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Confirmation Bias

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Sherlock slouched lower in his chair, repelling the cafe waitress with a petulant glare. No one from his life before would recognize him now— not with his ratty t-shirt, torn jeans, and worn sandals. No doubt, even John could pass him on the street and never spare him a second glance.

(The mere thought stabbed him like a blade through his left ventricle.)

People— couples, groups of friends and family— flooded the streets in anticipation of an evening out. The height of the tourist season, while useful when trying to hide in a crowd, was hell on Sherlock’s limited patience. Another glance at his wristwatch informed him it wasn't quite half past five yet.

While Sherlock did everything in his power to avoid turning to his brother, circumstances sometimes went beyond his control. Two months after his "death" and he had reached the limit of what he could accomplish (without his network, his contacts) and learned all that he could on his own (always alone now in his one-man war against Moriarty's memory). Moriarty’s organization had already decentralized as different factions and cells fought for dominance or left the game altogether. For the law enforcement community, it was a blessing. For Sherlock though, it meant the early termination of leads and connections he would have been able to follow through months ago. So if he wanted to return home before he grew old and gray from throwing himself futilely against the insurmountable legacy of Jim Moriarty, he would need Mycroft's help from time to time.

And Mycroft wouldn't be able to say no.

Because he owed Sherlock.

The sound of his brother's measured gait alerted Sherlock to his arrival before he even saw him.

Not even Sherlock's best glare kept the waitress at bay after Mycroft sat down across from him. Instead, he focused his glower on his brother, who ordered a cappuccino (specifically with non-fat milk and a shot of espresso!).

"I hate Barcelona," Sherlock growled when the waitress finally fluttered back inside the cafe, leaving them alone in the outdoor seating area.  

Mycroft sighed. In deference to the scorching summer heat, he'd left his suit jacket somewhere behind. Probably at the hotel or office. But the waistcoat stayed on, as did the top button on the dress shirt underneath.

Sherlock sneered harder.

"Contrary to what you may think, I didn't make this arrangement solely to antagonize you," his older brother, perfect and composed, folded his hands on the table. "I had to work around my own schedule. Any drastic change was likely to draw unwanted attention."

Too risky to use a third-party as an intermediary. Sherlock would not risk an information leak.

He diverted his gaze in irritation. Meanwhile the waitress wandered back with Mycroft's drink, to whom he said "muchas gracias, señora" in perfect Castilian Spanish.

Sherlock really hated Spain in general. But he swallowed the complaint and asked, "You're sure you weren't followed?"

His brother arched an eyebrow.

He huffed, "Fine. Did you bring it then?"

Under the table, something shifted until the corner of a briefcase dug into Sherlock's ankle. He wouldn't be able to check its contents until he got back to his safehouse. Still, Mycroft was nothing if not fastidious.

"I hope you will consider my offer," Mycroft said quietly. "The matter could be expeditiously resolved if you'd allow me to help."

"Your help is the reason I'm in this situation in the first place," Sherlock hissed and Mycroft's lips flattened in his approximation of an expression of contrition. "So I'd thank you not to help any further."

Mycroft had no control over Moriarty's release, but he had still provided the madman with all the ammunition he needed against Sherlock. That was more than enough for Sherlock to blame his brother. Forgiveness would not be easily won— their current, tentative alliance (for John and Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade's sake) notwithstanding. As he bent forward and reached down to grab the handle, Mycroft said something that made his pause and then sit up again.

"John is doing well— as well as he can be given the circumstance."

It wasn't exactly unheard of for Mycroft to offer news without prompting. For one, Sherlock imagined it went a long way in Mycroft's quest to appear eternally omniscient. But still, Sherlock hadn't asked about John. He hadn't planned to. He'd worked hard in the last months to not think about John (about his health, his happiness, his living situation) since he last saw him at a London cemetery. He had always been good at compartmentalizing. Especially in this case, where his ability to do so and get the job done may be all that stood between John and a bullet in the brain.

Mycroft took a delicate sip of his drink and continued, "The Met dropped the assault charge."

(John grunted as the officer shoved him against the patrol vehicle.

"Joining me?"

"Yeah. Apparently, it's against the law to chin the Chief Superintendent."

Sherlock turned his head to hide a smirk as he spotted said superintendent nursing a bloodied nose on the periphery of his vision.)

The corner of his lips quirked up in memory.

Mycroft stirred two packets of sugar into his drink as he spoke, "He continues to insist you are innocent. It will be a long uphill battle, but he's clearly determined to fight it."

Sherlock looked away. That hadn't been what he’d hoped for. He had wanted John to move on.

As if he had read Sherlock's mind, Mycroft added, "He is proving himself exceedingly loyal. But you need not worry too much about it."

Sherlock perked up. Mycroft had said all this with an almost fond smile on his lips.

"John can take care of himself," Sherlock swooped down to collect the briefcase. Its contents (mostly papers, but also something heavier and metal) shifted as he stood. "And he certainly won't appreciate you sticking your fat nose into our business."

For once, Mycroft let him have the last word. Sherlock never looked back as he slipped into Barcelona's early evening crowd.

 

-x-x-x-

He managed another four months by himself. But then there was that near miss in Cape Town, which caused him to lose two weeks as he recovered in a hospital bed. Over the years, Sherlock had developed a sixth sense regarding his brother’s often unwelcome interference. It was the reason he had checked out of the hospital earlier than recommended and fled South Africa altogether. But when he returned to his dingy short-term lease in Saint Petersburg to find the front door unlocked, he knew his brother had found him entire continents away.

