam of his fist on the lab bench clattered the glassware and disturbed the equipment. The computer beeped a reproach, but Sherlock barely heard it as something rolled against his hand. He blinked down at the micro-centrifuge tube before closing his fingers around it and inspecting its contents.

Idly, he rotated his wrist, watching the meniscus of the fluid's surface tilt. It was the second sample of cocaine that he had taken, set aside should he require additional concentrations for further analysis. Now, it gleamed with promise, smearing the fluorescent lamps into uncertain streaks.

He felt blunt and dull, mired down in the details, but here was the substance that could hone his mind to its finest point. For him, the rush was a secondary advantage: brief and euphoric. More than anything it was the peak of his brilliance that he craved, and this could be the lens that showed him the light.

Raising a stuttering hand to his lips, Sherlock paused, considering the consequences. It was a small dose, its effects would be short-lived, but it would be enough. All he needed was an hour to look at the facts through new eyes, and he knew he could end this.

Would John understand that? Probably not. He would see the selfish gratification of a need rather than an imperative action – a vice rather than a necessary tool. He would be furious, disappointed, wounded...

But the perpetrator would be in custody, and John would be safe.

On numb legs, Sherlock got to his feet, reaching for his Belstaff and shrugging it on before plunging his hands deep into his pockets. His heart skipped – anticipation of the hit, or the success Sherlock could almost taste? For days he had been drowning amidst the sea of information, losing his way time and again as additional facts provided no way forward. Now, at last, there was the possibility of a clear road.

The corridors of Bart's passed unnoticed beneath his feet as he slipped away, taking an alternative route out of the labs. Perhaps it was a subconscious avoidance of those who knew him best – who might read his intentions from the set of his features – but Sherlock gave it little consideration as he hailed a cab and climbed inside.

It should be clear-cut: a decision made. That clarity was what he wanted, and yet still there was a whisper of doubt in his head. To him, his validations were sound. This was not an indulgence, but an essential action, like medicating an illness. However, John would not see it that way. Neither would Lestrade or Mycroft. They would assume a relapse, but were they blind to the truth, or was he the one fooling himself?

His hand tightened around the flimsy plastic vessel in his grip, and he ignored the buzz of his phone – an incoming message – too blank to consider it as Baker Street came into view. The driver took the cash and sped away, leaving Sherlock to shoulder aside the front door and close out London's prying eyes.

The radio was playing in Mrs Hudson's flat, its quality muffled and dreamlike as he climbed the stairs. He used to run. He could remember that – making a purchase and hurrying home to put it to use. Everyone else saw a fraction of the world. Sober, he could discern almost everything, but there was always something he missed. Intoxicated, nothing slipped past his notice. That precision was what he once raced towards, but now guilt dogged his footsteps, weighing him down. He cared not for Mycroft's anger or Lestrade's desertion if they found out, but his fears kept circling back to John.

His coat found its perch on the hook, and the cocaine nestled in the crook of his palm as he shrugged out of his jacket. Nimble fingers released the button on his cuff and rolled up his sleeve to above his elbow before he pulled out a chair. Standing on it, he reached to retrieve his box from its hiding place. Ironic, really; John had long suspected the skull of harbouring Sherlock's illegal substances, but he always concentrated on the one on the mantelpiece, human and limited in capacity. He never considered that which hung on the wall, well out of reach.

Yet there was no delight of deception as he pulled the box free, savouring the texture of its inlay beneath his fingers. Rather than a joyful reunion, this was a sick, iniquitous affair. It had been months ago that he'd done anything more than glance in the direction of where his cache was sequestered, and he had not used any of its contents since before John and Baker Street.

Now the smooth oak felt like oil as he opened the lid. Inside, the needles gleamed, their sharpened tips sheathed. A glass syringe, beautiful and flawless, reflected the light from the windows in miniature. There was no cocaine, his supplies long gone, but Shaw had filled that particular gap.

The wooden container rasped as he placed it on the table-top, and Sherlock quickly glanced around the room. It was too late now to consider Mycroft's cameras, but he doubted they were an issue. He had destroyed the last batch a month ago, and there had been an uneasy truce ever since. One which he was about to break: a necessary casualty.

The tourniquet which, less than twenty-four hours ago, had cinched around John's arm now banded his, a solid pressure that threw his veins into relief. His nerves droned in anticipation, his body priming itself for what it was about to receive, but he still hesitated before reaching for the syringe, questioning his actions.

He could not deny the potential consequences of this. Ideally, no one would find out about it, but he knew that hope was tenuous. A moment's simple maths by Lestrade and he would realise that some of the drug was unaccounted for. For God's sake, John could walk through the front door any minute – could bear horrified witness to this – and Sherlock's entire way of life could unravel. He could lose his only friend's regard, his access to cases and his hard-won freedom from Mycroft's tyranny all in one fell swoop.

Was it worth it?

He thought of the man in the morgue, not only raped but brutalised beyond recognition. The killer, veiled from him still, could be waiting to exact the same fate on John. To take him and claim him before ending the life that had brought Sherlock's own existence out into the light.

No. He had to prevent that. Sherlock would face John's anger and disgust if it saved him from being a broken body in the chill of the morgue. He only hoped that what he was about to do would not cost him John's friendship.

Numb fingers gripped the syringe, drawing the transparent liquid up through the needle and clearing it of air. One precious drop seeped down the fine, sterling column of the hypodermic, and he watched its passage with a thundering heart.

Shaw was right: he needed to shine.

Chapter Text

'John, a word?'

He watched Sherlock retreat to the labs before following the DI out into the corridor. There was no point pretending this conversation was about the case; both of them had seen bodies just as bad before, and the shock of the brutality had become tarnished and dull with exposure. No, this had nothing to do with the murders.

It was about Sherlock.

Greg came to a halt out of Molly and Sally's earshot, his amiable face set in apprehensive lines. He spoke with quiet care, and what he lacked in volume he made up for in intensity. 'Did you know what it was that Shaw gave him?'

John folded his arms as he shook his head, looking up at Greg with his jaw set tight. 'If I had, do you think I would have let him keep it?' His body ached with the urge to move: useless tension eager for an outlet. 'I knew Shaw did something but I thought he was coming on to Sherlock. That's what it looked like. Afterwards, something felt off, but –'

'But you didn't know what,' Greg nodded, staring down at his shoes with a frown. 'and he wouldn't tell you.'

'He was worried I'd get rid of it before he could run his tests.' The excuse was a weak phantom of reasoning, and John winced as it drifted in the air between them. 'At least that's what he said.'

'Sherlock's probably convinced himself that's the real reason.' He sighed, shaking his head in disbelief. 'I went to a seminar thing once, about addiction. It's part of the job. For all that he's so clever, he's a text-book example of the behaviour: impulsive, secretive and unwilling to turn to others for help.'

'He's letting you put some officers in Iso,' John pointed out. 'He didn't argue.'

'Because you're in danger. If it was just him, we'd have had to fight tooth and nail, and even then he'd have bitched about it for weeks. If nothing else, you change his priorities.' Greg's brittle smile softened his eyes. 'I'm not blind. Since you showed up, Sherlock's better than he's ever been. There's not that sense, anymore, that he's one step away from the edge. At least, there wasn't 'til now.'

John swallowed. He hadn't known Sherlock as long as the DI. All the darkest parts of Sherlock’s past had fled by the time he had limped into London, but that didn't mean he was unaware of the deep shadow cast by those dark years.

'It's this case.' He waved towards the morgue, where Molly was working on the latest addition. 'Normally, there's at least one obvious suspect, something he can latch onto, but all this information, none of which makes any sense – it's overwhelming him. He took it as a distraction because he was bored, and I think he's regretting it.'

'He wasn't just bored; he was lonely.' Greg gave a chuckle as gratified surprise flickered across John's face, but his mirth soon vanished. 'I'm worried about him. You didn't see him back when it was bad, so you don't know what he was like, but it was bloody awful. Two things mattered in his life, solving puzzles and finding the next hit. That's a dangerous way to live, and no one survives it for long.'

Greg straightened up. 'It could be that we're being paranoid, but –' He looked around, checking they were alone before he pulled the evidence bag out of his pocket and tilted the vial within. 'Sherlock's a careful chemist; he doesn't normally waste a sample, and it doesn't take that much to run an analysis, so where's the rest of it?'

John breathed out, his face falling at Greg's implications. He had been consoling himself with the relief that the cocaine was now in safe hands and out of Sherlock's reach. He hadn't even questioned that Sherlock might have held some back. 'You reckon he kept it?'

Greg shrugged. 'I hope not. Going out and buying what he wants is a firm decision. It's a whole additional step which he can avoid, but someone handing this to him? It's harder to resist when it's right there.' He raised his head, his dark eyes mournful. 'If you ask him, will he tell you the truth?'

John wished he could say yes. He trusted Sherlock with his life, but this? Scrubbing a hand over his face, he looked to the door that separated him from Sherlock. 'I don't know.'

Lestrade patted him on the shoulder, returning the evidence bag to his pocket. 'Look, let me worry about the killer, all right? Sherlock's given us plenty to work with for now. Whether Shaw's the culprit or not, we're about to make his life difficult. He'll be too busy to bother anyone for a while. You take care of Sherlock – and John? If you need help, for whatever reason, call me. I can be there, unofficial and off-the-clock.'

'Thanks, Greg.' John smiled as Lestrade departed. Whatever Sherlock thought of the DI, it was clear that there was more than mere professional convenience to Greg's regard. He was willing to take risks to make sure Sherlock was all right, even if that meant turning a blind eye while he leant a helping hand.

John just hoped it wouldn't come to that.

With slumped shoulders, he headed for the lab, his mind swarming with concerns. He was already thrown by Sherlock's earlier admission that Shaw had handed him the cocaine. It didn't surprise him that Sherlock had kept it, but it hurt that he hadn't trusted John to do what was best for everyone concerned.

He had to acknowledge Sherlock's fear that he would have disposed of the chemical, removing the temptation, but he would have listened to Sherlock's protests and tried to find a middle ground. One that meant the evidence was still usable, but that Sherlock was free from its siren-song. If it came to it, then he would still put Sherlock's well-being first, but he wouldn't be deaf to any logical arguments. Didn't Sherlock know him better than that? Did he assume he was a tyrant like Mycroft?

Pushing aside the door, John paused, staring around the empty room. The glow of the computer screen added to the flat, uncomfortable light, but there was no sign of Sherlock. The lab bench was a mess: papers everywhere, abandoned in a disorganised splay of text and pictures. There was nothing in isolation to suggest Sherlock had experienced a eureka moment and torn off after the answer. It looked like the crumpled pages had been cast aside in disgust.

Quickly, he took out his phone, his fingers clumsy on the keys as he fired off a blunt text.

“Where are you? -JW”

He did not bother waiting for an answer as he strode out and ducked into the morgue. 'Molly, has Sherlock been through here?'

'No, I'm afraid not.' She looked up from where she was combing through the victim's hair for any useful trace evidence. 'I thought he was in the lab?'

John sighed, licking his lips as he tried to guess where Sherlock might have gone. 'I'm sorry to ask, but he's left the bench in a state. Could you –?'

'I'll tidy it up,' she promised, cocking her head and looking at him more closely. 'Are you all right?'

'What? Uh, yeah.' He scratched his ear, barely paying attention to her as he answered. 'I'd just be happier if Sherlock would stay in one place for five minutes.'

Molly smiled, setting down the fine-tooth comb. 'He probably had a bright idea and ran off to prove his point.' Her expression faltered in the face of John's doubt, and she stepped away from the body, peeling off her gloves. 'I don't know where he's gone, but I can text you if he comes back?'

'Yeah, thanks. That'd be good.' John scraped his thumbnail across his eyebrow, considering the warren of passages in St Bart's and the city beyond its doors. 'It could be he's back at the flat. God forbid he actually tells me where he's buggered off to. See you later, Molly.'

Her call of farewell followed him as he departed, marching along the corridor and peering through the windows of various doors as he did so, searching for a distinctive tall figure in a black coat. All he found were abandoned rooms. His phone remained resolutely silent, and John tried not to dwell on the growing ache in the pit of his stomach.

He would have to be blind not to notice the strain Sherlock was under. Frustration didn't begin to cover it. Everyone was so used to him having the answer, but even brilliance could be drowned out. There was too much data, and every new piece of evidence only seemed to enlarge the scope of their investigation, rather than narrowing it down.

Part of him dearly hoped Shaw was responsible, not just because he'd like to see the twat behind bars, but because then it would be over and everything could go back to normal. Those ragged edges could be burnished smooth, and the lingering lure of drugs would fade away, so much easier for Sherlock to resist once they were no longer in the forefront of his mind.

Raising his hand to flag a cab, John swore as the first one sailed past him. He paced the pavement in the rough direction of home as he scanned the traffic for a lift, finally managing to hail a free taxi and scrambling into the back seat.

Sherlock going off on his own was nothing new, but this time it was different. Even if it wasn't for Shaw and the drugs, the image of the ravaged body on Molly's slab kept coming to mind. Punished, Sherlock had said. Perhaps their killer didn't think like other people, but John knew how his own possessive streak behaved. He didn't make a target of the object of his desire if they went home with someone else. All his petty, stupid anger was directed at the interloper – the one who had taken his potential place. He wished he could say he was above all that, but he'd be lying. If the murderer thought the same way, then it was not John he had envisioned while driving a knife into the victim's chest, but Sherlock.

He delved for his phone, his lips pressing into a flat line as he stared at the blank screen. His fingers were shaking – jarring, nervous instability as he picked out another text, wishing he could somehow stamp his desperation into the simple characters.

“Please tell me where you are. Don't leave me out of this. - JW”

It flew away, an electronic prayer set free from his trembling hands as his breath caught in his chest. He stared out of the window, his eyes taking in the passing scenery but blind to its colour as his thoughts collided, their shards cutting into him with splinters of fear. He was not sure what scared him more, the thought of Sherlock slipping a needle beneath his skin or him haring off after some faceless killer without John at his side.

All he could fathom was the compulsion to find his friend.

'Yeah, thanks. Here's fine!' he called out to the driver at the end of road, handing him the right money and jumping out of the car. Around him, the last light of day was giving way to the sodium-edged flare of the street-lamps, and he paced from one halo to the next as he pulled his keys from his pocket.

The windows upstairs released a subtle glow, and John's heart jumped in relief. Perhaps it was just the fire or one of the table-lamps, but it was a sign of life where he had been afraid he would find a deserted home.

Pushing aside the front door, he took the stairs two at a time and let himself into the flat. 'Sherlock? Next time, can you at least tell me when you're leaving?' he demanded. 'Or failing that, answer your bloody phone!' John looked up, frowning when he realised the lounge was empty. Only a single bright halogen, one that Sherlock used to illuminate his experiments, glowed in the dusk.

It shone off an open wooden box that John had never seen before, and he took a step closer, his stomach dropping as he saw the needles that gleamed in its cradle. A medical-grade tourniquet lay on the floor as if it had been ripped off and cast aside, and the chair was at a slight angle to the table.

'No,' John breathed, his voice cracking as he called out again. 'Sherlock? Sherlock, where are you?' It didn't have to be what it looked like, he told himself as he pushed open the door to Sherlock's room, revealing the rumpled nest of the bed that had harboured his own body not six hours ago. Sherlock could have used the needles for something else, like removing a splinter, and the tourniquet had been pressed into service on John himself last night.

He charged upstairs, swearing at his undisturbed bed before returning to double-check the kitchen – as uninhabited as it had been at first glance. Finally, he headed to the bathroom, shoving his way inside and flicking on the light.

The fluorescent bulb flickered before bathing everything in white. Illumination shimmered off of taps and spotless porcelain, but it was the object abandoned on the toilet cistern that brought all John's fears to clanging, terrible reality.

An empty syringe, plunger depressed and the needle in place, lay forgotten. It was nothing disposable, as might be found in a lab. Instead it was solid glass, heavy in his hand as he curled his fingers around it and noticed the residue in its chamber. It had been used, and John could not believe it was to deliver anything but Sherlock's drug of choice.

'Shit.'

He turned, frantically staring around the bathroom as he tried to think. His left hand was clumsy in his pocket as he grabbed his phone, finding Sherlock's number and punching his thumb into the call button. The ring buzzed in his ear, flat and dull, and it took John a while to realise he could hear the noise in stereo. The sound led him into the living room, and he groaned when he saw Sherlock's mobile on the table, its screen alight and its form droning against the solid surface.

'Wohoo!' Mrs Hudson's hesitant knock on the front door made John look up, barely hearing the ringing stop and the call drop through to the standard answering service before he disconnected. 'This came today,' she said, holding up a box in demonstration. 'It's quite light, probably something of Sherlock's.' The lines in her face deepened. 'Are you all right, dear? You're ever so pale.'

'Have you seen Sherlock?' John asked, hiding the syringe from sight. It was not that he didn't trust Mrs Hudson, but the possibility of cameras in the flat had not slipped his mind. Surely if Mycroft had seen anything, he would already be here – would have stopped Sherlock leaving if nothing else – but if there was a chance that the older Holmes didn't know about this, then John was not about to out Sherlock's actions to his brother.

'No. I didn't even realise he was home until I heard him leave again – twenty minutes ago at most.' She shook her head. 'Still, you know what he's like, always rushing off somewhere.' Mrs Hudson stepped back, allowing John to pass onto the small landing and making a confused sound as he shut the door to the flat behind them. 'Why, is something wrong?'

Mutely, John unfurled his hand. 'I found this on the back of the loo, and what looked like his drug kit on the table. The case we're working on, it's not been going well. He's been tempted, and –'

Mrs Hudson pressed her fingertips to her lips, her expression blank but for the well of sadness in her eyes as she stared at the evidence. 'Oh, John.' She screwed up her petite hand into a fist and met his gaze. 'Are you sure, really sure? You know Sherlock and his things. He does such odd experiments. Perhaps it's something else?'

'I don't think so, Mrs Hudson,' he murmured, considering all the clues that pointed to his conclusion.

She pursed her lips, the lines of her kind face deepening as she frowned. 'I see how it looks, but promise me you'll give him a chance to explain himself? He doesn't admit it, but he can be so fragile. There's a story here,' Her slender fingers fluttered over the glass tube. 'and you need to know it before you decide how to react.'

He shook his head, willing his voice steady. 'All I care about right now is finding him and making sure he's all right. It's been a long time since he's used anything, and if he's misjudged the dose...' He couldn't finish his sentence, chewing hard on his lip as he reached for Mrs Hudson's hand, holding her palm flat and placing the syringe in her grasp. 'Put this somewhere safe, and for God's sake, don't tell Mycroft.'

Her smile was pained, but there was strength there, along with a light of sympathy in her eyes. 'As if I would. You go and find him. I'll take care of this.'

A scrape of metal against brass – the rough sound of a key turning in the lock – made them both look down the stairs. The veil of black wood swung inwards, and John's spirits leapt as Sherlock stepped into the hall: a sallow creature against the growing twilight of the street. However, his relief was a spark quickly extinguished as he noticed that one of Sherlock's sleeves was rolled up above the elbow while the other remained buttoned, chaste and demure, around his wrist.

He shut the door behind him, slumping back as if he could not support his own weight. His shoulders were hunched and his head bent. More to the point, Sherlock Holmes, one of the most observant men in the world, had yet to notice that he was not alone.

John pursed his lips, drinking in the rare sight of Sherlock completely revealed. He scrutinised him as both a doctor and a friend, trying to pick out symptoms of a high even as he noticed all the other signs of strain that branded themselves across Sherlock's body.

His lanky angles seemed more pronounced than usual. The shadows under his eyes, so often ignored in favour of meeting that dazzling gaze, reigned supreme. His hair was dishevelled, and the lingering stubble – the one part of Lee's persona that, out of necessity, he had not removed – made him look haggard. He lifted a shaking hand to his down-turned face, pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger as the next breath he released caught on a rough sound of almost-pain.

John twitched, and only the grip of Mrs Hudson's fingers stopped him from lunging down the steps. He wanted to tear the mask of the man's palm from his features so he could see precisely what Sherlock had done to himself. John longed to trace the veins of his arms and find the breach, to suck out the poison that Sherlock had pushed into his flesh, as if that could somehow undo what had occurred before John had found his way home.

The gentle band of their landlady's constraint held him back, and he blinked down as she returned the syringe. 'Don't let him lie to you, John. Don't give him the chance,' she urged. 'But do allow him to explain.' She patted his arm before squaring her shoulders and descending the stairs, her hand skimming the bannister as she deliberately trod on the squeaky steps.

Sherlock flinched, his head whipping up and his eyes wide as he realised he had an audience. John could not see Mrs Hudson's face, but whatever Sherlock observed in her expression honed the edges of his features with trepidation. That astute gaze darted upwards to where John stood, its passage arrested as he noticed what he held in his hand.

He would never have thought it possible, but Sherlock blanched further, the last traces of living hue vanishing to leave him looking as if he were carved from marble. John saw Sherlock's Adam's apple bob fretfully above his parted collar, but no noise escaped his lips. He kept waiting for hurried denials, for Sherlock's tongue, a blade more often than not, to coat his words in silver, but the hall remained calm and quiet, punctuated only by Mrs Hudson closing the door to her flat and leaving them alone.

It was John who moved first, his footfalls heavy as he descended the stairs and stopped three up from the bottom. High ground felt necessary, as if by dint of elevation he could pry free the answers he needed. Yet the queries that stacked up in his throat choked him. The pressure of his horror and fear was building in his chest, and John closed his eyes as he tried to keep himself in check. Around them, the mood crystallised like spun glass, motionless and breakable. One word said in anger could shatter them both, so John merely stretched out the hand which cushioned the needle, his question implicit.

'It's not what it looks like,' Sherlock promised, leaning against the door and closing his eyes, unable to meet John's gaze. The long stretch of his neck was exposed as if he were laying himself out in acceptance of whatever retribution John saw fit to bestow. He was neither defensive nor guilty. In fact, Sherlock seemed to have moved into a realm where he thought he deserved whatever was about to come his way. He wasn't even making an effort to explain himself, not beyond that simple, token statement.

'Then what is it?' John clenched his jaw, huffing through his nose as he stared down at the evidence, his fingers closing in a spasmodic fist around the vessel.

Lines pleated Sherlock's brow, and John swayed where he stood. It was not a scowl of annoyance but a grimace of distress. He had been prepared to be furious with Sherlock for his selfish irresponsibility, had worked himself up to it, but now he felt nothing so straight-forward. How could he decide between the wobbling, uncertain anger that made him itch to lash out and the deeper unease that urged him to pull Sherlock close?

A murmur stirred the air. 'You won't believe me.'

'I'll believe the truth.' John shifted, fighting the impulse to descend the last few steps and reach out. He wanted to. All his bitter words, so far unsaid, were rapidly losing power in the face of Sherlock's opaque misery. However, if he didn't keep his distance, he wasn't sure he would be able to identify Sherlock's subtle, crafted lies.

The man himself remained silent, as wan as the shirt he wore. He looked like he would stay that way forever if John allowed it, a mute effigy, but there was no way he was letting Sherlock get away without giving him an explanation. His strained patience had reached its breaking point, failing in one sharp snap that echoed around the small hallway.

'Tell me!'

Sherlock jumped at the command, his gaze meeting John's for the first time. It was a shocking connection, so different from the one they normally shared. Usually, the air turned electric, but now it was leaden and putrid, rank as the edge of John's dread clashed with Sherlock's alien, visceral despair.

He was a vanquished man, bloody and broken on a battlefield that John could not perceive, and when Sherlock began, it was like a whisper in a tomb, parched and toneless. 'I flushed it away.' His teeth ground together, and he thumped his head against the door. 'I was going to use it, but I disposed of it instead.'

Accusations of dishonesty burned John's tongue, but he kept them sealed behind pursed lips. There was too much emotion clawing at his ribs. One word would light the fuse, and now more than ever, John needed to be rational. The key to interpreting Sherlock's words lay in logic, not sentiment. It would be found in evidence, not supposition, and at least that John knew how to find.

'Come here.'

Sherlock looked at him with flat, lifeless eyes, and when he moved he was lacking all his usual grace. He did not look like a man drugged with stimulants, but John reminded himself that Sherlock used his frame as another tool in his arsenal of deception. He was nothing if not high-functioning, and John had no doubt he would retain the sense to lie with more than words. This could still be an act, but there would be involuntary symptoms for him to read. All he needed was to be close enough to see them.

Carefully, John placed the syringe down on the stair, nudging it aside before he moved to stand on the bottom step. It put him on Sherlock's level, eye-to-eye. However, Sherlock still refused to meet his gaze, looking down and to the right with his hands in his pockets.

This close, John could smell the scent of cigarettes lingering on Sherlock's clothes and skin. Had he been trying to ease his jangling craving with another, more legal substance, or was smoking part of his ritual? Did he shoot up then light up?

John sighed, wishing he knew all the details which, for so long, he had denied existed. If he had more information about Sherlock's behaviour when he was using, this would be so much easier. All he had to go on was what Greg had told him in dribs and drabs over the time they had known each other, and that wasn't much.

He reached out, absently noticing his hands were steady as he pressed his fingers to the pulse points on either side of Sherlock's neck. He cupped the delicate column of his throat, recording every trip of his pulse and the stutter of each passing breath. Perhaps it should have been more medical than intimate, but the concept of keeping any form of professional distance was lost to him. The pentameter of Sherlock's life throbbed beneath his touch. He was cradling Sherlock's existence – so easy to stop that beat with the right amount of pressure – and despite everything, Sherlock was allowing it. He neither flinched nor tried to pull away. Instead, he offered himself up for John's judgement.

His skin was cool, chilled from being outside without a jacket or a coat, but there was no sick, clammy patina to its surface. His pulse jumped in his carotid, yet it was a steady tempo. There were no discernible palpitations; the rate was elevated, but not tachycardic, and Sherlock's quivering exhales carried a regular rhythm.

'Look at me.' John nudged Sherlock's chin, applying enough force to tip his face upwards. He moved reluctantly, and John wondered if this was the breaking point. Was this where Sherlock pulled back and the fantasy of sobriety unravelled?

However, as soon as Sherlock met his eyes, John allowed himself to wonder if he was telling the truth. Even a low concentration of cocaine left its mark after the initial euphoria had passed; there were a multitude of little clues, but so far, none of them were apparent. Sherlock's eyes were clear, rather than glassy, and his pupils were of normal, even size and responsiveness.

His initial fear over Sherlock's strange, depressive state was that it was the trough on the other side of the drug's synthetic peak. Crashing brain chemistry dragged down the mood, often leading to depression. No doubt in years past, Sherlock had modulated his dose to maintain the stimulus that his mind coveted without suffering too much of a low, but this time he had limited means: one hit and no way to control it.

Now, though, John's certainty faded, gauzy and thin, and he dropped his hands to Sherlock's arms, one sheathed in fine cotton, the other naked and exposed. It was obvious, almost like planted evidence. If there had been any sign of a lie in Sherlock's face, John would have thought he had done it deliberately. He had no qualms about taking advantage of other people's assumptions to lead them down the wrong path: roll up one sleeve to make it clear where they should direct their suspicion.

John couldn't rule out the possibility that Sherlock was playing that game. His fingers hovered over the button of the remaining cuff before he slipped it free from its home and pushed the fabric away, his fingers skimming Sherlock's forearm as he did so. Translucent skin awaited him, lithe pallor stretched over the mighty causeways and fine networks of Sherlock's veins and capillaries. His radius and ulna shifted as he rotated Sherlock's arms, leaving delicate hands palm-up and wrists exposed.

'Where?'

He watched Sherlock's face, knowing he wouldn't need to clarify his question as the silence stretched between them. Sherlock was staring at his own arms, his mind clearly elsewhere, and John wondered what he could see. Did the marks of previous uses dapple his memory in bloody pinpricks? Had there been a time when his use was obvious and his addiction evident? Had he hidden them, or were they medals to be worn with a perverse kind of pride?

'Elbow interior and upper forearm,' Sherlock replied, his deep voice rough. 'I only used solution intravenously; it doesn't leave permanent marks if you do it right.' A puzzled frown crossed his brow as John ran his thumbs up to the humid, hollow flesh Sherlock had mentioned, concentrating on the texture of his skin – smooth and unblemished. No scars, no hidden flaws, and no fresh punctures. 'Almost any stretch of skin is adequate for administration,' Sherlock pointed out. 'You only have my word that I haven't injected somewhere else. I – I can't prove anything.'

'I know.' John pursed his lips, his fingers cupping Sherlock's elbows as he realised he was being watched. There was no calculation in those eyes. He observed John as if he were something wholly unexpected: a saving grace in a cheap wool jumper. 'But maybe you don't need to. I'm not like you. I don't always have to see proof, but I do need an explanation.' He moved his hands down to Sherlock's palms, wrapping his fingers around their nimble strength and giving one, urgent squeeze. 'Tell me what happened. Please?'

It was a desperate request, and John knew Sherlock could hear his thirst for knowledge. This mattered more than any deduction. What Sherlock said now could shatter what they had, or it could make the firm foundation of their future, but John had to arm himself with the facts – however ugly they may be. He only hoped that Sherlock obliged him, because a lie now, even something spoken from vanity rather than malice, would call everything else into question.

Sherlock eased his hands free, lowering himself to sit on the bottom stair. He twisted his body towards John, yet it was not a conscious effort at submission and deference. For once, Sherlock was acting without thought, answering the needs of mood and moment without orchestrating his response. As painful as it was to see, that candour was exactly what John had hoped for.

Quietly, he copied Sherlock's movement, only realising when he sat down how much he needed the rest. His legs ached at their joints, a build-up of stress tensing his muscles. Now, he relaxed on the step, his feet resting on the stair on which Sherlock propped one elbow.

He stared at the dusty, worn wood as, shakily, he began to speak. 'Cocaine helps me think. It releases my mind from its constraints and allows me to make connections that otherwise remain invisible.' Sherlock peered up at him, and a familiar, intense flare turned leaden grey bright silver. 'It's never been about getting high. It's about allowing me to see what I've overlooked.'

John nodded. He understood, even if he hated the thought. No one in their right mind, least of all a doctor, could condone the abuse of the physical for the advancement of the intellectual, and that was what Sherlock did. Not just with drugs, but food and cigarettes, sleepless nights and endless days. So many times in their acquaintance, he had forced himself to hold back his lectures on well-being, reminding himself that Sherlock was an adult and capable of making his own choices. Still, that didn't stop him trying to help – feeding Sherlock occasionally or putting a blanket over him when exhaustion took its toll.

'This case –' Sherlock bit his lip, ducking his head and running a hand through his hair, fingers catching and pulling at his curls.

It made John want to reach out and ease the strands free from their captivity, but he resisted as he nodded. 'I know.' He propped his elbows on his knees and rested his fingers on Sherlock's wrist: a meek touch that stopped the fretful tugging.

'The killer chose you.' Pain pulsed in Sherlock's voice, shocking in its own right. 'He wants to end you, and I can't find anything to stop him! If I could just – one shot, and I'd understand what it all meant. Instead –' He waved his free hand, indicating his apparent failure.

Dismay swept through John's stomach as he realised what Sherlock was trying to say. He hadn't considered using Shaw's gift to ease his yearning or satisfy some prurient need to break apart the puzzle. It was thoughts of John which had motivated him to reach for his syringe.

His snatched breath made Sherlock look up, his eyes wide and his expression tense as if he expected a blow.

'No. Just –' John leaned back, his palm splaying in a halting gesture as he chewed on his tongue, trying to sort out the words that screeched through his head. It made sense, in a perverse way: the collision of emotion and rationality in Sherlock, who was well-equipped to deal with the latter but lost in the face of the former. 'Don't.'

It would have been better if Sherlock had selfishly pursued a high, or if his motivation seemed petty and weak: just another addict's lie. However, the equation made sense to Sherlock, and knowing him as well as he did, John could see the logic there, even if he rejected it with every fibre of his being. The thought of Sherlock pumping manufactured inspiration into his blood was bad enough, but the idea that John himself was the fulcrum that had almost levered him from thought to action was sickening.

Yet there was a thrill to it too, a creeping sense of power, because he doubted there was anyone else in the world who could have taken his place in the formula of Sherlock's decision. Did that make him special, or the one to blame? Did that make drugs Sherlock's biggest weakness, or John?

'You won't be safe until he's caught,' Sherlock pointed out, slumping against the ridges of the balusters like a discarded puppet, dead-eyed. 'The victims are selected with care, and there's no evidence of deviation from the choice. He'll try again.' A breath shivered between Sherlock's lips as his eyes fluttered shut, and John watched his fingers curl into a fist. His veins stood out before falling slack.

Sherlock's face crumpled in a bitter grimace, and when he opened his eyes again his gaze went longingly to the syringe. That involuntary shift of his focus made John's muscles tense. His entire body screamed in rejection, and instinct came to the fore. Before he thought about it, he snatched the vessel up and got to his feet, racing up the stairs to push his way into the flat.

If Sherlock followed him, he did so at a slower pace. Fine by John. In fact, it was for the best. This conversation was far from behind them, but the paraphernalia of Sherlock's habit was almost as alluring as the drug itself. There were many things John had seen in Sherlock's face, from anger to the chilling veneer of indifference, but by far the worst was the cocktail of need and regret that had painted his features a moment ago. Sherlock was not happy he had disposed of his drug of choice; he looked like a man who had thrown away the key to the cell in which he was locked.

Should John hand him a loaded syringe now, it would be in Sherlock's arm before he could blink. That knowledge was far more repulsive than the thought of intoxication itself: Sherlock's sickening dependence on a substance that would be the death of him.

Hastily, he placed the hypodermic in the box, not bothering to remove the needle from its tip as he snatched up the tourniquet. Its sinuous length was uncooperative, but he crammed it into the confines and snapped the lid shut. Scooping the kit up from the table, John headed for his room, tripping up the stairs before thrusting the sleek wooden container far under his bed: out of sight and out of mind.

It was a rudimentary hiding place; he would find a better one later, but for now the tools of addiction needed to be removed from the sphere of Sherlock's observation. John didn't care if he deduced it in under a minute. Neither of them could navigate the conversation ahead with the spectre of Sherlock's habit manifesting in the objects around them.

Bowing his head, he closed up his bedroom and clumped down the stairs, trying to organise the scatter of his thoughts. He had raced home fearing the worst, that Sherlock was either sky high already, off racing into danger or both. Instead, he found this quagmire of confusion. Sherlock said he hadn't used the drug, and John, God help him, couldn't question his words. Doubt lingered, but Sherlock's behaviour helped cement his faith. He was a man deprived of something which he thought he needed, and if John had to label the emotions he could see in his friend's face, it was self-loathing, not triumph.

John pressed his fingers to his lips as he considered how to proceed. It would almost have been easier if Sherlock had taken the cocaine. In that, at least, there was some basic foundation of medical procedure. John would have known what to do, even if he had hated Sherlock and himself while he took on the duty of care.

This was another matter. How could he convince Sherlock that he had made the right choice when he so obviously rued his decision?

'I know what you're going to say.' Sherlock stepped into the flat, his eyes darting briefly towards the stairs that led to John's room before they slid away again. 'That I don't need it. That I'll find the killer without it.'

'You will.'

'Not soon enough!' John watched as Sherlock paced over to the window, pressing his forehead to the cool glass. 'I've had days to work this out, and I'm no closer to finding out who's behind the attacks. Now...' He looked over his shoulder at John, eggshell white and just as breakable. 'Now he's after you.'

'He's not the first,' John shrugged, his honesty bare-faced. 'and I doubt he'll be the last. Let's face it, Sherlock, everyone we've come up against assumes I'm your weak link. It makes me a target.'

'This is different. He's not trying to get to me!'

'Maybe not, but motive doesn't matter. We've done this before; we've faced up to threats and in all the time I've been here, you've never turned to that.' He gestured towards where the syringe lay in secret. 'You've never been that desperate.' John licked his lips, his heart thundering as another question perched on his lips. Perhaps now was not the best time to ask it, but he needed to know what had pushed Sherlock from the cocoon of his rational arguments and into the cold waters of undeniable fear. 'What's changed?'

Sherlock stiffened, his eyes closed and his head turned away: a distinct rejection of the query.

A bubble of anger popped in John's gut. It was a thud of hard heat, and he paced forward, crowding into Sherlock's space, bullying through his resistance and grabbing his shoulders. Their bony lines were frail beneath his fingers, but he pulled anyway, dragging Sherlock around to face him. 'Fine, if you can't answer that, then tell me this. What stopped you?' John's voice strained, his chest tight. 'You weren't just considering using, you were almost at the point of no return. Why didn't you go ahead with it?'

Sherlock's lips parted, but whatever he was going to say died in his throat, ending in a weary sigh. He eased himself free from John's grip and reached for his phone on the table. A few quick swipes of his finger, and he held it out, the screen glowing like an epiphany.

It was his message, the second one he'd sent, and John read his own words with a frown.

“Please tell me where you are. Don't leave me out of this. - JW”

'I don't get it,' he confessed. 'You seem so sure that the drug could help. Why...?' He waved the mobile, unsure what he wanted to ask. “Why did this stop you?” was only the tip of the iceberg.

Sherlock had returned to the window, his back to the room and his gaze fixed on the street below, though John doubted he saw anything of the pedestrians and evening traffic. The silence stretched, but finally, just as John was about to give up, he spoke.

His voice was soft and meditative: subdued. 'I'd convinced myself that it was worth it. However you reacted, however angry you were, the result would be that the killer was in jail and you would be all right.' He sounded shell-shocked and distant, as if he was here more in body than mind, and John mentally cursed this case for its complexity.

'I told myself that even if you left, you'd still be alive; there would be a possibility of convincing you to come back. Even if I couldn't, you not being at Baker Street would be preferable to the alternative: me failing to find the answer and you suffering the consequences. That's how I should think, isn't it? Selfless?'

John cringed. Sherlock sounded like someone reciting something he had been told time and again, but did not truly grasp. Normally, he was shameless about his behaviour, but just because he did not often obey the moral dictates of society, that didn't mean that Sherlock was unaware of them. These days he tried, sometimes, to do what people – what John – expected, even if he didn't see the point.

'The needle tip was against my skin when that text came in. I almost ignored it, the same as the previous one, but –' Sherlock's slim body jerked with his shrug, his spine hunched. 'It stripped away the illusion that I would be able to undo the damage it would cause to our friendship. You would – you would leave, and you wouldn't come back.' He shook his head, and now his voice brimmed with something unforgiving, directed at himself. 'Regardless of what was best for you, I flushed the cocaine and fled, rather than using it to catch the person who threatens your life.'

John froze where he stood, his lips parted as Sherlock's words sank in. It was hard to believe, as if he were being told precisely what he wanted to hear, and yet there was plenty of information to back up Sherlock's statement. Physically, he showed no sign of having consumed any stimulants, but beyond that there was his behaviour. If he had dosed himself, then he would have concealed all trace of his actions, not abandoned the damning syringe as if he could not tolerate Baker Street a moment longer.

Sherlock was not considering the situation from the perspective of allure and surrender; to him, this was not about beating temptation. He seemed to expect John would blame him for throwing away the tool that could, in his view, have helped him and put the killer behind bars.

His logic was convoluted and questionable: backwards to most people, but John reminded himself that Sherlock had always been a man who took whatever actions were necessary to achieve the desired result. He broke the law on a regular basis in the pursuit of evidence and, in his head at least, using cocaine was no different. It was a means to an end; one which he had discarded at – in Sherlock's belief – the cost of John's well-being.

'You're an idiot.' The words were hushed, but the stiffening of Sherlock's shoulders indicated he had heard, and John hurried to clarify. 'You sat at that table, as close to giving in as anyone gets, and you stopped yourself. Now, instead of seeing that you've done the right thing, you're blaming yourself, as if anything that might happen to me is your fault.'

'It is if I could have stopped it!'

'You still can!' John scraped his fingers through his hair, wishing he could come up with the words that would shatter apart Sherlock's false rationalisations. 'You don't need to take drugs to catch the killer, and you don't need to put him behind bars to keep me alive. I'm not helpless. I never have been.'

'You were last night,' Sherlock pointed out, lifting his chin. 'You were like a lamb to the slaughter, and you don't even remember –' He cut himself off, shaking his head and shifting his weight. 'You would have followed a stranger to your death without a second thought.'

'But I didn't, because you were there. You kept me safe; the cocaine had nothing to do with it.' John spread his hands. 'Don't you see? You don't need it. Not now, not ever. You think it makes you better, brighter – it just makes you vulnerable. You act like making the right deductions without it is impossible, but you're wrong.'

'Then why don't I have an answer?' Sherlock asked, still talking to the unreceptive pane of the window. 'All this data and there's still nothing!' His hands dropped to his hips and his head bowed as if the burden of the world lay across his shoulders. 'What Shaw gave me would have shown me a new path.'

'But there's no guarantee it would be the right one!' John sucked in a breath, lowering his voice. 'Even if it was, even if you had the murderer in custody within an hour, what about next time?' He paused, because that was the real issue at hand. Sherlock using once would be a disastrous step back in his progress, but it was also the opening gambit in an almost inevitable decline. 'What about the time after that? Whenever you got stuck or your deductions let you down, you'd reach for it again until it became the crutch that hobbled you. No one sets out to become an addict, but it happens all the same.'

He was preaching to the choir. Sherlock had been there before, once. John may not have witnessed it, but it was all too easy to picture Sherlock's svelte form reduced to nothing but skin stretched over the jut of his bones. How simple to envision him, gaunt and exhausted despite the light in his eyes, talking a mile a minute as if his time was running out: which it had been, back then. At least, that's what Greg had said once after a few pints at the pub.

The vision of Sherlock slumped on the sofa in some pit of a flat, his pupils huge and his body unravelling while his mind sat on the frontier of extinction made grief tighten John's chest. 'Please don't –' His voice rasped, and he cleared his throat awkwardly before trying again. 'Don't do that to yourself.'

He didn't care if it sounded like begging. If that's what it took, then he would get on his knees and begin a litany, because there was something else Sherlock had got wrong. He had been sure that John would walk away, and John wished he could be so certain he would have that kind of strength. It seemed like an impossible task. Fury and disappointment, shouting and arguments, all those were a given if Sherlock started using again, but John leaving Baker Street?

No. That's not how it would go.

From the day he had met Sherlock, there had been something that pulled him onwards – a connection he could neither understand nor ignore. Here, with him, was where John was supposed to be, and he would fight anything that tried to obliterate what he and Sherlock shared, whether that was drug lords, murderers or Sherlock's own self-destruction.

For a moment, he questioned the wisdom of putting his realisation into words. After all, it was thoughts of John's departure which had stayed Sherlock's hand. If he removed that threat, would there be anything to stop Sherlock racing out to find what he was so sure he needed to save John from sharing the victim's fate?

Maybe not. The idea of having faith in Sherlock now was terrifying, but John realised he had no choice. It hurt that Sherlock thought him leaving was a possibility: as if abandonment had ever formed part of John's character. Stripping him of that misconception was essential. Besides, Sherlock had done as John asked; he had given him the truth, harsh as it was. Didn't John owe him that much in return?

'I wouldn't have gone, you know,' he said, speaking to the straight, silent line of Sherlock's back. 'If I'd come back to find you using again, I wouldn't have left.'

Sherlock's head turned a fraction, attentive. It allowed John to see some of his profile, downcast as it was. 'Not immediately perhaps. You take your Hippocratic Oath seriously. Perhaps you would have lingered to ensure my well-being, but eventually you would have done what any sane man would.'

He looked over his shoulder, his eyes darting up and down John's frame before Sherlock faced him fully. His arms were folded across his chest, closed off and defensive, and defeat still embossed every aspect of his frame.

'You have never made a secret of your thoughts on drug use. You loathe it and the related dependency, a dislike which is ruthlessly enforced every time you speak to your sister. This –' He gestured to the bare table, indicating what John had removed from its surface. 'This not only colours your good impression of me, it outweighs it. You would no longer consider me “amazing”, worthy of your praise or your company. So tell me, what possible reason would you have to stay?'

A tremor ran through John's body, because the Sherlock he knew would have made that sentence sound arrogant and cold. Now, it was soft, as if he were pleading with John to prove him wrong – to give him something quantifiable upon which he could rely. Sherlock's assessment, shallow and unflattering, was not a deduction: it was a fear, and John spared a fleeting thought for the path Sherlock's life must have taken that made him sure he was of no value to anyone for anything but his brain.

What could he say? There were words a-plenty, but were any of them something Sherlock would take on board? Everything they had voiced since John had confronted him about the syringe still swirled around them, yet it seemed to make no impact. Sherlock appeared no closer to accepting that cocaine was not a necessity, and John was damn sure he was no more convinced that Sherlock was right. What progress had they made?

But this – this explanation was more important than anything else. It was essential that Sherlock understood. John wasn't a genius, but he knew how much difference knowing someone cared about you, all of you, body and mind and the person within, could make. It could give people strength they never realised they had. It could provide certainty where, otherwise, none could be found.

Right now, they both needed that.

His hands were rock steady as he stepped forward and cupped Sherlock's face. It was similar to what he had done earlier on the stairs, except this time, Sherlock's pulse was a harmony to his own. Dimly, he felt it jump into a faster, startled rhythm, but Sherlock made no move to pull back. He had gone still, as if he were afraid anything – a single word, a subdued breath – would cause John to retreat.

If it weren't for the suspicion that whatever happened next was integral, John might have done just that. His stomach was full of frightened butterflies, and his heart throbbed in the hollow of his throat as he hesitantly stretched up, closing the last couple of inches to press a kiss to Sherlock's full lips.

He shook with the effort of restraint, keeping his caress tender while a thread of urgency wove beneath. He didn't want to push Sherlock into reciprocation, but John had to make himself clear. Sherlock had to know that, whether the sentiment was returned or not, this was why John would stay until he was sent away: not mere lust or simple gratification, but something far deeper that he could not yet put into words.

Sherlock did not withdraw, but nor did he return the pressure, and John stepped back, raising his eyebrows and hunching his shoulders before he looked away.

'That's why I wouldn't leave,' he murmured, not daring to look at Sherlock. He didn't regret what he had done, but nor could he bear it if Sherlock brushed him off or put up all those walls of manufactured indifference once more.

He waited for it, the excuses and awkwardness, reading their heavy prose in the silence that stretched between them. Sherlock's breathing was ragged and uneven, as if unspoken words were dragging at the air in his lungs and getting tied up on his tongue.

'John...'

His name brimmed with warmth, not Arctic apathy, and he heard the hush of cloth as Sherlock moved. It was as if he had come back to life, his stillness falling away as long fingers reached out to splay around John's hips, enslaving his attention. He looked up, his breath catching because, at last, the tumultuous, heavy clouds had cleared from Sherlock's gaze, leaving them moonlight bright. All that focus was solely on him, laser-intense and full of heat as Sherlock ducked his head and claimed back the kiss John briefly feared he had stolen.

Except this was more than the ethereal promise of affection. He was not the only one putting his heart on display, and John's nerves shivered to life. He had not dared to part his lips that first time, but now the tentative touch of Sherlock's tongue was all the request he needed. He didn't care about the lingering taste of cigarettes as his fingers tangled in Sherlock's shirt, holding him close as he surrendered to this man and all his beautiful, dangerous madness.

Stress and doubt would linger still. This was no magic cure, but it was stable ground amidst a shifting world. It was an acknowledgement that, regardless of what lay ahead, there was more to fight for than platonic friendship.

After what felt like hours of talking yet saying nothing of worth, they were both finally getting the message.

Chapter Text

He always missed something.

Sherlock had been sure he knew how this would go – certain of John's departure – but now he realised the magnitude of his error. It had been obvious that the threat of cocaine, no matter what the motivation behind its potential use, would tip the balance and push John away. Yet instead of a precarious scale of admiration, equilibrium easily disturbed, Sherlock realised John's regard was a monument, firm in foundation. Time and events could leave their mark, but nothing had the power to bring about its destruction.

The churning sea of his emotions – his fear, self-repulsion, and the unaccustomed weight of uncertainty – had given way. The storm may still rage around him, but now he was safe in the halcyon calm of its eye. John's compact form was his rock and his salvation, spreading the blessing of heat through his frame and banishing the brumal vice of dread.

Cautiously, afraid that the vision in which he found himself would dissipate, Sherlock touched his tongue to the firm line of John's mouth: a stolen taste. There were no remnants of beer this time; nothing to suggest that John was under a chemical influence. This was the man himself, bold and unabashed as he parted his lips with a breathless moan, inviting Sherlock inside.

They clung to each other like survivors of a shipwreck. There was no shaking passage of hands, only the tangle of fingers in woven wool and cotton, probably creased beyond repair by the force of John's grip. He hung on as if he feared Sherlock would be torn away from him, but for all the ferocity of his grasp, the slide of his mouth was reverent. It was a wordless commendation that spoke volumes, and Sherlock happily lost himself in its missive. He swept beyond the blockade of John's teeth and revelled in his flavour, intimate and humid, as John reciprocated without hesitation.

Sherlock only withdrew when the need for air became too urgent to ignore. The hiss of his inhale stuttered as John pressed his adorations to Sherlock's jaw and the hollow beneath. Demanding hunger thrummed below the surface, a thrilling hint of the John he had kissed the night before: base and primal in his need. However, restraint sang in the planes of his muscles and the light worship of his mouth against Sherlock's pulse.

Brushing his palms over John's shoulders, Sherlock's fingers fluted along the staunch column of his neck so that he could guide John back. His hold was tender but persuasive as John obligingly raised his head, trembling beneath the tease of Sherlock's lips.

At first, it was a whisper of shared breath and longing, but even if Sherlock had the strength to leave it at that, John did not. He pressed himself up on his toes, his teeth scraping and making the sensitive skin burn with sensation before he slipped beyond, drinking his fill of Sherlock's mouth as if it were the only sustenance he required.

Their bodies were pressed tight, but Sherlock had no awareness to spare for that knowledge. His entire being was overwhelmed, forced calm and still by John's presence. There was no room in his head for anything but the promising pleasure that was growing beneath his ribs and pooling between his legs. His body shook with it, delicate shivers that raised the hairs on his arms and peaked his nipples beneath the smooth fabric of his shirt.

He had always imagined that, should this moment come, it would be an explosion of lust. Yet there was not the rush and race of passion's torrent – a tide swift to ebb – but steady heat that had already begun to cut eternal canyons through Sherlock's heart. He could stand like this for hours, exploring John's unique essence and basking in his closeness. That had never happened before. In every other encounter of this nature in his past, kissing – boring, in Sherlock's opinion – had progressed to more horizontal matters in short order.

However, there was nothing dull about John's capable tongue against his. More than mere foreplay – more than tuning the instrument – it was a symphony in its own right, and Sherlock was lost within its composition.

They broke apart, swollen-mouthed and flushed, but their bodies remained in place, straining against one another as dizziness swirled through Sherlock's head. The tip of John's nose rubbed against his, a gentle nuzzle as their panting breaths mingled, sultry and wanton. John's eyes had darkened, losing all trace of steel in their rich depths.

'You won't leave?' His voice was a husk of its former self as he sagged, emotionally spent, against John's shorter frame.

John's hand cupped his face, his thumb brushing across the prominence of the bone as if he could write his name beneath the skin in a permanent claim.

'I won't leave.'

Sherlock closed his eyes, enjoying the goose-down drift of relief. Like the fall of winter snow, it was steady and inexorable, overwhelming him by degrees, and his throat pinched unaccountably tight.

Beneath his hands, he could feel John shaking, a fine vibration that Sherlock struggled to understand. Perhaps he feared that, without the threat of his departure, Sherlock would proceed with his initial plan. Did he not realise that, with the straightforward bravery of his actions, John had instead bound Sherlock tighter to him? Whatever promises were made, whether they were basic oaths or wedding vows, the cost of breaking them now would be more than he could bear. He had not sworn to maintain his sobriety, but his behaviour spoke louder than anything he could have put into voice.

No, cocaine was no longer an option, but John was still at risk.

'Hey.' Blunt fingers skimmed over his face, lingering on the dark shadows that bruised Sherlock's pallor. He acted as if Sherlock's skin were wet tissue paper, easy to rip and expose the bloody mess beneath. 'Stop it. Just –' His thumb dragged across Sherlock's pout, quickly replaced by the light sigh of a kiss. 'Whatever you're thinking, stop it, Sherlock.'

'The case –' He pursed his lips, because perhaps he should have said he was thinking about John instead. Which he was, indirectly, but the immediacy of need was tempered by the realisation that the affection they shared changed nothing. In fact, there was a chance it would exacerbate the situation, placing John in more danger than ever before. 'I need –' He waved a hand. 'I need to solve it. I can't –'

He feared disappointment, for John to bow his head and question whether he had made the right choice in bridging this new change in their relationship. Yet once again, Sherlock was reminded not to make assumptions. The look John gave him was bright and alert, not the slightest bit downcast. It was an expression that suggested he understood what Sherlock was trying to say, and didn't expect anything different.

However, there was a hint of Captain Watson in the line of his shoulders and the strength of his voice. 'Greg's working the angle with Shaw, and Molly's chasing things at the lab. It can wait, just for a few hours.' He retreated, dragging a rough sound of protest from Sherlock at the distance. His smirk was unbelievably smug, sloughing five years from his appearance and fanning the flames of appreciation in his gaze, but John seemed to bank the heat as he held out his hand. 'Come to bed?'

