Actions

Work Header

Ad Interim

Chapter Text

The wind was loud in his ears, buffeting off the nearby buildings, whistling shrilly through alleyways and towers and wires. But it was not enough to mask the heavy thump of his heart.

Fear.

Moriarty was still nodding, dark eyes downcast. “As long as I’m alive, you can save your friends; you’ve got a way out... Well, good luck with that.”

A manic smile crossed his face before he yanked Sherlock closer. With his left hand—his dominant hand, why am I shaking his non-dominant hand…oh!—he produced a pistol from within the folds of his coat and shoved it in his gaping mouth and—

Dead.

Moriarty is dead.

I’m dead.

The switch flipped, and a strange calm settled over Sherlock. Auto-pilot.

The plan. He had prepared for this eventuality, prepared for his own—

Cab. John. Phone call with John. An apology. I’m a fake. I researched you. Keep your eyes fixed on me.

Goodbye, John.

“Sherlock!”

Falling.

Chapter Text

The day’s alias was Vesna. The name is of Slavic origin and means messenger, and today, a messenger she was.

A bearer of bad news.

-x-

Despite the enforced silence, the room was exceedingly loud, the cacophony of uneasy shuffling and near-soundless gasps almost masking the soft pad of sensible heels against the carpet.

Vesna reached her intended target who was skimming through a Russian newspaper and nursing a cup of tea. She stood before him silently, anxiety beginning to twist in her stomach, until he lowered his newspaper. At his raised eyebrow, she held out her Blackberry, but when he reached for it, she wordlessly withdrew her hand. Her eyes flicked towards the door. Ignoring the scandalised glares from the older men around her, she walked to the Stranger’s Room.

When the door was safely shut behind them, she turned and eyed the man before her for a long moment. He looked terribly tired, and the lines creasing his face seemed deeper. For the first time in her life, she wished desperately she had never taken this job. It was difficult enough to tell him something had not gone according to plan, that one country had invaded another country, or that this country’s economy had been destroyed by an unforeseen embargo from that country. Telling him what his younger brother had done was a different matter entirely, one she had hoped never to have to deal with.

“Mycroft...” Vesna placed her hand lightly on his arm, then stopped. It wasn’t that she was concerned about the lines she was crossing by being so familiar, but rather that she, simply put, did not want to do this. She could feel the mask of professionalism she so carefully cultivated crack and fall away.

“Vesna, what—“                                

“I’m so sorry, Mycroft.” Her hand shook as she offered her Blackberry again, and she held her breath as Mycroft took the mobile and began to read the report sent only ten minutes ago by a nurse at St Bartholomew’s Hospital.

She watched in silence as his brow furrowed then smoothed, eyes narrowed then widened, lips frowned then parted.

The world was crashing and burning, but that wasn’t new to Vesna. In fact, it happened daily, sometimes more than once. The only difference was that this time, she couldn’t do anything about it. There was only one thing she could not rectify, one thing out of millions, and it had happened. She was useless. Pointless. A failure.

Vesna’s hand flew out convulsively again and grasped Mycroft’s arm. His fingers tightened on the mobile and he looked away, jaw tense.

Failure.

 

Chapter Text

The morgue was, as always, as it should be, silent. Sherlock was surprisingly acquiescent under Molly’s hand as she wiped the blood from his head. It made her anxious.

“Anything else hurt?” she asked. Slowly, he turned his eyes on hers. They were fuzzy and distant, she thought. That scared her, too. In all the years she had known him, she had never seen him so subdued. He was always fantastic, brilliant, amazing...and now, sitting slumped and silent on a high stool, he was nothing short of lacklustre.

“I’m fine.”

Moly dropped the bloody cloth into the bin, hiding her frown. She was still not entirely certain how he had pulled his not-suicide off, but it was clear it had been well thought out; Sherlock had come out of the ordeal with only a handful of stitches, a broken left index finger, and an unholy smattering of bruises. And an attitude that hinted at a thoroughly shattered heart, but there was nothing to be done about that.

“I suppose you ought to leave, then?” Her voice trailed upwards into a question. Logically, she knew he had to go as soon as possible, but he just looked so...hollow.

In reply, Sherlock stood and grabbed the plastic bag of supplies Molly had purchased earlier. He leaned in close, opalescent eyes fixed firmly on hers. Her breath hitched, but she kept herself steady, holding his eyes. Then he pressed a soft kiss to her cheek before sweeping from the room.

“You always mattered, Molly Hooper.”

Chapter Text

John didn’t even realise he was trapped in time.

He didn’t notice the blanket draped over his shoulder, only felt smooth skin and stillness under his fingertips. Didn’t taste the cup of tepid coffee Lestrade pressed into his hands, only the blood from where he had bitten his tongue falling. Didn’t smell the sharp scent of antiseptic that pervaded the A&E, only rain on dry pavement.

Then someone put him in a cab.

The rain splattered against the window in earnest, but John only heard a deep, trembling voice say goodbye. London flashed by, all bright lights and scurrying people, but John only saw pale eyes staring unseeingly at the surrounding chaos.

He arrived at Baker Street.

Mrs Hudson opened the street door just as he walked up. Her face was pale, but her eyes were rimmed in red. John simply brushed past her, lips pressed tightly together. If he opened his mouth to speak, he was afraid he might just start shouting instead.

The seventeen steps to 221b were somehow more difficult to climb than usual, steeper or narrower or something. But perhaps it was just because he would be ascending them alone from now on.

Fuck you, he snarled at the voice in his head.

The door was ajar, like it nearly always was. John stopped. With one easy push, with minimal effort, he could open the door and walk into his flat. Step across the entry. He had done it more times than he could count. It should be easy. But it wasn’t. His feet were glued to the floor, limbs turned to stone. He was numb and blank and void of everything except the one thought that filled all the newfound empty space inside him: this was the point of no return, this was his Rubicon. To cross this threshold would be to accept what had happened, to commit to this idea that Sher—

-x-

In the end, Mrs Hudson did it for him, barely nudging the door open, gently grasping his elbow and guiding him inside to his chair. He protested, trying to heave himself upright, but her hand was firm, pressing him down. A sudden wave of exhaustion crested over him, knocking him down without giving him a chance to fight. He slumped back and closed his eyes, refusing to see the empty chair across from his. He could hear Mrs Hudson fluttering about in the kitchen before setting something down on the coffee table. A tea tray.

Cracking an eye, John saw he was correct: a plastic tray was sat on the table with two steaming cups and a plate of biscuits. With monumental effort, John leaned forward and took a cup, balancing it on his knee. Mrs Hudson did the same.

Neither of them drank.

Everywhere John looked were traces of Sh—him, scattered case notes and strange experiments and that damned deerstalker. He could feel his heart starting to pound, threatening to break his ribs and burst forth from his chest. There was so much, too much, happening all at once, even though nothing was happening at all, just cold and quiet and emptiness filling the room like a toxic gas.

John suddenly became aware of his teacup rattling against the saucer, his left hand shaking ever so slightly.

He thought he was about to be sick.

“Drink up, dear,” Mrs Hudson warbled. “It’ll do you good.”

He looked up in astonishment, and all of a sudden he wasn’t so numb anymore. He was burning, blazing, like a match to dry tinder. His blood sang through his veins like liquid fire, stomach filled with smouldering embers.

Good?” he cracked. “Good? A cup of fucking tea will do me good? What would do me good is if he hadn’t—if he didn’t—if he—“

With an unintelligible roar, John stumbled to his feet, flinging the ceramic cup at the wall. It arced through the air, tea tracing after it like a comet’s tail, until it shattered in the dead centre of that goddamned yellow smiley face.

