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prologue

* * *

 

John Watson is left-handed.

He’s tried not to let it affect his life, but as any Lefty knows, that’s almost impossible.

They’d given him the pamphlets in primary school, at Evaluation. The pamphlets that said it was perfectly normal, that 10 percent of the population is left-handed, that it’s possible as a Lefty to have a worthy career and a house and (right-handed) children. One pamphlet had a cartoon image of two stupidly happy big-eyed kids raising their hands, one left, one right: Lefties Are Just Like Everyone Else, it said.

John wondered why he needed a special pamphlet to tell him he was just like everyone else, if he was just like everyone else. No one else got a pamphlet.

It’s not like he comes from a family with outstanding knacks, but the rest of them are all Right; they’ve all got something. His parents are dead now, but his mother could break eggs perfectly, every single time. And his father, who drove a lorry, never once needed to ask for directions in his life. His sister Harry’s knack caused his mum no end of trouble -- and it continues to cause John no end of trouble -- but a troublesome knack has always seemed better than none at all.

“None” is the four-letter word that follows a Lefty everywhere. On a passport, drivers’ license, taxes, any official form: the checkbox. Knack classification: Mental, physical, elemental, incidental, ornamental, judgemental, transcendental, none. Check.

And there are the glances, the knowing, sometimes pitying glances that John absorbs on a daily basis whenever he picks up a pen or a fork. He doesn’t blame anyone, not really. They’re all conditioned to react, even if they’d never admit it. He notices Lefties too, after all.

So he pretends it’s all fine, that he’s never cared about having a knack, because God knows it probably would have been something useless anyway. It would have been folding origami cranes, or whistling Bach underwater. Cussing in five languages, maybe. He knew a bloke in school who had that one.

A truly exceptional knack is rare, far more rare than being a Lefty. That’s what the Evaluation is for: not to weed out the Lefties, but to find those exceptionally rare knacks. It’s not like Lefties need to be weeded out, anyway; it’s usually pretty obvious by primary school, even if some of them do try to fake being Right. John never bothered. He’s never liked the idea of pretending to be something he isn’t. Not to mention that despite his best efforts, John’s right-handed penmanship has always been comically illegible.

John has never overcompensated, not really. But he graduates top of his class, and he’s offered admission to several med schools. He’s aware that no one else in his family has ever been a doctor. And he’s good at it. Very good. Which is fine.

Things are supposed to be better for Lefties, now, anyway. Outreach, a government program that once placed Lefties in low-paying jobs -- with the implication that Lefties couldn’t get better ones -- has been largely defunct since John was a child. But a thin veneer of equality doesn’t hide the truth John absorbs in med school: his career path will not follow the straightforward trajectory of his right-handed classmates. No use pretending it will.

Instead, the Army comes calling, as John knew they would. The Army has always been an unspoken refuge for Lefties -- never mind the whispers that Lefties are more heavily recruited because they’re seen as slightly more expendable citizens. John doesn’t care. It’s in the Army that John finally finds a group of peers, fellow Lefties who don’t care what hand John uses to pick up his fork. His unit flourishes, turns out to be the best of the best. John is oddly comfortable when he’s deployed, far from home in the sweltering, dangerous desert heat. He learns to shoot, and just for a flicker of time, he wonders if he does have a knack after all. Because he turns out to be a damn good shot. A crack shot, in fact.

But it’s not a knack, in the end. The Army gives him a few standard tests; he even talks to a specialist. He’s naturally gifted, yes, but it’s nothing that registers on the knack spectrum in any official sense.

He shoots left, of course. But it’s okay.

* * *

The bullet that sends John home from Afghanistan tears through his shoulder from an incomprehensible distance.

John remembers peering out of the bunker, wondering if a sniper could reach them from some invisible point across the vast desert plain. They’re on the move now, aware of threats in the surrounding area, but there’s no one within range; it’s been deemed safe to move across the sand. John remembers the prickle on the back of his neck as he shrugged on his pack that day. He remembers the sand under his boots and the scent of sweat and gasoline and metal.

He remembers a creeping feeling under his scalp, a sharp tickle at the back of his throat, and the way his imagination flashed images of guns and sights and bullet casings. He had to stop and cough; he was the last out of the bunker. And then: John’s vision blurring into red streaks, an echoing crack across the open plain. His knees hitting sand. His scalp, still prickling as everything tunnelled into a dwindling point of darkness.

They never got the sniper. Half the unit died that day.

John might have made it back to serve in some capacity if it hadn’t been for the infection. He is helicoptered to a hospital, and most of an entire month is a blur of white beds and mumbling faces and nightmarish shadows of the attack replaying itself in John’s mind. John slips in and out of the blur, shoulder throbbing, knowing with a doctor’s certainty that his own body is shutting down.

He remembers a voice, a particular doctor in the hospital. He doesn’t know the doctor’s name, but he can tell she’s a good doctor, like John. A very good doctor. After her voice drifts into his nightmares, things get a bit better. The blur starts to shift into focus, and one day he notices the frayed edges of a blanket on his hospital cot, a swathe of bandages around his still-sore shoulder, and John knows where he is.

But he’s terribly weak. He’s fought off some sort of dysentery on top of an infected bullet wound, and he’s lost nearly two stone. His hands have started shaking.

Then the limp sets in.

“Psychosomatic; no actual physical damage. This happens sometimes after traumatic incidents, and you’ve seen plenty of trauma, Doctor,” the GP explains, and although her smile is polished and cheery, the apologetic crease in her brow tells John all he needs to know. PTSD. Possible mental instability. Even if he recovers from the bullet wound, his time in the Army is over.

They send him back to England.

 

* * *

chapter one


* * *



“Harry. I can’t stay with you.”

John’s tired of this argument, but that’s not going to stop his sister from starting it again, apparently.

“John, I won’t have it. You’re all alone in that ghastly bedsit, you can hardly walk. Why don’t you kip on my couch? I’ll take you out, introduce you around. I can set you up with someone, I know loads of lovely girls. You shouldn’t be sitting around by yourself, in your state --”

“I won’t be your excuse for firing up that knack of yours. Clara’s at her wits’ end, I’m sure.”

“Clara --” Harry’s voice falters.

“Harry.” John sighs. “What’ve you done?”

“She didn’t want me to use it, John, and you know that’s not right. It’s who I am --”

“So you can find parties. Fantastic. Crash a bloody garden party. Or a six-year-old’s princess tea, for God’s sake. You don’t have to use your knack to stay out all hours every night until you can’t remember your own bloody name. Clara loves you, Harry, you can’t treat her as if --”

“John, look. I don’t expect you to understand, right? The way you are. I mean --”

John’s stomach twists. He feels cold. “No,” he says. “No, I don’t expect I do understand,” and hangs up the phone.

* * *

Some nights John wakes up from the nightmares and isn’t sure if waking up is worthwhile.

When he can’t sleep, he cleans his gun.

* * *

John takes a long walk around London each morning. An hour, sometimes two.

When Harry bothers him about his empty days, he tells her he walks because he needs fresh air, because his leg could use the exercise. He doesn’t tell her about the quiet desperation that drives him out of the bedsit, away from the soothing finality of his Sig. She doesn’t need another reason to worry, honestly; the situation with Clara is enough on its own, and Harry’s method of handling stress has always involved an empty bottle.

Sometimes John walks all day, the faces and buses and taxis swirling into a blur as his steps hitch awkwardly against the pavement. It’s no more real than the nightmares that rip his breath to shreds, all part of the same haze, a strange boundless purgatory. Half-asleep, half-awake, fingers wrapped around a gun or a cane. One and the same.

Which is why Mike Stamford’s cheerful shout of recognition startles John as if he’s waking up from a deep sleep.

“John. John Watson!”

They sit side by side on a park bench some time later, sipping hot coffee that soothes John’s raw throat and sharpens the world back into something resembling reality.

Mike is warm, grounding, solid, much as he always has been. Naturally, now he has a wife and kids and a steady job at Barts. Right-handed like most everyone else, although John’s never known him well enough to ask about his knack. It doesn’t matter much. Next to Mike, John feels like a shell, a hollow alien being stranded on a distant satellite.

“I’d ask you to dinner, but we’re going to a wedding reception later,” Mike says. “Wish we didn’t have to, but I introduced the bride and groom, so... obligation, really. Students of mine.”

“No, no. It’s fine. This is great. It’s nice to see you again.”

“I’m glad I bumped into you, John. Let’s do this again sometime? Go for coffee, I mean.”

“That’d be good.”

There’s a heavy pause while Mike sips his drink. “You’ll be in town for a while? Just staying around until you get yourself sorted?”

“I don’t know. I can’t afford London on an army pension.”

“Couldn’t you get a flatshare, or something?”

John shakes his head, gives Mike a wry look. “Come on. Who’d want me for a flatmate?”

Mike's eyes glint, and John gives an unsure smile; and then John’s shoulder twinges, hard, as if to echo his thoughts. He winces, shifts uncomfortably on the bench, but Mike is chuckling, almost as if John isn’t there at all.

“You’re the second person to say that to me today,” he says distantly, and John blinks.

* * *

The lab at Barts is ordinary, much the same as John remembers, but the man inside is not ordinary. He is the equivalent of a bullet tearing through flesh, and John would know.

Mike smiled quite contentedly through their brief meeting, as if everything was perfectly normal. But the air in the lab felt heavy, metallic with magnetic charge, and John felt his life ripping, tearing away into questions, shaping itself around the possibility of this new person.

Sherlock Holmes, apparently.

The man had stared at John and calmly recited all the relevant facts of John's existence: the war, the limp, his left hand -- point being, he'd looked at John and instantly known everything. His piercing blue eyes had locked with John's, and John had felt something strange prickle up his spine, a jolt of adrenaline, pure electric nerve. Like staring into the scope of a rifle: impossible to look away.

And they're looking at a flat tomorrow. A bloody flatshare with this man. John, ordinary, left-handed John, sharing a flat with a man who is either a mad genius, or has an outrageous knack, or both.

Sherlock Holmes is so unusual, so spectacular, that as John shakes Mike’s hand at the front door of Barts, he can't stop the question before it tumbles clumsily out of his mouth.

"Is that his knack, then?"

Mike raises his eyebrows, and his dimples deepen.

"I didn't mean -- " John says hastily, but Mike holds up a hand.

"Understandable," he says. "And I don't pretend to know Sherlock very well, but anyone who meets him knows what he can do. Yes, I'm sure it's a knack of some kind, although I'm not sure how it's officially categorized. He's not any sort of Analyst, that much I can tell you. He gets all of that just by looking at a person. Observation only."

"And you think someone like that would want to share a flat with me."

Mike shrugs, still grinning. Christ, he hasn't stopped smiling the entire time they've been at Barts. It's slightly unsettling.

"He didn't seem opposed to the idea, did he?"

"I guess not. God." John rubs the back of his neck. "Well, thanks, Mike, really. Above and beyond the call of duty."

"Don't mention it," Mike says, giving a wave as he turns back toward the hospital. "Email me, right? Let me know if it works out."

"Yeah," John says, his mind drawn inexorably to the man who'd blotted out the dull fog of the morning with his dark wool coat, the man who'd left his riding crop in the mortuary. "Yeah, will do."

* * *

221b Baker Street feels like home to John before he even gets halfway up the stairs. It's like his entire life has warped into one big foregone conclusion in less than twenty steps. Of course he's moving in; it's cozy and messy and warm and absolutely everything his bedsit isn't, and, most importantly, it's got Sherlock Holmes in it.

John can only sit in the surprisingly comfortable armchair in 221b and watch as Sherlock throws off energy in waves, pulling at John like the tide. He seems more alive than any other person John's ever met, every last molecule charged with purpose.

So when he asks John to go with him -- actually go with him somewhere, John has no idea where, but it has to do with a murder, of all things -- there's no way John is refusing. No way John could ever refuse. In the back of the taxi, John feels light, nearly drunk with the sheer rush of Sherlock next to him. With the sheer improbability of it all.

He's known this man all of twenty minutes, in total.

The sun dips down between the rough stone and glass spikes of London buildings as they sit in silence in the cab, Sherlock soaked in shadow, all dark curls and coat.

"In the lab, you said Afghanistan or Iraq," John says at last.

"Obvious," Sherlock's answer is cool, but quick, as if he's been waiting for John to speak. "Your haircut, the way you hold yourself. You're left-handed. A large percentage of Lefties are either drawn to military service or recruited straight out of school." Then, a list of rapid-fire details: tan lines, the limp (psychosomatic, complete with therapist, of course). John feels his jaw go slack with the intimate assault of information.

"You have questions," Sherlock says, eyes glinting blue in the fading daylight.

John is too genuinely stunned to be anything other than direct. "This is your knack, I take it. But what is it, exactly? How is it categorized?"

Sherlock's mouth quirks. He doesn't seem offended. "Considering I knew your knack status from a moment’s observation, it seems only fair that you should know mine." His eyes flick, once, to John's left hand. "My knack is difficult to explain. The closest way to describe it would be... deduction. The ability to draw conclusions, to connect the dots between disparate bits of information. But it doesn't all come easily. I have to work at it. To observe." He looks out the window. "And it's... not categorized."

"Not categorized." John swallows. This is almost unheard of.

"Believed to be unique, yes." Sherlock turns back, regards John with a measured look. "Problem?"

John realizes he's been staring. He exhales quickly, shakes his head. "No. No problem. It was just -- that was brilliant. Amazing."

Sherlock's eyes glow, corners crinkling. "You think so."

"Yeah. I mean, can you -- could you do a bit more?"

This earns John a genuine, shy grin. John is baffled. It's almost as if Sherlock is rarely praised for this extraordinary ability. Impossible.

"Your brother," Sherlock says. "Your brother has a drinking problem. Look -- give me your phone."

* * *

It comes as no surprise to John that Sherlock abandons him at the crime scene.

It makes more sense, honestly, than Sherlock inviting him there in the first place. It seems perfectly reasonable that a man capable of deducing a woman's adultery habit from the state of her jewellery should realize that he's brought an entirely useless third party to a classified Scotland Yard location.

John limps down the endless staircases in the abandoned house feeling invisible. Members of DI Lestrade's team shrug past him with equipment and cameras as John's cane thumps against the creaky floorboards. Back to the bedsit; wait to hear from Sherlock, perhaps, although John's not counting on it. Perhaps this was a test of some kind, to see if John could be useful in Sherlock's line of work? John can't imagine he passed, unless offering a single obvious observation and a handful of glowing compliments qualified as usefulness.

All things considered, though, the day was a brilliant distraction from John's usual routine. The reality of the drab bedsit starts to encroach on John's thoughts, the memory of dull beige carpet starting to erode the bright hour spent in Sherlock's company. It was too good to be true, really. And if he'd let himself get a bit carried away with the fantasy of living with Sherlock -- well, that was the only damage done. Alone, at the end of it: utterly unsurprising.

The ringing phones, the security cameras, the black Jaguar that slides to a halt to pick him up -- all of that is a surprise.

The man standing alone on the slick, glossy floor of the warehouse is leaning on an umbrella; he regards John with an oily stare. John's neck prickles in suspicion as this odd, dapper penguin of a man gives him a searching look that feels almost as if John is being X-rayed.

John's left hand clenches, unclenches. He waits for the man to speak.

"Dr John Watson," the man says, syllables dripping with polish. "Interesting."

"Not really, no," John says, squaring his shoulders. "If you think so, you've probably got the wrong man."

Umbrella Suit raises an eyebrow. "I never get the wrong man," he says smoothly. "What can you tell me about Sherlock Holmes?"

"Almost nothing. Met him yesterday. He invited me to look at a flatshare."

"And you’ll take it, I assume."

"How is this any of your business?"

"Everything about Sherlock Holmes is my business, Dr Watson. And now, it seems you fall under that category."

John lifts his chin, looks this man in the eye. "What is it you want from me, exactly?"

"You may have already gathered this, Doctor, but Sherlock Holmes has no friends. And yet... after meeting him yesterday, you're moving in with him, and now you're solving crimes together. Curious."

"How do you know I'll be moving in with him?"

The man gives John another long, studied look, sweeping from John's worn oxfords to his close-cropped haircut. It's more than slightly unnerving. John waits, eyes fixed straight ahead, and says nothing.

Umbrella Suit, brow furrowed, seems to be satisfied with whatever his gaze has revealed. He smiles placidly. "I imagine people have already warned you to stay away from him, but I can see from your left hand that's not going to happen."

John swallows against a surge of biting anger. He grips his cane tightly. "Bit rude, don't you think?"

Another simpering smile. "Apologies. I was not referring to your left-handed status, merely that you have a tremor in your left hand. Your therapist noted it too." He holds up a familiar bound notebook that John has only seen in his therapist's hands. During their private appointments. Jesus. John feels his entire body go rigid.

“Hold out your left hand, please.”

"Who the hell are you?"

"Your left hand, please, Dr Watson."

John's phone chirps once, in his pocket.

John Watson holds out his left hand, the hand he tries not to resent. Right now, he thinks, if he were right-handed, he might have some sort of defence against this man. Some sort of spectacular trick. In another life, he might have been like Sherlock; he would stand here and take this man apart with the power of his mind. But he's got nothing.

His hand is perfectly steady.

The text is from Sherlock Holmes.

* * *

Sherlock claims he likes company when he goes out, which is interesting, really, for someone who says he doesn't have friends. He does like to talk to the skull on the mantelpiece. John figures he can fill that role without much effort.

In the course of standing in for Sherlock's skull, John abandons his cane to chase a cab through London's back alleys, moves into 221b, and kills a man.

It's been a while since John has killed anyone, but the decision takes shockingly little thought on John's part. There is only one impulse: Sherlock is about to die. Every fiber of John's consciousness flares into focus, soldier reflexes humming high in his veins as his vision narrows to a single point. It's a good shot. It's actually a breathtaking shot, a fatal hit through two separate panes of glass, but John doesn't stick around to see the results. He knows as soon as the cabbie crumples, and he's gone before Sherlock can turn around.

As his feet echo through the slick, empty hallways he hears his heart pound and feels his legs work, both legs, his body tuned to its familiar military frequency. No pain, no limp, just a clear head and the zing of adrenaline and the comfortable grip of a gun in his hand. His left --

No. His right. His gun is in his right hand.

John skids to a halt outside a toilet and tries the door; it's open. He flicks on the lights, which buzz an uneven undertone as he stares at his reflection in the mirror.

He stares back at himself, reflected. He raises each hand. His mirror image has it wrong, anyway. Left is right. Right, left. But he's not wrong: his gun is definitely in his right hand. He must have been in such a hurry to take the shot that he didn't even realize which hand he was shooting with.

Hurriedly, John clicks on the safety and shoves the Sig in the back of his trouser waistband. He washes his hands in the sink under the greenish-yellow institutional lighting and pumps out a generous handful of nauseating pink almond-scented soap. He scrubs, hard, left and right tangled together. Maybe he was mistaken. Maybe it was nerves, PTSD. A particularly vivid hallucination. He flexes his hands under the stream, shuts off the tap, and flicks off the lights.

He's been alone for months, days stretching into endless purgatory, a numbing sameness that always ends in nightmares. And then, in the space of a day, he's met Sherlock, gotten tangled in a murder investigation, and shot a man without even thinking about it. Right-handed, no less.

Left, right; John doesn’t care. Tonight John would have shot that cabbie with a gun between his teeth if it had been necessary.

He jogs downstairs, out the rear door of the empty building. He's alone. He can see reflections of flashing police lights on the uneven bricks of the alleyway; Lestrade's brought his team.

John leans against the wall and catches his breath. He shifts from one leg to another, marvelling that his weight is supported evenly. Nothing gives way.

He straightens up, tugs down his jumper, and strolls out between the police cars, thankful for once to be invisible.

* * *

Umbrella Suit is Sherlock's brother. Stranger things have happened.

For one, Sherlock wants to get dinner. With John.

They walk in companionable silence towards Baker Street, Sherlock's tall, dark form a comfortable presence at John's shoulder. As if there has always been a Sherlock-shaped hole next to John that has only just now been filled.

The Chinese restaurant is, as advertised, delicious. They've eaten their way through two plates of appetizers and have just started on the wonton soup when Sherlock abruptly puts down his spoon and leans back in his chair, steepling his fingers.

"Your sister's drinking," he says. "It's got something to do with her knack."

John finds it hard to swallow his bite of wonton. His eyes water with the unexpected gulp of soup. "Now that is -- How did you know?"

"When you talked about your sister earlier, in the cab, you kept flexing your left hand. I've noticed that other topics of conversation don't trigger this response, so it's possibly a stress-induced reaction, maybe something that's subconsciously linked to your feelings. Since you're left-handed, a knack issue starts to look likely. So your sister's marriage troubles, caused solely by her drinking habit? Maybe not that simple. Maybe it's somehow linked to a knack, and since you don’t have one, hers is the most likely culprit."

John tries hard not to look utterly gobsmacked and fails.

Sherlock studies John's slack-jawed amazement and lifts an eyebrow. "Am I right?"

"Christ." John sits back in his chair. "Yeah, you are. Bloody amazing."

Sherlock's mouth twists. "You've expressed that sentiment already."

"Bears repeating. Still no idea how you do that."

"As with anything, some days it comes more easily than others. Had a hunch just now. I'll admit it was a bit of a shot in the dark."

"And you said I was a good shot."

Sherlock smiles. He leans forward, chin on folded hands. "Your sister's knack, though."

"Oh. Right." John sighs. "Pain in the arse, is what it is. My dad never got lost, could always find his way home, or to wherever he was going. Harry can find places, too. Only she has a talent for finding... parties."

"Parties?"

"Yeah, social gatherings of any kind, but the better the party, the better Harry is at finding it. Or, the better the party is at finding Harry, more like." John shakes his head. "Wasn't so bad when she was little, except she'd disappear, you know, run off down the road if another kid had a birthday, things like that. She still disappears. Never stopped doing it."

"Harry grew up, and so did the parties."

John sighs. "Exactly."

"And she won't stop, is that it? Doesn't want to stop using her knack. Understandable."

John feels his jaw clench, and he swallows. "Not understandable to me, but I guess it wouldn't be."

A weighty pause. "This is why you won’t stay with her."

"This is why we've never gotten on, yes. Whenever I visit, she gets even worse. Wants to -- show off, I dunno. She’s never been able to resist rubbing it in, that I’m -- you know.” John gestures faintly with his left hand. “Clara got fed up too. About two months ago."

Sherlock hums in understanding. They sit in silence broken only by the clink of silverware and glasses in the half-empty restaurant. John prods a wonton with his spoon until he works up his nerve to ask the question burning a hole through the rest of his thoughts.

"You're, er -- okay with this. With me. Moving in."

"Why shouldn't I be? I asked you to."

"Not -- not exactly," John says. "You told Mrs Hudson I'd take the flat."

"I was right, though."

"Yes, but -- I'm not -- I mean. You've got your skull," John finishes lamely. "You hardly know me."

"You hardly know me," Sherlock counters.

"I don't really need to." John stirs his soup. He's not quite sure how to express the difference between an evening with Sherlock and a night alone in his old bedsit. He's not sure he has words to do it.

"I think your work on the cabbie's given you a bit of a leg up. The skull has no aim whatsoever."

John's eyebrows shoot up, and he looks up at Sherlock. Sherlock is grinning.

John grins back. There’s a long pause.

“What are you so happy about, then?”

Sherlock’s grin widens. “Moriarty.”

The waitress puts down a plate of steaming chow mein between them, but it goes unnoticed.

* * *

Chapter Text

John awakens to a loud bang and a faint whiff of sulfur and ozone. It’s been three months since he dragged the sum total of his worldly possessions into 221b, and it says a lot about his current living arrangements that he does not immediately roll into a defensive crouch. Instead, he stares at the ceiling and stretches contentedly, feeling the creaky pop of his joints and listening to the clatters of an experiment likely gone out of control downstairs.

He shuffles downstairs in his dressing gown and is greeted by an even stronger smell of sulfur and the sight of his flatmate in safety goggles and enormous rubber gloves. Sherlock barely looks up as John pokes his head into the kitchen.

“I take it breakfast is out of the question?”

“Busy,” Sherlock grunts.

“How toxic, exactly?”

A telling silence.

“Right.” John sighs, settles into his armchair. “Food can wait. It’s not like we need it to survive or anything.”

“If you’re in danger of perishing from malnutrition, there’s a cafe downstairs.” Sherlock lifts up his goggles and peers at him. “But it doesn’t look like that will be a concern anytime soon.”

John flips a two-fingered salute in the direction of the kitchen, leans back, and picks up the newspaper. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Sherlock’s smirk as he replaces his goggles.

There’s a faint noise downstairs, the polite thump of a knock; then a measured, low voice in the stairwell. Their landlady’s familiar call echoes up the stairs.

“Sherlock? Are you up there, love?” And then, to the visitor: “I don’t know, if he’s not answering his phone, Mycroft, he could be out and about --”

Footsteps. “I’ll let myself in, Mrs Hudson, it’s quite all right.”

“I’ll be up in a minute then, you can wait for him, I’ll make a nice cuppa --”

“Thank you, Mrs Hudson, that would be very kind.”

The distinctive form of Mycroft Holmes, umbrella in hand, appears in the doorway of 221b. John raises his eyebrows, makes a move to stand, but Mycroft motions him back to the chair.

“Good morning, John, good morning. Please sit, I realize the hour is rather early for a formal visit.” He gives Sherlock a pointed look. “I do hope I’m not interrupting anything.”

Sherlock peers at the particularly vile-looking yellow liquid in his beaker, switches off the flame underneath it, and pushes up his goggles. “Mycroft, your mere existence is a perpetual interruption. Right now is no different.”

“My apologies.” Mycroft settles into Sherlock’s chair and earns a petulant look from the chair’s usual occupant. “John, all is well, I hope? How are you finding living with my brother? Hellish, I imagine.”

John folds the paper, gives a thin smile. Mycroft, despite his impeccable manners -- or perhaps because of them -- excels at creating an atmosphere of refined unease. “I’m never bored,” John says shortly.

“Excellent.” Mycroft gives John a rather wan smile. “That blog of yours, it’s creating quite a stir, isn’t it? Drumming up quite a bit of business. Sherlock has never experienced such success at his chosen line of work.”

Sherlock peels off his gloves, glaring unreservedly at Mycroft. John clears his throat. “Well, that’s a good thing, I hope.”

“Quite remarkable,” Mycroft says, and there’s that piercing gaze again, even more hawklike than Sherlock’s, if such a thing is possible. John shifts uncomfortably in his chair, feels a pinch somewhere near his scar.

“The only thing remarkable about John’s blog is the fact that people read it,” Sherlock says dryly, before John can reply.

“Don’t be childish, Sherlock. I was merely taking an interest.” Mycroft graces John with another simpering smile. “It is quite remarkable, what John has accomplished. Do I understand that you’ve started practising medicine again, when you’re not chasing after my brother?”

John opens his mouth to answer, but Sherlock cuts him off once again. “Don’t pretend I don’t know what you’re implying, Mycroft.” He paces toward the window and opens his violin case. “Do spit out the reason you’ve come and save us your little pats on the head.”

Mycroft raises his eyebrows. “Charming, Sherlock. Very well.” He reaches into the pocket of his lush tweed suit jacket and draws out a single envelope. “Andrew West. Civil servant. Found dead on the tracks near Battersea Station this morning. Apparent suicide.”

Sherlock lifts his violin under his chin and plucks the strings slightly louder than is necessary to check the tuning. Mycroft sighs.

John clears his throat. “Why should the government care about a suicide?”

“We have reason to suspect foul play. Mr West was in possession of a rather sensitive piece of government information, which unfortunately was stored on a flash drive.The drive is now missing.”

“Typical.” Sherlock raises his bow and plays three quick, mocking notes, watching Mycroft. “And why can’t your own toadies clean up the mess? -- Ah. Suspect an inside job, do you?”

Mycroft shifts in Sherlock’s armchair, stands up. “Your attention to this matter would be most appreciated, Sherlock. It is a matter of... national importance.”

Sherlock raises an eyebrow. “I do so love it when you beg.” He turns to the window, violin still under his chin. “But no. Terribly busy at the moment, thanks to my remarkable blogger.”

“I see.” Mycroft has fixed John in his gaze again; he proffers the envelope in John’s direction. “Well, perhaps you could find room for this when your schedule... clears up a bit. Think it over.”

“How very predictable of you. Thank you for your interference, Mycroft, so kind of you to meddle this morning.” The violin soars upward in volume and quite plainly dismisses Mycroft with a sweeping, venomous trill of notes.

Mycroft tuts and gives John a short bow. “A pleasure, John, as always.”

John stands, stiffly, and shakes his hand. “See you later, Mycroft.”

“Sorry, dears, I was just getting some scones out of the oven.” Mrs Hudson has appeared in the doorway of the flat, balancing a plate of something that smells good enough to clash terribly with the chemical smell of the kitchen. “Leaving already? I was going to make that cuppa --”

“Don’t trouble yourself, Mrs Hudson.” Mycroft picks up his umbrella, addresses her with another short bow. “Another time, I’m sure. Good day to you.”

“Well.” Mrs Hudson looks faintly flustered. “I’ll just --”

“Tea would be lovely,” John says, smiling at her as Mycroft’s careful footfalls echo down the stairs.

