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A Lopsided Symmetry of Sin and Virtue

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“You’re joking, right?” she says flatly, staring him down.

She’s learned to expect a certain amount of eccentricity from Sherlock. She’s learned to brace herself for random statements, half-hearted insults, stream-of-consciousness ramblings that don’t make sense unless she’s had at least fourteen cups of coffee, and flashes of utter brilliance. Still, no matter how prepared she is for Sherlock Holmes, he always manages to find a new way to catch her off guard.

Joan thinks she should be less surprised by his sudden, “Watson, we’re getting married!” and yet, here she is, cooking her egg and trying not to be astonished.

Holmes blinks rapidly at her. He looks rumpled. She’s pretty sure he didn’t sleep last night.

“I assure you, I am not,” he says, a hard T on not. He bounces up and down a few times, and Joan goes back to her eggs. She doesn’t want to burn them just because her partner, associate, and friend just sort-of proposed. She’s pretty sure he doesn’t even understand why she’s giving him the side-eye.

“Care to explain why we’re getting married?” she asks, flipping her egg. She smiles a bit, not that she’ll let him see. She’s using the spatula he gave her. Joan glances at him out of the corner of her eye. He’s practically humming with carefully restrained energy, and his fingers are twitching. The fingers are a dead giveaway. “I’m guessing it’s for a case?”

“You’re a detective now; you tell me,” he says. It’s almost automatic, by rote. She’s pretty sure she’s going to wind up beating him to death with a shoe one of these days, if he keeps saying that. It’s getting annoying.

She rolls her eyes. “Or you could just tell me.”

“And deprive you of the opportunity to flex your deductive muscles? Never.”

Joan wonders if you can give yourself eye strain from rolling your eyes too much. She turns and crosses her arms, looking at Sherlock. He’s working hard to keep himself still, but his fingers are still going nuts against his leg. His eyes are bright and excited, with unattractive shadows underneath them. She glances down. His socks are mismatched, he’s wearing his awful pink corduroy pants that he somehow thinks are a fashion statement, and his shirt has a coffee stain on the sleeve.

She sighs. “It’s a case. You were up all night, got the call this morning, and went into the station before I woke up. Why does Captain Gregson need us to get married?” she asks, jumping to the important part.

Sherlock beams at her. What little irritation she actually felt melts away at that look. She shouldn’t care so much about pleasing him, but making him happy makes her happy, so she’ll let it go. Besides, his smile is pretty adorable.

“Very good, Watson,” he says. He darts by her and heads to the refrigerator. She hopes he’s going to eat something. He looks like he could use it.

She finishes cooking her egg and slides it onto the plate. She carefully puts the pan in the sink, turning on the water and letting it soak for a bit. She’ll wash it after she finishes her breakfast. When she turns, Sherlock is right there, extending a glass of orange juice toward her. She takes it, smiling her thanks, and then grabs her plate, heading for the table.

He follows her, of course, and sits down as she does, still watching her. Joan decides to ignore him for the moment. Sure, she likes making him happy, but it doesn’t do to encourage him in being a cryptic bastard. It’s too early to deduce everything, and since he actually spoke to Captain Gregson, he can give in and just tell her.

He’s up again in a flash, and she sighs, carefully cutting her egg up. She knew she should have gone for a run this morning. It would have spared her all of this. By the time she got back, he would have been too excited to be mysterious and would have just told her.

When he sits back down, he’s holding a box of Cap’n Crunch. “Oh, that’s nutritious,” she says sarcastically as he plunges his fingers into the box and shoves a handful of cereal into his mouth. She’s really thankful that she doesn’t touch his cereal.

Holmes scowls and shakes the box. “It says right here!” he protests. “Part of a nutritious breakfast.”

“Part of, Sherlock, part of! Do you know what else you have to eat in order to make that nutritious? About a dozen apples and an entire eggplant. While jogging.”

He ignores her, as he always does- natterings, she presumes- and goes back to eating. At least he’s eating. She supposes she can’t really wish for a miracle. He’s a sporadic, haphazard eater, prone to grabbing whatever food is in reach when he remembers that yes, he is mortal and has mortal needs. She’s taken to tucking fruits and veggies in the places where his bags of chips used to be. He hasn’t said anything to her about it, not even when she walked in on him munching on an entire stalk of celery. She can’t decide if he legitimately hasn’t noticed, or if he’s waiting for her to say something first.

The trick to living with Sherlock, she’s found, is to never be the first one to crack.

“Well?” he demands as she stands up to rinse her plate off.

Joan turns, carefully draining the last of the orange juice from her glass. Sherlock is staring at her, the cereal box discarded on the table. She raises her eyebrows.

“Well, what?”

It’s so satisfying, watching his mouth twitch in frustration and knowing that she caused it. “Well, aren’t you going to ask about the case? And why we’re going to be married?”

Joan walks into the kitchen, ignoring him as he follows at her heels. She turns on the hot water and starts washing off her plate. Yolk is a pain to get off. “I figured you’d tell me in your own good time.”

“Aren’t you curious?” he asks.

“You’re the detective; you tell me.”

She knows she isn’t imagining that wriggle of irritation. Joan knows Sherlock well enough to know that he has a couple of modes of frustration. She likes causing him the minor frustrations- the ones that make his mouth twitch, his eyes blink, his body wriggle in an aborted motion. If she makes him dig the heels of his hands into his eyes, she’s gone too far. If he hits his thigh with a closed fist, she’s gone too far. If he goes silent, looks blank, walks away- then she needs to apologize. In the few months that she’s known him, she’s caused each and every one, but now she knows how to just get the wriggles and twitches. She knows which lines to cross and which ones to navigate carefully.

Joan likes making him come to her, so she brushes past him once more and heads toward the stairs. It’s time to get dressed. If Sherlock really won’t just tell her, she needs to swing by the station and ask Gregson. Maybe call Bell. But no, she decides, ascending the steps slowly to allow Sherlock the chance to catch up. Sherlock checks her phone. He’ll see she called Bell and decide that he’s won.

“It’s for a kidnapping and trafficking ring,” Sherlock says loudly, standing at the base of the stairs. Joan waits a beat, smiling to herself and adding one more mark to her side of the imaginary board, and then turns. Sherlock is staring up at her, his twitchiness vanished now that he’s told her. “They’re taking children and giving them to couples who are looking to adopt.”

Joan considers for a moment. “So we’re going to be the next couple?”

“I’ve always wanted children, Watson,” he says earnestly. “Someone to pass my legacy onto, to train, to hone their skills from a young age. I was thinking two. Really buy into the American Dream. We can get a dog, too, if you’d like.”

Joan laughs and turns. She needs to get dressed. “I think Clyde would get jealous.”

******
The full story is this:

Infants have been disappearing from their homes for three weeks now. A total of five babies, gone. After extensive interviews with the distraught parents, it came to light that all five families had received visits from a variety of service people that they never called in shortly before having their babies. Cable repairmen, a plumber, electrician, gas company, and someone who claimed to work for the one family’s apartment complex. They never stayed for long, realizing their mistake, and took their leave. Also discovered- all five families had considered putting their infant up for adoption, had even started contacting agencies, but had decided against it in the end.

“The only agency that all families had in common,” Holmes says, handing her a file, “was the New Life Agency.”

Joan skims the file. They seem legitimate, with the agency’s history detailed on one paper, finances on the other. There are pictures of smiling couples holding children in their arms, and a regal looking woman appears at the top of one page, the apparent president of the agency.

“They look like a real adoption agency,” Joan says, handing him back the file. Sherlock nods, an enthusiastic movement that never fails to make her feel nauseated.

“They’ve done quite an excellent job of covering their tracks. Which is why Captain Gregson called us.”

Joan knows where he’s going with this. “Because we aren’t part of the official force and therefore can go where they can’t.”

Sherlock grins. “Exactly, my dear Watson. We will be posing as a couple looking to adopt who have been unlucky so far with other adoption agencies. We’re desperate, they’re our last hope, we so want children.”

Joan sighs and rubs the bridge of her nose. She recognizes why he selected married couple as the best undercover disguise, but she doesn’t have to like it. She especially doesn’t have to like that he didn’t bother to ask her. Still. People are stealing babies. She guesses she can pretend to be married to Sherlock for that.

“Do we have aliases? Because I refuse to explain to my friends why I, Joan Watson, am suddenly married to Sherlock Holmes.”

He hands her another file. “You are Dr. Joan Dawson, successful surgeon. Your own history will suffice for childhood and schooling. I am your trophy husband-”

“Oh, you think you’re a trophy?” she asks, quirking an eyebrow at that.

“And you thought you were foxy,” he says immediately. Sherlock looks at her, his eyes big and innocent. “And how else are we going to explain my lack of occupation? I am your kept man, Basil Dawson.”

“Basil?” she asks.

Sherlock shrugs. “Americans expect quirky names from the British. Basil is quintessentially English. It was either Basil or Cecil, and I have a cousin named Cecil. He’s a bore.”

“Basil it is, then,” Joan says, flipping open the folder on her alias, not even bothering to comment on the fact that the name Sherlock doesn’t exactly help the image of the British having weird names. “We’ve been married ten years?”

“Ten wonderful years, if slightly marred by our lack of children,” he says.

“Am I unable to have children, or are you sterile?” Joan asks.

Sherlock shifts in his chair. “I think it would be better if you were unable to have children. If I were simply sterile, we could have always tried in vitro fertilization. We certainly have the money for it.”

Joan nods. That’s reasonable, though she can tell how uncomfortable it’s making him. She thinks that, if the situation had been different, he would have been perfectly comfortable with declaring himself sterile. That’s something she appreciates about Sherlock- no macho posturing. Lots of arrogance and posturing, but none of it built on some idea of what a man is. “All right. Are you going to have the same background as well? Because if so, I should probably know something about your childhood.”

The look Sherlock gives her is suspicious, but she ignores it. “Yes, I’ll have the same background. We’ll start briefing each other in a little while.”

Joan nods and looks through the rest of the file. It’s all pretty reasonable. She graduated valedictorian, they just moved to New York from England, which explains why there isn’t any record of them until recently. Gregson has people working to create a complete background for them, giving them an electronic footprint in case someone runs a background check. They met in London while Joan was on vacation. It was love at first sight.

She looks up at Sherlock, smirking. “Love at first sight?” she asks.

Sherlock shoots to his feet, walking toward his bookshelf and scaling the short ladder, pulling out an orange. He’s so obvious. “I thought that you might appreciate the reference to how we actually met,” he says, and Joan doesn’t bother to hide her smile.

“Of course. It’s good to keep parts of our real lives in there, make it harder to mess it up,” she says. It’s an out, and he takes it.

“Precisely,” he says, nodding. Joan goes back to the file. Apparently, she quit her job in the States- which she would never have done, but maybe Joan Dawson would have- and moved in with him. They were married three weeks later, and she began working at St. Bartholomew’s. There’s a list of vacations they’ve taken, pets they’ve owned, charities they donate to- she’s pleased to see that they apparently donate money to an addiction center in London- favourite restaurants, that one week where Basil Dawson slept in a hotel because they were fighting… it’s very detailed.

“You’ve put a lot of work into this,” Joan says, closing the file. She frowns. “Too much work for you to have put it together in the hour that you met with Gregson.”

“Truly, Watson, I am impressed with your growing deduction skills-”

“I’m not going to get distracted by flattery, Sherlock. How long have you had these aliases drawn up?”

Sherlock licks his lips and taps his fingers on his knee. He wants to move, but he’s keeping himself still for her. She appreciates that. She doesn’t want to chase him around the brownstone. “It wasn’t unreasonable to presume that we might find ourselves in this situation eventually,” he says.

Joan sighs. She signed up for this. “Just tell me you didn’t put this together a week after I met you,” she says, handing him back the file and standing up, stretching. She still isn’t fully awake, and she didn’t go for a run today. She’s tired. They were up until midnight last night, ostensibly organizing some of Sherlock’s files, but in reality bickering over classification systems.

“Of course not,” Sherlock says. “It was right after the coma patient killing people.”

Joan thinks about it. “Sherlock, that was just over a week after I met you.”

“But not a week!”

It’s probably a compliment, of sorts. That he thought she would be able to do undercover work with him, that he believed in her investigative powers so early on. Part of it concerns her, though. Did he really believe she would stay, that early on? Is she that predictable?

“Whatever,” she says. “I’m going to take a shower. Then we can work out the fine details.”

******
The fine details include, apparently, them not living in the brownstone while the investigation is ongoing.

“We can’t lead them back here, Watson,” Sherlock argues. “This is our home. If something went wrong- well. Our home has already been violated on two separate occasions. I would prefer if it didn’t continue to be a crime scene.”

He loves the brownstone, so Joan doesn’t argue it. She does argue, though, when she sees where they will be living.

It’s a house. A white house with a picket fence. Two bedrooms, one bath. It’s so… not them.

“That’s the point,” he says as he opens the door for her. “We don’t want it to be the home of Holmes and Watson. It should be the home of Dr. and Mr. Dawson, loving married couple.”

She looks around ‘their’ house in quiet disgust. It’s been seven hours since Sherlock announced their pretend marriage, and they’ve spent the entire time working on their story. Gregson, apparently, has been working on their house. He works fast. She wonders if this is a generic house the NYPD uses for their deep cover detectives. It’s the only way she can see it being ready so quickly. “It’s just… so normal,” she says before she can drive herself nuts thinking about it. “I mean, stereotypical. Average.” Which they aren’t.

Sherlock nods, putting a solicitous hand on the small of her back, guiding her down the hall. He’d warned her when they started really digging into their aliases that he’d be touching her more, trying to add those little gestures and hints of marriage into their interactions. He’d encouraged her to do the same, but Joan thinks that Joan Dawson is probably not that demonstrative in public. “That’s because the Dawsons are normal, stereotypical, average. We’re just your regular couple, nothing odd about us.”

Joan looks at their hallway (complete with little side table with framed photos on top- Joan recognizes one of her and Carrie and wonders where Sherlock got that, and if she needs to start changing her computer password hourly rather than daily) and glances into their kitchen. It’s everything the kitchen in the brownstone isn’t. It’s chrome and steel, an island in the middle, pots and pans hanging above it. She points at it. “Are we going to have to learn how to cook, to justify that?” It’s a fact that while both of them can manage a simple breakfast, neither of them can handle anything more complicated than that.

Sherlock studies it, then shrugs. “We’ll just say that I love cooking, though I’m actually quite terrible at it. It’s a family joke.”

“Your brother teases you about it,” Joan says, building the story. He has a brother, apparently, named Mycroft, though they’ll be calling him Michael for the charade. She didn’t know that before; now she can name all his cousins on his mother’s side.

“Your mother despairs of me, but secretly slips me recipes in the hopes that I’ll stumble across something that I don’t set on fire,” Sherlock adds. He’s guiding her up the stairs after a brief glance around ‘their’ living room. It was… boring. No mismatched furniture, no science experiments laying out, not a padlock in sight. A sofa, two armchairs, a rug, television- just the one- lamps… boring. So boring. Not them.

“I always try your attempts at cooking.”

“You’re humoring me.”

“You know I’m humoring you.”

“You’ve usually put the call in for takeout before you walk in the door.”

