There was a cottage in Sussex Downs.
Well, there were lots of cottages in Sussex Downs. But only one of them belonged to Sherlock Holmes.
He did not speak of it. He did not visit it.
But he thought about it, sometimes. Thought of salt air, of rambling gardens, the soothing hum of the apiary.
It would be a quiet life. If he ever went in for that sort of thing. Which he didn't.
Sherlock stood at the back of the chapel, already starting to sweat in his coat. It was cold outside, and the heater was going full blast inside the small room.
There was a crowd. Men and women he'd never seen, pressed together in the pews. It surprised him. He had not expected there to be a crowd.
The vicar was speaking. He had a soft voice. It was difficult to hear him over the roar of the heater.
Sherlock shifted where he stood, looked at the coffin. Above and to his left, one of the overhead lights had begun to falter. It hummed and buzzed, faintly flickering.
Next to him, Rosie made a quiet noise in the back of her throat. She reached out, took his hand. Squeezed.
He was not sure if she was meant to be taking comfort from him, or offering.
The service stretched on. He could not make out the vicar's words. When it was over, the people crowded together in the plain wooden pews stood up and gathered their coats.
Sherlock did not wait for anyone to turn around and catch him with a curious eye. He flipped up his coat collar, pushed through the heavy door and went out into the cold grey afternoon. Rosie trailed behind him, not speaking. She did not hesitate, did not linger.
They took a taxi back to Baker Street.
He scrolled absently through his phone. Rosie sat with her hands folded in her lap and stared out the window. She did not speak.
She reminded him of John, like this. How John had been, once, years ago. Quiet and contained and so very angry.
Twenty years. She had been in his life for twenty years, and while there had been plenty of rows, plenty of shouting matches and frightful bursts of temper, there had never before been a silent seething anger quite like this.
It settled, cold and prickling, all around him, leaving him restless and uneasy.
"Thank you," Rosie said, when they finally shut the door behind them, blocking out the cold and the damp and the traffic noise. She hung her coat by the door, went up the stairs.
Sherlock watched her go for a moment, and then followed.
John was in his chair by the fireplace. He looked over his shoulder at them as they came through the door. His expression was wary.
Rosie sat down on the sofa. She was silent, had been silent for three days now, except for the muted thank you she'd just offered at the foot of the stairs, and before that, just the one word to Sherlock that had brought him to the crowded chapel in the first place: Please.
He had never been able to refuse her anything.
Sherlock waved away the thought. He had spent enough time dwelling on it, had spent days dwelling on it while the hateful silence had thickened and festered between them, poisoning the air.
He turned his attention to John. He did not have a book in his hands, as was his custom. Nor was there one on the little table next to his chair. The fire was unlit, and he had not pulled the soft knit blanket across his lap.
He was tense. Ill at ease. There was something of the soldier in him still, even after all these years. He did not like to be comfortable while awaiting the start of the battle.
There was a mulish set to John's jaw, disapproval etched into the lines between his eyes. He'd been wearing that expression ever since the phone call, ever since the words Wiggins and bad batch and very sudden had been spoken.
No. To be honest, he'd been wearing that expression before the phone call, he'd been wearing that expression for three full days, ever since Rosie had told them—
Sherlock shut his eyes.
"How was it?" John asked. There was a forced politeness to his tone. John had forgiven a great many people a great many things, but he had never quite warmed to Billy Wiggins.
Sherlock opened his eyes. Looked at Rosie. She shrugged, did not respond.
Still angry, then. But she had sat on the sofa. She could have gone straight upstairs to her bedroom. She could have packed the remainder of her things and moved out. She could have called Mycroft. She had not done any of that. It meant she was looking to engage, in some way. She wanted to be reached.
Rosebud, Wiggins used to call her, back when she was small.
Perhaps she didn't want to be reached at all. Perhaps she only wanted comfort in the face of losing a friend.
The silence was terrible.
They did not know how to interact in silence, the three of them. Their home was one of noise, of chaos, of shouting and laughter and, yes, the occasional explosion. For nearly twenty years now, it had been—
He was getting sentimental. It happened, now and again. More frequently lately. A symptom of advancing age, John had told him with a wry little grin.
He startled. John was craning his neck to look over his shoulder. He had asked a question. About the funeral. Wiggins. Right.
Sherlock went into the room, sat down in his chair. He leaned back, pressed his fingers under his chin. Studied John in the weak grey daylight that filtered through the windows.
"Surprisingly well-attended," he said.
He had always assumed Wiggins had no family. He had not bothered to deduce the details. It had never seemed important.
"I should have gone," John said.
"He wasn't your friend," Rosie said.
Sherlock blinked at the unexpected sound of her voice. John, steady John, did not react at all.
"But he was yours," John said. He looked at Sherlock when he said it.
Sherlock frowned. He let his hands drop away from his mouth, folded them on his lap. Sat back. Considered.
He had not exactly considered Wiggins a friend. An ally, certainly. A resource. But a friend?
I'm his protégé, Wiggins had said, all those years ago on that terrible Christmas.
I consider her something of a protégée, Mycroft had said, three days ago, adjusting his tie and looking at Rosie with a calculating eye.
He shut his eyes again. He did not want to think about it. Eventually it would need to be aired. A decision would need to be reached. But for the moment he—he just—
John's hands were on his face, warm and weathered, and Sherlock melted forward, not realising how much he had longed for that touch until it was pressed into his skin. It still had the power to surprise him, even after all these years, how much he needed John.
"I should have gone with you," John murmured, his lips brushing against Sherlock's forehead, and there was none of that forced politeness in his voice any more, only a heavy, weary sort of sorrow.
Even after all Wiggins had done for them over the years, and all he had done for Rosie, for John there would always be tense words in a filthy doss house, the flash of a folded knife in the shadows. There would be the weeks that Sherlock had spent gleefully self-destructing, prodding relentlessly at his damaged veins, seeing and hearing and tasting things that were not real, could never be real. There would be a morgue floor and John's heartbroken furious face, Sherlock's blood on the tile and Wiggins' best recipe still singing in his veins.
"No," Sherlock said, quiet, and he tried to put the weight of his understanding behind his words. John could not always forgive. That was all right.
John made a soft noise in the back of his throat, ran one hand through Sherlock's hair.
"He was very clever," Sherlock said.
"Clever people do very stupid things," John said.
Sherlock leaned back to get a good look at John's face, smiled a little. They both turned, almost as one, to look at Rosie.
She looked steadily back at them. There was so much John in the stubborn set of her jaw, so much Mary in the sharp gleam in her eyes.
"Yes," she agreed. "They do."
When Rosie was thirteen, she had run away.
There had been a frightful row, a smashed mug and thundering stamping footsteps up to her room at the top of the stairs.
There had been John, red-faced and furious and shocked all at once, adrift amidst a sea of ceramic shards.
Sherlock had watched it unfold in slow motion, had seen all of the intersections where the conversation had taken a wrong turn, all of the times John had spoken too soon, all of the words Rosie had misinterpreted, all of the ways the stubborn genes they both shared had caused them to batter relentlessly against one another instead of seeking compromise.
"She'll apologise," Sherlock had said. He'd come into the kitchen, stepping carefully around the shattered remains of John's favourite mug. It hurt, a bit, seeing it in pieces on the floor. The mug had been a resident of Baker Street for as long as John had.
"She—" John had said, and Sherlock had turned towards him, startled by the hitch in his voice. Tempers had been high, certainly, but he'd been given to understand that was fairly typical with adolescents and not to be taken personally.
"—will be expected to use a portion of her allowance to procure a replacement," Sherlock said. She had hurled it against the wall. There had been an impressive strength in that throw. She had already proven herself an above-average talent in sport. Among other things.
John shook his head, looking small and lost in a way that he hadn't been for years, not since those first terrible months after Mary had died.
Sherlock had gone to him, had taken him gently into his arms. Years ago, he could never have imagined offering physical comfort in such a way. It had, over time, become second nature to him.
"It's natural for her to test authority at this age," he said. He'd read that in a book.
"There's testing authority and there's bloody obliterating it," John said, but there was chagrin seeping into his voice, slowly edging out that stunned shocked blankness.
"Well," Sherlock said, and he let a little smirk creep into his voice. "Her parents—"
"Yeah," John had looked down at the ground, had actually huffed a little laugh. When he'd looked back up, his eyes were damp. "I bet you were a terror at that age, yeah?"
And Sherlock had frozen, because when he'd said her parents he had meant Mary and John, of course, he had not been including himself in the equation at all. Except the way John had phrased it had seemed to imply—
John had touched his face, had shaken his head, had offered a sad little smile. "Sherlock, she may not share your genes, but she's as much your daughter as mine. You know that. You've always known that."
And he supposed he had known it, to some extent, had known it from the night all those years ago when Rosie, just three years old, had clung feverish and sweaty against John's chest, her breath hitching with little sobs, and he had hovered nervously in the doorway while John put her to bed, watching with anxious eyes, wanting to see for himself that she would be all right. And then what had come after, John's lips on his for the first time, John's hands in his hair, on his skin.
It was one thing to know it. It was another to hear it said out loud.
He'd nodded, because the words would not come. And then he'd stepped away from John and had gone up the stairs and knocked softly, because surely enough time had passed and Rosie would be ready to see reason. Her temper had burned fierce and hot and fast since early childhood, and she'd rarely stayed upset for long.
But Rosie had not answered his soft knock, nor had she responded to his louder knock or his call of her name. And when he'd opened the door, he'd found an empty room and an open window.
He'd stood frozen for far too long, staring. He had not anticipated—he had not seen it coming. Not even with her ferocious and sudden anger, nor her rapid retreat. He had not read her intentions. He had fully expected to open the door and find her sitting on the floor, teary-eyed and ready for a reconciliation.
He'd not anticipated having to turn around and go back into the hallway, to stand at the top of the stairs in the place where he'd once kissed John for the very first time and say the words she's gone to John's stricken face.
But that's what he'd had to do.
It was all Mycroft's fault.
Most things usually were, of course. But this—three days of silence. The kind of silence that felt like the end of something that he'd had no idea carried an expiration date.
It could not continue. And it was all Mycroft's fault.
I consider her something of a protégée, he'd said to Sherlock, three days prior.
Sherlock could recall the expression on Rosie's face. The proud, stubborn smile. He'd watched that smile crack, had watched her face harden and close off in a way he'd never seen.
Now she sat on the sofa, arms crossed, watching them with a flat, cool expression. He'd seen that expression before, on Mary. Usually when she was about to do something ill-advised.
John, inexplicably, laughed. It was not an angry laugh, nor was it a mirthful one. It sounded resigned.
"This is what you want?" John asked her. "Really?"
She did not respond.
"Of course it's not," Sherlock said. "It's what Mycroft wants."
Rosie was up off the sofa and heading for the stairs before he'd even finished speaking. He stood, followed her, pulled free of John's gentle grip on his arm.
"Watson," he said.
Rosie stopped halfway down the stairs, turned around. Her face was blank. She was quite good at hiding her emotions.
She'd learned from the best, after all.
There were a thousand things he wanted to say. "Where are you going?"
"Will you be coming back?"
She pursed her lips. Silence stretched between them.
One word to Mycroft, he knew, and she'd be spirited off somewhere. Issued a new identity. Sent blinking and unprepared into a new life, one he'd never wanted for her. He'd never see her again. John would never see her again.
MI6. Mycroft, bloody Mycroft, had recruited her into MI6 straight out of university. And she, great blithering idiot that she was, wanted to take him up on it.
"How could you ever have thought this was a good idea?" he'd demanded of his brother, three days ago, while Rosie stood by his side. His brother, who had called Rosie his protégée. "All those years, thinking you were the smart one."
"It is a good idea, you're just too blinded by your own attachment to see it."
Sherlock had scoffed.
"Her skills—" Mycroft said.
"Skills? What skills? She's twenty years old. Practically still a child."
"Top of her class, Sherlock. She's clever, and resourceful, and possesses an abundance of discipline and focus—skills you decidedly lacked at her age."
"She's a child."
Mycroft had stared at him, nonplussed. "She's an adult, Sherlock, and well capable of making her own decisions."
"She's reckless. Impulsive. Short-sighted. Not the right temperament for what you're asking."
"You are describing yourself, not Rosamund. She's to graduate with the highest honours. The world expects great things of her."
"And you want to use her as a tool. As a—what's your preferred term? A blunt instrument?"
"There is nothing at all blunt about her, and you know that."
And Sherlock had looked over at Rosie, then, at the proud smile that was splintering and collapsing on her face with every word he spoke, and he'd said the thing that had damned them all: "This is clearly a misguided attempt to connect with her mother's memory."
"Fuck you," Rosie had said. Her voice had been steady, icy. There had been no trace of temper, of emotion. They had not been careless words thrown in anger. She'd meant them.
Then three days of silence.
And in the midst of that, the news about Wiggins. And the brief thaw, Rosie's soft please, the surprisingly crowded chapel.
Now Rosie, at the foot of the stairs, slipping into her coat.
She looked up at him, her jaw set, her eyes hard. Mary's eyes.
"Will you be coming back?" he asked again.
She blinked. She knew he loathed repetition. The fact that he'd spoken his words a second time had made an impact on her.
She nodded, once. A sharp little nod. John's nod.
No words. But it was enough.
She went out the door without looking back.
When Rosie was thirteen, Sherlock had stood at the top of the stairs and looked at her empty room and had told John She's gone.
The impulse had been to tear out into the night in search of her.
He'd taken a moment, thought about London, about the streets and alleyways he knew intimately, the love for the city that had kindled in Rosie as well. He'd taught her how to disappear. He'd made it a game.
There were countless routes she might have taken.
He'd frozen up, panicked, and had looked at John's stricken face. John, who would almost immediately begin thinking of everything he could have, should have done differently.
He'd thought of Mary, there and gone in the blink of an eye, dead before she ever truly got to know her daughter.
"I can't lose her," John had said, pacing tight circles in the kitchen, his shoes crunching over the shards of his shattered mug, grinding bits of ceramic down into the lino. "Sherlock, she—I can't—"
He'd texted Wiggins.
The word spread swiftly through the homeless network. They knew her, of course.
Within fifteen minutes, his phone had begun buzzing with text messages. Updates. Photos. Rosie, small and fierce and tear-streaked and furious, making her way through the shadows.
He'd wanted to go and fetch her immediately. But he'd held back, thought of his own childhood, of the bolt-holes he'd accumulated, the secret quiet places he'd crept off to.
"She's all right," he'd told John, helpless and frightened and hoping he was making the right call. "Just—let her."
They'd sat up well into the night, faces cast blue in the glow from Sherlock's screen as the texts rolled in. In his mind, Sherlock plotted a map of London, vivid rose-coloured dots wherever she had been spotted.
Wiggins sent a photo of her sitting on a bench, knees under her chin, half-eaten carton of chips at her side. She'd looked cold and forlorn.
"All right," Sherlock said, finally. "Let's go bring her home."
And they'd gone out into the chill night air, had come upon Rosie and Wiggins sitting together on the bench, sharing the chips in companionable silence. Wiggins had covered her shoulders with a blanket.
And Rosie had jumped to her feet and run to them, had embraced them both with a tearful, heaving apology.
Sherlock had met Wiggins' eye over her shoulder.
"Thank you," he'd said.
And thank you was exactly what Rosie would say to him, seven years later, after he'd accompanied her to Wiggins' funeral.
