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Better Than Life

Chapter Text

"Get him out."

"We can't exactly just turn the thing off!" said Topher Quinn, a harried-looking Onira-Tech UK technician.

"Why not?"

"Uh, because it'll cause irreparable brain damage? Obviously?"

Dr James Dague-Ross from the company's medical-legal division frowned at Topher briefly before returning his attention to their guest.

"To connect to the system the user has an implant, known as a 'BCI'—a Brain-Computer Interface—installed. It sends data via the central nervous system to the cortical neurons, but crucially, integrates with the user's tissue. Shutting down the system would result in the brain connecting to... nothing."

"And can this 'implant' not be surgically removed? Disconnected somehow?"

"Nope," said Topher.

Dague-Ross frowned at Topher again. "Not while it's running, not without risk of permanent harm to the user, no."

"How on earth was this technology ever allowed to market with that level of risk?"

"It's why god invented waivers."

"Not amusing."

"Apologies, Mr Holmes," Dague-Ross said, shooting Topher a warning look. "What my colleague means to say, is that the user knew the hazards involved in use of the system. All of our users do. He signed paperwork acknowledging those risks."

"I am quite dubious as to the legality of a user consenting to 'risk of falling into a seemingly irreversible coma' whilst playing what is essentially a computer game," Mycroft Holmes said, fixing Dague-Ross with a vaguely reptilian, piercing stare, that set his already-twitchy fight or flight instincts on edge.

"Nonetheless, consent was obtained in accordance with the law," he said.

"That is a matter for another day, as is the regulation of what is manifestly an addictive and dangerous product, which I can assure you will be addressed in parliament very soon. What will happen if we leave him in the system?"

"Well..." Topher started.

"Well?"

Dague-Ross spoke, cutting off any ill-advisedly casual explanation Topher might be about to issue, "He clearly has no intention of self-awakening, so he'll stay in a coma and waste away. He might already be past the point of being able to self-awaken. Eventually we won't be able to get him back. And then he'll die."

"You can see how this is of grave concern."

"Looking at the logs, he's always come out within a few hours before, twenty-three hours in his longest instance," Topher said, tapping through a usage log on a tablet.

"How long has he been in there this time?" Dague-Ross asked.

"His handlers weren't as vigilant as they should have been and have been appropriately... dealt with. It has been at least twenty days."

"Twenty days? The longest session I've heard of is sixteen," Dague-Ross said with surprise.

"Current session's been active for twenty-two, actually," Topher added.

"It seems that he self-installed a series of automated feeding drips and a catheter prior to 'logging in'. His extended use of your little system is unequivocally intentional and calculated."

"If you wanna long-term it, I mean, that's the way to do it. Smart," Topher said.

"Can we please marvel at his ingenuity later? What are you going to do to get him out?"

"Yeah, that's... The drip makes it better, but it's still not good. He's not rousing in any of the usual ways. We need to get head office in the States onto this."

"What can your 'head office' do?"

"They have Mara. She'll get him out."

=

"Apertus."

Mara shivered, finding herself on a cold, darkened London street. She took a moment to get her bearings, the misty rain starting to soak her light jacket. She scurried into a doorway to take shelter and saw two figures run past, one tall and in a long coat, one shorter and carrying a gun.

Target acquired.

She knew that the user had prepared quite thoroughly for an extended session in the system, and she had been briefed on the stubborn nature of the man in question prior to his use of Reverie—his addictive, thrill-seeking personality. She had no doubt that this would be quite the challenge.

She followed the duo through the night, watching as they kicked in doors, examined clues and restrained suspects. The pair seemed to move as a cohesive unit, instinctively covering each other and playing off one another's strengths. She found herself marvelling at the amazing system Onira-Tech had created and the way it had fleshed out the fantasy of its user.

Mara could understand the attraction to this type of Reverie. She'd always loved detective stories as a child, in fact, it was part of the reason she'd taken such an interest in psychology and its applications in law enforcement. She could understand wanting to play the lead role, the hero—she'd seen it hundreds of times in every variation of James Bond or Poirot fantasy.

Mara was mystified as to why someone with all the power of Reverie at their disposal would choose to play not the dashing hero, but his sidekick. Sensing her moment to approach, Mara weaved her way through the gathering crowd.

"John Watson?" she asked.

The shorter of the two men looked at Mara, his gaze sweeping quickly from her face to her shoes and back again, eyes narrowed.

"No comments for the press at this time, I'm afraid," he said with a friendly but disinterested smile. "Everything will be on the blog tomorrow."

He turned to walk away and Mara caught his arm. John looked at her hand on his arm, then back to her face.

"I'm from Onira-Tech, John," she said.

John frowned slightly before blanking his features. He shook his head once, curtly.

"I don't know what that is. Excuse me."

He turned on his heel and walked briskly away, his taller colleague falling into step beside him. Mara tried to follow and was stopped by a handsome, somewhat worn-out looking, silver-haired police detective.

"Crime scene, miss, no press," he said, barring her passage.

"I'm not with the press, I need to talk to John Watson," she said, watching John escape.

"Ah, fan of the blog are you?" the detective said. "DI Greg Lestrade."

He held out his hand for her to shake. She took it almost automatically and he favoured her with a dazzling smile, his dark eyes full of playfulness. He also didn’t let go of her hand.

"Mara Kint."

"Cold old night. Fancy a coffee, Mara Kint?" he said, finally withdrawing his warm hand from hers, his fingertips tickling her palm briefly.

"I can't, I have to work," she found herself saying, wondering even as the words were leaving her lips why she was bothering to apologise to a simulated man.

"Shame. Some other time, maybe?" DI Lestrade said, giving her another almost-cheeky, boyish grin. "Some other crime scene?"

"Maybe," she said non-committally with a small smile.

She mentally shook herself, realising she was flirting with a non-playing character. A rather attractive NPC, but an NPC nonetheless.

"Well then, maybe I'll see you around," he said.

She nodded and looked back to where she'd last glimpsed John and his companion, but the street was empty and they were nowhere to be seen.

"Damn it," Mara muttered. "Exitus."

=

After the failed extraction attempt Mara convened with Alexis Barrett, tech genius and founder of Onira-Tech, Paul Hammond, Chief Oneirologist with the company, and Charlie Ventana, head of security. Alexis was tapping away at a tablet containing a diagnostic report on the Reverie session.

"How'd it go?" Paul asked.

"He gave me the slip," Mara said.

"How?" Alexis asked.

"His Reverie threw up an obstacle which allowed him to get away."

"What kind of obstacle?" Alexis asked.

Mara could feel her face heating slightly. Alexis narrowed her eyes slightly, watching Mara.

"A persuasive one," she said. She abruptly changed the subject. "I need more information on Mr Watson. There wasn't much available prior to going in due to the short notice. Charlie, what have we got?"

"Ex-army doctor, became something of a PI on his medical discharge from service, his detective partner committed suicide... 18 months ago... in a swirl of controversy over claims he'd in fact orchestrated the crimes he'd solved," Charlie read from a dossier. "No information available after the suicide. Dr Watson became a ghost."

"Do we have a photo of the partner?" Mara asked.

"Dylan, bring up a photo of Sherlock Holmes," Charlie said, directing his voice to the ceiling.

Dylan was Onira-Tech's childlike-sounding in-house AI, who kept the building, and company, running.

"Done, Charlie," Dylan said cheerfully.

The face of the tall man in the coat from the Reverie filled the screen on the wall, all sharp cheekbones and sharper eyes.

"That's who John escaped with, in the Reverie," Mara said.

"He's using the system to resurrect his dead friend. This could be even more challenging than we initially thought," Paul mused, rubbing a hand over his stubbled jaw.

"You just need to get him to the mandala," Alexis said, referring to a type of exit portal that existed in the virtual world. "The Exitus command probably won't work at this stage."

"Agreed. He's been in longer than anyone in the history of Reverie," Paul said. "Force him to the mandala if you have to."

"It won't come to that. I'll get him out," Mara said. "I just have to get him to listen to me."

"It seems that there'll be something of an international incident if you don't," Charlie said. "I've got the UK government breathing down my neck."

"I can do this."

=

When Mara located John and Sherlock, it was in a small Thai restaurant on a sidestreet in darkest London. They were sharing a meal and the smile died on John's face when he saw Mara in the doorway. His companion's head whipped around to see what the cause of the expression change was, and his eyes swept up and down her form in much the same way as John's had, earlier.

"John," Mara said, walking toward the table.

"Nope," John said, pushing abruptly away from his half-finished noodles and making for the door. "Not interested."

He swept past her, Sherlock hot on his heels, and left the restaurant. She turned to follow them just as a crowd of people appeared in the doorway, blocking her path. She pushed through the throng and looked up and down the street, just in time to see Sherlock's coat tails disappear around a corner.

Mara ran down the street in hot pursuit of the two men, dodging a suddenly-reversing garbage truck and a pizza delivery scooter.

"John Watson!" she shouted breathlessly, and saw the man stop and turn back, a furious smile on his face.

"What?" he said angrily. "What do you want?"

"John, I just need to talk to you. Will you give me five minutes?"

"One minute."

"All right," she said, finally walking up close to him. "As I said earlier, I'm from Onira-Tech."

"Yes, you said. They told me this was a closed system. That it was private."

"Ordinarily, yes, I'm using version 2.0 of the system. It's only used in extreme cases."

"Extreme cases?"

"When the user is in danger."

John shook his head, smiling a little.

"Nobody's in danger here, so you can go."

"No, John, you're in danger, that's why I'm here. You've been in the system too long. You need to come out."

"Not gonna happen, I'm afraid."

"Your body is shutting down, John. You need to leave."

"John," his companion interjected. "Text from Lestrade. We have a case."

"Duty calls," John said with a grin as Sherlock hailed a taxi and one appeared out of thin air.

"John—wait!" Mara said, but it was too late, John was gone.

=

"I need to change tactics," Mara said.

"Change tactics, how? He seems pretty intent on avoiding you until he... dies," Paul said.

"I need to give them a case to solve," Mara said with a small smile. "Time to be bad."

