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A Vintage Exceptionally to Your Liking

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Nothing can be certain, when it comes to alternate universes, especially not what causes them to split. Why is the car invented in one universe and not another? Why does a universe remain, struggling for survival in the dark ages while another cures so many diseases that over-population leads to some of the most barbaric acts ever known?

 

What causes this Sherlock Holmes to meet John Watson ten years before any other version does?

 

That at least, can be answered.

 

It begins with a dog in the night-time. A large dog of nervous disposition, it’s startled from sleep by a small noise and it begins to howl. This is the moment - the seventeenth of September 1884 - that this universe splits off and heads down a different path.

 

The howling wakes a neighbouring baby, Jeannie Boone. Already a difficult sleeper, her cries continue for many hours during that night and cause her father, Alfred Boone, to step out into daylight the next morning bad-tempered and short with everyone about him.

 

He makes himself no friends that day in his Whitechapel Pharmacy. He snaps at his employees, is prickly with customers, and does his duties with spectacular bad grace.

 

He doesn’t realise that his final customer of the day will the final customer of his career.

 

In his haste to get the man out of the door and snatch a few hours of sleep in the backroom, he hands over the wrong bottle of medicine. George Haydock is ushered from the shop, dutifully takes his medicine, and is dead within two hours.

 

A small tragedy perhaps, but one that never-the-less alters the universe.

 

Haydock leaves behind a wife, Laura, and as young widows are wont to do, she remarries and becomes Laura King. This marriage creates a child, Peter King, a hearty boy who survives the trenches of the war with all of his limbs and enough of his mind for his wartime experience to be called a success. He proceeds to open a shoe factory in the East End, marries, accumulates money, and rules over his family with an iron fist for the next forty years.

 

His son Jack is entirely unremarkable, idolising his father, surviving the Second World War, and then attempting to exert the same level of control over his children: Frederick and Lizzie. Freddie turns to drink, gambling, and the general chaos of the late sixties. His sister Lizzie, sober-minded and with the makings of true East End Matriarch about her, keeps her brother in line enough to keep the ailing family business from collapse.

 

This leads to considerable friction between the brother and sister, ending in 2003, when – after his announcement that he plans to sell the business and move to the South of France – she echoes the very event that had brought their family into existence and swaps Freddie’s heart medicine with everyday painkillers, hastening on a mammoth heart attack.

 

At this point, the timelines of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson intersect the story. Stuart Jennings, friend of Freddie and regular at one of Sherlock’s favourite restaurants, asks him to investigate the suspicious timing of Freddie’s death.

 

John Watson, meanwhile, is sleeping with Stephanie King, youngest of Freddie’s four daughters, and though it’s not serious feels obliged to attend her father’s funeral when she asks him to.

 

It’s there, for the first time, that their paths cross.

 

               

----

 

2003

 

Sherlock is pretending to be asleep as the car pulls up.

 

He is curled-up on the concrete outside the backdoor of Time2, a particularly sleazy Soho nightclub, and he’s waiting for Kris to arrive at his usual spot. Kris is a former miner who has fallen on hard times and who will hopefully be a very useful contact in the future.

 

Mycroft’s face is such a picture of distaste when he steps out of the car that Sherlock is almost amused. Sherlock can see his eyes flickering to the pools of vomit outside the door and the streaks of piss staining the wall that Sherlock is leaning against. He looks like he’s wishing that he could order a lackey to provide a carpet to protect his shoes, but he merely sighs and picks his way over to Sherlock, where he towers above him. Disappointment oozes from every part of his body.

 

“Go away!” Sherlock hisses.

 

“Well I would visit you at your flat,” Mycroft points out, “but for all intents and purposes you don’t actually live there. Tell me, are you planning to adopt the homeless lifestyle permanently?”

 

“I’m networking,” Sherlock snarls. He pulls the ratty sleeping bag up so that only his glaring eyes are visible.

 

“Yes. The so-called Homeless Network. And when you aren’t living on the streets in order to build this network you seem to be annoying the police on a daily basis and taking on petty cases from just about anyone who needs help. I’m sure the case of Mr. Killmarsh’s shop graffiti will go down in the annals of history. And that missing watch problem must have kept you engaged for seconds.”

 

Mycroft understands what Sherlock is doing perfectly well and Sherlock doesn’t take the time to remind him of that. Yes the cases are boring, and living on the streets is uncomfortable, but it’s work that needs doing if he wants to succeed in his chosen career. Having contacts in locations and professions where they see and hear far more than most people would suspect will be a great advantage, and Sherlock is more than prepared to spend a few miserable years ensuring that they either work for him or owe him.

 

Besides, the cocaine helps with the boredom.

 

“Try and fool yourself all you like,” Mycroft sneers, “but none of this is about connections. Connections are about information and power. This is about being liked. You want to be a hero to these people. Really Sherlock it’s almost clichéd.”

 

“Why would I care about being liked?”

 

“For the same reason you cried your heart out over Redbeard and loathed university with such a passion; you never could control your emotions.”

 

Sherlock grits his teeth. “You’re a fine one to lecture me on self-control from your throne of donuts. If I can’t control my emotions, you are just as much a slave to your body’s whims.”

 

Mycroft gives that half smile that Sherlock loathes above all because it means he’s winning the argument.

 

“Yes you can starve yourself and go without sleep well enough, but according to my reports you aren’t quite able to kick one habit.”

 

“The drugs?” Sherlock scoffs. “You know perfectly well that as soon as I’m occupied-”

 

“Not the drugs Sherlock,” Mycroft gives that smug smile again. “I’m talking about the sex.”

 

Ha! So Mycroft isn’t all knowing. The moment of delight at his poor information almost makes up for the fact he is discussing this with Mycroft in the first place.

 

“I haven’t had any.”

 

“No, you’re not quite able to bring yourself to do it, are you? You always say something to frighten them away, hiding your true nature until the last second. I must say it’s very telling that the one desire of the body you find so difficult to stamp down is the one so very connected with emotion.”

 

There haven’t been that many incidents, Sherlock thinks bitterly. Usually they start as part of a case or research, he plays a role and lets it continue, pretending to be someone likeable, pleasant, desirable… it’s almost a game with his own self-control and he always wins. He will not let sex beat him.

 

“And it’s equally telling that sex is the one desire of the body that you’re so ashamed of,” he bites back. “You do so hate indulging in it.”

 

“I think this conversation is getting off topic,” Mycroft says tightly.

 

Score!

 

“The point I’m trying to make is that this ridiculous game of yours serves no purpose. This hobby – especially the drugs - is upsetting Mother.”

 

“Then stop telling her about it,” Sherlock snaps. “Was that all you came here to say? If so move along. You’re blocking out the light.”

 

 

--

 

 

It’s a true cockney funeral in all its glory. The younger men wear new, boxy suits with wide knotted ties, the older ones wear the jackets they bought in their twenties, shiny with wear. Almost every woman there clicks around in black pointed-toe stilettos, their bleached hair tucked under large, showy hats. This is a Family with a capital ‘F’ and every member is present, from the screaming children to the old, papery women in wheelchairs.

 

Sherlock’s been astonishingly lucky to get in on this murder case. The police haven’t even worked out that it was murder, and won’t make an arrest for days after they’ve figured it out.

 

He’s here to get a good look at Lizzie King, and he’s hoping he might even get chance for a quick chat. One so rarely gets an opportunity to talk to a murderer. Unfortunately for him, once the service starts he’s stuck there, and it’s proving to be a very long service indeed. The family has paid for the very best and the vicar is inclined to give them their money’s worth. George Haydock’s entire life must be narrated, hymns must be sung, and grandchildren must read out poems in wobbling voices.

 

He occupies himself in making deductions just from the backs of the people in front of him; it's then that the doctor catches his eye. Sherlock knows he’s a doctor at once (a glimpse of his hand as he reaches across to squeeze his girlfriend’s shoulder tells Sherlock everything) and he realises that he isn’t the only one bored senseless by this service.

 

The man does nothing as obvious as fidgeting or sighing, but his previously upright posture has become a slouch and whenever they have to stand for a hymn or prayer the lack of enthusiasm practically rolls off of him. Not a relative, that’s clear, but the boyfriend of King’s youngest daughter. A serious boyfriend would have either cared for her father, or at least hid his disinterest better, so he’s either a new or casual boyfriend who is dutiful enough to put himself through this misery.

 

Another hymn is announced and this time there is a minor moment of interest when the girlfriend (sitting directly in front of Sherlock) tries to stand and realises that her black lace skirt has got caught on the hook that holds the hassock to the back of the pew. She struggles and the doctor reaches behind to help her, giving Sherlock his first proper look at the man’s face as he catches Sherlock’s eye.

 

The man cleverly recognises another outsider in Sherlock and gives him a subtle, despairing look that Sherlock interprets as a silent wonder as to whether the preservation of the corpse will give up before they are done with the final hymn. Something tightens within Sherlock’s chest at his expression.

 

Damn it.

 

Mycroft is somewhat right, when he says that Sherlock finds sexual attraction hard to control. He getting better at it, but now and then he slips up and has an occasional attack of it towards someone. This man is a prime example.

 

Attraction is a strange thing, Sherlock has always found. It’s a polite form of lust, a day-time echo of the night-time ache for companionship. He wants nothing more than to be alone with this man, to be in his space, to touch him…

 

The man deals with the caught up skirt and turns back to the front before Sherlock has thrown this sudden upset off. It’s just a mildly pleasing face and a hint of a wicked streak, he tells himself. Nothing worth jeopardising his hard won control for.

 

It doesn’t stop him staring at the back of the man’s head for the rest of the funeral or from keeping him in sight as the final piece of organ music strikes up and the pall bearers begin their slow march. At last everyone ekes out of the church and into the welcome coolness outside as they wait to move on to the graveyard.

 

The girlfriend is off providing support to her mother and so the doctor is alone and largely ignored as they wait. Sherlock doesn’t sidle up to the man, but he remains nearby until, as two people not in conversation with anyone else, sheer politeness will force the man to speak.

 

To his surprise the man doesn’t bow to social conventions. He seems quite at ease with the silence and in no rush to make conversation. Ordinarily this would please Sherlock a great deal and increase his estimation for the man, but as he does want to talk to him this means that he will have to start the conversation which is not his strongest skill.

 

“So,” he says, “are you a friend of the-“

 

“-bride or the groom?” the man finishes.

 

Sherlock tries, without success, to hide the unexpected smile at the weak joke.

 

“Neither,” the man finishes. “John Watson. Boyfriend of the daughter.”

 

He doesn’t sound wholly comfortable calling himself the ‘boyfriend’. Reassuring. Even more reassuring is the amused spark in his eyes and the tongue flicking out to moisten his bottom lip. He’s attracted too, on some level. It wouldn’t take much to persuade him into bed. Sherlock could give any one of his alias names, become a person John Watson will be unable to resist…

 

Control, he needs better self-control…

 

“Sherlock Holmes. Investigating the murder.”

 

The man raises a brow. “It was murder?”

 

Sherlock nods. “The police will work it out soon enough.”

 

“That’s very reassuring. Have any leads?”

 

“Oh no. I know who did it. I said the police will work it out. I’m better than the police.”

 

He winces as soon as the words are out of his mouth. He sounds like the very worst sort of armchair detective. The only way he could sound like more of an arse is if he started mouthing off about the true identity of Jack the Ripper.

 

“Oh,” says the man. “Is it that guy?”

 

His eyes are bright as he points his chin towards the braying cousin of the deceased.

 

Sherlock blinks in surprise. “…No.”

 

“Am I close?”

 

Sherlock doesn’t know where the smile that settles on his lips comes from, but it appears and his traitorous voice deepens. “Not. Telling.”

 

Control. Regain control!

 

“How many goes do I get?”

 

Sherlock considers. “Two more.”

 

At this point the sort-of-girlfriend returns to John with a trembling ever-so-brave smile and presses her forehead to his for some sort of comfort.

 

“We’re heading to the graveyard now,” she murmurs. “Sorry for just leaving you like that.”

 

“Its fine,” John says and, with a polite nod to Sherlock, they turn to follow the others.

 

Sherlock needs to go. He must go. He stands there, watching John lead his girlfriend away, arm around her waist, and plans to go.

 

Ten minutes later he’s standing in the crowd around the grave.

 

Annoyingly John seems focused on rubbing his crying girlfriend’s back, if he’s not busy reaching down to squeeze her hand. Sherlock is just beginning to regret wasting his time when the man catches his eye and tilts his head in the direction of a pasty employee of King’s.

 

Sherlock shakes his head and holds up a finger.

 

One more guess.

 

There are no more guesses for the rest of the burial and Sherlock has enough restraint not to immediately seek the man out once they are free to move around again. He needn’t worry because John finds him first. He looks pleased with himself.

 

Sherlock’s pretty sure he’s going to name him as the potential murderer. Not a bad guess - he’s easily mistaken for a serial killer - but a bit disappointing. Almost certainly not serious; John doesn’t look like a man who thinks he’s confronting a murderer.

 

“It’s not Stephanie is it?”

 

The girlfriend. Sherlock practically glows with pleasure at this willingness to put logic before blind faith in a romantic interest. It’s almost a shame that it’s not her.

 

“No. It’s not me either, if you were wondering.”

 

“I wasn’t. You’re a bit chatty for a secret murderer.”

 

Sherlock acknowledges this.

 

“Oh well. I suppose I’ll have to find out when the police make their arrest.”

 

“Yes, I won’t spoil the surprise.”

 

John laughs. “Are you coming to the wake? It would be nice to have someone to talk to.”

 

No. No. He can’t. This isn’t like the other times, he’s not pretending to be someone else. John Watson’s attracted to him even though Sherlock is behaving in a way that usually puts people off. Every second he lingers in John’s presence is destroying all the self-control he’s spent years building up.

 

But then again, it’s a wake. How much trouble can he get into?

 

 

--

 

 

For the first hour he’s right; nothing of importance happens at all. The wake is at King’s local pub, which has been taken over for the event. Family and friends stand around in little groups, pretending King was more interesting than he really was and bowing their heads whenever the mood becomes too light, reminding each other what an awful shock it all is, how devastated they all are. The flowers are discussed in great detail (with quiet speculation as to price) and the buffet is complained about by everyone who didn’t actually pay for it.

 

Now that the official mourning is over, the family start to show an interest in Stephanie’s new man. John commandeered by sisters and cousins and gets involved in quite a long chat with Lizzie King, who is the second most interesting person in the room as far as Sherlock is concerned and looking wonderfully calm about the murder she’s getting away with (for now).

 

Sherlock stands alone by the wall, avoiding any interaction with mourners. Despite all the attention, John keeps glancing over at Sherlock in a way that suggests he’s as interested in Sherlock’s presence as Sherlock is in John’s.

 

Fearing that they might spend the entire night without talking, Sherlock heads towards the toilets not long after John heads in that direction. Grimy pub bathroom or not, the chance to be in an even semi-private space with him is too good an opportunity to miss.

 

He’s going mad, some part of himself thinks, but he can’t resist.

 

Inside John is just coming out of a cubicle and goes to wash his hands. He smiles with genuine pleasure at catching Sherlock.

 

“There you are,” he says. “That’s not a family you can say no to. The old dear in the wheelchair will tell anyone who listens that she slept with Ronnie Kray. Don’t think she realises he was the gay one.”

 

Sherlock goes to the sink as if washing the greasy remains of the buffet from his hands was his motivation all along.

 

“It’s fine.”

 

John leans against the sink next to Sherlock, in no rush to go back out while Sherlock begins what will be the most leisurely paced and thorough hand wash of all time.

 

“So have I talked to the murderer yet?”

 

Sherlock’s smiles, and his surprise at seeing his own smile reflecting back in the mirror almost startles it off of his face.

 

“I’m not giving you any clues.”

 

“It’s not the old dear with the Kray obsession?”

 

“Is that a fourth guess?”

 

“Oh no, I'm waiting for the big reveal.” John holds up his hands innocently. “Anyway, at least we can hide out of the way in here for a bit.”

 

Sherlock raises a brow. “What about Stephanie?”

 

“What about her?” John frowns. “Oh. That. It’s honestly a casual thing, she just wanted some company and someone to act as a buffer between her and her more overwhelming relatives. She’ll be fine.”

 

John clears his throat and Sherlock reluctantly reaches for the paper towels to dry his hands.

 

“In, uh, fact. About that. I was wondering if you’d like to get coffee sometime?”

 

It’s almost the last thing Sherlock expects. Everything he knows about this man tells him that John Watson would not make that offer to another man.

 

“What do you mean?” he asks, feeling stupid.

 

“Ah. It doesn’t matter… I just thought you might be-”

 

“I am,” Sherlock says quickly. His brain helpfully supplies that it might have been better to make apologies, claim to be married to his work, anything but the stunned, desperate look on his face at the moment. “You just… I wouldn’t have thought you’d be the sort to… ask.”

 

In fact everything he’s learned so far suggests that John is interested in other men, but has never considered acting on it until now. To go from that to outright asking out a person of the same gender seems… unfairly easy.

 

“I’m not! I mean-” John swallows, “-I’ve never… with a…” he stops, rubs his hands over his face, and tries again. “I’ve always just gone for it when I fancy someone. And even though I’d not normally be interested… I just thought I’d… regret not asking you.”

 

He swallows and scrubs at his face again. “Oh god, I’m blushing. I’m standing here, in the gents in a Whitechapel pub, asking out another man and blushing.”

 

Sherlock’s self-control is long gone by this point. Hunger, sleep, and pain he can ignore for as long as he needs, but he’s finally met someone who seems to like him.

 

His next movement is almost a… surge. He has John Watson crowded against the cubicle door in seconds and he is sliding his hands around John’s torso, pulling him up to kiss him as hard as John is tugging Sherlock’s shirt – a whole fistful of fabric – down to meet his lips.

 

And then they hear footsteps outside the door.

 

They part only for the time it takes to pull and drag each other into the cubicle and click the lock shut as the outer door opens inwards. A rabble of noise from the pub can be heard for a second and then it’s muffled again as the person enters the cubicle next to them and starts to pee.

 

John is pressed against the wall now and Sherlock is close enough to feel the heat radiating off him. He wants to kiss, to touch, but instead they stand there in absolute silence as the unwelcome guest finishes, zips up, and staggers back out to the bar.

 

Alone again, John starts to laugh and it’s infectious enough that Sherlock joins in. It doesn’t hide the fear though, this small pause may have given John time to reconsider. He still might push Sherlock away-

 

The hands return to Sherlock’s body and his eyes close involuntarily as John begins another hard kiss. He can feel the flush of heat across his cheeks and the adrenalin trickling down to pool in his stomach. He’s hard, John’s hard, and they are rutting against each other. He wants to do everything possible to John, have John do it all to him, but they are hardly in the right place.

 

John seems to have the same idea.

 

“Hang on,” he whispers.

 

He brushes past Sherlock and the sudden coolness of the air leaves Sherlock bereft; he forces himself to stay where he is rather than follow pathetically. There’s a whisper of fabric and then a clink of coins. There’s a thunk of a two pound coin dropping into the machine by the door and Sherlock realises what’s happening. John returns with the packet of condoms a moment later and Sherlock all but snatches it. He knows exactly what he wants to do.

 

He pushes John back against the wall, kisses him again and nips at his neck. He wants to make a whole project of John’s neck, an art of it, but there’s no time. John will be missed and probably very soon. Reluctantly Sherlock pulls away, kisses him for a moment, just long enough to grind against him again and feel the satisfying hardness against his own, before he drops to the floor in front of John and begins to tug at his belt.

 

It makes perfect sense, he thinks as he rubs his hand against the bulge and watches with fascination as John’s head arches back. John hasn’t given much thought to gay sex before, is likely to be spooked by it, more likely to reject Sherlock and walk away if he has to face the realities of it. This way Sherlock can do the work and gain the satisfaction and pleasure of watching this extraordinary man come apart.

 

Free of his trousers, John’s cock is fully erect – thick and long - and Sherlock admires it for a moment before stroking it firmly, causing another delicious reaction from John. He’s technically new at this, but he doesn’t want John to suspect as much. He wants to please him. If this is going to be the only time John ever does this with him, he wants him to think fondly of it. He strokes the hard length a few more times and slips the condom on without too much fumbling.

 

He doesn’t want the condom, he’s clean and he wouldn’t mind the risk, would almost enjoy the risk, but he knows better than to argue with a doctor. He leans forward, rubs his cheek against the shaft - to get John’s full attention more than anything else - and then gently runs the very tip of his tongue up the length.

 

John hums in pleasure at the teasing touch, his eyes close and he drops his chin down onto his chest, lost in the sensation. Sherlock continues the movement, waits for the tension to drop from John’s shoulder and for John to get used to the sensation. Then, without warning, he opens his mouth and takes him in.

 

The reaction is wonderful. John, shocked at the sudden heat and pleasure, gives an almost shout which he quickly stifles with his own hand. His eyes snap open and he looks down, only to groan again at the sight of Sherlock’s mouth around him. Sherlock’s almost annoyed because he wants to hear John’s reaction, but having those eyes watching him with such desire is almost as good.

 

He reaches down and releases his own cock, stroking it lazily as he moves his head back and forth. He won’t come until John does; the sight of it alone will be enough to finish him.

 

John’s hands suddenly reach out and he runs his fingers through Sherlock’s hair. It’s an affectionate, restrained touch, as if he’s preventing himself taking a handful and fucking Sherlock’s face. Just the thought of it has Sherlock’s hands moving faster on his own cock and if his mouth was free he’d tell John not to hold back at all.

 

If someone comes in now, there’s no way Sherlock can stop and no way of keeping John quiet. His hips must ache with the force of not bucking and Sherlock tests him further, moving faster, pressing his tongue more firmly against John’s cock. When he adds a low moan of his own, the vibration raises an actual whimper from John.

 

He ignores his own aching cock and moves his hands to John’s balls, tugs at them. His movements are getting sloppy but John doesn’t seem to mind; his own control is breaking down and he thrusts into Sherlock’s mouth. Sherlock’s greedy response sends John hurtling towards the edge; he grips Sherlock’s hair and fucks Sherlock’s mouth as orgasm washes through him. John moans and his movements slow, but Sherlock keeps his head and tongue working for a few moments longer - teasing every last bit of pleasure out - until John is slumped against the wall, sensitive and trembling.

 

John is wonderfully quick at what he does next. Despite his own satiation he all but hauls Sherlock up and backs him against the cool, tiled wall. Sherlock - awash with pleasure and satisfaction even as his cock throbs with need - is sure that the second John touches him he’ll come.

 

He’s good at controlling his own body though. At John’s first stroke – confident despite this being his first time – Sherlock forces his body not to be overwhelmed. This may be the only time he ever does this, he absolutely has to make it last. He closes his eyes, revelling in the sensations of John’s hand pumping his cock, of John’s breath against his neck, the sensation is too much and his orgasm overwhelms him. He comes harder than he’s ever achieved by himself.

 

Sherlock isn’t wearing a condom, but clever, quick thinking John moves his hand just in time and saves both of their suits. Sherlock is still, shivering as John steps out of the cubicle again to wash his hands and then comes back to kiss Sherlock hungrily. Eventually he pulls away and just stands, breathing hard against Sherlock.

 

“You. Are. Amazing.” John says against his neck. It’s almost a growl.

 

The condom is gone but his trousers are still open and have slipped down to sit low on his hips. His eyes are heavily lidded and it makes Sherlock want to push him onto the floor and live out every single fantasy he’s ever had…

 

Yet Sherlock knows that John will have to go back soon, knows that this might be the only time John does this with him. This has been a fantasy of sorts, an encounter with a man who is interested in the idea but not the reality. John would be scared away in the end, by Sherlock’s gender, his personality, and his lifestyle, even if he’s more tolerant than most.

 

Even so, here and now in this cubicle, Sherlock knows that what little heart he has will always belong to John Watson.

 

--

 

A/N: Chinese Translation (by Karoliner) now available HERE.

Chapter Text

Sherlock expects the funeral to be his only interaction with John Watson.

 

That’s not to say he doesn’t intend on seeing John again - he intends to keep a close eye on him - but until his emotions are under control, watching him from afar is safer.

 

Over the next few weeks he learns a lot about John. He and his sister share a two-bedroom flat on the bottom floor of a terraced house and - if the rows Sherlock hears virtually rattling the window panes are anything to go by - this cohabitation is at the insistence of their mother. They seem to be in her thrall; it’s all there in their dowdy fashion sense, their outward conservatism, and the fact that between them they visit her at least once a day.

 

John dutifully dates Stephanie - though he doesn’t sleep with her - until Lizzie King is finally arrested and the King family close ranks. John doesn’t seem heartbroken, and Sherlock sees him walking to work perusing the newspaper article about the murder with a smile that Sherlock hopes is for him.

 

Did John ever make that third guess? Was he right? Is John thinking of him? Is he angry that Sherlock slipped away without even saying goodbye? Has he tried to look Sherlock up?

 

Sherlock still works. He does technically share a flat but does little more than shower and change there. His flatmate is using his room for storage and forgets about him so long as the rent isn’t overdue. He spends his days and nights out on the streets: learning, investigating, and – whatever Mycroft thinks – networking.

 

Its two months after the funeral that Sherlock realises that this state of affairs cannot continue.

 

It begins with him being mugged.

 

Sherlock later deduces that his mugger is a former-bouncer with a knot of overdue bills, a steroid addiction, and a baby daughter he visits once a month. Sherlock doesn’t see any of that at first – he’s deplorably distracted by his own thoughts – and so he notices nothing out of place until he feels the presence of someone walking briskly on his left hand side, and then a sudden shove right, into a gap between two shops. He’s slammed into the huge bins of rotting food.

 

He’s calm and prepared to deal with this attack before the knife is even on his neck.

 

“I live on the streets,” he says in a neutral tone. “How much money do you think I have?”

 

His attacker wants money. He isn’t a rapist, but the steroids make him potentially dangerous.

 

A hand goes to Sherlock’s pockets and roughly searches him. His phone, keys, and a bag of loose change that Sherlock uses for his cover are all found.

 

“What’s this lot then?” the mugger rasps. The phone and change are pocketed. The keys are tossed into the bin Sherlock is jammed against. “You got drugs?”

 

“No.”

 

The hand returns to search him again but find nothing else.

 

“Stay. Where. You. Are.” the man growls. He backs away and Sherlock realises that that’s the end of it.

 

He also realises two other things: that this mugging might be incredibly useful for him, and that he wants nothing more than to go to John.

 

But he needs a good reason to go to John. Turning up with sad eyes and a pathetic story isn’t enough.

 

The words are out of his mouth before he can second guess himself.

 

“Yeah! Enjoy it you ugly fucker!” he yells after his mugger.

 

Revenge is swift, uncoordinated, but brutal enough for Sherlock’s needs.

 

The man turns back at once. Punch to the jaw, crack on the head where there blow knocks it against the wall, punch to the stomach, and a blocked third hit to the head. Sherlock is still too quick. He lands a blow himself and is fast enough to get back out onto the street before it turns into an actual fight.

 

He sprints away, exhilarated despite the pain. He couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity than this.

 

--

 

Sherlock’s first stop is three streets away where Kelly, a baby-faced twenty year old, is sitting behind a Styrofoam cup of change.

 

“Hi Shez,” she croaks, taking in his bloody head, “what happened?”

 

“Just a mugging,” he shrugs, trying not to wince as he talks. In this world, a mugging is a minor inconvenience, and considering the alternatives he should count himself lucky. “Hoping you could do me a favour?”

 

She shrugs, neither a yes nor a no, and Sherlock tells her what he wants her to do.

 

After that Sherlock heads to Wandsworth. He has no money, so it’s over an hours walk, but he’s had worse injuries and who he’s going to see is more important than being patched up.

 

He knows exactly where to go to find John; Sherlock has sat in the street opposite the practice to watching him start and finish work several times. John clearly loathes the job, but he’s not long out of training and the surgery is near his mother’s house. Sherlock wonders what John would have done if pleasing his mother hadn’t been a factor. Being a GP doesn’t suit him; it irritates him on a daily basis.

 

Sherlock enters the waiting room and goes to the counter, ignoring the stares from all the waiting patients. The receptionist looks him over warily and he speaks before she can say anything annoying.

 

“I need to see Dr. Watson. Now.”

 

She opens her mouth.

 

“No, I don’t have an appointment, no I’m not registered to the practice, but I have just been mugged.”

 

She opens her mouth again.

 

“No, I don’t want to go to A&E.”

 

She stares for a moment and then sighs. “Take a seat. I’ll ask if he’ll see you after his current patient.”

 

“Thank you. Tell him it’s Sherlock Holmes.”

 

Sherlock sits and briefly enjoys the glare from the middle-aged woman who was down as Dr. Watson’s next patient.

 

The receptionist makes the internal call and then sends Sherlock to Room 6. John is already standing, looking alarmed.

 

“What the hell happened to you?”

 

Sherlock shrugs. “Mugged. Cut to the back of the head, a few punches.”

 

He’s ushered into a seat and John snaps on gloves, pulls out bandages, and begins his automatic patter of medical questions.

 

“Why are you dressed like a tramp?” John asks when the wound has been declared to be nothing too serious and Sherlock is washing the worst of the blood down the sink.

 

“I’m trying to build a network,” Sherlock explains. “Eyes and ears everywhere. Funnily enough the homeless don’t tend to warm towards posh bastards in designer suits.”

 

John shrugs as though it’s a fair enough answer. Sherlock sits down again.

 

“I suppose it’s stupid to ask how you found me. Detective magic, I suppose?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

John sighs.

 

“Seriously Sherlock, what happened?”

 

“I told you, I got mugged.”

 

“I wasn’t talking about today.” His stare is firm, questioning, and it takes all of Sherlock’s will not to squirm under it.

 

Because it’s not an easy question to answer, not when the truth involves admitting to a level of affection he is uncomfortable admitting to anyone, even himself.

 

“I was unsettled by, uh, unexpected emotions and so I, uh-“

 

“-retreated?” John finishes.

 

They share a long gaze.

 

“Something like that yes. Until I was… until I just… needed you.”

 

John nods, accepting this answer. “OK. I get it. This is new territory. If I asked you out again… would you show up or would you disappear off the face of the earth?”

 

Sherlock blinks. “Did you really mean it last time?”  

 

“I said it, didn’t I?”

 

“I assumed that was more of a prelude to sex-“

 

John sighs again. “You’ll learn – I hope – that when I say something I tend to mean it. So would you like to have dinner with me?”

 

Sherlock’s not naive, knows that dating a person of the same sex is going to be far less simple for John than he’s making out, but his confidence, his acceptance, is so easy to fall into.

 

“Tonight?”

 

John grimaces. “I promised to visit my mother. Tomorrow though?”

 

A knock on the door interrupts them. The receptionist, looking frazzled, pokes her head into the room.

 

“There’s another one here for you, Dr. Watson. Said you were expecting her.”

 

John frowns as the homeless girl enters the room. Kelly grins at Sherlock and reaches into her pocket.

 

“Here you go Shez,” she says, pulling out his mobile phone. “I spoke to Budgie, who spoke to Mel, who spoke to Jonesey, and he knew someone who’d just been offered your phone. Goff had a word with the buyer and he was happy to get rid of it.”

 

Sherlock accepts his phone back and Kelly leaves. Once she’s gone he leaps up from his seat in triumph.

 

“Yes!”

 

“What was that?” John asks, totally baffled by Kelly’s appearance.

 

“Proof that the network is working! Ha! Take that Mycroft.” He spins around in delight. “It turns out that my brother isn’t always right.”

 

Which means that he doesn’t have to be right about Sherlock and relationships, either. He’s always said that Sherlock would do far better to control his feelings than indulge them, but right now Sherlock’s career is starting to blossom and he’s standing in front of a man who, despite the fact he’s dressed as a tramp, still wants to have dinner with him.

 

“Tomorrow,” he says firmly. “Dinner. I’ll be there.”    

 

--

 

Getting ready for the date is more difficult than Sherlock imagined. He is showering and dressing, which he does most days, and yet having this strange word hovering over him clouds every action so that decisions seem impossible and everything is questioned.

 

In the end he grows tired of himself and dresses normally, then undoes all his good work by searching the internet for any advice it can offer. He tries to deduce what John might want in a date, but as he’s only seen John on stilted dates with Stephanie he doesn’t have enough information. He wonders whether John is nervous, whether he’s as unsure and desperate for advice too.

 

Considering this is something Sherlock wants to do, it’s ridiculous that he begins to dread the moment he has to leave, and the journey to their meeting point is done with something approaching a heavy heart. It’s only when John appears, walking confidently towards him, that the nervousness disappears and is replaced by a strange sort of awkwardness.

 

“I thought we could – uh – Italian?”

 

John nods, suddenly looking equally unsure, and they begin a slow walk in the direction of an Italian that Sherlock knows well. He has no idea what to say, but John seems happy to talk.

 

“Do you know Mike Stamford?”

 

Sherlock blinks in surprise. Ah. Of course there’d be a connection there. “I do some work at St. Barts, so I know him a little.”

 

John nods. “Yeah I bumped into him today and your – er – your name came up and he said he knew you a bit. He actually said he’d been hoping to see you about this week-“

 

Sherlock is confused. Mike Stamford is an acquaintance at best; he has no idea why Mike wants to see him.

 

“He said you were good at puzzles and he has – I quote – ‘a humdinger’.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“He’s engaged to a teacher – Caroline – and she said that every time she arrives in the morning, there’s a strange drawing on the whiteboard. Stick men - means nothing to her at all - only when one of her Science class came in, one girl was so shocked that she fainted. Apparently Caroline has no idea what the drawing means, and the girl wouldn’t tell her, but every morning it’s back on the board.”

 

Oh that sounds… intriguing. Finally a puzzle with some interesting elements. It’s almost annoying that he can’t start work at once-

 

- He looks at John, guilty at his willingness to throw him over for a case. John has seen his expression, and he’s smiling as if it’s amusing.

 

“It’s fine,” he says. “It’s your… passion, right?”

 

Sherlock nods. His eyes sweep across John’s placid face, searching for some sort of clue as to what to say.

 

“We don’t have to do dinner just yet,” John says nonchalantly. “Mike should still be at the hospital.”

 

Sherlock blinks. “You wouldn’t mind me going?”

 

“Well, I was hoping you’d let me come along too…”

 

“You want to?”

 

John looks as if he’s never heard a question so ridiculous. “Of course I do.”

 

--

 

Oh it’s glorious.

 

The case itself was pretty spectacular: a quick visit to Mike (in which his eyes flickered between them in a knowing way that made Sherlock feel several inches taller) a midnight stake-out at the school, a fight in the back of a cinema, two dead bodies, and an arrest that’s put him in the good books of the Met.

 

Everything just seemed better for John’s presence and John was fascinated by the whole business. No deduction - no matter how obvious - went un-admired and Sherlock’s not sure how, but even his brain worked better, as if it was trying to impress John.

 

Now it’s three am and they’re alive with adrenalin, sauntering down the street and sharing a packet of hot, greasy chips between them. They’re both talking a mile-a-minute, with the occasional break to laugh, and now and then their arms brush or their hands meet and then they’re grinning so hard at each other that Sherlock’s face aches.

 

It’s a terrible shame when they arrive outside John’s flat, and they have to stop walking and say goodnight. They ball up the wrapping of the chips and throw it into the front garden, which they laugh about like they’re drunk.

 

“That,” John nods, “was a top date. Really fucking excellent.”

 

“I’m glad you approve.”

 

Sherlock watches as John steps closer.

 

“I mean, most people can have a meal. You got in murders, fights, and still made sure we saw a movie.”

 

“About five minutes of it before the Baron attacked.”

 

“That’s all that was needed. It was shockingly bad.”

 

“It was.”

 

They grin at each other. Sherlock’s face almost hurts with happiness. But then John isn’t smiling anymore, his face is serious and his eyes are glittering. His hand goes to the back of Sherlock’s neck – warm and strong – and pulls him in for a kiss.

 

Sherlock reacts on instinct, parting his lips and deepening the kiss. He’s not sure what to do with his own hands, he wants to touch everywhere at once and standing here, in the street, is a small taste of the feast he’s starving for.

 

John has had much the same thought. “I- ah-” he pulls away, “I’d invite you in, but my sister…”

 

Sherlock looks at the building properly. “She’s out.”

 

John scoffs. “It’s three am and her idea of a wild night is passing out in front of Newsnight after her second bottle of wine.”

 

“Look at the windows. She’s out.”

 

John looks, sees nothing out of the ordinary, and shrugs. He’s too drunk on adrenalin and arousal to doubt.

 

“Do you want to come in then?”

 

“God yes.”

 

--

 

The moment they are through the front door Sherlock resumes the kiss, pressing John up against the wall by the door in a glorious echo of their first time together. He can’t wait to have a whole night with John, in a bed where they can fuck and kiss and touch.

 

But John is distracted. He breaks the kiss and calls out cautiously.

 

“Harry?”

 

No response. Its 3am, even if she were here she’d be asleep, but she’s not; she’s on a successful date of her own, whatever John believes about his sister’s non-existent sex-life.

 

John grins up at Sherlock and leads him through the dark hall to his bedroom where moves across in the shadows to flick on the bedside lamp. Sherlock looks around at the bare room. There are no pictures on the walls, no more than perhaps a box’s worth of possessions. There is nothing that can be criticised here, but none of the small touches of personality that everyone prints on their environment. This is not a life John has chosen for himself; he’s waiting for something better.  

 

John steps closer and this time the kiss is languid. Sherlock is unable to believe his luck: here’s a man who has seen the real him and hasn’t turned away, has shown an interest in what he does, is interesting. He moans into this kiss and presses closer, running his fingers through John’s hair. He feels like someone who has been presented with a treasure so good, so unexpected, that he can barely be happy for fear that it’s going to be taken away.

 

The kiss slows and stops. Their mouths hover centimetres from each other.

 

“I’ve never-“John swallows, “-with a man.”

 

Sherlock breathes out. “Nor have I.”

 

“This isn’t an everyday thing for either of us,” John says. It’s almost a question, a promise that this isn’t just an experiment, but something real. Sherlock doesn’t think John will ever comprehend just how real this is for him.

 

“No, it’s not,” Sherlock replies and the words don’t even touch his feelings. His voice sounds deep and rough to his own ears and it makes John pull him back down for another kiss. They fall onto the pristine double bed. It’s fresh and clean and Sherlock wants to mess it up. He wants John to fuck him, to scream out his name, he wants John to take everything.

 

He ends up above John and he grinds his hips hard against him. There’s nothing languid about any of this now. Sherlock’s whole body is demanding more and John’s is doing the same. He wanted to make an entire project of John’s neck from the moment he put his mouth to it and now he has his chance. He nips and sucks, sweeps down it with his tongue while John trembles below him. Could he make John come from that alone?

 

He lifts his own hips, denying John any friction and goes back to his neck, forcing himself to slow down and take his time. Whenever John gets too used to one sensation Sherlock stops, goes back to kissing and rutting, and then torturously pulls away to return to John’s neck, leaving John moaning and bucking beneath him.

 

He can see the tension in him mounting and he stokes it, revels in it. He’s waiting for John to snap, to roll him over and launch an attack on him, taking everything he wants and more.

 

He isn’t waiting long. Just when Sherlock begins to think John is going to come right there in his trousers, John does what Sherlock wanted. He rolls them forcefully until he’s above Sherlock, pinning him down to the bed and looking at his body as if he’s got a thousand possibilities in mind and he wants to try them all.

 

“My turn,” he smirks.

 

Sherlock nods and helps John remove his shirt. John unbuttons his own and tosses it to the floor.

 

Back in position, sitting across Sherlock’s hips, John begins his own game on Sherlock’s neck. John’s breath is hot and the tip of his tongue presses against him firmly as it sweeps and trails across his skin.

 

John doesn’t subject Sherlock to his own torturous game, but instead journeys down Sherlock’s chest. He circles Sherlock’s nipple – testing to see if it’s as sensitive as a woman’s - and Sherlock rewards him with a gasped hum of pleasure.

 

John moves down Sherlock’s body and unbuttons Sherlock’s flies. Once Sherlock’s cock is free and erect, he looks at it almost curiously. Sherlock almost comes there and then as John does that unconscious little lick of his bottom lip and gently takes Sherlock in his hand, sweeping over the drop of precome on the tip with his thumb and then experimentally strokes up and down. Sherlock loses track of John’s expression, lost in the sensation, eyes closed…

 

“I’ve-“John’s voice is rough, “I’ve got some… uh…. stuff.”

 

Sherlock tries to concentrate as John removes his hand (hard when his body is screaming for its immediate return) and watches John get out condoms and lube from the bedside table. Both new. John prepared. John hoped for this.

 

It’s enough to make him scramble to a sitting position and pull John into another desperate kiss.

 

Fuck me,” he whispers into John’s ear.

 

“Are you sure you want… because I can-“

 

He wants. He wants a ridiculous amount. It must be plain on his face because John stops politely protesting and drags Sherlock’s trousers off his body to join their shirts. His own trousers and pants follow. Sherlock isn’t awkward about his nakedness and neither is John: their eyes travel admiringly over each other.

 

John settles Sherlock back on the bed and then kneels in between his legs. He looks nervous for a mere second - a brief flicker of his expression – and Sherlock has no doubt the enormity of what John is about to do has kicked in. This is sex with a man, there is no escaping it. And no escaping how much he obviously wants it.

 

John looks up at his face at that and smiles, more affectionate and loving than Sherlock has ever seen anyone look at him before. His eyes are darkly glittering and the uncertainty is gone.

 

He strokes at Sherlock a few times, Sherlock tries to keep alert but he can feel his wild, runaway mind calming, relaxing as he lets John work. He closes his eyes, waits for first cool touch of the lube. It won’t matter if it hurts, he’s endured far worse pain than this; the pleasure will far outweigh anything else.

 

At the first touch of John’s finger he gasps and tries to control his breathing as John pushes in. It does hurt, no matter how much he tries to relax. He ignores it. This will be worth it. He opens his eyes, looks at John’s face, which in the lamplight is a picture of lust and concentration.

 

“More?” John asks.

 

Sherlock nods.

 

John pushes in a second finger and this time Sherlock hisses before he can stop himself. Too soon.

 

“Don’t lie,” John says sharply. “If it hurts, tell me.”

 

Sherlock is helpless beneath him. He nods.

 

Before John had moved with brisk confidence but now his slick fingers work achingly slowly. He inches in millimetre by millimetre, stopping to stroke Sherlock’s cock every time he even suspects Sherlock might be uncomfortable.

 

By the time he has three fingers inside Sherlock, Sherlock is so hard he doesn’t know if he can last.

 

“John – I’m not going to-“ Sherlock pants. “I’m ready…”

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes!” Sherlock bucks his hips to emphasise his point. He is not going to have this end before John has fucked him. “I want this now …And it want it hard.”

 

John doesn’t need telling again. He removes his hand and slips on the condom and slicks himself with extra lube. Still working at a pace that almost feels cruel, he lines himself up against Sherlock’s entrance and slowly, slowly enters him.

 

Even with the extensive preparation, Sherlock gasps at the pain. There’s a significant difference between three fingers and John’s cock; a big adjustment for his body to make.

 

“Don’t stop,” he says firmly, John having hesitated immediately.

 

John nods, looking a glorious mixture of gentle yet amazed. Sherlock wants more, there is nowhere near enough contact between his skin and John’s and he wants more now.

 

When John is fully within him they both still. He can feel John’s pulse inside him, feel his heat, and see his stomach moving with each little pant taken to control his arousal.

 

“Oh god,” John groans. “This is – this is-“

 

“Brilliant,” Sherlock grins, allowing smugness to appear. He jerks his hips a fraction, revelling in the sensation of John, right there inside him. “More.”

 

John smiles back and pulls out just a fraction of an inch before pushing back in. He repeats this several times until Sherlock is all but bucking against him at the teasing movements.

 

John’s hands are gripping at his hips, so hard that there might even be marks. Sherlock hopes there are marks.

 

Only when John is convinced of Sherlock’s desperation for more does he, suddenly and without warning, withdraw almost completely and then thrust back in. It’s all done in one quick movement that sends Sherlock jerking upwards at the sudden rush of sensation. He almost feels too full, close to bursting, but that disconcerting sensation is soon overwhelmed by pleasure. He lays there, unable to do anything but gasp, as John repeats the movement. And then does it again. And again. By which point Sherlock’s vaguely aware the noises he’s making might more properly be described as keening.

 

At once John’s weight drops down onto him. He’s gripping Sherlock’s thighs to keep them upright and he kisses Sherlock, snapping his hips hard enough against him that Sherlock groans into the kiss. They lose coordination, focusing on the feel of skin on skin and the intense rush of pleasure building with every thrust.

 

Sherlock can’t last must longer. His cock is trapped between his own belly and John’s and the friction of it is going to send him over the edge. Perhaps John realises this because he pulls back into a kneeling position, and then wickedly takes Sherlock’s cock in his hand and pumps it hard.

 

It’s too much. Sherlock spasms and comes, streak of it splattering his own stomach and some of the duvet.

 

John loses control for a moment, hips snapping wildly at the feeling of Sherlock pulsing around him.

 

“Hard,” Sherlock begs. “Finish it.”

 

John returns his grip to Sherlock’s hips - this time definitely hard enough to leave bruises - and thrusts against him so roughly that that Sherlock’s body rocks with the movement and his sensitive, post orgasmic cock makes him shiver.

 

“Yes!” John chants. “Oh god, this is- you are brilliant. Just. Fucking. Brilliant.”

 

The praise enough is enough to make Sherlock clench around John again and perhaps that small movement is what sends him over the edge. John comes hard inside of him riding it out with gasps and groans until he is completely spent.

 

Afterwards they lay still, revelling in the new sensations. John remembers that he’s still inside Sherlock and still wearing the condom. He pulls out, removes it, and drops back down at Sherlock’s side.

 

“I’m so glad I met you,” he says, looking sleepy and satisfied.

 

Sherlock is still covered in come and though he barely notices, John does. It isn’t something John would normally have to worry about. “Do you need a shower?”

 

“No,” Sherlock says, knowing that he wouldn’t move right now for all the interesting crimes in the world.

 

“Really no, or no you don’t want to be bothered?”

 

In answer Sherlock snags the duvet and swipes it over his stomach to clean up the mess.

 

John makes a face. “Yeah, they were probably needing a wash anyway.” He pauses. “You’ll stay won’t you?”

 

Sherlock nods. “Of course.”

--

 

The next morning they are woken by a rap on the bedroom door. Sherlock’s first reaction is surprise; he hadn’t intended to fall asleep. His second is annoyance. This time is theirs. Who is interrupting it?

 

“John?”

 

John scrambles to a sitting position in alarm. It’s Harry, and he’s realising that his sister is about to learn more about him than she previously knew. Sherlock is aware that however comfortable John may be about fucking him, in the cold light of day, it’s not so easy sharing that fact quite so obviously with your sister.

 

“Coming – I mean – I’ll be out – uh – in a minute.”

 

“Yeah, well there’s a man here to see your friend.”

 

Sherlock groans. He knows very well who the visitor will be, but is childishly afraid acknowledging it will make it true.

 

“I can’t apologise enough,” he murmurs.

 

John blinks. He’s still fuzzy with sleep, scrambling about trying to put on clothes. “What for?”

 

“For the world’s worst post sex wake-up call.”

 

There’s no time for John to ask what he means, because the door handle moves ominously down and the door swings inwards. John has no choice but to yelp and scramble back under the covers.

 

HARRY!” he shouts. “I said give me a min-“

 

The person in the doorway is not Harry. She's just visible - a mousy, female version of John with a more pointed face and a grimmer mouth - but taking up most of the space is Mycroft.

 

Sherlock’s own instinct it to pull the covers tighter around himself too but that would be tantamount to guilt, so he stretches and puts his arms under his head, looking the picture of contentment.

 

He’s delighted to note that even in his horrified state, John is a little distracted by this view.

 

“Mycroft,” Sherlock says coolly. “This is a strange visit, even by your standards.”

 

“Sherlock,” says Mycroft, with the same perfunctory, reprimanding politeness that he’d have exhibited if Sherlock had been fully clothed and at his most respectable. “I apologise. I lost track of your whereabouts and felt it necessary to ensure your safety.”

 

“Yes, that’s why you came alone. I was clearly in great danger and you were hoping your gigantic arse would shield me from bullets.”

 

“There’s more than one way to be in danger Sherlock,” Mycroft says, sounding thoroughly dangerous himself for a moment. “Fortunately my people are better than my surveillance at present and I was able to find you again.”

 

“Never mind Mycroft,” Sherlock curls his lip, “I’m sure in ten years you’ll ensure this city has more cameras than any other city on earth and I’ll never be able to escape you. You could save the city of London a great deal of money and just microchip me.”

 

Don’t tempt me.”

 

“I’m sorry,” John interrupts. “But who is this and why is he in the bedroom with us?”

 

“This is Mycroft,” Sherlock glares at the offending intruder, “my brother.”

 

“Oh, right.” John takes that calmly. “And why is he here?”

 

“Out of concern,” Mycroft tells them. “I wonder, Dr. Watson, if you wouldn’t mind leaving us for a moment. I need to talk with my brother.”

 

“Aren’t you going to threaten him?” Sherlock asks. “I would have thought you’d be threatening him.”

 

He has a suspicion that Mycroft would come off considerably the worst if he tried to threaten John. John’s mind doesn’t work like theirs, Mycroft won’t be able to cower John. It will be brilliant.

 

“It’s fine,” John says. “I’ll leave. Um…”

 

It has occurred to him that he is very naked and that Mycroft is still in the room. He looks helplessly between them and Mycroft sighs and turns his back to allow John to dress.

  

John silently questions what the hell is going on with one very eloquent look, but Sherlock waves him away. It’s fine. Don’t worry.

 

John smiles and shuffles away downstairs, leaving Mycroft and Sherlock alone. Mycroft turns back around and annoyance settles over Sherlock. Their little warm and private morning together has been taken away from them because Mycroft can’t bear to keep his huge nose out of Sherlock’s business.

 

“Well I have to say, this was… unexpected. And I have learned to always expect the worst when it comes to you. I never thought you’d stoop quite this low though.”

 

“Yes, I met someone I liked. Someone alert the media.”

 

“You’re not just anybody else,” Mycroft points out. “Tell me, is this for a case? You met him via one.”

 

“I met him after I’d already solved it. No Mycroft this isn’t for a case. There are no double games, no intrigue, I met him and liked him because he isn’t boring. He thinks I’m mad and likes me more for it.”

 

“You’re dangerous,” Mycroft snaps.

 

“He likes that too.”

 

Mycroft glances around the room with some distaste. “Does he know of your recreational habits? Addiction isn’t going to be something he handles, well, I can tell you that now.”

 

“I’m clean, Sherlock snaps. “Haven’t used in weeks.”

 

“Haven’t used since you met him,” Mycroft’s tone is of someone who is winning the argument.

 

“What of it? I’ve always been able to control the drugs. They’ve never controlled me. I haven’t been bored enough. I’ve been busy.”

 

“Do you remember the last time we talked?” Mycroft asks.

 

“Yes, I hung on your every word.”

 

Sherlock gets out of the bed without warning. Mycroft grunts in annoyance and turns his back again and Sherlock moves around to find his clothes.

 

“I said that you’ve always craved the contact of others,” Mycroft sneers, even with his back turned, “it’s always been your weakness. The work alone doesn’t satisfy you, you want to be liked and petted and told how good you are. I’d hoped you’d grow out of it, hoped you’d learn to focus your attention on the work and-“

 

“And that in time you’d be able to get me to help with your work.” Sherlock finished. “Tell me, why is it so bad? Other people are allowed to like people without their family looking on in horror.”

 

There is a sudden shout from downstairs. It’s Harry. She must have been attempting to be quiet, but has now thoroughly lost her temper. He can hear John’s voice, louder now, tense, trying to keep her quiet,

 

“Because you either love or loathe, Sherlock. This little relationship will turn into a true addiction and it will hurt you more than the drugs ever could.”

 

“I’m not going to end up with a broken heart,” Sherlock snaps. “I’m not that invested.”

 

Lie. A big lie. Mycroft can see it.

 

“No Sherlock,” Mycroft sighs. “It’s not the heartbreak I worry about. I think you falling in love is the most dangerous possibility of all. It will burn you up. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

 

“You’ve always preferred the bigger picture and the big plans, a top down approach so to speak, whereas I’ve always been more interested in the little details. A bottom up approach if you will.” He enjoys the discomfort the innuendo causes Mycroft. “And I take drugs because there aren’t enough sufficiently interesting people, and you eat cake because no matter how elegant the plan, one messed up, uncomprehending person can destroy all your work and never even know what they’ve done.

 

“John Watson fascinates me, which makes me happy, and you’re going to go and eat a huge pizza tonight because John Watson is also the one messing up whatever self-important, ever so clever plans you had to curb my behaviour.”

  

Mycroft looks faraway for a moment. “You’re half in love with this man already.”

 

Is he right? Is this what love feels like? The constant terror that there’s been some huge mistake and that you’ve somehow taken something from the universe that you didn’t deserve, and now can only live in terror of the punishment that’s bound to follow?

 

Perhaps this is what love feels like for broken people.

 

“So?”

 

So, Sherlock, I think you in love will be more terrifying than boredom, or heartbreak. This will be an addiction you won’t ever shake off. It will destroy you.”

 

Sherlock sighs. “Then be glad it’s me and not you that’s fallen victim.”

 

“Oh no Sherlock. This is something I wanted to avoid more than anything. It’s just a new weapon to be pointed at you, and even worse it’s a weapon you will use against yourself.”

 

 

Chapter Text

2010

 

John is looking around their living room as if he’s never seen it before. He’s standing stiffly, in the military stance he picked up so easily.

 

“It’s a mess,” he says.

 

Sherlock is standing behind John, he has just put down the things from the hospital and is taking off his gloves. He looks around too, taking it in with fresh eyes.

 

“Well yes,” he says. “It’s always like that.”

 

They’ve lived here for seven years and mess is the default state; it’s not like they have the luxury of a housekeeper. When John is here the place is kept slightly cleaner (and a month of Sherlock practically living at the hospital has not helped) but the clutter is no worse than normal.

 

Sherlock can’t see John’s face but he can follow his thoughts. He’s been cruelly ripped away from his chosen career, the clutter and mess of home was a welcome break while on leave, but now it’s another stinging reminder that he’s trapped in a life he doesn’t want. John’s been shot and there’s little hope of him going back.

 

This is their home; their horribly domestic house with the blue door and the kitchen that they have to repaint every six months because of Sherlock’s unique talent for destruction. Upstairs is their bed, the one where they glumly counted down the minutes until John had to go back, always sad in the moment regardless of how much John was looking forward to it underneath. Sherlock has horrified a hundred clients in this living room and John has pacified another fifty or so whenever he was there.

 

There’ll be cases, Sherlock promises himself. He’ll find the most dangerous ones, remind John that life will still be full of action…

 

Except this isn’t the action John wants.

 

“I can, uh, tidy up a bit,” he says uselessly.

 

“Yes,” John says, sounding faraway. “It needs it.”  

 

 

2003

 

This wake holds no amusement for Sherlock, although it does echo the one he met John at in one way: he’s standing against the wall and being largely ignored.

 

It’s no fault of John’s; he can hardly be blamed for being preoccupied by his own mother’s funeral. It was a sudden heart attack, no one to blame, but John is nevertheless blaming himself. He and Harry are free of the woman, but are stubbornly hanging on to their usual coping mechanisms. Harry is drinking and John is growing ever tenser as he reigns in any escaping emotion.

 

Sherlock is starting to gain some attention, whispers are sweeping around the room and the glances at him are very noticeable. He’s a stranger to them, one John sat with in the church, and has only been introduced as ‘John’s friend’. With the aid of a bottle of wine, Harry’s grief is growing into misplaced anger and she is making sure that every single relation and acquaintance fully understands what is meant by ‘friend.’

 

(“Have you met Sherlock yet? Over there. He’s a friend of John’s. A very, very good friend… they’ve been having lots of sleepovers in the flat…”)

 

John still hasn’t noticed. No one dares ask him about it. Yet. Here at least is some small role Sherlock can fulfil today. He can’t make John’s mother un-dead (or more dead, depending on which way John’s confused grief is swinging) and he can’t made the pain go away, but he can deal with Harry.

 

He moves through the group until he’s at Harry’s side and they share a look of greeting that never even attempts the level of a smile.

 

Sherlock juts his chin towards the door. “Cigarette?”

 

She may be able to hide that little habit from John, but not him.

 

“Whatever,” she shrugs and they head out to the smoking area.

 

The sun has set and there are only the lights from the doorway to see by. He offers her a cigarette and lights it, before lighting his own.

 

“Now isn’t the place for this Harry.”

 

Harry takes a long drag and slowly exhales.

 

“It’s my mum’s funeral Sherlock, I think I’ll decide what it’s the fucking place for.” Another, sharper drag and an annoyed huff of a breath. “Has he has a word then? Asked you to get me to shut up?”

 

“I don’t think he’s noticed, and I don’t think he’d care if he did.”

 

Harry narrows her eyes. “Of course he wouldn’t,” she sneers. “Making eyes at his boyfriend over his mother’s coffin. Like she wouldn’t have died all over again from the shame of it.”

 

She drowns the dregs of the red wine she’s holding.

 

“I suppose he believes that she’d want him to be happy.”

 

“Hah! He knew her too well for that. She’d have hit the roof.”

 

“Maybe he isn’t worried what she’d think.”

 

Harry sneers. “If you believe that then you don’t know him well enough. He might like taking you up the arse but when his dear old uncles and aunts start asking questions about you it’ll be a whole different story.”