Despite the strange circumstances, and the fact that Joan is seriously weirded out by this house, it’s somewhat nice, building this story with Sherlock. He’s imaginative and she loves details, so between the two of them they’ve managed to create quite the fantasy life. She’s beginning to think that this will turn out all right, that they’ll manage to fool the criminals, that they’ll find the evidence needed to bring the cops in.

Then they reach the bedroom.

Joan knows she should have predicted this. They’re pretending to be a married couple, after all, and married couples have certain rituals. Like sharing a bed. Which they’re going to have to do, she realizes, quite belatedly, because there is only one bed. She stares at it.

Sherlock fidgets next to her, glancing at her with a worried look. “I made sure Gregson knew we’d need a king sized bed. I don’t- you shouldn’t- that is to say-”

“It’s fine, Sherlock,” she says, barely hearing herself. It is a very large bed, he’s right about that. Still, there’s something… strange… about the idea of them sharing a bed. He’ll be a perfect gentleman, she knows. She trusts him. But seven hours ago, she was just learning about their marriage, so the sudden transition, the reality of what they’re doing in the form of that bad, is a shock.

He’s still watching her. “Are you sure? Because I- I could have upset you, recently, be relegated to the sofa.”

Joan takes a deep breath. Sharing a bed isn’t the end of the world. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s just a bed. Then she gives Sherlock a smile, a genuine one. Seven hours may not be a lot of time to adjust, but honestly, Sherlock has demanded more from her in less time. “We aren’t going to be able to adopt a child if they think we’re fighting, Sherlock,” she says. “It’s fine.”

He lets out a breath that she didn’t know he was holding. “I dipped into my own funds a bit, made sure they were the best sheets. I thought you might rather like the steel blue colour, and the duvet is the same brand as the one you have at the brownstone. I’ve noticed that you’re partial to that one.”

Because of course he noticed the brand of her duvet, given how often he is in her bedroom. “Thank you,” she says. She walks into the room, running her hand over the oak dresser- full of clothes in her size, she’s sure, because Sherlock wouldn’t miss that detail- and looking at the photo on their nightstand. She pauses.

“Where did that photo of us come from?” she asks, pointing. They’re walking down the street, heads bent together, Sherlock’s arm wound through hers. They look- well, they look like a couple.

Sherlock is wandering around near the closet, making displeased noises, but he looks over to where she’s pointing. He purses his lips. “Detective Bell had it on his phone. Apparently we were arguing rather loudly about something, and he found it amusing.”

“Oh,” she says. She’s a bit touched, actually. When she was younger, Joan loved photos. She loved taking photos of her friends, she loved being in photos with her friends, she loved the entire thing. She liked the idea of a moment captured forever, something you could look back on and remember. When her patient died, Joan became less enamoured of photos, because they became reminders of happier times, of things you could never recapture. She likes this, though. A photo of the two of them. She reaches out, touches the glass, and smiles.

“It’s all right? I thought it might be difficult to pass a home inspection if there weren’t any photos of the two of us. Gregson has someone photoshopping us into a wedding photo,” Sherlock says.

Joan laughs, shaking her head. All the queasiness she had since seeing the bed is rapidly disappearing. “Of course he is.”

“It would be-”

“Suspicious, I know. I just can’t wait to see this photo. Kind of regretting that I didn’t really get to shove cake in your face.”

Sherlock wrinkles his nose and starts to head out the door, presumably to show her the rest of the house. “I can’t believe Joan Dawson would shove cake in her new husband’s face,” he says. She follows him, looking at the walls of their hallway. Lots of artistic photos, a few prints of famous art pieces. Not what they would own, maybe- after all, Sherlock likes to “borrow” originals, not prints- but definitely what the Dawsons would own. Showing off their taste, demonstrating to the world that they’re classy.

“True,” she concedes as they walk into the second bedroom, done up to look like a study. “She’s more subtle. She probably just kept slipping Basil alcohol throughout the entire reception until he was too drunk to stand up by the end and had to be carried out.”

“Wouldn’t that ruin our sex life?” Sherlock asks absently, examining the bookshelf. Then he freezes and looks at her, eyes wide.

“Please,” she says, rolling her eyes and joining him at the bookshelf. Mostly medical texts- good. “As if they hadn’t slept together a hundred times before they got married. Joan Dawson wasn’t going to worry too much about missing out on their wedding night.”

Sherlock nods slowly. He’s trying so hard. She decides to take pity on him. “Sherlock. We’re pretending to be married. It’s going to be all right. I’m not going to kill you for mentioning the theoretical sex life of Basil and Joan Dawson,” she says, moving to sit down in the chair at the desk. It’s a really nice chair, much nicer than anything they have at the brownstone. Joan wonders how much of this is just the department throwing things together, and how much of it Sherlock picked out himself. She doesn’t tend to think of him having anything resembling taste, but she supposes it’s possible.

“I know I sprang this upon you rather suddenly,” he says awkwardly, shifting back and forth and clasping his hands in front of him. “I can understand why you would be uncomfortable. Undercover work is unique in its invasiveness.”

Joan looks through the papers on the desk. It’s mostly a stack of bills. She wonders if they’re actually expected to pay them. “The bed threw me,” she admits. “But it isn’t going to be a problem.”

Sherlock watches her for a moment, tilting his head to the side. “I think Joan pays the bills,” he says abruptly, turning back to the bookshelf.

“I think Joan pays the bills because the one time she left them for Basil to pay, their electricity got cut off,” she says. “Kind of like our phone, Sherlock.” If he wants to continue playing this game, she’ll play along.

She thinks she isn’t the only one a little bit uncomfortable with this entire scenario.

******
They’ve only spent a day prepping each other, teaching each other their back story. Sherlock doesn’t want to waste any more time. He doesn’t say anything, but Joan can tell he’s worried about the kidnapped infants. So they get one day to shape not just ten years of a life together, but ten years of stories and shared anecdotes. She doesn’t know how much of the truth Sherlock has told her, if he lied completely, but she didn’t bother. She told him the truth about her childhood, because there was nothing remarkable about it, and she doesn’t have secrets.

Sherlock tells her about boarding school, making brief mentions that he was, perhaps, bullied, and he talks cheerfully about his brother (“Smarter than I am, Joan”). He glosses over his father, for the most part, simply says that they aren’t close, they’ll never be close, and that his father is too wealthy to be bothered with his son, as if Joan didn’t know the penny sketch already. Sherlock stutters out the story of his mother, Violet, staring at the ceiling the entire time, and that’s the one thing she knows is true. He likes to tell her what a bad liar she is (and she is, she knows she is), but really, Sherlock is worse.

They carefully edit their adult life, trying to create a cohesive picture. Gone is Irene and addiction; gone is a dead patient and the lost license.

Oddly, it doesn’t feel like chains being lifted. Joan just feels empty instead. Given that Sherlock carefully walks away and locks himself in his bedroom for two hours afterward, she imagines he feels the same way.

Gregson emails them their wedding photo, and they laugh about it. It’s professionally done and looks genuine, but Joan hates the wedding dress and Sherlock wonders who the hell they allowed to pick his tie. They immediately decide that Joan’s dress belonged to Sherlock’s aunt and was worn to please his family, and Sherlock’s tie got destroyed so he had to borrow his best man’s tie for the photo.

They move Clyde into the house, Bruce agrees to look after Sherlock’s bees, and then they’re ready to go, just a little over twenty-four hours since Sherlock announced that they were getting married.

******
They agree that they’re going to spend a few days in the house, getting used to one another’s routine before they contact the adoption agency. It would be pretty bad if they invited them over and they didn’t know where the can opener was. In retrospect, Joan wonders if that was the best idea. Sherlock is already anxious, muttering the facts of the case repeatedly under his breath as he paces around the house. They have two and a half days before they can actually begin investigating, before they can go to New Life Agency and meet the woman who runs it. Joan is pretty sure Sherlock will either tear the house down, brick by brick, in his state, or wear a hole in his stomach from the stress.

Also, getting settled in the house now means at least two and a half days of them having to actively pretend to be married. Which means doing married-couple things. Starting with date night.

“I can’t believe we’re doing this,” Joan says through gritted teeth, smiling at Sherlock.

Sherlock gives her a big grin back, his hand still holding hers on the table. They’d decided that Joan and Basil have a date night when they were doing their initial story building. They’d agreed that date night was Friday night, and that they wanted to keep the romance alive even after ten years of marriage. When they’d been talking their story out, Joan hadn’t expected to actually have to live it. The ring on her finger feels strange, unfamiliar. Heavy. Sherlock’s fingers around hers are warm.

“Date night works if we’re still this in love after ten years,” Sherlock says back, leaning forward and pressing a kiss to the back of her hand. Her hand tingles where his lips were.

Joan drinks a glass of wine while Sherlock quietly abstains. They talked about it in advance, making sure he wouldn’t be triggered if she drank around him, and he assured her he would be all right, that both of them abstaining would be suspicious, possibly lead to questions about addiction, point to Hemdale, and wind up with Holmes. Joan thinks he’s being paranoid, but he insists. So she drinks her wine and holds Sherlock’s hand and they survive supper.

They pick out a movie and sit through that together, Sherlock casually throwing his arm over her shoulder. Joan stiffens instantly, but she can feel how tense Sherlock is, too. Taking a deep breath, she forces herself to relax and drops her head on Sherlock’s shoulder. It’s bony, not really all that comfortable, but it seems to help him. She feels his muscles unclench, one at a time, until his head tilts slowly so it’s resting gently on top of hers. Joan doesn’t remember much of the movie, really, just remembers his careful breathing and gentle hands.

When the movie is done, they head back to the house. Joan drives (Basil isn’t comfortable driving in the United States yet, and besides, it’s Joan’s car) and Sherlock leans his head against the window. Halfway home, he reaches over and sets his hand on her thigh. Joan twitches, then remembers that it’s an act, that’s all. She takes one hand off the steering wheel and winds their fingers together. They need to get used to these casual things now so that when they do them in front of people she doesn’t tense up and he doesn’t look sick.

When they get home, Sherlock helps her out of her coat- and that, at least, is normal and familiar- and then follows her upstairs. The real test happens now.

Yesterday, after a dinner of cereal and yogurt that was about to expire, Sherlock sat down across from her at their kitchen table and said, “We need to talk about bedroom rules.”

Joan had nodded, and they’d sat there and worked out a plan. Married couples don’t change in bathrooms; they change in the same room, together. People who have been married for ten years don’t make a production out of it, though. They wear ugly pajamas and aren’t careful about how they lay on the bed. There are no strip teases, unless they want them, and there is nothing inherently sexy in getting undressed in front of one another. Sherlock had carefully explained that he didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, but there were certain parameters they needed to work within. They’d talked about it. At length. They should be all right.

Of course, in practice, things don’t quite work like that.

Joan steps out of her heels, dropping down a few inches, and kicks them underneath the bed to deal with tomorrow. On the other side of the bed, she can just see Sherlock carefully undoing his cuff links and setting them on the nightstand. She takes down her hair, enjoying the relief of tightly bound hair falling loose, and then reaches up to undo the zipper of her dress.

She can’t reach it. Joan bites her lip and strains her arm up further, and still can’t reach. She adjusts angles, comes at it from the top, but she can’t quite get it. She freezes, unsure of what to do. Detective Bell bought this dress, bought her entire wardrobe; it isn’t one of her own, that she knows how to get out of while drunk or half asleep. It’s new, which means learning new tricks, and she didn’t even think about it.

Then there are hands at the base of her neck, and Sherlock says quietly, “May I?”

And of course, Joan should hesitate, should wonder and worry a bit, but this is Sherlock, and she doesn’t hesitate, just says, “Could you?”

He does without ceremony. There’s no lingering touches, no warm breath against her neck. He carefully unzips her dress, one hand gathering up her hair and putting it over her shoulder. She can just see the glint of his ring, strange on his finger, just as hers is strange. “There,” he says, sounding satisfied. It’s the voice when he makes a successful and outré deduction.

“Thank you,” she says, and carefully slithers out of the dress. It’s a nice dress- she wonders if she can convince the NYPD to let her keep it, after. She wonders what they would do with it if she didn’t keep it.

“You’re quite welcome,” Sherlock says, and she can hear him walk back over to his side of the bed. Basil Dawson sleeps on the side of the bed closest to the door, he informed her this morning. Joan wants to believe that it isn’t just Sherlock’s ridiculous protective streak coming out, but she suspects otherwise, even if Sherlock did ramble on for ten minutes about the psychology of why Basil sleeps close to the door.

She turns around to grab her t-shirt from the bed, and Sherlock isn’t wearing a shirt, his tattoos on display (Basil got most of them during Uni, when drunk, except for one or two; Sherlock, she knows, chose each tattoo deliberately, was never drunk or high when he got them, and cherishes each one for the reminders on his skin. It is a difference between them. Joan chooses to forget the past; Sherlock never can). She sees his bare chest almost every day, given Sherlock’s tendency to forget about the importance of clothes, but never while she was standing there in her bra and panties.

Sherlock pauses for a heartbeat, and then continues what he was doing, deftly unbuttoning his pants and starting to pull them down. Joan blinks- he’s wearing his pink boxers, and she’s pretty sure Basil wouldn’t wear pink boxers, she’ll need to make sure Sherlock wears some of his more subdued pairs, maybe the ones with shamrocks on them- and then grabs her shirt, pulling it on over her head before unhooking her bra one handed and sliding it off through the sleeve. Sherlock hands her her sweatpants and begins folding back the bedsheets. Joan pulls them on, and then climbs into bed next to Sherlock.

They sit in silence for a little bit. Sherlock looks like he’s about to vibrate out of his skin. Joan looks down at her hands, and then clears her throat. “Do you think Joan is the sort to read before she falls asleep?” she asks. She thinks if she can bring this around to the theoretical aspect again, maybe they’ll get through the night without hurting themselves from holding too still.

Sherlock blinks and looks at her carefully. “I think Joan is probably exhausted by the end of the day. But maybe Basil does?”

Joan considers. “She did have a long day at the hospital. Meanwhile, Basil just sits on his butt all day doing nothing.”

“Not nothing!” Sherlock protests immediately. “He has quite the fulfilling life. He writes, sometimes, and he composes a great deal. He does all the household chores. Just because he doesn’t work doesn’t mean that he isn’t busy.”

Joan rolls her eyes. “Busy, maybe, but not as wrung out as Joan after a long shift in surgery.”

“You try keeping the house this clean while composing fugues,” he hisses.

“When we have a kid, it’s going to get harder,” she warns.

“I’m ready for it,” he says instantly, and just like that, they’ve found their characters. Sherlock doesn’t look like he’s going to fall apart if he touches her, and she doesn’t feel a strange clench in her stomach whenever he looks at her. They’ve been married ten years. They try to keep the romance alive, but that doesn’t mean that they still act like teenagers on their first date.

“Good,” says Joan, lying down and pulling up the duvet. “Because we’re going to the adoption agency on Monday. I’m taking the afternoon off work.”

Sherlock nods and lies down as well. “Are you settled?” he asks, and when she nods, he reaches over and turns off the lamp. His hand sweeps down, brushing some of her hair from her forehead, and he says softly, “Good night, Joan.”

Joan smiles and shuts her eyes. “Good night.”

