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John’s life was filled with ironies since he’d come back from Afghanistan.

Thinking back on that afternoon, he realised something profound as he had sat on the sofa, watching John Nettles solve another case in this supposedly sleepy village of Midsommer. Sherlock Holmes was curled beside him, stilt-legs tucked beneath him, eyes closed and breathing deeply. The detective had finally dropped off in exhaustion, having worked not only on hunting down Moriarty but also on deciphering John, trying to unravel the mystery behind his sudden change in attitude. Now, his head lay on John’s shoulder, a tangled mass of curls tickling John’s cheek pleasantly and the cool feel of that long fingered hand still on top of his own. When John tilted his head ever so hesitantly so it rested against Sherlock’s own, he’d had a revelation.

John Watson had fallen undeniably and irreversibly for Sherlock Holmes. And it was undoubtedly going to get them killed.

Of course, he’d known for a while now that his affection for Sherlock went above and beyond fascination and awe. He’d felt great respect and admiration for soldiers he’d met and worked with in Afghanistan; but it always faded away after a while because people could never be perfect. Sherlock had at once shown himself to be brilliant but also flawed and he had to respect someone who was aware of this and even flaunted it. It was that infuriating indifference that attracted John, an unashamed mixture of genius and megalomania; prone to flashes of action and subdued melancholy like a swinging pendulum.

An interesting dynamic you have, Moriarty had said to him, one hand on his back as they entered the swimming pool. Considering, he certainly doesn’t feel for you the same way you feel for him. Sherlock Holmes cannot love…he just tolerates on different levels.

However, Moriarty had helped as well. He remembered how the man’s dark car pulled up beside him and encouraged him inside. For a while, John had thought it was yet another attempt by the older Holmes to plunge him into a John le Carre novel by trying to extract information from him. It soon became apparent, however, by the sinister atmosphere in the car that he might actually be in danger.

I’m sorry I failed to notice you before, Doctor Watson. It’s just that you’re so mediocre, I almost overlooked your value, was the first thing Moriarty had said when the door beside him opened and a long sniper gun was pointed in his direction. Please follow me.

And there had begun the longest hour or John’s life. Longer than the days in Afghanistan when there was nothing to do. Longer than the time it took for Murray to drag him away to safety after he was shot. Longer than the recuperation period after his surgery. He didn’t respond to any of Moriarty’s comments; just let the mastermind make his observations in a voice high on derangement. He had listened as Moriarty examined him, picking his personality apart piece by piece.

You don’t see it because you aren’t looking for it – or maybe you’re afraid of the rejection – but you have some hold over him.

That’s all Moriarty wanted, really. That’s what this spectacle at the swimming pool had been designed for…to use John as a test-case for Sherlock’s emotions. To uncover how deep his appreciation for John really went.

John would never say acting was his strong point.

You could always use Sherlock’s bizarre affection for you as an advantage.

He had looked at Moriarty, puzzled by this comment as the bomb was strapped to him, a jacket cheap in material but expensive in decoration. The man spun him around dramatically, seemingly unconcerned at being close to John’s chest. He zipped the coat up from bottom to top slowly, delicately, and if John wasn’t imagining it, provocatively. He could hear his heart hammering in his chest with every movement of Moriarty’s immaculate fingers. Stepping forward, the man invaded John’s personal space, pulled John’s collar, as if straightening it out to make him look presentable. So close he stood that John could feel his breath on his face, smell that ridiculously expensive but repugnant cologne and see the snake-like smile twitch on his face. Moriarty’s hands reached his shoulders, his cold fingertips gently scraping against John’s neck. It was so sickeningly vulgar that John jerked his head away.

Moriarty smirked at John’s movement but took a step back.

Or better yet, my little pawn, I’ll use it to mine.

He knew what was being asked of him. Moriarty wasn’t going to kill them now. He just wanted to scope them out; see how he could manipulate their increasing connection to each other. This was John’s new role.

In every nightmare that John experienced since that night, he always woke up at that moment. When Moriarty’s high-pitched threat reverberated in his ears like a demented child’s…I’ll use it to mine.

When he’d been released from hospital, he was temporarily convinced Moriarty’s observations on his and Sherlock’s relationship were incorrect. After all, the infuriating detective hadn’t visited him in hospital or tended to his concussion. Sherlock didn’t care; he used John in ways no different to how Moriarty did. For convenience. If John avoided both of them, maybe he could fulfil no purpose at all, even if it killed him to think of himself that way.

Have you ever wondered, Johnny-boy, why Sherlock keeps you around? I mean you aren’t a soldier anymore and barely a doctor. And judging by your silence, hardly stimulating conversation. It must be hard going from something to nothing. Because, really, I’m curious, what do you do?

It was what John had been desperately trying to ignore until Moriarty’s text came a few days after his hospital release:

 

Do we have a deal, John, darling?
It would be a loss to the world if Sherlock died because you couldn’t protect him.

 

Against his own wishes, his body rebelled and John found himself scrambling to the bathroom, phone still clutched in his shaking hand, to retch into the sink. He was, after all, still suffering from morphine withdrawal, concussion and a flaming back.

It was pure manipulation, John wasn’t stupid. But the man was right. Sherlock was too important and he cared for the man far too much to let him be chased into hell by Moriarty.

It hurt him to know that Sherlock couldn’t feel the same level of physical and emotional attachment and probably wouldn’t do the same for him; it was even more painful, as he looked back on the Moriarty debacle, that he was nothing more than a convenient device for both geniuses.

Don’t let Moriarty manipulate you the same way he can me, Sherlock had said to him. Too late for that.

As he searched vainly for a towel to wipe his mouth and his sweating forehead, and sat shivering from the aftermath on the bathroom floor, he came to his own conclusion. It was down to him to somehow save Sherlock from himself.

*

“This girl,” Lestrade said, slamming down a file on the kitchen table of 221b Baker Street a few days later as John came down from his bedroom. “Anona Kerry. We think she witnessed the murder of a man called Ronald Adair last night. She’s since disappeared, didn’t turn up to work this morning.”

John raised his eyebrows as he looked over file with the picture of a beautiful young dark-haired girl on it. “Do you think she’s dead or just on the run?”

Sherlock turned with his hands linked behind his back, a picture of dignity. “More importantly, do you think this is the work of Moriarty?”

Lestrade’s eyes flickered over to John and he shrugged in response. “You tell me. I have my suspicions; however, I don’t want to pressure you if you’re heeding Moriarty’s warning to back off.”

Lestrade was cautious in his recruitment, John noted, taking the report of the incident at the swimming pool seriously.

John remained deadpanned as Sherlock’s eyes flickered over to him now, as if assessing his reaction. With pursed lips and hesitation, Sherlock displayed an obvious struggle within as he decided whether to continue the puzzle, despite the danger it could present to both of them, or avoid it entirely by using the information they already had. In a situation which would never have stalled Sherlock, John realised the detective’s desire to protect him had indeed changed his attitude.

Less impulsive; more cautious.

Sherlock eventually replied quietly, “I always need more data. And given the accuracy of the shot that killed Ronald Adair, it’s the same sniper gun at the very least. Moriarty is behind it.” He smiled despite himself. “However, with this girl…he made a mistake; we have to capitalise on it.”

With a disappointed sigh, John handed over the files. He raised his eyes to meet Sherlock’s and could see, as only he could, the hint of apology in them.

So John flopped down on the sofa, his mind racing with Moriarty’s threat and wondering what on earth Lestrade was playing at, offering Sherlock this temptation.

“Ronald Adair,” Lestrade continued, slightly uncomfortable. No one could call him unobservant. “Killed by a shot to the back of the head at the Bagatelle Club. Pretty grisly. No forced entry, no sign of entrance or exit into his room or out of the window. So far no suspect or motive…”

“And Anona Kerry?” Sherlock interrupted.

Lestrade sighed in frustration and flipped through his notebook. “23 years old. Waitress in the tea rooms across the street. Never been late or ill for work, didn’t turn up this morning.”

