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if nobody speaks of remarkable things

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They lose the baby.

John cannot breathe around the deep pain swelling under his sternum. The stillness of the ultrasound image will be burned into his retinas forever, permanently projected onto the back of his eyelids. Confirmed: no heartbeat.

He’s a doctor, a fucking doctor, and they still lose the baby. A million useless questions scroll through his mind over and over and over: what did he do wrong? What didn’t he see? What does he have to do to make this stop?

He doesn’t have any answers. No one does.

Mary is small, ensconced in the hospital bed, waiting for the drugs to kick in that will force her body through the motions. The baby was at twenty-five weeks gestation. She has to give birth. A counsellor and an obstetrician speak with her in hushed tones about the procedures and the options, all the pros and cons and ramifications and consequences. John listens to all the things he already knew, the things he thought would never apply to him. He says nothing. When the baby slips free, there will be only silence.

John can’t escape, can’t leave the room, because walking down to the lifts to go to the canteen requires him to walk past the newborn nursery, and there are babies in there that have heartbeats. There are parents standing in front of the glass that have children. There are aunties and uncles and grandparents and friends and John hasn’t called anyone to tell them there was nothing in the ultrasound, now three days ago.

They don’t speak to one another; the nothingness has spread between them. Their budding marriage is already over, just as sure as the budding life in Mary’s belly is over.

It isn’t a question of blame. They can lay blame at each other's feet for the rest of their lives and it won’t make a difference because there is no indication that this was anything under their control. Statistically, roughly half of all pregnancy loss occurs due to chromosomal abnormalities: genetics, mutations. It doesn’t matter who did what or said what or whether anybody lied about anything. In the end, the odds were the baby never had a chance because it didn’t have anything to do with their many terrible choices. The odds were they had never produced anything beautiful or perfect at all, only the illusion of it.

John is being smothered by the weight of all these illusions.

The hospital provides them with a memory box, a baby blanket, and a knit baby hat. The nurses clean off the face gently, gently, and John fits a body that looks absolutely perfect into the palms of his two hands.

A nurse presses a hand into a clay disc, with no resistance, no flail of limb, no curl of finger. The impression will dry in the open air, an echo of a palm print. They all speak in soft voices, an automatic shift around an infant with closed eyes: don’t wake the baby. John does not speak at all. This baby cannot be woken.

*

Mary had had a glass of wine at the wedding, when the baby was barely any bigger than a poppyseed. Maybe that was why.

*

John first decided to be a doctor when he was eight and his mum got sick.

It was really sudden, the way it happened. One day she was fine, and the next she was tired, and then they spent Johnny’s ninth birthday in a hospital ward and she turned into someone else. He couldn’t understand, with all the doctors around, why no one was helping her get better. He didn’t remember the last thing she ever said to him.

Harry had been eleven and she was so angry, how dare their mum leave them, how dare she leave when they needed her. Who was going to teach her about make-up and monthlies and boys, who would take her shopping for a wedding dress, who would teach her how to make those perfect flaky biscuits?

In the end, John helped with the girls, instead of boys, to make up for not being able to help with the rest.

*

They go home the next morning, empty-handed. John settles Mary into bed, her body still wrecked and aching from induced labor. He sets the prescriptions next to her on the bedside table with a tall glass of water. She takes them wordlessly and slips down under the covers. Standing outside the door, John can hear her crying, but cannot bring himself to go back in. The sharp ache under his sternum throbs in unison to her breathy sobs. He hates the noise.

In the kitchen, he makes tea and sifts through the post. The normalcy of it is hateful. That the post went on being delivered is hateful. John’s entire life stopped five days ago and it is hateful that the rest of the world had gone on without them, as if it didn’t matter, as if everything important hadn’t ended with the nothingness of an undiscoverable heartbeat. He makes beans on toast and doesn’t eat any of it. He washes the dishes without thinking about anything at all.

It takes John all day, but eventually he works up the courage to enter the second bedroom, the nursery, and set the memory box on the side table. He shuts the door behind him.

*

Finally, finally, he has to turn his mobile back on.

First, he calls Sarah. Her voice is gentle when she answers. “John,” she says, before he can begin, “you can take as much time as you need.” He closes his eyes for a moment and thinks, for once, a minor government official has been sticking his nose where it doesn’t belong and John is grateful for it, so grateful, because he’s missed three shifts and Sarah isn’t angry. He doesn't have to explain.

“No,” he responds. “I think I have to quit. I don’t think I can go back to it again, you know? A doctor. I’m a doctor, Sarah, and I didn’t notice.”

She is quiet on the other end of the line for a beat, then two, before she sighs. “You’re a good doctor, John. A very good doctor. There wasn’t anything for you to notice. I’ll take you off the schedule, but if you’re ever wanting back, just get in touch.” She ends the call before he can protest.

One call is quite enough for today, he thinks, putting the mobile back on the table and turning away.

*

John’s father had been the sort of man who didn’t cry. He turned to drink instead, but he was a quiet drunk who could always get it together to make toast and eggs in the morning for his kids. When John turned nineteen, it was like he just sort of let go, like he’d just decided a decade was enough and he’d gone on as far as he could, and it could be over now. Truth was, it was his liver that had had enough. The last thing he’d ever said to John was, “you’ll be a great doctor.”

The last thing he said to Harry was, “don’t be me,” which is exactly what Harry was becoming--an alcoholic.

When John finally enlisted, Harry got rip-roaring drunk and called him at three in the morning, asking why he was so determined to leave her with absolutely fucking nothing in the world but her own thoughts. How dare he leave, off to the ends of the earth in search of their parents? Was he expecting to find his own forgiveness for letting them go?

They didn’t speak again until he was sitting in a military hospital in Birmingham recovering from a bullet wound. They each spent hours trying to apologize to each other for how right she’d been.

*

“Harry?”

An excited, tinny giggle sounds from the other end of the line. “John! Oh, Johnny, just the person I’ve been wanting,” she says. Harry had taken the news that she was going to be an aunt extremely well and had embraced the role whole-heartedly. She was even going to meetings, doing twelve-step programs: now eight weeks sober. “I need to know what you’ve decided to do about the nursery.”

John rubs a hand over his face. “Harry, there won’t be a nursery.” He pauses, listening to Harry’s quick intake of breath on the other end. “We’ve, uh. We’ve lost the baby.”

The breath goes out of Harry in a whoosh and John wonders if she’s somewhere a bit private. He should’ve asked before he said.

“Oh, Johnny,” she breathes. “John, are you all right? Do you need me to come down? Where are you?”

“Fine, no, we’re fine. Everything’s been sorted, we’re at home now. We found out a few days ago and it’s over, it’s all over, we’re fine.” He is not fine, but he is not going to tell Harry that. He needs Harry to be fine. He needs Harry to not disappear into the bottom of a bottle. “There’re pictures, if you’d like to see.”

Her voice is cracked and very low and a bit dusty sounding. “Oh. Um. Maybe sometime,” she answers. No, then. No one wants to see pictures of a thing like that.

“We’re fine, here, Harry. Are you all right? Do you need to come down?”

“No, no.” She sounds far away. “No, I’ll call Clara, she might come and stay a night. I’ll call Clara. John, let me know if you need anything, all right? Just let me know. I’ve got to go.”

She rings off before she starts to cry and John is grateful.

*

Maybe it was because six weeks ago, John had stayed late at the clinic for the fifth shift in a row, and Mary had carried two armfuls of milk and veg and whatever else home from the Tesco seven blocks away, on her own.

*

Mary doesn’t really get out of bed for a week. John can hardly blame her, because they’ve both been watching her body change and transform back into its old slim shape. Give it a few more weeks and it will be like there was never any baby at all: the fade of swollen belly, the letdown of slightly swollen breasts. At twenty-five weeks, Mary’s slender frame carried an obvious, in-the-way weight, and her body seems to flounder with the loss of it, unsure now how to occupy space.

John sleeps on the couch and doesn’t go back to bed with her. There’s no use pretending. He’s spent too much time already with Mary, pretending. They had been married--married--for a month when John discovered Mary Morstan was, in fact, an infant who had been stillborn in 1972.

The irony is not lost on him.

A.G.R.A., the thick black marker on the memory stick read. “My initials,” she had said. In a fit of trust and loyalty, he had burned it. “Everything about who I was is on there,” she had said. “The stuff on there, I would go to prison for the rest of my life,” she had said. Well, it was gone, good and gone, and it wouldn’t have to come between them and she could go on being Mary Morstan.

Except she had built and become Mary Watson on that identity, and he already knew she couldn’t keep the identity of a stillborn child she had filched from a grave marker in Chiswick Cemetery.

*

In Afghanistan, if you asked, John would say he felt helpful. He felt useful. He felt like he was saving people.

He would lie.

His first patient was eighteen, a kid, a child, somebody's child, who stepped on an IED on his first routine patrol, losing a leg and taking a gut full of shrapnel. He lived for eleven hours, and the last thing he said was, “we tried so hard,” and John didn’t know what that meant. After that, the faces started to blur together. John never had the guts to write it down, but everyone kept track of their saves versus their losses, and John was on the wrong side of the scale when he got shot.

He doesn’t remember where he was or what he was doing. What he does remember is being shot, the feel of heat ripping through muscle, the sudden surge of blood outside his body, pain like when the sun shines too bright, and Murray’s face in his. Murray, who said, “don’t even think about it, Johnny,” like he was telling him not to take the last pudding at the canteen, and pressed too hard on the wound. And John thought, please, god, let me live.

So he lived.

For a short time afterward, in hospital, in physical therapy, in his bare military bedsit, he regretted it.

*

Maybe it was because of the nightmares they each suffered, the restless nights that woke each other up several times a week. Maybe it was the stress of never really getting over it: what they’d seen.

*

The first time he goes out, he buys bread and potatoes. He forgets milk.

The first time he makes dinner, he loses track of time staring into space and leaves the pasta on to boil for too long. It goes soggy, inedible.

The first time he does laundry, he finds a burping cloth Mary must’ve tossed in with the last load of things she washed. He sits on the floor for an hour, holding it, wondering what they were going to do with all these things.

Grief makes a person fumble, wrong-footed. John is not a stranger to the struggle to keep his balance, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Instead, he feels pushed and pulled by each old wound re-opening. He thinks about his first Christmas after his mum died, the first class he had to go to after his dad went. He thinks about the routine of paperwork after losing a patient.

Confronted by reality, grief colours everything with the questions of how to deal with it. Will he or won’t he react to the unexpected movement of a bird taking flight from the roof of a building across the street? How will he (should he?) react to the sight of a pram, to the ring of a toy being shaken? Does he dare to order takeaway? To answer his mobile when Harry calls?

He thinks about every old hurt again, trying to decide if he will ever forgive himself for all the things he let happen.

He thinks: not yet.

*

John comes home from Tesco three weeks after the ultrasound to find the flat immaculate and a yellow paper on the kitchen worktop. He puts the milk and yoghurt in the fridge and turns to look at it, and is surprisingly unsurprised to realize it is a note from Mary.

A.G.R.A. called and I’ve had to go.

It’s a convenient excuse, likely no more than a half-truth. He wouldn’t have bought the yoghurt, had he known.

He calls her mobile, which is, of course, disconnected, and wanders through the flat. In the bathroom, her shampoo and hairspray are still there, half-full. In the bedroom, he slides her wedding rings gently into the top drawer. Mary Watson no longer existed--never really had.

He gets one text two days later: Trail cold at the Czech border. No signs of surveillance or danger. –SH

It is the most reassuring thing that has happened so far, to know that even though John never called or texted or made an effort at all, someone is still there, watching at the fringe of John’s life, waiting. John makes a cup of tea and stares at the wall in the living room for three hours thinking about everything.

The dull ache underneath his sternum lessens, just the tiniest bit, as though there had been some kind of resolution.

*

John met Sherlock Holmes at the end of January: a swath of colour in the grey of winter. It doesn’t really surprise him to find himself thinking about Sherlock now with the same sort of melancholic nostalgia he feels when he thinks about Mary and the ultrasound. John feels like he is remembering Sherlock again the way he did when Sherlock was away, even though now Sherlock is here and Mary is gone, instead of the other way round.

Sherlock had swept John up and reignited that peculiar sensation of having another person in your atmosphere. Sherlock was loud, he was energy, he was fire. Sometimes he was sour and dark and despondent, an oil lamp on the cusp of burning out, and other times he was a bonfire, an explosion of words and fury and intensity, and other times still he was a hearth at home, crackling with familiarity.

You couldn’t merely exist around Sherlock--you had to be purposeful. You had to decide to live. You had to put effort into it.

They went to crime scenes and chased cabs and dodged blow-darts and bullets. They existed in the tenuous domesticity that is built on cups of tea and violin compositions and late-night takeaway. It was dangerous and absolutely mad. For eighteen months, it was brilliant.

Then Sherlock stepped off a roof like he was expecting to fly.

The world went sort of foggy.

John spent a lot of time not thinking about it. He spent a lot of time not thinking about Sherlock’s outstretched arms, or the flail of his legs against the stark grey backdrop of Bart’s, or the blood weighing down curls on the pavement. He spent a lot of time not thinking about why Sherlock had done it and he never, ever, ever thought about what he could have done to pull him back from the precipice.

Then he’d found Mary, or maybe she’d found him, bright, beautiful Mary, who was the opposite of Sherlock’s dark, dangerous life. She was stable, she was steady, she was natural--a new nurse at the clinic. The sheer bold normality of a workplace romance after months of floundering in the wake of mad-insane-spectacular.

After eighteen months with Sherlock and eighteen months without, Mary felt like a saving grace. Like balance. He didn’t have to chase criminals and carry a gun; he could lean around a soft shoulder to help make risotto in the kitchen and watch telly. John sometimes felt like he was eight again, when things had been sunny and his mum had made scones and served tea in the garden.

John moved in with Mary after a month, too much too soon, but he needed the feeling of another person in the fringes of his life. Without Sherlock, he felt like he was accommodating emptiness; with Mary, he accommodated the vivid promise of the future.

It wasn’t adrenaline-fueled cases and clients, it wasn’t Chinese take-away at one in the morning, but it was reliable and after decades of uncertainty, it didn’t always feel right, per se, but it did feel good. He bought a ring on their eight-month anniversary and tried his damnedest to orchestrate the perfect moment.

*

Sherlock was dead for exactly two years, four months, twenty-two days, and twelve hours. Exactly, because when you’re Sherlock Holmes, you apparently get to schedule your resurrection down to the second.

John had visited Sherlock’s grave exactly one hundred and twenty-four times.

*

221B Baker Street looks exactly the same as it did the last time John was here, which is nice, because it seems like time also stopped here when it stopped for John in the ultrasound room five weeks ago. The microscope is still on the table, the papers and files are still strewn about the sitting room haphazardly, and the skull on the mantelpiece is still overlooking it all with disdain. Sherlock is out, which is also nice, because John gets to take a moment to get a feel for what he’s been doing since they last saw each other, nearly a month and a half ago now.

Mrs Hudson busies herself making John a cuppa and pointedly not mentioning either Mary or the baby, confirming John’s suspicions that Sherlock had told at least some people what had happened, and he is grateful, grateful for the intrusion. Mrs Hudson had been so happy to hear that there might be a baby at 221B. In any other circumstance, John would have asked if she were all right and comforted her a bit, but in the current circumstance, John isn’t even sure if he is all right, and he is in no position to comfort anybody, so instead they talk about the weather.

The milk in the fridge is current and the only body parts he sees are properly stored in the freezer. There is a loaf of bread that looks a bit stale but not mouldy, and the beakers and test tubes are clean, waiting for the next experiment. The violin case is open but there are no papers on the music stand, so probably Sherlock has been playing but absent-mindedly, which means there is a case on.

Good. That’s good.

John takes the cup Mrs Hudson brings and says meaningfully, “It’s all right, I’m all right,” before she bustles back downstairs. He picks up the old book next to his chair and tries to pick up on the plot again so he can continue. So he can think about something other than Mrs Hudson carefully wiping the tears away in her kitchen.

Sherlock swirls in several hours later--two or three, it’s hard to remember--flushed with post-case adrenaline. John finds himself sitting Sherlock down on a chair in the kitchen and pulling out his old first-aid kit to clean a few scrapes and decide if the cut through his left eyebrow needs stitches.

“So he pulls a knife, a knife, honestly, and starts shouting about how she deserved it, all very useful when half the Yard is sitting just on the other side of the window. The attack was predictable, could tell by the angle he was holding his knife and the wear on his shoes, but I was unarmed and none of this--” he gestured at his face--“would have happened if Lestrade hadn’t waited so long to interrupt.”

It is reassuring to hear Sherlock go on about the case because they aren’t dancing around the issue of what John’s life had been like in the past five weeks. Sherlock explaining a case is so much easier to handle than Sherlock explaining how he has been keeping the surge of sympathetic faces at bay.

John sits back in the kitchen chair. “No other injuries, then? He just bashed up your face a bit?”

There are a few scrapes across Sherlock’s knuckles and he is settling his weight on his left hip as though he might have been struck across the right side of his ribcage, but Sherlock nods anyway. He jumps up and strides back to look over some papers in the sitting room. “Still a few cases on, though,” he says. “Private clients, nothing terribly difficult but things I can’t do simply from the flat. Could use an assist, if you’re available.”

His voice is perhaps a bit too nonchalant, and Sherlock very rarely takes more than one client at a time so it feels like a set-up, but John allows it. “Yeah, I’ve got a bit of time. I’m just preparing, you know, to pack up.” He doesn’t feel the need to explain this and Sherlock doesn’t ask him to. They both know that Sherlock already knows about how John didn’t go back to work, about how he is living alone now, about how the army pension isn’t enough to sustain the empty flat.

“You could move back here,” Sherlock offers casually, shuffling through the pile of papers on the desk, looking for something. He appears to be only offering John responses distractedly. John is grateful--again--for the show. “Bedroom upstairs is still free.”

John can’t stop the grin before it tugs the corners of his mouth, even though it makes the ache in his chest swell just a little, like it irritates the edges. “Yeah,” he says. “That’ll do nicely.”

*

Sherlock’s last words to anyone were to John: “Goodbye, John.” John had carried those words with him like a personal religion. Goodbye. Please, will you do this for me? It’s my note.

Except that wasn’t ever intended to be the last. Seeing his face again, peering down at John’s with that sly grin, made John so angry, because he had wanted so many people to not be dead, and he was only getting this one man back.

And John knew that he wouldn’t trade this one for any of the others. He would continue to choose this particular one, this one who had apparently left and lied and forced him to watch and made him promise--please, will you do this for me?--and let him drown in mourning and melancholy. John knew he would always choose this one.

He hated himself for it.

*

Maybe that was why: you only get the one miracle.

*

The first morning of John’s married life, he’d gone out and picked up an at-home test kit, and when it came back with two pink lines Mary cried for two straight hours. He didn’t know whether it was out of joy or fear or anger or fulfillment or loss. When she was finished, she kissed his cheek and said, “It’s going to be a girl.”

They did everything right. They waited eleven long, difficult weeks to tell anybody, because they were both medical professionals and they knew the statistics. Mary had regular ultrasounds and took pre-natal vitamins and read What to Expect When You’re Expecting and The Day-by-Day Pregnancy Book.

She was a nurse. John was a doctor.

They thought they had this under control.

*

The last room of the flat he needs to pack up is the second bedroom: the nursery.

It took John two weeks to go through the entire flat to reach this point. Sherlock had been startlingly present, although perhaps not helpful, sitting in whatever room John was sorting through and occasionally criticizing John’s taste in household accoutrements. It was odd, having Sherlock around. Having another body in the flat felt strange, having been alone in it for several weeks now. Even though every last thing about that other body was the antithesis of Mary, it still reminded him of what it was like to have her there. It left everything feeling tender, bruised.

The project of packing and moving is a welcome distraction from those sorts of thoughts.

John gets rid of everything he doesn’t immediately need, which essentially boils down to everything that was even a little bit Mary’s. Even the wedding rings go, now tucked back inside their original ring box, thrown into the pile of the detritus of a life together. If he occasionally sees Sherlock scavenging an unidentifiable item or two out of the piles, he pretends not to.