******
After that, it’s easy.

They go grocery shopping together on Saturday morning, partly because they decided that Joan and Basil are the sort who go together, a sort of ritual, and partly because the NYPD didn’t get a chance to stock the refrigerator before they moved in. There are some things about Sherlock-and-Joan they bring to the roles of Joan-and-Basil. They argue over peanut butter brands, they pick out three different loaves of bread before they settle on a fourth, Sherlock eats some grapes which means they have to buy the entire bunch, even though neither of them like grapes all that much, and somehow they wind up with a mangosteen, which they aren’t sure how to eat.

The rest of Saturday is devoted to housework, because Joan and Basil Dawson care about how their yard looks, how they appear to the neighbors. Sherlock mows the lawn, and Joan is pretty sure he’s never done that before, given how awful it looks afterward. She spends her time in the garden, trying to figure out what all the plants are, how much water they need, and how quickly she’s going to wind up killing them.

(Inside, getting a glass of water, Joan looks at Sherlock and says, grimly, “I think Joan is actually the one who mows the lawn.” Sherlock nods frantically and says, “Yes, good, I agree. Besides, you were butchering the bed of perennials.”)

Sherlock cleans the refrigerator, giving her a sly glance out of the corner of his eye while she washes the dishes. Joan vacuums, and Sherlock dusts. They both polish the wood. In the bathroom, they both eye the toilet and bath with distaste and bicker for ten minutes about who gets to do what, just like they do at the brownstone when the bathroom needs immediate cleaning and Ms. Hudson’s visit is still days away. And just like at the brownstone, Joan ends up scrubbing the toilet while Sherlock makes faces at the bathtub and demands rubber gloves.

(“Are you certain I can’t just call Ms. Hudson?” Sherlock whines when confronted with the spiderwebs in the breakfast nook.

“How does Ms. Hudson fit into the lives of Joan and Basil?” Joan demands, her muscles sore from trying to get the wood floors buffed. “And we’re not putting her in any potential crossfire.”

He pouts, but he doesn’t disagree.)

It’s remarkably comfortable, and honestly not that strange.

They spend the evening digging through the case files as much as they can. Bell drops them off while they are cleaning up the mold in the bathroom, putting an end to their domestic bliss, as he calls it.

“The Captain is going to swing by in a few hours to pick them up,” Bell explains, looking at Sherlock’s yellow rubber gloves in amusement. Joan hides her smile behind her hand. “I know you guys usually like to keep your own copies, but-”

“But obviously that is not going to be possible in this case,” Sherlock interrupts impatiently. “Yes, Detective Bell, we are fully aware of the limitations and restrictions on our usual investigative style, thank you for your input.”

Bell rolls his eyes, not put off by Sherlock’s bluster. “Whatever. You want them now, or should I wait until you’re done making a mess in here?”

Sherlock rips off his gloves and practically trips out of the bathtub in his eagerness. Joan sighs and smiles at Bell. “Want to help me finish tackling the mold up there?”

To no one’s surprise, he declines.

The files don’t reveal much, overall. There doesn’t seem to be a specific pattern, the families aren’t from the same areas of New York City, and other than New Life Agency, they don’t have any common stomping grounds.

Gregson comes to collect the files later, and they’re left with whatever they can remember as their only information on the case. Joan doesn’t think it’s going to be enough, and she suspects Sherlock agrees with her, judging by the way he walks around the kitchen table for forty minutes nonstop.

That night, when they go to bed, Joan doesn’t hesitate, and Sherlock doesn’t freeze. They lay together in the dark for a while after they turn off the lamp, facing each other and whispering in the dark.

When she wakes up on Sunday morning, Sherlock has managed to jam his face into her ribs. She rolls her eyes and grabs his face, pushing him away. He flails awkwardly, and then blinks, bleary-eyed, up at her.

“Come on,” she says, grinning.

“What?” he asks, speech sleep-slurred.

“I just realized that Basil is the sort who jogs with his wife,” Joan says, and springs out of bed before he can begin to protest.

(He goes jogging with her. He’s awful at it. Joan doesn’t know how anyone can be awful at jogging, and yet, Sherlock manages it.)

******
Sunday night, and Joan can’t sleep.

Sherlock is lying face down next to her, his face mashed into the pillow, which is thankfully muffling his snores. Sherlock snores. Things she could have lived without knowing. He is also a stealth snuggler, which amuses her endlessly. He’s been steadily inching toward her in the last hour. If he keeps it up, when they wake up tomorrow, he’ll be burrowed into her side again.

She can’t sleep because she’s too busy worrying about tomorrow. Two days of playing married couple with Sherlock, and yes, they can do all of the casual things, but Sherlock has experience going undercover and she… she only became his partner two months ago. He’s fond of saying that she’s a detective now, but she doesn’t feel like it. Yeah, she’s put together a few clues, managed to solve some cases with Sherlock, but this is different. This isn’t something where she can sit down on the floor and pin up photos and yell at Sherlock to give her some constructive advice instead of being cryptic. This is going to rely on her instincts, and her ability to act. Her ability to lie. There isn’t going to be time for second guessing.

If she messes this up, children could continue to disappear and the NYPD will have no evidence to stop it. Joan inhales sharply.

Next to her, Sherlock jerks his head up. In the dim light from the window, she can just make out his eyes, huge and liquid in the darkness. “Wat- Joan?” he asks muzzily. He licks his lips and squints at her. “Are you all right?”

“What if I screw up?” she asks. Joan glances at him, but decides she doesn’t want to see his face. She looks back up at the ceiling. At the brownstone, her ceiling is pockmarked and has some strange paint stains that Sherlock refuses to explain. Here, their ceiling is eggshell. It’s perfect. She hates it.

Sherlock doesn’t say anything for a long moment. “Why do you think you’ll make a mistake?”

Joan sighs and covers her face with her hands. “I haven’t done this before, Sherlock,” she says. They’ve never discussed when they’re allowed to break character and when they aren’t, but she trusts that in the comfort and safety of their bed, before they’ve even begun the investigation, she’s allowed to call him by his real name.

She hears Sherlock shift, and then one of his hands- his left hand, she can feel the ring- grips her wrist and gently tugs her hand away from her face. He’s leaning over her, giving her a weird look. She sighs.

“You will be fine, Watson,” he says. “I never would have invited you-”

“Informed me,” she corrects immediately.

“Informed, then, I never would have informed you that you were doing this unless I trusted you were actually able to do it. I wouldn’t put children’s lives at risk simply because you’re my partner. There are any number of things that I do not believe you are ready for just yet, but a simple matter of undercover work is not on that rapidly diminishing list.”

Joan considers that for a minute. Sherlock is giving her his most earnest face, the one that looks like an anime character with puppy-dog eyes. It is actually pretty endearing, and he only looks like that when he’s being truly honest but isn’t sure people are going to believe him.

“You trust me,” she says, trying to find the underlying meaning.

Sherlock’s eyes widen minutely, and then he turns away, putting his back to her. “I did not say that, I simply said that you are more ready for this sort of work than you give yourself credit for, and that you should not worry.”

Joan smirks and closes her eyes. “Meaning that you trust me.”

There’s a long pause, and then he says, very softly, “Meaning that I trust you.”

It’s enough to get her to sleep.

When she wakes up, Sherlock has managed to tuck his head into her shoulder and has an arm slung over her waist. She bursts into laughter and shoves him off the bed.

******
Basil makes breakfast for his wife and, while she eats, packs her lunch. In part this is because Basil adores his wife and likes to make things easier for her. In part it’s because Joan has pointed out that Sherlock gets to sit around the house all day while she has to go hang out in a hospital with Carrie, which is awkward and frustrating at best, awful and her least favourite part of the entire plan at worst, and he had better make her certain misery at least slightly better.

What she doesn’t expect is to find a little note in her lunch while sitting across from Carrie in the cafeteria. She huffs out a laugh and shakes her head.

“What?” Carrie asks, looking up and raising her eyebrows. Carrie knows, of course, about what Joan and Sherlock are working on. Joan refused to let her think that she was returning to medicine, and insisted that she know from the start what was happening. Carrie was surprised at Joan’s career switch, but she hadn’t commented on it and had been more than willing to help out. At least she didn’t stage an intervention.

“Sherlock,” Joan says. When Carrie’s eyebrows go up even higher, Joan realizes that no, for Carrie, the name Sherlock isn’t enough to actually explain anything. “He put a note in my lunch.”

“A love note?” Carrie asks, her tone teasing.

Joan laughs and hands over the note. “For Sherlock, maybe.”

Carrie studies it for a moment, frowning. “It’s the electron configuration for oxygen.” She looks back up at Joan, handing the scrap of paper back to her. “Is that his roundabout way of saying you’re his oxygen?”

“Well, it’s that or he got bored while making my turkey sandwich. Either is possible, but I think it’s the former, since he’s being Basil.”

“Basil is ridiculous,” Carrie says.

“So’s his actor. Look, I’ve got to get going. We’re going to adopt a child today,” Joan says, rising and shaking her head at the entire situation. “Tomorrow, I’ll be Joan Dawson the entire time.”

“I remember,” Carrie says, standing up as well. Joan gives her a brief smile and nod, grabs her coat, and turns to go. “Hey, Joanie?”

Joan turns. Carrie looks uncomfortable and isn’t meeting her eyes. “Yeah?” Joan asks.

“Just- be careful, okay?”

Joan smiles. “Sure, Carrie.”

******
New Life Agency is an office in a skyscraper, and Joan takes the stairs, using the time to quell her anxiety. By the time she reaches the door, she’s too busy focusing on her breathing to worry about her performance, and she pulls on the handle without fear.

Sherlock is sitting in the waiting room. He looks over when she walks in and stands up immediately. “Joan,” he says, smiling widely. He walks over and kisses her swiftly on the cheek. Joan accepts it and shifts her posture subtly. Immediately, Sherlock comes around and carefully takes her coat off, hanging it on the coat rack.

“I spoke to Ms. Hammond,” Sherlock says, guiding her over to a chair and sitting next to her. “She says we sound like excellent candidates for adoption.”

“Did she explain all the steps?” Joan asks, reaching over and taking Sherlock’s hands. They immediately entwine their fingers together, so automatic it’s like breathing.

“She wanted to wait until you arrived,” Sherlock explains. “You’re early. We may need to wait a bit. How was your day?”

Joan wants to laugh, because Sherlock is giving her an adoring look that is almost a parody. She doesn’t think anyone would notice, but she’s lived with him for months now. She knows when he’s acting. “It was all right. I was a little distracted- worrying about today. This.”

Sherlock’s parody of a smile softens until it’s a true smile. He squeezes her hand.

“No need,” he says with simple confidence, nothing like his bluster when he’s trying to convince people that he’s right. “I’m certain this will go swimmingly.”

They sit quietly for a little while, Joan taking in the waiting room. It’s fairly bland looking. Beige walls with framed photos of children, stacks of parenting magazines, a few toys in the corner for any parents who bring their other kids with them. She doesn’t find much to deduce, overall. She doubts Sherlock would find much either, though, so that’s a comfort.

They don’t have to wait long. The door clicks open and a woman, presumably Ms. Hammond, walks in. She’s smiling broadly, her teeth bright white. She looks first at Sherlock and then looks at Joan. For a brief moment, the smallest moment, her smile falters. She’s puzzled by that, but then Ms. Hammond is walking over to her, smile back in place, already extending her hand. Joan stands, Sherlock not far behind her, accepting the hand quickly.

“You must be Mrs. Dawson,” the woman says, smiling warmly. “I’m Ellen Hammond. Your husband has told me all about you.”

“Dr. Dawson,” Sherlock corrects, under his breath.

Joan shoots Sherlock a look. “I hope not. He does tend to brag,” she replies, smirking.

Ms. Hammond laughs, a charming sound that is completely fake. “He does, indeed. He’s also given me quite the background on you already. If you’d like to come in, we can start talking about your adoption options.”

******
Ms. Hammond’s office is oddly bare for the apparent president of an adoption agency. She has a toy table in the corner, presumably for meetings between children and prospective parents, and her office walls are covered in photos of herself and children. But other than that, it’s almost an impersonal space. Clinical. Her desk is clean and clutter free, a computer, a stapler, and a desk calendar the only things visible. There’s an entire wall of filing cabinets behind her desk, with a wilted and dusty plant sitting on the top. Joan pretends to look at the photos for a minute, but she’s scanning for a security camera. She didn’t see one in the waiting room, which struck her as strange, but there should be one in here, where all the files are kept.

But there isn’t.

She doesn’t see a camera anywhere, not even any of the disguised kind that Sherlock likes to admire in his weird magazines. She doesn’t even see the sort of homemade hidden cameras that he likes to make; he’s taught her how to recognize the signs, after she taught herself to find his. In this day and age of constant surveillance, she finds herself uneasy that there are no cameras, no security at all.

Either adoption agencies don’t need them, or this adoption agency doesn’t want any record of what they do in their office.

Ms. Hammond gestures for them to sit. Sherlock scans the room quickly, and then sits in the left chair. Joan sits next to him, and he immediately takes her hand. To an outsider, she thinks it must look like a nervous gesture. But she knows he’s trying to comfort her, not the other way around.

“How many years have you two been together, Mr. Dawson?” Ms. Hammond asks, cordial and warm and not looking at Joan at all.

“Ten years,” Sherlock answers immediately, his own smile much warmer than Hammond’s. He looks at Joan, his smile growing slightly. “Ten very happy years.”

Joan smiles back at him, making sure it isn’t a smirk. He’s such a ham.

Ms. Hammond doesn’t take her eyes off Sherlock. “And it says on your questionnaire that you’ve tried adoption before, but nothing came of it. May I ask why?”

Joan squeezes Sherlock’s hand slowly. She wants to answer this herself. She wants to test something. “That was my fault, I’m afraid. We kept starting the process, but inevitably, something would come up with my career, and we’d have to move, or my hours become extremely restrictive. I didn’t feel that it was appropriate to adopt a child until our own lives were a little more settled,” she says. It’s the story they rehearsed, though this isn’t the full version. Basil Dawson also stopped the process once or twice for his own reasons, his own concerns, but Joan needs to see the reaction.

Ms. Hammond slowly looks at her. Her smile is like carved ice. “I see. And do you still feel that you’re unable to provide adequately for a child?”

Joan’s hunch was right. It isn’t just an initial reaction- Ms. Hammond doesn’t like her. Doesn’t like her at all.

“We were always able to provide adequately,” Joan says smoothly, giving Hammond her best shark smile, the one that used to scare away drunk undergraduates, “but now we can do much, much better than adequate. It’s why we moved to New York from London. The job offer I received was much more stable.”

The rest of the interview is… brief. Ms. Hammond addresses all of her questions to Sherlock, who doesn’t blink but accepts it as natural. The only indication Joan has that he’s as baffled as her is when his leg starts to bounce up and down. She presses her hand down slightly, and he stops.

They fill out their information for background checks, talk about the process of open adoption, discuss the timeline and how it can take years before a child is placed with them (although, Ms. Hammond says proudly, their agency is usually able to speed up the process a great deal, and they get to work immediately upon verifying the family’s eligibility), and fill out even more paperwork.

It doesn’t matter how legitimate it seems, though; she knows, in her gut, that something has gone wrong and that this isn’t going to work. She wants to grab Sherlock and tell him they might as well drop the façade, but she won’t. Not yet. Even though Ms. Hammond clearly dislikes her, they may still be able to salvage this, may still be able to get information for Captain Gregson and Detective Bell to make an arrest and find the babies. They can make this work.