John couldn’t help but think – which meant Sherlock already had – that it all sounded rather tame by Moriarty’s standards.

 

*

It had been an exhausting day. Sherlock had dragged him to the Bagatelle Club but they had been refused entry. No amount of charismatic charm or elegant lies on Sherlock’s part could have gained them access. All they were able to obtain from the sullen doorman was that Ronald Adair was a prestigious accountant and a good, strategic player. The man seemed to have no family or enemies.

Tracking down Anona Kerry was as hard. Daughter of a dysfunctional family, they had no idea where she was. Boyfriend after boyfriend could provide no help. Her friends who worked with her at the restaurant opposite the Bagatelle Club assured them that Anona needed the money; she wouldn’t have missed work for any reason. Even Sherlock Holmes could not find a needle in the haystack of London with so little to go on.

Times like this, John reminded himself, as Sherlock returned to the files Lestrade gave him, that Sherlock was a good person. Sherlock hated such arbitrary categorisations such as ‘good’ and ‘evil’ but sometimes they were necessary. Otherwise, how could he distinguish Sherlock from Moriarty?

John had long since realised that the motives behind Sherlock’s actions were not significant. His drive was relentless. He may only be doing it for his own mental stimulation but he was trying to solve them. Not perpetrate crimes or cover them up.

It made what John had to do even worse.

*

[The first time, John was given the perfect set-up.]

He was slowly stirring his tea in the kitchen when Sherlock called him over. Sitting down next to Sherlock, he looked over the papers Sherlock had amassed on Ronald Adair and Anona Kerry from the police, friends and co-workers. It was pitifully small.

Perhaps Sherlock didn’t notice but John did…how Sherlock was allowing John to touch him all the time. When they sat, it was close together, pressed against each other’s sides or legs connected; when they walked it was also close, hands brushing together occasionally. Sherlock grabbed John’s hand to pull him aside when he felt it wasn’t safe; John put his hands on Sherlock’s shoulders when he felt the detective needed to calm his mind.

Once, he took John’s arm as the doctor was sipping his tea and staring out at the street view to move him away from the window. Hands gripped his upper arms tightly. “Don’t go near the window,” Sherlock had insisted, a stern order issued in a hoarse voice, a brief look of panic flittering across his face. He had been loathe, even in the relative safety of their own flat, to let John go for some time. Even his workload was migrating into John’s room.

It was only because Sherlock was that dense, he couldn’t notice the effect this – well, inadvertent teasing, essentially – had on John.

“He’s very connected,” Sherlock said almost to himself, resting his fingers against his lips.

“So are you,” John contended, failing to see the logic.

“In different ways,” was the snappy response. “I use the vast network provided by the underground. The homeless, mainly, and they’re on the lookout for Anona Kerry right now. Moriarty’s main sources are those of money, fame and power. People who can wield influence. Equally as effective but far more conspicuous. More difficult to bring down.”

John shrugged, sipping at his tea. “Yet…not so conspicuous that Mycroft would notice.”

“Precisely,” Sherlock agreed, resting his chin on his hand and picking up the Darjeeling John had made for him. “A prestigious club like the Bagatelle would have required membership, an esteemed list. Maybe Moriarty belongs to it, but if he doesn’t like to get his hands dirty, then someone else affiliated to Moriarty belongs to it as well and carried out the murder. Someone very well connected.”

Shaking his head to bring himself out of his reverie, Sherlock put on a game face. “It’s vital that we find Anona Kerry. If she can identify that person, we have a start. Then all this,” he said, pointing at his elaborate maze of papered connections he had accumulated over the weeks, “will slot into place and follow on from each other.”

John had to make it appear completely innocent as he leant over Sherlock’s crossed legs to pick up the folder Lestrade had left. And as he moved, his knee connected with Sherlock’s tea, toppling it over and sending the lukewarm liquid all over the information and seeping into the carpet.

Immediately, Sherlock cried out, rising to his knees to try and save the cheap, thin paper. When it was apparent that the notes were lost, the scribbling blurred together, he rounded on John in frustration. “You idiot! That was everything we had!” he cried, jumping up, pacing in front of the sofa in distress.

“I’m sorry. Sherlock, it was an accident,” John said, almost tasting the sourness of the lie in his mouth.

Sherlock stared at nothing for a few moments, those steely eyes flashing in annoyance. Then he grabbed his coat and walked out of the flat, slamming the door after thumping down the stairs.

John sat for a few moments in the thick silence of the flat, mourning the loss of Sherlock’s companionship and warmth. If he ignored Sherlock’s resulting anger, it was comforting how much trust Sherlock placed in him that he never suspected. It was painful how much John could abuse it.

With a heavy sigh, John got up, pulled out the memory stick from his laptop and Sherlock’s camera, which had been abandoned in the corner from the last time it was used. Sherlock would be gone for a while, allowing the madness of London to wash over him, soothing and stimulating his mind.

Plenty of time for John to carry out his orders.

*

I would have thought with your prior role as a soldier, you would have been very good at taking orders from superiors.

Orders…John was good at following orders.

A good little soldier boy, aren’t you, Doctor Watson, even when discharged, Moriarty had mocked him. I do like men in uniform…so responsive to demands.

But just because he followed Sherlock around and waited patiently whilst the man presented his brilliant deductions before sending him off on an errand, that didn’t make him a pushover.

And just because Moriarty was threatening him by threatening Sherlock, that didn’t make him weak.

*

[The second time, he was thinking on his feet.]

He was running through Wapping, hearing the wet sound of his heavy soled shoes slapping against the cobbled stones. They had been watching the Bagatelle for about two hours and by then John was cold and tired and slightly miserable.

When Sherlock had stormed out of the house to allow his mind to relax, he had come to the conclusion that the shooter must have been in the building opposite the Bagatelle Club. It was conveniently empty and the perfect place to target Ronald Adair.

Now they were chasing the man Sherlock spotted coming out of the club, with an obviously huge bulge under his long coat. Not an ordinary hand gun; a sniper rifle. He’d run as soon as he noticed someone was following him and Sherlock, with his long legs and nimble frame was giving chase. John followed at a slighter slower pace.

Along Wapping High Street they ran, the darkened figure up ahead. He ducked into a side street, heading towards the river and they followed, passing the old meatpacking district and converted warehouse apartments.

John did what he did best at the moment. He hindered. He allowed his foot to slip on the Old Stars, crashing tumbling down them and crashing into the ground with more force than he had intended. It was enough to knock the wind out of him and he lay for a moment, hands splayed on the wet ground, catching his breath.

Further on, he knew Sherlock had stopped; heard his footsteps slow to a halt as he debated whether to continue running or to check on John. It was the dilemma that John had inadvertently placed on Sherlock by entering his life, the one he could twist in his favour.

Does it worry you? John had asked him, worry him that he had started to care.

Would you be disappointed if I said I was?

“Are you all right?” Sherlock voice suddenly appeared next to him, in that same worried voice he heard when unzipped the bomb from John’s chest. He knelt beside John, hands hovering over John but not touching, as if he was too afraid but still looking up the alley.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” John answered, putting a hand to his head. “Go!”

John knew by now that it was too late and the mystery man was gone, lost amongst the infrastructure of the river’s edge. Still, Sherlock would try. With a lingering glance at John, he ran off, using his intimate knowledge of London’s road network to guess where the man could have gone.

John sighed, sitting up and placing his hands on the wet and muddied cobbled stones, wondering how much damage he’d inadvertently done to his body. His hand came into contact with something cold and metallic so, curiously, he picked it up.

A medal. Too clean to have been there very long. In fact, John suddenly realised, it must have been dropped by their murderer.

Kosovo stripes. John recognised their pattern – a dark blue ribbon with white edges and a white central stripe – given to those who had served as NATO’s ground troops during the Balkan crisis.

Moriarty’s main sources are those of money, fame and power. People who can wield influence.