 

Sherlock believes every word of that, but Harry doesn’t understand that it doesn’t bother him. What John calls their relationship publically doesn’t matter in the slightest; he’s already got more than he hoped for. He raises a brow. “For a lesbian who sneaks out twice a week to have sex with your girlfriend, you’re remarkably judgemental.”

 

She shrugs. “Just ‘cause I’m gay doesn’t mean I can’t be conflicted and full of self-loathing like every other bastard on the planet.”

 

She slumps against the brick wall, the drink finally taking effect.

 

“Why does he have to have it so easy?” she all but whines. “He’s not even properly gay and he gets to have a boyfriend and – and when he does she dies and he can just pretend she would be happy for him! But I-” she swallows, “I-“

 

“You’ve had to hide everything about yourself from her your entire life; learned to live by her rules as a form of self-defence.”

 

“And what have I got left?” she sobs. “What am I now?”

 

Sherlock is hardly a therapist, he can only offer his own advice.

 

“You’re an atheist.”

 

“So?”

 

“So if you believe that she’s gone and that she isn’t watching you anymore - that you aren’t going to ever see her again - then you can be whatever you like. She has no further knowledge of you and you only have yourself to blame if you act as some sort of slave to her memory.”

 

She blinks. “That’s your great advice? ‘She’s gone and she’s never coming back?’”

 

Sherlock shrugs. “It’s what a therapist would tell you, only in more of a roundabout way and for a considerably higher fee. I’m going back inside.”

 

Harry lets him, but calls him back just as he reaches the door.

 

“Sherlock?”

 

“Yes?”

 

She suddenly looks very much like her brother in his more seriously moments.

 

“John and me, we’re both fuck-ups. Dealing with me is easy. This… a cigarette and a bit of crying… I promise you that’s nothing to whatever he’s going to do.”

 

 

2010

 

 

Sherlock never goes to Mycroft for help. Never ever. And what he’s doing now isn’t asking for help; he’s going to Mycroft for information.

 

Mycroft isn’t going to see it that way though, and it annoys him because never going to Mycroft for help is no use if he’s the only one who believes it to be true.

 

“This is an unexpected pleasure,” Mycroft begins silkily. He sees Sherlock’s expression, sighs, and leans back in his chair.

 

“I’m not going to give you the notebook Sherlock.”

 

“You do have it then.”

 

Sherlock drops down into the seat opposite Mycroft, deceptively casual.

 

“Of course I have it. My having it is the safest thing for everyone involved.”

 

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

 

Mycroft sighs again. “I claim to be no expert on relationships Sherlock, but don’t you think reading his therapy notes breaches his privacy somewhat?”

 

“Yes, perhaps it does break some relationship code,” Sherlock snaps. “The good news is that I’m not a teenage girl reading Cosmo. I don’t care about rules if it makes John happy.”

 

“There was a time you’d know what his therapist said even without the notebook.”

 

“I do,” Sherlock snaps. “I just want to confirm the theory.”

 

“Which is?”

 

Sherlock grits his teeth. He knows what Mycroft’s doing, he’s offering him an out. If he and Mycroft have an entirely innocent talk about the state of Sherlock’s relationship that happens to cover some of the same topics that, completely independently, John has been talking about with his therapist, Sherlock can remain in the clear in moral and relationship terms. Unfortunately by doing that he would be, by definition, accepting help from Mycroft.

 

“Just give me the notebook.”

 

“Your mistake,” Mycroft drawls, “is that you look at John, who is physically strong again and has a – baffling as it is – healthy relationship and a civilian life full of adventure, and you can’t understand why he can be grieving for the army.”

  

“You’re keeping him busy as possible but it’s not a simple exchange of one thing for the other. He had this before, and he had his work as well. He’s lost one and however much you try, you aren’t enough to replace the other. Maybe if he’d met you after the gunshot it might have worked... but you’ll just have to wait for him to get over it.”

 

“And how’s he supposed to do that?”

 

“A blog apparently. To record the things that happen to him and ground him to his current life. I’m sure he’ll tell you about it. Wishy-washy advice as it is, I think it will be effective. It might even benefit your career if he turns out to be a less dreary narrator of your adventures than you are.”

 

Sherlock ignores the insult to his own website.

 

“So I’ve just got to wait it out?”

 

“Horrible when there’s no easy answer, isn’t it?”

 

 

2003

 

Their first argument is about money, but like all arguments it’s actually about something else. Foolishly Sherlock doesn’t realise that until the whole conversation is unravelling out of his control.

 

It’s about spending money unnecessarily; the surprising thing is that it’s Sherlock – who cares very little about his own money – complaining about John’s spending.

 

They have a system in place that satisfies both of their prides and finances. Sherlock pays for all meals out, which is at least three nights a week and several lunches. He actually has to pay about half the time (the rest comes from favours owed.) John pays for all takeaways and is the only one of them to regularly buy food from a supermarket, which Sherlock usually shares because (as Harry snarkily points out) Sherlock practically lives with them now.

 

It suits both of them, and so Sherlock is quick to notice the sudden change to the system when John announces that it’s not fair that Sherlock wrangles so much free food from restaurateurs and insists on paying.

 

He waits until they are in John’s room, on the basis that the worst John can do is storm off and if he does, he will still have to come back to Sherlock.

 

John is quiet too, as if he can sense a fight in the air.

 

“At the rate you’re spending money it will be gone by December,” Sherlock begins.

 

John freezes in the act of taking off his shirt.

 

“What?”

 

“The inheritance. You’re throwing it away on anything you can, food, gambling, gifts – I know about the microscope you’ve hidden on top of the kitchen cupboard for me – to try and make it go away.”

 

Perhaps this deduction was a bad start. John looks far angrier than he calculated.

 

“It’s my money,” he shrugs. “I can spend it on anything I want.”

 

“No. You’re careful with your money. It’s her money, and you don’t want it.”

 

“Well deduced,” John snaps. “What business is it of yours?”

 

This is dangerous ground. A wrong step here and Sherlock will be reminded that he has no importance in John’s life.

 

“I don’t want you to do anything you’ll regret.”

 

John’s response is so swift that this anger is not caused by Sherlock, Sherlock has merely caught its attention and placed a target on his back. His calm restrained voice instantly turns to a yell.

“I’m a grown man! I can do WHATEVER I WANT.”

 

Sherlock all but sags in relief. The grief is doing the talking, John won’t hate him.

 

“I know that-”

 

“I’m SICK of people telling me what I can and can’t do!”

 

“I’m not-“

 

“YES YOU ARE! I thought you were different. You only like me when I’m doing exactly what you want!”

 

“That’s not-“

 

John furiously buttons his shirt back up and snatches his coat. “I’m going out.”

 

 

--

 

 

John does come back after two hours. Sherlock has spent it pacing the bedroom, snapping around to peer out of the window on every third turn. Sherlock can hear John’s footsteps from the path outside: they’re brisk, determined. A decision has been made.

 

Sherlock flicks off the light, climbs into bed as the front door is unlocked and closes his eyes, feigning sleep in such a ridiculously obvious way that even John will see through it. When John comes in there is a moment of stillness as John pauses in the doorway, and then a quiet rustle of movement as he undresses. The duvet lifts and the bed moves as he settles himself next to Sherlock.

 

“You awake?”

 

No point lying. “Yes.”

 

“Slept at all?”

 

“No.”

 

Sherlock’s back is to John and his whole body is tense. John shifts and places an arm around him, then dips his head to kiss the back of Sherlock’s neck.

 

“You were right,” he says.

 

Sherlock frowns in the darkness. “I was?”

 

“Don’t act like being right is a new thing for you Sherlock, you’re rubbish at being coy.”

 

“Oh. Well then. I’m so glad you’ve finally seen sense.”

 

John shifts in a way that suggests he’s smiling. “I had some thinking to do. It’s not about the money really, is it?”

 

“No.”

 

“I didn’t want the money because while I have it… it feels like I owe her. It feels like what I’m doing is wrong. And it’s not. I did everything she wanted, I lived the life she chose for me, had the career she pushed me into, and it’s only meeting you and… breaking the rules… that’s made me happy.”

 

Sherlock can’t stop the private smile at the confirmation that John is happy with him.

 

“I’ve realised that I can finally do the things I want to do,” John continues.

 

“Of course you can.”

 

“And I needed to think about what it was that I really want.”

 

Sherlock tenses again. John’s tone is suddenly serious and Sherlock’s mind works frantically to try and work out where the conversation is going. Why is it never easy to predict John?! He slowly turns so that he’s facing John in the dark, scrutinising him warily.

 

“Sherlock… you know I didn’t really want to be a GP, don’t you?”

 

Sherlock nods. “Yes. You were interested in medicine, but you’re more action orientated. You’re a thrill seeker, like work where you can work under pressure. Judging by the family history – lots of military service in your background – I imagine you wanted to go into the army but your relationship with your mother made that difficult…”

 

He trails off as his mind – happily leaping off into deductions – finally applies that information to the current situation.

 

“And now she’s gone, you want to join up?”

 

John’s face is just visible in the gloom; he looks completely serious. “It’s what I always wanted Sherlock. You’re right; I can do what I want now.”

 

“And you want to leave?” Sherlock rasps.

 

“I want a career I enjoy,” John replies. The danger is back in the room now, an argument is crackling in the air, ready to strike, and this time Sherlock won’t hold back. He sits up in the bed, John does the same and flicks on the lamp. The sudden brightness startles them.

 

“And what about what we do?”

 

“That’s your job, not mine.”

 

“And I thought you were part of it! You don’t need to join the army to get your kicks-”

 

“It’s not about getting kicks!” John’s voice is rising. “It’s about my future. I thought you wanted to be part of that?”

 

He says it in a nasty way, which is unfair because it’s the first time either of them have voiced that fear.

 

“I want you to be here!”

 

“And look at that, the spirit of my mother lives on!” John snarls. “God forbid I get to decide anything for myself!”

 

“If you want freedom then you’re choosing the wrong career!” Sherlock points out viciously.

 

“But I’m choosing it.”

 

“After two hours of consideration!”

 

“After ten years of wanting it. I’m doing this and no one is going to manipulate me out of it ever again. The only choice you have in this is whether to stand by me or not.”

 

Every instinct Sherlock has tells him to lay back down in the bed, agree willingly, and cement himself in John’s mind to as close to the perfect boyfriend as he can be. If he agrees to this, John will still come back to him, will whisper that he loves him, will fuck him, and kiss him, and call him wonderful.

 

What did Mycroft say? Love would destroy him. Sherlock can already see it happening because every instinct tells him to do just that. He’s been so caught up in his colossal good luck at finding John that he’s been trapped in the constant fear of him leaving.

 

And now John’s leaving anyway.

 

Sherlock is many things, but a fool isn’t one of them. John’s already naturally attracted to women, will be prudent enough to keep his relationship with Sherlock quiet in his chosen career. He’ll never mention Sherlock’s name, will hide his letters and be stilted on phone-calls. He’ll come back a stranger, they’ll see each other less and less… and then he’ll meet a woman and it will be so much easier for him.

 

Sherlock begins to dress.

 

“Sherlock-“

 

“No John,” he swallows. “It was going to happen anyway. This was always something that I was going to fail at.”

 

John’s shakes his head, denying it, but Sherlock says nothing more. He’s dressed and he doesn’t want to hand around.

 

“Don’t-“

 

“Goodbye John.”

 

 

2010

 

 

Sherlock would love to say that he finds the gun through clever deduction and observation but on this occasion it’s annoyingly domestic and mundane. Sherlock arrives back home a good six hours earlier than planned, and it’s only as he pulls out his wallet to pay the driver that he remembers he hasn’t been to a cashpoint. Sherlock dives through the front door, noting that John has only been back a few minutes himself and is sheltering in the kitchen trying to dry off from the rain a little. He shouts out a vague greeting.

 

“Need to borrow twenty quid, won’t be a minute.”

 

He reaches into John’s still dripping jacket for his wallet.

 

His hand closes around the gun tucked into the pocket instead.

 

Sherlock only has a few seconds to react. John is already rushing towards the hallway – no doubt trying to stop Sherlock from searching his pockets – and the cabbie is hooting the horn outside for payment. Deciding to deal with that first, Sherlock snags the wallet from behind the gun, retrieves the money, and dashes back out into the rain to pay.

 

 

2004

 

It’s Kelly who delivers the message to Sherlock. Shane had told her that Plant had told him that a guy called John was sniffing around, trying to get someone to pass on a message to Sherlock.

 

John wants to meet him at an address in Turnham Green.

 

It’s both a temptation and a puzzle. Sherlock was strong enough to walk away, to cut off contact for four months, but he isn’t that strong. He goes and spends two hours huddled outside the address.

 

It’s unknown to him: a bland, refurbished house suitable for any middle class family to settle down in. It’s white, with a blue door and an overgrown front garden. It’s currently unoccupied.

 

Why on earth has John asked to meet him here?

 

He doesn’t have long to wait to find out because at that moment John appears at the end of the street, walking briskly towards him. His pace starts to slow as he gets nearer, a sure sign of nervousness. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since that night.

 

John looks fitter, confident, and – though worried looking – more relaxed than Sherlock has ever seen him.

 

“Hi,” he says.

 

Sherlock crosses his arms. “Hello.”

 

Silence stretches out between them.

 

“How’ve you been?” John asks at last.

 

Sherlock shrugs in a way that could mean anything from ‘crying in the gutter’ to ‘having the best time of my life.’

 

“You?”

 

“Good. I’ve been – I’m leaving tomorrow.”

 

“I hope you’re happy,” Sherlock says, meaning it. “It’s what you want.”

 

“It’s not everything I want Sherlock,” John says forcefully. “Just because I wanted a career doesn’t mean I don’t want you. I would still have come back, still had crazy adventures with you, and maybe if you’d talked to me about some of the fears you’ve clearly been hiding from me....”

 

He takes a deep breath.

 

“The last four months have proved that I want this, with you.”

 

Hope is flushing through Sherlock. This level of certainty from John is more than he hoped for, but he’s still wary. John is leaving tomorrow.

 

“So what are we going to do?”

 

John clears his throat. “You were right about the money, you know. I was wasting it and after you went I had time to think. If I don’t want it sitting there I should just… get rid of it. So I bought something ridiculously expensive with it.”

 

His eyes flicker to the house and Sherlock spins to look at it properly again.

 

“You bought a house for yourself?”

 

John shrugs and reaches into his pocket. When he holds out his hand, there’s a key in it.

 

“I bought a house for us. I was hoping you’d want to… uh… live in it.”

 

Sherlock blinks. “You’re asking me to move in with you?”

 

It’s too much to take in.

 

“Too soon?” John quips weakly.

 

“Yes. It’s madness,” Sherlock replies, without meaning it in the slightest.

 

“Going to do it anyway?”

 

“Of course I am.”

 

They smile at each other. Sherlock is terrified, this house represents… everything he never wanted until now, things that he’s no sure that he’s ready for. Domesticity, a serious relationship, a thousand problems that will need to be fixed between them...

 

But he wants to try.

 

John seems to be thinking along the same lines. “Things aren’t going to be perfect. But this house is a promise – a promise that I’ll be coming back and that you’ll be here for me to come back to. And I don’t want you to be anyone else than who you are. Does that sound… acceptable?”

 

Sherlock looks up at the house, with all its possibilities, and nods.

 

“Yes. Yes it does.”

 

 

2010

 

When he returns John is standing there with a slightly warning expression, looking otherwise harmless, barefoot with damp hair. It’s a combination that never fails to turn Sherlock on but right now the gun is a subject hovering in the air.

 

“Where’d you get it?”

 

John doesn’t even pretend to act innocent.

 

“Doesn’t matter where I got it.”

 

Sherlock glances John over. He’s been to Covent Garden. Unlikely place for an illicit gun purchase, far too many CCTV cameras too, meaning that Mycroft almost certainly knows about it already.

 

Sherlock shrugs, happy to let its origins go.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because, in case you haven’t noticed Sherlock, it gets pretty fucking dangerous around you. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to even our odds a bit.”

 

The problem is that Sherlock can’t really argue. It’s not like he hasn’t thought that himself before, and the idea of John with a gun sets him on fire in a way he can’t quite explain. It feels right. It might, in some way, reconcile John to this new life.

 

Of course, all that’s bullshit of course (barring the slightly arousing idea of it). He’s self-aware enough to know that this is a symptom of John failing to adjust to civilian life, knows that any fractured relationship he has with the police will collapse if this gun is ever found or traced back to them, and he knows that what he willingness to overlook all this means.

 

As Mycroft said, there relationship has always been surprisingly easy. Statistically couples with similar interests and goals outlast couples with major differences, ‘opposites attract’ is pithy and of questionable truth. He and John are very similar people on the inside, they crave stimulation even if it’s different types of stimulation. He knows how John’s feeling - he knows what it is to crave brain work and have it denied. He can’t bring himself to be the one to deny John action and danger.

 

Time for thinking is now over. The silence has stretched on long enough. Sherlock lets his body relax, and steps forward practically radiating arousal and interest.

 

“Are you expecting disapproval?”

 

John blinks. He is almost certainly expecting disapproval. Virtually no one reacts well to the news that their loved one – recently shot and mentally unstable – has bought an illegal gun.

 

“Yes actually.”

 

“Mmm…” he steps into John’s space, tilts his head down so that they are nose to nose and looking into each other’s eyes. “How about I show you how far from disapproving I am?”

 

The kiss is searing hot, even if the rest of their limbs are still cold and slightly damp from the rain. They press as tight as possible to each other and John, still fll of tension from a fight that hasn’t materialised, is ruthless and it takes all of Sherlock’s energy to keep up with him. Sherlock wants John to fuck him, wants to give John another battle and know that afterwards, when John sinks into the bed, loose limbed, truly relaxed and truly glad that he’s here with Sherlock and nowhere else, that Sherlock has done that for him.

 

He doesn’t care that that may be fucked up. They’re both fucked up. John’s fucked up because he might never fully adjust to this life, and Sherlock’s doubly fucked up because John’s danger streak delights him and fits with his life. They accept each other despite that.

 

They are going to face the world together.

 

 

2004-2010

 

 

Sherlock and the house become uneasy companions in John’s absence.

 

They may have begun to repair the nasty wound in their budding relationship, but one night of promises and sex on the wooden floor of their unfurnished new bedroom doesn’t change the fact that John still had to get up the next morning to leave Sherlock on his own.

 

At first he focuses on the practical things. John’s furniture is moved from Harry’s, and his own boxes of books and curious are unleashed on the living room, but then Sherlock is alone in a mostly unfurnished house. He arranges internet, sorts out the bills, and even – desperate to do something – spends an afternoon tracking down the previous occupants to give them their post.

 

He realises too late that John’s approach to buying houses is the same approach he takes to clothing; he’s an enthusiastic and financially responsible buyer with very little actual taste. For a start, Turnham Green is approximately a thirty five minute tube journey from anywhere remotely central and creates some very pricey cab fares. The streets around them stretch out, suburban and dull. The middle classes are so utterly boring, so busy watching each other that they have no imagination. Give him aristocrats or council estates; that’s where anything of interest happens.

 

--

 

Domesticity creeps up on them both and it starts with body parts and paint.

 

For the first glorious night of John’s return he isn’t remotely interested in the house. It’s all about their hot breath against each other’s skin, nips of teeth against flesh, and the friction of their cocks against each other. It’s only the next morning that John goes downstairs – still glowing with satisfaction – and fully registers the mess, the scientific paraphernalia stacked up in the kitchen sink and the body parts in the fridge.

 

They squabble over it for as long as it takes to scavenge breakfast and then John announces that he’s going to B&Q to get paint and brushes to start decorating with.

 

“If this place is going to look like a state, it can at least look like our state.”

 

“I’m not decorating,” Sherlock announces.

 

John grins. “Then you don’t get to choose any colours.”

 

This turns out to be a mistake. John thinks that turquoise is a good colour for a kitchen and bottle green is right for the bathroom. Sherlock refuses to help, letting him dig the hole for himself, and then when John’s leave is over he takes vindictive pleasure in messing it all up again.

 

Months pass, John comes back. This time Sherlock helps repaint, leading to even more squabbling. When John is home the place is a barely restrained mess, and when he’s away Sherlock doesn’t even try to hold the chaos back. A splash of acid does in the second layer of paint in the kitchen and Sherlock vindictively paints it hot pink.

 

The fourth repaint happens during John’s next leave, in between a choice kidnapping case and a tricky little pet cloning one. For one horrific afternoon the kitchen looks like Mr. Blobby’s death scene (John’s description) as they repaint it yellow.

 

Sherlock gets better at focussing on his work when John isn’t there. It’s still a constant ache, but he’s free to analyse cigarette ash and keep the fridge in any state he likes. When John is home there is sex and cups of tea. The TV gets switched on and the cases always seem better.

 

After a while he notices that the colour of the walls stays the same, despite the occasional repaints. The kitchen is buttermilk yellow, the bathroom is egg-shell blue. The living room they are both careful in because neither of them is willing to repaper it, and the study is too cluttered with books and Sherlock’s stranger possessions to even consider redecorating.

 

The house is still miles away from anywhere, far too hot in the summer, plagued by next door’s barking dog, but it’s theirs. Its home.

 

 

2012

 

 

Sherlock doesn’t turn when he hears the gunshot. He’s a bit busy: his gloved hand is trying to move the brick solid arm of the assassin who is in turn attempting to crush Sherlock’s windpipe. His mind is focused, he can smell deep-heat. Assassin. Skilled but in his forties. Back pain single most common disability. Weakness.

 

Sherlock brings his arm up and finds the tender spot. The direct pressure causes the well-trained and professional assassin to falter, if not actually stop, and Sherlock brings his arm up to knock his hands out of the way. The rush of oxygen clears his dulling senses and, mind back on-line, his reaction time increases. Block. Blow. Blow. Block of a weakened attack. Knee to the stomach. Downward blow. Unconscious.

 

 

John is on the floor.

 

Sherlock’s busy mind has a whole wave of deductions he’d been too busy to process in the last few seconds. The biggest, most pressing one registers before his eyes can work out what he’s looking at.

 

That gunshot hadn’t come from John’s gun.

 

John is on the floor.

 

“Don’t even think about it!”

 

Ah yes, some distant part of Sherlock’s mind notes, the other attacker. The one that John didn’t shoot. He is still a threat. He’s holding his gun and he’s threatening Sherlock.

 

Sherlock ignores him. There’s no space in his brain to deal with the gun-wielding murderer. Sherlock is looking at the blood and brain matter on the gritty concrete floor and only has room for one thought: ‘make this not be happening.’

 

He doesn’t know how long he stands and processes but his brain eventually gives up. It’s a problem too big to process, unsolvable, and as soon as it calculates this result it’s as if Sherlock’s strings have been cut. He drops to his knees and begins to crawl towards the body.

 

“John!”

 

“John!”

 

He reaches out and grips John’s shoulder. He’s still warm, even through the jacket. Sherlock shakes him, tilts the chin to look into the open, lifeless eyes. He remembers his phone and calls 999, demands an ambulance, the police, Mycroft. The woman on the phone doesn’t understand what ‘Mycroft’ is but that doesn’t matter, the second she types it on her computer he’ll be alerted.

 

He drops the phone, because he doesn’t want to listen to her and remains on his knees. It’s then that he remembers the killer and looks up. He’s gone. He’s taken his unconscious friend with him.

 

John’s murderer is gone. He’s going to be angry about that later, but right now he doesn’t care.

 

 

 

 

A/N: I realise I am vastly underestimating the time it takes to buy a property in London, even without a chain. I figure you can give me some leeway on that. Also yes, evil cliffhanger.

Chapter Text

Sherlock doesn’t remember the last time he slept. There was a fuzzy time in between hitting a dead end in his hunt for John’s murderer and the moment he realised that if he didn’t start making decisions then Mycroft would plan the funeral. Perhaps he slept then. Perhaps Mycroft drugged him.

 

Everyone needs to know how important John’s life was. It would be so much easier if John had ever mentioned funeral wishes but Sherlock has scoured his memory and John made no requests at all.

 

In the end Sherlock has tried to make it as much like Freddie King’s funeral as possible, because he thinks it would have amused John. He’s even booked the same pub for the wake.

 

Not that he has any intention of attending the wake.

 

There’s still work to be done though: it’s why he’s sitting up at midnight - eleven hours before the funeral - going through photographs to be displayed at the wake. There should be as many pictures of John as possible, so that guests think of him as a person and not a recently buried body. He meant to do it yesterday but his memory of yesterday is… patchy.

 

Perhaps he did sleep.

 

Sherlock’s in his study, sitting cross-legged on the floor by the coffee table. He doesn’t register the doorbell at first, and it’s only when the bell is abandoned in favour of a fist to the door that Sherlock stands.

 

He knows who it is, but he doesn’t know why he’s here now. He opens the door and finds Mycroft standing outside, putting his umbrella to actual use.

 

The rain…

 

Sherlock stares at it. Torrential rain is the last thing they need for tomorrow.

 

“May I come in?” Mycroft asks eventually, when no invite is forthcoming and Sherlock has spent several seconds staring at the sky.

 

He ushers Sherlock inside, shakes off his large coat, and rests his umbrella in the stand. “I wouldn’t concern yourself,” he says. “I’m informed that tomorrow will be dry. A little damp underfoot at worst.”

 

His voice is still as clipped, with just a hint of smugness, as ever. Sherlock is relieved. He doesn’t think he could handle gentleness or sympathy from Mycroft. He heads back to the study and returns to his position on the floor.

 

“What do you want?”

 

Mycroft follows and - suffering as usual from a bad case of inability-to-get-to-the-point- looks around the study as though he’s never seen it before.

 

“Really Sherlock, this place is becoming dangerous.”

 

Sherlock waves the mess away with a disregarding hand.

 

“John liked it this way.”

 

“He complained about it on many occasions.”

 

“He always complained most about the things he secretly liked the best.”

 

This room is all Sherlock. His books. His experiments. The only thing of John’s in here was the chair, and Sherlock’s moved that out. In here, at least, he doesn’t have the constant reminder of John’s things.

 

“Well?” he prompts Mycroft for an explanation as to his presence.

 

Mycroft reaches into his jacket’s inner pocket and retrieves a small packet. “Photographs. I thought these might help.” He glances past Sherlock to the coffee table which is a mess of backing card and pictures.

 

“Why do you have photos?” Sherlock snaps.

 

Mycroft shrugs. “From surveillance. I had them find some that didn’t look too obviously, ah, surveilled. I doubted you would have many of the two of you together. You weren’t that sort of… couple.”

 

He sounds surprised, as if he hadn’t fully registered that that’s what they were until now.

 

Six, Sherlock mentally supplies. Six photographs for a nine year relationship. All of them taken by family; four that caught them unawares and two that Sherlock agreed to with extreme bad grace at the insistence of his mother. He looks uncomfortable in those photos, and he suddenly hates himself for being so unwilling to pose and look happy with the man he-

 

He swallows. Grits out a thank you.

 

“I also have a case that I was hoping you might take a look at.”

 

Even for Mycroft, this is unexpected. Sherlock gapes. They have an unusual relationship, Sherlock will be the first to admit, but Mycroft isn’t cruel. Not without reason, at least.

 

Why?” he demands.

 

Mycroft inclines his head and takes an un-asked-for seat.

 

“Because I want to remind you that there are still mysteries out there. One’s that it might be wise to focus on after the funeral.”

 

“You think I’m suicidal?” Sherlock asks.

 

Mycroft’s hesitation is enough of an answer. And he’s right, though not in the way he assumes. It’s not despair that will drive Sherlock to his death, it’s more basic than that. Since John’s death it’s as if his batteries are slowly running out of charge. He isn’t suicidal, he’s just running out of life.

 

“I would tell you that I won’t let you commit suicide,” Mycroft says tightly. “But I fear that your contrary nature might make that unwise. Instead I have this case. It’s a fascinating little puzzle, you might very well need to travel-“

 

“If you tell me about it, will you leave?” Sherlock snaps.

 

Mycroft inclines his head and begins. Sherlock goes back to staring at the photographs and all but ignores him.

 

“Portia Henley. Second wife of the British Ambassador to Portugal. Conventionally pretty (with the aid of a surgeon) and somewhat of an embarrassment, being neither clever, tactful, nor quiet. Several people around her knew her to be particularly unmusical and yet she recently wowed a dinner party of guests by giving an impressive piano performance. Equally she seems suddenly to have learned how to swim, how to speak Italian, and – most impressively – a small scar on her shoulder seems to have miraculously healed.”

 

Sherlock isn’t remotely interested.

 

“You’re telling me you haven’t worked it out?”

 

“I have avoided reading the file. I’m not particularly concerned, but it’s the sort of small puzzle that usually pleases you.”

 

“In case you haven’t noticed,” Sherlock sneers, “I have other things on my mind.”

 

“Yes,” Mycroft says tightly. He swallows as if considering whether to say his next words or not.

 

“I’m still searching for the… gunman,” he says.

 

The rage almost consumes Sherlock whole right there on the spot. “I want-”

 

No Sherlock. You will not have access to him, even if it saved you from yourself. I couldn’t – I couldn’t see what it would turn you into. I will find him and I will deal with it.”

 

It’s as about as close to a declaration of his sadness as Mycroft will ever get.

 

“I’ll find him first then,” Sherlock warns.

 

It’s an empty threat. He’s already searched. Pure anger drove Sherlock for the immediate week afterwards, and when he realised that he couldn’t find a trace of anything, anything at all, the fight left him and hasn’t really come back.

 

Which doesn’t mean that if Mycroft presented him with the killer - the face he has etched into his mind - that Sherlock couldn’t keep himself occupied for days. Weeks. Years. He’d force himself to eat and sleep just so that he could spend his days proving that, however broken the gunman might believe himself to be, Sherlock could invent new ways to break him just that little bit more.

 

“Read the file,” Mycroft says softly. “It’s a better use of your skills.”

He sees himself out.

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock isn’t sure how long he zones out for, but it’s the sound of the letter box being gently pushed inwards that snaps him back to reality.

 

He checks the clock. It’s two in the morning; the rain has stopped as per Mycroft’s predication and the streets are relatively quiet. Sherlock doesn’t waste time trying to deduce, he stands and goes to the front door, opening it on the startled man standing on the doorstop.

 

“Sorry!” he says. He holds up his hands as if to ward Sherlock off. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

 

Smell of disinfectant. Bags under the eyes. Surrounded by a fog of Red Bull. The man’s a nurse on his way home from a night-shift.

 

“Who are you?”

 

“I’m a – I was – a friend of John’s. I don’t think we met, but I was at Bill Murray’s wedding?”

 

Sherlock didn’t go to it. He shrugs. Says nothing.

 

“Anyway, I uh, didn’t know if I’d make the funeral tomorrow what with the late shift, so I thought I’d drop off the photos I had of him. I was just going to put them through the letterbox…”

 

He trails off under Sherlock’s lack of response.

 

“Uh. The photographs.” He holds them out awkwardly.

 

After a long while, Sherlock takes them and manages to thank him.

“No problem. It’s nice to meet you at last.” The man winces at his own lack of sensitivity. “And sorry. I’m so sorry about...” he trails off again.

 

Sherlock can barely read anything from the man. It’s like his brain has just given up. This time a month ago he could have recited this stupid nurse’s life history. Now he can’t make his brain work. This man standing in front of him is just a person, completely unreadable.

 

“Bye,” the nurse says awkwardly. “Oh! My name’s Jim, by the way, Jim Moriarty.”

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock dumps the photographs next to the ones Mycroft left behind. He focuses on finishing his own project with his own photographs and at some point his body betrays him and he sleeps.

 

It’s morning and his mother is knocking on the door. He knows this because every time she knocks she calls out as if he’s in his childhood bedroom and has overslept. The sunlight makes him wince as he yanks the door open.

 

She’s already in black, hair done, as calm and determined as any woman of a certain age getting ready for any service can be. She’s in control and he can’t help but trail helplessly after her into the kitchen. She makes tea (black and sugarless because there’s no milk or sugar) orders him to drink it as if it’s medicine, opens her handbag and produces a cereal bar and a miniature of whisky that must have come from the duty free. She orders him to down the whiskey and eat the cereal bar and stands over him while he does.

 

This achieved, she reaches up, kisses his forehead and embraces him.

 

“Oh Sherlock.”

 

That’s all she needs to say. Her sadness, sympathy, and worry are all wrapped up in those words. She sniffles, steps away, and her tone becomes brisk. She’s visibly pulling herself together.

 

“Is your suit all ready?”

 

Sherlock nods.

 

“Good. Did you put those photographs together like you planned?”

 

He nods once more. He can’t make eye contact; fears that if he does he will start to cry and end up being wrapped in his mother’s arms while he sobs like a child.

 

“Good boy. Let me see.”

 

She leads the way into the study, blind as ever to the mess and odd smell in there, and goes to the coffee table to look.

 

“That’s lovely,” she says. She takes a deep breath, trying not to get emotional herself. “Did Mycroft bring the photographs like I told him to? I said to him, ‘what’s the use of having all those cameras if you don’t keep a few good snaps?’”

 

Sherlock juts his chin over to the table where he left them and drops into his chair. Up until now there’d been something to do, whether hunting down John’s murderer, choosing gravestones, going over the service, checking that the pall bearers were all the same height… but everything is done now and there’s nothing left but to sit through it all and try to function until after the service.

 

When it’s all over he can leave the funeral, walk until he finds some quiet spot, and he will be free to take John’s gun from the pocket of his suit and put it to his head….

 

“I never knew John went to India.”

 

Sherlock’s head snaps up. The words ‘he didn’t’ die on his lips. Those are Mycroft’s surveillance photographs after all. Suddenly his mind is working, calculating the blocks of time John might have had free since Mycroft started surveillance. There are three possibilities, eleven if he allows the idea that John might have only stayed there for a few hours, but none seem likely unless John lied.

 

He moves over to his mother and wordlessly takes the photo. He glances at the envelope she’s holding and sighs.

 

“Those aren’t Mycroft’s photographs,” he explains.

 

Whoever Jim Moriarty is, if he knew John before Sherlock met him, then it makes sense that John had been to India on holiday at some point.

 

He takes the photo, looks at it, and his mind stills completely. He might have been looking at the photo for minutes or hours.

 

The photograph holds the biggest mystery he’s ever seen in his life.

 

John, aged thirty-six, is lounging against a hotel bar in Goa. A newspaper being read by another patron giving Sherlock the date and location. John’s got one arm draped around a pretty, dark haired women – a recruitment consultant – and he’s smiling and relaxed. He’s holding up a beer in a cheery salute to the camera.

 

It’s John Watson in the physical sense, but the photograph is impossible. Even if he had been having an affair with the hateful recruitment consultant, even forgetting that he’s wearing a watch the got destroyed in the Thames six months before the photo, John was in Afghanistan at the time this photo should have been taken and the army takes a dim view of army doctors going AWOL for romantic breaks.

 

Photoshop, his mind supplies. If so, why? What would be the point?

 

His mother is reaching for the other pictures. He snatches them.

 

“I’ve not seen them yet.”

 

He needs her gone. Needs to scan the photo and get it to his expert. He wants it taken apart pixel by pixel.

 

He bustles her towards the door to her waiting taxi. She allows herself to be bustled, with only a small running commentary, reminding him that the taxi will be there at nine-thirty, and to eat something else if he can, and-

 

“Sherlock,” she says firmly, before he can get her fully out of the door. “I worry about you.”

 

She catches his chin with her hand, forcing him to look directly at her.

 

“Why is everyone acting like I’m supposed to be fine?” Sherlock demands. “Wouldn’t it be stranger if I was?”

 

“That’s not why we’re worried,” his mother breathes. There’s a pleading look in her eyes. “I’ve always wondered how I’d cope without your father, and before I had you boys I used to think I wouldn’t be able to go on… but when you have children you realise how selfish that would be. I know you don’t have children, but Sherlock… remember that there are other people who love you. There are other people who would be devastated if you gave up.”

 

Sherlock says nothing. She hasn’t lost her husband. Her resolve has never been tested.

 

“Try and focus on a case,” she says in a soothing voice. “Mycroft gave you one didn’t he?”

 

He realises that she’s holding the abandoned file. She can be annoyingly stealthy at times.

He snorts and pulls his face free of her steadying hand.

 

“Hardly much of a case.”

 

“Just look at it though.”

 

Sherlock takes the file, flicks through it and hands it back.

 

“The ambassador has a type: conventionally pretty blondes prone to plastic surgery. First wife and second wife very similar. Clearly unhappy in his marriage to the second wife – look at the tie in his photo – and she was hardly a credit to him politically. Look the shoes – she’s not giving this marriage up – so he kills her and moves in his mistress. Same height, build, and hair. Conventionally pretty. Perhaps she had a little work done to enhance the similarities. She becomes the second wife – only now she’s a talented, musical strong swimmer – and no one looks closely enough to really notice the differences in appearance. Mycroft could have solved that the second he saw a recent picture of her, if that’s his idea of giving me an engaging case he can keep it.”

 

“Well he was working at short notice and there can’t be thefts of secret documents all the time. There’ll be others. The police might have something for you…”

 

He doesn’t voice the truth: that without John his brain feels like it’s in a fog. John made him better at his work, John was his work. His brain will just whirr on without focus and he will have to go back to the drugs to give himself some control. Either way, he’ll end up killing himself.

 

“Perhaps,” he says mildly, because it takes a better man than him to say any of that out loud to his mother.

 

She smiles, it’s more of a half grimace really, reminds him about his taxi, and leaves.

 

Sherlock heads back into the study and picks up the strange photograph the stranger had left last night.

 

There are twelve pictures in total. The first is familiar enough, it’s one of the uncomfortable posed ones that he has a copy of. How this man came to have it is another question, but compared to the other photos that’s irrelevant.

 

He flips them over and finds each photo has a pencilled number on the back. The photo he recognises is ‘1’. The Goa photo is ‘2’.

 

He flicks through them. His head aches as it tries to make deductions that he knows to be impossible.

 

3. Taken at a police conference. With a detective Sherlock has never worked with.

 

4. A photo of John, Harry and another woman on a sofa. Sherlock would have guessed it to be Harry’s wife if he hadn’t known that she’d never had one.

 

5. John still in uniform, out in Afghanistan. There’s a pin up calendar behind him for this year. As if John had never left the army.

 

6. John posing with an old woman in a purple dress.

 

7. John – taken this year – posing with a girlfriend and looking like they’ve just had a row.

 

8. John and the old woman again.

 

10. An awkward Christmas picture of Sherlock and John. Taken at a place Sherlock doesn’t recognise.

 

11. John at a professional rugby match that took place during one of his tours (and that he’d griped about missing.)

 

12. John at New Year 2009 in London. Even though they’d been in Wales at the time.

 

Twelve pictures. Eleven of them completely impossible.

 

The case appeals to him in a way that no other would. This is about John, and it might very well be a complex, glorious puzzle. He doesn’t believe in signs, but there’s a beauty to making this his final case. He’ll probably have the whole thing solved before the end of the funeral.

 

Sherlock scans the photos and sends them to the best three analysts he knows with requests for them to check them over for any signs of tampering. He’s fairly sure they aren’t, from his own fairly extensive knowledge, but it’s best to check anyway.

 

He then sits down and searches for Jim Moriarty. Nothing on social media, unless the man who visited him last night has lost a lot of weight and given up his law practice in Chicago. Using slightly more underhanded methods, he checks the NHS records for an employee with that name, finds nothing, and spends ten minutes pouring through records of men of the right age who worked a shift at a hospital last night. Tries every care home within the surrounding area and hits a similar wall. His visitor almost certainly lied and he curses his own lack of interest. He’s almost certainly missed a vital clue.

 

The third task is considerably more difficult for him, but he wants this solved. He dials Mycroft’s number.

 

“Sherlock?” It’s well hidden surprise, but it’s still surprised.

 

“I need you to find out everything you can about Jim Moriarty.”

 

There is silence on the other end of the phone. A sigh that suggests Mycroft really doesn’t want to have this conversation now.

 

“Where did you hear that name?”

 

“So you’ve heard of him?” Sherlock is surprised. Mycroft is brilliant, but not omnipotent.

 

“He is a man I’d rather you avoided. Especially on a day like today…”

 

“The day isn’t relevant,” Sherlock snaps. “He’s mixed up in something to do with John. I need to know what.”

 

There’s another silence and Sherlock thinks that Mycroft isn’t going to answer. Eventually he sighs and begins to talk.

 

“He was of interest to us about nine years ago. Nothing very serious, just a name we heard enough times to warrant our attention. We’d linked him to a few groups, but then, one day, he disappeared. All traces of him were suddenly gone. I assumed he’d been killed.”

 

“Well he showed up on my doorstep not long after you left last night,” Sherlock says. “So I need you to find out everything you can and I need it before the funeral starts.”

 

“About that, Sherlock, shouldn’t you be focused on getting through that-”

 

“The information Mycroft,” Sherlock snaps. He hangs up.

 

This done he goes to shower and dresses carefully. The bedroom feels strange, he’s barely been in here in weeks. He doesn’t look at the bed and he focuses instead on his suit. Once it’s on it’s impossible to see the gun carefully hidden. The press of it against his skin comforts him and he looks over his own reflection carefully. He looks calm, in control, as far from a weeping mess as it’s possible to be.

 

He just has to last until the case is solved or the funeral is over. Whichever comes first.

 

 

--

 

 

The plan was to be picked up by taxi and taken to the church. He insisted on going alone and refused to be part of any procession.

 

This means he’s free to take a detour to Harry’s house where he finds her looking lost and all-too-sober in an ill-fitting black dress.

 

“I thought I was meeting everyone there,” she says roughly as he pushes past her into the living room.

 

“Change of plans.”

 

She shrugs as if it doesn’t matter either way.

 

“Remember all the time the two of you spent here?” she rasps. She’s clearly in a mood to poke the bruise and prod at the toothache. “I was so… jealous. After the two of you got a place of your own it just felt empty. I tried to fill it up… but it’s not the same. He was family.” She looks into his eyes. “You’re family too.”

 

This emotional attack bounces off him, Sherlock’s focused on the case now. The key to avoiding a complete breakdown has been an obsession with John’s death, John’s funeral, and now the mystery of John’s photographs. He’s burning up trying to keep his focus in place, but at least it means he can shrug a statement like that off.

 

“Look at this,” he says, thrusting the photo of John, Harry, and the (possible) wife of Harry’s at her. She takes it and looks it over.

 

A beep from his phone. An email.

 

Sherlock, I’ve checked them all. I can’t be one hundred percent from a scanned copy, but in my expert opinion I’d say there’s no way any of them have been faked or tampered with. Even I – knowing every trick in the book – couldn’t fake photos so convincingly.

 

Jackie Cadwaller has been an editor for virtually every gossip magazine in print. He’d take her word over a police analyst.

 

And he’s already heard back from the police analyst, he thought they were genuine too, as did Stella Jones, the head of the London Museum of Photography.

 

Not fakes then.

 

“I don’t remember this…” Harry says blankly. “Did you take it?”

 

Sherlock shakes his head. “You don’t know the woman in the photograph?”

 

“No. I mean, that’s me, and that’s my sofa, but I’ve never owned a dress like that – I’d never wear pink - and I’ve never met that woman. Where did you find the picture?”

 

Sherlock shrugs the question off. “Found it with some old photos.”

 

Harry shrugs the mystery off with the ease of every other brain-dead member of the public. “Must have been an old one then. One of John’s girlfriend’s maybe, back before you turned him-“ she winks, “I must’ve been too pissed to remember. God, that’s bad…”

 

Sherlock wants to tear his hair out. The photo is clearly only two or three years old. The John in that photo is edging into his late thirties and Harry is no twenty-something in it either.

 

Time is running out, the taxi will be there to pick them up at any moment. There’s nothing he can do but face up to the funeral. Once it starts, the case will be forgotten. For these next three hours John needs his attention. It’s going to hurt like nothing else on earth, but it has to be done. If John Watson is going to be buried then someone at that funeral has to be in agony with grief; he deserves that.

 

 

--

 

 

Mycroft is waiting for him outside, looking overwarm in his heavy coat.

 

“The hearse should be here in five minutes,” Mycroft says, taking refuge in cold, hard, facts.

 

Which means Sherlock still has five minutes to work.

 

“And Moriarty?”

 

“Do you think this is really the time Sherlock?”

 

“You said focus on a case,” Sherlock snaps.

 

“Not this one. I want you to stay away from this.”

 

He knocked on my door. I’m already involved. What do you know?”

 

Mycroft, looking terse and deeply put upon, gives in. “There was something of a… failing on our part. Moriarty has come onto our radar once since the time he disappeared, but my team failed to recognise him. Sherlock, you might not want to hear this-”

 

“Don’t insult me, Mycroft.”

 

“Very well. Jim Moriarty sold John Watson his gun.” He glances Sherlock over, looking for it. “That suit is very well made. I can barely see it.”

 

“That’s all you know?”

 

“John met him in a shop in Covent Garden and bought it there.”

 

“Covent Garden’s no place to stage a gun deal. Where?”

 

“Milton Gate, hardly a major thoroughfare. It’s was art shop, running at a loss since it’s opened. Perfectly legitimate on the surface, but then if Moriarty can slip under our notice so easily, one would expect that. As far as we can tell it was a haunt of his.”

 

Which means that it’s Sherlock’s next stop after the-

 

The hearse is rolling into the cemetery. It’s time.

 

For the moment, Jim Moriarty is completely inconsequential.

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock doesn’t want to give the eulogy. To stand in front of the gathered mourners and talk about John feels like giving a part of him away and there’s precious little left to give. But someone has to do it and there’s no one else who could even come close to summing up John, no one he could bear to listen to.

 

“A eulogy,” he begins, “is traditionally a chance to remind the people who loved and cared for the deceased of their achievements, virtues, and successes. In regards to John Watson, it’s a subject I could speak for hours on. Before I begin, though, there are a few people I need to address.”

 

He scans the crowd and points at a woman with long black hair. “You. Stand.”

 

She blinks and then very slowly does so.

 

He points at a pink faced man in his thirties next. “You. Up you get.”

 

He carries on. “You. You. You.” Two more women are picked and another man. The five standees look around at each other in confusion.

 

Sherlock waits until he has their attention again.

 

“Get out.”

 

His words stun them, and the rest of the room for that matter.

 

“If I’m going to have to stand here and tell people about how brilliant John was, how his death is destroying me, then I’m not wasting my time and breath on people who are only here for appearances sake, or who actively disliked him.” He glares particularly at the red faced man but singles them all out in turn. “Ex-girlfriend here to gawp, ex-girlfriend here to check if he really did go gay like she heard, former colleague who loathes him, employee of my brother trying to get into his good books (I’d give her a raise Mycroft, she’s certainly ingenious), husband of John’s ex-girlfriend who doesn’t like the fact he’s been dragged along. Get. Out. You don’t deserve to be here.”

 

The room is immediately buzzing with talk and the shame-faced five have no choice but to gather their things and leave. Out of the corner of his eye he can see his brother drop his head into his hands and his mother close her eyes in horror. His father is shaking with poorly-hidden laughter.

 

The hubbub doesn’t die down until they’ve gone and Sherlock waits until the room is completely silent, hanging on his next words.

 

“Now, about John…”

 

Sherlock freezes mid-sentence. In the very back pew another mourner has caught his eye. A man who wasn’t there seconds ago.

 

It’s Moriarty.

 

The pause is enough to make Mycroft turn around to follow his line of sight. He sees Moriarty and begins subtly texting his staff, earning what looks like a painful kick from their mother for his rudeness.

 

But this isn’t about this case. This is about John. Sherlock opens his mouth again, determined to finish the eulogy.

 

“If I’m honest with you, I’d say there isn’t a single one of you whose life I wouldn’t trade to bring him back.” This earns him a gasp. “Nine years ago I met John in this room, with these same flowers, the same hymns. He was a complete stranger, just the back of a head and an earlobe in my line of sight. Somehow that man became someone I would die for, kill for, someone whose every secret-” his eyes flicker to Moriarty and there’s an unmistakable smirk from the man, “- I knew. He was so important that without him, my life is draining away…”

 

“So perhaps you think that my willingness to trade every one of you for him is cruel, unfair, well that’s love. It’s selfish. It blinds you to everything else, makes you simultaneously vulnerable and dangerous. I’ve never claimed to be an un-selfish man, and perhaps all John managed to do was transfer my small allotment of selflessness over to him, because there is nothing I wouldn’t have done for him, no one I wouldn’t have sacrificed. Ladies and gentleman, I could talk all day about his virtues but he only had one flaw: loving me. If he hadn’t met me he would be alive.”

 

In the back row, unseen by everyone else, Moriarty stands up.

 

“And while there might be people out there who want to hurt me, know this, there is no way that anything you can do can touch me, hurt me more than being here, standing in front of this coffin can destroy me.”

 

No one is watching Moriarty. Sherlock is silent again but they are all waiting to gawp at the car-crash of him breaking down, so no one looks behind them.

 

Moriarty takes out a gun with deliberate, showy movements. It’s the same gun as the one in Sherlock’s jacket.

 

He holds the barrel up to his temple, still smiling.

 

Sherlock has just a few seconds before people will start to get worried at his silence. He wants to shout out, but it’s over too quickly…

 

Moriarty pulls the trigger, aiming at his own head. There’s a gunshot.

 

People scream, not sure where the noise is coming from. Sherlock doesn’t see or hear them because his eyes are frozen on the spot where Moriarty had been.

 

There’s no body.

 

The gun went off against Moriarty’s temple, the bullet buried itself in the wall, but Moriarty didn’t die.

 

As miraculously as if he’d done it by magic, he pulled the trigger and disappeared from the room before the bullet could travel through his head.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

 

 

 

All Sherlock wants is to be alone. The problem with that is that, while he isn’t the star of the show at this funeral, he is still the co-star and had the added attraction of being the one who can currently talk. This, combined with his nearest and dearest’s fears that he might at any moment slink off to blow his brains out, means that for the next three hours there’s rarely a moment in which someone isn’t talking at him.

 

The gunshot is mostly forgotten by the people in attendance; there were no injuries so most people have rewritten the events in their head as a backfiring car and moved on. Mycroft saw Moriarty, but was busy texting during the performance with the gun.

 

Sherlock’s head is buzzing with questions and in a way he’s grateful because when his mind slows down for a second he crashes back to the reality of the funeral and burial. It’s like being drunk, he’s lost in his own head and the events play out in front of him like a storyboard.

 

He ends up alone with Mycroft, being driven home. His mother begged him to come and stay with them for a few days, his father had talked her out of actually kidnapping Sherlock. He’s seen every possible variant of sympathetic expression and heard enough platitudes to fill a book of clichés.

 

It’s finally over.

 

The car stops outside his house. Sherlock reaches for the door handle and finds it still locked.

 

“Sherlock…” Mycroft says. His voice is strangely vulnerable. “Please don’t.”

 

“Don’t what?” Sherlock asks pettily. He wants Mycroft to say it. Don’t use that gun. Don’t do it.

 

“Please.”

 

If anyone ever wanted evidence that Mycroft was flesh and blood, the emotion in his voice in that moment would have been evidence number one.

 

“You could have me stopped,” Sherlock points out. He’s in no mood to relieve Mycroft’s pain. He has enough of his own and if love makes you selfish, grief makes you cruel.

 

“You’re my brother.”

 

Mycroft won’t have him stopped. He won’t even have him watched tonight, Sherlock is certain. For the first time in his life he’s allowing his brother the freedom to make his own decisions unmolested and he’s doing it at probably the most dangerous time.

 

Somewhere in Sherlock’s chest there beats a strange feeling, so rare as to be impossible to name, that he suspects might be affection for his brother. It lasts for milliseconds but it’s enough to turn him serious.

 

“Take me to Covent Garden.”

 

In the rear-view mirror the driver’s eyes flicker to Mycroft, waiting for an order.

 

“Sherlock, stay away from Moriarty.”

 

“Why should I?” Sherlock snaps. “He’s hardly staying away from me. He sold John a gun, he turned up at my house with unexplainable photographs, and then pulled a vanishing act in a crowded room. You wanted me to focus on a case, well you’ve got your wish.”

 

“Not this case,” Mycroft hisses through clenched teeth. “Focus on the one I gave you, perhaps you’ll find answers there-”

 

“Covent. Garden,” Sherlock repeats.

 

“Promise me,” says Mycroft, as close to pleasing as Sherlock has ever heard. “Promise me you won’t. Not today.”

 

“Won’t what?” Sherlock says petulantly.

 

“You won’t use that gun on yourself. Or do anything else… irrational.”

 

Sherlock considers. There are eight hours left until midnight. One minute past midnight would count as ‘not today’ and he is certain he can have this case solved by then.

 

“Fine,” he promises. “Not today.”

 

Mycroft relaxes fractionally and waves a hand for the car to start up again.

 

 

--

 

 

Covent Garden is not the place to come after a funeral. It’s Friday evening and the setting sun is weaving through the streets. People drink outside pubs, tourists gawp at the living statues and shoppers move through the crowds with large bags holding small, expensive items.

 

Sherlock has the car stop at the tube station and waits until its moved off before walking the twenty yards or so to the street he’s looking for.

 

Amidst all this late afternoon frivolity, Milton Gate is virtually unnoticed. It’s just a tiny connecting street – little more than an alleyway – in between a Starbucks and Zara. It’s the sort of place a guidebook might call a ‘hidden gem’ and recommend for its working gas lamp and the quirky shops hidden away from the masses in one of the busiest locations in London.

 

Sherlock walks down it. There is no sunlight here, the streets are two narrow and the buildings too high. It feels old and unnoticed.

 

Perhaps that’s why it’s of interest to Moriarty.

 

The shop he’s after is no longer in business. The windows are covered in newspaper (dated four months ago) and when he looks up there’s a two story home above it, equally abandoned. That in itself is interesting, a property of this size in this location should have been snapped up within minutes of going on the market.

 

Intriguing.

 

Getting inside is all too easy and no one disturbs him while he picks the lock. The shop is dusty, which makes the footprints all too obvious. One size, lots of different prints going in and out; the exact size he’d have estimated for Moriarty.

 

Cautiously, Sherlock moves to the back of the shop, which leads to a backroom and a flight of stairs. Up those stairs is what could be a reasonably sized home had it not spent at least fifteen years being used for storage. The floor is covered with mouldy carpet, so there are no prints up here.

 

He looks through the empty rooms and then heads up the second staircase to the third floor. Ths was an attic once upon a time but has long since been converted into three poky bedrooms.

 

The first is as uninhabited and cold as the rest, but the second makes him freeze in the doorway.

 

This room has been occupied recently. It’s clean, with a neatly made single bed, yet it’s utterly bizarre. A Friends poster is stuck to the wall, and there’s a Take That one above the bed. There is a neat row of thin novels - the sort that come free with magazines - on the dressing table next to a pot of sickly strawberry lip-gloss, never opened. It’s as if a teenage girl’s room has been frozen in time.

 

Sherlock goes to the wardrobe and finds it empty. The dressing table drawers are the same. If this room had been kept enshrined for a teenage girl who died in nineties there would be more possessions. Sherlock is willing to bet anything that no teenage girl ever lived here.

 

Was he meant to find this?

 

“Curious?”

 

Sherlock jumps at the voice and turns: Moriarty is standing in the doorway. He’s wearing the suit he wore at the funeral and there’s no trace of the disinfectant or bags under his eyes from the night before; clever tricks, all of it. He’s holding the gun he shot himself with at his side, casually, as if he barely notices its presence.

 

“Did you set this up?”

 

Moriarty nods. “I thought it would whet your appetite.”

 

Sherlock reaches into his pocket for the photographs and holds them up. “Consider me interested. I want answers.”

 

Moriarty shrugs as if answers aren’t very important. He steps into the room and looks around in a proprietary way. When he passes the dressing table he reaches out to carefully slide the disturbed lip-gloss back to its original spot.

 

He glances Sherlock over.

 

“My, you look rough. That gun in your jacket is tempting, huh? Well don’t worry, what I’ve got is worth living for.”

 

“What happened at the funeral?” Sherlock demands.

 

Moriarty smiles as if Sherlock has done a particularly good trick.

 

“I suppose that’s the easiest one to start with,” he says, as if there can ever be a simple explanation to holding a gun to your head, shooting it, and disappearing before the bullet can touch your skin. “What do you know of Nell Ailis?”

 

Sherlock shakes his head, the name is new to him.

 

“Nell Ailis was born on Boxing Day 1980 and grew up above a shop just like this. Not this one, but very similar. A boy developed a silly little crush on her, as teenage boys do, and tried to fumble about with her in a pathetic way. She –startled - pushed him away and reached out for something to defend herself with. Her hand fell on a wooden paper knife. What do you think happened next?”

 

His question is a sing-song. Sherlock shrugs: there are hundreds of possibilities.

 

“That night the father looked for his daughter to no avail, her sister spoke to Nell’s friends, yet no trace of her could be found. The police were called, the boy claimed complete ignorance, and – in time – it became just another sad missing person story. A missing person poster in a bus station twenty years after the fact. Life went on. The father died. The elder sister took over the business. The boy grew up and put it all out of his mind. So what’s so interesting about the case?”

 

“Is this at all relevant?” Sherlock asks.

 

Moriarty grins and begins a slow circle around him. The hand not holding his gun sits in his pocket.

 

“Oh Sherlock, it’s so relevant. It’s the answer to everything.”

 

He tilts his head.

 

“Some further clues: the neighbouring boy didn’t harm a hair on her head, though he did keep what happened a secret. There was no CCTV on that street in 1994 but if there had been the police would have found that Nell didn’t leave the building. If a suspicious policemen had then searched the house from top to bottom they’d have found no body; not in the walls or the floor or in pieces in a box or minced up and made into fairy cakes… so what happened to Nell?”