Sherlock raised an eyebrow, which only made John's face crease with a smile. For someone known for his charms over three continents, he appeared delightfully prone to embarrassment, as evidenced by the flush gathering at the tips of his ears and gracing his cheeks. 'Not for that.'

Disappointment darted across Sherlock's face. Kisses were not always an inevitable invitation for more, and he silently chastised himself for his presumption. Though if that were true now, then Sherlock was worse at reading John than he thought. His hesitation was mercifully short-lived as John reached out and tugged him close, his lips branding Sherlock's mouth with wet heat before he growled, 'Oh, we will fuck.'

The profanity, so mild and matter-of-fact, sparked a new shiver through Sherlock's frame.

'But not now,' John continued, looking into Sherlock's eyes. 'When we do, I want to make sure I have your full attention. I don't want half your mind on the Work and the other on everything that could go wrong.' He raised his eyebrows, probably hoping for some element of understanding from Sherlock. However, in his view, John was underestimating his physical prowess. A kiss pooled ripples through Sherlock's head, smoothing away the disturbances of case and cravings alike to leave his thoughts placid and linear.

Logical extrapolation indicated that anything more intense could eradicate him entirely.

Should that frighten him? It had before. Previous encounters had been conducted at arm's length. He had removed himself from the humiliating hungers of his body, above it all and thinking still. That wouldn't be possible with John, and for once, Sherlock found himself unwilling to make any attempt at keeping his distance.

Warm fingers brushed under his eyes again, tracing the vault of his temple to sweep the obstinate curls from his forehead. 'Right now, you need rest.' That healing touch hesitated over scars of weariness that Sherlock knew etched their way across his face, too deep for caresses to erase. 'A couple of hours, that's all I'm asking for.'

He looked so hopeful, like someone luring in a wild creature, and Sherlock bit back the reply that it would do no good. How could he sleep now? The only thing that banished the howling, gnawing beast of the mystery from ravaging his mind was John's fervent heat. Yet that was trading the stab and slice of desperation for the fire of need, different, but just as merciless.

John watched him with restrained desire, his hunger held at bay by the pliant glow of genuine care. Once, that had been hidden beneath the mask of friendship. Now, it had revealed itself in full. Not mere passion, nor fleeting, physical want. The depth of John's emotion, worn so bravely on his sleeve, was impossible to deny: a beacon that beckoned forth Sherlock's trust.

Mutely, he relented, his hand sliding down John's wool-clad arm to weave their fingers together. He allowed himself to be led on legs that were weak at every joint. He still felt numb and somewhat detached – the cold terror of John leaving had bitten deep. Only where their hands were innocently linked did Sherlock find his anchor. It was an odd sensation, a loving connection that consumed his entire awareness: fantasy made real.

Though if this were a dream, then Sherlock would be content never to wake.

His unmade bed waited, the quilt curled sinuously across the stretch of the mattress where John had discarded it – was it really only a handful of hours ago? A nudge urged him towards the nest, and for one fretful moment, Sherlock thought John intended to leave him. Solitude would be his undoing, allowing the rushing roar of every thought and fear to return. However, John closed the door with an emphatic thud, sealing them inside.

'All right?'

Sherlock nodded, wanting to reach for him but unsure of the boundaries and where they lay. This was not progressing in the usual fashion. He was used to the rapid flow of physical relief – brief flares of delectation that faded to be forgotten within the hour: irrelevant. However, that was not John's immediate plan, and Sherlock found himself watching his – Flatmate? Partner? Boyfriend? Lover? – for clues.

The curtain rings scraped along their rail as John got to work, moving with the precise efficiency of a man used to marching to the military's beat. He shut out the world: a soldier building up the barricades, glancing over his shoulder when Sherlock stated the obvious problem.

'I'm not tired.' He frowned, needing to be clear. 'I don’t think I could sleep if I tried.'

'You don't have to, but I bet if you lie down, you'll feel better for it.' John regarded him, his expression soft and his smile amused, as if, for once, he were the one with all the answers. 'You've not slept for –' He shook his head. 'I don't know how long. You've spent the last twenty-four hours either looking after me or ripping yourself apart trying to solve the murders, and then –' He shrugged, indicating the conflict of the day: fatiguing in its own right.

'So let's say you do your normal thing. You stay awake and you run yourself into the ground trying to identify the killer. Do you really think you'll work it out, or are you just going to waste time banging your head against a mental-block?'

Sherlock's brain was heavy and sluggish, bogged down by the turmoil of the evening. Even forming words seemed like a vast effort, and his weak protest died on his lips. Perhaps John had a point. This was not the normal, edgy clarity of sleep-deprivation. It was murky ditch-water, all obscuration and lurking threat.

John folded his arms, moving to stand at Sherlock's shoulder and setting his jaw at a stubborn angle. 'Earlier, you were willing to risk undoing two years of sobriety to deduce the culprit's identity.' He managed to keep the judgement out of his voice, but not the edge of pain, and Sherlock stifled a flinch. 'Think of this like an alternative drug. Neurochemical manipulation to improve reasoning.'

'Slumber doesn't help me think.'

'How do you know?' John stepped back, shedding his jumper and unbuttoning the shirt beneath. 'When did you last try?'

Sherlock did not answer. He was too busy looking at John, observing the small tells of his body and discerning their message. John had emphasised Sherlock's exhaustion, but he seemed far from unaffected. He was leaning his weight to one side, favouring his good leg as he divested himself of his shirt, then his jeans, leaving himself standing in his boxers. It was an appealing sight – trenchant and powerful. However, though John's eyes were clear, there were hints of strain at their corners. It was not hard to imagine the chaotic emotions that had washed through him over the past couple of hours: an unreliable reflection of Sherlock's own.

He could not condone sleeping for himself when he should be focussed on the Work, but there was a great deal he would do for John's sake. If he stayed up, pacing the living room and repeating the same old facts, then John would do the same. They would wear themselves thin: slaves to their quest for the truth.

Perhaps in a different situation, that would be acceptable, but John needed to be awake and perceptive by the time they returned to Iso. Baker Street was safe, but the club was not. If John was functioning at less than his best, he would be too vulnerable a target.

That realisation made his decision easy. With clumsy fingers, Sherlock slipped the buttons of his shirt free, shedding the slack manacles of his cuffs before toeing out of shoes and trousers. The weight of John's gaze brushed over him, edged with the heavy burn of want that not even their joint weariness could stifle. Mimicking John, he left his underwear on, a pathetic barrier of false chastity as he sat on the edge of the bed, peeling off his socks before running his hands through his hair.

He didn't hear John move – did not even register his weight dipping the mattress until the splay of deft fingers over his back made him suck in a breath. John's palms grazed the column of his spine, charting every ridge before they fanned out to smooth across overwrought muscles, too firm to be ticklish and too bold to be considered coy.

John settled on his knees behind him, a position he would struggle to maintain for long, thanks to his leg. His chest was a broad expanse that sent shimmering light surfing along Sherlock's nerves: proximal awareness. Yet John did not shuffle forward and invade his space. He did not press against him, demanding attention. Instead he poured himself into what he was doing as if nothing in the world mattered but the point of contact between them.

There was an edge of hesitance to his touch until Sherlock straightened up, stretching like a cat in a sunbeam. He leant back and luxuriated in the sensation of being so completely cared for. This was not about enticement, though hints of that remained. It was selfless and devoted, like John himself, and Sherlock shook beneath its influence.

With every dexterous sweep, John unravelled the knots in Sherlock's muscles, banishing fretful tangles of stress with careful diligence. Every slide of his hands dragged the high, nervous whine of tension downwards, the pitch descending until it resonated through the pit of Sherlock's stomach and sent waves of laconic heat along his thighs. The heaviness in his skull did not leave, but it softened, no longer a punishing cage against which he would break himself apart, but a snug cocoon.

His body moved of its own accord, his hands shifting to rub a harmony across the downy curve of John's leg: flexed muscles hard beneath the sheath of skin. He found the edge of John's underwear, the cotton forming a fascinating frontier that Sherlock followed with his finger. He barely noticed that John had stopped what he was doing, his body rigid as Sherlock trailed over the sensitive flesh of John's inner thigh.

'That's –' John groaned, a shivery, delicious noise as he bent his head, his breath huffing across Sherlock's skin. '– That's not helping anyone relax.'

'Relaxing's boring.' Sherlock smirked, not needing to look down to know John was right. The thin silk of his boxers did nothing to hide the swelling ridge beneath, and he gasped as John's fingers skirted around his ribs, strumming down the flat plane of Sherlock's stomach: enticing. 'Have you changed your mind? You don't seem so keen on sleep, anymore.'

John's hum did not precisely sound like agreement, but the way his hand clasped, possessive, over Sherlock's belly suggested that rest was no longer a top priority. His body was a warm, dry wall at Sherlock's back, and his answering interest pressed, solid and shameless, against him.

It was the catalyst: the single sensation that sharpened the dream-like haze into a blade of need. It knifed through Sherlock's body, making his head loll against John's shoulder as firm lips branded a line along his throat. Tiny nips of teeth teased at his nerves, and a growl of complaint hitched into a whimper as John moved downwards to stroke between Sherlock's legs.

Sherlock's hands scrabbled fitfully, clutching at John's knees and thighs: not enough – distinctly not enough. He wanted to trace every last inch and commit it to memory: an eternal atlas of John's landscape. Failing that, he longed to mirror John's current attentions, to cradle the heavy weight of his hard cock and tempt free the ghostly shimmers that were threatening to unravel Sherlock's fading train of thought.

Snagging John's wrist, he ignored the husky moan of protest as he pulled John away from his prize. It was a brief departure, and Sherlock's lips bestowed blissful homage along the length of his arm as he nudged him down to the mattress. His tongue traced the line of John's bicep before sweeping up to taste the scattered, glorious web of his scar, intricate and unique.

Fingers caught in his hair, and a warning rumbled in Sherlock's throat. Other lovers had decided sinuous curls were made for being pulled, and he hated it: the bossiness and the sharpness of the discomfort. However, John did not yank in a pointless act of dominance. He rubbed and stroked instead, firm gestures that made Sherlock's eyelashes quiver in unexpected ecstasy. He moved to John's tender guidance, not realising he had lifted his head until John's lips caught his in a deep, hungry display. It was wet, messy and glorious. Sherlock's muscles stiffened and his nerves shone, the divergent storm of his mind silent as the tempest threatened to take his body instead.

His hands skittered along the line of John's side, fingers gripping his hips and leading him into a drugging rhythm. It made him think of dancing in Iso, except this time the only beat was their rapid pulses, the rush of each breath and the tight, choked noises that commuted between their mouths as their hips ground together.

An increase in pressure intensified the flame, and John broke the kiss, a groaning curse rasping in his throat.

'Christ, Sherlock! There. Don't – don't stop.' John's hands grabbed his arse and pulled him closer, panting as they rutted against each other. Dry heat and hardness: tantalising and incendiary. It was animal and undignified, but for the first time in his life Sherlock was indifferent to appearances. All his thoughts were on John beneath him, their lust entwined and shared, rather than doled out in an act of give and take.

Open-mouthed kisses showered his throat and shoulders, jaw and cheeks: wherever John could reach, and Sherlock eagerly returned them, laying himself bare.

He managed a breath of protest when John pressed one foot flat to the mattress and tipped them, sprawling them in a clumsy, side-by-side fashion. Yet neither of them lost contact: hands and mouths, fingers and palms, the twine of arms and the heady, heavy race of hearts pressed as close as they could be. It was too much, overwhelming, and somehow still not enough.

'Ah!' Sherlock clenched his teeth, trying to contain the noises that clawed at his chest as John pushed beneath the clinging fabric of his underwear and thumbed along Sherlock's naked length. His stomach clenched and his hips snapped forward, pushing him deeper into the curl of John's fist. Closing his eyes, he concentrated on the twisting coils of desire John invoked with his shy exploration.

With every passing second, he grew more bold, and John's free hand went awkwardly to Sherlock's jaw, his thumb pulling at Sherlock's bottom lip where it was bleached under the pressure of his teeth.

'No, let me,' he pleaded, his voice hoarse. 'Let me hear you. God, I want to hear the noises you make.'

It was a wicked kind of prayer, and Sherlock opened his eyes, looking directly into John's lust-clouded gaze as he granted the earnest wish. He had never been a loud lover – never been called to praise and benediction by anyone – but every move of John's hand pulled forth more wordless appreciation. Purrs, moans and murmured encouragements fell from Sherlock's tongue as, finally, he found a glimmer of coordination: enough to push John's underwear down his thighs and take him in hand.

He was hot and solid, real amidst a vivid world of crackling sensuality. Satin skin stretched taut over the bestial ridge of John's arousal, and Sherlock squeezed and tested, stroked and spanned, trying to take in the measure of him: more than mere dimensions – everything both vulnerable and potent.

However, the mental power required was almost beyond his reach, scattered as it was by the firm beat John conducted over Sherlock's aching cock. At last, all he could do was enjoy the act itself, half-curled and breathless beneath the inexorable build of pleasure.

They moved in clumsy unison, awkward in the lack of space between the press of their bodies, and Sherlock choked off a harsh sound of frustration as they scraped knuckles.

'We can't –' John hummed as Sherlock rolled his foreskin over his coronal ridge, sandy lashes trembling as his voice went tight. 'Can't both do this at once.'

'Move,' Sherlock demanded, butting John's head and arching his hips in emphasis. 'Move so I can –' He hissed at the loss of John's hand before fumbling in the bedside table for some lube. He rarely bothered with it when he pleased himself, but it would make things easier for what he had in mind. A generous amount chilled his palm before he reached down between them, pressing their erections together and clasping them both as he began to move.

'God,' John choked out, writhing where he lay, his hips stuttering and his hands wandering over Sherlock's chest as if he could not work out where he wanted to touch the most. 'You fucking genius. Fucking – yes!'

John bent his head, his nose pressed to Sherlock's collarbone and his breath hushing over his skin. Sweat beaded the fragile arches of his temples, edging Sherlock's lips with the taste of salt. He could feel John blinking – the flutter of lashes against his neck – and a split-second deduction made a thud of desire punch through Sherlock's stomach. John was observing the dance of his hand – was watching him torment them both – and it only added to the thrill of the obscene, slick noises that stirred the air.

His arm was starting to cramp, the angle awkward, but he didn't want to shift away and give himself any more space to work. Not now, with John licking along his collarbone and all but snarling his praises: nothing to do with observations or intelligence, but carnal and exhilarating.

John's arm draped over his hip, his fingers splayed over Sherlock's arse and pulling him forward, increasing the pressure and sparking friction. Sherlock was torn between the want building in the pit of his stomach and the steady throb of John's arousal against his own: molten heat and heavy steel flushed dark.

A swipe of his thumb over the glans of John's cock brought forth a wrecked cry, and Sherlock gasped in quiet harmony as John bucked. He threw back his blond head, his eyes screwed up tight beneath the onslaught as Sherlock drove on his release.

Hot fluid splashed Sherlock's stomach, but he barely noticed, too focussed on restraining himself so he could watch John come undone. It was utter surrender: blind, deaf and vulnerable. Another facet of John's character that he knew, then and there, he would never tire of seeing. He pressed his lips to John's forehead, his movements slower now: teasing to his still-hard flesh but cautious over John's sensitive erection, which was flushed and twitching.

'You,' John croaked, his breath hitching as he licked his lips and met Sherlock's eyes. His hand ghosted over Sherlock's knuckles, prying him free before taking his place. 'You now.'

He slid his hand down and up again, slicking Sherlock from root to tip with a mix of lube and come before setting up a smooth, competent tempo that made Sherlock's toes curl. It was so different than pleasing himself, unpredictable, almost disorganised chaos, but there was a melody of method that led Sherlock's nerves through a new dance. His hands curled over John's shoulders and he bowed his head, brow-to-brow and shaking as the steady swell of the electric tide consumed him.

It broke over him like a flash-flood, obliterating all in its path. He might have called out, he wasn't sure, but John was there, holding him through it. Murmured kisses anointed his cheeks and gasping praises stirred the air as he shuddered his way through his climax, lost to the intensity that John could summon with such perfect ease.

He hadn't known sex could be like that: flawed and clumsy, graceless and spontaneous – something fun to be enjoyed for more than mere gratification. He hadn't known it could do this, either, wipe his mind clean and lay it to rest, lazy and sated in a sea of endorphins with what he suspected was a rather stupid grin on his face. He tried to call his expression under control, but it was an unstoppable display which only broadened as John kissed him again.

They were both panting as if they had run across the city, hearts thrashing with a different kind of thrill. For a while, they were the only sounds but for the occasional wet sanctification of a kiss, impossible to resist. Sherlock was not sure whether he should be flattered to have wrecked John so thoroughly, or amazed that John had done the same to him with what was little more than a mutual wank.

'That was –'

'Relaxing?' Sherlock suggested, grinning as a bubble of laughter escaped John: a bright sound of mirth in the twilight of the room.

'Satisfying. Brilliant. The sexiest fucking thing I've ever seen...' John wriggled his fingers where they still rested around Sherlock's ebbing arousal, wrinkling his nose. 'Messy. Come on, shift.'

With a groan, he eased back a fraction, realising his underwear was still wrapped around his legs just above his knees. Not that John was any different, except he was now shuffling out of the cotton garment. A moment later, he swiped it over Sherlock's body, cleaning up the evidence of their fulfilment.

'Need mine?' Sherlock asked, wriggling out of his boxers. They had been low enough down his legs to avoid the worst of it, and John's could probably only absorb so much.

'We could shower,' John pointed out, taking the fine black fabric and smiling as Sherlock made a tired sound of protest. 'Yeah, I don't want to get up either. Move this way.' He budged over, lying along the far edge of the mattress and reaching out to drag Sherlock closer. 'See? Now no one has to lie in the wet patch.'

'Now who's the genius?'

John giggled at the compliment, his arm looping around Sherlock's waist in lazy possession. There was still a sticky patina across their stomachs, but Sherlock could not bring himself to care as he settled against John, secure in a way he had never thought he'd need. A sense of fragility remained – things yet to be spoken – but there would be time for them when the morning came. For now, they had found their sanctuary together, and Sherlock let his eyes drift shut as his body fell deeper into lethargy.

'Thank you.'

He expected John to ask for clarification, though the truth was, he wasn't sure about the root of his gratitude. Of all the ways today could have ended, this was not where he imagined he would find himself, supine in John's embrace. It could have been so different: him left alone in the barren wasteland of a life once rich with John's presence. He had braced himself for that outcome in all its bitterness, and to end up here instead...

'I think I should be the one thanking you,' John murmured. The room was gloom-thick, but Sherlock could still see enough of John's expression, relaxed and open, all shields and veils torn aside. Under his hand, John's pulse beat out its Morse code of contentment, calling Sherlock's into steady time. 'I wasn't sure this was something you wanted.'

'Sex?' Sherlock asked, drawing in a deep breath of John's scent: sweat and musk and something he couldn't define.

'Me.' John's hand squeezed Sherlock's hip before stroking a line up and down his back.

Pulling away, Sherlock looked down into John's face, reading the vulnerability that he was trying to hide behind a casual mask. He thought of all the signs they had given one another – hints and silent, longing looks – and wondered how John could still have questioned it.

'Idiot.' He said it fondly, more of an endearment than an insult, and smiled as John laughed. 'Of course I want you.'

Sherlock's memory shifted, reminding him of a fundamental disparity. He had more proof of John's regard of him than John had of his affections. If John had remembered what passed between them last night, he would probably have rid himself of his misgivings all together. 'Perhaps I'm being unfair. You're not in possession of all the evidence.'

He felt John lift his head, all abrupt attentiveness, and Sherlock swallowed down the last knot of his uncertainty. He had taken John in hand and broken him to blissful pieces before building him up anew, and John had returned the favour. The act of shaking down the walls of their physical barriers was one of extreme trust; John deserved to know what else they had shared.

'That was not the first time you kissed me.' His voice rushed over the words and Sherlock bit his lip, clearing his throat as he tried to read John's expression. He was not sure what he expected, but it was not the faint softening of recollection across John's features.

'The doorstep?' He gave a tight smile as Sherlock nodded, rolling his eyes. 'I was going to ask you this morning if it was a dream – if that's what you meant by me being more affectionate.'

'Why didn't you?' Sherlock frowned, dwelling on the unfamiliar territory of what might have been. How differently would the day have gone if John had spoken up? Would they still have ended up here, in each other's arms, or would there have been another, less preferable outcome?

John shrugged, shuffling deeper under the quilt as his fingers continued their steady slide across Sherlock's skin. 'I didn't have the guts. Even if it wasn’t a dream I – you still stopped. You pulled away from me. I thought I'd been doing something you didn't want or –'

It was easy to halt the flow of words, stemming the wounds of doubt that Sherlock had never intended to bestow. His lips stole them away, turning consonants and vowels to sounds of joy as John melted against him all over again: precious and dependable.

'I wanted you to remember it,' Sherlock murmured against his mouth. 'If we went to bed together, I didn't want you to wake up with no recollection of what we had done.'

A shiver raced through John's body, but it seemed more about excitement than distress as a smile broke over his lips. 'Believe me,' he murmured, trailing across Sherlock's stomach and the proof of what they had done. 'I don't think anything will ever steal the memory of this from me.'

Sherlock smirked, slipping his leg between John's and cinching him closer. The heat was still there, banked for now: a promise rather than an all-consuming conflagration. Caresses and murmurs passed between them, secrets in the shadows of the night.

Gradually, their words fell quiet as each taste and breath turned languid. John's hand stilled, and the grasp over Sherlock's hip slackened as every blink grew longer. His fingers perched like roosting birds, twitching now and then as he succumbed to the shallow waters at the edge of sleep's ocean.

Yet rather than leave Sherlock in the waking world, John led him down into darkness. Somnolence filled his mind, dense and heavy in the haven of John's arms. Occasionally, a stray thought or the grim ghost of some latent concern would infiltrate the twilight, yet nothing could fully part its fog and return him to wakefulness. How could he stir from this: John's body edging closer to his and the flex of his arm over his waist, holding him in the bed they had claimed as theirs?

Wraiths of dreams flickered through his head, shattered, disparate images that slid away as soon as he tried to focus on them. More than once, he strained to make sense of their gauzy colours, and at some nameless point of the night, one of the vaporous visions resolved itself into something more tangible.

The lab at Bart's surrounded him, the microscope gleaming on a blood-spattered bench. Tinny sibilance curled in the air, the corpses murmuring in their drawers, but Sherlock could not make out anything beyond the metallic echo of their disapproval.

Underfoot, the ground sank and shifted as he paced, his feet making incongruous circuits of the familiar room. The walls were chain-link fence, and rain water saturated the wires in a constant torrent. They gleamed molten silver, wealthy with information Sherlock could not discern.

Something was missing; it grated along his nerves in bloody agony. His skin felt raw, and his throat went dry as he realised he was alone. Where was John? He should be here, yet there was no sign of him. The carmine splatter across the white lab bench mocked him as he searched, twisting his ankle on the bulging instability of the floor and scattering scalpels and test tubes.

Metal glinted, glass shattered, and Sherlock's eyes followed the gleaming shards. Yet it was not the fractured, reflective material that caught his attention. Instead it was a familiar hand outstretched, fingers curled and lax: too pale – too still.

John?

Sherlock jerked awake, his indrawn breath loud as the clock swam into focus. His thoughts shrieked as he stared at the numbers, dimly aware that hours had passed. The patter of rain on the window punctuated his confusion, and the distant blare of a taxi's horn in London's storm-swept night solidified the reality of his bedroom. This was the truth: his bed, his home and John at his side. Not that, whatever that had been.

'You all right?' John's voice was rough with sleep as he reached out for the bedside lamp and turned it on, cuffing his eyes before looking at Sherlock, all rumpled concern and bleary affection.

'Sorry,' he mumbled, blinking at the saffron glow of the artificial light before rolling onto his stomach and nosing into the welcoming shelter of the pillow. 'Bad dream.'

Slowly, the visions were coming back to him, some no more than phantasms while others lingered, vivid and clear. He had only seen John's hand. The rest of him had been hidden behind the bulk of one of the workstations, but why? Was it relevant, or just his main fear finding form within the terrain of his subconscious?

Shaking the image aside, Sherlock tried to concentrate. Something else had been there, something that stood out – the fence. Water made the wires razor-sharp, too bright and concrete in comparison to the ethereal silhouettes of the storage containers he had glimpsed beyond the wrecked laboratory.

John sat up, glancing out of the rain-smeared window. 'About the case, or...?' He didn't finish the sentence, waiting for Sherlock to fill in the gaps. There was no hesitance, no fumbling queries about whether Sherlock wanted to talk about it. Perhaps because John had enough experience of nightmares to know that no one ever shared such things readily.

'I'm not sure.' Sherlock smiled as John's hand rested on his shoulder, stroking shyly down his arm as if he did not think he was permitted to offer comfort. At least that was one notion he could disabuse him of immediately. Snaking out his hand, Sherlock tugged at John's elbow, sending him sprawling across his back in a comfortable heap. He could feel the jump of John's laughter, contagious and playful, and an answering chuckle rumbled in his chest before he began to explain.

'It was the lab at Bart's. Blood all over the place in disorganised arterial spray. I could hear things talking in the drawers but couldn't make out what they were saying.'

'That's – disturbing.'

Sherlock shook his head, indifferent. 'A manifestation of their ability to provide me with information, perhaps. Nothing more. You weren't there, missing at first, but then dead on the floor.' He shrugged, breathing out as John's weight warmed his back and his lips pressed, fierce and unforgettable, against Sherlock's flesh: an unbreakable tether to what was real. He relished the sensation, reminding himself that what he had seen was only a figment of his imagination and the conclusions of a mind bogged down by murder and threat.

'The walls were the fence around the storage yard, and the ground was wet underfoot. Marsh-like.' He narrowed his eyes as John nudged the skin between his shoulder-blades with his nose. 'What did I see?'

'Hmmm?'

'There was something there – something important.' The last tempting wisp of sleep faded, leaving him staring across the valleys of the pillow's creases as he tried to visualise the scene. It was there, its details defined: at least those that he had noticed. Pertinent elements glimmered like jewels, brighter than their surroundings, but the fence was little more than a charcoal stretch of criss-crossing lines. Whatever he had observed in the dream, his conscious mind had failed to take in the data.

Unusual.

'Can I help?' John did not sound disgruntled for having his rest disturbed, nor irritated that Sherlock had returned to the well-worn path that meandered through the intricacies of the investigation. 'Get the notes? Anything like that?'

'Describe it.' Sherlock looked over his shoulder, meeting John's eyes and trying not to smirk at the debauched view. Short blond hair stuck up at all angles, disturbed by the passage of Sherlock's fingers, and the rumpled twist of the sheet sat low around John's hips, hinting at what lay beneath. Licking his lips, Sherlock forced himself to focus on what he had been saying, rather than the nude man sharing his bed. 'Describe the storage container in which the bodies were found.'

John closed one eye, the other looking up and to his left as he recalled the memory. 'Red, the number on the door was three-seven-five. New padlock. Old paintwork. It wasn't rusting away, but it wasn't fresh either.' His fingers moved down the curve of Sherlock's ribs, counting off each point he made on the bones. 'There was no obvious way in, until you saw the ladder marks on the ground.'

Sherlock hummed in acknowledgement, shifting as John hit a ticklish spot. 'What about the fence?'

John's weight moved away only to return as he straddled Sherlock's backside, his fingers continuing their exquisite, thoughtful skim. John was not deliberately trying to distract him, but the result was the same. It was challenging to ignore the hard length of John's thighs on either side of his hips or the humidity between them.

'I don't think it was anything special.' John shrugged. 'About, what, eight feet high at the most? There was a small gap underneath, maybe big enough for a rat to squeeze under.'

'Or a ladder.'

'But nothing bigger than that.' He drummed his fingers above Sherlock's kidneys. 'The fence was in pretty good nick, too. Well cared for. No rubbish repairs.'

'But it wasn't new. There were light corrosion stains where the wires intersected.' Sherlock grunted in irritation, moving his arm to press the heel of his palm to his eye. 'What did I see?' He swept his fingers through his hair, glancing towards the closed bedroom door and considering all the data still scattered in the flat beyond: scene photographs, copies of the police file and autopsy reports. Lestrade would have a fit if he knew how many unauthorised duplicates of official documents were littered around Sherlock's usual haunts, but it was the best way. At least now, wherever he was, he had the information he needed at his fingertips.

If only he could make sense of it!

Supple lips on his nape created a brief pool of tranquillity in the mill race of his thoughts, and he closed his eyes in appreciation. That John had this ability – the capacity to ease him back from the teetering brink and ground him with nothing but the lightest touch – was frankly miraculous, and Sherlock sighed in pleasure at the brief respite.

'Come on,' John urged, reluctantly slipping away and patting Sherlock's arse. 'Neither of us are going back to sleep, so start at the beginning and tell me everything. Maybe you'll find something you missed.'

Sherlock propped himself up on his elbows, his earnest smile feeling strange on his lips. This was why John was different from those who had shared his bed in the past. He was not some stranger whose appearance had caught his attention, but a friend who already knew the nuances of Sherlock's behaviour and the indelible structure of his priorities. John didn't just accept that the Work was important. He believed it as fervently as Sherlock himself.

It was almost a relief to lay out what had happened in words. There was nothing new to be said, but there was a structure that Sherlock could build and dissect within every sentence.

'The first victim went missing about eight weeks ago: he was drugged with GHB and ketamine, raped and appeared to die as a consequence of the drugs in his system.'

'Manslaughter rather than murder?' John asked as he grabbed his t-shirt from the floor, dragging it on and hiding his naked torso from view. His jeans followed, to Sherlock's private disappointment, though he noticed John did not bother with his soiled underwear.

'Perhaps. His blood oxygen levels were the main indication of suffocation, as well as some petechial haemorrhaging noticed during autopsy.' Sherlock reached for his pyjama bottoms, loose, comfortable cotton that draped low over his hips as he wriggled into them. Picking up his blue silk robe, he shrugged it on, not bothering to fasten the sash as he continued to speak. 'The second victim, who went missing roughly ten days later, was exposed to a similar ordeal and died in, apparently, the same manner.'

'They were found in the same storage container,' John provided. 'Tea?'

'Please.' Sherlock blinked as John took his wrist, practically dragging him through the flat to the kitchen, keeping him close as he put the kettle onto boil. It was a blatant invitation to stay nearby, one that made an ember glow beneath Sherlock's ribs as he leaned against John and continued to speak.

'It's still not clear whether the two were dumped in the container at the same time, but I think it's unlikely. I hypothesise that they were disposed of within hours of death and left to rot. The killer probably thought they'd never come to light.'

'And then Lestrade's lot found them.' John grimaced, pouring hot water onto tea bags before putting some bread in the toaster.

'Mmm. Two more bodies were later discovered, illogically abandoned in a warehouse. Indications show the third was killed approximately three weeks after the first, and the fourth around a week later than that. The cause of death remains unknown; sexual assault is obvious, but there's no butchery or blatant signs of violence beyond the rape.' Sherlock pressed his fingers to his lip, his mind briefly orbiting the mystery the latter two presented. Not enough information. 'They were stored in a cold place and then dumped in plain sight.'

'Panic, maybe?' John shrugged, handing Sherlock his mug. 'Something that forced the murderer to move them?'

'Something more than making room for the next –' He pursed his lips, a chill washing through him as the full burden of events settled over him once more. He had been about to mention victim number five, except that the brutalised corpse in the alley had never been part of the killer's original plan. It had been John who was meant to hold that role.

The tea in his mouth tasted acidic as fear rocketed through him. Only John's fingers around his wrists, tethering him in place, eased the bite of that particular pain. Sherlock looked into John's weathered face. There was acknowledgement there, awareness of the words not said, and he cleared his throat, forcing himself to continue.

'Beyond that, we have the tenuous link of Amanda Coleridge and her absent lover, Nathan Brantley.'

'And Shaw,' John added, glancing at the toaster as it popped up the results of its efforts. 'You certain he's not behind this?'

Sherlock nodded, taking the toast John offered and biting into it without tasting the honey that gleamed on its surface. 'His operation is large, city-wide. In reality, the correlation we found is likely to be something benign. Perhaps the killer used a saline suspension for the GHB which had been stored in one of Shaw's laboratories. Meaningless in the scheme of the crimes we're investigating.'

'Well, we'll know soon enough. With any luck, Greg's already got him in custody. If the murders stop...' John shrugged, and Sherlock envied him that simple hope. It would be so neat: no loose ends or trailing motives. 'If not, then we're back to square one.'

'Five bodies and no suspects.' Sherlock set the plate down, half of his meagre breakfast uneaten. He wrapped his hand around the mug, relishing its warmth as he padded towards the window and stared out at the rain-drenched dawn. Pregnant clouds turned silver as light found its way across the city, and Sherlock narrowed his eyes at the view, barely seeing anything beyond the inside of his own mind as theories and possibilities bloomed.

With John at his side, he could prevent dismay from obscuring his vision. The evidence of John's safety was absolute, encapsulated in the breathing, pulsing reality of his form. Sherlock itched to reach out, his hand twitching around the mug in his hands, but he restrained himself. What they had shared was still painfully new, and in one night, everything had shifted. Sherlock had faith in his deductions, but here he fell into an endless mire of guesswork and supposition. Sentiment was not a factor he could read with ease.

Thankfully, John had no such difficulty. A faint smile creased his face as he tugged Sherlock unapologetically into a clumsy half-embrace. His arm rested over the crest of his hip as his fingers brushed against Sherlock's bare stomach. It was a subtle attempt at reclaiming some of their earlier intimacy, and Sherlock's fingers traced the column of John's neck, completing the circuit.

'You'll get it,' John promised, lifting his chin when Sherlock looked dubious. 'You will.'

'It's the opposite of a locked room. An open arena of potential suspects. Do you have any idea how many patrons come and go through Iso in a night?' He watched John shake his head. 'Too many.' Sherlock clenched his teeth in annoyance. 'It's impossible to monitor the crowd in any meaningful manner. I could have seen whoever is behind this every night and still be no wiser.'

John's embrace tightened as if he were trying to hold Sherlock's pieces together, and he stared at the floor before he spoke. 'Look, forget the evidence. Forget the lot of it. I know it's not how you work, but you must have had an instinct when Price called you in? What made you take the case?'

Sherlock grimaced. 'I almost didn't. It seemed painfully obvious it was one of the staff. They are perfectly placed to act; all I had to do was find the relevant correlations.'

'And?'

'And there weren't any. Someone behind the bar could easily slip drugs in someone's drink, but they'd also need to intercept their incapacitated victim and commit the crime. Without a concrete idea of the time the victims went missing, it's challenging to be absolute, but there was no distinguishing pattern. It was part of the reason I took the job in the first place.' Sherlock glanced at John with narrowed eyes. 'Hang on, earlier you were offended at the idea that anyone who worked at the club could have spiked your beer.'

'Well, it's not a nice thought, is it?' John pointed out. 'I don't think Vanessa, Will or Tomas could have done it. You get to know people, and you hope you have some idea of what they're capable of.'

'Not always,' Sherlock pointed out. 'Everyone thinks they can see villainy a mile away, but most of the time it's the person you would least expect.'

John shook his head, putting aside his empty mug and facing Sherlock fully, his hands resting on Sherlock's hips and his expression attentive. 'Besides, I'm assuming you checked them out. If you thought it was dangerous, you wouldn't have let me work the door without warning me first.'

'Of course not. No one employed at the club has any relevant prior convictions. I investigated them all, but there was –' He shook his head miserably. 'Nothing. Nothing to suggest any of them were likely to be behind this – yet at the same time, very little to rule anyone out. It's just – it doesn't make any sense. The pattern changes but it doesn't seem to be an evolution. I've never seen a serial crime like this. It's not even elegant.'

John's hand wrapped around Sherlock's silk-clad arm, his skin hitching on the luxurious fabric as he stroked his reassurance. Blue eyes were intense with faint reproach and familiar empathy, and Sherlock knew that of everyone in the world, John understood what a case like this could do to him. Worse, it was not just the mere frustration of the unsolvable. This whole situation was striking too near the bone for them both. He was not the only one afraid of what the next few days might hold, and John was pale with his concern.

It was tempting to dismiss the investigation – to hand it over to the Yard and let them deal with it, but Sherlock knew he would not be able to rest easy. The longer it went on, the longer he and John would be looking over their shoulders and waiting for the blow to fall.

The buzz of John's phone interrupted the peace of the flat, its droning alert coarse and alien. John retrieved the device with a frown, his eyes darting from side-to-side as he read the message. 'It's Greg. They're having problems with Shaw.'

'Like what?' Sherlock asked, craning his neck and frowning when John tilted the screen away. 'If he needs help, why doesn't he just text me?'

John drew in a breath, running his tongue over his teeth and clearing his throat. 'He realised that the vial you gave him was emptier than he'd expect.' He raised his eyebrows at Sherlock. In typical John fashion, once an uncomfortable topic was addressed, he bulled on ahead, forcing his way through and out the other side. 'He suspected you might use it. He probably didn't want to text you in case you were... indisposed.'

'Lestrade can be observant at the most inconvenient moments,' Sherlock muttered, rolling his eyes when John sighed. 'It may be hard to believe, but I had legitimately forgotten that I'd divided the sample into three. I did not enter that lab with the intention of using the cocaine.' He tipped his head to the side in faint acknowledgement. Honesty had proven to be the best way forward with John so far. 'The temptation? Yes, but not the aim.'

John already knew what had almost pushed Sherlock into action, and what had instead driven him to flush the drug and flee the scene, leaving enough evidence for even Anderson to find in his wake. Part of Sherlock wished he could change it, that he could remove the weakness of almost giving in and the blot it had made on their lives. However, not even he could undo the past.

'I'm sorry.' The awkward apology settled on his lips, and he inched into John's personal space, hooking one finger inside the pocket of John's jeans and giving a soft tug. 'I didn't intend to put you in a bad position.'

'You didn't. You scared the shit out of me, and Greg as well, I think, but he was prepared to hide whatever you'd done. To help you through it and pretend it never happened.'

'I'm too valuable a resource to give up.'

'Too good a friend, Sherlock. He could have barged in here himself, and what do you think he would have done if he found the syringe in an official capacity? What choice would he have had?' John shook his head, dropping his phone on the nearby table and prying the empty mug none-too-gently from Sherlock's hand. 'Instead, he told me to find you and call him if I needed help, not as a DI, but as a mate. He didn't have to do that.'

Sherlock watched John wander through to the kitchen, his shoulders slumped. It seemed their moment of peace had already come to an end, and now the world sought to intrude once more. He wished he could stop it and allow their comfortable companionship to last forever, but it was impossible. There were other demands on his time, and Sherlock was helpless to ignore them.

With a sigh, he picked up the phone and read Lestrade's message, frowning at the hesitant words.

“Hope Sherlock's all right. Can't find a fucking thing at Shaw's place. If he's up to it, can you get him down here? He might have better luck than the rest of us. - GL”

With a quick glance at John to ensure he was busy with the dishes, he tapped a response, his fingers blurring over the unfamiliar keys.

“Provide the address. We'll be there in half an hour. - SH”

He was tempted to let Lestrade dither amidst his assumptions, but John had a point. The DI had acted in Sherlock's best interests, and that was not behaviour he could easily ignore. After some consideration, he sent another message, vague but not too cryptic. Lestrade was more intelligent than most of his team; he would understand.

“Your discretion is appreciated, but unnecessary. Thank you. - SH”

With a smile, he set the phone aside and padded towards the bathroom. Perhaps the murderer was still a mystery to him, but Shaw was a known entity: easily deduced. One good look at his residence would tell Sherlock all he needed to know. Dominic was cunning rather than intelligent; he relied on old tricks to deceive those who would otherwise get in his way. The police from the Yard may not be familiar with such underhand methods, but Sherlock was another matter.

Shaw didn't stand a chance.

He was faintly aware of John retrieving his mobile and the quiet sounds of him manipulating the device – checking sent messages, perhaps. Sherlock ignored it as he peeled his robe away and stepped out of the cotton trousers before entering the bathroom.

Hot water glanced off his skin as he turned on the taps and slid under the spray, tipping his face to the cascade as it dragged at his hair. A moment later, he heard the door close. Cracking open one eye, he saw John blatantly admiring the naked expanse of his body, that lithe tongue darting out in unconscious appreciation.

'Problem?' Sherlock asked, reaching up his hands to slick his hair back, improving John's view as he stretched for the shampoo.

John blushed, glancing down at his phone again before setting it aside and looking up with a grin. 'Nope.' He looked subtly pleased, almost proud, and Sherlock basked in the unexpected delight of John's happiness. Clearly, for once, he had said the right thing to Lestrade.

'Coming in?' Sherlock raised an eyebrow, watching the debate in John's eyes. 'Or did you plan to stand there and watch?' He slipped a hand deliberately downward, delighting in the way John's flush darkened and his pupils dilated.

'You told Greg we'd be there in thirty minutes,' John pointed out, but he was already peeling off his t-shirt and stepping out of his jeans, clumsy in his eagerness.

Sherlock reached out, helping John in before pulling him close and claiming a kiss: tea and toast, John's devoted lips and his clever tongue... Some things were worth taking the time to savour.

Lestrade could wait.

Chapter Text

The taxi wove through the early-morning traffic as John fidgeted in the back seat, trying not to look guiltily at the clock. His hair was still wet at the back, and he had missed a spot shaving in his haste to get out of the door before Greg sent out a search party for them. In contrast, Sherlock looked as immaculate as ever: a million miles from the exquisite, depraved vision who had shared his bed.

John licked his lips, his body pulsing at the memory of hot, needy kisses and cries of pleasure. It stunned him, knowing that what lay beneath that austere façade was just another man, brimming with the same desires as everyone else. Yet it was not merely the slick, glorious rush of satisfaction that made him breathless. The first glimpses of Sherlock's affection – the way he hovered nearby, as if unsure whether he was allowed to ask for comfort, or plucked at John's jeans and cuffs to get his attention – made his heart take ecstatic flight.

He had always known there was more to Sherlock than met the eye. Now he had proof: Sherlock's crooked, genuine smiles and rumbling laughter, his soft words and, when it mattered most, his honesty. There had not been a single trace of guile in his demeanour – not when discussing the syringe or in those heady moments afterwards. Sherlock had simply let go, and even now, John's eagerness to reciprocate hummed along his nerves.

Sherlock wanted him, and part of John struggled to get his head around that. He had craved this kind of closeness with him for far too long, not just the sex but the removal of the last barriers between them. He had longed to reach out and touch Sherlock, to ease him through the jangling highs and abysmal lows of his temperament, and now he could.

It was unbelievable.

A tweak at the sleeve of his jacket made John grin at his reflection in the windowpane before shifting his focus to take in Sherlock's image. He was watching John out of the corner of his eye, apparently indifferent, but John could see the remaining heat in that pale gaze tempered by a haze of concern.

Sherlock was skilled at reading people, but if he discovered sentiment, his understanding faltered. It was one of the many things they would have to learn together, how to read and react to the spectrum of one another's moods.

John's chest constricted as he realised he was thinking about the long-term. Not just days and weeks but months, years...

A lifetime.

He scraped through memories of too many dates that went nowhere – some thanks to Sherlock's interruptions and others due to John's apathy – and realised that none of them had received the same treatment. Even with people like Sarah, who held such potential, he had never considered the future.

Trust Sherlock to change everything: the blink of an eye and their friendship was suddenly more. It was terrifying, yet at the same time, John could see it was inevitable. What they had done the previous night was more about taking the last step than the first. They had always blurred the boundaries of what most people considered platonic. Physical intimacy shifted the balance and left them here: somewhere new, thrilling and a bit dangerous.

Just the way he liked it.

'Are you all right?'

John looked over his shoulder, his wrist turning so that he could catch Sherlock's bare hand in his, long fingers entwining with his own. The gesture was subtle, half-hidden in the narrow space between their bodies as he squeezed his reassurance. He wasn't sure he could put his concerns into words. He'd never gained a new lover in this way before – never known them so-very-well before taking the plunge.

What he and Sherlock had found together felt raw and fragile. He wanted to drag him back home and curl up in his bed until it was resolutely theirs. John wished he could block out the world and the case until they found their feet, but at the same time, he didn't want to try and come between Sherlock and his calling. How could he, when John sensed the same pull in his veins: the urge to unravel the puzzle and find the answer, if only so he could bask in Sherlock's justified satisfaction?

'Yeah. I just – I'm worried about Shaw, about what's going on at Iso... About us being in the middle of it all.'

'Second thoughts?'

He jerked his head up at the inflection in Sherlock's voice: hurt and confusion, but also acceptance, as if he had expected John to change his mind all along.

'Only about getting out of bed this morning,' he vowed, letting his voice grow deep and marvelling at the instant, autonomous proof of Sherlock's interest. It was a potent feeling, knowing he could make Sherlock's pupils dilate and bring a delicate blush to the crest of those cheekbones. 'I know the case is important, but I'd have liked to – ' He waved his free hand in a feeble gesture, trying to think of something that didn't sound trite or stupid.

'I know,' Sherlock murmured. 'It would have been good to keep everyone at bay for a while.'

John swallowed, surprised that Sherlock had not only grasped the nuance to his mood, but that he appeared to share it. 'There'll be time later,' he said, adamant. 'Once Shaw's away and the killer's caught, we can go home and just –' He shrugged, rubbing his thumb over Sherlock's knuckles.

'Stay in bed all day?'

John grinned. 'Something like that.' He nudged Sherlock's wool-clad shoulder with his own, glancing up as the cab turned into one of London's better residential areas. Right now, as much as he wished otherwise, they had higher priorities than finding comfort in each other's arms.

However, that didn't mean they had to put their budding relationship on hold. Instead the evolution would continue in a more public arena. Rather than learning each other and their new place in one another's lives within the privacy of Baker Street, he and Sherlock would have to find their equilibrium under the watchful eye of the Yard and the ever-present impetus of a puzzle yet to be solved.

He hoped they were up to the challenge.

The taxi pulled up at the kerb, and John stared along the well-appointed street with more than a hint of envy. 'I thought crime didn't pay?' he muttered, shaking his head in disbelief.

'Shaw's family has always been wealthy. His latest operations have only added to an already substantial fortune.' Sherlock leaned forward to deal with the fare, reluctantly untangling their hands to do so before he looked back at John. 'You ready?'

With a nod, John opened the door and clambered out before tugging his collar up against the rain. Sherlock fell into step, natural and familiar, and John jerked his head along the street. 'I thought we were meeting Lestrade here. Where are the vans and everything?'

Sherlock motioned down a side-road, and John glimpsed the plain vehicles tucked out of sight. 'Discretion is necessary,' he explained. 'In an area like this, the police stand out a mile. Enough to alert any of Shaw's business partners to the fact that something has gone amiss. The Yard will want to ensure they get as many people involved in Shaw's operations as possible. If they don't, someone will simply step into his shoes.'

'And all this effort will be for nothing,' John concluded, noticing Greg standing in the posh portico of one of the houses, a paper cup of coffee wrapped in his hands. He looked pointedly at his watch as they approached, one eyebrow raised in query.

'What time do you call this? You said thirty minutes almost an hour ago!'

'Traffic.' Sherlock spoke with a straight face, and John did his best not to smirk. The journey had been short and trouble free; it was sharing a shower that had made them late, though it was worth every minute. 'What's the problem?'

Greg's gaze flickered to John before he jerked his head towards the front door. 'We've got squads at two more of Shaw's town-houses, but we're coming up empty-handed. No records, nothing suspicious, not even anything he might have kept for personal use.'

'So he's not in custody?' John asked.

'No, he's in the kitchen with the warrant and his lawyer.' The DI pulled a face, his shoulders sagging. 'I wouldn't have asked if we weren't desperate. Frankly, it seems like a good idea to keep Shaw out of your way, but unless I find something, I can't take him in.'

'You've used dogs?'

Greg nodded at Sherlock's question, nudging his way through the large front door and into a sumptuous hall. It was sleek and modern, subtle marble and recessed lighting that seemed at odds with the building, which looked well-over a century old. 'They found damn all. Not that I'm surprised. This place is cleaned every day.' He jerked his thumb at where a maid was being interviewed by one of the officers. 'Theoretically, they could still pick up traces, but they've not found a concrete stash – nothing we can use. At this rate, those warrants are going to be a waste of time, and Shaw'll be free to go within the hour.'

'Oh, I wouldn't say that, Lestrade,' Sherlock murmured, turning on his heel and taking in the room with a gleam in his eye.

John watched, rapt as always. That Sherlock could go from being laconic and loving in his arms to this: alert and sharp... It was stunning. He shrugged off the leaden chains of a case going nowhere as if he were a bird ruffling water from its feathers. After what felt like days of stumbling, Sherlock found his stride, observing the salient details that everyone else overlooked.

'Sir?' A young officer approached, giving Sherlock a puzzled glance. This wasn't Lestrade's usual crew, and John watched the man fidget. 'The lawyer's getting twitchy – trying to pick holes in the warrant. Sergeant Edwards asked me to fetch you.'

'I'll be right there. You going to start looking?'

Sherlock hummed, pulling on his leather gloves. 'Not quite yet. I could conduct a search room-by-room, which might take hours, or I can get an answer out of Shaw within a matter of minutes.'

'Wait!' John shook his head, grabbing Sherlock's arm and pulling him up short. 'So far, Shaw doesn't know you've got anything to do with this. If he figures out you were the one who set the police on his tail, I don't think he'll take it well.'

'I'm counting on it,' Sherlock replied, hesitating outside the kitchen door and lowering his voice. 'Dominic will view my analysis of the cocaine, rather than my use of it, as a betrayal. Illogical, but useful. He has a short temper, one easily triggered by perceived disloyalty. If he knows what I did, there's a chance he'll make a mistake and give himself away.'

Greg looked doubtful, but he shrugged his shoulders and gave John an apologetic glance. 'He's guilty as hell and we all know it. If Sherlock needs to be face-to-face with him to prove it, then I gotta say, I'm desperate enough to try.'

John sighed, pursing his lips before giving a steady nod. He didn't like it, but he didn't have to. At least this was no dark, private alley. If Shaw tried anything with Sherlock, he and half of Scotland Yard's narcotics team were right here to put a stop to it.

For all his doubts, John couldn't smother the flash of perverse delight at seeing Shaw's face when he and Sherlock walked into the room. A cocky, smug smile slid away, replaced by a deepening scowl as he took in Sherlock's appearance.

What had he expected when he saw Sherlock again: the renewed addict, edgy and craving his next hit – crawling and begging Shaw to satisfy his needs? From what Lestrade had told John, Sherlock had never been a dependent user. He was more than capable of sourcing his drugs and using them effectively, yet Shaw was glaring at him with a sick, deep anger in his eyes, as if he were a dog that had slipped its leash.

John knew that expression well. It was the face of a man who believed he'd had a situation under control, but was now beginning to realise unforeseen factors had come into play. Shaw was losing his grip on the passage of events, and John wondered how he planned to regain his control.

'Sherlock.' Shaw stepped forward, ignoring the pointed sound of complaint from his lawyer as his lips curled into a cruel smirk. 'I didn't think the police would be keen to have a junkie assisting on a drugs bust.' His gaze raked down that lean, coat-clad frame, possessive, and John shifted his weight. He lifted his chin when Shaw glanced his way, but the connection was short-lived. A moment later, that cool attention returned to Sherlock. 'Did you enjoy my gift?'

A couple of the officers shuffled where they stood, and the sergeant glanced at Lestrade, clearly reading Shaw's implications. Greg, however, looked unperturbed, his face stoic yet intent as he watched the exchange. John forced himself to remain motionless, though he knew Shaw was trying to discredit Sherlock in front of the police. If Lestrade hadn't been here, or if Donovan and Anderson had been present, then they would already be questioning the information and raising their doubts about his integrity. As it was no one spoke, not even when Sherlock murmured his response.

'Yes, I should thank you. It was exactly what I needed.' He glanced around the kitchen, all state-of-the-art appliances, barely used, and John watched his gaze settle on a bag of recycling by the back door before darting back to Shaw's face. 'Without the analysis of the drugs you provided, we would have struggled to acquire a warrant.'

A snarl spasmed across Shaw's features and his fists clenched. John tensed, but the lawyer moved faster, stepping between Sherlock and his client with an icy glare. 'Do you have any information to substantiate the nature of Mr Shaw's offer, or will we be pressing charges of defamation?'

'A fingerprint on the inside of the vial taken in evidence matches that of Dominic Shaw,' Lestrade provided, running his tongue over his teeth and folding his arms as the lawyer's nostrils flared.

'Evidence gained from an individual of dubious moral character?' He gestured to Sherlock, and John frowned. Dressed in a pristine suit and in perfect physical control, Sherlock looked more reputable than the rest of them put together.

'The vial and its contents provided grounds for a warrant. The illegal substances and records of drug supply we find today will be adequate to support any further accusations made against your client,' Sherlock said softly. 'Shall we begin with possession?'

'You have no proof –' The lawyer's protests fell silent as Sherlock stepped into his personal space. There was nothing overtly threatening about the gesture, no bunched fists or hissed threats, but John still held his breath. He could see the look on Sherlock's face, and it was pure, dazzling confidence, the kind that stripped away the veils of lies and left people quaking and exposed.

'Lestrade, when you had the dogs in, did they appear to be in distress? Whining, whimpering, anything like that?'

'Yeah.' The sergeant, a man of about Sherlock's age with a receding hairline straightened up. 'How did you –?'

