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Damage

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The swab smelled of alcohol and left a wet track on the exposed skin of Mary’s elbow.

“I can’t fucking believe you did this,” Janine said. “I don’t plan on forgiving you.”

“I know,” Mary said, and found it was easier to look at the needle than at the mingled fury and anguish in Janine’s eyes. She looked at Janine anyway. Apologies seemed necessary, but at this point, they were a waste of breath, and Mary wasn’t particularly sorry. “You didn’t need to do that,” she said instead, nodding toward the discarded cotton swab on the desk. “No point.”

Janine actually laughed, her voice broken. “Fair enough. Incidentally, if it helps, I’ve been told it shouldn’t hurt.”

“That’s kind of you.”

Janine sighed. “Now I feel like I’ve got to say something meaningful.”

The alcohol had evaporated, leaving only a strip of cool skin and the rapid flicker of anticipation in Mary’s pulse.

“By all means, be my guest.”

Janine shrugged, her eyes red-rimmed. The needle stung the cool skin at Mary’s elbow. “I’m sorry. Can’t think of anything.” She swept a hand over Mary’s forehead. “We’re good, then?”

Something hot flooded through Mary’s veins, slowing her pulse. Her lungs felt heavy. She had a fleeting thought of the small feet pressed against her ribs, and then an odd satisfaction. It would be the last time she’d ever cause a heart to stop.

“Yeah, we’re good.”

* * *

The car crawled away from the suburbs, tinted windows fracturing the sun’s glare into dull grey. The small screen in the passenger cabin was broadcasting a repeating loop of footage. Mercifully, the sound had cut out after ten minutes. Any more of it and John might have ordered Mycroft’s driver to pull over and shoot John on the side of the motorway as Moriarty’s face stuttered in front of them. Did you miss me?

They’d stopped at John and Mary’s house on the way back from the airport, and now, predictably, they were stuck in traffic as the car inched toward Mycroft’s office. Sherlock sat at arm’s length, collar up, texting on his mobile. Not long ago, he had killed a man for John without a second thought. John’s chest still felt hollow, as if the bottom had gone missing. And today, Moriarty’s chattering mug had pulled Sherlock back from the brink of something, but John didn’t want to think too closely about what it was. He wasn’t an idiot. Sherlock’s reddened eyes and the tone of Mycroft’s softened command -- “In the car, please, brother mine” -- told him more than he needed to know.

Did you miss me? John didn’t have an answer.

“Anything?” John said, because it was easier than silence.

“No.” Sherlock didn’t look up from his phone. “No one knows anything. No one’s seen anything. An entire country of idiots. Utterly unsurprising.”

John nodded, feeling his jaw clench.

“Mary okay?” Sherlock’s voice lowered, all cold edges gone. Occupied with his mobile, he’d barely acknowledged Mary’s goodbye when she’d asked to be dropped at home. Take good care of him, Sherlock, she’d said, kissing John’s cheek.

“Fine, I think. She’d have told me otherwise. Just tired.”

Sherlock nodded.

“Best for her to rest, I told her we’d probably be a while.”

“A good estimate, yes.”

John fished his mobile from his pocket and tapped out a message. Don’t wait up. No idea how long we’ll be in meetings. Feel better.

His mobile didn’t buzz in return, but that wasn’t unusual. Mary often needed a nap in the afternoon these days, even if she didn’t always get one.

“Napping?”

“Likely,” John said, taking some comfort in Sherlock’s guess, their minds briefly aligned. He smiled tightly. “If she’s been listening to her doctor.”

* * *

Hours in a top-security conference room at MI-6 brought no developments. Sherlock spent most of the time on the phone. Mycroft haunted the perimeter, a pale, omnipresent ghost in tweed. John drank tea and absorbed the tension. Sherlock dragged him onto a balcony and sucked down a cigarette, talking at the speed of a bullet train and waving his hands. Sherlock had eliminated most major nodes of Moriarty’s network during his two years away -- well, two years dead -- but apparently there were dozens of possible ways the network could have sprung back to life.

“Cut off an arm, and it will eventually regrow,” Sherlock said, grinding the cigarette butt under his heel. “Even if the pieces have been scattered to the wind. We’re not dealing with the man himself, but it’s someone who wants us to think he’s back, and so it might as well be him.”

“You think there’s no chance he’s back.”

Sherlock didn’t bother to hide his disdain. “I think Moriarty might find survival extremely difficult with the back half of his skull missing. I saw the body. Molly did the autopsy.”

“Yeah, just --” John waved a hand. “Reassure me, all right?”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Dead.”

“Thanks.”

Sherlock stalked back toward the conference room, coat billowing. “I have two dozen calls out to my network contacts. Mycroft is attempting to track the signal from the broadcast. We’ll need coffee.”

John exhaled and curled the fingers of one hand. “Right.”

Of course, procuring coffee was as easy as mentioning the word “coffee” to one of the silent, well-dressed assistants hovering near Mycroft, but John felt useful for the space of that single word. He settled back into a chair at the long, glossy table and watched Sherlock wave his hands at Mycroft. It was not nearly as entertaining as he’d hoped. Shoulders tight, he shifted in his seat and checked his mobile out of habit. Still nothing from Mary. Maybe she hadn’t gotten his earlier texts; maybe her ringer was off. He had a moment of feeling stupid for wanting to text again, and swallowed it.

Hey, just wanted to check up on you and the little one. Let me know how you’re doing.

John let his phone rest on the table in front of him and waited for it to skitter with vibration. Nothing happened. His stomach twisted a shade tighter. On a screen above his head, Moriarty’s loop played once more, then cut off into static. John picked up his phone and dialed. It rang for a few minutes, and then Mary’s voicemail picked up.

Hello, you’ve reached Mary Watson. Leave your name at the tone. Thanks!

“Hi, love,” John said, blocking noise from the room with one hand over his ear. “Hope you’re feeling all right. Give us a ring when you get this message. Sorry if I woke you.”

He hung up and slid the phone back onto the table. It remained silent. The knot in his stomach curled in on itself, and he pushed back his chair.

“Sherlock,” he said.

Sherlock had the uncanny ability to hear John speak his name through a crowd, and it was this ability that John invoked now. Sherlock appeared at John’s side within moments looking thoroughly hassled.

“Mind palace,” he snapped. “I was --”

“Mary hasn’t answered my texts since we dropped her off,” John said. “She’s not picking up her phone. It’s not like her.”

Something in John’s face must have betrayed his worry, because Sherlock stopped dead and held out his hand. “Show me your phone.”

John scrolled through his text screen and held it up. “I sent one at 1:30. Another at 3. It’s nearly 5 now, I just texted again, then called and left a message.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Look, it’s probably nothing, but maybe you could just have Mycroft check the CCTV?”

“Oh, he’ll love that,” Sherlock began, but Mycroft’s voice issued from near John’s shoulder. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” John began, but Sherlock cut him off and turned to Mycroft. “You need to check on Mary,” he said bluntly. “John’s been texting. She’s not picking up her phone.”

“But of course,” Mycroft said smoothly. “We’ll have no problem diverting resources when the fate of the free world is at stake, but then again, you’ve never quite understood that bit of mathematics, have you, Sherlock?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “It will take one man a total of two minutes. I believe you’ve always taken after our father where mathematics are concerned.”

John exhaled. “Look, it’s really fine. You’re both busy, I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Nonsense,” Mycroft said curtly. “It stands to reason that we should monitor the safety of those in our inner circle at this particular time. I’m sure she’s fine, John. I shall let you know.”

“Thanks.”

“Of course. Sherlock? Downing Street is on the line in the far office.”

An unexpected hand closed over John’s shoulder, and was gone just as quickly. “John. Back soon.”

John felt the still, lifeless weight of the mobile in his pocket, and nodded.

* * *

“What do you mean, it’s not possible? You’ve had their house on surveillance since they moved in, Mycroft, I let you do it, what the hell was it for?”

John’s heart pounded, threatening to explode from the confines of his button-down shirt and spatter panic on the windows. Sherlock, next to him, was a tower of rage, all of it focussed into a single thundering diatribe at his brother.

“Sherlock --” Mycroft began, with infuriating calm.

“Shut up.” Sherlock cut him off with a sharp gesture and began to pace. “The point is that we should have had uninterrupted footage from John’s house this afternoon, and some of it is missing. The Moriarty broadcast had the convenient side effect of shorting out most of the country’s CCTV cameras so those screens could air the footage. We’ve got at least ten minutes of missing footage on every closed-circuit camera in Mycroft’s network. That was clearly the point of the broadcast: to distract us while someone did something they didn’t want us to see. Not one overpaid, so-called intelligence agent in this room thought to check a single security camera all afternoon?”

“You have been leading this investigation,” Mycroft said coldly.

John couldn’t physically handle a second more of this. He slammed a fist on the conference table. Glasses of water and china cups rattled along its length. “I don’t bloody care,” he shouted. Heads swivelled in his direction. “Someone took my wife from under our bloody noses and I don’t care why, you just need to get her back.

Sherlock stopped his pacing to glare at Mycroft. “We’re going to John’s place. And you’re going to map every significant location where CCTV footage was blocked, I don’t care how many screens --”

John was already out the door before Sherlock had finished.

* * *

John could feel Mary’s absence under his shirt, the wrongness of it prickling the back of his neck. Nausea fought its way up his throat and lodged there. He watched Sherlock prowl the house as if he’d never visited before, as if he hadn’t sat on John’s sofa a few weeks ago and complained about John’s taste in furniture.

When Sherlock pulled the magnifying glass from his pocket, reality hit like a tidal wave, taking John’s bad leg with it. This was a case, except they were in John’s home. The case of his missing, pregnant wife. Here’s one for the fucking blog. John put a hand against the doorframe as his leg buckled and the edges of his vision swam.

“No one else has been here,” Sherlock said, his certainty holding John upright. “No one but Mary has been in this house this afternoon. There are absolutely no traces of any other visitors. Has anything moved?”

John pushed away from the doorframe to straighten up, but Sherlock’s eyes read John’s movements faster than John could correct them. John lifted his chin resolutely, but it was a second too late.

“Leave, John.” Sherlock motioned at the door. “Have them take you to Baker Street.”

“I’m fine.”

Sherlock swore under his breath. “I’m an idiot. I should’ve sent you there --”

“I said, I’m fine.”

Sherlock studied him. “If it’s too much, promise you’ll leave.”

“Yes, all right.”

Silence stretched between them, and then Sherlock nodded.

John cleared his throat and stepped into his own living room. Mary’s living room. John’s crime novels stacked next to a chair, a few of Mary’s glossy magazines on the coffee table, everything neatly put away. Mary’s natural tidiness suited John’s military sense of order. Without Mary to warm the space, however, it seemed stark, impersonal. Only objects in a room, evidence, like any other case. Evidence, that’s all it was.

“I dunno, she’s -- she’s quite tidy, you know that,” he said, starting to take stock of the room, peering into their small, cheerful kitchen. “She -- she did the breakfast dishes, maybe she watched a bit of telly -- the remote’s over there, next to the sofa.”

“Good. Anything else?”

John walked once around the kitchen and back into the living room, glancing up at the stairwell and the row of coat hooks next to it. “Maybe if we go upstairs -- oh. Oh God. Sherlock --”

“Her coat,” Sherlock said, as if seeing through John’s eyes. “Her red coat is missing.”

“And -- Jesus. Look.”

The two of them converged on the small table next to the door. Placed there, seemingly quite deliberately, was Mary’s phone. It pinned down the corner of a small, folded piece of white paper, the type Mary usually used to write grocery lists. Sherlock held up a hand and examined the table minutely with his magnifying glass before picking up the phone and turning it over.

“She left this here,” he said. “No other fingerprints that I can see. We’ll need the crime lab to confirm, but it appears Mary put the phone here herself. Pregnant woman, leaving the house without her phone in case of emergency? Not likely. Might be attributed to absent-mindedness, but not our Mary. She could have been coerced, but if she’d been in a hurry, she wouldn’t have placed it so carefully, so we can theorise that she left these things purposefully, and she had time to do it.”

“Okay,” John said, blowing out a breath. “Okay. That doesn’t make sense.”

“Not enough facts yet.” Sherlock picked up the paper and unfolded it. Written on it in Mary’s neat handwriting were three strings of numerals.

“That’s Mary’s writing,” John said, “unless it’s a damn good imitation.”

Sherlock held the paper up to the light. “Stationery from a notepad in your kitchen, written with the same blue ballpoint pen kept next to the pad of paper. Her hand was very sure, not shaking. Her writing is quite fluid and calm. This wasn’t done quickly.” He glanced at John. “It’s entirely possible that Mary’s background and training enabled her to write this way, even if being held against her will, but it’s looking likely that there was no one else in this house when she wrote this note. We’ll need to look at the pad, of course --”

John had worked enough cases to know this much. He was already halfway to the kitchen before Sherlock took a step. “Maybe she did just forget her phone,” he called back, but knowing Mary --

Knowing Mary, was this surprising? Was any of this surprising?

This domesticity John had fought for, had so aggressively sought, had always been an illusion. Lurking underneath the pots and pans and Sunday night telly was the constant hiss of something else, the sharp fangs of the past that might at any time sink into their lives. Somehow, John had known that he could only swallow the shining promise of the suburbs with a decent chaser of suspense.

There was a baby now. Surely that would be a guarantee that they were ordinary, respectable people. Surely that would guarantee that Mary would walk through the door at any moment and apologise for having given them such a scare.

But that would be too easy, and apparently John’s subconscious had chosen a life that didn’t fit that description.

John brought the pad back into the living room and handed it to Sherlock. “I can’t see anything on here. You look.”

Sherlock went through his usual ritual of rubbing pencil across the surface of the pad to reveal impressions of past notes. “Just groceries, and the three numbers,” he said. “An unusual amount of ice cream, but nothing else of interest.” He glanced at John and half-smirked. “No wonder you’ve been putting on weight.”

John laughed in spite of himself, in spite of the rising gorge in his throat, the knot at the back of his neck. He needed to see Sherlock’s eyes crinkle and glow, just for a moment. “Two words: Pregnant. Wife.”

Sherlock’s eyes crinkled just as John knew they would. “It shows.”

John felt immeasurably better. “Oh, fuck you.”

They fell silent again, but it was more comfortable this time. She could be all right. This note was calm, deliberate; Sherlock had said so, and he was rarely wrong. Mary was sharp as hell, and she’d left them clues. They just had to focus on tracing her path. She’d be all right.

Sherlock put the pad back in its place and picked up the note again. “First number is ten digits. Second is seven digits. Third one is three digits.”

John peered over his shoulder, his head a bit clearer. Numbers. Why would Mary have written a set of numbers? “First one could be a phone number.”

“No recognizable area code,” Sherlock replied, nonetheless fishing out his mobile to dial it. “Still --”

And then, temporarily freed from panic, John’s brain made an unexpected leap. “NHS number,” he said. “Sherlock, that’s Mary’s NHS number, I’ve seen her charts a hundred times.”

Sherlock’s eyes widened. “Brilliant!” he exclaimed, clapping John on the shoulder. For a half-second, forgetting everything, they grinned broadly at each other. Abruptly, Sherlock’s expression sobered. “Let’s check the rest of the house, but we need to decipher the rest of this note quickly. We’ll leave the phone with Mycroft, MI-6 has better tools to analyse it. We need to get home.”

“Right --”

“To Baker Street, I mean,” Sherlock amended.

John wondered later, as the black car sped toward Baker Street, why he hadn’t caught Sherlock’s slip at all.

* * *

A single overhead light buzzed in the otherwise dark lab. The floor smelled strongly of disinfectant; the janitor had been through not long ago. Sherlock’s shoes squeaked against it every so often as he paced the room’s perimeter. John sat on a stool at the lab table and tried to behave as if his life wasn’t collapsing like a house of cards.

The puzzle had proved surprisingly easy to solve, designed, as it seemed, for John and Sherlock’s eyes only. Mary’s NHS number was a clear clue to pull her medical files -- which, as interpreted by Sherlock, meant breaking into Mary’s OB-GYN office at 11pm. There, John leafed through Mary’s folder and lifted out a single sheet he’d never seen, a surprise that somehow wasn’t one, another prize in the Christmas cracker of their imaginary life. She’d undergone a round of prenatal testing without John’s knowledge.

John didn’t even bother wondering how she’d concealed the test. Plenty of ways, and honestly, he didn’t much care. Mary’s voice echoed: Why don’t you boys go out on a case? I’ll be fine at home, plenty to do here. John swallowed hard and pretended he hadn’t heard it.

From there, the second and third numbers hadn’t been difficult to decipher. John recognized the second number as the ID of a sample marked for cold storage in a laboratory, which turned out to be the laboratory at the OB office itself. Sherlock fashioned a makeshift cold pack using his scarf and some ice from the fridge in the office kitchen, and they escaped with the tiny vial labelled “MARY WATSON / AMNIO” wrapped securely in Sherlock’s pocket.

The third number was simple: a physician’s referral code for a paternity test.

“I’m texting Molly,” Sherlock had said, as they sped away from the scene of their crime. “She’ll meet us at Barts.”

“No, God, don’t --”

“Molly is more qualified. Less margin for error.”

Technically, Sherlock could do it. John was sure of it. But he didn’t argue. Mary had given them the means to carry out this test themselves, knowing they wouldn’t trust a result unless they supervised the testing. That she had specified this particular test meant only one thing. It wasn’t right to make Sherlock read that result, to force Sherlock to be the one to put a bullet in Mary’s illusion. He had already shot a man in the name of John’s house of cards.

Something loomed in front of them, a greater picture John resolutely did not want to see.

Molly met them at Barts, bleary with sleep. They must have looked terrible, because she took one look at them and went white.

“What’s happened?”

“Mary,” John had said, and it was enough.

Molly had drawn John’s blood while Sherlock spoke in somber, hushed tones on his mobile to someone who could only be Mycroft. She’d wrapped John’s arm with a rubber tie and swabbed the crook of his elbow with alcohol, and John had sat and wondered what Mary might be doing right now, whether she’d guessed exactly how long it would take them to get here.

“This won’t hurt,” Molly had said automatically, and then met John’s eyes and turned white. “I -- I mean --”

“It’s okay,” he’d said, and the needle slid in with its expected sting. “It’s fine.”

And now they waited, and Sherlock paced. Ironically, it felt a bit like a scene from an old movie, the men exiled to a waiting room while mysteries of birth happened behind closed doors, aided by ether and forceps. They should have brought cigars to mark the occasion.

Sherlock’s pacing stilled. “John.”

“Mmm.”

“John, I want you to know, I --”

They were crap at this, the two of them. Utter failures at this sort of speech.

“I’m fine,” John said shortly, and glanced up at Sherlock, whose gaze was fixed on the slick floor. “Fine.”

The lab door opened and Molly walked in, head down, intently studying the printed results. It was the feeblest ruse John had ever seen, but he didn’t blame her. When she finally did look up, her eyes were wet.

John held out a hand and shook his head. “Don’t say it,” he said. “You don’t -- it’s okay.”

Molly handed him the sheet and pinched the bridge of her nose to stop from crying. John read the results as if he was standing outside the room, as if all of this was happening to someone else and he’d just looked in the window on his way down the hall.

It was identifiably Mary’s sample, her blood type -- John had seen the rest of her prenatal tests -- this was definitely Mary. Charts, alleles, rows of numbers. Mother. Child, it said atop the middle row. Father. Probability of paternity: 0.00%.

John cleared his throat. It was a very loud sound in a nearly silent room.

“She’s not mine,” he said.

The baby, or Mary, it wasn’t clear to John, and it no longer mattered. The paper in his hand felt like something he’d peeled away, a thin film, brittle and dry.

Sherlock stood behind him just at his shoulder, but didn’t lean in to read the results. John handed him the paper and rested his elbows on the lab table. He leaned forward on the stool and dragged his hands across his face.

“Oh, John,” Molly said, voice wavering.

There was nothing worth saying. If someone had been shouting at him, John would have shouted back. Your wife is a fucking liar. You’re an idiot, you should have known. And John would have yelled, it would have felt good. Don’t you fucking talk about my wife that way. But there was nothing to say. He had somehow always known and yet the shock came anyway. This must be shock, arriving just as he’d known it would.

Because there was something else under the paper, the next thing that would peel itself away. There had to be a reason Mary would send these numbers, the logical progression, A to B to C, the next shock on the line. It had already happened, or was happening, and John was powerless to stop it, just as he’d been powerless when Mary Morstan opened his office door two years ago and said Next one’s a hypochondriac, but you didn’t hear it from me.

Denial was a funny thing.

John had suffered a week of confusion and backtracking after the wedding, but Mary waved him off. How had they managed to slip up? “My cycle’s always been irregular,” she’d said one evening as she settled against him, skin hot and salty with sunburn. “It was probably that night -- you know, the night we’d gone again? After the dinner party.”

“I remember.” John’s hands roamed, and he squeezed her hip teasingly. “You said we didn’t need anything. I trusted you.”

Her smirk was clear even in the dark. “That’s your favourite mistake, isn’t it?”

John smoothed a hand over the curve of Mary’s belly and chuckled. “Well, nicely done, nurse. I was going to marry you, you know. No need to tie me down.”

“I thought you liked being tied down.”

John laughed, nuzzling a gentle kiss against her neck. “Don’t change the subject.”

Mary pulled back a bit. “You’re nervous.”

“Of course I’m bloody nervous. It’s not like we planned this.”

Mary’s eyes darted away from his in the dark. “You’re not -- We don’t have to go through with it. We can think about it. Let’s take some time.”

John tipped her face toward his. “There is literally,” he said slowly, “nothing in the world I want more than to meet our baby. Yours and mine, Mary. Never think for one minute I don’t want this with you. I married you. Of course I want to meet our child. Of course I do.”

Mary shut her eyes, and John kissed away the tear that escaped.

“John.” Sherlock’s voice sounded far away, as if John was still outside the lab.

Molly’s voice. “You should go home.”

“Yes.”

“Sherlock -- tell me -- tell me if you need anything.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

“I’m -- I’m okay,” John said, trying to remember what the right thing to say might be in this situation, which -- no. He stood up and straightened by degrees, the core of his spine undamaged and whole. His body fought its way into position.

“Sorry to bring you in at this hour,” he said, meeting Molly’s eyes with a quick nod. His breath hitched before he caught it.

“Don’t worry about it at all.”

“John,” Sherlock said again.

He may have followed Sherlock into a cab, may have walked up the stairs. Sherlock swam in his peripheral vision, always at the edges.

* * *

Chapter Text

Sherlock had never begged for mercy in his life, but he was considering it now.

The possible causes of Mary’s disappearance narrowed into tiny points, each point a dark universe held in a lone hand. The owner of that hand had blown his own brains out on a rooftop two years prior, but he’d found a way to poison the threads of Sherlock’s life even so. And now it was too much. John Watson was suffering, and this was intolerable.

“For God’s sake. How long does it take to analyse a phone, Mycroft?”

“Precisely fifteen minutes less than the last time you asked that question.”

Mycroft’s voice rasped faintly over the line, the only clue he’d been awake even longer than Sherlock. It was probably annoying Mycroft no end -- his brother despised any evidence of his own humanity. Sherlock glanced at the sofa. John slumped at one end of it, one arm thrown up over his head. Non-REM sleep cycle, stage 4: Sherlock could speak a bit louder over the phone. He ashed his cigarette out the open window and took another drag.

“Look. If someone has taken Mary by force, that person might know the truth about her pregnancy. She left us the information for us in order to rob them of a bargaining chip, to stop them from blackmailing her with it. Their plan would be foiled, and they’d have to rethink it. That’s why we haven’t heard from them yet.” He growled in frustration. “The danger of blackmail was supposed to be eliminated, you realise.”

“Sherlock, murdering one man in cold blood does not eradicate the practise from the world, as noble an idea as that may be.”

Sherlock swallowed an angry retort. He and Mycroft had been in constant discussions for days, and his energy to fire new insults was waning. “If Mary’s disappeared deliberately --”

Mycroft sighed. “Given her background, Sherlock, that is the far more likely scenario. Perhaps this is a way of easing the parting blow.”

“Oh, she’s easing it, is that what you think? ‘Goodbye, John, you won’t miss me if the child’s not yours?’”

“Exactly.”

“That’s what you think she’s done.”

“That’s what I know she’s done, given her connections, yes.”

Sherlock stubbed out his cigarette on the windowsill. “You’re jumping to conclusions without data.”

“Sherlock, you refused to see what was before your own eyes for months. The paternity test is not a surprise. Mary Morstan’s troubles did not disappear just because she married John Watson. If anything, they intensified. If Mary doesn’t want to be found, Sherlock, she won’t be found.”

John murmured in his sleep, a strangled sort of moan, and shifted onto his side. The plaid blanket that had been covering him slipped from his shoulders and onto the floor. Cradling the phone against his ear, Sherlock retrieved it and covered John again. He felt an odd, miserable tightness in his chest.

“You were enjoying this,” Mycroft said. “Before she disappeared.”

“Of course I was enjoying this,” Sherlock snapped. “One moment I’m on a death mission to Eastern Europe and within five minutes you turn my plane around so I can solve a brilliant puzzle, of course I was enjoying it. I don’t need your guilt, Mycroft, I’m not enjoying it now.”

John Watson, on his sitting room sofa. Home in 221B. No, Sherlock should not be enjoying any part of this. That would be monstrous.

A pause. “Sherlock.”

Sounds in the background: Mycroft, distracted. Someone else in Mycroft’s office. Results.

“What’ve they found?”

Sherlock’s phone began to buzz: texts, screen captures. “An explanation,” Mycroft said, his voice carefully devoid of exhaustion.

* * *

John opened his eyes to grey, cold light and the ceiling of Baker Street. He was under the plaid blanket, still dressed, shoes off. Sherlock’s low murmur from the kitchen: phone call. He closed his eyes again.

“...her location,” Sherlock was saying. “She may not be alone.” A pause. “No. Unlikely. But prepare for the possibility.”

Pieces of the previous day asserted themselves in John’s mind like overly helpful to-do list items. Today, try to remember: Shift starts at 9:30. Pick up fresh veg. Your wife is still missing. The car needs petrol. The baby isn’t yours.

He felt heavy everywhere. The plaid blanket was too hot. His mouth tasted terrible.

He forced himself upright and cricked his neck to one side. His shirt was wrinkled and sweaty where it had stuck to his back on the leather sofa. Five or six in the morning, maybe. Sherlock walked in from the kitchen wearing a blue dressing gown over his clothes from yesterday, pale and unkempt, grey-blue shadows under his eyes.

“You slept,” he said.

“You didn’t.”

Sherlock dispensed with actual chairs and sat down on the coffee table across from John. He smelled vaguely of cigarettes. “How much do you want to know?” he asked, without preamble.

“All of it.”

They watched each other for a moment, the unspoken temperature of John’s mood reflecting in Sherlock’s eyes. At last, Sherlock nodded.

“They haven’t found Mary yet, but they’re tracking several leads,” he said. “Mycroft’s team analysed Mary’s phone and found several suspicious texts.” Sherlock pulled his own phone from his pocket and held it out. “This is a screen capture of her outgoing text message box. These were sent just as Mycroft was about to pack me off on the plane, but they were composed much earlier. An off-market app on the phone was used to send the texts on a time delay. Best guess, they were originally written more than two weeks ago.”

“While... while you were...”

“In custody, yes.”

“So this was planned.”

“Yes. Whether by Mary or a third party, we’re trying to ascertain.”

John was beginning to gain some skill at absorbing unpleasant surprises. This one felt more like a wobbly punch than a kick in the gut. “There’s more, isn’t there,” he said, evaluating Sherlock’s guarded expression.

Sherlock nodded slowly. “The texts sent a series of codes to an anonymous contact. Mary’s phone was then used to send this animation file to the same contact.”

He held up his phone. The repeating loop of Moriarty lit up the screen.

“Mary’s phone.” John felt his jaw slacken. “This came from... Mary’s phone.”

“Her phone was used to trigger the broadcast,” Sherlock said. “What’s more, her texts exposed a network we weren’t aware still existed. This type of setup, this complete control of communication systems, is classic Moriarty. His network is either re-forming, or has branches we never knew about. Now we have potential clues to find them -- these texts can be traced. Whomever set up these texts and left the evidence on Mary’s phone did it knowing that they were about to reveal the existence of the network.”

“Jesus.” John exhaled. “But -- but if the network does exist, and was just exposed, someone’s going to be pretty hacked off about that.”

“Yes,” Sherlock said gravely. “Even if we can’t trace all the texts to their sources, the fact that these sources even exist is critical information. Mycroft’s team is restructuring their surveillance of London as we speak.” He pressed his fingers together under his chin. “So the question that remains is why. Why would someone do this, take Mary, expose the network, leave us a very deliberate trail?”

“No idea.” John rubbed the back of his neck. “Did Moriarty have any... you know, criminal rivals? Someone who wanted to show him up?”

“If he did, waiting until after his death seems an odd time to start a personal vendetta.”

Evidence shook itself through John’s mind, disparate bits of confetti. He was too numb to arrange it into any workable pattern. “I don’t know. Christ.”

“There’s something else.” Sherlock slid a thumb over the screen of his mobile and held it up again. “Mary’s last three outgoing calls were to a contact saved in her phone as ‘Beth.’ But the number isn’t a valid number in the UK or anywhere else. Could be an error, but the contact has been stored in her phone for nearly a year.”

Beth. Beth on the line. Hi, Beth, what’s up? John, can you get on the phone?

Loosely translated: This is about Sherlock. We need to help Sherlock, this is about you and Sherlock --

Surely there was no ground underneath them. Surely that explained the roar in his ears.

Sherlock stared at him keenly. “John.”

John gathered his voice into something usable. “Beth, it’s -- it’s a code word, it means this is about you, Sherlock, it’s about you and me.” He stood up shakily. “Christ, we’d better fucking find her --”

Sherlock’s phone rang, a weighted ellipses of noise in the quiet flat. Neither of them seemed capable of responding. The phone rang a second time. Sherlock picked up at last, still pinning John with an open, disbelieving gaze. “Mycroft.”