John started screaming.

 

Chapter Text

The study was silent save for the staccato clicks of practiced fingers over computer keys. Bookshelves bordered the walls, filled with thick tomes on various subjects. Two cushy chairs and a long settee were arranged tastefully by a fireplace, currently unlit. The back wall was lined with windows opening onto a lush garden. It was a warm, comfortable room, the kind one often associates with rich, old gentlemen. Which was precisely why the adolescent girl to whom the study belonged looked rather out of place sitting behind the heavy desk, tapping away at the keyboard.

“Rosamond?”

The young woman started and blinked her tired eyes owlishly, swivelling in her seat to face the open door. “Mycroft? To what do I owe the...pleasure?” Her lip curled.

Mycroft, for his part, was uncharacteristically silent. He crossed the room and sat in one of the large chairs before Rosamond’s desk.

Her eyes narrowed. Mycroft looked several shades too pale, and his lips were set in a thin line. She had often seen him looking grim, but this time seemed different. Something personal, she decided. “What’s wrong? Is Auntie alright? I know she was feeling a bit under the weather earlier this month.”

“I assure you, Mummy is in good health,” he said shortly. “It’s Sherlock.”

She sighed, glancing at the framed photograph on her desk. “What’s he gotten himself into now?”

“Sherlock is dead.”

For a moment, the world seemed to simultaneously freeze and spin out of control. Rosamond felt as though she had been punched in the stomach, the air vanishing from her lungs. She stared blankly across the desk, vision tunnelling until she saw nothing but Mycroft’s grave face. She heard nothing, felt nothing, thought nothing. Numb, numb, numb. It was not often Sherlock managed to surprise her, but apparently, there was a first time for everything.

She tuned back in just in time to hear, “...jumped off the roof—“

“Why?” she asked tightly, cursing herself as her voice wavered over the single word.

“Moriarty.”

The name dropped like a lead ball into the pit of her stomach. Of course. It had only been a matter of time. She had seen footage of the trial, the way James Moriarty managed to look bored while awaiting his verdict. His behaviour had baffled the public, but Rosamond knew the truth. What she saw in Moriarty that day had been a promise, a vow, to make Sherlock fall. Not a threat, no, because threats imply there is a way out—Do what I tell you and everything will be fine. Promises have a far more definite ending.

“Does John know?”

“John was there.”

The dense weight grew heavier. She had never met the doctor but had liked him immensely; after all, there were very few people who could make her cousin come to heel like John did. Pity coiled somewhere deep inside, fury licking at its heels. She clenched her hands, fighting to keep them from shaking.

“You know this is your fault, right? You had Moriarty, told him everything about Sherlock, then let him go. This is entirely your fault.” She turned her head away sharply, breathing ragged. Her knuckles were white; there were little crescents imprinted on her palms.

“I don’t think—“

“No, you misunderstand. This is entirely your fault. There is no discussion.”

When Mycroft spoke, he seemed to be picking his words carefully, level-headed as always. Rosamond wanted to scream. “While I will take responsibility for the information released in Miss Reilly’s article, I cannot be blamed for Sherlock’s...” He stopped, a look of pain tightening his face for only a brief moment before he schooled his expression. “The evidence we discovered in these cases would implicate only Moriarty’s subordinates; his involvement was completely untraceable. We held him longer than is...typical...but we could not detain him indefinitely. I could not have possibly predicted this outcome.”

“I shouldn’t even be surprised. You screw anybody and everybody over with this ‘minor position’ of yours. It only follows your own family isn’t safe either.”

“I loved my brother—“

“Oh, don’t give me that, Mycroft!” she broke in. “You didn’t give a damn about your brother. You only cared about his mind and the dirty work he could do for you.”

“How dare you presume to know anything about my relationship with Sherlock!”

“How dare you let his killer free!”

“This was not my intent! I made a mistake—“

A mirthless laugh burbled up Rosamond’s throat. “You don’t get to make mistakes, Mycroft.”

“Contrary to popular belief, I am a human being, Rosamond,” he suddenly shouted, face twisting grotesquely. “I am entitled to make mistakes, just like the rest of you! I am not proud of what I did. This was not my intent; I love my brother, despite his belief otherwise. I may be more intelligent than most, but that does not mean I am an omniscient machine!”

“Then what is the point of you?” Rosamond bit back. She felt a surge of savage pride as another spasm of pain tore across Mycroft’s features.

He picked up his briefcase and left without answering, the slam of the door echoing in her ears. The room was suddenly too dark, too small. Like a magnet, Rosamond’s eyes were drawn again to the simple wooden picture frame. She picked it up, tracing a fingertip over the spotless glass.

The photograph had been taken at a family wedding a few months past, which neither Rosamond nor Sherlock wished to attend. As a result, they had banded together and sat well apart from everyone else, making impolite (and entirely accurate) comments about their relatives and discussing Sherlock’s Work and Rosamond’s classes. But, unbeknownst to them, someone had snapped a picture. It was underexposed and a bit blurry, but it was nevertheless her favourite. Sherlock’s head was tossed back, his mouth stretched wide as he roared with laughter at some long-forgotten joke. Rosamond herself was doubled over, clutching her sides as she shook with mirth.

For as long as she could remember he had been reserved, always keeping to himself except when he was spitting out cruel words in response to taunts and insults, in defence. It had been so strange to hear Sherlock laugh that hard, so odd to see him look so unreservedly happy.

She was glad someone had gotten evidence before it had been too late.

Chapter Text

The razor hummed in Sherlock’s hand as he drew it over his scalp. Scattered around him on the faux marble vanity were various bits of rubbish: boxes of fake contacts, bottles of hair dye, bags of cotton balls. Everything he would need to shed his identity and become someone else.

When Sherlock was finished, he meticulously swept up every strand of hair, tossing them in the rubbish bin and following it with a lit match. For a moment he watched the dark curls shrivel to ash, and then he stepped out of the toilet.

His suit was lying in a crumpled heap on the floor; he added it to the bin with a splash of rubbing alcohol. As the flames licked up at the air, Sherlock methodically tugged on a pair of jogging bottoms and a t-shirt.

There was one last thing for the fire: his coat. His eyes roved around the room, searching for the woollen garment, but he could not find it. Sherlock darted across the space, looking around the bed, under the desk, in the wardrobe. A brief feeling of panic flared in his chest. Where was his coat?

The moment passed when he remembered. Oh. He had left it with Molly in the morgue. Part of his personal effects. The Yard must have it now, or perhaps it had been given to Mycroft already. Or John.

John. The iron shields he had placed around his mind since the rooftop crumpled like aluminium. Sherlock slumped against the wall and slid down until he was sitting, knees tucked beneath his chin. Something strange stirred in his gut, something unfamiliar and wholly unpleasant. The only thing he could compare it to was the food poisoning he had contracted as a teenager. Except he hadn’t eaten in...a few days? He couldn’t remember. And he was almost certain he’d not ingested any sort of toxin...

Don’t be an idiot, it’s just transport. And it was just transport, just a shell to protect his brain and keep any vital bits more or less where they should be. Shouldn’t be bothered by a little nausea or ache in his chest or the little voice mumbling something that sounded suspiciously like “guilt.”

Damn it.

He could still see the way John reached out for him, always protecting, could hear the way he denied the accusations, always believing.

Bloody fool.

Sherlock grit his teeth, fighting to fold up the memories and lock them in the basement of his Mind Palace. But he was tired, overwhelmed, and flashes of scenes kept slipping out: Moriarty’s glassy-eyed stare, the smell of gunpowder and blood, the way John’s fingers shook when he tried to take Sherlock’s pulse.