Sherlock stepped towards the recycling bag and reached in, pulling free two empty bottles. One was solid glass, the other was plastic: cheap brand vodka. 'If you want to hide a substance from dogs that have been trained to isolate a specific fragrance, you need something with a powerful scent.' He pulled the lid off the plain vessel and held it at arm's length. Everyone in the room recoiled, overwhelmed by the sharp acridity of the odour from within. 'Peppermint oil. Not your standard aromatherapy product; this must be almost pure extract.'

Sherlock blinked, and John could see his eyes were watering as he replaced the stopper. 'You didn't use it today, or we would have smelled it as soon as we entered the house, but the dogs knew it was here. Poor animals probably couldn't stand to come in to the kitchen.' He glanced back at the bag, reaching down to pull free another bottle and examining the label. 'Particularly if you added aniseed to the mix.'

John watched Sherlock's gaze dart around the room, taking in the possibilities, and Shaw's face turned hard and belligerent as he continued to speak. 'Why would a man of obvious wealth purchase cheap spirits? Not to drink, not with fourteen bottles of vintage wine in the rack and, judging from the glass you used last night –' He gestured to the sink. '– decent whisky available, so why bother?' Sherlock flipped the plastic bottle in his hand, catching it in his gloved palm before setting it down and turning to face Shaw.

'It was never for consumption, was it? Stuff like this will be powerful, perfectly adequate for a bit of imprecise chemistry. Anyone conducting a raid would bring dogs. You had to remove all olfactory trace of your stash.'

Shaw sneered. 'You're all talk. You don't have a clue.'

'Everyone in the squad would know to check the toilet cisterns or the water tanks; that's an old trick.' Sherlock shrugged. 'You went one better. It's in the freezer.'

There was a cruel satisfaction in watching Shaw's expression. His face fell slack and his dark eyes narrowed in disbelief.

'Sub-zero temperatures reduce molecular energy, so fragrance doesn't diffuse through the air. The dogs would be less likely to pick up the scent of whatever you're hiding, but that wasn't good enough. You needed to mask it entirely.' He pointed at the bottles again. 'Peppermint oil and aniseed extract are readily available, even stuff as strong as this. Mix it with alcohol to lower the freezing point, and you've got a perfume bath that can survive the environment in the freezer. As long as the drugs remain dry, they won't be ruined by the procedure, and the animals would not be able to smell anything over the stench of the oil.'

John blinked, well aware he wasn't the only one staring. Shaw looked horrified, and even the lawyer seemed shocked in his three-piece suit. The police were still arranged around the room, almost breathless from Sherlock's explanation. It was a moment before one of them stepped forward, checking the elegant kitchen until they found the freezer and began emptying out the contents.

'It's nothing but leftovers!' Shaw protested, but it was a poor argument, shaky and frail.

'Sir?' The officer held up one of the Tupperware boxes in which a liquid sloshed from side-to-side. The lid was rimed in frost, and when the young man opened it, the sharp fragrance of peppermint and aniseed seeped through the air. 'Got a sealed bag of white powder. A fair proportion. It's pushing the boundary of personal use.'

'Don't say anything,' the lawyer warned as Shaw began to shake his head. 'It's a minor charge.'

'For now,' Lestrade interrupted. 'We'll continue to exercise all rights as permitted to us by the warrant, and those charges may be adjusted depending on what we find. Yourself and Mr Shaw had better accompany Sergeant Edwards to the Yard.'

Shaw rolled his shoulders, licking his lips as his eyes widened: mock innocence. 'Knock yourself out, Inspector. My study is just down the hall. I don't think you'll find anything worth your time in there. Someone's playing you for a fool.'

'Someone's trying,' Sherlock replied, glancing at Lestrade before waving his hand towards the rest of the house. 'The main office is a decoy. This is a late Victorian property which was renovated, what, five years ago?' He glanced back at Shaw. 'No doubt to your precise specifications. An inch here, a foot there, it's amazing what you can hide away in between the walls. The house is wider from the outside than the interior demonstrates. Not by much: a few feet. Six at most. There's a hidden room.' He sighed. 'Obvious.'

Shaw burst into motion, his fist curled and his arm drawn back, but John was waiting. He had been watching for the moment when Shaw's temper snapped – cool sarcasm and indifference shattering apart beneath the relentless assault of deduction. Now it had reached boiling point, and all of that fury was targeted at Sherlock.

Instinct took over, sending adrenaline surging through his blood. He stepped forward, his wrist supple as he caught the punch before it could make contact. It was easy to use Shaw's momentum against him, to pivot until the younger man was on his knees at John's feet, his right arm twisted mercilessly behind him. His hair flopped in his eyes and his breath hissed between his lips, falling in useless, impotent curses.

'You always were a fucking freak!' Shaw roared, his voice tightening into a thin cry as John pulled, keeping him off balance with the smallest amount of pressure. A bit harder and he could have Shaw's arm out of its socket. It was tempting – a fitting punishment for using the word Sherlock so often found spat in his direction – but there were a few too many witnesses around for John to exact his retribution.

The police moved forward with cuffs at the ready while the lawyer spluttered useless complaints about brutality. John ignored him, knowing Lestrade wouldn't bat an eyelid at the use of necessary force. Besides, John didn't answer to the Yard's rules, and he hadn't done any permanent damage, except maybe to the bastard's pride.

Cautiously, he relinquished his captive before turning to Sherlock. He had taken a judicious step out of range when Shaw lunged for him, but now there was nothing guarded about his stance or his expression. Lustrous eyes had darkened to the colour of slate, fixed and unblinking as John stepped forward. Sherlock absently wet his lips, his tongue a glimmer of movement that drew John's gaze, and a shiver of something entirely inappropriate for any kind of crime scene uncoiled down his spine.

Sherlock was staring at him as if he were the most mesmerising thing in all of London, and John's body sang beneath the scrutiny.

Lithe fingers snagged John's wrist, turning his hand palm up and probing the flesh where Shaw's punch had landed. It ached, bruised by the impact, but John was happy to take the pain if it spared Sherlock.

'Are you hurt?' That deep voice rumbled between them as he flexed John's knuckles, checking their mobility. The leather of his gloves was smooth against John's skin, and he fought the urge to peel them off as he shook his head.

'Saw that coming a mile off. Did you really have to wind him up like that?'

Sherlock gave a lascivious smile, all subtle innuendo and the kind of promise that made John's heart pound. 'You had the entire situation in hand,' he pointed out. 'Besides, Shaw's response was as good as confirmation of my theory.'

'I'm surprised you needed it.' John tried to ignore the flutter of disappointment when Sherlock let go and turned towards the front hall, where a fuming Shaw was being man-handled towards the waiting vehicles. Lestrade was watching him go with a smirk, weary satisfaction lining his profile, and he glanced over his shoulder as they approached.

'A hidden room?' he asked. 'Really?'

Sherlock gestured to the roof above their heads, then the angle of the doorway. 'The place has been gutted and restored for Shaw's purposes. It's almost seamless. No doubt the concept appeals to his sense of the dramatic.'

Greg snorted. 'That's a bit rich, coming from you.' He followed Sherlock's pointing finger, and John did the same, craning his neck in an effort to locate the subtle inconsistencies. Even with Sherlock tracing their lines in the air, he wasn't convinced of what he was seeing.

'So where is it, then? For all we know it's just dead space.'

'If that was the case Shaw would not have reacted with such ferocity. He has something worth keeping out of sight; we just have to find it.'

'I'll see if I can get hold of some blueprints,' Greg muttered, pulling out his phone. 'The sooner we line up the charges, the longer we can keep him out of our way.'

'Any ideas?' John asked, watching Sherlock examine the room. God alone knew what he could see, but John knew it was more than the bland white walls that greeted his gaze.

Their footsteps echoed across the solid floor as they moved towards the living room. The maid was still being questioned, her cleaning supplies abandoned at her feet, and John saw Sherlock give them a cursory inspection before they crossed the threshold.

Sherlock scuffed his shoes over the deep-pile Berber carpet, fluffed and flawless from vacuuming. 'The cleaner is thorough. She moves the furniture. There are no discrepancies or wear-patterns to indicate where we should look.'

'Can't we just tap the walls?' John asked, thinking of the books he used to read as a kid. 'They'll echo if they're hollow.'

'Only to some extent. Besides, most of this is stud wall: a framework of wood covered in plasterboard. It will resonate with a different timbre and make it harder to distinguish a meaningful empty space.' Sherlock reached out, running his hand down the neat, parallel seams in the wallpaper with a grunt of annoyance before examining the sleek thermostat.

'How warm would you say it was in here?'

John frowned, considering his comfort before shrugging his shoulders. 'Normal? About the same as our flat?'

'No, you sit in Baker Street in jeans and a jumper. Here, you're engaging in defensive, high-adrenaline manoeuvres without breaking a sweat – and you're still wearing your jacket.' Sherlock peeled off his gloves, reaching out his hand imperiously to squeeze John's fingers. 'Chilled extremities. It can't be higher than sixteen centigrade.' He spun around, scanning the room before striding over to the radiator and pressing his hand to the metal surface. 'Stone cold. The heating's not on.'

'Is that important?' Lestrade asked from where he stood in the doorway. 'Blueprints will be an hour or so. Can you do any better than that?'

'The thermostat's set to twenty-six; stuffy by anyone's standards, yet the heating's inactive and we're all still wearing our coats.'

John shrugged, shaking his head. 'Maybe the boiler's broken?'

'Or the thermostat's dud?' the DI added. 'Bastard things never work right anyway.'

Sherlock's lips tilted in a predatory smirk as he bent his knees, bobbing his head as he checked the brushed chrome surface from every angle. Whatever he found summoned forth that gasp of delight, the one that, until last night, John had associated with the discovery of a solution. Now, it poignantly reminded him of other, more sensual things, and he shifted his weight before clearing his throat. 'Found something?'

'It's not a thermostat.' A click echoed in the room, and the frontage of the sleek box swung open to reveal what lay beneath. 'It's a digital lock. A six, no, eight digit combination.' Sherlock braced his hands on the wall as Greg and John approached, both staring over his shoulder at the small panel. It was no bigger than Sherlock's mobile, unmarked by anything other than the buttons on its surface, but now John was close enough he could hear the faint hum of electricity emanating from it.

'The warrant extends beyond plain-sight,' Lestrade murmured, running his finger along the bridge of his nose. 'Shaw's obligated to tell us the combination.'

'But will he tell you the right one?' Sherlock stepped back, his coat fanning around him as he surveyed the room. 'If he has as much to conceal as we believe, then it stands to reason he will take exceptional measures to protect his interests. Paper copies are unlikely – too easy to lose track of it. Everything should be in electronic form. If Shaw is even remotely intelligent, the security will be integrated with whatever system he's hiding. The wrong combination could initiate an electro-magnetic pulse that will wipe out what you need.'

'The computer forensics team might be able to recover something.'

'This isn't some amateur concealing under-age pornography by smashing their hard-drive, Lestrade. Shaw will be certain to eradicate everything. All he has to do is tell us the false code. Losing his records is no doubt less of an inconvenience than a jail term.' Sherlock turned slowly, his hands tightening into brief fists at his side. 'Eight digits...'

John held his breath, practically seeing the shimmer of Sherlock's ideas around his head like a thunderstorm scorching the stratosphere. There was no guarantee he would get it, even Sherlock made mistakes, but he had a better chance than anyone else. Not only did he see more in a scene than the entirety of Scotland Yard put together, but he knew Shaw from years gone by. That insight, however tenuous, could be all they needed.

Abruptly, he stopped, the subtle sway of his body falling still as his gaze settled on a picture on the wall. It was a painting, some kind of sea battle, though now John looked at it, the canvas appeared out of place in the modern room: too classical where he would have expected abstract imagery.

'What is it?' John asked as Sherlock pulled out his mobile, the luminous glow of the screen casting his face into relief.

'I told you Shaw's family has been wealthy for generations. Dominic used to boast that one of his ancestors was a privateer: a government-sanctioned pirate. He would have made his money capturing ships and prisoners during the American Revolution. According to Google, that –' He pointed to the painting before turning around his phone for John to see. ' – is The Battle of Valcour Island, where the actions of the British and their privateers destroyed Benedict Arnold's gunships. It's likely to be relevant to Shaw's family legend.'

'What's that got to do with anything?' Greg asked, shrugging his shoulders.

'Six or eight digits logically indicate a date. Besides, dirt on the one suggests that's the first button pressed, and it's comparatively smooth, so it's used more than once in the combination, as is the number seven. That makes a modern anniversary improbable.' Satisfaction bloomed across Sherlock's lips as he found the information he was looking for, his eyes scanning the screen. 'That battle took place on October eleventh seventeen-seventy-six.' Sherlock dropped the mobile into his pocket, his fingers pecking gracefully over the relevant keys: 11-10-17-76.

There was a dull, flat sound: an angry drone, and the humming increased as a small red light blinked next to the numbers. Sherlock scowled, his lips pressing into a thin line.

'You got it wrong?' Greg sounded disbelieving. 'If you've just trashed all that data...'

'He's set it up to allow himself more than one attempt. He expected to make mistakes during input, but why... Oh!' Sherlock shook his head, rolling his eyes in annoyance. 'The American war of Independence, therefore American date format. One step away from the obvious.'

10-11-17-76

This time, the noise was louder: the solid retraction of strong bolts and the faintest draft of air as one panel of the wallpaper revealed itself to be a door, flawlessly concealed. The space beyond was harboured in the wall between the living room and the front hall, a sliver of a hideaway.

John craned his neck, taking in the contained area. It was a cubbyhole with one small desk and an expensive computer perched in front of a leather chair. A cup of coffee, dregs still in the bottom, sat beside the screen, and harsh lights illuminated what was little more than a cupboard.

'Not exactly criminal mastermind stuff, is it?' he commented.

'It suits Shaw's purpose: a small room camouflaged within the fabric of the building. Do you think the police would ever have found it on their own?' Sherlock raised an eyebrow as John smothered a smile. It was good to see Sherlock like this again, certain and concise. Compared to the wreck of yesterday – a man almost ripped asunder by the strain of the case – it was practically a resurrection.

'Yeah, well maybe we couldn't find it, but we can take it from here.' Greg shook his head as Sherlock protested. 'I can get away with this – you helping us locate what we need – but if the drug squad is going to put together a watertight case, then you need to be hands-off.' He gave an apologetic shrug. 'What with your past and your connection to Shaw, you handling any of the evidence beyond this point could call everything into question, and his lawyer would jump on the chance to trash the prosecution.'

Sherlock's sigh was a thin whisper of frustration, one that John shared. However, there was no arguing with Greg's reasoning. Even the assistance they had offered so far could work in Shaw's favour, and the thought of that prick getting away with any of this because of them made John's stomach clench.

'What about the murders?' he asked, jerking his head towards the ceiling to indicate the rest of the house. 'Part of that warrant was to see what we could find. Did you get anything?'

Greg shoved his hands in the pocket of his coat. 'No. We've looked for personal effects, potential weapons... The only real thing that links Shaw to the murders is –'

'– The drugs,' Sherlock cut in. 'He has the means and access to the chemicals necessary to incapacitate the victims, but there's nothing to indicate he had any part in their ordeals. At most, Shaw is potentially culpable for supply.' He steepled his fingers in front of his face like a man in prayer, though John knew there was no god that Sherlock cared to call upon. He was a deity unto himself.

'However, just because he didn't kill those men, it doesn't mean he's unaware who did.' He speared Lestrade with a hard gaze, his demands clear and concise. 'Question him. You've played this game a dozen times before, you know how it works. Shaw will go to jail for years with the information you find on there.' Sherlock gestured to the computer. 'He knows it, and so does his lawyer. Make him a deal. Drop a charge or two if he can give us anything probative about what's been happening at Iso.'

'He'll lie,' Lestrade pointed out.

'Possibly, at first, but once Shaw realises the seriousness of this, he'll get desperate. You don't get as high up in the scene as he is without making a few enemies. I doubt he'll find a friendly reception while staying at her Majesty's pleasure, do you?' Sherlock rubbed his hands together before shaking his head. 'The bar is not one of his usual socialisation spots – it's beneath him, but he is known to some of the regulars. He was there for a reason that had nothing to do with me. Find out why.'

'What about you?'

'I still have five murders to solve,' he replied. 'We'll make use of one of your incident rooms. That way I'm nearby if you discover anything new.'

'Use room twenty-seven. Most of the stuff's already in there, except whatever Forensics has. Donovan's working on getting officers undercover at Iso tonight.' Greg lifted his hand to halt any kind of protest before it could form. 'Do me a favour and cooperate? I know you don't get on, but she's good at this, and she knows what she's talking about.'

Sherlock set his jaw in a stubborn line, and John could see him swallowing back his protests. A second later, he nodded and swept out of the living room door, his footsteps gunshot sharp against the tiled floor of the hall.

'John?' Greg's voice was hesitant over his name, quiet and uncomfortable. He looked like a man lost in a mire of words as John hesitated on the threshold, waiting for the DI to continue. 'Everything's all right, yeah? With Sherlock, I mean?'

He drew in a breath, clenching his hand at his side as he considered his answer. His thoughts raced back over the tension of the previous day, the gut-wrenching certainty that Sherlock had used the drugs and the rush of relief when it turned out he hadn't. There was no easy answer. He couldn't encapsulate all that emotion and stress, realisation and understanding into a reassuring response, but for Greg's sake, John tried.

'You weren't wrong about him considering it,' he said quietly, 'but it turned out we were both wrong about why. I can't go into the details, but he didn't take anything last night.' John made a slicing gesture with his hand, moving fretfully. If he didn't hurry, Sherlock would be gone without him, and this was not the kind of conversation he could conduct in a minute or less. 'I can't prove it, and neither can he. You're going to have to trust me.'

Greg drew in a deep breath, rubbing his hand through his hair. He looked pale and tense, his shoulders hard beneath the line of his coat and his expression pained. John thought he was going to argue, but at last he straightened up and nodded, slow and tired, as if he'd been fighting his worries for far too long. 'I can do one better than that. I can trust you both. Go on, or he'll be gone. The last thing we need is Sherlock running around London on his own, and John?'

'Yeah?'

'Be careful, all right?'

There was a shadow in Greg's gaze that made it seem like he was talking about more than the case, and John wondered what he had noticed. Was the change between him and Sherlock that obvious, or was he giving Greg more credit than he was due? Either way, there was no time to question it further, and he settled for a nod as he followed in Sherlock's footsteps.

With a taut sigh, John trotted out onto the pavement, jumping in surprise when he realised Sherlock was waiting for him. He leant against one of the pillars of the portico, looking every inch the lord of the manor: a striking figure in black and white. He did not say a word as John hesitated at his side, merely tilted his head in a beckoning gesture, striding along the road as the drizzle misted down around them and the street remained bare of anything like a cab.

'I think Greg knows something,' John murmured, watching his face for any sign of discomfort.

Sherlock's gaze was darkly amused. 'He doesn't. At most he suspects. As I said, he can be observant at the most inconvenient moments.'

'Does it bother you?' He held his breath. There hadn't been time for those awkward, meaningful conversations that confirmed what they shared was as important as John believed. He had no idea if Sherlock viewed this as permanent, or a passing fling. Should they share the news with the people close to them, or keep it quiet?

'Later.' Sherlock's whisper against the curve of his ear was a pledge, and his hand squeezed, unabashed, around John's arm before he shifted, turning so that they stood face-to-face. His gaze darted down to John's lips, and the air twisted, tight and wanting.

'I promise, we can discuss every concern I can see written across your face once the case is solved.' Sherlock swayed forward a gratifying fraction before retreating, as if forcing himself to maintain his control. 'And it doesn't bother me who knows about us or what they think.' He smiled, the kind of expression John knew was for him alone. 'They're not the ones who matter when it comes to you and me.'

'Good. That's – that's good.' John let out a shaky breath. It was a fragment of reassurance that they were on the same page, and he would take whatever he could get.

He cleared his throat as they started walking again, his shoulder bumping against Sherlock's arm. 'Are we really going to the Yard?' Sherlock often told Greg what he wanted to hear. It didn't matter, John would follow him regardless, but he liked to be included in the plan.

'Naturally. Looking at these killings in isolation is only muddying the waters. I need to see it as a whole. An incident room is the best place to bring it all together.' Sherlock raised a regal hand as a taxi came into view. 'It also enables me to squeeze whatever additional information I can out of the police at a moment's notice. Much more convenient than being sidelined in Baker Street and waiting for them to enlighten us.'

John climbed into the back seat of the cab, staring out of the window as it took them through London's streets. At mid-morning, the traffic had settled into a constant pulse of vehicles, and he gazed unseeingly at the myriad of cars as Sherlock held his own council, quiet and motionless.

Not distant, though. There was a time when they would have perched at opposite ends, the space yawning between them. Now, things were different. Friends did not sit this close, subtly joined from shoulder to thigh, and John found himself seeing nothing of the city as he concentrated on the sensation of Sherlock's warmth. It was like being anchored when he hadn't even realised he was adrift, and Sherlock's presence eased some of the sharp dissonance of his nerves, replacing his doubt with confidence as New Scotland Yard came into view.

The taxi sped away with a whisper of wet wheels, the driver paid and indifferent as Sherlock and John strode towards the building, dodging puddles before they swept through the door and along the familiar corridors. No one questioned their presence, and a minute later, the door to room twenty-seven squeaked on its hinges, parting from its frame to allow them inside.

Fluorescent lights clicked like cricket wings as the bulbs ignited, and John shrugged out of his damp jacket, pitching it over a chair as he watched Sherlock do the same. That intent gaze was already focussed on the stack of files on the large expanse of the desk. Finding the solution looked like a monumental task, and John smothered a sigh, feeling the feral burden of their frustration begin to encroach once more.

'We need to go back to basics,' Sherlock muttered, shrugging out of his suit jacket and rolling up his sleeves.

'What can I do?' John caught the pen Sherlock threw at him, capturing it from its arc as Sherlock flicked his fingers towards the huge board on the wall.

'Start writing. The killer has access to a defined set of skills and aspects. It might help us narrow down our suspects.'

John nodded, scrubbing off the echoes of cases past from the white surface before getting to work. He tried to keep his doctor's scrawl legible as Sherlock spoke, outlining what they knew.

'Start with the drugs. What we found in the bloodstream of the first two victims was clean and high quality. Either the killer cooked it themselves, or they had access to someone who could provide them direct. No middle man likely to cut his merchandise with impurities.'

'Shaw?' John asked, already suspecting the answer.

'Probably, though whether he provided them with the compounds or the drug itself remains to be seen. If they did make it themselves, it suggests a level of chemical expertise.' Sherlock touched his fingers to his lips: an absent, thoughtful gesture. 'This is not the kind of drug you make for the mass-market, not of this standard.'

'And that means?' John glanced back, smirking as Sherlock pointed at the white board as if he could smite the words onto its bland expanse.

'Depending on Shaw's involvement, we could be looking for someone with at least a partial university level education in a relevant field. Medicine, biochemistry...'

'Pharmaceuticals, possibly neuroscience...' John added, squinting as he tried to remember the details. 'Weren't the first two dosed with ketamine? Did anyone check local vets for thefts? If we've got someone working in a vet's surgery, or just with access, they could get a lot of what they might need.'

Sherlock was already looking through the paperwork, his fingers dancing over pages of notes as he hunched over the table. 'Donovan checked it; only one incident in the local area in the past six months, and the missing vials turned out to be in the wife's bedside table. New regulations on veterinary drug control have made more intense security necessary. It's become more of a challenge to steal from animal surgeries.'

'Unlikely then,' John muttered, drawing a bold line through the bullet point he had just written. 'What else?'

'The mutilation of the bodies. Again, that potentially indicates some kind of education focussing on physiology and anatomy. Either that or experience in an abattoir or butcher where they may have gained knowledge in dismemberment.'

John nodded, seeing what Sherlock was getting at. Cutting up a body was not as hard as many people imagined, but there were indications of skill in what had been done to those first two victims. They weren't viciously hacked. It had been surprisingly precise. 'What about the rapes themselves? Anything there we can use?'

Sherlock paced, his footsteps drumming back and forth. 'There's a lack of proof either way, though the nature of internal injuries would suggest it was not conducted with an object. Even those specifically designed for sexual pleasure leave distinct wounds when used with force, ones we've not found on the victims. All Molly found was a sparse amount of lubricant, such as that used on a condom.'

'So definitely male, or at least in possession of the right biological equipment, and they used protection. Were they keeping DNA evidence to a minimum, or protecting their own health?'

He saw Sherlock shrug, a fitful, tense movement as he continued to read through the files in front of him. 'It's impossible to say. The rapes themselves are surprisingly indistinct. There's no real trademark pattern of abuse: no signature left behind.'

The rustling pages stilled, and John turned to see Sherlock staring at the pictures of the fifth victim, the one so brutally slaughtered. His face was pinched, and John knew Sherlock's mind was arcing back along the possibilities and dwelling on who might have found themselves in the stranger's place. Carefully, he reached out, his fingers curving over the back of Sherlock's cold hand and squeezing tightly: a reminder of the truth, rather than the hideous path of what could have been.

Sherlock blew out a breath, clearing his throat as he continued, 'This murder is the most telling; by far the most violent. All the others were killed cleanly: this one...' He gestured to the images, pitching them back to the table and turning away, his hands on his hips and his lashes fluttering closed as if he were trying to block out the impressions while absorbing their data.

'The victim was taller than the others, markedly so. The angle of the injuries suggests the murderer was facing him. He was standing up, but hunched, no doubt in considerable pain from the rape that occurred moments before – probably against the alley wall. It wasn't planned, but it does tell us one thing. The perpetrator's closer to my height than yours. The wounds angle downwards – overarm blows.'

Silence filled the room, thick and heavy with every unspoken condemnation of what had been done and the fear that it could happen again. Sherlock seemed convinced that John would have ended up in the fifth man's place, but John could not bring himself to look at the pictures without seeing Sherlock's face, staring and dead, sliced almost beyond recognition.

'Killer's got a temper,' he managed, licking his lips as he returned to the board. 'A nasty one. Most people would find that challenging to hide in their day-to-day lives.'

'Not everyone,' Sherlock murmured, shaking his head. 'We can't rely on them giving themselves away. We need to consider the logistics: whoever's been doing this is in a low income bracket, making it more likely that they're creating their own drugs rather than buying them. Components are cheaper than the finished product.' He pressed his fingers to his temples, frowning at the floor. 'Additionally, there's no sign of a vehicle used in the first body-dump.'

'But there is in the second, so whoever did it got hold of a car somewhere. Borrowed one, bought one...'

'Or stole it. The vehicle must have been necessary. Perhaps the warehouse where the third and fourth bodies were found was further away from the site of the murder than the storage yard?' Sherlock reached for a map where the relevant locations were circled, bold and plain. His brow cinched as he began tracing streets, reading patterns in London's web.

'What about the container where the first two were found?' John asked. 'I mean, is it a coincidence? Was it just a convenient place, or was it selected for a reason?'

'It's difficult to be sure. It's in the corner of the lot, out of sight of the CCTV and in close proximity to the fence. It's the most logical choice for ease of access, but I can't be certain that the location wasn't brought to the killer's attention because they were acquainted with Amanda Coleridge.'

'Well that's everyone who works at Iso, except maybe Vanessa, who got there after Amanda left. All the rest of them knew her. They were her friends.' John wrote it up, the nib squeaking as he charted the curve of a question mark.

All the information was circumstantial, disparate pieces they couldn't tie together, and they didn't have a clue where to start looking for something more concrete. All they could do was keep going, lining up the facts and desperately searching for enlightenment.

Time slipped away, charted out by the deep, thoughtful rumble of Sherlock's voice and the dry rasp of the pen over the board. Lunch passed unnoticed as they sunk deeper into the mess of information, suffocating in its tar-like cling. John kept expecting the next moment to bring them the answer, but there was no such light at the end of the tunnel.

By the time Lestrade walked in, grim-faced, John was slumped in one of the chairs, his fingers rubbing at his temples in an effort to banish the snarling headache that clouded his thoughts. Sherlock looked out of the rain-smeared window, his stare vacant and his shoulders tense. He had talked himself hoarse, exploring one avenue after the other, but they were no closer to anything like a solution.

John gave Greg a hopeful smile. 'Got anything for us?'

He shook his head, looking down at the glossy pictures in his hand before holding them out. 'Nothing much. Shaw's not talking, and we've not got enough to start leaning on him yet. He has that computer done up tight. We'll get there, but it's going to take some time.'

'What are these?' John asked, blinking down at the grainy photos. 'CCTV?'

'From the night you were drugged.'

Sherlock turned at that, abruptly focussed. 'Price only watches the tills and the door. He doesn't even cover the entire bar, just places decoys and hopes they act as a deterrent. I didn't think to check the one at the front. Anything?'

John was squinting at the hazy figures, trying to locate anything incriminating, but it was seethe of people departing, miscellaneous faces and random bystanders. 'Not that I can see.' He handed them over to Sherlock, watching him absorb the details as if he were starved for information, rather than drowning it. 'What about the other victims? If there's a camera on the door, we can see who was with them when they left.'

'There isn't any footage; I looked,' Sherlock murmured. 'Price only keeps it for a week. It was gone by the time I needed access.'

'We're checking the tapes for the surrounding streets, including the one outside,' Greg added, 'but we have no precise idea when the first four went missing. It's taking us longer than we'd like to sift through it all.'

'Useless,' Sherlock murmured irritably, squinting at something before grabbing his pocket magnifier. He angled it over the glossy surface, tilting it towards the light.

John and Greg leaned forward, straining to see whatever had caught Sherlock's eye. It was a minuscule fraction of space caught in the halo of the lens, a gap between two bodies that revealed the shape of the bottle and something, distorted in detail, hovering over the open top.

'A hand?' Lestrade asked, shaking his head, 'and nothing else in-shot. Typical.'

'A right hand, and there's a dark patch on the middle finger. Jewellery maybe.' Sherlock shook his head, scanning quickly through the other images before putting them down. 'The quality's too poor to get anything else.'

John bowed his head, frowning in thought. 'Whoever's messing with my bottle isn't just lost in the crowd, they're out of frame. It could be a coincidence, but isn't it more likely they know where the cameras are? Which ones are fakes and which ones aren't?'

'So it's someone working at the club,' Greg reasoned. 'That was your first suspicion anyway, Sherlock. You told me that when you started this case.'

'Then who?' Sherlock demanded, grabbing the CCTV stills again and pointing out the familiar faces. 'Not Vanessa or Will, since they're both obviously present.'

'Tomas was out checking the line. I'm sure of it; it couldn't be him.' John shrugged, looking up as Donovan walked in, muttering curses as she balanced four cups of coffee on a paper tray in her hand.

'Did you watch him the whole time?' Greg challenged, pulling a face when John shook his head. 'It doesn't take long to do this kind of thing, and it's easy for a spectator to lose track. I know we're desperate and it's tempting, but we can't be too hasty to rule people out. That's the kind of mistake that leads to a higher body-count than any of us would want.'

'If I had to put my money on someone, it would be the kid who helps the DJ – Dennis,' John said, his eyes flicking towards the photos of the fifth victim. He couldn't stop thinking of the way the boy, so benign in appearance, had snarled his distaste over Amanda and her boyfriend Nathan. 'There's something off there.'

'Yes, wonderful, because gut instinct stands up so well in court,' Sherlock muttered, shaking his head. 'Dennis is vicious, but his jealousy was over Amanda Coleridge. She's long gone. Besides, what's the point of raping and killing five male strangers? How would that appease his feelings on her perceived abandonment? It's nonsensical.'

'He could have gone off the deep end,' Sally suggested as she handed John a cup. 'It's happens often enough.' She smiled at John's quiet thanks. 'It's the good stuff from down the street, rather than the shit they make here. I thought we could all use it.' She turned to Sherlock and added, 'Yours is on the table, Freak.'

John frowned but held his tongue, not because he did not want to snap at Sally, but because Sherlock was unlikely to appreciate John's anger on his behalf. Besides, the sergeant had already turned away, grabbing a napkin and wiping thick clots of mud off her high heels with sharp, angry motions.

'What happened to you?' Greg asked, sounding amused as Sally rolled her eyes. 'You look like you've been in the trenches.'

'There's a huge puddle out the front, so I went around it and trod on the grass. Sank all the way in. It's pissing it down out there.'

'When does it ever do anything else?' Greg asked, looking up as Sherlock corrected him.

'Actually, it's been an abnormally dry winter. There's –' Sherlock's back straightened, and John saw his expression where it was reflected in the glass, no longer blank and shuttered, but piercing. He wasn't staring at anything beyond the pane, but something inside his own head. As he watched, Sherlock shut his eyes in disbelief, and his breath whispered over a single word.

'Idiot!'

He spun around, searching through the strew of paperwork on the table. Donovan made a confused noise in her throat, but John barely heard it as he scooped the cup of coffee out of the way. A moment later, Sherlock had what he was looking for: pictures of the chain link fence at the container depot and the ground nearby.

'There's been a lower than average rainfall along with sharp frosts. The bodies at the storage yard were dumped weeks ago, but the marks from the ladder were still there when John and I checked.' He shook his head, adjusting the angle and squinting at the detail. 'Deep imprints aren't unusual in well-saturated soil, and we knew the perpetrator was carrying body parts up with him, resulting in a considerable weight. I didn't think to question it.'

'And now you are?' Sally asked, raising her eyebrows and folding her arms when Sherlock glanced in her direction.

'The ground hasn't been wet for some time. This is the first significant rainfall we've had for several months. Drizzle yes, the occasional shower but not enough to permeate beyond the top half inch. The imprints left were nearly four inches deep when we found them, possibly more when they were fresh.' He turned to Lestrade. 'Did you find the ladder?'

Greg nodded, joining in the search before he found the relevant information. 'It was a standard design, made of wood. It was dumped in a copse further along the perimeter.'

'It was propped against the fence, but it stood on hard ground. What stopped it falling over?' Sherlock stared at their blank expressions, sighing in annoyance. 'Come on, think!'

'Someone was holding it?' Greg asked, his expression twitching with surprise. 'No, that wouldn't do it. If you want to make a ladder safe, you stand on the lowest rung to anchor it.'

'Exactly. If the earth was soft, an individual would have been able to sink it in and stabilise it by themselves, but it wasn't.' Sherlock's exhale sounded like a sigh of relief. 'It would take more than one person and the weight of the body parts to drive the stiles so far into hard ground. Our killer had help. Someone stood on the bottom rung while he climbed it.'

John stared at the paperwork, feeling the puzzle pieces start to slot into place. 'What kind of murderer brings a friend along to a body-dump? What kind of friend agrees?'

'That's not all,' Sherlock turned, his eyes fixed on John. 'Think about it, the discrepancy between the way the first two bodies were disposed of and the second pair were dumped. Think of the violence to the fifth victim where, previously, all physical harm beyond sexual abuse occurred post-mortem.' He turned away, pacing back and forth, each stride measured as if he were marching towards an answer. 'This isn't one person committing the crimes and roping in a friend to help out with disposal. There's too much variation. It's two people. I'm not certain how they're working together, but whatever they're doing, it's cooperative.'

'Bloody hell.' Lestrade sighed, scrubbing his hand over his face before dropping it to his side. 'Are you sure about this?'

Sherlock nodded, a fast fretful motion. 'It's the only thing that makes sense. I've been trying to fit this case into a linear pathway, but that's not how it goes. Nor is this two strangers working independently, there's too much overlap in method and motive. More to the point, it's sexual and private. This isn't the kind of thing you would do with a friend. They're more than that. Lovers perhaps, or –'

He froze, his lips falling slack in a gasp of realisation. 'Oh! Of course, not lovers, brothers. Two people who are barely individuals at all. Who have been together through everything from the moment they were born.'

'Jesus Christ.' John closed his eyes as shock washed through him. He knew exactly where Sherlock's thoughts had gone, the connection finally made. If he was right, then Sherlock hadn't just seen the killers every day he'd been at Iso. He'd been working right beside them, within arm's reach.

'It's the twins.'

Chapter Text

Obvious. It was so obvious. The murky waters of possibility had been cleansed, revealing crystal clarity as the mismatched pieces of the case rattled into place. Realising there were two killers at work was the key. Everything that had failed to make sense developed a new twist, and theories exploded across Sherlock's mind.

'We can't arrest them just because you say so.' Donovan shifted her weight on her mud-smeared heels. 'There is such thing as procedure. We need some proof!'

'And now that we know what we're looking for, you'll get it,' Sherlock responded, easing the pen from John's slack grip as he strode over to the white board. 'Locate their residence. I'm aware we can't search it without a warrant, but we need to know where it is all the same. John and I will go back to the club and see what we can find. Iso is their main hub of activity. It's where they select, drug and apprehend their victims.'

'And where the bloody owner cleans everything and doesn't bother keeping CCTV footage,' Lestrade pointed out. 'There's nothing there.'

'Not in the body of the club, perhaps, but there are other places to search.' Sherlock frowned, tilting his head. 'John and I have better access. If nothing else, we can ask the right questions. The others talked about Amanda readily enough.' He glanced up at John, reading the tension in the lines of his face. 'You'll be better placed for that. I can't query people on Matt or David if they're both with me behind the bar.'

John shook his head, folding his arms and squaring his shoulders: bristling in defiance. 'You're serious? Sherlock, there aren't words to describe how monumentally stupid this is.' He scrubbed a hand over his face, his expression pleading. 'There's got to be a better plan. Can't we find their flat and break in like we normally do; see what we can come up with?'

'I didn't hear that,' Lestrade murmured, and Sherlock saw him exchange an amused, disbelieving glance with Donovan.

'We don't have time.' He gestured towards the clock. 'Our shift starts in a couple of hours. We have to go. Failing to do so would be too suspicious. David and Matt will be watching you; they'll want to see if you suspect you were drugged.' He rubbed his thumb over the sleek barrel of the pen, insensate to the plastic as a chill swept through him. 'It's possible they will endeavour to ascertain whether they can risk attempting to grab you again.'

'Sounds like a good reason to stay out of it to me,' Donovan said.

'Currently, us returning to the bar is the best chance we have of getting the evidence you need.'

'But –'

'Sally...' Lestrade's voice was heavy with warning, but Sherlock ignored it as he examined John's face. He was a soldier, used to fear even on this urban battlefield. Where other people may have exhibited reluctance – which Sherlock would almost prefer in this instance – John's expression was determined and strategic. He was not wasting his time on doubts. He was planning how to make the most out of the situation.

'You're right,' he acknowledged, looking up at Sherlock. 'If the twins are a part of this and I was meant to be their victim the night before last, then I'll have their attention.' He licked his lips and cocked his head. 'Why don't we put that to good use? We need proof; let's make them give it to us.'

'Use yourself to lure them in, you mean.' Sherlock clenched his jaw, trying to think around the furious denial in his head and the tightness that threatened to crush his ribs. His entire being resonated with distaste at the idea, making his fingers twitch and his body pulse with the urge to get John out of here, back home and safe within the walls of Baker Street. It was one thing to lead him back into Iso, it was quite another to turn him into a target.

'We don't need much, you proved that with Shaw. If we can catch them contaminating my drink, or anyone's for that matter, then that's something. Enough for an arrest, questioning, warrants...'

Lestrade made a doubtful noise in the back of his throat. 'That's not a sure thing. Shaw's been up in front of judges before and got away with it. They were itching to sign those papers. I mean, if we catch them slipping you something, we can take them in. Holding onto them, though –' He sighed. 'That's another matter, and once they know we're suspicious, they'll be out of here.'

John pursed his lips, frowning before he shrugged his shoulders. 'So we take it a step further; we –'

Sherlock interrupted him, his voice sharp. 'No.'

'No what?'

'No. You believe me working beside them at the bar tonight is foolish; what you're about to suggest is even more so.' His heart thundered in his chest as John gave him a smile. It was one of affection, bold and unmasked, as if he approved of Sherlock's sentiment, even when it stood in opposition.

'Care to explain this to the rest of us?' Lestrade asked.

Sherlock swallowed, his fist clenching. 'John's about to suggest letting them catch him.'

'They could lead us straight to wherever it is they’ve been keeping the victims,' John pointed out. 'Besides, half the damn Yard'll be watching our backs. Don't even think about arguing with that. I'm not letting you do this without them.'

'And I'm not letting you do this at all.' Sherlock strode into his personal space. It was habit more than a genuine attempt at intimidation, not that it worked. John was as stoic and controlled as always, his wool-clad shoulders lifting in a sigh as he met Sherlock's eye.

'Now now, boys,' Donovan drawled. 'No need for a domestic.'

'That's enough, Sergeant.' Lestrade's words were an order, but Sherlock paid it no heed as he stared into John's unflinching gaze. He was aware of the Detective Inspector crossing to the door, holding it open for Donovan before closing it behind them: a veil of unnecessary privacy. He and John had disagreed in public before, though there was a different edge to the air now, a sharpening sensation of panic and fear: sentiment at war with logic.

'We can catch them,' John said softly. 'We could end this tonight.'

'And they could end you.' Sherlock hated the crack in his voice, already rasping from talking through the case. Now it broke for other reasons, threatening to choke him as he gestured to the file on the table. 'We have no guarantee of their behaviour; no true indication of a pattern. They could just as easily slaughter you in the alley behind the club as they could take you back to a den somewhere. John –' He shook his head, clutching at straws. 'If our positions were reversed, you would never let me do what you're proposing.'

'And you wouldn't let me stop you.' He reached out, running his palms up Sherlock's bare forearms and down again to encircle his wrists. 'If Lestrade and the others weren't there, I wouldn't even think of it, but we can control the situation from start to finish. The alternative is that we wait for them to make their move and get taken by surprise.'

'So you'll rely on Donovan and the others? Their questionable skills aside, one mistake is all it takes to put you at the twins' mercy.'

John tilted his head, giving him a brief glare of reprimand over his denigration of Lestrade and his team. 'Sherlock, they know what they're doing; and they do it well.' He sighed, making as if to release him only to stop when Sherlock caught his hands. 'If I was a stranger; some random bloke from the club suggesting this, would you hesitate?'

'Irrelevant,' he retorted, trying to ignore the uncomfortable bite of the truth. John's idea was an effective strategy. It had the highest chance of resolving the case and minimised the potential for further victims. If it were anyone else, he would be focussed on the data they could bring to the table, rather than the risk to their safety.

Now, it was another matter. The Work had made its demands, but for the first time in his life, Sherlock was questioning whether the price was too high.

John reached up, stroking his thumb along Sherlock's jaw. 'I don't want to be the thing that comes between you and what you do. I can't be a burden. I'm not asking you not to care. I'm asking you to trust me to look after myself.' He glanced away, breathing hard. 'You're right; I wouldn't like it if it was the other way around. I'd attempt to talk some sense into you or find an alternative, but if it was the only choice I wouldn't get in your way.'

Sherlock pursed his lips, not missing the irony that, for once, it was John fighting logic's corner while he was awash in an ocean of sentiment. His chest constricted, his breaths jagged and sharp as he tried to gather his control.

He leaned forward, pressing his brow against John's forehead. 'You could never be a liability to me. Don't you – don't you see?' He closed his eyes, trying to find the words to express the awkward chaos of emotion that was pressing at the hollow of his throat. 'You are my greatest asset.'

John's breath whispered in a gasp, his adept fingers reaching up to brush shakily across Sherlock's cheeks. He could see the surprise in those wide blue eyes, and there, the growing glimmer of something too tender to name.

The weight of John's lips was sweet and promising, the prelude to his body melting shamelessly against Sherlock's taller frame. The strength of John's tongue tasted like a vow: treading the line of affection and passion with daring ease, and a quiet, tattered moan blessed the air.

He broke off with a gasp, his hands firm around Sherlock's hips and his breath tickling his skin. Sherlock could feel him, half-hard where John was pressed against his thigh, and he watched sandy lashes flutter closed as he eased forward, providing a hint of pressure at the apex of John's legs.

'Christ, what you do to me...' he breathed, grinning at Sherlock's huff of laughter.

'You do realise it's completely mutual?' he asked, nudging his hips in a way that could leave John in no doubt. He sighed, trying to ease the low, edgy sizzle of need. He had meant for the kiss to convey the twist of his emotions. Instead, it had reignited the fire that glowed beneath his skin, and there was nothing he could do to assuage it.

'Later,' John breathed, clearing his throat and stepping back, tugging at his jeans to relieve the constriction. 'Later, I plan to make damn good use of that.' His attention flickered wantonly to the bulge at Sherlock's crotch, and his grin was wicked – a brief flash of intimacy before the burden of their current situation weighed them down again.

'Take your gun.' Sherlock urged, pressing his finger to the full flesh of his bottom lip as if he could preserve the sensation of John's adoration there forever. 'That way if it all goes wrong...'

John nodded, taking Sherlock's hand. 'Letting them get to me is a last resort. I'm not about to put myself on the line unless there's no other choice, but we have to acknowledge that's what it could come down to.'

'Not if I can help it.' His statement was strong and decisive, firm in ways he didn't feel. If John noticed the dichotomy between the spoken word and Sherlock's body language, he didn't mention it, choosing instead to tug Sherlock in the direction of the door.

'I know. Come on, before the others decide to look for us. We need to get rigged up for whatever Donovan's got planned.'

'You make it sound like something out of James Bond. At most, they'll give you an ear-piece and a microphone. The rest of it will be eyes only.'

John nodded as if he hadn't expected much better. 'Well, whatever I get, you get it too. I might have been the target, but things can change, and you'll be right beside the twins all night.'

'At a crowded bar,' Sherlock said, reaching for his jacket and coat, shrugging his way into them and effectively hiding his sullen arousal, flagging now as reality interceded. 'If they have any interest in me, their chances will be limited.'

'But not non-existent,' John pointed out. 'I am not having everyone concentrating their efforts on me just to have you disappear.'

Sherlock nodded his acquiescence, glancing at the clock before raising his eyebrows in question. 'Fit to be seen in public?' he asked, smiling despite himself as John chuckled.

'I'll do. You ready? No doubt you want to tell Sally how to do her job.' John grabbed his jacket, following Sherlock as they went in search of Lestrade and the sergeant. It was not a challenging quest: the DI retreated to his office as a base of operations – comfortable in his own territory. They were both there, along with several other officers, studying a plan of the bar's layout and the surrounding streets.

'Had your little tiff, have you?' Donovan asked briskly as they stepped into the room. 'Can we get on with it now?'

'If you have the necessary skill,' Sherlock grumbled, rolling his eyes as John shot him a disapproving glare. 'What exactly are you planning?'

'Both of you will be wired for sound and speech. We'll keep it as subtle as we can. There'll be three officers on each of you. For Doctor Watson, a couple will be in a car. We can't keep many people hanging around the front without raising suspicion.' She met Sherlock's gaze, confident. 'It'll be easier keeping an eye on you, since we can blend in with the crowd.'

'We're putting vehicles wherever we can,' Lestrade added. 'We don't yet know how they're getting their victims out. Most of the exits are connected to the fire alarm system, so that limits their choices. We'll have eyes on the rest.'

'Pull up the information on the twins,' Sherlock instructed. 'Background, education –' He raised an eyebrow as Lestrade passed him a file, a glimmer of a smug smile on his gruff face.

'I've been doing this job a while, and amazingly, I'm not that bad at it. Dunno what you can make of that. The address is tricky; they're down as being in university halls, but a bit of digging suggests they moved into their own place a while ago. Nothing firm on their residence, yet.'

Sherlock flicked through the paperwork, narrowing his eyes at the scant data. 'They'll live near Iso. A low rent, cash-in-hand kind of place.'

'We're already looking into it,' Lestrade promised, his words barely heard as Sherlock skimmed over the other details with a frown.

He leaned closer to John, tilting the page and pressing his thumb to the sparse outline of their schooling. 'David's studying engineering, and Matt's taking psychology.'

'Not exactly apt degrees for the behaviour we've seen.' John shrugged. 'Psychologists do lab work; maybe chemistry's a requirement?'

'Matt has an A-level in chemistry and biology. Top marks suggest he has the capacity to learn more difficult procedures. He could be the one cooking up the drugs.'

'Could be,' Donovan repeated, pursing her lips. 'We've got nothing to prove any of this – only your word for it.'

'Sherlock's normally bang on the money, Sally,' Lestrade pointed out.

'And he only has to be wrong once.' She looked at him, a grudging apology in the tilt of her lips as she shrugged. 'None of us want that.'

Sherlock nodded, pitching the file aside. 'Sergeant Donovan is right. We've got no meaningful evidence, at least not yet. Our highest priority is finding any indication of wrong-doing in the club that you can use to bring the twins in for questioning.' He glanced in John's direction. 'If we can do that, then we don't have to put you at any more risk than walking into Iso would incur.' He looked over at Donovan, jerking his head to indicate the plans. 'How long until you're in place?'

'About ninety minutes to get everyone ready and in position.' She reached down to her feet, picking up a couple of bags and handing them to John. 'Profiles on who's keeping you under surveillance, as well as some equipment. The DI will be one of those watching Doctor Watson, and I'll be in the crowd observing you, along with a couple of others.'

'I'd rather you both watched John.'

'No, Sherlock.' Lestrade straightened up and folded his arms. 'We need someone who knows the two of you on each team. Someone who can tell the difference between you shamming to get an answer and a genuine threat – who can read when John's got it under control and when the shit's hit the fan. Us jumping in too early would be almost as disastrous as us getting there too late.'

'You'll be on separate channels. In a normal situation, we'd all be hooked into each other, but there's too much ambient noise for that,' Donovan explained. 'Make sure you've got your mobiles. They're probably the best, most inconspicuous way for the pair of you to talk to each other.'

'The same as we've been doing every other night,' John muttered. 'Anything else?'

'Meet us one street over for an audio check at seven-thirty,' Lestrade instructed, taken in the two of them. 'I'm guessing you're not going dressed as you are?'

'No, we'll return to Baker Street. We need to – ' The buzz of Sherlock's phone in his pocket interrupted him, and he pulled it free, frowning down at the screen. Molly's text was blunt, her language unembellished, and he pursed his lips in thought.

'What is it?' John craned his neck, trying to get a better look until Sherlock turned the device for him to see.

'The metal flakes found in the victims' stomachs were an alloy. Some copper and other metals, but mostly lead.'

'Poisoning?'

Sherlock shook his head. 'The quantities are minuscule, almost irrelevant.' He sighed. 'Perhaps that's another answer we'll find at Iso. Let's go, John.'

He strode out into the corridor, paying no attention to the general chaos of New Scotland Yard as his stomach clenched. The relief of gaining the new perspective he so frantically sought – the one fragment of data that brought the entire case into focus – had been obliterated by the harsh bite of dread that now gnawed at his body. If only he'd made the leap sooner, there would be more time to gather information before putting John in harm's way. Instead, they were left with the unappealing option of searching the bar for tangible evidence while their two main suspects looked on.

At least John would be out by the queue, safe under the eye of Lestrade and his men. Even better, with Sherlock in proximity to the twins, he could observe their every move. He would know where they were at all times, and that meant he could be sure John had not fallen into their clutches.

'Don't take breaks.'

John's instruction took him by surprise, and he glanced around with raised eyebrows as he pushed his way out of the front door. 'What?'

'At the bar. Don't take a break, and don't go anywhere, not by yourself. Stay in plain sight.' John shrugged, shaking his head. 'The alley would be an easy place to grab someone.'

'We can make sure Lestrade has men positioned at both ends, but I take your point. I'll remain in the club if you do the same.' He raised his hand, flagging a taxi with ease and getting into the back seat, waiting for John to settle before he continued to speak. 'Don't accept food or drink from anyone. Our only certainty is that they're contaminating beverages. There's no point in risking it.'

John nodded, his hands twisting together in his lap before he clenched them into fists on his knees. 'The same goes for you. I mean, not necessarily the food, since you don't eat much anyway, but Sherlock, swear you won't go wandering off by yourself? No chasing leads without me or slipping out from under surveillance, all right?'

'I'm not an idiot,' Sherlock pointed out, straightening in his seat as the taxi carried them home.

'No, but you don't always stop and think.' John's hand took his in a fierce grip, Sherlock's own desperation echoed in his force. 'Don't make a target of yourself.'

'So you can, but I can't?'

John's nostrils flared as he drew in a deep breath. 'We already agreed that I wouldn't do anything until we had no other choice. It's not like I'm about to spread myself out for them.'

Sherlock closed his eyes, choking back a wave of nausea at the concept. Not of John offering himself up willingly to someone else, though that thought was not one which sat comfortably, but the idea of what the twins would do to him if he did. It made high notes sing in his ears; his pulse hammered in his throat, and he barely heard John's soft voice until a callused hand touched his face.

'It's not going to come to that.'

'What makes you so sure?'

'Because you know where to look for what we need. Before this, you were taking in everything at that club and losing yourself in it.' John smiled, his confidence on beautiful display. 'You see everything, Sherlock. People can try and hide stuff from you all they want; they never succeed.'

Sherlock bowed his head, dragging in a deep breath before he squeezed John's hand. 'Thank you. Your faith in me is –' He shrugged, not knowing what to say. That John could believe in him so implicitly, not just his abilities but his word, was both unexpected and humbling. 'Don't rely on me too heavily. I've been known to fail, and if you suffered as a result...'

'I won't.' John lifted his chin, every inch the determined soldier: a man who had faced war and gunfire and still did not flinch. 'You do your job, and I'll do mine. I've fought too hard to get where we are.' He lifted their linked hands meaningfully. 'I don't plan on letting anyone take that away from me.'