Sherlock’s eyes snapped closed like a door slamming. He stood up, blocking John’s view with the wall of his broad shoulders, and paced into the grey light thrown by the far window.

John knew everything all at once.

* * *

The thing about death: it happened on regular days. They didn’t save death for Sundays or bank holidays, when things could be appropriately solemn and the world could appropriately stop.

Two days ago John had a wife and a baby on the way and a life in the suburbs, and if the cashier greeted him at the coffee shop and asked, “How are you,” he’d say “Fine, thanks” and he’d mostly be telling the truth.

Today the world was still going to work and selling coffee. The Tube was still running. John was on his way to Barts with Sherlock to examine a body, a perfectly ordinary event.

Today the body was Mary’s.

It would make more sense if he’d woken up with a blazing red mark across his forehead, a tattoo for the coffee shop workers and cabbies. Horrific life event in progress. Don’t ask me how I’m doing.

Today he was going to walk past people going to their regular jobs, getting their regular coffee. One of them would brush up against his shoulder and he’d want to grab them, grip their lapels and yell MY WIFE DIED, AND BY THE WAY, THE BABY WASN’T EVEN MINE.

He’d already shouted at Sherlock this morning.

“You’re staying here,” Sherlock had said as he pulled on his coat.

And that was all it took.

“Okay,” Sherlock had said, when John was done. A rasp tore the lower edge of his voice. “Okay.”

John stood in the landing, hands clenched and trembling.

Then, one of Sherlock’s hands on John’s shoulder. And slowly, both of them, one after the other, down the stairs.

And now, one after the other, folding themselves out of the cab, a regular morning. They were halfway down the hallway inside Barts before John realised Sherlock had taken them around the wrong side of the building.

John felt like giggling. Of course. It’s always best to avoid the site of your best friend’s faked suicide if you’re on your way to identify your wife’s corpse.

Molly met them in the morgue, her face tear-streaked and alarmingly blotchy. She hadn’t changed clothes since last night. Probably no time to go home, what with John keeping her busy with his cheating dead wife and all.

His wife, who glowed softly when he kissed her and laughed at all the right parts in bad movies.

John stared up at the fluorescent lights on the ceiling until his eyes stopped stinging. When he looked down, the room glowed like a photo negative in off-colours. He squinted at Molly, who bit her lip.

“Sherlock, I really don’t think John should be here.”

“I told him that, Molly.”

John cleared his throat. “I didn’t lose my hearing, you know. Just my wife.”

Molly sucked in a breath. Sherlock’s eyes flashed to his, a sharp reprimand: “John.”

The single most unbearable minute in history crawled by.

“Molly, why don’t you -- tell us what you know,” Sherlock said, angling himself nearer to John, but watching her closely.

“Right, okay.” Molly’s eyes flickered to the still-empty table in front of them, and then back to Sherlock. “They found her in an office building in South London, fifth floor. One of Mycroft’s teams brought her in, she was found by the building’s cleaning staff when they came in early this morning. Looks like -- a lethal injection, but the autopsy’s not been done yet. O-obviously. If it was an injection, it wouldn’t have h-hurt --”

Her voice broke on the final word, and she choked down a sob.

“Molly, why are you here?” Sherlock asked sharply, as if he’d only just noticed. “Go home.”

Molly sniffed. “Because it’s Mary,” she said helplessly. “And if -- if it were me -- if I were, you know. If I died. I think I’d want, you know, a friend --”

She couldn’t finish, and instead wiped messy tears on the sleeve of her lab coat.

Sherlock watched Molly utterly fail to compose herself. “Just don’t drip on the body.”

Molly flinched visibly, then sniffed hard. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Sherlock said quietly. “You’re all right.”

John blinked at him in surprise. Sherlock held out a hand. Molly took it. Sherlock squeezed her hand gently, then let go.

Molly took a deep, shuddery breath. “I’ll get her out, then, if you’re ready.”

“I may never be ready, so you might as well,” John said.

Molly nodded and turned toward the stainless steel compartments against the far wall. She undid the latch on one of the drawers. The drawer began to slide open, and with it, John’s life, gaping like a wound in this sterile, cold room.

John stepped forward to meet it.

* * *

Mycroft’s car drove to John’s house, and John got out. John must have insisted that he wanted to go there, but at some point his memory had decided that it was pointless to continue functioning, so it was unclear who’d made that decision.

He turned off his phone and slept for the better part of two days. When he did wake up, he drank from a single glass by the kitchen sink.

On the third day, he woke up to the pungent scent of flowers. He had a splitting headache. He went downstairs to find every surface in the living room covered in some sort of tasteful, white floral display. Lots of calla lilies. Mary hated calla lilies.

A black, dark-windowed car was idling outside the house, apparently waiting for the moment when John would be driven outside seeking fresh air that hadn’t been polluted by flowers. John peered out the kitchen window at the car, then went upstairs to the bathroom. He dunked his head in the sink and let the water run down the back of his neck. Because it seemed the thing to do, he changed his shirt. Then he went outside and got into the back of the car.

Mycroft was alone in his office when John arrived. He was wearing a dark suit and a darker expression. He motioned for John to sit. Someone fetched John a glass of water and vanished.

“I’m so sorry, John,” Mycroft said, in a flat, quiet tone. His voice lacked so much of its usual oiliness that John blinked at him, then simply nodded.

“Apologies for disturbing you,” Mycroft continued. “Sherlock insisted you be left alone, but there are certain matters of... housekeeping, shall we say, that cannot be ignored.”

“No, it’s -- it’s fine.” Sherlock. Where was Sherlock?

“Good.” Mycroft’s face assumed its pleasant, unruffled mask, and for that John was briefly grateful. “First, your place of work has been notified. They’ve indicated you should take as much personal leave as you like, given the circumstances. Otherwise, the appropriate paperwork concerning this... affair has been completed, and merely awaits your signature.”

If Mycroft was ever capable of a form of kindness, this was it. All red tape dispensed with, the messier parts of life and death tied up with a ribbon and delivered with white kid gloves. John felt a stab of gratitude. “Thank you,” he said earnestly. “You didn’t have to do that.”

Mycroft gave him an uncomfortable half-smile. “There are a few other matters of which you should be aware. Some of this may be... unpleasant.”

“Good thing I’ve got experience in that area, then.”

Mycroft’s smile grew tight. “Quite. Well then. It seems I have been... elected to pass along this news, since much of it was gathered from MI-6 intelligence work in the past several days.” He didn’t wait for John’s acknowledgement, merely continued as if this were a business meeting and John was awaiting news of a delayed shipment to Prague. “The question of who set up the Moriarty message is undisputed. We have reason to believe that Mary was acting alone and of her own free will in this matter.”

John nodded.

“Furthermore, given her background, you should not be surprised to discover that Mary was originally placed in your office by Moriarty’s network. This is news to you, I imagine.”

It was, but was it really? Had John really gone down that path, allowed himself to wonder how a rogue CIA assassin might have ended up as a nurse in his office? It was something buried, undiscovered, but somehow not entirely unknown. Had she been passing information along, sending sweet little texts to her higher-ups, all the while? John had no idea what she might have shared. Saw a movie. Went out to the pub. John has very pedestrian taste in cocktails.

It was, like so many of the things surrounding Mary, something that John needed to lock up for a while. An idea that might not be helpful for his sanity at the moment.

“I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise,” John said, and smiled grimly. “Suppose it’s my fault for not checking the nurse’s office for spies. We tend to attract assassin types, they just love giving influenza vaccines on their off-days.”

Mycroft sighed. “No one’s blaming you, John.”

“Well, that’s nice.”

Mycroft lifted an eyebrow before schooling his expression into its neutral default once more. “She betrayed her employers, John. For you and Sherlock. The Moriarty broadcast did two things: it revealed the new seeds of Moriarty’s network, and it brought Sherlock back to you.”

John swallowed. His pulse had started to skip, rattling in his chest. It took a full minute before he recognised it as rage. “How do you know this?”

“She was killed by lethal injection. She went willingly. Not a single sign of struggle. It was, in essence, a suicide mission. This aligns with the fact that she left us deliberate clues. One can only guess at her motives, of course.” Mycroft coughed delicately.

“Did you.” John looked down, then managed to lift his chin and continue. “The father. Did you, um.”

“Yes."

John held up a hand. “Okay.” He looked up at the ceiling, out the window. “I just -- Is he alive?”

“No, John.”

“Okay,” John said again. He closed his eyes, then opened them.

“If this is too much, we can continue at another time.”

“It’s not. It’s not, but I think I don’t need to know anything else.”

Mycroft inclined his head in acknowledgement. “Just one more order of business, then,” he said, and at some unseen signal, papers appeared on the desk before John, and he heard the quick steps of Anthea’s receding heels clicking on the floor. “Your signature, on these.”

John flipped through the stack of documents and scrawled his name. He had no idea what part of his life he’d just released to Mycroft Holmes. He didn’t much care. He slid the stack toward Mycroft and sat back in his chair.

“How much did you know?” John said abruptly.

“Excuse me?”

John felt his smile stretch and tighten. “You know everything, Mycroft. You make it your business. How much did you know about Mary before we got married?”

Mycroft sighed mildly, but his eyes drilled into John’s. “Not much.”

“No?” John folded his arms across his chest. “Not enough to fill me in? ‘Hey, John, come round for dinner Sunday night, I think you may want to know one tiny detail before you buy a ring?’”

“I kept my distance quite deliberately while Sherlock was away. Unfortunate, but necessary.”

“You’re not answering,” John gritted out. “How much?”

Mycroft remained unruffled, but one corner of his mouth twitched downward. “I knew she was living under an assumed identity, but I was prohibited from looking too deeply into the reason. I suspected that she was either a witness in a protection program, or a former intelligence agent looking to change her career. Neither seemed to have any bearing on your safety or well-being. You have to understand, John, that this entire business was quite complicated.”

“You were prohibited.”

“If you must know,” Mycroft said, “Sherlock was quite clear that I stay out of your affairs. He didn’t want to rob you of a chance at a -- how did he put it -- ‘normal life’ with Mary. It’s regrettable that I did not involve myself despite his request.” He bowed his head, then looked up. “Sherlock’s judgement is, unfortunately, not always reliable.”

John opened his mouth to speak, but Mycroft held up a hand. “I won’t have you blaming him,” he said, and his eyes grew as hard as they ever did. “Despite what you may think, my little brother is not all-knowing. His only wish was that you be happy, especially after what he’d done.”

The silence that fell was stifling. John’s chest felt as though it had a hole through it.

“Well then,” Mycroft stood up and cordially held out a hand. John stood up and shook it automatically. The room swam around him, quiet and nauseating.

“I’ll send you home now,” Mycroft said, a clear dismissal. “See you very soon. I am sorry, John. You’ll let me know if there is anything I can do for you.”

It had started to rain by the time Mycroft’s car pulled away into the midday traffic. John still felt sick, as if the pungent floral smell from his living room had settled into the back of his throat. Cars crawled past. He fished out his mobile and turned it on.

Are you home?

Chapter Text

Sherlock met him at the top of the stairs in his pyjamas and dressing gown, eyes bloodshot, hair wild. He looked John up and down, then herded him into the flat and shut the door behind them.

The click of the sitting room door released every hollow, haunted nerve in John’s chest. He couldn’t shrug off his coat fast enough, and his knees practically buckled in an effort to collapse into his armchair. Sherlock slid his own chair forward a few inches and sat down, watching John.

“You look awful,” he said, voice roughened with sleep.

John’s brow furrowed. “Did I wake you?”

Sherlock waved a hand, then frowned. “You haven’t eaten in three days.”

John’s brain crawled after Sherlock’s, attempting to follow. His memory faded in and out of focus. Food did not feature prominently at any point since he’d been to the morgue.

“Oh, God,” he said faintly. “No wonder I feel terrible.”

“Stay there,” Sherlock said, standing up and vanishing into the kitchen.

“Not going anywhere,” John said, and felt his eyes close, heavy with relief.

* * *

John Watson did not break, and yet he looked broken. The sound of his footfalls in the stairwell had wrenched Sherlock from a dead sleep. He’d waited for John for days, not wanting to call, not wanting to disturb lest he make some hideous mistake. Eventually he’d given up waiting for John to arrive and collapsed into a stupor, the first sleep he’d had in days, but John didn’t need to know his text had woken him. There were likely many details John didn’t need to know now. Sherlock made a mental note to divide and catalogue all thoughts and cross-check against John’s ability to handle them.

Tea? John didn’t take sugar. No good -- not enough sustenance. Sherlock hovered by the refrigerator and opened it. It felt like a reflection of all he could offer: empty and cold, cluttered with souvenirs of murder. In the back, behind a plastic bag of vital organs, Sherlock found a carton of miso. By some miracle, not expired. He tossed it on the counter and nearly upended a glass beaker in his haste to put the kettle on. Hot soup, and then takeaway.

John snored softly from the sitting room, a tiny, overwhelming sound. Sherlock hesitated, his hand on John’s mug, and felt the sickening lurch of disaster. There would be shock and a funeral and the general mess of death. He was going to cock this up. John needed him desperately and he was bound to do something wrong.

Another snore, this one a comfortable snuffle. The sickening lurch subsided; it wasn’t possible to feel nervous when John was making that sound. He knew John. The tilt of the world had righted itself when John walked upstairs. John needed to be home, in his chair.

The kettle clicked off, and Sherlock poured water into miso. The paste dissolved, blooming like a cloud in John’s cup.

* * *

“John. John.”

John murmured half-hearted curses. Someone gently shook his right shoulder. His military reflexes didn’t seem to work anymore; he slipped back and forth into a doze. “Mmm.”

“John. Drink this.”

Sherlock hovered above him, then put something very hot in his hands. It smelled incredible. John’s stomach nearly turned itself inside out, and his eyes flew open. The hot thing turned out to be miso soup, still steaming, in a mug. John’s mug. He took an eager sip and swallowed, his throat protesting at the novelty.

“Not too fast,” Sherlock cautioned. “It’s been a while.”

John lowered the mug as his stomach continued to gnaw itself to pieces out of excitement. He managed a smile. “I’ll defer to your experience in this area.”

Sherlock hummed, satisfied, and sat down again across from John.

“Did you make this?”

Sherlock arched an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

John studied him. “Yes,” he said. “I think you might have. Just don’t tell me what else is in the fridge with the miso.”

Sherlock’s smile was fleeting. “Mycroft talked with you this morning.”

“I don’t really want to talk about it,” John said, “because this soup is the best thing that’s happened to me in three days.”

“You don’t need to talk about it.”

John sipped his soup in the silence that followed. “Mycroft took care of everything,” he said eventually, the meaning of it starting to seep through layers of fog.

“Not quite everything,” Sherlock said, and hesitated. “I was going to ask you about Mary’s service.”

“Oh, God,” John said, setting down his mug, some of the day’s nausea returning. “God. I’m a crap husband. I haven’t done anything, I haven’t called anyone --”

“You’re fine,” Sherlock interrupted. “Fine.”

John blinked at the distress clearly mirrored in Sherlock’s eyes. “Mycroft thought we might spread the word that Mary died in a car crash,” Sherlock continued.

John absorbed this.“I guess it’s a bit much to say she planned a suicide mission to end her work as a spy for a network of my worst enemies.”

Their eyes met, and John hazarded a weak smirk. A flicker of relief crossed Sherlock’s face. “Mmm, a tad melodramatic. No one would buy it.”

“I don’t know,” John said. “I’d prefer ‘murdered by circus clowns.’”

Sherlock steepled his fingers in mock concentration. “Decapitated by construction equipment.”

“Crushed by a wheel of cheese during a cheese-rolling competition.”

“Allergic reaction after a hamster bite.” Sherlock arched an eyebrow. “That’s a real one.”

“Of course it is,” John said, and looked at Sherlock pointedly. “Jumped from the roof of a tall building.”

Sherlock had the decency to look utterly stricken before John’s amusement registered. “Shut up,” he growled, as John broke into helpless giggles.

“Piss off, you deserve it.”

Sherlock began to chuckle. “It’s a bad cover story anyway. No one believes it.”

That did it. They dissolved into laughter, deep and contagious. John felt numb, as if his brain was only filled with air, every thought process abandoned. This was ridiculous. This was the most ridiculous thing he’d ever done.

Their laughter began to subside, rising and falling, leaving a strange, empty buzz in its place. John rubbed at his eyes and and pulled his hand away, surprised. His hand was wet. His shoulders were still shaking.

“Oh, God,” he said wonderingly, his voice cracking. His breath hitched, and he bit his lip against a sob.

“John.” Sherlock had been slumped in his chair, but he sat up straighter, watching him. Something unreadable passed over his face, a deep line of concern between his eyes.

John opened his mouth to speak and found he couldn’t. Another sob nearly escaped. He swallowed hard against it, breath shuddering. He pushed himself up from the chair and gestured at the bathroom. “I’m just,” he said. “I’ll just be, um.”

Sherlock stood up, ran a hand through his hair, his own breath still uneven. “You -- yes. I’ll be -- I was going to send for supper.”

Something about this small gesture was too much. John looked down. The rug blurred into a dark wash of red, and he shut his eyes. “Jesus, I’m not --” He cleared his throat. “I’m not okay.”

He put a hand on the back of his armchair and held on. The tears continued, relentless. His face burned when he failed to stop them. 

Sherlock, behind him, took a step closer. John could feel him hesitate. God, John was shit at this, for doing this to Sherlock, just walking in and falling apart on his doorstep. Damn it.

A long-fingered hand closed over his shoulder, a solid, heavy weight. And stayed.

That was all; no words, no platitudes. Just one hand holding him as he fell apart, bit by bit, next to his armchair.

When John’s sobs began to lessen, his ribs nearly sore with the effort, Sherlock’s hand tightened, then slowly released its grip.

“I’ll phone for Chinese,” Sherlock said, voice low and quiet.

* * *

John fell asleep on the sofa. Sherlock drifted in and out of John’s consciousness as John stirred, half-woke, and slept again. Sherlock worked on his laptop and talked on his mobile and eventually migrated into his bedroom. He wasn’t in the sitting room when John opened his eyes in the middle of the night.

When it was light outside, John woke to the sound of Sherlock’s typing and turned over. The typing stopped.

“All right?”

John’s eyes felt as if they’d been soaked in brine. His nose was swollen and raw. The gnawing, half-sick feeling in the pit of his stomach was still there. “I don’t know,” John mumbled truthfully. “It’s anyone’s guess.”

Sherlock watched him for a moment. “Do you need to go back to the house?”

John sat up. His clothes. Mary’s things, he’d have to do something. Check messages. Pick up the post. “I think so, yeah.” He dragged a hand through his hair, which served as an unfortunate reminder that he desperately needed a shower. He’d go back to the house, then, and take a shower. Mary’s shampoo would be next to his.

His mood did such an abrupt reversal that it felt like whiplash.“No. Nope, I don’t.”

Sherlock looked oddly uncertain. “We can send for your things, if you like. If you want to stay.”

Send for his things. They could do that. Why couldn’t they? “Yeah,” John said readily, and then realised he wasn’t sure what Sherlock was offering. “Wait. Do you mean -- stay here tonight?”

Sherlock gave John a look he usually reserved for particularly dense rookie cops at Scotland Yard. It was reassuring. “Of course. You have a room here, John.”

Oh. God, yes.

John should go back to Mary’s tomorrow, that would be the thing to do. Pack her things, and visit with the neighbours. It was a nice house, sunny and sweet, and the thought of it was like lemon juice on an open wound. He could stay in Baker Street for the night. Or two nights, maybe.

“Thanks. I, um. Do you mind if it’s a few nights?”

Sherlock arched an impatient eyebrow. “You can just stay.”

John swallowed. “Long-term?”

“Obviously.”

The house in the suburbs was supposed to be John and Mary’s. They’d lived in John’s atrocious, tiny flat for two months before Mary thrust her laptop in front of him one morning, browser tabs full of real estate listings.

“My friend Ida, you know, from the office? She just bought a place north of the city. Fantastic little neighbourhood. The prices have gone down this month, but everyone says it’s only temporary.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Great schools, too.”

He’d leaned over and kissed her cheek. “Is that so? Is that supposed to give me ideas?”

Mary was never anything other than direct, unless she was failing to mention her former life as an assassin. She squeezed closer to John on the sofa. “Possibly. Can we look?”

“And leave the city?”

“I know you love London, but it wouldn’t be far. We could have so much more space. I mean, just for us.” She nodded at John’s tiny kitchen. “We could eat dinner on something other than a card table.”

“I suppose you have a point.” John kissed his favourite spot at the back of her neck. “We can look. But we’re not buying anything.”

They’d bought the suburban house the following weekend. One look at the sunny living room and the sweet little kitchen and Mary had been smitten. John could see it written on her face, and all he’d wanted was to see that look again.

John leaned back against 221B’s leather sofa and shut his eyes. “Thanks,” he said, and felt unreasonably happy. “I’d like to stay.”

Which was wrong. He should absolutely not be happy about this. By all rights he should want to remain in Mary’s space, surround himself with her just-worn sweaters, sit there until every last dress no longer smelled like Claire-de-la-lune. There could be no room for happiness when he’d just lost his wife, when he’d just lost a child.

Had he lost a child? He’d lost something. The promise of a child.

“Good,” Sherlock said bluntly, and there was that feeling again, that buoyant relief that seemed awfully close to joy.

* * *

Mrs Hudson came, and wept, and they spent quite a long time saying nothing at all, fetching tissues and drinking tea that had gone cold. Sherlock, who had disappeared several hours prior, returned with John’s suitcase and attempted to shoo her away just as John thought he might not be able to take another minute of sniffling and soggy biscuits. Mrs Hudson took one look at John’s luggage and burst into a fresh round of tears. Then John hugged her, hard, and it was wonderful. She broke off, looking back and forth from Sherlock to John, John with his two-day-wrinkled shirt, and wrung her hands.

“I don’t mean to be happy, John, I don’t mean it at all.”

“It’s all right, Mrs H.” John gave her a soft smile. “I’m -- not happy too.”

“Fine,” Sherlock said. “Well, now that we’ve established everyone’s complete and abject misery, John and I have some business to attend to.”

The business turned out to be a car full of John’s possessions, another stack of post and papers, a shower for John, and the small matter of Mary’s funeral.

Funeral preparation became, strangely, just like working on a case: one of them on the phone, the other on a computer, compiling lists of the usual suspects. By the end of the day John had secured a list of guests and Sherlock a church venue, and just when they’d started to discuss flowers and it was all veering horribly into wedding territory, Lestrade showed up with takeaway and a six-pack of pilsner, and John felt like kissing him.

“Look, John,” Lestrade said, after the six-pack was nearly gone, “even though she was -- well, what she was. That doesn’t change anything. We all loved her, right? Good people can make mistakes. God knows.”

“You do an exemplary job of proving that every day.” Sherlock raised his near-empty bottle.

Lestrade smirked, and raised his own bottle. “To good people who make mistakes, then.”

* * *

Lestrade left them soon after supper, claiming an early morning appointment. It was a lie, but Sherlock knew better than to point it out. Lestrade, although unobservant by Sherlock’s standards, was admittedly a detective by trade, and he’d noticed John’s increasingly unfocused stare. Sherlock walked Lestrade to the door under the pretence of stowing takeaway cartons in the kitchen.

“How is he?” Lestrade hovered in the kitchen doorway, voice pitched low.

How was John? Sherlock wouldn’t know how to answer that question on the best of days. He cast about for a significant data point. “He’s been sleeping quite a bit.”

“That’ll be the shock, I expect.”

“I imagine so.”

“Well.” Lestrade gave him a grave look. “Least he’s here with you now. That’ll do him good.”

“Yes.” Sherlock glanced back at John. “Yes. -- Will it?”

“Of course, Sherlock. He’s always better with you around. God knows why.” Lestrade clapped him on the shoulder. “You call if you need anything.”

Sherlock nodded and shut the door behind him. John was thumbing through a random assortment of papers on the coffee table: a guest list, faxes from the church. Unacceptable. Sherlock settled back into his armchair. “You need to sleep.”

“I’ve slept for days. Think I mucked up my inner clock.” John held up the papers in his hand, then tossed them back onto the coffee table. “This,” he said, gesturing at them. “This doesn’t feel real. It feels like we’re just making this up. I mean, now I just -- plan funerals, you know? Every once in a while.”

Sherlock’s heart beat very fast, a notch faster than was comfortable. The precise parallel had not been lost on Sherlock, who had spent much of the afternoon trying not to imagine John going through the same process on his behalf. He studied John’s shoes, a new scratch on the left toe. “Sorry.”

“God, no, I’m sorry. I should stop bringing it up --”

“No, it’s fine.” Sherlock looked up again. “I imagine this is familiar.”

“A bit, yeah.” John’s speech was fractionally looser than usual: exhaustion, two beers. “Except you weren’t pregnant, that was helpful.”

“Glad to be of service.” Sherlock dared a slight smile.

“Yeah.” John rubbed the back of his neck. “And it’s all the same. I don’t know why she did it. Feels like a joke, like she’s about to walk in and tell me what an arse I’ve been for believing it. I mean, who really dies, these days, anyway? First Irene, and Moriarty, and -- and you. And then I go and marry the one person who doesn’t know how to fake her death properly.”

“Moriarty is dead,” Sherlock said, not really knowing what to say. Offering truth seemed the only option.

John sighed. “Well, it’s all relative, isn’t it? I don’t even know what that means anymore. He might as well be alive, because he’s still causing trouble, isn’t he?”

Sherlock’s fingers itched for a cigarette, anything to halt the path of this conversation. “Not technically, no.”

“Oh, no. No, that’s right. It was Mary who did the broadcast. Because of course my wife worked for the man who killed you.” John’s mouth formed a thin line, his eyes the colour of flint. “You need to explain this to me, Sherlock, why she did this. Because clearly I always get everything wrong.”

John waited, mouth still pressed thin. Sentiment clogged Sherlock’s throat.

Suddenly John held up a hand, then shook his head. “Wait -- don’t answer that. God, I’m being an idiot. Just -- don’t. I’m sorry I asked.”

Answers. Sherlock could give him nothing, could replace none of the remnants of John’s life, but he could find answers. Mary’s connections, her motivations. He could rout out the tripwires left in Moriarty’s wake, disarm every remaining bomb, ensure that John would never suffer again. He might cock up everything else, but Sherlock could give John this.

“I’m sorry I don’t know,” Sherlock said quietly, a plan beginning to spiral in his mind.

* * *

The late April dawn on the day of Mary’s funeral lit Baker Street with a rosy glow. Days had passed in a fog of preparations and phone calls, and the spring air was heavy with the afterglow of fresh rain. John straightened his dark tie and watched his glassy-eyed reflection in the mirror. They were due at the church within the hour.

Although an earlier date would have been logical, Sherlock had argued to delay the funeral until the end of the month, claiming a lack of availability at their preferred church. John may have been numb, but he wasn’t stupid. He knew the very real reason Sherlock had pushed the date. As it was, the baby’s mid-April due date went by unacknowledged, rainy and unseasonably cold. John spent most of it in his armchair, pretending to read a novel. Sherlock lit a fire and played violin for hours, Bach bleeding into Beethoven. John blinked at blurry pages as Sherlock’s violin found the melody of a familiar concerto, and waited for the day to pass. It was a different kind of waiting than he’d imagined.

There were many hours in John’s life he was glad he’d never have to revisit, and the three that comprised Mary’s funeral were high on the list. The sublime scent of lilacs choked the air. Austere faces blurred past him in the church, rows of sniffling, blotchy-cheeked acquaintances, eyes that peered at him with unmitigated pity and fear. Sherlock stood at his side, a dutiful lieutenant, and deflected most of the conversation. If there ever was a day John was thankful his best friend was an unpleasant, antisocial arsehole, this was that day.

John managed to keep it together for almost the entire affair, swallowing against tears only twice. Once, when Sherlock got up to play the piece he’d composed for the wedding. And the second time, when John looked up at the door of the church to see that Sherlock’s parents had flown in from the States to attend.

Sherlock had given them a barely tolerant look when they approached, but John felt like hugging them. He did. Sherlock’s mother gripped his shoulders gently as they parted, her bright, pale eyes brimming and wet, so like Sherlock’s save the naked emotion within them. “I don’t know why Sherlock kept you from us for so long,” she said. “I want you to know, John, you’re our family too. If there’s ever anything you need.”

John ducked his head. His eyes smarted. “Thank you, Mrs Holmes.”

Sherlock’s father shook his hand, then abandoned pretence and pulled him in close. “You’ll get through this,” he said. “You’re made of the best stuff, you know. Sherlock thinks so.”

John could only nod his thanks. “You didn’t need to come,” he managed, as Mr Holmes released him.

Sherlock’s father looked at him with sweet, quizzical kindness. “Of course we did, son.”

“Leave him be,” Sherlock said, hurrying them along with a thin smile, and John did, in fact, keep it together. It had been a very near thing.

* * *

From the shadows of the church door, Sherlock watched John bid farewell to the last of the guests. John managed a false smile every few handshakes, his expression falling flat between the perfunctory goodbyes.

Sherlock cleared his throat. “Making up for missing the wedding, are you?”

The figure at Sherlock’s elbow gave an irritated sigh. “You know my presence here was crucial. You couldn’t possibly focus on the investigation today.”

“You don’t need to make excuses for paying your respects, if you did, in fact, pay them.” Sherlock studied John’s posture: clear exhaustion, given the way he was holding his shoulder. “Thank you for coming,” he added quietly.

“Of course.” Mycroft lifted his chin. “Someone had to look after our parents.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “They’re perfectly capable of handling themselves.”

“You didn’t have to accompany them to The Ivy last night, now, did you?”

Sherlock scowled. “Don’t be tiresome.” He inclined his head toward the walkway. “Got to go.”

“He’s fine, Sherlock.”

Sherlock’s scowl deepened. “You have a fascinating definition of ‘fine.’”