=

Mara was just starting to really enjoy herself, commencing her fifth bank holdup of a planned series of ten, when one of the waiting customers tackled her as she pulled out her gun. The man wrestled her to the ground, knocking the pistol from her grasp and the wind from her lungs. She struggled against his surprisingly strong grip and gasped as he pulled off her ski mask.

"Oh," John said, looking disappointed. "Hello again."

"John," Mara said. "Please, we need to talk."

"Fuck's sake," John said, gesturing to the bank's security guard. "I don't have time for this."

Mara shoved her hand into her pocket and pressed the button on the detonator, closing her eyes as the second floor of the building exploded, shaking the foundations of the virtual bank. John gave her an irritated look.

"Why? Just... why did you have to do that?"

"I can burn this world you've created to the ground, John," Mara said, her hands shaking with adrenaline. "You know I can do that."

John let out an angry noise, pulled Mara to her feet and pushed her toward the bank guard just as DI Lestrade burst into the bank, flanked by firearms officers and firefighters.

"Solved," Sherlock said to Lestrade, going into his customary post-case show-off mode as he brushed plaster dust from his hair, seemingly unaffected by the recent explosion. "Depressingly simple in the end. I noticed that the first letter of the bank managers' surnames could be put in sequence to predict the next target."

He turned his attention to Mara, lifting his chin haughtily as he continued.

"J, O, H, N," Sherlock said. "Did you really think so little of my deductive reasoning and pattern predicting skills as to imagine you wouldn't be caught at the bank managed by Nicholas Watson?"

"Sherlock..." John said, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Predictable, boring, predictable—oh."

"Yes, oh," John said. "She wanted to be caught."

"Well that's just... for god's sake," Sherlock said accusingly, looking at Mara. "The least you could do was make it challenging. You were in the police force after all."

"I was pressed for time," Mara said, frowning. "How did you know—"

"Oh, it's obvious," Sherlock said, waving his hand dismissively through the air. "Do better next time."

"There won't be a next time," John said. He looked at Lestrade. "Here's your culprit, lock her up."

"Mara Kint, always a pleasure," Lestrade said with a rakish grin.

In short order Mara found herself being locked into handcuffs by the dashing Detective Inspector Lestrade and led out to a waiting panda. John and Sherlock exited the bank, John looking at her for a long moment, then turning away with a shake of his head.

"John, please wait!" she called, struggling against Lestrade's hold.

John turned back with a sigh and held up his hand as Lestrade started trying to deposit the kicking woman into the car. Lestrade paused with a questioning look at John and Sherlock.

"Give us a sec, Greg," John said, coming back over to Mara.

"Thank you," she said as Lestrade loosened his hold on her forearm.

"I'll be right back, are you okay here with her?" Lestrade asked, heading off to talk to a uniformed officer when John nodded.

"Talk fast," John said abruptly, looking unimpressed.

"You know this isn't real. How could any of this possibly be real?" Mara said, indicating with her handcuffed hands the swarming police officers, the fire engines, the massive blaze the explosion had started on the second floor.

"This is what our life was really like," John said with a small, sad smile. "Solving cases, adrenaline rushes, with the best friend I could ever have asked for."

"Right, okay, but you know you're not in the real world. You know it's a simulation," Mara said.

"Of course he knows it isn't real," Sherlock snapped. "What kind of simpleton do you take him for?"

Mara stared. A self-aware non-playing character in a Reverie?

"How..."

"It's what he does," John said quietly. "What he... did."

"I deduced it, obviously. This world fluctuates around John's emotions and wants. I'm at least three inches shorter here than in the real world, for example, and he's at least two inches taller."

John scowled at Sherlock. "That's not true at all, you arse."

Sherlock smirked and slipped his hands into his pockets.

"And how did you know I don't belong? NPCs aren't supposed to be aware that I'm any different to them," Mara said, tilting her head curiously.

"You're obviously real. If you weren't, he'd be trying to make a move on you. Instead he's trying to evade you or talk you into leaving and views you as a threat. Hence, you are from the so-called 'real world' and trying to extract him. Elementary," Sherlock said. "He's something of a cad you see, can't keep it in his pants. Chases after anything in a skirt," he added with an amused smirk.

"Sherlock..." John said, exasperated. "I don't do that."

"Nonsense," Sherlock said, smiling fondly down at John.

"Well I'm not doing that now, am I?"

"She's clearly your type."

"What, female? Human?"

"Beautiful. Out of your league."

John shook his head and looked away, clenching his jaw, looking pained. Sherlock looked like he immediately regretted what he'd said and wanted to take it back, but didn't know how. Mara gasped in a quiet breath as she put two and two together.

"John, can I talk to you for a moment?" she asked.

"Of course," he said. He didn't move away and neither did Sherlock.

"Alone?" she said gently.

"No point. He's not real, right?"

"All right. Did you tell Sherlock you were in love with him?" Mara said, giving John a sympathetic expression. "When he was alive?"

"NO. You don't—you can't—you don't know what you're talking about. How dare you."

"John," Sherlock said, "why bother denying what we both know to be true? And If I've deduced it, as un-real as I am, I can say with absolute certainty that the real Sherlock knew."

"Why didn't you ever say anything?" John said, a stricken expression on his face.

"I can't say why he didn't, but I didn't say anything because we're happy like this, John. The two of us against the world. We don't need to talk about it."

"Maybe I need to."

"You've never wanted to."

"I just... I didn't want to push."

"You think I can't take it? When have I ever done anything other than push back?"

"Could we... could we have this?" John said, looking up at Sherlock, having moved in close to him.

"We could. Until you have to log off again."

"I could stay."

"John—"

"There's nothing out there for me, Sherlock. My life... if I hadn't met you, my life would have ended in months. I want to stay here with you."

"John, you can't do that. If you stay in here, you'll die," Mara said, touching his shoulder.

He shrugged off her hand.

"I could die, in here, with him," he said, jabbing a finger in Sherlock's direction. "We could go out together in a blaze of glory, like we should have. Find someone big and bad and solve the case and save the day. Or... we could... time has no meaning here. We could keep bees in Surrey and die of old age, we could do anything."

"I do quite like the idea of beekeeping," Sherlock said with a small smile.

"I know you do," John said, looking up at Sherlock again.

"John, I can't let you die. You haven't told me how the real world me died, but I'm certain it was to protect you," Sherlock said. "To save you."

"We can live a lifetime before that happens, Sherlock. We can have the life together that we should have had. The life we deserved, dammit. The life we maybe could have had if I hadn't been so afraid."

"John—"

"You can't make me leave, Sherlock. You can't make me leave you. Who would look after Rosie?"

"Who's Rosie?" Mara asked.

"John's daughter in this world. He fell in love with an ex-secret agent assassin, married her to spite me, wife shot me, had a baby, wife died leaving John a single parent." Sherlock looked thoughtful for a moment. "Then my unremembered secret sister wreaked havoc in our lives—I'm surprised it took me as long as it did to deduce that all this is a simulation really, with that level of hyperreality on offer."

"Hey, that's my subconscious mind you're criticising there!" John said, not looking particularly upset about it.

"Drama queen," Sherlock muttered.

"Twat," John replied.

"Are you going to take me home, then?" Sherlock said, smoothing his hands down the front of John's shirt.

John swallowed and smiled a little, looking up into Sherlock's eyes.

"Yeah, I think I am."

"John, you will die. You can't stay in here," Mara said, getting the sense that she was fighting a losing battle.

"I can, and I will," John said, smiling slightly as he watched Sherlock walk away to hail a cab. "This is where I belong. With that mad bastard over there."

"He's not real, John. He even knows he's not real."

John fixed Mara with a hard stare.

"He was the realest person I've ever known. And this Sherlock? He's real enough. I'll take him any way I can have him. Any small part of him I can have," John said. "You don't understand, you didn't know him. He was unique, and I'll never love like that again. I'll never..." John's voice cracked, and he looked away before continuing. "I'll never get over him, and I don't want to get over him. He's my life."

He gave her a decisive nod and walked off, sliding into the cab beside Sherlock. As the door closed, Mara saw Sherlock take John's hand. Mara watched them go.

=

"Give me another chance," Mara said. "I can try again."

"It's out of our hands now, Mara," Paul said. "We're getting heat from all directions—our government, the board, the military—I don't know who this Mycroft Holmes man is, but it seems rather like, for all intents and purposes, he is the British Government. And possibly a few others besides. He's frankly a little terrifying."

"We're over a barrel here," Charlie said.

"I'm not happy about releasing 2.0 to a representative of a foreign power," Alexis said. "The ethical ramifications of 2.0 in someone else's hands could be... not-great is an understatement. This is a lesson we've already learned, isn't it?"

"Again, this isn't something we're getting a choice about," Charlie said. "Our London office have requested the source code and are preparing a tablet as we speak."

"I don't like it," Alexis said.

"You don't have to like it," Charlie said. "We just need to get it done. I suspect this man has the power to get the code one way or another."

"At least this way we can control the transfer of data and restrict it to one additional unit," Paul mused.

"Who's going in? Do they have their own negotiator?" Mara asked.

"No idea. I can't think of anyone who'd do a better job than you," Paul said, with a small smile at Mara, which she returned.

"I can't see anyone getting through to a man that stubborn," Mara said. "Whoever it is, I wish them luck."

==

Operation Destroying
Angel is suspended.
M

Why?
DA

Trouble at home.
M

Trouble?
DA

The asset is in danger.
M

Am I being recalled?
DA

With urgency. The
asset is dying.
M

Get me a jet.
NOW, Mycroft.

==

"The American failed. Arrangements have been made."

"Arrangements?"

"A specialist is inbound."

"A VR specialist?"

"A John Watson specialist."

==

Chapter Text

Sherlock Holmes stepped off the private jet, not even taking a moment to breathe in the London-ness of the Heathrow air before sliding into a dark silver Jaguar. Such was his concern for John that he didn't exchange customary unpleasantries with Mycroft upon seeing him. Mycroft wordlessly handed Sherlock a file, which Sherlock flipped through before speaking.

"Reverie? Really, John?" Sherlock muttered as he closed the folder.

"You're familiar with the technology?"

"Oh yes, it enabled me to get the drop on Sebastian Moran. He was too busy doing whatever people do in a 'Dark Reverie' to know he wasn't alone. Never even felt my blade."