“Breaking and entering now, Mycroft? Well, I thank you for not having one of your goons kick the door in. I’d hate to lose my security deposit.”

"Sit," Mycroft said pointedly as he poured a cup from the thermos.

Frankly, Mycroft (perfectly put together with his new suit tailored to a slimmed down physique— Sherlock wondered how long he’d be able to keep that excess weight off) was the last person Sherlock wanted to see after having spent a long day staking out the local internet cafe. But the thermos full of hot tea on the other hand...

The warm and hardy smell of PG tips (plain black— John and Sherlock’s preferred brand) finally convinced Sherlock to take a seat at the rickety table. Their knees knocked together as Sherlock dragged his chair closer. For the next few minutes, they sat in silence as Sherlock warmed his cold hands against the mug. He fought a shiver as he pulled his threadbare coat tighter around his body. Mycroft pretended not to notice as he flipped through the newspaper he had brought with him— that day's edition of the Kommersant— and idly drifted from one headline to the next.

"Get on with it. The sooner you say your inane piece, the sooner you'll leave me be," Sherlock finally snapped after the twelfth minute mark.

Of course, Mycroft couldn't just set the paper aside. He had to make a show of neatly folding the broadsheet and stowing it away. By the end, Sherlock was nearly on the last of his already severely tested nerves.

"Can I not visit my own brother out of concern for his health?" His brother asked mildly.

"I'm fine."

Then Mycroft's composure cracked just a bit as he frowned, "No, you were reckless in South Africa and you nearly died. It was an elementary mistake. I know this is something you have refused to acknowledge time and time again, but you have limitations, Sherlock."

Sherlock was bored of listening to his brother. He stood and wandered over to the antique radiator in the corner of the room. The thing was barely worth the trouble of not freezing to death. When it did start up, it did little more than give off a few puffs of steam and loud clanking that kept the entire building up night.

"Sherlock!" his brother snapped.

"Quiet, do you want the entire building to hear you?"

"If you insist on being obstinate, I will bring you in and put you under lock and key until the matter is resolved."

"I’d like to see you try." Sherlock glared, hoping that his brother might burst into flames somehow. Mycroft didn't, which was doubly regrettable because it would have done wonders for the temperature.

"I will if you leave me with no choice. John would be devastated if you returned to him in a box,” Mycroft impatiently tapped his fingers against the surface of the table, causing it to sway gently. “I will do whatever is necessary to prevent such an outcome."

It was as if someone had doused the fire in Sherlock's belly with a bucket of water. He slumped back into his seat. Weariness and homesickness gnawed at his bones until the inner marrow was exposed. Six months out and he had not made as much progress as he had imagined when he first undertook this endeavor. The reason? Those pesky limitations that Mycroft so kindly insisted on reminding him about.

Maybe that was why Sherlock gave into his curiosity. "How is he?"

"He returned to work three months ago at the Royal London Hospital. He stopped seeing his therapist two weeks before that. He finds the work rewarding and is being well-compensated. You'll also be happy to learn that he's remained in residence at 221B, but has not acquired another flatmate. Mrs. Hudson looks after him. You have no cause for worry. For all intents and purposes, he is making a return to normalcy."

He tilted his head as he studied his brother. "This isn't from a report that one of your minions gave you. You know this because you've seen it for yourself," he clenched his fists tightly under the table and regarded Mycroft suspiciously. "What is your sudden interest in John?"

Mycroft smiled thinly. "Let's just say that John and I have struck up a rapport. If he insists on fighting your battles even now, I should lend a hand to the effort."

"Oh, how generous of you," Sherlock drawled.

Mycroft stood in one fluid motion and regarded Sherlock down the length of his nose. From the back of the chair, he retrieved and slipped into a heavy wool coat that Sherlock couldn't help but eye with envy. The thrift shop find he sported now was a poor substitute for his beloved Belstaff. "I didn't come here just for the privilege of lecturing you."

"Could have fooled me." Sherlock slouched lower in his seat and scowled.

Mycroft ignored his quip. "You will have nearly depleted your resources by now. As such, I have taken the liberty of bringing you more money and some other supplies." Mycroft fixed his gaze on the patched hole in the elbow of Sherlock's coat. Then from inside his pocket, he drew a woolen scarf. "Including more appropriate outerwear. Otherwise, hypothermia will likely do you in before any of Moriarty's associates have the chance."

Sherlock stared at the vivid emerald green now swathed around his brother’s neck. For Mycroft, it was almost the equivalent of wearing a bright pink boa around his neck. Before now, Sherlock wasn’t sure he believed his brother neurologically capable of perceiving any color other than black, white, gray, beige, or tan.

Mycroft sighed, "It was a gift."

”It’s tacky,” Sherlock shot back. “Tell your sycophants to get you cake instead.”

Pausing in front of the door, Mycroft slipped on a pair of gloves and said, "Be careful, brother." The door shut behind him with a soft snick.

Sherlock hoped that would be the last he would see of Mycroft in a long while— even if he did bring with him a suitably warmer coat and a taste of home... 

 

-x-x-x-

Except Mycroft made a much more concerted effort to check in on him over the next few months. Sherlock never welcomed the visits, but he allowed them— if only because it seemed to annoy his brother to have to jet set around the world in Sherlock's wake. He supposed it was also nice to have news of home once in a while, which Mycroft brought in plenty each time. But the nagging suspicion he had (and initially discarded as irrelevant) grew as the clues piled up and snowballed into something he could no longer ignore. 

In Seattle, Mycroft met him while wearing a navy blue necktie patterned with little umbrellas. Outside, it drizzled. (Maybe it was supposed to be ironic?)