Mrs Hudson gives John a gratified smile in return and bustles into the kitchen, muttering under her breath. John can hear “terrible mess” and “frightful” before all of it is drowned by the sound of running water.

Sherlock puts his violin back into its case and calls out over the noise. “Careful, Mrs Hudson. The second beaker to the left of the range is slightly unstable.”

John’s eyes widen. “What, it might tip over?”

“Of course not, John, I mean it might explode.”

“Quite all right, dear,” Mrs Hudson calls.

John sighs. “I think the flat could be on fire and Mrs Hudson would still stop to put the kettle on.”

This earns a long, low chuckle from Sherlock. He settles into the armchair across from John with an approving look. John feels a curl of warmth twist in his chest.

“What?”

“You’re more right than you know.” Sherlock glances toward the kitchen. “You happen to have hit upon the very thing that’s unusual about Mrs Hudson. If you’ve deduced it deliberately, I’ll be quite impressed.”

John gives a wry smile. “Nope. No idea what you’re talking about, I’m afraid.”

“Mrs Hudson’s knack.”

“What, tea?”

“Coming, boys!” Mrs Hudson is balancing a battered silver tray with mugs and scones, which she slides neatly onto the table behind Sherlock. “The scones are ginger and cardamom. Can’t stay, I’ve got an errand at the chemist’s. But I did promise Mycroft the tea earlier. So just this once.” She hands John his RAMC mug, which is steaming hot.

Precisely the right temperature, in fact. Which shouldn’t be possible, considering the kettle clicked off only seconds ago.

“Thanks, Mrs H.”

“Thank you,” Sherlock adds. “I’m sorry Mycroft disturbed you so early.”

“Not a bother.” Mrs Hudson is still talking over her shoulder as she makes her way down the stairs. “I can’t bring you tea every morning, mind, but you did have a guest, and your kitchen, Sherlock. Really. You can’t be having people over with the flat in such a state.”

“Thanks again, Mrs Hudson,” John calls.

Sherlock takes a sip from his mug, and watches as John takes a sip from his own.

“Now think about it,” Sherlock says. “This tea.”

John takes a deep swig, expecting to be scalded, but the tea is pleasantly rather than uncomfortably hot at the back of his throat. It’s been steeped just the right amount: strong, but not bitter, with enough milk to turn it a golden caramel color, and enough natural flavor that it needs no sweetener at all.

It’s fairly marvellous, in fact.

“It’s... perfect,” he says, and takes another sip. “But Mrs Hudson always makes a very good cup of tea.”

“Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock intones, his long fingers wrapped around his own mug, “makes the perfect cup of tea.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, in an official, categorized capacity,” Sherlock says. “Mycroft knows it, too, which is why I was particularly glad to send him on his way this morning before he got any.”

John shakes his head, takes another sip. It really is delicious. They sit and sip tea in comfortable silence for several long moments.

“That’s a lovely knack to have,” John says eventually.

“Yes. Rather suits her, doesn’t it?”

Silence falls again, a rare moment of calm.

John tries to sort through several conflicting bits of information regarding their current caseload. He can’t do it.

“You told Mycroft we were busy, Sherlock.”

“Among other things, yes.”

“But we don’t have a case.”

“Also true. That doesn’t mean we’re available.”

John lets out a frustrated breath. “I don’t understand this petty feud business, Sherlock. Really.”

“Words clearly spoken by one who didn’t grow up with Mycroft Holmes.”

“But we don’t have a case. We can help, Sherlock. National importance, for God’s sake. Why wouldn’t you --”

“I don’t understand why you refuse to speak up when someone patronises you,” Sherlock interrupts. “It’s tremendously irritating.”

“What?” John’s voice goes up half an octave in surprise. “What are you on about? What does that have to do with anything?”

“My brother finds you so remarkable,” Sherlock says bitterly. “One would think that with his occupation he would be able to see his prejudice for what it is.”

John feels his shoulders tense; he exhales. “Sherlock, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m talking about taking a really important case when you’re crawling the walls out of boredom.”

“Mycroft treats you as if you’re some sort of charity case, and you do nothing to correct him,” Sherlock says, each syllable steeped in resentment. “Why would I help someone who maintains the outdated and incorrect assumption that left-handed individuals are inferior?”

This hits a nerve, a nerve John didn’t know was raw until now. His jaw clenches reflexively, and it takes great effort to set down his tea without spilling it. “If I took five minutes to correct everyone who patronises me because I’m left-handed, Sherlock, I’d be doing nothing else for the next twenty years.”

Sherlock’s eyebrows lift, his eyes as pale as the china cup in his hand.

“I’m going out,” John says, standing up abruptly, and in his mind he can only see Mycroft’s simpering smile, no different than all the other condescending smiles. Sherlock has no idea, can’t possibly know what it’s like to become so accustomed to pity that it barely registers.

“John --”

“Save it,” John snaps, jacket in hand. Before Sherlock can say anything else John is down the stairs and out the door of 221b, his heart pounding sickeningly high in his throat.

* * *

John is staring across the boating lake at Regent’s Park when his phone vibrates in his jacket.

Client. Baker Street. Come at once. SH

Taking a walk. Back later.

Need you for this one. SH

No, you don’t.

221b. SH


John scowls at the phone in his hand and briefly considers flinging it into the lake. Instead he takes a cold, stinging breath. The air has a wintry bite, and he didn’t bring the right jacket. He slips the phone back into his pocket.

He doesn’t know why he’s so angry, and that’s part of the reason he’s angry. It’s a lovely little paradox, one he’s not particularly in the mood to solve.

He shifts from foot to foot in an effort not to shiver. These things shouldn’t get to him anymore. And they usually don’t. A lifetime of condescension doled out in veiled compliments like Mycroft’s has made John fairly numb to clumsy displays of prejudice. This is nothing different, nothing new: another grain of sand in what is already a vast desert.

John jams his hands into the pockets of his jeans. The idea that Sherlock thinks John needs defending is nauseating. Sherlock has no idea what it’s like to fight these little wars every day. It’s like Sisyphus and the boulder: no bloody reason to climb the hill.

Sherlock is wrong. Sherlock is infuriating.

Sherlock needs John back at Baker Street, however.

It’s too cold to stay outside much longer. At least that’s what John tells himself.

* * *

The man sitting on the couch in the living room has the reddest hair John’s ever seen in his life. He looks to be in his early thirties, roughly John’s height, but considerably heavier. He’s wearing a thick-rimmed black glasses, a checked button-down and jeans, and stands up to hold out his hand in greeting as John enters.

“James Wilson,” he says brightly. “Call me Jabez, it’s my Twitter handle. Big fan of your blog, mate. Hoping to engage the services of Mr Holmes regarding a strange situation.”

Sherlock gestures to John’s empty chair by the fireplace. His eyes flick to John’s briefly, and John can see a silent request. John isn’t sure when he and Sherlock started having entirely unspoken conversations, but this doesn’t feel like the first. Heat rises in John’s cheeks, and he gives a slight nod.

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth twitches upward in acknowledgement.

“Er-- yes, nice to meet you,” John says, taking the man’s hand and shaking it. Jabez Wilson has a firm handshake, but his eyes dart insecurely around the room.

“Do please continue, Jabez,” Sherlock says as John settles into his armchair and picks up his notepad from the end table. “Jabez was just telling me about his online resale business.”

“Online resale?”

“Jabezbiz-dot-CO-dot-UK.”

John has scrawled the date on a fresh sheet of paper and is making a note of the URL when he realizes their potential client has fallen silent. He looks up.

Jabez Wilson is staring at John’s hand, the one holding the pen.

“Problem?” Sherlock says icily.

“No, I -- sorry, Dr Watson, I didn’t realize -- I mean, I’d assumed --”

“It’s all right,” John interrupts, before Sherlock has a chance to get in a word. “Your company, Jabez.”

Jabez looks at John again with poorly concealed curiosity before turning to Sherlock. “Right, okay. Let’s say you have something you want to sell on eBay, but you don’t want to bother with the trouble of actually setting up the auction.” Jabez leans forward, gives a practised smile; clearly this is a rehearsed business pitch. “You bring it to us and we’ll do the work for you, figure out the pricing, list it, ship it, everything, for a small percentage of the profit.”

“‘We,’”John echoes. “How big is your company?”

“It’s just me and another bloke at the moment. Brilliant guy. Lucky to have found him. Set up our website for a real steal. I’m sure he could help you out with yours, if you ever need --” Wilson is fishing in his pockets, clearly looking for something, and pulls out a creased business card.

“No, that’s quite all right,” John says. “I’m not one for a slick website, really.”

“Clearly,” Sherlock says under his breath, and then, holding out his hand: “I’ll take that.” Jabez leans forward and hands Sherlock the card, which Sherlock examines with deft fingers before pocketing it. Jabez is still chatting animatedly.

“Maybe you’re looking for something with more modern edge for your site, a few more interactive features, Mr Holmes? Could really drive up your hits. Victor’s a genius with CSS.”

“Victor...”

“Spaulding,” Jabez finishes. “My CTO. And he can work up a bit of Flash for you, as well --”

“Mr Wilson, I despise advertisements,” Sherlock says abruptly. “If you think I want one performed in the living room of my flat you’re an idiot. Leave now.”

Jabez flushes a colour that nearly matches his brilliant hair.

John shifts in his seat. “Sherlock --”

“Very well,” Sherlock snaps, waving a hand. “Continue. Quickly, before I change my mind.”

Jabez swallows hard, the colour on his face blotchy and bright. “R-right. Okay. Well, Victor forwarded me an email about a company looking for data entry workers. Strictly part-time. Thing is, they only wanted people with red hair to apply. Minimal hours, amazing pay.”

“That is strange, but the Internet is a strange place,” Sherlock says. “At least, given the evidence on John’s laptop.”

John frowns.

“I figured it was one of those fake email schemes -- you know, like those ones that say you’ve won a million pounds from Uganda -- but Victor checked it out, said it looked legit, so I went to the interview. Whole room of applicants, all redheads. Weirdest thing I’ve ever seen. And then they hired me.”

“Still failing to see the problem here.”

“Well, I worked there for eight weeks straight, and then yesterday I showed up and no one was in the office. Door locked. I asked around and no one had any record of the company ever renting the offices at all. It’s like they never existed. But I was there, I swear, for eight weeks, four hours a day. I got paid. I just want my job back, Mr Holmes, or at least an explanation. That’s all I’m asking.”

“And what was the name of this supposed organization?”

“RHL Incorporated. Stands for Registrar of Home Locations or some such thing. I had to enter addresses into their database alphabetically. Bloody tedious, but... I really need a bit of supplemental income. Just until the resale company gets on its feet.”

“It is tedious,” Sherlock intones, glancing at John, and their eyes meet. John shifts in his seat. And then Sherlock’s eyes widen, and he sits up suddenly, his entire body in singular, startling focus.

“We’ll take the case. Thank you for bringing this to our attention, Jabez.”

“I’m sorry, what?” John says in disbelief.

Jabez is already standing, shaking Sherlock’s hand. “Wow, thanks, Mr Holmes. I really appreciate --”

“We’ll be in touch,” Sherlock says shortly, and Jabez takes this as a cue to scurry out the door with a slightly disgruntled look at John on the way.

John waits until he hears the front door of 221b slam shut before he stabs an emphatic finger in the direction of the doorway.

“Seriously, Sherlock. Seriously? You took that case, which boils down to the idiot victim of some worthless internet scam, but you won’t help your own brother, who wants you to track down top secret government files?”

Sherlock steeples his fingers under his chin. He says nothing.

“If you’re doing this to prove a point -- if it’s about my hand, and what I can’t do -- or what I can do -- I don’t want any part of it.” John’s voice is brittle enough that it cracks. “I don’t care what your brother thinks, and I sure as hell don’t care if some idiotic client makes a face when I pick up my pen.”

“You’re wrong,” Sherlock says.

“I’m wrong.” John chuckles. “One minute you’re berating your brother for his attitude, next minute you’re taking a worthless case because the client looked at my hand. New champion for the cause, are you? Should I print up a bloody poster and parade in front of the flat? ‘No Case Left Unsolved?’ ‘Your Case Left In Good Hands?’”

“I’m not doing this to prove a point.”

“You’re always trying to prove your point.”

Sherlock leans forward, eyes laser-sharp. “Jabez Wilson handed me his colleague’s business card.” He takes it out of his jacket, holds it up. “Victor Spaulding, CTO of Livid Group Web Design. Card stock is foreign, cheap, the fibre is typical of U.S. manufacturers -- and this card is too cheap to be worth the price of overseas shipping, so clearly, the person who had it printed was in the U.S. at the time. Newish card, made within the past few months, so most likely its owner just got back from the States. This Victor can’t have been working with Jabez very long, a month at best.” He pauses. “Two years ago I was tracking the whereabouts of a notorious hacker known online as ‘Scant.’ Responsible for hacking into several credit card databases-- then vanished, proved impossible to trace. Rumoured to have left the country. Haven’t heard anything from him in quite some time.”

John stares. “I have absolutely no idea what you’re driving at.”

“Add the word ‘Scant’ to the company name -- ‘Livid Group’ -- and it comes out quite nicely as an anagram for ‘Victor Spaulding.’ Given the strange circumstances described by Jabez Wilson, it would seem that Scant is once again hard at work.”

John blows out a long, shaky breath. “Jesus, Sherlock.”

Sherlock stands up, flips open his laptop. “I need to get in touch with my online contacts for the original case. I’ll need you to start researching Livid Group Web Design. And find out anything you can about RHL Incorporated.”

John feels pressure building in his head, as if there is simply too much to physically process. He presses his fingers to his temples.

Of course Sherlock wouldn’t care; of course he’s only thinking about the case itself. Sherlock, despite the maddening opacity of his unparalleled brain, can sometimes be perfectly transparent.

John looks up; Sherlock is now typing away on the laptop, eyes scanning the screen. “That was amazing,” John says quietly. “Unbelievable, even for you.”

A faint twitch of a smile. “I know,” Sherlock murmurs.

Their eyes meet, and for a brief flash John can see an acknowledgement, the barest hint that despite the all-consuming rush of a case, Sherlock knows exactly what John is thinking. Acceptance, the simple thing that has always flowed between them. It’s all fine.

John shakes his head in disbelief, gives a weak smile in return.

“Well, do you want to help, or not?” Sherlock says, still looking at John, and the air is charged between them, that familiar wordless connection lit up like a Christmas tree, because what Sherlock means is Don’t be stupid, I need you.

It’s all John ever needs to hear.

* * *

It takes Sherlock 39 hours, five nicotine patches, and the assistance of an unseen hacker named “Jones” to unravel Victor Spaulding’s plot to hack into the Bank of England and embezzle an obscene amount of money.

Neither of them sleep for a single one of those 39 hours.

At two in the morning, on the thirty-ninth hour, Sherlock is still infuriatingly functional. He hovers on the edge of the couch tapping away on his laptop, unshowered and wrapped in a dressing gown, dark curls bearing recent evidence of having been raked upwards in frustration.

Slumped on the opposite end of the couch, John idly picks at his keyboard, his vision wavering at the corners.

“So,” John says, trying not to rub at his eyes but failing, “so your sources say that Scant may have been using the Jabez Biz boxes.”

“It’s evident that he wanted Jabez Wilson out of the office for some amount of time every day, possibly to use the company machines,” Sherlock says, still typing. “RHL Incorporated was clearly invented entirely for that purpose. But something’s missing. Why would Scant need those particular machines? He’s a hacker; he can mask his IP address, make it appear as if he’s working from any location. But he needed to be in that office.”

“So he could hack from anywhere, theoretically, but he needed to be in that spot,” John says.

“Yes.” Sherlock’s brow furrows. “It doesn’t make sense.”

John stifles a yawn, squints at the screen. He’s got at least twenty windows open, all research: maps, search results, chat windows to correspond with Sherlock’s contacts in the hacker world. “Looks like there’s a Starbucks across the street from that office. Maybe he really needed the caffeine. God knows I do.” He sits up a bit and coughs, studies Google Street View. “Or, you know, free WiFi.”

The noise of Sherlock’s fingers tapping on the keyboard stops abruptly.

“Oh,” Sherlock breathes, “Oh --” and John knows that sound by now, that focused gasp of realization. Here it is. At last.

“What?”

“The WiFi, John. Brilliant. You’re brilliant.” Sherlock slams his laptop shut abruptly, discards it on the table; he is all motion and purpose, pacing from window to couch.

“Can I get that in writing?”

Sherlock ignores him. “The only reason a hacker as gifted as Scant would risk working from the same location every day would be if the location itself was important. What could be important about that particular office? The building shares a wall with a branch of the Bank of England. It’s entirely possible that the bank’s WiFi signal would be accessible from a machine in the building next door.”

“So he used the Jabez machines to access the bank’s wireless network.”

“Bank systems are incredibly secure,” Sherlock says. “This system is likely separate from the Internet itself, a contained unit. But someone physically near the building might be able to breach their security if they can hack into their WiFi. Everything we’ve seen so far indicates that Scant has been after passwords, employee data from that particular building. I assumed he was attempting identity theft; he’s done it before. But maybe he’s got an entirely different goal. Maybe he’s figured out how to break into the bank itself.”

“He shut down RHL yesterday, though,” John says. “Why?”

Sherlock stops pacing. “He’s finished,” he says slowly. “He must have gotten through. Set up the hack. Everything’s in place.” He whirls to grab his coat where it lies discarded over the back of a chair. “Get your gun.”

“Where are we going?”

“He’ll have to go down to the office to start the process. We may still be in time. He could be aware that someone’s been asking questions. Come on, John.”

“Christ.” John struggles to his feet, and the world moves in slow-and-quick spurts like a dream, and before he can think about it the door of 221b rushes up to meet them and they’re out of the flat and into a taxi, John ducking under Sherlock’s arm as he holds the door open.

The dim light of the cab illuminates Sherlock’s profile, coat collar turned up, wrapped in his scarf, texting, untouchable. The swift sweep of streetlight carves out the valleys and shadows of his face, the purposeful slope of his nose, the too-sharp cheekbones. He hasn’t eaten, John thinks absently. Must remember to make him eat when we get home.

At first Sherlock’s face seemed alien, disconcerting: slanted, eerily bright eyes, too many angles, unearthly and pale. Now it’s familiar, but still fascinating. John feels as if he’s been put in charge of some exotic creature, some rare species almost never found in the wild. A species unbound to any earthly requirements, like food or sleep, but somehow needing them regardless, needing John to put on the kettle and make sure something is in the fridge other than severed limbs.

Sherlock hums, satisfied, and John’s pulse skips.

“Lestrade’s sending backup. We could run into trouble if Scant thinks someone might be coming. Ah, here.” He slides forward in his seat, addresses the cab driver. “Stop, please.”

They clamber out of the cab, John’s gun a reassuring weight against his back as they jog silently past empty office buildings until Sherlock holds out an arm to stop them.

“Here,” he says, and ducks into an alley lined with slick cobblestones. “This one. Jabez rents a cubicle on the first floor.”

Sherlock fits a key into the large industrial back-door lock of one of the stone buildings opening onto the alley, and they slip inside. It’s a typical tech office, rows of cubicles, monitors mostly darkened, machines still humming under the desks. Sherlock’s eyes scan the dark as they move through the room. He doesn’t speak, simply gestures at a printed card tacked to a nondescript cubicle near the end of the row: Jabez Biz.

“We’ll wait here.” Sherlock pulls John out of sight behind the row of cubicles directly opposite, sliding down against the partition with a hand on John’s elbow.

The office is utterly silent but for the white noise of electronics. Sherlock peers into the dark, his long fingers unconsciously encircling John’s bicep, warm pulse points on the thin canvas of his jacket.

John lets out a breath, settling into the familiar kick of adrenaline that’s elevating his heart rate. Best case scenario, they’re waiting to ambush a single man; worst case, their target has invited a few skilled friends more than happy to rub out a meddling detective. John’s knees scream in protest as he shifts his weight; Sherlock’s hand tightens around his arm.

Something warm and light, likely born of sleep deprivation, blooms in John’s chest. He hasn’t slept, has barely eaten, is crouched behind a desk at three in the morning with his gun at his back, Sherlock crowded against his side in his long coat, collar up against the dark, and this is absolutely, unequivocally where John wants to be.

It’s absurd. It’s more than absurd, actually. John’s life is, by definition, without purpose, without a mission, and yet he’s found one, nonetheless, and it’s here. Here, in this absurd office building at three in the morning. Here at Sherlock’s side, two pressed into one, brain and gun and two pounding hearts.

I love this, he thinks, God help me, and he tries to swallow a helpless giggle that escapes in an awkward huff of breath.

Sherlock’s head whips around at the noise, and despite the dim light, John sees his brow furrow in disapproval. John bites his lip; Sherlock’s eyes glint as he studies John’s face. They narrow, a clear message. John nods an apology, but he can’t stop his shoulders from hitching, once.

Sherlock leans in, his breath warm on John’s cheek. “John,” he says warningly, his voice an impossibly low rumble.

John is suddenly aware of their faces, so close, and his thudding pulse. The rhythm of this feels familiar. He knows how this should go, the inevitable gravity when lips are next to his as Sherlock’s are. He could lean forward so easily, taste the sweet arch of Sherlock’s mouth.

He rocks back on his heels; the thought sends him reeling. He must be delirious, punch-drunk on nerves, awake far too long. Sherlock turns away again, peers into the dark.

But the thought lingers ten minutes later, when Sherlock pins John Clay -- alias Scant, alias Victor Spaulding -- to the ground under one angular knee, and John trains his gun firmly over Clay’s right eye. Even after that, when the cops show up and Sherlock launches into explanations and logs into company computers and provides incriminating proof for hours, John can still feel the warm shadow of Sherlock’s mouth close to his.

* * *

The lean blur of Sherlock Holmes looms over John, jolting him awake after a sickeningly insufficient amount of sleep. The couch. He must have fallen asleep on the couch, still in jeans and a t-shirt from yesterday, or possibly the day before; it’s hard to keep track at this point.

“They need us. Follow-up questions, paperwork. Down at the Jabez building. Coming?”

John’s fuzzy brain can think of several responses, none of which are particularly polite. Sherlock’s asking, so John will be there; this is now a basic law of physics, so not much point in protesting. “Mmm,” he says, dragging a hand over his eyes. “Okay.”

“Coffee,” Sherlock says, already wearing his coat. He tosses John a jumper.

“Right.” John stands up to pull it over his head, grimacing. His shoulder feels sharp and sore from his extended nap on the couch. By the looks of the light filtering through the windows, it’s mid-morning, and he’s had maybe four hours of sleep at best. “I’ll make some.”

“Keep up, John.” Sherlock hands John his stainless steel travel mug, the one John uses if he has a morning shift at the office. “I know what you’re like when your REM cycle is interrupted.”

The mug is heavy, warm. Sherlock never makes coffee.

“Thanks,” John mumbles, but Sherlock is already halfway out the door.

The office building is entirely mundane in daylight, and full of office workers who keep glancing uneasily at the handful of Yard detectives clustered around the Jabez cubicle.

A pointy-looking detective intent on getting an official statement immediately drags Sherlock away, leaving John to hover awkwardly next to the two men seated at the Jabez computers. One is clearly a Yard detective; the other looks to be more comfortable with machines than with humans, given his hunched posture and fixed gaze on the screen in front of him.

“A few more minutes, almost finished running the backup,” the hunched man says. His voice is almost lilting.

“What about this machine?” the detective says as John steps closer. “We’ve got to get logs for this one here, but it doesn’t seem to be working.”

The first man sits up stiffly, cracks his neck. “Oh,” he says, and there’s a hint of archness underneath his voice. “Have you tried turning it off, and then on again?”

The detective sighs and looks up at John. “You’re the other IT tech, I hope? This is taking longer than we’d expected.”

“Oh, no, nope. I’m with -- him.” John points. “Sherlock Holmes. He’s -- er, we’re consulting on the case.”

“Oh.” The detective sighs, stands up. “Right. I’ll put a call in then, see if someone else is coming.”

The first man -- clearly an IT tech, then -- turns to look at John. He has close-cropped dark hair, wide dark eyes. “You’re with Sherlock Holmes?” he says with a near-boyish shyness. “I’ve heard of him.”

John blinks. “Have you?”

The tech stands up, extends a hand; John shakes it. “Jim Zucco. IT consultant.”

“John Watson. I’m...” John says, and then the back of John's neck crawls. His shoulder sends a sharp bite of pain down his elbow and nearly to the tips of his fingers. “...Sherlock’s colleague,” he manages, trying not to wince. He must have slept awkwardly on the couch; his shoulder can be annoyingly sensitive.

“Oh, the blogger, right?” Jim says, dark eyes scanning John’s face.

John’s phone chirps in his pocket. Given that the usual cause for John’s phone chirping is standing mere feet away and clearly isn’t responsible, this is puzzling.

“Yeah, I’m -- sorry, hang on,” John says, fishing his phone from his jacket. “Might have to take this.”

“No problem,” Jim says, settling back into his seat.

It would seem that your current case is wrapping up. The Andrew West matter remains a critical situation. MH

Christ. John really isn’t in the mood for standing in the firing line of Sherlock and Mycroft’s feud at the moment.

Actually, he’s never in the mood, but that’s beside the point.

Will keep Andrew West in mind, John types, and hits Send. He watches as Jim switches on the second machine, maneuvers the keyboard and mouse into a different position with some difficulty.

Mouse on the left side.

John feels that familiar unease that kicks in whenever he notices a fellow Lefty: he’s surprised, always, to see another, and then annoyed at himself for being surprised, because really, why should he be?

John’s phone chirps again. Please do. MH

“Hate when they do that,” John says, and Jim turns, eyebrows raised. “The mouse. They always make the cords too short to switch over.”

“Right,” Jim says, and the word is heavy, a pun; the secret society nod, as it were. An instant kinship of sorts. Two Lefties -- always a bit unusual anywhere outside the Army. “This office is clearly stuck in the last decade, I mean, everyone else has switched to cordless anyway.”

“Thank God for trackpads,” John says.

“Yeah.”

“John.” A deep baritone at John’s ear; Sherlock has materialized by John’s shoulder. “We’re done here.”

Of course. John wasn’t needed, not really. He could still be sleeping on the couch, for God’s sake.

“That’s all?” John raises an eyebrow, folds his arms over his chest.

Sherlock reads John’s look with practised expertise. “Sleep is overrated.” He tilts his head. “Lunch?”

“I thought food was also overrated.”

Sherlock looks mildly amused. He doesn’t wait for John to answer, just turns on his heel and strides away.

John gives Jim an apologetic wave. “Sorry, got to run.”

“Nice meeting you.”

“IT contractor. Fellow Lefty,” Sherlock comments as John falls into step with him.

“Yeah,” John says. “Sherlock. Your brother is texting me. He wants us to look at the Andrew West case.”

“I know.”

“All right, do you care?”

Sherlock turns back to look at John, still walking, and raises an innocent eyebrow. “There’s a place near Grosvenor Square that has excellent dim sum.”

“That’s one way to answer that question.”

“Coming?” Sherlock backs into the double glass entry doors, pushing them wide open and stepping out into the overcast London morning.

“Don’t I always?” John says, catching the door as it nearly slams shut a few inches from his nose.

They are just rounding the corner to Baker Street, John sleepy and sated after one too many pork bao, when the side of the building explodes.


* * *

Chapter Text


“I don’t understand,” John says, following Sherlock into Lestrade’s office. “I thought it was a gas leak?

“We thought so too, or at least that seemed the most logical theory two days ago,” the Detective Inspector says, running a hand through his greying hair.

“You found something at the bomb site.” Sherlock gives Lestrade a keen look that verges somewhat inappropriately on giddy excitement.

“Well, at first it seemed a bit of a coincidence, this little event across the street from your flat,” Lestrade says. “We’ve had a crew in to clean up the scene. Set up to look like a gas leak, but appears to be the work of someone quite experienced with bombs. The basement was empty except for a strongbox. And this was inside the box.”

Lestrade hands Sherlock a pristine, heavy envelope. Written across it in looping, neat script are the words Sherlock Holmes.

“Christ,” John murmurs.

“This does complicate matters.” Sherlock turns the envelope over in his hands, failing to conceal the eagerness in his voice. John leans in on pretence of examining the envelope and nudges Sherlock gently with one shoulder. Sherlock doesn’t react, but John knows well enough that the subtle reminder has been received.

“Don’t worry, I’ve had the dogs check it out. Appears to be clean,” Lestrade supplies.

“I trust your dogs.” Sherlock opens the envelope deftly, and a mobile in a pink case drops into his palm.

They all stare at it.

“That’s... the phone,” John says finally. “From the serial suicide case. A Study in Pink.”

“Not the same phone,” Sherlock says, turning it over. “But an identical copy. Someone’s gone to a lot of trouble to make it look the same.”

Sherlock presses a button, and the phone broadcasts four distinct, familiar blips.

Lestrade's eyes widen. "Are those the bloody Greenwich pips?"

"Four. Four pips," Sherlock murmurs.

John leans over Sherlock's elbow to peer at the phone. "That's... different."

The phone’s screen displays the image of a dingy room with peeling wallpaper and a decrepit fireplace.

"That phone case was made by Speck, it's sold on Amazon and in Apple retail stores," drawls a voice from the doorway.

