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To Light Another's Path

Chapter Text

Flashes of blue light ricocheted down the alley's walls, tingeing rubbish and filth in violet hues. The corpse lay on its back, brown, blank eyes staring at the narrow strip of overcast London sky above. Her pallid lips were lax and slightly parted, revealing the dull ivory gleam of teeth, straight but for one crooked bottom incisor. The victim's clothes were still wrapped around her form, the wings of the navy blue coat caught beneath her shoulders: a dark backdrop to the bloody wound that carved its smile into her neck.

Sherlock pressed a finger to the injury, the thin film of the latex gloves doing nothing to protect his skin from the brumal edge of the winter air. It was deep, no doubt cause of death. He could see a shallow pool of blood caught in the cleft of the slash, coagulated as her body cooled. The skin at the wound's edge was waxy, the cells dead before anything like healing could begin. Not that she could have recovered from the fatal blow, of course.

'Tell me what you see.'

He had no need to turn his head and direct the question; John would know it was meant for him. The staccato click of his knees as he hunkered down at Sherlock's side seemed loud in the narrow alleyway, and those gentle, healing hands slid over the fleshy remains of what had, little more than a day ago, been a living, breathing person.

In the past, Sherlock would not have bothered to acknowledge the corpse’s fled humanity – at least not beyond that which the case required. A body was nothing more than a stack of clues to him, and in that regard he had not changed, but he knew John saw things differently: their dichotomous views of empathy and information.

John would still see the woman as a patient, even if she was beyond the reach of his care, and he would treat her as such. Sherlock would lose himself in the fugue of data her remains had to offer, and in their own ways they would both see the person she had been.

'One knife wound to the neck, slicing through her trachea and carotid artery.' John grimaced, his eyes dark with pity as his covered fingertips probed at the wound before moving down to her sternum, and then checking her hands. 'No real defensive wounds; one broken fingernail, but that's it. She would have died within a few minutes.'

Sherlock glanced sideways, watching John carefully. That weathered face was pale from the cold: vaso-constriction carrying his blood away to the warm core of him, keeping his temperature stable while allowing his extremities to suffer. His strong jaw clenched tight, molars crushed together as the unfocussed distress found a futile outlet. It must be blinding, Sherlock thought, because how else could the obvious be so easily over-looked? John was not stupid, but he was still not observing anything of note.

'What else?' he prompted, ignoring the shift of Lestrade's boots on the grimy ground and Anderson's clipped sigh of impatience. They could wait. They had, after all, called for his help.

John gave a small shake of his head, glancing over and meeting Sherlock's eyes with a faintly knowing look. It was a pattern they had fallen into at every crime scene. Sherlock observed, consumed and deduced the knowledge within moments, only taking extra time to cement the details in his mind. He knew his abilities were far beyond what most people considered normal, but John found them fascinating. He took an interest, and Sherlock found himself returning the effort. Perhaps he would never be able to tune John's mind to the level of his own, but he wanted to give John a taste of it: that quivering satisfaction of taking the sum of minutiae available and painting a masterpiece of truth from its fragments.

And so he demanded that John push himself and enhance his shallow field of view. Success was rather limited.

He watched John's gaze sweep the body, and finally, he saw the moment that focus shifted, when John stopped seeing a person – twenty-seven, workaholic, longed to travel but never had the time – and observed the facts instead.

'Where's all the blood?'

Sherlock smiled, allowing himself the faintest exhalation of something like relief. That it took minutes for John to notice what he had picked out in a heartbeat was perhaps not the most encouraging, but neither Lestrade (distracted by the divorce, functioning below his usual efficiency) or Anderson (merely incompetent) had brought themselves to take in this one salient point.

A weight in the pocket of her coat guided Sherlock's fingers, and he tugged the phone free, peeling one glove off with a snap as he allowed the information on the woman's life to scroll by beneath his touch.

'Sophie Lattimer. She wasn't killed here,' he said at last, getting to his feet and facing Lestrade. The Detective Inspector's hand was pinched over the bridge of his nose, and he managed one curt nod: a simple gesture of encouragement. Not that Sherlock needed it. 'If she were, the alley would be covered in blood, as would her clothes.'

'The killer re-dressed her?' John squinted doubtfully down at the woman. 'They're a good fit, which says this was planned, but the knife wound is clumsy...'

'And with a narrow blade inadequate for the job. The wound is ragged where it was forced. The clothes fit because they are her own: cheap, high street brand pulled out of her wardrobe in a hurry, but –' Sherlock narrowed his eyes, taking in the whole picture. 'She did not dress herself.'

'What makes you say that?' Lestrade dropped his hand, his gaze raking blindly over the body at their feet.

Sherlock let out a harsh everyone-is-an-idiot sigh, feeling John twitch at his side before inching just fractionally closer. It was not a reprimand or a warning, but a hint of movement that was the faintest presence of a leash on Sherlock's impatience. There was a mute understanding of the fact that with brilliance came arrogance, and a silent request from John to spare the Yard from its bite.

'Any woman willing to spend almost a month's wages on a pair of Manolo Blahnik shoes,' he gestured to the elegant stilettos, so out of place they seemed obscene amidst the gutter's filth, 'would not match them with an off-the rack skirt, polyester blouse and frankly poor quality coat. No doubt she saved her best clothes for work; financial director, judging from the array of stock market apps on her phone, and wore the others at home in her rare hours outside the office.'

He paused, gathering the details around himself, all too aware of the lost-at-sea looks he was receiving from everyone within earshot. 'She was nude when she was killed, as evidenced by the dry blood.' He crouched down, flicking up the bottom of her blouse to reveal a sepia patina across her skin. 'The killer wiped it off her hands and chest so it wouldn't show around the edges of the clothes, but forgot her feet. She wasn't wearing shoes or hosiery, and droplets got caught between her toes, suggesting she was standing at the time of the attack. The blow was dealt from behind from someone she trusted. A lover.'

'Because she had no clothes on?' John asked, and Sherlock gave a brief nod, his lips tilting in a flicker of a smile as he looked up at John from where he was crouched once more at the woman's side.

'To whom else would you expose your bare back? Whoever it was, she did not expect any kind of attack. Judging from the high quality threads caught on the heel of the shoe, wool blend, double twist pile, she was murdered in a high-end apartment. Her home. That's where you'll find the blood and,' he glanced at his watch, seeing the hands hovering over three in the afternoon, 'probably the identity of the murderous lover, if you hurry.'

He moved to stand up, shifting his weight with no direct thought from his mind, yet something – some indefinable sense of wrong – made his muscles twitch and weaken. In front of him, the corpse blurred, her sharp outline turning cloudy as his head spun. It passed in a matter of seconds, leaving him blinking in confusion with the warm weight of someone's hand on his elbow.

'All right?' John's question was sharp; battle-edged, and Sherlock shivered beneath the burden of that probing gaze. 'When was the last time you ate?'

Sherlock's only answer was a faint snort, and he eased himself free of John's grasp as he straightened his coat and peeled the clinging latex free from his left hand. 'I'm fine,' he replied curtly, stepping back from the body and freeing himself from the foetid grasp of the narrow alley's airspace. 'The address is in the phone.' He passed it to Lestrade.

Lestrade nodded, his gaze falling pityingly on the woman once more before he gestured to Anderson and his team. 'Start processing. We'll investigate the apartment and see what we can find.' He held up a hand, his expression grim as Sherlock almost walked into the warm spread of his palm. 'I'll text if we need you again.'

'A waste of time,' Sherlock snapped, scowling as another shudder worked its way down his spine. The day was dying, dragged away by winter's dark grasp, and the cold, damp air seemed to seep around the edges of his coat and make nests next to his skin. 'John and I will meet you there.'

He dodged around the bulk of Lestrade before he could protest, heading towards the main road. He knew without looking that John would follow, no doubt with an apologetic glance and smile. He seemed to have made it his mission in life to smooth the ruffled feathers Sherlock left wherever he went. He honestly did not know why John bothered. The opinions of others had no bearing on his life, it made no difference to the Work, after all...

Another shudder ripped through his body, rousing a groaning cacophony of aches in its wake. His knees felt like crumbling concrete, and the muscles in his thighs shook from the effort of each step. Perhaps John was right after all. The last meal had been a long time ago. As soon as the case allowed, he would eat something: a token gesture to the body that carried around the gleam of his mind.

He took a deep breath through his nose, taking a moment to appreciate the smell of London – car exhaust, diesel and unleaded, the ever present threat of rain, decay and the faint liquid fragrance of the Thames – before raising his hand to flag down a passing taxi. The hackney cab slowed at the kerb, a sable, familiar bulk, and Sherlock suppressed a sigh of relief as he eased himself into the uncomfortable cradle of the seat.

'Admiral Walk,' he instructed the driver, watching the scatter of beads and other miscellany swing from the rear-view mirror as the vehicle pulled out into traffic. It was vaguely hypnotic, an unintentional metronome to the elegant roll of the cab, and Sherlock found himself staring blankly through the scuffed veil of the partition.

'You're not all right.'

He shut his eyes, trying to ignore the fact that they burned along the seam of his eyelids as he dragged them open again. Of course, John would choose now to be observant. Perhaps he was naturally more attentive to the details of the living, rather than the dead. He was a doctor, after all, a detective of the biological malaise of the populace, and one who seemed aggravatingly attuned to the soft ebb and flux of both Sherlock's mood and his health.

'What makes you say that?' he asked, genuinely curious. He had not been ill in the year John had known him, at least, nothing that was not self-inflicted. Injured, yes, and mildly poisoned by one experiment taking a turn for the unexpected, but nothing more serious. John had not even been called upon to use the hospital grade overdose kit Sherlock knew he had gathered together after Lestrade's so-called drugs bust. There had simply been no need. Even during his deepest fits of ennui, Sherlock had not turned back to his recreational substance of choice. Yet here John was, no doubt seeing far more in the lingering betrayal of Sherlock's body than he himself was willing to give away.

'You're always pale, Sherlock,' John pointed out, 'but now you're almost grey. More obvious is the way you're moving – stiff and sore – like you're the one with the dodgy leg.' A faint smile curved over John's mouth, derisive at the mention of his psychosomatic limp, now long gone unless he was emotionally exhausted.

Sherlock tried to return it, but his face felt stiff and unnatural, his muscles unresponsive, so he aborted the attempt before giving it a chance. He closed his eyes again, aggravated by the low, crunching ache that had started to throb at his temples. Probably caused by the sick, sallow fluorescence of the taxi's interior light, he thought.

The cool brush of John's fingers on his brow made him recoil, almost banging his head on the window as instinct jerked sore muscles into action. John's hand wavered, still raised, and Sherlock saw the moment the decision was made to push forward, rather than retreat. John's thin lips tightened further, his shoulders tensing slightly as he repeated the gesture, knowing full well there was nowhere for Sherlock to go. He was effectively pinned in the corner, unable to avoid the gentle examination.

It was the simplest of touches, banal in its innocence, but Sherlock still found himself staring, his gaze darting around John's face in a hungry quest for clues. Emotions had never been his area, but months of familiarity had made John's expressions less opaque than most, and he was far too familiar with the concern he could read from the lines around John's eyes.

'Maybe I dragged something back from the surgery,' he mused quietly, shifting closer along the seat and pressing his palm across Sherlock's brow. 'There's plenty going around. 'Flu season and all that.'

'No.' The word cracked in the air between them, and John raised a doubtful eyebrow. 'I'm not ill, John. I don't have time for it.'

'Let me guess, not while you're on a case. Like eating and sleeping.' John sighed, moving his hand back to the safer, less intimate periphery of Sherlock's wrist. He did not ask permission. He probably thought it was unnecessary in the pursuit of a diagnosis, yet Sherlock realised faintly he could never deny him anyway. 'Getting sick isn't something you can control, you know.'

'Mind over matter; there have been several studies...' Sherlock's voice faded as John looked up at him from beneath a frown, the lines bracketing his lips deepening in doubt. Clearly this was not the time for further enlightenment.

'I can't tell if you have a fever or not, not when you've been standing out in the cold for more than an hour, but we should go back to Baker Street.'

'No!' Sherlock gripped John's wrist, deposing his hand from where cool, dry fingers pressed against his radial pulse. 'I am in adequate health to examine the flat. It could mean the difference between a murderer in a cell or walking the streets.'

It was a good argument, one he wielded before him like a cattle prod at times. It rarely failed to result in eventual surrender. Few normal people could allow the balance of their moral code to come out in favour of bed rest over the capture of a dangerous criminal, but it seemed perhaps this time John had found his tipping point.

'Lestrade is no idiot, Sherlock, whatever you might think. He's more than capable of searching the flat himself. He'll text us if he finds anything interesting. Besides, you said yourself before we even left Baker Street that the case was dull.'

'It is.' He sighed, wishing there was a more intriguing pantheon of iniquity available to him. Many of London's criminals seemed painfully lacking in creativity since Moriarty had gone to ground. 'No locked room, no serial killer... no unique nuance to capture my interest. An open book of a case. Lestrade only asked for me because his workload has reached an intolerable peak. He needs cases solved quickly and without finesse.' He smiled. 'Matches the murder, really.'

'So why are you so keen to see her apartment?' John challenged, sitting back and folding his arms, his chin raised in pugnacious challenge. 'Want to make sure you're right?'

'I know I'm right,' he replied, curving his shoulders and trying not to quiver. The heating of the cab was doing a perfectly adequate job of turning the air to hot velvet around them, but it would only make the steel trap of winter snap all the tighter around them when they reached their destination. 'I live in the eternal hope that perhaps there is something more interesting to be found than a dead body in an alleyway; something that will lift this crime from the mundane and allow it to ascend to the realm of the intriguing.'

He heard the bitten back sound of John's sigh. Not the one he made when he was trying not to smile, but the other one: annoyance. The timbre was lower, and there was a minuscule downwards intonation. Sherlock had heard that sound frequently over the past month since confronting Moriarty at the pool. John was growing increasingly frustrated with the dark moods of boredom and the reckless behaviour they often inspired. He was becoming weary of the way Sherlock's mind turned inwards, destructive and biting, when there was nothing else to occupy the lightning storm of intellect and deduction.

That was the real reason Sherlock wanted to see the apartment, not because the case held any real interest, but simply because he was bored. Returning to Baker Street would be the same as sinking back into those oppressive shadows – allowing the focus of his mind to scatter, sharp and painful to all the unsuspecting targets of his frustration: Mrs Hudson, John, supposedly innocent strangers and, of course, himself.

No, a case – any case – was better than that. His mind needed feeding, exercising, challenging, or it began to walk the twilight avenues of “a bit not good”. If he could not deduce the flow of blood and the mystery of particulates then he found himself trapped in a loop of meaningless knowledge flowing ever inwards – the pattern of traffic lights, the life of the postman, the intimate secrets of all those around him – all taking up space on the hard drive of his mind and weighing him down in the sea of irrelevance.

Better to trawl through the mundane that the Yard could offer than subject himself to that again. Before John, he would not have bothered – would have weathered the storm as best he could by whatever means necessary and keep his high standards of intrigue – but now he found himself strangely unwilling to let John witness the true depths to which he could sink. After all, there was every chance that it would be enough to finally break John's strength and drive him away.

No, that would be intolerable.

The taxi pulled up to the kerb, interrupting his thoughts, and he bullied his limbs into activity. John was left to pay the driver as Sherlock eased himself free of the seat and trotted up the steps to the pristine apartment building. It was expensive, but not good enough to keep a doorman on staff. Clearly Ms Lattimer had the satisfaction of a well-paid job in the city and the benefit of some intelligent investments to afford the place, though he would still estimate it beyond the range of her earnings. She had another source of cash, though the relevance of that was open to debate.

A fob system protected the door, and he sighed in irritation before looking at the speaker system to the right. One flat was blissfully nameless, and he smirked as he pressed the button above, waiting for a voice to crackle over the intercom.


Male smoker in their forties, private school education, probably high up on the board of directors in one of the nameless corporations littering London's streets. 'Oh, brilliant!' Sherlock said, allowing a smile and a touch of breathlessness to enter his voice. 'I'm just coming to view the empty flat on the third floor, but the bloody estate agent's late. Could you let me in so I can at least get a look at the building while I wait?'

Next to him, John rolled his eyes, an expression that did nothing to hide the wince. He clearly hated it when Sherlock pretended to be normal, slipping with painful ease into a guise like this. Sadly, such things were often more simple than telling the truth. It should not work, the lies and deception, people should ask more questions, throw forth more challenges, but somehow they never did. Strangers were far too content to take what they sensed as truth and damn the consequences. They wanted to see the good in people. As if humanity's default setting was not naturally a grubby sort of malice, but something more worthwhile.

'Of course,' the rough voice replied. 'I hope you like it. The damn place has been empty for months.' A moment later the LED on the door turned green, allowing Sherlock to sweep into the hallway beyond with John at his heels.

'No downstairs neighbour,' Sherlock muttered as he made his way to the lift.

'No one to hear any bumps in the night,' John concluded. 'Maybe the people to either side of her will have heard something?'

Sherlock was already shaking his head, taking in the serial number of the lift with a quick flick of the eyes. 'Premium Central London apartments built for the delight of the drones in the financial district in 2007 at the peak of the housing market. The apartments are large and spacious, to better validate the extortionate price tag. She had one neighbour across the hall who hasn't been home for more than a week.'


'Post boxes in the lobby. Ms Lattimer occupies suite number eight. The box of number seven has not been emptied for a while.'

John gave a weak huff of laughter, and Sherlock smirked, hearing the unspoken “Amazing!”. John said it out loud less these days, perhaps because he was afraid Sherlock would scold him for the needless repetition, but the sentiment was still detectable. John's shoulders, tense since climbing out of the cab, had relaxed, and his murky blue eyes softened as he said, 'If you are coming down with something, it's not slowing you down much.'

'As I said, mind over matter.'

The smug expression on John's face was entirely too sharp – too knowing – for Sherlock's liking, and he raised a questioning eyebrow as John leaned back. 'So you admit something's wrong?'

'I've done nothing of the sort,' Sherlock replied with a sniff as the flat chime of the doors announced their arrival on the relevant floor. He swept through, eager to escape the unsettling focus of John's gaze as he stepped onto the floor of a well-lit hallway. Broad windows gave a view of London's bustle beyond, not high enough to afford a skyline vista, but rather the more claustrophobic panorama of the street below.

The door to number seven was shut firm to their right, and the intervening space of white marble floor was unsullied by tell-tale footprints. Yet it was the scent that caught Sherlock's attention: astringent and treble. 'Bleach. Someone's been cleaning.'

'The door's not shut,' John murmured, jerking his head towards number eight, and Sherlock followed his motion. Sure enough, the latch had sprung too soon, preventing the locking mechanism from sliding home into its socket. Just as well, because his picks would be no good against the swipe card system in place.

Quietly, he inched closer, slipping his hands into leather gloves as he carefully avoided the handle; it would do him no favours with the Met if he smudged any available fingerprints. Prying the door open a fraction of an inch, he peered inside, taking in the gloom that had fallen at sunset. There were no obvious signs of movement, nor sounds from within. Whoever had been here before, no more than a few hours ago judging by the scent of the bleach, had clearly already made their departure.

The soft whirr of the lift made Sherlock pause, lifting his eyebrow in surprise as John pressed himself against the wall beside it. His hand was on the brutish shape of the Browning in his pocket. It was rare the gun was left at Baker Street these days, the risk of being caught with it was outweighed by the likelihood of needing to shoot someone. It was comforting to see John like this, his character twisting to reveal a different facet of his personality: not just flatmate, doctor, friend – but soldier and protector.

Only when the lift doors parted to reveal Lestrade and Donovan did they both relax, John's hand falling back to his side as his features radiated unassuming innocence.

'What's the freak doing here?' Donovan demanded, unoriginal as always.

Sherlock noticed the faint clench of Lestrade's jaw. The sergeant's taunts often went by with barely a reprimand. This time was fractionally different. 'He found out where the victim lived, something neither you or Anderson could deliver.' He turned back to Sherlock with a frown. 'If you've been in there already...'

'The scene is undisturbed, and the door was unlocked when we got here. No doubt left unlatched by whoever found it necessary to wipe bleach all across the floor.' Sherlock waved a hand around. 'Someone has been attempting to cover their tracks.'

'Been watching too many episodes of CSI,' Lestrade muttered, giving a sniff before approaching the doorway, ignoring Sherlock's baffled expression.

'TV,' John supplied, smiling at Sherlock's grimace of disbelief. 'Turns out it's not all useless after all.'

'Dull.' Sherlock watched as Lestrade and Donovan entered the suite, walking carefully along the edges of the room rather than striding across the middle. Clearly they were making an effort to spare the evidence for Anderson's inept efforts, although Sherlock could have told them they were wasting their time. The pile of the carpet was groomed, newly vacuumed, and the stench of bleach only intensified as they left the petite hallway and moved into the open plan rooms beyond.