The army, John knew, was a fantastic connection.

*

One of Sherlock’s young homeless boys knocked on the door next day to say he’d found the girl they were looking for. He’d found her dead in the cold, grey hour of 3pm in Regent’s Park.

From his ‘privileged’ position with Sherlock inside the police tape, John watched like a mourner as they photographed Anona and placed her body in a bag. Her hair was still beautifully brown; her skin was ashen and blue, piercing eyes staring at nothing. A perfected break of a neck had, thankfully, ensured her end was swift and painless.

John bit his lip and tried not to be over-emotional at such a wasted loss of life. She hadn’t deserved to die.

All he could think of was that his culpability in Anona’s death was as great as Moriarty and his henchman. It was his fault. Sherlock could have found her; he could have saved her, even if he didn’t see it that way. Yet John had done nothing but deliberately place stumbling blocks in Sherlock’s path, as Moriarty had instructed. He’d placed Sherlock’s life above anyone else’s.

Now a girl was dead.

“Too late,” Sherlock muttered in anger beside him. “Too late to be of any use. And I doubt he left anything useful on her.” With detached determination, he went over to Lestrade, interrupting so he could examine the body and find something – anything – that could help him.

Of course to Sherlock, it wasn’t the loss of life that mattered. It was the loss of such a vital puzzle piece.

John couldn’t look at her anymore, though. She brought the betrayal home; watching Sherlock investigate her impassively was worse.

Quietly, he ducked under the tape and walked away, trapped in a bubble of despair. He was unaware of the cars passing him by or the people on the streets. He couldn’t even feel the cold. His brain was trying to process the wonderful irony of how he’d gone from protecting people, to inadvertently killing them.

Desperately scrambling for some sense of morality in this situation, John found himself at south bank, leaning on a wall a little way off from the London Eye, looking over the Thames to Parliament. Rubbing a hand over his face, he tried to keep his emotions at bay, wondering if he was going to break down on a public street.

He didn’t know how long he stood at the edge of the river, trying to hold his mind together. He stood, elbows resting on the cold cement, keeping him up as the guilt weighed him down physically and mentally.

Sherlock did eventually find him as the sun began to set, darkening the sky around them. Tourists and visitors were leaving the bank and John could barely make out the river.

“GPS tracker,” Sherlock informed, even though John hadn’t asked, hadn’t even reacted to Sherlock’s presence beside him. “I took the liberty of downloading an app from your iPhone, just in case.”

Sherlock stopped a little way off from him, arms folded and leaning his hip against the wall. “You’re upset about the girl,” he noted quietly, narrowing his eyes, scrutinizing John in that way he hated. That to care about the people involved was not a worthwhile pursuit. What made him so special to Sherlock?

He wishes it was that simple. So he doesn’t even respond. Just rubs his hands together and bounces gently on the soles of his feet to stave off the cold seeping into his skin.

“She was so young,” he finally murmured. He sniffed, took a shaky deep breath and continued to look entranced at the opaque muddy waters of the Thames, swirling majestically past him.

“Would it have mattered if she was old? Would you have reacted the same?” Sherlock instantly remarked, his mind programmed to release such logical observations.

John could only turn to look at him disparagingly, too weakened to engage in an argument over Sherlock’s lack of empathy. He thought he saw regret flash across Sherlock’s face but unable to actually apologise, the detective simply looked out across the river, chin high but lips thin.

Instead, John turned away. It was always his instinctual reaction in situations where his emotions threatened to diminish the strength of the argument. He felt anger, guilt and hurt swirling inside him in one giant, unpredictable melting pot. His chest was hitching and his eyes were stinging. As usual, against Sherlock, he was powerless.

He couldn’t do this any longer; if he didn’t leave now, he’d have to tell Sherlock, whatever the consequences. John was incapable of living such a lie.

However, before he could say anything, Sherlock’s heavy boots thumped towards him. He was spun around and – before John could react – Sherlock wrapped him his arms around him to pull him close. Despite all inclinations for John to pull away (because to accept such comfort was the epitome of weakness) he knew he craved the touch and reassurance that Sherlock Holmes, of all the people, was providing. Someone who didn’t know what he was being forced to do. He melted into the embrace, resting his forehead on Sherlock’s chest.

“He’ll be watching,” John whispered shakily, after a few moments, his voice muffled by the thick wool of Sherlock’s coat.

“I know, that body was left close to Baker Street as a message to me,” Sherlock replied, his grip tightening. One of his long hands, splayed across John’s upper back, moved to tangle in John’s short hair, gripping slightly too tight. “But I don’t care.”

John missed the warmth and intimacy of Sherlock’s embrace when the taller man finally pulled away. Yet he was to be further surprised when Sherlock’s hands came up cupping both of John’s cheeks, warm leather heating the skin. And, after a moment’s hesitation, Sherlock swooped down and captured John’s lips with his own cold and slightly chapped ones, softly. For a few moments, they both stood there, lips locked, mouths closed, and barely moving. Sherlock’s thumbs were rubbing his cheeks and John’s hands were gripping the lapels of Sherlock’s coat with tight grip, as if holding on for dear life.

It was hesitant, slightly clumsy, but that didn’t detract from the wonder of it.

John felt as though the bubble had burst from around him. When he opened his mouth to kiss deeper, he no longer felt cold, detached and isolated from the world. The feeling of living in a parallel world, where he moved nowhere as the world whizzed past him, was finally ebbing.

Sherlock may not appreciate that someone so full of potential had died. But if he understood that John did then maybe, the doctor thought, that was enough.

And when they finally parted, panting slightly and staring at each other, John couldn’t help but smile with undisguised elation. Sherlock, who had been breathing heavily in trepidation that John never thought he would see, relaxed and smiled back. It was the first time John had been in Sherlock’s presence without thinking of how Moriarty would burn the heart of Sherlock.

And it was the closest to a declaration of love John would ever receive from Sherlock. He was showing Moriarty he was right. That Sherlock did feel more than friendship for him and wasn’t afraid to display it; but that made it ever harder to refuse Moriarty’s threats by implying it didn’t exist.

*

It was the irony of being a soldier: the inevitability of developing close bonds with the people with whom you fought side by side, who you protected and loved like a brother; it made it that much harder to deal with the loss when they were suddenly taken by violent means.

John had experienced this far too often for Sherlock Holmes to be another addition to his list of grief. Another private day of mourning for the sparse calendar. At least this time, he thought as he sat in the taxi trundling back to Baker Street, Sherlock’s arm around his shoulders, pulling him close and keeping him warm, bringing him out of his shock…this time, he could actually prevent it.

*

At first John thought it was Sherlock creeping up behind him but when he heard that deranged ‘boo’ huffed out next to his earlobe, he dropped his fork, which clattered onto his plate.

“I see he’s taken the collar off you,” Moriarty commented, chuckling as he slid into the seat opposite John in the café. “Or are you being a bit naughty? If you were my sidekick, I’d train you properly.” He winked at John in a despicable way.

John didn’t react at all. He stared steadfast at Moriarty and then continued tucking into his sausage and eggs. Moriarty crossed his legs and leant forward as if they were two people about to have a gossip.

“You know, I was only speculating when I discussed this with you at the pool about you and Sherlock. I suspected that maybe, maybe, there was something more to you, John Watson, for Sherlock to make an acceptation. Because you are rather unspectacular.”

“Thank you,” John answered. “So are you, Jim.”

Moriarty’s eyes flickered for a second but then he forced a smile. “You both showed your hands, you know, when you grabbed me. You showed me that you would do anything to keep Sherlock safe but I already figured that. Now Sherlock Holmes…he showed how much deep his love for you goes. He didn’t run. And judging by that beautiful scene at the river yesterday I was right, you’ve finally admitted it to each other.” He clapped his hands in glee. “I do so love playing matchmaker. Especially when it’s doomed.”

John put down his fork and stared dispassionately at Moriarty. “You know, Sherlock’s on his way here, so say whatever you want and leave.”