“As per our policy of moving quickly and efficiently, we’ll be doing an initial home inspection this week,” Ms. Hammond says. She pauses and, for the first time, looks at Joan without Joan deliberately drawing her attention first. “That is, if that will work for you, Ms. Dawson.”

“Dr. Dawson,” Sherlock corrects again. His tone is still pleasant, like it was before when he first corrected her, but there is an undercurrent of steel now. Apparently Basil doesn’t like it when due respect isn’t accorded to his wife. Especially when the slight is deliberate. Joan pats him gently on the knee, admittedly amused.

“Dr. Dawson,” Ms. Hammond corrects. “My apologies.”

“Of course,” Joan says breezily, waving aside the slight. “And I’m available, naturally. I think you’ll find our home is immensely suitable for a child.”

She hates the house, but even she can see how perfect it would be for a real family. Ms. Hammond gives her the same cold, polite smile she’s given her the entire time, and returns her attention to Sherlock.

“In addition to the home visit, there is a mandatory counseling session. Nothing worrisome about it, we just like a psychologist to provide a written statement that, in their professional opinion, your home life is stable.”

She feels Sherlock’s thigh tense beneath her hand, but the rest of him remains relaxed and open, eager in the face of finally adopting a child. She rubs her hand up and down his thigh, forcing herself to look excited rather than comforting. Sherlock may dislike and distrust psychologists, but Basil has no reason to do so, and she’s hoping he’ll remember that. Basil has no skeletons in the closet. He has nothing to hide.

“That sounds fine,” Joan says. Sherlock relaxes, minutely, underneath her hand.

“And of course, a financial review,” Ms. Hammond concludes. And then, after a few general assurances and promises to contact them as soon as they’re ready to begin the entire process, they’re escorted to the door, and that’s it. Joan loops her arms through Sherlock’s, and they walk away down the hall.

When they turn the corner, she takes a sharp breath. Something went wrong. Something went very, very wrong, and it was her fault. Because Ms. Hammond was fine until she set eyes on Joan. She tries to think what she could have done to give herself away in those first few seconds. She tries to remember what her body language was like towards Sherlock, if every part of her screamed awkwardness and reluctance mixed with fear and determination. She can’t figure out what she did wrong.

“Not now,” Sherlock murmurs under his breath. He presses a quick, reassuring kiss to her temple. Just part of his role, playing the dutiful, loving husband.

Joan takes comfort in it anyway.

******
They talk about inane things on the drive to the house, stupid everyday things that any married couple could talk about. Joan discusses her day at work, talks about the two consults she did, smiles when she mentions her lunch and the note. Sherlock was too nervous to do much work, too worried about their meeting, and so he spent most of the day reading, and he talks incessantly about the themes to be found in Nabokov’s Lolita.

(Joan wonders what Sherlock thinks about Lolita. Basil adores the book even as he loathes the narrator, so much so that his hands spasm on his knees. She wonders if that’s something borrowed from Sherlock, a little tidbit of information. She tucks it away to ask him later.)

Then they’re at the house, and Sherlock helps her out of her coat, carefully tucking her hair over her shoulder. He walks purposefully around her, eyes darting everywhere. Joan waits. They’d discussed this well in advance. She knows to wait.

He turns and nods.

They’re clear.

“I screwed up,” she says instantly.

“No, you didn’t,” he says just as quickly. “I have no idea why Ms. Hammond reacted so poorly to you. I must have missed something. It’s my fault.”

She shakes her head, disagreeing but unwilling to argue, and grabs the phone. They need takeout.

She knows they can’t go over the case files in Basil and Joan’s house. It’s too risky. They already know that the car is bugged- Sherlock indicated on the way to the house- and while the house isn’t bugged yet, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t watchers in the bushes. So the boxes of information are back at the precinct, out of their reach. But Joan wants them. She desperately wants them. She needs to look at those files again, see the children that disappeared, look at the families, look at the evidence. She needs to know where she- where they- went wrong. What they missed in their frantic scan of the files on Saturday night.

She orders sushi, tells Sherlock to deal with the raw fish, and goes to sit on their strange, uncomfortably comfortable sofa.

She sits still for maybe ten minutes before she’s up again, frustrated.

“Sherlock,” she says, walking into the kitchen where Sherlock is, true to character, making what looks like terrifying enchiladas. “Talk me through this. What did we miss?”

Sherlock licks his lips and focuses on not burning the cheese. Joan pulls out a chair from the table and drags it over to the smoke detector for when he inevitably fails.

“I’m not sure,” he says eventually. “On paper, you look absolutely perfect. You’re a highly competent doctor with an impressive salary, you have an exemplary background, you attended a superb university, you volunteer, you’re- you’re quite literally the perfect woman.”

Joan leans against the counter, looking out the windows. She imagines that there are people watching her now. People who can’t hear what they’re saying, but can see the dutiful Basil struggling to cook dinner while his perfect wife watches and prepares for disaster.

They don’t know anything about the people who adopt the kidnapped babies. They don’t know if they’re in on the scheme or if they’re dupes as well. But Bell had found in inordinate amount of surveillance equipment in their purchasing history, which led them to believe that the adoptive families probably knew nothing about how they got their children. Which meant, Sherlock surmised, that the surveillance equipment was probably used to ensure that the stolen children were going to the perfect parents.

And Joan is perfect.

She frowns.

“I’m perfect on paper,” she says, thinking out loud. The enchiladas are on fire now. Sherlock is fanning them frantically with a newspaper. Joan wanders over to the chair and climbs up on it. She wishes she could say that this part was entirely an act, something that just Joan-and-Basil do, but it isn’t. Sherlock doesn’t try to cook much more than eggs and pancakes, the occasional stir fry, but he does love his chemistry experiments, and she has climbed on too many chairs and tables in the past several months in order to reach smoke detectors. She hits the off button just as it begins to squeal at her.

Then she jumps down from the chair and walks to the door, the doorbell ringing and announcing the delivery guy.

After they are settled with their food, carefully dividing up the sushi between them, Joan picks up the lost thread of conversation. “I’m perfect on paper, but something upset her when she met me.”

“Is it possible she knew you from somewhere else?” Sherlock asks, snapping apart his chopsticks.

Joan considers for a moment. Between college, med school, her internship, her residency, the first hospital she worked at and the second, not to mention being a lifelong New York resident, she has no idea where she could have met Ms. Hammond before. “Sherlock, I saw a lot of people when I was a surgeon. Unless I saw her everyday, or she did something particularly memorable, I’m not going to remember her,” she says, irritated.

“But there is a chance she knows you?”

“Yeah. There’s a chance. A small one, but it’s there.” She rubs her forehead.

They sit in silence for a while, focusing on eating. Five babies missing, no evidence except a flimsy connection to New Life Agency, and somehow, Joan existing may have messed up their ability to find anything out at all.

“I wish we could look at the files,” Joan mumbles, exhaustion making her clumsy. She drops her makizushi back on her plate three times in a row. Sherlock, of course, doesn’t seem to be affected by their setback, popping sashimi into his mouth and making a face.

“I could arrange for that, if you’d like,” he says. “It is a simple enough matter of getting the case files to your office at the hospital.”

Joan gives up on the chopsticks, grabbing her sushi with her fingers. It’s only five o’clock, but she’s already wiped out, and getting up to get a fork is just too much work. Joan thinks that even Joan would feel frazzled after an interview like that, and might just give up on the idea of silverware.

“No,” she says, popping her sushi into her mouth. She chews thoughtfully. “If they haven’t managed to get into our house yet, then they’re probably going to get to my office first. Maybe- maybe get it to Carrie’s office. I can have her ask me for a consult.”

Sherlock nods, smiling. “Very good, Watson. Very devious. I like it.”

After dinner, they scrub the pans of burnt enchilada together, Sherlock blowing a handful of soap bubbles at her and her splashing him with water. It’s childish, but it brings her shoulders down from her ears. Then they curl up together on the sofa, Sherlock laying down with his head in Joan’s lap, Joan carding her fingers through his hair while she debates on whether or not Joan Dawson would like Castle and decides that she doesn’t really care, because she does, and so they’re watching it. Sherlock makes a noise of distaste, but reaches down and pulls up a dog-eared and partially destroyed copy of Lolita and ends up reading, his book occasionally jutting up into her chin when he twists to try and find a more comfortable position.

“Stop fidgeting,” she says, smacking him lightly on the shoulder. He sighs, but does, balancing his book on her knee and tucking his head more firmly into her stomach.

She must drift off to sleep, because the next thing she knows, Sherlock is tugging her up and saying, “Come along, Watson, time for all good detectives to go to their beds.”

She follows him sleepily, his arm around her waist. He’s muttering under his breath about needing to get the case files, and she knows, even in her sleep-addled mind, that while reading Lolita he was really going over the case in his mind, the only way he can right now.

Sherlock is a genius, but he’s always worked best with props. She’s always thought it’s because his mind is too busy, that it must be like trying to find the one relevant signal within the static. He can analyze without files, without maps, without little padlocks and Clyde, but he can do it faster and better if Clyde has a red tape cross on his back to keep him focused on the problem at hand. Genius only gets him so far, after all. Eventually, even he needs to do his homework.

Without being able to do any of that, she isn’t quite sure how they’re going to manage it. She doesn’t rely on the props nearly as much as he does- he once said her mind was exactly like the scalpels she once wielded, so sharp and pointed and fixated- but she still likes them. She likes the files. She likes the photos. She likes seeing it all before her.

“How are we going to do this?” she asks, sitting down on the bed and tugging her shirt over her head.

Sherlock pulls his pants down, face thoughtful and eyes distant. “Carefully,” he says finally, and they turn off the light.

******
They originally estimated that they’d be undercover for four or five days at most. But Joan is thinking they may need to bump that estimate up to a week.

The adoption agency is being… problematic. Their house visit is scheduled for Tuesday, today, but then rescheduled for late Thursday afternoon instead. And the person they need to see for the counseling session is unable to see them until Friday. They don’t need to go through the entire process, of course, they just need to get enough evidence to convict them, but Sherlock and Joan both feel that it’s important to have a back up plan. Entrapment is good enough for Gregson.

Gregson brings the files to the hospital, but he can’t bring them all at once without it looking strange. It’s annoying. It means that she can only see them one at a time. Sherlock can’t see them at all. Still, he trusts her, and she’s beginning to trust herself, so she doesn’t allow herself to feel frustrated. Instead, she pours over the first victim’s files. Parents Angela and Jose Gutierrez, baby girl Selena. The parents considered abortion, considered adoption, and finally decided that they wanted to have a child after all. Released early from the hospital. Child abducted their first night home.

Joan stares at that bit of information for a while, and then calls Sherlock.

“Hello,” Sherlock says, voice distracted even through the cell phone. Joan smiles faintly and looks at the picture on Carrie’s desk of her and her girlfriend. They look happy together. She touches the edge of the frame, and then looks back down at the files.

“Hey honey,” she says, making sure her voice isn’t too syrupy sweet. They’re not that kind of couple. They’re still ridiculously in love, sure, but Joan Dawson isn’t a syrupy woman. “I was wondering, do you want to do lunch together today? I only have the one consult this afternoon, so…”

“Certainly,” he says smoothly. She can hear the sound of clinking in the background. She frowns.

“You aren’t taking apart the vacuum cleaner, are you?” she asks. It’s a long standing argument at the brownstone. Sherlock insists that he can make it more efficient; Joan and Ms. Hudson insist that he’s just making a bigger mess for everyone. Some days, it’s a miracle Ms. Hudson doesn’t take the vacuum cleaner to his head. If she ever did, Joan might help her.

“Of course not. Where shall we meet?” he says, entirely too quickly.

Joan names a restaurant she hasn’t visited in forever, boxes up the files, and goes to catch a cab.

******
After they order, Joan gets straight to business. “I found something,” she says.

Sherlock’s eyebrows shoot up and his hand tightens. She knows because they are, once again, holding hands. It isn’t weird anymore, the weight of his ring settling against her skin.

“The Gutierrez’s daughter was taken the same night they arrived home,” Joan explains, reaching to grab her water glass with her other hand. “If I’m remembering correctly, that was true of the Tucker’s son too, right?”

Sherlock thinks about it, his leg jiggling up and down, causing the water to slosh slightly in her glass. She doesn’t care. “Yes,” he says eventually. “In fact, Watson, all five of the children disappeared the same day they arrived home. Why?”

“Sherlock, the Gutierrezs went home early, much earlier than expected. There were some complications during the birth, and they wanted to keep her and her baby for a week, for observation. She checked herself out against medical advisement.”

Sherlock purses his lips, his brow furrowing. “So how, then, did our kidnappers know baby Gutierrez would be home that night?”

“They have an accomplice,” Joan says.

“They have an accomplice,” he agrees. “Excellent work, Watson.”

The waiter arrives, placing their meals in front of them. Joan smiles, thanking him, and grabs the ketchup before Sherlock can. He has a tendency to think that ketchup is an artistic medium, not just a condiment, and if she wants any then she needs to get it first.

“The next question,” Joan says, pouring herself a small pool of ketchup, “is whether they have multiple accomplices in a bunch of hospitals, or if they just work out of the one. Do you know if all the families were at the same hospital?”

She knows that he’ll remember better than her. He has his whole method of loci and regression thing. At least he isn’t rambling about sponge men or trying to shove people into trunks. She hands him the ketchup.

Sherlock takes the ketchup, setting it next to his plate. He closes his eyes and spreads his fingers flat on the table. He taps the table five times, pointing to invisible folders. He goes back and forth for a while. If anyone is watching them, Joan thinks they’re going to be pretty confused. He looks like he’s doing a really bad and offensive Stevie Wonder impression.

Sherlock’s eyes snap open and he grunts in frustration. “No, I can’t see it. I didn’t look at the files long enough, I didn’t have time, we were busy trying to-”

“Sherlock, I get it. It’s okay. We’ll just have to wait until either of us remembers or I get all of the case files,” Joan says, grabbing his hand back and smiling for anyone looking at them. They’re a normal, happy couple. Her husband may be a weird guy, but he’s her weird guy. “It’s not your fault.”

He looks frustrated and unhappy, but he lets it go, opting instead to dump ketchup all over his plate and steal her fries every fourth bite. She doesn’t stop him. Joan’s just happy they have a potential lead. A very open-ended lead, since it includes anyone who works at any hospital in New York City, but it’s better than what they had before.

After lunch, Sherlock walks her out to her cab. He’s frowning and looking everywhere but her. Joan pauses before she opens the cab door, indicating for the driver to wait a moment.

“Are you all right?” she asks, reaching out and putting her hand on his shoulder.

Sherlock looks up at her, and it’s a look of pure resolve on his face. He reaches over, cups her face in his hands, and kisses her.

It’s sudden, in some ways. They didn’t practice kissing. Not real kissing. They’d exchanged the occasional peck, forcing themselves to get used to it, but mostly they’d relied on cheek and forehead kisses. Simple, innocent, yet personal kisses that Sherlock-and-Joan had never shared before, but Joan-and-Basil shared all the time.

This kiss is… different. He holds her close, his hands cradling her face. Joan finds herself closing her eyes and leaning up into it and wrapping her hands around his waist to pull him in closer. It isn’t a plundering, dirty kiss, but it isn’t simple and sweet either. It’s… passionate. Passionate without being sexual, if that’s even possible in a kiss. Intimate. Joan can’t catalogue all the meanings of a kiss, not the way he surely can. She can’t excavate and analyze one. But she sure as hell can enjoy it, and Sherlock is…

Sherlock is a very good kisser.