He looked at the door. He looked at his coat, hanging next to John's on the wall as it had done for years. Looked at the empty space where Rosie's was meant to be.
He did not follow.
The sun set and the sun rose, and Baker Street remained silent.
It was unnatural, oppressive, choking.
Objectively, Sherlock knew there was no real reason for it to feel so. They had, after all, passed many nights without Rosie. Entire weeks. Months. She'd spent the majority of the last four years off at university, only returning home for holidays. Those absences had not felt nearly as unsettling.
But this? This felt wrong.
John would point to some terribly sentimental reason for it, and he'd likely be right (though Sherlock felt no pressing need to tell him so). He'd retired to bed hours ago, leaving Sherlock to his thoughts.
Sherlock had remained folded up in his chair for some time.
It was Mycroft his mind kept returning to, not Rosie.
Mycroft, who was slowing down, regardless of how little he cared to admit it. Mycroft, who had no intention of retiring (and who seemed to both know and readily accept the fact that someday he was far more likely to gasp his last breath at his desk in the midst of organising a military coup than he was to pass peacefully surrounded by family and loved ones). Mycroft, who had always, always looked out for Rosie.
At some point in the night, Sherlock had gone into the kitchen. Rummaged around in the cabinets until he came up with a bottle of good—whatever, irrelevant, didn't matter, it was the alcohol content he was after, not the taste—and poured himself a glass. He'd drunk it down without tasting it, poured another. Then he'd carried both glass and bottle to his chair to await the sunrise.
I consider her something of a protégée.
When Rosie was six years old, Sherlock had taken her with him to his brother's office.
Mycroft detested children as a general rule. Sherlock was not above employing Rosie to keep his brother off-guard when he needed to speak with him. And that day, that particular day, Sherlock had had a good deal he'd needed to say to his brother.
Rosie had walked close beside Sherlock as they'd descended into the bowels of the SIS building. She'd kept her small hand tucked into his, her eyes wide.
"There's an ice lolly in it for you if you can discover the most expensive thing in Mycroft's office," Sherlock told her when they reached the door.
Her eyes had lit up, her nervous hesitance banished. But after a moment she'd hesitated, cut her eyes towards him. Wrinkled up her brow.
"You were already going to get me one."
He'd smiled, because she'd been right. "A second one, then. Any flavour you'd like."
She shook her head. "Biscuits. A whole box."
"You may have four biscuits. And the ice lolly."
She'd considered his offer and then nodded, mollified. They'd gone together into Mycroft's office.
"Oh, lovely," Mycroft had said from behind his desk. He'd stood up, offered a thin smile, more pained than polite. "I had no idea I was expecting guests."
Sherlock had looked at him, said nothing.
The smile had faded from Mycroft's face in degrees as he studied Sherlock's expression. "I see," he said. He'd stood from his chair, shut and locked the office door.
Rosie had tugged Sherlock's hand, pointed to the imposing painting behind Mycroft's desk.
"Have a look," he said.
She'd gone over to the desk and stood, craning her neck at the wall, frowning. Then she'd reached for the recently vacated chair.
"Careful," Sherlock had said, and had held Mycroft's chair steady while Rosie clambered up onto the seat. Her trainers squeaked against the leather as she leaned forward to examine the painting on the wall.
"Must we do this?" Mycroft asked, his voice pained. He did not move from where he stood.
"Not this one," Rosie said, looking back over her shoulder.
Sherlock had nodded his approval, helped her down from the chair. "Why not?"
"There's dust all over the frame. He'd take better care of it if it mattered."
"Excellent," Sherlock said.
She'd nodded once, solemn and serious and wide-eyed.
"Have a look around," Sherlock said. "Don't be shy."
She'd looked at him for a moment longer, then smiled. He'd let go of her hand, watched as she darted off to examine a pile of books on the ground along the wall.
"You know why I'm here," Sherlock had said, as soon as Rosie was comfortably distracted by her assignment.
Mycroft had regarded him for a long moment without speaking. Eurus's name hung, weighty and unspoken, between them. Eurus, who was once more being granted treats in exchange for services.
"Who told you?" Mycroft asked, finally. He'd leaned against his desk, folded his arms.
"There are lives that can be saved," Mycroft had said, looking uncomfortable. "Entire wars can be averted."
"We've been down this road before," Sherlock said. "It didn't end well."
"It's different now, the protocols in place ensure—"
He'd stared at his brother, amazed that after all this time, even with good intentions, he'd got it so very wrong.
"She's not a tool," he'd said. "You can't just aim her and use her and lock her back up when she's done."
"Surely you're not suggesting she be reintegrated into society."
"No," Sherlock said. "But you can't—you can't just utilise her brain when it's convenient for you."
"You were the one who said boredom had driven her mad."
"Of course boredom has driven her mad, it drives us all mad eventually," Sherlock said. "I spent a week in solitary, Mycroft, and you remember what—you remember—" he'd faltered, looked away, suddenly furious. "My mind," he said, "races like an engine out of control. Yet I seem slow to you. And you, Mycroft, you—"
"Seem slow to her," Mycroft finished. His voice had gone quiet.
"She's spent years with no outlet, with nothing except the few puzzles you dangled in front of her. Of course she created games. Of course she struggled with—with empathy."
"She doesn't struggle with empathy, she is devoid of it," Mycroft said. "Even now."
"Perhaps. But you think she doesn't comprehend that she's being used? Every time you dangle a puzzle in front of her, offer her a treat in exchange for a favour? You can't barter with her, Mycroft, it doesn't work that way."
"Then what am I to do with her? Leave her to rot, when she is capable of providing value? It's a waste."
"What does she want?" Sherlock stared hard at his brother. "Have you even asked?"
Mycroft laughed, a high, false sound. He'd looked away. "The things she wants are not possible."
"I find that hard to believe."
Mycroft had met his gaze, his eyes narrowed, a predator spotting weakness and circling for the kill. "Then you'd be comfortable unleashing her on the general population?"
"You know that's not what I'm saying."
"And what if she wished to meet Rosamund?"
Sherlock's throat clenched. There was a flare of anger, old anger, an anger he'd thought long buried. "Absolutely not."
He'd risked a glance over at Rosie, who had clambered up on top of a filing cabinet and was examining an old chess set with much interest.
When he'd looked back, Mycroft was watching him with one brow raised, his gaze smug. "I believe I've made my point."
"No," Sherlock had said. "I believe you've rather missed the point entirely."
"You've made assumptions," Sherlock said. "Dangerous, with her."
"I've made deductions."
"Still dangerous, with her."
"What are you suggesting I do? Sit our sister down for tea? Ask her what she'd like to do with her life?"
Sherlock had lifted his brows.
Mycroft scoffed. "You're not serious."
"Perhaps skip the tea."
"Sherlock!" Rosie had shouted from behind him. "The burger pearl!"
"It's pronounced Borgia," Sherlock said without turning around. "And it's not—"
He stopped, because Mycroft had stiffened slightly where he stood. His lips pressed together in a tight, thin line.
"Watson," Sherlock said, still watching his brother. "Bring that here, please."
She'd stepped around him, looked up at him with serious eyes. Her small fist was clenched.
Sherlock held out his hand.
She'd dropped the small black pearl into his palm. It was warm. He'd looked at it for a moment. Smiled.
"Well, would you look at that," he'd said, surprised and grateful for the distraction, for something concrete to needle his brother about. "I believe Mycroft has some explaining to do."
When he'd glanced up, Mycroft was studying Rosie with a keen, appraising expression.
He had taken an interest, after that. Had become the very picture of a doting uncle.
I consider her something of a protégée.
In retrospect, Sherlock wished he'd kept her far, far away.
Morning crept into the sitting room, gradually warming the dusty dark corners.
Sherlock sat in his chair and stared at the unlit fireplace. His neck ached. His legs were tense, jumpy. He regretted not going to bed and stretching out properly.
It made him feel terribly old, that regret. He had not always been so at the mercy of his transport. Now it was always there, clamouring for attention despite his best efforts to ignore it.
The weak early light hurt his head. His mouth was dry. He breathed out an experimental breath, grimaced at the taste.
Footsteps in the hall. John came through the door, stopped.
"John," Sherlock said. He lifted his head from the back of the chair with some effort.
"Right," John said. He looked at Sherlock for a long moment, then up at the ceiling. Cleared his throat. "This is. Um. New."
"The—" John lifted his hand, mimed drinking.
Sherlock looked down at the ground. At some point in the night he'd dropped his glass. It had spilled sticky remnants into the rug. Not the worst thing the rug had ever seen.
But John was unhappy. Confused. Why? The drinking. Right.
"Seems to help," Sherlock said, finally. "People say it does. Doesn't it?"
"Not usually," John said, with a wry little twist of his lips. He retreated back into the kitchen, ran the tap. A moment later he returned with a glass of water, pressed it into Sherlock's hand.
"Thank you," Sherlock said, and drank deeply. It felt good against his parched throat.
"How's your head?"
"Terrible," he admitted.
"Mm, figured it would be." John bent to look at the bottle that Sherlock had dropped on the ground. Raised his brows. "Expensive."
"Gift from a client."
"Well, half of it is soaked into the carpet."
"It's seen worse," Sherlock said. Had he already said that? Perhaps he'd only thought it.
"Mm," John said. It was difficult to tell if he meant to sound chastising or agreeing.
Sherlock took another sip of water. Watched from the corner of his eye as John righted himself and approached the mantel, the slanting sunlight catching briefly on his silver hair, making it gleam golden. He looked younger in warm light.
John reached out, smoothed the top of his finger over the urn, wiped away invisible dust. The bookshelves remained eloquent with it, but the place where Mrs Hudson now kept company with Billy the skull over the fireplace was always kept immaculate.
"This would have upset her," Sherlock said.
John looked over his shoulder. His expression was strange—resigned, a little amused. "No, it really wouldn't have. Well. She'd have been upset about the carpet. But not about—you know."
Mrs Hudson had loved Rosie fiercely, had doted on her. She may not have been blood, but she had been family, and surely she would have—
"Oh, come on," John said. "You know what she was like. She'd have made all kinds of noise about the kind of life we lead and all of the excitement and then she would have given Rosie a hug and told her to be careful and that would have been that."
Sherlock opened his mouth, shut it again. The words would not come. He thought perhaps John was right, but how could that be? How could Mrs Hudson, who had loved Rosie like her own grandchild, ever have tolerated a world where Rosie willingly put herself into harm's way?
John retreated back to his chair. The springs creaked as he settled in.
Something gnawed at the edges of Sherlock's mind. He frowned, stared hard at the urn.
I want to join the army like Daddy, Rosie had said once, out of the blue. She'd been eight years old and bright-eyed in the sunshine, standing on the back of a bench in Regent's Park, testing her balance. Her trainers wobbled, then found firm footing. She'd smiled.
Sherlock's chest had clenched and he'd stopped himself from reaching out to steady her. No, he'd said.
But wouldn't he be proud of me? she'd asked, the smile falling away from her face. She'd taken another cautious step along the back of the bench, her arms spread wide.
Sherlock had thought about telling her about all of the damage that bullets could do, about physics and trajectories and the difference between entry and exit wounds. Thought about the way Mary had died, the front of her shirt blooming dark with blood while fish swam in dispassionate circles behind thick glass. He'd give anything, he knew, to keep Rosie from ever knowing that kind of pain.
He's already proud of you, was what he'd said, and he'd offered his hand. Rosie had taken it, had jumped down from the bench with a little huff of effort.
Sherlock shook off the memory. His head ached. His mind felt treacle-slow, useless.
"You're not upset," he said, finally.
"I'm plenty upset," John said. His voice was mild.
Sherlock shook his head, did not take his eyes from the urn. "No. You're not. Why aren't you?"
John shifted in his chair. The aging springs squeaked again. Sherlock turned his head, looked at him.
"I am upset," John said. He hesitated, looked down. "But I'm not surprised."
"She surprised you," John said. "You didn't see this coming. Somehow. And I think that's making it worse."
"Why aren't you surprised?" Sherlock demanded, shocked that he could have missed this, that it could have possibly slipped under his radar. How had John seen it, when he hadn't? And why hadn't John stopped it?
John looked at him, did not answer. His expression was fond.
"You're saying this could have been predicted. But this is Mycroft—" Sherlock spit the word, leaping to his feet and whirling away from John and his maddeningly calm, fond expression. "This is Mycroft's doing, Mycroft whispering in her ear, Mycroft getting his way, Mycroft who has still somehow learned nothing from what happened that day—"
He did not need to clarify which day. Their time at Sherrinford, however brief, had left its mark. Even now, all these years later.
John got to his feet, joined him where he'd stopped by the window, looking out over Baker Street. Put one hand on his arm.
"What?" Sherlock snapped, because his head ached and John was thinking and not speaking, he was thinking so hard he was nearly vibrating with it and it was hateful, it was maddening, it was—
"We've never really talked about that."
He looked away, flicked a dismissive hand. "We've never talked about a lot of things."
"You were going to shoot him."
"Was I? Hm. Perhaps I should have."
He sucked in a breath of air, scanned the room for a distraction, an escape, anything.
"Sherlock," John said again.
He turned back. "Well, I wasn't about to shoot you."
John did not look away from him, did not step back. "Why not? Would have made the most sense."
"Nothing about that day made any sense."
John laughed. It was a startled sound, a little choked, a little brittle. But the smile on his face was genuine. "No, it really didn't."
Sherlock stared at him for a moment. Thought of Mycroft, calmly awaiting a bullet in the heart. There had never been any question. There had never been any choice to make. He had known it. Mycroft had known it. Had accepted it. Tried to make it easier, in his own way.
He shut his eyes.
He had tried, for years, to force Mycroft into the role of the villain, the arch-nemesis, the oppressor. He'd never quite fit.
John's exhalation was loud in the quiet room. "Sherlock—"
"I know what you're trying to do," he said. He did not open his eyes.
"And what's that, then?"
"You think I need distracting."
A huff of laughter, disbelieving this time. "Don't you?"
He considered that. Opened his eyes. John was standing very close, his expression warm and concerned. He felt some of the tension go out of his shoulders.
"Oh," he said.
"She'll be back," John said.
"How can you be sure?"
"She said she would, didn't she?"
Sherlock thought of Rosie at the door, buttoning her coat. Her short, sharp little nod in response to his question.
"I didn't tell you that," Sherlock said.
"If you really thought she wouldn't be back, you'd have gone after her," John said.
Sherlock blinked at him, still amazed after all this time that he could be known so completely.
"Yes," he admitted.
"Then we wait." John squeezed his hand.
They stood by the window in silence, looking out over Baker Street. The sunlight made Sherlock's head hurt. It should be raining. Why wasn't it raining?
Twenty years, Sherlock thought. Almost twenty years as their own peculiar little family. Somehow, the fact that things changed, that things ended, had never really occurred to him.
What had he thought would happen? That she'd finish out her time at university, obtain a boring job, and return home to Baker Street? Go on living in the little room at the top of the stairs, forever a little girl?
He thought of the cottage, then, as he did from time to time. Big windows and draughty bedrooms, the overgrown garden and the salt air. He usually banished such thoughts immediately, had for years. Fanciful. Not the right time. Rosie belonged in London, after all. It was the only home she'd ever known. But now—
"You know, we waited her out that time when she was thirteen," John said. His voice was mild, conversational. "When she ran away. That was your call, and it was the right one."