But he had asked Sherlock not to come, not today. The nursery is a private thing.

Since they hadn’t yet chosen a colour to paint, everything they’d collected is still in boxes. They had been planning to move it all out to paint the weekend after the ultrasound. John had wanted it yellow; he detested pink. There’s a cot, toys, onesies, blankets, all the things they were going to need, brought in to build the nest.

John isn’t interested in any of these things. He is only interested to know whether the memory box is still sitting on the side table. He has studiously avoided the nursery since Mary had gone, because he isn’t sure whether he wants it to be there or not. He takes a deep breath. Opens the door.

It isn’t.

The ache behind his sternum roars to life, causing his stomach to roil and his eyes to sting. His knees give out; his back hits the wall hard. The evidence of the consequences of an ultrasound, seven weeks ago, disappeared out of his life along with so many other things. The empty space taunts him, as though he could go back to the kitchen and find Mary, still there, still pregnant, smiling at him. He thinks about a palm print pressed into clay and wishes he had taken the time to memorize every little crook and line and detail.

Had he cried, at the ultrasound? At the hospital? He can’t remember. He slides down to the floor, pushing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets, painfully hard. He sits for a long time. When he takes his hands away, they are wet and his eyes feel heavy.

He’s a doctor, a fucking doctor, sitting on the floor in the nursery of a baby he lost--a baby he didn’t save.

*

There isn’t a grave to visit this time. Seven weeks after, John visits a familiar black headstone for the one hundredth and twenty-fifth time and imagines something little there.

It suits: an empty grave for an empty ultrasound.

Chapter Text

John opens his eyes.

The ceiling of his bedroom at 221B yawns back at him; he takes a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. Just a dream, then. The space on the right side of the bed is bigger than he remembered it ever being before.

It isn't fair that after all those weeks living alone, surrounded by her things, he didn't really begin to miss her until he'd come back to Baker Street.

It isn't fair because he can’t tell if he misses her because he wasn’t done loving her, or if he misses her because he wishes this weren’t happening. He cannot remember if he had loved her that morning, on the way to their appointment. It feels important, although he can’t say why.

Did he still love her before the ultrasound came up quiet?

*

Lost, John thinks, is not really the right word for it. It’s not as if they’ve been misplaced.

Lost implies something can be gotten back, if only John could find it. The things he’s getting back now are the things he didn’t lose. The things he’s getting back now are the things he walked away from.

Like the key to 221B Baker Street, with all the memories tied into its weight, back in his pocket again. The key he’d handed to Mrs Hudson three years ago with only an “I’m sorry,” to soften the blow.

There is some tension in the flat, a strained feeling of how-to-question-mark when it comes to living with Sherlock again. It feels like it did in the beginning, when Sherlock held himself back a little, like he wanted to make a good impression. But then, things are bound to be awkward when you’re living together again with the man who pretended to off himself in front of you. Please, will you do this for me? It’s my note.

Maybe he should’ve just gone for a bedsit, after all.

It’s the quiet, really, that bothers John the most. Sherlock had always operated with at least a low-level of volume; John is more used to the varying tones of the violin, the rings and clinks of glass beakers and slides, even conversations where he is not sure if Sherlock is talking to John or to himself.

But John has never lived with this Sherlock and this Sherlock is quiet.

This Sherlock spent two and a half years underground, doing who-knows-what, going who-knows-where, and came home to John’s fist and a dusty flat. This Sherlock has closed the door behind John at the end of the night for the last year, closing himself in with only refrigerated body parts and the skull for company.

Sherlock had seemed, for the past year, so much the man he remembered, and when it occurs to John now that he couldn’t possibly be, it feels like a punch to the solar plexus. What have you been doing this past year, John wonders, when I wasn’t here?

Now that John has noticed it, he can’t tell whether the quiet is the result of restraint or atrophy.

John knows he hasn’t lost a thing, because lost is not the same as gone.

*

Time at Baker Street passes differently, measured by case-case-client-corpse-case, rather than day-by-day. John does the shopping and the cooking and the cleaning and the washing, badgers Sherlock into tea and bandages him up after a few mishaps. The domesticity of it all gives him something to do with his hands.

He posts a blog entry to inform friends he is back at Baker Street, studiously avoiding the why, but the comments are a sort of cautious prodding--all right?--so he doesn’t post another.

It almost could be all right, if John could forget why he was here in the first place.

*

A week after John comes back to Baker Street, Sherlock experiments quietly on a pair of tongues while John watches game show re-runs. Sherlock neither complains nor supplies the correct answers when the participants are prompted, so instead John is caught up thinking about the first time he saw this episode: Mary, laughing, buried under two blankets on the sofa, wearing red. John had always liked her in red.

Three years ago, this night with Sherlock would have felt normal. Ten weeks ago, normal was Mary, wearing red, hands clasped protectively over the bump in her middle.

He wonders if anything will ever be normal again.

The ache in his chest burns and, as if on cue, Sherlock startles away from the tongues on the table with a gasped “Yes!

“Sherlock? All right?” John asks. Normal. This is the new normal.

“Yes, all right. These tongues show it--the Bradshaw case--the victim was murdered,” Sherlock rattles off, sliding the tongues into a container with a squelch. “It wasn’t an accidental overdose, her brother had access to her nicotinamide; he’s been poisoning her for months.”

There is a flurry of coat and scarf, and Sherlock wrenches the door open with the tongue container in hand before pausing to look back at John. “Are you coming?”

John hasn’t been on a case in ten weeks. He looks down at his hands, picks at his cuticles. “No,” he answers, and then he tries to smile as he meets Sherlock’s gaze. He can tell by the twitch in Sherlock’s eyebrow that he fails. “Not this time. Still, you know. Trying to adjust.”

Sherlock looks at him for a long moment, as if trying to decide if he could change John’s mind. The door clicks closed as the next episode comes on.

*

One hundred and twenty-six.

*

The first holiday season after someone goes is always a bit like living in hell.

No different this time, then.

They had decided not to get anything for each other this Christmas, months ago. It seemed to be Mary’s idea of a trial-run holiday: could they still be together, did they still love each other? They were going to do gifts for the baby instead. Nothing big--by Christmas, the big things would be taken care of--but a few of the smaller details that would make things comfortable.

John had planned on putting together infant first-aid kits: one for the flat, one for Baker Street. Just in case. He had been planning to teach Sherlock how to use it, how to take care of a baby if something were to happen.

Sherlock probably would have deleted it anyway.

He ignores the holidays as best he can, but the reminders are constant. Smiling Santas plastered to the fronts of shops and seasonal carols piped into the aisles. The telly is running round after round of Christmas specials.

Harry keeps calling. He keeps not answering.

*

“Is today the twentieth?” Sherlock asks over tea and toast.

John looks over the top of the paper at him, but Sherlock is still standing at the worktop, intently swirling his tea bag into his cup. “It is,” John answers. Sherlock frowns: the tea, or John’s response?

He appears to be working himself up to saying something, though, so John sets down the paper and folds his hands over it. Sherlock shakes his head as though to clear it, then, “My parents have invited us out for the holidays. You and I, I mean. Well, probably Mycroft as well, but he’s much less irritating around Mummy.”

Sherlock has, to John’s knowledge, never gone to his parents for the holidays. John hadn’t even known he had parents until after his return. John couldn’t imagine that the perfectly ordinary couple he’d met (on a single occasion) had somehow produced something as maddeningly infuriating and indescribably genius as Sherlock.

Yet here he is, standing in the kitchen staring down at his tea, trying not to look like he is waiting for John’s answer.

This has crossed the line from feeling like a set-up to definitely, absolutely being a set-up. For his benefit, but a set-up nonetheless: an excuse to leave London, to leave behind all the familiar faces and places and forget for a few days.

John is sure there will be a lot of food and forced laughter and no one will ask about the ultrasound at all.

“Er, as…appealing as that sounds,” John says, trying to be polite, “I think I’d rather stay here. Don’t want to make a fuss. Treat it like any other day, you know? But you, you should go. When’s the last time you saw them?”

Sherlock sets the tea down on the table with unexpected force. “I don’t actually enjoy leaving London,” he says decisively. “I think you’re right—stay in, just any other day, this year. Mycroft can keep them occupied, I’m sure.”

Sherlock stalks off and John, feeling a bit uncomfortable, attempts to go back to the newspaper. The world is doing that holiday-breath-holding where nothing interesting happens for several weeks. The weather forecast is predicting rain.

*

For the first year or so, Mrs Hudson took yellow flowers, stark against black granite. Yellow roses, mostly, but sometimes lilies. Daisies, once, which seemed too childish for the imposing headstone, but once tulips, which John had rather liked.

He never actually saw her there, but when there were flowers, it felt a little less lonely.

John knew it was Mrs Hudson because she occasionally kept yellow flowers in her flat and had once told him they reminded her of Florida. He couldn’t understand why she’d want anything to remind her of Florida.

He thinks he understands now.

He pays extra for out-of-season ranunculuses two days before Christmas. He thinks about Florida. He thinks about the Czech border.

One hundred and twenty-seven.

*

It is just like any other day until John puts down his book to go upstairs to bed.

“John.”

Sherlock sits back in his chair at the desk, closing the laptop lid partway and leaving his face in half-shadows. His eyes are the only things to catch the light. John’s ribs suddenly feel too small for his lungs; he does not want to know what Sherlock might have to say, not on Christmas Day, not when Sherlock has clearly waited until the last possible moment to say it.

“It’s getting late.” He fakes a yawn, droops his eyelids purposefully to look tired. Hopes Sherlock will let it go. It can wait.

The chair scrapes along the floor as Sherlock stands. “I wanted to say,” he begins, and steps slowly toward John. “I just wanted to say, I’m sorry.” He is not apologizing for anything he has done.

John cannot pretend he doesn’t know what Sherlock means. It is the first time either of them has spoken about it. He can feel his fingers starting to tremble. Let it go. It can wait. “It’s all right.”

“It really isn’t.” Sherlock is looking at him with an unfamiliar expression and he wonders what Sherlock can see in his t-shirt, in his posture, in the edge of hair growing too long over the tops of his ears.

It really isn’t. Of course it isn’t.

John bows his head and closes his fingers into a fist. “It will be. Maybe. Give it time.”

Sherlock is standing right in front of him now, standing maybe too close. He is close enough that John could reach out and he fights the sudden urge to wrap his fingers around Sherlock’s wrist and take his pulse, to remind himself that someone is here and is real and has a heartbeat.

“I am sorry. Truly.” Sherlock’s voice is steady, but when his gaze flicks up from the floor to meet John’s, it is a raw physical impact that betrays some deeper, unknown emotion. “I would be remiss, though, if I couldn’t say I’m glad that you are here.”

John thinks the ache under his sternum is trying to shake out through his hands. He swallows, swallows twice. “Thank you,” he manages. He can’t read the look in Sherlock’s face, can’t identify the unconcealed emotion in his eyes, can’t see what answer Sherlock might be looking for.

John settles for the only thing that comes to mind. “Er--merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, John,” Sherlock answers, and steps away.

*

When Sherlock first came back to London, he dropped apologies by the dozens, by the hundreds, like if he said it enough times, it would make a difference.

“You’re not sorry,” John had said, caught between too angry to even shout and too resigned to even be bothered. “You left and made me watch and you’re not sorry at all.”

“John,” Sherlock had tried, and his voice had caught on the vowel and for one horrifying moment John had thought Sherlock was going to cry. “I had to. I’m sorry.

He promised himself that he would never believe Sherlock’s apologies; he would never let himself become a pawn in whatever game Sherlock was playing.

But this is not a game and Sherlock is not calling the moves.

*

John shudders into the wind, hitches his collar up against the cold. He’s going to be late: traffic is insane this time of year and Harry chose a café clear on the other side of town. God, why did he agree to this?

When he arrives, Harry is already seated. She is clutching a glass of water as though it pains her, but she smiles.

“Harry, hello.” He shucks his jacket and sits. “You look well.”

She really does. Her hair is a bit darker and longer than he remembers and she looks less gray and washed out. “Thanks,” her smile grows, “I’m eight months sober now. Never thought I’d manage it.”

John’s answering grin suddenly feels plastered to his face, a cut-out of someone else’s mouth. Eight months. Harry entered her program when they found out Mary was pregnant, and now here she is: eight months sober.

He’s happy for her. He’s happy something good came out of the pregnancy. He’s happy that he’s sitting in some fucking café with his sister celebrating her fucking sobriety with water.

They order sandwiches and coffees while Harry pries for details about what John is occupying himself with, both of them steadfastly ignoring the increasingly clipped tone he is unable to control. He picks apart his lunch, leaving layers of ham and cheese and tomato lying separated on the plate.

He can read the judgment of his answers in the downturn of Harry’s mouth as she says, “It’s been three months, John.”

As if he’s behind schedule in getting over it.

“You need to do something to get out of that flat every so often,” she berates as they’re putting their jackets back on after a painful forty-five minutes. “It’s not healthy, what you’re doing.”

“I suppose you’d know all about what’s healthy,” he snaps.

Her face is hard. “I could’ve gone back to it, you know. I could’ve done. It was hard and I have hated every minute. I could’ve been just like Dad, after Clara left, and again after--well, after everything. But I didn’t. I didn’t.”

*

One hundred and twenty-eight.

*

Last year, on New Years’ Eve, John and Mary had swung by Baker Street late and counted down the final seconds with cheap champagne. He had kissed her, hard, right as the clock struck twelve.

Sherlock sat plucking the strings on his violin, and at midnight he had turned his face away. He had only been home two and a half months. John had felt guilty when Mary took him by the hand to tug him down the stairs, to hail a cab, to take him home, with Sherlock sitting alone, half-drunk on champagne, looking like he didn’t really want to celebrate another year.

It was the only time John ever wondered if Sherlock regretted coming back.

*

“Okay," John agrees. “I’ll come.”

Sherlock blinks, surprised, but does not ask about the change of mind. John is grateful, because he does not know what prompted it himself. New year, he supposes. New beginnings.

The case is some murder out in a nondescript block of flats in Highgate. Sally Donovan is standing in the stairwell, talking into a mobile, when she sees them. She does not comment as they pass. Something in the set of her mouth and her eyes makes John’s stomach turn.

“Sherlock, through here,” Lestrade calls. He looks up and smiles when he sees John. “John, hello--"

He is cut off as Sherlock very carefully and very immediately inserts himself between them. He leans low, whispers something fast and sharp into Lestrade’s ear.

When he pulls away, Lestrade looks vaguely offended. “Yeah, of course,” he assures. “Of course, I took care of it. Won’t be a problem.”

No one at the scene asks John where he’s been or what he’s been up to. No one even meets his gaze. Sherlock seems to have spent quite a lot of time over the past three months speaking low and fast into people’s ears, protecting John from prying questions.

Maybe John wants the prying questions, he thinks suddenly, the idea flaring hotly in his chest. Maybe he wants someone to say something. Maybe he wants someone to take him aside and ask if he’s all right.

Maybe he wants something to acknowledge that this happened, someone besides Sherlock, someone outside the twisted world, the questionable reality, that 221B can sometimes be.

Sherlock looks at the victim’s wrists and the hem on his trousers and makes some conclusion John doesn’t really hear. Sally Donovan has come into the room. John stares at her as she tries to decide whether to harden her expression into something more familiar or soften it into something more sympathetic. It’s making her look as though her lunch disagreed with her.

Sherlock takes off deeper into the flat to rummage for something in the bathroom. John steps in next to Donovan and waits.

“Doctor Watson,” she nods.

“Sergeant Donovan.”

They stand silently next to one another for a moment longer before Donovan huffs out, “Our condolences,” voice oddly gruff and low, and she escapes back out into the stairwell. The affirmation he’d wanted, but it’s not really so simple after all. What was she recognizing? What condolences is she offering?

What has Sherlock told all these people over the past thirteen weeks?

What are considered the facts of John Watson’s life?

*

He doesn’t write up the case.

John sits in a coffee shop for two hours, suspecting Sherlock has followed him. The persistent quiet in the flat is almost overwhelming. John suspects that quiet follows him, clings to him, even when Sherlock doesn’t.

He sits and thinks about Harry, who got sober for a baby and stayed sober after it was gone. He thinks about Sally Donovan, who never apologized for accusing Sherlock of unspeakable crimes, whose voice went rough to apologize for this, now.

John thinks about Christmas, Sherlock’s single direct acknowledgement that the ultrasound happened, that this was real. He tries to speculate about whether Sherlock will ever stop trying to make it disappear.

He draws no conclusions.

These are the facts of his life: it has been thirteen weeks and he is just as uncertain about it all now as he was in that darkened ultrasound room.

The dregs of his coffee are bitter and gritty, but he forces it down.

*

In the beginning, before the very first appointment, Mary had laughed and said she hoped the baby would be born on the sixth of January. When they were given a due date for later in the month, Mary had smiled and laughed conspiratorially. “Well, you never know. They could be wrong. It could always be the sixth anyway.”

Sherlock turns thirty-eight. John pretends to have forgotten.

*

One hundred and twenty-nine.

*

“What do you tell them?” John asks one night, Indian take-away spread over the coffee table.

Sherlock, sitting at the desk and ignoring the food, doesn’t look over. “What do I tell who?”

“About Mary. Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, everyone.” John fiddles with his fork, moving his food around but not picking any of it up. “What do you tell them happened?”

Sherlock’s eyes slide from the laptop screen to John’s face. His face expresses genuine curiosity, but his Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows hard. “Why does it matter?”

John shrugs and sits back further into the sofa. “I might need to know. Don’t you think, in case someone asks?”

Sherlock studies him for a moment, then sets the laptop aside and snags a piece of naan as he moves to sit on the sofa as well. “I tell them the truth. That the baby was stillborn, and Mary decided it was best to cut ties. She is now, as far as anyone knows, living with an aunt in America.”

“Oh.” John wasn’t sure he what he was expecting. Some spectacularly complex lie, most likely. Another mad plot to make things seem different than what they were. Instead, there are just the cold, hard facts. The baby died and Mary left. Their baby died, so she left.

His daughter died.

John’s sternum caves in on itself a little and his eyes prickle with sudden pressure and he pushes the carton of food away.

Sherlock settles close and sets about shredding the naan in his fingers. The sofa sags a little under his weight and John’s cushion dips. They tilt toward each other, not quite touching, the heat of Sherlock’s body only a hands-breadth away.

*

A few weeks after the holidays, John is dragged out of sleep unceremoniously by an enormous crash from downstairs at half-six. He lays in bed for a long minute, wondering if he should go down or leave it alone, before he hears Sherlock call up, tentatively, “John? I need you.” Followed, a moment later, by, “Wear shoes!”

John gets up, grumbling, and throws on a dressing gown and the only shoes he currently has upstairs--a pair of black dress shoes--and goes down. Sherlock is standing in the kitchen, surrounded by broken glass, looking rather shell-shocked.

The first thing John notices is that Sherlock himself is barefoot.

The second thing he notices is that Sherlock is bleeding from everywhere.

“Jesus Christ,” John says, his breath catching in his throat. The only protective gear Sherlock has got on is a pair of goggles, and thank God for that, because everything else that was exposed--his hands and forearms, his neck, the uncovered portions of his face--is dotted with fresh wounds and wet with whatever he was working with. There are even a few spots of blood across his chest and stomach, inky blotches on his soaked t-shirt.

“That wasn’t supposed to happen,” Sherlock states, rather stupidly.

John feels the forced calm of react, now, settle over him, switching into the role of Doctor Watson like switching on a light. It’s been months since he has felt that sense of determination and confidence in his own competence.

He leaves Sherlock standing there a moment and goes to collect a pair of shoes from Sherlock’s room, the first-aid kit from the bathroom, and a broom and dustpan from the cupboard.

“What exploded?” he asks as he sets the shoes down and helps Sherlock lift his feet into them. He’s moving unusually slowly, John notes.

“Glass beakers. Half a dozen.”

There’s enough blood on his arms now that there are undoubtedly a few rather deep lacerations. They might have to go to hospital. He finds himself hoping they don’t scar; Sherlock’s got nice skin.