In Las Vegas, Mycroft brought a gift-wrapped package to their meeting and left with it. It was from a high-end store just down the street from their rendezvous on the Strip. Expensive, no doubt, and not up to Mycroft's usual personal standards, but it was still bound to impress anyone from a middle-class background— an impulse buy, meant as a gift to someone back home.

In Atlanta, Mycroft absently fiddled(!) with his collar, displacing it just far enough for Sherlock to catch glimpse of a fading lovebite. Sherlock made a comment about wanting to retch what little food he had eaten that day. In return, Mycroft glared at him and told him to "bloody grow up."

In Philadelphia, Sherlock lifted Mycroft's phone when his brother refused to give him information about Moran. Instead, he found regular meetings with John (and some with Lestrade as well) programmed into the calendar. Afterwards, he regretted the action immensely with a heavy, oily feeling sitting in the pit of his stomach. Throwing the mobile against the wall offered some tiny modicum of satisfaction.

Mycroft was dating. No, he was in a relationship— had been for several months now. Even worse, he appeared to be in a relationship with John Watson.

Sherlock would like to blame his failure to observe on America. America, on the whole, was challenging to navigate: too large (from continental landmass to portion sizes), too friendly (so effusively it seemed forced even when it wasn't), too... unfamiliar... The tangle of local, state, and federal jurisdictions did not make his journey any easier.

But the pieces had been staring Sherlock in the face since the bloody beginning. And he had somehow missed them.

All of them.

Sherlock had to think long and hard about the last time Mycroft had been with anyone. There had been Henry straight out of Oxford, but they had been quiet about the entire affair up to its disastrous end. There might have been someone else after that, but frankly, Sherlock had stopped paying attention to his brother then (crime scenes and heroine were so much more compelling). In the last six, seven years though, there had been nobody. Mycroft seemed to prefer the companionship of his work and the frosty nonchalance of his personal assistant.

So what had changed?

(What had changed for John to convince him to participate in such madness?!)

His mind churned as he spun all possible trajectories of logic and followed them to their conclusions. It was maddening, but he had no way of knowing. Not for sure. Too much time and distance away from John rendered most of his previous observations obsolete.

One thing was clear though: it was Mycroft's fault.

Still, he needed data— lots more data.

 

-x-x-x-

John's blog remained defunct. The last standing entry from almost a year ago mocked Sherlock. Of all the times for John to finally give up on his asinine hobby, it would be when Sherlock needed him to disclose every minor detail of his life. He was ready to push the laptop away in disgust when he noticed a link in the sidebar that had not been there the last time he checked the website (months and months ago).

The link (http://ibelieveinsherlock.co.uk) led him to a slick-looking website with the words "I believe in Sherlock Holmes" in bold print on the header image. The site hosted a collection of interviews and video testimonials from former clients, including Mrs. Hudson, Henry Knight, and others. It also housed a repository of evidence meant to disprove the fabricated Richard Brooks identity. Finally, there was a blog run by the combined efforts of John and Lestrade, whose brief bio stated he was "formerly of the Metropolitan Police Department" (the Met's loss, really).

This is what Mycroft meant when he said John was still trying to fight Sherlock's battle.

Sherlock was poleaxed. Since he first perpetuated the charade and went along with Moriarty's plan to discredit him, he hadn't given much thought to his "good name." It wasn't a priority. The rest of the world could drag him and his family name through the mud for all he cared. He had even told John: "I'm a fraud." The only end result he cared about was the complete eradication of Moriarty's legacy.

But John cared. John still cared— just like before.

Even though it was counterproductive, Sherlock couldn't stop reading.

 

-x-x-x-

As children, Sherlock and Mycroft had been similarly fascinated by the antique telescope in their father’s study. When he was good, his father would let him play pirate with it. Sherlock had loved it with every fiber of his little five-year-old heart.

Mycroft— forever humorless even at the age of twelve— scolded him as Sherlock would climb trees with the telescope dangling around his neck. In Sherlock’s simplistic worldview then, Mycroft only wanted the telescope because Sherlock did.

When Sherlock was six and Mycroft thirteen, they were shipped off to spend the summer alone with their grandparents in Spain for the first time. In protest, Sherlock remembered crying for hours— little grubby hands clinging to his mother’s skirt. Finally, a bribe of the telescope from his father quieted his tantrum long enough to pack him into the car.

Four hours into the ride, an argument and the scuffle that followed ended with the telescope flung out an open window and crushed by a passing lorry. Sherlock didn’t say a single word to Mycroft for the rest of the summer.

 

-x-x-x-

It was not in Sherlock's nature to tiptoe around sensitive topics.

When Mycroft next found him in New York, Sherlock attacked the question head on. "Why him of all people? There are plenty of other men you could seduce besides him. He's..." he faltered as he tried to find the right word, but weakly finished with, "A friend."

With a disapproving frown not aimed at Sherlock for once, Mycroft gingerly replaced the spoon he’d been inspecting back down on the table. “I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” he said dryly.

Sherlock swallowed a snarl. “Stop pretending. I know about your... your dalliances. You’ve been together for almost eight months now. You were probably trying to court him for even longer.”

(How long had Mycroft been eyeing John with covetous intent?)

As Mycroft studied him, Sherlock was reminded uncomfortably of the fact that they were more alike than he would ever admit out loud. From what he knew about his brother, John was "his type." Mycroft appreciated men who were both principled and unafraid of him— both rarities in his line of work. And John? John never feared Mycroft, not even in the beginning. As for how he could have been tricked into a relationship with his brother, Mycroft had manipulation and persuasion down to an art.