 

Easy enough answer.

 

“She disappeared. Like you did today.”

 

“And where did she go?”

 

“Somewhere she couldn’t get back from.”

 

“Oh she could have. It’s a simple enough trick if you know it, but most people don’t. They get trapped and are stuck living out the rest of their lives in an alternate universe.”

 

“An alternate universe?”

 

“Sounds mad, doesn’t it? I had to do that little trick today because you’d never accept it without proof. But you will believe me now, so I can give you the history lesson.”

 

“Go on.”

 

“First of all, the universe is big. Sooooo big. If I took a pencil and tried to write down the number of alternate universes out there I’d run out of trees to make pencils before I’d get anywhere close. If I had an infinite pencil I’d eventually run out of space to write and soon the whole world would be silver, completely coloured in. Every possible version of every possible event is out there somewhere. It’s not magic – there are no dragons or wizards - its science.

 

“Travel is possible between worlds. How? Well as our friend Nell showed us, it’s triggered accidentally. You have to touch the right object, called a Hive – a Hive can be anything natural - and you have to be frightened. So poor Nell got scared, picked up the wooden paper knife not knowing what it was, and then – poof! - she was gone. Lost in a whole new world with no idea what happened. The best guess is that it’s a survival mechanism; life needs to continue and so the universe offers escape routes for the really desperate if they are lucky enough to be touching a Hive at the time. They’re surprisingly common and rarely activated. I mean, how often do you fear for your life while holding an envelope opener?”

 

“So that’s what you do?” Sherlock asks. “The gun is the object, you shoot yourself to activate the fear response, and you disappear off to your little world before the bullet hits you?”

 

Moriarty smirks. “Very clever, but no. I’m a very special case. Think how many billions of people there are in every world, how many billions there are for every single zero in that list of numbers that would cover the planet in pencil. Well Sherlock, of all those people, I’m the only one that can travel at will. I don’t need a Hive; I get to decide where I want to go. I only need the fear to trigger it, which is what the gun is for. I don’t even really need the gun, but you gotta admit, it looks pretty cool.”

 

This is all fascinating, Sherlock knows, on an academic level. But this is all about John, as far as Sherlock is concerned, and his mind is already racing ahead.

 

“Those photos, they were all other versions of John, from those other words.”

 

Moriarty nods. “Did you like them?”

 

“How many versions are there?”

 

“Of him? Of you? Of me? Probably not enough to cover the whole world in pencil, but I bet you’d get through quite a few forests of trees writing the numbers down. And before you ask, yes, I’m the only version of Jim Moriarty with this knack. The rest of them are bored and angry and only able to cause localised chaos, whereas I’m a VIP: I have access everywhere.”

 

“So why this John? Why did you sell him the gun? Or was that another version of you?”

 

Moriarty almost claps his hands in delight. “Oh, clever! But no. I got rid of the version of me that lived here, I wanted you all to myself. Why did I sell John the gun? To be honest, I just wanted to meet him. Find out what makes him special. Of course, after the 29th of January I had even more questions.”

 

“The 29th?”

 

Moriarty grins. “You see you and John, here in this world, you’re special. You are the very first version of yourself to meet John Watson. There are a handful more who met after you, but the vast majority of Sherlock Holmeses met John Watson on the 29th of January 2010. You can imagine my surprise… there I was thinking he was an outlier and then, wham! Suddenly he’s a major part of the narrative.”

 

“So why am I so special?”

 

“Because every version of me takes an interest in you. I want a version of my very own to play with and I think you’re going to be the most fun. All the other versions of me want to burn the heart out of you, but you’re the first Sherlock to acknowledge he has a heart to burn.”

 

Sherlock shrugs. “You’ve answered my questions. The mystery is solved.” He reaches into his jacket and retrieves John’s gun. It’s identical to the one in Moriarty’s hands. He holds it to his head. “I’m not at all interested in playing games with you, or in ending up in another world.”

 

Nuh, uh, uh!” Moriarty sing songs. “The promise you made to your brother is all over your face. Did you promise twenty four hours, or just ‘not today’? That means you have to stick it out until midnight at the earliest. Why not listen to my offer?”

 

He takes out the gun, holds it to his own head, and snatches Sherlock’s wrist with his other hand. “Better yet, I’ll show you my offer.”

 

He pulls the trigger.

 

--

 

 

While the disappearing and reappearing somewhere else thing may look, to an outsider, like something out of Harry Potter, the sensation is completely non-magical. To Sherlock it feels like life and death. There is nothing and then there is something. The brain is clearly not designed for this sort of hopping around between universes, because now that he’s standing here in another world, the idea of there being another universe, even though it’s one he grew up in, seems as fuzzy and faint as a dream.

 

In that first second he wobbles and struggles to keep upright because he’d been on carpeted floor and is now standing in mud. The second sensation is the smell.

 

Sherlock has seen some disgusting things and experienced the accompanying smells. He has a strong stomach, but this stink is like nothing on earth. It’s rotting flesh, and burning flesh, burning hair, and blood, and urine, and shit, and- he doubles over and retches.

 

Moriarty is standing next to him, unfazed. “Yeah, the smell is usually a bit of a shock. People who come from modernised, sterile worlds forget how much stink and disease there is out there.”

 

Sherlock struggles upright, eyes streaming, and looks at the events unfolding in front of them. They are a little way off a battlefield. It’s the sort of battle with horses and swords that Sherlock has only seen in books and the historical dramas John enjoyed watching on television. It’s nothing like those dramas though, like nothing his own brain could ever have supplied.

 

In front of them a sword strikes clean through an arm.

 

“Can’t they see us?” he asks.

 

Moriarty’s face twists, clearly thinking Sherlock has said something stupid.

 

“Of course they can see us. They’re just a little bit busy at the moment.”

 

“Why are we here?”

 

Moriarty shrugs. “I wasn’t really concentrating. If I’m not concentrating I usually end up somewhere like this. A therapist would have a field day. Ooh look, we’ve been spotted.”

 

The nearest soldier, covered in so much blood that Sherlock can’t tell what colour his uniform once was, charges them. Moriarty stands serenely as the man gets closer and then simply raises his arm and shoots the soldier in the head.

 

The soldier’s head rips apart and he drops to the ground. The noise of the battle is no loud that no one else notices for the moment. There are hundreds of thousands of people in front of them and they are on the very edge of it all.

 

Sherlock stares at the man’s head. He never, ever wanted to see brain matter sprayed out like that ever again…

 

“Don’t worry!” Moriarty reassures him, misinterpreting Sherlock’s expression. “You can get the next one.”

 

Sherlock is about to demand that they leave, but they are spotted again. This time it’s not a fighter, it’s a soldier clearly mentally out of it, so desperate, that he is just running. It’s not desertion, it’s a baser instinct and all he sees between him and freedom are Sherlock and Moriarty. He screams, raises his sword-

 

Moriarty doesn’t do a thing. He just stands there, watching.

 

The whole thing happens in seconds. Sherlock ducks out of the way of the sword, darts out of reach hoping the man will just keep running, but he’s acting on animal instinct. He lashes out again and Sherlock, who still has John’s gun in his hand, reaches out and shoots.

 

Another splatter – Sherlock fires at the throat because he can’t bear to shoot the head - another body on the floor.

 

Moriarty sighs. “I suppose we better get out of here. I don’t want to run out of bullets.”

 

He grabs Sherlock’s wrist again, puts the gun to his head, and fires.

 

 

--

 

 

For a second Sherlock thinks they are back home. They are in London, just outside Baker Street tube station. At once the idea of standing in a field shooting a terrified soldier seems far away. He looks down at himself and sees the blood splattered over his suit and skin, the gun still in his hand… not that far away.

 

He hastily pockets the gun and he finally notices the newspapers. The headline is different to the one he looked at this morning with the hollow anger of someone whose world is crashing down around them and can’t believe the world is interested in someone else’s tragedies instead.

 

Moriarty’s Trial to Start Tomorrow

 

He looks at Moriarty, who grins.

 

“Told you. There’s plenty of versions of me causing local chaos. I imagine I have a-”

 

He pauses. Sherlock doesn’t see his eyes light up with mischief because Sherlock has noticed the exact same thing that Moriarty has.

 

John Watson has just walked out of the tube station.

 

He’s looking slightly tense – like he does after an argument – but otherwise he’s unharmed. The image of the dead, lifeless body Sherlock has carried with him for the last three weeks is washed away by the living breathing man crossing the road to use the cashpoint.

 

If Moriarty had turned the gun on Sherlock now, ordered him to stay still, he couldn’t have obeyed. His legs are moving of their own accord. He’s following John across the road and calling out for him desperately.

 

John pockets his money and turns in alarm as he sees Sherlock bearing down on him. He’s clearly confused.

 

“Sherlock? What’re you doing here? I thought you were going to-”

 

This John has another Sherlock. Sherlock could make a thousand deductions about John’s life here but he can’t concentrate. Can only focus on the man that’s alive in front of him.

 

“Change of plans. I needed to speak to you.”

 

“What the hell happened to you?”

 

John’s eyes are on Sherlock’s suit, which is still splattered with blood.

 

“Oh. Uh. Experiment.” He waves it away. “Doesn’t matter.”

 

“Is it about the trial?” John frowns. “Why you wanted me?”

 

“What? Uh. No.” Sherlock is suddenly paralysed. This John, who looks feels, and god, even smells like his John, will be utterly confused by anything Sherlock has to say to him. But the idea of just turning and leaving him physically hurts.

 

“No. No. I, uh, just needed you to pick up some…milk.”

 

John blinks. “Milk?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You came all the way here to find me and tell me that? You didn’t feel like texting?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

John is smiling like Sherlock’s a lunatic. It’s so wonderful to see it again that Sherlock smiles back. He knows the pain is clearly etched across his face, John is more worried than he’s letting on.

              

“Yeah. Get a couple of pints.”

 

“Oh-kaaay.” John says. “You’re sure you’re alright?”

 

Sherlock nod is brittle. “Yes. Fine.”

 

He leans in, presses his lips against John’s and drinks him in. His hands grip John’s upper arms in a way that must be slightly painful and it’s barely a proper kiss, just a press of mouths to remind him of the feeling. It’s not his John, but for a second he can just believe…

 

He registers the way John has frozen just a second too late. Oh who’s he kidding? He should have registered John’s reaction the moment he leaned in. But he wanted it too much. He pulls away.

 

John’s face is a picture of tormented confusion.

 

“What was that?”

 

John and Sherlock, whoever they are here, they aren’t…

 

Sherlock almost shuts his eyes in horror.

 

“Nothing. It was. It was nothing.”

 

He turns and starts to walk back across to the street. John moves to follow.

 

“Wait!”

 

Milk!” he snaps in a way that forbids John to follow him.

 

He barely registers how he gets back across the street and around the corner. He’s standing in front of Moriarty again, who looks surprisingly relaxed for someone whose face is on the front of every copy of the Standard.

 

Though, now he’s paying attention. Moriarty isn’t looking at Sherlock. He’s staring at the back of a woman. There’s more to it than simple checking out, he’s watching her with a distracted look. It’s as vulnerable as Sherlock’s seen him yet.

 

The woman is about their own age, dressed in a slightly hippy style with leggings and a flowing top. Her curly red hair is bouncing as she strides along the street.

 

“Someone you know?” Sherlock asks.

 

Moriarty starts and the veneer of malice is back in place at once.

 

“Hmm? No. Anyway… I bet John’s going to have a very interesting conversation with the other Sherlock tonight,” he says with a grin.

 

“What was that about?” Sherlock snaps.

 

Moriarty holds up his hands. “I didn’t make you do anything! That was me proving a point.”

 

“What point?”

 

“That you’re going to accept my offer.”

 

 

--

 

 

The gunshot must alarm the passers-by on Baker Street, but Sherlock doesn’t hear it. The noise from the shot comes after they’ve disappeared. They are back in his house, in the living room, and he drops down into his own chair, looking around his own home as if it’s somehow alien to him.

 

Moriarty sits in John’s chair, perfectly aware of the way it discomforts Sherlock.

 

“So, what do you think?”

 

Sherlock doesn’t dignify that with a response.

 

“What offer?” he asks eventually.

 

Moriarty smiles. He leans back and crosses his legs.

 

“I’ll take you to another world. Permanently. A world where John Watson is still alive.”

 

It’s not so much a tempting offer as one that takes Sherlock by the throat. His John is dead – gone – and Sherlock is being offered an answer to the most unsolvable problem of all time. He asked the universe for this not to be happening and here is someone promising him just that.

 

As he said to Harry, at her mother’s funeral all those years ago, he doesn’t believe the dead watch over them. John has no more knowledge of Sherlock. But Sherlock can still learn more about John, he can see the man he could grow into, he could love him and protect him and be better at it this time…

 

But Moriarty is not a man to make deals with. Sherlock has kept his face so blank that it almost hurts him to do it, yet Moriarty is still smiling as though he can read Sherlock’s thoughts.

 

“What do you get out of it?” Sherlock asks.

 

Moriarty tilts his head.

 

“What I want, Sherlock, is someone to play the game with me. I’ve seen hundreds of other versions of me – weak and powerless - have their petty obsessions with cold, machine-like versions of you. I want a real fight. I want to war my way across the universe with you. You said at the funeral that there’s nothing more that can hurt you now, well I promise I’ll take that as a challenge.”

 

Sherlock is fairly sure that isn’t supposed to be a tempting offer. But Moriarty’s voice is seductive and the part of Sherlock’s brain that burning itself up for problems to solve is roaring away behind his eyes.

 

It’s dangerous. It’s stupid. But what’s the alternative?

 

Dying as soon as his promise to his brother ceases to be in effect.

 

“Why should I trust you? I’ll essentially be agreeing to a fight in which I’m already at a disadvantage. I’m making a pact with the devil.”

 

“No Sherlock. You’re starting a game. I’m the black queen and you’re a white pawn. I have all the advantages, but if you’re smart you can still win. That’s the point of a game. Besides,” he smirks, “I’m offering you the chance to be with John Watson and, on top of that, you’ll never be bored again. Tell me that’s not the best offer you’ve had in weeks.”

 

Sherlock knows his decision is already made. He will die, one way or another. Why not just leave? His family will have the same pain, but he’ll be alive somewhere. They’ll have hope.

 

“Do I get to negotiate terms?” he asks.

 

Moriarty shrugs. “Now’s the time to do it.”

 

“No tricks,” he warns. “The rules have to be clear. Also you can’t use your… powers… to your advantage. This is between us, a battle of wits.

 

Moriarty rolls his eyes.

 

“Fine. The other worlds will only be a location. No trickery. At least, as little trickery as I can manage. Is that all?”

 

“I get to choose which version of John.”

 

“That I’ve already planned for. And?”

 

“And I want John’s murderer found.”

 

Yesterday, even an hour ago, he would have demanded to have the man brought to him but he’s still covered in the blood of another human. He can’t do it.

 

“I want you to deliver him to my brother.”

 

“Done. And speaking of your brother, he doesn’t get involved in this. He doesn’t get to know about our game and he doesn’t get to work on your behalf.” Moriarty sits up straight and adjusts his tie minutely. “We have a deal?”

 

He holds out his hand. Sherlock, without hesitation, takes the cool hand and shakes.

 

“What now?”

 

Moriarty leans forward. “Give me the photographs.”

 

Sherlock lays them on the coffee table. Moriarty opens them and spreads them out so that Sherlock can see them.

 

“Twelve versions of John. This one, your one-“ he points to the first photo, “-is out of the game.”

 

He picks up the picture and tears it in half casually. Sherlock itches to snatch it away from him, but doesn’t.

 

“That leaves eleven. Each of them is a recognisable John Watson to you. Some worlds you stand more of a chance of being happy than others. In one he was never shot and therefore never met you, in one you’re already dead…”

 

“So I have to choose?”

 

“Think of it as a little challenge. There are hundreds of Hives in London Sherlock. If this room is zero, then the closest Hive to here is one, the next is two, and so on. Choose the picture you want and find the right Hive, use it, and I’ll meet you there to whisk you away to your new life. If you’re not at any of them by midnight tonight, I’ll assume you’re either too boring or too stupid to bother with.”

 

He stands to leave.

 

“If the Hives look like anything, any natural object, how am I supposed to find them?”

 

Moriarty shrugs. “You’re a detective Sherlock. Figure it out.”

 

He saunters out of the room. The front door clicks shut. Within seconds there is a gunshot and Moriarty is gone.

 

 

--

 

 

 

Sherlock knows which photograph to choose. Number seven. That John came back from Afghanistan and never met Sherlock. It would be a whole new start.

 

But he has to find the right Hive.

 

There must be a way.

 

He scrabbles around and finds a map. Jabs a pin into the spot where the house is. What did Moriarty say about the Ailis girl? Just another missing person poster… so he needs to look for patterns of missing people. He grabs his laptop and begins searching, firing off texts to various members of the network. If anyone will know, it’s them.

 

His searches bring back twelve potential spots where more than two people have disappeared and another fifty where people have disappeared in circumstances that could be considered baffling or worthy of investigation. He narrows it down to ten likely cases.

 

The thought occurs to him that the Hives are just as likely to work the other way and begins to hunt for people who have appeared mysteriously. Another three cases pop up, and his homeless network (though less forthcoming when it comes to giving out names of their own) brings back the name of one woman.

 

He spends another hour going through possible searches. It’s nearing nine o’ clock now. Three hours to find the right spot.

 

By ten he has twelve places. Is almost alight with his own brilliance. He hasn’t even left the house yet.

 

His coat is on and he’s almost out of the door when the thought occurs to him…

 

If the first photograph, the one of his John, is ‘one’ then would that have a corresponding Hive? Moriarty said that that was no longer part of the game, which would make the second photograph ‘one’.

 

Moriarty said he wouldn’t use tricks. How much can Sherlock afford to believe that? If Moriarty is tricking him then he needs to go the seventh Hive. If Moriarty isn’t then he needs to go to the sixth.

 

It has to be the seventh. This is a test of his intelligence, if Sherlock falls for a small amount of confusion about the order of Hives, he’ll deserve whatever he’s in for.

 

He had been planning to go to a local auction house where the ‘cursed’ ruby necklace was due to be sold. It would have been easy to fake his way into a private viewing…

 

But if he does that he’ll be wrong. He knows it.

 

He changes plans and texts his network. He needs to find the woman who appeared out of nowhere and speak to her. It’s ten forty, there’s time still.

 

He goes back into the living room and looks at the photos on the coffee table. He pockets the genuine one, torn as it is, and then goes to the fire and burns the others. He burns the one of John and his cross looking girlfriend last. If he’s right, that will be his new life.

 

 

He has no possessions he needs, though he’s reluctant to leave the violin. He goes back downstairs and grabs a piece of paper to scrawl a final note.

 

Nothing left for me here.

SH

 

He leaves it on the coffee table with the gun and he hopes to hell Mycroft understands the message. He clearly hasn’t shot himself and there’s no way that Mycroft doesn’t know something about Hives. Mycroft will hopefully put two and two together and realise that his brother is gone, but still alive. It may not be exactly what he hoped for, but it’s surely better than the alternative.

 

He leaves the house, pausing on the threshold for just a moment. This has been his home for ten years and he feels absurdly emotional all of a sudden. This was John’s house, proof that – as with clothes – John shouldn’t be trusted to make decisions. But Sherlock has a fondness for John’s clothes and an equal fondness for this hideous suburban house with its blue door and overgrown garden.

 

But somewhere out there there’s a new home, one with another version of John in it and the promise of a new life.

 

 

--

 

 

He takes a quick detour to withdraw all the money he can from the cashpoint (another clue to Mycroft that he hasn’t killed himself) and meets Jillian in an underpass near Alexandria Palace.

 

The two women are sitting against the wall in the graffitied, piss-stained tunnel. Above them the light flickers every few seconds and every five minutes or so the roar of the trains above turns their whole world into noise. One, an Indian woman in her forties, is wrapped up in a red sleeping bag but Jillian, a plump-faced girl with dreadlocks, doesn’t tend to stay in this area. She’s smoking and keeping an eye out for him.

 

“Hiya Sherlock,” she says when he arrives. “Fort you was at the funeral today?”

 

“I was,” Sherlock says tightly.

 

“We was all sorry to hear about-“

 

Sherlock cuts her off. “Is this her?”

 

He gestures to the woman in the sleeping bag and Jillian nods. The two of them stand up and Sherlock can see that, out of her bag, the older woman is an oddity. About fifty red hair extensions – the sort that can be bought for pennies in the markets – have been clipped into her greying hair. She’s wearing a spangly red dress, entirely unsuitable for living rough, over red leggings. Red trainers are worn on her tiny feet and red lipstick smears her mouth.

 

“She don’t speak much English,” Jillian warns.

 

“What does she speak?” he asks.

 

“She don’t speak nuffin’ you’ll recognise. Social services were all over her trying to work out what she speaks. We call her Red, for obvious reasons.”

 

“Hello,” says Red with the careful pronunciation of someone who doesn’t understand what she’s saying.

 

“One day she just turned up here, beaten up bad and wiv a broken leg. No one could understand her at all, an’ she’s scared of just about everything. Social services take her away now and then but she keeps coming back here. She just sits here, like she’s praying, sleeps here most nights. We try an’ keep an eye on her. An’ she’s happy so long as we give her red stuff. She’s obsessed with it.”

 

Red isn’t paying any attention to Jillian though, she’s noticed Sherlock’s coat. She reaches out and points at the button hole.

 

“Red!”

 

She smiles at Sherlock and does something that, though he doesn’t recognise the practice, looks like a sort of blessing.

 

“She likes you coz you’re wearing something red.”

 

Sherlock doesn’t particularly care. He needs to figure out where the Hive is and this woman can’t tell him.

 

If she was beaten then there’s a chance that that’s what scared her enough to activate the Hive, and it’s unusual to break a leg in a beating. Perhaps she broke her leg by a fall…

 

He looks up. Gestures at the tunnel ceiling.

 

“Up there?”

 

Red nods and points, not at the ceiling, but towards the top of the tunnel entrance. Sherlock goes out to look at it and Red and Jillian follow.

 

“Out here?”

 

Red holds out her left hand – clearly her dominant one – and Sherlock can see a jagged scar across it.

 

“She had the cut hand when she got here,” Jillian explains.

 

What could have caused that here?

 

Sherlock looks up again. There! Just visible is a metal rod sticking out of the concrete. It’s no more than six inches long. If someone appeared in this universe and found themselves holding their entire weight on that rod… it might cause a cut like that and result in a nasty drop and a broken leg.

 

It’s a chance.

 

Getting to the top will be tricky, but it’s doable. There’s a sloped wall leading to the top, and though there’s a fence all around, there’s a gap a few inches wide that he can step on. He climbs onto the wall, face against the chain-link fence, and begins to shuffle along.

 

To his surprise, Red climbs up too and clings to his arm.

 

“She thinks you’re gonna fall like she did,” guesses Jillian.

 

“It’s fine!” he tells her. “Get down!”

 

She doesn’t. The middle-aged woman creeps after him all the way to the top. When Sherlock gets close enough he hangs onto the rails with one hand and hangs over the edge to get a closer look. He feels a hand on his shoulder again; Red is hanging on to him.

 

The rod, up close, is jagged on the edge and – he squints – yes there are traces of blood.

 

The Hive. It has to be.

 

There can only be a few minutes before midnight and he really only has one way of finding out.

 

“Jillian,” he calls. “Get her down.”

 

For all Jillian’s cajoling, Red either doesn’t understand or won’t follow the order to get down. There’s no time…

 

He just hopes she has the sense not to hold on because if he’s wrong it’s a broken leg or worse for both of them.

 

“Don’t call the police,” he shouts to Jillian, though considering her lifestyle there’s little danger of that.

 

He takes a deep breath, reminds himself that whatever he’s going to be has to be less bleak than this, and lunges for the rod.

 

Too late he feels Red’s hand close around his and they’re both falling.

 

 

--

 

 

There is no impact.

 

When he opens his eyes it’s as if from sleep. He is in a small, musty little room with a packed mud floor and a few battered pieces of wooden furniture. He is holding the leg of the table and he’s on the floor. Red is next to him, still clutching his other hand.

 

He is vaguely aware that Red seems pleased to have ended up here. She jumps to her feet and dashes from the room, shrieking in delight and calling out for people.

 

Sherlock focuses instead on the sole occupant of the room.

 

Jim Moriarty, looking out of place in his spotless suit, is seated on the only chair. His dark eyes are glittering with delight.

 

“Oh Sherlock. You should have trusted me more.”

 

Outside there is excited shrieking.

 

“I’m sure your friend is glad to be returned home. Her family are certainly going to be grateful: they’ll probably slaughter something for us. You’ll be pleased to know that the father is dead, so she need not fear another beating like the one that accidentally sent her to London.”

 

“Where are we?” Sherlock asks as he gets to his feet. Wherever it is, it’s far too hot for his suit and coat.

 

“Doesn’t matter,” Moriarty shrugs. “We aren’t staying. You’re going to your new home. I told you no tricks, Sherlock, I’m hurt that you didn’t believe me. I’m sure it’s going to be very awkward having two versions of yourself around at the same time.”

 

They are prevented from leaving by the sudden entrance of what seems like Red’s entire family. They embrace Sherlock and Moriarty with delight and keep having to stop to hug and kiss Red, who in turn kisses Sherlock’s cheek and then his red buttonhole.

 

She babbles in a language that Sherlock doesn’t recognise and does a strange thing with her hand that looks like a blessing.

 

“Do you know what she’s saying?” he asks.

 

Moriarty shrugs.

 

“She said ‘may the red princess find you.’ Local superstitious rubbish.”

 

His tone is casual, but out of the corner of his eye, Sherlock sees Moriarty return the gesture.

 

 --

 

A/N Hopefully all the jumping about in this chapter makes sense. Feel free to ask questions if it’s confusing for you.

Milton Gate both exists and doesn’t exist. A while ago I decided I would steal a street in London by finding a boring, tucked away street and creating a story to colour it in. A walk round Covent Garden found me a tiny little alley between Long Acre and Floral Street. Some maps call it Hanover Place but Google maps doesn’t give it a name, so I made my own up. If you take the Long Acre exit at the tube station and go right, it’s the second street on the right hand side. The businesses around it are exactly as I’ve described, but in realty there are no Diagon Alley like shops down there (just a restaurant and a load of outside tables from Starbucks.)

Chapter Text

 

Two Months Later

 

Going to Baker Street is verging on suicidal, but Sherlock has to do it. Just once.

 

The other version of himself lives there. A different home, a different history. This version didn’t meet John until after he was shot and the desire to know every detail of their lives is too much for Sherlock to resist.

 

Just a few minutes. It’s all he needs.

 

Besides, he thinks as he walks down Baker Street, it’s not like it’s difficult to sneak into the flat. He has the clothes, he has the face; no one will question his presence. Even the housekeeper will wave him in.

 

He rings the door bell and Mrs. Hudson opens the door thirty seconds later.

 

“Sherlock!” she scolds. “What happened to your key?”

 

He brushes past her, confidently heading up the stairs as though he’s done it a thousand times before.

 

“Not NOW Mrs. Hudson!”

 

“And a fine mood you’re in, I see!” She throws her hands up in despair and heads back to her own flat. Perfect. It’s so every day, such a routine sort of encounter, that there’s almost no chance she’ll bring it up later to cause any confusion.

 

He opens the door to the living room.

 

He’s never been here before, never seen the wallpaper or the chairs… there’s very little he recognises beyond a few pieces of furniture that clearly survived and- oh! His violin.

 

He picks it up, itching to play it. He’s out of practise, but he can’t risk it. Tension around Mrs. Hudson’s shoulders, slight frown in the sunlight when she opened the door: headache. If he plays his violin she will certainly be griping about it to his other self later. He reluctantly puts it back down and takes a seat.

 

Sherlock looks around, pretending for a second that his is his home, his life, his chair.

 

This is the place he’d have chosen for himself, had he been the one to decide. The housekeeper was an excellent move on the part of his other self. He wished he’d taken the opportunity to earn a favour from her and saved them years of cleaning up mess.

 

But Sherlock has no time to linger; he could be interrupted at any moment. All it would take is for a client to knock on the door and Sherlock would be trapped here ever longer, at constant risk of being caught out by his other self.

 

He stands and heads towards the downstairs bedroom, discovering that it’s his the moment he opens the door.

 

Right there is the absolute proof that this Sherlock and this John are not a couple, and even he – pouring through news articles and John’s blog in his hideout – wasn’t entirely sure of that until now.

 

It’s a neat little bedroom, it reminds him of his childhood in a sad sort of way. This Sherlock has never shared a bedroom, there are just his own items neatly displayed and untouched by anyone but himself. He’s had a room like this for much of his life, found it hard to adjust to someone else sharing it, because this room has a purpose for the other Sherlock. It’s where he retreats to when the pressure of being Sherlock is too much, when he has to reluctantly admit that he’s human and when emotions threaten to overwhelm him.

 

John has probably never even seen this room.

 

Sherlock closes the door and slips into the bathroom. It tells its own little story. The mirror has traces of a smiley face drawn in steam and repeated with every shower or bath. No doubt a joking reference to the yellow one in the living room, a message, an in-joke between two people using the bathroom in turn.

 

Sherlock can’t resist the traces of John everywhere. He straightens the familiar brand of shaving cream (cheap, but John swears by it) brushes his thumb across John’s toothbrush. He’s amused that the two of them share the same tube of toothpaste in the exact same way that he and John did and wonders if it’s something they’ve ever mentioned to each other.

 

But all this is slowing him down. Upstairs is John’s bedroom, the place he both wants desperately to see and doesn’t want to see at all. If he doesn’t get a move on then one of them will be back before he has chance to look.

 

What if John came back alone… how long could he fool him for? Could he have a conversation, sit with him for a little bit before making an excuse to leave…

 

 

This isn’t his John to steal away, whatever fantasies he might have. This is the other Sherlock’s territory. He’s only looking.

 

He heads up the next flight of stairs to John’s bedroom. It’s similar to the bedroom John had in Harry’s house, small and stark, but there are a few touches of personality here and there, showing that John is settled. There are photos (one of him with friends as a student, one from his army days) a noticeboard with a calendar and odd bits of paper pinned to it (a circus ticket, a newspaper article about a case, a phone-number with the name ‘Lily’ next to it.)

 

It’s the bed that draws Sherlock’s eye. His own body aches from sleeping on floors and airbeds and right there in front of him is a bed that will smell exactly like home. He almost sways with the need to go over there and lay down, to shut his eyes and just sleep…

 

If there was no other Sherlock, John would come home and be confused. If Sherlock sat up and sleepily kissed him, he wouldn’t protest. He’s attracted to Sherlock, and this Sherlock is attracted to him. It’s all there in their boyish bedrooms, the spaces they still childishly hide away from each other. He almost curses his other self for being weak, for not being brave enough to take what he wants.

 

But there’s no more time. The other Sherlock will come back.

 

He breathes in deeply, takes one last breath, and turns to leave.

 

 

--

 

 

The car is going too fast, forty in a thirty zone, but Sherlock doesn’t pay it much attention.

 

He leaves 221b and goes to cross the road. The car is signalling to turn left but hasn’t slowed down (new driver, passed first time, music slightly too loud.) The car will turn (probably mounting the kerb) before it even gets close to him.

 

At least, that’s what he thinks. The car swerves suddenly (brake failure) and instead of turning it ploughs on ahead.

 

The driver, unable to stop, tries to swerve into the pavement to avoid running him over. Sherlock leaps out of the way but isn’t able to move quickly enough. The back of the swerving car clips him and throws him onto the road.

 

He lies there recovering as the driver – male, nineteen – collects his (limited) wits and clambers out of the driving seat.

 

Defensive look on face, overriding the mild shock: almost certainly uninsured. If it’s uninsured the car’s probably not had its MOT. In at least two years judging by windscreen wipers. Brake failure, not suspect, just a dangerous fault unnoticed for too long.

 

“Oh fuck…” the kid whines. “Shit. You’re that detective. The brakes just stopped working, I swear!”

 

Sherlock pulls himself to his feet. Nothing is broken, though if he’d reacted just a second slower he’d likely be dead and wouldn’t that have been an interesting corpse for his other self to investigate. His hip took a nasty hit though. Standing hurts. He’s going to limp for a while; sprained wrist too.

 

“It’s fine,” he says. “Leave me alone.”

 

Unfortunately for Sherlock, sense is returning to the driver.

 

“Nah man, you need an ambulance…”

 

“I’m fine and I don’t have any interest in you.”

 

“But I just hit you!”

 

“Yes. I’d advise you not to shout that in front of a crowd of witnesses. I was never here, OK?”

 

The kid squints. “Don’t you live round here?”

 

“No,” Sherlock snaps. He limps off, desperate to get away before anyone else recognises him.

 

 

--

 

 

The fact of the matter is that living in the same city as someone who looks and sounds identical to you is difficult.

 

When you don’t have any identification of your own (or rather, any identification that isn’t already being used by another version of you) it’s doubly difficult. Combined with the fact that Sherlock’s doppelganger has been thorough in his recruitment of the homeless and made his face famous throughout the country… there’s nowhere for Sherlock to hide.

 

If he lives on the streets, he’s recognised by the network. Hell, if he walks down the street is his normal clothes he’ll be recognised (he can’t help being slightly bitter about his other self’s success, even if it does involve strangers yelling ‘where’s the hat?!’ at him.)

 

Money is not too much of an issue at least. He knows himself too well to think that the occasional twenty or thirty pounds will be missed from his bank account. Even if it were spotted and investigated, CCTV would clearly show that Sherlock withdrew the money himself.

 

The ID problem is worked around too. His network has contacts that can get him a fake driving licence and none of them question his reasons why, because he’s still Sherlock. After that it’s a matter of lying low.

 

Again, there are more practical problems: he has no problem sleeping rough but his homeless network will notice if he’s around too much. There’s always the chance the other version of him might go to one of them and questions would be asked that he’d rather avoid.

 

In the end, he went to the only place he could go: home.

 

Their house has its own alternate history here as well. John never bought it and it was snapped up by another couple, who then rented it out as student digs until a fire caused some serious damage. It’s safe again now, but has been languishing during the restoration. The builders haven’t been back in weeks and so no one has noticed his presence.

 

When they do eventually return they will be surprised that the living room has been repainted.

 

He stumbles through the front door, recoils instinctively because the expectation that it’s going to be the same never quite goes away, and collapses onto the airbed. He scrabbles around for painkillers, takes them dry, and tries to let sleep take him away. With his eyes closed and the smell of paint still strong, he can fool himself into thinking he’s home for a few seconds…

 

“God, this is so BORING.”

 

Sherlock starts awake. Moriarty is standing at the side of his bed. His Moriarty that is, not the one that is running around getting himself into newspapers.

 

Sherlock has read as much about the other version as he can. The Richard Brook act is so convincing, so easy to believe because people want to believe it.

 

The man standing above him is all that and more. This man has the mind of this earth bound Moriarty, but he’s been able to stretch his wings. He has all of infinity to play in and while he may claim to be bored, his enjoyment is written all over his face.

 

“It’s my own fault, I suppose,” Moriarty sneers. “I picked the one with the heart, and heartbreak is boring to watch. Come ON! Get UP! There’s another John out there – hardly used! – and you’re sitting around moping.”

 

Moriarty stomps across the air-bed causing Sherlock to bounce and hiss in pain as his stiff, bruised body is jolted.

 

“I wasn’t aware being entertaining to watch was part of our deal,” Sherlock drawls.

 

“Of course it is!” Moriarty snaps. “What is the point of a game if it’s not entertaining? You’re lucky I’ve been otherwise occupied.” He glares at Sherlock’s curious glance. “No Sherlock, you don’t get to learn interesting thingsif you don’t play the game and stick to the deal.”

 

“And how do I play the game?” Sherlock asks. “Do I sneak into John’s bed and let you watch? Or do I try and stop the other version of you?”

 

“You don’t sit around and decorate your old house!” Moriarty snarls. “You should already have a plan. You should have observed what’s happening. The future is plain to see: anyone can work out what’s going to happen, even that dimwit girl from the hospital. Are you telling me that you don’t know what the other you is thinking?”

 

Sherlock has a good idea but isn’t going to reveal that.

 

“He’s not that much like me. We had seven years of divergent histories.”

 

“Bullshit, and you know it. No one changes that much. That cold-hearted bastard is still inside you, he just got all softened and domesticated. Your little pet taught you some manners. How to Fake Being Likeable 101…“

 

Not far from the truth, Sherlock admits. He smiles inwardly at the warm knowledge that John faked it just as much as he ever had and he was far better at it. Sherlock had wondered if he was the only one to really like the true John Watson simply because he was the only person who’d ever got to see it.

 

“Something big is going to happen.” He hazards, to keep Moriarty happy.

 

“Oh what a deduction! Something BIG is going to happen! So that covers everything from a volcano under London Zoo to Prince Harry getting arrested…”

 

“He’s going to face down the other version of you and it’ll happen at St. Barts,” Sherlock says. He’s rewarded with a slightly more satisfied look for Moriarty.

 

“Why?”

 

“Because he met John there. It’s a place with meaning. If he has to choose where to die, that’s where he’d choose. For the same reason I buried John in the place we met. Maybe he won’t understand why… but it will fit in his mind.”

 

“Good ,” Moriarty nods. “Good. For that Sherlock, you get a treat.”

 

“Can’t wait,” Sherlock groans.

 

“You haven’t heard what it is. It’s important. This world will make some more sense to you after you figure it out. You want to know how to play the game against me? You play by working things out and forming your own plan. Time to snap out of the heartbreak and start. I’ll give you a leg up, it’s not like you’re going to win anyway.”

 

“And how will this case allow me to form a plan?”

 

“It won’t. But it gives you information you need. “

 

“What information would I need?”

 

“Information that will keep you alive. Work it out and your purpose here will be so much clearer.”

 

“What’s the case?”

 

“Trudy Headley. That’s your case.”

 

He takes out the gun and Sherlock buries his face into the pillow so he doesn’t have to see the little trick again.

 

He isn’t able to silence the gunshot though.

 

 

--

 

 

The internet is a wonderful thing for a detective who is currently having a hard time walking. Within two minutes of Moriarty’s exit Sherlock knows that Trudy Headly died in an industrial accident at her factory job seventeen years ago.

 

The case is hardly of interest, there’s nothing to suggest anything but a boring old accident with a machine that was unforgiving of the distracted or absent minded.

 

There’s nothing interesting, that is, until he finds the Facebook group set up by Trudy’s mother. Her brothers and nephew are all members of the group and the title says it all: ‘Trudy Headly is ALIVE.’

 

It’s not exactly a hive of activity. There are only occasional updates: usually teary rambles from the mother about how much she loves and misses Trudy.

 

The one that catches his interest is dated two years ago.

 

‘I saw you again today. You were working on a checkout. Your name badge even said Trudy. You served me but you wouldn’t look at me. Wouldn’t talk to me. I wish I understood what you got mixed up in all those years ago. I know that I saw your body, identified you, so how can you be standing at a Sainsburys and looking at me so desperately, like you wanted to talk to me but couldn’t?’

 

It’s a place to start.

 

 

--

 

 

First of all, he needs to find the Sainsbury’s referenced by the mother. He wants to keep an actual visit to the family as a last resort. His face is all over the newspapers, and not in the most flattering light.

 

Sherlock isn’t expecting much from the supermarket – two years is a long time for staff turnover – but there’s still the chance someone will remember the girl. He heads straight to the man in the suit and badge by the checkouts.

 

“Sherlock Holmes?” the man is instantly suspicious. He reads the newspapers.

 

“Yes,” Sherlock gives no explanation. “I’m looking for Trudy Headley?”

 

The man, balding and rat-faced, is already dismissing Sherlock.

 

“Sorry. Never had a Trudy Headley work here.”

 

“A Trudy then?”

 

“Well yeah,” says the manager, as though Sherlock is being slow. “We’ve got a Trudy, Trudy Milton, but not a Trudy Headley.”

 

“Has she been here long?”

 

“Two years, coming up to three. She’s not working today.”

 

Sherlock shows the Facebook picture on his mobile. “Is this her?”

 

The man nods. “Is she in trouble? Because I can’t give you an address for her. The data protection act-”

 

“No trouble at all,” Sherlock interrupts smoothly, recognising a lecture on the way. “Just… you know… mystery shopper business.”

 

It’s like a magic word. Much as the presence of police brings out every guilty thought in an innocent witness’s face, Sherlock can practically see the man rewinding his conversation and realising how many of his dreary rules he’s probably broken. The logic, that a mystery shopper would hardly ask such a question or reveal themselves, won’t occur until Sherlock is already gone. It’s a fantastic little trick that he’s used quite a few times.

 

By the time Sherlock’s in another taxi he knows he’s going to have to find the mother of Trudy Headley. He has a theory, of course, but the only theory that fits is lacking in mystery to anyone who understands the workings of the universe as it’s been revealed to him. Six months ago this would have been the case of a lifetime, but at the moment it’s boring.

 

An alternate Trudy Headley somehow found herself trapped in this reality and has had to manage as best as she can, no doubt confused and as miserable as Sherlock himself feels in his darkest moments. She has wisely stayed away from her alternate family at what must be some cost to herself.

 

He might have suspected her of murdering her alternate self, but an industrial accident is a terrible method for taking over someone’s life. He’s willing to bet that Trudy Headley died quite by accident and this other Trudy took the name Milton and has tried to live as separate life as possible.

 

The question then, is why does Moriarty think she’s of interest to Sherlock? He knows, if only theoretically, that there must be others like him out there. What is he supposed to do? Form a support group?

 

The fact that Trudy has taken the name ‘Milton’ hasn’t gone unnoticed, either.

 

He travels to the house of Trudy’s mother and is relieved to find that she hasn’t got a clue about who he is. She’s in her late forties, with pink hair, and he can hear Jeremy Kyle’s guests screeching from the TV in the living room.

 

Mrs. Headley brightens considerably when he tells her he’s a detective.

 

“I’ve been tellin’ them they was wrong about Trudy being dead. I’m glad someone’s finally seen sense. What are you? One of those super-duper CSI people?”

 

“Something like that.”

 

He forces himself to sit through twenty minutes of Mrs. Headley rehashing her daughter’s ‘death’ and the many, many theories she has for what might have happened. The TV remains on so the whole one-sided conversation has a soundtrack of screeching guests and bingo adverts.

 

At length, she says something of interest.

 

“And I’m not the first you know!” Mrs. Headley points at her laptop. “I can show you on there. There’s loads like me. There’s a woman in Glasgow whose father fell off a roof and died – head smashed open - and then the day after the funeral he turns up on the doorstep alive and well and saying there’s been a terrible mistake! And in Lincoln a man got called out in the night to identify the body of his dead daughter after she got hit by a car – he swears it was her, even if she was wearing strange clothes - and then three hours later she calls him up for a lift from the party he left her at the night before.”

 

There. That’s the whole point to this exercise.

 

“There are a lot of these cases?”

 

Mrs. Headley shrugs. “Not that many, but I’m part of a few forums and there’s stories like ours dating back to the Victorian times… maybe longer… people have done all sorts of research.”

 

“And in all these cases, there are two versions and one dies?”

 

“Yes. Always a freak accident. Like Trudy. She knew that machine inside out, and you’re expecting me to believe that one day a thread got trapped and it just blew up?”

 

Sherlock makes a non-committal noise and then stands quickly. “Yes. Well thank you. You’ve been very helpful-”

 

Mrs. Headley stands up, startled. “You’ll have news about Trudy soon?”

 

“What? Oh. It’s promising.”

 

Sherlock is out of the door and onto the street a few moments later. He has a theory to test.

 

 

--

 

 

His plan is a simple one. He goes to Angel which has the longest escalator in the tube network and proceeds to ride up and down it. He stands on the right to allow the people on the left to move past, leaning heavily on his right leg to keep the pressure off his injury.

 

For thirty tedious minutes, and a lot of confused stares from the people around him, nothing happens (though he spots twenty affairs, nineteen petty crimes, and least fifty sexual quirks his passengers would rather their loved ones never found out about.)

 

At long last, it happens.

 

An Indian man with a heavy suitcase charges past on Sherlock’s left as they ride down. The case bashes into Sherlock’s injured hip so hard that he sees stars and he topples forwards, rolling down the half empty escalator and barrelling into the back of the person in front.

 

He’s been expecting it, so he manages to recover himself in a way a genuinely surprised person couldn’t. He throws his hands out and manages to grip the rail. The world is then a mess of people helping him and the man with the suitcase apologises what must be a hundred times before Sherlock is allowed to escape onto a train.

 

The case is solved: he understands exactly what Moriarty was telling him and he knows what he has to do.

 

 

--

 

 

 

Sherlock waits in front of St. Barts. The timing has to be absolutely perfect otherwise he will run into his other self, or the other John.

 

He both knows and doesn’t know what the other Sherlock will do. He’ll send John away. Wait for Moriarty to arrive. Make Moriarty wait for him.

 

Which means that Sherlock has get onto the roof after Moriarty has arrived but before the other Sherlock makes a move.

 

John – there! – he watching as John jumps into a taxi looking tense.

 

Only a few moments later Sherlock sees the edge of a suit, unmistakeably Moriarty’s, perching on the side of the building.

 

Time to go.

 

He has plans. Hundreds. He knows enough of the case to fool Moriarty and Sherlock is prepared to die. If he can take this version of Moriarty with him, so much the better.

 

He opens the door. Stayin’ Alive floats tinnily towards him from the phone in Moriarty’s hand.

 

“That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?” the man drawls. “Staying alive. I take it you worked out the puzzle of the two Trudys then?”

 

Sherlock freezes.

 

It’s the wrong Moriarty.

 

It’s his Moriarty.

 

He laughs. “Oh Sherlock. You’re sooo predictable. Did you really believe that I wouldn’t know your plan? I knew you’d do it before I even gave you that little puzzle. You worked it out then?”

 

“Two identical people can’t exist at the same time for very long,” Sherlock says. “Somehow the universe tries to… correct the paradox. Trudy Headly arrived in a world where a version of her already existed and so one of them had to die in a freak accident.”

 

“Good,” Moriarty tilts his head. “The new version is the usual target, but in my experience the universe wastes as little energy as possible. If it’s easy to kill the real version, as with Trudy Headley, it will.”

 

“The closer you get the stronger the force. Hence why I was nearly killed when I tried to go to Baker Street.”

 

“And so, armed with this knowledge, you decided to be the one to die. What were you thinking? ‘Oh boo hoo John doesn’t want this version of me… better off myself and take the big bad with me while I’m at it!’?”

 

“Something like that,” Sherlock says tonelessly.

 

Exactly that, his more honest self provides.

 

“I thought we had a deal Sherlock. You promised to play the game and here you are throwing in the towel. I mean, it hurts. I’m the best nemesis you’ll ever find and nothing, not even a flicker of interest. The other you, downstairs, would kill for a chance like I’m giving you.”

 

“Well, ironically, it turns out that he and I are very different people.”

 

Moriarty laughs. “Oh Sherlock. You’re wrong there. In fact you’ll see that in a few moments when the other version of me arrives and the other version of you starts this dramatic little confrontation.”

 

Sherlock looks around. The roof doesn’t have many hiding places.

 

“Even the other Moriarty would be surprised to find his little confrontation stage already occupied.”

 

Moriarty shrugs and glances at his watch. “Two minutes to go. Which will give us enough time to find a classroom to watch from.”

 

“Watch what?”

 

Sherlock asks because it’s expected. He already knows though; there’s only one reason to confront someone on a roof and that’s if one of you ends up falling off of it.

 

Moriarty glances over the side and grins.

 

“What if I refuse to watch?” Sherlock asks.

 

“Then I’ll drop you off on an ice floe and leave you there while I come back to watch. It will be easier to just to what you’re told. I’ve a feeling you’re going to enjoy this.”

 

 

--

 

 

The classroom is somewhere in the middle of the row of windows directly below the roof. Sherlock’s worked in here – or the alternate version of here – once or twice before.

 

Moriarty opens the window just enough to hear what’s happening above them. There’s another strain of Staying Alive and then the murmur of voices. Even with his excellent hearing, Sherlock can only pick out one of two of his own words and none at all of Moriarty’s (slightly higher pitch, always more difficult to make out.)

 

A gunshot.

 

Sherlock jumps. Moriarty looks delighted.

 

“Heads it’s you, tails it’s me…”

 

There is nothing, no sound at all, for a long time. Then the Moriarty in front of him laughs, he’s looking out of the window to the ground below.

 

“Oh Sherlock, look how clever you are!”

 

Sherlock looks. He can see the pattern of Sherlock’s plan already in motion. The team is ready, the airbag is being moved into place and…

 

John is there, looking up.

 

Sherlock is going to fake his own death and John is going to have to watch. This Sherlock doesn’t know what it’s like to be on the other side. This Sherlock has never had that pain. For a second Sherlock feels a stab of fury at his other self’s cruelty, hopes that it somehow goes wrong…

 

The voice from above is more urgent now. Emotional. Is it real emotion? Sherlock can only watch John looking up, as helpless to help him as John believes he is to help the other Sherlock…

 

The voice stops. Silence.

 

When the body falls it’s just a blur going past the window.

 

It’s so quick that Sherlock doesn’t register that anything is wrong for a moment.

 

But it has gone wrong.

 

Somehow the bag was just out of alignment. His other self has hit the ground.

 

There are screams. Sherlock looks at Moriarty next to him, who looks serene as the drama unfolds below.

 

The crew down there are highly trained. They know that they are in a whole world of trouble with Mycroft Holmes but they are still effective. Their work has been done for them and their job now is to see the plan through. There is now simply one less stage to the plan: no body to move.

 

The cyclist – a clever device – knocks into John. The airbag – never used – is moved. The second body is never deployed. There is no need for Sherlock to switch places and the panic on the faces of the crowd is undoubtedly more real.

 

And then John staggers to his feet, surges forward… Sherlock turns away from the window, doesn’t want to see any more.

 

“Keep watching,” Moriarty orders.

 

“There’s no way that plan should have failed,” Sherlock snarls. “What did you do?”

 

“I didn’t do anything!” Moriarty shrugs. “You did. It’s like the weather, but on a huge scale, and the other version of you was unlucky enough to get caught up in a storm. The two of you got too close and the universe punished you for it. Had to destroy one of you by any means necessary and it was all too easy for an accident to happen when jumping off a building… a miscalculation, a gust of wind, and the universe has solved the Sherlock paradox.”

 

“You knew this would happen.”

 

“I knew one of you would die. Couldn’t be sure which. But look down there. Look at John.”

 

Sherlock doesn’t want to.

 

John is trying to follow after the trolley but being blocked by various ‘helpful’ members of the public who are trying to stop him going into shock. From here Sherlock can only see his head, and he’s thankful that he can’t see his expression of hear his voice.

 

“Don’t you get it?” Moriarty asks. “You’re looking down at your prize.”

 

Sherlock looks up at Moriarty, blinking on confusion….

 

Oh.

 

“I don’t want this. I never wanted this,” he hisses.

 

Moriarty shrugs.

 

“Jesus, you try and help someone and you get it thrown back in your face… Sherlock is dead. Long live the new Sherlock!”

 

Moriarty throws his hands up in mocking celebration.

 

“If you turn up alive it will be oh so easy for them to believe you’ve tricked everyone. Even Big Brother would want to believe that you outwitted him. And John… oh he’d be saved so much pain. If someone could undo that moment you stood over his body… wouldn’t you want them to? You can do that; take all the pain away. He’ll never have to know that he looked into the dead eyes of his dearest-”

 

“Stop it!”

 

“Not just him. Mrs. Hudson. Lestrade. Mycroft. Mummy. Daddy… all those people who love you can all be spared.”

 

“And what about the other version of me?” Sherlock snaps. “I’m just supposed to steal his life? Let him go un-mourned?”

 

He doesn’t like the plan. It’s twisted. It’s wrong.

 

But Moriarty is a damn good salesman.

 

“He’s dead Sherlock. He’s not going to notice. Besides he will be mourned. I said it was a prize; you’ve still got to win it yet. They’ll have plenty of time to cry and pick out coffins while you’re on your little errand: you need to become the new Sherlock. You’ll have to harden your heart and learn how to be friends with people you’ve never met.”

 

It’s not like Sherlock has a choice. He’s not going to go through with it, he’s not, but he has to at least pretend to play…

 

“And what’s the little errand?”

 

Moriarty finally gets bored of the window. He steps away and hops to sit up on a nearby desk. He plays with the gun’s silencer as he explains.

 

“Twelve photographs, remember? One, your John, is dead. He was the first. That means there’s eleven other versions of John still to play for.”

 

He was the first…

 

“Now Moriarty – the other one – has his tedious little web of criminals scattered all over the world. Funnily enough, there are eleven powerful players still out there. Eleven criminals. Eleven versions of John. So say if you haven’t found criminal number four in time…” he reaches into his pocket and waves the photo of the ninth John, “then I get to kill John number four.”

 

John was the first

 

“You arranged for John to be shot.” Sherlock’s throat is so tight he can barely get the words out.

 

Moriarty blinks.

 

“You mean you hadn’t worked that out?”

 

Sherlock doesn’t care about the gun, has barely registered Moriarty’s twisted game, he cares about none of it.

 

He lunges for Moriarty.

 

--

 

A/N: And there we go - the plot is now officially rolling. This was always my goal: I wanted to give a new angle for Sherlock's behaviour in S3 and to explore beyond. So it's really just a gigantic S3 fix it fic! I know we've not seen much of John yet but there's lots of S/J interaction to come. Anyway, thanks for reading this far and I hope you're enjoying it.

Chapter Text

For a second Sherlock thinks Moriarty might have actually shot him: but then he opens his eyes somewhere new. The sudden change causes him to lose his balance and he falls forward onto muddy ground.

 

Moriarty shined shoes are in front of him and Moriarty smirks downward, perfectly calm. When he speaks it’s over the deafening roar of a waterfall. Sherlock tries to force himself to think: still in Europe, but there’s a bite in the air that suggests they are further north. There are mountains all around, none of the particularly memorable, and they could be on any version of Earth.

 

But Moriarty chose this place…

 

“The Reichenbach Falls,” Moriarty explains. “I thought it was appropriate.”

 

He crosses his arms – gun still in hand – and sighs like a disappointed teacher. “Now Sherlock, you’re really going to have to stop getting so emotional.”

 

The pain in Sherlock’s injured leg is enough to make him cry out as he struggles back to his feet. Moriarty uncrosses his arms and points the gun lazily.

 

“You see, there aren’t really eleven criminals for you to find. There are ten, plus me. If you want to save the John Watson we just saw crying over his dead friend, you have to catch me. You find the ten by the first of October 2013 and you get your new life, but sooner or later I’ll come back and if I win, oh then the torture you imagined inflicting on my hit man will look like a children’s story compared to the things I’ll do to John...”

 

“What’s to stop me killing you now?!” Sherlock snarls.

 

Moriarty shrugs. “Well it would be very boring. Although I would like to see you try.”

 

Sherlock lunges a second time.

 

They are on the edge of the falls. Sherlock holds on tight and they plunge over the side.

 

 

---

 

 

There is a long, long fall. Long enough for Sherlock to wonder whether this landing will be more or less pleasant than the one his other self just experienced. Pleasantness is relative of course, there’s no way he can survive. He’s falling onto water which will have the same consistency as concrete from this height.

 

He’s still got Moriarty by the collar. Moriarty is silent as they fall, almost serene.

 

And then the water is rushing up to meet them…

 

And suddenly Sherlock is face down on the floor.

 

He stares stupidly at the ground below him as he tries to process what happened to the water and to his imminent death. He’s gasping for air and shaking from the sudden change from freezing cold Switzerland to mild English weather.

 

From behind him there’s applause. The clapping is at the exact speed of sarcasm.

 

“Nice try.”

 

Sherlock turns and Moriarty is standing looking completely relaxed.

 

“Really Sherlock, if you’re going to try and kill someone, make sure that person can’t disappear and reappear at will. Just because I use the gun doesn’t mean I need it. You’re just lucky I chose to save you as well.”

 

Sherlock pushes himself up so that he’s standing.

 

“So you can’t die?”

 

“Oh I can die just like anyone else,” Moriarty shrugs. “You’ve just got to work harder to catch me. And I promise you I won’t be so obliging as to shoot myself for you.”

 

He adjusts his suit jacket minutely.

 

“Anyway. Had enough of this now. I have things to do that don’t involve you, you know. Two years Sherlock.”

 

Sherlock looks around. They are in an alleyway, the kitchen door to…

 

The Diogenes.

 

Moriarty might as well have placed him on the ‘start’ square on the game board.

 

 

--

 

 

In some ways Mycroft will be both the easiest and the hardest person to fool.

 

There’s nothing Sherlock can do but take the place of his other self, but there’s the danger that his brother knows about the Hives and might put two and two together. Not only that but his brother was always much better at deducing people, he’s going to notice every single difference.

 

On the other hand, Mycroft is going to want Sherlock to be alive and if Sherlock’s lucky that might blind him to some of the minor details…

 

He slips through the kitchens and is paid zero attention, very much as he expected. He goes into the staff toilet and looks himself over. He’s haggard looking, a good stone lighter than the other Sherlock, and his hair is fractionally longer.

 

His hands scream their differences too: he hasn’t worked on an experiment in months. His clothes are still wet and his posture is the one of a man who has been sleeping on a lilo for weeks.

 

Hiding these things will be virtually impossible. His only option is misdirection.

 

First of all, getting rid of the clothes. The locker room has mismatched chef whites to spare and he pulls them on, bundling his own clothes and coat up and shoving them in a locker where he can at least be assured of their safety. He finds a locker of someone with his shoe size (scuffs on the floor) and steals a pair of trainers. His hair he dampens down and plasters to his head to hide the difference in length.