Sherlock looked down at the ground, pulled his thoughts back to the here and now. "She's not thirteen any longer." He could no longer reasonably predict what she'd do in any given situation. It alarmed him that she'd somehow passed beyond his ability to read, that she'd learned his methods so well as to turn them against him.
"No," John agreed. "She's an adult."
Sherlock scoffed. "Barely."
His own poorly chosen words, three days ago: She's a child.
Mycroft, calm and reserved as ever: She's an adult, Sherlock, and well capable of making her own decisions.
"That was one of the longest nights of my life," John said, his voice cutting into Sherlock's thoughts. He kept his gaze fixed on the window.
One of, John had said. One of the longest nights. Not the longest night. Sherlock could not help but wonder which night held the top honour. Mary's death? His own? The night they'd sat up, side by side, not speaking, the scent of chlorine on their clothes and Moriarty's parting words hanging between them?
There were too many choices, too many long nights.
Sherlock swallowed. Stared out the window without really seeing anything. He could not focus enough to deduce even the smallest details of the people passing by below.
Caring is not an advantage, Mycroft's old refrain, haunting and smug. He'd done his best to banish that lesson, but it had been hard-learned.
He'd given up his last advantage years ago. Had succumbed helplessly, enthusiastically, had let his heart wrest control from his mind. In all the time that followed, he'd never really regretted it.
But it did occasionally make things difficult.
"This is my fault," he said, finally. His mouth was dry.
John turned to face him, frowning. Sherlock could see him out of the corner of his eye. "What are you talking about?"
"Mycroft looks at people and sees only their utility. He can't help himself. I never should have let him know her, I never should have—"
I killed his wife, the thought broke over him like an icy wave, the first time he'd thought it in years, and wasn't that just—
He sucked in a hard breath, even as John set gentle hands on his shoulders and turned him so they were facing one another. And now I've as good as killed his daughter, too.
"Hey," John said. His grip tightened. "Hey."
"I should have anticipated—"
"Sherlock," John said. "Mycroft has been a part of Rosie's life since she was small. He's family."
Sherlock could not stop his lip from curling up in a sneer at that.
John laughed. Laughed. It was a startled sound, but genuine. And his grip tightened again on Sherlock's shoulders and he leaned up to kiss the sneer from his face.
John's lips were chapped, dry against Sherlock's own. He'd clearly been worrying at them. Nervous after all, then. The calmness was for show.
One of John's hands drifted up to cup the back of Sherlock's head, fingers twining in the overlong curls that hung over his nape. There was a deep affection in that touch. Slow. Reverent.
Not a lick of common sense, Watsons. Always looking to run into danger rather than away from it. It was infuriating. And he feared that's what he'd always loved most about them.
John pulled back, looked at him.
"What?" Sherlock demanded, when the silence and the staring had gone on for too long.
"Christ," John said, and his mouth quirked into a smile. He shook his head, looked away, still smiling. "You really need to brush your teeth."
Sherlock brushed his teeth.
He listened to John puttering in the kitchen. Familiar sounds. Domestic sounds. The clink of glasses in the sink, the burble of water from the tap. The kettle.
When he was relaxed and happy, John often hummed while he washed dishes. He was quiet this morning. His movements had a short, mechanical quality to them. Plates clattered against the countertop, set down sharply. Not slammed. Not angry, then. Distracted. Mind elsewhere.
Sherlock finished his teeth, took a paracetamol, left the bathroom with his mouth tasting of mint. Brushed past John and went into the hallway, looked down the stairs.
His coat by the door. John's next to it. The peg where Rosie's should hang, conspicuously empty.
He'd been the one to console John when Rosie had left for university.
The idea of getting maudlin over her going off into the world had seemed unnecessary at the time. It was natural that she would go to university, that she'd expand her horizons, that she'd eventually live elsewhere and return home only for holidays and special occasions.
John had been mopey and quiet for weeks after she'd left.
You're upset because it's a natural reminder of your own mortality, Sherlock had helpfully informed him after he'd begun to grow weary of the pervasive sadness. She's aged, become self-sufficient, thus forcing you to come to terms with the fact that you've aged as well.
John had not found his comments particularly helpful or consoling. But the ensuing row had helped stir him from his quiet misery, so Sherlock considered it a victory.
He did not understand why this should be any different.
He turned away, looked up the stairs that led to Rosie's little bedroom instead. It had been John's, once. Then it had been empty, for longer than Sherlock cared to remember. And then it had been John-and-Rosie's.
He went up the stairs. Pushed open the door and looked into the room, but did not venture inside.
It was military-neat. Rosie had always tended towards tidiness, much like her father.
She had taken the majority of her personal effects with her to university. The books left behind on the tall shelf by the wall were old, the few clothes remaining in her wardrobe were ill-fitting.
Rosie had just turned two years old when John finally sold his little place in the suburbs and returned to Baker Street.
John did not bring much with him. Even so, the room filled quickly. He'd squeezed Rosie's cot into the space next to his bed, under the window. He stacked her things in his wardrobe, his own clothes pushed haphazardly to the side.
The upstairs bedroom was too small. It was not a permanent solution. At some point, Rosie was going to reach an age where she deserved a measure of privacy, a space to call her own.
At some point, John would want that too.
Sherlock had known that. John had known it too. They'd both gone on ignoring it.
They'd settled in. They'd established new routines. John discontinued his blog and took to tweeting about Sherlock's cases. Sherlock professed himself endlessly grateful for the character limits. It had been good—better than he'd dared hope for. Better than he thought he'd ever be able to have. They'd carried on like that for nearly a year.
It was happiness, however temporary, however fleeting.
Sherlock had thought about the cottage, in those days. He'd thought about it a lot. Had spent hours in his mind palace, considering it from all angles. It was a bolt-hole, he reasoned. Albeit a more permanent one.
Because if (when) John left and took Rosie with him, when they found themselves in need of a more suitable living arrangement, he'd not be able to live with the silence anymore. He knew that.
Baker Street wasn't meant to be silent.
He couldn't do it again.
Sherlock pulled the door shut, sat down against the wall in the little landing.
It was quiet. He found himself inexplicably angry for the small effects that Rosie had left behind, the unsuitable bits of herself she'd cast off.
Dust and grit bit into the skin of his palms and he wiped his hands on his trouser legs. He could not recall the last time anyone had hoovered in the hallway. The wallpaper behind his head was old, peeling a bit at the seams.
Downstairs, John shut off the tap.
The landing at the top of the stairs was small, the flooring uneven, the hall light too dim to ever really properly illuminate the space.
It was Sherlock's favourite place in the flat.
He shut his eyes, breathed. Listened to John's slow footsteps ascending to join him.
"Hey," John said, and Sherlock opened his eyes.
John looked down at him for a moment, his expression bemused. "Not doing your back any favours, sitting like that. Especially after spending the night in your chair."
Sherlock shrugged. He thought it likely that John took a small degree of satisfaction in the fact that he wasn't as spry as he used to be.
John held out his hand.
Sherlock looked at it, did not grasp it to pull himself up.
John sighed, looked up at the ceiling. "Sherlock—"
"I know what you're going to say," Sherlock said, rolling his eyes. "And—"
"Look, if you want to shout at Mycroft, go ahead and shout at Mycroft."
Sherlock shut his mouth, looked back at John. It was not what he'd been expecting John to say.
"Won't change anything," John said. "But it might make you feel better. So."
I have a cottage, Sherlock thought but didn't say. Bought it years ago, when I thought I might need somewhere to run to. It's quiet. I never used to want that, but.
"You're right," he said instead. "Won't change anything. He's insufferable at the best of times, and old age has only made him worse."
Amusement flickered on John's face. "I'm right, yeah? Not something I hear every day."
"Come now, John, even a broken clock is right twice a day."
John smiled wider, rocked a bit on his feet. "Twice a day. Almost a compliment, that."
"Mm. Don't let it go to your head."
John held out his hand again. "Come to bed?"
Sherlock frowned. "It's half ten."
"Not for sleeping."
Sherlock looked at him. John's eyes had darkened.
Oh, Sherlock thought, and then, absurdly: he remembers.
Of course he remembered.
He reached up, took John's hand, let him pull him to his feet. They stood, quiet, breathing, a memory trembling in the air between them. Sherlock's mouth tasted of mint. He tugged John's hand, pulling him closer, closer.
Their mouths met and John gently pushed Sherlock back against the wall. Sherlock's hands went helplessly to John's waist, fingers twisting at the hem of his jumper.
"You brushed your teeth," John breathed against Sherlock's lips.
"You told me to."
"Since when do you do what I say?"
"Always," Sherlock gasped.
John shook his head, kissed him again. Shivered as Sherlock's hands skated up under his shirt, ghosted across his skin.
Rosie, barely three years old, damp with sweat, her cheeks flushed red with fever, plastered against John. Her head on his shoulder, limp blonde strands of her hair lying against her hot forehead.
She'd thrown up on John and he hadn't missed a beat, had kept rocking her and soothing her and had run her a cool bath, had hummed and babbled nonsense to her while she let out the most pitiful whimpers. And then he had carried her back upstairs, had settled her in bed and pressed damp compresses to her forehead and calmed her while Sherlock watched helplessly from the doorway.
Gentle hands, he'd thought. John's hands on Rosie were gentle and soothing, healing hands. Competent. He often claimed to be utter pants at parenting but when he let his instincts take over he was fine. More than fine. Good.
When she'd finally, finally fallen into a fitful sleep, John had shifted where he sat on the edge of her little bed and had looked at him, his eyes tired.
Sherlock had stared back. He'd been unable to look away.
John had lifted a finger to his lips, a silent shushing motion that was entirely unnecessary; Sherlock would no more have shattered the tenuous quiet of that moment than he would have sawed off one of his own limbs.
John had stood. Sherlock moved aside to let him through the door, which he shut halfway behind him.
They'd stood too close in the landing by the stairs. There was a large damp patch across the front of John's shirt where he had mopped away Rosie's sick but had not had a chance to do much else. His shirt clung to his skin in a way that looked terribly uncomfortable.
"She's all right?" Sherlock had asked, keeping his voice low.
John gave him a weary little smile. "She's miserable and feverish, but she'll be fine."
"Oh," Sherlock had said, because he could think of nothing else. It emerged as barely a whisper, just a puff of air between his lips.
"You didn't have to—" John shifted where he stood, suddenly awkward. There was very little space between them, there in the little alcove by the stairs. He'd gestured towards the doorway, shrugged. "—stay. You didn't have to stay. I'm sure it was—I'm sure you had things to do, and—"
They were standing so very close, their heads together, speaking quietly so as not to disturb Rosie on the other side of that half-closed door.
"I was—" Sherlock had paused, looked at John's face, the weary worried pallor of it. He'd felt caught out, unwelcome, an interloper intruding on John's quiet moment with his daughter. His words seemed inadequate, clumsy.
John looked steadily at him. He did not step back.
"—concerned," Sherlock finished.
A smile, hooking up the corner of John's mouth. Faint but genuine. He'd not been upset that Sherlock had lingered. This was something else.
Looking back, Sherlock could not say why he did it. Something about the proximity, perhaps, or the expression on John's face. Perhaps for no other reason than he'd wanted to, had wanted for so very long.
He'd rocked forward ever so slightly on the balls of his feet, closed the narrow distance between them. He pressed his lips to John's, hesitant, wary. Brought his hands up to cradle John's face, a faint rasp of evening stubble beneath his palms.
John had breathed out hard through his nose and Sherlock startled, his hands falling away, horrified embarrassed excuses already building up in his throat. Experiment. Reflex. Accident. Meaningless. Delete. Delete. Delete.
And then John had pushed forward, one arm wrapping around Sherlock's waist, the other sliding warm and welcome along the back of his neck, fingers twining in the hair at his nape. Their lips met again, clumsy, uncoordinated, and Sherlock stumbled back against the wall, swallowing down his own surprised exclamation. John shushed him quickly, his eyes bright, amused.
John's hand on his neck, his fingers in his hair, slipping idly through the curls at the back of his head. John's hand on his waist, fingers splayed wide, warm through his shirt. John's lips on his, eager and pressing, not at all hesitant. The heavy close scents there on the landing, the sour sharp smell of drying sick on John's shirt, perspiration and the faint lingering trace of John's cologne.
The aging wallpaper rasped against the fabric of Sherlock's shirt as he slid, stunned and boneless, against the wall.
Sherlock had made a sound, a soft noise in the back of his throat that he could not quite choke back. His senses were firing at full speed, noticing, cataloguing, feeling. His mind could not catch up. His mind seemed to have given up, entirely, the notion of even trying to catch up.
John made another shushing noise against his lips and then they were kissing again, fumbling and eager, almost desperate. His brain had ceased to function. His hands moved of their own accord, cupping John's cheeks, sliding down the sides of his neck and across his shoulders. Down his arms and against the shifting curve of his waist. Fingers skimming under the edge of his shirt, dancing along the thin strip of skin he'd revealed. He'd wanted—he'd always wanted—
John's lips, soft and firm and damp against his. He could taste John's breath, wanted to inhale him, to draw him in and never release another breath of his own.
At some point he had shut his eyes. He opened them again, suddenly anxious for the visual input, for some sign that this was happening, that his mind had not simply decided to take a particularly fanciful detour.
The sight of John (right there, pink-cheeked and mussed and smiling, smiling as he leaned in for another kiss) had nearly brought him to his knees. He groaned, let his head fall back against the wall.
John went for his neck, hot mouth latching on and, oh, there was a sensation, that was something he was going to want to remember, except it was all happening much too fast to grasp on to, slipping through his fingers like water.
"John," he gasped, and shut his eyes again.
"Sherlock, I—" John pulled back fractionally, breathing hard.
Sherlock opened his eyes.
"I—" John said again. There was a shocked expression on his face, as if he had just come to his senses and realised exactly what he was doing.
Sherlock's heart sank even as John lifted his hand to cup his cheek with an achingly slow, tender motion. His thumb swiped back and forth against the edge of his cheekbone, smoothing the thin skin under his eye. The words would come now, he knew. Regrets and apologies that he could no longer brush off with hasty lies.
"I—" John had said again, his eyes still wide, his pupils still huge and dark, his breath still coming in stuttering gasps. "Sher—" he said, and it was unbearable, why could he not just spit it out and be done with it?
A rustle and a thump from Rosie's room, a muted whimper that escalated into a guttural wail, a choking sobbing scream for DADDY had John jerking back in a rush, swiping a hand over his hair to tame it back down, turning back towards Rosie's room without a word, except—
"Sherlock," John had said, stopping in the door, looking back over his shoulder. His voice was gravelly, deeper than usual. "I'll be—just—"
"Go," Sherlock said. It emerged remarkably steady. He pushed up from where he'd sprawled back against the wall, straightened his jacket. Performed the necessary dance, the ritual of composure. "Your daughter needs you."
He'd gone down the stairs, into the sitting room. Tried not to listen to the sound of John soothing Rosie's wails. Tried not to think of John's hands on his face, on his waist, in his hair. Tried not to think of John's body pressed against his, of the taste of his lips, the feel of his skin under his fingers.
He'd never allowed himself to imagine that was something he could have.
Upstairs, Rosie's pitiful sobs slowly subsided. John was speaking to her, his voice low, muffled. Calming.
He sat down on the sofa and stared at the unlit fireplace. Brought one hand up to touch his lips.
It was worse, he thought. Knowing what it felt like.
He listened to the creak of footsteps, a slow steady tread down the stairs.