Anderson. A person synonymous in John’s mind with instant conflict where Sherlock is concerned. Unfortunately, steering Sherlock away from the conflict is a bit like piloting the Titanic away from an iceberg.

“Thanks, Anderson, we’ve got it covered --” John says, without turning around.

“Anderson, shut up,” Sherlock interrupts.

John raises a cautionary eyebrow at Sherlock, but if Sherlock sees it, he pretends to ignore it.

"Just trying to help. In 2009 there were two versions of that case produced --"

"Anderson, we all know your affinity for random pieces of trivia, you never waste an opportunity to remind us. However, showering everyone with useless information is like smearing sheep dung on a blood sample."

Sherlock,” John hisses under his breath, and then raises his voice. “We’re good here, Anderson. Really.”

“He’s so loyal,” Anderson says from the doorway, voice full of enough sarcasm that John turns to look. “Sherlock, I never would have taken you for the Outreach type.”

“Anderson!” Lestrade exclaims, but Sherlock interrupts him. “You may pride yourself on details, Anderson,” he says, deep voice reverberating with fury, “but you consistently miss the big picture.”

“Do I.” Anderson folds his arms.

“Quite,” Sherlock says, whip-quick. “No amount of trivial knowledge can make up for the fact that you’re a blazing idiot.”

Anderson opens his mouth to respond, but Lestrade cuts him off abruptly. “Enough,” he bellows. “Out, Anderson. You’re out of line. And Sherlock, I can’t have you coming down here if you can’t work with my team.”

Anderson shoots Sherlock a murderous glare and vanishes from the doorway.

“Good luck with the case, then,” Sherlock says icily, “involving the phone addressed to me.

John finds his voice at last. “It’s all right,” he says quickly. “Just -- it’s fine. Forget it. It’s fine. Seriously.” His left hand clenches, nails digging into his palm. He unclenches it. It curls up again reflexively.

“I’m sorry, John,” Lestrade says gravely, clearly uncomfortable. “Goes without saying, off-hand remarks aren’t permitted in this workplace. Anderson will be getting an official reprimand for that. Don’t know what’s got into him.” He sighs, looks over at Sherlock, who is once again riveted by the pink phone. “Well, actually, I do. Still, no excuse for it. And Sherlock -- Sherlock, are you listening? You’re not to insult my team. It doesn’t help.”

John swallows, looks away. Invisibility isn’t a known knack, but that doesn’t stop John wishing for it.

“I intend to continue informing Anderson that he is an idiot because he is one,” Sherlock says quietly. “I will continue to call him an idiot regardless of whether or not he chooses to insult John.”

“Sherlock.” Lestrade’s voice is hard-edged, notched with anger. “I have no problem banning you from this investigation. I don’t care if your name is on the bloody envelope or not.”

Sherlock falls silent, eyes on Lestrade.

“The message has a photo,” Sherlock says flatly, and holds the phone out. “The interior of a flat. I think I know where this is.”

Another beat of silence. Sherlock and Lestrade regard each other from across the room. John feels himself slide into invisibility at last -- at least, the everyday invisibility he’s grown used to, at Sherlock’s side. It’s somehow both a relief and an exceedingly gentle punch to the gut.

“Right, then,” Lestrade says, motioning to the door, and then they’re all in motion, and it’s all about Sherlock, as it should be, as it always is, and as they hop into a cab bound for 221b -- of course, Baker Street, why would it be anywhere else -- all points lead to Sherlock, and John is along for the ride.

* * *

Even Mrs Hudson’s perfect cuppa can’t erase the unsettling fact that someone has broken into the locked basement flat at 221c and left a single pair of trainers. Right below them, right below the world’s only consulting detective, someone has slipped undetected, ghostlike, invading the comforting bubble of Baker Street.

The pink phone rang once while they were down there, and a gasping voice told Sherlock that he had twelve hours before another explosion lit up London.

Now a frazzled Mrs Hudson cleans up the remnants of tea and biscuits as Sherlock stares at the worn pair of athletic shoes on their kitchen counter. Long lengths of shoelace dangle from a clothesline above the sink. Sherlock has been at the lab most of the afternoon. He didn’t ask for company, and John didn’t offer it.

Eight hours left.

“Thanks, Mrs. H,” John calls after her as she glances warily at Sherlock on her way out of the flat.

“Good luck, boys,” she calls back.

Sherlock settles onto the stool in the kitchen, perching to peer into the microscope. A wall of silence descends.

John recognizes Sherlock’s unspoken signals, leaves him to his work. After twenty minutes he realizes he’s been reading the same sentence in his crime novel repeatedly; the time limit has his nerves on edge, his shoulders knotted together. This is pointless. He stands, unsure, and hovers near the kitchen doorway. Sherlock hasn’t moved; he’s still at the microscope. The air seems heavy, cut with unease.

Sherlock’s mobile chimes, muffled, somewhere in the kitchen.

“Pass me my phone,” Sherlock says.

“Where is it?”

“Jacket.”

Several choice epithets hover at the tip of John’s tongue, but he swallows them.

Sherlock’s pale, mesmerizing hands cradle the microscope, adjusting the focus. The narrow slant of his shoulders is somehow commanding, stretching the paper-thin fabric of his pressed shirt. John knows what Sherlock had for breakfast; he knows where Sherlock keeps his mobile phone. He knows bloody well what Sherlock is asking.

The space between them is vanishing with time, pushing air out of John’s lungs.

Sherlock’s phone chimes again, and John is defeated. He steps into the kitchen, crowds up against Sherlock’s sharp shoulder, resignation blurring with anger. He doesn’t want to think about why he does this.

Maybe because no one else is allowed this close.

John slides a hand into Sherlock’s jacket. Sherlock has a deftly intoxicating scent, tea and lab chemicals and a hint of that cigarette he wasn’t supposed to sneak this afternoon. John’s hand closes around the phone, accidentally slips against the smooth plane of Sherlock’s pressed shirt.

Sherlock inhales, a quick sip of breath. “Careful.”

John withdraws, anger spiking behind his eyes, as Sherlock flinches in annoyance, adjusts the microscope. Their faces are dangerously close, but John can’t step back, or he won’t; he hovers, deliberately invading space, taking up room. He taps the phone, his chest nearly to Sherlock’s shoulder, not bothering to move.

“Text from your brother,” John says, low-voiced, in Sherlock’s ear.

“Delete it,” Sherlock’s fingers twist the microscope dials, arms tensed wire-tight.

John hits a button on the phone, slides it onto the counter next to Sherlock, still crowded into his space, dull anger thumping like a drum in his ears. “Anything else?” he mutters. “Or is this Outreach worker free to go?”

Sherlock’s eyes snap to John’s. “Is that what you think this is?” he says, not bothering to draw back, each word bitten and sharp.

John crosses his arms, close enough to brush against Sherlock’s shoulder. He’s seized with the urge to push, to shove, to lay siege to Sherlock’s space the way Sherlock has blotted out everything else in John’s mind.

“You can be honest,” John says. The air between them is dense, unyielding. John’s heart thuds, and he shivers with the force of it.

A pale hand unfolds, comes to rest on the counter. Their eyes lock. Sherlock looks at him, that sharp, gears-turning look usually reserved for corpses and suspects and severed body parts.

Sherlock exhales, a single, quiet sound: "Oh."

John’s skin crawls. It's familiar, that bright click of realization: Sherlock's knack firing. If irony was a weapon, John would certainly be dead right now.

Sherlock’s eyes shift, unreadable, pale chips of flint. His voice is hushed, hesitant. "Your pupils dilate when we're near, your voice goes up a half-step in pitch, you talk more quickly. You're experiencing localized vasodilation, and your heart rate..."

John feels as if he's in freefall, wind whistling past his ears. He takes an abrupt step back, closes his eyes, wills his heart to stop pounding. “Shut up,” he hears himself say. “Just shut up, Sherlock, if you’re taking the piss -- if this is a bloody joke --”

He feels, rather than sees, Sherlock stand up next to him, edging back into his space. A whisper: “John.”

John opens his eyes, and Sherlock looks agitated; he scrubs a hand through his curls, but doesn’t back away. “You,” Sherlock says in weak surprise, and gestures between them cautiously, and for the first time John can remember he looks utterly helpless, confused.

And then John’s thoughts flood with a deluge of images: Sherlock, coat whirling as they race in step, machine-gun brilliance, the particular smile only John gets to see. Sherlock hovering next to him, heavy smooth angles and nimble hands, dark voice like a drug. It all makes sense. It all piles inward, crushing, coalescing. Sherlock.

John’s eyes go wide, and he swallows.

“I can’t, I -- John,” Sherlock says, stuttering, lost, as if words are an enemy: “I -- need you, if you’re not there, I -- I want --”

“Don’t,” John interrupts, and the sheer lightness of clarity is dizzying. Sherlock. There are no other thoughts; there is no space to hold them. John steps in, twines his hands around Sherlock's neck, and pulls him into a kiss.

Their mouths meet and Sherlock doesn't move, and John has a long moment of sheer terror, fuck, fuck -- but then Sherlock shudders and gives a faint, involuntary moan, and his lips part and they dissolve into each other with desperate shock.

And then Sherlock's hands roam over him, for all the world like an enthusiastic, big-pawed puppy, and clearly he hasn’t done this much, because it's ridiculous and there are too many teeth. Their tongues slide together, and Sherlock tries to take a gasping breath and fails, and he cups the back of John’s head in those huge, long-fingered hands. It's an utter disaster and it's also possibly the best thing in the world, and John's anger filters into stunned, riotous disbelief.

They break apart, breathing hard, Sherlock staring at John with a mix of incredulity and wonderment.

He sweeps a tentative finger across John's forehead, just at his hairline.

John hovers between astonishment and laughter. He doesn’t seem to be able to move; his entire body is tingling.

Sherlock’s eyes go wide, his pupils dark, and the breath goes out of his lungs.

“Carl Powers,” he says, hushed, bewildered.

John is not entirely sure whether his own sanity or hearing can be trusted any longer. “What?” he manages.

“Carl Powers, John.”

Sherlock disentangles abruptly, turns toward the table, peers into the microscope. “Mud is from Sussex, with London mud overlaying it. Child, with big feet -- these trainers belonged to Carl Powers.” He leans over and begins typing on his laptop. “Carl Powers, student, died nearly 20 years ago in a strange accident while racing in a school swim meet.”

John feels drained of blood, empty. His lips are rough with the warm burn of Sherlock’s skin. He can only stare as Sherlock’s attention flashes from microscope to laptop and back again.

“I’m going to need to run some more tests. Look up Carl Powers, see what you can find online, newspaper articles, anything.”

John’s entire body feels whipcord-tense. He clears his throat. “That’s it, then?” he says, voice husky.

Sherlock looks up at him, and his expression flickers from focus to something like pain.

“The bomb,” he says quietly.

John nods.

“Carl Powers,” he repeats, numb, and squares his shoulders against the war in his thoughts.

* * *

The kiss is like a bullet, burning at its source, commanding John’s energy. It’s all so familiar, really, an echo of the past, another shockwave tearing into John, body and mind. Blindsided, shot from an impossible distance. Sherlock recognized John’s feelings, deduced John’s feelings before John himself had a chance. And now, the wound, the aftermath: John’s life irrevocably torn, rearranged.

He wants Sherlock, apparently, and now that Sherlock has pointed it out, John can’t unsee it, a bit like seeing a face in the black-and-white silhouette of a vase. Recognizable now for what it is.

It makes no sense at all, and yet it also makes perfect sense: the intensity, the connection, all of it. But there’s no time to make sense of it, even if John wanted to. The clock ticks irrevocably, eclipsing everything but the case before them.

They have two hours left.

They haven’t spoken, much.

“I’m getting food,” John may have said, at some point.

Sherlock has been to the lab and back again to double-check test results. John’s printouts of Google searches and newspaper clippings litter the kitchen table. He knows Sherlock’s mind has shifted into high gear, that heightened, focused solitude of purpose. John waits.

He’s gotten three texts from Mycroft, and one from Lestrade.

His shoulder hurts.

With roughly one hour left, John stands, hovers again by the sliding door to the kitchen.

“Let me help,” he says. “I want to help.”

Sherlock looks up from the microscope -- lips, John thinks, hands. Christ. John rubs the back of his neck. Focus, damn it.

“There’s nothing -- Oh.”

Sherlock peers into the microscope again, then looks up, triumphant, and slams his hands down on the kitchen table, rattling the petri dishes. “Poison. Clostridium Botulinum. On the shoelaces. Almost undetectable. Carl Powers was murdered, John. He had eczema, it would have been easy enough to introduce it into his medication.“

John’s mind kicks into gear slowly. “All those years ago. But the killer... kept the shoes.”

“Yes,” Sherlock breathes, standing up, pushing the kitchen stool backwards. “Yes.”

“Carl’s killer is our bomber.”

Sherlock’s fingers fly across the laptop keys. “We’ll make it clear we’ve made the connection.” He hits a final keystroke, and as if on cue, the pink phone, which has been silent, startles into life with an urgent ring.

Sherlock picks up the phone, sets it to speaker, and places it on the table between them. Their eyes meet.

“Hello?” Sherlock says.

“Well done, you.” The voice is desperate, the line thick with static.

“Where are you?” Sherlock urges, eyes still fixed on John. “Tell us where you are.”

The flat falls away, leaving only the desperate voice: a woman, maybe John’s age, utterly alone. Terrified. John steps in, listening, leans in next to Sherlock; the police have a trace on the line, but no knowing how long it will take them to get there.

“Keep talking,” John hears himself say. “Someone’s coming, all right? You’re going to be okay.”

Ten minutes or a year later -- it’s impossible to tell -- John can hear the noise of an ambulance through the static on the line, and the woman’s breathing evens. “They’re here,” she says. “They’re here, thank God, someone’s here,” and the call cuts off with a click.

Sherlock has been leaning on the table. All at once the tension goes out of his arms, and his head slumps. He looks over at John, eyes red-rimmed with exhaustion.

Then Sherlock leans in, and John must have leaned in too, without even noticing, because in one rush of exhale their lips crush together again, relief, want, and Sherlock fists a handful of John’s jumper in one large hand and pulls their bodies together with clumsy, urgent strength.

“Christ,” John gasps as they break apart, as Sherlock’s head dips, his mouth seeking the place where John’s neck meets his shoulder, just at the edge of his shirt collar. “Sherlock --”

“Hush.” Sherlock’s word is near-slurred, deep with gravel, and goes straight to John’s cock.

John tries again, fighting waves of arousal. “Sherlock, I --”

“I saw.” Sherlock’s words fight through ragged breath. “You didn’t know. But I saw.”

“I --” John shuts his eyes. Sherlock does something unthinkably incredible with his tongue right at the edge of John’s collarbone, and John gasps. “Sherlock. Wait.”

Sherlock lifts his head, both long hands wrapped around John’s biceps. John’s arms have twined around Sherlock’s, hands around Sherlock’s forearms, and if John doesn’t want this, his body apparently has other plans.

“Why?” Sherlock breathes, and John opens his mouth to answer, but finds that the part of his mind responsible for the hard, insistent cock in his jeans has completely taken over. He can’t think of a single reason why he shouldn’t fling himself into an intensely sexual relationship with his intensely unusual flatmate. Curious, because less than an hour ago he’d been able to think of plenty of reasons why this might be a stupendously bad idea, but at the moment, none of those reasons appear to make logical sense.

“You -- you want to do this,” John stutters, and one of Sherlock’s hands slides down John’s side, exploring John’s ribs, his hipbone under his jeans, and John bites his lip to keep from moaning.

“Obviously.” Lips are now exploring the other side of John’s neck, tracking the cord of tense muscle there. John fights to keep a coherent thread of thought before Sherlock’s lips blot out coherence entirely.

“Is this -- have you done this before?” John had hoped to phrase this in a more diplomatic way, but all but the most basic forms of communication appear to have been wiped from his mind.

A huff of laughter. “Vaguely.” Sherlock pulls back again; John can see a flush blooming across the fine bones of his exposed collarbone, the high color in his pale cheeks. It’s so glorious, so unexpected, that John feels himself close to laughter. He can’t help a hesitant grin.

“Vaguely is good,” he says, and Sherlock grins back, a wicked, purely happy smile, and John abandons any hope of protest. He pulls Sherlock in for another kiss. Sherlock’s a quick study, because this time it’s fluid, less frantic, and intense enough that John’s knees nearly give way, and Sherlock has to stagger backwards to stay upright.

“Sofa,” John gasps into the crook of Sherlock’s neck.

Sherlock hums in agreement. He disengages, staring down at John, intent, slanted eyes heavy-lidded and soft.

John could say something now; he could back away, put space between them. Deep breaths, laugh it off, attribute their momentary loss of sanity to the stress of the case. Now would be the time. Normalcy restored.

Sherlock tilts his head in the direction of the living room and reaches up to unbutton the top button of his immaculate, deep purple dress shirt.

Fuck normalcy, John thinks.

The two of them manage to make it nearly to the sofa, somehow avoiding disaster even when the back of Sherlock’s leg hits the coffee table and they both stagger sideways. John attempts to undo Sherlock’s remaining shirt buttons while Sherlock simultaneously wrestles John’s cardigan off his shoulders.

One last wisp of protest filters through John’s overloaded senses. “Sherlock,” he gasps, as they sway on the spot and Sherlock relieves him of his jumper at last. “We should -- talk.”

“Talk, then.” Sherlock busies himself with the buttons on John’s checkered button-down. He’s distractingly bare-chested, shirt entirely open down the front, his flat, narrow chest rising and falling.

“I’m -- not gay.”

Sherlock pauses, eyes flickering over John, his mussed shirt, the obvious hard-on straining against his jeans.

“Noted,” Sherlock says darkly, and the corner of his mouth twitches. His fingers, still working on John’s buttons, pause.

Time slows. They wait a beat, no noise but the sound of their quickened breath.

“Okay,” John says, and reaches for Sherlock again, pulling him close.

This kiss is deep, purposeful; it sends shocks nearly down to John’s toes, and they crumple sideways onto the sofa. Sherlock's hands stroke the denim of John's jeans and come to rest over John's erection, and John swears colourfully as his vision nearly goes white and shivers run the length of his spine. Deft fingers start to undo John's belt; John can feel Sherlock's erection now, pressing urgently against John’s stomach through the thin fabric of Sherlock's trousers. Unconsciously, John rolls their hips together, hard, one hand against Sherlock's hardening cock.

Sherlock's wide-eyed gasp nearly brings John over the edge. He drops his forehead against John's shoulder and sucks in a long breath.

“John,” he breathes. “You --”

Their eyes meet, and Sherlock’s are dark with arousal, wonder, and something raw.

This is new.

John unfastens Sherlock’s trousers, watching him, eyes still locked. Sherlock’s hand stills on John’s jeans. “All right?” John whispers.

“Yes,” Sherlock says, an uneven rasp.

John slips a hand down into Sherlock’s trousers, below the smooth waistband of his pants, as Sherlock watches him. All new. There were times in the army, to be sure, when John had been miles away from anything, when friendships blurred into need and fumbled groping in the dark; this isn’t the first time he’s had another man’s cock in his hand. But it’s never been like this before, this naked, charged connection.

His best friend.

John’s hand closes around Sherlock’s cock; Sherlock’s eyes flutter closed at last. He gasps, arches against John, hips snapping up and driving into him, and John bites back a moan. It’s too much, tangled limbs, Sherlock’s head thrown back, the slick couch and Sherlock’s hands everywhere. All at once the room blinks out and John is only nerve endings and heat and a single point of sensation, and then: release.

At some point Sherlock stirs underneath him; they are sticky, spent, clothes half-on. It’s like a strange dream: this looks like their flat, but it can’t be, because in their flat John is never half-naked, tangled on the sofa with Sherlock. It’s pure surrealism, a Magritte composition. Floating apples and men in suits are surely due to appear in the window at any moment.

John shifts to the side, disentangling. “John,” Sherlock murmurs, loose-limbed, utterly spent, and he has more fondness in his voice than John can rightly absorb.

A stab of fierce possessiveness startles John. Sherlock, unshielded.

“Be right back,” John says, struggling half-upright. “Okay?”

“Mmm.”

When John returns from the washroom with a damp flannel, Sherlock hasn’t moved; he’s breathing deeply, evenly.

Exhaustion seeps into John like the pull of high tide. He hesitates, then looks at the ruin of Sherlock’s bespoke trousers and sighs.

Sherlock is utterly gone, oblivious to John’s ministrations. When at last both of them are clean, John fetches the afghan from the back of his armchair and drapes it over Sherlock’s naked lower half. He gathers the wreckage of his own clothing and looks down again at Sherlock. Sherlock’s jaw is slack, his eyelashes unexpectedly dark against flushed cheeks.

John isn’t even aware of his remaining internal walls crumbling into ruin, but they must have, because he doesn’t hesitate this time. The couch is too small for the both of them, but it’s all fine.

John settles in against the solid, warm weight of Sherlock Holmes, who drapes an arm around him. He kicks the afghan back over their tangled legs, shuts his eyes, and surrenders.

* * *

Chapter Text

Somewhere, distantly, a phone chirps: Text message.

John is in the desert. It’s warm and uncomfortably bright. His shoulder is whole, unblemished. His unit must be nearby; he hears voices.

“...must be this way,” one voice is saying. Sherlock. The sand stretches for miles, undulating crests of gold. There’s a ruined cottage in view where there wasn’t, before.

“Time to move out. North. Radio to base,” Sherlock’s voice continues, and John knows it’s wrong, this is all wrong. John’s commanding officer spoke those words, once. Before the sniper.

John’s heart pounds. Sherlock. He reaches for his gun, but he feels nothing. He looks down.

His left hand is missing.

The phone chirps again.

John struggles out of the dream gasping for breath as if he’s drowning. He sits up to find he’s alone on the sofa. Memories of the previous night flood him and he nearly drowns a second time.

“John?”

Sherlock swims into view, blurred, then sharper as sleep falls away. He’s in the kitchen, dressed, not a hair out of place, holding the pink phone. He raises his eyebrows in a silent question.

“Sorry,” John says. He wonders if he screamed. He feels a self-conscious flush crawl up his neck. “Did I --”

“Message,” Sherlock says, holding out the phone, and it becomes immediately clear that Sherlock is not about to comment on John’s nightmare. “Three pips. Photo of a car.”

John squints. “Let me see --”

“Get dressed,” Sherlock continues, as if John hasn’t spoken, and it also starts to become clear that Sherlock is not going to acknowledge the fact that the two of them just experienced one of the more intimate nights of John’s life to date. “I’m sending this to Lestrade. He should be able to check the license plate against any missing vehicles.”

“Right,” John says, to no one in particular, because Sherlock has vanished into the kitchen again, leaving him to get stiffly to his feet.

His jeans lie clumsily folded on the coffee table. He’s still wearing his unbuttoned shirt, but he’s not wearing pants at all. His pants have likely sought refuge under one of the flat’s many deposits of random clutter. John makes a mental note to search for them before another client comes to call. Or before Mrs Hudson finds them first.

John files this thought under problems he never thought he’d have and gathers up his jeans. Washroom, then a shower. Try to reconcile events of the previous evening with assistance of hot water and soap.

Sherlock glances at him as he walks through the kitchen. His eyes flick over John’s mostly naked form as if this was a normal, everyday occurrence.

“I’ll, er, just -- be right back,” John says, watching for a hint of something, anything that would indicate that things have shifted between them, moved along the friendship spectrum and into some wild new frontier. Because, after all, it is due to Sherlock that John is strolling through the kitchen in a state of near-undress.

“Mmm,” Sherlock says, tapping a button on his own mobile.

“Okay,” John says quickly, and shuts the door of the washroom before his anxiety ratchets up to an intolerable level.

He finds he wants the shower nearly scalding. The burning water on his shoulders is hot enough to drive out the skittering insecurity of reality.

He jogs down the stairs fifteen minutes later to see Sherlock waiting for him on the lower landing, somber and distracted, still texting on his mobile.

“The bomber called my phone while you were dressing. Clock is ticking. Our next victim gave us eight hours to solve the case.”

“Eight hours?” John leans around the doorway, grabs his own jacket from the wall hook, and begins to shrug it on. “Damn. Does Lestrade have any leads?”

“They found the car,” Sherlock says, and turns toward the stairway.

“Sherlock.” The word escapes from John’s mouth before he can stop it, but now that it’s out, John isn’t sure what he wants to say. About last night: horrendous cliché. We should talk: even worse. This is far beyond any known relationship territory in John’s emotional map: Sherlock, I know a mad bomber has just given you eight hours to solve a case, but before we begin, was that a one-night stand or do you really feel --

Sherlock’s eyes scan John’s face, and John realizes belatedly that he’s not sure which of these unspoken questions Sherlock might be able to see there.

“Sorry,” John amends.

“Lestrade is meeting us,” Sherlock says, but his voice is tempered, slightly softer. And then he whirls ahead of John down the dark stairwell, out onto Baker Street where a cab idles in wait.

John trails behind half a step, the flare of Sherlock’s coat ahead of him, and tries not to think.

* * *

The abandoned construction site where they find the car is freezing and damp and desperately unpleasant. The interior of the car is also freezing and damp, and reeks of the metallic tang of blood, which soaks the driver’s seat and console. The car was leased by one Ian Monkford, now listed as missing, although given the amount of blood decorating the car’s interior, it’s not looking particularly hopeful for Mr Monkford.

John rubs gloved hands together and shadows Sherlock, who strides away from the car and through sodden puddles toward a solitary figure in the distance.

Ian Monkford’s wife is unsurprisingly frayed at the edges, her lip trembling at Sherlock’s approach. And Sherlock --

Sherlock is surprisingly frayed at the edges.

Sherlock blinks and speaks, and his deep voice wavers and breaks. John tries not to startle in astonishment. Just for a moment, Sherlock becomes someone else entirely.

John’s seen Sherlock do similar things in the past, but he’s never witnessed Sherlock flip so quickly, change abruptly into someone so foreign in demeanor. Two single, perfect tears slip down Sherlock’s marble cheek; a sick twist of disbelief wavers in John’s gut.

Sherlock can act. And, like most things Sherlock attempts, he’s brilliant at it. Frighteningly so.

A whisper of doubt infiltrates John’s already muddled thoughts. Could it be possible that Sherlock was acting last night? Once Sherlock saw John’s true feelings, he could have set everything up, playing John like a chess piece, a faithful pawn. John's left hand curls into itself reflexively.

The tears stop. Sherlock snaps out of character. It’s like flipping a light switch.

John is very nearly nauseated as they walk away. Sherlock is talking, and John may even be answering, parroting rote questions back at Sherlock, why, how, but all he can see is Sherlock wiping false tears from his cheeks, as if summoning tears is the easiest thing in the world, as if emotions are something he can bend to his will, magician-like.

“Found this card in the glove box,” Sherlock says, three steps ahead of him. He holds it out to John without looking, an unconscious movement born of practice, of that thing between them John has never been able to name.

John unconsciously hustles the three steps ahead to keep up. He takes the card. Janus Cars.

The god with two faces, John thinks, and hopes it’s not a sign from the universe. If it is, the universe is pants at subtlety.

“This way,” Sherlock says, and they turn the corner, feet squelching slightly in the mud. It’s drizzling now, fat drops spattering the fine leather of Sherlock’s shoes. They walk on in silence for half a block, John’s shoulders hunched against the rain. They need to find a cab. Likely Sherlock knows where to get one; he always does. John’s mind is busy replaying Sherlock’s charade, the uncanny ease of his tears.

Which is why when Sherlock stops abruptly, turns, puts a large hand on John’s shoulder, and propels him between two crates and up against a brick wall slick with rain, John is caught so entirely off-guard that he almost clocks Sherlock with one reflexively clenched fist.

Sherlock’s gloved hands pin John’s shoulders to the wall and he leans in, dark curls weighted and wet. His eyes are shock-blue, still bloodshot from crying, and they narrow as he studies John’s face.

And then Sherlock swoops in, capturing John’s mouth with his, and his tongue slips in between John’s lips like a thief. John nearly goes limp against the damp bricks.

This is wrong, John thinks. This is wrong, it’s massively, outstandingly wrong, and just as his brain forms a coherent measurement of exactly how wrong it is, his body shudders in absolute delight and he gives into the kiss.

As John’s knees dissolve into liquid and his hands grope against the damp wool of Sherlock’s coat, Sherlock moans, so low and visceral that John nearly blacks out with arousal. John’s hands grapple at anything, any part of Sherlock, at last clutching Sherlock’s upturned collar as Sherlock slides closer to John, the lengths of their bodies now pressed together. Rivulets of water stream down the back of John’s neck. He shivers, pulling even closer, and Sherlock moans again. Or maybe that was John. Christ.

Sherlock pulls away, long hands still heavy against John’s shoulders, and blinks. “Better?” he says, baritone shaky and deep.

John is breathing hard enough that speaking is difficult. “Wh-what?”

“You,” Sherlock says, equally short of breath.

John blinks back at him stupidly. Sherlock’s lips are bitten and flushed, a pink cupid’s bow. Ridiculous.

“Your posture is unusually tense,” Sherlock says, falling into the rapid patter of deduction. “You haven’t been concentrating all morning, you’re distracted. You keep looking at me when you think I can’t see you. Conclusion, you’re doubting the validity of what transpired between us last night.”