After a long pause, Mycroft drawled with a sudden bright gleam in his eyes, "Given that you were willing to almost die for him, he should at the very least be a friend."

Sherlock gritted his teeth. “This isn’t about me, I'm referring to your duplicity."

"I never lied," Mycroft declared as he calmly sat back with his hands folded on the table. "You chose not to ask. That is hardly my fault."

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. "So it's true. Why not say something sooner then?" he accused. "If you weren't trying to hide it from me, unless you're ashamed of him?"

It was a childish ploy— one that his brother recognized given the arched eyebrow Sherlock received in response. But that heavy sick feeling had returned, and Sherlock wanted to tear apart Mycroft's unflappable attitude.

"Now now, jealousy is unbecoming." Mycroft smiled indulgently— almost preening.

Sherlock growled low in his throat.

His brother continued, "I suppose we have you to thank. If not for you, we might not have had the chance to find common ground.”

He's goading you on purpose, Sherlock told himself. But the verbal punch hit him deep in the guts, forcing the air from his lungs. Mycroft watched him with a curious tilt of his chin, waiting for Sherlock to respond. Sherlock tried to swallow back the betrayal clawing its way up his esophagus.

(What if this was all his fault? He had left John alone— told Mycroft to look after John and given him every opportunity to get close to him. Of the two brothers, Mycroft had always been the one capable of and inclined to pass as normal. Wasn't this the story of their relationship, repeated again and again over the course of their lives? Mycroft always taking away what was Sherlock's?)

"Now I'd like to address yesterday's apparent break-in at 1 Police Plaza. What were you—"

Something snapped.

"No, we're done for good. I don't want to see you again. Get the hell out," Sherlock snarled. How dare Mycroft try to act like he hadn't committed a grave injustice. How dare he pretend otherwise. This wasn't an antique telescope or a bag of cocaine. They were talking about John.

"Be reasonable, I'm trying to help—"

"Reasonable!" he cried, causing several other patrons to look their way. "Help me? Is that what you did? Help John? You're not helping, you're trying to control everything. I'm sick of it and he will be too soon enough. Face it, Mycroft. You're doomed to die alone and unloved."

His brother's expression contorted uncomfortably. "As opposed to you? Because you're so presently well-liked and alive."

It hurt to talk— to think about Mycroft and John's relationship. But Sherlock couldn't let his brother escape from this encounter unscathed. He wanted to draw blood, even if it would be just the metaphorical kind. "As for your relationship, I have sincere doubts anyone would want to be with you of their free will. You're either using him for something or holding something over him. I know how you operate."

The hurt look that morphed into anger was so brief that anyone other than Sherlock wouldn't have made it out in the first place. "You would dare imply that I would abuse my position’s power within my relationships?"

The chink in Mycroft's armor was hilariously obvious. Mycroft was able to provide Moriarty with all the details the madman needed to discredit Sherlock because of a shared childhood. Conversely, that same childhood gave Sherlock all the tools to hurt his brother in return (because Mycroft could be hurt).

Sherlock flashed a sharp grin, baring all his teeth. "I'm not implying anything. I'm outright saying you would. I still remember Henry."

This time, Mycroft was unable to completely hide the pain on his face. Henry would likely always be a sore spot. "I was young then, Sherlock, and I did something very stupid. Is it really so hard to believe that someone might love me for whom I am?"

His blood was pounding away in his ear and the world tilted madly on its axes. Running solely on two hours of sleep and four cups of coffee, his defenses were already worn down— compromised. He looked his brother straight in the eye and said, "Yes. It's why everyone eventually leaves you."

Mycroft struggled visibly with what to do next— the rigid set of his shoulders tight with tension even as tucked his emotions behind a blank mask. Sherlock had said— done something unforgivable. Even in all the years where their relationship went from strained to fractured, Sherlock had never outright denied his brother's humanity or his worthiness to be loved.

But Mycroft was also never one to let an attack go unanswered with retaliation.

"Your cruelty really knows no bounds, Sherlock. It's no wonder he chose me over you."

Sherlock reeled back as if he had been slapped in the face. He watched as Mycroft stood and peeled a crisp American twenty from his wallet. Mycroft's knuckles were white and his hand shook as he threw the bill down on the table.

"You get your wish. I shan't be bothering you again."

With that, Sherlock let his brother walk out of his life.

 

-x-x-x-

He was coming up on the second anniversary of his so-called demise. Sebastian Moran had gone underground. There was neither hide nor hair of Moriarty's lieutenant, once again proving Mycroft all too right on the resourcefulness of Britain's SAS forces.

Mycroft didn't make an appearance since New York— good riddance. But when he hit a dead end, part of him still expected his brother to pop up in unexpected places with a file and a fistful of cash. He beat back the traitorous thought every time. He didn't need Mycroft (or anyone else). He managed on his own.

But there were quiet (mournful) moments when he was tempted to fade into obscurity. He could give up his hunt and take on another identity, live out the rest of his days far from London and everything he once knew. Other than the Moran connection, Moriarty's network had dissolved more on its own than through any of Sherlock's interventions. Even criminals eventually moved to greener and more profitable pastures. Given time, the entire escapade between James Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes would be forgotten until it barely warranted a mention in the footnotes.

Jeremy Sigerson had been his name for almost seven months now. He could take that to his eventual grave.

But John made that impossible. Because (fierce and loyal) John refused to stop believing in Sherlock. He continued his online campaign with Lestrade as his partner. He probably did so against Mycroft's own wishes— if they were still together.

(Who was Sherlock, especially now, without his work?)