Sherlock narrowed his eyes, frowning at the disparity. The body was dumped in an alleyway, neither particularly well-hidden or cleaned, though some clumsy efforts had been made. Yet the apartment was immaculate. The few items of sentimental value were carefully arranged, yet there was no dust around them – making it impossible to tell if they had been disturbed. The carpet was flawless – no track marks, not even any coffee or wine stains, and the bedroom was eerily similar.

There should have been blood everywhere. A severed carotid would result in arterial spray, yet the bed was made in white linen, completely clean, and the walls were unblemished. If it were not for the chemical fragrance of bleach, Sherlock could almost believe he had been mistaken. No, someone had detailed this apartment, meticulously wiping away the evidence.

'Interesting,' he murmured, a frisson of curiosity rippling through his mind. 'There was an accomplice. Either they were responsible for disposing of the body, or for cleaning the room.' He splayed his fingers out, jabbing them down towards the floor in emphasis. 'Whoever cleared up this apartment was attentive to detail and thorough – dispassionate. The one who dealt with the body was clumsy and frightened.'

'You sure she was killed here?' Lestrade demanded, his eyebrows raised. 'If you're wrong, you could save us a lot of time and just admit it.'

Sherlock smirked, and mutely pointed one finger at the ceiling above their heads. It was not much, easily missed, but a few dark spots lingered on the white paint near the light fitting. 'The peak of the arterial spray on the first cut,' he murmured. 'I'm not wrong. This is your murder scene. Get Anderson to check the bedstead, if he's capable. The black paint might hide more stains. Clearly her bedding has been disposed of, but there will be empty hangars in the wardrobe, and –'

His voice died in his throat, quelled by a bright, sudden stab of pain through his head. He could feel the pili on his arms coaxed upright by another shiver, and this time there was no relief. It did not pass like a wave, but instead lingered, making muscles jump and twitch. The longing to rest was abrupt and keening – loathsome as it speared through his concentration and scattered his deductions to the wind, leaving him groping helplessly for what he had been about to say.

'And –?' Donovan prompted, her lips quivering around a sneer.

'Find the lover and you will find your answers. Unless that simple task is beyond you?' Sherlock bit out, trying to hide the abrupt derailment of his train of thought. Perhaps John was right after all: Baker Street was calling.

He swept back out into the main room with as much dignity as he could muster, trying not to obviously slump against the wall as he spotted John carefully perusing the scant few photographs decorating the place. The room was like a hollow shell: a house rather than a home, but although that thought niggled at the edge of his mind Sherlock could not make anything of it.

Hateful. Hateful! How could this happen? How could his mind be brought low with such ease: a victim to the whims of his insignificant flesh? It made him want to claw at himself and tear aside the choking shroud of weakness that had collected him so swiftly in its grasp, but he found he barely had strength to lift his arms. When he called John's name it only got worse, as if the simple exercise of pushing air past his vocal chords was a Herculean task.


He lifted his head at the weak summons, the distant fog of thought in his eyes fading into an intent look of sympathy that Sherlock found both wretched and gratifying. Clearly he now looked as bad as he felt, and John's attention was absolute. He took it all in with a practised eye, moving with prompt efficiency to Sherlock's side before shaking his head.

'You daft bugger.' Fondness seeped into his voice, warm and comforting, as if Sherlock had done something stupid but not at all unexpected. 'Come on, let's get you home.'

And, for once, Sherlock was happy to surrender himself to another's assistance, weak and trusting as John led him away.

Chapter Text

John sighed, glancing across the cab as the journey passed in silence. It was not the comfortable peace he was used to, the one that came when Sherlock was lost in his private deductions. This calm was far more ominous, and he could not tear his gaze from the pallid man propped up against the window at the other end of the back seat. It was as if, for the first time since he had known him, Sherlock had simply switched off. He was still conscious, still staring at the spinning streets beyond the window with slitted eyes, but his focus seemed to have slipped away, leaving John with a tight knot of worry in his guts.

It was probably 'Flu: sudden onset, abrupt malaise, head pain, and now the bright twin flags of a fever burning on the crest of Sherlock's cheekbones all told the story, but the straightforward diagnosis only made him more tense. If the stubborn git had gone back to Baker Street the first time he suggested it, then he could already be in bed getting the rest he needed to recover. Instead he had dragged out the inevitable. Worse, John was not sure that Sherlock would cooperate and sleep on request once they made it home, even though his body had made its demands clear.

'Here you are then,' the cabbie called out, accepting John's cash gratefully, quickly counting the notes and coins as Sherlock made the effort to leave the taxi under his own steam. By the time John got around the car to the pavement, he could see that his friend was swaying slightly on the kerb, sallow in the glow of the street lamps.

'Come on, then,' John urged softly, holding out both arms to catch Sherlock in case he fell as he wobbled towards the door of Baker Street. They must look ridiculous, and before they had gone more than a few steps, he huffed out a sigh and grabbed Sherlock's arm, looping it around his shoulder and wrapping the other around that narrow waist.

He could feel Sherlock shaking through the bulk of the coat: a sporadic, bone-deep shudder that spoke volumes. It was enough to make him wonder if they could make it up the stairs to 221B. Sherlock could barely manage the flat pavement, and the seventeen steps to their door would be like Everest in his current state.

'I'll be fine,' Sherlock murmured, his deep baritone rumbling and a whisper of breath tickling John's ear in a way that made a spark shiver down his spine, despite the situation. It was crushed with ruthless, practised ease, and he glanced over into dull quicksilver eyes, hating the haze that covered that normally astute gaze.

'Why don't you let me be the judge of that?' John suggested, trying to focus on getting the key into the lock. He had forgotten his gloves again, and his fingers felt like cotton wool, clumsy and useless. Sherlock's weight leaning on his side, pressed against him from shoulder to hip, was not helping either but in the end he managed to get the door open. They stumbled over the threshold together, shutting out the slice of the wind that tried to follow them home and left them both panting for breath in the hall instead.

'Ready? Not much further and then you can lie down.'

There was no argument – no cynical, sarcastic retort – and John pursed his lips. He never thought he would miss Sherlock being his normal arrogant self, but this helpless obedience was more troubling than when he had been shooting holes in the wall.

Every step was slow and painstakingly placed, as if Sherlock didn't trust his legs not to betray him and pitch them both back down to the unforgiving floor at the bottom of the stairs. They made progress by inches, and when John brought his hand up to Sherlock's chest to steady him, he could feel the too-hard thrum of his heart. Sherlock didn't have the energy for this, and John's mind raced back over various meal times, desperately trying to remember when Sherlock last ate.

'Breakfast,' Sherlock supplied as if he had plucked the thought straight from John's mind. 'I had some toast.'

'One slice,' John reminded him. 'One stupid little slice, Sherlock, and that was almost twelve hours ago. How are you meant to fight off whatever you've got without any fuel?' A new concern settled in the pit of John's stomach. Sherlock's nourishment was hit-and-miss at best. He still wasn't sure how the man managed to live off the bare essentials he consumed, but now his body had earnest need for the energy, and it would attack muscle to get it. 'Flu could kill the appetite for weeks, and Sherlock did not have the fat to spare to keep his body running on minimal sustenance for that long.

With a silent curse, John shoved the thought aside. He would deal with one thing at a time. First, he had to get Sherlock horizontal and comfortable. He could figure out how to ease the passage of his recovery once he did not have both arms full of long, lean and distinctly unwell consulting detective.

At last, they reached the door to the flat and John pushed his way inside, dithering about where to put Sherlock. He would be more comfortable in bed, but the last time he had glanced in at Sherlock's room the mattress had been piled high with books, papers and other things he didn't want to look at too closely. John would be happy to give up his own bed, but that would mean manhandling Sherlock up another set of stairs. He wasn't sure either of them had the strength for that, and besides, it would be better to have him down in the main flat so John could keep an eye on him.

'Sofa it is then,' he said, guiding Sherlock over to the squat piece of furniture. He spent enough time lounging on it anyway – it probably felt more like a bed to him than anything else. 'Down you go.'

He slumped like a puppet with his strings cut, surrendering his entire weight to the sofa in a miserable heap. He did not lie down, but that was probably because he did not have enough coordination to arrange himself comfortably on the couch. No moves were made to remove his scarf or the leather gloves covering his hands, and as John watched, Sherlock curled his coat a little tighter around himself, his eyelids drooping threateningly over glassy eyes.

'Right.' John sighed, looking around for a moment as he began to formulate some kind of plan. 'I'll be right back. Don't go to sleep.'

He hurried up to his room, feet thudding up the creaky steps before he shouldered the door aside and grabbed his pillow, quilt and the bag he kept stocked with basic medical supplies. Sherlock could have John's bedding for now. He would try and liberate Sherlock's later once the detective was comfortable and less likely to complain about John cleaning up his room.

Carrying it all in an awkward bundle, he picked his way back to the bottom of the stairs, leaving it unceremoniously on the floor before heading for the more alien territory of Sherlock's bedroom. He had never stepped over the threshold before, only seeing things through the open door, but now he ignored the clutter of old police files, various things in glass vessels and leaning stacks of books and walked to the wardrobe and nearby chest of drawers.

He hesitated, trying to focus on the fact that he was a friend – a doctor – as he rummaged through Sherlock's things for a t-shirt, but his hands lingered on silk and high count cotton for slightly longer than necessary before he finally found what he was looking for. Trying to ignore the brief flare of guilt about the intrusion into Sherlock's privacy, John beat his retreat, getting a glass of water and a slice of bread from the kitchen before turning to face the task of dealing with the man himself.

Sherlock had not moved, but the shivers had intensified to a noticeable vibration, and the unhealthy colour of his face had worsened. John winced in pity, nudging his collection of things over to the couch before hunkering down in front of Sherlock and reaching out to prod a bony knee.

'Hey, come on. We need to sort you out.'

Sherlock's response was a bleary, slow blink. His expression was faintly puzzled, as if he wasn't sure what John was talking about, and he frowned in annoyance, tightening his arms over his chest as John tried to tug one of Sherlock's hands free. 'Let me sleep,' he mumbled at last. 'You are always saying that I do not get enough.'

'You can rest in a minute, Sherlock. Tell me what hurts.'

He wrinkled his nose, a fraction of his old temperament showing through. Sherlock had a distinct distaste for admitting physical weakness of any sort, but this time he did not have a choice. 'My back, my joints. Everything is heavy.' He paused, then added, 'My head, my throat. I'm tired.'

'I know. Come here.' John reached into the bag of medical supplies, pulling out a tympanic thermometer and sheathing the nib. Sherlock flinched at the intrusion, making a moue of discomfort as the device beeped its verdict, flashing between centigrade and fahrenheit. 'Thirty nine,' John murmured to himself, watching the reading go up by another point of a degree. 'And rising. Take off your scarf.'

At any other time, the way Sherlock clutched the strip of material around his throat would have been funny. He looked perfectly petulant, and at least a decade younger than his actual years. Despite everything, John smiled, quickly disentangling those clumsy, gloved fingers and peeling the wool away to reveal the long, pale column of Sherlock's neck.

'Can you drop your chin to your chest for me?' Sherlock's eye roll should not have been a comforting sign, but it showed he had the awareness to know John was checking for early signs of meningitis, just in case. The penlight flickered in his eyes was met with the same distaste, but he did not jerk his head away, and John gave a quick nod of satisfaction.

'Eat this, and take these with the water,' he said, popping two paracetamol free of the blister pack and putting them on the plate next to the bare bread. 'I don't care if you're not hungry. You need it, if only to metabolise the drugs effectively. And no, before you ask, I've not got anything stronger.'

Sherlock gave him a dark look but did as he was told, picking half-heartedly at the bread as John pulled the cushions off the back of the sofa, giving Sherlock more space on the couch before he arranged the pillow and quilt and turned his attention to the fire. The drugs would help keep Sherlock's fever under control, but they probably would not do much to alleviate the illusion of chills, and John knew comfort and warmth were a high priority.

He fiddled with fire-lighters and matches, sighing as he realised that this point of the illness would probably be the easiest to deal with. Sherlock would be at the mercy of the virus and less prone to complaints. If John was very lucky, he'd do little but sleep. No, one of his deepest uncertainties was what Sherlock would be like when he was recovering, still betrayed by the weakness of his body but cuttingly sharp in mind.

Well, he would have to bear it as best he could. It wasn't as if he was completely inexperienced with the chasms of Sherlock's boredom.

Turning back to the sofa, he gave a faint smile at the sight that awaited him. Sherlock had allowed himself to lie down, simply toppling through ninety degrees until his head was cushioned on the fluffy softness of the pillow and quilt, but his shoe-clad feet remained on the floor. His eyes were already shut, and his breathing deepened with each passing moment. His body had given the order to sleep, and disobedience clearly was not an option.

John scratched his head, glancing over at the t-shirt he had dragged free from Sherlock's room and then back at the man, still wrapped in his coat, designer suit and undoubtedly expensive shirt. He couldn't sleep like that. If nothing else, John didn't like the thought of Sherlock finally coming around and bitching about his ruined clothes.

That meant he would have to undress Sherlock himself. His stomach twisted in a knot of discomfort and inevitable desire, and he ran a hand through his hair before shaking his head.

'It's not the time for that,' he told himself sternly, rolling his eyes at the inner voice that added, 'and it probably never will be.' Sherlock was married to his work, and John...?

John was hopeless.

He thought he had it under control. He had taken in Sherlock's unapologetic let-down at Angelo's, seen the total dead end, and acted accordingly. His string of dates over the past year was testament enough to that, although perhaps their general lack of success said more about the focus of his desire than he would like to admit. In the end, in a battle between the woman of the moment and Sherlock, the aggravating man always won.

So he found himself stuck here, quietly wanting what he couldn't have and hating himself for it.

If he was sensible, he would have left. He would have nipped this disaster in the bud and moved out of Baker Street, but every time he thought of going, something cool and uncomfortable clutched around his heart. Memories of his life after the war but before Sherlock curved through his mind, painted in monochrome and misery. Hand-in-hand, whispering in the back of his head was the thought of Sherlock-before-John, as if their meeting was the beginning of a new era for them both.

If he left, would Sherlock carry on without him, unchanged and unwavering, or would he return to drugs and despair? Would it matter to him, or would he simply keep going? Part of John feared that all the little moments of significance he hoarded like a fool went by Sherlock’s bright mind unnoticed, but mostly he was aware of the changes he had seen in Sherlock since becoming his flatmate. That outer shell, the one built of intelligence and arrogance had softened subtly, at least where John was concerned.

Then there was what happened at the pool...

John's shoulders dropped at the memory, the volatile cocktail of emotions echoing through his system. He loathed Moriarty with his entire being – hated him for catching Sherlock's interest and holding it with such hideous, fatal ease – but part of him was still aware of that moment when he had stepped out wearing the Semtex vest, and how exposed Sherlock's expression had been. He had seen true emotion, blindingly intense, as if a mask John wasn't sure Sherlock even wore had been ripped away.

His eyes refocussed on the man lying on the sofa, sweeping over the dark fan of his lashes and the sharp line of those cheekbones. John had thought it was a turning point, that the uncertain thing they had been dancing around for months would be resolved, but he should have known Sherlock better than that. Once it was all over, the status quo returned, leaving John feeling off-balance and out of place, as if it had been nothing but a dream.

And so they carried on, waiting for the elusive Moriarty to return and trouble their orbits once more.

Twisting his lips in a grimace, John shook his thoughts away. Very rarely, he could see why Sherlock was so derisive of sentiment. If it threw John for a loop, then he could only imagine the disorder that such feelings might bring to that neatly organised mind. It would not be something that Sherlock relished, that was for sure, but John doubted the man was truly above it all. He knew him too well to believe that.

Forcing himself to move forwards, John edged closer to the couch and reached out a tentative hand to Sherlock's shoulder. Rehashing all those old hopes and fears tonight was pointless. Sherlock needed him, for now at least, and John could not be the one to let him down.

'Hey, come on,' he murmured, giving Sherlock a faintly harder shake. 'You can't sleep like that.'

The only response was a non-verbal groan of misery. John remembered having 'Flu, years ago now. He could remember the wretched, absolute surrender of his body and how every movement had been a gargantuan effort. Now Sherlock was stuck in the same place, too weak to even deal with the task of changing his clothes.

Taking a deep breath, John nudged him upright again, fingers moving quickly down the buttons that held Sherlock's coat around his body and peeling back the heavy, dark wool. The weather was cool enough for Sherlock to be wearing a suit jacket underneath, and John made quick work of that, his palms skimming the sharp line of Sherlock's shoulders as he coaxed the sleeves from those long arms.

John was painfully aware of the feverish burn of skin through the thin fabric of Sherlock's shirt and the fast thrum of that heavy pulse in the hollow of his jaw. He kept having to remind himself that they were signs of illness – a fever – and not desire. His mind knew that, clear and logical, but his body was getting its wires crossed: dry throat, parched lips and a guilty hot burn beneath his skin that refused to fade.

His fingers dropped to the buttons of Sherlock's shirt as he viciously wrested his body back under his control. He was used to nakedness, no matter how attractive. Feeling anything other than compassion right now was beyond inappropriate. End of story.

'John.' Sherlock's whisper was rusty, the hoarseness of his voice alarmingly intimate, and John’s eyes darted upwards: a deer caught in the headlights of Sherlock's lidded gaze. He had not even realised Sherlock was still awake, but now the bow of his lips was twisted in a faintly rueful smile: half embarrassed at his own weakness, half grateful at John's presence.

'People will talk.'

The hint of very weak humour made John snort with laughter. His own words echoed back to him from the pool – the first allusion Sherlock had made that he even remembered that moment of adrenaline and relief.

'They do little else,' he replied softly, relishing the shared memory as he dropped his fingers to Sherlock's cuffs and freed them, ignoring the beat of the radial pulse beneath his fingertips as he peeled the shirt free and grabbed the t-shirt. 'Can you lift your arms?'

It hurt, that much was obvious. Perhaps Sherlock was not bothering to try and hide his discomfort, but he did not miss the grimace as he dragged the leaden weight of his arms mostly upright, making the sleek muscles of his chest and shoulders move even as his skin trembled.

John tugged the cotton over him quickly, forcing his admiring train of thought into a more medicinal estimate of Sherlock's current weight based on what he had seen. Not heavy enough was the obvious conclusion, and he carefully put a hand on Sherlock's left shoulder, easing him back onto the pillow and dragged the quilt free from where it was trapped under his body.

'You still with me?' he asked quietly, nodding as Sherlock managed a hum of agreement. 'Good. Not much longer, then I'll let you rest.'

He made quick work of the laces on Sherlock's shoes, tugging them off. He left the socks on. They looked ridiculously expensive – John probably spent at least as much on his jumpers – but they would keep Sherlock's toes warm if his feet slipped out from beneath the duvet. Last came the suit trousers, and John forced himself not to hesitate as he pulled Sherlock's belt loose and undid the fly, gripping the waist band to pull them off.

'You are wearing underwear, aren't you?' The question fell from his lips before his brain had a chance to snatch it back, and he ignored the faint burn of embarrassment he could feel at the tips of his ears. Doctor, he reminded himself firmly. It shouldn't matter.

Yet Sherlock did not seem to notice, managing only a brief, jerking nod as he lifted his hips a fraction – probably all he was able – and John tugged the trousers free, down long, pale legs and off. He just caught a glimpse of well-fitting black boxers, silk, knowing Sherlock, before he flipped the quilt over and covered everything from view.

He let out a breath he had not realised he had been holding, jamming his hands on his hips as he watched Sherlock draw his knees up, curling up in the makeshift nest as if it was the most comfortable thing in the world. John only just managed to pick up the quiet “Thank you.”, barely more than a whisper, but it was enough.

It was everything, coming from Sherlock.

'You're welcome,' John murmured, resting his hand briefly on Sherlock's riotous curls before stepping back. 'Now get some sleep. I'll be right here.'

There was no argument on that score, and John checked the time on his watch, putting together a medication schedule in his head as he walked towards the kitchen. Sherlock would not be hungry; he had barely eaten more than half of the slice of bread John had forced on him, but John needed food. He had a feeling the coming week would be trying for everyone. Besides, if he came down with the same thing, then they were both screwed.

Of course, even as a locum he had been given the Flu jab and spent three days feeling lethargic and under the weather as a result, but these things weren't fool proof. The virus mutated quickly, and it would be just his luck for Sherlock to enable something new and disgusting to evolve: another, unconscious kind of experiment.