John went straight into the kitchen, ran the tap. Put a clean flannel under the cool stream, wrung it out, went back upstairs with it. He did not speak.
Sherlock tried not to listen and he tried not to think, and was helpless to stop either.
After an agonising wait, he again heard John's footsteps on the stairs. John's steps paused in the doorway, the floorboards creaking.
Sherlock tore his gaze away from the fireplace, looked at John.
John had smiled—a small, weary smile. It was inexplicable, that smile. He should have been filled with regret, with remorse, with pity. He should have been steeling himself to offer his explanation, his apologies.
Sherlock should leave, he knew. He should stand up and get his coat and save them both the embarrassment, should go out into the London night and walk off his own selfish regret. He could return when it became obvious that no such conversation would be necessary, message sent and received, case closed.
He should leave. He should have left already.
He did not leave.
John had turned away without a word, went down the hallway into the bathroom. Sherlock listened as the water turned on. He tipped his head back against the couch cushions, closed his eyes. Thought about John's inexplicable smile. Allowed himself a moment, just a moment, to relive John's hands on his body, John's breath in his lungs.
He'd ruined it, he knew. He'd ruined it and John would leave and Sherlock would have to leave as well. Inevitable. It was why he'd bought the cottage, after all.
The sofa dipped next to him, John's weight settling close but not touching.
Sherlock opened his eyes.
John had changed his shirt. A faint odour of mint wafted in the air around him—he'd brushed his teeth. He was smiling down at the ground, a rueful little smile. There was a tiny white fleck of toothpaste in the corner of his mouth that Sherlock badly wanted to lick away.
"Sorry," John had said. "Timing."
"Of course," Sherlock said. He shifted where he sat, feeling conspicuous and uncomfortable. He'd folded his hands in his lap.
John breathed in, a deep breath. Preparation for speech. Sherlock very much did not want to hear whatever it was that he was going to say.
"She's asleep, for now," John said. "Her fever's coming down."
Sherlock blinked. He'd looked down at his hands, looked back up at John. "Oh," he said. "Good."
"I—um," John looked oddly bashful all of a sudden, not quite meeting Sherlock's eyes. He licked his lips. "Can't guarantee you'll have my full attention. If she wakes up again—"
"You'll need to see to her, yes, of course John," Sherlock had said, impatient now, and not a little bewildered.
"All right," John said, and he smiled again. Another deep breath. He was nervous, Sherlock realised belatedly. Nervous for—
John shifted closer on the sofa, their shoulders bumping up together. Sherlock turned his head slightly, frowning, struggling to understand. Their faces were very close.
John kissed him.
It was a gentle kiss, soft but determined, no hesitation or uncertainty.
It was entirely the opposite of what Sherlock had expected. He froze, his mouth half-open in question, his limbs rigid and uncertain.
John's lips slipped unerringly against his, the tip of his tongue darting out to seek welcome. His mouth tasted of mint. His left hand came up to cup Sherlock's face, his right hand twining their fingers together where they pressed against the sofa cushions.
He'd paused. Pulled back, just slightly, his eyes half-lidded.
"Sherlock? Is this—" he paused, looked down. Sherlock followed his gaze to their hands, clasped together against the leather of the couch. He shifted his fingers, marveling at the feel of John's on top of his own.
"Yes," Sherlock said.
"Sorry," John said, inexplicably pulling away further. "Probably should have—talked. First."
His brain was firing much too slowly. Talk? John wanted to talk? Whatever for?
"Sorry if I've got it wrong," John said. He took his hand away, rubbed his own face. He looked tired, defeated. His nervous little smile had faded. "It's just—earlier. You seemed. It—"
John had not joined him on the sofa to offer his regrets or his embarrassed apologies. He'd sat down looking to continue where they'd left off. And now he was leaning back, putting distance between them and that was wrong. The situation needed to be rectified immediately.
Sherlock lurched forward, grabbing at him with clumsy, graceless hands, crashing their mouths back together. He sucked in a lungful of John's startled exhale, darted his own tongue out to swipe away the tempting dab of toothpaste that John had missed, mint blooming bright and brief in his mouth.
John made a surprised sound, and then a pleased sound, and his hands came back up to smooth along Sherlock's back, pulling them closer together, the leather sofa squeaking beneath them. Sherlock fell backwards against the cushions, fighting to keep his eyes open against the assault of sensation as John dropped his head and pressed hot wet kisses along his neck.
"You're not—" Sherlock gasped, his head tipping back to allow John better access. "You don't—"
"I do," John said, laughing a little, but there was nothing flippant about his tone. "I really, really do."
"Oh," he said, or perhaps only thought. It was difficult to tell, what with John mouthing along his jawline.
"I'd thought you didn't—how long have you—?" John cut himself off, dipped to press a hard kiss against Sherlock's lips. His voice cracked as he continued, something in his tone strained and trying for humour. "Just don't—don't tell me you've been in love with me this whole time. Because I—that would—that would—"
Sherlock, who had opened his mouth to say just that, clamped it back shut.
John seemed to read it in his expression regardless, and his face crumpled. "Christ," he said. "Oh. Oh, Christ."
Sherlock shut him up by kissing him. His heart kicked helplessly against his ribs. His face had grown hot. There had been signs, he thought, signs all along, and he'd missed them. Somehow he'd missed them.
John had pulled back, one hand making maddening circles on Sherlock's back, the other pressed against his chest and holding him at bay.
"Sherlock," John said, and his eyes were damp. "Just—we should—"
"Shut up," Sherlock said. It emerged like a groan, like a prayer. "Shut up and just—"
John had kissed him again, a desperately sad noise rumbling in the back of his throat. The hand that had been pushing Sherlock back tangled in his shirt instead, yanked him forward.
"Me too," John gasped hot against Sherlock's ear. "Just. For the record."
Sherlock shut his eyes. Drew one unsteady breath, and then another. His third breath drew John back in towards him, their kiss softer, sweeter than the ones that had come before.
John's hand at the waistband of his pyjama pants, tentative fingertips sliding over sensitive skin.
Sherlock opened his eyes and met John's gaze, shivered at the emotion there. He hadn't seen. Somehow, he'd never seen it.
He lurched forward again, crushed their mouths together.
John slipped his hand inside his pants, and Sherlock fell apart.
"Sofa," Sherlock said as they stumbled down the stairs together.
"Bed," John protested. "Too old for the sofa."
"Nonsense," Sherlock said, and tumbled them together over the armrest.
John groaned as his back hit the sagging cushions, but he did not protest further. Pulled Sherlock down on top of him, slid their mouths together. The sunlight slanting through the windows painted golden highlights in his hair.
"Not everything has to be a bloody trip down memory lane," John said, but his complaint was tinged with humour. Sherlock bit his lip and he sighed, tipped his head back.
It did, Sherlock thought. It did, because there would come a time when memories were all they had.
It was an oddly sentimental thought, and not a particularly comfortable one. He pushed it aside.
John's hands in his hair, wrenching his head up away from his neck to claim his lips with his own. John's hips, rising to meet his. They were older, yes, but not old, not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
His mouth tasted of mint.
"You're still trying to distract me," Sherlock said, after, his hands tracing patterns in John's sweat-slicked skin. His hangover was a distant memory, faintly throbbing at the edges of his consciousness.
"Is it working?" John asked, lifting his head. He was smiling a little bit, a crooked hopeful smile. His hair had flattened down on one side. Sherlock wanted badly to reach out and fix it.
He considered John's question. Found he had no answer.
There had been three months of solving cases together, like the old days. Three months of John arriving in the morning and settling into his chair, brows raised indulgently as Sherlock spoke with an endless parade of clients. Three months of Rosie toddling unsteadily on the rug, finding her way around the flat with bright eyes and curious fingers.
Three months spent standing at the window as night crept over London, standing at the window and staring down as John and Rosie walked away.
He'd play, after they'd gone. He'd stand alone in the sitting room and run his bow along the strings until his muscles trembled with exertion and his thoughts quieted. Sometimes he'd compose. Sometimes he'd play familiar pieces, would roam the halls of his mind palace while his fingers danced along the neck of his violin.
Sometimes Mrs Hudson would come upstairs and sit with him, would tuck herself into John's chair and watch with her hands clasped in her lap. She'd always clapped when he was done. He'd always offered her a little bow in return. She'd smile at him, but her smile was a bit sad.
"I'm—erm. Thinking about selling my place," John had said one day, out of the blue. His tone had been too casual, almost forced. He'd scraped at the armrest of his chair with one fingernail.
It had seemed significant, those words. Sherlock had lifted his head and stared.
"It's just—" John shook his head, not making eye contact. His finger went on scratching at the chair. He licked his lips. "Bad memories there, you know? Well. Not just bad memories. Good ones too. But—"
"Time for a fresh start," Sherlock said. That was the sort of thing that friends said.
"Yes," John said, tipping his head in acknowledgement. "Exactly."
Sherlock had sat in his chair and thought about John selling the little house he'd shared with Mary. Thought about what that might mean, where he might go.
"Staying in London?" he'd asked, finally. His chest had tightened. He'd held himself carefully, painfully still.
"Yeah, well, that's the plan," John said. "Have to start looking for a place. Maybe something a little closer. Bit smaller."
"You could—" Sherlock had said, and then stopped.
John paused in scratching at the chair. Looked up. "Hm?"
Sherlock had cleared his throat, sat up straight. Folded his hands conspicuously under his chin to hide their trembling. "Your room is, of course, free."
As soon as the words were out his throat was on fire, choking on a simultaneous wave of oh please yes and oh God no. He sat very still.
"My room." John spoke slowly, his head tilted slightly.
"Upstairs," Sherlock had said, though it seemed silly to clarify. Surely John knew what he meant.
John had shifted in his seat, had looked over his shoulder towards the stairs. He'd seemed genuinely bewildered.
"You—" John stopped, shook his head. Turned back towards Sherlock. Scratched at the back of his neck, an unconscious nervous gesture. "That would be something you would—?"
Sherlock had waited.
"It's just," John said. "You've lived alone for so long. You like being alone. I can't imagine you'd want—I mean—"
Sherlock had said nothing. Went on waiting. Wondered how it had come to be that John had got it so very wrong. It was his own fault, he supposed.
John must have seen something in his face. He'd shifted in his chair, frowned.
"It wouldn't just be me," he'd said, and nodded towards Rosie, who was playing with a set of wooden blocks on the floor between them.
Well. Playing was a generous description, Sherlock supposed. What she was really doing was chewing on the edge of a wooden block and, intermittently, banging it against another wooden block.
Still, he'd thought she was displaying remarkable dexterity for her age.
"Yes, obviously," he'd said, looking away from Rosie and fixing his eyes on John. "I assumed you wouldn't be including her in the sale of your home."
John had giggled, then, had pressed his knuckles against his mouth to muffle the sound.
The corner of Sherlock's mouth twitched, threatened to become a smile. He ruthlessly forced it into submission.
"Really, though," John said, and suddenly he wasn't laughing any more. He fidgeted in his chair, looked down at his hands. "I'd like to. Really, I would. But."
"But?" Sherlock prompted. He swallowed, folded his hands under his chin to have something to do with them.
"Well, come on. A toddler. Here?"
"John," Sherlock said, and looked pointedly at Rosie. "She's here nearly every day."
John followed his gaze. He'd looked utterly thunderstruck.
"She is, isn't she?" He spoke slowly, wonderingly. Looked back up at Sherlock with damp eyes. There was something in his expression that looked almost—pleased. Surprised. Almost like hope.
"Well, there you have it," Sherlock said. He'd clapped his hands together, hoped the gesture gave the appropriate impression of finality. Hoped that it wasn't obvious his heart had been dangling, terrifyingly exposed, while John considered. "Very little would change, and you'll likely save a fortune in cab fare."
And even though he knew he was only delaying the inevitable, that John and Rosie would eventually depart and leave a gaping hole in their wake, he'd had to turn away quickly to hide his own burgeoning smile.
There was no word from Rosie.
Sherlock stood at the window and watched the sun set on her second night away.
She would not go to Mycroft. It was the only thing he was certain of. Rosie took a certain pride in her independence, and asking him to house her would be a direct affront to her sensibilities. Nor would she simply return to university, not with so much unresolved.
She had friends, of course. He was forced to acknowledge the possibility that she'd even managed to acquire friends that he did not know of. She could be anywhere. With anyone.
She'd dated a bit over the years, but never anything serious. She's like you, John had said once. Careful with her heart.
There was nothing he could do.
He could not text Wiggins for help. Wiggins was dead.
He had other contacts. Others who could help him. But none as reliable as Wiggins. None who would prioritize Rosie above all else the way Wiggins had.
He was dead, and he'd left behind a family. Sherlock knew nothing about them. He'd never bothered to find out. All the years he'd known Wiggins, he'd just assumed he was alone.
He shut his eyes, laid his forehead against the cool glass.
She knew how to disappear in London. He'd made sure of it.
If you really thought she wouldn't be back, you'd have gone after her, John had said. And John was right, of course. She would be back.
He paced. He seethed. He ran through possibility after possibility in his mind. He watched John watching him out of the corner of his eye, bristled under the scrutiny.
He exchanged increasingly tetchy messages with a prospective client before telling him to solve his own bloody case. Pretended not to notice John's raised brows, the disapproving set of his mouth.
Years ago, a night like this would have sent him out into the city looking for trouble.
It had been Rosie who came to accompany him home from the hospital, not John.
Rosie at sixteen, who was small and slight and sharp, who had almost certainly slipped out of the flat without her father's awareness.
She'd loitered in the doorway to his room, and he'd looked up, had tried to hide the disappointment that John had not come. He'd failed. She had not seemed hurt by his reaction but had smiled instead, folded her arms.
"He's pissed off," she'd said.
"He said that Dimmock knew where the suspect lived and was going to have someone pick him up at home. There was no need for you to go chasing him across any rooftops."
He could have argued, but it wasn't really her he'd wanted to argue with. He'd been tired and sore and simply wanted to go home.
The cast came up to mid-thigh.
"Want me to sign it?" Rosie had grinned.
"Absolutely not," he'd said.
"Does it hurt?"
"Feels great," he'd snapped, and looked away.
"He said you ought to find your own way home. Said it would serve you right."
John had ridden with him in the back of the ambulance. John had clutched his hand and had wiped blood away from his face and had begged him to be all right.
"I'm all right," he'd said to John. "It's my leg that's broken, not my head."
John had not said anything more after that. He'd gone on holding Sherlock's hand, had stayed with him until he'd been x-rayed and fitted with a cast and settled in a room for overnight observation. He had hit his head, he'd been forced to admit.
And then John had left. He'd not come back.
Sherlock had passed a long and dreadfully boring night staring up at the ceiling, distracted only by the throbbing ache in his leg. He found little refuge in his thoughts.
Slow reflexes. A younger man could have dodged the attack entirely.
It was only later that he'd considered what it might have done to John, seeing him twist and fall from a great height. He'd got tangled up in scaffolding on the way down. It had likely saved his life.
"How kind of you to disagree," Sherlock said to Rosie. He'd picked up his crutches, stood.
She'd shrugged, said nothing.
Her body language telegraphed concern, fear. She'd covered it up with a smirk and a casual attitude. It was, he was given to understand, how teenagers often behaved. He elected not to call attention to it.
She hailed them a taxi. He'd arranged himself in the back with a wince, tucked the crutches against the window.