“Go, then.” Mycroft motioned toward John with the tip of his umbrella. “You know best.”

Sherlock put his back to his brother and strode toward John, refusing to give Mycroft the satisfaction of reading his expression. Sherlock did not know best. Sherlock had never been so unsure of anything in his life.

* * *

Dawn light battered its way through John’s window as if to remind him that it would continue to do so each relentless day. As if to remind John that he didn’t have much of a choice in the matter.

The funeral was over. It had all been perfect, or at least, as perfect as your pregnant wife’s funeral could be. He knew for certain Mary would have loved it, even as she pulled him aside and commented on Cath’s horrendous hat, or Janine’s desperately hip boyfriend who’d likely dump her within the week. “Ooh, you know what? It’s like the wedding in reverse,” she’d say, squeezing John’s arm and hiding a delightfully inappropriate grin. “You should’ve made everyone walk in backwards.”

He’d have thought he’d be used to this by now, that he should have received some sort of promotion for his ability to live through hell, a black belt in the art of loss. Assume fighting stance, absorb pain. But it didn’t quite work that way.

He loved Mary fiercely, but there was more than one Mary. And he wasn’t sure which one he was mourning, whether the one he’d lost had died amongst the many Marys, or whether he’d imagined his Mary from the start. And then, the baby -- the baby he’d never quite believed was real, the baby he hadn’t ever allowed himself to name. He’d been right. None of it had been real. The only real thing, in the end, was that he’d lost.

And Sherlock. Sherlock was real.

The man he’d mourned was having a cup of tea in their sitting room, would sit and simply exist next to him when John went downstairs. In the end, Sherlock, who’d died already, was John’s only reality. The one fixed thing.

John wondered whether, in two years, Sherlock would be dead again, Mary sitting downstairs waiting for him with tea. Maybe they’d orchestrated some sort of macabre scheme in which only one of them could exist in John’s life at any given moment, and in ten years John would be in business as a funeral director.

Because Sherlock was downstairs, John got up.

“You haven’t been working,” John said, settling down in his chair with his own cup.

Sherlock looked up from the day’s paper. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but we’ve been busy.”

“The network,” John said. “You haven’t said anything. Doesn’t Mycroft need you?”

“Stalemate.” Sherlock gave him an opaque look. “We know they exist. They know we know they exist.”

“So what do we do now?”

“We wait for someone to make a move.”

“Oh.” John set down his tea and realised he’d been asking a bigger question, the only question. What do we do now?

“There are other cases,” Sherlock said, as if reading his mind. Which tended to be a hobby of Sherlock’s. “But nothing pressing. When you’re ready.”

John exhaled. He stared at the discarded newspaper and thought about another day in 221B, Sherlock roaming in and out. Phone calls about the car John was selling, the house he’d just sold. Well, the house Mycroft had helped him sell. Mrs Hudson would arrive mid-morning with a punctual delivery of tea and sympathy. The tedium of it itched like an insect bite, all the necessary obligations of absorbing loss. He toyed with his wedding ring and glanced up at Sherlock. “I don’t want to just sit here. You’re probably crawling the walls with boredom. Although I’ll hand it to you for the massive effort it must take not to show it.”

“I’m fine.”

“Oh, really.”

“Yes.”

John raised an eyebrow. “I slept through nearly all of last week,” he hedged. “That can’t be good.”

Sherlock frowned. “I’m not sure it’s wise for you to go out yet.”

“What do you think I’m likely to do, cry at a crime scene?”

Amusement twisted the corner of Sherlock’s mouth. “Prowling London in search of dead bodies can’t be the most therapeutic course of action.”

John’s eyebrows crawled up his scalp. “I’m sorry, have we met?”

“Apologies. No idea what I was thinking.”

John grinned back at Sherlock’s wry smile, then sobered. “Look, it’s probably better if I take things slowly and sit here and let everything sink in. But I’ve done that before.” He tried not to react at the flicker of acknowledgement on Sherlock’s face. “It’s shit, honestly. I’d much rather just go straight to the part where I pretend everything’s fine.”

“Understood.” Sherlock stood up and fetched his phone from the table, then started to flick through his email. He sighed. “Nothing, really --”

“There’s got to be something.

Sherlock sighed. “Man’s wife disappears after wedding reception --” He paled, if such a thing were possible, and shook his head. “Ah. Dear Mr Holmes, I’ve recently received a disturbing package in the mail. Inside were two human ears packed in coarse salt, freshly severed. Any assistance would be much appreciated. Susan Cushing, Croydon.”

John took a sip of his tea. “I’d say I’m all ears, but I suspect she’s heard that one before.”

“That was truly terrible.”

“Thanks.” John stood up. “Next train to Croydon?”

Sherlock was already shrugging on his coat. “Every seven minutes from Victoria Station.”

* * *

Chapter Text

The voice on the end of the line curled around Sherlock with wicked tendrils of amusement. “Well, this is a surprise. What could you possibly want, Mr Sherlock Holmes? Need to break into an office? I could use another diamond.”

“Hello, Janine.” Sherlock let falsehood slip over him like a dressing gown. Lies were only convincing if he himself truly believed them. Taken aback, perhaps slightly hurt, he stuttered. “N-no, no. Just calling, you know. As a -- a friend.”

An incredulous giggle. “I thought I told you. Not really up for the ‘friend’ thing, or don’t you remember? You were a bit drugged up at the time.”

Sherlock let his hesitation linger into awkwardness.“I do remember.”

Janine softened. “No, fine. That’s fine. It’s been a while, we can give it a whirl. ‘Friend’ is a bit less cumbersome than ‘lying ex-fiancé.’”

“I’m happy with whichever term you prefer.”

“Let’s call it friends, on a trial basis.”

“Good. That’s good.”

“Is it? Well, my friend Sherl, why’ve you decided to grace me with that lovely voice of yours?”

Sherlock cleared his throat. Every word of this had to work, each tiny vocal inflection. “I wanted to thank you for coming to the funeral last month. I -- I know we didn’t have time to chat that day. I was a bit preoccupied.”

“Oh.” An unreadable mood: surprise, perhaps. “Oh. Of course, I mean. I wouldn’t have missed it. I know you were busy helping John.” A pause. “How is he holding up?”

“Yes, well. That’s the reason for my call.”

“Oh. Oh, damn.”

Sherlock coaxed vulnerability into his voice.“Yes, I -- well. I’ve been -- trying to find ways to help him. I thought I might talk to people who knew Mary better than I did, so I could learn a bit more about their life, you know, when I was -- away. And I don’t know Mary’s other friends particularly well.”

Hesitation. Not buying it, perhaps, but weighing the outcomes. “You want to... chat, is that all?”

“About Mary. I -- I fear I’ve not been particularly useful to John. I knew Mary less than a year.”

A catch in her voice: sympathy. Let it be sympathy. “I’m sure you’ve been fine, Sherlock.”

“No, well. This sort of stuff is not really my area. People, you know. And it was just so -- sudden.”

He could almost hear Janine’s mind putting it together, the chances that Sherlock was lying (he was) against the chance he was genuinely reaching out, fumbling for a way to relate to a devastated best mate. Given Mycroft’s latest intelligence from MI-6, it was highly unlikely Janine believed Mary died in a car crash. But Janine couldn’t blow him off here without seeming supremely insensitive. It was time to find out exactly how much she knew.

She crumbled, as he’d hoped she would. “You’re a good man, Sherl. I wish you hadn’t been such a damn liar.”

He wished he could appreciate the irony. “Unusual circumstances.”

“Fine, all right. What are you proposing? No pun intended, of course.”

Damn. Clever Janine. He liked her; that would make this far more difficult. Who would be so reprehensible as to attempt to manipulate her a second time?

It was a good thing Sherlock specialised in being reprehensible.

“I’d like to just... chat. Without John around, you know. Maybe meet for lunch, or. Or come over to your place. If that’s all right.”

She sighed. “I know you don’t eat lunch. Come over here, then. I’m free tomorrow afternoon. Two o’clock?”

“That would be lovely. Thank you.”

“I’m sorry he’s not doing well.” Janine paused. “It’ll be nice to see you.”

“Yes. Well. You too.”

“See you tomorrow, then.”

* * *

Time began to stitch itself together case by case, John’s life sewn tight by threads of cab rides and trips to Scotland Yard. Two cases the first month, then five the next, rapid-fire. If John was perfectly honest about it, he wanted to hang from balconies, dodge gunfire, take cover during explosions. Distraction in its rawest form, adrenaline straight from the bottle, potent enough to swallow him whole when he got into bed at night.

Otherwise, the nightmares kicked in.

He went back to work at a new office, a neat little transfer arranged by Mycroft. John wasn’t sure whether Mycroft was issuing some extended form of guilty apology or whether he was genuinely concerned with John’s well-being. Either way, John didn’t object. He could take a lot of distress without flinching, but spending his days in the office where he’d first met Mary was a larger dose than John wanted to take at the moment.

His new job was at a clinic on Upper Wimpole, with greatly reduced hours. John felt he ought to be suspicious that the job was so ideal -- he could come in as needed, or disappear for a week -- but he no longer had the energy to care. The new office was so absurdly close to Baker Street that Sherlock took to popping in whenever the mood struck him.

“Double homicide at a flat in Notting Hill,” Sherlock said one July afternoon, sweeping into the office as John was getting a blood pressure reading from a particularly jumpy retiree.

The needle spiked up as his elderly client, draped in a paper gown, gaped at Sherlock.

“Christ, Sherlock, not now! Sorry, Mrs Perkins, just my flatmate, he knows he’s not supposed to be in here --”

“One victim holding a gun, the other holding a knife. Gun has a bullet missing, knife covered in blood. Bullet’s not a match for the one found in the first victim.”

Mrs Perkins’ papery lips went completely pale. “Goodness!”

“Leave.” John put his hands on Sherlock’s shoulders and turned him toward the door. “Leave now. I’ll be home in two hours.”

“Blood isn’t a match for either victim,” Sherlock said over his shoulder.

John slammed the door.

“There’ll be a third body somewhere,” Mrs Perkins commented, her blood pressure dipping to normal levels on the dial.

“Just what I was thinking,” Sherlock bellowed from the hallway.

John let his head fall heavily against the back of the office door.

He ducked out of the office ten minutes later. Sherlock, unsurprisingly, was waiting for him, loitering next to the doorway with a cigarette like the bad kid in school. It was too warm for his beloved Belstaff, but he somehow retained the essence of it nonetheless. They fell into step together, hurrying toward the tube station in unspoken agreement.

“You’ve got to stop this.”

Sherlock glanced at his cigarette. “I’m down to once a week.”

“Not that.” John bumped Sherlock with his shoulder. “You can’t just walk into my bloody exam room when I have a patient on the table.”

“She didn’t mind.”

“Sherlock, that’s not the point.”

You didn’t mind.”

“That doesn’t make it right,” John countered, but he could tell as the words left his mouth that they were utterly lacking in conviction. He’d lost. Sherlock, who missed nothing -- least of all that he’d been proven right -- blew a plume of smoke into the sultry summer air and grinned slyly down at John.

“Yes, it does,” he said.

John exhaled wearily as they quickened their pace. The truth was, he didn’t mind, and at this point the reasons were so tangled in the primordial muck of his emotions that he’d given up ever understanding why. It was probably deeply wrong that John appeared at Sherlock’s side whenever Sherlock snapped his fingers. It was likely a sign of utter codependency, of addiction, of some kind of fault in John’s psyche. By all rights John should be sitting in front of his therapist on a daily basis, sorting out the reason he was perpetually hustling down the street after Sherlock’s flapping coat.

He hadn’t gone to see Ella in weeks. No, more than a month. He wasn’t sure what help she could give him anymore. Yes, I happen to seek out relationships with psychopaths, and I have to learn to cope when they commit suicide in front of me. No, I’m not particularly interested in knowing why this happens. I just want to be left alone so I can get on with stepping in front of another explosion.

He should be calling Ida from the old office, and that couple they used to have dinner with -- Cath, and Mark? Matt? It was Mark. God, he couldn’t even remember. He should have dinner with them again, should hold on to the ties of the life he’d had. That would be what Mary would have wanted.

He should be visiting Mary’s grave.

* * *

“I could get used to this,” Janine said, lingering in the doorframe of her flat.

Building entry code: six numbers, 025877. Spare key in landlord’s office, standard lock. Wireless password “sussex-downs.”

Sherlock lit up with what he knew to be a dazzling smile. “It has been nice, hasn’t it?”

“Very much so. He’s doing better, you said?”

“Yes, well, I think this has helped. He mentions things they did together, you know. Friends they had. It helps if I have some background.”

“Glad to hear it.” Janine smiled slowly. “You busy next week?”

“I can make time.”

“It’d be lovely to see you again.”

Sherlock played his cards casually, knowing he was about to draw the ace. “Dinner? Remind me where your new office is? I’ll likely be at the Yard next week.”

“Not far, actually. Near Lambeth Bridge. Pick me up, then?”

“I’ll text you.”

Sherlock feigned curiosity. “What about... what was his name? At the funeral.”

Janine waved a hand. “He was a cock.”

“Sorry.”

“I’m not.” Janine traced Sherlock’s sharp jawline with one finger. Attraction in spades, but something else; sentiment, perhaps. Unfortunate. “See you next week?”

“Mmm. See you later.” He gave her a half-smile. “Thanks for the tea.”

She grinned back at him. “Anytime, Sherlock Holmes.”

Sherlock nodded a goodbye, every sense tuned for a hint of suspicion, but there was none. She didn’t know. She genuinely didn’t suspect. He’d won: entry to her flat, meaning he’d certainly have access to her new workplace within the week. He jogged down the front steps of her building and vanished into a cab, waiting until he was halfway across town to begin texting.

Theseus is go. SH

He closed his eyes and sank back against the seat, reviewing: John Watson, this morning. Sandy, grey-threaded hair at three-quarters standard length, haircut in two weeks. Posture stiff, but improved by several degrees, indicating fewer sleepless nights than the previous week. Eyes still dark with a hidden weight Sherlock could not seem to erase.

He observed, objectively, the slight increase in his own heart rate that always accompanied this review. Safer not to put a name on it, or delve deeply into the reason. He took a breath and quelled the skip in his pulse. John would have answers soon; nothing else mattered. It only remained to distract John until Sherlock assembled the puzzle, then set a match to it so they could watch it burn.

* * *

“Your first date,” Sherlock said abruptly, as the fire popped in the grate. Fog had chased away much of the late summer sun, leaving Baker Street chilly and damp.

John looked up from his laptop. “What?”

“You and Mary.”

“Um,” John said, as the restaurant swam before him, the risotto he hadn’t really eaten, and as it turned out, neither had she. “Why?”

“You asked her first,” Sherlock said, steepling his fingers. “She said no. Office romance, bad idea. You asked again.”

“Sherlock, I don’t really want to talk about this.”

“Oh.” A downcast glance. “Sorry.”

“Don't take it the wrong way, just -- it’s not an easy topic.” John rubbed his forehead. “You know. Dead, cheating wife.”

Sherlock nodded. “Understood.”

“No, no. It’s -- it’s okay. Why are you asking now?”

A brief pause. “I thought it might... help.”

They talked less these days, John realised. Of course, they talked about cases constantly, and Sherlock sometimes didn’t speak for days on end, as advertised. But between cases, they existed together in comfortable silence more often than not. Was Sherlock... worried about him? Damned if John was going to shut the door on an effort like that.

John looked up and met Sherlock's eyes. A pulse of uncertain energy hummed between them. “It’s fine, just. Next time, I could do with a bit of warning.”

“Warning?”

“That you’re attempting this sort of conversation.”

Sherlock’s eyebrows furrowed. “Oh.”

John closed his laptop.“Right, um. You had it all correct. Of course.” He sighed. “I couldn’t believe she’d said no. I thought we’d had a real spark. The second time I asked her out, I asked if we could just go as friends. It went... very well.”

“How so?”

“Well, at the end of it, we were standing outside her flat. And she asked me if a kiss goodnight was something friends might do.” John cleared his throat. “And I said yes, and she, well. She said she’d like to be very good friends.”

John’s stomach clenched with the sweetness of the memory and he suddenly found he couldn’t endure it. “How about you?” he asked, casting about quickly for a segue. “Your, um. First date.”

Sherlock blinked, his expression shuttering. “I don’t date.”

“Never?”

“No.”

Years of curiosity pushed the words out before John could stop them. “Why not?”

Sherlock arched an eyebrow. “We were talking about Mary.”

“We were talking about dating,” John volleyed back, unsure why he was pressing the subject. 

Sherlock let silence fill the room. After a long moment, John cleared his throat again. He'd been an idiot. “Sorry. If you liked to talk about that sort of thing, I’m sure I would’ve known by now.”

“I’ve never dated.”

“Oh,” John said, guilt and surprise crowding for space in his chest. It was one thing to suspect Sherlock’s inexperience, and another to hear any kind of truth on the subject. “Oh, um. Well. That’s all right, then.”

Sherlock gave him an annoyed look. “I’m not lacking experience, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

John pretended he hadn’t been. “I never said --”

“Relationships, never. Experiments, sometimes. And case-related setups, of course. You should have been able to deduce as much.”

“Well.” John swallowed. “I, um. I didn’t want to presume.”

They sat for a moment, this new territory settling unexpectedly around them. Any sort of newness, after such a long time in each others’ company, was distinctly bizarre.

“Thanks for asking about Mary,” John added. “I think.”

Sherlock’s eyes flicked to his once more, and he nodded.

* * *

Sherlock’s hypothesis was correct: Mary had refused John’s advances at first. Warned off by Janine, no doubt. Possibly even under a strict agreement not to engage in a romantic relationship. Yet for some reason, she hadn’t been able to help herself. She’d gone rogue. That said, going rogue had been a defining character trait of Mary’s. The past was sharpening into focus, the time Sherlock had missed and couldn’t reclaim.

He’d needed data. He hadn’t expected John to ask anything in return.

We were talking about dating.

Sherlock shut the door on the sound of John’s voice in his mind.

* * *

Summer faded to autumn. The world began to fall away, kept at arm’s length by Sherlock’s overflowing inbox and the ever-increasing stream of clients who rang the doorbell at 221B. Sherlock had never been busier, vanishing erratically only to reappear and drag John onto the next train out of town. John woke one morning to the buzz of his phone and realised it had been days since he’d spoken to anyone other than his flatmate. They seemed to careen around London in an airtight ship, utterly sealed to outsiders. If a cocoon could be woven out of crime scenes, out of death and infidelity and murder, John was locked deep inside of it. Which was fine by him, really, since he didn’t much like the memories that waited to ambush him on the outside.

One morning on his way back from Tesco he opened the door to hear Mrs Hudson on the phone, the door to her flat half-ajar and forgotten.

“I don’t know what to tell you, dear. He’d never say anything to me. Neither of them would.”

This was enough to still John’s steps in the foyer, and he stood for a moment, pretending to search for something in his grocery bags.

“Well, it was such a trauma. He’s been through so much. I can’t imagine.” A pause. “I know, I know. I wish he’d talk about it, but he just keeps on like everything’s fine. Back to normal.”

Molly. John swallowed, weighted in place by his shopping.

“He does look sad, though. He’s got those lines on his face, you know, those funny crinkly ones. And he’s looking a bit thin, but Sherlock does keep them running these days. I hope it’s the right thing for him. I barely see them, they’ve been so busy.”

I hope it’s the right thing. John felt a start of guilt at listening in. He rustled his bags loudly. “Afternoon, Mrs H,” he called out, unsurprised at her soft “Oh!” and then a quick flurry of movement in her kitchen. “Hello, dear,” she called distractedly, and then her door slid shut with a soft click.

It felt like the right thing, most days, not to question what he was doing. Not to wonder if he was fine. Of course he was fine. He was always fine. He was moving on. Living with his best friend, who despite his mercurial, unpredictable insanity, had somehow become his only rock and anchor. It was a bit like being tethered to a bolt of lightning.

Sherlock was already pacing a path between random points on their worn carpet when John walked into the flat. “Vampires,” he said.

“Well. Werewolves to you, then,” John replied. He cleared a space for the grocery bags amongst the test tubes on the kitchen table.

Sherlock paused in the kitchen doorway, brow knit in confusion. “Vampires. We’re talking about vampires.”

“Ah, that makes perfect sense. No ghosts need apply.”

“I was just saying --”

“Wait, hang on. You do know I’ve been at the market for the past half hour?”

Sherlock held up his phone. “Pack your bags,” he said. “We’re going to Sussex.”

* * *

The baby in John’s arms wriggled unhappily, fists clenched in John’s shirt. John shushed him, not sure which of their hearts was beating faster. “S’all right, love. It’s okay. I’m just gonna have a look at your neck here, all right?”

“The doctor didn’t have any explanation,” Robert Ferguson said, shifting nervously on the worn, curved floorboards of the manor house. “He said they were puncture wounds. But we watch Jeremy all day, Doctor Watson, there’s no way he could have gotten a hold of anything that would have punctured him. We’ve just spent ages babyproofing, we’ve never had an infant in this house before.”

“You have another son, though, you said?”

“Jack’s fifteen, yeah. From my first marriage. We weren’t living here when he was born.”

John shifted the baby on his hip and managed to get a good view of the injury, a twin pair of pinpricks on the left side of the baby’s neck. And on either side of the marks, a few distinct dents made by human teeth. John shuddered, swaying from foot to foot as the baby fussed. “You’re all right, love,” he said under his breath, and then louder, “No sign of infection, that’s good news.” He swallowed. “You’re sure -- it was your wife, who -- bit him.”

Ferguson, a tall, polished man who might have been handsome had he not looked so wrecked, nodded. He bit his lip and looked away. “She did suffer from post-partum depression, although I’d thought she was improving. And she’s rather a fan of those vampire books,” he said, reddening. “She keeps re-reading them, you know -- watching the movies. That’s the only explanation we can think of. We had to give her a sedative.” He paused. “She’s had some... evaluations, since yesterday. She’s resting now.”

The baby settled in against John and sighed, apparently taking solace in John’s instinctive role as a rocking chair. “I’m sorry about what’s happened,” John said. “I can’t imagine.”

“I just don’t see what she might have done it with,” Ferguson said. “We’re not in the habit of keeping any sort of needles in the house. Jeremy could have injured himself somehow, I suppose, babies get into everything.”

“Unlikely,” Sherlock said, striding into the room, “A six-month-old baby couldn’t hold a needle well enough to stab himself in the neck, at least with the force and precision needed to make those two marks, and it seems even less likely that Jeremy rolled onto two identical needles at once. Mr Ferguson, I wonder why you didn’t mention your dog in your email?”

Ferguson blanched. “You think the dog did it?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. No, Carlo doesn’t factor into this, other than he was a victim of the same assailant about four months ago, or whenever he first developed problems in his hind legs.”

“Mr Holmes,” Ferguson said shakily, “my wife appears to have suffered some kind of psychotic break. I walked into my child’s bedroom to see her sucking on his neck. Needle marks were found on Jeremy at the site of the bite. I don’t see how the family dog’s injury has any relevance to this matter whatsoever.”

“We’ve seen in a few previous cases that sometimes a criminal will rehearse a crime,” Sherlock said, watching John cautiously. “It would seem that four months ago, Carlo was the rehearsal. Poisoned, I believe.”

Ferguson’s eyes widened, and his jaw dropped open.

“What?” John glanced down at Jeremy, now fast asleep in his arms. “Is he going to be okay?”

“Due to your wife’s quick thinking, I should think so,” Sherlock said gravely, addressing Ferguson. “I believe she saved your child from any poison injected by the needles. She acted instinctively and sucked the poison from the wound as soon as she saw the injury. She must have found Jeremy quickly, we can be thankful for that. It’s no wonder she felt a bit ill and disoriented afterwards. Considering Jeremy’s already been examined in hospital, I think you can be confident that he’ll recover.”

Carlo the dog, a watery-eyed spaniel with a pronounced limp, appeared in the doorway. His tail twitched as if it wanted to wag, but it dragged on the floor behind him.

“There’s no need to evaluate your wife,” Sherlock added. “It’s unfortunate that her taste in literature might have caused you to misinterpret her actions.” He gave Ferguson a deliberate, searching look. “The only person in this household who may need evaluation is your older son.”

Jeremy, nestled against John’s checked shirt, flinched in his sleep as if he’d understood Sherlock. With a deep sigh, he settled in again. John’s jaw clenched, his arms full. He swayed on the spot.

* * *

“Christ, that’s bloody disturbing,” Lestrade said, shuffling papers on his desk and tossing Sherlock a clean copy of the tedious post-case forms that always kept John up until one in the morning. Without turning around, Sherlock pressed the papers against John’s crossed arms. John sighed and shoved them under an elbow. “The stepson? Fifteen years old?”

“He lives part of the time with his mother, who remarried someone from South America,” Sherlock said. “Quite a collection of interesting artifacts in that house, including some weapons. A blow dart, the type once dipped in poison, went missing some months ago. Jack Ferguson made rather a nice after-school project of finding a suitable poison to use on the tip. He managed to get his hands on a Belladonna plant and tested the poison on the family dog before attempting to inject his infant stepbrother.”

Lestrade exhaled. “Jealousy?”

“Indeed.”

“And the baby?”

John began to feel warm. He hadn’t taken off his jacket. Had it always been this warm in Lestrade’s office?

“John examined him, as did their local GP. No lasting damage, as far as we can tell. The mother sucked out most of the poison, and fortunately Jack was not particularly adept at murdering babies. There were two puncture wounds because he nearly missed the first time. Neither puncture was very deep.”

John put the forms on Lestrade’s desk and started to take off his jacket. The sweet, heady smell of Jeremy’s baby shampoo still clung to his shirt. He swallowed.

“So we’re looking at a juvenile court --” Lestrade began, and that was the last thing John heard over the rushing in his ears. The office went dark at the edges before John turned on his heel and bolted from the room, unsure of anything other than an impulse to run. He threw open the door of the first empty office and slammed it behind him. He took a few steps into the dimly lit space before his fist connected with plaster and sheet rock.

He felt dizzy. He might be sick. He was dimly aware of leaning against the wall, flexing his hand. His hand was numb. Was that a bad sign? All of this. A bad sign.

The door to the office flew open and slammed shut again, and Sherlock’s arms wound around him like a vise. He pulled John from the wall and they staggered back two steps, Sherlock’s hold binding John’s arms tight, the back of John’s head thumping once against Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock was breathing hard and fast under his heavy coat. John became dimly aware that he was breathing even faster.

“John.” Sherlock’s breath in John’s ear, a deep rasp. “John.”

John’s hand clenched and unclenched. He didn’t have quite enough air. Was he shaking? “Fuck.”

Sherlock let his head fall against John’s, curling around him. “The baby,” Sherlock said, voice soft with realisation. One more deduction than he’d anticipated.

The delicate baby smell on John’s shirt mingled with the subtle smoke of Sherlock’s coat and began to fade. It felt as though John had been kicked, all the air in his lungs replaced with empty space. His baby.

He’d been waiting for her, and she’d never come.

Eventually, Sherlock caught his breath. John’s still came in sips, the knuckles on his left hand starting to sting. One of his fingers felt wet.

“We should look at your hand,” Sherlock said, incrementally easing his hold.

“We should look at the wall,” John muttered.

Sherlock shifted, and John settled back against him without thinking. Their breathing began to synchronise, slow and even. This was the first time Sherlock had done anything like hug John, and even then, it was more straightjacket than hug.

“The wall had it coming,” Sherlock said.

* * *

Lestrade clapped John on the shoulder, told him to get some rest, and acted as if he could care less that John had just punched a crater in the wall of a government building. John wrapped his bleeding hand in a paper towel and stuttered an apology.

“Don’t even think about it,” Lestrade said, further convincing John that his heart was made of actual gold. “You’ve solved enough bloody cases for us, you deserve to redecorate our office if the mood strikes.”

Back at home John ran his knuckles under cold water and washed grains of sandy plaster from his ragged skin. He slipped off his wedding ring and put it on the bathroom counter. It had sliced into the side of his finger in one spot, a half-inch nick deep enough to need a stitch or two. With the ring off, the gash opened up. Blood welled between his fingers and swirled into the white bowl of the sink.

John sensed, rather than heard, Sherlock pause in the doorway behind him. “That’s a fair amount of blood.”

“It’s fine.”

Sherlock gave an impatient sigh and peered over John’s shoulder. “That needs two sutures, at least.”

“Yeah, no. I’m not going to bloody A&E. I can bandage it.”

“Don’t be an idiot.” Sherlock bent down next to him and opened the cabinet under the sink. “Where’s your bag? I can do it.”

John’s finger dripped into the sink. He grabbed hold of it to stop the blood. “Just gauze and tape is fine.”

Sherlock straightened, medical kit in hand, and nodded toward the kitchen. “Sit down.”

“I told you, I don’t need --”

Sherlock’s eyes drilled into John. “Sit.”

“Fine.”

They cleared a spot in the kitchen, John perching on a stool. Sherlock rolled up his shirtsleeves, snapped on a pair of disposable gloves, and meticulously readied a needle and forceps. He gestured for John to remove the gauze he’d pressed to the cut. Then, cradling John’s hand in his, Sherlock wiped the spot with iodine. John bit his lip. “Sorry,” Sherlock muttered. “No topical anaesthetic.”

“S’fine.”

Sherlock’s hand was warm in the rubber glove. He bent close, his breath ghosting over the tips of John’s fingers. They looked, together, at the cut. Sherlock positioned the needle. “Yeah, there,” John said, and the needle bit. Sherlock threaded the needle deftly through the edges of the gash, the skin between John’s fingers soft enough to make the work fairly quick. Their foreheads nearly touching, John reached for Sherlock’s hand, redirecting it slightly, steering it into place. Sherlock didn’t fight his suggestion. The second bite of the needle was worse, the skin already sensitive, and John sucked in a breath.

“Nearly there.”

“I know.” John exhaled. “Do we have any alcohol?”

“I sterilised it once already.”

“To drink, you idiot.”

Sherlock looked up, half-smiling. “Scotch.”