So Sherlock came up with a plan.

Mycroft would have called it desperate, but Sherlock considered it a calculated risk. He needed to catch Moran’s attention somehow, and eventually draw him out into the open. A stroke of bad luck and bad timing was what subsequently landed him in a Malaysian prison— the authorities had arrived almost five minutes earlier than estimated and Sherlock hadn’t been able to get away in time.

Mycroft appeared to remand him into the Queen's custody on day seventeen of his 730-day sentence. Sherlock remained in cuffs until aboard their charter flight out of the country. Faced with the quandary of interacting with his brother (whom he didn't ask to come save him; Sherlock would have gotten out on his own eventually), Sherlock took a seat across from Mycroft's aloof assistant— across the aisle from where his brother sat. She looked up briefly from her tablet to Mycroft with a questioning expression. A small shake of his head sent her right back to her electronic haven.

Sherlock fell asleep somewhere over China's vast western desert.

A firm shake roused him from his sleep at the end of the flight. Sherlock was drowsy and felt like he had slept for days.

"We've landed in Zurich," she reported as she stepped away and turned her heels. When she then disembarked along with the plane's captain and first officer, Sherlock found himself completely alone with Mycroft.

Mycroft rose, crossed the aisle, and resettled opposite of him.

Sherlock rubbed his wrists, still raw from having worn the cuffs for hours. "What did you have to give in exchange for me?"

"Enough," Mycroft was willing to directly meet his gaze, but his tone was as frosty as the arctic winds. "You'll want to stop using the Sigerson alias from this point on. He has been implicated on several counts of arms smuggling and broken multiple international laws."

Sherlock sighed. So much for Jeremy Sigerson.

"I have prepared a new identity for you." Mycroft held up an unlabeled manila folder.

Even Sherlock recognized a reconciliatory gesture when he saw one. A stray sunbeam bouncing off the airplane wing caught on the gold ring haloed around Mycroft's left ring finger. Sherlock's brain stuttered to a momentary stop before rebooting. When Mycroft offered him the folder, he bypassed the documents and grabbed his brother's hand instead. He gripped it tightly, tilting the ring toward him for examination. It was recent (sometime in the last three months) and well cared for (regularly polished)— a treasured item. The band was simple (but not understated) and elegant. Based on the quality, it was not ludicrously expensive but most people would have had to save up for it.

"You're getting married." Sherlock's lungs felt like they'd collapse— must be the air pressure.

Mycroft glanced down at his ring. He smiled softly, as if he had forgotten about it and was pleased to see it still there. "I am."

(Mycroft was happy, and Sherlock's inside were churning. Sherlock hated it— hated the smile— hated the ring.)

He dropped his brother's hand and snatched the file instead. He needed something else to occupy his hands with. The inside pocket contained a French passport with the name "August Dupin," who was apparently both a travel writer from Marseille and a redhead.

(Inside his head though, the thought "Mycroft is getting married, Mycroft is marrying John" looped like a broken record. They were impossible to purge. Everything else became a mere backdrop of white noise.)

Even though this was the last conversation on earth that he wanted to be a part of, the remaining silence meant giving full reign over to those thoughts. Small talk— he had descended to small talk about his brother and John's wedding. "Mummy must be ecstatic. She hasn't had an excuse to throw an extravagant party in a long while."

"Actually, we're opting for a small, private civil ceremony," Mycroft smiled thinly, "He insisted."

Sherlock leapt to his feet— his bones creaking from having maintained the same position for almost thirteen hours. The interior of the plane was too small. He was trapped with Mycroft and a reality that he could not accept. Yes, leaving now would be good. Getting as far away from Mycroft as possible would be even better.

Still, he couldn't allow Mycroft to have the last word. "Well, congratulations, brother. You've finally managed to trap one. It's a shame that divorce is still legal or you'd be set for life."

"Sherlock, let's not be childish about this. It needn't be like this. If you would listen like a rational adult—"

The last of his composure snapped. "I'm not going to listen to your excuses or your justifications. When I told you to look after John, I didn't mean for you to seduce him."

"I have done no such thing."

He glared at the ring with contempt— its very existence mocked him.

Mycroft reached out to lightly grasp his elbow. "Sherlock—"

He tore himself from his brother's grip and said, "We're done, Mycroft. I don't ever want to see you again."

"The wedding is in September," Mycroft called after him. "I hope you'll change your mind."

"Not ever likely," Sherlock nodded under his breath.

 

-x-x-x-

Moran did resurface in the aftermath. Sherlock became too involved with his game of cat and mouse to be thinking about Mycroft, John, or matching wedding bands. In retrospect, Moran moving the playing field back to England, where Sherlock and those he sought to protect were most vulnerable, was inevitable.

Summer had nearly run its course— the oppressive heat giving way to cooler temperatures and more than the occasional rain. For the first two weeks that he was in London, Sherlock made no attempts to seek out or follow John. He had to trust that Mycroft would at least be keeping a close eye on his fiancé. But the city of London within the greater metropolitan area was not that large to begin with, it had been a matter of time before he'd bump into John entirely by accident.

Through the windows of a shop on Savile Row would not have been his first guess.

Donning a bespoke navy blue suit, John appeared the very picture of discomfort as he stood in front of a three-way mirror. A tailor was still fussing with the back vent when Lestrade emerged from a nearby changing room in a similar suit. The two men took a long look at each other and then burst out laughing, much to the tailor's offense.

Sherlock pressed his nose up against the glass, even though every instinct was screaming for him to get away as quickly as possible. The lack of sound was hardly a deterrent when one could read lips.