"Charming," Mycroft said with a delicate expression of distaste.

"That John would use Reverie comes as a surprise."

"I'm afraid I must be honest and disclose that it has been necessary to conceal certain things from you during your... holiday... to enable you to focus on the task at hand."

"Conceal what things?"

"John has not done well without you. Prior to the current... situation."

"Mycroft—"

"You said not to contact you unless completely necessary," Mycroft said, schooling his features into a blank mask, but still evidently uncomfortable. "I handled it."

"Clearly you didn't handle it, or John wouldn't be in a hospital in a coma."

"I had handlers in place," Mycroft said. "A string of 'girlfriends' who John never kept around for long. Then neighbours. Mrs Hudson went abroad to visit her sister for a month, and the handlers took that as their cue to derelict their duty. The last handlers have been reassigned in light of the poor job they've done."

"Reassigned."

"To somewhere very very cold indeed. I don't take kindly to falsification of logs."

"I don't take kindly to broken promises," Sherlock said, looking out the window.

"I regret the situation," Mycroft said quietly. "I've grown rather fond of John."

"I doubt he'd say the same."

"Quite."

=

Sherlock walked through the hospital corridors with Mycroft at his side. Mycroft had gotten the message pretty quickly that Sherlock wasn't interested in anything else he had to say, and stayed mercifully silent as they walked.

Upon reaching the room, Sherlock stopped dead in the doorway, feeling like all the breath had left his body, the blood draining from his face. In the bed lay John, looking smaller than he had any right to, hooked up to monitoring machines, drips, and intubated, his chest rising and falling steadily.

Sherlock leaned heavily on the door frame, unable to make his legs carry him the five steps to the bedside.

A doctor at John's bedside looked up at Mycroft and addressed him.

"His vitals aren't looking great," the nameless doctor said. "Has the 2.0 device arrived yet?"

"It's inbound. ETA fifteen minutes."

"Is this the specialist?" the doctor asked, looking at Sherlock.

"Yes."

"All right, we need to get him prepped for the implantation."

Sherlock sat in the chair at John's bedside as the doctor prepared the equipment for the procedure.

"You're not afraid of needles are you?" the doctor said, brandishing the large gun-style syringe containing the implant.

Sherlock gave the doctor a withering look but said nothing. He heard Mycroft cough politely over his shoulder.

Once the implant was embedded, Sherlock waited.

He couldn't stop looking at John. The guilt at having left him alone for so long was in no way outweighed by his anger at the incompetents Mycroft called 'handlers'. The bottom line was that if he hadn't left, John would not be in hospital.

John looked so small in the bed, so overwhelmed by the machinery sustaining his life. His usually clean-shaven face sported at least a few weeks' growth of facial hair. His hair had silvered and was longer than Sherlock had ever seen it. He wondered how many things other than the physical had changed since he'd been away.

He suspected that Mycroft viewed it as a sort of 'gap year', thinking Sherlock was having a whale of a time, travelling the world, plucking down the strands of Moriarty's web. The truth was far more lonely and less glamorous. He couldn't count the number of times he'd almost caved and contacted John over the eighteen months he'd been away. The only thing that had stopped him was Mycroft's assurance that John would be looked after.

It was a betrayal Sherlock felt keenly. The delayed guilt gnawed at his insides, intermingling with other emotions he was accustomed to suppressing. But now, being here with John, and seeing what he had done to himself without Sherlock to give him purpose, caused Sherlock a pain unlike any he had ever felt.

=

"Apertus"

Sherlock found himself standing on Baker street at dusk. The smell of the air, petrichor and smog, suffused his lungs. He took only a moment to breathe it in before setting off down the street.

He let himself in to the building with the virtual key Onira-Tech had created for him. He took a deep breath before mounting the seventeen stairs to the flat he and John shared.

The first thing he noticed was that there was a playpen in the corner. Children's toys were scattered around the sitting room. He frowned slightly, not understanding. No child was present.

He moved through the kitchen which was spotlessly clean, no microscope on the table, no scientific equipment of any kind on any surface.

So this is what John thinks the flat should look like, Sherlock thought.

He turned, about to walk up the stairs to John's bedroom, when he heard a noise from his own bedroom. He frowned slightly and walked closer to the slightly-ajar door.

"Hello?" called John's voice.

Sherlock pushed the bedroom door open and stepped into the room. John was in Sherlock's bed.

Sherlock stared for a long moment, unable to parse what he was seeing. John. In his bed. As Sherlock watched, John rolled over onto his side and looked up at him sleepily.

"Forget something?" John said, a small smile on his lips.

Sherlock's mouth went dry. John had never looked at him like that in anything but his mind's eye.

"Ah. Yes, my phone," Sherlock said.

John pushed his hand under the empty pillow beside him, retrieving Sherlock's phone.

"I swear you leave it behind deliberately," John said, holding it out to Sherlock.

The covers slipped off John's bare shoulders and Sherlock found himself quite unable to breathe. He numbly reached out for the phone and gasped quietly as John, instead of handing him the phone, took hold of his wrist and pulled him down onto the bed. He didn't know how to react as John wrapped his bare arms around him and snuggled in close.

John's scent, soap and a little sweat and home, filled his nostrils. He breathed in deeply, his eyes falling involuntarily closed.

"That's better," John murmured against Sherlock's neck. "Molly's bag of feet can wait."

"John, I..." Sherlock started, but he had no idea what the end of that sentence was even supposed to be.

"Mmm?" John said softly, his lips brushing against Sherlock's ear, sending sparks all down his right side.

Sherlock shivered and cursed the thoroughness of Onira-Tech's device and its nervous system feedback.

"Nothing," Sherlock said, his eyes still closed, ashamed at wanting what was clearly a mistake to last just a little bit longer.

John let out a happy sigh, his breath shivering through Sherlock's hair, his hands slipping under Sherlock's coat, sending fire through his shirt, through his skin wherever he touched. This... this was what Sherlock imagined in his most personal moments, in moments of weakness, in moments of longing—having John, being John's—being with him in this way.

He couldn't understand how this was happening, why the program had put him in a fantasy of his own creation, rather than taking him to John's Reverie. He could only assume something had gone wrong. Suddenly he understood how Reverie had proven so addictive for so many users. He could stay here, with this version of John, in this perfect world where he was loved and could love in return, forever.

Having seen this, experienced this, he wondered what perfect world John had created that would make him want to leave the real world behind—because this? This would be all it would take for Sherlock Holmes to give everything away.

The John in his arms shifted slightly, his lips brushing lightly against Sherlock's throat before firming into slow, moist, lingering kisses. Sherlock let out a soft groan and clutched at John's back helplessly, lost in sensation.

"Sherlock?" John breathed. "You're shaking. You okay?"

He pulled back to look at Sherlock, his brow creased in a sweet, worried frown.

"No," Sherlock breathed. "God, John, you have no idea how badly I wish this could be real."

John frowned more deeply, tilting his head a little. John's pupils dilated as he looked at Sherlock, and his cheeks were flushed—desire radiated from him even in his confusion. Sherlock could feel his breath on his face, the heat of it, could almost taste it. So real. So exactly what he'd pined for, dreamed about. John's tongue dipped out to lick along his bottom lip and Sherlock clutched at John's side, barely in control of himself.

"I don't understand."

"Neither do I," Sherlock said, "and I have to go, but before I do..."

Sherlock closed the gap between them, parting his lips to John's open mouth, feeling virtual heat suffuse his virtual body as he kissed the man he'd loved since they'd met, the man he'd longed for, ached for during eighteen months of absence. The man who had changed his life in ways he couldn't begin to quantify.

The John in his arms groaned softly and kissed him back, opening beautifully to him, holding him closer, giving him something he'd never thought he'd have, an aching desire carefully hidden and cherished in secret. The kiss became more, possessive, Sherlock making the most of a chance he'd never have again, pressing John down on the bed and tasting his jaw, his neck, the hollow between his collarbones, before returning to his lips for one final, sweet caress.

"I love you, John," Sherlock whispered, heartbroken, looking down at John's stunned face. "Exitus."

The last thing he saw before he was pulled out was John's face, his eyes wide with shock.

=

"Exitus. Exitus. Exitus. Goddamn it, Exitus!"

=

"Mycroft, get your techs back in here. It didn't work."

"Didn't work? Specify," Mycroft said.

"It didn't take me to John."

Mycroft left the room to ruin some lives and Sherlock stared at John, lying in the hospital bed. He looked down at his own shaking hands holding the Reverie device, hands which would never touch John in the way his virtual ones just had. His lips were still tingling from the kisses they'd never shared, never would share. His heart was still pounding with the thrill of having John in his arms, happy and pliant and willing.

The empty ache in his gut was intolerable, spreading through his whole body, his limbs feeling weighed down with it. Not knowing how it could be between them had been a sweet torture, but having tasted John's mouth, heard his sighs, been held in his arms, was somehow so much worse.

What a cruel thing, to be given the merest taste of a perfect dream and then have to let it go.

Mycroft re-entered the room with a terrified-looking engineer who took the Reverie tablet from Sherlock and started tapping away at it.

"No, no fault. All diagnostics optimal," the engineer said, confused. "You're sure it malfunctioned?"

"Certain," Sherlock said. "It somehow took me into a Reverie I would have designed."

The engineer frowned at Sherlock then looked back down at the tablet, tapping it a few more times.

"Nope, Reverie 2146586-A-Watson. Definitely the right Reverie."

Sherlock looked at the tablet, then at John, lying in the hospital bed.

"That's not possible," he whispered.

"What isn't possible, Sherlock," Mycroft said softly.

"That he should feel..." Sherlock couldn't even say the words.

"Sherlock," Mycroft said gently, "Why do you think he threw his life away?"

"Boredom?" Sherlock said.

"He's not you," Mycroft said. "He was grieving. He was grieving like a lover."

"Oh my god," Sherlock breathed urgently. "Give me the tablet."

Mycroft shot the engineer a look and he passed the tablet to Sherlock and fled the room.

Sherlock took a deep breath.

"Apertus."

=

Sherlock ran across the street, narrowly missed by a passing cab, and unlocked the door to 221B. He ran up the stairs and paused in the sitting room doorway.