“Good.”

Two surprisingly decent sutures later, Sherlock covered the cut with fresh gauze, leaning in to wrap a white ring of tape around John’s finger.

“That was nicely done,” John said, watching Sherlock’s dark curls.

Sherlock turned John’s hand over in his own, ridiculously bigger one. “You put ointment on all of this?”

“You mean my shredded knuckles? Yeah.”

John watched his hand in Sherlock’s, both of them studying the abraded skin. John didn’t feel in any particular hurry to pull away, Sherlock’s scrupulous attention to the wound somehow calming. “I’ve had worse,” John said at last.

“Mmm.” Sherlock turned his hand over again. “I remember this one. Broken window on that gambling case.”

“Is that what that scar is from? I thought that was from the fight outside the pub in Farnham.”

“No, look, the line’s too clean.”

John shrugged. “You’re the expert.”

Sherlock released his hand abruptly, turning away to pull out his phone. “Well. You should be fine.”

John lowered his hand. Something about Sherlock’s gesture felt like a rebuke, and the air seemed emptier around them. “Almost fine,” he said. “I’ll just be needing that Scotch you mentioned.”

“Mm,” Sherlock said, distracted, and stalked into the living room. “Behind the formaldehyde, under the sink. I’ll have mine neat, thanks.”

* * *

Mistakes. There had been too many mistakes. All of this was his fault, the sentiment that had settled so deeply into his core, the unshakable truth of John Watson linked like a second heartbeat to his own. Sherlock was not allowed to have a weakness, and yet he’d gone and found himself a great chasm of vulnerability so potent that even the least skilled criminal could exploit it. And now the ripples of this mistake, two years gone, had unhinged John. Had unhinged them both.

He leaned heavily on the bathroom sink. Faint pink drops, blood and water, skated down one side of the porcelain. Traces of an injury could never be erased. The only truth, the one fixed thing: damage. Footprints, scratches, old blood, scars. Sherlock’s eye was trained to seek out this evidence, the tiniest change in a landscape. Nothing ever passed without leaving its mark.

No damage could ever be truly repaired. John would not be the same.

But Sherlock could make amends, could destroy the source of the damage. If John had to bear the scars, it was the least Sherlock could do.

John’s ring, dark and shiny with blood, glinted in the empty soap dish next to the sink. Sherlock picked it up, turned the tap, and held it under the rush of water.

* * *

Chapter Text

The flat ached without Sherlock. The curtains seemed to flap pointlessly against the windows, no one to push them aside and complain about the lack of clients. Or the overabundance of clients. Either was worth bemoaning, in Sherlock’s opinion.

At first Sherlock was gone just for an afternoon. Then, most of a day. He returned for a half-day case with John, but it was an entirely mundane murder, and he was gone again as soon as it was over. The next day, he left before John woke up in the morning.

John updated his blog and re-updated his blog. He published three out of fifteen of their backlogged old cases, and then he changed the background colour on the page five times. He was very close to inviting Mrs Hudson up for tea and a game of cards when he was forced to acknowledge the situation.

Sherlock didn’t think he was fit to work cases.

That was the only possible explanation. John had snapped, revealed that he’d taken damage far below the surface, deep into bedrock. His armour had unpredictable cracks, ones he wasn’t quite sure how to repair. Sherlock had, understandably, dismissed him from service. Sent him home from the front lines.

Except Sherlock was the one person who wasn’t supposed to do this. Sherlock had seen beyond a trembling hand and the crossed wires of a phantom limp. John had assumed Sherlock would drag him along until John was a pile of shrapnel, a barely-stitched patchwork of blood and bullets, and even then Sherlock would bring him anyway and prop him up in some corner of the crime scene like a well-loved teddy bear. Come on, John.

Maybe Sherlock was just busy. Maybe he was just doing the Sherlock thing where he forgot to tell John something vitally important, like We’re working a case in Cornwall this week, why aren’t you here? What do you mean, you weren’t home when I told you?

But it didn’t quite feel that way.

With a bitter knot in his stomach, John called the Wimpole Street clinic and asked for extra hours. They were more than happy to oblige. For the next few days, he woke up, walked to the clinic, and clocked in from 9 to 5. During that time, no madmen burst into his office. No one loitered outside his door waiting to drag him onto the Tube. No one shoved a gun into his pocket during his lunch hour while chatting rapid-fire about powder residue found in the fibres of a four-hundred-year-old carpet from Tibet. In short, it was one of the worst weeks John had spent in recent memory.

And then, one night, Sherlock didn’t come home.

John got back from the clinic, accustomed by now to a cold, quiet flat. He lit a fire, salvaged some dinner from a few leftover cartons of takeaway, and flipped on the telly. He waited for Sherlock to appear and grunt a perfunctory greeting before disappearing into the shower or opening his laptop to type silently for hours on end. Hours passed. No Sherlock.

If John had been the worrying type, Sherlock would have done him in years ago. But even so, after radio silence for seventeen hours, John was starting to edge more into worry than he’d like. At ten to midnight, John fished out his mobile and sent a text. Are you okay?

No response.

After ten minutes, John sent another. If you’re busy, have Mycroft call me.

John’s phone remained silent.

Another day, not quite far enough in the past: John’s phone, quietly resting on a glossy conference table, refusing to come to life. A faint swell of nausea returned to John’s throat at the memory. He stood up, picked up his phone again and dialed Mycroft.

Mycroft picked up on the first ring. “John.”

“Is he with you?”

A pause. “No.”

“At some point I’m going to start to worry. Should I go ahead and schedule that now?”

“I can’t tell you whether to worry, John.”

John gritted his teeth. “Oh, I think you bloody well can.”

“We were expecting contact a few hours ago. We’re still within the allotted time. We don’t want to jeopardise a delicate situation.”

“Mycroft, I’m going to jeopardize your personal delicate situation if you don’t tell me where he is.”

“He hasn’t told you anything?”

“You know he hasn’t.”

Another pause. “I will consider cutting the investigation short, if only to ease your mind,” Mycroft said, an unsettling note in his voice. “I’ll be in touch.” An authoritative click, and the line was dead.

John tossed the phone onto the table, his pulse hammering. Mycroft, as usual, had somehow become the authority on what information John was worthy of handling. As if John’s life was a cage within a cage: the golden filaments of Sherlock’s trust within the iron bars of Mycroft’s judgement. John attempted to hate Mycroft for it, but after a while, fear suffocated all other thoughts.

Time stretched out like a long shadow. John switched the telly on again just so that something would blare over the white static inside his head. One hour. Two. The drawers in Barts’ morgue slammed open and closed in John’s mind. He shut his eyes and didn’t sleep.

At half-past three the phone rang.

“We’ve got him,” Mycroft said, and was that worry in his voice? Anger? Impossible. “A car is outside for you.”

“Why?”

“You’re needed at Barts.” A weighty pause. “Your earlier call. It was... well-timed.”

John swallowed, his mouth dry. “Is he okay?”

“He’ll recover,” Mycroft said shortly, and hung up.

* * *

John hurried down the hall toward the triage room, dimly aware that someone in a white lab coat was attempting to give him information. “Knife wound,” that might have been part of it. “Bruised ribs. Multiple contusions.” John reached the door five full steps ahead of the chattering GP. He turned to look at her just as she was reaching a crescendo: “Gave him a shot of antibiotics -- we’ll keep the IV in overnight, he’ll need to stay for observation --” and she stopped dead at the look on John’s face.

“I’ll leave the chart, Doctor,” she said, and scurried off.

John’s pulse beat almost, but not quite, in time to the rhythmic beeps of Sherlock’s monitors. They were off by just the wrong amount, an asynchronous undercurrent of noise. The hospital bed was half-upright, propping up its patient like an unfortunate shop window display. Today’s special: arseholes who nearly get killed because they never tell you anything. Pick one up on Aisle 9 next to spouses who work for criminal masterminds. Friendly reminder, check the expiration date on your spouse.

Mycroft lurked in one dark corner of the room, studying Sherlock as a scientist might observe a particularly hardy lab rat. Or perhaps that was a look of concern.

Mycroft motioned at a chair, but John didn’t take it. They watched each other in the half-light of the triage room, the darkened window beginning to hint at the vague glow of early morning.

“Apologies,” Mycroft began, his voice controlled, perfectly pitched to float over the steady hum of equipment.

John couldn’t seem to respond. He swallowed and lifted his chin, flexing the fingers on one hand. A suffocating silence settled between them.

“You will want to know the details, I imagine.”

“Not interested.”

“I see.” Mycroft’s smile thinned, sour and polite. “I expect you’ve become accustomed to this sort of behaviour from my brother?”

“From the both of you, actually.”

The politeness evaporated, replaced with wary distaste. “Ah.”

John glanced at Sherlock and nearly had to look away. Sherlock’s eyes were glossy with painkillers and exhaustion. His face was battered, the shadow of a purple bruise blossoming under one eye. A heavy bandage circled one of his shoulders. “I’m not quite sure why you called me here,” John said evenly. “I imagine you’ll send him home when he’s ready.”

“John, some missions are confidential for your own safety.”

John nodded in Sherlock’s direction. “And what about his safety?”

“John,” Sherlock rasped at last, a deep, slurred rumble. “Let me explain --”

“No.” John took a step back. “Nope. How about this? I’ll explain, for a change. You both seem to think I’m too thick to draw my own conclusions, but I’ve managed to pick up a few things.” He gestured at Sherlock. “Your team pulled him out of a fight, Mycroft. A fight where he was outnumbered. A few more minutes and they might have killed him. You both made a massive error, and he would’ve died while I sat at home watching reruns of Antiques Roadshow. I’m not sure what else I need to know.”

Sherlock’s pulse audibly kicked up a notch.

“Right,” John said cheerfully. “Well. I’m sure they’ll send along any discharge instructions once he gets home. I’ll just be on my way then.”

John closed the door behind him, shutting out the ceaseless chirp of machines.

* * *

On reflection, the pain of failure was worse than suffering injuries without a morphine drip.

“That didn’t go well.”

“Shut up,” Sherlock slurred, his tongue thick from foul medications that in no way resembled the sweet oblivion of his preferred drug.

“He’ll see reason.”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“You know as well as I do that there were good reasons for keeping him out of this, Sherlock.”

Sherlock clenched his hands, feeling the IV line pinch his skin under tape and bandages. “I listened to you two years ago, Mycroft. I was an idiot to make that mistake a second time.”

“We obtained incredibly valuable intelligence before the operation was compromised.”

Sherlock gave a hollow laugh. “Glad you think so.”

Mycroft sighed. “Sherlock --”

“Shut. Up.” Sherlock bit down on the words. “Just let me absorb my idiocy in peace.”

Mycroft’s umbrella scraped against the slick floor. “As you wish. Please do tell me when you’ve finished this little tantrum.”

“Fuck off.”

“Clearly not anytime soon, then.”

* * *

The early morning commute crowd was hustling into the Tube by the time John got off at Baker Street, the noise of the train reverberating against his skull. He’d been up for twenty-four hours, and each one of them pounded against his temples with a dry, broken whine. He staggered upstairs and slumped onto the couch, the telly still on as he’d left it. He let the drone of the morning news wash over him, but his eyes refused to close. He stared, instead, at the cracked plaster of the sitting room ceiling, the corners of his vision smudged.

Sherlock had done this before. He’d left John plenty of times, vanishing from his side to reappear at the Yard or the flat or the wrong end of a gun barrel. He’d deserted John at a crime scene the first day they’d met. There should be no difference. None at all.

The day flattened into strange, empty space. John moved from the couch to his chair. He closed his eyes, but nothing happened. Sleep seemed a prize reserved for someone more deserving.

He scrambled an egg at teatime that tasted like the worst idea he’d ever had. When the couch presented itself as the only remaining option, he left to do the laundry.

The launderette on Baker Street smelled of heat and static and cheap soap. John sat in front of the clothes dryer and watched his shirts tumble. He waited to fall asleep in the launderette, but when an hour had passed and he still seemed to be tethered to some version of consciousness, he gathered up his hot, dry clothes and went back to the flat.

Sherlock was home. John knew it as he walked up the steps, in the odd way that 221B with Sherlock in it always felt different than 221B without. John pushed open the sitting room door and closed it again, expecting Mycroft, or at the very least Mrs Hudson, but Sherlock was alone. He was propped up on the couch in pyjamas, his gaze in the direction of the telly, but focused somewhere beyond. Prescription bottles and paperwork littered the coffee table next to Sherlock’s open laptop.

“Hey.” John dropped the laundry next to the door.

Sherlock’s eyes snapped to his. He looked horrible, as bad as John had ever seen him look. His face was pallid and waxen, lit with grey and blue bruises and an angry red gash near his hairline. He had one arm in his dressing gown, the other bare, his shoulder still wrapped in a bandage visible under the worn neck of his vest.

“Hey.” Sherlock swallowed, his eyes less foggy than the night before, reflecting an odd sort of fear.

John picked up the papers on the coffee table and skimmed them, vaguely recalling that when he was in the habit of sleeping, he could function as a medical professional. “They let you out early. Anything here I should know?”

“You’re... staying here.”

Sherlock said this with such hesitation that John looked up and nodded. “Yeah.” The motion made his head swim, and suddenly anything more complicated than breathing seemed like an unfair challenge. “I haven’t slept.”

“I went to see Janine,” Sherlock answered, as if this were a reasonable reply. Perhaps it was.

“Oh, is that what happened to you? She didn’t react well when you proposed again?”

Sherlock looked unsure if he should laugh. A half-grin flickered in the corner of his mouth in acknowledgement. He sat up stiffly. “I want to explain.”

“You know, I’m still fairly sure I don’t want to hear it.”

“I don’t care.”

The flat seemed to waver. John wavered with it, heat crawling up the back of his neck. “Go on, then.”

“Janine is the reason Mary was placed in your office,” Sherlock said. “Thanks to Mycroft’s analysis of Mary’s phone, I was able to trace the connection between them. They met years ago, when Mary first came to Magnussen’s office after he’d started blackmailing her. Janine is a key player in Moriarty’s network, originally placed in Magnussen’s lap to keep tabs on his activities. When Janine met Mary she saw an opportunity. She guessed, quite correctly, that Mary was your type, that at the very least you’d be friends. Janine had been looking for a way to gain inside information on my activities, and when I -- disappeared, that need became more urgent. Janine sent Mary to your office within a month of my suicide.”

John absorbed this as if taking a particularly dull kick to the head, waiting for breath to come back to his lungs, waiting for the room to stop vibrating. “Janine hired Mary. And sent her to my office.”

“In case I wasn’t dead, yes. Which I wasn’t.”

“Fine,” John said lightly. “Okay.”

“John.” Sherlock leaned forward, wincing. “We didn’t know at first. This took months to unravel.”

John couldn’t help an incredulous snort. “Months. This took you months, while I was doing -- what, exactly? Is that what all of those cases were about, just distractions so I wouldn’t ask questions, wouldn’t get in your way?”

Sherlock’s silence was damning enough that John shook his head. “Jesus, Sherlock.” He swallowed, the image of Janine in Sherlock’s shirt suddenly a vivid imprint in his brain. He gestured toward the bathroom. “Janine. You had her over here. You -- in the shower. With her. Janine.”

“Yes.”

John thought about this. Thinking didn’t seem to be very effective. “Okay.”

Sherlock gave a rare look of chagrin. "It’s my fault for not working it out sooner.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” John said lightly. “Fine. So you did what, then, exactly? Knocked on her door with flowers and a card saying ‘Congratulations, I’ve just discovered you were employed by my mortal enemy?’”

“I went to visit her under false pretences. Mycroft fitted me with a wire. Since we’d had a -- well, a relationship of sorts, I was the only possible candidate. I was able to gain access to her flat and her office. Unfortunately, someone must have got wind of the operation last night when I’d broken in.”

“You did intelligence work for your brother.”

“No,” Sherlock said gravely. “I did it for you.”

John goggled at him. “What?”

“I did it,” Sherlock repeated, “for you.”

John’s voice shook. “Let me see if I have this straight. You disappeared for two years and let me think you killed yourself. Then my wife disappeared and actually did kill herself. So you thought it would be a good idea to disappear again and get yourself killed for my benefit? Despite what it may look like, this sort of gesture really isn’t my thing.”

“I was trying to find answers,” Sherlock thundered, pushing himself up to standing and failing to hide a wince of pain.

“Jesus Christ, will you sit down?”

“Not until you listen.” Sherlock began to pace, his usual fluid stride kept in check by a visible degree of pain. “Can you understand that this was about your safety? That I had to keep this from you? Mary’s death put you at risk. What if her contacts thought you’d forced her to expose the network?”

John’s fury had gone beyond rage and given way to frightening, seething calm. “Oh, this is rich. A speech about safety coming from someone whose ribs are one good kick away from a jigsaw puzzle.”

Sherlock glared at him. “I was winning.”

“How long were you going to last against them, Sherlock? Ten more minutes? Five?” John cleared his throat. “You haven’t mentioned, why didn’t they shoot you instead? That’s often a popular choice.”

“You’re deliberately missing the point.”

“And what is the point? That my safety hinged on unknown people who may or may not have thought I knew something? Why not just tell me, then? Why not tell me and let us both deal with the outcome?”

Sherlock nearly growled in frustration. “Telling you would have been far too great a gamble --”

John’s jaw clenched.“Why do you get to make that decision? Why is it always you -- you and Mycroft -- who get to decide what’s best for me, what precious information I’m allowed to know? This is my life, Sherlock, but apparently I don’t ever get to know what’s actually going on.”

Sherlock stilled, one hand on the back of a desk chair. “Because I can’t have you die. Not because of me. Not because of Mary.”

John was beyond now, in some alternate space where thoughts flew out of him unchecked. His white-hot calm dissolved into a hoarse shout. “You don’t understand what you’re doing, do you? You and Mary both, you don’t -- you are breaking me, Sherlock. You’re trying to keep me safe, and instead, you’re bloody well breaking me. Can’t you see that? You say you want to save my life and so you swan off and die instead, and I don’t get a choice, I have to watch.”

Sherlock gripped the chair, white-knuckled. John gestured at it furiously. “Will you sit down?”

Sherlock ignored him. “It’s not right,” he said, his voice somehow both ragged and commanding. “It’s not right that you should give your life for this, when it was my return that caused everything --”

“It wasn’t your return that did it,” John bit out. “It was that you left in the first place.”

Sherlock actually rolled his eyes. “Oh, so we’re back to that, are we? How many times do I need to apologise? I thought we’d cut that down to once a week.”

“You don’t get it, you really don’t.” John’s face felt tight with heat. “If you hadn’t left me, Sherlock, if you’d let me in, I’d never have chosen Mary. I’d never have looked for anyone. I’d have had you.”

John swallowed. Sherlock opened his mouth and blinked at him.

“You fell in love with Mary," he said slowly. "That’s not the same.”

This was all bad, it was very bad. Was it the same? Something had gone wrong. “I -- that’s not -- you don’t understand --”

Sherlock swayed, leaning more of his weight on the desk chair. His face drained of what little colour it had. “You think I don't understand because you think I feel nothing. You think it cost me nothing to decide to leave you.”

Sherlock was still standing for no reason at all. Suddenly, this, of all things, seemed intolerable. John stalked forward, putting a hand on Sherlock’s chair. “Sherlock, stop talking. Sit the hell down before you hurt yourself.”

Sherlock, now in alarmingly close proximity, didn’t move. “I’m fine.”

“The hell you are. Jesus, you’re such a stubborn bastard.”

Sherlock regarded him coolly, towering with more nobility than someone partially leaning on a chair should really have. “You never believe me.”

Nerves snapped in John’s temples like broken wire. The flat buzzed like the hot dryers in the laundrette. John grabbed two handfuls of Sherlock’s soft grey shirt and dressing gown and yanked, heedless of bandages. Wanting to hurt. Wanting Sherlock to feel each fucking bruise, every god-awful minute John sat up waiting, every single second John had ever thought Sherlock was dead. “You never listen. Sit. Down.”

Sherlock went rigid, their eyes locked. John felt his knuckles flex, knew what was coming, the inevitable slow motion of a scuffle. Jesus Christ, he was going to hit Sherlock, he was really going to --

John’s fists, clutching fabric, dragged Sherlock forward. John’s mouth collided with his.

John’s body tensed for impact, for Sherlock’s returning volleys: Sherlock had been weakened, but he was frighteningly strong, and they’d be pushed off balance if Sherlock decided to shove when John threw the second punch --

There hadn’t been a punch. How had there not been a punch? John registered pain, his hands were fisted tightly in Sherlock’s clothing, goddamnit Sherlock why don’t you ever tell me anything, I could kill you, I thought you were dead --

Sherlock gasped, opening his mouth against John’s. Fear, maybe, or surprise. John pulled Sherlock closer, hands shaking, bracing for the fight he thought he’d started. Sherlock’s mouth felt raw and warm, all John wanted, but this was not -- they didn’t do this, this was --

John’s vision narrowed to a pinpoint, and he pushed back, steadying himself on Sherlock’s chair. His chest heaved for breath, Sherlock next to him, close enough to fist another handful of shirt and pull him in again, and my God, what was that.

John looked up. Sherlock’s face was blank, eyes round with shock.

One of them staggered downstairs. John’s best guess: it wasn’t Sherlock. The chair outside 221A presented itself, and John fell into it.

* * *

Chapter Text

Behind Sherlock’s closed eyes, darkness settled like the heat of a fever. His heart wanted to pound, but the thick sludge of pain meds kept it at a steady thump. His stomach gnawed at itself.

The outside door to Baker Street hadn’t opened. John must be somewhere in the hallway below. Mrs Hudson’s chair, maybe. The wrong chair entirely.

Pain flared everywhere, scattered and dull. John’s lips still burned against his own.

* * *

John must have slept, because there was no other way to account for Mrs Hudson startling him awake as she opened the door to her flat. “John. Is that you? What are you doing out here?”

The dim light in the hallway didn’t offer any clues as to what time it might be. John rubbed the back of his neck and sat up stiffly. “I -- nothing, Mrs Hudson, I must have fallen asleep.”

“In the hallway? What on earth is wrong with your flat?” Mrs Hudson tutted at him. “One of Sherlock’s experiments again? He’s supposed to be resting, I thought you’d keep him off his feet --”

The memory of kissing Sherlock crashed its way into John’s consciousness like a three-car pileup on the A41. John struggled upright so quickly his knees nearly gave out. “He’s fine. I was just --” He groped in his pocket for his phone and waved it vaguely at Mrs Hudson. “Waiting for a call from the office, and they’ve just buzzed. Gotta dash. Sorry, Mrs H.” Before she could say anything else, John grabbed a coat he hoped was his own from the bannister and stumbled out the door and into daylight.

Mid-morning, by the looks of it, confirmed by the watch John finally remembered he was wearing. Early November chill bit at his cheeks and he shoved his hands deep into his coat pockets. He hustled purposefully down the street and was nearly to Upper Wimpole before he realised the bit about needing to go to the clinic was a lie he’d invented for Mrs Hudson’s benefit, and not a real obligation. He nearly turned around, but the sudden thought of his small, Sherlock-free office was like a lifeline. He just needed to sit down for a minute. Anywhere between a minute and twelve hours, it was difficult to tell.

Thankfully, the clinic was fairly empty. John muttered something to the front desk about catching up on paperwork before shutting the door of his office and slumping into his chair.

He’d kissed Sherlock. He’d meant to hit Sherlock, and he’d kissed him instead. Last he’d checked, he was dead clear on the difference between the two. His internal wires must have gotten crossed. No, not crossed. Torched. Incinerated. Dismantled at a molecular level.

He’d been sleep-deprived, that was all. Sleep-deprived, nearly hallucinating, at the end of his proverbial rope. Or, more accurately, he’d let go the end of his rope and was freefalling through space as the rope attempted to throttle him.

He should call Ella, that would be the responsible thing to do. Yeah, hi, I need a last-minute appointment. I put my fist through the wall at Scotland Yard because I held a baby, and when my flatmate turned up half-dead I kissed him instead of punching his lights out. Thought this might be your area.

Ella would study him with an unreadable expression and write a few notes in the book she’d learned to conceal from John’s view. “Your subconscious is trying to tell you something,” she’d say. “What do you think it’s trying to say?”

“That I’m losing my fucking mind?”

A tolerant smile. “No, John.”

“I’m repressing something,” John would guess. “Isn’t that what you always say?”

“Yes, and with good reason. Why don’t you tell me what it is you might be keeping from yourself?”

The phone on his desk rang, jolting John out of Ella’s imaginary sitting room. It took John a full minute before he realised it was his direct line. Another minute passed before John remembered no one had the number to that line. Not even Sherlock, who hadn’t deemed it an interesting challenge to obtain, and preferred to harass John by visiting in person.

Only one person it could be. John picked up the phone and sighed, propping himself up on the desk with an elbow. “What do you want, Mycroft?”

“Ooh, I’m flattered,” said a familiar female voice, warm, with a soft Irish lilt. “Although I don’t really see the resemblance, but then, I’ve never seen him in a dress.”

John’s chest tightened. “Janine?”

“That’s more like it. Hello, John. I figured we were due a chat.”

Jesus Christ. John’s mouth went dry. “Yeah,” he managed. “I guess you could say that.”

“I won’t waste much of your time, don’t worry. You’ll be needing to get home and check on Sherlock, I imagine. How is he?”

“F-fine, he’s --” John blinked, then couldn’t conceal the incredulity in his voice. “Why the hell are you asking? You put him in hospital.

“I didn’t want to.” Janine sounded regretful. “But listen, John, before we get to that, there’s something I wanted to tell you, because I don’t think we’ll be talking for a long while after this.”

John’s skin crawled. Was this a threat? He glanced frantically around the empty office.

“Don’t worry,” Janine continued. “You’re not in danger. I plan to leave you alone for quite some time. Trust me on that.”

“Why should I?”

“Because Mary trusted me,” Janine said. “And I have no reason to lie to you about what I’m going to say.”

“Right.” John’s heart was still tripping in his chest. “Okay. What is it?”

Janine’s voice shifted: cool, detached. “I killed Mary,” she said calmly. “I hadn’t known she was going to expose our operation. She knew she’d be killed for it, so she came to me and asked me to do it for her. I was bloody furious, I can tell you that much. But she didn’t suffer.”

“Jesus.” John’s eyes stung at the corners. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because she loved you, John. She didn’t want to lie to you anymore, she couldn’t stand it. She’d already been forced to shoot Sherlock, and then Sherlock had to go and shoot my boss because of Mary, didn’t he? Almost got himself sent away on Mary’s account. She couldn’t bear to keep hurting the pair of you. She couldn’t see another way out.”

John swallowed against the rising lump in his throat.

“Now Sherlock’s exposed my little role in this whole affair, I thought you deserved a bit of honesty,” Janine added. “You’ve dealt with a world of lies, but what you had with Mary was real. She’d want you to know that.”

John’s voice almost didn’t work. “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything, really. I just wanted to tell you. See, since I found out Sherlock’s visits weren’t exactly... friendly, I have to disappear for a while. Inconvenient, but Sherlock never makes things easy, does he?”

John’s brain scrambled to make sense of this. “You found out he was snooping around, but you didn’t kill him,” he said bluntly. “Why --”

“You can’t help who you love,” Janine said. “Remember that, John Watson. Mary knew it. I know it all too well. You can’t bloody help who you love.”

John’s mouth fell open.

“Gotta go,” Janine said breezily. “Now I’ve said my bit. The other reason I called, though. I want you to do something for me. You and Sherlock. A little agreement on both sides. Consider Sherlock’s life an offering in good faith.” She paused. “I need you to back off. As my brother would have said.”

“Your... brother.”

“Mmm, yeah. I can’t blame Sherlock for that one. Always a loose cannon, my brother. But I’m a bit different. I like you both, I really do. It’d crush me to hurt either one of you. Best for all of us if we leave each other alone.”

“I can’t --”

“Lovely talking to you. I’ve got to run. Look, John -- I am sorry about everything. Do look after Sherlock for me. I told them not to rough him up too badly, but they might have got carried away. Next time they might not be so careful.” A pause. “Catch you later, John Watson. Take care of that detective of yours.”

* * *

The walk from Upper Wimpole to Baker Street was more like a shambling run. John reached the door of the flat winded and shaken. He locked it behind him and stood in the foyer with his back to it, breathing hard. All seemed utterly normal inside. Light glowed softly from the crack underneath Mrs Hudson’s kitchen door. No noise issued from the upstairs flat. John took the stairs two at a time, but the sitting room door was closed. He threw it open to find the flat much as he’d left it. Sherlock was sprawled on the sofa, asleep under the plaid blanket from John’s armchair.

John closed the door quietly and stepped inside, tentatively reassured by the obvious rise and fall of Sherlock’s chest under the blanket. He toed off his shoes, exhaustion tugging insistently at his limbs. Up close, Sherlock’s lips were slightly parted, his face smooth and youthful, a single crease between his brows as if his brain was still hard at work. Knowing Sherlock, it probably was.

Sherlock. God. A swell of something powerful broke loose in John’s chest. Sherlock was still here. Not dead, as he’d say. Sherlock would wake up and snipe at John to fetch him tea or a laptop, would say God-knows-what about the kiss, would want to hear everything Janine had said. Sherlock had risked everything to get him those answers, answers John wasn’t even sure he’d wanted to hear. The idiot. An idiot John was sure he didn’t remotely deserve.

John sat on the coffee table next to Sherlock and ran a tentative finger near Sherlock’s hairline, lifting up a dark curl. Sherlock didn’t stir. John put his palm briefly against Sherlock’s forehead: cool. No sign of infection. Thank God.

Sherlock’s eyes twitched at the weight of John’s hand, then flew open, soft and hazy until they snapped into focus. “John?”

John drew his hand away. “Sorry. Go back to sleep. Just checking to see if you had a fever.”

“M’fine.”

“Yeah, you are.”

Sherlock’s brow furrowed more deeply, and he shifted again, wincing. “John.”

“Paracetamol?”