 

If he’s lucky Mycroft will write the posture and the injured leg as being the result of whatever hair-brained scheme Sherlock used to pull off what – to even Mycroft – must be the trick of the century.

 

The weight he can do nothing about, but the chef’s outfit will disguise it a little and he’s hoping Mycroft will be so annoyed at the aforementioned trick that he won’t notice.

 

He treads quietly through the corridors until he finds his brother.

 

Mycroft is in an armchair looking as close to… bereaved… as Sherlock could ever have imagined him. Sherlock watches, just out of sight, until one of the front of house staff spots him.

 

The man makes frantic ‘get back to the kitchen’ motions in the sign language the staff here use to communicate orders. Sherlock is glad he took the time to learn it, though he’s quite sure that most of the club members wouldn’t be impressed to know that the more important the member, the ruder the gesture referring to them is.

 

The gesture for Mycroft chimes accordingly with how Sherlock has always viewed his brother. He signs quickly.

 

Mycroft Holmes. Order. Whiskey. Soda. No Ice.

 

The reply is sharp.

 

I will deal with it. Back to the kitchen.

 

There’s another gesture that isn’t code, but suggests that he thinks Sherlock is either very important or else an annoying bastard.

 

Sherlock moves out of the man’s line of sight, waits until Mycroft is provided with a whiskey he never asked for (made in the way his dislikes) and is surprised that Mycroft neither questions the drink or its appearance.

 

He must be in shock.

 

Mycroft is so far out of his senses that he actually picks the drink up. Surprisingly easy to poison when under stress, Sherlock notes.

 

At the right moment Sherlock steps into the room, directly into Mycroft’s line of sight. He says nothing (not wanting to violate rules, perish the thought.)

 

Mycroft drops the glass. Noisily.

 

He’s treated to looks from the other club members, from baleful to furious. Mycroft doesn’t notice, he’s just staring at Sherlock.

 

Sherlock smirks. He signs his greeting (Mycroft being perfectly versed in the sign language as well.)

 

Hello Mycroft.

 

 

--

 

 

 

How?” Mycroft asks, the second they are in his office.

 

Sherlock blinks in fake surprise. “You mean you haven’t worked it out?”

 

“You didn’t stick to the plan,” Mycroft snaps. “You didn’t stick to any of the plans. You died. I saw your body.”

 

Sherlock doesn’t feel like lording Mycroft’s ignorance over him. It’s not like he’s pulled off any special trick, after all. If Mycroft hasn’t worked it out it’s because he hasn’t got the data to work it out, and even Sherlock can’t find fault in that.

 

On the other hand, things look up. Mycroft doesn’t know about the Hives. Either that or he doesn’t want to apply that logic to this puzzle, fearing the truth. Sherlock has the advantage for the moment.

 

“Yes well, I like to do things properly.”

 

“I had a DNA test done.”

 

“Easy to fake a test when Molly Hooper likes me more than she likes you.”

 

He hopes to god that he’s right about her name. He’s never actually met her.

 

“HOW?”

 

“Never mind how!”

 

Why then?” Mycroft snarls. “There were twelve perfectly good plans, were none of them suitably dramatic or hurtful?”

 

Sherlock sneers.

 

“I wanted to see if I could make you cry. I’m glad to see my death hasn’t interrupted your time at the club.”

 

If Mycroft did that sort of thing, Sherlock is quite sure he would have been punched for that comment.

 

“For god’s sake!” he snaps, trying to ease the situation a little. “None of the other plans were convincing enough. I made my own arrangements. Sorry if that hurt your feelings: I assumed that a lifetime of giving lectures on the importance of not having any would have left you immune.”

 

He thinks for a second that he’s gone too far, that Mycroft will become suspicious and look him over properly. Mycroft goes silent and his face almost tightens with the effort of controlling himself.

 

“And your plans?”

 

“You know my plans.”

 

“You aren’t seriously expecting to hunt down all twenty-four of Moriarty’s associates? On your own?”

 

Sherlock hasn’t been privy to any of these already formed plans. He thinks quickly.

 

“I’ve had… new information. There aren’t twenty-four. We need to narrow them down to ten.”

 

“There is no way of narrowing them down,” Mycroft points out. “They’re all equally dangerous.”

 

“Yes but only ten are important.”

 

This is the first he’s heard of the twenty-four, but he realises how neatly it fits with Moriarty’s little challenge. Twenty-four is one a month, going by his two year target, and if there’s no way of identifying the ten, Sherlock will have to find all of them.

 

“I want to see the file again.”

 

Mycroft reaches across the desk and hands him it. Sherlock flicks through it as slowly as he dares. He’s supposed to know the contents of the file but he’s never seen it before. Thank god he’s a quick reader.

 

“I imagine you want me to arrange a flight?” Mycroft drawls.

 

Sherlock drops the file onto the desk. Smiles humourlessly. “Botswana.”

 

Mycroft inclines his head. “I thought that would be your first port of call. I assume you also some clothes?” He glances over Sherlock’s grubby chef whites.

 

Sherlock waves a hand in vague agreement.

 

“And John?”

 

That startles Sherlock out of his reverie. “What about him?”

 

He overcompensates. Is too dismissive.

 

“He just watched you fall to your death. I... imagine… it was upsetting for him.”

 

Sherlock knows exactly how upsetting it was, and Sherlock’s heart is considerably colder than John’s. The only thing keeping him sane is that John may love Sherlock – the other version of him, he is quick to remind himself – but it wasn’t a long-term relationship. The blow will be softened for John and in the meantime Sherlock is working to fix things as much as they can be fixed.

 

He says none of this. The less insight Mycroft has into his emotions for John, the better. Partly because he doesn’t want his brother to work out too much, and mostly because of his human dislike of not wanting to talk about that sort of thing with family.

 

“Then I imagine he’s upset and that’s good, because as long as the world sees him upset then he remains safe.”

 

“You’re going to let him believe you’re dead. For how long?”

 

“Two years.” Sherlock tilts his head. Narrows his eyes. Purposely showing off. “I’ll be done by then.”

 

Mycroft glances at the file as if considering its contents. “Two years and three months,” he says eventually. “It won’t be possible to do it in less. Two years and three months if you’re very lucky.”

 

There’s a knock on the door: Mycroft’s assistant with the change of clothes.

 

Sherlock stands and shrugs. “Then I’ll be lucky. And quick.

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock finds the mystic woman in India.

 

It’s the fifth month and twenty ninth day of his game against Moriarty and the effects of the work are showing on him. His eyes are sunken, shadowed with exhaustion, and the owner of the hotel he checks into is quick to comment on it.

 

“I see that sleep has not been your friend,” he says genially as he hands over the key.

 

“You could say that,” Sherlock sighs.

 

“Is it the work or is it the heart?” the man asks. “It’s always one or the other in my experience.”

 

Sherlock’s instinct is to turn and ignore this trite prattle but he will need information from this man later (he suspects one of his targets has used this hotel) so he remains civil.

 

“Both.”

 

The man shakes his head sadly. “Yes, you do look like an extreme case. Let me draw you a map…”

 

He takes a scrap of paper and sketches out a route. “There’s a psychic woman who may very well hold the answer-“

 

Sherlock holds up a hand to end the conversation.

 

“Now now, sir! I know what you’re thinking! But I’m an educated man, I don’t fall for mystics and fortune tellers… yet this woman… go to her with your trouble and within half an hour the weight is lifted from your shoulders. Why, I felt she knew me better than I did. And she refuses payment, she’s as good as a holy woman…”

 

He hands over the scrap of paper and Sherlock takes it and pockets it disinterestedly. He wants nothing more than sleep.

 

“Really sir,” the hotel owner calls after him, “what have you got to lose?”

 

Sherlock finds his way to his room: a tiny, thin walled room with an overhead fan that offers more noise than relief from the heat. It’s late and he drops straight onto the bed, willing his body to sink immediately into sleep.

 

He isn’t accustomed to sleeping while on a case but he cares about results. A week long case is one thing, but this is two years of constant work. He needs semi-regular food and sleep to enable his brain to function and, though he’s choked down at least one meal a day where possible in the last five months, sleep is persistently avoiding him.

 

It annoys him all the more because he needs to be at his very best.

 

He closes his eyes, tries to imagine the feel of his violin in his hands (which is as close as he gets to counting sheep) and pleads with his body to rest.

 

After three hours his patience wears out. He shouts out in frustration, sits up, and fumbles in his pocket for his phone. Tucked alongside it is the manager’s hand-drawn map and he considers it for a moment.

 

The man is right: what has he got to lose?

 

 

--

 

 

The address he has been given is a small, two-roomed shack that sits on the very edge of a slum. The walls are corrugated metal and there isn’t electricity or a flushing toilet within a twenty minute walk. This is a place no hotel manager would cheerfully direct a tourist to, a place unvisited by anyone except those who live here. Likely the manager has connections here and found this woman by chance.

 

Either that or he’s directing Sherlock into an ambush, which frankly would be a relief.

 

A man is dozing outside the door in a plastic chair and on Sherlock’s approach he starts awake. He interrogates Sherlock as to his intentions, and eventually steps inside to have a hushed conversation with the occupant.

 

The woman he’s speaking to isn’t the mystic, but a maidservant. Who has a maidservant here? The conversation ends with the maid agreeing to wake her mistress up and the man stepping back out.

 

“Archala makes a point of seeing anyone who calls for here help,” the man grunts. “Though they usually know better than to turn up in the night.”

 

Sherlock shrugs this minor rebuke off and waits, listening to a murmur of voices from inside the building. A battery powered lamp is lit and the maid comes to the door to show Sherlock in.

 

The room he’s shown into is decorated as if for a queen. Golden coloured statues rest on cloth-covered crates and garlands of flowers are draped over every surface. There is little furniture, only the crates and - bizarrely - a faux leather armchair, a staple of waiting rooms across the globe. The maid invites him to sit.

 

He waits, looking around in the semi-dark. The light is weak and only manages to give the animal statues a sinister look.

 

“You are fortunate,” the maid informs him. “Archala leaves us tomorrow.”

 

“Leaves?”

 

“Our lady spends six months a year travelling the world, doing good and gaining wisdom. Then she returns to us here to do her good work. But while she is here she will see anyone, day or night.”

 

He’s a little disappointed. The answer to Archala’s powers are obvious, a pitifully simple mystery as he suspected, but as he’s here it won’t hurt to meet her.

 

After ten minutes Archala enters the room as serene as a goddess and seemingly unaffected at being roused. With a wave of her hand the maid retreats outside to wait with the doorkeeper.

 

“Well,” she says, in heavily accented English, “how may I help you Mister Holmes?”

 

Sherlock hasn’t given his name. “Am I supposed to be impressed by that?”

 

She shrugs, “I don’t worry about impressing people. Only helping them. I merely happened to know your name.”

 

Archala is not the wide-eyed beautiful young goddess he had expected. She is in her mid-forties, thin and elegant, with incredibly intelligent eyes. She has an air of authority – if she’d been wearing a white coat and ordering a round of blood tests she wouldn’t have looked out of place.

 

“As I happen to know your profession,” he responds.

 

She shrugs and her accent immediately becomes far lighter. It’s now a well-educated British accent.

 

“I am not a trickster Mr. Holmes. I use a… a smokescreen but I make no profit and I do no harm. Indeed, I look forward to seeing what you’ve worked out. Not many can claim the honour of being deduced by Sherlock Holmes.”

 

“This is your home… you grew up in this house in poverty but… somehow ended up in England, studying at Oxford. I’m far too tired to care. Became a psychiatrist, a very well paid one, but you lost your husband three years ago and decided to return home. You bought your old childhood home and were so shocked at the conditions that prevail here that you decided to do something. You created a new identity and became a… sort of local witch. Of course you still have a practice in the UK, still live there for six months of the year…”

 

She tilts her head to one side. “If you don’t believe in mystical powers, why did you come here?”

 

Sherlock shrugs. “For the same reason I don’t believe in therapists, yet haven’t left yet.”

 

“You need to work something out.”

 

“I need to sleep.”

 

It’s the wrong thing to say. Better to bleed out into shark infested waters than mention trouble sleeping to a psychiatrist. She leans forward, fully settled into her professional role and only wanting a notebook to complete the image.

 

“There is no judgement Mr. Holmes,” she says soothingly. “Anything you say here will stay with me.”

 

They lock eyes and Sherlock stares for a long time, taking in the life history of the bizarre woman in front of him.

 

He breathes out slowly. There’s no point holding back; he hates clients who take forever to unload their petty stories to him, the least he can do is afford her the professional courtesy of not wasting her time.

 

“Someone I loved died and I was given the chance to be with them again if I... made a metaphorical deal with the devil.”

 

The woman blinks. “Then I advise you not to attempt to haggle in the markets around here,” she says. “Or you’ll hand over a satchel of rubies for a bag of magic beans. We do not get second chances with the dead.”

 

He waves her disbelief away. She doesn’t have all the facts.

 

“You’re a widow,” he says. “If there was a – a clone of your husband, one that had lived the same life, was the same in virtually every way, and even though you couldn’t have that first relationship back, you could still go to sleep knowing that he was alive and that you could… watch over him… wouldn’t you jump at that chance?”

 

She raises an eyebrow. “Well my husband was one half of a pair of identical twins. I didn’t transfer my affections to my brother-in-law.”

 

“But if it was more than that,” Sherlock almost pleads. “If you woke up in a universe where he was still alive, wouldn’t you do anything for that?”

 

There is a noise out in the street and Archala straightens.

 

“Mr. Holmes, it is nearly morning and I’m afraid I don’t have the time to give you the help you need, nor to fully understand this story, but I am experienced at my job and if you want a blunt answer to your problem I can give you one.”

 

He shrugs and reclines in the seat. This is what John never understood – sometimes a blunt answer like “he’s having an affair” or “you were fired from your job because of your breath” are better than a sugar coated one.

 

“Go ahead.”

 

“Denial. You cannot accept that the person you love is dead and you’ve convinced yourself that you and you alone can outrun grief. You can’t. Mourn, Mr. Holmes. Mourn before whatever this… quest you’re on kills you.”

 

She stands. “And now I’m afraid I have duties…”

 

Her diagnosis has settled in Sherlock’s stomach like a block of lead. When he talks, he rasps as though the weight is trying to pull it back.

 

“No!” he jumps up. “You don’t understand how a truly brilliant mind works. I am not a victim of emotion I – I am logical. If I loved J- that person then logically I should love another identical version absolutely equally.”

 

He loathes the look of pity in Archala’s eyes.

 

“Yes Mr. Holmes. But a logical man would take a sleeping tablet rather than seek out a mystic in the middle of the night.”

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock doesn’t go back to his hotel straight away. He walks the streets angrily, racing through the conversation in his head, and when the crowds and heat build he eventually trudges back and collapses onto his bed.

 

He is asleep immediately.

 

It’s not the sleep of the healed, but the sort that usually engulfs him when an arduous case has been solved. His body has just given in and he’ll wake after a long sleep feeling twice as tired and with a fog in his mind.

 

He sleeps for the rest of the day and is still unconscious as morning begins in the street below his hotel window.

 

That is, until a hand reaches out and takes his shoulder.

 

Sherlock jerks awake to see Moriarty’s smiling face and the gun. He fires it and then they are somewhere new.

 

 

--

 

 

 

Sherlock collapses as soon as Moriarty lets go of his wrist. His brain works quickly to acclimatise him to his surroundings. He can’t afford for Moriarty to get too much of a head start.

 

Beyond the massive one that he already has, that is.

 

Sherlock looks around. They are indoors, its dark. It must have been morning in Mumbai, and this is an English flat – magazines, calendar on the wall – so it’s the middle of the night here. The lights are off. They are in the hallway. The door is locked, chained from the inside, and they can just see by the streetlight shining through the living room window.

 

Moriarty leans in, uncomfortably close, to whisper into his ear.

 

“A quarter of the way through the task. Thought you deserved a little… pick me up.”

 

He reaches into his jacket, takes out a photograph and presses it into Sherlock’s chest. Sherlock takes it, looks at it, and can just make out the seventh photograph.

 

The John that never met Sherlock.

 

He knows he’s going to regret this, knows what Moriarty wants him to do, what Moriarty will take from him if he does… but he is almost pathetically grateful to be here. Even just standing in this hallway… around the things John – a John – touches on a daily basis. Looking at it is a physical pain in the chest and he knows that Archala didn’t really understand. He’s mentally strong enough for this.

 

“Take me back,” he hisses without much conviction.

 

“I’ve got no intention of being a third wheel,” Moriarty smirks, still in a low voice. “Three hours: then I’lI come and get you. That should be more than enough.”

 

Sherlock manages to nod and he realises too late what Moriarty intends to do. He raises the gun and the shot reverberates through the flat. Sherlock barely has time to register that a vase – feminine in style – has been shattered before he hears John’s feet hitting the floor in the bedroom and footsteps charging towards him.

 

He has seconds to calculate a plan to explain his presence and the gunshot in a way that won’t result in John shooting first and asking questions later.

 

He moves into the best lit area he can, holds up his arms, and shouts ‘I’m unarmed! UNARMED!’ as John barrels towards him.

 

He wouldn’t have thought it was possible to be happy to be slammed into a wall and roughly searched, but he is. John is in army mode, still half asleep, and it’s almost a comfort for a few seconds.

 

“Where’s the gun?!” John yells. “Where is it?!”

 

Sherlock – remembering to keep still and look as harmless as possible – babbles a little desperately. It’s bordering on embarrassed yuppie, but he needs to make his lack of threat obvious.

 

“There’s no gun! I swear!”

 

“I heard a shot!”

 

His arm is twisted tightly behind him. Sherlock doubts he could get out of the grip even if he was trying. This is a side of John that’s never been directed at him, a harsher one.

 

“It’s just a stupid – oh god! – it was just my phone! It’s my text alert!”

 

It might work, if John doesn’t see the vase. Hopefully he’s not in the mood to pay any attention to furnishings at the moment.

 

“It was too loud for a text alert!”

 

“It was full volume. You were asleep, maybe you just… maybe it startled you…”

 

He hates playing with John’s mind like this, feeding on his doubts. Just a text alert combined with a bad dream and a head full of war…

 

He can feel the uncertainty radiating from John. Was it a gun shot or did he just want it to be one?

 

Sherlock knows John, knows how he works…

 

“What are you doing in here?”

 

“I’m a detective… I thought you might be a-”

 

“ID! NOW!”

 

“I’m not that sort of detective!”

 

He has no ID. He was asleep when Moriarty found him, and he’s grateful that at least he was semi-dressed and still wearing shoes. John roots through the pockets again in the hope of finding something. Thankfully he doesn’t notice that Sherlock has no phone.

 

“I’m Sherlock Holmes. Look me up. I work with the police.”

 

“Why don’t I call them to check?”

 

“Fine.”

 

He hopes he isn’t dead in this reality or that’s going to be a level of explaining he can’t match. He can’t handle pretending to fake his death a third time.

 

John lets go of Sherlock and stands back, near enough to pounce again should Sherlock try anything. Sherlock merely turns back around and slumps against the wall, panting slightly.

 

Mentally he has already moved on from this argument. John will accept that he’s neither an attacker nor burglar and he won’t call the police. He can tell everything he needs to know from the calendar on the wall, the unnoticed broken vase, and the carpet. This is more excitement than John’s had in some time. He wouldn’t want the police spoiling the fun.

 

“You’re pretty well dressed for a burglar,” John points out.

 

Sherlock looks down at his clothes and absentmindedly supposes that – even rumpled and half dressed – he’s smarter than the average thief out to snag a flatscreen TV.

 

He inclines his head in agreement.

 

Almost as if a switch has been flicked now that the danger has passed, John’s leg buckles under him. Sherlock darts forward and is shoved away as John steadies himself against the wall.

 

“Stay away from me-”

 

Sherlock isn’t listening, he’s assessing. Psychosomatic limp. John was perfectly fit and able right up until the moment he realised Sherlock posed no physical threat. Left the cane in the bedroom.

 

Which is perfect for Sherlock, because he wants a chance to look around.

 

“I’ll go fetch your cane,” he announces with such complete confidence in his right to wander around the flat unsupervised that John won’t even realise that he’s let a complete stranger loose among his things for a good minute after Sherlock is gone.

 

The bedroom is on the other side of the living room and Sherlock needs only the briefest glance to take in the whole story.

 

John never met Sherlock in this reality. Sherlock has occasionally wondered what John’s life would have been like without that chance meeting at the funeral, or – he supposes – the other chance meeting that happened in the reality with the John that is his, for want of a better term, ‘prize’. Right here is the answer.

 

Sherlock would have supposed that John, with the nasty combination of no army and no Sherlock to have adventures with, would not have lasted long before getting himself into serious trouble.

 

John is surviving. Just. He’s found a dull woman and is clinging onto the boring, cliché relationship in such a desperate way it borders on co-dependant. He’s guilting himself into staying safe and staying alive.

 

He’s alone tonight (she’s visiting her sister in Inverness: birthday card wrapper on the bedside table, mark from the suitcase mark in the carpet, tartan pen) but they’re living together. Will probably marry. Have children. John will convince himself he loves her and she’ll never know that she’s just a living and breathing reminder for John to be sensible.

 

The deduction takes him less than a second. He moves towards the cane, but finds his attention taken by the bed. The navy blue bedding is rumpled, probably not warm any more, but looking at it is like taking a step into the past. Sherlock goes to the bed, sits in the spot John has been sleeping in, and it’s only sheer force of will that stops him curling up in it.

 

John appears in the door and Sherlock snaps back to life. He was too long, he realises, John has realised what he just did and come to find him and kick him out, bad leg or not. He probably wasn’t expecting to find Sherlock sitting in his bed looking broken and desperate.

 

“Who are you?” he asks simply.

 

Sherlock shrugs. “No one special, as it turns out. There are a million other me’s out there.”

 

“I doubt that.”

 

“You’re going to die soon, you know.”

 

John blinks, tenses up. “Why? What do you know?”

 

“I know you. You handle boredom as well as I do, and this woman-”

 

“Alison,” John supplies.

 

“Her. You want her to keep you on the… straight… and narrow.” Sherlock quirks his mouth in mild amusement at that. “You are trying to be sensible, but you’ve never been sensible. You just look normal and are good in a crisis, so people think that you are. They never realise how much of a love affair you have with the crisis.”

 

“No really, who are you?”

 

“The crisis.”

 

He pitches his voice slightly lower than normal, knowing full well the effect it has. He wants John, knows full well he could have him right here and right now because fucking a male stranger who has broken into your flat while your girlfriend is out of town is just about the stupidest possible choice there is and John is itching to make it.

 

And Sherlock wants it so much that he’s semi-hard right here just looking up at him from across a room. This is what he made the deal for, after all, to be with another John. To get the one thing that everyone wants when someone they love dies – one more day, one more chance. John’s standing right there in front of him and he’d make it so worth his while.

 

Sherlock knows all there is to know about John’s body, knows what he likes, knows that he likes to lie underneath Sherlock with them still mostly clothed as Sherlock proves just how much he wants it, how desperate he is, and when he’s convinced he likes to roll them over so he’s on top, how he likes to strip and touch and fuck and dangle the control just out of Sherlock’s reach, knowing full well Sherlock won’t take control because this is the only time he wants to be owned…

 

Sherlock’s fingers flex in a desire to reach out. He hasn’t moved from the bed and he doesn’t care that John can probably see his arousal.

 

“What do you want?” John asks. He moves closer slowly, like a man dealing with an escaped, unpredictable lion.

 

He has seen the arousal then. John’s daring him to ask, daring him to look John in the eye and offer him the chance to break the rules and lose himself for a night.

 

Sherlock could do it. It’s pretty much what he’s here for.

 

It would be like the first time all over again…

 

Archala’s face flashes through his mind. It wouldn’t though, would it? It would only be a new experience for John, and this John doesn’t know him in the slightest. It would be a release and nothing more for him, and for Sherlock it would be a chance at reliving the past.

 

Would that be so bad?

 

The part of his mind that’s been dulled from exhaustion and despair finally starts working again. Why would Moriarty bring him here? Perhaps he finds it amusing, but there must be more to it than that. He wants Sherlock to make this mistake.

 

What would happen if he slept with John tonight and disappeared in a few hours? He’d leave the man with a thousand questions and that might as well be waving a red flag at a bull. Because John would have an excuse to hunt out danger. Alison wouldn’t last the weekend and John would be on a mission…

 

Moriarty wouldn’t need to kill him. He’d get himself killed within the month.

 

John repeats the question.

 

Tell me. What do you want from me?”

 

Sherlock swallows. Pulling the mask back on physically hurts and he’s certain that his smile when he answers borders on desperate.

 

“Can I have a cup of tea?”

 

“Tea?” John echoes blankly. The tension in him drops at once. He leans heavily on his good leg again.

 

“Yes. I’ve been abroad for some time. Haven’t had a decent cup of tea in ages.”

 

He smiles tightly again. Watches John recalculating. Diagnosing. John thinks he’s jet lagged or feverish; he doesn’t have all the answers to Sherlock’s presence, but he’s got enough to fill in some blanks himself.

 

Mr. Sensible returns.

 

“Uh. Yes. Would you like to stay there?”

 

“No. I’ll have it through there.”

 

Standing takes determination but he has to get away from the bed.

 

 

--

 

 

He wasn’t lying about missing tea, although until that precise moment his desire for it had been so far down the list that – for a moment – he is unsure what to do with the mug when it’s handed to him.

 

He has to leave, has to be as far away from this place as possible when Moriarty returns for him. While he is standing here gulping down the scalding hot tea, he is in fact wasting time that could be used to focus his mind on saving the man in front of him.

 

“You look like you need someone to talk to,” John says at last.

 

He’s leaning against the kitchen counter, looking at Sherlock with justifiable interest.

 

Sherlock shrugs. “I talked to a psychiatrist yesterday.”

 

“Did it help?”

 

“Not at all. But then she’d probably blame my mother for that.”

 

John smiles faintly. “Anything I can help with?”

 

Sherlock takes another sip of tea and considers. John was always better at this sort of thing that him, and he’ll never meet this version again. Why not ask?

 

“Did you ever hear stories about people who paid to have their pet cloned after it died?”

 

John nods. “Yes. And?”

 

“So, they paid a fortune to have their pet dog reborn knowing that it was going to be the exact same dog. My question is, do you think they could love the replacement version in the same way they loved the first?”

 

John blinks. “You’ve broke into my flat for a cup of tea and a discussion on the ethics of cloning pets?”

 

“Not the ethics. The… emotions surrounding it.”

 

John breathes out slowly, considering.

 

“No,” he says, suddenly decisive. “It’s a stupid idea. All they’re really doing is trying to avoid grief. It’s… cowardly.”

 

“Surely there’s a certain logic to it- to a logical mind it’s the same animal-“

 

“But it’s not. Nurture-“

 

“What if, hypothetically, the dog was raised in the exact same way?”

 

“It wouldn’t matter! The owner still has all the memories of the first animal. No one gets to have those experiences twice and they’re fooling themselves if they try.”

 

“And what if I was one of those people and I’d… already gone through with it? What if I was holding the puppy? What advice would you give?”

 

John frowns. He obviously doesn’t believe Sherlock to be an obsessive pet owner and he’s clearly wondering what on earth the conversation is really about.

 

”I’d tell you to give it away.”

 

“And if I couldn’t? If I was, uh, forced to keep it?”

 

John pauses for a second, takes a thoughtful sip of tea. “I suppose you’d have to mourn for the first one and remind yourself every day that the second one is an entirely different animal.”

 

Sherlock drains his cup. “That’s what the psychiatrist said, more or less. I have to go.”

 

John nods. He looks almost disappointed, but there’s a spark there that comforts Sherlock. For a little while at least the mystery of the over-familiar burglar is going to interest and entertain him. Unfortunately it won’t get him any answers.

 

It occurs to him that this John needs saving. Moriarty could no doubt unleash holy hell on this man, who is standing here providing tea to the half-dressed burglar who wanted to fuck him minutes before, but the real danger will be for John to carry on like this. The girlfriend will stop being enough soon and then it’s only a matter of time before he takes ‘looking for trouble’ to a level that borders on suicidal.

“There’s a man called Mycroft Holmes. Find him. It will be surprisingly difficult. Give him your CV, put it in his hand yourself.”

 

It’s the only solution he can think of. There’s a hope that the other Sherlock might not be dead in this reality, in which case there’s also a chance his brother might, at some point, bring the two of them together. If not, Mycroft is good at recognising talent. He’ll find a use for a man with John’s temperament and skills, and it comforts Sherlock enormously that John will be a puzzle that should irritate Mycroft for some time.

 

“What will happen?”

 

“I have no idea, but it will probably be unusual. I wouldn’t wish a job with that man on my worst enemy.”

 

He pauses.

 

“Actually, I have one more question.”

 

John smiles faintly. “Another hypothetical?”

 

“How would you defeat an enemy who could find you wherever you ran? Who could disappear the second he was in any danger? A man who was… blessed by the gods?”

 

John tilts his head. “Dog cloning and invincible men? You lead an interesting life.”

 

“You’d be surprised.”

 

John says nothing for a moment, clearly thinking it over.

 

“If you can’t outrun him, and you can’t attack him… then all you can do is trick him into suicide. Get him to administer the poison himself.”

 

It’s a simple answer, but elegant.

 

“That unfortunately requires him to have some humanity.”

 

John shrugs. “Does he breathe in and out? Has he got a pulse? Did some woman somewhere give birth to him? Because if he does, then you can beat him. Everyone has a weakness.”

 

Sherlock considers. “I have to find the poison,” he says thoughtfully. “Thank you.”

 

 

--

 

 

Moriarty finds Sherlock wandering the streets and is more than a little put out that Sherlock has resisted the temptation placed before him. He has no idea that this little visit has given Sherlock a starting point for Moriarty’s downfall.

 

For the time being, Sherlock is returned to his dingy little hotel room to continue his mission. He’s exhausted again, only this time it’s his mind rather than his body that’s giving up. He sits on the edge of the bed and thinks over the events.

 

Mourn.

 

John Watson told him to mourn for John Watson. In a strange sort of way, that makes it more real. The man he met tonight wasn’t his John, he was – to carry on with the metaphor – an entirely different animal.

 

His John is gone. Just thinking is causes his stomach to twist and his mind to dart about trying to solve the unsolveable problem of death. Until now, when those stomach churning dark thoughts have crept up on him he’s been able to silence them with the reassurance that there is another John Watson out there.

 

This time he gives in to the pain and fear.

 

His John is dead. The conversations they had, the jokes they shared, they are only alive in Sherlock’s mind. And this other John, the one he’ll go back to, the one he’ll lie to, will be a copy that will remind him of what he’s lost every day.

 

Without detail to shore up the misery, the pain washes over Sherlock. It’s like a pair of shears plunged into his stomach.

 

He slumps back onto the bed, buries his face into the pillow, and sobs.

 

 

Chapter Text

There are twelve hours remaining until Sherlock’s deadline and there is one target left. Unfortunately there are two members of Moriarty’s network alive and on opposite sides of the planet and he has no clue - honestly none - which one he should be pursuing.

 

He’s tempted to get Mycroft to intervene: with one phone call both targets could be dead within minutes, but Mycroft’s help would go directly against his agreement with Moriarty and so he has no choice but to pick: one or the other.

 

Baron Maupertuis is hard to get access to, but easy to overpower. Without the name of Moriarty to hide behind he’s paranoid and easily spooked. Sherlock doesn’t kill him, he doesn’t have to. The man’s raving, paranoid and high: he shoots himself in the head in a brave attempt to have his secrets die with him. He’s just a dead body who never realised that the only information Sherlock cared about was whether he had a tattoo.

 

Sherlock swallows down his revulsion at yet another blown out brain and drops to his knees to strip the corpse. The grandfather clock in the Baron’s study begins its twelve chimes.

 

“No, no, no…”

 

Flabby, unmarked flesh is all that he finds.

 

“Ooh, so close,” purrs the ever-unwelcome voice behind him.

 

Sherlock turns and tries to control himself. He’s failed. In another universe another version of John Watson is going to die in agony.

 

Moriarty takes a graceful seat in the armchair in front of the fire. He jerks his chin to the opposite chair, commanding Sherlock to join him. If one ignores the naked dead man, it’s almost cosy.

 

“Tea?” Sherlock asks, flicking his eyes towards the untouched set on the table.

 

Moriarty sneers, picks up the teapot and sniffs the contents. “He actually tried to poison you. How… quaint.”

 

Sherlock doesn’t reply. There has to be some way out of this, his mind is speeding along trying to think of something, anything…

 

“So,” Moriarty says brightly. “Number Seven is alive and well and in Japan. I can’t say the same of John number seven, whose life is going to be painfully cut short, but sadly not as quickly as you might wish… I think I’ll make you watch.”

 

Alive and well…

 

“I don’t go in for torture myself,” he says breezily. “Fortunately I know a number of people who do.”

 

Well…

 

Images flash through his mind, reviewing every piece of information he has. He speaks quickly, trying distract Moriarty while he thinks.

 

“It’s been two years,” he says. “I’m not the same person I was when we last met. I’ve mourned. I’m continuing with your game out of a desire to avoid deaths, but don’t imagine that dangling the name of John Watson over my head will work again.”

 

Moriarty nods mock seriously. “Yes, yes, it all seems very healthy.” He grins. “Now I’m definitely going to make you watch.”

 

The solution kicks into place.

 

“No you won’t. Because I’ve already won.”

 

“No you haven’t. There’s still one more criminal wandering around, alive and well and unincarcirated.”

“’Well’ isn’t the right word, is it though? I've seen surveillance photos of Seven. Always surrounded by an army of bodyguards, each of them larger, better trained and more violent than the last. But the one who stands closest to him in every photograph doesn't know how to conceal his gun properly and has more fat than muscle. A nurse. Seven is taking great pains to hide the fact he needs a nurse at all. He’s dying. Months to live. Weeks even. Nature caught up with him before I could. So I went for the one that was actually dangerous."

 

He says it with total confidence but there’s a very really chance that Moriarty won’t consider it good enough…

 

Moriarty sighs. “His cancer was incredibly inconvenient to me. In full form he would have made your final fight… explosive. But you’re right, he’s just a weak old man now. Not worth bothering with.”

 

It seems too much to hope that Moriarty is just going to accept this simple ending to the two years of hell he’s happily inflicted on Sherlock.

 

“So that’s it?” Sherlock asks cautiously.

 

Moriarty crinkles his nose in irritation. “Of course that’s not it. We haven’t even begun yet. This was the appetiser. We’ve still got a carb heavy main course and a frankly enormous desert to go yet. This was just… a test. You said you’d do anything for this chance, I wanted to see how far I could go before ‘anything’ was too much. It turns out the only thing you won’t do for him is kill and that’s only because you’ve managed to avoid it so far. I’m going to have so much fun with that.”

 

He stands, brushes unseen dust from his suit, and smiles down at Sherlock.

 

“Time for you to go and claim your prize.”

 

An alarm blares.

 

“Oh. I think Baron Maupertuis’s men have just realised that there’s an intruder in the building. You might want to get as far away as possible before you have some difficult questions to answer.”

 

 

--

 

 

Mycroft almost hopes the man being tortured in front of him is actually his brother. Sadly, the balance of probability is not in favour of that and so he mentally disconnects his emotions from the scene. He has to focus on the problem.

 

Yes, under the dirt and hair the man being whipped is Sherlock Holmes. The DNA and fingerprints will match, and if you placed him in front of John Watson the man would (after some sort of tedious upset) fully agree that Sherlock Holmes had cheated death.

 

But Mycroft Holmes knows better than that. He had twenty operatives at St Barts that day and every single one of them reported that there had been a miscalculation and that Sherlock Holmes plummeted to his death.

 

Mycroft saw the body. He’d mourned.

 

Yet hours later Sherlock Holmes appeared in the Diogenes club alive and well and called the whole thing a trick. While Mycroft has more respect for his brother’s intelligence than he would ever dream of admitting, there is no trick in the world that good. He has spent considerable hours puzzling over a solution and the best he can come up with is as unlikely and illogical as the theories dreamed up by the very strangest of the members of The Empty Hearse.

 

The soldier is threatening the man with Sherlock’s body again. Mycroft tunes him out.

 

Of course the conspiracy theorists don’t have the same classified knowledge as Mycroft. They don’t know about the Hives.

 

Mycroft knows about them: there are very few people of power who don’t. While it’s perfectly possible for any member of the public to accidentally stumble across a Hive and use it, it’s completely illegal for anyone who officially knows about them to use one or to allow anyone else to.

 

It’s in the vast interest of the public to remain ignorant and much of Mycroft’s job is ensuring that no other country uses the Hives for their advantage. It makes diplomacy about nuclear weapons look like a picnic and the only reason the public haven’t found out a hundred times over is that it thankfully has the combined advantage of sounding ridiculous and being a logistical nightmare. Look at North Korea.

 

There would be so much more done without Hives getting in the way of it all.

 

Regardless, this knowledge gives him a rough idea of what’s happened.

 

There were two versions of Sherlock: the – for lack of a better term – real one and one from another universe. One of them died. Either the real Sherlock allowed to other to die for him (cold, even by his brother’s standards) or the real Sherlock died and the other decided to step into his place.

 

Balance of probability is the latter. Sherlock didn’t know about the Hives (a source of private amusement before) and would have had far better things to do with an alternate version of himself than let him jump off a building.

 

Besides, a man like Moriarty must have known about the Hives too. A man with his power might have found another Sherlock, maybe one with a different history, a darker mind, or simply a version that never met John. Mycroft knows that Moriarty would have held far more appeal to Sherlock without the unlikely friendship he’d already formed.

 

The most delicious trick of all would be to replace the real Sherlock with another one that would continue to work to Moriarty’s agenda after Moriarty died.

 

A hoarse whisper comes from the man with the body of Sherlock Holmes. A predictable deduction but the soldier is thrown. Mycroft is surprised it’s taken him this long to work it out: another mark against the imposter.

 

Of course, he has an advantage. Right now the imposter doesn’t know Mycroft suspects anything. May have no idea Mycroft knows about the Hives. If it is his brother, Mycroft will know, and if not the imposter will have no idea what hit him.

 

The soldier departs, which is Mycroft’s cue to start talking to his brother dear.


“Back to Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes.”

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock thinks it vastly unfair that his first real test as the new, returned Sherlock Holmes is in front of Mycroft.

 

He has read everything the other Sherlock wrote online, gathered as much information as possible, and he does have the advantage of having the same life up until a quite recent point. He really only has to extrapolate how the last seven years altered their personalities, but fooling his brother was never easy at the best of times.

 

The clothes, haircut and shave are helping. They are the same clothes he’s always worn, but these ones have never been worn by him before. It feels like both coming home and also pulling on another identity. He is stealing someone else’s life; even if that other person is him.

 

The second Mycroft began his little rescue stunt, Sherlock’s performance had begun. Ahead of him now is a four-way confidence trick that will test every ounce of his self-control.

 

Firstly he has to convince Mycroft that he is who he says he is. He has to be self-centred, childish, with shaky emotions hidden behind a false façade of intellect and control. So far, so good.

 

To the rest of the world he will have to be Hat Man, the High Functioning Sociopath with no emotions and a cringeworthy grasp on social niceties. This will be far and away the easiest, though his John has stunted his development in that area.

 

John…

 

He’s had a year and a half to plan, to mourn. He has mourned. He’s done reckless things, beaten men to a pulp after the mist of anger descended, he’s tried to out-run the pain all across the globe, and his need for clear thinking is all that stood between him and any number of vices…

 

He’s cried.

 

But it’s not possible to mourn constantly for a year and a half. He had work to do and he had a plan to form. Yes, sometimes the grief still washes over him in an overwhelming surge, but as with all grief it becomes manageable.

 

It’s time for him to move on and he has to accept that John Watson cannot be in his future.

 

His plan is simple. To John he will return and be everything John Watson had forgotten Sherlock Holmes was. Unfeeling. Arrogant. Cold. Oh he’ll still be wickedly fun and offer John all the excitement he wants, but he’ll push and push until John chooses to fly the friendship nest. He’ll help John find the right sort of woman (one that will have enough of Sherlock’s qualities that John won’t crave time with him) he’ll fix the Moriarty problem, and then he’ll find some way to die that will be less upsetting than suicide.

 

The fourth part of his deception will be for Moriarty. The man will be watching somehow, and Sherlock needs him to think his game is working. He has to appear distracted, to be failing in his work, has to look to Moriarty desperately conflicted and in love…

 

And then the second Moriarty makes a mistake, he’ll end this ridiculous game.

 

Anyway, the first part seems to be going well. He can only hope that any unusual behaviour is written off as the by-product of two years on the run coupled with several days of torture. There is only one thing that Mycroft believes Sherlock is interested in, and Sherlock is quick to oblige, asking about John in a curious but not overly concerned way that will leave no doubt in Mycroft’s mind that he’s secretly burning with curiosity.

 

“What about John Watson?”

 

Yes, there’s the smugness around Mycroft’s gills suggesting little Sherlock is being emotional again…

 

 

“He’s got on with his life.”

 

Self-centred disbelief flows from him, as Mycroft would surely expect. It’s logical, he tells himself. This John Watson was never in love with Sherlock, they were only friends. It would be stranger if he hadn’t moved on.

 

That little niggling anger that John gets to move on so easily after what he’s gone through is irrational.

 

“What life? I’ve been away.”

 

Again, perfect characterisation if the exasperation on Mycroft’s face is anything to go by.

 

“I think maybe I’ll just drop by.”

 

 

---

 

 

It’s not John, he reminds himself as he circles ever nearer to John in the restaurant. It’s a man that looks like him. Moustache John.

 

John is clearly here to propose and that falls in with Sherlock’s plans. If this woman is half decent – and surely she must be to have got this far – then he can give his whole-hearted support and before long he’ll be the third wheel that John feels awkward about, then the friend John doesn’t see enough, before one day becoming someone John hasn’t thought about in a few months. It will be natural for Sherlock to fade away in comparison to John’s wife and when his death comes, it will be a sad but not devastating loss.

 

Sherlock needs to get closer, needs to deduce, needs to know what he’s working with before he reveals himself. Thank god for John’s lack of observational skills.

 

A deduction and two small thefts later and he’s peering over John’s shoulder under the guise of looking at the wine list. Moustache John is a mish-mash of his own John, the one whose flat he broke into, and the bits of pieces he’s picked up from the man’s blog. This is the first time he’s spoken to him.

 

He has to balance his return perfectly. If he can be just the right level of insensitive, brash, and brilliant he will be welcomed back into John’s life with an added reminder for John to be wary of getting too close to Sherlock again.

 

“It has all the qualities of the old, with some of the colour of the new.”

 

Isn’t that the truth.

 

“Sir, I think you’ll find this a vintage exceptionally to your liking…”

 

He’s interrupting, being a frankly terrible waiter, and John still isn’t looking.

 

And then he does.

 

Shock. Expected.

 

The soon-to-be fiancé is forgotten for the time being. Also expected.

 

Sherlock’s sharp, loud, a bit cruel which is surely what John would expect from him.

 

And then there’s anger. So much anger. Unexpected.

 

“I’m realising I probably owe you some sort of apology…”

 

It throws his calculations off. John shouldn’t be this angry. He never factored anger in to his plans. Shock, relief, hysteria… those are normal reactions. A certain amount might be reasonable, for the lies (if only he knew the true extent of the lies) and for the unnecessary grief, but this much?

 

“Two years…”

 

He’s moved on. He was never in love with Sherlock, never in a relationship with him. The reaction of a friend might be some anger but mostly overwhelming relief. A friend would trust Sherlock had a reason for his actions.

 

John. The real John. He’d have been angry. Apoplectic. But he’d have had every right to be, he’d have gone through the pain that Sherlock has already suffered.

 

And dammit Sherlock’s angry too, though he’s hiding it. John has an engagement ring in his pocket. If he’s so damn happy then why is Sherlock’s return anything but an added bonus? Why is everyone looking at him like he’s destroyed everything?

 

Although, that’s what he has done, he reminds himself. The other Sherlock wouldn’t have died if he’d not been nearby, if he’d never made the deal…

 

He wipes his moustache away.

 

Let him be angry then. However badly Sherlock acts John will still be burn with curiosity to know how the stunt was done. In his blog he seems to live for those explanations: Sherlock’s cleverness is what interests him. Sherlock has to keep John interested until Moriarty is dealt with, but he can’t give John anything more than that. He still has to be the ultimate bastard because he cannot allow himself to become close to this man, for both their sakes.

 

“Are you really gonna keep that?”

 

 

--

 

 

Starting his new life puts Sherlock’s acting skills to a considerable test. Fooling John is the easiest because John has completely avoided him since leaving him outside a kebab shop with a bloody nose. Mycroft is more difficult, turning up for unexpected gaming sessions and engaging him in layered conversations that feel like advanced exams.

 

Worse still he has to maintain a gaggle of friendships with people he’s never met before. He’s never worked with Lestrade or Anderson, he’s wary of the way Mrs. Hudson seems to understand things about him, and Molly’s feelings towards him are virtually incomprehensible. She seems to worship him in the same way others self-harm.

 

She’s a useful pair of hands to have around though, although he isn’t overly proud of his little crime scene meltdown. Sometimes the grief rises up and he wasn’t expecting to have such a… reaction to the first crime scene he’d attended without John. The real John.

 

It’s the fire that changes things.

 

He’s sure, so sure, that it’s Moriarty’s way of announcing himself and yet nothing comes from it. Was it a test, a way for Moriarty to prove that whichever version of John it is, Sherlock will still run into the flames for him?

 

If so, mission accomplished.

 

It was the lack of moustache, Sherlock tells himself. In the panic he forgot who it was.

 

When John visits the next day the two of them finally settle into a kind of truce. This is how it’s always been: the two of them united by Sherlock’s desire to solve the puzzle and John’s desire to know how Sherlock worked it out.

 

He can do this.

 

 

--

 

 

The bomb incident goes… spectacularly badly.

 

For a start Sherlock genuinely doesn’t know how to stop the bomb. Yes he’s called the police but (he isn’t actually stupid) but there won’t be time.

 

“Mind Palace! Use your Mind Palace.”

 

They squabble but it’s their only hope. Sherlock closes his eyes and mentally removes himself from the panic. He has to think.

 

C’mon.

 

C’mon.

 

Nothing!

 

He’s going to get them both killed and Moriarty didn’t even have anything to do with it. He’s not sure whether he considers that a success or not.

 

No. Of course it’s not a success. John’s going to die.

 

He opens his eyes and John groans.

 

“Oh my god.”

 

Sherlock, suddenly too warm and feeling suffocated, claws at his scarf and rips it off.

And then he sees it. So simple. A switch.

 

The rush of success that envelopes him stops him from sagging with relief and gives him the millisecond of clarity he needs.

 

This isn’t a danger anymore. It’s an opportunity. Think. Think.

 

This may be his only chance to get John past the anger, a chance for Sherlock to understand it… and a solid reminder for John that Sherlock’s a complete bastard who he shouldn’t get attached to.

 

“Please, John, forgive me. For all the hurt that I caused you.”


“No, no, no, no, no. This is a trick.”

 

Sherlock keeps the pretence up. Says the bare minimum he needs to get the reaction he wants.

 

“If I hadn’t come back, you wouldn’t be standing there and you’d still have a future… with Mary.”

 

He says everything he needs to force forgiveness out of John.

 

And then he starts to laugh.

 

 

--

 

 

It’s what happened after that that went so badly.

 

Sherlock had expected John to try and strangle him again. Had expected a few more weeks of complete silence until sheer boredom brought him back to Sherlock.

 

But no, John laughed. He was annoyed and exasperated about it, but once it was all over he didn’t seem to mind.

 

The real John would have nearly killed him for that sort of stunt, any sane person would have, and yet this one just seemed to shrug it off with a weird sort of affection. For god’s sake, they are celebrating his engagement as if everything is fine.

 

Sherlock is, despite himself, desperate to understand the man. In itself, that’s dangerous. He can’t afford to get attached to this John, this is the replacement dog, not the original. He’ll drive himself mad trying to sort out the differences between the two.

 

But why was John so very angry? He still doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand the affection the man shows.

 

He and John share a few moments downstairs, waiting to go and face the press and cement Sherlock Holmes’s triumphant return. This should be a moment of success. John believes him, John trusts him enough for Sherlock to keep a close eye on him, and Sherlock has proved he’s strong enough to keep this charade up without destroying himself.

 

“Sherlock, you are gonna tell me how you did it? How you jumped off that building and survived?”

 

Just this once, Sherlock can’t bring himself to lie. The man John believes he’s talking to didn’t survive.

 

“You know my methods, John. I am known to be indestructible.”

 

In that moment that follows, Sherlock knows that this fight isn’t for his John anymore. He’s doing this for the man who is standing in front of him and blindly accepting him after two huge betrayals.

 

This John, the one he thought he could easily dismiss, has become a mystery Sherlock itches to solve. And that makes him dangerous.

 

“Anyway, time to go and be Sherlock Holmes.”

 

 

--

 

 

The party is breaking up. Molly and Tom are long gone and Lestrade disappeared twenty minutes ago. John and Mary have been meaning to make a move for over an hour but John has been lingering. Finally coats are put on and Sherlock stands there as John leaves to go back to a house he shares with someone else and sleep with a new ease now that the small weight of Sherlock’s death has lifted.

 

His own mind is a mess. Not only has John added a new complexity to his careful plans, the mystery of the bonfire is consuming him too. Was it a message? A reminder that Moriarty can take John in seconds without Sherlock ever knowing?

 

Mary hugs him as they all head down the stairs together, Mary, John, Mrs. Hudson, and Sherlock.

 

He likes Mary, despite himself. There’s something about her that has drawn John in – though she’s hardly living an action packed life – and he’s more than happy to nurture their relationship.

 

He wonders what she’s lying about, can’t quite put his finger on it, but it doesn’t bother him overly.

Everyone lies. He’ll be lying for the rest of his life if he stays in this world. Her lies will be everyday things, no doubt, and the fastest way to piss John off will be to pry too far into them.

 

“Have you got far to go?” Mrs. Hudson asks as they make their goodbyes.

 

Sherlock makes his usual glance over, a habitual test of his own London knowledge. Shoes. Splatter of mud on hem of Mary’s coat. Tube instead of taxi. Suburbs.

 

Oh.

 

“Turnham Green,” John says with shrug.

 

“Yeah,” Mary grimaces, “a twenty minute walk to the tube and the Tesco is a pain in the arse to get to, but otherwise we like it.”

 

Of course. It makes complete sense.

 

Doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt though.

 

“Number 35,” says Sherlock.

 

Both John and Mary laugh in surprise.

 

“Yeah. How did you know?” asks Mary.

 

“Oh god, I bet Mycroft has a file…” says John.

 

Sherlock shrugs. “Would you believe me if I said cunning deductive work?”

 

Or, for instance, that I’ve been living at that address for over ten years and that it makes perfect sense that you’d buy it for the exact same reasons the other you bought it. Only this time, you weren’t buying it with me in mind.

 

“Oh come on,” John grins. “Even you can’t deduce house number.”

 

Sherlock shrugs it off.

 

“Saw Mary’s driving licence when she opened her purse to show Mrs. Hudson that photograph earlier.”

 

And Mary hates it as much as I did. Mocks it fondly but is as silent of her real feelings as she was about the moustache. Will she grow to like it, to think of it as home? Or will she push and pull you until you decide to move house?

 

They leave and Mrs. Hudson (slightly tipsy) kisses his cheek and toddles off to her own flat. Sherlock is all alone in the place that is his home to the rest of the world.

 

Meanwhile John Watson is taking his fiancé back to the home that’s as part of Sherlock as 221b Baker Street was to the former version of himself. And this time he can’t follow.

 

 

Chapter Text

As it turns out the incident with the bomb is just a harbinger of worse things to come for Sherlock.

 

Not the chaos that makes up the general pattern of his life - that remains stable enough - but that moment in the tube car was a warning that Sherlock was treading a dangerous path. Unfortunately he didn't listen.

 

Months pass and, for a while, he thinks the plan is going well. He ensures that Mary is around as much as possible, enfolding her into their little crime-solving team. It allows Sherlock to keep his distance and her presence is a constant reminder that this is not his John.

 

Then John asks him to be his best man and all of Sherlock’s promises to himself turn to dust.

 

“I want to be up there with the two people that I love and care about most in the world.”

“Yes.”

Mary Morstan...”

“Yes.”

“And...you.”

 

Sherlock freezes. In all of this, he’s never felt as much of a fraud as he does now. John, in open honesty, is asking the man he believes to be his best friend to be his best man. He thinks Sherlock - selfish, socially inept Sherlock – will be terrible at it, but he doesn’t care. He's doing it because he wants his best friend by his side.

 

Because he loves Sherlock.

 

He doesn't suspect - couldn't even comprehend - that the man in front of him is an imposter, that his true best friend is dead and that all their friendship is now is a performance by someone who only cares about him because of the DNA he shared with someone else.

 

He deserves better than that. He deserves a best man who will tell the world how great he is and to be truly talking about him.

 

Sherlock could give him that. He’s taken everything else from John, why not try to be a real best friend for a while? What’s a little bit more hurt in exchange for one genuine shared moment?

 

And it will hurt Sherlock. He’ll have to constantly be on his guard to prevent his over-active heart charging on ahead without his permission. When all this is over John will be married (it shouldn’t sting to think that, he has no interest in this John) and Sherlock will slink away to end this quest and very likely his own life. Leaving a genuine friendship behind will sting more than when it was just a lie.

 

But he’ll do it. He’ll write a speech, and arrange for them to go on cases alone for once, and learn all the… frilly things about weddings that he’ll have to know. He’s already planned a funeral, a wedding is just a happier version of that. And this time John will be there, looking at him and thinking, just this once, how great of a friend Sherlock is.

 

It’s not going to be easy though. He doesn’t even know any anecdotes.

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock is being spectacularly unhelpful, which Mycroft considers to be extremely in character, but not so much in character that his suspicions have changed.

 

To that end he has deigned to take a journey to Cambridge to visit a very minor, completely unrecognised academic whose continued employment at the university is a mystery to all but the very upper echelons of the establishment.

 

The fact that Dr. Hoppett brushed off Mycroft’s pointed insistence that he come to London with the astounded ‘You aren’t seriously expecting me to abandon my tulips are you?’ is a sure sign that the man is possessed of the madness of genius that feels like home to Mycroft.

 

Hoppett’s office is little more than a broom cupboard (Anthea had to steal a chair for Mycroft from a nearby classroom) and the room is filled with such a wide range of books, both fiction and text, that even Mycroft’s brain is thrown by the overload of information. If he didn’t know already, he would find it completely impossible to guess to what this man taught, or why he was allowed to have any space in the university at all. The man has only one student (a conspiracy theorist, Mycroft always finds pleasure in looking through the files of those, if only because they’d be so delighted at having a file at all.)

 

Dr. Hoppett himself is – well – the kind of man who wears socks with sandals in November and smells faintly of compost. His hair is white and, though he has no beard, his nose-hair is putting on quite a show on its own.

 

“Government business?” he asks mildly when Mycroft has taken a seat.

 

“Not… as such.”

 

“Missing family then? I’m an academic, not a detective.”

 

“Believe me, I have an overabundance of detectives. I’m here because…”

 

The phone on Hoppett’s desk rings. He answers, listens, and then frowns.

 

“Hello- yes- yes I’m talking to him now.”

 

He listens some more and then holds out the phone to Mycroft. It’s actually made of Bakelite and Mycroft is, for once, completely thrown.

 

“She wants to talk to you.”

 

“Who?”

 

“My wife.”

 

It’s a rare day that Mycroft doesn’t have the answers. He takes the phone out of pure curiosity.

 

“Hello?”

 

“Mycroft Holmes? This is Angela Hoppett.”

 

Mycroft’s gaze narrows at Dr. Hoppett.

 

“I was assured my visit was in the strictest confidence.”

 

“Oh it was sir, it was!” Angela wheezes down the phone. “I know a great deal my husband doesn’t. For example, I just woke up from my afternoon nap and I just knew I had to phone my husband and speak to a Mycroft Holmes. And I just knew that I had to tell you to pass on a message to your brother. You have to tell him to – to-“

 

“What do you know about my brother?” Mycroft snarls.

 

“Oh please sir, don’t be like that. My husband will explain everything, but please promise to pass on the message.”

 

Mycroft grits his teeth. “Very well.”

 

“Tell your brother that the poison needs to be administered on the twenty-seventh. Those exact words. He won’t understand yet, but he will when it matters.”

 

“What are you-?“

 

The phone clicks dead.

 

With exaggerated care, if only to give himself time to think, Mycroft places the phone back in the cradle and looks questioningly at Dr. Hoppett.

 

“My wife sir,” he says nervously. “I’d do what she asks. She’s psychic.”

 

Mycroft stands abruptly. “Yes. Well thank you for your time Dr. Hoppett but I really must be going.”

 

“Oh!” Dr. Hoppett dashes towards the door to prevent Mycroft leaving. “Now I surely deserve a chance to explain myself. You aren’t going to find many who know more about Hives than me. Sit. Sit.”

 

Reluctantly Mycroft does so and Dr. Hoppett returns to his desk.

 

“Now, what was this about your brother?”

 

“I-“ Mycroft sighs. “I believe my brother has been… replaced.”

 

Dr. Hoppett nods as if this is quite a common complaint. “I’d recommend a brain scan and therapy.”

 

“If you are going to joke-”

 

Dr. Hoppett holds up his hands. “Not a joke. It’s a pretty big accusation you’re making and it’s best to rule out Capgras before you start to get too deep into it.”