Sitting in the room were John, in his armchair, and a facsimile of himself in his own chair. John glanced at him briefly before shaking his head and looking away.

The facsimile of himself gave a patently false smile and gestured to the 'client' chair sitting equidistant to the two armchairs.

"Ah, Sherlock, welcome," the facsimile said. "Please, do sit."

Sherlock looked at John, taking in his tense posture, his jiggling right knee. He hesitated for a moment before moving to the chair.

"Hello, John," Sherlock said.

John shook his head and didn't look at him.

"I suppose you'd better start by telling us why you're here," the facsimile said.

Sherlock frowned at John for a long moment, then turned his attention to the facsimile.

"I'm here to save John's life," he said. "Something which, if you were any kind of imitation of me at all, I would think you'd be more than eager to assist with."

John made a small angry, bitter noise and spoke without looking at Sherlock.

"Cut the crap, Mara. I don't know how you've done this, but this is not funny. It's not fucking funny at all."

"Mara? Mara Kint?" Sherlock said. "The woman who failed to extract you."

John finally looked at him, his eyes dark and filled with turmoil.

"Don't. Just stop it. This is cruel."

"I'm not Mara Kint, John," Sherlock said. "It's really me. I'm alive."

"No. That's impossible."

"It's not."

"I watched you—you fell. I saw it. Please stop this."

Sherlock frowned, the memory of the sound of John's anguish at watching him 'die' still painful.

"It's me, John. I promise you."

"All right then—prove it," John said.

"How?"

"You're a genius, Sherlock, you work it out."

"If I may interject," the facsimile said. "Sherlock, describe to me the difference between Trichinopoly and Bird's Eye ash."

"Oh Christ, not fucking ash again," John muttered.

Sherlock huffed, irritated, "To the trained eye there is as much difference between the black ash of a Trichinopoly and the white fluff of Bird’s Eye as there is between a cabbage and a potato."

"There you have it, John," the facsimile said, gesturing at the real Sherlock. "He must be the real Sherlock because, as you have insisted on numerous occasions, nobody other than me has any interest whatsoever in that monograph."

"A claim I dispute. That monograph generated quite a buzz in the forensic community."

The facsimile looked at the real Sherlock, a pleased smile on his face.

"Yes, precisely. There is a copy on file at the Jeffersonian Institute in Washington DC."

Despite himself, Sherlock grinned. "Yes!"

"Oh for fuck's sake..." John muttered, looking between the two Sherlocks with an annoyed expression. "That information is all public record. Tell me something the internet doesn't know. That Reverie doesn't know."

"Like what?" Sherlock said.

"Tell me why you did it."

Sherlock blinked, a cold shock hitting his system at John's bluntness.

"For you," he said.

"No. You did it TO me," John said, his face screwed up into an expression of misery.

"You would be dead right now if I hadn't appeared to commit suicide. Moriarty saw to that."

John shook his head.

"Bullshit."

"Moriarty had hired killers and snipers positioned near Lestrade, Mrs Hudson and yourself. If I hadn't jumped, they would have been activated."

"So, I know how this works. The snipers were taken from the blog entry on the pool, the rest could be extrapolated from news sources," John said. "This is all very clever. Onira-Tech have really done their research."

"I don't know how to convince you."

"Tell me something nobody knows."

"Before we met, you were contemplating suicide."

John inhaled quietly.

"How-"

"You know my methods."

"No," John said, shaking his head quickly, an angry smile on his face. "That's a cop out and you know it. Tell me."

"Because I recognised myself in you."

They just stared at one another for a long time before Sherlock found the words to continue.

"You know how I get. The black moods. The frustration. The boredom," Sherlock said. "There have been times when I wanted all that to just... end."

John sniffed and looked away.

"But you..." Sherlock said.

"What about me."

"You changed me."

John took a breath, squeezing his eyes closed, then looked at Sherlock again, fixing him with a hard stare.

"What was that, in the bedroom before?"

"What was what in the bedroom before?" the facsimile asked, his brow creasing.

"It was a moment of weakness," Sherlock said softly. "I was presented with my heart's deepest desire and I was shamefully unable to resist."

"Your... heart's..."

"I know I claimed not to have one," Sherlock said without looking at John, "but I think we both know that isn't true."

John looked helplessly at the facsimile of Sherlock.

"John," the facsimile said, "It's all right."

"Is it?" John said, anguished.

"You can have something real," the facsimile said. "You can live."

"But what about you?" John said. "What about Rosie?"

"We're not real," the facsimile said gently. "You know we're not."

"No. No. You're real to me," John said, shaking his head.

"I know we are," Reverie Sherlock said. "And we both love you so much. But you have to let us go."

John shook his head quickly, tears slipping down his cheeks.

"I don't think I can."

The facsimile of Sherlock moved quickly, going to his knees in front of John. Sherlock watched as the virtual Sherlock cupped John's face in his hands.

"You can, John. You can do anything. You're the most amazing man that he has ever met," Reverie Sherlock said. "You're brave, so brave, and so strong, and you have to live."

John closed his eyes, bowing his head. The facsimile took John into his arms, his lips pressed against John's forehead.

"You invaded Afghanistan, John," he murmured against John's skin. "You can do this."

Reverie Sherlock looked at Real World Sherlock, held his gaze for a long moment, then looked away again before speaking.

"Would you give us a moment, Sherlock."

Sherlock frowned slightly but nodded and walked into the kitchen. He focussed on the low murmur of voices coming from the sitting room but was unable to discern what was being said. When he glanced back at the chair, what he saw made him breathe in quickly.

The facsimile was kissing John, deeply, passionately. Sherlock looked away quickly, feeling his face flush, but found his eyes magnetically drawn back to the kiss. When it broke, John and the facsimile murmured some more, Sherlock frustrated by his inability to eavesdrop or lipread due to the angle.

The other Sherlock took John's hand and pulled him to his feet. John turned and looked at Sherlock, his face flushed, his eyes bright with shed tears, his lips reddened from the recent kiss. Sherlock stared at John's mouth, want stabbing through him for a moment, before he caught himself and blanked his features.

"I'll come with you," John said quietly. "But we are not okay."

Sherlock nodded once.

"Understandable."

"If I were real," Reverie Sherlock said, "I would make a threat of some kind here."

"I know you would," Sherlock said.

"Nothing anyone could do to you is as bad as the way you'll torture yourself if you hurt him," Reverie Sherlock warned, his eyes narrowed. "I know you know that."

Sherlock nodded once, a little taken aback. "Too right."

The facsimile maintained hard eye contact with Sherlock which he found a little confronting. He supposed he was feeling for the first time the way other people felt when dealing with him.

"All right," Reverie Sherlock said, and released John's hand.

John looked at Sherlock once, then walked out of 221B Baker Street without looking back. Sherlock looked at the Reverie simulation of himself for a long moment, then followed. As he rounded the landing halfway down, he heard the simulated Sherlock's violin start up, the beautiful, heartbroken strains of Barber's Adagio for Strings following him out to the door.

Sherlock opened the door to the street and stepped outside into the cool night. John was standing by the doorstep, his hands in his pockets, looking across the street. Sherlock moved to stand at his side, listening to the violin drifting down from the windows upstairs.

They both looked at the graffiti representation of a mandala spraypainted on the front door of the building directly across the road.

"You know what to do?" Sherlock said quietly.

"Yeah, I read the manual. If 'exitus' doesn't work, find the mandala. Or vice versa. Gimme a minute."

Sherlock nodded and slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat, listening to John's breathing, watching the clouds of virtual mist with each exhalation.

"You're going to be there, right?" John said without looking at him. "You'll be waiting for me."

"Of course," Sherlock said softly. "I'm right beside you."

"All right," John said, and abruptly walked across the road, straight to the mandala, touched it and disappeared.

Chapter Text

John blinked awake, coughing and gagging around an intubation. He clutched at the bed covers, making muffled, anguished noises, until a hand caught his and held.

He looked up and blinked a few times until his vision cleared.

Sherlock.

He'd been half-convinced it had been a deception, that they'd somehow used the Sherlock he'd created in Reverie to trick him into leaving. The face of the man leaning over the bed was covered in stubble, and too-thin, and worried, but unmistakeably Sherlock.

He tried to say Sherlock's name but couldn't speak with the tube down his throat. He squeezed his eyes closed, then opened them again. Sherlock was still there. He could feel tears rolling down his cheeks and was powerless to do anything about it.

Sherlock squeezed his hand and leant over, pressing a hard kiss to his forehead.

"I'm here, John," Sherlock said, his voice low and rough, his breath hot on John's sweaty skin.

John squeezed Sherlock's hand as hard as he could, trying to ground himself in the moment, trying to convince himself that Sherlock was telling him the truth. Sherlock covered their hands with his other one, squeezing back.

"I'm sorry," Sherlock breathed. "I'm so sorry. I'm here."

=

John remained in hospital for a further week.

The intubation stayed in place for the first day. John's first words to Sherlock after the initial joy of reunion were spelt out by painstakingly writing the individual letters on the palm of Sherlock's hand with a shaking fingertip.

Y O U P R I C K

And then,

G E T O U T

Sherlock felt his foolish, love-stricken heart sink as he read John's message. He tried not to let his hurt show, but he'd been so flayed-open by their moment in the virtual version of his bedroom that he couldn't hide anything from John—possibly not ever again. John stared him down as he left and the pain in John's eyes struck him right to his core.

He returned the next day at the start of visiting hours to find John sitting up in bed, clean-shaven, eating breakfast, if you can call fruit jelly breakfast. John looked up at him for a moment, his expression blank, then nodded at the empty chair beside the bed and Sherlock sat, practically vibrating with tension.

They sat in silence for the whole day, watching terrible daytime television, Sherlock regularly going to get more water and ice chips when he deduced John's need, John intermittently napping. John barely looked at him the whole time. It was awful, torture really, but at least he wasn't being asked to leave. Sherlock stayed until visiting hours finished, having said not a word for the entire day.

When he arrived the next morning, John wasn't in his bed. Sherlock had a moment of abject terror, standing stock-still in the doorway, frozen, imagining deep vein thrombosis, stroke and cardiac arrest. Then he heard the toilet flush, and then John's customary surgical attention-to-detail hand washing, and felt his body unclench incrementally.