Mrs Hudson had met him at the front door, had fussed over him a bit while he'd stood looking at the stairs, daunted and unwilling to admit it. He'd kissed her on the cheek.
"Watson," he'd said, when he felt ready. "A little assistance."
"Ugh," Rosie had said, but she hadn't meant it. Not really. "Come on, old man."
She'd put her arm around his waist and he'd leaned on her. She was surprisingly strong. They'd made it up the stairs with minimal fuss. She'd left him on the landing just outside the sitting room, had continued up the stairs towards her own room.
"Where are you going?"
"Uh, not in there with you," Rosie had said with a little laugh, holding her hands up. "Did I mention he's really, really pissed off at you?"
He'd gone inside with his chest twinging, suddenly quite nervous. He'd leaned heavily on his crutches.
John was by the windows, looking down at Baker Street. He'd seen them arrive, then.
Sherlock opened his mouth to speak, but the words died on his tongue.
John did not turn around. His shoulders were tense.
"It'll be eight weeks," Sherlock had said, finally. "In the cast."
He was painfully, achingly aware all at once of his own body's limitations. The creak of aging joints, the pop of tired knees. The way he'd flinched and ducked when he'd sensed danger but had simply not been fast enough.
"Sherlock—" John said, still not turning around. His voice had been terribly flat.
"I'm sorry," Sherlock had said. He thought of John next to him in the ambulance, John with his face pale and shocked and Sherlock's hand gripped tightly in his own. "You told me not to go after him and I—didn't think."
John had barked an unhappy laugh. "That's quite an admission, coming from you."
Sherlock hobbled to the sofa, sat down. Set his crutches aside. His leg throbbed in time with his pounding heart.
John turned around to face him. His eyes looked sunken, shadowed.
"Don't make me bury you," John said. "Don't make Rosie bury you. I can't—I can't do that. Again."
Sherlock had wanted to hold him, then, and had made an effort to struggle back up to his feet.
"Stop it, stop it, sit down," John had said, pushing away from the window and coming towards him, dropping to his knees in front of Sherlock. "You idiot. You absolute fucking idiot."
He'd hunched forward, buried his face in Sherlock's stomach. Breathed in. His shoulders shook.
Sherlock had leaned down, pressed his forehead against the top of John's head. Shut his eyes. Held on.
Danger nights, John had called them, years ago.
An apt enough description.
He took more care with himself, now. He fell back rather than hurling himself into harm's way. He was painfully conscious of his transport, his traitorous aging transport.
Sherlock could not go out without seeing. The entire city lit up for him, infinite paths to follow, people milling about with their secrets written in the folds of their clothing and the state of their hair. He was helpless to resist the tidal pull, always had been.
Most nights, that was fine.
But on a night like this—
Dangerous. And not in a good way.
So instead he paced like a caged tiger, hackles up, spoiling for a fight.
He paced and he wondered what Rosie would say when she finally returned home. Wondered what he might say in return. Ran through no fewer than six hypothetical scenarios in his mind that ended in Mycroft's death, each more grisly than the last.
I consider her something of a protégée.
When John finally ordered him to bed he complied, allowed himself to be tucked up close with the warm flat plane of John's chest against his back. Let himself be lulled by John's steady, even breaths.
Earlier they had tangled on the sofa, sweat-slick and drunk on bittersweet kisses. The honeyed afternoon light seemed impossibly distant, now.
The moon was a pale sliver in the cold night sky. It cast a faint glow through the bedroom window.
"It will be all right," John murmured, his lips brushing Sherlock's ear in a way that made him shiver.
"No one can predict the future," Sherlock said. "You can't know that. It's impossible."
"Fine," John conceded. "But whatever happens, we'll deal with it. It—" he hesitated, his breath a little shaky. "It is what it is."
The words had weight. Sherlock shut his eyes against a sudden hot rush. He breathed, and breathed, and finally he slept.
"I'm going out to the shops," John said.
Sherlock grumbled and sat up. It was early yet. The sky was grey. He listened to John's footsteps on the stairs, the creak and slam of the front door.
He showered, dressed, went out into the sitting room. Considered his violin, dismissed the idea. Sat in his chair instead, closed his eyes, thought about the cottage.
He'd never mentioned it to John.
He'd never mentioned the majority of his bolt-holes to John, of course, though he suspected that his secrets were not terribly well-kept.
Perhaps the time had come to broach the subject.
The downstairs door opened and shut.
Sherlock stood up, eyes on the door, listening for familiar footsteps on the stairs.
Not John. Not Rosie.
"Get out," he said, when the footsteps paused on the landing.
"I understand that you are upset," Mycroft said. He stepped through the doorway, moving slowly, gingerly. "But this is not your decision to make."
"Nor is it yours," Sherlock said.
Sherlock looked at him, really looked at him. He often saw his brother as he'd once been, not as he was now. It was difficult to remove the filter of so many years.
Mycroft had aged. Some men thickened with time, but he'd gone the other way, his cheekbones hollowing out, his waistline diminishing. His hair had thinned, receded. He looked almost mild, unimposing, disarming. Sherlock was not fooled. His wits had not dulled.
"Your protégée. Really?"
"I am exceedingly fond of the girl, surely you are aware."
Sherlock scoffed, looked away. "Fond. Do you even know what that means?"
"Do you?" Mycroft countered.
"It's not what I wanted for her."
"Oh, Sherlock," Mycroft's voice was pitying but not mocking. "Do children ever do what their parents want?"
Sherlock shifted where he stood, folded his arms. He thought he had demonstrated excessive restraint by not having already gone to fetch John's gun.
"Why are you here?"
"Whatever it is, no."
"I expect you'll change your mind."
"Hm, doubtful. Leave."
"It's being demolished today," Mycroft said.
Sherlock looked away. "What is?"
"You know what."
Sherlock pressed his lips together, looked at the wall. The paper was scuffed and well-worn. Once it had been new. He'd supervised the hanging of it himself, watching as the old paper had been peeled away in brittle fire-kissed strips. Rosie had been very small, squirming in John's arms.
"I'm planning on being there to see it fall," Mycroft said. "I'm here today to ask if you'd like to join me."
Sherlock thought again about fetching John's gun. Instead he smoothed his hands over his suit jacket, straightened the lapels, squared his shoulders. "All right."
He had gone to see Musgrave Hall only once, less than a year after the incident with Eurus and Sherrinford. He'd stood in the tall grass and looked at the burnt husk that had cast its shadow over him for years of his life.
It had been a warm day, clouds overhead interspersed with fleeting bursts of sunlight, and the house had not looked particularly frightening or foreboding. It had simply looked sad. Neglected. Long-forgotten.
He'd stood and he'd thought about John. John, who was in the midst of packing up the house he'd shared with Mary. John, who was coordinating with a realtor to put it on the market. John, who was planning on reclaiming the upstairs bedroom at Baker Street, this time with a toddler in tow.
John and Rosie, who would almost certainly outgrow the new arrangement within a few short years, if Sherlock did not drive them away before that. Who would almost certainly one day leave that upstairs bedroom barren and silent once more. Who would one day leave him behind, pacing the lonely halls of his freshly repaired flat like a bewildered ghost.
He'd stood and he'd thought and he'd looked at the once-grand old house where his childhood had died. The wind groaned through its charred bones.
He had not gone inside. He had not looked at the well where Victor's bones had been found.
Instead he'd continued on to Sussex, spent an hour by the sea listening to the crash of the surf and the cry of birds. There was a sort of comfort to be found in the wild salt air.
He'd looked up Janine's address, found himself in front of a small and cosy little cottage. The garden was overgrown and smelled pleasantly of wildflowers. The front door needed painting.
He rapped his knuckles against the peeling paint, waited. Watched a bee drift lazily from flower to flower.
"Oh," she'd said, looking surprised and flustered upon opening the door. "This is a surprise."
She'd made tea. They'd sat down at a little wooden table in her kitchen. Sherlock had looked around.
"Lovely cottage," he'd said.
"Yeah, it's lovely," she agreed. "But it's feckin' boring."
"I assumed you'd feel that way," he said. "I'd like to buy it."
She'd put her tea down on the table, stared at him.
He'd rolled his eyes. "If it's any consolation, you lasted far longer than I expected. I assumed you'd be clamouring to return to London life within a year. Early retirement doesn't suit you."
"And you think it would suit you?" she'd scoffed.
"Of course not. Consider it an investment in the future."
"You want to buy my cottage."
"Technically, I'd like to buy it again," he said. "Considering it was your association with me that enabled the purchase in the first place."
"Don't even start with that," she'd said.
He'd shut up. Held her gaze evenly over the little table. Sunlight filtered through the little window against the far wall.
"There are beehives," she'd said, finally. "Out back."
"Thought you were getting rid of those."
"More trouble than it was worth."
"Hm," he'd said. Considered. Found the idea agreeable.
She'd named her price. He lifted his brows.
"That's twice what it's worth."
"Yeah, well," she said. "What's it worth to you?"
She'd always had a bit of ice in her heart, he thought. It was one of the reasons why he liked her.
"Fine," he'd said. He'd shaken her hand.
Time had done Musgrave Hall no favours.
He and Mycroft sat in silence on the long drive, said nothing when the car pulled to a stop.
Sherlock climbed out first, stood in waist-high grass, dead tendrils tugging at his trouser legs. He stared.
The house had sagged even further over the years. There were no mysteries remaining in its derelict bones, no horrors lurking within flame-licked corridors. Only stone and wood and ash, a fragile structure that had stood for far too long.
Behind the house were men, shouting indistinctly. The roar of engines, staccato beeping. Large equipment being driven into place.
"Long overdue," Mycroft had said, standing with his arms folded.
"Yes," Sherlock agreed.
They watched quietly as the men worked.
"I'm thinking of retiring," Sherlock said, out of the blue. He was surprised to realise that he meant it.
Mycroft turned to look at him, his brows raised. Behind him, the grind and clank of the crane, the crack of old wood, the crunch of brick and stone.
"That's—" Mycroft seemed at a loss for words. He blinked, shook his head slightly. "Unexpected."
"Why? I'm getting older."
"So am I."
"Yes," Sherlock said, and a hint of a smile curled at the edge of his mouth. "I know."
The building groaned and creaked and crumbled. Each brick that fell lightened the load on his chest a little more.
"What will you do?"
Sherlock shrugged. "Whatever I want."
Mycroft sighed. "You tend towards self-destruction when you fall idle, Sherlock. You always have."
Sherlock was silent for a long moment. He stared out towards the rubble that had once been his childhood home. One stone wall remained, defiant.
"Not anymore," he said.
Mycroft breathed in through his nose. There was an uncharacteristic hesitance in him. "Sherlock," he said.
Sherlock grimaced, looked away.
"My intention was not to upset you. With Rosamund."
"No," Sherlock said. "You simply saw a tool and decided to put it to use."
"Am I?" Sherlock whirled back to face him. "That's what you do. That's what you've always done."
"You never allowed yourself to be—as you phrased it—put to use."
It was not what Sherlock had expected him to say. He hesitated.
"You were willful, defiant, forever set on your own course. There were times when the things you wanted made no sense to me whatsoever, yet you rejected any and all attempts to steer you to more appropriate waters."
"What, exactly, are you trying to say?"
"That Rosamund may not share your blood, but she is very much your daughter."
Sherlock pressed his lips together tightly. Did not speak.
Behind them, the last standing wall gave a pained groan and fell.
It was night when they reached London.
John was waiting for him in the sitting room. He'd lit a fire. There was a book open in his hands when Sherlock came through the door, and he shut it and set it carefully on his lap.
Sherlock noted the placement of the bookmark. John had only got a few pages in, though he'd clearly been sitting for some time. Distracted, then. Unable to concentrate. He'd likely been holding it and staring into the fire. He did that, sometimes, when he got lost in his own thoughts.
Sherlock glanced at the little table next to John's chair. No mug. No glass. He had not made himself tea, nor had he been drinking anything stronger.
"Sherlock," John said, and his voice was flat. He did not turn around.
Sherlock swallowed, went further into the room. Settled into his chair across from John, watched the firelight play across John's face.
"You're concerned," Sherlock said, unable to help himself. "You've tried all the usual distractions, but nothing's worked. Something is worrying you. Ordinarily you'd have a drink to settle your nerves, but you've elected not to. You think you may be called to act quickly, and you want to be sober."
John barked a laugh.
"What?" Sherlock asked. He glanced around, frustrated. "What have I missed?"
Rosie had not been back to the flat. He'd have seen some sign of her presence.
"Six texts," John said. "And a phone call."
John took his phone out of his pocket, held it up. "What you've missed."
Sherlock hesitated. He had not looked at his phone all day. "Ah."
"I was—" John pressed his lips together, looked away. "Worried."
"Yes," John said. "The way you were last night. I thought. I thought—"
Ah. So it came back to Wiggins after all. Old associations. Bad memories. Death rarely put old ghosts to rest; it only stirred up new ones.
Sherlock hesitated, leaned forward, elbows on his knees. "I was with Mycroft."
John's face registered surprise. Some of the rigid anger smoothed away. "Did you—"
"Nothing to do with Rosie," Sherlock said. "It was a—a temporary truce. Neutral ground."
"Of a kind."
John sighed, scrubbed one hand across his face. "All right."
"Do you have any allergies?" Sherlock asked.
John let his hand drop away from his face, stared.
"Pollen? Bees?" Sherlock pressed. He tapped his fingers together. Stood up, suddenly restless.
"I am not even going to pretend I know where you're going with this," John said.
Sherlock ignored him. "Doubtful, as you've not mentioned it. You've not taken any extra precautions when a case takes us out of London, nor have you had any adverse reactions over the years."
He went into the kitchen. Turned on the kettle. His hands were shaking.
"Sherlock," John said. A rustling sound from the sitting room. John had stood up from his chair.
Sherlock set two teacups on the kitchen table. Dropped a tea bag into each cup. "You'd have spent a significant amount of time outdoors in Afghanistan, although—"
"Oh for—" John slapped his hands down on the table, hard enough to rattle the teacups in their saucers.
Sherlock stopped talking.
"Sherlock," John said. "I know about the cottage."
Blood roared in his ears. John seemed quite far away, his voice tinny, distant, inconsequential.
"That's what all this is about," John said, flattening his palms against the tabletop, smoothing at the rough wood. His voice softened. "Isn't it?"
"You—" Sherlock said. He floundered, unable to form words.
"You've had it for years," John said. He did not look angry, or worried, or upset. His face was mild, possibly a little smug. Smug? Why smug?
"Yes, all right, you surprised me," Sherlock said, finally. "No need to look smug."
"You look smug all the time. I've earned this."
"I do not."
"You really do."
Sherlock cleared his throat, looked down at the table. The wood was scarred and stained, changed and warped by the years. It was still a good table. Solid. Firm. Functional.
"I found the paperwork," John said, finally. "A while back. When I was cleaning out the desk."
"Ah," Sherlock said, unable to lift his head. "You never said."
"Right. Well. Neither did you."
The kettle clicked off. Sherlock poured the water into the teacups. Forced himself to meet John's gaze through the rising steam. "Would you like to see it?"
Sherlock walked up the little stone path to the front door.
John followed behind, his steps slow but purposeful. He did not pause to admire the garden.
Not that there was much to admire, this time of year. The majority of the plants looked dead, shriveled and huddled against the cold.
The morning sun painted the front of the cottage in pale gold. The warm light belied the chill in the air. The wind was bracing, and carried a hint of salt.
Sherlock slid the key into the lock with a steady hand.