Sherlock grunted, then began to sit up. “Whatever’s in that bottle there.” He waved his hand at the prescription medication on the coffee table next to John.

John handed it over. “Need water?”

Sherlock gestured at the desk. John fetched Sherlock’s half-empty glass, watching him take the medication.

“How’s your shoulder?” John ventured.

“Fine.”

“I should take a look.”

Sherlock shrugged. It was as if the last few hours hadn’t happened, a willful fogging of the past. Unless Sherlock had just taken John’s outburst as perfectly normal and was willing to let it slide. In which case John wasn’t sure how unhinged he must seem, for Sherlock to take that sort of thing as normal.

John sat down on the sofa next to Sherlock, who obediently shifted and turned away so that John could examine his back. Sherlock was wearing a thin cotton vest over his bandaged shoulder, wrinkled and faintly sweat-damp. John pushed it up and out of the way until it bunched at Sherlock’s neck, and started to gently peel the bandage back.

“Careful.”

“I just need to look at it, Sherlock.”

“It itches. It’ll heal.”

The wound underneath the bandage was a gash near the top of Sherlock’s shoulder, a slice deep into the muscle. It was stitched neatly with black sutures, almost as if it had been surgically placed like Mary’s bullet wound: a cautionary mark. Let this be a warning. We can do far worse.

So close. John had been so close to losing him again. His breath shuddered without warning and he smoothed the bandage back in place, still clean enough that it didn’t need replacing yet. Sherlock’s skin was warm, faintly freckled near his shoulders. Nasty bruises mottled most of his exposed ribcage. John splayed a hand over Sherlock’s back, unable to stop himself. He needed to feel the swell of Sherlock’s lungs under his palm.

“I’m sorry,” he managed.

Sherlock glanced back at him, but didn’t move. “What’s wrong?”

Oh. Right. John tugged Sherlock’s vest back into place, letting his hand linger on Sherlock’s back for a moment. “Nothing, you were right. It all looks fine. We can change the bandage after you shower next.”

“Good.” Sherlock settled back against the sofa, his shoulder brushing John’s, seemingly unbothered by John’s proximity. The bruises on his face were shifting in colour, yellow and green bleeding into purple on one swollen cheekbone.

“What I meant was,” John offered, after a moment, “I’m sorry about before.”

“Oh.” Sherlock’s expression was strangely soft. Maybe the painkillers.

“I hadn’t slept in over a day, and it was just. I thought you’d died.”

“Mmm,” Sherlock acknowledged.

There was something else John needed to say, something crucial, but his mind had gone blank. Instead, he let himself sink back onto the sofa next to Sherlock. The soft white noise of overload hummed in his ears: too much in a single day. A bone-deep relief settled into John’s limbs. Sherlock was not only alive, but hadn’t chucked him out on the pavement despite the wall-punching and the arguments and that inexplicable kiss. A kiss that Sherlock apparently wasn't going to mention, which, at the moment, was just fine by John.

John felt his eyelids droop. He still hadn’t had much more than a few hours of sleep, most of it in a chair in the foyer that wasn’t designed for actual sitting. He would tell Sherlock about Janine, and then maybe have a kip on the sofa.

Janine. Right. He opened his eyes to find Sherlock looking back at him with a curious, almost confused expression. John blinked. “I forgot to say,” he said, and then Sherlock leaned in as if he couldn’t hear, as if John’s words were whispers. “Janine called --”

Sherlock muffled the rest of John’s sentence with a kiss. It was soft and chaste for half a breath, and then Sherlock’s mouth opened against John’s still-parted lips and triggered jolt after jolt of numb, electric shock.

Nothing seemed to process. This must be a hallucination. Sherlock cupped a hand against John’s cheek, and John shivered so hard his vision went black.

Suddenly Sherlock pulled back. His pupils were huge and dark, boring into John’s. “Janine called,” he repeated, his voice so low and husky John shivered again.

John nodded blankly.

“When?” Sherlock demanded, still short of breath. “How? What did she say?”

John tried to stop reeling and surrendered to utter confusion instead. He sat up straighter on the sofa and gestured between them. “What -- what are we doing?”

Sherlock growled in frustration. “Why didn’t you tell me as soon as you walked in?”

John sputtered, incredulous. “She just -- I went to my office, she called my line -- why is this important right now? Jesus Christ.”

Sherlock shot up from his seat and swayed precariously, all injuries forgotten, and flung a hand toward the door. “My God, John, I’ve just spent months. Months. Only to have everything compromised. You need to tell me what she said.”

John stood up, panic singing in every nerve. “Are you trying to make me insane? You can’t just --” John flailed a gesture. “Do that. And then.”

Sherlock scoffed. “But you can, apparently.”

They stared at each other. John’s pounding heart felt like it might shatter his ribcage.

“Janine killed Mary, but Mary asked her to do it. She wants us to leave her alone,” John said.

“Leave her alone?”

“I believe her exact words were ‘back off.’” John’s heart wouldn’t stop pounding. “And -- Christ. Christ, Sherlock, you’re not going to believe this. I might have got it wrong, but I think -- I think Moriarty might have been her brother.”

“That much I knew.”

“You knew.” John threw up his hands. “Oh my God. Wait, of course you knew. What am I saying?”

“I was going to tell you.”

John's voice hit a note he hadn't made since age twelve. “Oh, of course.”

“I haven’t exactly had time.”

John's head was spinning. Room also possibly spinning. “Look,” he began, but Sherlock held up a hand.

“You’re going to sit down,” Sherlock said, eyes bleary, scanning John from head to foot. “You’re going to tell me what she said, and then you’re going to get some sleep.”

John goggled at him. “You’re actually telling me to get some sleep. You.”

“Yes.”

“I’m not the one who just got beaten to a pulp.”

“You’re obviously exhausted, or you wouldn’t have taken so long to mention a critical fact.”

“I was distracted!”

“No one could be that distracted.”

“So help me, if I get some sleep and you -- you leave, if you tear off somewhere with your bruised ribs and bloody bandages, I’ll kill you myself, swear to God.”

Their eyes met, and John was suddenly aware of their slumped shoulders, their weary, wrecked posture. Their scabbed knuckles. The bandage Sherlock had wrapped around John’s finger that John hadn’t yet bothered to remove.

“I won’t leave,” Sherlock said.

John swallowed. “Promise,” he said, wondering why his voice chose to crack on the word.

Sherlock nodded, warmth lighting his red-rimmed eyes. “Promise.”

John slumped back onto the sofa and patted the space next to him. Their walls were shot, crumbling, but it no longer seemed to matter. Might as well clear a spot in the rubble and settle in amidst the debris.

Sherlock sat down with his customary lack of regard for John’s personal space, but this time John was just as heedless. His shoulders slid toward Sherlock as the sofa dipped with Sherlock’s weight, and John didn’t bother to move over.

“She called your office phone,” Sherlock said, leaning back into the cushions and propping his feet on the coffee table.

“Honestly, it wasn’t a long chat.”

John closed his eyes and began to ramble, Janine’s phone conversation spilling out in half-sentences amidst Sherlock’s hums and interruptions. The space between them dwindled, countless points of contact blurred into reassuring warmth. John spoke until he slept, and Sherlock stayed.

* * *

John woke on the sofa, feet tangled in Sherlock’s, feeling as if he’d never really slept before. As if all prior sleep in his life had just been a warm-up for the actual sleep he’d just experienced.

Sherlock lay opposite him, head propped on a pillow at the far end of the sofa, still dead to the world. They’d stayed the night here when two perfectly serviceable beds were steps away.

Shifting carefully, John worked the stiffness from his shoulder and then stood, padding to the bathroom to tend to his usual morning needs. John wasn’t sure what time they’d fallen asleep, but it seemed his inner clock had finally decided to right itself.

After the noises associated with tea and toast failed to wake Sherlock, John examined the contents of the fridge. He put on his shoes and left a note -- Back soon, gone to Tesco -- and soon found himself wandering the aisles of the market looking for chicken broth and onions. The usual array of items presented itself: pasta, tinned tomatoes, lentils. He’d make soup and force Sherlock to eat it, and then maybe a baked potato or a bit of mash --

The cheery packages of breakfast cereal across the aisle suddenly seemed too bright. John blinked, half-full basket in the crook of his arm, and put a hand on a shelf to steady himself next to the boxes of Weetabix and Cheerios.

He had kissed Sherlock, and Sherlock had kissed him back.

God knows he hadn’t thought about kissing anyone since Mary. And God knows he'd never factored Sherlock into that sort of equation, ever. What kind of insane stress reaction must he be having? Had he come entirely unhinged, or was he still hanging on by a few loose screws? 

A few loose screws. Is that where he was heading with Sherlock? 

Jesus. They were going to cart him out of Tesco in a straitjacket.

All right, he was going to think about this rationally. What would Ella say? How did you feel about it, John?

Well, how did it fucking feel to kiss Sherlock? Due to the ground-zero apocalypse that had melted John’s mind at the time, John hadn’t managed much in the way of analysis. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that Sherlock was male, or his best friend, or that he was, well, Sherlock.

It was stress. That’s all it was, plain and simple. They had both been under a tremendous amount of stress and it was a side effect, a freakish anomaly. Like a twitching eyelid due to sleep deprivation.

Except, no. This was a little bit more than a twitch.

John loved Sherlock. That had always been true, it had been true from the first moment they’d spoken. It was a known fact in John’s bones: there was no one in John’s life he’d ever loved like he loved Sherlock. He’d loved Mary, still loved Mary, but it was a wondering, evolving love, the kind of love that turned corners and happened upon him unexpectedly. Mary was a mystery, and John loved mysteries. It had been an endless surprise when she’d loved him back, a gift John perpetually opened.

Sherlock -- he knew Sherlock. He understood Sherlock. And Sherlock understood him like no one else in the world ever would. It wasn’t that Sherlock couldn’t surprise him -- no, Sherlock surprised him constantly. But they fit together. They could fight, they could rail at each other until John slammed the door and stormed a well-worn route to Regents Park until his blood pressure returned to normal. Sherlock had done unforgivable things. It didn’t matter; none of it mattered. They were better with each other than without, and each of them knew it.

But that was friendship, wasn’t it? It was a friendship forged in foggy city streets, out of blood and powder burns. It wasn’t the kind of thing that led to flowers and weddings and children. It was the kind of bond you had with your fellow soldier if you dragged each other from the wreck of a burning building. It was the kind of love born of saving each other so many times they’d lost count.

Wasn’t it?

John had always thought of Sherlock’s beauty as a plain fact: The sun came up in the morning, Sherlock Holmes was a beautiful man. Certainly everyone in the world thought Sherlock was beautiful, or at least John couldn’t imagine how someone might think otherwise. Objectively, Sherlock was like some rare piece of art loosed from a museum and allowed to run about in tailored suits. If John had ever imagined teasing his tongue along the sharp line of Sherlock’s jaw, if he’d ever thought about tasting the nape of Sherlock’s neck, he couldn’t be blamed. Anyone would have thoughts like that. Especially if they’d lived with Sherlock as long as John had, especially if they’d watched Sherlock undress, or sat shoulder to shoulder with him in a cramped closet for three hours on a stakeout. Especially then.

God. John swallowed and stepped back from the shelves, his hand clenching. A man in an ill-fitting brown coat brushed past him with a bottle of soda, then stopped and gave him a second look. “All right, mate?”

“Yeah, um -- yep,” John managed, picking a box at random from the shelves. “Just couldn’t find the, uh. Cheerios.”

“Those are Corn Flakes,” the man said warily.

“Hmm. Ah. That must be the problem.”

The brown-coated man’s expression veered into distinct uneasiness. He wasted no time pretending to have urgent business in the next aisle.

John made it to the checkout counter without disturbing any additional customers and tried very hard not to think about what it had felt like to have Sherlock’s tongue tease his mouth open.

* * *

When John got home, he found Mycroft holding court in his armchair. Sherlock was sitting up on the sofa, actively sulking in Mycroft’s direction, and acknowledged John with a lift of one eyebrow. John deposited the bags on the kitchen counter and nodded tersely at Mycroft, who gave him a customary sweep from haircut to shoes in return. John resolutely ignored the visual scan and set about unloading the groceries, trying to reassure himself that Mycroft Holmes did not have the power to read his mind.

“As I was saying, I’m fine,” Sherlock growled, pulling a blanket around himself. “I’ll be taking cases by next week at the latest. I don’t need a watchdog.”

“Well, no, why would you? You’ve got John for that.”

“You know what I mean. Your constant surveillance is not required.”

Sherlock bit out the words constant surveillance as if underlining them in red ink.

“Corn Flakes, John?” Mycroft said, with a note of dry amusement.

“Don’t think I’m not still bloody pissed off at you, Mycroft,” John said, shoving the cereal box onto an empty shelf. “Reminding us that Big Brother is watching? Really not helping your case.”

“I was merely suggesting to Sherlock that you both allow me to take a larger role in your security for the time being, given that our plan has been... compromised.”

“You’ve never asked for express permission to spy on this flat before,” Sherlock said. “Why start now?”

Mycroft smiled sourly. “Consider it an attempt to make my actions more... transparent.” He gave John an almost rueful expression. “As requested.”

John blinked. “Well. This is a shocking turn of events.”

Sherlock looked incredulous. “Are you attempting to apologise, Mycroft? Really not your area.”

“Most people go for a bottle of wine,” John said. “Although I’ll admit, ‘I’d like to spy on you with your permission’ does have a certain sense of drama.”

“My point,” Sherlock interrupted, “is that we’re not in any danger. I believe what Janine told John.”

John stared. “You do?”

Sherlock ignored him. “I’ve fought this war for years, Mycroft. Things have changed. This network needs to be watched, but I don’t think they’re a threat at the moment. They don’t exist to do good, but if Janine has any say, they’ll refrain from doing serious harm. She doesn’t want to keep us as enemies.”

Mycroft’s eyebrows climbed. “You can’t be serious, Sherlock.”

“Our investigation may have been compromised, but we’ve dealt them a crippling blow.” Sherlock settled back against a cushion. “Well, Mary did.”

“Months undercover for this particular cause, and now you’re suggesting we adopt a ‘live and let live’ policy? You’re talking about a network of spies and criminals. Moriarty, Sherlock. These are Moriarty’s people.”

Were Moriarty’s people,” Sherlock corrected. “And Mary’s shown us that they do exist, but I’ve seen firsthand that her exposure has nearly undone them. Moriarty is dead. We now know Janine has no plans to wreak significant havoc.”

“Sherlock,” Mycroft said calmly, “you’re talking about people who beat you nearly to death less than forty-eight hours ago.”

“And I believe they would have killed me if they’d been ordered to. Look at my injuries, Mycroft. Look.” Sherlock sat up straighter and peeled up his shirt. “This is a message, not a beating.”

“It’s a threat that they could do much worse, if I’m not mistaken.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes and pulled his shirt down again. “Of course it is. But they didn’t. Janine doesn’t want us dead, but she had to send a message nonetheless. And now we walk away.”

John stood stock-still in the kitchen, trying to absorb this. Mycroft opened his mouth and then closed it. “You can’t just --” he began.

“I can,” Sherlock said. “We can. Some of us need to get on with our lives, Mycroft. We’ve been chasing ghosts for far too long. I’m not saying the network shouldn’t be investigated. I’m just not going to be the one to investigate it anymore. I trust the Secret Service can take it from here.”

Mycroft stood up, collecting his umbrella from where it had been propped against the armchair. He gave a long sigh, somehow both exasperated and uncertain. “Quite so.”

The tilt of Mycroft’s shoulders spoke of worry, years of it, and John felt a sudden, surprising pang of sympathy. He knew what it was like to worry about Sherlock. He was something of an expert on the subject.

“I appreciate your telling us about the -- security,” John said. “We won’t be needing it, but thanks.”

Mycroft turned, and his mouth formed the idea of a smile. “Of course, John. I hope you understand my motivations.”

“I do, yeah.”

Mycroft nodded, umbrella in hand, and looked John in the eye. “I will keep you apprised of any developments.”

“That would be nice,” John said, and realised he genuinely meant it.

Mycroft raised an eyebrow, looking mildly surprised to be on the receiving end of John’s approval.

“Yes, yes. Go, while you’re actually behaving like a human being,” Sherlock said. “We’ll want to remember this moment.”

“Oh, I’m sure you will,” Mycroft said, his eyes lingering on the Corn Flakes box before he disappeared into the stairwell.

* * *

They were going to talk about it, certainly, but Sherlock’s phone rang. And then John’s, something about the paperwork for his taxes. By the time all distractions had been summarily dealt with, it was past suppertime, and John abandoned hope of making soup and phoned for curry. He'd underestimated Sherlock's ability not to talk about things, and in truth, John's own skill at avoidance was similar. It seemed they were well on their way to creating the largest elephant in the history of rooms.

They watched each other over hot plates of Tikka Masala and rice, Antiques Roadshow droning in the background. At least, John knew he was being watched, and he couldn’t help studying Sherlock in return. 

“Stolen,” Sherlock remarked, setting his mostly-empty plate on the coffee table. “That vase. Did you see the way the old woman licks her lips whenever she has to mention it?”

John watched a frail lady in a purple hat wave her hands as she gestured at the vase next to her. The interviewer asked another question, and sure enough, the lady’s tongue darted out just before she opened her mouth to answer.

“Yeah, um. Sherlock.”

Sherlock glanced at him.

John set down his plate. “I wanted to say, um. A lot’s happened in the past couple of days.”

“True.”

“Is there anything -- well.” John had no idea what to say. We need to talk about this really weird day we're having. Bit of an understatement. Er, sorry, are you going to kiss me again? Could you kindly explain to me how I'm feeling about it? I think my brain might actually be imploding.

What came out instead: “You gave up the case. Moriarty, and Janine. And Mary.”

“Yes.”

“Care to elaborate?”

“Not really.”

This was futile. “All right, then.” John cleared his throat. “Anything... else?”

“No.”

"Okay." Christ, say something. Anything.  "Um, well. I just hope nothing... changes."

Sherlock gave him a look of mild annoyance. “Why would anything change?”

John opened his mouth, then closed it, processing. He swallowed, tilted his head, and considered again. “No reason.”

They sat in silence as the interviewer pointed out all the reasons why the old woman’s vase was worth thousands of pounds. The old woman beamed at him, pink lipstick smudged along her bottom lip.

* * *

 

Chapter Text

The kiss was. It was.

Sherlock had been wrong plenty of times. He’d jumped to conclusions, gambled his life, risked everything and lost. But he couldn’t remember when he’d so completely missed an underlying motive, a subconscious thread woven so closely to the pattern of his life that he’d never even seen it.

It wasn’t even that he hadn’t seen the kiss coming. He hadn’t conceived of the kiss as a possibility. Kisses existed as a means to an end, a curious taste of sensation. At best, they were a tool for diagnosis, a minute analysis of pressure, action, reaction. They did not exist in the same universe as John Watson, except that now they did.

To complicate matters, this kiss had been so unexpected that it had taken most of Sherlock’s central processing faculties offline. His memory of it was useless, a glorious bright flare.

John had been furious, incandescent, and then: it was. They were.

Sherlock tried the courtroom, paced through hallways of polished wood. Mycroft was the last person he wanted to see, Anderson second on the list. Molly. Perhaps Molly. But no, after a few minutes her sentiment threatened to bleed into his logic and he dismissed her into blank white space. His mind was simply not equipped to deconstruct this event.

John couldn’t be in here with him, that much was evident. Sherlock paced the hallway again before deciding that its doorways were too familiar, too cluttered. The hall faded around him: he needed to go deeper. He sat for a few solitary minutes in the stairwell before realising it was that stairwell, the stairwell in Brixton. John had effectively redesigned the architecture of Sherlock’s mind. There was no way to get enough distance when even the most private rooms bore John’s signature.

The only facts, as Sherlock knew them, were these: The kiss had not been premeditated. John seemed as shocked as Sherlock. John was sexually experienced; he valued romance and believed in relationships. It would seem that any kiss he initiated would therefore be deliberate, but apparently this was an exception.

Possibility: A stress-induced mistake, an overload of emotion. This would line up with John’s recent reaction to the Sussex infant, although that had been a delayed outburst. In this case, John could easily have punched Sherlock instead -- and it seemed he had been headed in that direction. Sherlock hadn’t bothered to curb John’s rage, thinking that John would be better off throwing a punch than driving his fist through a wall at some later point. What was one more punch when Sherlock had just taken dozens? He’d already been well buffered with pain medication, and more than that, he deserved it. But the punch never arrived.

Possibility: An expression of latent, repressed feeling. An indication that John’s affection blurred into a different kind of love. Whether John was conscious of it or not remained to be seen.

Sherlock didn’t know how he felt about that possibility. He felt something. He was very nearly drowning in the something that he felt.

Only one way to test these possibilities: repeat the event. Nothing would be lost; the introduction of a kiss between them had already rearranged Sherlock’s concept of kissing in general. If Sherlock initiated a second kiss, he could gauge John’s reaction with the additional advantage of control over the situation.

Control slipped away. He remembered the heady, familiar scent of John’s scalp, his short dark lashes and darker eyes, the perfect rough map of his cheek under the pads of Sherlock’s fingers. And one word echoing, jolting Sherlock out of utter sensory overload: Janine.

Useless. Apparently he was incapable of kissing John and gathering data in the process. The mention of Janine had shattered Sherlock’s control, although it seemed he’d lost it even before then.

Sherlock walked back up the stairs and into the hall. Bright sunlight washed out the space, flaring in each open doorway. Mary was waiting for him in her red coat, leaning against the wood-panelled wall.

“Really?” he asked, incredulous.

“Oh, yes.” She crossed her arms and gave him a fond, cat-like smile. “You’re looking for someone who knows John Watson’s heart, aren’t you?”

“For someone who knew his heart, you broke it quite effectively.”

“Pot, kettle.”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Sorry?”

“Sherlock. You can’t have been blind this entire time?”

“Let’s pretend, for the moment, that I have been.”

Mary tilted her head. “You’re in love with him.”

Sherlock blinked at her. The sunny hallway seemed far too bright. “What?”

Mary’s eyes widened. “God, you really don’t know, do you? You really haven’t a clue.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It was obvious to me.” Mary sighed. “I wasn’t aware you were quite so oblivious, though.”

“Oh, for God’s sake. You can’t possibly be serious.”

“Perfectly serious.”

“‘In love.’” Sherlock scoffed. “What does that even mean? I don’t ‘fall in love.’ That’s ridiculous.”

“You can use whatever term you like. I’m just telling you what I’ve seen.”

“You haven’t seen anything. There was nothing to see.”

“Oh, bollocks,” Mary rejoindered. “In my line of work, it pays to be perceptive. A little something we have in common, I believe.”

“Then how could I not have noticed?”

“You have noticed.” Mary wrinkled her nose at him. “It just took you a while.”

Sherlock stood stock-still in the sunlight. Panic gripped him, unwelcome and sharp.“What am I supposed to do with this information?”

“What do you want to do with it?”

“I don’t know.”

Mary gave a small smile. “Everything leaves a trace, Sherlock. Even if you can’t see it. I could always tell.”

A long pause. “He loves you,” Sherlock said.

“Yes.”

“Why did you go, then?”

“Because I loved him, Sherlock. I loved him enough that I didn’t want to see him hurt. There was only one way out of it. You’d have done the same.” She stepped away, into the shadow of a doorway. “I believe you did.”

* * *

“We still haven’t talked about it,” John said.

The real Ella shifted in her chair and wrote something in her real notebook. John had decided it was high time to stop having conversations with an imaginary version of his shrink and go sit in her actual office.

“Has that been a problem?”

John considered. Two days had passed since Sherlock’s disappearance and subsequent hospital visit. Since then, they’d changed Sherlock’s bandages, read every daily newspaper in London, played one aborted game of chess, and frightened two passers-by when Sherlock tossed a non-toxic orange substance out the window. In essence, life had largely returned to normal. “I don’t think so,” he said.

“You say he quit his investigation. The one he’d kept secret from you.”

“Yes.”

“Do you think he understands how he upset you?”

“Yeah, I -- I think he does, actually.” John gave a small smile. “We’ll see if it sticks.”

Ella nodded, jotting another note. “This is a very important relationship for you.”

“Yeah, I suppose -- yeah.” John swallowed. “The most important.”

“Relationships change over time, John.”

“That’s true. That’s true, yes.”

Ella watched him, allowing silence to fill the room.

“I’m not gay,” John offered, without thinking. Because the conversation seemed to be shifting in that direction, because somehow he needed to be reminded of it.

“You say that fairly often when we talk about Sherlock.”

“Do I?”

“Let’s change the subject for a moment,” Ella said. “I want you to think about Mary.”

“Right.” John blew out a breath. “Fine, okay.”

“I notice you’re not wearing your wedding ring. Was that a deliberate choice?”

John blinked, suddenly feeling the absence of its weight for the first time. He opened his left hand and turned it over, palm up. The wound Sherlock stitched for him had healed into a thin, red line at the base of his ring finger, looking as if it would fade into a neat white scar. He remembered removing the sutures with tweezers, remembered thinking of his ring then, but he’d decided not to wear it to speed the healing. He hadn’t thought of it since. Likely it was still on the shelf in their bathroom. John raised his eyebrows, surprised he’d forgotten it so completely. “No. No, I -- when I cut my finger, I had to take it off.”

Ella nodded slowly. “I see,” she said, and made another note. “It’s almost Christmas.”

“Mmm. Yes.”

“Do you have any plans?”

“No. That is, not yet.”

Ella gave him a look that meant he was withholding something. She was correct, as usual. “I take it you’re unsure of these plans.”

John sighed. “Sherlock’s mum called this morning to invite us back for Christmas Day. I haven’t decided yet.”

“Would Sherlock go without you?”

“I don’t think so, no.”

“Last year you went with Mary.”

John nodded.

“And how do you feel about that?”

John’s temper flared before he could stop it. “How do I feel about that? That’s your favourite question, isn’t it? How do you think I feel? I had Christmas with my wife last year, and then she died. Still dead, last I checked.”

Ella sighed. “John, you need to allow yourself to have these feelings.”

John gathered the feeble scraps of his composure and exhaled. “Sorry. I don’t know why -- I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine.” Ella put down her pen and folded her hands.

John closed his eyes and took a breath. Without opening them, he began again. “Angry. I feel angry. She took so much from me. So much. And --” He paused, his breath somehow getting away from him. “Afraid,” he added, opening his eyes. “I’m afraid I’ll never stop being angry. I’m not supposed to be angry at her anymore. Not after this long.”

“You seem to have certain ideas about how you should feel. Why is that?”

“She was my wife. I loved her.”

“Yes.” Ella paused. “Naming things is important to you, isn’t it, John? Having a name for something. Mary was your wife. Sherlock is your best friend.” Another pause. “Sometimes people don’t fit into the neat little boxes we give them.”

* * *

John lingered in the park after his appointment, shaken and hollow. When he finally made it back to Baker Street after an aimless cup of coffee, Sherlock hadn’t moved. He was still stretched out on the sofa, fingertips together over his lips: mind palace.

“Got something for us?”

Sherlock’s eyes opened. His bruises were fading rapidly, but one cheekbone was still tinged with yellow. “Hmm?”

“A case. What is it?”

“No case.” Sherlock stretched, rolling his shoulder.

“Oh. Okay.”

Sherlock’s phone chimed, its screen lighting up on the coffee table. “Want me to get that for you?”

Sherlock sat up and reached for it. “No, it’s fine.” He rolled his eyes at the screen. “Just my mother.”

“She wants to know if we’re coming.”

“Yes. She did extend the invitation all of three hours ago. But apparently that’s an interminable amount of time to wait for an answer.”

John smirked. “Is that where you get it, then?”

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, but he gave a half-smile nonetheless. “My father is the patient one.”

“Well, he’d have to be.”

Sherlock thumbed through a few screens on his phone. “I’ll tell her we’re staying here.”

Voices echoed in John’s mind: Mary, Mycroft. All of them sitting at the Holmes dining table in a perfect tableau of normality, passing the trifle as if nobody ran the British government or worked for a criminal mastermind. The metallic, sweet taste in his mouth as he stood looking at Mary, rehearsing what he was going to say. Preparing to take her back. Probably best not to relive that, to return to the scene of the crime -- ironic as it was, considering he usually ran toward crime scenes.

But then, Sherlock’s parents. Flying in from overseas just to put a hand on John’s shoulder at the funeral. Showing up when his own sister -- who’d been invited, of course -- hadn’t bothered to come.

“No, hang on,” John said. “Are you sure?”

Sherlock gave him an incredulous look. “You want to go.”

“I -- I don’t know.” John settled into his armchair. “It’s probably a terrible idea, isn’t it?”

“I’d assumed you’d think so.”

John raised his eyebrows. “Well. At any rate, it’s brave of your mother to invite us back after you drugged her last year.”

“I don’t know if ‘brave’ is the word. Unfortunately this sort of thing is fairly typical for our family gatherings.”

John chuckled. “I should’ve known.”

“Still,” Sherlock said. “Don’t feel you have to come on my mother’s account. She could part the waters of the English Channel by force of guilt alone.”

“For the record, I like your mum. And your dad.”

“That doesn’t mean you have to make your own life difficult.”

John blinked at him. He wasn’t sure how they’d gotten to this place, Sherlock actually worrying over John’s state of mind, and doing a fair job of it, besides. “Thanks,” he said. “Really.”

Sherlock’s brow furrowed. “Why?”

“That was good.”

Sherlock smiled, flushing slightly. “Ah.”

“I think, though,” John said, making up his mind as he spoke, “I would like to go see your parents for Christmas. If it’s all right with you, of course.”

It was Sherlock’s turn to blink at him. “You’re sure.”

“It’s your parents’ house,” John said, unsure if he’d be able to adequately explain. He didn’t quite understand it himself. “I can’t let your parents’ house be ruined by what’s happened. I don’t want to run away from it, it would feel like -- it would feel like they won. Um. Not your parents, I mean... Magnussen. Moriarty.” John trailed off. “God, that probably doesn’t make any sense.”