Rescuing some left-overs from the fridge, he dutifully ignored the distinctly human looking stuff in a Tupperware container on the bottom shelf before turning to the microwave. No eyeballs, entrails or anything else unsanitary greeted him when he opened the door, and he quickly heated the Donpo and fried rice to a volcanic temperature before leaving it to cool a little on the side.

He would have to get some more food in, something bland and easy on the system, but preferably loaded with calories. He knew he would be lucky to get Sherlock to eat anything at all over the next couple of days, and if the Flu went to his stomach, it would be even longer. He had to make the most of every mouthful. Sports drinks, too, would be a good idea.

John glanced at his watch; too late to go out now, and besides, he couldn't leave Sherlock alone like this. First thing tomorrow, he would stock up, even if that meant emptying Sherlock's experiments out of the fridge to make room. He did not care about the complaints that behaviour would induce. Sherlock's health took priority over mold, putrescence and murder.

Grabbing a fork, he ate the leftover Chinese without really noticing it pass his lips. He was too busy making a shopping list, interrupting his writing once every few minutes to glance over at Sherlock's sleeping form.

He did not stir as John washed the dishes and wiped the surfaces, throwing away the old stale bread and the long-neglected fruit he had bought on a whim. He checked the oven for anything Sherlock might have left to decompose in an enclosed space, and carefully moved Sherlock's lab equipment to one end of the table before scrubbing the other.

The fridge was treated to a thorough clean as well, the doctor in him equally fascinated and repulsed by some of the things he found. Christ, it was a miracle neither of them had died of food poisoning, or something worse. Some of it, if it was food-based, was easy to throw away. Anything human was moved to the bottom drawer of the freezer. John did not care if it invalidated results. Sherlock could always flatter Molly for more fingers later.

At last, he turned towards Sherlock's room, a bin bag in one hand and a grim determination filling him to the brim. He wouldn't touch anything except what lay on the bed, he promised himself. This was not an expedition to probe the depths of Sherlock's personal space; it was about practicality, nothing else.

Flicking on the light, he surveyed the chaos for the second time that evening, eyeing the bed suspiciously. At least, he assumed it was the bed. It was the right shape, approximately, but the sheer level of stuff on top made it hard to be certain. A sheep's skull was grinning back at him from the pillow, and there were books everywhere. Parcel tape, something wrapped in plastic that looked vile, and what John hoped was a metal coat-hanger rather than some fused electrodes also lay at the peak of the junk mountains.

'Does he ever sleep in here?' John murmured to himself, scratching his head before getting to work. The books seemed fairly safe to touch, though the pressed leaf that fell out of one and landed on his foot gave him an undignified fright before he realised its harmlessness. He was braced for horror, and it was almost a disappointment when the worst thing that he found free of a container was half an apple, going furry enough to be briefly mistaken for a rodent.

Eventually, after probably about an hour, John could see the quilt and pillows. The double bed seemed completely wasted on some kind of scrap heap of science, and John felt a pang of jealousy as he thought of his single upstairs. Not that it particularly mattered, but it was the principle of the thing. Dropping the bin bag by the door, he grabbed the pillow and quilt – soft cream, both of them and surprisingly clean – before pausing to consider his options.

Where exactly did he plan to sleep tonight? His room was too far away. If Sherlock needed him in a hurry, he could break his neck in the race to get to his side. Sherlock's bed seemed far, far too personal. More than just a step over the complicated boundary that wended its way between them, and that only left one option open. The floor in the living room.

Practical, but not exactly comfortable.

John sighed, shrugging his shoulders. He was a soldier, one who had managed to believe a sleeping bag and sand dunes were a suitable bed. A few nights on a carpeted floor would be no hardship, especially if he got inventive.

The cushions he had removed from the back for the sofa earlier to give Sherlock more space made a passable mattress. A little short, even for him, but he could cope. He briefly considered trading Sherlock for his own pillow and things back, but with one look at the sleeping man, he dismissed the idea. He was utterly out of it, pink lips parted and his lashes not even fluttering as he slept. If it were not for the faint snores emanating from him, John would have reached over to check he was still breathing. As it was, he found himself standing in the middle of the living room, makeshift bed half put together and staring at Sherlock.

It was so rare to see him like that. The few times John had actually caught him resting he had either been stretched out on his back along the couch, as contained and immovable as a statue, or slumped helplessly over his latest experiment: a victim to his exhaustion. Both spoke volumes of Sherlock's derision of sleep.

Now his baser instincts took over, twisting the fever ridden body into something like a foetal position and bundling the quilt around his frame. It was both human and animalistic: a potent reminder that, underneath the flash and snap of deduction, Sherlock was not really that much different from anyone else.

Jerking himself from his thoughts, John looked back at the cushions on the floor, draping the pillow and quilt over them before feeding the fire a little more. It was still fairly early, but the effort of taking care of Sherlock dragged at his energy reserves. Better to sleep now while Sherlock was quiet. God only knew how long he would stay that way.

With movements born of a practical nature, John organised his bed at right angles to Sherlock, so that his head would be on the floor at the end of the sofa where Sherlock's feet were tucked up. That way Sherlock would still get most of the heat of the fire, and if he threw up in the night, at least it was unlikely to land on John.

With that thought in mind, he dug around under the sink for a bucket, hauling one out and placing it near Sherlock's head. With any luck, his stomach would remain unaffected by 'Flu, but John had seen enough of this season's symptoms to know it was unlikely. Better to be prepared, anyway. It meant less chance of him scrubbing sick out of the carpet at three a.m.

Stirring the fire back into life, he fed it another log before turning out all but one lamp and settling down on the floor. The cushions yielded with a sigh beneath his weight, and he dragged the quilt up to his chin. A deep breath through his nose had him opening his eyes in surprise. Maybe Sherlock slept in his bed more often than he thought, because the pillow beneath his head and the quilt cradling his body smelled of him: expensive shampoo and deodorant, a faint touch of chemicals and that other, deeper fragrance that was all Sherlock's own.

Turning on his side, John tried not to think about how quickly his body relaxed, eased and soothed far more swiftly than he ever was in his own bed. By all rights, his nest on the floor should not be more comfortable than a decent mattress, yet here he was, already slipping into a doze where sounds took on an unearthly quality, and the flickering firelight behind the mesh guard gradually dimmed to nothing.

He slept, and for once his dreams were not of sand and bloodshed. Instead there was the thrill of the chase, the rush of success and the breathless flash of Sherlock's genuine smile.

All for him.

Chapter Text

The acrid scent of chlorine filled his nose, cloying in the back of his throat and burning his tongue. Slick metal, warming from the sweat of his hand, shifted in his palm, but the barrel never wavered, pointing without hesitation at the abandoned Semtex vest. Fluorescent lights stuttered and jumped, drumming their own sick, subconscious pulse while Moriarty's dark eyes stared: ceaseless black holes into the pit of madness.

Like calling to like.

Sherlock could feel it in himself – that same, answering shadow. It twisted in his stomach, flowing out along his veins, reaching and stretching until it filled his mouth with ink. The white splay of his palm on the trigger began to tinge grey, then darken, bruised greens and blues running together to turn to the blackest midnight. It was not the natural colour of skin borne of genetics or exposure to sunlight. It was as if someone had filled his outline with pitch.

It gummed his eyelashes and sealed his lips, blocking his nose and choking his lungs. Yet he breathed still, a living, hating thing. Gone was the cool calculation and the soothing balm of deduction. Instead there were flames burning in his stomach and rising in his throat like bile. Fury roared through him, shaking apart the last husk of humanity that remained and spilling him forth anew in a deadly metamorphosis.

We could have set the world on fire, you and I.

Recruitment. That had been Moriarty's intention all along. Sherlock had caught his attention as surely as those crimes, beautifully constructed, painfully executed, had occupied Sherlock's mind. But clearly he knew nothing. For all his insanity, Moriarty saw the world as a chess board; the agonised contrast of black and white, good and bad. Oh, he knew there were those that could be influenced and turned, changing their colours as quick as a blink for the right encouragement, but he had misunderstood what Sherlock was.

A creature of shadow and twilight. Shades of grey. Not noon or night but crepuscular.

If he wished to burn the world to ashes he would do so. A sneer twisted Sherlock's gummy lips, his eyes narrowing in the black, flowing liquid of his face. The audacity to believe he needed assistance, to stand there and think that he was just like the others. Dependent, focussed, normal underneath it all.

No, Moriarty did not understand. Beneath the madness he still sought out the construct of a society – of cooperation and minions and people to bend to one's will. Different faces, different names but he built the structure around himself all the same.

Sherlock lived outside it all, dipping into those acquaintances that he required and then casting them aside. He was driven by nothing beyond his own relentless desire to untangle the puzzle of the world. He had no need for Moriarty; it was entertainment, nothing more. He worked alone.

I will burn the heart out of you!

A sharp intake of breath made his ribs ache. The world lost its dark, bleak focus as his gaze flickered to John, and the rattle of his own, loathing thoughts took on a different pitch: high, keening fear over the baseline of anger.

Oh, John. Not alone after all.

There was always something he missed.

Sniper light danced over them both, unwavering, and John looked on without fear. He could see all that Sherlock was, all the darkness he could be. He knew that morality and compassion came a pathetic second to finding the answers, but he accepted it anyway. He stood at Sherlock's side – the two of them against the world at times. Moriarty had seen it before Sherlock, that devotion, and now it was too late.

His weakness on display.

The gunshots echoed in the chamber of the pool even as Sherlock pulled the Browning's trigger. Blackness dripping like paint from the bare skin of his hand as the bullet streamed through the air and explosives turned the scene to hell.

Sherlock set the world on fire, and drip by drip, the pool turned red with blood as John's dead eyes looked on.

Muscles jerked him upright, over-riding the shrieking pain of the aches in his body as he flailed against the burden of the quilt. The innocuous living room swam in front of his vision as his heart – beating, breathing, not burnt at all – tried to smash its way out of his ribs and land in his lap. His throat felt harsh and raw, screaming maybe? And his head had set up a whole new rhythm of discomfort.

Grimly, he pressed the heels of his shaking hands to his eyes, dragging in one breath after another as he fought the surge of adrenaline that raced through his bloodstream. He did not dream often. He normally did not give himself the chance. Sleep was a waste of time, and an intelligent mind did not lack imagination. His very existence gave him plenty of horrors with which to paint the veils of slumber, and so he normally worked himself into a fugue of utter exhaustion, allowing his mind to bypass the undignified mess of subconscious imagery.

'It's okay, Sherlock.'

The voice came from beside him, soft and heavy in the gloom of the night. John. Always John. Warm hands on his shoulders, rising and falling with his heaving, ragged breaths. Another frame, smaller and more compact, perched on the very edge of the sofa cushions as if he was unsure he should be so close, but was desperate to offer comfort all the same.

He sagged forward a little, his forehead resting on John's shoulder as he shook his way through the falling wave of fear and was left like a dead thing on the shore of horror's sea: weak and wasted.

A gentle hand touched the back of his head hesitantly, a perfect anchor to what was real and what was not while his brain pin-wheeled around the bizarre strangeness of the dream: not fact at all, but some convoluted fiction contrived from the abyss below the foundations of his mind palace. The pool was real, and so was Moriarty. A fact which John would say was unfortunate, but Sherlock's brutal honesty only allowed him to label as “interesting”.

Yet there had been no blackness of tar, no burning world, no blood in the pool. They had escaped alive and mostly unharmed.

The memory of John's unseeing eyes flashed across his mind anew, coupled with blood from the bullet wounds the snipers wrought on that strong body, and Sherlock's stomach gave a threatening roll. Perhaps he made some kind of noise. Either that or John had some sixth doctorly sense that told him when vomit was imminent, because the next thing Sherlock knew he had a bucket, and it felt as if his entire stomach was trying to turn itself inside out.

Clammy, uncomfortable sweat broke out across his face as the dry heaves continued. His body attempted to curl up on itself as his spine grated and muscles contracted sharply. The sheer effort involved was exhausting, and Sherlock was not sure whether to be grateful for the dry hand brushing the hair away from his forehead or resent the touch. He hated being ill: the weakness, the confusion. It did nothing for his calm, collected image when his transport took such obvious control of his being.

'Better?' John asked hopefully when Sherlock finally subsided, removing the bucket (mostly empty but for viscous mix of saliva and flecks of bile) and easing his trembling form back down to the sofa's embrace.

'Worse,' Sherlock managed as his teeth began to chatter again. Nausea was now a solid, constant weight beneath his ribs, and his intestines were making distinctly unhappy noises. The last time that had happened was three years ago after an unfortunate cross contamination event between curry and some poorly sealed experiments in the refrigerator, and Sherlock pulled a face as he realised a trip to the bathroom was inevitable.

John clearly sensed it too, because he stood up and offered Sherlock his hand, pulling him up, grabbing the bucket, and helping him across the flat to the bathroom door. 'Put a towel around your shoulders, and another across your lap,' he instructed, emanating medical practicality from every pore. 'You might be in there a while, and you want to feel warm.'

The involuntary expression of disgust and misery on his face must have been amusing, because Sherlock caught sight of a pitying smile before he did as he was told, grunting in acknowledgement as John added, 'Just shout if you need me. If I don't hear from you in fifteen minutes, I'll assume you've passed out on the loo and break the door down.'

Sherlock's thoughts circled fuzzily around indignity and discomfort as he answered nature's uncompromising demands. Biology: it was all so ill-thought-through. Simply more proof, should he need it, that intelligent design had nothing to do with anything. If bodies had blue prints, they would be graceful, poised and above all dignified. Much of his work relied on the messy fluids that criminals left behind: blood and semen, spit and, in one unique case, tears. Surely if they had been engineered by something capable of conscious thought and aesthetic, then the human body would not shed so much of itself all over the place?

Dimly, he was aware of the faintly random disconnect of his thoughts. They did not weave themselves into the tapestry to which he was accustomed, but tended to skip and jump and dwell in unusual places. Of course: Decline in mental faculties as the body was forced to divert resources to fighting off the virus. Perhaps that explained the dream, and the fact that now, almost a quarter of an hour after re-entering the waking world, he still felt something akin to distress over the whole thing. He was not so much bothered by the dark image of him, almost choking in the blackness of his own potential, but John's acceptance of it, as if he expected no better.

He shivered, wrapping the dry towel closer around his shoulders as he stared dejectedly at the bathroom floor. It was the one room in the house (except perhaps John's) that remained perfectly clean. No mold experiments, nothing disturbing lingering in the sink. John treated the bathroom a bit like an operating theatre, and now he thought about it, it was always in here that John patched them both up after a chase gone wrong. Right now, the white of the tiles was hurting his eyes, and the gleam of the taps kept blurring in and out of focus. He estimated he only had a handful of minutes before he was beyond getting back to the sofa under his own steam, and he suspected John was serious about his threat to tear the door down.

Finishing what he was doing, he pulled the toilet flush before moving to the sink, scrubbing at his hands and hunching uncomfortably as his empty stomach cramped. A splash of warm water over his face washed away the sickly sweat that marked his skin, but the movement of bending over brought on an almost overwhelming wave of dizziness. He found himself clinging to the porcelain, another, fruitless heave escaping his throat as the room waltzed around him.

Utterly wretched.

He wanted to brush his teeth, but the very thought of mint made the nausea clench tight, and he settled for cautiously rinsing his mouth with water before he opened the bathroom door and hobbled back into the main flat.

John looked up from where he was sitting on the floor reading a book, not far from the bathroom door. Sherlock was used to being looked at by John, often in a “What?” way, and occasionally in that “I wish you'd behave as human as I know you are” manner, but this was different. This was, in fact, a bit like meeting the eye of his own reflection, which he tried not to do too often. Self-deductions were particularly unpleasant when backed up by self-knowledge.

Now, he was observing Sherlock in a patient, steady way that was distinctly unsettling, and Sherlock belatedly realised that he was clinging to the towel around his shoulders as if it were one of the shock blankets the deranged paramedics always insisted on giving him.

Except that, unlike Sherlock, John did not feel the need to vocalise whatever it was that he noticed. Instead, he got to his feet, joints clicking before he nudged Sherlock in the direction of the living room. His ashy blonde hair was sticking up at the back, and Sherlock slowly realised that John was dressed for bed: tracksuit bottoms and a plain t-shirt. A quick glance showed he had been sleeping on the living room floor, and Sherlock frowned, partly in annoyance at his own blindness for not seeing it sooner, and somewhat out of confusion.

'There are two empty beds in the flat,' he pointed out, the hoarseness lingering in his throat making his voice a good half-octave deeper than usual. 'Why are neither of us using them?'

'Well, your bed was covered in junk, so the sofa was better for you, and I thought it was a good idea if I was close by, rather than upstairs. I wouldn't have heard your nightmare from up there.'

The embarrassed flush washed weakly through Sherlock's face, but he was too tired to bother trying to suppress it. His instinct was to sprawl on the sofa in his usual dramatic way, but his body warned him that such negligence would not be met kindly. Instead he eased himself gently down until he could lie, mostly comfortable, on the familiar piece of furniture.

'Want to talk about it?' John asked as he reached for the thermometer again, taking the reading with a frown before checking Sherlock's eyes.

'Moriarty. Pool.' Sherlock provided, wishing everything ached less and his skull felt as if it were filled with useful grey and white matter, rather than the cotton wool that seemed to have been packed inside while he was asleep. 'Bit not good.'

That got him another look; one which said John was fully aware that Sherlock's words were a brush off, but that the subject was not so much dropped as postponed. It was fascinating how expressive a human face could be, and even more intriguing how easy John's was to understand. Was that simply born of familiarity? If he spent more time with Lestrade, or Anderson, would they be as transparent to him?

The thought of spending more than the necessary few moments in Anderson's presence was too abhorrent to consider, and Sherlock discarded the rather scrambled methodology that had started to bloom in his brain. No, that was one experiment he could do without.

'Fine. Your temperature's gone up again. Looks like the painkillers have worn off. I'd give you more, but I suspect you'll just expel them in a few minutes.' He looked around for the bucket, clearly realising that Sherlock had left it in the bathroom. He carried on talking as he went to retrieve it. 'Try and go back to sleep. You might be able to keep more down in the morning.'

Sherlock blinked at the living room, lit by one of the lamps and the ruddy embers of the fire. There was central heating, of course, but John was always worrying about the bill. Besides, there was something pleasantly hypnotic about watching the carmine glow in the grate. It was enough to distract him from the sickness in his stomach and the disturbing simplicity of his thoughts.

Dragging the quilt up to his chin, Sherlock realised it was not his own. This cotton had clearly never seen Egypt in its life, and it was looking a bit ragged and frayed at the corner. His own high quality, rarely used bedding was currently a cracked open cocoon on the floor, thrown aside by John. Yet even without that obvious symmetry, he would have known who owned the quilt that was currently keeping him warm by the smell: tea, cheap shampoo, a faint hint of antiseptic and the vaguely exotic smell that John clearly emitted all by himself – the one that made Sherlock think of a steady hand and invading Asia.

It was – good.

Cognizance flowed into his mind like warm sea water, pleasant and relaxing, and he blinked slowly as John placed the clean bucket back by his head. The handle of it clanked on the plastic material of its construction, sounding like a tolling bell in the peace of the flat, and he watched John fidget around, active and alert at just gone three in the morning.

'I did not mean to wake you,' Sherlock rumbled, feeling the inside of his throat scrape as if he were swallowing glass.

'You'd rather be going through this on your own, would you?' It was a rhetorical question, one without bite and only a hint of exasperation on John's part. 'I'm not much good as a doctor if I don't take care of you when you're ill.'

'Why do you do it?' Too ambiguous. John looked confused. 'Expose yourself to other people's vile illness in the hope of making them better?'

Many reasons, Sherlock assumed, ranging from the helplessness as an adolescent when faced with family illness and addiction to the simple, almost pathological need John had to look after people, but it would be interesting to see if John had that level of self-awareness. “Protector” was practically written in his DNA. It was certainly evident in his career choices: soldier and doctor.

'It was the only thing that made sense.'

Sherlock raised an eyebrow, at least, he thought he did. His face muscles were strangely uncooperative, so perhaps the expression was not as successful as he hoped.

'Every other job I could think of was like wearing a coat that didn't fit. Doctor worked, and once I was there it made sense to go into the army. I deal better with injury than sickness.'

'Trauma. High stress situations. Suits your adrenaline addiction and need for danger. You did most of your training in A and E.'

It was not a question, but John nodded anyway tidying up his medical bag and putting it to one side before sitting on the floor with his back against the couch. 'Surgery probably fit that bill, too,' he said thoughtfully, as if only just noticing this fundamental fact about himself. Really did all people go through life this unaware of not only their surroundings, but who they were as human beings?

Obviously, Sherlock thought, or he would be out of a job.

'Still, that doesn't mean I can't look after you when you come down with something,' John pointed out. 'I know what I’m talking about when I tell you that the more rest you get, the quicker you'll recover. Try and get some more sleep.'

