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The Burning Heart

Chapter Text

John Watson took the bouquet he'd brought with him—chrysanthemums, this time—and placed them on Sherlock's gravestone. He stood back, and cleared his throat, although he wouldn't speak today, or at least, wouldn't speak his thoughts aloud.

There.

The day was cold, the wind high, the sky, overcast. Everything was coated in a dull polish, a sense of finality, of closure. It felt like the last time, the final visit. It wasn't. Of course it wasn't. But he could see his way into a future now, if he squinted just right, and in that future, his graveyard visits might be less frequent, the ache in his chest a little less sharp.

Never thought I'd buy you flowers so often. Should have done it when you were alive. Can't imagine the look on your face. Might have changed a thing or two.

The chrysanthemums sat, a bright rust red, beside a bundle of wilted white calla lilies, wrapped in brown paper, and a mixed arrangement of carnations and gerbera daisies.

Might have changed everything.

The lilies looked like something Mrs. Hudson would bring. The mix could have been Greg Lestrade's—a corner store purchase, hastily made, on his way here. Or maybe they were from some member of the homeless network, who'd had a sudden windfall, or a lucky day shoplifting.

A fine mist of rain began to fall, chilling the back of John's neck. He tugged his scarf closer. Blue; soft. Posh. It was one of Sherlock's, taken from Sherlock's wardrobe. The last thing John took, before he left Baker Street for good.

He sniffed, and shifted. Sherlock's gravestone sat, a bland listener, with a blank look. It gave him nothing, and it asked for nothing. A very poor substitute for Sherlock.

There were things he wanted to say. He always wanted to talk, here, and here, he'd found he sometimes could. He'd stood over this grave in all seasons, all weathers, and thought of Sherlock, imagined the whisper of cotton under the heavy wool of the Belstaff; imagined Sherlock's loose, soft curls beneath his fingers, as if he had, in fact, touched them. He'd murmured words of affection he'd never dared to offer while Sherlock was alive. He'd begged, more than once, for Sherlock to come back.

One more miracle. Please, Sherlock. For me.

The days had worn on, and the miracle did not manifest, and the tattered, brittle string that tied John to the blinding dazzle of his time with Sherlock grew thinner and thinner. He feared it would snap, one day soon, and he knew that if he didn't find some sort of other life before that happened, there wouldn't be anything left of him. Nothing worth salvaging.

So he'd come with a resolution in his heart, to say a last, silent prayer, to finally let go.

A rustle came from behind him, and the sound of cautious footsteps. With it, a fresh burst of wind, and a small collection of leaves that swirled around John's feet, and tore off across the graveyard, dancing among the stones, and whipping up and over a crypt, where they skirled off into the sky.

John scrubbed at his face, his chest heavy, his stomach churning, wishing that he could go with them. The sick, hollow feeling he'd carried with him since the day Sherlock died was still there, despite everything that had happened, everything that had changed. Sometimes, when he thought about Sherlock too much, he felt as though his heart were nothing: rattling, desiccated, pretending to beat inside his cage of bones.

It didn't have to be that way, he reminded himself. He'd come to the graveyard to put all that behind him. He flexed his hands. He couldn't feel them anymore. He should have worn gloves.

A hand slipped into his, and squeezed. He sighed heavily. The body beside him radiated warmth, comfort. Basic human companionship. Whatever good John could still receive from the world was here, standing beside him.

He couldn't speak aloud. Not under the circumstances.

Sherlock, if you can hear me, well. I'm sorry. I couldn't keep doing this, coming here, and wishing I could crawl into the ground and be with you. I can't live and be half dead at the same time.

He choked back a sob. He covered his eyes with his free hand, palming away hot tears.

"I'm sorry." John squeezed the hand holding his. It was a lifeline, after all. "I promised myself I wouldn't fall apart. It's just." The sentence ground to a halt.

"It's fine, John." Mark's voice was soft. He leaned in, pressing his shoulder against John's, resting his head on John's shoulder. "Take your time."

And that was Mark all over: steady, secure, always willing to give John as much space as he needed, but there, when John wanted him.

John shivered, his teeth chattering. He'd kept them out here too long. He was too full of thoughts of the past, too full of the need to justify his choices—the choice he was about to make—to a corpse. Still, for everything Sherlock had meant to him, he had to do this. He had to make things right.

"I know this is important. Your time with him, I mean," Mark said, as if reading John's mind. "I can go, if you want to be alone."

The idea of Mark leaving, now that John had finally arrived at goodbye, triggered some inner longing, a high sweet ache. To live. To try to be happy.

"No." John sniffed. "I just want another minute."

"All right. Whatever you need." Mark let go of John's hand, and slipped his arm around John's shoulder.

John stared at the flowers decorating Sherlock's grave. Maybe they were from some of Sherlock's fans. They'd been coming back around, now that Sherlock's name had been cleared. The blog had seen a lot more traffic lately.

Fickle. John had never been fickle.

Yet, standing next to the man who would soon take him home, who shared his bed and with whom John tried to share his life, as best he could—he felt like he was cheating, like he was betraying Sherlock, who should have been this, who could have been, if Sherlock had wanted it, if he'd only wanted John, taken John, for everything he was worth. Not much, perhaps, but John wondered, every day, if he could have been enough.

Then again, all of that had seemed impossible, in the old days. Mark had shifted everything for John, made being with a man seem completely normal, and taught him that he deserved intimacy, of a kind that made him happy. In many ways, the John Watson of the present bore no resemblance to the John Watson of Baker Street.

Besides, if he was honest, he'd never been ready for Sherlock. Sherlock was a thunderstorm in human form, not someone you could count on as a soft place to land. It seemed that loving him was a recipe for pain. It had certainly played out that way.

Still.

John stepped forward, and placed his hand on the cold, smooth stone.

I'm sorry, he thought, silently, keeping his words to himself. It wasn't enough. I figured out how all this works, too late. And maybe it wasn't anything you wanted. I wish it was. I wished. But it's over now.

John looked back at Mark, who raised his eyebrows in a silent inquiry.

"Yeah," John told him. "Let's get out of here." 

In the cab, on the way home, Mark was silent. John reached for his hand, interlacing their fingers, the warm comfort anchoring John to the present. The cabbie eyed them in the rear view mirror. John lifted Mark's hand to his lips, defiant, daring the cabbie to say anything, and kissed his knuckles.

Mark offered him a soft smile, his cheeks flushed red with the cold. "Tickles," he said, brushing his thumb over John's moustache.

The cabbie returned his gaze to the road in front of him.

The fog of John's feelings about Sherlock began to clear, now that they were away from the sombre loneliness of the graveyard, and out of the cold. Tentatively, John probed the edges of a new perspective on the past few months, as if he were touching his tongue to a newly filled tooth. Everything that had happened recently wasn't, perhaps, part of the long, painful coda of his time with Sherlock. It was the start of something new. A new story. A new life.

He hadn't thought anything like a fresh start was possible, when Mark had first come to work at the clinic. He'd been stuck, in those days, skirting the bitter edge between extreme self neglect and suicide.

Still, he should have known, would have, if he'd been paying attention. He'd taken notice of the new nurse and receptionist right away. Mark was cheerful, competent, efficient. Within a few hours, he'd charmed the other staff, was joking with them in the break room. When John had gone in to fetch his tea, Mark had shot him a look—eyebrow raised, his cherubic face all smiles. Surrounded by women, but he seemed to only have eyes for John.

John remembered turning bright red, as he fumbled to turn on the kettle.

Wednesday morning of that same week, that was when it had all started, between them. John had set out from his flat, riding his bicycle under thick, dark clouds, not caring that it was threatening an early spring rain, daring the storm to take him. Wishing it would wash him down the drain, if he was honest. Three quarters of the way to the clinic, the clouds had opened, and sheets of rain had soaked him through in a matter of moments.

He'd figured it was all right. He had a change of clothes in his backpack. He'd soldiered on—it was what he did, after all, who he was—and dragged himself into his office, leaving puddles of water through the waiting room, grimacing at the pitying looks of Dr. Chakraborty, who never seemed to know whether to laugh or cry at John's terrible luck, and the earliest of the morning's patients.

He fetched a towel that he kept in his desk drawer, and used it to dry his hair. Then he opened his pack, to find that the rain had soaked through that, too. The clothes inside were just as wet as the ones he was wearing.

"Fancy a change?"

John thought he'd shut his door. Apparently not. The new nurse leaned against the frame, dressed in a loose-fitting cotton uniform: dark trousers, and a white, almost see-through top. Blond hair, cut short like John's, and a ruddy complexion colouring round cheeks.

"Sorry? Um—?"

"Mark. Morstan. Doctor Watson, do you need a change of clothes?" Mark took a step forward, his muscles loose, relaxed. "I have a set of street clothes in my locker, and you, frankly, need them."

"Oh." John looked at Mark more closely. They were about the same size, he noted, with more interest than he should have.

He shivered. The rain had chilled him through. He didn't know what he'd been thinking, trying to ride through it. Still, he hated the idea of a stranger doing him such an intimate favour. "Thanks, I suppose."

"Well, don't gush all at once."

Mark returned moments later with a pair of jeans and a plaid shirt—clothes John might have chosen for himself.

"When you're changed, hand me over your wet things. I'll take them down to laundry and run them through the dryer."

"You don't have to do that."

"I know." Mark smiled, and waited outside John's closed door while John changed.

Putting on Mark's clothes was like climbing into a fresh point of view, some normal time and place, where life carried on just fine, of its own accord. His shirt smelled faintly of washing powder, a brand different from John's, and Mark's soap or cologne, something reminiscent of cloves.

"Thank you," John had said, as he gave Mark his wet clothes, bundled into a plastic shopping bag. And then, the fatal turn of phrase: "Let me know how I can repay you."

The words were out of his mouth before he had the chance to stop himself. It was easy, to offer, to flirt, a little. Mark was all smiles, all wry good humour.

"You can buy me a drink after work."

And just like that, before John had a chance to resist, before he could find a reason to say no, they had a date. They didn't call it that, of course, but that's exactly what it was.

Drinks after work became a weekly thing, and then a daily ritual. It wasn't long before drinks turned into dinner, and dinner turned into entire evenings spent lingering over food, until the restaurant closed, then walking slowly through late night streets, going nowhere in particular, while Mark talked about nothing at all: the people at work, where he'd gone to school, his decision to become a nurse.

John listened, and laughed along with Mark's jokes, and found himself interested, genuinely interested, in who he was as a person. Slowly, tentatively, he began to feel just a little bit alive, just a little bit human. When Mark told him about realising he was gay, about coming out to his foster parents, and their absolutely not at all shocked reactions—oh sweetheart, we've known since you got here, about time you made it official—that seemed normal and human too, just another part of Mark's history, just another story full of humour and grace.

Eventually, John had started talking too. The first time, the first words, came out apropos of nothing, when they'd stopped to sit on a park bench, the full moon riding high in the sky over London. It was June. A cold late spring was finally beginning to yield to a more temperate summer.

As John spoke, his mouth was dry. "You know who I am, who I used to be." From across the park, a bird sang a late night song.

"Honestly, John, I'd have to have my head in the sand not to know."  

"So you know I'm a bit of a mess."

Mark had paused for a long time, then nudged John's elbow with his own. "I don't need to know that you're the famous John Watson, to know you're a mess. Look at you."  

He'd felt so ragged, so used up and wrong in the world, but Mark had made it easy for him, had listened when he spoke about Sherlock, had made him feel as though everything he'd been through was understandable, that his grief, his deep sadness, were acceptable, and appropriate.

He'd never talked about how he really felt about Sherlock, about the nights he'd lain awake in Baker Street, staring up at the ceiling, and wondering what might happen if he just kissed Sherlock, if he could somehow coax him into talking about his feelings. Some things were private. Some things were pointless. Water under the bridge.

By the third month in, by the time he'd come to terms with the fact that he was beginning to feel the stirrings of desire for Mark, John had also begun to understand that there was something more between them, that he cared for Mark, and that Mark cared for him.   

Regular, human stuff. Soothing. Normal.

And so, if John simply accepted it, when Mark finally walked him all the way home; if he smiled and made a joke about how Mark was planning to take advantage of him, when Mark invited himself in; if John allowed Mark to lean in and kiss him, as if it were perfectly fine, completely logical, as if John had always thought of men that way, well, maybe it was because he was tired of resisting, and maybe it was because he needed to prove a point to himself, and maybe he wanted to say a final piss off to Sherlock, and the way he'd swept John off his feet, but never, not even once, tried to take advantage, not even when John wanted him to.

John had never imagined being taken to bed by another man. His fantasies had always involved quick fumblings in the dark: breathless, unthinking, rough. He'd never wondered if things between men could be romantic, but Mark had opened that door for him, undressed him, kissed him, slow and gorgeous and sweet, and taken care of him, had been gentle and tender, and just a little bit filthy. He'd eschewed terms of endearment, as if sensing, without needing to be told, that John couldn't bear being called anything nice, not after all his time alone, not after all the pain. Instead, Mark called him a relentless cock monster, as John reached a tentative hand for Mark's prick; murmured you wanton slut, as he stroked John with a spit-slick palm, which had made John laugh, even as he gasped, and came into Mark's hand.

Mark had made him forget, if only for a moment, that his life was a bloody tragedy.

Waking up the next morning was something as well. He hadn't expected the warm body curled up against him in the bed afterward, the sleepy good morning, and Mark's smiling confession, as he brushed his fingers through John's hair: "I've wanted to do that since I first laid eyes on you."

Afterward, there was coffee and eggs and toast with butter and marmalade. There were jokes and hip checks as they moved together around John's kitchen, and hands on shoulders and hips. In the weeks that followed, there was time spent together, and a long, affectionate debate about whether Mark should just move in, already. There was fear, on John's part, about what the people at work would say about an office romance, and what they would think of him, when the news that he was with a man came out, when he came out.

Somehow, though, after losing Sherlock, after passing through the worst thing that could possibly have happened, it didn't seem so terrible, admitting he and Mark were an item. They'd talked, joked, even, about how people at work might react to the news that they were seeing each other.

"I've got nothing to lose," Mark told him, kissing his neck in the kitchen one morning. "Everyone already knows I'm positively flaming, and snagging a doctor, well, that's the dream, isn't it?"

Eventually, they'd had a careful conversation with the two lead doctors at the clinic, been honest about what was happening.

It turned out no one cared. Mostly they already thought John was gay. The couple of nurses who offered commentary mainly talked about how Mark was quite a catch, and said that they were glad they didn't have to worry about John any more. It all moved fast, and it all seemed as if it had taken forever to arrive.

Mark moved in, for real, immediately after. The two of them took Mark's car to work together, most days. John put his bike away in the tool shed, in the tiny backyard behind the flat. He gained six and a half pounds.

Mark wasn't Sherlock. He didn't make John dizzy with his genius, and he didn't make John sick with a desire he could never express, because it could never take root in the arid soil of Sherlock's way of being in the world. John still missed Sherlock, with a terrible ache, and sharp pangs that woke him in the middle of the night.

He still dreamed about Sherlock. The dreams were dank blends of things they'd done and said, mixed up with impressions of their hands moving over each others' bodies, in the dark, in the London streets. They ended, more times than not, with images of Sherlock, his blind, open eyes staring up at the heavens, while his blood leaked out onto the pavement.

Slowly, thanks to Mark, John came to understand everything he'd wanted, during his time with Sherlock. He came to understand that he'd been deeply in love.

Finally, he'd begun to see a way to let go of all that.

In the cab, on their way home, after the graveyard, John leaned over and touched Mark's cheek, and planted a kiss there, Mark's quarter inch of beard rough under his lips.

"What was that for?" Mark asked, his grin rakish, the question full of playful challenge.

"Well," John said, his voice coming out strained, as he turned and looked out the cab window. "Everything."

Chapter Text

Two days after the graveyard, on a Sunday afternoon, one of the grand bright days of autumn, John returned to Baker Street. He let himself in and stood in the front hall, breathing in the scent of pine cleanser, and the smell of sweet lemon coming from Mrs. Hudson's flat. She was baking. Lemon squares. One of Sherlock's favourites.

He'd had a sweet tooth. People didn't know that about him. Just John, and Mrs. Hudson.

A visceral memory moved through him, of him and Sherlock, standing in this very hallway, leaning against the wall, breathless after their chase through London, on the first night. How giddy he'd felt. How alive, after the heavy, stale sadness that had marked him for so long. He hadn't needed his cane. He'd only needed Sherlock, more and more of Sherlock, and the luminous danger of their time together.

They'd been such fools, playing at being friends, when they'd been so much more than that, when they'd been everything for each other.

Mrs. Hudson's door opened, and she peeked around the edge of it. "Who's there?"

Moments later, John was sitting at her kitchen table, as if no time had passed at all, as if Sherlock had never died, and John had found his way back to the time when he'd spent afternoons with her, watching crap telly, and doing odd jobs around her flat.

Time had passed though, and these weren't the good old days, and Mrs. Hudson was cross. Really cross. She banged cups and saucers down in front of him, hated his moustache, ranted.

"I’m not your mother," she told him. "I’ve no right to expect it, but just one phone call, John."

He protested weakly, apologised, eyed the door, thought about leaving. He'd made the trip over in a flurry of excitement and nerves, eager to tell her his news, for her to know about Mark, and the fact that he was getting ready to ask Mark to marry him. She'd always been so open-minded. She was the first person he wanted to tell, the only person, really, from his old life.

Instead, she was all accusations. She hadn't moved on at all. She'd waited. For him, as it turned out.

"Just one phone call would have done."

"I know." He studied his hands.

"After all we went through." Her voice was strained. The lines around her eyes were a little deeper. She looked pale.

"Yes. I am sorry."

"Look, I understand how difficult it was for you, after. After—"

Her eyes on his were pleading, full of frustration. She'd taken care of him, at first. She'd seen how bad it was. Well, almost. It had gotten worse, in the latter half of the first year, after he'd moved to his new flat, when he'd been certain he couldn't go on living, and he'd spent the better part of his time at the bottom of a bottle.

He'd been ashamed, then, of how low he was. He hadn't wanted her to see. He'd started to talk to Sherlock, at his grave, and those conversations were private. He couldn't share them with her, so he'd stopped making plans to include her on those visits. Eventually, he'd stopped coming round to Baker Street altogether.

He could see, now, that she'd needed looking after, in her own way, just as much as he had. She had her friends, and she had her own life, but losing Sherlock had been like losing a son for her, despite what she'd said, and then she'd lost John, as well.

He should have been visiting, checking up on her, making sure she was okay. Even if it was only as a doctor, when he couldn't manage to come as a friend.

He sighed raggedly. He couldn't help how badly he'd handled things, but he could try to make it up to her, going forward.

"I just let it slide, Mrs. Hudson. I let it all slide. And it just got harder and harder to pick up the phone, somehow." He reached out, and covered her hand with his. "Do you know what I mean?"

Slowly, her frown turned into a tremulous smile, and she nodded, and looked up at him. "Do you want to go have a look upstairs?"

He should have said no, but he couldn't deny her anything, not when he'd hurt her feelings so badly.

The flat was exactly as it had been. Mrs. Hudson twitched back the curtains, making the dust fly, telling him that she couldn't bear to let it out to someone else. She talked about donating some of Sherlock's chemistry equipment to a school, but she hadn't packed a thing.

John wondered if she'd been up to the flat at all, in the past two years. It was a museum exhibit, a memorial to his old life, to his time with Sherlock. John's chair was there, just as it always had been, and Sherlock's chair, the two of them, in front of the fireplace.

His eyes fluttered shut, against the dust, against the rising wave of nostalgia and longing, for everything that could have been. He allowed himself a final, irrational prayer: Please, Sherlock, don't be dead. He imagined that the man himself would, at any moment, come down the hall from his bedroom, all loose pyjama bottoms and threadbare t-shirt and striped robe, hair tousled with sleep, needing food, and care, and John. Always John.

The flat was silent. Mrs. Hudson stood by the window, eyes on him. "Are you all right, dear?"

His stomach churned. He managed a smile. "I'm moving on."

"You're emigrating."

"No—"

He explained, and, when she understood, finally, that he'd met someone, she clapped her hands. "What's his name?"

All at once, John was trembling, eyes wet, emotion breaking him open. He stood, in the very place where he'd fallen in love—where he and Sherlock had lived and worked and fought and laughed—ready to claim his truth. A burst of pride moved through him, expanding his chest, making him stand a little taller. It was a milestone for him.

Ella's voice was in his head: take your time, John. Let the words come on their own.

Maybe, he thought, telling Mrs. Hudson this news could be a testament to everything he and Sherlock should have been. Yes. It was all right to be nervous. It was okay to be sad. But he was reclaiming his life, owning a part of himself he never could have, before.

"Mark. Mark Morstan."

"Oh! Lovely."

"Yeah. We're getting married—or, I hope we are. I'm going to ask."

She wrinkled her nose. "So soon after Sherlock?"

"Yes, well. It's been two years." No point in explaining that he and Sherlock hadn't been a couple. They had been, in their way. Of course they had.

She paused, smiling, eyes shining, and sighed. "I suppose it has. I'm happy for you, John. Truly I am."

They made their way back down to her flat, where she poured strong tea and gave him warm lemon squares on an ancient blue plate. She asked all the right questions: how he and Mark met, how they'd started seeing each other, when she could meet him. John managed to ask some advice about the proposal, and what she thought about a winter wedding, and if she knew of a place they could use for the reception. She sent him home with the names of three good caterers and a wedding planner, scrawled in her shaky handwriting, on a piece of floral notepaper.

She barely refrained from asking if they thought they might have kids someday. She extracted a promise from him, to bring Mark round, as soon as the engagement was on.

She wasn't his mother, John realised. She was much better than his mother had ever been. As he rode home on the tube, his heart was full. He wasn't sure he deserved her, but he was very, very glad she was in his life.

He never would have believed it was possible, but he could feel it: the world was starting to right itself again.

Chapter Text

John nearly spoiled the surprise, Friday afternoon, when he told Mark he'd made a reservation at the Landmark, for the two of them to have dinner that same night.

Mark looked up from the clipboard he was holding, with the list of John's afternoon patient appointments. Framed by the doorway of John's office, he looked like the portrait of something fresh and new, his dimples showing, the tilt of his head sharp, precise. "Posh!" He narrowed his eyes, without losing so much as a fraction of an inch of his smile. "What's the occasion?"

John chuckled, shook his head. He was terrible at lying, so he told half the truth. "Nothing. Just—I suppose there's something I want to talk to you about. Ask you."

Mark paused on the threshold, his smile turning, briefly, into a frown, as if he were running through some dense mental calculation. After a long moment, during which John cursed himself soundly for giving the game away before it had even begun, Mark took a further step into the office, and closed the door.

His smile turned into something decidedly feral. "You can talk to me anytime, John. Ask me anything. You know that."

John stood up from behind his desk, and met Mark in the centre of the room. He slid his hands around Mark's waist, and pulled him close. A simple gesture, easy. Something thousands upon thousands of couples did, every day.

Unprecedented.

Mark pressed against him, hands on John's shoulders. "Mm," he said, a low growl. "You planning to seduce me, Doctor Watson? Because the answer is yes."

John brushed his lips against Mark's, and slipped effortlessly into a deeper kiss, his whole body singing, the loose cotton of Mark's white shirt easy to lift. He slipped a hand up under it and ran his fingertips over the skin just above Mark's waistband, as Mark made a soft, throaty sound, and bit John's lower lip.

They stood that way, while Mark's breath caught, and John's hands wandered. John lost himself in the moment, in the subtle grind of Mark's hips, in the softness of the skin across his lower back, in the taste of the milky tea he'd just drunk, that still lingered on his tongue.

Outside John's office door, someone laughed: a loud, sharp bark, a reminder that the office wasn't as private as it should have been.

John spoke soft and low into Mark's ear, his voice husky. "Okay, I'm basically undressing you now." Hands off, stepping back, he admired his work: Mark's dishevelled clothing, the flush in his cheeks, the deep red of his lips.

They giggled at each other, as Mark wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and John's heart twinged with a small, painful sliver of familiar regret, that he hadn't figured himself out sooner.

Still, he'd made so much progress. He'd been so shy at first, so hesitant to let go with Mark, and now, here he was, in the middle of the work day, moments away from having Mark over his desk.

Fancy a change? He had. He did.

"The Landmark. Tonight." John said. "We'll have dinner, talk then."

"All right." Mark pulled his shirt down, rearranging himself, and ran his hand through his hair. "I'll have to go home and change first. Didn't plan for a night out on the town."

"Fine. I brought my suit with me, so I'll meet you there."

Mark beamed. "You really planned this."

John went back to his desk, smouldering under the effects of the snog they'd just had, and dizzy with anticipation for the evening ahead. "Next patient, please, Nurse. When you're ready."

***

The ring box pooched John's jacket, when he sat down at the table at the restaurant. He caught Mark's eyes drifting down to it, the spark of delight that moved across his features. Obvious, really, what was about to happen. And still, going through the steps mattered. It was important to do it the right way.

"You look wonderful, John," Mark told him, after the waiter took their order, and poured wine, and left them alone.

John shifted in his seat, and licked his lips. Mark had worn his blue suit, pale lavender shirt, purple tie. Brushed his hair carefully, a bit of product to style it. His hair was pale, baby fine. John wondered if it would thin as Mark aged, recede a bit. He imagined them both as balding old men, bickering over what to do with their afternoon, retired, maybe, somewhere in the country.

He was getting ahead of himself.

"The wine's good," John said, tasting it, then taking a bigger drink than he'd intended.

Mark held up his glass. "Cheers. Only one for me, though," he said, taking a sip. "Driving us home tonight. After." He fixed John with a steady, even look.

"After," John repeated. He imagined Mark taking him home, knowing they were going to be together for the rest of their lives. He wondered what it would do for them, in bed, tonight. He smiled into his glass as he took another long drink.

He thought, not for the first time today, that he was being foolish. Sentimental. Soppy. Too romantic, proposing, making plans. But no. He and Mark had talked, at length, almost from the moment they'd first gotten together, about where they wanted to live, and what they wanted to do, and the shape they wanted their lives to take, slipping almost automatically into a vision of a future together. It had helped John to believe there were good things coming for him, even though his feet were stuck in the mud of the past.

He had just about worked up the courage to say what he'd planned, when Mark's phone rang.

Mark pulled it out of his jacket and frowned at it. "Hold on." He looked up at John, all dimples and white teeth and merry blue eyes. "I have to take this. So sorry."

"All right."

Mark hit answer on his phone, and started talking into it. "Hi. Yes. Yes, I'm here. I'm listening. Go ahead." His tone wasn't anything he typically used with his friends. John ran through the possibilities, who it could be, who would call Mark on a Friday evening, about something that sounded so much like business.

To John's surprise, Mark stood, and took the stairs that led up to the loos at a run, shooting John an exaggerated look as he reached the top, mock horror at having to take a phone call at all.

John laughed, and straightened out the tablecloth in front of him, more shaken than he should have been. He took a deep breath, and blew it out again. It was probably a leftover bit of trauma, but he hated the feeling of watching Mark leave, when everything hung in this sweet balance, the two of them ready to take their next step. The timing was frankly ridiculous. Still, he couldn't deny Mark anything, not when he knew he'd be kissing him soon enough, under circumstances that should make both of them happy.

He picked up the wine list. He should order champagne. He didn't know a thing about champagne.

A waiter loomed, as if summoned by magic. "Can I help you with anything, Sir?" French accent. Fantastic. Maybe he knew what he was doing.

"Hi, yeah. I’m looking for a bottle of champagne—a good one."

The waiter leaned in, a little too close, the scent of his cologne washing over John. Something familiar. For no reason he could explain, he felt a sudden jolt of alarm. Nervous system, never quite right, after the war. After Sherlock.

The waiter drew closer still, his elbow brushing John's shoulder. "Well, these are all excellent vintages."

John didn't look up at him, just enjoyed the way the man was clearly flirting, invading John's personal space. He was okay with that now. Being with Mark had helped him relax about other men, and about being found attractive.

"Uh, it’s not really my area. What do you suggest?"

"Well, you cannot possibly go wrong, but if you’d like my personal recommendation—" closer still.

"Mmm."

"This last one on the list is a favourite of mine."

The waiter's breath brushed across John's cheek. Warm. Inviting. John nodded. He wouldn't make eye contact. That would be too much. Jesus. "Okay."

"It is, you might in fact say, like a face from the past."

Poetry. A lot more than John needed from a waiter. "Great. I’ll have that one, please."

He picked up his wine glass, and drained it in one go. It didn't help: he still felt wildly nervous. Thank God champagne was coming. He checked his watch. Mark had been gone for four minutes.  

The French waiter hovered, still talking about the champagne. "It is familiar, but, er, with the quality of surprise!"

John handed the wine list back. "Well, surprise me." The man needed to go away, do his job. John was on the verge of breaking into a giggle. He could hardly have Mark coming down the stairs to find him with a lap full of exuberant waiter.

"Certainly endeavouring to, Sir." The waiter slipped away.

John took the ring box from his jacket, and flipped it over, placed it on the white tablecloth, turned it again, just so. He opened it, checking for the hundredth time that day that the ring was still inside it. It was: a white gold band with a small diamond embedded in it. He'd agonised over the choice, wanting something modern, to go with Mark's style. He hoped Mark would understand that for John, Mark was just like the ring: utterly new.

He closed the box. He should hide it, he decided, until he'd had the chance to pop the question. He covered it with his napkin. Stupid. He picked it up again, and tucked it into his jacket pocket. When he said the words, that was when he would bring it out. That was when he would make his intention clear.

He straightened his tie, and fidgeted in his chair. Took a deep breath. Blew it out through his mouth.

He looked up in time to see Mark standing at the top of the stairs. Mark scanned the restaurant, eyes moving over the gathered patrons, as if he were looking for someone. John wondered if he should wave. Silly git, forgetting where they were sitting. He was probably nervous too.        

Mark's eyes found John, and he came down the stairs, all soft smiles. He looked dashing—that was the exact word, John was certain of it—all clean lines and compact muscle beneath his suit.

Something stirred in John, a hint of a deep, uncomplicated emotion he'd thought he'd never touch again.

Mark paused by John's side to give his shoulder a squeeze, sat back down in his chair, and straightened his jacket. "You okay?"

He was. He wasn't. Mark could see right through him, he was sure. "Yeah, yeah. Me? Fine. I am fine." He gazed at Mark, chewing the inside of his lip, half wanting this part to be over, half wanting it to never end. "Phone call?"

"Oh, yeah." He shook his head. "Tom."

Oh. Mark's ex always seemed to contact Mark at the least opportune moments. John and Mark had made a running joke out of it. Oh, you know Tom. Although John didn't know him. They'd never met. "Sounded like business."

"Oh, you know Tom." Mark waved his hand, as if dismissing a fly. "Always wants me to invest in something or other."

"Sure." John suspected that the something or other Tom wanted Mark to invest in was getting back together, but, as far as Mark had described the situation, the breakup had been messy, and Mark wanted nothing to do with him.

"Never mind all that," Mark said. "What did you want to ask me?"

Suddenly John was heavy with emotion, heavy with the reality of what he'd decided to do. He held up the bottle of red. "More wine?"

Mark smiled. "No, I’m good with water, thanks."

"Right."

"So?"

Mark wasn't giving him any room at all. Nothing for it but to start, to try to explain, and see where it took him. "So, Mark. Listen. Listen, I know it hasn’t been long. I mean, I know we haven't known each other for a long time." He looked down at his hands, then back up at Mark's patient smile, his nod of encouragement. 

"Go on."

"Yes, I will. As you know, these last couple of years haven’t been easy for me; and meeting you, yeah, meeting you has been the best thing that could have possibly happened."

Mark giggled. "I agree."

"What?"

Mark chewed his lower lip, and leaned in, whispering conspiratorially. "I agree I'm the best thing that could have happened to you."

John laughed. Well, Mark was many things, but he wasn't humble. He was quick in a crisis: he'd proven that at the clinic, many times. He was good when John was in his dumps. He knew how to treat John's body and, John hoped, he was very nearly certain, that he knew how to treat John's heart.

"Sorry." Mark was still smiling.

"Well, no. That's, um." John watched the lights reflected in Mark's water glass, then looked up to see the same light dancing in Mark's eyes. He pulled the ring box out of his jacket pocket, and held it in his hands, turning it this way and that. This was definitely the right thing, the right time. "So, if you’ll have me, Mark, could you see your way, if you could see your way to—"

Mark's eyes were shining like stars, bright and hopeful.

The French waiter was suddenly at the table, holding out the bottle of champagne, cutting John off with an excessively loud pronouncement. "Sir, I think you’ll find this vintage—" The sentence ended with a gasp.

With the sense that came from combat medical experience, John shifted without thinking, from mingled nervousness and exasperation, to a state of mild alarm, and sharp focus. Something was wrong with the strange, flirtatious waiter. He looked up at him, words on the tip of his tongue: Are you okay? I'm trying to propose to my boyfriend, you know.

The world blew to pieces. The foundation of the restaurant crumbled, the world shaking John down to raw, burnt, hollow bones, reducing him to a bag of nerves, all screaming alarm and horror.

This man, this funny man with the terrible French accent, like something out of a cartoon, looked just like Sherlock.

For his part, the man was staring at the ring box in John's hand, and blinking hard, then shifting his gaze to take in Mark, brow furrowed, his expression so like Sherlock's, when he was frustrated by something, when he was trying to solve one of his intricate puzzles.

This man couldn't be Sherlock. He looked so stunned, so utterly confused, and although he had come over to the table with something to say a moment ago, something about the champagne, he'd cut himself off, which was something that Sherlock would never have done.

"John?"

His voice.

"John? What are you doing?" His voice. The last time John had heard it, well. It had sounded just the same: it's what people do, don't they? Leave a note? Vulnerable. Frightened.

John was falling out of his chair. No: he was on his feet, while the restaurant fell around him. He looked, although he was half blind, at Mark, whose eyebrows were raised, the smile he got when he was about to make a joke playing on his lips.

"Oh my God, it's you," Mark said, his voice coming to John as if through thick layers of cotton.  

John made a harsh, wheezing noise, and stumbled, tripping over his own feet, which felt bolted to the floor, his whole body frozen. He stared, unable to look away, at the long-fingered, elegant hand reaching out toward him. So close, after all this time. Sherlock's hand.

John reached out, and took it. A simple act, nothing out of the ordinary, except it wasn't every day he got to do it with a two year old corpse, suddenly sprung to full, warm life again. He looked up, first at the long expanse of Sherlock's throat as he tugged his bow tie loose, gasping as if it were choking him. Sherlock never wore ties. A fact.

And yet, it was him. John was sure of it now, impossible as it was. There was the mole on the right side of his throat. The smattering of smaller moles on the left. His chin, his lips.

Sherlock's hand, resting in John's, was loose and cupped, as if he didn't know what to do with it. John turned the hand over, the same hand that he'd held as he took Sherlock's pulse, or tried to, the day he died. He ran his thumb across the back of it.

John's chest squeezed, and he let go of Sherlock, covering his mouth with both of his hands to stop the sound coming out of him. It came nevertheless: a strangled cry, containing all his mourning, every crawling, grasping, cloying day of the last two years, in one mangled non-word.

Mark was beside him, crowding in, tugging on John's arm. "John? You're flushed. Are you choking? Sit down."

Mark pulled out John's chair, and guided him to it. John sat, harder than he should have. Mark was on his knees in front of him, holding his hand, cupping his elbow, gazing up earnestly into his face, and talking. Soothing words. "It's all right. Just take a deep breath. You're scaring me a bit, love."

John stared at Mark, uncomprehending. Mark never called him love. Just John, or something filthy, when they were in bed together.

Behind Mark, Sherlock rubbed at his upper lip. The tips of his fingers came away black. The skin was red and raw.

Mark stood, and poured wine into a glass, and handed it to John. "Drink. You've had a fright."

John sipped, obediently, managed to swallow, then downed the rest. His head swam. Surely alcohol wouldn't really help, but he would do anything for this to be over, anything to gather the pieces of himself back together, so he could go to Sherlock, stop Sherlock from fading, or leaving, or dying again, right in front of him, or whatever it was he was trying to do.

People at other tables were staring now, the maître d' crowding over to touch Mark's shoulder, asking in hushed tones, "Is everything all right, Sir? Should we call a doctor?"

John laughed, the wine hitting his system all at once. "I am a doctor. I'm his doctor. Former." He pointed at Sherlock.

"Sir?" The maître d' turned to look at Sherlock.

"Didn't work, whatever I did," John said. He had started to shake, his teeth chattering. Shock. "He still died."

"We're fine," Mark told the maître d'. "Just give us a moment, would you?"

With a murmured certainly, and a promise to check on the state of their dinners, the man shuffled off.

"John, just take a moment." Mark rubbed John's knee, then took the empty wine glass from him. His hand lingered on John's back, rubbing circles.

For a long moment, John was certain he was going to vomit. His belly was full of wine and an aching need to speak to the ghost standing behind Mark—the ghost Mark stared at now, his eyes running up and down, checking him out, sizing him up.

"So that's him," Mark said. Not to John, it seemed, but to the room in general.

Then Mark was on the move, closing the space between himself and Sherlock, taking Sherlock's sleeve, tugging him over to the table, while he hissed in his ear. "You. Do you know what you've done? How you've hurt this man?"

Sherlock followed like an automaton, his mouth pressing closed, until he stood immediately in front of John. Mark, all efficiency, gave Sherlock his chair, and told him to sit. Mark's face was red. John supposed it was a shock for him, too.

Sherlock did sit, his knee bumping into John's, while the two of them stared at each other.

Mark walked away. John watched him find the maître d', and point to the table, nodding, saying things. Practical things, no doubt.  

The ring box sat in the centre of the table like an accusation. John picked it up and tucked it back into his jacket pocket. Sherlock's eyes tracked his movements, and, although John would not have guessed it was possible, more colour drained from his cheeks.

"John, I—" The sentence lingered, unfinished. Like their time together.

John felt himself flush, with the wine, and with a sudden urge to speak, to justify himself, explain. Mark. The ring. The entire contents of his heart. How he didn't know, in this moment, whether he wanted to knock Sherlock to the floor and strangle him, or gather him into his arms, hold him tight, and never let him go.

When he spoke, it was without knowing what he would say. "Two years." The words came out through gritted teeth, through the frantic torrent of emotion that wracked him: pain, and confusion, and a thin, blindingly bright line of fierce joy. Too much to bear. He would die of it, he was certain. "You let me grieve. Hm? I thought you were dead."

Sherlock's face fell. "I see it's a bit much, coming back like this. Might have given you a heart attack. Probably still will, but—" He turned to look as Mark came back to the table, following a busboy, who brought them an extra chair.

Mark sat, and folded his hands on the table, and looked from Sherlock, to John, and back again. "Any progress?"

Sherlock stared at Mark, and John knew that Sherlock saw everything, knew exactly what this was, what they were to each other.

Sherlock cleared his throat. "I'm beginning to realise some apology is probably in order. John, I am—I am sorry."

Mark laughed, sardonic, as if the apology were the greatest outrage. "They're packaging our order for takeaway, John. I explained that there's been a family emergency. If you want to get out of here, we can go home, any time. Or, stay. Talk. I can go, if you want to catch up."

John knew that Mark had every right to be hurt, that Sherlock had interrupted their big night. That seemed like nothing now, a little thing, easily mended with a joke and a smile, later. Later.  

For now, John needed to think, to get to the point where he could be rational about all this. That would come later too, he realised, much later, after the shaking stopped, after his heart stopped trying to beat its way out of his chest.

Sherlock looked flattened in his black suit jacket, his face pale, his eyes downcast. "I thought I would make an impression," he said. "Surprise you."

"Well, you did." John swiped at his eyes, feeling a thousand things all at once. It was all right, he decided, to make space for himself, to allow himself some time for it to all sink in. He looked at Mark: his anchor point, his partner. His sense of new normality. "I think we should go home. Can you give me a moment?"

"Course." Mark smiled, his expression soft, his voice quiet. "I asked them to hold our order at the front. I'll go collect it and get the car, yeah?"

"Okay. Thanks." John watched as Mark walked away, his movements sure. His easy grace, the way he seemed to smooth everything over, was reassuring. Reliable.

Mark spoke to someone who waited at the front of the restaurant, who handed him a large white paper bag. He left without a further backwards glance.

Sherlock's eyes tracked Mark, until the restaurant door swung shut behind him. He flinched as if he'd been struck, and shrank down in his chair, as if words had run out for him, and, in leaving him, had made him smaller.

"I'm going," John said.

"All right."

John was full of questions: where Sherlock had been, why he'd done what he'd done. He couldn't guess what was going on in Sherlock's brain or heart, or the ways he'd lived in the world for the last two years, or what he'd meant by coming back in such a ridiculous way. Asking, though, would mean opening himself up to a torrent of fresh feelings. He couldn't risk that. Not when he was already so deeply disturbed.

He took a deep breath. There were things he did know. Truths he'd tested, and come to rely on. He was no longer ashamed of what he was. And he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was good in him: the good, simple beauty that happened when he didn't shut down. He'd worked on himself. He'd come to understand what Sherlock meant to him. He would honour that now. If not for Sherlock, then for himself.

"Hey. Hey, Sherlock." He stood, and reached out, and touched Sherlock's shoulder. Sherlock looked up into his face, his expression strained, his mouth opening as if he wanted to speak.

"Stand up. I want to say goodbye to you properly." Better than the last time. Better than what you did to me. He was, he realised, searingly angry. Well. There would be time, later, to deal with that, as well.

Sherlock stood, obedient, pliant.

John took him by the wrist, and tugged him close. He put his arms up around Sherlock's shoulders, and drew him down. It was an awkward embrace, Sherlock stiff and half holding back, his hand moving to grasp John's upper arm, but John held on, his chin hooked over Sherlock's shoulder, shock and pain and something much more happy pulsing through his blood.

Sherlock was alive, and home again. Alive, and in his arms. It was something. A broken, farcical version of the miracle he'd asked for, so many times. A miracle nonetheless.

Sherlock turned his head, his lips brushing against John's ear. He inhaled, and let his breath out in a noiseless sigh.

John let Sherlock go, slowly, carefully. If he lingered any longer, all his accusations, and all his confessions might come spilling out, and there were people here, there was a whole restaurant full of people. There would be time for confessions, later, if he needed to make them. Whatever they were.

In the meantime, he could offer a goodnight, a goodbye. "I'll—" He stopped, unsure of what he wanted to say, wary of making any promises.

Sherlock bowed his head, and pointed at the door. "Don't want to miss your ride home."

John flushed. "No." His eyes lingered on Sherlock, and he held out his hand for Sherlock to shake.

Sherlock took it, squeezing it as if he were hanging on for dear life. Everyone at the tables around them was staring, a couple of people typing away on their phones. Sherlock Holmes, not dead, and back in London. John expected the news would hit the papers tomorrow.

Finally, John walked away, leaving Sherlock standing there, in the middle of the restaurant, all by himself. When he reached the door to the street, he turned back to look, but Sherlock was already gone.

Chapter Text

At home, Mark went directly to the kitchen and started fussing about with the food, setting out plates and cutlery, pouring tall glasses of water.

John watched helplessly from the doorway, his nerves raw, feeling tired and cold and small.

"Why don't you go take a shower?" Mark paused to look at him, his hand on his hip. "Change into something more comfortable?"

John smiled, then felt his face crumple. Across town, probably headed for Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes was back, returned from the dead. John felt stretched across that distance, and fought the urgent need to go, find him, be with him, even as the sense of how terribly Sherlock had betrayed him sat in his belly like a hard stone.

Sherlock had been alive all this time. He'd said nothing. He'd let John watch him die.

Mark approached, and put his arms around John's waist, and nuzzled the side of his neck. "I know this is confusing as hell," he murmured. "Just—let's have dinner. Take some time. You can sort it out in the morning. Or next week. Whenever."

John found himself nodding. "Okay. Yeah. All right."

Upstairs, he took the ring box from his suit jacket pocket, and tucked it away in the corner of his sock drawer. He would save it, for another time, when everything was sorted.

In the shower, he stood with his head under the water, and only then allowed his body to shake, and a few strangled sobs to come out, the memory of the long days and longer nights he'd spent wishing for Sherlock washing through him, along with wave after wave of relief.

He went downstairs and ate dinner on autopilot, mushroom risotto chased with a glass of scotch and, at Mark's insistence, more water. Mark did the washing up while John sat and stared into the middle distance, numb, and then it was directly to bed, where he thought he would lie awake for hours, staring at the ceiling.

Instead, his body softened as soon as he was tucked under the cotton sheets, total exhaustion pressing him down into sleep immediately.

His dreams leapt on him like a pride of lions, dragging him through murky London streets, where he ran, hand in hand, with Sherlock. In a rain soaked alley, Sherlock pulled him in, his hands roaming everywhere, sliding across John's chest, his neck, stroking a line over John's jaw. His kiss, when it came, rolled over John like an ocean wave. Then John was inside the coat, wrapped in it, and the two of them fell and fell, and the coat turned into soft blankets, and they landed, finally, in Sherlock's bed in Baker Street. Naked and strong together, they rolled, and Sherlock was on top of him, Sherlock's knees holding him down, Sherlock's arms caging him in, as John groaned and rolled his hips up, seeking friction, his head thrown back and a shout building in his throat, and Sherlock leaned down, and whispered something John couldn't hear, his name, maybe, or—

"John, you're dreaming. John. Wake up."

John blinked awake in the darkened room, in the bed he shared with Mark, Mark's sure, steady hands on him.

"John? Are you all right?"

Wordlessly, John rolled, facing Mark, pushing his way into Mark's arms. He was hard from the dream, just about at the bursting point, and he needed—he needed. He stripped off his t shirt as he climbed on top of Mark, straddling him, the pale skin of Mark's chest shining in the dim light from the hallway. When Mark had moved in, he'd put nightlights in strategic places, aimed at helping John orient when he woke in the night, helping him remember where he was, and with whom. He could see Mark, now, by their pale glow. He closed his eyes.

"Oh my God," Mark groaned, as he ran his hands up John's thighs, and palmed his erection through his boxers. "Take these off." He helped John push the boxers down, freeing his cock.

Mark stroked him, and John joined his hand to Mark's, their fingers tangling, John speeding things along, pumping himself as fast as he could. His breath, harsh and ragged and panting, was the only sound in the room for a long, tenuous moment. John didn't care what else happened. He only wanted the oblivion of orgasm, to wash the dream of Sherlock out of his system.

"Come on me," Mark urged, as John's breath caught in his throat. "Come all over me."

John gasped and his orgasm crashed over him, and even as he came on Mark's belly, even as he collapsed into Mark's warm, strong arms, he knew that the dream wasn't just a blip, an error spat out by his subconscious.

Sherlock was in his blood, in his heart. Sherlock, alive, and just across town. Sherlock, who had looked so crestfallen, devastated, as he'd looked at the ring box on the table, at the Landmark.

"Sorry," John said. "That was a bit—"

"Of a surprise." Mark rubbed circles over John's back, making soothing noises. "Mmm. You should dream more often, you filthy beast."

John snorted laughter. Mark made it easy, so easy, to pretend that everything was fine, always. And maybe it was fine. They had their life together. A real, normal life.

John slipped down, and ran his fingers under the waistband of Mark's pants. He wondered, briefly, if he should talk, try to explain himself, but Mark was no idiot. He surely knew John had needed the release, needed to relieve some of the tension of the day. Besides, Mark was half hard, and moaning, as John slipped his pants off, pulling them all the way down over his ankles, and dropping them on the floor.

It would be better not to try to explain. There was nothing to say, really. Nothing to justify. John's thoughts were his own.

He ran his palm over Mark's cock, which leapt to attention, filling and filling until it was firm in his hand.

It wasn't that he felt he had to make the dream up to Mark. It was more, he always felt like he had to make something up to Mark, always felt like he was playing catch up. He'd been so broken, when Mark walked into his life.

Mark watched him, his eyes in shadow, as John bent down and took him into his mouth, working on him slowly, until Mark's fingers ran through John's hair, and he caressed the back of John's head, and began to gently buck, shifting himself across the bed of John's tongue.

John needed this. He needed the tangible reminder that this was his lover, his intended, this man, who was here for him in all the ways that really mattered, all the ways that Sherlock never could be. John needed this: the warm, moaning body beneath him, but also the way Mark laughed away his faults, and made it all okay, somehow, for John to not quite be what he thought he should.

Being with Sherlock, well, that had been like dwelling in some shining, ideal world of danger and drama and purpose. In their quiet moments together, John had wondered, about what it might be like to take things further, but those thoughts had been half formed, impossible to make real, and it had all fallen apart, the moment that Sherlock had leapt from the roof of Barts.

Above him, in their quiet bedroom, Mark's moans turned breathy, and he tugged on John's ear, as a sign that he was about to come. John sucked him down, moving faster, squeezing the base of his cock roughly as Mark's release pulsed through him, filling John's mouth.

When it was all over, John pulled the sheet back over them, and settled on his pillow, overheated, an arm thrown up over his head. Much better. He needed to remember this, remember how good things could be, before his old dreams got hold of him.

Mark sprawled beside him, companionably, resting his elbow on the pillow, his head in his hand. "Do you think you'll see him again?"

John sat up, and turned on the lamp on his bedside table. Mark squinted against the light, watching John steadily.

"What?"

"It's just a question, John. I don't mean anything by it."

John blinked at Mark, trying to figure him out. He didn't seem upset, but then again, he was always lazy and sardonic after sex. John felt just the opposite, suddenly jolted all over again. "I don't know."

Mark sat up, his smile crooked, his eyebrows quirked. "I assume you will, you know."

"Oh, you assume?"

"Of course you will. Why wouldn't you?"

So many reasons. Too many to list. "I don't know." John rubbed his face with his hands.

"You will." Mark slid down under the covers, knocking his feet up against John's. "Don't be ridiculous."

John watched him, cautious. Mark seemed so sure of his place, so unconcerned about it all.

John turned out the light, and curled into a ball on his side, facing away from Mark. Ella had encouraged him to be more honest, now that he was in a relationship. It was important, she said, for him to talk about his feelings. "It hurts." His voice came out as a harsh whisper. "The way he came back, just like that. As if it were a joke."

Mark's hand rubbed John's shoulder, the back of his neck. "Well, if it started as a joke, it didn't end that way. He looked as bloody surprised as you."

John shook his head. "Why should he be surprised, exactly? I haven't been pretending I was dead."

"John."

Mark was right. Of course he was right. John remembered the way Sherlock had seemed to deflate, as he stared at him, and Mark.

"You've changed, John." Mark rested his hand on John's hip.

John's stomach clenched, rioting against the way Mark seemed to be taking Sherlock's side. At the same time, Mark was right: John had changed. He couldn't imagine how he and Sherlock could possibly work together, now that everything was so different. He couldn't imagine sitting in the same room with him. Where would they even begin?

He should be grateful, he supposed, for Mark's even disposition. He might be, later. He wasn't now. "He was alive. All this time, he was out there, alive. He could have gotten a message through. He could have let me know. One word. That's all I would have needed." He was rambling, trying to justify his feelings.

"I like him."

Something in Mark's bland, even tone made John's temper flare. "No one likes him."

"I do."

Chapter Text

John waited to see Sherlock. He waited for ten days.

On Saturday morning, he rose early. Mark had already left the flat—out for his Saturday morning trip to the gym. John walked the neighbourhood, heading for the nearest park, with its quiet paths through tall trees. The autumn air was sharp and damp. The yellow leaves of ash, and the red and orange leaves of oak, covered the lawns. He kicked his way through them, as one thought repeated itself, over and over, one hope, answered by one incontrovertible truth: Sherlock Holmes was alive, and in the world.

After walking the perimeter of the park three times, John went to the nearest newsagents. Just as he'd imagined it would be, the news that Sherlock was back was all over the front pages. The Daily Mail featured a picture of the two of them at the Landmark, clutched in their awkward embrace. A grainy shot, taken on a mobile phone.

He bought one of each of the major papers, stopped for a coffee, and returned to the park, where he sat on a bench, and read each item carefully. The articles were mostly composed of speculation, about how Sherlock might have survived, about what he would do, now that he was back in London again. Only the Mail mentioned John's name, calling him Sherlock's former companion, a turn of phrase that made him smile. A step up, maybe, from bachelor John Watson.

Across the park, a gang of starlings chattered and picked their way among the fallen leaves. He put the papers aside, weighing them down with a stone from the edge of the path, leaving them for someone else to read. He'd only wanted them for the confirmation that Sherlock was really back, so he could relax a bit, knowing that he hadn't had some sort of psychological break, that he hadn't hallucinated the entire thing.

He sifted through the events of the night before, as he took a final turn around the park.

Sherlock had been so strange, blundering into the scene in the restaurant, stumbling back into John's life, as if the last two years were a half-hearted joke that even Sherlock knew wasn't funny.

Mark's comment of the night before sat uncomfortably with him: it didn't look like a joke. He looked as bloody surprised as you. He remembered Sherlock, staring at the ring box. His strangled voice.

John? What are you doing?

A damn good question.

His feet crunched on the gravel path as he picked up his pace, fueled by caffeine, and an uncomfortable sense that the past was catching up with him.

Of course Sherlock was surprised. John had said he wasn't gay enough times. Shouted it, even. He'd tried, in deference to Sherlock's feelings, not to say it in front of him. At Battersea, he had, not realising Sherlock was there, listening to his conversation with Irene Adler.

A dreadful mistake. John had wondered, many times, if he could have simply forced the conversation he'd wanted to have with Sherlock, after Battersea, if he'd put everything out on the table back then, if things would have been different. If Sherlock might have not thrown himself from the roof of Barts.

He'd had such vague ideas then.

Sherlock, I'm not gay, but I think—

She said we're a couple. Do you ever wonder—

I know I said I'm not gay. I didn't mean it. I didn't mean it at all.

John walked past a small fountain in the centre of the park. It had been drained, in anticipation of winter, and stood dry and empty.

Back in the old days, John had always framed his ideas about Sherlock speculatively: in case Sherlock was gay, he didn't want to protest too much, didn't want to offend him. In the past six months, as he'd torn down the shoddy cardboard shack of his own identity, he'd come to accept that there was really no mystery to Sherlock's orientation. He might not be interested in a relationship. He might not have the same needs or interests John did, in being with someone on intimate terms. But of course he was gay. Of course he was.

Well. Perhaps he had taken Sherlock down a notch, after all, last night. He could only imagine Sherlock's thoughts, as he recognised the scene of John's date with Mark for what it was.

Surprise.

He couldn't think of another explanation for the way Sherlock had seemed to crumple, to drop whatever prank he was trying to pull. To look so pale. To sigh against John's ear, as John held him. 

Back home, John paced the flat, restless, at odds with himself. He checked his phone for messages, saw none. Thought about sending one. Held himself back. He needed to sort through it all. Settle himself, which felt like an impossible task.

He needed time.

He sat down on the kitchen floor, opened the cupboard under the sink, and began cleaning it out. A simple thing, to focus his mind. By the time he was finished, he'd decluttered the entire kitchen, and it was the middle of the afternoon.

He didn't feel any better.

When Mark came in, all rosy cheeked from exercise and the cold, his racquet bag slung over his shoulder, John told him he didn't want to talk about Sherlock. He asked if they could have a quiet night in, just the two of them. Dinner cooked at home, a bit of telly, and early to bed.

"Of course," Mark said, rubbing his back. "Anything you need."

***

Sunday morning, John slept in, and woke to a quiet flat, Mark gone out for his second major workout of the weekend. John rolled over in bed, and stared at the ceiling, basking in the sunlight filtering through the sheer curtains. He closed his eyes, and drifted back to sleep, the solitary room enclosing him like a warm blanket.

In his dream, Sherlock was beside him, lying on the bed, his limbs loose, pyjama bottoms slipping to reveal a band of skin under his blue t shirt, his body sleep-warm and soft.

"I love you," John told him, combing his fingers through Sherlock's hair. "God, I love you so much." He leaned in, and kissed Sherlock's forehead, kissed his cheek. "I can't believe you're back. Sherlock, I'm so glad. I can't tell you."

The sound of the front door closing jolted him awake. Mark moved through the downstairs, into the kitchen, his footsteps light, like they always were. The sounds of the refrigerator opening and closing, and a pan being put on the burner, filtered up the stairs. John squinted at the clock. It was 11 am. Long past time for him to get out of bed.

Steeped in the logic of the dream, he reached for the warm body beside him, expecting, somehow, to find Sherlock there, still slack with sleep.

The bed was empty. Of course it was.

Chest clenching, John rolled onto his side, drew his knees up, and wept.

***

On Tuesday, he had a lunchtime appointment with Ella. He sat, and he spoke, in calm terms, about the fact that Sherlock was back. He described the scene at the restaurant. Told her about how hard it had been, how strange. How he'd managed his temper, managed to show Sherlock he cared, as best he could.

When she asked him how he felt about it, he shrugged. "Happy I didn't go off and hit him, I suppose."

She nodded, and made notes. "And the fact that he's back?"

He looked out the window, at the rain-soaked evergreens in the small sanctuary of a yard behind Ella's office. He'd known the question was coming. Trying to answer it was the reason he'd kept this appointment. Still, it shook him. It was too big. The potential answers had too many implications for his life.

"No. I don't know. I don't know how I should feel about it."

"Sometimes, when we get something we've wanted badly, it can be very disruptive."

John sniffed. "Well. I'd say that's accurate." He faked a smile.

"And Mark? What does he say about all this?"

"He's been great, actually. He tells me I should just go see Sherlock. Talk."

Ella watched him. His cue to elaborate on what he'd just said.

"I suppose I don't know what I would say. Too much to sort through."

"It's perfectly understandable, John. Two years is a very long time. And the way Sherlock went about it, pretending to die, then coming back. I would expect that might be difficult to forgive."

John shifted in his chair. "Yes." He was angry. He knew that. Two years, and no word.

Still, he'd done so much work in that time. He knew he would deal with the anger, and find a way to let go of it, eventually. Being angry because Sherlock was alive was not nearly so powerful a thing, as being angry because he was dead.

He shifted again, crossed his legs. Uncrossed them. "It isn't that, exactly."

"Can you say what it is?"

John waited, letting the silence spin out between them. He waited for the words to come, to filter up through the mess of feeling he'd been sunk in for the last three and a half days.

"It's me. I've changed."

"You've made very positive changes. And you've sorted out who you are. Who you want to be."

John nodded, dense emotion rising to the surface. His chest was tight; his throat, constricted. A few hot tears gathered in the corners of his eyes. He took the tissue Ella offered, and wiped at his face.

He waited, again, knowing that there was no point in trying to rush himself. "I suppose I don't know how to explain all that to him."

"To Sherlock."

"Yeah. Sherlock."

A trace of a smile graced Ella's lips. "The facts of your life are simple, John. You're in a relationship with a new partner. You've planned to take that relationship further, into marriage. These are normal, everyday things. They don't require much explanation."

John nodded, feeling his world realign. Ella was right. Mark was his anchor, part of the new reality he'd built for himself, in Sherlock's absence.

The things he felt for Sherlock, because of Sherlock—those were just fantasies, another version of the dreams he'd been having all along, since the day they met. Once he'd gotten over the shock of Sherlock's return, once he'd followed through on his plans and proposed to Mark, those dreams would probably settle down, and return to their rightful place, on the long list of things that were nice in theory, but could never come to pass.

***

On Wednesday, before work, John bolted down breakfast, then left the kitchen table to rummage around in the shed in the yard. Mark followed him, toast in one hand, coffee cup in the other, and watched as John shifted bins and plastic storage boxes out of the way.

"You need help, love?"

John shot him a smile. "You don't call me love, love."

Mark shrugged. "Just...trying it on for size. Darling, you need help?"

"No, honey," John said, finally finding what he was looking for, with a small cry of triumph. He wheeled his bike out from behind the collection of rakes and shovels he'd inherited from previous tenants, when he moved into the flat. The helmet was where he'd left it, slung over the handles. His backpack was upstairs, hanging in the back of the bedroom closet.

The tyres looked okay. John ran his hand over the seat, clearing away dust and cobwebs.

Mark raised his eyebrows. "This is new."

"It's old, actually, if you'll recall." John smiled at him. "Thought I would ride in today. Get a bit of exercise and air before work." It was another clear, bright day. Cool, but not too cold.

Mark lifted his coffee cup. "Cheers to that." He closed the gap between them, leaned in, and kissed the side of John's neck, the sensitive spot he knew always made John's knees buckle.

John made a gruff sound in the back of his throat, glancing up at the neighbours' upper windows. Sod them, he thought. They could enjoy the show, or not. He kissed Mark's lips, and pressed their bodies together, his skin tingling, his heart light.

"You be careful, all right?" Mark murmured, in John's ear.

"Careful?" John's voice was all tremulous. He hoped to tease some promise out of Mark. "If I'm not, what will happen?"

Mark pulled back, gripping John's shoulder. "It's just, there are a lot of careless people out there. Crazy ones, too."

He said it with such specific emphasis, John couldn't help wondering if he meant something particular by it.

He didn't ask.

***

Friday afternoon, Sherlock sent him a text.

John was between patients, on his way to the break room, where he'd planned to meet Mark, and share a cup of tea, when his phone pinged. He paused in the corridor, took it out, and read it.

I might have a case. -SH

John was staring at the text, wondering how on earth he should reply, when another came through.

It's only a four. Maybe a five. Thought I might as well take it. Do me a bit of good to get started again. -SH

John could see the break room door from where he was standing. He should go there. Put his phone on silent mode. Sit. Have tea with Mark.

His phone pinged.

Mycroft's got me working on something as well. Some terrorist threat thingy. Seems dull. -SH

"I know what you're doing," John murmured, keeping his voice low. "Trying to draw me in. Takes more than that, these days, Sherlock Holmes. You'll have to buy me dinner first."

Geoff Lestrade asked after you. I told him you're doing well. -SH

John turned, eyes locked on the screen, and walked back to his office. He shut the door, and sat down at his desk, holding the phone gingerly, like it might break.

You are doing well. Aren't you? It seems you are. Looked that way. -SH

John smiled at his phone, something warm and liquid expanding in his chest. "Since when do you care how I'm doing?"

I am glad, John. I am glad that you're doing well. -SH

The thin veil of resistance guarding John's heart broke open, tore away, and dissolved. He sighed heavily, blinking away the tears that blurred his vision, the terrible dull loathing that had followed him through all the days of Sherlock's absence hitting him hard, having a last go at him. He sat that way, for a full ten minutes. No more texts came through.

He knew he was at a dangerous point of balance. This was the thing that had been bothering him since the restaurant, since Sherlock had seemed so affected by the scene of John's date with Mark, and the ring box. The question that had stirred in John's blood since that night was with him all at once, stepping to the forefront of his thoughts, like a villain out of some dark corner, ruining everything.

Did Sherlock care about him? Could he care about him, in the ways that mattered?

He put the phone down on his desk, and rested his head in his hands.

Sherlock had a lot to account for, a great deal to make up to him, but if he cared about John, if John could see more evidence that Sherlock really cared, well. John wasn't sure what he would do. Nothing desperate, he hoped. Nothing foolish.

Everything desperate, some deep, secret impulse whispered. Every terribly foolish thing.

His break was almost over, when another text came through.

Mrs. Hudson says his name is Mark. You're to be married. Congratulations are in order, I believe. -SH

John scrubbed at his face. There it was: his new life, meeting his old. Everything sorting itself out. No decisions to be made. No lives to be turned on their heads. Especially not his.

Sherlock was contrite, polite. As he bloody well should be. He would give room to John, and whatever John wanted. And John knew exactly what he should want: to follow through on what he'd started, ask Mark to marry him, and get on with his life.

"Congratulations to me," he murmured. The words rode on a thick disappointment he didn't want to examine too closely.

His phone pinged again.

I am sorry, John. I do hope you'll forgive me. For everything. -SH

***

On Sunday, Mark had a party to attend, a birthday for one of the nurses from the clinic. At two o'clock in the afternoon, he dressed himself up in olive green trousers, layered t-shirts, and a jacket, and kissed John on the cheek as he passed through the kitchen, where John had been occupying himself by staring out the window, deep in thought about what the hell he was going to do with himself.

"Might be late tonight," Mark said. "You okay by yourself?"

"Sure." If he were honest, he desperately wanted the time alone. More time to think. Or to stop thinking.

An hour later, John wheeled his bike out from the shed, and took off down the street, under a rare bright autumn sky. He pedaled faster than his custom, thighs burning, lungs protesting, as he contemplated the long, solitary evening ahead of him.

He couldn't say that he was ready to see Sherlock quite yet. He hadn't managed to see a way to forgive him for pretending to be dead for two years.

He wasn't sure he could forgive him for not quite being his old self, either. This new Sherlock, the one who spammed him with thoughtful texts that offered shy congratulations, and tentative hopes for John's wellbeing, was a bit of a stranger. John didn't know what to do with him.

Neither of them were their old selves, he supposed, as he rode through the neighbourhood, standing on the pedals to get more power, going faster, and faster.

When he was almost back home, he deviated from his usual route. He had no reason to be anywhere in particular. He kept riding, as the afternoon gave way to a beautiful evening, the dusky sky crowded with thick clouds that scudded through the deep blue, like so many flat-bottomed boats. Might as well stay out a little while longer.

John pedaled through the streets, going anywhere, going nowhere, rushing past mums with strollers, and couples taking their early evening walks, pushing his speed until his legs were numb, his arse worn out from the bicycle seat, and his lungs, spent. The last of the sunset faded from the sky, and it was nearly full dark.

He dismounted in a small park, far from home, and wiped sweat from his brow. He checked his watch. He'd been out for two hours. The few remaining dry leaves rustled in the trees overhead, speaking soft goodnight to each other.

A young man—sharp-faced, handsome—watched him from a nearby bench, illuminated by yellow lamplight. John wondered if he was looking to sell some drugs, or, perhaps, to pull. John raised his water bottle, and took a deep drink, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, staring openly, until the man looked away.

When he got home, he put his bike away in the shed, let himself in through the kitchen, then climbed the steps to the second floor, muscles played out, his skin soaked in a layer of good, healthy sweat. He peeled off his clothes, and stood in the shower for longer than he needed to, the hot water turning his skin bright red.

He thought of the bloke in the park, and touched himself, his cock springing to life under his hand. His mind drifted through vague notions of eyes on him, hands on him. A deep rumble of a voice, speaking his name. He came moments later, hot streams of come joining the water from the shower as it beat down on his naked back, and flowed across his hips, over the curl of his fist.

Dinner was leftover Chinese and a bottle of lager, consumed while standing at the kitchen counter, staring out at the tiny backyard, and wondering what would happen next.

He got out his phone, and thumbed through Sherlock's texts, reading the last one over again.

I am sorry, John. I do hope you'll forgive me. For everything. -SH

He typed a reply, and hit send before he could stop himself. It was probably wrong, somehow. He wasn't sure he cared.

Don't worry. I'll see you soon.

He went to bed by himself, utterly wrung out in a way he hadn't been, since he and Sherlock ran through London streets together, chasing criminals and, perhaps, each other.

***

Monday, John's first thought upon waking was that Sherlock had drawn that small, black moustache on at the Landmark to make fun of him. He touched his upper lip, running his fingers over the bristles of his own moustache, and laughed up at the bedroom ceiling, while he listened to the gurgle of the coffee maker, the morning sounds of Mark, who always seemed to rise before him, puttering around the kitchen.