“And what made them explode? Is this a hazardous substance you’ve got all over you?”

Sherlock looks down to where John is putting his left heel into its shoe with his bare hands and says, “Um.”

“Right. Okay. Into the shower. No, hold your arms out in front of you, you’re bleeding on everything.”

John guides him into the bathroom and into the tub, fully clothed. After removing the shoes once more, he turns on the spray. He continues to ask questions—did it get in your mouth, is water flushing sufficient, what symbol on the periodic table represents lead. When Sherlock rolls his eyes at the last and spits out the answer, he retreats and goes to start sweeping up.

He doesn’t even consider being mad about it.

Sherlock emerges some time later, shirtless and barefoot. He holds himself stiffly, unsure. The shower had washed away the blood but it is already starting to run fresh from the deeper wounds again.

John cannot help but notice, however, that beyond the new wounds, Sherlock's skin is an unfamiliar landscape. His chest--and when he turns the corner into the sitting room, his back--is lined with silvery-pink scars John doesn't remember. He hasn't seen this much of Sherlock since before his time away.

Not ten minutes ago, he was hoping the gashes on Sherlock's arms wouldn't scar, and now he is confronted with evidence--evidence of what? Some horrible accident? Close encounters with criminals? He takes a breath to ask, but Sherlock's eyes flash and his shoulders pull back, as if preparing to defend himself from a physical attack, so John lets the questions die in his throat. Another day. There is a job to do here.

Aside from the new wounds and the old scarring, Sherlock’s general physique still looks healthy; despite how thin he appears, he’s maintaining a solid layer of muscle. Whatever he eats, it must be enough. Focus on that, John thinks. Focus on right now.

“No hospital,” Sherlock says resolutely, once he realizes John is not going to comment. He sits on the coffee table so John can tend the wounds.

“Might not have a choice, some of these.” John prods at a particularly nasty laceration across Sherlock’s forearm. “I can make do with a butterfly bandage for now, but I’ll reserve judgment on whether you need A and E.”

It takes a long time to make sure he’s seen to every wound. Most of them are superficial, so he settles for daubing on some antibacterial ointment and skips the plaster on them. Even so, John uses all of the butterfly bandages he’s got in his kit. Sherlock’s hands and arms took the brunt of the harm, though, and Sherlock will certainly be very sore and very sorry in the upcoming days.

The bandages are barely in place before Sherlock’s mobile dings. “Perfect,” he breathes. “Get dressed, John, there’s been a murder.”

*

The body is nestled behind a skip in an alley in Battersea. The forensic team has cleared off by the time they arrive, and the usual faces of Lestrade’s unit are just filing out as they go in. Lestrade himself is strangely quiet, with none of the hurriedness he usually carries.

No one comments on Sherlock’s fresh wounds. John can’t decide if it bothers him.

He turns his attention instead to the body and gives it a once-over: male, late forties or early fifties, cause of death was blunt trauma to the back of the head. Nothing remarkable.

For his part, Sherlock spends nearly a half an hour pouring over details no one else would have noticed and which John is not entirely sure are in any way relevant, and then sweeps out of the scene without explaining anything at all.

John’s frustration starts there and only gets worse.

Of course, Sherlock has already got a plan in his head to solve the crime and doesn’t seem to see the need to inform John about what the plan might be, what they might be looking for, or even where they are going.

They spend the afternoon all over London, criss-crossing neighborhoods, sliding in and out of shops, digging through bins. None of it makes any sense to John. He fights the increasing urge to shake Sherlock by the shoulders and force him to explain; it isn’t usually so difficult for John to follow what Sherlock is thinking.

Between his increasing anger and the early hour at which he was startled out of sleep, he feels the exhaustion setting in much earlier than it normally would. He makes Sherlock stop once so he can grab a pre-packaged sandwich and a coffee, but it doesn't particularly help. The day drags; he thinks with some fondness of a shower and a nap and considers leaving Sherlock to it and going home more than once.

Lestrade texts twice asking about what they’re finding, then gives up trying.

"I need you here, John," Sherlock says, but he won’t stand still for two minutes to tell John anything about the suspect (who turns out to be a waitress in Soho), or the murder weapon (which turns out to be a length of lead pipe Sherlock fishes out of a bin in Camden), or how either the suspect and the murder weapon came to converge in the alley in Battersea with the victim, or how they dispersed after the job was done.

The only upside is that they do have to stop at Bart’s to run a few tests in the evening, and Sherlock consents to having Molly nick some supplies so John can stitch up the deeper lacerations from the morning.

John puts in five stitches while Sherlock finds whatever speck of paint or bit of thread is going to solve the crime.

By the time they figure out who the murderer was and where she lived, however, the Met has already got her in custody: they arrive at her flat just in time to see her disappear into a police car.

“Bit late, boys,” Lestrade says, unsurprised to see them as they approach. “Got it handled.”

Sherlock hands over the length of lead pipe without a word. Lestrade motions for an evidence bag. It is all very quick and perfunctory.

John can’t help but feel a little put out: hand-delivering a killer to police is Sherlock’s favorite part. Plus, after all the time they spent figuring it out, it’s not just unusual for the Met to have beat them to it. It is unheard of. It feels like something is wrong with the way it all played out, but he can’t put his finger on it, and then Sherlock is turning to him anyway and asking him to hail a cab.

Lestrade catches his arm just before John slides into the taxi. “Ring me if you need anything, all right? Even if it’s just a pint down at the pub, we’ll go.” His face is earnest; his eyes flick over Sherlock, already settled in the back seat.

“Yeah,” John says, a little confused. “Yeah, I will.”

When they get back to Baker Street, it’s already nearing on midnight. John has a shower and a cheese sandwich and falls back into bed without a thought in his head. He sleeps better than he has in months.

*

He doesn’t realize until the next morning that it had been Mary’s due date.

It snaps into place suddenly as he’s waiting for the kettle to boil: the glass explosion, the crime scene, Lestrade’s demeanor, the mad chase around London for something John didn’t understand and which Sherlock refused to explain.

Sherlock never makes such extreme mistakes in his experiments and he’s usually fairly careful about safety around chemicals. They have a stash of elbow-length industrial gloves and a set of industrial aprons for that very reason.

The crime scene had been devoid of the usual frenzy. Lestrade had not been pushy for details. The Met had apprehended the killer before they could pinpoint her.

So, then.

Sherlock purposefully exploded a bunch of glass beakers and cut himself up to give John something to do with his morning, then purposefully had Lestrade call him in on a crime they didn’t need help with, then purposefully dragged him around London for a million hours, racking up the taxi meters, keeping him in the dark so he would focus on trying to figure out what Sherlock was looking for, until he was tired and ragged and didn’t have a moment or a thought to spare.

That lead pipe probably didn’t even have anything to do with the case, he bets.

He sighs, rubs a hand over his face. The kettle clicks off.

*

Fifteen weeks ago, John had thought today was going to be the happiest day he’d ever known. There was going to be life. There was going to be a life that was partly his, a life he would be bound to forever, a life to love and care for and watch and grow and nurture and he would have done something worthwhile, with that life.

Mary and the baby would have been at home by now, if the labor and delivery had gone smoothly.

Harry had planned to come and post up on their sofa for a few days to help, even though she had never helped anyone who’d just had a baby and was terrible with children. Mary’s friends would have been popping by all afternoon, probably with biscuits and tubs of soup and frozen meals for John to re-heat.

John would have been learning about the reflexive curls of fingers and toes. There would have been a name. He wonders if they should have chosen a name. The records said Baby Watson, wherever there were records. Were there records? He couldn’t really remember.

He had wanted something that sounded warm, sunny, light.

He tries to envision Sherlock coming to visit and can’t. He has an easier time imagining Mycroft, paying the courteous visit he would have thought mandatory after failing to attend the wedding. The baby would have spit up on that bespoke suit and John would have been utterly proud.

But Sherlock, Sherlock with a baby in his arms. John can’t imagine those long limbs cradling a child. Sherlock doesn’t have the gentle disposition to hold a soft, frail thing like a baby--he is made of angles and sarcasm and tempered steel. Maybe Mrs Hudson would have forced him to come, would have tried to force those angular arms into a holding place.

John wonders what Sherlock’s face would have looked like, staring down at that tiny life that was, at least in part, a bit of John himself.

Mary had suggested Sherlock be the godfather, but John rather thought he wouldn’t be up to that kind of responsibility. There was nothing about Sherlock at all that indicated he would be fond of children, even if it were John’s. John thought instead they’d ask Bill Murray, who had finished his final tour a month after the wedding and settled in Manchester.

Sherlock would have thought the baby was loud, illogical, and messy: generally unnecessary and useless. John feels a surge of anger that doesn’t quite dissipate for several days.

*

One hundred and thirty.

Chapter Text

John hasn’t figured out yet how Sherlock knows which days are the bad days. He must be giving it away in his shirts or his shave or his stance, but he can’t figure it out so he can’t stop doing it, and Sherlock keeps seeing it, whatever it is.

On bad days, Sherlock plays the violin.

Sometimes, Sherlock loses himself in thought and John catches him, bow held slack at his side, fingertips still pressed onto the fingerboard, standing in front of the window and looking without seeing anything. It isn’t the active, visible thought of trying to solve a puzzle; it is the blank stare of an unwelcome memory called up, the reliving of an unpleasant moment.

He wonders what Sherlock is remembering but can’t bring himself to ask.

Instead, John does the washing and the cooking and the cleaning and doesn’t look at his blog and doesn’t think about the Czech border and doesn’t buy yellow flowers.

The baby would have been one day old.

Two days old.

Three days old.

Sherlock plays the same tune seven days in a row.

*

“You did this on purpose,” John states as he inspects Sherlock’s stitches. They’re ready to come out--past due, in fact, but it took John a few days to be able to say the things he needs to say. He needs Sherlock to leave it alone, now: to stop trying to make things better, if this is how he’s going to try to try. “You ran that experiment without any safety things on and you knew this would happen. And you did it on purpose.”

Sherlock doesn’t respond. He keeps his gaze trained steadily on the pattern of the rug. That’s all right. It wasn’t a question.

“You can’t do these things to yourself,” John goes on tightly, holding Sherlock’s forearm. John doesn’t think he’ll have a scar, but he doesn’t say so. “It doesn’t help for you to do things like this.”

Sherlock shrugs, doesn’t flinch as John removes the stitches carefully. “I was only trying to cause a distraction. And it worked, you were distracted all day.”

“I don’t care. Don’t do it anymore.”

“I do what I have to.” He pulls his arm back; John can see him struggle against the urge to cradle it against himself, still steadfastly studying the rug. Sherlock would never have done that before he left and it’s an ugly, abhorrent thing. Sherlock would never have blown himself full of glass to spare John a bit of emotional turmoil either, and it’s so out-of-character and cautious and distressed, and John finds the whole situation unbearably infuriating.

“You didn’t have to do this,” John says shortly, anger rising in his throat. “You shouldn’t have, in fact. A day’s distraction doesn’t make it go away, Sherlock. It just takes time. You just have to leave off and give me some time.”

“Time,” Sherlock sneers, standing in a flurry of blue dressing gown. “Evidence would suggest time is insufficient. Time isn’t doing anything for anybody.” He stomps off, slamming his bedroom door behind him.

John wants to yell, wants to scream, wants to take Sherlock by the shoulders and shake out of him whatever is making him do these things. Playing violin on bad days, running dangerous experiments with no regard for the consequences. Being quiet. Sherlock is different and changed and how the hell didn’t John notice, and there are scars John can’t account for and which Sherlock hasn’t even tried to explain and he can’t handle it, he wasn’t prepared to handle Sherlock on top of the ultrasound.

God, but he can’t handle it on top of the ultrasound.

Evidence would suggest time is insufficient. It’s been sixteen and a half weeks. Sixteen and half fucking weeks. His daughter should be ten days old and instead she’s dead, and Mary was a liar and a fraud and whatever else but he still reaches for her in the mornings sometimes before he comes fully awake. And it doesn’t even matter, because she’s gone too, and half the time that hurts and half the time he’s glad of it. And John’s only trying to figure out what exactly is left of his life and apparently sixteen and a half weeks was supposed to have been sufficient.

First Harry, now Sherlock. Next week it’ll be Mrs Hudson, at this rate.

He didn’t think coming back to 221B would be like this.

*

One hundred and thirty-one.

*

Sherlock doesn’t come out of his bedroom for three days.

John moves around the flat loudly, turning the volume up on the telly and banging pots and pans around in the kitchen so Sherlock can’t think clearly. He bins all of Sherlock’s experiments left in the fridge, daring him to rush out of his room in protest. He fries fish, knowing the smell makes Sherlock gag. He knows he’s being very childish, trying to pick a fight, trying to give Sherlock an excuse to yell so he has an excuse to yell back, but he does it anyway.

Besides, after weeks of Sherlock’s quiet, he’s rather reveling in the noise.

But nothing John does sparks any kind of reaction from behind Sherlock’s closed door. It remains closed; Sherlock remains silent.

The anger in John’s chest sours into worry by the end of the third day. Although it’s probable Sherlock is emerging when John goes up to bed, the food in the fridge is untouched and there haven’t been any extra cups or plates in the sink, so John can’t be sure whether he’s eaten anything or even had anything to drink. He might be leaving the flat entirely, but John thinks he would’ve heard someone going up or down the stairs.

“Sherlock?” he calls through the door around eight o’clock that evening, a bit sheepishly, embarrassed to be concerned now after having been antagonistic.

There is no response.

“I’m going to order in tonight, did you want anything?”

Still no response.

“Chinese? Or we could do that new little Greek place you wanted to try.”

Nothing.

He orders spanakopita and moussaka and dolmades, but Sherlock doesn’t come out, so John eats alone.

*

When John comes down the next morning, Sherlock is sitting in his chair with his fingers steepled under his chin looking for all the world as though nothing has happened. John warms up a plate of leftovers, which Sherlock accepts without comment.

“Get bored in there, then?” John asks, perhaps more cuttingly than he’d intended.

Sherlock looks up and studies him for a moment. His gaze is piercing, like sticking pins through insects. “It gets very dark in my room at night,” he says simply, as if that ought to explain everything.

John stares back at him and finds he doesn’t have anything to add, after all.

*

Sometimes, John tries to measure it in days. Usually, he measures it in weeks.

After the due date, he starts to measure it in terms of the milestones they would have had together: the first coos and babbles, the first smiles, the first intentional grasp toward something wanted. The first few weeks of life were always fraught with these simple breakthroughs, these promises of more to come.

He also measures it in visits, compulsively, unable to stop counting. He stands and studies the letters etched into the granite and isn’t totally sure why he’s there anymore, for what exactly he is mourning, but he keeps going.

One hundred and thirty-two, one hundred and thirty-four, one hundred and thirty-seven.

*

John comes in with the shopping one afternoon to find Sherlock is sitting in the kitchen, head bent over into the eyepiece of the microscope, the neck of his shirt pulled flush against the skin. John knows there is a not-new-not-old scar that curls over the shoulder almost to the collarbone there, on the left side, even though he can’t see it.

He wants to ask, but instead ends up just rubbing the same spot on his own shoulder, trying to smooth away the phantom pain.

*

It’s two weeks before there is a new client to take the edge off the awkward feeling in the flat. She is an elderly woman wearing feathers and pearls who meets Sherlock blow-for-blow, equally rude and self-important. Sherlock is clearly immediately fond of her.

John is grateful to have this buffer again, this interlude in which everything streamlines into old, familiar positions: the detective and the doctor, the brain and the blogger.

They are again on the same side.

“My niece sent me here,” Mrs Harley says upon arrival, frowning as she settles into John’s armchair, “and I think you’re just as likely to be a fraud as my first husband, but you can’t be any worse than the damned police. Tea, if you can manage it, milk, no sugar.”

John busies himself with the kettle while Sherlock listens to a story about a missing brooch of some value. John can’t see any appeal to it, himself: any of the household staff would have had the motive and the opportunity. Sherlock asks several questions about the staff and about the niece, and then sits back in his chair.

“I’ll require a partial fee up-front for costs,” Sherlock says. John straightens against the door frame where he’s been watching; Sherlock has never asked for a front on a fee. He barely ever even takes the fee itself.

Mrs Harley doesn’t even blink. “Five hundred pounds to equip you and your companion, I should think.”

John nearly drops his teacup. Five hundred pounds for what? Bacon butties and a cab tomorrow morning? But Sherlock only nods and insists she write the cheque in John’s name. She doesn’t drink a single drop of the tea before she leaves.

“Surprised this is interesting enough for you,” John says after she’s out the front door. “Not the maid, then?”

Sherlock snorts. “No, it’s the niece. She put her aunt up to us to keep her away from the police. She’ll have the brooch hidden in a drawer or a cupboard. Family heirloom--difficult to get rid of, knowing it’d be hers one day anyway, even if she does want the money. Easy money for a day’s work, don’t you think?”

“You don’t typically care about the money,” John points out. “Or an up-front.”

Sherlock doesn’t answer.

*

The next morning, Sherlock drags John out of bed and into a cab to Kensington by seven. There is a disappointing absence of both coffee and bacon butties, all things considered.

Upon arrival, they are shown into the parlor, the sort of extravagant, upper-crust room that makes John awkward and uncomfortable. An older woman bustles in with a tea tray and begins to ask whether they need anything else when Sherlock suddenly stands and says, “No,” emphatically, in a strained tone.

The woman understands that he means leave and hurries out, closing the door behind her.

Sherlock turns to look at him. “I can handle this from here, John. I need you to go back to the flat and turn over the containers in the fridge. Experiment.”

“What? I’m not going back for your experiments, why didn’t you just do it before we left?” John can’t even remember there being an experiment on. He’s pretty sure the only containers in the fridge are leftover pasta and he’s not in the mood to run back just to find out.

“Timing! The timing was wrong. Just turn them straight over. I’ll be back in a bit, this shouldn’t take long, go ahead.” He gestures wildly at the door they came in, shifting rapidly from foot to foot, and repeats himself, uncharacteristically. “Just turn them straight over, this shouldn’t take long.”

“Can’t it wait, then, if it won’t be long?”

“No, it can’t. I need you to go and I’ll explain everything later--” The door opens again.

There is a slender, blonde woman there, with a baby settled on her hip.

John blinks once, twice, and Sherlock throws himself back into a chair, sighing. There are too many thoughts at once in John’s head: there is a baby, a baby, a really little baby, god, can’t be more than three or four months old, wearing a blue onesie, look at that shock of blond hair. The woman looks nothing at all like Mary but she’s slim and blonde as well and for a minute he thought—well, he thought, anyway.

Sherlock saw this, deduced there was a baby and had tried to make John leave before he saw. He can’t decide whether to be upset or angry or shocked or hurt or what, but there’s a baby and a woman who doesn’t look like Mary and Sherlock had tried to protect him from this.

“You’re the detectives, then?” The baby turns, hides his face in her shoulder, suddenly shy at the cold tone of his mother’s voice.

“Sherlock Holmes, yes, and my colleague, Doctor John Watson. Although he is just leaving.” Sherlock raises an eyebrow as if to say, now you understand.

John closes his eyes for a moment and takes a deep breath. He could leave, yes. Sherlock has given him an excuse and things are unlikely to be either dangerous or difficult. But there will always be other babies in the world and he is determined to not let this get between them any more than it already has.

“No, nope. I’m staying. Not a problem.”

Sherlock’s expression dissolves into a careful blank.

The woman hitches the baby higher onto her hip and introduces herself as the niece, Vanessa Kinsey, and begins lecturing Sherlock on all the places she has looked and what she thinks his plan of action ought to be.

John isn’t listening, despite his best intentions. The baby is wriggling a little, constantly moving.

“How long have you lived here, Ms Kinsey?” Sherlock interrupts, his tone bringing John back into the moment. He is making no attempt to appear chatty; he is clearly investigative and clearly in some kind of hurry.

She hesitates, turns her body away a quarter-turn, defensive. “About six months. I came after Benjamin’s father died.”