The detective bit back a groan and curled in tighter around himself, bile rising in his throat. In all of Sherlock’s memory, John had not once panicked in a stressful situation, had never wavered. They had faced death on a weekly basis, and John had always met it with unflinching bravery. Until it was too late, and Sherlock was already lying lifeless on the ground.

A growl rose from Sherlock’s chest, and he scrabbled around for something—anything—to throw. He settled on the television remote and sent it sailing across the room. His lips twisted in a snarl when nothing dramatic happened; the batteries didn’t even have the decency to pop out.

The sudden strident beep of the fire alarm startled him out of his mood. He scrambled to his feet, jabbing at the smoke detector as quickly as he could. Chucking the smoking bin into the bathtub with a resounding crash, Sherlock gathered up his track bag and stepped into his trainers. He was out the door and in the lift just as the pounding footsteps of the cleaning staff rounded the corner and dashed towards his room.

He slouched against the wall of the lift, closing his eyes and composing himself again.

If he hurried, he would make it just in time to catch the train to Avignon.

Chapter Text

Just the thought of moving all these boxes made her hip ache.

Martha Hudson crossed her arms and sighed, quietly surveying all the bins and containers filled to bursting with Sherlock’s possessions. The ones on the left were filled with scientific equipment; those would be donated to a local school. The bags stuffed with his clothes and costumes (“Disguises!”) would be on their way to shelters and second-hand shops. And anything he obviously stole—most notably the twenty-seven badges belonging to Detective Inspector Lestrade—would be returned to their rightful owners.

For all his quirks, she mused, he wasn’t a bad man. Certainly she could have lived without the clients traipsing in and out of her building, and the sporadic outbursts of violin and/or gunshots at all hours, and the frankly alarming amount of dead body parts in the fridge, but in the grand scheme of life, those things weren’t so terrible. At the end of the day, he more than made up for his eccentricities. All those people he helped, the lives he saved, the criminals he put away... He was a good man, she decided firmly. Whatever he said, whatever names he called himself, he was wrong. Sherlock Holmes was a good man.

After all, she hadn’t offered him the flat for no reason. Behind all the sharp angles and biting tongue and claims of only being interested in the “Work” was one of the biggest hearts she had ever come across. The smile he had given her when her husband was found guilty—a real eye-crinkling, ear-to-ear smile—had been proof enough. Throwing an American CIA agent out the window was just extra.

She sniffed and dabbed at her eyes, giving a watery chuckle at the memory. The boxes could wait until tomorrow.

Chapter Text

This was the seventh safe house in so many weeks, and frankly, Sherlock was getting tired of moving. The first had been a mansion in southern Italy, long abandoned yet still sumptuous. However, the quality of each house only declined from there. Now he was ensconced in a cheap flat in Florence, no bigger than the sitting room at Baker Street and certainly no tidier. But it served its purpose just fine, and that was all that mattered.

Muttering to himself, he crossed the flat and leaned out the open window, glowering at the street below. Seven weeks away from London had taken its toll, though he was loathe to admit it. It wasn’t that his light was gone; in fact, it might be brighter than ever before. He had cases aplenty to solve now, and they occupied all his waking hours. The problem was that it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how brightly he burned, how brilliant he was, because there was nobody to see it, applaud it, conduct it.

Sherlock frowned one last time and levered himself off the wall, carelessly slamming the window shut and wandering into the toilet. He looked in the mirror and didn’t know who was looking back at him. The stranger’s nose was bright red and peeling, a remnant of the relentless sun that left freckles splashed over the rest of his face. His hair was shorn short and bristly, making his ears stick out. A lit cigarette dangled from his lips. Perhaps he was a university student studying abroad or simply a young man on holiday. Whoever he was, he was not the world’s only Consulting Detective.

-x-

Florence was quiet, but everywhere else was not. Sherlock was beginning to hear rumours, dangerous gossip. There were people out there who weren’t complete idiots, and they were starting to put two and two together. He figured he had some time before the whispers became mutterings, but it would not be much. Already things were moving again, slowly and not as powerfully, but moving all the same. He would need help.

There was only one logical option: call him. He didn’t want to. Part of the reason he left was to keep him out of this, keep him safe. But Sherlock had no other choice now; he was the only one who knew how to handle the situation. He picked up his mobile—cheap, disposable thing—and flipped it open. Sherlock dialled the well-known number, holding the device to his ear and ignoring the voice inside his head that taunted him for this weakness.

“Hello?” The voice was weary, guarded. Sherlock was certain he’d had a lot on his plate since the Fall, but he felt no remorse in adding to it.

“How’s the diet, brother dear?”

Chapter Text

Monsters, the whole lot of them.

They camped outside his flat in all weather, getting in the way of foot traffic when they weren’t hounding him. Every time he opened the door he was met with a flurry of clicks and a lightning storm of flashbulbs and a veritable deluge of shouted questions.

“Dr Watson! Dr Watson!”

They wanted information.

“Did Mr Holmes ever display any suicidal tendencies before jumping from St Bart’s?”

“Do you have any idea why Mr Moriarty was acquitted?”

They wanted the story.

“Can you comment on reports of a row between yourself and Mr Holmes just prior to his death?”

 “Have you met with his family since his death? How did they react?”

They would do anything to get a rise, make claims and accusations and spout utter nonsense just for his reaction.

“Were you romantically involved with Mr Holmes?”

“Do you feel guilty about his suicide?”

He always told them the same thing:

“I believe in Sherlock Holmes.”

Chapter Text

Mycroft smirked slightly at his younger brother. Despite Sherlock’s attempts to hide it, it showed. With every twitch of the fingers, every quirk of the lips, his body betrayed him.

Sentiment.

Mycroft had taken the first flight out to Florence, leaving only the terse message for Juniper that “something had come up,” and he needed to leave immediately. It had taken him a while to find the safe house, but in the end, it only made sense. Out of all the dilapidated flats in Florence his brother could have chosen, it had to be the one attached to a tiny sandwich shop, owned by the elderly couple who lived above it. It seemed even his logical mind could not overcome his meaningless affection for Baker Street.

But at this moment, Sherlock was very clearly not thinking about the safe house. There was agitation written in the tightness of his lips, distress in the way he plucked at his cuffs, and the tiniest hint of fear brushed across his eyes.

Mycroft broke the near hour of silence. “Moriarty.”

“Obviously,” Sherlock returned.

“I will admit I did not anticipate this. Something dramatic and deranged, yes, but not...this.” When the detective remained silent, Mycroft forged on. “Who helped you?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “You have your people, I have mine.”

“You put your life in the grubby hands of homeless Londoners?”

“I’m here, aren’t I?”

An angry ‘Yes, but—‘ rose up Mycroft’s throat, but he snapped his teeth shut and bit off the thought. It would not do to fall prey to emotions, to sway from reason. The facts must be laid bare, and emotions had no part in that.

Another few minutes passed before Sherlock spoke again. “John?” His jaw was set (prepared to argue), eyes narrowed (defiance), head ducked slightly (anxiety?).

“Safe.” Sherlock relaxed, but only slightly. Clearly he was awaiting admonishment for asking, for showing his trump card. Mycroft could not find it within himself to deliver. “Mrs Hudson and Detective Inspector Lestrade are as well.”

Sherlock only nodded, but he rested a bit easier in his chair. “I assume you will maintain my flat until I am able to return?”

“Yes. Shall I remain anonymous?”