"This is nice," John said. His voice was mild.
"Yes," Sherlock agreed. He pushed open the door. The hinges did not squeak. He'd paid a caretaker a significant sum over the years to keep things tidy and well-maintained.
They went inside. Their footsteps on the aged wood floors seemed overloud.
"There's not—" Sherlock fought against the strange urge to whisper. He stopped in the middle of the empty room, clasped his hands together. Rocked on the balls of his feet. "I didn't—"
"Chairs by this window, I think," John said. He walked past Sherlock, paused in front of the big picture window overlooking the back garden.
Sherlock looked at him.
John looked back. Shrugged. Put his hands in his coat pockets, his shoulders hunched a bit against the chill.
"That is why you brought me here, isn't it?" John asked.
Sherlock swallowed, looked away. "Yes," he said. "But."
John nodded. Stood by the window for a long moment without speaking.
"It's funny," John said, finally, when the silence had nearly grown too long to bear. "I never really thought—never pictured you retiring. Leaving London. It's hard to imagine."
John looked at him with a curious expression. Did not answer.
Another long, quiet moment stretched out between them. Sherlock unclasped his hands, clasped them again.
The cottage was simple but spacious. A large open sitting room with a fireplace and the big window that looked out over the garden. There was a small kitchen and a bathroom, and upstairs, three small bedrooms and a second bathroom.
John went into the kitchen. Sherlock stayed in the sitting room, listened to the sound of him opening and shutting cabinets. Tried to imagine making this space their own, filling it with furniture and books and clutter.
John said something—likely a comment on the state of the kitchen. It was old. Irrelevant. They rarely cooked. If John wished to replace anything, they had the means to do so.
His footsteps receded, started up the staircase. Sherlock listened to the creak of old wood. It was different from the creak of the stairs at Baker Street. It would take some getting used to.
He'd not spent much time at the cottage. There had been the initial visit, of course, where he'd arranged to purchase the property from Janine. Twice more, to finalise the purchase and arrange for the caretaker. It had sat empty for a few years, until Rosie was in primary school.
Sherlock took the stairs two at a time, his knees popping, his heart sinking. He'd forgot. He'd forgot all about it, it had been years since—
John stood in one of the small bedrooms, looking down at a jumble of old chemistry equipment that Sherlock had dumped at the cottage rather than throw out.
Propped up against one hastily taped box was a painting.
It was not large, an 8x8 square. Wrapped canvas, unframed. Acrylic paint, medium quality. The skill of the artist: masterful. The subject: devastating.
He breathed out as he looked at it, really looked at it for the first time in more than fourteen years.
"What is this?" John asked him. His voice was flat. Unsettled. Unhappy.
Sherlock crouched, picked up the painting. Dust had settled heavily on the canvas and he angled it away from himself, blew gently. Resisted the urge to trace a finger along the lines of a beloved face rendered in thick golden hues.
One rainy morning when Rosie was six years old, Sherlock had looked out the window at the steady traffic on Baker Street. He'd watched the cars, and the people, and did not stir until one of Mycroft's dark cars pulled up to the kerb.
He'd taken his coat, had gone outside.
"You were expecting me," Mycroft said.
"Mm," Sherlock agreed.
The driver eased them into traffic.
"How is Rosamund?" Mycroft asked, after a time.
Sherlock had looked at him, frowned.
"I'm merely taking an interest," Mycroft had said. "We are . . . family, after all."
Sherlock had scoffed, had looked out the window. "She impressed you."
"She impressed you. In your office last month, when she found your little secret. Hence your sudden and uncharacteristic interest."
"I will admit a certain—surprise—that a child of her age could possess such keen observational skills. Your doing, I presume?"
"Her own doing," Sherlock had said. "Children see everything."
"So it seems."
Silence had fallen between them. The heater in the car was on much too high. Sherlock tugged at his scarf.
"Where are we going?" he'd asked, finally.
"You haven't deduced it?" There was a faint note of mockery in Mycroft's voice.
"Clearly something to do with our sister and the matter we discussed last month."
He'd let silence fall again, predicting that Mycroft would grow uncomfortable and seek to fill it. He'd not had to wait long.
"When we last spoke," Mycroft said, speaking slowly now, his face souring, "you expressed concern over our sister's emotional well-being. And the possibility that mistakes had been made with regards to her handling."
"Oh," Sherlock had said, smiling a false bright smile. "Did you invite her to tea after all?"
"Not as such," Mycroft had said. "But we have spoken."
"It seems there is the possibility of a compromise."
Sherlock had frowned at his brother as the car slowed and pulled alongside the kerb in front of a strip of nondescript shops. One storefront was clearly vacant, windows blacked out.
"Currently undergoing renovation," Mycroft had said, unlocking the glass door and stepping aside to allow Sherlock entry. "I think you'll agree it will suit nicely."
The smell of fresh paint was unmistakable.
Sherlock blinked as he looked around. The room was largely empty. The walls had been painted a stark white, stood bright and naked and waiting for something to adorn them.
There were objects leaning against the far wall, wrapped in brown paper. Canvasses.
"You've opened an art gallery?" Sherlock asked, staring.
"Not a gallery. An exhibit," Mycroft said. "One night only."
Sherlock walked slowly towards the canvasses, reached out and touched one with the tip of his finger. The paper crinkled.
"She did all of this in a month?"
"She's remarkably prolific," Mycroft had said quietly.
"Does she care about it?"
"It's impossible to know if she cares about anything. She does it, every day, without fail. Often for hours on end. Surely that counts for something."
He'd nodded slowly, looked around the room again. "How was this arranged?"
"Showed some of her work to a man who fancies himself a curator," Mycroft gave a theatric roll of his eyes, folded his arms across his chest. "He proved remarkably willing to lap up the story of a tormented genius locked away in a tower, too fragile for the world. He's calling the exhibit The Lost Genius."
"They haven't met," Sherlock frowned.
"Of course not." Mycroft's smile had been bland, unamused. "He was appropriately threatened into secrecy, flown to a minimum security facility with the necessary set dressing applied, and ultimately met with a proxy." Amusement had crept into his expression at that, and he'd shifted where he stood. "Anthea was more than happy to play the role. She so rarely gets the opportunity to exercise her talents to their full potential. She was quite convincing as the mad artist, I must say."
"Mm," Sherlock said, amusement curling at the corner of his mouth as he imagined how that had gone. Then he'd sobered, thought of Eurus in her cell, silent and dangerous, in desperate need of something but far too susceptible to being manipulated and manipulating in turn. "What were her terms?"
"It's not a direct exchange, brother mine. No incentives, no treats. She's simply allowed to paint what she wants, when she wants. I've found it improves her mood. In turn, she can occasionally be tempted into providing assistance on matters of national security. At her request, not ours. She almost seems to enjoy it."
What Mycroft did not say out loud, but which Sherlock had heard quite clearly regardless, was: You were right.
He'd turned back towards the canvasses, stared at them for a moment. "What does she paint?"
"Oh, all sorts of things," Mycroft had said.
There had been something in his tone that Sherlock did not care for. He'd crouched down, carefully unwrapped the first canvas.
Flowers. Creeping vines. Dead leaves over gravestones. Tall grass.
It was a remarkably evocative image. Unsettling. She'd used bold colours and a heavy hand; the paint had dried in thick gobs and streaks on the canvas.
Acrylic paint. No oils. He supposed offering her turpentine would have been tempting fate.
He'd thought of her the first time he'd seen her in the cell at Sherrinford, the violin in her hand. The haunting sound of her playing. I never know if it's beautiful or not.
He wondered if she considered her art beautiful. Or if it was simply another exercise in technical perfection, devoid of emotion.
The acrylic would have dried quickly. No opportunity for corrections.
He unwrapped the next canvas. And the next.
Mycroft had not lied. The images were varied. There was nothing particularly violent about the subjects, and yet they were all profoundly uncomfortable to look at.
He'd traced his finger over a painting of a red dog, the brushstrokes of its fur dried in thick whorls. Sucked in a sharp breath, set it aside.
"She always did like to draw, when we were children," Mycroft had said, his voice quiet, somber.
Sherlock reached for the last canvas.
"Sherlock," Mycroft had said. There had been a warning in his voice.
Sherlock had lifted his head, met his brother's eyes. Had frowned at what he'd seen there, returned his attention to the last canvas. Carefully drew away the wrapping.
It was a painting of John.
John, with a bashful smile, his eyes averted, a plastic daisy tucked behind his ear. Swirls of rich colour behind him, indistinct, the chaos of London blurring by.
It had been idealised, Sherlock knew. John's skin looked sun-warmed and tanned, his hair glinting more gold than silver. His face was unlined, unmarred by fear or doubt or exhaustion or strain. His smile was crooked, genuine, magnetic. He had not looked this young in all of the time that Sherlock had known him.
He could not help himself, had reached out and run his finger over the ridges and swirls that made up John's radiant face.
Above him, Mycroft sighed.
"Not this one," Sherlock had said.
"You can display the others, fine, it's not the worst idea you've ever had. Even if she is only doing this for her own personal amusement, she's clearly getting something out of it. But—" he'd stopped, stared at the painting again.
John, smiling and glowing and happy, wavering unknowingly on a knife's edge, only weeks away from plunging into a dark pit of terrible tragedy and guilt and remorse and anger and pain. John, smiling without knowing what he'd have to carry with him for the rest of his life.
"Not this one," he'd said again. He'd stood, made his way towards the door. Carried the canvas with him.
Mycroft had not stopped him.
The painting had been as unsettling as it was beautiful, and Sherlock could not bring himself to throw it away. He'd also been unwilling to bring it home to Baker Street, to let John see.
It was a poisoned gift, but a gift nonetheless. He had no doubt that Eurus had intended him to keep the painting. Perhaps she'd intended to sow dissent. Perhaps she'd wanted him to twist himself up into knots every time he looked at it, every time he looked at John and remembered all that came after. Or, perhaps she'd simply thought he'd like it.
He could only speculate.
So he'd brought it to the cottage. Had left it propped in a dusty corner of a forgotten bedroom, in the bolt-hole he'd never needed to use.
John's left hand had clenched into a fist. He'd pressed the knuckles, hard, against his mouth. Did not look away from the painting.
"John—" Sherlock said.
John turned towards him. His face had gone pale.
"This was—do you have any idea what—?"
"Yes," Sherlock said, though it wrenched his heart a bit to say so.
John shook his head. He took a step towards the bedroom door, then stopped, turned back. Sighed. Seemed to sag a bit.
His shoulders were thinner, less muscular than they had been when Sherlock had first met him. He was still the most fascinating thing in the room.
"You have a bloody cottage in Sussex that no one has ever been to," John said. There was an angry smile flickering at the corner of his mouth. "It's just been sitting here, empty, for all these years."
"Yes," Sherlock said. He hesitated. "I thought we'd already established that."
"No furniture," John said. "Nothing here. Except for this. A box of dirty Erlenmeyer flasks and a—and—" He waved his hand helplessly at the painting Sherlock still held. "Whatever the hell that is."
Sherlock swallowed. He did not speak.
"Why?" John pressed. He clenched his fists, breathed in through his nose, stared at Sherlock. "Why all of this—this—subterfuge?"
"I needed somewhere to go."
"Somewhere to go? Somewhere to go when? It's pretty obvious you haven't been here in at least a decade, if not more."
"In case Baker Street got too quiet."
"Baker Street? Quiet?" John laughed. It was not a cheerful sound. "Not bloody likely."
Sherlock smiled. He doubted it looked very convincing.
John seemed to falter at his expression. He clenched and unclenched his fist where he had pressed it against his thigh. Frowned. "Besides. It's quiet here."
"Yes, but—" Sherlock stopped, shook his head, frustrated. "It's quiet because that's how it is here. It's not quiet due to the absence of something."
"Absence of something?"
He saw the moment his words registered, the moment that John understood. Saw his face crumple a bit, that terrible agonised fondness Sherlock had first glimpsed ages ago on their cracked leather sofa.
"A bolt-hole," John said.
"Somewhere to run from—from me."
"In a manner of speaking," Sherlock said, suddenly tired.
John's eyes were damp. He looked small and sad and lost, and Sherlock hated it.
He moved to set the painting back down on the floor. John settled a warm hand on his wrist, stopped him. Gingerly took the canvas from his hands, held it up. Frowned.
"Hard to believe I ever looked that young," he said. His lip curled slightly, an unconscious expression of distaste.
John glared at him. "Ta for that."
"I've never worked out why she wanted me to have this," Sherlock said. "I can only speculate."
"I'd prefer not to," John said, grimacing. He set the painting down against the wall.
"Warm light. You look younger in warm light. The color palette in this painting is meant to be flattering."
"Right," John said, and ducked his head, laughing a bit self-consciously. He brought his hand up to scratch at his hair, short silver strands sliding through his fingers. "Well. Not a lot of warm light in London, yeah?"
"No," Sherlock said. He looked towards the window. It was a bright day, and the dust motes danced in shafts of golden morning sun.
John cleared his throat. Walked over to the window and looked out through the smeared glass.
"There are beehives," Sherlock said. "Out back."
"Oh. That's—" John stopped. Did not seem to know what to say.
"I've paid someone to maintain them."
"You employ a beekeeper?"
Sherlock shrugged. "I'll likely take over when—well. If."
"You want to keep bees."
He shrugged again, suddenly defensive. Turned to look at the painting once more. Something about it troubled him.
He stared hard at the canvas, at the thick aggressive swirls of paint, at John's dear familiar face rendered in a way that both captivated and repelled at once.
Rosie intruded on his thoughts. Rosie, whose absence was tangible, whose silence was loud. Rosie, who was nearing the end of her time at university and who would be making very different, very normal choices on what to do with the rest of her life had Mycroft not stepped in and taken an interest in her.
This is clearly a misguided attempt to connect with her mother's memory.
He wasn't wrong. Was he wrong?
Rosie had been, from a very early age, intensely curious about her mother.
Children were naturally curious. Sherlock had always appreciated that about them. And Rosie had, in her mind, been handed a gift-wrapped mystery crafted just for her. She'd voraciously pursued information, had jealously hoarded what she'd learned. Upon deducing there was more to the story than the heavily sanitised version she'd been told as a small child, she'd been relentless. Impressively so. In the end, she'd got her way.
She always did.
I consider her something of a protégée.
Rosie's way. Always Rosie's way. Did he really dare attribute her indomitable will to Mycroft, of all people?
Please, Rosie had said, when she'd heard about Wiggins. A temporary truce, a cease-fire. He'd never been able to refuse her anything, not since she was small. A weakness, certainly, but not one he felt the need to apologise for.
This is what you want? John had asked her, when she'd told them.
It's what Mycroft wants, Sherlock had said.
Rosie's face, when he'd spoken. She'd been proud, and pleased, and then she'd been furious. No, not just furious. Crushed.
Mycroft looks at people and sees only their utility. He can't help himself. His own angry words.
But the painting, the very existence of the painting—
Eurus had been allowed to continue painting. She'd done quite a lot of it, over the years. There had been no withholding of supplies in exchange for work, no trades for information, no special treats in return for favours granted. She'd simply been permitted to do what she liked.
She was capable of tremendous focus, often losing herself in her work for hours.
She was also disinterested in discussing, in speculating, in explaining. She finished a canvas and moved immediately to the next.
When Mycroft needed assistance with a particularly complex problem, sometimes he'd ask.