Clearly Sherlock had shown up at the restaurant with the full intention of taking the piss. That bow tie, impersonating the wine waiter, the moustache, coming off all showy and over the top, waiting for John to notice him. Wasn't that Sherlock all over?

He pulled back the sheets and blankets, letting the cold air hit him, wake him up a bit. He lifted his arms up over his head, pointed his toes, and stretched. His left shoulder gave a satisfying pop. His knees and ankles cracked. His whole body felt sore, but wonderfully alive.

Yesterday's ride had cleared his head. He smiled. It had been a while since he felt like himself.

He stood in the bathroom, looking at his reflection in the mirror, and recalled Sherlock's face, the defeated look he'd worn as he wiped the drawn-on moustache from his upper lip. He sighed, fished around in a drawer, and pulled out a pair of barber's scissors.

As he started to clip the moustache, he wondered about Sherlock's time away, if he had found someone to be with. If, at any time, he'd ever had someone, the way that John had Mark. He looked down at the bathroom sink, now covered in bristles, and swiped it out with a tissue. Perhaps he should just ask Sherlock, if he wanted to know so badly.

He took the electric razor to his upper lip. When he was done, he admired his work. He looked like a new man, and like his old self, all at once. He decided he liked it.

Got a few more surprises in you yet, Johnny boy.

In the kitchen, Mark greeted him with a wolf whistle. "Why, Doctor Watson!"

John pressed his lips together, feeling that the upper one was strangely bare. "Is there coffee?"

Mark poured him a cup. "You shaved for him, didn't you?"

"No."

"You going to see him tonight?"

"Maybe. That all right?"

"Of course. I told you already, John. I like him. Of course the two of you are still friends. Go and see him. You should."

John squinted at Mark, watching him for any sign of hesitation, any hint that he felt strange, or badly, about any of it. "I probably will."

For a moment, silence stretched out between the two of them, and John wondered if there were unplumbed depths in it.

Mark grinned. "Although, maybe I should be jealous. Six months of bristly kisses for me, and his nibs comes back to town—"

John laughed, simple relief washing through him. Of course Mark wasn't really jealous. He was the real boyfriend, the real lover. The husband-to-be, once John got around to asking. John went up on tiptoes, grinning like a fool, and took a box of muesli down from the cupboard. "It wasn't working for me."

Mark cupped John's arse, squeezed, and kissed the back of his neck, with a loud smack. "Well, it worked for me, just fine. And this does too. It all works."

John made a noise of satisfaction. "Good night last night? You were out late." He couldn't recall Mark coming to bed.

"Oh yeah. Everyone's going to be knackered today. We started out at the pub, then ended up back at Jill's. Hilarious, that lot, when they get going. Nobody wanted to stop. You would like them, you know, if you took the trouble to get to know them."

John smiled. "Sure."

He'd isolated himself from his coworkers. He knew that. At first, it had happened because he was barely functioning at all, after Sherlock. Once he started seeing Mark, it was a byproduct of his old habit, of focusing on just one person, throwing everything he had into one relationship. He meant to fix that. Maybe he had the chance to, now that Sherlock was back. He could have Mark, and have—whatever he and Sherlock were to each other. Friends. Colleagues. He skirted around the idea of putting a label on it. Maybe they didn't need labels. Whatever they were, there was nothing wrong with having Sherlock in his life, and having a relationship with Mark.

He poured cereal, stirred yoghurt into the bowl, added a bit of milk, and leaned up against the kitchen counter while he ate. Mark sat at the table, sipping coffee and thumbing through his phone.

"What time did you get in?" John asked.

"Oh, two-ish? You were dead to the world."

"I was."

Mark stood, took the bowl from John's hand, and put it on the counter. "Not a thing could wake you." He leaned against John, and kissed him.

The edge of the counter pressed into John's back. Mark's arms wrapped around John's shoulders, dropping him into a sense that everything was right with the world.

He smiled as he kissed the corner of Mark's mouth, slipping into the easy intimacy they always had together. "You could have."

Mark sighed against John's bare upper lip, and ran his tongue across it. His hands roamed, as John opened his mouth to Mark's tongue, and slotted his thigh between Mark's legs.

"Next time," Mark said, "I will."

Mark left for work ten minutes before John did, mumbling something about a staff meeting he had to attend.

John went upstairs to finish getting ready, brushing his teeth, and sliding an extra shirt into his backpack, to change into, before he took the tube to Baker Street, tonight.

He made the bed, taking his time over it, starting with his side, tucking in the corners, thinking about how Mark always made fun of him for it, the way he smoothed the sheets and blankets until they were taut.

Seems like a lot of effort, for something we're only going to mess up in a few hours.

He smiled, as he moved to Mark's side. His hands moved over the blanket at the foot of the bed, going through the steps of folding it under the mattress.

He felt that something wasn't right, before it registered with his conscious awareness. He frowned down at the bed.

The bottom corner of the blanket on Mark's side was still neatly folded, just like it had been, when John went to bed the night before. The sheet was still tucked between the mattress and box spring, as though Mark had never been to bed at all. Pulling everything out of place was usually the first thing he did when he got in. He was a warm sleeper, warm generally. He liked to stick his feet out when he slept.

John supposed, as he finished fluffing the pillows, and putting them in their places, that there was always a first time for everything. Mark said he'd gotten in late. Maybe he'd only pulled the blanket over himself. Maybe he had been careful about the way he'd slid under the sheets, not wanting to disturb John.

As he headed down the stairs and out into the yard to fetch his bike from the shed, John realised he was over-thinking. He'd been doing far too much thinking, lately. He was probably just borrowing trouble, trying to rationalise the fact that he was a bit nervous about tonight, about going to see Sherlock.

Work, for once, was fantastic. His patients all had simple issues: nothing out of the ordinary, nothing serious. He got through them efficiently, and had enough time to take a couple of Dr. Chakraborty's—a return favour for the many times she'd helped him, when he was overloaded.

As the day wore on, and it grew closer to time for him to go see Sherlock, a note of bright excitement began to build in him. He found himself whistling tunelessly, as he washed his hands between patients.

Mid-afternoon, he ended up in the break room at the same time as Jill. She squinted at him as they waited over the kettle. "Something's different. New haircut?"

"No." He grinned, thumbing his upper lip. "Shaved the moustache."

"That's right! Looks good."

"Thanks. It was time for a change."

She smiled at him, and nodded. "Change is good."

The kettle came to a boil. They fussed about with sugar and milk.

"Heard you had a good night last night," John said, remembering what Mark had told him.

"Oh yeah. Wicked good film, Gone Girl. We all loved it. Not as good as the book, mind."

John blinked at her. Mark hadn't mentioned a movie. Just drinks at the pub, and Jill's place, after.  He covered his surprise by fussing with his mug, reaching for a spoon, and giving his tea an unnecessary stir. "Late one?"

"Oh no. Getting too old for that. Quick movie, and home to bed for me."

John nodded, smiling. "Sounds ideal."

"It was. About as much fun as I can manage, these days, with two little ones at home."

"Right."

He watched as Jill left the break room. For a moment, he wondered if he should go after her, and ask her directly if Mark had been with them.

All at once, he felt as though he were falling down very fast. He leaned against the counter, grateful that he was alone, that there was no one to witness his panic attack, as he waited for the wave of nausea and dizziness to pass.

Mark had lied to him. The possible reasons why spun through his mind, too many threads to follow.

The trouble with a lie, with being lied to, was the fact that it was impossible to tell how deep it went. Sometimes, deception ended with someone lying dead on the pavement.

He scrubbed at his face, his hands shaking. He managed to lift the mug of tea to his lips. He took a good sip, wishing for something stronger. Slowly, his breathing eased, and the panic began to cycle down, into a familiar feeling, like he'd been grabbed and shaken far too hard.

Christ. Enough of this.

He inhaled sharply, grasping at any half-formed rational thought he could.

Mark wasn't Sherlock. John had to remember that, had to remember that whatever problems might come up in their relationship, they were going to be ordinary, everyday things.

As much as John had been under strain, Sherlock's return had put pressure on Mark as well. It had to have done, no matter how terrific Mark was at covering that fact, no matter how much he'd tried to give John room, to have whatever reaction he needed to have.

If Mark needed space, an evening to himself, then that was completely understandable. John would have preferred it if Mark had just been honest with him, of course. On the other hand, maybe Mark hadn't felt he had the right to go off on his own. Maybe he'd thought John wouldn't understand.

John stared down at the mug in his hands, and the world slowly came back into focus. He was asking a lot of Mark, a lot of their relationship, going off to Baker Street tonight, to spend time with Sherlock. Mark trusted him implicitly. He'd made that clear enough. The least John could do was extend that same courtesy.

He made his way back to his office, nerves jangling, and sat down at his desk. He only had paperwork left, only an hour or so before the day would be done. And then, a trip across town. And then, Sherlock, and whatever they needed to say, whatever they needed to do, to try to sort things out.

He worried, a bit, over the idea that Mark had lied to him. He resolved to ask him about it later, if it was still bothering him. Really though, he was probably just being silly. No need to start a fight over nothing.

He and Mark had built such a good foundation together. John wouldn't do anything to jeopardise it.

Chapter Text

John stood outside Baker Street, looking up at the facade of the building he'd once called home.

He hadn't texted ahead, to let Sherlock know he was coming. Somehow, that would have put too much pressure on the evening. Too official, like he needed an appointment.

Like this was a date, his mind supplied, unhelpfully.

The wind blew down the street, ruffling his hair with its cold fingers. John wondered if Sherlock was home. He almost hoped he wasn't. It would be easier, to put this off a bit longer. Take his time, get used to the idea of being in his old stomping grounds again.

He straightened his jacket. He'd chosen his clothes carefully. He was good for a run through the streets, if one should be necessary. He'd taken care with his appearance, too. Shaved again, to take care of five o'clock shadow. He'd studied himself, in the bathroom mirror at the clinic, asked himself if he was doing the right thing. Decided, for the hundredth time, that he could only care so much about what was right.

He sighed, paced the pavement, looked down the street, thought about walking away. Rocked up on his heels, then back down again. He contemplated the glossy black paint on the familiar door, the number of the place he'd thought would always be home to him.

"Penny for the Guy!"  

A pair of boys pushed a stroller down the street. They'd placed a homemade dummy in it, with an orange balloon for a head. Bonfire night. John had forgotten entirely, he'd been so focused on seeing Sherlock.

He found himself smiling. He hadn't seen kids following the tradition in years, although he and Harry had done it, on more than one occasion. He remembered taking fistfuls of coins to the shop, and buying cheap fireworks. They'd packed the Guy's pockets with as many as they could, and set him on top of the bonfire.

He remembered Harry's face, scrunched with delight, her fingers in her ears, as they watched the Guy explode, the dry leaves they'd stuffed him with catching fire, and sending tiny sparks up into the cold November night sky. Taking her hand, afterward, and walking her home, while she asked if they could do it all over again the next day.

John dug around in his pocket for change, and handed the boys a pound each. They exchanged a look, eyes wide, and grinned at him, then took off at a run, the stroller wheels rattling, the Guy barely keeping his seat.  

He contemplated the door in front of him once again. Hesitated, his feet refusing to move, his heart racing. Maybe it would be easier if he just went back to his own place.

He took a deep breath. Sherlock Holmes was in London, home again, where he always should have been, and there was nothing that could keep John Watson from Baker Street, except his own stupid hesitation. He breathed out slowly, took a little turn on the pavement, straightened his shoulders, and stepped toward the door.

He paused, wondering if he should just let himself in, or knock. Perhaps the rules were different, now. He was just about to put his key in the lock, when a man in a black coat bashed into him.

"Excuse you," John said, as the man looked over his shoulder, apparently unapologetic.

A hand wrapped itself around John's shoulder, and something pinched his neck: the unmistakable sensation of a needle pricking the skin, followed by the cold rush of something being injected.

He stumbled, trying to fight, panic gripping him as his muscles grew loose and uncooperative. There were two strange men, then, holding him, guiding him down as he fell onto the pavement. His vision blurred.

Mark's advice of a few days previous came back to him: Lot of careless people out there. Crazy ones, too. Careful. Be careful.

He supposed he'd failed to be careful, although he couldn't understand how. The world grew black around him, and the darkness took him down, into a dreamless place he could not escape.

When he came back to conscious awareness, it was to the sensation of lying on cold, hard ground, and feeling frozen to the core. He tried to move, and couldn't. Whatever drug he'd been given was still in his system, some combination of a heavy sedative and a paralytic.

With effort, he managed to open his eyes, although he couldn't focus them. His first impression was of darkness, dark forms crisscrossing around him, caging him in, and beyond that, lights.

He could hear voices: people talking, laughing. A crowd.

He groaned, or tried to. No sound came, just a harsh breath, barely rasping out of him.

The voices of the crowd began to lift, to cheer. John's vision grew dim, then brightened again, and he blinked, and he could see well enough to tell that the shapes surrounding him were branches, and broken pieces of wooden pallets, scrap wood.

Outside, in the dark, a flickering light burst into life. Fire. A torch.

Bonfire night.

Oh no. Oh God. He was in a pyre. He couldn't so much as crawl, couldn't get himself out. Couldn't move in time, couldn't scream in time. If no one discovered he was there, they would light the fire, and he would burn.

Surprise.

He felt, with a rising sense of panic, and amazement at himself, that he absolutely did not want to die. Not just this way, in pain, while people he didn't know unwittingly murdered him. He wanted, desperately, to live. He had to see Sherlock again, had to talk to him. If he couldn't, if he didn't, it would be a tragedy for both of them, this fire, this burning.

Burn the heart out of you.

The hiss of Moriarty's voice joined him in the dark, as he tried, and failed, to open his mouth and call out, to beg to be spared. Those words, yanked up out of the slurry of his memory, spurred on his panic, a bolt of adrenaline shooting through him. The threat to him, then, his body covered in Semtex, snipers' guns trained on him and Sherlock, met him now, in the dark, as someone approached with a flame.

He'd been a pawn, then, a token of exchange. Collateral damage.

He still was, he supposed. His muscles shook, as he tried to will himself back to life.

The sharp tang of petrol reached him, a splash of it landing on his arm. He needed to move, to shift, to scream.

"Please," he whispered, the words rasping from his dry, powerless throat. "Please, I'm here. I'm here. I'm still here."

Footsteps approached, and a bright flame touched the woodpile, and a flare of light and heat leapt toward the sky, licking at the ceiling of branches over John's head. The crowd cheered, and John writhed on the ground, managing to move in tiny increments, mere inches. He tried to cry out again, and still, his voice did not come.

Smoke seeped down, covering his face. He coughed, weakly. He could barely draw breath. He tried to roll, and managed a loud moan.

Flame danced along the wood by his feet, touching the soles of his shoes, threatening to creep up his trouser leg. He opened his mouth, choked, and yelled, desperate, as loudly as he could, not very loud at all.

"Help."

A familiar voice sounded through the crackling flames, booming: "Move! Move!" Sherlock. Sherlock.

John's voice came back to him, and he managed a real shout. "Help!"

"John! John!"

Relief flooded through him as the wooden pallets and branches were pulled aside, and sweet, pure, cold night air poured over him. He tried to move; found he couldn't, not yet. It was all right though, because Sherlock's hands gripped him under his shoulders, and dragged him from the fire.

Out on the lawn, amid a sea of frightened faces looking down on him, John tried to stir, his body feeling baked, his lungs burning from the smoke. He gasped for breath. Sherlock loomed over him, his face in sharp relief against the background of light and noise, his eyes gazing into John's, as he said John's name. His gloved hand caressed John's cheek, his beautiful face tight with worry.

He should have known Sherlock would find him, would somehow know about the danger, would come, in the nick of time. He wished he could speak, say something, make a joke. He felt light, inside. It was all okay, somehow, this, now that the danger was over.

He was back, in Sherlock's world, back on Sherlock's glittering battlefield, where being put in a fire was simply part of the day to day. He started to laugh, and ended up coughing violently.

"John?"

Another set of hands was on his back, helping him sit up. John managed to turn his head, and caught sight of the pale gold of Mark's hair, and the red wool of his winter coat.

"What are you doing here?" he asked.

He only had time to watch Mark frown, before he lost consciousness.

***

John woke up in a hospital room, knowing the place instantly by the scent of disinfectant, and the distant buzz of nurses' chatter in the hall outside. It was dark in the room, dark outside the window. His first impulse was to check the time.

They'd taken his watch. He turned his head, looking for a wall clock, and saw the solitary figure sitting by the bed.

Disappointment oozed through his belly. Mark. Not Sherlock.

"Hello." John's voice came out rough, more of a croak than a greeting.

Mark sat forward in his chair, his head tilting as he took John's hand. In the darkened room, his eyes were heavy-lidded, absent holes, his grin a bit too toothsome. "Hey, you."

"Why am I here?"

It wasn't the question he most wanted answered. Where's Sherlock? burned through his veins, tightening his smoke-sore throat.

He shivered as he remembered Sherlock, his hands on him, hauling him to safety, dragging him out into the world again.

"Just a little checkup."

"Not where I usually go for my annual physical."

"Sarcasm. Good sign." Mark squeezed John's hand, and ran his fingers over the back of it. "You passed out, after we pulled you out of the fire. Whatever you were dosed with, I wanted to make sure it didn't suppress your respiration too much. And a check for your lungs."

John lifted his free hand, and wiggled the finger that had the pulse oximeter clipped to it. "I'm good, I assume."

Mark turned on the light by John's bed. He looked worn with care, dark circles under his eyes. "Blood tests normal. They don't think you got too much exposure. Chest x-ray deemed unnecessary, unless you want one, to be certain."

"No." He inhaled deeply. His breath moved easily, nothing catching in his chest, except his impatience with the whole situation. He wanted Sherlock, wanted to see him, for more than a fraught, fleeting moment. "I think I'm okay." He let go of Mark's hand, touched his own forehead, and felt a bandage. "And this?"

"Just a scratch. You weren't clobbered over the head or anything, as far as we could tell."

We.

"You and Sherlock."

"Yeah. Me and Sherlock."

John let his head rest against the pillow. He remembered the sense of disappointment he'd felt, seeing Mark at the bonfire.

The two parts of his life were crashing into each other, in a way he couldn't have anticipated. Well. It was inevitable, he supposed, if he were going to carry on with life with Mark, as he'd planned it, and return to Sherlock's world. Somehow, all the pieces would have to fit together.

Mark reached for his coat, which was slung over the back of his chair. He pulled his phone from his pocket, and flipped through it, until he found what he wanted. "Here."

John took the phone and squinted at the screen. 11:45 pm. Later than he'd imagined.

The text message Mark showed him was some kind of garbled word salad, with religious overtones. "I'm sorry. What am I looking at?"

Mark raised his eyebrows. "Sherlock Holmes is not the only clever man in your life, you know. It's a skip code. See? Read every third word. 'Save John Watson.'"

"You knew, from this, that I was in danger?"

"Well, at first I just thought that the spambot who wrote this message was pretty smart, raiding my contacts list, maybe." Mark leaned in, smelling of warmth and home, and a hint of woodsmoke. He scrolled to the next message. "Then this came through. See? Every third word."

"Saint James the Less?"

"The name of the church, where they were doing the bonfire." Mark smiled, his eyes shining as he looked at John.

"You got this at 6:10 pm." Just after John had left the clinic.

"About forty minutes before you nearly went up in flames."

The notification bar showed that Mark had at least one more unread message: something from Tom. Oh, you know Tom. He really did have impeccable timing.

John wondered if Mark had been in touch with Sherlock since they'd arrived at the hospital, wondered if Sherlock had asked after him. Checked on him. Wanted to see him. He couldn't ask, not when Mark was in the middle of trying to tell him what happened, not when excitement tipped his voice, and he was so obviously proud of himself.

John handed the phone back to him. "So you saw this, and you understood that it was some kind of warning?"

"Not really. I read it, and I suppose I wondered about the code. But you know how it is. I thought I was making it up, somehow. So the thing to do, I figured, was to get in touch with you. Thought you'd probably tell me to shove off, interrupting your big reunion with Sherlock."

John reached out a shaking hand, and stroked Mark's temple with his thumb. "No. Course I wouldn't." He had been wrong, he thought, in his reactions. He needed to be kinder. Less swept up in everything. Mark was his partner, after all.

Mark placed his hand over John's, and nodded his agreement, a silent okay. "I texted you, and I didn't hear back, and that was when I started to worry, a bit." His voice grew quieter, more strained. He shifted in his chair, and looked toward the doorway of the room, as if trying to figure out what he should say.

It was difficult for him, John decided. They'd never faced anything like this before.

"I didn't know what to do. I didn't have Sherlock's number, so I headed over to Baker Street. I hoped you were there, and maybe you just hadn't checked your phone, and we would all have a laugh about it, and then I would leave you to it. Honestly I didn't think I could be right. I was mostly concerned that Sherlock would think I was some sort of lunatic obsessive boyfriend, following you all over town."

John squeezed Mark's hand. "But I was gone."

"That's right. He hadn't seen you at all. Thank God he was in. You should have seen him, once he understood what was happening. He's like a bloody great superhero. Commandeered a motorcycle."

"What?"

"Yeah." Mark bit his lip, his brows raising, as a laugh sniffed out through his nose. He shook his head. "Got in front of this bloke and his girlfriend on a bike, and stopped them dead in the street. Flashed some sort of badge, police or something, and the next thing I knew, he was handing me a helmet, and the two of us were tearing off through the city, on our way to save you. He's a total nutter. Drove us down the Duke of York steps."

John fought a twinge of jealousy. He should be grateful. "Unbelievable."

John watched Mark's expression carefully. He seemed okay with the situation, moreso than John could have anticipated. And Sherlock, from the sound of things, had worked with Mark, taken Mark along.

It was better than he could have hoped for, really, given Sherlock's habit of hating the women he'd dated. Still, it left him with a feeling that he didn't like, that he wanted to kick against. "Well, I should be put in life threatening situations more often, if it means you and Sherlock get to have fun."

"John. That's not what I meant. Just—I get it. I see what you saw in him."

John's skin prickled all over, protest swelling in his veins. He shouldn't be jealous. He was being ridiculous, really. The two most important people in his life had worked together to save him. He inhaled, and let his breath out slowly, choosing his words carefully. "And that was before," he said, covering his confusion with anything, any joke. "I didn't even know he could ride a motorcycle."

"It was impressive, I grant you." Mark's expression faltered. "I thought I'd lost you, John."

John wondered if he should offer assurances. There were, he knew, no guarantees. This was war, the secret war that Sherlock had always fought. "I'll try to be safer."

Mark lifted an eyebrow, his mouth shaping itself into his standard cheeky grin, his good humour rising to the surface, like it always did. "You'd better be. You're mine. If anyone's going to do anything to you, it should be me."

"I'll mention that, next time someone's drugging me and stuffing me into a bonfire."

Mark raised John's hand to his lips, and kissed his knuckles.

You’re mine.

A wave of exhaustion crashed over John. His chest grew tight. He wasn't sure who he belonged to any more.  

Sherlock, he was certain, would still be awake. He could never sleep, after a run through the London streets. He'd always wanted to keep talking, keep John up, all night long: one more topic, one more drink, one more moment, spent together, until the sun rose, and the two of them went off to their solitary beds. John longed to go to Baker Street, and talk, and make plans. Discuss what had happened. Discuss everything.

It was Mark, though, who was here now, sitting at John's bedside, holding his hand. Mark offered a different kind of company. The kind that was there, every day. The kind that meant John didn't have to feel alone in the world.

He smiled, trying to force his gratitude through the fog of his desire for Sherlock. "Thank you."

Mark leaned forward, and kissed John's forehead. He bent down and pressed his face into the side of John's neck, the bristles of his beard scratching John's ear, his cheek.

John combed his fingers through Mark's hair. The two of them lapsed into silence. John drifted, his head heavy, his eyes closed, until Mark spoke again.

"John, who would do this? Try to kill you? Put you in a bonfire?" His voice was soft, a bit shaky.

I will burn you. I will burn the heart out of you.

Moriarty was dead, but he'd been the king of a vast criminal empire. John had no proof that the same people were at work in London now, but the nature of the assault on him seemed a bit too specific.

"Lots of people, unfortunately. Sort of par for the course, this type of thing." His mind supplied an image of the shimmering reflections of light, coming up through the water, at the pool, and the sensation of a heavy vest under his winter coat, a trickle of sweat running down his lower back. "Threats to our lives not uncommon, given who we were investigating, two years ago."

Mark sat up, and nodded. He looked pale, his eyes rimmed with red. "Well, I think I knew that. I mean, I did. I've read the blog."

"Sorry." John hadn't imagined that, in simply trying to see Sherlock, he would end up dragging Mark into the most dangerous part of his old life. Not this soon, anyway.

"It is a tiny bit sexy."

John managed a weak smile. "Glad you think so."

"The thing I don't understand is, why did I get the warning message? I'm no one."

John patted Mark's hand. "I suppose whoever it is knows you're with me."

"The famous John Watson."

"Careful now. Wouldn't be appropriate, you seducing me in a hospital." He made the joke out of habit, but it felt flat, a bland repetition of their usual banter. He was tired. He needed sleep, although he didn't want it. He rubbed his thumb over Mark's knuckles. "Why don't you go home? You should get some rest. You have work in the morning."

"And you're going to beg off, aren't you? Lucky man."

"Well, I think I have a pretty good excuse. Not every day I get picked to play Guy Fawkes."

"No indeed. And let's not make a habit of it, all right?"

"No."

They said their goodnights, and John listened to Mark's footsteps retreating down the hallway, as he stared out through the darkened window, and wondered how safe he was, in this room, in this bed. He wondered how safe he and Sherlock both were, in the world, now that Sherlock was back. He could feel his body shifting, his nervous system slipping into the calm steadiness he'd always felt, when he was with Sherlock, and danger sang its high lilting tune, through all his days at Baker Street.

Slowly, he drifted into a fitful sleep, in which dreams of Sherlock, haunting the doorway of his hospital room, returned again and again, until the sun rose, cheerful and bright over the parking garage outside his window, and a nurse came in, with what would no doubt prove to be a disappointing breakfast.

Chapter Text

John released himself from hospital the first moment he could, leaving after a quick word with a doctor, and an assurance that he would return if he felt unwell. Outside, he stretched his back, arms raised over his head, and looked up at the grey sky. The morning had come over unseasonably warm for late fall.

His shoulder ached, the muscle tight, the joint refusing to pop. He chewed his lower lip, remembering Sherlock's hands on him, dragging him to safety. He had a feeling like he was looking at freshly turned soil. Hopeful. Eager to see what would grow, even though he shouldn't be.

His clothes still smelled strongly of smoke, his trousers smudged with dirt. His hair probably reeked of bonfire, too. He needed a shower, and a change of clothes, before he went to Baker Street. He headed for the nearest tube station, still deep in the sense memory of the night before.

He arrived home at quarter past nine, fully forty-five minutes after Mark would have left for work. He let himself in, and climbed the stairs to the second floor, feeling like he'd slipped out of sync with the world. No one knew where he was, what he was doing. He found himself enjoying the lack of accountability.

In the bathroom, he stripped off his clothes, and put them in the laundry hamper. He watched himself in the medicine cabinet mirror as he carefully pulled the bandage off his forehead, revealing a deep scratch, crusted with dried blood. He took out his electric razor, and shaved his face. Once he was done, he rubbed his fingers across his naked upper lip.

Sherlock's lips were full. They looked soft. John imagined Sherlock bending down over him, tilting John's face up to meet his, and kissing him until he was gasping for air.

He stepped away from the mirror, covered his eyes with his hand, and leaned against the wall, the towel rack digging painfully into his lower back. He smiled, despite himself. He understood what he wanted, better than he ever had before, and that should count for something, even if what he wanted could never be. The idea of hurting Mark, of dismantling their relationship, was impossible to contemplate.

He stepped into the shower and breathed deeply, the steamy air flowing easily in and out of his lungs. He was fine, physically. He felt strong, ready to face Sherlock, to finally talk, if such a thing were possible. Anticipation stirred in his belly as he scrubbed himself clean.

After the shower, he checked in the mirror to make sure the scratch wasn't oozing, and patted it dry carefully with a tissue. With a towel wrapped around his waist, he moved into the bedroom, seeking fresh clothes.

The bed was made, but badly so, one of the pillows thrown on the floor. In accordance with old habit, he straightened the covers, and put the pillow back in its place.

As he pulled on a fresh pair of jeans and buttoned his shirt, he found his eyes drifting to the cover of the book Mark was reading: Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. Mark wasn't a great reader. He only ever seemed to manage a page or two each night before he fell asleep, so his bookmark moved forward in tiny increments, and it took him forever to get through a single book, but he insisted on trying.

John sat on the edge of the bed as he pulled on his socks, feeling the weight of his shared life with Mark, and the weight of the lie Mark had told, about where he'd been Sunday night. One lie was a small thing, compared to everything they had. It all pressed on John, though: his debt to Mark, but also the way their relationship seemed poised to go off kilter; his need to see Sherlock, and all his questions about what Sherlock had felt, in the old days, what Sherlock might have wanted, and what he might want now.

He shivered as he remembered Sherlock's voice, calling his name, reaching him through the flames.

He took a deep breath, stood, and went downstairs. As he pulled on his coat, he decided he was probably being a fool. Sherlock was Sherlock. He'd rescued John, but he wasn't the one who'd stuck around after, who'd sat by his bed and made sure he was okay. He cared about whether John lived or died, but he didn't feel things, not the way John needed him to.

***

This time, when John arrived at Baker Street, he unlocked the street door and stepped inside immediately. No hesitation, as he wiped his shoes on the doormat, and climbed the stairs, bright, searing hope burning through his veins, each step creaking a familiar song under his feet.

The door to the flat was closed. He opened it, and walked in.

Sherlock was standing on the sofa, studying an array of photos and notes that covered the wall. He was perched between an older man and woman, who seemed to be taking this behaviour in stride.

"John!" Sherlock's voice carried a high note of surprise. He stepped onto the coffee table, and down onto the floor, stumbling a bit, as if his knees didn't quite want to support him.

For a tenuous moment, there was a kind of equilibrium. Sherlock stood, and breathed, and lived, in the same room with John, and it was fine. Sherlock was fine, in his bespoke suit and blue shirt, the top buttons open. He looked a bit gaunt, and more than a bit unsteady.

Then Sherlock's eyebrows quirked up, and his lips parted, and he let his breath out as if he'd been holding it, as if John was just the person he'd been waiting for.

All at once, John broke open. All his dreams, his fantasies, came flooding through him, viscerally, despite the audience on the sofa, despite the fact that he was with someone else. None of that mattered, apparently, because all he wanted, all he could think of, in this moment, was running his fingers through Sherlock's hair, tugging his head back, and kissing that long throat; undoing the straining buttons on his shirt, and sliding his hand across his sighing chest.

Holding him in his arms, as tightly as he could, and never letting go.

He took a step back. He could feel that he was flushed, feel his face growing red. He was very nearly on the verge of embarrassing himself. They hadn't even said hello yet.

He cast a glance at the door, wondering if leaving was the right thing to do, then realised that if he tried to go, he wouldn't make it. His legs wouldn't support him. He would fall down the stairs, and lie at the bottom of them in a heap. Maybe he could die happy there, his heart beating out his last, full of undeniable, all-encompassing love for this man, who had hurt him, yes, but had also saved him, so many times, in so many different ways. The full force of everything Sherlock had meant to him hit John like an ocean wave. He was drowning in it. He would drown.

The couple on the sofa stared up at the two of them. The woman squinted; the man gawped.

John managed to speak. "Sorry. You're busy."

"No, no, not at all." Sherlock shuffled toward the woman, arms reaching for her, as if he intended to haul her to her feet. He looked at her, hard, then back at John, then down at his hands, brow furrowed.

John hovered by the door. "If you've got a case, I can come back later."

"No!" Sherlock took a step toward him.

The couple watched Sherlock carefully, as if he were about to make a crucial move in a high stakes game of chess.

This wasn't a case, John realised. It was something else, although he couldn't guess what. He closed the gap between himself and Sherlock, leaned in. "Everything all right?"

Sherlock chewed his lower lip, winced as if he were in acute pain, took a deep, heaving breath, and finally, spoke. "John Watson, these are my parents, Violet and Sigur Holmes. Mum, Dad, this is John."

The high-pitched noise that came out of the dignified older woman, with her hair smoothed into an updo, all tidy in her dark coat with its gold brooch, was nothing short of shocking. She stood, and tossed her purse onto the coffee table, and walked toward John with open arms.

"Oh, John! It's so wonderful to meet you!" She held him by the shoulders, beaming, then kissed his cheek.

"Hi?"

John only had time to pat Mrs. Holmes's elbow awkwardly before Mr. Holmes was on his feet, smiling shyly, and sticking out his hand for John to shake. "A pleasure. I'm a huge fan of the blog. Especially the most recent bits. I know it wasn't easy for you to keep going after—well. The less said about that, the better."

Mrs. Holmes clucked her tongue. "Indeed." She gave her husband a murderous glare.

Sherlock turned sharply, went over to the window, and stared out through it. Petulant. Or, maybe just embarrassed, like any son of excitable parents.

John managed a garbled thanks at the mention of the blog.

He'd had a terrible time trying to decide whether to continue it. He'd only managed to write up some of the old cases after some difficult work with Ella, and time spent letting go of the worst of his grief. He was proud of those entries. Proud of himself, he supposed.

"Thank you, Sir." He nodded. It was stiff, military, his body falling back on its training, when what he wanted was to be alone with Sherlock, to have Sherlock's arms around him, to hear what Sherlock thought, what he might want.

Sherlock's head snapped up. "Well! They were just going."

"Were we?" Mrs. Holmes gaped at Sherlock, as he started bundling her out through the door.

"We’re here 'til Saturday, remember," she told him, as he pushed her onto the landing.

"Yes, great, wonderful." Sherlock rushed back to the coffee table, picked up his Mum's purse, ran back to the door, and thrust it into her arms. His father was already waiting at the top of the stairs.

"Goodbye, John. So nice to meet you at last," she called out. She turned back to Sherlock. "I can't tell you how glad we are, Sherlock. All that time, people thinking the worst of you."

Sherlock half turned, glancing at John. He appeared, if anything, sheepish.

"Yes, good."

Apparently encouraged, Mrs. Holmes continued. "We’re just so pleased it's all over."

Mr. Holmes stepped forward, and said in hushed tones, "Ring up more often, won't you?"

Sherlock made an ambivalent noise.

"She worries," his father insisted.

"Promise?" his mother asked, even as Sherlock tried to shut the door in her face. She stuck her shoe in, kept the gap open.

"Promise." Sherlock's voice was very quiet, a conspiratorial whisper.

John stood by the desk, and watched as Sherlock shut the door and leaned on it heavily, as if his parents might decide to come bursting back in. Sherlock watched him, blinking hard, as they listened to the squeaks and groans of the stairs, like a pair of teenagers, waiting for parents to leave, before they really got up to no good. They stood like that, frozen, suspended, until they heard the slam of the street door.

Now that they were alone, John took a deep breath.

The world suddenly felt habitable again, like there was space around everything. He felt a smile coming on, the still unfamiliar feeling of hope, moving across the surface of his skin, mingling with the urgent need, building in him, to understand what was possible, what he and Sherlock might discuss, and do.

"Those were your parents," he said, watching Sherlock's face. Sherlock had never talked about them, in the time before.

Sherlock blinked at him, brow furrowed. "Yes."

"I just met your parents."

"Yes?"

John went to the window. Sherlock's parents moved down the street together, their silver-haired heads tilting toward each other as they spoke, Mrs. Holmes gesticulating grandly. Mr. Holmes turned his head to watch her. They were reminiscent of something, John decided, some ideal he couldn't quite put his finger on.

He looked back at Sherlock, who was watching him with sharp attention. Expecting him to comment.

"Well. That is not what I—" He frowned, reaching for the right words.

Sherlock raised his chin. "What?"

Defensive. Stroppy. God, John had missed this, missed him.

"I mean, they’re just so—ordinary."

Sherlock smiled. He met John's eyes, then dropped his gaze. "It’s a cross I have to bear."

John giggled. This was good, just talking. Just being here, in the same room, and joking together. They should just do this, all afternoon. Spend time. Get used to each other again.

Sherlock's expression changed, grew more serious. He took a deep breath. Working himself up to something, maybe.

"And I met your—"

And there it was. Of course they were going to talk about it. Of course they needed to. John swallowed hard, against the impulse to deny everything.

Of course he couldn't pretend that Mark didn't exist. Mark was still in his life. He'd done so much for John. A pang of guilt dropped him, unceremoniously, back into the reality of the situation. He owed Mark a lot.

Sherlock was staring at him, eyebrows lifted.

"Yeah," John said.

Sherlock nodded. "He's your—" He trailed off, and looked down at the floor, frowning.

"We're together," John said. His left hand chose that moment to clench furiously. He allowed it to ball into a fist, refusing to reach over with his other hand and straighten it out. His left shoulder throbbed. "We, ah, live together." He leaned on the desk with his right hand, suddenly unsteady on his feet, a bit dizzy. He wished, fervently, that he'd had the chance to sit down, before they started talking.

Sherlock nodded. "How long?"

John stared at him. The question was polite, the sort of thing people asked him when they weren't judging, or were trying not to. He let go of a small measure of the anxiety he'd felt about this, about having this exact conversation. He'd been expecting accusations.

But you're not—

But you don't—

"Well, we met six months ago." He didn't share the fact that the trajectory from workmates to lovers had been embarrassingly short, or that Mark had practically moved in, from the first night they'd slept together. His mind offered up an image of the ring box, tucked away in his sock drawer, the proposal he'd never followed through on. He pushed it aside.

He knew what Sherlock had said, in the past, about people who took up with someone new so quickly.

More than a bit of desperation in the mix.

Well, it was true. Why shouldn't he have been desperate? His heart had been broken. Sherlock had broken him.

Sherlock turned, and went to the fireplace. He ran his hand over the mantel, fingers lingering on the knife handle that he'd driven through what appeared to be a new sheaf of letters, on fine stationery. "He's clever."

"He is. Very smart. Not—" Not like you. His chest clenched, as he studied the line of Sherlock's back. Never abandoned me, like you. "Yes. He's smart." He was full of discordant emotion, every note playing at once—his grief, his anger, his love, his need. He coached himself to be steady.

"Recognised a skip code on sight. Not many people can do that. Saved you, probably." Sherlock's frown deepened, fingers still caressing the knife.

John leaned more heavily on the desk, his heart heavy, the truth of everything he'd suffered climbing to the surface and sitting on his chest. His breath huffed out of him. He wondered if Sherlock had anything to drink. It was just approaching noon. A bit early. Still, he wouldn't say no. If he could have moved, could have managed to walk, he would have taken himself into the kitchen and looked for a bottle. Instead, he looked out the window, and ended up staring at the thin layer of dust that coated the sill.

"He's a nurse," Sherlock said. He stared into the empty fireplace, contemplating the soot, as if it held answers he couldn't fathom for himself.

"Yes."

"Met at work, then." Sitting down on the edge of his chair, Sherlock picked up the poker, and sifted through the cold ashes beneath the grate.

"That's right." John spoke slowly. He didn't know what he should say. "Lots of people do that. Meet at work." We did. After a fashion. In our own way.

Sherlock managed a smile, but didn't look up at him.

There was no way around this, John decided. Pretending that Sherlock hadn't hurt him wasn't right. Pretending that he'd just waited for Sherlock, waited for a miracle he'd never imagined could actually happen—that wasn't good, either.

"You're right about him, about what you said earlier." He cleared his throat. "He did save me." He coached himself to speak his truth. "I'm not talking about last night. I'm talking about when I met him."

"Oh."

John expected a joke to follow, some terrible comment, to steer the conversation, to take it out of the dangerous emotional territory he'd put it in, but Sherlock remained silent. After a moment, he raised his head, and looked at John, watching him. Waiting for him to talk.

Well. That's what he'd come here to do.

John moved to his chair, shifted the Union Jack pillow so that it would sit squarely in the small of his back, and sat. He couldn't look at Sherlock's face, and say what he needed to say, so he watched Sherlock's knees, instead. They bounced a little, then stilled.

"Things were bad, then. Six months ago. They were bad the whole time, after you were gone." He winced at the memory. "I didn't know how—" His throat tightened on him, strangling his voice. He waited, took a deep breath, and continued. "I didn't know how to go on."

He stared at the fireplace, at the soot that marked its walls, at the fine grey ash in the bottom. He longed to sit here with Sherlock, all day, into the evening, to start a fire, to let it burn bright.

The point he wanted to make wasn't about how Sherlock had hurt him, he realised. He needed Sherlock to understand how important he'd been. How important he was.

"When we met, when you and I first met, I had no one. Nothing. And then, I had you."

He stumbled over the implications of his own words. He'd never had Sherlock, not in all the ways that he'd wanted, but: no. They'd meant a great deal to each other. He believed that. He would continue to believe it, unless Sherlock said otherwise. "You were—great. You were really great, and things were so good. And then."

He looked up at Sherlock's face, to find him pale, his expression serious. "And then I died."

"That's right." John's throat constricted, his voice tight, but he managed to continue talking. "You died. And I thought I would, too. I didn't. Somehow, I didn't. And six months ago, there he was." He couldn't say Mark's name. For some reason he couldn't say it. "It was better with him there, and so I started something with him." He trailed off. He couldn't say more than that. He'd been as clear as he could. "So here we are."

Sherlock's mouth twitched, a hint of a smile. "Not dead."

The lion's share of John's tension left him all at once. The words he'd been choking back left him, and he settled, the raw emotion of everything that had happened sinking down through his feet, leaving him empty, and calmer. "Neither of us," he agreed.

In the silence that followed, John allowed himself to feel the enormity of everything they'd been through. The two of them were only here by the miracle of their own effort. Sherlock, returned. John, persisting in time, despite his worst impulses.

Sherlock spoke, his voice soft, quiet. "Sorry."

John couldn't reply. He nodded, stiffly.

Sherlock sat up in his chair. Restless. He was always so restless. "Serbia."

"What?"

"Six months ago. That's where I was. In Serbia. Until—recently." Sherlock, still wielding the poker, used it to stab at the brickwork.

John shivered. He hadn't wanted to know, he supposed, where Sherlock had been, or what he'd done. In his mind, that time was a blank, an empty space between blood on the pavement and the scene at the Landmark. He was afraid it would hurt to fill it.

"Why Serbia?"

"It's where Moriarty's network led me. Once I left the rooftop, I knew I couldn't return, until I had thoroughly dismantled it." Sherlock stood, suddenly, and strode, as if with a purpose, into the centre of the room, the poker dangling from his right hand. 

"Okay." A long silence stretched out, filled only with the sound of the wall clock in the kitchen, the seconds ticking.

"It was terrible," Sherlock said, finally.

"What was terrible?"

Sherlock didn't look up. The knuckles on the hand that gripped the poker were white. His face moved through a half dozen contortions, like he was trying to figure out exactly the right thing to say. "The food, in Serbia. At least in the place I was staying. You would have hated it."

John couldn't help the laughter that huffed out of him. Sherlock was outrageous, no news there, the shift away from whatever significant thing he'd been about to say, absolutely obvious. John's head throbbed, his whole body reverberating with the conversation, with how much it hurt, and how good it was, to be in the same room with Sherlock again.

"I would have loved a postcard." He swallowed hard, and the joke died in his throat. "Or a word. It would have helped, if I'd known you weren't—" He cut himself off. It was too much, probably. He couldn't tell Sherlock the truth, that he would have waited for him. Put his life on hold. Tried to find him. Done anything.

"Ah." Sherlock stood in the centre of the room, his head bent, his posture defeated. For a long moment, silence reigned, and John grew certain that the conversation was over, that he'd reached Sherlock's limit. So soon.

To his surprise, Sherlock spoke. "I'd nearly been in contact so many times."

John watched him, waiting for whatever would come next. Some excuse, some reason. Some explanation for why he didn't try to call, try to write. Why there were no coded messages in the mail, no hints from any of the people who'd helped him make his escape from London, or whoever had been looped in on the plan.

Mrs. Hudson clearly hadn't been. Mrs. Holmes had said something, though, about being upset, about people thinking the worst, all this time.

"Your parents. They knew, didn't they? Mycroft must have. He knows everything."

"Yes."

"That's why they weren't at the funeral."

John thought back to two years ago, to the pathetic, ill-attended service he and Mrs. Hudson had gone to. Greg Lestrade had been there, and some people from the Met who hadn't had a direct hand in betraying Sherlock. Molly, who had spent much of the afternoon avoiding John. "Molly Hooper knew."

"Yes."

"Oh my God."

"Sorry, again. Sorry."

The despair of the last two years filled the room, thick and gelatinous. It separated them. John wanted nothing more than to dismiss it, to disregard it, but he didn't think he could. Not on his own.  

"I wasn't sure I would come back," Sherlock mumbled. He studied his hands. A pink scar ran across the back of one of them. John caught a glimpse of a band of red, raw, irritated skin just above the wrist. Sherlock tugged his sleeve down, covering it.

All at once, John understood that he'd missed a great deal. Sherlock was very pale, his skin a clammy white, circles under his eyes. Not sleeping, maybe. He looked as though he hadn't seen the sun for years. John studied the way Sherlock held himself, the way he shuffled from one foot to the other. Discomfort. John had assumed it was impatience, with him, with the conversation. Maybe it was physical. He wondered what other injuries Sherlock was hiding, under his clothes.

Those marks on his wrist. He'd been bound. Held captive.

I wasn't sure I would come back. Phrased as if it were a choice. "You weren't sure you would be able to. Come back."

Sherlock watched him steadily, the line of his mouth firm.  

"Oh." Something terrible had happened to Sherlock.

Sherlock said nothing, as if he couldn't speak. John remembered how he'd been, himself, in the days after the war, the first couple of weeks in hospital, after he'd been shot. Shut down. Virtually mute. Sherlock was doing much better, but that didn't mean he was okay.

He was still watching John, waiting, for whatever he was going to say next.

It was easy, and a mercy, John decided, to let them both off the hook. He leaned back in his chair, and tried on a smile. "Couldn't risk me coming over there, then?"

Sherlock's eyebrows lifted. "Hm?" The hand that gripped the poker was shaking.

"I might have, if you sent me a postcard. Popped in for a visit."

Sherlock looked up at something in the corner of the room. Looked like he was fighting the smile that quirked the corner of his mouth. He lost that fight, and broke out into a huge, unabashed grin. Beautiful. He was beautiful. "Exactly. You would have hated it. Like I said. Bad food. People, horribly rude. Serbian postcards, besides, entirely ugly."

John's chest ached. He couldn't reconcile this new Sherlock, who'd been through so much, with the hurricane of a man he'd fallen for in the first place. "It does sound tedious."

"It was." Sherlock fixed him with a fond gaze. His smile faded, as he took a deep breath. He turned, and looked out the window, swinging the poker in his hand. "I shouldn't have come back, even now."

John watched the line of Sherlock's back, like he so often had, in the old days. "What? Of course you should."

"I left so I could go take down Moriarty's network. Clearly I failed. It's still operating."

John stood, and took a couple of tentative steps forward. He nodded, accepting confirmation of his own suspicions. "Last night. That was them."

"Very good, John. I'm glad to see you haven't forgotten yourself altogether, in my absence."

John's shoulders dropped, a bubble of pride filling his chest, his whole body slipping into a familiar feeling, of being Sherlock's second in command, belonging with him. He hadn't forgotten himself. Almost, but not quite. Not entirely.

"So you understand, we must be very careful," Sherlock said.

"Of course."

"It wasn't safe when I left, and it isn't safe now. I haven't even been back a fortnight, and it's already started."

John took another step forward. "They attacked me, though, not you."

"That's just it," Sherlock said, looking out the window again. "They're trying to get to me, by harming you. Threatening you."

"They didn't hurt me, though. You found me."

A thin edge of agitation slipped into Sherlock's speech. "Mark and I found you, yes, because they sent those texts. Who knows what they're playing at, or how far they'll go next time?"

Mark's name, spoken by Sherlock, broke some tension John had been holding in his gut, in his heart, some bubble of unreality. He didn't want it to be broken. "I'm fine, though. I'm really fine. A bit smoked, but otherwise—"

"No." Sherlock shook his head, and held out his hand to silence John. "Do you see? This was just the beginning. They'll keep coming. They'll keep trying to hurt you."

"So we'll stop them."

Sherlock wasn't listening. "I wasn't supposed to live. If I'd died, they would have left you alone. I didn't finish what I started, couldn't find them all. The network, it isn't a network at all. It's too nebulous, too big."

John closed the gap between them. "Stop it," he said. It came out sounding irritated. He didn't mean it. He lowered his voice, spoke more slowly, gingerly. "We'll work together. Finish what you started, together."

Sherlock wasn't looking at John, but rather through him. "No."

"What are you saying?"

Sherlock took a deep breath. He lifted his chin. "You shouldn't be here now. It isn't safe. If they think we're still—if they think—" He closed his mouth, and took a deep breath, and started over again. "Your association with me makes you a target. You should stay away from me, John."

Before Sherlock was done talking, John was shaking his head. His whole body rebelled against what Sherlock was saying. "No. No. I don't accept that. I've spent the last two years wishing you weren't dead. And now you're here, and I—no."

Suddenly, it was the worst of the past, all over again. John couldn't say what he needed to say, couldn't explain what he needed, and Sherlock was hurting him all over again, making his decisions for him.

"I can't guarantee your safety."

John sniffed, and laughed. He was furious, he realised. The anger had an edge to it, much sharper than it had in the restaurant, or in the days since. "When could you ever?"

"This is different."

"How? How is it any different from when Moriarty threatened to blow me up, at the pool? How is it any different from watching you—watching you die?" His voice caught in his throat. He'd lost control of himself, lost control of the conversation.

Sherlock studied him. "You have a life now. A future. With Mark. You should go. Be safe." Carefully, he put the poker down on the desk. He folded his hands behind his back, and watched John, his gaze steady, his head held high.

Imperious. Closed. Just like he'd always been, in the time before. John felt himself slipping back into his old silences, his old responses. Sherlock was a man apart. Incredible, fantastic, beloved. But also cold, distant, untouchable.

John struggled to control his breathing. He knew his own heart, knew his own mind. Knew the dozens of different scenarios he'd imagined, over and over, when he'd thought Sherlock was dead. The things that might happen, if Sherlock knew about John, knew what John really was, who he really was.

John knew, standing here now, watching Sherlock tell him he should go, that he'd come here with an idea, burning in the back of his brain, that Sherlock should grab him and kiss him and own him. Sherlock could do anything, take John any way he wanted to, and John wouldn't say no.

Sherlock could do anything, except send him away.

His protests died on his lips. I don't want my life. I don't want a future that doesn't include you.

He felt as though he'd been dealt a physical blow, knocked back. Maybe Sherlock didn't want him. He was desperate, scrambling for anything. There had to be something between them, some hint of the old magic. "There must be something we can do. There's always something. Isn't there?"

Sherlock was watching him closely, a frown coming over his features. He inhaled, sharply, and let his breath out again. He seemed to soften, then, his voice gentle. "I need to fix this, John. I need time, to get it right."

John was stuck, staring, wondering what the hell Sherlock meant, when Sherlock's phone pinged.

He took it out and frowned at it, then turned and looked at the wall, jumped up on the sofa, and ran his fingers over one of the black and white photos. His hand trembled. "Selfish," he murmured.

"What?" John's stomach flipped, hope rising in him again, despite Sherlock's erratic behaviour. Because of it.

"Me," Sherlock said. "Selfish." He blinked, as if running a complex mental calculation. "We could," he said. "We could work this case together, just this once. Yes. I think that would do very nicely."

John stared at him, his heart expanding, surprised that he had won the argument so easily. "All right. Yes. Anything you want." He took a step toward the wall, looking at the items taped up on it more closely, as Sherlock ran his fingers over one of the old maps, glancing between it, and some file he'd pulled up on his phone.

The crime wall was, John imagined, like the contents of Sherlock's mind palace: eclectic, eccentrically arranged. Several historic maps of the tube system dominated, along with surveillance photos of a wide range of individuals, printouts of crime statistics, and pages from the classified sections of at least three different newspapers. Two of the photos had been crossed out in red marker. Sherlock had drawn a long line from one of them, a picture of a bearded man, to a grainy printout of an image of a bonfire, which was next to a police report. John squinted at the report: a body had been found, just this morning, a forty-five year old man, shot in the head. He frowned at it, wondering what it meant.

Sherlock stepped down off the coffee table, stood close to John, and fired off a text. He waited for a moment, staring at his phone, concentrating on it like his life depended on it. A reply came, and he sent another, and another, his expression grim.

"Sorry, what are you doing?"

"Contacting the press."

From this close, John could smell the soap that Sherlock used, the herbal scent of his shampoo, could hear the rustle of the fabric of his suit, as he shifted restlessly. John's heart stuttered in his chest. "The same press who tore you to pieces?"

"Precisely."

"Why, exactly?"

"Because you and I are going to save London, and today, I'd like them to know about it."

The dregs of their argument fell away, and a thin trickle of relief came in, and John felt the old, familiar sense, that he was caught up in Sherlock's rhythms again. Sherlock put his phone away in his jacket pocket.

John looked at the surveillance photograph Sherlock had focused on earlier, which showed a handsome, clean-shaven man dressed in a suit. "I know him, don't I?"

"Lord Moran, peer of the realm, Minister for Overseas Development. Pillar of the establishment."

"Yes."

"He’s been working for North Korea since 1996."

"What?"

"And he's just done something very suspicious indeed."

John's heart sang in his chest. He fought back a smile. "What's that?"

Sherlock took out his phone, and showed John a series of photographs of Moran. He appeared to be leaving Westminster Station. "Disappeared several days ago, along with an entire train carriage. He's just come up for air."

As Sherlock explained the things he'd discovered about the unfinished tube station at Sumatra Road, the missing train carriage, and Mycroft's terrorist plot, John listened, and nodded, and began to relax.

Sherlock was just being cautious, just getting used to being back home. He hadn't meant that John should stay away, not really. Here they were, shoulder to shoulder, like they had been in the old days.

All at once Sherlock was on the move. He picked up his coat, which he'd left slung over the desk chair, and put it on. Without another word, he turned, left the flat, and bolted down the stairs.

John's head was spinning, as he followed Sherlock down to the street door. He should have trusted him, to sort it out, to find a way for them to be together, even if it was dangerous, even if there were risks. He found himself grinning, simple, stupid joy bubbling up to the surface. "Sorry, what's happening?"

Sherlock paused at the bottom of the stairs, his eyes shining, his old devil of a smile back again. "Westminster Station, John. We're going underground."

Chapter Text

There was something mad, and madly romantic, John thought, about looking for a long lost, never completed, tube station, especially one containing a missing train carriage, primed to explode.

Walking beside Sherlock, as they moved through the brightly lit corridors of Westminster Station, being out on a case with him again, was exactly everything John remembered, and more. John's heart was light, in inverse proportion to the gravity of the situation, as it always used to be. The fraught, tight music of adrenaline played in his blood, while the deeper, heavier song of desire ran beneath it. The fact that he was conscious of that low melody now, fully aware of what he and Sherlock could do together, only made it all the sweeter.

"So you think it's a bomb, then? A tube carriage, hidden away somewhere, carrying a bomb," he asked, marvelling at the scope of what they were about to do, as he and Sherlock moved past a series of wall adverts.

"Must be."

"Right."

Sherlock had been in touch with the press, a fact that John still couldn't quite believe, but he hadn't called the police. He'd always left it up to John to be the responsible one, in the past. That much was still the same. John peeled off his glove, and took out his phone, looking at it for the first time since yesterday.

There were three texts from Mark.

Everything all right? Checking in—please let me know you're okay.

That would be the text Mark had sent the night before, in response to the coded messages he'd received. The time stamp was 6:45 pm.

John had been kidnapped just before then, and taken directly to the bonfire. Mark must have just about been at Baker Street. The timeline didn't quite make sense. John felt like he'd missed something, misremembered some detail. Then again, he'd still been drugged, and half asleep, when Mark had explained it all.

The next two texts hit him with a heavy pang of guilt.

From eleven o'clock this morning: Are you okay? Hospital says you left already.

From ten minutes ago: Nurse Mark says to take care of yourself. And have fun, whatever you and Sherlock are doing.

John faltered in his steps, as Sherlock walked on ahead. He felt the pull toward Sherlock like a physical ache, even as he wondered if he should reply to Mark.

Sherlock turned around, and looked at John, his gaze dropping down to John's phone. "What are you doing?"

"Calling the police." Not reading texts from his partner.

Sherlock's expression was neutral, carefully composed, as he glanced down at the phone again, and raised his eyebrows. "Police?"

John fumbled with the phone, opening the keypad. "Yeah, the police. This isn't a game. If you're right about the bomb, they need to know."

Sherlock shook his head. "They’ll get in the way. They always do. This is cleaner, more efficient, just the two of us."

John looked down at his phone, and back up at Sherlock, who had flushed red. Just the two of us. Indeed.

He put his phone back in his pocket. "Fine."

Sherlock paused in front of a maintenance entrance. He removed a small pry bar from his pocket, and opened the gate.

"Cleaner, more efficient, and illegal," John said, as he followed Sherlock into the dark.

It was all torchlight and moving through dank, disused passageways after that, following some inner map of Sherlock's. As they went, John's sense of the world shrank down, to just the two of them, and whatever small area the torchlight touched. They were far away from the upper world, far from everything that went on there, everything that had happened in the last six months. He had a sense that things were clicking into place, as he sank into the old, familiar feeling: the thrill of going wherever Sherlock took them; the blood pumping through his veins.

They climbed down a steep ladder, going deeper and deeper, until they emerged onto a tube platform. The rough concrete floor was covered in a fine layer of silt, the walls untiled. A small pile of rubble occupied a far corner.

"So this is it," John said. "The missing tube station, just like you said."

"Sumatra Road Station. They built the platforms, even the staircases, but it all got tied up in legal disputes, so they never built the structure on the surface."

John watched Sherlock's torchlight move over the unfinished walls. There were no signs, no finishing touches. The entrances and exits were dark and forbidding. A place that never got to be what it was supposed to.

Sherlock moved to the edge of the platform, and directed his torch one way, then the other, examining the track.

"Hang on," John said. "Wasn't your missing train carriage supposed to be here?"

"Yes. I don't understand."

"Well, that's a first." John studied the back of Sherlock's head, the conversation they'd had at Baker Street still playing in his mind.

Sherlock had seemed so quiet throughout it all, not arguing about John's feelings, just offering an apology, and a partial account of where he'd been. He'd let John talk, let him speak his truth.

Lots of firsts, for the two of them, lately.

Sherlock was still staring at the tracks. "There’s nowhere else it could be."

He handed the torch to John, then closed his eyes, screwing them shut, his hands fluttering on either side of his head, consulting his internal maps. John waited, watching as Sherlock went deeper into himself, knowing that he could stare openly, and Sherlock wouldn't notice.

God, I love you.

The fully formed sentence rose unbidden, a blooming, all in a rush, of all the things he'd never gotten to say. Hadn't said yet.

"Oh!" Sherlock ran to the end of the platform, and jumped down onto the tracks.

John scrambled to follow. "Hang on. Sherlock?"

"What?" Sherlock looked up at him, a trace of a smile on his lips.

John looked down at the track. "That's. Isn't it live?"

Sherlock started walking away. "Perfectly safe as long as we avoid touching the rails."

"Of course, yeah. Avoid the rails. Great!" Avoid grabbing you and taking advantage of you, more like, he thought, his whole body awake with everything he wanted to do. He jumped down. His feet crunched on the gravel between the tracks as he ran to catch up.

Sherlock loomed in the dark beside him. John handed him back his torch. Sherlock's hand brushed his, as he took it.

"This way."

John cleared his throat. The case. The bomb. The imminent danger. He should focus on that, not on the rough torrent of potential pleasures threatening to overwhelm him. "You sure?"

"Sure."

They rounded a curve in the tracks. There sat the carriage, under a huge vent that appeared to go all the way to the surface.

John took a deep breath. "Ah. Look at that."

He held back the things he would usually say: Amazing. Brilliant. Likewise, he kept mum on the things he wanted to say. You're fucking gorgeous. I want you. You know now, about me and men. Does it change anything? Please, God, let it change everything.

Sherlock shone his torch up into the circle of the vent. "John."

"Hmm?" He was aware his voice was dreamy, as he followed the light of Sherlock's torch. He forced himself to focus. Someone had attached small square packets to the sides of the vent, all the way up. John knew what they were. "Demolition charges."

Sherlock moved toward the carriage, and ran his hand along its side. It looked just like any other, to John's eyes. He bent down to look underneath it: nothing unusual there. Sherlock opened the door, and climbed inside. John followed.

Everything in the interior compartment seemed to be as it should: seats, corners, ceiling, floor.

"It's empty," John said. "There's nothing."

"Isn't there?" Sherlock lifted up a cushion, revealing packets of explosive, wires running in and out of them. "This is the bomb."

"What?"

"The whole compartment is the bomb."

Now that John knew what to look for, he saw the wires, running all along the seat backs. He moved to another seat, and pried up a cushion, revealing another explosive packet, and another.

Sherlock knelt down on the floor, worked his fingers under a panel, and lifted it.

A huge device, four-chambered, like a heart, sat under the floor. John's breath caught. They were in serious trouble. More than he could have wished for.

Imagined, he corrected himself. Imagined.

When he spoke, it was almost at a whisper. "We need bomb disposal."

"There may not be time for that now." Sherlock stared back at him over the open floorboard, eyes wide.

John took a step toward Sherlock, his breath sounding loud in the quiet, contained space of the carriage. Sherlock must know what bringing him down here, underground, in the dark, would do to him. He knew everything. He was Sherlock Holmes. "So what do we do?" His voice was throaty. Almost a growl.

"I have no idea."

John grinned, his nerves jangling, his whole body needing, wanting. It was a game. It had to be. "Well, think of something." He managed to moderate his voice. He was already in too deep. Desperation rang through him.

"Why do you think I know what to do?"

Oh. Is that the way things are? John's entire nervous system was humming, his skin buzzing. He watched as Sherlock fumbled over the device under the floor, his fingers illuminated by its pink and blue light.

"You're Sherlock Holmes. You're as clever as it gets."

Sherlock stared at John. "Doesn't mean I know how to defuse a giant bomb. What about you?"

A digital display on the bomb read 2:30. John's watch told him it was just past 3 pm. So not a clock. A countdown timer. It wasn't moving. Good. That was good. The bomb wasn't going to go off. Not in the next two and a half minutes, anyway. A call to bomb disposal, and it would be taken care of.

He took out his phone. No signal.

They really were alone.

Sherlock was clever, so clever. He'd brought them here, put them in danger, knowing, because he must, he must, what that would do to John. And yet he was still on the floor, still pretending he didn't know what should happen next.

Perhaps, a still, quiet voice inside John whispered, remembering the way Sherlock had reacted at the Landmark, the way he'd tentatively opened the conversation about Mark, back at Baker Street, perhaps this was a test, a way for him to find out what John wanted, what John would do, if given the opportunity to choose.

He watched as Sherlock examined the device, running his hand over it, underneath it. John longed to be under those hands, under those fingers. He thought he would go mad, if he couldn't be.

He took a deep breath, and let it out in a ragged sigh.

Whatever fear he was supposed to feel, for his life, for the explosion that threatened all around them, was completely secondary to the fear he felt for his heart, which was, even at this moment, throbbing with a certainty that was both terrifying and utterly liberating. It only wanted one thing. He only wanted one thing.

Sherlock began pacing the compartment.

There was a sound, a buzzing, and the lights in the train carriage flickered on. John squinted against them. Something in the bomb at their feet shifted, clicking into place. The countdown timer started running down.

"Oh," John said, giddy with adrenaline. "Maybe we should have called the police."

Sherlock stared at the timer, his brow furrowed. "Sorry," he said. He looked up at John. "I am sorry."

John shook his head, brushing aside the apology. It was irrelevant. "You knew, didn't you? That it was due to go off. You got us here just in time to stop it." He growled the words, flames of desire licking his skin.

Sherlock stared at him. "I told you. I really don't know how to turn it off."

John threw back his head and laughed.

It was ridiculous. Totally insane. Most definitely a trick, a test. Of course it was. Sherlock was all drama, all big gestures. He always had been.

The sliver of hope that had been sitting with him, nestled in his chest since the night before, burst into full, bright, painful glory. He didn't believe, not for one moment, that Sherlock would bring them down into the dark, if it only meant their deaths.

He wanted John on his heels, wanted to see what would happen, if there were no time left, if they were both in mortal danger. Well. John would certainly show him.

The timer continued to count down. One minute and fifty-seven seconds to go.

Sherlock stared at him like a drowning man. John practically vibrated with heat and need. If Sherlock needed him to play this game, he would, by God, he would make every move he could. He took a step forward, and licked his lips.

"Mind Palace."

"Hm?"

"Use your Mind Palace."

"How will that help?"

"You've salted away every fact under the sun." Not every fact. John was certain that Sherlock hadn't tucked away how much John loved him, how John would give anything to belong to him—because John had never told him, had never managed to say. He wanted to watch Sherlock try.

"Oh, and you think I’ve just got 'How To Defuse A Bomb' tucked away in there somewhere?"

"Maybe."

Sherlock shut his eyes, face tense, hands at his temples, and God. He was everything, this man was everything. The clock counted down, and John waited, and watched, seeing how far Sherlock would take it, wondering if he knew already, if he knew what John was going to do to him, moments from now.

Sherlock groaned, and the groan became a growl, and his eyes flew open, and he looked utterly lost.

Berk. He was going to make John play it out, force John's hand. John watched Sherlock for a long moment, then turned away, pacing in the small space at the back of the carriage, hiding a ridiculous grin. "This is it. Oh my God." He knew he didn't sound convincing at all.

Sherlock was on the floor, fumbling over the bomb, his hands busy, mumbling. "Oh God!" He lifted his face. He looked small and defeated, kneeling on the floor, panic moving over his features. Whatever else John could say about him, he could be a good actor when he needed to be. "I'm sorry."

John hadn't expected another apology. "You're sorry." Sherlock had said it already, more than once, at Baker Street. And John had accepted, hadn't he?

"Forgive me?"

"For what?" There was nothing to forgive. Not if they could erase the mistakes of the past, and move on, together.

"Please, John. For all the hurt that I caused you. For not letting you in on the plan, before I jumped. For letting you think I was dead. For coming back too soon. For whatever's about to happen. All of it. For all of it."

John looked at the clock. It was at 1:29 now. He took a step forward, watching Sherlock's pale, devastated face. He waited, until Sherlock broke their locked mutual gaze.

It only took a few seconds. Sherlock blinked down at the floor, and John looked at the clock again. 1:29.

Of course he'd stopped it. Of course he knew how.   

It was time, John decided, to shift the terms of the conversation. To show Sherlock what could happen, when they were alone together. "Stand up."

"What?"

"Stand up."

Sherlock scrambled to his feet.

"Come here."

Sherlock stepped forward, around the panel, chest heaving. As John closed the gap, Sherlock flinched. Expecting, maybe, a blow. Aggression. Lord knew, John might have hit him, maybe knocked him to the floor and tried to choke the life out of him, in the old days. Aggression standing in for what he really wanted to do. He understood that now. He knew a great deal more than he used to, and he intended to use that knowledge, here, and now.

"John, I'm sorry," Sherlock said, a stream of words tumbling out of his mouth. "This is my fault. It's all my fault."