Sherlock fell silent, then slid a thumb over his phone’s screen once more. “No, I think it does.”

* * *

When their car pulled up in front of the cottage, John almost had the driver turn around. The reddish stone house was just as it had been last year, unchanged in the way that only very old, very English things can remain unchanged. Small windows, not nearly enough of them, arranged in a style that was halfway between charming and odd. Wrought-iron gate, stone walls. A wreath hung on the heavy wooden door, which swung open. Sherlock’s mother waved at them from within.

John felt Sherlock’s eyes on him as the car ground to a halt. “You’re sure about this.”

“It’s just Christmas,” John said, feeling a stoic, military resolve settle into his gut. He arranged his face in a smile and got out of the car, Sherlock hovering behind him.

Mrs Holmes wasted no time in ushering them inside and offering tea and biscuits, and after that John forgot about maintaining a cheerful facade, because it didn’t require much effort. Mr Holmes endeared himself to John even further by pressing a strong drink into his hands without John even asking. “Happy Christmas,” he said. “We’re quite pleased you’ve come, Mum didn’t think you would.”

“I didn’t think she’d want us,” John said, taking a grateful sip of Scotch on the rocks.

“You’re always welcome,” Sherlock’s father said. “We know Sherlock doesn’t care for holidays. We didn’t bother asking for years.”

John glanced around at the cottage, decorated in fairy lights, a small tree in the corner of the sitting room. “Yeah, he’s not one for merriment, usually. We did have a couple of Christmases at our flat, but that was mostly me, I think.”

“Well. Here’s to good influences.” Mr Holmes raised his own glass to John’s, his eyes crinkling just like Sherlock’s did.

Sherlock kept to the corners of the cottage, lurking in chairs that had once obviously been his preferred spots to escape from noise and activity. Mrs Holmes bustled about, reminding John of the way his own mother pulled steaming dishes from the oven as he and Harry roamed underfoot. John watched her from the doorway of the kitchen as she set timers and tested the roast with unexpected purpose and precision. He cleared his throat. “Anything I can help with?”

Mrs Holmes looked up, surprised. “No, no. It’s all fine. Thank you, dear.”

John nodded. “No Mycroft, then?”

“Oh dear, no.” Sherlock’s mother laughed. “Last year was quite enough for him. That’ll be the only time we see him for Christmas for at least a decade. Unless Sherlock goes and gets himself shot again.”

“Well, we’ll try to avoid that, if at all possible.”

“I’m sure you will,” Mrs Holmes said, with the air of someone reassuring a six-year-old that someday they would be Prime Minister. “Now, the Yorkshire puddings should be done in a few minutes, and then we’ll eat. I asked Sherlock what you liked and he said your family had always done a roast as well.”

“Oh, um.” John felt silly for his amazement that Sherlock should have known this without asking. “Yeah, that’s right. We stopped doing proper Christmas when I was quite young, though. After my dad died.”

“Yes, Sherlock mentioned. I’m so sorry.”

It was a genuine apology, one so full and bittersweet that John felt sure it was meant to cover a good deal more than just his father’s death. “Thanks. It’s fine. I was only ten when it happened.”

“Well. Christmas can be such a -- difficult time, for some of us.”

The timer on the oven trilled and both of them jumped. “Oh, that’ll be the puds.” She shooed him out of the kitchen. “Go and tell the others we’ll be eating in five minutes. Sherlock has a knack for disappearing at mealtimes.”

The grey winter light was dying outside the cottage’s small windows by the time they pushed back their chairs, full to the brim with roast and pudding. Mr Holmes stood and shuffled to the fireplace to toss another log onto the wilting flames. After the table had been cleared, Sherlock’s mother lingered in the sitting room, admiring her new scarf.

“It really is lovely. Thank you, boys.”

John had brought wine; the scarf was Sherlock’s doing. “It’s from --” John began, but Sherlock interrupted him. “You’re welcome.”

Sherlock’s mother gave Sherlock an unreadable look, then bent next to his corner armchair to kiss him. “Happy Christmas, love. I think I’ll turn in early. Don’t stay up too late.”

John’s mouth twisted at the thought of anyone daring to tell Sherlock when and how to sleep. “It was delicious, Mrs Holmes. Thanks again.”

“You sleep well, now, John.”

As soon as she’d gone, Sherlock stood up and vanished into the yard. “Will just be a moment.”

John watched the fire dwindle as light faded from the room. Mr Holmes, next to him in an armchair, leafed through his new book on military history (Sherlock, again) and sipped at his cooling tea. As darkness crept in, the room looked less and less like the one he’d visited with Mary. He’d had moments this afternoon when he’d expected her to step through a door, or push back a chair, but it hadn’t been as bad as he’d feared. It wasn’t Mary’s house, after all. It felt odd to be seeing the place again without the chill of cold nerves that had gripped him last year.

Sherlock’s father began to doze in his seat. His drowsiness was contagious, and John felt himself drifting off as well before Mr Holmes sat up. “Sorry. Don’t mean to be asleep so soon.”

“Quite all right,” John said. “Plenty of supper and a good fire, that’ll do it.” He sat up straighter in his chair. “Your wife’s an amazing cook.”

“Yes, well. That’s Myra for you. Brilliant at anything she decides to take up.” He sighed. “She always needs an outlet, you know. It’s been cooking, line dancing, genealogy, knitting, bird-watching, cribbage. Never play her at cards, by the way.”

“Noted.” John smiled. “Sounds familiar.”

Mr Holmes’ brow furrowed. “Sherlock’s taken up knitting?”

John laughed. “God, no. Just -- he’s brilliant at whatever interests him. A bit unfair, if you ask me.”

“Isn’t it? God help us ordinary mortals who have to compare ourselves to these people.”

“Well, thankfully it hasn’t come to knitting yet,” John added. “Our flat would be terrifying. Although it would probably improve the smell.”

Sherlock’s father chuckled. “I’ll not say anything about that.”

John laughed, contentment settling unexpectedly over him like a blanket. And then, a jolt of guilt. It took him a moment before he realised that some deep part of him felt he should have been thinking of Mary. He couldn’t possibly have a pleasant Christmas, not after what had happened.

He should be thinking of Mary. He did think of her, all the bloody time. He was just -- tired. Tired of feeling haunted, of having this albatross of a trauma on his shoulders every minute of the day.

The click of a door opening. “John?”

Mr Holmes smiled sleepily and pushed himself up from his chair. “Go and get Sherlock out of the cold, won’t you? Time for me to turn in, I think.”

* * *

John followed Sherlock’s summons, opening the back door to find him standing against a newly dark sky, coat collar turned up against the cold. John put on his own coat and walked out to stand beside him, expecting to see the glow of a cigarette, a tell-tale swirl of smoke, but there was none.

Sherlock didn’t bother glancing at John, just inclined his head toward the far end of the garden. John nodded, and the two of them set off down a stone path that ended at a wrought-iron gate. Sherlock opened it, and they walked out into the grassy, rolling fields surrounding the cottage. Tiny lights from the neighbouring houses glinted in pockets of shadow. Recent drizzle had cleared the air, and a cold wind pushed away the last of the rainclouds like the opening of a curtain. The clear patches of sky above them glowed deep blue, flecked with more stars than John had seen in years.

“I used to bring my dog out to this field,” Sherlock said, sliding his hands into his pockets. “He loved chasing birds.”

“You had a dog?”

“Yes.” Sherlock’s eyes scanned the distant ridgeline. “My only friend, as a child.”

“Mmm.” John nudged Sherlock’s arm with his shoulder. “Am I standing in for your dog, then?”

A deep chuckle. “Maybe.”

They stood watching the clouds scatter, drifting and fading into the deep vault of stars. Sherlock shifted next to him. “I wanted to bring you out here last year, but there were... other priorities.”

“You wanted to bring me here?”

“Yes, I -- I thought you might like it.”

John smiled to himself and looked up. “Astronomy, eh?”

Sherlock’s voice was warm with amusement. “Precisely.”

The breeze whipped between them, and they both edged closer. Sherlock’s coat lapped at John’s legs, and John wondered what they must look like, standing against the sky. Two madmen out in a field on Christmas Day.

“You didn’t like it, growing up here,” John guessed. “You wanted to be somewhere else.”

Sherlock nodded. “Too quiet. I craved the city from the first moment I could remember. I needed to study people. I couldn’t do it here.” He glanced up at the sky. “This view was the only thing I did like.”

“And yet you never bothered to learn about it?”

“I was always aware of it. I just never thought about what it meant.”

Something washed through John, a chill, a flood. He shivered, and the stars rearranged themselves: a pattern, a constellation he nearly understood. The way his whole heart felt like it was holding too much, like he might split open. The way he’d always felt when he was with Sherlock. He’d just never thought about what it meant.

He shut his eyes. “I think I know what you mean.”

The wind slipped behind John’s collar, over the tips of his ears. He rubbed his hands together and felt nothing but Sherlock next to him.

A hand settled onto his shoulder, and John opened his eyes. Sherlock was watching him, eyes reflecting the sky’s mottled light. “Cold?”

Here it was, suddenly: the moment they’d never had, the moment they’d entirely skipped when they’d crashed backward into kissing each other. John’s heart rattled and shook. Jesus, they’d had moments like this before. It felt like they’d had a lifetime of these moments without ever understanding why.

John’s mouth went dry. He couldn’t help a faint smile. “A bit,” he said, identifying an impulse: he wanted to reach for Sherlock. Here was the deepest attraction he’d ever felt, and he’d never come close to recognising it for what it was. John was sure it was written all over his face. Who knew how long it had been there?

Always. Fucking hell, he’d probably always looked at Sherlock like this.

Sherlock must have seen it. 

Sherlock had kissed  John, but since then, hadn't said a word about it. He'd been deliberately avoiding the topic. Had it been an experiment? An acknowledgement of feelings that Sherlock ultimately couldn’t pursue? 

John tried to ignore the sickening swoop of nausea in his gut. He had no idea how Sherlock felt.

He licked his lips, then looped an arm around Sherlock and patted his back. This was all too much. No need to step over the edge of this staggering discovery.

“You and your bloody coat,” John said in a shaky voice. “I need to invest in a better one.”

* * *

They bid farewell to his parents and ducked into the waiting car as their feet crunched on the damp gravel of the driveway. His mother had embraced him rather more tightly than usual, misguided concern that did nothing but set his teeth on edge.

John was quiet next to him, watching distant country houses blur into smudges of stone as the car accelerated. Something had happened last night. Maybe it had been too much, bringing John here. A mistake. But John had insisted, and --

Damn it. Sherlock would not think about John’s eyes, would not think about the field. He wouldn’t think about what he’d seen, John’s face open, broad like the sun.

Sherlock had never been good at denying himself, would always reach for something forbidden. An addict to the core. He needed to keep his distance. Remember Mary, and what John had just been through. Remember that he’d damaged John and couldn’t be trusted not to do it again.

He knew these things to be right, and yet the reality of John, breathing steadily next to him, erased it all.

* * *

Chapter Text

Sometimes I don’t talk for days on end. Would that bother you?

Sherlock folded his thoughts into silence. John watched him, waiting, as he always did. The crease between John’s brows deepened, a dark line marking the time. John was used to this. Sherlock could pull back, spin his mind around the smallest of atoms, breathe only smoke. John would be there, seated in his chair. John could be held at arm’s length. Sherlock would hold him there.

* * *

Ella never reacted. For a therapist, this was a desirable trait. John could tell her he was quitting his job to sell cocaine in South America and she'd likely nod, make a note, and ask how he felt about it. Which was why her momentary flicker of wide-eyed surprise nearly knocked John off his chair.

“This is a big revelation,” she said, regaining her composure. But John had seen her mask drop, just for a moment.

He cleared his throat and remembered to answer.  “Hmm. Yes. You could say that, yeah.”

“How do you think he feels?”

Maybe it hadn’t been the wisest idea to go to Ella’s after all. What was that old saying? Hindsight, 20/20. At the moment, hindsight was smacking John on the back of the head with a pair of very heavy binoculars. He could have just kept this little thought to himself. Standing on a hillside thinking he might be in love with his best friend was entirely different than saying it out loud to another human.

“Christ. I don’t know. He’s not even talking to me now, he’s doing one of those things where he stops talking. Forget I said anything, I mean, I’m not even sure. You know, Sherlock’s been there for me this year, and I’m grateful. My head’s probably not on straight.”

“So you’re not sure of this.”

“I don’t know, I -- I’m not sure at all. God, I’m being ridiculous.”

Ella gave him a careful look. “Even if you’re not sure of it, something prompted you to come in and say it. It might be worth... just walking through this idea. You know, as a thought exercise.”

“You mean... hypothetically.”

“Yes. Allowing yourself to imagine, for a moment, what you’ve suggested. That you might be in love with Sherlock.”

The words, falling out of Ella’s mouth so casually, dropped like bricks against John’s calm facade. He blanched. “When you say it like that -- um. Jesus.”

“It’s just an idea. Just a concept, for now. Humour me? You’re here, after all.”

Hindsight continued to bash John’s skull. He shut his eyes briefly. “I -- fine. All right.”

“Good.” Ella jotted down a few words, then looked up at him. “Imagining, then, that you do have feelings for Sherlock. What makes you well-suited for each other?”

“Well, he suits me down to the ground,” John said automatically. “I mean, he’s my best friend.”

“Sorry, I’ll rephrase. What might make you suited for a... romantic relationship?”

“Oh. Right.” John sat for a moment. “I feel something when we’re together, I guess. I feel... better than when we’re apart.” He sat up straighter. “This is all very hypothetical.”

“Of course.” Ella paused. “You feel something when you’re with him. Can you say more about that?”

“Yeah, it’s -- I don’t think anyone else could understand. We have a connection, we’ve always had it. He makes me... happy. I mean, he also makes me furious, and terrified, and pissed off. But also happy, I mean, I’m never that happy otherwise.”

“And can you imagine that connection turning into something else?”

“I... Hypothetically?”

“Of course.”

John swallowed. “I think so. It’s so... intense, what we have. I mean, you remember what happened. With the kiss, and all. I thought I was angry at him, and it just... well.”

Ella nodded. “Can you imagine feeling a physical attraction to him?”

John’s heart tried to leave his ribcage very quickly and couldn’t find an exit. Jesus. Jesus, this was precisely what he hadn’t wanted to think about, because the answer was yes, a resounding, unqualified yes, and John didn’t want to think what that might mean. It’s not as if he was prepared to review his sexuality at this point in his life, and yet it seemed futile to deny this simple fact: He did feel an attraction to Sherlock. He’d always felt it. It was high on the list of feelings he could no longer ignore.

He swallowed hard and tried to make his voice sound casual. “Yeah. Yeah, I mean, you’ve seen photos. I don’t think I’m alone in that, I mean, look at him.”

Ella didn’t seem ruffled by John’s admission. “Have you felt attraction to men before? I recall you’ve been quite adamant about your sexual orientation.”

“Well, you know... labels,” John stuttered. “I mean, what do labels mean, anyway? I don’t think anyone’s really immune to, um. Being attracted to someone of the same sex. I’ve just never considered it as a serious... option. Because of, well. Women.”

Ella’s eyes flicked to his. “You don’t have to justify your feelings, John.”

“I know that.”

“Good.”

Ella wrote a few notes, her pen scratching over paper. John had long ago given up trying to read them, but he imagined them well enough: Overly defensive. Closeted bisexual. But he wasn’t, he wasn’t closeted --

She put down her pen and looked back at him. “One more question, John. Imagining, as we’ve said, that you do have these feelings. You’ve said Sherlock is an unusually observant person. Do you think it’s something he might eventually notice?”

John’s stomach dropped. “Oh, God.”

“It’s all right.” Ella made another note. “Remember, just hypothetical.”

“I mean, I’m not --” John stopped himself. “I married Mary, what’s he supposed to think?”

“I can see this is a tough subject for you.” Ella’s expression didn’t waver, still the even-keel default setting. “Let’s try this from another angle. Do you think you’d want him to feel the same?”

This was too much. The thought of Sherlock’s reciprocal feelings, theoretical though they were, sent a queasy wave up John’s throat. He gripped the arms of his chair, realising after a moment that he was preventing himself from standing up and bolting. “I don’t know,” he said, grappling for some sort of calm delivery and feeling his voice shake instead. “See, this. This is why I think it might be a better idea not to talk about anything.”

Ella’s voice softened. “You called me, John.”

John took a breath. “I know. I know I did. I was hoping that you might be able to, um. Give some advice.” He cleared his throat. “If this were the scenario, which, you know, I’m not sure.”

“I can’t tell you what to do. You know that.”

John huffed a laugh. “Isn’t that your bloody job?”

“No, actually.”

John exhaled. “I don’t know what I’d do. If this were a... thing. I mean, it would be a terrible idea to do anything, wouldn’t it? My God, that would probably be a catastrophe.”

“Why would it be terrible?”

“I’m not all right, anymore, am I? After everything that’s happened. And Christ, he’s a disaster on the best day.”

“I think you’re doing quite well, all things considered.”

Bollocks, John thought, and smiled politely. “Well, thanks. Thank you.”

They sat opposite each other in the quiet office with its potted plants and glossy hardwood floor. This place had always reminded John of a waiting room, an empty purgatory on the way to somewhere. Except there were no magazines here, no amusements -- just the mess in John’s head to arrange, his own bleeding thoughts to patch up in triage. Nothing but questions to pull at the things John couldn’t say.

“There’s no guarantee,” John said quietly, surprising himself. “He could just... leave again, like he did before. He leaves all the time. And after Mary, I don’t think -- I don’t think I could go through that again.”

“I could see how that might be difficult to cope with.”

John nodded.

“It’s good that you’ve come to me with this,” Ella said. “I want you to know that.”

“Thanks,” John said lamely, and suddenly he’d been in this office far too long. His shirt collar felt tight. He glanced at the clock, wishing the minute hand was ten minutes faster, wishing time would just skip past the next awkward interval. A thought escaped before he was conscious of it. “Is this what you’d call a rebound?”

“What do you mean?”

“These feelings, I mean, if they were... real. Are they because of Mary, because my brain is trying to cope with losing her? I know people have... rebound relationships.”

“Do you feel like it’s because of Mary?”

John’s hand clenched of its own accord. Ella watched his fingernails dig into his palm. “Hypothetically, of course,” she amended.

John’s fingers uncurled, stiff and unwilling. “Not really, no. But I wouldn’t know, would I?”

“John.” Ella looked at him gravely. “Don’t you think you already know what a rebound relationship feels like?”

* * *

Every wall, every window, the line of every door, all of it was John. Even the places he’d built before that day at Barts had somehow been reworked, arranged to fit a singular aesthetic that spoke of plaid button-down shirts and sturdy brown oxfords.

The stairwell, of course, he’d noticed that before. And the hallway. The hallway used to look like Sherlock’s primary school, but now it resembled the place he’d gone to confront the cabbie, each room waiting for John’s deadly shot to pierce the glass in Sherlock’s name. Even the courtroom had a specific spot that was John’s, and when John wasn’t there it practically screamed his absence.

Sherlock could build a new room, add a wing, but he knew he’d finish and somehow John’s stamp would be on it, woven into the grain of the wood or the wallpaper. It reminded him of a mystery he’d researched, a house in America built by a widow haunted by her belief in the occult. She’d worked the number thirteen into every window, every stairway and light fixture, a repeating pattern of subconscious thought.

This was intolerable. Sherlock came here to escape.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said to Mary, who’d appeared in her usual place, leaning against the doorframe of the excessively John-flavoured hallway.

“You saw something in his eyes,” Mary said, ignoring him. “That night in the field.”

“What if I did?”

Mary quirked a wistful smile and toyed with the end of her pink scarf. “I know how he feels about you, Sherlock.”

“Always one step ahead of us, aren’t you?” Sherlock said bitterly.

Mary tilted her head and considered this. “Mmm. Yeah.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter. Nothing will come of it.”

“Why are you so sure?”

“Nothing should come of it. Haven’t you figured that out, too? We’re alike, you and I. We tempt him, but we’re not good for him.”

Mary raised an eyebrow. “I think John can decide that sort of thing for himself.”

“You’re wrong. He makes terrible decisions. He chooses people he can’t trust, people who lie to him. People who leave him.”

“You think he can’t trust you, Sherlock?”

“I think I’ve proven that well enough.”

“What do you want, then?” Mary crossed her arms. “Why are you in here? I must be standing here for some reason.”

“I’ve no idea.” Sherlock threw up his hands and turned away to look down the empty hall. “This is pointless.”

“And yet you haven’t gotten rid of me.” Mary’s voice echoed behind him. “Why don’t you just -- wave me away?”

Sherlock took an overly large breath and faced Mary again. “I want you to tell me something. How to get things back.”

“What do you mean?”

“Back the way they were. Before -- everything happened. I just want John --” Sherlock’s voice broke on precisely the wrong word, and he bit back a curse. Mary’s mouth twitched. “I want John as he was, solving cases, without -- without all of this mess. I don’t want anything to change.”

“And why do you think I can answer that for you, Sherlock? Aren’t I the one who mucked everything up?”

“No.” Sherlock sighed. “No, I’m the one who mucked everything up.”

Mary watched him. “You haven’t answered. Why me?”

“You’re -- you’re clever. You understand him.”

“Do you want to know what I think?”

Sherlock glared. “Obviously.”

“I think you don’t know what you want.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes.

Mary gave him a sad sort of smile. “Oh, and. And, you want something from me, Sherlock. My permission, maybe.”

“Why would I need your permission? I’m not going to do anything.”

“Your choice, of course.” Mary took a step forward, brushing a curl off his forehead. She studied his face for a moment, her dark eyes soft, then turned and walked through the nearest open doorway. “You have it, Sherlock. Can’t you see?”

Sherlock glared at her as she disappeared. He needed a distraction. He needed to fill this place, pack the hallway, staff the courtroom with unknown faces. This wouldn’t do.

* * *

John needed air, but it was freezing. Frigid, wet gusts of January wind skimmed along the Thames. He walked anyway, hands shoved in his pockets, watching the occasional tugboat. He’d cut up to the next Tube stop if he felt like it. Right now he just wanted to watch the river froth in choppy grey peaks as the cold burned the tips of his ears.

Maybe it was best not to dwell, not to think about this, but that was apparently no longer an option. What would it be like, if he and Sherlock -- No. Was he really thinking about this?

They’d come home from a case, and instead of settling into separate chairs and puttering on their laptops, they’d -- what, exactly? Snuggle up on the sofa? Meet friends for dinner? Would Sherlock kiss John goodbye at Scotland Yard -- “Bye, love, see you later?” And then, text him with obligations: The Thompsons are having a dinner party next Saturday, we should go. SH

Lazy Sunday mornings, the two of them lounging under wrinkled sheets, not bothering to get out of bed. Mary -- no, Sherlock -- finally throwing pillows at him when he tried to grab her wrist and coax her back, c’mon, who needs breakfast, Mary? I’ve got unfinished business with you.

No, that wouldn’t be Sherlock. Sherlock would be demanding, he’d be insatiable, he’d be the one sprawled naked on the bed, his huge hand gripping John’s smaller wrist, come on, John, food is for idiots, we’re busy.

God, this was insane. Genuinely insane. The worst of it was, he had the sickening feeling that somehow he’d cocked everything up just by thinking about it. He’d started the Apocalypse by the power of thought alone. The Four Horsemen would probably be in their sitting room when John got home, screwing with the teakettle and setting small fires with Sherlock’s blowtorch.

Except Sherlock wasn’t talking to him at the moment. Right. Which is why it was even more insane that John was thinking about grabbing handfuls of that bloody coat and snogging the hell out of him.

John’s mobile buzzed in his pocket. How fast can you get to Victoria Station? SH

There was no ignoring this. Any of it. He felt his heart trip into gear as it always did when Sherlock summoned him, and he pulled off a glove to tap out a response. Fast. 5 min walk from Embankment Station.

Packing your bag. Train to Reigate departs 1535. SH

I can pack my own bag.

No time. SH

Bring clothes I might actually wear this time.

There was nothing wrong with that suit. SH

It was a suit.

Victoria Station. SH

* * *

At Victoria Station, Sherlock had shoved John’s bursting travel bag into his hand and disappeared into the carriage. They’d rode the train to Reigate without speaking, Sherlock’s knees drawn up to his chest as he stared out the window in deep thought. Because of course, it was all right for Sherlock to do this. This was what Sherlock did.

Usually, Sherlock’s long silences calmed John, but there was something different about this one. John could tell when Sherlock had withdrawn to solve a case, and for some reason, this silence wasn’t the same.

Unless John was overthinking things. Unless that night in the field had completely rearranged his awareness of Sherlock, and this was a perfectly normal silence. It was impossible to tell.

Now they were puttering down the streets of Reigate in a cab, past nondescript rows of brick houses, the suburb fading into countryside. John peered out the window, trying not to think about Sherlock’s shoulder next to him (broad, tense, coat collar up) or his knee, nearly touching John’s (ridiculously long femur, might feel good under John’s hand). White clouds streaked a whiter sky, frost sparkling on the grass as they rode past a golf course and onto an even narrower lane. It looked bloody cold.

Eventually, the quiet began to sink into John’s bones, far worse than the winter chill. He sighed and cleared his throat. “I’m waiting for you to tell me why this was important enough to leave London.”

“A burglary,” Sherlock said quickly, as if he’d simply been waiting for John to speak.

“You’ve brought us out here for a burglary.”

“A burglary and a murder.” Sherlock reached into his pocket and held out a crumpled note. “And this.”

John opened it. The paper had been torn in the middle so it looked as if half the message was missing. The remnant said only: “At quarter to twelve / Learn what / may.”

“All right. So a burglary, a murder, and possibly a few lyrics to a Smiths song? What is this?”

“Found in the dead man’s hand. William Kirwan, killed by a gunshot wound to the heart. He was found in the garden of his neighbour’s estate, a family by the name of Cunningham. Fairly straightforward cause of death.”

John fell into the familiar patter of information exchange without noticing. “What was he doing in his neighbour’s garden?”

“According to the police report given by the Cunninghams, Kirwan had come over checking for a burglar who’d recently robbed another nearby estate, owned by the Acton family.”

“He was just checking for a burglar? That seems odd. ‘Hi, I’ve come to borrow the sugar. By the way, is anyone robbing your house at the moment?’”

“Seems Kirwan was out in his own yard and thought he saw someone suspicious lurking about the Cunninghams’ property, and he remembered the Acton robbery from the day before. He called the Cunninghams, then went over himself.”

“So, good Samaritan becomes dead Samaritan.”

“Basically.”

“Well, it’s unfortunate, but that still doesn’t explain why we’re here.”

“The Actons and the Cunninghams have been in a dispute for years over property lines. There’s been some suspicion that the burglar was in league with one family or the other. Even more suspicious that a day after the burglary, a man lies dead.”

John glanced out the window. Another golf course rolled slowly by. “This doesn’t really look like a burglary-and-murder sort of neighbourhood.”

“Exactly. Ah, here we are.” The cab pulled into the drive of a white cottage with ivy climbing over the door, reminiscent of countless other country inns they’d visited. Sherlock paid their driver and clambered out of the cab, heading straight for the pub entrance. John rolled his eyes and pocketed the note still in his hand. He grabbed their valises and hurried after Sherlock.

“You still haven’t said why the note’s important. Makes no sense.” John’s breath fogged in the winter air as he followed Sherlock into the inn’s pub, a cozy, wood-panelled affair with a sign proclaiming it the Pig and Whistle.

“Two to stay the night,” Sherlock said to the woman behind the bar, who looked affronted to be addressed in such an abrupt manner. She nodded and busied herself with paperwork, occasionally glancing up at them suspiciously. While she was busy with their payment, Sherlock nodded at John's coat pocket. “Take a look at it.”

John unfolded the note again while Sherlock secured room keys. It appeared perfectly ordinary, if not a bit worse for wear. “Still don’t see anything,” he said, offering it back to Sherlock.

Sherlock took it and bent close to John, which shouldn’t have caused John’s heart to pound as much as it did. “This was written by two different people. Every alternating word. Look at the strong t’s of ‘at,’ and ‘to’ -- and compare them to the weak ones in ‘quarter’ and ‘twelve.’”

John stared. The difference was unmistakable, although of course he’d missed it, because who thought to look for that sort of thing, other than Sherlock? “Wow. Okay, yeah. What do you think it means?”

“I’ve no idea,” Sherlock said shortly.

The woman behind the counter cut in. “Excuse me, sir, can I take your luggage?”

“Yes.” Sherlock walked away and peered out the front window of the inn.

“Sorry,” John apologised, giving her a smile that he hoped would sweeten the sour taste of Sherlock’s manner. “He’s in a hurry.”

“I can see that,” the woman said crisply. “I’ll just put these upstairs for you, then.”

“Ta very much.”

“The local police inspector’s meeting us here,” Sherlock said, as John walked over to join him.

“It wouldn’t hurt you to be nice.”

Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “How long have you known me?”

John’s shoulders clenched with tension, indistinct enough that at first he couldn’t pinpoint the cause. He was angry, that’s what it was. Angry at Sherlock, for -- for what, exactly? For being rude? No, in John’s universe, that was like being angry with the sun for rising. For summoning him to a case? God no. If there was one constant in the strange equation of John’s life, it was this: working cases with Sherlock was the the thing John loved best in the world. No, John should be thanking Sherlock, not wanting to punch him.

But John was angry at Sherlock.

Angry at Sherlock for being the bright sun John helplessly circled. For watching John so carelessly and so carefully all at once. For being so maddeningly close and so walled-off. For leaving. For coming back. For seeing everything, but never seeing the one thing it had taken John so long to understand.

For never telling John anything, unless they were threatened with an explosion.

“Long enough,” John said bitterly, feeling the impulse rise: he wanted to fight. He couldn’t help it.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Long enough that you should talk to me more than you do.”

Sherlock actually stared at him. “What?”