John came out of the bathroom and looked at Sherlock, a slight frown on his face. Sherlock leaned against the door frame, blinking slowly as his panic receded. John moved over to him, placing a firm hand on his arm.

"I'm here."

"I know," Sherlock whispered.

"I'm okay."

Sherlock just nodded, swallowing around a lump in his throat, looking at the floor. He sensed rather than saw John nod in acknowledgement, his hand slipping down to Sherlock's forearm before pulling away. Sherlock breathed out heavily, the simple, innocent touch sending a combination of fire and guilt coursing through him.

John moved stiffly back to the bed, pausing on his way to move the visitor chair closer. He slowly got back into the bed without looking at Sherlock again.

The rest of the day passed in much the same way as the previous one, together in silence, but with Sherlock being practically giddy at five mere inches of gained ground.

John waited until Sherlock arrived before using the lavatory the following morning.

John started physiotherapy that day, Sherlock at a loose end, hanging around the hospital room until John returned with his hairline sweaty and looking tired. John fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow and Sherlock watched John sleep, the television murmuring ignored in the background.

The next morning there was a doctor with John when Sherlock arrived. John introduced Sherlock as his 'partner', leaving exactly what kind of partner he was unspecified, which gave Sherlock a small inner twinge. Sherlock sat and watched as the doctor tested John's reflexes, his muscle strength, went through his blood test results.

"It's all looking really good, Dr Watson. You'll continue physiotherapy after discharge, but I think you'll only be here another couple of days at the most."

Sherlock was simultaneously relieved at John's recovery and fearing the moment he'd leave the hospital. What would happen then? There was no way to deduce—John wasn't giving anything away, likely intentionally.

Once the doctor was gone, John settled back into the bed. He didn't turn the television on, sitting there in silence with Sherlock in his customary visitor chair. Sherlock could see John working up to saying something and felt dread in the pit of his stomach, anticipating disaster.

When he finally spoke, John's voice was quiet.

"Tell me you're sorry," John said.

"I'm not sorry I saved your life," Sherlock said quietly, looking down at his hands. "I am sorry that I didn't realise how I'd hurt you."

"No, I don't mean that. Tell me you're sorry you didn't take me with you."

Sherlock looked at John.

"Mycroft told me what you've been up to, dismantling Moriarty's empire," John said.

"I... couldn't."

"You could," John said. "You just didn't want to."

Sherlock looked at his hands again, pushing back the cuticle of his thumb with his other thumbnail.

"I had to do some... not-good things," Sherlock said softly. "You... wouldn't have liked it."

"Sherlock, look at me," John said, his voice rough.

Sherlock raised his head, frowning slightly as he met John's fierce gaze.

"I would kill for you. I mean, I have killed for you, but I would do it again, without hesitation," John said. "I would kill every last fucker in this building to protect you."

Sherlock just stared, feeling his heartbeat speed up.

"I would burn my world to the ground to keep you safe," John said, his eyes locked on Sherlock's. "I would die for you. With you."

"I—"

"I need ice chips," John said, turning on the television.

Sherlock stared, frowning at John's abrupt change of subject and attention.

"Right away," Sherlock said softly.

When he returned to the room, the visitor chair had been moved, right up close to the bed. He sat, his elbow resting against the side of the mattress, and watched television, his mind racing.

On the morning of the sixth day, Sherlock brought flowers. They weren't anything particularly expensive or unusual, just white roses from a local Waitrose, but the look on John's face when Sherlock pulled them out from behind his back, amused, bemused, made them something special.

Sherlock put the roses in John's drinking water jug and smiled a little to himself as he heard John mutter, "Git."

He settled in to his customary position at John's side for the daily Terrible Shows on ITV marathon. When John's hand took his against the bedsheet and held for thirty seconds Sherlock thought his brain would short circuit. It was fleeting, barely savoured before it was over, but it had Sherlock's heart bursting with so much hope he could barely contain it.

John had physiotherapy again that day and Sherlock wordlessly followed along. He watched in awe as John worked through what was obviously a great deal of pain and muscle weakness, the look on his face doggedly determined. He was reminded yet again just how remarkable the man he'd chosen to love actually was.

John finished physiotherapy a little shaky, covered in sweat, and gave Sherlock a grim smile when he saw the awed look on his face.

"Doing all right, aren't I?" John said quietly.

"You are, as ever, the most determined man I know," Sherlock said.

John went to walk toward Sherlock and stumbled slightly, Sherlock moving quickly to grab his biceps and steady him. Sherlock breathed in, getting a lungful of the fresh scent of John's sweat, and sighed softly. John froze, looking up at Sherlock.

"Thanks," John said, his voice a little rough, his pupils dilated.

"Any time," Sherlock said, panicking a little, trying not to be too obvious in his desire.

"Help me back to the room? I'm not using a fucking stick."

"Of course."

John slipped his arm over Sherlock's shoulders and they made their way back to the room. John seemed to be walking fine but just not wanting to be in the position of stumbling again, and Sherlock was elated at being that close to him, and at John allowing him to help.

When they reached the room, Sherlock helped John to the bed and leaned in, helping him lie down. John didn't remove his arm from around Sherlock's shoulders and they paused for a long moment, Sherlock above John, looking down into his eyes. John's lips parted on a breath and he licked his bottom lip briefly, looking at Sherlock's mouth. Sherlock froze, not daring to breathe, but then John released him and he moved to his seat, his heart pounding like he'd run a race.

Their attraction to one other was undeniable, but would John want anything with Sherlock like he'd had in that perfect world?

John fell asleep not long after that, curled on his side facing Sherlock, with his cheek against the arm of his coat. Sherlock merely watched, lost in thought, in fantasy, in yearning.

On the last day in hospital, Sherlock arrived with a McDonald's breakfast for John (sausage and egg mcmuffin, two hashbrowns, black coffee no sugar) and a coffee for himself. John favoured him with a sunny smile for a moment like he'd forgotten himself, and Sherlock basked in the glow of it, letting it warm his entire being.

All too soon the smile was gone, but Sherlock felt its after-effects, could almost smell the sunlight on his skin. He sat, sipping his coffee and enjoying the evidence of John's returned appetite (trying not to concentrate too much on his mouth).

John wordlessly passed Sherlock the second hashbrown, just as he always had when he got himself a McDonald's... before. It felt like a victory, an acceptance.

After breakfast, John dressed himself in the bathroom, then came back into the room to sit on the side of the bed, at the end, waiting to be discharged.

"You'd better call us a car," John said, without looking at Sherlock.

"All right," Sherlock said. "Just one?"

The unspoken question hung between them. Would John be returning to Baker Street? John didn't answer for a long time. When Sherlock finally dared to look at John, the soft expression on his face near took his breath away.

"Of course, Sherlock," John said softly. "Where else would I go?"

Sherlock shrugged slightly.

"Away... from me?"

"If you think I'm letting you out of my sight ever a-fucking-gain," John said, "you're no genius."

=

Returning to Baker Street had been surreal after having been there so recently in a virtual world. John was still in hospital when Sherlock walked into the sitting room for the first time in eighteen months. Very little had changed in their flat—it was as though John had kept it as a shrine to their life together. The thought caused an uneasy, guilty feeling in his stomach.

He made his way to his bedroom, a bizarre feeling of deja vu attacking him as he pushed open the bedroom door.

His bed was unmade. There was an empty glass on the bedside table, along with a chapstick and John's phone charger, the phone still plugged in. Numerous medical machines were lined up at the sides of the bed. This was clearly where John had been sleeping, and also where he'd used Reverie.

Sherlock felt a hollow in his gut, thinking of John sleeping in his bed, mourning him, wanting him—making the decision to go into a virtual world for as long as possible to be with him. The thought that this could have been where John died was like a stab to the heart.

Sherlock cleared out the drip machines and changed the bedsheets. He left the chapstick, charger, phone and glass where they were.

Sherlock went down to the laundry to wash the sheets, frightening the life out of Mrs Hudson who slapped his face and then hugged him tightly, sobbing into his chest. He smiled and closed his eyes, holding her close.

He slept on the couch every night after visiting hours ended, unable to face sleeping in the bed where he'd held John in his arms. It was good, if a bit strange, to be home, but he wouldn't truly be home until John was back where he belonged.

=

The car Mycroft sent to pick them up from the hospital deposited them on the curb directly outside 221B, mid-afternoon. Mrs Hudson was waiting on the doorstep with tears in her eyes and held her arms out to John, taking him in a gentle hug.

"Silly boy," she said. "Silly, silly boy."

"I know," John said quietly into her shoulder. "Brought him back though, didn't it?"

She pulled back, smooshing his face between her hands.

"If he doesn't look after you," she said, "you let me know."

"I will," John said with a small grin. "You hear that, Sherlock? Mrs H will have your guts for garters if you give me a hard time."

Sherlock suppressed a smile.

"I'll bear that in mind," he murmured, looking at them both fondly.

When they made their way slowly up the stairs and into the sitting room, John immediately zeroed in on the pillows and blanket folded at the end of the couch.

"You know you'll fuck your back, sleeping there," he said with a slight frown.

"It's fine," Sherlock said, watching as John pulled away to move to his armchair, sitting down stiffly. "Tea?"

"Lovely," John said quietly.

Sherlock moved into the kitchen and rinsed out the kettle before refilling it and turning it on. He got down two mugs, put tea bags in, went to the fridge and said a quiet thanks to their not-housekeeper for stocking the fridge with milk, butter, all the essentials. He walked back over to the mugs and waited for the kettle to boil.

He looked at the back of John's head, thinking about the last time he'd seen John sitting in that chair—with the facsimile of himself on his knees before him, kissing John, loving John. He wasn't jealous, not as such, but it caused a pang in his chest he was not eager to examine too closely.

Tea made, Sherlock returned to John, placing the mug on his side table and settling into his own armchair with an unintentional, satisfied sigh. John smiled a little, watching him.

"Good to be home?" John said.

"Exceedingly so," Sherlock said. "I feel like myself again, at 221B, with you."

John nodded, his brow creased, reaching for his tea, avoiding looking at Sherlock. He took a sip.

"Have I said the wrong thing already?" Sherlock said softly.

"No," John said. "No, it's fine."