"Shhh. Stop. Just stop." They were utterly alone, no phone signal, hundreds of feet of disused service tunnels between them and anyone else. Clever Sherlock, bringing them here. "I'm glad you're back. So glad. It's okay." John whispered the words. He stepped forward, leaving no space between them, his hand brushing against Sherlock's, where it hung uselessly by his side.

There were no more decisions to make, and there were no consequences, here. It didn't matter if Mark was waiting for him, on the surface, because John was never going back to the flat they shared. Not if Sherlock wanted him.

He put his hand on Sherlock's shoulder, rubbing his thumb over the bare skin just above his collar. No ambiguity. No games.

"I'm rubbish at this stuff. I find it—I find it difficult."

"John." Sherlock's voice held surprise, or maybe a warning.

John didn't care. He was beyond caring. He had to get this out. He grasped the back of Sherlock's neck, and pulled his head down, pressing their foreheads together. Sherlock's hands hung down by his sides, and he seemed lost.

John remembered how uncertain he'd been, himself, when Mark first kissed him, and he wondered if he'd found the answer to his question, about whether Sherlock had ever done anything like this before. Perhaps not. Perhaps never. It didn't matter. None of it mattered.

"I wanted you not to be dead." His voice was a rough husk of itself. "I wanted you."

Sherlock gasped, the sound becoming part of their shared breath, contained in the space between them.

"I loved you. I always loved you. I still do."

Sherlock shook in John's arms, his whole body trembling under his coat.

"So please, stop saying you're sorry. I forgive you. Of course I do. I could never be sorry you're back." John's heart burst open, and caught fire. "You're the most important person in the world to me. I love you. I love you."

Sherlock's bow lips were open in an o of surprise. John pressed in, and kissed them, finally tasting the sweetness of Sherlock's mouth, allowing himself what he'd wanted for so long. Sherlock's lips were soft, exactly like he'd imagined them, and Sherlock's body softened in John's arms. He took another kiss, and another, then pulled away to look at Sherlock.

His eyes were closed, his lips still parted. He didn't move, didn't speak.

John pulled him down again, and pressed his cheek to Sherlock's, and held him close, one arm wrapped around Sherlock's waist, the other over his shoulder.

"I don't know if you ever—I don't know if you want this. I don't know if you feel things this way, or if it's men, or if it's no one, or—I just. Please, just let me—"

Sherlock made a low, sweet noise in the back of his throat, and John kissed his lips again, chastely, gently. Sherlock pressed forward to meet him, leaning down to meet John's upturned face, and he kissed the corner of John's mouth, and sighed.

It wasn't anything like John had imagined, the many times he'd pictured this, or dreamed of it. He'd always thought Sherlock would sweep him away in a fit of intense passion, overwhelm him physically. John always pictured disappearing beneath Sherlock, as Sherlock rolled over him like the tide.

But Sherlock seemed barely there, John's name on his lips, a whisper, a stammer, as he allowed himself to be held, as he held very still, and shook, and let John put his hands on him.

And John did. Denied for too long, his hands roamed, down over Sherlock's hip, and up to cup his face, fingers pushing into Sherlock's curls. He found his way under the hem of Sherlock's shirt, fingers running over the taut skin of his back, feeling raised bumps, and welts in thick lines. Sherlock was scarred. Terrible things had been done to him. John would care for him, look after his scars, ask after them, later. After.

Time spun out between them, slowing down, and the bomb that would never go off stood all around them, an appropriate witness, John thought, to this moment, which had taken forever to arrive. He kissed Sherlock's mouth more firmly, taking Sherlock's lower lip between his. He would go as far as Sherlock allowed. As far as they could. All the way home.

Sherlock shivered, and pulled back.

"I don't want you to die, John." His voice rasped in the empty train carriage, in the absolute silence of the abandoned tunnel.

"Hush now. Kiss me." John pressed himself against Sherlock's body, chest to chest, belly to belly.

Sherlock's eyes were closed, his whole body frozen, as if he were steeling himself for something, as if he were totally petrified. He was still shaking, a sighing mess of a man who even now seemed ready to collapse against John.

It was all right, though. It was all okay, because now there was a foundation for more, if Sherlock wanted it. The hard part was over.

Sherlock began to speak, eyes screwed shut. "John, I—"

"What is it?" he whispered, one hand still firm on the skin of Sherlock's lower back, the other caressing Sherlock's cheek. Sooner or later, Sherlock would have to confess, about the timer, and the fact that he'd stopped it. John wouldn't break the spell, though, wouldn't say that he'd figured it out.

Sherlock stepped back, a hand on John's chest. "I—I didn't want you to die, and I don't. It's—why I left."

"It's all right." John's whole body burned with need. He covered Sherlock's hand, pressed against his heart, with his own.

Sherlock spoke, his voice as shaky as the rest of him. "Moriarty had arranged snipers. One for you, one for Lestrade, and one for Mrs. Hudson. If I didn't jump, he was going to have you all killed. He knew I cared about them, but I—I let it slip that you were the person I care about most, the one person whose loss would devastate me. I couldn't let him kill you. And now you're a target again. It's not over. Do you see? It will never be over."

"What are you saying?"

"This world," Sherlock began, his words softening as he spoke, touching the fingers of his free hand to his own lips, his eyes closed. "This world is not much good without you in it, John. I always thought you improved it greatly."

John reached for him, and pulled him in, burying his face in Sherlock's shoulder. He sighed heavily. "You jumped for us, to save us."

"I couldn't allow anything to happen to you," Sherlock murmured, into John's hair. His hands came to rest on John's shoulders.

John recognised the hesitation in Sherlock's speech, in his choice of words. He wasn't used to talking about his feelings. He was just as terrible at it as John had been. He would wait, and allow Sherlock to speak, in his own time.

Meanwhile, he was full of reassurances. "Nothing's happened to me. I'm fine."

Not dead.

Neither of us.

They held there, for a long moment, John's mind spinning, dizzy with everything he felt, until the sound of voices came to them, from a distance, and John caught a glimpse of lights, bouncing off the tunnel outside.

"You called the police."

They separated. Sherlock watched him, carefully.

John's heart was warm in his chest, his love for Sherlock spilling out into the space between them. "It's all right, Sherlock. I know you turned off the bomb. I know you solved it. You always do." He reached for Sherlock's hand.

Sherlock took a step back. His face was pale. "Forgive me, John." He didn't say for what—for the trick with the bomb, for the lies, for the pain. For all of it, maybe.

"I told you already. I do forgive you. Of course I do."

Sherlock stared at him like a wary animal. "I saw you, you know. In the Landmark. Before you knew I was there. You were happy. You'll be happy."

The optimism John felt, the relief, of getting to say everything he meant, drained away, as if all his blood were leaking out the soles of his feet.

"What?"

"He saved you," Sherlock said, taking another step back. "You said he saved you." He nodded, as if confirming some conclusion he'd reached.

With a sensation like he was falling, John realised that Sherlock hadn't reciprocated anything he had said, hadn't reacted to any of John's confessions. He'd held still while John kissed him. That was all.

John reached for the nearest handrail. He gripped it hard, his knuckles white.

Sherlock hadn't meant for John to react the way he did, not at all. He'd only been worried that John was angry with him, wanted John to accept his apologies. That was the point of this whole ordeal, to wrench forgiveness out of John. Ridiculous, when it was there for the taking, when John had already given it freely.

John had offered everything. More than Sherlock had bargained for. He'd made a mistake. A terrible one.

The voices from the tunnel grew louder, and he heard the sound of gravel crunching under boots.

"What do you mean, happy?" he asked belatedly, as he wondered if he would ever touch anything good again.

Sherlock's face was white, his body shaking. He kneeled on one of the carriage seats, and squinted out through the window, looking cold, and shrunken, as the first of the police arrived, a bomb disposal team, suited in heavy armour.

"I'll help," John said, uselessly. "I'll be there, and I'll—we'll—"

Sherlock stood up, and straightened his coat, went into the driver's cab, and opened the door of the carriage.

"Mr. Holmes," a voice called, from outside the car. "Mr. Holmes, Sir. Exit the carriage, if it's safe."

After Sherlock debriefed the bomb squad, a pair of police officers escorted him and John back toward the surface. They moved through the maintenance tunnels in silence, illuminated by the sickly metallic light of the large torches the officers carried. All the magic had fled, from the dark, from the depths.

John shuffled more than walked, his body exhausted, his heart aching.

In saying nothing, Sherlock had answered him, in the kindest way he could. He didn't return John's feelings. Not the ones John had offered.

His mind sifted dully through the things Sherlock had said, looking for assurances, for some positive sign. Sherlock cared. He did. He had saved John's life, when he jumped from the roof of Barts, and John hadn't known it. He was still trying to save John's life.

He'd said that John improved the world by being in it. That was something. They'd always thought well of each other.

Suddenly, John wanted to vomit. He stopped walking and put his hands on his knees, breathing deeply, struggling to keep hold of himself.

"You all right, Sir?" One of the coppers stopped beside him, a young, ginger-haired man, freckled face showing concern, reaching for his walkie, in case he needed to call for help.

"Fine, yeah."

Sherlock walked on ahead of them, head held high, coat collar turned up.

John wasn't fine. He would never be fine again. He had tried, had said what he'd always wanted to say, and it was over.

He straightened up and stumbled onward, the ginger officer helping him along with a gentle touch to the elbow, and nonsense chatter about how the Parliamentary debate had gone forward, with no one any the wiser about the bomb. The only real disruption was the closure of Westminster Station.

"You can expect it to be pretty quiet up there, Sir," the officer told John, as if sensing that he needed reassurance. He carried on talking, telling John that a few members of the press had been informed. Reliable, experienced reporters, from respectable papers and magazines. They were waiting for John and Sherlock, wanting to interview them.

"You're a hero, Sir," the ginger officer told him. "You and Mr. Holmes."

Sherlock turned to look over his shoulder at John, and for a moment, John thought he caught a glimpse of something unsteady in that gaze. Then they were back in Westminster Station, emerging into the light, walking down the corridor to the exit.

John was blind, in the harsh glare of the fluorescent lights. He wanted, desperately, to go back, to take it all back. To crawl back into the tunnel and never emerge again.

The station had been emptied. No one was there, except for a small group of police, among them Sally Donovan, and Greg. Just inside the turnstiles, the promised group of reporters stood with cameras, and audio recorders. They all watched Sherlock as he headed directly for them, leaving John to trail behind.  

"John!"

At the sound of his name, John raised his head.

Mark was standing among the gathered police. He seemed to be chatting with Sally, saying something that made her laugh, her smile broad, her eyes sparkling. As John approached, she turned to look at him with something new in her expression, quite different from her previous cold criticism.

"John!" Mark called out to him again.

"Hey!" John's voice was too loud, his greeting, too exuberant. "How did you get in here?"

Mark laughed. "Good to see you too!" He reached for John, pulling him into a warm hug, and kissed him on the cheek. A flash went off. John eyed the gathered members of the press. One of them took another couple of pictures of him and Mark. Sherlock cast a glance in their direction, as he spoke to a reporter, his gaze sharp. He still looked pale. He watched John impassively for a moment, while Mark slid his arm around John's waist.

"Sherlock texted me. Let me know what was going on, terrorist threat, and all that. He told me to get in touch with Greg. Once it was clear that it was all managed, and it was safe, they let me come wait for you. Got to knock off work a bit early, too."

John stared at him. "Texted you?" He hadn't seen Sherlock's phone out, not once, not since they left Baker Street. "Oh," he said. He faked a smile.

Sherlock had said he was texting the press, back in Baker Street, and John had taken it on faith that he was telling the truth, but that wasn't all of it.

He'd contacted Mark then, too. He'd set up this whole thing: the press, here to report on the aversion of the terrorist threat, and Mark, here to pose for pictures with John. To make it clear that the two of them were a couple. That he and Sherlock weren't. To put distance between them, so John would be safe.

Your association with me makes you a target. You should stay away from me, John.

The whole thing had been over before it had even begun. And John had been an absolute fool, believing that Sherlock wanted him, believing that he'd taken John underground in order to seduce him.

"Oi," Mark said, poking him with his elbow. "You okay?"

John realised he'd been staring at Sherlock, watching him talk to one reporter, then another, without him. "Yeah. I'm fine."

"Sure?"

"Yeah. Yes. Thank you for coming."

"Wouldn't have missed this for the world. Not every day I get the chance to come scrape you up off the floor and take you home. "

John looked at the faint, familiar lines at the corner of Mark's eyes, the silver hair at his temples. "That's funny. I feel like you never do anything else."

Mark rubbed the small of his back.

Over by the turnstiles, the press had begun to dissipate. Sherlock was still there, studying the floor, while Greg leaned close, talking steadily at him.

"You sure you're all right?" Mark ran his hand down John's forearm, and squeezed his hand. "Hey. Look at me."

Mark's eyes were steady, the curve of his mouth, soft. John sighed. Mark was dependable. Good to him. Good for him. He'd gotten carried away, down in the tunnel with Sherlock. Carried away by his own ideas, by the weight of the last two years, and the time before that.

God knew, he would have thrown it all away, if Sherlock had said yes, if Sherlock had wanted him. But it wasn't real. None of it was. Another wave of nausea swept through him, as he thought about kissing Sherlock, about how Sherlock had seemed to melt in his arms. He had imagined, for a moment, that Sherlock had seemed to want what John was doing.

All that was done now.

Over by the turnstiles, thirty metres away, Sherlock was still talking to Greg, gesticulating wildly, and pacing. Despite the distance, and the sound-distorting echoes of the open, tiled area between them, John heard him say, "Boom!" as he lifted his arms over his head.

Talking about the bomb, then. Sherlock looked miserable, his face a mask of agitation. John couldn't see any trace of the man who had seemed so willing to care, in Baker Street, as they talked quietly about their experiences of the last two years.

It was fine. Everything could carry on now, like it should have done, in the first place. John should just be grateful, he supposed, that his stupid fantasies hadn't ruined everything.

He looped his arm around Mark's shoulder, and leaned into him for support, then leaned in a little more, and kissed Mark's cheek. As he pulled away, he caught Sally's eye, who winked at him. Approval, of a sort, he supposed.

Mark led him toward the exit. "Ready to go?"

"God, yes. I am exhausted. It's been a wild couple of days."

"Getting put in a bonfire, saving London? Yeah, that's pretty good."

"Not bad, anyway." John was numb. No matter how long he lived, or what happened next, he would never say or do another authentic thing.

Sherlock and Greg were standing closer together now, heads bent in conversation. Greg was talking, making small gestures with his hands, Sherlock nodding. Greg looked over at John, then back at Sherlock, still talking.

There'd been a time when John had been included in all of Sherlock's cases, and the aftermath. Clearly, Sherlock could get along without him. John had been retired, assigned an ordinary life.

Mark squeezed his arm. Warm, familiar. "Everything squared away, then? Between you and him?"

"Yeah, I guess it is."

"Sure you don't want to stay and chat for a bit?"

"No. No thanks."

"Let's just say goodbye, then, and be on our way."

John was too tired to resist. "All right," he said, weakly. "A quick goodbye, and then please, take me home."

***

Back in the flat, Mark made scrambled eggs and toast. He brought the food into the sitting room on mismatched plates.

"Blue one's yours," he told John. "Extra cheese."

"Ta."

They ate in their pyjamas in front of the telly. John muted his phone, putting it to the side. He didn't want to jump for it if he got a text. He needed time to rest, to come down after everything that had happened, to let the adrenaline clear from his system.

To forget about Sherlock, and about everything that he'd wanted, everything that he'd done.

Once their plates were empty, and their feet up on the coffee table, they sipped beer and channel surfed. They landed on the news, which offered a sanitised version of the drama that had gone on beneath the London streets, mentioning Sherlock's role, but leaving John's name out of it altogether, for which John was grateful. The report on the bomb was followed by a story about a spate of murders in the west end. Gunshots to the heads of the victims. No suspects, no witnesses. Everyday stuff, for the police to sort out.  

John turned out the lamp on the table beside him, and let the light from the telly wash over them, in the dark. Mark nuzzled John's neck, planting light, warm kisses across his collarbone, along the line of his jaw. John sighed, and ran his hand up and down Mark's thigh.

When they'd said goodbye, Sherlock had been civil. Friendly, even, smiling at Mark, shaking his hand. When Mark had told him John was done in, Sherlock had looked at John and nodded. "Well, you should look after him, then."

John struggled, as he sat with Mark, and the news anchor said something about the decision that had been reached in Parliament, to see something in the way Sherlock had behaved, something that meant John should reach out, text, call, offer to talk. What had happened between them, it hadn't been trivial, even if it was nothing Sherlock wanted.

At least, it hadn't been trivial for John. For all John knew, it was the sort of thing that happened to Sherlock all the time. He had no idea what Sherlock had kept hidden from him, who he might have been with. He had no right to know. That information was Sherlock's business.

Mark shifted, pressing his leg against John's more firmly, and suddenly he was in John's lap, straddling him, his lips pressing against John's, his tongue tasting John's mouth. He was strong, wiry, fully capable of matching John, strength for strength, and need for need.

John's hands slid around to cup Mark's arse through his pyjamas. He ran his thumbs over Mark's hip bones.

He knew Mark's entire body, knew it better, in some ways, than he knew his own: the pattern of three small scars, the result of an accident on the farm where Mark grew up, across his ribcage. The tattoo—the Chinese trigram for "thunder," from the I Ching—on his right shoulder blade. He'd traced the entire surface of Mark's skin with his eyes, with fingertips and tongue. He couldn't forget that. He refused to forget it, even as a sense memory boiled to the surface, of touching the skin on Sherlock's back, of rough welts under his hands.

Mark broke the kiss. "Mm. Just give me a moment to do the washing up, will you? I'll be right back."

John squeezed Mark's hand. He rubbed the callus at the base of Mark's right thumb, the matching callus on his forefinger, products of his racquetball habit. The map of Mark's hands, familiar to John. "That's new. You, and washing up."

"Just trying to do my part. If you're going to save London, the least I can do is save the flat." He slid off of John, his expression sly, and gathered the plates. "Hardly anything here. Won't be five minutes. Why don't you go upstairs and get ready for bed?"

John tried on a smile. "Waste no time?"

"Not a second."

He watched as Mark walked into the brightly lit kitchen, plates in hand, beer bottles tucked under his arm. He was lovely, really, all bright humour and charisma and care.

John thought of making the bed Monday morning, the way the sheets had been tucked in, at the bottom corner, and along Mark's side, how he'd been so suspicious of that, and tried to deduce something from it. He'd spent far too much time with Sherlock, for whom every little thing meant criminality, and life-threatening danger. Mark was trying harder, doing some extra tidying, that was all. There was probably some good reason he'd been out on his own Sunday night, too. No mystery. No secret conspiracy.

As the sound of the sink filling with water came from the kitchen, John reached for his phone.

No new texts. There was a Youtube alert, and a notification that he had new email. He checked his account: nothing from Sherlock.

He plugged his phone into its charger, and made his way upstairs. He brushed his teeth and flossed, watching himself in the mirror.

He'd waited for Sherlock, he realised. Some part of him had never given up on him. For two years, he'd mourned, and wanted him, and hoped. He had to stop waiting now. He couldn't wait any longer, to start living his life.

A slow, insidious feeling moved through him, of letting go of the past, of releasing himself from it. During the old days, at Baker Street, John had been content, or so he'd thought, to live on nothing but danger and the urgency of the work he and Sherlock had done together. He'd convinced himself that all of that was enough.

He knew now that it wasn't. He needed someone to be with. He needed a complete relationship.

His mind sent up a protest, stuttering over the memory of Sherlock's soft kiss, landing on the corner of his mouth, the way Sherlock had begged him for forgiveness, before John had any idea what Sherlock was asking, before John understood that Sherlock was letting him go. It was all too raw, too much for him to work through. All he knew was that he was back home, in the life he'd planned for himself.

He would have no difficult decisions to make. He should be grateful for that. There was nothing wrong with having Mark, being with Mark. He washed his face, and patted it dry with a towel, and frowned at his image in the mirror, feeling a slow, creeping shame. He'd humiliated himself, and he'd been so willing to cheat. It wasn't right, no matter how he looked at it. He'd been running on raw impulse and emotion. He could forgive Sherlock, but he wasn't sure he could forgive himself.

He climbed into bed, and settled against the pillows, limbs heavy, suddenly more tired than he'd ever been.

At least he had clarity. Bitter bile rose up in his mouth. He swallowed against it, and the metallic flavour that came with it. If Sherlock decided it was safe, when he decided it was safe, they might, someday, carry on with some semblance of what they'd had before. They might, eventually, be partners in Sherlock's work again.

It would have to be okay, John decided, as he slipped into sleep. Even if it wasn't what he wanted.

***

John woke up with the alarm, seven thirty the next morning, with Mark pressed up against his back, Mark's arm slung over his waist. His eyes fluttered open. He was still heavy with sleep, and a dull, aching wish that things had gone differently.

He was grateful, at least, for the rare oblivion of a full night's rest. He really had been totally exhausted. He couldn't remember any dreams. He hadn't even noticed when Mark came to bed.

"Morning." As John rolled over, Mark smiled at him, and yawned.

He ran his hand over Mark's hip, taking in Mark's lazy smile, the easy proximity of their warm bodies. He allowed himself to slip into old habit. It was easier than thinking, easier than remembering the events of the day before. "Morning. Missed you last night."

"Yeah, I came up and you were already fast asleep. Thought it would be criminal to wake you."

"A bit criminal not to."

"You." Mark smiled at him.

As Mark reached out and ran his fingers through John's hair, John felt the full force of his own foolishness. He pushed back against the crawling shame that threatened to rise to the surface. He had a life, and it was a good one.

It didn't need to be difficult. It didn't need to be complicated. "Let's get married."

Mark's eyebrows lifted. He laughed, and sat up, and stared. "John? You feeling okay?"

"Yeah." John got his feet onto the floor, and stood up, feeling sleep-heavy, and warm, as he went over to his dresser drawer, and fetched the ring box.

Formal proposals: terrible idea, he decided. He tossed the ring box to Mark, who caught it with a whoop. "What's this?"

"Your engagement ring. Let's get married."

Mark opened the box, and took out the ring. He smiled as he slipped it onto his own finger, and held up his hand. "It fits."

"Of course it fits. I'm not a complete idiot."

"Never said you were." Mark grinned at him.

A sharp pang of regret rose to the surface, over what John couldn't have, along with a harsh clang of bitter sadness. He attempted to rearrange his face, into some shape that was appropriate for the present moment. "So? What do you say?"

"Okay. Yes! When?"

Easy. Mark made it easy. "Whenever you want."

Mark studied John, head tilted. "When do you want to?" There were dark circles under his eyes, but they were sparkling, happy. The last little while had taken its toll.

John resolved to be kinder, more attentive. "As soon as we can."

Mark laughed. "John Watson, you have yourself a deal."

Chapter Text

Saturday morning found John standing in the aisle of an electronics store, under harsh fluorescent light, squinting at the text on the side of a home security kit.   

Take your safety into your own hands with the Echo smart home system. Weatherproof, wireless mini cameras you can hide anywhere are motion activated. The system only records if movement is detected. Over time, Echo recognises patterns in the activity around your home, and pushes notifications of any unusual incidents to the device of your choice, so you can monitor your property in real time, and stop threats to your security as they arise.

John felt a bit ridiculous, planning to use a system made to deal with petty theft and break-ins to prevent his own potential kidnapping and murder. He had to admit, however, that he liked the idea of taking things into his own hands. About damn time.

He took a step back, and looked up at the dozen or so other home security kit options the store carried, along with the individually packaged cameras to his right. He fought a momentary spell of dizziness, took a deep breath, and settled himself. He didn't feel right in his body. He didn't expect to.   

In the four days since the train carriage, his initial shock had settled into an empty, hollow feeling in his chest, a constant sense that the air was leaving the room. Sometimes he couldn't stop running through the details of the things Sherlock had said, the way he'd begged John to forgive him, the way he'd told John he didn't want him to die. Then John was filled with a thick, gruesome self loathing, as he understood that he'd been so carried away that he'd failed, utterly, to listen to what Sherlock was really saying.

Sometimes John was stuck in the memory of Sherlock's breath, his lips, the sound he'd made in the back of his throat, the way his muscles had loosened as John held him, as if he trusted John, as if he'd wanted what John was doing. When that happened, John's body was wracked with its old, familiar needs, and he had to stop himself from picking up the phone, and he was restless, and he wanted to scream.

Wednesday afternoon, there'd been an article in the Descrier, a sort of profile of Sherlock, and an interview. It featured a picture of him at Westminster Station, staring down the camera like he was deducing it, hands folded, his coat collar turned up. The interview mostly consisted of statements about how pleased he was to be back in London. The final question and answer had burned John to the core.

D: And what about Mr. Holmes's former companion and blogger, John Watson?

SH: I can assure you, Doctor Watson is very busy with his own life and concerns. Our partnership has been a matter of public interest, but, with the notable exception of today's case, we won't be working together any longer.

Toward the bottom of the article, there'd been a picture of John and Mark, standing together, Mark's arm around John's back. The caption read: John Watson and friend.

When he and Mark had come home from work Wednesday evening, Mark had mentioned seeing the article, and John had spat words at him, petty, and bitter: Big thrill for you, being in the paper, getting to be part of the plan. Mark, wide-eyed, speaking softly, had told him that Sherlock was just looking out for him, that the plan to keep them separate was for his own safety. John had lost his temper.

He'd known, he'd figured, that Mark knew what Sherlock was trying to do. Nonetheless, the idea of the two of them, working together behind his back, made him explosively angry. He had refused to speak for the rest of the evening, and had slept on the sofa that night, full of regret and misery.

Worse yet, he'd waited through Thursday and Friday for some word from Sherlock, some sign. He had hoped, desperately, that the interview was part of some ruse, and Sherlock would come crashing back into his life with a call or a text or a visit, demanding that John join him on a case. No word came.

As John rode his bike home on Friday after work, still steeped in bile and the sense that he'd been jilted, some mechanism had clicked into place, some internal rebellion had been staged, and he'd begun to think about the scheme more strategically.

The entire thing felt wrong, as if John were supposed to simply wait and see if he was still a target. He was angry with Sherlock, deeply frustrated by the way he'd been brushed aside, but the idea that he wasn't meant to help himself—that really rankled.

He'd ended up taking the long way home. The fine mist that collected on the surface of his skin, and the chill of the November night air, helped to clear his head, allowing a plan to come to the surface.

He'd thought about his gun, as he pedaled harder and harder, and the mist turned to rain, slicking the streets. The gun was still locked away in the metal trunk he'd used as luggage after the army, and stored in the disused basement flat below Mrs. Hudson's. He'd asked her to hold it for him, along with a few other items from his time at Baker Street, when he moved out. He hadn't trusted himself to have it. Maybe it was time to ask for it back.

It seemed like a less than ideal solution, he decided, as he made his way back home, and pulled his bike up over the kerb in front of the flat. Having the gun might provoke some difficult conversations with Mark. John would rather not explain how he'd come to own an illegal firearm, or why he'd kept it. He was quite certain that Mark wasn't the type to be comfortable with a gun in his home.

He'd let himself into the flat, still breathless from the ride, his clothes and hair damp, and his spirit determined. Mark was out for drinks with the nurses, and John used the time alone to do a bit of online research. At the very least, it would make sense to set up some basic security measures. If John was in any kind of danger, he couldn't allow that threat to spill over into his domestic life.

Saturday morning, he'd waited until Mark left for the gym, and then taken his bike to the electronics store, riding through the bright, cold morning air. Now, he stood, and chewed his lower lip, and stared at the box in his hands, with its friendly green logo, and picture of a camera mounted on a tree.

A clerk came around the corner nearest to John, and sidled up to him. "Trouble with your girlfriend?"

The clerk was a younger man, tall and lanky, with thick waves of auburn hair brushed back from his forehead. The name on his tag was William.

"Boyfriend." John offered the correction without thinking.

William's face flushed a bit, and he smiled, grin crooked. "Oh." He didn't seem put off at all. Quite the opposite. "Trouble with your boyfriend?"

"Always," John joked, faking an affable smile. Maybe. "I mean, no. Why do you ask?"

William laughed a little, and flushed even more, his cheeks glowing bright red. "I just meant—most people who buy that system want to use it to keep tabs on someone. Usually someone close to them."

"Really?" John turned the box over in his hands. The blurb on the side of it hadn't looked any different from the other boxes on the shelves in front of him. "Why this one?"

"These other systems all have alarm functions. Meaning, if there's a problem at your home, a siren will go off." He pointed at a box on the shelf. "This one, for example, comes with a subscription to a security company that will come investigate any threat. But the one you've got there, it's silent, and the cameras are small, about the size of your thumbnail. Easy to hide. It's really good for tracking traffic in and out of the house. The software compiles statistics, too, so, for example, if someone is coming and going every Tuesday night at eleven, it will show that."

John stared at William. He was young, and adorable. A wish bubbled to the surface of John's awareness, earnest and sweet, that he and Sherlock had met when the two of them were younger, before time and circumstance ruined them both. "I see."

"So if you weren't aware of that Tuesday eleven o'clock pattern, this would help you establish that it's happening."

"Right." John thought about the lie Mark had told him, about where he'd been last Sunday night. John had never followed up on it. He hadn't wanted to, but still. He frowned down at the box.

The real point was dealing with the threat to his safety. The remainder of Moriarty's network were the type to gather information and plan, before they struck. He needed something that recorded all activity, so he could analyse it himself. He wanted to see the patterns. "I mainly wanted it so I could know what's going on outside the flat normally, if that makes sense. Sort of a neighbourhood watch idea."

William watched him carefully for a moment. "Bit of a shame, that."

"Excuse me?"

William smiled down at the floor, blushing hard. "Just saying, I wouldn't hate to hear that you were planning to be single, sometime soon."

John laughed, and for the first time since he'd left his heart on the floor of the train carriage, a note of levity crept in. He smiled at William, then sobered. "But seriously, this will just—help me know what's going on, right?"

"Absolutely." William was still smiling and blushing.

"It says here that it also pushes notifications to a device, if something unusual happens?"

"That's right. So if the system never records activity at three in the morning, but then something happens at that time, it will let you know. You can set it up to ping you on your phone, if you want."

"Okay." He took a step back, scanning the other kits on the shelf one last time. "Yeah, this one, I think."

"You're sure you don't want one of these other systems? Flashing lights? Sirens? A lot of people feel they work very well to stop potential break-ins."

"Probably work very well to piss off the neighbours." The last thing he wanted was something that would advertise itself.

William grinned. "That too."

John studied the box for a moment longer. He liked the idea of the cameras recording to a device, but he didn't want to use his phone. He left it lying around the flat too often. William waited patiently, while John ran through a hasty, and mildly guilt-inducing, mental calculation. He should trust Mark. He did, really, all things considered. It wasn't that he needed to hide all of this from him. It was that he needed to get some control over his own life and situation.

"I'll definitely take this one," John said. "And can you sell me a tablet, or something similar, that it can talk to? I'd like to get a separate device to go with it, for the monitoring."

William nodded. "Of course. The same company makes an affordable, dedicated tablet with the software already installed."

***

John felt a sense of calm focus settling in his bones, as he opened the side gate to the back garden, his electronics store purchase in hand. Now that he'd made his mind up, now that he knew what he was going to do, he let himself slip into the pleasure of going about it methodically. He had time. Mark wouldn't be back from the gym for another hour at least.

John was no pawn, no damsel in distress, no matter how some gang of criminals viewed him, no matter how Sherlock saw things. He wouldn't behave like he was.

He dug around in the shed, and pulled out a small plastic table to use as a work surface. The table was a castoff from some previous tenant, who had perhaps had ideas about breakfasting outside, on the flagstone patio, not realising that the yard was, for the most part, cold and damp.

John took the kit out of the bag, and read the instructions for setting it up. He set each of the three cameras out on the table, their small lenses pointing at the sky. The feeds to the tablet worked right away. The camera John picked from the menu showed the bare branches of the plane tree that hung over the fence from the yard next door. He checked each camera in turn. Very good. All he had to do was decide where to place them.

He wasn't just disappointed by Sherlock's rejection, he told himself, as he pushed aside the trailing limbs of ivy that covered the lattice at the back of the yard, and nestled a camera inside it. It was the way he'd shut John out, removed him, again, from participating in decisions that concerned him. It was the fake suicide plan all over again. The same exclusion. The same pain.

When the camera was firmly in place, he stood back, admiring his work. No one would be able to tell that it was there.

He went around to the front garden, and mucked about in the Euonymus shrub that formed a border between the tiny front yard and the pavement. The fact that Sherlock had involved Mark, had enlisted his help, was just ugly. John wasn't a child. Of course he had objected to the idea of separating from Sherlock. He'd taken it hard. But he didn't deserve to be wrangled, to be told what to do. He crouched down, and placed the second camera in the join of two branches, using the tablet to check it. The winter greenery of the shrub hid the camera well enough, but didn't obscure the view of the pavement and street in front of the flat.

Finally, he found a chink, above eye level, in the brickwork at the top corner of the front door, and hid the third camera there. Yes, he'd made a terrible mistake. He'd been swept away by his own feelings. He'd been unfair to Mark, and to Sherlock. That didn't mean he would accept being made to feel powerless. He checked the feed on the tablet. If anyone approached the door, the camera would record it.

He returned to the back garden and used his index finger to stab at the menus on the tablet. The program to track incidents of movement in the cameras' fields was already running. He set the tablet the way that William the clerk had shown him, for the lowest level of battery consumption, then plugged it into the large, fully charged power bank he'd also purchased. William had claimed that the extra battery power would keep the tablet going for at least a week, even if it was left out in the cold. To his credit, he hadn't asked John why he wanted this particular setup.

When it was all done, John took out the pack of large freezer bags he'd bought at Tesco's on the way home, and sealed the tablet and battery inside one, pushing out all the air he could, so it laid flat. Having assured himself that the tablet was as safe as it could be from water damage, he went into the shed, and fetched a shovel.

It really would be best, he decided, if no one else knew about the setup, as he used the shovel to pry up the edge of one of the flagstones, and set it aside, watching a few distressed woodlice scuttle around in the sudden light.

He spread a black garbage bag out on the ground, pinning it down on one side with the legs of the plastic chair, so the wind wouldn't blow it away, then focused on digging a shallow hole in the dirt, just big enough to hold the tablet and the battery pack. As he worked, he placed the dirt carefully onto the garbage bag.

An image arose, unbidden, unwanted, of Sherlock's face, pale and miserable, as he told John that John would be happy. John wasn't sure that happiness was something he was seeking any more. Maybe some sort of equilibrium was the best he could hope for, he thought, as he continued digging.

He scraped the edges of the hole with the edge of the shovel, making sure there was enough space for the tablet and battery. As he squinted up into the blue November sky, he felt a small degree of self sufficiency returning.

It was good, taking responsibility for his own life. He couldn't leave everything up to Sherlock, especially if Sherlock wasn't speaking to him. He had to establish some kind of independence, where he could. It was time to embrace the idea that he was his own man. Get a life. His own life.

When he was done digging the hole, he placed the tablet and pack into it, and carefully lowered the flagstone back into place. He picked up the plastic garbage bag by the corners, and got rid of the dirt, spreading it out over the weedy patch behind the shed. He folded and collapsed the security system packaging as compactly as he could, wrapped it carefully in the garbage bag, and hid it all at the bottom of the dustbin beside the shed, under the two bags of kitchen garbage that were already in there. Finally, he put the shovel and the plastic table away, and closed the shed door.

When it was all done, he went back inside, and scrubbed his nails clean of dirt at the kitchen sink. It was 10:45 a.m. He rummaged around in the fridge, pulled out a red pepper, an onion, and a few eggs, and started working on making a late breakfast.

He couldn't say that his heart felt any lighter, that he felt any better about what had happened. On some level, he wasn't sure he would ever accept that Sherlock didn't want him, that there was nothing romantic between them. Their adventures, in the old days, had been nothing but a long series of strange, beautiful romances, despite all of Sherlock's protests to the contrary.

There was nothing John could do about the ache he held inside of him. He would probably always carry it. But today, he'd proven to himself that he could still move forward.

By the time Mark returned home, all flushed and warm from his workout, John had coffee on, and was just putting buttered toast out on the table.

"What's all this?" Mark asked. "Been busy this morning?"

"Not really, just—felt like doing a bit of cooking." John allowed himself a smile, and he kissed Mark's cheek, and then his jaw, tasting salt sweat.

"Amazing." Mark poured himself a cup of coffee, and settled in at the table. He crowed about the food, and chattered about some former workmate he'd run into at the gym.

John sat opposite him, and let him talk, and ate a bit. For the first time since Tuesday, he felt as though he could breathe. The small domestic details of his life were still worth honouring, even if he never got over Sherlock, and everything Sherlock meant to him.

As for the dangerous game that was still going on all around them, well. So long as he didn't remove himself from it, he supposed he could still be a player.     

Chapter Text

The weeks following John's brief exercise in spycraft passed in a thick fog, marked by the low, quiet grind of persistent routine, and a feeling he couldn't manage to escape, that somehow his life had gone sideways.

John's personal rhythms, such as they were, seemed to be all over the place: sometimes he couldn't sleep at all, and he paced the flat, restless and kicking against the feeling that things weren't what he wanted them to be. At other times, he slept so heavily he could barely wake up, as if his body were trying to catch up all at once.

His nightmares shifted. He traded his dreams about his old life with Sherlock for vague, disturbing encounters in which Sherlock transformed into a shaky ghost and hovered in the corner of the room, face pale and streaked with tears, watching John sadly. On two occasions he'd woken in a panic, after vivid night terrors, in which he was tied to a chair, while a light shone in his face, and a man whose voice he felt he should recognise interrogated him, asking question after question he couldn't answer. He'd jolted out of those dreams in a blind panic, covered in sweat, reaching for Mark, who held him while he sobbed and shook in their shared bed.

During the day, his mind was heavy, his body lethargic. After the second time he fell asleep at work, he ran blood tests, which found nothing wrong.

He and Mark were getting along, at least. Mark eschewed his habitual weekend workouts in favour of spending long lazy mornings with John, waking him up with a mug of coffee and a kiss, when he slept late, which happened more often than usual.

"It makes sense, John, that you're feeling off," Mark told him, lying on the sofa with his head in John's lap, on a rainy Sunday afternoon. "You've been through a shock. More than one. I've lost count, actually." He reached up and ran his thumb over John's lower lip. "First you deal, then you feel, right? You need time to process it all."

John had nodded, and agreed, although the real trouble was, he wasn't feeling much at all. He was stuck in a dull torpor that made it hard to concentrate. He wondered what had happened to the bright determination he'd felt on the day he'd hidden the cameras.

He thought often about his security setup, and the tablet buried under the ground, and wondered what it had recorded, but there was never a time that he was alone in the flat, never a moment when he could unearth it, not without having to explain it all to Mark. 

They were busy, in any case, making plans for the wedding. They agreed to keep it a small affair. John dutifully sent out a few emails, to some people at the Met, Mrs. Hudson, Molly Hooper, Harry, a couple of distant relatives, and a small handful of men he'd been close with in the army. He let them know he was engaged, and that they could expect invitations when he and Mark had settled on a date, and that the wedding would be soon.

He read the congratulations that came back through a numb haze of mild surprise. No one behaved badly about his news, even the ones who hadn't known he was with a man.

There was still no word from Sherlock. John wondered if his confession in the train carriage had ruined any chance that the two of them could talk again. Equally, he wondered if Sherlock were putting himself in danger, all in the name of saving John from a threat they should be fighting together.

He cancelled two appointments with Ella, deciding he would go see her as soon as the wedding was over.

Mrs. Hudson's wedding planner emailed them back about their request for an appointment, with a grim warning that there was no way she could plan a decent January wedding in the time they had left. They booked an appointment anyway, for the last day of November, a Saturday.

At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, they sat side by side on a white leather sofa in the planner's tastefully appointed office, waiting for her to appear. Mark flipped through a magazine, his legs crossed, his entire posture relaxed and at ease, as he always was, while John wrestled with the beginnings of a panic attack. His body was on high alert, sending up dull pangs of alarm as he studied the office's distressed white walls, and the painting of a large, single, perfectly symmetrical green carnation hanging behind the planner's desk.

"I still think this is going to be stupid," John said, under his breath. "Seriously, what are we doing here?"

Mark flipped a page of his magazine, raising his eyebrows at a picture of a bride in a red dress. The title of the article was a splash of colour. "Oh, you know how to plan a wedding?"

"Can't be too hard. Dress up, eat cake, rent a hall where people can dance." John fidgeted in his seat. His leg was bothering him. It had been for a while now. He didn't, in fact, want to do any of the things he'd just listed.

The clock on the wedding planner's wall ticked loudly. John wondered how long they would have to sit here and wait, for an appointment he didn't want to keep.

Sherlock had been in the papers again, a couple of days ago, for solving a case of false identity. A young man had tricked a woman into believing that he was the son she'd given up for adoption, twenty years before. He'd moved in with her, and had been slowly draining her bank account, and selling her jewellery. As a final flourish, the papers had added that Sherlock had found the woman's actual son, and advised both of them never to meet.

The woman had been quoted in the paper: "Mr. Holmes told me that family is trouble, and I should avoid adding to their number, if I could at all help it."

John imagined Sherlock, alone in his flat, convincing himself that it was better that way. John had thought, he'd believed, that the two of them had been a sort of family, along with Mrs. Hudson, in the old days. He didn't think it had been so bad, for Sherlock, back then. Perhaps he'd been wrong.

Reading about the case had made him wish he'd been able to help with it, so he could write it up. He missed the blog. He'd even thought of a title: The Kensington Cuckoo. He'd been busy, though, with work, and wedding plans, and he would have to talk to Sherlock to get the details, and he couldn't imagine bridging that gap, couldn't see a way to reopen communication. It all felt impossible. He was stuck in thick mud, his tyres spinning.

Mark was talking, elbowing him. "Oi! Pay attention."

"Sorry. Sorry." John shifted on the sofa, and studied the wood grain of the coffee table. Oak, maybe.

"I was saying, exactly, you're exactly right. We want to show up, look great, eat cake, dance, and call it a day. We don't want to worry. Anika is going to take care of everything. All right?" He leaned in conspiratorially. "Besides, she's doing this as a favour to Mrs. H, giving us a bit of a discount. So be nice."

John frowned at the idea that somehow Mark knew Mrs. Hudson's business better than he did. He was running to catch up. He had no idea when, or how, he'd fallen so far behind. "I'm always nice."

"Right." Mark elbowed him again, leaned in, and kissed his cheek.

Anika, as it turned out, was terrific at her job. She talked them out of wearing suits that matched each other, making a case, instead, for clothes that would bring out each of their best features, express their personalities. She asked nine or ten easy questions about what they did and didn't like. She agreed to coordinate with the minister John had chosen—another connection he'd made through Mrs. Hudson—and confirm the date, once they'd booked a place.

"Now: guest list." She flipped open her binder, and frowned at a printout of an email message John had sent her. "About twenty in total, if I understand this correctly."

John nodded. "I suppose. I've been in touch with everyone on my side." A partial truth. Sherlock was on his side, technically speaking.

Mark shot him a look, as if reading his mind. "One more for you."

Anika nodded, as she frowned down at the list. "Your side of the church is looking a little thin, Mark."

Mark smiled and shrugged. "Orphan's lot. No family. Just friends." He'd invited the women from work and their spouses, a couple of men he played racquetball with. 

"Best man? Best Men? Maids of Honour? Groomsmen? Groomsmaids?" Anika smiled at them.

"My sister," John said. "Harriet."

Mark shifted in his chair, and cleared his throat, not quite objecting. Things between Mark and Harry were awkward. John had thought, before he'd introduced them, that they would get along. They both had the same rough, aggressively cheerful temperaments, when they were in company. At the very least, he'd have expected his relationship with Mark to give Harry an opportunity to crow a bit. Instead, the couple of times they'd gotten together, the two of them had behaved like a pair of hissing housecats.

"And you?" Anika turned to Mark.

"My friend Cath."

Anika nodded, and made a note in her book.

The answer surprised John. "Not Jill?"

Mark looked at him, a single eyebrow raised. "No. She'll be away. Family vacation."

"Ah." John frowned down at his hands. "Right," he added, feeling like he was on shaky ground, wondering if he should ask if Mark was telling the truth. He took a deep breath.

Anika studied her computer screen, clicked through a few options, then picked up the phone. Ten minutes later, she'd booked a small venue for the wedding and reception just after the new year, on January 4th. A few minutes after that, she'd arranged the DJ and caterer, and talked them into white cake with raspberry filling.

As they bundled into their coats, and John tied the blue scarf that was once Sherlock's around his neck, he imagined standing side by side with Sherlock at the wedding. Sherlock would probably love the cake, would most likely make some gruesome joke about the red colour staining the white frosting.

John's stomach dropped. He couldn't expect Sherlock to come. They weren't even speaking to each other. They couldn't. For John's safety, or so Sherlock had told him.

Safety was relative. He wasn't safe in his body, or in his mind, if Sherlock wasn't in his life.

He followed Mark out onto the street, where the thick noise of Saturday afternoon traffic engulfed them.

Mark frowned, and dug his phone out of his pocket. "Hang on," he said, as he thumbed it open. "Ah!" He grinned down at the screen. "This is where we part."

John's gut clenched. They'd spent so much time together, lately, he found himself feeling a hard, unpleasant pull at the concept of being away from Mark. The upset took him by surprise. He covered it with a joke. "So soon? I thought we were planning to get married."

"Funny. No, you're going to Baker Street." Mark tapped out a message on his phone, and sent it.

"What?"

Mark smiled at John, laughter playing across his lips. "You've been avoiding him. Avoiding popping the question."

John's whole world tilted. "What question is that?"

"Best man? Look, you and I both know it shouldn't be Harry. You can't count on her to be sober. If you don't ask him, Sherlock's going to think you don't want him."

"I—" John stumbled over Mark's turn of phrase.

A woman in a business suit cursed at John and stepped around him. He'd stopped in the middle of the pavement. He stepped aside, taking Mark by the coat sleeve, pulling him along until they were both out of the way, under the awning of a florist's.

"What are you talking about? He told me to stay away from him." He stared down at the phone in Mark's hand. The hearing in his right ear cut out, replaced by a loud buzzing sound. He took a deep breath. He was dizzy. Dizzy again. He hadn't been able to get his feet under him, since his confession in the train carriage. "Has he been in touch with you?" The words came out like he was chewing them.

Mark took a step back. "Yes."

John looked up and down street, at the people passing them by. His left fist clenched painfully. "What?"

"John. Don't make a scene."

"I'm not the one—" John closed his eyes. He was losing control of his temper, practically yelling. He lowered his voice, and leaned in. "Look, you know this bothers me. You and him, thick as thieves, going behind my back."

"Well, someone had to talk to him. One of us had to know what was going on. You weren't, so what was he supposed to do? What was I supposed to do?"

"I didn't think I should."

Mark tilted his head, his eyes sharp. "And why is that, John?"

John was practically hyperventilating. He felt primed for a fight. He was far angrier than he had any right to be. "I already said. He told me to stay away from him."

"But there are ways you could have been in touch. No one had to know. Burner phones, carrier pigeon, I don't know."

"No." Sherlock hadn't said anything about keeping communication open. He hadn't reached out. He hadn't tried. A slow, burning humiliation moved through John. He felt more alive, and more horrible, than he had at any point during the last three weeks. "What has he said?" He suspected the answer would be like drinking seawater—unhelpful, ultimately harmful—but he was dying of thirst, and he needed to know.

Mark shrugged. "Asks about you mostly. How you're doing. If you've made it home at night after work."

John's hand went to his phone in his pocket. All this time, and he'd had no idea. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Mark fixed John with a look, like the answer should be patently obvious. "Because I didn't want to deal with your shit, John. You practically tore my balls off when I tried to help with the plan at Westminster Station."

John stared at him. There was something terrible brewing in his soul, some deep sense that he'd been treated unfairly.

He reminded himself that he'd behaved horribly. He couldn't expect anyone else to do better, but this discovery, that Mark and Sherlock had been talking all along, like they were friends, and John was somehow secondary, was profoundly unexpected. "Fine. Let's talk about today. First I'm not supposed to be seen with him, and now, suddenly, I'm going to Baker Street? What makes it okay now?"

Mark was like a blade when he was angry: sharp, and bright. He cut with precision. "He says there's been no new activity for a fortnight. Weather forecast says low chance of assassination? I don't know, John." He stared down the street like he was measuring whatever he would say next. "He's expecting you. He's expecting you to ask him to be best man."

John was frozen in place. "Why would he expect that?"

"You're not going to like the answer."

"Tell me anyway."

Mark chewed the inside of his lip. "Because it's practical. He thinks it would make a good story. You and me, getting married. Him endorsing it, then maybe making a scene. Leaving the wedding early. To clarify, for the people who might still be watching, that you and he aren't—getting along."

John frowned down at the pavement. He nodded, still furious, burning with rage. He didn't know what Mark thought, what Mark imagined the situation to be, but he was almost certain what Sherlock was trying to do.

Sherlock wanted to erase the past. John understood now, because he'd figured it out, that the whole idea of the network trying to get to Sherlock by attacking John was based in the most painful of the old rumours that had surrounded them. That they were a couple. That they belonged to each other. That John was Sherlock's heart. That was what Sherlock wanted to deny. Because he didn't feel things that way.

"You know what? Fuck this. Fuck you both."

"John." Mark took a step toward him, and took his arm. His grip was like iron. He was just as strong as John. Stronger, when he wanted to be. "Look. I don't know what the hell happened between the two of you. I haven't asked." He was talking rapidly, his tone even. Cool. He was always cool. "Whatever it was, this is what it is now. You have to be clever about it. It's for your own good."

"It is what it is, yeah? And what it is, is shit." John pulled his arm out of Mark's grasp. He stumbled a bit, and put his hand out, steadying himself against the florist's doorframe. A woman stared at them through the shop window. John stared back until she turned away. "I hate this."

Mark's expression softened. "I know."

"I don't go telling you who you should have as best man."

Mark nodded, his eyes scanning the traffic. "I know."  

"Why don't you go have a chat to oh, you know, Tom? Make the whole wedding party perfectly awkward."

Mark's mouth curved into a smile. "Tom's gone, actually."

"Gone?"

"Moved out of the country."

"Ah. Won't be blowing up your phone any more, then."

Mark's cheeks had grown red, in the cold November air, in the heat of the argument. He grinned. "I suppose not."

John was still furious. At the same time, he felt wrung out, worn down. It wasn't Mark he should be angry at. It was Sherlock, who'd responded to John's confession by viewing him as another piece on his personal chessboard.

"You'll go and talk to him, then?" Mark asked.

John didn't answer. He turned away, and started walking for Baker Street.  

***

John thought, if he walked all the way, it would give him time to cool off. He was wrong. Thirty minutes later, he stood at the front door of 221B, still livid. The entire trip, he'd played what he wanted to say to Sherlock over and over, variations on the same theme flying through his mind.

I understand you're supposed to come to my wedding.

Nice to be included in the plans for my own damn life, Sherlock.

You and him, both telling me what to do. Fuck the both of you. If you want to give me orders, the least you can do is talk to me.

We're putting on a play again, are we? I suppose you think it's fun, acting. Well I'm not acting, Sherlock. I'm not pretending. I never was.

His resentment clanged so loudly in his head, he barely had room for the thin layer of humiliation and regret over his confession in the train carriage. It sat there, an invisible coating of slippery film, that he knew could take his feet out from under him at any moment. He didn't care.

He crashed in through the front door without so much as wiping his feet, to find Mrs. Hudson there, standing by a small table, arranging flowers in a vase. The sight of her stopped John in his tracks.

"Hello," he said. He shut the street door carefully, breathing hard. The familiar hush settled on the hallway, the sounds from the outside world, muted.

"Hello, John. Are you feeling all right?"

He nodded, his voice tight in his throat. "Fine, yeah. Why do you ask?"

She smiled at him, her hand fluttering, a grandiose gesture. "Oh, you know, that bonfire business, all of this trouble over keeping you safe. It's been a busy few weeks." She pulled a pink gerbera daisy from the margins of the bouquet, and tucked it in closer to the centre.

"It has, yeah. A bit strange." As if he were closing a book and setting it aside so he could listen to someone trying to talk to him, he let go of the things he'd intended to say to Sherlock. They were still there, waiting for him to pick them up again. He took a deep breath. Somehow, Mrs. Hudson always managed to make even the most horrible of situations into something that seemed manageable.

He went to her, and kissed her cheek. She giggled, and touched his arm.

"I expect it's over now," she said.

"Is it? Is that what he says?" He gestured up at the ceiling, indicating Sherlock. He wasn't ready to say his name yet.

She shrugged. "Have to ask him. He's taken down all those photos and papers from the wall, so I suppose that means something. But John, you should go up. He's been pacing the flat all day. Expecting you." She fidgeted with the flowers, turning the vase this way and that.

John's heart clenched in his chest. He was suddenly, violently nervous. "He has?" He took a step closer to her, and lowered his voice. "Has he said anything to you?"

"About being best man?" She wrinkled her nose, and shook her head. "No. He talks about you all the time, though."

John took a deep breath, fighting the feeling that his life had slid out of control again, that everyone knew more than he did. She knew. Of course she did. She'd spoken with Mark. Or Sherlock had told her.

Meanwhile, John's heart urged him to grasp onto the other thing Mrs. Hudson had said. "He talks about me? He does?"

"Oh yes." She pulled herself up into a taller stance, tucking in her chin and deepening her voice. "John doesn't take sugar in his coffee, but he takes milk and sugar in his tea. Let's watch this program about NASA. John thinks I should know about this stuff." She giggled and waved her hand at him. "Talks to you when you're not here. You know."

John swallowed hard against the raw emotion threatening to rise up and choke him. His heart burst into flames in his chest, and he was back, again, in fierce, painful love. It would tear him open, burn him to the ground. He looked up the stairs, and wondered how in the hell he could make himself climb them.

Sherlock thought about him, all the time. Talked about him, all the time. Worried about him.

Wanted him to be safe. Maybe that wasn't just a line, just a way for Sherlock to manage him, to move him around like a puppet in his game. Moriarty's network, they thought that John was important to Sherlock.

I let it slip that you were the person I cared about most, the one person whose loss would devastate me.

Sherlock had said that, in the train carriage. And yet, everything he'd done made it look like he wanted distance. Everything he'd said. What he hadn't said.

John blinked at the chipped paint on the edge of one of the stairs. "Has he said anything about Mark? About us getting married? It's just—I don't know what I'm walking into up there."

"He's been composing," she said. "Lovely stuff, just beautiful. Don't tell him I said so. I think he wants it to be a surprise. I think he's writing it for you. You know, deep down, he really is a romantic."

Her words closed around John's heart, a fist. "Yeah, I suppose so."

"So go ask him, John. Don't wait any longer." Her voice was pleading. Only Mrs. Hudson could get away with playing on his feelings of obligation, without setting him off. "You know how he is. He's always relied on you to set the tone." She reached out and held his elbow, her expression earnest.

He patted her hand, his fingertips brushing lightly against her knuckles, stiff with arthritis, the paper thin skin of her hand. He could feel himself clinging to her advice, knowing it was all up to him, to do his best with an impossible situation.

"All right," he said, swallowing hard against everything he was feeling. He set his foot on the bottom stair, and slowly, began to climb.

"And please tell Mark thank you for the flowers," she called out after him.

John's heart clenched. It seemed that Mark had a better relationship with everyone in John's life than he did. "Okay."

"Nothing to get shirty about, dear," she said, picking up on his tone, because of course she'd heard it. "Just a little thank you. I gave him some advice about your trip, you know? Your honeymoon. He wanted to know what you would like."

John was still angry about the fight he'd had with Mark, but he felt, in the quiet space of hallway, under Mrs. Hudson's watchful eye, that the worst of it was slipping away. Mark was a scheming bastard. But maybe he just wanted John to be okay. Maybe he just wanted him to be happy. Maybe they all did.

The honeymoon, though, was a sticking point. Mark had promised he would arrange everything, then refused to tell John where they were going. That had angered John, too, at the time, although he hadn't been able to own it, or to explain it to himself. "And you told him what, exactly?"

She shook her head. "It's a surprise, John. For you. He really is lovely."

"Ah. So you approve, then." His voice cracked.

She nodded, looking thoughtful. "Yes, dear. But it's not up to me to approve, is it? It's up to you."

He managed a weak smile before he climbed the stairs like a soldier going into battle, determined to see things through, and absolutely certain he would not survive the next few minutes. Before he got to the top, he pulled Sherlock's scarf from around his neck, and stuffed it into his coat pocket. His old sentiment didn't have a place in the new reality.

Upstairs, he found Sherlock standing at the kitchen table, wearing safety goggles, a blowtorch in one hand, and an eyeball held in a set of tweezers in the other. He applied the flame to the dangling optic nerve. It was a bizarre tableau. Performance art.

John squinted at him. Mrs. Hudson had said Sherlock was pacing all day, waiting for him to arrive. Nervous. This was a show, then, an attempt to appear busy. John's heart expanded painfully in his chest, his anger and hatred finally, totally defeated by his love for this man, who did not love him back, but who cared, John supposed, in his own, ridiculous, backward manner.

"Busy?" he asked.

Sherlock shrugged. "Oh, just occupying myself. Sometimes, it’s so hard not smoking." He tilted his head back as if to howl, exposing the long line of his neck.

John watched it, imagining his lips on it, knowing how it felt, to trace his fingers along its length. Wondering at the injustice of it all.

The eyeball slipped from the tweezers and fell into a mug of tea with a small splash. Sherlock stared down at it. "Oh."

John cleared his throat, fighting a burst of laughter. The whole situation was awful, so awkward that it threatened to tip over into something else. Somehow, they had to sort through it, and find their new baseline. "Mind if I interrupt?

Sherlock waved his hand at a chair, the movement excessive. "Be my guest. Tea?" He held out the mug. His hand shook.

John pulled out the chair and sat, looking up at Sherlock, at the offered mug with the eyeball in it. "Uh."

Sherlock shrugged, and put the mug back down. Funny. He was trying to be funny. He always knew, in the old days, how to make John laugh.

The truth was with John, suddenly and completely, as clear as if it were standing in the corner of the kitchen, waiting for him to see it. He'd been blaming Sherlock for everything because he'd missed him, been missing him, terribly.

"It's all right for me to be here?" He meant it in as many ways as possible. "Mark said you told him it's probably safe now."

Sherlock nodded. "It seems so." He frowned, brow furrowing. "I haven't been able to account for why, but there's been no new activity for a couple of weeks. Whatever was going on seems to have settled down substantially."

"And the network? Any ideas?"

Sherlock looked into the sitting room, over John's head. John turned, following his gaze. Just like Mrs. Hudson had said, the crime wall was empty. A thick sheaf of papers sat in a folder on the coffee table, under the empty basket in which Sherlock sometimes liked to keep apples.

Sherlock sighed. "It never came into focus. Not in any way I could grasp. It seemed almost as if there were some sort of internal struggle going on. Conflicts of interest, I suppose. Seems like targeting you, and me, for that matter, may have fallen by the wayside."

"A stroke of luck, then?" The idea sat uneasily with John, that things would work out so readily, and with no effort on his part, or Sherlock's.

"Perhaps."

The silence stretched itself out, and John remembered the first awkward, tentative conversation the two of them had had, three weeks previous, a few feet away from where he now sat. He'd had so much hope then. He'd been blinded by it, and he'd gone too far. This was his chance to make it better, to allow Sherlock an out, offer him a place in his life that he could, perhaps, be comfortable with.

"So, Mark said you want to be part of the wedding. Maybe stage some sort of estrangement between us. Publicly."

Sherlock stared down at the table. The muscle at the corner of his eye twitched. "Well, I suppose that might not be necessary now. We'll certainly know, by early January, if it really is over. If there's nothing new before then, you can forget about it. Probably you'll just want to try to have good day. No need for melodrama. You could just—get married." He touched the handle of his blowtorch. "Like normal people do."

The sound of the ticking wall clock filled the space between them, each second that passed stretching John's determination thinner and thinner, threatening to tear it to shreds. If it broke, he knew he would be very much in danger of confessing everything, all over again.

"You could just come, then," he said. "Come to the wedding."

"Oh." Sherlock nodded.

John looked at the kitchen sink. It was piled high with laboratory glassware. He wondered if Sherlock was eating properly. "You could stand up with me. If you wanted. Be my best man." He felt like he was going to die.

"Yes," Sherlock said. "Okay."

John looked down at his hands. Easier than he thought. Mark had already talked to Sherlock, of course. He'd been expecting the question. He'd prepared himself. "Thanks. Great. That's—great." His knuckles were white.

"Good." Sherlock was trying. It was hard for him, all of this. Hard for the both of them. John had made it hard.

Regret tore at John's gut, its claws sharp. He took a deep breath. It was up to him, then, to make it better, easier for the both of them. Maybe, maybe, involving Sherlock with the wedding would somehow formalise the new configuration of both of their lives, draw lines that couldn't be crossed.

He was a man apart. John knew that now, knew that Sherlock didn't fit in, that everything he'd always said about how different he was—all of that was true. He was too brilliant, his way of being in the world too important; he was all sharp edges and broad, epic plots, and everything John had wanted from him was like asking a god to step down from Mount Olympus and do the laundry.

His heart squeezed painfully at the idea of letting go altogether. He couldn't cut Sherlock out of his life. It would be worth a sacrifice, to keep him in it.

"Not a problem," Sherlock said, replying to nothing at all. He stared into the middle distance.

"Well, good." John cleared his throat, soldiering on. "Because Sherlock, I want you to know, I really do want you to be there."

"Oh."

It was time to put a name on Sherlock's place in his life. Something he could be comfortable with. "You're my best friend. Of course you should be there. If you want to, that is."

Sherlock stared, blinking hard. "I'm your—"

Asking for confirmation, then. Reassurance, John supposed. He would give it. He would give anything, to have Sherlock trust him again. "Best friend. Of course you are."

Sherlock reached down for the mug of tea on the table, picked it up and took a long sip. John fought a sharp intake of breath. It was the one the eye had fallen into.

Sherlock frowned down into the mug, and made a smacking sound with his lips. John fidgeted through the silence that followed.

He wanted more from Sherlock than this quiet acquiescence. A sudden hope leapt into view, that Sherlock might be about to object, to say that he wanted more. Surely he knew John was still in love with him. That fact was ready to burst through John's every pore, spill out from his lips. He fought a powerful urge to jump up, to yell, to beg Sherlock to fight for him.

Instead, he looked down at the mug of tea that Sherlock held in his hand. "How was that?"

Sherlock still hadn't looked at him. He raised his eyebrows, contemplating the tea. "Surprisingly okay."

"And you? You're all right with this? Best man? Coming to the wedding?"

Sherlock sighed, a sharp intake of breath, then raised his eyes and looked at John directly. "Of course, John. I could hardly say no, could I?"

John was on his feet, wanting to move toward Sherlock, and at the same time, feeling as though he only had a limited time before he would be forced to bolt from the flat. It was a beginning, he supposed, his heart turning inside out. The whole thing felt wrong, a harsh series of notes clashing with the way he wanted things to be. He battled with himself, schooling his features, reminding himself of how badly it had gone for him, the last time.

"You could. If it would make you uncomfortable. I know you don't usually go in for this sort of thing."

Sherlock frowned, his lower lip pouting, full and ripe. "It's all right, John." The words came slowly. "I don't mind." He nodded, a microscopic gesture, as if grasping some internal source of strength and determination. "I can do it."

"All right." John held out his hand across the table for Sherlock to shake. It was a friendly thing to do, wasn't it? Congratulations between mates.

God. He hated himself.

Sherlock stared at the offered hand. Finally, he reached out, and took it.

"Thanks," John said, flatly, panic flaring to the surface. "I'll be in touch with the details. Or Mark will. The wedding planner. Someone. Thanks again." He had to get away, get out, before he broke down, before he broke everything he'd just done.  He was still holding Sherlock's hand, he realised. Too long. Too much.

He made his excuses, and left.

***

John took his time returning to the flat. He stopped at a café, bought a cup of tea, wandered through the streets. Eventually, he got on the tube, and walked home from the station, staring at cracks in the pavement. Paradoxically, his head was clearer than it had been for a while. Perhaps his conscience would be clearer, too, going forward.

He'd done what he had to do. Things had reached their final configuration. He could relax about it now. Sink into his new life, like he'd planned.

Mark was waiting for him in the front hall when John let himself in. He was wearing a black t shirt, boxer briefs, and a smile.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi." John took his coat off and hung it up in the closet, watching as Mark leaned against the wall, hands tucked behind his back.

He really was beautiful, all lean compact muscle, his grin feral as he bit his lower lip.

"He said yes, then." Mark's eyes were bright, alert.

You asshole, John thought. He felt his colour rising. "You texted him?"

Mark just watched him, squinting a bit, corners of his mouth quirked up.

"Right." John was still furious, even as his eyes drifted down to Mark's chest, his hips. Familiar desire started to take him over, a feeling he hadn't had for weeks, not since he proposed.

Mark took a step toward John, his head tilting to one side. "We're good then." A statement, not a question.

John was shaky with the need to feel something other than the wretched ache in his chest. They both knew exactly what was going to happen. "Doesn't mean I'm not still basically pissed off with you."

Mark took another step forward. "I know."

He wanted Mark. God help him, he did. Mark had been there every time he'd needed to get away from himself, for the last six months. What they'd built, between the two of them, shouldn't be discounted. It was something. It was a lot. It would help him forget.

Mark closed the gap between them, pushing John up against the wall by the closet, leaning into him, hand going directly to John's crotch. He kissed him hard, his tongue pushing into John's mouth. John groaned, hands wandering, ready to sob with relief. This was exactly what he needed: touch, and the fact of being wanted. It felt like rain on dry desert sand.

"Upstairs," John demanded. He grabbed Mark's t shirt, bunching the fabric in his fist. "Now. I need these clothes off."

Mark took his hand, and led him to the stairs. Before they could make the climb to the second floor, he turned around and snogged John for everything he was worth. It was messy, all wet tongues and teeth and need, and for a brief moment John thought he would rather just push Mark down on the stairs and have him, immediately. It would probably take nothing at all for him to come in his pants. He was that hard, that desperate.

They broke the kiss long enough to race up the stairs and into the bedroom, and somewhere in the middle of John stumbling as he pulled his socks off, Mark kneeled on the bed, and tilted his head, t shirt already thrown on the floor, muscles bunching in his arm as he slipped a thumb into the waistband of his own pants, pulling them down one inch, then another. "I prepped for you. I want you to fuck me," he said.

John slowed down, deliberate now, his entire body thrumming with yes, yes please, and he undid the buttons of his shirt, and took off his trousers and his pants, leaving everything on the floor: his clothes, yes, but his burdens, too, the whole, complicated, terrible mess of his life. He met Mark on the bed, kneeling in front of him, and kissed him, and helped him push his pants down to his knees, stroking his cock, kneading the thick muscle of his buttocks, his thighs.

Mark went down on his back, kicked his pants off the rest of the way, and pulled John down on top of him. John kissed him, as Mark lifted his knees, and John reached down to run his fingers over Mark's hole, finding it slick, and loose, and ready for him. He sat up again, took the bottle of lube from the bedside table, and poured some on himself, stroking his cock, needy, unable to wait a moment longer. He aligned himself, and pushed the tip inside, and Mark made a soft noise of encouragement.