One of his hands slides down to her neck, tugging her just a bit closer. He breaks the kiss, and Joan looks up at him. His eyes are enormous, and she sees something hidden within them, but then he’s leaning close to her again, and he whispers in her ear, “They’ve surely bugged our house by now. We will not be able to be Holmes-and-Watson anymore.”

He kisses her temple and helps her into the cab, waving cheerfully. It’s only because Joan knows him so well that she can see the barely concealed panic that he tried to hide from her before.

******
Joan goes through the rest of her day in a sort of fog. She’s worried. She’s worried about the case, because they’re missing something, something obvious and it’s nagging at her, teasing her by dancing just out of reach. She’s worried about Sherlock, because he’s probably worked himself into a full blown panic over kissing her, which is stupid, because they’re pretending to be married, and she’s just thankful that they aren’t spies or something having to either fake sex or actually have sex in order to maintain their cover (it’s possible that Joan likes clichéd action films, but that’s her dirty little secret).

She doesn’t know what she expects to find when she gets back to the house, but she certainly doesn’t expect to find Sherlock playing Pat Benatar’s “Hell is for Children” as loud as he can while he fails to make stir fry.

He looks tense and even a little bit sick, his eyes vague. He isn’t paying any attention at all to the veggies and tofu in the pan (Joan-and-Basil aren’t health nuts or anything, but they’re far more aware of what they eat than Sherlock-and-Joan; burgers for lunch means a healthier supper), guaranteeing that he’ll manage to light everything on fire in five minutes or less. Sherlock can actually make stir fry, most of the time. When he’s paying attention.

She sets her purse on the kitchen table, shrugging off her coat. He doesn’t look at her at all. He doesn’t even look up when she drags a kitchen chair over to the smoke detector and stands on it, waiting. He doesn’t flinch when the food begins to burn, or even when the smoke detector finally goes off, silenced a microsecond later. She steps down, ignoring how “Hell is for Children” is apparently on repeat, and reaches around him to turn off the burners. She leaves her chin on his shoulder.

“Get your coat,” she says quietly.

“Why?” he asks, but he’s already moving away from her and drifting toward the coat closet in the hall.

“Clyde could use a change of scene.”

******
Clyde doesn’t do walks, not the way a dog would, but they still put him in the little sweater that Ms. Hudson made for him and Sherlock holds him gently in his hands as Joan leads them away from the bugged house and toward the park full of children, a place where kidnappers posing as an adoption agency would imagine normal for hopeful parents to visit.

She asks him about his day, and he mumbles something about reading, still avoiding her eyes, looking up at the trees, the other houses, the preteens skateboarding past them and the parents pushing strollers. Looking anywhere but her. She sighs, loudly and pointedly. He glances at her from the corner of his eye.

“What?”

“You’re acting like I’m either going to collapse into tears or murder you using Clyde. Somehow,” she says. “Cut it out. We’re okay.”

Sherlock walks for a bit longer without saying anything. Then, suddenly: “It occurs to me that I may have put you in an awkward position.”

Joan snorts, reaching over and taking Clyde from him before he can accidentally squeeze the poor tortoise to death. “What, you mean by announcing we were getting married? Without even setting up an elaborate proposal?”

He ignores her. They’re in the park now. Sherlock watches the children running by, looking discomfited, and then heads for one of the benches. Joan follows him, smiling benignly at the children they pass.

“I should have asked,” he says, shifting on the bench. “I should not have presumed that you were comfortable with this cover story. It is a difficult position I put you in, and- and. I’m sorry.”

Joan rests Clyde on her knees, holding onto him so he doesn’t fall off. “You should have asked,” she agrees, and waits for Sherlock to finish flinching before continuing. “But really, do you think I would have gone along with it if I didn’t want to? Do I strike you as someone who will go along with whatever you say?”

Sherlock’s smile is small and rueful, but at least he’s smiling. “No. You’re an admirable woman, Watson. A blushing rose you are most assuredly not.” He pops the T off, one of her favourite verbal tics of his. She thinks it’s probably pathetic that she knows all his verbal tics and which are her favourites, but that’s life with Sherlock.

“Exactly. So stop with the brooding. It’s annoying. I wouldn’t have done this if I were unwilling.”

He nods slowly, accepting. “So you’re all right. The kiss- it was the only way I could think to warn you, and- but you’re all right?”

“Sherlock. We’re pretending to be married. I knew there would be kissing involved. I think the better question would be, are you all right?” He tries to respect what few boundaries they have left, and he is always distressed when he crosses them, but not at this level. She can only presume that he’s distressed about the kiss for his own reasons, beyond his misguided concern for her.

He looks stricken. “I- of course.”

Joan looks at him sharply. She can’t force him to tell her anything, she knows that. She’s tried, and all that has ever happened is that he goes silent and walks away and she has to apologize. And she tries not to let that happen again, just as he is trying harder not to pry where he isn’t wanted, tries to give her a modicum of privacy, tries so hard in his own way.

They aren’t perfect friends, the two of them. It’s been difficult, with mistakes and missteps and hurt feelings all around. But they are friends, and even though they’ve only known each other for months, Joan feels like she’s known him for years. She trusts him more than she trusts anyone else. She trusts him to be honest with her when he can be, and to lie in astoundingly awful, obvious ways. She trusts him to screw up, and she trusts that he’ll apologize, in his own way and in his own time. She trusts that he’ll forgive her for her own truths and lies, her own mistakes and faulty, stammering apologies. She trusts that, no matter what happens, they’ll remain friends.

They may not be perfect friends, but Joan sometimes thinks that maybe he’s her best friend, her closest friend, that one friend that everyone always talks about that she’s never been able to find.

He blanches under her look and looks back out at the people passing them by. “I do not want to force you into anything you feel uncomfortable with,” he says softly.

“You’re not,” she says bluntly. “I trust you.”

Sherlock glances at her, and the look on his face is familiar. He really only directs it at her, that’s she’s seen, but she imagines that maybe his brother saw it, once. Probably Irene. It’s the look that says I can’t say it, but I need you, and Joan knows what to do. She holds Clyde in one hand and, very carefully, reaches over and rests her fingertips on his wrist. It isn’t a Joan-and-Basil gesture. This one is theirs, and theirs alone.

******
When they get back to the house, Sherlock helps her out of her coat and brushes a kiss against her cheek, and she wraps her hand in his while they sit on the couch together.

It feels very, very normal. Joan ignores the feeling.

******
She gets a second case file the next day. The Mitra family had their son at the same hospital as the Gutierrezs. Joan bites her lip and stares down at the sheet of paper she’s making notes on. Both families were at the same hospital. If both the Mitras and the Gutierrezs were, it’s probably a good guess that they all were. Especially since the Mitras and the Gutierrezs had nothing else in common. She’s tempted to call Sherlock and let him know, but the house is bugged, even if Carrie’s office isn’t. Besides, he hates guesses, and that’s all she has right now.

She can’t understand why an adoption agency would feel the need to kidnap children. Joan knows all too well that there are plenty of unloved, parentless children in the world. Too many. An adoption agency has the pick, really, and Gregson assured Sherlock and herself that Ms. Hammond’s credentials were quite legitimate. She’s been running the adoption agency for thirteen years now. She isn’t stealing children because she has no other access to them. And she isn’t keeping them for herself- Bell and Carrie are “dating” for the duration of the case (much to the amusement of Carrie’s girlfriend) and he’d passed along through her that Ms. Hammond is single and childless.

They’re missing a motive, in addition to just missing children.

Joan sighs and rubs her eyes. She didn’t sleep well last night, turning over the facts of the case in her head over and over again, remembering Ms. Hammond’s frozen smile. She’s surprised Sherlock is sleeping so well. She was expecting him to be up pacing, but he’s gone to sleep every night, twisting around her and ending up half on top of her by morning. It’s nice, in a way. Like a heavy blanket. That snores.

She tosses her glasses onto the table and pushes the files to the side. She isn’t going to learn anything new just by staring at pictures and words. Her cell phone goes off, and she slides the accept button without looking as she carefully stacks the files.

“Dr. Dawson,” she says.

“Dr. Dawson, so glad I could reach you!”

Joan straightens in shock. It’s Ms. Hammond, sounding falsely chipper. She forces a smile onto her face. “Ms. Hammond, hello. What can I do for you?”

“Well, our counselor was able to switch some appointments around, and we were able to find time for you and your husband. Do you think you could be here in an hour?”

Joan glances at the clock instinctively, but knows perfectly well that an hour from now is still the middle of her workday. It’s a test, she decides. “Well, it’s the middle of my workday, but I can make it happen,” she says firmly. “Have you spoken to my husband yet?”

“No, we thought we should check with you first,” Ms. Hammond replies. Some of the chipperness has left her voice. Joan smirks. It was a test, she was right. They were hoping to disqualify them because of Joan’s job, which would make their investigation about eighteen times harder. But she passed.

“I’ll just give him a call. An hour, then, in your office?”

After Joan hangs up, she calls Sherlock immediately, already tugging on her coat and heading for the elevator. “Hi honey,” she says when he answers. “Guess what? The counselor was able to make room for us. I need you to get to the agency.”

Joan can imagine Sherlock freezing for a moment, and then forcing himself to relax. “I’ll be there,” he promises. “Did Ms. Hammond say anything else?”

Joan hits the down button in the elevator and watches the floors light up as she passes them. “I think she was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make it because of my job.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, but I put that to rest quickly enough.”

She can feel Sherlock’s smirk through the phone. “Good for you.”

******
To say that Sherlock is tense is an understatement.

She’d read his file, of course. Clinically depressed, refused counseling, refused medication. And even though this is a different type of counseling, she can feel the tension vibrating off of him as they sit in the waiting room. He’s pale and sweating, his eyes are darting everywhere and resting nowhere, and his fingers have long since given up on the semblance of a beat. They’re twitching and jumping against his leg.

Joan checks her watch. They still have twenty minutes before the appointment is supposed to start. She walks over to the receptionist and smiles. “If the counselor is finished earlier, could you please come get my husband and me? We’ll be in the hallway.”

The receptionist, a tiny looking woman with wide, terrified eyes, gives her a small smile. “Of course, ma’am,” she says. Joan nods her thanks, and then goes and drags Sherlock out of the room by his sleeve.

“You need to calm down,” she hisses, hoping that they look like a tense, nervous couple talking through their anxieties.

“I do not like shrinks, Watson,” he whispers, looking past her.

Joan rolls her eyes, saying as quietly as she can, “Tell me something I don’t know. I know that you, Sherlock, do not like counselors. But you are not Sherlock right now. You are Basil. And Basil? Basil fucking loves them.”

Sherlock’s glare is withering, but Joan has experienced worse. “I appreciate your efforts, Watson, but-”

“No buts,” Joan says firmly. She studies him carefully. He’s pale- very pale. His mouth is pinched at the corners, and he isn’t looking at her. He looks, frankly, like he’s going to puke. She sighs and tilts herself forward slightly, letting her forehead rest on his clavicle. Joan Dawson would do that. And if Joan Dawson would do that, maybe she can drag Sherlock into playing pretend with her.

After a moment, his arms wrap around her and his chin drops down on top of her head. She bites her smile back.

“There are five infants missing,” she murmurs into his chest, letting his godawful sweater mask her words from anyone who might overhear. Unfortunately, Basil and Sherlock do share the same taste in outfits.

“I know,” he says softly.

“And I know that you hate shrinks. I know, Sherlock, I know. But I need you to pretend. For them. I know it will be hard. But five infants are missing, and their parents want them home.”

His sigh ruffles her hair. “I will try.”

She pulls back slightly, looking up at him. She opted for flats today, always a mistake. “If I have managed to not blow our cover, despite my lack of training and inability to lie convincingly, then I’m pretty sure you can manage this.” Over his shoulder, she sees Ms. Hammond. Watching them. Her face is cold. Joan swallows tightly, then stands on her toes and kisses Sherlock, gently pulling him into her.

This time, he kisses like a drowning man. His hands tighten around her coat, and he makes a small keening noise in the back of his throat. Joan holds on, as best as she can. When he pulls back, eyes as huge and alarmed as ever, she puts a hand on his cheek, her other hand lingering on his waist. “If you apologize,” she says with a soft smile, “I will punch you in the face.”

******
When they get to the house, Sherlock vanishes up to the study, locking the door behind him before Joan can grab the doorknob and let herself in. She kicks the door in frustration and then goes downstairs.

The counseling session went just fine. Neither of them made any mistakes, their stories matched, no red flags were raised. Sherlock was charming, witty, compassionate and generous. He laughed, throwing his head back. He smiled, warmly and openly. He told funny stories. He doted upon her, the perfect model of a husband. The counselor assured them that he would be recommending them for the next step.

Sherlock held her hand the entire time, squeezing so tightly she was concerned he might accidentally break her fingers. She wonders what it cost him, to perform so admirably.

She wanders into the living room, looking at the scattered bits and pieces of Basil throughout the day. Lolita is on the ground, bent open to where he left off. His violin is on the sofa, pieces of paper with music notes on them on the mantelpiece. Joan sighs and starts to pick everything up. She stacks the papers neatly and puts them on one of the armchairs, moving the violin to join them. Then she picks Lolita up off the ground and starts to read it from where he left off.

She has never liked the book. She understands its importance to literature, she understands the ideas and themes and reasons behind writing it, but whenever she tries to read it, it just makes her feel sick. Intellectually, she can understand it. Viscerally, she wants to throw the book at the wall. She doesn’t know how Sherlock, a man who so clearly detests crimes against children, can stomach this book.

She’s still reading it, an hour later, when Sherlock finally appears. He sits down on the sofa next to her and then, slowly, lays down, his head in her lap.

“Do you want me to read to you?” she asks quietly.

“No, thank you,” Sherlock mutters, turning his face so that she can just barely hear him. “I actually rather loathe that book.”

They wind up falling asleep on the sofa that night, curled around each other and a book that neither of them particularly like, but both are drawn to.

******
She wakes up when Sherlock tries to slide off of her stealthily and fails, his murmured curses the first thing she hears. She rolls over onto her side, opening her eyes just enough to see him sitting on the floor, his back against the sofa.

“You okay?” she asks sleepily, letting her hand fall down from her hip and land on his shoulder. He reaches up and squeezes her hand briefly. She can only see his profile, but she can see the spasms of anger that he’s trying to control. “What’s wrong?” she asks, feeling slightly more awake.

She can see him try to figure out what to say, that will explain what he’s feeling but also be in character for Basil. “It’s not going fast enough,” he says finally, the words sharp.

“Basil-”

“No,” he says, clambering to his feet. Lolita falls on the floor between them. He shudders, absorbing some aborted movement, and looks down at her. His eyes are shadowed. She wonders if he isn’t sleeping as well as she thought he was. “No, it’s not fast enough, it isn’t, and- and it isn’t going to work. I can’t work like this. There are- there are too many things- and I cannot-”

“It’s out of our hands,” she says, sitting up and pushing her hair out of her face.

He lets out a bitter laugh, but doesn’t say anything. Joan looks at him for a moment. She can’t take him to the park right now, and it’s too early to get to a restaurant. There’s only one way they can talk openly.