"Is it?"

"Well. No. Not really," John said, looking miserable. "I lived with your ghost for a year and a half. I thought about moving out, even looked at a few places, but... I couldn't let you go. Couldn't abandon you."

"I'm sorry."

"Stop saying that," John said, raising his voice in his frustration. "This can't be fixed with an apology."

"Tell me what to do, John," Sherlock said, sitting forward. "I don't know how to fix this. I will do anything you ask of me, just tell me what you want."

"I think I want a nap," John said, putting his tea aside.

He pushed up out of the chair and walked into the kitchen, through the narrow hall and into Sherlock's bedroom without another word. Sherlock put his tea aside and his head in his hands.

=

Sherlock jerked awake the next morning, sprawled on the couch. He blinked as John came into focus, sitting at the desk with a mug of tea and some toast.

"You should have roused me," Sherlock said. "I could have made your breakfast."

"I'm not a bloody invalid," John said lightly. "I'm capable of spreading jam on toast. Plus I've never actually seen you cook anything and the very idea is mildly terrifying."

Sherlock squinted at John.

"I'll have you know I'm an excellent cook," he rumbled. "It's just food chemistry."

"'Cooking is science for hungry people?'" John said, with a small smile.

"Quite so," Sherlock said.

Sherlock stretched out on the couch, his arms above his head, pointing his toes, his back cracking noisily. John watched with his slice of toast halfway to his mouth, forgotten for a moment, before blinking and looking away. Sherlock didn't miss his reaction, getting a gentle buzz from the attention.

"Told you you'd fuck your back," John murmured through a mouthful of toast and jam.

"My bed was occupied."

"Your bed is a king size."

Sherlock blinked.

"Is that an invitation?" Sherlock asked quietly.

"Just an observation," John said with a small shrug.

Sherlock breathed out slowly, thinking about the last time he and John were in a version of that room.

"I think that would be a terrible idea," he said. "Don't you?"

John shrugged nonchalantly as he took a sip of tea.

"It's your back," John said. "I'm only a doctor, what do I know?"

John looked out the window and Sherlock turned onto his side, watching him.

"It's strange, being here again, after being in the Reverie for so long," John said quietly. "I keep expecting Mrs H to come upstairs with Rosie, but then I remember..."

John sighed softly.

"I guess that'll fade with time," he said.

"I imagine it'll be an adjustment from how most things were in the Reverie, to how they are in the real world," Sherlock said, avoiding looking at John, focusing on the detritus on the coffee table.

"Yeah," John said. "True."

"Are children something you want?" Sherlock said quietly, still not looking at John. "You've never said."

John smiled sadly, shaking his head.

"That's the thing, I never did want kids," John said, then paused for a moment, frowning a little. "My childhood wasn't... happy. As you know."

Sherlock nodded, watching John silently.

"But when Rosie came along, I was just... smitten," John said with a small, sad smile. "So were you. Reverie-you."

"How did you come to have a daughter?" Sherlock asked quietly.

"I got married. You turned up in the restaurant, raised from the dead, right on the night I was going to propose."

"Impeccable timing."

"I didn't even... You weren't in it, not at the beginning. I guess I started using Reverie as an escape from my shit life. I was alone, and lonely, and I had nothing and nobody to spend the money you left me on. It was an escape, a test run for a life without you, without the danger of pulling someone else into my misery. A couple of hours a day, casual, just seeing what it was like. It was starting to work, like I was levelling up, progressing through a game. It gave me something to look forward to."

"Dating."

"Sort of, yeah. And then the program just brought you back to me out of the blue. I didn't request it. Didn't program it," John said. "The system just took all the data about my life and resurrected you."

"That's worrying," Sherlock said, frowning. "I must have left a trail. Perhaps it webcrawled and found the data."

"It was like a dream come true. We fought. I forgave you. We resumed our friendship. That's when I started using Reverie a lot," John said. "Mary liked you. You, the other you, you actually liked her too."

"Your wife?" Sherlock said, dubious.

"Mmm. I was working through my grief, I guess. Still angry at you, subconsciously punishing you."

"And then?"

"She turned out to be... not what she appeared. But she gave me Rosie."

"And then left?"

"Died."

"Oh," Sherlock said. He didn't know what else to say. 'I'm sorry' seemed strange somehow, regretting the death of a fictional person.

"Rosie was a brilliant, bright little girl. She grew so fast, and she took to you," John said. "You'd read stories to her, and explode things in the kitchen for her, at least until I stopped you. You told her all about our work, and loved her like your own."

"And we... when did we..."

"After Mara came. Things came to a head. She saw through me right away."

"I see," Sherlock said, looking away.

"You're not jealous?" John said.

"It's strange," Sherlock said. "I am jealous, in a way, but I'm also grateful that you had him."

"I don't know what I would have done without Reverie," John said. "Probably ended up in hospital a lot sooner. Or worse."

Sherlock frowned deeply, the apology on the tip of his tongue held back, knowing as he did that John didn't want to hear it.

"I have physio in an hour," John murmured. "You coming with?"

"Of course," Sherlock said. "I'll have Fatty send us a car."

"Don't call him that," John said quietly.

Sherlock stared uncomprehendingly.

"I'd probably be dead if it wasn't for Mycroft. He's the one who found me. He visited from time to time, after... After," John said. "We've become friends."

"Please for the love of god don't ever admit that to him," Sherlock said. "I'll never hear the end of it."

"What's in it for me?"

"My undying gratitude," Sherlock said, immediately regretting his word choice. John didn't pick him up on it.

"Dishes. Your job from now on."

"Deal."

"And no body parts in the fridge."

Sherlock scowled. John merely looked at him.

"Orrr... I can invite him over for dinner every Friday night?" John prompted. "I'll text him right now."

"Fine," Sherlock said, his eyes narrowed. "I'll buy a second refrigerator."

"Fine," John said.

"Good."

John grinned at him and Sherlock breathed out slowly through the palpitations it caused.

"Go get ready," John said softly.

Sherlock did.

=

John fought through the physiotherapy with the same determination as the previous sessions. The physiotherapist was pleased with the progress he'd made in such a short time. Nonetheless, John was wiped out afterwards, falling into a doze in the car on the way home from the appointment.

Sherlock closed his eyes, listening to John's breathing, enjoying the weight of the head against his shoulder. He turned his head, pressing his nose into John's hair, breathing in the scent of him.

"Did you just sniff me?" John murmured sleepily.

"'Course not," Sherlock said softly. "Go back to sleep."

"M'kay babe," John breathed.

Sherlock breathed out heavily, knowing the pet name wasn't for him, not the real him. He pressed a kiss to John's hair, his heart breaking a little, longing for that kind of ease between them.

When they arrived at the flat, Sherlock helped John up the stairs, convinced John didn't actually need the help but unable to pass up an opportunity to be close. Once in the flat, John mumbled that he was tired and heading off for a nap. Sherlock followed, seeing him safely to the bedside.

He stood in the doorway, looking away as John stripped off his jeans and shirt, then slipped under the covers. Sherlock looked at John again, finding himself being watched in return.

"Stay," John murmured. "Talk to me."

Sherlock bit his bottom lip, looking at John. He shook his head quickly.

"Please?" John said, his brow creasing.

"No, John," Sherlock said. "If I've proven anything, it's that I can't be trusted near you, half-asleep in my bed."

"You can't talk to me?"

"I can't think straight," Sherlock said. "The pull toward you is so strong that if I come any closer, I doubt I'll be capable of holding back."

"We're still friends, Sherlock," said John. "Aren't we?"

"Of course. But I think we both need some space. A buffer," Sherlock said. "This is so fragile, so delicate, and I'm desperate not to shatter it."

John just watched Sherlock, a sleepy frown on his face.

"I'll get you a glass of water. Get some rest," Sherlock said, and left the room, pausing just outside the door with his hands clenched into fists and his eyes squeezed closed, desperate to re-enter the room and take what he wanted: touch John, hold him, claim him.

By the time he'd returned with a glass of water, John was fast asleep. He placed the glass on the bedside table and quietly left the room.

Chapter Text

By the time John awoke, dressed and walked into the kitchen, it was nine in the evening. He passed the new mini-fridge under the kitchen window with a small frown and made his way to the kettle, switching it on with a yawn.

Sherlock paused where he was sat at the kitchen table with a case file, his eyes closed, listening to John moving behind him.

"Sleep well?" he asked.

"Mmm," John murmured. "Out like a light."

"We could order some food," Sherlock said.

"Stop it," John said.

"Stop what?"

"Being so normal," John said. "Be yourself. Be abrasive, rude, be honest."

"I don't understand."

"You're being so fucking nice to me. Cut it out."

Sherlock breathed out slowly.

"I don't know how else to be."

Sherlock heard John flick off the kettle prior to boiling and get down the bottle of Talisker from the top shelf of the cupboard, with two glasses.

"Sitting room," John ordered, his tone of voice leaving no doubt as to whether going to the sitting room was optional. "We're going to talk about this."

Sherlock moved to the darkened living room without another word, sat in his armchair, and watched as John poured two large glasses of whisky. John came into the living room, handed Sherlock one of the glasses and sat down.

John nodded at the fireplace.

"You've put the fire on," John said.

"You like an open fire."

John sighed softly and took a large sip of his whisky.

"This is the sort of thing I mean," John said. "You're being... you're being so good to me. It's weird. Letting me have your bed. Respecting my boundaries. Buying fridges. Making tea."

"Do you want me to go against what I feel and treat you poorly?" Sherlock said.

"No, that's not what I mean," John said. "It's like... you're walking on eggshells around me, like you expect me to explode at any moment or something."

"You were in a coma, John," Sherlock said softly. "I've never been so afraid."

John looked at Sherlock, frowning. Sherlock looked at the fire and took a mouthful of whisky.

"Snipers and hired killers, you said. Who was going to kill me?"

"A Czech sniper known as 'Bezcitný'," Sherlock murmured. "Means 'heartless'."

"Is he one of the 'loose ends' you tied up during your... time away?"

Sherlock's eyes glinted in the half-light of the sitting room.

"He was the first."

"Tell me."

"You don't want that."

"I do."

"You..." Sherlock paused for a long time. "I don't want to disappoint you."