He was careful. He always tried to be careful, but Mark was so open, and his face was flushed with pleasure, as he keened, and his head tilted back, and he said, "Fuck me, you furious whore," which made John laugh.

John slid all the way in, and gave himself up to the heaving, sighing body beneath him, and his own body's needs, which pressed him forward, as he rocked into Mark, the wet heat of him urging John on, hard as hell, and he rode Mark, pushing into him with everything he had, over and over.

Mark was shouting, high pitched and helpless, in a matter of moments, his orgasm hitting him hard, his cock slicking their bellies with come. John pounded into him, pressing Mark into the mattress, his entire body clenching as he found his release, and he filled Mark with every need he had, until he was empty, and finally still.

They rearranged themselves, and dealt with cleaning up, and moments later, they were settled back under the sheets, and John allowed Mark to hold him, his back up against Mark's chest, while Mark combed his fingers through John's hair.

John had missed this. It hadn't been that long, not in the grand scheme of things, but it felt like an eternity. He and Mark were a couple. Sherlock was something else, the love of his life that he would never have, that he'd finally managed to let go. He would never make peace with the fact that he'd had to, but maybe, eventually, he could let it rest.

Mark spoke to him, his voice lazy, quiet. "You ever want to give all this up, just get away from it all?"

John found himself smiling. "You mean like on a honeymoon?" Now that things had started to settle—and they had, he supposed—he could feel himself letting go of his resentment about that one secret. It was harmless enough. The kind of thing couples did for each other all the time.

"Still not telling you where we're going." Mark pinched John's ear. "I meant on more of a permanent basis. Maybe a change of career."

John was willing to entertain anything, in this moment. "What do you mean?"

"Well, I've been thinking, about you, and what you can do. Are you sure you're meant to be a doctor?"

"Pays the bills."

"More than one way to do that. I just wonder if maybe you should be doing something like Sherlock does. Freelance, you know? You can solve problems just as well as he can."

"No. I can't do what he does," John said. "I'm not that clever."

"Says you. Besides, there are other skill sets that are just as important as solving crimes. Sometimes people need other solutions to their problems."

John closed his eyes. It would be easy, to follow the drift of Mark's conversation, to think about anything besides what had happened earlier today. "You're saying I should be some kind of fixer?" He laughed at the idea. "A vigilante? Not really my style."

Mark's fingers rubbed John's temples. "I think you're capable of more than you own up to. I know you shot that man."

John grew very still. "What man?"

Mark's tone hadn't shifted in the slightest. He still sounded as if he were talking about the weather. "From your first case. That cabbie."

John sat up, and stared at Mark, speechless.

"It's something you never really get used to. That someone could have the power of life and death over someone else—but I'm glad whoever it was did it, because they undoubtedly saved Sherlock's life." Those were John's own words. Mark was quoting his blog. "I've never seen such an obvious fib. You killed him, and you and Sherlock covered it up."

John felt, as powerfully as if Mark had punched him in the gut, how profoundly he'd underestimated him. "How long have you known?"

"Since we met. I think I read your whole blog after we went out for drinks, that first time. You're amazing, you know?"

John laughed, a little. "Oh my God. Well." John felt a thousand things at once, as the initial panic at being found out subsided. A sharp vulnerability washed over him, along with a sudden plunging sensation, as if his feet had just landed on solid ground, after falling forever. He wasn't sure he liked it. "Doesn't mean I'm ready to launch a career. Those circumstances were particular."

"Aren't they always? Aren't circumstances always particular?"

John watched Mark's face, his placid expression, in the dim half light of the early autumn dusk. He looked like a bit of a stranger.

Then Mark smiled, and shrugged, and he was the man John had lived with for the last six months again. "Just saying, all this business about Moriarty's network, or whatever you call them, trying to get to Sherlock. You ever consider that you're the one they should be interested in? You're dangerous. You should own it."

The whole conversation had gotten too strange, too fast. John laughed, and looked down at the sheets, bunched around his waist. Played the affable fool. It was easier than acknowledging the fact that his heart was racing. "Now you're just trying to butter me up."

Mark's grin was lopsided. "Don't you think it might be, I don't know, more exciting than all this?"

"What, hanging out a shingle? Probably illegal solutions for intractable problems?"

Mark laughed. "That probably wouldn't be necessary. Not that I know anything about it, but it seems to me like the people we're talking about, if they do have an eye on you, they probably get in touch with you, rather than the other way around."

"You watch too many spy movies."

Mark shrugged. "Maybe."

John shifted uncomfortably, then forced himself to be still. He felt as though he'd been tricked into showing his hand, when he hadn't been aware he was playing cards at all. "I could never. That would put me on the side of the devils. The sort of people Sherlock works to catch."

Mark shrugged. "Really, if you think about it, we're all devils, aren't we?"

John squinted at him. "You're probably right." He settled back down against Mark's chest, and took Mark's hand, slipping into habit, rather than let his mind wander to all the places it wanted to go. He wondered if he should panic, deny everything. Ask Mark if he'd told anyone about the cabbie. He chose redirection. "What about you, though?"

"What do you mean?"

"What would you do? In this new exciting life of ours?"

Mark laughed. "Well, I'm pretty good with a skip code or two, as it turns out."

"True."

"And I don't know. I'm great with a racquet. That's got to be worth something."

John laughed. He felt unsteady, unsure of the drift of the conversation. It seemed to be a joke. An amusing fantasy, with a black truth at its core.

"You're a formidable man, John." Mark kissed the back of his neck.

"Yeah?" John retreated further into banter. It was easier than facing the implications of the discussion. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Marry the shit out of you."

Chapter Text

Like a rabbit out of a hat, John's head cleared in the first week of December. He simply woke up, the Monday morning after he'd tried to square things away with Sherlock, and felt like himself again. For a few moments, lying in bed that first, good day, he wondered if his conscience were really clear, and if he could, in fact, move forward with his life. Tentatively optimistic, he probed the edges of everything he'd been through, the situation with Mark, his feelings for Sherlock, but he could feel the ashes he still held in his heart, his bleak dissatisfaction with everything, and he knew that wasn't it.

He did feel better than he had, though, physically. He got his feet on the floor, and stood, and stretched, enjoying the fact that there was no trace of the dizziness that had dogged him since the early part of November. He wondered if he'd been dealing with some sort of neck strain, from the bonfire, that had perhaps impinged on a nerve. Maybe he'd been fighting some kind of low level virus.

The return of his energy was well timed, at least, since he and Mark were busier than ever with all the small details of the wedding—choosing flowers, deciding on a seating plan for the reception, the menu. They sent out formal invitations. Mark made his arrangements with a tailor; John dragged his heels on making his.

John didn't hear at all from Sherlock, in the days after his most recent visit to Baker Street, and Mark told him that he hadn't been in touch either, his expression wary, the first two times John asked. The third time, Mark took out his phone, and showed John his messenger. The last communication he'd had with Sherlock was on November 30th, the day John had asked him to be best man.

"So you haven't tried to talk to him?" Mark asked.

"No. I suppose this is the way it's going to be now." John could hear the bitter disappointment in his own voice. He could hardly ask for sympathy from the man he'd nearly cheated on.

"I'm so sorry, darling." Mark rubbed his back.

"Thanks, honey," he replied, his heart feeling charred.

***

On December 4th, a Wednesday, Anika sent John an email, a forwarded message from Sherlock.

Sherlock had sent her a detailed agenda for the entire wedding day, a list of fruit John did and didn't like, to be forwarded to the caterers, so those idiots don't ruin the dessert table for him, a set of observations about the minister's personal habits that might interfere with his ability to deliver an effective service, and suggestions for ensuring he remained in good trim. There was a cryptic note, appended to the end, which made John's heart squeeze in his chest: Don't worry about John's suit. It's taken care of.

Anika's comment on the message read: At least somebody in this wedding party knows what he's doing.

John read the whole thing more times than he could count, feeling an uncomfortable mix of emotions. It seemed that Sherlock was interested in the wedding, invested in making it work. John had no idea what to do with that fact. He missed Sherlock terribly, would give anything to see him, but there was still distance there, a profound, incongruous awkwardness he didn't know how to fix.

He wondered how he'd ended up in this place, forced to sit with the revelation, perpetually there, and perpetually dreadful, that he'd sabotaged his own life, fouled up the one thing he wanted most, first with his clumsy confession on the train carriage, and then by trying to put the whole broken mess back together with glue and string.

He should never have told Sherlock he was his best friend. It was the worst kind of half truth, a thin, pale shadow of what he held in his heart.

Meanwhile, John wore his life with Mark like a borrowed jumper. It was protection enough against the cold, he supposed. It would have to be. That had always been the point of it, from the very beginning. Just shelter. He faked enthusiasm for every decision they made. Mark seemed not to notice.

At the same time, there was a new, darker note to their interactions.

One night, the two of them went out for drinks with the nurses, sort of an impromptu engagement party, after work. Mark was positively sparkling, enjoying showing off for them, making even John laugh with his stories about his misspent youth, his time in foster care, and the year he'd spent in America as a teenager. At one point, he went to the bar to get them drinks, and when John turned to look for him, a few moments later, he saw him with his phone to his ear, talking rapidly into it, his expression serious.

"Don't know how you stand it," Jill said, leaning in to talk to John.

"What's that?"

"The way he's always on the phone, texting or talking. I mean, who talks on the phone any more? Besides him? We ride him about it all the time at the clinic. Doesn't interfere with his work, but still, every spare minute!" She shook her head.

"Oh," John said. "Yeah, well. He's not that bad at home."

He struggled to remember the last time he'd seen Mark so much as send a text. He seemed, lately, to be totally focused on John.

Mark didn't bring up the cabbie again, but John couldn't forget that he had done it.

He kept expecting himself to feel better about it. It was supposed to be a good thing, being known, being understood, but the more he thought about it, the less he was able to reconcile that conversation with what he and Mark had together, with who Mark was. The affable, extroverted nurse didn't seem compatible with the man who was not only at ease with what John had done, but seemed, somehow, to admire it. The fact of that conversation sat like a scab that John couldn't avoid picking.

Every time he reached for  it, though, he would remember the hole that sat in his own heart, the bleak contradiction he was living every day. He was with Mark, and he was in love with Sherlock. He could hardly ask what Mark had meant, hardly demand to see whatever dark current ran through him, because John was carrying his own secret, and he knew he couldn't defend himself on that account, if it came down to it.

The one saving grace in all of it, through the first third of the month, was that their routine went back to normal, or at least, as close as it could, with Christmas coming up, and the wedding. Mark spent weekend mornings at the gym once more, and added a couple of extra racquetball games to his routine during the week. He went out to run some errands on his own. (Secret wedding stuff. I want you to know I can still surprise you, John Watson.)

John assured him that he was taking care of his side of things, even though he wasn't. He planned to. He would.

***

On December 10th, a Tuesday, John had an appointment with a new patient, a young woman in her early twenties. She turned up in his office doorway wearing a stained bomber jacket, and smiled at him with uneven teeth. She cast a glance back into the lobby before stepping into the office and closing the door behind her, then slipped a business card out of her pocket, and put it down on John's desk.

He picked it up and studied it. Arthur Davies, Tailor, it said, along with a street address and a phone number. No email address. Old fashioned, John supposed.

"Read the back, Sir," she told him.

31 December 2013, 2:00 pm, it said, written by hand in an elegant, precise cursive script, with black fountain pen ink.

John smiled at the woman. He knew what this was. Sherlock had sent her. She was one of his homeless network.

"Thank you," he told her, feeling a thousand different things at once, and wondering how in the hell a tailor was going to make him a suit, when he hadn't been in for a fitting. He would find out, he supposed. An unfamiliar feeling moved through him, a warm, quiet affection for Sherlock, for everything he could do, for the fact that he cared, in his own way.

He asked the woman if she needed anything from him. "You're here for an appointment, technically. Might as well have a check up."

"Oh no, Sir," she told him, pulling herself up straight. "I'm fit as a fiddle. Just here for Mr. Holmes's sake."

He took twenty quid from his wallet and gave it to her. After she left, he sat at his desk for the fifteen minutes that remained before his next patient, fighting the thin, bright thread of longing that constricted his heart, and would pull him all the way to Baker Street, if he let it.

***

Later that week, Mark sat back in his chair after dinner, after they'd gone over the most recent RSVPs from their guest list. "I think we're ready," he said. "Not much left to do now." He smiled at John. "At least, I'm ready."

John watched him carefully. "I've done everything I need to."

"Really?"

"Yes."

Mark smiled at him, and looked at John tenderly. "Oh. I'm glad to hear it." His voice was low, and quiet, with a rough edge to it, like he was holding back some emotion that threatened to overwhelm him.

John reached out and held his hand. He felt the undertow of his life, pulling him out to sea once more, the same obligation he'd felt since Mark had first kissed him. Mark, after all, had helped John discover who he really was. John would honour that, do his best to make the wedding a good day, even though his heart could never be in it.

His life had become an interlocking series of puzzle pieces, more complicated than anything a gang of criminals could have planned for him. Thank God for Sherlock, and his tailor, he thought. Thank God for whatever might see him through the next couple of weeks.

***

On the Saturday before Christmas, John woke up alone, happy at the prospect of having the flat to himself. It was just after eight in the morning. He got up, and padded down to the kitchen, and wondered what he would do with his day. He sipped coffee and looked out into the back garden as the sun rose, catching a hint of blue sky outside. It was the first day of winter.

By nine o'clock he had pulled his bicycle out of the shed. He leaned it up against the back fence so he could clean the chain, and he thought, for the first time in a long while, about the security kit he'd installed. Carefully, he parted the vines that covered the lattice. The camera was still there.

He looked into its blind eye, knowing that it had long since stopped recording anything. All the concerns about the network, and the threat against his life, had amounted to nothing. His grand plans to defend himself had turned out to be completely unnecessary. He'd been so determined, so eager to grab onto something he could push against. But there hadn't been anything to fight at all.

The world wasn't always about white hats and black hats. It was murky and uncertain, and he'd been trying to get some control over it, pretending that he could solve everything with a few cameras. But the terrible mess he'd made had nothing to do with kidnapping and murder and life and death. It was about wanting, and not having, and having something else instead.

After working on the bike for a little while, John took it out. He rode slowly at first, testing his muscles for strength, and pushing himself, just until he started to feel winded. He stopped for a drink of water in a park close to the flat, watching the early sunlight illuminate the rough trunks of a group of ash trees, the dark bones of their bare branches reaching for the sky. He breathed in the cold air, and watched an elderly man settle on a park bench, a group of pigeons gathering at his feet as he took out a paper bag, and scattered seeds for them.

It would be Christmas in four days. John thought of Baker Street, and wondered if Sherlock would be putting out the fairy lights they'd used to decorate the flat, their one good Christmas together. He might have to go see for himself. Sherlock had been so funny, over the last three weeks, putting effort into the wedding, looking out for John, even though he hadn't once been in direct contact. It was such a backward way of showing that he cared, but John recognised it for what it was. He thought he did.

Half an hour later, he parked his bike in front of a used and antique bookseller's. He wandered inside, breathing in the dusty smell of the books, running his fingers along the spines.

The proprietor, an old woman with white hair sticking out in all directions, called out to him from the back of the shop. A sleek brown tabby with white socks wound itself around her feet. "Looking for something particular?"

John smiled at her. "Something for a—well." He stumbled over the word friend. "He's a scientist, sort of."

He arrived home sometime later with an 1879 edition of Pasteur's Studies on Fermentation tucked into his bike bag.

Mark was still out. John put the book on the kitchen table, fetched a pen, sat, and ran his hand across the worn leather cover. Just far enough beyond caring to second guess himself, he wrote,

Sherlock,

Merry Christmas.

With Love,

John.

He wrapped the book carefully, in excessively cheery paper, and hid it in his backpack again. When it was put away, he took a shower, hot water running over him as he covered his mouth with his hands, and wept as silently as he could.

***

John and Mark celebrated Christmas together, at home, just the two of them. At three in the afternoon, after their gifts to each other were opened, John stood at the kitchen counter, watching a thin, light snow dusting the back garden.

"Wonder if I should pop round to Baker Street," he said, keeping his tone light. He wanted to give Sherlock his present. If he couldn't see him on Christmas, then he didn't know when he could.

"Oh, Sherlock's not in." Mark came over to stand beside John, and put his arm around John's waist.

"Oh?" John pushed down the sudden anger threatening to rise to the surface. Mark hadn't mentioned being in touch with Sherlock again.

"Mrs. H." Mark squeezed John's hip. "I texted her a Merry Christmas. Neither of them are in. She's gone to see her sister, and he's off at some family do in the countryside. Won't be back for a couple of days."

John fought disappointment, even as he recognised that he should have been the one to talk to Mrs. Hudson.

He imagined Sherlock sitting in the corner of some cottage kitchen, his parents rattling away as they cooked dinner. They seemed like good people. Bothersome, in their way, like parents could be. They obviously cared about Sherlock, which was good enough for John.

He wondered if Mycroft would be there, and just like that, he was back in the memory of his and Sherlock's first case, the first night, and the moment he'd realised that Sherlock and Mycroft were brothers.

He's always been so resentful. You can imagine the Christmas dinners.

He laughed a little, and imagined the two of them bickering, and he wished, with everything he had, that he was there, instead of where he was.

Mark rubbed his back. "What's funny?"

"Oh nothing. Just family," he said. "Sounds like trouble."

Mark kissed his cheek. "Depends on the family."

John studied Mark's face in profile, as he looked out the window. Neither of them had grown up in good, safe homes. They'd both had their fair share of misery. Mark had responded by developing a highly polished personality, getting by on charisma and charm. John had sought adventure, and danger, to make him feel like he mattered in the world.

He'd thought, after Sherlock died, that the answer was to build something completely different, a safe haven of quiet domesticity. Something he could rely on. He'd tried to sink into this life with Mark. He'd leaned on it, harder than he should have. He'd wanted it to be enough.

As he stood at the counter, the sky darkened with clouds, and the snow began to fall thicker and faster. Mark opened the fridge, and pulled out ingredients for an early dinner, and all at once John understood something he hadn't before. No matter how reliable his life with Mark was, John couldn't rely on himself while he was in it. It wasn't what he needed, so he would always want to work against it.

That truth sat in his belly like a hard stone, all through the rest of the day. He imagined it would, for a long time, until he learned to reconcile himself to it.

***

Four days later, steeped in the aimlessness of the days between Christmas and New Year's, John left Mark asleep in their bed, and took himself out for an early morning bike ride.

The snow had melted immediately after Christmas, and the weather had turned a bit balmy. John rode through puddles in the gutter, pushing his speed, wondering what the next few days would bring.

Late the night before, he'd gotten an email from Greg, a half-arsed invitation to a stag do, on Thursday, two days before the wedding. Nothing fancy, nothing too embarrassing, just drinks at a pub. Reading between the lines, John sensed, without being sure, that Sherlock had delegated this particular task.

He wondered if Sherlock would show up. He remembered the outtakes from the birthday DVD Sherlock had made for him, the one that Greg had brought him. Sherlock didn't go in for parties. It wasn't his thing.

John was full of nerves, suddenly, at the prospect of seeing Sherlock again, even though it was all he wanted. He rode through the streets until he ran out of breath, until he was worn out and the muscles of his legs shook. He returned home, half resolved to break through his own resistance, get in touch with Sherlock, and push past all this awkwardness once and for all.

When he let himself inside, he found a note from Mark on the kitchen table.

Hey Love,

Got a call from some uni mates who heard through the grapevine about the wedding, and wanted to show me a last New Year's eve as a single lad. I hope you don't mind, darling, but I'm off to Scotland for the rest of hols. See you when I return. Should be New Year's Day. Stay safe, honey, and don't have too much fun.

Your near-future husband,

Mark.

John studied the note, rereading it. He waited for some kind of reaction: surprise, shock, some sort of disappointment.

Mark had certainly made a strange choice, leaving at this moment, with no prior warning, no hint that he was planning a trip. It was definitely odd, that he hadn't even waited until John came back from his ride, to tell him he was going. 

John had no recollection of any particularly close friends Mark had kept from his uni days, but then again, Mark's conversations were filled with a constant stream of friends' names that John had never bothered to track. There were too many. Mark was a popular man.

John read the note again, thinking that he should probably be at least a little bit upset.

Instead, he felt a minor note of annoyance at the jokey tone, the pet name banter that Mark seemed to think was hilarious, but which John had never quite taken to. Slowly, gingerly, he put the note back down on the table, stood up, and went upstairs.

A quarter of an hour later, he was showered and changed into jeans, one of his better plaid shirts, and a maroon jumper. He went downstairs, and put on his shoes and coat. He paused in the front hallway, took out his phone, thumbed through a disused menu option, and used the flat's wifi to download email from Sherlock's professional account. He hadn't dipped into it for more than two years. The inbox was bursting, full of hundreds of messages asking for Sherlock's help. He smiled down at the screen. The prospect of being helpful again, of helping Sherlock with a case, filled him with a sense of hope he didn't deserve.

Finally he left the flat, the book he'd bought for Sherlock tucked under his arm. While he rode the tube, he scrolled through Sherlock's email until he found a case that felt just right, a request for help sent by a man called Stephen Bainbridge.

His stomach churned, as he emerged onto the street outside of Baker Street Station, hope burning through his gut at the prospect of seeing Sherlock again.

A few minutes later, he let himself in through the front door at 221B. The sound of Sherlock's violin filtered down the stairs, a high, sweet tune in three quarter time, something John didn't recognise. He eased the door shut, hoping that Sherlock wouldn't stop playing, that he hadn't heard John come in.

I think he's writing it for you. You know, deep down, he really is a romantic.

Pausing at the bottom of the stairs, John closed his eyes, waiting for the tune to finish, each note setting off a sympathetic song in his heart, his blood: I love you. I always have. I always did.

When the last note sounded, he climbed the stairs. The door was open. Seeing Sherlock silhouetted against the window, looking out into the street, in black trousers and purple shirt, made John feel like nothing so much as a suitor. He knocked softly on the doorframe.

"John." Sherlock's voice held quiet surprise. "What are you doing here?"

John took a step inside. "It's all right, isn't it?"

Sherlock blinked. "Yes, of course. Still safe, as far as I can tell."

"No news then?"

"No." Sherlock smiled shyly as he studied John from under the curls that fell down over his forehead. He'd let his hair grow a bit long.

John felt the same sensation of his heart expanding, and catching fire, as he had before. That, he was certain, would never change, even if the last month, of separation, of receiving small, considerate favours he didn't deserve, had allowed something new to come in, something softer, and quieter, that he couldn't quite name. He took another step forward. "Bit of a letdown, that."

Sherlock frowned down at the carpet, eyebrows raised, considering. "Yes," he said, as if agreeing that the weather had turned bad. "It's frustrating. No clear answers, no resolution."

"I know just what you mean."

Sherlock's gaze lingered on John for a long moment before he spoke. "I'm surprised you're here. Thought you'd be busy. Wedding coming up and all." He was still holding his bow and violin. He placed them back in their case, which was balanced across the arms of his chair, and closed the lid.

John held up the present he'd brought, the book, in its covering of bright paper. "For you." He moved to the desk, and put it down on the corner.

"Oh." Sherlock made no move to open it in front of him. Probably for the best. He could unwrap it later, when John wouldn't be here to watch him read the inscription, and second guess himself for using the word love.

"Thank you for the tailor."

"Of course."

"You're sure I don't have to go in before the final fitting?"

Sherlock glanced at John, then back down at the floor. "No. I'm quite sure I gave him your correct measurements."

John laughed, a little, for lack of anything better to do, feeling his face flush, avoiding asking the obvious questions. Sherlock knew everything about him. Of course he did. Their lives had always been entangled. He didn't feel the embarrassment he imagined he would. There was no shame in this. Just a slowly unfurling, and very welcome, and probably inappropriate relief.

"Have you been busy?" John asked.

"Oh, a little," Sherlock said, his gaze moving to the wall above the sofa.

John followed it, wondering what elaborate plot Sherlock was working on now, without him. The wall was covered in scrawled notes and schematic drawings. "New case?"

"After a fashion."

"Do you mind?" He stepped closer to the wall. It was time he caught up to speed.

Sherlock shrugged. "By all means."

As John took another step, he recognised an older photo of himself, and one of Mark. The sketch closest to him was a layout plan, familiar because he'd spent the better part of two evenings studying it: the reception hall.

He was looking at plans for his own wedding. He took a closer look, holding his breath as he read.

He'd understood, from Anika's email, that Sherlock was involved with the planning, but he'd never imagined he would go this far. His world tilted as he read a series of post it notes with single questions on them:

Boutonnière: matching?

John's and Sherlock's (best man)?

Mark's and John's (couple)?

An answer, appended on another post-it:

Research suggests contrast for M & J, match for J & S.

"Oh," John said, not knowing what he was saying. "You've—"

The notes ran on, revealing incredible levels of detail and consideration. John's chest clenched at one of them:

Contact James Sholto re: RSVP?

And another:

Harry says will attend. Open bar?

Appended below that:

Assign attractive woman to watch her. Molly Hooper? Sally Donovan not attending.

On a separate area of the wall, he found a note that rung him like a bell, high alarm clanging through him as he realised, for the first time, the full implications of asking Sherlock to be in the wedding party.

Best Man Speech: DURATION??

Below, in very small handwriting, barely legible through an attempt to scribble it out:

(endless)

John's heart swelled, as he fought an inner war with himself. He turned and looked at Sherlock, who was frowning at him, as if waiting for some sign that John would find fault with what he'd done. As if he could. In the end, feeling the full force of all of his own resistance to the wedding, to his relationship with Mark, and to the entire direction his life was taking, John tapped the note about the best man speech with his knuckle.

"Yeah, we're not doing that."

Sherlock stepped forward, saw what John was pointing to, and took a deep breath. "I've already written it."

John looked at him, the magnificent, profoundly humane, and antisocial man who owned his heart, and he saw the truth. "No you haven't."

"No, I haven't." Sherlock looked over at the desk, and John saw a yellow legal pad with notes scrawled on it, and several torn and crumpled pages beside it.

"You're not doing it."

Sherlock inhaled sharply, watching John carefully. "I understand. You want to impress your friends. No illusions shattered. You're afraid of what I might say."

John smiled, and he felt everything for Sherlock, love and care and understanding. "No. I know it would be torture for you, Sherlock. I'm not putting you through that."

"I could do it, though."

"No."

"It's traditional."

"You don't want to."

Sherlock looked at the floor, at his own hands, then back at John, the hint of a smile quirking the corner of his mouth.

John would do anything he could, to make it leap into life. "You don't."

"No I don't," Sherlock said. The smile didn't quite manifest, but he chuckled, low in his throat.

"So don't," John told him, feeling as though he should be talking to himself, feeling like maybe he was. The mere presence of Sherlock, here in the same room with him, loaned him a clarity of purpose he'd been certain he'd lost.

He took a deep breath, and let it out again slowly, more nervous for what he was about to ask than he had been when he proposed to Mark. "Look, Mark's away for a few days, some sort of bachelor party trip thing."

Sherlock's brow furrowed, as if he were surprised by the information. "Ah. I see."

"So, since it's safe, since things seem to have settled down, I was wondering if I could join you on a case. It's been too long."

"Are you sure? Now?" Sherlock's gaze drifted toward the wall.

John looked at it, and laughed a little at the elaborate plans for his own wedding, occupying the space Sherlock usually reserved for the thornier of his cases. It was his life. And a crime.

"I've never been more certain of anything." He took out his phone, opened the email he'd found earlier, and handed it over to Sherlock, so he could read it for himself. "I think I've got just the one."

***

Within the hour, John and Sherlock were sitting together on a park bench facing the gates of Buckingham Palace, waiting for Private Stephen Bainbridge, member of the Queen's guard, and their new client, to finish sentry duty. The air was sharp and cold, the winter sunlight weak, but welcome. Sherlock's complexion had taken on a hint of pink, a bit of his old vigour returning, John hoped.

Across the street, Bainbridge stood, completely rigid and still, his face handsome beneath the tall hat of his uniform. His letter had been more than enough to convince John that his case was worth their efforts. After Sherlock had read it, he'd agreed.

My name is Bainbridge. I'm a Private in Her Majesty's Household Guard. I'm writing to you about a personal matter—one I don't care to bring before my superiors. It would sound so trivial. But I think someone is stalking me. I'm used to tourists. It's part of the job. But this is different. Someone's watching me. He's taking pictures of me. Every day. I don't want to mention it to the Colonel. But it's really preying on my mind. I've read about you and I know this sort of thing wouldn't interest the police. 

Bainbridge's story had affected John. He understood too well how being in the military could make a man feel vulnerable, especially if he had something about him that made him different. He found, as he sat with Sherlock beside him, that he wanted him to understand. "Thank you for taking this case," he said.

"You're—welcome." Sherlock seemed to be trying polite discourse on for size. His tone suggested it was too small, heavy, and excessively scratchy.

The tenderness that built in John, that had been building in him all day, was almost too much. Sherlock stood so opposed to everything that was nice for the sake of being nice, and yet, here they were, at thank you and you're welcome, at wedding plans and small favours.

"I'm serious. If Bainbridge brought something like this to his superiors, they might think he needed a psychological evaluation. As a soldier, you're supposed to be tough. I really don't think anyone is going to listen to him, except us."

Across the street, a group of young women arranged themselves around Bainbridge. One of them stepped out in front of the group, and took some pictures. Bainbridge stood as still as he was supposed to. The whole thing seemed like an exercise in masochism, but then again, that was the army, John thought, remembering his own training fondly.

"Collecting a stalker somehow viewed as a sign of weakness," Sherlock said. "Strange."

"Well, the army's a strange place. The things you have to do, the way you have to work with people. It depends on forming very deep bonds, of a very specific kind, and leaving other stuff out." Friendship was fine. Camaraderie encouraged. Not more. Not love.

A long silence spun out between them. Sherlock shifted on the bench beside John. More tourists filed past Bainbridge, briefly blocking their view of him: a few families on holiday, a group of uni boys. Harmless enough.

Sherlock's voice was hushed as he spoke. "Did you have feelings for men, when you were in the army?"

Jesus. John held very still, trying not to react. He'd wanted this, wanted badly to talk about himself, just like this, so many times, he couldn't quite believe it was happening. His chest clenched, and then everything expanded, his spirit rallying after weeks of thinking he would never feel anything again. He was ready for this, he realised. Beyond ready.

Sherlock had a right to know. He had a right to ask, and John wanted to tell him.  

He took his time, waiting for the shock to settle down, for the right words to come. "I suppose I did. I didn't recognise what those feelings were, though. I always—" he hesitated. The conversation was suddenly touching on everything he'd blurted out in the train carriage. He took a deep breath. "For as long as I can remember, I always liked spending time with men more than with women. I thought of those relationships as friendships. Very close friendships. I didn't think they could be anything more."

The moment threatened to fracture, to pull apart, as they sat in silence, Sherlock thinking whatever it was he was thinking, and John fighting to stay on the bench beside him.

"Major Sholto."

"What?"

"Major Sholto."

John struggled with the urge, old, and habitual, to cover everything up. No one knew about him and Sholto. Fundamentally, there was nothing to know, except the way John had felt about him. Still, that wasn't nothing. At the time, it had meant a lot. It still did. It was part of John's history, which had been covered up for too long. It was time to bring it into the light.

He sat up, and cleared his throat. "Yes. How did you know?"

"You invited four of your former army colleagues to the wedding, three of whom have replied to say that they're coming, leaving Major Sholto the odd one out. He lives three hours from London, so he could easily attend, but he never responded to your initial email. No response to the formal invitation, either, according to Anika. You sent a repeat email message four days ago. And you spent a night searching online for an alternative means of reaching him."

John laughed. He hadn't seen Sherlock in weeks, and yet, Sherlock seemed to know everything about what he'd been doing, everything he'd done.

"You've been spying on me."

"Spying is such a strong word. Occasionally looking at the reports of the keystroke logging software I installed on your computer ages ago. You really should get a new laptop."

"I might just do that." John smiled, despite the total invasion of his privacy. Because of it. He hadn't stopped thinking about Sherlock at any point in the last few weeks. It seemed that maybe Sherlock had been thinking about him as well.

He had an answer now, too, for the post-it note with the question about Sholto he'd seen on Sherlock's crime wall. 

John closed his eyes, as he remembered long evenings spent in Sholto's room, when he'd served under him in Afghanistan. Meetings that turned into drinking sessions. Personal conversations that turned flirtatious. In retrospect, he could probably have kissed Sholto. Probably could have made love to him, in some fumbling, inexpert way. Knowing what John knew now, there had been signs, perhaps. Maybe Sholto had wanted him. Maybe he'd been just as inexperienced as John, just as full of self-loathing, just as closeted.

"Sholto and I were close. Yes."

"I—see." Sherlock spoke the words deliberately. Slowly. They sounded like two separate sentences.

John wanted him to understand, wanted to be perfectly clear. "Close, but not—no."

"Oh." Sherlock shifted on the bench, as if he were suddenly uncomfortable. "Why?" He spoke the question quietly. Shyly.

This was the new Sherlock, John realised, the one who showed vulnerability sometimes, the same man he'd seen that first day, in the Landmark, and again at 221B, when they'd first spoken to each other. John had barely recognised him, hadn't paid enough attention. He would speak deliberately now. Acknowledge what he was seeing.

The question Sherlock had asked was loaded, John realised, potentially fraught with meaning. They weren't just talking about John's time in the army. They were talking about John's whole life, which had been marked by a series of missed opportunities.

Maybe, John dared to hope, as rough emotion gripped him, they were talking about Baker Street as well, about the two of them. John hadn't imagined Sherlock would ever want to open that topic again, not after the train carriage. His heart pounded in his chest. He stared straight ahead, looking across the street at Bainbridge, who seemed to be doing fine.

"I think—" John started. This was important. He needed to get it right. He never knew when they would have the chance to talk again, or if Sherlock would shut things down. "I could say that I was embarrassed, that I wanted more than friendship, from a man. Or I could say that I was afraid of having to change the way I thought of myself." He took a deep breath. "But that's all rubbish, really. I think, when it comes down to it, I believed I didn't deserve it."

Sherlock sat up, as if he were ready to rise to his feet. Another long silence. When he spoke, his voice was deep, and strained. "And how did you know, later? That you did deserve it?" He added a quiet, defeated coda: "With Mark, I mean."

John thought about the process he'd gone through, thanks to Mark's careful attention, of giving in to what he wanted, of clinging to the one thing that might make him happy. In the end, he'd been too tired to resist any more. He'd let go, and the world had opened up to him in a whole new way.

At the same time, hope tore through him like a sharp blade, as he scrambled through the implications of Sherlock's question. Sherlock had sounded just like a man asking for advice: how did you know?

His mind spun through a thousand possibilities, a thousand cruel and thoughtless reasons why Sherlock would ask this particular question, but hope settled him on one explanation, that could, perhaps, mean everything. Maybe Sherlock hadn't responded to John's advances because he'd been just as paralysed as John had been, before. Maybe he hadn't accepted John, because he couldn't. Not then. Not yet.   

John had been an absolute idiot.

Some movement across the street caught John's eye, as he grappled with himself, trying to find some way to answer Sherlock, because he had to. He must. He tried to speak, unsure of what he would say. "Well, I—"

A man had approached Bainbridge. Young, a bit greasy looking, in a heavy grey jacket, and a black ball cap. He took a picture of Bainbridge with his phone, a close-up, right in his face, and then shuffled in for a selfie. Uncomfortably close. Pressing his side up to Bainbridge's.

John was on his feet, and tearing off across the road, Sherlock following close on his heels. The man was holding up his camera, and sliding his arm around behind Bainbridge. Too close. Much too close.

"Stephen!" John shouted. "Stephen! Watch out!"

Bainbridge's gaze shifted to John, and he took a step toward him, breaking his military pose, eyes wide with fear.

The man in the grey jacket took one look at John and bolted, pushing through a group of people just coming off a tour bus. John followed, weaving through the crowd, finally getting close enough to grab the back of the man's jacket. He kicked him, hard, in the back of his knee, collapsing his leg. The man stumbled, and sprawled on the pavement, his phone skittering across the concrete, as he shouted that John had stabbed him.

Sherlock and Bainbridge caught up to them, breathless.

"Hi, Stephen. Sherlock Holmes. And John Watson," Sherlock said. He was staring at John incredulously, something beautiful and tender shining out through his eyes. "John Watson, who I think just saved your life."

"Is this him?" John asked.

Bainbridge looked terrified. "Yes, Sir. I think so. I could never get a good look at him. Have to keep my eyes straight ahead, when I'm on duty."

The assailant writhed and moaned under John's knee, which he'd planted in the small of the man's back. "I'm hurt. You cut me," he complained. A blossom of blood spread across his jacket sleeve.

Behind them, a few palace guards, and some men in standard khaki military uniforms, had formed a small crowd. A quick search of the assailant revealed a thin skewer, sharpened to a narrow point, hidden up his sleeve, which had stabbed his wrist when John pushed him down.

The rest of the afternoon was taken up with sorting things out with the police. The assailant, whose name was Jonathan Small, was all too happy to reveal his plan. He'd intended to stab Bainbridge with the skewer, through his uniform belt, an injury that would cause him to bleed out, after Bainbridge took the belt off.

The whole thing was a sort of rehearsal of a plan to assassinate James Sholto, of all people. Small's brother had been one of several raw recruits that Sholto had been responsible for training, and who had ended up killed in a firefight with the enemy, their first time out in the field.

Small had arranged to be at John's wedding, under the assumption that Sholto would be there. A call to Anika revealed that she had hired Small as part of a package deal, through the reception venue. He was going to be the photographer.

He was certainly interested in taking photographs: he had loads of pictures on his phone. There were lots of Bainbridge, and also of Sholto, of his secluded property out in the country, and of the members of his staff, coming and going. He'd done his research, Jonathan Small. He'd planned carefully.

John and Sherlock had stopped him. John felt a sense of new optimism, as they worked through the details of the case with the Met. The two of them were a team again. It wasn't just that, though, that had John feeling as if the clouds had lifted: it was everything they'd said that afternoon.

After it was all over, they walked back toward Baker Street, making their way slowly past the posh apartment buildings along Chesterfield Hill. Sherlock strolled with his hands clasped behind his back, in no hurry, apparently, to get back home. His whole demeanour was calmer than it had been, back at the flat, or at any time John had seen him, since his return. He seemed to glow, a bit, his smile warm, as he glanced at John, his cheeks flushed with the cold.

"I don't understand," John told him. "I don't want to sound like an egotist, but is everything about me? How could this random case from your email inbox end up being about my previous commander?"

"Previous?" Sherlock's rich baritone, thick with implication, rolled up John's spinal column like a series of warm, wet kisses. "Previous sounds like you still have a commander."

"Ex." John frowned, and broke into a nervous giggle. That wasn't much different. Maybe he meant it. "Besides, maybe I do still have a commander, after a fashion. Maybe I'm not ready to give up the idea of having one yet."

Sherlock turned his head to watch a black cat, which hurried across the top of a brick wall. The cat jumped effortlessly onto the windowsill of a ground floor flat, and yowled to demand entrance. "That's—good, I suppose." When he faced forward again, he was looking down at the pavement, a soft smile on his lips.

Flirting. Warmth bloomed in John's chest. Perhaps nothing was as bad as he'd thought. Not hopeless. Just difficult.

He could live with difficult.

"What I'm trying to ask is, do you think this Jonathan Small fellow is connected to bonfire night at all?"

"I don't think so. It certainly seems that he had his own private vendetta. No need to add any extra layers to either conspiracy, which I think we should agree are over."

They passed along the east side of Portman Square, with its looming trees, branches bare against the late afternoon sky. The sun was going down.

John cleared his throat. He didn't want to give up on the conversation they'd had going earlier, about him and Sholto. About him and men. If there was anything Sherlock needed to say or ask, anything at all, he wanted him to have the opportunity. He wanted to have the chance to speak to it, himself. "Well, Small wouldn't have stood a chance with that plan of his. I don't think Sholto would attend the wedding."

Sherlock hitched in his steps, as though his body were momentarily frozen, then carried on walking. If he hadn't been paying such close attention, John might have missed it.

He'd forgotten, in all the excitement, what the wedding would mean for him, and Sherlock, and the tiny, fragile potentials that he'd felt growing between them, all through the afternoon.

He wished he could take it back.

"Why not?" Sherlock asked. "Why wouldn't he attend?"

John's chest squeezed painfully. "He might, still. I don't know. But I feel as though there's probably a reason why he didn't get back to me, since I told him about—everything that's happened." Say it, he coached himself. "Since I came out to him. I think it might be too much for him. He was pretending we were just friends, back then, in the army, just as much as I was. If I'm with a man now, then it would mean that he and I could have been more, too."

He was rambling, but he couldn't shut up. He had questions, and he was full of hope, and if there was any chance that he was right about Sherlock's hesitation, well. He would say anything. He would wait as long as it took to get an answer. "Maybe he didn't want anything at all, beyond friendship," he said, because he felt he had to. It was selfish, not to allow for all possibilities. "Maybe it's become awkward somehow. I don't know. I can't speak for him."

Sherlock walked beside him, his steps slow and deliberate. "You couldn't tell? If he wanted more?"

It was John's turn to stop. He looked up at the band of sky that was visible above the glass-fronted buildings that lined either side of the south end of Baker Street. It was getting dark, the sky glowing the eerie, dirty orange of urban light pollution, reflected from low clouds. It looked like it was going to snow.

Sherlock stopped on the street ahead of him, and looked over his shoulder. The expression on his face was neutral. Cautious, maybe. Maybe curious.

"No." John said. "I didn't know what I wanted, or at least, I didn't think I could have it. How could I know what he was thinking?"

The corner of Sherlock's mouth twitched up, and the line between his brows softened. "Indeed, John."

The two of them walked on toward 221B, in silence, as hope bloomed savagely in John's chest, a new, brighter, more durable flame. The idea had never occurred to him, in the old days, that Sherlock might have been just as unsure as John was, about what he wanted, about what John wanted. Sherlock had always seemed so certain of everything.

John had made so many assumptions, about how Sherlock would be, about how Sherlock's bluster and drama would translate into a romantic relationship, into sex.

Maybe they'd both been confused. Like John, maybe Sherlock thought he didn't deserve to be loved, to have whatever they could have, between them. The very idea made John long to pull Sherlock into his arms, to offer all the assurances he held in the space of his compact body. A great many. Too many to number.

When they reached Sherlock's door, John paused on the threshold.

He had a feeling, steady, and more sure than any he'd had about Sherlock before, that something was there, between them. It would be up to the two of them to see. He understood, now, that everything he'd done was backwards, and selfish. He should never have imagined Sherlock would step forward, when John was committed to someone else, about to be married to someone else. He couldn't expect it now.

The tender, open feeling, that everything he'd felt for Sherlock was right, and true, was worth everything John could give, every sacrifice. If he truly wanted Sherlock, he would have to give him space, and time, and care. He would have to make up his mind, and do things the right way, the way people did when they were in control of their lives. Definitively. With compassion, if he could manage it.  

He knew, with absolute certainty, that he was done fumbling about in the dark.

There wasn't a lot of time before the wedding—days, mere days—but it was enough time to stop it. Enough time to start to fix the mistakes of the past.

Sherlock was watching him, his gaze contemplative, and maybe a bit worried. John waited, certain that everything he felt was shining out through his eyes. If Sherlock needed to speak, he would wait. He would wait all night. For the rest of his life.

There, on the front stoop at Baker Street, out on the pavement, for anyone to see, Sherlock opened his arms. His hands shook a little, and his eyebrows quirked together, and he inhaled through his mouth, and he held his breath.  

John made a small sound in the back of his throat, and stepped into Sherlock's embrace. There, out on the pavement, for anyone to see, the two of them held each other for a second, and another, and another, and John closed his eyes, as his whole body softened against Sherlock's, as the two of them sealed the adventure of the day, and the quiet conversation they'd just had, with the simplest, and most hard won, of gestures.

John let go first, his face flushed. He took a step back. There would be time for more, later, when John had sorted out his life, when he was ready to do things properly. Sherlock smiled down at the pavement. Silently, he turned and unlocked the door, stepped inside, and closed it behind him, leaving John alone.

John floated, more than walked, as he made his way to the tube station, as he made his way back to the flat, to the home that wasn't home, to the place he hoped, someday soon, he would finally leave behind.

Chapter Text

At home, John removed his coat and shoes, and paced the length of the living room, hopes high, heart singing. He hardly knew what to do with himself, now that he was alone. The details of persisting in time—food, water, rest—seemed completely secondary to the high, sweet notes that played in his blood, the music of everything he felt for Sherlock. It sustained him with hope, and the sure knowledge that soon, the two of them would move forward together.

Sherlock hadn't said anything yet, not really, but John had spent the entire trip home wondering how things would unfold between them, the next time they met, and the next, once he was free.

Whatever he had to do, he'd resolved that nothing would rush them. He would allow Sherlock to move at his own pace, however that might work for him, whatever it might mean. They would figure it out together. He felt a stirring, warm and delicate, of a deeper, more subtle love than he'd known was possible. It wasn't just passion he felt for Sherlock. It was kindness, a complete willingness to give him whatever he needed.

The trip home had involved some difficult moments, too, as John worked through the implications of the way he'd thrown himself at Sherlock in the train carriage, how he'd expected him to ignore the facts of John's life, his relationship with another man. He understood, now, that he'd had a vague, completely unfair idea that somehow Sherlock would make his decisions for him. He'd wanted Sherlock to overwhelm him, drag him out of his life with Mark. He hadn't wanted to take responsibility for himself.

Sherlock, it seemed, could still completely surprise him. Not by sweeping in and taking him by storm, but through letting him go, giving him over to what he seemed to imagine would make John happy. John smiled fondly, as he rubbed his fingers through his hair, and thought about Sherlock's arms around him, Sherlock's cheek coming to rest on the top of his head, as they'd held each other on Baker Street. As if anything except Sherlock could ever make John happy.

He'd thought about Sherlock's tentative question, about how John had known he deserved to have something good in his life, and the implication that Sherlock didn't feel that way himself. In his mind, in his heart, all the way home, John had compiled a list, ridiculously long, of all the reasons why Sherlock deserved to be loved, all the reasons why John loved him. He aimed to leave no ambiguity between them, about any of it, once he'd ended things with Mark.

Dizzy with hope, unable to settle down, he wandered into the kitchen, where Mark's note sat on the table, looking like an invitation to reconsider everything they'd been to each other. John picked it up and read it again, his whole nervous system jangling, impatient.

See you when I return. Should be New Year's Day.

Three days seemed like a long time to wait, now that John had made up his mind about leaving. He indulged in a fantasy, brief, and sweet, and wrong, of packing his things, going back to Baker Street immediately, and leaving a note of his own for Mark to find.

He could never be that petty, even though he could already feel himself straining at the confines of time and circumstance.

Now, pacing the kitchen, looking at the carefully neutral beige paint he and Mark had chosen together, he folded Mark's note in half, pulling it between his finger and thumb to make a sharp crease. He'd been stuck for so long, in thinking that he owed Mark, because Mark had been there when he'd been at his lowest. He supposed he probably would always be grateful to him, for knowing what John had needed, and for seeing the shape of John's desire, when John couldn't see it for himself.

He regarded his former self with a mix of pity and self loathing. He'd been so needy, so willing to go ahead with anything on the off chance that it would make him feel something positive again. But it had never been love. He and Mark had never so much as said the words. For all that they'd shared a bed and shared their bodies and tangled their lives together, John had never said I love you, and Mark had never, either. It wasn't them. It wasn't how they spoke to each other.

Now that John was thinking about it, it seemed like a terribly obvious gap in everything they'd built, a tell that gave the whole game away. And yet, he'd been willing to overlook it, to marry Mark, to build a life for himself that would never fit. He supposed that the problems with their relationship had hidden in plain sight, obscured by the fact that Mark had been so patient, in the beginning, and John had been so willing to accept his attention, take whatever he was offering. He'd never considered that maybe it was all a bit strange.

John had to wonder what was in it for Mark, standing by John's side all these months, while John mourned for Sherlock, while he failed to sort himself out. It couldn't have been fun. John had never managed to be a good partner. He couldn't imagine what would motivate Mark to stick with him, especially now that Sherlock was back.

Maybe this trip to Scotland was a good indicator of Mark's state of mind. Maybe there was something more behind it.

They weren't okay. Perhaps they never had been.

He set the folded note aside. When Mark returned, they would have a proper talk. There would be logistics, afterward. People to contact. A wedding to cancel.

He imagined Anika's response, imagined her shaking her head as she picked up the phone and did John's dirty work for him. His heart fluttered in his chest, as he imagined Sherlock's reaction, imagined going to Baker Street and helping him take every damn piece of paper down from his crime wall. And what might happen then.

Restless, full of tentative excitement for the future, he moved to the sink, took a glass down from the cupboard, and turned on the faucet, waiting for the water to run fresh and cold.

His phone pinged: a text alert. He pulled it out of his pocket.

You're home? -SH

John smiled down at the screen, his heart expanding painfully in his chest. It wasn't much, just a simple text, but it meant everything. He replied:

Yes.

Good. I'm glad. All right? -SH

I'm fine.

He was better than fine. He was clear in his intentions, his mind made up, his spirit willing.

He added:

Thank you for asking. You can always ask me. Or text anytime. For any reason.

Okay. I will. -SH

John filled his water glass and drank deeply, thinking about how jealous he'd been, when Mark told him that he and Sherlock exchanged texts frequently. Sherlock had been checking up on John then, as well. Wanting to include Mark in their dynamic, perhaps. Wanting to make sure he wasn't standing in the way, wasn't ruining things for John's relationship.

All this time, John had imagined that Sherlock was keeping himself separate from John because he was cold and unfeeling. Instead, he'd thrown himself into planning for the wedding. He'd tried to keep himself in John's life in the best way he could, given the circumstances, by being a supportive friend.

John scrubbed at his face, something small and warm crumpling inside him. Sherlock should never have been made to feel like he was second.

He stared at his phone, tempted, again, to invite himself back to Baker Street.

No.

If he were going to do this, if he were really going to woo Sherlock Holmes, he needed to tread carefully. He couldn't talk to Sherlock about anything, until he'd sorted things out with Mark, until he was free to follow through without guilt, without compromise.

With a sudden jolt of clarity, of inspiration, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his evening. He wrote:

If it's all right with you, I'd like to write up the case. Blog's been a bit neglected lately. I figure you said it's safe now.

Safe as it's ever been. You caught Small, John. I only had the privilege of watching you do it. You've earned bragging rights. -SH

John's heart was ready to burst out of his chest, pride and love mingling in him as he typed a response.

Might just brag a bit then.

I'll look forward to reading. -SH

John smiled down at the phone, imagining Sherlock's voice, saying those words. He'd always been critical of the blog, before. Things really had changed.

"Just you wait," he said, his voice a warm, husky rumble in his chest.

***

A couple of hours later, John leaned back in his chair at the kitchen table, the remains of a rudimentary dinner on a plate to his left, laptop screen glowing in the darkened room as he read the case write-up one last time before posting. He wondered what Sherlock would make of it.

The Creeping Man

It isn't often that Sherlock and I get to solve a case and catch a criminal all in the space of a few minutes, but that's what happened this afternoon. If I do say so myself, for once I had a key role to play. This time, the solution didn't involve one of Sherlock's genius deductions or brilliant solutions, but just a little observation on my part, and a run and tackle.

Most important of all, it seems we prevented two murders today.

It all started with a letter from Private Bainbridge, one of the Queen's guardsmen. Bainbridge said he thought he was being stalked by a man who'd been taking pictures of him every day, but he didn't feel it was a problem he could bring to his superior officers, or to the police.

John stood up before he read the next part, went to the refrigerator, and fetched himself a bottle of beer. He opened it, took a long drink, then sat back down, nerves singing with the warmth of the memory of the day.

I understood Bainbridge's problem. As a former military man myself, I'm well aware of the brave face you have to put on, and of the sorts of things that you'll be harassed for thinking or believing, or being, for that matter. Because of certain changes that have happened in my life, I've grown much more sensitive to the struggles of other men. At least, I think I have.

It was as close to a public statement about his orientation as John thought he would manage. He didn't feel the need to announce himself to the world, but he did want Sherlock to understand that he wasn't ashamed of himself, that he would be comfortable talking about who he was, openly. If things worked out the way he wanted them to, he supposed they would become a couple in the eyes of the public, too. For real, this time.

He continued reading.

I brought Bainbridge's case to Sherlock because I thought it was important. Turns out my instincts were right, for once.

When Sherlock and I arrived at Buckingham Palace, Bainbridge was still on duty. We sat ourselves down on a park bench across from his post, to wait for him to be finished so we could interview him.

I have to say, having Sherlock back, and working on a case with him again, was more wonderful than I think I can express, but I'm going to try. When he was away, I spent a lot of time dreaming about him coming back, somehow returning from the dead. It's not every day you get that kind of gift from the world. It's incredible, just being able to sit and talk with him, even through the boring bits of a case, like the part where we wait for something to happen. Even that was amazing, and brilliant. I'm very lucky, and I won't forget that.

John took another sip of his beer. There was so much more he wanted to say, but it could wait. It was good—it was very good—to be able to say this much.

Sitting and talking didn't last long, today, unfortunately. Tourists invade the guardsmen's personal space all the time. It's sort of a game, seeing if they can disturb these men who aren't supposed to move. But, across the road, while Sherlock and I waited and watched, a man stepped right into Bainbridge's space, and was sort of pressing up against him. Given how scared Bainbridge was when he wrote to us, I was sure this was his stalker.

A short chase later, we'd caught him. Turns out he'd had plans to stab Bainbridge through his uniform, a sort of rehearsal for an assassination attempt on another public figure with a history of military service.

Sherlock assures me that I've earned bragging rights on this case, so I'll say it now: I'm pretty proud of myself. I saw what was going on, the fact that the man was taking advantage of Bainbridge's situation, and I was the one who stopped him. I'm glad to have had a role to play. I'm glad to have made a difference.

The incident with Bainbridge really had clarified for John how much he'd changed. He was able to see so much more than he had, in the old days. He resolved to trust himself going forward. Pay more attention to his instincts. Listen to himself.

He hit the publish button on the blog post, sat back in his chair, and wondered how Sherlock would feel when he read it. Perhaps he already had read it, via the keystroke monitoring software he'd installed. The idea of Sherlock, sitting at 221B and watching every mistake John made as he typed, every edit, made him smile.

He stood, and stretched, and went upstairs to bed, feeling better than he had for a long while.

***

John woke up the next morning to the sound of his text alert going off. He rolled over and grabbed his phone off the bedside table, then sprawled on his back under the covers, comfortably alone.

There were three messages from Mark in his notifications.

The first said: About to tuck in. It came with a picture attached, of a plate loaded with a full Scottish breakfast.

The second message read: Should help ease the wee bit of trouble we got into last night.

John smiled at the screen. Mark seemed to be doing just fine without him. He had friends. Lots of them. He was resilient. Once they'd sorted things out, he would recover, find someone else.

He scrolled to the third message, that had just come in a moment ago, at 7:58 am.

You'd better get control of your blog, ha ha. Your readers are getting the wrong impression, love.

John read the text again. A bit strange, that Mark would take the time to look at the blog during his boys' trip out of town, especially first thing in the morning.

The ha ha also gave John pause. Not Mark's usual style at all. He pulled on a pair of jeans, put his cardigan on over the t shirt he'd slept in, and went downstairs.  

In the kitchen, as he waited for his laptop to come out of sleep mode, a sinking feeling started up in the pit of his belly, a thin thread of vulnerability building to a high, obnoxious whine. He'd written about the case in a haze of love and optimism. He didn't think he had gone too far, but perhaps he had.

The post was still open in his browser. He hit refresh, fidgeting as he scrolled down to the comments section:

312 comments

A hell of a lot more than his usual eight or nine, fifty percent of which were almost always from Sherlock. He scrolled through them as he sat down, reading as quickly as he could.

The first few were all congratulations from mates.

Bill Murray had written: Way to go, Johnny boy! Still a hero I see.

From Greg Lestrade: Didn't even call me in on this one. I'm starting to feel like you don't need me any more. Congratulations.

There were more, along similar lines, from people he mostly knew, including one from Mark, time stamped 11:02 pm. He must have read the post last night, right after John had published it.

My man. We're going to need champers when I get back, to celebrate you!

John fought a brief flutter of guilt. It was followed by an abrupt plunging sensation, as if the floor had fallen out from under him, because after that, the comments changed.

Someone called tigercat72 had written: Wait a second. Are you finally admitting you're gay?

grumpussssss: that's exactly what i wanted to know

theimprobableone, who had always been more than a bit creepy on the blog, despite being occasionally useful: This is a puzzle we all want to solve isn't it? Ooh it is getting interesting now.

Jacob Sowersby: Sherlock Holmes always has his John Watson! This is the way we always knew it should be. More congratulations are in order! Wow!!!!1!!!

The next two dozen or so comments continued along the same track. John let his eyes flutter shut, and he rubbed his forehead, trying to understand why he hadn't seen this coming. Of course people would read into what he'd written. Almost everyone had assumed he and Sherlock were a couple, in the old days.

There were, predictably, some opposing viewpoints:

This is ridiculous. Can't two men be good friends without everyone saying they're gay for each other? This makes a travesty of Dr. Watson's very personal and sensitive post. EVER HEAR OF PLATONIC LOVE????

And underneath that, from a different username:

plato was gay

John scrolled past arguments and objections and complaints about what he'd written. There were declarations of support for whoever he was, and whatever he was, and whatever he and Sherlock were to each other.

Oh God. Sherlock.

Everything they'd said yesterday afternoon, on their way to Baker Street, was tender, personal, and private. And now, here was this public travesty. He'd made an utter shambles of everything.

He scrolled faster, skimming as quickly as he could to see if there was any word from Sherlock, hoping that for once, Sherlock hadn't seen the post, or hadn't chosen to comment.

His eye snagged on a familiar name: Harry Watson.

She'd left three comments in a row. A thin layer of sweat broke out across John's forehead as he read them.

Soooooo glad yu decided to come out. Guess I won't have to field any more awkward comments form friends. More than one of us in the family, hey? More the merrier.

Johnnny you should reallllllly have come clean about everything though

if these twats are goign this crazy over thinking you've got it bad for Sherlock, wait until they hear about the wedding hahajahahajaha

Harry. Drunk Harry. John scrolled down, more slowly now, through the rest of the comments, his stomach churning.

Most of the comments following Harry's were reactions to what she'd said.

Sherlock!!! JOHN!!!! TELL US!! When's the wedding?

Oh my GODDDDdddDDDD who proposed to who?

You two are going to be so handsome together I'm so happy for you both.

And then, from Sherlock: You are all wrong. John is getting married, but not to me.

John read on, heart clenching. The comments after Sherlock's got nastier, and more ridiculous, and absolutely, gut wrenchingly, in line with everything John had been feeling lately.

How in the hell did this happen? You two are obviously meant for each other.

John Watson needs to pull his head out of his ass if he thinks he should be marrying someone else, who even is this arsehole who would get in between two of the most well respected and best suited for each other men in London, no in the world, you havce some explainign to do to your reading public, John, this is fucking shit

WHATTTTT????????Oh no ugghhhh whyyyyyyyy

And then, making John feel a thousand times worse about everything, came a comment from Mark, about thirty from the end:

John, I'm so sorry people are being awful about this lovely post. Sherlock, mate, sorry there's such a fuss over all this, but thank you for speaking up for me. Neither of you deserve all this, after everything you've been through. (Should I sign this "the official fiancé?" Ha ha.)

John squinted as he read Mark's comment over again. There, again, was that bizarre ha ha, nothing like Mark would usually use in his correspondence. He presented himself, as he always did, with sympathy and kindness, even if there was a tiny bit of passive aggression in the comment, as he staked his claim.

The rest of the comments were predictably reactive. John felt the full force of the mess he'd made of his life, and Sherlock's, as he read on:

Wait who the hell is Mark???

Don't you arseholes read the papers? His picture was in the Descrier back at the beginning of November.

He's been commenting for a while. Looks like love has bloomed in John Watson's life in an unexpected quarter.

Oooo we all should have been paying attention when he asked John out for drinks a few months ago. Plot twist!

I still think this is fuckign shit

Sherlock hadn't commented again. John could only imagine what he must be thinking. What he must be feeling.

He took a deep breath, opened the post editor, and selected the option to turn off comments. He went back to the post itself and checked it: the comments disabled notice had replaced the whole ugly mess. He wondered, in a high panic, if he shouldn't just delete the post as well, pretend that it had never happened.

He hated to do that. He'd meant it as a message for Sherlock, as a sign of hope for their future. He'd worked so hard, these last couple of years, to own what he was thinking and feeling. He'd wanted, since Sherlock's return, to get back to the blog, to writing up cases again.  

He decided to append a note to the bottom of it.

This post apparently sparked a lot of wild speculation about my personal life. Because of the response, I've had to turn comments off.

He took a deep breath, stood, paced the kitchen, then turned and went back to the table. He sat, and continued typing:

It is true that I am gay.

He stared at the words. He'd earned the right to be honest. He didn't owe an explanation to anyone, but he owed himself that clarity. He'd hesitated when he'd written the post last night, he realised, because he'd never said it aloud, or written it in a public venue. He'd never even said it to Sherlock, not even when Sherlock had asked about Mark, not even through the difficult conversation of yesterday. It did matter, though. It was who he was. It was time to own it.

His phone pinged: a text alert. He grabbed it, prepared to explain himself to Mark, to tell him that he was taking care of everything.

The text was from Sherlock.

John's stomach flipped, as he remembered the keystroke monitoring software. He had no idea—despite everything, he still had no idea—how Sherlock framed his own identity, or whatever labels he might or might not want to attach to himself. He wondered if it was okay, what he'd just written. He wondered if it might spark further conversation, down the road.

He opened Sherlock's text, and read. His hands were shaking.

It seems we were premature. -SH

Another message followed immediately, a police report detailing the discovery of a body at five o'clock in morning, a block and a half away from John's flat, in an alley John had ridden his bike down many times. The victim, unidentified at the time of the report, was a thirty-five year old woman, blonde, dressed in black trousers and jacket. The black cap that she'd been wearing was found several feet away from the body: she'd been shot in the back of the head. An early morning dog walker had discovered her. Estimated time of death was midnight.

John replied:

Oh. That's a bit close.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly as he waited for Sherlock's response, his mind flying through the events of yesterday. He'd been prepared, after the last few weeks, to believe that Sherlock had simply been paranoid about the threat to John's life. Imagined that maybe the bonfire was a one-off, a last hurrah for Moriarty's network as it finally died.

Perhaps he'd been wrong.  

Too close indeed. There's been no new activity since the middle of November, but now this. The timing can't be a coincidence. -SH

John frowned at his phone, and typed a reply.

You think this woman was shot because we went out on a case together yesterday? You think that you and I spend time together, and someone ends up dead?

Not just someone. A very specific type of someone. I'm sorry. I should have looped you in on this before. -SH

The ellipsis indicated that Sherlock was typing something more.

John put the phone down, and rubbed his eyes. He stared at the ceiling, and laughed, for shame and pity and everything else he was feeling. Sherlock wasn't mad about the blog post. Hadn't said anything about the comments, although John was willing to bet he'd read them all. He realised, as his blood surged and a good, hopeful feeling moved through him, that the feeling he had in this moment was pride, and an answer, finally, to the longing he'd been feeling since Sherlock returned. He wasn't shutting John out any more. He was looping him in. About damn time.

When he picked up his phone again, he saw that Sherlock had sent links to three articles about a recent spate of homicides throughout London. John remembered seeing something about them on the news, but he'd been distracted, too far gone on his own personal drama to keep track. He scanned the articles, looking for patterns, for the sort of thing Sherlock would look for.

Five victims, John texted back. All gunshot wounds to the head.

Yes. There are more, but they are outliers. Connections too amorphous. -SH

Professional differences?

Exactly. These were not murders, strictly speaking. They were hits. For some reason, someone decided to take these people out of the equation. -SH

John smiled as he felt the rush of admiration for Sherlock he'd always felt in the old days. The way his mind worked, the way he leapt from connection to connection, impossible to track, was wonderful to John. What made you look at these in the first place?

Check the dates. -SH

John flipped back to the articles.

Three of the killings had been clustered around the time of Sherlock's return, the bodies discovered in a run of days shortly after he got back: one on November 4, the day John was put into the bonfire, and another on November 5, in the early hours of the morning, before John had let himself out of the hospital, before he and Sherlock went to Westminster Station. A third body was found the next day, November 6. Two of the bodies had turned up a little bit later, closer to the middle of the month.

Most of these took place right after you got back.

Yes. -SH

I still don't understand why you think they have anything to do with you and me. With us.

John marvelled at his own turn of phrase, after he hit send. There was no reason why he shouldn't use that word. It wasn't just him. It wasn't Sherlock, alone. It was the two of them, the two of them together, that mattered.

Sherlock's ellipsis appeared, and dropped away again. While John waited for his reply, he skimmed through the articles once more, looking for deeper connections. Three of the victims were in the country on visas: one from Georgia, and two from Serbia. The other two were British citizens, and had criminal records: one had been incarcerated briefly for fraud, and the other had been charged with illegal firearms possession.

Another text came through from Sherlock.

This time, it was an article reporting the bonfire night incident, that included a photograph of the gathered crowd in the churchyard at Saint James the Less, and the pyre, as yet unlit, in which John had almost died.

Lower righthand corner. -SH

John expanded the picture until he could see a figure of a bearded man. He remembered, dimly, seeing this same photograph on Sherlock's crime wall, the day after the bonfire.

Sherlock sent another picture, a post-mortem photo, also of a bearded man. He'd been shot in the side of the head. His face was distorted by the injury, but he looked very much like the man from the bonfire picture.

Thomas Baccarin. British citizen with a fondness for handguns. Body discovered November 5, after he attended bonfire night. -SH

John went back to the newspaper article that included the details about the body found on November 5. Witnesses had reported hearing a scuffle in the early hours of the morning, men arguing, and then shouting at each other, at the edges of the cemetery where the body had been discovered, in a neighbourhood adjacent to John's.

So you think this man was somehow involved with putting me in the bonfire? Why did he end up dead?

I don't know. Maybe he was part of the plot against you. Maybe he tried to prevent it from happening and someone didn't like that. I still can't put it together, still can't put my finger on who or what is at the centre of this. But there is a connection between you and me, and public perception of our proximity, and these hits. I was right about that much. I'm afraid the network is still active.  -SH

John smiled as he typed his response.

Maybe so, but that doesn't mean it was a mistake for us to meet. Seems to me like if we just keep on, they'll all kill each other eventually.

Funny. Still, you are the focal point of all of this. Spending time with me is almost certainly dangerous for you. -SH

The turn of phrase sent a warm certainty washing through John, as he remembered Sherlock luring him to Baker Street with the same promise. Perhaps he wasn't warning John away after all. He replied:

Could be dangerous? Here I am.

As you always were. -SH

John smiled down at his phone. He couldn't say everything he intended to say. He couldn't tell Sherlock everything that was in his heart, not yet.

Sherlock, I don't want to avoid you any more. I never did.

Sherlock's ellipsis flared into life, then disappeared again, leaving John to wonder if he'd said too much. He didn't know what Sherlock truly needed, or how much he would accept, or what he wanted, what he would want. How he might like to be treated. How he would like to be handled.