A reckless energy was fighting its way through John’s clenched fists, his temper scrambling for a foothold. Anything to release it.“You know, you drag me all over London -- all over England -- for every case under the sun, and yet you won’t talk about the one case that involves my own wife.”

“John.” Sherlock glanced out the window again, then back at him. “I hardly need to state the obvious, but this is not the time.”

“Oh, it’s never the time.”

Sherlock shot him a hard look clearly meant to end the conversation.“I never said I wouldn’t talk about it. Just not now.”

John felt his voice rise, felt the bartender’s eyes fix on him. He had no idea why he was pursuing this, but the irrational force driving his words had shoved any scrap of wisdom out of the way. “But you don’t talk about it. You're silent for days on end. You change the subject whenever I mention it. And yet you have no problem telling me about the state secrets of the Czech government or the unusual sexual kink of the Royal Family’s private chef.” He gestured wildly. “Or the property disputes of some totally obscure family in Reigate.”

Sherlock glanced around testily, holding up a finger to silence John. “They’re not obscure --”

“You’re avoiding this, Sherlock.” John crossed his arms. “Again. Why won’t you talk about it?”

“Because we don’t need to talk about it. We need to talk about this case.”

“And once again, you get to decide what we’re doing?”

“You don’t have to stay here,” Sherlock snapped, low and furious. He looked half-stunned at John’s outburst. “You can go back to London. Now.”

“I don’t want to go back to London. You’re missing the point.”

“If the point is that you want to start a row over a case I dropped a month ago, then no, I haven’t missed it in the least.”

“So you won’t mind telling me, then.”

Sherlock looked astonished. “What do you want me to tell you?”

“What you found out about Mary. What you learned all those times you went to see Janine.”

“I think you know everything you need to know.”

“Why did you give it up, then? Was it because they landed you in hospital? I find that hard to believe.”

“Do you also find it hard to believe that there are some things you really don’t need to know?”

“If those things concern my wife? Yes, actually. Yes, I find that very hard to believe. Last time I checked, I married her. You didn’t. I deserve to bloody know.”

“There is no reason why we should be talking about this now,” Sherlock thundered.

The handful of daytime pub patrons at the Pig and Whistle pretended to have urgent business studying their pint glasses.

“There is so much we’re not talking about here, Sherlock,” John gritted out. “So much.”

Sherlock’s gaze snapped to his. Something nearly like panic flashed in his eyes. It was so unlike Sherlock that for a moment John could only stare back at him, entirely forgetting why they’d been shouting half a minute before. Guilt twisted in John’s throat.

“You think I’ve been keeping things from you?” Sherlock said harshly. “You’re right. But of course you can’t imagine I’d have a good reason.”

John swallowed. He felt as if he’d walked out onto a high ledge.

“Charles Augustus Magnussen carried on an abusive relationship with your wife for years. Sex in exchange for his silence, the only thing that kept her out of jail. Janine knew about it. She put Mary up for the job of watching you, just to get her away from Magnussen. It didn’t quite work. His threats grew worse once I returned.” Sherlock’s eyes were blank, expressionless. “Charles Augustus Magnussen was the father of Mary’s child. But I can’t imagine why I’d want to keep that from you.”

If John had been on a ledge, now he was falling. The air felt colder than Sherlock’s pale eyes.

“Mr Holmes.” A door shut somewhere outside the roaring pulse in John’s ears. “Inspector Forrester. Thank you for coming.”

“Not a problem.” Sherlock’s voice, cool, collected. A proffered hand. “This is Dr Watson.”

“Of course, of course. This way, gentlemen.”

The eyes of the pub patrons followed John out the door and burned the back of his neck as he climbed into the police car. His hands tingled, numb fingers locked into fists he couldn’t open. The car turned down the lane and out into the cold.

Chapter Text

Sherlock turned over the heavy silver candlestick before setting it back down on the courtroom’s polished desk. The candlestick made no sound.

A pair of candlesticks, an ivory paperweight, an oak barometer, a ball of twine. A worn copy of Homer’s Odyssey. No significant value, no obvious connection.

“The thief likely panicked. All of these objects would have been in someone’s office. Caught in the act?”

“You’re distracted,” Mycroft said, his voice issuing from the podium behind Sherlock. “What do I keep telling you?”

“I am not distracted.”

“Knowing when to withhold information is more than strategy, Sherlock. It’s an art. The most delicate negotiations often depend upon it. You should never have told John about Magnussen. He will certainly leave.”

“Strategy. Negotiation,” Sherlock repeated in disgust. “Who do you think he is, a foreign head of state?”

“No,” Mycroft said. “But he is a casualty of war. You should have shown far better control --”

“Get out,” Sherlock snapped. “Get out of my head, now.”

The courtroom hummed with quiet. “Acton,” Sherlock said, pointing. A grey-haired man appeared before him in the centre of the empty room: the first of the suspects. “Colonel Hayter. William Kirwan. Alec Cunningham. Mr Cunningham, senior.” Five men in all, one looking far less alive than the others.

“You all right, sir?” said William Kirwan, ashen-faced, dark blood blooming from a gunshot wound in his chest.

“You’re one to ask.”

“Only, you look like -- you look --”

Sherlock took a breath and swiped at the tear slipping down his cheek. Hateful. Inconvenient. “I’m solving your murder.”

“As you say, sir.”

John would not forgive him this time. John had been patient; John had been steadfast. Sherlock should have told him, should have found a way -- but John had been suffering. Sherlock could not watch John suffer.

Surely this would be John’s tipping point. Too much kept hidden. John would be right to leave.

This line of thought was not acceptable at the moment. 

Sherlock straightened his jacket and gestured at Acton. “Now tell me where you kept those candlesticks.”

* * *

“Dr Watson.”

John blinked. Inspector Forrester swam into view, fairly new uniform, cheeks ruddy with cold. From the looks of it, an ex-rugby player, first year on the police force. John couldn’t help doing his own feeble deductions out of habit, because of course, Sherlock had rewired John’s brain long ago.

“Mm? Yes?”

“Your... colleague. May I ask what he’s doing?”

Their first stop had been the scene of the murder: an unremarkable country garden, its fallow flower beds spiked with frost and the occasional drop of blood. John hadn’t even registered the pertinent details, hearing nothing as the police inspector pointed out scuffs on the hard ground, the dark windows of the Acton estate nearby, Colonel Hayter’s cottage down the road. His mind spun in a repeating loop: Magnussen. Mary. Magnussen. Mary.

Sherlock stood at the far end of the garden, breath issuing in visible wisps of steam, eyes closed. Occasionally, one hand would move, then the other, as if positioning an unseen object.

“Mind palace,” John said. “It’s a -- thing he does.”

“Right,” Inspector Forrester said slowly, as if John and Sherlock were escaped inmates from a nearby asylum. “Okay. How long does that usually take?”

“Hard to say,” John said, picturing Magnussen’s thin wire spectacles, the eyes behind them a blank void. Those thick fingers hitting his face with a hollow thump, settling just as thickly on Mary’s hips. Had he been gentle, at least? She’d never had so much as a bruise. Mary. Oh, God, Mary.

Sherlock had kept this from him, this sickening image. Sherlock had thrown himself in front of it as if it were a bullet. He shouldn’t have done it. Just as he shouldn’t have jumped. He should have given John a choice. Do you want to be saved?

And now John had pried it out of him, provoked him. Hadn’t thought about what sort of thing Sherlock would lock away.

It wasn’t that John didn’t want to know. But in the beginning, it had been one horror too many. Mary was gone, the baby wasn’t John’s, and if he’d been forced to absorb anything else, he might have crumpled from the inside out.

And really, if he was being honest with himself, John had assumed it was David. Garden-variety adultery, a temporary lapse in judgement. Maybe it had happened that night he and Mary had squabbled -- she’d been out late. The timing was right. A shoulder to cry on, that’s what David had historically provided. Maybe that was some sort of euphemism for “accidental sex.” Mary had lied about worse, after all.

John watched Sherlock knit his brows in concentration, still tracing the occasional shape in the air. Grey smudges under his eyes, thin lines at the corners. He looked tired, austere, thinner than usual under the heavy shape of his coat. Still not quite right, after that time in hospital. What had it cost him, protecting John as he had?

“You can see where the murderer broke through the hedge, there,” Forrester said loudly.

John cleared his throat, attempting to act as if he wasn’t utterly preoccupied. “Inspector, I can guarantee you he’s noticed every bent twig on the estate.”

“He doesn’t look like he’s noticing much of anything at the moment.”

John gave the Inspector a thin-lipped smile. “There’s a method to his madness.”

“More like madness to his method,” the Inspector muttered.

“The Cunninghams,” Sherlock cut in, as if he hadn’t been dead to the world for the past ten minutes. “They saw the murderer disappear through that --” he ripped into the word with relish -- “fascinating hedge.”

“Yes, sir, as I said, they gave a description --”

Sherlock rubbed his gloved hands together and glanced back up at the sprawling Queen Anne house that loomed behind the garden. “I’d like to hear this description from the source. Let’s pay the Cunninghams a visit, shall we?”

* * *

The familiar pattern of a case built itself around them, but John hardly noticed. He felt sure he should be paying attention, but it was like forcing himself to breathe underwater. Mouths were moving, pleasantries exchanged, but it all played out on a flickering screen before John’s eyes, as if he was watching an old film with the sound slightly out of sync.

The Cunninghams were impressed -- if their reaction could be qualified as such -- that their little country murder had attracted the attention of a famous London detective. Mr Cunningham the Elder peered at them, tugged at his tweed waistcoat, and harrumphed something about the local force’s ability to handle the job without interference.

“I always thought your blog was bollocks,” Alec Cunningham said, shaking John’s hand with a wry smirk. He looked to be in his early twenties, with floppy brown hair, a plaid button-down, and a few days’ stubble. “Didn’t think you went round to real murders, or anything.”

“Well, we’ve got to keep up appearances,” John said, sarcasm flickering through the mess of his brain.

“You read English for a year or two at university, yes?” Sherlock said innocently. “Manchester?”

“Yeah. Read up on me, did you?”

“You took a gap year that turned into a permanent hiatus. You’ve told your father you’ll move out by April, but you have no plans to do so. Free room and board is incredibly helpful when you’ve been laid off from your part-time job at the clerk’s office, isn’t it?”

Alec’s face paled under his unkempt scruff. “I didn’t --”

“No matter.” Sherlock turned to Alec’s father, whose jaw was slack. “Don’t worry, Mr Cunningham. Your son has been supporting himself comfortably by dealing hash for some time. He’ll be able to pay for his own flat without a problem. Provided, of course, that the local law enforcement doesn’t catch word of it. I hear they’re quite competent -- ah, there you are, Inspector. We were all just getting acquainted. You say you saw the murderer from the first floor window, Alec?”

Alec Cunningham’s flustered panic distracted John for the space of a few minutes as they hurried upstairs, but the respite was brief. John’s knees felt about to buckle. He knew he should be concentrating on the case, but he just wanted to lie down. Curl up on the floor of this stuffy old house and wait for the noise in his head to subside. Sherlock could just step over him and carry on inspecting the window ledges.

Mary’s memory, always hovering near John’s thoughts, seemed to turn itself inside out. The past tilted inward, distorted and strange. It had all been a veneer, a mirror reflecting the life they’d both wanted. Mary needed to believe she could escape. She’d stepped into Sherlock’s shadow, and John had wanted that space filled so badly he’d never seen the shadows Mary cast on her own.

Sherlock. Jesus Christ. What had Sherlock done for him all this time, when John hadn’t been looking? While John had been curled into himself, sidelined with grief?

Fucking insane, that’s what this was. Sherlock had applied his outrageous mental powers to the task of fixing John, or at least preventing John from sustaining further damage. Except that had proved an exercise in futility, hadn’t it? Even the great Sherlock Holmes couldn’t accomplish the impossible.

And now they were just supposed to carry on, broken as they were, and work cases as if Sherlock hadn’t jumped and John had never married anyone. As if Mary hadn’t put a bullet in Sherlock’s heart, as if Sherlock hadn’t put a bullet in the father of Mary’s child.

As if Sherlock’s efforts to protect John weren’t the greatest gesture anyone had ever made on John’s behalf.

“This window, here,” Sherlock was saying. “You say you saw the murderer down in the garden, just here, Mr Cunningham?”

Mr Cunningham, glowering suspiciously at his son, barely acknowledged Sherlock. “I saw someone disappearing through the garden hedge, yes.”

“At about a quarter to twelve, you say.”

“Yes.”

“I see,” Sherlock said, brushing past John to walk over to the window in question.

The tiny spark of contact woke John’s instincts, and he watched Sherlock carefully. Sherlock could easily have cut across the room to avoid bumping John’s shoulder; this was a deliberate signal. Pay attention, play along. They’d done this far too long, tiny messages encoded in gestures, an entire language built on their minute awareness of each other. John’s nerves rattled with the intimacy of it. 

Even now, wrecked with shock, John could still fall into step with Sherlock. It was easier than breathing.

Sherlock took an unreasonable amount of time to examine the window, long enough that the Cunninghams and Inspector Forrester began to mill about restlessly. By the time Sherlock asked to see the other upstairs rooms, all three of them were quite clearly at their limit. Mr Cunningham seemed particularly eager to bring the proceedings to a close, shooting his son dark looks every few seconds. “I don’t see what this has to do with anything,” he said irritably. “The murder took place outdoors, for Christ’s sake.”

“Ah, but according to your incredibly helpful testimony, you suspect the burglar who visited the Acton estate. I’m merely determining whether this burglar spent any time in your house before William Kirwan caught him in the garden.”

“But we were both at home,” Alec protested. “As I said, my father was reading here in this room, and I was in my room at the end of the hall. Surely we’d have heard an intruder.”

“And you’re quite sure nothing’s missing.”

“Very,” Alec gritted out.

Sherlock had solved it. The set of his shoulders, the brightness of his eyes: this was merely the overture before he conducted the crescendo of the reveal. John’s pulse quickened as Sherlock motioned to the hallway. “All the same, I’d like to see for myself.”

The Cunninghams shared an irritated look and showed them all into the hall, where Alec opened the door to a large, quaintly-furnished bedroom with wide windows facing the garden. “My father’s room.”

Sherlock nodded, lingering to examine the doorframe as their small party filed obediently inside. Just as John drew alongside him, Sherlock leaned over and knocked into a small table by the door that looked to have the remains of Mr Cunningham’s breakfast on it. A large carafe of water and a dish of sliced oranges toppled over, shattering on the floor in a wet explosion of glass and citrus.

“John.” Sherlock straightened and gave John a reproachful look as the others started, heads whipping in their direction. “You’ve done it now, haven’t you?”

This was it. No signal necessary. “So sorry,” John stuttered, instantly picking up his part. “Didn’t see the table there.” He caught a flicker of Sherlock’s satisfied expression before bending to pick up the shards of glass at his feet. “I’ll get this. Do you have a broom?”

“It’s quite all right. Don’t trouble yourself, Dr Watson,” Mr Cunningham said, stooping next to him and beginning to gather glass. Inspector Forrester, whose patience seemed nearly shot, heaved a sigh and knelt next to them.

John busied himself with oranges and shards of glass as Sherlock’s dark coat vanished from his field of awareness. He chanced a glance at the door. Sherlock, as expected, was gone.

A familiar empty horror gripped John’s chest. Irrational. Ridiculous. He groped for another piece of glass and winced as a sharp edge sliced his left forefinger. He turned over his shaking hand and watched a drop of blood well at the site of the gash. Sherlock had to disappear. Of course. He always had to disappear.

John’s senses swam with the bright scent of oranges. A stripe of blood tracked a slow course toward his open palm.

“I’ll just go for a dustpan -- Christ, where’s he gone?” Alec’s voice issued from somewhere above John’s head.

Next to him, Mr Cunningham’s head snapped up. With an undignified grunt and a crunch of glass, the old man struggled to his feet with surprising speed and flew out of the room on his son’s heels.

“Bloody hell,” muttered Forrester, adding scattered shards of glass to John’s heap. “What are they on about?”

But John knew already. He was halfway to his feet before Sherlock’s muffled cry issued from somewhere down the hall.

Floorboards slipped beneath his shoes. The hallway tilted as he threw open door after door. His hoarse voice shouted Sherlock’s name, and at last he tumbled through the half-open door at the end of the hallway to find both Cunninghams pinning Sherlock to the floor, two pairs of hands clutching at Sherlock’s long, pale neck.

White flashes burned John’s vision. He hurled himself toward both men and grabbed handfuls of plaid shirt and tweed blazer, pulling and heaving. His fist connected with someone’s ear, triggering a satisfying yelp of pain. He jerked one of the men backward and had a fractional glimpse of wild, startled eyes, but John’s fist was already sailing forward, every ounce of his strength behind a punch aimed for Alec’s stubbly chin. Alec crumpled at John’s feet with a groan as Inspector Forrester careened into the room. “What the hell --”

“Cuff them,” John gasped, moving to grapple for a hold on Mr Cunningham’s shoulders. Sherlock’s pale face was frozen in a grimace as he strained against Cunningham’s chokehold. John wrenched at the older man’s grip and then swiftly drove a knee into his side. Mr Cunningham grunted and swore, his grip slipping enough for Sherlock to pull Cunningham’s loose hand free and sink his teeth into it.

Mr Cunningham howled with pain and dropped to the floor next to them, rolling sideways and clutching his palm. Forrester stumbled behind John, and John heard the click of handcuffs -- the inspector seemed too startled to do anything but obey. John sank to his knees and grabbed Sherlock’s coat collar.

Sherlock was conscious, eyes wide and red-rimmed. His chest rose and fell like a bellows, heaving beneath John’s hands. Livid red marks, smudged fingers and thumbs, bloomed across his pale neck.

Sherlock disappeared, but he always came back.

A big, stupid tear slid down John’s nose. He smoothed Sherlock’s hair off his forehead before he could help it. “Okay?”

Sherlock tilted his head in acknowledgement.

“Here,” John croaked, and held out a hand. He pulled Sherlock to half-sitting. Sherlock didn’t let go. John ran his free hand over Sherlock, testing ribs first, then collarbone. He peered at Sherlock’s neck. “Sure you’re all right?”

Sherlock attempted what looked like a painful swallow. “Fine,” he said, a hoarse whisper. His brow creased in concern. “You’re bleeding somewhere.”

John held up their entwined hands. Blood streaked the side of his palm. Sherlock’s fingers were already messy with it. “Finger.”

“Ah. Broken glass.”

“Yeah.”

John waited for Sherlock to uncoil, to start barking orders. Instead, Sherlock slowly rolled his neck to one side, then the other. “You’re an arse,” John said. “You like getting yourself killed, don’t you?”

“Hobby of mine.” A faint, crinkled smile.

John felt inexplicably light, whether from adrenaline or joy, it was difficult to say. Sherlock never meant to hurt him, when he disappeared. Sherlock could be careless and idiotic and impulsive, but he’d never harm John intentionally.

Well, he might have drugged John once or twice. And he might have dragged him in front of a few moving vehicles. Occasionally in front of a bullet or two. But that was different.

Sherlock had always believed John would trust him to come back. Because John had trusted him from the day they’d met. Things had gotten a bit muddied after the Barts rooftop -- which was still not okay, incidentally -- but Sherlock was here now. He’d come back, after all.

Could it be you’ve decided to trust Sherlock Holmes, of all people?

Sherlock had nearly killed him, yes. He’d bloody well destroyed him two years ago. But damned if he hadn’t been doing everything in his considerable power to patch John up ever since.

John was probably beaming at Sherlock like an idiot. He didn’t much care. Something inside of him had broken, but it was a good sort of break. He was going to let himself feel whatever it was he felt for Sherlock. His head swam with the potency of it.

Sherlock studied John’s face as they sat tangled on the floor. His voice was at half its usual volume, raspy and uneven. “Are you all right?”

“Never better.”

“Quite a bit of blood. Might need stitches.”

John grinned. “Hobby of mine.”

Sherlock’s expression shifted. Surprise, maybe? Fear, perhaps. And then it softened into disbelief. He’d understood, read John’s face. Probably took his damn pulse, come to think of it.

It was all fine. John wanted him to see, now. He squeezed Sherlock’s hand.

“What the hell are you doing?” Inspector Forrester’s voice blared like a foghorn. “Is someone going to tell me what the hell’s going on here?”

John felt like laughing. “Checking the patient for signs of concussion,” he said. “If you don’t mind.

“Are you going to bother explaining why you laid out Alec Cunningham? Why do I have these men in cuffs?”

“He’s the one that ought to be locked up,” Mr Cunningham managed, waving cuffed hands at Sherlock from his seat on the floor next to the inspector. “Attempting to steal from us. This is madness.”

“Call the bloody solicitor,” came Alec Cunningham’s slurred voice. “We were attacked.”

Forrester goggled at Sherlock. “Attempting to steal -- is this some sort of joke?”

“No joke, Inspector,” Sherlock said, keeping the wheeze from his voice. “Take a look at their faces. I think you’ll find their guilt is quite plain.” He cleared his throat. “That, and you’ll also find the younger Mr Cunningham has the missing half of the victim’s note in his pocket.”

“Why on Earth --”

“Well, it only makes sense that the Cunninghams should have the remainder of the note, considering they orchestrated the murder. And considering they wrote the note in the first place.”

The two handcuffed men sprawling on the floor glared at Sherlock with a mixture of panic and loathing. Inspector Forrester stared from Sherlock to the Cunninghams and back again. “Mental. This is mental.”

“You can’t just accuse us,” Alec Cunningham spat.

“Oh, I already have.”

“You are going to give us a bit more to go on, I expect, Mr Holmes,” Forrester said testily.

“I expect so,” Sherlock said, his eyes meeting John’s once more.

Sherlock’s gaze was curious, intent, almost shy. John wondered what synapses were firing in Sherlock’s great brain, whether this would all be filed for a later day, this heady, sweet pulse of affection. Whether it would be ignored or acknowledged.

It didn’t much matter. John would continue to love Sherlock regardless.

Their ragged breath recovered, slowing into synchronicity. A pregnant pause stretched into several long minutes before the Inspector spoke again. “Now?”

“Doctor Watson’s been injured.” Sherlock quirked a hesitant smile, and John realised with a start that their hands were still entwined. “I’m applying pressure to the wound.”

Sherlock gave John’s hand a faint squeeze. John could only grin back at him, the air filled with the sharp, hopeful scent of oranges.

* * *

For all that he valued logic, Sherlock had a surprising tendency to ignore it when it came to major life decisions.

If a murderer offered him a game of Russian roulette, he’d play. If a case required a druggie disguise, he’d shoot up. If a white-hot thrill was within his grasp, he’d reach for it. And if John Watson was in danger, he’d jump.

There was cold, clear reason, and then there was Sherlock’s wild heart. One of them trumped the other. Sherlock hated himself just a bit for it. But not much.

Reason told him he was bad for John Watson. He’d hurt him again without meaning to, cause John pain neither of them could endure. He knew he should stay away; this particular fire was too hot. Safer to stay warm from a distance.

Sherlock’s neck burned, still scorched with the residual heat of clenched hands. He didn’t notice. The look on John’s face obliterated all logic.

* * *

Chapter Text

If the beginning of a case burned bright, the end sometimes sputtered like a slow-melting candle. Sherlock was in rare form, if “rare” could be defined as “even more impatient and scathing than usual.” He cowed Forrester into sending for takeaway when it looked as if the Inspector was going to keep them at the station all night, but then he didn’t eat a thing. John did his best to scarf down the curry provided by the local force, swallowing lumps of chicken as if they were cardboard, and watched Sherlock snarl at Forrester.

“Note written by two men, blood relatives, one older, one younger, sent to lure Kirwan out to the garden. Were the Cunninghams planning to murder him? Obviously not, they were idiots, but not premeditated idiots. So feel free to pick the more likely scenario, Inspector: They either lured Kirwan to their garden to discuss the state of their roses, or to negotiate his silence. Why did they need to negotiate his silence? Let’s have a think. No, that’s apparently not possible for you, let’s just state the obvious. Alec Cunningham was the burglar at the Acton estate. Acton had paperwork putting most of the disputed land in Acton territory, and Alec needed to make that paperwork go away. Our good neighbor Kirwan caught Alec Cunningham in the act. At their noontime garden party, Kirwan attempted to blackmail the Cunninghams. Cunningham Senior would’ve taken the money, but Alec didn’t take kindly to blackmail and decided to make use of the gun in his pocket. Which is why we’re standing in this miserable office at this hour. Are we, at last, quite clear?

Forrester had the decency to look sheepish. “I -- I think so,” he hedged. “But -- Mr Holmes. Mr Cunningham still had the note.”

Sherlock’s eyeroll, had it been a punch, would’ve knocked a man flat. “Yes,” he gritted out. “We’ve been over this.”

“It just seems, if that was evidence, and they’d committed the crime,” Forrester stammered, “they would’ve gotten rid of it.”

“Well, that certainly would’ve been wise, but wisdom is evidently in short supply in Reigate. Cunningham was thinking about turning in his son, so he kept the other half of the paper to show the police.”

“Guilt?” John remarked, swallowing a bite of curry.

Sherlock smirked, and just for a moment, caught John’s eye. A keen, charged look passed between them. “Guilt,” Sherlock agreed, clipping the ‘t’ for emphasis.

“Ah, I see,” Forrester mumbled, sounding very much as though he did not.

“Inspector,” John said, scouring up the last dredges of politeness he possessed, “it would seem you have the situation in hand. I trust your team can take things from here.”

Sherlock shot John another look, intent, with a thousand volts of something behind it. “Dr Watson is a very wise man,” he said, striding out the door and leaving John to scramble to his feet and hastily shake hands on the way out.

Outside, it was dark and cold, wind whipping against their coats as Sherlock phoned for a cab at the kerb. Too late to bother with a train home. In the cab they lapsed into silence, the necessary sort born of far too much conversation with other people. John’s brain was so noisy that the silence didn’t quite register, anyway. He stared out the window, aware of the arm’s length between them as if it were a phantom limb.

When they got back to the inn, the pub was mostly quiet. They shuffled up the steps to their room and fell to kicking off shoes and tossing coats over chairs. The room was entirely typical for this sort of place: overly sturdy furniture, flowered throw pillows, an electric kettle, a few paper packets of tea. One bed, but maybe they had another room next door. Or maybe not. Usually it didn’t matter. But.

Sherlock settled in for the night as he always did, unfastening cuffs, hanging up his jacket. The familiar noises tripped John’s pulse. In the dim light of the room’s single lamp John began to unbutton his shirt and caught Sherlock’s eye in the mirror. John undid another button. Red marks mottled Sherlock’s pale neck.

“You all right?” John ventured.

“Fine.”

“Can I take a look?”

Sherlock nodded. They sat on the bed, where the light was strongest. John felt the bones of Sherlock’s jaw, all parts moving as they should. John’s fingers lingered on the rough line of Sherlock’s chin.

“I’m sorry,” John said. “For how I acted earlier.”

Sherlock’s eyebrow twitched upward. “Which part of ‘earlier?’”

“That bit where I yelled about Mary.”

“Ah.” Sherlock swallowed, not meeting his eyes. “I imagine that was a lot to handle.”

“Yeah, it wasn’t great. Not great, no.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Well, it’s not.” John sighed. “It’s hard to even think about, I -- I don’t know what I’d have done, if I were in your place. If I’d found that out.”

John took his hand away, studying the bruises that had already begun to blossom on Sherlock’s pale skin. Surface injuries, nothing else amiss. He cleared his throat. “Mostly... I’m sorry I didn’t trust you. I was wrong not to trust you, Sherlock.”

Sherlock shook his head. “No. I can see why -- that is, given what happened, I should have -- well.” He glanced away, his gaze unfocused. “I was wrong. I was wrong not to tell you everything.”

John blinked. Sherlock looked shaken by this admission, but John was more so. “You did have a good reason,” John managed. “I understand now, I -- I might have overreacted.”

“You didn’t. I should’ve said something.”

John blew out a long breath. “I don’t know. I don’t know if there was a right thing to do. We’ve just had shit choices to make. For a long time.”

Sherlock looked down at the cream-coloured carpet, at John’s sock-clad feet.

“You did so much for me. I hope you know that,” John added.

“Did I?”

“Yeah.”

Sherlock looked back up at him. John’s heart thrilled in his chest, all nerves and exhaustion.

“You should get to bed,” Sherlock said shortly. “It’s late.”

“Right.”

They shifted apart. John peeled off his socks and tossed them at his open suitcase. Sherlock set his phone on the nightstand.

Christ, he couldn’t keep running from this. Not when he felt this way.

“Um, there’s something else.” John shifted on the edge of the bed, feeling like he was running toward a burning house. “Something I need to say, I -- I haven’t understood until recently.”

Sherlock’s full attention hit him like a floodlight.

“Have you ever,” John tried, heart pounding, “looked at something for a long time, you know, such a long time that you kind of stop seeing it? Something staring you in the face, and... and then you realise... you realise you’ve missed something obvious. For -- for years, and --” He shook his head. “No, sorry. Sorry, you’re probably the one person who can’t understand what that’s like.”

“Yes.”

John, trying to control his shaking breath, looked up. “What?”

“Yes,” Sherlock repeated, staring at John’s clenched hands.

Neither of them said anything else. John cleared his throat. “Okay.”

They sat side by side, John’s pulse still hammering, his breathing just slightly too fast. Sherlock would notice. Had probably noticed, in fact.

“You, um. I don’t want you to feel like you have to be any different after I say this,” John managed. “You’re my best friend, you’re still my best friend. It’s just that my feelings, maybe, are -- more than I can understand, really, and. And I don’t know if we ever need to even -- even do anything about it, I just really want to tell you how much I --” He swallowed. Tilted his chin up. “How much I -- no matter what, I will always --”

“Stop talking,” Sherlock said.

John’s heart nearly stopped. “What?”

“Stop. Talking.”

John dared a glance at Sherlock and froze. Sherlock’s eyes were open, clear and red-rimmed, and John could see -- could see everything.

Sherlock inhaled sharply, leaned in, and kissed him.