At hearing his name, the baby coos. The ache in John’s chest, half-forgotten since his not-actually-a-fight with Sherlock two weeks ago, feels like it is cracking his sternum. He clenches his fist.

Sherlock stands. “We’ll just have a look around, then, we can show ourselves. Do you keep rooms on the first floor, or the second? Never mind, I’m sure we can find it.”

Before Ms Kinsey can protest, Sherlock pushes past her, and she has her arms so full of squirming baby she can’t stop him. The baby is waving his limbs fitfully, screwing his face up, beginning to turn red.

John means to follow, he really does, but he is rooted to the spot and in his mind, the scene shifts, and the woman who wasn’t Mary now is, and the baby who wasn’t his daughter now could be. The baby starts to cry over his mother, who is shouting down the hall at Sherlock, and the bottom falls out of John’s ribcage and the colours twist and the noise mutes out. The house is underwater, John thinks, and wonders idly how long he can hold his breath.

The housekeeper re-appears, burping cloth already tossed over her shoulder and a bottle in hand. John watches Vanessa Kinsey’s distasteful expression as she hands over her baby and he hates her, fiercely.

Ms Kinsey turns and chases down the hall after Sherlock. The housekeeper turns and bustles the baby back away, shushing him as he cries. John is left standing alone in the parlor.

He only means to catch his breath, but the house is still underwater and then suddenly Sherlock is there and his hand is clutching something and John doesn’t remember seeing him come in and doesn’t know how long he’s been gone, but he is saying, “come on, John, come on.”

John allows himself to be led by the elbow down the hall, where Vanessa Kinsey is crying in the foyer, but it’s like someone has turned the volume off on her. Sherlock ignores her, so maybe someone has.

“Come on, come on, let’s get back to Baker Street,” someone is saying. “It’s okay. Let’s go.”

*

One hundred and forty.

*

John cooks more meals than they could ever eat, washes more dishes than he remembers dirtying, and puts together loads of laundry from clothes he isn’t even certain have been worn, just for something to do.

Sherlock doesn’t eat anything John cooks, doesn’t dirty any dishes, and has his laundry picked up by a dry-cleaning service.

John thinks Sherlock is purposefully not providing him with these outlets, like he is forcing John to find something else to do with his time, and it makes John even more determined to involve Sherlock in his domestic flurry.

This is how John ends up doing a load of washing comprised entirely of Sherlock’s pyjamas, socks, and underpants, which are the only things he normally washes himself and which John may or may not have appropriated from Sherlock’s bedroom when he went down to Bart’s earlier that morning. John revels in the victory as he pulls the load out of the dryer and takes it back to Sherlock’s bedroom. He’ll let Sherlock do the socks, but the rest he can fold and put away--otherwise, who knows how long they’ll sit on the bed, waiting for Sherlock to do it himself.

When John pulls out the bottom drawer of the dresser to slide Sherlock’s pyjamas in, something shoved into the back corner catches his eye. Something brightly coloured. Something soft-looking. Something childish.

He pulls it out before he can stop himself.

It’s a plush animal, a bumblebee, a perfectly round ball of soft, black-and-yellow stripes with a perfect round head and cartoonish stitched eyes, and two cartoonish white wings attached where the head meets the body.

It is an old child’s thing. It is a used child’s thing. There are matted areas on the plush body and the edge of one of the wings is damaged, like it has been chewed and sucked on repeatedly by a child looking for comfort by putting something in their mouth.

This is Sherlock's.

This is from Sherlock’s childhood. He has never before given thought to Sherlock as a child, but he must’ve been, and Sherlock would have been just the sort of child to find comfort by putting something in his mouth--an oral fixation that never truly resolved in the adult, who now instead puts cigarettes or biros or fingertips against his lips when he is concentrating or flustered or upset and trying not to be.

It is too intimate a thing to be holding, but for a moment he just stands there, wondering at it. A moment too long, it seems.

“Ahem.”

John jumps, startled, almost drops the plush toy. “Sherlock,” he says. “Sorry, just putting away some of the washing and I found it. It was yours?” He holds up the toy.

Sherlock’s face is unreadable, guarded, where he stands in the doorway. “Yes,” he answers, after a moment. “My godfather gave it to me when I was born. He was an apiarist.”

“A beekeeper,” John translates. Sherlock nods.

“I carried it everywhere until I went away to school. Of course, I grew out of it, but Mummy had kept a few things from our childhood. Sentimental things.”

John thinks very carefully about whether he wants to ask the next question, but in the end, he can’t help himself. “Why is it here?”

There is a long pause and John isn’t sure Sherlock is going to answer. John isn’t sure he wants him to answer. Sherlock is staring at him, those pale eyes blank, hands shoved into his trouser pockets. “My godfather gave it to me when I was born,” Sherlock finally repeats.

He looks at Sherlock, so entirely guarded, and down to the toy in his hands. “Oh, god, Sherlock.” He chokes on the words.

Sherlock steps forward and takes the plush bumblebee from his hands. He doesn’t look at John. “It’s a bit old,” he says, “but I thought it would do.” He puts it back in the drawer, all the way in the back, and slides the drawer shut. “I can handle the rest of the laundry from here.”

John should take the cue and walk away, just turn around and walk away, but he didn’t realize, how didn’t he realize, anybody else he would have realized, and here is Sherlock keeping a childhood memory in his pyjama drawer for the baby, nearly eighteen weeks after the ultrasound. Sherlock who tried to protect him from Vanessa Kinsey’s baby and the due date and the prying questions, Sherlock who has scars he doesn’t talk about, Sherlock who tracked Mary to the Czech border, Sherlock who left the upstairs bedroom free.

Sherlock who is different now, who is quiet and who gets lost in thought and who comes out of his room because it gets too dark at night.

Sherlock, who is standing with his back to John with his hands clenched into fists, waiting for John to leave, and suddenly John understands that maybe Sherlock needs John to protect him, a little bit, instead of the other way around.

John closes his eyes, standing there in Sherlock’s room, and lets it all wash over him, washing over the anger and irritation and frustration he has felt so deeply these past weeks like water washing over a dirty window. Clarity. He’s been so angry at Sherlock for being changed, at himself for not noticing and for not knowing how to deal with it. He’s been so pre-occupied with being hurt that it didn’t occur to him he wasn’t the only one who was.

It’s clear, now, that Sherlock is changed the way an animal hiding a wound would be, but a wound left to fester will fester. A wound needs acknowledgment. Treatment. It needs to be cleaned and dressed and cared for.

The ache in his chest does not feel empty. It feels full, expanding, notched with every time he’d looked at Sherlock under threat and thought you don’t get to hurt this. Protecting Sherlock was something he used to do, before Sherlock left.

Yes, he can do that again. He needs to do that again.

“Sherlock,” he says, and his voice is no more than a croak, “come here.”

Sherlock turns, stiltedly, and his eyes meet John’s and his mouth is turned down, turned down hard, his bottom lip disappearing under his teeth as he worries it, and his chin works under his skin, and John doesn’t have to be a consulting detective to understand that look.

He steps forward and wraps his arms around Sherlock’s shoulders and stands there, just for a moment, one long moment, and finally Sherlock raises his hands and clutches at John’s shoulder blades. John stands, holding Sherlock like he’s trying to keep the pieces together, and it feels better than anything has felt in months.

Sherlock breathes a shaky breath into John’s shoulder, breath hot through John’s jumper. His body is all elbows and knees and silk shirt, and John presses his cheek into Sherlock’s arm. He pretends he can’t feel the trembling and waits for it to subside.

They stand there until the shadows in the room have shifted into late afternoon and when Sherlock pulls back, he smiles the best smile John has seen in years even if it’s a little shaky around the edges and says, “Let’s go to Angelo’s tonight.”

*

John orders the lasagne. Sherlock orders gnocchi and even eats most of it.

It reminds John of the first time they ever went to Angelo’s, what it was like to sit and be dazzled by this incredible human being, what it was like to stand on the front step of 221B and take his cane from Angelo and look back at Sherlock and that grin, that knowing smile, that said, I know. Me too.

*

When John finally gets around to cashing Mrs Harley’s cheque, days later, his bank balance is bloated: another five thousand pounds has been deposited. The deposit slip, according to records, was signed SH.

Five thousand and five hundred pounds, courtesy of Sherlock, days before this month’s pension was about to run out.

Sherlock doesn’t believe in coincidences. John doesn’t either.

He rings Sarah. It’s about time he start taking care of things.

“Hey, John Watson here. Listen, I know it’s been a while, but have you got anything? Even just a few hours a week. Just to get out of the flat, you know how it is.” Sarah doesn’t mention the ultrasound and even laughs flirtatiously. He agrees to pop down to the clinic for a few hours the following morning to fill out some paperwork, and then there’s a shift available on Thursday morning, if he’d like.

Strep throat, achy hips, and the common cold: anything is better than another week of playing housekeeper.

*

Three days after dinner at Angelo’s, Sherlock tries to complete a totally ridiculous experiment that involved boiling four toupees under the premise that doing so would reveal which one had been dyed within the last two weeks. John watches, absolutely poker-faced, as Sherlock fishes the toupees out of pot with a pair of tongs.

“Boiling, huh?”

Sherlock sniffs. “All the evidence suggested that hot water should have infiltrated the hair strands and expanded them, breaking down the dye. Maybe they just need to be boiled longer?”

The toupee drops back into the pot with an exaggerated plop.

That’s it for John: he starts giggling, trying at first to suppress it, but Sherlock glares at him with curls that have frizzed out from standing in the steam of the pot and John is laughing, really laughing. He laughs until Sherlock is fighting to keep the smile off his face and his abs hurt.

Sherlock turns the hob off and tosses the tongs down onto the table, grinning. “Bloody toupees. Let’s go back to the crime scene, John, there’s got to be an easier way to pin this down.”

They spend the evening chasing the tail ends of disappearing clues and Sherlock is fast and compelling and John can’t take his eyes off him, just in case he were to miss something, and John can’t remember the last time he did anything he might have called fun.

*

The only yellow roses the florist has this time have red on the edges of the petals, seeping inward. John looks at them for a long time before he picks them up and takes them to the register.

One hundred and forty-one.

Chapter Text

It’s nearly three in the morning when John swims toward the surface, waking slowly.

Downstairs, Sherlock has started playing the violin, that same familiar tune he’s played for weeks on repeat. It lilts and sways, curling softly up the stairs. John never leaves his bedroom door open, but it’s open now and that’s more obvious than Sherlock has probably ever been, so he burrows down into the covers, listening.

It’s nearly three in the morning when John realises, quite suddenly, that Sherlock had written her a lullaby.

That Sherlock is telling him he had written her a lullaby.

John listens, feeling warmed all over, imagining what Sherlock must look like downstairs: the stark contrast between aristocratic features and antique violin against old t-shirt and pyjamas with the hole wearing in the knee. John is unaccountably fond of those pyjamas, proof of Sherlock’s own tactility.

Proof that Sherlock is, after all, flesh and bone, and can be warmed and comforted just as he can be harmed.

*

Sherlock is still quiet.

John is neither stupid nor idealistic; he did not expect everything to rush back to normal just because he has emerged from his private grief. John’s belated recognition of Sherlock’s own mourning and lingering melancholy doesn’t actually fix any of it. Sherlock’s silences remain, an affront: a reminder that there is something missing, something that Sherlock lost out in the world during his time away and which John has not restored.

John doesn’t even know where to begin with trying.

What’s more, everything is not suddenly okay for John, either. John’s daughter is still dead. His wife is still gone, and she is still a liar and worse. Sherlock still jumped off that building, still made John promise, and just because no one has mentioned them does not mean the scars are not still there.

Sherlock is still quiet.

*

John finds surprising relief in going back to the clinic. He falls back into old, comfortable habits as he sees patient after patient, diagnosing two bad cases of the ‘flu, checking up on several arthritic hips and hands, and running through a few routine annual examinations. The initial hesitance, the urge to second-guess himself, fades into the hectic morning.

A few of the other doctors he’d worked with before stop him in the break room and congratulate him on his return. Only one asks about Mary and the baby. The answer John had practiced comes out tiredly but easily: stillborn, gone to America. Stillborn, nothing could be done, gone to stay with an aunt.

He leaves feeling very glad his first shift was only for the morning. As soon as he walks out of the clinic, he’s overwhelmed and exhausted, if a bit pleased that he hasn’t forgotten how to do his work. He hopes Sherlock will be home.

Sherlock is there, in fact, when John comes in, perched on the back of his armchair like an ornamental bird. “John,” he says, as though surprised to see him. “I didn’t know you’d gone out.”

John grins. Sherlock used to do that before--rely so heavily on John being around that he’d forget when John wasn’t--and it feels like 221B tilting back toward something familiar and comforting, that Sherlock might be beginning to rely on him that way again. “Told you, remember? I had a shift at the clinic today. My coat was gone and everything.” He makes a show of throwing the jacket over the arm of the sofa. “Where’s your mind been?”

Sherlock shifts off the chair and follows John into the kitchen as he starts the kettle. “Something in the papers today about trends in the East Caribbean dollar. Positively rank with Mycroft’s fiddling. Trying to figure out how best to ruin it for him.”

“Global politics aren’t usually your area.”

“No,” Sherlock agrees cheerfully, "but I do a little dabbling.”

“Would you do a little dabbling in lunch if I made sandwiches?” John asks, fetching out the loaf of bread and two mugs for tea.

Sherlock opens the fridge, surveys the options, and pulls out some sliced ham and a tomato for John and a jar of pickles for himself. “I would do a little dabbling in many things,” he says, and it takes John just long enough to register the unspoken for you that by the time he realises, Sherlock has already picked up the paper and started on about the consequences of a failing East Caribbean dollar for tax havens like Anguilla, as though he hadn’t said anything at all.

*

He tries to find unusual flowers, in varying shades of yellow and pink and sometimes orange. Freesia, azalea, forsythia, coreopsis. There are names John can't pronounce, names he forgets as soon as he walks out of the shop. He goes farther and farther out of his way to new florists in search of a flower he's not seen, a bunch that strikes him as different, unique, special.

Tiny offerings, little symbols of everything he'd wanted to give her, and couldn't.

One hundred and forty-two, forty-three, forty-four.

*

The weekend following John’s return to work finds them at a crime scene. Pinned to the body with a knife is a tarot card and John is immediately drafting titles and sentences of what promises to be a truly entertaining blog post.

“The Fool,” Sherlock drawls, gesturing at the card. “Interesting choice, for a murder victim.”

As Sherlock examines the soles of the victim’s shoes, John and a forensics assistant work on peeling back the jacket to view the torso. “A dozen or more stab wounds here,” he reports, eyeballing it through the mess of blood. “The card was probably pinned to the body after death, look, there’s blood all up the handle of the knife, but not too long after because it bled pretty freely.”

“A fool for doing whatever he did to make himself the target, then, it looks personal," Sherlock says. “Give it another twelve hours and another victim will turn up. No one buys a tarot deck just to call one man an idiot and this card’s new. In the meantime, track down his friends, his family, see what he’d been up to. Bad business deal, perhaps?”

It’s actually only another seven hours before they get the call about a second victim, found in an abandoned flat about two blocks away from the first, pinned with her own tarot card: justice. “Justice for the female,” Sherlock muses, “but The Fool for the male.”

John shrugs. “The killer wanted everyone to know what they’d been killed for. I bet if we made him out to be a nutter, like we didn’t get it, made it all public, he’d keep sending us the bits and pieces of the deck until we found him.”

Sherlock turns to look at him, grinning crookedly, and shouts at Lestrade. “We need a press release. We need him to look dangerous and incoherent. He’ll be foaming at the mouth, trying to set the record straight.”

The next day, an envelope arrives at New Scotland Yard with two cards inside: The Lovers and The Three of Swords. Forensics manages to get a print from the edge of The Lovers and a DNA profile from the spit used to seal the envelope, and Harrison Hoover is arrested before the day is out for the murder of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend.

“It doesn’t really make sense, though,” Sherlock says later, back at 221B. He’s lying on the sofa, fingertips pressed to his lips. “Illogical to kill out of jealousy. If he wanted to be with her, he should have just killed the new boyfriend.”

John looks over from his armchair and resigns himself to not thinking this conversation strange at all. “It’s classic. If he can’t have her, nobody can. She wouldn’t have wanted him anyway.”

“That’s not love, though,” Sherlock huffs. “If you love a thing, let it go, isn’t that what they say? So he didn’t love her. Not really. If he had, he would have let her have what she wanted, wouldn’t he? The new boyfriend, the new life without him.”

“Maybe.” That’s what Mary had wanted after the ultrasound: to leave, to have a life without him. If she had bothered to ask him, he would have undoubtedly let her go, but he thought that was probably more because he didn’t love her, there at the end, than because he did. “I think it’s more complicated than that, though.”

Sherlock closes his eyes and relaxes further into the sofa. “All lives end. All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage,” he states, with the air of practiced recitation, as if it were a memorized lesson from his childhood that resolved the question.

The matter-of-factness of such a lonely statement steals the air from John’s throat. It’s one thing to divorce oneself from caring about victims or potential victims during a case, but this is a conversation about love. “You can’t really believe that.”

There is a pause before Sherlock sighs heavily and rolls over into the back of the sofa. “There are no happy endings, John. Only plots stuck somewhere in the middle.”

John wants to think of an example from his own life to prove Sherlock wrong, to prove that it is still worth it to reach out to other people despite the odds of being hurt, but the introspection is disappointing. He had become a doctor, motivated by the death of his parents but was ultimately helpless in the death of his daughter. He had gone to war to stitch together young men and women and too often his efforts had been fruitless against the onslaught of artillery and IEDs. He had fallen in love and gotten married to a person who existed only in the way and only for as long as she wanted him to believe she did.

All he has is Sherlock, who died, and then came back, and even that miracle seems lackluster in the naked light of day. Sherlock isn’t a risen hero; there is no triumph in him for all his supposed victories.

And yet: he is here, alive and at Baker Street. John remembers what it was like to think he’d never see Sherlock again, remembers the endless nightmares of the fall from Bart’s, remembers the vision of Sherlock’s curls, wet and heavy with blood. He still repeats his promise to himself, when the nights drag out: please, will you do this for me? Sherlock might be a damaged, fragile, quiet miracle, but he was a miracle nonetheless.

“Sometimes it’s worth it anyway,” John says.

*

The next time he leans over Sherlock’s shoulder to look at something on the laptop, John glances at him out of the corner of his eye and catches sight of a tiny silvered scar, high on Sherlock’s cheekbone, left from the glass explosion disaster several weeks before. Caring is not an advantage.

From a respectable distance, he would never have seen it at all.

*

The next Tuesday night Mrs Hudson brings up a plate of biscuits, tsking at Sherlock’s unexplained absence from the flat. He isn’t answering John’s texts, but the sun has only just set and John figures he has a few hours yet before he begins to worry. “Left you on your own again, did he?” Mrs Hudson asks, quirking an affectionate smile. “Why don’t you come and have a cup of tea and I’ll make us a pasta.”

John can’t think of a reason to say no and he certainly can’t think of anything in the fridge that sounds appealing anyway, so he follows her back down the stairs and settles into her kitchen.

Mrs Hudson launches into a monologue about the current neighborhood gossip as she boils the kettle and arranges milk and sugar on the table. John lets it wash over him, smiling absently and nodding along. It’s comforting to let the conversation float around him. She brings the tea cups over and sits, explaining something about Mrs Turner’s nephew that he doesn’t quite take in.

He’s so comfortable that it takes him by surprise when she uses a quiet moment to turn the conversation serious. “What about you, dear? I’d never dreamed you might come back to the flat, not after the wedding. How are you settling in?”

“Fine, good,” he says, automatic and uncomfortable.

Mrs Hudson reaches across the table to pat his hand. “These things take time,” she tells him. “Don’t you worry about that. It might be hard for a while, but eventually, you know, things will be all right.”

John looks up at her and nods, although he can’t quite manage a smile. On a shelf above her sink, there is a small pot of crocuses just sending the first shoots of spring through the dirt. When the buds come up, they’ll be yellow. “How did you manage it? With your husband?” he asks suddenly. He winces a little at his own lack of tact, but Mrs Hudson only pats his hand again.