“It’s for the best. Although,” Sherlock said after a pause, “tell Mummy. I’m sure she’s dreadfully upset.”

“She is, and I will.” Mycroft watched as his brother’s fingers began to drum against the arm of the chair—adagietto, lento, allegretto, prestissimo. Faster and faster until he stopped completely, fingertips turning white as he gripped the upholstery.

Mycroft waited for a moment before sliding the thick manila folder from his briefcase and passing it over. Sherlock scanned the contents quickly. To the untrained eye, it would seem as though the youngest Holmes’ face did not change, but Mycroft’s eye was decidedly educated. There was excitement and the smallest bit of relief.

“For once,” the detective said with a gleam in his eye, “I will accept your offer with relish. Don’t get used to it.”

“I see death has done your attitude no favours,” Mycroft answered with a sour smile. “I did not expect it would, but one could always hope... Do be certain to burn that when you’ve finished,” he added, tilting his head at the folder.

Sherlock only nodded, already sinking deep into his thoughts. Mycroft rolled his eyes and stood. When Sherlock completed this case, he would call. Until then, his business was done here.

He was halfway out the door when a hand on his elbow stopped him. Mycroft turned to appraise his younger brother with a raised eyebrow. Sherlock seemed to want to say something, but couldn’t find the words; his jaw worked noiselessly while his mind sped on.

Suddenly his brother was a toddler again, fair haired and wide-eyed, not speaking because he knew Mycroft would always do it for him, would always know exactly how to help. Something tightened in his chest—sentiment, laced with nostalgia. He longed for the petty fights of two months ago, because true danger had not been a threat back then. They were Holmes men; they could outwit anything with their intelligence and power, even death. Until they couldn’t.

Mycroft laid a hand on Sherlock’s.

“I know,” he said quietly, halting the rush of thoughts in their tracks. And Sherlock finally looked up, for once appearing completely at ease as he stepped back smoothly, chin tipped up in satisfaction.

“Good evening, Mycroft.”

“Good evening, Sherlock.”

Chapter Text

In theory, getting past half a dozen laboratory-bound scientists should be easy. Most of them had that weary, hunted look associated with prisoners. It was not likely they would fight back. More plausible that they would run.

Sherlock took a deep breath, fortified his Mind Palace, adjusted the grip on his gun. Kicked the door open and slipped inside, aiming the weapon around the cold cement room. As he anticipated, the scientists jumped, startled. One even fell off his chair. But he paid no attention to them—they wouldn't harm him. Probably couldn't if they tried. Regardless, he ran across the room and through the opposite door before any of them gathered their wits.

Down the corridor, third left, through the double doors at the end. In his mind Sherlock could see the map of the building, the route he had to take. His footsteps reverberated loudly off the sterile white walls as he clattered down a flight of stairs. Peer around the corner—empty.

Sherlock fell to his knees before the door, jimmying a pick in the lock. Test the tumblers, push the weak one up, over and over again until the satisfying click echoed in his ears. Open the door and run. Right, right, left, through the maze like a rat.

He felt the air gusting his lung, felt the stitch searing in his side, but only distantly. He was detached from himself, floating weightless somewhere outside his body. A machine, just like John had said all those months ago. A robot, barrelling through these narrow corridors, gun sweeping ceaselessly for a target, looking for a door, a door, the door...

The vibrations rattled up his leg as the wood splintered under his foot. He only just caught himself as he stumbled inside.

Target sighted.

“So you are alive, Mr Holmes.”

Sherlock blinked, feeling his consciousness pour back into his body all at once, like so much water in a glass. Oh, yes, of course. Office of Leonid Alkaev, Russia. The man sat before him, relaxed, with his feet propped on the desk. Drug lord, producer of lethal pills, formerly employed by Moriarty. Unmarried, age 53, eldest child of five—no, six (see mother’s ring around his neck, set with six stones, birthstones of each child), one cat, allergic to—focus.

“Clearly.”

“I am wondering why you are here, though. There is nothing to concern you—“

“Your pills killed several people in London. I know what you’ve done, and I’ve come to see that it is righted. Now, will you go and stand trial, or must I make you?”

Alkaev’s eyes widened at the gun Sherlock now levelled at his head. “Now, Mr Holmes,” he said, raising placating hands. “Do not be so hasty. I assure you, I do not know why you are here. I have done nothing wrong.”

“Do not lie to me. It insults us both,” Sherlock said coldly. “Be honest with me, and I will do my best to help you. Lie, and I will ruin you.”

The Russian paled, his lower lip trembling. An indication of anxiety, fear. An admission of guilt in Sherlock’s eyes, though he knew it would not stand up in court. But—

“I've done some surveillance,” Sherlock continued, waving his mobile. “Already sent to London. Quite powerful information. I've been told it makes a fantastic case against you. Now, will you come with me, or—“

“Don’t,” the man said. Was he begging? “I—I don’t know, I don’t—Moriarty, he—“

This is what I died for? This man, this snivelling, spineless coward that pleads for his life? Sherlock was flooded with rage. But it was different. Not hot anger, not the slow burn that starts in your stomach and makes your vision cloud red. It was cold anger. Ice that cracked and flowed  in his veins. Frost over his heart.

Enough, Sherlock thought. The man was guilty, but he would not admit to it. Dreaded life in prison. What a foolish thing to fear when another man stood before him with a gun in his hand and the British Government to protect him.

He fired.

-x-

It was hours later, in a hotel room in St. Petersburg, that the gravity of the situation caught up to him. He lurched into the bathroom, falling hard on his knees in front of the toilet only a moment before he began retching.

Never, never before. Never taken a life before, not directly, never been the one behind the gun pulling the trigger.

Sherlock shuddered, fingers gripping the porcelain bowl tighter. Taking lives would be a necessity now, and he had known that, he had accepted that. But splattering another man’s brain and bone across a wall was another story, a tale painted in blood and gunpowder.

And his mind, his mind, coated in a creeping black tar that dried as the hours passed, until it tightened across his thoughts and pulled them close, until it was all he could think about.

Death, in fractions of a second, by his own hand.

He vomited again.

Chapter Text

Between the yellow graffiti and the police tape, the sound of violin and the stars in the sky, absolutely everything reminded John of Sherlock these days. His brain—damned traitorous thing—always managed to find some tenuous connection to Sherlock in anything he saw, and it was slowly driving him mad. There were days he could hardly function, could only drag himself out of bed if he dug deep into that well of grim willpower possessed by stubborn ex-soldiers like him. Even then he sometimes only made it to the kitchen.

Starting the day was difficult, but ending it was no better.

When it was dark and late and time for bed, John could not sleep. It was silence filled with all the wrong things that kept him awake and staring at the ceiling—traffic instead of explosions, rain instead of gunshots, drunken laughter out on the street instead of the soft pad of pacing feet in the sitting room.

He didn’t dare try sleeping pills—too much of a risk for addiction (and a blow to his pride). So he would stay up with his memories and thoughts and watch the seconds tick by on his clock and think. Think about eating Chinese after shooting a serial killer cabbie and getting an ASBO for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Think about hallucinogenic drugs in the coffee and Semtex vests in a sports centre. Try not to think about tall buildings and phone calls and blood-stained pavement.

And then daylight would come, and John would get dressed and go to work and pretend he didn’t spend his night distantly wondering how gun oil would taste on his tongue.

-x-

It took John nearly fifteen minutes to knock on Mrs Hudson’s door and another thirty seconds to convince himself not to go back upstairs before the door was answered.

“John, dear, what a surprise!”

“Hullo, Mrs Hudson,” John began uneasily. “I just wanted to—“

“Well, come on in, you’re letting in a draught.”