"Sherlock," John said, sitting forward in his seat. "Just tell me."

Sherlock took a mouthful of whisky before starting to speak.

"I caught up with him in South America. He'd led me on a merry chase across four continents over the course of eight weeks. I'd thought I was close a couple of times, only to be foiled by booby traps and red herrings. I located him in a Sinaloa cartel compound in Guatemala."

Sherlock paused, a dangerous look in his eye as he recalled. John swallowed and sat back in his seat, waiting for him to continue.

"I bided my time, tailing him, unseen, undetected. I made my move when he visited a local brothel. Once he had... finished... and the professional of whose services he'd availed himself had left the room, I crept up behind and garotted him, almost severing his head."

He heard John’s sharp intake of breath and paused for a moment before looking at him. John’s expression was unreadable, his face closed-off.

"He'd taken me away from you, taken you away from me, and I lost control. And in the midst of the aftermath I thought of you. I thought of you saying, bit not good that, Sherlock, almost as though I'd internalised you. I knew you wouldn't approve and I knew it wouldn't bring me back to you, but in a strange way I felt close to you in that moment. I longed for you like never before."

He lowered his head and looked at John, at the firelight flickering across his face, at his parted lips, at his hand, tight on his glass of whisky.

"So, you see, when I said you wouldn't have liked to be with me..."

Sherlock trailed off, maintaining intense eye contact with John for a long moment before looking at the fire and taking a sip of his whisky. John cleared his throat quietly.

"I would have loved to be with you," John said, his voice low and rough.

"John."

"I meant what I said in the hospital."

"I didn't doubt you."

"I would never think less of you for feeling the same," John said quietly. "If we'd been together..."

Sherlock breathed out heavily.

"Words can't express how I missed you," Sherlock said softly.

"Try," John said.

Sherlock watched as John took a slow mouthful of his whisky.

"I can't, John."

John merely looked at him.

"There are no words for the feeling of being dead while being alive, moving through the world as a shadow, doing what needs to be done, and knowing that the one person who keeps you right would hate you if he knew."

John licked his lips quickly but remained silent.

"There aren't any words for the ache inside, mourning the loss of even the possibility of something more with you. For the absolute emotional devastation of knowing that even if I could come back to you, you might not want to know me anymore."

Sherlock set his glass on the arm of his chair.

"The agony of wanting you. Wanting to be with you, wanting you to have me, to take me. Wanting to consume you and be consumed. I wanted it before I fell, but in a gentle, slow-burning, searching way. Once I was away it was so much more than that. Writhing alone in hotel beds, touching myself in a way you would never, torturing myself with thoughts of you, of your body, of your love, of your lust."

John swallowed, clenching his jaw.

"A bone-deep hunger—excruciating, desperate, all-consuming," Sherlock said, his voice shaking. "And I still feel it, John, except now it's even worse because you're right here and I've tasted you."

John moved quickly, his whisky glass dropping to the floor and smashing against the fire's hearth as he swooped on Sherlock, slipping a hand into the hair at the back of his head and taking his lips in a fierce kiss. It was nothing like the kiss they'd shared in Reverie, no gentleness, no holding back, it was unbridled, violent—John licking into Sherlock's mouth, biting at his lips, hurting in his desperation to devour him.

Sherlock let out a lost groan, grabbing at John, pulling him closer, John straddling him on the chair, sending Sherlock's own whisky glass flying. John grabbed hold of the collar of Sherlock's shirt and pulled hard, tearing the front open, Sherlock gasping into his mouth.

Sherlock's shaking hands pushed John's woollen jumper up, breaking the kiss briefly to pull it off over John's head. He looked up at John's flushed face, at his pupil-filled eyes, panting for a moment, before hauling him back in for more rough, biting kisses.

John's hands smoothed over his chest, his fingertips teasing Sherlock's nipples before taking them in a hard pinch which had Sherlock arching into his touch, groaning into John's mouth, his eyes opening with shock.

"You like that, Sherlock?" John murmured against his mouth, twisting his grasp on Sherlock's sensitive skin.

"Oh god, John..."

"Mmm?" John breathed, then bit Sherlock's bottom lip.

Sherlock's hands went to John's hips, holding him still while he pushed his own hips up, grinding the hard evidence of his enjoyment against John's body. Unable to speak, he merely kissed John again, his eyes falling closed as John took control of the kiss, forcing his head back.

John unbuttoned his own shirt, shrugging out of it, Sherlock's hands automatically pushing under the vest top he wore underneath, rucking it up his chest. John shivered as Sherlock's fingertips stroked over his ribs.

John pulled back from the kiss again and tore his vest top off, over his head. Sherlock's eyes roamed over his chest, the patch of pale chest hair, the nipples the same colour as his lips, the scar tissue on his left shoulder, the sparse trail of hair leading down past his belly button...

"You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen," Sherlock breathed, completely unguarded, looking back up into John's eyes.

"That's my line," John said softly.

Sherlock shook his head, biting his bottom lip gently.

"If you had any idea how many times I've dreamed of this..."

John smiled a little.

"I created a whole world just for the possibility of this."

"Always trying to outdo me," Sherlock murmured.

"You haven't asked about us," John said. "Me and the other Sherlock."

"It's none of my business," Sherlock said, leaning in to brush his lips against the side of John's neck.

John grabbed Sherlock's hair, pulling his head back, Sherlock letting out a quiet hiss.

"You're not curious?"

"I saw the way he kissed you," Sherlock said. "I can extrapolate."

John released his hold on Sherlock's hair, his fingers stroking his scalp gently.

"I knew you weren't him," John said. "I knew the instant you kissed me."

"Oh?"

"Yeah," John said. "And then you disappeared and the hope... Oh Christ, it almost killed me."

"I thought... I didn't know it was the real you," Sherlock murmured.

"I figured. If you had?"

"I don't think I..." Sherlock shook his head. "I would never have thought the real you would want that. I thought my own wants had corrupted it somehow."

"So you wouldn't have told me—"

"Oh god no," Sherlock said quickly. "Not in a million years."

"Tell me now," John said, his fingers tightening in the back of Sherlock's hair again.

"John," Sherlock said softly. "I love you."

"Damn right you do," John breathed, then kissed Sherlock hard.

Sherlock held John tight, lifting him and moving from the armchair to the sitting room floor, pressing John into the rug, without breaking the kiss. John's legs were still parted around his hips and he groaned loudly into the kiss as Sherlock thrust against him.

John broke the kiss, staring up at Sherlock, wide-eyed and panting.

"Sherlock..?"

"Mmm," Sherlock murmured, nipping at John's lower lip.

"The other one..." John said. "He'd never—"

"Oh John," Sherlock said with a small, dirty smile, grinding his hips against John's as he shrugged out of his ruined shirt. "You got some things about me so... very... wrong. As ever, you see but do not observe."

"Oh?"

"Celibate since I met you, but not so before that."

"I did find that box of toys under your bed," John breathed.

"And?"

"And once I got past the initial mortification, knowing you'd had a sexual side brought out a whole new level of regret for me."

"No time for regret now," Sherlock said, breathing the words against John's ear, delighting in the shiver they caused. "Only action."

"What do you want?" John breathed, grabbing at Sherlock's arse, pulling their hips together.

"I want whatever you want," Sherlock breathed, then licked the side of John's neck, groaning at the taste of his skin.

John paused, going quiet.

"John?" Sherlock said softly, tensing.

"This isn't you making amends, Sherlock," John said softly against his skin. "It's us making love."

"Not with our trousers on, it isn't," Sherlock breathed, then nipped a line of small, gentle bites down the side of John's neck.

Once he started, he couldn't stop. The trail of bites led down John's shoulder, down over his chest, John inhaling sharply as Sherlock's teeth rasped a nipple, pausing to suck and lick and tease, then biting and licking over the trail of hair leading down. John's breathing was coming in gasps, his hips writhing under Sherlock, Sherlock's large hands pinning him to the floor.

"Fucking hell, it wasn't like this..." John groaned out.

Sherlock allowed himself a smug smile as he unbuttoned John's jeans, looking up at him, John lifting his head to stare down.

"No?" Sherlock murmured, his voice low.

"God, no," John groaned as Sherlock dipped his head to lick at the skin exposed by his hand dragging John's zip slowly down.

"Mmm..." Sherlock breathed into the gap in John's jeans. "You smell delicious..."

"Oh god. Sherlock..."

Sherlock looked up at John as he dragged down his jeans and pants, freeing a cock so hard Sherlock was surprised John hadn't come already.

"This is what I want, John," Sherlock breathed against the shaft, still looking up at him. "You, desperate for my mouth, writhing under me, begging me, whimpering my name..."

He licked once up the shaft, John reacting like he'd been electrocuted, crying out.

"I want you like this forever," Sherlock said. "I've always wanted you like this. I will always want you like this."

"Sherlock, please..."

"Yes, John," Sherlock breathed, "Oh god yes..."

"Oh you bastard," John breathed, finally realising what Sherlock really wanted.

Sherlock grinned madly as John took his cock in his hand and reached for his hair with the other, tangling his fingers in dark curls as he brought Sherlock's open mouth down on his iron hard cock. Sherlock groaned as John filled his mouth, the texture, the taste, the smell, the sounds he made, more intoxicating than any drug. Sherlock bobbed his head slowly, savouring the cock in his mouth, moaning and looking up at John.

All too soon, John was pulling him off, Sherlock fighting against John's grip, hissing as John pulled his hair harder, his body feeling energised by the struggle.

"Sherlock, I'm about thirty seconds away from coming."

"Fifteen," Sherlock corrected, licking out at John's cock.

"I want you to fuck me," John groaned out, too far gone to use any flowery euphemisms.

"Really?"

"He wouldn't," John breathed. "I need it."

"We need lubricant," Sherlock breathed. "Prophylactics."

"I need your cock in me now," John whispered urgently. "Get it done. I don't care how."

Sherlock quickly got to his feet, going to his bedroom and dragging the dusty box from beneath his bed. He took out a bottle of lubricant and a box of condoms and walked back to John as fast as he could with an uncomfortably bouncing erection.

He almost fell over his own feet when he neared John and found him shamelessly palming his erection, lying in the middle of the sitting room, groaning with abandon.