 

“Let’s assume my mental faculties are well in order,” Mycroft sneers.

 

“Then why do you suspect him?”

 

“Because for a man whose human remains are under lock and key in a very secure facility, Sherlock Holmes seemed all too chatty when I visited Baker Street this morning.”

 

Dr. Hoppett strokes his chin. “Well I can see your problem. Any changes in behaviour? Differences in recollection?”

 

Mycroft shrugs. “Predicting my brother’s behaviour has never been my strong point. His memories seem to be in order. My problem is that I don’t know whether he’s really my brother or not.”

 

“Oh he’s still your brother,” Dr. Hoppett points out. “Whether he’s the one you’ve grown up with is a little trickier.”

 

“There is a very real chance he has killed my brother and taken his place,” Mycroft points out.

 

Dr. Hoppett shrugs. “Not necessarily. When the same two people try and share a world, the universe gets a bit annoyed about it. There’s every chance he died by accident and the duplicate saw a chance to start a new life.”

 

“Accident?” Mycroft sneers. “A rather large coincidence. The universe is rarely so lazy.”

 

Dr. Hoppett slaps the desk, eyes bright. “That’s where you’re wrong sir! The universe is incredibly lazy! Think of it: more universes than a man can even comprehend, all connected, people moving between them and changing them… now I don’t believe in gods and fate, but the universe has to play dirty just to keep functioning. That’s why duplicates don’t survive long in the same world, why superheroes and psychics can exist, all while the most astonishing coincidences happen all the time. Just as the human body will do extreme things to survive, the universe will break its normal rules just to keep functioning.”

 

“So can you find out if my brother is… the one he should be?”

 

Dr. Hoppett’s eyes gleam. “Nothing would give me more pleasure than a chance to examine both living and dead versions of your brother, but I’m afraid I have neither office space nor budget. And, being honest, I’d achieve very little. You know him better than I ever could and if he’s a duplicate and not dangerous… well… isn’t any brother better than no brother?”

 

“No,” snaps Mycroft, standing up. “As I thought, you’re wasting my time.”

 

“I never claimed to be a detective. I’m an expert in the theoretical nature of Hives. Perhaps-“ his voice turns sour, “-I would have more practical knowledge if I had ever been allowed first-hand experience.”

 

Mycroft blinks in surprise. “You’ve never used one?”

 

“Of course not,” snaps Hoppett. “I’m subject to the rules of Level Nine Security.”

 

Level Nine Security applies to every person who has official, government approved knowledge of the Hives. It bans anyone using the knowledge to their advantage and specifically bans contact or use of any known Hive without express written approval from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister requires written permission from Mycroft.

 

“Then where does your information come from?”

 

“I’m very clever indeed. Don’t underestimate me Mr. Holmes,” the genial tone is back, “I’ve devoted my life to the Hives and if your brother has got mixed up in them I bet you anything the universe is doing everything it can to untangle the knots. Unfortunately your original brother may have been a casualty. I recommend you take my wife’s advice, whatever it was.”

 

Mycroft frowns. “You said… psychic.”

 

“Well, yes, I rather married the work. Angela is a psychic. I can give you files and files of empirical, tested evidence as gathered by me. I assure you, we’ve never used her powers for our gain. Level Nine, remember.”

 

“Why would the universe… create psychics?”

 

“Not just psychics. All sorts of powers. Exceptionally rare, but it happens. Recently there’s been a spate of stories that I would call… credible. Often it’s because the universe needs something to happen and it’s easier to bend a few rules than break big ones. This recent spate seems connected to a religion. The concept of a goddess known by various names but generally associated with the colour red – Red Angel, Red Princess – who travels throughout various worlds looking for her true home. It’s a story found in every universe I’ve studied, whether as a religion, a fairy tale, or a legend.”

 

“I’ve never heard of it,” Mycroft admits.

 

Hoppett smiles. “That’s why it interested me. However a small following does exist in London. A tiny celebrity-filled cult full of con artists and charlatans, but still the legend continues. As she travels she rights wrongs and saves souls and generally does good. The powers seem to be connected to her. Helping her. From what I can piece together… the powers disappear the second the power has fulfilled its use. It’s my expert opinion that there is indeed a lost woman out there and the universe is invested in returning her home.”

 

“Why would the universe care?”

 

Hoppett shrugs. “Because I imagine the consequences of the things she does are somehow important. People will move among worlds, stories will spread… there will be some use to it I’m sure.”

 

“And your wife?”

 

“Is one of the people destined to help the Red Goddess. She just knows. It’s thanks to her I’ve pieced the puzzle together. I’m clever, but it’s a big leap from Hives to superpowers.”

 

“She said… I had to tell my brother to administer poison on a certain day.”

 

“Then tell him. It may be the key to the whole affair.”

 

There seems little else he can get of any use from the man. Mycroft stands.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“My pleasure.”

 

Mycroft is almost at the door when Hoppett calls out again. “I’ve sent several memos to you before Sir. I’ve conducted a study of technological levels of various alternate universes correlated against general population knowledge of the Hives. We are at our technological peak – science, social media - it’s only a matter of time before Hives become general knowledge.”

 

“Yes,” Mycroft sighs. “I’m starting to fear that.”

 

 

--

 

 

Of all the cases John shares with Sherlock in the time after Sherlock’s return but before his wedding, only one doesn’t get mentioned on the blog.

 

There’s no big conspiracy, it’s just that from John’s point of view it was an unremarkable case that turned out to be an uninteresting dead-end. There were no victims, no bad guys, and no adventure. Sherlock has taken great pains to ensure he never discovers otherwise.

 

For once the client doesn’t come to Sherlock, he finds her himself. In the dentist of all places.

 

In fact, the client is his dentist.

 

It doesn’t take a genius to recognise when the person who is about to have free reign over your mouth doesn’t have her mind totally on the job. Sherlock is all too happy to listen (although he can’t actually respond.)

 

“It’s so embarrassing,” she repeats for the third time. “I mean no one expects…”

 

Sherlock attempts to make an encouraging noise.

 

“It’s my sister, Mr. Holmes. I think she’s… she’s stolen money from me. And my parents, though they’re trying to hide it. All the money for my wedding.”

 

She chokes up.

 

“I followed her to this place… it looked like a youth club but it had a security guard. I tried to follow her inside but I was made to leave. It turns out it’s a church of sorts. I asked her about it and she only says that I won’t understand.

 

“I went to the website but there’s no information, just an application for an introductory session which costs almost a thousand pounds. It’s called Crimson Angel. Mr Holmes… I think she’s been sucked into a cult and I don’t… I can’t find out any information. She’s stealing money to… progress in this place. Will you help me?”

 

Sherlock agrees. At least, he tries to.

 

 

 --

 

 

Arousal in dreams always seems stronger than in real life. The brain is creating the sensation in the mind while the body rushes to replicate the sensation in the flesh. No wonder people wake up panting, moving their body desperately, trapped half in dream world and half in reality, chasing the intense pleasure.

 

Sherlock wakes up face down on the bed, rutting into the sheets, chasing the fading feel of hands against his skin and lips against his flesh. He can barely breathe as he chants John’s name into the pillow and he’s too far gone too use his hands, he needs to just fuck something…

 

He comes in spurts across the bedsheets (thankfully having pushed his pyjamas down in his sleep) and rolls away from the mess. He sucks in oxygen desperately, panting from both the orgasm and the lack of oxygen.

 

It’s when his mind finally clears that he has the most worrying realisation.

 

In the moments leading up to the kiss in the dream, there’d been an elephant in the room.

 

He’s had a sex dream about the wrong John.

 

 

--

 

 

John is more than happy to join him in his investigations although, bafflingly, he seems more bothered by the idea of Sherlock doing something as mundane as going to the dentist than any mystery cult stuff. Still, he wants to be there for when Sherlock inevitably pisses off Crimson Angel’s security guards and needs backup.  

 

He is less than overjoyed when Sherlock explains the plan: which is for John to make as much noise as possible at the front of the building by pretending to be a relation of one of their devotees.

Nevertheless John does exactly what he’s told, raising a hell of a racket and yelling for them to release his sister at once.

 

It’s already dark and all Sherlock has to do is wait in the shadows until John is physically thrown out before slipping into the building behind them.

 

Inside there is a spacious reception area with a polished floor and a staircase. To the left is a door called ‘The Miracle Sphere’ and he can hear faint voices from inside. He opens the door and slips inside.

 

The Miracle Sphere turns out to be an impressively large hall, set out with at least two hundred chairs in a semi-circle around a stage. Everything is red, the chairs, the curtains, even the lamp-light, which is a classic way to disorientate an audience. Almost immediately he feels fuzzy headed.

 

On the stage are two thrones, honest to god thrones, with red velvet and black wood. A man and a woman sit on them, but they are by no means regal, clearly believing themselves to be alone. They are talking in low voices and seem to be going over some paperwork, looking like two students in the middle of a play rehearsal.

 

The man is about thirty, a classic hipster with a huge beard, red checked shirt and skinny jeans. The woman is dressed overtly, with heavy gold bangles and a see through red dress which offers the audience full view of her breasts. She looks exactly like one would imagine a cult priestess to look, although she’s still young, barely in her mid-twenties.

 

Sherlock is still but he doesn’t try to hide. The man notices him first.

 

“Hail!” he booms. “We have a new supplicant! Welcome, friend, welcome! Come to me, let me see inside your mind to find out what you really believe in…”

 

Sherlock walks slowly towards the stage.

 

“I’m not a supplicant, as you well know. You just pushed the carefully hidden panic button on that horrendous throne. Security won’t come, my friend is keeping them very occupied.”

 

“Journalist?” the woman demands.

 

“An interested party.”

 

She waves her hand. “We have nothing to hide. We have done nothing wrong. I presume you know who we are?”

 

Sherlock shrugs. “Liars and fraudsters, I imagine.”

 

The woman draws herself up, pushing her breasts out in a way that’s probably meant to distract him.

 

“I am Selena, Priestess of Clarity, Follower of the Crimson Angel and Servant of the Red Princess. My colleague is Marcus, Priest of True Faith.”

 

“And I’m Sherlock Holmes,” Sherlock sneers. “That detective who wears a funny hat and faked his own death.”

 

“There’s nothing to detect here,” Marcus shrugs. “Whether you believe in what we do or not, we are entirely open in our dealings and rigorous in our accounting.”

 

“Perhaps we should explain a little of what we do?” Selena offers, sitting back like a businesswoman negotiating a deal. “We believe that the universe has doors to other worlds-”

 

Sherlock stills. He was not expecting that.

 

“-and that there are two godlike women who roam these worlds attempting to find their true home. The Crimson Angel is the first, a warrior and wise-woman, and the second, the Red Princess is prophesised to one day take her place. In order to help these goddesses find their true path some of their servants are born with special powers that only have one purpose – to aid their journey home. These people are born across all worlds and there are followers everywhere.”

 

“And naturally, you believe yourself to have these powers. What’s his?” Sherlock asks. “The ability to find obscure ale brands?”

 

But his mind is churning. The red woman, the tramp who worshipped the colour… And doesn’t he have proof in superpowers, at least that one madman truly has them?

 

Marcus smirks. “You mock, Mr. Holmes, but you don’t dismiss us. You are clearly a wise man. My powers are the reason the church was created; I can look into people’s heads and see what they truly believe in. Only true believers advance far in this church.”

 

“And rich ones,” Sherlock adds. “What do I believe in then?”

 

Marcus tilts his head. “You are interesting. You believe in other worlds, but you don’t believe in deities or demons. You fear a human devil and worship a human god.”

 

Sherlock shrugs. “Speaking as someone who spent a very profitable teenage holiday as a seaside psychic to fleece tourists, I can honestly tell you I could have come up with better than that.”

 

“I’m not wrong though,” Marcus says.

 

“And you?” he asks Selena.

 

“I am gifted with clarity,” she explains. “I merely have to touch someone and I know the answers to the problems they can’t unravel themselves.” She wrinkles her nose. “I try not to take the tube, for obvious reasons.”

 

She stands and climbs down the stage steps, her hips swaying as she does, and comes to stand in front of him, a little too close for comfort. She looks up at him, considering, and then as hesitantly as one might reach out to pet a new dog, she touches the tips of her fingers to his forehead for just a few seconds.

 

Nothing happens, but she smiles and withdraws the hand.

 

She turns and walks back to the stage, reclaiming her throne.

 

“This morning,” she says, after a dramatic pause, “it was him you were dreaming of. You are capable of loving twice over, you’ll only be able to fight it for so long.”

 

Sherlock keeps his face blank, but there’s no way she can know that. None at all.

 

“What do you mean?” he demands.

 

Selena shrugs. “I’m not psychic. I just… know the words that solve the questions people carry around with them.” She wrinkles her nose. “Have I just decoded your sex dream?”

 

“Believe me, I have more important things to worry about-”

 

She holds up her hands. “That was only a taster. You want the big stuff solved I need more time, and that costs money.”

 

Marcus smirks. “You believe us though. We might have a new follower, Selena.”

 

Selena grins. “It’s laughable isn’t it? A cult that’s actually true.”

 

“You’re still fleecing people out of their money.”

 

Selena shrugs. “They get their deepest, darkest questions solved and they get faith. Not a bad exchange. Speaking as someone who grew up feeling like a freak, I’d have given anything to have someone look inside my head and tell me that there wasn’t anything wrong with me.”

 

“You’ve had this gift since childhood?”

 

Selena nods. “The first time it happened was at school. They made us sit in alphabetical order and I was next to this girl, Nell. For some reason our hands bumped and these words just spilled out of me…”

 

At the name from Moriarty’s tale, Sherlock freezes.

 

“Nell Ailis?!”

 

“Yeah. Anyway, I just said really loudly ‘When it happens you have to keep running, keep running and never give up.’ Everyone just stared and she didn’t have a clue what I meant. It was the first time it ever happened and the only time someone hasn’t understood what I meant. From then on I was the school freak, and it only got worse. By the time I left I had no qualifications and no friends.”

 

Marcus reaches across to take Selena’s hand. “And then she met me. I was already a follower of the Crimson Angel, trying to spread the word, and to find someone like me was great. It was her idea to run the religion like a business. Her gifts were something people would pay a fortune for. And once we dressed the set up a bit and made it a bit dramatic, they did.”

 

“So you’ve sold out for money and a throne?” Sherlock asks.

 

“And to spread the word,” Marcus says warningly.

 

Nell Ailis. How is she connected to this? Of course, there’s one way of finding out.

 

“Would you be able to answer a question for me, with your powers?” he asks carefully.

 

Selena’s smug expression returns. “For a price. A five second session – which I already gave you for free – usually takes at least fifty hours of work for Crimson Angel and donations of up for thirty thousand pounds. A thirty second session-“

 

“If I answer your questions I will go away and never darken your door again. The person I’m working for will learn nothing. Believe me, there are plenty of people who would pay a great deal to eject me from their lives.”

 

Selena and Marcus share a look.

 

“Nothing of what we’ve said will get out?”

 

Sherlock nods and, at length, Selena stands and returns to the spot in front of him. Her cool fingers touch his head again.

 

“I want to know-” he begins.

 

“- doesn’t work like that,” she snaps. “Just be quiet, let your mind wander.”

 

Twenty seconds pass, then thirty, and finally, just before the one minute mark she pulls away.

 

“The man you seek is like us. He’s a servant of the Crimson Angel whether he knows it or not-“

 

Sherlock remembers the way Moriarty understood Red’s sign of faith. He knew what it meant.

 

“When we have served the Crimson Angel as we are meant to, our powers will disappear. His will too.”

 

So Sherlock needed to somehow force Moriarty to act? And then he’d just be a human without superpowers, a human Sherlock could beat – if Moriarty didn’t accidentally trap himself in an alternate world.

 

Suddenly, Marcus cries out.

 

“My head! It- it feels – I can’t-!”

 

He sounds so alarmed that Selena rushes back to the stage where Marcus has fallen from his chair, clutching his head. She drops to her knees and places her hands on his head.

 

Then she shrieks.

 

“It’s not working!” she howls. “I can’t feel anything!”

 

“The powers have gone!”

 

As one they turned to glare at Sherlock. “YOU!” Marcus yells.

 

“I think you’ve just fulfilled your duty to the Crimson Angel,” Sherlock grins, because it finally feels like progress.

 

Selena does not take this as well as a faithful servant of the Crimson Angel should. She leaps down from the stage and charges Sherlock, punching him square in the nose before he can stop her.

 

“Without my powers this place is nothing!” she shrieks. “GET OUT!”

 

Sherlock moves quickly, leaving the two cult leaders howling in misery over the loss of income they are now facing and – dripping trailing red blood along the red floor - makes a hasty exit past the security guards.

 

He finds John waiting in their agreed meeting point.

 

“What the hell happened to you?” he gapes, taking out a packet of tissues from a pocket and trying to stem the blood.

 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Sherlock says, in a pathetic way.

 

 

--

 

 

It’s the night before the wedding and Sherlock thinks he may never sleep again. Almost every moment in John’s presence is a confusing mix of despair and fascination, and Selena’s words are haunting him.

 

You’re capable of loving twice over…

 

He makes his violin screech every time her tempting words come back to him. He can’t let himself fall in love with this version of John. It’s just… confusion. The wedding planning is twisting his mind. He chooses where each of John’s relatives are going to sit as if he doesn’t know them, hasn’t met them. John never even questions how Sherlock knows about his cousin’s citrus allergy when he plans the menu.

 

And then there’s Sholto. Sholto, who must have existed in his John’s reality, but who was never even mentioned. How close had his John been to Sholto? How close was this John?

 

Yes, he is jealous. Jealous twice over. Jealous squared.

 

He tortures the violin until the noise in his head calms.

 

This is what Moriarty wanted. If Sherlock allows himself to think like this, Moriarty will win. No, John will marry Mary tomorrow and that will be the end of it. Sherlock has been the good friend, he’ll be the perfect best man too.

 

It’s not easy to be the perfect best man when you know the groom is attracted to you…

 

Oh, the stag night had shown that. Of course, if the first John had been sexually attracted to him, odds were this one was too. He’d just assumed that John hadn’t pursued it, had preferred the friendship…

 

Instead John has been using Sherlock’s blind spot against him. John is so hard for him to read, hides his deepest thoughts so easily, that Sherlock has entirely missed them.

 

The hand on the knee, those looks of hunger and guilt completely on show as the alcohol removed the mask.

 

Sherlock attacks the violin. There’s a shout from downstairs as Mrs. Hudson finally loses her temper with him, but he still has another hour before she truly snaps.

 

It’s three in the morning, in nine hours John will be married and in twenty four John will be on his honeymoon. That will be the end of it. No more confusion, no more friendship, just a battle that he’ll keep John out of at all costs. Sherlock Holmes will put John Watson – in all his forms – behind him.

Chapter Text

After Sherlock’s Return

 

Sherlock stands on the rooftop and takes London in again.

 

Just being back here energises him. It may be a different version but they’re still the same city. He wonders at the differences between the two, the changes that prevented Sherlock and John from meeting at the funeral in this world. There will be small threads of difference winding through the solid frame of the familiar streets.

 

It’s still early afternoon, hours before he will see John, which gives Sherlock time to start work. He has not forgotten Moriarty’s threat and he will not allow himself to be distracted.

 

It starts with a visit to Milton Gate.

 

It’s the third time Sherlock has investigated this seemingly insignificant shop. The first version led him to Moriarty. The second he’d gone to after fleeing from the alternate’s John’s flat. John had said that he needed to get Moriarty to administer the poison himself, and to do that Sherlock needed to know as much about the few clues he had as possible. He’d found the shop much the same as the first version: abandoned, the only difference being that the teenage girl’s bedroom was empty.

 

As predicted, this version is vastly more telling. It’s a family business, selling antiques, and has been in business for nearly thirty years (there’s a sign telling him as much).

 

And, displayed prominently in the shop window, is a missing person poster.

 

The picture is of a red-haired girl in her mid-teens. She’s sitting at a piano and is smiling at the camera. The small note underneath reads:

 

Nell Ailis (14)

Vanished 15th September 1994. Last seen in the Covent Garden Area.

 

What did Moriarty tell him? Nell hadn’t lived above that shop but one very like it. This world was the one he’d meant. Not only is the story Moriarty told true, but he has accidentally given away a piece of his history. He has brought Sherlock to the universe his little story originated.

 

Sherlock goes inside and spends a short while looking at a jewellery case. After an acceptable length of time has passed, the woman behind the counter stands up and comes over.

 

She’s tall with a sporty figure and bushy brown curls. Her round face is just showing the first hints of aging. Sherlock runs an eye over her: not many friends, no relationship (one recent bad one), she’s inherited the business and has been chained to it out of her sense of duty.

 

She’d be entirely boring, were it not for her tan.

 

She’s very tanned, in the way John had been whenever he’d come home. If he were deducing a stranger on the street, he’d think she lived abroad. Yet she clearly doesn’t travel and isn’t the sort of person who would use a sunbed. Interesting.

 

“Can I help you?”

 

Sherlock narrows his eyes at her. “You don’t look very much like your sister.”

 

The woman blinks, at once both surprised and wary.

 

“You’re here about that?”

 

“I saw the poster in the window.”

 

“Oh,” she relaxes slightly. “Yes. We took after different parents.”

 

This is an understatement. Nell Ailis was waif-like and fair, with red hair and a freckled face. Only their matching brown eyes connect the two sisters.

 

“You’re the detective,” she says.

 

He introduces himself and he doesn’t miss on her face, though she’s quick to hide it. It’s a mixture of mistrust and dislike, and while that’s not an unusual reaction from people, usually he’s done something to earn it.

 

“Mina Ailis. And you’re not here about my sister, are you? You’re here about Jim.”

 

First name terms with Moriarty, better and better.

 

“He mentioned your sister once, I was curious as to his connection to her.”

 

She shrugs. “There wasn’t much of one. He lived on this street for a few years when we were kids.”

 

“Have you seen him since then?”

 

She looks him right in the eyes. “No. And I never had anything to do with any of that stuff that’s been in the news.”

 

He can’t tell if she’s lying, which only interests him more. The key to getting information from her will be the sister.

 

“I’m not interested in him right now,” he lies. “I am interested in your sister. It sounded… an impossible mystery. Will you tell me the story?”

 

Mina looks unsure for a moment, but her eyes flicker towards the poster in the window. It’s not easy to drum up interest in an old missing person story; she can’t afford to turn away a willing detective.

 

“Fine,” she sighs. “But you won’t find her.”

 

A very odd statement from the relative of a missing person, especially one who doesn’t seem to be faking their grief and worry.

 

She leads Sherlock through the back of the shop, past stored stock, and up the staircase to the living quarters.

 

This is very much a home. Family photos hang on the walls, new carpet has recently been laid, and there’s the smell of soup coming from the kitchen. They pass the living room and he glances inside to see that the couch is currently a sickbed, with a teenage boy coughing away in restless sleep. She closes the living room door firmly, denying Sherlock a closer look, and leads Sherlock to the kitchen where he takes a seat at the table and she makes two mugs of tea.

 

“Son?” he asks, inclining his head to the living room.

 

It’s not a son, nor any relation, that much is obvious. There is something shady about whoever she’s hiding, or she would have offered some casual explanation.

 

“Yes,” she lies mildly, placing the mug in front of him and sitting down. “Go on then. What do you want to know?”

 

“Tell me about your sister.”

 

Mina shrugs, taking a sip of tea. “She was a typical sister: four years younger than me and a pain in the arse most of the time. She nicked my clothes, annoyed me when I was trying to do my homework, and came into my bedroom whenever my friends were around. The last thing I ever said to her was to turn her damn cassette player down.”

 

She huffs in astonishment.

 

“A cassette player. The last time I saw my sister was pre-CDs. She never got to have a mobile phone or a computer, she never went on a plane; she lost her normal life. I never got to become her friend.”

 

Sherlock frowns. If he was a dull detective, like Donovon, he’d already have this woman in the squad car. She knows what happened to her sister but is still keeping p this missing person pretence.

 

“You think she’s dead?” he asks.

 

A look of true despair crosses Mina’s face. “No. I think she’s alive but that, wherever she is, she’s not coming back.”

 

Interesting. Especially considering Mina’s mysterious tan.

 

Mina stands and goes over to a shelf of cookbooks. A photo frame is resting in front of the books and she hands it to Sherlock.

 

“That’s her.”

 

The picture is of three children. Nell is on the left, aged about eight, and Mina – trying to look cool - is on the right. Between them Jim Moriarty, unmistakeable even at nine years old, grins up at Sherlock. One arm is casually wrapped around Nell’s shoulders, the other hand is giving the camera the most incongruous peace sign ever recorded.

 

Is it the Moriarty that he knows? Or is it the one that died on the rooftop?

 

“How well did you know him?” he asks softly.

 

Mina shrugs. “It’s not some epic saga. His mother moved here and rented a flat above the bakery opposite: worked there every waking hour. It’s such a small alley… Nell and I used to screw up pieces of paper with secret messages on and throw them from our bedroom window into his. He used to steal little things from the bakery, odd things like bread rolls and he’d throw them across to us. He was just a kid to me but he was Nell’s friend and it was a bit like our families became one... him not having a dad and us not having a mum.”

 

A fond look crosses her face, strange as it seems, for the boy who would grow up to be a murderer and criminal like none ever seen before.

 

“After Nell… whatever happened… he was upset, you know? I know on the news it keeps going on about all those things he did, but all I remember is that he cried until his eyes were red. And then his mother died suddenly – tetanus – and he had to go back to Ireland and live with his dad. Maybe his dad was what messed him up. I bet he was a monster, that he did something to Jim’s mind…”

 

This touching loyalty to a man that Sherlock considers not to have an empathetic bone in his body aside, he’s interested in this life history. He needs to know which Moriarty it was.

 

“Did he know about the Hives?” he asks suddenly.

 

It’s a half guess but it pays off. Mina knocks over her tea and fusses over the mess to buy herself time.

 

“Sorry… what were you saying? Hives?”

 

“You’re not talking to a…Muggle here-” John would be proud of that remembered word, “- I have first-hand experience. Not only that but your sister disappeared from one of the busiest areas of one of the world’s most populated cities and yet it seems the only thing you’ve done to search for her is stick dusty poster into a shop window. You don’t think she’s coming back. And then there’s your tan – you spend a lot of the time in the sunshine for someone who barely leaves this building. Either you’re going somewhere sunny or you’ve got a sunbed stashed away up here.”

 

Mina says nothing for a long time, but she eventually stands and leads Sherlock from the room.

 

There is a third door on this level, a bedroom once upon a time, but when she opens the door Sherlock is greeted by the sight of shelves covering every wall. There are tables as well, all covered in… junk. He looks around at the strange collection taking up space. Leaves and twigs sit next to broke pieces of wood, rocks, chipped bits of pottery, broken bits of furniture, strange knickknacks, and even precious jewellery.

 

“A collection of Hives…” he says. “How did you find them all?”

 

Mina smiles fondly. “My dad. He had a… weird knack for it. We used to call it a superpower. He just could spot them a mile away, and he took them for safekeeping. By day he ran this boring little shop and by night he explored new worlds and – when we were old enough – we went along too. We could have lunch on a tropical island, or visit a king for dinner, or do all manner of amazing things. He found us the most advanced world’s to heal us and bought us the strangest foods home for dinner…”

 

“When Nell disappeared… we knew something had happened with the Hives. Dad knew his collection well, knew what was missing. We found the remains of the paper-knife in the fireplace. Too burned to work anymore. Nell wouldn’t have been able to get back…”

 

“And you think she did it herself?”

 

Mina shrugs. “I’ve thought about it a hundred times over. I’ve always hoped it was an accident…”

 

“And now I’m just waiting,” she swallows.

 

“What for?”

 

She shrugs. “Nell understood the Hives. If this Hive was closed to her she’d have kept looking. She was the most determined person I’ve ever met. She’d keep going until she got home.”

 

Sherlock thinks of all those infinite worlds and the odds of finding the same one twice. The odds against it must be a number too big to comprehend.

 

But he has an answer. The Moriarty that has done this to him is from this universe. He grew up here and he tricked Sherlock into choosing this world. He wants to fight in his own territory.

 

It doesn’t explain the Moriarty who died on the rooftop though. He clearly believed this was his own world and didn’t know about the Hives. But Moriarty has said he’d got rid of the Moriarty from Sherlock’s world. Perhaps he hadn’t killed him, perhaps he’d just… moved him. Perhaps he woke up one day in his own bed and – everything being exactly the same – never questioned that he might have been transported to another world by an alternate version of himself.

 

Sherlock finally has – if not an actual poison – the start of something he can use.

 


Chapter Text

 

 

The problem with Janine is keeping her entertained. It’s a problem he’s never faced before because if people couldn’t entertain themselves he had no interest in them. John was always entertained by Sherlock’s very existence (or silly YouTube videos, when Sherlock’s very existence was being annoying.)

 

But Janine expects to go to theatres and museums, and to discuss it all afterwards as though they hadn’t just had the exact same experience. When they’re at 221b (home, he must think of it as home) she expects to be talked to all the time. If he doesn’t she starts her own strange little projects which are sometimes ignorable (strange-scented pampering sessions in the bathroom) and sometimes intolerable (like moving things around: doesn’t she know that the layout of this flat is the only clue he has to his previous life here with John?)

 

“You moved the chair,” she points out after a minor squabble about some of the ‘old fashioned’ display cases. “I thought a bit of de-cluttering wouldn’t hurt?”

 

He has nothing to do but check for replies on John’s blog for the tenth time that morning. He decides it’s probably a good idea to entertain her again.

 

“The bedroom?” he suggests.

 

All too late he notices the gleam in her eye.

 

“Janine-“

 

She grins wickedly. “What?! You say ‘bedroom’ in that voice and you don’t expect that to grab a girl’s attention?”

 

People who turn everything into a joke about sex are so tedious.

 

“Let’s redecorate it.”

 

She’s surprised, but it’s a good tactic. It’s natural for her to want to stamp some claim on his life and he’d rather it was part of the flat that John has never really been in and won’t eventually see when he comes back from his… sex holiday.

 

“Won’t Mrs. Hudson mind?”

 

Mrs. Hudson will most assuredly mind, but since the previous version of her tenant shot holes in the wall, Sherlock 2.0 redecorating can only be an improvement. He waves the worry away.

 

“What colour?” Janine asks.

 

He shrugs. “Does it matter?”

 

This makes her laugh and seems to score another point in favour of his heterosexuality.

 

Six hours later the bedroom is a decidedly patchy pale blue. Janine has stripped down to little more than her underwear and one of his least favourite shirts. He’s wearing jeans and a t-shirt he normally sleeps in; Janine has made her appreciation fully known. She is covered in far more paint than she needs to be considering her motor skills are perfectly up to the task of simple painting. He supposes she’s hoping it might turn into something sexual.

 

“Shower?” she all but purrs.

 

“Hmm?” he has been trying to concentrate. “Oh. No. There are still a few bits to finish off.”

 

“They aren’t the only thing in need of finishing off.”

 

Another sexual joke. Dull.

 

Eventually she sighs fondly, playfully dabs paint onto his nose, and heads out to shower with an exaggerated sway of her hips.

 

He waits until the shower is on and he is finally alone, then he goes over to John’s chair and sits, inhaling the smell of home.

 

 

--

 

 

Mycroft wants to hurt Mary Watson in ways that defy sense. He looks at Sherlock, unconscious in his hospital bed, pale, lifeless and utterly vulnerable, and considers making the call. He doesn’t care about her baby, he doesn’t care about the wrath of John Watson – the utter fool – and he doesn’t care about the damage to his career. He wants her death to take years. He wants to hurt her in ways that only he - with his mind-power and without the naive streak Sherlock has - could ever invent.

 

It’s an irrational emotion.

 

The man in front of him may only be his brother in DNA, for a start. He’s already seen the dead body of Sherlock Holmes, he remembers the numbness he’d felt and the sudden rush of agony. This Sherlock may have caused that.

 

And Mycroft only has himself to blame. He’d loosened the security around Sherlock, hoping to give the imposter enough rope to hang himself. The threat posed by Mary hadn’t been spotted until it was too late.

 

His face twists as conflicting emotions consume him. They’re all anger, but they surge in different directions. He’s angry at the man in front of him, angry at his true brother, angry at Mary, angry at John, angry at himself.

 

He throws his phone across the room before he can do something regrettable. The crack as it hits the wall calms him and he closes his eyes to gather himself.

 

“Judging by your expression you’re struggling with an emotion,” Sherlock rasps. Mycroft’s eyes snap open and he finds Sherlock awake, looking at him with grim satisfaction. “Or perhaps you’re experiencing some sort of unpleasant stomach upset.”

 

He waves an imperious hand at the machinery. “If it’s the latter do feel free to hook yourself up. I can really recommend the morphine.”

 

“I’m sure you can,” Mycroft murmurs disapprovingly. “However I’m not here for your… banter.

 

“If it’s about the shooting, I’ve dealt with it.” He glares meaningfully at Mycroft.

 

“Yes. John is moving back to 221b as we speak, tell me was the gun shot worth it?”

 

It’s a cheap shot but the look in Sherlock’s eyes says it all.

 

Sherlock is in love with John Watson. It’s not exactly a surprise - by all accounts Sherlock announced it during his best man's speech and the only person in the audience who didn’t notice was John himself – but it brings the anger boiling back up. Mycroft wants to shake him, give him the beating he deserves for his stupidity, his weakness, because he knows that whatever mess this version of Sherlock has caused, it was done out of love.

 

The fool!

 

“That’s not why I’m here,” Mycroft says, forcing his voice to remain smooth. “I’m here because I want the truth.”

 

“What truth?”

 

Mycroft leans forward and speaks in his most threatening tone.

 

“The truth.”

 

It doesn’t normally work on Sherlock, but it’s worth a go.

 

Sherlock stares at him for a long while, calculating, and then he drops his head back onto the pillow.

 

“I always knew the second body was going to be hard to explain. How long have you known?”

 

“For certain? Not until now. My real brother might have fallen in love eventually… god help me I think he was on the edge of it… but he would have fought it longer. I want you to tell me the truth. Everything. Or I assure you, the gunshot will be something you look back on with fondness.”

 

Sherlock doesn’t speak for a long time. Then he shrugs.

 

“I am your brother. I have all the same memories of being your brother as he had. As far as I can tell the only difference in our timeline was that I met John Watson twelve years ago.”

 

Mycroft wrinkles his nose. “During your homeless phase?”

 

“My network is considerably cheaper to run than your CCTV monstrosity. Yes. Then.”

 

“And?”

 

Sherlock shrugs. Winces at the movement.

 

“I shan’t tell you. Probably would give you a real stomach upset.”

 

The awful paint currently adorning Sherlock’s bedroom tells Mycroft all he needs to know. Sherlock has always had a terrible soft spot for domesticity provided it can be put aside for chaos on a regular basis.

 

“And what happened?”

 

“Moriarty happened.”

 

So John Watson died and Sherlock went on a universe hopping mission to find another one and kill off his other self. The query shows on his face.

 

“I… made a deal with the devil. I was brought here. I didn’t know the other Sherlock would die, I tried to die in his place. But there was an accident…”

 

Mycroft has gone over and over the reports. It was an accident, to the point even he can’t see how it would have been planned. But still…

 

“And you just decided to take his place?”

 

Sherlock shrugs. Winces again. “Why not? It would save everyone a great deal of pain.”

 

“And give you exactly what you were hoping for.”

 

To Mycroft’s surprise this arch statement riles Sherlock more than anything else he’s said. Sherlock struggles to sit up in his indignant state and only the threat of a nurse gets him to keep still.

 

“That’s not how it works!” Sherlock hisses, panting at the exertion and pain. “He’s not the same man. I thought, at first, I thought it was logical, that I could love him. But he’s someone else, someone I have no right to-“

 

“And then you fell in love with him all over again. How… trite. Do you care about the chaos you’ve caused? The hurt you’ve done?”

 

“I had no choice! John’s in danger- I have to protect him.”

 

“From what?” Mycroft demands.

 

For a second Sherlock opens his mouth, looking like a man desperate to make his last confession, but then he closes it and slumps back, defeated.

 

“I can’t tell you. Involving you is against the rules.”

 

“A game?” Mycroft hisses, knowing all too well what that means…

 

Moriarty is involved after all.

 

A new anger rises, but it’s a weak, tired one full of self-loathing. He’s been so blind, how could he not notice that there was a game going on around him while he bogged himself down in suspicion and grief? He’s allowed himself to become a pawn.

 

No more.

 

His brother is dead. But the man in front of him is also his brother. He can grieve for one and thank god for the second chance he has been given with the other. Mycroft will mourn for his brother in private, in an almost unseemly ugly way, but the fact remains that there is another living and breathing version of his Sherlock Holmes to be cared for. To write this one off is illogical.

 

This settled in his mind, Mycroft stands.

 

“Leaving so soon?”

 

“Yes, well the world doesn’t resolve around you,” Mycroft says with a bow of his head. “You will resolve the… issue?” He waves vaguely knowing full well Sherlock understands that he’s referring to Mary.

 

“Magnussen?” Sherlock asks, deliberately misreading him.

 

“Sherlock…” it’s a warning. “Leave it be.”

 

No Sherlock in existence would agree to that, of course, and Mycroft knows it.

 

“Don’t do anything irrational,” is Sherlock’s only comment, referring to Mary. He no doubt knows full well his odds of getting Mycroft to agree are equally dire.

 

“For the time being,” is his only promise. “But she cannot be allowed to continue operating.”

 

“I will deal with it,” Sherlock hisses.

 

Mycroft shrugs minutely and is about to go when he remembers something.

 

“I have a message for you, by the way.”

 

Sherlock raises a brow.

 

’The poison must be administered on the twenty-seventh’ does that mean anything to you?”

 

It does. Sherlock is struggling upright and Mycroft glances through the window in search of a nurse.

 

“Who told you that? Who were they?”

 

A twist of the mouth, a slight frown. “A psychic. Rest, Sherlock.”

 

He leaves Sherlock to this puzzle, alerts his people to ensure this message doesn’t prompt another escape, and stalks his way down the corridor to the exit.

 

In some ways he’s relieved to know that he can trust this man with his brother’s face. No version of Sherlock can lie to Mycroft, much less outwit him and so Mycroft is inclined to believe the story.

 

Which is even more terrifying because Magnussen is after Mycroft, that much is clear, and he’s going to go through Sherlock to get to him. Anyone with eyes knows the way to Sherlock is via John Watson and, up until today, Mycroft would have believed Sherlock to be rational enough to resist such obvious manipulation. But this Sherlock might as well have a target on his back. There seems to be nothing he won’t do or sacrifice for John.

 

If he is willing to overlook a gunshot to the chest out of his love, there is nothing in the world to stop Magnussen getting to Mycroft.

 

 

--

 

 

For the first time in a long time, John is living with Sherlock again.

 

Sometimes, if he fantasises, he can imagine that nothing has really changed. John is sitting in his chair, Sherlock is lying on the sofa (he would prefer to sit in the chair, but recuperation is apparently only achieved by laying down on the sofa and being as boring as possible) and Sherlock can imagine that the last few years haven’t happened. 221b starts to feel like home with John in it. He watches John’s routine, how it must have always been before, how they both fit into this place.

 

John still gets up at six and Sherlock listens every morning for the familiar steps in the hall as John goes to shower. The same food John made before is now made in this new kitchen (though more carefully because it’s functioning as Sherlock’s laboratory too).

 

This is how it should be, how Sherlock wants it to be.

 

Until he reminds himself that it’s all an illusion. John isn’t back here permanently, he’s here until his marriage is fixed and then he will be gone for good. This is extra time, and Sherlock is grateful for it, but he can’t let himself think it’s anything more.

 

Mentions of Mary leave John tense, though he never discusses it. He’s falling for the illusion too, Sherlock knows. It’s easier for him to believe that nothing has changed and that he never left than it is to work on the problem of his marriage.

 

John doesn’t see Mary, which strikes Sherlock as a bad sign. His only comment is that he’ll see her when he needs to (for hospital check-ups and scans) and that he needs time to think. He’s working sporadically again and Sherlock knows there’s some awkwardness about money because Mary is only able to work when John isn’t there and vice versa, yet John still has to pay the mortgage and support her. Sherlock has money but knows better than to make any sort of offer. Despite this stress he’s selfishly pleased that John’s hours now fit his better. John is fooling himself that less time at work means more time keeping an eye on Sherlock and in that Sherlock is happy to lie to himself as well.

 

Two months in and Sherlock is mostly healed, in the exact middle ground between ‘too well to sit around’ and ‘too easily over-exerted’. John has – with a great deal of pleading – allowed him back onto some crime scenes.

 

John finds out about the scan a week in advance. Mary texts (her only means of communication) and he agrees to go. Sherlock finds out a day later when John all too casually mentions the appointment and Sherlock forces himself to smile.

 

“That’s good isn’t it?”

 

John shrugs. “It’ll be nice to see how the baby is growing…”

 

His fists clench. Sherlock knows how this missed time is hurting him.

 

“Are you going to talk to her this time?”

 

“I’ve got nothing to say.”

 

Sherlock merely shrugs, showing his lack of willingness to push the subject. It’s the only way he can prevent the conversation devolving to an argument.

 

He doesn’t want his extra time with John – the last safe time they might have together - filled with fights and bad memories. John will forgive her eventually, he will go back to her and have a good life. Sherlock can keep John’s little family safe and, once Moriarty is dealt with he can say goodbye.

 

He thinks back to the day of that funeral. He knows that what he said then is still true. Love is the only thing that can make him unselfish. God help him, he’s fallen in love with this John as easily as he did the first. He will do whatever it takes to protect him, and that includes protecting him from Sherlock.

 

Thankfully a case comes their way, distracting them from their troubles.

 

It’s a fairly good one too, yet another illusion of their old life. John – desperate not to deal with his own emotions – is happy to share the delusion.

 

It’s difficult and horrifically dangerous, but Sherlock doesn’t have to do any running or anything the might rupture his wound, so John can’t complain. John is practically bubbling over with desire to write the case up, and for the first time in ages his face is free from tension.

 

They crash back into the flat, divest themselves of coats and end up in the kitchen. John gets beers (Sherlock doesn’t normally have them but is in too good a mood not to) and he calls for a Chinese.

 

“I wish to god I’d got a picture of you in that hat,” John grins from where he is now leaning against the fridge. “That would have been a blog entry all on its own. I could have done a photo montage of you in funny hats.”

 

“How much am I going to have to pay you to prevent you from mentioning that it was pink?”

 

“All the money in the world couldn’t stop me telling everyone who’ll listen that it was pink and glittery. You’ll have to work harder than that.” John grins up at him lazily. He’s relaxed and comfortable.

 

And for once Sherlock doesn’t even think about what he does next.

 

His hand closes around John’s wrist and he steps closer, taking all of John’s space, so close that John automatically tilts his head up as Sherlock tilts his down.

 

All too late he realises that his body has been making a deduction all by itself.

 

John’s not had sex in months and Sherlock hasn’t had sex in years, which wouldn’t be a problem had he not got rather used to it before this sex-free spell. He’d reacted on instinct and his brain hadn’t had time to stop him. Now the good part of him, the part unselfish part that would die for John’s happiness is screaming at him to step away. He could still laugh it off.

 

Only John hasn’t pushed him away. He looks a little confused, but happy, like a punter waiting to see the magician’s next trick. He thinks Sherlock… he knows that Sherlock isn’t interested. Doesn’t even connect his actions with anything sexual on Sherlock’s part.

 

Which is too bad because that wicked, desperate part of Sherlock’s mind is screaming loudest of all. Just once. This will be the only time you’ll ever get to kiss John again.

 

Mycroft is right, of course. Sherlock is an addict for this, more than he ever has been for nicotine or cocaine. The little voice is too loud and his good intentions aren’t strong enough.

 

He leans down and kisses him.

 

 

--

 

 

John kissed him back.

 

It’s the only thought that gets Sherlock through the very long night that follows the kiss. He sits in his chair staring up at the ceiling to where John is hiding in his room, almost certainly as wide awake as he.

 

He kissed him back for the shortest amount of time, just long enough to open his mouth and to grip Sherlock’s waist, but long enough to tell Sherlock that this John Watson is no more averse to kissing Sherlock than his other self had been. No completely straight man, no matter how sex-starved, responds to an unexpected kiss from a male friend like that. Even for a second.

 

He wonders if John is up there thinking the exact same thing but with considerably more panic.

 

Mary is the problem, of course. It’s just like John to panic over an incredibly minor infidelity and Sherlock hopes John isn’t stupid enough to mention it to her. Now that he’s rational again, he is focused on getting them back together. If John had responded whole-heartedly, that would be another matter, but he backed away because of his marriage.

 

It’s a good sign.

 

When the answer comes to him, it’s brilliant. A way to spare John embarrassment, to reassert himself as cold and non-sexual, and to remind John that he does still have feelings for Mary.

 

He just has to wait until John dares to face him.  

 

At eight - two hours after John would normally be awake – John enters the living room in a forced, overly casual way that doesn’t hide his tension. He’s ready for a fight, ready for action.

 

“Tea?” he says, glancing over at Sherlock.

 

“Please.”

 

“Right. Good.”

 

He doesn’t even get as far as the kitchen. He stops dead and turns around again, apparently unable to even face tea without clearly the air.

 

“That. Yesterday. What was that?”

 

Sherlock doesn’t move from his chair. He raises a brow.

 

“Did I do it that badly?”

 

“Sherlock…”

 

A sigh.

 

“It was a kiss-“

 

“Why?”

 

Sherlock opens his mouth, but more questions are pouring out of John.

 

“Why that moment? Why did you want to kiss me at all? What about Mary?”

 

‘Because I’ve been waiting three years to kiss you and it might have been my last chance’ isn’t going to go down well.

 

Yes, John kissed him back. Yes, the little voice is screaming that he could have John if he wanted to fight for him, but John is married, John has a baby on the way, and no matter what Mary has done, John is safer with her.

 

“I was proving a point.”

 

Tension in his shoulders. “What point?”

 

“That you wouldn’t be able to kiss someone else without thinking about Mary,” he shrugs self-deprecatingly, “it had to be me afraid, no one else I could get to kiss you at such short notice. As predicted you stormed off and spent the entire night wrecked with guilt. It’s a good sign for your marriage.”

 

John is deathly silent. “You kissed me. For an experiment.”

 

“You’re going to have to make a decision about Mary soon,” Sherlock shrugs. “Just giving you a push.”

 

“Right.” John looks lost for a second, and then closes off completely. “Right.”

 

He goes and pulls on his coat. Sherlock frowns.

 

“Where are you going?”

 

“I’m going to buy a cup of tea,” John snaps. “You can make your own.”

 

 

--

 

 

The shooting of Charles Augustus Magnussen is the only thing Sherlock doesn’t regret, and, standing here at this airfield, he has many.

 

He’s awash with his own failure, failure on so many levels that even he can’t analyse them all.

 

John and Mary are together again, a minor success, but Sherlock will be gone forever and when Moriarty returns he won’t be able to protect them.

 

Perhaps Mary will stand a better chance, she’s stronger, more ruthless than he. Her love for her family will make her more dangerous than Sherlock could ever be. Maybe he can get a message to her, warn her. Perhaps John might live because of her.

 

Perhaps that might be his only success, convincing John to stay with her.

 

Neither of them know what to say. How can he possibly sum up everything he’s feeling? And John doesn’t really believe this is goodbye, Sherlock can see it in his face. It’s a bad situation, certainly, but John watched Sherlock fall to his death. Saw the body. And then Sherlock came back. After that a one way ticket and a plane doesn’t frighten John.

 

But Sherlock fails all the time.

 

He’s not scared of dying, he was prepared to die years ago. Despite it all, he wouldn’t have traded this small piece of extra time for anything. He knows that in theory he could find another Hive and run from this world, begin again somewhere new. But what’s the point? There won’t be another John Watson (he hasn’t the strength to do it again) and Moriarty will still find him.

 

This is the end. This is the only way it can go.

 

John , there's something … I should say, I've meant to say, always and never have. Since it's unlikely we'll ever meet again, I might as well say it now…”

 

A hundred secrets stick in his throat. Once again his selfish, desperate part is fighting. He is going to die. John is going to die (probably soon, if Moriarty isn’t stopped) and he loves him. Needs him to know how much. Not just as a copy of another man, but as himself.

 

Only he can see John’s face. It closes off, just as it did after the kiss. His love isn’t wanted.

 

That’s not true. John’s posture is at war with his eyes. Sherlock love is wanted, longed for, but John accepts that it’s too little too late.

 

Oh.

 

The anger. That’s why he was so angry. Not because Sherlock lied, but because he came back too late.

 

The other John would have been angry if Sherlock had faked his death, and until now the anger shown by this John has always been a puzzle. This John had to survive because there was always that tiny hope that it was a trick. He’d loved the other Sherlock, perhaps not realised how much until too late, and he’d had to try to move on.

 

And then on the night that was the symbol of how much he’d moved on, Sherlock burst back into his life.

 

He was angry because he loved Sherlock. Angry because he’d mourned. Angry because things couldn’t ever be the same again.

 

No wonder he’d been so angry about the kiss. It was a reminder that there was a part of him that still wanted it and then, afterwards, that Sherlock would never return those feelings.

 

Right now Sherlock wants to say it. Wants him to know it. At least the other John died never doubting how much Sherlock loved him. This John, who has been tricked over and over, will never be certain of Sherlock’s heart.

 

I love you.

 

It hurts, not saying it.

 

But if he does, it will only hurt John more. He has a wife. Has a child. Sherlock will be going and he won’t be coming back.

 

Sherlock can’t be selfish. If he says ‘I love you’ that’s almost a promise of a return. It will smash John Watson’s world apart and even if he did return, even if he did announce his love, Sherlock would still be lying, still living the life of a dead man.

 

“Sherlock is a girl’s name.”

 

A laugh.

 

This is it. The end.

 

 

--

 

 

Of course it isn’t the end.

 

For two weeks Sherlock hears nothing from Moriarty. The press calms down. Mycroft smoothes over Sherlock’s return to England.

 

Life goes back to their new kind of normal, and though it’s tense, it at least gives Sherlock time to think and plan.

 

And then Mary goes into labour.

 

 

--

 

 

Mary and John Watson are, in the midwife’s opinion, completely normal as far as new parents go.

 

She is calm, taking the pain surprisingly well but that actual experience of birth will soon knock that out of her. As yet she hasn’t attempted to injure her husband, but there’s still a long way to go.

 

He’s a doctor and therefore trying to seem professional while at the same time being panicked and emotional in the time honoured style of all soon-to-be fathers. She’s a two weeks early, but that’s not a huge problem. At the moment they are settling in for a long birth and there’s really not much to do but keep an eye on things and wait. Mary is distracting herself with a puzzle book and John is trying to read a magazine in between demanding in-depth medical analysis from every staff-member who so much as sticks their head around the door.

 

The midwife will later swear she only turned her back for a moment. She will go to her grave never understanding what happened that day.

 

She is setting up some equipment when a phone bleeps.

 

John Watson glances down at the screen, and then looks apologetically at his wife.

 

“It’s, uh-“

 

“Go and phone him,” Mary Watson sighs. “I’m surprised he’s not in here trying to deliver the baby himself.”

 

John gives a tight smile. “Yeah, well we wouldn’t want our friendship with Sherlock to get weird, would we?” He glances nervously at the bump. “You sure you’ll be ok?”

 

A contraction pauses the conversation. Mary’s a strong one, the midwife thinks as she makes an encouraging noise. Contraction over, the midwife turns away again and John inches towards the door.

 

“Go.” Mary pats the bump. “It’s not like we’re going anywhere.”

 

He does. The midwife is alone in the room with Mary. Her back is still turned and Mary has no interest in talking.

 

Two unusual events happen in the next two minutes.

 

The first is that Mary gives a yelp, which surprises the midwife because she’d been so indifferent to the pain previously. It startles her enough to put the equipment down and turn around, but before she has fully turned there’s a loud bang, like a gun, and the window shatters as if a bullet had been fired into it.

 

By the time the midwife finally looks at the bed it’s empty.

 

The puzzle book is on the floor. The bedclothes are in the exact same position, but sinking as if the person in them had just… vanished. The midwife rushes to the door, but there’s no sign of a heavily pregnant woman anywhere.

 

She almost collides with John Watson as he races into the room.

 

“What happened? I heard the gun-“ He sees the bed. “Where is she?!”

 

“I- I don’t know!” the midwife practically shrieks. “She was in the room – I turned around – she was gone!”

 

“I want this place searched,” he orders, already dialling his phone. As she scuttles off, the midwife hears him speaking to the person on the other end.

 

“Sherlock. Get here. NOW.”

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock is settled on the sofa, preparing for a long sulk over the impending birth (he’s entitled to that, surely.)

 

Maybe he’ll get used to babies, he thinks hollowly, perhaps be some sort of scary babysitter...

 

The phone.

 

Has it happened already? Don’t these things take time? Mary’s only been in labour for three hours, and for a woman of her age it’s highly unlikely to be over that quickly.

 

Therefore something’s wrong.

 

“Hello?”

 

John is panicked. Mary is missing. Sherlock knows who must be behind it and John, even with his lack of information, must have guessed as much.

 

He dresses almost entirely one handed while he listens to John’s garbled version of events and reassures him that he’s on the way. He is in a taxi less than thirty seconds after ending the call.

 

His problem, Sherlock thinks as the cab swerves round a corner, is that John will have to have the Hives explained to him now. There’s no way even the smallest piece of the puzzle is going to be enough. If Sherlock explains the Hives, he has to explain Moriarty, and to explain Moriarty he has to explain himself…

 

John – already under stress - is unlikely to take it well.

 

He finds John standing in the doorway of the hospital room. He’s slumped against the doorframe, looking at the bed as though expecting her to reappear at any moment. Around them official people are bustling around, shouting down phones, and achieving very little of any use. John hasn’t noticed Sherlock’s arrival.

 

Hesitantly Sherlock reaches out and places his hand on John’s shoulder. John jumps and turns, melting with heartbreaking relief when he sees who it is. Sherlock can almost read his thoughts: you’re the man who makes sense of the impossible, make the impossible mundane for me, make this not be happening…

 

How can he tell John that he can’t, that the impossible is even more bizarre and terrifying than he can imagine?

 

“The midwife was in the room the whole time, she’s just turned her back for a minute-“ John’s voice is hoarse.

 

“I know what happened,” Sherlock says carefully. Best to be brisk and confident and save the difficult explanations for when they are far away from here. “I don’t know where she is exactly, but I can guess.”

 

John’s face is an almost painful mixture of hope and fear. “What? What is it? Tell me.”

 

“I need to-” Sherlock goes over to the bed and begins searching through the sheets. “There has to be a clue.”

 

“Something like this?” John’s says quietly.

 

Sherlock turns back to him and John is holding a postcard in an evidence bag.

 

“This was on the pillow,” John says. “It’s him, isn’t it? Sherlock… this can’t turn into one of your sick little games with him. This is my wife. My child!”

 

Wordlessly Sherlock reaches and takes the postcard. It’s of the touristy ones featuring famous street-signs.

 

Covent Garden, WC2

City of Westminister

 

It’s hardly subtle. They need to visit to Mina Ailis’s shop.

 

But first he needs to talk to John.

 

---

 

Mary was on her knees when she triggered the Hive. The first Hive, that is, all those years ago. The soldiers stormed the castle and they’d been promised untold riches in exchange for her head. Her hideaway in a tiny barricaded storeroom had been smashed open and a soldier, covered in blood and high from the battle, had thrown her to the ground and swung the sword at her neck. She’d been fifteen.

She was never quite sure of what happened after that. She remembers launching forward, scrabbling for some kind of weapon and her hands closing around something rounded and wooden. The sword had sliced into her hip instead, though she hadn’t felt it. She’d closed her eyes, hearing the soldier’s roar, waiting for the second blow…

And then she wasn’t there anymore. She was somewhere new. Somewhere safe.

Now, twenty years later, she’s on her knees again. The sudden change of surroundings causes her to collapse on the ground, grunting as she tries not to land on her stomach.

She gulps for air and stares at the stone floor of the place she’s been taken, not wanting to even look at the man who has brought her here.

 

Moriarty bends over and swats at her face to get her attention.

 

“Mary, Mary quite contrary… it’s been a long time since we last saw each other.”

 

Mary struggles up from her position on the floor. She tries to stand with shoulders back, regal and in control, but has to settle for a half bent position while she glares up at his smug, odious little face. How dare he take her? How DARE he.

 

“We’ve never met,” she snarls.

 

A smirk dances across his face, before he shrugs and looks around the small stone room he’s brought them to with faked interest.

 

“I’ve long been an admirer of your work. And we have met. You wouldn’t remember me, of course, I was just a kid and you were lost and frightened.”

 

Suddenly a thousand signals are calling for her attention. The room they’re in, the smell of it, flashes of memory from a time that she’d tried to forget…

 

“Wow,” Moriarty blinks. “You’ve got a major case of baby brain going on there. If you had all your faculties you’d be kissing my hands and thanking me…”

 

Wincing in pain, Mary waddles over to the window – just a tiny arch cut into the stone – and peers out at the familiar land. It’s a view she never thought she’d see again. She cried bitter tears when she’d looked for it in her new world and found it scarred by roads and factories.

 

They are in her castle, looking out to the forest in the south. She rode through that forest, hunted in it with her father and took lessons in it with her mother…

 

“I’ve bought you home,” Moriarty says. His voice oozes and she knows that this, what he’s doing, is going to cost her.