John opened his mouth to object, but Mrs Hudson dismissed his protests with a wave of her hand and a gentle but insistent grip on his wrist. He let out a soft sigh of resignation and followed her in.

“...just made some biscuits, so you’re in luck, and—oh. What’s that in your hand, dear?”

John blinked twice before looking down at the envelope he was slowly crushing in his fist. “Er...” He smoothed the crumpled paper and held it out. “My, ah, my notice.”

“Notice? Whatever for?” John winced inwardly at the look of utter confusion creasing his landlady’s face. Again the indecision rose up, the war between location and expenses, Mrs Hudson’s kindness and Sherlock’s...absence.

“I’m really sorry, Mrs H,” he said at last. “I just... I can’t live here anymore. It’s too, uh...hm.” He cut himself off, pursing his lips and suddenly becoming fascinated with the crack in the ceiling. (Too much, too little, too quiet, too loud, too empty, too full.)

“I understand, dear,” she soothed, patting his shoulder. The doctor resisted the urge to slide his arm out of reach. (Don’t understand, can’t understand. If you did, you’d have left too because England has already fallen. Sherlock has fa—)

“Thank you,” he said (interrupted) instead. “Really. For everything.” (For renting Sherlock the flat and never kicking him out; for letting me move in and helping me live with him; for putting up with me for the last few weeks and not calling Harry.)

“Do be sure to visit,” Mrs Hudson urged, kissing his cheek.

“As often as I can,” he promised (lied), feeling his lips twitch in the approximation of a smile, then climbed the stairs as quickly as his leg would allow.

-x-

Grey.

It was the only word for it. Walls and floors and furniture and everything. Like the colour had been leeched right out of it.

What a fitting metaphor, he thought with a twisted smile as he placed a handful of mismatched cutlery in the drawer. He heaved a sigh and shook his head when he saw how many more boxes he had yet to unpack.

“Nope,” he grumbled aloud, kicking a box overflowing with laundry as he crossed the room. “Not today.” He dropped into his desk chair with a grunt, leaning back and closing his eyes.

Everything will be okay now, he decided. A new bedsit (far from Baker Street) and a job at a new surgery (where he couldn’t see the pity in Sarah’s eyes). He had taken nothing of Sherlock’s, allowing Mycroft to do with it what he pleased. Hadn’t even gone back to Baker Street to see Mrs Hudson while he was moving, just kipped on Harry’s sofa.

John knew how it looked, how he was “isolating himself” (Ella) and “acting like he lost his husband,” (Harry) but he found he really didn’t care. They could think whatever they wanted to about him. As long as he could stop these memories (daydreams).

(Nightmares)

Chapter Text

The cafe was surprisingly empty for a Friday afternoon. Somehow, the quiet made Molly all the more apprehensive. For a few minutes she toyed with the idea of leaving, of “suddenly” needing to run a very important errand for...something. Or a small emergency—her cat was sick. Or a family tragedy—her mother was dying. Or maybe even—

The bells on the door jingled gently, and when Molly steeled herself enough to look up, he had already made his way to her table with a coffee in hand.

“It’s good to see you,” John said, giving her a one-armed hug before taking his seat.

“Good to see you, too! It’s been a long time.” Was that insensitive? “Not that I expected to see you anytime soon.” That sounds worse. “I—I mean—“

“Molly,” John said gently. She bit her tongue, willing herself to meet his eyes. He was smiling faintly, just the barest curl of his lips. “It’s alright. It has been a long time,” he murmured, his voice trailing off into nothingness.

A pregnant pause stretched between them, filled with the soft sounds of the cafe. John seemed to be studying a chip in the Formica tabletop intently, his left hand clutching spasmodically around his coffee cup.

He doesn’t look well, Molly thought. There were dark rings around his eyes and a hollowness to his cheeks that could not be healthy. ‘Are you getting enough sleep, John?’ she wanted to ask. ‘Are you eating enough?’

Instead she said, “How’re things going?”

John started as though he were surprised to see her. “They’re good. Yeah, good, good... Got myself a nice new bedsit.” He paused and pulled a face. “Well, actually, it’s shite, but I still had some money left over from the, ah, cases, so. ‘s not as bad as before.”

“Oh, that’s good, I’m glad. Well, I’m not glad it’s—“

“I know what you mean,” he interrupted, that same small smile tugging on his mouth. “What about you? How’s everything? Heard there were inquiries at Bart’s, people being punished because Sherlock was in places he shouldn’t have been. You didn’t get in trouble, did you?”

Molly was almost certain she had visibly flinched at the mention of the inquiries. If there was one thing she wanted to avoid discussing (and there wasn’t, there were a lot of things she didn’t want to talk about, not now and most certainly not with John) it was the fact that she very nearly lost her job over Sherlock. She supposed it had been too much to hope that John had not heard of it.

“Ah, no, not really,” she hedged. “Got yelled at a bit, but that’s really all...”

“Christ, Molly, I’m so sorry. It really never occurred to me how much trouble we could get you in if someone started asking questions.”

“Oh, it’s fine, really. It was worth it. He couldn’t have solved all those crimes without it.”

John only hummed and nodded distractedly, his eyes glazing over as though he were slipping into his memories. He only stayed there, in his mind, for a few moments, but those seconds stretched endlessly for Molly. She could see the hourglass in her own mind, each grain of sand tumbling through space, and she with it, end over end, weighted down, down, down by the trickery and deceit and lies—

And then John cleared his throat and said, “Got a new job, too. A&E at Royal London.”

Molly blinked, coming back to earth before making what she hoped was an interested noise in the back of her throat. “Do you like it?”

“Love it. Haven’t had excitement like this since...in a long time.”

Molly didn’t trust herself to speak anymore. If she opened her mouth, she didn’t know what would come out. He’s alive. He didn’t die, and I helped him do it. We lied to you.

As discreetly as she could, Molly pulled her mobile from her jacket pocket. Her fingers stumbled blindly across the screen, pressing and swiping indiscriminately at the glass. At last it made a sound, and she nearly upended her coffee in her haste to bring the device to her ear.

“Molly Hooper...Oh, really? No, that’s alright, I’ll just...yes, I’ll be there soon.” She stuffed her mobile away and looked across at John. “I’m so sorry, John, I—just, it’s an emergency at work. Really, I’m so sorry.”

Something closed down behind John’s eyes, like a shutter on a lamp. “It’s fine,” he said dully, a pitiful excuse for a smile mustered up on his lips. “I know how it is over there, terribly busy. It was good to see you, Molly.”

“You, too, John. We...” should not do this again, really, not until he’s back and I can look at you without wanting to scream.“Erm, bye.”

With that, Molly beat her hasty retreat from the cafe and did not look back.

 

Chapter Text

When Lestrade was younger, he was a beat cop. Every night he would walk his streets and dole out justice to rowdy citizens. Most were drunk, but a fair few were thrumming on the high of illicit substances. He had been sworn at, puked on and punched in the face more times than he could count. In the end, none of that could prepare him for what was coming.

-x-

At twenty-four, Sherlock Holmes was a whirlwind, all fevered eyes and biting intellect. He danced onto the crime scene like he owned the place, speaking loudly and gesticulating wildly at the unfortunate middle-aged man dangling dead from the second story window. It was Lestrade’s job to grab him by the wrists and drag him away.

“It was the mother! Are you blind?” the boy sneered. “Look at his shirt cuffs, he was clearly—“

“Alright, son.” Lestrade eased the kid down to the curb. “D’you have a name?”