He watched as Moriarty’s jaw tensed, that tell-tale sign that his amusement had faded. “I had hope for his sake, Doctor Watson, that you’ve done as I asked and found a way to destroy that mountain of information that Sherlock has been collecting.”

“I’m working on it,” John replied tersely.

“Good. Good. I’m assuming the plan doesn’t involve just knocking over more cups of tea. Because you know what will happen if you don’t do this. You barely managed to keep Sherlock off my last project and that was kind of a test case for you, Dr Watson, and look what happened. I would hate more innocent people to suffer because you couldn’t use your unique position in Sherlock’s life to keep the man off my back.”

John now leaned forward, feeling anger pour from his eyes. “Do not manipulate me and make me out to be the villain. You killed a young girl,” he hissed.

“I know! Shame, she was such a nice girl but she had gotten in the way. And yet you,” Moriarty crooned, pointing a wriggling finger at John, “are the one who feels guilty. Thank you for shouldering that pesky responsibility for both Sherlock and I. It allows both of us to get on with our jobs.”

This time, John didn’t respond but took a few calming breaths. He tucked back into his eggs, hating how Moriarty could read his every emotion. Hated that he was so blatant in his compassion, something he had always prided himself on as a doctor.

“A shot like the one that killed Adair, so precise, could only have been done by someone experienced,” John muttered quietly. He lifted the ribboned medal he’d found in the alley out of his pocket and placed it on the table. “I know, because I can make a shot like that. Your sniper, your right hand man, is a military man too, isn’t he?”

Moriarty smiled again, in crazed glee, and exaggerated a shiver. “Oooh, I was definitely wrong. Sherlock is training you well. You are full of surprises, John Watson, it makes me tingle. If you didn’t belong so devoutly to Sherlock, I’d have you all to myself.”

Moriarty picked up the medal and pocketed it. “I’m sure he’ll be happy to have this back. And, Dr Watson? Remember your part. As if you didn’t know already, somebody is always watching, a finger on the trigger.”

“You know I can’t just destroy all that information in one go,” John insisted. “Don’t you think it will be too obvious?”

Moriarty paused for a moment. “Perhaps you’re right. Maybe I’ll find a way to do it for you but it’ll still require your help. Just remember, it’ll be much more destructive. I’ll be in touch, Doctor Watson.” He stood up and tucked the chair under the table before straightening his suit and walking off.

As John suspected, Moriarty would want to show off John’s betrayal at the opportune moment.

“You know,” John replied calmly, not looking up but heard the sharp clicking of those over-polished shoes halt behind him.

“I’m sure I do,” Moriarty responded immediately and John stomach clenched at how similar a comment Sherlock had made in this very same cafe a month ago.

“You know that if you do anything to Sherlock, I’ll have nothing left.”

Moriarty smiled a cruel twisting sneer that managed to transform a handsome face into one of undisguised manic glee. He put a hand to his heart and mocked a sad expression. “How touching. But yes,” he replied.

John smiled slightly, poking at his sausages. “If I’ve made such an impact on Sherlock as you say – and evidence suggests I have – if I die, Sherlock will come after you like a bloody hellhound.”

John waited for Moriarty’s reaction but didn’t turn his head. He did, however, feel Moriarty place his hands on his shoulders and lean down to whisper in John’s ear. He had to close his eyes to ignore the overly sensual and intimate position they were displaying in public. “Of course,” the man replied softly. “However, it won’t be by my hand, don’t you worry your pretty head.”

Something buzzed and Moriarty’s hand dived into his pocket to look at it.

Then, still quietly speaking into John’s ear, said. “Your boyfriend’s on his way. Remember our agreement, darling.”

And with a brief kiss to the side of John’s head, the man waltzed out of the café.

The doctor waited until Moriarty walked out the door before taking a few breaths to calm himself down. “I didn’t say it would be by your hand,” he murmured to himself shakily.

He wasn’t hungry anymore. In fact, as the adrenaline rushed out of him after that encounter, he felt a sickening ball work its way through his intestines and up his throat. However, he quashed it down because he knew Sherlock, with his astute observation, would notice his unease. John always complained about the lack of food; if he suddenly stopped his never ending appetite, Sherlock would know something was wrong.

A few minutes later, there was the man himself, gliding into the café with grace and poise that turned heads. And John loved it, how Sherlock’s presence attracted everyone in the room and made them notice, even him. Moriarty may be equally as cunning, but in demeanour he paled in comparison to Sherlock. With practised accuracy, Sherlock quickly spun round to sit down in the chair opposite John and whipped off his gloves.

From then on, he was launching into a tirade about what he’d found out and what their next move should be. Apparently, Molly had messaged him a picture of something Anona Kerry had crudely scratched onto her arm. A heart symbol; followed by the number 9900.

He hurried John with his breakfast and was pulling John out of the door in no time. John let him, grumbling as usual at not being allowed to finish and digest, but secretly loving it, riding on Sherlock’s enthusiasm and speed. And if Sherlock was holding his hand as they walked down the street, John couldn’t help but smile and allow himself to be pressed up against Sherlock’s side.

*

The good thing being about an ex-soldier, John thought, was the privileges it still held. It would have taken Lestrade far too long to contact the army, pass through clearance checks and obtain the information he needed. Maybe Sherlock knew someone, some homeless and crippled ex-soldier, no doubt. Yet John, for once, had his own sources: someone who, like himself, had been shot, but who’d since taken an administrative role within the army upon his recovery.

It took no more than a few minutes for John to reach him by telephone and together they worked to narrow down the list of prestigious army officers who held ribbons for service in Kosovo and were now based in London.

John wondered if this was how Sherlock felt when he’d uncovered an important piece of information. This slightly giddy feeling at having accomplished something no one else could; a powerful excitement.

The man – Moriarty’s right hand man – was one Colonel Sebastian Moran.

For the first time in this game, John had the upper hand.
*

John was flipping aimlessly past TV channels; there was little to watch at 1am. Sherlock was leaning against him, typing with determined fury on his laptop. He was using his personal forum, trying to desperately find out the meaning of the heart symbols and the 9900 next to it. It had driven Sherlock to the edge of madness.

“It’s Hearts,” John suddenly realised out loud, before he could stop himself. Sherlock sat up, twisting his body to look at him in shock. “You know…as in the card game?” Sherlock continued to look at him blankly. “It’s on your laptop as a computer game!”

“I don’t play games,” Sherlock remarked huffily, as if they were beneath him.

“Could have fooled me. You’re doing very well playing Moriarty’s.”

In that instant, he could feel the atmosphere in the room cool by a few degrees. However, Sherlock did not respond vocally. He spun his legs round and sat properly on the sofa next to John. For a moment, John thought Sherlock’s automatic response would storm out or harshly rebuke him…until he saw that glint of pride in his eyes.

Instead, Sherlock kissed him. The detective’s hand sneaked over to hold John’s chin, keeping him place, and pulling him deeper. It was a bolder kiss than the one on the bridge. Sherlock was commanding, instantly using his tongue to swipe across John’s lips for access and practically forcing his way in.

The ferocity of Sherlock’s kiss startled John but he was powerless to stop it. He moved his body down the couch so that Sherlock slotted in perfectly on top of him like a missing piece and continued kissing. His arms weaved around Sherlock’s waist, pulling him as close as possible. All the pent up frustration and want that he’d bottled up over the past few years, and especially in the last three weeks, spilled over in frantic desperation. He could barely breathe through the enthusiastic kissing, his chest heaved deeply, only exacerbated by Sherlock’s hands cupping his face. His hands couldn’t stop moving, addicting to the feeling of Sherlock’s taut back muscles.

It was when John decided to up the stakes that Sherlock recoiled. His hands moved lower to untuck the crisp shirt from his trousers. He so desperately wanted to touch Sherlock’s skin that had heretofore been inaccessible, hidden beneath thin pristine suits, just out of reach. The detective had instantly gasped in shock and pulled back, sitting up on his heels, still straddling John’s legs.