Their gazes locked, the air dense with emotion. There was far too much unspoken between them – fledgling things that Sherlock could not find the words to define. Instead he could only acknowledge John's sentiment, no longer the placid calm of their earlier respite, but storm-whipped and tempestuous.

'Oi, you're here,' the cabbie called out, and Sherlock blinked at the familiar view of Baker Street. Paying the driver took no more than a moment, but by the time he got out of the cab, John had the front door open. He waited on the threshold, patient and at-ease, shutting out the city as Sherlock passed.

Neither of them spoke as they climbed the steps to the flat, and it was only when Sherlock peeled off his coat and glanced at the clock that he turned back to John. 'Don't be long,' he urged, raising his voice as John nodded and headed for the stairs to his room. 'And don't forget –'

'The gun. I know.' John smiled his promise as he hurried off to get changed. Sherlock was left to stride towards his own room, shrugging out of his suit jacket and plucking apart the buttons of his shirt with nimble fingers as he went.

It was like dressing for battle. Thin cotton and tight denim clad him. It was easy to slip into the trappings of Lee's persona – soft leather bracelets and the three hoops at the crest of his left ear, ruffled curls and eye-liner: the same man as always but a subtly different face.

He was just shuffling his feet into his boots when John walked in, clad in a dark t-shirt and jeans with Donovan's ear-pieces in hand. He was fiddling with the slimline power-packs, checking the charge, but Sherlock saw that concentration vanish as John lifted his head and took in his appearance.

The expression matched the one that had graced John's face the night he returned from the conference in Dublin. Back then, it had been hastily obscured, a sudden flash of something Sherlock couldn't name. He had looked as if someone had pulled the rug from under his feet, leaving him unbalanced and breathless.

Now, John did nothing to hide his jolt of unadulterated desire. It was utterly blatant, and Sherlock felt himself respond. His head tilted, his lips parted and his muscles fell torpid. Every line of his body became inviting, and he watched John lick his lips, his lashes fluttering as he let out a shuddering sigh.

'You like the way I look,' Sherlock observed, grinning when John shot him an “obviously” glare. 'It doesn't matter what I'm wearing, you always respond in varying degrees, but this...' He stepped forward, hooking his finger in the waistband of John's jeans and tugging him close. 'Anything in particular of which you approve?'

Normally, he would never allow that tone to creep into his voice, something tempting and playful, as much about affection as it was about lust, but John inspired the strangest things in him. Sherlock saw him grin, his face flushed as his hand settled on Sherlock's hip.

'I – uh – I don't –' He faltered, and Sherlock saw his vague embarrassment fade. Most people were reluctant to discuss their kinks for fear of being judged, but John was far from ordinary. 'It's a toss up between the jeans and the eye-liner, to be honest.'

Sherlock smirked, ducking his head and slanting a kiss across John's lips, tasting the firm line of his mouth and shivering as John opened up for him. He could feel the heavy rhythm of John's heart against his ribs and the heat of those skilful hands through the thin veneer of his t-shirt, strumming a line along the plane of his waist.

Embodied in this seemingly unremarkable man was everything Sherlock needed. He could muffle the endless hum of his self-destructive mind and pare away the anxious energy of his transport. John could render him calm and still or drive him to new heights of euphoria with the simplest of touches. He could make Sherlock forget that there was anything more important than the two of them, and he revelled in the bliss of that temporary ignorance.

It did not last. A moment later, his fingers brushed the base of John's spine, making out the brutish shape of the gun: a metal saviour that reminded him of what could lie ahead.

'No time?' John asked as Sherlock drew back. A wistful smile tilted his mouth as he nudged Sherlock's nose and breathed a sigh: acknowledgement. 'Come on.' He gestured with the equipment still clutched in his left hand. 'The sooner we're both wired up, the sooner we can get this over with.'

Sherlock took a deep breath, putting aside every threatening sentiment that clouded his thoughts. He had spent years perceiving entanglements as a hindrance, and the justification of his behaviour was evident every time John caught his eye or crossed his mind.

Yet even with that knowledge, retreat was impossible. He could not conceive backing out of what they had begun, even for John's own good. No, this was a challenge – a new skill to master: how to balance the Work and John without letting one or the other suffer as a result.

'You all right?' John asked, and Sherlock chastised himself for not keeping his emotions off his face.

'I'll be better once we have the twins in custody,' he said by way of explanation, taking the ear-piece and fitting it in place. Transparent, matte and thread-fine, it would easily be overlooked. 'Or, if I'm wrong and it's not them, whoever else is responsible.'

'You think that's likely?' John's fingers brushed his skin as he trailed the cables down Sherlock's back underneath his t-shirt. He clipped the small power-pack onto the waist of his jeans at the base of his spine, hidden from view by the fold of black cotton.

'No.' He shook his head, turning to help John. 'The nature of the crime and the organisation involved dictates a close relationship between the two perpetrators. One's not just assisting the other, they're trying to protect themselves from prosecution. They have an interest in one another's well-being. Hence lovers or siblings.' He shrugged. 'They fit the profile, but I'm prepared for the possibility new input might trash my theory.'

His fingers moved deftly, guiding the wire over John's frame. It was impossible to flawlessly conceal the equipment. No doubt Mycroft had access to better kit, but the police did not. They would have to make do.

John touched the thin cable where it wound down his nape, almost invisible against the tan of his skin. 'Why don't they make them wireless?'

'Too much chance of interference. The music, the DJ's deck and God-knows how many mobile phones transmitting on various frequencies make it unreliable. This is the best alternative.' Sherlock scuffed his way out into the living room, stopping to do up his laces as John checked the clock and bustled into the kitchen. There was no time to eat a proper meal, but he loaded up the toaster and poured a large glass of water, which he held out for Sherlock to take.

'No food or drink from the club, remember? You've barely eaten for days. We don't need you keeling over at a crucial moment.'

Grudgingly, Sherlock did as John asked, gulping down the water before checking the charge on his mobile. The need for action itched beneath his skin, making him sway restlessly where he stood as John devoured three slices of toast. A single square of bread was thrust under Sherlock's nose, and he eyed it resentfully before consuming it. It was too small a meal to slow him down, but perhaps it would be enough to keep him sharp.

'As soon as this is over, we're going out for dinner,' John ordered. 'A proper meal with meat and veg, not just –' He waved the slice in his hand in irritation, stuffing the crust in his mouth and swallowing before he looked around the flat. 'Anything else we need?'

Sherlock shook his head, snagging the leather jacket and throwing it to John before grabbing hold of his own and slipping it on. He wanted to ask if the gun was loaded, but he doubted he would appreciate the unnecessary reminder. John knew what he was doing, and besides, few people questioned whether a shooter had remembered bullets when there was a pistol pointing at their cranium. 'Let's go.'

The taxi ride to Iso was conducted in silence. Sherlock was not sure how John dealt with worry, but for him, it involved going over the case and exploring the nuances. He charted through possibilities, analysing risks and threats. There were still some unknowns, such as Shaw's precise connection to the murders, if one existed at all, and what, exactly, had killed victims three and four. All he needed was to find those few, tiny fragments to cement the whole together.

'Here's fine,' he told the driver one street away from the club. He could see Lestrade and Donovan waiting, the former in his suit, since he would be sitting in a car all night, the latter in clubbing gear. A short, slightly revealing dress clung to her figure while still retaining some element of practicality. It suited her, softening some of the harder edges of her appearance.

'I know you don't like her,' John whispered as they approached, making Sherlock tip his head to hear him, 'but I'm glad Sally will be watching you.'

'As long as she doesn't get in my way,' Sherlock retorted, silently acknowledging that her impediment was unlikely. Lestrade and his men were not rank amateurs, and if he were truthful, their presence did take the sharpest edge off his concerns. There were no guarantees, but being kept under surveillance greatly reduced the chances of something going wrong.

'You two ready?' Lestrade asked as they stopped at his shoulder, his fleeting smile amused before he became serious. He had seen them both dressed in similar clothes before, back when Sherlock had appropriated the leather jacket for John, but it seemed it was still enough of an alteration to raise an eyebrow.

'As we'll ever be,' John replied, standing patiently as a couple of officers checked both his and Sherlock's ear-pieces.

It was aggravating, being pawed with clinical hands, but Sherlock tried to ignore it, choosing instead to watch Donovan. He observed her brief, appreciative glance at John's form and tried not to scowl. His attire earned him a smirk, and she shook her head before opening up the audio channel. Her hair hid the kit she was using, and it worked flawlessly, giving a clear transmission.

'Hear me okay?' she asked, standing a short distance away as Lestrade and John ran checks on their isolated loop.

'You're right beside me,' Sherlock pointed out, sighing when she scowled. 'Yes, both the transmitter and receiver are working correctly.'

'Good. It's an open line, so you're going to have to deal with ambient sounds, and we'll be able to hear what you're saying to other people. Don't fuck about with it, don't fiddle and don't turn it off. If you do, we'll assume trouble and come looking for you, understand?'

'Perfectly.' Sherlock stepped closer to John, ignoring Donovan's huff of irritation. 'Is there anything else I need to know?'

'We've got cars in the surrounding streets, and we're watching every exit that's not tied into the fire alarm.' Lestrade folded his arms with a frown. 'I shouldn't have to say this, but don't get complacent. Either of you.'

'Look out for sources of interference,' Donovan added. 'It shouldn't be too much of a problem, but some things can make the kit hiss with static. If that happens, just move; it should fade off.'

'Got it.' John gave a curt nod, glancing at Sherlock before jerking his head towards the club. 'Shall we?'

'We'll let you know if we find anything,' Sherlock called over his shoulder as he led the way, turning down an alley with John at his heels. He could hear Lestrade and Donovan finalising details – a keyhole into another world – and he tried to tune them out as he spoke to John. 'We'll head around the back. I want to check the shift schedule.'

'Why?'

'The killers cooperated on the first two murders, that much is proven by the ladder imprints, but what if one of them worked alone on victims three and four? One who could stomach assault and clean murder, but not dismemberment?'

'You think one of the twins wasn't here?' John asked. 'Or got cold feet?'

'The former's more likely. They were probably unavailable, rather than unwilling. It's logical to assume that the one responsible for the butchery also killed victim number five – no issue with violence.' He shrugged. 'It's far from definitive, but the schedule will give us some idea of where they were.'

Together, they slipped through the back door and trotted up the stairs. What had once been nothing but scenery – the endless detritus of Iso's operations – now seemed subtly threatening. There were too many shadows and places to hide, and Sherlock shook his head as he nudged his way into the make-shift staff room. No one else was there, though a couple of bags had been dumped on the floor.

'That's Lyra's,' he said with a frown. 'She's meant to be working the late half tonight. Why is she here already?'

'Shift-swap?' John suggested, wandering over to the sparse, flaking cork-board to pull down the timetable before holding it up in demonstration. 'It's not written on here, but you know how it is.' The paper rustled as he flicked through the pages, dog-eared and ink-smeared. 'How far back do I need to go?'

'A few weeks.' Sherlock looked over John's shoulder, reaching out to cover his fingers as he reached the right time. 'There.'

'Matt was gone for the best part of a fortnight.' He felt John's sigh shudder out of him, and when he looked up at Sherlock, his expression was perplexed. 'So, if it is the twins, then what? David doesn't cut people up?'

Sherlock shrugged, shaking his head. 'Possibly. It could certainly go a long way to explaining the discrepancy between the first pair of bodies and the second. The first two were disposed of with diligence. It was planned and confident. The others –'

'Panic.' John nodded his head as he reached the same conclusion. 'Something happened to mess up someone's plans. They were too freaked out to do more than dump the bodies in plain sight.'

'And David didn't have his brother there to help him.' Sherlock took the schedule from John's grasp, pinning it back in place as the first beats of music echoed down through the club. 'I know it's tempting to think of them as one individual, somehow reduced if the other isn't present, but don't allow yourself to do so,' he warned, grabbing John's wrist and staring intently into his face. 'All we have is supposition, but even that is telling us that David's likely to have been solely responsible for the rape and death of at least two individuals. He was on his own when three and four were taken. If we're right, everything that happened to them was done at David's hand.'

'And then we have Matt, who probably chops people into pieces.' John closed his eyes, and Sherlock could see every twist of emotion charting its way across his features. 'Believe me, I won't trust either of them, but I'm not the one who'll be within arm's reach all night.' John's voice dropped. 'For God's sake, Sherlock, be careful?'

Around them, the bass grew more insistent: they had run out of time. He wanted to lean closer, to taste John's pleas and answer with promises, but he was painfully aware of the listening ears on the other end of the line, and he had to settle for a brief nod. 'You too. Come on.' He jerked his head upwards to the blanket of sound above their heads. 'That sounds like our cue.'

He shrugged out of his coat and threw it over one of the hooks, climbing the stairs to the main floor and falling into Lee's character with ease. It was tempting to remind John not to do anything that might attract an attacker's attention until there was no other choice, but the time for words had passed. Now they could only play their parts and hope that the spin of events would come to rest in their favour.

With one last nod of mutual concern, they parted ways, Sherlock easing behind the bar as John made his way through the club. He watched him go from the corner of his eye, following the muted gleam of the leather jacket as the lights dimmed.

He was not the only one tracking John's movements. Donovan and two of her fellow officers had positioned themselves perfectly, three women out for a night on the town. He expected the sergeant to be stiff and professional, but he had to give her credit, she knew how to fit in. Her posture was relaxed, friendly but not inviting, attractive but not seductive. She had a drink in front of her and was maintaining the pretence of gossip as she kept a subtle eye on John's departing form.

A few seconds later, she met Sherlock's gaze. No nod was given, but her faint smile was one of affirmation. She'd clearly heard from Lestrade or one of his colleagues that John was in position. Now all Sherlock had to do was get on with his job.

'Oh, thank God you're here!' Lyra sent a look of pure relief in his direction, giving a rude customer a snarling grin as she bustled around. 'I thought I was going to be doing this on my own!'

'What am I, furniture?' Matt's voice sounded as easy-going as always as he emerged from the kitchen, stacking glasses with hurried grace as Sherlock began serving drinks. Years of practice kept his brief flicker of distaste from showing on his face, and he forced himself to relax. 'David will be here as soon as he can.'

'I know, I know. It's not his fault he's poorly, and I'm okay to help out,' Lyra called back. 'It's just we've only been open a few minutes and it's already mental!'

'His blood sugar went wonky,' Matt explained, bumping his hip into Sherlock's to urge him along the bar. It was a companionable gesture, but it took all of Sherlock's willpower not to recoil. Instead, he forced himself to nudge back before reaching across for another glass.

'He all right?' Sherlock asked, Lee's softer consonants and vowels escaping his lips like second nature as he hoped Donovan had passed on that relevant information. The notion of one twin unaccounted for made Sherlock's skin crawl, and his thoughts immediately went to John's safety. 'I thought he had all that under control?'

'Yeah, most of the time, but we all make mistakes, right?' Matt handed someone a couple of bottles before taking their money. He used the till with practised ease, the jewellery on his middle finger clanking against the drawer as he did so.

Sherlock absorbed that detail in an instant as his body went through the motions of serving one customer after another. His mind flashed back to the grainy photograph of a disembodied hand over John's bottle of beer, and the dark blur of metal banding a ghostly finger.

'Nice ring,' he said lightly, jerking his head towards Matt's hand and hoping Donovan would get the message. She hadn't been there when Lestrade had shown them the CCTV footage from the night John was drugged. Still, she had the sense to pick out meaningful data from idle chatter, and he had to hope her pride wouldn't stop her passing on confirmation to the DI.

'Thanks. I've had it for years.' Matt twisted it idly on his finger, grimacing before he held up his hand in demonstration. 'Stupid thing's a bit knackered, though. It leaves marks, now.'

Sherlock gave what he hoped was a sympathetic smile, glad for the excuse of constant customer service for his less than vocal response as his thoughts raced. The stains on Matt's skin were subtle, mostly hidden under the broad band of the chunky jewellery.

It was made of pewter, judging by the black and green tint to the discolouration on his skin, and Sherlock quickly connected the dots: lead flakes from a low quality alloy. Had Matt's tired ring somehow contaminated the drinks of their victims? There was a bulge on the underside which seemed to be part of its design, and he cursed his inability to get a closer look without raising suspicion.

Pursing his lips, Sherlock reined in his patience, reminding himself more than once throughout the evening that subtlety was the key. The steady surge of customers meant the time raced by, buoyed along by the chatter of Lyra and Matt. He listened attentively, joining in as little as he could in the hopes of gleaning more from Matt's conversation, but it was all mundane with no hint of anything pertaining to the case.

Eleven o'clock had been and gone when Lyra heaved a sigh, standing on one foot and wriggling the other as she glanced back at Matt. 'Anything from your brother yet?'

He dragged out his phone before shaking his head. 'Are we desperate? He said he could manage if he had to. Our place is only in Mortland Street; he can be here in a few minutes. If you want, I can give him a call.'

Sherlock's heart skittered in his chest at that fragment, his mental map of London unfurling for his perusal. Mortland Street was a small, residential road, dodgy at the best of times, down-right criminal at worst. Less than half-a-mile from Iso, it was conveniently proximal to the storage yard in which the first two bodies had been found. He needed more data, and while sending a text or two behind the bar caused no concern, googling someone's address would be too overt.

'Can you do without me for a minute?' he asked, shifting in a parody of discomfort. 'Sorry, I drank too much coffee before work. I'm busting.'

Lyra rolled her eyes and shook her head in disbelief, gesturing to the staff bathroom in the shadows of the dance floor. 'Hurry up then! Matt, get in touch with David. Check he's all right, if nothing else.'

Sherlock ducked out from behind the bar, feeling the weight of Donovan's observation as he picked his way through the crowd and dragged out the key to the staff bathroom. It slipped smoothly into the lock, allowing him access to the hollow peace of the room within. His reflection was a phantom in the age-spotted mirror, but he ignored his appearance as he swiped the screen of his phone.

'Need me to whistle while you take a piss?' Donovan's voice queried, sarcastic against the strange backdrop sounds of the club that echoed in stereo through the walls around him. 'I wouldn't want you suffering performance anxiety or anything.'

'I'm checking my mobile,' Sherlock muttered, 'not using the facilities. Send a car to Mortland Street. The twins have a flat there; get someone to check for tenancy changes in the past six months. That should narrow down the precise address.' He shifted his weight, frowning when his phone caused a brief pulse of interference as it searched for reception. Grudgingly, he held it at arm's length, regaining clarity as he heard Donovan's stifled sigh.

Her voice was far from its usual strident tones, softer and more rounded at the edges as if she were engrossed in casual conversation. 'Even if we find it, we can't search the place without a warrant, but I'll get a car on it. It's another hole closed in the net, if nothing else.'

Sherlock nodded, indifferent to the fact he couldn't be seen as some of the restless energy coiled in his body sought an outlet. He paced, the echo of his footsteps distorted by the fixtures as he scanned Google street-view on the small screen, hunting for anything that could prove to be the case's undoing.

Abruptly, a rash of static hissed across the ear-piece, making him curse in surprise. His fingers went automatically to the device, pulling it free and leaving a ringing tinnitus in its wake. He clenched his jaw, wincing as the sibilant rush continued, distant now it was no longer so close to his eardrum, but still discernible.

There shouldn't be anything in a bathroom to create such a problem. He frowned around, taking in the plumbing and the sallow, fluorescent lights before his gaze came to rest on the fire door, little more than a foot away thanks to his pacing.

At first glance, it was nondescript, but a deeper inspection revealed the truth. Normally, if it was disturbed the movement would set off the sirens: a legal requirement in any club. However, in the sweep of a glance, he realised the wires had been spliced, creating an independent circuit that tricked the sensors.

The job was competent, subtle against the paintwork of the wall, but one or two fragments of copper wire lay exposed to the air: enough to generate an electromagnetic field and shatter the radio signal with static as soon as anyone got close.

'Clever.' Someone could pass through without setting off the alarm, and a quick skim of his fingers along the opening edge revealed a sticky residue. The lock had been taped open so that the door simply sat in its threshold, rather than latching into place. Simple, but effective.

Stepping back, he replaced the bud in his ear as the snowy hiss of disruption fell away.

'– the hell, Holmes?' Donovan's voice was a strained, muted snarl. 'Answer me!'

'I think I've discovered how the twins are able to leave with their victims unseen. It's –'

A shadow in the mirror was all the warning he got: a blur of colour before a weight slammed into his back. His breath left him in a whuff of air as a wiry arm wrapped around his neck, dragging him down into range. He clawed at the strong forearm, contorting with the effort to break free. Before he could succeed, a dart of pain shot through him as a needle stabbed into his flesh: a bright firework of discomfort.

The cable connecting the ear-piece was snatched and flung aside, ripped from the power-pack and rendered useless as it clattered in one of the sinks. Not the brightest idea. Donovan wasn't an idiot; she'd know something had happened and come running.

Grim satisfaction washed through Sherlock's chest as he ploughed his elbow backwards, hearing a grunt of surprise as he spun out of his attacker's grip. His phone had fallen from his hand, the screen glowing strangely in the flat light of the bathroom, but he ignored it as he took in David's face. An ugly frown marred his brow, robbing his youthful expression of all friendliness.

He was quicker than Sherlock would have expected. His arm curled back to deliver a punch that he barely dodged. Whirling around, he jabbed his elbow down between David's shoulder-blades, sharp and hard. The man stumbled, the empty syringe – an insulin pen, or had it been modified to carry a different substance? – clattering to the floor as the shock of the blow jarred along his bones, but David was no amateur fighter.

He didn't wheeze or whimper, lashing his foot back and catching Sherlock's knee with a powerful strike. The joint collapsed, rough and shocking, and Sherlock staggered, briefly off-balance. Before he could regain his equilibrium, clawing fingers thrust deep into his hair. The punishing grip tore at his curls as his forehead was smashed into one of the mirrors above the sink.

Glass tinkled down into the cheap porcelain bowls, the edges made bloody from the gashes on his brow. Colour exploded across his vision followed by a rash of dark spots, and Sherlock clung to the taps as he fought to hang onto consciousness, too stunned to straighten up. He vaguely heard David's angry cursing as he did something to the door leading out into the club before Sherlock was hauled across the room.

'You're more trouble than you're fucking worth,' David hissed, looking into Sherlock's eyes. He fought against his grip, but he was too shaky, his coordination shot to hell and only getting worse as his thoughts grew hazy and indistinct. His vision swam, and nausea knotted his stomach. It could be a concussion, but there was more to it than that. Whatever had been in that syringe was already having an effect, but it was not the one he expected.

'Not GHB,' he managed. 'Too quick.'

David raised an eyebrow. 'Shaw was right. You are clever, Lee. Or should I call you Sherlock? It's fast-acting insulin. It keeps me alive. Shame it's not going to do the same for you.'

He wrenched open the fire exit, the alarm hideously silent as he shoved Sherlock over the threshold. Concrete rasped under his feet as he stumbled, grazing his hands on the hard ground. His palms stung, but he barely registered it. He was too occupied with thoughts of danger as his body crumbled beneath the tide of chemicals in his blood.

The cavalry – Donovan, Lestrade, John – were nearby. If he could just delay David long enough...

'Move!'

He wasn't given a choice in the matter as he was dragged through a small yard full of bins and tattered fencing. It was nothing but a neglected bit of land at the back of the club, far off the main street and linked to a network of alleys. Sherlock tried to place it on his mental map, but his head was too woozy, strung out with distress and clouded by the insulin.

It had to be that which was making him so confused, his muscles leaden as the world continued to waltz. Hypoglycaemia. Blood sugar dropping through the floor. John was right, he should have eaten more before he came to the club tonight. Maybe that would have modulated the symptoms. Perhaps then he would have enough in him left to fight – or even think! One slice of toast was hardly enough to sustain him against this unexpected onslaught.

He managed a growl as David looped an arm around his waist, a cruel mimicry of someone helping a mate home. He wanted to claw at him – to punch and kick – but any attack was weak and ineffectual, causing more irritation than anything else.

A backhand across his face sent him crashing into the wall. The sharp sting at his ear suggested one of the hoops had been ripped off, but Sherlock did not bother to check as he slumped against the brickwork, panting wretchedly while he tried to find his balance in a world that dipped and swirled.

'Pack it in!' David's voice was tense, and Sherlock caught enough in the gloom to see that he was looking over his shoulder. The music from the club was still a distant beat in the air. 'We need to go!'

'Why should I?' Sherlock snarled, splaying his hands flat against damp stone as he tried to anchor himself. His knees were like elastic, and he wrinkled his nose as a trickle of blood wound down from the gashes in his head and dripped in his eye.

Cold metal pressed against the column of his throat: a thin, sharp edge, tilted down with proficient ease to slice through blood vessels and end life in a single blow. 'Cooperate,' Matt's voice, a touch deeper than David's and twice as chilling, oozed through the air. Sherlock hadn't heard him approach, but he must have come from the other end of the alley, the one that led away from Iso. Either he had slipped by Lestrade's men or found another way out. 'Or I end you here and we go back for lover boy.'

'I thought –' David mumbled, only to fall silent at his brother's glare.

'John will be with the police; you can't get to him.' As if to punctuate his statement, the sound of several sirens starting up in the nearby streets echoed along the narrow space in which they stood. So near and yet so far. David's face was wan with panic, but Matt seemed unimpressed, his teeth flashing in a grin.

'We got you, didn't we?'

Sherlock closed his eyes, the truth of that statement making bile well up in his throat. His own misjudgement was to blame. Foolishly, he had thought the staff bathroom would be safe with its one door to and from the club. He hadn't counted on them tampering with the alarmed threshold. 'By hiding in a bathroom stall,' he managed, the last word slurring uncomfortably on his tongue. 'Not exactly elegant.'

David twitched where he stood, glaring at his brother. 'We don't have time for this! The longer we fuck about, the more likely it is we'll be caught! Can't you see he's trying to hold us up?' He reached out, his fingers leaving bruises as he dragged Sherlock upright. A moment later, Matt's arm was wrapped around Sherlock's waist, half carrying him as he made futile efforts to break free.

With a wince, Sherlock clenched his teeth, trying to think. He couldn't escape, not like this. He didn't have the strength. Maybe if there was just one of them, he could manage, but two? No, he had to consider his options. The twins were using alleyways, staying away from the main roads. Gates opened and closed to them with ease, unlocked or tampered with in advance to give them a clear path to wherever they were taking him. He had to do something – leave some kind of trail...

Some of it was simple: scuffed footsteps were expected, and the occasional stagger did not raise awareness. His fingertips were coated in drying, tacky blood from where he'd pressed them to his head, and he touched pale surfaces – wooden fence panels and grimy white walls – wherever he could, hoping fervently that someone would have the sense to see them for what they were. He even managed to shimmy one of the leather bracelets from his wrist, leaving it to fall like an autumn leaf.

'My way was so much fucking easier!' David spat at his brother, shouldering aside another gate before, at last, changing direction, blundering towards the back entrance of a dilapidated building.

'We tried your way, remember?' Matt glared at Sherlock. 'Someone didn't want to take his medicine.'

That sounded important, like a clue he should latch onto, but Sherlock's mind was too wrung out to push it into context. Fear was getting the better of him, the surge of adrenaline a heady thing in his weakened body. His struggles, discontinued in the name of saving his strength, redoubled as he was pushed through the door, his hand catching his weight against a cool metal surface.

The room was coated in gloom, but Sherlock could still make out the details. Empty hooks hung along the wall, and the counter was sterile steel. Perspex, stained with age, gave a dull gleam in the street-lamp light that filtered through from the front of the shop, but it was the large metal door of an industrial freezer that caught his eye: a butcher's store room.

'Get him upstairs,' Matt ordered, reaching for something behind the counter: an old ball of twine, the kind used for hanging up joints of pork and beef. David grabbed Sherlock's elbow, pulling him along with a firm grip. His efforts to retaliate, clumsy and useless as they were, redoubled, but the gleam of the knife, back in Matt's hand, was enough to still them entirely. He was no good to anyone dead. Not the twins, and not John.

The stairs were a staggering, confusing jumble, and Sherlock tried to force aside the trembling in his muscles. Sweat beaded his upper lip. His head was grating, and his skin was alive with a dozen rippling shivers, washing over him in waves. By the time they reached the top floor, he could barely stand, let alone take in all but the most vague impressions of his surroundings: a ratty carpet, a bare, stained mattress and a glorious tangle of glassware on a battered table.

A whispering sound filled the air, and Sherlock blinked to see Matt unspooling a length of twine. He caught Sherlock's eye and quirked his brows: suggestive and playful.

'You didn't restrain the others,' he rasped, still trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together in his sodden, disorientated brain.

Matt shrugged. 'We didn't have to. They were too far gone to fight back. You, on the other hand...' A solid weight on Sherlock's shoulder pushed him to his knees, thudding them hard into the floor as he grunted in discomfort. He tried to take a swing, but his depth perception was out, and he missed by a couple of inches, too dizzy to correct the motion. 'Without the GHB, there's plenty of fight left in you. Pity your body isn't so cooperative.'

His arms were wrenched behind his back, muscles complaining as the string bit into the skin. There was no give, and Sherlock chewed his lip as he attempted to keep his thoughts from jumping to the ordeal that was likely to fill his short future. He had to keep talking. Something – anything to slow this down and give John and the others a chance to locate him.

He didn't let himself consider that they had no more idea where he was than he did himself. They would find him. Maybe not Lestrade or Donovan, but John would figure it out. He might not be a genius, but after all this time he knew how Sherlock thought, and he prayed he had managed to leave enough clues to lead him here.

'Why me?' he managed, screwing up his eyes as he tried to focus. 'I thought it was John you wanted.'

'It was,' David grumbled, but his glare was levelled at his brother rather than Sherlock. 'We'd have both had what we wanted if you'd drunk the beer for you on Saturday night, the one Tomas bought to celebrate his birthday. Instead you left it there and stayed fucking sober!' He sounded outraged, as if a perfectly formed plan had fallen apart, and Sherlock blinked as a glimmer of realisation shone through the murk of his consciousness.

'The green bottle, the one the cleaners were tipping down the drain. It was behind the bar. I was meant to drink it, and I didn't.' He frowned, trying to concentrate. 'You were going to drug both of us?'

'It would have been easier,' Matt explained conversationally, still wrapping excess twine around Sherlock's wrists, his fingers brushing against his pulse as if fascinated. 'You had no idea it was us then, did you? Any doubts you had would be washed away by the GHB. We'd have just been friends making sure you got home all right.' He sounded like he was grinning. 'You wouldn't have realised we were going the wrong way until it was too late. Now, we're having to do things differently.'

'It's not like we had a fucking choice. We ran out of the chemicals we needed, and when we go to talk to Shaw all he's left us is a message explaining who you are. Who you're working for.' David paced, his footsteps echoing across the floor. 'Sherlock Holmes and the god-damn police.' He turned to his brother, waving his hand in disbelief. 'He's not even the one I want.'

'Relax,' Matt suggested. Sherlock felt him move – his hands brushing the curve of Sherlock's shoulder. The knife pressed against the hollow above his collarbone, catching on the neck of his t-shirt before slicing through the fabric, cutting it neatly – lovingly – from him. A bright red line of blood charted its course down his torso, and Sherlock tried to keep his mind placid and still, receptive, rather than lost in the tense, heart-clenching memories of mutilated bodies as Matt continued to talk to his twin. 'John's probably already dashing to the rescue.' He stroked his fingers thoughtfully through Sherlock's curls. 'You'll get him.'

'He doesn't even know where we are!'

'No, but they know we have a flat in this street. I told Sherlock as much, and I'm sure he passed the knowledge on to John and whoever else was listening. It's probably the first place he'll look, and you can be waiting for him.'

Sherlock gulped, barely hearing David leave. He tried to ignore the dig of the blade into his sternum as he folded away that information in the nebulous cloud of his thoughts. They were in Mortland Street, and now his memory was flashing images of the screen on his phone. It wasn't much, but it was a shaky bearing. He remembered seeing a derelict butcher's shop. If nothing else, at least he could pinpoint where he was.

'You're using me as bait.' He closed his eyes, running his tongue over his teeth as he trembled again. 'You think John will come running. Even if he does, he's not stupid enough to do it alone.' Or so Sherlock hoped. 'He'll bring half of Scotland Yard with him.'

He sucked in a breath as the knife twitched, feeling Matt shift behind him. There was a hush of cloth as he knelt on the floor, trapping Sherlock's hips in the spread vee of his thighs. Matt's arm pressed across his chest, making the shallow cut sting as he held him in a parody of an embrace.

Chapped lips caressed his neck, and he jerked away, hissing as Matt yanked him back by his hair, his voice low and soft. 'Oh you're not bait, Sherlock.'

He lunged forward, clamping down on the curve where Sherlock's neck met his shoulder. It was no lover's nip, and Sherlock cried out in shock as blunt teeth sank in deep, pressing through muscle. Rivulets of blood oozed down his back and across his clavicle. The wound throbbed, stinging as Matt ripped free with a twist of his head and lapped his tongue across the torn flesh.

'You're mine.'

Chapter Text

John stood in the caustic glow of Iso's sign, battle-ready and primed for action. His nerves shivered with tense resonance and the rhythm of his breathing was strained. Sweat lay sticky across his back despite the crisp night air, making the slick metal of his gun slip at his waistband.

He thought that Sally's watchful presence would appease him, but the thin veneer of his confidence lay in tatters. His entire being itched to stride in and snatch Sherlock from behind the bar. He could put the twins down, a bullet each, and damn the procedures of the justice system. Sherlock would be safe and so would he. Right now, that was all he cared about.

'Are you okay?' Vanessa's gentle query reached his ears, pulling him from his violent fugue. Her eyes were wide and her expression soft as she touched his leather-clad elbow in friendly reassurance. 'You were miles away.'

'Sorry.' John rounded his shoulders in a parody of a man suffering from the cold. 'Daydreaming of my nice warm bed, actually.'

'It's harder after a day off,' she agreed, gesturing to the steadily moving line in front of them. He had been a few minutes late, thanks to his and Sherlock's investigations in the staffroom, and the club had been filling up by the time he'd left Sherlock's side. No one had called him out on it, though: one innocent apology and no questions were asked.

'Just got the news from Donovan: one of the twins isn't at work tonight. Something about blood sugar,' Greg's voice murmured in his ear. 'Sounds like he might be in later, but watch your back, all right?'

John ducked his chin towards his chest: a vague affirmation. It seemed too calm and subtle a response as his heart constricted in his chest, bruised with worry.

He wished he could hear Sherlock's voice: a tether of sound that would let him know he was all right, but the audio wasn't set up that way. He, Lestrade and the other officers watching him were on a quiet loop, one with nothing but the chatter of the patrons in the queue and London's faint city sounds humming along the airwaves. The club was a different matter. Sally and Sherlock would have to fight against the din of the music, shouted drinks order and the clatter of the till. It was like another world, near yet far, and the only link John had to Sherlock was his mobile phone.

He palmed its square bulk in his pocket, considering sending a quick text – something to re-establish a connection – but no. There was no emergency, nothing to say except “I'm worried about you”, and neither of them could afford that distraction. Instead, he crossed his arms, trying to keep an eye on the people around him as the night crept onwards.

Greg was a life-line curled up in his ear. He didn't keep up a stream of idle chatter, but there was the occasional comment. A curse as he ate a doughnut and dropped jam on his shirt, the grumble and groans about a numb backside and, more importantly, infrequent titbits of information.

John longed to hear the words direct from Sally's mouth, or better yet, Sherlock himself, but that was impossible. Even Greg wasn't constantly listening to what they were doing. His responsibility was to John, and he had to trust the sergeant to do her job. Donovan would relay details as and when necessary, and every now and again John caught a distant click and the tinny sound of her voice saying something to the Detective Inspector.

'The twins have a place in Mortland Street,' Greg explained, translating Sally's indistinct words. John could distinguish the tap of the keys on his phone. 'We'll get some cars over there. Rough as shit area. Cheap though.' A few minutes of silence washed between them, almost companionable despite John's inability to reply. He listened to Greg drumming his fingers on the steering wheel and began to silently wonder if all this effort was for nothing.

He had questioned the others about the twins, but they had nothing to offer. The consensus was that they were good blokes, solid and dependable most of the time. There wasn't a hint of violence or worrying behaviour. Yet John doubted Sherlock had got it wrong. Clearly, the twins were practised at hiding who they really were. All it took was some self-control and intelligence, and everyone was deceived.

Well, everyone except Sherlock.

A sudden scramble of noise made him flinch. Sally's voice was strident in the confines of Greg's car, not the subtle hush of someone performing surveillance, but the tight, authoritative instructions of a woman who had been called upon to do her duty. There was too much crackle to make out her precise message, but he understood Greg's string of obscenities well enough, and the next instruction he received was blunt and urgent.

'We've got trouble. Get inside.'

'What's going on?' John demanded, ignoring Vanessa's look as he strode away, his boots thumping as he raced up the stairs towards the main floor. 'Where's Sherlock?'

The music was still playing, a rough clamour to underscore the dancers' moves, and he allowed it to swamp him as he pushed through the crowd, scanning the empty bar. Only Lyra was there, looking harassed, shouting over the cacophony as she spoke to one of the officers who was meant to be watching Sherlock.

John's stomach went into free-fall, and he looked around frantically, praying he would find his flatmate yelling at Donovan for blowing cover. Instead, he saw the sergeant standing by the staff bathroom door, the slim line of the key in the lock. Yet for all her pushing and twisting, it wasn't opening, and she banged the heel of her palm on the wood before snapping something to the officer hovering at her side.

The intervening space melted away as he pushed towards her, grabbing her shoulder. 'Where's Sherlock?'

'He went to check something about their address on his phone. No one followed him. I didn't take my eyes off the damn door, but –' She clenched her fists. 'Something happened. His line's gone dead. I can't hear anything over this fucking noise, and the bloody thing won't open. We're getting a ram, but –'

John shook his head, examining the hinges. The door opened inwards and there was no handle on the outside, just the slim rod of the key protruding drunkenly from its hole as if it had caught on the jagged tumblers within.

He shifted his weight, using his good leg to brace himself as he lashed out with his other foot, pushing all the force down through his heel. The door shuddered beneath the impact, the wood buckling and the catch giving a metallic crunch of complaint, barely acknowledged over the continuing thump of the bass. John was faintly aware of drawing an audience, but Lestrade and the others were taking control and pushing back the curious bystanders.

Another solid kick sent the door flying. One hinge broke beneath the power of his desperation as part of the frame came away, still stuck to the locking mechanism.

Instinct had him clearing the room: murderers or insurgents, it made no difference. He checked each stall, empty and abandoned, and tried to ignore the way his palms itched for the weight of his gun. If it weren't for Donovan, his finger would already be on the trigger, but the sergeant was right behind him, talking hurriedly into her radio in a furious voice.

The place was empty: no one lay unconscious, dead or mutilated, but John's relief was short-lived. It was obvious something had happened; he could see the evidence of it in the shattered mirror. There was a round point of contact, and he could easily imagine the connection of someone's head with the smooth pane. Had Sherlock managed to wound his attacker, or was he the one suffering?

John scrubbed his hands over his face as panic squeezed his ribs. If Sherlock were here, he would chastise him for such a useless emotion. He would tell him to ignore sentiment and observe the facts, but all he could see was Sherlock’s straining, hollow absence and the proof of a fight littered around him: broken slivers of glass and scuff-marks on the floor.

'How did they get away?' he rasped. The sergeant still had the radio to her lips, but she did not speak. Instead, she stared at him as if she had never seen him before, her skin tainted with a waxy sheen as his voice cut past his lips. 'Someone was in here waiting for him, and now they're both gone. Where the hell are they? You should have been watching him!'

'I was!' she retorted, her arm falling to her side as her shoulders went rigid, defiance over-riding any apology in her expression. 'I saw him come in. We were in contact. There was some – some static on the line. A bit from his phone at first, then something more solid. I was this close to barging in.' She held her thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart, her hair whipping around her face as she shook her head. 'A second later, it cleared up and I could hear him again. He said he thought he'd figured out how they were getting people out. Then –'

'What?' John snarled as the sergeant shrugged, the twist of her lips causing a faint, sullen spark of guilt to flare in the pit of his stomach. This wasn't Donovan's fault, but his temper wasn't listening to reason. He stepped forward, his satisfaction as she inched away almost shameful. 'Then what?'

She took another step back and a sudden burst of static from the radio, shrill and piercing, made them both recoil. The speaker whistled, unresponsive to her pressing buttons, and Donovan pulled a face before moving back towards where John stood. Abruptly, it faded, leaving a clear channel, and he watched her features take on a thoughtful slant.

'There's something in here causing a distortion. That's the same noise that came on the line between me and Holmes.'

'Did it come back?' John demanded. 'Is that what cut you off?'

He saw Sally's back straighten, her confidence returning as she pulled a pen from her pocket and hooked it under something that lay coiled in the sink. 'No,' she explained, holding it up for John to see: Sherlock's wire. 'It was yanked out. He was talking to me. Whoever was in here would have known it was there. It was deliberately destroyed.'

The music beyond the door fell silent, and John saw several plain clothes officers, as well as Tomas and Will, pushing the crowd back from the threshold. He turned away, meeting Donovan's dark gaze as his next question cracked like a whip. 'And where were you? Your one connection to someone you've got under surveillance was cut; why the fuck didn't you come running?'

He didn't have to shout, all of his fury and fear blazed within the assault of his words. Most people would have been quivering – soldiers and civilians alike. Yet Donovan's eyes narrowed, her voice cracking as she spat her response.

'I did! What the hell do you take me for?' She jabbed her finger in the direction of the door, her arm shaking as she stepped into John's space. 'I couldn't break in, so I grabbed my badge and got the key from the girl on the bar. It wouldn't open. I tried – I tried, but...'

John scowled, a bubble of terror rising in his chest. Adrenaline arced through his veins, but it was not the song of rooftop chases and he and Sherlock, hand-in-hand. This was a bitter dirge seeping into his bones as he lashed out the nearest inanimate target.

His boot slammed into the fire-door, a fruitless outlet for his fear. He expected to be met with resistance, the bar to be in place and the alarm connected – a locked room scenario, just how Sherlock liked it. Instead, his weight met no barrier. The door crashed back against the wall of the building, as loud as a gunshot. No siren sang its recriminations, and John staggered, staring at the stretch of empty yard it revealed.

Fresh city air tickled his face, and his entire body prickled with awareness. He felt like a dog searching for a scent, every sense focussed on the wider world beyond Iso. He didn't realise he'd swayed forward until Donovan's fingers circled his wrist, her nails digging in as she hauled him back.

'Wait!'

'You've got to be kidding!' John snapped, shaking himself free. 'Do you know what they'll do to him – what they could already be –?' He choked off the question, biting his lip hard enough to draw blood. 'If you think I'm going to stand here and do nothing –'

'And where are you going to look?' she demanded. 'We have no idea where he's been taken, and whoever did it has a good head start.'

'Thanks to you!'

'That's enough!' Greg pushed past the officers holding the patrons at bay, his brow beaded with sweat and his expressive face grim. 'Yelling at each other isn't doing Sherlock any good. John, I know you want to get moving – ' His hand stretched out, pacifying, and John choked back a vicious retort. '– but Sally's right. If we rush off without a clue where to start, we'll waste too much time. Time Sherlock's not got to spare.' Greg scrubbed his fingers through his hair, giving him an imploring look. 'Three minutes, John. I've got people working on getting a GPS fix on his phone. When we have that, we'll know where we're heading.'

John turned away, his jaw working as his head buzzed. Patience was the last virtue within his reach, but Greg had a point. As much as it went against every shrilling instinct, taking the time to think could make all the difference. In the end, it could save Sherlock's life, and he couldn't argue with that, no matter how much he ached to be on the move.

'It's no wonder Sally couldn't get the door open, look at it.' Greg gestured to a sticky mass, dry like cement from where it had leaked around the joints. 'Industrial adhesive in the lock. High delivery pressure and fast-drying, it sealed the fucking thing shut. Someone was trying to slow us down.'

'It worked,' John grunted, blinking as something caught his eye. Reaching out for some tissue, he bent down, trying not to smudge any potential prints as he picked it up and examined the object in his shaking grasp. 'David's a diabetic, and this –' He pursed his lips, his mind leaden with dread. 'This is bound to be one of his. Insulin – used.' His heart raced as he considered the possibilities.

'You think he gave it to Sherlock?' Lestrade asked.

'Maybe.' He read the label. 'It's a fast-acting analogue. If he did, it would make Sherlock dizzy, confused and weak, but it should take a while to have an effect – fifteen minutes or so.' He closed his eyes, thinking of Sherlock's habits with food – of one slice of toast in God knew how long. 'A bit less, perhaps. If he hit his head as well, then there's no telling what state he's in.'

John chewed his lip, trying to calm the sickening squeeze of his stomach as he reached his own conclusion: Sherlock would be helpless.

'Sir?' An officer stumbled to a halt at the door. 'About the phone GPS –'

'Let me guess,' John asked, his voice hollow as he noticed a slim, dark shape in the shadows under the sink, only visible from where he was hunkered down by the syringe. 'It's still here?'

He reached out and grabbed the mobile, holding it up for the others to see. Immediately, the atmosphere in the room changed – taking on a harsh edge of despair. It was definitely Sherlock’s; he'd recognise it anywhere. He saw it often enough, cradled in slender hands and casting its glow on that sharp face. Now John's clumsy fingers called it to life, and he frowned at the images on the screen.

'It's a map of Mortland Street,' he said, looking up at Greg.

'We've already got two cars there and four more in progress,' the DI told him, calling out some orders over his shoulder, his voice rough with emotion. He had been relying on the GPS as much as John, and now they'd been left with nothing. 'We got the address, too, the only one that's changed tenants in the past year. As far as the guys watching it can tell, it's empty. If they go there, we'll know about it.'

'What about Matt?' John screwed up his face, chastising himself. Sherlock had warned him against treating them as a single entity and forgetting they were individuals, autonomous in their own right. 'I mean, you've got him, haven't you?'

The look on Greg’s face answered his question, and John watched him bow his head, pinching the bridge of his nose as he spoke. 'The girl at the bar's nearly in tears. Matt left as soon as Sherlock did. Apparently he called his brother and found he was in some kind of medical trouble. Bullshit, obviously, but he was gone before any of us got there.'

'I told Reynolds and Willis to watch him,' Sally interrupted. 'What the hell are they playing at? They knew not to let him out of their damn sight!'

'They tried to follow him, but the girl behind the till said it was staff only. By the time they convinced her they were police on official business, he was already out of the club. All they found out the back was Parker and Boyle.'

'Who are they?' John asked.

'The two I had watching that route. Sherlock said it was a prime spot. Both have pepper-spray burns; bad ones – can barely open their eyes. They called it in, but by the time backup arrived, Matt was gone.' Greg's tanned face was tinged with chalk. 'I've got men on the ground and people in the CCTV centre looking for anything to give us a hand, but there's no coverage in the alleys. That's where they'll be. It's a fucking warren around here.'

John closed his eyes, his fingers tightening around the phone. Less than twenty minutes ago, Sherlock had been holding it, searching for answers. Now, he was gone, and the rest of them were left blind.

If the situation were reversed – if he was here and John was the one who was missing – Sherlock would already be hot on his tail. He'd have glanced around the room and seen everything. John couldn't do that, not even after watching Sherlock in action all this time, and horror tied its knot in his throat.

He had to stop thinking like himself, all emotion and fear, and start thinking like Sherlock. The man knew about clues, not just about finding them but about leaving them behind. All John had to do was look.

'We don't know where he's gone, but we know where he's been,' he said, straightening up. 'Get forensics in here and get everything you can out of it. Sally said she didn't take her eyes off the door –'

'I didn't.'

'Then there's only one way they could have got out,' John continued, pointing to the gaping maw of the fire exit. 'Sherlock could be compromised by the insulin or an injury, maybe both. If he was unconscious, they'll have had to drag or carry him, and that wouldn't be easy. If he can walk, he'll probably still have the presence of mind to be uncooperative. Either way, getting him to move wouldn't be quick or subtle.'

Stepping over the threshold, he squinted in the poor illumination. The concrete was in bad repair, chipped and worn from decades of rain, and he saw the scrapes where someone had stumbled. It wasn't much, but to John it was a seed of hope where he had none, and he spun around, staring at the yawning mouths of three different alleyways that radiated away like the spokes from a wheel.

'Mortland Street's in that direction.' Greg pointed straight ahead. 'I know Sherlock said it wasn't likely that they'd take people back to their flat, but killers like this? They have a concept of territory. They like familiar places.'

'So we check that way first,' John said. 'If we don't find anything, we search the others. If Sherlock can, he'll have left us a trail.' He looked at Greg, knowing he sounded desperate. 'Even if he hasn't, there should be clues if we look hard enough, right?'

Lestrade turned to Donovan, lifting his voice. 'Sally, leave Reynolds to keep this place wrapped up. No one leaves until we say so. Give her whoever she needs to make that happen. Get as many people to Mortland Street as you can, but keep it quiet, and do not enter the flat until you hear otherwise. If we spook the bastards now...' He shrugged. 'As it is, we suspect they'll have a use for Sherlock before they kill him. If we charge in, they might just skip to the finale.'

Brown eyes glanced at John, heavy with apology. 'Alert the canine unit. They're hardly discreet, and getting them here won't be quick, but if we can't find anything in the alleys, they'll lead us straight to Sherlock. You got anything we can use for a scent?'

'Sherlock's jacket's in the staffroom,' John called out.

'Get a couple of people out here with torches will you? And be quick about it. If you hear anything from the lads in CCTV, tell me.'

'Yes, sir. What about an ambulance?' Donovan shifted where she stood, haloed in the harsh bathroom lights. She pursed her lips, and John saw her hand shake as she gestured to the mirror. 'Is he going to need one?'

'Considering the alternative is that he'll require the morgue, then you'd better bloody hope so,' Greg replied. 'Just keep it all under wraps. Sherlock's got out of worse situations. Let's not blow his chances by being careless.'

He turned back to John, his torch casting a circle of brilliance which bobbed over the ground, parting the dark vales of the alley's shadows. They walked slowly, sidestepping as they searched the ground for any indication of Sherlock's presence. Within a minute, two more officers arrived, fanning out to join the hunt.

'What are we looking for, sir?' one asked. His grey eyes shone in the aura of Greg's torch before the gloom concealed them once more. An older man stood at his side, about John's age, his fluorescent jacket stark in the meek light.

'Drag marks,' Lestrade replied. 'Disturbances. Anything out of place.'

'Blood,' John added, clearing his throat as his voice cracked. 'You saw what was left of the mirror. That would cause more than superficial wounds. Maybe not enough to drip, but there could be smears of it around. If Sherlock was able to fight back, he would have done.'

They moved in careful tandem, the four of them trawling along the pathway's narrow breadth. John set the flash of the camera on Sherlock's phone to constant. Its obnoxiously bright bulb cast everything in shades of white and silver, glinting off broken glass and slick, damp mud. Each passing minute stretched his taut nerves, and the scratch and crackle of Greg's radio only made it worse. It was all prompt, professional chatter, but there were no cries of success.

'Sir!' The young officer stopped, something metallic flaring in the sights of his torch. A second later, Lestrade had an evidence bag in his hand and had freed the item from the detritus. He showed it to John: a small hoop sealed in a cellophane shroud.

'That looks like Sherlock's,' he confirmed, tilting it towards the torch for a closer look, wincing at the red stain marking the metal. The latch holding the circle closed had come undone, but there was crimson along its stem, as if it had been pulled out or given way under the force.

'There's some directional spatter here. Not much, but a bit.' The officer pointed out the dark flecks on the brick wall, dotted in a line as if someone's head had been rocked violently to the side. 'A punch, maybe? Something to cause drops from an injured nose?'

'Seems a bit high for that,' Lestrade said. 'Still, it tells me Sherlock's causing trouble. No point in smacking about dead weight, is there?' He squeezed John's shoulder, a bracing gesture of reassurance. Part of him was comforted, because Sherlock bleeding and making a nuisance of himself meant he was still alive, but how far could Matt and David be pushed? Sherlock had to toe the line between survival and suffering: one which kept him alive long enough for John to find him.

'He didn't fight back.' John spun in a circle to highlight the ground around him, shaking his head. 'There'd be more signs of a struggle if he did.'

'So was he too incapacitated to return the blow, or did something else stop him?' Greg sighed, swearing under his breath as he looked at the sediment that covered the filthy ground. There was one set of footprints, heels to the wall and slightly blurred: probably Sherlock's. Another stood facing him, close and threatening. However, it was the third that made John's heart sink, approaching from the end of the alley that they had yet to search.

'Look. Someone else was here.'

'What do you bet it's the brother?' Lestrade growled, flicking his torch meaningfully. 'Came in from up ahead, and then turned back with the other two in tow.'

'Side-by-side,' the older policeman said. 'Like they were supporting the weight of the one in the middle.'

'Or keeping him under control,' John suggested. 'They're not walking straight. Staggering, like one of them's difficult to manoeuvre.' He strode along, breaking into a jog as the light danced frantically. The footprints faded in and out, half-obliterated by the occasional puddle or slick of rubbish, but John would have followed a cobweb of a clue if he thought it could lead him to Sherlock.

It was only when he reached a junction that he slithered to a halt. To his left was one of London's main streets, not far from Iso. No doubt that was where Matt had come from, cutting around to find his quarry. Straight ahead and to the right, matching alleyways stretched, waiting and watchful. The trail was thin here, lost on clean-swept, well-worn stone, and John swore.