“Holmes, Sherlock Holmes,” he crowed with a grand sweep of his arms. “And you’re Garrett Lestrade. Now, as I was saying! Obviously the mother did it—“

“Right, Sherlock, you’re gonna have to come with me.” Lestrade made to haul the young man up, but Sherlock grabbed his wrist and yanked him closer.

“Sergeant, you do not see what I see,” Sherlock said, pale eyes startlingly clear. “Take my advice and question the victim’s mother. She is guilty.”

Lestrade blinked, slightly thrown by the kid’s abrupt lucidity. “Sure thing, Sherlock. Now if you please, walk with me to the car over here—“

“You don’t believe me!” Sherlock cried, fingers tangling in his mop of dishevelled hair. He staggered forward, gripping the lapels of Lestrade’s jacket in his fists. “Why don’t you believe me? It’s so obvious, I don’t understand why you can’t see it!”

Lestrade eased his jacket from Sherlock’s grasp and took the boy by his shoulders. The boy, because he was just that. He looked fresh out of uni, still young and trying to find his place in this mad city. Lestrade felt a twinge of pity, remembering himself at that age, thinking nobody understood him. “Listen, kid, I believe you. I really do. And I’ll talk to my superiors about questioning the guy’s mum. But right now, you have to come with me. Is there anyone I can call for you? Your parents or a sibling? A girlfriend or flatmate?”

Sherlock snorted and straightened. “I’d rather spend my night in peace, thanks.”

Lestrade only shrugged. “Your wish.”

-x-

The rest, as they say, was history. Sherlock came back to reality in a dingy holding cell, Lestrade took the kid’s advice and solved the case, and the two struck up a strange friendship that served them both well for nearly half a decade.

But then six months ago Lestrade fell prey to Moriarty’s lies and arrested his friend. Betrayed him. Contributed unquestionably to his death. He’d made no attempt to subdue or chase the detective when he took John hostage and fled, because he thought that would make things okay. A sort of ‘I didn’t screw you over as badly as I could have’. And when it turned out he was wrong, and word came out Sherlock was innocent, and the landslide of grief and guilt threatened to bury Lestrade alive, the detective inspector did everything he could to clear Sherlock’s name with the public.

Except it still wasn’t enough, and Lestrade spent more than one night clawing his way out of nightmares where Sherlock would stand, pale-faced, sharp-eyed, curls matted with blood, and look at him without saying a word.

Never enough.

Chapter Text

Most people would say Rosamond Holmes had no patience. They were wrong, though. She had quite a lot of patience; after all, one would not take up learning Arabic without having at least a degree of tolerance.

What she actually did not have was lenience for idiotic, prying questions about her family.

And there’s a difference between those two things, thank you very much.

-x-

At first, they just wanted to know if they were related.

“He was my cousin,” she would say. “On my father’s side.”

Then they were curious as to what exactly it was he did for a living.

“He was a consulting detective. Only one in the world,” she would add, the tiniest note of pride in her voice.

But then they asked why he jumped.

“I don’t know,” she would say tightly. The lie burned her throat, but she knew she very well couldn’t give them the truth.

And after that they stopped asking questions and started making accusations.

“He wasn’t a fake, actually, and you would know that if you had even a modicum of common sense,” she would snap, before grabbing up her bag and stalking away, her shoulders hunched to her ears in a tight line of suppressed indignation.

-x-

“Rosamond! Aren’t you—“

When the call rang out down the corridor for the seventeenth time that day, Rosamond’s patience was long gone. She didn’t even turn around.

“You know what? I am so bloody sick of this! Yes, Sherlock Holmes is my cousin, and no, I don’t believe he was a fraud. But if you have a problem with that, I suggest you shove it up your—“

“Rosamond?”

The voice was far more apprehensive than expected. She spun around. Looking wide-eyed and a little more than slightly shocked, Miss Palls stood holding a notebook with Rosamond’s name penned in the upper corner.

“...missing something?” the maths teacher finished timidly.

Rosamond felt her face burn, shame and embarrassment creeping across her skin. For a moment, she stood dumb, mouth opening and closing soundlessly like a fish out of water. Then she shut it with a definite snap. Prickling humiliation tightened in her throat.

“Sorry,” she whispered. Before the young teacher could say a thing, Rosamond grabbed the notebook and fled the building. She didn’t return until two days later.

Chapter Text

His bedroom at Baker Street was exactly how he had left it. Dust lay thick over everything; the air was heavy and still and dry. Not a thing was out of place, and yet, something was very wrong.

There came a creak of a floorboard from the sitting room beyond; someone shifted their weight. John. With three quick strides, he was out the door and down the corridor, leaving the scent of eight months gone, eight months of running and bleeding and hiding and killing, behind. His heart leapt into his throat as he got closer, stomach turning into knots. Anticipation. What would John do? Would he shout or weep? Would he embrace or assault? Would he do all of that, or would he simply turn and walk out the door, never to return?

By the time his brain reached this nauseating conclusion, Sherlock had reached the sitting room.

There, at the window, stood the doctor, gazing thoughtfully down at the street. He appeared much the same, though he had clearly lost some weight, and his hair was perhaps a bit shaggier than usual. He didn’t look as Sherlock had feared he would: all gaunt and pale and hollow.

And suddenly, Sherlock didn’t know what to say. All the things he had stored in his Mind Palace, the apologies, the explanations, the exhilarating adventures, were gone. Poof. Like the housekeeper had come in and swept everything up, leaving nothing but,

“John.”

John jumped at the sound of his name, and slowly, he turned to face Sherlock. The doctor’s shoulders had tensed, preparing to fight. The sight was so familiar Sherlock couldn’t help the relief that fluttered in his belly. Except then, John began to giggle. In moments, it blossomed into great howls of hysterical laughter that echoed obscenely in the cluttered room. The flicker of hope died instantly, freezing and shattering somewhere in the vicinity of Sherlock’s heart. No.

“It’s finally happened!” John gasped between peals of manic chuckles. “I’ve lost it! Bloody hell, but I just didn’t expect it to take so long!”

Sherlock’s mind stumbled and went blank. “John, what are you—“

“You’re not a very convincing hallucination, though, are you?” John asked conversationally, abruptly winding down from the hysterics. “Ginger hair, for starters. And you seem a bit...dim, really.”

 “Don’t be ridiculous,” Sherlock snapped. “I’m not a hallucina—“

And then all of a sudden John ran at him and wrapped his arms around Sherlock’s middle. Tightly, too tightly. John’s grip was a vice around his ribs and Sherlock was gasping, struggling for a breath, feeling light-headed and dizzy and this is wrong, this is all wrong.

“Get off, John! What the hell are you doing?!” Sherlock sputtered, wriggling fruitlessly in John’s grasp. The doctor remained silent. Freeing one arm, Sherlock gripped a tuft of John’s hair and pulled. “Let go of me!”

John’s head craned back easily, and the look on his face sent ice down Sherlock’s spine. John’s face, always so expressive, so readable, was blank. Devoid of any emotion, no signs of rage or anguish or joy or confusion or even physical exertion. Just...blank. Empty. Dead, even.

Sherlock bucked against John’s hold again,  even as John’s grip tightened, forcing more air from Sherlock’s lungs. His hummingbird heart bruised in his chest, and the tidal rush of his laboured breathing was loud in his ears. Panic, that’s what this was, panic and pure fear. And confusion, just utter bafflement, what was John doing and why was he doing it and how could Sherlock solve it and--

Sherlock struggled and fought, but it made no difference; he was going to die here, John’s arms steadily crushing him, suffocating him. The room grew dim and fuzzy at the edges, and black cobwebs grew across the room like burning film at the end of a movie, and Sherlock was really truly sincerely dying and he had no idea why, why, why.