Anger begins to fight its way through the messy soup of John’s overloaded senses. “Sherlock,” he says, through labored breath, “Sherlock, we kissed last night, we did more than kiss, and all morning you’ve acted as if nothing’s happened. What the hell was I supposed to think?”

“We’re on a case,” Sherlock says matter-of-factly, and his forehead furrows; a crease appears between his eyebrows. “On a time limit, John.”

“And this, just now,” John says, raising a hand for emphasis -- the hand still fisted in Sherlock’s collar -- “this was supposed to be what, exactly?”

Sherlock’s mouth drops open as if he’s about to speak, but John grabs Sherlock’s hands and wrenches them downward, too quickly for Sherlock to react, and steps away.

“Just brushing up on your acting? You are quite brilliant at it. Oh, don’t tell me -- wait. An experiment. You’re trying to see if you can make me think I’m going mad.”

Sherlock’s face drains of colour and he takes a long step back into the muddy alleyway. “I thought,” he says, teeth clenched, “you’d understand.”

“Apparently not,” John says, and this is bad, even worse than the kissing, and he’d really rather go back to the kissing, but somehow everything’s been tilted sideways and Sherlock’s eyes are snapping with hurt.

The rain continues to fall.

“I’m going to the lab,” Sherlock says, and suddenly John is alone, water seeping through the worn seams of his shoes like doubt.

* * *

The cab has nearly arrived at Baker Street before John fumbles in his pockets for change and pulls out the Janus Cars business card, warped with raindrops.

John knows well enough that Sherlock, having looked at the card once, will remember not only the business name, but the address and likely the phone number. Certainly Sherlock can Google the place in seconds flat. Nothing on the card that Sherlock really needs. John also knows that going out of his way to return the card to Sherlock is almost entirely laughable, and Sherlock will see through it for what it really is: an apology.

But John, alone in the cab with a heaping supply of second thoughts, is starting to think that an apology may be due. A flimsy excuse in the form of a soggy business card is as good as any.

He taps on the window and redirects the cabbie, and their trajectory shifts. In a few minutes the heavy grey silhouette of St. Barts looms overhead, and John swallows pride and nerves as he swings open the door of the visitors’ entrance.

John was wrong, at the crime scene. He was wrong to doubt Sherlock, to think that Sherlock was playing a game. John was keyed up, overwhelmed, and the insecurity he doesn’t like to acknowledge came roaring to the forefront. He’ll tell this to Sherlock, or at least, he’ll try. Sherlock will pick up on it, even if John doesn’t quite succeed in conveying the entire message.

Sherlock knows John.

John walks the familiar path to Sherlock’s preferred laboratory, not entirely sure what he’s going to say. Hi, kissing is okay with me. No, that doesn’t entirely cover the issue. I was wrong. The words stick at the back of his throat. I don’t know what we’re doing, Sherlock. Accurate, but unhelpful.

The hallway to the lab is entirely empty, which is why the hand that lightly touches John’s elbow startles him so badly that he jumps and scrambles to put his back against the wall, every nerve singing.

The owner of the hand quickly removes it, and there’s a hushed “oh,” and John whips his head to scan the hallway again before he realizes that Molly Hooper is standing next to him. His heart hammers.

“Jesus, Molly, sorry, I -- I didn’t see you.”

“Sorry, I -- didn’t mean it, I -- that should have gone away by now,” the quiet, wide-eyed pathologist says, the last part of it almost to herself.

“What should have gone away by now?”

Molly looks reticent, unsure. “It’s nothing. Are -- are you all right?”

John looks around, marvelling at his surroundings, which absolutely do include a Molly Hooper, although he could have sworn they didn’t just a moment earlier.

“Yeah. Fine. Just -- dropping something off.”

“Okay. He’s in there, third door on the left.”

“Thanks.”

John nods, swallows, tries to quiet his racing heart. Molly steps away, then hesitates.

“You, um. You sure you’re okay?”

“Fine,” John lies. “Really. Why?”

“He’s not.” Molly bites her lip. “I can tell.”

“Right,” John says. “I, um. Stressful case. Time limit.”

“Oh,” Molly says, and looks entirely unconvinced.

John holds up the card, gives a thin smile. “I’ll just -- he’ll be needing this.”

“Of course.” Molly steps back. “Sorry again.”

“It’s no problem.”

“See you.”

Molly’s footsteps echo down the hallway and it doesn’t occur to John until his hand is on the door of the lab that he didn’t notice footsteps before, when she must have approached. But now he can see Sherlock through the long pane of glass in the door, head bent over the microscope, and his mouth goes dry and all other thoughts fizzle to a quiet stop.

John opens the door.

Sherlock looks up, his expression strangely blank.

John holds up the Janus Cars business card. “I, um. You forgot this. You probably don’t need it, but.”

Sherlock looks back into the microscope. A muscle in his jaw flexes. “Thank you.”

“I’ll just -- it’s here on the table.”

Sherlock doesn’t say anything. An empty weight settles in John’s stomach. A long, bruised moment drags by.

“Okay,” John says. “I’ll see you --”

“Come look at this.”

It’s an abrupt order; John’s feet obey before his mind processes the request. Sherlock leans back as John approaches and gestures at the eyepiece of the microscope.

“This is a blood sample taken from Ian Monkford’s car. I’ve been running tests. This blood isn’t fresh.”

“It’s not? It seemed pretty fresh this morning.”

“Look at the cell structure.”

John meets Sherlock’s gaze. Sherlock nods, once. John leans in.

The world shrinks to the bright circle of microscope view. John blinks, tries to focus. Sherlock hasn’t backed away. His shoulder nearly brushes John’s.

“The cell membranes,” Sherlock says in John’s ear, an intimate rumble, and John shuts his eyes against it, against the deep, frightening rush of feeling threatening to overwhelm him.

“...And the dye I’ve introduced -- John.” Sherlock’s voice sharpens. “You’re not looking.”

“I trust you,” John says, clearly, quietly. It is, he realizes, all he wants to say to Sherlock.

It’s all he needs to say.

He pulls away from the microscope. Sherlock’s face is close, eyebrows arched, gaze intent.

“Fine, John, but if you’d just look --”

“No, I mean. I trust you.”

Sherlock’s eyes read John’s face, read the bare emotions knit between John’s brows. John swallows, tilts his chin to look up at Sherlock.

“The blood,” Sherlock says quietly, “was frozen,” but his eyes say something else, something less to do with blood and more to do with John.

“Frozen,” John echoes, and Sherlock leans in again around him, taps the microscope.

“Look.”

John looks, Sherlock’s long arms braced on either side of him, and he sees, sees things that Sherlock intones in his ear, traces of glycerol, ruptured cell membranes, and he feels Sherlock’s breath at the curve of his neck.

And when Sherlock’s rich voice finally says “Janus Cars, John, we’ve got to go,” John realizes that at some point, in the dark, quiet universe of the microscope, his left hand has found Sherlock’s, and closed over it.

 

* * *

Chapter Text

The car rental agency is a mundane enough operation, but John is entirely on edge.

It’s not due to any imminent danger, physical threats to his person, or any of the usual parameters John’s accustomed to, working with Sherlock. No, this time the cause is a simple printed sign hanging in the office. The graphic designer in charge of the company logo was either clueless or diabolical, John’s not sure which; the J and C in the company’s title are strangely difficult to read, but the rest of the letters are clear as day.

Bloody hell.

John has been trying to process the astonishing circumstance of desiring another man so intensely, which, for John, is a first. Unexpected thoughts have been ambushing John at inopportune times.

Continuously seeing the word “Anus” on the wall behind Sherlock’s head is not helping.

Sherlock, for his part, seems completely able to focus. He grills the sleazy agency owner with his usual theatrical flair -- no tears this time, thankfully -- and practically drags John back to the car park at the Yard so he can astound Lestrade (and John) with a particularly jaw-dropping deduction, a pretty little stained glass window of interconnected thought. Exquisite, even for Sherlock.

Sherlock clenches a triumphant fist as they stride out of the car park and nearly crows with victory: “I am on fire!”

John watches Sherlock, silhouetted in the dark, a grown shadow of Peter Pan: Oh, the cleverness of me. He thinks of Sherlock’s clever hands and clever lips and what he’d like to do with all of that cleverness when they get home.

They rush back to Baker Street, puzzle solved, and sit in near-electric anticipation at the living room table as Sherlock types the answer on his laptop. Congratulations to Ian Monkford on his relocation to Colombia. The lights are dim in the flat, Sherlock's pale face illuminated by the glow of the monitor. The pink phone starts to ring at almost the same fractional second that Sherlock taps the final key.

Piccadilly Circus. A young man waits there, explosives strapped to his body, gasping on the other end of the line. The police are descending on the scene, swarming into the heart of the city. The spider spins his web, ballsy and brash, tantalizingly close.

The young man on the line sounds hopeful, talks faster. He's spotted a cop. A grin spreads slowly across Sherlock's face, lit with dark and light: half-wicked, half-angelic.

The phone beeps, and the line goes dead. The clock stops.

John feels tension ebb from his body, tension he wasn’t aware of until it abandons him and leaves every muscle useless. He is hungry and tired and numb. “God,” he says, leaning back from the table, pressing hands over his eyes. “You did it. I don’t know how. Bloody amazing.”

Sherlock gets up and shrugs off his jacket, disappearing into the kitchen. John doesn’t know how Sherlock’s still moving; it takes all of John’s remaining reserves just to flop into his usual armchair a few feet away. He hears Sherlock’s warm chuckle and smiles as Sherlock’s voice drifts through the flat.

“You flatter me, John.”

“Is that modesty?” John leans forward stiffly, starts to untie his shoes. “Are you feeling all right?”

Sherlock pads back into the living room, now shoeless, having acquired one of his dressing gowns seemingly from nowhere. Sherlock’s dressing gowns tend to migrate about the flat like housecats looking for a spot to nap. “Fine. It’s just that I disagree.”

John laughs, punch-drunk from a heady cocktail of exhaustion infused with relief. “What bit do you find disagreeable? The bit where you solved the case, or the bit where you were amazing while you did it? Because neither is really up for debate.”

“You don’t tire of saying these things, do you?” Sherlock’s back is turned as he peers once more at his laptop, but the grin is clear in his voice.

“No, and I don’t mind repeating if you missed any of it, because you saved a man’s life. As I said, amazing.”

“It’s not amazing,” Sherlock says, shutting the laptop with a click. “It’s what I do.”

John’s mouth twitches. “Argumentative, are we?”

“You’re a doctor.” Sherlock settles into his armchair opposite John. “You save people’s lives. It’s what doctors do.”

“True. But there are plenty of doctors with my skills, who can do the same job. There isn’t anyone else who has your skills, as far as I know.”

“Possibly true.” Sherlock steeples his fingers. “But irrelevant. It’s not that I’m going out of my way to achieve greatness when I use my skills. I use them because I have no choice.” He pauses. “If you were walking down the street and a man beside you had a heart attack, you would stop. You would administer first aid. Am I correct?”

“Of course.”

“It’s a set of skills, but it’s also who you are. When presented with an opportunity, you will put your skills to use every time, without question.” Sherlock leans forward. “I can’t help what I do, John. I’m not making a choice. If I have a case, I have to work to solve it. I am not attempting to do the world a favour. I am doing what I do, because I can’t do otherwise.” He gives John a measured look, arches an eyebrow. “Even when there are -- other things to think about.”

John feels a flush warm his cheeks. He quirks an eyebrow in return. “That wasn’t an apology, was it?”

“No,” Sherlock says, but his eyes crinkle at the corners. “Why, did you need one?”

“No,” John says, half-grinning, and finds it’s entirely true. “Did you?”

“No.”

They look at each other, an easy, comfortable beat of silence. The absence of a countdown feels like an outrageous gift. It occurs to John that this is the first moment they’ve had to themselves since things have... shifted, as it were. He should probably be anxious, or preoccupied, or any of the myriad things one should feel when a relationship takes a turn as theirs has, but he finds he can’t be arsed to be nervous. Sitting across from Sherlock feels as natural as it always has. John wants to make tea and take Sherlock to bed and watch crap telly and talk about nothing and sleep for twelve hours all at once. Nothing new, really. It’s just that taking Sherlock to bed is now a possibility rather than a deeply subconscious fantasy.

However, quite a few of these options involve getting up out of his indecently comfortable armchair. And at the moment, a nagging question lingers in the corner of John’s mind. Well, not so much a question, but a vague need to correct. Sherlock is wrong. Considering this is a rare event, John prefers to point it out when it does happen.

“It’s your knack, though, Sherlock,” John says.

“And?”

“Your analogy is off. Your skill isn’t acquired. I don’t doubt that you can’t help using it, but it’s entirely different than being a doctor.”

“You’re wrong.” Sherlock sits up. “It doesn’t matter how you acquire the skill. So many idiots place a distinction on these --” Sherlock gestures with his right hand -- “these knacks, these ‘natural-born’ talents. As if it makes a bit of difference. Most knacks are entirely useless, and even if they aren’t, most people are too daft to learn how to properly utilize them anyway. My ability may be natural, but that’s only a small part of it. The rest is working hard enough to use it well, which most people never bother with.”

“So you’re saying most people are equal,” John says, “because most people are idiots. Except you, of course.”

“I suppose.”

John takes a moment to absorb this. It seems so like Sherlock to arrive at this conclusion. He raises an eyebrow. “Wow. Progressive and offensive.”

“You don’t see, John. You haven’t been to school with them, with these so-called ‘highly gifted.’ Brainless twits that people like Mycroft pull aside because they need to be controlled, because without proper training, their knacks could cause serious problems. Years of privileged, special schooling, yet almost none of them had enough sense or work ethic to really take advantage of their own talents.”

This stops John short. “What d’you mean, ‘people like Mycroft?’”

“Mycroft is the leading Analyst in Britain.” Sherlock lifts an eyebrow. “Surely you knew that.”

John’s jaw goes slack. “You told me he worked for the British government.”

“He is the British government,” Sherlock says. “His ability to detect knacks in others is unsurpassed, or if it is, there hasn’t been a documented case. An ability of his calibre is invaluable to those who work in certain circles.”

“I thought all Analysts were the same.”

“Most of them are,” Sherlock says. “It’s the primary judgemental knack, so it’s not entirely uncommon. But most of those who have it can only detect generalized information about someone else’s knack. The Analysts who saw you in primary school most likely had the natural ability to detect knacks by category only; it’s only via extensive training that Analysts learn to make more detailed judgements.”

“And Mycroft,” John says slowly, “is different?”

“Mycroft can read anyone’s knack instantly, and precisely, with great detail. He has never been wrong.”

John’s eyes widen. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Sherlock regards John with perhaps the barest flicker of guilt. “It didn’t seem important.”

John shakes his head slowly and sighs.

“It’s also highly classified,” Sherlock adds.

“That’s never stopped you before,” John says pointedly. He rubs his forehead, attempting to absorb this fairly earth-shattering revelation. He had never presumed to ask about Mycroft’s knack, but assumed it had to be something significant. “Does this have anything to do with the reason you don’t want to help him?” John takes out his mobile, holds it up. “Another text from him this afternoon, by the way.”

“Mycroft’s ability has given him some rather objectionable prejudices, but that’s only part of it,” Sherlock says mildly. “Primarily he’s pompous and insufferable.”

John gives a snort of laughter, but a thought strikes him. “Surely you can do a similar thing,” he says. “Deduce someone’s knack via observation. In fact, I’ve seen you do it.”

Sherlock hums in approval. “In a sense,” he says. “But I can only make guesses. Good guesses, often, but guesses are quite different than definitive answers. Guesses can be wrong. Mycroft, as far as we know, cannot.”

Pieces fall into place in John’s mind: small pieces, but pieces nonetheless, forming a vague picture. He wonders if this is what Sherlock feels like all the time when he makes a deduction, just on a supernova-sized scale.

“He wanted you to be an Analyst,” John says, sitting up. “You could have done it, with your knack, or at least you could have learned how, done something similar. Followed him into government work.”

Sherlock looks both surprised and pleased. “Very good,” he says. “I believe you’ve just hit upon the cause of many an unpleasant Christmas dinner in the Holmes household.”

“God. That explains quite a lot, actually.”

“Mmm.” Sherlock is still watching John; he presses his fingertips together. His gaze has shifted: soft, heated.

Oh.

“So,” John says, unable to look away, “anything else critical or classified you’ve been neglecting to tell me? Your aunt is a Russian double agent? Your second cousin can fly?”

Sherlock chuckles, a delicious sound that sends a shiver of pleasure down John’s spine. “I don’t have any aunts. Or second cousins. Both my parents were only children.”

“Well, that clears that up, then.”

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth twists, but his look doesn’t waver, and his eyes widen, a barely perceptible change. But John knows it by now, even in this subtle form. It’s impossible not to feel a small thrill at the sight of Sherlock’s knack making itself known. John smiles. “All right, enlighten me. What’s the latest revelation?”

“You,” Sherlock says, and there’s a note in his voice that’s equal parts playful and predatory. “You like it when I talk. You like my voice, specifically.”

John flushes, grins. “Hardly rocket science. I think we’ve established I find most of you attractive.”

“Most?”

“I haven’t seen everything yet. I reserve the right to make additional judgements later.”

Another long, low chuckle. “You seem confident about future events.”

John tilts his head to study Sherlock, who is watching him from the opposite armchair with knee-weakening intensity. “Should I be?”

“Yes.” The low purr of Sherlock’s voice in its deeper register -- deliberate, John knows now, fiendishly deliberate -- is nearly making him sweat. Sherlock is teasing, drawing this out, the bastard.

John won’t go down without a fight.

He plans on enjoying every minute of said fight.

He lifts his chin, looks back at Sherlock: a challenge. “Go on, then. Let’s hear the rest. Is there more?”

Sherlock’s eyes widen again, then narrow. “You want to hear it. What I can see.”

A quick nod. John leans forward. “Do your worst.”

“You,” Sherlock says, and draws the word out like he’s savouring smoke from a cigarette, “are used to being in charge. Your past relationships have all been with women who’ve shared similar traits: bright, but conventional. Maybe they like having doors opened for them. They like someone who can take care of them. You, as someone who’s had to assert yourself in life, enjoy assuming this role. You’re accustomed to it.

“But in Afghanistan you had an experience with someone else, possibly a man. Someone who took charge. A superior officer, perhaps. Someone who outranked you. You haven’t forgotten it.”

John’s pulse has quickened. “How did you know about Afghanistan?”

“You talk in your sleep sometimes.”

John’s flush intensifies. “Oh, God.”

“Oh, nothing terribly revealing,” Sherlock says. “Mostly nightmares. Although those have become far less frequent in recent months.”

“Have they?” John murmurs, but he knows the answer. And possibly the reason.

The reason is watching him closely. “I can stop.”

“No,” John says. His limbs feel molten. This is inevitable, the words spilling from Sherlock’s lips, what will happen afterwards. “Don’t.”

“You like taking charge,” Sherlock says, after a moment, “but you’re also a soldier. You like taking orders. It’s a guilty pleasure of yours.” He pauses. “The shift of power excites you, in either direction.”

“I would say you should have been a therapist,” John says, “except therapists don’t leave after five minutes when a client bores them.”

This actually earns a snort of laughter from Sherlock. John grins.

“Your hands.” Sherlock looks, pointedly. John’s hands are perched on the arms of his chair, and he flexes his fingers self-consciously. “Your hands are particularly sensitive.”

John’s heart thuds, hard, and he’s suddenly aware that his jeans feel tight. “What makes you say that?”

“Would you like me to demonstrate?”

The look in Sherlock’s eyes short-circuits most of John’s rational thoughts and a large percentage of his irrational ones as well. He can only nod.

In one fluid motion Sherlock is on his knees in front of John, against John’s armchair. He takes John’s left hand and pulls John forward gently, bringing John’s hand almost, but not quite, to his lips. John almost loses it. It’s a very near thing.

“You’re particularly conscious of your hands,” Sherlock says, in the dark depths of his baritone. His breath ghosts over the back of John’s hand. “You’ve learned to mask your dominant hand as needed. You wear your watch on your left hand, like a right-handed person would. You’ve trained yourself to keep your wallet in your back right pocket and pull out notes with your right hand instead of your left, when the reverse would be far easier. You’re aware of others looking at your hands almost all the time. This constant low-level awareness is likely to make your hands more sensitive when touched.”

“Oh, Christ,” John says, grasps Sherlock by the collar of his dressing gown, and hauls him up straight through several levels of foreplay and into a rough, desperately messy kiss.

Sherlock makes a startled noise that dissolves against John’s mouth; then he laughs, deep in his chest, still kissing John and nearly collapsing into the armchair in the process. In a moment Sherlock’s hands seek John’s arms and swiftly pull John up and out of the chair. They both overcompensate for balance and almost tumble backwards.

“Bed,” John gasps, half-laughing, and tries to drag Sherlock in the right direction, Sherlock’s hands and limbs seemingly everywhere at once.

“I was going to show you,” Sherlock says breathlessly, and more than a bit petulantly. They nearly chase each other through the kitchen. “You didn’t let me show you.

“You can bloody well show me in here.” Bedroom at last, lit by a single lamp at Sherlock’s bedside. John wrests off his jumper and tosses it on the floor. Sherlock watches him, pale eyes blown dark. He strips off his dressing gown and starts unbuttoning his shirt. John swallows.

“I wasn’t wrong, though,” Sherlock says.

John’s fingers fumble with his own buttons. Shirt, jeans and pants hit the floor, and yes, this is apparently happening, the two of them shedding layers with unwavering haste. “No,” John says, stepping forward as Sherlock’s trousers and pants slide onto the floor next to his jeans. He pulls Sherlock’s narrow hips towards his own, distantly wondering at his own audacity, at the not-strangeness of touching Sherlock like this. “Very much not wrong. You need to be careful -- oh God --” as Sherlock bends to kiss his neck, his shoulder -- “how you use that knack.”

“Careful?”

“Yeah, I’d prefer not to wash my jeans more often than necessary.”

Sherlock’s response is merely a wicked rumble of laughter. He steps them backward, once, until John’s knees hit the edge of the mattress, and they collapse onto the bed. This, finally, is what John needs: Sherlock before him, sprawling and naked, smooth, strong, hard everywhere. Before John can fully appreciate this glorious state of affairs, Sherlock rolls to face him and captures John’s left hand, blotting out all sound and vision as he draws John’s index finger into his mouth.

Bright flashes pop against the back of John’s eyelids and he gasps, utterly disarmed, shivers of pleasure rocketing scalp to toes. Sherlock withdraws John’s finger from his mouth, his large hand still caging John’s. He draws in the next finger, edging closer until they are hip to hip, but not yet touching.

“Jesus --”

Sherlock slides John’s middle finger out of his mouth, runs his tongue along the edge of the next. He looks fiendishly smug. “No one’s done this?”

John’s response does not evolve beyond writhing and groaning. Sherlock’s tongue swirls over the rough pads of each of John’s fingers in turn, his ministrations shifting from precise to haphazard. John is dimly aware that Sherlock himself is coming unhinged, John’s helpless arousal chipping away at Sherlock’s usually impenetrable control. John, for his part, is very nearly shaking, which he tries desperately to conceal until he realises with a start that Sherlock is shaking too, even as he draws the last of John’s fingers into the oblivion of his mouth. Sherlock is shaking. Fucking hell.

An indeterminate amount of time later, an authoritative hand releases John’s right wrist and presses John’s shoulder against the mattress: stay here. John lies back on Sherlock’s sheets, eyes shut and heart hammering, his hands slick and wet, erection hard enough to be painful. Then a hand grasps his hipbone, the sole warning before Sherlock’s mouth closes around John’s cock in precisely the same way it closed around his fingers. John breathes a stream of utterly senseless profanity into the semi-darkness and wonders what he’s done in life to deserve this.

Sherlock pulls off, briefly, to gloat: “This is what you like.”

It is a statement, nowhere near a question. His lips close around John again. John babbles, incoherent. He’s fairly sure one of the words is “Yes.”

Reality blurs into breathless overload, and there is only Sherlock, Sherlock’s clever, clever mouth, his clever hands that know what John wants before John even knows it himself. When John finally comes, sparks behind his eyes, trailing down his spine, clutching handfuls of Sherlock’s crisp sheets, he shouts, and he is never loud when he comes, never. But this is different.

At last Sherlock crawls up the length of John, kissing his mouth, tasting of John, flushed with desire and inordinately pleased with himself. His own hard cock presses insistently against John’s side, and John’s hand closes around it.

“You next, you brilliant bastard,” John breathes, and Sherlock melts underneath him.

* * *

Someone’s phone chirps. As usual.

John drifts blearily into consciousness. He’s warm, maybe slightly too warm, and it takes him a moment to realize that it’s because his best friend is draped around him. Sherlock’s long arm curls around John’s midsection, and John finds he’s enfolded rather neatly in a cocoon of pale, long limbs.

Sherlock’s bed. With Sherlock in it.

John is sure he’s going to feel strongly about this in some way, once he remembers a bit of context.

Two phones rest on the end table next to John: the pink phone, and Sherlock’s own mobile. One of them is making noise, but John can’t tell which.

The sum total of yesterday washes over John in fractured flashes. The countdown, the car, Ian Monkford. And then, last night: the relentless clock, stopped.

And Sherlock.

Sherlock shifts, and then in a single motion his arm snakes out over John to snag one of the phones from the end table. John is suddenly wrenchingly, painfully awake. Army-ready.

Sherlock switches off the phone’s sound with a practised flick of his thumb and drops it back onto the table. His arm tentatively slides back around John, warm fingertips seeking John’s chest, John’s hipbone.

“Not the pink phone?” John whispers, voice drawn tight.

“No.” Sherlock’s voice rumbles with sleep. “Mine. It’s Mycroft. Bastard.”

“Mycroft.” Tension ebbs from John’s limbs. No countdown. No bloody awful countdown. Only the warm yellow morning light shifting through Sherlock’s window, and Sherlock’s solid, wiry form against him, which is frankly closer to perfect bliss than John is able to admit.

“Okay,” John says, and shuts his eyes. He feels his own breathing deepen: relief. At ease.

Sherlock’s fingers play gently on John’s hipbone. Gradually they still, then vanish. A cold, absent spot lingers on John’s skin where they once were. John feels Sherlock roll to the side, disengaging. The cold spot spreads, aches.

“Sherlock?” John murmurs.

Silence.

John rolls over, opens his eyes. Sherlock is staring up at the ceiling. His jaw is clenched.

“You okay?”

Sherlock takes a breath. Speaking seems to take effort; the words come out sharply, fragments of thought.

“You make me feel --” he says, and stops. Shuts his eyes. “Different.”

After a moment it’s clear Sherlock can’t find any other words.

John waits.

“Different good?” John says quietly.

Sherlock opens his eyes again, shifts onto his side to look at John. He looks anxious, intent. “Yes,” he says gravely. “I think so. Being with you -- it’s different than being with anyone else.” He pauses. “Better.”

John dares a small smile. His heart beats somewhere in his throat. “I think... I know what you mean.”

Sherlock’s forehead creases. “Do you?”

“Frankly,” John says, “it’s bloody terrifying.”

This earns a twitch of smile in return. Sherlock’s expression is endearingly grave, a line between his brows. More silence.

A small but vocal part of John’s brain is telling him that this is bad, this is certainly dangerous, that he’s falling hard, has already fallen hard, that this is far more intense than he’s able to handle.

That part is drowned out by the look in Sherlock’s eyes, and the resulting rush of affection that swells into John’s chest and catches his breath against the tight walls of his ribcage.

John reaches out and runs a finger along Sherlock’s clenched jaw. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says.

Sherlock swallows. His hand comes up reflexively, captures John’s.

John’s stomach chooses this moment to rumble loudly.

Sherlock chuckles, releases John’s hand, and reaches for John’s waist, drawing them closer. “It would seem that your stomach disagrees.”

John relaxes into Sherlock’s embrace, feeling the tightness dissipate from his chest. He sighs good-naturedly as Sherlock runs a hand lightly down his side, over his belly. “My stomach often disagrees with you.”

“It can be quite demanding.”

“Says the man who believes eating is unnecessary for survival.”

“Tedious.” Sherlock grins. He looks ridiculously young this way, dark curls mussed with sleep, eyes soft without their usual razor-edged gleam. John’s thumb traces circles over Sherlock’s bare chest, sweeping over the too-deep ridges between Sherlock’s ribs. He feels the unexpected impulse to close himself around Sherlock, to shut out the world from the both of them, to keep Sherlock like this always, open and naked. All to himself.

John’s thumb finds the edge of Sherlock’s ribcage, the concavity of the space underneath. Evidence of a mind at work without heed for its hungry shell. Sherlock, you idiot, he thinks. “I’m getting up,” he says firmly. “And I’m going to see your brother without you, so he’ll leave us alone. And you are going to go back to sleep, if you can, and then you’re going to eat something before the bomber phones again. No arguments.”

Sherlock looks amused, and briefly looks as if he’s about to protest, but John shuts him up with an insistent kiss. They pull apart a minute later, breathless.

“I’m going to know if you don’t eat,” John says, tapping one of Sherlock’s ribs.

“That observant, are you?”

John disengages and sits up somewhat reluctantly. “I learned from the best.”