 

She’d been in this room, hiding as the army invaded the castle. She’d been waiting to die, and how she’d cursed this narrow window at the time…

 

And then minutes later she’d been in a whole new world. She’d been terrified, injured, and unable to understand anything in that new place. But they’d helped her, been kinder than she’d ever believed possible.

 

There was a boy there, she remembers. A thin, dark-eyed little boy who’d looked like mischief personified.

 

“The red-headed girl… you were her friend.”

 

“Nell,” Moriarty snaps. “Her name was Nell. And you’re quick to forget the family that took you in, nursed you and gave you a new life…”

 

“I left them so I could build a new life for myself,” Mary says guardedly, “I would have only brought them trouble. The person I was… they couldn’t comprehend it.”

 

A contraction sweeps through her and she sinks back to the floor. Moriarty looks on, supremely bored.

 

“You’ve had so many names,” he says softly. “Mary. Cleo. Alex. Vikki. Couldn’t resist your little theme could you? Always a Queen, if only in name. What’s the word your people have for ‘Queen’ again? Oh yes. The Agra.”

 

Mary swallows. She has all too good an idea of where this is going and it’s not safe here. Could she find the Hive again? There doesn’t seem to be anything wooden in here… If she could get the gun she might be able to kill him-

 

It’s as if he can read her mind.

 

“As Sherlock Holmes has already discovered,” he crouches down, “I’m very hard to kill. You can run all you like but I can find you in the time it takes to pull a trigger. I know why you’re scared, you felt the sword at your neck… but it’s been twenty years.”

 

He yanks her to her feet with surprising strength.

 

“I think it’s time the lost Agra was returned to her people.”

 

 

--

 

 

He takes John back to Baker Street, because where else could they go?

 

John is itching for action and Sherlock’s quiet insistence that they need to talk seems to startle him. He nods and they go back to the flat.

 

“Ooh John!” A beaming Mrs. Hudson rushes into the hallway, uninformed as usual. “Any news yet?”

 

“Not now Mrs. Hudson,” Sherlock snaps. He climbs the stairs and it’s a mark of how very worried John is that he says nothing to soothe things over with Mrs. Hudson. He just follows Sherlock and takes his seat. They look across at each other. At least, John looks at Sherlock. Sherlock looks at the arm of John’s chair, not quite able to meet John’s worried but trusting expression.

 

Even this location is a cynical choice. When this conversation is over he needs John to see him as the same person, for it to seem impossible that the man opposite him in the same old chair is anything other than Sherlock Holmes.

 

John is quiet for a while, then eventually speaks with forced casualness. “If this wasn’t so deadly serious I’d think you were dumping me.”

 

Sherlock exhales.

 

“I’m going to tell you something. It’s not a trick. Not a joke. If you phone Mycroft he will confirm it. Don’t interrupt. Don’t say anything until I’ve told you everything. Promise me that.”

 

“Oookay.”

 

Sherlock looks at John’s face, it’s worried, confused, but still trusting.

 

“I promise.”

 

Another exhale.

 

He opens his mouth. No words come out.

 

He tries again. Swallows.

 

Slowly but surely he pieces together an explanation. He doesn’t begin with his own role in it, partly from cowardice and partly because the concepts of Hives are rather a lot to take on in one go. He explains the science of them, as best he can, and how it applies to Mary’s situation.

 

“Can I talk?” John asks after Sherlock pauses. His face is completely blank and emotionless.

 

“That’s not the whole story,” Sherlock points out.

 

“I’m damn sure it’s not. I just want to… clarify things.”

 

“Go ahead.”

 

“Alternate universes exist. People can move between them using Hives, which look like everyday natural objects. The Moriarty who was born in this universe has superpowers meaning that he can travel wherever he likes by aiming a gun at his own head and firing it. Moriarty has superpowers and has taken my wife god knows where… does that… sum it up?”

 

“Pretty succinctly, yes.”

 

“Oh god!” John laughs, it’s hysterical, panicked. He leans forward, drops his head. “This is… beyond belief.”

 

“Do you believe it though?”

 

Hysterical laugh again.

 

“Yes I believe it. Even you aren’t a big enough prick to feed me a fairy story while my wife – who’s in labour – is missing. Just… you know… working through a pretty major adjustment to… you know… everything I’ve ever believed.”

 

“Go ahead.”

 

“Moriarty has superpowers!”

 

Sherlock can see why that particular bit of information is bothering him.

 

“Of a sort, yes.”

 

“And why, if he can go and play with any Sherlock – because apparently there’s loads of them – is he so interested in you? Is it because this is his actual home? Or are you that bloody special?”

 

Sherlock tries to form words again. Fails.

 

“I’m guessing this is the other half of the story,” John says dully. “Go on.”

 

This is it. This is the moment John finds out the truth. John’s not like Mycroft. He isn’t logical, he loves fiercely and he will get caught up in the idea that the first version of Sherlock is inherently better, the ‘true Sherlock.’

 

“The Moriarty who has Mary, this is his world. This… isn’t… my world.”

 

No getting away from it now.

 

This time the story comes out slowly, with a lot of questions from John. After a while his tone becomes flat, as blank as his face.

 

“So, to, uh, summarise again…” he clearly tries to organise his thoughts and fails. “What you’re saying is that… Sherlock… is dead?”

 

He looks up at Sherlock so desperately that Sherlock wants to drop to his knees and crawl over to him, reassuring him that it’s not true, it’s not real, it’s all just a trick…

 

But it isn’t and he can’t. He can feel his heart beating and the clamminess of his hands as the moments drags on and on. John is holding his breath, his hands balled tightly into fists.

 

He nods.

 

John is still for what seems an age.

 

Then suddenly his face crumples in despair and he pants like a man pulled from the ocean. He shakes his head as if begging the universe to make it not be true.

 

“No. No. Noo. You’re alive. You’re right here. This isn’t – it doesn’t make sense-“

 

“The man you moved into this flat with is dead,” Sherlock says, it’s his turn to be emotionless now. “I’m still Sherlock Holmes. I’m just a… different one.”

 

“You stole his life!” John yells.

 

He leaps to his feet and begins pacing like a trapped animal.

 

“He died. It was an accident. Mycroft has case files of evidence to prove it. Would you rather have gone on living with the pain when I could offer you, and Mycroft, and everyone else exactly what they wanted?”

 

“We wanted SHERLOCK. The real one!” John yells. “All you’ve done is destroy everything he worked for. If you’d not come back my marriage wouldn’t be in tatters, the whole mess with Magnussun would never have happened, my wife wouldn’t be missing. I’d have been allowed to mourn for my friend. Tell me again why your lies were so damn saintly?!”

 

“I am the real Sherlock!” Sherlock snaps. “I had the same life up until twelve years ago, the same memories, the same experiences!”

 

“Well whatever happened twelve years ago clearly put a crimp in your skills, because – and I didn’t want to be the one to say it MATE – but your detective work hasn’t exactly been up to snuff since you got ‘back’.”

 

Angry. Saying whatever hurtful things he can think of.

 

For that matter Sherlock’s angry too. It’s irrational, John has every right to be angry, but he’s been trying to keep John safe. He’s done everything he can to protect this man from Moriarty’s games and yet somehow he’s still the selfish one.

 

Sherlock jumps to his own feet at this low blow. “Yes well, as I’m sure my predecessor said many times, that’s what love DOES.”

 

No going back from it now, John would be a fool not to understand his meaning. He does. It’s there in the way he turns his back, a self-preservation gesture allowing him to gather his composure.

 

“You aren’t serious!”

 

“I LOVED HIM!”

 

The shout seems to come from Sherlock’s very soul and, without warning, a wave of grief takes him. His face twists with it and tears streak his face. He sinks from his chair to the floor, on his knees and begging for forgiveness in a twisted parody of his act in that tube car.

 

“I loved him and he was dead and I wanted to die too. But then there was this stranger with this impossible offer, what I thought would be a second chance, can you blame me for taking it?”

 

When John does speak his voice is bitter, trembling in places with controlled fury.

 

“Typical. The version of you with a heart and you still don’t understand human nature. Of course it’s logical to you that if you can’t have what you want in one world you think that in another one it will all be exactly the same. Well I’m not who you want me to be and you aren’t who I want you to be.”

 

John’s face is… well Sherlock thought he’d seen John at his angriest with Mary. Seen a glimpse of John at his most hurt in that restaurant. It turns out that Mary’s betrayal is nothing to Sherlock’s, it seems only he has the power to hurt John this much.

 

He swallows. John is breathing heavily, he wants to leave, but he can’t because Sherlock is his only hope of finding Mary.

 

“I need to, I need to be… away.”

 

“You can’t,” Sherlock points out, trying to control his breathing. “We have to find-“

 

“Oh like you even CARE!” John explodes. “This is what you made your precious deal for, wasn’t it? This is what you sold your soul to Moriarty for! Well congratulations! Now you have me all to yourself!”

 

Sherlock pushes himself up and lashes out at the accusation. “Yes! Remember how unreasonable I was when Mary shot me?! And the wedding… I was a complete bastard then, wasn’t I?!”

 

“That’s not the same!”

 

“Yes it is! All that matters to me is your happiness! If you want to go and pick daisies in the park, that’s what we’ll do! If you want me to find Mary, then we will. So if that’s what you want then put all this… betrayal to one side and let me do my job!”

 

“Fine!” snarls John. “Let’s go. And I swear to god, after this we’re done.”

 

 

--

 

 

Moriarty is known here, which surprises Mary. As he saunters down the corridor, half dragging her behind him, maids smile at him and soldiers nod in greeting.

 

A female soldier – the sight of her red uniform so familiar, such a symbol of home that it brings a lump to Mary’s throat – stops and greets Moriarty cautiously.

 

“Is this your wife sir? I’m sure there’ll be space for here in the infirmary...”

 

Twenty years have gone by since she last heard her mother tongue, but is hasn’t left her! Surprisingly, Moriarty responds in the language, slightly broken but understandable. “No. She must be… ah… taken to the King.”

 

The soldier looks unsure. A part of Mary bridles at being so unknown in her own kingdom, but this girl is no more than seventeen and can hardly be blamed for not recognising her true ruler.

 

Who will be waiting for her on the throne? Did her own people take the country back, or is her enemy waiting for her? She has a vision of the blood covered soldier with the sword, waiting to finish the job after all these years…

 

Her panic is overwhelmed by another contraction that causes the female soldier to rush to help prop her up.

 

“Are you sure? The infirmary-”

 

“The King!” Moriarty snaps.

 

Moriarty is all too happy to relinquish Mary to the soldier and he jauntily leads the way as Mary is half carried to the throne room.

 

Memories flood back as she approaches the throne room. The floor is pink and purple as the sunlight streams through the coloured glass and she still knows every stone beneath her feet. She jumped on them, danced over them, even drew on them with chalks while her guards smiles and looked the other way…

 

The throne room is full and amidst her pain and fear she’s overwhelmed with the familiar cut of the clothes, the smell of the fireplace which burns even in summer, and the throne that she’d looked up at in awe, wondering what it would feel like when her time came to take her place upon it.

 

The crowd parts as she is led towards it. Many people look at her with confusion but the older ones look shocked and whispers sweep around the hall. She is deposited in front of the throne by the solider, who backs away at once. Moriarty’s presence goes entirely unnoticed, conspicuous as he is in his sharp suit.

 

She has no desire to kneel in front of the throne, but her body is giving her little choice in the matter. She looks up, both shocked and relieved at the familiar face upon it.

 

The King has aged. He’s no longer twenty years old, he looks… dried out. He’s still muscular, but scarred and grisly.

 

“So,” he says eventually, “my Agra has returned to me at last. With another man’s child in her belly.”

 

“That’s not how I remember it,” she says. Her voice is husky, the language unused, and even to her own ear it’s heavily accented from twenty years of the sharper languages of her adopted home. “I remember that our marriage was never consummated. The hoards stormed the castle before it could happen, and in my absence you have taken control. You have no right to that seat. I am the Agra, you are no more than a consort!”

 

“I will not listen to this!” the King roars. “I defeated the hoard. I have led this kingdom in your absence. I earned the RIGHT to rule! I have kept myself true to you, have bourne no children, taken no lovers. I have been loyal to be duty.”

 

“More fool you,” Mary snaps. “A good King would secure his line instead of waiting for the return of a long lost lover.”

 

“My duty-“

 

“Your duty has made you weak. Right now the true ruler is back. I am the child of a hundred Agras before me. The heir to this land will be here – ah! – any moment. You are nothing.”

 

“You abandoned your people and return to them twenty years late, with foreign words in your mouth and a bastard child in your belly.”

 

“I am the Agra. My true husband will find me here.” She ignores the amused look on Moriarty’s face, which all too clearly spells out the odds of that. “You either step away from this throne or I will slay you for it.”

 

“The only way you will rightfully sit on this throne is if you reject your child, reject your false marriage, bed forgiveness and return to your forgiving husband.” He gestures himself.

 

Mary knows all too well what he means by ‘rejecting’ the child. She longs for a gun – a glance and Moriarty confirms that his is hidden away somewhere – but it doesn’t matter. She has fought with swords all of her life.

 

She pushes herself to her feet.

 

“I am your Agra,” she says, trying to hide her discomfort and look her most commanding. “You know the rules of this place. If you wish to take your place on that throne once more, free from your duties to me, you must fight me in combat or else your people will look upon you as a coward.”

 

“I will not fight a birthing woman to the death,” the King scoffs.

 

“Then as I already said,” Mary snaps, “you are a weak fool. One stroke of the sword and the kingdom is yours without question, yet you hesitate because of the belly that only moments about you decreed should be rejected with the very same sword.”

 

The crowd were muttering now. Her people have never quailed from blood-sport and the thirst for it grows as she talks.

 

The man she married all those years ago is no fool. He stands and silences the room.

 

“I agree the fight must be had,” the King announces. “It’s the unfairness I reject. As such I will allow you to choose a young, strong warrior. The claim my throne I must kill your warrior first, and then you and I will begin our battle.”

 

It interests the crowd and it more than pleases Mary, who would have taken on the fight alone.

 

“Fine. I want…” she casts an eye around and is pleased to see the young soldier who supported her practically vibrating with desire to serve. People are so predictable. “Her.”

 

There is no build up the fight, no announcement, no tournament. At her words the King unsheathes his sword and the girl, whose name Mary doesn’t know, draws hers just as quickly.

 

As she watches them, despite the pain and exhaustion, Mary is almost trembling with excitement.

 

She’s home.

Chapter Text

The problems between Sherlock and John begin almost immediately. They make it the seventeen steps downstairs and outside onto the pavement without trouble, but when the cab obediently rolls to a halt in front of them, John doesn’t follow Sherlock inside.

 

“No,” he swallows. “I can’t- the taxi- I can’t do this. I’ll meet you there.”

 

He slams the door closed on Sherlock and strides away towards the tube station, shoulders tight. Sherlock stares after him.

 

John associates taxi rides with the ‘real Sherlock’ then. He’s looking at everything he and Sherlock do in a new light. Suddenly John isn’t getting into a taxi with Sherlock like always, he’s getting into a taxi with a pretend Sherlock.

 

“Are you going or staying?” the driver demands.

 

“Hmm? Oh. Covent Garden.”

 

The cab swerves out onto the main road and Sherlock slumps back in the seat, allowing his defeat to show. He’s failed. John may very well die in the upcoming confrontation with Moriarty and everything he’s sacrificed to spare John is wasted. All John sees when he looks at Sherlock now is an obsessive who selfishly ruined John’s life to have a second chance. Is he standing at on the platform right now going over every interaction, reading each moment of friendship as further evidence of Sherlock’s sick obsession?

 

It’s not fair. He’d tried, hadn’t he? He encouraged John to marry, been a good friend, avoided him after the wedding. In time he’d have extracted himself from John’s life as painlessly as possible.

 

Sherlock’s phone rings and he answers without thinking.

 

“John?”

 

Without – crucially - looking at the screen before answering.

 

“Oh dear, Sherlock, you are a mess. John is on the tube, how on earth did you expect him to call you?”

 

“Not now Mycroft,” Sherlock snaps.

 

“You’re in a taxi and he’s taking the tube. I take it you’ve had to tell him?”

 

“What do you know about Mary?” Sherlock asks, ignoring the question. “Come on Mycroft, you must have files…”

 

There’s a pause as Mycroft considers.

 

“I have some files. Not many of them are relevant to this particular problem. If you’re going to Covent Garden for the reason I assume… it might interest you to know that the woman currently known as Mary Morstan doesn’t seem to have been born. Anywhere. You know my researchers: if they can’t find it, it’s because it’s not there to be found.”

 

Sherlock sighs, trying to put his thoughts into words.

 

“What you said… at Christmas…”

 

“I said a great many things that day,” says Mycroft tersely. “I may have even shouted some of them at you, towards the end.”

 

”What you said before all that, in the garden…”

 

“The punch was drugged.”

 

“Yes. But if it hadn’t been...”

 

Mycroft says nothing. “I take it that you’ve informed Dr. Watson of your little deception then. And that he’s not viewing it as a minor one.” There is a rustle of paper. “Oh dear, he’s changing at Oxford Circus, what is he thinking?”

 

“Currently that he wishes I were dead.”

 

“And so you want reassurance that it’s possible to love the same person twice over?”

 

Sherlock doesn’t want to admit it. Says nothing.

 

“I meant what I said,”” says Mycroft at length. “I grieve for one brother and I’ve gained another. Anger at you for not being him is entirely irrational and, as I have no choice in the matter, I can’t pick and choose which version of you I end up with.”

 

“So John will come around?”

 

“Of course not. He has neither my logic nor my intelligence.”

 

The ‘and neither do you’ is implied very loudly.

 

“That’s what this is about, isn’t it? It’s not about whether John will come around; it’s about whether you are quite so certain about your own feelings. John is putting doubts in your mind. He really should think these things through better: you don’t do your best thinking when you’re emotional. Surely he wants you are your best right now?”

 

“He said it was an obsession.”

 

“Well there are few things you do in life that you don’t approach with obsessional fervour. I would imagine romance to be no different.”

 

“But he’s right… a normal person wouldn’t think like that.”

 

“Sherlock if you want me to tell you – as I think you do – that I believe that you share my level-headedness and higher-minded ability to control my emotions then you know perfectly well that I don’t think that nor have I ever done so.”

 

“So you think I am obsessional.”

 

“No Sherlock. I think you’re a poor man chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Desperation has got you a long way, but like so many others before you there comes a point when you must realise that it’s all an illusion. That time to face reality is finally here.”

 

 

---

 

 

John is already waiting for him outside the Starbucks on the corner of Milton Gate, the small alley-like street in which Mina Ailis’s shop and Moriarty’s childhood home reside.

 

“Walked past it twice,” John grunts in place of a greeting. “Didn’t notice it was there. Fitting place for him to have grown up.”

 

“Mm,” Sherlock agrees cautiously. He leads the way to the shop and they enter with a tinkle of the bell above the door.

 

Mina is at the counter flicking through a book. The automatic smile of greeting drops away as she recognises Sherlock again and she crosses her arms in a laughable attempt as casual behaviour.

 

“Hello again,” she says cautiously. Her eyes flicker over John. “You’re the, um, blogger aren’t you?”

 

John’s smile is tight. “Not his blogger, no.”

 

“If this is about, y’know, Jim, I told you everything I know. I’ve not seen him since I was-“

 

“It’s not about him. It’s about the Hives, and how they work.”

 

Relief radiates from her. “Oh. Well I can try and help…”

 

At that moment a couple enter the shop (tourists, Italian, on the brink of divorce) and Mina eyes them, no doubt hoping to foist the particularly ugly painting of an Italian church onto them.

 

“Go upstairs and wait in the kitchen, I’ll be up in a minute.”

 

Sherlock leads the way, notices with interest that the living room door is now open and empty, with no sign of the boy that had been in there before. The room full of Hives is locked.

 

They take a seat in the kitchen and silence stretches out. Sherlock doesn’t need to be a detective to work out how apoplectically angry John is.

 

To his surprise, it’s John that speaks first.

 

“Two years…”

 

“I thought that we weren’t having this discussion now.”

 

“We’re not having this discussion at all,” John snaps. “After you’ve found Mary there will be no communication ever again. I just… two years I wondered how scared yo- he must have been in those last few seconds. Wondered how much it must have hurt... and when you appeared I thought ‘thank god, thank god he was spared that…’”

 

“Yes. Well. You hid the relief excellently under the attempted strangulation.”

 

John’s inward breath is a hiss.

 

“I might have known you wouldn’t understand! It’s such a human emotion being glad that your best friend’s head wasn’t caved in on the pavement!”

 

“I understand perfectly. But while you’re busy turning him into Saint Sherlock and me into his evil twin, just remember he’d have made the exact same joke and probably told you to stop talking like an idiot while you were at it.”

 

Further discussion is ended by Mina’s footsteps. She looks pleased.

 

“Italian couple liked the church picture then?” he asks, mainly to annoy John by showing off.

 

“The one of the girl and the goat actually,” she shrugs. “The church one caused a bit of an argument.”

 

“It’s a good job he’s a lawyer,” Sherlock smirks at John. “The divorce won’t be such an expense.”

 

John looks at his watch. “Are you done yet? Because I’m going to miss my child’s eighteenth birthday party at this rate.”

 

Sherlock doesn’t react. “I notice your guest has gone from the living room.”

 

Mina’s smile is tight. “Yes. My son.”

 

“Oh come on Mina, you can drop that little act. Where did he come from really?”

 

Mina says nothing. She takes a seat and composes herself.

 

“I’m right aren’t I? You have a collection of hundreds of Hives and they don’t just work one way, do they? I’ve seen it before, people stranded in other worlds…” (An angry huff from John.) “You help them. You take in refugees and, what, try and heal them? Help them get back? Find them another universe, a safer one?”

 

“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” Mina says stiffly. “We always helped people, even when I was little. Jim even helped on occasion. And now… well maybe they might have heard something about my sister.”

 

“There’s nothing wrong with it, but we’re looking for one person in particular. Someone who came here a long time ago. Someone Jim would have seen.”

 

Mina shrugs. “There were loads-“

 

“This one didn’t leave. She stayed here.”

 

A defensive look crosses Mina’s face. “We try and stop them from staying here. We try and tell them, make them understand, this place… we can’t give them money, and we can’t fake ID. And most of the time they don’t even speak a language we can understand. There’s barely any who stayed-”

 

“This was a woman. Lack of ID wouldn’t have been a problem. She was smart, she would have picked up English quickly. Maybe she escaped, or she just disappeared-”

 

“There was one like that,” Mina swallows. “I was just a teenager, Nell and Jim were just kids… but she was here longer than the others. She’d been slashed with a sword… her hip.”

 

John looks startled. “Mary had a tattoo on her hip to cover a scar. She said it was from when she-”

 

He stops himself. He’s worked out that whatever he was told, whatever frighteningly normal little anecdote it was, is a lie.

 

Mina looks distant, lost in recollection. “She was smart, like you say. Whatever world she came from was nothing like here. It was strange… she was only my age and half the time she acted like a Queen, like she expected you to just jump at her command and pick up after her, and the rest she was like a… warrior. Then one day, when she was healed, she just said goodbye. We tried to get her to stay-”

 

“What was her name?” John asks, his voice rasping.

 

Mina shrugs. “She wouldn’t tell us much. My dad called her Flower, like a pet name, because that was what the Hive she came from was: a dried daffodil. And we used to bring her flowers to cheer her up while she was getting better.”

 

John clears his throat and stands. Sherlock sees him reaching into his pocket and he pulls out his wallet with the photograph of Mary still in it. Sherlock hadn’t known people still carried around actual photos these days, or that John’s still remained in place after recent developments between him and Mary.

 

“Is this her?” he asks.

 

The photograph is from the wedding. Mary’s crown of flowers sits atop her head and Sherlock remembers how that was the one part of the wedding he’d been allowed no input in.

 

Mina looks down and an expression of nostalgic delight takes over her face. “Oh my god… she looks so different…”

 

“Thank you,” Sherlock says abruptly. “Can we see the Hive she came from?”

 

Mina blinks in confusion. “If you like… why though?”

 

“We believe she’s been forcibly taken back to her old world.”

 

Mina stands up as well, clearly ready to impart wisdom about the Hives.

 

“Oh no, you can’t go after her. Besides there’ll only be one Hive to her world, and she’s not been back here.”

 

“The person who took her used other means,” Sherlock snaps, suddenly desperate to move things on. “The Hive. Now. And everything she ever said about her old world.”

 

Mina sighs and then leaves the room. There is a jangle of keys in the hallway, the turn of a lock, and then she returns. She places a dried daffodil - unbelievably fragile - on the table.

 

“She said nothing much. We tried to work out where her country was, we thought maybe France, near the coast. We helped her go through the atlas pictures and to figure it out. Of course, to her it was called something else and had a whole different culture. It was like she came from the dark ages.”

 

A remarkable woman, Sherlock thinks, to head into London alone just a few months afterwards.

 

“I’m telling you,” she says, “the odds of her being there are a million to one.”

 

“Thank you,” Sherlock says briskly. “And can I have a copy of Nell’s missing poster while I’m here? A small one.”

 

Mina is all too happy to fetch one.

 

“Agra,” she says suddenly, almost startled by her remembrance.

 

“What?!” John is startled.

 

“That’s what she called herself. The Agra.”

 

 

--

 

They get a taxi back and this time John rides with Sherlock, though that’s because he doesn’t want to let the pressed flower out of his sight rather than any warming of the chill between them.

 

They have pressed it in the book Mina had been reading. He opens it to look at the flower, not daring to touch it.

 

“A part of me would really like to believe this is the most horrendous prank you ever pulled,” he says at last. “Because right now my brain is trying to believe that this flower – hidden inside a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey - is going to transport me to another world and, to be honest, that’s not an easy thing to get my head around. I suppose you’re used to it by now.”

 

Sherlock shrugs. “It always seems impossible, until it’s happening.”

 

“Because right now this is… this is like something from Harry Potter.”

 

He’d said that to Moriarty the first time too…

 

Once they are back inside the flat, Sherlock heads over to his chair, notices too late the way John has just stopped, looking at the empty seat with such a look of despair that Sherlock doesn’t dare sit in it. He turns awkwardly and puts the book down on the table as if that were always his intention.

 

“Are we going to do this now?” John asks quietly, crossing his arms.

 

Sherlock knows that he looks unsure. “We don’t know what will happen-“

 

“Mary’s giving birth. Now. And Moriarty has her. Is there really time to sit and consider our options?”

 

Sherlock swallows and shakes his head. “OK then. Now.”

 

“How does it work?”

 

Sherlock knows enough mental tricks to make it work. “I can do it. It responds to fear. Shallow breath, increased pulse, adrenalin spike. Take my hand.”

 

He holds out his hand palm up and John just stares at it. It’s an intimate gesture, Sherlock realises too late.

 

“Not for- if you hold on to me it’ll pull you through as well. Though I can always go first. Check it’s safe-”

 

“Frankly Sherlock, I don’t want you to have anything to do with this. You’re only here for your specialist knowledge. After that you can do whatever you like and I’ll handle the situation with Mary.”

 

“Against Moriarty? I think-“ the snappish response dies on Sherlock’s lips. He changes tack. “Fine, uh, I need you to hold on to me.” He turns his hand over so that it’s palm down, a calming gesture, hesitant, the sort of gesture to befriend a dangerous dog.

 

John’s jaw tightens but he reaches out and grips Sherlock’s wrist so tightly that Sherlock feels the press of his bones.

 

“I swear to god Sherlock if this is a trick-”

 

Sherlock closes his eyes. He imagines a gun.

 

A shot.

 

Memories flicker through his mind.

 

Mary’s bullet – it had felt like a punch at first – hitting his chest.

 

The spent gun in his hand as Magnussun felt to the floor.

 

John – the other John’s - brain matter on the car park floor.

 

Sirens.

 

Mary.

 

Helicopters.

 

Silence.

 

And then they’re in a new world.

 

 

---

 

 

There is no time for surprise. They are in a new place, yes, but the place is a cramped, crowded little supply room and their sudden appearance in it causes a great deal of smashed pottery and upended crates.

 

They both end up on the floor and Sherlock realises that in his hand is a small wooden bowl, which must be the Hive on this side.

 

They breathe heavily, adjusting to the different air (sea air, Sherlock notices) and trying to through the dark.

 

“Where the hell are we?” John hisses.

 

Sherlock closes his eyes, tries to focus.

 

Ah. That might be a problem.

 

“I think we might be on a… ship. I suspect people are going to notice our appearance.”

 

As if on cue the door to the cupboard is thrown open and arms drag the two of them out. Sherlock barely takes in more than a reek of sweat and stale food before they are both pushed into the sunlight and the sight that greets him leaves him dumbfounded.

 

They are indeed on a boat, a creaking wooden boat that is like something from Sherlock’s childhood fantasies. Crisp white sails flutter high above them and blue water stretches out around them in every direction.

 

He gets only a few moments to appreciate this before the Captain approaches them with a stony expression. He’s a large, black man, well dressed in practical clothing that had been made without the assistance of machinery. The man looks on edge, as if he’s been presented with yet another problem he doesn’t want to deal with.

 

At this moment the Captain begins shouting. Sherlock has no understanding of the language but he nevertheless turns to translate to John.

 

“I assume he’s accusing us of sneaking aboard the ship somehow. He suspects us of piracy.”

Chapter Text

 

John is laughing. It’s rough, hysterical. Almost threatening. It’s the sort of laugh that might at any moment topple over into violence. It says ‘You would not believe the day I’ve been having.’

 

He and John must look like aliens to the people on board, white men in machine-made, impractical clothing. It seems like the whole crew has come to stare at them. It’s a wave of sweat, people, and shouting; Sherlock blinks, disorientated.

 

This crew don’t have cutlasses or theatrical weapons, but they have practical knives for working. They aren’t born killers – they are family men, relatively honest – but sailors aren’t known for being the calmest breed of the human species. If Sherlock and John can’t explain their sudden appearance they will suffer for it.

 

An idea forms. It’s a ridiculous idea, completely mad, but what else have they got?

 

“John, do you trust me?”

 

John’s hackles rise. “Right now? No!”

 

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Can we not do this now?! Give me the Hive!”

 

“We can’t go back-“

 

“We’re not, I just need to fetch something. Don’t kill anyone while I’m gone.”

 

He reaches out, focuses his mind, and in an instant he’s staggering, but still standing in 221b.

 

He hasn’t got a lot of time.

 

He goes to the fridge, remembers that it’s empty of anything edible, but it’s okay because there’s a warm, delicious smell drifting upstairs from Mrs. Hudson’s flat…

 

In the space of thirty seconds he’s in the downstairs kitchen and opening the oven.

 

Ten seconds later – before Mrs. Hudson can even realise what he’s done – Sherlock is back on the deck and holding the scorching hot roast turkey he’s stolen in a tea-towel that says ‘A Present from Llandudno’.

 

If he wasn’t holding the turkey he would have been tempted to reach into his pocket for his phone to snap a picture of the astounded look on the faces of everyone present.

 

He proffers the turkey.

 

“Take it! It’s yours.”

 

After a deal of shouting between themselves the men retreat several steps backwards and – at last – the Captain steps forward and takes the offering. He passes it to the men and gives Sherlock a look that reminds him of Lestrade. I’m accepting this bullshit for now, but later on I want an explanation…

 

“What the hell was that?” John hisses. He looks pale and Sherlock imagines that the minute and a half he was gone was a very long time when surrounded by armed men who just watched someone disappear in front of them.

 

“If they thought we were stowaways or pirates they’d have killed us, or at least imprisoned us until we reached land god knows where. I’ve just proved that we’re bona fide genies who can provide men on strict rations with extra food. It means we can negotiate.”

 

“Genies?!” John’s hysterical laugh rolls back up. “That’s your plan? Genies!”

 

The men – at least the ones with greasy mouths full of unexpected food – copy John’s laugh, amused by the funny little man. Sherlock knows they haven’t got goodwill forever, but they’ve got enough time to plan.

 

“Why are we at sea?” John demands. “I thought we were going to be wherever Moriarty’s taken Mary?”

 

“No, we were going wherever the Hive she originally used ended up. It’s been decades and it’s a wooden dish: it’s clearly changed ownership.”

 

Sherlock knows that John is talking at him, urgent and irritated, but he drowns him out and focuses instead on the words being spoken around him.

 

If he can speak to the Captain he can explain, negotiate. Language is all patterns: it's harder when there are no shared roots with any language he knows, but the more words they use the faster he learns. He won't be fluent for hours, but right now he knows enough for basic communication.

 

"Magic!" he shouts over the hubbub. "We. Magic. Uh... Help you. We bring food. Gifts of respect. We're not... pirates."

 

The whole crew stares at him. John stares at him. It's the sort of silence that suggests chaos may erupt at any moment.

 

The Captain clearly senses it too and crooks a finger at them to follow him.

 

The crew practically leap away from them as Sherlock and John move through the crowd, to the room that seems to act as the office and quarters for the captain himself. There is a small bed, a trunk, and a desk in the corner at which the captain takes a leisurely seat. He shouts orders to two men who have followed them inside and they step out to take up guarding duty at the door.

 

Sherlock only hopes he's picked up enough to get them through this conversation.

 

"Magic?" the Captain demands.

 

"Of a kind. We can... travel to other places. Bring things."

 

(It takes some time to translate that, but he gets there in the end.)

 

"Why are you here?"

 

"We need to get somewhere."

 

There is a barrage of words from the Captain that imply that this ship is following a strict course and that, unless they are heading to - the man points at the map – somewhere near Sesimbra, Portugal they are out of luck.

 

Sherlock closes his eyes and thinks.

 

"What is he saying?" John demands.

 

Portugal isn't impossible, Sherlock knows. From the course marked on the map, they’re crossing the Atlantic from Mexico. A ship this size is going to take months to get there, time they don't have, especially if they'll have to travel across land once they arrive.

 

“He’s saying that we’ve just started from the Mexico and are heading towards Portugal,” he translates to John.

 

“And where do we need to be?”

 

“France.”

 

John calculates the distances and groans. The two of them ignore the curious glances the captain is giving them. “I know you’ll convince him to take us where we need to go,” John says. “Because you’re you. But even if he does, you’re telling me we’ve got to cross the Atlantic in this thing?”

 

Sherlock ignores the flutter of hope at the ‘you’re you’ comment and nods. “It’s not ideal…”

 

“Not ideal!” John barks, incredulously.

 

What other choice do they have? This is the only route to Mary and John knows it.

 

“Technically we could wait it out in our own universe and come back using the Hive nearer the time…“ Sherlock offers.

 

“And how would we explain what happened to Mary back home?” John sighs. “Better for us all to disappear and reappear in a couple of months.”

 

Sherlock’s glad John’s being reasonable – even hopeful - about this, until John sighs.

 

“So we’re going to be stuck here for months. With each other? Great.”

 

He turns his back on both Sherlock and the Captain. Sherlock carefully schools his face into neutrality and then turns his most persuasive smile to the Captain. Time to begin negotiations.

 

“We need to go to France.” He jabs a finger onto the map. “We will pay you.”

 

It takes a while to make himself understood and he doesn’t blame the man in front of him for protesting. The change of route will add weeks onto the journey, not to mention the considerable cost, the delay to the delivery of cargo, and the fact it will piss off hundreds of men who are expecting to return home to their families.

 

“You can’t afford it,” the Captain warns.

 

Sherlock merely shrugs. “How much?”

 

There is a bit of a breakdown in communication here. Sherlock has no idea of the currency and the Captain is hardly going to accept a credit card. The Captain laughs, as if the conversation is amusing. He reaches to his collar and retrieves a drawstring bag which is tied to a cord under his shirt. From it he pulls a vial and Sherlock and John look at the contents with interest.

 

The vial is elaborate, made of thick glass so that even if it were dropped or smashed it would take considerable effort for the contents to escape. The captain tries to explain what the grey powder is but Sherlock knows perfectly well. He smiles.

 

It’s arsenic and it’s beautiful. A nation that values a rare element that doesn’t sparkle as currency. A poisonous one, at that. Who would waste a single drop on murder if poison had a value?

 

And fortunately in his line of work, he has plenty of contacts who can source large amounts. He can have a crate-load of the stuff within 24 hours.

 

“How much?” he asks.

 

The captain holds up ten fingers. Ten vials. The man’s careful poker face and fact that he’s carrying what is clearly his life’s savings around his neck suggests that ten vials is an outrageous rip off, but Sherlock could have got him a thousand. He negotiates the man down to eight on principle and shakes his incredulous hand.

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock makes a short trip home, leaving John waiting with the Captain. He returns an hour later with twenty vials of arsenic: more money than the man has ever seen. Ten vials upfront for use of the captain’s cabin (the only private room on board), and ten upon their safe arrival in France. The Captain is nearly brought to tears.

 

As well as the arsenic, Sherlock has also brought them both clothes and toiletries, books, bottled water, and a large crate of rum to keep the crew happy.

 

The Captain vacates his cabin and there is a great rush to provide comforts for them. A pallet – little more than sacks and rags – has been set up so that one of them will be spared the indignity of the floor. A jug of water and wooden cups are set on the desk for them and they decline to take any of the rations of food, partly to increase their air of mystique and partly because neither of their modern palettes are ready for the sort of rations the crew eats.

 

John is quiet at first. He sits on the Captain’s bed and looks around at the space they will be sharing. It’s so narrow that there is mere inches between the pallet and the bed and whoever takes the bed risks rolling over and landing on top of the other if they become restless in the night. It won’t matter though, Sherlock suspects that sleep is a long way away for both of them.

 

At last, John speaks.

 

“When you went back, was Mrs. Hudson cross about the turkey?”

 

“Crosser about the tea-towel. I may have had to promise to personally go to Llandudno and fetch a replacement.”

 

John ‘hmm’s. He’s amused but doesn’t want to admit to it. It’s not exactly forgiveness, but at least it’s some sort of communication.

 

“Have we solved any Welsh murders?” Sherlock asks lightly, but the question dies as soon as it’s out of his mouth. He drops his head, not wanting to meet John’s cold eyes.

 

“No,” John says flatly. “We haven’t.”

 

 

--

 

 

That night the Captain insists they dine with the crew. It gives Sherlock time to pick up more of the language and by the time they sit in the cramped dining area, packed with every off-duty crewmember, he is fluent enough to keep up a conversation.

 

The rum is passed around; it’s not a drink these men are familiar with, but they cheerfully toast Sherlock and John’s good health and knock it back all the same. Sherlock drinks a little more than he would normally and shares some fantastical tales of his and John’s ‘mystical adventures’, but mostly he listens. Within a few hours everyone is drunk and there is the general belief that this voyage has been blessed. If the gods send spirits with extra supplies and money to order them to France, well, what’s a few more weeks of travelling?

 

It doesn’t surprise Sherlock that John is more comfortable than he in this presence. John can’t speak a word of the language but the alcohol flows and in the slightly rough company he is friendly and instantly liked. Sherlock doesn’t mind, he will never be the likeable one of the two, and the better liked they are the less chance they will be turned upon at the first sign of seafaring trouble.

 

He doesn’t expect that to happen, but groups of humans can be especially stupid in times of crisis. Let’s face it, he thinks, humans on their own can be especially stupid in times of crisis. He’s practically exhibit A.

 

The drink flows a little more freely after that and by the time they return to the cabin they are both staggering. John is rambling at Sherlock, though that has more to do with the fact Sherlock is the only one who understands him than any return to friendship.

 

“So I said ‘what about the mermaids then?’ and I don’ think he really got me, but I kinda… mimed it… and- and-“

 

John seems to forget what he was saying and Sherlock sighs as the warm wave of John’s words disappear. John gulps down a cupful of water and shakes himself a little. Sherlock stands in the middle of the cabin for a while before slumping onto the pallet with a groan, leaving John standing, blinking owlishly in the weak candlelight.

 

“Oh don’t do that self-sacrificing shit!” he snaps.

 

Sherlock rolls over. “What?”

 

“The bed! Just-“ John looks between Sherlock and the empty Captain’s bed. The argument seems to drift out of him. Instead, he sits heavily on the bed and looks down at Sherlock. Considering.

 

Sherlock feels naked under his stare, like he suddenly wants to cry. His entire future is in that gaze. Like John’s a judge about to pronounce Sherlock guilty or not guilty, or in this case, forgivable or unforgiveable.

 

It goes on for a long time, so long that Sherlock wonders if John has forgotten what he was doing. At length, John speaks in a heavy, surprisingly sober voice.

 

“I’ve felt trapped for so long. Like… like I was a rat in a maze and the walls were… were closing in on me. You were gone. And there was Mary. And there was the wedding and the baby and Magnusson and Mary’s lies and… that damn airfield… and you know what? It turns out that all of those walls were bullshit. None of it was real.”

 

Sherlock wants to protest that some of it was real, but interrupting John now would be a dangerous mistake.

 

“It’s freeing. Because, yeah, it’s fucking painful to have life as you know it ripped apart, but you get to finally decide what you want. I know the truth and I can pick and choose what I like or don’t like. Do you know what it all reminds me of? My mother.”

 

Of course. The woman who’d had a profound effect on John’s self-image, the one who suffocated and suppressed John’s nature and controlled him until her death. In Sherlock’s universe John had been able to move on and choose a new life for himself, but here John is still suffocating and – stupid! – it’s taken Sherlock far too long to notice.

 

No wonder John clung to his time with Sherlock during the run up to the wedding and beyond: he’d been forced into the life he’d been told he should want: a nice, safe GP, married to a woman, baby on the way… doing all things he’d been told were right and yet still was miserable.

 

John flops down onto the bed, talks up at the ceiling. “She was… she was…”

 

“A manipulative harpy?” Sherlock offer.

 

John blinks. “I take it you met her then? The other her?”

 

“No, but I attended her funeral. I remember what it was like for my John, sharing that flat with Harry, dong a job he loathed…”

 

John huffs. “It’s going to get confusing if we carry on like this. Me talking about ‘my Sherlock’ and you talking about ‘your John’”

 

“What else can we do? Come up with nicknames for each other?”

 

Jon shrugs. “It’s not a stupid idea. This is a new slate, yeah? Time we stepped out of the shadow of our other selves.”

 

“Is it a new slate?” Sherlock asks softly.

 

John huffs. “It has to be, doesn’t it? Like I said, you’re like a… drug. I guess that includes all versions of you. Without you there’s just a-just a Sherlock shaped hole in my life. I’ll forgive you in the end, angry as I am, you know I will. Even if I’m really fucking angry now.”

 

Sherlock hadn’t known that, is almost breathless with hope.

 

“But- but this has to be a whole new start. New us. So… different names make sense. The same… but different? How about we be Holmes and Watson?”

 

Sherlock wrinkles his nose. “Calling you ‘Watson’? It feels weird.”

 

He understands the logic though, if this is the first step to an understanding he’ll take it.

 

“If there’s one thing my wife has taught me, the reality we choose for ourselves is the one that matters. Anyway… about my mother…”

 

“What about her?”

 

“How she made me feel. That’s how I feel now. Like… I’ve been living by her rules and her manipulation so long that I don’t even know what I want. After she died I was able to choose the career I wanted, but after this… it’s like I’ve finally got clear eyes but everything I wanted is smashed into pieces. Sherlock is gone. You’re a stranger. A Moriarty more terrifying than I ever imagined is out there. My wife has a history that I can’t even comprehend and she and my child are probably...”

 

He can’t finish the thought. Sherlock tries to steer him away from it. “And, on top of it all, it turns out the universe doesn’t even work the way you imagined. I understand.”

 

“Almost overnight I’ve gone from father, husband… blogger and now I’m a fucking Genie. This time it’s not as easy as just joining the army. This time I have to… have to assess the damage before I can even decide how I want to begin fixing it.”

 

“And how do we do that?” Sherlock asks softly.

 

There is silence again, just the sound of the ocean, the creaking ship, and John’s breathing. John’s voice, when he speaks, is a rough, pleading whisper.

 

“Tell me something real.”

 

“What?”

 

“After… Christmas… that’s how Mary and I coped. Every night she tells me something true about herself. Doesn’t matter what. But something solid. I mean, yeah, she didn’t mention the royal princess thing, but at least I knew that when she said the best meal she ever had was lamb at a roadside in Morocco, I know she was telling me something about her life. Only this time, it will be both of us, learning about each other.”

 

Sherlock does see this version of John as different, but he also knows that they need to draw a clear line between before and now and this is what will help John do it.

 

“OK.”

 

As he lays in the darkness he remembers that night after the funeral, the stupid fight about money and the lesson he’d had to learn: that his self-sacrifice was never going to make both of them happy. He’d had to stand up to John, be honest about what he wanted. He’s going to have to do it again, he has to put his true feelings out there – possibly the most terrifying thing he’s ever done – and this time it’s not a relationship of a few weeks at risk, this is someone who is part of him, someone he literally cannot live without.

 

He takes a deep breath, afraid that the words won’t come.

 

“Do you want me to start now?”

 

“Probably easier to start while we have a good lot of rum inside us… yeah…”

 

He sits up on his elbows so that he can just see John. “What if you don’t like what I say?”

 

“Then we’ll have an argument.”

 

“Right.”

 

He drops back down and rearranges the blankets around himself to give himself something to do. This done he lies back in the dark and slowly coaxes the most difficult truth to say out. It’s one that John already knows, but he has to start with it. Has to make it clear that this is what their new… friendship… relationship…. existence is based on.

 

“I think you must know… I love you.” Saying it is like a physical pain, something he’s repressed and repressed that has finally been allowed free. “You. This you. And not because of him. I tried not to, I was so careful to think of you as two different people… but I still love you. So after Moriarty and Mary and the baby and… all of it… if you can look at me feel something for me, this me, then that’s something I’d want.”

 

Sherlock closes his eyes but he feels John move and look down at him, he can feel his gaze even in the dark.

 

“I- you know I’m not-“

 

“Gay?” Sherlock sighs. “Yes you’ve-“

 

“Hey, no interruptions. You’ve got eyes. You must know that I’m – I was interested. In him. More than interested. I…” John takes a huge shaky breath, “I loved him. Not as a- you know- I loved him like you-“

 

He screws up his eyes, groans and starts again. “If he’d wanted… I would have wanted… anything. Anything he’d have given me. Even after Mary. After you came back – when I thought it was him – if you’d turned to me at the wedding and said ‘forget it and come back to 221b’ I would have. I’d have left Mary at the altar for you. Him. And after Magnusson if you’d not pushed me back to her, if it hadn’t been for the baby-“

 

He sniffs, and Sherlock opens his eyes to see a slight movement, John scrubbing at his eyes with his hands.

 

“My wife is missing and here I am saying I’d have turned my back on her in a heartbeat!”

 

John sits bolt upright, swings his legs onto the floor and puts his head in his hands. Sherlock sits up too, crawls to kneel in front of him, not quite daring to reach out and comfort him.

 

“John. No - new rules - Watson…” he kneels on the floor in front of John and rubs his arms reassuringly. “It’s OK. You said you still need to assess the wreckage. Give it time.”

 

“I’ll choose you,” John says, suddenly drunkenly confident. “Like you said at the wedding, it’s always you. Even a new you. After you – he – was dead I would have done anything to be with him again. If Moriarty had made me that offer… I wouldn’t have looked back. There’s a part of me that- I’m glad you came back, even the wrong you, because I’d have died without you.”

 

Right now, Sherlock should be jubilant. John understands. But he doesn’t feel anything. John is trying to make sense of the impossible, with his life in shreds, his family missing, in the middle of the Atlantic. He’s drunk, exhausted, and the only familiar thing he has left is the man kneeling at his feet. He’s still got a case to help solve and a mountain of grief to climb.

 

“Then, Watson, at least this is a new start for us both.”

 

Sherlock helps John lie back down, he’s already asleep before Sherlock has pulled the cover up over him and he’s oblivious to the kiss Sherlock places on his forehead.

 

 

--

 

 

Days pass and a routine starts to form. Sherlock sleeps late (what else is there to do?) and John usually spends the morning on deck trying to be helpful and trying to pick up a little of the language. Once Sherlock is awake they take it in turns to return to 221b, shower, and get a proper meal.

 

Mrs. Hudson is under the impression that they are on a very hush hush case and that it’s something to do with ‘that man’ who has Mary and the baby, which is entirely true. John always returns short-tempered at the reminder of the danger his family is in and Sherlock is usually treated to a ten minute rant from Mrs. Hudson about the various things they should do to ‘that man’ when he is caught. They are creatively wicked and they usually cheer John up.

 

The rest of the day they spend on the ship and it’s this that frustrates Sherlock. His head is full of questions and theories but until they reach land there’s nothing he can do. He wants to rage and smash the horribly claustrophobic cabin up, but he can’t risk losing the goodwill of the Captain.

 

In the evening, things are better. Their truth game starts earlier and earlier as boredom sets in for them both and their conversations can last for hours, starting with a small truth and snowballing into lengthy discussions.

 

The truths they tell have patterns. John tries to tell him recent truths, things that his other self wouldn’t have told Sherlock. Life at 221b, cases they went on, or about the time Sherlock was away. Sherlock tries to tell him personal stories, insights that go beyond the persona he has always protected himself with. Things that he can’t even remember telling the other John, if only because they were too mundane or embarrassing to bother with.

 

 

--

 

 

“I failed my driving test eleven times.”

 

“As someone who has been in a car with you – with Sherlock, at least - I’m not surprised. How did you finally pass?”

 

“I came across a wonderful little mystery… I was so focused on it I don’t even remember sitting the test.”

 

 

--

 

 

“When I moved out of the flat after… the fall… the only thing I could bring myself to take was that damn lucky cat. We both hated it but it was ours. Almost the first thing that was ours… and I thought that was probably the thing Sherlock would be glad to see the back of so that’s what I took. It’s in the loft now. I couldn’t give it back after you came back, how would I have explained taking it? I was surprised you never mentioned it, but I guess I know why you didn’t now.”

 

 

--

 

 

Sometimes there are the more personal truths, the truths that hurt or, unintentionally cause pain. John and he have reached an understanding but John is still mourning and still angry. Sometimes he’ll topple over into rage without warning, and he’ll use Sherlock’s surname like an insult. ‘Leave me alone Holmes.

 

In the first month those rages happen every few days and the sadness is there almost constantly. Sherlock uses that time to hang around with the crew, telling tales and learning as much as he can about Mary’s homeland. War seems to be all that anyone knows about it, there seems to be a long standing battle between a smaller nation and Mary’s land. Aside from that there’s just the usual mish-mash of folk tales and notions of the strange food they eat there.

 

By the second month, things are easier between them. John doesn’t look at him and see Sherlock, he’s starting to see Holmes. Sherlock likes the way John says it, when he’s not using it angrily. ‘Holmes’ can be a one syllable bark that makes Sherlock shiver, almost an order (if anything, one less syllable saves John time) or it can leave John’s mouth like a hum of pleasure.

 

‘Watson’ never quite settles in Sherlock’s mind. ‘John’ is one syllable, a name that’s leaves his mouth in a single breath like a prayer. ‘Watson’ is formal, harsher, and he speaks it like a question. It would work during sex, there’s a pleading element to it: ‘Wats…snn.’ But on a day to day basis it feels wrong, he’s using it to please rather than out of a desire to say it.

 

Which is why he brings it up during their truth game.

 

“I don’t like calling you Watson” he blurts one night. “Sometimes it feels right, but not all the time.”

 

John shrugs. “You can call me anything you like,” he says. “Well. Except Hamish.”

 

They share a smile.

 

“How about Dr. Watson?” Sherlock offers.

 

“That’s the same thing, just longer.”

 

“No. Because you can be simply Doctor, or my dear Doctor (if I’m in a good mood), or Watson if I feel like calling you it at the time… I think I’ll just call you whatever feels right. Like pet names.”

 

John smiles again. “I can’t believe you are actually suggesting pet names. OK, so we’re travelling through the universe on a mad adventure and you’re calling me ‘Doctor’? Instead of Doctor Who, it’s Doctor Wat…”

 

Sherlock groans. “That damn TV programme.”

 

“I made Sherlock watch it. He liked it secretly.”

 

“John made me watch it and I pretended to secretly like it.”

 

“You just keep telling yourself that Holmes.”

 

“I will, Doctor.”

 

 

--

 

 

Some nights they flirt.

 

“I never slept with Janine.”

 

“I knew it!”

 

“No you didn’t.”

 

“Alright no. But I knew that hat thing was a lie. You’d have never let that hat within ten yards of your bed.”

 

They are in close quarters sharing intimacy after intimacy and Sherlock has already professed his love. He wants to touch, wants John to touch him, and John’s body screams back that he wants to as well. But he can’t, not while Mary is still out there.

 

Sherlock solve a mystery without data, how can he expect John to make a decision about his marriage without any? It’s not fair to ask, but Sherlock’s body is aching and on those nights his secrets become teasing whispers.

 

“I haven’t had sex since 2012.”

 

John doesn’t answer for a long time.

 

“Right. I. Uh. I never really think about you and sex-“

 

“The truth, Doctor.”

 

“Oh shut up Holmes. You know what I mean, I think about it but I don’t think of you as-“

 

“-as a sexual creature?”

 

“Not really. You’ve always seemed so above it all.”

 

“How long have you wanted to ask about it?”

 

John doesn’t answer again, which means he’s embarrassed. “Do you think he had sex?”

 

Sherlock knows they are talking about the other him. “Probably. If I hadn’t met John… I’d have cracked eventually. He probably had a bad experience and spent the rest of his life trying to stamp down on those urges.”

 

John doesn’t say anything after that, and this time Sherlock knows it’s because he’s sad.

 

 

--

 

 

“I always wanted to retire to the country.”

 

“What, the sort of place with a village hall? You do realise that Agatha Christie and Midsomer Murders aren’t representative of those places?”

 

“Don’t be absurd, Doctor, I won’t be solving murders. I’ll have retired.”

 

“And what would you do without mysteries? Because so far today you’ve driven everyone up the wall without something to work on.”

 

“Oh I’ll work. I just haven’t decided on what, yet.”

 

 

--

 

 

“I never wanted to be a father. That sounds bad, doesn’t it? I mean, I want the baby, I need her to be alright, but before she existed I didn’t want kids. Now it feels like all this is a punishment for that.”

 

 

--

 

 

“I’m bored.”

 

“Yeah, we all know.”

 

 

--

 

 

“I was jealous of you and Janine.”

 

“You were?”

 

“Oh come on! You must have known!”

 

“I didn’t think you were jealous. I thought you were surprised, and understandably so.”

 

“Of course you would have thought that.” A sigh. “You really are Mr. Oblivious about this kind of stuff.”

 

 

--

 

 

“Oh god, I hate this!”

 

“It’s just bad weather Doctor.”

 

“It’s been three days of bad weather and this ship might as well be held together by prayer!”

 

“It’ll be fine. We’re only a few days away now.”

 

“It doesn’t even have a lifeboat.”

 

“We have a lifeboat.” Sherlock holds up the Hive. “Dry land is just a horrible thought away.”

 

 

--

 

 

The next night neither of them sleep. The bad weather is now a storm and they are the only ones on board not summoned to work through the night. Staccato lightning illuminates their small cabin every few minutes and the room tilts alarmingly as the ship tries to steady itself.

 

At about two in the morning, there is a crash and a jolt that throws John out of his bed and sends Sherlock hurtling into the cabin wall as the ship tilts onto its side, only this crash is too loud and the constant shouts have become yells and screams. The ship doesn’t recover itself, Sherlock and John scramble to their feet on what was previously the wall. If the bed and desk hadn’t already been screwed to the floor they would have been crushed by them.

 

“We have to get out!” Sherlock yells above the noise. John scrabbles for the wooden bowl and they climb towards the door, clinging to whatever they can in the dark.

 

There is a corridor between them and the deck, and a short flight of steps. The water from the deck has sloshed in so they have to wade to the door. Every few seconds they are jolted this way or that and Sherlock feels John holding onto his shirt as if fearing he might be yanked away. Another lurch and they are both soaked. The shouting outside grows more panicked.

 

The scene that greets them is almost incomprehensible. The waves around them are taller than buildings and the mast is completely gone, snapped like a twig. Waves hit the deck and, in front of their eyes, a man is simply washed away. There are only a few lamps still alight but it’s enough to see the dots of bodies in the water.

 

“We have to help!” John yells.

 

“We can’t!” Sherlock shouts back. They couldn’t even reach the people that are still left alive.

 

One of the giant waves engulfs the deck. Sherlock throws John back into the corridor behind them, and they are protected from being swept away, but the icy water washes in and for several long seconds in the pitch black Sherlock thinks that they are going to drown.

 

When he resurfaces, John isn’t there.

 

He panics. Calls out in the darkness. The water is at chest height now, the cabin they’ve just left is already underwater.

 

“Watson!” Sherlock screams. He was right, he thinks hysterically, ‘Watson’ is a good name for pleading.

 

A flash of lightning illuminates the small space and Sherlock sees the Hive resting on the steps as if it had been merely dropped there. The wooden bowl that John had been holding. The whole point of the damn thing is that it’s an escape mechanism, of course it would have activated if John was holding it.

 

Sherlock lunges for it, but the boat lurches again and the bowl bounces through the doorway onto the deck.

 

If he loses it to the ocean, Sherlock will die here.

 

He throws himself after it, not caring where he lands. It’s there! Just feet in front of him.

 

He lunges as a wave crashes down on the deck. For a second it’s all water, cold, and panic.

 

And then he opens his eyes in the pitch black, wonderfully landlocked living room of 221b.

 

“Holmes?”

 

It’s weak, and shaking, but it’s unmistakably John’s voice.

 

He roll over. They are both shivering, sopping wet, colder than they can ever remember being, but they are alive. John’s face is shiny with water and his hair is spikey, but he’s smiling with delight at Sherlock’s reappearance.