John's eyes fluttered shut as an image arose, unbidden, of undoing Sherlock's shirt buttons, softly, easing the fabric down over his shoulders, and exploring, with his fingertips, the raised welts and scars all across his back. There was a story there. A world of stories that John wanted to hear, wanted to draw out of Sherlock, until he was done speaking, and he was known, and understood, and maybe, just maybe, whole again.

His phone pinged.

We'll have to be careful then. -SH

John closed his eyes against the mix of emotions that moved through him. This was what he'd wanted, what he'd always wanted, conspiring with Sherlock, working with him on more than just the cases. He wasn't shutting John out. He was letting him in. Perhaps inviting him in, continuing the flirtation they'd started yesterday afternoon. John looked at his computer screen, at the blog entry that had probably reignited the trouble in the first place.

He typed another message to Sherlock:

Should I delete the blog post?

There was no reply. He clarified, lamely, as if he could be referring to anything else:

The writeup of the Bainbridge case?

No. Probably best that you deleted the comments. They were—indecorous. But continue the note you were appending to the end of it. -SH

John smiled at the casual acknowledgement that Sherlock had been following what he'd been writing through the keystroke logging software.

Reading along, are we?

I had to make sure you were all right. -SH

Right.

This is good, John. We can use this. Finish the note. Clarify that you're marrying Mark. -SH

John fought a wave of disappointment, even as he saw the practical advantage of Sherlock's tactic. He was calling the wedding off, damn the consequences. But he could see the wisdom in Sherlock's idea to work under the radar now, even though it felt wrong to leverage the wedding to keep himself safe.

John? -SH

Okay, John replied, your way. This time, okay. So long as you promise not to shut me out again.

Very good. I won't. -SH

Promise me.

I promise. -SH

John took a deep breath, and composed a reply. He wasn't done with the conversation. He would probably never finish wanting to talk to Sherlock. He needed him to know that. He couldn't say what he wanted to say, but he could start tying up loose ends.

I'm sorry about the blog comments. I never intended for things to get out of control like that.

An answer came back right away: It's all right. -SH

It sort of isn't. He hovered his thumb over the send button, then pressed it. He needed to say this. He needed to let Sherlock know—something.

I understand. Public opinion, crude readings of the actual situation, misunderstandings. Hardly an original story. -SH

John sighed, heavily. The thing to do, the thing he knew he should do, was to stop, and think, and figure it out. Be strategic about how he approached Sherlock. How he handled himself. He kept typing anyway.

I wrote that post because I wanted you to know that yesterday meant a lot to me. 

It's not important. -SH

Sherlock needed to understand him, to understand this.

It is. It is.

You've got other things to attend to. Big day coming up. Happy times. Celebration. Fluffy clouds. Little birds. -SH

John put the phone down, and stared at the wall beside the kitchen table, steeped in the bittersweet memory of the crime wall, covered in plans for his wedding, of the way Sherlock's step had hitched, on the way back to Baker Street, after the case, when John had mentioned it. Sherlock was all too ready to let John go, ready to let him slip through his fingers. He'd been prepared to give a best man's speech, for Christ's sake. He'd assumed battle stations, and John had let him.

Another text came through:

Final fitting for your suit too. You've lost three pounds since I gave Arthur Davies your measurements. Not to worry, though. It's taken care of. -SH

John slumped in his chair. He wanted, desperately, to tell Sherlock everything. This was ridiculous. The both of them were utterly ridiculous. An urgent sense that he wanted to do everything immediately, without hesitation, burned through him. 

He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, with everything that he had, that it would be worth it, waiting. Sherlock was worth waiting for. John had already waited two years, waited beyond the bounds of life and death. A few more days would be okay. He would survive them, and sort things out, and move on. He took a deep breath, and typed a message.

I meant everything I said in that post.

The ellipsis appeared, hovered, then disappeared.

I congratulate you on your candour. -SH

Thank you.

I know it is hard won. -SH

Love and frustration burst through John. He typed a response.

I'd like to talk to you, if that's all right, sometime soon. Can we do that? Talk?

We're talking now. -SH

I want to talk to you in person. Before the wedding. Please?

Stag night. Maybe. Not sure now. -SH

John sighed heavily. Stag night would certainly not be happening, although he imagined he might need a drink, or all the drinks, by the time Thursday rolled around. He had to play along, though, even though his patience was wearing thin. And Sherlock's mention of stag night had sparked a question in him.

You were planning to come?

I was. Best man and all. Tradition. Might have to avoid it. Optics. Sorry. -SH

John was growing increasingly agitated with the drift of the conversation.

I'm wondering if we can arrange something before that. If we're careful.

Perhaps. Wouldn't do to be incautious. -SH

Please, Sherlock, for me.

Okay. -SH

Okay. Everything was going to be fine. John would do the right thing and cut through the mess of his life, when Mark got back. And then he and Sherlock would talk.

I have a few things to take care of. It's going to take me a little while. I'll be in touch in the meantime, but can we plan to talk in a couple of days? After New Year's?

Yes, John. All right. -SH

Good.

Please be careful, John. -SH

I will. I'll keep an eye out.

I would very much like you to be okay. -SH

Okay. 

John held his phone in his hand for a minute or two longer, and decided that Sherlock would probably not reply again. He put it down, and studied his laptop. First, he would tackle the blog post.

He reread the first two sentences he'd appended to the end of it:

This post apparently sparked a lot of wild speculation about my personal life. It is true that I am gay.

He continued on:

I'm sorry to disappoint my readership, but I'm engaged to be married to a man called Mark Morstan. The wedding is coming up soon, and we're very happy about it.

He sat back and looked at what he'd written. It was a horrible lie. He rebelled against it, even as he imagined Sherlock reading it. He backspaced over the last two sentences, and, riding a wave of impulse he knew he shouldn't, he typed, I'm sorry, Sherlock, I can't post that. You'll understand why I can't. Soon.

He erased those sentences, his heart pounding, regretting typing them instantly, trapped between his own, private truth, and all the resolutions he'd made, to deal with the consequences of his life and choices, one at a time.

Settling on a compromise, something that might do to preserve whatever safety he could still expect from the world, John typed, As for public interest in my private life, I'm sorry, but I'm going to keep that private, for the time being.

Before he lost his nerve, he hit the post button.

For a long, desperate moment, he watched his phone, waiting to see if any more texts would come through from Sherlock. No word. John sighed, and scrubbed his face with his hands, and decided that maybe it was okay to give himself permission to do what he wanted, every once in a goddamn while.

Now that he'd taken care of the post, he stood, and fetched his coat and shoes, and found a pair of winter gloves. He'd meant what he said, about being careful, about keeping an eye out. He knew just what he would do. 

It was high time for him to dig up the tablet he'd hidden under the flagstone outside, and see if he could find anything on the week's worth of photos the system had probably recorded. It was unlikely it had caught anything relevant, but at the very least, he could confirm that the cameras were still working, and recharge the tablet and battery, to keep it going for the next little while. If people were being murdered in the neighbourhood, he supposed it couldn't hurt. 

As he went out through the back door, and headed into the shed to fetch the shovel, he gently cursed himself for letting his home monitoring project slide. He'd been feeling so unwell, had been so focused on his personal life, he'd lost track of the war that raged all around him and Sherlock. He'd discounted the idea that he was involved with it. He'd forgotten who he was.

Everything was falling into place, he assured himself.

He would talk to Mark, the moment he got back, and then he would go see Sherlock, and he would say what he needed to say, and ask the questions he needed to ask. He would find out what Sherlock wanted, and he would listen. They would sort out the puzzle of the conspiracy that still worked to separate them. They would sort out the puzzle of their lives, together.

Above all, John would be patient. He would be smart about it. He would look after Sherlock, just like Sherlock deserved.

Chapter Text

In a bubble of heady excitement for the future, breathing the good, cold air of the impending new year, John stood under a clear winter sky, shovel in hand, as a sudden burst of wind rustled through the ivy leaves at the back of the yard. It took him only a moment to pry up the flagstone and find the tablet and battery he'd buried weeks before, still dry in their plastic bag, and just as dead as he'd imagined they would be.

Back in the kitchen, he plugged them in, and shed his winter coat, suddenly too warm. He punched the tablet's power button, impatient to see whatever his security setup had captured, frustrated with himself. He could have been gathering data, all this time.

He remembered the clerk, William, who'd sold the kit to him, the way he'd smiled shyly at John, and flirted. His opening sales gambit.

Trouble with your boyfriend?

He and Mark had indeed been in trouble for a while, but had let momentum carry them through the last two months, and John hadn't wanted to think about it. As he watched the tablet boot, John tried to reconcile the man he wanted to be, the man he thought he was, with the man who had caught his boyfriend in a complete lie, and let it go.

He supposed he simply hadn't wanted to disrupt his idea of what Mark meant to him: stability, steadiness, domestic comfort. The security system was part of that whole problem: John hadn't wanted to think about the fact that he'd kept it to himself, that he'd had a vague idea that maybe Mark deserved to be spied on, even though he'd probably not done anything wrong.

He supposed that none of that mattered, now that he knew the relationship was over. He looked forward to moving on with his life, into his future with Sherlock, once everything was settled, once they'd dealt with the conspiracy against them.

He punched some menu options on the tablet, deciding to start with whatever basic statistics it had to offer.

The system had started recording Saturday, November 9, the day he'd set it up, and kept going until Monday the 18th , at 3:57 pm, when the battery ran out. The archive held 3576 images in total.

There were menus in the tablet's software that would allow John to isolate anomalous incidents, and some kind of tracker that would reveal patterns of activity, but he was pretty sure there wasn't an identify professional criminal button. He settled on going through the images manually, one by one.

He took a deep breath, selected the first photo, and began.

The first run of images were mostly of him, blurry shots taken up his nose as he adjusted the first camera in the backyard, and the second one in the shrub out front, triggering their motion sensors as he set them in place. There were pictures of the top of his head as he stood on the front walk, in range of the camera he'd placed over the door. Then the record of himself, taken from the camera out back, prying up the flagstone and burying the tablet. He scrolled through quickly, until that first flurry of activity was done, and everything seemed to settle into a steady pattern, a record of a typical Saturday afternoon in the neighbourhood, in late autumn.

Most of the pictures came from the camera he'd placed in the euonymus bush at the front of the house, and consisted of steady foot traffic, as people passed by. He scanned through images of dog walkers, couples on their way somewhere together, families.

His gut clenched as he found the first images of Mark, taken first from the street, and then from the camera by the front door, as he came home from the gym, his hair tousled with sweat, his black racquet bag slung over his shoulder, ruddy-faced and smiling, even though he was all by himself, even though there was no one to see.

John remembered Mark coming in, that day, and kissing him. He'd asked John how his morning had gone, and John had lied and said something bland, thinking all the while of the cameras, and his need to feel like he had some control over his life, and the fact that he'd felt like he was betraying Mark, in all sorts of different ways, even then, even though they'd just gotten engaged.

He continued scanning through the captured images, which recorded more neighbourhood traffic, and him and Mark, coming and going from the house on Sunday. They'd gone out for breakfast, he remembered, and taken a walk after. Sunday nightfall saw a drop in activity, just a couple of neighbours he recognised out for a stroll, and then not much of anything until just before dawn, the next day.

The weekday morning routine started up after that. The camera on the back fence showed John going into the yard, fetching his bike from the shed, and leaving through the side gate. The next image was from the camera in the shrubbery at the front of the house, which caught a shot of the back wheel of his bicycle as he hit the road. The camera above the front door had recorded Mark leaving a bit later, getting into the car, which they kept parked on the street, and driving away. 

As the day progressed, the shadows changed their angles, and the cameras captured more foot traffic, and the occasional car. Nothing suspicious. The timestamp moved on to late afternoon, and it grew dark, just after five pm.

The cameras were surprisingly effective at taking clear pictures even in the glow of the street lights. Eventually they showed Mark returning home at 5:30 pm, followed by John, shortly after.

He eyed the rest of the archive, the photos he had left to go through, and decided to try narrowing his search.

He picked up his phone, and flipped back to the articles Sherlock had sent him. The killings were indeed clustered around the time of Sherlock's return, just like he'd said. Three of the bodies had been discovered in a run of days shortly after he got back, on the 4th, 5th, and 6th of November, before John had set his kit up. Only one hit occurred during the week that the tablet had been recording. According to the police, the body, male, mid forties, had been found in the early morning hours of November 14, a Thursday, in the park where John regularly took his weekend walks and bike rides.

Still close to home, then. Definitely worth looking into.

John returned to the tablet, and selected the folder for November 13 from the archive. He didn't know what he was expecting to find, but he started with the earliest pictures from that day, flipping through them one at a time, examining each one closely. The simple, repetitive action reminded him of the times he and Sherlock had spent tedious nights going over bank statements, combing through email records, or waiting and watching, in the dark and the cold, for someone to make a move.

His blood stirred at the last memory. The way the two of them had worked as a team, sharing the same purpose. The unbridgeable gap between them. Sherlock's stillness, as he waited, a closed book, with his blade-sharp focus on the task at hand. His beauty, which was blade-sharp, too.

John blinked down at the tablet, suddenly uncomfortable in the hard-backed wooden chair. He should be with Sherlock now, going through these photos with him. He'd agreed to the separation, until they sorted things out, but he hated it with everything he was worth.  

He reminded himself to focus, to stay alert to all the details as he continued to work through the photos, one by one. Most of them were snaps of his neighbours as they passed by the front of the flat. There were five pictures in a row of a sparrow that had landed in the lattice in front of the camera in the back garden, and three of the top of the postman's head.

John flipped through images of early evening commuters, trying to look for patterns, for the same person walking past the flat more than once, anything.

He paused as he landed on a picture of Mark, returning home at 5:15, letting himself in through the front gate. The camera above the door captured a second photo, a view of Mark's shoulders as he hunched to put his key in the lock. Fifteen minutes later, John himself passed through to the side gate, walking his bike. The camera on the back fence showed a few images of him locking it away in the garden shed, and going in through the back door, into the kitchen. The same camera had taken a picture of the sudden yellow glow of the kitchen light, shining out through the window.

After that, the tablet returned to recording foot traffic in front of the flat. John flipped through the pictures, methodically, still following instinct, still wondering what, exactly, he was looking for. As the record advanced into the early morning hours of November 14, the timestamps between photos grew further apart.

It was just coming on to four a.m. when the camera above the front door had taken a picture. The view showed the back of a man's head, with pale, close-cropped hair, moving away from the door. A second photo showed him just inside the front gate, reaching for the latch. Preparing to let himself out.

John stood, his nerves blazing, and picked up his phone, fumbling to check the date on the article again. The body in the park had been found on November 14, in the late morning. He looked back to the image of the man on the tablet, all dressed in black.

Mark. Unmistakably, it was Mark.

Trouble with your boyfriend?

He sat back down, and forced himself to flip to the next photo. The camera in the euonymus bush, low down by the pavement at the front of the flat, had captured a blurred image, black blobs looming in the foreground. Too close, but John guessed those were Mark's legs, as he went down the street.

He steeled himself before going to the next photo. A longer shot, also from the low camera at the front of the house.

There he was, instantly recognisable: Mark, walking away from their flat at four in the morning, wearing a black jacket and black trousers, a combination he'd never favoured, at least not during daylight hours. His racquet bag was slung over his shoulder.

The park where the body had been discovered was to the east of the flat, in the direction Mark had travelled.

The next three images, taken at five a.m., showed a single, determined-looking marmalade cat, pausing, lingering, and then heading east, as if trailing in Mark's footsteps. At five thirty, a man walked a bull terrier dog past the house.

John's mind whirred, not quite ready to work through the implications of seeing Mark on camera, dressed like an assassin in night time camouflage, carrying a bag that could contain anything, that was certainly large enough to hold a gun with a silencer.

He remembered the conversation he and Mark had, after John had come back from Baker Street, when he'd asked Sherlock to be best man. How strange it had been. How Mark had known, exactly, what John had done to the cabbie. His claims about himself.

I'm great with a racquet.

John felt cold. All this time, and he hadn't seen it. There'd been a gun in his house. A killer in his bed. He rubbed his face with his hands, as his mind filled with self-accusation and doubt.

Mark had gone out, in the middle of the night. John couldn't understand why he hadn't woken up. He usually did, when Mark so much as rolled over in his sleep.

He flipped through the next few images anxiously, as if they would answer all his questions.

At 6:30, the front door camera showed Mark letting himself back into the flat, racquet bag over his shoulder. No doubt he'd stowed it in the front hall closet, where he always kept it. He would have still had time to take a shower, get dressed in his work clothes, and make coffee, before the alarm woke John at 7:15.

A slow sense of shock rolled through him. There was something he was missing, some connection that would explain how he'd failed to notice Mark coming and going at all hours. More than once, if he was connected to all of the killings that Sherlock had identified.

John opened his phone, and looked through the records of the murders once more. The first body had been discovered November 4th, the day that Mark had lied to him about where he'd been the night before. He remembered finding the evidence that Mark hadn't slept in their bed. Maybe he hadn't come home at all, until just before John had woken up.

Another body had been found November 5th, the day after the bonfire. John had been in hospital that night. Mark had stayed by his bed, until John had told him to go home, but there would have been plenty of time for him to go out on his own.

Following blind instinct, and full of that helpless feeling that came between dropping a plate and watching it smash to pieces on the floor, John opened the conversation with Sherlock, and read through it until he found what he was looking for. The body discovered on November 5th was the one Sherlock had put a name to, the bearded man who'd been at the bonfire: Thomas Baccarin, found dead in a churchyard close to John and Mark's flat.

Thomas.

Oh, you know Tom.

John scrambled to recall what Mark had said about Tom, something about him being gone, moved out of the country. He'd called Tom his ex, the man he'd been with before he'd met John. John felt a dropping sensation in the pit of his belly, the first real fear he'd felt since the bonfire. Mark had killed the man he'd previously described as his partner.

John began to realise that he was in real danger. 

He took a deep breath and let it out again, remembering the way he'd slept the night after the train carriage, the night the third hit had taken place. He had gone down like a stone, despite everything that had happened with Sherlock, despite the bomb and the fear and the disappointment, despite Mark's promise to make love to him.

He hadn't noticed Mark coming to bed, remembered commenting on it, when he woke up in Mark's arms, just before he'd proposed.

A cascade of associations rolled through him, as a sick feeling built in the pit of his stomach. How heavily he'd slept, on other nights, these past few weeks, unable to wake up properly in the morning, sometimes hitting snooze on the alarm multiple times. Not blinking awake in the night, not remembering his dreams, just dropping off like he wasn't full of regret or misery or trouble. A complete contrast to his usual light, disturbed patterns.

He'd slept like he'd taken something. Like he'd been given something. He'd thought he was sick. He'd run blood tests to see if there was anything wrong, but he'd never run a tox screen.

Mark had drugged him, had made him sleep so he could go out at night and do whatever it was he did. Probably put something in John's food. He'd been busy in the kitchen, lately, offering to cook much more often than usual.

Hands shaking, ready to break something, anything, John stood, and picked up his chair, and threw it across the kitchen, where it smacked into the cupboards, leaving a satisfying gouge before it landed on its side. He ran his trembling fingers through his hair, put his hand on the wall, and leaned on it, breathing hard, ready to tip over into panic.

He'd been so caught up in the lies he'd been telling himself, and the lies he'd been telling Mark, the promises he couldn't follow through on. It had never occurred to him that Mark's recent spate of strange behaviour was covering up something much more terrible.

Mark was a professional. He was still working. Still active. Mark's lie, the central lie of his entire life, wasn't small. It was very big, indeed.

It couldn't be a coincidence that he'd come into John's life. It wasn't. He must be involved in everything that had happened, in the criminal web that was closing around John and Sherlock, and had been, from the very beginning. Mark was one of them, part of the shadowy, multi-limbed organisation that had caused Sherlock to leave in the first place, that had been the source of so much of John's pain.

John thought, with bitterness, of how weak he'd been, in the time of Sherlock's absence, believing that the game was over. He'd let his guard down, and had made himself into a ripe target. A fool. And Mark had played on that, appearing as if out of nowhere, as if he was a source of hope and goodness, helpful and warm and true. He'd slipped into John's life like a knife into butter, worked John open, worked the fact of his grief, his vulnerability. Found himself a quiet little corner to curl up in, and wait for Sherlock to come back, as efficient as any spider.

With a sense that the world was tilting, John thought of the events of the last few weeks. How Mark had accepted his proposal, and worked with Sherlock, apparently, on the plan to keep John away from him. They'd both been played.

He picked up the chair, slowly, deliberately, and put it back in its place at the table. Then he went back to the counter, and put on the kettle. Set up a mug for tea. Let his mind settle, even though his blood was boiling, even though he was gasping for a fight. He let his anger transform into something new: a sharp, hard focus. He needed to work through the implications of everything that had happened, see the chessboard for what it was, and where the pieces stood.

Moriarty had been playing a game, since the beginning. The goal was to burn Sherlock's heart out.

Sherlock's words at the pool, to Moriarty, came back to John, a counterpoint: I've been reliably informed that I don't have one.

But we both know that's not quite true.

If the dregs of Moriarty's organisation had continued the project he had started, then it had to mean something, that John was the focal point of their activity. They'd decided, apparently, that the best way to destroy Sherlock was to take away, as he'd put it himself, the person I care about most, the one person whose loss would devastate me.

There was more than one way to take John away from Sherlock. Killing him was only one option. 

Mark himself had served that purpose. His presence in John's life had meant a hard limit on everything John and Sherlock could be to each other. Mark had appeared to offer John everything Sherlock couldn't: a normal life, marriage, stability.

Sherlock had said the killings meant there were factions within the network, some kind of internal dispute.  John could see that there were two plans at play, two plans that conflicted with each other: one, to torture Sherlock with the fact that John could be eliminated at any time, and to kill him. The other, to marry John to someone else. To break Sherlock's heart in slow, small increments.

John saw it all laid out now, moves and counter moves behind the scenes, just like at bonfire night: agents working against each other, one plan clashing with the other. He supposed, after a fashion, that Mark had been working to keep him safe, killing the agents who simply wanted John dead. Meanwhile, Mark had been murdering John in an entirely novel fashion, drugging him so he couldn't think, couldn't act, and keeping him away from the one thing he wanted, the one person who could make him happy.

The kettle boiled, and as John poured water into his mug and watched the tea stain it, he thought about how strange it was, that nothing between him and Sherlock was unknown to the forces that worked to separate them.

He used a spoon to squeeze the tea bag, forcing it to steep, a thick jumble of emotions running through him. Sherlock really did care about him, really did love him. These complete strangers, these absolute villains, had seen it when John couldn't.

John himself had been totally transparent too, apparently, because the network had known to send a man, instead of a woman, to seduce him, to infiltrate his life. It had been obvious to everyone but him. The skew of his attractions. The things that inspired him, moved him. 

He'd never been someone's assignment before. Not as far as he knew. His anger flared, deep and vicious, and he laughed, and shook his head. He fetched milk from the fridge, and added some to his tea mug, stirred sugar into it, and drank the entire thing in four or five gulps. He wondered if he should be flattered. He wondered if he should have known.

Fortified by the tea, and by the clarity he could finally bring to the situation, he took a deep breath.

Nothing irretrievable had happened to him or Sherlock yet. Mark had lied, and drugged John, and killed people, at least one of whom Mark had been close to. He'd manipulated John's feelings and managed his relationship with Sherlock to fit the configuration he wanted.

The fact was, John was still alive, and Sherlock was, too.

They were in a holding pattern, some kind of stasis. Safe, for the time being. As safe as they could be, given the circumstances. It was up to John to figure out next steps.

He felt a sense of calm, a stillness coming in, the same sense of peace and readiness he always felt, when it was time to fight, when it was time to take action. He would work this through. Now that he had a sense of what had gone on, he could react to it. He could plan.

First, he would make sure the surveillance system was up and running again. He left the tablet plugged in, checking the time. The power bank would take another three or four hours to reach full charge.

Next, he should look for evidence, for anything Mark might have left in the flat that could be used to further implicate him. He stood, and tugged the waistband of his jumper down, and began a methodical search.

He checked the downstairs closet to see if Mark's racquet bag was there, where he normally kept it. It was the most likely place for Mark's gun, and whatever else he took with him, when he went out on assignment.

Predictably, the bag was gone. He went upstairs and looked through the linen closet, and the areas he'd yielded to Mark, when Mark had moved in: the left half of the bedroom closet; the lower three dresser drawers.

There was nothing unusual, just the normal stuff you would expect a Londoner to accumulate: receipts from the off-licence, from the occasional lunch purchased at the places nearest work; a small pile of loose change. Mark was totally normal in his habits, completely innocuous. Funny and bright and sexy. Everything about him, calculated to appeal, to entice. To seduce.

John fought a wave of disgust, as he sorted through the evidence of the intimacies they'd shared: the bottle of lube stowed in the corner of Mark's bedside table drawer; the rumpled t-shirt he wore to bed, stuffed under his pillow. There was a time when John would have picked it up, rubbed the worn cotton under his fingertips, put it to his face, and inhaled its scent. There was a time when he would have enjoyed the feeling that followed: of warmth, and comfort, and the hint of arousal, reminding him of Mark's teasing. His tenderness. The way he'd seemed to look after John, as John bloomed under his hands, willing and wanting and eager to learn how to be with a man, to learn a whole new way to be in the world, to finally become himself.

He put his hands on his knees and hunched over, stomach lurching as he fought a wave of nausea, and the sharp pinch of regret for everything he'd done, for how completely he'd allowed himself to trust, without question, the small, ordinary life he'd imagined he would lead.

Suddenly, powerfully, he wanted Sherlock, wanted to go to him, and tell him everything. He had the answer, after all. Mark was a key player, the key, perhaps, to unravelling the whole damn conspiracy. John and Sherlock would work together to take him down. John was free of any guilt, free of any sense of loyalty to whatever sham his relationship with Mark had been. Mark could go to hell. John would ensure he did, if he could.

He left the bedroom, and went back down to the kitchen, and grabbed his phone from the table. He picked it up, and swiped to unlock it, and hovered his thumb over his messenger, blood running thick and hot, his heart pounding, as he remembered what he and Sherlock had agreed, that they needed to stay apart for John's safety. John's blog post, and the fact that the two of them had worked together, had triggered the most recent activity in the network.

He needed to think his next move through, before he made it.

He thumbed open the conversation with Mark. His jaw clenched as he reread Mark's texts from that morning, the apparently light-hearted note telling John to get his readers under control. Ha ha.

Whatever cover Mark had developed, whatever agenda he had, included his relationship with John, the fact that they were getting married—that he was the real fiancé, as he'd put it in his comment on the blog. He was still looking to uphold that story. If John did anything to call it into question, anything involving Sherlock, he would surely put a target on his own back.

The more he thought about Mark's behaviour, the changes in his communications, the more he recognised them as signs that he was right. Mark had been bossier than usual, asserting his place in John's life. Wanting, or needing, to keep up appearances, to maintain the idea that their relationship was solid.

Maybe he'd thought it was. The last time he'd asked, John had told him that Sherlock hadn't been in touch. And they'd been moving forward with plans for the wedding. The safest thing to do, in this moment, was to preserve that illusion. Buy himself some more time.

He paced the kitchen, clutching his phone in his hand, his anger flaring, each small detail of his domestic life an accusation: the shining stainless steel toaster he and Mark had bought together, giggling in the checkout line at the hardware store. Postcards, tacked to the fridge, of the trip they'd taken to Bath.

He should never have dropped his guard, never have allowed himself to get so low, after Sherlock died, after he left. He'd thought the game was over. He'd felt so small, a shadow of his former self. He knew now, that feeling had been an illusion. The game was never over. John had become a player when he'd joined Sherlock in the first place, and he always would be, as long as there was still breath in his lungs, and fire in his heart.

He took a deep breath, and let it out again, and willed himself to focus.

As far as Mark knew, John was a faithful man, maybe spun a bit by his infatuation with Sherlock, but nothing more than that. The sort who would worry about hurting Mark's feelings, who would rush to repair any rift he'd created. Hours had passed since Mark had sent the message about the blog comments. John had fixed the post, after a fashion, but he'd never replied.

He typed a response to Mark now:

So sorry,

He paused, thinking about Sherlock, and how best to protect him, how urgent it was for him to preserve the status quo. He returned to the message:

So sorry, sweetheart. I never intended for people to get the wrong impression. I hope that's fixed it? He hit send.

A reply came through immediately.

Thank you! I was sweating there for a bit. Hope you're all right? Sherlock too?

John chewed the inside of his lip. Haven't been in touch with Sherlock. I expect he'll weather it. He doesn't take in much of this sort of thing. I'm fine, just miss you.

He hit send, hating the lie. Hating himself.

I'll see you the day after tomorrow, Mark replied. In the meantime, have a wonderful New Year's. Only a few more days til the wedding!

John stared at the screen, a minor note of relief creeping in.  

This was the game, then. Everything would be fine, so long as he played along. He would keep up the facade. He would do everything he was expected to do.

In the meantime, he would work to understand. He would watch Mark carefully, to try to catch him out, to discover the nature of the web he was connected to. It wasn't enough to stop Mark himself. He needed to understand the rest of the network, if he and Sherlock were ever going to sort things through, and be safe, and be together, or at least, have a chance.

He stared at Mark's last message.

John might need weeks, months, to understand Mark's agenda. That meant staying right where he was, and leveraging whatever he could, to get information. The wedding, the marriage, would have to be part of that. It was vital that Mark believed that John really wanted him, really wanted their relationship to work. He would have to fake it, in order to stay close to Mark. To hide in plain sight, just like Mark had done.

His performance would have to be flawless. So would Sherlock's.

Sherlock would have to watch the wedding go forward, would have to accept his role as friend, as best man. And, if John was right, if Sherlock did have feelings for him, then John would have to block them, put him off, somehow, until he could sort it out.

He would have to break Sherlock's heart. John suspected that Sherlock would let him, all too readily.

"Christ, no," he said aloud, to the empty kitchen. He lurched through a memory of Sherlock's face—tender, vulnerable—as he held out his arms for John. Sherlock's voice—quiet, tentative—as he asked, How did you know you deserved it?

John stumbled, legs collapsing. He sat down hard on the kitchen floor, where he slumped, and covered his mouth with his hands. He let himself fall apart, let his total frustration and grief and anger carry him away, burn him up until there was nothing left.

He'd had to do terrible things, in his time. He'd had to watch men die. He'd killed one, for Sherlock, their very first night together. This was, by far, the ugliest decision he'd ever had to make.

It was vital, though. He saw that clearly. The two of them had to live, had to survive this. Live, and say whatever needed to be said, after. John could only hope that Sherlock would forgive him.

After a few long moments, he stilled, the bubble of his anger broken. He pulled himself up off the floor. He turned on the tap, and splashed his face with cold water. He picked up his phone, and typed a response to Mark's message.

Happy New Year to you too. Mine will be quiet.

Poor you, Mark replied.

It's fine, John typed. Next weekend's going to be a busy one. ;) Sherlock might forgive him, but he wasn't sure he would ever forgive himself.

Excited?

Excited didn't cover it, couldn't begin to. John thought for a long moment before sending a response.

And nervous. You?

Mostly looking forward to getting you all to myself.

John's stomach turned. Of course Mark wanted to get him alone, wanted to have John all to himself, to own him. He thought he already did. He'd moved in on John when he was at his weakest. He believed John to be sincere. That was John's public reputation, after all: stalwart, and true, and loyal as any dog. He must have looked like a fool, to Mark. So easy to trick, so easy to take advantage of.

Mark had controlled him, and manipulated him, and drugged him. John closed his eyes, wondering how he could possibly push back, how he could win through, against someone with no conscience, against such a killer.

He remembered small moments between them. Mark's eyes shining with anticipation as he waited for John to propose at the Landmark. His grin when John had tossed him the ring box, and asked him to name the day. And other times, when he'd seemed to show real vulnerability. The rough quality to his voice, as if he were fighting back some strong emotion, when John had told him he'd taken care of his part of the wedding arrangements. It wasn't much. He wasn't sure there was real sentiment to be found in Mark. He was a liar, and a murderer. But maybe John could still catch him off guard.

He typed his response with gritted teeth. If Mark needed him to be besotted, and blind, that's what he would be.

Likewise. I love you, Mark Morstan.

Mark's ellipsis appeared, hovered, and disappeared again. "Got you," John said to the empty kitchen.

John. You've never said. I love you too.

John typed, See you soon, his heart sick and sore. He put down his phone, put his face in his hands, and cried for the pity of it all.

Chapter Text

The morning of New Year's Eve dawned pale and gold. John stood at the kitchen counter, sipping coffee, and watching the sky slowly turn the washed out blue that reminded him of long childhood winter days spent playing outdoors. He remembered keeping Harry away from the house, even though it was cold out. Trying to keep her warm with one more run around the park, one more turn on the seesaw, one more game. They would play hide and seek, and when she found him, he would tickle her until she was gasping with laughter, pink-cheeked and grinning and begging him to hide again.

John remembered taking her back home after dark, and opening the front door to the smell of stale cigarette smoke, not knowing if their dad would be home. Waiting until their mum had gone to bed, scrounging in the cupboard for anything he could make for Harry's supper. Vowing to make his escape the first moment he could.

As the light came up outside the flat, he scanned the ground in the back garden, eyeing the flagstone under which he'd reburied the tablet and power bank, looking for any sign that he'd failed to hide what he'd done.

He was satisfied. There was no reason to think Mark would notice anything changed, when he returned home tomorrow, except, perhaps, John himself. John, and the cupboard door. He rubbed his fingers across the gouge he'd made with the chair. He didn't think he could repair it in time. He would have to leave it, would have to make some excuse.

Coffee cup empty, he paced, restless, and checked his messages. Nothing from Mark, or from Sherlock. One new email from Greg Lestrade.

The third time John had been up in the night, mind spinning through the implications of his discoveries about who Mark really was, raging through a whole host of scenarios and their possible, mostly frightening solutions, he'd ended up contacting Greg with a request for information on Thomas Baccarin, using his phone so as not to leave a record in the keystroke logging software. He'd told him it was for a case, for Sherlock. He'd imagined that he might find something in the official record that he could use, if he had to confront Mark. Something he could throw at him, something that might throw him off.

He'd also felt the need to understand as much as he could about Baccarin, to know what he was dealing with. Mark had spoken of Tom so many times, sometimes with affection, sometimes with the sort of thin tolerance one reserved for exes. John had never so much as seen a picture of Tom, but he'd developed a few ideas about the shape of Mark's relationship with him, none of which suggested that it would end in murder. It was all too obvious that whatever had happened with Baccarin could give John some insight into his own situation, into the game Mark was playing.

Greg had sent John a couple of files, with a note appended to the top: Glad you and Sherlock are working together again. See you Thursday.

John opened the files and read, jaw clenching, a high tension building in him. As he finished, panic bloomed across the surface of his skin, and he knew he needed to go outdoors, to move, to get away from the flat and everything it meant to him now: a trap, a series of implied promises that had been broken before they'd been made. The potential for a violent end. He had nowhere to be for the next few hours, not until the appointment with Arthur Davies, Sherlock's tailor, at 2 pm, which, he supposed, he absolutely needed to keep, now that he had to go through with the wedding. There was still time for him to fit in a bike ride first.

Before he left, he deleted the email thread, and the associated documents. He had no real idea where Mark was. He suspected, given the hit in the alley two nights before, he might be close. It wouldn't do for him to come home early, and find that John had been investigating him.

Unable to stay inside a moment longer, John went out to the shed and fetched his bicycle. He rode it as fast as he could, away from the grim discoveries he'd made, and the terrible days that were still ahead of him.

His promise to Sherlock, his offer to talk, after tomorrow, after Mark returned, haunted him, as he pedaled through the empty holiday streets. He would have to wait, have to put it off, somehow. Let Sherlock assume he'd changed his mind, or pretend he hadn't meant it to sound as important as it was.

He looped through neighbourhoods just like his, fingers gripping the handlebars of his bike with more tension than was necessary, the wind blowing cold in his face. Just a short time ago, he'd felt like he was dissolving into normality, becoming one with the bland domesticity of the suburbs. Each house he passed, with its Christmas lights and warm interior glow, represented lives built, families nurtured and cared for.

As he rode, he thought about the way that his own flat, with its own warm glow, had seemed like a trap to him, even before Sherlock had returned, before he'd found out who Mark really was. He'd blamed himself, blamed the way he'd grown up, for his discomfort with the idea of settling down. In the bright and dangerous light of the present, he could admit that he'd been afraid that he would be slowly digested by that quiet life, until he fit, until the parts of himself that were different, that needed adventure, that craved the nerve-peeling risks that were always part of life with Sherlock, were melted away.

He supposed that wouldn't be happening now.  

After an hour of riding, leg muscles burning, feeling better in his body, and certain that no one was following him, John made his way through a series of quiet streets, following his memory of the map he'd looked at in the middle of the night. Finally, he came to a stop outside the open iron gates of the churchyard he'd been seeking. Inside, a mess of faded, frost-blighted greenery grew thick between headstones. The attached church was tiny, named after some obscure saint John had never heard of.

He dismounted, and walked his bike along a narrow path among the graves, thistles and blackberry canes tugging at the cuffs of his jeans. It appeared that the churchyard had been filled to capacity many years ago. The most recent headstone John could find, in polished black granite, was dated 1922. He closed his eyes, breathing in the cold, bright air. Sometime in the last hour, the wind had died down. Here, among the dead, he found a moment of stillness.

He knew exactly why he'd wanted to come. During the war, John had gone with Sholto on a survey of part of the territory they were supposed to be defending. He'd watched as Sholto crouched, picked up a handful of dry earth, and let it run from his fingers as it blew away on the wind. John had understood, as he'd met Sholto's gaze, and seen the depths of his resolve, that fighting wasn't just about strategy, wasn't just about knowing the enemy. It was about a deeper level of connection, about one's determination not to give up, no matter the consequences.

This neglected place, with its weeds and overgrown trees, was a part of the London battlefield, the site of a major win for John's enemy. Thomas Baccarin had died in this churchyard. Mark had shot him here, while John slept in the hospital, after bonfire night.

A pair of ancient yews stood at the far end of the yard, against the stone wall that separated the burial ground from the neighbouring houses. The place was isolated, private in the way that forgotten spaces were. At night, it would be completely quiet. One could speak, here, and not be overheard. And yet, the neighbours had reported hearing an argument, men shouting.

John tried to imagine Mark being upset enough to shout, the smooth exterior peeling away, to reveal the monster beneath. Tom had gotten to him somehow. Perhaps Mark had tried to persuade Tom to come over to his way of thinking. Perhaps they'd argued about why Mark wouldn't simply kill John, be done with it, and go back to whatever it was he and Tom had been to each other.

John sat on a low wall, as a single sparrow watched him from a nearby whitethorn tree. The tree's dark branches bore shrunken, bright red fruits, the whole thing making a spectacular display against the pale blue of the clear sky, the sideways slant of the winter sunlight. The sparrow eyed him with something that looked like a mix of scepticism and hope. John held up his hands to show that they were empty. As if understanding all too well, the sparrow flew away.  

Whatever had happened in the moments leading up to Baccarin's murder, John understood, from reading his files, that three years ago, he had taken an abrupt turn into criminality. Up until then, he'd led what appeared to be a normal life. He'd been married, no kids. The only anomaly, a gun hobby. Nothing illegal: he'd owned a licensed weapon, and held a membership at a London shooting range.

Then he'd been arrested, for owning and selling guns illegally, a surprisingly large volume of them. He'd been cleared on all charges. Greg hadn't sent John the associated court documents, but John thought about the way Moriarty had managed to walk away after his own trial. He supposed there was no real mystery there. If something needed arranging, the network could manage it.

A few months after his initial arrest, Baccarin had been investigated for the murder of his wife, Olivia, found shot through the head in the home they shared. He'd been cleared of those charges, too: investigators found clear evidence of a break-in. Later, a vagrant was found guilty.

There was no further account of Baccarin himself, until he'd turned up dead at the beginning of November.

Reading between the lines of his files, John thought he could understand what had happened. At some point, Baccarin had fallen in with Mark, or Mark's crowd, been offered a new life.

John thought of the conversation Mark had forced on him, about the cabbie John had killed. The idea that John should become some kind of fixer. As his stomach crawled, he wondered if Mark had had a similar conversation with Baccarin. Maybe he'd offered him a devil's bargain: go along with whatever plan Mark had, or suffer the consequences. Or perhaps Baccarin had gone willingly, romanced by the idea of entering the battlefield, excited to discover that there was more to life than he'd imagined. In looking at his story, John imagined he could read the shape of his own future. He wondered how Mark would approach him, how he would lift the veil on his ultimate plans for the two of them.

Whatever happened next, John was determined to keep the details of his discoveries away from Sherlock. The murder of Baccarin's wife proved to John that Sherlock was in just as much danger as he was. If Mark had set his sights on John as a new partner in crime, then Sherlock could become collateral damage, just like Olivia Baccarin had.

On the far side of the churchyard, a squirrel picked its way among the gravestones. John watched it, full of dread for the task that lay ahead of him.

Tomorrow, Mark would come home, and John would have to take on a persona of his own. Devoted fiancé. A stalwart man, who would never cheat, who would never lie, who would be grateful for everything his nice, fun, normal boyfriend had done for him.

He wondered how in the hell he would do it. He'd never been a good actor, never good at deceiving people.

He wondered how Sherlock had done it, had lied and deceived, when it came time to fake his death. He'd been crying, as he stood on the edge of the roof of Barts, and spoke to John on the phone. He wondered if Sherlock had felt the way John felt now, in the hours leading up to his performance. Isolated. Terrified. Determined. His tears had probably been well earned.  

He imagined getting Sherlock alone somehow, in some private room, some back alley, some small, separate place where he could hold him, and tell him everything that was in his heart. More than ever before, he wanted to take comfort in him, take shelter in whatever it was they might mean to each other.

There was no time. If it meant protecting Sherlock, he would do anything. He would sacrifice himself. He would fake his way through. He would die, if he had to.

He stood, and straightened his jacket, and took one last look at the pale, empty sky. He walked his bike back out to the churchyard gates, passing the crumbling headstones that sat like old teeth on the cold winter ground, ineffectual, but waiting to chew him down. Waiting to try. He hoped it wouldn't come down to that. Not death. Not yet.

***

John arrived at the tailor's a few minutes early for his 2 o'clock appointment, only to find it wasn't there. He double checked the address on the card Sherlock had sent him: John had it right, but there was no storefront, just a number above a locked door, and an intercom. He pressed the button, looking down the street one way, and then the other. The whole thing had the aura of a spy story, which, he supposed, he was already living.

A man's warbly voice came through the intercom. "Yes?"

"Hello? This is John Watson. I'm here for a suit? I've got an appointment."

"Very good. Come up, Doctor Watson."

The latch in the door clicked, and John let himself inside, to find a staircase leading to the second floor. He climbed it, and let himself in through the door he found at the top, an old wood panelled affair, with an inset frosted glass pane, the words Arthur Davies, Tailor, painted on it in gold letters.

Inside, he found a tiny, beautifully appointed shop, with windows covered in thick red velvet blackout curtains, and a row of mirrors at the back. Standing and waiting for him was a man who appeared to be approximately two hundred years old, dressed impeccably in grey trousers, white shirt, and waistcoat.

"Doctor Watson." The man stuck out an age-spotted hand. "Arthur Davies."

"Ah. Hi. Nice to meet you."

John decided on the spot that Arthur Davies was the sort of man whose first and last names could not be separated: he was too weighty a presence, too charmingly old fashioned, for John to ever call him anything else.

Arthur Davies gestured at a collection of clothes artfully laid out on a table by the windows. "And this is your suit. Most unusual, being told how to fit it without meeting you first, but Sherlock assures me that his measurements are completely accurate, and you know, I could hardly dare contradict him." He laughed warmly, and looked into John's eyes, as if expecting that John knew exactly what he meant.

"Known him long, have you?"

Arthur Davies nodded. "Oh yes. I fitted him for his first proper suit, when he was a lad. Ten years old. All arms and legs." He smiled at John through his thick glasses. "And look at him now. Grown, and with such good friends."

Just like every time John met some friend or other of Sherlock's, he was gently surprised by the amount of love and respect Sherlock managed to inspire. He could be all sharp angles, completely hostile, but when he liked someone, when he genuinely respected them, he seemed to form deep ties that lasted decades.

As a feeling of warm affection washed over him, he fought the urge to crumple under it. Sherlock could love. He was fully capable of it, John was sure. The evidence was right in front of him. He supposed it always had been.

"Well, Doctor Watson," Arthur Davies told him, redirecting the conversation with all the skill of a man who'd spent a long career working with customers, "let's have you start with the trousers and shirt, and we'll go from there."

A few minutes later, John stood and watched himself in the mirror, admiring the fit of the dark grey suit trousers and crisp white shirt that Sherlock had chosen for him, and the ivory coloured tie at his throat. Arthur Davies helped him into bright red suspenders, marked with a silvery pale floral pattern, his hands trembling as he showed John how to button them to the trousers.

John balked a bit at the suspenders. "Are you sure about this? It isn't some kind of—practical joke?"

Arthur Davies smiled. "No, Doctor Watson. Sherlock picked these out for you himself. They won't show, except a bit at the shoulders, if you take the coat off. They'll make a lovely accent." He held up a camel-coloured waistcoat, and helped John into it.

John felt the waistcoat slip down on the left side, weighted by something. In the mirror, his eye caught a flash of gold. A watch and chain, pinned to the pocket. "What's this?"

"Oh, Sherlock brought that for you yesterday. Sort of a gift, he said. He said you would understand." He shuffled around to John's front, and did up the waistcoat buttons, while John stared at his own reflection, and rubbed the watch with his thumb.

Something for him to figure out, maybe. A puzzle. John's chest squeezed, full of sudden emotion.

"There," Arthur Davies said, taking a step back, and smoothing the waistcoat down. "Very good, so far. Wouldn't you say?"

"Ah, yes. Very nice indeed." The red of the suspenders just barely peeked out from underneath the vest. A subtle effect. Not gaudy at all, like John had imagined.

Sherlock had put so much care into choosing John's clothes. John had always done his best to dress in a way that worked for him, but he looked better, by a long shot, than he ever had. The irony of it all, the bloody tragedy, rolled over him, as he realised that the thing he wanted most in this moment was for Sherlock to be here. John wanted, more than anything, to see the expression on Sherlock's face shift, as he saw John, dressed in the clothes he had picked for him.

"I'll just go fetch the coat," Arthur Davies said. He patted John on the shoulder, then returned to the table by the windows, moving slowly, deliberately.

John held the watch in the palm of his hand, and turned it over, expecting, maybe, some kind of inscription. He opened it. The second hand was still.

He turned the fob to wind it, expecting it to leap into life. Instead, the minute hand moved backwards. He toyed with the fob, trying to push it in a bit. He hadn't meant to set the time. The fob didn't move, couldn't move.

The watch was broken. Curious. He tried turning the fob the other way. It wouldn't go.

The only thing he could do was turn it so that the hands moved backwards. Turning back time, or at least, the illusion of turning it back.

John only wished he could. He let the watch go, as Arthur Davies came back with the suit coat.

He'd said that John would understand the watch, would know what it meant. Perhaps Sherlock wanted to turn back time, as well. Go back to the days when the two of them had been inseparable.

He was standing, mouth open, wondering if Sherlock had maybe, just maybe, given him the most romantic gift he'd ever received, as Arthur Davies helped John into the suit coat, and watched, as John did up the buttons.

"There. Very good. I'm satisfied that the measurements were just right. Sherlock certainly knows you well. How does it feel? You'll be wearing it all day, on Saturday."

John turned to the side, admiring himself in the mirror. He looked like a proper groom. A man who was about to get the happy ending he deserved. He thought, with bitterness, about how far away that was. He had miles to go. Months, perhaps. Years.

"Are you all right, Doctor Watson? You're quite pale." Arthur Davies was studying him in the mirror, squinting at his reflection, as if he expected John to faint.

"I'm okay," he said. "Just—overdue for something to eat, I think."

"Very good. I've kept you long enough. Let's get you out of this. I'll wrap it up for you."

John had taken the tube over, but he thought he would indulge in a cab on the way home. He needed to be alone. His mind was flying, his heart clenching with everything he felt for Sherlock.

John hated the way he'd left things, with the promise he'd made, to talk, when he'd believed that he could travel a direct line between what he had, and what he wanted. Sherlock had accepted that promise, and he'd gone a step further, speaking to John through the gift of the watch, in code, the safest way he could. With a beauty and a delicacy John would never have guessed him capable of.

He felt his temper flare, as Arthur Davies shuffled into a back room and left him alone to change into his street clothes. Sherlock had been here, in this very room, to drop off the watch, had spoken with Arthur Davies. He closed his eyes and inhaled sharply, as if he could catch some hint of Sherlock's scent in the air, some faint trace of  his soap. They were so close, and so necessarily separate.

When he was ready to go, John accepted the suit, zipped into a heavy garment bag, and shook Arthur Davies's crooked hand.

"Thank you for everything," John said.

Arthur Davies squinted at him, from behind his thick glasses. "Have a wonderful wedding, Doctor Watson."

He faked a smile. "Thanks. Shall I pay, then?"

"Oh, no. It's already taken care of."

John stared at him. "Oh. Oh, Sherlock." He didn't say the name, so much as let it slide out of him, a half formed word, accompanied by a sick sensation. "I see."

He managed to say goodbye, get down onto the street, and hail a cab, without making too much of a fool of himself. Once the cab had pulled away from the kerb, he took out his phone. He didn't know what he was doing. Making a mistake, probably.

Just left the tailor's. This is too generous.

A reply came right away. It's my pleasure, John. -SH

He watched the city lights go by outside the rain-streaked window of the cab, and felt a powerful impulse to tell the driver to turn around, to drive for Baker Street. Everything would be okay, if he could just see Sherlock one last time, if there was any chance that the watch meant what he thought it did, if there was any chance at all.

It was Sherlock's life on the line, though, not just his. It was whatever future they could have together, that he'd be risking.

He took a deep breath. Better to be a bit cruel now, and make it up later, when he'd taken care of everything.

I'm not going to be free this week after all, he typed. Busier than I thought.

The ellipsis appeared, and hovered, as Sherlock typed a response. The pause before it arrived seemed endless. John wondered if Sherlock were erasing his own words, retyping, rethinking. When the response came through, it was disappointingly brief.

I understand. -SH

As the cab drove on, and no further message from Sherlock followed, John wondered if it could really be that easy, to end what they'd started a couple of days ago.

He thought about writing more, imagined what he would write, if he could: I wish I could see you now. I want you so much, Sherlock. The watch was a beautiful gesture. Me too. Me too. Let's go back. Let's pretend we can. Even if it's just for one night. Even if it's just one time.

Finally, he shut his phone down, and slipped it back into his pocket.

***

John greeted the first day of the new year with grim determination. He moved through the flat, trying to do normal, everyday things, all the while painfully conscious that Mark was coming home soon.

He thought he was ready, but as he ran a damp mop over the floors in the kitchen and sitting room, he battled with the idea that it was entirely possible that he would not last through two minutes of scrutiny. He wondered if he should have done more research on Mark, while he had the flat to himself. He wondered if it would be wise, or entirely stupid, to go check the security tablet one last time.

As early as he reasonably could, he sent Mark a text, trying to suss out when he would be back.

Can't wait to see you.

Throughout the day, he received a series of responses that were, in all probability, lies.

We're at the station but we bollocksed the holiday schedule. No idea when the next train's due in.

Two hours later: We've been sitting here for three hours. Problem with the track. Sorry, love.

John responded, like any loyal partner would: Okay. Let me know when you're close.

And later on: Let me know if I should hold dinner.

He tried to read a book, and when that failed to distract him, to watch telly, as the afternoon wore on into evening. The later it got, the more concerned he became, that things were not okay, that Mark knew, somehow, that he knew, that he was over at Baker Street, killing Sherlock right now, that he was around the corner, on assignment, ready to come home at any moment in his black clothes, gun in hand, and murder John.

Really sorry, came a text at eleven fifteen p.m., just as John was thinking about the fact that he had work in the morning, and wondering if he should try to sleep. Be there soon.

John climbed into bed at midnight, without any further word from Mark, turned out the light, and lay awake in the dark, blinking at the shapes of the furniture in the room. Waiting.

Just before one o'clock, the sound of the front door of the flat opening and closing jolted John out of a light doze. It was followed by the distinct zip and rustle of a jacket being removed. The front hall closet door. Heavy footfalls, in shoes, then soft ones, in sock feet, as Mark climbed the stairs.

A long, excruciating wait followed, accompanied by a sliver of light from under the bathroom door. The sounds of Mark brushing his teeth. The flush of the toilet. And the shower running, then stopping. Mark's contented sigh. John could picture him rubbing his hair dry with a towel, scrubbing his skin until it was bright red.  

John pretended to sleep, trying desperately to relax his muscles, as Mark climbed into bed. He remembered the many, many times, in the last six months, when Mark's presence had meant a sense of warmth and comfort. Now, he felt only alarm, and revulsion, as Mark slipped in behind him, and pressed himself up against John's back, slotting his legs in behind John's, and sliding his arm around John's waist.

He willed his breathing to be slow, and steady. It was not fine, but he could handle, it, or thought he could, until Mark nuzzled the back of his neck, and planted a kiss there.

John recoiled, fighting a gut-deep urge to stand, to fight, to confront. Mark's hand moved up, to press into his chest, and John shifted, pretending to wake up, and covered Mark's hand with his own, tangling their fingers together. He could control that hand, if he needed to. Bend it back until the wrist locked. He rolled over, looking into the hollows of Mark's eyes. In the dark, it appeared there was nothing there at all.

Who are you?

"Hi," he said, wondering how far he could take the facade, how his body would or wouldn't respond, to what Mark clearly had in mind.

"Hi." Mark shifted closer, pressing his forehead against John's, then pressing his lips in for a kiss. He tasted like toothpaste, and smelled like warm soap, his skin damp and fresh from the shower.

In all the time he'd spent thinking about Mark over the last few days, running strategies and steeling himself for what was to come, John hadn't imagined this scenario, hadn't thought about how far he might have to take things, how thoroughly he might have to fake it. Mark shifted, and sighed, and kissed him again, pressing up against him. He cupped John's face with his hand. The intimacy of that gesture, and the fondness it implied, sickened John.

He touched the back of Mark's hand. His fingers brushed across Mark's familiar calluses, on the base of his forefinger, and his thumb. He traced the thickened skin, finally seeing the pattern for what it was. He knew he was frowning. He shivered.

John had seen calluses just like Mark's, when he was in the army. The men who had them loved to boast about the extended time they'd spent on target practice. Mark had told John they were from racquet ball. All this time, he'd believed him. All this time, he'd been blind.

He was hysterical, all of a sudden, feeling the full force of how stupid he'd been. He was a dupe, a fool. He could feel himself grinning, his anger hideous, surely completely obvious, surely filling the room. He wasn't sure how he would stop himself from hurling the full force of every accusation he had at Mark.

"John? What's wrong?" Mark's voice was thick with desire. He sat up, leaning against the headboard, tilting his head to peer at John in the dim glow of the nightlight in the hallway.

John pulled himself up into a sitting position, unwilling to give Mark any advantage. Mark leaned in for another kiss, catching the corner of John's mouth as John turned his head away.

"Ah, just tired, I guess. Work tomorrow."

Mark ran his hand over John's waist, and pressed in to kiss John's neck, his collarbone. "Look, I'm sorry I couldn't get back sooner. It was a travesty. If it helps, I couldn't think about anything except what you wrote to me, the whole way here. You've never said, before." He kissed John's cheek, and took hold of John's hand, and raised his wrist to his lips, and kissed that too.

John held still. He was afraid to move, afraid that all he was capable of doing, in this moment, was starting a physical fight that would end when one of them was dead.

"I'm not upset. Just a bit overwhelmed."

Mark's soft smile was barely visible in the light from the hallway. In this moment, in the bed they'd shared all these months, he looked just like an ordinary man. "You sure I can't persuade you to give me a bit of your time, before you drop off?" His hand dropped between them, and tugged at the waistband of John's pants.

John put his hand on Mark's hip. He was trying not to shake, trying not to give the game away. He decided to talk. It was the safer option. If he stuttered, well, he'd told Mark enough times that he was no good at sharing what he was feeling.

"I suppose it's just that I've been thinking, lately, about the two of us, about everything that getting married means. I know I haven't been the best boyfriend, the best partner. I've been distracted."

"Mm." Mark was watching him carefully, in the dark. His face twitched into a smile, one of his trademark grins. "Not distracted enough." His fingertips slipped along the skin of John's belly.

"Stop it now," John said, trying to moderate his voice. "I'm trying to tell you something."

Mark blinked, and sobered, and removed his hand. "Okay. All right." He sounded just as vulnerable as John had ever imagined him to be. As human, as much like a man in love. And yet, the lies he'd told. The things he'd done.

"I was saying. I was so unhappy, when we met. You know that, but I'm not sure you appreciate how much you've changed my life." It wasn't untrue. John felt a small measure of confidence returning. So long as he kept on saying things he really meant, he should be fine. He could do this. "I want you to know that no matter what happens, you've got my full attention. You're my focus now."

Mark pulled away, and propped up the pillows behind him. He pulled his knees in. He frowned. "John, I honestly—I never expected you to give me everything. We're not teenagers. This is not our first go-round. I know life doesn't work that way."

"No, of course not." God, how John wished it did. Bitterness threatened to choke him, as he wished he'd never moved on, after Sherlock. He'd never wanted a second chance, not on these terms. "I just mean that I know my attention has seemed a bit split, since Sherlock came back, and I want you to know that I've appreciated everything you've tried to do, to include him." Appreciated. Taken note of. John vowed that he would never let Mark go anywhere near Sherlock again.

"Is this about the blog post? Because I get it, John. It wasn't easy for me, reading all that, but I understand."

It wasn't easy. Of course it wasn't. Mark had been forced to do some dirty work, because of the mess John had made. John was sure that was the real meaning behind his late return home.

"Still. Hardly seemed fair. I could have gone further. Could have named you."

Mark sighed heavily. "I never expected to be in the spotlight, John. That's for you and Sherlock."

He wasn't wrong. Mark lived in the shadows. That was who he was, what he was: a shadow.

John took Mark's hand, rubbing his thumb over his calluses again. He felt the full force of the decisions he'd made while Mark was gone. To sacrifice anything he had to, to make certain that Sherlock was safe. "I suppose the spotlight doesn't matter to me any more. That's what I'm saying." He paused, waiting until the right words came to him. "If it's all right, Mark, if you'll have me, I plan to stick with you."

Mark let out a noise, then, like he'd been holding his breath for a long time, and had finally been able to let it go. He pulled John into a hug, and held him, while John swallowed bitterness, and stroked Mark's back, and tried to imagine what sort of calculations were flying through Mark's mind, that he could seem so invested, so sincere, while lying to John with every molecule of his being.

"All right," John told him. "Okay."

Mark kissed him, tenderly, on the cheek, and on the lips. "I know I'm no Sherlock Holmes, but I promise you this, John, I'm going to do everything I can to make sure you're never bored."

John studied Mark's face in the dim light. "I believe you."

***

Wednesday went like the first day back at work after a holiday usually did: routines moving like rusty gears; the hitch and grind of patient after patient, each one full of typical post-holiday complaints: indigestion, nervous exhaustion, flu.

John and Mark took their lunch together, sitting among a gathering of nurses, who laughed and joked as they talked about how Christmas had gone. John's thoughts wandered perpetually between the man sitting beside him, who seemed to fit so seamlessly into John's life, into the life of the clinic, into their shared home, but who harboured the dirtiest of secrets. He wondered how Mark had come by his nurse's training. How much of it was real. He was so adept at negotiating the most nuanced intimate interactions. John believed he was capable of faking his way through just about anything.

John, on the other hand, was struggling, aware that he could give away the game at any moment. Mark had caught him, that morning, standing in front of the open front hall closet door, looking at the racquet bag, wondering if he had time to go through it. He'd come up behind John, slipped his arms around John's waist, and asked him what he was doing, as he kissed the back of John's neck.

John had mumbled something about trying to decide if he should wear a different coat, while his stomach churned, and he urged himself to be more careful.

Meanwhile, the mood among the nurses had shifted, a current of excitement for the upcoming wedding in everything they did. In the afternoon, Jill stopped John in the hall outside his office, to ask if he was ready, and to offer her apologies that her vacation meant she wouldn't be able to attend. Cath handed him a small paper gift bag, with a wink and a nudge, telling him it was a little something he should pack in his suitcase for the honeymoon. Heading back to his office, he opened the bag to find two pillow cases, neatly rolled, the word Hubby hand embroidered on each of them, in lush rainbow letters.

John put the bag down, sat at his desk, and scrubbed his face with his hands. People were, essentially, nice. Remembering that would help him get through the next few days, he hoped.

After the last patient of the day, John was lingering over paperwork when Mark came by his office. "How are you doing?"

"Fine. You?"

"Good." Mark grinned. "It's all bit strange, this. Pretending everything isn't going to change in a couple of days."

John's insides crawled. He tried on a smile. "I suppose it isn't, really—going to change, I mean. We already live together. We're basically going to attend church, have a party, and go on holiday. After that, we'll carry on living together."

Mark smirked. "When did you become the practical one? I don't remember signing off on that."

"Dunno. Figured I could do with something a bit different. Are you heading home soon?"

"Just on my way out. I wondered if you wanted to do anything special tonight? Go out for dinner? We can stick your bike in the back of the car, drive into town."

"Oh. I was hoping we could do something quiet. Stay in, maybe? Stag do tomorrow—yours too." The nurses were planning to take Mark out for some kind of wild party. They'd mentioned a strip club. John could only imagine the noise, the secondhand embarrassment, and thank Christ that Greg Lestrade knew he would never go for something like that. "Friday, I expect we'll be busy packing for the trip, wherever we're going."

"I'm still not telling you. It's a surprise, remember?"

"I know, I know. I'm not fishing for details."

"You're a bad liar, John."

John hoped his smile didn't resemble a wince too closely. "I know."

The idea of going somewhere undisclosed with Mark filled John with dread. At the same time, it might be an opportunity to confront him. No potential allies. No collateral damage. Just the two of them.

"I'm just saying, this might be our last normal night for a while. I'd like to keep it quiet, if it's okay with you."

He hated the tone in his voice, the way he tried to sound affectionate, when he was really suppressing his own desperation to get away. He felt as though it was probably obvious that he was always on the verge of yelling.

"All right. Sounds good to me. Want a lift home?"

"I'll ride my bike. I could do with the exercise."

Once he was alone and out on the street, John left his helmet strapped to his backpack, reckless, needing the sensation of the winter air in his hair, the slap to his face of the gusts of wind, and the cold, thin rain that began to fall. He needed the reminder, sharp and harsh, that he was still alive, that he wasn't stuck, that he was doing everything for a good reason, that it was all part of his plan.

He imagined that he and Mark would be, for tonight, at least, in a holding pattern of sorts, a domestic stalemate, each of them invested in maintaining the illusion that everything was okay.

That was how it seemed, for the rest of the evening. They made a quiet dinner together. John insisted on sharing cooking duties, chopping vegetables, and keeping an eye on everything Mark did, ensuring that nothing he ate or drank had anything slipped into it.

Mark was rinsing a handful of mushrooms at the sink when he put his finger up against the gouge in the cupboard, looked at John, and raised his eyebrows. "Things get a bit wild while I was away?"

John smiled at him. "Something like that." He was glad for the steam coming off the pot of boiling water, as he stirred pasta into it, a bit of cover for the flush that came over him.

They ate in front of the telly, while John channel surfed, and Mark flipped through messages on his phone. They knocked off to bed by ten thirty, John curled on the edge of his side of the bed, Mark sprawling on his. John stared into the dark, wide awake for the first half hour, believing that he would never sleep, and in the end, dropping off anyway, his body pulling him down into the depths.

He woke up three hours later, to the sound of the front door closing.

He rolled over to find the covers peeled back, and the bed empty. He sat up, listening, for a long while, in the dark, for footsteps, for the sound of the telly turned down low, for some sign that Mark was in the flat.

He stood, and went downstairs, moving cautiously, wishing he had his gun, feeling utterly vulnerable in his pants and t-shirt.

The living room and kitchen were quiet, lights off. He called out—just Mark's name, just in case he was still here, waiting in some corner of the kitchen. He checked both rooms again.

He opened the front hall closet door. Mark's racquet bag was gone.

He sat on the sofa in the sitting room, wondering why Mark had suddenly grown so bold, going out in the middle of the night when he knew John was a light sleeper, when he knew John would probably wake in the night, and miss him. Then again, perhaps he hadn't had the chance to drug John. John had been careful, or had tried to be.

He wondered, if he sat right here, on the sofa, and waited, like some dad from an American comedy from the 1950s, for Mark to return, if he would find him sneaking into the flat in his black clothes, just before dawn, gun in the bag over his shoulder, ready to shoot. Ready to kill. All too ready to confront.

John's phone pinged. He took a deep breath, and looked at the screen, half expecting a text from Mark, some kind of explanatory note.

It was from Sherlock.

Insomnia? Me too. -SH

John stared at the message, and his heart filled, and he wanted Sherlock, wanted him to use all his skills to know that the thing he really should do was to walk in through the front door of the flat, and take John away from all of this.

He typed a reply. How did you know?

Pre-wedding nerves. Statistically speaking they begin for most men three days before the wedding. Stag night tomorrow. One day of work. Wedding. You're right on schedule. -SH

John stared at the phone, his love for Sherlock blazing in his chest, tearing holes in his resolve. You're amazing. Brilliant. Incredible, he typed, his finger hovering over send, before he pressed it.

The ellipsis that indicated Sherlock was writing a response came up, hovered for a few, long, aching moments, and disappeared.

John's text alert went off, as a message from Mark came through.

Sorry if this wakes you, love. Got a call from Jill—husband is in A&E, appendix. She needed someone to watch the kiddos, lucky me! They're asleep of course. I'm watching telly and wishing you were here. You were all settled in when I left, looked so peaceful sleeping. See you in the morning. I'll stop back in before work, if I can. xoxo Mark.

John read it, feeling a small measure of relief. The excuse seemed paltry enough, but at the very least, it was there: a comfortable fiction that John could question, or not.

He remembered the racquet bag, and laughed. "Kids into playing squash in the middle of the night, then?" He imagined there would be an excuse for that as well—a quick morning game so Mark could wake himself up, Jill living right by the club—of course, of course. An explanation for everything, offered before John even had a chance to ask.

He was staring at his phone, wondering if he should reply to Mark's text, when another message arrived from Sherlock.

John, please. You're making me sentimental. -SH

Chapter Text

John jolted awake the next morning, shivering under the thin tartan blanket he and Mark kept on the sofa for cold winter evenings. His leg and shoulder throbbed, his joints stiff as he blinked awake.

He hadn't meant to fall asleep. He sat up with a gasp, nightmares still running over the surface of his skin: images of Sherlock, his coat dropping to the floor, over and over, in the sitting room at 221B, a hundred, a thousand, variations on the same theme. Sometimes, the coat had landed in soft folds on the sitting room rug, and Sherlock had stood there, naked and shivering, then turned to reveal the skin of his back, crawling with worms; sometimes, it had hit the ground with a dull clang, and Sherlock had disappeared altogether, leaving John alone in the sitting room, filled with the same regret and despair he'd felt in the days after Sherlock's death. In the background, a male voice had shouted accusations, calling John names.

Tell anyone you want. No one will believe you, you little nancy.