“I don’t know what…” Sherlock stuttered in panic but still releasing a sigh as John ran a hand down his chest. Beneath the thin material, John could feel his heart hammering. “What I’m doing. I can’t…”

In an instant, John followed him, kissing his neck comfortingly and placing his hands on Sherlock’s hips to stop him from wriggling too much. There was only so much teasing John could take before his willpower caved.

“Sherlock, please,” he begged, panting against the detective’s cheek, “It’s all fine, remember? Think of this as an experiment. Just a scientific experiment.”

It took a few moments for Sherlock to process this idea. Once John received a curt but cautiously twitchy nod, John slid out from under Sherlock and dragged the man up the stairs to his room. From there, in between the bouts of kissing, which had a surprisingly calming effect on the detective, John plucked at the buttons of the maroon shirt. He slipped it off Sherlock’s delicate shoulders as they entered his room, and wasted no time in running his hands eagerly over Sherlock’s skin, across the pectorals of his lean chest and down to his stomach.

Sherlock stood lose limbed in the middle of the room, his head lifted back and breathing heavily as if to calm himself. The breaths only increased in frequency.

John’s mouth quickly followed, tongue tentatively lapping at the cool skin and teeth desperate to make some kind of mark on that peerless perfection before rising up to meet Sherlock in another bruising kiss.

Sherlock, however, was quickly growing impatient. Following suit he bit and tugged gently at John’s lower lip to distract him as he worked off John’s thin cardigan and shirt. Now Sherlock’s hands were moving methodically, as if inspecting John, finding every muscle and every crevice, mapping it all and committing it to memory. He made such short work of John’s jeans and boxers, simply pushing them down to his ankles, that the doctor wondered whether Sherlock was more experienced at this than he let on. John allowed himself, for the first time in years, to be swept away by the flow of it all.

Sherlock was slowly pushing him back against the bed so when John’s knees hit, he gladly fell back, feet still on the floor. Sherlock followed slowly, tentatively, his precise lips meticulously working their way down his neck and over his chest, tracing the muscular definitions still visible from his training in Afghanistan.

Through all this, there was barely any sound. They watched each other’s expressions for reactions. John could hear his own gasps encouraging Sherlock to continue and grow bolder in his ministrations. The occasional low hitch coming from Sherlock every time John’s own hands touched Sherlock somewhere new – the side of his neck, his spine, his flank – made John paw at his skin more in need. The friction from the material of Sherlock’s trousers scratching against his naked skin only heightened his senses so he thrust instinctually against Sherlock.

Before he could form any coherent sentence out of the stuttering and groaning, Sherlock was sweeping gracefully down John’s body, spreading his legs and kneeling comfortably on the floor between them at the end of the bed, pulling off jeans and boxers with determined finality.

Surprised as he was that Sherlock should be the one to initiate this level of intimacy, John didn’t complain. He’d never had the strength to deny him. And fuck it, Sherlock never looked as amazing as he did right now, all graceful leanness, hypnotic angular lines of his face and bare chest highlighted by the street lights through the window. He wore an expression of such wondrous intensity that it took John’s breath away to realise it was all directed at him and for him.

“Oh my God,” he whispered repeatedly, unable to take in the enormity of what was about to happen. He had to swallow a crude curse as Sherlock, never one to act cautiously, bent his head and took as much of John in his mouth as he could.

It was inexpert, slightly clumsy in technique, but John didn’t care. It was the first time in as long as he could remember that he could enjoy sex. What’s more, it was sex with Sherlock Holmes, the man who, despite his best efforts, John had become obsessed with. This fantastic, enigmatic genius of a man who had gotten under John’s skin, peeling away his long-held defences that had stood upright, protecting him. Sherlock was cheating on his work with him; he’d chosen John, above all. John’s senses only heightened whenever he remembered that fact.

It wasn’t long before John was panting and trying not to thrust too forcefully into Sherlock’s slippery mouth. He’d lifted his legs to rest his heels on the edge of the mattress so as to give the detective more room; he twisted a hand in the now-tousled hair to encourage Sherlock’s movements. The man was definitely experimenting, the deft tongue exploring up and down his cock thoroughly and eventually finding that spot underneath the glands would make John lift his hips off the bed and release a joyous and painful sounding cry.

Sherlock only hummed in amusement, his lips quirking, and repeated the action.

“Faster, Sherlock, please,” John pleaded, too euphoric under the man’s command to care that he was begging. He was falling beautifully apart in Sherlock’s hands, one of which was on the back of his knee, holding his leg up onto the bed; the other cupping John’s balls gently.

Sure enough, Sherlock got the idea and John arched his back and groaned without shame just from watching the man’s head bobbing, never mind the sensations on his cock. Sherlock’s blunt fingernails scraping over his thigh only added to the pleasure. It wasn’t long until the pent up frustration had reached its optimum pressure, that familiar pool of pleasure disconnecting his brain from reality. Before John could release a warning, his body was taut and he was shuddering through an amazing orgasm a mixture of Sherlock and please tumbling in whispered desperation. So intense was it, that for a moment, he could barely breathe or make a sound.

It was over too soon.

John collapsed onto the bed, breathing heavily and his humming body pleasantly covered in a sheen of sweat. Sherlock released him, crawling back onto the bed and up John’s body. Clothed legs either side of his, palms either side of John’s head, trapping him beneath Sherlock’s wiry frame. John took a deep breath and released it before he opened his to regard Sherlock’s inquisitive expression.

He reached up a hand to rub Sherlock’s cheek and move it into his hair, unable to keep a lazy gleeful smile off his face.

You’re amazing, he wanted to say, but he figured, from Sherlock’s smug face, that the genius sexual novice knew that.

“It must be tiring,” Sherlock commented with maddening serenity, “to be continuously directed by circumstances beyond your control.”

John frowned, ignoring the double meaning. “Somehow I manage. Let me…?” he began, his hands sliding up to cup between Sherlock’s still clothed legs and undo his belt.

However, the detective only shifted away. “No. It’s fine.”

Sherlock carefully slid out of bed and John flopped onto his side, revelling in his sated post-orgasmic state but also feeling disappointed that he couldn’t help Sherlock. He had felt Sherlock’s hardness, so the man was evidently turned on from their passion. In his hazy post-coital mind, John considered the possibility that Sherlock was just not willing to let go of that much control just yet. And he couldn’t force him.

As his exhausted body betrayed him and lulled him into sleep, he wondered whether Sherlock had disappeared indefinitely and might be having an internal meltdown somewhere in the flat. It wouldn’t surprise him if Sherlock was over-analysing the situation at that moment, determining the meaning behind their every action. However, a few minutes – or maybe it was hours later, John couldn’t tell – he felt a dip in the bed signifying the man’s return, donning his pyjamas, wriggling to get comfortable.

Suddenly, Sherlock spoke in the darkness, his voice apparently lower when he spoke quietly, “You know, if you want me to stop chasing him, just say so.”

John neither moved nor opened his eyes to betray that desire. “I did,” he whispered, regretfully. “But even I can’t make you do that.”

It was true; he would never be able to stop Sherlock, he could only hinder him. No amount of love on Sherlock’s part could change that. Eventually Moriarty would realise it too.

Sherlock simply let lose an indecipherable ‘hmm’ before wriggling down the bed. Then he wriggled down the bed an arm curling over John’s hip, a slight pressure keeping him immobilised. John smiled. At that precise moment, for the first time in a long time, John felt happy. He only wished it could last.

*

Sherlock did not believe in God on a theoretical level. There was just not enough proof.

John did not believe in God on a practical level. If he hadn’t been an atheist before his descent into the chaos of Afghanistan, he certainly was one after. A country made out of bits left over from the earth and spat out onto a continent, John couldn’t believe a true and just God would allow people to endure such suffering for no obvious reason.

He’d seen things in Afghanistan and he’d done things – inconceivable things – they convinced him that any God had left and abandoned the people to their fate.