“C’mon,” she says, taking his hand. He automatically laces their fingers together, frowning at her, but he goes with her, up the stairs and into the bathroom. She closes the door, reaches over and turns on the shower to an acceptable temperature, and then reaches over and pulls Sherlock’s sweater over his head.

“What are you doing!” he yelps, and she rolls her eyes.

“Shut up. Get down to your boxers.” When he hesitates, she reaches for him again, but he dances out of her reach and quickly takes off his pants and peels his socks off (boring white ones- Basil doesn’t have the same appreciation for zany, weird ones that Sherlock does). As soon as he’s done, Joan pushes him into the shower, pulling her own shirt and pants off and getting in with him.

“Now,” she says, “we can talk without anyone hearing us.”

Sherlock stares at her for a moment, water dripping from his eyelashes, and she sees honest admiration bloom on his face. “Watson, you truly are a clever, clever woman.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a reason you like me. What’s wrong?”

Sherlock shifts awkwardly, wiping some water off his face. He’s back to rocking side to side, his arms crossed across his chest as though to protect his modesty. She doesn’t know why he’s worried. She’s the one getting her good bra sopping wet.

“They are going to take another child before we can solve this, and I find the very idea of- of sitting in this hateful house, waiting for it to happen, disgusting,” he says finally.

“This was your idea,” she points out.

“What if I was wrong, Watson?” he asks. He looks at her then, for a brief moment, before his eyes skitter away. “What if they aren’t being given to new families? What if they’re- what if they’re dead? Or being… harmed. What if there are five dead infants, not five missing ones, and I am sitting here, doing nothing.”

Joan doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know what to say. She knows, intellectually, that she shouldn’t touch him, but she throws all that aside and, carefully, hugs him. He goes still when she wraps her arms around him, but he doesn’t pull away and he doesn’t get worse. After a beat, he stiffly puts his arms around her. When he hugs her as Basil, he’s smooth and comfortable, and she can tell it’s all an act. She knows it’s Sherlock hugging her, because she can feel the tension vibrating in his shoulders as he tries to hold still for her. She knows it’s Sherlock-and-Joan, not Joan-and-Basil, because it’s awkward and messy and perfect in its imperfections.

“Watson, they’re going to take a baby from its parents, and we will not have solved this, we will have no proof, and it’s my fault. I thought they would want us to be the parents, that at the very least, we would end up with a kidnapped child and that would be evidence enough, but it’s all bollocksed up now, and- and this was not, I think, the best idea.” He says it quietly, hopelessly. She tightens her arms around him.

“Too late now,” she says firmly. She backs away from him, and he lets her go, watching her with a hollow, distant look. “Sherlock, we’re close. I can feel that we’re close. You have to trust me to find whatever we need to find in those files and to tell you. You said you trust me. Do you trust me?”

“I-”

“Do you. Trust me?”

Sherlock studies her face, but doesn’t say a word. Joan starts to feel something tighten in her chest, recognizes it as disappointment, but then Sherlock nods. “Of course I trust you,” he says. “It is not you with whom I am angry.”

Joan runs her fingers through her wet hair and nods. “I know you’re upset about the kids,” she says, “and I know it’s driving you nuts to sit here all day and think about the case without being able to do anything about it. But we’re learning more and more about Hammond each time we meet with her, and there’s something in the files that I’m missing right now, but I’ll get it. We’re going to solve this.”

She waits until he nods, staring down at his feet. “Yes,” he says. “I know.”

Then he looks up at her, some of the panic faded, and looks around. “Watson, I am very wet,” he says.

She splutters out a laugh, and shoves him gently. “Get out. I need to get a shower, and you are not watching.”

******
It’s Thursday, and they still don’t have any solid information about the agency or the children. The third case file on Miss Khan and her baby reveals the same hospital as the other two, so they know there is a hospital connection. There doesn’t seem to be a preference for males or females. Gregson and Bell have had no luck finding the children, so they have no leads on that end.

Joan stares at the paper, knowing she’s missing something important. She needs to figure this out. Preferably before Sherlock manages to tear himself and everything around him apart. He’s trusting her to find the connection that he can’t see; trusting her to look at files he can’t have and use what he taught her and her own innate skills to solve the case, find the babies.

Save the day.

She gets the call around three.

“Dr. Dawson,” she says, carefully signing some paperwork.

“Joan,” Sherlock says warmly. “I just received a call from Ms. Hammond.”

“When do I have to be home?” she asks, already shoving things into her purse.

“If you can make it here in twenty minutes, you’ll be here ten minutes before our house visit begins.”

Joan remembers Hammond’s cold look from yesterday, thinks about Sherlock’s crazed look this morning, and questions how much longer they can do this.

******
Joan makes it to the house with five minutes to spare. Sherlock helps her out of her coat quickly and hustles her into the kitchen, which smells- actually, very good. Not like death and burning at all. More like chocolate chip cookies. Joan gives him a suspicious look.

“Why do I smell cookies?”

“Observe and deduce, my dear-” he says, and then catches himself. “Because I baked cookies.”

Joan imagines this is probably something that Joan Dawson has learned about her husband over the past ten years, so rather than pointing out that he has been holding out on her (which he has, and he’d better believe that he’ll be making a batch or two once they’re back home), she tips her head back and he obligingly gives her a quick kiss on the lips.

She grabs a cookie and then walks through the house as swiftly as she can, doing one last check. They need to pass the house inspection. Joan knows that they’re close, so close to figuring this all out, but they need a little more time. If they don’t pass the house inspection, they’re going to have to go to Plan B, which largely consists of hoping they can find five small infants in New York City before a sixth disappears.

Plan B is not, on the whole, very good, which is why they want to avoid it.

Their doorbell rings. Joan takes a deep breath, smoothes her skirt, and goes to answer it.

Ms. Hammond is on the doorstep, her smile already in place. Just like before- just like every time before- her smile flickers slightly when she sees Joan. And then she switches gears and holds out her hand to her. “Dr. Dawson, hello. May I come in?”

“Of course,” Joan says, opening the door and stepping to the side.

She feels Sherlock behind her, and doesn’t jump when he takes her hand in his. “Ms. Hammond, thank you for coming,” he says, smiling brightly. It’s just as manufactured a smile as Hammond’s, and yet Sherlock’s seems less plastic, somehow. Possibly because it isn’t directed at Joan. She’s had it pointed in her direction before. In some ways, it’s worse than his glares. At least the glares are honest.

They show her around the house, make idle chitchat, answer all her questions. And the entire time, Joan feels a slimy coldness whenever Hammond looks at her.

Joan looks back her, a polite smile on her face, and wonders why this woman is kidnapping children and why she hates Joan so much. And if the two are, somehow, connected. If maybe they’ve never met before, there is no mysterious previous relationship, and there is something else at work in Hammond’s hatred.

That night, when Sherlock is helping her out of her outfit (and no matter how good of taste Bell has, she’s never letting him shop for her again), he says, softly enough that no microphone would be able to pick it up, “I abhor that woman.” He reaches around and pulls her hair back over her shoulder, letting it slither down her back. She sighs and digs the heels of her hands into her eyes, like she’s seen him do so many times.

“So do I,” she admits.

******
That night, she wakes up, cold and confused.

She’s grown used to Sherlock somehow managing to find his way to her side of the bed during the night. She’s woken up, every morning, with him either sprawled over her or at least trying to tuck himself into her side. It’s almost four in the morning, and his side of the bed is cold. She frowns and gropes for her bathrobe.

She finds him in the living room, lying on the sofa, Lolita in hand. She stares down at him until he looks up at her.

“What are you doing?” she asks quietly. If this were the brownstone, he’d probably be playing music at an obnoxious volume, or she’d wake up to the rhythmic clunking of freshly picked locks being dropped into a bucket. If this were the brownstone, she’d respond accordingly, flying down the stairs and yelling at him, making just as much noise at him, pushing back where he’s pushed her.

The Dawsons are quieter people.

Sadder people, as strange as it sounds.

“I do not like this book,” Sherlock says, just as quiet. Just as sad. “It’s brilliant, in so many ways, but I just find it… terrible, really. Awful.”

Joan sits on the edge of the sofa, Sherlock scooting just enough so she doesn’t fear falling off. “So why are you reading it?”

“I can’t stop,” Sherlock confesses.

Joan watches him for a minute as his eyes scan the book, just on this side of desperate. They had hoped to solve his case by now. If Joan hadn’t messed everything up, somehow, maybe they would have. If Joan hadn’t infuriated Ms. Hammond, maybe Sherlock would have found the five infants and brought them home to their terrified parents. She watches him, and then carefully takes the book from his hands.

“Come to bed,” she says.

“I want to finish it,” he says stubbornly.

“The ending doesn’t change, no matter how much you want it to, no matter how fast you read,” she replies. “Come to bed.”

He looks at her for a long moment, eyes terribly lost, but he goes.

******
“Joan,” Carrie says, walking up to her while she’s checking the bandages on one of Carrie’s patients, “I was wondering if you could do a quick consult for me. He’s waiting for you.”

Joan shoots her a confused look, since she didn’t ask to use Carrie’s office and Gregson hasn’t had time to drop off the fourth case file yet. But she straightens the bandages on Mr. Grieves one last time and goes.

When she opens the door to Carrie’s office, she’s surprised to see Alfredo sitting in one of the chairs, looking uncomfortable. Joan offers him a bland doctor smile while the door is open, but as soon as it’s closed she gives him a genuine one.

“Hey, what are you doing here?” she asks. Then she pauses. “It’s not Sherlock, is it?”

Alfredo shakes his head, standing up. “No, no, he’s cool. At least, I think he is. No emergency code word texts, nothing like that. I’m actually here ‘cause your captain friend sent me.”

Joan raises her eyebrows in surprise and goes to sit behind the desk, gesturing for Alfredo to sit back down. He does.

“What did Captain Gregson need?” she asks.

“Nothing that he needed,” Alfredo replies. “Wanted me to pass on a message. A sixth baby was kidnapped last night. From Pamela and Greg Li. Her name is Joanna.” He reaches into his coat and pulls out a thin file. “Figured you could pass those off as my medical records, if you wanted to take it and show it to Sherlock.”

Joan looks at file, flipping it open quickly. “That’s clever,” she says.

Alfredo shrugs, grinning. “Hey, ex-cons gotta know how to smuggle stuff through, you know?” He pauses, and she can feel him watching her. She ignores him, trying to learn something new from the Li file. The only thing she can see is that they, too, were at the same hospital as the other families. “The captain said that you guys must be getting a kid sooner than he expected,” he offers after a long pause.

Joan closes the file, troubled. “That’s the problem, Alfredo,” she says, preoccupied. She wants to text Sherlock, but she knows she can’t. She’ll have to wait until she’s home tonight. “We’re not getting a baby. Someone else is.”

******
Joan goes back to rounds after Alfredo leaves, wandering around and trying to pretend she’s actually doing the job. She can’t actually do anything, of course, since she no longer has a license, but the hospital had been willing to put up with her for the sake of the case, after she signed a huge stack of waivers. She’s thankful she doesn’t actually have to do any real work; she’s so distracted that she’d probably hurt someone.

A sixth baby is missing, and it certainly isn’t for the Dawsons. And she’s missing something.

Gregson drops off the fourth file after lunch, and Carrie immediately beeps her, requesting a ‘consult’ in her office, the regular consult that Joan expects every day. She walks as quickly as she can to the office, short of running, and throws herself at the fourth file.

The fourth case file is on the Turners. They went to the same hospital as the others. Their child was kidnapped the same day that they returned home. Joan stares down at their drivers license photos, wondering if they ever thought they would lose their child so soon after they decided to keep her. Wonders where little Mychelle is now. Wonders if she’s safe.

She doesn’t know how long she sits there, staring at words and photos she can no longer see. But then Carrie sits down across from her, breaking Joan’s concentration. She looks over at her friend, then glances at her watch. She groans immediately. It’s late, almost an hour later than she normally leaves the hospital.

“Are you okay, Joan?” Carrie asks, biting her lip as soon as she asks. Joan offers her a small smile. It’s all she can manage right now.

“Yeah. I’m fine,” she says, and forces herself to sit up straight, tugging the file toward her so she can start trying to put it together again. Carrie reaches over and grabs her hand, stopping her.

“Don’t give me that, Joanie. I know you. What’s wrong?”

Joan sighs, taking off her glasses. “I’m missing something,” she admits. “And it’s staring me in the face, and I know it is, but I still can’t see it.”

Carrie looks down at the file, frowning thoughtfully. “You’re making things too complicated,” she announces after a moment. Joan gives her a look, and Carrie rolls her eyes. “Don’t give me that look. You always overcomplicated things, Joan. You always wanted things to be more complex and difficult. But sometimes it’s something obvious. Sometimes it is lupus.”

Joan starts to respond, but pauses. She reaches over and, one by one, pulls the photos of the parents out of the files, lining them up side by side. In one instant, everything clicks together. Everything falls into place. It’s absolutely beautiful, and she wonders if this is what it is like in Sherlock’s head all the time.

Carrie smiles. “I just figured out your little problem for you, didn’t I?” she asks.

Joan could kiss her. “My little problem is six kidnapped infants, and you may have just figured out what our next step should be. Thanks, Carrie,” she says, grabbing her sweater and heading for the door.

“Better lucky than good,” Carrie calls after her. Joan laughs and keeps walking.

Best to be both, really.

******
When she reaches the house, Sherlock is in a suit.

Joan, understandably, pauses. “Sh- Basil?” she asks.

Sherlock gives her a disappointed look. “Don’t tell me you forgot date night,” he says. “You’re already late.”

It’s Friday. She’d completely forgotten in her rush to get to the house so she could talk things out with Sherlock. She nearly tells him to forget date night, but then realizes that date night suits her needs perfectly.

“I get to choose what we do,” she says instantly. Then she eyes his trousers. “You might want to wear something a bit looser.”

Sherlock gives her a puzzled look but dutifully troops after her as she practically runs up the stairs. She needs to get changed. They need to go. She needs to talk to Sherlock, not Basil, and she needs to talk to him now. Basil is nice enough, but she wants a detective, a genius. She wants her partner. She wants Sherlock.

Sherlock takes off his trousers as she strips as quickly as she can, not caring very much which dress she wears. She grabs a slinky looking black thing, wondering what Bell was thinking when he picked it out, and tugs it on. Sherlock is behind her in an instant, lifting her hair to the side and zipping her dress up, hands ghosting along her spine. He seems to sense her urgency, if the way he’s quickly picking out her jewelry and putting it on her is any indication. She yanks on her stockings, somehow managing to avoid making them run, Sherlock hands her a pair of heels, and they head out the door.

“Care to tell me where we’re going?” Sherlock asks dryly when they’re sitting in the car, Joan driving as quickly as she dares. She smiles at him, quick and grim.

“Just tell me you know how to waltz.”

******
It turns out that Sherlock knows how to waltz. And foxtrot. And samba.

She doesn’t really find that surprising. He grew up in money, after all, and his father is a businessman. He finds it surprising, however, that she knows all the steps as well and can keep up with him just fine.

When he attempts to trip her up by trying something tricky, and she follows along and even adds a little flourish, she grins at him and says, “Sometimes even the valedictorian needed to take a class just for fun. Ballroom dancing was mine.”