He reached out for the book at his side, holding it open in his lap and turning back to the last page he had been reading. The corner of the folio was folded down to mark his place: savage.

Yet it was one of the many unrefined habits about John that Sherlock found interesting. Tiny nuances that turned a simple whole into an endless enigma. He felt he could spend his entire life in the study of John Hamish Watson and reach the end of it without fully comprehending the man in front of him. John thought he was amazing.

He thought John was fascinating.

Sherlock could not remember the last time he had thought that of anyone, even Moriarty.

He shifted on the sofa, the bed sheets sending a fresh wave of John's scent into his nose, and Sherlock glanced at the back of John's head. He was very close, and there were at least two places Sherlock could find that would smell more strongly of John within easy reach – his hair and the hollow beneath his jaw.

It was tempting to bury his nose there, in all the warmth and John-ness of it all, but John had lectured him about personal space only last week. Perhaps he could blame the illness? He only wanted to categorise it, after all, to take it apart and understand it, but no, probably best not. John might get cross and leave him to look after himself, and Sherlock doubted he was capable.

Instead he settled for shuffling further under the quilt and changing the angle of his head so he could read the book over John's shoulder: something trite about the Illuminati. Conspiracy theory rubbish.

'Stop it.' There was a huff of laughter in John's voice, poorly concealed amusement, and Sherlock realised he was being watched from the corner of John's eye. 'I'd rather you didn't tell me how it's going to end before the first chapter's over. You've not let me finish a book since I moved in.'

'Untrue. There was that one with the highly unlikely wizard and the turban.'

'Harry Potter, and it's meant to be unlikely, Sherlock, it's magic. Besides, you got a case, dragged me halfway across London, nearly fell in the Thames and, when we'd got back, something had got it all wet and stuck the pages together.'

'Should have looked before you put it down.' He shut his eyes, a faint smile twitching his lips as he listened to John turn the page. Despite his aches and pains, he was fairly comfortable. Still not quite warm enough, but as long as he did not move the discomfort in his limbs did not flare up, leaving just a low level ache: tolerable. Withdrawal had been far worse.

After a while, he became aware that John had not turned the page again. He knew John was not a speed-reader, but it should not take him so long to make his way through the fairly generic language found in most mainstream fiction. Had he stopped? Put the book down and Sherlock had not noticed? Had he returned to his strange nest of Sherlock's blankets on the floor?

Cracking open one eye, he realised that was not the case. The book was still open in John's lap, strong, steady fingers hovering over the paper, but those blue eyes were focussed instead on Sherlock, watching him as if John were afraid he would slip away somewhere should he look away. He wanted to tell John that it was all right, that he was not about to vanish or fade away, but the cotton wool in his skull had thickened, and the sheer effort of stringing the words together was too much.

All he could do was allow his lashes to fall again, shielding him from the world as darkness washed over his head once more. He slept, content in the knowledge that John was at his side: a solitary guardian against the velveteen night.

Unfortunately, John's sentry duty was useless when it came to something to defend him from the rampaging hordes of the virus. He woke up to see a massive spider on the ceiling. Not distressing, exactly, but a specimen far beyond the bell curve of its normal size. It was about the size of a 2008 Mini, watching him with eight eyes and avid fascination.

John said it was not really there. Delirium. Hallucinations. His brain getting its signals crossed as the fever rose further. He spoke, of course, but that seemed to upset John more. Perhaps he was not being as articulate as usual? He tried to swallow paracetamol again, but his stomach was having none of it. The two tablets were viciously rejected within five minutes, leaving John rummaging through his medical bag for a syringe.

'Stay still, all right?' he asked. 'Do you understand me, Sherlock?'

Yes, of course. Was that really so hard to believe?

Clearly it was, because John's lips went tight like a zip as he applied the tourniquet, finding a vein with proficient ease and pressing a small dose of something into Sherlock's blood stream. Good idea. Bypass the unnecessary mess of the reluctant digestive system all together. John appeared to be taking that as some kind of concerning defeat. There were shadows under his eyes, tiredness in the lines of his face. Sleep had clearly not happened.

'Is the spider still there?'

Sherlock wondered if he should lie. After all, it was not doing anyone any harm. It was just clinging to the ceiling happily, shuffling its trichobothria as it surveyed the world beneath it.

Clearly he took too long trying to decide, because John's hand rested on his forehead, his expression pinched up tight as he urged Sherlock to close his eyes again. 'It'll be better soon. Just – just take it easy, Sherlock. Should have known 'Flu would knock your brilliant brain for six.'

Sherlock blinked, his hands tangling in John's t-shirt as he pulled him closer, ignoring flustered questions and wide eyes as he settled his nose in the crook of John's neck.

A steady hand and invading Asia. He never knew that could smell like home.

Chapter Text

John froze, his pulse thudding hard in his chest as Sherlock dragged him close, the point of that elegant nose nudging softly at the hollow beneath John's jaw. It felt warm and a little sharp, pressing there as if Sherlock's very existence depended on it.

'Sherlock, what are you – ?' The words died in his throat as he heard the soft whisper of Sherlock's inhale, followed by a gentle hum of something very, very much like pleasure.

Oh, God.

John shut his eyes, swallowing tightly as heat shot through him and curled between his legs, his body wilfully ignoring the shrieks about delirium and illness that echoed through his brain. His hands were spread wide, very much not touching Sherlock, but his arms seemed to move of their own accord, folding around Sherlock's back and stroking the line of his shoulder-blades, sharp like aborted wings beneath the t-shirt.

He swallowed convulsively, his neck hurting with the urge to turn and press a kiss to Sherlock's temple, but no. That was too much. This – this could still be swept away as compassion, rather than anything more intimate. At least, that's what John told himself, even if his heart throbbed with the absolute certainty that "friendship" was too pale and ghostly a word for what had grown between them.

Despite his slender frame, Sherlock's weight was enough to drag John down as he relaxed back against the pillow, and he found himself half lying across Sherlock's chest as a repeated whisper of steady breathing hushed across the sensitive skin of his throat. He could feel the thud of Sherlock's heart, tapping out a comfortable rhythm against the straining cage of his ribs.

John's body relaxed into the awkward embrace automatically, melting against Sherlock's frame as if it were home, and John muttered a curse as he realised the inappropriateness of it all. Sherlock probably did not even know who he was. For Christ's sake he had been swearing blind there was a big spider on the ceiling not more than ten minutes ago.

With a pang of loss, John carefully extricated his arms from where they were trapped between Sherlock's back and the sofa, trying not to let his palms linger on the warm flesh barred from him by nothing but thin cotton. Sherlock's grip on his t-shirt was lax now. He had gone under almost instantly, as if John's presence had been enough to push him back into sleep, and now John sat back on his heels, untangling Sherlock's grip from his collar and placing his hand gently back on the quilt.

He scrubbed his palms over his eyes, trying to ignore the heavy, bereft sensation that lingered across his skin now that he had peeled himself free from Sherlock's arms. He was being ridiculous. It was not as if he were desperately starved for physical contact. It was just that, from Sherlock, it felt more intense. Addictive, much like the man himself.

The empty syringe of intravenous paracetamol chimed on the floor as he shifted his knee, shaking him from his thoughts. He drew a deep breath as he picked it up, covering the sharp and putting it aside for disposal later. That was what he was meant to be doing – dealing with the medicinal and the practical – not this, whatever this was.

No, Sherlock was ill, barely sensate. John's tangled mess of emotions could wait, perhaps forever, or at least until Sherlock was back to his old self again and not hallucinating about gigantic creatures.

Briefly, feeling stupid, John glanced up at the white art-ex of the living room ceiling. Time spent sharing a habitat with Camel spiders had left him wary of anything land-bound with eight legs, and Sherlock had been utterly certain it was there. However, the plaster remained innocently void of arachnids.

It was definitely all in Sherlock's head, then. Not surprising since a temperature check not long ago had shown a reading flashing helpfully between 40.5 centigrade and 104.9 Fahrenheit. He should have tried to give Sherlock some more medication earlier, but he had foolishly hoped he would not have to resort to intravenous administration. It was not as if Sherlock had the best veins to begin with, not after God knew how long as an addict.

At least the shot would take the fever down as well, and he would manage it by injection if he had to. Really, there was not much else that could be done for viral 'Flu except ride it out and keep his eyes open for secondary infections.

Getting to his feet with a faint groan, John padded over to the kitchen. It was still early, and his sleep had been fragmented at best. Not that he had expected much better. Sherlock's obvious nightmare had wrenched them both from slumber, and something soft and complicated curled in the pit of John's stomach at the memory of his flatmate trembling like a newborn foal with the ebb of adrenaline. After that, dealing with Sherlock's stomach upset had meant John was too active and awake to go back to sleep. He had read for more than an hour, aware of Sherlock nestled close to where he sat, near enough that John could feel every flutter of Sherlock's breath against his skin, tempting and hypnotic.

Blindly, he made himself some breakfast, boiling the kettle as his thoughts continued their lazy, wobbling whirl. Perhaps he had managed to get a couple of hours of sleep on his makeshift mattress, but Sherlock's peace was short-lived. John must have woken up again at five to the sound of his name being called. That in itself was fine, but he had known the minute Sherlock told him, quite clearly, that the toaster was melting, that something was not right.

Hallucinations were not that rare with fever, and Sherlock seemed far less concerned than most patients John had seen in a similar state. He was not sure if that was because he failed to see the danger of dissolving appliances or giant spiders, or whether the fever made Sherlock react in an atypical fashion, but John had spent almost as much time reassuring himself about what was real and what wasn't as he had trying to get some medicine into Sherlock.

He leaned back against the counter as he chewed his way through two slices of toast, watching the sky beyond the window lighten to a dove grey as the sun rose steadily on another overcast morning. By the time he had finished, the pattern of his day was cemented in his mind: get washed and dressed, get in supplies, and continue his endless task of taking care of Sherlock. It was a good thing he wasn't needed at the surgery this week, because the thought of leaving Sherlock to fend for himself was frankly terrifying. What if he tried to mop up the dissolved toaster, or make the spider into a pet?

He was just about to head for the shower when the sound of Sherlock's phone pulled him up short. The innocuous device sounded muffled, and John rummaged around in the pile of Sherlock's clothes before finding it in his coat pocket. The screen was not locked – probably for ease of use knowing Sherlock – and John opened the message, his eyes scanning the words.

Found lover in the river, already dead. Need your help. - GL

John raised his eyebrows, chewing thoughtfully on his lip. It was not like Lestrade to be so straightforward when it came to getting Sherlock on a case unless he was at his wit's end. Either he really was snowed under by too much work or that dull case Sherlock had complained about had elevated itself to something more intriguing.

Not that Sherlock could do anything about that right now. He was bad enough to control when he was healthy and lucid. John did not want to imagine what could happen if Sherlock was unleashed on a crime scene in this state. Throwing up on evidence would be the least of their worries.

No chance, sorry. He's got Flu. Hallucinations and everything. No good to anyone. Try again in a couple of days? - JW

He glanced over at Sherlock, still secretly surprised that the sound of his phone going off had not activated some kind of “must respond” reflex and jolted him from sleep. No doubt he would be furious when he came round enough to realise that the Work was calling and he was unable to answer, but he would have to live with it. Even if he tried to get to the scene without John's help, he doubted that Sherlock would make it as far as the front door before his body betrayed him again.

A buzz from the phone in his hand had him glancing down, his lips curving in a smile.

Bloody hell, really? Take a picture. Prove he's human. Will drop file by later, in case he can cope with that. - GL

A huff of laughter caught in John's throat, and he shook his head to himself. At least he was not the only one thrown by Sherlock's occasional moments of alarming humanity. It just proved that the image he had built around himself for all these years was nothing more than a convincing persona. Sherlock insisted he was a manipulative genius, a high-functioning sociopath incapable of true emotion or compassion, and everyone believed him. They did not even have to ask him for proof; he gave it to them with every interaction, from shamming to get someone's keys to his complete lack of pity for murder victims. He did not empathise at all, at least not on the surface, but there were moments when it all cracked apart and John caught a glimpse of something real inside.

The confrontation with Moriarty back at the pool drifted through his head, and he nodded as he put the phone down and turned towards the bathroom. That was the best possible example. After seeing all that on Sherlock's face, he knew his flatmate was talking bollocks. Sherlock felt things. Perhaps not quite the same as other people did, but that was not the point.

Flicking on the taps to the shower, he got rid of his pyjamas and stepped under the spray as he kept half an ear open for Sherlock, straining for any sounds of distress. Mercifully, the flat stayed quiet beyond the closed door, and John felt himself steadily begin to relax as the warm water drummed at his stiff shoulder and rinsed away the shampoo suds that clung to his hair.

Normally, he took his time, taking advantage of mostly guaranteed privacy for a wank, but this morning John decided not to linger. He felt too uneasy about leaving Sherlock unattended on the sofa. Who knew what he might think was a good idea when he woke up?

Stepping out, he grabbed a towel, scrubbing it quickly through his hair before wrapping it around his hips and running a bowl of water in the sink. The shaving foam lathered creamy smooth across his face before he set to work removing stubble. Sometimes he left it for a few days, but never long enough to be particularly noticeable. Facial hair just made him look older, and though John was not a particularly vain man (How could he be, Sherlock always asked, with those jumpers?) he would rather not look like someone's dad if he could help it.

Finally, he was through with his morning routine, feeling slightly more awake and collected having brushed his teeth. Clean clothes were up in his bedroom, and he belatedly wished he had thought to get them before he used the bathroom. Still, too late for that now.

Pulling open the bathroom door, he paused, his eyes falling on the sofa and a blink fluttering his lashes. It was empty. No Sherlock. No quilt. Just a pillow falling drunkenly onto the floor.

For a brief, horrible moment he wondered if Sherlock had heard the text after all and somehow managed to drag himself out into London to answer Lestrade's request. Only the fact that Sherlock's phone was still on the desk and his suit and coat remained piled on the floor made John hesitate. Sherlock forgetting his clothes was completely believable, but he was mostly fused to his phone. Even ill, he probably would not leave without it.

Cool air danced over John's skin as he padded further into the flat, craning his neck until he noticed a soft, lumpy shape in the kitchen, just visible between the thicket of chair and table legs. It took barely a heartbeat to get to Sherlock's side, and John's head was already racing with possible emergencies when Sherlock's rough voice reached his ears.

'I hate being ill.'

He sounded earnestly miserable, sat on the floor and slumped against the cupboards as if he had decided he needed something and simply ran out of strength before he got there. From the rough shape of him, John could guess that his knees were drawn up to his chest, and the bulk of the quilt was wrapped around him, leaving only his hair and his eyes clear, which were looking at John in a faintly glazed, puzzled way.

'Why are you wearing a towel?'

'I was in the shower,' John said, tugging the knee-length strip of fabric tighter around his waist before cautiously kneeling down so as not to accidentally flash Sherlock more than he wanted to see. 'Didn't you hear the water running?'

Sherlock's expression suggested that he possibly had, but had been incapable of doing the necessary basic arithmetic to work out what the noise meant. Definitely losing mental acuity then. At any other time, John would have taken a moment to revel in being the smartest person in the flat for once, but really, Sherlock was looking a bit too pathetic to tease right now.

Those ever-changing eyes looked greenish in the subtle light coming in through the windows, underlined as they were by red rimmed lids and the brown of the quilt pulled up over his nose. Sherlock's gaze was less sharp than usual, but John still felt his skin burn as his bare chest became the subject of that hazy focus. Invariably, Sherlock's eyes drifted to the knot of scarring on John's shoulder: a messy web of discoloured tissue.

John had never shown it to Sherlock before, mostly because he hated the mark the injury had left on his life and could do without Sherlock reading the story of pain, loss and infection marked permanently into his flesh. Now, though, he just frowned, reaching out an unsteady hand to brush his fingers gently over the old injury.

A breath caught in John's throat at the softness of Sherlock's touch. It was feather-light as if he thought the slightest pressure might cause John pain. His fingertips drifted over the ridge and furrow of the scar, mapping it in perfect detail, and John unconsciously licked his lips, fighting the urge to close his eyes and just enjoy the simple moment.

'I'm sorry.'

John cocked his head to one side, trying to understand the faint look of devastation in Sherlock's eyes. Anyone would think he had been the one to pull the trigger by the way he sat staring at the scar, fixated by the impression it wrought across the blank canvas of John's shoulder.

Gently, he snagged Sherlock's fingers in his own, weaving them together and giving them a reassuring squeeze. 'What for?'

'The pain. What it took from you. How it left you.'

Really, he could only guess the avenues down which Sherlock's mind had turned, but there was something there, enfolded in those clumsy fragments of speech that John could almost understand. 'It brought me here. I think, in the end, it turned out for the best. There really – really isn't anywhere else I'd rather be.'

John's throat pulsed around the words. They were sentimental at best, and he knew Sherlock hated that, but there was no twitch of disapproval or disgust. Instead Sherlock simply dipped his head to one side, revealing his lips curving into a faint smile as his eyes slipped closed. 'Good.' The word was not much more than a rumbling growl, and John grinned as Sherlock lowered his head to his quilted knees, looking for all the world like he intended to sleep where he was.

'Come on, you can't stay here.' He cupped Sherlock's elbow in his left hand, helping him to his clumsy feet. The quilt tried to slip, lolling heavily across one of Sherlock's shoulders and trailing on the floor, but John was more concerned about his towel, which seemed more intent on an illicit love affair with gravity than keeping his dignity intact.

In the end, he held it closed with one hand while guiding Sherlock back to the couch with the other, watching the taller man surrender himself back to the cushions with a groan, pillow retrieved and quilt cast a bit haphazardly over his frame. At least he was not shivering any more, but that was likely to change as soon as the drugs wore off.

'Why were you in the kitchen? Did you want something?'

Sherlock blinked, the effort of marshalling his thoughts clearly almost too much before he managed, 'Water. I'm thirsty.'

'Right.' John gave a quick nod, going back to fetch a small glass before checking the bucket was installed at Sherlock's side and dragging the coffee table closer so that Sherlock could put the glass down. 'The injection I gave you was painkillers only, not an anti-emetic. You might still feel sick. Sip it slowly, all right?'

He watched Sherlock struggle into a half sitting position, clutching at the glass and kissing his top lip to the surface of the water. When John was certain he was not going to gulp it down and cause outrage to his stomach, he turned away, trotting upstairs with a promise to be back in a few minutes.

Getting dressed was a quick and perfunctory job. Underwear, comfortable jeans, a t-shirt and an old jumper were all he bothered with. By the time he padded downstairs in just his socks to search for his shoes, Sherlock had only consumed about an eighth of a glass and looked like he was already regretting it.

'Lie still, and try to take your mind off it. Here,' John passed him his book. 'Read that, but don't tell me what happens.'

Sherlock accepted the paperback, his gaze lingering with a hefty dose of doubt on the strange sigils on the front cover. 'Can't I have one of my books?'

'No, nothing non-fiction.' John pursed his lips at Sherlock's dizzy looking scowl. 'You're meant to be resting, and I know you. You'll read a book about poisons or something and suddenly be overcome with the urge to make some, and maybe even try them out.' He winced, noticing that the green-around-the-gills pallor to Sherlock's skin was only getting worse. 'And if you're going to throw up, try and use the bucket.'

He barely had time to finish the sentence before Sherlock was doing just that. He swung his legs over the edge of the sofa so his feet were on the floor, snatched the bucket, and expelled the water from his stomach with a violence that had John's sides cramping in sympathy. It had been too much to hope that Sherlock would be able to keep it down, and John hesitated at the end of the sofa, keeping his distance as the heaves turned dry and fruitless.

'Ugh,' Sherlock managed, spitting into the bucket before setting it down and slumping back onto the couch. 'Vile.'

'I know,' John murmured in sympathy, reaching out to brush Sherlock's hair back from his clammy forehead before picking up the bucket. 'Can you do without this for a couple of minutes? I'll empty it for you.'

The nod Sherlock gave was fractional. If John had to guess, he would say that any excess movement right now was a bad idea, and he found himself wondering if he should really risk going out and getting food while Sherlock was so clearly unwell. Mind you, Mrs Hudson was a capable, grounded kind of woman: she had to be with Sherlock as a tenant. No doubt she could handle a little vomit if it came to that. As long as Sherlock could handle Mrs Hudson, of course.

He made his way back out into the living room, having swilled the bucket out in the bath, and put it back down by Sherlock's head. The noise of it made Sherlock's eyelids flutter, but he was already heading back into the steep valley of sleep. It was the best place for him, really, and John gave him a very gentle nudge.

'Sherlock, I need to go out and get some things for us. There's not much in the fridge but body parts. I'll get Mrs Hudson to come up and look after you, okay?'