“At first, not at all,” she says bluntly, “and after that, only a little. But my Frank, you must understand, John. He wasn’t at all a good man. For a long time, I was so angry with him I couldn’t be sad.”

Her face shifts, a bit, and then Mrs Hudson is looking through John rather than at him and her perpetual smile fades. “There’s something in you that tells you to look past all the lies and terrible things and love the person anyway. But eventually you realise, you know, that you’re not looking past the lie at all; you’re in love with it. The person you thought they were: that’s the lie.”

The ache in John’s sternum twists, reminding him suddenly that it’s still there. “I think I understand what you mean,” he says.

Mrs Hudson focuses back on his face. “It’s a good thing for you Mary wasn’t like that,” she says, her familiar smile coming to life again. “Makes things much less complicated.”

“Yeah,” John sighs. “Much less complicated.”

*

One hundred and forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven.

*

He wishes now it hadn’t been Sherlock. It shouldn’t have been. It wasn’t even likely to have been Sherlock. John wonders if someone else had known and decided not to tell him. By rights, it should have been Mycroft, with the omniscience of the British government at his beck and call. It could have been Lestrade with a fresh fax from Interpol, listing wanted individuals, emblazoned with Mary’s face.

Instead it was left to Sherlock to sit John down and inform him, awkwardly and without finesse, that Mary, his wife, the mother of his child, was not at all the person he’d thought she was.

“Mary has not been very forthcoming about herself,” Sherlock had said. For a moment John thought he was going to say that the baby wasn’t his.

Instead, Sherlock had recounted the investigation of John’s wife, flatly, painfully devoid of emotion. The giveaway had come, in the end, through John himself: when the register office filed their marriage, Mary’s identity had bounced back. Mycroft had intercepted it and forwarded the issue to Sherlock, who had followed the leads to a tiny stillborn memorial in Chiswick Cemetery on the one end and a rogue CIA operative on the other.

“It’s your call,” Sherlock had said when John asked what was going to happen next. “I don’t know as much about her as I’d like and information on her is scarce as long as I don’t want to risk tipping off the half-dozen agencies looking for her. I can’t predict with accuracy any of a hundred or more variables.”

How does a person go about making those decisions? How does a person live with them, after they’re made?

It had been Sherlock who had gone with John to confront Mary--couldn’t do it in public, but couldn’t do it alone, either, for fear that confrontation would spark her fight or flight response. She could have easily gone to ground, pregnant and on the run; she could have just as easily attacked anyone who’d threatened her secret. Even John.

It had been Sherlock who had tucked John’s gun into the deep pockets of the Belstaff, ready, waiting, prepared to fire per John’s instructions: if she runs, let her go. If she fights, aim to incapacitate but if you have to--well. If you have to.

She’d only cried.

It had been Sherlock who had given John the decision and, ultimately, John decided to keep both Mary and her secret. It had been a terrible decision, he thinks, in retrospect. Terrible to keep her, and not trust her, and not love her; terrible to let her disappear back into her secret and take every tangible memory of their daughter with her.

It shouldn’t have been Sherlock, though.

It seems inconceivable now that for over a year, John had been so oblivious, so desperately unaware of the changes wrought in Sherlock while he was gone. John should have been here at Baker Street from the beginning. Instead, he’d thrown himself into finishing up the moving on he’d been working so hard at for so long.

And after all the effort Sherlock had gone to, planning the wedding, spinning John a fairytale beginning to a promising future with his new wife and impending daughter, Sherlock had had to sit John down and destroy the façade, brick by interminable brick.

It wasn’t fair. John wishes now it had been anybody, anybody else, anyone else who could have been the strength between them to keep them from collapsing away from each other.

John wishes it had been anybody else, because if it had been anyone but Sherlock, John knows now he would have wrapped himself in Sherlock and around Sherlock for the sheer comfort of it and he would never have decided on Mary and her secret when he had the choice.

On his third shift at the clinic, John takes several patients for Dr Zhang, who was come over with a migraine about two hours before the day was out. He’s not got anything on and he’s happy enough to see to her last few appointments.

“John, I’m so sorry, I could have shifted that last one,” Sarah says in a rush as they walk out together after closing down the clinic. “I just didn’t think about it.”

John’s brow furrows and he’s just about to ask what she means when suddenly it occurs to him: the last appointment had been an infant, a dark-haired boy about eight months come in with a bit of dehydration.

“It was fine,” he assures Sarah, a bit wonderingly. “I didn’t even think about it.” It was true, even. He’d not thought about the ultrasound at all. In fact, what he had thought was that the dark-haired, blue-eyed child looked like Sherlock might have done when he was a child. It had made him smile, actually, and he was maybe too indulgent with letting the baby bang his stethoscope on the table. “It was fine.”

*

It’s a half an hour before John realizes he isn’t alone.

“We donated the body,” he says loudly, in obvious invitation to the dark figure standing behind him, without looking away from the dark headstone. “There was a study being conducted on it, miscarriage, stillbirths. You know how it is. They’re always doing a study.”

Sherlock steps in beside him, hands behind his back and coat collar turned up around the deep navy of his scarf, turning his eyes a brighter cerulean than usual. He stares down at the headstone, at his own name engraved there. “You come here because there’s nowhere else, then,” Sherlock concludes.

John shakes his head, glancing over. Sherlock’s face is too still, too smooth. “I come here because I’ve always come here. Mary hated that, you know. She thought it wasn’t healthy, that I wasn’t moving on.”

Standing here at Sherlock’s grave with him is surreal, leaving John uneven and unfiltered, so he turns back to the headstone and goes on. “I always thought I was moving on, only I was including you in it a bit, as much as I could. And when you came back, I realized she’d been right. I didn’t move on at all. I was always just waiting. And then I was so bloody mad at you I just kept on with it, still waiting on you to come back even though you were already here.”

There is a great long pause. The wind ruffles a few trees, blows the familiar smell of Sherlock’s laundry detergent over him.

“John, I—I didn’t realize you would be so affected,” Sherlock says after a moment. He clasps his gloved hands in front of his mouth, hiding behind them. His voice is tired, so much more tired that Sherlock ever lets himself appear even in the privacy of the flat. “I didn’t realize I would be. Well. Missed.”

It’s such a surprise that John doesn’t hesitate to reach for him then, pulling his hands away from his mouth and forcing Sherlock to face him.

“You sodding idiot,” John huffs, heatedly. “You didn’t think I’d miss you? You were—you were—I don’t know. Everything. And you didn’t just die. You looked right at me, down there on the ground, and you killed yourself. Affected doesn’t even come close.”

He must be hurting Sherlock, where his grip around his wrists is too strong, but Sherlock doesn’t seem to notice. “John,” he says, “I didn’t realize.” He draws his lips between his teeth, tilts his head back, blinks rapidly. “It seems I’m always a bit blind, when it comes to you.”

Christ. All at once, it’s too much and something in John is saying, get him out of here, get him out of here, get him out of here, ferocious and terrible and urgent as though the ache under his breastbone has grown teeth, gnashing at him to pull Sherlock out of whatever time warp allows Sherlock to stand beside a gravestone etched with his own name.

“We’re going home,” John says matter-of-factly, broking no room for argument. “We are going to have a cup of tea and order Chinese and watch some crap telly and think about nothing tonight. We just need time.”

Sherlock nods heavily and lets John lead him away.

One hundred and forty-eight.

*

“It had been fourteen years.”

John pauses on the step. The smell of Chinese still lingers in the air; the utter stillness of the flat seems strange after the stupid yet explosive action film they’d managed to watch together. John feels wrung out and sated simultaneously, comforted but still on edge from all the not-arguments they’ve been having, from the thing-or-whatever that had happened earlier today at the cemetery. And here Sherlock is still, stopping him on his way up to bed.

He stands in the doorway, lit from behind by the light in the kitchen, haloing his curls. Sherlock looks so tense it seems he might crack with the force of it. John stutters, “Fourteen years—what?”

“Jennifer Wilson.” Sherlock looks up at him. His eyes are luminous in the dark of the stairwell. “Her password was Rachel. The name of her stillborn daughter.”

John’s stomach gives an ugly jolt against the last few bites of egg roll. Sherlock runs a hand through his curls, dislodging them from their meticulous arrangement, his eyes darting.“Fourteen years, John, and Jennifer Wilson was a serial adulterer with a failed marriage who ended up dead in the dust of an abandoned house for some kids to find. That can’t happen to you. You keep saying you just need some time, but John. Fourteen years.”

“Sherlock. Sherlock, listen to me.” He steps off the stairs, catching Sherlock by his fluttering hands. If he has to hang on to Sherlock permanently, to moor him to the earth, he will. John speaks softly, reassuringly, willing Sherlock to let the tension go. Let this worry go. “This isn’t—I can’t—it’s not going to go away, Sherlock, that’s true. But we are going to get through this. Things are still changing. You and I, we get through a lot together, don’t we? I mean, you bloody well died and I bloody well got married and yet, here we are again, together at Baker Street. That bit is good, isn’t it?”

Sherlock nods, his hands slowly relaxing into John’s. His fingers are long, palms warm. There is a sticky spot of sauce on the curve of his thumb.

“And anyway, you don’t need to worry about me turning into Jennifer Wilson,” John adds quietly. “I don’t even like pink.”

That gets a surprised, half-way amused snort out of Sherlock. “All right,” he concedes. “All right."

John squeezes his hands once more, and Sherlock squeezes back in response. His face eases into something less tense, more at ease, as they stand there for a quiet moment looking at one another. The light of the kitchen is catching in Sherlock’s hair, highlighting his mussed curls in auburn and gold, sharpening his cheekbones even further with shadow.

Sherlock’s lips part, ever so slightly, with an unheard breath.

All right, John agrees silently, and he tilts his face up, closes his eyes, and brushes his mouth across Sherlock’s.

Sherlock is warm, and steady, and achingly soft against him. John shifts, angles his head differently and presses in again, firmer this time, and Sherlock startles away from him, pushing away harshly with one hand to John’s chest, the tension flooding back into his frame. Fuck.

“Don’t,” Sherlock spits, eyes squinting at John with suspicion as he twists his other hand out of John’s grip, taking a step back. His breath sounds erratic, frightened or worse. “No.”

John’s stomach flips and drops. This is Sherlock. He hadn’t been thinking, he should’ve known better, and now Sherlock was looking at him with as much distrust as he had that night, aeons and aeons ago, at a public pool under the fluorescent lights, pale and sallow.

“I’m sorry,” he says immediately, desperate to take it back, but Sherlock only takes another step away. He holds up his hands, harmless, fighting the urge to clench his fingers into fists.

“That’s not fair. No. You can’t ask that of me.”

“I’m not,” John promises, trying to remain calm so as not to make it worse. “I won’t. I wasn’t thinking, I just—I don’t know what I was thinking. I’m sorry.” It’s true. He doesn’t know what he was thinking. Only that Sherlock took that breath, that tiny breath, like anticipation, and John read it the way he’d read it a dozen times before in people he’d wanted, but this is Sherlock.

Sherlock shakes himself and melts his expression off his face into disdainful detachment, and it’s awful to watch, really.

“You are misplacing your romantic affection on me,” he says coldly. “You have lost a great deal these past months and today was emotionally stressful. I’m familiar and present and you have mistaken that for something it is not. Please disabuse yourself of the notion.” Sherlock’s tone is clipped and clinical, more public school than usual in the strange formality John normally associates with Mycroft.

John blinks and immediately wants to correct him, to tell him that is not at all the reason John had thought that a kiss was exactly the best end to the evening, but he can't. John hasn’t thought about Sherlock that way in years, and if he’d had his head on straight he wouldn’t have thought about it now.

“I’m sorry,” John says helplessly. “I don’t know what I was thinking. It won’t happen again.”

Sherlock cuts his eyes to John’s for a brief second. “Good night, John. I trust this will not come up between us again.” And he stalks off before John can respond, leaving him standing on the landing feeling like a right git and a sodding arsehole and frankly, worse than he has felt in months.

*

John lays in bed, awake for hours, beating himself up and wondering if Sherlock would even be there in the morning. Wondering how much of a line he’d crossed--for all the strength and history between them, John knew literally nothing at all about that part of Sherlock’s life.

It was entirely possible that Sherlock had never been touched. It was entirely possible that Sherlock had been, but never by a kind hand.

John rolls over, burying his face into the pillow. God, what had he been thinking? Only that there, standing on the landing, standing in the half-light with hooded eyes and svelte lips, was something that John wanted, and he’d just reached out and--

It wasn’t like him. And now on top of everything else, on top of the ultrasound and Mary’s betrayal, on top of months of depression and listlessness, Sherlock’s silences and his scars, John had gone and done this, of all things.

And what Sherlock had said: I am present and familiar. You are misplacing your affection onto me. Everything in John vehemently protested the very idea, the abhorrent suggestion that John might be latching onto Sherlock because he lacked affection, the suggestion that John might be spilling leftover feelings for people like Mary onto Sherlock. No, that wasn’t possibly right.

What if it was, though?

Sherlock was brilliant, of course, the very light in the darkest moments of John’s life, but he’d not thought of Sherlock that way since before Bart’s. There had been Mary, after, and after Mary, his life had been such a mess that he couldn’t have picked up a thread of romantic intention if he had wanted to.

He thinks about all the things that have happened: Sherlock trailing Mary to the Czech border, distracting John on the due date. Sherlock, shredding apart naan on the sofa, sitting just close enough that John could be comforted by the fact that he was there. Sherlock on Christmas, standing too close, telling John he was glad he had come back to 221B. John’s arms around his bony shoulders in the afternoon light of Sherlock’s bedroom, Sherlock’s breath hot and shaky through the weave of John’s jumper. John’s own swell of affection at Sherlock’s slowly clearing plate of gnocchi. All hearts are broken. Caring is not an advantage.

They’re connected, these things. There is something going on, something linking all these things together.

It seems I’m always a bit blind, when it comes to you.

They’re both blind, both idiots, but John is suddenly certain: Sherlock is wrong about this. John is going to prove it to him.

*

Chapter Text

The next morning, John’s certainty evaporates in the grey morning light as soon as he wakes up. No longer cocooned in the safety of the darkness and his bedcovers, his three a.m. conclusions seem thin and insubstantial and illusory, founded more on defensiveness than honesty.

He’s flooded with the image of Sherlock, stepping away, curving his shoulders in on himself. You can’t ask that of me. The memory of his voice making that near-panicked demand rolls through John, making his hands tense and curl.

John had thought, lying in bed afterwards, about how very wrong Sherlock was, to think John was only latching on to the first familiar thing. Last night, he’d thought about how things had changed since he came back to Baker Street, about Sherlock’s fierce protectiveness even through his silences and John’s own swelling affection, and justified himself with it. But is that really how it was?

He isn’t sure.

It was just a reaction, mindless and foolish, to Sherlock-standing-in-the-half-light, forehead creased with worry. All John had wanted was to reassure him, to reassure both of them that they are still in it together, still on the same side. And Sherlock’s lips had parted--John isn’t sure that he’ll ever forget that, the look on his face just at that moment--and he reacted with base animal instinct.

And Sherlock had recoiled from him.

What exactly did John think he was going to prove to him? Did he think that he could go downstairs and say, no, see, you’ve got it wrong, we should be together like that, and Sherlock would look up at him with those strange eyes and say, oh, I understand now, yes, let’s, and kiss him back, and they’d just carry on forever like that? Did he think Sherlock’s obvious distress and unease was something he could soothe away with a few poetically vague reassurances?

He’s every bit the idiot Sherlock accused him of being and he closes his eyes against the ache in his breastbone that says, what if he did, though?

*

Eventually he makes his way downstairs. Sherlock is sitting at the desk, already showered and fully dressed down to his Italian leather shoes, reading from some thick reference text and nibbling on a piece of toast. He doesn’t look up when John comes in.

John takes his cue and instead of trying to begin any conversation, he goes to the kitchen and starts the kettle. From the corner of his eye, he watches Sherlock stare down at the book and forget to turn the pages.

He feels entirely too aware of his own skeleton, jangling bones and sharp edges, and finally abandons the idea of breakfast and escapes into the bathroom instead.

*

Sherlock doesn’t spend a lot of time around the flat over the next week and John can hardly blame him. It’s awkward and heavy between them, the way it was when Sherlock first came back. An unexpected kiss between them is apparently just as horrible as jumping off a building and pretending to be dead for two and a half years. As terrible a transgression as please, will you do this for me? It’s my note.

John finds he can’t bear to even give it any further thought, as though just thinking about it, about what it might be like to love him, about whether John even wants to love him, would drive Sherlock away.

As it is, Sherlock isn’t outright avoiding John--if he happens to come in when John’s watching telly or eating dinner or washing dishes, he doesn’t dash right out again--but he’s keeping himself purposefully busy outside the flat.

It's not really a surprise when, about a week after the night on the stairs, Lestrade’s name lights up on his mobile.

“John, thank god,” Lestrade exclaims, sounding exasperated and exhausted. “He with you? Only he’s run off and I think he took the victim’s laptop, and if he did he’s in big trouble and if he didn’t then I’m in big trouble.”

“Er, no, I. I haven’t been working with him on this one,” John says awkwardly. “I don’t know really know what he’s been up to lately.” He hasn’t been purposefully left off a case since he started going on them again in January and although he sort of expected it, it still smarts a little.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

Lestrade clears his throat. “Sorry, I--I just assumed.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, if you see him,” he starts.

“Course, yeah, of course. I’ll let you know. A laptop, you said?”

Lestrade clears his throat again; it’s a nervous tic that betrays him a little. “Yeah, a black one, not very big. Listen, if you, uh, get any free time coming up, we should get a drink, yeah? For old times’ sake.”

“Old times’ sake?” John repeats. Although he and Lestrade are on good terms, they’ve never been the meet-down-the-pub-for-a-drink type. It’s really more of a sympathise-into-our-lukewarm-coffees-while-Sherlock-drives-us-round-the-bend type.

“It’s just.” He pauses, clears his throat a third time. “After Sherlock was gone. Always thought I should’ve made more of an effort. With you.” John opens his mouth to reassure him that it wasn’t necessary, but Lestrade ploughs on hurriedly. “Anyway, now it’s Mary gone, Sherlock explained it a bit and just, I didn’t want you to end up in the same place.” Lestrade forces a laugh. “Can’t imagine he’s much of a help with this sort of thing.”

“No, no, he’s, uh. He’s been surprisingly good, actually. Great, yeah.” Which is true, for the most part. John can’t say, Sherlock’s really quiet these days, have you noticed? or, he’s a bit overprotective, not really sure what to do about that, not to Lestrade. John doesn't want to talk about Sherlock like that, not to anyone really. He doesn't want to point out these things to anyone when he himself didn't notice for nearly a year.

John certainly can’t say, I kissed him on the stairs last week and I think I might’ve ruined everything.

He definitely can’t talk imagine talking to Lestrade the detective inspector about Mary over drinks. Oh, you know, trained CIA assassin gone rogue, no idea where she’s off to now, but we’re still married legally. Or hey, do you know? if she married me under an assumed name, are we really married?

He can’t imagine saying any of these things to Lestrade, so instead he says, “I’ll let you know if I see him or that laptop.”

“Yeah, okay,” Lestrade says, clearly disappointed at the obvious brush-off. “Take care of yourself, okay?”

“Yeah,” John reassures him, without really knowing what that even means, “Okay.”

*

John agonizes over which flowers to bring for nearly half an hour; nothing seems quite right. In the end, he chooses a clutch of yellow and red tulips and tries not to think about who he might be choosing them for.

When he gets there, there is bouquet of rain-bedraggled white roses with black ribbon wrapped around the stems already resting on the ground in front of the gravestone.

Drama queen, John thinks fondly, smile tugging at the corners of his mouth at the same time the corners of his eyes begin to sting.

One hundred and forty-nine.

*

The thing is: there had been a time when John had looked at Sherlock and thought, yes.