“There are unexplored possibilities about you, Watson,” he says into her ear. Then he draws back. “Now. Why did you rush us out the door and straight here? I can’t imagine that you were that eager just to surprise me with one of your unexpected skills.”

“Another baby was kidnapped last night,” she tells him.

His reaction is swift, immediate. His face spasms in sheer anger and he halts. She nearly trips over him, but she’s too good a dancer for that. He lets her go and slams his hands into his eyes, vicious. “Damn,” he mutters. “Damn, damn, damn.”

Joan reaches up and grabs his wrists, trying to tug his hands away from his face before he hurts himself. “Stop it, stop it, you’re drawing attention,” she whispers, saying the only thing she can think of that will get him to stop. He forces his hands back down to his side, making a fist and thumping it against his thigh twice before forcing an ugly, twisted smile onto his face and, with a gentleness that surprises her, pulls her close, starting the dance once again.

“Forgive me, Watson,” he says through gritted teeth. “I was rather hoping we would manage to… well. It seems it was a foolhardy thought and I dragged you into all of this for nothing.”

“You’re wrong,” she says. He ignores her. “I know the pattern,” she says as he twirls her around expertly. The Viennese Waltz isn’t her favourite, but she’s very good at it. “I figured it out.”

He tugs her close again, suddenly unconcerned about the steps of the dance. They wait in place for the music to catch up with them, and then take off around the dance floor. “Tell me,” he demands.

“And I know why Hammond hates me so much. It’s so obvious, I can’t believe neither of us saw it,” Joan says. She shakes her head, frustrated. Sherlock’s hand tightens around her.

“Never mind that. Tell me.”

“The Gutierrez family is Latino,” she says. “The Turners and the Tuckers are Black. The Li family is Chinese-American, Mrs. Khan is an immigrant from Afghanistan, and Mr. Mitra is Indian-American.”

She can see the puzzle fall into place for him as well, just as neatly as it did for her. “They’re taking the babies of people of colour,” he says, “and-”

“And probably placing them with white families, though that’s a guess,” she admits. “But Sherlock, just think about it. She sees these families come to her, thinking of giving their children to another family, and she- she sees all these white families who desperately want children and-”

“And she’s angry,” Sherlock continues. They aren’t paying any attention to the music anymore, swaying around each other as they piece the case together, conjecture and summation coming together beautifully. “She’s furious, because she thinks of those families as unfit, but they can still have children.”

“So she takes them, after they change their mind, because if they thought they were unfit to be parents once, who’s to say they were wrong?”

“She thinks she’s helping,” Sherlock concludes. He looks down at her. “And you’re Chinese-American.”

“We were never going to get a child from that agency,” Joan says. “Even if I hadn’t admitted that we hesitated before. There was no way.”

The music changes, and Joan startles. Sherlock raises an eyebrow at her. “Do you know how to tango, Watson?”

“It’s been a while,” she admits. Then she grins. “But I bet I’m still better than you.”

He sniffs at her in disdain. He takes her in his arms, and away they go. They’re probably equally matched, as it turns out, but Joan doesn’t really care. She’s thankful for the tango, because even though they can’t really look at each other much, they at least have to stand close to each other. They both forego the seduction aspect. It’s probably the most dispassionate, technically correct tango of all time, but it works.

“The Li baby was kidnapped yesterday,” Joan says, hooking her leg over Sherlock’s knee, Sherlock dragging her close. “Which means that they probably have a family for her.”

“They ought to have information on families they’re placing children with in the office,” Sherlock says, slightly breathless. He lifts her quickly, and Joan spins her legs about in half remembered movements. This part of the tango always feel frantic to her.

“But how are we going to get that information?” she asks when she’s on the ground again. They twist around each other, swirling around the dance floor, forgetting to speak for a moment. It’s only at the very end, when Joan dips low, her leg stretched out behind her, her face turned up to Sherlock’s, that they speak again.

“I think it’s time you worked on lock picking, Watson” he says with satisfaction. He tugs her up, and they walk casually off the dance floor, all too aware of their watchers. Joan feels a moment of sadness. She would have liked to see if Sherlock’s quickstep was as good as hers. But that doesn’t matter now. This ends tonight.

******
They get into the skyscraper just fine, a simple matter of waiting until someone leaves for the night, Sherlock grabbing the door before it can close. Getting into the office is another matter.

“It’s about sensitivity in the fingers, Watson,” Sherlock instructs, watching her carefully as she attempts to manipulate the lock. “It’s not just an intellectual activity; you have to feel the pins depress underneath your fingertips while maintaining tension with the other hand.”

“And I’m still saying that this maybe isn’t the time for me to refine my lock-picking skills, Sherlock,” she snaps. An hour ago, this seemed like a good idea. Now, though, her forehead is covered in sweat and she can hear her heartbeat in her ears. She’s been working on the lock for five minutes, and the guard will be on this floor in two more. They’d timed her rounds carefully.

“Do you want me to take over?”

“Ugh, no. Just shut up, okay? Let me concentrate.”

Sherlock nods at her and steps back, giving her more light.

Joan takes a deep breath and tries again. She wonders what her mother would think if she could see her now, wearing a gorgeous black dress and diamonds, holding lock picks and breaking into an office. Probably be less supportive about her daughter’s career choice, she’s sure.

And just like that, she’s in. The door opens slowly. She turns around, grinning at Sherlock. He gives her a perfunctory nod. “That was adequate. We’ll have to work on your speed, though. I was beginning to wonder if I would have to make a distraction. Come along.”

“Did you see any security systems when we were here the other day?” she whispers, following him into the office. She pulls out a small but powerful flashlight from her purse, turning it on. She remembers the days when the other things she carried in her purse were breathalyzers and a can of Mace. Now she might as well just get rid of the purse and carry a toolbox.

Sherlock shakes her head. “This building’s security is pathetic. No internal alarms on ninety percent of their offices, this one included. Honestly, if I were to do my civic duty, I should write a letter of complaint to the owner, maybe change things around here.”

“Later, Sherlock. After we’ve finished breaking in.”

Sherlock nods and heads for the second office, Ms. Hammond’s office. He opens the door and slips inside. “I’ll handle opening the filing cabinets. Stand guard, Watson,” he says, his voice muffled. Joan sighs, but does as he asks.

She stands in the dark office, looking at the walls and out the windows, the sun setting and casting dim shadows everywhere. It’s spooky, really, which is stupid because it’s just an empty office. But they broke in, and even though she’s gotten better at embracing the slightly less legal aspects of being a consulting detective (she can break into a car and disable most alarms in less than six seconds now), she still feels slight unease.

Joan looks over at the small stand by the receptionist’s desk. There’s a pot of coffee on it. A little red light is glowing, and she squints at it. She feels her insides freeze.

The light is glowing over a little indicator that says “30”.

Someone made that pot of coffee within the last thirty minutes.

Someone is still here.

“Sherlock,” she hisses, edging towards the door, groping as quietly as she can for the door handle, scanning the room around her. All the lights are off, and she can’t see any lights peeking out from underneath the other doors, but that doesn’t mean anything. When she was still a surgeon and writing up reports late at night she would sometimes turn off the lights and just work by computer light. “Sherlock,” she hisses again, opening the door.

“Dr. Dawson. Funny seeing you here,” says a grim voice inside the room. Joan closes her eyes, briefly, and then opens the door and steps inside, grabbing the light switch and flipping it up.

Ms. Hammond is standing by her desk, pointing a gun at her. Joan ignores that, looks around immediately for Sherlock. He’s sprawled on the floor in front of her, a gash on his head.

“Don’t move, Dr. Dawson,” Ms. Hammond says sharply before Joan can even take a step toward him. Joan looks back up at her. It’s a struggle. All she can see is the blood on Sherlock’s head, on the floor.

“Let me check on him,” she demands, sounding braver than she feels. There are no convenient phrenology busts this time, no heroics to distract the gunman. Just Sherlock, crumbled on the floor. He isn’t moving at all. She’s never seen him so still. Even when he’s sleeping, he’s twitching or tossing and turning.

“He’s alive,” Ms. Hammond says carelessly. “So far.”

“Not what I said,” Joan says, inching forward. “Let me check on him.”

“You aren’t really married,” Ms. Hammond says, sounding almost hysterical and raising the gun, leveling it with Joan’s head. “You did an excellent job at pretending you were, and the background check went through flawlessly, but everyone makes mistakes, Dr. Dawson. Or Watson, whatever you prefer to be called.”

“What was ours?” Joan asks. She doesn’t care. Sherlock might, but he’s not conscious to care.

“No barren couple is that happy after ten years,” Ms. Hammond says, and for a moment, Joan takes her eyes off Sherlock. She sounds resentful and angry. Her mouth is strained and unhappy, and the last of the mystery falls into place.

“You were married, weren’t you?” she asks, but it isn’t really a question. “Our own research showed that you were single and childless, but that wasn’t a choice, was it?”

“We tried for eight years,” Ms. Hammond says flatly. “And when we learned that my ovaries were dry, he left me. He always wanted children, you see. He wanted a big family. I couldn’t do that for him.”

Part of Joan, the part of her that isn’t worried about Sherlock and staring at a gun, hurts for the woman. She’s heard the story before, from others. It never stops being a sad story, never is anything other than heartbreaking.

But then, most women don’t turn around and decide to kidnap children, so. There’s that.

“I’m very sorry,” Joan says softly, reaching out a hand toward Ms. Hammond. “I know that must have hurt.”

Ms. Hammond sneers at her, pulling back the hammer of the gun. “You know nothing. Stop moving or I’ll shoot you.”

Joan ignores her. “I just want to make sure he’s all right,” she says, starting to kneel. “Okay? I just need to make sure-”

Hammond moves the gun, pointing it almost directly down. Almost, but not quite. “Stop moving,” she says, “or I’ll shoot him.” Joan freezes. Hammond smiles. “I thought so. Even though you aren’t married, you still care about him.”

“He’s my partner,” she says honestly.

“If you hadn’t been so ridiculously in love,” Hammond continues, as if she didn’t hear her, “I may have let it go, just simply rejected your application and moved on. But you two were so smitten, I just had to do a more thorough search. And what do I find? Sherlock Holmes and Joan Watson. Consulting detectives.”

“You’re kidnapping children,” Joan says steadily. “There was no way the authorities were just going to let it go.”

“I’m placing children into families that will actually love them,” Hammond snaps, visibly losing her calm. Her hand is shaking. She isn’t an experienced gunman, Joan realizes. This may be her first time pointing one at another human being.

Joan wants to argue with her, wants to point out her disgusting racism, wants to yell at her that wavering doesn’t mean a lack of love, but she’s pretty sure that’s just going to get her shot. Or worse, Sherlock. So she swallows it down as deep as she can, pushes it aside and goes back to that feeling of sadness, of pity.

“You were trying to help,” she says gently, remembering what Sherlock said when they were waltzing. “You wanted to help the children and you wanted to help the families.”

“Some of them had been trying to have children for six, seven years,” Hammond says, her voice cracking. “And you could see it tearing them apart. They needed a baby. They needed one.”

“You were helping people, Ms. Hammond,” Joan says, as softly and gently as she can. She glances down at Sherlock. He’s still out cold, and there is a small puddle of blood forming where his forehead is resting on the carpet. She needs to get to him. “You just wanted to help. You haven’t hurt anybody. Please, put the gun down. Let me help my partner.”

There are probably records, she tells herself, about where the kidnapped babies were placed. She doesn’t need to worry about wrapping up every loose end here and now. Here and now, she needs to make sure Sherlock is all right. That’s all she needs to worry about. She looks up at Ms. Hammond, trying to show her that she cares.

And she does. Ms. Hammond is wrong and a criminal, and her thinking is all twisted around, but she wants her to get out of this safe.

She wants them all to be safe.

“Please,” she repeats. “Please.”

“They’ll put me in jail,” Hammond says softly, looking down.

“You didn’t hurt anyone,” Joan says, trying to get her focus on that. “You kept the children safe.”

“They’ll put me in jail,” Hammond says, and when she looks up Joan knows instantly what she’s going to do. She’s seen that look of desperation on addicts, right before they hurt themselves or went back to drugs, and she is not going to kill herself while Joan crouches just five feet away.

She throws herself at Hammond just as she swings the gun up. She doesn’t have to think about it. They’re all getting out of here alive tonight. She collides with her, the breath shoved forcibly out of her lungs. Hammond yells, falling backwards. Joan can feel the gun between them, still loaded and cocked. She grabs for it as they hit the ground, trying to get it out from between them.

The gun shot is loud, terrifyingly so, but it goes off at the wall. Hammond screams, a wail of despair that shoots straight through Joan’s heart. She pins her as best as she can, taking the gun and tossing it as far across the office as she’s able, hearing it clatter somewhere near the door.

“They didn’t deserve them,” Hammond cries, twisting and burying her face in the floor. “They didn’t deserve them, and they would never have loved them like I would, like the other families would.”

Joan strokes her hair for a moment, comforting her, and then reaches over, resting her fingertips on Sherlock’s neck. She can still feel a pulse, and she sighs in relief.

Then, taking a deep breath, she gets to work.

******
She uses Sherlock’s phone to call Captain Gregson and leaves it up to him to handle the rest. She just sits with her back against the desk, one hand on Sherlock’s pulse, the other stroking an unending pattern through Hammond’s hair as she cries. That’s how Bell finds her, when he arrives.

“Oh, man,” he says, taking in the scene instantly. “Shit, the Captain said it was probably bad, but…”

“We’re all alive,” Joan says. “That’s enough for me.”

“I got a bus coming,” Bell says, sliding back into professionalism in a heartbeat. “He going to be okay until then?”

“He probably has a concussion,” Joan says, not taking her fingers away from Sherlock’s carotid. “But he’ll be okay. Head wounds always bleed a lot.”

“Tell me about it,” Bell grouses with the tone of a man who knows all too well how messy head wounds are. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Joan says. He gives her a look that lets her know just how much he believes her, but she ignores it. He doesn’t ask her again, instead focusing on arresting Ms. Hammond.

******
After that, it’s all rather anticlimactic. Sherlock becomes conscious just as the paramedics arrive and waspishly accepts their not-very-gentle ministrations. He demands that Joan be the one to stitch his forehead, which normally Joan would refuse, but twenty minutes ago she wasn’t sure if he was still alive, so she complies. Fifteen stitches later, Sherlock looks up at her, one side of his face covered in dried blood, eyes huge and worried.

“Are you all right?”

She doesn’t know why everyone keeps asking her that. “I’m fine,” she snaps. “I’m not the one with fifteen stitches and a probable concussion. What happened?”

Sherlock sighs. “I should have expected people to be here still. It wasn’t that late, after all. She was hiding behind her desk and got the drop on me when I went for the filing cabinets.”

“She probably thought we were real burglars,” Joan says. “Until she saw you, anyway.”

“Maybe they’ll improve their security now,” Sherlock says.

“Doubtful.”

“One can dream, Watson.”

He watches her for a moment, and then suddenly reaches out a hand, touching her cheek before just as suddenly yanking his hand away. They aren’t married anymore, Joan realizes. They don’t need to pretend.

“Are you sure you’re all right?” he asks again. “You’re acting… odd.”

Joan offers him a smile. In truth, she feels odd. She feels disconnected from everything, like the bustle of people around her is happening on another planet. She’s exhausted, she realizes. Exhausted emotionally. The entire confrontation with Hammond probably lasted all of five minutes, but it felt like five hours.