His only answer was a hum of agreement, and John dithered for a moment before pulling himself together. Sherlock was not a child. An hour without John at his side would not be the end of the world, even in his current state. To be frank, it was more dangerous to leave him alone when he was in a slump of boredom. At least now the chances of him blowing anything up were minimal.

Quickly, John collected up his phone, keys and wallet, shrugging into his coat before slipping out of the door and trotting down the stairs. The soft sounds of the radio were already coming from Mrs Hudson's rooms, and he knocked politely, smiling as their patient-as-a-saint landlady opened the door with a smile.

'John, dear, is everything all right?' she asked, her happy expression wobbling a little, no doubt as a dozen or so potential Sherlock disasters ran through her head. 'He's not spilt acid on the kitchen table again, has he?'

'No, Mrs Hudson, nothing like that. Sherlock's got 'Flu, and I need to go out and get some food. I was wondering if you could keep an eye on him for me?' He sounded pathetically hopeful, and one of the benefits of having a naturally open and honest face was that people were often happy to help out.

'Oh, the poor dear. I kept telling him he'd get ill, running around London in all kinds of weather.' She reached behind her, picking up a cardigan and tugging it on. 'Don't you worry. I'll make sure he gets his rest.'

'Thank you, Mrs Hudson. He's sleeping at the moment, but someone should be there in case he wakes up again. I'll be back as soon as I can.'

'Take your time, dear,' she urged. 'Even at his worst, Sherlock is nothing I can't handle.'

She waved him farewell, already turning to trot up to the flat, and John did up the zip on his jacket, pulling the shopping list from his pocket and clutching it in his fist as he set out. If he'd still had his limp it would have taken him the best part of twenty minutes to make it to the nearest decent sized Tesco Express at Lisson Grove. As it was, he got there in under ten, his breath steaming in the chill morning air before he stepped into the warmth of the shop.

By the time he had spent half an hour wandering around the aisles and picking up everything he thought he might convince Sherlock to eat, the two baskets he had were overflowing and dragging at the muscles in his arms. Still, it should be enough to keep them going for a while. He had even bought some meat to freeze. As long as he kept it away from the fingers and things it should be fine. He was not the world's best cook, mostly falling back on simple, student-type meals when he was actually forced to make his own food, but that would probably be easier on Sherlock's stomach than take away for a while.

He avoided the malicious self-checkout devices and chose a till with an actual human being behind it, stacking the bags with military efficiency and balancing weight to make the walk home slightly easier. The bill made him grimace, but he made himself feel a bit better with the promise that it would be cheaper than take away or eating out. He and Sherlock had fallen into terrible habits when it came to food. Maybe he could take advantage of Sherlock's illness and turn that around for both of them?

He was just stepping out of the shop, fingers white-knuckled around the tenuous handles of plastic bags when a sleek, black car pulled up to the kerb, its engine purring idly as it waited, blank and patient. John watched it for a moment, but when it became obvious that neither Mycroft or maybe-Anthea were going to emerge and force him in, he inched closer, raising an eyebrow as the door popped open in invitation.

'Need a lift?' Mycroft's assistant asked, not even looking up from her Blackberry as she shuffled over. 'Straight back to Baker Street.'

John narrowed his eyes, wondering if it was a trick. Sherlock was not the only one who liked dramatics, and he had no desire for meeting the older Holmes in another derelict building in London's underbelly. However, the bags were heavy, and he wouldn't say no to a free ride.

With a sigh, he settled the shopping down in the back of the car, ignoring Anthea's slightly perturbed expression, as if groceries were somehow beneath her. She nudged one with the toe of a stiletto, her eyes flicking to its contents before returning to the screen of her phone as the driver pulled away.

It was tragic that John knew how this kind of thing went by now. Talking to Anthea might get him an answer, but it probably wouldn't be the truth, so he kept his lips shut, watching the quick skim of the streets as the car slid with practised ease through the traffic. Before long, they were outside the front door of 221, and John gathered up the shopping, giving Anthea a quick nod before climbing out.

As soon as he let himself into the hallway, he saw Mrs Hudson cleaning, her feather duster flicking over surfaces. There was no radio playing, which was unusual, and dimly he realised that someone was speaking upstairs in a low, quiet voice. At John's questioning look, Mrs Hudson smiled. 'Sherlock's brother came by. I thought it best to give them some privacy, but I'm keeping an ear open.'

'Mycroft?' John asked with a wince, glancing up the stairs. He should have realised that the over-protective older Holmes would make an appearance before long, but the very thought of Sherlock suffering through Mycroft's interference and a virus at the same time was almost too much to bear. 'And Sherlock's putting up with him?'

'I think he's still asleep,' Mrs Hudson's lips twitched with a smile. 'What he doesn't know can't hurt him. It's hard watching family when they're ill. At least this way Mr Holmes feels like he's helping.'

A weak huff of laughter escaped John's lips, and he thanked her before setting off up the stairs, quietening his footsteps as the murmuring took on the definition of words. Mycroft was speaking very quietly, still eloquent, but some of the professional sharpness from his tone had gone. There was no weary resolution wrapped up in his voice, nor overbearing concern. It was how John imagined him and Sherlock might speak to each other if there was not so much resentment from both sides: Sherlock at Mycroft's meddling, and Mycroft for the fact that such interference was necessary.

' – you were ill you were eight. You probably don't remember,' Mycroft was saying. 'You fell in the lake just before Halloween. I never did find out what you were doing out there, but you traipsed back to the house dripping wet. The next morning you were full of cold and wretched with it. Sticky in a way only children can be.'

The door had been left open a crack, and John hesitated on the threshold, unwilling to interrupt as he peered through the gap. He could just make out the lump that was Sherlock on the couch, but it was Mycroft in the armchair that held his attention. He had pulled it up close to Sherlock's side and discarded his suit jacket, leaving him in a waistcoat and shirt sleeves. His expression was fixed in a soft, worried smile, and his hand was resting against Sherlock's head, his thumb stroking back and forth in slow comfort.

He looked like a new man, and suddenly it was easy for John to see why Mycroft interfered like he did. Despite the bitter sharpness of their relationship, Sherlock was still his little brother. They had both been children once, though that in itself was quite hard to imagine, and to Mycroft, maybe Sherlock always would be that eight year old boy.

'It got worse so quickly it was frightening. Within twelve hours you couldn't breathe. Pneumonia and pleurisy. They put you in hospital, of course, and all the time I kept telling myself I should have been there, just like so many other times in your life.' Mycroft sighed, and there was only one word for the expression on his face: regret.

John felt guilty for eavesdropping on the conversation – for seeing Mycroft as anything other than the calm, collected government official he was used to, but before he could think of how to announce his presence Mycroft looked up at him, faintly amused.

'You can come in, Doctor Watson. Lingering in doorways is so unflattering.'

'Sorry,' John murmured, his lips twitching into a smile as he nudged the door open fully. 'I should have realised you would be here when the car showed up at Tesco.'

'I imagined you could use the assistance. Besides,' he added with a tiny curl of his lips. 'Sherlock is so much easier to speak to when he cannot talk back.' He got carefully to his feet, shrugging back into his jacket and collecting his umbrella, apparently unruffled by being caught in a mood that was anything but aloof. 'I must thank you for looking after him with such diligent care. Few flatmates would be so willing. Your loyalty is commendable.'

His astute eyes flickered, ever-so-slightly over to the cocoon on the floor that John had roughly nudged aside earlier, and John tried not to flush at the intimation in Mycroft's tone.

'Someone's got to take care of him,' John managed after a moment, automatically lifting his chin.

'Indeed. I will leave him in your capable hands. Do call if I can be of any assistance.'

John could just imagine Sherlock's reaction to that, but he nodded anyway. 'Thanks, and I'll pay attention to his lungs. It's good to know about risk factors like pneumonia.' Belatedly, John wondered if the little monologue had been scripted for his attention rather than Sherlock's. He honestly would not put it past Mycroft, who could be irritatingly indirect at times.

'Much appreciated,' Mycroft said with that same, thin smile that John had seen far too often. 'Good day, Doctor Watson.'

His footsteps echoed down the steps as John watched him go, waiting for the sound of the front door clicking shut to reach his ears before letting out a breath. It was useless wondering how Mycroft knew Sherlock was ill. No doubt his surveillance had picked up on his younger brother's failing health before Sherlock knew it himself. It was one of the many eccentricities that John had re-labelled as “normal” since moving in to Baker Street.

Other people wondered how he lived with it – the scary biological experiments, pieces of human cadaver and his flatmate's undeniable arrogance – which was too much to bear for most. They decided he was either brave or completely insane to share a home with a man like Sherlock, but John knew the truth of it.

Whether he was running across rooftops, patching wounds, or facing down death and boredom like equal enemies, this was where he was meant to be.

Meeting Sherlock Holmes had not just saved his life, it had made it worth living again.

Chapter Text

Time moved strangely, clotting in gnarls of endless minutes only to lurch and then flow through his fingers. The last thing Sherlock remembered was the spider on the ceiling, the quick stab of a needle and John wet from the shower. Now, hours seemed to have passed him by. The furniture in the living room had moved slightly: one armchair was closer to him than it had been, and the daylight coming in through the windows had the half-hearted quality of late afternoon and cloudy skies. The nights were drawing in fast, but Sherlock's mind struggled to guess at the hour, and he glanced at the clock on the television, feeling as if he were cheating.

Four thirty in the afternoon. He had slept more in the past twenty-four hours than he had in the last week, yet still his body felt like lead, heavy and aching while his stomach squeezed around the petulant knot of nausea. Prickles ran down his throat like barbed wire, and if he did not know better he would have thought he had not bathed for a week.

Wonderful, not only had he spent most of the night and morning at the mercy of his fractious digestive system, but he distinctly remembered thinking that burying his nose in John's neck was a good idea. It seemed that his body's natural instinct, once free from the restraints of his mind, was to seek out tactile comfort. Worse, it had been very John-oriented. Sherlock could pretend all he liked that it was a simple case of basic human contact, but he was depressingly aware that he would probably still have picked John out of a line-up for his little nuzzle-fest.

Embarrassing to the extreme.

Sherlock groaned, pressing the fingertips of his left hand to his eye and wishing he had the brain power to think at speeds faster than that of a mollusc, but everything moving through his head had slowed down to treacle: practically useless. He could not even think of a good excuse for breaching his normal rules of minimal tactility and reaching out for John. Only the truth lingered, irritatingly unspeakable. He had wanted to, and in his compromised state, he had failed to resist the impulse as he had done so many times before. He would be lucky if John was not packing his things and hunting for a new flat already.

'Back in the land of the living?'

Sherlock frowned, pulling his hand away and blinking blearily at John. He was leaning on the back of the sofa, dressed in a beige jumper monstrosity that did absolutely nothing for his complexion. Yet his expression was not one of judgement or distrust, just tenderness and a healthy dose of pity. 'You've been out for the best part of the day. You didn't even wake up when Mycroft was talking to you.'

John was still here, looking as calm and friendly as ever. There was nothing to suggest he was even the tiniest bit perturbed, and Sherlock felt a brief moment of feather-light relief before John's words sunk in.

Ugh, Mycroft. Interfering git.

'Missing my brother is no loss.' Sherlock wrinkled his nose, glancing at the armchair. Yes, now he looked closer it did looked a bit squashed, no doubt from being sat on by his brother's ever-expanding posterior. 'What did he want?'

'I think he was just making sure you weren't suffering too much. You know, caring for you, like brothers do.' John raised an eyebrow, the corner of his mouth lifting in a smile as Sherlock scowled. 'No need to sulk. At least you didn't have to listen to him.'

'Shame, really.' Sherlock sighed, frowning up at the ceiling for a moment.

'Oh, why?'

'I had the means, motivation and a perfectly valid excuse to throw up on his shoes, and I missed it.'

John's laugh was ridiculously perfect. There was nothing artistic about it, nothing false or crafted. It was a natural chortle of mirth, one that had Sherlock smiling faintly despite his malaise.

'Maybe he'll come back and oblige you, although someone would still have to clean up the carpet.'

'True. That wouldn't be very fair to you, as I can guarantee that Mycroft would never do it. I vomited on a rug at his town-house, once. Expensive. Persian. Hideous. He bought a new one rather than scrub it.'

John shook his head in disbelief, stepping around the sofa and perching at Sherlock's side. His hand was dry and cool as he pressed it to Sherlock's brow, lingering for a moment before dropping to his jaw and palpitating beneath the bone. 'Checking for swollen glands,' he said by way of explanation. 'Mycroft was kind enough to remind you, while I was in earshot, of when you were eight and fell in the lake.'

Sherlock pulled a face, remembering the precise incident. He had done well, really, to have gone so many years without another serious illness since then. Consequences of drug abuse did not count, since they were mostly his own fault. 'Chest infection. You're worried the 'Flu might complicate?'

'It's a valid concern,' John murmured. 'Pneumonia and pleurisy is more than a nasty cough, and that kind of thing contracted in childhood can come back to bite you in the arse sometimes.'

'That was more than twenty years ago,' Sherlock pointed out, his voice husking slightly as John's fingers lingered over his pulse a little too long.

'You've had none since?' John asked, frowning in doubt. 'Not even when you were using?'

'Possibly. Probably.' Sherlock shut his eyes, if only to blot out the sorrowful look John got when he dwelt on Sherlock's past. He still remembered that fake drugs bust of Lestrade's the first night John moved in, and John's vigorous disbelief that Sherlock had ever done anything chemically recreational.

In an abstract sense, he could see why John had struggled to fathom it. In theory, intelligent people did not sink themselves into substance abuse. It was a stupid, desperate thing to do, and perhaps others could not see how Sherlock Holmes could ever fit into either of those categories.

Yet John had never asked questions, and so Sherlock did not offer any answers. The subject lingered between them, unspoken and nebulous but for faint allusions.

'Honestly, I don't really remember whether I was ill or not,' he said at last, scowling as the thermometer made a reappearance. John seemed obsessed with checking his fever, although the general lack of hallucinations suggested it had ebbed somewhat. 'Is that really necessary?'

'Yes. You've not had another dose of anything to keep it down, but you've not displayed any of the signs of the fever breaking, either. Do you still feel shivery?'

'A bit. Mostly when I move.'

John nodded to himself, checking the reading with a sigh before putting it away. 'Still up, but better than it was. I'm assuming you're not seeing anything strange. You certainly seem more lucid than this morning. Half of what you said made no sense, and what I could understand was mostly about the spider.'

Sherlock nodded to himself. His memory of that bit was surprisingly clear. 'It was gigantic. Strange. Why a spider?'

'God knows. Most people are terrified by their delusions. If anything, you seemed fascinated.' John got to his feet, heading for the kitchen and rummaging in the fridge for a moment, making enough noise that Sherlock felt it necessary to raise his voice to be heard.

'Most people are aware on some level that their delusions are unlikely to be real. Their fear is often induced more by the uncertainty of reality that the actual images they see.'

'Nothing to fear but fear itself?' John asked, turning around with an obnoxiously orange bottle in his hand. The lid was off, and it had a bendy straw in it leaning drunkenly against the rim.

'Something like that.' Sherlock went to wave a hand dismissively, but aborted the gesture when his wrist didn't particularly cooperate. 'What's that?'

'Lucozade. Sports drink with no caffeine, but a fair bit of sugar and some electrolytes. Sip it very slowly.'

'Is that really wise?' Sherlock asked. 'The experiment with the water did not go very well, if you recall.'

'Yes, I remember thanks. I was standing right here.' John passed over the bottle before holding out the object in his other hand. 'That was also the last thing you had to drink. You're dehydrating, and we need to get fluids into you. Nibble this.'

Sherlock looked at the half-biscuit with a frown. 'I prefer custard creams.' Although actually, not right now. Right now his stomach felt as if it had gone on a particularly mutinous kind of strike and was chewing on itself instead.

'Ginger is a natural anti-emetic. It might help settle your stomach. I want to try this before I start drugging your body so that you'll accept food.' John's face was a picture of determination, as if he thought Sherlock's flesh and bone would somehow be easier to bully into submission than the man himself. Normally, he was not so obvious in his concern. Injuries were often met with an equal measure of worry and shouting about unacceptable risks. Clearly John was more prone to sympathy if the harm was not self-inflicted or acquired in the pursuit of something reckless.

Interesting, but not entirely unexpected.

'Do you always treat your patients with 'Flu like this?' He gestured to the medical bag, indicating far more than just the general paraphernalia inside. 'Injections and so on?'

'No, but normally my patients have better eating habits than you and are more accepting of a “wait for it to pass” approach.' He gestured to the biscuit again, nudging the damn bucket closer with his foot. 'Try and eat it, if you can.'

Grudgingly, Sherlock did as he was instructed, nibbling the biscuit little more than a crumb at a time. The taste was not entirely reprehensible, and the chunks of ginger root took the stale, flat taste from his mouth. The orange of the drink made for an interesting contrast, and although his stomach groaned threateningly, he did not feel an overwhelming urge to make use of the bucket again. Eating and drinking while mostly reclined was challenging, but not impossible, although the simple coordination required was more exhausting than usual.

John was watching him carefully, his arms folded and his chin lowered a little. It was definitely his “observant doctor” pose, rather than “belligerent soldier”, and Sherlock thought he heard a sigh of relief as he consumed the last of the biscuit and put the bottle on the coffee table. It was still mostly full, but he did not want to risk drinking too much until he was sure he would not lose it again: an idea John seemed to approve of.

'You'll probably keep it down better if you don't get up,' he suggested, looking up as someone knocked on the door. 'Stay there, please?'

'Where else would I go?' Sherlock demanded, raising his voice as John walked through the door. He was all-too-aware that he was a prisoner of his body's weakness. Efforts to move were not required for him to realise how utterly uncooperative his limbs were, and the aches that still rumbled up and down his back and made nests in his lumbar region suggested that lying on the sofa was the limit of his stamina.

Normally, he liked lounging around. It helped him think, rendering his transport motionless but for the simple rush of breath and the blood in his veins, but now his flesh was too loud and demanding, swamping out the lucidity of his mind with petty needs and pains. A shift of his arm brought on another rash of shivers, and he tugged at the quilt, trying to find a more comfortable spot on the couch and closing his eyes as the thud of more than one set of footsteps echoed on the stairs.

'You're right, he does look like shit.' Lestrade did not sound particularly sympathetic, and Sherlock huffed a breath out through his nose before opening one eye and trying to glare. It did not work. He would have known that even without the snort of laughter from the Detective Inspector. 'I almost didn't believe John when he said you had 'Flu.'

'Sadly, he's right,' Sherlock replied, gratified to see a little bit of pity emerge at his rough voice. 'Why are you here?'

'Ah.' Now Lestrade shot a glance at John, and some mute conversation that involved a glare and a shrug took place. 'He didn't tell you then?'

'Tell me what?' Sherlock sighed, hating his molasses mind. He felt like he was missing something important, and the expression on John's face suggested he wouldn't like it.

'Before you tell him,' he began, holding a hand out to Lestrade to stem his words before glaring at Sherlock, 'you have to promise me you won't try to get up and race out of the door or anything equally ridiculous.'

'And why would I do that?' Sherlock asked, raising one eyebrow and letting his voice drawl over the words. His behaviour made John shift to block the door, looking as if he fully intended to tackle Sherlock to the ground if he so much as twitched.

The idea had some appeal, but Sherlock ached too much to put it to the test. Besides, it might give Lestrade an aneurysm. He was already looking back and forth between the two of them, something suspiciously smug tilting his lips. Eventually, he waved the file that had been clenched under his arm. The flash of manila caught Sherlock's eye, and his frown deepened as Lestrade handed it over to John.

'The lover you told us to look for last night turned up in the Thames. Knife wound to the chest, straight into the heart.' Lestrade shrugged. 'If they murdered Ms Lattimer, then someone else got to them as well. You can't come out and look at anything, but we're turning up nothing but dead ends. When you're up to it, look at the file and text me if you see anything that could give us any answers.'

'If Anderson took the photos, it'll be useless. Maybe if I could see the body...'

'If you turn up at the morgue, Molly's been told to book you into one of the wards upstairs,' Lestrade said, his relaxed stance changing to something more challenging. His arms were folded across his chest, and that frown that meant he was going to be stubborn had taken up its place on his brow. 'And Sherlock, if you show up at any of my crime scenes this week, I'll chuck you straight in my car and bring you back here, flashing lights and everything. Understand?'

'Oh, for God's sake.'

'Understood,' John said quickly, forcing the insults to die in Sherlock's throat as he put the file down on the kitchen table, well out of Sherlock's reach. 'Thanks, Greg. I appreciate it.'

'You're the one that's got to live with him when he's climbing the walls,' Lestrade murmured with a shrug. 'If you need a hand, let me know. We can handcuff him to something for his own good if necessary.'