'Which way?' he asked, looking back at Greg and his men. 'Which way?'

Lestrade sighed, curling his fingers over his mouth as he considered his options. 'Ross, Davis, you check straight on, and we'll look right. The minute you find anything, get on the radio. We'll do the same.'

The two men nodded, melting into the murk as John marched off, glaring around him in desperation. Greg walked behind, a constant presence, but it did nothing to calm him. His skin tightened across his bones, burning with urgency, and his hand spasmed around Sherlock's phone.

'If you've got that gun I’m not meant to know about, you may as well get it out. Might make you feel better.' Greg's smile was strained when John looked at him in surprise. 'Fuck knows I'll be happier if one of us is armed.'

'Don't you have anything?'

'A regulation truncheon and a couple of very unofficial knuckle-dusters, but if it comes down to it, I'd rather deal with these bastards from a distance.' There was no trace of moral conscience on the DI's face, and his expression was one of relief rather than accusation when John pulled the Sig free from where it nestled at the base of his spine.

'You point the torch,' John said. 'I'll aim the gun.' He expected an admonition not to shoot anyone unless there was no other choice, but none was forth-coming. The grim set of Greg's features was a mirror for his own; fierce, ruthless, and focussed on their surroundings as they searched for any trace of Sherlock.

'Come on,' John whispered, a wishful, faithless prayer. 'Come on. What have you left for us?'

The walls were marked from years of rainfall and smeared with grime, but one or two stinking drains had taken away the water and mud, leaving bare, rough stone and rubbish, which bore no evidence of anyone's passing. With every step, John's fear grew, and the steady flow of his breathing began to hitch.

Greg's radio crackled, making them jump, and John's head whipped around as the tinny voice of Ross rattled between them. 'We've reached a locked gate, sir. Padlock's rusted and undisturbed, and it's too high to climb – especially with a captive.' He did not add “or a corpse”, but John filled it in anyway, swallowing as he flexed his arm at his side and adjusted his hand around the grip of his pistol.

'Catch us up,' Lestrade ordered. 'We'll keep searching.' He cut off the channel, angling the torch to spear along the barren stretch ahead of them. 'This would be a lot easier in daylight. We could have walked past a dozen clues and not know it.'

'It's taking too long.' John pursed his lips. 'They were aware he had an earpiece – that he was working with the police. They'll realise that, whatever they're going to do to him, they need to do it fast.' He clenched his jaw, trying not to dwell on the possibilities. Sherlock needed someone with a clear head, not a broken heart.

'Keep moving,' Greg ordered, a voice of reason in the twilight around them. 'Process of elimination, right? Even Sherlock thinks that's an acceptable method of deduction. The twins won't take to the main streets in case they're seen. They didn't go straight on, because that path was blocked, so they must have come this way. These twats are organised, but that could work in our favour. They'll have prepared a route from the club to where they're going before they started, but I bet they won't have had time to lock up anything behind them if they've had to deal with Sherlock at the same time.'

He gestured to where the alley was crowded with industrial debris: broken pallets and abandoned shopping trolleys. 'We'll find him, John. Sherlock's never been one to sit around and wait to be rescued. He's not about give up. More importantly, that mind of his won't stop thinking. Whatever they've given him, he's not going to stop trying – and neither are we.'

Lestrade made it sound easy, as if success was guaranteed, and John squared his shoulders. He and Sherlock had escaped plenty of desperate situations with their lives intact. This time would be no different. Whatever else happened, whatever the twins did, they would deal with it when the time came. Right now he had to concentrate on getting Sherlock out, rather than dwelling on what he could find once he got there.

With a nod, he marched onwards, dodging around the junk. Gradually, he noticed that some of it was strewn and shattered from its neat, orderly stacks, as if someone had staggered into it and knocked it over. A moment later, the spotlight of Greg's torch caught a rusty blotch on a blank fence panel: a hand-print, long fingers splayed and a broad palm pressed hard against the wood.

It was the only sign John needed. He and Greg shared a glance of triumph before they broke into a sprint. Old, half-rotted newspapers and dead leaves rustled as they went. More sanguine marks caught his eye, daubed on pallid brickwork, and hope leapt in John's chest. There was no way this was accidental. Sherlock was conscious, and that massive brain of his was still working hard. He hadn't wasted the ink of his blood on dark, low contrast surfaces. Instead he had trusted John's persistence, and this was his reward: a mark every twenty paces or so, leading them through the labyrinthine turns of London's forgotten places.

Another intersection made John grind his teeth. A high metal fence stood before them, and the gate to the right rattled in its frame as he shook it feverishly, chained shut. Whipping around, he shoved at the one on the left, sighing in relief as it opened.

He looked back at Greg, whose lips had twisted in a feral grin. 'We're getting into the back yards of Mortland Street here. Old plots, totally cut off from everywhere else. You can't even get to them from the road without going through one of the buildings. We must be getting close.'

'So where the fuck are they?' John asked, pointing the barrel of his gun towards the sky as the high walls on either side fell away to reveal fences. Some were half-rotted wood while others shimmered with metal chain-link, giving a hash-marked view of the derelict land beyond. There were a series of allotments and tumble-down sheds, and up ahead John could see a row of terraced houses blocking them from the main street, dark-windowed and in a desolate state of repair. 'This place is deserted.'

'You're not looking close enough. Nowhere in this city's empty. There are people living here, honest ones, too, but they've got the sense to be in bed at this time of night.' Greg scratched his nose. 'The twins chose a good place. In this neighbourhood, people will hear you scream, but they won't tell anyone about it.' He stopped at John's shoulder. 'Keep moving, and look for any gates that have been left unlocked or wrenched open. They can't climb anything with Sherlock in tow, so they had to find a way through.'

John kept his footfalls fast but quiet as he and Greg searched. The fences around them might be shaky and weak, but the gates were in good repair, impassable, and his frustration increased with every inch they travelled, creeping onwards like rats in a maze.

At last, they reached the end of the narrow footpath. An old brick wall faced them, tall and sheer, and John turned away from its blind face as he darted to the gate on the right, pressing it open on well-oiled hinges. 'This way!'

'John –' Lestrade's voice made him turn, and he stared at the other exit opposite where he stood. It was parted from its frame beneath the splay of Greg's palm, and he breathed a curse as the clatter of footsteps announced the arrival of Ross and Davis. The two officers were flushed, but they swallowed their gulping breaths as they surveyed the situation.

'Sir,' Ross said quietly, pulling out his smart-phone and calling up the data with a few taps of his thumb, working with a speed that John envied. 'GPS puts us here –' They huddled around the screen, skimming the information. 'The suspects' residence is to the right.'

'And to the left?'

'Almost exclusively retail units, mostly empty. Perhaps the gate was left open as a ruse?'

Lestrade grimaced. 'We're going to have to check both ways. There's too much at stake to make assumptions. Look for evidence of recent activity, but do not engage.' He clicked on his radio, his quiet voice transmitting to Donovan on the other end. 'We're in position at the back of Mortland Street, but we're still trying to pinpoint Sherlock's location. You got anything that could help us?'

'No, sir,' was the sergeant's hushed response, embellished with static. 'The dog units have been called to a missing person's and are unavailable, and there's been no movement on the street. Whatever they're doing, they came in from your side.'

'Yeah, we assumed as much. Look, we're going radio-silent, but be on standby. The situation on the ground is unclear, and this could easily turn into a hostage situation.' Greg met John's gaze, pressing home his implication. 'If we alert the twins that we're here, or rush in to stop a crime in progress, they could finish what they started and run for it.'

There was silence on the line, and when Donovan spoke again, her voice was strained, edged with self-recrimination. 'Understood. We won't do anything to tip the scales in their favour. If they don't know we're here –'

'Then we'll press the advantage. Lestrade out.'

With a flick of his hand, the DI gestured Ross and Davis to the left, while he and John edged right, towards the flat. They moved like ghosts, John's tread cautious for any obstacle in his path. Each new gateway revealed a narrow space: half yard, half derelict site. Some were gardens with a plank or two removed from their fence panels for easy access, while others looked more like concrete spaces for shops to store goods. The terrain changed underfoot as they crept forwards until, at last, there were no more unlocked gates to pass through, signifying they'd found their target.

John looked up at the unremarkable house: a standard Victorian terrace converted into a couple of poky flats. The windowsills were chipped and flaking, and the back door had warped in its frame. The whole building was riddled with neglect, but John ignored the crumbling brickwork as he inched forward, his fingers touching the door-handle and slowly easing it down.

'It's open,' he mouthed at Greg, who had stopped at his shoulder and extinguished the torch. His truncheon was in his hand and his suit jacket was pulled taut across braced shoulders, ready to fight.

'No lights on. It could be empty.'

'Would you leave your door unlocked in an area like this?' John raised his eyebrows when Greg shrugged.

'Depends. If I'd not gone far...' He ducked his head at the expression on John's face before giving a curt nod. 'Remember, don't engage. We're just trying to confirm where we need to be.'

John pushed the door inwards, allowing his eyes a few seconds to adjust before he crept forward into the kitchen beyond. Unlike the exterior of the building, it was clean and well-scrubbed. A tile floor radiated the chill, and there was a pile of course books and essay papers at one end of the table, benign and unremarkable.

Greg crept towards one of the two exits that led off the room, and John took the other, licking his lips as the hinge let out a squeak of protest. The front hall on the other side was barren and stark. A set of steps hugged the wall, leading up and out of sight. One door shielded the cupboard under the stairs, while another was set in the opposite wall. A baleful keyhole stared from its panel, offering privacy from what must be the communal area of the hallway, though judging by the empty coat-hooks and general signs of disuse, John would bet anything the upstairs flat was unoccupied: a perfect hiding place.

He held the gun steady and at ease, ready to aim as the silence pressed down around him. Part of him was beginning to think Greg was right – this place was empty. No one could be this quiet, and the brick walls would not be thick enough to mask any sounds of suffering. Sherlock's deep voice carried easily through Baker Street at normal volume, and this house wasn't much different, but peace reigned: oppressive.

His foot on the first stair changed all that. A creak like the opening of a coffin lid, long and ominous, emanated from the wood beneath him. There was only time for a vicious, mental expletive before noise and movement exploded around him.

The cupboard door banged open, and sinewy arms wrapped around his shoulders, dragging him off balance. John moved without thinking, the instinct to survive so imperative that it sprung like elixir through his muscles, jerking his elbow back and spinning him around. He slammed the gun down into his attacker's shoulder, and something – a plastic syringe – clattered beneath their feet.

Wiry fingers gripped his wrist, pushing the Sig upwards as a foot lashed out, hacking at his shins and making him grunt in annoyance. His arm twisted at an awkward angle, his nerveless fingers losing their grip on the gun. It fell, rattling as it was kicked away, and John growled before driving his knee up into his attacker's stomach.

His only answer was a wheeze of laughter, winded but far from incapacitated, and John bared his teeth as he fought. It was desperate – grappling hands and the press of bodies – too close to get in a solid punch. John was stronger, but his opponent was taller and used that to their advantage. One wrong step and John's back was pressed against their chest, powerful arms locked across his throat as David's voice teased his ear.

'Should have known you'd fight. Good thing I came prepared.'

John found himself pinned, trapped in the vee of the room's corner with his face towards the plaster as David gripped his wrists tight. His hips pressed forward into John's back – an extra dimension of captivity – and John's struggles increased as David's hand slid down between them.

'The pair of you are as bad as each other,' David purred, his words like a lover's adoration as he dug into his own pocket and pulled something free. 'You just don't know when to give up.'

Another needle shone in the glare from the street-lamps outside. David's movements were quick, graceful even, and he leaned his full weight against John, wanton and hideous, as he unsheathed the nib and angled it towards John's neck.

'You've let him down, you know. Not much of a rescuer, are you? And Sherlock was so sure you wouldn't come alone.'

'He didn't.'

The smack of Greg's truncheon over the back of David's skull was brutal, and John tore himself free. His palms went flat to the wall as he shoved his body back, ramming David aside and grabbing the arm that held the syringe.

The plastic vessel fell, joining its predecessor, and was crushed under the heel of John's boot. A furious right hook followed its demise, sending him sprawling sideways, rattling his teeth and flashing stars across his vision.

With a groan, he blinked them aside, looking up to see his Sig a few feet away. Lestrade was keeping David busy, trading bruises as the fight devolved into frantic, clumsy movements. It wasn't about weapons or fists, anymore. All that mattered was winning, and John knew how to tip events back in their favour.

Cool metal kissed his palms as he scooped up his pistol, whipping around to press it to the nape of David's neck. The click of the safety was loud in the sudden calm that fell around them, disturbed only by the scrape of snatched, exerted breaths.

Greg's short hair was caught in David's fingers, his head pressed against the wall from where the twin had smacked him back against it. The DI's face, though lined with discomfort, was grim and determined, his fingers in a vice around David's arm.

'Where's Sherlock?' The question fell from John's lips, flat and cold, belying the aching squeeze beneath his ribs. His face was bruised, and something wet trickled down his shin from David's kick, but he didn't give a damn as he waited for a response.

Steadily, David let go of Greg, raising his hands in surrender. John could see he was smiling from the swell of his cheeks at this awkward, half-turned angle, and one look at Lestrade's face, troubled and furious, told him all he needed to know. David wasn't cowed by the weapon. Either he thought John wouldn't pull the trigger, or that the DI would stop any bloodshed before it occurred.

It was time to set him right on that score.

'I'll ask you one more time,' John warned. 'Where's Sherlock?' He watched Greg step aside, cuffs gleaming in his grasp. It took him out of the path of any bullet that might pass through David, and also gave Lestrade the space to act. His knuckles were white around the truncheon in his right hand, but he did not use it again. Whatever happened next would be John's choice.

He had no problem with that.

'What makes you think we still have him?' David asked, turning until he was face-to-face, his smile warm and mocking. He examined John with an appreciative gaze, and John wondered what plans were racing through that mind.

It was that continuing flash of logic that made him act. One twitch of the gun, a squeeze of the trigger, and the bullet took flight.

David howled, crumbling to his knees as the missile tore through his foot, but the sound died, choked back by the abrupt pressure of the muzzle against his forehead. Brown eyes looked up into John's face, and now, at last, there was fear. David saw a threat, not a toy, and his face bleached to the colour of bone.

John did not bother repeating his question. There was no need. His expression spoke for him: cold and rigid, without mercy. He did not falter as David gaped like a fish, agonised gasps locking in his throat. An increase in pressure against his brow, and words poured forth.

'Butcher's. Matt's got him in the butcher's. I've not – it wasn't – I wasn't going to touch him, I swear!'

'Where is it?' John demanded, shifting his weight and spreading his legs to hold himself firm as adrenaline crested over his muscles, making him ache with the need to sprint. 'Where?'

'It'll be the other direction,' Lestrade cut in. 'Where Ross and Davis went. There's no way one of the twins could get Sherlock there by himself, and this one had to get to their place somehow without being seen.' He pulled his palm away from his scalp, grimacing at the blood from where his skull had grazed the wall. 'So he came across the back and left all the gates unlocked. Is that right?' When David didn't answer, Lestrade sighed. 'I didn't stop him shooting you in the foot. Believe me, I'm not going to waste my breath trying to save a piece of shit like you from one through the head.'

David made a choked sound before he nodded.

John caught Greg's eye – a lightning fast connection of communication – before he pulled the gun back and brought the butt down hard on the side of David's skull. The doctor in him had the sense to avoid the same spot that Greg's attack might have already weakened. However, as a soldier, he did not care as David's eyes rolled and he went lax: neutralised.

A second later, John turned and raced through the building, ignoring Lestrade's shout as he dodged through the kitchen and out of the back door. The muddy yard was slick beneath his boots as he burst through the gate, nearly running into Ross and Davis.

'We think we've found them,' Ross said, automatically switching direction to keep up with John's stride. 'The whole place looks dark, but we heard two voices. One sounds like Mr Holmes.'

John didn't question how Ross recognised Sherlock's voice. Everyone at the Yard had been in earshot of his acerbic deductions at some point. 'Show me.'

His pulse pattered in the base of his throat as he followed Ross' lead, staggering to a halt by the bland door at the rear of one of the many buildings. 'We didn't go in far. Just enough to confirm we had the right place,' Davis explained, tipping his head to listen to the scratchy sounds on his radio, the volume turned to minimum. 'The other twin's in custody, and backup's on its way.'

John hesitated, thinking of Greg’s fear over a hostage situation. 'That's not how this is going to work. Previous victims have been cut to bits, and we're fairly sure Matt's the one who did it. If he's got a knife to Sherlock's throat, any sudden change could make him put it to use.' He shut his eyes, his stomach roiling as a new thought occurred to him. 'If he heard that gunshot or his brother's scream, he could already know we're here. We can't stand around and do nothing!'

'Sir!' Ross' hiss went unheeded as John crept forward, easing aside the door and taking in the room beyond. The weak light from the front of the shop gleamed off the counters, and John saw another smear of blood. He could picture it easily, Sherlock shoved across the threshold and catching himself before he fell, his stained fingers pressing to the furniture.

The rumble of a voice reached him, beautifully familiar. It was one thing to be told that Sherlock was still alive, but quite another to hear the proof, and he looked up at the ceiling before glancing around frantically for a staircase.

A hand on his arm made him jump, and he looked around to see Sally. Her jaw was set in a firm line, and a stab vest had been cinched over the dress she wore. High heels had been swapped for some flat pumps, and she was armed with a truncheon, identical to Greg's. The sergeant jerked her head towards the back before pointing at the front of the shop. 'We've got people on standby, and this place is surrounded,' she whispered. 'What's the plan?'

John blinked, holding in a sigh as he realised he was not about to be ordered back beyond the perimeter to wait, impotent, while the police did their work. 'Get Sherlock out alive. That's the only thing that matters. We need to know what's going on up there – how much danger he's in.' He narrowed his eyes, considering his strategy. 'The stairs will make a bottle neck. For now, it's going to have to be just you and me, but be ready to call in the others.'

'Greg said that you can't shoot Matt.' Her fingers dug into his arm. 'No matter what we find.' She glanced at the Sig. 'We can only cover up so much.'

John expected judgement, but there was nothing so harsh in Sally's features. Instead she looked professional, calm and collected but for the hardness in her eyes: something that suggested that, if it were down to her, she would let John put another bullet to good use. Whatever Sally thought of Sherlock, when it came down to it, she was on their side.

He nodded, leaning in so she could hear him. 'Matt doesn't know I can't use it again. The promise of it might be enough.' He remembered the victim in the alley, violently sliced beyond recognition, and wondered if someone capable of causing that much suffering would balk at death. David had, once he realised John was unlikely to falter, but would Matt be the same?

For Sherlock's sake, he hoped so.

They moved in unison, the advance guard of the Yard's waiting garrison. It was slow progress, careful paces where John wanted to rush, but every footfall had to be silent. Perhaps he would be proved wrong and Sherlock's life would not be in imminent danger, but John knew better than to dismiss the possibility.

He tested his weight on the first stair, straining to see. The space at the summit was lit, but sallow, and a shadow flowed, monstrous, against the wall. There was only one, but it was not a single man's clear silhouette. Instead the hulking shape moved with slow purpose.

A long, straight line drew across the shade's bulk like a bow over violin strings, and Sherlock's voice, quieter and more indistinct than usual, wavered.

John's bit down hard on his tongue, trying to watch where he was going and observe the shadows at the same time. The pervasive smell of chemicals tickled his nose, edged with the metallic scent of blood. The fragrance made him falter before he persevered, inching his way upwards until his head was on level with the top step.

A wall along the edge of the stairwell shielded half the room from view, but from this vantage point, he could see the one thing that mattered: Sherlock.

He was on his knees, the carcass of his t-shirt a discarded rag where it had been cut from his torso. The room was lit by table-lamps which had been placed on the floor. Their sickly offering made the claret trails down Sherlock's spine shine, glutinous, and John winced as he took in the damage.

Those graceful hands were tied behind Sherlock's back, his wrists raw beneath the twine that bound them. Cuts scribed across his skin, shallow but potent: one at each shoulder and elbow, while another encircled his neck like the sketch of a noose: butchery marks.

'Beautiful.' Matt knelt at right-angles to Sherlock's side, his thighs spread and his back to John. He would have presented a perfect target if it wasn't for the knife, wickedly honed, blood-smeared, and pressed with devastating accuracy to the distinct line of the main artery in Sherlock's neck. One slice and it would all be over. Even with paramedics on the scene, it wouldn't be enough to save Sherlock from bleeding out.

'Red and white.' Matt licked at the veneer on Sherlock's shoulder, and John's cringe echoed the flinch of Sherlock's frame.

'Why?' His voice was tight, the single syllable shivering from his mouth. Where John had, only moments ago, been relieved by the sound of Sherlock's voice, he could now discern everything alien in its tone. He spoke slowly, not the quick-fire race of his deductions, but something stumbling and drawn out. He sounded almost drunk, and John tensed as he saw Sherlock sway and tremble. However, the words didn't stop, and he was grateful for every second of time it bought for them as he raced to come up with a plan.

'David enjoyed it from the start. That much was obvious. He liked them drugged and helpless, oblivious to what was happening to them. He got it wrong and the first two died. You were just disposing of his leftovers – his mistakes – until the last one. He was all yours. Your first.'

Sherlock's chin jerked up as the angle of the blade changed, the point pressing against his jugular: not a delicate hint, but an overt promise of the violence to come.

'Wrong.'

Matt's smirk was visible on the sliver of his profile John could see, and his stomach turned to ice. It was the face of a man who had already made up his mind. Matt and David had to know they were in danger of being caught, but neither of them had cut their losses. If Matt had heard anything of the altercation with David, then it seemed he didn't care. He was determined, and all John could see was Sherlock's time running out.

A sound – choked, repulsed and hurt – escaped Sherlock's lips. John couldn't see where Matt's other hand was, but he didn't have to. He could guess it was between Sherlock's legs, either pushed into the fly of his jeans or on top of the denim, but invasive either way, and made all the more vile by his obvious delight at Sherlock's distaste.

His arm ached as he visualised the shot – incapacitate or kill, it made no difference – anything to get Matt and that knife away from Sherlock. Donovan's warm fingers on his skin coincided with the bitter intervention of reality, and he looked down into her face, unusually pale, but firm. They both knew he could hit Matt easily from this distance, but even if by some miracle the knife fell away, useless, the chances of the bullet ploughing into Sherlock were far too high. Matt was too close, leaning against Sherlock's side and whispering something as another, more visible shudder ripped through the detective's frame.

John stifled the keen that scraped his throat, forcing himself to bide his time. It was as if all of them but Matt were caught in a tableau, victims to the unfurling events. Sherlock didn't fight back, either because he didn't have the strength or realised it would do him no good. Any attack would result in retaliation, and as far as Sherlock was aware, there was no one here to back him up.

The bark of a dog down the street shattered the eerie tranquillity, and John held his breath as Matt jerked back in surprise, his attention going to the blackout curtains across the window. It still wasn't enough space to take any action, but through the gap between Sherlock and Matt's bodies, John could make out the opposite wall. Resting against it was a large piece of broken mirror, dusty and aged.

A flicker of his fingers – a hint of movement – and he saw Sherlock look up. Their eyes met in the room's reflection, and John felt the jolt of the connection knock the pieces of the puzzle into place. There was still no clear way forward, but he saw the flare of relief and hope flash across Sherlock's face, hastily subdued. He was the master of subtlety. Even like this, half-lost in the flow of the insulin in his frame, John could see Sherlock controlling himself – remaining outwardly cowed and submissive.

Sometimes it was easy to read what Sherlock was planning: he made it obvious in his body language or the utterance of a quick phrase they had devised before-hand, but this time there was no such assistance. John could only watch as his shivers became more pronounced, and a heartbeat later a very realistic retch ripped through the room. Nothing was produced, though part of John wished Sherlock had thrown up on his captor. Instead, he bent double, shoulders rounded and his chest heaving as Matt's attention immediately refocused.

'Oh, come on,' he crooned, grabbing Sherlock's hair and pulling his head up. 'We're just getting started.' John could see Matt's face in the mirror now, and he watched some of the smug certainty fall away as he surveyed his captive. 'God, you're not dying on me, are you? I'm not done with you yet!'

Sherlock's eyes rolled, convincing enough that every muscle in John's body strained as his blood surged. Was he shamming, or was this a response to what the twins had given him? It looked real, and he could sense Donovan's uncertainty from where she stood on the step below him.

'I need –' Sherlock gagged again, and Matt shifted, one hand cupping Sherlock's face like a lover as he settled in front of him, utterly absorbed. If he looked up, he would see John and Sally where they were hunkered in the shadows, but he appeared unable to tear himself from Sherlock's expression, repulsively engrossed in his suffering.

'Don't worry,' he urged. 'It won't last long. Another half an hour, and I'll be done.' Dark promise filled his eyes. 'Then it won't hurt anymore. At least not for long.'

John's thighs ached, ready to pounce. He could see Sherlock in the mirror, his lips parted and his back bowed with defeat. Yet there was something poised about him, and John tried to ignore the chafe of the moment as, at last, Matt set the knife down by his knee and smoothed Sherlock's curls back tenderly from the wreck of his brow.

It was like flicking a coin. One second, Sherlock's eyes were glazed, the next, they sharpened, his face twisting as he smashed his head into the bridge of Matt's nose. Blood spurted and a string of curses filled the air – all the distraction John needed as he breached the top of the stairs and lunged, the gun held straight and firm, ready to fire as he jammed it against the concave of Matt's temple.

'Stay down,' he advised, baring his teeth at the furious scowl Matt shot in his direction. He barely noticed Sally shouting orders over her radio as she approached, cuffs in hand. John wanted to be at Sherlock's side, easing his pain, but until Matt was in custody, he didn't dare move.

Dark eyes flickered up to John's face, calculating, before gliding with sick obsession back to Sherlock's hunched form. It was a proprietary stare, as if Sherlock on his knees was all he had ever wanted, and John fought the urge to kick him as he stepped between them, blocking Matt's line of sight.

Sally crouched to cuff him as the street outside filled with the stutter of blue lights, seeping around the edges of the blackout blind. The crash of the front and back doors being shoved aside echoed through the house, making the walls groan and the floorboards wheeze.

It was a throng of sound, just enough to split John's concentration, but that was all that Matt needed. He lunged, not for John or Sally, but for the beguiling glint of the knife where it lay by Sherlock's side. No one needed to be told who his target was. It wasn't about grabbing a hostage or formulating an escape plan. Anyone with eyes could see that all Matt cared about was finishing what he had started.

John forgot everything, even the gun in his hand as he pounced, hitting Matt's shoulders as Sally tackled him around the knees. Matt's hands, one adorned with the bracelet of the cuff, groped across the floor, but Sherlock lifted his knee, grinding it down on questing fingers hard enough to break bone before he could latch on to the weapon he sought.

There were shouts and footsteps, the charge of the cavalry as John sat astride Matt's back, wrenching his arms in place and snapping the handcuffs shut. Something cool slipped into the back of his waistband, and he glanced around in surprise as Sally tugged his jacket down to hide the Sig from view. 'Safety's on,' she promised, her smile wry and crooked around the bruise swelling on her cheek: a gift from Matt's thrashing feet. 'You need to be with Holmes, not answering stupid questions. Now go. I've got this one.'

Matt swore and screamed, railing abuse and denials, but John ignored him as he knelt in front of Sherlock, his words an endless litany of ragged reassurance. He wanted to banish every lingering wound, but it was hard to know where to start. His hands hovered above Sherlock's shoulders, uncertain and afraid, until Sherlock slumped forward, resting against John's sternum with a shaky sigh.

He was shivering hard, his muscles jumping, and John could see a gloss of sweat beading the crest of one cheekbone. The need to offer comfort was overwhelming, and he cupped the back of Sherlock's head as he tried to think how he could help.

Sally hunkered down behind Sherlock, murmuring an apology as she used a pen-knife to slice through the twine that bound him, peeling it away from the raw wreck of his wrists. 'Paramedics are on their way up.'

'Get some food. Something sweet: biscuits, coke, something like that. We need to sort out his blood sugar as best we can.' John thought fast. 'He's going to need blankets, bandages, stitches.' He looked down, seeing for the first time the darker bloom of a bite at the junction of Sherlock's neck and shoulder: torn flesh and muscle, with fluid still flowing sluggishly from its depths. 'Antibiotics. Jesus.'

He was speaking more for his own benefit, a doctor's habit, but Sally nodded anyway, jumping to her feet and pushing through the officers who were swiftly establishing control of the scene.

John ignored them, shuffling closer and dismissing the ache in his knees. He withdrew his hands, relieved by Sherlock's weak sound of protest at the brief loss of contact. He couldn't bind the injuries or clean Sherlock's skin, not yet, but he could try and get some warmth back into his clammy skin.

The leather jacket settled around slender shoulders, and if its weight hurt, Sherlock didn't complain. Instead, he leaned more heavily against John's chest, his trust obvious. He did not cower from John's gentle touch, and when he could not hold himself back anymore and pressed a kiss to the damp mess of those curls, he felt the hardest edge of distress seep from Sherlock's spine.

Soon, there would be the rush of paramedics and hospital treatment, endless questions from the police and the steady process of healing. However, for now there was only the chaos of the immediate aftermath and John's promise: all he could give.

'It's over, Sherlock. I'm here. You're safe.' He closed his eyes, repeating the words as much for his own comfort as for that of the man in his arms.

'You're safe.'

Chapter Text

Dissociation. The word circled Sherlock's mind, loud in the muffled destruction of his thoughts. He was aware of the police, the noise, the questions, but he merely watched: a benevolent spectator. Even the pain floated above his skin, burning with flashes of discomfort that never quite touched him. A blessing, he supposed, because if it did, it would be excruciating – sliced skin and the sullen throb of the bite at his neck.

He was in the back of an ambulance, though he couldn't recall getting up off the floor or leaving John's resolute embrace. Everything swam in an exhausted fog. He felt drained and sick, shaky with unaccustomed emotion. The knot of a sob caught under his ribs, loathsome, and he swallowed it back as he attempted to concentrate on the immediate situation.

It was like moving through quicksand. People's voices were snatches of sound, and his head whirled in a repulsive contrast to the stability of the stretcher beneath his backside. There were still questions to ask and answers to be found – they may have the culprits but the details of the case were far from clear. Yet even that knowledge was not adequate to bring Sherlock's focus back to him, and he was left adrift.

'Hey, stay with me, all right?' John's fingers were soft against his jaw, and Sherlock dragged his eyes open to examine that familiar, weathered face. The tenderness of his expression belied the tension Sherlock could sense as he clumsily reached up and gripped John's wrist, his weak squeeze of reassurance the only promise he could offer.

John took something from one of the paramedics, reaching for Sherlock's finger and murmuring an apology. There was a sharp sting, lost within the galaxy of other complaints that were steadily beginning to impinge upon him. A digital number flashed on the device, and John frowned before calling over his shoulder. 'I need something to increase his blood sugar. I'll take whatever you've got. We need to get him to hospital for treatment.' John's fingers hovered over the raw, bloody skin at Sherlock's wrists, his shoulders jerking in a breath of sympathy. 'God, your arms.'

It took Sherlock a moment to realise what John was staring at: the sketchy, ragged cuts around his elbows. Matt had left his artistic impression in streaks of carmine across the canvas of Sherlock's skin. They were distasteful to observe, not so much because of what they were, but because of the future he had so narrowly escaped.

John and one of the paramedics, a woman in her fifties, were collecting together antiseptic wipes and dressing pads. They moved with purpose, and only the weak scrape of Sherlock's voice made them pause.

'Wait,' he managed, licking his parched lips and choosing his words with care. 'Evidence. Saliva in the bite, skin under my nails.' He curved his fingers meaningfully, watching John's expression twist. Anyone else would have probably told him it didn't matter, but at least John knew him better than that. He wouldn't let the case suffer, not if he could help it.

His soldierly tones carried across the street, calling for forensics before pulling on some gloves and ripping open some sterile wipes. 'I can make a start while we're waiting. What's all right to clean?'

'Shoulders,' Sherlock managed, glancing down at the pallid expanse of his arms. 'Elbows, wrists...'

'What about your forehead?'

He'd almost forgotten about that, and Sherlock nodded, trying not to shiver as John eased the leather jacket away, leaving him bare-chested and vulnerable.

Antiseptic stung, sharp and feral as John and the paramedic worked together, meticulously swiping at narrow slices and raw, sore skin. It was a quiet affair, but just because John wasn't speaking, it didn't mean he was a blank slate. Sherlock watched his profile, recording every moue of pity and spasm of anger. It was dependable, something that, even like this, thick-headed and far from his best, Sherlock could understand.

Abruptly, John caught sight of something out of the open ambulance doors, and darkness shuttered his eyes. 'Looks like Anderson's the only one free to process you.' It sounded like an apology, but Sherlock just gave a one-shouldered shrug, hissing as the movement awoke a new, burning agony.

'I really don't care,' he managed, his voice thready. 'It's simple enough. Even he should struggle to make a mess of it.'

Anderson stopped at the back of the ambulance, his grasp locked around the handle of his kit as he surveyed the scene within. His face was a fascinating cocktail of expressions, his usual annoyed, defensive disdain almost completely submerged beneath grudging compassion. Genuine enough, at least to Sherlock's eyes. He neither barged in nor sniped at the paramedics, and it wasn't until John gestured him forward that he so much as moved.

'I'll be quick,' he promised, squatting on the ambulance floor and pulling free the pick he'd need. 'Hold your –' He pressed his lips together as Sherlock obeyed the instructions before they were spoken, keeping his fingers rigid and slightly flexed. 'Thanks.'

Sherlock glanced at John over Anderson's head, faintly amused. It was worth the effort to see some of John's stress ebb, replaced with a wry smile. He maintained eye contact, not breaking away until Sally rushed up, a small bottle of Coke and a KitKat in her hand.

'That took longer than I'd have liked,' she said by way of apology. 'But I thought sealed was best.' She held up the packaging, nodding as John's sigh of relief gave way to earnest thanks. 'Will it help?'

'It's enough to be going on with.' John turned to Sherlock. 'I suppose I should be grateful David seemed to know what he was doing, at least relatively speaking. Enough not to put you in a coma, anyway. If you can eat and drink without throwing up, it'll be for the best. If you were diabetic, I'd give you glucagon, but your body's already doing all it can to counteract the insulin. Getting some more sugar in you should do the trick.'

'And if I vomit?' Sherlock croaked, noticing Anderson's fleeting expression of alarm.

'We can give you something intravenously.' John twisted the cap off the coke, waiting until Anderson had finished with Sherlock's right hand before helping Sherlock curve his grasp around the plastic. 'Try this first, though.'

Obediently, Sherlock guided the bottle to his lips, trying to ignore the ache and split of his skin at every joint in his arm and the professional, clinical touch of Anderson's grip at his wrist. The wash of sweetness across his tongue eased off the sharp, edgy craving and the arid burn in his throat. It was tempting to gulp it, but he had the presence of mind to sip as Anderson straightened up and reached for a swab, standing at Sherlock's side.

He didn't need to look up to sense the man's hesitance, and Sherlock was thankful that he couldn't see the wound that made John swear and brought Anderson's oft-concealed humanity to the surface. His back was sticky with blood, and he could not stop the flinch as Anderson lightly touched the curve of his shoulder.

'I can't do this in a way that's not going to hurt.' The Forensics Lead shifted, nervous, and Sherlock bowed his head.

'Just get on with it,' he ordered, adding a quiet, “please” when John shot him a look. His fingers tightened around the bottle as the swab stroked the tattered edges of the lesion. It would probably pick up far more of Sherlock's DNA than Matt's, but it was necessary. Regardless of what had happened tonight, the Yard still had to put a case together to get a conviction.

After what seemed like an eternity, Anderson pulled back, sheathing the sample and moving out of the way. His face was pinched, as if he didn't know what to say, and Sherlock was silently relieved when the annoying man took refuge in his profession, rather than offering verbal sympathy. 'We'll take the rest of your clothes later. We've got all we can for now.'

He departed of his own accord, and Sherlock watched him go, regarding the scene with dispassionate eyes: blue lights flashing off the butcher's scarred windows and the faded sign above the door. He could just make out the letters, but the name floated, meaningless, in the haze of his head.

'Well, that could have been worse.' John crouched where Anderson had been kneeling a few minutes before, tapping Sherlock's knuckles to get his attention before holding a piece of KitKat up to his mouth. 'My hands are cleaner than yours,' he explained. 'If you start to feel sick, tell me.'

Obligingly, Sherlock parted his lips, letting John slip the food inside. He had never been a fan of chocolate, but the taste of it was wondrous, like water after days in the desert. His body knew what it needed, and he did not make a single complaint as John continued to feed him – slow and careful.

'We'll get some more carbohydrate in you as soon as we can, but this is a good start,' John promised, wincing in pity as a grunt caught in Sherlock's throat. The paramedic whispered an apology, pressing a thick dressing down on the bite before taping it into place.

'There's not much more I can do here,' she said, shaking her head. 'His neck, in particular, needs special care. You should buckle up.' She tapped on the wall dividing the driver's cab from the back before getting up to close the ambulance doors. 'We'll get you to UCLH as fast as we can. They'll be able to do more for you.'

Sherlock watched, numb and aching, as John took the half-full bottle of coke and eased him back onto the trolley. It was far from a restful affair but it offered a temporary reprieve, easing off some of the dizziness as John did up the straps, mindful of Sherlock's injuries. A pulse monitor was clipped to his finger, and he listened to the beep, slightly fast and a touch irregular.

'You might want to shut your eyes,' John suggested, taking Sherlock's hand, his touch reverent around the fragile bones as he wove their fingers together. 'Don't go to sleep, though. Between the insulin and the blow to your head...' He didn't bother finishing his sentence, and Sherlock allowed his lashes to flutter closed as the ambulance set off, picking up speed as the siren blared. Overkill, in his opinion, but at least it would get them through the late night streets that much faster.

He wanted his mind to be his own again, firm and resolute rather than lost in a shifting veil of confusion. He wanted to know what to say to ease all of John's tension and misery, but the words eluded him. All he could do was squeeze John's hand, tracing calluses and the lines on his palm. It helped distract him from the hurt that was beginning to sink its teeth into him and the greasy, uncertain roll of his stomach. His skull was pounding, and his tongue lay thick in his mouth. The cuts that Matt had placed with such care were sharp, treble notes over the heavy, dull bass of the bite.

'I'll be all right,' he managed, easing open one eye to see John leaning forwards. His elbows were on his knees and his hands clasped around Sherlock's. Agitated thumbs stroked over protruding knuckles – bruised in places, but otherwise unharmed. 'We've both had worse.'

John looked up at him from beneath his brow, his expression one of supreme doubt. His jaw worked, and the lines around his eyes – sorrow, not laughter – cut deep into his skin. 'I should have been there. I should have –' His voice cracked, and Sherlock watched him shiver, swallowing tightly before he took a deep breath. 'Did he – Is there anything I've not seen?' His gaze flickered, dreading, down to Sherlock's fly, which still lay slightly parted. John's implication was clear, and Sherlock shook his head once, only to moan as his neck protested.

'Try not to move,' the medic urged, peeling back the dressing for a quick glance before replacing it. 'I can't assess the damage like this. We'll be there soon.'

Sherlock closed his eyes and gave a faint sound of acknowledgement, too weary to look at John as he vocalised his response. 'He was working himself up to it. For David, I assume it was all about the sexual assault. Anything that went beyond the purview of rape had little to do with it. Matt –' He swallowed at the memory of the murmurs in his ear. Nothing loving, not even a parody of care. It had all been promises of what lay in the minutes ahead. 'He wanted to make me bleed. Rape was a secondary benefit, not a primary motivator.'

'Sick fucks,' John hissed, his voice hard and dangerous. 'The pair of them.' His hands shook, but none of his anger bled out into his grasp. Instead, he kept it contained, held back under a tight rein.

Sherlock did not want John to dwell on the events of the night – an impossible hope, considering the proof that still stained the pallor of his skin. However, if he could not banish it from mind entirely, he could at least make it manageable by improving their joint understanding. Knowledge was power, and there were some facts which he sorely lacked.

'What happened?' he asked, narrowing his eyes. 'How did you find me?'

John blinked, a slow, tired gesture as if he would rather not relive the episode, but understood the necessity. 'It was part luck, and part knowing where to look. Once we figured out how they got you out, we could follow the trail. Things you dropped, footprints, the blood you left behind...' He rounded his shoulders, his words grating over the sound of the ambulance as he outlined the hunt.

'They left the gates unlocked behind them, so we were able to work out where they'd gone, but once we got to the back of Mortland Street, there were two possibilities. Harris and Ross went towards the butcher's, and Greg and me headed for their flat.'

'David was waiting for you.' Sherlock dragged both eyes open, forcing himself to look at John properly. He was not limping, nor was there any sign of obvious damage, but now that he took the time to observe, he could see that John's knuckles were as bruised and grazed as his own. There was a dark shadow from a punch on his cheek, and several scrapes and a rip in his t-shirt suggested hand-to-hand fighting. 'Are you all right?'

John's face melted into a small smile, his brow tilted with disbelief. 'Believe me, I'm a lot better than you are. Greg was with me, and between us, we dealt with David. He was in custody by the time me and Sally got to you.'

Sherlock swallowed, reliving the cocktail of emotion that had shot through his frame when he had seen John's reflection in the glass. Relief, because John had been there, safe and whole, fierce and determined. He had been poised, ready for action: thinking where Sherlock could not and analysing the situation. John's presence had increased the chances of Sherlock's survival exponentially, but at the same time decreased his own. If Matt had seen him...

He screwed up his face, forcing aside the hollow echo of dread that grew like a tumour under his ribs. They weren't in danger, not anymore, and he concentrated on the urgent brush of John's thumb over his hand, a constant, soothing repetition.

Swallowing, he sorted through the other, more gossamer recordings of events, recalling the abrupt report of a gun and something like a human shriek, distant, but noticeable. It had given him hope when he thought there was none to be had and stiffened his resolve to keep Matt's attention on him. Not a challenge, it turned out. Matt had heard the noise, but dismissed it just as readily. He had failed to recognise his brother's cry, either blinded by confidence or the build of erotic pleasure he outlined in sickening detail.

'David's not dead then?' he asked, the pull of deceleration heavy on his frame as the ambulance slowed to a halt.

'I shot him in the foot.' John shrugged his shoulders, not showing the faintest hint of remorse. He splayed his palm across Sherlock's bare chest, pushing gently to prevent him from sitting up. 'Don't. For one thing, your blood sugar is probably still low and unstable. The last thing we need is you keeling over. Secondly –' Now there was a trace of guilt, but he seemed to cast it aside. 'If you can't walk in under your own steam, you're likely to be treated more quickly.'

His logic was sound, based on knowledge of standard practice. Perhaps John feared he was manipulating the system, but honestly, Sherlock wasn't sure he could stand for long. Normally, he would have raised a fuss about attending the hospital, but the reservoir of his strength was dry, and he couldn't summon the will required to argue. The desire to be back at Baker Street was powerful enough to taste, but he was too tired to make any demands: weary and beaten.

Conscientious fingers brushed his cheekbone, gifting the ridge with a blissful caress before John took Sherlock's hand again, not letting go as the medics guided the bed from the back of the ambulance and into the chaos of Accident and Emergency. It could be worse, Sherlock reasoned. Monday nights were one of the quietest of the week, but there was still the usual plethora of bleeding drunks, screaming children and the abrupt rush of car accidents bumping their way to the top of the queue.

'We've submitted the paperwork straight to triage,' the paramedic said. Sherlock had no idea if that was customary, but he had seen John scribbling further details on the form, no doubt in an effort to accelerate the process. 'It shouldn't be long.'

John nodded his thanks, freeing Sherlock from the straps that held him safely in place. For a moment, he hesitated, as if unsure how to help him up, and in the end Sherlock sighed, grabbing John's left hand and pulling himself into a sitting position. Immediately, the coke was pressed back into his palm, and he sipped it beneath the burden of John's scrutiny.

He wanted to speak, but the words congealed in his throat, awkward and sentimental to the point where he was afraid that what would emerge was a sob. It was rare he found himself in a situation as hopeless as he had tonight, where every straightforward course of action would end in his demise and anything more inventive was beyond his mental capacity. With one dose of insulin, David had unbalanced Sherlock's blood chemistry and consequently robbed him of access to his greatest weapon: his genius. If it hadn't been for John...

He shivered, bowing his head as John wrapped the leather jacket back around his shoulders, pulling it closed to cover more of Sherlock's skin. The synthetic lining was slippery and cool, not much use, but the smell was pleasant: leather and John. If he was more himself, his appreciation may have been more carnal, but right now he took a basic level of comfort as, finally, a strained utterance passed his lips.

'Thank you.'

His voice wobbled treacherously, making him clench his jaw. He had no idea what expression wrote its message across his face, but John must have read it with ease. He stepped into the casual vee formed by Sherlock's parted knees and wrapped his arms around Sherlock's back, wary of the hidden wounds.

With a sigh, Sherlock dropped his head to John's shoulder. Soft cotton whispered against his cheek, and the scent of John and sweat, stress and relief filled his nose: a panacea.

He had forgotten he was allowed this. All the other times one or both of them had ended up within the industrious bustle of the hospital, this was one level of reassurance they could not demand. The platonic confines of their previous relationship, no matter how close or cherished, simply did not allow it. Now that last boundary was gone, and Sherlock almost melted in relief to know that John's touch was his to request if he desired. Even better, should the situations be reversed, he could offer the same physical solace without question.

'Hey, it's all right.' John's hand twitched as if to stroke across Sherlock's shoulder-blades, then stilled as he thought better of it. 'It's a completely normal reaction.'

Sherlock managed a huff of disdain at the concept of being anything like average, blinking back the unexpected, hideous bite of tears, and a weak smile pulled at his lips as John chuckled.

'Fine. All right, how about this then? Part of it's shock, and part of it's the hypoglycaemia – it can make people emotional. Give it a little while and you'll be yourself again. And you don't have to thank me, Sherlock. What did you think I would do? Go back to Baker Street and wait for them to find – ' Now it was John's turn to choke, and Sherlock looked up in alarm. 'Whatever Matt left of you when he was finished?'

John's eyes did not gleam, but they were intense, dark and fretful as his imaginings haunted him, overshadowed further by the mistaken assumption that Sherlock was thanking him for his rescue.

'That you would come after me was never in question,' he managed, clearing his throat and cuffing the veil of moisture from his lashes. 'Even the twins knew that – it was part of their plan. In all the numerous errors that have been made in dealing with this case, my greatest was the belief that only one of us was a target.' He reached up, John's stubble scraping his palm as he stroked a soothing line along his jaw. 'As it turned out, I was for Matt, and you were for David. They intended to take us both the night you were drugged. They only failed because I didn't drink the beer that was left for me behind the bar.'

John closed his eyes, his breath whispering across Sherlock's cheek as it shivered from between his lips. 'So instead they snatched you, knowing I'd follow.'

'But you didn't go alone.' Satisfaction edged his smile. 'It was that for which I was thanking you. If you'd rushed off without Lestrade and the others, tonight could have ended very differently.'

John's grip tightened, not quite enough to be painful, but a noticeable increase in pressure as he steadied himself against the onslaught of what might have been. With a shake of his head, he lifted his hands to cup Sherlock's face. Matt had done the same, but this was different. John's care was genuine, rather than a coy mockery, and there was strength not threat in his touch. It replenished some of Sherlock's resolve, rather than opening a pit of dread in the hollow of his stomach.

'It's over now.' John looked up at the sound of approaching footsteps, but he didn't step back as he met Sherlock's gaze, unashamed of their proximity. 'They're in custody where they belong.'

'And how long will they stay there?' Sherlock sighed, exhaustion dragging at his frame. The immediate danger had passed, but John was wrong; the case was far from solved. 'Even if Lestrade finds everything he needs, this investigation is one of the most convoluted we've had. Proving which twins did what to whom, and how... They'll need my help.'

John's shoulders slumped, and Sherlock echoed his resignation. He wanted nothing more than to curl up in Baker Street and forget all about the bar and the killers within. However, that was not the way life worked.

'Not yet.' John gave a crooked smile at Sherlock's confusion. 'The Yard's busy collecting evidence, and you've got higher priorities right now than helping them interpret it. They'll ask for you when they need you. For now, we need to get you sorted out.'

As if on cue, a woman called out Sherlock's name, scanning the clipboard in her hand as she approached. Her expression was tired but friendly as she listened to John's input before asking Sherlock rudimentary questions and briefly examining each site of trauma. 'Can you stand, Mr Holmes? There's a consulting room just around the corner: we'll be able to treat you there.'

Warily, he got to his feet, wincing at the strange elasticity of his limbs and the light, floating sensation that filled his skull. John was there every step of the way, solid and dependable, but Sherlock still breathed a sigh of relief as he was permitted to perch on the bed, bare-chested once more as the nurse called for assistance.

'I see you're working to stabilise his blood sugar,' she said, gesturing to the bottle of coke. 'We'll take another measurement and see what effect your efforts have had. Hopefully, we can keep up treatment by mouth rather than resorting to anything intravenous.'

'Will he need to be admitted?' John asked, and Sherlock watched the nurse pull a doubtful face.

'We'll have to wait and see.' She gave an apologetic smile as she pulled on some gloves, giving instructions to the young man who entered the room. A similar device to the one John had used in the ambulance was produced, and Sherlock didn't even wince as the dot of blood that welled up from his fingertip was analysed. The reading appeared to meet with approval, and John gave a satisfied nod as he turned to Sherlock.

'It's still low, but better than it was.'

'We'll clean what we can while you finish that drink,' the nurse said. 'Then we'll get you something with a bit more substance to eat.'

They worked with quiet competence, examining each stinging cut and evaluating its need for stitches. For the most part, Matt's efforts with the blade had been superficial: a draft of his grand design. However, in places his passion and urgency had driven the knife in too deep for steri-strips or medical adhesive to provide adequate closure.

John watched the proceedings like a hawk, not interfering, but clearly unwilling to take his eyes off the nurses. Few hospitals were happy to let a doctor who was not on staff take control of treatment. It was one of the reasons Sherlock normally demanded he be stitched up at home. John's touch was far preferable to that of a stranger.

'Don't bind them.' His request made everyone in the room look at him in surprise. 'It'll be a waste of supplies.' Turning to John, he added in a low voice. 'The first thing I want to do when we get back to the flat is take a shower. You can dress them afterwards, can't you?'

John narrowed his eyes, his head tipped to the side as he considered it. 'It's not ideal, but I expect we can manage something.' He looked at the nurse as she finished off a couple of stitches. 'Will that be all right?

'Normally, we'd discourage getting them wet for twenty-four hours,' she replied. 'However, as long as you make sure they're completely dry and then use the bandages, it shouldn't be a problem. Most of these won't need to stay covered for long. A few days at most, just to keep them clean. This, on the other hand –' She indicated the bite on Sherlock's shoulder, the paramedic's dressing still covering the worst of it. 'I need to get a doctor from our staff to take a look. It's a complex wound. Simon, please get a food tray for Mr Holmes – make sure there are plenty of carbohydrates.' She gave him a smile of apology. 'It could be a while before a doctor's available, and if we don't provide suitable sustenance, you're likely to start feeling worse.'

Simon disappeared into the corridor as the woman followed, and Sherlock watched them go before looking down at his arms, clean now but for the lines at the joints. It looked strange, as if he were one of those pose-able dolls artists used, every bend of his limbs gruesomely emphasised. He couldn't see his forehead, but the nurse had spent long minutes checking for broken glass and wielding the suture needle. There were also stitches across one portion of his neck, and they pulled awkwardly as he tried to follow John's movements. 'What are you doing?'

'Cleaning your back,' he explained as he walked around behind Sherlock. 'They did a quick job to check there were no other scrapes, but I might as well get rid of what I can.' The antiseptic wipe brushed across Sherlock's skin, warming quickly as John's fingers eased away the rusty stains. They seemed to have trickled a considerable distance, almost to his waist in some cases, and Sherlock grimaced before he set the empty coke bottle aside.

'How would you treat it?' He turned slightly so he could hear John's response. 'The bite, I mean.'

For long minutes, he didn't speak and the silence made Sherlock want to turn and examine his face. If it weren't for the stinging of his neck, he would have done, but instead he was forced to remain, his head angled and attentive.

Eventually there was a gentle touch at the edge of the makeshift dressing, followed by the tug of the adhesive being pulled free. Cool air whispered over aching skin, and it throbbed in sullen time to his pulse.

A tight sigh escaped John's lips, the mattress dipping as he perched behind Sherlock to take a closer look. 'I don't know. If it was just a puncture, I'd check it was clean – really clean – stitch the hole shut, keep it covered and hope for the best, but this –'

Sherlock grimaced, trying to overlook the memory of sharp torment and the wet, silken sound of tearing flesh. 'He wrenched his head to the side, like a dog ripping out a rabbit's throat.' He reached up, pressing curiously at the frontier of the blackening bruise that seeped over his shoulder. 'It was about leaving his mark.'

John made a rough sound, and Sherlock heard the scrape of skin over stubble: surgeon's hands being scrubbed over a weary face. He hated it, the fog of defeat that seemed to emanate from John's body, as if he were lost with no way forward.

Reaching blindly behind him, he trailed his hand along the outside edge of John's denim clad thigh, trying to restore John to his former-self: strong and untroubled. Immediately, his fingers were caught, treasured in the bowl of John's palm, and he heard an indrawn breath as if John were pulling his emotions back under control.