Sherlock raises himself up on one elbow. “You don’t have to bother with Mycroft,” he says, and his eyes are still soft, but his expression sharpens. “He has most of the nation’s covert intelligence force at his disposal.”

“He’s not texting any of them and interrupting their sleep.” John pulls on pants, trousers.

“You don’t know that.”

John huffs a laugh, pulls on his t-shirt. It’s agonizing. Sherlock is still naked, wrapped in sheets, deep lines of hipbones disappearing into folds of white cotton. John wants nothing more than to settle back against those sheets and spend at least three more hours trying to make Sherlock shout loudly enough to worry Mrs Hudson.

But he can help, this morning. He can do this. This one thing, for Sherlock, before the bomber calls, before Sherlock’s mind is wrenched away and he refuses food or rest until the clock is stopped again.

“Sleep. Eat. Call me if the pink phone goes off,” John says.

“Yes, Doctor.” Sherlock quirks an impudent smile and settles back against his pillow in mock obedience.

John gathers up his jumper, pauses at the door. Sherlock flips over and draws the sheets up to his shoulder.

“I’ll be back,” John says.

“You eat something too,” Sherlock murmurs, and John smiles.

* * *

John’s tie is awkward.

His tie is awkward, and his jacket is awkward, and Mycroft’s office may be the most uncomfortable room on the planet. Or it could simply be that Mycroft has the power to make any space vastly uncomfortable by his mere presence.

“Ah, John,” Mycroft says, his mouth flicking upward in an approximation of a smile. It’s perhaps what a smile would be if it was held up against a wall and forced to plead for its life.

“Mycroft,” John says. He offers a hand as Mycroft stalks past. Mycroft either doesn’t notice, or prefers not to acknowledge. John suspects the latter. He tries not to jump to conclusions about the reason and fails.

“How kind of Sherlock to send you along.” Mycroft sits, motions for John to do the same.

“He didn’t send me.” John sits. His own attempt at a pleasant smile fails as miserably as Mycroft’s.

“No?”

“No. I’m looking into this case. Sherlock is...” Sleeping, hopefully. “...occupied.”

“Is he now,” Mycroft says, arching an angled eyebrow, and in his look John can see that same all-knowing scan Sherlock uses, the one that can determine where John was last night, what he had for breakfast, and exactly how many times John shagged his brother.

John suddenly feels more than a bit triumphant. He lifts his chin, meets Mycroft’s gaze with a tight smile. “I don’t think he slept very well last night,” he says.

Mycroft’s eyes widen very slightly, and his false grin widens even more. “Well,” he says, and the words drip with something slick. “You are his doctor.”

They stare at each other through a beat of silence, during which John thinks of all the ways he could allude to exactly the type of treatment he’d like to give Sherlock when he gets home.

“If you could just tell me about the Andrew West case,” John says instead. “Sorry. Bit of a tight schedule.”

“Of course.” Mycroft pins John with his gaze. “I realise you must be pressed for time, what with the mad bomber still at large. Between bombs, are you?”

“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.” This is utter bullshit; they both know Mycroft has access to any and all Scotland Yard information at all times. John says it anyway.

Mycroft’s grin fades slightly. “John, I believe we’ve gotten off on rather the wrong foot.”

Christ. John feigns ignorance. “Sorry? I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Sherlock has taken offence to some of the things I’ve said about you in the past. He’s been quite incorrect in his interpretation of my intentions. He does take offence so easily. I do want to apologise.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.” At this moment John is desperately trying to remember why he’d thought it was a good idea to visit Mycroft at all.

“The other day, I referred to you as ‘remarkable.’ Sherlock thought I was being patronising. I want to assure you, I did not mean to imply anything of the kind.” He folds his hands on the desk. “John, you know what I do.”

“Yes. Yes, Sherlock’s said.”

“I thought he might have. I’m not sure if he has also mentioned that you are somewhat of an anomaly in my line of work. I find you remarkable for that reason.”

John stares. “No,” he says slowly. “He didn’t say.”

“Without detailing technicalities,” Mycroft says, and John can tell that he’s pleased, that he’s intending to needle Sherlock by offering up this bit of information, “I always get a clear analysis on left-handed individuals. But you are more difficult to read than most.”

John has been tested enough times to know that no Analyst has ever found anything remotely unusual about him at all. He tries to school the skepticism from his expression. “Is that so.”

“Quite fascinating,” Mycroft says. “It’s clear Sherlock thinks so as well.”

“Well, I... thanks for letting me know.”

“I’m surprised Sherlock hasn’t mentioned it.”

“I’m sure if it was important, Sherlock would have said something,” John says, a bit more curtly than he’d intended.

Mycroft’s look turns sour for the half-second before he manages to smooth it into a veneer of false approval. “Quite right,” he says dismissively, and shuffles the papers on his desk. “Now. Andrew West.”

Chapter Text

The train tracks at Battersea Station stubbornly refuse to divulge any secrets about the mystery of Andrew West’s death. The morning is bright and sunny, but very cold; John has been wandering the tracks for at least a half-hour, not entirely sure what he might be looking for. The station workers have been pleasant enough, but entirely unhelpful. Apparently it’s possible to die a violent death at a trainyard without anyone knowing anything about it.

The manila folder with Andrew West’s classified information weighs awkwardly in his jacket. West’s body was found here, without a train ticket -- but he had to have been on the train. There is a surprising lack of blood on the tracks, which should mean something, but John’s not entirely sure what. Disparate pieces, drifting without a framework. Off the track, as it were.

John paces across the stretch of track where the corpse was found. Sherlock would see something here -- hell, Sherlock would see everything. But John should be able to do this. He’s watched Sherlock closely, closer than anyone. He knows what Sherlock does.

But doing it himself is something else entirely.

John kneels down, bidding the cold metal to reveal something. Anything. The rails chime loudly, points shifting from one line to another.

“Andrew West wasn’t killed here,” says a familiar baritone at John’s shoulder, and John jumps. “Too little blood.”

Sherlock is standing behind him, coat blooming in the wind.

John straightens. “Pink phone? New message?” he says tersely.

“No.”

“How long have you been here?”

“Since the start,” Sherlock says, and he almost looks abashed.

John raises an eyebrow. “You’re supposed to be sleeping,” he says, and Sherlock steps closer. “And eating.”

“Done and done.” Sherlock’s eyes look heated in a way John has seen in Sherlock’s bedroom, but never while they’re on a case. His breath fogs between them in the cold; his nose and cheeks are tinged pink. In the overbright winter light his eyes are very, very blue.

“And you are aware that the definition of ‘eating’ involves consuming food. Possibly until no longer hungry.” John tilts his head up as Sherlock steps even closer.

“Mm. Yes.” Sherlock steps in so he’s standing almost behind John. They’re nearly touching, but not quite. John’s heart pounds. Here, on the tracks. On a case. Christ.

Sherlock’s gloved fingers lift the edge of John’s jacket, and he leans in: a low, smoky whisper in John’s ear. Chills.

“You’ll be needing this,” he says, and John feels something cold, something heavy, slide into his waistband, under his jacket. Something familiar.

God. John shudders a breath; he almost can’t move. He swallows, hard. He wills other parts of his body not to be quite so hard.

“Bastard,” he says under his breath as Sherlock’s hands leave him, and Sherlock rumbles a laugh, stepping away. Sherlock knows what he can do to John. Infuriating.

Wonderful.

“Come on,” Sherlock says, tilting his head back toward the station. His eyes are bright, teasing. John shakes his head, jogs into step next to him, shoves his hands into his pockets, and if, for a moment, he is perfectly happy, he never quite believes it.

* * *

It plays out like a dream.

Sherlock’s known, all along, where they need to go for the West case. John bites down on any annoyance about this, because he made up his own mind to go see Mycroft, but still: Sherlock let him go see Mycroft anyway. And probably enjoyed it.

However, Sherlock’s hand has strayed to the small of John’s back as they jog up the stairs to Sherlock’s targeted brick townhouse, and John is willing to forgive him most anything at the moment.

Sherlock picks the lock as John swears under his breath, pulse pounding. Their footfalls rebound in the stairwell, the flat steeped in a quiet that’s broken only by the rattle of trains on the nearby track. Dust sifts through the shafted light at the window like desert sand.

“Joe Harrison’s flat,” Sherlock supplies in an answer to John’s silent question, and slides open the window shades. A train roars past below the window. “Brother of West’s fiance. He stole the memory stick; killed his prospective brother-in-law.” He kneels down, takes out his magnifying glass, his dark form silhouetted in shifting dust particles. John leans in, fingers brushing Sherlock’s coat.

“Why’d he do it?”

Blood, on the sill. Bright sun; sand, and blood. Metal at his back.

A noise, downstairs. Key turning in the lock. Door opening.

“Let’s ask him,” Sherlock murmurs, and it’s an echo from another place. Time to move out. North.

John’s hand gropes for his gun, steady, quiet. He is a soldier: his hands don’t shake, not now. The back of his neck crawls.

He steps into the hallway and the man at the bottom of the stairs looks up. He’s holding a bike; he sees John, and his eyes flash with panic, understanding. He makes a move as if to hurl the bike up the stairs, but John is faster.

He pulls his gun.

“Don’t,” John says, between gritted teeth. The word tastes of sand. “Don’t.”

Behind him, John hears Sherlock gasp.

“Put it down,” John instructs, and the man -- Joe Harrison -- complies. “Inside, please.”

“John,” Sherlock says, and his voice is weighted with such intense urgency that John feels his chest constrict.

“What?” he hisses, motioning with his gun. Joe Harrison hurries obediently into the flat, glancing at both of them with poorly concealed trepidation. Something’s wrong, John thinks, the bitter taste of adrenaline under his tongue. The pink phone, maybe. The pink phone in Sherlock’s pocket, it’s just gone off --

Joe sits down on the sofa in his flat, jaw set in apprehension. John chances a glance at Sherlock.

Sherlock isn’t looking at Joe. At all. He is staring, instead, at John. Sherlock’s eyes are impossibly round, blown open with shock.

John stares back in panic. "Sherlock?"

"Look at your hand." Sherlock's deep whisper is shot through with disbelief.

"What?"

"John. The gun in your hand. Look at it."

John glances down, expecting blood; a missing digit, maybe. But it's just his hand, steady, wrapped comfortably around the gun's handle as always, his hand --

"You have a knack," Sherlock says slowly. "You have one, and you've just used it, and that's why -- that's why I've figured out you have one."

John goggles at him.

"You're aware," John says, his ears ringing oddly, "that this is a really rotten time to be having a go at my expense, right, Sherlock?"

“I’m not having a go," Sherlock snaps.

"I've been tested by experts.” John’s voice cracks. “I've been evaluated since I was six bloody years old. I'm left-handed, Sherlock, and maybe you wish I wasn't, but I've learned to accept it, and I have no idea why you'd say something so utterly ridiculous--”

Joe Harrison clears his throat.

Sherlock shoots a withering glance at the man on the couch. “Shut up.”

“Sorry,” Joe mutters, and looks down at his shoes.

“You’re saying I have a knack,” John says, “and all I’ve done is pull a gun on this guy.” He gestures at Joe, who shifts uncomfortably; John’s gun is still trained on his chest. “I’m remarkably talented at fending off bicycle attacks, is that it? ‘Oh, look out for John Watson, don’t try to corner him with a bicycle if you know what’s good for you --’”

“What hand do you shoot with?” Sherlock interrupts. “Answer quickly. What hand?”

“Left,” John says automatically, and suddenly his own body feels strange, a mirror image of itself.

“Look at your gun again.” Sherlock’s voice is steel.

John looks. His right. He’s pulled his Sig right-handed, even though it would have been easier to pull it left-handed.

John lowers the gun, turns his hand over and back again. It’s his own hand. It feels wrong.

“I shot the cabbie right-handed,” he says quietly.

“I know,” Sherlock says.

There’s a long moment of silence. Another train rattles by. John’s shoulder twinges, a stab of heat.

“You guys aren’t the police, are you?”

“Oh, God.” Sherlock rolls his eyes, addresses the man on the couch; his words tumble after each other, a machine-gun barrage. “Joe Harrison, sometime bike messenger, small-time drug dealer. Having money trouble, no doubt -- drug trade debt of some kind? You knew about your brother-in-law’s job, heard about the memory stick somehow. Thought you’d lift it, try to sell it, maybe it would solve your money problems, maybe it would get some of your enemies off your back. Only Andrew West found out about it, didn’t he? Came back here to confront you. I’m guessing there was a fight, some kind of scuffle. West fell down the stairs, given the scuff marks on the paint in the stairwell. On purpose, or by accident?”

Joe is staring at Sherlock open-mouthed. “Accident,” he whispers.

John feels his own jaw slacken in astonishment.

“How did he --” John’s brain is working half-speed, utterly failing to absorb an overload of information in much the way a kitchen sponge would fail to absorb the English Channel.

“I’m texting Lestrade.” Sherlock has his phone in hand. “Do we have to go over this right now? There are more important --”

“The body,” John interrupts. “At Battersea.”

Sherlock stares at him with a mix of wonderment and fury. He steps back, flings the curtain of the living room window aside. “Blood, here at the window. Body dragged through. A train pulls up in front of the awning below the window. Body dragged onto the train. Don’t be an idiot, John.”

“Jesus,” Joe mutters. His face has gone slightly grey.

“You can expect a visit from Scotland Yard’s finest in a few minutes,” Sherlock says, an afterthought. He’s still staring at John. “We’ll be needing the memory stick, if you still have it. You may want to change out of your cycling shoes.”

Joe continues to gape at Sherlock. He stands up slowly, backs toward the lone bedroom of the flat.

“Do what he says,” John says weakly. His gun is still in his hand, forgotten. He slips it back into the waistband of his jeans, under his jacket.

Joe nods numbly, disappears. They can hear him rummaging in the closet.

“I have a knack, then,” John says, after a moment.

“Yes.”

“I’m almost forty,” John says, “and I’m left-handed, and I have a knack that I’ve never known about, and no one else has ever discovered it.”

“It would seem so.”

John rubs the back of his neck; it’s tingling, nerves aflame. “Are you planning on telling me what it is?”

“Obviously.”

John waits. His heart beats an unsteady rhythm. Sherlock says nothing. They can hear the creak of mattress springs in the bedroom: Joe Harrison, changing his shoes.

“At some point this year?” John says, eventually.

“Our knacks work together, they worked together just now, and because of that, I can see what yours is,” Sherlock says, low and quiet, as if this should mean something.

John waits to understand. When he doesn’t, he closes his eyes. His head starts to hurt. “Our knacks work together,” he echoes. Nonsense. The words still mean nothing.

He feels Sherlock step closer, feels the warm wool of Sherlock’s coat at his back, the sweep of it behind him. A long, gloved hand on his shoulder closes into a firm grip, as if attempting to hold John together. Sherlock's touch grounds him, keeping panic at bay. John didn't know it was possible for Sherlock to ground anybody.

Next to him, Sherlock is thrumming with energy, his entire body tensed with the excess. John opens his eyes. Sherlock is still scrutinising him, a fierce, half-wondering look.

“We can leave when Lestrade arrives,” Sherlock says under his breath. “I’ll explain then.”

“Right,” John says, and it takes all of his restraint not to lean into Sherlock, let Sherlock take his weight. His hand curls into a fist, uncurls, flexes; he’s not sure which one.

“Exactly,” Sherlock murmurs.

* * *

The cab ride home is quiet. They shuffle upstairs, habitual, tense. Coats on hooks. Sherlock closes the flat doors, striding from kitchen to living room, all motion and unrest.

John doesn't know where to go. He stands, unsure, in front of his usual armchair. His brain shouts a hundred things at once, and none of them make much sense. Sherlock has been known to flirt with the edge of insanity, but never where facts are concerned. And yet Sherlock thinks John has a knack, which seems certifiably insane. John, who is absolutely, unequivocally ordinary, and absolutely, definitely left-handed.

Sherlock paces in front of the fireplace, fingertips steepled, shoulders hunched. He doesn't wait for John to speak.

“You have questions.”

“Bloody well right I have questions.” In the absence of any understanding whatsoever, John’s confusion rapidly shifts to anger. “Were you planning on telling me why the hell you made some wild claim about me having a knack? Were you hoping to get Joe Harrison to reveal some vital bit of information? Because I really don’t see the point of making a claim like that in front of a murder suspect.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Sherlock bites down on the last syllable. He stops to face John, his eyes hard. “First of all, he’s a murderer, not a murder suspect. Secondly, it’s a fact, not a claim.”

“Then why won’t you tell me what the fuck you’re talking about?”

“I’m trying--” Sherlock says, and his hands clench in frustration, gesturing-- “It’s not easy to explain. I’m still working out the details.”

John crosses his arms. “Imagining, for a moment, that you’re right, that I do have... something. It’s my knack, is it not?” he says, and the words feel foreign in his mouth. My knack. “Why should you need to work out the details? It shouldn’t affect you at all.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Sherlock says, and the corner of his mouth tilts; the ghost of a smile.

“I swear to God, Sherlock,” John begins, between gritted teeth, but Sherlock’s hands grip his shoulders firmly, willing him into silence.

“Your knack does affect me. That’s the key. It doesn’t affect you directly, John. But it does affect everyone around you. You're a... catalyst. A conductor, a -- conductor of light."

“A conductor of what?”

Sherlock’s grip tightens. Their eyes lock, gravid, electric. “Simply put,” he says, “your knack amplifies the knacks of others.”

It feels like someone might be drunk. Most likely John, although John can’t be entirely sure. The edges of the flat seem to be tilting, collapsing in on themselves, blurring the corners of John’s field of vision.

“You don’t believe me,” Sherlock says.

“Why should I believe you? What proof could you possibly have, Sherlock? How is this anything other than a colossal joke at my expense?”

Sherlock drops his hands, steps back, eyes cold. “Why would I lie to you?”

A jolt of guilt, uncertainty. “I don’t know. None of this makes any sense.”

“I can’t test this in a lab,” Sherlock says darkly. “This isn’t a quantifiable condition. Knacks don’t work that way. You know that.”

“Okay,” John says dryly. “Go on, then. I’m listening. I somehow enhance the abilities of everyone I encounter. You’re sure it’s not just my sparkling personality?”

This earns John an impatient glance. Sherlock takes a breath. “Not your sparkling personality, no. There are several factors which, taken together, point to this type of knack as the only logical conclusion.” He resumes pacing. “Mycroft, for one.”

“Mycroft told me he saw me differently,” John says, and his stomach twists uneasily. “You never mentioned it before.”

“Mycroft assured me it meant nothing. But he usually gets a clear reading on left-handed individuals during Analysis, a solid indication that no knack is present. But when he first met you -- no reading. Nothing. It rattled him a bit, I think. He said it hadn't happened before. He chalked it up to your being Left, of course, figured it was just an anomaly, because he didn’t sense an unclassified knack at all. But -- he didn't sense the absence of one, either, at least not in the usual way.”

"So you've been -- looking for something?" John’s voice is strained. "Since I moved in, you've been watching me? Because of what your brother said?"

Sherlock gives John a swift, fierce look. "It seemed like an anomaly worth investigating."

"Right." John feels anger crackle up the base of his spine. His face is hot. "Specimen in a zoo, am I? There's a far better zoo just up the road in Regent's Park, it's not far--"

"Shut up." Sherlock steps dangerously close. His voice hits a low, dark register. "I'm trying to tell you that you've got a powerful knack, one that's possibly unique in the world. You can listen, or you can ignore the facts in front of your nose. It’s entirely your choice. But this is real, John. Quite real. I'm sure of it."

They look at each other for a moment. The flat is nearly dark, save the dim light from a single lamp by the sofa. Sherlock is half in shadow, his breathing quick, hands on hips.

“Sorry,” John says, because it seems like someone should say it.

Sherlock says nothing.

“You really believe this.”

“Yes.”

John’s thoughts wheel inward, bullets, grenades. Sherlock’s words, like a sniper from a distance, shattering bone and tendon and muscle. Something is spreading through him, sickening and real, a rush of blood beating from a wound. An idea.

“When you shot the cabbie, when we first met,” Sherlock says, falling into the rhythm of deduction, watching John closely. “You washed your hands, but I spotted faint traces of powder residue on your right hand nonetheless. I noted it at the time, but since then, you’ve always carried your gun as a left-handed marksman would. Left-handed marksman choosing to take a highly difficult shot with his right hand? There has to be a reason. Conclusion: a latent knack, or some other rare knack-related anomaly. But your records show you had been tested quite extensively, always with negative results.”

“You pulled my records?”

Sherlock waves a hand. “Not important.”

“Sherlock --”

Sherlock ignores him. “Have you noticed that other people seem to do their best work in your presence?”

John tries to swallow a fresh wave of anger. “I -- I don’t know.”

“I solve cases faster when you’re with me.”

John is grappling, feeling for stable ground. There isn’t any. “I thought you liked having someone to talk to.”

“This is different. Sometimes it used to take me days at a crime scene.” For a moment, Sherlock looks almost shy, reticent. “It feels different, with you.”

“It feels different.” An echo. Sherlock’s words, rebounding. You make me feel... different.

But Sherlock has resumed pacing, hands underlining the air. “Some people have subtle physical symptoms when their knacks activate. Pupil dilation, muscle spasms, alterations in their breathing patterns. Part of the education given to right-handed children in primary school involves becoming aware of these symptoms, learning to recognize activation so it can potentially be controlled if at all possible. It manifests differently in different individuals.” A pointed look. “Chills. Twinges. Could be anything. I’m sure you could recognise mine.”

“Yeah.” This is first-year med school stuff, really; John never fathomed it might apply to him. Why would it apply to him? He feels numb.

“You have some of these symptoms,” Sherlock says. “I’ve noticed. But I could never link it to a particular event. Not until now.”

“Your knack went off at the flat,” John says, recalling Sherlock’s gasp behind him, that gasp as John pulled his gun on Joe Harrison. “...Because of mine.”

“I believe when your knack activates under pressure, your right hand temporarily dominates. You pulled your gun right-handed at Joe Harrison’s flat and my knack immediately went off.”

“And that’s what caused you to figure this out. I -- I enhanced your deduction. About my own knack.”

“Yes.”

“Christ.”

They stare at each other for a moment. They’ve been pacing, distracted, tracing aimless patterns across the worn rug. Sherlock’s eyes are alight; he nearly grins at John, but seems to think better of it. The grin plays at the corner of his mouth nonetheless.

“So if this is real,” John says flatly, “and you’re right about everything, that means my knack has affected everyone around me for years.”

Sherlock is watching John with much the same look a botanist would give a particularly rare orchid. “Theoretically, yes.”

“Everyone. Everyone in my life.”

“Well, not necessarily. That would be impossible to prove. But I believe we can assume that it has been acting in some capacity since birth, without your knowledge.”

John’s feet have found the back of his armchair, and he stops, leans against it. Everything is pulling inwards, a weight crushing air from his chest. His voice is tight with the force of it. “And how am I supposed to deal with that, exactly? Explain that to me, would you?”

“Why would you need to deal with any of it?”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter how it’s affected your past, John, what matters is using this to our advantage in the future.” Sherlock faces him, clearly trying to contain his glee; his hands flutter into motion, fluid gestures of thought. “This is beautiful -- it’s brilliant. Don’t you see, John? Two knacks in near-symbiosis, one triggering the other --”

“What do you mean, it doesn’t matter?” John grips the back of the chair, white-knuckled. “What if -- what if I caused accidents without knowing? Who knows what I’ve done? What if...oh, God.” He shuts his eyes.

He is six years old, playing in the front yard, dragging a stick along an old stone wall. “John,” says Harry’s voice, and she’s at his elbow, cajoling. “John, come with me. Something’s happening down Tithe Barn Road, I need you to come. We’ll find it if you come.”

“Harry, you know we can’t--”

“John. Just this once.”

“It’s always just this once.”

“C’mon, John --”


“Harry,” he says slowly, and his past is rearranging itself, fitting into a pattern so vast he can’t believe it wasn’t there before. “Harry’s knack is always much worse when she’s with me, I can’t -- I can’t stay with her, or visit her, she’s just impossible. I’ve always thought she did it to spite me, rub it in my face. Lefty little brother and all. So proud of being able to do something I could never do. It’s the reason we don’t really get on. What if-- ” He can’t continue. He lowers his head.

What if it wasn’t on purpose.

He can hear Sherlock come to perch on the chair across from him.

John is eight years old, bouncing on the seat of his dad’s old lorry. His dad’s hands, callused, uncomplicated, turning the wheel. “No school Monday, Johnny? How about you come with me to Devon, eh? There’s an ice cream shop I’ve never tried. Might need someone to try it out for me. Could always use a bit of your good luck on the trip.”

Hamish Watson. A simple, straightforward man, the kind of man who aspired to nothing more than putting a hot meal on the table for his two children, who looked at his son with a quiet sort of pride when he thought John wasn’t looking. The one person from John’s childhood who genuinely never cared what hand John wrote with; who didn’t just pretend not to care, but genuinely didn’t.

“Makes no difference,” he would say to John, eyes fixed unerringly on the road. “So I can find my way on any road in England. If I had a map, I could do it anyway. Just so happens I don’t need one. You don’t need it, John. You don’t need any of it.”

“My dad,” John says quietly, eyes fixed on the armchair’s threadbare upholstery. “He always wanted me to ride with him when he drove, for his job. Said I was good luck. Said he was even better at navigating--”

John finds he can no longer talk. Echoes, a barrage of faces. Ghosts. Sit next to me. C’mon, John, we need you. You’re good company. Always good luck.

“John --” Sherlock is up, pacing again.

“Shut up, Sherlock, just -- don’t, okay? Just shut up.” This must be what it feels like to lose your mind, John thinks absently. It feels as if his thoughts are rainwater, spilling over gutters, washing out functional synapses with a swell of confusion.

His vision floods with snapshots, moving pictures. It’s a lie, he thinks, a fallacy that your life flashes before your eyes at the moment before death. John knows that moment; he’s been there before. He saw only sand, felt only the blank eclipse of pain. But right now, this: this is his life, reeling before his eyes, unwinding into nonsensical ribbons of cause and effect.

John looks up. Sherlock is watching him, head tilted, curious, captivated. As if this is all a very fascinating chemical reaction bubbling out of a test tube in their kitchen. As if John, newly blazing with unknown potential, is about to be the single greatest explosion ever to hit the ceiling of their flat.

“There are others,” Sherlock says, as if he can see, as if the reels of memory in John’s mind are playing on a flickering screen in the sitting room. “You remember other people you may have affected.”

Raw anger curls John’s hands into fists. “Yes, there bloody well are going to be, aren’t there?” he says, words chilled with the snap of sarcasm. “This is one hell of a way to look at the entire course of my life, all of a sudden, but I suppose you don’t care about that, do you? Not a part of your deduction, was it? ‘Effect on subject when informed of something that’s influenced his entire life up to this point?’ Did you ever think maybe I’d be better off not knowing? Maybe that’s why I’m left-handed, Sherlock.”

Several things happen almost at once.

Shivers run up John’s spine; he straightens, shifts uncomfortably.

Lightning-quick, Sherlock grabs an apple from a bowl on the coffee table and throws it straight at John’s head.

“Jesus--” John sputters, too shocked to be furious at this attack. His reflexes are good, always have been. He throws up a hand in defence and catches the apple, which hits his palm with a satisfying smack.

Sherlock’s eyes widen involuntarily. His quick intake of breath is not lost on John in the slightest.

John looks at the apple in his hand. His right hand.

“Oh my God,” John says, entirely derailed by disbelief. He’s forgotten to be angry. He’s beyond it.

Sherlock settles once more onto the back of his chair, fingertips pressed together, half-obscuring his expression.

“That was it, wasn’t it,” John says quietly.

“Yes.”

“Jesus.” John turns the apple over in his hand. It feels... backwards. Unnatural. He swaps it into his left hand, and back again. Neither hand feels right, anymore.

Silence. Someone is breathing fast; probably John. Maybe both of them.

John walks from the chair slowly to the coffee table and drops the apple back into the bow. He meets Sherlock’s gaze. Sherlock looks a bit elated, as he often does after a deduction. This time the elation is strongly tinged with guilt. The guilt is strange, foreign. Sherlock’s features seem unused to it.

John takes a breath. “Okay,” he says heavily. “Okay. You’ve deduced something.”

A beat of hesitation before Sherlock speaks. “The reason you’re left-handed,” he says. “You’re half-right. It might be better if you don’t know about your knack.”

“Half-right?” John’s voice cracks. “Are you making a bloody joke?

Sherlock, to his credit, looks stricken. “No,” he says quickly. “No. It’s just that knowledge of your knack may be potentially dangerous to you.”

“Brilliant. Fantastic. Well, cat’s out of the bag now, isn’t it?”

“Self-preservation,” Sherlock murmurs, ignoring John. “Fascinating. From a genetic standpoint, it makes perfect sense. An individual with your particular knack could be victimised from a very young age, taken advantage of. But if the individual can make it to adulthood before finding out about it, they may stand a chance of using the knack to their advantage, instead of falling victim to others. Your knack --” His eyes meet John’s. “Your knack deliberately conceals itself, as part of its nature. A safety precaution, as it were.”

“Assuming this is, in fact, my knack. Assuming you’re right about everything.”