He scrubbed at his face, waiting for his head to clear, listening for any sign that he wasn't alone. All was quiet. He hadn't been drugged, he assured himself. If Mark had come in, he would have heard him.

He fumbled for his phone, and opened it on the end of last night's conversation with Sherlock. He didn't know where Mark had actually gone. Fearing the worst, he'd stayed up texting Sherlock as late as he could, asking him question after question.

Everything all right there?

Any idea about what's going on now?

Any word coming down the police wire? Nothing new?

Sherlock's responses had run to the monosyllabic:

Yes. -SH

No. -SH

No. NO. -SH

John had tried changing tactics: Haven't solved it then? You must have made some progress.

His heart squeezed as he waited for Sherlock's reply, wondering if even now, he had figured it out, and was preparing to chase Mark through the streets, hiding his real activities from John again.

His response had been utterly guilt inducing:

I keep running into the same dead ends. These constant reminders of my failure are becoming tedious, John. Besides, I've been distracted. You seem, as usual, totally unaware of how much effort is going into your own wedding. -SH

Paranoia washing through him after a particularly long pause, he'd asked: Sure you're okay?

Why wouldn't I be? It's you we should be concerned about. -SH

John had slipped into nostalgia, saying anything to keep Sherlock talking, concern for him mingling painfully with his own loneliness. He was a soldier. He could go to war, but he wasn't sure he could win this. There was still so much more time to go, so much more for him to do, and he couldn't help but feel that this was the eve of a hopeless battle, with nearly no chance of survival, just the fight to face, and inevitable loss. 

Remember the inexplicable matchbox?

I remember the look on your face, John. -SH

Confused as usual?

I'd never seen you smile like that before. -SH

John's breath had stopped at that, hope and love tearing through him, and a sharp pang of regret, that he hadn't known, hadn't seen, in the old days. He'd been blind to the signs. A waste. A total waste. 

Still frustrates me that we can't talk about that, he wrote. Or the elephant.

Yes. But you never know. Some day the true story may be told. -SH

John had put the phone down, afraid he was going to break, and tell Sherlock everything.

After that, he'd run mental calculations over and over, trying to see any fault in his own thinking. He and Mark were, as far as he could tell, still in a fixed position. The fact that Mark hadn't gone after Sherlock yet meant that he probably wouldn't. If John was right about the purpose of the wedding, then Sherlock would have to be alive to see it. Mark himself seemed bent on a game of his own, simultaneously counting on John to go through with everything, while becoming less and less concerned about hiding who he really was.

John took a deep breath, and let it out slowly, determined to see things through, to hold to the status quo until after the wedding.

In the meantime, he had a day of work to deal with. He and Mark were both due to start at the clinic at nine. It was quarter to eight. He supposed Mark would go there directly, if he were still intending to maintain his cover. There was no reason he would break it, not if his goal were to follow through on his plan to marry John.

He went into the kitchen and put coffee on. He was watching it drip down into the pot, mesmerised, wired, when his phone pinged with a text alert.

It was from Harry.

Hey brother, hope you're planning to dress up for tonight.

He frowned down at the phone, struggling to understand what she meant, when he remembered: stag night.

You're coming? he asked.

Sherlock insisted. Think he feels bad about pushing me out for best man, lol.

John ran through a dozen different responses to Harry's text. Worry about her spending time in a pub dominated, second only to a burst of relief at the idea that Sherlock might actually be there. The idea of Harry and Sherlock, somehow talking, getting along, made him smile, despite everything.

Harry anticipated him on the first point:

Before you ask, don't worry. I've sobered up just in time for your big day.

He thought for a long moment before typing a response. He shouldn't be talking about this with Harry, but night after night of bad sleep, and working to hold his own against Mark, had left him with a hollowed out feeling, and he knew that if he had something to hang onto, some hope, he might be able to weather it.

Did Sherlock say he'd be there?

You two, she replied. Worse than a couple of fifth formers. Wait and see.

He put the phone down, feeling utterly chastised, and just a tiny bit hopeful.

While the coffee was finishing, he went upstairs, showered hastily, and changed into his work clothes. He chose an outfit for the evening—blue trousers, chequered shirt, blue jumper, brown jacket—from his side of the closet, and folded and rolled everything carefully, so it wouldn't crease while it was in his backpack. After work, he would change, then head over to the address Greg had given him—some pub he'd never heard of.

He went back downstairs and left his pack by the kitchen door, poured coffee, and sipped it, burning his tongue, as he stared out into the back garden, and wondered if anything would ever be right again. A robin hopped across the flagstones in the yard, its red breast bright against the tired grey and green of the winter plants.

He took the ride into work at a good clip, his heart lighter than it should be, his body slipping comfortably into the ride. He pulled up to the clinic doors at 8:45. Once he was inside, he went directly to the space behind the break room, an oversized closet that held a coat rack, and a stack of cubby holes where the staff kept their belongings during their shifts. He wondered when he would see Mark, if he'd come in.  

Mark's racquet bag was stuffed into his cubby. John stared at it for a long moment, as he hung up his jacket. He hadn't seen him in the waiting area, his usual haunt in the mornings. He liked to chat up the patients who'd arrived early for their appointments. He was sociable, enjoyed making people feel more comfortable. So he'd said.

John kept an eye on the racquet bag, as though it contained a live snake, as he pulled out the clothes he'd brought with him, and hung them up on the coat rack.

"All ready for tonight?"

Mark's voice came from the break room doorway.

John startled, his entire body ready to fight. "Oh!" he said, letting out a laugh instead of a shout, scrambling to slip into some semblance of the role he'd been playing for the last six months. "Didn't see you there."

"Good morning." Mark glanced behind himself, checking that the break room was clear. He stepped through the doorway, wrapped his arms around John's shoulders, and kissed him on the lips. "How are you?" Mark asked. "You look tired."

Mark had dark circles under his eyes. He was the one who looked exhausted. Lying was heavy work. John wondered where he'd been last night, if he'd had to kill any more of his criminal cohort. He felt the tensions of the last few days crashing in on him, freezing him to the spot. He could barely move, barely speak, but he finally managed to step back, rubbing the back of his neck.

"I'm a bit tired, yeah. Woke up last night and you weren't home."

"Ah, sorry love. You got my text, though?"

"Yeah. Yes." John chewed his lower lip. "Everything all right?"

"Oh, yeah. Will be. Jill got home at seven this morning, a right mess, but Christopher's going to be fine."

The lie sat there, between them, like a dare. Mark didn't lose a fraction of his grin as he watched John. If anything, his eyes grew a little brighter.

"Great, okay. Kids all right?" John took a step back, skin crawling. The kids. He had a sudden, creeping sense of concern about Jill, about her entire family. She'd said she was going away. Perhaps Mark was counting on John not to ask anyone about her, counting on John's social isolation to stop him from checking his alibi.

"Sure, yes. They didn't see me. I left before they got up, so."

"Right, right." John pointed at the squash bag in Mark's cubby. "Did you get a game in this morning?"

"I did! Thought I might as well, since—"

"Jill lives right around the corner from the club. I remember. Good! Well. I'd better go—"

"Start your day, yeah." Mark leaned against the doorframe, blocking John's exit. He smiled, head tilted. "Stag night tonight." He said it like it didn't mean anything at all, but he watched John carefully, as if looking for a particular response.

"Right. Will be a late one. You'll be all right? You can't have gotten any sleep."

"I'll be fine. Don't worry." Mark kissed him on the cheek, and let him pass.

John excused himself, nerves singing high danger. Mark whistled as he went down the hall the opposite way, toward the clinic storeroom.

John stopped at the front desk before heading into his office. Devi, who was on reception this week, didn't seem to be in yet. Hands shaking, John opened the duty roster file on the computer, and checked it.

Jill had booked off two weeks for her vacation. Maybe Mark had chosen Jill to be the subject of his lie because she wouldn't be available to deny or confirm his story. He wondered if her body was stowed somewhere, anticipatory regret turning his stomach. He hadn't imagined that Mark would target a civilian, much less one he worked with.

Cath came up to the front desk, a cup of coffee in hand. "Checking to make sure your holiday's all set?" She smiled at John. "I can't believe the two of you get three whole weeks off together."

John stared at her. As far as he'd understood, they'd only managed one.

"Oh," she said, looking down into her mug. "That was supposed to be a secret." She looked over her shoulder, and leaned over the desk to whisper at him conspiratorially. "Don't tell him I let the cat out of the bag. He'll absolutely murder me."

John managed to fake a smile. "Your secret's safe with me."

Cath giggled. "Sorry. Didn't mean to spoil the surprise."

"If you were a real friend, you'd tell me where we were going."

She shook her head. "Oh, no. Couldn't do that."

"But you know, right?" Three weeks. Too long. Anything could happen in three weeks. They could go anywhere. Disappear. John could be made to disappear.

"I've heard a thing or two."

Whatever she'd heard would almost certainly be inaccurate. There was no way Mark would have told anyone the truth.

John watched Cath closely, and remembered Sherlock interviewing people, remembered his favourite tactics. People loved to correct wrong information.

He smiled. "Well, I'll bet we aren't going somewhere exotic, like Jill."

Cath raised her eyebrows. "I suppose you could call visiting your husband's family in Iceland exotic."

"Oh yeah, right," John said. "I just mean, I've never been. Sounds interesting. Leaving today, are they?"

"Oh yeah, gone already." She took out her phone, opened an app, and showed John a picture Jill had taken with the kids, under a gate at Heathrow. "Sent us this an hour ago. Should be in the air already."

"Good, good." He inhaled sharply, and let out his breath. Jill had just been a cover story, then.

He was back where he'd started. Worrying about himself, and how to keep Sherlock safe.  

Cath shook her head, and raised a finger at him. "I see what you're doing. You're trying to keep me talking, hoping that I'll give it all away. You're not going to get me to tell you anything more about your honeymoon, Doctor Watson." She cast a glance over her shoulder, and giggled. "Not worth the risk."

***

The rest of the morning and the first part of the afternoon seemed to go both too quickly and achingly slowly. John couldn't stop thinking about Mark's racquet bag, about the dangerous weapon he had, in all probability, brought to work. On the other hand, he was full of anticipation for tonight's party, knowing that if he could just see Sherlock one more time, everything might somehow be okay. He would, at the very least, be able to remember what he was fighting for.

He wondered what Mark was playing at, lying so clumsily. Was he hoping to get caught? Did he want John to confront him? His entire body was on alert, jumping each time the door to his office opened, and his next patient came in.

The work kept him occupied, at least. He prescribed antibiotics for a badly infected hand, and performed a general physical on a seventy year old man. Three patients in a row came in with some combination of strep throat and a cold.

Toward the end of the day, a knock came at his office door, and Mark's face poked around the edge of it. "Hey, handsome."

John smiled. "Hi. Uh, my patient?"

Mark frowned, a hint of a storm passing over his features. He stepped through the door, and closed it behind him, a smile moving across his lips. "I could be. Pawned your next one off on Dr. Chakraborty."

Mark stood in the middle of the office, hands clasped in front of him as if he were coming over shy. It didn't look right, somehow. More calculating than adorable.

John remembered the last time they'd stolen a moment together in the office, remembered kissing Mark for everything he was worth. How natural it had seemed, how caught up he'd been, in slotting their bodies together, and lifting Mark's shirt, and tracing the skin above his waistband.  

John folded his hands on the desk, the things he wanted to say burning through him. Where were you really last night? I'll never allow you to hurt Sherlock. You know that, right?

"Sure you don't want to come over here?" Mark asked, his head tilting.

John could barely recognise him anymore, could barely see the man he'd imagined he wanted to marry. He remembered the day leading up to their dinner at the Landmark, how nervous he'd been, how jagged the edges of his life, of his heart, and how he'd wished, so fervently, that they could become smooth. 

Now he'd been shattered, his whole life ground down into sand. It only made him all the more determined to fix it, to earn the right to be happy. The trouble he was in was all his fault in the first place. It was his weakness that had allowed Mark into his life, into Sherlock's. He would do anything to correct it. He would kill again, if he had to.

"I suppose I'm saving myself for the wedding night."

Mark approached him, and moved around to John's side of the desk, taking his time. He leaned down, and pressed his lips to John's, his kiss slow, and deliberate.

"Sounds good to me," he said, as he stood up again, and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "You're off soon, yeah? Stay safe. Never know what Sherlock has planned for you."

John shrugged, feeling cold. "I'm not sure he's even going to be there. Greg never said. He doesn't go in for that sort of thing."

"Yeah, he wouldn't tell me either."

"Oh." The comment was meant to throw John off. He was sure of it. Another dare, another invitation to enter into the argument they'd had before. He wouldn't take the bait.

Mark's nod and smile suggested he had a better handle on the conversational undercurrent than John did. "Hard to tell what he goes in for, isn't it?"

Just like that, without any chance to stop it, John's facade slipped. "What?" He regretted the question immediately, wondering if there were some way to take it back.

Mark laughed. "So serious, John. I suppose I always wondered if you'd ever had the chance to find out." He turned, and looked back at the closed door of John's office.

John frowned, scrambling to catch up. "It wasn't like that. We never—" he realised he'd been pushed into saying more than he should. "Where's this coming from?"

Mark stood very still, by the corner of John's desk, smiling as if they were having a chat about the weather.

John schooled his voice. "You're the one to worry about."

Mark laughed. "You think?"

"I know." John saw a chance to shift the conversation. He took it. He stood, and forcing himself to relax, he put a hand on the side of Mark's neck. He tried not to grip it too hard. He was certain the hand wasn't shaking. Good. "I should probably be concerned about where that lot's going to take you tonight." He tilted his head toward the clinic lobby, indicating the other nurses.

Mark shrugged. "I think they're more excited about it than I am, to be honest. They won't stop talking about the wedding. I keep telling them it's going to be small, just friends on both sides, and your sister. She's still coming, right?"

John felt his stomach plunge. He hated the idea of Mark even thinking of Harry, wondering, wildly, if somehow she was a target, too. He coached himself to play it off, keep things light. "You kidding? Her own brother, marrying a man? She wouldn't miss the chance to say I told you so."

Mark kissed John's forehead, then leaned in and kissed him on the lips, lingering there, while John closed his eyes, and tried to endure it. Finally, Mark stepped back, and ran his fingers through his hair. "Do I look okay? Not too mussed?"

"Like quite a catch."

"Well, I'll take that as a compliment." With a wink, and a promise to see John much, much later, Mark left, and closed the door.

By the time John was finished with his patient notes, and on his way to fetch his clothes from the coat room, the clinic was empty. Mark had stopped by one last time to say goodnight, and then he was whisked away by the other nurses in a flurry of excited chatter, the moment they'd finished their shifts at 5:30.

As he stepped into the coat room, John's eye caught on the black racquet bag, still in its cubby. He watched it for a long moment, knowing that he shouldn't need another piece of proof against Mark, but wanting to see, just the same, wanting to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was right. He cleared his throat, cast a final glance at the empty break room, and took the bag out.

It was heavy, the shape of the racquets—Mark's favourite one, and a spare—obvious through the flexible black vinyl. He put it down on the floor, crouched over it, and tugged on the zipper to open it. The high-pitched zip sound was incredibly loud in the empty room, the opening of the bag like a yawning maw, black inside. John pulled it open and looked in.

Nestled in the space around the racquets was a collection of Mark's sports kit: an empty water bottle, folded shorts, t-shirt, court shoes. Nothing incriminating.

Frowning, John hefted the bag, putting his hand under it. Checking the door of the coat room again—empty, no one there—he lifted the racquets out, placing them on the floor, and tested the bag for weight once more.

Still heavy. Heavier than it should be.

He looked in the bottom, and there, found the edge of a false panel, held in place by velcro. He pulled it up to reveal a hidden compartment. His breath came heavily, raggedly now, his entire focus on what he was about to find.

Black clothes: a lightweight jacket, moisture wicking fabric. Trousers, of the same material. Lightweight black shoes, like nothing John had ever seen, the soles covered in a pliable rubber, so soft it seemed to stick to his fingertips.

None of these items could account for the weight he'd felt when he'd lifted the bag.

Beneath them, he found the gun. He recognised it immediately: an M9 Beretta. Next to it was a silencer. Both were attached to the bottom of the bag with elastic loops to hold them in place. Underneath, the bag was heavily padded, to cushion the gun, and disguise its shape, so it wouldn't show through the fabric.

Carefully, John put the shoes and clothes back. He replaced the false bottom, making certain the velcro was firmly attached. He slid the racquets into place, and finally, packed the water bottle, court shoes, and gym clothes around them.

He zipped the bag closed, and put it back in the cubby.

Without a second look, he collected his clothes for the evening, and left the coat room, turning the light off behind him.

Once he was in the loo, he leaned on the counter, breathing hard, avoiding looking at himself in the mirror. He splashed cold water on his face, drying it on the hem of his shirt. He went through the mechanics of changing his clothes, having a bit of a wash, applying fresh deodorant, smoothing his hair with his fingertips. When he was finally ready, he faced himself. He looked all right. Pale, but passable.

The voice from last night's dream returned to him: Tell anyone you want. No one will believe you, you little nancy.

He knew the voice well. Those words had been his father's favourite retort, whenever John had threatened to call the police, to tell someone, in response to the latest round of yelling or physical abuse.

John had grown strong, in those days. Able to hold the truth of what was going on at home, while he continued to go to school and work, to do what he needed to do, until he could leave. He'd made something of himself. More than his father had ever thought he would.

He knew he could draw on those same resources now, especially now that he was certain that he was right about Mark, now that he'd seen the tangible proof. The gun was real. It was all real.

He smiled at himself in the mirror. He looked furious. He was. He was.

He knew that Mark leaving the gun for him to find was part of the new pattern, that had started with Mark leaving the house in the middle of the night last night. He'd grown sloppy. It had to be deliberate. A tease. A breadcrumb trail for John to follow.

It all seemed familiar, as familiar as the story of how they met, and how they got together. It was just like the slow, teasing talk that had turned to flirtation, the prelude to their first kiss, offered without words, in the front hallway of John's flat. This was a new seduction, darker, much more dangerous, but John thought he could see in it a continuity with who Mark had always been. Mark had, after all, talked more like a man in love than ever, when he'd returned from his trip. He was still trying to show John who he was. Still revealing himself.

John suspected that Mark was just as tired as John was, of hiding his real identity, who he really was, what he really knew. Perhaps he was only waiting to see whether John would confront him, how far he would have to go, before John broke.

John ran his fingers through his hair once more, tidying it. Smoothing his jacket down, he took another deep breath, and took out his phone.

Somehow, it was 6:35. He sent a text to Harry.

Sorry, running late.

The answer came back right away.

Sherlock said you would be.

His very name gave John hope. A new focus. Sherlock would be at the party. He had to be.  

Will be there as soon as I can. Looking forward to it.

I bet, she replied.

He left the clinic, letting himself out into the dark January evening, determined that whatever happened tonight, he would try to enjoy himself. On his way to the tube station, just as he passed a small older woman bundled into a tattered down coat, hobbling down the pavement, she dropped her cane on the sidewalk. John bent down to pick it up for her. As he handed it back, she slipped a folded piece of paper into his free hand.

He tried not to stare at her, knowing that she was another one of Sherlock's homeless network. Hope, and love, and a whole host of feelings he'd begun to doubt he would feel again, ran through him.

"Have a nice night, dear," she said, as she winked at him, and went on her way.

He waited until he was almost at the tube station before he looked at the paper. Change of plans, it said, in Sherlock's scrawl. Corner of Warwick and Beak, Soho. Go the way you would have to get to the pub.

John smiled down at the note, his nerves jangling, his heart blazing as he practically ran all the way to the tube station.

He could have this, he decided. One night away from everything he was suffering. It was allowed. It was permissible, because he'd been good, he'd followed his own program, he'd done as well as he could, and made things as safe they could be. In a couple of days, he would face the wedding. Everything would change then, and the real game would begin. He had no idea what it would look like, or whether he would survive it, but until then, he had tonight, and the promise of a moment with Sherlock.

Chapter Text

John arrived, breathless, at the corner of Warwick and Beak, to find no one there. He'd spent the tube ride over working himself up. He wanted, more than anything, an evening of the old magic, Sherlock keeping him on his heels again, sending him on some dizzy adventure that would end with the two of them, together, even just for a little while.

He knew not to expect anything, really, not to hope, but he couldn't help himself. Anticipation ran in his blood, and the relief, selfish as it was, of knowing that Sherlock still cared enough to surprise him.

He looked up and down the street, watching a group of twenty-somethings as they passed him, on their way out for Thursday night drinks, or dinner. The shop nearest to where he was standing was an upscale beauty supply store, the front window featuring an advert for free makeovers. John really hoped that wasn't the intention behind the evening. Then again, he thought, as he pictured Sherlock in eyeliner, a smear of lipstick across his mouth—he could probably be persuaded to try anything.

"Doctor Watson."

John didn't recognise the pale, scruffy man who had shuffled up behind him in a tattered knit jumper and jogging pants. "Sorry?"

The man held out a phone. "I'm Bill. Bill Wiggins. People call me The Wig."

"Do they?" John looked the man up and down. "Sorry, who are you?"

"I'm Mr. Holmes's protégé, aren't I?"

"Okay." A member of the homeless network, then. John stared at the offered phone, wondering what he was supposed to do with it. He had an idea that he would usually be vexed by the man's claim that he had some kind of close tie to Sherlock, but he was flying on the idea that he would get to see Sherlock soon, and amused by the way he seemed to have thought of everything.

"He told me to give this to you." Wiggins unlocked the phone, and hit dial on a contact number. He shook the phone at John. "You have to take it."

John took the phone and held it to his ear, wishing for a bit of hand sanitizer. He stared at Wiggins while he waited for whatever was going to happen next.

"John." Sherlock's voice came through the line, like warm honey.  

"Hi." John's questions—What's happening? Where are you?—died on his lips, and he waited, besotted, needing only to be with Sherlock again, and so grateful to hear his voice.

Wiggins nodded, shuffled from one foot to the other, and started humming tunelessly.  John turned his back on him, and stuck his finger in his ear, so he could hear whatever Sherlock had to say.

"Bit of a trip planned for tonight, John. I'm going to ask you to get in the car."

John turned toward the street, and there, behind a Wiggins who was practically twitching out of his skin with excitement, a sleek black car had pulled up to the kerb. Wiggins opened the back door for John, and gestured at him to climb in.

John walked toward it, and hesitated. "This isn't some kind of Mycroft prank, is it? Because I'm really not eager to see your brother tonight."

Sherlock laughed, a low rumble in his throat, and John stumbled as he climbed into the back of the car, caught up in the sudden beauty of the sound. "No, John. I promise, I'll see you very soon."

Wiggins closed the car door for him, as the driver turned to greet him. "Good evening, Sir." When the driver smiled, he showed yellowed teeth. One of his incisors was missing. "I'm Gabriel. I'll have you at your destination in a little less than an hour."

"Okay."

The man looked like another one of Sherlock's collection of misfits, but he spoke with a quiet authority and dignity, and as he pulled away from the kerb and merged seamlessly into traffic, John relaxed a bit. He held the phone back up to his ear. "Are you still there?" he asked, wanting to hear Sherlock's voice one more time. And again, and again, until the day he died.

"I am."

John swallowed hard against his own desire, which bucked and fought its way to the surface like a drowning animal. "I? Not we? What about the others?"

"Given the fact that you're a target, I thought it best to create the illusion that you were having a normal stag night, while ensuring that you yourself are out of the way. Mike Stamford and Graham Lestrade are currently out at the pub with your sister, along with a member of my homeless network who bears a strong resemblance to you, at least in stature and capacity to consume alcohol."

John laughed. "What? You're mad. Who would be fooled by that?"

"Anyone who peers in through the tinted windows between the main pub and the party room at Five Coachmen. Plus the staff have been told to let on that you're there. And he's wearing some of your clothes, that you left behind at Baker Street."

"Well. I suppose he's welcome to them. And where are you?" The driver was taking them up Portland Place.

"All in good time, John."

"So you're not going to show up at the pub? For the sake of appearance?"

"Good for optics if I avoid it, I think. Parties, hardly my thing. Makes for a better story, in a way. The less we see of each other, the better."

"I suppose so." He hated to agree, but he couldn't think of a better solution than appearing to be estranged, not until he'd dealt with Mark and his cohort.

"Enjoy the trip, John."

"All right."

John watched through the window as the car moved through city traffic, then out into the suburbs, passing row after row of houses.

After about forty-five minutes, they drove over Kew Bridge. The driver turned in toward Kew Gardens, where a security guard stood outside an open service gate, waiting for them, apparently. He waved them through, even though the gardens had long since closed for the day.

The road seemed to take them on a loop around the outskirts of the park, through trees, past maintenance sheds, and a couple of car parks that seemed reserved for employees. Eventually, they turned onto a grassy field, and stopped. Gabriel got out, and opened John's door for him. He handed John a torch.

"This way, Sir." He smiled, as if he and John shared a secret.

"All right."

The two of them walked toward the edge of some woods, where Gabriel directed John to a narrow path of hard-packed dirt that moved off among the trees. "Follow this, Sir."

John stared at him for a moment. He thought to ask questions about how they would get back, about what he could expect to find, but Sherlock had clearly gone to a lot of trouble to set all of this up, and he didn't want to break the spell. He wanted it to never break.

He moved along the trail, his feet crunching on frost-hardened leaves, the only sound against the far-off sigh of traffic. A thin snow began to fall, just a few flakes, that caught and glistened in the light of the torch.

A few moments later, he saw a flash of pale metal and glass in a clearing ahead of him. He stepped forward, the torch illuminating a wall, made up entirely of windows, built into a hillside, a sort of greenhouse structure, facing south. Before the trees had grown up around it, it would have caught the sun all day long. It was clever, really, so well insulated, that it would probably be warm enough to grow things through much of the winter.

White blinds were drawn down over all the windows, but a yellow glow lit them from within. John took a deep breath, and held it, suddenly as nervous as any man on a date with the love of his life.

Sherlock had said that he would be waiting, just him. John had never imagined that Sherlock would agree to be alone with him for the entire evening, so soon. Not after the disaster of the train carriage. Not after all the worry and concern about spending time together.

And yet. There'd been their careful conversation, the day they caught Jonathan Small, and the veiled promise of the watch and chain. Time slowed, and stopped, and reversed.

The door to the greenhouse cracked open, and there Sherlock was, in a black bespoke suit, white shirt open at the collar, smiling at John shyly. John's breath huffed out of him, all in one go, filling the air between them with white vapour.

"It's cold. Come in," Sherlock said.

John worried, as he stepped over the threshold, that Sherlock would know, would read, somehow, the entire history of the last few days in John's posture, in his tone of voice, in the thread dangling from the hem of his jumper, or the way he'd tied his shoelaces.

Sherlock, however, turned away, and stepped back from the door, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, as he moved into the interior of the greenhouse.

Inside, it was unexpectedly cosy. The place looked like a smaller, dingier prototype of 221b, with a pair of armchairs standing next to an oil space heater in one corner. A desk littered with papers dominated the other side of the room, crammed up against a set of three overflowing bookshelves. By the door stood a collection of plant pots and gardening tools, leftovers from the greenhouse's original purpose, John supposed. Sherlock stepped aside, hands clasped behind his back, and watched as John took it in.

In the centre of the room, standing on a red Persian rug that was clearly new, was a small, round table with two chairs. There was food, apparently: several takeaway containers with their covers on peeked out from under a folded wool blanket.

"Give me your coat," Sherlock said, his voice raspy.

"Huh? Oh." John startled, and undid the buttons on his winter coat, and pulled off his scarf. Sherlock's scarf, he realised, with a brief flurry of shame. "Right."

Sherlock hung the coat up on a rack, next to his own, his fingers lingering on the scarf, the familiar, beloved crease forming between his brows.

"You can have that back if you want," John told him. "I only took it because—"

Sherlock nodded, and smiled as he rubbed the fabric between his fingers. "No. Keep it. It suits you." He moved into the centre of the room, where he stood awkwardly, looking like everything John had ever wanted. "Are you hungry? I have—" he twirled his hand over the table, like a stage magician— "food things."

John went to the table, and sat, feeling as though he needed to be very cautious, very still, for fear of upsetting some balance, or ruining whatever Sherlock had planned. For his part, Sherlock was moving like he was trying not to spill something. John watched as he lifted the folded blanket he'd used as insulation. He poured wine for them, then took a candle from the desk, produced a lighter from his suit jacket pocket, and lit it, placing it on the table between them.

Sherlock looked so very handsome, in his suit, his curls carefully cultivated, the scent of his cologne—sweet herbs, almonds, musk—wafting from him as he moved.

John tried not to stare at him as Sherlock opened containers, which held rice, and some sort of vegetable stew, and bread. Finally, Sherlock sat, and looked at John, eyebrows raised, expression soft, lips pressed together in a sweet, gentle smile, before he cast his eyes downward, and folded his hands on the table.

Now that John had the chance to look more closely at the room, he saw that there were candles everywhere—on the bookshelves, on a low side table next to the chairs in the corner. They were supplemented by a couple of battery powered lamps. He looked up, trying to see the original structure of the place. The ceiling was made up of metal beams and tin roofing material. The whole thing felt like a secret cave, a hidden place, completely out of the way. Marvellous.

When he spoke, John heard his sense of wonder coming through in his voice. He spoke quietly, a little bit breathless. "Sherlock, where are we?"

Sherlock smiled. "Kew Gardens."

"Yeah, I know, but—what is this place?"

Sherlock spooned some rice onto his plate, and looked around. "One of my boltholes."

"One of your—"

"Please, John. Eat. It won't stay warm forever."

John served himself. His stomach growled as the scent rose from the stew—ginger, cumin. "You were saying?"

Sherlock smiled. "When I was twenty, still in uni, I helped the head gardener with a blackmail case. One of the under gardeners—another man—had set him up, seduced him, and was threatening to mail incriminating photos to his very conservative parents, and the board of directors of the Gardens. He was terrified, you see."

John nodded, his heart full. "He wasn't out." He was filled with the old, familiar sensation he'd always had, in the old days, when Sherlock shared one of his stories. He loved hearing about the old cases, loved imagining what Sherlock had been like when he was younger.

"No. Although he is now," Sherlock said, his gaze shifting to the candle on the table. "Happily married, actually."

John's gut clenched at the mention of marriage. "And this place?"

"Was nothing. It was a greenhouse, initially, as you can see, but fell into disuse and became a sort of storage shed. I asked the head gardener if I could have it, in exchange for helping him resolve his problem, and he said yes."

"You called it a bolthole."

Sherlock studied John from under the curls that tumbled down over his forehead. "A place I could come where I wouldn't be bothered by anyone. Sometimes I needed to study, run experiments. Sometimes, I needed—" he stopped himself, and waited for John to come to his own conclusion.

"Oh." John studied his plate. "A place to get high."

Sherlock flushed. "Yes."

A fresh stream of guilt poured through John. He'd flirted with Sherlock, propositioned him, before Sherlock was ready. Set him up to expect more, and then pretended he hadn't meant it. He wouldn't blame him for returning to old habits. John would still hold him accountable, still try to help, but he could hardly blame him. "You haven't—"

"No. Not here, not for some time. Once Mycroft found this place, it became rather useless to me. He kept dragging me out of here and putting me in the hospital."

"Oh." John watched him closely. There were no obvious signs that Sherlock was using, but he suspected he'd missed signs in the past, in the old days.

Sherlock shook his head. "I'm not—I don't, any more. Serbian prison, as it turns out, wonderful detox opportunity." He smiled, and laughed, shyly, at his own attempt at a joke.

John shut his eyes against the image from his dream, of worms crawling across Sherlock's skin, the memory of thick scar tissue under his fingers. "Oh my God, Sherlock." It was all John could do to stay in his chair, to stop himself from standing, and taking Sherlock into his arms.

"Not funny, I know." Sherlock pushed rice across his plate with his fork. "Anyway, need to stay alert right now. Still haven't sorted out the current threat to you."

"It's a threat to you too," John said.

"Indeed."

John watched Sherlock carefully, looking for any sign that he understood what was really going on, that he was covering up any discoveries he'd made, but Sherlock, for his part, seemed a bit lost, watching John with a pleading look.

John knew he had to be careful. He was one, small misstep away from running his fingers through Sherlock's curls, because one thing was abundantly clear: this was no stag night. It was most definitely a date, and it wasn't John alone who wanted it to be. There was no better explanation for how hard Sherlock had worked to get him alone, for the candles, the dinner.

"So you brought us here because no one knows about it. No one except Mycroft." John studied his plate, knowing that he needed to eat a bit, because somehow his wine glass was most of the way to empty. He took a few bites while Sherlock spoke.

"It's a complete secret to nearly everyone else, except certain members of my homeless network. Which means it's safe, for now. A place where we could meet and not worry about giving whoever's after you the idea that we're still close."

John cleared his throat, and drained the rest of his wine. Sherlock refilled his glass. "It's very nice," John said, trying not to choke on his words. "It's all—I love it. Really. It's wonderful." Incredible. Amazing. Private.

"Thank you."

A small measure of softness crept into John's belly, a sense that he could allow himself to let go of the breath he'd been holding for the last few days, ever since he'd looked at the security footage.

He wanted this, wanted days and days of him and Sherlock, and takeaway dinners, and wine and quiet nights together, after which he would take Sherlock to bed, or Sherlock would take him. He wanted hours spent kissing and making love, and more hours to tell Sherlock how he'd loved him all along, and hadn't known it. He hoped, he hoped, that Sherlock would tell him the same.

This was what it was all for: the pain, the lies, the risk. For nights just like this one, but better, because there would be no need to hold back. He couldn't let any of it show, but he could, just for tonight, allow himself to feel it.

He took another deep drink of wine. The silence between them extended, and Sherlock squirmed in his chair, then stilled.

"All right," John said, his mind full of other, deeper things. "Here we are. And some doppelganger of mine is out partying in my place."

"Yes."

John tried to picture Mike and Greg Lestrade spending time in the same room with Harry. He wondered how they would fare: even sober, his sister could be a bit of a fire starter. Throw in a down-and-out clone of himself, and it all started to sound a bit surreal. "Are you sure it's safe?"

"Well, I'm not there, so it's unlikely your double will be targeted, and Greg has his gun. It's as safe as it can be."

John stared at him. "Who has his gun?"

"Greg. Lestrade."

"You just called him the right name."

Sherlock watched John over the rim of his wine glass as he took a sip. "Did I?"

"You've known his name all along, haven't you?"

"Have I?"

John giggled, delighted by the whole evening, by Sherlock. "This is mad."

"Yes."

"You're mad."

"I thought you liked that about me."

"I do." I love that about you. I love you.

They ate quietly for the next few moments, exchanging talk about the food. Sherlock told John about the restaurant he'd gotten it from. Moroccan. I helped the owner escape a money laundering scheme. He chatted about it a bit, telling John about dressing up as an investment banker and connecting the thugs who'd been bothering the restaurateur with a low-interest loan, so they could start their own business.

"Besides," Sherlock added, "thought you could do with the carbohydrates. You prefer them when you're nervous. Settles you down." His gaze barely met John's before he was studying his plate again.

"You think I'm nervous?" A bad question. Ridiculous, given that John was about to crawl out of his skin at the hint of talk about the wedding. His knee bounced under the table.

Sherlock looked down at it, eyebrow raised, although he kept his voice gentle. "Pre-wedding jitters. Perfectly normal."

"Well. Cheers to the wedding." He drained the rest of his glass, and looked at Sherlock, who was frowning at his plate, his face pale, and felt immediately guilty, as he remembered the text Sherlock had sent: You seem, as usual, totally unaware of how much effort is going into your own wedding. Sherlock had mentioned being distracted. He'd been putting in steady effort on John's behalf, communicating with Anika, and setting John up with Arthur Davies. Planning tonight.

"It's helping," he told Sherlock. "It is. I'm glad we're doing this. It's nice." You look nice. You look wonderful. You always do. You always did, to me.

"Good."

"I'm glad. Never was much for parties."

Sherlock smiled and nodded, as if finally catching his breath. "No." As if making some internal decision, he tore off a piece of bread, spooned stew onto it, and took a few bites.

"It's good to see you eating."  

Sherlock shrugged. "Might as well. I seem to be rather hopeless at solving anything right now, and there's nothing pressing. Not tonight. I cleared my schedule."

John knew his eyes were shining, a smile pushing its way past the grief and confusion of the last few days, the last two years. "Your what?"

"My schedule, John." He took a deep breath. "It's a meticulous series of interlocking potential plans of action, triggered by events in the outside world. I'm surprised you've never noticed the pattern. It's astoundingly simple, once you get hold of it."

John shook his head as pushed his plate aside. His hands were steady, thank Christ. "You've never had a schedule."

"Not that you've noticed."

"All right, so, world events. An earthquake happens in South America, you take a murder case? Something like that?"

Sherlock pressed his lips together. If John hadn't been staring, trying to take in every detail he could, he might have missed the way Sherlock's chin seemed to tremble. His eyes were on John, steady, as he spoke. "Oh, nothing so global. Outside world, as in, events outside myself." He fiddled with his fork, turning it so it flashed in the candlelight. "For example, John Watson is getting married. Set aside an evening to celebrate him."

John sat back in his chair, his chest squeezing painfully. "Oh. Oh right."

"John Watson in need of something to do? Find a case that will interest him." Sherlock's smile had grown lopsided. "Can't do that so much any more, but maybe, at some point, we'll be able to again."

"Sherlock."

"John Watson in need of rescue? Save him."

John found that he was breathing harder than he should be. He refilled his wine glass, and drank deeply, realising he had drunk nearly the entire bottle. The half glass that Sherlock had poured for himself still sat at his elbow, almost untouched.

John had to go through with the wedding. Had to. Breaking things off would mean losing access to Mark, losing the ability to figure out what he was doing.  

"I don't need saving, Sherlock. I'm all right. I'm fine." It was a lie, an utter and complete lie. At least he was only betraying himself with it.

Sherlock nodded, and looked down at the table as he smoothed the cloth with his hands. "Just, if you need pulling out of the occasional fire. I'll push back appointments for that."

John had no idea what he was doing. The whole conversation was off its moorings. "Oh, you meant literally."

"Any way you need, really." Sherlock smiled sadly.

John knew he was gazing into Sherlock's eyes, and knew he would give in, if it went on for much longer. Sherlock, on the other hand, seemed to crumple under some internal weight, as he looked down, and sighed, and winced, as if something pained him.

"Even if it means pretending we're not friends."

John sat back in his chair and closed his eyes. "You're still thinking of staging something at the wedding." He stopped short of asking if Sherlock were still talking with Mark. He had to assume they were in contact, and had to ensure that Sherlock wouldn't change in his attitude or behaviour going forward. It could be the only thing keeping him safe.

"Nothing too dramatic. Just planning to leave early. I have a member of the press who will take photos of me arriving back at Baker Street. I'll say something about not liking weddings, and you being off on your own adventures now, and not needing me. Reinforce the distance. Should do the trick to set things back to where they were a few weeks ago."

As he'd spoken, Sherlock had begun to sound more agitated than resolved. John understood all too well, the frustration he must be feeling, but the tone in Sherlock’s voice was painful to hear. "Sherlock?"

Sherlock pushed back from the table, and stood. He began to pace, went to the desk, and shuffled through a collection of papers. "Should have solved it by now. Then none of this would be necessary."

John was struck, forcefully, by the sense that he was watching a small, personal tragedy unfold before his eyes. He knew, because of course he did, how difficult things must have been for Sherlock, how John's behaviour had probably spun him. As Sherlock moved restlessly, and continued to talk about how he couldn't seem to get anywhere, that all the answers led to conclusions that couldn't possibly be right, the last, thin layer of John's hope that somehow Sherlock had weathered all of it tore away, like wet tissue paper. Sherlock wasn't okay. His face contorted into the same mask of misery he'd worn on the train carriage, and after.

It was all crashing down on him, John realised, weighing on him just as heavily as it had weighed on John himself. The two of them, the wedding, the plot against them.

Sherlock was still ranting, talking rapidly about how hard he'd tried, how he'd traced the case back to someone in John's clinic, but he couldn't sort out who, and the trail had grown cold.

A slow sense that he'd missed something rolled along John's spine. He got to his feet, and wavered on them. He really was most of the way to drunk. "What?"

Sherlock, who had begun to take his frustration out on the papers littering the battered desk, paused in the act of throwing a crumpled ball of newspaper clippings to the floor. "What?"

John felt himself grow cold. "You said something about someone in the clinic."

Sherlock shook his head. "I thought I saw a pattern there. Some operative in place. CIA, maybe, maybe something dingier, black ops, I don't know. Just when I was getting close, the trail went cold. Could be anyone. Could be no one. Could be you."

John wrestled with two powerful urges: one, the hope that Sherlock would say Mark's name. John knew, because he had served often enough as Sherlock's sounding board, that he could prompt Sherlock into a full revelation. All he had to do was ask questions, nudge him a bit.

The other, equally strong, was to redirect, to turn Sherlock's thoughts away from the case. He didn't trust himself in this moment. He shouldn't. He had far too much selfish interest in throwing everything away so he could take what he wanted now, in this moment. The best thing he could do would be to ensure that tonight didn't change the game, as he had decided to play it.

"Sherlock," he said, uncertain of what would follow. "Let's not talk about the case. Please? Not tonight."

Sherlock stared at him, and John saw in his eyes everything that he was feeling: the worst kind of despair, because it was tinged with hope.

"Please, come sit with me. Come on, over here." He was barely standing. He couldn't have what he wanted, but he could have something, just for one night. Something good, to try to hang his dreams on. "Come on, come sit. Talk."

Sherlock was touching something on the desk, running his fingers over the cover of a book, concentrating on it as if his life depended on it. It took John a moment to recognise the copy of Pasteur's Studies on Fermentation he'd given Sherlock for Christmas.

John felt himself turning red. He remembered the way he'd written the inscription, how conflicted he'd felt about it. To see it here, now, in the midst of the evening Sherlock had planned for just the two of them, introduced a fresh, painful undercurrent into the conversation.

Sherlock was suddenly on the move. "Yes. Sit. Go ahead, John."

John stumbled for the chair closest to him, and fell into it. The springs were broken. It threatened to absorb him altogether, while Sherlock fumbled about on the other side of the room, then came over carrying a pair of tumblers, a small white cardboard box tied with string, and, tucked under his arm, a bottle of what turned out to be very expensive scotch.

He sat in the chair opposite John, and handed him the box. "Pastry. And—" he held up the bottle.

John raised his eyebrows. "Only if you have some. It's traditional."

"Well. Wouldn't want to set tradition aside altogether."

The box contained cannoli. They ate it, leaning over the edges of their chairs so as not to spill powdered sugar down the fronts of their shirts. John got some all over his trousers anyway, and giggled as he brushed it off, the whole night too much. Sherlock handed him a glass with two fingers of scotch in it, and John found himself trapped by Sherlock's eyes on him once more.

They clinked glasses, and Sherlock drank, downing the whole glass at once. He poured himself another.

John leaned back in the chair, and watched the top buttons of Sherlock's shirt pull and strain, as he took a large mouthful of scotch, watched the line of Sherlock's throat as he swallowed. They talked nonsense—Mrs. Hudson's bridge friends, who Sherlock had taken to joining for games from time to time; John's attempts at bicycle maintenance. The oil heater ticked and popped beside them. At some point, they both took off their shoes.

John let his eyes wander, as he traced a line up from Sherlock's sock feet, his crossed legs, to his hips, nestled into the chair, to his hands—God, his hands, twice as large as John's, those long fingers—which squeezed and kneaded the arms of his chair. His lips. His eyes. Watching John, watching John drink him in.

"Two days," Sherlock said.

"What?" John's voice was loud. "Sorry. What?" He was full of a tenderness he couldn't express, and suddenly angry, he realised, furious with himself, for everything he'd done, and everything he had to do.

Sherlock's voice was low, quiet. "You don't remember?" The tendons in his neck flexed as he turned his head. He uncrossed his legs, and crossed them again. His hands still clutched the armrests of his chair, as if he were hanging on for dear life.

Saturday. The wedding. "Oh. Yeah."

Sherlock raised his glass, and drained it. He was still watching John, his head tilted, his lips parted, eyes as sharp as ever.

"I'm ready," John said, his leg bouncing, fidgeting to stop himself from blurting out everything, from telling Sherlock that he never loved Mark, that Mark was a criminal, an assassin, and they had to go catch him. "Yeah, I'm ready to get married." I would marry you, in a heartbeat. Let's run away together. Let's elope. Leave all this behind. Sod London.

Sherlock nodded, then took a deep breath. "Good. Nice to see you settled, with someone normal. I mean, someone who is reliable. I'm not. Never was. Clearly. Difficult. I am, that is." Sherlock shifted in his chair, and frowned down at his hands, as if there was more to say, but he wasn't sure he should keep going.

Sherlock was comparing himself to Mark. Trying to rationalise, perhaps, John's choice to stick with him. John thought back to the conversation over dinner, Sherlock's claims about being there for John. Maybe he'd been trying to make a case for himself. Maybe trying to understand how he'd ended up on the outside.

"You're not. I mean, you are. Difficult. But so am I. We're both—you're fine, the way you are."

"Probably still mad at me. You have every right to be."

"No." John tried to sit up in his chair, and ended up sinking down lower into the sagging seat. "Of course I'm not mad. Of course not."

Sherlock nodded, staring into the red glow of the space heater. "I understand. No bomb about to go off. No pressure. No need to say anything. Just—life. You're getting on with it. You should." He shot John a woeful glance, closed his eyes, and took a sip of scotch.

No bomb. He was talking about the train carriage. The things John had said. The claims he'd made.

Trying to go back, then. John's mind leapt on the idea of the watch, the way he'd interpreted it. Maybe Sherlock hadn't meant that he wanted to go back to the old days at all, but to the train carriage, to the moment when John had confessed, and Sherlock had frozen, and seemed to reject him.

"It's all right," John told him, when it was anything but. He took a deep breath.

Sherlock smiled at him, shaky, his eyes wet. "I suppose. Humanises me." He slurred the words a bit.

"What?"

"The unsolved ones."

"Sherlock, what are you talking about?"

He laughed, a bitter, choked sound. "Well, unsolved one. Only one that really matters."

John knew he was staring. Cases. Unsolved cases. He struggled to keep up with the way Sherlock's mind moved, ricocheting from one thing to another. "You'll figure it out," he said. "We'll find whoever's behind it. You will. You're brilliant. Only a matter of time until you get it."

"Not talking about that one. The one I couldn't solve before I left. Can't solve now. Never could. I'm always late. Always too late. Timing, John. It's everything."

Sherlock shot him a look of such fraught despair then, that it stopped John's words in his throat. John put down his scotch glass, and covered his mouth with his hand.

It was as clear a statement of intention as he'd expected Sherlock to make. Clearer. It was John himself that Sherlock was talking about.

Sherlock had been trying, John realised, with everything he had, to solve the puzzle of their relationship. He'd set all of this up, planned a romantic evening, just the two of them, and then said all those things—oblique, tender things—about how John was his first concern. Considering the volume of wine he'd poured into John's glass, John supposed that was part of it, too. Hoping, perhaps, that John would renew everything he'd said on the train carriage. Perhaps he'd imagined John would throw himself at him again, and somehow, this time, it would work out. Somehow, this time, they would both be ready.

He watched, as Sherlock sat with his head bowed, and he wondered what it was, exactly, that Sherlock had expected to happen. John's heart squeezed, and he pulled himself up onto the hard forward edge of the chair, and teetered there.

"You're not late," he said. If anything, it was too early, too soon. "It's not your fault."

"It's all right, John." Sherlock's voice was disturbingly calm and steady, as if he'd reached some point of internal resolve. "I could do with a little humanisation. You always said."

John's heart leapt to life in his chest, squeezing painfully as he heard his old words repeated back to him, not as a rebuke, although they should be. He never should have told Sherlock that people thought he wasn't human.

He recalled, with a shudder, the things he'd shouted at him, on the last day, right before he died, in the lab at Barts. You machine. He'd stormed out, telling Sherlock that friends protect people, as he went off to help Mrs. Hudson, who hadn't needed helping at all. Later, he'd regretted those words. Blamed himself for Sherlock's death. He hadn't protected him at all. He was trying to now, but he was hurting him, too, doing damage he wasn't sure he could undo.

John bent forward, arms folded across his belly. It was too much. It was all too much. Sherlock wanted him, and there was nothing that should stop them, except the fact that John had to marry Mark in two days, and he knew that if he did what he wanted right now, then he would never be able to go through with it.

He felt himself break open, felt it all spill out onto the floor, and he couldn't stop himself. "You don't need humanising, Sherlock. You're good. You're a good man."

"I'm the best man." As if raising a toast to himself, Sherlock drank down the rest of the scotch in his glass.

He looked so alone, and was trying so hard to make everything okay, that John couldn't stand it. He tilted forward, reaching out, looking for any comforting thing he could do. He slipped, losing balance, and his hand landed on Sherlock's knee.

He stared at it, his pale skin against the black fabric of Sherlock's trousers, at the veins that ran across the back of his hand, and he wanted nothing more than to be good to Sherlock. He knew he could be, knew he could treat him with care. The world had been too harsh, to both of them.

The thought tore him open from the inside, and he slid all the way to the floor, onto his knees, as he felt, powerfully, the consequences of everything that had happened to him, and all of his decisions. He buried his face against Sherlock's knees, and Sherlock said his name, and a sob wracked him.

When he could speak, he only managed nonsense denials. "I can't do this, please. I can't talk about it. I can't say what you want me to. I'm sorry, Sherlock." He was fully crying now, tears falling and staining Sherlock's trousers.

"John, no. Please don't be upset, John." Sherlock's hand fell on the back of John's neck, rubbing the muscle there, as his other hand passed over John's shoulder.

"I'm sorry," John said, trying to pull away, struggling to get to his feet. Somehow, he managed to stand, feeling terrible. Sherlock had planned such a beautiful night for them, had imagined, perhaps, a happy ending, imagined that there was still possibility between them, and it was for nothing, because John had fallen apart, and he had ruined it. And the worst thing, the very worst, was that there'd never been a chance he wouldn't ruin it, because he had to. He had no choice.

Sherlock was on his feet too. John steeled himself for some joke, some rebuke. For Sherlock to walk away. By some miracle, though, he wasn't repulsed by John's sudden show of emotion. He drew John into his arms, and John let him.

John still hadn't grown used to the height difference between them. It was easy to press his face to the skin exposed by the open collar of Sherlock's shirt, to feel the warmth of his chest, and inhale the scent of his soap, as Sherlock held him, and murmured nonsense. It's okay. It will be okay.

John felt a thousand tensions he'd held within him burst, and he softened, and allowed Sherlock to hold him. This was the proof that he hadn't been willing to admit that he needed, not just that Sherlock cared, but that he knew how to take care of his heart. A surprise, on this night, of all nights, in this moment when John could not allow himself to reciprocate. John knew, as if he hadn't before, that he would do anything, absolutely anything, for this man.

John swiped at his eyes, and sniffed, and tried to pull away, but Sherlock held him, and ran his fingers through John's hair, and sighed against the top of his head.

"John," Sherlock told him. "I want you to know that whatever happens, from now on, I'll always be there for you. Always. I won't leave you again."

"Okay," John said, his voice barely coming out. He couldn't make any matching promises. They would all seem ludicrous, in light of the wedding.

"I wanted you to know. Was going to save it for the best man's speech, but we're not doing that."

John sighed into Sherlock's shoulder, wondering how it was possible for him to break open all over again.

Sherlock let John go, and took a step back, his hands fluttering in front of him, as if he couldn't decide what to do with them.

John swiped at his eyes again. "I'm a mess. Sorry."

"Well, that makes two of us, then." Sherlock watched him fondly, his hands settling at his sides, the two of them crammed into the space between the chairs, barely a foot and a half between them.

John was all too aware of wanting to close that space, wanting to say something, anything, to make everything okay. He settled on reaching out and touching Sherlock's shoulder, squeezing his upper arm.

Sherlock sighed. "John, there's something I should say, something I've meant to say always, and I never have. But since it's unlikely there will be any time between now and the wedding, I might as well say it now."

John stared at him, fire burning through his veins. He was sure his mouth was hanging open, prepared to stop Sherlock, prepared to kiss him. He knew his eyes were shining like stars. He knew, then, that it had all been over for him the moment he'd set foot in the greenhouse.

Sherlock took a deep breath, and John's phone pinged, and then Sherlock's text alert went off, too.

The two of them looked at each other, and John was sure he saw a thousand doors slamming shut in Sherlock's eyes, as John's phone pinged again, and again, followed by the sound of a second message coming through for Sherlock.

John looked at his hand, where it squeezed Sherlock's shoulder. He let it linger there for a moment longer, then dropped it down. There was a world, outside, and a game, that had continued on without them, all throughout the evening. John suspected it was crashing in on them right now. "I should probably—"

"Yes."

John went to his coat, hanging by the greenhouse door, and scrambled to open his phone, watching Sherlock closely, as he found three messages from Harry.

John, you're dead.

He realised how drunk he was, as the message struck him as utterly uncanny, entirely possible, and quite appealing. If he was dead, then he could carry on with Sherlock. Let them both be dead, and haunt this place forever.

He looked over at Sherlock, who frowned down at his phone, then sent a reply.

The second of Harry's messages made little more sense:

His body's in the alley, John, they're taking him to hospital but it's too late.

The third, he could at least understand:

Tell Sherlock Greg's trying to get hold of him.

"Your double," Sherlock said, all business now, his voice tipped with alarm. "Dead."

"Murder?"

"Most likely. Seems he stepped out into the alley behind the pub to shoot up, and wound up a corpse. Do you see? Someone thought they were getting to you. A hit." He frowned.

"God, Sherlock, no. This is terrible. Your friend—"

"Is dead, yes. He was—well, he was a junkie. Lestrade was supposed to be watching him, but he said he was going to the loo, and slipped out instead." Sherlock blinked at the candle on the table, then shook his head, as if to clear it. "At least I have access to the scene of his death. A real chance at making some progress."

"Okay." There was too much going on for John to sort through. He looked down at his phone, not knowing what he should do next, settling on sending a reply to Harry.

Are you okay? Is everyone okay?

He waited for her to respond.

Fine. A bit rattled but this is my first murder and all.

His hands shook as he typed another reply:

Get the police to escort you home.

Will do, came her response.

As he put his phone away in his pocket, he was full, suddenly, of bleak suspicions about Mark. He took a deep breath, and let it out. Mark, who was out with the nurses. Was supposed to be.

Sherlock handed him his coat. "You have to leave, John."

"I thought you said it was safe here. No one knows about it."

"But someone knows that you weren't at your own party, and that I wasn't either, and now a man is dead. We must separate. The safest place for you is home."

John stopped in the act of putting his coat on, watching Sherlock carefully, as the last vestige of hope, that somehow Sherlock had seen what was going on with Mark, that somehow he knew, died a quiet death. For his part, Sherlock paced, and sent another text, then another.

"Best if we aren't seen together. I'll leave in a while, once I know you're safe. Follow the trail back the way you came. Gabriel will be waiting to drive you home."

"All right." John fought against the impression that everything that had passed between them had somehow been nullified, even as he still felt the phantom of Sherlock's arms around him, his fingers rubbing the back of his neck. He went to the door of the greenhouse, and touched the handle. "Goodnight, then," he said.

"John." All at once Sherlock was with him again, looming over him.

John was still drunk, his heart still clanging in his chest, as he lingered on the idea that Sherlock had meant to tell him he loved him. He'd been working himself up to something huge. That must have been it. It could hardly be anything else.

He reached for Sherlock's hand. Not a handshake. Not a thing blokes did, with their mates. Something else. Something more. He slipped his palm into Sherlock's, and squeezed his hand, and rubbed his thumb across the back of it. Somehow, in the context of everything that had just happened—the fact that he'd cried, the fact that Sherlock had comforted him—that one point of contact was more intimate than it should be. It was wrong, in so many ways: John didn't deserve it, hadn't earned the right. At the same time, it was an absolute necessity, more vital than air.

Sherlock leaned in, and kissed John on the cheek, the touch of his lips light, lingering.   

He pulled back, slowly, still close, too close, his features blurry in the dim light. John drank in Sherlock's mouth, his chin, his cheekbones, his pale eyes. The faint cool sensation of the place where he'd pressed his lips.

Then came the deep baritone rumble. "Go, John. Murder is afoot. And marriage."

John's breath hitched in his throat. "Right. And you? You'll be okay?" He knew that neither of them would be. Not until he fixed what he'd broken.

"I'll be fine, John. So long as you're safe. And happy."

John took a step back, toward the door. He opened it, feeling like he'd just been put into a blender. He was halfway through, wrestling with the buttons of his coat, pulling his gloves out of his pocket, when he found himself speaking.

He shouldn't. But the words were already coming out, and he felt, somehow, that he needed to speak, needed to give Sherlock something, to let him know that there was no mystery between them. There never had been a puzzle to solve, not really. There had been stupid hesitation, and uncertainty. There had been gross miscommunication and mutual betrayal, on small and large scales. But there had never been a lack of love. There had never been a lack of care.

"I was happy before, you know. With you." He took another step out through the door, into the night, and the candle on the table guttered. He was letting the winter wind into Sherlock's sanctuary. It wasn't good. It wasn't fair. None of it was.

Sherlock stood still, framed by the warm yellow light of room behind him. He was home to John. He always would be.

"John?"

"Just, for the record." His voice was thick with emotion, but he couldn't stop talking. "Those days, before, at Baker Street, with you, were the happiest of my life."

Sherlock looked like a man who'd been stricken, some unnameable horror stopping his speech. His mouth was open, a little, his brow, knitted. Then, slowly, he nodded.

Good, John thought, as he shut the door behind him, and hurried along the path, his feet crunching on the frostbitten ground, his breath sounding ragged in his ears, the naked trees bearing close, silent witness to his pain, to the small triumph of this moment.

If he and Sherlock never made it back to each other, Sherlock would know, at least, that much. That he had meant everything to John. That he had been perfectly capable of making John happy.

Chapter Text

In the back of the car on the way into town, John sat still for a long while, watching the city lights pass as Gabriel eased them through traffic. He was steeped in the memory of everything that had happened with Sherlock: the warm glow of the candles, and Sherlock leaning in to kiss his cheek; Sherlock's face, serious and soft, as he took the breath that was supposed to carry his confession of love.

Sherlock had meant to say I love you. John was sure of that. And John still meant everything he'd said in the train carriage, even though he'd had to act as if he didn't. They were a mess, the two of them, but John knew, with a warm, steady certainty he'd never felt before in his life, that they didn't have to be.

John closed his eyes against the way everything seemed to spin, as Gabriel turned a corner—still a bit drunk, then. He tried to will himself into sobriety. In less than an hour, he would be back at the flat, facing Mark, and the truth of whatever had really happened to his double in the alley behind Five Coachmen.

He opened his phone, and started a message to the one person he could count on not to hold back information.

Are you still at the scene? he typed.

Harry replied: Yeah brother. You still with Sherlock?

No. He didn't think it was safe any more.

A long pause followed. No response. Impatient, John typed:

Was my double shot?

No.

John frowned at that. Mark's method, up until now, as far as John could tell, had been entirely gun-based. Then again, Mark had left his gun at the clinic, and gone out on the town with the nurses.

What happened? Did Greg say?

Well I'm no doctor but it looks like he juts died back here. There's a needle in his arm but Greg is still acting like its a murder so I'll take his word. Sherlock say anything?

Not enough.

John took a deep breath. Perhaps Mark had been forced to improvise, if it had been him.

They're sending him to Barts. Ambulance just left. Jfc John sherlock said things were still dangerous when we planned the party but I never expected this

Barts most likely meant Molly Hooper, which meant efficiency. It was possible that there would be test results before John got back to the flat. He hoped they would reveal something he could use to understand what had happened. It was vitally important that he not be caught off guard tonight.

I'm sorry, he wrote to Harry. Hope it's not too much.

It's okay John I feel like Im getting a sense of what it's like to be you, pretty cool

I need a favour.

What?

Ask Greg to take you with him to Barts, before he takes you home.

What?!?

I need eyes there, Harry. Please. For me. I need to know what they find when they do a tox screen.

What's going on, John? Why can't you just acsk Sherlock?

John looked out through the car window, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. He wasn't sure what would happen, if he and Sherlock were given the chance to speak again. He wanted, desperately, to go further with the conversation they'd started in the greenhouse, but he couldn't afford to lose focus, not now.

He'll be off on his own with the investigation. Don't want to disturb him when he's thinking.

It was lame, he knew. There was nothing he could say to Harry that would sound any better. He watched his phone as her replies rolled in, accusing him of everything terrible.

Jesus christ John

What happened tonight

He planned all of that for you what is it going to take

He's in love with you John you don't have to be a genius to see it

I know things are tough and obviously everythign is fucked but how are you this dense

He locked his phone, and watched the traffic go by, needing a moment to sort himself out. He closed his eyes, and ran his fingers across his lips, as he dropped into the sensation of being held, of Sherlock, somehow, knowing to put his arms around him while he let go of everything he'd been holding. He was still amazed by his own reaction, the fact that he hadn't run, or denied himself. He'd stayed, and accepted what Sherlock had to offer, and it had been good. Better than good. Incredible. Unprecedented.

He supposed that act of grace was part of the same track he'd been on since he'd met Sherlock. There had been so many luminous, unforgettable moments along the way: the day they met, and the next day, when they decided to move into 221B together. The first hints of real understanding between them. The cases and the wild solutions and the sense that they'd done something good. The trip to Dartmoor, the bed they'd shared, in the Cross Keys. The hour before dawn on the first night, when John had lain awake, watching Sherlock sleep, and wondering what the hell he was going to do with himself. The long, lingering thoughts he'd had, nearly every day, before the end, that he should say something, do something, about everything he was feeling.

The fact was, no one had ever disarmed him like Sherlock had. That was love, he supposed, that was their love, and it was worth every ounce of fight that he had. As the car moved through the late night traffic, he thought about what he might find when he got back to the flat, and how he was going to handle it.

Whatever he did, he needed a change of strategy. He'd allowed himself to be dragged behind his discoveries about Mark for the last few days, ever since he'd looked at the security footage. He'd chosen to hide what he knew, to pretend that he was still completely in the dark, rather than to trust his reading of the game, and to push things along to the conclusion he needed. If he kept going the way he was, playing the fool for Mark, it might never be over.

Besides, Mark had been practically daring John to confront him for a while now, getting sloppier and sloppier, failing to hide his lies, and leaving his gun for John to find. If he had indeed killed John's double, he'd gone a step further, perhaps wanting to push John over the edge, to force his hand.

Tonight was a point of highest risk. If John passed through this particular crucible, if he could sell Mark on the idea that he was on Mark's side, he would be that much closer to knowing the truth, that much closer to being with Sherlock.

He picked up his phone again, to find three more messages from Harry.

Fuck me you're going to go through with the wedding arent you

okay we're almost at barts

You know I love you brother and ill back your play but please, it is not too late.

He smiled down at the phone. He sincerely hoped she was right.

Let me know as soon as they talk about lab results, he typed, as the car turned the corner onto John's street, and pulled up outside the front gate.

"Thank you," John told Gabriel, as he let himself out.

"Sir. I hope everything works out for the best, Sir."

John lingered before he shut the door, studying the man's face in the light from the street, his pockmarked cheeks, his steady gaze. "Me too."

The first thing John did when he entered the flat was check the hall closet. Mark's shoes were not on the rubber mat they kept inside of it; the coat he'd worn to work wasn't there, and neither was his racquet bag. He hadn't returned yet, then.

John wore his shoes into the kitchen, and took them off by the back door. Removed his coat and hung it up over a chair. No need to flag the fact that he was home. He was prepared to take any advantage he could.

He drank water, then made himself a strong cup of tea, and downed it. He was still loose-limbed, a bit fuzzy around the edges of his thought, but he was no longer wavering on his feet. Definitely in the beginning stages of sobering up. Just in time.

His phone pinged. Harry.

Lab results say heroin and barbiturates. Sherlock is here john he looks like he's been crying jesus christ what am i suppsoed to tell him

John shut his eyes against everything he was feeling.

Ask if my double was a barbiturates user.

He didn't even know the man's name.

Fucking shit john were gonna have words about this. Sherlock says no.

So there it was. The man had gone out into the alley for a fix, and then gotten an extra dose of something. If he'd learned anything about Mark, John knew very well that he was fully capable of drugging someone. It was definitely possible that he had killed the man.

Any trace of barbiturate in the needle?

I swear to god john. No trace.

Thanks.

John put his phone on silent mode, then slipped it back into his jacket pocket, wondering how the extra drug had gotten into the man's system. He pictured Mark, wandering into the alley behind the pub, pictured him flirting, offering a drink of something, or palming a needle that he'd discarded elsewhere after using it. No one—maybe not even Sherlock—would be able to prove anything on the basis of one more puncture on a junkie's arm.

John leaned against the corner of the kitchen counter, closing his eyes. It was just before midnight. He had to assume that Mark could come home any time.

He was standing on a knife point, all too aware that he couldn't afford a fall. He ran through the facts as he knew them again: he was Mark's assignment. The fact that he was still alive, despite Sherlock's return, meant that he had some value, some importance to Mark, personally or professionally. Mark had made overtures to him, had been making them for a while, suggesting that John might be better suited to a darker line of work, while revealing who he was to John, one vicious piece at a time.

For his part, John had played into the fiction that they were still a real, committed couple as best he could, without letting on what he knew. Promising to stick by Mark. Telling him he loved him. He'd hidden the truth of who he was, let Mark believe that it was possible, that they might run away together. It was as good a foundation as he could have built for what he knew he had to do next. He supposed he was a bit proud of himself. He'd managed a lot despite his fear and panic, despite the feeling, all too familiar from his childhood, of living with a monster.

He could end this tonight, if he was smart. All he needed, all he'd been holding out for, was to understand the shape of the threat against him and Sherlock. Mark had already eliminated much of it. If John could get some sense of who was left in the network, and how invested they were in the plan to destroy Sherlock, they might finally be free.

He needed to be free, he realised, more desperately now. Sherlock was waiting for him. He didn't know it, but their lives, their entire future happiness, depended on what John was going to do next, and how it went.

He steeled himself. He was still frightened, but he wouldn't let it paralyse him any more. Just for tonight, he would pretend to be what Mark wanted. Play along. Not just say that he loved Mark, or that he wanted him. To show Mark that he could be everything Mark imagined him to be. He was ready.

As if on cue, there was the sound of a key turning in the front door lock, and the door opening, and closing again. John waited, in silence, in the kitchen, for whatever would come next.

Mark's footsteps across the floor sounded perfectly even, his movements graceful and steady, smooth, almost cat-like. He rounded the corner toward the kitchen, and seeing John there, he paused. His gait shifted, becoming irregular. He stumbled a bit as he reached the doorway and leaned against the frame, his eyes hooded, his joints loose. 

"Hello, my love."

Pretending to be drunk, then. He clearly wasn't, not the way he'd walked in.

John managed to put on a smile. "Hey."

"You have a nice night?" Slurring his words, as he crossed the room.

John's heart was pounding like a rabbit's, but he held out his hand. "Come here." His voice was steady. It held a note of command he hadn't used for a long while. Too long.

Mark stepped toward him, his gaze locked on John. He took his hand, and leaned into him, biting his lower lip.

John pushed away from the counter, turning both of them, so Mark's back was pressed against the hard edges of the corner. He leaned in, and offered Mark a cynical smile. "You've been a busy boy, haven't you?"