Sometimes she'd refuse. Sometimes she'd agree. And sometimes she'd be the one to initiate contact, would ask if he had anything for her.
He had no doubt that Mycroft could have forced her hand, could have revoked privileges in exchange for cooperation on the days when she refused. But as far as Sherlock knew, ever since that long-ago day in his office when they'd first clashed on the subject, Mycroft never had.
That meant something.
He just was not quite sure what.
"Sherlock," John said. His voice was quiet, patient, and Sherlock thought it likely that he'd disappeared into his own head for longer than was generally considered appropriate.
"He called her his protégée," Sherlock said, still staring down at the painting. "Why would he do that?"
"Well," John said. "Maybe because it's true."
They made it back to London by midafternoon. John insisted on stopping off for takeaway, and cradled the bag under his arm as they made their way up Baker Street.
The brass knocker hung straight against the scuffed dark wood of their front door.
Sherlock huffed out a breath between his teeth, stopped walking. He craned his neck to scowl up at the windows.
"What?" John asked, pausing as he slid the key into the lock. The bag crinkled as he shifted it on his hip.
John looked at the door, back at Sherlock. His breath steamed in the cold afternoon air. He looked a bit amused and a bit irritated, all at once.
"Where's your gun?" Sherlock asked. There was a flutter of motion at the upstairs window, a figure brushing against the curtains. Mycroft, watching them. Waiting.
John sighed, turned the key in the lock. Pushed in through the door. Said nothing.
"You could claim self-defense."
"I really couldn't," John said.
"You spent all day with him yesterday," John said. "Presumably without any of these—hysterics."
Sherlock's jaw dropped. "Hysterics?"
John shooed him towards the stairs.
Sherlock rolled his eyes, made sure John saw him doing it. Took off his coat with an exaggeratedly slow motion, hung it on the peg by the door. Rosie's peg was still empty.
He went up the stairs slowly, John on his heels.
Mycroft was perched at the edge of Sherlock's chair, staring expectantly at the door.
"You know, breaking and entering is usually frowned upon," John said. He set the takeaway bag on the kitchen table, followed Sherlock into the sitting room. Folded his arms.
Sherlock glanced at him, a smile playing at the edge of his mouth.
John smirked, looked away.
"And how was Sussex?" Mycroft asked with a thin smile. He leaned forward in the chair, did not stand up.
"None of your business," Sherlock said. "Get out."
Mycroft raised his brows. Looked over Sherlock's shoulder at the sound of footsteps on the landing.
Sherlock whirled to follow his brother's gaze. Rosie stood in the doorway, still wearing her coat. She met his eyes, lifted her chin. Her eyes were hard. Still looking for a fight, then.
God, but she reminded him of John.
He looked at her. The jeans were hers, the bulky jumper bunched under her coat was not. A few stray cat hairs clung around her calves.
"You've been at Molly's," he said, and she tipped her head in acknowledgement.
"She said I could stay as long as I needed," Rosie said.
"So Mycroft is here as a—what? A mediator?" John asked, his face creased in confusion. He took a step towards the doorway, stopped. His hand clenched at his side. He quite clearly wanted to reach for her.
Sherlock barked out a sceptical, scoffing laugh at that, just as Rosie made a similar sound. He looked at her. She looked back. There was a surprised sort of smile playing at the corner of her mouth.
She looked away, quickly. "Would you believe this was actually a coincidence?"
"The universe is rarely so lazy," Mycroft said.
"No, but you certainly are," Sherlock said, whirling back to face him.
"All right, all right just—just hold on," John said, holding out his hands as if he expected pandemonium to erupt.
"I came to speak with my brother," Mycroft said. He gave another little bloodless smile, stood up.
Sherlock looked at him. Thought of the painting.
Some of the fight went out of him. He felt, at once, very tired. Very old.
"Fine," he said. "But don't dally. Get to the point."
"Dad?" Rosie said, and tipped her head towards the door.
"Coincidence my arse," John said, but went to her. "Divide and conquer, yeah?"
"Not actually my intention, but I'll capitialise on the opportunity," Rosie said. She offered a tentative smile. Reached out her hand.
John took it. Of course he did. Like Sherlock, he'd never been able to refuse her anything.
They went together down the stairs, familiar footsteps creaking on old wood. Sherlock listened, and breathed, and then turned to face his brother.
"Well?" he said, when the silence had grown much too loud.
"You think I don't understand your reluctance," Mycroft said. His voice was quiet, uncharacteristically soft. He walked to the mantel, stood regarding the odd collection of items that had accumulated there. "But I assure you, I do. I've no wish to see Rosamund come to harm."
"Perhaps you should have thought of that before you recruited her."
"It's an analyst position, Sherlock, not a field agent."
Sherlock scoffed. "She has tremendous aptitude for sport, it's unlikely she'll be used to her fullest potential in an analytical role."
"There will be opportunities for fieldwork, of course," Mycroft conceded. "An occasional necessity. But it will not be her primary function."
Sherlock stood silent for a moment, processing that.
"I told you I consider her my protégée."
"I despise legwork, Sherlock. And since you insist on drawing parallels that do not necessarily exist, may I remind you that Rosamund's mother was never under my employ? She was a freelancer, a mercenary, someone our government—and others—contracted with to carry out specific tasks. She was tremendously talented, but for God's sake, any common buffoon can be trained up as an assassin. I've no need to conscript my niece for the task."
Sherlock blinked, feeling very, very slow. He'd missed something of terrible importance.
My niece, Mycroft had said. No hesitation, no calculation. He'd woven it into his conversation as if it were natural to call her such.
Family, John had called him.
Eurus and her paints. It had taken him time, a lot of time, too much time, but he'd learned.
"You—" Sherlock said, and stopped. Blinked.
Mycroft made a frustrated sound. "I'm not grooming an assassin, Sherlock, I'm grooming a replacement."
Mycroft shrugged, adjusted his tie. Did not meet Sherlock's eye. "I would like to retire someday."
"You. You want to retire." All at once, Sherlock felt like laughing.
"I suppose you assumed I would die at my desk," Mycroft said.
"Mm, in the middle of organising a military coup," Sherlock agreed.
"I don't organise those, I have assistants for that."
Sherlock smiled in spite of himself, looked down at the ground.
"Please understand, Sherlock. I would have eased her way no matter what," Mycroft said. "Even if, in the end, all she'd wanted to do was paint." He spoke slowly, as if the words pained him.
Sherlock closed his eyes.
"I don't want this for her," he said quietly.
He opened his eyes, looked helplessly at Mycroft.
"I know. But that's what children do, is it not?" Mycroft looked back at Sherlock. There was something strangely sad in his expression. "They grow up and leave you behind."
Mycroft was gone by the time John ascended the stairs, his steps slow but steady.
He was alone.
Sherlock had lit a fire. Had sat, hunched and thoughtful, in his chair. The takeaway had gone cold on the kitchen table.
John stopped in the doorway. He looked tired.
"She's not coming back," Sherlock said, reading it in his posture, the stoop of his shoulders.
"Not tonight," John said. "But we—we talked. It was good. I think."
"She'll be back again tomorrow. For breakfast, she said." John smiled a bit, took a step into the room. "I think that means it's your turn."
"Divide and conquer," Sherlock said. He smiled without much humour. "So? Were you conquered?"
"Better that than divided, wouldn't you say?"
John went into the kitchen, stood frowning at the takeaway bag. "I'm going to heat this."
The quiet normalcy was almost too much to bear. Sherlock stood up, stalked into the kitchen.
"This is—this is okay?" he demanded. "You're all right with this? Comfortable with it?"
John turned around in surprise, set the bag back on the table.
"Christ, no. I'm not all right with it. I'm never going to be all right with it. But I think I'm—" he stopped, looked down at the ground. "I think I need—I think we both need to understand that it's her decision. I can't tell her what to do. Neither of us can tell her what to do. Never really could."
Sherlock opened his mouth.
"No," John said, holding up his hand. "I know. I know. But look at who her parents are. Do you honestly think—" he stopped again, shook his head. Inexplicably, he smiled. "Did you ever really think she was going to live a quiet life?"
Sherlock thought of salt air, of rambling gardens, the soothing hum of the apiary. "I'd hoped," he said.
"Yes, all right, you've clearly made up your mind," Sherlock told Rosie when her footsteps creaked on the landing just outside the sitting room. "You were right, I was wrong, blah blah blah. Now. Your father is under the impression that the appropriate next step is to engage in some sort of lengthy making up ritual, though I see no reason to participate in such a display. Do you?"
She came through the doorway, bakery bag in one hand, a bemused expression on her face. "I missed you, too."
He looked at the bag.
"Croissants," she said unnecessarily. She set the bag down on the table, turned to face him. Folded her arms. She was wearing another of Molly's jumpers.
Silence stretched between them. It appeared that some sort of making up ritual would be required after all.
"I am—" he hesitated before continuing, "—sorry."
She raised her brows. Said nothing.
"For my reaction," he added. Cleared his throat. "It was, perhaps, something of an overreaction."
"Perhaps," she agreed, her voice mild. She opened up the bag. Took out a croissant. Bit into it. John would have cut it, Sherlock would have worried at it with his fingers until it was torn down to greasy, flaky bits.
She always had preferred a direct approach.
He watched her. Thought of the way she'd been as a child, the laughter and the shouting, the fits of temper and the surges of wild joy. The way throwing herself headlong into her varied pursuits came naturally, but caution had been hard-learned.
There was some of Mycroft in the way she read a room and then sat back, waiting for the people around her to trip over their words and reveal themselves.
She was waiting him out now, he knew.
"I regret implying that your decisions were not your own," he said. "You. You have always known your own mind, and to cast doubt on that does you an immense disservice."
"Thank you," she said. She held his gaze for a moment, then looked away.
"I—" he said.
She looked back, raised her brows.
She nodded, sank down into one of the kitchen chairs, still chewing her croissant. "I know."
He joined her in the kitchen, sat across from her at the little table. He did not take a croissant.
"You'll be returning to London after graduation," he said. It was not a question.
"Yes," she said. "I expect training will start up right away."
"You'll be looking for a place to stay."
She smiled, looked down at the table. "Yeah, well. The three of us can't all live together forever."
"About that," Sherlock said.
Rosie went back to university.
Five months later she graduated, top of her class, as expected.
Sherlock watched John watching her as she walked across the stage in her regalia. John's eyes were damp, red-rimmed.
He thought of Rosie at eight years old, sitting cross-legged at his feet while he spoke with a client. She'd flipped open one of John's spare notebooks, sat with her back straight and her eyes keen, studiously noting observations.
He has a white cat, she'd whispered to Sherlock, tugging on the leg of his trousers.
He doesn't have a cat, the victim had the cat— Sherlock had said, and stopped. Oh.
There had been a bit of a scuffle, after that. She'd been utterly delighted.
John breathed wetly through his nose. Sherlock frowned, shifted where he stood. Platitudes were likely to be appropriate in this situation. Something like: You should be very proud. Or possibly: On to bigger and better things!
Well. There was no way he was saying any of that.
He looked at the stage and saw the baby who had flung her toys at him, the toddler who had invaded and subsequently taken over his home with noise and merry chaos, the little girl he'd taught and fretted over and come to love as helplessly and completely as if she'd been his own flesh and blood.
Sherlock helped deliver you, you know, John had told her once.
Oh God, gross, don't tell me that, Rosie had said, half laughing, half cringing.
He breathed in an unsteady breath. Looked at John again. John looked back at him. There were tears in his eyes, but he was smiling.
Sherlock took his hand.
They made plans to leave London behind in September.
"You're sure?" John asked. "Absolutely sure? It's not just London, you know. It's the cases. The clients."
Sherlock shrugged. He rather thought Scotland Yard had reduced him to a novelty of late. A trick pony or a dancing monkey, something to drag out at crime scenes and marvel at. Waste of everyone's time, really.
"They just like to watch me work," he said.
John smiled at him, gave a small shrug of his shoulders. "Hardly a crime, that. I've always liked watching you work."
"Not like that," Sherlock said, flushing a bit, looking away. "I've become a spectacle. The number of crimes—truly interesting crimes—keeps dwindling."
"You say that like it's a bad thing."
Sherlock sighed. "I can go months without encountering a single creative murder. Months! And half the time when the Yard calls me in on other matters, it's because they've placed wagers on how long it will take me to sort it out."
John frowned at him, but made no effort to dispute it.
He was already making plans, Sherlock knew. The idea of the cottage had taken hold. He might offer up a token protest, but he had already decided which of the upstairs bedrooms would function as a little office, and which one they would claim as their own.
Sherlock had observed him eyeing the furniture in the sitting room, no doubt deciding what should stay and what should go.
His browsing history indicated he'd been reading up on the area, familiarising himself with nearby shops and restaurants and even hospitals.
John wanted to leave.
John wanted to leave with Sherlock, and no matter how many years they spent together, that was never going to be a thing he could get used to.
"All right, yeah, so things have been a bit—different—since Lestrade retired," John said. "But. The private clients, at least. You're all right with just—"
"If the matter is important enough, I doubt a train ride will put anyone off," Sherlock said.
Years ago, a lifetime ago, Sherlock had moved in to Baker Street in a whirlwind of frenetic activity. He had swept his books and his papers and his clothes and his experiments into boxes and bags and simply dragged them from one location to the next.
He'd had no sentimental attachment whatsoever to his old Montague Street flat, would have sneered at anyone who so much as suggested that one could feel fond of four walls and a roof.
And yet he looked at the wallpaper, now, and saw the grinning yellow face that John had painted there. He looked at the two chairs by the fireplace and thought of how John had settled in to the red chair like he owned it, right from the start. Thought of wild nights where the air sparked with adventure and danger, thought of quiet nights of simple domestic companionship. Thought of his years spent alone, and how he'd longed for the four walls and a roof that had somehow become home.
He had received clients in the sitting room, had taught John how to waltz there with the curtains drawn tight and his own heart in his throat. He had slipped to that well-worn floor, eased by John's arms, as his heart stuttered and stilled and paramedics rushed to his aid. He'd taught Rosie to dance, years later, in the same space with the curtains wide open and John looking on.
He looked at the bookcases against the wall, piled high with dusty volumes and curiosities. Looked at the tall windows overlooking Baker Street. Thought of all the times he'd nearly blown the place up but hadn't, thought of the two times someone else had.
He looked at the sofa and thought of how it had been years ago, that first time between them. John's face flushed and fond, the way Sherlock's heart had clattered against his ribs in an unsteady rhythm. Sweat cooling on their skin. The sluggish return of conscious, measured thought.
The way John had stood first, pulling ineffectively at rumpled and displaced clothing. The brief pause before John had reached out a warm hand, had tugged Sherlock to his feet.
Sherlock had followed without question, and John had pulled him down the hall and into the bathroom, had turned on the shower and dropped his clothes on the floor.
They'd climbed under the spray together. The ancient tub was too small for both of them to stand comfortably, and the water pressure had never been particularly strong. Sherlock's feet slipped against the porcelain and John's hands gripped his hips, held him steady. His skin prickled with gooseflesh.
John shut his eyes against the water. Sherlock watched as rivulets ran down his neck and along his shoulders. He'd wanted to taste.
John said nothing, and so Sherlock said nothing. They stood facing each other as the water streamed over their scarred skin. The room had filled with steam.
Eventually, John had reached over and turned off the tap. He'd given a little self-conscious laugh and stepped out onto the tile. He'd towelled himself briskly, dressed. His hair stuck up in appealing damp silver spikes and Sherlock had wanted to touch.