Before Mary, before the two and a half years away, before Bart’s, and actually, just before the case in Dartmoor, John had envisioned a future with Sherlock where he was, simply, with Sherlock. He had just gone up to bed one night and thought, if that was it, for the rest of his life, just taking cases and late-night Chinese and too much tea and Sherlock yelling at the telly and going to sleep in the bed upstairs listening to the faint beginnings of something on the violin, if that was what John had until the end, it would be good. Better than good.

He’d wanted to touch Sherlock then. He had thought about it, sometimes. What Sherlock might kiss like. What he might sound like, whether John would be able to fit his hipbones in his hands, what the soft downy hair on his upper thighs would feel like. Whether he snored or stole the blankets. Whether he might want to hold hands on the sofa or kiss John goodbye on the way out the door in the mornings.

Back then, it hadn’t really occurred to him that the end could be just around the corner.

When he had rounded that corner and saw Sherlock’s head lying in a bloody pool, the force of the end colliding into him had made him wonder if he was ever going to manage to scrape himself off the pavement or if he was just going to waste away there, clinging to the atoms of Sherlock’s life as they were absorbed into the concrete.

No, Sherlock wasn’t really the type to kiss anyone goodbye, after all.

John forced himself to stop thinking about it. When Mary had arrived, Sherlock’s opposite in so many ways, blonde and bright and cheerful, he had let her overwrite the softened desire for dark and hard and fiery, blunted already by a steep drop and a sudden end.

He remembers it now, though, those same wonderings. He wonders if this was really how it was going to end up all along, with him trailing after with love in his eyes, unable to wrap his mouth around the words for fear of what Sherlock might think, choking on all the things he wanted to say as he followed Sherlock silently to the grave.

*

John sets the mug of tea down on the coffee table rather heavily, hoping to jar Sherlock out of thought. He stands back and crosses his arms, waiting for the figure on the sofa to give some sort of acknowledgement.

After a long moment, an eyelid flutters. One silver iris peeks out at him.

He seizes the opportunity. “There’s some tea for you. Don’t take white.”

Sherlock shifts, closing both eyes again, clearly understanding the the non sequitur immediately. “I thought white was traditional,” he says, trying to sound bored but unable to completely train the defensiveness out of his voice.

“It is,” John confirms and he sounds angrier than he actually is, but if he doesn’t sound angry he’s not sure what he’ll sound like, so angry it is. “So take anything else. Any other colour will do.”

He turns to stalk off, wanting to end the conversation as quickly as he’d begun it, but Sherlock says, “You take yellow.”

“Yeah,” he says, not turning back around to face him. “Mostly.”

“Why?”

The Czech border. Florida. Planning to paint the nursery. Sunny afternoons in the garden with his mum. Lilies, mostly, but sometimes roses; once daisies, too childish for the imposing granite, but once tulips.

“No reason,” he says, knowing that the uncontrolled break in his voice betrays the lie, but when he walks away this time, Sherlock lets him.

*

When he goes two days later, he brings yellow and orange and pink gerbera daisies and settles them gently next to the huge heads of the black dahlias already there.

One hundred and fifty.

*

Harry calls. She’s planning her one-year sobriety anniversary for early June.

One year. Will he ever stop keeping track? Will it always just be a series of anniversaries, a rotating carousel of morbidity and bleakness? The wedding, the ultrasound, the due date, the wedding, the ultrasound, the due date.

“There won’t be too many of us, just a handful. Some of my friends from the meetings are coming so the restaurant has already agreed not to sell alcohol to our table. My mentor will be there, too. I’d really like you to meet him.”

“Oh,” John says, “Yeah, yeah. Good. Sure, okay.”

He can hear her smile down the line, blindingly bright. He hasn’t seen her in months and he is suddenly struck by the urge to do better, be more involved. A year of sobriety. That’s the only anniversary he should be focused on right now. For Harry. He is suddenly smiling back at his mobile, unbelievably proud.

He tells her so. “I’m so happy for you. A year. Harry, Dad would have been so proud.”

“Dad,” Harry says, as though that hadn’t occurred to her. “Oh, Johnny. I wish he could have been here. I wish I had known how to help him back then.”

John swallows. “We were just kids, Harry. I think it’s time we forgive ourselves. It wasn’t our fault, either of us.”

“Yeah,” she sniffs wetly, “I guess you’re right.”

*

There are purple-blue delphiniums, pink-plum anemones, orange-red tiger lilies.

It’s been a long time since John wasn’t alone here.

One hundred and fifty-one, fifty-two, fifty-three.

*

John comes home from the surgery two weeks after the night on the stairs and finds a sturdy, official-looking envelope waiting for him on the desk in the sitting room. The return address is to the University College London Hospitals Joint Research Office.

The breath in his throat turns to sand.

He sits down, still in his coat, and holds the envelope in his hands. Inside are the answers to questions John has asked himself a million times. Inside is the answer to the question that has been haunting him for months: what happened to the baby?

Whose fault was it?

That’s not how it works, he reminds himself for the millionth time, tearing open the flap and hauling out the handful of papers. The first page is a letter, a form document sent to hundreds of people, the physician’s signature printed right on the page with the empty condolences. That’s all right; John has worked in his fair share of research laboratories and he knows how these things go. He knows the value of these kinds of medical donations even if the paperwork seems apathetic.

He begins going through the fetal autopsy report, trying to be detached and clinical about it. The report says, ventricular septal defect, coarctation of the aorta. Esophageal artesia. Choroid plexus cysts.

He pauses. Closes his eyes. Breathes in, two, three; out, two, three.

To be grateful, grateful, of all things, that he can understand the medical jargon, that he understands immediately, in vivid detail, the pain and suffering and horror that would have awaited his daughter in life; to remember the feathery weight of her and appreciate that the symptoms were internal; to be thankful that her body contained all of her so that he could fit the entirety of her in palms of his hands: it is a deep, throbbing pang of sorrow and heartache that takes him right back to the ultrasound room, every second of silence stretching out endlessly as the blip on the screen sat unblinking, firm and steady and dead.

John sets down the pages and breathes around his sternum until his fingers are strong enough to pick them up again.

Halfway through the report, John finds a copy of the medical certificate of still-birth, signed by the obstetrician. John’s name does not appear on the certificate; there is only space for the mother. Mary Watson.

Although John knows his name will appear in the rest of the documents, even on the particulars of the still-birth that’s stapled to the top left corner, not having been listed on the medical certificate makes him feel erased. Mary Watson didn’t even exist, but there’s her name, written out, giving her full rights to grief and mourning.

Mary Watson is listed as the one who lost, as the one who suffered, and Mary Watson disappeared with the small box containing every tangible memory of the daughter the certificate describes: taking her due.

John hates her. He hates her. Mary Watson was the mask worn by a murderer, a rogue agent who felt she could play God and deliver this kind of pain to other people in return for cash. She was a ghost, a spectre who’d stolen the name of a stillborn infant and an identity some other family had already mourned, who had built up a life around the name of someone else’s daughter who had never had the chance to build one for herself.

John sits at the desk and stares and stares and stares.

Then Sherlock is taking the papers out of his hands. He looks up, surprised that Sherlock is there and then surprised again that his form is blurry. His greatcoat is a black mass, a smudge of blue at his neck, his features indiscernible through the wetness welling up. “John,” he says, and his voice is very soft, “Let me make you some tea.”

“It wasn’t her fault. Or mine.” John can’t yet move his fingers to wipe his cheeks. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault and that’s supposed to be a good thing. Just some accident of nature that happened by chance and took her away and I’m supposed to be relieved that I can’t blame anyone.” That I can’t blame her.

Sherlock nods. “I know, John.” He takes the stack of papers into the kitchen and starts the kettle. John wonders if he really did know already and decides he probably did. He probably has been breaking into the research facilities at University College Hospital for months. Did he see her, before the autopsy? Did he get to hold her? Did he know what a tiny miracle she very nearly was?

John thinks about a plush bumblebee stuffed in the bottom of a drawer and decides he doesn’t want to know. Not yet.

Sherlock sets a mug of tea in front of him and takes the chair next to him with his own. He doesn’t say anything, doesn’t offer mindless reassurances, doesn’t try to distract him. They sit there together, both of them still in their coats, neither of them really drinking their tea.

“I feel guilty about it,” John confesses after nearly half an hour. “It feels like I’ve betrayed her, sometimes, to be happy again. To go back to cases or the clinic or whatever. I feel like I have to think about her all the time to remember her. Like I have to be sad for the rest of my life for it to mean anything.”

Sherlock reaches out and puts his hand over John’s wrist until they hear Mrs Hudson coming up the stairs.

*

Three days later they've got a suspect that fights: a wild jab to Sherlock’s face, then a glint of something shiny in the dark. With the next jab, the man’s fist disappears into the flying folds of the Belstaff and Sherlock makes a noise like all the air is suddenly missing from his body.

John’s heart beats wild in his throat and he can feel his arms and shoulders and chest burst into response. He crouches low and puts all the strength in his thighs to slam an uppercut to the nose, which immediately spurts blood, followed by a twist of the wrist while the suspect is dazed. The bones snap; the switchblade rings against the pavement.

“Sherlock!” John shouts as he hooks his ankle around the back of the suspect’s knee and brings him to his knees, keeping his grip locked tightly around the broken wrist to keep him subdued. “I swear to God, Sherlock, you cannot die right here--”

“I’m fine,” Sherlock interjects, gasping, raising his hands. He parts the Belstaff so John can see that there is no injury to his abdomen, no stain of blood on his white shirt. “He just got his--his knuckles in, under my ribs. I’m fine. Les--Lestrade should be here any minute and then the Met can handle him.”

The man under John’s hands squirms, trying to fight off his grasp, and John slips his thumb along the fracture and presses down hard. “Don’t move,” John hisses, hardly placated at all. “Or I’ll make this impossible to set and leave you with a crooked arm.” He might not have landed the blow but this man tried, he tried, he had a knife in his hand and he would have buried it in Sherlock’s abdomen and not thought anything of it.

Sherlock puts a hand on John’s shoulder. “John. It’s okay, I’m fine.” He’s getting his breath back now. “I’d rather not have you spending the night in lock-up with him.” He’s looking at John as though John might lash out at him, too, as though John is a wild animal snapping its teeth.

Sherlock almost hadn’t invited John along tonight, hadn’t even been able to look him in the eye when he had come into the sitting room to say Lestrade had called with a lead on the suspect, and John was furious. If he hadn’t been there, if this arsehole had gotten the first punch in and Sherlock hadn’t had back-up--and he almost didn’t, he almost didn’t have John two steps behind him because John was stupid and pushy and kissed him thoughtlessly--

“Do you do this when I’m not here?” John demands, turning on Sherlock. “If I didn’t follow you around would you just throw caution to the wind, just throw yourself after murderers? He had a knife, Sherlock, Jesus.”

“I can handle myself,” Sherlock says, almost rolling his eyes, and was that supposed to be reassuring? “I’ve done far more dangerous things than go against an eighteen-year-old with a stolen switchblade and come out alive.”

“I’m twenty,” the man in question manages thickly around a mouthful of blood from his undoubtedly broken nose. John twists his wrist again, ignoring him when he cries out.

“Is that what you did, those two years? Throw yourself into the snake pit? Just let them have a go at you so they could take their pound of flesh, is that it?” He shouldn’t be saying this. He shouldn’t, but he’s still thrumming with the anxiety of watching that shiny piece of metal disappear into Sherlock’s coat. Even if it didn’t make contact--god, what if it did and he just can’t see the wound, would Sherlock even tell him?

Sherlock never tells him anything anymore, not about his injuries or his scars or it-gets-very-dark-in-my-room-at-night and it’s killing John, it’s killing him to never know whether Sherlock is living or dying or which one of those things he’s even trying at.

Sherlock inhales sharply through his nose. “Sometimes a pound of flesh is the price you pay for your life,” he snarls. “I’m going up to the main road. I’ll send the Met back to you.”

John’s anger inverts and hollows out his gut, filling it with ice. He’s crossed a line, and this one he crossed intentionally, viciously, and now Sherlock is turning his back on John. “Wait,” John says as he walks away. “Sherlock, wait. Wait!”

Sherlock does not wait. He does not turn around.

He leaves.

“You’re hurting me,” the suspect complains, interrupting John’s sudden horror at himself as he spits blood onto the pavement. “Bloody psychopaths, the both of you.”

*

By the time John gets back to Baker Street, he’s tired and sore and anxious, filled with dread and regrets. He wants to find Sherlock and apologise, ask forgiveness, because he really does know what it was like to go through something and then never want to talk about it, and Sherlock has enough livid proof etched on his skin in bas relief to show that yes, sometimes they got their pound of flesh whether he was giving it or not.

Fear had made John malicious and cruel and he desperately wants to take it back.

The flat is dark and unwelcoming. Probably John is just imagining that, but it does feel cold. He hangs up his coat and stands there, looking over the furniture and wondering when he was going to stop misstepping with Sherlock.

“Serbia,” a deep baritone sounds, interrupting his thoughts. John whips around, startled, but it still takes him a moment to find Sherlock leaning against the doorframe to the kitchen, arms crossed over his abdomen. “Spent about six weeks there. Cost me that pound of flesh and in the end I didn’t even get what I’d gone in for.”

“I shouldn’t have said that,” John says, trying not to stumble over six weeks. “It was just—I thought he’d got you, with that knife.”

“He didn’t,” Sherlock confirms again. He’s still wearing the same white shirt and he uncrosses his arms so that John can see it’s still clean.

They stand looking at each other through the darkness before John ducks his head, unable to meet his eyes any longer. “Serbia, then,” John repeats. “Is that where. I mean. I know you prefer not to talk about it.”

Please talk about it, he urges in his mind. Please. I need to know.

Sherlock shifts against the doorframe but doesn’t turn away. “It wasn’t a good time for me,” he admits. “I was in too deep. It was two weeks before my outside contacts were even aware I was being . . . held. It took another four before anyone could get close enough to the operation to extract me.”

“And you were. Were.” John swallows. “Tortured?”

The word hangs there between them, heavy and awkward. In any other situation, it would seem like an exaggeration to use such a word, but John has seen the scars and he knows the power that words can hold. Sherlock gives a short, jerky nod.

“They should have been faster,” John states. Two weeks before anyone even realised he was gone? And after knowing he was taken, after finding out where he was, they waited four more weeks to rescue him. John can’t imagine waiting four hours. He thinks, if it were him, he might have been able to wait four minutes only if a commanding officer had instructed he wait exactly five.

“If they had been any faster, I would have lost what little value I had to the Serbians. It’s a lot of trouble to keep a clever man captive. It’s too much trouble when you add MI6 to the mix.”

That’s the trick of it, of course. John could have rushed in at four minutes, guns blazing, and he and Sherlock would both have been dead before they even set eyes on each other.

“They almost killed you.” John is not really asking; he knows it’s true. His fingernails are digging into his palms. He’ll be bleeding in a moment and it doesn't matter. He wants to put his arms around Sherlock and breathe until he can be certain that they’re both still alive. Feel the heat of him. See the length of skin wrapped around his muscle and bone and tissue and organs and blood and veins, track every inch to make sure he was whole.

“Yes.” Sherlock says it so impassively, so straight-forwardly, like he didn’t even care.

“You’d have died and I wouldn’t have known. You’d have died in some hole, in the dirt, and they’d have fed you to the pigs. And I wouldn’t even have known what I’d lost.”

Sherlock’s face is totally empty, devoid of expression; John wishes he could read him, could know what he was thinking, because John feels like he is splitting apart at the seams. “I was already gone, John. It wouldn’t have mattered.”

“That’s bullshit and you know it.” John speaks in a low whisper because if he raises his voice he won’t be able to keep it steady. “There was still the chance that you might come back, that we might. That you’d come back and we’d be together again. We would’ve lost that, I’d have lost that, and I wouldn’t ever even known. And now here you are, mucking about with criminals and murderers like I could stand to lose you again.”

Sherlock straightens off the wall and takes a few steps toward John. For a split second, he thinks Sherlock is going to kiss him, but he stops just far enough away to be out of reach.

“Would you have me give up cases, John? Hide away in 221B forever, on the off chance that whatever case is going to be my last?” He doesn’t sound angry, he sounds almost sad, his features finally betraying some hint of emotion in downcast eyes, furrowed brow, and creases forming at the corners of his mouth. He looks like he's bracing himself, as though John could ask him, in that moment, to give up everything and he would. If John asked him to.

“No,” John tells him, “But from now on, I’m coming with you. Every time.”

Sherlock looks up and lets his features resolve into a smile, soft but real. "Fine," he says. "Agreed."

*

Lying in bed later that night, John thinks back and wonders what would have happened if he had had the guts to reach out and pull Sherlock in close to him. He thinks about what Sherlock had said: I am familiar and present and you are mistaking that for something it is not.

Is he only holding on to Sherlock because he’s afraid of losing him, or is he afraid of losing him because he wants so desperately to hold on to him?

*

On John’s one-year wedding anniversary, he takes golden sunflowers.

When he gets there, he finds Sherlock’s offering: roses in a deep, satiny red.

One hundred and fifty-four.

Chapter Text

Things are quiet for a while.

There’s a lull in cases. Sherlock does a couple of boring experiments on dirt and natural fibers, but he also smiles at John when he sets a cup of tea of front of him, so John doesn’t ask if he’s laying low intentionally to allow John something of a reprieve. It doesn’t really matter.

They settle into a pattern of sorts, moving easily around one another in the flat. There are breakfasts together at the table in the morning, a little bit of news and whatever else is on telly in the evenings. John writes up a few cases; Sherlock snorts when each new one is published but John knows it’s an embarrassed sort of tease and only grins back.

It’s not quite the same as how things used to be, but it’s close.

Sometimes John still has bad days. Sometimes Sherlock does.

There’s a bit of shame in that, that John has never been able to see those bad days before, but he doesn’t dwell on it because he can spot them now and that has to be enough.

On those days, John makes milky tea and puts on music instead of telly and sits calmly in his chair, where Sherlock always has a view of him, and he never points it out when he catches Sherlock checking that he’s still there.

*

He doesn’t try to read any more of the report about the baby. Every once and a while, he takes out the envelope and sits at the desk with it in his hands, but he can never quite bring himself to open it.

Understanding what happened to her will not undo the fact that it happened.

*

Two weeks after John’s anniversary, he comes home to an empty flat.

“Sherlock? You in?” John calls out as he brings in several grocery bags, but no one answers. It would be just like Sherlock to disappear right when John wants him to clear a few things out of the fridge to make room for actual food. He sighs and sets about doing the picking and choosing himself; at least he can justifiably get rid of everything with eyes.

Sherlock doesn’t come home that night, though. John tries to quash the unsettled feeling in his stomach; it’s not as though this is that unusual, even if they have been sticking closer to home lately. Sherlock keeps odd hours and there are a great number of things he could be doing without John that are perfectly safe.

But when he’s still not back the next morning, John can’t help himself. He shoots Sherlock a text: Where are you?

The response comes almost immediately. Still out. Could be a couple of days. It’s not dangerous.--SH.

John closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and chooses to believe him.

After that, Sherlock texts him every morning with some non sequitur like, does Tesco carry brazil nuts, or is it supposed to rain later, which John knows is really Sherlock’s way of saying, I’m still alive, so John sends back, you’re a nut, that’s all I know, and, for the third day in a row, yeah.

John goes to the clinic and goes to the shops and remembers to tell Lestrade that no, he never did see that laptop. He tries to enjoy the non-toxic kitchen and the free range over the telly but can’t really bring himself to be enthusiastic about it. It’s too much like 221B was after Sherlock was gone.

When he’s been gone for a week and a half, Sherlock texts, I’m on my way back--SH, and John replies without thinking, good, I miss you, and then spends the rest of the day kicking himself over it.

Sherlock doesn’t respond, so when John hears him come in around one in the morning, he stays upstairs in bed and pretends he hasn’t been lying awake waiting for him.

*

There is a photograph on the kitchen table. At first, John barely notices it. He skirts past Sherlock’s coat, bundled sloppily on the back of a kitchen chair, and smiles with relief at the proof that Sherlock is truly back in the flat again. He starts the kettle and the toaster, rummages through the fridge for the apricot jam, and turns to line up the makings of his breakfast on the table.