'It's a deep, awkward tear, and the human mouth is a filthy place,' he said at last. 'I'd clean it as much as possible, x-ray it to check there are no foreign objects in there, then stitch it. Dressings will need to be applied to keep the surface clean and draw away any fluid, antibiotics to prevent infection, and observation to make sure they're doing their job...' He sighed, and Sherlock tugged on the hand holding his, hearing John rise to his feet obediently and walk back around the bed to stand where Sherlock could see him. 'It'll scar, no matter what we do.'

He shrugged his good shoulder, wincing when even that made a stab of sensation shoot up his neck. 'It's not the first I've received, and it's unlikely to be the last,' he pointed out. 'All things considered, I think I got off lightly, in the end.'

Agreement was not the name of the expression on John's face, but before he could respond, Simon returned, holding a plastic tray laden with what looked like standard hospital food.. 'Eat as much as you can,' he advised. 'It'll help keep your blood sugar steady until the last of the excess insulin's gone from your system.'

'How long will that take?' Sherlock asked, glancing at John when the nurse shrugged.

'Without knowing the dose David gave you, it's hard to be sure. Probably a couple more hours yet, but the more you can eat, the better you'll feel.' John leaned back against the edge of the bed, his bare forearm brushing Sherlock's chilled skin. 'Carbohydrates provide a slower, more steady release of sugar into your blood. Coke and chocolate give a short-term improvement, but this should see you through.'

Sherlock did as he was asked, shivering in the cool hospital air as weariness sunk deep into his bones. More than anything, he wanted to nestle somewhere safe and simply rest. It was tempting to lie down on the flat hospital pillow and over-starched sheets, but John provided a preferable alternative: a solid source of heat against which Sherlock could lean, trustful in his surrender.

'Are you –' John paused, and Sherlock could almost taste his concern, bitter in the air around them. 'You're very quiet.' It was more an observation than an accusation, but he had known John long enough to conclude that he should look for the questions hidden beneath manifest statements.

The truth was that anything he had to say would not ease John back from his current state of aggressive battle-readiness: his staunch defender. Sherlock suspected that the straight line of John's spine and the ill-concealed blaze of his vengeful anger would not dissipate until they were both secure in Baker Street.

'I'm tired,' he replied. 'I want to go home, and I'm fully aware that I'll probably be here for hours yet.'

John leaned more heavily against him, a mutual burden. It was comforting; they stood against the world, victorious despite their injuries, and Sherlock rested his head against John's temple, allowing his eyes to drift shut as he listened to the swarming sounds of the hospital around them.

Truthfully, he just wanted this to be over. He didn't care about stitches and scars, blood and infection. He didn't care about the lingering phantom of Matt that hovered over them. He did not want to be here, in this slippery, transitional state between cataclysm and normality. He longed to forget all about the twins, the case and the events of the night, to wrap himself in John's arms and find peace in their bed, but such promises seemed hideously distant.

Perhaps he fell asleep, or possibly his mind just began to wander, escaping its endless circuit to patrol the idle avenues of his thoughts. The next time he opened his eyes it was to find John's fingers on his jaw and a warm smile on his face. 'The doctor's here to check you over. With any luck, once she's done, we can go.'

'Right, Mr Holmes.' The doctor moved up to his side, peeling back the dressing again and touching lightly with her gloved fingertips. Pain shot along his nerves as she eased various edges together, trying to assess the best way forwards. In the end, her conclusion was exactly what John had said: tiresome and time-consuming. Sherlock resolved to delete the entire ordeal at the earliest opportunity, but for now he could only grit his teeth and bear it as best he could.

By the time the doctor had analysed the x-ray, placed the last stitch and secured a clean dressing in place, it felt as they had been trapped within the hospital's walls for a lifetime. The gleam of John's watch told him that it was gone four in the morning, and he watched with disinterest as a vaccine was administered, a vial of blood was drawn for testing, and one last reading was taken on the small, hand-held device.

'The hypoglycaemia seems to have passed,' the doctor said, ' and I'm afraid we've done all we can for these wounds. Is there someone at home to look after you?'

'Yeah, I'll be there,' John replied, accepting the supplies: bandages, dressings and medication.

'Mostly, it's straightforward care,' she explained, writing something on the clipboard. 'The bite is the worst of it; there's considerable damage. It's likely to be sore for the next few weeks. Paracetamol and ibuprofen as and when necessary. Codeine is also acceptable.'

John nodded, seemingly tolerant of being told what he probably already knew. 'Are we free to go?'

'Almost.' The doctor looked up, scrawling her signature blindly in the right place. 'There's a policeman waiting for you outside. Something about evidence?'

'Clothes,' Sherlock said. 'In case there's any trace they can use. I should have taken them off earlier.' He sighed, because while the thought had permeated his mind more than once, it had never made an impact. It was doubtful there'd be anything useful left. 'I'm going to need something to wear.'

'Got you covered for that,' Lestrade said from where he hovered in the doorway, looking haggard. In one hand he had some empty polythene bags, and in the other was a holdall with roses on it. 'I don't know what it says about the two of you that your landlady doesn't bat an eyelash at being woken up at this time of night, but she got some bits together for you.' He looked at John, then back at Sherlock. 'How are you doing?'

'Still in one piece, mostly,' John replied, his smile weary. 'Eager to get home. How's your head?'

'Probably killed off a few braincells, but I'll manage.' The DI surrendered his burdens, his gaze seeking out Sherlock again, clearly concerned by his silence. Perhaps he was expecting ridicule or reprimand, a standard scoff of “obvious”, but Sherlock could only manage a grimace. Lestrade clenched his jaw and ducked his head. 'I'll just wait outside.'

'Do you need my help, or should I –?' John jerked his thumb to indicate departure, and Sherlock's heart lurched in horror. The thought of John not being here where he could see him made his body prickle with a nervous sweat, and he reached out to catch John's elbow.

'I can manage the jeans, but bending down for the boots...' He slumped, his voice strained. 'Stay?'

The look on John's face suggested that he barely needed to ask. He wasn't any more eager to leave Sherlock's side than Sherlock was keen for solitude, and he took some gloves from the box on the surface to the right, sheathing his hands in latex before undoing the laces.

'Probably a bit late to worry about contamination,' Sherlock murmured as John eased his boots off and peeled away his socks.

'Maybe, but at least if we do it by the book no one can complain.'

Together, they worked with slow care, bagging everything that Sherlock was wearing and replacing it with the clothes Mrs Hudson had provided: an eclectic mix of the soft cotton trousers and t-shirt that Sherlock occasionally wore to bed, smart shoes and the bulky mass of the Belstaff.

'All right?' John asked as Sherlock pulled the heavy wool around his frame, revelling in its warmth even if the drag on his shoulders made him suffer. 'Come on, let's get these to Greg and get out of here.'

Sherlock watched as the leather jacket was added to a separate bag. 'Just in case,' John said by way of explanation. 'It's been around your shoulders.' He shrugged, the bags caught in the curve of one arm and the gloves stripped away. His hand hovered in the air between them as if to take Sherlock's elbow and steady him, but it seemed that thoughts of his suffering held John back for the dozenth time that night.

'I'm not made of glass,' he protested, shuffling towards the door and stepping into the corridor.

'No, you're held together by stitches.' John deposited the bags in Lestrade's waiting arms, glancing back into the consulting room to make sure they'd left nothing behind. 'Anything else you need from us?' he asked, the plain hope in his voice answered by the DI's response.

'The twins are in medical custody while we investigate the butcher's and their flat. They should be ready for questioning by tomorrow afternoon. Hopefully, we won't need anything from you but Sherlock's statement, and that can wait. You two get the rest you need.'

'Thanks, Greg.'

Lestrade shook his head dismissively, a crooked, tired smile in place as he stood aside to let them pass. 'Don't mention it. If there's anything I can do –'

'We'll let you know,' John promised, his hand hovering over the small of Sherlock's back. It was a proprietary gesture, one Sherlock himself used frequently to usher John along. Now the faint whisper of pressure was just enough to keep his weary feet moving, easing through the strange, zombie-like throng in the waiting room and towards the front door.

A familiar figure on the threshold made him hesitate, and he groaned in irritation as Mycroft met his gaze. That often supercilious face was locked in lines of concern: a stiff expression on his brother's features. However, there was no patronising chastisement awaiting him. Instead, Mycroft's umbrella swung pointedly to the black car idling at the kerb.

'Straight back to Baker Street,' he promised, and for once there was no smug ooze to his words. 'And please, Sherlock, no arguments. Against my better judgement, I resolved to obey your wishes and keep my interference in your cases to a minimum.' He frowned, his gaze taking in the cuts on Sherlock's forehead before he looked away. 'At least allow me to facilitate your safe and prompt return home.'

A spark of stubborn, contrary pride flared in the pit of Sherlock's stomach, but it was too weak to survive. If nothing else, he found a moderate amount of satisfaction in the brief flicker of surprise that crossed Mycroft's face when he merely complied, easing himself into the large back seat.

However, even that was short-lived as he sensed the weight of John and Mycroft's exchanged glance of concern behind him. It made him want to snap at them – to tell them to stop fussing and just get on with things – but John at least did not deserve the sting of his temper. Instead, he propped himself wearily against the wall of the car, wincing as the brumal touch of the windowpane aggravated the stitches on his brow.

'I won't be joining you,' Mycroft said, bending down so he could see into the interior as John slipped in next to Sherlock. 'I surmise my presence will be more useful elsewhere, tonight.'

'Try not to start an international incident,' Sherlock managed, his voice low as he watched the minute tells twitch over Mycroft's usually staunch façade. To anyone else, his brother's appearance would seem chilly and indifferent, but Sherlock knew better. He wondered how close Mycroft had been to sending in SWAT, or MI5 or whatever branch of her Majesty's military force he held under his purview. How much had it cost him to trust one ex-army doctor, Scotland Yard's finest and, of course, Sherlock himself to resolve the situation?

Judging by the pallor of his face, more than he could comfortably afford.

'My concerns are rather more domestic: tying off a few loose ends,' Mycroft replied meaningfully, the thin line of his lips giving away far more than anything else he could have said. 'I'll be in touch, Sherlock. John.' With that, he quietly closed the door before tapping his palm on the roof of the car. Immediately, the driver set off, the luxurious purr of the engine vibrant in Sherlock's ears as they began the short journey back to the one place he and John could call their sanctuary.

He expected John to question Mycroft's words, but a thick silence had set up camp between them. It was not the languid peace of a quiet afternoon, but something nervous that quailed in the strange, murky darkness that came before dawn.

Instinctively, Sherlock attempted to glean information through a visual interrogation of John's profile, rather than a verbal one, and he realised with some relief that a proportion of his mental acuity seemed to have recovered. He had not had problems seeing what was around him these past few hours, but making connections had been increasingly difficult.

Perhaps it was easier with John. Living with him had given Sherlock the proof required to make assumptions and evolve implication from a wide array of his behaviour. He was an easy book to read, but fascinating all the same. Now, one of John's hands was pressing against his thigh, gripping the muscle, while the other was clenched tight around the paper bag containing bandages and such.

Conclusion: the psychosomatic pain had begun to impinge, brought on by the combination of the trough adrenaline had left in its wake, physical exhaustion and emotional stress. The latter, in particular, was a powerful factor. Sherlock had seen it enough times, the stiffness in John's gait after one of Harry's bouts of drinking, or when a particularly promising relationship had failed. It seemed the nature of tonight's adventure had been a step too far, taking the covenant of “could be dangerous” to the limits. Of course, it was not the threat to John which made him rub at his leg, but the worry of what could have happened to Sherlock.

The art of reassurance was not one that came naturally. Before John, he had found respite in the incontrovertible truth knowledge could offer. Touch had not come into it. Oh, he'd seen others do it: rubbing someone's back, entwining fingers and offering soothing words, but it was not something he'd bothered to practice.

Yet John's need was obvious, writ large in the angle of his spine and the dip of his head, and Sherlock reached across the expanse of the back seat, his fingers splayed, palm-up and inviting. It did not remain exposed for long. In the time it took to draw a breath, John abandoned his efforts to ease his own distress as he covered Sherlock's hand and gripped it tight.

Neither of them spoke; it was unnecessary. What needed to be said when Sherlock could see so much in John's face? One touch, and they were both anchored in the here-and-now, a present where they may be bruised, aching and shaken, but they had survived.

They remained as they were, separate but for the simple connection. Yet it was not a static tether, a link in a chain, but something flowing and dynamic. John drew circles in the cove of Sherlock's palm, writing invisible words as Sherlock shifted, his fingertips pressing chords over the frets of John's tendons and veins. The road hummed beneath them, a distant harmony, and for a short while, Sherlock found something like peace.

The car pulled into Baker Street without fanfare, rolling to a halt outside the familiar black door of 221. Reluctantly, Sherlock released John's hand, hearing him murmur his thanks to the driver as they eased themselves from the vehicle's embrace.

Before he could consider searching for his keys, the front door opened, letting mellow light spill forth: liquid gold across the pavement. 'Oh, Sherlock.' Mrs Hudson's voice was soft, lilted with sympathy and resignation as she took his hand and led him inside. The glassy edge of tears made her eyes shine, but she blinked them aside as she gave his fingers a squeeze.

'When that nice officer knocked on the door I didn't know what to think!' Her voice quavered before she straightened her shoulders and clutched her robe tighter over her nightgown. 'The trouble you boys get into...' She released him gently, standing aside to let him pass. 'Go on, up you go. I'll bring you some tea – just this once, mind.' She smiled weakly as John returned her bag, clucking over the bruise on his face before she ushered them upstairs with a flutter of her hands.

It was a long, slow slog to their door, but stepping over the threshold felt like crossing the finish line. Sherlock's spine slackened, his breath leaving him in a whispering rush as the scent of home furled around him: a tide of chemicals, dry paper and ink, smoke from the grate and John's subtle, unclassified fragrance. John may be his paladin at times, but this flat was their fortress. Now, at last, he could relax.

Warm knuckles brushed his neck as John's fingers curled around the collar of the Belstaff, hesitating in askance before easing the wool from Sherlock's shoulders. The simple change in pressure stirred the timpani thud of bruises and the treble whine of cut skin into life. Whatever the hospital had seen fit to give him, adequate analgesics had not been included.

'Still want that shower?' John asked, nodding his head at Sherlock's positive murmur. 'Right then. Warm water, not hot, and try and keep the bite dry. I'll tape some plastic over it. We'll get you clean, apply dressings where they're needed, give you food and medication, then sleep. No arguments, Sherlock; I'm knackered, and you must be a dozen times worse.'

'Anything else, Doctor?'

John shook his head, his lips contorting in a fretful grimace as he folded his arms across his chest. His concern lingered around him like a fog, thick and choking. Words were futile offers of reassurance, but there were other ways of communication, and Sherlock grabbed John's hand, tugging it free from its nest at the crook of his elbow as he paced towards the bathroom.

'Sherlock, what –?'

'You stink of hospital, as well as London's less salubrious alleyways,' he said, and now mercifully, his voice found its strength. There was so little he felt capable of fighting for, but this – John and his happiness – was one of the few.

He shut the bathroom door, cocooning them into the small, white room before twisting on the taps. 'Besides, I can barely lift my arms.' He plucked at the hem of his t-shirt, trying not to sulk at his helplessness before meeting John's gaze. His voice softened, the pitch dipping a fraction with emotion. 'I need you.'

He was not just talking about the logistics of removing his clothes or bathing his ripped and injured skin. Sherlock was shaken in a way that had nothing to do with his physical frame. The idea of John being separated from him, even by the thin veil of the shower curtain, was repulsive in every respect.

'I can take a shower after you. You don't need to feel like...' The cast of John's expression was uncomfortable to see, torn between what he so obviously wanted – Sherlock's presence and embrace – and what he thought Sherlock might need: distance and solitude.

Wrong.

'John. I'm tired and physically compromised, but don't think for one minute that I don't know what I want.' Sherlock stepped forward, pressing his brow to John's and wincing as the cuts sparked to life anew. 'This entire night has revolved around conflict; please don't make me fight for this. As long as you don't object, I want you here. Do you understand?'

For a moment, there was no response, then John angled his head up, brushing a kiss across Sherlock's cheek. 'Bossy,' he murmured fondly, dropping his hands to Sherlock's t-shirt and easing it off over his head. 'Come on then, before the water gets cold.'

They dis-robed slowly, John's every movement considerate. Sherlock matched his regard, wincing at the scrapes that littered John's body. His opponent had clearly fought hard, and John had answered in kind. Just because David had not been the one to slice and dice the bodies, it did not make him any less vicious in his own right, and Sherlock's scowl deepened at each new mark he revealed.

'They're superficial,' John said as he taped something over the dressing on Sherlock's neck to keep it dry. Stepping into the shower, he twitched as the cascade hit his skin before he held out a hand. 'Nothing serious.'

'That's not the point.' Sherlock eased his way in, crowding John close so that they could share the water, heads tipped awkwardly to avoid the spray. There was little in the way of space, but separation was the last thing Sherlock sought. He had never considered the merits of skin-on-skin for anything but the erotic. Yet this – this was security at its most fundamental level: protection and acceptance. John's arms wrapped around his waist, his hands splayed across the relatively unharmed terrain of Sherlock's back as Sherlock clutched John close, connected from jaw to hip to wriggling toes.

'I'm so glad you're safe.' John's confession was almost lost in the drum of the water. If Sherlock hadn't been resting his cheek against John's forehead, he would have missed it all together.

'Thanks to you.' Sherlock squeezed his arms tighter, turning his head to brush a kiss across the plane of John's wet brow. 'I almost thought you were a figment of my imagination when I saw you in the mirror. Something I dreamed up to keep me sane. I was –' He swallowed, his voice rough as he selected the word which encompassed it all so neatly. 'I was terrified.'

John pulled back, his face open. 'That makes two of us. When I realised you were gone –' He bit back the words, reaching out for shampoo and setting to work on Sherlock's curls, not bothering to wait for permission this time as he rubbed the lather through, keeping it off his wounds. 'I can't remember the last time I was that afraid of anything.'

Sherlock's fingers went to the scar on John's shoulder in a wordless question, eyebrows raised.

'Even then, I knew what was happening. I knew what my chances were. There was still some element of control. Tonight, I had no idea what to do or where to go. All I knew was that I had to find you, and at the same time I dreaded it.' John's eyes skittered around the constellations of Sherlock's bruises, his lips pressed tight, as if the reality was no less horrifying than his imaginings. 'You were right to be scared. Anyone would be.'

'Not all my fear was for myself,' Sherlock reminded him as John skimmed shower gel over Sherlock's form, powerfully gentle and constantly mindful. It was not Sherlock's soap, but John's body-wash, as if John were trying to replace every alien scent with something that was his, and Sherlock wondered how perverse it was to find that claim so soothing.

He reached up, capturing John's hands in his as he explained. 'I kept thinking of David waiting for you and what he might do. I was trying to analyse a veritable maze of possibilities and getting nowhere. All I could think of was what would happen if they got their hands on you.' He touched the bruise on John's cheek before bending his head, pressing a kiss to the leading edge of blooming, thunderous purple.

John swayed into the caress, his eyes closed and his body straining, longing for more. Slowly, Sherlock reached out, squeezing some soap into his hands before smoothing his palms over John's flesh, banishing the patina of stressed sweat. He worked gently, aware of the limitations of his strength as he crouched, traversing the strong flex of knees towards the vault of John's ankles, easing blood away from a sharp scrape on his shin as he did so.

Something moved to block the water, and he looked up, realising John had braced his forearms on the wall to shelter Sherlock where he knelt. 'I didn't give him the chance to get his hands on me. Not for long,' John promised roughly, stroking his fingers through Sherlock's wet hair and tracing the sinuous lines of his curls. 'Though, if Greg hadn't been there...'

John closed his eyes, reaching down and helping Sherlock to his feet again before cupping his jaw, urging him to meet his gaze. 'We can't do this. If we keep thinking about what could have gone wrong, we'll drive ourselves mad. We're here, we're safe, and we'll be all right.' He lifted his eyebrows in question, uncertainty wavering in his voice. 'Won't we?'

Sherlock stroked the tip of his nose down the bridge of John's, angling his head. Words remained a challenging issue: too precise for the messy masterpiece of sentiment that dwelt in the tight confines of the shower. Instead, he spoke with a kiss, soft and relenting. His hands outlined John's form: the curve of his shoulders and the crest of his hips, defining the man who had, with his arrival in Sherlock's life, given his chaos the boundaries it needed. He tasted the chapped frontier of John's mouth, ragged from teeth-marks of worry over the course of the evening, and dipped inside to stroke his tongue over the fragile smoothness within.

They had shared deeper kisses, more heated and feverish, but there was something intense about the shallow brush of their lips – of shared, humid breaths and clutching hands. They clung to each other, slick with lingering soap and the rush of the water as it turned tepid around them, ignored. This was worship and devotion, and Sherlock knew he had never been made to feel so worthy.

The nudge of John's erection against his thigh made him hesitate, both pleased and ashamed. He pulled back, an apology already lingering on his tongue for his own lack of a reaction: too tired and hurt for anything more than affection.

'Ignore it,' John husked before Sherlock could speak, shaking his head with a rueful smile. 'I'm not expecting anything. It's just...' He indicated the pale stretch of Sherlock's frame, gleaming and wet, before biting his lip and glancing away. When he looked back, Sherlock's heart lifted to see a hint of happiness in John's eyes, something bright, like the sun parting the darker clouds of his mood and gifting its promise. John answered his own question with that look: they'd both be just fine.

'Come on, let's get you dry. We still need to sort you out.' He gestured to the stitches: alarming, dark lines against Sherlock's skin, before stepping out of the bath and reaching for a towel. He wrapped it around his own waist, ignoring the lingering bulge at the juncture of his thighs as he did so. He barely gave Sherlock a chance to turn off the taps and step out himself before bundling him up in fluffy, clean terry cloth, blotting at every inch of skin with an attention to detail Sherlock found gratifying.

Normally, he loathed to be coddled. He had always been the kind of man to retreat when harmed, hating to reveal anything like weakness. With John, it was different. He did not see injuries as a failure, but a medal of honour and survival. He may hiss in pity, but any fretting was subtle, and John's preferred course of action was treatment, rather than lingering on the blood that had been spilt.

Within minutes, he was dry, and he stepped into the loose cotton pyjama trousers, pulling them up to his hips. John roughly towelled himself off before yanking on his boxer shorts and padding out of the room. Thirty seconds later, he returned, his familiar tatty robe around his shoulders and the blue pool of Sherlock's silk one caught in his hands. 'Here,' he urged, helping Sherlock into it before leading him out into the kitchen.

A teapot was placed in the middle of the table, steam ghosting from its spout. Mrs Hudson had also left plates of scones and cakes, her worry manifesting itself in obvious ways. Sherlock smiled at the offering, not bothering to resist as John eased him down into a chair.

'Eat this,' he instructed, pushing a buttered scone into Sherlock's hand before placing several tablets like pearls on the table. 'It'll help you process those and sustain the level of sugar in your blood.' He sighed, spreading out a clean towel before laying out bandages and dressing pads, checking their supplies. 'I know you'll go back to your normal habits before long, but you should try and keep regular mealtimes for the next twenty-four hours.'

'The insulin should already be gone.' Sherlock waved a hand at the winter dawn tracing a silver line at the horizon beyond the window. 'Surely the danger has passed?'

'It has, but this will help you recover some of your strength,' John replied, pulling up another chair so that he could sit between Sherlock's spread knees. 'You can't heal without fuel.'

It was fascinating to watch John work, hands steady and competent, pressing sterile squares of gauze to the areas that needed it before covering them over in smooth swathes of bandage. He cut them to the right length, striking up the perfect balance of protection without sacrificing Sherlock's mobility, paying as much attention to every gash and slice as Sherlock did to a crime scene.

Only once John had checked the dressing over the bite was dry, peeling back the waterproof covering and inspecting it closely, did he seem to find some element of peace. This ritual of healing was as much for John's sake as Sherlock's: a method by which he could recover some control. Now it was complete, and all motion ceased, leaving them slumped in their chairs, too weary to do more than exist.

'Bed?'

Sherlock nudged a plate and a cup in John's direction. 'Not yet. You must be starving.'

John stared at the tea and scone with blank eyes before he did as Sherlock asked. The first bite went down slowly, but after that, it seemed John's hunger awakened. The small meal was gone in less than three minutes, and the tea chased it down just as quickly.

The china rattled as John nudged his plate and mug aside, his hands smoothing along the scarred wood of the table before he pushed himself upright and glanced towards the stairs.

Sherlock did not give him the opportunity to voice the question he could see percolating to the forefront of John's mind. He appreciated that, to other people, John's willingness to give him space might be something to praise, but to Sherlock it was unwanted and unnecessary. Hadn't he proved as much in the past hour?

'If you think I'm about to exile you to your room, then think again,' he said firmly, looping his fingers around John's wrist. A heartbeat later, he faltered, a new thought crossing his mind. Had he been focussing too much on his own needs rather than John's? Was he seeing irritating thoughtfulness in John's hesitancy, where in fact it was John himself who sought some distance? 'Unless that's where you'd rather be?'

John paused, giving Sherlock an incredulous look before shaking his head. 'Don't be daft,' he murmured, his smile softening his words as he took Sherlock's hand, leading him firmly towards Sherlock's bedroom. Only twenty-four hours ago, they had shared the mattress for the first time. Now any alternative seemed unthinkable, and Sherlock slipped off his robe before climbing in under the quilt and shuffling over to allow John to join him.

They pressed close, half-entwined and careful of each other's bruises, but desperate for reassurance. There was nothing hungry or hurried about the way John touched his bare skin. Compassion, not desire, formed the staves on which the symphony was based. Sparks of heat flared now and then, but they were accents to the melody, rather than the driving force, and Sherlock was happy to let them glow and fade as he trailed his lips over the curve of John's shoulder.

'Rest,' John urged, his whisper underscored by the sibilance of the sheets as he shifted to press a kiss, first to Sherlock's bound wrist, then his elbow, before touching one to the mauled crest of his shoulder. Pain made their respite imperfect, but Sherlock was happy to bear the burden of discomfort if this was his reward: John, stalwart and strong, attentive and loving, whole and unharmed.

Another kiss, this time to his lips, tentative and innocent, as John repeated his gentle command. 'Rest, Sherlock. Please?'

Silently, he closed his eyes, relaxing into the tropical paradise of John's presence. It was worth the wounds he suffered and more to find himself here, wrapped up in the safety of the bed they had come to share and, in this moment at least, so dearly, obviously loved by the man at his side.

Sherlock slept.

Chapter Text

Rich sunlight streamed through the window, bathing the room in gentle heat. Yet John did not admire the rare blue sky or pay heed to the familiar thrum of London life beyond the pane. All of his concentration was focussed on the man at his side, serene in sleep.

Sherlock was breathing steadily, his lashes forming dark fans above the crest of each cheekbone. The riot of his curls hid most of the cuts on his forehead from view. If John didn't look too closely, he could pretend that yesterday had never happened. A warm bed and eight hours of much-needed sleep had restored life to Sherlock's face. John could almost imagine it had been a normal night, at least until he lifted the bed covers to glimpse the evidence that told him otherwise.

The bandages were still in place, hiding the worst of it, but the one at Sherlock's neck had a blot of renewed blood and fluid blemishing its surface. It would need to be changed as soon as Sherlock woke.

John clenched his fist around the sheet, forcing his hand not to tremble as he lowered it back over them. Too much movement, and Sherlock would stir. They had fallen asleep entwined around each other, too tired to drift apart over the course of their slumber. John was higher up the bed, his shoulders bare and cold, his arm draped along the top of the pillow while Sherlock's nose nestled against his ribs. A hand rested over his hip, and Sherlock's breath tickled his chest – an irrefutable reassurance that he was alive: safe in John's embrace.

It wasn't enough.

He had awoken half-an-hour ago, and his thoughts had jumped immediately back onto the tracks of the night before, ricocheting between two points. The first was concern for Sherlock, broken and bruised, violated by Matt's touch and, even once they were back in Baker Street, far from his vivid, acerbic self. The second was deep, unshakable fury: at himself, for not finding Sherlock sooner, at everyone involved in the case for not solving the damn thing before this happened in the first place, and at David and Matt for daring to torment Sherlock with their perversions.

Seeing him now, his body plagued by their wounds and his brilliance silenced, John wished he'd killed them both.

'You're shaking.'

Sherlock's somnolent voice stroked the air, and John cursed inwardly before he glanced down. His eyes were still shut, but he wrinkled his nose in a snuffle that John struggled not to find endearing before cracking one open. It took only a moment for the fugue of sleep to fade, and John saw the nova of that dazzling mind ignite. Gone was the sluggish confusion and the strange, weary obedience of a few hours ago. This was Sherlock in all his glory, injured, yes, but functioning on all cylinders as he read John's expression with ease.

'As satisfying as it would have been to shoot them both and save the justice system the expense of a trial, it would have been challenging to avoid prosecution, considering the number of witnesses.' He kissed the patch of John's chest that was in front of his lips, his tongue a flash of humid heat as he traced the divot of a rib. 'However, I appreciate the sentiment.'

With a sigh, John shifted down the bed until they were nose-to-nose. His body whined at him, scrapes singing as sore muscles added their tune, but none of it was intolerable. Compared to Sherlock, he'd got off lightly. 'How are you feeling?'

John watched him glance upwards, as if he were running a systems check on the mighty hard-drive of his brain. 'Cognitively, it's a vast improvement. Physically –' He trailed off with a grimace, which devolved into a twist of agony as he tried to lift his head from the pillow. It was a shocking sight: an involuntary paroxysm, and John jolted upright, reaching out as Sherlock's steady breaths became pained.

'What is it?' he demanded, his hands hovering over the dressing covering the bite. 'Sherlock, what's wrong?'

'Bloody buggering fuck.'

John lifted an eyebrow at the unusual curse: one of his, actually. It was flattering that Sherlock had taken that on board, rather than deleting it. However, it was far from reassuring. 'Sherlock...'

'My neck. Not the side of the bite, the other one. It's like –' Another noise escaped his throat as he tried to move, supporting the weight of his head with his hands and snatching back a whimper.

'Easy,' John murmured, his mind racing. 'Any tingling? Wriggle your toes.'

Sherlock cut him a glare as he obliged, flexing his metatarsals before bending his knees. 'Nothing like that. It's just – ow!'

John knelt up on the mattress, stroking down the uninjured flank of Sherlock's neck. Immediately, he could sense the difference. Tendons and muscles were rock hard, locked in spasm. It could happen to anyone, sometimes when they hunched their shoulders in bed because they were cold, or just slept awkwardly. For Sherlock, the reason was more apparent. One side of his neck was injured, and so the other tried to take the strain.

Quietly, he cursed himself. He should have made sure Sherlock was lying on his back during the night. It might not have avoided the situation entirely, but it would have improved matters. As it was, even remaining still seemed to cause Sherlock discomfort, and John marshalled his thoughts, reaching for all the pillows he could and building a mound against the headboard.

'The muscles in your neck are compensating in an effort to lessen the burden on the side that's been bitten. It's probably wrenched everything,' he explained. 'Can you roll over? If we can sit you up and support your head, it might make you feel better.'

With great care, John helped Sherlock move until he was upright, the pillows bracing his back and neck as solidly as he could manage. 'All right?'

Sherlock inched his hands away from his skull, wincing as he let out a tight breath. 'It still hurts, but it's tolerable. How long will it last?'

John winced, shrugging his shoulders. 'A few days, maybe a week. You might find it happens more than once though, depending on how quick the bite heals.' He saw the expression of misery on Sherlock's face, a mixture of pain and horror at the thought of being rendered half-immobile for any length of time. 'Hey, don't worry; I can probably get you moving again. Stay there.' He glanced around, picking up one of Sherlock's many text books and putting it in his hands. 'Read that if you want to, but don't move too much. It'll only make it worse.'

He scooped his robe off the floor and padded into the kitchen, taking a moment to consider his options before he flicked on the kettle and put bread in the toaster. Reluctantly, he turned to the fridge, bracing himself for whatever horrors lay within. However, as soon as the door parted, he drew in a breath of surprise. The whole thing had been stocked to the brim with food: meat and vegetables, fruit, yoghurt.... and not a body part in sight.

Briefly, he considered questioning where it had all come from, but he wasn't about to look a gift horse in the mouth as he grabbed the makings of a decent breakfast and put them on a tray. Turning back to the kitchen table, he saw a piece of thick, creamy paper placed in the centre: blatant and unapologetic, just like the handwriting that graced its surface.

“A few essentials, provided at the order of Mr M Holmes. - A”

Next to the sheet of paper sat a box containing what appeared to be the latest model of Sherlock's preferred phone. No doubt it would already be fully charged and tied into the appropriate contract. An adequate replacement for the one John had lost track of the previous night.

With a shake of his head, he rescued the toast, grabbing a plate and a carton of juice from the fridge before doling out tablets. The medication the hospital had provided was relatively generic, and he detoured to the bathroom, raiding their own supplies. Codeine would probably be the best choice, especially combined with ibuprofen, at least until things improved. He also grabbed the hot water bottle – an incongruous pink; he'd pinched it from Harry – from under the sink.

At last, he had everything he needed, and he carted it back into the bedroom, putting the tray on the empty half of the mattress before grabbing the full rubber bottle – a malleable mass of heat he'd wrapped in a towel – and helping Sherlock sit forward. 'This should help the muscles relax and increase your mobility,' he promised, resting it between Sherlock's shoulder-blade and his neck. 'Okay?'

'Yes,' Sherlock replied with a wince, his brow pinched in a scowl as John grabbed the breakfast tray and settled beside him.

'Eat as much of that as you can, and take those.' He gestured to the tablets. 'We'll give it an hour and see how you are.'

Sherlock gave him a quick, critical glare, nudging fruit and a yoghurt in his direction. 'Only if you do the same.' He didn't turn away, staring at John until he obeyed, satisfying the awakening groans of his stomach with each mouthful.

The food that passed his lips was flavoursome and fresh, but he barely paid it any attention as he watched Sherlock, noticing every strained gesture and half-hidden flinch. Even bruised and bloodied from alleyway brawls, Sherlock didn't treat his sore transport with this much care. He moved as if he were afraid every glide of his hands or swell of breath would snap his neck in two, and John fought to keep the concern off his face as he tried to think of ways to alleviate Sherlock's misery.

Unfortunately, the bite limited John's options. Rubbing Sherlock's back would have been a good start, but symmetry was needed to dispel tension, rather than merely transferring it to a different muscle group, and the injury made that impossible. A hot bath would also alleviate the pain, but that would involve submerging both shoulders...

'Stop fussing,' Sherlock urged. His gaze was almost fond, and he grabbed the tablets and swallowed them before leaning back into the mound of pillows.

'I will, when you're back to normal,' John promised, taking the empty tray and putting it on the floor before settling at Sherlock's side. He itched to change the dressing on Sherlock's shoulder, but moving him now, when he had just got comfortable, seemed cruel. He'd give the painkillers a chance to do their work, then make it his highest priority. 'And I'm not fussing, I'm just –'

He trailed off, unsure how to define his mood: edgy, discontent, furious. His jaw clenched and his brow knotted, but both relented beneath Sherlock's touch as John was prodded and tugged, repositioned until he lay horizontally across their bed, his legs tucked up and his head in Sherlock's lap. A whisper of cotton hushed through the air as the quilt was draped over him, warm and comfortable. Sherlock's fingers smoothed through his hair, and John made a faint sound of protest. If either one of them needed the indignity of being coddled, it was Sherlock, not him.

'Shush,' Sherlock said. If he had crooned it, John's pride might have demanded he move, but he made it an order, indifferent but for the faint hum of force beneath the single word. 'It hurts to turn my head more than a fraction in any direction except down, and I want to be able to see you.'

John was tempted to argue, but Sherlock's agile fingers were tracing lines across his brow and up over his zygomatic arch. The caress was soft where Sherlock's voice was firm, tender where he seemed apathetic, and John found himself slumping in surrender, turning on his side so that his face was pressed to the vulnerability of Sherlock's stomach.

His sleep had been deep, but not restful, and his eyes itched with tiredness. His muscles felt like rope stretched taut, and a dank, heavy weight sank through his brain. God, he wanted it to be over – this whole mess with the twins. Yet it lingered still, the threads of the case's tapestry unfinished and tangling in knots. He wanted everything to be back to the way it was before Sherlock had set foot in Iso.

Well, almost everything.

John smiled as Sherlock's touch drifted down over the hidden ridge of his cheekbones before tracing his thin lips. There was a faint hiss of indrawn breath when John's tongue darted out, lapping at the whorls of Sherlock's fingertips before sucking them into his mouth. Sherlock's eyes darkened; he watched John, hungry and trusting, as if he were the only enigma in an otherwise boring universe.

Releasing Sherlock's fingers, John pressed a kiss to the cup of his palm, then another just above the light bandage around his wrists: matching manacles of white. He could feel the quickening of every breath thanks to the fluting swell of Sherlock's stomach, and there was a distinct increase in heat and definition beneath his head where it lay in Sherlock's lap.

This was what he wanted to be doing – what they were damn-well owed. The thrilling arena of a new relationship had opened up, but before they could explore it, the case had taken precedent; that was the way it had to be. However, that didn't mean he couldn't take every opportunity to feed the fire that burned between them.

With a smirk, he nuzzled at the growing hardness beneath him, heat shimmering along his nerves and coiling in the pit of his stomach as Sherlock's hips shifted restlessly.

A second later, the atmosphere in the room changed as one wrong move awoke Sherlock's pain, turning a moan of pleasure into one of frustration. John sat up, the flush of arousal turning cold with apology. 'Shit, sorry,' he murmured, his hands curving around the slender column of Sherlock's neck, stroking and testing, trying to find some way to alleviate his distress. 'Guess you're not up for that, yet.'

'Interesting choice of words,' Sherlock murmured, raising a coy eyebrow as John huffed a laugh. He could get used to this: Sherlock's flirtation, all the more enticing for being so unexpected. It made John's mind travel down inventive avenues, considering the possibilities. There had been the occasional time in his life where the situation with a partner necessitated thinking outside the box when it came to sex. However, he'd never tried it with a relationship this new.

It was that thought which made him hold back, regretful but determined. As much as he wanted Sherlock, he was reluctant to allow injury to blight their earliest experiences as a couple. 'When this is all over,' he said, his fingers drifting over the muscles along Sherlock's spine and the bulk of the dressing, 'the case and everything, I'm going to cancel any time at the surgery I've got and we're going to stay in bed for a week.'

Sherlock looked intrigued, and John wondered if anyone had ever tempted the frantic whirl of Sherlock's mind and body to focus itself within the horizons of a lover's bed. Had anyone ever tried to build a relationship with him, or was it all no-strings situations, where gratification of the self was the only objective? Had Sherlock ever played those silly, stupid games with a lover– tickling and play fights that devolved into messy, glorious sex? John would bet his meagre savings the answer was no.

'And the point of this confinement would be?' Sherlock asked, his lips twitching in a smile as he read the response that wrote itself across John's face. One quick glance and he deciphered the flush of John's cheek and the flash of his tongue over his lip. 'Not recuperation, then?'

'Not as such, no.' John grinned as Sherlock's hands caught his hips, nudging him until he sat astride Sherlock's lap. Like this, he was taller, and in normal circumstances, he would have made the most of it. However, as soon as Sherlock tipped his head back to steal a kiss, another flicker of pain pinched his eyes, followed by a growl of pure annoyance. 'Oh, for God's sake.'

John shook his head fondly, slouching to give Sherlock what he wanted – a brush of lips and a glimmer of tongue: a promise of what he could have once he was better – before leaning back. The fractional distance slackened the heat of their intimacy, tempting it back towards lines of earnest affection, rather than sultry desire.

Sherlock's hands wandered the strong length of John's hair-scattered thighs, a constant, sweeping gesture that would have been meditative if it weren't for the occasional dip inwards, beneath the desultory protection of his robe. John, for his part, found himself stroking the hair back from Sherlock's temples, checking stitches and each span of milky skin in between, blighted as they were by the spilt ink of bruises.

'Maybe we should tell Greg he'll have to wait for your statement,' he suggested, watching a scowl crease Sherlock's brow. 'You can barely move.'

'The painkillers will start working soon, and the heat is giving some relief,' Sherlock protested, glancing away before meeting John's eye. 'I'd rather get it over with.'

John pulled a face, sharing the sentiment. He hoped, rather than believed that Greg was right – that all they'd want from Sherlock was a statement, but Sherlock's words from the previous night kept coming back to him. 'You think they'll need your assistance putting the case together?'

'If they want to prosecute quickly, then yes.' He tightened his jaw, his fingers digging into John's legs in emphasis. 'It's not that I don't believe they'll find enough to put the twins in jail. They'll have that and more, but I don't want anything the twins have done to stay out of court just because the prosecution was unable to clarify the chain of events.'

John narrowed his eyes, trying to follow. 'You mean you want to make sure they get what's coming to them?' he asked, knowing that his own opinion of that didn't need to be said. A bullet each, and they'd never hurt anyone again.

'I want to ensure they're not just punished for what's simple to explain. There's a difference between killing someone in the heat of the moment and premeditating an ordeal of sexual assault before attempting to cover your tracks by silencing the only witness.' Sherlock closed his eyes, his face briefly still before he opened them again. 'What they did should carry the maximum possible penalty. As long as the prosecution is clear, that's what the jury will recommend.'

'This case is anything but straightforward,' John acknowledged, nodding in understanding. He could see what Sherlock was getting at. Normally, their involvement was limited to finding the perpetrator and leaving the rest of it to the police. Yet now, even though they had the twins in custody, there was still a sense of unfinished business, and neither of them would rest easy until it dispersed.

'Then there's Shaw.'

John stiffened at the name, the disquiet that glowed beneath his navel taking on an icy edge. 'What about him? Last I heard the Yard were digging up everything they could.'

Sherlock's eyes darkened. 'He warned the twins who I was, or had someone in his employ do it for him. He knew them, and despite their statements to the contrary that first night at the club when Shaw was watching me, they knew him. Shaw undoubtedly provided them with the materials to cook up their drugs of choice. That must be why he was in Iso in the first place.' He breathed in, his hands cupping John's hips. 'Even if he had no idea what they were using it for, it's still an additional charge against him.'

John reached down, his fingers sliding over the back of Sherlock's hands as he turned the information over in his mind. 'So, thanks to him, they were aware of what they were up against – us and the police,' he managed, his voice heavy on his tongue. 'He gave them the warning they needed to formulate their plan, knowing what they would do to you.'

'There's no way to be sure of that,' Sherlock pointed out, holding John's fingers in his grasp. 'Shaw's always been petty. He takes pleasure in ruining other people's strategies. Maybe he realised what the twins were doing and what they wanted from us, but I doubt it.'

'Why?' John growled, shaking his head and freeing his hands to skim them through his hair. 'Sherlock, he wanted revenge. You turned up at his house and saw through all his tricks. He threw you to the wolves and hoped you'd suffer.'

'Yes, but it's unlikely he was aware of the nature of Matt and David's behaviour. For a man like Shaw, ignorance is self-defence. If he doesn't know precisely what the twins are doing, then he cannot be blamed for his part in the full extent of their crimes. It's the difference between supply of illegal substances and abetting in murder. Do you see?'

John clenched his jaw, hating the way that Sherlock's explanation made a cold-hearted kind of sense. Shaw was a twat, but he protected his interests. 'If he had been aware of what they planned to do – rape and murder you – would he have still warned them?'

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. 'Almost undoubtedly. I'm not defending his character, I'm merely making sure that neither of us fall foul of assumptions.'

The idea of Sherlock assuming anything bordered on the ridiculous, but when John looked into those pale eyes, he could see the answering spark of emotion: outrage to match his own. It was easy to forget that Shaw's warning to the twins could have been his undoing, as well as Sherlock's. That consequence was not something the consulting detective was likely to forgive. However, where John was lost in the storm of his anger, Sherlock's intelligence had the upper-hand – logic over sentiment.

With a nod, John bowed his head, frowning blankly at Sherlock's bare chest. 'What I don't understand is why they didn't run when Shaw warned them about us,' he murmured. 'They knew what would happen if they were caught, so why not flee the city – the country? Why stick around?'

'I have no doubt Lestrade and the others will find proof of their intention to leave – at least if they look hard enough. Matt and David are both in possession of their mental faculties: intelligent, forward-thinking and determined. For whatever reason, they believed they had the advantage. Most likely, they thought they had time to finish with us and flee before the police caught up to them.' One corner of Sherlock's mouth lifted, his eyes bright with triumph. 'They underestimated us. Not just you and me, but the officers at the Yard as well.'

'Thank God.' John bent his head, unable to resist a taste of that smile – subtle but genuine. His heart swelled as an appreciative rumble stirred in Sherlock's chest. It was delightfully shocking, Sherlock's shy yet honest responses to affection. It was as if he had merely been waiting for someone to make the effort to reach him, and now John was reaping the benefits, at least within the privacy of Baker Street. Outside, it would be a different matter, but for now Sherlock was unguarded, and John revelled in it.

He wished they could stay here forever, the selfish desire to keep Sherlock and his genius to himself overwhelming. Yet as tempting as it was to hold Sherlock back and block him from the sharp, dangerous edges of the world outside, John realised it would be their undoing. Sherlock would come to resent it and, perversely, so would he.

With a gargantuan effort, he broke the kiss, his hands lingering on Sherlock's jaw. Stubble scraped the pad of his thumb as he skimmed a thoughtful line back and forth before voicing the question that would bring the world rushing back in. 'So what's the plan?'

'I estimate Lestrade will be here in less than an hour to request our assistance. He's had adequate time to begin processing whatever they've found, but he and his team have been working overtime. Their mental acuity is diminished from exhaustion while the pressure to bring charges increases with every passing hour.' Sherlock laid down the facts, turning his head cautiously to glance at the clock. 'They need us.'

'You,' John corrected, smiling when Sherlock shot him a glare. 'If I was here on my own, they wouldn't be coming to me.'

'Then perhaps it's more precise to say that they need me, and I need you,' Sherlock replied, unapologetic. 'However, Lestrade's commented more than once on your grounding influence.'

A chuckle escaped John's lips, and not for the first time he wondered how reckless Sherlock had been before he turned up. There were glimmers of it during that first case: the impulsive, do-or-die drive to solve the puzzle. That hadn't faded, but now at least Sherlock was open to compromise and more flexible in his approach.

'If Greg's going to be here soon, we need to get you sorted. How's your neck? Is it any easier to move?' He watched as Sherlock straightened up from the pillows, no longer needing to support his skull against gravity's pull. His face was still contorted with pain, but clearly the levels were more manageable.

Quickly, John checked Sherlock's range of motion, getting him to turn in different directions and noticing the limitations. 'Okay, you were going to be on painkillers anyway, which should help. Just go easy on yourself, and for God's sake, if you get any numbness or emerging symptoms, tell me.'

'The x-ray included my cervical vertebrae,' Sherlock pointed out as John climbed off him. 'There was no indication of spinal damage.'

'That doesn't rule out trapped nerves and other soft-tissue problems.' John pursed his lips, wishing he could get Sherlock to have a restful day, one where the extent of his exertion was lying on the couch, but he knew better than to believe that was possible. All he could do was make sure he was at Sherlock's side to react to any changes in his condition.

'I'm going to get dressed. If you're doing the same, leave your shirt off. I need to change the gauze on your neck.'

He waited for Sherlock's hum of agreement, watching him ease himself out of bed. It was difficult not to appreciate his lithe body, even if bruises daubed his skin like war-paint, and John had to wrest himself away from the sight. “Later” was a frequently repeated promise, and he felt like he was hanging onto the word for dear life as he trotted up the stairs and threw on some clean clothes.

His hair had been damp when he drifted off to sleep, and now it stuck up at strange angles. His efforts to flatten it were half-hearted at best, and he turned away from the mirror with a grunt, scratching at his stubble. If he had time, he'd shave, but his highest priority was seeing to Sherlock's injuries.

Hurrying back downstairs, he went to the kitchen sink, scrubbing his hands as hard as he dared and flicking away the excess moisture before turning to lay out fresh medical supplies.

A moment later, Sherlock emerged from the bathroom, dressed in black suit trousers and socks, bare-chested with a shirt held by the collar in his right hand. For the first time in what felt like ages, he was clean-shaven, and John took in the change. He had grown used to the groomed stubble that was part of Lee's disguise, and its absence made him blink before a faint smile tugged his lips. Sherlock had never been gone, not really, but it was as if he was reclaiming the mantel of his appearance, and John found himself captivated. 

The heat of a blush tinged his cheeks, but he valiantly ignored it as Sherlock raised a curious eyebrow. With a hook of his foot, John pulled one of the chairs out from under the table and motioned for Sherlock to sit. Wordlessly, he obliged, draping the dark plum shirt over the table as he perched, waiting for John's ministrations. 

One shoulder bore a red mark from the warmth of the hot water bottle: blood called to the surface by vaso-dilation. The other... John ran his tongue over the sharp edge of his teeth, his fingers light on the dressing pad as he peeled it free, murmuring an apology as Sherlock tensed. 

The skin was swollen and bruised around the neatly sutured edges of the wound, faintly shiny and moist. With a glance at the gauze, John checked the discharge, seeing fluid and blood, but no pus. His palm hovered above the injury as he concentrated on the heat radiating from Sherlock's body: warm and living rather than feverish. He knew the appearance of infection and the associated smell, but though Sherlock's shoulder was obviously sore, the bite was still clean. 

Quickly, he reached for some dressing tape, ripping off several strips and opening an antiseptic wipe before sheathing his hands in a pair of latex gloves and getting to work. He cleaned carefully around the coarse stitches as Sherlock held himself steady, wiping away the thin patina of dried blood with careful concentration. Dimly, he heard a knock at the front door, followed by the sound of Mrs Hudson talking to Greg, but he ignored the noise as irrelevant until Sherlock spoke. 

'Told you he'd be here,' he murmured, twitching beneath John's touch and pulling a face at the soiled dressing where it lay on the kitchen surface. 'Is it meant to be that colour?' 

John glanced back at it, seeing the rusty nucleus and the halo of yellow around its perimeter. 'Yeah. It's nothing to worry about. You get it around most dried blood stains. I'm surprised you didn't –' He bit back a smile as he realised what Sherlock was doing. 'You knew that already. You're just trying to make me feel better.' 

'You take comfort in your medical knowledge,' Sherlock admitted, drawing in a breath as John checked the sutures. 'Is it working?' 

He didn't have a chance to reply before there was a hesitant tap at the door, and Sherlock lifted his voice. 'Come in, Lestrade.'

The DI shuffled over the threshold. A fresh cup of steaming coffee was clutched in his right hand while the left smothered a yawn. If he was perturbed by Sherlock being only half-dressed, he did not show it. The shock on his face was all for the wound laid bare for John's inspection.

'Christ, that looks painful.' He craned his neck, pulling a face before he dragged his eyes away, taking in first John, then Sherlock. 'How are you?'

'Better for getting some sleep,' John said, retrieving a clean dressing and taping it in place, careful but firm. 'We probably got about eight hours each, unlike you.'

'Huh, I'll sleep when I'm dead,' Lestrade grumbled, slumping in the other kitchen chair with a miserable sigh. He knew Sherlock too well to wait for an invitation to discuss the details, and after a fortifying gulp of coffee, he straightened up, his fingers drumming on the table as he outlined what they'd missed.

'I've had Forensics working all hours on the scenes we found: the butcher's, the flat and the loo at Iso. Frankly, we've gone from having no information to too much. We located a trophy stash: clothes and personal effects from the previous victims. Glassware from their little lab. Plenty of trace, not to mention the knives Matt used.' He shrugged. 'We're struggling to put it all together. I know I said I'd just need your statement, but...'

'But that's not the case.' Sherlock got to his feet, reaching for his shirt and slipping it on. Nimble fingers moved over the buttons, leaving the collar open. It revealed the apex of the narrow, shallow cut that Matt had sliced down his torso, and John forced himself to turn away as he disposed of the used medical supplies and gloves in a bin he'd made Sherlock get for his experiments. 'You want me to take a look.'

'If you're up to it.' Now Greg turned to John, knowing Sherlock would lie for the sake of the investigation. 'What do you reckon?'

John felt the honed edge of Sherlock's gaze upon him. There were times when it had cut him deep: cold and hard. Now, he could feel Sherlock's faith. He knew that John wouldn't hold him back, not unless it was absolutely necessary. 'As long as it's just to the Yard, he should be fine. At least for a while.'

'Trust me, he won't be going anywhere else. Even as it is, this is pretty much going to be eyes only.' Lestrade held up his hand as Sherlock grimaced. 'How did you think this was going to work, Sherlock? I have enough trouble with the higher-ups when you're just a consultant. When you're a victim as well –?' He sighed. 'It's the same as with Shaw, but more so. You can tell my team where to look and what to search for, but that's it. You can't touch anything that's not sealed in an evidence bag.'

'What about talking to the twins?'

'No.' John shook his head, his stomach lurching as he sliced his hand through the air. 'No, Sherlock.'

'John's right. That's not going to happen. You can tell us what questions to ask, but you shouldn't – you're just –' Greg stumbled to a halt, glancing at John with understanding in his gaze. 'Even if there weren't a dozen reasons why it could compromise the case, you're out of your mind if you think we'd be happy putting you in the same room as either of them.'