Yet he couldn’t help but be influenced by the Presbyterian faith of his parents; those moral and ethical lessons were still embedded in him, somewhere deep. They only resurfaced in the most crucial, and the most inappropriate of times.

Pontius Pilate, for example, had been the one to kill Jesus. He had, after all, issued the call for his capture. However, whilst Pilate had been evil, his was nothing compared the moral ambiguity embodied in Judas Iscariot when he heeded that call and betrayed Jesus. His actions reflected the choices mankind faced and the necessity of personally dealing with the consequences.

Was John any better than Judas?

It gave John a sickening feeling inside every time he thought of it. Moriarty was evil; he held the life of people in his hands and was threatening Sherlock’s. John was walking a fine line similar to Judas, because it was his decision which dictated the life of Sherlock Holmes. In a sickening twist on the scriptures, if he heeded Moriarty, Sherlock lived…if not…

He looked at Sherlock, for once, peacefully sleeping beside him. His hair was a fanned mess on the pillow; one arm was thrown up above his head in a picture of debonair libertine. He looked so serene when asleep that John almost cursed the whole plan, the plan which could hurt Sherlock in ways the detective himself hadn’t deemed possible.

The lowest circle of hell, Dante had proclaimed, was for the ultimate sinners. The ones who betray.
*

“John?” he heard faintly, at first a whisper but then a slightly louder call, followed by a unsubtle prod. “John!”

John simply moaned, not wanting to be pulled from the cocoon of comfort he had been wrapped in. In his half hazy mind, he knew Sherlock had stayed the whole night in the bed with him. There was a pleasurable weight still on the bed beside him, the unmistakable scent of Sherlock’s aftershave still lingering in the air and warmth that continued to seep into the sheets. If he woke, then the day would start and Sherlock would leave the bed.

In sleep, he could postpone his current life.

“I know you’re awake,” came Sherlock’s voice, amusement hidden in the tone. The detective had moved so he was practically leaning over John and no matter how hard John tried, there was no way he could ignore him now. “Your breathing pattern changed approximately three minutes ago.”

John rolled over, stretching as he did so, and lay the other side of his head on the pillow. Sherlock was sitting up, book in his hands – Dilthey again – covers up to his waist. “What d’you want?” he croaked sleepily, but with a hint of confusion in his voice. “What’s the time?”

“6.30 in the morning,” Sherlock responded.

John moaned and closed his eyes again. In the army, he had been used to rising ridiculously early. One of the perks of now being a civilian was the ability to sleep until it was actually light outside. In this mid-December weather, it was still dark outside, with the deep orange of the street lamps casting a warm glow.

“Don’t go back to sleep,” Sherlock said, indignantly. “I have a question.”

“The thermostat’s downstairs by the water boiler,” John slurred, still determined to doze.

“What? No, I’m not cold. I have a question about last night.”

Now John opened his eyes; the look of trepidation must have been evident on his face. He rubbed his eyes, looking closely at Sherlock. He’d seen the man often in the mornings, in his t-shirt and pyjama bottoms, his dressing gown loosely flapping around him. His hair, at this time was usually an overly tangled mess of dark curls and his pale skin practically glowed. The only difference was that instead of lounging languidly on the sofa, he was in John’s bed, looking relaxed and comfortable. It was as though the Moriarty saga was phasing him.

John’s heart twisted as the beautifully rumpled sight.

So he prayed, in this overtly domesticated, if not bizarre scene, that Sherlock was not about to backtrack and express regret over last night’s actions.

“I admit in advance that I could be incorrect about my assumption,” Sherlock began, “but you told me to view our actions last night as an experiment.”

“Right,” John answered after an elongated pause.

“I may not be a good judge of social interaction” – to which John scoffed – “but it appears to me that while I was experimenting in new territory, you seemed to know your way in the field. What exactly were you testing?”

John paused for a moment, wondering in horror if Sherlock had found him out. Could he see? That even though John was in love with him, Sherlock’s own emotions could be used against him?

Does it worry you, Sherlock, that you care…?

“I was testing you. After you said I had an affect on you, I wanted to know…” he replied honestly, not needing to open his eyes to see the look of exasperated confusion on Sherlock’s face. “You’d kissed me. Twice!”

Sherlock frowned. “And you saw that act developing into this one?”

John squeezed his eyes tighter, not wanting to hear how this one passionate night was being dissected into a compartmentalised timeline of events. Because it had meant everything to him. From that night since the swimming pool, when Moriarty had implied Sherlock had feelings for him; when Sherlock had shown his obvious fear at John’s predicament; he had examined every action and word Sherlock directed at him. And since that conversation few weeks ago, where Sherlock admitted the importance of John in his life, his own desire had only grown beyond his control. This was more than a logical detached chain of events; John felt something.

He was torn. To have Sherlock take away those hopes that anything was possible between them after last night would be like a knife in his gut.

However, despite the pain, it would be easier and safer if Sherlock didn’t feel anything physical for him at all.

The army had, after all, stamped selfishness out of its soldier. John was good at self sacrifice; he could suffer for a greater good.

“I know, I know,” John said quietly. “It was far too simple for you not to question it. I should have asked.”

Sherlock shrugged dismissively, closing the book and chucking it aside. “Well, you are a man of action more than words.”

John reached out a hand and touched the skin of Sherlock’s hip, a tiny enticement exposed in the gap between his T-shirt and pyjamas. Sherlock twitched at the sudden contact, but then looked down in wonder. John spread out his hand and moved it to lie across Sherlock’s flat stomach. If this was going to be the last time, he needed to remember every detail.

He sighed. “It was always going to be a mistake, acting on this love for you.”

“Love,” Sherlock said with disbelief, his voice filling with as much derision as John had ever heard. “Love has been reduced to something pointless and meaningless in today’s society.”

“Oh, really?”

“Of course. People have abused the word beyond all recognition. They say they love last night’s TV episode, they love their puppies, they love this Simon Cowell even though they can’t possibly know him…husband’s claim to love their wives and cheat on them in the same day, teenagers are claiming to love each other without possibly knowing what love is or can be!”

John raised an eyebrow. Whilst Sherlock had a valid point, he considered the view of a man who could not see how a passionate kiss could develop into sex almost irrelevant. “And you know what love is?”

“I hope this is not love,” he remarked, as if the notion insulted him.

John paused in his task of stroking Sherlock’s skin, prepared to move his hand away at Sherlock’s last and final rebuke of the whole messed up situation.

Sherlock immediately snapped his head round, grasped that wrist and twisted in the bed to face John. “I’m saying, for once, I don’t know,” he replied, with such force that John couldn’t help but widen his eyes in surprise. “I hope this can be described beyond the boring and mundane definitions everyone else uses in their relationships. I hope it will be something more meaningful than love. Something with more depth than what Moriarty’ believes. Neither of us are ordinary, John; we shouldn’t submit to ordinary categorisation.”

John swallowed, amazed at Sherlock’s ability to eloquently put thought to words. “I thought you feared the effects emotions would have on your judgement.”

All he received was a blank look. “It’s a little too late for both of us, wouldn’t you say, John?” He stroked John’s fingers in his hand. “I believing retracing our steps is now impossible. So it requires more experimentation, as you so poorly disguised it, to work out precisely how deep down the rabbit hole we are.”

John could practically feel that weight lift off his shoulders as Sherlock leaned over and kissed him, softly, languidly. Yes, their relationship was anything but ordinary; it required its own definition.

Their tongues slid over each other with such practised ease that John felt as though they had been doing this from the moment they’d met. He shifted his hips to move closer to Sherlock slid an arm around his waist and under his T-shirt to rest on the small of his back.

The greater good, John thought. Whilst Sherlock’s hands were lifting his t-shirt to dance up his chest, he thought fuck the greater good.