Sherlock made a tight, irritated sound in his throat, turning over so he could ignore them both. Unfortunately, the motion sent the sleeping pains lancing through him again, leaving him sulking and miserable as John bid Lestrade goodbye. Being ill itself paled into insignificance with the irritation of being treated like a child. It was like being in hospital, where useless people in white coats hovered around and tried to tell him what he could or could not do. If he was not so weary he would prove them both wrong, Lestrade and John.

As if this would really hold him back for a week. He would be fine tomorrow morning, and then he would show the seemingly inept police just how they should go about catching a murderer. Honestly, if it weren't for him would Scotland Yard solve any cases?

Glancing over his shoulder, he narrowed his eyes at the file, listening to the distant sound of John still talking to Lestrade at the door. A quick glance at the floor calculated the intervening space as only about seven good-sized paces. Was that really beyond him? Had this stupid virus really brought him that low?

Cautiously, he lifted his head, struggling upright and waiting as his stomach clenched, then settled. Good. Very good. Now he just had to get his legs to cooperate.

Wrapping the quilt tightly around himself, he eased his weight upright, keeping one hand braced on the sofa as he inched closer to his target. The aches in his muscles ganged up on him somewhat, and a hitherto unnoticed head pain began to thud at his temples, but he persevered. It was just as he said to John yesterday. Mind over matter.

Except that his knees were shaking hard now, and the thump in his skull was reaching threatening levels. He was halfway to the table but somehow both carrying on or going back seemed equally impossible. It made him want to swear, but even that level of viciousness was beyond him. Instead he sank into John's armchair, trying to look as if that had been his intended destination all along. He tucked his feet up under him without really thinking about it, hunching himself into as small a ball as he could manage as another voice – female, too young for Mrs Hudson, sounded like Mycroft's sycophant assistant – joined in the conversation downstairs, her words inaudible but her tone quick and professional.

There was the general hubbub of farewells before John's footsteps returned up the stairs, measured and steady. From this angle, Sherlock was perfectly situated to see the flash of irritation-cum-concern that crossed John's face when he noticed the sofa was empty, and the speed at which the expression dissolved into something faintly smug when he saw Sherlock hadn't got far.

'You tried to get up and get the file, didn't you?' When Sherlock did not reply, John rolled his eyes, his fingers tightening around a thick, gusseted envelope. Mycroft's handwriting was on the front, and Sherlock scowled. What was his brother trying to do now?

'I'll make you a deal,' John said, his eyes taking on a calculating look. 'If you drink all the lucozade, keep it down and are still awake by seven, I'll let you look at the file. Okay?'

Another glance at the clock was enough to suggest that was a tall order. The few stumbling steps he had managed had left Sherlock drained, and even now his eyes wanted to drift shut. Still, if John was going to challenge him like that then who was he to shrink away? Sherlock held out an imperious hand for the bottle, his fingers tightening clumsily around the cheap plastic as John handed it to him before Sherlock let his eyes stare pointedly at the envelope again.

'What's that?'

John glanced down, his shoulders shifting in a shrug as he wandered over to turn on the lamps, chasing off the steadily encroaching twilight. 'Anthea dropped it by. Said it could be useful.'

'That just means Mycroft wants to interfere. Give it here.' Sherlock frowned when John shook his head, turning the envelope so Sherlock could read the neat cursive on the front.

'It's got my name on it,' John replied airily, slitting open the envelope with one finger and lifting a thick file partially free from the confines. 'Suppose that means it's for me.' Before he had even finished the sentence, the fond irritation had vanished from his face, replaced instead by something entirely more serious. His blue eyes had turned a little pinched, a sure sign of John's temper coming closer to the surface, and his lips drew down at the corner. 'Bloody hell.'


John pulled a face that Sherlock did not understand, sliding the paperwork back into the envelope. 'Your medical file.' He did not bother to explain further as he jammed it a bit viciously onto one of the bookshelves.

Sherlock closed his eyes in a slow blink. Normally he would be pleased to be right about Mycroft, but really, if he did not know his brother's motives by now then he was a shame to his self-created profession. Mycroft was manipulative to the extreme. It was his bedrock, his foundation. All other emotion and personality traits were transient in comparison.

'You're not going to read it?'

John looked at him, one hand braced on the back of one of the kitchen chairs as he shook his head. 'Why the hell would I?'

Trick question, or was this one of those “caring” things that went over his head sometimes? 'Because you're my doctor?'

'I'm your friend, Sherlock.' John cuffed a hand through his hair, his gaze darting quickly back to the file before skating away again. 'If there's anything in there that I need to know, then I trust you to tell me.'

Sherlock blinked, frowning faintly as he examined John's face. He could tell so much about him, from which Tesco he had visited this morning to the number of cups of tea he had consumed – five, as well as baked beans on toast for lunch – but that did nothing to help him understand the way John believed in him so implicitly. John had daily evidence that Sherlock was rude, abrasive, arrogant and manipulative, and yet he still seemed to think the best of him in the face of all proof to the contrary.

He opened his mouth to say that, to challenge and query and push John to see how far he would flex or whether he would simply break, but what came out instead was, 'Thank you.'

The word seemed to hover in the air between them, surprising to them both, and Sherlock frowned as he stared at the bottle in his grasp. 'I don't think I could be so trusting if the situation was reversed.'

'That's because you're pathologically curious with poor self-control,' John pointed out, some of the tension ebbing from his shoulders as he straightened up. 'I don't want to read about your life from some stupid file, Sherlock. I don't want to hear about any of it from Mycroft either. If I'm going to find out anything, then I’d rather get it straight from you.'

'An unreliable source,' Sherlock murmured, watching John shrug as he turned back to the kitchen, flicking on the kettle.

'Maybe, but you're the only one I would really believe.' He looked briefly uncomfortable before lifting his chin, leaning back on the kitchen surface. 'Lestrade looks at you like a wayward brother, your actual brother treats you like a reprobate child, and everyone else uses you for your brain. I don't –' John shook his head, shifting restlessly. 'I don't see you the same way they do. I like to think I know you better than that. Could be wrong of course.'

Sherlock rubbed his finger up and down the straw, feeling the smooth plastic and the sudden interruption of the concertina hinge that made it bend. 'What they see isn't a fabrication, John. I'm not a different person around you.'

'Yeah you are. Around me, you don't try to be more or less than exactly what you are.' John was getting restless again, ticking things off on his fingers as he paced in a tight line in front of the kettle. 'You don't do extra arrogance. You don't sham at being human, but more than anything you don't try and be anything but yourself around me. That's why I trust you, Sherlock, and it's why I'm not reading your damn medical file.' He jabbed a finger in the direction of the envelope, now nestled among their books like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

Sherlock paused, his head tipping to one side as he watched John – so ordinary and yet so much more – moving restlessly around the kitchen, brewing tea as if it had caused him personal offence. The quick beat of the teaspoon against the surface was agitated, and he spilt some milk through sheer clumsiness. He was worried about something. Concerned he had said too much, perhaps?

That would not do at all. John disconcerted was a sight Sherlock hated almost as much as John bleeding or wearing that shut down, heavy look of distress he got sometimes, normally when talking to his sister.

'I was wrong.' The words felt distinctly alien on his lips. Contrary to popular belief, he could actually admit when he had made a mistake. It just happened so rarely that there was barely any need. At John's sharp, surprised look, he pressed his lips together, choosing his words with care. 'I have often criticised you for failing to observe anything of importance. I think, as it turns out, we were simply looking at different things.'

It was like a light had come on behind John's eyes, warm and pleased at the simple, subtle praise. Sherlock did not need to say more, did not need to add I was looking at crime scenes and you were observing me, because even if John did not hear the unspoken words, he got the message.

'Here.' John picked up the file Lestrade had left, passing it over to Sherlock.

'But it's not seven.'

'Positive reinforcement,' John replied. 'Because that, what you just said? That was good.'

Sherlock snorted, opening the file and dragging it up close to his face so that John could not see the smile the praise had brought to life on Sherlock's lips. Positive reinforcement indeed. The file was not as much of a reward as John's bright, earnest smile, though Sherlock would rather hug Anderson than voice that fact out loud.

Speaking of Anderson, the idiot's marks were all over the paperwork. Poorly angled photographs, blatant assumptions... heinous. How that man kept his job was one of the true mysteries of the world, and Sherlock could almost feel his brain creaking with frustration. He barely noticed John begin to cook something, padding around the kitchen in companionable silence as Sherlock attempted to focus on the data in front of him.

'Ugh! Impossible.' He dragged his hands over his eyes, wishing he could shove his fingers through his skull and shake his brain into its normal sparkling activity. So far even his deductions were fruitless, obvious things, and his focus kept shifting in and out as he became distracted by meaningless tangents.

'If you're going to lose your temper, I'll take it away from you,' John said, gesturing with a fork towards one of the pans. 'It's just basic pasta with a bit of sauce. Think you can stomach a spoonful?'

'No. Even the smell is too much.' Sherlock moved his fingers to his temples, dimly hearing John put the extractor fan on to clear the air. 'I wish I was a brain in a jar. So much easier.'

'Not as attractive, though.'

Sherlock jerked his head up sharply, staring at John over the back of the armchair. He was still stirring the saucepan, apparently oblivious to what he had just vocalised, his eyes distant and thoughtful.

'That and I would have to carry you around everywhere, and how would you tell people your deductions? Unless you're a telepathic brain in a jar?' John glanced over, looking questioning, and Sherlock quickly schooled his features into something indifferent.

'Voice synthesiser hard wired into my parietal lobe. The technology is not quite capable yet, but it is getting there. Life support would not be too complex, and the continuing advancement of miniaturisation would help portability.'

Perhaps he was reading too much into the whole “attractive” comment. Did it mean that John thought he was attractive now? Or was it a just a general comment into the relative aesthetic of grey matter?

'God, Sherlock. No, just no. I'm not letting you remove yourself from your head and live a barely physical existence floating in fluid. You'd get bored.'

'But I would never get ill, which is the point.'

What about the “Not as” part? Did that mean John would think he was still relatively attractive as merely a brain, just less so than he was now?

'Your jar might get smashed. Then what would you do?' John filled his plate, grabbing a fork before waving his hand dismissively. 'No, that's enough. I don't want to talk about this, especially not when I’m eating. Put that file down and drink the rest of your lucozade.'

John grabbed the TV remote, turning on something juvenile and sitting on the sofa. The lack of back cushions, which were still on the floor, meant he did not relax. Instead he propped his elbows on his knees, the lurid light of television casting faint flickers of highlight across his face as he rapidly became engrossed.

Sherlock half did as he was told, balancing the file on the awkward bend of his knees as he sipped from the straw. He tried to keep his eyes on the paperwork, but they kept straying of their own accord, lifting to settle on the lines of John's profile.

Attractiveness was such a subjective thing, entirely open to personal interpretation and carrying a vast, incomprehensible weight in a supposedly civilised society. No one was immune to the pull of it, not even him, though he did try to remain above it. Entanglements were messy at best and disastrous at worse, but that did not mean he was blind to the relative merits of those around him.

One of the first things he had noticed about John Watson was the deception. This man – determined, deadly, dangerous – purposefully hid all that behind a facet of cuddly jumpers and doctorly concern. He took care to make everyone carefully forget that he was a trained killer. He focussed on the healing part of his character when out on dates and among the police. He let people see what he wanted them to see.

Of course, Sherlock did not work that way. Afghanistan or Iraq? One of the first things he had known was that John had killed as many men as he had saved. John had never been able to hide what he really was from Sherlock, and he had never tried. He had never lied and attempted to be something he was not for Sherlock, and as John seemed to have observed earlier, it appeared Sherlock had unconsciously returned the favour.

They saw each other as they were and yes, Sherlock had to admit, it was attractive to know about John's depths. Aesthetically, he was pleasing, short but strong, there was an enviable power in that compact body. Sherlock had received a good, if somewhat hazed view of that this morning: water clinging to skin and the dark shadows of body hair, muscles just starting to soften slightly from a different lifestyle than the desert had to offer and a few too many biscuits. An intelligent mind, yes, but not a sharp one.

No, it was as much who John was as what he looked like that made him attractive. The sum of his parts added up to this unexpected, delightful, indecipherable thing, and Sherlock had moments of utterly embarrassing captivation. Much like now.

He blinked, looking down and away, grateful that John had not noticed him staring. Sherlock's fingers were tingling with the memory of touching the warm web of John's scar this morning, as if his nerves had developed an eidetic ability, remembering hot, strong, smooth as if they were as important as air, blood, life.

John Watson, an unwitting essential to the existence of Sherlock Holmes.

That should be terrifying, far more so than giant spiders, more than Moriarty, even. Yet Sherlock found himself enjoying the unspoken realisation. It was, after all, another increment of understanding. Data to which his mind could dance.

'You can't fall asleep there. Your back will never forgive you.'

Sherlock opened his eyes, not even aware he had closed them as his mind circled inwards. The empty lucozade bottle was still clutched in one hand, and the file was starting to slip sideways down the skim of the quilt. John was crouched down next to him, all calm, serious eyes and faintly uneven symmetry.

'You're shivering.' John pointed out, tugging the empty bottle free and replacing it with a slice of toast. Odd, Sherlock had not even heard him get up to make it. 'I gave you quite a hefty dose of intravenous paracetamol this morning, but it probably wore off a while ago. I should have given you something sooner, sorry.' John tipped his head, his eyes narrowing as he examined Sherlock's face. 'You going to be all right?

'It's fine,' Sherlock murmured, his lips twitching. 'It's all fine.' He blinked down at the plate in his hands. 'Are you expecting me to eat this?'

'Just a few bites, since you managed the biscuit. Then you can take some tablets and go to sleep.'

The toast was rough and plain in his mouth, coating his tongue in a garrison of crumbs without enticing much reaction from either his taste-buds or his stomach. The pills went down much the same way, helped by a small splash of clear, cool water. Sherlock was encouraged, but John still looked doubtful as he helped Sherlock back onto the sofa, settling him with ease and tucking the quilt up under his chin.

'You're not going to be up to crime scenes for a while. You know that, don't you?'

'A prompt recovery is not unheard of,' Sherlock murmured, a delicate shiver that had nothing to do with fever skittering along his arm as John's fingers brushed over the back of his hand. 'Maybe tomorrow?'

'No, Sherlock.' There was the rustle of cloth, and he opened his eyes to find himself staring directly into John's. The connection sent a jolt down his spine, painfully reminiscent of those times after a chase when they caught one another's eye and something would twist between them like a Gordian knot.

He heard John's breath whisper through his lips on the inhale, and the next words were stammered as John glanced away. 'I – I know you're feeling better than yesterday, but 'Flu can intensify and wane more than once before it's properly gone. A day or two won't cut it. You know that.'

Sherlock sighed, his shoulders twitching as another, harder shudder trickled through him. Virology was not really his area, unless it was relevant to a crime scene. Except that's just what his body was now: cells dead and dying, murdered by another organism and the clues left written in muscle fibres and thudding, sickly blood. For once, he would have to follow John's deductions and allow him to solve the crime unassisted.

'You'll stay?' he asked, too weary now to voice more words. He hoped John understood that he meant more than just this moment. He meant yesterday and tomorrow and ever onwards, into the indefinite future of John, Sherlock and Baker Street.

And the words drifted back to him, folding around him as sleep dragged him down into its greedy palm, the last anchor to the real world he would know for days to come.

'I'm not going anywhere, Sherlock.'

Chapter Text

John sat in the armchair, his jaw working as he clenched his fists under his chin. He tried not to tremble as Sherlock's whimpered cries caught in the air of the flat: plucked harp-strings of distress. He had no idea what was going on in that head – what images that subconscious was offering up to a fever-ravaged body – but sitting here was almost more than he could bear.

Sherlock's periods of lucidity had decreased over the past forty-eight hours, the drug's effectiveness hampered by the virus raging through his system. The evening Greg had dropped off the police report had been a temporary lull, as if the disease was simply massing its forces to unleash the true level of its vigour on Sherlock's helpless form.

John could not inject Sherlock, not without someone to restrain him, and the reaction when anyone tried to hold him down was visceral. John touched the bruise on his jaw: the result of his single, ill-conceived attempt. It had not been a well-aimed punch, definitely not consciously done, but it was shocking all the same. God alone knew what Sherlock thought was happening to him, or who he believed John was, but John found himself wishing for the mundane of giant spiders and liquified appliances. At least those had not reduced Sherlock to anything like this.

'Here you go, dear.' Mrs Hudson held out a mug of tea to him, her expressive face crumpled in sympathy as Sherlock's next breath caught on a cough: not rattling and clogged, not yet, but it was another burden on the pile of John's concerns. 'He's sounding worse.'

'Most of it is the fever,' John managed, taking brief comfort in his knowledge. 'It's gone back up, and I can't get anything in him to keep it down.' He huffed a faint, derisive laugh, pressing the heel of his hand to one eye. 'Some doctor I am. Can't even help him through 'Flu.'

'That's nonsense.' Mrs Hudson tutted at him. 'You've been here all hours, barely sleeping. You're a good friend, John Watson, and a good doctor. Sherlock will get better soon. You wait and see.'

John ducked his head, wishing her words made him feel better, but the truth was he had never felt so useless, nor so weak. Sherlock was a strong man despite his slender frame, and whatever he believed was happening was enough to make John glance over at the medical file still shoved in the bookcase. He had meant what he said, he did not want to read it, but right now Sherlock was incapable of telling him anything, and John was beginning to suspect that being restrained and medicated had featured in Sherlock's past.

A knock on the door had him jerking his head away, a breath of relief stuttering past his lips. Mrs Hudson hurried downstairs as fast as her hip would allow, and even John could hear the gratitude in her voice as she let Lestrade in. John had texted him earlier, almost begging for help. He had initially considered Mycroft, but Sherlock would hate to know his brother had seen him like this, and Greg was the next best choice.

As soon as the DI stepped into the room, his gaze fell on Sherlock. There was no sign of humour in that expression now, just pure concern tempered with determination.

'Need me to hold him down?' he asked, shrugging out of his jacket and rolling up his shirt sleeves.

'You sound like you've done this before,' John replied, watching as Greg took off his tie and undid his collar.

Greg shrugged, his face pulling down in a grimace, and John wondered how much he had helped Sherlock in the past, before John knew him. 'He had a bad trip or two. Back when I first met him. It's terrifying to watch. Hurts to see him like that.'

'I know. A few hours is one thing, but this has been going on for too long. We need to get the fever down. His behaviour will adjust as it drops. I'd have done it by myself but –' He gestured meaningfully at the bruise, smiling as Mrs Hudson walked in with a bowl of water and some heavy towels. 'I need someone strong to hold him still and try to keep him calm while I work.'

'What do we do first?' Greg asked, moving to stand by the couch and putting his hands on his hips.

'Get his t-shirt off. Ignore any shivering, we can drop the heat faster than he can generate it. Especially when he's not eaten for more than twenty-four hours.' John stepped closer, changing the pitch of his voice to something quiet but firm. 'Sherlock, it's John. Look, we need to help you. I need you to just lie still. Do you understand?'

There was no response. Sherlock did not open his eyes, just continued to murmur something unintelligible, his head thrashing to the side and exposing the long column of his throat. It was easy to see the rash of goose flesh that danced over him as his body drove the fever higher in a desperate effort to eradicate the virus, seemingly indifferent about whether it killed itself in the process.

'Up you come,' John urged, trying not to flinch as Sherlock trembled, going rigid as he and Greg pushed him upright and peeled the t-shirt clumsily over his head, leaving Sherlock's torso exposed and shuddering in the air of the flat.

'Christ, he's burning up.' Greg frowned, easing Sherlock back down as John reached for one of the towels, soaking it in the lukewarm water and wringing it out before laying it on Sherlock's bare chest.

The response was instant. Sherlock's body jerked like he had been shot, his breath hitching in an agonised cry. His eyes clenched, still closed, and Greg quickly leaned in, gripping his wrists as he tried to lash out.

'Sherlock, listen it's me. It's Greg. We're not going to hurt you. We're not –'

'Stop it. Please – please stop.' A hard shudder racked through Sherlock's body, making him groan as Greg looked up and caught John's eye. He shifted slightly so that John could press another wet towel to Sherlock's brow. The water drenched his hair and rivulets trickled down across his temples. 'It's cold. It hurts!'

'It's not cold, Sherlock, it just feels like it. I promise, all right? I promise.' John knew he sounded desperate, pleading as Sherlock struggled against Greg's weight. He reached into his bag for the thermometer, adjusting the setting to make the display active for longer before he glanced at Mrs Hudson. 'Do you think you can just hold his head still for me?'

'Of course.' She stepped forward, leaning over the back of the sofa and speaking in a soft, crooning voice. 'Sherlock, dear. It's just me. Hold still for a moment, there's a good boy.'