Sherlock sighed as if they were being ridiculous, scowling as he freed the new mobile phone from its box and turned it on. 'Fine. Are you here in an unmarked car, Lestrade?'

'Yeah. I'll give you a lift. I'd rather keep an eye on you anyway.'

The DI gulped down the rest of his coffee as John shrugged into his coat, scooping up various packets of medication and putting them in his pocket. Sherlock was unlikely to stop when the pain got too intense, regardless of the demands of his body, and John intended to do what he could to keep the symptoms at bay.

Wordlessly, he aided Sherlock into his Belstaff, easing it over his shoulders. Sherlock was still moving cautiously, preferring to rotate his entire body rather than turning his head. However, apart from that, he seemed healthy: sharp, alert and self-contained.

'Scarf,' John ordered, holding out the blue length of cashmere. 'People tend to hunch their shoulders when they're cold, and you're no exception. If you don't make an effort, the muscle pain in your neck will go back to how it was when we woke up.' He smiled as Sherlock did as he was told, one eyebrow cocked in his direction as if to chide him for being a mother hen. 'Thank you.'

'Only a fool ignores his doctor,' Sherlock murmured, standing aside to let John and Lestrade through the door before bringing up the rear.

Together, they clattered down the stairs and out into the fresh air of London's streets. Despite the sunshine, a harsh wind blew across the city, and John settled in the back of Lestrade's car with a grateful huff, wondering if he should have followed his own instructions and wrapped up warm.

The journey to Scotland Yard passed in near-silence. Only when John realised that Sherlock was holding the strap of the seatbelt away from his shoulder with a pinched expression on his face did he break the peace.

'Sorry, I should have thought of that.'

'Don't be.' Sherlock sighed as John eased his hand away and replaced Sherlock's grip. 'That's really not necessary.'

'Maybe not, but I want to help. I've set an alarm on my phone for when you're due another dose of medication, but if it gets too much –'

'I'll tell you.' Sherlock smiled at John's doubtful frown. 'How else will you be able to keep my symptoms under control while I work?'

John sighed, sensing the long hours that stretched ahead of them. 'I'll do what I can, but I want you to promise me something.'

'What?'

'If I decide we need to go home, you'll respect my authority as a doctor as well as your –' He hesitated, glancing in Greg's direction. '– friend, and do as I ask?'

'John –'

'Sherlock.' He mimicked Sherlock's weary tone perfectly, not tearing his gaze away from that aristocratic face until he got an answer.

'Fine.' Sherlock glared at Greg, rolling his eyes at the amusement that creased the DI's expression where it was reflected in the rear-view mirror. 'If the police have as much data as Lestrade says, it shouldn't take long to put together what happened.'

John nodded, holding his silence as they pulled up in the staff car park of New Scotland Yard. Sherlock disentangled himself from the seatbelt with a sigh of relief, and John watched him climb out of the vehicle. There were still hints of gracelessness, a caution to his stride and in each movement, but to anyone who didn't know him well, he seemed as healthy as always, calm and untouchable.

The building was filled with the bustle of mid-afternoon, and John followed Lestrade's lead without hesitation, keeping pace with Sherlock as they trailed down a knot of corridors before reaching one bland doorway among many.

The blinds were pulled closed over the windows, and the air within the room was close and aggravated, exhausted to the point of frustration. Anderson and Donovan were there, poring over the information. Several officers, some from Forensics and others from different departments, struggled to collate the data, but the atmosphere was more agonised than victorious.

'John,' Greg's hand on his forearm stopped him from following Sherlock over the threshold, 'A quick word? Donovan, get Sherlock up to speed and then let him do his thing. We've already agreed his restrictions on handling the evidence.'

John saw the sergeant nod, straightening her shoulders as she did as she was asked. Sherlock, for his part, adopted an attitude of placid attention, his gaze meeting John's briefly before Greg pulled him aside and shut the door.

The DI's expression was blank as he led John around the corner into a minor hallway, removed from the main chaos of the station. 'It's about the gun.'

John's stomach clenched in brief concern, but he pushed it aside. Every time he pulled the trigger there were consequences, ones which could curtail his freedom as well as costing someone their life. If that's what it came down to, then so be it. 'Is there a problem?'

'David's squawking like a chicken about it, but the truth is, the only thing to back him up is the hole in his foot.'

John frowned, his voice little more than a whisper as he ran a finger down the bridge of his nose in thought. 'No bullet?'

'Mysteriously, no.' A smile played around Greg's lips. 'No gun, either, and the official medical report suggested some inconsistencies between the wound that was inflicted and one likely to be caused by a firearm. It doesn't outright preclude the possibility, but without that key data, the claim is useless. There is some damage to the floor, but again, it's inconclusive.'

John swallowed, trying to breathe around a swell of relief and gratitude. Greg's face was deliberately bland, but there was something in his gaze that held a burden of meaning. He wondered how much the DI had been required to fudge the paperwork and hoped to God the man didn't suffer for his interference.

'You didn't have to,' he muttered, the words pushing their way out of his throat.

'Yeah, I did.' Greg stepped closer, his arms crossed over his chest. 'Besides, I had the assistance of a higher power.' He jerked his thumb to a window that overlooked the pavement outside. It took a moment, but John eventually noticed the CCTV camera: Mycroft. 'Look, I'm not saying that we can do this every time. If I thought for a minute you were a danger to innocent civilians, I'd haul your arse into court quicker than you could blink.'

'Good.' John nodded, confident that Greg was true to his word. He wasn't trying to hurt anyone except those foolish enough to threaten Sherlock's survival, and the day he did was the day he needed to be put away.

His brow furrowed as he licked his lips. 'How did you know I had it?' he asked through clenched teeth, his tone light even though his back was ramrod straight. He had thought he had been discreet.

'I didn't know, not outright, but I had my suspicions after the cabbie. Don't get me wrong, Sherlock can lie well enough when he tries, but I'm not as blind as he likes to think.' Greg scratched behind his ear and gave him a tight-lipped smile. 'If I'm completely honest, I'm glad I was right. I know you can hold your own in a fight, but it's good to know that you and Sherlock have a bit of fire-power. Just – just be careful, all right? Sherlock's never going to let you go to jail for him, and I don't want to see what he's capable of when he's backed into that kind of corner. I doubt it would be pretty.'

John let out his breath in a sigh as he nodded. 'Don't worry; I know what I'm doing.'

Greg cocked his head, looking at him in a way that made John wonder if they were still talking about the Sig or if, somehow, they had slipped onto more personal territory. 'If you say so.' Lestrade grinned, a bright glimmer on his tired face before he jerked his thumb back towards the corridor, sighing as the sound of raised voices reached their ears. 'Come on. We'd better get in there before they rip each other to shreds.'

John squared his shoulders, traversing the short distance back to the incident room and pushing his way inside. Much to his surprise, Sherlock was not the one butting heads with Lestrade's men. Instead, it was Anderson and Donovan who were sniping at one another, their nerves frayed.

'You're searching for complications where there are none!' Anderson accused, jabbing his finger at boxed glassware on the floor, all labelled and sealed in clear plastic. 'How they got it into the drink is hardly even a question. They put the drug in a vial and then tipped it in at an opportune moment.'

'Then where's the proof?' Donovan demanded, holding up one piece of lab equipment after another in demonstration. They were all large capacity vessels, some with residues clinging to their interiors which had probably already been processed. 'None of these are exactly subtle.'

Anderson huffed in irritation, his lips parted around a reply, and Sally's shoulders tensed, her stance defiant. Hurriedly, John looked around, hunting for something to diffuse the situation that Sherlock seemed content to observe, and noticed five cups of coffee waiting on the table. Steam curled from the surface of the beverages, and he took one for Sherlock, holding it out wordlessly.

'Oh!' Sherlock's voice was soft, lost in the breathlessness of another solution. The word sent a jolt down John's spine, and he blinked in surprise, glancing up to see Sherlock watching him with an all-too-familiar gleam in his eye. 'John, you're a genius.'

The coffee was still in his outstretched hand, and John hesitated, seeing nothing out of the ordinary in the offering. 'I – thanks? Why?'

'Look how you're holding the cup.'

Obligingly, he examined his grip. His fingertips were situated around the rim so that his palm was splayed across the open top, allowing the steam to unfurl against his skin. It probably wasn't the most hygienic way of passing someone their drink, but there was no handle, and he'd been distracted by what Donovan and Anderson were doing.

'I don't get it,' he admitted, shrugging his shoulders as everyone turned to Sherlock again, waiting for him to illuminate them.

'The bar is busy,' he began. 'There's barely a minute to pass over someone's drink before the next customer's there. You grab the glasses however it's easiest. Bottles are okay, as are shots – they're small – but if someone's ordered something in a tumbler, nine times out of ten, that's how you hand it over.'

'So –' Donovan shrugged. 'They, what, palmed the drugs into it? Easy enough with tablets, but everything we've got says the GHB was probably a liquid solution, so how –?'

'Where's the ring Matt was wearing?' Sherlock held out his hand until Anderson found it and placed it grudgingly in his grasp, his face twisted in doubt.

'You can't take it out of the bag.'

'I won't need to.' Sherlock turn it over in his fingers, tipping it to the light before his lips curved in interest. 'This is made from cheap pewter, probably a Chinese knock-off. The result of that is high lead content.'

'Oh!' John straightened up. 'Molly found lead flakes in the victim's stomachs. They – they came from the ring?'

Sherlock grabbed a ballpoint pen, prodding gently at the design elements of the bulky jewellery: protruding domes not much bigger than pinheads set at regular intervals. He was careful not to breach the cellophane, and a few moments later, his efforts were rewarded. A portion of the metal snapped aside, revealing a compartment. It wasn't very big, about large enough to hide a single paracetamol capsule, but when John leaned closer, he could see the corrosion inside.

'People are always looking for inventive ways to conceal their personal drug supplies when going into clubs. That's probably where the initial demand for this kind of piece came from. However, it's been modified. The overall body of it is cheap, but the compartment has been adapted to incorporate a fluid retaining seal. Without it, the solution would have leaked.'

'And they could get enough GHB in there to have an effect?'

'They altered the concentration, rather than the volume. It could partially explain the fact that victims one and two appeared to have died of overdose-related asphyxiation.' Sherlock pursed his lips in thought. 'The twins probably miscalculated; not enough to kill them, but once they had them back at the butcher's and dosed them with additional substances, the cumulative effect would have proved fatal.'

'So you reckon they targeted people who ordered drinks in bigger glasses?'

'At first, perhaps. This method of delivery would work over a shot-glass or bottle as well, as demonstrated with John's beer, but it seems less out of place over a drinking vessel with a larger opening. All Matt or David have to do is make sure the ring's oriented correctly, squeeze their fingers together to open the compartment, and the drink is contaminated.' Sherlock hesitated before handing the ring to Anderson. 'See what you can get from inside and, if you haven't already, the interior face of the band.'

'That was one of the first things I did,' Anderson replied, tugging free some paperwork and handing it over. 'Part of the issue we're having is that any DNA contributions from skin epithelials are indistinct. It's not enough to conclusively tell one twin from the other.'

'They're identical.' John nodded. 'There's no way to tell them apart on a genetic level?'

'Nothing straightforward.' Anderson leaned in, pointing to a chart. 'The diabetes could be key, though. We've seen Matt wearing the ring, so we don't need to prove that beyond photographic evidence, but there are minute traces of ketones on the interior face, possibly excreted through sweat. It can happen in diabetics if they have a period of poor control over their blood sugar.'

'So David wore it,' Sherlock concluded, 'probably while Matt was away, which is when victims three and four were taken. Process the compartment and see if I'm right about the GHB.' He turned to Donovan as Anderson headed for the lab to do as he asked, too wrapped up in the complexities of the case to question Sherlock's authority. 'What do we already know?'

The sergeant raised an eyebrow, clearly surprised that Sherlock was asking her, rather than rattling the facts off himself. However, it seemed she recognised the expression on his face, one that John knew well. He was lost in thought, already diving into the depths of his mind palace. On one level, he would be listening, his ears open for the turn of phrase that slotted the last pieces into place, but most of Sherlock's mind would be elsewhere, hunting down the answers in connections only he could discern.

'Right, well we know Shaw provided the twins with the chemicals they needed to make the drugs; he told us as much.'

'He confessed?' John asked, propping one hip on the table as Donovan nodded. 'What did that cost the prosecution?'

'His cooperation will be taken into account when he comes to trial,' Greg explained, the smile on his face dark and mirthless. 'I doubt it will do him much good considering all the stuff we found on his computer. He won't be seeing the light of day for a long time.'

'The twins cooked up what they needed in their little lab in the butcher's, which has been derelict for a couple of years,' Sally continued. 'It's part of an unentailed estate. Until about six months ago, the whole place was deserted without power or running water. However, at some point that must have changed, because the lights work.' She fanned out some glossy photos, detailing different areas of blood evidence as well as the gory contents of the drain in the middle of the freezer's floor.

'The blood in the pipes, and there's plenty of it, belongs to victims one and two. The small amounts of frozen residue in the ice belong to victims three and four. There's hardly any, which matches the superficial wounds we found on them: torn fingernails and injuries related to rape.' She glanced at Sherlock, who managed only the most absent of nods as if he was well-aware of the conclusion, before turning to John's more receptive audience. 'It suggests they used the freezer as a dissection room for the first two. It's easily big enough. They cut the bodies up when it was turned off and washed the mess away.'

'Molly already told us the second pair of victims showed signs of having been somewhere sub-zero. If they were stored there after death, that explains the smaller contributions, but I don't understand why the twins bothered to keep the corpses.' John shrugged, turning to Greg. However, it was Sherlock who spoke, his voice vague and distant.

'Matt wasn't there at the time of their murder, and it seems David doesn't have the stomach for dismemberment. Perhaps he was saving them for his brother's entertainment and the intention was to add them to the storage container where the first two victims were found.'

John frowned, his voice slow as he remembered the schedule from the staff room. 'But Matt's been back for a while now. He had plenty of time to thaw them out and cut them up, but he didn't.'

Sherlock shrugged, shaking his head. 'Perhaps they thought there was no rush, or were waiting to add someone else to their collection before transporting them all to their chosen location.'

'And then they turned up, abandoned in plain sight in a warehouse,' Greg pointed out as Sherlock's gaze swept over the items lain out on the table. 'How do you explain that?'

'Obvious,' he muttered, breathing a sigh. 'There was movement regarding the unclaimed estate: a dissolution of assets, perhaps. Someone was attempting to sell the butcher's, hence the restoration of both electricity and running water. They were not concerned about achieving a high-price – impossible in an area like Mortland Street – but they needed the utilities available to demonstrate functionality.'

He shrugged his shoulders. 'In all likelihood, there was some form of inspection of the premises. The twins got wind of it before-hand, but didn't have enough time to dispose of the bodies in their preferred manner. Lyra mentioned that they had to borrow her car one day at around the right time; you might want to process it for additional evidence.'

'So, after months of ignoring the place, someone decided to check out the butcher's and, what? They didn't go upstairs and find the twins' little meth-lab?' Donovan asked in disbelief, stepping back when Sherlock waved one of the photographs under her nose.

'Look at the dust. Or rather the lack of it. A large amount of the cooking configuration had to be kept steady and in one location. Moving the glassware would have left a visible footprint of its presence, so when they were hiding their kit, probably dragging it back to their flat, they wiped the table clean. Every other surface in there is thick with filth, but a clean space would be less incriminating than the imprints of their laboratory.'

He waved a dismissive hand. 'Even without the inspection, a new disposal site for the bodies would have been necessary by that point. All the information we have suggests that, by the time three and four were dumped, we had already uncovered the corpses in the storage container and compromised its sanctity. It's not like the twins could miss the fact it was wrapped in police tape.'

Sherlock's brow pleated in a frown as he began sorting through the polythene bags, pulling out several of interest. They all contained clothes and shoes, the victim's last sartorial choices, and John watched him hesitate over each one, reading the associated paperwork.

'They kept them: trophies, I think,' Greg explained. 'The clothes would have been easy enough to destroy, but they were in one of the bedrooms. We're still waiting on the results from some fluid deposits.'

'Why are there five?'

John blinked, seeing Donovan and Lestrade share a glance of confusion as his spine tingled with uncertainty. Sherlock never forgot key facts about the investigation. Never. 'There were five victims?' he managed, wincing at the questioning tone of his voice and lifting his eyebrows when Sherlock looked up at him. 'The one in the alleyway, remember?'

'The one who was clothed while he was viciously stabbed and sliced to death?' Sherlock asked, waving a hand at the objects in front of them. 'The one who came into the morgue with said clothes still in his possession? According to this, all these were found in the twin's rooms, so why are there five outfits, rather than four?'

'Shit,' Greg hissed, rubbing his hands over his brow. 'You think there's someone else? Someone we've not found?

'Wrong.' Sherlock's expression was glazed with recollection before he blinked himself awake. 'Not your assessment. Mine. I asked Matt about his motives. I indicated that victim number five was his first murder, and he said I was wrong. Now we know why.'

He reached out, picking up a pair of old, scuffed trainers, tired to the point of falling apart. The polythene around them crinkled as he changed the angle, his eyes intent before he tipped the shoe for John to see.

'These belonged to someone who had neither the inclination nor the funds to replace shoes that were – albeit barely – functional. A young individual, used to sharing a living space where his possessions may have been called into contention. A hostel, a foster home, something similar.' With a twist, he manipulated the trainer's tongue so that the underside was visible. 'However, the initials inside, N.B., are nearly worn away, so he had been out of that environment for a while.'

He looked at John, his expression calm and cold. 'Amanda Coleridge caught our attention: the girl who was cruelly abandoned by her long-term lover and fled home to the United States when she flunked her university course. None of us gave more than a passing thought to what happened to her ex-boyfriend.'

'You said you couldn't find him,' John remembered, frowning in recollection as his heart sank. 'Not even in missing persons.'

'Because without Amanda, there was no one to notice his absence. This outfit doesn't belong to the last victim. It belongs to the first.' He looked up at Lestrade, his eyes alive with the thrill of the game.

'You want to know what questions to put to the twins? Ask them what they did with Nathan Brantley's body.'

Chapter Text

The observation room was dark, the lights above their heads grey and lifeless. In the wall, the one-way mirror glowed like a television screen, given definition by the flat, fluorescent illumination beyond. Currently, the scene was barren: a few chairs, misshapen with age, surrounded a metal table, scratched, scuffed and bolted to the floor. A white clock hung on the wall, dull and institutional, its second hand ticking around its face.

'Are you sure this is a good idea?'

At first glance, John seemed relaxed, but Sherlock knew better. Strong arms barred his chest, his shoulders were rigid beneath his jacket and those thin lips moved as if he was biting back words of caution.

John did not want to be here, yet he remained with Sherlock even as he longed to be back in Baker Street. Sherlock wished he could grab John's hand and pull him safely home, but he couldn't leave the case as it stood. He needed to ensure neither Matt nor David were free to walk under the open sky for many years to come. The thought of them slipping through the net of the justice system set his teeth on edge and trailed chills down his spine. It was unlikely – Lestrade was not that inept – but Sherlock would not rest easy until every last loophole in the investigation had been stitched closed.

In one short stride, he reached John's side, feeling hard muscles relax as their shoulders brushed. 'Since I cannot question the twins face-to-face, this is the next best thing. Interrogation by proxy.' Light spilled into the room from the corridor as Lestrade joined them, his stubbled face shadowed and weary. 'I'll tell the Inspector what to say, and he'll have the answers he needs.'

'Oi, I'm not here to be your mouthpiece,' the DI grumbled, waving a finger in Sherlock's direction before switching on the light overhead, stripping away the comforting twilight. 'I said you could listen while we questioned them, that's all. The last thing I need is you muttering at me while I'm trying to work.'

Sherlock raised an eyebrow, waiting for the inevitable surrender. Lestrade may have his pride, but he realised how valuable a resource Sherlock was in this situation. He held out his hand for the device that would allow him to communicate, unheard by David, with the DI, smiling as it was grudgingly relinquished.

'Fine, but I don't want to hear a word out of you unless it's necessary, all right? You press this button to activate the channel, release to close it.' He demonstrated, his thumb pressing over Sherlock's grip in emphasis before he waved his hand at the room in general. 'There's some kind of system in here that normally does the job for us, but it's not been working right for the past couple of weeks. This place is soundproof to an extent, but try and keep it down. The twins will probably guess they're being watched, but there's no point in removing all doubt. Got it?'

'Got it,' John replied when Sherlock said nothing, tossing the small transmitter in the air and catching it again as he stared through the glass in the wall.

'You'll interview them separately?' he asked, pressing his hand to his aching neck as Lestrade nodded. 'Good. If all else fails, that improves our chances of playing them off against each other. By the end of the day, we should be able to prove the majority of the charges, but whether we can convince a jury of their guilt is another matter. Without the whole story, the prosecution's job becomes exponentially more difficult.'

'That's why we're hoping we can get these bastards to fill in the gaps with a confession.' Lestrade rocked back on his heels. 'Both have declined a lawyer, but other than that, neither has said a word since we locked them up. There's a chance they'll give us nothing.'

'They'll talk.' Sherlock smirked, steepling his fingers in front of his lips as he considered the twins, identical in appearance, but with distinct nuances to their personalities. 'David is the least confident of the two; he might fold under pressure. Matt is another matter: he won't give us what we want without good reason. He's confident and proud of the fact that it's taken us so long to catch up with them. If he confesses to anything, it will be on his terms.'

He whirled around, his body driven by the race of his thoughts even as an arrow of pain shot down his spine. 'Question David first, and don't mention Nathan Brantley. Not yet. If we can get him to tell us how he progressed from one victim to the next, we can build on that.'

'And if we can't?'

'We'll worry about that when the time comes.'

'I wish I had your confidence,' Lestrade admitted, his hands shaking as he rubbed them over his face. 'They're smart, the pair of them. Too clever to think they can protest their innocence. The best plan for them is to give us nothing – make us prove what they did and hope we fail.'

Sherlock straightened, stifling another flinch as the constant ache of the bite sharpened, joining the clamour of muscular strain in his shoulders. 'You think that's a possibility?'

Lestrade spread his hands, his jaw clenched. 'We don't even know what killed the second pair of victims. That's the pivot on which everything else rests. If we can prove they were murdered, then the charges pretty much double, and the punishment goes up dramatically.'

'And without that?' John's question seemed to hover in the air, pale and ghostly.

'It will be twice as hard to make the prosecution hold water. They won't walk free, but they won't spend as long behind bars as they deserve.'

Sherlock muffled a sigh, gesturing towards the observation window and the room beyond. 'Get David and start asking your questions. If you play it right, he'll tell you everything.'

The DI held his gaze, eyes eclipsed with exhaustion and the leading edge of defeat before he nodded. 'If you say so. Remember, don't deduce in my ear unless it's important. I don't need the interruptions.' Reaching out, he flicked off the light-switch, leaving John and Sherlock in the sheltering gloom.

'Do you know something I don't?' John asked, tilting his head. 'You seem to think this is all wrapped up.'

'Not yet, but give it a few hours.' Sherlock reached into his pocket, pulling out his phone and changing the settings. He muted the back-light to a mere gleam, rather than a blazing beacon, protecting the sanctity of the veil of shadows that obscured them from sight. 'The twins have been separated; they have had no opportunities to communicate with each other. Any contingency plan they devised for this situation will be rudimentary at best: maintained silence is the most probable. That ploy is ineffective when there are other parties involved. It takes too much trust. David has to have faith that his brother won't sell him out, and so does Matt.'

'They worked together to rape and kill people. You really think they're going to turn against each other now?'

'Not immediately. However, between Anderson's team and Molly in the morgue, the evidence is being processed at an impressive rate, and the details of their crime spree are coming into focus. Their opportunities for negotiation will decline with every new fact we unearth.'

John shrugged. 'And if they're not interested in cutting a deal?'

'Then it's up to Lestrade to find their vulnerabilities and apply pressure. For David, it's fear. Matt probably told him that no one would catch them, and every successful attack only validated that hypothesis. David had confidence in himself, his twin and his methods. That's been destroyed.'

'And Matt's weakness?'

In front of them, the door to the interrogation room opened, and David entered. Cuffs cinched his hands at the small of his back, preventing the use of crutches and necessitating a wheelchair for his injured foot. He wore bland, cotton garments, two sizes too big. No doubt they had been provided by the police when they removed his clothes for processing. Stubble blurred his jaw and tiredness stamped deep impressions under his eyes. The tousled mess of his hair suggested that, unrestrained in the seclusion of his cell, he had raked his fingers through it, and the nervous dart of his tongue had left his lips chapped and sore.

'You're looking at Matt's weakness, such as it is. If my suspicions are correct, all this began because of David's impulses and Matt's desire to protect his brother. That was the initial driving force – the taste for murder; the urge to experiment in the acts that David enjoyed – that all came later. If a threat to David won't make Matt talk, we'll have to hope his arrogance works in our favour instead.' Sherlock folded his arms loosely, mindful of his body's aches as he took in the deep lines of stress carving their way into David's face. 'Looks like someone slept badly.'

'No rest for the wicked.' John quirked his eyebrows before turning back to the scene in front of them. 'You're right; he's terrified.'

'He has no idea how much we know. Keeping him off balance is essential. Lestrade's done this dozens of times; if he's got any sense, he'll let him stew for a bit.' Sherlock smiled as the DI took a seat, apparently engrossed in the paperwork in his grasp as he got comfortable. Donovan and another police officer stood nearby, watchful and patient as the sound of the clock's tick echoed through the speakers near John's elbow.

David shifted, the handcuffs chiming musically as Donovan spoke, going through the preliminaries for the benefit of the recording and giving voice to the relevant rights. Through it all, he kept his mouth shut, confirming his name for the record, but no more. He sat quietly, his head bowed and his shoulders hunched, his face awash with a sickly pallor as his breathing stuttered. He did not even glance at the mirror, too lost in the immediacy of his situation to take in his surroundings.

Slowly, Lestrade leaned forward, laying out photographs like a dealer cutting cards: mortuary images. Sherlock barely spared them a glance, familiar with the close-angle pictures and the limited data they had to offer. He was more intent on David's reaction: neither pride nor pleasure, but nausea. 'Look at that,' he whispered, leaning against John's shoulder so he could speak into his ear. 'He doesn't find delight in seeing them dead – that solidifies the implication that, for most of them, their demise was either accidental or logistical.'

He watched as the face of the final one was revealed, the slices mere lines now the body had been cleaned. A choking noise broke the peace, and they watched as David turned away, staring resolutely at the floor. 'Any murders he committed were bloodless. He enjoys the sight of injuries caused by sexual assault, but others repulse him.'

'That's not proof,' John pointed out. 'You can deduce all you like. Unless it's clear to the jury, it's not going to stick.'

'No, but it means I can confirm to Anderson that he won't find David's fingerprints on any of the knives. Anything we can do to narrow the scope at this point will work in our favour.' Sherlock shifted, watching as Lestrade began to speak. He kept his voice flat and controlled, measured and authoritative: an anchor on which David could rely.

'We already know what you did,' he said softly, 'you and your brother, but we don't want one of you to pay for the other one's crimes.' He turned the page on the report in front of him, feigning interest in the dense typeface as he drew in a breath. 'As it stands, it's you who'll suffer most.'

'That's not true, is it? I thought we could prove Matt's a murderer, but the most we can hope for David is manslaughter until we figure out how three and four died,' John murmured.

'Ambiguous phrasing.' Sherlock sighed. 'Lestrade's not saying how he'll suffer. David's merely sensing that he's going to take the fall for his twin. It's an opening gambit; the DI doesn't expect it to work.'

True enough, David held his tongue as he continued to avert his eyes from the victims arrayed in front of him. It was the single strategy in a relentless blockade, and no matter what Lestrade said, the silence remained intact. Every shift in the line of questioning was subtle, a flawless segue, but nothing could encourage David to speak. He sat, pale and shaking, his teeth sinking into his lip hard enough to make it bleed, and said nothing as the hands swept around the clock's face.

'It's been an hour.' John scrubbed his hand through his hair. 'He's not going to tell us anything.'

In his pocket, Sherlock felt a tremor rush through the sleek shape of his mobile. Careful to shield the screen with his hand, he read the message from Molly, a smile crossing his face at the information.

“Lead flakes are a match for the ring. Also identified traces of insulin in the bore of the needle tip we found in victim three. Copy of the report on its way. Hope it helps! Mol xxx”

Mutely, he handed the phone to John, watching him scan the words before he looked up. 'A bit of confirmation, but how does it help?'

'So far David's given us nothing new,' Sherlock admitted, his breath catching in his throat as the pieces of the case slotted into place to give him the most likely picture. 'All we've been talking about is the crimes he committed – the details that are right in front of us. Perhaps it's time we made this more personal; we need to tell him precisely how he did this – overwhelm him with facts.'

'Do you have the answer, or are you guessing?' John asked, his smile taking the edge off his challenge as Sherlock tossed him a faintly affronted glare.

'I never guess.' With a twitch of his finger, he activated the transmitter, his voice low and firm. 'I need to talk to you; I might be able to give you the leverage you need.'

On the other side of the glass, the DI touched his earpiece in acknowledgement, excusing himself with a shark-like smile in David's direction before motioning for Donovan to follow him. There was just time to see a couple more officers take Lestrade's place, watching their charge with the flat, emotionless eyes of men on guard, before Sherlock eased open the door and slipped out into the corridor.

'Whatever you've got for me, it better be good. Fuck knows I'm getting nowhere.' Lestrade shook his head, his fists clenched in aggravation before he pulled out a notebook and the stub of a pencil, trained by years of working with Sherlock to take notes while the deductions sluiced around him.

'Only because, due to lack of detail, you've not been able to attack it from the right angle. It's enabling David to maintain what's left of his composure, but you only have to look at him to see he's on edge.' Sherlock skimmed his phone from one hand to the other, registering its weight in his palm as he continued. 'You just need to give him the right push.'

'And you're going to tell me how to do it?' For the first time in hours, the DI's voice brightened with hope, and when Sherlock looked up he could see that he and the sergeant were watching him, attentive and poised, while John appeared to be smothering a familiar smile of something like pride. Their eyes met, and Sherlock cocked his eyebrow: a mute “Are you ready for this?” before he began.

'Victims one and two are all wrapped up. Drugged with GHB and ketamine and then raped, they died of overdose-related symptoms. That's proved by the autopsy, and the signature of the drugs Matt and David manufactured will confirm it, once Anderson has those results.' Sherlock waved a hand dismissively, moving on.

'David complained that, after drugging John and spiking my drink, they'd run out of the necessary components to make more. Thanks to Shaw's subsequent arrest, they couldn't get replacements. However, even before that, he was changing the way he dosed his victims. Three and four were given a less potent concentration, and nothing additional appeared to be added to the mix. Why?'

'Maybe he was scared of them dying again?' Donovan suggested. 'Didn't want them keeling over the same way as the first two?'

'Possibly,' he acknowledged, rubbing his hands together in thought. 'For whatever reason, and with Matt's absence, David adjusted his methods. He administered the drug at the club and watched his victims. When they started to show signs of inebriation, the peak of which would be short-lived, he escorted them to the bathroom: a helpful staff-member giving them some privacy.' He paused, considering the potential obstacles David would have had to face. 'The chances are he timed it to align with his break, or at the end of his shift so no one at the bar would become suspicious, or perhaps he cited some other duties. He could have just said Price told him to do something else; people at Iso don't talk to their boss if they can help it. I doubt they'd have questioned David's assertions.'

'Okay, so he got them in the bathroom, the same as he did with you. What then? Takes them out of the fire-door, I assume?' Lestrade raised an eyebrow.

'Not before he injects them with insulin. Molly found traces of it in the needle bore that snapped off in the neck of the third victim. With ready access to a supply, David relied on a single, low dose of GHB to maintain his victim's confusion until the insulin kicked in. It bought him enough time to get them back to the butcher's.'

Ideas ricocheted around his mind, bright with possibilities as he considered the most logical progression. 'One and two were completely helpless in the thrall of the drugs he used and died as a result, but three and four fought back, albeit weakly. Once the GHB faded which, unaltered, would probably take about half an hour, they were left confused and weak, but entirely aware of what was happening to them.'

Sherlock spun on his heel, pacing back and forth as he slipped his phone back into his pocket and wove his fingers together. 'That's the key. That's what makes David move from manslaughter to murder. Any retrograde amnesia victim three experienced thanks to the GHB would have been negligible. He could remember too much, and he had to be kept quiet.'

Lestrade scribbled fiercely in his notebook while Donovan leant against the wall, her brow locked in a frown as she considered Sherlock's words. 'So how did he kill them?' she asked, voicing the one question that still had no absolute answer. 'We can't prove anything without that.'

Sherlock stopped at John's side as he considered her question. 'Whatever it was, it was clean. There's no blood and no injuries. John, your first thought was pharmaceutical –'

He nodded, the gesture confident. 'Those two died of something chemical, I'm sure of it. There was no sign of fatal trauma.'

'Then there's something in either the flat or the butcher's, something we've missed. Everything in their drugs arsenal would have left an obvious signature to be found at autopsy.' Sherlock closed his eyes, tipping back his head and cursing as agony accompanied the movement, scattering his hypotheses like leaves before the wind.

Immediately, John was there, his fingers delving under the scarf to press against the unforgiving stretch of tendons beneath his skin. 'Still bad?'

'Unfortunately,' he admitted as Donovan's heels echoed along the corridor, the sergeant off on some unknown mission. 'Can you give me anything for it?'

John's expression was lined with apology. 'Not for another ninety minutes or so.' He looked like he wanted to say more; perhaps he was bracing himself to give the order that they return to Baker Street, but something held John's tongue, and instead he managed a weak smile. 'I know I've got no chance of making you go home. Can you stand still, at least? All the pacing about can't be helping.'

Reluctantly, Sherlock did as he was asked, stifling the restless urge to move as Lestrade read over his notes. 'You can waste hours trying to prove everything I've said, or you can get him to confess. Don't mention the rape, focus on the deaths. Unlike Matt, David has unresolved moral issues about ending lives. Not enough to stop him from doing it, but he's been left with regrets.'

'You think he'll break?'

'Yes. Victim three was an experiment – a chance to see how well the insulin would work and how it would alter the experience. He liked the way it turned out – even the murder didn't change that – because victim four went missing about a week later and everything suggests he suffered the same ordeal, from the use of insulin to the cause of death.'

'I'll see what I can do,' the DI promised, jerking his head towards where their suspect was waiting. 'You listening in?'

Sherlock nodded, wrinkling his nose as his neck complained anew. He was about to enter the observation room when Donovan hurried back, a folder clenched in her left hand and something blue in her right. She held it out to John, who accepted it with a surprised smile.

'Heat pack,' she explained. 'It's some kind of gel. You chuck it in the microwave. We keep several around for the knocks we get in the line of duty. I thought it would help.'

'Thanks, Sally.' John turned to Sherlock, holding out his hand. 'Give me your scarf, we'll wrap it up and put it on your neck. It should at least stop the discomfort getting any worse.'

Donovan appeared to be stifling a smile as Sherlock surrendered to John's efforts. He relaxed as the warmth washed over his flesh, overwhelming the grinding ache with a different sensation. The weight of his coat did a fair job of holding the pack in place, and he arched an eyebrow in the sergeant's direction as he indicated the file.

'What's that?'

Rather than reply, she stepped into the observation room, careful to only let in a limited amount of light as they followed her. John brought up the rear and closed the door behind them as Donovan skirted around a small table tucked into one corner and dropped the file on its surface.

'Scene photos of the flat and the butcher's. You said we'd missed something, something that probably turned out to be a murder weapon. Take a look and tell us what you find.' She pursed her lips, her jaw working before she added a grudging, 'Please?'

Sherlock let his obedience answer for him as he took out his pocket magnifier, tilting the images towards the light from the interrogation room and focussing his attention within the boundaries of the large, glossy pages. Dimly, he was aware of the click of the door swinging shut behind Donovan's back. A moment later, the sounds of the interview resumed as Lestrade took his seat with his sergeant at his side.

'Is there a reason Donovan appears to be somewhat more cooperative than usual?' he murmured, cutting a sidelong glance at John.

Something flickered across his expressive face, the lines around his eyes deepening in a wince before he muttered a reply. 'I think she felt responsible when you were taken from Iso; I may have helped her cement that impression.' John shrugged, looking moderately ashamed of himself.

'Alleviating her shame over her perceived failing.' Sherlock grunted, squinting at the second photograph – the inside of a wardrobe containing half a roll of chicken-wire fencing, raggedly cut at one edge – before pitching it aside. 'I doubt it will last long. Donovan's more intelligent than most of Lestrade's subordinates. She has to realise that what happened at the bar was almost entirely beyond her control.'

'Guilt's not exactly logical,' John reminded him, falling quiet again as the DI's tired voice grated over the speakers. It started off as a gentle monologue, growing in intensity as he began to chip at David's defences.

'It's easy, isn't it, when they're drinking too much? Between the booze and the drugs, they can barely walk straight. They needed help, maybe they even asked for it.' Lestrade's tone was bland but for the hard edge beneath his words – a hidden trap waiting to spring. 'They came home with you, these men. They let you look after them, and then they died.'

'What's he doing?' John asked, glancing at Sherlock.

He looked up, taking in the interrogation room. 'Lestrade's making it sound like the victims chose what happened to them, as if everything that occurred was their fault, not David's. It's a standard manipulation to lull him into a sense of security and build a false rapport. It won't last long.'

'You liked it, didn't you? Being needed? Being wanted?' Lestrade's cheek twitched as he ran his tongue over his teeth. His next move was sudden, a switch in direction, no longer leaning back and away but forward, into the boundary of David's personal space as the man flinched. 'Or did you just like playing with them when they couldn't fight back? That's how it was with the first two. Tell me, did they die afterwards, or while you were in the middle of it all? Ruined the mood, did it? So you changed the way you worked – less GHB, but add some insulin to the mix and you've got someone who can fight you a little, make you work for it?'

David made a faint noise in his throat, a pulse of sound that had Sherlock narrowing his eyes in interest. Lestrade had done as he had said, not mentioning the sexual assault explicitly. He angled the interrogation to concentrate on the deaths, rather than the rapes, making sure David was forced to relive the part of the experience from which he derived no pleasure.

'I bet that's what really turned you on; the fighting, the blood – that's what happened to him, isn't it?' He gestured to the fifth photograph, Matt's kill from the alley, and Sherlock saw the moment when David's face went slack. His body trembled, a miniature movement that became a distinct shake of his head. Still not words, but a denial.

'You cornered him, had your fun, then stabbed him to death, sliced up his face, chopped off his hand. Christ, you must have been covered in his blood. Your fingers, your clothes, your face, your hair. Was that what you wanted? Was that what you were aiming for all along? Wasn't it enough anymore to make them moan and cry, you had to make them scream?'

'No!' David's voice echoed in the close confines of the room. His throat convulsed as sweat glossed his temples. 'You fucking pigs don't know anything. He wasn't mine, that one. I didn't even touch him! Matt did it.'

Silence followed his pronouncement. It was the breach in the dam, the first truth which would lead the others out as David's walls crumbled. His breathing devolved into rapid, desperate pants, more anger than shame as Lestrade leant forward again, his body language open and his face understanding as he said the words that would encourage David to speak.

'Tell me.'

With a shuddering gasp, David hesitantly began confirming Sherlock's deductions. It was gratifying to be so thoroughly right, and Sherlock looked back down at the photographs, losing himself in their details as the facts of the case washed over him, given life by David's rough voice.

No one interrupted his flow until he mentioned taking his victims away from the bar, using the staff bathroom and the fire-door within as an exit route, just as Sherlock suspected. 'It was so easy,' he murmured. 'They followed me as if I was their best friend. All of them, the moment I suggested it. I didn't have to hide in the loo for fucking hours. Not like I did with...'

'Sherlock Holmes?' Lestrade asked, finishing David's sentence and narrowing his eyes curiously. 'Of course, you weren't in charge last night. Your brother was. What would you have done if Mr Holmes hadn't entered the room of his own accord? Waited until closing time?'

David's lip curled before he shook his head. 'We had back-up plans. Matt said he'd ask him to change the loo roll or something if he didn't come my way by midnight. Maybe he'd have been suspicious.' He shrugged. 'As long as I was quick enough, it wouldn't make a difference.'

Sherlock gave a quiet snort of irritation, glancing briefly at John's intent profile. However, there was nothing to see except grim focus as Lestrade led David back to the subject at hand: the four men he had successfully led through to the finale of his plans.

Now, David's eyes glazed with recollection, and his voice became a murmur. Sometimes his words took on the intensity of lust, leaden with remembered delight, but it was short-lived. He muttered and mumbled his way through the deaths of the first two, sudden and unexpected. 'They just – stopped,' he explained. 'I didn't know GHB could do that. Didn't figure out that's what it was until the second one. I thought the first was just a heart attack or something.'

'And if they'd survived the overdose,' Sherlock murmured, seeing John startle from his horrified fascination, 'Do you think he would have let them go?'

'Perhaps if they couldn't remember anything?' John asked, his shoulders slumping as Sherlock shot him a disbelieving look.

'Don't let this fool you. David might be confessing, but he's clever enough to try and spin it in his favour. This isn't about sibling loyalty anymore, it's about saving his own skin. In a minute, he'll start implicating Matt as the main perpetrator.'

Sure enough, almost in the next breath, David spoke of his brother: cold, ruthless and without remorse. True, Sherlock acknowledged, but David's slant as the innocent party was nothing but falsehood, and he tuned it out as he turned to the last image, searching for the answer that would shatter any such illusions.

In the end, he almost overlooked it. Amidst the threatening shadows at the butcher's, the object was, at first glance, benign. Only its incongruous appearance made him look twice, and Sherlock's breath caught as realisation bloomed in his mind. 'Oh!'

'What?' John looked over, his attention captivated by the exclamation as he peered at the photo with a frown. 'What is it? What have you seen?'

Shaking his head, Sherlock took the transmitter from his pocket and spoke into it, his voice hurried. 'I know how he killed victims three and four.'

In the observation room, Lestrade's already still body went rigid. David had fallen quiet, and he bared his teeth in a snarl as Lestrade got to his feet and departed.

Immediately, Sherlock followed, intercepting the DI in the corridor and waving the photograph under his nose. 'Of everything you might expect to find in the den of a murderer, a house-plant is not one of them.' He gestured to the foliage in the near-most corner of the shot. 'Even Anderson didn't think anything of it; he barely bothered to focus the lens, but look. Slender green leaves and pink, five-petal flowers. My mother had a mature one in the garden. Neither Mycroft nor I were permitted to touch it.'

'What is it?' John asked as he shut the door behind him. 'It just looks like a plant to me. A bit out of place, but –'

'Nerium oleander. You can buy it at any garden nursery, and it's highly toxic. If ingested it can cause diarrhoea, vomiting, cardiac irregularity and death.'

Lestrade huffed, glancing at John and then back to Sherlock. 'There weren't any signs of anyone throwing up or anything like that.'

'Even if they cleaned up after, it would have been visible in the autopsy.' John reached out, touching Sherlock's elbow apologetically. 'At least the gastrointestinal stuff. Vomit in the throat, an empty gut... We've got reports from Molly showing stomach contents. They didn't expel anything.'

'Those symptoms only present when the toxin is ingested orally. What if the plant provided the active ingredient for an injected solution? Done straight into the bloodstream, the poison would reach the heart in moments, causing severe irregularities in the rhythm prior to failure.' He smirked at the idea, simple, yet ingenious.

'In a case like this where other drugs are administered intravenously, we wouldn't think anything of another needle-mark, and the signs of cardiac arrest would be subtle; the organ's distress would be brief before it stopped entirely. It's the kind of poisoning that's easy to miss unless you're looking for it.' He whipped out his phone, his fingers blurring over the keys as he texted Molly. 'A couple of hours and we'll be able to prove it, unless Anderson's already managed to find traces of processing in any of that glassware.'

'Are you sure?' Lestrade asked, squinting down at the photo.

'Go and look at it yourself. Unless your Forensics are completely inept, they'll have collected the plant. See?' He pointed to something, a corner of plastic just visible. 'They've left the tee with all the care information on it in the soil. If nothing else, it will confirm the species.'

Lestrade sighed, already half-turned to do as Sherlock suggested. 'I'll see if Anderson's got anything new for me. You might think he's an idiot, but he and his team can work fast when there's a need.'

They watched him go, the two of them shifting restlessly as the minutes passed, each lost within their own musings. 'How much longer do you think it will be?' John asked eventually, his eyes tired but his smile warm as Sherlock slumped at his side. 'You reckon we can get any more out of David?'

'We might not need to. Lestrade will tell him about the oleander, just to see if he'll confirm it, but Anderson and his team will get there in the end.'

'What about Brantley?'

He turned to take in John's expression, noting the strain around his mouth and the slump of his shoulders. 'He's the one we know least about; the one for whom we have little data beyond the clothes we found. The whole point of this interrogation has been to unsettle David so that he'll tell us, honestly, what he knows.' He smirked at the sound of the DI approaching, his conversation with Anderson hurried and intense. 'It looks like they've found what they need to give him one more push.'

Lestrade approached with eager strides, the grin on his face brimming with triumph. He didn't bother to explain as he gestured to the observation room. 'Get in there. You'll want to hear this.'

Sherlock grunted, following John's light tug on his arm until they stood in front of the one-way glass, watching the DI settle, blank-faced, into his chair. Some hastily-composed preliminary reports were clutched in his hand, and Sherlock tried to crane his neck to get a better look, grimacing in annoyance when his body refused to cooperate.

'Be patient,' John murmured, his voice lilted with amusement. 'We'll know in a minute.'

'He should have told me first,' Sherlock retorted, crossing his arms.

Lestrade looked up at David, his dark eyes flat and professional. 'It's amazing what Forensics can find. Your fingerprints on various syringes, the array of chemicals inside, the victims' blood contributions on a number of needles – you should have been more careful disposing of the evidence. They even located the receipt from the garden centre where you bought some oleander four months ago.' His expression twisted as he looked down at his paperwork. 'You poisoned your victims by steeping the seeds and condensing the result into a residue which you then injected as a saline suspension.'

Sherlock hummed in interest, speaking up at John's puzzled glance. 'They purchased the oleander before they took the first victim other than Brantley. If he hadn't died of a GHB overdose, they would have killed him with the toxin: clean and subtle.'

'Do you want to know what else they found?' Lestrade asked, his voice silken and lethal. 'Seminal deposits on the victim's garments. Most of them from masturbation after the fact, but there was some that seemed oddly placed. It didn't take long to figure it out.' The DI cut him a glare. 'Spatter from the rape itself, judging by the cellular degradation. You should have stood back before you ripped the condom off.'

David swallowed, his body stiff with rejection. His jaw worked furiously and his eyes blazed, but there was no denial. Instead he looked as if he had been punched in the solar plexus, winded and pale, and it only got worse as Lestrade continued to speak.

'The precise charges are liable to change, and not for the better. You're looking at two counts of murder at least, and when the jury hears what you intended for the first two, I doubt they'll be lenient. You'll be put away for decades, and believe me, prison won't be a good place for a bloke like you.'

David bowed his head, his shoulders shivering fitfully. A minute later, he wrenched his gaze up, wide-eyed and frantic as Lestrade gave voice to a promise. 'Of course, there's a way you can help your case. It won't make it all go away, but it'll be taken into account during your trial.'

'Something you still don't know?' David managed, but his sneer was frail as the DI leant back in his chair, confident and commanding.

'Tell us what happened to Nathan Brantley.'

Confusion. Sherlock saw David's face cloud with it, thick and visceral as his brow knotted. 'Nathan?' he queried, and for once the bafflement in his voice was not an act. 'He – I –' He wrinkled his nose, ducking his head to the side in acknowledgement. 'He got us into it, the drugs I mean. Gave me and Matt some to try. It was through someone he knew that we got in touch with Shaw, but –' David's eyes skittered over the images in front of him. 'We fooled around, once, when we were high on stuff. I – I liked it. He was so –' David bit his lip, leaving everyone listening to fill in the blanks.

Obedient. Passive. Helpless.

'He threatened to tell people what I'd done. Said it was rape, but he didn't fight back! Didn't say no.'

'I doubt he said “yes” either,' John growled, turning away from the observation window and stalking to the back of the room, his clothes hushing as he moved. 'You were right; Nathan unwittingly gave them a taste for it.'

'Next thing I know, he's dumped Amanda, she's heading back to America and he's fucked off somewhere,' David continued, his voice tinny through the speakers before turning hollow with realisation. 'Matt said Nathan had left. Got a job offer up north, but he didn't did he?'

Lestrade didn't answer, allowing the peace to thicken as he glanced towards the mirror, one eyebrow lifted in question. Sherlock grimaced. He had expected David to tell them more, but it seemed that, in Nathan's death at least, he was innocent. Switching on the transmitter, he spoke into it. 'Wheel him away and get the brother. Let them see each other. David's distress is palpable. It will shake Matt's equilibrium.'

Releasing the button, he turned to face John, taking in the curve of his back and the tilt of his head, brittle and unforgiving. Sherlock reached out, dragging his fingertips along John's jaw and over the trip of his pulse. 'I could understand if your anger was all for the twins, but it's not, is it?'

John glanced up, perhaps surprised that Sherlock had caught the subtlety to his mood. His sigh was a susurrus of defeat, and the smile that stretched his lips held no mirth. 'It was easy to worry about Amanda, a vulnerable young woman in a foreign country. I never even thought about her boyfriend. Never thought of him as anything other than a dick for leaving her. Now –'

'Now it turns out he's dead, and you are ashamed for having thought ill of him.' Sherlock eased closer, sweeping his thumb soothingly below John's collar. 'Illogical, considering all the information we had validated your perceptions.'

'That's not the point.' John lifted his hand, catching Sherlock's in his grasp and giving it a squeeze. 'He's as deserving of our sympathy as any of the others the twins killed, and instead I heard what he did to Amanda – one phone-call to finish it off and then nothing – and judged him on that.'

The sound of a door opening cut through the peace, and Sherlock felt John stiffen, the pensive clouds of his mood parting to reveal sharp distaste. He could hear the shuffle of footsteps and the blunt, monosyllabic orders of Lestrade. The same rights that David had been given were uttered, and Matt's reply, his name for the record, was calm and apathetic.

Sherlock turned to survey the man caught within the frame of the one-way mirror, lolling comfortably in the chair opposite the Detective Inspector, dismissive of both Lestrade and Donovan. His gaze slid over the other officers and came to rest on the reflective pane. Immediately, it sharpened with interest. The dark wing of one eyebrow lifted, and Sherlock flinched as Matt appeared to look straight at him, a leer pinching his face. It was a false connection, but that didn't stop a prickle of disgust chasing down his spine.

John moved forward, placing himself between them to block off the non-existent line of sight. It was painfully reminiscent of the previous night, bold and unquestioning, and Sherlock drew in a deep breath, reaching out to give John's shoulder a thankful squeeze as he murmured, 'He doesn't know we're here.'

'It doesn't matter,' John replied, lifting his chin in defiance, staring Matt down as if he could not tear himself away. Unlike David, frightened and losing his edge, Matt was a predator still, confined but threatening.

'Oi,' Lestrade snapped. 'Stop admiring yourself and pay attention. Your brother's been kind enough to tell us all about the fun you two have been having.'

A shadow darted across Matt's face: fury and betrayal. It was the expression of a moment, but Sherlock watched as, in the blink of an eye, he adjusted his priorities, removing his twin from the equation. He tutted, gazing at the DI as he shrugged his shoulders. 'I don't think his testimony is worth much, do you?'

'We've got what we need to prove which bits are true and what's just bullshit.'

'Then why am I even here?'

Lestrade clenched his jaw, his waking hours weighing heavy on his shoulders. 'You dismembered two bodies, then raped and brutally murdered a third. We matched several blades to the wounds and your prints are all over the handles. We also found the condom you used – your semen inside, and the victim's blood on the exterior – thrown away in the alley. Did you think we wouldn't bother looking?' The DI narrowed his eyes as Matt grimaced. 'Or did you just not care? Maybe you were too pissed off to think about what you were doing, seeing as how you hadn't managed to get your hands on who you really wanted.'

'That changed.' Matt grinned, shifting his hips meaningfully and glancing towards the mirror again. 'Seems like you've got the whole story. Why not just charge me and stop wasting my time?'

'Because of Nathan Brantley.'

His face remained motionless at the name, a deliberate mask of indifference. The cuffs that held his wrists behind his back scraped across the plastic chair as he gave a thoughtful hum. 'You want to know about Nathan?' he asked, leaning forward and licking his lips as he hissed his response to Lestrade's face. 'I want Sherlock here. I'm not talking to anyone else.'

'You don't get to call the shots,' the DI snarled, loosening the knot of his tie. 'And you sure as hell won't set eyes on him again. You had your chance, and thank God he got away from you.'

'I guess you could say I bit off more than I could chew.' Matt grinned, his blunt teeth gleaming dully in the unforgiving light as Sherlock's neck twinged. John spun away as if he could not stand to look upon the scene for another moment, pacing like a caged animal as Matt continued to speak. 'Get me Sherlock, or you get nothing more from me. Somehow, I don't think I'd be sitting here if you weren't desperate.'