"I feel ridiculous," John declared. "And what's wrong with the suits I currently own?"

Sherlock could easily name a few reasons off the top of his head.

After the shop person walked away, John turned back to Lestrade and said, "And have you seen the prices? It's a bit out of my price range."

Lestrade gave John a friendly slap on the shoulder, "Relax, Mycroft said he would cover it, remember? You know, as a wedding gift." He then gave one of the most radiant smiles Sherlock had ever seen.

"Greg, you are aware that people usually get—"

Sherlock lost track of the rest of the sentence as John turned his face from view and out of the mirror's line of sight.

"Just accept it, John. You're practically family now."

Bile rose into the back of Sherlock's throat. He wanted to march into the store, grab John by the shoulder, and demand to know why. Maybe if he could just speak face to face with John, he could talk him out of sheer madness. His emotions— his sentiment was getting the better of him again, and he was frozen to the spot in a maelstrom of rage.

Then Lestrade broke eye contact with John, sweeping his gaze across the shop until he made contact with Sherlock through the window. The former policeman's eyes widened— his mouth forming a sudden and perfect "oh" of surprise.

Sherlock tore away and didn't stop running until he caught the Underground at the nearest station.

 

-x-x-x-

The note had been taped to the door when he got back to his temporary flat one drizzly evening. There was a split second where he thought it might be from Mycroft, but his brother would never lower himself to using that inferior grade paper.

Let's meet. Marylebone library tomorrow at noon.

Moran even signed and dated the note at the bottom.

Sherlock turned his heel and left without going into the flat. Maybe he'd be able to retrieve his scarce belongings later, but he wouldn't count on it.

 

-x-x-x-

The Marylebone Public Library was less than ten minutes away from 221B Baker Street, which couldn't have been a coincidence.

Having spent the night at Vauxhall Arches (after doing his utmost to lose any tail that may have been following him), Sherlock arrived at Marylebone Road at the crack of dawn. The library had too many entrances and exits to cover on his own. After having narrowed down the list of possibilities, he broke into the building on the other side of the street overlooking the adjoined old town hall and library. In a corner office (empty because of the weekend), Sherlock settled in for a long wait.

The rest of the morning crawled by at a snail's pace. This particular stretch of Marylebone Road was a well-traveled with both pedestrian and street traffic, but he didn't spot anything suspicious or anyone close to Moran's build.

Just before noon, Sherlock left the office behind and joined the lunchtime crowd, which was a bit larger on account of it being Saturday. He huddled under the eave of the building with a lit cigarette between his lips and watched. Fifteen minutes and two cigarettes later, Sherlock was growing impatient as he began to wonder if the entire arrangement was a distraction and Moran was nowhere nearby.

A loud cheer erupted across the street. Another newlywed couple descended the town hall steps hand in hand to the jubilant congratulations of their friends and family. It had been happening all morning (the celebration and photo taking), but this was the first same-sex couple he had seen and they were accompanied by a particularly large entourage.

A sudden bone-chilling fear gripped Sherlock and he froze. The lit end of his cigarette was close to burning through the filter and searing his lips. And he swore. Stupid! Stupid! He should have seen it!

He yanked his mobile out from his pocket and dialed a familiar number, hoping that Mycroft hadn't changed it.

It rang twice before someone picked up.

"Mycroft Holmes speaking."

"Where's John?" he demanded.

There was a brief (befuddled) pause before his brother asked, "Sherlock? What is this about?"

"It's happening today, isn't it? The wedding."

His worst fear was confirmed when he spotted Lestrade (suit and tie, formal unlike what he used to wear as a detective) turning the corner with Donovan by his side.

"Sherlock, please—"

"No, you listen. John is in grave danger. Do not let him come to the Marylebone town hall under any circumstance, do everything in your power to stop him. Moran is lying in wait for him."

He spared one more glance back at Lestrade, who had stopped to watch the newlyweds on the steps with a grin so wide that Sherlock could see it clear from across the road. He couldn't go warn him in person, which would place Sherlock out into the open and in Moran's scope as well.

"And for god's sake, call Lestrade and tell him to stay out of the street."

"Wait, Gregory's already—"

Sherlock hung up without listening to the rest of what his brother had to say. He hadn't the time!

He stepped further away from the building so he could scan the rooftops of other surrounding buildings. Moran was meticulous, well-trained, and unfalteringly patient (all crucial elements of a successful SAS sniper). He was a survivor. There was no need to risk a close-up encounter when he could take out his enemies from a distance and make a clean getaway. Almost all of them could be eliminated based on line of sight and accessibility, leaving the six-story one at the corner of Marylebone and Balcombe. The edifice of the building was currently covered with scaffolding and surrounded by a chainlink fence on the ground floor. It was about the same height as other buildings immediately around it, so Moran could make his escape without hitting street-level for a while.

In his pocket, his phone buzzed angrily. No doubt, Mycroft was trying to reach him again. He was half tempted to throw the nuisance away, but that would waste precious seconds. He shoved past the other pedestrians, who threw rude comments and vicious looks at him in return. The lock on a side entrance was broken, further confirming his hypothesis. He didn't bother with the elevator and took the stairs two steps at a time as fast as his legs would allow him. The door leading to the roof had been left slightly ajar.

He stood in the shadow of the doorway with the bright blue sky and the sight of Moran with his eye pressed to the rifle scope before him.

Sherlock's heart was beating like a jack rabbit's as he approached the edge of the roof. Still, Moran made no move to rise and stop him. Moran must not have noticed him yet, probably because he was too focused on his rifle or overconfident that he had successfully distracted Sherlock.