Sherlock’s brow creases. “How could I not be right about everything?”

“You’ve been wrong. I’ve seen it.”

“Denial is unbecoming, John.”

“So is being an arrogant dick.”

“I’m not the one being an arrogant dick, at the moment,” Sherlock says coolly.

This brings John up short. He shuts his eyes and hears his own voice. Harry, I can’t stay with you. I won’t be your excuse for firing up that knack of yours.

“You’re right,” he says. "You're not."

John can hear Sherlock get up, and then he’s close, all warmth and coiled energy. He hovers near John. John doesn’t need to look to know that Sherlock is wavering, uncertain.

“It’s okay,” John says, to himself. To both of them.

A tense breath at his shoulder; then, hesitant, long-fingered hands at his shoulders, on his arms. Gathering him in. His own arms, unwinding, circling Sherlock’s waist. They twine into a fierce, tight knot, anger draining into the mud of fear and disbelief.

“You’re fine. It’s all fine,” Sherlock says, hushed, bone-deep. “John.”

They are there for five minutes, an hour. All day; only a few seconds. John doesn’t know. He doesn’t much care.

John’s father, striding resolutely into the primary school office, John in tow. Wearing his driver’s uniform and battered work boots; lifting his chin as he addresses the head of school, a hassled, grey-haired administrator in an ill-fitting suit. “There’s nothing wrong with my lad. But he’s been in a scrap every day this week and you lot just turn the other cheek. My Johnny happens to be mighty good with his left hand and I’d rather not have him learn it’s only for throwing punches.”

“Welcome to the Fifth Northumberland, Captain Watson.” John snaps into a habitual salute, right hand held rigid. His superior officer grins disarmingly. “At ease, Captain. Here in the Fifth we take what’s Left.”

“John Watson? Yeah, I know him.” An overheard whisper in the staircase, near the lecture hall. “Kind of cute, actually. Left-handed, though, did you know?”

“Come out with us, John.” Harry’s voice is a slur, giggly, thick-tongued. “You never want to come out with us. S’much more fun when you’re around, John.”

Sherlock’s voice; Sherlock’s eyes. “You make me feel... different.”

John’s eyes are shut against the ghosts. Sherlock’s mouth is there, his hands, all scorching heat and distraction, a sweet promise of oblivion. And if John’s cheeks are wet, if his face clouds with memory, if his moans melt into sobs and back again, Sherlock never says. Sherlock engulfs him, fills his ears with deep whispers, and they sleep.

* * *

Chapter Text

Somewhere, distantly, a phone chirps: Text message.

John is in the desert; the hot sun is painted across his back. He hears voices. Must be his unit, just over the crest of the next ridge.

His left shoulder screams in agony, and he clutches at it, gasping. He feels blood seep through his splayed fingers, wet and warm. His knees hit the sand. He pulls his hand away -- his left hand -- because it’s his right shoulder now, his right shoulder that’s flaring with pain, his own blood streaking the sand like red welts. His hand is scarlet, coated in it, almost comically so. He turns it over, palm to the sand, and the sun catches the edge of a deep wound, frightening, circular. Not his shoulder, after all. His left hand, shot clean through.

“Don’t mind your hand, John,” Sherlock says, standing above him, coat throwing a curtain of shadow across the sand. “We’ll get you a new one.”

The phone chirps again.

Sherlock lies next to him, long and heavy-limbed with sleep. One hand drapes across John’s chest, fingers interlacing with John’s. John rolls toward him as Sherlock’s breathing shifts. “Sherlock,” John murmurs. “Phone.”

A deep grunt, a flail of limbs, and Sherlock half-sits up, bare to the waist, pink phone in hand. He swipes a thumb across the screen, and two pips chime in the quiet bedroom.

Sherlock inhales sharply. “Excellent.”

“Shit,” John says dully, rubbing his eyes, and his stomach rolls. “Shit. It’s him.”

Images from yesterday flash through John’s mind, slightly out of focus. A nebulous, unreasonable sense of fear tinges all of it.

“View of the Thames. South Bank. Somewhere between Southwark Bridge and Waterloo.” Sherlock swaps the pink phone for his own on the bedside table. “You check the papers, I’ll look online --”

“Sherlock.” John sits up. “No. I can’t do this.”

“You’ve proven yourself quite capable of reading newspaper headlines in the past.” Sherlock’s eyes flick over his phone’s glowing screen.

“Jesus, Sherlock, you know that’s not what I’m talking about.” John stumbles to standing, pulls on his pants.

Sherlock inclines his head toward the doorway. “The newspaper is in the kitchen.”

“I can’t go out.” John pulls on his shirt roughly, starts to struggle into his jeans. “What if I get too close to someone with a really odd knack? Who knows what I might have accidentally done in the past because I had no bloody idea how I could affect people? I don’t know how to control this, or if I even can control it.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Sherlock’s focus doesn’t leave the phone. “Nothing has changed.”

John’s voice cracks on a note he hasn’t hit since primary school. “What do you mean, nothing has changed? Everything has changed, Sherlock. My entire life is now completely fucking backwards.”

“Nothing has changed,” Sherlock repeats, and his eyes finally flick up to John’s. “You and I are the only people who know about your knack. You didn’t know about it before yesterday, and you managed to make it thirty-eight years without causing any kind of major catastrophe.”

John folds his arms over his chest. Someone isn’t making any sense. John suspects Sherlock, but doesn’t feel entirely confident about it. “So we’re just going to go out.”

Sherlock’s attention has shifted back to the phone screen. “I don’t see that we have a choice. The bomber has a new victim.”

“You’re getting off on this case,” John says, after a moment. “You’re happy about this.”

Sherlock looks up. His eyes are eager, intent. “Right now we have an advantage our bomber doesn’t know about. Now we know that if you stay in close proximity I’ll likely be able to solve the case faster. Time, John. We’ll have more time to track him down. Beat the clock.”

“You don’t care.” John swallows. “You don’t care about... this. What’s just happened to me.”

“It didn’t just happen.”

John stares up at the ceiling. His breath betrays him, uneven and quick. “Okay. Okay, no, it didn’t just happen. You’re right.”

A long pause.

Sherlock has his phone to his ear. “It’s me. Have you found anything on the South Bank between Waterloo Bridge and Southwark Bridge?”

John stalks numbly into the kitchen. His hands find the newspaper, because they usually do what Sherlock says, often without consulting John first.

The headlines say nothing. People have died. Archway suicide. Two kids stabbed in Stoke Newington. Someone named Andrew West was found dead on railway lines near Battersea Station. John thinks with some bitterness that he may have a bit more information on that particular scenario than the newspaper is able to provide.

He puts on the kettle, goes to the cabinet. Tea, mugs. Two spoons on the counter. His reflection stares back at him from the cupped silver surface of the spoons, warped, inverted. Two John Watsons. The same John Watson; not the same John Watson.

The same John Watson knows his fate: he’s going with Sherlock this morning, wherever Sherlock happens to go. He’ll be there, a shadow, a pair of hands. John is certain of nothing now, but he is certain of this.

* * *

“Need I remind you,” Sherlock says, flagging down a cab in front of Baker Street, “that nine out of ten individuals have knacks that are almost entirely insignificant? And one out of ten are left-handed? Do the math, John.”

The rational part of John’s brain can, in fact, do the math. The rest of it, a far bigger percentage than John realised, is devolving into a subtle state of paranoia. It’s the paranoid part that’s rearing its frantic, terrified head at the moment, the paranoid part that’s urging John to lock himself in the relative safety of 221b for however long it takes to wrap his mind around his new -- old? -- ability.

Ten minutes ago, Lestrade called Sherlock with news of a man found dead on the South Bank. Since that time, Sherlock has blithely ignored John’s harried “what if” scenarios in favour of the argument that John by his side is worth the risk of whatever unpredictable effect John’s knack could have on their investigation.

“Most people go to school for this, Sherlock.” John slides into the cab behind him and slams the door. “For years. And I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I happen to be lacking any training whatsoever.”

“You’re overreacting.” Sherlock pulls out his phone, swipes at the screen. His near-indecent glee at the rekindled case sharpens quickly into annoyance. “The chance that you’ll encounter someone whose knack interacts dangerously with your own while investigating this corpse is slim bordering on zero. John, we do this every day.

John slumps into his seat, stares out the window at the fiercely cold winter sun, which has slipped behind a cloud.

Sherlock pockets his phone and his voice drops, low enough to be for John’s ears alone. “Anderson. Trivia, memory-based; falls under the mental classification. Anderson erratically retains random trivial facts; the only possible effect you could have on Anderson would be to make him even more annoying than he already is.” A pause. “In fact, you may have done it before.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with --”

“I know the knacks of over half the Yard, John.”

John chuckles darkly. “That’s supposed to be reassuring, is it?”

“You want specifics?” Sherlock says, and his eyes brighten almost in spite of his mood. John knows this expression -- Sherlock can’t resist showing off, even if his temper is starting to flare. “Go on, then. Anyone we might encounter.”

They exchange a weighted look.

John sighs. “Fine. Donovan.”

“Physical, olfactory. She can detect the presence of human blood under most circumstances, even if it’s several days old. No significant danger in enhancing that.”

“Really?”

“It is, I’ll admit, useful on occasion.” Sherlock says begrudgingly.

“Okay,” John says, curiosity starting to edge out paranoia. “Lestrade. What have I done to Lestrade? You must know his knack.”

“Don’t you?” Sherlock says, a puzzled crease between his brows. “His is fairly common knowledge.”

“Sherlock, we’ve been over this. The definition of ‘common knowledge’ is not ‘anything that can be deduced by one man with unusually exceptional skills of observation.’”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “I doubt your ability has had much effect on Lestrade during our investigations. Lestrade’s is mental, linguistic. Canine communication.”

“Lestrade can talk to dogs?

“Surely you knew that.”

This news is utterly distracting. John is incredulous. “You mean -- all this time, when you were referring to Lestrade’s dogs, his, his ‘sniffer dogs’ -- you weren’t joking?”

Sherlock stares. “Not in the least.”

John gapes back at him.

“Why,” he says after a moment, “why, then, doesn’t he work with, I don’t know -- actual police dogs? What is he doing in homicide?”

“I think he started out in the Dog Support Unit, but apparently got fed up with it. Found his canine partner rather annoying. Prefers to work with humans. They still ask him to come into DSU from time to time to assist with the occasional emergency.”

John shakes his head.“You just assumed I knew this.”

“Molly Hooper,” Sherlock continues, barrelling onward. “Have you noticed anything unusual about Molly at all?”

“Molly. At the lab? No,” John says automatically. “I don’t know. It’s nothing, really. Probably nothing.”

“Try to remember.”

“Last time I was at the lab,” John says, and the memory is hazy; he mostly remembers Sherlock that day. Sherlock’s breath on his neck, a kiss against wet bricks. He feels queasy at the rush of thought. “She came up behind me in the hall. I could have sworn she didn’t make any noise at all. Surprised me. I can’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“You heard nothing, you said.”

“Not even a footstep,” John says. “Is that her knack, then?”

“Not exactly.” Sherlock’s eyes are keen, analysing John’s face. “Molly’s knack is rare, complicated. If her knack was enhanced, it’s entirely possible you wouldn’t see or hear her approach at all.”

“Not invisibility. That’s not possible.”

“Invisibility is a fairy tale. No, Molly Hooper goes unnoticed. Not unseen -- just unnoticed. It's a difficult knack to control, as I understand it. It remains active almost all the time. Takes some effort on her part to overcome it."

“If she doesn’t overcome it -- no one notices her?”

“Yes.”

“Christ,” John mutters.“That must be awful.”

"Awful, but sometimes quite powerful. It's a good job Molly didn't decide to pursue a career in something more... criminal. I solved a case, once, in which the perpetrator had the same knack. One of the most skilled thieves in London. Thankfully, Molly prefers the company of corpses."

"Because it doesn't matter if they don't notice her," John says. His hands have gone cold and clammy, clenched into fists. Molly. Maybe she’s always wished to be left-handed. Wondered if it would be better that way.

It would be better, Molly, John thinks. It is better.

"I hadn't thought of that," Sherlock says quietly.

“I sure as hell hope that’s the only part of this you haven’t thought about.” John can feel bitterness rising in his throat like bile. Sherlock looks at him, arches an eyebrow sharply.

“It goes without saying that you’ll tell me if we -- if I need to leave,” John says slowly, deliberately. “If, say, we’re out somewhere, and someone has a knack I shouldn’t be around.”

“Our cab driver is left-handed.” Sherlock says. He tilts his head in the direction of the front seat.

John swallows. “What?”

“You seem to need proof that I notice these things.” Sherlock’s voice, still low, takes on a hard, mocking edge. “Maybe you’re suffering from some kind of selective amnesia regarding my abilities.”

Left-handed. John looks through the scratched glass at the silhouette of the cab driver. A man about John’s age, by the looks of it. Ginger-haired, greying at the temples. Green golf cap. Left-handed.

Left hand is slightly bigger than his right hand, he hears Sherlock say in his head. Callus from holding a pen on the inside of his left middle finger, not his right. Spots of ink on his cap behind his left ear, where he’d probably kept a pen; only a Lefty would keep it on that side.

John would have noticed. John does notice these things, ordinarily. He makes a point of noticing. John would have tipped the cabbie. Even if Sherlock paid, John would have tipped him extra. And then he would have caught his eye, and nodded. And the cabbie would have known about John. The nod, the smile. Nice day, mate. Right.

John feels something cold in the pit of his stomach, something cold and strange. The winks, the smiles: the warm antidote to stares and whispers. Not his anymore. Not his to give.

He’s not one of them anymore, not really.

He doesn’t want this. Never in his life has he wanted anything less. It feels like a punishment, a cruel twist wrenched into his life because he’d had the gall to wish, on certain bad days, that he he wasn’t left-handed. A slap on the hand doled out because his thoughts had strayed to envy.

John finds he can’t reply. Sherlock says nothing.

The cab skids to a halt and they brace themselves against the icy morning air. It’s biting, bone-chilling cold, and the pavement is slick and damp. The breeze whips the smoke of their breath away as soon as it appears. Sherlock sets off down the street in hurried, impossibly long strides, and John has to move twice as fast to keep up.

John’s panic redoubles, uncertainty slamming into him. It feels as if he’s clinging to fading threads of order, threads that are unravelling into chaos, slipping through his hands. An entire part of himself he can’t control, something that’s been shifting the scenery of his life without his knowledge. Invisible hands twitching puppet strings behind a curtain.

“Sherlock. It’s still not safe, my being here. What about the murderer?” John’s breath comes in uneven hitches; his words are stolen by the cold. “What about the bloody bomber, for God’s sake? We don’t know his knack. What if -- what if I’m somehow enabling him? Influencing what he can do? We don’t know how close I need to be, to affect someone. What if he’s nearby, what if --” Panic is gripping him, closing the space around his heartbeat, pinning his thoughts into a narrow band of fear. He grabs Sherlock roughly by the shoulder. “Stop, damn it, Sherlock!”

Sherlock whirls to look at him, eyes cold. Furious. “You think I haven’t thought of that? It’s a risk, John. There have always been risks. You know that.”

John steps back and flexes his hands. His heart is still pounding, a dull racket roaring in his ears.

“You can go.” Sherlock’s words cut the air with ice. “There’s no gun to your back.”

John takes a breath, looks away. They’re utterly alone, near the edge of the embankment. A metal staircase leads down to the shoreline, and John can see Lestrade’s team at work around a bloated form washed up far from the tide’s receding edge.

John could go.

He could walk back up this street, find a cab, find a restaurant. A crappy Chinese restaurant with the dishes advertised in glossy photos above the counter. Order a plate of something hot and liberally spiked with MSG. He could read the paper, or maybe a novel. No corpses. No ticking clock. Sherlock would be okay. Sherlock survived without him. He could do it again.

There would be no one opposite John in the Chinese restaurant, fingers drumming on the table, waiting for John to finish because of course there’s only one plate between the two of them. No one with blazing eyes explaining why the wife stopped at Tesco and picked up a packet of cigarettes which the murderer lifted from the crime scene so he could smoke on the walk home. No one pressing a gun into John’s steady, sweat-damp hands, no one looking at John with that exhilarated, wild look, the look that shuts out the world while they run for it. The look that’s only for John.

John reaches under his coat, feels the handle of his gun, metal warmed with body heat. He glances around to ensure they’re still alone, then pulls it out, hefts the weight of it.

“There’s always a gun,” he says quietly. “There has to be.”

I said dangerous, Sherlock’s voice says, an echo in John’s head, a sound like the wake of a bullet. And here you are.

Sherlock looks at him. Looks through him. Waits.

John slips the gun back under his coat, against his back. He feels his jaw clench. The metal is cold, even with the briefest exposure to air. He looks up at Sherlock.

They don’t need to say anything. There’s a body waiting on the riverbank.

* * *

The body on the bank of the Thames is inflated, puffed high with the bloat of river water and decay. Even if it hadn’t been days in the river, the dead man would still be large and unwieldy, a grey, wobbly mass in an ill-fitting uniform. John’s shoes aren’t made for squatting in the ebbing tide; his socks are damp now, and he’s starting to shiver as he studies the clammy corpse.

It’s the wrong sort of shivering.

He’s got a knack. This idea is settling, seeping into him like the water of the Thames is bleeding into the seams of his shoes. Time wears away the sharp edges of shock. A knack of his own, he can accept. A knack without control, however, is far more difficult to swallow.

Sherlock mentioned physical signs, signs that John’s knack might be activating. The sensations, in retrospect, are clear -- John’s neck, crawling. His shoulder, twinging. Shivers. An itch at the back of his throat. Vague, nagging discomfort comes in a thousand shades, and any one of them could be a sign that he’s about to magnify someone else’s ability. But now that John is aware of his knack’s existence, can he impose control by sheer force of will? He doesn’t even know his knack’s categorisation -- the most fundamental piece of information, a grade-school basic. Can this knack be directed, laser-like, or is it like a broad flood of light, a chaotic ricochet of sheer luck?

It’s quite possible that his knack never goes dormant, but remains active constantly, with peaks and valleys of activity; this is something those years of missed education would have revealed. John turns over the dead man’s left hand in his own and tries to train his thoughts back to the corpse, reason out a likely time of death. He mostly fails, realising after a few minutes that he’s merely staring into space and waiting for any sign of his knack making itself known.

“John. Anything?”

Sherlock’s deep voice above him: a dual meaning, one of them known only to John.

“Not really,” John says, and Sherlock will know what this really means. Nothing, Sherlock. Nothing’s happening to me.

“He’s been in the river a long while. The water’s destroyed most of the data.”

“Dead about... 24 hours,” John finally guesses, feeling it would be increasingly awkward not to say anything. He can sense Lestrade behind him and straightens. “Did he drown?”

“Asphyxiated,” Lestrade says.

John glances at him. Dogs, he thinks, and feels a bit as if the world has gone insane.

“Makes sense,” he says, hoping his expression doesn’t betray the tenuous hold he has on the situation. The corpse. Think about the corpse. He squats down again between the cold, tumbled stones on the bank, peers at the man’s hairline, his neck. Anything. Is he feeling anything? Bruises, he could talk about bruises. The man is what, late thirties? John shifts, coughs a bit. Was that his knack? No, he coughed on purpose. He might be talking out loud, rambling about the body. Is he talking? His muscles are nearly vibrating with watchful effort. He feels as if he’s listening along every nerve.

Sherlock squats next to him, fingers skimming the fabric of the dead man’s shirt, and pulls out his magnifying glass. He’s scanning, focused, but his shoulder is a hand’s length away, purposefully close. Reassuring. He can tell John needs it.

By the time Sherlock straightens up, John is breathing a bit more easily. He gives the corpse another cursory glance before standing. He watches Sherlock tap buttons on his mobile, watches Sherlock’s eyes skim the ground, glance over the man’s feet -- when were his shoes removed? John must have missed that. He watches the familiar deep crease of concentration appear between Sherlock’s brows.

That’s when the crackle of raw nerves fires between John’s shoulder blades without warning, without any preface at all, and he cricks his neck to the side and stares wide-eyed at Sherlock, who is looking back at him with eyes equally wide. A swift smile sweeps across Sherlock’s face and he turns away, punching keys urgently on his mobile.

John knows. The set of Sherlock's shoulders, the keen, faraway look as his eyes scan some unseen point in midair.

John's pulse is elevated. The tips of his fingers are tingling, barely. Just barely. He tests each breath as it shudders out of his lungs. That was it. He can feel it. The sensation is subtle enough that it could mask itself as any number of things, and it's already dissipating, gone so fast John is almost deprived of a sense that it was real. A phantom spark, near-imaginary, like a dream that slips out of reach just as it's remembered.

"Fingertips," Sherlock says, and for a moment John is frozen, wondering if his knack has suddenly granted Sherlock the power to read minds. Fingertips. For a moment, he felt it in his fingertips. But Sherlock glances at his phone again, the corner of his mouth quirked in wicked victory, and it’s clearly just an odd coincidence.

"What?" Lestrade steps nearer to Sherlock, watching. He knows that look, too.

"I'll tell you one thing," Sherlock says, with a near-indecent grin. "That lost Vermeer painting's a fake."

The deduction unravels, then, a Rube Goldberg machine of slick connections, a thrilling feat of logic that leaps, acrobat-like, to a singular conclusion. Sherlock himself is glowing with proud disbelief. His hands gesture like wings as he describes the likely killer, his eyes locked on John alone, and he grins.

* * *

Chapter Text

“No,” John says, arms folded like a wall. Waterloo Bridge arcs above them. The cab next to them is idling, the cabbie starting to look peeved. “Nope. No way. You’re not leaving right now. You’re coming with me, or I’m going back to Baker Street.”

Sherlock’s deduction has led them here in search of an assassin known as the Golem, whose calling card is the distinctive pattern of marks left on a victim’s throat. Fingertips; large fingertips. Woodbridge had stumbled unawares into the Golem’s freakishly strong grip. A knack, most likely, and a particularly deadly one.

The bomber hasn’t phoned. The pink phone’s silence taunts, a deliberate absence of sound designed to set them on edge. In John’s case, it’s working rather well.

Sherlock has just paid off a local Waterloo Bridge resident in exchange for information. What information, Sherlock won’t say. This is not atypical. The fact that Sherlock was about to dash off without explanation a moment ago, also not atypical. John can tell easily enough when Sherlock is about to disappear for the day. Today, however, will not be one of those days, not if John has anything to do with it.

Sherlock glares petulantly. “You’re in no danger conducting an interview alone.”

“Going to guarantee that, are you?”

“For God’s sake, John, you could die in any number of freakish ways this afternoon,” Sherlock growls. “I’m flattered you think my presence would prevent all of them.”

“You dragged me out of the flat to a crime scene because you needed my bloody knack,” John says archly, “and that’s it, then? Got what you came for? I’m dismissed?”

“We’re wasting time. It’s far more efficient if I go to the gallery now, and you go to the flat. Your knack works best after I’ve had a chance to gather all the relevant data.” Sherlock looks skyward, shakes his head. “You don’t see.”

“Oh, always. ‘I don’t see.’ There’s always something I don’t see, Sherlock.”

Sherlock steps closer, his eyes bright. “You have to trust me. You said it yourself: that deduction was amazing. Extraordinary. And that wasn’t just me. I did it because you were there, John. That speed, those leaps of logic -- everything is so much clearer, every detail has meaning, I can feel it happening. Can’t you see what we can do?”

John swallows. We. What we can do.

Sherlock tilts his head, eyes roving over the clear tension in the set of John’s jaw. “When this case is over,” he says, his baritone dropping into quiet intimacy, “we’ll figure out your knack. It won’t take much, if we work together. You’ll get control of it, John. We don’t have time, now. But we will.”

“You --” John finds his voice. It sounds lost. “You think so.”

Sherlock arches an eyebrow. It says, quite clearly, I am never wrong.

John feels something within him give way, just a bit. And then it hits him: He’s tired. Endlessly tired. It feels as if he’s lived three full lifetimes since yesterday -- has it only been a day since Joe Harrison’s flat, since Sherlock’s little life-shattering discovery?

He doesn’t feel like holding on so tightly, anymore. He doesn’t know if he can.

Sherlock is right. If they figure it out, if John can control it, can grip the heart of this rogue ability with the ease of curling a finger around a trigger -- If John can set someone in his sights, aim with the cool knowledge that he’ll never miss --

“Okay,” John says. It feels more like a promise than a surrender. He rubs his hands together in the cold, takes a breath. “Okay.”

The slow tease of a smile curls the corner of Sherlock’s mouth, and his eyes say something John honestly can’t absorb. Overwhelming. Hopeful.

Sherlock -- Sherlock, of all people -- has been crushingly patient. He’s been waiting for John to see this, to see the potential of what they have. Sherlock has taken all of it, has absorbed John’s rage and fear, has watched and reasoned and cajoled as John crashed around him with the force of a storm.

Sherlock, who up until now has been the storm himself.

“God, I love you,” John says.

It’s out, the truth ringing between them before he can think about it. It’s not something he’s said before, to anyone. It should have been harder to say. At the look on Sherlock’s face, John feels an utter fool for not saying it sooner.

“John --” Sherlock breathes, but John covers the word with a reckless, deep kiss. It doesn’t matter what Sherlock was going to say, not in the least. Clarity shudders through John like a gasping breath. This is the only thing that matters: Sherlock’s surprised, quiet moan, his coat lapels in John’s fisted hands.

Behind them, the cabbie honks.

Sherlock’s hands disappear from John’s shoulders, leaving vacant prints of heat. He twists in the cab’s direction and bellows something that sounds shockingly rude in the refined tones of his accent. The cabbie honks again in return. John’s phone chooses this moment to chirp twice in his jacket pocket.

John drops his head to Sherlock’s chest and stifles a laugh. The laugh won’t be stifled, however, and it expands to infect both of them. Sherlock’s large hands wrap around John’s lower back, gun and all, and pull him close. He presses a fleeting kiss to the top of John’s head before releasing him.

John sighs, heart pounding, and pulls his phone from his pocket.

Kindly tell my brother I’m still waiting for the Andrew West memory stick. MH

You can also tell him I find public displays of affection refreshingly progressive. MH


John rolls his eyes, glances around. He flips a two-finger salute in all four cardinal directions, just for good measure.

“Mycroft?”

“How’d you guess?”

A deep chuckle. “I never guess.”

“You never gave him the memory stick?”

Sherlock gives John a pointed look, eyebrow quirked. “Been a bit busy.”

“True.”

Sherlock glances around and raises his voice. “Piss off, Mycroft.”

John grins.

Time seems to slam back into them, then. A car roars by on the busy roadway and Sherlock steps toward the cab, inclines his head. “Come on. Woodbridge’s flat isn’t far.”

John’s eyebrows creep up in surprise. “You’re coming?”

“Of course. You’re right.” Sherlock unfolds his wallet and pulls out a few notes, steps up to the window of the cab and hands them inside. A peace offering. “I should go with you.”

“What about the gallery?”

“We’ll head there afterwards. With both of us at the flat it won’t take long.” Sherlock holds open the door of the cab, framing the entrance with a long arm. “John.”

“Yeah.” John takes a breath, steps up to the cab. “Thanks.”

They fold themselves into the back seat, settling in out of habit, a comfort born of so many days spent leaning against cab windows. Sherlock glances at John, a warm shadow of a smile, and the cab accelerates into the dark.

* * *

“Could you just --” John hisses under his breath, as Alex Woodbridge’s housemate stares. “Could you just, you know, tone it down? A bit?”

“Is he all right?”

Alex Woodbridge’s rather ordinary housemate -- Julia? no, Julie -- is staring at Sherlock as if he has just stepped off a spaceship from an alien planet. John doesn’t blame her. Sherlock is in rare form, peering at every available surface, dropping to his knees to inspect Woodbridge’s shoes, rifling through dirty laundry.

“Don’t mind me,” Sherlock says breezily, his head now halfway under Woodbridge’s lumpy single bed.

“He does that,” John adds. Sherlock slithers a bit farther under the bed.

“He, er, may not want to do that,” Julie says, with something of a quiet cringe. “Alex was never much of one for hoovering.”

John gestures at the telescope on one side of the small attic bedroom, which Sherlock’s tornado-like inspection has uncovered. “Was Alex a stargazer, then?”

“God, yeah. Mad about it,” Julie says, still staring at Sherlock, who has emerged from under the bed brushing quantities of dust from his coat, and is now peering at the radio on the bedside table.

“And did he know much about art?”

“No, not really.” Julie shifts her weight uncomfortably. It seems she’s quite eager to rid herself of the madman prowling through her ex-housemate’s belongings. “There was a message left for Alex on the landline. I can get the phone, play it for you if you like.”

“Thanks. Yeah, that would be great.”

Julie vanishes down the hallway. John watches Sherlock’s long-fingered hands turn over the message pad next to the phone. He opens his mouth to speak, but his throat suddenly feels strange -- there’s a tickle at the back. Must be dust, must be all the dust Sherlock’s kicked up from under the bed --

John coughs, twice. One of his fingers tingles a bit, on his right hand, just for a moment. That’s it, he thinks. Again.

“Sherlock --” he breathes, but Sherlock has already whirled to look at him, eyebrows raised, a familiar expression on his face. “John, you --”

“Yeah,” says John, and he can’t help grinning. “Yeah. I felt it.”