Sherlock let lose a tiny breathy moan so filled with vulnerability and wonder that John could feel himself harden instantly and he nudged Sherlock’s head back to expose the smoothness of that milky white neck. With careful precision in comparison to the wilder lust of the night before, he lavished it with his tongue and lips.

“You’ve always been so very distracting,” Sherlock whispered hotly into his ear.

Of all the things Sherlock could have said…that made John die a little inside.

*

[And then came the third time.]

“From what I can ascertain,” Sherlock said, stirring some beans lazily in a small saucepan. “The logical assumption is that Anona Kerry must have overheard an argument late that night. Having worked there for five years, she must have seen everyone coming and going into the Club. Undoubtedly, she knew that Ronald Adair, being an accountant, had worked out that someone had cheated at cards to the sum of £9900.”

“So Moriarty’s henchman,” John said, carefully, “appears to be a bit of a crooked gambler. Got caught, was pulled up on it and messed up trying to get out of it.”

“That would be the most logical assumption, yes,” Sherlock replied.

Beside him, John saw his phone flashing and clicked his iPhone open to read it. Another message, another warning, another piece of advice.

 

- On the way. Leave the flat now. Take Sherlock with you -

 

“Right, we’re going out to dinner,” he announced as casually as possible.

“What? Why?” Sherlock cried indignantly, waving a wooden spoon in the air. “I’m making beans on toast.”

“No, you’re burning beans on toast.” John stood up and held up his hand before Sherlock could protest further. “Mrs Hudson’s not here, she’s visiting her niece, so we can’t even pinch food off her. I’m starving, Sherlock, and you promised me something edible before we stake out the club again!”

Sherlock thought for a moment then shrugged in agreement. “I told you I couldn’t cook but you were hungry again,” he responded, dumping the saucepan in the sink and the burnt pieces of toast in the bin before grapping his coat and scarf. “In all honesty, John, I think your eating habits have declined since the army.”

“Well, maybe your brother and I can diet together,” John suggested with faux brightness, but unable to help a smirk at the look of disgust that twisted Sherlock’s graceful features.

It was manipulation again. It should have been exciting, the power he held over Sherlock that the man would do almost anything to take care of John’s well being and safety. It was a strange protectiveness. He should have felt powerful; instead, he felt ill every time.

*

Now, when they went to restaurants, John stopped trying to correct the assumptions of Sherlock’s numerous acquaintances – owners of the establishments – that they were dating. There was only so much lying John could handle these days. Instead, John decided to pride himself on the fact that he, unexciting and uninteresting John Watson, had wheedled his way into Sherlock’s personal life, the land that no one had heretofore conquered.

It was this thought which got him through dinner. He ignored what might be happening in his apartment right now and concentrated solely on dinner with Sherlock, who spent an inordinate amount of time making undue observations to the waitresses about their love life and career that John wondered if they were going to spit in their food. All the same, he loved it.

However, John was unprepared for rounding the corner of Baker Street on the way back from their Thai dinner to find their flat on fire.

“Sherlock. Sherlock!” John shouted in panic, running after the detective, who had sprinted off without any warning. Sherlock may have been long-limbed but John had a great deal of experience in sprinting for his life. He caught up with the detective just before he reached the pavement in front of door 221. Spinning him round, he shouted in Sherlock’s face, “You can’t go in there, it’s on bloody fire!”

Sherlock simply wrenched his arm free. “I have to, I’ll lose everything!”

“You’ll lose your life!” John cried again, pulling Sherlock back.

Instead of arguing this time, Sherlock simply pushed him away. “Stay here.” John was about to protest at the ludicrous idea that he would allow him to run into a burning building but Sherlock simply spun ground, eyes flashing with ferocity and body highly strung. “Stay here!” he ordered with finality.

Then he was running into the burning building and John cursed at himself for his own weakness. Walking out into the street, he looked up at his flat in disbelief, flames licking the curtains. He hoped to see the detective in the window, still alive; any sign of movement to prove it. What was he thinking, allowing Sherlock to run in like that? Like it was even possible that any of the papers survived?

Maybe I’ll find a way to do it for you…Just remember, it’ll be much more destructive.

He underestimated Moriarty. He thought, maybe, that the man would destroy Sherlock’s information in a more subtle way. Not in a fiery destruction.

What had he done? He’d allowed Moriarty to destroy their home.

And he realised, with growing anger, that maybe this was what Moriarty wanted. To make John into the villain again. He knew that Sherlock would do anything to keep in the game. Moriarty or Moran might not kill Sherlock personally, but that wouldn’t stop Sherlock from killing himself, with the blame resting on John’s shoulders for doing what Moriarty asked in the first place. Worse, if he sat here doing nothing.

Those swirling thoughts were sending him into madness. “Fuck it.” In that instant, John was unwrapping the scarf from his neck to cover his nose and mouth. He could hear the sirens in the distance and was thankful someone had called the fire brigade.

The heat was intense the second he entered the building, in stark contrast to the chilled air outside. Smoke immediately watered his eyes as he raced up the stairs, but he ignored it in order to find Sherlock. He heard the man before he saw him, coughing with increasing difficulty. The blurred figure John recognised as Sherlock was frantically crawling over the floor, recovering papers that were half burnt.

Running past the flames now licking their way up the doorframe into the living room, John pulled at his shoulder. “Sherlock, you have to leave them. We need to get out of here,” he cried over the roar of the fire.

Sherlock coughed in response and pushed him away. “I can’t let this be destroyed,” he shouted back. “I can’t start this from the beginning…I can’t…I can’t…” With every word he sounded more distraught, holding raw emotion that John had never heard from him. Suddenly he looked at John, panicked. “I told you to wait outside!”

A part of the ceiling crashed beside John, making him jump and he crouched low. “He’s not worth this!”

Sherlock retuned to collecting papers from the floor. “I’m not doing this for me,” he responded, his words barely audible and then lost to a fit of dry coughing, clawing its way up his ravaged throat.

“And if you kill yourself before you catch him, what will be the point!” John shouted back, tears stinging his eyes, which he attributed to the smoke.

For a few seconds Sherlock looked at him and it was all the hesitation John needed to begin pulling him away empty handed. With a final glance at the burning living room, John was pushing Sherlock through the smoke, down the seventeen stairs and along the corridor.

As soon as they emerged into fresh cold air, Sherlock collapsed onto the road on all fours, coughing and dryly sucking in all the breath that he could to clear his lungs. For a moment, John wondered if he would be sick from the smoke inhalation. And all he could do was place a comforting hand on Sherlock’s back and urge him to continue breathing, practically pleading with him. Then, finally, Sherlock’s shaking body collapsed and he rolled over, coat splayed out around him as he lay panting heavily and staring at the hazy sky through glittering eyes.

John could hear people coming out of the surrounding buildings wondering what was happening. The sirens were growing comfortingly louder. He barely noticed it.

“You idiot,” John said, unashamed at how much fear was embedded in his voice. “You bloody idiot. Don’t ever do that again.” He took hold of Sherlock’s shoulders and shook him slightly, despite his medical instincts, and shouting almost hysterically. “You hear me? Don’t ever do that again!”

“I have to start over, John,” Sherlock’s insisted, hoarsely, trying to rise. “I can’t let him win.”

Winning, John thought. His thoughts over Sherlock’s feelings spiralled into confusion again. He should have known Sherlock would give off mixed signals. What did Sherlock care about most, really? Him? Or the game?

Now was not the time or the place to voice these petty concerns, though. So John bit his lip and nodded quickly, forcing a delirious Sherlock to lie back on the road with his head resting in his lap to offer him meaningless comfort. Placing a hand in Sherlock’s singed curls, he looked up at the burning flat.

He felt that sickening feeling, the same one he’d felt when they’d found Anona Kerry. The one that reminded him that this was his doing.

As firemen targeted water at the building and the paramedics prepped Sherlock for the ride to the hospital by clamping an oxygen mask over his face, John stood in the centre of the madness – where he always seemed to be now.