He risked a glance across the street and felt his heart plummet into the soles of his feet. John and Mrs. Hudson, both dressed in their best, approached Lestrade, whom Sherlock could barely make out as being on the phone from this distance. They were all here— all three of the people he had chosen to "die" for.

Sherlock was out of time. John was out of time. The illicit gun he had brought with him was still stowed away in his inside jacket pocket. And Moran’s finger was notched around the trigger of his rifle, muscles flexing as he began to squeeze.

Surprise was Sherlock’s sole advantage now.

Sherlock reacted— he charged forward, caught the unaware Moran around the waist and sent them both tumbling over the railing to the pavement below.

He just wished he had known how much the impact actually hurt.

 

-x-x-x-

Sherlock woke up.

Which was in and of itself, a complete surprise.

His head was pounding as a bland white tiled ceiling came into focus. Antiseptic— the hospital. So not dead then. Unless the afterlife (heaven, hell) was one eternal hospital stay.

Sensation was slow to return to the rest of his body— he was on painkillers. He could wiggle his toes and fingers, but trying to get entire limbs to cooperate resulted in fresh bouts of pain. An initial catalog of his injuries included a broken arm and leg, each already in a cast, and a concussion, judging from the way his head was currently swimming.

The bed creaked as he tried to sit up. When that failed, he used his remaining good arm to clumsily grope around for a controller. What he succeeded in doing was alerting the doctors and nurses. They soon swarmed around him, poking and prodding and checking and asking questions (what is your name? what is today's date? who is the current prime minister of Britain?). But eventually, one by one, they left.

The quiet was short-lived when shouting arose from the hall outside. Sherlock recognized that voice and his heart skipped a beat.

John stormed into the room, vibrating with righteous anger. He stopped short of Sherlock's bed and they stared at each other without words. Not that Sherlock could manage actual words around his cotton-mouth. Behind him, Mycroft and Lestrade quietly filed into the room. All three men were still dressed for a wedding that never happened.

"Sherlock," John breathed. "It's you."

Finding it hard to breathe and even harder to form words, he nodded.

"You fucker, you're really alive." John raised a clenched fist, waving his arm impotently for a few seconds.

Sherlock was genuinely curious about whether or not John would actually hit him, an injured man in a hospital bed, like he so sorely wanted to. But John pivoted suddenly and slammed his fist straight into Mycroft's face.

Sherlock laughed. He had never heard a more satisfying crunch of cartilage tissue in his life.

Lestrade caught Mycroft as the man stumbled back with a bloodied nose. Meanwhile, John continued to shout abuse and advance on them, "You knew! You fucking knew he was alive this entire time and you never said a fucking thing!"

"I told you that you should have told him." Lestrade said quietly to Mycroft. He had insinuated himself between Mycroft and John like a shield. Using Mycroft's own pocket square, he tenderly pressed the fabric to the other man's still bleeding nose. That was when Mycroft covered Lestrade's hand with his own and their matching rings glinted at Sherlock.

Laughter bubbled up in Sherlock again. Maybe it was the painkillers or the head injury or any other number of confounding variables, but he couldn't contain it. (So stupid! So blind!) He choked around his absurd, irrational mirth, and the air catching in his lungs as he gasped for air. "That's... why you told Lestrade— you're marrying Lestrade. You let me believe otherwise."

Mycroft had the decency to look somewhat chagrined.

John's anger morphed into visible concern. After abandoning his quest to further bodily harm Mycroft (what a joy that was!), he made his way back over to Sherlock's bedside. He placed a (warm, calloused) hand on Sherlock's cheek and turned his head so their eyes locked. "Christ, Sherlock, how hard did you hit your head?"

He leaned into the touch, starved for contact, as the body-wracking peals petered out into giggles.

 

-x-x-x-

Almost a week trapped in a hospital bed tested the limit of Sherlock's sanity. His only saving grace was John's unfaltering presence at his side (even if he, with the most pained grimace, constantly felt the need to remind Sherlock how lucky he was to be alive at all).

"Let me get this straight. You thought— you deduced that I was together with Mycroft."

Sherlock poked at the hill of mashed potatoes being served as a side to his hospital lunch. Dreadful instant powdered stuff. The entree— chicken medallions drenched in some sort of brown sauce— didn't look any more appetizing.

"Romantically?"

He sighed. While John had quickly gotten over his anger with Sherlock, he remained delightfully frosty toward Mycroft. Still, this was not Sherlock's preferred topic of conversation. But it was better than the alternative: the cold shoulder.

John leaned in closer. "Sexually?"

Sherlock cringed. "Please, John. You're the one that insisted I stomach this dreck. You're not helping the matter."

"You do realize how ridiculous that sounds, right?"

Sherlock did— now. Sentiment was a blind spot. It would be impossible to rectify that now. 

John continued, "Why on earth would you even believe that was a possibility?"

Sherlock resumed glaring at his meal. How indeed— simple enough to explain. Because Sherlock had jumped to the conclusion without adequate data. Because Mycroft never made the attempt to convince him otherwise. But saying any of that would mean giving voice to that dark feeling that had been festering in his gut all along. It was not something he wished to address with John.

Not yet.

"Getting married to Mycroft— I could never. Especially not since I—" John directly met his gaze for a second before quickly looking away, but not fast enough to hide his dilated pupils, parted lips, and flushed cheeks. He looked down at his sweaty palms instead, then wiped his hands on his jeans and clenched his fists. "I just couldn't."