“Excellent.” Sherlock’s answering grin is broad, triumphant. “You -- oh.”

“What? Did you get anything?”

“Woodbridge was left-handed,” Sherlock says authoritatively, surveying the room.

John’s brow furrows. “How do you know?”

Sherlock fixes him with a boyish, self-satisfied look and gestures at the telescope. “For a start, the telescope is positioned at a particular angle, with scuff marks on the floor indicating that Woodbridge looked into the viewfinder with his left eye, not his right -- far more common in left-handed individuals. Computer mouse on the left hand side of the keyboard, quite obvious. Pen and paper on the left hand side of the phone. He picked up the phone with his right hand, took messages with his left. Most power sockets in here, used on the left.”

“His watch was on his left wrist,” John murmurs, “but that’s hardly uncommon.” He holds up his own wrist.

“Exactly.”

Heavy footsteps in the stairwell. “Lovely detail,” John says quietly, “but I don’t see what this has to do with anything.”

Sherlock’s grin spreads into something broad and wolfish. “A pattern,” he says. “One victim, inconsequential. Two, still might be coincidental. Three, time to start paying attention.”

“I don’t follow --”

“Carl Powers. Left-handed,” Sherlock says hurriedly. “Ian Monkford, also a Lefty, according to the rental papers from Janus Cars. And now, Alex Woodbridge -- left-handed.”

“You talking about Alex?” Julie peers into the bedroom. “Yeah, he was left-handed. Bit down about it sometimes, poor sod. Thought he might have had a better job, otherwise.”

John feels his jaw clench reflexively. “That’s, er. Did you have that message?”

“Sure,” she says, stepping back into the room to hand John the phone, but Sherlock crowds past them, pushing his way to the stairwell, vanishing in a cloud of dust and wool. “Meet you downstairs,” he mutters at John.

“Sorry,” John says, and he can’t help a faint smile. “Sorry, he --”

“Does that,” Julie supplies. “Yeah, I figured.”

* * *

Their feet echo against the slick pavement, torches throwing arcs of light against the wet, dripping bricks. A short while ago, a member of Sherlock’s homeless network pressed a dirty scrap of paper into Sherlock’s hand just as they were about to take a cab to the gallery. The gallery visit was postponed without much explanation, but John doesn’t need one. This dripping, dank network of railway tunnels can only be the chosen hideout of a particular assassin.

Shadows sweep before them, wavering against the brick. Piles of rubbish stir ominously. A huge, distorted silhouette looms against a distant wall. John grabs Sherlock’s arm and wrestles them both against cold, uneven stone, out of sight.

It smells of piss. They switch off their torches.

They’re both breathing hard, sides pressed against each other, a long line of warmth in the damp tunnel. John’s hand closes, palm full of the comfort of metal, and he realizes he must have swapped his torch for his gun without thinking.

He shuts his eyes and he’s at the Jabez office, Sherlock warm against his side, just like this: hearts pounding, the sweet buzz of adrenaline. In the next moment, he’s walking in the park, leaning heavily on his cane and thinking of the gun in his bedsit. Another man in another lifetime. He shivers.

Footsteps. Sherlock flinches next to him and they both move as one, lunging back into the tunnel, tearing off after the receding shadow. The lanky, gargantuan form of the Golem disappears into a waiting BMW. Tires screech as it pulls away. Sherlock whirls, curses, his deep voice rebounding in the empty tunnel.

John looks down at his gun, at the ready. His gun, in his right hand.

“My gun,” he says. “Think --”

“Oh,” Sherlock says, and grabs John’s shoulders. “The phone message.”

“Professor Cairns. You don’t think that’s where --”

“Can’t be too many in the phone book. Come on, John.”

* * *

They burst through the door of the planetarium to a noise that sounds far too much like someone’s last breath.

A film plays on a curved screen in the dark room, stars and planets spinning while a refined, all-knowing voice describes the universe. Sherlock bellows as the Golem’s shadow lurches against the wall, a funhouse distortion of human form. They hear a dull, sudden thud that can only be the sound of a body hitting the ground. The movie warps, plunging the room into alternating flashes of dark and light. Professor Cairns. Shit.

John darts up the stairs toward the spot where the Golem’s shadow wavered, but after another round of bright flashes, his vision is ruined. Afterimages of the room sear his retinas like some horrific stop-motion film. He makes it to the upper tier of the room before Sherlock gives a muffled shout from below.

Panicked, John stumbles back down the steps, gun drawn, cursing himself for bolting off. The light flickers to reveal Sherlock and the Golem tangled in front of the planetarium screen, washed in stars. John raises his gun steadily as spots flash in front of his eyes. Two hands on the gun. If only he could see --

He can’t get a clean shot. Sherlock struggles, head bent against the Golem’s enormous chest as the Golem curls around him.

“Let him go,” John grits out, still seeking his target, despairing at the wrestling mass in front of him. “Let him go, or I will kill you.”

The Golem’s huge, bald head snaps up to peer at John, and Sherlock seizes the chance and sinks his teeth into the Golem’s arm. The assassin howls. Still no shot. Sherlock twists, and John hears another grunt, a kick. The film skips again, the narrator’s voice warbling in unsteady chirps, but John barely notices over the noise of his thudding heart.

“Sherlock --”

The light flickers and Sherlock’s face flashes into view, strained and furious. He clutches the Golem’s hands, trying to pull -- Fingertips, John thinks, Christ. The Golem’s fingertips. Anything to keep those hands away from Sherlock, to get Sherlock out of that grip --

John circles, but the Golem moves with him, wheeling Sherlock between them like a wiry, struggling doll.

Just then the Golem stumbles as Sherlock’s foot flies out to one side. They teeter wildly out of balance, and the Golem’s grip seems to fumble. Sherlock twists again, a flash of movement --

John’s left shoulder twinges, sharp pain shooting from deltoid to fingertips, electric and numb. He gasps, winces.

The Golem gives an astonished grunt.

The enormous assassin suddenly regains his footing and makes another grab at Sherlock. Sherlock’s eyes go wide. “John --” he manages, a low gasp, but before he can say more, a single massive hand closes around Sherlock’s neck. The Golem wrests him to the ground in the space of a breath.

John’s entire body goes cold. The film flickers and dies, plunging them into near-total darkness.

John listens for breath. He hears almost nothing. Against the darkness, a last mental image: the Golem hunching above Sherlock’s prone form.

He takes the shot.

Noise and light from the gun. A deep cry of pain. Scuffling in the dark, limbs against ground. Ragged breath.

“Sherlock!”

John gropes wildly on the ground with his free hand. Still blinded by flashes, he can’t see much else but the dim light from the sole emergency exit. More scuffling. His ears ring with the noise of his gun. The scuffling seems to recede.

His hands find the familiar rough weave of wool. Sherlock’s sleeve, his arm, unmoving.

John’s hands fly over Sherlock’s prone form, seek out his thick curls, the fine bones of his face. His lips are soft and slack. His narrow chest is still. John fumbles for Sherlock’s wrist, and there: a faint, scattershot pulse.

Reflexes kick in. John tips Sherlock’s head back, puts one ear to his mouth. It’s too dark to properly watch Sherlock’s chest, so he rests a hand on it instead. John had always said he could do this blindfolded. Never thought he’d have to make good on his word.

“Sherlock?”

John feels the barest movement of air against his cheek. Sherlock is breathing. Breathing, but not conscious. Shit. He leans in even closer to Sherlock’s ear, taps him hard, once, on the shoulder. “Come on, Sherlock.”

Sherlock gasps.

"It’s okay. You’re okay,” John urges. One hand on Sherlock’s shoulder, one on his side; John rolls him into recovery position. Sherlock inhales raggedly, coughs hard, and vomits onto the slick linoleum floor.

John breathes.

“Did he --” Sherlock chokes, his voice rough and weak. “Did he get away?”

“You bloody idiot,” John says, and his own voice sounds rough, almost rougher than Sherlock’s. In the dark he moves to Sherlock’s other side, grasps his shoulders, positions him away from any mess left on the floor. There’s another nearby spot that feels sticky. Blood, perhaps.

John sends up a vindictive prayer that it belongs to the Golem.

Sherlock coughs again. His voice is a wheeze. “Did you see him?”

“I didn’t,” John says, still gripping Sherlock’s shoulder. His other hand reflexively seeks Sherlock’s hair, his face, his neck, the pulse at his jugular vein. It’s fast, but regular. All seems in order, at least as much as John can tell in the dark. “I was busy.

“John --”

“Shut up, Sherlock,” John says, a bitter, broken sound. “Shut up.”

It’s hitting him now, the sequence of events. The likely cause of the Golem’s sudden advantage. All data points to one obvious conclusion.

He feels Sherlock’s hand slip over his: the left one. The one measuring the rise and fall of Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock’s hand traps it there, and they breathe in the dark.

“The gallery,” Sherlock says, after a moment. He struggles to sit up. “We have to go.”

“You can’t -- You’re going to hospital, Sherlock.”

“I’m fine.” Sherlock’s sitting now, propped heavily against John. “I’ll be fine.”

He leans in unexpectedly, wraps a hand around the back of John’s neck, and presses their foreheads together. John can feel Sherlock’s breath on his cheek.

And then Sherlock struggles to his feet, a hand braced on John’s shoulder. He sways, and then his torch casts a blinding beam across the walls, into the corners of the room.

“Looks like you hit him,” Sherlock says, sweeping his torch in a wide arc. “Doesn’t look like enough blood to be a fatal wound.”

“Got away, then.”

“Yes. Must have. Let’s check the upper level just to be sure.”

A simple order. Business as usual. You were almost dead, Sherlock. All in a day’s work, is it?

“Right,” John says, and it’s a cold salute. A captain to his commanding officer.

Sherlock casts his torch into the darkness, searching. His footfalls echo, unsteady and tentative, on the slick floor, and John follows.

* * *

The solitary painting mocks them from the far wall. Two people are dead. Nearly a third, John thinks. So very nearly a third. They are no closer to a solution, and somewhere, presumably, another victim is covered in explosives. The bomber is winning. Has already won, perhaps.

They didn’t speak on the cab ride to the gallery.

Sherlock is next to him now, coat removed, strength largely recovered, studying the not-Vermeer in question. His bespoke suit is barely wrinkled, neat white button-down open at the collar. Quite professional, quite polished, apart from the five large, distinctly fingertip-shaped bruises darkening from red to purple across his neck like some sort of deranged tattoo.

John’s relief is swiftly hardening into sickening fury.

“John,” Sherlock says, under his breath. Entire thoughts, unspoken, in that word.

“Go on, then. You’re the genius,” John mutters. It comes out a bit harsher than expected.

Lestrade, behind Sherlock, gives John a startled sidelong glance. John doesn’t return it. He’s not quite sure what he would say, if he allowed himself to speak.

Sherlock fishes out the pink phone, typing on it as if to summon the solution via sheer force of will. “The painting is a fake,” he mutters. “It has to be.”

The gallery owner, severe, well-dressed, paces with distinct discomfort. “That painting has been put to every test --”

The abrupt ring of the phone in Sherlock’s hand interrupts her. Sherlock answers it with a single swipe of his thumb. “The painting is a fake. That’s the answer.”

Silence.

“I’ve got the solution, the painting has to be a fake. Prove it? You want me to prove it?”

No response. Sherlock stares at the painting, the phone held out in front of him.

“I’ll prove it. Time. Just give me time.”

“Ten.” A voice issues from the phone: A child. Clearly, a child. John feels sick. He swallows against nauseating fear.

Lestrade, next to him, groans and turns away, visibly pained. “It’s a kid. Jesus, it’s a kid.”

“Nine.”

Sherlock whirls, stares at John. Pleading.

I can’t, John thinks at him, I can’t control it, you know it, Sherlock --

He can’t control it. Because he can’t, Sherlock nearly died. Because he can’t, this kid is about to die. It’s like some kind of twisted test doled out by the universe: Ready, John Watson? Your ability would be damn useful if only you knew how to use it.

John turns, steps away, covers his face. He can’t do this. He can’t watch Sherlock fail. Sherlock can’t fail, he won’t --

He hears Sherlock pacing frantically. They are no closer, and a kid is going to die, and there’s nothing John can do, no gun, no target, no trigger, only Sherlock --

And then: his neck. The back of his neck prickles, shivers trailing down his shoulder blades. He shuts his eyes, willing it to be real. He pinches the bridge of his nose, breathing hard. Too indistinct, maybe his imagination -- He breathes out, a long exhale.

The tips of his fingers. Two fingers on his right hand. Just barely numb.

Sherlock’s eyes fly open, round and pale and frantic. “Oh!” he gasps, a near-painful sound. “Oh -- that is brilliant --”

It’s something called the Van Buren Supernova.

The clock stops.

* * *

Sherlock curls in his chair, knees drawn up to his chest. The telly blares noise in the background. Lestrade called not long ago. The child is safe, which is the only thing that matters, John reminds himself. The only thing.

John hasn’t been able to speak much, since.

There were a few words exchanged, to be sure, when they arrived back at the flat a few hours ago. John had examined Sherlock’s neck, checked his eyes with the pen light from his medical bag. Sherlock didn’t protest.

“That was two pips, you realise,” Sherlock says eventually, over the dull roar of the television. “One pip left.”

John doesn’t want to be around to see it.

He says nothing, pecks a few keys on his laptop. A final blog entry, or at least the start of one. An explanation is warranted, perhaps, of why he won’t be writing one again.

“Three left-handed victims, John.” Sherlock steeples his fingers. “That has to be significant --”

“Enjoy working that out, then.”

Sherlock straightens and cranes his neck to look at John, seated at the table. “Hmm?”

“You have fun with that,” John says, a bit louder. “Best of luck.”

“Is there a problem?”

“Well spotted.” John shuts his laptop with a definitive click. “I was wondering when you’d catch on, what with that mighty brain of yours. Or perhaps it’s been a bit -- I don’t know, deprived of oxygen today.”

Sherlock turns back to the television. “Let me know when you’ve finished having your tantrum, I’ll order takeaway.”

John scoffs, scoots his chair away from the table. “You don’t think I’m serious.”

“Your knack had a rather unfortunate effect on the Golem,” Sherlock says, unfolding himself from his seat and perching instead on the back of the armchair. “I won’t deny it. But it then had a rather remarkable effect on my final deduction. We saved a child. I would say we’ve come out ahead for the day.”

John smiles grimly. “Is that your assessment of how today went, then?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says shortly. “Not much different from usual, in sum.”

“So the fact that you weren’t breathing for part of it, not really a low point? How about the fact that I was the reason you weren’t breathing?”

“John.” Sherlock’s voice rapidly loses its warmth. “I’ve nearly died at least a dozen times since you moved in, not including the day we met. Initially it seemed to be a selling point.”

“And how many times was it my fault, exactly?”

Sherlock’s jaw clenches.

“I thought so.”

Sherlock exhales sharply. “Do you think I care about that?”

“No.” John’s voice hardens into false cheer. “No, Sherlock, I don’t. And that’s the problem. You don’t care at all that you put me in the position of watching you die because of something I did. You honestly don’t care at all.”

Sherlock is on his feet. “I can’t afford to think that way. We had a time limit, John. This bomber is playing a game, laying out traps for my benefit. If I don’t solve his puzzles, people will die, as you so love to remind me. It’s quite simple.”

“You’re right,” John says bitterly. “It is simple. It’s only about the game. About this bomber and your ability to win his game, no matter the cost.”

“You’d have me try a different course of action?” Sherlock’s voice hits a perceptibly hoarse edge. “What would you suggest, exactly? Inviting our mystery bomber for tea?”

“How about listening to me, for once? How about leaving me in the bloody flat now that we’ve figured out that my presence is a significant risk?”

“Your definition of ‘significant’ is questionable.”

“What part of ‘almost got you killed’ is questionable?”

Sherlock paces to the window, looks out. “There are risks involved in every case we take. Your presence is an advantage we can’t afford to waste.”

“No.” John shifts in his chair to look at Sherlock. “No, my presence is an advantage you can’t give up. Just another drug for you, is it? How does it feel, when my knack affects you? Must be one hell of a rush. Once an addict, always an addict, isn’t that what they say?”

Sherlock is silent.

“It all makes sense, really,” John adds, something cold and heavy in the pit of his stomach. “Why someone like you would keep me around. You don’t need an army doctor, not really. Lestrade has a team for autopsies. Quite clever of you, too, that seduction bit. Best way to ensure I stayed around, was that it? Get John in bed, he’ll follow like a bloody lost dog. Was Lestrade in on it? He’s the expert on dogs, after all.”

“You think that’s what happened?” Sherlock says quietly. His gaze is fixed somewhere outside the window; cars, perhaps. Streetlights.

“Most logical explanation, wouldn’t you say?” John gets to his feet. “Otherwise --”

He can’t quite say it. He steps into the middle of the room. His left hand clenches reflexively.

Sherlock’s voice, from near the window, is startlingly quiet. “I’m sorry, John.”

“You’re sorry.” John’s heart is pounding. “For what? For lying to me all this time?”

“I knew about the sniper.” Sherlock’s voice is oddly emotionless. “I had proof your knack was dangerous. I took a chance. I thought you would trust me, and you did. It should have been your choice to make.”

John’s stomach drops. “What the hell are you talking about?”

Sherlock turns, framed against the curtain. “The night I discovered your knack, I called in a favour, got hold of your army records while you were asleep. I wanted to see if there were any patterns, if your knack had inadvertently caused accidents. I read the report of the day you were shot.”

John swallows. “And?”

“Report was that a sniper fired on your unit from an unusual distance. A highly unusual distance. Assumption was that the sniper had some sort of knack related to weapons, or aim. But no knack has ever been documented that’s resulted in such long-range accuracy. The incident was officially classified as unsolved.”

“My knack,” John says. “My knack... affected the sniper.”

Sherlock nods.

“You knew,” John says slowly, “that I caused most of my unit’s death.”

“You caused it inadvertently.”

“You knew.”

“Yes. But again, the chance of disaster, given the rest of your history, seemed very slim. A single documented incident in your adult lifetime.” A pause. “I am sorry.”

John’s vision swims, spots of black and white. “I watched you die, Sherlock,” he chokes. “I bloody well watched you die in front of me because of something I did -- you, and I love you, Sherlock, and I almost fucking killed you today, and you would have let me.

Sherlock looks out the window again. His calm expression manages to be both chilling and infuriating. “As I said, it was not deliberate.”

“God, no, of course it wasn’t.” John looks up, shakes his head. “‘Sorry, John, it seemed more important to shave ten seconds off my deduction time than to not die.'"

“Those ten seconds were crucial.”

“You knew my own knack got me shot, killed a group of people -- my friends, Sherlock, my bloody unit -- and you argued with me, made me feel like I was insane for wanting to take precautions.”

“There was no time to take precautions.”

“No, Sherlock. The only explanation -- the only one -- is that you were using me. You can’t imagine what it’s like to have a friend nearly die in front of you. Actually die in front of you. Or you wouldn’t have done this.”

“You could have died as well,” Sherlock says quietly.

“That’s very good,” John says. “Good. You’re starting to see my point.”

A long pause.

“I’m done with this.” John steps backward, gropes for the winter coat draped on the back of his armchair, starts to wrestle it on. “I wish you the best of luck, Sherlock, I do. I hope you can find someone else who makes you think faster, or whatever it is you do, because I’m done with that particular job. I can’t do this anymore.”

Sherlock watches John. It’s as if he’s turned to stone, unreactive, unyielding. A particularly lovely statue in a bespoke shirt and trousers.

“Be back for my stuff later,” John says, and he tries to sound casual, but the break in his voice betrays him.

He turns and jogs down the stairway to the door and is out into the night before his leg stops working. It buckles under him for a moment; he leans against the railing by the stoop, takes a gulp of breath. His face is wet.

John wills his leg to behave. It does, but barely. He limps down Baker Street toward the tube station. He has no destination in mind, but he won’t think about that, not yet. He will step onto the platform and let the trains rattle by, and one of them will take him somewhere.

He has never felt like this before. Never in his life. Not even when he was shot.

He hasn’t gone a block before a sleek black car pulls up at the kerb next to him, and the door opens.

“Tell Mycroft he can fuck off,” John yells.

A tall, burly man in a dark suit gets out of the car. It’s going to be one of those times, is it? Bloody Mycroft. If this is his attempt at intimidating John into staying, it’s not going to work.

The man steps toward John. “Get in the car, please.”

“I said,” John says, lifting his chin, “you can bloody well tell your employer to fuck off.”

“He said you might say something like that,” the man says and looms closer. He appears to be armed.

This is unusual.

“Where’s Anthea?”

The man says nothing. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out something that looks like a handkerchief. Before John can blink, the man reaches out and grabs the back of John’s head. John flinches in shock, then struggles instinctively, but the man is twice his size.

Left the gun in the flat, John thinks. Christ. Left the gun --

The handkerchief covers John’s nose and mouth, and he gags on a sharp, acrid smell. He struggles for two worthless, pungent breaths, and the street goes dark.

* * *

Chapter Text


It’s still dark. John’s head hurts. He’s warm -- a little too warm. Wrapped up in something. Vague motion, vibration. In a car? A car, perhaps. He shuts his eyes, because his head hurts.

He opens his eyes and squints against a bright light. His head pounds. Awkward bulky objects somehow press against his chest and back. He is slumped on a bench in a locker room. It smells strongly of chlorine.

Usually, at about this point in the dream, John expects his commanding officer to show up and tell his unit to move out. Go north. There will be some combination of sand, noise, and death. And then John will get shot, and he’ll wake up and take two paracetamol for his headache.

“Ah, you’re awake,” says a voice in his ear. It sounds vaguely familiar, but it’s definitely not his commanding officer. John wracks his brain: someone else in his unit? A medical school colleague? His subconscious is really pulling out all the stops for this one. “Decided to join us, Dr Watson?”

John grunts, tries to sit up. It’s difficult. This may be because he’s strapped with explosives.

His senses snap to attention fast enough to break the sound barrier. A half-second scan of the situation reveals the locker room to be empty. A cord snakes around the back of John’s neck and up to a device in his ear. He’s wearing a heavy winter coat over a black vest wrapped in a layer of plastic and wire and bricks of Semtex. The coat isn’t his. The thought that someone placed a device in his ear and dressed him in a stranger’s coat is somehow more terrifying than the explosives themselves.

“You can relax,” the voice says in his ear, lilting, faintly Irish in accent. “Everything will be just fine as long as you follow orders. You’re a good soldier, aren’t you, Dr Watson? I know you’re so good at following orders.”

John looks around but finds he can’t turn very well, not with the coat’s enormous hood behind him. He knows better than to stand or move very much at all. Must be a camera, somewhere. He nods, once, to show he’s heard.

There’s no way out of this. Sherlock was trying to stay one move ahead of the bomber, but John distracted him. The bomber must have been waiting for this opening, and now the game is over. Checkmate.

“Here’s how we play,” the voice continues. “You say what I say, when I tell you to speak. Simple. If you don’t do it right, I press a button. You might feel a bit... crispy, when I do that. Might need sunblock. Oh, you didn’t bring any? Such a shame.” The voice shifts from syrup to venom. “Are we quite clear?”

John nods again.

The voice slides into syrup once more.“We’re expecting a visitor in a moment. Stand up, my dear, you’re about to make your grand entrance.”

John straightens. Every muscle in his body protests, and the ones that aren’t cramped and stiff nearly vibrate with tension. It’s sweltering in the locker room. The coat smells of someone else, the invasive musk of a stranger’s sweat, and it’s this more than anything that sends a spike of nausea to the back of John’s throat.

“Step toward the door.”

John obeys.

He hears another door open, and then the sound of footsteps on tile, measured, precise. He knows that gait. But then, John saw this coming. He could see the grand finale the moment he saw the wires on his body.

Sherlock’s voice, dark and resonant, issues from the other side of the door. “I got your message,” he calls. “I’ve brought you something.”

John swallows. A trickle of sweat runs down his temple. At the sound of Sherlock’s voice, the nausea swells unbearably in his throat.

“All your little puzzles, making me dance.” Sherlock’s usually cool tone sounds oddly strained. “Quite a brilliant setup. But the cost of playing was a bit much.”

“Open the door,” the voice says in John’s ear, and then, a petulant singsong: “Say hello to your boyfriend.

John opens the door and steps out.

Water slaps noisily against the tile of an indoor pool, dingy and slick with age. The hot stench of chlorination threatens to overwhelm. Sherlock, at the far end of the room, turns to stare at John. His eyes widen in shock.

It’s not like that, John thinks desperately. It’s not what you think, it’s not --

“Repeat after me,” says the voice in John’s ear. “Evening. This is a turn-up, isn’t it, Sherlock?”

John repeats, swallowing against his gag reflex.

“John,” Sherlock breathes. The look on his face. The look on his face drives out any anger John ever had, anything at all, because Sherlock looks as if someone’s kicked him hard in the gut. He’s never seen this expression on Sherlock’s face before.

He never wants to see it again.

“Bet you never saw this coming,” John parrots, every word filling his mouth with bile.

“Show him what you’ve got behind curtain number one, Johnny,” the voice directs.

John blinks back the sting in his eyes and opens his jacket. The red laser of a sniper’s weapon flickers from nowhere, playing over the twisted wires and chunks of plastic on his chest. I’m sorry, he thinks, hoping Sherlock can read something of the despair in John’s eyes. I’m so sorry.

“What would you like me... to make him say next?”

Sherlock takes a step closer, utterly stricken. “Stop,” he says, addressing the unseen voice. “Stop. I have what you need. Come and take it. You want me? I’ll do as you like. You don’t need John.”

A door opens somewhere behind them.

“Wrong!” the voice says, but this time it doesn’t speak through John -- there’s no delay, no sickening rebound of words in John’s head. Now, disembodied, it echoes from the other end of the pool. “You’ve quite misunderstood the point of the game, Mr Sherlock Holmes. I find myself quite... disappointed.”

Footsteps against tile.

John can see Sherlock’s reaction: surprise, narrowing quickly to fury. Sherlock lifts John’s gun, points it steadily at a target behind both of them.

“Jim Moriarty,” the voice croons. “Hi-i!”

John watches the muscles clench in Sherlock’s jaw.

The voice’s owner approaches, steps growing louder behind John, and John’s veins run cold with pure claustrophobic panic. Assailant approaching, and he can’t speak, can’t move, can’t even see the man’s face. May never see his face.

“Jim from IT, remember?”

Jim from IT. John’s jaw slackens in shock, and he does remember: a forgettable man, deliberately forgettable. The voice ebbs into familiarity as John gropes for the dim memory of a face to match. “The Jabez Biz case. I believe we didn’t quite meet, Mr Holmes. I know I met Dr Watson. How could I ever forget?” Now the man is at John’s shoulder, but John doesn’t turn his head. “Lovely to see you again, John. Always so nice to meet a fellow Lefty.” And now the voice -- Jim -- preens, tilting his head just out of John’s field of vision. “Bet you didn’t see this coming. Things aren’t always as they seem, are they?”

Sherlock says nothing, gun still trained firmly on the man next to John. Jim Moriarty, John thinks. The cabbie, so long ago. This is Moriarty.

Moriarty steps to the side, at long last giving John a partial view of his captor: a dark silhouette, an expensive suit, polished, slick. This man. This man, this mild-mannered IT employee, is their mastermind bomber. Nothing has ever made less sense.

Moriarty gestures at himself, then holds up one hand. “Not bad for a Lefty, hmm? I’ve just given you a tiny glimpse of what I’ve got going on, Sherlock. I’m a specialist, you see. Like you. A consultant.”

“Consulting criminal,” Sherlock says quietly. “Brilliant.”

“Consulting criminal? Oh, you make it all sound so sinister,” Moriarty giggles. “But I believe we need to have a little business meeting. One consultant to another.”

Sherlock takes one hand off the gun and reaches into his suit pocket, then holds up the memory stick from Joe Harrison’s flat. “I told you,” he says. “I’ve got what you want. The missile plans.”

“Oh, those!” Moriarty singsongs. He steps forward, blithely ignoring the weapon pointing at his head, and now John can see a slim, inconsequential frame, the back of a neat haircut, a ghost-pale neck against the fine collar of a crisp white shirt.

“Take it,” Sherlock says coolly.

Moriarty snatches the memory stick from Sherlock’s outstretched hand and holds it up, turning it between thumb and forefinger with the air of a child about to skip a stone. “Bo-ring!” He flips it offhandedly into the pool. “No, you’re wrong, Sherlock. That’s not what I want at all.”

“That’s not what you want,” Sherlock repeats flatly.

“God, no. Do you think I went to all this trouble for some run-of-the-mill classified plans? I’m insulted, really I am. Don’t you think better of me, after all this time? No, I know what I want.” Moriarty’s posture shifts, and his voice shifts with it, drawing out words as if pulling wings from an insect. “The undivided attention of the world’s only consulting detective.”

“I think you can be reasonably confident that you have it,” Sherlock says dryly. “What do you plan on doing with it?”

“Well, I couldn’t resist seeing you in the flesh, Sherlock Holmes,” Moriarty leers. “I mean, who could? Your cheekbones are the stuff of legend, and those eyes, I mean, don’t get me started, right, Dr Watson?” He nudges John’s bulky jacket conspiratorially, and John flushes with a mix of fury and discomfort. “But I thought I’d arrange this meeting so I could convey a message.” Moriarty puts his hands in his pockets, rocks back on his heels. “Back off.”