To what end, John wondered, were these short-term catastrophes of betrayal, death and destruction worth the long -term benefit of capturing Moriarty?
*

Two hours later, he was sitting in Lestrade’s office, the only lit room in a floor of darkness at Scotland Yard. A shot of whiskey swirled in a glass he held loosely in his hand, kindly offered by the Inspector. He’d seen Sherlock admitted into the hospital overnight for smoke inhalation and waited until he was certain the man was as settled as he could be before heading down to Embankment.

“What am I doing?” John finally asked out loud.

“The right thing,” Lestrade answered simply.

John choked and laughed like it was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever heard. Even to his own ears it sounded borderline hysterical, like the cackle of a raving lunatic was trying to crawl up his throat. “The right thing?” he responded in a strained voice. “I can’t believe that. I’m doing exactly what Moriarty wants me to do.”

“No. You’re letting Moriarty think you’re doing what he wants. And for the moment, Sherlock is none the wiser. Remember, we’re both really doing what Mycroft Holmes is asking us to do.”

“Well you can tell they’re from the same gene pool. Both have a disregard for who or what gets hurt in the process.”

“It’s the only way we can end this before more people die.”

“Someone’s already dead!” John lashed out. “A young girl.”

Lestrade ran a hand over his forehead. “We didn’t find her in time. We just hoped Moriarty wouldn’t do anything if it looked like you were keeping Sherlock off the case.”

“And my flat? It’s destroyed!”

“Look, I’m not happy about this either. But…Mycroft’s right. It’s the only way to show Moriarty that you are doing what he asks. That’s why Mycroft told you to leave the flat this evening; he knew Moran was coming to make true on his threat to destroy all that information.”

“And Mycroft’s surveillance team outside the flat thought Moriarty’s men armed with gasoline didn’t deserve intervention.”

“Look!” Lestrade said, trying not to lose his patience. “The most important thing is that Moriarty thinks he’s got you round his finger!”

John scoffed. “When really, I’m just round yours.”

They both paused their verbal sparring and looked at each other in apology.

John was still unconvinced. “This won’t work, though. Both of them will realise I’m playing them eventually; I’m no good at acting. It’s only a matter of time. Moriarty will wreak havoc like a bloody plague.” He took a sip of whiskey with shaking hands. “And Sherlock…will never trust me ever again. The only reason he can’t see at the moment is because I’m abusing his feelings and mine by doing this.”

I met you…and it’s made all the difference to what I do and how I do it.

“Why?” Lestrade asked, those deceptively perceptive eyes on him, scrutinising him with more subtlety than Sherlock. “Because you do actually care for Sherlock that way…and so does he, I imagine.” It was more of a statement than a question but the clear implication of it cut through the silence of the office like a knife.

With a display of vulnerability that even John didn’t realise he was capable of, he wrapped his arms around himself and leant forward. He thought back to Sherlock’s cool, soft skin moving beneath his hands, its contours moving with hypnotic grace; the way Sherlock’s eyes had opened in wonder at sensations he’d never experienced, his grey eyes growing impossibly larger in the dimly lit room; and those wonderful huffs of breath Sherlock had released every time John touched him; small, low, rapid with the vague formations of words escaping desperately from this lips.

In fact, John realised, he was only fooling himself when he thought that anything concerning Sherlock would not drag him deeper and deeper into this wonderland. He would follow Sherlock anywhere if only to just protect him.

He didn’t know why he felt like confiding in Lestrade. He didn’t know the man well and John, amiable as he was, was not one to spill his innermost thoughts to someone he barely knew. Even his therapist. For this situation, he craved someone to talk to…someone who knew its complexities and could sympathise with his actions.

“Yes,” he finally answered quietly. “I feel it. But I don’t know about Sherlock. One minute he makes me think he could be…and next he’s back to being cold, calculating Sherlock. But it has evolved into whatever it is because of Moriarty. That’s the reason his plan works.”

That’s why it couldn’t be defined simply as love; it was inextricably wrapped up in Moriarty and the web he’d created. He and Sherlock, they would do anything to protect the other. And the brilliance of it was, John had since discovered, Moriarty had them both believing the other was in more danger.

Lestrade didn’t respond. So John lifted his glass and knocked back the rest of the potent liquid, feeling it burn down his throat, through his chest and to his gut as if punishing him. Then he laughed mirthlessly. “Ironic, isn’t it. I gave Sherlock Holmes his capacity to love and I can quite easily destroy it with this plan of ours.”

Lestrade leaned forward, forcing John to meet his gaze. “Look, Doctor…John. I don’t know you very well yet. However, I do know Sherlock, and hard as it can be sometimes, I know how he thinks, even if I can’t think like that myself. Sherlock rationalises everything. All aspects of life have to come down to a basic level of processing. He knows that humans are governed by emotions, but they’re still predictable creatures, like animals…they follow a certain ingrained pattern.”

Dilthey, John thinks to himself. The human element which make us unpredictable.

“And even if, as you say, he has developed the ability to see human emotions as more than just a link in the chain, he will still be set on default. You have impacted his life for reasons none of us can figure out. And when he comes to realise your part in this, he will rationalise it as well. I’ll bet an entire year’s salary that Sherlock will not see this as betrayal in the way you do, but as part of your innate personality and character.”

Lestrade looked at him earnestly. “You’re a soldier and a doctor. Loyalty is your strength. So you like to help people, John. You want to save them.”

John paused. Even if he wanted to back out, it was too late now. He’d done too much; he had Moriarty fooled; he could manipulate Sherlock; Mycroft’s plan was firmly under way. At the end of the day it was a solution…a solution which, if all went well, did not entail Sherlock and Moriarty locked in a battle of wits to the bitter end, irrespective of the pain they could cause.

He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out the memory stick. “This is all the information Sherlock had that I photographed a few days ago, like you wanted. Plus all his notes and the observations he made that I jotted down. Hopefully you can do something with it.”

Lestrade took it, nodding gratefully. “Mycroft Holmes and I are already mounting a case against Colonel Moran. You and Sherlock were right, he killed Adair because the man caught him cheating and Anona Kerry must have seen the argument or the subsequent murder. We’ll have him soon and with all this information, we’ll have the rest too. You just need to continue doing what you’re doing, but lay low with Sherlock for a while. When Moriarty is squeezed into a corner and is forced to deal his final hand, we’ll be ready.”

John ran a hand over his hair. “That’s if you can think like Moriarty and guess what he’ll do next. Only Sherlock can think like Moriarty.”

“Sherlock thinks this can’t be done by procedure and maybe he’s right,” Lestrade replied. “But Sherlock thinks he can act outside the law and if he’s going to do that, I have no qualms about using him for my own ends too. So the only way we can catch Moriarty is if we all act outside our norms and stay unpredictable. Most importantly, you.”

John nodded absently and stood up to put on his coat and scarf. He stank of smoke and sweat. He looked as crap as he felt, bone weary. “For everyone’s sake, I hope this turns out well.”

*

John’s thoughts were running riot as he left the station. He was a raging sea of conflictions. What was he exactly? A soldier slash doctor who helped? A friend or possible lover to one man? The useful tool of Sherlock, Moriarty and now Mycroft Holmes and Scotland Yard? He felt like a rag doll, being pulled in all directions and at some point, the seams would rip. Only one could have him whole.

Up until now, John had never, ever, considered himself a bad or villainous person. He thought of himself as ordinary and average. Sherlock undoubtedly felt something for him, but he saw John as predictable and slightly idiotic.

He just tolerates on different levels.

How surprised Sherlock would be at John’s actions when this mess unfolded. Because it would eventually unfold and collapse around him. Maybe Sherlock would finally find him interesting…but would he still have his affection as a result?

Yes, John’s life was filled with ironies.

John leaned forward, capturing Sherlock’s hand in both of his, resting his forehead against them as he continued his vigil over the detective. The man slept on, exhaustion and smoke inhalation keeping him unnaturally still in the starchy hospital bed.

Et tu, John?

 

END