'I don't – I don't.' He gave a gasp, the tendons in his neck standing out as he strained against them, but John held fast, watching the temperature remain stubbornly steady.

'If I can't get this down in the next hour, I'll have to call an ambulance,' he whispered, pursing his lips tight as Sherlock's struggles turned weak, his breaths coming out in tight sounds of panic. 'God, Sherlock. Come on.'

Minutes ticked past, the three of them frozen in a strange tableau with Sherlock insensible and quivering between them. Water trailed down his skin, collecting on the leather of the couch as each breath fluttered from between his lips: too fast and hoarse. Mrs Hudson's fingers rubbed softly, her grip not shifting from holding him still as she murmured soothing nonsense, but John was not even sure if Sherlock heard her.

'Sherlock?' Greg's question made John glance up from the thermometer, and he noticed that those eyes had snapped open, glassy and dazed. 'Sherlock, can you understand me?'

Carefully, John moved his hand across Sherlock's face, about a finger's length away from his eyelashes to block out the light, watching those pupils dilate. 'Reflexes,' he murmured. 'He's not alert.'

'Because of the fever?' Greg asked, pulling a face when John nodded. 'It's fucking creepy. Is he getting any better?'

John shook his head, removing the thermometer and dragging the towels away from Sherlock's body. 'We'll get him to the shower. He'll hate it, but it's the best thing for him now.'

'He'll drown!' Lestrade protested, giving a grunt as John pushed Sherlock upright.

'No, he won't. I'll get in with him and make sure of it. Give me a hand, will you? Mrs Hudson, can you turn the shower on? Warm enough that it feels about the same temperature as your skin.'

Between them, him and Greg managed to support Sherlock's weight, almost dragging him towards the bathroom. Sherlock was barely holding his head up, possibly struggling to regain some form of consciousness, but there was no focus in his eyes or coordination to his movements, and John found himself re-evaluating his decision about the ambulance.

'Ten minutes in the shower. If it doesn't bring him around at least a little bit then we head for the hospital. Someone should call Mycroft.'

'I'll do it, dear,' Mrs Hudson promised, leaving the door to the bathroom open and standing aside. 'Don't let him hurt you, will you?'

'I'll do my best,' John promised with a weak smile, leaving Greg to brace Sherlock against the wall as he peeled off his jumper. He did not care if his jeans or t-shirt got wet, but the wool would weigh him down and he would need all his strength and focus to deal with Sherlock. Dragging back the curtain that clung lovingly to the side of the bath, he stepped over the edge and under the spray. It felt neither hot nor cold, but he knew that to Sherlock it would probably seem bitterly chilled.

'All right. This is the tricky bit. He might fight us. Just try and help him over. You're going to get wet.'

Lestrade grunted, doing as he was told. 'Get worse than this on a rainy night. Ready?'

'Ready.' John held out his arms, supporting Sherlock's weight as Greg lifted Sherlock's legs and moved them over the edge of the bath. As soon as the water hit Sherlock's skin, he jerked again, almost knocking him and John over as he tried to twist away.

'Just water, Sherlock. It's just water! Come on. Stay with me, just for a little bit.' John grunted, his shoulder aching under the strain as he draped Sherlock's arms around his neck and looped his grip around that slender waist, holding Sherlock's dead weight with strong arms. Sherlock's head dropped forward onto John's shoulder, his eyes closed once more and his dark curls slicking to his head as the water cascaded over them both. It pressed the boxers Sherlock was wearing to him like a second skin and turned John's t-shirt and jeans dark and heavy.

Greg stood back, watching them both and prepared to leap forward if either of them slipped. Time measured itself out steadily in the drum of water and every quiet, shaking breath.

Eventually, John's muscles began to tremble with the strain, and he lowered them both to the bottom of the bath, draping Sherlock over his lap and cradling his head and shoulders, keeping him half upright and protecting his face from the spray. The skin beneath his hands was slick, but gradually he thought he felt the burn of heat lessen, dragged away as surely as if it were being rinsed down the drain.

'Sherlock, can you hear me?' he asked, searching that face for any sign of responsiveness and smiling as dark eyelashes fluttered, parting slowly over eyes that no longer stared, but found their focus within a few heartbeats.


'Yeah, it's me. Are you with me now?' He reached out a hand, swiping Sherlock's hair back from his face as he tightened the other arm around Sherlock's body.

'I didn't realise I was away.' Sherlock sounded tired, exhausted really, for someone who had been unconscious, and confusion was twisting his brow as he struggled to grasp what was happening to him.

'What's the elemental symbol for lead?' John asked, knowing questions about Prime Ministers and popular culture would be useless to determine mental clarity.

'Pb,' Sherlock responded after a moment's thought. The time it took suggested he was still a bit out of it, but John smiled anyway, because awake and responsive was a hundred times better than the wretched delirium of the past couple of days.

'John, why is it raining?'

'We're in the shower,' John murmured, dropping his fingers to Sherlock's throat to check his pulse. 'Your fever spiked and I couldn't get it to fall again. I had to cool you down quickly, and this was the easiest way.'

Sherlock appeared to digest that for a moment, as if he was turning the statement over in his head looking for flaws. At last he blinked, the water from the shower still running down his cheeks like tears as bright silver eyes drifted down to the bruise on John's jaw. 'What happened to your face?'

'Nothing important,' John brushed off quickly, reaching up and shutting off the shower. 'Come on, let's get you out of here. Greg?'

'Right here.' Lestrade gave a weak smile, a thick, dry towel already in his hands. As soon as Sherlock was wobbling on his own two feet, he pitched it around Sherlock's shoulders, gripping it tight shut under his chin and forcing Sherlock's clumsy fingers to latch around it. Helping him out of the bath was a graceless affair, but they all managed it without falling over and John quickly steered Sherlock to sit on the closed toilet seat, one hand on either side of his head as he lifted his face to get a better look at his eyes.

'Greg, can you go and get my bag, and ask Mrs Hudson for some clean, dry clothes for Sherlock?' A knock at the front door made John look up, and he saw a grin twitch across Lestrade's face.

'I'll let Mycroft in as well, shall I?'

'Thanks.' John looked back at Sherlock, narrowing his eyes critically. 'Tell me how you feel. Don't leave anything out.'

Sherlock sighed, sounding so tired that John felt his eyelids drag in sympathy. 'Aching. Head hurts. Chest hurts. Cold.'

'Anything else?' John asked, nodding his thanks as Greg passed over the bag, as well as a fresh t-shirt and underwear for Sherlock. 'Are you feeling dizzy, sick?'

Sherlock shook his head, making a rough sound of complaint as John sat back a little way, reaching for the tourniquet and a fresh syringe. He was not going to even attempt to give Sherlock anything by mouth at this stage. He was already shivering hard again, his body undoing the shower's good work, and John was desperate to keep the fever away from dangerous territory and give Sherlock some relief.

'Clench your hand into a fist and release it for me?' John instructed, tapping at the crook of Sherlock's left arm before shaking his head and switching to the right, where the veins were in slightly better condition. 'Again.'

Sherlock mutely did as he was told, his hair still dripping occasional points of cold onto John's hands and arms. They were both still wet, but the warmth of the flat meant John's hands were steady and unaffected as he measured out the dose and cleared air from the syringe before easing the needle into Sherlock's arm.

He focussed on what he was doing, not making a sound when Sherlock rested his brow on top of John's head as if he didn't have the strength to hold himself up any more. 'Still with me?'

'Mmmmm,' Sherlock murmured, making a tiny noise of discomfort as John slipped the needle free. 'Like I said, I didn't even realise I was gone. What day is it?'

'Friday. It's been two days since Greg came over with the file.'

Sherlock's tight noise of disgust was so familiar that John grinned, looking up. From this angle he could see Sherlock's jaw and lips, that cupid's bow set in a line of annoyed disapproval. 'That feels like five minutes ago.'

'Believe me, it's been a lot longer.' He capped the needle, twitching in surprise when long fingers touched lightly at the bruise on his jaw, not enough to cause pain, but there all the same.

'This was me, wasn't it?' Sherlock asked quietly, tracing the outline of the darkened skin before letting his hand fall to John's shoulder. 'I'm sorry.'

'Don't be,' he replied, pulling back and reaching for another towel before dumping it over Sherlock's head, gently patting the worst of the moisture from his curls. 'It was my own fault. I was trying to keep you still to get some medicine in you. You took exception. Understandable, really.'

'But not helpful, ' Sherlock pointed out, his muffled voice gaining clarity as John finished and put the towel over the radiator. For once, Sherlock looked less than artfully groomed. There was a shadow of scattered stubble across his jaw and upper lip, and his hair was an undignified tangle. He also looked thinner, John noticed with a grimace. The slender layer of muscle had already begun to fade, letting his bones show through sharper than before.

Quickly, he reached out, tenting the skin on the back of Sherlock's hand and watching it fall back into place. It took longer than it should, and John pursed his lips before meeting Sherlock's gaze.

'Mild dehydration,' Sherlock pointed out. 'Not bad enough for an IV.'

'No, but you need some fluid. Let's get you dry first, then we'll work on that. Come here.'

He worked quickly, brushing the towel across Sherlock's pale skin and soaking the water away. 'Can you change your boxers by yourself?' he asked, deliberately trying to keep his voice steady.

'Yes,' Sherlock replied firmly, frowning as John stood back. 'You can leave me here. I'm not going to collapse.'

'I wouldn't be so sure of that,' John replied, turning his back and staring at the wall. 'This is as far as I go. Hurry up, or I'll do it for you.'

'Yes, Doctor,' Sherlock muttered, but there was a hint of a very tired laugh under those words, and John heard the whisper of movement as he resolutely glared at the paint on the wall. Finally, he heard the sound of Sherlock sitting back down on the toilet seat, punctuated by a sudden, sharp bout of coughing.

He spun around without asking permission, watching his friend prop his elbows on his own knees, the t-shirt tangled in his fingers as his chest jerked with each spasm. At last, Sherlock quieted, clutching at his head with one hand. 'Really, brain in a jar is sounding better with every passing day.'

John shook his head, reaching for his stethoscope and warming it on his palm. 'You’ll get better eventually,' he promised. 'Breathe in.'

Sherlock did as he was told, and John could feel the swell and rush of air beneath his steadying palm as he listened for any tell-tale rattle over the thud of Sherlock's heart. Thankfully, his lungs still seemed clear, and John dragged the plugs from his ears before reaching for Sherlock's t-shirt and pushing it over that dark head.

'You seem all right so far, but I'll get Mycroft to get in some antibiotics anyway, just in case.'

Sherlock made a tutting sound. 'Abusing the NHS, John? Rebel.'

'It's not abuse. In your case, it's being prepared. I'll have to call Sarah for the prescription.'

'Because you don't keep a pad in the flat.' There was no accusation in that tone, just a kind of faultless logic that spoke volumes about Sherlock's brain power. He was still feverish, of that John was sure, but the drop from critical levels had rendered him not just alert, but fairly sharp.

'It's not that I don't trust you...'

'Yes it is, and you're right, at least when it comes to things like that. You know I'd have no qualms about faking your signature if I was desperate.' The corner of Sherlock's lip curled in a half-apologetic kind of smile. 'You allow yourself to keep basic medication in your bag, and can justify the fact that you have them even when you really shouldn't because of my dangerous lifestyle, but you're too sensible to contribute anything tempting to a recovering addict's environment. Including a prescription pad.'

'You're not the only one who gets tempted,' John pointed out, feeling Sherlock's eyes bore into him.

He could almost see the cogs turning in that brilliant mind, slowed down to normal speeds by the havoc wreaked upon its transport, but the moment of enlightenment still dawned in Sherlock's eyes. 'Oh. Your shoulder. Your nightmares. You consider self-medicating.' Sherlock let out a breath, as if chastising himself for not realising it sooner. 'Of course you do.'

'Not so much any more,' John promised, his hand hesitating before he reached for the thermometer again. It was not really necessary, he knew Sherlock's fever had dropped thanks to the shower, and the drugs would keep it that way now, but he wanted to quantify the change – if only to put his mind at rest. 'I'm too busy looking after you to worry about myself.'

Sherlock gave him a dark look, grumbling anew as the thermometer beeped out a far better reading, and John put it away with a nod. 'Good, right, let's get you back to the couch. At least it's leather and will wipe dry.'

'Why is it wet?' Sherlock asked, looking oddly distressed and confused.

'We tried wet towels before we got you to the shower. It didn't work,' John explained. 'I needed Greg’s help to hold you still enough to keep them on.'

'And Mycroft?'

John glanced over, trying to read Sherlock's expression, but he did not look too annoyed. More just faintly resigned that his illness had gathered an audience. 'Thought we might have to drag you to hospital. That's a next of kin kind of situation.'

He pulled open the door, lifting an eyebrow as he saw both Greg and Mycroft hovering outside. Once again the older Holmes had abandoned both his umbrella and his suit jacket, and this time his sleeves were rolled up. It made him look strangely normal.

'We'll take him from here, John,' Mycroft promised, ignoring Sherlock's rough sound of irritation. 'You should get changed into something more comfortable than wet fabric.'

'Yeah, the only reason you don't look dead on your feet is because everyone looks good next to Sherlock right now,' Greg added, unceremoniously taking Sherlock by the shoulders and guiding him towards the sofa, which John noticed had a new nest of clean blankets and pillows: no doubt Mrs Hudson's doing.

Part of him really did not want to leave, even for a few brief moments to change into dry clothes, and he scratched the back of his head before speaking. 'All right, fine, just try and keep him awake, and make him drink some more lucozade.'

It was a bit like giving orders to troops. Both Lestrade and Mycroft bowed to his authority as a doctor, and Mrs Hudson appeared to have forgotten her “Not your housekeeper” rule as she made cups of tea and fussed over Sherlock, who at least bore it with moderately good grace. Probably too tired to really complain.

Padding up the stairs, John peeled off his t-shirt, jeans, underwear and socks, placing them on the radiator to dry as he dragged a spare towel over his skin. Part of him felt that he should dress in proper clothes, but the clock was already ticking towards one in the morning. Besides, his sleep over the past few days had been shattered, and the weariness gnawing at his body was starting to become a dead-weight.

In the end, he chose a half-decent t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. Not too obviously pyjamas, but comfortable enough to sleep in. Warm socks went on his feet, which were chilled after the lukewarm shower, and he ran his fingers through his short hair, scattering water droplets with a few quick flicks before he reached for his mobile.

Calling Sarah at this time of night for antibiotics would earn him nothing but scorn, so he sent a quick text explaining the situation, his fingers pecking over the keys before he hit send. With any luck Mycroft could pick it up from the surgery in the morning and get it filled. John would rather waste the medication and not need it than let any kind of infection sink its claws into Sherlock when he was like this.

Padding back downstairs, he smiled to see that Mrs Hudson was handing Lestrade some blankets and urging him to use one of the beds. 'You can't go home at this time of night!'

'You can take mine,' John added when Greg looked like he wanted to protest. It was obviously the DI had been at the office working late before John's text, and the man looked as shattered as John felt. 'Save you braving whatever is in Sherlock's room.'

'Where're you going to sleep?'

'Living room floor's fine for me. Has been the past couple of nights. Besides, I'd rather keep an eye on Sherlock.'

'I'm fine,' Sherlock's voice grated from the direction of the sofa, sounding far from convincing. 'Use my bed.'

'I will watch my brother, John,' Mycroft promised. 'A few hours on a proper mattress will do you the world of good. I will wake you if Sherlock needs your assistance.'

John hesitated, glancing quickly towards Sherlock, but if the man protested his brother's offer, he was too tired to show it, clutching feebly at a bottle of lucozade and clearly struggling to keep his eyes open. 'Fine,' he agreed at last, 'but I’m still not exposing Greg to whatever else is in your room, Sherlock. I'll take your bed. Is there anything I should know about?'

'No,' Sherlock murmured, 'but don't touch anything on the third shelf up.'

John paused, glancing over his shoulder just in time to see something like a smile twitch over Mycroft's lips, matched, alarmingly enough, by one from Sherlock. Lestrade had noticed it too, because he clapped a hand on John's shoulder.

'Rather you than me, mate. Sleep well.'

'Thanks. You too.' John scooped the quilt and pillows he had been using off the floor, trailing them tiredly into Sherlock's room. To be honest, he could not bring himself to worry about whatever Sherlock had hidden in here, as long as nothing truly vile jumped out at him in the middle of the night.

He was too exhausted to brush his teeth, mentally and physically drained by his worry over Sherlock, and he collapsed onto the mattress with a quiet groan, letting his muscles relax inch by inch. It felt good, he had to admit that. No more getting irritated by his pillow slipping off the leather sofa cushions, or twitching awake at every little sound Sherlock made, but still, leaving him out there with Mycroft felt a little bit like abandonment. Dereliction of duty.

John gave himself an irritated grunt, rolling onto his front and burying his face into the pillow. Keeping anxious, helpless vigil would do nothing to make Sherlock better, but sleep was something they both needed, and he tried to still the spin of his thoughts. Vaguely, he could hear voices, Mycroft's faintly nasal enunciation and Sherlock's deeper, richer baritone, but they were too quiet for him to pick out the words.

It did not sound like an argument, but Mycroft and Sherlock could keep a war going with nothing but dark looks, so that really wasn't saying much. John tried to listen, to untangle the sense of syllables from the murmur of sound, but his brain was too far gone, and he found himself slipping in and out of dreams and waking: a shallow, useless sort of slumber.

It was the blackest part of London's night – hazy street-lights beyond the curtains and a faint lull in the ever-present throb of city life – when Mycroft shook John awake. A quick glance at the clock showed him it was just before four a.m. but he was awake in an instant, cuffing at his eyes as he demanded to know what was wrong.

'His fever is breaking. He asked for you.'

John was out of the bed without even realising it, padding out in the living room. Sallow, soft light bathed the room, picking out the gloss of sweat that covered Sherlock's forehead and gathered in the hollow at the base of his throat. He had thrown off the quilt, but he still looked wretched, wobbling on the border of sleep and wakefulness as his fever shattered apart the biological way – the way it was meant to.

'You all right?' John murmured, sitting on the floor by the couch and watching Sherlock's eyelids flutter closed, as if he could not quite hold them open. 'It means you're getting better: battle won.'

'I know, John,' Sherlock mumbled. 'I do know something about the human body. Though this doesn't feel like winning.'

John smiled at the tone of Sherlock's voice: undercurrents of arrogance and irritation. He reached for the bottle of lucozade, holding it steady and urging his friend to sip from the straw. 'Did you want me for anything particular, or was Mycroft just getting on your nerves?'

'He was snoring,' Sherlock replied, licking his dry lips before wearily dragging a hand across his brow to wipe some of the sweat away. 'Smugly.'

A faint chuckle escaped John's throat. It never ceased to amaze him how quickly Sherlock's mind could work, even in dire circumstances. It was not rare for people to go from delirious and insensate at the hands of a fever to abruptly alert and aware as soon as the body's heat dropped away, but Sherlock seemed to have a greater ability to focus himself than most. Mind over matter after all.

'I had the same dream I had back when this all started.'

'Pool, Moriarty, bit not good?' John asked, repeating Sherlock's earlier, vague description as he leaned his arm on the sofa. At first he thought Sherlock's nod was the only answer he was going to get, but then those eyes met his, cool green like sea foam.

'I needed to see that you were all right.'

John's heart thumped hard in his ribs, sharp like a gun shot, and he blinked down into Sherlock's gaze. It was such a quiet little admission, yet in those few words Sherlock had left himself more vulnerable, more open than John had ever known him to be. It was not a stammered, sideways intimation, but a direct indication that John had claimed a special place in Sherlock's life. Perhaps to other people it would not seem like much, but to John it was the first thing he could recall Sherlock saying that somehow made him more than a bizarre flatmate/blogger/friend gestalt.

'Budge up,' John said quietly, helping Sherlock sit up before settling where he had been lying, grabbing a spare blanket and covering his legs before replacing Sherlock's pillow and urging him to lie back down, giving him plenty of time to protest. Sherlock, however, did no such thing. There was a brief moment of confusion, but then he settled back comfortably, his head in John's lap and his face turned towards John's stomach. 'There, now if you have the same dream, I'll be right here.'

He checked over Sherlock's expression, looking for any sign that he had mis-read the cues – that Sherlock did not want reassurance and company but was trying to sate some indifferent curiosity – but there was nothing that gave that impression. Instead, Sherlock simply looked relieved and grateful, steadily relaxing against John as if he were all the support he could ever need.

And God help him, John was beginning to realise that Sherlock could never ask too much. Whatever happened, he would still be here.

Wherever this man led, he would follow: awake and aware, wishful and willing.