Sherlock opened the channel to Lestrade, talking hurriedly. 'Give him your earpiece.' The DI stiffened at the same time as John, both of them stone-faced and determined. 'Give it to him; without Brantley's body, we've got nothing. The clothes we found could easily have been left behind over the course of their so-called friendship. It's not enough. We need more.'

'Sherlock,' John hissed, shaking his head and grabbing Sherlock's wrist. 'You don't have to do this. We've got enough to put them away; you don't have to listen to him.'

'Who said I'd listen?' Quickly, he looked at the photographs again, the focus of his search shifting as a quiet, ugly theory began to emerge. 'I plan to be the one doing the talking.'

He watched as Lestrade bowed his head, casting a quick, hard glare in the general direction of the mirror before passing his earpiece to one of the officers. 'Go and witness the other side of the conversation,' the DI ordered Donovan, shaking his head in obvious disapproval.

John had folded his arms, hugging his hands around his own body. He stood to Sherlock's left, pressed close enough that he could feel the finite hum of anger in his muscles: fight or flight fully engaged. Donovan slipped through the door a second later, an official recording device in her hand. 'Are you sure about this?'

'Positive.' He watched as the earpiece was shoved none-too-gently into Matt's ear and saw the smirk return as the man's voice came over the speakers. Sherlock would have been exposed to his words regardless, but now Matt could hear his responses.

'What, don't you want to see me in person, Sherlock? I'm disappointed.'

'I'm not surprised,' he replied, deliberately cool as he enunciated each word. 'I'd be disappointed too if I'd experienced your level of failure.'

Matt opened his mouth to speak, but Sherlock didn't give him the chance, leaving the channel open and watching every twitch of emotion on the twin's face. 'You failed in every aspect of your efforts. You were unable to hold onto myself or John for any significant amount of time, you didn't destroy the evidence of your crimes and, above all else, ultimately, you did not protect your brother from the consequences of his actions. That's how this all started, isn't it? That's where Nathan comes into it.'

Matt's response was present in the twitch of his face and the tightening of his eyes. Yet he was not like David, lost amidst the end game of their killing spree. For Matt, this was all part of the fun, and Sherlock had no wish to hear his vitriol. He would just have to listen while Sherlock told him what had been done. His expression alone could give them all the confirmation they needed.

'Your brother abused Brantley while they were both under the influence of drugs. When Brantley threatened to expose David to the authorities, your sibling turned to you for help. It's possible that you tried to reason with Nathan first, to write it all off as a misunderstanding, but he must have been sure of his claims. There was a real danger of David falling foul of the law, and you knew it.'

He closed his eyes, no longer taking in Matt's face as the words continued to pour forth. 'It's tempting to suggest it was an accident – a fight gone wrong, perhaps, but that's not the way you work. Between the two of you, every crime you've committed has been carefully planned. Brantley was a prime target. A young man with very few friends, and his relationship with the one woman who would miss him was probably already under stress.' Opening his eyes, he allowed his voice to fall, shadowed and threatening. 'Did you hold the knife to his throat while he made that call to her, breaking it off?'

For a moment, there was no sound but the rasp of Matt's breathing. It was slow and deep, meditative but for the faint hiss of it between his teeth, and there was something almost lustful in his eyes as he stared at the one-way pane. 'Very good, Sherlock.'

Donovan twitched where she stood by the doorway, and Lestrade did the same, his fingers fluttering at his side. It was a confession of sorts, but they couldn't stop now. It was one thing to discover that Matt had disposed of Brantley, but he could withdraw his confession at any time. If they wanted to make this a sure thing, they needed the information any remains could offer.

Unfortunately, Sherlock was fairly sure he could deduce where Nathan Brantley had found his final resting place, and it was not one conducive to the preservation of human flesh.

'The clothes we found had no stains nor any indications of foul play. I doubt you killed him cleanly, that's David's style, not yours. So, you lured him to a convenient location. Maybe you even took him from Iso, using the technique you and your brother later perfected. You dragged him back to the butcher, removed his clothes and murdered him.' Sherlock shifted his grip on the transmitter, ignoring the clammy sweat that had sprung up across his palm. 'At the time, the utilities would still have been switched off, but that was of no matter. You used the freezer, a contained room, even if it wasn't cold. You washed the blood down the drain, where it was obscured by the contributions of subsequent victims. Then, when you were finished, you had an inconvenient corpse.'

His gaze drifted to the photos again, taking in the objects they depicted. Out of context, they were meaningless, but now he could see they were cruelly functional. 'Everyone in this city has a predictable first instinct about where to dump a body: the Thames. Even when the bodies wash up they're normally too battered to provide any useful evidence. However, you were slightly more clever than the average criminal. You removed even that possibility.'

Picking up one of the photos he had earlier dismissed, Sherlock stared at its details. 'Chicken-wire in the bottom of the wardrobe. A strange addition to a household, particularly one such as yours where mending fences seems like a low priority. The problem with disposing of bodies in a river is that, once the rot and bloat sets in, a corpse has a tendency to drift to the surface – or parts of it do. It's basic biology.'

He looked at Matt, whose rapt attention was more eerie than satisfying, treading the line between horror and the sick gleam of something like arousal. He was beaten, and he knew it, but rather than rage, there was a measure of respect in the tilt of his expression.

'You enclosed the body in the mesh. The mob used to wrap their hits in carpet and do the same; this is just a lighter, easier way to ensure the corpse stays in one piece while it rots underwater. A quick struggle with a dead-weight through the back alleys and you're at Hanover Bridge, which has no functional CCTV and is in a poor state of repair. You weighed down Brantley's body, probably with broken masonry, and threw him in the water. Problem solved.' He scowled, hating the perverse delight on the twin's face. 'Tell me I'm wrong.'

Matt lifted an eyebrow, slumping in his chair like a king in repose as a grin tilted his mouth. 'Shaw was right about you. So clever. So superior. I only wish I'd got to fuck you. You wouldn't be so high and mighty then. No one is. Get a cock up their arse and they're anyone's bitch. That's why David likes it so much.'

He chuckled, a wry sound, all the more disturbing for being so normal. 'You make Brantley out like he was some kind of innocent in all this. He was an addict on his way down. Everyone could see it, and even the girl who loved him didn't question the message he left. She didn't think twice about the fact that he was slurring from what I’d given him – that and the fear. No one missed him, not even her. If it wasn't for you, no one would even know he was gone.'

A grimace of annoyance, not repentance, clouded his brow. 'David liked what he'd done to Brantley, and he had a plan. We'd got away with it, after all. No one had come knocking at our door to take us in. David came to me with his problems, and I made them disappear. I was his enabler, not his competitor. I didn't want to fuck any of them. Then you and your soldier turned up and I started to see the appeal. David wanted him, and I wanted you.'

'And neither of you got your way,' Sherlock replied, cold and diffident, purposely distancing himself from Matt's crude, useless posturing. 'You should have fled the country while you had the chance. Instead you're facing life imprisonment.'

Matt cocked his head, his voice harsh. 'You know what? It was worth it. I didn't get to fuck you, Sherlock, but I still had you on your God damn knees.'

Lestrade moved like a striking snake, ripping out the earpiece and hitting a switch on the table, cutting off the audio channel so that Sherlock could no longer hear anything given voice in the interrogation room. Not that he needed to. Matt was smirking, uncaring that his words had provided the police with the information they needed to seal his conviction. The officers hauled him to his feet, their actions brutal beneath the DI's grim gaze as he was marched from the room and into the endless custody of the British justice system.

A slender hand curled around his fingers where they still gripped the transmitter, and he blinked at Donovan, who teased it from his grasp. 'We've got all we need, Holmes,' she murmured, meeting his eyes unabashed before flicking her gaze in John's direction. Immediately, he mirrored her, his cold disgust bleeding away to tremulous, hot concern.

John was white and hunched, a spring coiled too tight and liable to explode into lethal, bitter fury at any moment. Yet there was nothing here he could punish for Matt's words. He could only hold himself in, breaking apart beneath the strain of his emotions. It was not a sight Sherlock could tolerate, and he turned back to the sergeant, speaking quickly.

'The Thames is sluggish near Mortland Street. The body will have shifted thanks to the recent rain, but if Matt weighed it down properly, you should still be able to find what's left of it: divers and dredges. It's the last piece you need to wrap up this investigation.' He bit his lip, stepping back as the details fell away, the mystery spent and the solution reached. 'I doubt you'll need my assistance further.'

The sergeant nodded, a strong, professional gesture. 'You're done,' she confirmed, before jerking her head in John's direction. 'Go on. I'll pass on the information to the DI. Get him home and let him take care of you. God knows you've both earned it.'

Her footsteps faded away, blocked out by the door that closed in her wake, and Sherlock found himself at a loss. Finding the answers to the case, as trying as it had been, was a matter of the application of logic. Comforting John was not so straight-forward, and he hovered awkwardly as he tried to work out what to do for the best.

'Why did you have to talk to him?' John's words strained over the rack of his teeth. 'Why couldn't you let Lestrade do it?'

'Because he would never have given the Detective Inspector what we needed.' Sherlock bit his lip, aware that logical statements may not be the best way to lead John from the ragged edge of his emotions. Sherlock was aware that very little of John's sharp outrage was directed at him, but that did not make it any more comfortable to observe.

Quickly, before he could think twice, he stepped forward into John's personal space, reaching out and unwrapping those strong arms from where they were folded across John's chest, knuckles white against his biceps. Initially, it was a challenge, as if John feared that he would fall apart. Yet in the space of a heartbeat, his muscles softened, trusting and pliant as he blinked down at Sherlock's hands gripping his wrists.

'Jail's too good for them. I'd rather see them dead,' he managed, screwing up his face as he looked at Sherlock. 'Wouldn't you?'

'Prison's a dangerous place,' he replied, turning to depart. The air in the observation room was humid, jagged with stress and tainted with the ghosts of Matt's words. Perhaps Donovan was right and Baker Street was the best place for them, but for now, Sherlock could at least guide John beyond these four walls. 'I doubt they'll come out on top.'

John's rough laugh was pained, underpinned by the edgy ire of his mood. However, when he reached up to Sherlock's neck, his touch was reverent, trailing over the throb of his pulse as if it were a lifeline before easing the gel pack out from where it was still trapped under the Belstaff. 'How do you feel?'

Sherlock blinked, giving the question due consideration. Normally, the thrill of a solved case over-ruled everything else, from the thud of bruises to the whine of scrapes and cuts, but this time there was no euphoria. He felt worn down by the endless demands on his mind and body. 'Sore. Tired.' He admitted both without hesitation, weaknesses for which John would never judge him. 'Ready to go home.'

'I couldn't agree more.' John sighed, pulling open the door and stepping out into the cool air of the corridor. It was a blissful touch on Sherlock's face, sloughing away the patina of Matt's presence. He took a deep breath before nudging John's shoulder, trying to read the complexities of his expression as he sought any indication of returning good humour.

Yet there was none to be found. John's strides were shorter than usual, not quite limping, but near enough, and his hand clenched into a fist before releasing again, fingers splayed and tense. All through the conversation with Matt, he had held himself back and let Sherlock work, but now the physical toll of his restraint was clear.

Sherlock reached out, catching John's elbow and pulling him up short. Dimly, he was aware that they were still within Scotland Yard, visible to anyone who cared to look. However, he paid no mind to any spectators as he touched his hand to the side of John's face, his voice intense as he tried to drive the truth home. 'John, it's over. I gave Lestrade my statement before we questioned the twins. The police don't need any more help to wrap up the investigation. We're done.'

'I know.' John closed his eyes and leaned into Sherlock's palm. 'I know, it's just – It's not that easy is it? The things they did and said – you can't just switch them off and forget.' He huffed a mirthless laugh. 'I can help you with cases and be a gun at your back, but I can't protect you from what Matt was saying: that you were his.'

'A delusion.' He swallowed, allowing himself to acknowledge Matt's words were distasteful to the extreme, designed to provoke a reaction that neither Sherlock nor John had given him: a small victory. 'Even if he had succeeded with his plan, I still wouldn't have belonged to him. That's something that can only be given.' He lowered his voice further, an intimate whisper as warmth curled beneath his words. 'And if I'm anyone's at all, I'm yours.'

Part of him balked at the sentiment, but it was a short-lived reaction, washed away by John's response. He could feel the stress drain from the man's shorter frame, leaving him on the zephyr of a sigh. John leaned into him, and Sherlock ducked his head as best he could, thinking nothing of their surroundings as he claimed John's mouth, soft and longing.

It was a watershed, a line drawn between the call of the case and the freedom of the aftermath. His hands slipped around John's waist to the small of his back, not holding him captive, but simply resting there, comfortable and close. John's fingers crept between the buttons of the Belstaff, stroking Sherlock's shirt-clad stomach as, steadily, the darkness that lingered around them began to dissipate.

John broke away with a faintly wet sound, licking his lips in a way that made shameless desire growl beneath Sherlock's ribs. 'I think we just outed ourselves to Scotland Yard,' he murmured. The corridor was empty, but there was a CCTV camera, and there was no doubt that they were in-shot. 'And possibly your brother as well.'

Sherlock snorted quietly, revelling in John's giggle as he flipped a finger in the direction of the lens. 'He already knew. At least it saves us from tiresome explanations. You don't mind?'

John gave no verbal response. His answer was blatant in the warmth of his kiss and the sweep of his tongue, nudging the dangerous, thrilling border between loving and lewd, wanton and wicked. Gently, Sherlock nipped at the thin line of John's mouth before he gave a husky murmur.

'I seem to remember you making a promise: something about a week in bed?'

The grin on John's face bloomed full-force, not a weak shadow of joy but broad and genuine. After the burden of the past few hours, it was a perfect sight, and Sherlock chuckled as John stood back, grabbing his hand and guiding him away. He was careful of the soreness of Sherlock's body, but determined all the same as they strode through the halls of Scotland Yard and stepped out into London's late afternoon.

The city buzzed around them, its life incessant, but for Sherlock and John it was nothing but a backdrop, the rhythm to which they conducted their lives. It was a dance which neither of them led. Instead, they moved in perfect, unconscious time, their shoulders brushing as they strode onwards, heading for home and the future that was theirs to claim.

Chapter Text

John unzipped his jacket, appreciating the soft spring breeze that stirred his hair as he walked back to Baker Street, weaving through the other pedestrians as his thoughts centred on home. He'd been asked to do a half-shift at the surgery, dealing with endless coughs and sniffles. Now all he wanted was to get back to Sherlock, who he had left in a lethargic, naked sprawl in bed that morning.

A grin broke free at the memory, one which had appeared several times during the day, summoned forth by Sherlock's occasional, welcome texts. Nothing as sentimental as “I miss you”, but the messages themselves, from those deducing his patients to something cryptic about one of John's jumpers, were sign enough that he was thinking of John in his absence.

It wasn't normal, what they had, not by a long-shot. However, John had come to realise that, despite his previous efforts to the contrary, “normal” wasn't what he was looking for. Other people wanted someone to kiss their cheek and curl up next to them in bed at night. John would rather have Sherlock's slender fingers pressing a gun into his palm, arming him for the case ahead. He preferred to allow the delicate strains of the violin – no longer angry and wailing, but tranquil and exquisite – to lull him to sleep, content in the knowledge that Sherlock would join him in their nest sooner or later.

Seven weeks had passed since this started. True to his word, they spent the first together in the privacy of their home. No cases interrupted, and Sherlock's healing aches meant they were gradually able to explore each other. John hadn't been convinced that Sherlock would be able to focus on someone else for a prolonged period of time – had been prepared for boredom to rear its ugly head within the first twenty-four hours – but Sherlock proved him beautifully wrong.

He took John apart like a puzzle, uncovering what made him laugh or sigh, moan or tremble. It was a dedicated scrutiny, one which encouraged equal reciprocation. John intended to become a masterful adept at the mysteries of Sherlock's body and the stunning man within. As it was, every time he could summon a groan or gasp from beneath Sherlock's iron-clad control it gave him a deep, potent thrill.

Eventually, though, real life interceded on their idyll. Both the surgery and the Work intruded, and the two of them were forced to face the challenge of building their relationship while navigating the other summons on their time.

John expected a god-awful disaster of give and take - Sherlock making demands and John doing all the compromise – but truthfully, they'd done all that long ago. Their lives already fit together seamlessly, and most of the ground-rules had been in place for months. They were still the same as they had always been, but now there was more to it – a greater depth and another blurring of the boundaries they continually ignored. These days, John got a kiss when he handed Sherlock a cup of tea, and Sherlock welcomed John's gestures of affection, at first with surprise, and then with increasing enjoyment.

What they'd forged together worked, and while part of John was surprised, he realised it made a devastating kind of sense. He and Sherlock had complemented each other since the moment they met. Why would this be any different? Why would it fail when their friendship succeeded?

He shook his head, trotting around the corner and pausing in front of a shop selling TVs and other appliances. One of the screens was running BBC One, the presenter mouthing silently as the red banner declared the breaking news. Normally, it was something distant and detached from John's life, but the latest words stuttering across the screen in bland white text was excruciatingly relevant, and a grim smile crossed his face as he read their missive. A second later, his phone shuddered in his pocket, and he pulled it free, reading Sherlock's terse message.

“The twins have received the maximum possible sentence each. No chance of parole. - SH”

It was like someone lifting the last of a great burden from his shoulders. The weight had depleted with every day that passed, chased away by Sherlock's presence, his healing and his returning grace. It was a passage marked by the removal of dressings, then stitches, the drawing closed of split skin and the pink flush of wounds as they began to fade.

Now though, with the twins' punishment daubed all over the main media, it was well and truly over.

Sherlock hadn't even been called upon to testify. John suspected the interference of Mycroft and the clever manipulation of procedure by Lestrade in that aspect, but the truth was, it wasn't necessary. Between their efforts and the rigorous pursuit of the police, the prosecution was merciless in their portrayal of the evidence. They had even found what was left of Nathan Brantley's body. The remains surrendered the final answers, and by the time Matt and David's trial began, not even a guilty plea could spare them the weight of the jury's verdict or the judge's decision.

Uncertainty tempered John's triumph, and he squinted at Sherlock's text again, trying to discern anything about his mood from the nondescript words. However, the tiny, digital lettering gave nothing away, and he picked up his pace, eager to be back at Sherlock's side.

If he had known that the verdict would come today, he would have declined the shift at the surgery and made sure he was wherever Sherlock wanted him to be. It did not matter that, on the surface at least, Sherlock seemed as disinterested in the court process as usual. The outcome of this trial in particular had an impact on them both, and John would rather have been there in case Sherlock needed him, if only for silent support.

With a scrape of steel on brass, he shoved the key into the lock of 221, letting himself in before trotting upstairs and repeating the process on the door to their flat. Immediately, he glanced around, taking in the usual clutter of paperwork and books, glass slides and the silent sentry of the microscope. 'Sherlock?' he called, wishing he could push aside the ripple of trepidation in his stomach. It made no logical sense for Sherlock to be adversely affected by this now. He seemed to have found his catharsis in solving the case, putting all that Matt had said and done behind him without looking back.

Still, that didn't mean John wasn't going to check on him.

'Sherlock, where are you?'

'Bathroom.' There was nothing tight or strained about his reply. It was a normal tone of voice, lacking in the minute tells of distress or anger that John had come to recognise over their time as flatmates. Instead it was just Sherlock, probably up to his elbows in viscera in the sink or something equally disgusting.

'You all right?' John asked anyway, knowing better than to make assumptions, despite his gut telling him that Sherlock was fine.

The hum of agreement he got made the corner of his lips curve upwards, and it broke into another grin as Sherlock called back. 'Of course. Are you?'

It was probably the world's most unnecessary question. Sherlock could tell the precise hue of his mood from the cadence of his footsteps and the lilt of his voice. However, it was one of the small changes of which John approved. Oh, Sherlock still deduced. He still looked at John with that mercurial gaze, one sweep from the crown of his head to the soles of his shoes and back up again that left John breathless and tingling, but now he would occasionally remember to ask for John's input before reeling off everything from where he'd been to whom he'd seen and what he wanted for dinner.

'Yeah. I'm going to get changed. Get the smell of the surgery off me.' At least no one had thrown up on him today, but there was still that pervasive, institutional scent clinging to his clothes, and he would prefer to get rid of it sooner rather than later. 'Back down in a minute.'

He hurried upstairs to his room, oft-neglected now. He and Sherlock hadn't talked about sharing a bed permanently. Still, even when Sherlock had no plans to sleep in it himself, he had a tendency to nudge John over to the wide sprawl of his mattress and the soft splay of Egyptian cotton sheets. At first, John had been hesitant, but before more than a few nights passed, he realised that his chances of Sherlock going to bed at some point during the darkest hours were greatly increased if John was there. If that meant his sleep was interrupted by cold toes and warm murmurs of appreciation, then he could live with that.

All his clothes were still up here though, a distinct boundary between Sherlock's things and his – a small sliver of space that was just John's. He'd half-expected Sherlock to invade and set up a laboratory, but surprisingly, he was as respectful of the invisible border of the threshold as he had ever been. Admittedly, that wasn't much, but it seemed he was amenable to John keeping a tiny part of the flat to himself.

Opening up the wardrobe, he examined the shirts on hangers and the knitwear on the shelf above, catching his gaze in the mirror on the inside of the door and giving his reflection a critical examination.

He looked happy. Not something he had experienced often since well-before coming back from Afghanistan. He was content, yes, once he'd joined Sherlock here in Baker Street, and purposeful, but there was always something missing. Now, his eyes gleamed and his mouth seemed quicker to smile than to grimace. Sherlock might be unorthodox, dangerous and more than a little bit mad sometimes, but it was clear that he was exactly what John needed.

Reaching his hands over his shoulders to drag off his jumper, he heard the sound of Sherlock ambling up the stairs to find him, deliberately treading on squeaky steps to announce his presence. A faint huff of laughter from the threshold made its way through the wool that was currently over John's head, and he grunted in annoyance, inexplicably caught within the labyrinth of sleeves and the tight knit weave.

When he finally pulled it off, it was to find a sheet of paper being dangled in front of his face, blocking his view of the mirror. It still bore two folds where it had been shoved into an envelope, and concise typeface was present under the NHS heading. 'Have you been opening my post?' he demanded, not bothering to glare over his shoulder at Sherlock as he snatched the page. 'I know “private and confidential” doesn't mean much to you, but –'

'I was bored,' Sherlock interrupted, the warmth of his body pressing against John's back as he stepped closer. One arm curled around his waist as he propped his pointy chin on John's shoulder. 'Besides, it's pointless confirmation of what I already know. If you were harbouring any vile diseases I would have deduced it by now.'

'I'm a doctor. You'll have to forgive me if I put more stock in a blood-test than your observations about my well-being.' He shrugged, his faint ire at the intrusion – never that great to begin with, this was Sherlock after all – fading as he read over the clean bill of sexual health. 'Besides, they checked your blood out of necessity at the hospital, remember? It only seemed fair that I eventually did the same since we're, you know, being exclusive and everything.'

John swallowed, deliberately not looking up to meet Sherlock's gaze in the mirror. The truth was, they'd never actually had that particular conversation. Not properly. John had just assumed, and now he was trying very hard not to act like Sherlock next words could break him.

He seemed to read it anyway, because the soft brush of that Cupid's bow against the side of John's neck punctuated his single-word reply. 'Obviously.' He chuckled as an ill-hidden sigh of relief became a gasp of pleasure, called forth by the bold swipe of Sherlock's tongue against John's throat. Long fingers flicked the collar of the shirt open for better access, and the arm around his waist tightened, perfectly possessive.

At last, John looked up from the page of test results, taking in their shared reflection. Sherlock's face was turned into the crook of John's neck, mostly hidden, leaving him with a view of dark curls which glowed chestnut in the sunlight that streamed through the window. It gave the white shirt Sherlock wore an unearthly brilliance, the sleeves folded meticulously up to his elbows to expose long, smooth forearms and the delicate turn of his wrists.

Along with the dark suit trousers and socks he was wearing, it made him a picture of monochrome: silver and black in comparison to the subtle tan of John's skin and the ashy blonde of his hair. However, he barely paid any attention to his own image, his hips stuttering as Sherlock scraped his teeth across the vulnerability of John's throat.

Sherlock turned his head, catching John's eye in the mirror. A sudden, sharp curl of pure desire sliced through his stomach, leaving his nerves resonating in its wake. Sherlock's body might be an image of black and white, but his face was not. The faintest flush rode high on his cheekbones, complimenting the feral, pink curve of his lips. However, it was his eyes that held John's attention: silver edged with green and outlined in sultry, enticing –

'Eye-liner,' John managed, the air in his lungs useless, lost in the thudding rush of yearning-cum-confusion that swirled through his blood. 'You're wearing eye-liner.'

He hummed in agreement, one eyebrow lifted in speculation as he took in John's image. It was so quintessentially Sherlock that the tiny skitter of uncertainty beneath John's ribs perished instantly. It would have been simple to draw the connection back to the investigation that had finally come to rest today and the stresses that came with it, but it was not “Lee” looking at him with lust darkening his eyes. Sherlock wore no mask. Everything in his expression was familiar: a naked honesty that took John's breath away.

Still, he had to make sure they were on the same page. 'You did this for a case?' He sounded wrecked, an almost-whine catching in his throat, but he did not give a damn as Sherlock smiled before nuzzling at John's jaw again.

'No,' he purred, his voice a sensuous skim of sound that curled in John's ear. 'I did it for you, for the look on your face –' He kissed the vulnerable skin at John's pulse and slid his hand down, darting around the buttons of John's shirt and lower, brushing the very tips of his fingers over the swelling heat beneath John's fly and giving a quiet groan of approval. '– and for that.'

John let his head fall back, one hand reaching behind him to grab the lush curve of Sherlock's arse and pull him closer. At least he wasn't the only one aroused, judging by the thrust of Sherlock's crotch against him, and he struggled to put some order to his blissfully scattered thoughts as Sherlock's fingers teased open another button on John's shirt, slipping beneath the cotton to stroke over the faint swell of John's stomach.

'You don't have to wear eye-liner to turn me on,' he pointed out. It was a redundant statement, since the past couple of months had demonstrated perfectly how much power Sherlock held over him. He knew from the start he would be doomed. All Sherlock had to do was look at him in a certain way, all heat and suggestion, and whatever John was doing became utterly unimportant in comparison to being in Sherlock's company. It didn't matter whether he was in a pristine suit or a ratty t-shirt and pyjamas, Sherlock was well and truly in charge of John's libido.

The only consolation was that, oddly enough, he seemed to have the same influence over Sherlock. Several experiments had fallen to ruin thanks to their happy distractions. A small part of John wondered if he should feel guilty about luring the genius from his work, but it was hard to find the energy for repentance when Sherlock poured all that focus and intelligence into their intimacy.

'No,' Sherlock agreed, rocking his hips and making John bite his lip. 'But you'd be lying if you said it didn't have an impact on your response, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't find your reactions fascinating.'

John's laugh was a ghostly shiver of mirth. Only Sherlock could make it sound inherently sexy to be the subject of an experiment. The piece of paper in his hands fluttered to the floor, released from his grip in favour of grasping more interesting things. He ignored its crumpled protest beneath his boot as he turned in Sherlock's arms, trying not to tremble as he arched against that lean body.

'Fascinating?' he repeated, watching inky lashes quiver as John rubbed against him. He smiled as Sherlock growled, tilting his head and meeting the demanding kiss in equal measure, scraping lightly over the flesh of Sherlock's pout before slipping inside. He stroked his tongue past Sherlock's teeth as his fingers dipped into the open vee of his collar, clumsily slipping free more buttons until the cotton gaped, white wings slipping off alabaster shoulders.

He didn't peel Sherlock's arms free from the rolled-up sleeves. There would be time for that in a moment. For now he planned to enjoy the attentions of that mouth, concentrated yet artless – pleasurable in a way that came from hours of breath-taking practice in each other's arms. Sherlock knew when to push for more or pull away, just as John could distinguish when a chaste brush of lips would tantalise far more than the thrust of his tongue. He didn't even have to think about it anymore. They simply enjoyed the taste of each other, their hands exploring warm skin as tiny, feverish sounds of appreciation caught in the air.

John barely noticed his shirt had been undone until Sherlock made an approving noise at the bare skin beneath. He had complained about John wearing an additional t-shirt, as if the very act of layering for warmth was some kind of abomination. Now its absence meant that Sherlock's hands could wander John's ribs, his thumbs sweeping over hard nipples before trailing around to John's shoulder-blades. Only there did they diverge, one charting down the notches of his spine while the other curled around John's nape, guiding the angle of the kiss until their air ran out and John's nerves hummed to Sherlock's tune.

Breaking back, he inhaled sharply, taking in the sight of the man before him. It was ridiculous, really, that the smoky lines around Sherlock's eyes could tighten his lust into something so intense. It was an attraction that was all about physical appearance, but right now, John could see precisely why it appealed to him so much.

Sherlock's shirt was still bunched around his arms, completely forgotten. The sharp lines of his clavicles and the definition of his chest should have been vulnerable in their exposure, but instead all John could think was that, as debauched as he appeared, swollen-lipped and heavy-eyed, Sherlock looked dangerous. There was no “could be” about it.

Normally, that strength was concealed beneath the mask of his suits and his aloof expressions, but now, Sherlock was predatory, his eyes storm-cloud dark and his lips parted. He freed John from his shirt and kissed the exposed underside of each wrist as the garment fell to the floor with a hush of surrender. His hands drifted in adulation, and John shut his eyes against the assault of sensation: acute need tempered only by the balm of affection. Even now, half-naked and both of them so wanting, there was more to this than just sex.

'Downstairs?' he croaked, thinking of various supplies that were in Sherlock's bedside table. His mind stilled as Sherlock produced a tube of lubrication from his pocket, holding it up with a triumphant smirk before he pulled his arms from the white restraint of his sleeves.

'Seeing as how neither of us are carrying any sexually transmitted diseases, I'm assuming we can dispense with the condoms?' he murmured, handing over the lube, his gaze bright and carnal.

Heat lurched through John's body, and he closed his eyes as he tried to rein in the flood of wanton desperation. His knees wobbled and the constriction of his jeans increased as his blood rushed to the surface, gifting his skin with a thudding flush.

His mind was nothing but a jumble of images, each falling over the other as his voice threatened to crack in his throat. Normally, he didn't put much stock in first-time anything, but there was a level of permanence to unprotected sex, something that spoke about more than a transient fling, and John knew precisely how he wanted this encounter to go.

'You'll be the one using this, then.' He pressed the tube back into Sherlock's palm, watching him absorb the request. 'If that's okay?'

'More than okay,' Sherlock promised, his lips curving in a wicked smile as he claimed John's mouth again.

The edgy hunger abated, and what remained in its wake was something tender and diligent – Sherlock bending his concentration to John's gratification rather than his own. They weren't fussy about who penetrated whom, tending to go with what felt right at the time. Weeks of experimenting, much to John's delight, had demonstrated that neither of them lacked imagination when it came to sex, in all its forms. More to the point, Sherlock had no compunction about asking for what he wanted. The results so far had been immensely satisfying, and he doubted this time would be any different.

Sherlock's lips lingered along his jaw and down his neck, his tongue tracing idle pathways as his fingers moved with more purpose, finding every dip and hollow and charting their boundaries. It was overwhelming by degrees, and John tipped back his head in entreaty as he delighted in Sherlock's warmth. Every breath he drew was lilted with the scent of shampoo and skin, and John's hands couldn't stay still as he traced the expanse of Sherlock's shoulders, the curve of his biceps and the corrugation of his spine. He read the familiar story of flesh and bone as every answering touch stilled his thoughts: a blissful invasion.

The drag of Sherlock's thumb over his denim-clad erection made John jolt, and the rasp of his fly underscored his helpless whimper. Sherlock dipped beneath the fabric of his jeans and underwear to touch the sensitive head of John's cock. It was a deliberate tease, and John forced himself to hold his hips steady. It wasn't a case of whether Sherlock would unravel him and leave him panting in the aftermath; it was simply a matter of how quickly he would do it.

Well, John was not about to make it easy.

With a downward slide of his hand, he wrapped his fingers around the solid length between Sherlock's legs, concealed as it was by the thin fabric of his suit trousers. The cut was flattering, as always, but they did very little to shield John's hand from the heat there, and he groaned a laugh of delight as he flexed his grip and watched Sherlock sway into his palm.

'You're distracting me,' Sherlock husked, his voice a promising growl that made the hairs on John's arms shiver upright.

'Good, that's the – Ah!' Heat arced from his chest to his crotch as Sherlock laved his tongue across John's right nipple. The vulnerable flesh bordered on ticklish until Sherlock solidified the sensation with a cautious scrape of his teeth. Whatever John had been going to say was blown out of his mind as he leant back against the side of the wardrobe and closed his eyes, losing himself to the worship of Sherlock's clever tongue and his magical hands.

He was keeping him deliberately off-balance, his attentions erratic and disorganised. By the time he pushed jeans and underwear down John's thighs and licked along the underside of his erection, John was whining helplessly, caught in the unpredictable maelstrom of awareness. It was a wave he was struggling to ride with anything like poise. His fingers nestled in dark curls and skittered blindly over the sharp edge of Sherlock's cheekbones. A second later, moist heat engulfed him, and John tried not to let his legs give out as want stabbed through his stomach.

'Oh, God.' He cradled Sherlock's face, feeling him hollow his cheeks beneath his fingers as the draw of suction and the swipe of Sherlock's tongue made his thighs shake. One of Sherlock's hands was wrapped around the base of John's cock, but the other one was conspicuously absent, and John finally managed to drag his eyes open and get a good look at the man in front of him.

Sherlock was on his knees with his thighs spread, eyes closed and lips stretched around John's width as he concentrated on what he was doing. His left hand, the one that wasn't occupied with holding John steady and occasionally tightening around him, was pushed into his own open fly, the muscles in his forearm tensing and shifting as he gave himself the occasional stroke in the confined space.

'Fuck,' John whispered, trying not to thrust forward into Sherlock's mouth and failing miserably. The next thing he knew, those eyes were open again, agleam with an odd mix of disapproval, amusement and arousal. If anything, John thought Sherlock would have looked submissive, a pretty boy knelt in reverence. However, there was nothing passive or obliging about his appearance, and a fiery ribbon uncurled through him as he scrabbled at those strong shoulders, smothering his moans as Sherlock worked him so thoroughly.

'Bed,' he croaked. 'Bed, I need –' He didn't know what he needed. More. More of this, more of Sherlock, more than the strange, distanced intimacy of that sultry mouth around his cock. He ached for Sherlock's naked skin against his own, and he gave no apology as he hauled Sherlock to his feet, swallowing his keen of protest in a kiss as his fingers dove beneath the fabric of those tailored trousers and curled around him.

They staggered towards the bed, John trying to get out of his boots without untying his laces and almost falling over as a result. Clothes were a sacrilege, and taking his hands from Sherlock's body to remove them was a blasphemy. John found himself having to remember to breathe, to coordinate the desperate, singing resonance of his body with his lingering coherence as he ripped off his shoes and peeled away his socks, eagerly shoving away the last of his clothes. He reached out to do the same to Sherlock, dragging aside the obscuring veil of trousers and underwear from Sherlock's lifted hips and pushing them blindly off the bed.

With a hum of delight, he rubbed his cheek against Sherlock's arousal, inhaling the musk of him and stealing a taste before Sherlock flipped them over. His frame lay, heavy and perfect, over John's, lighting him up like a completed circuit. There was still haste to their caresses, but gradually, Sherlock seemed to rein himself in, the struggle to do so evident in the shiver of his hands and the forced, steady rhythm of each exhale. One of the very best things about Sherlock's control, in John's opinion, was the visceral joy he got from pushing at it until it snapped – until Sherlock lost himself as readily as John in the slew of longing.

However, before he could formulate a plan of attack, the click of the tube lid being opened punctuated the air. A moment later, cool fingers slid down and back, the pad of Sherlock's thumb teasing at him as the delicious contrast of hot lips and tongue were added to the mix. It was almost embarrassing how very effective the technique was. It was nothing special, nothing John hadn't experienced before with other people and yet it was. There was nothing awkward about it, and nothing choreographed either. Sherlock was tender and flatteringly eager, humming around John's length at every shattered gasp and stifled whine.

Like this, Sherlock's nude warmth pinned his legs. He could feel the weight and want of him even as he reached down and tried to absorb more of Sherlock through every touch. He cocked his knees obscenely wide, tilting his hips and arching his head back into the pillow as Sherlock inched a slick finger inside, the magic of his mouth detracting from any twinge of discomfort.

Sweat dewed John's temples, and his lips were parched from the rapid pants that flew between them. However, the sensations were overpowered by the confident pull and torment of Sherlock's mouth on John's cock and the shivery, knife-edge of ecstasy that crystallised as soon as the teasing explorations around John's prostate rubbed over it instead.

It was difficult to know whether to love him or hate him, because while every touch and lick and kiss was attuned to giving John exactly what he wanted, he could also detect Sherlock's awareness of his responses. It was annoying, how high-functioning the bastard could be. The instant tension knotted at the base of John's spine and heat threatened to surge through him, Sherlock would back off, easing away the encroaching rush of John's climax to leave him swearing, half-sobbing for what he really wanted.

He hadn't noticed Sherlock gradually working him open. There had been the occasional moment when enjoyment turned to a faintly burning stretch, but Sherlock's careful preparation meant John had no qualms about tightening his grip in Sherlock's hair, urging him to lift his head even as the words spilt from his lips.

'Sherlock, Sherlock, please.' He didn't have to specify, which was just as well, because he was too busy thinking of the throb of arousal in his stomach and his cock, tightening his balls and sending shivering, electric waves across his muscles.

'Roll onto your front,' Sherlock ordered, and any control in his possession could not be spared for his voice, which was low and rough and impossible to refuse. Normally, Sherlock preferred to penetrate him face-to-face – occasionally awkward – but it meant he could deduce exactly what angle John enjoyed the most. This, though, this was how John liked it: the weight of Sherlock on his back, John's lesser height working in their favour and Sherlock's fingers digging in around his hips hard enough to bruise.

'For God's sake, tell me if I hurt you,' Sherlock husked, bending his head to suck a mark at the tail of his spine as John shifted position.

'I will.' He got up on his knees, his cock hanging hard and heavy between his legs, dewy at the head and aching to be touched.

He gasped, biting his lip as Sherlock advanced into him, giving him all the time he needed to adjust. He nudged his knees wider and murmured meaningless sentiments over John's sweat-glossed skin, things that made John smile and swallow before he pushed his arse back, chuckling at the hiss of Sherlock's indrawn breath.

Strong fingers bit into his hips in warning, and John wondered how much Sherlock had wound himself up while he'd been lying between John's legs, tormenting him. Too much, perhaps, judging by the tension in the body behind him, like a man trying very hard to hold his balance on the high-wire. John realised they were kidding themselves if they thought either one was in control. Sherlock's entrance had drawn John back from the brink, but it was a small distance. Whatever happened next, he doubted either of them would last long.

Perfect.

With a grin that Sherlock couldn't see, John cautiously squeezed his core muscles, basking in the ragged flow of Sherlock's gasped curse before he shifted forward, starting a slow, dragging rhythm. It was different without a condom, an alternative, organic smoothness, and a shiver of lust shot through John's body at the thought of Sherlock and him like this, nothing separating them from each other.

A tiny shift in angle, and John jerked, his arms shaking too hard to support his weight as sparks flared along his nerves, coalescing into pathways of constant, singing need. Every time Sherlock brushed his prostate, he added more fuel to the fire, and John rested his head on his right forearm, his left hand reaching down to stroke himself, rough and chaotic as he sought some friction.

Sherlock leaned forward, gifting kisses over the ridges of his shoulder-blades. His breathing was a pulsing whisper that heated John's skin as he reached around, his hand wrapping over John's and conducting the beat.

Instinctively, he focussed on the responsive head of John's dick, rubbing and stroking until their fingers were damp with pre-come. John was lost in a garbled litany of praise, his mind vanquished by the rushing, jagged furore as Sherlock's strokes grew longer and more rapid, driving him onwards into blissful oblivion.

The slam of his release drove a sharp grunt from his chest and clenched the muscles in his abdomen. Fluid pulsed across his knuckles and the sheets, and John dug his forehead into the mattress, his chest heaving with every gasp of air as his body shuddered through the aftermath, tightening around Sherlock's twitching, buried length.

It took him a second to realise Sherlock had climaxed not long after him, probably pulled unceremoniously over by John's orgasm. He could feel him shaking, bent over John's body as if he had been knifed in the gut. Parted lips pressed to John's spine as his arms framed John's hips, supporting his trembling weight as he spent himself, torrid and deep.

Sensitive nerves shimmered and twinged, and the ache of John's knees penetrated the addled haze, making him shift to ease the discomfort. The movement sent another wave of electricity through him, and Sherlock moaned softly, leaning more fully on John as they got their breath back, his hands stroking up John's sides and over his shoulders as he nosed John's damp skin.

'All right?' Sherlock managed, his rich chuckle breaking free at John's sated, affirmative murmur. 'Better than all right?'

John grinned into the mattress, hissing as Sherlock gently withdrew. The skim of his fingers down John's body and between his arse-cheeks made him jolt in surprise, another aftershock rippling through him at the wet slide of Sherlock's fingers over delicate flesh. 'Stop fishing for compliments,' he husked, licking his dry lips and wondering if he dared to try and move. 'You knew exactly what I wanted, and you gave it to me. You always do.'

Something soft swept over him, cleaning up most of the mess, and John finally lifted his head, shooting Sherlock a half-hearted glare as he realised it was his boxers taking the brunt of it. 'Couldn't you have used yours?'

'I don't know where they've gone.' Sherlock's smile was crooked and bright as John straightened up, wincing at the ache of the taut muscles in his thighs and the lethargic spin of his blood in his veins. He was spent in every way imaginable, drained but happy in the aftermath, and he didn't utter a word of complaint as Sherlock peeled back the covers before guiding John into the folds of their cocoon.

Maybe he should be embarrassed that they hadn't actually made it into bed, but it was far from the first time, and he doubted it would be the last. Besides, it meant most of the wet patch was on the quilt cover, which could be peeled off and washed, and the inner face of the covers was clean and comfortable.

John curled on his side, folding his body around Sherlock's artless sprawl. The sheet was twisted low around their hips, the bed's neat hospital corners a thing of distant memory, and John smiled as he took in the sight of his sated lover. A flush lingered beneath Sherlock's skin, staining his chest and cheeks with a touch of pink. His hair was a serpentine glory of curls, but it was the eye-liner that made him grin. The clean lines had blurred into cloudy smudges, appealing only because John could revel in the recollection of the activities that had been their undoing.

Gently, he rubbed his thumb under Sherlock's right eye, holding it up in evidence as Sherlock raised an eyebrow. 'I think I like this look on you.'

'A mess?'

'A satisfied mess,' John corrected, pressing a firm, loving kiss to Sherlock's brow, urging him to nestle closer. Sherlock's drowsy hum of contentment made John's heart squeeze, and he let his fingers trace the line of Sherlock's nape before edging softly over the healing flesh that marked his shoulder.

John sighed, staring blankly at nothing as he read the story of the wound by touch alone. The skin was smooth beneath his fingertips, the occasional divot and ridge in its surface indicating the damage that was still slowly melting away beneath.

He had been worried that the bite would serve as a reminder of what had happened that night in Mortland Street. In some ways, it was a justified fear. It was another scar Sherlock would carry his whole life, but as John explored the strange veneer of new skin, he found himself thinking that the mark reflected more than Matt's actions. It was a sign of Sherlock's strength, and the product of hours of diligent care. Without John's attentions, it could have been much worse. As it was, the stain it left on the canvas of Sherlock's body would one day be nothing but a silver phantasm. With any luck, the memories would also pale with the passage of time.

'Stop it,' Sherlock murmured, catching John's wrist and drawing his fingers to his lips, kissing the tips tenderly. 'It's fine. It hasn't hurt for weeks.'

'I know,' he replied, nudging Sherlock's cheek with his nose and settling down into the pillows, his body heavy and lax. 'It's just –' He pursed his lips, shaking his head as he cast away the intrusive wisps of regret. Not for anything they had done or shared, but for the brutality of the case that had acted as a catalyst to bring them to this point. 'Never mind.'

He expected Sherlock to push him and demand he expose his pointless thoughts for his perusal. Yet for once, he stayed quiet, cinched comfortably against John's side, their legs entwined and their arms draped haphazardly over each other's bodies. It was peaceful, an oasis of calm in the hectic whirl of their coexistence, and John luxuriated in the sanctuary he found in Sherlock's arms.

Warm and secure, surrounded by the lingering fragrance of sex and Sherlock, John closed his eyes, his absent thoughts taking on the misty quality of a shallow doze. He was still aware of the flat around them and the hum of the city beyond the window, but they were insignificant disturbances which did not intrude on their peace.

A gurgling growl finally pulled him back to the surface, making him crack one eye and glare at the perpetrator. Sherlock seemed to pick up on his scrutiny, wrinkling his nose as his stomach rumbled its betrayal again.

'When did you last eat?' John asked, stretching his arms above his head and pointing his toes as he smothered a yawn. 'I'm guessing no lunch. Did you have breakfast after I left?'

'I had a cup of tea.' Sherlock looked unrepentant as John sighed, flicking an errant curl back from Sherlock's forehead before propping himself up on his elbow. The bedside clock told him, through a thin veneer of dust, that it was around about dinner-time anyway, and he reached over the edge of the bed, rummaging in the pile of clothes on the floor for his phone.

'What are you doing?'

'Can't you deduce it?' John teased, jabbing the keys to find the number.

Sherlock blinked his eyes open like a man trying to escape the clingy temptation of sleep. With a grunt, he dragged John closer and kissed his shoulder. 'Getting take-away. Thai from the place down the road because it's close – the food will be here in ten minutes – and we've not had it for a fortnight.'

John grinned, not bothering to answer as he spoke their favourite order into the phone. It was sad that the people on the other end didn't even need to ask for the address; they knew his voice too well for that. He hung up a moment later, putting his mobile on the bedside table and sitting up, groaning as he swung his legs over the side of the mattress.

'Where are you going?' Sherlock complained. 'Mrs Hudson can get it.' He pouted as John snorted in disbelief, reaching for his jeans and pulling them on over his bare flesh. His underwear wasn't fit to be worn, thanks to its contribution to clean-up.

'Mrs Hudson is out visiting friends, and even if she wasn't, I expect she'd draw the line at bringing us post-sex food while you lounge around starkers in bed.' He swatted Sherlock's arse. 'Since you're clearly not going to get up, then I have to, and at the very least I should get dressed and wash my hands before answering the door.'

'Might want to do something about your hair, too.' Sherlock turned over, looking for all the world like he planned on going back to sleep as he smirked. 'It's not leaving much in any doubt.'

With a sigh, John grabbed his shirt, slipping it on and doing up a few of the buttons. He ignored his boots and socks, treating himself to one last admiring glance at Sherlock's supine form before he slipped out of the room and padded down the stairs.

His body ached with the stretch of muscles and a slightly more intimate discomfort, but it was nothing too bad, and John shouldered his way into the bathroom, washing his hands and sorting out his hair. Normally, he'd jump in the shower, but considering that he had no intention of setting foot outside Baker Street again today, he decided it could wait. At least until he'd made sure Sherlock had eaten.

Distantly, he heard footsteps padding across the floor upstairs, and he arched an eyebrow in surprise. John hadn't thought Sherlock would bother rousing. However, perhaps he was remembering the last (glorious, laughing, ridiculous) time they'd had take-away in bed. He'd complained about the soy sauce stains on the sheets for weeks.

A knock at the front door grabbed John's attention, and he trotted down to answer it, pulling Sherlock's wallet from the pocket of the Belstaff. He thanked the familiar delivery boy as he took the packages from his grasp and handed over the cash. The fragrance of plentiful salt and fried vegetables assailed his nose, and John hummed in appreciation as he closed out the cool evening air and made his way back up to the flat.

He expected Sherlock to be waiting impatiently at the table for sustenance, but there was no sign of him. John set down the bags, listening to the stillness of the building. Had he imagined he'd heard Sherlock getting up? Had he gone back to sleep after all?

'Sherlock?' he called, frowning when there was no reply. With a quick glance back at the food on the table, he sighed before climbing upwards, his bare feet making little sound on the steps. 'Sherlock, what are you –' He trailed off sharply as he shouldered aside the door, taking in the scene within.

Sherlock was dressed in his underwear and shirt, the cuffs rolled back up around his elbows and the buttons undone. He was on his knees as if he had been rummaging under the bed, probably looking for his trousers within the shadows. However, it was not his apparel that made John freeze, the warmth of affection turning leaden and Arctic in his stomach. It was the box in his hands.

The smooth wood gleamed, its grain vibrant beneath the span of Sherlock's fingertips. He hadn't opened it to reveal the syringe and needles within, the paraphernalia of his habit, but they both knew they were there: Pandora's curse waiting to be unleashed.

John bit his tongue, holding back the string of curses that burned beneath his ribs. He should have hidden it better. He'd meant to do so the moment he got the time, but in the rush of the case it had slipped his mind. Then, when the drama was over, he instead focussed on Sherlock and sex, thinking more with his heart and his dick than his actual brain.

He clenched his hands into fists, hating the look on Sherlock's face. He hadn't even lifted his head as John entered. At first glance, he seemed like a man under a siren's thrall. The fingers of his right hand rubbed back and forth across the polish, as softly as they had caressed John's skin earlier that day, and a new tension twisted his frame, seeking a different kind of gratification.

'Sherlock?' he spoke quietly, not even sure that he could hear him through whatever fugue appeared to have him in its grasp. He shifted, fighting the urge to stride forward and knock the hateful case from those violinist's hands, but that was not how this could go. It would be the beginning of the same old battle, one where someone stood between Sherlock and the stimulants he wanted. Except, instead of Mycroft, it would be John, and that was not the place he wanted to hold in Sherlock's life.

Clenching his jaw, he forced himself to observe, watching the subtle play of emotions across Sherlock's face. It was a challenge, but his scrutiny was rewarded as he took in his profile. What he had originally identified as longing was not nearly so straight-forward. There was something similar, a kind of weary hunger in Sherlock's eyes, but it was eclipsed by the slant of distaste in the line of his lips. His fingers quivered, outlining the hinges and the catch that held it shut, but he did not pull the lid open as a shivering sigh stirred the air.

'Shaw said it was necessary. Did I tell you that?' Sherlock looked up. 'Said it made me shine.'

John closed his eyes, knowing it was a sentiment that Sherlock shared. He could still remember him explaining about his drug use – how it made him excel, his deductions more precise and dazzling than ever. The yearning in his voice had made John nauseous. Now, there was no echo of it in Sherlock's words, and John chewed on his tongue, forcing himself to remain silent as he waited for him to continue.

He looked down at the container again, turning it over and around in his hands like a child exploring a new toy, and John heard the musical chime of glass from within – a tempting bell calling an addict to prayer. There was still a sharpness to Sherlock's expression, something in him that clearly longed to answer its call, yet he kept the lid shut tight against the world.

Something snapped, a tangible change in the air that made John blink. Sherlock shook his head in a sharp motion, casting off whatever thoughts had him in their spell as he thrust the box in John's direction. 'Give it to Lestrade. He'll be able to dispose of it.' His arm shook, the wood rattling as it broadcast his distress.

The sound drowned out John's sharp breath of surprise. At best, he had hoped Sherlock would hide it again, an invisible relief for those times when everything got too much. He thought it would be sequestered away, concealed from John's knowledge but not from Sherlock's: a sinister security blanket.

This was another matter entirely. This was Sherlock making the choice John had not dared to voice for fear he would lose. He had never said “it's me or the cocaine”, because it was an empty threat. Regardless of the response, he would have stayed. Now, Sherlock had made the decision without prompting, and all the anxiety that coiled, sharp and abrupt in the pit of his stomach, vanished like smoke, replaced with the heady swell of pride.

Gently, he took it from Sherlock's loose grip, setting it decisively on the bedside table before reaching for that slim hand and pulling him to his feet. He would do as Sherlock asked – would banish the spectre into Greg's custody before the day came to an end – but right now this was not about the drugs. It was about the man he had tied himself to, first as a friend and then as a lover. It had been a huge risk; objectively, John knew that. Sherlock could break him apart as easily as he made him whole. Yet every day, he proved to John that his trust had been perfectly placed.

Words caught in his throat, framed syllables without voice as John tried to convey everything he felt. Sherlock was trembling, the languor of sex a fading memory. It hadn't been painless, surrendering the syringe, that much was obvious. Yet even as he looked for regret in Sherlock's gaze and found its shadow, John could not condemn it. He had spent his life with addicts like his sister, and he knew they were never cured of their obsession. It lingered still, an endless temptation, but it was one Sherlock seemed determined to resist.

'Thank you.'

John wrapped his arms around Sherlock's back, his hungry kiss an effort to show him a glimpse of the sentiments unfurling within him: gratitude and relief, fierce elation and humble amazement. The taste of Sherlock's mouth was exhilarating, snatching away what little air John had as he poured himself into his adoration. His lover responded, strong and sure. It was a reciprocation of faith – a wordless declaration that, for one another, they would always try and fight their demons.

Later there would be reheated take-away and crap telly, laughter and peace. Lestrade would meet John at the front door, taking the box and its contents with a jubilant grin: a victory they'd never dared to hope for. For now, though, John relished this moment, one where they stood in each other's arms, proving Shaw wrong.

Sherlock didn't need the drugs to shine. He had John, and together, they were incandescent.