When Sherlock gasped awake, he was still in the thatched-roof hut in Siem Reap where he had fallen asleep, tangled helplessly in the ratty towel that served as his blanket. Alone.

Chapter Text

Alright, John, you can do this. They didn’t call you Three-Continents Watson for nothing.

But then again, he’d been telling himself this for ten minutes, and he had still yet to move from his seat.

He chanced a quick peek over his shoulder again and vowed himself that by the end of his shift, he would have asked her on a date—her being the harried-looking blonde nurse in the pale pink scrubs sitting three tables over sipping at a very large cup of what passed for coffee here in the hospital cafeteria. John had seen her around the hospital a number of times in the months that he’d been working here, but either she or he had always been in too much of a rush to get somewhere for anything to be said.

Now, here they both were, and John had still done nothing about it. He couldn’t put his finger on it, but there was something special about her, something unique and alluring that made him wary of approaching her. Maybe it was the way she had always seemed so at ease when John had seen her running through the halls. Alert, certainly, but never panicked. She could keep an almost preternaturally level head in an emergency, and that was not something you saw every day, even surrounded as he was by nurses and doctors whose job it was to stay calm in a crisis.

Not to mention, she was very beautiful. So he had to do it just right or else risk losing the woman who very well could be The One.

Right, that’s a calming thought, John, keep it up. He blew out a short breath and glanced over at her again. She had pushed her coffee aside and seemed to be flipping through a patient’s file. Okay, John, now or never. Now...or never... Now... Now.

John hauled himself from his seat and turned decisively on his heel to face the woman. He walked over, relaxing his shoulders and fixing a charming smile on his lips, a mantra of Go on, Watson echoing in his head. Just as John reached her table and opened his mouth to speak, the woman looked up.

“I’m Mary. Want to go out for a drink?”

-x-

Mary, John decided in the dark of his bedsit, is perfect.

After getting off work they made their way to a lovely pub on Commercial Street, Mary taking his arm as they walked as though she’d done it a hundred times before. They sat for hours, eating and drinking only as an afterthought to talking and sharing stories and laughing. God, he couldn’t remember the last time he laughed like that, sides aching, gasping for breath, cheeks sore with the grin that stretched his mouth.

Mary was quick-witted and clever, exciting and dynamic and so very alive. She was sly and mysterious, talking about her life without actually giving much about herself away. She was an enigma to be puzzled over but never explained, and in this private moment of wild abandon in his bedsit, John thought he would be happy to spend the rest of his life trying to solve her. He was getting ahead of himself, he knew, but the heady buzz of alcohol and new beginnings had yet to wear off, and so he allowed himself to indulge.

Waking up to her crooked smile, trading quick kisses whenever they pleased, sliding into bed together after a long day...well, John would be okay with that. More than okay, in fact. Bloody chuffed, really.

And so as he lay back on his bed, John smiled and chuckled and thought that perhaps things were looking up.

Chapter Text

Being dead was horribly dull. Hours, days, weeks of waiting on phone calls or emails or messages hidden in plain sight, everything put on hold until the signal for action arrived.

Right now Sherlock was waiting on an email from Mycroft, due any moment. He had been holed up in this hotel for three days now, and he was practically vibrating out of his skin in anticipation. Outside, thousands of people were walking, running, staggering through the streets despite the hour. 2 A.M. in The City That Never Sleeps: the perfect backdrop for Sherlock’s impatience. The city bustled in tandem with his thoughts, heart beating and nerves blazing just as Sherlock’s were. But time moved just the same as always, the measured beat of seconds and minutes ticking by.

It was driving Sherlock mad.

When five more minutes passed without word from London, Sherlock threw himself from the desk chair and began dressing. He’d run out to the newsagents shop across the street, grab a pack of cigarettes and smoke them out his window while he waited, because god! this was beyond tedious. He needed something beyond the beige walls of this room.

Just as he tugged his jacket on, a sharp ping came from his laptop. In an instant, Sherlock was hunched over the screen, hastily opening the email that had just arrived. He blinked when he realised the contents of the message were vastly different than what he had been expecting.

                Dr. John H. Watson has posted an update to the blog The Personal Blog of Dr. John H. Watson: A New Beginning

This was...unexpected. It had been months since John last posted, so why now? Nothing significant had happened to John lately, or at least, nothing Sherlock had been notified of...and could he really trust information he had not gathered himself?

An indecisive finger hovered over the touchpad. Yes, this was John, but Sherlock was on a case, and he couldn't afford to be distracted by such a trivial thing. So there. He would read it later, when he had time. Because he was too busy now.

Waiting.

Doing absolutely nothing.

In a hotel room in a foreign city that was just as in tune with him as it was indifferent to his existence.

Without even really realising it, Sherlock was sat in the desk chair again, clicking the link to the blog post. The browser popped open, and there it was. A block of text, shorter than usual but no less florid for it. Sherlock skimmed the words, physically cringing at the more romantic (idiotic) turns of phrase that were so unequivocally John.

So John was moving on. Well, that was good, then. Fine. Perfectly normal and healthy of him. Excellent.

Sherlock scrolled idly down the page and was mildly surprised to see a few comments already posted. Ella, Jacob, Stamford, Mrs Hudson... What did they do, check the blog the minute they got the email?

Ridiculous, Sherlock snorted, tapping a few keys to refresh the page. As though they have nothing better to do with their time than read this cliché-ridden—oh.

Sherlock’s brow furrowed as he leaned closer to the screen, but the stark black letters did not change.

                Let’s go for a drink later. X

Six words and a letter, twenty-nine characters (including spaces). So simple a child could understand it, and yet, Sherlock was baffled. Who on earth would want to go out for drinks with John Watson? There was so little to go on, too little, the words on the screen a veritable mask of anonymity.

Unless you knew how to observe.

Someone who knows John—obvious.

Not asking to go out but telling—they are more than just acquaintances; in fact, they are on equal ground, suggesting they see each other often.

‘X’—commonly used to symbolize a kiss; they are intimate enough to warrant physical contact, especially that which typically has a romantic and/or sexual connotation.

Going out for drinks—a common activity for acquaintances, friends, and/or significant others of legal drinking age.

John has very few friends; just Stamford and Lestrade, really. Neither of them would post on  John’s blog under the name ‘Mary,’ so she must be someone else. Someone who likes John and someone whom John likes equally. And while John has never had very many friends, there is one thing John has had many of: girlfriends.

Deduction: Mary is John’s latest girlfriend.

It was the likeliest of possibilities, and knowing John, it was almost a certainty; he’d had a string of girlfriends when Sherlock was around, so why would another be so shocking?

Sherlock ran a finger absently across his lower lip, considering the implications. It was impossible to know how far along in their relationship they were without further data. Too many unknown variables—when they met; how they met; Sherlock’s absence, even, since John had always complained about Sherlock ruining his dates.

Perhaps they had just met. Or perhaps they had been together for months. Perhaps they were even living together; after all, it shouldn't be too difficult for two people to afford the flat on Baker Street. And they wouldn't even need the second bedroom.

Perhaps they drank their tea in the armchairs in the sitting room and read their emails at the desk and cooked meals in the kitchen.

Something rose up in Sherlock then, something green and black and bilious that tightened his mouth and burned in his stomach.

He slammed the lid of the laptop shut and sat unmoving in the dark and silence trying to blink away the afterimages of those damn six words and one letter, twenty-nine characters (including spaces).

Outside, the city kept going.