He nearly drops everything in his hands.

Behind him, the kettle has clicked off and the toast is finished, but none of that registers, because the photograph sitting in the middle of the table is held down in one corner by a little clay disc with a tiny handprint on it.

Because the photograph is of him and the baby.

John reaches out, unsteady fingers, and picks the picture up. She still looks so perfect. He’d forgotten how very small she had been, cradled in his hands. The clay disc is hers, the imprint of her hand, visceral proof of her existence. She had had a life line already; it stretched strong and deep through her palm, following the curve of her thumb.

“Sherlock,” he tries to say. It comes out like a strangled gasp, so he tries again. “Sherlock?” He clears his throat and manages to call out for him. “Sherlock?”

He hears the door down the hall creak open but John can’t tear his eyes away from the picture until Sherlock puts a broad hand on his shoulder and, after a moment, says, “Is it good?”

Sherlock is a pile of mussed curls and sleep-warm cheeks and rumpled pyjamas and John wants to press his face into his worn t-shirt and breathe in the sleepy smell of him until his veins stop throbbing. “Is it good? Sherlock, where did you get this? Is this where you’ve been?”

He almost looks shy before turning away and going over to pick John’s toast out of the toaster. He takes a couple of mugs down from the cabinet. “It took me much longer to find Mary than I thought it would. Mycroft keeps a weather eye, of course, but she didn’t exactly want to sit down for a chat.”

John can’t decide what to do with the parameters of his body. He doesn’t want to put the photograph down; he wants to continue staring and staring and he wants to memorize every detail left in clay with his fingers until he will never, never forget. But across the kitchen Sherlock is putting together the tea, and he did this, he did this for John, went off and ferreted out an internationally wanted assassin and asked her or forced her or persuaded her or tricked her and came home, carrying back the most precious gift he could give, and John wants to crush Sherlock to him and let what he felt just now move to Sherlock through osmosis because he didn’t have the words.

“I don’t understand,” he says when he finally manages to unstick his throat. “Sherlock, this is incredible. Just . . . why?

Sherlock finishes doling out milk (in both) and sugar (in one) and then hands John a mug. “You worry that you’re going to forget her. What she looked like, felt like.” He gestures at the photo. “I knew I could get them, and I knew you couldn’t.”

“You said it wasn’t dangerous,” John accuses. Mary was dangerous and they both knew it. She was a paid assassin, for god’s sake; she killed people, and not out of duty or defense.

“She’s got protection there. In Prague. Real, legal protection, for the information she could give them. She couldn’t risk attacking me there and she won’t be able to risk leaving the country to chase after me.” He hesitates, glancing away again, then scratches a hand through his hair awkwardly. “I--Mycroft had copies made. He’s sending them back to her.”

John looks back down at the photograph in his hands. “Thank you,” he says, and it seems so insufficient. “It’s good, Sherlock. Thank you.”

Sherlock gives a small smile, which he almost immediately hides behind his mug. He reaches out and nudges the clay disc with his fingertips, keeping his eyes trained away from John, still shy. “Of course. Anything to help.”

“Is there anything you wouldn’t do?” John asks, and he means it as a joke, chuckling a little, but as soon as it comes out of his mouth he wishes he hadn’t said it because even though Sherlock gives a snort of laughter he also steps back and turns away to put his mug in the sink, and it feels intentional, like he’s hiding something.

“I’m going to shower,” Sherlock announces too casually after a moment, rolling his head around on his neck to stretch the muscles. “Lestrade wants to see us today about that case with the exploding briefcase from last month. Apparently there are some gaps in the paperwork.”

John looks back down at the picture in his hands as Sherlock disappears into the bathroom. He’d seemed embarrassed. It wasn’t like Sherlock at all to be so unsure about something he’d done. Usually, if he was doing something that crossed a boundary, he opted to do it big and bold and unapologetically so as to shock people out of their own defensiveness.

But he’d offered this up quietly, clearly uncomfortably uncertain of John’s reactions when confronted with something Sherlock shouldn’t have been able to get and shouldn’t have even known existed.

And it leaves John a little off-kilter, that Sherlock would even do such a thing. That with just one comment, Sherlock understood his fear of forgetting, thought up a solution anyone else would have written off as impossible, and because it was John, he tracked down John’s estranged assassin wife and stole the most precious thing he could from her because John would like it, and oh.

Oh.

Oh god.

This is the piece of the puzzle John’s been missing since the night on the stairs. Since long before the night on the stairs. This is the link, the tie, the undercurrent that has been pulling them together. This is the protectiveness, every fiercely whispered instruction to Lestrade or Mrs Hudson or anyone else, don’t ask John about them, don’t bring it up. This is a due date full of distractions at the cost of his own body. This is a lullaby and a plush childhood toy, Sherlock’s arms hesitantly placed around him only at John’s insistence, only when John put his arms around Sherlock first.

He’s standing in the kitchen holding impossible proof that his daughter existed, even if it was just for a moment. Sherlock had gone after Mary, a murderer, and brought back the best thing John could have even imagined. Sherlock had gone after her when she first disappeared, too, so that he could tell John where his wife had gone and that she seemed to be safe.

Because Sherlock had said, if you love a thing, let it go. Isn’t that what they say?

Sherlock. Sherlock. How long have you been letting me go?

*

John thinks he understands now.

It makes sense now: that night on the stairs. It wasn’t that John had misread the tension, the parting of lips in that silent intake of breath. It wasn’t that Sherlock didn’t want John like that. It wasn’t that Sherlock didn’t feel things like that.

It was that Sherlock did.

And John had thoughtlessly reacted, had read something familiar on a familiar face and had reached for it. Hadn’t considered the consequences, hadn’t considered how Sherlock might have felt about it other than that he had taken that sip of air and it felt, to John, like he was pulling John in, and John had gone, had taken something Sherlock hadn’t really meant to offer.

But knowing, reading all the tiny slipping clues and signals, things Sherlock had said over the years and things he hadn’t, putting it all into context, John knows how it must have felt to Sherlock.

It would feel like Sherlock were a consolation prize John thought he just got to have, now that he was back at 221B. As though John, bereft of the family he had chosen, was finally going to just fall back on the person who’d been waiting silently in the wings. It would feel like John, now alone at forty-three fucking years old, was going to settle for what was left.

John knows now, what it must have felt like for Sherlock to tear himself away and try to convince John that he wasn’t what John really wanted. What it must have felt like, to Sherlock, to hear his stuttering apologies (don’t know what I was thinking) and promises (it won’t happen again).

He’s been wallowing in his own uncertainty, wondering if he could, if he did have those sorts of feelings for Sherlock, wondering what made Sherlock shrink away from him and whether it could be overcome, if John decided he did feel that way.

In short, John had tried to give Sherlock something Sherlock had secretly wanted without being sure he wanted to give it.

That’s not fair.

John has no idea what he is going to do.

*

The clay disc imprint sits on John’s bedside table. Sometimes, when he wakes up in the middle of the night he reaches out to brush his fingertips against the tiny ridges to reassure himself that it’s still there.

The photograph John keeps in a locked box with his military medals under the bed. He hasn’t looked at it since that first morning, though, because when he looks at it, when he looks at her, he can’t even see it, like it wasn’t even there: why she’d died.

*

For all that John feels as though he’s hanging on by a string, every turn and misstep swinging him around precariously, Sherlock doesn’t seem to notice.

John can barely stand to look at him, bent over his microscope and surrounded by the detritus of some experiment, because Sherlock is the way he’s always been, and if he can be the way he’s always been after committing the most romantic, intimate act of selflessness of John’s entire life, then it stands to reason that Sherlock is the way he’s always been because he’s always been in love with John.

It feels strange to even think, unnatural and presumptuous. Sherlock is in love with John.

Maybe always has been.

“The Clerkenwell catacombs,” Sherlock says suddenly, straightening away from the microscope.

John flushes, instantly feeling caught out over having been sitting idle at the desk for nearly forty minutes with his laptop open to the Google homepage. He clears his throat and turns back to focus on his screen. “Sorry, what? The catacombs?”

Sherlock nods, carefully removing the slide he was working with from the microscope’s stage and standing. “The killer left chalk residues in the victim’s bedroom, on one of the shirts on the floor he’d stepped on. I had expected it to match up with a location on the river, actually.” He pockets the slide and picks up his mobile, thumbing in a message, probably to Lestrade or Mycroft. “The catacombs are closed to the public, but they’re fairly commonly used by film crews still. We need to get down there.”

It’s not right for Sherlock to be so casual with him. It’s wrong. It all feels wrong.

John clears his throat. “Did you want me to come?”

Sherlock takes his Belstaff down from the hook and then tosses John his own coat a quirked eyebrow. “Of course. The killer might still be down in there attempting to dispose of a body, or if we’re really lucky, holding her hostage. I’ll almost certainly need you.”

John pulls on the jacket and wonders if, when Sherlock says that so casually, I’ll almost certainly need you, if he feels it in his ribs and his fingers and the heat of his eyes when he closes his lids, like the way it feels when John hears it, now that he knows.

*

He brings daffodils, because they are ridiculous and he thinks they would have made her laugh and someone needs to laugh right now. Sherlock, there and gone again, just like always, has left frilly purple irises with yellow stripes down the center of the petals.

One hundred and fifty-five.

*

John finally calls Lestrade for that drink.

He just needs a break for a minute. He just wants to go down the pub with some guy and have a couple of beers and talk about sport or something equally unimportant.

Lestrade’s an easy enough person to get along with. Even when he looks tired and worn down, he smiles easily and often; he’s very good at chattering on about nothing in particular when the silences begin to drag on too long. They talk about his kids, John’s work, a few of the cases they’ve been working on, and John sinks into the comfortable atmosphere.

Then Lestrade asks, “Have you talked to Mary at all?”

The question is entirely unexpected, leaving John suddenly off-balance and thrust back into a world where not only did Mary exist to other people, but they knew her and liked her. Mary the nurse, Mary with the cute laugh, Mary, John’s wife.

Lestrade didn’t know that Mary was a lie constructed by a murderer. He didn’t know that she had stolen that name off of a stillborn baby’s grave marker. He didn’t know that her hands were soaked in the blood of people she had killed for money, that she was running from the American government who wanted her for going rogue out of their operations, that she had gone to bed with John and listened to him choke up about the lives he had had to take to protect himself and his unit and patted his back in false comfort and cooed, I can’t imagine, I simply can’t imagine.

“No,” John says unsteadily, “No, she’s in America. With an aunt, I think. I’ve not talked to her.”

Lestrade grimaces sympathetically. “Sorry, mate, that’s too bad. No chance of working things out? I mean, these things happen.”

John grabs his beer and takes a swig so he doesn’t have to react immediately to the casual reference to the ultrasound. “Oh, no. I mean, there were other things that, um. Things were complicated before that. It’s over."

“Well, at least you’ve had your year now, right? You can get the ball rolling on that.” Lestrade sits back and crosses his arms over his chest. “I’ll tell you, too, it’s a horrible process. Might be even worse with her being in America.”

John stares at him in horror. “Divorce, you mean,” he says. “I don’t know--I haven’t looked into it at all.”

He had thought about it a few times, of course, but it always seemed like an impossible, abstract thing, like it was something that probably should happen but was not actually available to him. After all, how does one go about divorcing their international criminal assassin spouse married under a false identity and now currently under some kind of Czech witness protection scheme, exactly?

John slouches in his chair, suddenly a bit overwhelmed, feeling like a rabbit caught in a snare. She left with him bound to an identity she could throw off like a dirty shirt and how does he possibly divorce someone who doesn’t exist?

Lestrade leans over and pats his shoulder a few times. “It won’t be so bad, John. Get yourself a proper solicitor and just do what needs to be done. If it’s really as over as you say it is, she’ll be cooperative and it won’t be any big deal. D’you want another one?” He gestures towards John’s empty glass.

He shakes his head numbly. This is not at all the conversation he wanted to have and now he just wants it to end. “No, no I should, um. I should get going, actually.” He forces a smile. “I’ve left Sherlock alone in the flat with a blowtorch.”

*

Sherlock is already there.

John steps in beside him and for a long time they just stand there quietly. There is a bunch of pink chrysanthemums propped up against the stone.

“We didn’t name her,” John says after a long, quiet moment. “I wish we had, now. Would have made her feel more real, I think, like she really happened.”

John leans down to place his own arrangement of yellow peonies next to the chrysanthemums and straightens, wishing he could reach out and take Sherlock’s hand in his. It would be easier, he thinks, to stand here with him before a gravestone with his name etched into it if John could feel how alive he was. “Do you ever get that? Even though you think about someone every day, you sort of forget that they ever really existed?”

Sherlock nods slowly. “Yes.”

John looks over at him and tries not to be surprised. “Who?”

He doesn’t answer.

Eventually, they both turn and John lets his arm brush up against Sherlock’s as they walk back to catch a cab together. Sherlock doesn't pull away and John thinks oh. When he was dead. He meant me.

One hundred and fifty-six.

*

Lestrade was right. Divorce is a complicated process and having a wife who doesn’t formally exist makes it even more infuriating. There is a huge checklist of things John needs to provide and half of them are pretty impossible to find, seeing as how Mary wasn’t actually a real person.

John doesn’t see another way out of it. He calls Mycroft.

He doesn’t see Mycroft nearly as often as he used to. Occasionally they run in to each other at Baker Street while one is on their way out and the other on their way in, but they haven’t had an actual conversation since before the wedding. John should have probably thanked him for his shadowy involvement in the aftermath of the ultrasound--no doubt he is the one who told Sherlock about the results, who told Sherlock where to look when Mary went to ground--but John doesn’t really want to bring up Mycroft’s meddling in any way that might give the impression that he approves.

Now, though, he’s going to need Mycroft to meddle.

The call picks up halfway through the first ring. “Doctor Watson,” Mycroft greets him, his tone syrupy as usual. “The pleasure is mine.”

John doesn’t see any need to indulge in social pleasantries. “I want a divorce.”

Mycroft hums thoughtfully. “And with Mrs Watson out of the country and out of contact, you are having some difficulty. I see.”

“There is no Mrs Watson,” John says irritably, “Which makes it awfully hard to get all these things they want, doesn’t it?”

“Splitting hairs,” Mycroft admonishes. “However, under the circumstances and Ms Morstan’s current arrangement with the Czech government, it is probably not prudent for such a petition to go through usual channels. If you’re certain, John, my office would be happy to handle the details.”

“Of course I’m certain,” John snaps, because how could anyone not be certain that they wanted to end their marriage to a fictional character created to mask a murderer, especially considering--well. It’s not got anything to do with Sherlock. “What do I need to do?”

“Nothing at all.” Mycroft sounds distracted already, as if he’s finished this phone call two minutes ago. “I’ll see that you get the finalised decree within the month. Have a good day, Doctor Watson.” And then a click, and nothing.

Dealing with Mycroft is always a little oily and uncomfortable, but John has got to admire his efficiency. He’d be shocked if Mycroft didn’t deliver a final divorce decree by the end of the week. John should have insinuated that he couldn’t manage it, actually, and he might have gotten it by tomorrow.

*

Sherlock knows immediately when John comes downstairs later that evening. “You’ve been talking to Mycroft,” he points out from behind the microscope, before John’s even walked through the door to the kitchen.

“Yeah,” John confirms. What’s the easiest way to explain it without having to have a big discussion on it? “It’s--ah. He’s helping me with the divorce.” He steps into the kitchen, taking in the bloody mess of Sherlock’s evening experiment, and decides against a cup of tea for the moment.

“Oh.” Sherlock seems surprised. “I thought--” He swallows the rest of the sentence and then pops off the stool like a nervous jack-in-the-box. “Anyway, Molly called, she’s got that body in from the pesticide murders. Are you coming?”

“Thought what?” John heard that aborted sentence and he does not like it at all. “Did you not think I was going to file for divorce?”

“I, uh. Haven’t given it the slightest bit of thought,” he says, and if John didn’t know him better than the back of his own hand he’d have believed the absent-minded response.

“Why would you think I wasn’t going to file for divorce? Of course I am. She’s a murderer. She lied to me about everything.” John is truly baffled. The only reason he hadn’t tried for a divorce sooner is because he had forgotten it was even necessary; his relationship was so incredibly done with that it seemed practically superfluous to end it on paper.

Sherlock pulls the Belstaff on and digs his hands deep into the pockets. After hesitating a moment, he bites out, “What if she were to come back? She’ll be able to leave the Czech Republic after a year or two without raising suspicion from anyone. She’ll be free to go on as she had been with you.”

John stares at him. “Is that really what you think? That if she showed up I’d go back to her? My lying, murdering wife?”

The ache under his breastbone is hot and fiery. How could Sherlock think John would rather go back to a person like Mary than stay at 221B with him? Would Sherlock rather he left again? Would it make it easier for him? Is John ruining everything just by being here?

“It doesn’t matter what I think,” Sherlock responds, looking down at his phone instead of at John. “Look, I’m going to Bart’s, are you coming or not?”

“No,” John spits, defensive and hurt. “No, I’m going to sit here and be married to a murderer since that’s what you think I’d prefer.”

“That is not what I said,” Sherlock corrects, emphatically calm. “I said it doesn’t matter what I think because I’m not the one married to her, you are. So you should do what you want, and I just . . .” he trails off uncomfortably and takes a few steps toward the door before stopping and looking at John before finishing his sentence, now devoid of all discomfort, replaced with strict business. “I just wasn’t sure what you wanted. Now are you coming with me or not?”

The ache under John’s breastbone melts from anger into a more familiar bleak misery. Of course Sherlock doesn’t know what he wants; John hardly knows himself.

He wishes it were only as simple as saying that he just wanted to be with Sherlock in 221B. He wanted to be with Sherlock where-ever he was. But it’s not that easy now, and probably never has been.

“Yeah, I’m coming. Just let me grab my coat.”

*

Maybe, John thinks, it comes down to this: when he came back to Baker Street, he never imagined he might leave again.

When he came back, he’d come back to Sherlock, and he’d come back for good.

*

Yellow ranunculus: one hundred and fifty-seven.

He meanders back to 221B, feeling off-kilter. He can’t quite remember what he’s been doing for the last few hours, between setting his bouquet of yellow roses next to those ranunculuses and climbing the stairs.

“John?” Sherlock asks from the kitchen, brow furrowing at John’s blank look as he scans around the flat. “All right?”

He’s seated at the microscope, pale blue shirt rolled up in that very particular way that lodges the sleeves about a quarter of the way down his forearms. John had known the first time he’d seen the way Sherlock rolls his sleeves that he did it to hide the old track marks that must haunt his elbows.

John looks at Sherlock’s shirt sleeves so carefully rolled up and wonders if that’s the shirt he was wearing when he picked out yellow ranunculus.

“I’m in love with you,” John says.

Sherlock took her yellow ranunculus and John is in love with him. To say it out loud is simultaneously earth-shattering and self-evident. It’s like discovering gravity in the doorway of their kitchen: knowing, day after day, that everything falls to earth, and suddenly understanding the significance. Knowing that he wants to be with Sherlock always and finally connecting the feeling in his chest to the word in his mouth.

The slide Sherlock is removing from the microscope’s stage falls to the table. Gravity.

Downstairs, Mrs Hudson is baking something with cinnamon. Outside, it’s been raining for days, and Sherlock took her yellow ranunculus. John has never done a declaration this way before and he’s not really sure what to do next.

“I know you think I’m mistaken,” John continues on eventually, when Sherlock doesn’t move. The words trickle out like molasses. “But I am. In love with you, I mean. That’s true, it’s true now and it’s been true before and I expect it always will be, and you can believe it or not. It’ll be true whatever you think of it. So I just . . . wanted you to know, I guess.”

“John,” Sherlock breathes, eyes wide and anxious. “Are you all right?”

He grins. People have been asking him that for months and he’s never quite had a good answer. There are a lot of things a person just can’t say in response to a question like that, because he’s supposed to say I’m fine, but he realises with relief that he doesn’t feel the need to say any of those other things right now. He’s certain about this truth: he’s in love with Sherlock.

Right now, he doesn’t need anything else.