Sherlock sat up straighter, feeling more alert than he had in months. John's body language was a marvel now, a perfect storm of repressed attraction and the fear of rejection. All towards— towards—

The sudden entrance of his brother and doctor prevented him from asking additional questions though. Sherlock filed the clues away for later. It bared further investigation.

"Ah, Mister Holmes, nice to see you all awake and bright-eyed," said Doctor Green cheerfully.

It figured that his brother would magic the one doctor in England who couldn't be turned away by Sherlock's surly attitude. Even John (who was now clearing away the lunch to give the doctor room to work) eventually lost his patience with Sherlock. Rather than waste his glare on the unflappable Doctor Green, he turned his glower on Mycroft, who sighed.

Sherlock fired the first, pre-emptive strike. He was still understandably cross with his brother— for a number of reasons. "Five pounds, I see married life is treating you well."

"Four and a half pounds actually, and I'm still technically unwed. Gregory insisted we wait for you to get well first before proceeding with the wedding. This," he glanced down at his stomach. "Is entirely due to the stress of sorting out your mess."

Not even the Sahara Desert was as dry as Mycroft's "pleasant" smile.

Sherlock hissed when Doctor Green jostled his broken arm. "And Moran?"

"He remains in a coma. It's becoming less and less likely that he will wake up from it. But if he does, it will be in a prison ward."

Good, one less thing to worry about.

When Doctor Green stepped away, John immediately resumed his vigil by Sherlock's bedside. Sherlock tried not to show how pleased he felt.

"Mister Holmes, I'm happy to announce that you will stop terrorizing my staff as of tomorrow. Your injuries are well on their way to healing and there have been no complications. You’re being discharged tomorrow."

"Finally!"

"I'll make arrangements for you to stay with me while you recover."

Mycroft was already pulling out his mobile when John spoke up, "No."

"Excuse me?"

Sherlock started when John reached over and took his good hand. Just a protective gesture, he told himself again and again. (Don't get your hopes up.)

"No, Sherlock will stay with me, at Baker Street. It's his home."

Ah, John was still mad at Mycroft. Good.

"John, be reasonable. Sherlock will need medical supervision."

"I'm a doctor, in case you forgot."

Mycroft tried another angle of attack, but he always did underestimate John's stubborness. "He'll be impossible while he's off his feet."

"How much damage can he possibly do when he can't even stand up on his own."

"You say that..."

"Shove it, Mycroft," Sherlock intervened. "I want to go home with John, not be a third wheel to you and Lestrade."

Mycroft cringed delicately. Presumably, he was able to read between the lines. "Very well."

It felt good— better than good— to face Mycroft again with someone on his side. Just like old times, in fact. And John reciprocated when Sherlock squeezed the fingers still threaded through his own. 

 

-x-x-x-

Stairs, on the other hand, were a formidable foe he had somehow failed to anticipate.

It took him and John nearly half an hour to navigate the narrow staircase up to the second floor. With both arms still slung around Sherlock's waist and shoulders for support, John resorted to kicking open the front door. They both heaved a sigh of relief when Sherlock was deposited on the sofa. As John fussed around the flat, Sherlock took the opportunity to investigate what had changed in his absence. Much of his belongings had been removed from 221B, but the important ones like the skull and his violin had been recently returned. Half of the shelf space was now devoted to DVDs and the rest to books more to John's personal taste (a mix of true crime and science fiction novels). While someone(s) had tidied the flat ahead of time, the more usual level of clutter mirrored what it had been like when Sherlock last lived here.

All in all, nothing much seemed to have changed. (Which was comforting.)

"Mycroft said he would have some more of your things sent over soon. So bear with it in the meanwhile." John fidgeted. "Just give me a tic to move my stuff back upstairs."

That gave Sherlock pause. "You took the downstairs bedroom."

His friend squirmed uncomfortably. "It made sense. You weren't using it anyway. It's bigger of the two and it saved me the trouble of having to climb a second set of stairs."

Sherlock empathized— he'd had quite enough of stairs for a long while. "It's fine, John. I can just take the couch. No need to take the room upstairs."

(And if he was pleased by the thought of John and his bedroom— certainly not Mycroft's.)

"No, Sherlock, we're not arguing about this. You need a proper bed to recuperate in. End of story."

"You kept my old bed, correct?"

"What does that have to do with anything?" But John nodded anyway.

With butterflies aflutter in his stomach, he declared, "Then there's plenty enough room for both of us."

John's jaw flapped uselessly a few times before he squeaked, "Are you suggesting that we share the same bed?"

"Problem?" Though he didn't show it, his nervousness knew no bounds. He had to trust his senses though. He knew exactly what he saw at the hospital and now.

John would reciprocate. (He had to.)

The world stood still as they held each other's gaze across the length of the room. Sherlock tried not to blink, even as his eyes began to water. Much like a prey animal, John might bolt if he did blink. Unacceptable. John broke eye contact first by turning his head and exhaling a huff of breath— an abortive laugh of sorts.

"You're ridiculous. There's no point in even trying to deny it, is there?" He asked as he approached Sherlock.

"No, you're not that good of a liar either."

He expected John to perhaps sit down next to him and maybe even take his hand. What he hadn't expected was for the other man to drop to his knees and lean up until their faces were level with one another. He could smell John's breakfast (a cup of Irish breakfast and an egg sandwich from Speedy's) on his breath. They were close enough to...

Sherlock's heart raced a mile a minute.

John gave a crooked smile— nervous but undeniably affectionate. "Well, if we're going to play mind readers and skip all the tedious boring parts like talking—"

Sherlock rolled his eyes (always nice when John managed to keep up with the conversation) and lunged forward. John and his lips met him halfway.