 

Sherlock reacts on instinct. He drops the Hive and crawls closer to John.

 

“My dear, dear Doctor,” Sherlock breathes, and reaches out to kiss him.

 

Chapter Text

The kiss goes on for an age and when they pull apart they are panting, surrounded by a pool of water from their soaked clothing that has sodden the carpets around them. Apart from the warm spot where John’s mouth has been against his, Sherlock is bitterly cold. Even flexing his fingers hurts. John is no better off, shivering in Sherlock’s arms.

 

“Take the first shower,” John orders. “You were in it longer than me.”

 

It’s a mark of how utterly cold Sherlock is that he doesn’t protest, just staggers to the bathroom while John strips off his own wet clothes and heads in the direction of the airing cupboard.

 

When he heads back out he finds John wrapped in towels, sitting as close as he can get to the fire. Wordlessly Sherlock pulls his own chair closer to the grate and John goes to shower.

 

He suspects they both need a little time before they discuss the kiss. Will John shrug it off? Phrases like ‘it was just the adrenalin’ and ‘it meant nothing’ hiss in his mind. Will Sherlock have to apologise for initiating it?

 

He won’t.

 

Thirty minutes later John reappears, looking pink and exhausted. He makes tea – no milk, but they’d drink dishwater right now if it was hot enough – and collapses into his seat with a groan. Only when John has drained his mug does he speak.

 

“So, where are we?”

 

Sherlock’s mind races as he tries to work out what John is referring to. Presumably John understands which universe they are currently in, and recognises their location. Is he asking about the kiss? Their search? What happened to the Hive?

 

He plays it safe.

 

“The Hive fell into the sea. The ship will have sunk by now; it’s extremely unlikely that there will be any survivors.”

 

His throat feels dry as he says that. For all he knows that logically he couldn’t save the Captain or any of the men, he spent several months alongside them. The fact that there is no one to blame, just bad weather and bad luck, somehow makes it worse.

 

John bows his head, rubs at his tired eyes, and looks back to Sherlock with a sigh.

 

“Drink?”

 

It’s probably not wise to consume alcohol. They’ve just had a dip in the Atlantic and probably have delayed shock, but it seems impossible to contemplate tonight’s losses without the prospect of a touch of alcohol on his lips. He nods.

 

John finds them a dusty bottle of cooking sherry. Sherlock has no idea which one of them owned it or where it came from, but the contents are splashed into the cleanest mugs John can find.

 

“We were close to land,” Sherlock sighs. “Another couple of days…”

 

“And now?” John asks.

 

“Worst case scenario, the bowl got caught up in the shipwreck and is now at the bottom of the ocean. If we try and use the Hive – and suddenly appear underwater - the pressure would kill us before we’d even have time to drown.”

 

“Right,” John nods. “Let’s try not to do that. What are the other scenarios?”

 

“It was a wooden bowl. It could have floated. If the storm moved east it might have floated towards land and been washed up on the shore. If the storm didn’t move east-”

 

“- it could be anywhere in the Atlantic Ocean. I get it. So using the Hive isn’t an option?” He swallows. “We can’t find them?”

 

Sherlock bows his head. There’s another possibility: Moriarty, realising they’ve failed, will hunt them down and start the next sick chapter of his game. He doesn’t say that because John is intelligent enough to know it already. Sherlock can see it in his shaking hands.

 

“We can try the Hive,” Sherlock says, meaning ‘I can try the Hive.’

 

John glares in a way that suggests he’s read Sherlock’s meaning loud and clear.

 

“No chance, Holmes. We’re in this fucked up situation together.”

 

He can see the flicker of doubt on John’s face. John’s thinking of going alone. He doesn’t want Sherlock to risk his life as well.

 

“Together,” Sherlock echoes.

 

If they use the Hive, it’s both of their lives at risk, or none.

 

John’s seems to sink a little further into his seat. His eyes settle on the sopping wet carpet. Sherlock has retrieved the pressed flower and returned it to its protective book, but otherwise everything is as it was an hour before.

 

“You kissed me,” John says absently.

 

Sherlock says nothing. He can hardly deny it.

 

“I think I’ve forgiven you.”

 

“For the kiss?” Sherlock asks in surprise. “I wasn’t aware I-“

 

“Not about the kiss,” John says hastily. “About the other… but you have to accept that I can forgive you while still mourning him.”

 

“I do,” Sherlock says. “If you can accept that I can love both versions of you as different people.”

 

John looks down at the carpet again and when he speaks his voice is soft and considered.

 

“I don’t need to accept it.”

 

Sherlock doesn’t need him to say any more, his mind is already racing ahead to the logical conclusion. John doesn’t need to accept it because he understands. Because he-

 

He knows that he must look stunned as John cautiously meets his gaze again.

 

“You-?”

 

John huffs in amused, self-deprecation. “If nothing else, the last few months have given me time to decide what I want.”

 

“Which is?” Sherlock holds his breath.

 

“What it always was. Sherlock Holmes, in any form. It turns out I love the messed up man who has spent months whispering secrets to me in the dark just as much as I loved the pillock who spent so much time winding me up in this flat. I get it. I get why you feel like you do, though it’s a godawful mess to try and get your head around. I want a future with you. A new one, one that’s not influenced by the past.”

 

Sherlock suddenly wants to stand and go over to him, but is frozen in place. He clutches at the arms of his chair as if they might steady him.

 

John wants him. In the midst of all this mess and all of these demands on John Watson’s life, he has staked his claim on his future and he wants to spend it with Sherlock. This version of Sherlock.

 

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Their situation sits between them, weighing down any potential elation. John’s not announcing his feelings, he’s confessing to them. It only complicates everything else.

 

“Mary?” Sherlock asks eventually.

 

John drops his head into his hands.

 

“I have to find her and the baby. I’m still married to her and she still has my child. I still care. That’s not going to go away. If we want a future we have to sort out the hell of the present.”

 

It’s a sliver of hope. If they can somehow survive this mess, John is choosing a future with him.

 

Sherlock slips to the floor, on his knees between them and crawls closer until he is at John’s knees. His right hand rests on John’s thigh, thumb sweeping gently over the fabric of old PJs John found in the airing cupboard. His left hand reaches up and tugs John’s t-shirt closer until John is leaning down and their mouths are inches apart.

 

“Just… can I have…” he can’t seem to say it. He’s never been good at expressing his romantic desires and so he looks up, willing John to understand the need that must be obvious to even the dullest of brains. I need you.

 

“Our first night together,” John promises. His hand sweeps through Sherlock’s hair and for a moment he looks awed.

 

It’s technically morning, but Sherlock lets it pass. It’s still dark outside and London is as quiet as it ever gets. He also doesn’t say what John must be thinking: it might very well be their only night together.

 

All it takes is for the two of them to inch forward and their lips touch. Sherlock presses his eyes closed, trying to force his mind to stop analysing, but it can’t. He’s cataloguing everything, every similarity and difference to the kiss, when all he wants is to lose himself in what should be everything he longed for.

 

That doesn’t mean it’s not a good kiss. This John savours the moment a little more before opening his mouth, and when he does it’s only a fraction, just a teasing hint of breath and tongue. Is he going slowly deliberately, testing Sherlock’s reaction?

 

And then he realises that John’s hands are trembling. This is John’s first time with a man, and the culmination of years of wanting. Sherlock’s grown used to that ache of loneliness, can barely comprehend that here - face pressed to his - is the answer to everything his heart has begged for.

 

Before John was really a person to him, when he was just standing in for Sherlock’s true desires, he used to fantasise of a debauched night. John would be overwhelmed at the way Sherlock knew his every turn on, every place to lick, bite, and stroke…

 

But if he tried that now John – his Doctor – would be just that: overwhelmed. It might technically be the best shag of John’s life, but it wouldn’t be a true first time.

 

And where are they going to do this? Is there anywhere in this flat that won’t hold a memory for John? If they go upstairs they’ll be in a place John associates with his old life and if they use his bedroom… well they’ll be all too aware that it’s not really his.

 

Right now they are living in a pocket of intense emotion caused by fear and nights spent baring their souls to each other in the dark. What they have now works as long as they don’t try and pick it apart with paranoia and over analysis. They’re standing in the bricks and mortar of their relationship, but they need time to build it still.

 

And time is what they don’t have. Tomorrow there will still be Mary, and they still might go to their deaths.

 

Sherlock’s eyes suddenly sting, his eyelids flutter as he moves against John’s mouth and a tear is knocked out of place, sliding down his cheek to meet John’s thumb, which is stroking his cheekbone.

 

“I should have known you’d think too much,” John murmurs against his mouth. He doesn’t seem annoyed, just resigned, as if he knew that they were fooling themselves as well.

 

Thinking. Sherlock wants to laugh. Thinking is the last thing he’s doing. Once again his emotions are destroying what should, logically, be one of the most perfect moments of his life. He’s angry and terrified and unable to comprehend the gift he’s been given: John Watson here, in his arms.

 

“Too much?” John says softly.

 

Sherlock nods. “Not exactly a great ‘last night’ together,” he mutters. “Our last night on Earth – possibly – and we’re too awkward for a night of passion.”

 

John kisses him again, just a press against the mouth, warm and affectionate. “We’re just too British. And better a rubbish last night than a terrible first one. I get it. Not here. Not now. But one day.”

 

“And what if we do die tomorrow?”

 

“Then we can at least spend the night in each other’s arms.”

 

 

--

 

 

They use John’s old bedroom, which is about as neutral a location as it gets. They press against each other and kiss until the cold sheets warm around them, until the world fades away and they slide into exhausted sleep.

 

Sherlock wakes with a start three hours later, in watery sunshine. His head is against John’s chest and John is looking down at him with drowsy eyes.

 

“You stayed,” John says wondrously. “I was scared you’d-“

 

“-sneak off and risk the Hive on my own?”

 

John pokes him.

 

“No. Get bored and wander off.”

 

He trusts me, Sherlock realises. Maybe not to stay in bed all morning, but not to risk his life doing something stupid. At least, not alone.

 

Sherlock captures John’s mouth. Their kiss is a little sour, a little imperfect, but - for a while at least - they keep the fear at the door and hold each other in their little cocoon.

 

“Maybe we should plan something,” John says suddenly.

 

Sherlock frowns. He has a plan, at least the outline of one, to use against Moriarty. But it depends on a lot of factors, the largest being whether he understands Moriarty like he thinks he does, and that’s not something he’s prepared to stake anyone’s life on.

 

“What sort of plan?”

 

“Something to look forward to. You know, for after we’ve washed up on a French beach, vanquished Moriarty, been introduced to my child, I’ve shaken hands with Mary and parted as friends with her, and we’ve returned back here triumphant. What will happen next?”

 

“A song routine before the credits roll?” Sherlock huffs.

 

He runs an idle finger across the skin where John’s shirt has ridden up and it surprises a gasp from John and then a brilliant smile.

 

“I just… this is nothing like I imagined,” he says. “I’m not talking about the ship and Moriarty and all that. Just you, here, like this…”

 

“That’s why you need something to imagine, for the future,” Sherlock says, understanding.

 

“What sort of life can we have together?”

 

Sherlock doesn’t know how to answer. He had a thousand fantasies, but that was before they’d spent months sharing their secrets, before ‘they’ was even an option.

 

“A new start,” he says finally. “Something neither of us planned before now.”

 

‘New’ means not here in Baker Street. Not in John’s house. A place where they can build new memories, not live in the shadow of the old ones.

 

“I said I wanted to retire to the country.”

 

It’s an offer. John looks startled. “Leave London? But you- what about the job? You once said you were married to it.”

 

I could marry you instead. It’s on the tip of his tongue but he swallows those words down. John still is married and their relationship is so fragile they have only just managed to kiss each other.

 

“We can find something else to do,” he says eventually, as if dangerous adventures needing brainwork are ten a penny in the middle of nowhere.

 

“It’ll upset Mrs. Hudson,” John points out.

 

“She can come and visit,” Sherlock says. “And get nice, quiet tenants that make their own tea.”

 

He has known Mrs. Hudson for less time than John, but his affection is no less genuine. The list of people who honestly like Sherlock is small, and the people on it are cherished, even if they don’t recognise it. He and John will be as loyal to Mrs. Hudson as any sons would be.

 

He can practically hear John turning the idea over.

 

“Where in the country?” he asks at last. “Are we talking… farmland or dales?”

 

Sherlock doesn’t even have to think. “Somewhere near the sea,” he says. And then, because he might never get the chance to share one last truth with his dear Doctor again, he adds: “I used to like The Famous Five.”

 

John shakes underneath him with a sudden outburst of laughter and his arms close around Sherlock more tightly, pressing a kiss to Sherlock’s hair.

 

“That’s the best thing I ever heard. It explains so much.”

 

Sherlock feels the need to explain.

 

“My mother really wanted to be the sort of woman who read to her children every night. Mycroft wouldn’t ever let her. I imagine she picked Enid Blyton because it fit with her twee idea of what a mother should read to boys.”

 

“So it needs to be somewhere with a lighthouse and caves and ruins and smugglers…”

 

“Well, it would keep us busy.”

 

They share another smile and pretend that in a few hours they don’t have to face the Hive and whatever consequences it brings. For a while the world is soft and warm and a future together seems within touching distance.

 

 

--

 

 

Much of Mary's first few weeks back on the throne are spent in a battle with nursemaids. She is unprepared for an old world rearing of her child. She has spent twenty years of her life in another universe and eight and a half months of her pregnancy surrounded by baby books and cot-building instructions. To hand the child over to a nursemaid almost physically hurts.

 

But to behave that way here - as Agra - makes her look like a weak warrior. Part of her thinks that she should do as she pleases, but tensions are mounting among her subjects. The neighbouring lands are causing trouble and, if there is to be war, they cannot have doubts about their Agra, especially one who has only just reclaimed the throne after years of absence.

 

Her solution, so far, has been to develop a fearsome reputation regarding nursemaids. In the last few months she has fired no less than seven and with every firing she takes longer to choose another, insisting that there is no one competent to raise her child and thoroughly enjoying the time she has in-between. It's a ridiculous system, but it gives her what she wants without damaging her reputation or pride.

 

Rosa is… perfect. The most perfect point in any universe. The courtiers say that just looking at her gives one a sense of awe, and while they are arse-lickers of the highest order, Mary likes to believe it’s true. She knows with utter certainty that Rosa will be the greatest Agra to ever live, more so than her, more than any predecessor. And she will be good, in a way that Mary doesn’t think she will ever be, because she is part John.

 

She is bathing with Rosa, the two of them in a tub of warm water surrounded by beautiful scents and flowers. Sunlight streams through the glass and she is making a game of lifting Rosa in and out of the water, to let her alternately splash with her hands and kick at it with her tiny feet.

 

“Agra,” says the maid servant, “the guard is at the door. He says you are needed at once.”

 

On reflex Mary clutches Rosa close to her breast and kisses her blonde fuzz of hair as she cries over the loss of her game. “What is it?”

 

“The coastal guards have found something strange,” the maid repeats, after consulting with the guard.

 

This is unusual. She is Queen of an empire, it is not usual for the guards to come to her on a whim.

 

“Take Rosa to the yellow room, and I want every guard you can find outside her door.”

 

Rosa is taken away and Mary is helped to dress (yet another thing that feels strange) then she strides out of her private quarters and into the great corridors of her castle. As she does her role settles back on her shoulders. She is no longer a mother, no longer a woman who reads the Guardian and has an opinion on pro-biotic yogurt. Those brief moments of humanity are precious and private, rare in either world. Now she is a fighter, a killer. A leader.

 

She strides into the throne room and takes her seat. The room is empty, the business of the day being over. The only men present are her personal soldiers and the coastal guards who have requested her presence.

 

“What is of such importance?” she demands of the guard.

 

Wordlessly, the guard signals and his colleagues rush to drag something into the room.

 

“Agra, two men were washed up onto the beach this morning. One breathes but does not wake, the other is-“

 

He doesn’t need to finish. Even if Mary hadn’t recognised the put-upon look on his face, she knows the figure of the man being dragged before her.

 

Sherlock Holmes has found her. He’s sopping wet, shivering in a suit that has been soaked through, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed. The second he sees her he cries out.

 

“Mary- the Hive was in the sea – we were near land but the current was too strong – Watson is – he –“

 

He’s distracted because the guards have brought their second load before her.

 

John is – as the guard said – unconscious but still breathing. His skin is grey, and though the men have thought to wrap him in a blanket Mary can see that he’s slipping into hypothermia before her eyes.

 

Her wonderful, clever husband has found his way to her.

 

She strides over to John, barking out orders as she does. Her medical knowledge far outweighs the primitive healing methods in use here. If they can fix John, then in time her country will be the strongest, healthiest nation alive. But that’s no use if John dies.

 

“Prepare a bed!” she barks. “And a fire. Place him in my private rooms. Treat this man with the respect and reverence you would me.”

 

The servants rush to do their bidding and the guards – much more gently now – carry John towards her quarters.

 

Sherlock has stopped babbling, having worked out what she was ordering, even if he doesn’t understand her language. Or maybe he already does, you never know with Sherlock.

 

“The baby?” he asks, now there is nothing more he can do for John.

 

She’s inexplicably annoyed at the question, at the idea of Sherlock knowing about the baby before John.

 

“She’s fine,” Mary says tightly.

 

“Moriarty?”

 

“Gone. No idea where. I assumed he left to torment you.”

 

Sherlock shakes his head. “We had to find the Hive you’d used in the first place.”

 

He holds up a wooden bowl, one that had, decades before, sat on a table in what was to be her execution chamber. He explains the journey they’ve been forced to take to find her.

 

She holds out her hands and takes the bowl from him. She runs her hands over its grooves, considering this small piece of wood that saved her life and returned her husband to her. It gives her time to think.

 

Sherlock is a problem.

 

Sherlock has always been a problem, of course, since the moment he returned from the dead. For all that, though, she has always liked him. He pretends to be far more complicated than he actually is, but his complete love for John has always kept her safe.

 

But things have changed. Mary isn’t a nurse with a history any more, she’s a Queen with a country. John’s child is heir to a throne and Mary has no intention of going back to their poky house and bandaging up old people for a living.

 

This place is perfect for John. A whole new world, constant adventure, the chance to shape the course of history. He will thrive here.

 

Sherlock is the only thing standing in the way of that. As long as Sherlock is around, John will never stay here, will never consider staying. The elephant in the room will grow and grow and eventually John will make a choice and it won’t be here. Maybe he’s already made it.

 

Just as she did on that day where she faced Sherlock with a gun, she has to make a choice, and it’s as coldly logical this time as it was then. Her people come first.

 

She grips the bowl tightly and lifts her head to call to one of the castle guards.

 

“Take this man to the dungeons,” she orders. “No one is to know of his presence there.”

 

Sherlock clearly hasn’t picked up her language yet, not all of it, because he doesn’t register what is happening until the guards have seized him and started roughly dragging him away.

 

“Mary! What are you-? What about the Doc- John? Mary! No!”

 

She watches him until he is gone. She is at least strong enough to meet the gaze of the man she’s betraying.

 

She looks around at her staff with warning eyes. “This man was never here. You never saw him. You will NEVER speak of him.”

 

The wooden bowl is still in her hand as she rushes towards her quarters to find John.

 

 

--

 

 

It takes eleven hours for John to wake.

 

“Where’s Holmes?” he asks, half asleep still nowhere near lucidity.

 

Their strange new naming pattern hasn’t escaped her, but there will be time for questions later.

 

“He’s fine,” she says softly. “Just resting.”

 

Reassured, he drifts away again.

 

 

--

 

 

Somewhere around four in the morning, when she’s drifting towards sleep, she’s woken by a cool hand against her cheek. John is watching her in the dawn light. He looks confused and lost, but when she smiles he smiles back.

 

“I found you,” he rasps. “You’re alive.”

 

He has the strength to press his still cold fingers to her cheek again. She covers them with her own and brings them to her mouth to kiss them.

 

“The baby is fine,” Mary says gently. “I’ll get them to bring her. Oh John, she’s beautiful.”

 

He smiles again, rapturously this time.

 

“What’s she called?”

 

“Rosa,” Mary smiles. “I called her Rosa.”

 

“A flower…” John says. He lifts his hand in a half-hearted attempt to touch the streams of expensive flowers Mary has woven into her hair in a beautiful, natural crown. They are no doubt wilting by now, but she doesn’t care.

 

She nods, sensing his attention fading.

 

“It floated,” he says faintly. “It was near the shore… but we still had to swim… and the current was so strong…”

 

He means the Hive, which he has woken up to hysterically demand a few times in the last couple of hours. Each time she reassured him that it was safe, but now he’s lucid, she adopts a contrite look.

 

“John… the Hive wasn’t with you when you washed up.”

 

“Holmes probably has it,” he says sleepily, head slumping back onto the pillow. There’s a softness in his voice when he says ‘Holmes’ that is far more intimate than if he’d merely called him ‘Sherlock.’

 

“John-“ she takes his hand and squeezes it. “I didn’t want to alarm you before… but when they found you, Sherlock wasn’t with you.”

 

She blinks as if it’s some accident, as if there’s bound to be a rational explanation for it.

 

John stares at her for what feels like an eternity. “No. No. He was with me. He’s a strong swimmer. I was the one who got pulled under; if he hadn’t been there I’d not have made it to shore.”

 

“Maybe he got into trouble,” Mary says softly. “Do you remember getting to shore?”

 

John is quiet, thinking. “No.”

 

“Maybe he got into trouble and used the Hive to go back.”

 

“Then he’d have come back the second he could!”

 

She can see his panic rising. Does she feel guilt? Of course she does, but that doesn’t change what needs to be done.

 

She raises a cup to his lips, filled with a strong opiate, and holds it there until he drinks. By the time John recognises what it is, he’s already slipping away.

 

“You’re exhausted still,” she says softly, striking his forehead and letting her voice lull him away. “Sleep.”

 

 

--

 

 

When John next wakes, Mary has a surprise for him. She has had Rosa fetched and the baby rests in her arms, cranky due to the heat in the room.

 

John’s eyes flutter at the gurgling noise Rosa makes and when he realises what’s in front of him his expression is so tender and perfect Mary wants to remember it always.

 

She gently removes the blankets, leaving Rosa in just a flannel shift, at once cooler and calmed. John holds out his arms as he takes his daughter and peers down at her, exhausted, ill, but clearly overjoyed.

 

Even Sherlock Holmes can’t take this moment from their little family.

 

Rosa, still not able to smile, seems quiet and sleepy in her father’s arms and Mary feels tears come to her eyes as she looks down at them.

 

“She’s perfect,” he whispers. “God. I’m holding my daughter. And she’s brilliant.”

 

The look on his face is… like nothing Mary has ever seen aimed at her. Love just radiates from him, in a way that she doesn’t think she’d have seen had this moment not been happening while he fights a battle with his own immune system. That’s what love looks like on John’s face and she’s seen it before, better hidden, less fatherly, but still there, and it was never directed at her.

 

She’s not even surprised, in the end. It doesn’t matter. John chose a life with her. John has a daughter with her. Perhaps it isn’t true love, but they are a family, an unbreakable unit.

 

John’s still whispering affectionate nothings to his now-sleeping child, along with the occasional glance at Mary with a proud ‘look-what-we-made’ expression.

 

“You’re the most beautiful little girl on Earth. On any Earth. And we’re going to make you so happy. Wait until you see London, you’ll love London. And there’ll be a cottage by the sea…” a private smile crosses his mouth. “You’ve got so much goodness to come...”

 

Perhaps he’s forgotten that the Hive is missing, or maybe he just has complete faith that Sherlock will return with it. He kisses Rosa’s head and turns his soft, hopeful murmuring to Mary.

 

“She can have the best of both worlds. She can learn sword fighting here and Kung-Fu there, she be a princess and still watch the changing of the guard. She can go to school, and get vaccinations, and learn to text but learn queening as well. I can’t believe you’re a queen! And I can teach her medicine, and she’ll probably annoy us both by wanting to be a consulting detective because Sherlock is way cooler than us…”

 

Mary’s expression doesn’t change, but her heart sits heavy in her chest. John may be a little drugged up, but there’s firmness to his expression that she’d be a fool to ignore. John is as good as saying that he won’t be staying here with her, that his life will be in London, with Sherlock Holmes. This moment isn’t their little family coming together, it’s him carefully dividing it up.

 

He manages to squeeze her hand briefly, before returning to support the baby again. Mary smiles back weakly.

 

This is only a temporary problem, after all. John will have no choice but to come around.

 

--

 

 

 

Sherlock hears Mary’s voice before he sees her.

 

“Build up a fire!” she barks at the guards as the door is unlocked and she strides into the dungeon.

 

He has had too little access to the language of her people to understand what she has said, only the few minutes of talking in the throne room, and for a while he watches in confusion until he grasps what her orders were. Guards move in and out with kindling and wood.

 

The stone room is bitterly cold and Sherlock would be grateful if he weren’t so intrigued by the order for fire. Mary is in a thick cloak and hardly delicate, even so soon after giving birth. He also doubts it is out of kindliness towards him, if she were being so she wouldn’t have locked him up in the first place. If his time being tortured has taught him anything, it’s that someone lighting a fire while you’re chained up in a cell is never going to end well.

 

Mary looks every inch a queen, or rather an Agra. A crown of flowers sits on her head, reminding him of her wedding day: even her crown claims John Watson as her own. A sword hangs from her belt, and the ease that she walks with it – despite many years away from this place – suggests he would be a fool to try and get past her, even if he were not manacled to a wall.

 

He remains where he is and keeps his face calm even as the first heavenly drafts of warmth reach him.

 

Mary waits until the guards are gone.

 

“Have you been treated well?” she asks at last.

 

Sherlock shrugs. She’s somewhat guilty then, wanting him to reassure her of his good treatment to ease her own conscience.

 

“How’s the Doctor?” he asks, careful to keep to the correct name even out of John’s presence.

She frowns a little, puzzled at the change in names which she has probably heard from John as well.

 

“He’s fine,” she says, mask slipping back into place.

 

“The baby?”

 

An almost certain way to get her talking, no new mother could resist talking of their child.

 

“Beautiful,” she says, smile faint but genuine. “Perfect. John-“

 

She swallows, stops herself.

 

“What of Moriarty?” Sherlock demands. “What did he do to you?”

 

She shrugs. “He brought me here. Disappeared sometime while I was in labour. He’s a bastard but his beef isn’t with me and as far as I’m concerned that’s another reason to keep my child away from you.” She raises her chin. “John agrees.”

 

Sherlock snorts. “He doesn’t know I’m here. If he did I wouldn’t still be in a dungeon. And you didn’t lock me up to protect your child, you did it because if I were missing Jo- the Doctor wouldn’t leave this world until I was found. That’s what you want – your kingdom, your child, and your husband. And if you can’t win them fairly, you’ll do what any ruler does: you’ll take them by force.”

 

“For the good of my people,” Mary snaps. “They need stability and John isn’t suited for the other world. He was attracted to me because he saw the true me, he sensed this world – dangerous, full of risk - and once he’s got used to it he’ll thrive here. What can you give him? Your mysteries might entertain him for a while, but he needs more than that. He needs his daughter.”

 

She doesn’t say ‘his wife’ Sherlock notes. She must sense that her relationship with John isn’t on the strongest of grounds. Has John mentioned the events on board the ship? The kiss they’d shared in their last moments together?

 

“And you love him,” Mary says softly. “I saw it on your face the moment I met you. You pretend to be a complete dick to hide how far you’d go for him. Well now you have your chance to end this mess.”

 

From a pocket within her cloak Mary retrieves a familiar object. The wooden bowl. She holds it out to him.

 

“Go home, Sherlock. Leave John here.”

 

“If I did you’d destroy the bowl the second I was gone,” Sherlock glances towards the fire. “Not very subtle.”

 

“Isn’t that better?” she says. “Let him have his new life.”

 

“Let him think I drowned? Let him live like he did before, constantly wondering if I might one day appear out of the blue? I may be an insensitive prick, but I’m not that much of one.” He meets her gaze. “Moriarty still isn’t done with us, and John is in danger regardless of whether the Hive works. But if you want me to go… then I’ll make you a deal.”

 

Mary tilts her head, considering. “A deal?”

 

“Let John Watson actually make an informed decision. Bring him down here and he can decide what he wants. I promise you that if he tells me to leave I’ll go in a heartbeat.”

 

Mary rolls her eyes. “I could torture you,” she warns. “Press the bowl into your hands and make you suffer so badly you’ll be forced to activate the Hive…”

 

Sherlock shrugs, at this point she’d have to be very inventive to truly frighten him.

 

“Take the deal Sherlock,” she says softly. “Go. It’s the kinder option. Even the torture would be kinder, really…”

 

He says nothing and for a minute she looks truly conflicted.

 

“Sherlock, you’re right. I am the Agra. I have to do what’s best for my people and if you won’t take my offer… then you’re a threat. Even if you just stay in this dungeon, you will bring Moriarty down upon us.”

 

“So what are you going to do?” Sherlock asks.

 

She holds out the bowl one last time, within easy touching distance for him.

 

“If you don’t do it, Sherlock, I will be forced to be cruel and I won’t feel guilty because you knew I would do it, you knew what I was capable of, and you still didn’t take my offer.”

 

She holds it out again. He doesn’t move.

 

“No?” she says, with genuine regret.

 

“No,” he says.

 

She moves away, all traces of regret gone. Sherlock looks at the bowl and then up into her eyes, which are as clinical as they had been when she had a gun in her hand.

 

In five steps she is in front of the fireplace.

 

“Then I’m sorry Sherlock, but if you won’t go, then you can’t stay.”

 

In one sharp movement she tosses the bowl into the fire.

 

Sherlock yells and struggles to get free of the manacles, but Mary is already moving towards the door. She snaps at a guard and then, for Sherlock’s benefit, repeats her order in English.

 

“Brick him in. From now on he gets no food and no water. Brick him in and leave him to die. As far as the rest of the castle is concerned, this room never even existed.”

 

After a long, considering look, she unhooks the sword from her belt and tosses it to the ground. “Take this. I won’t deny you the chance to make your death quick.”

 

By the time Sherlock has freed himself from the manacles, the door is locked and the bowl is already ash.

 

 

 --

 

 

A/N: We are nearing the end now. There are just three chapters left! Incidentally, this week marks the one year anniversary of this fic. On 1st April 2014 I started and nearly sobbed at the sheer amount of work that was ahead of me. Now, a year later, the end is in sight!

 

I feel some of you may be angry with the way I’ve handled Mary. My only response is that I don’t think she’s evil, either on the show or in my fic. She’s complex and not nice but I like that.

 

Chapter Text

3am

 

A castle is only as strong as its people, and at three in the morning people are weak.

 

The guards who get the night shift are either inexperienced or stupid, proven by the fact that they are too inexperienced or stupid to get out of it. They patrol the castle at a pace best described as an ‘amble’ and are too busy fantasising about warm beds and hot food to notice any trouble. Inside a skeleton crew of domestic staff are still trudging through their duties. The drones are mopping and polishing and the bakers are mixing and kneading, creating enough bread for the hundreds of castle inhabitants who will demand their rations the next morning.

 

No one thinks of war. No one talks of it. Not because they are scared, or because they haven’t heard the rumours, but because it seems impossible that war could affect them in that moment. Nothing could break a routine that feels as permanent as stone. They don’t care that their neighbouring countries are unhappy over their new Agra’s reign. The petty fights of royalty mean nothing at that time of night.

 

It’s oh-so-easy for the trained warriors to slip inside the castle unnoticed. They reach the kitchens first and move so quickly that a baker retrieves a tray of loaves from the oven and turns to find his colleague’s throat slashed open, spraying blood over the still-warm batches of bread. In the time it takes for him to react a sword is already through his chest and he’s dead before the tray he’s holding hits the floor.

 

The group moves through the castle, dispatching any waking person they meet. A maid bleeds out across the freshly mopped corridor, a group of laundry women are left forever slumped over their tubs, the bedding beneath their hands turning pink with their blood.

 

Even the most useless guard notices something like that happening eventually but by then their attention is forced elsewhere. By the time alarm is raised there are twenty thousand warriors heading towards the castle, all intent on fulfilling their mission: to find the Agra and slaughter her.

 

 

--

 

John

 

 

The attack on the castle happens six months and five days after John Watson washed up on the beach. He has no idea that he didn’t arrive on the shore alone, no idea that his wife left Sherlock for dead in a dungeon, and he has no idea at all how he’s coping.

 

He’s not.

He spends his days mostly alone. He’s the husband of the Agra, a curious man who is stared at and considered strange by everyone he meets here. Mary is busy and even when she’s not, she’s cautious around him.

 

She knows that something changed between him and Sherlock. He wonders how long until she realises that the change was permanent. For now, she thinks he’ll come around. She thinks he’ll eventually come to love her again, and learn to love her world.

 

John wonders why she believes that, when she has made it so abundantly clear how much living in his world – the world he married her in – was such a misery for her.

 

Sometimes he wakes up in the night and laughs hysterically at the idea that he has allowed two versions of Sherlock Holmes to die for him. He laughs like a madman until a wave of nausea overtakes him and he vomits, or else sudden sobs wrack through him and he buries his face in his pillow and weeps.

 

Sometimes he wakes up in the night and finds himself already standing, half dressed, as if he’s permanently prepared to run from this place and never look back. In his waking hours he fantasises about leaving, of going to find Sherlock, or at least find some hint of what happened to him, but he always talks himself back down.

 

Rosa needs him.

 

Rosa is the only bright spot in his waking hours. He’s not good with babies, he always groaned internally when one was brought into his treatment room, but it’s different when it’s your own. An hour can pass by with Rosa in what feels like a minute. With her he’s happy.

 

At least, he’s happy until terror creeps into his thoughts

Mary might be cheerfully blind to the drawbacks of this place, but what will happen when Rosa needs medicine that this world simply doesn’t have? The idea of him having to operate on his own child without anaesthetic terrifies him, and that’s if disease or viruses don’t touch her first. He isn’t prepared for the terrors of a medieval parent.

 

His moods swing wildly. Grief turns to anger in a heartbeat. His nights are hellish and the days disorientate him.

 

If only Sherlock had stayed dead, he thinks bitterly, he’d have been better off. He’d have only had to mourn once, he wouldn’t have known what he’d lost, he’d still have… fucking Doctor Who and University Challenge.

 

He thinks it, but he doesn’t believe it.

 

John’s not exactly asleep, but lost in a haze of semi-conscious pain. The shouts of alarm startle him awake like a bucket of cold water.

 

His restless sleep works in his favour. He’s up and moving within seconds, dressing with practised ease. He grabs his knife and a sword and rushes from his chamber.

 

He almost trips over a body outside.

 

It’s not a uniform he recognises, and the blood on the stone floor is still warm. The cry that woke him must have been this man’s last moment alive.

 

John looks across to the nursery door and the terror that greets the sight nearly has him keel over: the door is wide open, almost off the hinges. There is blood splattered up it and he staggers towards it like a man in chains.

 

 

No.

 

He takes a breath and looks inside.

 

It’s empty. There’s no sign of Rosa, nor any of Dorlag, Rosa’s combined nanny and bodyguard, but the blood is only on the door; it must have come from the dead soldier.

 

Suddenly a hand falls onto his shoulder. The owner has to leap backwards to avoid his knife.

 

“It’s me!” Kennya whispers. She’s his wife’s chief bodyguard: wiry, in her early fifties, and plain, but one of the most decisive, strategically-minded people John has ever met.

 

She says something rapidly, but she’s speaking too quickly for John to understand. He’s picked up a bit of the language just to survive, but he’s nowhere near fluent.

 

“I don’t-“ he begins, but Kennya is already striding towards Mary’s room and beckoning him to follow.

 

Inside Mary is yanking on clothes one handed, sword in the other, surveying the horror taking place below her window.

 

She spins defensively at their entrance, but lowers her weapon upon seeing them.

 

“Rosa-?“ she demands.

 

John hopes to hell that the ever-calm Kennya knows where Rosa is - and preferably that she has the baby hidden about her person somewhere - but Kennya only looks grim.

 

“She was gone when I arrived. Dorlag must have tried to get her to safety.”

 

John looks out at the slaughter happening below the window. The world outside is just… something he can’t even comprehend. There are swords and spears, trebuchets, arrows, it’s every action movie’s final scene, only more sickening because it’s not computer generated. The stench of death is already in the air.

 

Somewhere in all that is his child.

 

He lashes out, smashing the small table by the door. He’s so fucking sick of being separated from people, of being left behind, not knowing what’s happening. Rosa was supposed to be safe. She was supposed to be born in a hospital and she was supposed to be protected. Not by some random bodyguard, but by him. By Mary.

 

Kennya doesn’t give a damn about his rage. He is not her job unless he threatens Mary. She holds out a dress that she’s been carrying.

 

“My lady, put this on. They are after you. If you dress as a maid I might be able to get you out of the castle…”

 

Mary’s jaw tightens. “I’m not leaving without Rosa.”

 

From Kennya’s expression it was not an unexpected answer.

 

“My lady my job is to protect you-“

 

“Then do whatever it takes. But I’m not leaving without my child. We’re going to start looking-”

 

John is immediately on guard. He’s seen the expression currently on Kennya’s face before, on Sherlock, usually just when someone has said something provocative. It’s the blank, reactionless look before he does something outrageous.

 

Kennya simply turns and leaves.

 

Mary and John are so surprised that they don’t realise what’s happening until there’s a heavy click of the lock.

 

“Stay in there,” Kennya calls. “The longer you are hidden the safer you are. We can fight them off before they find you. But you have to stay quiet.”

 

Mary and John ignore her. If they are locked helplessly in this room they’ll never find Rosa: the chance of the castle being saved is practically zero at this point.

 

They throw their weight at the door, shouting to be let out. John slams at it with his hands until they start to bleed. The door doesn’t move and they only stop when they hear a creaking and scraping, along with Kennya’s terse orders to her guards.

 

She’s barricading the door. The plan seems to be to force the enemies away from this part of the castle for as long as possible.

 

When they’re gone Mary steps away from the door and hacks the maid’s dress apart. She doesn’t scream because she’s not stupid. They are trapped until such time as the enemy finds a suspicious pile of furniture and begins to investigate. Making noise is not going to help them.

 

She runs her hand through her hair desperately, thinking, then goes to the window. “We can get out this way,” she insists. “Climb to the ground, like a prison movie.”

 

She grabs the sword again and swings for the window. John has to move quickly to stop her.

 

“Are you kidding? This window is fifty feet up and it’s fucking… Game of Thrones outside!”

 

“We. Have. To. Find. Rosa!”

 

“And we do that by staying alive!”

 

“And how do we do that?”

 

What can he say?

 

It’s only a matter of time before one of the soldiers finds these quarters and realises that prize that is behind the furniture blocking them in. John doesn’t fear for himself – he is unimportant, his death will be quick and brutal - but Mary will die slowly, she’ll die screaming, and whatever she’s done in her life won’t have deserved the end she will get today.

 

He’s seen her defensive, hurt, and even guilty, but this is pure defeat. There’s a panic in her eyes he has never seen before. She’s going to die and she knows it. Her child is missing, her kingdom is gone, the castle is as good as taken.

 

She understands how hopeless it is.

 

As one, the fight drops out of them both. They sink down onto the end of Mary’s bed, facing the barricaded door. Shouts and screams can be heard from both inside and out and he reaches out to take her hand.

 

John’s mind drifts back to another time, to that tube carriage and the bomb. He thought he was done for, thought that was his only chance to tell the madman how much he cared, and for a moment he thinks his heart is going to break.

 

The Sherlock he’s mourned for really was dead, never knew how John felt. The man he poured his heart out to, who he loves now, is gone as well. His wife is virtually a stranger to him and about to die, and his girl, his perfect girl is in the middle of a battle.

 

Would one more Holmesian miracle be too much to ask for?

 

“Rosa’s still alive,” he promises.

 

“Don’t,” Mary’s voice is trembling. “Don’t say that when you don’t know.”

 

“We’d know.”

 

Mary sighs. “No. We wouldn’t.”

 

“What about our chances when they find us?” he asks, with a rough voice.

 

“Absolute zero,” she says. “Just a million ways to die.”

 

He sits up straight, breathes out, ready for battle. “So is this – is this the point in the movie where the last two people alive are surrounded and it all ends in murder-suicide? Because that’s what it feels like.”

 

“Sherlock was right,” she says hollowly. “Murder’s a lot quicker than marriage. It’s certainly easier than our marriage.”

 

“Yeah well don’t give him too much credit. I don’t think even he saw this one coming. God, I’m going to die holding a sword.”

 

Mary summons a half-hearted smirk. “And not knowing how to use it.”

 

“Well excuse me for not being born in the age of chivalry.”

 

He breathes out heavily.

 

“I keep thinking about the Hive,” John says, scrubbing at his face. “If only I’d held on to it a bit tighter... we’d have had some way out this. Something we could use. It’s probably in the ocean somewhere…”

 

He swallows, forcing the horrific image of it bobbing along in the sea, Sherlock’s limp body floating alongside…

 

“It’s all my fault,” he says weakly. “I’m the one who got into trouble and nearly drowned, I must have let the Hive go. It’s because of me Rosa will never see her home. That she might be-“

 

Mary swipes at her eyes hastily and the movement startles him. In their entire marriage he’s never seen her cry, not properly. But it seems once she’s started she can’t stop. Her face crumples and fat tears well up in her eyes. He tries to comfort her, tries to apologise, but she bats him away angrily and stands.

 

With a huge indrawn breath, she turns watery eyes to him and, not meeting his eyes, she whispers.

 

“John… I have something to-“

 

She freezes. So does John.

 

Outside the door there’s a shout. He might not know what that words mean, but it’s the universal tone of ‘hey guys, I found something!’

 

The enemy soldiers are close.

 

And then, from the other side of the room, there’s an unexpected voice.

 

“Taxi for John Watson!”

 

John and Mary spin round, weapons raised. For all the shock of their being someone else in the room, it’s the accent that truly frightens John. It’s an Irish lilt that’s wired into his nightmares.

 

“Moriarty,” he says hoarsely.

 

Jim Moriarty steps out of the shadows looking entirely uninterested in the war going on around him. He’s immaculately dressed, and for a moment John hates himself for the wave of homesickness the sight of his suit gives him.

 

In Moriarty’s hand is the gun that, if Sherlock is to be believed, allows him to travel throughout the alternate dimensions. John hasn’t forgotten that it will also shoot other people pretty dead too, as an added bonus.

 

John doesn’t even have time to react to the presence of the most evil man he’s ever met because, in the shadows behind Moriarty there’s another figure. He’s supporting himself against the wall, painfully thin, but oh-so-familiar.

 

Sherlock Holmes steps forward with a tired but desperately hopeful expression.

 

“Doctor Watson.”

 

Holmes,” says John faintly.

 

 

--

 

John

Some Months Before

 

 

The events that night can be explained by returning to a point several months earlier, the day when John gets his own way about starting a coastal search for Sherlock.

 

It takes a lot of arguing before John is allowed to leave the castle. He isn’t a prisoner, but he has recently recovered from a serious illness, is only just picking up the local language, and has a weak grasp on the complex political situation that is bringing war ever closer to Mary’s beloved castle. Apparently they make trips to the beach in search of either Sherlock Holmes or Hives somewhat risky.

 

At that point he’s still hopeful. He still has faith that Sherlock always beats the odds.

 

It’s by sheer chance that he befriends his daughter’s nanny and finds the perfect argument for being allowed to go.

Calling Dorlag a nanny is a little bit of a misrepresentation. He is nearing seven foot, shaggy-headed, and with the sort of chest that if he’d ever gone to such a thing as a gym would have made fellow patrons quail in a combination of terror, respect, and lust.

 

He’d previously worked as a guard for the royal household, which essentially meant standing in the vicinity of Rosa and looking threatening. When it turned out that his excellent baritone singing voice was the only thing that got her to sleep, and that – having raised three younger sisters – he was considerably more practical than the high-born nursemaids, the Watsons realised that the problem of childcare was over and gave him the invented titled of ‘Protector of the Nursery’.

 

“He’s a bit like Hagrid, if Hagrid was a Viking,” John murmured as they’d made the decision, and he can’t help liking the man. Dorlag is unfailingly patient with John’s potted attempts at speaking his language, cheerful to be around, and clearly quite happy to be on baby duty.

 

Most importantly, he was born and raised by the ocean and is more than happy to take John there when John suggests the idea. Mary can hardly disagree when John announces that he’s found an armed guide to get him to the coast, though she refuses to let Rosa go with them.

 

“I sent guards to search every grain of sand on that beach,” is all she says. “But I know that you need to see for yourself. And I wish you good luck.”

 

With that blessing, they are on their way, and John spirits soar to get away from the castle and out into the countryside, which at least is something he recognises and vaguely understands.

 

At least, he’d thought he’d understood it. His idea of miles is measured in car journeys and trains. The same distance on horse is an uncomfortable, agonisingly long journey. He promises himself that he will never, ever be annoyed about standing up on a train, or irritated by his fellow passengers, if he can just get home and away from a world where a journey means sitting on a live animal and having what feels like his ribcage shaken out of his chest.

 

When they finally stop John is tense. Realistically he knows he can’t search the entire coast himself, knows the odds of finding anything are microscopic, but he has to try. He can’t accept that he might never know what happened to Sherlock.

 

He looks out at the beach, stretching for miles in both directions. There is a small village ten miles northwards and he gives the order for them to walk in that direction, scanning the beach as they do.

 

Twelve hours later and the village is long behind them. They have found no clues and the villagers knew nothing. John pushes on until they have to stop before they collapse.

 

They camp on the beach and, with hot food and sickly sweet wine to fortify them, the two men perk up and begin a cobbled-together conversation, John picking his way through the language hesitantly.

 

He’s had an entire day to think things over. He can’t think in terms of one universe anymore, and if there are Hives all over the place, disguised as natural items, then there have to be others near the castle.

 

“Is the castle haunted?” he asks. “Or has anything strange ever happened?

 

It’s a patchy translation and it takes Dorlag a good while to understand his meaning.

 

“You won’t believe this,” he warns in his rasping, friendly voice.

 

“Oh, try me…”

 

“I was just a boy when the Agra disappeared, but I served her husband – I mean her first – uh –“

 

He waves the awkwardness away. “Go on.”

 

“And sometimes people needed to be locked away, you understand that?”

 

John nods, he has no illusions that this world is any less brutal that the one he calls home.

 

“There’s a dungeon under the castle. First, this man was thrown in there. He was old and fragile, he probably wouldn’t have lasted… We were told to guard him day and night though, becaue his supporters were troublemakers. One morning I turned up for my shift and found the cell empty, though the guards had never moved from their post. The guards were killed for being traitors, but I don’t think they had anything to do with it. If they had, they’d have done something less obvious.”

 

John frowns. It sounds promising; a disappearance in a locked room makes perfect sense in the context of Hives.

 

“Were there any other stories about that dungeon?”

 

Dorlag sucks the last of the greasy chicken he’s eating from his fingers, takes a glug of wine, and continues with the story, clearly starting to enjoy himself. He speaks with practised ease: this is a story that gleams from many re-polishings.

 

“A few years later, a girl was being held. A young thing, maybe fourteen. She was going to die but she was strong-willed. She screamed all night, I remembered the thuds as she threw her entire body at the door and she banged at the door and walls with her fists so badly they must have been bleeding.”

 

“What happened to her?”

 

Dorlag shrugs. “The noise was constant. Screaming, banging, wailing… hours of it. And then it just stopped.”

 

“She’d tired herself out?” John frowns.

 

“We thought that. Then we thought she might be tricking us… but in the end I opened the door.”

 

“And?”

 

“And the cell was empty.”

 

John tries not to look too excited. If one of the stones or scraps of wood in the cell was a Hive, it would make sense for a scared prisoner to accidentally touch it and vanish…

 

He takes a glug of wine himself and speaks casually.

 

“Do you think there’s going to be war?” he asks.

 

Dorlag looks cautious. Hs expression suggests that he thinks John should know more about that than him, but he shrugs. “There’s always war. But I’ll never let anyone harm your daughter. She is as safe with me as she is with you.” He grins, as proud as any father. “She’ll be speaking any day now.”

 

John chuckles. “She’s barely two months old.”

 

“Oh but she’s a smart one. Nothing in the universe could stop her.”

 

For all the troubles of their marriage, Rosa is John and Mary’s greatest accomplishment. “With her parents, nothing would surprise me,” he says fondly.

 

Dorlag reaches for the wine but John’s hand darts out to stop him, suddenly he has the urge to imprint this message on him before the man gets too far into his drink.

 

“If it all goes to shit…” (and that’s a fun thing to try and translate) “If there’s a war and Rosa is in danger… take her to that cell. Lock yourself in and search it from top to bottom. Touch everything you can reach and focus on escape as you do…” he squeezes Dorlag’s wrist. “Promise me.”

 

With a confused, but serious frown, Dorlag nods.

 

Two days later, having found nothing, they have no choice but to return to the castle.

 

--

 

Dorlag

 

Dorlag may not understand John’s advice, but he keeps his promises.

Outwardly his behaviour doesn’t change. He is at Rosa’s side at all times and spends his days shouting at nursemaids and carrying the child about in a way that suggests the people around should loudly admire the baby or face his displeasure.

 

Privately he prepares for the day when – judging by John’s expression – something terrible will happen. He keeps a satchel with him at all times containing everything Rosa would need in an emergency. When he isn’t guarding her he works even harder at his own training, keeping himself strong and ready for battle.

This is easier than complying with John’s other request. He goes down to the dungeons twice and finds them guarded still, despite there being no one under arrest at present. The men are friends of his and he talks of old times with them, but they become blank faced when he asks about the pile of bricks and rubble blocking the door to the very cell he’d told John about.

 

“That was done years ago,” his friend Loren shrugs when he comments on it.

 

Loren, who Dorlag has known since they were boys, outright lies. Anyone can see that brickwork is shoddy and recent. Someone has blocked off the cell and is keeping it under watch.

 

Thankfully he knows Loren’s bad habits. He waits until late, when Loren is usually napping through his shift, and hides in the shadows until the other guard steps out to take a piss.

 

Hastily he takes the sledgehammer he’s brought with him and hides it in a dark corner. If the day comes when he needs access to that cell, he’ll rip the bricks and rubble down if he has to.

 

At three in the morning several months later, that time does come.

 

He’s up and moving before the Agra or John even wake. Something’s wrong, he knows it. He’s lived in this castle for over twenty years, he knows how it should sound in the night.

 

He looks out of the window and sees the hell that’s about to be unleashed. There won’t be time to take Rosa to her parents, he needs to keep her out of the fighting. He promised John he’d take her to the dungeons and even if there’s no secret passage, it might be a while before the enemies think of searching there.

 

He rushes into the corridor and slashes the throat of an advancing soldier. Blood splatters up the nursery door.

 

Then he runs.

 

 

--

 

John

Some Months Before

 

After that journey, John finds the dungeons too. It takes a surprising amount of effort: no one would tell him where they are and Mary just looks blank when he asks and demands to know why he’s interested.

 

“Because I want to learn more about this place,” he says innocently. “If I have to live here it seems like a good idea, and I always liked visiting the dungeons the best when we were on school trips.”

 

That earns him a smile from Mary, who remains hopeful that John will eventually be won over. He is already learning that she is as weak to flattery of her castle as she is to flattery of her child.

 

“I wouldn’t bother,” she says lightly. “Ours aren’t particularly impressive. I’ll get someone to show you the armoury instead. You’ll need to learn to use a sword.”

 

John submits to this misdirection and keeps wandering the castle until he one day finds himself heading down a surprisingly long staircase.

 

His path is then blocked by two guards who attempt to look threatening.

 

“No entry,” says one.

 

“Is this the dungeons?” he asks.

 

The expression on their faces is the sort he only sees when Anderson pisses Sherlock off. A combination of ‘how are you this stupid?’ and ‘who is this moron?’

 

“I’ll take that as a yes. Is there a prisoner down here?” John asks, looking at the clearly empty cells and the piles of rubble about the place.

 

“No,” says the other.

 

“Then you won’t mind me looking about.”

 

“No entry,” says the first again.

 

This would normally be the point that John would start throwing his weight around, but he’s learning all too quickly that being a consort to the Agra doesn’t give you much weight. He can’t quite bring himself to say ‘how about I fetch my wife and get her to make you let me in?’

 

No wonder Prince Philip is so utterly cracked, he thinks, and not for the first time. He leaves, feeling particularly dejected.

 

What he doesn’t know is that he’s standing within four feet of Sherlock’s bricked up cell.

 

Sherlock, if he’d heard him, would have called out. But Sherlock isn’t there at that particular moment.

 

--

 

Sherlock

 

Sherlock remains in the cell, presumed to be dead to everyone in the castle. Weeks pass and the world, the universe, every universe creeps closer to the most significant date of the twenty seventh.

 

The date has moved in a game of Chinese Whispers, passing from the mouth of an old woman with a vision of the future, along a telephone line to a sceptical Mycroft Holmes, before finally, reluctantly being passed onto Sherlock Holmes.

 

Sherlock has not forgotten it.

 

No month was ever given, just a day, and for a while that confused him. How will he know which month?

 

But it doesn’t matter anymore. The universe goes to extreme lengths to fix itself, whichever month it is will become apparent.

 

He sits in his cell and counts down the days. He scratches them onto the cell wall because he’s theatrical like that.

 

It might be wondered how a man survives in a cell for months without food or water, but Sherlock is saved by banking on yet another trick of the universe. If the universe needs him to do something on the twenty seventh, yet imprisons him on the sixth, it suggests the situation isn’t hopeless.

 

Sherlock had been up and searching his cell for a Hive while the wall was still being bricked up outside.

 

The Hive is by the door, close enough that someone might accidentally press their hand against it if - in a fit of despair – they threw themselves at the door. While Mary breakfasts the next day, believing her problem is solved, Sherlock is sitting in forest with the means of survival all around him. He’s no great outdoorsman, but he can manage fire, water and foraging. Splitting his time between the cell and the forest may be dull, but he just has to be patient.

 

That’s not his strong suit, but if he can just wait there’s a chance - a thin one - that this might all work out for him. He spends his days walking, seeing if he can find civilisation, and then he returns to the cell at night. His body is trapped but his mind is still working.

 

He, John, Mary and the baby could go home. He and John could have that new start. All it will take is for his deceptively simple plan to work.

 

He fantasises about how it might end… a country cottage, with a new occupation, each of them carefully putting their old lives aside and choosing a new one.

 

He just has to wait.

 

The first month passes uneventfully. The twenty-seventh goes by without anything happening. The second month goes by. Then a third.

 

The waiting takes a toll, both physically and mentally. He’s lost all of the weight he had spare and more besides and his mind screams for stimulation. When it gets too much he goes back to walking the forest. He manages thirty miles. Then forty.

 

During the fourth month a spider’s bite nearly kills him. Fever washes over him and he wonders if he’ll die. He spends six days on the cell floor, gibbering and vomiting, not caring if the men outside are frightened by the noises from within.

 

He wills himself to make it just a few more days to the twenty-seventh. When nothing happens he sits in the forest and howls in misery. He rages, weeps, and returns shaking and weak back to the cell.

 

Another month, he tells himself.

 

And then finally it happens. Three hours into the twenty-seventh of the month and the castle is attacked.

 

Ten minutes later and he’s no longer alone in his cell. Moriarty steps out of the shadows. He holds his phone in his hand, using the screen to light the room and giving himself an electric blue pallor.

 

“You really are the most boring version of yourself. Months in a DUNGEON. You could have done better than that.”

 

Sherlock slowly pushes himself up the wall until he’s standing. He looks like a disaster, he knows: his clothes are ragged and his body painfully thin.

 

Moriarty glances him over.

 

“And now you’re going to die. That wall won’t stay bricked up long. The castle is under attack and the nasty soldiers are after the sweet little Agra to rip her head off… they’ll tear this door down looking for her.”

 

Sherlock doesn’t react.

 

“Your precious doctor hasn’t got long…”

 

Sherlock leans forward, his gaze steady in the weak light. He waits until Moriarty is convinced at Sherlock’s failure and then he smiles suddenly.

 

Moriarty looks less cocksure. “Has the fever gone to your brain?”

 

Sherlock chuckles. “No. It’s just that I want to make a bet.”

 

Moriarty tilts his head, considering. “What?”

 

“I bet you anything I can make you do whatever I ask.”

 

Moriarty laughs. “You really not winning the game Sherlock, you’ve got, at best, two utilities and one of the browns. And who wants those? I’ve got all the purples and a full set of stations.”

 

“There’s still a community chance.”

 

Moriarty raises a brow. “Ooh. Have I won a beauty contest?”

 

“No. But I have Miss. Scarlet.”

 

“Tsk. Sherlock. Dying is no excuse for getting your board games mixed up.”

 

He looks unsettled though.

 

“Miss. Scarlett, also known as the Red Princess. You’re one of her followers. Not only that… you’re one of her Knights. That’s the source of your power – you have the strange ability because the universe needs you to do something to help her. Like all the rest of them, you’re waiting for the moment she’ll call on you. And when she does, you’ll have fulfilled you’re role and will go back to being ordinary.”

 

Moriarty doesn’t react. Telling.

 

“What of her?”

 

“You were that neighbouring boy. For all your smirking and pretence you were the one with the crush on Nell Ailis, your only friend. Only you were a twisted boy who tried to touch her and frighten her. When she humiliated you and accidentally triggered the Hive you burnt it so that she’d be gone for ever, so you’d never be weak again.”

 

“Only she wasn’t gone, was she? You suddenly discovered you had powers, that you could go anywhere. But the problem was that she was still out there and she’d become a legend. Wherever you went, you were haunted by stories of a girl with red hair trying to get home. A girl who gave people strange powers. A girl that, as it turns out, you were destined to serve at some unknown time.”