"If you come before I'm inside you, John, I won't be best pleased," Sherlock rumbled, taking out a strip of condoms and dropping the box. He unbuttoned his suit trousers one-handed, letting them drop to the floor.

"You always go commando?" John breathed, kicking his jeans the rest of the way off.

"Always," Sherlock murmured. "Pant lines ruin my suit."

He moved to kneel between John's thighs once more. He opened a condom with his teeth and rolled it onto his cock with a light touch, John openly staring. Then Sherlock frowned and looked down. The condom had broken, just the ring remaining around the base of his shaft and a flap of torn latex hanging like a ruined flag. Sherlock made a noise of annoyance.

"Something wrong?" John said.

"One moment," Sherlock breathed, irked.

He rolled the broken condom off and opened another packet, rolled a fresh condom onto his cock. He then swore under his breath as the same thing happened again. Sherlock growled in frustration and grabbed the box, looking at the expiry. He closed his eyes and breathed out slowly, trying to lessen his disappointment.

"Sherlock?"

"Expired," Sherlock bit out as he removed the broken condom. "Some time ago. It's been... a while since I've had occasion to use these."

"Oh shit," John said.

"Yes. I'll... I'll get dressed, I'll go to the shop."

"You fucking won't."

"John," Sherlock said. "Please don't change your mind."

"I'm not. I told you I don't care how..."

"John."

John stared up at Sherlock, stroking his cock, running his other hand over his stomach, presenting such a temptation that Sherlock groaned, feeling tortured in holding back.

"You're a doctor, John," Sherlock breathed without a trace of conviction, his eyes running greedily over John's body. "This is very irresponsible."

"For fuck's sake, Sherlock, so help me god," John gasped, stroking his cock faster, "if you don't get a fucking move on I'll go and raid your box and fuck myself right in front of you."

"If you think I didn't notice you've already raided my collection," Sherlock murmured, "you're mistaken."

"You weren't using them," John murmured, slipping his free hand down past the side of his hip, pulling his right leg up, exposing himself in a way that had Sherlock digging his fingernails into his thighs. "Seemed a shame. And you did leave me everything in your will."

John watched Sherlock through half-lidded eyes as his fingertips trailed over his arse cheek. Sherlock paused, speechless and mesmerised, watching John. John rubbed two fingertips against his perineum, then started trailing slowly down.

"Sherlock," John breathed, "please, I need you. I need you to fill me up."

Sherlock shook his head slightly and reached for the bottle of lubricant, almost sending it flying in his eagerness. He squeezed more than he intended onto the tip of his cock, breathing out slowly as the cool gel started trickling down his hot skin. He put the bottle aside and stroked the liquid down his shaft, letting out a shivery breath. He then moved his fingertips to between John's parted legs, seeking and finding his target quickly. John breathed out heavily as Sherlock pressed against his entrance with a fingertip.

"Yes yes yes, please..."

They both groaned softly as Sherlock's fingertip breached John's tight, hot body. He immediately rocked his hips, trying to take the invading digit deeper.

"More lube," John breathed. "Get me nice and wet..."

"Is that how you like it?" Sherlock murmured, reaching for the bottle and squeezing more of the fluid onto his finger before pushing it back inside. "Is that how you like it when you use my toys?"

"Mmm," John breathed, shuffling down on the rug, forcing Sherlock's finger deeper. "Sherlock, c'mon... I've waited long enough..."

"I can't wait any longer, John," Sherlock breathed, shuffling forward and replacing his finger with his cock, pushing gently at John's entrance.

John breathed out heavily, his hips rocking, controlling how and when Sherlock pushed against him. His eyes squeezed closed and he stilled as the head of Sherlock's cock breached him.

"Fuck," John breathed. "Oh fuck. Fuck me. Jesus."

Sherlock stayed still and quiet, resisting his instinct to thrust and thrust and bury himself deeper within the delicious heat clamping the end of his cock. He let out a helpless groan as John's body clenched with a shudder, squeezing his cock for only a moment before it was forced out.

"Sorry," John breathed, "sorry sorry sorry."

"It's all right," Sherlock breathed, already lining up and pushing back inside.

"More, Sherlock," John breathed, "I can take more, fuck, I want more, I just can't make my body move."

"It's all right, John, you're all right," Sherlock breathed as he rolled his hips, very slowly, incrementally pushing further inside. "You're so tight for me, John. So tight I can barely stay inside you. So hot for me, so beautiful..."

"Oh," John breathed as Sherlock inched inside him. "Ohh god... Ohhh fuck..."

Sherlock's hands moved to John's hips, taking hold, thrusting deeper, still slowly. John whimpered as he blindly covered Sherlock's hands with his own, his eyes squeezed closed, his angry-hard cock forgotten for the moment, leaking on his flat tummy.

Sherlock's eyes roamed all over John's body, taking in the play of flickering firelight and shadow, the creases of his brow. As he watched, John reached up, grabbing at the leg of the desk, and pushed down, taking Sherlock's cock to the hilt with a long low groan.

Sherlock bit his bottom lip as hard as he could, fighting to keep his hips still as John breathed through the burn.

"You're inside me," John breathed, staring up at him with eyes shining in the fire's glow. "You're really here."

Sherlock slowly pulled back, then thrust forward, filling John, staring at his face to watch the flickering pain/pleasure playing out on his expressive features.

"I'm really here," he breathed. "Oh god, John, I'm so deep in you."

John reached up, grabbed the back of Sherlock's neck and pulled him down, just looking into his eyes as they rocked together. Sherlock kept his eyes on John's, pulling out a little further each time before thrusting back in. He pressed his forehead against John's, their lips brushing but not catching, both of them lost in the rhythm of their coupling.

Sherlock slipped a hand between their bodies, taking John's cock into his hand. John shivered, clenching tight around Sherlock's cock, and took Sherlock's lips in a fierce kiss.

That was when Sherlock lost control, everything he'd ever hoped, dreamed, wanted, needed, right in front of him, all around him—John opening up to him, taking him inside, incandescently beautiful in his arousal, in his desire, in his surrender. Sherlock let out a low groan and thrust harder, burying himself in John over and over, stroking John's cock, revelling in the sounds he dragged from John's throat, swallowing them in his kiss.

John broke the kiss, tensing, arching under him, staring up at Sherlock as he dragged him to the edge, then writhing, his body jerking as he was pushed, dragged over, Sherlock breathing his name as he watched him come, made him come. Sherlock's own orgasm blasted through him as John clamped down on his cock, both of them crying out harshly as the delicate, fragile thing that had been building between them solidified into something strong and real, something tangible.

"Oh my fucking god, jesus, Sherlock, I fucking love you," John breathed fiercely against Sherlock's open mouth, panting out the words, Sherlock breathing them in, absorbing them, making them a part of himself. "Don't you ever leave me again. Do you hear me? Never again."

"Never again, John," Sherlock breathed. "Never."

John slipped his arms around Sherlock's neck, holding him close, burying his face against Sherlock's jaw. He was shaking as he held on for dear life. Sherlock pressed soft kisses down the side of his neck, breathing gentle words of devotion into his flesh. Promises of forever, and of love, and of a desire so deep it burned, all uttered as they rocked together, joined.

With reluctance, Sherlock withdrew from John when the intrusion became uncomfortable. He lay next to John, slipping an arm under his neck, holding him on the rug in front of the fire, needing to stay close. John clutched Sherlock to him, breathing heavily, his eyes squeezed closed.

"John?" Sherlock murmured.

"I'm all right," John breathed. "Just a bit overwhelmed."

Sherlock took John's hand in his and squeezed it gently before bringing it to his mouth, kissing his fingers. John watched, his lips parted, still panting.

"It's so strange," John said.

"I can't imagine," Sherlock whispered.

"The two of you were so similar in so many ways," John said, "but so different in others."

"How so?"

"Well, the virgin thing, which I'm a bit embarrassed about to be honest," John said softly. "I assumed and I guess that manifested somehow."

"I never corrected that assumption," Sherlock murmured. "It wasn't unreasonable."

"You're so much more open than he was," John said. "More emotional. Less cold."

Sherlock breathed out slowly.

"I suppose the facsimile was based on me as I appear to the outside world to an extent. The Reverie system takes data from social media, from blogs, from news, from websites, and... the person I am online is different to the person I am with you," Sherlock said. "Or the person I want to be when I'm with you. The person I am now has had eighteen months' experience in missing you, and appreciates you all the more for it. The Sherlock in Reverie... I expect he reacted the way you believed he would and I'm sorry you thought I felt less for you than I do."

"I didn't dare to hope," John said. "I didn't even mention it until Mara pushed me. I was just so glad to be with you, even though I knew you weren't real, even if we were just friends, even if it meant I'd be pining after you forever. The weird part was when he deduced he wasn't real, though. That was a bizarre conversation."

Sherlock smiled a little, quietly proud of the simulated version of himself.

"Narcissist," John muttered, smiling a little, seeing right through him.

"He might actually be sentient," Sherlock mused. "I'd be interested to find out."

"No experiments on my ex," John said, laughing.

Sherlock smiled, squeezing John closer, happy to have made him laugh, to have put him at ease.

"C'mon," John murmured, slapping Sherlock's hip gently. "Sleeping on the floor will definitely fuck your back. And shagging on it might have already fucked mine."

Sherlock moved to sit up, looking down at John.

John sat up, made a face and murmured, "Let's go get cleaned up."

"Of course," Sherlock said softly.

Sherlock stood and held his hands out to John, helping him to his feet.

"Still not an invalid," John muttered.

"I know," Sherlock said. "Just a malingerer."

"Cheeky."

John slapped Sherlock's arse gently and walked off toward the bathroom. Sherlock followed, revelling in seeing John stark naked, walking around like that was something they did all the time. Once they were cleaned up, John went into the bedroom and Sherlock went via the kitchen to get John a glass of water.

When he walked back into his bedroom, John was in his bed. Naked. Post-coital. Smiling. Beckoning him. Loving him. It was so much like the Reverie it was almost surreal, but this time he knew—this was his John. Really his John now.

Sherlock slipped into the bed beside John, their two bodies fitting together in an embrace like puzzle pieces slotting together.

Finally, Sherlock was home.

 

The End