“I’m probably in shock,” she says clinically. She glares at him. “I’m not as used to taking on the bad guys all by myself. Unlike some people I know.”

Sherlock looks around him, waving an EMT over. “My partner thinks she may be in shock,” he says sharply, taking command of the situation despite how he looks. The EMT starts looking after her immediately, wrapping her in a blanket before she even realizes that she’s shivering, setting her up on IV before she can tell anyone that she just wants to go home.

“Gregson found the files on the kidnapped children,” Sherlock tells her casually, sitting next to her on the gurney. The EMT thinks that they can both go home tonight, but she wants to watch them for a while just in case. Joan doesn’t argue. She’s too tired to argue.

“Yeah?” she asks.

“Yes. The department will be contacting the adoptive parents tonight with social workers. It will be difficult, I expect, for the adoptive parents.”

“Can you imagine, Sherlock?” she asks, looking up at the ceiling. “To finally hold a child in your arms, and then find out that after all you’ve been through, after all the hoops, you can’t keep them after all?”

Sherlock is silent for a long time. Joan listens to the sounds of the EMTs and police all around them, Gregson shouting instructions, Bell running by them and waving his arms. It’s comforting, in its own way. She’s been at the end of a dozen cases by now, and this part is familiar. If they don’t wrap up the case in the interrogation room, they’re at a crime scene. She may not be able to go back to the brownstone yet, but this is close enough to home to be calming.

“I think it would be like hell on earth,” Sherlock says eventually.

And really, there isn’t much more to say.

******
Bell drives them home, not saying anything. Joan and Sherlock sit in the backseat of the police car, Sherlock’s fingers tapping out a nervous, staccato beat until she reaches over and entwines their fingers. She can hear his breath stutter in his throat, but she doesn’t care. She’s gotten used to this. She wants this. She needs something familiar right now.

Ms. Hudson meets them at the door, looking dramatically aflutter and glancing every now and then at Bell to make sure he’s watching her, but as soon as the door closes, she’s all business.

“I went and got Clyde- Marcus texted me and let me know that you’d be coming home tonight, though to be honest, this place has been a dream to clean since you’ve been away. Well, vacation is over I guess! So I picked up Clyde, he’s in your room, Sherlock, and I’m making some nice white jasmine tea. I turned down both of your beds, but there’s also a fire going if you want to sit up for a while. The record player is set up for Bach, but Mozart and early Beethoven are within easy reach. I left out some late Beethoven, too, if you’re feeling more Romantic than Classical. I’ll be here all night in case either of you need anything, so please don’t hesitate to call for me. I read up on shock and concussions when Marcus texted me, so I’m ready for anything.”

Joan stares at Ms. Hudson blankly. Finally, she says, “I think I just want to go to bed.” It’s the only thing she can say in response to her monologue. She thinks about it. “And thank you.”

“It’s the least I could do,” Ms. Hudson says, reaching out and squeezing Joan’s arm. “I’ve been very worried.”

Joan heads upstairs, relieved to finally be home, really home. Not in that boring, plain, normal house. She kicks off her shoes and waits for Sherlock to unzip her dress.

He doesn’t.

“Oh,” Joan says in the empty room when she realizes. She twists her arms up behind her, straining for the zipper. It’s just out of reach. She drops her head down, her chin resting on her chest, and sighs. Then she turns and goes back down the stairs. Ms. Hudson looks up at her from her spot on the sofa, but Joan waves her hand, and she picks up her harlequin romance novel again, content to let Joan wander.

But she isn’t wandering. She goes straight to Sherlock’s bedroom and knocks on the door. Unlike Sherlock, she doesn’t believe in bursting into rooms without warning.

“Come,” he says, sounding distracted.

He’s sitting on the edge of his bed, staring down at his hands. He’s cleaned the blood off his face, at least. He looks over at her, frowning. “Are you all right, Watson?”

She walks over to him, refusing to feel embarrassed. They did this every day for a week; nothing changes just because they’re in their house now, rather than in the Dawsons. “I can’t get my dress undone,” she says. It’s not a request. She refuses to ask.

She doesn’t have to. Sherlock stands up and walks behind her, gathering her hair in one hand and gently moving it over her shoulder. She lets out a long breath, relieved. He carefully unzips her dress, hands sliding gently down her spine until they come to a rest along the small of her back. Neither of them move for a moment.

Joan swallows and turns around. “Thank you,” she says.

“You’re quite welcome,” Sherlock says simply.

******
She wakes up in the middle of the night, reaching over for Sherlock on instinct. He isn’t there, of course. She sighs loudly.

“Watson? Are you awake?”

In the dark, she smiles. She trusts that he can’t see her. The curtains keep most of the street light out. “What are you doing, Sherlock?” she asks. She’s come to expect him in her chair when they’re on a case, gotten in the habit of jerking awake and looking at the chair each morning. She doesn’t expect him to be in her room at- she checks the clock- two forty in the morning. She understands why, of course. The same reason why she didn’t just hop around the room trying to get the zipper herself, or ask Ms. Hudson for help.

It may only be a week’s worth of habits, but they’re all hard habits to shake.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Sherlock says quietly. “It is ridiculous, I know, but I have grown rather used to your kicking me in the ribs while I sleep. I thought it incredulous that a woman your age was limber enough to kick me in the ribs, but that was before we tangoed, and now I know better.”

Joan rolls over, hiding her grin in her pillow. “I don’t kick. You snore, though.”

“I most certainly do not,” he says, sounding affronted.

“Shut up, Sherlock,” she says. “Come to bed.”

There is only the briefest hesitation, and then she feels cool air rush in from the other side of the bed as he pulls back the covers. “I’ll have you know, you have a most valiant guardian in Ms. Hudson,” he tells her, settling himself in. “She threw one of her platform shoes at me when she saw me heading for your bedroom.”

She laughs softly. “Could have been a knife.”

“Yes, she was asking me about the butterfly knife she found the other day. I told her it was yours.”

They lay next to each other, quiet. Joan isn’t quite awake, but she isn’t ready to just fall asleep immediately either. She remembers Hammond’s look when she realized she was caught, that her plans had fallen apart. That look of utter devastation and loss.

“Do you think-” she begins, and then stops herself.

“Do I think what?” Sherlock asks, unwilling to just drop the subject. He sounds tired and worn thin. She shouldn’t have said anything. After a moment, she feels the bed shift, and his hand touches hers. “Do I think what?”

“Do you think you’d ever want children?” Joan asks in a rush. She regrets asking it almost immediately. They are both in their middle age, and with Irene dead, she suspects that Sherlock has put an end to any thought of a regular, settled life. But she remembers Sherlock reading Lolita and looking so lost, and listening to “Hell is for Children” in their borrowed kitchen, and keeping Teddy and other young boys and girls out of jail by teaching them, redirecting their talents, and… and she wonders.

Sherlock doesn’t say anything for a long while, so Joan swallows around the tightness in her throat and decides to answer the question for herself. “I used to want children,” she tells him. “But then there was school, and residency, and I never met the right guy. There was always something more important.”

“Do you regret it?” he asks.

She thinks about it for a moment. When she was younger and thinking about children, she never really thought of herself as a mother, she just thought about the kids. She likes children. “No,” she says finally. “I like children, but I can’t really see myself as a mother.”

He doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t say anything for so long that Joan starts to drift off to sleep, figuring he isn’t going to answer, deciding that’s all right, when he says, so quietly that she can barely hear him, “If you had wanted,” he says, “I think you would have been a wonderful mother.”

She smiles, too sleepy to talk about it. She rolls onto her side and reaches out, resting her fingertips on his wrist. “If you had wanted, you would have been a wonderful father,” she mutters, and she falls asleep before he says anything else.

******
Things almost return to normal after that. The NYPD takes almost all of Joan Dawson’s clothes, unfortunately, but they let her keep the long black one that she danced the tango in. Sherlock bled all over it, which is probably why they let her keep it, but she knows a cleaner who can get blood stains out. They’re invaluable since she started working with Sherlock.

Ms. Hudson stays with them for a few days, making sure they’re healing properly. Alfredo stops by to meet with Sherlock, but Joan makes him a smoothie and they set a date to start working on the next level of car alarm. Ms. Hudson expresses a sudden interest in learning how to break into cars, and Joan is pretty sure she’s never seen Alfredo so flustered.

Bell and Gregson stop by to collect their statements, letting them know they found the accomplice at the hospital, a cousin of Hammond’s. Gregson brings them a batch of cookies that he and his daughters made.

“I’m pretty sure they’re awful,” he admits, setting the cookie tin on the counter, “but Emily insisted that I bring them to you.”

“Oh, she sounds like a sweetie,” Joan says, grinning.

“Until bedtime, anyway,” Gregson grumbles. “Watch out for eggshells. I think I got most of them, but you never know.”

Joan laughs, throwing her head back. She can see Sherlock out of the corner of her eye, not laughing at all.

After Gregson leaves, Joan walks into the lock room, where Sherlock is petulantly eating two cookies at once, a third in his hand. “They aren’t bad,” he tells her around a mouthful. She sits down across from him, setting her hands on the table and folding them. He eyes her suspiciously. “What?”

“We need to talk,” she says.

He stands up immediately. “I’m feeling tired, think I’ll turn in for the evening, enjoy the cookies, Watson, pass my compliments on to Captain Gregson and his girls for me-”

“Sherlock. Sit down.”

Sherlock swallows his bite of cookie and sighs dramatically, but he sits back down. He shifts in his chair, but settles quickly enough. “Why do we need to talk? Illuminate me.”

Joan isn’t sure where to begin. She doesn’t know precisely what to say. Finally, she settles on her gut feeling. “This case got to you,” she says. He opens his mouth, but she holds up a hand, stopping him. “Don’t argue with me. It did. I don’t know if it was the whole pretend marriage thing, or if it was the kids, but it got to you, and you haven’t been acting like yourself since we came home.”

Sherlock points at his forehead. “Concussion,” he says.

She rolls her eyes. “Since I’ve met you, you’ve crashed my car, gotten tasered and told to dig your own grave, among other things. I highly doubt a knock on the head is really what’s making you weird.” She reaches over, resting her fingertips on his wrist. “I need you to tell me what’s going on.”

She thinks he is just going to blow her off, ignore her like he usually does when she asks for a heart to heart. But then she sees his ring finger start twitching, a rhythmic tic that is probably one of his biggest tells. If it isn’t his finger twitching, it’s him twisting his wrists into small, elegant circles and- there it is, she notes with satisfaction.

“It isn’t one thing,” he says haltingly. “It’s- it’s all of it at once.”

“I’m listening,” she says.

He blows out a long breath, agitated. But he stays still. For her. “I do not like it when children are the victims,” he says finally. “I do not- they are children, yes? And children are… they’re utter bastards, really, but they’re still children and- and it is the lowest form of human being who harms a child.”

Joan nods encouragingly, knowing that there is something else, something he hasn’t explained just yet. Knows that he’ll get there. In his own time.

“And this woman- Ms. Hammond- she was taking infants. Infants, who can’t communicate with other adults and children that they are victims of a crime, who can’t fight back, who can’t do anything, really, and- and it’s wrong.”

“Okay,” she says.

“And I failed,” he says finally. He says it so softly she has to strain to hear him. “I have- promised myself that I would never- will never- fail a child, because too many adults, too many people, fail them already. So I promised. And I failed.”

Joan reaches for him immediately, but he stands up, pushing his chair back abruptly. He doesn’t walk away, though. He just doesn’t let her touch him. Instead he stands there, staring at the floor and talking to his shoes. “I know you will say that it isn’t my fault, that I could not have predicted Ms. Hammond’s despicable reaction to you, and of course, you are correct. I could not have known that she viewed minorities as unfit parents. However, that is- that is not the source of my failure.

“My failure, Watson, was in the execution of our trap. There were a myriad of ways I could have chosen to conduct this investigation, any number of which could have led us to Ms. Hammond or the children in a more direct route.”

“Sherlock-”

“My failure,” he says, speaking over her, “was that I allowed my personal feelings and- and wishes- to get in the way of protecting children who had no way to protect themselves. I wanted- I wanted the freedom to pretend that I was something more to you, and in doing so, I endangered everything.”

He looks up at her, a small, cheerless smile curling the corner of his mouth up. “Worse yet, I betrayed the tiny amount of trust you had in me. I would ask you- I would ask you to forgive me, but of course, what I did was unforgiveable. Nevertheless, I am sorry, and I hope you will consider continuing our partnership, even if it is on changed terms.”

Joan stares at him, stunned. He nods jerkily at her, and walks away. A moment later, she hears the door to his bedroom close.

******
She doesn’t know how long she sits at the table, staring down at her hands. She doesn’t bother to look at her watch, or any of the clocks that Sherlock has stashed in strange little corners. She doesn’t want to know. What she would like to know is what she’s thinking.

Mostly, she thinks her brain is malfunctioning. It’s like all she can hear is white noise. Her nail polish is chipped, and she broke a nail at some point, she notes absently. Time to find her nail kit.

She found it comforting to be Joan Dawson, in some ways. Not their life- that was boring and plain and lacked everything that her life with Sherlock provides. Excitement, intellectual stimulation, a challenge. Joy. But it had- safety. Openness. She could reach out and touch him whenever she wanted, without the constant calculation of whether or not she was allowed, if he would accept it this time but not next time.

It was nice.

She liked it.

Joan isn’t one to linger long over decisions. When her patient died, she decided pretty much immediately that she would never practice medicine again. When Sherlock made her an offer of partnership, he told her to think about it and talk to her friends, but she didn’t. She knew what she wanted, and she took it. It isn’t that she’s impulsive. No, Sherlock’s pretty much got the corner on that. It’s that she knows herself, knows what is a bad move for her and what could be wonderful, and she doesn’t waste time pretending otherwise and agonizing over decisions she’s already made.

Joan stands up and walks to Sherlock’s bedroom. She knocks, but he doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t bother to try the door; she knows it’s locked. Instead, she rests her forehead against the worn wood and sighs.

“Sherlock?” He still doesn’t say anything, which doesn’t surprise her. “I know you can hear me. Do you remember what you told me that day in the park? You said that I am no blushing rose.”

She turns around and shuts her eyes, leaning against the door. “The thing is? I could have said no. I could have decided that the undercover thing was taking too long and pulled the plug. You know I would have. You know I have no trouble calling you on your shit, never have. But you know what? I didn’t.”

He still doesn’t say anything. Joan runs her hands through her hair, trying to figure out what to tell him. How to explain that he wasn’t alone.

“So, Sherlock, maybe your failure of indulging in your hopes? Is my failure, too. I never questioned it, never thought about looking for another path. Even when you started to wonder if there was a better way, I didn’t. I thought it was nice, and I liked it. So if you betrayed my trust, then I betrayed yours.”

She thinks for a moment, licking her lips. “You didn’t fail those kids, Sherlock. We got them back. You didn’t fail me. I was more than happy to play along. And you didn’t fail yourself. Think about that.”

She doesn’t have anything else to say. So she leaves him alone, hoping he actually heard what she was saying, and all the things she left unsaid.

******
Two nights later, she wakes up in the middle of her bed knowing, somehow, that Sherlock is sitting in his chair.

“Come to bed, Sherlock,” she says.

He does.