For some reason John was swamped with disbelief. Despite the fact that he’d thought of nothing but this for weeks, despite the days he’d spent tracking his feelings like a back-and-forth football match. Disbelief, and the freefall of fear, his heart thudding so loudly it resounded in his skull. Sherlock’s huge hands cupped the back of his head. The two of them wobbled unsteadily on the too-soft mattress.

And then John’s mind clicked awake. Sherlock made a muffled noise against his mouth and suddenly there was no way John could pour enough into the kiss. He felt like he might crack in half. He broke off to take a breath, startled to hear it come out like a sob.

Sherlock’s hands sought John’s shoulders. “All right?” he breathed.

“I don’t bloody know,” John said, and dragged Sherlock in again.

This time it was Sherlock who pulled back, still clutching handfuls of John’s rumpled button-down. John wound his arms around Sherlock. “I love you,” John swore. “I love you, okay?”

Sherlock nearly sagged against him, and John’s arms wound tighter. He felt Sherlock nod.

They stayed that way, unsteady. John felt as if a slight breeze might destroy him. Sherlock was a beautiful, unknown weight in his arms, familiar and terrifying.

Sherlock lifted his head, his eyes watery and wide. “John.”

“Yeah.”

“I --”

Sherlock stuttered, then trailed into silence. John had no idea what to say. He pressed kisses to the side of Sherlock’s jaw, to the wet tracks at the corners of his eyes. “It’s all right,” he said, wondering who he was comforting. “We’re all right.”

“Yes,” Sherlock agreed, his voice muffled in John’s shirt.

A branch creaked outside; the old radiator under the window clicked on, a drone of white noise. Reassuring signs that the world had not yet ended.

Inside, John’s breath mingled with Sherlock’s. He failed to think of anything at all for a very long time.

* * *

John had pulled off his shirt at some point. Someone had removed Sherlock’s. They’d somehow ended up tangled on the bed, writhing against the cheap floral hotel pillows. John felt ridiculous and sublime and a hefty dose of fucking scared. Sherlock’s hands roved over his body, and the very concept was enough to make John blow a fuse.

Neither of them had really stopped trembling. Sherlock’s erection pushed against John’s hip, insistent and real. John had about as much experience with this sort of thing as he had with defusing bombs. All he knew was that his overwhelming love for Sherlock shut out any terror that flipped uselessly in his chest.

He loved Sherlock. Christ, he loved him so fucking much.

Their hands lingered at buttons and zippers, hesitating. Adrenaline hummed so high in John’s veins he could hardly remember what his ordinary heart rate felt like. His brain took the opportunity to remind him that he was kissing Sherlock, and suddenly it was all too much.

“Hang on,” he said, breathing hard into the crook of Sherlock’s neck. “Hang on, can we just -- take a minute?”

Sherlock pulled back, pale cheeks pink and flushed, a faint sheen of sweat on his forehead. His eyes flicked over John’s face. “Get some water.”

“I’m fine.” John reached for one of Sherlock’s hands -- could he do that now? Jesus -- and squeezed it. “Just catching my breath.” John peered at Sherlock. “You okay?”

“Yes,” Sherlock said, his voice holding just enough annoyance that John felt instantly relieved. “I think we’ve established that.”

“Sorry.” John swallowed. “Just making sure, you know. That you want to -- um.” He couldn’t stop the blush that he was sure went from his chest to the very tips of his ears.

Sherlock loosed his grip from around John’s waist, and his eyes softened. “Water. You need it. Go on.”

* * *

John splashed water on his face in the cramped loo and then drank out of his cupped hands, soaking his bare chest. He stared at himself in the mirror, face red and blotchy and wet.

Forty years old. More grey hair than he’d like, even more lines etched into his skin. He wasn’t sure how it was possible to feel so old and so young all at once. He’d restarted his life so many times already, he couldn’t believe there was another new start left in it. And yet, here it was. Forty years old and he was shaking like a teenager, wobbly on adrenaline, heart far too full for words.

He wasn’t sure if this was a new start, actually. It felt like something that had started long ago.

John scrubbed a hand through his hair and wondered at the nervousness still fluttering under his ribs. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing -- certainly he’d never done anything like this with a man. But his body didn’t seem particularly interested in making that distinction; he was hard, his arousal heady and potent. Apparently Sherlock had this effect on him. Unsurprising, really.

The few short steps back into the bedroom felt like miles, a chasm between their old life and this new... whatever it was. This new world where Sherlock took his shirt off and they kissed until John couldn’t breathe.

John’s toothbrush sat propped in a glass on the sink. Sherlock’s travel kit balanced on the small wooden shelf above the toilet. John knew what was inside: Sherlock’s particular brand of razor, his half-used tube of toothpaste. So many things would still be the same, murders and hotel rooms and travel kits and toothpaste. Only now, John might be able to kiss Sherlock when he felt like it. And that would be very, very good.

John turned off the bathroom light, only to blink at the surprising flood of darkness. Sherlock must have switched off the lamp next to the bed. He stepped back into the bedroom, nerves firing.

Dim shadows fell across the floor, thrown from the pale light outside the window. The duvet hung from the foot of the bed in a tangled heap. The bed was otherwise empty, cushions and sheets huddled in the semi-dark. Sherlock was leaning against the wall, head down, braced on one arm as if he might fall.

John’s mouth went dry. “Sherlock?”

Sherlock straightened, turning as if caught mid-crime. His shoulders tensed, his expression unreadable. “Just -- just turning off the light.”

“Okay,” John said cautiously.

Sherlock’s body seemed to betray him. He slumped to sit on the edge of the bed and raked his hands through his hair, all traces of arrogance gone. “Sorry,” he breathed. “I’m sorry.”

John wavered, unsure whether to sit near Sherlock or stay back. Unwelcome terror crept down his spine: Sherlock didn’t want to do this. He raised his chin, braced himself. “What are you sorry for?”

“I don’t know,” Sherlock shook his head. “Whatever I’m about to do.”

“What are you about to do?” John whispered.

Sherlock simply looked at him, defeat written in the angle of his shoulders.

Terror became dread, and without warning John’s temper snapped under the weight of it. “Damn it, Sherlock, before you end this -- before you do anything, you have to talk to me. Just bloody talk to me, all right? You can’t leave me in the dark all the time.” He paused, mind racing. “If -- if you were pretending -- if you were just acting, before --”

Sherlock’s eyes snapped to his, startled and hurt. “You think I was acting.

John fumbled, utterly at a loss. “No. I don’t know. I don’t bloody know, Sherlock, one minute you’re kissing me and the next you look like you’re at someone’s funeral, we’ve barely said a word since this started, I don’t know what to think, and this is -- this is the most important thing, the best thing I’ve ever --”

Words refused to escape. John glanced away, his throat tight.

“I’ve done it already, then,” Sherlock said calmly.

“What?”

“It’s been, what, less than an hour?” Sherlock huffed a bitter laugh. “Bit quicker than I expected, but still.”

John stared. “What’ve you done?”

“Cocked this up. I’m going to cock it up, John. I’m going to do something wrong.” Sherlock’s voice shifted, dark and mocking. “Apparently I already did. Human nature, you know. Not my specialty.”

“Oh, God.” John felt as if a weight had crushed his lungs. Everything he’d ever wanted, and his panic and paranoia had punctured it. “You’re not going to cock it up. If anyone’s going to cock it up, it’s me. Look, I have done already, I can’t help it, I --”

“No.” Sherlock shook his head. “You’re wrong. I’m going to hurt you again, without meaning to, and I can’t -- I can’t have that happen again.”

“Sherlock, it’s fine. Let’s forget about this.”

“You don’t understand. Everything that’s happened to you -- it’s all my fault.”

John’s jaw clenched.“You can’t possibly think that.”

That bitter laugh again. “I let you think I was dead. You watched me kill myself. You’ve reminded me quite often.”

John felt an instant pang: he had reminded Sherlock of that, repeatedly. But he’d been angry, devastated: he’d lost Sherlock, and then Mary. He still was angry, sometimes.

But he trusted Sherlock. It had just taken a while to remember that.

John’s heart twisted, and he couldn’t help a tiny, wry smile. “Well, that was your fault. A bit.”

Their eyes locked.

“You did jump off a building, yeah,” John continued, his voice tight. “You let me think you were dead for two years. I picked someone else, I lived another life while you were gone. But you know what? I’m still here. I’m still here after you did that. I don’t ever want to leave. I love you. I’m so bloody in love with you, Sherlock. I should’ve seen it sooner. That part’s my fault, and for that I’m sorry.”

He swallowed, and gestured between them. “And if you don’t want to -- um -- be together, or whatever the hell this is, I’m still your friend, if you’ll have me.”

Sherlock’s eyes were glassy, stunned.

“It’s all right,” John said quietly, steeling himself. Knowing what Sherlock might say. “If you’re not up for this. It’s okay.”

It wasn’t all right, not really, but it would have to be. John would get there eventually.

Sherlock waited. For what, John wasn’t sure. For his brilliant mind to calculate, perhaps, the best way to let John down gently, to minimise the damage.

“No,” he said at last, his voice heavy in a way John didn’t recognise. “No, John. I -- I love you.”

John felt his jaw slacken.

“I love you,” Sherlock said again, wonderingly. “God. I do. I think -- I might be in love. With you. I don’t know.” He looked up at John. “I believe I... am.”

John found his voice. “Oh.”

A pained look flickered across Sherlock’s face. “I might hurt you again, I -- I can’t guarantee I won’t.”

Elation soared in John’s chest, dizzying and warm. “Fake suicides are right out, you realise,” he said, trying not to smile. “Oh, and I don’t do well with long-term disappearances, either.”

Sherlock’s brows knit in distress. “You don’t think I’m serious.”

“I do think you’re serious, Sherlock, and I think -- I think you’re right, actually. You probably will hurt me. You’ll leave me at a crime scene, or you’ll poison me. You’ll drug my sodding tea. You’ll drive me up the fucking wall, and I -- I signed up for this, Sherlock. You’re going to cock things up. That’s what you do. I’m going to cock things up too. I just don’t think it’s going to matter.”

They watched each other in the near-dark, John still lingering in the bathroom doorway. The radiator under the window clanked, then lapsed into a low putter.

“John Watson,” Sherlock said, as if he couldn’t quite believe it.

John swallowed. “Yes.”

The corner of Sherlock’s mouth tilted upward. “I’d like to kiss you again.”

“Right,” John breathed, and then found he couldn’t stop grinning. “Yeah. Good plan.”

* * *

John obliterated all space in Sherlock’s mind like ink poured over paper. Sight and sound and touch told him only of John. John, who looked at him with eyes so full that even Sherlock couldn’t fail to understand what was in them.

John’s touches were careful and warm. He let Sherlock drag questing fingertips across his skin, then closed his eyes and beamed an ecstatic smile. Terminology seemed irrelevant. It was logical that the two of them continued to exist outside the bounds of classification. They always had.

John kissed Sherlock’s hands, his neck, whispered things that pounded in the fragile cavern of Sherlock’s heart. Fearless, steady John. Steady even as his hands shook.

Mary lingered, a thought, a reminder, but only in the sense that she’d paved this particular road. Sherlock’s fingers, when laced with John’s, felt the place where a ring had once been: a scar, like so many others John bore. A line they’d stitched together. Each one seemed a signpost, an arrow on the map that had led to this place. The raised ridge of John’s bullet wound, the faded marks of cuts and sutures, case after case, down the line to the fresh bandage on his hand that would someday fade into a scar like the others. They’d all led John here. Nothing seemed a mistake, each mark wholly perfect. John was here now. He might not have got here otherwise.

Sherlock might not be good for John. No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t good for John.

But he was right for John. And that was another matter entirely.

* * *

Sherlock’s ragged breath filled John’s ears. They’d kissed and kissed like some kind of wonderful dream, as if each kiss would somehow cement the dream into reality. But this was reality, no cement needed. Every false start now seemed like a stepping stone to this new, joyful certainty. John was most definitely awake and on a hotel bed kissing Sherlock like he’d never kissed anyone in his life.

In love. They were in love. Christ, they’d been in love forever, but at the moment it was breaking news. Reporting live at the Pig and Whistle Inn, John Watson and Sherlock Holmes have finally worked it out. It took them a bloody age, didn’t it? Room 3C. We’ll have an update for you as soon as the shock wears off.

Eventually an insistent ache pushed through the shock. Sherlock’s fingers trailed over John’s cotton pants and John let out a gasp, hips bucking. He was close, too close, desire coiled like a spring in every nerve. And he had no idea what to do about it.

“Sorry.” Sherlock rolled up on an elbow next to him, skin damp with sweat. “Sorry, did I --”

“It’s fine,” John croaked. God. What to do? Somehow John’s fantasies had never covered basic logistics, like how to get his pants off in Sherlock’s presence without losing it completely.

Sherlock’s eyes slid over him. “Can I -- I don’t know what you --”

“Yes. God, yes. Whatever you like.” A panicked thought chased itself across John’s mind. He cleared his throat. “Um. Sherlock. Have you ever --”

“Yes.” Sherlock thumbed the edge of John’s pants. “But never -- like this.”

The vulnerability in Sherlock’s voice gave John pause. “What do you mean?”

“Not important.” Sherlock’s sharp edge returned full-force. “I’m clean, in case you were wondering.”

“Oh.” Damn. John should have been wondering. “Er, me too.”

Sherlock’s half-smirk was obvious in the dark. “I know.”

“Of course you do.”

Sherlock gave a low chuckle, and John managed a returning smile, his arousal still painfully potent. He hooked a thumb into the waistband of his boxers. “Shall I, um.”

“Please.”

John sat up halfway and scooched gracelessly out of his boxers, managing to gingerly work them over his erection. Sherlock, still propped on an elbow next to him, watched.

“Um,” John managed. “You too?”

Sherlock swallowed, then nodded. He slipped out of his own briefs and tossed them onto the floor. They watched each other in the dim shadows, side by side, close enough that John could see the pulse jumping in Sherlock’s neck. Sherlock’s body was just as alien as it was familiar: the line of his shoulders, the broad plane of his chest. Few curves, even fewer angles, only the smooth sweep of strength in his limbs. His cock jutted, utterly human, vulnerable. Just as erect as John’s. Christ. The sight of Sherlock so visibly affected sent a spike of arousal through John, and his cock twitched in response. John felt himself flush from his ears straight down to his chest. He hadn’t felt this undone since he was fifteen.

“I, uh. Sherlock. I’m not usually -- um. This might be be quick.”

“It’s fine,” Sherlock said, voice so low it hit the base of John’s spine. “Don’t worry.”

Breathing. Breathing was important. “You, um. You want to do this.”

“Yes.”

John’s fantasies had never included this epiphany. Sherlock wanted John. John had spent hours thinking of what he would do to Sherlock if given the chance, but Sherlock -- Sherlock wanted him. He wanted John, greying and short and fortyish, once-married, many times scarred.

John reeled for a moment in this uncharted galaxy of thought, and then Sherlock reached for him. Their bodies slotted together as Sherlock’s hand closed around John’s cock, and John nearly broke. “Oh God.”

That dark voice in John’s ear. “Tell me what you want.”

Jesus. John wanted -- he needed -- He swallowed painfully. “You,” he managed, reaching for Sherlock, his hand closing around the hard, smooth length of Sherlock’s erection. Sherlock gasped and dropped his head against John’s shoulder, his hips snapping forward instinctively to grind against John’s.

“Together,” John breathed. “Together.”

It was over before they could draw another breath.

Euphoria engulfed John as he pulsed in Sherlock’s hand. Skin, heat, nerves: all indistinguishable. Their legs and arms tangled together, boneless. Sherlock’s cock twitched in John’s fist, John’s fingers sticky and wet. John was going to die of either joy or humiliation, and he didn’t much care which.

“Sorry,” John mumbled into Sherlock’s neck, when Sherlock’s limp, glorious weight collapsed against him.

Sherlock lifted his head, breathing hard. “Apology accepted.”

John giggled, unable to stop himself. He felt Sherlock’s shoulders shake in response, and then they were laughing, sweaty and spent and utterly blissed-out. John could hardly draw breath with Sherlock draped all over him, and he shoved at Sherlock’s side, helpless, chest aching. Sherlock rolled off, still chuckling.

“That wasn’t -- that wasn’t how I thought that would go,” John panted, wiping his hand on the hotel sheets.

Sherlock rumbled a laugh. “No?”

“No.” John turned to look at Sherlock, who sprawled on the bed, chest rising and falling. The most beautiful sight John had ever seen.

“Next time,” Sherlock said gravely, “three seconds.”

“Next time?”

“Mmm. I bet we can last at least three.”

“You said next time,” John repeated.

Sherlock quirked a grin. “I’m never wrong.”

Happiness filled John, pure and perfect, shoving out any remaining scrap of darkness.

“Five seconds,” he said.

“Four and a half,” Sherlock murmured, and then they were asleep.

* * *

Grey winter light eased through the curtains. John fussed with the itchy hotel sheets and turned over to find Sherlock asleep next to him.

The previous night unfolded, better than any dream John’s subconscious had ever invented. John’s heart gave a leap and then decided to keep leaping. He watched Sherlock breathe, his hair mussed and imperfect. Mussed, because John’s fingers had done that. This tiny revelation seemed a lot to absorb, even with Sherlock’s naked form sprawled in bed next to him.

“Hey,” John said, because he knew Sherlock would want to be awake.

Sherlock’s eyes opened, and after a split-second of raw confusion, a brilliant smile crinkled the corners of his eyes. He looked about twelve this way. It was so unexpectedly sweet that John’s breath caught, and he grinned back.

“Hey,” Sherlock said, deep and slightly croaky.

“Okay?”

“Mmm,” Sherlock said, stretching a bit. “You?”

“Yeah, I’m good.”

Someday, this wouldn’t be awkward, but right now, it was. The first time. Maybe someday this would be habit. John hoped so. Maybe someday John wouldn’t think twice about the small miracle of waking up next to Sherlock -- hard to believe, at the moment.

Someday. That was a bit of a leap. One night together, and he’d started writing the rest of their lives in his head. Blog posts yet to come. Today was our third anniversary. We celebrated with Italian. Well, first we chased a murder suspect into an Italian restaurant, but after Sherlock hit him over the head with a saucepan, they served us fettucine.

John waited for a wave of apprehension, a jolt of fear: Together. Maybe, always. It never came. Instead, he shifted closer to Sherlock on the bed, leaned in, and kissed him. It was a soft, simple kiss. A kiss with the promise of other kisses in it.

They pulled apart, and Sherlock lifted an eyebrow. “Still good?”

John smiled. “Definitely.”

John didn’t feel any different, not really. He felt like himself. Himself, only happier. When he’d first found Mary, he’d felt like an entirely new person, which was just what he’d wanted at the time. Mary was the unknown, a sweet escape. But Sherlock --

Mary. He’d married Mary. He hadn’t thought about it. For one night, it hadn’t entered his mind.

John blanched, then swallowed. “Actually,” he amended, “actually, just give me a sec.”

He shut his eyes. He didn’t know how to explain. Sherlock, I’m still saying goodbye to a life I had without you. It hits me at really inconvenient moments.

But thankfully -- amazingly -- Sherlock knew that already.

“I didn’t think of her,” John said, opening his eyes again. “I didn’t think of her, Sherlock.”

“Ah.” Sherlock paused. “You’re thinking of her now.”

“Yeah,” John said. He stared up at the plaster above them, cracked like an eggshell. “Yeah, I am.”

Another pause. “Good.”

“Is it?”

“I don’t know.” Sherlock’s hand came to rest over John’s hip, a gentle weight. “This isn’t really my area.”

“I don’t think she’d be surprised,” John said, after a while.

“No,” Sherlock said. “She wouldn’t be the least bit surprised, would she?”

“She’d probably be pissed off we didn’t catch on sooner.”

A low chuckle. “Likely.”

“You know, I think she’d be happy, though.”

Sherlock’s grip tightened. “Do you think so?”

Joy and sadness swirled in John’s chest, far too much of both. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m sure.”

* * *

Lestrade’s jaw dropped. He stared at John, then took a hefty swig from the pint in front of him and set it down on the table. Ale spilled over the rim and slid down the side of the glass.

“You’re shitting me,” he said.

They were crammed into one of the cozy cubicles at John’s favourite pub on Dorset Street. John had taken an afternoon train back to London with Sherlock, and after a dizzying few hours at 221B, they’d both decided a little breather would be best. Lestrade, bless him, had skived off work early to meet John for a much-needed drink.

“Nope.” John took a drink from his own glass. “Believe me, I wouldn’t shit you about that.”

Lestrade continued to stare. “It’s not because you found out about the office pool.”

“No, it’s not because -- Oi! What office pool?”

“Before Sherlock left.”

John rubbed his forehead. “There was an office pool. At Scotland Yard.” He sat up straighter. “Of course there was an office pool. Jesus Christ.”

A slow smile crept across Lestrade’s face. He shook his head. “No, you didn’t know about that, did you?”

“I should bloody well think not,” John said, starting to grin despite himself.

“Well.” Lestrade’s smile broadened to an outright grin. “This is... good news.”

“Is it?”

“Oh, yeah. The best.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Anderson owes me twenty quid.”

* * *

Firelight threw warm, yellow shadows across the carpet, the fire itself dwindling into embers. Time seemed to swell and stop, the room vaguely fuzzy in a three-pints sort of way. John was home.

It was an odd, tiny moment, no different from the hundreds of other times he’d climbed the stairs at Baker Street, hung up his jacket, bid Sherlock goodnight. Well, that wasn’t entirely true -- it was different today. Different in that everything was the same, and yet it wasn’t. John stood, unable to speak, watching Sherlock type.

There was a time he thought he’d never walk into this flat again. There was a time he’d walked in, dust sifting through the curtains, and felt the emptiness of Sherlock’s chair tear him open. He didn’t know how to name what he felt now, but it flooded through him nonetheless.

A gift. It felt like a gift, and that’s because it was a gift. Another of Mary’s inscrutable, perpetually opening presents: the very last one, in fact. All this time thinking of what Mary had taken away from him, and now he could see what she’d given him instead.

Sherlock glanced up at him again, seeing John rooted to the spot. “What’s the matter?”

“Nothing. I -- nothing.”

Sherlock smirked. “Bit drunk, are we?”

John walked over to Sherlock’s chair and settled his hands over Sherlock’s shoulders. “Maybe,” John said, and bent to drop a kiss into Sherlock’s curls. He could do that now.

Sherlock chuckled and reached back to cover one of John’s hands with his own. “Lestrade bought the third round.”

John laughed and gave one of Sherlock’s shoulders a squeeze. “Well spotted.”

Sherlock’s smug expression, reflected in the laptop’s glossy screen, held a note of something bittersweet. “Well,” he said, “he did win the pool.”

* * *

The next morning John received the least surprising text of his life. He abandoned his toast and coffee, left Sherlock to his experiments in the kitchen, and went downstairs.

Mycroft stood under his open umbrella watching the steps of 221B like a stone gargoyle in a pinstriped suit. John nodded at him. Mycroft tipped the umbrella toward him in invitation; it was beginning to drizzle. John stepped under it.

“Solved the case, I take it,” Mycroft said. “Property dispute. Rather a simple business.”

“As they go, yeah.”

“Minor injuries.”

John held up his bandaged hand. “This is the worst of it. Sherlock’s got some bruising. He’ll be fine.”

“That’s good, then.”

Drops fell steadily onto the umbrella’s open canopy, wide enough to blot out the sky.

John cleared his throat. “Sherlock and I are shagging now. No use pretending you don’t know what’s going on, so there you are. We’ll just forget we had this conversation later.”

“Ah,” Mycroft said, his eyebrows arched nearly up to his receding hairline. “Well. I see.”

“It’s quite serious, I think,” John added. “More than just shagging, I don’t know what you want to call it. We’re together. We’re very happy. Just so you don’t have to ask.”

A look of genuine pleasure lit up the corners of Mycroft’s eyes -- truly, the only time John had ever seen it there. “Well,” Mycroft repeated. “Well, then. That is good.”

“I think so.”

Mycroft regarded him as drizzle pattered softly on the umbrella. “I had wondered.”

“Oh, you already knew. Knowing’s not exactly wondering. But I appreciate the sentiment.”

The corner of Mycroft’s mouth lifted.

“There is one thing I wanted to say, though,” John hedged, feeling his stomach drop. “I did find out about Magnussen, about... about Mary and Magnussen. And the baby.”

Mycroft’s long pause drove all lightness from his tone. “Ah. I see.”

“Yeah, and... I understand. That’s what I wanted to say, I -- I understand why you didn’t tell me.” He swallowed. “I, um. I appreciate what you and Sherlock were trying to do.”

Rain slid from the umbrella in shiny, wet drops. John watched one drop hit the slick pavement and disappear.

“That’s kind of you to say,” Mycroft said.

John looked up again and nodded.

“I should be going,” Mycroft added, after a moment. “But do let me know if... if there’s anything you need.” He cleared his throat. “Really.”

“There is one thing, actually,” John said, stepping back out into the rain. “I believe you know my therapist.”

A flicker of chagrin. “I -- yes. I believe we’ve... met.”

“If by ‘met’ you mean ‘nicked her notebooks on a regular basis,’ then yes, that’s the one. I imagine you’re quite familiar with her office address.”

Mycroft’s chagrin intensified. “Yes.”

“Could you do a favour for me, then? I’d like to send her some flowers. In my name. Only I’m afraid I don’t really know a good florist.”

“What shall I say is the occasion?”

“Oh, I think she’ll know.”

Mycroft’s mouth twitched. “Consider it done.”

John grinned. “Thanks.”

Mycroft paused, then switched his umbrella to one hand and held out the other. “John. I -- Thank you.

John shook it. “Don’t mention it.”

The shape of Mycroft’s mouth hinted at a smile. “Did you really think I would?”

* * *

March ninth arrived, as it was bound to. The clouds outside Baker Street milled about uneasily as if they were in a queue at Tesco. The sky above them was silvery with the promise of rain.

John woke absurdly early. He dressed, allowing himself to think for a moment of his other life, the one he’d once imagined he’d be living. Somehow it seemed like he should have guessed at this turn of events. Meeting Mary, getting married: that was the surprise. That she was gone now: perhaps less so.

Sherlock turned over in bed, pale limbs tangled in paler sheets, and blinked blearily. “John. All right?”

Trust Sherlock to know what day it was, even half-asleep. “Yeah. Go back to sleep. I was going to go early.”

“Okay.”

John felt Sherlock’s eyes on him as he finished buttoning his cuffs. He walked back to the bed, bent down, and brushed a kiss against Sherlock’s cheek. Sherlock cupped a hand around John’s neck, shifting the kiss to a chaste press of lips, slow and gentle.

John straightened, swallowing hard. “See you later, then.”

“Yes,” Sherlock said. “I’ll meet you there.”

New, damp grass carpeted the knoll under the wide boughs of Mary’s evergreen tree -- well, the tree above the grave John had chosen for her. Vast and gnarled, the tree’s branches soared, cathedral-like, up to its distant spire, protective arms filtering sunlight across the grave beneath. The tree looked as if it had a few secrets of its own, but was content to keep them. For now, its limbs rustled high above the short, bright grass freshly covering the gravesite.

John placed a bundle of lilacs at the base of the shiny marble headstone, and a single, tiny white rose next to them.

“Hey, girls,” he said, and then words choked him.

He stood for some time, watching the shadows of clouds shift across the ground. A light drizzle began to fall, and John stepped under the great tree and leaned against its rough, sap-streaked trunk. Eventually, the sun broke through. John wandered back to the shiny headstone and watched drops crawl down its surface. His own surname, etched into it.

“I’m shit at this, Mary. You’d think I wouldn’t be, by now.”

Mary said nothing, but then, it would have been worrisome if she had. Her voice filled his head, clear and edged with mirth. You are a bit shit at it, yeah.

John watched his shoes make dents in the new grass as he shifted his weight. “We were probably deluded, to think it could work. Marriage, you know, and, um. Kids. I wish it hadn’t been this way.”

You didn’t know.

“I should have known. I should’ve seen it.” He let the tree’s rustling needles fill the silence. “And I’m sorry -- God, I’m sorry about Magnussen, I’m sorry I didn’t know. I would’ve killed him, Mary, I -- I guess you probably knew that.”

The clouds shifted again, afternoon shadows crawling slowly across the knoll. John took a step back, catching the reflection of his silhouette in the glossy marble. “Thanks. For marrying me anyway.” He swallowed. “For saving me. Me and Sherlock both.”

Sherlock was waiting for him at the edge of the cemetery, dark coat flapping in the breeze. He nodded as John stopped in front of him, and took a step toward the gravestones. “Do you mind if I --?”

“No, no -- not at all.”

Sherlock nodded again, then set off toward Mary’s tree, hands in his pockets. John watched as Sherlock stopped on the top of the knoll and stood motionless, head bowed. John looked away, blinking hard. They’d been a good pair, Sherlock and Mary. He’d forgotten that. Sherlock had lost her too.

A few minutes later Sherlock reappeared by his side. They didn’t say anything. It seemed a bookend to another time. Their feet made damp prints on the stone path, twin marks that faded as they passed.

* * *

Dear Sherlock and John,

I know it’s been a shit year, but it seems things have taken a turn for the better. Hope you’ve both been well.

I don’t believe I’ll be returning to England anytime soon. Things got sticky for a while, so I’ve been on the road. Luckily I found a lovely house on a lovely island, so I’ve been spending some time in the sun. Even better, the house came with an even lovelier man. He likes Bond films. I think you’d really get on.

Somehow I don’t much feel like returning to the stress of my former job. I have some real estate in England I’d like to sell, but it’s such a hassle to do it long-distance. Since I have you two to thank for my current situation, I thought I’d just send over the deed and be done with it.

I know you’re quite busy in London these days, but maybe someday you’d find use for a getaway cottage in Sussex. A little vacation’s done me a world of good. Think it might do the same for you.

Keys are enclosed. Don’t worry, the bed’s big enough for two.

Cheers,
Janine