Mark laughed, looking amused. "A bit. You?"

First, John had to find out the truth about Five Coachmen. The best way was to put it out there, assume that Mark knew he and Sherlock hadn't been there, and watch how he responded. "I think you know the answer to that."

Mark squirmed against John a little, putting one hand around John's waist, the other on his shoulder. The two of them were locked together. Before John's eyes, the drunk act evaporated, high alert coming into Mark's features, his eyes sharpening. Good. They weren't playing on that level any more.

"Sounds like a bit of a weird night," Mark said. "Just you and Sherlock."

There it was. Mark knew that John and Sherlock hadn't been where they were supposed to be. He had been to Five Coachmen. He'd seen, and, if he'd met John's double, probably taken it out on him. John schooled his features. He couldn't afford to look startled. He held Mark's gaze, even as he leaned into him, pressing him harder against the counter.

John licked his lips. Mark's gaze dipped down to watch the passage of the tip of his tongue.

"It was fine," John said. "He thought it would be safer, meeting away from the party. Turns out it was, since a man's dead. But you know all about that, don't you?" As he spoke, he slowly, deliberately, slid his thigh between Mark's legs.

Mark made a throaty sound. His eyes fluttered shut for a moment. "Funny little guy, dressed up as you," he breathed. He reached down to cup John.

John was half hard, his body responding to the touch, and the adrenaline, but that fact only made him feel colder inside. He took Mark by the wrist, squeezing the bones together until he saw the first hint of a wince in the corner of Mark's eyes. He put Mark's hand back on the edge of the counter, and pressed against it, to hold it there. "Had a talk, did you?"

"He told me the whole plan. Couldn't seem to stop talking about it." Mark wore the same cheeky grin he always did, when he thought he was being funny. He was hard already, his breath punching out through his nose as John eased closer to him. Getting off on it, whatever it was he'd done to the funny little guy.

The truth, that he'd committed murder tonight, hung between the two of them, not a dare, but ripe fruit, ready for the picking. Mark wasn't fighting John. On the contrary, he'd started to breathe a bit more heavily. John eased closer still, pressing his leg into Mark's groin, growling in his ear.

"Must have been strange for you, killing someone who looked like me." John pulled back, and summoning every ounce of strength that he had, stared into Mark's eyes until he broke.

Mark laughed, and ran his tongue over the tips of his front teeth. "And there you are. There's the John Watson I've been waiting for all this time."

"Mm. I've been here all along."

Mark ran his hands down John's sides, held him by the hips, and tugged him closer. "But you're awake now, aren't you?"

"And we're going to have a talk. Right now."

"Are we? Sure we don't have better things to do?"

John reached down between them, and palmed Mark through his trousers. "I've never been more sure of anything in my life."

"All right. You haven't called the police. You haven't run to Sherlock. I suppose we can have a little chat." Mark's breath grew harsh and ragged.

John pulled his hand away, but kept Mark pinned. "Why don't you start by telling me what I'm dealing with, and what you have to offer. I've been thinking about that talk we had. Time to change things up. New career. Since we're to be married, I want to know exactly who you are."

"Mm. You're a smart man." Mark's pupils were blown, his cheeks flushed red. "Tell us what you've guessed."

John moved his hand up Mark's chest, and ran his thumb over Mark's lower lip. He was buzzing all over, a mix of rage and arousal driving his determination to push the interrogation as far as he could. "I was your assignment, in the beginning."

"Very good."

"This is all part of a plan, some legacy of Jim Moriarty's."

Mark smiled. "Good old Jim. He really knew how to hold a grudge."

"Burn the heart out of Sherlock. That was the game, wasn't it?"

"Mm. I heard him say it myself, at the pool."

John suppressed a shiver. He'd never guessed Mark had been involved from the beginning. He supposed it made sense, given his facility with a gun, and his apparent inside knowledge of Moriarty's plans. "You were one of the snipers."

"Had to start somewhere, I suppose. There was a time when Moriarty was the only game in town. The only one worth playing, anyway."

John watched Mark closely, working his way through what he knew about the murky nature of criminal associations. Since he'd come to understand Mark better, to know him as a sort of shark in human form, he'd realised that Mark didn't do anything if it didn't serve him personally. Loyalty to a long dead figurehead seemed to be a wild anomaly in an otherwise completely selfish career.

"So why are you still playing now? Moriarty's been dead for two years, and you started working on me eight months ago. Seems like a lot of effort, doesn't it? Why carry on with his grudge against Sherlock, when you could go do anything else?"

Mark was still hard against John's thigh. He put his hand on the side of John's neck, and squeezed. "Oh, this isn't Jim's game any more. Or at least, the players are different, and the reasons for it have changed, love."

"What do you mean?"

"Well Jim didn't make us what we are. Sherlock did."

A thin thread of panic rose up in John. Here was a twist he could never have anticipated. He managed to keep his voice calm. "What do you mean?"

Mark grinned at him. "He's never told you, has he, the havoc he wreaked while he was on the continent. So much damage. So many criminal organisations taken down, from the outside, from the inside. He was an absolute beast while he was over there. Took the entire government of Serbia to stop him. We knew he couldn't stay away from London forever, but we couldn't have him coming here and going after us, too. We were precisely the kind of loose association he was targeting."

"So you decided to be proactive."

Mark smiled. "That's one way to put it. Just a little group of us, well, used to be a bigger group, decided to go after Sherlock when he came back. Make a game of it. Ruin him for detective work. Seemed obvious enough, to target you. You were the only thing he cared about."

John fought to keep his focus, despite the murderous anger that built in him, hearing Mark talk about casually destroying Sherlock. He was close to the endpoint of Mark's game, so close to finding out the whole truth. John slipped his hand back down between them, and toyed with Mark's flies. "So one idea, to destroy Sherlock. Two ways to do it. One, to kill me, the other, to marry me. The second one was yours."

Mark gasped, and closed his eyes, as John pressed his hand against him. "Originally there was only one plan. I was supposed to watch, and, when the time came, and it was certain that Sherlock still cared about you, to take you out."

John chose that moment to open Mark's trousers, and slip his hand inside. He would be much more inclined to talk, if he could barely think. "But I'm still here. So you changed the game, didn't you? Clever."

A breathy noise escaped Mark's throat. He was smiling now. Pleased with himself, with John. "The more I got to know you, the more I knew that killing you would be a terrible waste. You're made for my sort of work, John. Steady under pressure, acclimatised to violence, field tested. Morally flexible. It's just your loyalties that are uncertain and—" he broke off to gasp as John slipped his hand into his pants, and took hold of him. Mark was gagging for it, exactly where John wanted him to be.

"And the wedding doubles as proof of where I stand, and the final step in ruining Sherlock."

Mark nodded. "Especially now. Especially now that you know."

"You. You've thought of everything, haven't you?" He moved his hand along Mark's length.

Mark closed his eyes and grinned, breathless, barely able to speak. "More than you know. The things I've done."

"The people you've killed. I know about them." He stilled his hand.

Mark's eyes opened, and he bit his lower lip. "You've really been paying attention."

"I want to know where I'm going. What I'm doing with the rest of my life. I want to know who I'm meant to be working with. What you're capable of."

Mark was breathing like he was running a race, rock hard and leaking in John's hand. "I'll tell you where you're going and what you're doing. Wherever the hell you want. Whatever you want. That's the point of a life like ours. It can all be yours, John. Just, marry me, and the ones who are still in it will trust you enough to get you started. They've been keeping an eye on you. Waiting for you to come over to their way of thinking."

A cold disgust rose up in John. He was totally repelled by Mark, by the idea that he could ever shift in Mark's direction, but it was worth the proximity, the mingled breath, and giving Mark exactly what he wanted, to be able to ask the next question. "Who's that?"

"My family. For lack of a better term."

John squeezed Mark's cock, briefly speeding the movement of his hand, then growing still again. "Who's that?" he whispered, his voice harsh against Mark's ear. "Last I heard you don't have a family."

Mark laughed, his need pouring out in the stutter of his breath. "Left trouser pocket."

John didn't dare drop his gaze. "Go ahead."

Mark took his hand from John's hip, reached into his own pocket, and pulled out a flash drive. He held it up for John to see, then placed it on the counter beside him. It had four letters written on it, in black marker: AGRA. Mark took hold of John's hips again, squeezing him tight, and thrusting into John's hand. He was close, John knew. He also knew that he'd get little sense out of him, once he came. He reached up with his free hand and grasped the hair on the back of Mark's head, and pulled, until he stilled.

"AGRA, what's that?"

"Our initials," Mark gasped. "The last of us. The last four. Everything you need to know about each of us is on that drive."

"Mm. Good man," John said, as he sped the movement of his hand. His own blood was racing through his veins. He was stiff in his trousers, nearly at the point where he wanted release, but he wouldn't take it, not tonight. Never again, from Mark. "And you're just going to let me read it, are you?" John was all but holding his breath. So close. He almost had everything he needed. He fought the urge to try to knock Mark out, take the flash drive, and run.

Mark was watching him. "After the wedding. There's a lot to explain, John. The raw data isn't going to get you as far as you think. You'll need context, and some training."

"You're looking forward to this, aren't you? Having me on a leash? Training me up a bit?"

Mark threw back his head and gasped, as John pumped his hand, and then slowed it again. "More than you know."

John was all too aware of the knife point he was standing on, knew that Mark's trust could only go so far, but he had to ask, had to know that Sherlock wasn't in any immediate danger. "And that's it. I marry you, and you leave Sherlock alone." He rubbed his thumb over the tip of Mark's cock.

Mark nodded. "I'm no idiot, John. I know you need incentive. Marry me and you get the information. Marry me, and Sherlock lives. As long as he can on his own, anyway. You know he's no different from that junkie in the alley. Most of the way to dead already."

John clenched his teeth, and put his forehead against Mark's, trusting the proximity to hide his ugly grimace. "Here's what I know. I know you're going to cause me trouble. That's enough for me."

He rebelled internally against Mark's idea of Sherlock's fragility. Sherlock was as strong as a lion. He'd survived two years of exile, imprisonment, and torture. He'd held John, when John couldn't keep himself together. Still, John certainly had no interest in living without Sherlock. The last two years had proven that to him. Perhaps Mark was right. Perhaps Sherlock was just the same.

None of that mattered now. John had the facts of the situation, had almost everything he needed. In another forty-eight hours, he would have his hands on the flash drive, and he and Sherlock would have something concrete they could take to the authorities.

Mark was breathing fast now, barely coherent. "John, God, John."

"You and me, we've got big plans to make. Worlds to conquer, yeah?" He squeezed Mark, and worked his length for everything he was worth.

"Yes, John. God, yes! Oh my God." Mark's breath clenched in his throat, and he came like a fountain over John's hand, and he shuddered, clutching John's waist, his shoulder.

John moved away, then, toward the sink, heart pounding, feeling like he could punch through a wall. He turned on the tap, and washed his hand, flicked the water away, and dried it on a tea towel. Mark, still flushed, smiled ruefully at John as he zipped himself up, and palmed the flash drive.

"After the wedding," John told him, stepping in close, "you and I, we're going to read that, and have a real talk." He concealed nothing of the rage he felt, nothing of his disdain. It was Mark's native language, after all.

Mark, still breathless, nodded. "You can count on it."

John turned, and left the kitchen, and went upstairs to bed.

What seemed like hours later, Mark crept up after him. When he climbed in, he worked his way over to John's side of the bed, and pressed himself up against John's back.

"Day after tomorrow, John, I'm going to take you away from all this. You won't be sorry you chose me."

***

Work on Friday was a parody of itself. John barely registered the names or complaints of any of his patients. He and Mark seemed to circle each other throughout the day, like feral animals, not quite in each others' orbit, but watching each other closely. Mark seemed more sure of himself than ever, grinning conspiratorially, whenever he caught John watching him.

John had spent his days at the clinic with Mark avoiding making a show of what he felt, feeling shy about the fact that they were together. Now, he found his gaze following Mark wherever he went, trying to memorise each gesture, each show of charm and jocularity, for the purpose of writing it into his account of each one of Mark's lies, when everything was done.

"You two," Cath told him, after watching them stare at each other over coffee in the break room. "You might as well be married already."

John had thought, long and hard, about trying to get the flash drive away from Mark, about running to Sherlock, getting Mycroft involved, but he decided he couldn't risk it. The slightest wrong move now might make Mark bolt. Mark was, John had to assume, fully capable of disappearing altogether, and taking the information about AGRA with him.

John's best chance of acting against Mark was going to be at the wedding. The crowd would almost guarantee that Mark would have to stick to a certain range of behaviours. His entire way of being in the world depended on not drawing attention to who he really was. His movements would be predictable. Easy to monitor.

He would surely have the flash drive with him, somewhere on his person. He wouldn't risk letting it get away from him. Since he and John were supposed to leave directly from the reception venue for their honeymoon, it would, at the very least, be among his belongings. John just had to get hold of it, and to find some way of detaining Mark.

That was where Sherlock would come in, because tomorrow, it would finally, finally, be time to tell him what was going on. All John had to do was hold to the plan, and wait until he could get Sherlock alone for a few moments, to explain.

As he sat at his desk between patients, he folded his hands, and closed his eyes, remembering the feeling of Sherlock's arms around him. He wondered if Sherlock had felt how John did now, when he'd been on his way home from exile, and he'd known he was going to see John again. Optimistic. Hopeful, perhaps foolishly so, that the hole he'd made in their lives could be repaired.

Partway through his break, the burner phone Sherlock had given him pinged. He'd kept it after their night together, a sort of symbol of everything that was to come. He pulled it out of his jacket pocket, to find a message from Sherlock.

Doing okay?  -SH

John grinned as he read. He certainly would be, soon.

Fine. You?

Unable to come to any conclusions about the murder. Otherwise, fine. -SH

A bit frustrated, then.

Perhaps. No. Fine. Everything's fine. -SH

John smiled fondly, his heart bursting with the need to tell Sherlock he knew he was lying, but it truly was okay, because he'd solved it. Tomorrow. Tomorrow.

Another message from Sherlock came through.

Don't worry one bit. I promise you the wedding will go off smoothly, John. -SH

I wouldn't be so sure of that, he replied. These things seldom do.

***

John rode his bike home after work, one last ride, maybe the very last one, before everything changed. He wondered if he would still cycle to work, once he'd moved back to 221B. Maybe it would be time to look for a job closer to the city centre. Maybe quit his job altogether, go back to blogging cases for Sherlock, and throw his fortunes in with whatever Sherlock wanted to do.  

Back at the flat, he walked in through the kitchen, then went to put his coat away. By the front door, two suitcases and an overnight bag sat, waiting to be put into the car. Mark, it seemed, had packed for both of them. John was mildly curious to see what was in the bags, what Mark had planned for the honeymoon John would never be going on: perhaps summer gear, swim trunks, for some warm destination; or jumpers and thick socks and winter boots, for somewhere closer to home.

In the front hall closet, Mark's racquet bag had reclaimed its place. John hefted it: it felt a bit lighter. The gun had, perhaps, found a new location. Maybe it was in the luggage Mark had packed so carefully, or already stowed in the car.

John was still staring at the suitcases when Mark came downstairs. "Don't you dare open those," he said.

"Still maintaining the mystery, then?" John tried not to shudder as Mark came to him, and put his arm around John's shoulders.

"Absolutely. It's been a surprise up until now, and it's going to stay that way, until tomorrow night."

"Tease."

"Always."

Over takeaway Thai food, which they ate mostly in silence, Mark said, "So, the big question."

"Mm?" John tried to sound bland.

"Should we sleep separately tonight? Keep ourselves pure for tomorrow and all that?"

John watched the face of the man he'd intended to marry, the monster who had worked so effectively to keep him away from Sherlock. He waited, until he had the right answer, until the thing that Mark would most want to hear filtered its way to the surface.

"I think we both left purity behind a long time ago." The difference between them was, that John had found his again. It was there, in the way that he felt about Sherlock, a flame that burned brightly inside him, even now.

A slow grin spread across Mark's face. Pleased with John's answer, with John himself. "I suppose we did."

Later, John lingered in the shower before joining Mark in bed. By the time John pulled the covers back, Mark had already fallen asleep. All night, he twitched and dreamed, while John drifted, and woke frequently, ready for a fight, ready to face the day that would see the end of his separation from Sherlock.

Chapter Text

Good morning.

It's two o'clock, John. -SH

Right. I'm at the church.

I assumed you would be. Ceremony in an hour. -SH

Are you ready?

Yes. Mrs. Hudson has been droning at me since eight. I got dressed two hours ago to stop her fussing. -SH

Leaving soon?

I'm in the car now. Gabriel is driving us. Me and Mrs. Hudson. She's asking how you're doing. How are you doing? -SH

Good. Fine. Everything's done. Just waiting now. They've given me a little room in the back. I'm here by myself.

It's perfectly normal to be nervous, John. -SH

Is it?

I don't know. -SH

So listen when you get here, come to the back. I want to talk to you beforehand.

All right. -SH

Okay. Good.

...

And you're okay? Everything good? Feeling all right? Suit in order?

Yes. Yes. Yes. No. -SH

No?

I thought I'd attend your wedding wearing only a sheet. -SH

...

...

John? -SH

...

John. -SH

I'm here. See you in a few monuted

Minutes

Sure you're okay? -SH

It's fine. I'm fine. Just remembering old times.

Me too. -SH

***

John stood alone in the small room that they'd given him to dress in, a sort of sitting area off the vicar's office. He watched himself in a large bevelled mirror, willing himself to be steady. He’d already dressed in his suit trousers, shirt and tie.

In the mirror behind him, the vicar's things crowded around him in a jumble: his desk, piled with papers; a worn, tweedy sofa, over which John had draped the garment bag containing his suit; a bookshelf filled with everything from pulp science fiction novels to books on different world religions, as well as a range of books on Christian spirituality. The clutter was a comfort to John, giving him a familiar feeling, like he was halfway back to home, at 221B.

He fastened his suspenders, then shrugged into the vest. As he did up the buttons, he took a moment to run his thumb over the burnished surface of the watch Sherlock had given him. He had no idea what the rest of the day would hold, but he was holding Sherlock in his heart. He supposed he was restless as any groom should be, waiting for the moment he could share everything with the one he loved. Any minute now.

Outside the cramped sanctuary of the vicar's office, the church and its attached hall was ready to host a beautiful, if small, wedding. Anika had outdone herself. She'd greeted John and Mark at the door of the church an hour earlier, and taken them on a quick tour of the place. The chapel and the reception hall were covered in fairy lights, and green and white carnations, the tables already laid out for the dinner that would follow the ceremony.

"Since you've chosen to skip rehearsal," Anika had told them, full judgement in her eyes as she paused for just a bit too long before continuing, "the ceremony itself will be simple. No walk down the aisle, just John coming from this side of the altar—" she gestured to a door on the right— "and Mark coming in from the other side. Best man and best woman will be waiting here with the vicar, and you'll join hands, and carry on from there. As far as I know, there will be no would be assassins on staff, so the reception should come off without a hitch. Dinner, drinking, dancing, and done. Any questions?"

As she'd spoken, Mark had watched John steadily, an amused glint coming into his eye as Anika had made reference to Jonathan Small. John had squinted at her, then raised an eyebrow at Mark, making him smirk. Mark loved his dirty secrets, that much was clear. Loved them even more, now that they were shared.  

John had gone with Mark over to the other side of the church, to the small Sunday school classroom Anika had arranged for Mark to use as a dressing room. Mark had smiled rakishly and made a joke about making sure John didn't see his suit before the ceremony. He'd kissed John on the forehead, and winked at him, before sending him on his way. Cath, who'd sat herself down in a child-sized plastic chair in the corner of the room, her lilac gown bunched all around her knees, had raised a glass of champagne to John, and told Mark to strip down to his knickers, laughing uproariously.

Now, in the vicar's office, waiting for Sherlock, John's eyes fell on the burner phone, which he'd left perched on the arm of the sofa, after the brief text exchange he'd had with Sherlock earlier. The sound of voices filtered down the long hallway from the chapel. The wedding guests were arriving, probably taking their seats. John fished his comb from the bag of stuff he'd brought with him, and ran it through his hair one last time. He was ready. He thought he was.

This really was the best time, the best moment for him and Sherlock to talk. Mark, occupied with dressing himself, and forced to wait on his own side of the church before the ceremony, wouldn't even know they'd had a moment together. John had gone over what he wanted to say, and what he needed to say, to Sherlock, so many times in the last few hours, he was certain he could fill an entire day, a week, with it. He checked the time on his phone: twenty minutes to go before the ceremony. It would have to be enough.

A quiet knock came at the door. "John?" Sherlock's voice.

John opened the door, to find Sherlock standing there in his formal clothes, his hands held behind his back. He'd dressed himself identically to John: a surprise. In all the insanity of the last few weeks, John hadn't thought to ask what Sherlock had planned to wear, and Sherlock hadn't tried to discuss it.

On his tall, lanky form, the suit looked wonderful, all clean lines, the dark fabric of the suit coat contrasting with Sherlock's milky skin, the long cut of it only making him look taller and more graceful, the whole outfit as clear a claim of his alignment with John, as John could have imagined him making. He was sure his mouth was hanging open. He wasn't sure how to close it. He wasn't sure how to move.

Sherlock's expression was carefully neutral. "Good afternoon."

"Oh," John said, apropos of nothing, his voice shaky. "Come in."

Sherlock stepped in through the door, and John closed it behind him, muting the noise from the chapel, and shutting out the next few hours, which suddenly felt like they were barrelling down on them faster than he liked.

"Mirror's back here," John said, leading Sherlock into the little sitting area. "I'm almost finished getting ready."

Sherlock lingered by the doorway, watching John, his brow furrowed. His eyes locked on John's mouth for a long, aching moment, then scanned lower, taking in John's clothes, then moving down to his shoes.

"Well?" John's voice was rough, his heart, tender.

"You look very nice." Sherlock's eyes were shining now, as his gaze lingered on the watch and chain.

"Just nice? You chose this. I was kind of hoping you'd be happy with it. I am." He allowed himself a smile.

"I would marry you."

John paused, speechless, more than surprised by Sherlock's candour. He wanted, terribly, to skip ahead to the end of what he'd planned to say, to be kissing Sherlock right now.

"Here," Sherlock said, stepping in close to John, and bringing his hands out from behind his back. He held two identical boutonnières, one for each of them. "Put on your suit coat."

John slipped the coat out of the garment bag and put it on, doing up the buttons as he watched Sherlock's face, his seriousness, the way his hands shook as he handed John one of the boutonnières. Gently, he took the fabric of John's lapel between his fingers, and pinned the other boutonnière to it.

The intimacy of the moment, coupled with John's understanding of how much it was costing Sherlock emotionally, threatened to undo him. He sniffed, holding back tears.

When Sherlock was done, John reached for his lapel, and pinned Sherlock's boutonnière in place. He touched it lightly, smiling at the three spiky purple flowers at its centre. He leaned in. They carried a scent like oranges.

"Bee balm," Sherlock told him. He'd grown pale. "I hope you like it."

John hadn't been ready for Sherlock to come in like this, he realised, all long silences and long looks and small, significant gestures. He shook his head to clear it. He supposed he had to get used to Sherlock again, to the fact that he'd never been prepared for him, and probably never would be. And quickly, because he had things to say.  

The two of them were still standing close together. John took Sherlock's hand. Sherlock looked down at the carpet, and swallowed hard. Wanting to leave no ambiguity in what he was about to do, he took Sherlock's other hand as well. "Sherlock, look at me. I have to talk to you."

"All right." He glanced at John briefly, then cast his eyes down again.

Okay. John couldn't blame him. He'd broken Sherlock's heart. They'd both been broken, by time and circumstance, and the terrible things they'd had to do. It was time to try to fix it.

He found, when he tried to speak, that his throat was so tight he could barely manage it. This was the declaration on the train carriage, all over again, but this time, he wasn't losing his mind. He felt clearer, more sane, than he'd been in a long while.

"Before I say anything else, I want you to know that despite all appearances, there is only one person in this world for me."

Sherlock nodded. "Mark Morstan."

"Oh my God. No." John squeezed Sherlock's hands.

Sherlock blinked hard. He tightened his grip on John's hands. Slowly, he focused his gaze, and raised it to meet John's eyes. John saw hope burning there. Good.

"What I have to say isn't easy, Sherlock. I've kept things from you, and perhaps I shouldn't have, but I didn't know what else to do. I just want you to know, even if you can't forgive me, that I wanted to keep you safe. I think you'll understand that much."

Sherlock was looking at him with full attention now. "Go on."

"This wedding, Sherlock, it's a sham."

Sherlock took a deep breath, and nodded. "Cold feet. I researched this. I understand you'll feel better afterward."

John laughed for love and pity, and put his hand on Sherlock's face. Sherlock closed his eyes, and leaned into the touch. He sighed, then covered John's hand with his own, and took it down. "John, please. I cannot come between you and what you want."

"Listen to me. Sherlock, please, just listen." He squeezed Sherlock's hand again, and took a step closer.

"I'm going through with the wedding today, because I think I have to, because we're both in a lot of danger, but I don't want this. It's only for our protection, because—" he took a deep breath, and lowered his voice— "Mark is one of them. He's part of the group who's been after you since you got back."

Sherlock's head snapped up, and he looked at John with an expression of total shock. "You're joking. What? No that's impossible." He let go of John's hands, and took a step back, and covered his mouth with his hand. "Oh." His eyes moved from one object to another, studying the mirror, the vicar's desk, the worn carpet, the tattered books, before coming back to John. "Oh! Oh, he's good." He nodded, as if a hundred broken connections were suddenly coming together. "Very good."

"Yeah, very bad, more like," John said. "He's the one who's been killing the people who came after me."

Sherlock made a face like he was considering what kind of biscuit he should have with his tea. "Sort of a romantic gesture, I suppose."

"He lied to me about who he was, Sherlock. He got close to me with the idea that he would kill me when you came back, then changed his mind and decided to take me away from you instead."

Sherlock made a face like he was disgusted by the biscuit options presented to him for his tea. "Less of a romantic gesture."

Their eyes met, and for a moment, the whole terrible ordeal they'd been through hung in the air between them, heavy and burdensome. Then it popped, like a bubble.

John broke open, everything he'd been feeling coming up inside him like a torrent, and emerging as a bark of laughter. Sherlock watched him, brow furrowed, affection and disbelief mixing in his features, and John shook with the force of everything that had happened. He couldn't help himself. He would burst if he couldn't laugh.

Sherlock's expression shifted then, transformed by the biggest smile John had ever seen him wear, and he wheezed, as if he couldn't let his laughter out fast enough, and it was choking him.

John was red-faced, his hands on his knees, barely able to draw breath. He kept his voice as quiet as he could. It was high-pitched, hysterical. "He thinks I'm going to run away with him and join his gang of criminals after the wedding."

Just like that, the two of them were off again, howling with laughter.

"Oh God," Sherlock said, collapsing onto the sofa, the garment bag John had brought his suit in crinkling under him. "Because you would do that."

John sobered long enough to get his next sentence out, straightening himself up, and managing to sound self important. "Well, I can be very convincing, as it turns out."

All the poison John had held in his body since stag night passed through him, as Sherlock dissolved into a giggle that shook his whole body. It was the best thing John had ever seen, the best thing he'd ever done, making Sherlock laugh.

When they finally grew still, the two of them were staring into each others' eyes like a pair of teenagers, Sherlock still slung across the sofa, and John standing and watching him, and knowing that the time they had before the ceremony was running out.

"So you see," John said, "you were right, about the operative in the clinic."

Sherlock frowned. "But he's a freelancer."

"Yes."

"That doesn't fit with my information at all. I was looking for someone with official ties, American, probably." Sherlock shrugged. "Always room for a surprise, I suppose."

"Lots of them, as it turns out."

"Indeed, John. How long have you known?"

"A few days. Less than a week. Feels like longer. I meant to break it off with him, after Bainbridge's case. I was ready to finish the relationship, and move back to Baker Street with you, on the off chance that you would have me." John swiped at his eyes. He was full of emotion again, relief pouring through him at finally getting to say what he wanted to. "And then I found out what he was, and I couldn't make a move before I was sure we could get him, and the rest of the people he's working with."

Sherlock sat up on the sofa, all soft smiles. When he spoke, it was with a quiet, particular emphasis. "I would have you. I would like that, very much. You, back in your place."

John nodded, his heart full, his mind steady, finally ready to tell Sherlock exactly what he meant to him. "Then I'll come back, just as soon as this is over. It's always been you, Sherlock. You keep me right. I could never be happy with anyone else, and I'm sorry for putting you through all this."

"Apologise later. Or don't. Perhaps we need to move past apologies, John. We have better things to spend our breath on, don't you think?"

John nodded, as he felt his world realign, the whole thing falling into place, after being wrong for so long. "I do."

"In the meantime, tell me this plan of yours." Sherlock stood up on the sofa, and sat on the back of it, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands in prayer position at his lips, as he prepared to listen. In his black suit coat, he looked like nothing so much as a large crow.

John grinned at him. He was proud of himself, proud that Sherlock was letting him take the lead. "It's simple, really. He's got a flash drive, on him, with him, that has the information we need about the people he's working with. There's only a few of them left, or so he tells me. We get the drive, get the information, and we have what we need to resolve this. Turn him and his associates over to the authorities."

Sherlock frowned. "A flash drive? Really? So strange, that the criminal classes have really never caught on to the cloud."

John shrugged. "I've seen it. It has the letters A G R A on it. One letter for each one of his group's remaining members, or so he told me. I'm meant to read it when we've gone through with the wedding. After."

Sherlock raised his eyebrows. "Okay." He wiggled his fingers. "I might have to use my pickpocketing skills. I so rarely get a chance to these days. I hardly ever have a need for quick cash any more."

John knew he was beaming. "Seriously, Sherlock, he really is dangerous. We need to make sure we don't tip him off. He might run, or worse."

"Don't you worry."

"And as for you, this is supposed to be the worst day of your life. He's expecting it to devastate you. That's the plan. Ruin you for detective work. Ruin your life." John's throat tightened on him again.

"And it would have, John. Clearly I'm lost without you, as the last few weeks have amply demonstrated. I've been so preoccupied with the problem of you, I've failed to see what was happening right in front of me." Sherlock stood up on the seat of the couch, and stepped down onto the floor, standing inches away from John. "Fortunately, one of us was still paying attention." He gazed into John's eyes, and put his hand on John's shoulder. "So go ahead." He spoke softly, deliberately. "Get married. Burn the heart out of me. It's no trouble at all, looking sombre at a wedding. Dull affairs. Not nearly enough cake, proportionate to the trouble."

John smiled at him, and slid his arm around Sherlock's waist, and pulled him close, his own heart ready to burn through his chest, his entire body feeling better, and lighter, than it had in a long while. Sherlock looked down into his eyes, and the two of them held there. John found himself watching Sherlock's lips, watching as Sherlock's breath seemed to catch in his throat.

A knock sounded at the door, as if someone were using both fists. The two of them broke apart, watching each other warily.

"John!" Harry. "It's five after, John! Everyone's waiting."

John checked his watch. "Shit."

"We're going to have to improvise," Sherlock told him, smiling at him fondly as he adjusted his coat.

John nodded. He had a feeling, rich and warm, running through him, of the old magic mingling with something entirely new. "Are you ready?" He put his hand on the doorknob.

"Ready."

Out in the hallway, Harry stood in a pale blue dress, cut to follow the curves of her hips. She'd eschewed heels for practical flats John knew she would dance in if she had the chance, and pinned her hair up, Watsonian pale blond, shot through with hints of silver, just like John's. Her expressive eyes, the same shape and colour as his, moved between Sherlock and John, as her eyebrows shot up.

"I'll just go out front, wait where I'm supposed to be," Sherlock said. He squeezed Harry's arm. "Do hurry him along. We can't have him ruining everything."

"Will do," she said, as she squinted at John, the same look she'd worn when she'd caught him smoking out behind school, or skipping class.

When Sherlock was all of the way down the hallway, and well out of earshot, she leaned in and grabbed John by the elbow. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"

He smiled at her a little, remembering how she'd been both keen and accusatory when she'd participated in the case two nights ago.

"Seriously, John. I had to do everything I could not to let Mark see you weren't ready yet, and that Sherlock was back here. If I didn't know any better, I'd say the two of you've been snogging each other. Sherlock seems positively chipper." She squinted in the direction that Sherlock had gone.

John kissed her cheek. "I suppose we've sorted out our differences."

She stared at him. He could never hide things from her. She knew too much. She always had, her brain too busy, her perspective too broad. She saw right through him. He was certain of it.

She leaned in, her voice a low hiss between them. No one could possibly hear. "You don't love Mark, do you?"

He shook his head.

"You love Sherlock. You always have."

His heart was so full, he was sure she could read it all over him, his smile illuminated by everything he felt. He watched her sift through the possibilities, and then reach some sort of understanding. She was brilliant, his sister. Just as smart, in her own way, as Sherlock was. She smiled, and leaned in, and whispered in his ear.

"He's crooked, isn't he? You're getting married for a case. John Watson, you absolute bastard. I've never been prouder of you."

He was grinning by the time she pulled back to study his expression. She looped her arm around his, and gave his hand a squeeze, as she tugged him along down the hallway. "Well, let's get you to the altar."

"No one's supposed to be giving me away." John managed to keep his voice from cracking, as a memory of holding her hand as they'd walked home together came to the surface. They'd weathered a lot, everything that life had thrown at them. Watsons were tough.

"I'll just take you as far as the door."

As he waited to enter the chapel, John's eyes found Sherlock immediately, standing in his place a few feet away, opposite Cath, who stood on Mark's side. Sherlock seemed to be studying Cath, who was watching him with what appeared to be equal interest, something a bit predatory in her eyes.

"Good luck, brother." Harry squeezed past John, and went to take her seat in the front pew.

By some signal, music began to play over a speaker system—something classical, that Anika or Sherlock had probably chosen. John took a deep breath, and walked out to the altar, as Mark approached from the opposite side.

Mark was grinning broadly, looking as happy and boisterous as a groom should. He'd dressed in dark blue trousers, and a gray jacket with a lilac shirt that matched Cath's dress, accented with a plaid bow tie and pocket square, a bright contrast to John's traditional suit.

John took a deep breath. He put on a smile, a soft one. Looked at Sherlock.

I would marry you.

John allowed himself to feel, just for one more moment, the fullness in his heart, before joining Mark in the ceremony that could only be a battle. He gripped Mark's hands, running his thumb up the inside of Mark's wrist.

"Scared me a bit," Mark murmured, sounding not scared at all, as their friends took their seats and waited for the ceremony to begin. He lost nothing of the charming smile he wore so often, and so easily. "Bit of a delay getting out here, yeah?"

John allowed himself a laugh. "You know my side of the church. Full of drama."

Mark's eyes slid over to Sherlock. He smiled, and winked at him. "I wouldn't expect anything less."

"Gentlemen, if I can interrupt?"

The vicar had somehow taken his place without John or Mark noticing.

"You can," Mark told him, grinning, evoking a smattering of soft laughter from the people sitting in the pews.

The vicar began the traditional service John had wanted, asking that God "Pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of love."

John still held Mark's hands, but he couldn't help himself—he turned and glanced at Sherlock, who stood, hands folded in front of him, face downturned, left eyebrow raised, as he surreptitiously looked at John, and Mark, and smiled sadly, then looked back at the ground as if he wanted to crawl into it. John forced himself to face Mark, to gaze into his eyes. More than one performance going on in the church today.  

Mark pulled John in closer, putting his hand on John's waist, then sliding it up, so it rested on John's shoulder blade. John suppressed a shiver.

"Marriage is a sign of unity and loyalty, which all should uphold and honour," the vicar continued. "It enriches society and strengthens community. No one should enter into it lightly or selfishly, but reverently and responsibly in the sight of almighty God."

John allowed himself a small smile at the vicar's words. More than a bit of blasphemy going on today, too.

"Mark and John are now to enter this way of life. They will each give their consent to the other and make solemn vows, and in token of this they will each give and receive a ring. We pray with them that the Holy Spirit will guide and strengthen them, that they may fulfil God's purposes for the whole of their earthly life together."

John knew which part was coming next—the declarations. He was glad, in retrospect, that he'd talked with Sherlock, and with Harry. He could easily imagine an alternative scenario in which either one of them might have tried to stop him from marrying Mark, to disastrous results.

"First, I am required to ask anyone present who knows a reason why these persons may not lawfully marry, to declare it now."

Mark squeezed John's shoulder and turned to look at the people gathered in the pews, lifted his index finger, and waved it back and forth in a cheeky gesture, clucking his tongue. More giggles, mostly from the nurses. A few rows back, Greg Lestrade leaned over and whispered something in Molly Hooper's ear. She winced, and shook her head, looking like she couldn't believe what she was seeing.

John faked his way through a laugh, even as he realised he might have a lot of explaining to do, when all of this was over. He shot a glance at Sherlock, who was staring at the floor with such an intense focus that he might have burned a hole through it.

The vicar murmured, "Very good," and carried on with the next part of the declarations.

John allowed the rest of the long ceremony to wash over him, spoke his I will when it was his turn, and felt his stomach churn as he prepared himself to listen to Mark's vows.

They'd agreed to each write their own. Mark cleared his throat, and grinned cheekily. "John." He squeezed John's hands, and gazed into his eyes. John felt it: that Mark believed he owned him now. "We both know that I'm the best thing that could possibly have happened to you."

John looked down at their joined hands, remembering the first time Mark had used those words, before John's aborted proposal at the Landmark. He forced himself to laugh, a harsh bark that met the burst of laughter and catcalls from their gathered friends. He felt his face flush red. He had to keep smiling. It was a joke, after all. The whole thing was.

In the front pew, Harry was biting her lip, looking like she was ready to commit a murder all her own.

"In all seriousness, John, when I met you, I never expected to meet such a good, honest, loyal man. I want to share all my future adventures with you."

Mark took the ring from Cath, and slipped it onto John's finger. He looked into John's eyes, all anticipation.

It was John's turn. Sherlock had the ring box ready. He opened it, and held it out to John, his expression carefully neutral. John managed to take the ring without looking at Sherlock for too long. He took Mark's hand again, and held it tight, ring poised. He looked into Mark's eyes.

"I've thought long and hard about what I want to say to you. These are prepared words, Mark. I've chosen these words with care."

Mark's habitual rakish smile faded. He nodded, his eyes narrowing, as he waited for what John would say.

"When I met you, I didn't know who I was, or what I wanted. All that's changed now, and I suppose you could say I've found a purpose I never imagined I would. You've made me more determined than I've ever been, to be true to myself, and who I am." He was speaking, he realised, with some of the intensity he'd used in the kitchen two nights before.

Mark was smiling at him, looking like he was ready to push him to the floor and have him right here, in front of everyone.  

"That's what you've taught me," John growled, as he slipped the ring onto Mark's finger. "I won't forget it. So thank you. Thank you for that."

He leaned in, and kissed Mark on the cheek, and on the corner of the mouth. "I meant every word," he whispered.  

The vicar cleared his throat. Beside him, Sherlock was looking at the floor as if it had just done something particularly intriguing. He'd flushed a bit, his eyebrows raised. From her place on the front pew, Harry gave a soft whistle.

"Sorry," John said, still watching Mark closely. "Jumped the gun."

Mark shook his head, his smile feral, a belly laugh rumbling up through him.

The vicar spoke his blessing, and smiled his approval, and Mark reached in and took John by the back of the head, kissing him hard before whispering in his ear. "I'm going to give you the time of your life. That's a promise."

The vicar led them through a round of blessings, having them kneel, and stand again, then go to the registration table and sign the marriage certificate. John hesitated for a moment before he signed his name, looking sidelong at Mark, and all too aware of Sherlock, who stood as witness, hovering by John's left elbow.

"Excuse me," Sherlock said, as John passed him the pen.

John stepped aside to make room for him. Sherlock looked drawn, and sombre, as he signed, his signature a messy scrawl under John's small, neat handwriting. When he was done, he turned, and stuck out his hand for Mark to shake. He sighed, and nodded. "Congratulations," he mumbled.

Mark leaned in, gripping Sherlock's hand to hold him in place, and drew Sherlock into a hug that lasted far too long. "Thanks," he told Sherlock, watching John over Sherlock's shoulder. "I promise you, I'll make him very happy."

John smiled, sure that he was only managing a hideous grimace. He held out his hand. "Okay, husband, let's go thank our guests for coming."

Mark laughed, and let go of Sherlock, letting his hand linger on Sherlock's back. "Oi. Husband! I like the sound of that," he joked, shooting Sherlock a final look, as John led him out to the vestibule that connected the church to the reception hall.

In the lobby, under the warm glow of fairy lights, John and Mark stood together and shook hands and kissed cheeks, as their guests filed past. Outside, the day had turned dark and stormy. Rain smacked against the broad windows above the church doors. The empty branches of an ash tree, visible through the windows, tossed in the wind.

Bill Murray, who had come with a couple of John's other army mates, shook Mark's hand, and pulled John into a warm hug. "Really good to see you settled, John. You'll keep him in trouble, won't you, Mark?"

Mark grinned. "You can count on it."

After that it was a quick round of greeting the nurses, a couple of John's cousins, and a maiden aunt. Greg Lestrade shook Mark's hand, and John's, and offered a polite congratulations; Mrs. Hudson smiled and beamed; and Molly Hooper looked as though she might be sick, as she mumbled her best wishes. Mike Stamford, it seemed, had chosen to stay home.

Sherlock was standing about fifteen feet away, by the doors of the reception hall, looking sombre, while Cath stood next to him, chattering at him. He looked up at the ceiling, and said a few words, his expression bland. She threw her head back and laughed.

"Hey brother, I'm talking to you." Harry was, somehow, standing in front of John. She punched him on the arm. He realised he'd been staring at Sherlock for far too long.

Harry had her arm around Mark's shoulders. She'd turned him, so he was facing away from Sherlock. She'd been saying something to him that must have made him happy—he was looking as pleased with himself as a cat who'd gotten into the milk.

"Hey," John said, grateful for her.

"I was just telling Mark," she said, grinning, her eyes bright and sharp, "I normally think weddings are complete bollocks, but this is shaping up to be the best one ever."

Chapter Text

John sat with his head bowed over the dinner table, running his thumbs along the edge of the linen napkin he'd put on his dessert plate. All around him, and Mark, and the gathered guests at the five tables they'd managed to fill, stood the fine trappings of the wedding: the white fairy lights draped around the windows of the reception hall; the green and white carnations, sitting in cut crystal vases on each table; the food, a bit bland, but thoroughly decent; the good wine; the dull, innocuous conversation.

All those small details, he reflected, as he watched raspberry cake filling stain the napkin from the underside, could easily cover any number of ugly human truths. Any wedding had to be a sort of show, pushing onward despite the lies, the affairs, the hidden passions, the small, desperate secrets of the participants. The unstated desires, the frank needs, the discontents. That's what weddings were.

Mark shifted beside him, laughing, bright, and placed a hand on the small of John's back, rubbing circles there. Claiming him. John grimaced, still studying the close weave of the napkin. How perfectly white it had been, before he'd used it to wipe the corner of his mouth.

Dinner had been an exercise in pretending to listen to what people were saying, as he watched his own plate and glass, never taking his eye off them, making sure that Mark didn't manage to slip anything into his food or drink. He knew from hard experience how easy it would be for Mark to dose him with something, to make him compliant, or sick, or worse. They'd both mostly refrained from drinking, one glass of wine each with dinner, and one glass of champagne for a single, brief toast. Spread out over the hour and a half dinner had taken, the alcohol hadn't even begun to reduce John's nerves. He was ready to fight. Ready for everything to be over.

He wondered if there'd ever been a wedding that disguised secrets like the ones Mark had kept: the terrible things he'd done, the truths stored in the flash drive that was probably mere inches away, in one pocket or another of his neat, modern suit, waiting to be opened, waiting to undo him. John fidgeted under the table, his knee bouncing.

Across from him, Sherlock sat, looking downcast, pushing the last of his cake across his plate. Cath, who had spent the first course trying to talk to Sherlock, had given up, apparently, and turned her attention on Harry, who was openly flirting, running her finger around the rim of her water glass, eyes bright. John supposed he couldn't blame her. Cath was very pretty, in her lilac dress, with her dark hair spilling down her shoulders in curls.

On the other side of Mark, Mrs. Hudson was talking, thank Christ. John lifted his gaze to watch her, as Mark's hand slid across his knee, and squeezed. John pressed his palm to it, and held it still.

"It's like I always say, if you've found the right one, the one you click with, that's what really matters," Mrs. Hudson was telling Mark.

Mark was nodding and smiling. "Is that what you had with Mr. Hudson?"

John leaned forward, curious to see what she would tell him, as she seemed poised to singlehandedly steer the conversation well away from dull and innocuous, bless her. John remembered very well how the Hudson marriage had ended: with Sherlock guaranteeing Mr. Hudson's execution.

"No!" she said, crinkling her nose. "No! It was just a whirlwind thing for us. We had a fantastic time, but of course I didn't know what he was up to." Her voice dropped into a whisper. "The drugs."

Mark's eyebrows shot up, and he looked at John, grinning, before he turned back to her.

"He was running, um, oh God, what do you call it? A cartel. Got in with a really bad crowd."

Harry and Cath had both stopped to listen to what she was saying. Cath bit her lip and tilted her head, as if she were straining to understand. Harry's eyes had gone wide, and she looked like she was holding in a scream.

"Right," Mark said, as if she'd just told him she and Frank had gone bird watching together on a regular basis.

"And then I found out about all the other women. I didn't have a clue! So, when he was actually arrested for blowing someone's head off, it was quite a relief, to be honest."

John spared a glance at Sherlock, who had allowed a bit of a smile to move across his lips at Mrs. Hudson's story.

Mark laughed. "Sounds like a good run to me. Most people just get divorced."

The DJ, who had started to set up in the corner by the kitchen door, got on his microphone to announce that the staff wanted to clear the tables away for the dance, and that everyone was invited to go out into the lobby for drinks, and another round of dessert. Sherlock stood abruptly, and walked away from the table, not speaking to anyone as he moved to the back of the hall, in the direction of the loos.

"Well," John said, as the server cleared their plates. "I know I'm ready for a bit of a stretch."

"Shall we?" Mark said. "I'd like to chat to you a bit before the dancing starts. Somewhere quiet." He wore the same confident look he always did, as if he were constantly on the verge of saying gotcha.

John was all too aware that Sherlock was nowhere to be seen, and that no one else knew what was going on, except for Harry. He would be alone, if things were about to go sideways. He was taking too long to answer. He cleared his throat. "Okay. Excuse us, everybody."

Harry was watching him closely. She'd gone pale.

He smiled at her. Had to keep her safe, assure her that it would be okay, even if he wasn't sure it would be. "Be back in a tick," he told her.

Mark walked across the room ahead of John, head held high, turning back to offer him a sly look, as he led them back into the nave, taking a few steps up the aisle, between the pews. The bar of light from the lobby narrowed, then disappeared altogether, as the doors swung shut behind them. In the quiet, darkened space, Mark watched John, head tilted. The muted sounds of the guests filtered in from outside. From the reception hall came the bump and squeak of the sound system being tested.

"You've done very well today," Mark told him.

John dropped his smile, his heart pounding, as he waited for what would come next. He was certain, almost certain, that Mark wouldn't spoil his own moment of triumph. John couldn't afford to, either. He struggled to keep control of himself, when his instinct was to fight, to try to get the flash drive any way he could.

"Was I supposed to do something wrong?" He took a step closer to Mark. He had to show him he wasn't afraid, somehow, to demonstrate that he was still willing to go along.

"I'm not stupid, John. I know that this is all a bit new for you. You're bound to feel two ways about it. Leaving these people."

John shook his head. "They're people Sherlock knows. They've never been my friends."

"Your sister," Mark said, watching him closely.

"Is my sister. She's never done much for me except need me to come peel her away from the pub on occasion. As for the rest of them, I never see the army crowd any more. There's nothing for me here. I think you know that very well." He'd been a target because of his isolation. That much was abundantly obvious. "You've got more friends in London than I do."

"And Sherlock?"

"What about Sherlock?"

"You don't regret leaving him? You've had a bit more time to think about it now."

John took a step toward Mark, and another, then closed the space between them. "I'm going with you. That's going to have to be good enough."

"You know what it's going to do to him."

"Not my problem." His nerves were screaming. "He's an adult man. Up to him what he does with himself."

"That's cold." Mark looked pleased.

John stared at him, hating himself for what he was about to say. "Look at it this way. All I have to leave behind are a couple of addicts. About time I got on with it."

Mark's eyes were glittering in the dark, his breath moving across John's cheek. "Well, we're all addicts, in a sense, aren't we?"

John grew very still. His fist bunched at his side. "What?" 

"You. Adrenaline. The war you never left. You know, you're lucky I found you. This is your chance to change to a better supplier. You're not going to believe what I can do for you." Mark's hand traveled up John's shoulder, and caressed the side of his neck, rubbing on the sensitive spot he knew John liked.

John fought the urge to pull away. He was breathing hard, anger filling him. He allowed it to come out as a ragged sigh. "And you're going to show me, aren't you?"

"I think you'll find I can be very generous." Mark held John by the back of his neck, kissed him on the lips, hard and quick, and slipped his hand into John's trouser pocket. "Since you've been so good, here's a little present."  He stepped away.

John was shaking, breathing hard, as he watched Mark leave.

"Remember what I told you," Mark said, as he walked away, heading back toward the party.  "We're going to have to talk about those files, so I'm trusting you not to peek until the honeymoon."

John waited until the doors swung closed before he slipped his hand into his pocket. The flash drive was there. He pulled it out, and had a look: there were the letters, AGRA, in black magic marker. Somehow, Mark was trusting him to hold it.

He looked toward the front of the church, toward the darkened doorway beside the altar, that led to the vicar's office. He was sure he'd seen a laptop among the vicar's many belongings, under a pile of notepaper and used teacups. It would be completely stupid to run back and check the flash drive now, but it could be done, somehow, at some point. He would wait until Mark was well occupied with the party, figure out a way to make it work.

He put the drive back into his pocket, and rushed to go back out to the lobby, wondering where in the hell Sherlock had gotten to.

Outside, Mark was busy talking with a couple of the nurses. He smirked as John came out of the nave. Not willing to be cowed, John approached him, and slipped his arm around Mark's waist.

One of the nurses, Allie, punched John on the arm. "So? We were just saying how wonderful you two look together. How does it feel to be hitched?"

John watched Mark steadily. "Like I can't wait to get to the next bit."

The nurses laughed, and Allie raised her glass, a tumbler filled with ice and something pink. "Cheers to that!" She took a sip. "Hey, married men, I don't see the two of you drinking. What's going on with that?"

Mark's smile was subtle. "Well, I'm driving later tonight." John watched the floor as Mark put his arm around John's shoulder. The honeymoon plans.

"Boo!" Allie said.

"Yeah." Trish shook her head. "Who doesn't drink at their own wedding?"

"You're going to have to make it up to them, for both of us," Mark told John. "I think you're obligated to have something. Besides, your sister's already got a good start on you. Why don't you join her?" His gaze slid over toward the bar, set up just outside the reception hall.

Harry was leaning on it, a shot glass in hand, talking to the bartender.

John's gut clenched, but he held himself back from taking a full step forward. He was meant not to care. He looked back at Mark. "See what I mean?"

Mark nodded. He stepped in, and brushed his lips up against John's ear. "Go ahead. Play the dutiful brother, one last time. I know you want to."

Feeling like he couldn't sort how he was supposed to behave any more, John went to the bar, scanning the rest of the room. Sherlock was nowhere to be seen. He'd been gone for fully ten minutes.

"Johnny boy!" Harry opened her arms as he approached. "Come and have a drink. Celebrate." She was already slurring her words. "Two more," she told the bartender.

Mark was still watching them. John gave a nod to the bartender, who poured another couple of shots from a bottle of something clear. Harry handed one to John, spilling a little, and leaned in. "It's water." She raised the other shot glass, and clinked it against John's, then tossed hers back. "Come on, Johnny! It's your wedding day!"

He stared at her, then drank—it was, indeed, plain water. He put the shot glass down on the bar. "Another," he told the bartender.

Harry put her hands in the air, threw her head back, cried "Yes!" then put her arms around John's neck. "Jones here is my new best friend. Water for booze, any time you need." She pulled back, and grinned at him.

"Seriously who are you?" he said.

"Your goddamn sister!" She slurred the words, grabbed his face, and gave him a kiss on the forehead.

They drank again. She slung his arm around his shoulders. "I want you to know I'm prepared to be as much of a messy distraction as you need tonight," she murmured into his ear.  "I'll even dance with your gross husband."

"You're brilliant, you," he told her, and kissed her cheek.

"Don't you forget it!" she shouted, as she stumbled into him.

"Have you seen Sherlock?" he asked, keeping his voice low.

"Okay look, don't get mad, but if I didn't know that man was five times as gay as you and me put together, I'd say he's pulled with that maid of honour."

"What?"

"He went off over by the loos at the back of the hall after dinner, and I saw her follow him in there."

"Hey, Watson!"

From across the room, Bill Murray, and John's other army mates, George and Vince, were approaching, smiles on their faces, wanting to talk to him. John fidgeted. The flash drive was still all but burning a hole in his pocket.

George reached John first, and shook his hand. He was also a doctor, in surgical practice somewhere in Sussex. He'd sent John a postcard or two, pictures of white cliffs, and charming cottages. Even during the war, he'd always been quiet and reliable. He smiled at John, his brown eyes gentle. "Congratulations. Really nice to see you doing so well."

John's mind fluttered, briefly, over the idea of a far future, in which he and Sherlock might consider retiring to a village like the one George lived in. "Thanks," he said. "Drink? It's, uh, on us."

George laughed, his smile lighting him up from within. "Good man." He asked the bartender for a pint of cider.

"Where's this famous detective I've read so much about?" Bill asked, his smile goofy, his crooked teeth showing, his hair standing out in all directions. He was always a bit of a mess, but so charming it all became part of his appeal. "I was hoping to get a picture with him. The fellows in my unit would never let me off the hook if I couldn't prove I'd finally met him." To John, Bill would always look like the face of salvation itself. He'd been with him when John was shot in Afghanistan, and stayed with him, until John had been settled in hospital, and was well taken care of, and safe.

"Ah, that's what we're just trying to figure out," John said. "Skipped off for a bit, but you know, I'm sure he'll be back."

Just then, Sherlock emerged from the reception hall, where the caterers were still rearranging furniture. He held his head high, imperious as he ran his eyes across the room. He scanned the bar, looking at John briefly, before moving toward the dessert table, picking up a plate, and glaring at the fruit bowl.

"Well, there he is," John said. He needed, somehow, to tell Sherlock about the flash drive, and find a moment for the two of them to get a good look at it, so they could take Mark down.

At that exact moment, Cath came out of the reception hall too, adjusting the bodice of her dress as she went. She winked at Harry as she passed by the bar, on her way over to where the nurses, and Mark, were still talking and laughing together.

"Jesus Christ," Harry said. "See what I mean? She's been gone as long as he has. What do you think that's all about?" She passed John another shot glass full of water.

"No idea," John said. He wrestled with a brief, and completely irrational, bout of jealousy, followed by an absolute conviction that he had to push through, and finish this insanity once and for all.

Vince stuck his hand out and introduced himself to Harry. Harry elbowed John, then laughed at something Vince said, and suddenly she was the centre of attention, as Bill joined the conversation, and John rubbed at his forehead, and wondered how in the hell he was going to figure out a way to do what he so desperately needed.  

Time slowed, and John watched Harry as she talked, her liquid eyes dancing, her hands gesturing wildly, and he was filled with love for her, his little sister, who he'd looked after, and who was looking after him today. He studied each of his friends, these men he'd served with, these men who he'd saved, and who had saved him, in a host of ways, large and small. Maybe they didn't talk much. Maybe they weren't in constant contact, but they'd been through things together, and that meant a lot.

He thought about the way Bill always commented on the blog, the way he'd offered his friendship to John over and over, despite the fact that John was always caught up in his own world. Some hidden gear turned over in John's mind, some broken connection healed, and he realised that it was, perhaps, entirely possible, that these people would try to help him, if he gave them half a chance. He thought of Sherlock, who seemed to have a hundred different points of contact with people whose expertise and assistance he could draw on, when he needed to. For all that he talked about being alone, Sherlock wasn't. Maybe John didn't need to be, either.

He put his arm around Bill. "You want to meet Sherlock, yeah?"

"Yeah!" Bill said, looking over to where Sherlock was standing, talking with Molly, who was shaking her head, and glaring at Mark a bit, where he held court among his group of nurses. "Oh, I'm a little nervous now. He's a prickly one, isn't he?"

"Only if he doesn't like you. I think you'll be pretty safe. You're going to help with a case we're working."

"I am?" Bill looked ecstatic.

"Yup. But you're going to have to keep it quiet. It's a bit sensitive. Involves the wedding. No one can know but you three, Harry here, and Sherlock. Okay?" George and Vince had crowded around, listening, curious about what John had to say.

"Okay," Bill said, lowering his voice. "Still nervous. Thrilled, but nervous."

John allowed himself to watch Sherlock for a moment, who shrugged at something Molly was saying, and picked at a strawberry on his plate. "Don't be. As it turns out, he has a bit of a thing for soldiers."

***

Sooner than John would have liked, the DJ got his sound system working, and Mark came over to sweep him away into the reception hall. "Come on, husband," he said, taking John's hand, and spinning him where he stood. "I know we're not much for tradition, but we have to at least have a first dance."

The nurses followed, Cath included, as John stumbled after Mark, pretending to be a bit drunk.

"I know you can hold your liquor, but good Christ John, you might want to slow down," Mark told him, grinning broadly as the two of them danced to Get Lucky.

For a while, it was all flashing lights, and the nurses cheering while they danced. The distant cousins and the one maiden aunt seemed to hit it off with Mrs. Hudson, Molly, and Greg, forming a little group to themselves in the far corner of the dance floor.

Through the open double doors that connected the reception hall to the lobby and bar, John kept an eye on George, Vince, and Bill, who made a slow progress around the room. First, they took selfies with Sherlock, chatted with him a bit, then got fresh drinks, and lingered over the dessert table. George came onto the dance floor first, ending up in a long conversation with Mrs. Hudson and the maiden aunt, while Bill had a go at chatting up Molly, and Vince wandered off to get himself another pint.

Sherlock came into the reception hall, sat at a table in the corner, and fiddled with a straw, turning it this way and that, while staring into the middle distance. One of the nurse's husbands approached him at one point, and ran off blushing, after Sherlock said what appeared to be five words to him.

He was in fine antisocial form. John had never been more in love with him.

Harry, in the meantime, had made a long, elaborate show of dividing her time between the bar and the dance. Currently, she was occupying the centre of the floor, dancing furiously to a loud, aggressive track that John didn't recognise at all, but which the nurses seemed to be excited about.

John had to admit he was proud of his people. He'd spoken to them about staggering their timing, making sure they didn't go directly from Sherlock to John, or vice versa.

Now, George and Vince swept Mark aside, taking turns shouting at him over the music and flirting with him, and the other nurses. Bill danced next to John, sipping from a bottle of lager, then leaned in, and yelled in his ear.

"Sherlock says Cath is up to something funny. He followed her out through the back exit by the loos, and she went and spoke to some bloke a half a block over."

"He followed her? But he came back first," John said.

Bill laughed. "He said you would say that. Told me to tell you that everyone knows that the secret to following someone is to get a few steps ahead of them." Bill pulled back so that John could see the giant, toothy grin he was wearing. "He really is just like he is in the papers, isn't he?"

"Ten times as annoying," John replied, smiling fondly. "And a hundred times as amazing."

Bill shot John a sidelong glance, and leaned in close. "You got married for the case, didn't you?"

"Oi! Shut it. I never said anything like that." He'd only told Bill that Mark would be pissed if he found out John and Sherlock were working tonight.

"It's okay, Watson. No one can hear a thing over this music."

The two of them pretended to dance, and John glared a bit, then broke into a laugh. It was obvious, really. He and Sherlock were a couple. They always had been.

On the far side of the dance floor, Mark was shouting encouragement at Vince, who was on his knees, shimmying his way across the floor, and sweating like an absolute madman.

"Look, I don't want to be awful, but he's too polished for you," Bill said, looking at Mark. "Your favourite people tend to be a little bit on the rusty side."

John smiled at him, and wrestled with the urge to pull Bill into a hug.

Bill looked down at his watch. "So here's your assignment."

"My what?"

"Oh wait: your mission, should you choose to accept it." He grinned. "Always wanted to say that."

John laughed. "Go on."

"You're going to leave in three minutes through the exit by the loos, and go round to the fire door behind the vicar's office, where Sherlock will meet you so you can have a look at that flash drive. Between us and Little Miss Secret Weapon, we figure we can keep him occupied for at least ten minutes, maybe a bit more." As Bill said him, he gave a nod toward Mark.

John didn't have to ask who Little Miss Secret Weapon was. Harry was busy jumping and hooting, while a couple of the nurses took turns holding her hand and dancing with her.

Bill elbowed John, and said into his ear, "We've got you covered, mate. You'll have to be quick, but it'll be fine."

"Won't be a bit obvious? Me leaving at the same time as Sherlock?"

"Well, he's already gone, isn't he?"

John looked to the table where Sherlock had been sitting. It was empty.

"The secret to following someone is to be a few steps ahead of them," Bill said, laughing at John.

"Okay. Still, I'm meant to be in the loos for how long?"

"Well, George and Vince will be keeping an eye on the door, so Mark isn't going anywhere near there. Plus by all accounts you're going to be busy trying to get a stain out of your shirt."

John stepped back to look down at himself. "Stain?" he said, at the exact moment Bill jostled him, spilling his beer down John's front.

"Oops!"

John laughed. "Thanks, Bill. You're sincerely the best."

He caught Mark watching him, shaking his head, and turning back to say something to Cath, who laughed, and smiled, and kept dancing.

John went around the corner to the hallway that led to the loos, but moved past the door to the gents, and out into the cold January night.

The fresh air, and the quiet, enveloped him instantly, making him realise how sweaty he was, how the noise and company had kept him teetering on the edge of panic for the past forty minutes. He closed his eyes as he took the first few steps along the paved walkway that appeared to lead around to the back of the church. The wind kicked up, blowing rain into his face, and tossing the tops of the cedar trees that lined the edge of path.

Out here, everything that was going on inside seemed to take on a patina of unreality. He knew he would have to return to it, but for now, there was the prospect of talking to Sherlock, and the relief he felt, at getting to be alone with him again. They hadn't had enough time, earlier. They never had enough time. Especially not today, when they'd finally managed to admit that they both felt the same way, that they really did want each other.

John lost his footing as he rounded the corner, and leaned his hand against the damp brick wall of the church, and paused to get his breath.

It made sense that he was dizzy, he supposed. He laughed, feeling lighter than he had in a long time, as he found the fire door nearest the vicar's office. It was cracked open a little. Sherlock was standing there, holding it. Waiting for him.

"John."

The two of them hurried down the hallway to the office, and let themselves in. The vicar's laptop was just where John remembered. They excavated it from under its pile of cups and papers, put it in the middle of the blotter on the vicar's desk, and waited as it cranked slowly to life. John found, watching the screen, that he couldn't help but feel the warmth of Sherlock, standing right next to him. His breath came more quickly than it should, the whole surface of his skin aware of Sherlock, of everything they meant to each other.

"God, I want to be kissing you right now," he said, as the laptop finally displayed its welcome screen.

Sherlock sat down at the desk. "The drive, John." He held out his hand, and John took the drive out of his pocket, and gave it to him.

"And I you," Sherlock said, as he plugged the drive in.

John was still smiling as Sherlock worked on opening the files.

"You know the fact that Mark gave this to you means it's probably useless, or a trap. Or both."

John deflated a little. He'd been so caught up in trying to get to the vicar's office, that he hadn't stopped to wonder what would happen next. He'd only wanted to push on to this next step, try to bring things to a conclusion as quickly as possible.

"Still, we have to try, don't we? What else can we do?" He put his hand on the back of Sherlock's neck, and ran his fingers through the soft curls at his nape.

Sherlock sighed, and let his hand drop away from the computer. "For possibly the first time in my life, I can honestly say I wish I didn't have a case." He turned, and looked up at John, his expression soft, and open, and vulnerable.

"But we do," John said, running his thumb over Sherlock's jaw, heady with the idea that he was allowed to do it. "Are you ready to see what we've got?"

Sherlock nodded, and turned back to the computer. "Ready."

He opened the only folder on the drive. It contained what appeared to be a large gallery of photos.

Sherlock clicked through the first few. They showed a domed white marble building, surrounded by minarets.

"Is that the Taj Mahal?" John asked, squinting at the screen.

"It would appear so."

"Hey." A woman's voice sounded from the office doorway.

Cath stood there, leaning against the frame, still lovely in her lilac gown, a bit flushed from dancing, her high heeled shoes clutched in her right hand. "What are you two doing looking at my vacation snaps?"

"Agra." Sherlock said, turning to look at her.

"That's right," she said, taking another step into the room. "Famous spot. Very popular with tourists."

Cath was part of the conspiracy, somehow, John realised, his heart sinking. She wasn't holding any weapons. He supposed they could be grateful for that. "What?"

"Agra, John. Agra, India." Sherlock was on his feet, pulling his phone out of his pocket. "Vacation, you say. Are you sure you weren't there on assignment, Agent Violet Smith, of the CIA?" He held up his phone, which displayed a scan of an official looking photo ID, with Cath's picture on it.

She deflated a little, and shook her head. "If you were anyone else, I'd have you detained for interfering in my investigation." Her accent was suddenly, shockingly American. "But since I just figured out that this one—" she paused to point her thumb at John— "isn't actually planning to jump careers to a life of crime, I figure you can help me out a bit. We have a few minutes to talk, probably." She took another step into the office, shut the door behind her, and addressed her next comment to John. "When I left, your sister had pulled your new husband aside for what looked like a good long chat."

The preliminary details were sorted quickly. Cath, or Agent Violet Smith, rather, had been working with MI6 for the last eight months, trying to identify and, as she put it, neutralise the group Mark was working with. She'd been placed in the clinic a short while after Mark, to watch him.

"Your relationship was a bit of a surprise, to be honest," she told John. "It helped a lot, knowing he was working on developing a more permanent cover for his persona. It meant the situation was stable. On the down side, it also meant, for the first little while, that he was much less active. Harder to trace his associates."

After John explained the circumstances that had led to his possession of the flash drive, Violet confessed that she'd loaned it to Mark on stag night, claiming he had, at some point, expressed interest in travel to India. "Those really just are my vacation snaps."

Sherlock fixed her with a sceptical glare.

"All right, and the drive has an embedded tracking device. Since Mark's activity has increased lately, I had to try as many different ways I could to make sure we could follow him. I was trailing him that night, when he went to Five Coachmen. Too late to help your friend," she said to Sherlock. "Sorry about that. Really didn't think he would attack someone who wasn't part of his gang."

"Thank you," Sherlock said.

John put his hand on Sherlock's shoulder. "So the whole scenario with the flash drive really was just a setup. What was the point of it, then?"

Sherlock reached up and took John's lapel between his fingers, studying the boutonnière he'd placed there a few hours earlier. "To keep you occupied. Give you something to work towards, while he kept you on the hook for the wedding."

John could feel himself flush. "It was all for nothing, then. Just another lie."