“You make that remarkably difficult.”

“All the same.”

“Why,’ Sherlock says slowly, and John’s brain races, careening along a similar path for once -- “why would you seek me out, construct these elaborate schemes for my benefit, if you want me to leave you alone?”

Moriarty steps back and leans in to whisper in John’s ear, the ear that’s not already fitted to transmit his voice. Blood pounds against the wall of John’s skull. “He’s smart, isn’t he? I can see why you like him. Always thinking.”

His breath lingers far too close to John’s skin, raising hairs on John’s arms. It sends the cold, violating lance of a shiver down the sweat-drenched back of John’s neck.

Moriarty straightens, adjusts his tie, and cricks his neck to one side. He glances at John with eyebrows raised, a knowing flash of a grin, before he turns back to address Sherlock again.

“Sorry, your doctor is so distracting. I didn’t answer your question, did I? Because, Sherlock, without a game, you wouldn’t have taken me seriously. You wouldn’t know what I’m capable of. And I do love playing games, but not everything is a game. Do you know what happens if you don’t leave me alone?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Let me guess. You kill me. How dull.”

John shuts his eyes. He feels a helplessness almost indistinguishable from physical pain. His head won’t stop pounding, a queasy throb of panic and despair.

The bottom drops out of Moriarty’s voice, savage and raw. “No, Sherlock, I will burn you.” The words curl with poison. “I’ll burn the heart out of you.”

Primal instinct bypasses all thought. John lunges forward and grips Moriarty around the chest in a desperate bear hug. “Run, Sherlock,” he gasps between gritted teeth.

Sharp corners of Semtex dig into John’s chest as Moriarty crows with glee. “Oh, very good!” he exclaims, as they sway, off-balance.

Sherlock doesn’t move. He glances up, watching the beam from the sniper rifle.

The pressure in John’s head might well break his skull. Moriarty will die, he thinks, bracing himself as the man struggles in his grasp. Moriarty --

The pressure builds, pounding in his temples. Moriarty, he thinks again, and feels a distinctly odd, now-familiar sensation at the back of his neck.

It feels as if his entire brain is about to sneeze.

Not that, he thinks. Not the knack, not now -- not with a sniper, for God’s sake, not now --

The sensation dissipates.

John is utterly stunned. He is nearly stunned enough to forget that he’s wrapped in explosives and clutching a criminally insane psychopath. He fixes Sherlock with an urgent look and wishes he could tell him what just happened, but there’s the business of dying to attend to. “If your sniper pulls the trigger, Mr Moriarty, then we both go up,” John grits out.

“Isn’t he sweet?” Moriarty croons, grunting as John pulls him closer. “I can see why you like having him around. So loyal. But -- oops!”

The dancing red light of the sniper’s laser vanishes from John’s chest. It reappears, instead, on Sherlock’s forehead.

“I’m afraid you’ve rather shown your hand, there, Dr Watson,” Moriarty says, leaning lazily back in John’s locked arms against the bulky Semtex.

John drops his hands, steps back. The laser dances back to the explosives on his vest. Moriarty steps away and brushes off his expensive suit.

No way out. If only John could think --

Sherlock. Sherlock can think. Maybe Sherlock could think for the both of them.

John shuts his eyes, hears the echo of pool water, and casts about for a ghost of the pressure he’d felt. It’s one thing to be plunged into a dream; it’s another to go looking for one.

And then, something: something wavering on the border of imagination, something not quite real. Just as quickly, it’s gone.

“Well, it’s been fun, boys, really, it has,” Moriarty says jovially, looking from Sherlock to John. “All good things, though -- you know what they say. Time for me to take my party favour and go home.”

John swallows, and with the act, a faint pressure returns. It moves indistinctly, first over one eyebrow, and then to the back of his head. It’s easier to recognize now, but just as easily slips away. Sand through fingertips.

Worst case, John could trigger the sniper with his knack. But he could trigger Sherlock instead. And that’s a chance worth taking.

Sherlock shifts his weight, steadies the gun.

A sharp, electric jolt rockets down John’s spine. His pulse jumps as a kiss of numb sensation trails through his fingertips. Hope and panic paralyse him in equal, overwhelming amounts. Sherlock, he thinks. Please, God, let it be Sherlock this time --

A sharp, quick intake of breath. “Oh,” Sherlock says. His eyes are very, very wide. “Oh --” and John can’t help himself, nearly grins outright.

His aim has always been excellent.

“You’re not going to kill John,” Sherlock says evenly.

“Interesting theory,” Moriarty croons, but there’s a note in his voice that gives John pause. “Especially considering he’s the one here strapped with explosives. But it’s a lovely thought.”

“You’re not going to kill John,” Sherlock repeats, “because you want to take him with you. He’s the prize in this little game. The ‘party favour,’ so to speak.”

John’s heart takes up its wild racket once more. He stares at Sherlock in disbelief.

Moriarty, for once, remains jarringly silent. The set of his shoulders shifts.

“Oh yes,” Sherlock says, a faint smile at the corner of his mouth. “These tests, these complicated crimes, the time limits, the careful clues. It all seems a bit too much work to lure me in, just to tell me to stay away. No, you had a different motive. You knew something. You wanted to watch us work. You wanted to watch John.

Sherlock takes a step forward, still training the gun on Moriarty. “You were interested enough in me at the outset, to be sure. Perhaps I was the original motivation for your little project -- it was certainly designed for my interests. But something happened, something that shifted your focus. You met John Watson and detonated your first bomb that very same day.”

“Brilliant storyteller, isn’t he?” Moriarty says, half in John’s ear, something faintly rabid in his tone. “Trying to flatter you? Make it all up to you? I’ve heard he hasn’t been the most considerate of partners.”

“You couldn’t resist leaving a clue,” Sherlock continues, his smile growing slightly wider. “A clever little calling card. Three left-handed victims. A hint that perhaps Lefties are worth a second look. Because you know that John is not truly left-handed -- and you know because you aren’t, either.”

Moriarty walks slowly toward Sherlock, three long, measured steps, and stops. He puts his hands in his pockets and tilts his head wonderingly. “Sherlock Holmes.” The name is a dagger, a sharp, dangerous thing. “Seems I didn’t underestimate you after all.”

“You’re not naturally left-handed.” Sherlock is in the throes of deduction now, an easy, rapid patter of speech at odds with his firm grip on John’s gun. “You’ve never been left-handed, have you, Jim? You were born as right-handed as anyone else, but at a very young age you must have realised it would be to your advantage to conceal your ability. You managed to fool the testing panel in primary school -- impressive, but not too difficult, considering that they’re probably not watching out for children pretending to be left-handed. And now you’ve played Lefty so long, your body has adapted, and it’s second nature.

“So you have a knack, this much is clear, and it’s a knack that would enable you to instantly know that John is not a normal left-handed individual. More than that: John would be useful to you. Very useful.”

“Oooooh,” Moriarty breathes, nearly bouncing on the balls of his feet. “You are good. Really good, Sherlock. It was a lovely plan, wasn’t it? I knew you’d fall for it. That’s your... weakness.” He bites off this word decadently, as if it’s a delicious joke. “You always want everything to be clever. Now, shall we finish the game?”

Moriarty spins toward John, sinking into a mock-bow, then straightens, hooking an invasive arm into the crook of John’s elbow. He pulls John close to his side. “I always did want a pet. I was never allowed to have one as a child, not after that time with the cat and the sewing scissors.” He drops his chin onto John’s shoulder and blinks up at him owlishly as John stares resolutely ahead. “How about it, Johnny? My... right-hand man?”

John doesn’t move. It’s building within him again, that about-to-sneeze sensation. John can tell, now, how easy it is to mistake for something else, how much it seems like imagination, some strange phantom hiccup of mood. But Moriarty has a knack, and apparently a dangerous one -- this is no time to take chances. John’s got to dissipate the pressure right now, unless he can be absolutely sure that this thing he can do, whatever it is, will find Sherlock, and Sherlock alone.

Somehow, without knowing how, he is sure.

Like aiming a gun, but no, not really. Like shining a torch, adjusting the beam, and watching Sherlock in the light, pale eyes like steel, one damp curl stuck slightly to his forehead. If they get through this, John thinks, he’ll brush that curl away, press his lips to that spot.

When he shivers, this time, it’s not a surprise, but the fact that it’s not is surprising.

Sherlock’s eyes widen, and this time he looks at John. The faintest arc of an eyebrow.

John nods, just barely.

Sherlock’s mouth twitches in a near-grin.

“One more thing, though, Mr Moriarty,” Sherlock says smoothly. “About your knack. You may want to use it right now. I believe you’ll be able to tell that John won’t be of much use to you anymore.”

Abruptly, Moriarty loosens his hold on John’s arm, then drops it. He turns, wide-eyed, to stare at Sherlock.

“Oh, and my brother might be particularly interested in your remarkable ability,” Sherlock adds. “Especially since, I believe, it’s gone undocumented. But I’m sure he could find a way to change that.” He pauses, and the hint of a smile steals across his face. “I believe you’ve rather shown your hand.”

The sniper laser continues to dance across the wires on John’s chest.

Moriarty drags a hand slowly across his face. “So nice to have had a proper chat,” he says, at last. He takes a few steps backward, easing behind John, and then his footsteps begin to recede, slow, deliberate, and then stop.

“Must say, though, I am a teensy bit disappointed. Dr Watson would have brought a little light to my workplace. So much more fun than a goldfish.”

A door behind John opens and clicks shut.

Sherlock stares at John, starts to slowly lower the gun.

The door opens again.

“Me again,” Moriarty calls, his voice once again soft and malleable. “I’m so changeable... that’s my weakness. Just wanted to say, I’d kill you now, but it seems so dull. I owe you something far, far more special to mark the occasion.” A soft chuckle. “These ideas do occur at the strangest of times. Ciao, Sherlock Holmes. Dr Watson.”

“Catch... you... later,” Sherlock says.

The door, once again, clicks shut. The red flickering light vanishes.

They wait for what seems like the longest beat of time in recorded history. Pool water laps quietly against the tiles. Then they exhale together, a single, shared breath. Sherlock darts forward, kneeling to fumble with the fastenings of John’s cumbersome, deadly outerwear. “All right?”

John can hardly get enough oxygen into his lungs. The vest falls open and Sherlock wrests the coat from his shoulders, flings it to the ground a fair distance away. The absence of it is bliss, a rush of air hitting John’s sweat-damp, compressed button-down and jumper. John sways on his feet. Fainting is certainly an option, one that isn’t far away.

“John. All right?”

“Yeah,” John says, and Sherlock is out the door, the same one Moriarty used, just as John’s leg gives out again. John staggers, curses, and slides down the wall, dropping his head between his knees. The earpiece is still snaked around his neck, a cord tethering him to Moriarty. He yanks it away roughly and hurls it toward the lifeless vest.

Sherlock returns almost immediately. The gun is still in his hand, seemingly forgotten, more limb than weapon. He looks paler than John’s ever seen him, almost clammy. “You all right?” John manages.

“What? Yeah.” Sherlock paces, breathing hard, and gestures absently with the gun. “That thing -- that thing you did. With your knack. You -- Twice. On purpose?”

“Yeah. On purpose.”

“That was -- that was amazing.” Sherlock stops, then, looks down, and grins at John. A big, open-hearted grin. The single best sight John’s ever seen.

Sherlock slides the gun back into his jacket, leans down, and holds out a hand. John takes it.

* * *

Life gets in the way, first.

There’s a cab ride, and during it, an exponentially long phone call to Lestrade which Sherlock conducts half-slumped in his seat, voice still lively, but body betraying him. John drifts in and out, watching the unfamiliar lights of the suburb roadway give way to the comfort of more well-trodden landmarks, London pulling them back into the centre of her beating heart.

After some time Sherlock reaches out, still on the phone, and draws John against his side. It’s chilly in the back of the cab, and John doesn’t have a coat. John lets his head drop against Sherlock’s warm shoulder, feels Sherlock’s hand close firmly around his upper arm. When he opens his eyes again, they’re home.

There’s the mundane business of paying the cab fare and fumbling with keys, because it’s bloody cold outside, and stumbling up seventeen steps, and shutting doors and shucking a coat, and then of course Sherlock’s phone rings again.

John starts a fire while Sherlock takes the phone call, because it doesn’t take much thought, and he doesn’t have much thought left to give. Also, he’s still cold, which is odd, because at the pool he thought he’d never feel cold again. He prods the newly lit kindling and straightens up to see Sherlock watching him with a solemn, unreadable expression.

“So how did you find me?” John asks, suddenly uneasy at the grave look at Sherlock’s face.

“Pink phone.” Sherlock takes it out of his pocket, sets it on the table next to him. “Last pip. Photo of the pool.”

“Oh.”

Silence stretches between them.

“Your things,” Sherlock says flatly. “You’ll be needing to pack, I expect.”

John’s stomach lurches. “What?” he whispers.

“Earlier,” Sherlock says, and he looks puzzled. “Earlier, you said --”

But he can’t speak anymore, because John grips his lapels and drags him down into a fierce, bruising kiss, rough enough that Sherlock stumbles and John’s leg nearly gives way again.

“You bloody idiot,” John breathes at last, craning up to smooth a dark curl away from Sherlock’s forehead and kiss the spot underneath. He’d made an appointment with that spot, and he was over an hour late for it. “Does it look like I want to move out?”

Sherlock’s brow furrows in confusion, but the corners of his eyes crinkle, and he chuckles breathlessly. “I suppose not.”

“Tell me if you need any help with that deduction,” John murmurs.

Sherlock’s answer is to pull John against him, hard. With the force of Sherlock’s grasp, John expects urgent lips pressed against his, but there are none. Instead, Sherlock’s long arms twine around him in an iron grip so firm John can barely breathe, and he buries his head in the crook of John’s neck.

They stay there for a very long time.

At last John feels Sherlock’s chest rise in a deep, uneven breath, and Sherlock pulls back a bit, looking down at him. “You said it to me,” Sherlock says darkly, bright eyes scanning John’s face. “And I wanted to tell you -- and I never did.”

“You don’t have to,” John says, finding it startlingly hard to speak.

“And what you said, about watching your friends die in front of you --” Sherlock says, but doesn’t finish.

Some time later, John eases his grip from Sherlock’s waist and looks up. Sherlock is watching him with a wistful, broken smile.

John reaches up, runs his fingertips along one damp, sharp cheekbone. “You okay?”

“Mmm.”

“Good.” John cracks a smile, just as broken as Sherlock’s. Sherlock relaxes his hold a bit, shifts his feet, but seems perfectly happy to keep John in the circle of his arms indefinitely. John finds he doesn’t mind.

“Just one thing,” John says, and Sherlock’s eyebrows rise. “At the pool. You figured out Moriarty’s knack?”

Sherlock’s smile broadens, and his eyes light with pleasure. It occurs to John that Sherlock has been waiting patiently for this very question.

“Yes,” he said. “I explained everything to Lestrade, but you may have been sleeping.”

“Sorry.”

“No, it’s fine.” Sherlock releases John at last, a bit reluctantly. He wears a look that John knows well, and it’s with unconscious understanding that John steps away to lean on his armchair.

“Moriarty’s knack,” Sherlock says gravely, turning to face John, “is quite simple, but rather dangerous. He can detect another person’s weakness.”

John’s brow furrows. “What do you mean?”

“Whatever your weakest point might be, your Achilles heel, whatever he could use to best exploit you -- Moriarty can detect it.”

“How the hell did you figure that out?”

Sherlock stops pacing, tilts his head in acknowledgement. “I had help.”

John flushes. “Yeah, but you had to be the one to actually work it out.”

A flash of a grin. “It was a simple logic problem. Given Moriarty’s behaviour, it seemed highly likely that he’d guessed your knack when he’d met you. But how? When you first encountered Moriarty, I hadn’t yet deduced your knack. Mycroft, even with his Analyst ability, couldn’t detect your knack. Moriarty, therefore, had to have some other type of ability that would instantly reveal your knack to him in an utterly unconventional way.

“So, what can we infer about this ability? The nature of Moriarty’s knack would have to be such that he’d be highly motivated to conceal its powers. And it would have to be one that could easily be concealed, as yours is.”

“Okay,” John nods. “I’m following.”

“It occurred to me, after you -- after you left, how right you were about your knack being dangerous,” Sherlock continues, and then cuts himself off in exasperation, waving a hand. “Damn -- yes, ‘left, right,’ pun totally unintentional, can we go on?”

“By all means,” John says, coughing feebly in an attempt to contain outright laughter.

Sherlock pauses to lean against the back of his own chair, and though a corner of his mouth lifts in a smile, his mood is serious enough that John’s mirth is snuffed like a candle. “Your knack seemed such a tremendous advantage, at first, but I -- I was wrong. It can be a strength, yes, but it can also be a weakness. And, since you couldn’t control it -- at the time,” Sherlock adds, “perhaps, then, more of a weakness than a strength. Your greatest weakness, in fact.”

“So Moriarty sensed my knack when he met me,” John says, “because it’s my greatest weakness?”

Was your greatest weakness,” Sherlock corrects.

Was.”

“Yes. I believe Moriarty had an immediate sense of your knack, when you first met -- near-instant, probably -- because your knack enhanced his ability to detect it. At that particular moment in time, your knack was your greatest point of vulnerability because it was unknown to you. And because it amplified Moriarty’s knack, he sensed it right away.”

John looks down briefly and studies his hands, still gripping the armchair. “That’s, er. That’s a bit much to process.”

Sherlock climbs over the back of his chair, perches on it. “Moriarty may have initially been pursuing me, but shifted his plan as soon as you came into view. Your knack could have potentially enabled him to be even more effective in his exploits.”

“Because he’d be able to read people... faster. More easily.”

“Impossible to tell precisely how you affect him, but yes.”

John nods. “Right. So all the cases, all the bombs -- why did he go to so much trouble?” He swallows. “Why didn’t he just take me right away?”

“For one thing, he wanted to distract me,” Sherlock says with a hint of guilt, “and I was his initial target, after all. His little game, as he called it, worked out rather in his favour, because he needed to make sure of a few things before running off with you. For one, whether you knew about your ability or not. And if you did know, whether you could control it. The more he watched, the more he could see that your presence improved my abilities. And that you had no control over your knack whatsoever. The ideal scenario.”

“God.” John rubs the back of his neck. “Makes me feel like a prize goose.”

Sherlock chuckles, and his eyes glint when they meet John’s. “Something like that, yes. Don’t take it personally.”

John raises his eyebrows. Sherlock raises one in return.

“You got all that,” John says, “because you knew Moriarty figured out my knack in the moment we met.”

Sherlock very nearly flushes. “Well, he also hinted at it quite clumsily during our little chat this evening, but yes.”

“And then you asked him to use his knack at the pool,” John says slowly. “Why?”

“Obvious. I could tell you’d managed to gain some measure of control over your knack, because I’d felt its effects twice in a short span of time. And if you have control over it...”

“It’s no longer my weakness,” John finishes. “I’d refuse to use it on Moriarty. He’d have to force me.”

“You become a much less appealing prize,” Sherlock agrees. “And I was right. As soon as he saw that things had changed, he decided his plan wasn’t worth it anymore.”

“Right,” John says reflexively, because Sherlock always is. And then, after a moment: “...No. No, wait, Sherlock.”

Sherlock unfolds himself from the back of his chair, walks a few steps toward the fire and prods at it with an iron.“What is it?”

John straightens, steps back from his armchair. “Moriarty would have had ways to make me work for him,” he says. “He wouldn’t have had any qualms about threatening me, or torturing me. That’s not the whole reason he left. There could have been something else.”

“He’s insane,” Sherlock says curtly.

Your weakness,” John says. “Sherlock, you told him to use his knack. He’d have seen your weakness as well as mine. Maybe --”

“Moriarty already knows my weakness,” Sherlock says. His eyes reflect firelight. “He said so. I can’t resist the lure of a puzzle.”

John tilts his head, steps closer. His phone, forgotten on the kitchen table, chirps.

“Mycroft,” he says, momentarily distracted. “Does Mycroft know any of this?”

“He will,” Sherlock says, managing to look only slightly resentful. “He should. Much as I hate to admit it, he can help you. World’s leading expert on knacks, apparently. A fact he would never let me forget.”

John’s phone chirps again. He sighs, retrieves it. The fire pops pleasantly as Sherlock sheds his jacket, starts to roll up his shirtsleeves.

Requesting your presence at a meeting tomorrow morning, 10 AM. MH

Have cancelled your patients for the next week. MH

John sighs, gives a weary laugh. “Seems as if Mycroft’s gotten word of things already.”

“Mmm. Lestrade’s doing, I imagine.”

Another chirp. Pleased to hear there will be no change of address required for your primary residence. MH

John reads it aloud. He’s grinning by the time he reaches the end of the line.

He hears Sherlock’s low chuckle from across the room. “That’s about the equivalent of Mycroft sending flowers, I hope you know.”

John laughs. “I suppose I should be honoured.”

Sherlock snorts. “He’s hardly worth it.”

Tomorrow, 10 AM. Thanks, Mycroft. JW

John hits “send,” sets his phone back on the table. The fire pops again. Without warning, exhaustion slams into him, not a slow, gentle wave, but an abrupt collision. He puts a hand on the kitchen table, leans his weight on it, and shuts his eyes briefly. “Christ. I think everything just hit me at once.”

He hears Sherlock’s murmured assent, and opens his eyes. Sherlock is watching him from the sitting room, and something about the set of his shoulders mirrors John’s fatigue.

Sherlock takes a step forward, nods in the direction of his bedroom. His hands are in his pockets, shirtsleeves rolled to his elbows, the top button of his shirt undone. The firelight casts his pale skin in rosy, shifting shadows. “Come to bed,” he says.

Despite his exhaustion, warmth rockets through John at the low note in Sherlock’s voice, battling the soreness in every muscle. A slow flush of arousal quickens his pulse, even as his body protests.

The most urgent matter, suddenly: he’s a mess. Before he can even think of how to reconcile the need for sleep and the need to rip off every last button of Sherlock’s white dress shirt, he needs to rid himself of the stink of chlorine and panic.

“I need a shower,” he says, more to himself than to anyone else.

Sherlock’s expression, unguarded and soft, shifts quickly to disappointment.

John’s eyes widen. This is all still new. He’s unused to seeing Sherlock this way, unsure, tentative. In this, they’re finding their way. They’ve barely had a chance to try.

There have been a few distractions lately.

“You’re, er. Invited,” John says, meeting Sherlock’s gaze deliberately. “I just -- my clothes. I smell a bit like the pool. And, er... explosives.”

Sherlock’s expression softens again, an endearing mix of nerves and relief. John gives a hesitant smile. “Only if you want to, that is.”

“I’ll join you in a minute,” Sherlock says, with a slight nod, and an even slighter smile in return.

Ten minutes later John’s vision is fogged with steam, hot shower water hitting him between his shoulderblades like some sort of heavenly gift. He can’t remember when he last ate or slept, but it doesn’t seem to matter. The dry crust of sweat and chlorine is gone, swirling down the drain with traces of soap and shampoo.

The bathroom door opens, closes, and a hand pulls aside a corner of the shower curtain. “John?”

“C’mon in.”

Sherlock steps into the tub and closes the curtain. He’s utterly naked, all long lengths of wiry muscle, a dramatic sweep of hipbones. Shockingly vulnerable. John nearly sways on the spot.

Sherlock waits, John’s body blocking most of the water, tiny droplets spraying Sherlock’s dark curls, his pale shoulders. “Do you need --” he says, muscles drawn tight. “That is, I --”

“Let me,” John says, bar of soap still in his hand. “Come here.”

He reaches forward, slides the soap over Sherlock’s chest, down the hard, solid length of his torso, back up again along the ridges of ribs, the deep vault of his ribcage. He sets down the soap, hands covered in suds, and draws Sherlock a step closer, running slippery hands down his sides; closer, even, to cup Sherlock’s arse. Sherlock’s cock is hard, rosy, slightly curved between them, pressing urgently against John’s belly. John wraps a slick, soapy hand around it, and Sherlock gasps.

Then, a dizzy dream of fog and steam, hot pounding water and warm slippery hands. Sherlock drops his head back as John strokes him gently. He half-groans, a low, helpless sound, and soon he is shuddering, spent and limp, his hands fumbling for John in the steam. It’s only moments before John follows, clutching Sherlock’s slippery waist.

They stumble out of the shower, warm, tingling. John feels as if he’s floating, no longer tethered to his body, which must have washed away in bliss and soap.

A few moments later they are sliding into Sherlock’s smooth, cool sheets, and John’s not entirely sure what he’s done to deserve this -- although maybe spending the day in and out of mortal peril should result in some sort of half-decent karmic payback. But when Sherlock slips a warm, still-damp leg against his and crowds close to him, John realises he couldn’t have conceived of karma quite as sublime as this.

“Your knack,” Sherlock says, his hands roaming deftly under the sheets, absently exploring John’s bare torso. It’s distracting in the best possible way. “How did you figure out how to control it? Do you think your control is... reliable?”

“I don’t know,” John admits. “It was a matter of... recognizing how it felt.” He tries to find words for the strange, indistinct pressure he remembers. “I had to realise that certain things weren’t just my imagination. Once I could identify the feeling, it started to get easier to sense it. And once I could sense it, at the pool, I found I could... dissipate the feeling, make it go away. And then I got a bit of a hold on how to direct it. Somehow I think it was easier, since you were the target. I think -- I think you’re an easy target for me.”

“Fascinating,” Sherlock murmurs. “Entirely different from my knack. I can’t make mine stop, but there’s no need.”

“It’s constantly active?”

“Mmm. With peaks of activity, to be sure.”

“Isn’t that exhausting?”

In the dark, John can hear the grin in Sherlock’s voice. “I don’t know what life is like without it, so: no, not really.”

John’s eyes feel heavy. He huffs a laugh. “That explains a lot.”

“Can you do it now?” Sherlock’s long feet are against his shins. It’s strangely pleasant.

“Hmm?” John may be drifting off. Sherlock’s words seem to be shifting into surrealism.

A smooth hand on his neck, skimming his shoulder. “Can you... set off your knack?”

John blinks. “I -- er. Now? Bloody hell, Sherlock.”

Sherlock doesn’t respond. Instead, he slides his hand down John’s shoulder and over his forearm before taking John’s left hand in his own. John’s pulse starts to quicken. “Unfair,” John protests, but Sherlock grins wickedly and draws John’s index finger between his lips. The resulting tapestry of curses provokes a deep, rumbling laugh from Sherlock.

“All right,” John gasps, as Sherlock slides his tongue along the next finger. “Okay. I can’t -- Oh, Christ -- I can’t promise anything.”

Sherlock releases John’s hand with a final swipe of his tongue. His eyes glint in the the faint light thrown from the lone window, and he nods in acknowledgement.

“But we’re doing that again later,” John adds.

Another deep laugh. “Off you go.”

John takes a breath, waits a bit for his pulse to recover. He tries to think of pressure, where it might have left a trace of itself. A faint imprint, maybe, above one eyebrow. A shadow of something in the way he’s holding his shoulder. All too quickly, it fades.

“Lost it,” he mutters. “Sorry. Hang on.”

But the memory of it is there, creeping back, and it’s the memory itself that starts to build, take form, and eventually have weight. And then it’s there, behind John’s eyes, pulsing gently, and all he has to do is aim. A torch, through darkness. He coughs, and the tips of his fingers tingle. Right hand, this time. Just a bit.

Sherlock’s eyes widen, as John knew they would.

And then Sherlock smiles, an odd little bittersweet smile that makes something catch in John’s throat.

“Did it work?” John knows the answer, but he still wants to hear it.

“Yes.”

“Well?” John shifts a bit closer, trying not to lose himself entirely in the afterglow of success. “What did you get? Anything interesting?”

“You,” Sherlock says.

“Me.”

“Specifically, us.

“If you’re going to be deliberately cryptic, Sherlock, I can easily forget how to do this for the next case.”

Sherlock sighs. “Mike Stamford.”

“Consider this your second warning,” John murmurs. His eyes, now closed, feel nearly as heavy as his limbs. “What’s Stamford got to do with anything?”

Sherlock’s voice has a smile in it. “Do you know Stamford’s knack?”

“No.” John knows Mike well enough, to be sure, but they hadn’t ever broached the topic. People tend to avoid talking knacks with a Lefty.

“He connects people,” Sherlock says. “Usually for practical purposes. Study partners, carpools. Casual friendships, if he knows two compatible people. Occasionally, he makes a romantic match, but it’s relatively rare.” He pauses. “I figured it out fairly early on, after I’d first met him. That’s why I asked him for help in finding a flatmate.”

“That day I ran into him in the park.”

“Yes.” A pause.

John’s eyes fly open. “My knack. Sherlock --”

“When you met Mike at the park,” Sherlock says, but John’s mind is flying, skimming over old voices -- “Come on. Who’d want me for a flatmate?” -- and his shoulder, his shoulder had hurt like hell, right there on the bench --

“What happens,” John interrupts, “when someone’s ability to connect people... is enhanced?”

Sherlock’s lips, against his forehead: a deep whisper.

This.”

* * *