 

“Tell me,” he leans forward, forcing Moriarty to flinch away from his rancid breath. “Have you dreaded that moment? The moment you’d have to look her in the eye and face up to what you’ve done. Or were you scared because that crush never went away, only it twisted and intensified? God, you even recreated her bedroom, all those years ago. I thought it was to play with me, but it was more than that, wasn’t it. Do you sleep there? Do you lay in the reproduction of her room and get yourself off?”

 

“Stop it,” Moriarty hisses, but Sherlock has no intention of that.

 

“All of the other versions of you, they’re pure aren’t they? They never got taken from their father, they never met Nell Ailis. They never became weak.”

 

Moriarty sneers. “They aren’t the ones with superpowers.”

 

Sherlock ignores him. “That’s why you chose me for this game, wasn’t it? I was the first Sherlock Holmes to weaken himself by falling in love. No wonder you loathed me. I really am your opposite.”

 

Instinctively he reaches out and grabs Moriarty’s collar.

 

“But I still win because, unlike you, my love wasn’t twisted and stunted. I loved John, will always have loved him, and I can accept that he’s gone.”

 

Moriarty twists away, sending the light skittering as his phone moves with him. Sherlock keeps speaking.

 

“Your games and my grief might have confused me, but I’m strong enough to love again. To love differently.”

 

And then he’s looking into the barrel of Moriarty’s gun.

 

“Shoot me,” he breathes. “Go on. But you’ll never know how to find Nell. She’ll need you and you won’t be there. She’ll just be dead and your powers will be gone, only you won’t know when it happens. One day you’ll raise that gun to your head and you’ll be dead before you even realise what’s happened…”

 

The gun wavers and drops fractionally. Moriarty is pale, suddenly very human looking.

 

“What do you want?”

 

“Take me to John. The deal is that you take me, John, Mary and the baby back home if that’s what they want. No tricks. No games. Then I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

 

--

 

Sherlock

 

Moriarty has recovered himself by the time that he and Sherlock appear in front of John and Mary.

 

Sherlock, already weak, feels his legs start to go at the sight of John. John’s clearly terrified, angry and confused but he’s also wonderfully alive. Sherlock finally sinks to the ground and John is there by his side in a second.

 

They embrace and for the first time in months Sherlock feels warm and safe, ironic as that in the company of his enemy and surrounded by war.

 

Sherlock forces himself back up to his feet. “I’ve got information he wants. He’ll take us home in return. Where’s the baby?”

 

He sees by John’s pained expression that it’s the wrong question and the expression on Mary’s face is nothing short of wordless terror.

 

Mary may be holding a sword, but she suddenly looks like a little girl. She’s terrified for her child, for her life, and now she’s got the added threat of Sherlock. With one sentence he could rip apart her world completely. A glance around the bedroom – even half ruined as it is by current events – suggests their marriage is long over physically. All Sherlock has to do to claim John as his own once and for all is open his mouth and tell John what she did to him in that dungeon.

 

But, as with the shooting, he’s inclined to be magnanimous. He didn’t die, which is the important thing, and this time she’s truly lost. Last time he was the one about to die, he was the one who’d lost everything. Now she’s about to lose her throne, her home, her husband, and her child all in a single night.

 

“We don’t know where Rosa is,” Mary says. She eyes Moriarty warily. “Can you find her?”

 

Moriarty sighs. “At last, someone remembers I’m in the room. And no can do. The deal was I take you all home: that implied one trip only.”

 

“And I said no tricks,” Sherlock warns.

 

Moriarty holds up his hands in the face of his enemy and two deadly parents. “It’s not a trick. It doesn’t work that way. I have to be able to picture the place I’m going, or the person I’m looking for. Even a strand of hair or drop of blood would help. Otherwise… it’s not like babies are easy to tell apart at the best of times.

 

Mary all but snarls. “You’re LYING.”

 

Moriarty shrugs. “I’m not, as it happens. And I thought this favour for Sherlock would be boring!”

 

“You-” John raises his knife.

 

They freeze. There are more shouts from outside the door and the scraping of furniture. The barricade is being broken down.

 

“Go John!” Mary calls, lifting her sword and bracing herself ready for battle.

 

“We can’t leave her!”

 

“We aren’t. You are. GO.”

 

“Can someone make a decision?” Moriarty drawls.

 

John ignores him, he’s gaping at Mary.

 

“You can’t be serious!”

 

Mary looks deadly serious. Her eyes are wet with tears but her face is resigned.

 

Still, John doesn’t give in. “What good will sacrificing yourself do? You can’t win this battle and god knows what they’ll do to you-”

 

“It’s not about sacrifice,” she says softly. “It’s about being where we belong. If I have to die, I want to do it in my own world, not as a refugee in yours.”

 

The shouting from outside increases and there is hammering against the door. She sobs slightly.

 

“I was wrong to convince myself that you could be happy here. I wasn’t happy for all those years I had to survive in your world, why would you fit here? I’m sorry – sorry for – I was wrong -“

 

She’s looking at Sherlock. He understands what she’s trying to say and he sees the silent plea in her eyes. Please don’t tell John, don’t kill whatever fond memory he has of me.

 

Sherlock’s many things, but he isn’t vicious. Mary has tried to kill him twice and he still can’t hate her. He won’t tell John, not if it will spare John pain.

 

On the other hand, he’s not sentimental. If telling John would have helped in any way, he wouldn’t have hesitated to destroy her memory.

 

“You’ve got nothing to apologise for,” he lies. He gives her a meaningful look. “You don’t have to do this.”

 

She shakes her head and when she speaks again her voice is steady. “I’m going to die, as Agra, in the land I was born. And I’ll die knowing that my daughter is out there somewhere, alive, because I have to believe that.”

 

“I can’t leave her-“ John chokes.

 

“Yes you can,” she calls over the hammering from the door. It’s thick oak wood, but it’s rattling from the pressure. Mary looks to Moriarty. “Do it now.”

 

“Finally,” he hisses.

 

It one quick movement he reaches out and clamps his hand onto Sherlock and John’s wrists. With the other raises his gun to his own head and fires.

 

The last image Sherlock has of Mary is her standing defiantly in front of the doorway as it smashes inward, sword raised for battle.

 

--

 

Sherlock

 

To be back in 221b is so disorientating that Sherlock drops to his knees and breathes heavily for a moment. He staggers to his feet and then sneezes a couple of times because the air is thick with chemicals. He’s just wondering whether he left any experiments out when it strikes him that the smell is probably just the normal mixture of cleaning products and household chemicals and that he’s been away so long his body is hyper-aware of them.

 

Next to him John is on the floor too, head turned away from both Moriarty and Sherlock. He’s just lost his daughter and, whatever his feelings for Mary, leaving her to her death must be destroying him.

 

“So that’s my part of the bargain completed,” Moriarty says conversationally from where he’s standing in front them. “You, back here in 221b Baker Street. And now you owe me information.”

 

Sherlock staggers to his feet and John does the same, the emotion gone from his face.

 

“Today,” Sherlock says firmly. He looks at the clock with exaggerated theatricality. “In… oooh… ten seconds.”

 

The time doesn’t matter, he knows. The universe wants Nell Ailis home, it wants Moriarty’s powers gone, it wants all the paradoxes and broken rules repaired. Whatever time Sherlock suggests will be the right time.

 

“You’re lying…”

 

“I’m really not,” Sherlock shrugs. “And even if I am bluffing, can you afford to risk it?”

 

Moriarty looks unsure, properly terrified for the first time Sherlock has ever seen.

 

“This is it then,” he says softly, as if Sherlock was a friend waving him off on a journey.

 

“What’s happening?” John hisses, but Sherlock waves the question away.

 

In a few seconds Moriarty will be out of their lives.

 

“You should go to the hospital,” Moriarty says, looking over Sherlock’s injuries absently. “You look sick. Weak.”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

For a split second all of the malicious evil is back in Moriarty’s eyes and Sherlock is wrong-footed. What is he missing?

 

The landline suddenly starts ringing, but it’s just noise. Sherlock never takes his eyes from Moriarty.

 

“No, you look weak. So much so that this loophole probably never occurred to you.”

 

In a lightning fast move Moriarty lifts his gun and fires at John’s head, then at his own.

 

Moriarty disappears. Next to Sherlock, John’s body hits the floor.

 

After the fifth ring, the phone stops.

 

--

 

A/N : So. Um. Don’t hate me? Take comfort that there are two chapters left and I couldn’t really and truly kill John Watson twice in the same fic, could I? COULD I?!!

 

Just so you know, there are two more chapters to go and they will be posted together in one final update. I really hope that people are still enjoying this and if you have any questions/comments, feel free to get in touch! Also as I'm getting near the end, I hope you can excuse a little bit of cheekiness: if you've been enjoying this it would be amazing if you could spread the word a little (and yes I know that's shameless and that after that cliffhanger I don't deserve it at all!)

 

Thanks for reading!

 

 

Chapter Text

Once, when Angela Hoppett was fifteen, she’d had eleven visions in a single day. In those days they happened all the time and she regularly came back to reality to the rap of her knuckles from a cross teacher or the angry horn of a driver who’d found her standing in the middle of the road. Her ‘day-dreaming’ (as it became known) lost her school hockey matches and forced her to give up riding her bicycle after one vision hurled into a stream.

 

The visions never left her completely, but once she entered adulthood they became more manageable. By the time she’d met her husband and set up a home of her own, it was rare for her to have more than one a month.

 

Her husband has many theories to account for it, he used to ramble on for hours about hormones and brain chemistry, but she herself believes it’s simpler than that. She thinks that whatever causes the visions was merely trying to force her to believe that they were real. Once she finally accepted them, they calmed down, and for all the trouble they’ d caused her teenage self, her adult self is thankful for them. Without them she’d never have even met her husband.

 

He was the first person who ever believed in her visions. He’d begged to experiment on her and, cheekily, she told him that it was only proper that he marry her first.

 

She was never more surprised than when he actually went ahead and proposed.

 

After that each ‘occurrence’ (as he called her visions) had been an event. In those early days of marriage his experimental zeal had only been matched by his enthusiasm for their bedroom antics and she used to tease him that he’d only married her for her powers.

 

They both know that it’s not as true as her teasing made out, but more true than he’d hotly protested. Still, there are far worse things to base a marriage on; now they have a home, a cat, and a garden they both adore. The children they’d hoped for never came, and no amount of love ever completely lessens that sting, but for the most part they are happy.

 

In the early morning of the twenty-seventh, they are where most middle aged couples are: in bed with the curtains drawn and the only movement in the room the blinking of the digital clock. They both snore loudly, until hers’ becomes a splutter and she jerks awake.

 

The vision that has woken her is as violent as a nightmare. She doesn’t question herself anymore, she just does what her mind screams at her to do: she half falls out of bed (which at sixty-five is not the easiest of things) and rushes downstairs to their landline, ignoring her husband as he starts awake and calls after her.

 

She has to make a phone-call right now.

 

She punches in the number, a number she’s never seen before and yet knows in her bones, then presses the receiver hard against her ear, willing for someone to answer.

 

 

--

 

 

Humans are hardwired to respond to noise, and a ringing phone is something that always causes a reaction.

 

Even with Moriarty standing in front of him, the sudden noise catches John’s attention and he automatically turns his head towards it.

 

He doesn’t turn all the way - only fractionally – but the movement is enough that the bullet grazes his brow and glances off. He falls backwards at the force of it.

 

Moriarty is gone before he realises that John Watson isn’t actually dead.

 

 

--

 

 

In Cambridge, Angela Hoppett puts the phone down. Suddenly, all of the tension has melted away. Whatever the point of that unanswered call, it worked.

 

 

--

 

 

When John comes to his left eye is swollen shut. His entire head rings from the impact and his forehead feels like it’s on fire.

 

He stays where he is on the floor because he’s a doctor and if you’ve just taken a shot to the head then moving is a spectacularly bad idea.

 

“John!”

 

Sherlock’s face comes into view in front of his one open eye. Sherlock is… gasping… as if breathing physically hurts him. John - helpless on the floor - realises that Sherlock is sliding into shock. Understandable for a man who watched a previous version of himself get fatally shot in the head, took a shot to the chest himself, and then shot an enemy in the head himself a few months later.

 

With the strange mentality of the injured John suddenly feels embarrassed to have caused all this fuss.

 

“I’m okay,” he whispers. “My face is just all… wet.”

 

Sherlock looks half relieved, half terrified. John realises that he’s being stupid.

 

“Oh right… that’ll be the blood. See? I’m fine.”

 

Whether that’s entirely true, John hasn’t established, but as long as he has breath in his body he’ll reassure Sherlock who is moving around with jerky, panicky movements.

 

“I thought- I- I can’t-“

 

Sherlock disappears from John’s line of sight and despite the ringing in his ears John can hear crashes coming from the kitchen along with something that sounds like stifled hyperventilating. He returns a moment later wearing the blank look he puts on when he’s trying to be above everything, but the effect is ruined by tears leaking from his eyes.

 

John wants to smile and tell him his acting isn’t even fooling a one-eyed man, but Sherlock is busy examining the wound.

 

“I’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Sherlock rasps and presses a compress onto John’s forehead.

 

The pain is so intense that John automatically tries to fight him off and then the pressure of it nearly causes him to black out. He’s nothing but a trembling wreck for what must be minutes afterwards because in that time Sherlock has a managed to reach for the landline to call for help. He can hear broken bits of conversation.

 

“-ambulance- Doctor John Watson-“

 

“-bullet wound to the head-“

 

“-quickly-“

 

Then Sherlock is talking to him.

 

“They’re on their way. I called Mycroft first, so they’ll be on their way even faster.”

 

“Mycroft will have…questions.”

 

Everyone is going to have questions,” Sherlock says.

 

Despite the pain the injury is causing, the enormity of what’s happened suddenly comes to John.

 

“Rosa’s gone,” he says because that’s almost as painful stab of pain as the wound to his head. “She’s – I don’t know what happened to her and – I can’t – and Mary –“

 

He can hear Sherlock struggling to answer. “I’m sorry, I tried-“

 

“It’s not your fault,” John says, so aggressively that he sees stars. “And I’m – I’m so glad you are alive. All that other stuff – Rosa and Mary – it’s going to destroy me, but I love you and all I’ve wanted for months is for you to be alive and for us to have that – that new life -”

 

There’s a stifled noise, suspiciously sob-like, from Sherlock and he feels a kiss to the unwounded part of his temple. It still hurts like fuck and he’s going to have to have a word with Sherlock about kissing people when they’re covered in blood, but he doesn’t care. He never wants Sherlock to leave his side.

 

But somewhere he can hear sirens and there is still unfinished business to deal with.

 

“Where’s Moriarty?” he demands. “Where did he go?”

 

Sherlock sighs. “I don’t know where he’s gone, but I know where he’ll return to. He’s going to bring Nell back to her sister.”

 

For all that John wants Sherlock to stay with him, to never let him out of his sight, let alone send him to face a violent killer, he doesn’t have a choice.

 

“We have to go-“

 

“You’re in no state to go anywhere,” Sherlock says. “And it’s OK. It’s over. Moriarty will die tonight, I don’t need to be there.”

 

It sounds false to John, even in this state. If Moriarty returns to Covent Garden with Nell he’ll have two hostages and – as John can attest - a very loaded gun.

 

“That’s a lie,” he says.

 

Sherlock’s mouth quirks without humour. “Yes.”

 

“What’re you gonna do?” John asks. In the street he can hear shouting and suddenly everything is starting to feel foggy.

 

Sherlock presses another kiss to his head. “I’m going to wait until you’re unconscious and safely in the ambulance and then I’m going to go and kill him for what he’s done to you. For what he’s done to me.”

 

John is in no state to protest, though the idea of Sherlock being alone terrified him.

 

“Take backup…” he murmurs, knowing Sherlock won’t listen. “And Holmes?”

 

“Yes?”

 

“Promise me you won’t die.”

 

 

--

 

 

Nell Ailis – worshipped and feared across the universe – is disappointingly human. People who help her have superpowers but she herself is just a woman who somehow keeps going, travelling on and sleeping wherever she falls down, waiting for the day that she somehow stumbles across her home.

 

It sounds like an adventure, like a quest, but she’s thirty-five now and mostly it just hurts. All the time.  

 

Any natural beauty she had has been knocked, starved, frozen and bleached out her. She's rarely had enough food, but the variety of her diet is astonishing. There are few animals she hasn't eaten in desperation at some point, peeling the scales from lizards, gulping down the still warm innards of rodents.

 

She's familiar with the heat of the desert, the sudden shock of ice, and has known the cold ache of sodden, muddy clothes more times than she can count. When Hives drop you in the ocean or the forest and there’s no easy way back then all you can do is survive.

 

All that remains of the girl Moriarty once knew is her red hair, braided around her head like a beacon to all who see her. Her voice is rough from misuse and she presents a wild figure, mumbling to herself wherever she goes.

 

In the years she's been trying to find a way home, she's never met anyone who speaks her language. There are infinite universes and English is spoken in just a small pocket of them. She picks up enough of other languages to get by in the places she stays longest. She once became fluent when she couldn't find a new Hive for nearly a year, but after she's moved on she forgets them. She can't bear the thought of losing her own words and so she walks through streets and forests, mumbling the names of the things she sees in her own tongue. She has one sided conversations with mewling cats and stray dogs.

 

Still things slip away from her, words lost from misuse or mangled from poor memory. Memories fade too, the mother in her mind is a mangle of female faces and a mish-mash of voices. Her sister’s eye colour goes, and she can no longer remember whether her childhood bedroom was on the first or second floor. She used to sing to herself for company, but even the familiar lyrics have become twisted and confused now.

 

She’s been travelling longer than she even lived in her home world.

 

She may leave a trail of heroic tales in her wake but the paths she's travelled have been brutal. Men have been cruel to her, villages have hunted her, and the scars and abuses mark her skin like pink and white strokes against a cream canvas. Her face is skeletal and her mouth pinches from years of toothache left untreated until one late night when the fever from it had nearly killed her. Whatever happens she picks herself up and travels onwards, stopping only when events block her path, when there's a wrong needing righting or someone's kindness to repay.

 

It would be easy if it was all black and white, but she’s human. She’s stopped in comfortable places – warm farms, shacks by the ocean - and willed herself to stay. She’s calculated the sheer odds of finding one place in an almost infinite number of possibilities and wept. She's kissed good men and vowed to never leave their side, but sooner or later he haunts her dreams and she claws at them to escape, unable to see anything but him lurking beneath their surface.

 

Whenever she can get to a version of England, she does. Its home, but most importantly it's nearly always where Jim is.

 

She's found seven other versions of him in her life, seven other Moriartys with reptilian eyes and insolent smiles. They have different names, they don’t speak languages she understands, they don’t live lives she recognises, but she always sees them for what they really are.

 

She relishes being a stranger to him, relishes choking the life from him.

 

She's killed him aged sixteen, and twenty, and twice aged twenty four. If she can't get home she'll keep murdering James Moriarty until he’s wrinkled and old and stinking of piss. No other act upon her body, regardless of how vile, has made her skin crawl the way his clammy hands did when he cupped her through her clothes and tried to press his wiry teenage body against her.

 

If only she'd stabbed him with that paperknife before the Hive had activated... she re-lives that moment over and over in her mind. He knew what he was doing. She wonders whether he's ever given her another thought.

 

On the fateful day of the twenty-seventh, she's found another James Moriarty, the first she’s seen in many years. Nell's not so far gone as to enjoy the act, instead she sees it as a duty. The worlds Moriarty abandons in death are always happier for his loss.

 

They are in a stinking city, built in the place where the regal London of her childhood memories should stand. The city chokes on its own fumes and the mud beneath her feet weeps grease with every cautious step she takes. She makes a strange image, her legs black to the knees with dirt, breathing through a rag, her red hair the only bright colour amidst the black metal towers and green lanterns that cast weak light into the narrow streets.

 

Finding him is always difficult; he hides so well and even at his prime of power he shuns attention. It's only when he's on the attack that he shows his face, and whatever scheme he's cooking here must mean someone is in trouble: his face is stamped on every copper coin and engraved into every building.

 

The largest and ugliest of these buildings, a round tower with dark windows, overlooks the entire city and that’s where she intends to find him.

 

Jim likes pigeons, he liked them as a boy and most incarnations she meets seems to find them fascinating. His mother once told her that it was one of the reasons she’d moved them to London when she ran away from his father, because she thought he’d love Trafalger Square.

 

At least, she knows that’s what his mother said, but her memory has mangled the name of the square. She just remembers that it was famous and that it had lions and pigeons.

 

Nell had watched the birds flying off the top of that tower for days. If she can get up there and wait, he’ll eventually come to her. He’ll have security inside, but they won’t expect anyone to climb up the outside of the building: the wind batters the tower, it’s caked with the grease that covers everything in this city, and even without that it would be no mean climb even for a skilled climber.

 

She’s an average climber but she has an even more important skill: she long ago learned to stamp down her terror and let her body get on with the task at hand. She knows how to close off her mind and focus on surviving. All she has to do is lock her panic away and accept that she has a job to do.

 

It’s a slow climb and once she’s above the streetlight it becomes even harder. She tests every single stone and joint before putting her weight on it. Three hours into her task – with numbing fingers and aching legs - she’s not even halfway. No one has seen her though: people here keep their heads down, which is the only rational thing to do when ruled over by Moriarty.

 

It takes her most of the night, countless slips and stifled screams, before she crawls onto the top of the building. It’s windy up on the roof and she stays where she is on the floor, enjoying the safety for a moment.

 

It’s then that she sees the figure standing by the pigeon roost, waiting for her.

 

He says something. It’s no doubt clever and witty, but she doesn’t understand. She scrabbles to her feet and inches closer. She’s done this before, knows that he’s expecting something clever, the sort of thing all of his other enemies give him…

 

He’s never been able to cope with someone who just slashes through his little conspiracies and schemes, someone he doesn’t recognise and can’t read.

 

As expected, his curiosity about her is winning. His voice is less sure now but he hasn’t called for anyone, too curious at the specimen before him to worry about the knife that she’s slipped into her hand.

 

She’s a few feet in front of him. He’s unarmed.

 

Nell leaps.

 

The fight is quick. She’s stronger than him and a better fighter. She raises the knife…

 

And a sudden gust of wind startles the pigeons, who rise up into the air and in the confusion he throws her backwards. She stabs the knife into any part of him she can, hears his scream and then a grunt as the knife rams into his stomach.

 

She rolls off of him. Another Moriarty is done with and she pulls herself to her feet to watch him die again.

 

But it’s still very windy up here, and he’s not dead yet. Too late Nell sees his foot lash out and she loses her balance.

 

She topples off the side of the building.

 

She screams – in anger more than anything – and then she’s falling. Nell tries to grab anything on the way down, but she’s too far away from the side of the building.

 

She’s going to die. James Moriarty finally killed her.

 

Except suddenly there’s a weight on her back, an arm around her. She fights on instinct, trying to figure out what the hell is going on, and at the sound of a gunshot she screams again-

 

-and wakes up somewhere new.

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock arrives in Covent Garden in the weak light of dawn. The taxi screeches to a halt outside Milton Gate and he races towards the shop. He’s covered in John’s blood and his clothes are nearly rags. He’s not shaved, nor eaten, and his body is making some distant demands about needing to sleep.

 

It doesn’t matter though, because he’s within minutes of ending this nightmare once and for all. Moriarty is going to die. He’s angry enough to want to do it himself, but he doesn’t need to.

 

He smashes the front door of the shop – thankfully not alarmed – and climbs through. Normally this should create attention, but Covent Garden is as deserted as it ever gets and he imagines that Mina Ailis is somewhat distracted by the sudden reappearance of her long lost sister and the boy from her childhood who grew up to be a psychopath.

 

He vaults the counter and runs through the backroom and up the stairs. He doesn’t have far to go.

 

If he cared about that sort of thing at the moment, he’d be smug that he predicted the exact spot that Moriarty brought Nell to after he’d rescued her. The room full of Hives, the place that Moriarty attacked Nell all those years ago.

 

Sherlock throws open the door and is immediately confronted by the terrified faces of Mina and Nell, the dulled eyes of Moriarty, and – of course – his ever present gun.

 

Nell (mud covered but alert looking) barely glances up at his entrance. Her eyes are fixed on Moriarty, as if determined not to let him out of her sight. She’s slumped on her knees and Mina is with her, arms wrapped around her, equally determined to never let Nell go again. Her face is pressed into Nell’s hair and she’s weeping.

 

It’s Moriarty’s posture that interests him though. He lowers the gun casually, as if Sherlock’s presence doesn’t interest him in the slightest. There’s a table in the middle of the room and he’s standing on the other side of it, leaning over it to look at the two women. To an outsider it would look threatening, him looming over the women on the floor, but Sherlock sees it for what it is: a nervous effort to put something between them.

 

His expression is fixed on Nell with a look of utter, confused longing. Sherlock wonders what he wants most: to join them on the floor and be embraced in their forgiveness and love or to destroy the people that are causing these no doubt unpleasant feelings inside him.

 

Sherlock is here to prevent the latter from happening, although judging from the hard expression on Nell’s face she’s got no intention of letting him hurt them either.

 

“Sherlock’s here, everyone,” Moriarty says hollowly.

 

Nell, who obviously doesn’t know Sherlock from Adam, looks suspiciously at him and he holds up his hands reassuringly, his attention still fixed on Moriarty.

 

“You shot John Watson,” he says, in a shaking voice.

 

Moriarty shrugs. “It’s not like I haven’t done it before,” he says. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you a new one.”

 

Sherlock would dearly love to step across the room and wrap his hands around Moriarty’s throat and choke the playful tone out of him, but the lesson Sherlock learned from Magnusson is that there’s no pleasure in killing an enemy, and he doesn’t need to kill Moriarty today.

 

Instead he keeps his tone controlled. “You can’t get me a new one. Your superpower has gone. If you put that gun to your head you won’t travel anywhere, you’ll die. You only ever had it so that you could rescue Nell Ailis in the moment she needed you.”

 

Moriarty tilts his head at Nell. “You fell off a building and I rescued you. You have no idea how ironic Sherlock here will find that.”

 

Nell frowns as if struggling to understand what he’s saying and when she speaks it’s with caution.

 

“I was killing you. A different you.”

 

Moriarty actually smiles, like a man impressed by his dog’s latest trick. “How many other versions of me have you killed?”

 

“Lots.”

 

He huffs with laughter. “I’m not even mad.”

 

Nell’s attention is on Sherlock again. She looks up at him with big, white eyes. “Who’re you?”

 

“I’m someone like you,” Sherlock says softly. “He took an interest in me and took away everything I had. For a long time, I thought it was about me and who I was, but it wasn’t about that. It was about you.”

 

Moriarty closes his eyes in exasperation. “Oh go on,” he sighs. “I know how you enjoy a good monologue.”

 

Sherlock speaks directly to him. “You once said that I was the first version of Sherlock Holmes to be weak enough to fall in love, and I thought that was why you were interested in me, because you fell in love, even if you didn’t understand it. You fell in love and so you destroyed Nell’s life. You made her disappear forever.”

 

“I trusted you!” Mina snarls, from her position on the floor. “I believed your story. All those things people said about you – I never believed them – but it was you all along. Did you just come here to laugh?!”

 

Nell tries to soothe her by gently rubbing her arm, but Mina’s no threat. She’s crying so hard she can barely see.

 

“But that wasn’t true, was it?” Sherlock continues. “You weren’t interested in me because I fell in love, you were angry at me because I was the first Sherlock to have someone return that love. That’s why you killed John – to punish me for getting something you could never have – and then you made sure I ended up in a world where I’d have to be an outside in John’s life, loving him and never being able to tell him, watching him marry someone else…”

 

“And then, as the final insult, you took Mary from John so that I’d be forced to tell him the truth and he’d hate me forever. No wonder you shot him again: you must have been furious that he could still love me despite all of your efforts.”

 

Moriarty sniffs defensively. “I wouldn’t go into therapy. It’s not your thing.”

 

“The woman you’ve spent a lifetime obsessed with is at your mercy,” Sherlock pushes. “A woman who is so angry at you she’s killed every version of you she could. Everything you had is gone. Your powers are gone. The life you had is gone. And the woman you love has been altered out of all recognition by your actions. You made me learn a painful lesson about grief when you started this game, so take it from me, you can’t get it back.”

 

Moriarty raises the gun a little wildly, aims it at Sherlock. “You were going to shoot yourself on that night I found you! You should have done the smart thing. Maybe I should finish the job, huh?”

 

Sherlock knows better than to plead for his life.

 

“As hard as it is to admit after the pain you’ve caused, this was never about me. It was always about her.”

 

He nods towards Nell and, almost on instinct, Moriarty swings the gun around to her.

 

Mina tries to move her out of the way, tries to get in front of her, but Nell struggles free and stands. She walks towards the gun, eyes locked onto Moriarty’s, and she edges around the table to get closer.

 

Wordlessly she holds out her hand and – like a hypnotised man – he places his gun in it. The effect is immediate, it’s as though he was somehow tethered to the thing and now he’s free of it for the first time. His hands twist together, awkward and empty.

 

This is the end, and everyone knows it.

 

“Are you sorry for what you did to me?” she asks.

 

Moriarty opens his mouth and stops suddenly, closing it again and looking wildly around at the Hives decorating the walls as if the answer might leap out at him.

 

He swallows audibly.

 

“I… don’t know?” he says at last, as though hoping she’ll tell him what the correct answer was.

 

Nell’s jaw tightens, but she nods, apparently accepting that that’s all he can give her.

 

She jerks her head towards Sherlock. “Are you sorry for whatever you did to him?”

 

Sherlock meets his eyes and they share a look.

 

“Sherlock’s just a pawn in a much bigger game. I just didn’t realise I was a playing piece as well. If I hadn’t done what I did to him, I’d never have known when to find you.”

 

Don’t blame me, the universe made me do it…

 

Sherlock’s own nails are digging into his clenched hands. He didn’t want an apology, but that simple shrug of ‘not my fault’ is a hundred times worse than pride in his actions could have been.

 

“John’s alive,” he snarls, unable to stop himself. “You missed. He’s alive and I’ve won.”

 

Moriarty just shrugs, beyond caring about the life of one of many John Watsons.

 

He looks at Nell steadily.

 

“Do it.”

 

Nell looks at him for a long moment and then awkwardly takes hold of the gun and aims it at his head, just two feet in front of her.

 

Sherlock wonders if his last words will be vicious, or superior, or even a desperate declaration of love for Nell, but in the end he’s just silent. His life is over and he seems to be waiting to make it official.

 

Nell shoots.

 

Blood and brain splatters across the wall and the Hives. Moriarty’s body falls backwards. It’s a simple headshot, something Sherlock has seen too many times.

 

He doubles over, nausea and panic taking hold of him.

 

Nell and Mina are strangely still. Mina’s expression is twisted with anger and bitterness, still glaring at the corpse for its crimes. Nell just looks blank and when Sherlock manages to stand up fully again she looks at him thoughtfully.

 

“The other kills… I didn’t feel anything,” she says. “I thought this one, of all them, I’d feel happy about. I just feel empty. Like it’s over.”

 

Mina struggles to her feet. “It is over,” she whispers. “You’re back and we can have a whole new life. Away from here, away from these damn Hives.”

 

Nell drops the gun onto the corpse and embraces Mina properly for the first time. She buries her face in her sister’s dark, bushy hair and they cling to each other.

 

When Sherlock leaves they barely notice. He texts Mycroft with instructions to get a clean-up team to the shop and walks out into weak daylight. Mycroft replies with an affirmative and the news that John is in the hospital and not in any real danger.

 

Sherlock doesn’t feel triumphant, he doesn’t even feel relief, but for the first time he allows himself a flicker of hope.

 

 

--

 

 

Three months later

 

Sherlock and John are in 221b.

 

It’s eight in the morning, which is earlier than Sherlock likes to be awake on a normal day and John – who has already travelled across London from his own house – is annoyingly wide awake.

 

This results in Sherlock lazing about on the sofa while John does most of the actual work: in this case, packing up the bookcase. Sherlock is happy to leave him to the task. This is the other Sherlock’s flat and John is far more proprietary of it than him.

 

A knock from downstairs gets his attention and Mrs. Hudson can be heard answering it. Her fast, high-pitched tone suggest that she’s still annoyed with Sherlock and making sure their visitor knows all about it.

 

The answering voice is familiar too: it’s Lestrade, which means another problem that Sherlock has no desire to deal with.

 

It’s not that Sherlock dislikes the man. He barely knows him. He only met him after arriving in this world and the man has an entirely history with his other self that he can’t penetrate. Being around him means putting on the act again and being the other Sherlock. He has to remember to call John by his first name and the entire thing will dredge up unpleasant memories for the both of them.

 

Judging by John’s expression he’s realised this too and looks equally grim at the prospect of Lestrade asking sympathetic questions about the events of the last few months, about Mary and the baby.

 

Still, Lestrade’s coming up the stairs and then he’s in the doorway, half-heartedly knocking on the open door.

 

He stops dead at the chaos of boxes and piles of stuff that greets him.

 

“It’s true,” he says, sounding astonished. “Mrs. Hudson said you were leaving… she’s not happy.”

 

“Well, as she so often says, she’s only our landlady,” Sherlock drawls, making his tone harsh and cold. “There are other people who can pay rent.”

 

“But you can’t leave Baker Street-“ Lestrade begins and then stops, realising how silly he must sound. He knew Sherlock before he lived at this address after all. “It just seems like everything’s changed,” he says sadly. “You both disappeared and then when you got back I didn’t hear a word. Not even a response to my texts. And the blog is silent and-“

 

“My wife and child are gone and then I got shot in the head,” John says flatly from where he is taping up a box of books with excessive care. “What did you expect?”

 

Lestrade doesn’t even pretend to hide his embarrassed wince. “Right. Of course. I just thought Sherlock might be going stir crazy and something interesting has finally turned up.”

 

Much like he had before the wedding, Sherlock hasn’t been responding to cases. He’s been too busy planning a future and charting the new territory of their relationship. The only thing pinned to the wall now is various estate agent printouts from places John has viewed, something Sherlock has been more than happy to leave him to. He’s vaguely aware that one day the boredom will come creeping back, but he’s going to have to find something new to occupy his time.

 

The folder Lestrade proffers is tempting. They both know that they could do it, take one last case and feel all of the old highs again. But it would be an act. Sherlock would be pretending to be someone he isn’t and John would be subject to all of the curious, sympathetic stares of the yard.

 

The share a look and they both know that this is it, it’s officially the end of Sherlock’s career as a consulting detective and of John’s blog.

 

“I’m sorry,” Sherlock says, meaning it. “But I’ve retired.”

 

“We both have,” John says.

 

They just have to work out what their new lives will involve.

 

 

--

 

 

The phone call comes two days before they are scheduled to leave London for Sussex. John has bought a cottage, new tenants have been found for 221b: all that’s left is the move itself.

 

Sherlock is alone in the flat but still awake, surrounded by boxes and brooding over his new future. He answers on the fifth ring.

 

“Mr. Holmes?”

 

It’s a woman’s voice, old and unsure.

 

“Speaking.”

 

“Oh – I – I have something to say. My name is Angela Hoppett. I’m the one who spoke to your brother, the one who told him about the twenty-seventh-“

 

He remembers his brother’s strange words.

 

“The psychic?”

 

“Yes,” she sounds relieved. “I had – I had another vision. It’s my last one, I think. The one I’ve been waiting my whole life for.”

 

Sherlock’s mind is racing. This woman must be like Moriarty and the cult members, a woman who has been given powers for a reason.

 

“What was it?” he demands.

 

“I – I had to call you and tell you that the Red Princess is coming back to you.”

 

Sherlock sighs. “She already returned. She’s alive and well and with her sister.”

 

There’s an irritated noise from Angela and Sherlock suddenly thinks back to the cult members he’d once spoken to. They’d said that there were two, the Crimson Angel and a Red Princess prophesised to take her place…

 

“They were never the same people. The Red Princess is still out there, still trying to find a way back…”

 

Sherlock’s already ahead of her.

 

“The Red Princess. Red… like a rose?”

 

Angela Hoppett says just one more thing. “Red like Rosa. She’s going to find her way back to her father using the Hives. You have to keep looking.”

 

The phone goes dead and but Sherlock barely notices. His mind goes back to the small room above the shop full of Hives and this time he doesn’t see Moriarty and that final shot to the head, he only sees what was always there: the Hives.

 

And finally he understands what he has to do.

Chapter Text

 

Sherlock has preferred to leave the whole business of actually finding somewhere to live entirely in John’s hands. If he’s learned anything in his life, it’s that his own plans for the future have a habit of being derailed and it doubles as a nice distraction for John in those difficult first few months after their return.

 

Some days it seems as if their decision to move out of London is the only the certain thing between them, the only thing that they can do, and yet Sherlock’s heart lurches at the thought that it might just be a sticking plaster over a wound that’s too large to heal. Perhaps they are forever going to be people who are tied together because the weight of what’s happened to them is simply too heavy to carry alone.

 

They argue frequently. Sherlock is unoccupied and – until the phone call days before they leave – has no prospect of work. John is mired in the bog of mundane problems surrounding the move, still recovering from his wound, and (though he’s living in only one world) he’s still mentally living three lives. Grief often takes over.

 

But they carry on because, for all the what-ifs, they both chose this life. Sherlock didn’t know the sacrifices it would involve when he chose this world, and John chose Sherlock – this Sherlock - before he lost Mary and Rosa.

 

And despite their fears there are sweeter moments that hint of something right between them: tender kisses on the sofa that grow more charged the longer they go on, the way John’s hands venture further and further over Sherlock’s body every time, the ache as they regretfully pull apart – determined as they both are for their first time together to be as part of their new life rather than their old one – and the thrill of knowing that even as they pull apart they still have a round of goodnight kisses to look forward to before John goes home for the night.

 

John’s touches grow more frequent and intimate, fingers casually brushing across the back of Sherlock’s neck, or the wonderful moment he reached across and brushed his thumb across Sherlock’s lower lip affectionately, without seeming to even realise he was doing it.

 

In short, it’s a time of recovery: difficult, painful, and very necessary. By the time the taxi finally pulls away from 221b for the very last time they look back at Mrs. Hudson’s crying figure until she’s out of sight and then they meet each other’s eye. Wordlessly John holds out his hand and Sherlock takes it.

 

Both grip at each other hard enough for it to hurt.

 

 

--

 

 

The cottage is not what Sherlock’s expecting. He’s not really paid much attention to the process of house-hunting, something John claims to find strange considering the effort Sherlock had put into the equally dull planning of John’s wedding.

 

Sherlock had merely shrugged when he’d brought it up. “You have a habit of surprising me,” he’d said. “I never realise I need it until you’ve shown me I do. I’m sure this will be the same.”

 

John had squeezed his shoulder in a way that suggested Sherlock had said the perfect thing.

 

Still, as the taxi pulls up to the cottage, John is more than a little nervous.

 

“I did suggest you came to the viewing,” he says, for at least the third time since they left London.

 

Ignoring him, Sherlock peers out of the window for his first look and then gets out of the car. John comes around the side of the car to join him.

 

“It was an absolute steal,” he says, clearly trying to sell it. “I negotiated another three per cent-”

 

Sherlock hushes him. He’s still taking it in.

 

The cottage is made of stone, with the four-windows, chimney-on-roof-door-in-the-middle layout of every child’s drawing of a house. There’s a small walled garden out front and what looks to be a large one behind. It’s perfect. He can even hear bird-song.

 

What he can also hear is laughter from the pub on the opposite side of the green and a dog barking from the gate of a cottage twenty-yards away from their front door. It’s surrounded by people. His parents’ house is more isolated than this.

 

“It’s not exactly in the middle of nowhere…” he ventures.

 

“Well I thought you’d go a bit stir crazy without some people around,” John says defensively. “Besides the garden isn’t overlooked and you haven’t seen the best part...”

 

He takes Sherlock’s hand (and this open intimacy in itself is thrilling) and leads him through the gate and around into the wild back garden. There are two doors, a white one leading into the kitchen and a scratched, bolted wooden door which John unbolts. A short stone staircase leads down to what turns out to be a large, well ventilated cellar.

 

Sherlock stops in his tracks.

 

“I know this place,” he says. “This is – oh! This is-“

 

“This is the cottage from the Cider Press Murders,” John finishes. “This is the cellar it all happened in.”

 

Oh the Cider Press Murders had been great fun. Sherlock hadn’t been invited onto the case and been more than a little put out by the fact, especially as the solution had been so very elegant. He’d been glued to the case-notes for weeks and now he was going to live in the very house it happened.

 

“And,” John adds, “I got the cottage at a ridiculous price as a result. Serial murders put people off buying cottages, as it turns out. I thought that whatever no doubt messy career you intend to throw yourself into, you could work in here without causing any damage.”

 

John doesn’t have to say another word. Sherlock moves closer to him, enjoying the warmth radiating from his body in the cool cellar, and whispers into his ear. “It’s perfect.”

 

“You think so?”

 

No, it’s not really, Sherlock knows. Small village life will drive them both mad eventually, but it will be a shared madness. It’s not perfect, but it’s just right.

 

He doesn’t say all that, because all that will destroy the moment.

 

He captures John’s mouth instead.

 

 

--

 

 

That night they share a bed for the first time. They’ve slept side by side before, but this time it’s meaningful. This time it’s their bed.

 

Sherlock had hoped that after a day of hauling boxes and furniture about they’d both be too tired to be bashful when it came to bedtime. Mostly that’s true, but as he waits for John to finish in the bathroom he begins to panic. Should he get into the bed first, or should he wait?

 

He gets in. Then he scrambles back out in alarm at the realisation that he’s just got into his ‘usual’ side automatically: what if John doesn’t want that side? John comes out of the bathroom and finds him standing at the side of the bed almost guiltily.

 

“I didn’t know what side you wanted,” he blurts.

 

“I don’t mind,” John shrugs. Sherlock nods, and then skirts around to the other side of the bed. It’s a pointed reminder to himself that things are different now.

 

He watches John take off his dressing gown and notes that he’s dressed in a similarly neutral way to Sherlock: a t-shirt and boxers alongside Sherlock’s t-shirt and pyjama bottoms. He hooks the gown over the bedknob at the end of the bed, just as Sherlock had done on his side, and looks around the bedroom, taking in the little things you do when sleeping in a new place: the slight draft from the window, the creaking floorboard by the door, the spot where the Cider-Press Killer had seduced the wives of his victims in front of the fireplace (admittedly, he might not have noticed that one.)

 

“We’re going to need more wardrobes,” John says, gesturing to the suitcases lined up against the wall (most of them Sherlock’s.)

 

Sherlock is going to agree (or to weakly offer to throw away some of his disguises) when a strange, unexpected smile breaks out over John’s face.

 

“It’s strange,” he explains, “I used to hate all that domestic talk… wardrobes and curtains and what-have-you… but it’s weirdly brilliant talking like that with you. I suppose it’s the novelty of it.”

 

He goes to his newly designated side of the bed and opens the bedside table, carefully storing the box that Sherlock recognises as his gun. Domesticity and weaponry, a combination he’s never been able to resist.

 

The awkwardness faded, John slides into bed and suddenly they’re not shy Victorian Honeymooners anymore, they’re familiar and intimate. A peaceful sensation settles over Sherlock. They’ll wake up in their own bed every day and slowly this will become their lives, they’ll be OK. And sooner or later the fear will lesson and this thing between them will suddenly spark into life and it will be just them, together, in love, touching and taking everything they need from each other.

 

Patience hasn’t been Sherlock’s strong suit in the past, but he’s waited for this, and now there is nothing to stop this new shared life from happening.

 

They inch closer, facing each other in the bed, and John winds his arm around Sherlock’s waist, rubbing his back.

 

“So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?” he asks.

 

“We’re retired,” Sherlock shrugs. “What makes you think there’s a plan?”

 

John grins and leans forward to press a kiss to the side of Sherlock’s mouth.

 

“Because I know you, you mad bastard, you always have a plan.”

 

Sherlock leans forward to return the kiss, mouth against mouth this time. After he’s pulled away he keeps his hand resting against John’s face, rubbing his thumb over the lip he’s just tasted. John hums and his eyes stay closed.

 

“Then you know I like surprising you,” he says.

 

“Fine” John murmurs, half asleep already, “so long as it’s not too surprising.”

 

It’s only in those few moments before Sherlock follows him into sleep that he realises that John didn’t seem to need to hear any more of his secrets.

 

“I love you,” he whispers. It’s not a secret, but he feels like saying it anyway.

 

 

--

 

 

Sherlock had his surprise all planned out. They would wake early, indulge in a leisurely breakfast (something more complicated than either of them would usually attempt without the direct involvement of Mrs. Hudson) and then there would be a surprise delivery…

 

He supposes that, if he’d thought about it, he should have been ready for John to once again defy his expectations. From the moment he wakes up his plan goes out of the window.

 

If Sherlock isn’t working then John is usually the first awake and he had expected that John would be up and doing something. Instead he wakes to the sensation of a warm hand stroking gently across his skin and when he opens his eyes John is next to him, awake and looking fascinated, as if waking up to Sherlock in his bed is the most amazing miracle to ever happen.

 

“Morning,” he rasps.

 

John’s echoed reply is barely out of his mouth before he’s putting his lips to more productive use, pressing them against Sherlock’s and then deepening the kiss. It’s as if the mere act of sharing a bed has thrown down the barriers between them and they’ve woken up in a new world.

 

Sherlock would have guessed, if asked, that they’d finally take the next step when the charged atmosphere between them finally grew too strong, perhaps in a moment of danger or even in a joyous moment, while sharing a joke. He would never, not in a million years, have guessed that it could be as simple as this. That they could simply wake up in a new place and everything would just… click.

 

But it has. His hands are sliding underneath John’s shirt, touching everywhere he can, and John – without hesitation - slips his own hand into Sherlock’s pyjama bottoms, taking hold of his already hard cock and stroking it. Sherlock responds in kind, frees John from his boxers, and their hands work frantically while their lips never separate.

 

God… this is going to be quick and messy. There’s no lube but they’re already slick with pre-cum and Sherlock realises that this is going to be over embarrassingly quickly. It’s been a long time for him after all and judging by John’s needy whine he’s just as desperate.

 

But then John is pulling away and Sherlock must have made a noise close to utter terror, because he hastily leans down to kiss reassuringly at Sherlock’s neck.

 

“I just- I have to-“ he pants, unable to articulate what it is until he’s sliding down Sherlock’s body, yanking his pyjama bottoms down, and Sherlock gets the message loud and clear.

 

“Wanted to do this for so long,” is the last thing John says before his mouth engulfs Sherlock’s cock and Sherlock can do nothing but writhe in the sheets and beg for mercy.

 

John’s hands busily stroke the inside of his now exposed thighs and he can feel Johns tongue swirling around the head of his cock and – and – he can’t hold on. He barely has time to push John away before he’s coming messily over his bare stomach and the t-shirt bunched up around his armpits.

 

John stares up at him like Sherlock’s just solved a multiple murder, and Sherlock thinks he might be looking as John as if he’s just performed a miracle.

 

“You- you- gave me a blowjob,” he says faintly.

 

“Note to self, sex makes Sherlock Holmes as stupid as it does everyone else,” John says affectionately. “And yeah, do you really you haven’t been driving me crazy with need too?”

 

“Oh,” says Sherlock, proving John’s statement about his post-coital intelligence nicely. Still, he hasn’t forgotten the most important fact: John still hasn’t come.

 

He bursts into action, flipping them so that John is on his back and it’s Sherlock who is wriggling down his body to return the favour. His mouth works hungrily, switching between firm sweeps of his tongue up and down the length of John’s cock and engulfing it, taking as much as he can. John is babbling incoherently, head still lifted to take in the view of Sherlock sucking him off. Judging by the occasional near-wept cry of ‘oh god look at you’ he seems to like the view.

 

Sherlock can tell when John’s about to come and despite John’s valiant efforts to warn him, he has no intention of going anywhere. Swallowing cum isn’t his favourite act, but it’s worth it to eke every last moment of pleasure out of John.

 

When John has finished and is a trembling, panting wreck, Sherlock moves back up and flops down beside him. He catches John’s eye and they grin like naughty schoolboys before reaching in for a well-meaning if not very nice-tasting kiss.

 

“I suppose that’s a sign that we have to get up and brush our teeth instead of spending the day in bed?” John sighs.

 

“We can brush our teeth and then come back to bed,” Sherlock offers. But they can’t: John’s surprise is due to arrive and he’s suddenly horribly aware that – not wanting to tempt fate – he didn’t bring any lube with him.

 

He mentions this to John. “Reckon the village shop will have some?” he asks, poker faced.

 

“Oh god, this place won’t know what’s hit them,” John snorts. “But do you know what we do have? A really excellent and surprisingly spacious power-shower. It was in the property description.”

 

This gets Sherlock moving. “I expect you need a good power-shower to get rid of the blood of your victims.”

 

“I should have known would turn you on.”

 

 

--

 

 

Despite the fact that they’ve had sex twice in one morning (something they’re both quietly smug about) the world still goes on. A delivery driver is angrily negotiating the narrow country lanes and heading closer to the cottage with every minute.

 

When he finally rings the doorbell it’s John who answers and accepts the delivery of eight large crates which the driver stacks in the hallway.

 

“Just what we needed,” John says blanky, “more boxes.”

 

Sherlock is suddenly nervous. He had not anticipated that things would be so settled so quickly and now he has inadvertently introduced something that might shake their new-found peace. But he has to tell John now, because it’s something he needs to know.

 

John apparently senses important news coming because he slowly sits down on the staircase, looking up at Sherlock wearily.

 

“I suppose it’s too much to hope that you’ve decided to take up some insane hobby?” he asks.

 

That’s not too far from the truth, but Sherlock decides not to confuse things further. This isn’t a moment for a grand revelation, John’s not going to fall into his arms like he imagined, this is something that will impact the rest of their life.

 

“I got phone-call from the psychic,” he says. “The one Mycroft mentioned.”

 

They’ve picked over every detail of what happened to them both. They’ve discussed the psychic before and what connection she might have had to Mycroft.

 

“Right.” John nods once, taking it in. “And what did she or he have to say for themself?”

 

Sherlock can’t bear to drag this out any longer. There will be time to pick over every detail, but he can’t allow himself to let John be frightened for a moment longer.

 

“It’s not what she said, it’s what she meant. She told me that Rosa was still alive. That’s she’s like Nell: travelling through the universe trying to get home.”

 

John just stares. Stares and stares. Sherlock can read thoughts in the tiniest flicker of facial expression but he honestly has no way of knowing if John is going to explode, or cry, or just walk away in disgust.

 

When he finally speaks, his expression doesn’t change but his voice sounds as if there’s a fire burning in his chest.

 

“How? How can she be travelling. She’s only a baby.”

 

Sherlock shrugs. “She’s the one people call the Red Princess. Someone must be looking after her.”

 

“Dorlag!” John says. “Dorlag- I- I told him how to use the Hives if something ever happened. He must have- he must have got her out-“

 

And then the blankness is gone. His face crumples and he’s sobbing harder than Sherlock has ever seen him. On instinct he drops to his knees and wraps him arms around John letting him weep into his shirt.

 

“She’s – she’s alive!” he croaks through the tears. “We have to find- find-“

 

Sherlock lifts John’s chin, forcing him to meet his gaze. “We’re going to,” he promises. “That’s what this is.”

 

He waves back at the stack of boxes behind him.

 

“I bought the Hives.”

 

For a second John blinks stupidly, mind not wrapping itself around Sherlock’s words. “Beehives?”

 

“Mina Ailis’s Hives. There were hundreds of them in that room and now she and her sister want them as far away as possible. They’ve got a new life to build, just like we have.”

 

And it had worked out well for the two damaged sisters. They’d sold the shop and earned enough money to start all over again. Fortunately a flat with a very understanding landlady had just become available. Sherlock thinks that Mrs. Hudson’s mothering will do the two women the world of good and that Nell is just eccentric enough to keep Mrs. Hudson on her toes.

 

“What are we going to do with them?” John asks faintly.

 

“We’re going to explore them,” Sherlock promises. “Hundreds of new universes, each one potentially dangerous: full of mysteries to solve, worlds to discover and fortunes to be made. We’ll have clients too: people who accidentally end up in our world in need to help. And any one could lead us to Rosa.”

 

The smile that creeps onto John’s face is blinding. It’s radiantly happy – a man overwhelmed by unexpected hope - and it infects Sherlock too. For a moment they grin at each other like madmen.

 

They’re both alive. They’re together. John’s daughter is out there somewhere.

 

And it’s almost certainly going to be dangerous.

 

 

--

 

 

Several Years Later

 

The two figures by the campfire make an astonishing sight. One, a huge man, sits hunched over, protecting the smaller figure from the worst of the snow that’s falling all around them. They haven’t been able to find shelter since their arrival, but it’s ok: the pack the larger man carries has supplies for all climates. A small tent is already set up and the two of them wear heavy furs.

 

They are in Canada but their meal is strangely tropical. The fish they’ve cooked was freshly caught in tropical waters just eight hours before and they sip sweet coconut water.

 

The man worries about his companion. She is an even more unexpected sight than he: a pale girl of six years old with a hundred-year-old stare. He is not her father, not a relation of any sort, but he is her most devoted follower and guardian.

 

Recently there has been too much travelling and not enough shelter and rest. She never complains; she’s a strange mix of determination and dutifulness. She tried to give him the bigger share of her dinner earlier; the blood of the Agra really does run through her veins, for she will never be convinced that she isn’t responsible for him.

 

He wonders sometimes if he made the right decision, agreeing to take her on this journey. After nearly a year of wandering around the jungle with his infant charge and no idea how to get back home, he’d had the strangest experience of all: he ran into a tribe of people who spoke his language. The chief of the tribe was woman and – to his shock – he’s realised that he knew her. She was the girl who’d gone missing from the cell all those years before. The girl who’d been sentenced to die for her strange visions.

 

“At last,” she’d said, cooing over the baby, “the Red Princess is finally in my arms.”

 

And then she told him the story she’d been waiting to tell her whole life: what Hives were, and how they worked, and how the Red Princess was destined to travel throughout the universe until she found her true home.

 

“And until she’s strong enough to make the journey herself, you have to do it for her…”

 

Dorlag would have died for Rosa. If it was written in the stars for him to take her on a great adventure, then that’s what he’d do.

 

And he had, but it didn’t mean he didn’t find it hard to see her cold and tired.

 

“Perhaps we should find somewhere and stay,” he suggests “For a while at least.”

 

There might be a farm somewhere, perhaps their strange bounty of coconut milk and other oddities from the many world’s they’ve travelled through might buy them a few nights rest and some hot, hearty meals to fill the girl’s stomach.

 

She frowns. The idea of stopping never seems to occur to her.

 

“No,” she says. “Perhaps the next Hive will be the right one.”

 

 

The End

 

A/N: So this is it, the very last author’s note. Thank you to all of the people who listened to me whinge, fret, and complain about this story. Truly you’ve all suffered for my art.

  1. This fic has been the culmination of many years of work. The idea of the Hives (initially called Ports until the genius of Sherlock retiring to look after Hives struck me), Covent Garden and Mina and Nell all hit me in one perfect moment while I was at uni. That was five years ago. Since then I’ve written various drafts of novels about the sisters, but I never intended to turn it into fic until Trillsabells’s prompt struck me as fitting my own universe very well. By then I was frustrated with my original idea and thought I’d write a little fic based in the same universe. The fic is NOT a copy of my own original story: aside from Nell being cut off from her home world and travelling to try and get back, and Mina waiting for her on the other side and taking in refugees, everything else is new
  2. I still have my original one page of scribbled notes for this fic with the words ‘THIS WILL BE NO MORE THAN 30K’ written at the top.
  3. The hardest chapters to write were the ones set during S3. My main goal writing this fic was that you could watch S3 and imagine this story was taking place at the same time. It was hard but worth it.
  4. The location of Milton Gate (aka Mina’s shop) is really called Hanover Place in Covent Garden. I walk past it quite often and it always makes me smile to think of the little part of London I’ve stolen and made my own.
  5. I’ve placed Agra in France, mainly because FlawedAmythyst assured me that it gets quite nasty in the Bay of Biscay (and I found a couple of historically similar storms to the one used in the fic.) The castle in the fic is near Rennes (which is a strategic strong point in terms of location) and there is Rennes le Chateau there which is quite a good visual idea of Agra’s castle (though in my head it’s a bit more war-like with a bit of visual inspiration from the Fortress of Miolans, which once acted as a prison and held the Marquis de Sade. It’s for sale if you have a spare 4 million euros.)
  6. Sherlock falls down the escalator at Angel station. It’s the longest one in the underground network (while writing this story I was on that escalator and literally thought ‘this is taking ages to get to the top’ before I remembered where I was and the significance!
  7. Days before I wrote the final chapters I visited the cottage that is – supposedly – the cottage Holmes retired to in East Dean in Sussex. We all agreed that the particular cottage is nothing like the one in the stories (it’s on a very busy green, in a touristy area, with a pub and other cottages very close by) and basically the sort of place that a bee-keeping loner would find absolute hell. It did strike me, however, as the exact sort of place John would buy if he was buying a place in the country and so I enjoy that it fits in with my world. There have been no murders (to my knowledge) related to cider presses.
  8. That’s it. Nearly one and a half years later and it’s all over. Finished. I’m stopping typing… now.
  9. OK I lied. If you liked this I’d love a rec. I’m an insecure writer and I’d love for people to hear about this story. Alright. Stopping now. Really… FINISHED