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The leather of the chair sticks to his palms. He wants to tap his fingers, but that's something that nervous people do, don't they? And whatever he is, he is not that. He is a hollow mass filled with churning energies roiling in his chest, but he is not a "nervous person."

He still doesn't know what to do with his hands. He never knows what to do with his hands.

"How have you been spending your time?" Ella asks.

"Cases." His voice feels rusty and awkwardly wielded. "Work."

She nods, the picture of composure. "How has that been?"

Desolate. Empty.

"Fine."

Her face does not change. It rarely does. (Sherlock wishes he could say the same for his own, but he is beginning to suspect he is not the unreadable mask he thinks he is.) Even so, he knows she does not believe him. Who would? One-word answers are the facades of desperate men. How Sherlock hates desperate men.

"How have your dreams been?"

Sherlock's mouth presses into a thin, tight line. He should never have shared that. Or—is sharing that exactly what he should have done? It is difficult to tell. This entire venture is making a wreck of everything he previously practiced in the sticky realm of emotion.

Sherlock's dreams are barbed. Sleep has always been only a loathsome necessity, and of late he has actively avoided it.

He hated the dream the first time because of its pitiful obviousness, and he hated it the second time because it signified an ongoing conflict, and he hated it every time since because he knew what it was telling him, and he knew it was right.

"You mentioned a recurring dream last session. Are you ready to talk about it?"

He stands in front of the tank at the aquarium. He is not looking into it. He is looking at Mary, who is holding his hands.

"Save John Watson," she says. Blood is soaking through her blouse. Her lips are blue, or they look blue in the light. "You made a vow."

Sherlock looks into the tank, and there is John, floating, his hands pressed against the glass. A few air bubbles emerge from his mouth and rise away. Mary squeezes his hands.

"Save him, Sherlock," she urges, but he does not have anything to break the glass with.

In the water, John drifts away from the glass, blank-faced and limp.

"Save him."

Sherlock shakes his head.

"Not yet," he says. It feels like a very large step from "no," and a little like a promise he's not sure he can keep.

———

Sherlock composes texts, or fragments of them, the way he teases out lines of investigation.

I understand that the past few weeks have been—

I understand you may be feeling—

While I understand you harbor some—

I miss you.

In the end, he deletes them all.

———

"Would it be...intrusive...to ask Molly about John?"

Sherlock understands that to do so might constitute untowardness, and put Molly in an uncomfortable place. While he does not precisely care about making Molly uncomfortable--well, actually, he does, doesn't he? What a complicated thing it is, to have friends.

Ella tilts her head to the side, considering. "It depends on what you ask. What were you thinking about asking?"

Sherlock shrugs. "General...questions. How he is."

"I'd say that's fine."

Sherlock notes this.

"Have you been sleeping well?"

"No," Sherlock says.

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Not yet."

———

"How's John?"

Molly's mouth goes tight around the corners. She does not look at his eyes. "Oh, you know," she says vaguely. "It's hard."

It must be. He reads how often she's had Rosie in the shadows under her eyes, the stain of formula on her cardigan, the baby powder lingering at the ends of her sleeves. He reads in her reluctance John's request that she not tell him anything.

He does not press further.

———

It's an accident at first. He means to open a different text thread, but his thumb slips, and there it is: the last text he ever sent her. He feels a sudden sharp stab of yearning to talk to her again, and before he knows it, he is opening the text field and typing.

I miss you.

He doesn't stop.

Have a case with a one-armed jewel thief. You'd love it.

Thought you might like to see it. The artwork rivals your own, accompanying a picture of a victim's embarrassing tattoo.

It's sentimental and mawkish and pointless. She will never reply. But John will not reply either, so he might as well text a dead woman.

———

Sherlock is afraid Ella will pronounce him troubled, but she seems pleased.

"It's an entirely normal coping mechanism," she says.

Sherlock pettily resents being entirely normal, but he will probably live.

———

Lestrade is gracious and does not mention the John-shaped space at Sherlock's side. He pulls Sherlock aside to ask how he's holding up, and Sherlock does not once hate himself for how easy he is to read.

"Fine," he says, and it contains fragments of truth. "Work helps."

Lestrade claps him on the shoulder. "Always does."

———

You would have been useful today. You usually were.

———

"My brother is stupidly well-connected. If I wanted to, I could just ask him about John. I could probably have him kept under armed watch and he'd never be the wiser."

Ella takes this in her stride. "Why do you think you don't?"

Because it feels like cheating. Because it would bare an unacceptable amount of his heart and soul to Mycroft to ask. Because if John found out, that would be the end.

"It isn't my place," he says, which is essentially what he was thinking. He feels unaccountably proud of himself.

They do not talk about the dream.

———

Mrs. Hudson goes to John's house every Monday and Wednesday to watch Rosie. When she comes back, she makes Sherlock tea and doesn't talk about John. She bustles about the flat fussing over the dishes, or the papers, or the general untidiness. It occurs to Sherlock that this is her way of being company.

"What did you do after your husband died?" he asks her suddenly.

Mrs. Hudson pauses in her scrubbing of a pot and smooths her apron. "I needed a change," she says, without turning around. "I had always rather missed London, so as soon as he was gone I packed my bags and got on a plane. Hadn't a thing to come home to."

"And did it help? The...change?"

She considers. "It was what I needed."

———

Was it terribly hard, changing? Did it feel better?

———

"It wasn't your fault."

Sherlock flinches. How openly he must wear his heart these days.

"And just because John blames you doesn't make it your fault."

She doesn't know. She wasn't there. If he hadn't—

"Whatever happened," she says gently, as if none of his secrets are his own anymore, "it wasn't your fault."

If nothing is his own anymore...

Sherlock closes his eyes.

"I want to tell you about the dream."

When he is finished, Ella thanks him, and Sherlock accepts her thanks. It feels earned.

———

Sherlock composes a text.

If you're ready, I would like the opportunity to talk with you.

He presses "send," and breathes out.

There is no reply.

———

"He has his own work to do," Ella tells him, but so does Sherlock.

———

I don't know how to save him for you.

———

When he comes home from therapy the next week, John is sitting in his chair.

The sight knocks the breath out of Sherlock. He is briefly frozen at the door, blinking stupidly.

John is calm and unsurprised. He looks up at Sherlock with only a little of the tightness at the corner of his mouth and jaw that means he is biting back his famous temper.

"I got your text," he says. "All of them."

"Oh," says Sherlock. It is all he has to say.

"And I thought…it wasn't fair." There's something else to that tightness in his face, a horrible grief just below the surface that Sherlock has become all too familiar with. "Any of it, and I was putting that onto you. So…let's talk."

Sherlock swallows and sits down.

———

You were the best of us.