“D’you know,” John says, “I think I am,” and he turns and walks right back out into the rain.

*

He makes the thing with the peas for dinner that night, all creamy gravy and potatoes and chicken. He feels weightless as he moves around the kitchen. Sherlock is terribly quiet but he does stay up with John watching an old documentary on World War II until nearly midnight, and that, John thinks, is a fairly good start.

*

Another sturdy envelope arrives at the end of the week. John hangs his divorce decree on the fridge with a magnet for the weekend like a proud student. Neither of them brings up John’s confession again, but some of the tension in the flat is beginning to dissipate. For now, John is content to wait and let the thought settle.

Sherlock studies the divorce decree every time he goes to get something out of the fridge and that might be something like progress in and of itself.

*

John slips from asleep to awake in an instant; the bedroom is dark and still. Sherlock’s familiar form materialises out of the shadow after a moment, dipping the mattress as he sits on the edge of the bed. “Sherlock? You all right?"

Outside, the wind has started picking up a little bit. It’s supposed to begin drizzling sometime during the night, but it doesn’t seem to have started yet. The clock on the bedside table reads 3:18 a.m. He’d only gone to bed about three hours ago; it had been a quiet evening with Sherlock playing violin while John read.

Sherlock is silent for so long, John lets his head drift back into the pillow, lets the weight of his eyelids overwhelm.

Then, without turning to look at John, Sherlock speaks out into the dark of the room. “Moriarty threatened to kill you.”

John is suddenly wide awake, mouth dry, ribs aching.

“My life for yours,” Sherlock continues, utterly without emotion, and John thinks he might actually vomit. “Well, he also threatened Mrs Hudson and Lestrade, but you were the one being watched most closely. If you had given any indication that you might have thought I was alive, anything at all, it would have been for nothing. Your life would have been forfeit. I had to die. Or at least appear to.”

The darkness of the room is oppressive. John raises himself onto his elbows, but doesn’t dare reach a hand out. “Christ, Sherlock. Why did you never tell me?”

Sherlock shrugs. “It was over. Didn’t matter.”

“Matters to me,” John says. He runs a hand through his hair and over his face. Please, can you do this for me? John had thought he was making a promise to remember, but that’s not what Sherlock had been asking of him, was it? “When you were there, on the roof . . .”

“Moriarty assured me that the danger was immediate,” Sherlock says. “That I could either jump off the building or I could watch you shot to death.” Finally, he turns toward John, but the shadows veil his expression. “No contest, really. Even if Mycroft and I hadn’t been prepared, I’d have done it.”

There are far too many thoughts in John’s head. The implications are staggering, far-reaching, more than John could have ever even imagined. He’s always thought of Sherlock’s time away with resentment, why didn’t you take me, why didn’t you tell me, but now it’s doused with guilt and horror. Realisations topple through his mind like dominos and kick out the image of Sherlock after the accident with the glass back in January, straight-backed with defiance and apprehension, shirtless and bloodied.

Sherlock, scarred: a sacrifice etched into flesh.

There are a lot of things John wants to ask, but the question that comes to his tongue is, “Why are you telling me now?”

Sherlock looks back down at his hands. His profile is illuminated only by what little light from the street lamps manages to seep in around the curtains, but John can make out his long forehead, the line of his nose, the unusual curve of his chin.

“You asked if there was anything I wouldn’t do for you.”

Finally, there it is. Sherlock says it so simply, as if it were a universal truth, as if it did not shake John to the core: no.

John studies the outline of him, head bent as though the admission is defeat, and he decides enough is enough. “Come here,” he says, and puts his hand on Sherlock’s shoulder. He pulls Sherlock back--gently, though, so he could prevent John from doing it if he wanted to--until he’s half-lying down. John pulls the blankets out from under him awkwardly and then folds Sherlock into bed with him.

He takes Sherlock’s hand between his, not touching anywhere else. He wants desperately to press their bodies together and feel the very aliveness of themselves against one another, but he doesn’t. This isn’t about that. This is the reassurance of survival: we have made it through and we are together.

John looks at Sherlock’s face in the dark and holds his hand, long fingers, broad palm.

“I want to believe you,” Sherlock admits, gaze focused on their combined hands, and John knows exactly what he means. To believe you might love me. To be with you.

John doesn’t say anything. As much as he is clamouring inside to convince him, he doesn’t want to force it. He wants Sherlock to look into his face, look into his eyes, and know it to be true.

“I can’t,” he says when John doesn’t respond. “I can’t take their place. I can’t take her place.” They both know he doesn’t mean Mary.

“No,” John agrees softly. “You can’t. We’re not talking about their place, her place. We’re talking about yours.”

Sherlock’s eyes meet his across the pillow, guarded and wary. “What place would you like that to be?”

“Here. With me. Where we are together, always, in every way. But it’s your choice. Whatever you choose, I’ll still be here. I don’t—” he pauses, wondering how best to say it, wanting to be honest. “I think I’ll always feel that way about you, but whatever you want, I’ll respect it.”

“I want you to be happy. And you’re not, don’t say you are.” Sherlock pulls his hand away, moves to get up. “Even if I were to say yes, you wouldn’t be happy. Not really.”

“It’s hard to explain,” John says, because he knows exactly what Sherlock means, and Sherlock pauses, sitting up in bed with one foot on the floor. “It’s not that I’m never happy. I can be. I have been, even, more than a few times, these last couple of months. I feel things other than the, the, the sadness and anger. I’m sad about it, Sherlock, and I’m angry. I think I’ll always carry a little bit of that. But I don’t want to reduce my life to it, either.”

It’s the most candid John has ever been with anyone, and the ache under his breastbone flares with the knowledge that he could only ever be this honest with Sherlock.

“I want you to stay, Sherlock,” John whispers. “Not because they’re gone, but because you’re here. You are the best thing that’s ever happened to me. The best thing that ever will happen to me. I love you. I’m in love with you.”

There’s a long pause that stretches out like a taut wire. Everything hangs in the balance. John can hardly breathe, waiting to see whether Sherlock is going to get up and leave or lie back down beside him. That’s the choice he’s making right now. That’s the choice they’ve been waiting for, for weeks at least, probably for years.

“I can’t do this halfway,” Sherlock finally says. “I can’t do this only a little bit, or for only a little while.”

“I know,” John tells him. “Neither can I.”

Please, he thinks. We’re so close. Please stay.

Sherlock stands, and it lodges something rough and spiked into the back of John’s throat and his fingers curl into fists before he can think to stop them.

But Sherlock only slips off his dressing gown, letting it pool on the floor, and then crawls back into bed with John, reaching with long fingers and a half-desperate expression. “John,” he says, sliding over the mattress toward him, “John. John.”

“Jesus, Sherlock, yes,” he manages, and then Sherlock is there, burrowing into John’s chest and tangling their legs together, curling his arms around his torso and clutching at his back. John gets a mouthful of hair and breaths it in, holding him close, and Sherlock is warm in soft pyjamas and he smells like lemon zest and good wet earth. “I love you, I love you."

John,” Sherlock says into his chest, and John feels the reverberations of it in his ribcage. “John.”

“Come here, come here, I love you,” John repeats, unable to stop himself, pulling Sherlock up along his body, burying one hand into the curls at the nape of his neck and nosing at his cheekbone. “Can I kiss you now?”

Sherlock doesn’t give an answer, only turns his face and catches John’s mouth with his, and it’s brilliant, utterly unlike the last time they kissed, it’s movement and response and Sherlock’s jaw and their bodies shifting together. Sherlock makes a noise in the back of his throat like a whimper and John groans back into his mouth before pulling himself back and burying his face in Sherlock’s shoulder, breathing heavily.

“John,” Sherlock whispers into his ear. He leaves his mouth there and John can hear a faint clicking in the back of his throat, as though he’s trying to say something but the words just won’t come out.

John kisses him again, softly, gently, and says, “I know.”

*

The next morning, John wakes up with Sherlock curled around him. Their skin is sticky where they’re pressed together, too warm under the sheets. Sherlock’s face is smoothed clear in sleep, devoid of tension and worry; he looks years younger, the way he might have looked if he had not suffered so much at the hands of others.

John reaches out and brushes the back of a finger along his cheekbone. He is soft and warm, almost ethereal in the pale amber light of morning, a tumble of dark curls, pink mouth with lips barely parted, and John can scarcely believe he’s real, that this is not some figment of his imagination.

“That tickles,” Sherlock mumbles without opening his eyes. His voice is rough with sleep, low and heavy, but there’s also a hint of a smile around the corners of his mouth.

“Morning,” John says. He continues brushing his finger along the line of Sherlock’s cheek, nearly up to his temple and then back down, and Sherlock tilts his head to push into the light pressure. For a while they simply lay together, John’s touch trailing over Sherlock’s face, learning the landscape of him: the sweeping line of nose, the soft line between his eyebrows that will deepen when he squints in concentration, the silvery white scar high on his cheekbone from January.

Eventually Sherlock opens his eyes, reflecting the gold light of the room back in shades of greens rather than blues. He studies John, and John feels a little flayed open under the intensity of his gaze.

He sees John so well and he always has done, from that very first deduction, Afghanistan or Iraq. If he could not see his own name etched in every inch of John's being now John was never likely going to be able to prove that it was there. He holds his breath, waiting for Sherlock to find it.

John sees the moment when he does, the way it lights in his eyes, and their mouths meet without either of them seeming to have moved.

It’s gentle without being hesitant, a slow caress of lips; John turns his hand over to cup Sherlock’s jaw in his palm and feels an answering touch sliding over his arm, over his shoulder, pulling their bodies closer together.

John has wanted this for such a long time, this closeness. The feeling of Sherlock shifting against him, the bones of his body, the soft places and the hard places, is intoxicating.

When John slides his tongue along Sherlock’s bottom lip, he feels the breath hitch in Sherlock’s throat; when he dips past that lip for a taste, sleep-sour as it is, he feels the groan Sherlock gives pooling hotly into his groin.

“Anything,” he whispers against Sherlock’s mouth. “Anything you want.”

Sherlock answers by sliding his fingers up under John’s t-shirt, seeking out the sensitive places as the kisses between them deepen. Eventually the shirt comes off and Sherlock applies his mouth to the places found, licking and sucking and grazing teeth while John tries to maintain some sense of composure.

When he finally gets Sherlock’s shirt off, Sherlock collapses onto his back and pulls John over him to straddle his hips. It’s not until John has worked his way down his neck, nibbling little pink blotches into his skin as he goes, that he realises why: in the dip above Sherlock’s collarbone, in that tender hollow just below the line of his shoulder, he finds a thin ribbon of scarring.

He is hiding the worst of the damage, the worst of the scars, from John.

John drops his forehead to Sherlock’s chest, suddenly awash with the shame and guilt he felt the night before. Sherlock’s arms come up around him, holding John to his chest while he catches his breath, pressing kisses into his temple.

“I love you so much,” John says against his skin. “Christ, Sherlock.”

“It’s over,” he says, nose buried in John’s hair. “It’s okay. Come on.”

He pulls John up to kiss again, and John pours every single thought he can remember having of Sherlock while he was gone into it. Every single god, I wish you were still here, every single crystalline, shattering moment when he forgot Sherlock was gone and had to remember it suddenly, like repeatedly tearing off a scab and making the wound bleed anew. Watching the birthday video until the DVD wouldn’t play anymore, thinking I don’t understand how you could, I don’t understand how you could leave me, I never could have left you.

John gives him one hundred and twenty-four visits to a black headstone, the dread that lived in his gut for two and a half years, the uselessness of being when Sherlock wasn’t there.

It feels like absolution. It feels like light breaking through.

Beneath him, Sherlock arches up into the kiss, clutching at John’s neck, at his shoulders. His fingernails dig in a little and John just gathers him closer, pressing their bare chests together, bodies moving against one another, hips rolling.

He needs to touch. He needs to know. He needs to feel that visceral proof of togetherness, to ignite something that might burn away the sick and rotting pieces left behind by too much time apart. There's a sense of urgency building in his hands, spurred on by the insistent heat of Sherlock's cock, hard against his thigh.

It’s been years since John has been with a man but it's still familiar, especially because it's Sherlock, his frame, the planes and angles of his body that John already knows from having watched him so carefully for years. He slides a hand down and rubs his thumb along Sherlock's hipbone, slipping just the tiniest bit under the waistband of his pyjamas, and asks, “Can I?”

“O-oh, yes, John,” Sherlock groans, and begins pushing at the band of John's pyjamas too. “Get these off, can these come off?”

John grins and raises himself up just enough to tug his pajamas off, then he hooks his fingers into the band of Sherlock's and tugs them down too. Sherlock's cock lies heavy on his lower belly, jutting from a thicket of wiry curls, flushed with foreskin nearly fully retracted and veering a little to the left. John swallows thickly and lets his eyes wander up the length of Sherlock's body.

Acres of pale, smooth skin interrupted by scars, still entirely, heartbreakingly gorgeous.

"John," Sherlock says, propping himself up on one elbow and reaching for him, grasping his hand and pulling John back to him. John goes, settling between his legs, lining up their hips, and kissing him fiercely.

Roaming hands, sloppy thrusts with no coordination, and Sherlock's teeth nipping hungrily at John's mouth: John cannot get enough of it.

When Sherlock's gasps and breathy moans begin to devolve into whimpers and his thrusting starts to become a little less controlled and a little more desperate, John licks his palm, reaches down between them, lines up both their cocks in one hand, and strokes.

Sherlock's reaction is magnificent. He throws his head back, exposing the long, beautiful line of his neck, as a moan begins to build in the back of his throat. Their combined pre-come along with John's saliva makes it plenty slick and John strokes again, and then rolls his hips with the next stroke, and underneath him Sherlock writhes.

It doesn't take much. He only manages a dozen pumps of his hand before Sherlock falls to pieces, trembling right up until he begins to orgasm, when he suddenly tenses, locking up all his muscles as he comes thick and wet over John's hand.

John gives him a few more gentle strokes, kissing him through the aftermath, until finally Sherlock goes beautifully lax and boneless. Then John takes himself in hand and thrusts into his own loose fist. When he feels Sherlock brush him aside, it only takes another three or four pumps of Sherlock's hand, complete with a twist of his wrist at the tip of John's cock, for John to lose himself in his own orgasm.

He comes back into himself moments later, draped dramatically over Sherlock's body while Sherlock runs his hands up and down the sides of his torso, almost absentmindedly. When John moves to roll away, Sherlock hums in a negative and plants his hand in the small of John's back, keeping him there.

"Stay," Sherlock says.

John leaves little kisses across his collarbones until he falls asleep again in the crook of his neck.

*

Sherlock is still quiet.

John knows there's still a lot they both need to work through, but now when the silences become oppressive, when Sherlock spends a little too much time staring without seeing anything or when John starts lingering over the envelope with the report on the baby, they bundle each other onto the sofa and curl around each other and wait for it to pass, heartbeats in each other’s ears, and it's better than it was before.

Sometimes it’s crime scenes, and sometimes it’s boring nights listening to Sherlock correcting the telly, and sometimes it’s getting into a fight in the middle of Tesco about what John has on the shopping list and whether Sherlock will eat it.

There is Chinese takeaway at two in the morning and trying not to giggle after close calls down dark alleyways and the sound Sherlock makes the moment before he shakes apart in John’s arms, coming hard with John’s name in the back of his throat.

It might not be perfect, but then, nothing ever is.

*

John shuffles into the sitting room with bedhead and the newspaper. The remnants of toast, missing two bites out of a corner, sit abandoned on the desk. He shakes his head exasperatedly but grins, settling into his chair. He rummages through the paper to find a few choice sections and loses himself in international news.

Halfway through the sport section and an article on the impending finale at the Tour de France this year, he goes to turn over to the next page and something on the bookshelf across the room catches his eye.

Half-hidden behind a piece of petrified honeycomb, it’s the photograph of John with the baby. Someone has taken it from John’s locked military box, put it in a plain black frame, and nestled it onto the bookshelf behind a couple of curios so that most casual visitors won’t see it.

John sees it.

And John sees a lot more, too, in that gesture: Sherlock is bringing the baby out of hiding, bringing her out into the light of the flat.

She is taking her place, private but not secret, gone but not forgotten.

She’s not between them. She’s with them.

Together at 221B.

*

Chapter Text

Four months later . . .

John wakes.

He tries to keep his breathing even and deep, to keep his body still but relaxed. The bars of sunlight across the ceiling betray the lateness of the hour: it’s probably almost ten already.

Next to him, Sherlock is a long line of skin and muscle and warmth. The midmorning sun paints his skin with honeyed tones, gilding his scars where the light catches. Three short, thick gouges in a row along his left shoulder blade. A long, cruel curl over his kidneys. Several circular craters scattered up and down his spine. A matrix of thin lines covering the left side which John knows continues over to the other side of his abdomen, cross-hatching his skin in vivid relief. And more.

Sherlock is a living monument, carved up with indelible, irrevocable proof of his sacrifices, dedicated to those he cares about.

The weight of John’s gaze must change the atmosphere in the room just enough to prickle at Sherlock’s senses, because he shifts and stretches, humming gently to let John know he’s waking up. John takes it as the invitation it is and reaches out, strokes down Sherlock’s spine, and hesitantly follows the curling scar over his left kidney and into the cross-hatching.

“All right?” Sherlock murmurs, sleep-rough and concerned.

John doesn’t answer right away. He wants to be perfectly honest. He always strives to be perfectly honest where this is concerned, because he knows as soon as Sherlock feels like he’s hiding anything about it Sherlock will retreat into himself, suddenly uncertain of his own place in the scheme of things. Eventually, he says, “Yes and no. Feels strange. I can’t believe it’s been a year.”

Sherlock hums again and reaches his right hand across his chest and over his left shoulder, searching out John’s. He remains turned away though, giving John that bit of privacy.

John clutches at the offered hand and shuffles closer, drawing his nose over the trio of scars on his shoulder blade. “I’m afraid to forget her,” he whispers into Sherlock’s skin. “All this time going by. It just keeps going, and going, and I’m moving on. Some days I don’t even think about her anymore. But she was real, you know? She really happened. Even if she was never . . . if she didn’t . . .”

“She was real,” Sherlock confirms, thankfully cutting him off. “You won’t forget her. It doesn’t matter that she’s not here now or that she wasn’t here very long. She was yours. We won’t ever forget that.”

John quirks his mouth in acknowledgement, letting Sherlock feel his lips on his back. “I know. It’s just difficult, yeah? We didn’t even name her. She didn’t need one. I wish we had, though.”

There is a quiet moment. John thinks about the perfect body in the palms of his two hands. He thinks about the plush bumblebee he knows is still stuffed in the bottom drawer of the wardrobe. He thinks about one-hundred and seventy-two visits to an empty grave.

“We could.” Sherlock’s voice is soft, barely audible. Under John’s touch, his muscles tighten, his spine straightens. “We could still do it. Mycroft fudges records all the time. It wouldn’t even be hard.”

John thinks about going back now, a year after the stillbirth. It wouldn’t really matter. And, of course, it would be naming her without Mary.

Naming her with Sherlock.

The idea floods his chest with light, making it difficult to breathe into Sherlock’s curls. Choosing a name with Sherlock. Remembering her. Having a name to call her, having a word to use instead of she. A word that was theirs together, his and Sherlock's. A word to end the ambiguity. A word that would always mean her, and not any one of the thousand other hers that walked through their lives. A word to use that sets her apart.

A word that set her into the construct of reality instead of the half-way space where she existed: alive but not yet born, born but no longer alive.

“Yes,” he says, and his voice cracks. “Let’s do it. Please.”

Sherlock remains still in his arms, but John can feel the smile on his face all the same.


“He says my daughter, and all the love he has is wrapped up in the tone of his voice when he says those two words, he says my daughter you must always look with both of your eyes and listen with both of your ears. He says this is a very big world and there are many many things you could miss if you are not careful. He says there are remarkable things all the time, right in front of us, but our eyes have like the clouds over the sun and our lives are paler and poorer if we do not see them for what they are.

He says, if nobody speaks of remarkable things, how can they be called remarkable?”

― Jon McGregor, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things