And Sherlock had wrapped himself in a towel, had gone through the frosted glass door into his bedroom. Had turned around to see John hesitating in the doorway.
"I should—" John had said, had glanced up. There was a twinge of regret on his face. "Rosie."
"Oh. Yes," Sherlock had agreed. He'd turned away, uncertain. Opened his wardrobe and removed a pair of pyjama pants and a soft t-shirt. Breathed.
Dressed quickly. Efficiently.
"Do you—" John said, and stopped.
Sherlock did not turn around.
"Did you want—?" John said.
Yes, Sherlock had thought, miserably. Whatever it is, I'll take it. Don't you know that by now?
John breathed out, clearly struggling with words. Sherlock had turned back to face him, folding the damp towel over his arm.
"You should," John said. "If you—if you want."
"All right," Sherlock said, not knowing exactly what he was agreeing to. He thought it possible that he'd never been more unsure of anything in his life.
But then he'd thought of John's face on the sofa, and the way John had said: Me too. Just. For the record.
John smiled at him, and it was a crooked, genuine smile, a little wondering. There was no regret in his expression. "Come on, then."
And Sherlock had gone along, feeling slow and foolish and bewildered and warm and flushed and strangely—buoyant—as if a crushing weight had been lifted unexpectedly from his chest.
He'd followed John upstairs, the old wood creaking under his feet.
John went into his cramped little bedroom. Sherlock stood in the doorway and watched as John crouched to check on Rosie, as he straightened the bunched blankets and placed a kiss on her feverish forehead.
And then John had shifted backwards, sat on the edge of his bed. Turned to look at Sherlock where he hovered in the doorway. Lifted a finger to his lips in a shushing motion.
The déjà vu was dizzying. Sherlock had blinked, swallowed, gripped the doorframe. Reminded himself that it was real, that it had happened, that he had not simply lost himself in his head while John tended to Rosie.
It would not have been the first time. But—he was wearing pyjamas. His hair was damp, his skin still warm and pink from the shower.
And then John smiled again, a tired smile, and he'd inclined his head towards the bed. Pulled back the duvet and crawled in. And Sherlock had approached quietly, scarcely daring to breathe, as if sudden movements or sound could disrupt the fragile peace between them.
He'd curled quietly next to John, breathed in his scent on the sheets. Rosie snuffled in her sleep in her little bed by the window.
John touched his face, and he blinked at him.
"Her fever seems to have broken," John whispered. "She should be feeling better by tomorrow."
"Good," Sherlock said. His mouth was dry. He swallowed, hard. "That's good."
John smiled again. It made him look younger, that smile.
Sherlock had smiled back. He could not have stopped it, even if he'd wanted to. His throat had gone tight, his face hot. His mind had short-circuited somewhere on the path between disbelief and joy, had left him trembling and exhausted and wired and bewildered and so very, very happy.
He hadn't slept. He'd lain awake next to John, just barely touching, not wanting to disturb. He'd filled his lungs with the warm clean scent of John's soap on his skin, studied the microexpressions that flitted across John's face as he dreamed. Examined the pores on John's face, traced the tips of his fingers along the hairs on John's arms, his legs. Cupped his palm over the puckered skin of John's ruined shoulder, ghosted his nose along John's hairline.
John had moved his things downstairs into Sherlock's bedroom the next day.
It had felt permanent. Momentous.
"Nothing's permanent, you know," John said, years later, as he stood regarding their boxed belongings. There was a tinge of melancholy in his voice.
Sherlock looked at him.
"Some things are," he said.
John had moved back to Baker Street on a Tuesday afternoon.
There had been little fanfare. He'd left Rosie with a sitter, and had driven over. There had only been one carload of belongings—Rosie's things, and John's clothes. He'd not brought any furniture other than her cot (disassembled) and high chair (neatly folded).
Sherlock had stood at the window with his violin and pretended not to be interested in the proceedings. There had been much to learn from John's gait on the stairs (steady, no hesitation), and the number of trips he took to carry boxes upstairs (minimal personal effects indicated a strong desire to leave the past behind).
It wouldn't be permanent. It was important to remind himself of that. Not permanent. But it would be—nice. While it lasted.
John's tread on the stairs. Up, up, up. The thud of boxes on the bedroom floor. Down again, not skipping over the creaky seventh step. Front door, the squeal of old hinges, a rush of noise from the street. Silence—brief, temporary, before the door kicked back open and John again started up the stairs.
The process had repeated three times. After the third trip, John had gone down the stairs and had not come back up.
Sherlock had lifted his bow from the strings, waited.
Enough time had passed that he'd grown first irritable, then concerned. Perhaps John, despite his steady sure gait, was in fact having second thoughts. Perhaps he'd found himself hesitating, lingering at the bottom of the stairs, regretting having come at all.
Sherlock had set down the violin. Taken a step towards the door, then another. Hesitated. Chastised himself for hesitating and had continued out onto the landing. He'd crept, silently, down the stairs.
Mrs Hudson's door was open. John stood just over the threshold. They appeared to be deep in conversation.
"No," John had said. His shoulders were tense. "Of course not."
Mrs Hudson had touched his face. The gesture was tender, but she had not smiled.
Whatever they had spoken about was serious. There were many things that John might have elected to speak with Mrs Hudson about rather than Sherlock. The details surrounding the sale of his house, for one. Sherlock would have had no patience for such a discussion, and John knew it.
But Mrs Hudson's face.
She did not appear to be commiserating, or advising, or even gently chiding. And there was none of the relaxed fond demeanour that John usually adopted with her in his strangely rigid posture.
Sherlock opened his mouth to speak. Did not get the chance.
"Sherlock," Mrs Hudson said, sharply, just a bit too loud. A warning, not a greeting. John had not heard him approach.
John had cut himself off, turned around. Smiled. There was something strained, something not quite genuine in that smile.
Sherlock had realised uncomfortably that he had been the subject of their conversation.
Before he could say or do anything, John heaved a cardboard box at him. He'd put out his arms instinctively to take it.
"Here, help me carry this last one upstairs," John had said, and he'd gone up the stairs without another word.
Sherlock had taken the box up to John's room, had looked at the tiny cot squeezed under the window next to the bed, and wondered how he'd ever thought that this could work.
But John had smiled when Sherlock set the box down, and it had been a genuine smile, somehow relieved and hopeful all at once. The tension he'd carried while speaking with Mrs Hudson had dissipated.
"Bit tight," John had said. "But it'll do."
He'd left off the for now, but Sherlock had heard it just the same.
John and Sherlock left Baker Street on a Saturday morning in September.
The books had been boxed up, the microscope and slides packed away. A hired van had already departed with the majority of their belongings and their two chairs.
Sherlock had arranged for the van on Mycroft's credit card.
He owes me, he'd assured John.
Other than the chairs, which Sherlock could not quite bring himself to part with (sentiment, certainly; he was beyond attempting to deny it), they had left most of the remaining furniture behind, choosing instead to select new pieces that suited the cottage. They had spent much of the summer getting it in order.
The keys to the Baker Street flat had been gifted to Rosie.
She would be leaving for Portsmouth to begin training at the start of the new year.
You may not think so now, John had told her, his face serious and a little sad, but it helps, sometimes, to have—home—waiting for you.
You just don't want to sell the place because you're afraid you'll be bored out of your minds in Sussex and want to come back, Rosie had laughed, but she'd taken the keys and had hugged John tightly.
John was in the bedroom, now, doing one last sweep through the closets and under the bed, making sure they'd not left anything behind.
Sherlock stood regarding the mantel. Everything but the skull and Mrs Hudson's urn had been boxed up and sent along with the van. The skull, he thought, deserved more gentle handling. And the same for Mrs Hudson.
Rosie sat in one of the wooden chairs at the little desk, leaning back a bit, rocking the chair on two legs. She'd folded her arms across her chest, watched him with a pensive expression.
"You can always change your mind, you know," he said mildly.
She stopped rocking, looked at him.
"I don't mean that you should change your mind," he said. "Only that you are permitted to do so. You would hardly be the first twenty-one-year-old to question whether or not they are on the right path."
"Where were you when you were twenty-one?"
She laughed, a sharp startled sound.
"What? Isn't honesty typically called for in these types of conversations?"
"Yes," she said, and looked down at the ground. There was a small smile on her face. "And I—appreciate it. Your honesty."
Sherlock nodded at her, pleased. "Most don't."
"Yeah, well, you're always telling me that most people are idiots. So."
"Ah, excellent, you've been listening."
She lifted her head, met his gaze, smiling. The smile slowly faded as her expression sobered. "I'm not—I'm not having second thoughts. I want this."
"All right," he said.
"It's just—um. Sad."
"All this," she said, gesturing to the room, the bare shelves, the empty space in front of the fireplace. "Change, I guess."
"Ah." Sherlock looked away. He did not know what to say.
"Dad's right, you know," she said, after a long moment. "It's good to have someplace waiting for me. This is home. Always will be. So—um. Thank you. I know you'd have made a small fortune off of this place if you really wanted to sell it."
He shrugged. "It's your home, Watson. For as long as you wish to call it such."
She held his gaze. Smiled.
He turned back to the mantel. Touched the urn. Thought of Mrs Hudson and the tea she used to bring him in the mornings, her habit of hoovering in the afternoons with the radio blaring. She'd been warm and strange and stronger than she looked, right up to the end. And she'd always, always been on his side.
John's footsteps, in the hall.
"What did Mrs Hudson say to you?" Sherlock asked, looking away from the mantel and fixing his gaze on John.
John paused in the doorway, shifted his duffel bag so the strap rested more comfortably on his shoulder. "Erm, you're going to need to be a bit more specific than that."
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "The day you and Rosie moved in."
"Oh," John said. He frowned, looked at the bag. Stooped to set it on the ground. Straightened up again with a groan.
Sherlock watched him with a growing sense of unease.
"She--" John paused, scratched at the back of his neck. Looked up at the ceiling. "Well. Same thing she told me later, when she found out we were—that we—"
Sherlock clasped his hands behind his back, waited.
"She wanted to make sure I was—" John said, and stopped. "Um. I believe her exact words, both times, were are you absolutely certain this is what you want? She was. Well. You know. Always very direct."
Sherlock turned away, stung. He looked again at the urn. His face heated.
Are you absolutely certain this is what you want?
A fair enough question. Even if he'd thought—well. It didn't matter, now. She was gone. But he thought she'd held him in higher regard.
John cleared his throat.
Sherlock reluctantly turned back, studied him. He looked embarrassed, his hand still playing at the back of his neck, scratching, rubbing. His other hand was clenched at his side.
"And then she told me that if I fucked it up, if I hurt you, she'd make sure they never found my body."
Sherlock blinked. "She said what?"
"I—erm. Assured her that wouldn't be necessary. Both times." John made a strangled noise that might have been a laugh. "And I—well. I did everything in my power not to disappoint her. Again." He paused, looked at Sherlock, his eyes bright. "Or you. Especially you."
Sherlock blinked again. Thought again about that long-ago moment—John and Mrs Hudson, standing just a shade too close. Mrs Hudson speaking in a low voice, her hand on John's arm, her gestures tender but her expression fierce.
His vision blurred and he turned away, back towards the urn. Touched it with the pad of his finger.
"We'll need—" he said, and his voice emerged all choked. He cleared his throat, tried again. "We'll need a box. Something secure. For this."
"No," Rosie said.
Sherlock blinked, looked at her.
"No, no, no, that's not going anywhere." Rosie joined him at the mantel. She was smiling a little bit, but it was a sad sort of smile. "She's staying here, right here. Someone needs to be here when I come home, and—well. Mrs Hudson can't leave Baker Street. England would fall."
The South Downs were lovely in autumn.
Warm golden light slanted through coloured leaves, dappling prettily on the garden grounds as the sun slipped towards the horizon.
The furniture—old and new—had been arranged. Sherlock had carefully hung their clothes in the bedroom wardrobe while John puttered with the bookshelves in the sitting room.
Sherlock made tea. He and John sat in their old chairs by their new window, looked at each other across the unfamiliar space.
"Well," John said. "It's going to take some getting used to. But. Well. Cheers." He extended his mug, clinked it gently against Sherlock's own.
Sherlock sipped his tea quietly.
He had liked the cottage from the first moment he'd laid eyes on it. And yet—
He thought carefully about his next words.
"It never occurred to me," he said, speaking slowly, looking down into his mug as he spoke, "that I might be happy here."
John frowned, shifted in his chair a bit. "Bit late to start talking like that, isn't it?"
"No, I—" Sherlock sighed, frustrated.
He set his tea down on the little table next to his chair. Looked at the bookshelves, the stone fireplace and mantel. The skull grinned blandly back at him from its new place of honour.
"When I first brought you here, I told you my reasons for acquiring this property."
"So you'd have somewhere to go," John said. His eyes were sad. "I know."
"I always assumed—" Sherlock stood up, went to the window. His fingers twitched and he longed for something to occupy them. His violin. A cigarette. "I always assumed I'd end up here eventually. But I'd never imagined the circumstances could be happy ones."
"And are they? Happy?" John swallowed, met his gaze. His eyes were warm and familiar in the fading daylight.
"John," Sherlock said, shaking his head fondly. He did not say you idiot out loud, believing his tone would be sufficient to get the message across. "We are here, together. Your—our—daughter has embarked on a path of her own choosing in a field in which she will surely excel. You and I have weathered tragedy, loss, and innumerable hardships, and yet here we are. Alive. Healthy. More or less whole. There are bees in the garden, and fresh honey for our tea. What more could I possibly ask for? Of course I am happy."
John's eyes had gone damp. He made a little strangled noise that might have been a laugh, set down his own mug of tea. "Jesus, Sherlock. And you say you're not a romantic."
Sherlock's mouth twitched into a smile. He ducked his head, cleared his throat. "Well. Also, there's been a murder in town. I assume the police will be by shortly to request our assistance."
"A murder, John, surely you noticed the police presence at the farm we passed this morning?"
"There could be a million bloody reasons for the police to—"
"Ah, the bloodier the better! It's been too long since we've seen a good murder, wouldn't you agree?"
"Not sure that's the sort of thing I should be agreeing with."
"And yet, you do." Sherlock beamed.
John shook his head, but there was a smile curling at the corner of his mouth. An exasperated smile, at once disapproving and terribly fond.
"All right," John said. "Fine. I was a bit worried it might get—well. Boring. Out here."
"Life outside the city is rarely boring, John," Sherlock said. He scooted to the edge of his chair. "Oh, rural locations may seem peaceful, but have you considered the vast spectrum of crimes that can be perpetrated with ease by those emboldened by relative isolation?"
"Well, I have now," John said.
"The possibilities are endless."
"Right," John said. He was still smiling, his interest clearly caught in spite of himself. "Well. Do I have time for another cup of tea before the cavalry arrives?"
"Mm," Sherlock said, and looked out the window. "Make it quick."
John stood and started towards the kitchen, but paused as he reached Sherlock's chair. He looked down at him with that same fond smile playing on his lips. The fading sunlight caught his hair, painted it golden.
"You know, I think I'll take my time," John said, and kissed him.
Sherlock's thoughts on rural locations and crime are lifted from ACD's "Adventure of the Copper Beeches", though he's significantly more gleeful about the prospect than his canon counterpart.
Thank you again to verdant_fire for all of your absolutely invaluable support and assistance with this one! :)