Violet watched the two of them closely. "The real test, as far as he's concerned, is probably what you're going to do when you find out he's lied to you. He had to expect that you would look at it as soon as you could."

John nodded. "Maybe he wants me to confront him. Maybe break my promise to go with him. It's just another game of cat and mouse. He knows I can't refuse him."

"Why can't you?" Sherlock asked, his voice so quiet, John could practically hear his heart breaking.

"He implied he would kill you, if I don't agree to do what he wants me to."

"Kill me?" Sherlock sounded a bit stroppy. "Well, that's fickle. Last I heard you were the primary target."

John ran his fingers through Sherlock's curls, and gazed into his eyes. God, I love you.  

The vicar's ancient chair gave a loud squeak of protest as Sherlock turned to face Agent Violet Smith. "So the answer is simple. Since the CIA and MI6 are finally catching up, you should just do your job. Detain Mark now. Interrogate him. Protect us. Isn't that what you people are supposed to do?"

Violet studied the two of them. For a moment, something like compassion moved over her features. When she spoke, she addressed herself to John.

"I think you know it isn't that simple, or we would have done it already. We've been waiting for him to finish here, because when he's done, we expect him to return to the fold. To go to a physical, central location, which we still haven't identified, where the key members of his group will gather, so he can start the next phase."

"The next phase of what?" Sherlock watched her.

"Ruining you." Violet spoke to Sherlock, but then turned her gaze back on John.

A sinking feeling rolled through him, like he was in an elevator, the cables of which had been suddenly cut. He took a deep breath, and let it out slowly.

"This is all about me," John said.

"Yes," Violet replied.

"We've already established this," Sherlock said. "It's about taking John away, but he doesn't want to go. Game over. Thank you for playing. Mark had his chance, and, to put not too fine a point on it, blew it. Let's call it done." As he spoke, Sherlock sounded more and more agitated.

John closed his eyes, and fought a wave of dizziness, as he thought back through the tangle of the last few weeks, and his discoveries about Mark, and everything he'd done, and the edges of the truths John hadn't fully understood.

"He doesn't care that John doesn't want to go. He knows he doesn't," Violet said. She stepped forward, her voice carrying a note of frustration. "Look at you two. Anyone could see you'd never willingly leave each other. He hasn't killed John, so he must have other plans." She looked at John. "You know what I'm talking about, don't you?"

John thought about the churchyard he'd visited, recalled the whitethorn tree, the single sparrow that had watched him grind through the details of what had happened to Mark's previous partner. "Thomas Baccarin," he said. His voice came out low, and strained.

"That's right," Violet said. "Thomas Baccarin."

Sherlock leaned forward, perched on the edge of the desk chair. "The man who was at the bonfire? Explain."

"He wasn't just another conspirator," John told him. "He was Mark's—he was Mark's. You must have read the file Lestrade had on him. Totally normal guy, who suddenly turned to a life of crime. I thought Mark had probably just blackmailed him." He looked to Violet, who studied him with what appeared to be balanced professionalism, as he remembered the many days he'd woken up in a drugged haze, and the way Mark had so easily manipulated him in the context of their relationship, always keeping him on the edge of uncertainty, keeping him feeling like he owed Mark more than he did. "That's not it, is it? It was more than extortion."

Violet nodded. "Extortion was part of it, but it wasn't everything. They took Baccarin away, just like they plan to do with you, John. They worked on him, hollowed him out. Baccarin wasn't his own man, by the time Mark and his friends finished with him. He had no idea why he did what he did. In the end, he tried to get out, tried to help us with the investigation, but he barely knew his own name any more. I interviewed him. He was a shell of human being. A set of impulses and drives that barely knew what was happening."

Sherlock squeezed John's hand. The edges of the room seemed to go fuzzy, as John fought a wave of nausea. He remembered all the long text exchanges Mark had had with Tom, the occasional fraught phone call. "Tom's fragile," Mark had told John, one night, as the two of them sat on the sofa together, watching a movie. "Sometimes he just needs the support."

In the early days of their relationship, John had seen Mark's behaviour toward Tom as generosity. He'd seen all of Mark's behaviour as generosity.

"That would never work," Sherlock was telling Violet. "John Watson is not so easily undone."

"I believe you," Violet said. "I really do. But you can see why Mark would try it anyway. John would be the jewel in the crown of his career: making a new nemesis for you, turning the one man you love most against you."

Violet's r sounds were hard, her vowels all short in a way that suddenly struck John as wildly funny. "Your accent," he told her, as a fit of giggles overcame him. "You were pretty English at the clinic. Nice work, Agent Smith."

"John?" Sherlock's arm was around John's waist, as his legs went out from under him. Sherlock stood, and helped him into the desk chair, where he slumped, and laughed. The whole thing was hilarious, all of a sudden.

"I thought so," Violet said. She pushed Sherlock aside, and took John's hands, examining them, pushing up his sleeves, and checking his wrists.

John nodded, and took a deep breath, and his head cleared a little. "Drugged me. I don't know how. I watched everything I ate and drank." He looked up at Sherlock, as Violet ran her fingers over John's neck, and behind his ears.

"He's going to wait until you make your exit," John told Sherlock. "You know, leave the wedding early? And I'm going to seem like I've had too much to drink, and he's going to put me in the car and take me wherever we're supposed to be going. That's right, isn't it?"

Violet nodded, and tapped the left side of his neck, just below the hairline. "Right here. Don't remove it. We need to be smart about this."

John felt the area she'd touched. A thin film, slippery like a fine layer of plastic, sat there. A patch, to deliver the drug transdermally. "Oh," John said. He remembered Mark rubbing that spot, when they were alone together, in the nave, after dinner.

Sherlock moved into the space Violet had left, and kneeled in front of John, touching the patch, concern moving over his features. John's heart swelled with love, for Sherlock's careful fingers, the softness of him.

"What do you mean, don't remove it?" Sherlock spoke softly, but he was shaking. "We'll remove it immediately, and we'll take him to hospital until whatever he's been given wears off. Next steps are still the same." He was on his feet again, practically spitting in Violet's face. "Detain Mark. Interrogate him. Do the best you can with that. If you knew how to do your job, you would have done that already, instead of knowingly exposing this man to danger for all these months."

"No." John reached up from his place in the chair, and took Sherlock's hand.  Despite the white noise that filled his ears, despite the euphoria that threatened to cover all logic and reason, he understood what was necessary in this moment. "I'm not a good actor. I can't pretend to be high. It has to look authentic." He couldn't stand it if he lost his chance to make a difference, now that there was so little standing between him and his future with Sherlock. "If I'm the key to guaranteeing that Mark's going to go to whatever home location his group has, then I have to let him take me." He looked at Violet.

"It's our best chance to get them," she said. "The other members of his group worked on Baccarin together. He'll want to do the same with you. If you're taken out of the picture now, John, the investigation is finished."

Sherlock looked down at John, his gaze full of desperation. "I can't let you do this."

"And for the record, I can't ask you to do it," Violet told him. "But I want to."

John rubbed his thumb over the back of Sherlock's hand. "You'll find me." He smiled up at him, even as the room began to spin.

Sherlock enfolded John's hand in both of his, and the air grew thick and warm around John, as Violet and Sherlock began to discuss tracking devices. Their voices became murmurs, Violet's high pitched, melodious, full of hard American consonants and short vowels, Sherlock's a low, dense river that John found himself wanting to float away on.

"Tell me you packed the pillowcases I made you," Violet said. "John?" she bent down and looked into his face. "He's starting to fade."

"What? Well, no." He'd left them in his desk drawer at work.

"Cross stitch and embedded GPS," she told Sherlock.

"Nice." Sherlock squeezed John's hand, bringing him back to life momentarily, back to a sharper mental focus.

"It's too bad. That was some of my finest work." Violet smiled. "The car, of course, has already been thoroughly bugged, but we have to bank on the idea that Mark will ditch it at the first opportunity. I suppose we'll have to get you set up with a device before you go."

"No need." Sherlock pointed to the watch on John's vest. "This has a small RFID chip in it. Really only any good in the city, if they pass through security gates on public transport, or any traffic checkpoints. Mark will probably suspect it and throw it out. But—" He gestured to the suit as a whole. "The back panel of the suit coat contains a woven insert, crafted from metal alloy thread that runs off body heat and will ping GPS satellites every ten minutes."

Violet was staring at Sherlock in disbelief. "Goddamn," she said.

John giggled, as another wave of delirium and love rode through him.

"Arthur Davies is a bespoke tailor and retired spymaster for MI6," Sherlock said, deadpan.

John couldn't help the smile that moved across his face. "Of course he is." He should have known, should have guessed.

"I couldn't let you get married without having at least two different ways to track you. Just in case you got yourself into trouble."

"As you knew I probably would."

"Indeed, John."

The two of them were gazing into each others' eyes. John could feel that he didn't have long, before the drug swept him away. He looked at Violet.

"I have to go back, then, to the party. Let him take me."

"We both have to go back," Sherlock said. "I have to turn up long enough to make my sad exit."

Violet stepped toward the door. "Okay. Thank you. It's most likely that Mark has given you gamma-hydroxybutyric acid, or an analogue. Because it's a patch, the time for it to peak in your system is going to be a bit longer than if you'd consumed it orally, but it looks to me like you're most of the way there. The party is a good cover for this drug. It hits the system a lot like alcohol. No one's watching how much you're drinking, so they'll assume you've overdone it."

"Not everyone will," John told her. "More people than you think have been paying attention." He turned to Sherlock, who was watching him with worry. "My friends. They're good ones."

"Quite right," Sherlock said.

Violet frowned. "I'm a bit surprised you're still standing, to be honest. You were really putting it away earlier. The alcohol plus the drug should have put you under by now."

"Water," John said. "No alcohol. Just water."

"Oh." Violet blinked at him, then nodded. "Harry's idea."

"That's right." John smiled up at Sherlock.

"Genius," Sherlock said. "Runs in the family."

Violet stepped toward John. "Some of the people at MI6 told me the two of you would never be separated. I suppose they were right." She reached out and shook John's hand. "It's an honour working with you, Doctor Watson. Now. All you have to do is let this happen. We will be following. That much I promise. I can't thank you enough for this. Both of you."

She let go of John's hand, and took a step back toward the door. The faint sound of voices raised in song, and the thump of the bass, came filtering down the hallway.

"Thank us when it's over," John said.

"Let's go." Violet moved to the door of the vicar's office, hand poised to open it.

"Not yet," Sherlock said.

A look of frustration came over Violet's face. "What?"

"Mark thinks he has John exactly where he wants him. He's expecting compliance, but also some kind of internal resistance on John's part. He would give John this time, let him make his way back to the party on his own, when he's decided to give up the fight. Since Mark probably sees, as you so eloquently put it, that John and I would never willingly leave each other, he'll be expecting us to take a moment to say our goodbyes. So that's what we're going to do, Agent Smith. If you would be so good as to wait in the hallway, or better yet, go back to the party directly, so as not to blow your cover."

Without another word, Violet let herself out, and closed the door behind her.

Sherlock went down on his knees in front of John, and put his hands on John's thighs, holding tightly. John leaned forward, his limbs loose, and touched Sherlock's face.

"I don't suppose there's any arguing you out of this, so I won't try," Sherlock said.

"It's for us," John told him. "If we manage this, we'll be safe." He could feel Sherlock's breath on his face. He pushed his hand into the curls at Sherlock's temple. Sherlock closed his eyes, and leaned into the touch.

"I just wish we had more time," Sherlock said. "I think I'll always want more time with you, John."

"After. We'll have all the time in the world."

Sherlock looked up at him. "If I kiss you now, I'm afraid I won't be able to stop."

John smiled at him, his judgement blown by the drug. He wanted, more than anything, to touch his lips to Sherlock's, but that idea led directly into an excessively detailed fantasy of the two of them on the floor together, here, and now, and he knew there wasn't time for that. He sighed out his frustration and need. It was a comfort in itself, this small, human moment of wanting, and not having, but knowing their time would come. "After, then, too."

Sherlock smiled, sadly, pressing his lips together, as if he were trying to be stoic, trying to do the right thing. Then a bit of the devil came into his eyes, and he cupped John's face in his hands, and he nodded, as if agreeing with something John hadn't said.

"Honestly, sod after." Sherlock rose up on his knees, and pulled John down to meet him. He paused, and John closed his eyes, feeling Sherlock's breath warm against his lips, his hand on the back of his neck, before Sherlock closed the gap, a breathy oh sighing out of him.

Sherlock's lips were soft, his kisses firm and gentle, his hand, as it slid up over John's knee, releasing trails of fire that went directly to John's groin. Sherlock pushed the knee aside, as the tip of his tongue traced the line of John's upper lip, and he shuffled closer, pressing himself into the space between John's legs. The vicar's desk chair slid a bit, then stopped, as it wedged up against a bookshelf, and John's arms were full of Sherlock then, his heart full. Sherlock's hands, on his waist, his chest, seemed to hold John steady, even though he could feel himself slipping, feel the drug working on him, making the edges of the room grow dim.

Sherlock sighed, and kissed John's cheek. He said John's name, softly, as if he needed to try it out, to see if it had changed, somehow, now that they'd finally landed in this good place. He spoke it again, more sharply, and John rallied, aware that he was losing it, nearly at the point where he wanted to let go, and sink into the dark. Sherlock tugged on his arm, and helped him to his feet, while John's limbs shook from the kiss that still reverberated through his entire body, and the drug that even now continued to race through his veins.

Sherlock gazed into his eyes, as he smoothed John's hair. "I promise you John, I will find you. I will never let you go. Never."

"I know," John said, unable to help the smile that he knew was plastered all over his face, despite everything that was about to happen. "I know. It's just for a little while, and then it will be over."

John knew what he had to face. He knew he should be terrified, but some combination of the drug, and Sherlock's arms around him, made everything seem like it was going to be okay.

Together, they made their way back down the hallway, and outside through the fire exit. John shivered, the cold wind blowing right through him, rattling his bones, as they walked around the back of the church, Sherlock supporting him. Finally, they arrived at the door that led back into the hallway by the loos, outside the reception hall. Sherlock left him just inside, then went to find his own way back into the party.

John took a deep breath, and straightened out his suit coat, ready to face whatever came next.

***

John moved to the music, watching the flashing lights on the dance floor, feeling the bass pulse at him, trying to get at him through his clothes. There were hands on him, hands on his waist, slipping along his lower back. Good, strong, masculine hands. He leaned back into the touch, dreaming of Sherlock, the music thumping the life out of him, people dancing all around him.

He was aware, dimly, that he was more than a bit far gone. It was okay, an inner voice told him. It was all part of the plan.

He thought he'd only been dancing for a few minutes, but he wasn't sure. Whatever Mark had dosed him with had kicked in a bit harder than he would have liked. He had an idea, vague and disturbing, that he should be fighting against something, maybe shouldn't allow whoever was touching him to do it, because Sherlock was standing at the edge of the dance floor, talking to Bill Murray, who seemed to be listening intently, and looking more than a little concerned.

"Hey!" John said. He tried to wander over to them, but there was a hand on his arm, surprisingly strong, holding him back.

The hand spun him, and there was Mark, pulling him close.

John was sweating into his dress shirt and vest, his suit coat discarded. He hoped he hadn't lost it. Arthur Davies had worked so hard on it. He would be so disappointed.

The thought struck him as funny. Hilarious, even. He opened his mouth and laughed, even as he turned and met Mark's gaze. Mark was watching him with a mix of amusement and something much more cynical, as the two of them danced.

John leaned in. "I have to tell you something. Come here. Come here!" He waited until Mark leaned close. "You're a liar!" he shouted into Mark's face.

"So are you!" Mark shouted back, and he laughed.

It was true.

People cheered as John moved toward a table, and stumbled hard. He wondered, fleetingly, if the cheers were for him. No. Something going on, on the dance floor.

He needed to sit down, get some water. He was dizzy.

He watched the bar, watched Harry. Water. She was drinking water. She was talking to someone, who leaned in, tall, head bowed, nodding. Sherlock. Somehow, he was everywhere.

John wanted to stand, but he was tired. Better to sit for a bit. He crumpled into a chair, happy for the chance to relax. Might as well, while he waited for the shark to come out of the floor and swallow him whole. It was all part of the plan. Still, he knew he would get up and go to Sherlock soon. He had to. It was what he did.

He'd always moved toward Sherlock, although he hadn't always known it. His whole life. Through all the long years of childhood, the lonely days spent huddled on the porch steps listening to his mum and dad fight. Through uni and the war and all the times he didn't think he could live another day. Through all the nights he'd lain awake, wondering if anyone would ever really know him.

He tried to call Sherlock's name aloud, and felt it turn to slurry in his mouth.

He stood, sure that he could have Sherlock, right now, kiss him, if he could only get to him. He took a step, raised his hand, and felt an arm around his waist.

"Whoa there, Doctor Watson. Let's sit you down again."

Mark guided him to the table.

"No. I just want to talk to him. It's none of your bother. Don't bother me."

Mark swung John around with ease. John felt his feet tangle, but the moment he imagined he might fall, he found himself sitting again, deposited back in the chair. The lights strobed on the dance floor, making him feel heavy with sleep.

"He's just had a bit too much, nothing wrong at all," Mark was telling someone, talking over John's head.

"I'm not a child. I know what you're saying," John mumbled, sure no one could hear him.

Suddenly Mark was kneeling down in front of him. "You all right, John?"

"Course not. You're a villain," John told him.

"And your husband." Mark cast a glance over toward the bar. He smiled, and licked his lips, and ran a hand up over John's knee, and along the inside of John's leg.

John pushed at Mark's hand, weakly. "India? Really?"

Mark laughed. "Well. I see you had a good look at the flash drive. I'm surprised you even entertained the idea that it had any real information on it. Desperation's a hell of a thing, isn't it? Anyway, glad I could provide a bit of distraction. Gave the drugs a good chance to kick in."

"I know what you did," John told him.

"I know," Mark said. "Glad you aren't completely gullible. It's going to make what happens next that much more fun."

John felt a surge of nausea run through him. His eyes fluttered shut, as the edges of his vision grew black, and he was sure he was passing out, but the noise and thump of the music came back to him. Not yet, then. He wondered when this part would be over. He was getting tired of the noise, of the party.

"Christ," he said. "Stop it. Stop this. Get Sherlock." He reached his hand out toward the bar, blinking in the direction where he'd last seen Sherlock standing.

"Get Sherlock? Oh, love, he's all the way over there." Mark leaned in, and smiled, and kissed John's cheek. "I know you're probably uncomfortable. And tired, aren't you? Don't worry. We'll go away soon, have a bit of time to really talk. You can meet those friends of mine you've taken an interest in." He took John's hand, and kissed him on the wrist.

"Sherlock." John meant for it to be a shout, but his voice fell away, and he felt as if he was hearing himself speak from the bottom of a deep well. His feet were cold.

"You've got a few more minutes left in you," Mark said. "Time enough for one more dance." He smiled. He looked so pleasant. He always had looked nice, and smart, and like he meant well. Appearances. Couldn't count on them for anything.

"You're a bad man. Not a spot of rust on you."

Mark stood, and kissed John on the forehead, and murmured in his ear, as the music changed. "You know, people say we look alike, you and me. Short. Blond. Handsome devils, yeah? Keep your eyes on me, love. I bet if you squint a bit, you'll be able to see what the two of you look like together. Or would have, if you'd been able to pull him. Shy one, isn't he, really? More than a bit backward, when it comes down to it."

Mark stood up then, and John watched, helpless, his muscles growing slack, as Mark walked slowly over to the bar, where Harry and Sherlock still stood in conversation. He smiled at Sherlock, and said a few words. Whatever it was, it seemed to be working. Sherlock nodded, looking perplexed, and looked over at the table where John sat.

Then, the impossible. Mark offered Sherlock his hand, and the two of them moved toward the dance floor. Sherlock shot John a look as he moved past the table. John couldn't read it at all. He tried to reach for him, but he couldn't manage it.  

John tried to focus on the music, but it sounded too slow to him, distorted through the sound of blood rushing in his ears. It shifted, even as he listened, changing from something current and upbeat, to an old pop song, a drumbeat, a piano.

Oh, what a night!
Late December back in '63
What a very special time for me
'Cause I remember what a night.

At the sound of it, John rallied, tried to sit up. He'd insisted on this song. He remembered telling Mark to make sure that it went on the DJ's playlist.

On the dance floor, Mark took Sherlock in his arms, and started to move with him, and John shut his eyes against the sight of it, confused, wanting to do what Mark was doing, wanting none of it.

He needed to get away. He drifted, not passing out, exactly, but passing into the memory of the song, and why he'd requested it.

Oh, what a night!
You know I didn't even know her name
But I was never gonna be the same.
What a lady, what a night.

It had come on the radio, in the morning, after John and Mark had slept together for the first time. John had gotten up early, leaving Mark, soft and warm in his bed, and he'd gone downstairs to put on some coffee. He'd turned the radio on, volume down low, to keep him company.

He remembered how he'd stood looking out through the kitchen window, and rubbed his fingertips over his lips, and listened to the song.

Oh I got a funny feeling when she walked in the room,
And I, as I recall it ended much too soon.

Standing in the kitchen, in the warm morning light, John had been flooded with knowing, that what he'd just had with Mark was what he'd always wanted with Sherlock. He'd spoken aloud then, his only witness the gurgling coffee maker and the old song on the radio.

"I'm gay."

He'd covered his mouth to stifle the giggle that erupted from deep in his belly, and the low choked off sound of desperation that followed it. If only he'd known, before. If only he'd been willing to own it.

It explained a lot, actually. Men. Not women.

Oh, what a night!
Hypnotising, mesmerising me
She was everything I dreamed she'd be
Sweet surrender, what a night

On the dance floor, Mark slipped his arm around Sherlock's waist, watching John watch them. John rested his head in his hand. He was dropping off, dropping away. Wanting Sherlock, wanting desperately for Sherlock to come to him, end this, although he knew he couldn't, not yet. John was waiting for something, waiting for the dark to take him. He allowed himself to relax into it, as the next line in the song washed over him:

I felt a rush like a rolling bolt of thunder
Spinning my head around and taking my body under
Oh, what a night

When he'd requested the song for his wedding, John had thought of this line, this line specifically, because he'd cried to it, standing in his kitchen, Mark upstairs in his bed, as he'd choked down bitterness and thought about Sherlock, about saving Sherlock, on that very first night, with their very first case. Saving himself. He'd imagined, when he'd wanted the song to play at his reception, that he could ask Sherlock to dance with him, just once, just one time.

Now, everything was different. Now, he wasn't dancing. Now, he was counting on Sherlock to save him, so John could save them both, and the circle could be complete, and the thing that had haunted the two of them since that very first case could finally be finished.

The music throbbed, and seemed to deepen in pitch, as if the stereo were broken. Everyone moved at the same pace they had, but it seemed much too fast, as though John himself were slipping out of time.

Mark spun Sherlock in his arms, and Sherlock seemed to smile a bit, and John knew there was a plan, that he had something to do, but he couldn't remember what it was any more. He wrestled with the impression that he was somehow sitting at the table and dancing with Sherlock at the same time. That couldn't be right. If he was over there and still sitting here, it meant that something was terribly wrong.

Oh, what a night!

The lyric repeated, nauseatingly. People shouted along, laughing and moving too much, as if gravity had failed.

Oh, what a night!

John managed to get halfway to his feet before Mark noticed, and let go of Sherlock—thank Christ—and came running over.

Oh, what a night!

The last thing John saw clearly was Sherlock, pushing out through the crowd, walking away, toward the front doors of the church. He was gone. Good. That was the plan, as far as John remembered. Sherlock, leaving him. So he could find him.

John dropped below the surface of the world then, the things going on around him reaching him through a heavy, dark filter: Mark's arm looped under his, and John doing his best to lean away from Mark, and then another arm around him, and it was Harry, helping to pick him up, and Bill Murray nearby, saying, "Ah, bastard's had a bit too much, no worries. If you can't tie one on at your own wedding, when can you?"

Then they were outside. Outside, and John was being bundled into a car, and that was good, or at least, he had an idea that it should happen, although he suddenly felt much too cold. He shivered.

"Hang on!" Harry's voice came from beside him, and she was helping him back into his suit coat.

"I love you," he told her. "Be careful."

She kissed his cheek. She was crying, tears streaming down her face. "You too." She leaned down and buckled his seat belt, then shut the car door.

Mark was in the driver's seat beside him then, and all John could see was the red sleeve of his wool coat. People shouted their goodbyes as Mark pulled away, and John was gone, the world fading out to the sound of tyres crunching on the gravel driveway of the church car park.

He came to consciousness once in the night, to find himself sitting on the side of a narrow gravel road, the car's headlights illuminating heavy brambles growing in the ditch, and a white van, the engine breathing white vapour into the air. It was dark overhead, stars showing through the heavy overhang of trees, as Mark and a man John didn't recognise stripped John down, pulling him out of his fine suit.

"I need to keep that," John protested, as Mark tugged a t-shirt down over his head, and helped him put his arms through the sleeves. "Arthur Davies made it."

John kicked, as best he could, as the strange man wrestled his legs into pyjama bottoms.

"Easy." Mark pulled John up onto his feet, and helped him into a jumper.

"Take all that and burn it," Mark told the man, pointing at John's wedding clothes. "Nothing he brought with him can stay. Just transfer the luggage from the trunk."

John had an idea that he'd lost something important.

"Do you know where my gun is?" he asked, as Mark pushed him into the van's passenger seat. "I need it."

Mark climbed into the driver's side. "The legendary gun of Doctor John Watson." His expression was grim, as he started driving.

John wondered if he would ever see the watch again. "It's mine," he said.

"I'll tell you what, love, when you're ready to be good, and do as I say, you can have a new one."

John wasn't sure if Mark meant the watch, or the gun. He could feel his arms and legs, but he couldn't move them. He concentrated hard, and managed to get his right arm to twitch.

Mark spoke to him, as if from a great distance. "Take it easy, John. We've got a long way to go."

"Where are we going?" The words came out as one syllable: wherrgoinn.

"You'll see when we get there," Mark told him. "Sleep now."

John slept.

Chapter Text

John came back to consciousness as if surfacing through deep waters he'd been drowning in for a century: slowly, painfully. The first thing that came to him was the smell of the place he was in. Here was dust, and an undertone of damp, and the kind of neglect that came from having the windows closed for too long. The air was cold. He rested on something soft, a bed maybe. There was a blanket draped over him, a lumpy pillow under his head. His mouth was dry.

From some far corner, someone was speaking. He heard the voice at first as if it was playing through the tinny speaker of an ancient gramophone, at a distance. As it grew closer, and clearer, he recognised it as Mark's.

He tried to move, and found he couldn't. Tried to speak. Nothing.

"That's right. That's right," Mark was saying. "In the old place. We'll use it as home base, like last time. I'll bring him to the main house tonight, when he's awake. Hang on—"

John felt a weight pressing down next to him. He waited, helplessly, as fingers pressed the side of his neck, against his pulse point. A thumb lifted his eyelid. He tried to relax, keeping his breathing slow, as a light shone into his open eye, and Mark's face appeared briefly, frowning down at him.

"No. Thought maybe he was coming to, but he's still out," Mark told whoever he was speaking to. "Will be for another two or three hours at least. Wouldn't be surprised if it took him the rest of the day to be in any kind of talking shape. He was putting it back last night like he couldn't wait to be unconscious. Typical. Never been much for awareness."

He laughed. "Well. Lots of history there. You're going to love working on him. Yes. I'll be there in ten, say hello. Want to be back by the time he's stirring."

For the next few minutes, John drifted as he listened to the sound of Mark walking back and forth, heavy boots thumping hard on a bare floor. It was best, John decided, if he held still. He certainly couldn't do anything vigorous, couldn't fight, in this moment. He waited, until there was the sound of a door opening a few feet away, and a cold gust of fresh air, and the sound of the door shutting again.

He listened, as Mark's footsteps thumped down what sounded like a set of four stairs. A moment later came the sound of an engine starting outside, and a vehicle driving away. John was alone. He offered a silent thanks, yet again, to Harry, for her trick with the water. Mark had probably lowballed the drug dose, to avoid suppressing John's nervous system too much. If John could just find his way back to full awareness, and get himself moving, he could get ready for whatever came next. With an effort, he managed to shift under the blanket, wiggling his fingers, and then his toes. Finally, he opened his eyes.

He was in a small room, in what looked like someone's neglected rustic cabin. Weak light stabbed across the ceiling, through a gap in blackout curtains at the end of the bed, under which sat a mouldering armchair, its stuffing poking out through holes in the seat and headrest. To the left of those windows stood a door to the outside, the only external door John could see. A small table and two chairs occupied the space to the right of the bed, under another, larger bank of windows, also heavily curtained. An antique wall clock hung crooked in the corner, its pendulum unmoving. Above John, a formerly white ceiling was stained by water. A stale odour of tobacco smoke puffed out from the blanket on top of him as he moved, sliding his legs toward the side of the bed.

He could imagine, before it had fallen into disrepair, that the place had once, perhaps, been a charming retreat, or at least a convenient one.

He groaned as he tried to raise his head. Shadows swam at the corner of his vision, and an intense wave of nausea rolled up through him, then subsided abruptly. His tongue felt thick and swollen. He dragged himself up into a sitting position, his muscles heavy and unwilling, as he scanned the room again.

A potbellied woodstove sat in the corner. Unused, judging by the temperature. Under the table were the two suitcases Mark had packed for them.

John rubbed his head, remembering his wedding clothes being taken away. The watch was gone, as was the suit coat, with Arthur Davies's marvellous tracking device embedded in it. He closed his eyes against the idea that he was lost. Never. As long as there was still breath in his body, he would find his way back to Sherlock. 

He placed his feet on the floor, and tested his legs before trying to stand on them. He wavered a bit, and managed to get his hand on the nearby wall. Slowly, he dragged himself around the corner of the room to a small hallway, which led to a tiny kitchen. Further down was a bathroom that housed a toilet and a corroded cast iron tub.

Water was his first priority. He stepped into the kitchen and pulled himself along the counter, turned on the faucet, and watched as the tap spat out a thick gout of wet orange rust, and then a stream of water. He waited until it ran clear, then cupped his hand under it and drank, and drank again. He needed to metabolise out the rest of the drug.

There was no refrigerator, but the cupboard yielded a box of digestive biscuits and, miraculously, a couple of bananas. He ate the fruit, going as slowly as he could, then washed down a few of the biscuits with as much water as he thought he could drink without being sick. When he was finished, he sighed. His head began to clear.

As he moved back into the main room of the cabin, he felt much better, much more able to focus. He ought to be used to waking himself up out of a drug haze by now. He'd done it enough times, he realised, in the weeks after Sherlock's return.

He moved to the window at the end of the bed, the one that faced the same direction as the door. He pulled the curtain aside just enough to see out through it, and found nothing but trees, and the low understory that tended to grow in older woods, pale green groundcover and moss. Beside the window stood a rickety porch, with wooden steps leading down to a clearing, where he assumed Mark had been keeping the car. Van, he corrected himself, as he tugged the curtains back into place, remembering that, sometime in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, they'd traded away the car.

The larger window yielded a much more interesting view of an open field, the sides and far end enclosed by trees. The day was overcast, but the low quality of the light suggested that it was nearly sunset. He'd been out for a long time, then, the better part of a day. No telling how far they'd driven.

On the far end of the field, perhaps two hundred feet away, a set of brightly coloured boxes sat. Another set were much closer by, looking like stacked wooden file cabinets, each drawer a different colour. They appeared to be the only sign of human occupation in the landscape, besides the cabin in which John stood. John squinted at them, wondering what they could be.

A long, rough-looking track, wide enough to drive on, cut along the edge of the trees to the left, then moved off into the distance. Perhaps that was the way Mark had driven, just now, on his way to the main house, to say hello.

"Hello," John said aloud, his voice filled with gravel, as he caught a glimpse of movement on the far side of the field. Something seemed to be moving near the boxes—someone. He tugged the curtain open further. If there were someone there, maybe they would notice that the cabin was occupied. Maybe he could somehow signal for help.

He watched as the figure worked its way from one box to another. Whoever it was moved slowly, dressed entirely in a white outfit with a hood that covered the head. Beekeeping, John realised. The figure appeared to finish with whatever they were doing, and slowly began to make their way toward the cottage, presumably to work on the boxes that were close by, about fifty feet away.

John's heart soared, as he wondered if, somehow, Sherlock had found him. Wondered if the beekeeper could possibly be Sherlock in costume, posing as some country farmer.

John parted the curtains a little more, and pressed his hand up against the glass, waiting for the figure to look up at him, wave, acknowledge that he was standing here. The beekeeper dropped something in the field, and bent down to pick it up, moving maddeningly slowly.

John realised, suddenly, that he was wearing his pyjamas, a blue jumper, and socks. No shoes. He needed to be ready to leave any moment now. The suitcases. There had to be something more practical in there.

Moving as quickly as he could, his muscles not quite back to normal, he hauled the suitcases out from under the table, and up onto the bed. The first one was packed with his things. A slow, insidious horror moved through him, as he sorted through it. Everything Mark had packed looked like it was intended for a hospital stay: comfortable, loose jogging pants, more pyjamas, t-shirts, and a couple of hoodies. Nothing he could go out wearing, without catching some sidelong glances. No shoes.

Mark had really banked on keeping him close, keeping him pliant, like he was a patient.

He dug through the other suitcase. It held Mark's clothes, no extra pair of shoes. At the bottom, he found a large sealed plastic bag, that appeared to contain every piece of identification John owned, and more: three copies of his driver's license, with names that weren't his on them; a European Health Insurance Card with another false name; an American passport; a birth certificate from Canada. He placed the bag back where he found it, and zipped the suitcase closed, mind reeling. Mark could take him anywhere in the world, with all of that, and no one would be any the wiser.

He took one of the hoodies from his suitcase. It would be an extra layer, for when he went outside. He would have to go in his socks. The least of his worries.

Through the window, he saw that the beekeeper was fussing over the hives near the cottage now. John watched, wanting to bang on the window, draw attention, even as he studied the figure, and recognised that it was almost certainly not Sherlock. The proportions were all off, the shoulders very broad, if stooped, the torso bulky. A man, and probably an old one, given how slowly and methodically he went about his business. Not John's man.

The beekeeper lifted the lid on a hive, shuffled the frames around, laid out craft paper on the frame he'd exposed, then pulled a paper sack out of a canvas shoulder bag, and started setting out what appeared to be irregularly shaped, hard white cakes on the paper. He looked completely innocuous, just doing his job, ignoring the fact that John was watching him, if he'd even noticed John at all.

As he kept an eye on the beekeeper, John ran through the things Violet Smith had told him and Sherlock, the night before: that they needed to track John to wherever Mark's group was gathering, that they needed to find that central location. Before he'd left just now, Mark had spoken about the main house, and referred to this as the old place. John looked out at the grounds. If he really was in the middle of some estate owned by Mark's friends, and if Mark was going to meet those people now, then John had done his part. All he needed to do was to hope that somehow, Violet Smith and Sherlock had managed to keep track of him. Then, to escape. Now, while Mark was gone, and he thought John was still passed out, might be his best chance.

He opened the cottage door. The air outside was cold and damp, the sky heavy, threatening rain. John blinked in the dull light, his eyes adjusting painfully, as his breath ghosted out in front of him. He did up the zip on the hoodie he'd put on. All he had to do was go down the steps, and around the corner of the cottage, to where the beekeeper was doing his work, to see if the man would talk to him, to see if he could get help.

The moment he set foot on the mossy ground, his socks were soaked. No matter: he rounded the corner, determined to see things through. The beekeeper turned to watch him, the white headgear, with its mesh mask, obscuring his face.

John made it ten steps before Mark's white van drove out of the trees at the far end of the field. He stared at the beekeeper, mouth open. He couldn't pretend that he hadn't seen him, that he hadn't come outside. He was in plain view of the van. He wondered, desperately, if he could rush over to the man, say a few words, get a message out, somehow, but—God, he was in danger. They both were. If the man really was just someone working the estate, John would only draw attention to him, maybe implicate him unfairly in whatever punishment Mark wanted to dole out.

He turned to watch the van drive closer, Mark's face, his customary grin, clearly visible through the windscreen. Mark wasn't above killing civilians. John took a step back, and held very still, his hands out at his sides, his grand plan, such as it was, over before it had begun.

Mark parked the van, and hopped out, all high energy and smiles in his red wool coat. "John," he said, as he approached him. "Up so early!" He came over, and took John's arm. "You've gone and soaked your feet, haven't you? You'll get cold, out here with no shoes on."

"Get your hand off me," John said, through gritted teeth.

Mark took a step back. "Fine. No need to touch you. I won't, until you want me to."

Not unless. Until. John suppressed a shiver.

"Come and meet George," Mark told John, as he walked toward the beekeeper. "He's worked here for years now."

John trailed after Mark, who approached the beekeeper as if he were greeting an old friend. The man slipped his mask off,  revealing an ancient, deeply wrinkled face, framed by thinning white hair and a full, equally white beard. Definitely not Sherlock. He removed his glove, and shook Mark's hand.

"Bees doing well?"

"Fine, yeah. Active, for January. The thaw. I'm just doing the winter feeding." George's voice was so deep, it sounded like it had been digitally altered. He turned to look at the open hive beside him, and the thick white cakes that appeared to be hard packed sugar, sitting on the paper he'd laid out. Beside the cakes, a cluster of bees moved, a couple of them taking briefly to the air before settling down again.

"This is John. You remember, I told you he'd be staying here."

George nodded. "I remember. It was just this morning."

At his peak, George must have been powerfully built: he towered over John despite the stoop in his posture. His eyes were blue-grey, and sharp.

"John, George is a veteran too. I was telling him all about you, about the trouble you've had. He understands that you'll be needing some peace and quiet, to recover."

"What?" John stared at Mark.

"No shame in needing a bit of time, John," Mark told him. "Well, I expect you'll be tired. Let's get you back inside."

George was watching John with a closed, illegible expression on his face. To John's surprise, he stuck out his hand. John shook it, watching as George's hand engulfed his. The man was a mountain, worn by time.

"George Challenger," he told John, his expression sombre. "Some would say that my war was not your war, but they're all one and the same, aren't they?" He turned toward Mark. "Must get back to the bees now."

Mark looped his arm around John's, and spoke to him in a hush as he led him back to the cabin. From the outside, it appeared to be a shabby affair, small, the roof overgrown with moss, the boards of the exterior walls rotten.

"I'm sure you're smart enough to put this together, but he thinks you're mad," Mark told John, in low, soothing tones. "He's been on this estate for years as caretaker. Quite a loner. Talks to nobody. Minds his own business. Keeps the pipes from freezing in winter. And I've just spent the morning telling him all about you, how you came back not quite right from the war. Might have mentioned a head injury. Paranoia. He thinks this is my work, private nursing. Looking after broken men."

They reached the cottage, and Mark pressed something hard and cold into the base of John's spine. A gun. He steered John around the corner, and up the stairs. John allowed himself to be steered, even as his breath caught in his throat.

Inside, Mark gestured at the bed. "Have a seat, John."

The curtains were still wide open. Outside, George Challenger went about his business.

"So you see," Mark told John, taking a step back, and lowering the gun. "There's nowhere you can go. Nothing you can do. I can take you anywhere, and do anything to you, and no one will believe you, because as far as they're concerned, you're no one. Just a former soldier who's been done in by the war. No one wants to know you even exist. They don't want to look at you. You've disappeared."

"Like Tom did." John kept his voice steady.

"Exactly." A smile fluttered across Mark's lips.

John looked down at his knees, the warm plaid of his pyjamas. At the grey wool socks, soaked with water. He'd lost. He was lost, for the time being. Frustration rolled over him. He would have to wait. He wondered how much he would have to endure.

Unable to face Mark, he turned and looked out through the window, as George slowly tugged his beekeeper's mask back on over his head, and pulled on his glove. He seemed to be having trouble getting it on over his fingers. He raised his hand unnecessarily high, his index and middle fingers extended upward, as if he were making a peace sign. When the glove was on, he held his hand down by his side, bunched it into a fist, then opened it, and held it there, not quite making the sign for okay, finger and thumb not quite touching. John watched him until he moved to the next bee box, and slowly lifted the lid.

Mark was pacing, agitated. "We're going to have a lot of fun with you, John."

"Good luck with that. I won't be your instrument to hurt Sherlock. Let's be clear about that much. This plan of yours will never work."

Mark kneeled down at John's feet, his gun still firmly in hand. "But you already have hurt him, love. That's just it. This scheme of yours, trying to deal with me all on your own, you've damaged him beyond anything I could have done. And now that you're here, you're mine."

John watched the gun. Mark was good with it, John knew. Any attempt to take it from him at this point would be far too risky. He had to wait, until he had some advantage.

"I'll never be yours," he told Mark. "I never was."

Outside, George took out one of his paper sacks, but instead of pulling out the white cakes and distributing them, like he had with the other bee boxes, he placed it down on the open frame, without opening it. He replaced the lid, and laid his hand on it, looking away, across the distant field, bunched his hand into a fist, and knocked on it three times.

"Tom said the same things." Mark stood, and paced the room. "He was just as alone as you are."

"Well, yes. That's what happens when someone kills your wife. I read the file, Mark. I know you shot her."

Outside, George made his way back across the field. John watched him go, trying to sort through the possible meaning of his behaviour, his small gestures. Curious, the thing he'd done with his hands, the paper sack he'd placed in the last of the hives.

"Me? Oh no." Mark laughed. "Tom was the one who shot Olivia."

John studied Mark's face for the trace of a lie. He couldn't find any reason to disbelieve him.

Mark was grinning now. "It was the first thing he did, when he got out of here. Of course, with you, I'd like to extend the fun for a while longer than that. Make Sherlock chase you for a bit before I unleash you on him. It's going to be wonderful, though. Sherlock is going to hunt you, and you're going to kill him. It will be the thing that makes my career as the new Moriarty. Picking up where Jim left off. Showing the world exactly what I'm capable of."

"And you think Sherlock won't find me here? Before you have the chance to mess with my head?" John didn't want to play the conversation game any longer, but he had to keep Mark occupied, while he combed through George's actions once more, and tried to decipher his hand signals. They had to be deliberate. The man had all but declared his alignment with John, when he'd said that bit about all wars being the same.

George had made a peace sign, and three quarters of an O.

"Not a chance," Mark said. "We found all of your trackers. That watch. Your suit. Nice work, by the way. Shame to see it gone. And we've left traces of you simply everywhere. We've planted so many red herrings, there's no possible way he could find you. You're all alone here, John. All alone with me."

Not a peace sign, John realised, his heart soaring. A V. And not a broken O. A C.

Vatican cameos.

He fought back a smile, wondering what he would find, if he could make it out to the bee box. "Well, that's the thing about Sherlock Holmes, Mark. The one thing you haven't learned, although you really should have by now. He'll always surprise you." John stood on the knife edge of hope, needing this to be over, knowing it would be, one way or another, very soon.

Outside, the van's car alarm bellowed into furious life, jolting both of them. Mark's eyes were on the door, then looking back at John.

"Stay here!" he growled. "This isn't over." He opened the door, and stepped outside, gun raised.

John exhaled heavily, allowing himself a moment of relief, before he peered out through the window beside the door, to see Mark disappear along the edge of the cottage, moving to where he had parked the van. After a moment, the alarm stopped, and Mark, gun raised, used a tree for cover for a moment, peered out from behind it, then slipped away into the woods.

It was time for John to act. Staying low, he opened the door, and moved down off the porch. The sun must be setting: only a little light remained. He listened for footsteps, listened for any sign of anyone, moving through the trees behind the cottage, or in the empty field in front of him. Nothing.

His breath loud and ragged in his ears, John crouched, and ran for the bee boxes. He paused as he reached the one George had knocked on three times. Carefully, he lifted the lid, keeping an eye on the woods, and being careful not to disturb the bees. He lifted the top frame, and found the paper bag, just as George had left it. The clustered bees circulated slowly, exploring the edges of the paper.

John picked up the bag, and peeked inside. A gun. And not just any gun, he realised, as he slid it out into his hand: it was his gun, the one he'd left at Baker Street. Proof that Sherlock was here, somewhere nearby. It was heavy and firm, a reassuring presence. He had a chance, if it came down to a standoff.

A loud rustling sound came from somewhere among the trees, as if someone were crashing through the underbrush. Sherlock was in those woods; John was sure of it. Coming for him. Trying to rescue him. Possibly in need of rescue himself, now. Christ. John could only hope that whatever he was doing, Sherlock wasn't risking everything.

Evening birdsong filtered down through the trees, a thrush, saying a last late goodnight, as John raised the gun, and thumbed the safety off. He crept forward, moving carefully, as noiselessly as he could, in the direction of the sounds he'd heard. If he and Sherlock could only find each other, they might finally be okay. He hit the edge of the trees, and worked his way slowly between them, advancing a few feet at a time.

After a few moments, he heard voices in the distance.

They came to him first as muffled sounds: Mark's firm, sharp tenor, and Sherlock's rumble of a baritone. John's breath quickened, and the urge to rush forward surged through him, making every nerve fibre twitch, and his heart bang in his chest.

So close.

He tested each placement of his foot for dry sticks and leaves, desperate not to lose the advantage of surprise, as he edged closer. A few more steps, and the voices clarified, and he could make out words, Sherlock's words, spoken in the tone of light disdain he reserved for people he had bested.

"Must have been very frustrating for you, having such a terrifying skill set, and being unable to use it all these months."

Mark's voice had taken on the hard edge familiar to John. "I wouldn't say unable."

"And not unwilling, either, as Mr. Drebber discovered. That was his name. The man you murdered."

"The junkie, you mean? Murder's a strong word for it. I merely gave him an extra push. He did most of the work himself. I seem to recall you behaving in much the same way, back when you and Jim were dancing."

John could see Sherlock and Mark in profile now. Mark had his gun, with its silencer, trained on Sherlock. To John's horror, Sherlock had no weapon. His hands were held high.

"Ah yes, of course. You were there. Tell me, were you John's sniper when I was on the roof? Or merely at the pool?"

John looked for the best way to approach the clearing. He needed a good, clean shot, one that would minimise the chance that Mark would get to pull the trigger.

"I wondered when you would sort that through. You were very slow."

John could see Sherlock's face from where he was hidden. Sherlock blinked a few times. On his heels, maybe. John watched him carefully. Keep talking, he thought. Just keep talking. Sherlock spoke. "I suppose we all get distracted sometimes."

John eased to his right. Another few inches, and he could finish this.

"It's too bad, honestly," Mark said. "I was really looking forward to seeing this play out over time. You, watching me take him away from you. Turning him against you. It would have been glorious."

"Seems like a lot of trouble when you could have just killed me in the first place."

"Professional pride. I suppose on some level we're all only human."

"That sounds like a bit of a stretch, in your case."

"I wanted to see a return on my investment. Can't blame me for that." Mark's voice had taken on an edge of upset that John had never heard before. "Months," he said. "Months of patience, of working on him, getting close to him. The worst of it was, yours was still the name he called out, in the night, when he was having one of his dreams. You were still the one he couldn't stop talking about. The change in him, when you came back, like he was a schoolboy with a crush all over again. Pathetic."

Mark's voice had grown louder as he'd spoken, allowing John to take up the position he'd wanted. He was well hidden, but the cover was too heavy. He would have to stand to take the shot. He took a long, slow, deep breath. He was ready.

From his hiding place, he could see Sherlock's face as he stared at Mark, his mouth open, a look of tender revelation coming over him, as he listened to everything Mark said, about John's attachment to Sherlock. His devotion.

John made a plan, a promise to himself, to tell Sherlock everything he felt, every day, once this was finished. He would do whatever he had to, to see that look on Sherlock's face again, under more ideal circumstances.

"So I'm sorry, Sherlock," Mark continued. "I truly am. But this is the way it has to be."

Mark took a step forward, gun raised, aimed at Sherlock.

John stood, no hesitation now, and aimed, and time slowed, and he saw his mistake. His attention drawn by the noise John made, Mark turned toward him, his gun arm swinging around. Then came the high-pitched pop of Mark's gun, the silencer doing its work, and John's leg went out from under him, before he could shoot. He landed in the nettles at the edge of the clearing, barely managing to keep his face clear of them as he fell.

"So much for crack shot John Watson," Mark said, aiming his gun at John's head, as he moved toward John's gun hand, ready to step on it. "I suppose I'll have to kill you both."

John's reaction, taking only a fraction of a second, was born of burnt nerve endings, of the taut-wire hardness of a spirit that had always been at war. He was down. By any reasonable account, he should be done. But he still had fight in him.

He raised his gun an inch, channelled all of his remaining strength into his hand and wrist, aimed at Mark's foot, and pulled the trigger.

The sound of the gun going off was incredibly loud, replacing the hush of the woods—the murmur of the wind through the leaves, the ragged breathing of the three of them in the clearing—with a high ringing that would take some time, maybe minutes, to clear from John's ears.

Mark went down screaming, his gun flying to the side.

"Not such a bad shot," John said, as he tried to roll out of the nettles. He managed to shift so he was on his back, looking up at the fading light of the evening sky through the bare branches of the trees. His left thigh was wet. He was suddenly very cold.

Mark was still screaming.

Sherlock was with John in an instant, Mark's gun in his hand, as he knelt over John, holding him, looking down at him, pale and wild with concern.

John put his hand down to touch his own leg, and met warm stickiness. Blood. His own blood.

Sherlock's hands were all over him, and he was saying John's name, again and again, and John felt a peace wash over him, a surrender that he'd only felt once before in his life. He remembered that other time, on the field in Afghanistan, among grasses, among rocks, the blood from his shoulder painting the ground, and falling, and lying still in the sun and the heat, knowing that whatever else his life had been, it was over, and feeling a slow relief.

Now, he was home, in English woods, and his blood was pouring out on English soil. The weight of all the things he'd had to do lifted from him, along with the subtle haze of words unspoken, of desires partially expressed. What he'd needed to do, he'd done. It would have to be enough.

A few feet away, Mark's screams turned to loud groans.

There was the sound of fabric tearing, and a tight sensation around John's thigh, high on his leg, and the feeling of his foot being lifted and propped up on something, and everything growing still, and the world steadying. Through the calm John looked up into the trees overhead, the first few stars coming out, as the clouds cleared from the sky.

Sherlock leaned down over him, his eyes bright with tears, his hand holding John's cheek, supporting his head, and saying his name: "John. Stay with me, John. Help is coming. Please, John. I love you. I love you, and I need you to stay with me. Do you hear me, John?" Sherlock leaned down, his breath warm in John's hair, as he kissed John's forehead, and John's cheek, and his lips. "There's blood. Lots of it. I tied a tourniquet on the leg. Looks like the bleeding's slowed down." He squeezed John's hand.

John's head began to clear. He shivered, but he felt lucid. He nodded at Sherlock.

"Good. That's good. There's one more thing you can do," he said. "One thing I need you to do, Sherlock."

Sherlock nodded, breathless. "Anything."

Mark's groans filled the quiet woods.

"Can you stop that noise?" John said. "It's really tiresome."

Sherlock let out a laugh. "Ruining the mood, isn't it? Rude!"

"Yes. For me. Please."

Sherlock lowered John gently down to the ground, and, moving back to Mark, towered over him. "John Watson is never going to die, and I think he'd probably agree with me that the best outcome as far as either of us is concerned is you, going to jail for the rest of your life, but I want you to know that if he really were in danger right now, you would never make it out of these woods alive. Now, do shut up." He struck Mark hard with the handle of his own gun. Mark's loud groans stopped abruptly.

John tried to sit up, but his muscles betrayed him, and he shook as he laid back down.

Sherlock came back to him, pulled a walkie talkie out of his pocket, and spent a few long seconds shouting instructions to someone on the other end, while John drifted. When it was over, Sherlock was stroking his hair, touching his face. "Stay with me, John. Stay awake. Just a few minutes more."

"Talk to me. Why the hell didn’t you bring a gun?"

"Distraction. Playing on his ego. If he thought he had me where he wanted me, he was much less likely to think about you. Give you a chance to strike."

"You forgot your gun, didn’t you?"

"Yes. But you have to admit, it did work."

"I'm shot."

"But we're both still here." Sherlock smiled down at him.

John could hardly believe he was finally safe, finally in Sherlock's arms. "Can't argue with that."

Sherlock watched him for a long moment, the corners of his eyes glistening. "You missed a wonderful sting operation. We caught ten operatives in the large manor house. Seems like kidnapping you really was a big event for them."

"Quite right," John said, laughing. "But Sherlock, how did you find me? They got rid of the tracking devices, changed cars."

Sherlock shrugged. "Mark's red coat."

"What?"

"Fascinating fact, John. People rarely do a thorough clean out of their own coat pockets. I slipped a tracking device into his the first night we met. The bonfire."

"You suspected him all along, didn't you?"

"Well, no. I just thought that if I knew where he was, I would be able to locate you more easily. Turned out to be true."

"And George Challenger?"

"Wonderful fellow. Met him this morning, on a bit of a walk on the outskirts of the estate. Violet Smith was against it, of course. I had to escape from her twice. She nearly put me in handcuffs. The moment I deduced what sort of man George was, I knew he would be up for a bit of adventure. I think we're friends now. He gave me two jars of honey."

John smiled up at him. "Too bad about the watch, though."

"We'll get you a new one. One that works. Time to move forward, I think."

"Come here, you."

Sherlock leaned down, his gaze warmer than John had ever known it to be, the line of his mouth broken, his love for John shining out through his every feature, more luminous than the moon. "Please don't die, John. Never die."

"Won't. Looking forward to the hospital, though." He was getting tired. He could sleep, but he didn't want to close his eyes. Not now.

"Our time is still coming, John. We haven't even begun."

"I know." John brought his hand up and placed it over Sherlock's, where it curled around John's shoulder.

Then Sherlock was breathing life against John's lips, and pressing a slow, gentle kiss there. John shuddered as he responded, cold and warm all at once, his limbs trembling with the shock of his injury and the revelation unfolding between the two of them, their agreement: yes, this is ours now; I love you, and I love you.

From a little way away came the sound of voices, and people approaching.

"Over here!" Sherlock called out. "They're coming now, John. They'll sort you out."

John nodded. Soon, he would have to sit up, would have to transfer to a stretcher, and be carried out of the woods. He squeezed Sherlock's hand. "You'll stay with me?"

Sherlock pressed a kiss to his forehead. "Always."

Chapter Text

During his first two days in hospital, after the surgery to remove the bullet from his leg, John spent most of his time sleeping, the combination of painkillers, and safety, and Sherlock, finally, Sherlock, pulling his body down into a deep, wholesome rest. He woke intermittently, unable to keep his eyes open for more than a few minutes at a time.

True to his word, Sherlock stayed by his side. Each time John awoke, he was there, folded into the vinyl armchair he'd stolen from the waiting room, eyes opening like a sleeping cat's in response to John's every movement, reaching out to hold John's hand, to murmur assurances, and to drop sardonic comments about the nurses, after they left the room.

"I think that one fancies you."

"Sherlock."

The property Mark had taken John to was on the west coast of Cumbria, so the hospital was, likewise, far from London, and far from the London media circus that followed the story of John's kidnapping. John's care team turned out to be fiercely dedicated to protecting his privacy, so no one bothered him as he made his initial recovery.

There were, however, a few things to sort out, that required his attention, as soon as he was able to give it. The marriage annulment came through immediately, with relatively little fuss. More troublesome was his testimony for the CIA and MI6, as to the precise nature of his relationship with the man who had called himself Mark Morstan.

Violet Smith arranged for him to be interviewed privately, in hospital. John asked Sherlock to step out of the room while he spoke to three agents who asked him a series of questions, mostly uncomfortable, about how he and Mark had met, and John's degree of awareness about Mark's activities. Afterwards, Violet promised to keep both John and Sherlock informed about the plans for Mark's extradition to the United States, which, as it turned out, had even bigger claims against him than the United Kingdom.

"And nastier prisons," Violet assured John.

Harry came to the hospital the morning after the rescue, weary from the drive north, tears standing in her eyes as she told John he was an idiot. "Brilliant, but an idiot." She asked if she could go out with him and Sherlock on cases, sometime in the future. "Getting a taste for it," she told them, grinning sheepishly.

To John's surprise, Sherlock folded her into his arms, and held her tight. "Of course. Always room for Watsons," he said, as he kissed the top of her head.

Despite the distance from London, more visitors came: Greg and Molly stopped in, and asked after the details of the case. Molly shook John's hand, and offered him a shy smile, and an apology for thinking he was terrible, which made John bark with laughter. Bill Murray dropped by, and let John know he was shipping out again, but that word had circulated that he'd been at the infamous espionage wedding, as the papers were calling it, and that fact was already doing wonders for his reputation among the lads.

After the third day, John's strength began to return, and he was able to stay awake longer and longer. Sherlock took full advantage of every moment of consciousness, climbing into the narrow hospital bed to stretch himself out beside John, winding their fingers together, and telling him about the things he'd done during the two years of his exile. He shared the good and the bad: the times he'd had to do things that still haunted him, a tremor coming into his voice; the times terrible things had been done to him, which he reported in carefully neutral tones.

It became a ritual between them. For each episode Sherlock related, each thwarted attempt on his life, each criminal cell dismantled, John told him something in return.

Istanbul. I had two hit men after me, each one believing he was working on his own. I led them to an abandoned warehouse one night. Played cat and mouse until they shot each other.

One night, I drank until I passed out. Woke up in the back garden behind the flat, and this robin was just sitting there, on the top of the fence, staring at me. He reminded me of you, actually. Might as well have called me an idiot. I booked an appointment with Ella the same day. Scared myself.

I took a job in a bank in Spain to get closer to one of the executives. Ridiculous. Shaved my head to change my appearance. No, no pictures. You wouldn't have liked it.

I slept in your bed, right after you—right after you left. One night, I just couldn't bring myself to climb the stairs to my room. The bedding still smelled like you. Your soap, you know. I kept sleeping there for a month, until one day I came home and Mrs. Hudson had done the laundry. She meant well. I just—that's when I knew I had to leave.

I did write you postcards. One hundred and eight of them, one for each week I was away. Put them in the fire. Couldn't risk it.

Nice to know you thought of me. I thought of you. Every day, I thought of you.

I wanted to talk to you. I just—I couldn't. It was easier to be gone. Completely gone. I believed there was no chance for us. Easier to pretend it didn't really matter.

There was always a chance, but I know. I know what I said. I know I made it impossible for you. The number of times I denied it.

It's not like I gave you any reason to hope. I didn't think I could allow myself to try. Couldn't let you in. Even though you already were in. From the first day, John.

From the first day. It was always you and me. Even though I thought you didn't feel things that way. But you did, didn't you?

I didn't know what I felt. More than I'd expected to.

I'm sorry.

I'm sorry.

The night before John was released from the hospital, he asked to see the scars. Sherlock stood, silently, and closed the door of the hospital room, then stripped off his shirt. He sat on the edge of the bed, and let John see the tracery of the beatings he'd endured, the work of the Serbian cane and whip, a terrible map of the underworld, written on his white skin.

John reached out and touched the scars, caressing them with his fingertips, and he cried a little, and told Sherlock things he'd only been able to tell his grave, before.

On the morning of the day John was to be discharged, Mrs. Hudson came to fetch them back to town. The click of the hospital door opening, and the surprised noise she made, woke John, his eyes sliding open to see her suppressing a giggle. Sherlock was asleep in the bed with him, crushed up against John's side, his arm thrown over John's chest, his face buried in the crook of John's neck. Sunlight slanted through the window across the two of them, creating a warm bubble of comfort and healing. Mrs. Hudson backed out of the room, whispering, "I'll just give you a moment." She blew him a kiss as she closed the door.

Later that night, back at Baker Street, Sherlock took the stairs one at a time, his arm looped around John's waist, John's thrown over Sherlock's shoulder, the two of them negotiating the climb together. The familiar shapes of their chairs waited for them in the sitting room, where Sherlock lit a fire against the chill of the late winter night. He made buttered noodles with parmesan and oregano, a simple supper, which John ate in silence, wondering what would happen between them. Despite the throbbing ache of his leg, and the syrupy quality of his limbs from his post-dinner painkiller, he couldn't stand the thought of not touching Sherlock, not being with him, in his bed, now that they were finally alone together.

He expected a conversation. Sherlock didn't offer one, but took John's plate, and placed it in the kitchen sink, then led him to the bathroom where they both brushed their teeth, watching each other in the mirror. John tried his best not to look like he wanted to eat Sherlock alive. He did want to, every night, for the rest of their lives. Sherlock smiled softly, and took the toothbrush from John's hand, and put it back in the glass in the medicine cabinet. He helped him into the bedroom, wordless, the wiry muscle of his arm holding John tightly. He deposited John on the bed, helped him lean back against the pillows, then padded back down the hall to the sitting room, returning with the Union Jack cushion from John's chair, which he slipped under John's injured leg.

Sherlock stood, for a long time, in the middle of his room, watching John, his breath coming heavily, as if he'd just run up the stairs. His fingers fluttered over the top buttons of his shirt, his eyes never leaving John's face, his whole body asking a silent question.

John nodded, his heart swelling in his chest, his breath quickening, as Sherlock opened his shirt with slow deliberation, his head dropping as he pulled the tails free from his trousers, a blush coming over his cheeks, and a subtle smile crossing his lips. He undid each cuff, then let the shirt drop unceremoniously, and stood, his bare chest shining in the lamplight, arms at his sides, fingers reaching for his belt.

John shifted uneasily on the bed, feeling all too fully clothed, his trousers restricting his movements uncomfortably, his feet aching to be bare.

"No." Sherlock took a step toward him, his voice sounding anxious and loud in the hush of the room, his hand held out. "Just—let me. I'll—let me do this first. I don't want you to hurt yourself."

"All right," John replied, adding a silent promise: I won't.

John watched as Sherlock opened his trousers, and slid them down over his hips, his cock half hard in his silky boxers, which he pushed down as well. He pulled his socks off last, then stood, unclothed, and watched John, head down, eyes coy under his lashes, as if this were his first time. It might well be: John hadn't asked. He hadn't wanted to make things strange between them, and it didn't matter, because it was their first, the most important night of John's life, and the best thing he'd ever done, besides taking a bullet for Sherlock.

Sherlock shifted from one foot to the other, then walked toward John, as handsome as any groom, as thunderously beautiful as the sky before a storm. He crawled up over the foot of the bed, up over John, his cock dragging against John's crotch as he straddled him, avoiding the area above John's knee, where John's injury throbbed in time to his quickening pulse.

He'd asked for John to be still, so John held perfectly still, as Sherlock rode John lightly, pressing his weight down into John, and finally lowering himself like a swan, dipping down over John's chest, and kissing him full on the lips, his tongue pressing in to meet John's, the holiness of the moment stretching out between them. John ached to touch, to roll Sherlock over and grind down into him, but he'd promised to be good, and he knew he had to be careful. He could easily forget himself and pull his stitches. He could easily break the spell Sherlock was carefully building between them.

John needed this, he realised. He needed to feel wanted, needed every question he'd ever had, about how Sherlock felt, what Sherlock wanted, to be answered now, by Sherlock's need, by his hungry teeth, biting at John's lower lip, by his naked body, presented to John openly, his breathy sigh in John's ear, his hands, sliding up under the edge of John's jumper, lifting it up and over John's head.

John gasped at the first touch of their naked chests together, his mind gone, all worry, gone. He touched Sherlock, finally, running his hands up over Sherlock's ribcage, across his shoulder blades, skimming his fingers over the ragged edges of the scars that ran all across his back. He tangled his fingers in the curls at Sherlock's nape, all too aware of the tip of Sherlock's cock pressing insistently against his belly, seeking friction, seeking John, as Sherlock gasped, moaning low and thick, and John rubbed Sherlock's scalp, and looked into his eyes.

John didn't have any lingering doubts about Sherlock, about whether he was cold, or uncaring, or dispassionate, about whether he didn't really want to get involved, or if he secretly loathed romantic entanglement, or the entanglement of limbs, but if he had, they would have been dispelled by the look of concentration on Sherlock's face as he climbed out of John's lap to kneel beside him on the bed, as he undid John's trousers, by the soft smile that touched his lips as he looked back up at John's face, before he pulled the trousers down, along with John's pants, and by the blush that came over his cheeks as he negotiated his way around John's cock, carefully lifting John's wounded leg, being careful not to pull the bandage off, or shift it, as he undressed him. Any trace of concern would have been completely erased by the way Sherlock paused over the spot of blood that had seeped through the dressing, by the way he caressed it lightly with his thumb, and bent down to kiss John's thigh, the good one, and bury his face against John's root, rubbing his cheek against John, as John broke the silence to whisper, "Oh God, oh Christ."

Sherlock stretched himself out beside John, warm and trembling. He offered his mouth for John to kiss, leaning over him, his leg sliding up over John's good leg, his thigh nudging John's cock. Their lips pressed and slid warmly against each other, John's mouth opening to Sherlock's, the rhythm of the kiss and the hand that Sherlock wrapped around John's cock so slow, so gentle, it surprised John, each touch a revelation, each shift and sigh something so tender, it pulled a thousand potential questions through him, each one dissipating in the quiet room, unformed, unspoken, and now unnecessary.

Instead, there were simple words. Sherlock's whisper: "I didn't know it could be like this."

John's response: "I hoped it could. I wanted it to be, just like this."

John reached down between them, and brushed his hand against Sherlock's cock, enveloping it, as Sherlock heaved himself higher on the bed, his long body splayed all around John, one arm flung over John's head, Sherlock's leg curling around him as they found better and better ways to move together, and Sherlock buried his face in John's neck, and whined, high-pitched and needy, and John gripped Sherlock's shoulder, and Sherlock's cock twitched in his hand.

John forgot to be still, his entire body wanting, as he thrust himself into Sherlock's hand, and Sherlock's fingers slipped over him, and their mouths found each other again, and John was filled with reverence, and shaken to the core with disbelief, that this was finally happening, that it was all true and real and right, the two of them gasping out their desire at long last, through tender flesh and breath and blood, through the small rituals of lips and teeth and tongues, a consummation and a promise more sacred than any John could ever have made with words.

Sherlock gasped and shuddered and spilled out over John's hand, John's name on his tongue, then half climbed onto John and kissed his lips raw, taking John's breath, and giving it back, speeding his hand as John bucked into it, as John came, burning and alive and full of love for the man who smiled above him, and leaned down to kiss his lips again, tenderly this time, and softly.

And then it was just the two of them, in the quiet room, the light from the lamp glowing warm across their bodies. John's leg throbbed, and his heart swelled, as Sherlock spread himself out beside him, and tugged the blankets up over them.

"I always—from the first," Sherlock said, his words halting, his voice hushed and raw. "I just didn't know how—that is to say, what to do."

John considered the obvious post-coital joke: I'd say you know pretty well what to do. He settled, instead, on honesty. "Me too. I wanted you. I wanted this. And I loved you, I always did. I just couldn't see my way through."

"Stupid," Sherlock murmured. "We're really stupid."

"We're not." John searched for the right thing to say. "It's just—who would have believed this? This doesn't happen, Sherlock. It's too good to be true."

"The two of us." Sherlock kissed the side of John's neck, and pulled himself closer against John's side, his arm tightening around John's waist. He sighed heavily, releasing, John hoped, a measure of his burden, of the care and worry he always held.

"The two of us," John repeated. He paused before he offered a revision: "Not alone, though."

Sherlock's small gust of a laugh burst across the skin of John's neck. "No."

"And not against the world. For each other."