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock could speak a number of languages, but Standard Mandarin was not among them. And he hadn’t bothered learning for this latest escapade; it had seemed like a waste of time and square footage in his Mind Palace. After all, there would be no talking this time. Just keeping to the shadows and biding time, a gun with a homemade silencer pressed into the small of his back. No need to speak.

Until they were speaking to him.

“I don’t know what you want,” he grunted. “I can’t understand you, I can’t tell you anything.” This was, of course, in part, a lie; he knew they wanted a name, his name or his brother’s, it mattered little. Holmes, that’s what they wanted to hear.

The woman in front of him only clucked her tongue and shook her head, as if disappointed. She lifted a single finger and crooked it at a man standing off to the side, distinguishable from the darkness only by the cherry glow at the end of his cigarette.

He approached with a slow, uneven gait until he stood quietly next to the woman. She plucked the burning cigarette from his mouth and placed it in her own, taking a long drag. Then, without warning, she darted forward and pressed the smouldering tip to the thin skin at Sherlock’s ribs.

Sherlock just managed to bite back the curse that leapt to his tongue, but it was a near thing. His breath slipped out in a long hiss as the smell of burning flesh rose up to greet him, and white hot pain lanced up and down his nerves. His muscles clenched reflexively and carried him back, away from the pain, but the woman only followed him, laughing as the chains reached their full length and the cuffs bit into the raw, delicate skin of his wrists.

“I don’t know!” he barked out from behind clenched teeth. The woman removed the cigarette and placed it back in her mouth. Sherlock sucked in a great breath, wincing as the burned skin stretched.

The woman suddenly grabbed his chin, forcing his head up. She spoke to him in a low clear voice, but it still sounded like nonsense. He had still yet to pick up on any patterns in the language, couldn’t differentiate questions from statements, names from nouns. It would have been maddening if he were not so exhausted. He had been captured nearly a day and a half ago; that was thirty-six hours without food or water, chained by his wrists between two concrete posts in a hot, dry warehouse in Shanghai.

God, he was so stupid! It wasn’t as though this was the first time he had been found and caught and captured, far from it. But Mycroft had given him all the details of this case, and it was very rare for Mycroft’s information to be as incorrect as it had been. They would certainly be having words when this was through.

Sherlock stared blankly at the woman until she made a sound of disgust and wrenched his head to the side before letting go. She gave a sharp nod to the man in the shadows before leaving, her feet soundless on the concrete floor.

The man stepped out, and in his hand was a length of metal (iron? steel?—too difficult to tell from here, not that it mattered, really, solid metal was solid metal...) pipe. He hefted his crude weapon and gave a lopsided, toothless grin that sent prickles of ice through Sherlock’s stomach. Then he wound up, swung, and the room went dark.

-x-

In 1951 a psychologist at McGill University in Quebec named Donald Olding Hebb ran an experiment studying the effects of exposure to a monotonous environment for an extended period of time.

In layman’s terms: sensory deprivation.

After three days, the subjects began displaying disturbing behaviour. They were unable to think clearly, and their moods changed rapidly and without warning. They began to talk to themselves. They began having visual, auditory and/or tactile hallucinations. At first, they were excited by the hallucinations—any sort of stimulation was good stimulation. But the hallucinations quickly became violent and distressing, and they often brought along intense paranoia. In the solitary space of their rooms, the subjects’ minds became malleable, their beliefs changing and warping even as their senses did.

After three days, the experiment was called off because the psychologists became concerned about long term effects. Indeed, the subjects’ visual perception remained altered for days upon removal from isolation.

But that was okay, because even though Sherlock had already lost track of time, even though the darkness was starting to feel like thick cotton wool pressed against his eyes and nose and mouth, even though the voice in the back of his head was echoing off the walls of the room, none of those subjects had a brain like a supercomputer to rationalise the data, none of them had a Mind Palace to take refuge in. That was okay, because none of those subjects were as bright as Sherlock Holmes.

Right?

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock was late.

It wasn’t exactly surprising; he was always late, since the day he was born, seven years after Mycroft. He did what he wanted when he wanted, and Mycroft had rather given up trying to change this.

But this was different. Sherlock was meant to report the eradication of the Chinese drug smuggling ring days ago. It had been a week since Mycroft had heard from him, the day he had infiltrated the warehouse. A few days were normal, whether the cause be Sherlock’s childish attitude or simple forgetfulness. But seven days....that was abnormal.

Mycroft lifted one of the cheap mobiles from the desk drawer and called the single number stored on the device. After two rings, the person on the other end of the line picked up.

“Hawkins,” she answered.

“The Ugly Duckling has fallen out of the nest,” Mycroft said crisply.

“Understood, sir.”

-x-

In a word, Sherlock looked like a disaster. His skin was heavily marred, blotched with bruises, rubbed raw, burned. His hair—gingery curls growing in dark at the roots—was plastered lank and greasy to his skull, patchy stubble sprinkled his jaw, and his eyes were glassy and unfocused.

All things considered, Mycroft thought wryly as he stood over his brother’s bed, Sherlock had looked worse. He could still clearly see Sherlock at twenty-five, laid up in the hospital, covered in plaster and bandages. In the throes of what would be his final high, Sherlock’s typical grace had turned to loose-limbed clumsiness, and he had fallen end over end down a flight of stairs. It had been the straw that broke the camel’s back (and rather a few of Sherlock’s bones) and Sherlock had ended up in rehab for the last time.

Mycroft grimaced, banishing the thought to the back of his mind. It was pointless to think of such things; that was then, and this was now.

Hawkins and her team had stormed the warehouse and neutralised the drug ring, capturing everyone they found. No gang members unaccounted for, no casualties, no local authorities alerted to the presence of British agents—a clean job if there ever was one.

Except then the team found Sherlock, and things became a bit more muddled.

The details of Sherlock’s condition were frankly horrifying, and even now Mycroft felt distinctly unsettled. His little brother had been half out of his mind by the time the team got to him, muttering aloud but barely moving. When Hawkins had removed the restraints, Sherlock’s feral shouts carried quite clearly through the tinny speakers of Mycroft’s burner mobile. The days in such intense isolation had wreaked havoc on Sherlock’s brain, and Mycroft still struggled to calm the bright flare of fury at the thought of such treatment to his own brother.

Within the day, Sherlock had been flown to University Hospital Freiburg in Germany, where he lay in a private room under a false identity, silent and stationary under the combined effects of antibiotics, sedatives, and non-narcotic painkillers. It was unnatural, this stillness, and distantly, Mycroft recognized he hated it. But he hadn’t left Sherlock’s bedside in the two days since he arrived from Shanghai.

To be truthful, Mycroft had been awaiting a moment like this, when something went wrong and Sherlock wound up in some sort of trouble and it was up to Mycroft to handle it. It had happened often enough throughout their lives that it was no surprise. Somehow, though, it didn’t make Mycroft feel any better when it finally did happen. Physically, Sherlock had been harmed, but he had suffered worse and would recover quickly. His mental state, however, was thus far unaccounted for, and nothing frustrated and ashamed Mycroft more than not knowing something he was supposed to know.

He would wake in time, Mycroft knew. The chances of Sherlock dying here were slim. There was truly nothing Mycroft could achieve by staying here; Sherlock would wake when his body was ready and not a second sooner. Any mental or emotional tolls would be discovered when he woke, then and only then. In all honesty, Mycroft had far more important things to be attending to than sitting by and watching an inactive, insensate body.

But when Sherlock regained consciousness two days later, showing no signs of (furthered) psychological damage, Mycroft had yet to leave the room.