Chapter Text

Soft noises of conversation and the clatter of breakfast dishes punctuated Sherlock's sleep, pushing aside the veils of oblivion and dumping him rudely into wakefulness. The first thing he noticed was that John's warmth was gone. Sherlock had not even felt him extricate himself, but clearly some need or other had driven him to leave. Hunger, perhaps.

Trying to squash the disappointment that coiled in his stomach, Sherlock quickly took stock of his body, registering every leaden ache with displeasure. The fever had gone, leaving him feeling sticky and bruised in its wake, but the malaise lingered like some kind of parasite, chewing at him as if he were a three course meal.

Shifting his arm slightly, Sherlock bit back a groan as a plethora of different pains jangled to life, radiating through his back and joints and surfing over the crests of his larger muscles. He almost expected to see his skin dappled with injuries, but when he dragged his gritty eyes open there was no discolouration staining his flesh, just the half-hearted wash of early morning light through the window: winter's dawn. He estimated it was somewhere around seven thirty, judging by the rattles that drifted up from the café below and the incoming tide of traffic that signalled rush hour was getting under-way.

So, in essence, his body felt as if it had come off worse in a fight against the 113 bus from Edgeware – Scania with a transverse-engined chassis painted the patriotic London red with Aztec blue accents – but his mind was clear, if a little glassy and somewhat fractured in patterns of thought.

He was not sure whether he should be pleased that at least now he could think, or irritated that his body's recovery was set to be significantly slower than that of his mental capacity.

'Mummy sends her love and hopes you get better soon, naturally. It seems you are already improving.'

Sherlock shot a glance at Mycroft, who was just settling himself comfortably in the nearby armchair, a mug of coffee in one hand and a jam-slathered croissant in the other. So much for the diet.

'Of course,' he replied, wincing at the rough scrape of his voice in his throat. His normal rich tones were reduced to something gravelly and faded. Sherlock frowned as Mycroft paused with his pastry halfway to his mouth and shot him a surprised look.

'You sound like father after a bad day.'

'After chain-smoking a king-size pack of cigarettes, you mean.' That was fairly synonymous with their father's “bad days”, when he had been alive to have such things. 'Hoarseness is an expected addition to a viral assault.'

'Perhaps you should think twice before speaking. You sound about three sentences off becoming mute.' An aristocratic eyebrow quirked. 'Although perhaps that would be a blessing to the nation as a whole.'

Sherlock flipped his middle finger at his brother, ignoring Mycroft's indifference as he let his hand drop back to his side. Simple movement was almost beyond him, but he pulled a face before stiffening his resolve and dragging himself into a half-slumped sitting position. His head spun, a brief, giddy little waltz – dehydration, low potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, muscular ion pumps struggling and inefficient – and he was caught in the strange no-man's land where hunger and nausea become one and the same. His stomach did not want to digest anything, but his body needed the nutrition.

Catch twenty-two.

John's hand interrupted his vision, a bowl with one Weetabix and a touch of milk in it cradled in his palm. The cheap ceramic was startlingly white, and made John's skin glow as if it remembered the Afghanistan tan it had carried before succumbing to Britain's pallor-inducing weather. 'Eat as much as you can of that, but go slow,' John instructed, his expression indicating that protests would be useless. 'We need to see what your stomach can handle, and it's easy on your digestion.'

'Because it has the same consistency as wallpaper paste,' Sherlock muttered, hearing Lestrade give a snort of agreement from where he was propped against the kitchen table, practically inhaling Frosties. 'I'm not hungry.'

'Don't care.' John shook his head. 'You probably don't even recognise what hunger feels like any more; you've trained yourself out of it.'

'Food is boring,' Sherlock muttered, jabbing the spoon half-heartedly into the cereal as he leaned back into the corner of the sofa, using the vee made by the wing and back to support his weary weight. His spine ached from lying on the couch, hunched and curled rather than lain out like a statue, and the grate of his neck clicked in his ears as bone slid over cartilage.

The Weetabix had already absorbed most of the milk, and he picked at the cool, texture-less stuff with little enthusiasm. The first swallow made his stomach pang, sharp and hard as if it shared his disdain, but within half-a-minute the timbre of sensation changed, becoming hollow and desperate as the oily edge of nausea dwindled with the sustenance.

He managed half of it and was rewarded by a pleased smile from John, who had perhaps been expecting more of a battle. 'Right, we'll give that thirty minutes to settle, and then you can have some tablets for your aches.'

'I will get that prescription as promised, John,' Mycroft added. 'My assistant will bring it over as soon as possible.'

'Thanks. With any luck we won't need it, but I'd rather not take that chance.'

'If I can do anything else, let me know,' Lestrade said, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. 'Right now, though, I have to get to work. Got to try and solve that case myself, since Sherlock can't help.' Lestrade put the bowl down, doing up his collar and reaching for his suit jacket. 'Let me know when you're back on your feet.'

'I will have to follow the good Inspector. This country sadly does not run itself.' Mycroft licked jam from his finger with an unseemly amount of pleasure as he got to his feet. 'Do call when you are feeling better, Sherlock. You know how I worry.'

Sherlock rolled his eyes as John thanked them both, showing them the way out and leaving him to slump a little lower on the sofa. Last night he had been too spent to care about people other than John observing him unwell, but this morning was a different matter. Lestrade had seen him in a worse condition, of course, as had Mycroft, but that was not the point. At least then he had inflicted the damage on himself rather than being a pathetic victim.

'Sulking?' John asked as he shut the door to the flat. 'If it weren't for them, you could have been waking up in hospital this morning.'

Sherlock gave a grunt. At least he had been spared that. Nurses and doctors, mediocre in their skill and undeservedly proud of their self-sacrifice. John was the exception, of course, not just from Sherlock's disdain of medical professionals. Surprisingly, he did not mind that John saw him so reduced, whether that was bored out of his mind or laid low by illness.

Probably because John would never use it against him, unlike Mycroft and, to a lesser extent, Lestrade. Perhaps they would not be malicious (much) but they would remind him of any time when he had been less than his collected, centred self. John would do no such thing – at least not without adequate provocation. He seemed to treasure moments when Sherlock was blatantly human, standing guard with dogged loyalty over his weaknesses.

'Drink this,' John instructed, handing Sherlock a glass of water. 'When you feel up to it, I'm also going to weigh you on the scales I borrowed from Mrs Hudson. Your metabolism will have dropped, so hopefully you've not lost too much weight, but I need to check.'

Ugh, he should have known John would be as empirical about weight as he had been about the fever. He was as much a scientist as Sherlock in many respects, and he approved of quantifiable results. 'Is that really necessary?'

'Yes.' John folded his arms, shifting his weight onto one hip as he levelled a very firm, professional kind of glare in his direction. 'I've let you get away with a frankly disturbing level of self-neglect, Sherlock, because I had no right to interfere in your life. Now, you're ill, and if you want me to continue being your doctor, we need to make some changes.'

Oh, that did not sound good.

'Changes?' Sherlock asked, and at least now the sore throat made his voice sound suitably ominous. 'Allow me to deduce your intentions. Three square meals a day, eight hours sleep, force me to subscribe to all the stupid ephemera of “the average person”.'

'Is that what you think? That I'm trying to make you average?' John shook his head. 'Even if I wanted to, Sherlock, I wouldn't stand a chance. You can't make something unique mundane. I wouldn't even try.' He sounded hurt by the assumption, and Sherlock forced himself to hold back his defensive annoyance. Of course, John was not Mummy, or Mycroft, for that matter. John thought he was amazing, rather than anomalous.

'All I want to do is find a compromise between the Work, your mind and its transport. Without that body, the other two are meaningless. You need it, Sherlock. You seem to have conveniently forgotten about that.' John glanced back into the kitchen before turning his gaze to the floor, his voice softening. 'I don't want to force you to do anything, but I'd like to think you respect my expertise. I might not be a genius consulting detective –'

'But you’re a good doctor,' Sherlock interrupted softly, 'and you hate to see me ignoring my health as much as I loathe an unsolved case.'

'Exactly.' John smiled then, as if impressed by the faint flicker of frankly rudimentary understanding. 'I'm not trying to fix you. You're not broken.' He frowned at Sherlock's snort, his face turning hard and vicious for a second. 'You're not, Sherlock, and I plan to keep it that way. Just let me try and help you find a balance between a sharp mind and a healthy body, all right?'

It was important to John – Sherlock's willingness – that much was obvious in his stance and the faint way he tipped his head to one side: open, honest and trusting. John was not interested in a dictatorship of health. He wanted cooperation and shared goals. He wanted partnership, and Sherlock found himself slowly inclining his head in agreement.

He would try a lot of things to stop John going all stormy, like he did when the baseline of his disapproval was hiked into a mountain of distress. Of course, that meant actually standing on some scales – dull. Unfortunately, he expected John might have some kind of fit at the measurement.

Sherlock might not monitor his mass the same way that Mycroft did, but he could remember the actions of the nurses after a fortnight where the next hit had taken precedence over the next meal and an unfortunate overdose. He had found himself in hospital, and once they got him on the scales there had been uproar. He was too light, too thin. Medical staff tried everything they could think of to keep him in their care and break the cycle, not that they had succeeded.

Looking down at his fingers curving around the glass, he examined the bones with concentrated care. Metacarpus and phalanges all contained in a sheath of skin, knuckles tight and prominent: a natural clenched grip, but the styloid process of the ulna was an unwelcome jut, too sharp and pressed against the thin veil of flesh. It was a minor tell, but in the poker game of healthy eating, it called his bluff. John would notice it, and all the other little signs his body gave away through simply existing.

'Here.' John nudged him gently, his palm unfurled to reveal two capsules: something specifically formulated for cold and flu judging by the writing stamped on the cellulose. 'Take these and rest. Want me to turn the telly on?'

Sherlock shot John the most disgusted look he could manage. As if breakfast television viewing was any better than the drivel they normally scheduled. 'No,' he muttered, swallowing back the pills and pulling the quilt up to his chin in a petulant sulk before he realised that perhaps John wanted to watch something in particular. However, before he could say anything, John was already speaking, as calm and collected as ever.

'Okay, well I'm going in the shower. Let me know if you need anything.'

He listened to John pad away, filling the flat with comfortable sounds of inhabitation. There was the chime of crockery as he stacked things by the sink to wash up, then the snick of the bathroom door and the steady, solid gush of water, accompanied by the clang and creak of the pipes. It reminded Sherlock of the night before, of coming back into awareness as if he had never been gone, enfolded in John's arms while the shower drummed down all around them.

John had looked so relieved, his face delighted as if Sherlock had performed an earth-shattering deduction rather than merely opening his eyes. It did not take a genius to realise how clearly worried he had been, and even Sherlock could admit that John had gone beyond the call of duty. He had done everything he could to treat Sherlock at home, calling in assistance as soon as it was necessary and soldiering on until the battle was won.

Gratitude was the most common thing to express in these situations, or so he had been told, but surely John would know that Sherlock appreciated the effort, in his own way? It was ridiculous, how comforting and wonderful it was to have someone look after him: someone not obliged by familial bonds or simply because Sherlock was useful.

Perhaps he did not give Mycroft or Lestrade enough credit, but their involvement meant little in comparison to John's, because John made no secret about caring. He did not try and hide it behind something else as if he were ashamed. He wore it like a medal instead, chin high as if daring Sherlock to use it as a weakness or mock him for the failing.

As if he could.

Wearily, Sherlock shuffled down on the sofa some more, putting the now empty glass of water down on the table and cushioning his head on the corner of the quilt. He bunched the fabric up into a pustule of feathers and cotton, soft and comfortable, but it was not as good as John's lap the night before.

The memory made something skate through his chest, pale and uncertain, and he stared blankly at the peninsular of the coffee table corner. It struck an unseemly dark line of wood across his view of the room as his thoughts drifted cloud-like through his mind.

Back at the beginning of their acquaintance, John had needed him. It was not about curing a limp, a trifling trick of the mind, but about taking a stranded, disparate thing, floating and lost, and giving it a purpose, an orbit. Round and round the garden...

Sherlock had meant for it to be the Work, of course, for John to share his centre of the universe, but that was not what had happened. He continued to circle the thrill of the puzzle, looping in arcs of an ellipse, sometimes close enough to burn himself in the glory of it all and others too far to feel anything but the chill touch of its promise as boredom took hold.

John, it seemed, circled him instead, a satellite unwittingly captured.

Sherlock may not know more than what John had told him about Heliocentric-ism, but he knew about the moon – Tides, inordinately useful in murder cases, especially when it came to the Thames – and every satellite added something to the orbital equation: braking the spin, influencing atmosphere, a conductor of light, a new point of interest in the system of Sherlock's existence. Now they circled their barycentre – their core of mass – another heart shared between them both.

Sherlock blinked, trying to fit this new realisation into his self-construct. John had needed him, and in the assuagement of that, Sherlock had created a reflection of it in himself.

Now, they were requisite to each other.

It was an uncomfortable theory: not dependent but co-dependent as if the equation of Sherlock minus John or even John minus Sherlock was an impossibility.

This was really not his area.

Back at the pool with Moriarty, Sherlock had first realised that John was more than just a person in his wake, following helplessly. That sensation seemed to have grown until John was no longer merely someone running at his side, or sharing a laugh, but part of what drove him ever onwards.

Then there was that other thing. That jolt of heat/want/yes he had felt as soon as he had laid eyes on John Watson. He had believed it was only temporary, as such things so often were, and it was too inconvenient to have a fling with his flatmate: awkward. Hence that ridiculous conversation at Angelo's. The “Fine, it's all fine.” one.

Except it was not fine, because that tiny glimmer failed to fade but instead seemed to flourish – a notochord folding and rippling into the unspoken backbone on which so much of their trust was placed – and Sherlock found himself in an unusual position. Maintain the holding pattern, obey the boundaries, or cross the line and risk everything for more?

It should have been easy. The logical course was clear, and yet it was one of the most difficult decisions he had ever made. He ignored it for as long as possible, of course. It was a very British thing to do: repressed, in a way, but somehow not making a choice left all his options open. Then Moriarty forced his hand, ripping away every little lie and making Sherlock see the depth of what could be there...

His lips twisted into a grimace, and he rubbed his cheek absently against the quilt, vaguely hearing the scratch of his stubble as his train of thought rattled around on an eternal rail. Perhaps then, in that rush of survival it had been the time to speak to John, but Sherlock had found himself hesitating again, unsure of what to say.

How did you have that kind of conversation? Not the simple kind of talk that led from vertical and physically separate to horizontal and very much together – Sherlock could do that with the right smile and an artful look at those rare times he felt so inclined – but something more?

It would not be something solely carnal: the quick slake of lust without the trappings that came with it. John was not that kind of man. Sherlock only had to look at his girlfriends to know that. He appreciated romance, and even if he agreed to the no-strings-attached approach, something short-term that Sherlock could cope with, it was likely to evolve without any kind of encouragement.

Better not to attempt it at all, really.


Sherlock blinked, listening to the preposition clang around his head like a spoon in a bucket, lonely without any other words to follow it. Instead there were only vague coils of feeling: a light sensation in his heart and a heavy dread in his gut. Something that seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with his brain at all, or was perhaps hard-wired somewhere down with the essential reflexes. Something Sherlock could only guess at, and oh, how he hated the imprecision of it.

Sometimes he wished he could outsource emotion, or at the very least scoop it out into a bowl and pass it to John and ask “What the hell is this because it's possibly ruining my life and I think it's your fault?”

'Are you all right?'

He jumped, which was embarrassing: an all over body flinch like some nervous wild animal, and he scowled over his shoulder at John to cover it. 'Of course,' he mumbled. 'Thinking.'

'About the case?'

He hesitated a touch too long, briefly grappling with the disturbing question of “what case?” before he remembered the body in the alley and the suspiciously clean flat. 'Can't do anything much without seeing the body. Maybe tomorrow?' The hope in his voice faded at John's expression. Clearly not, then. 'I can't stay here forever,' he pointed out, watching as John grabbed his laptop and batted at Sherlock's feet, sitting at the opposite end of the sofa.

'I know that,' John replied calmly, 'but you're going to have to take this slowly. Rushing off to Bart’s to harass Molly will only make your recovery slower in the long run.'

'I don't harass Molly. I try to ignore Molly. It's not my fault she's so –' He paused, struggling to find the right word and settling instead for a flick of his fingers.

'Molly is a perfectly sweet girl.'

Amazing how John made that sound like a good thing – as if a sunny disposition and crippling confidence issues were somehow preferable to a brilliant mind and a solid grasp of one's profession. She had her uses, and for Sherlock's purposes easy manipulation was a benefit, but sometimes he just wished she would stand up to him. Tell him no, if only for the surprise value.

A project for another time, perhaps.

'Anything interesting?' he asked, watching the dart of John's eyes in the glow of the computer screen.

'No, you're not missing anything.' John smiled at Sherlock's doubtful expression. 'A couple of people with missing jewellery and a blackmail case. They'll probably keep you occupied for a few minutes at most when you're feeling better.'

Sherlock hummed. He could probably solve them now, despite being unwell, but something told him John would not sacrifice the laptop so easily. Besides, Lestrade's case was more interesting, and he reached half-heartedly for the bland police file again as John switched on the television and began to flick through the channels before settling on something about home renovation. It was a bizarre choice, since John did not show much inclination towards the aesthetic or own property, but the mystery was solved by the pretty brunette presenter. Simple, if a little disappointing.

Flipping through the photos, Sherlock wished he had been at the scene when the body was fished from the river. Corpses and water were a bad mix, and the Thames had been unkind to the young man. He had been found at the foot of one of the bridges, but the knife wound to his chest ruled out suicide and drowning. His clothes were cheap, boring, much like the ones Sophie Lattimer had been wearing, but the Gucci shoes were an anomalous touch to his outfit. A pattern, perhaps.

There was a snapshot from the flat attached to the file, the kind taken by friends at some random beer garden in London's sprawl. Clearly the man with his arm around Sophie's waist – possessively clasped over her hip, false smile hiding hard eyes – was the same one from the river. They would have a name soon enough. Perhaps Lestrade had one already, but really that was an unnecessary detail. Sherlock could read the entire story from this man's body, but he was too weak to go and see it. Briefly, he wondered if he could convince Molly to set up a web link, but no. He needed the feedback of senses other than sight and sound.

Glancing up at John, Sherlock hesitated, blinking in surprise. John's head was lolling back on the sofa cushions, his eyes resolutely closed and his mouth a little open. Every inhale was an almost-snore, a rough rasp that promised to get louder unless something was done. Sherlock glanced over at the babbling television – hardly stimulating viewing – before tipping his head to the side and considering his options.

John had suffered a dearth of sleep while Sherlock had succumbed to an abundance of the same. He knew John too well to think that he would have allowed himself to truly rest. He would have slumbered like a soldier, one ear open, a hand on his gun (metaphorically speaking, in this case – at least Sherlock hoped so) while Sherlock lost himself in oblivion.

Now the exhaustion had caught up with John, and with every moment that Sherlock lay there and stared, he realised just how uncomfortable John must be.

Well, that simply would not do.

Cautiously, he set the police file aside and slipped out of his nest on the sofa, clinging to the furniture as he tested his weight on his legs. The feeling of being road-kill had not reduced, though the painkillers had taken the edge off it. He had perhaps two hours while the drugs were at maximum concentration in his body, and Sherlock decided he could put that to good use. He would use the shower and do something to feel human again, and John could doze on the sofa. Half an hour of horizontal rest was probably worth three hours in his current position.

Of course, actually getting John to move was easier said than done. Sherlock's muscles were weak and John was built like a very efficient kind of tank. In the end he had to settle for quiet, hoarse murmurs of encouragement as he guided John down to the cushions and flicked the quilt over him. John did not open his eyes, but Sherlock stilled as warm fingers brushed loosely against his wrist, the touch sending heat flaring across his skin. It was a brief caress: the steady sweep of the pad of one thumb against the vulnerable, pale underside, but it was enough to blank Sherlock's mind and leave him watching John with thoughtful eyes and parted lips.

Eventually, he realised what he was doing – gaping like an idiot – and softly extricated himself from John's grip, resting that hand back down on the quilt as if it were made of glass before he dragged himself away and headed for the bathroom.

Walking was awkward with unresponsive muscles, and Sherlock's irritation and impatience grew with every clumsy effort his body made. His shoulders protested as he peeled away the t-shirt, checking for dry towels before stepping out of his underwear and flicking on the shower. The water drummed in the bottom of the bath, allowing his memories from the night before to float to the surface, and he blinked at the idea of John in the shower with him, strong arms around his waist and wet warmth pressed against him.

A twitch from between his legs served to remind him that his body was merely ill, not dead, and Sherlock licked his lips. The biological imperative to breed defied logic. It reared its head at the most unlikely moments, buoyed up by almost everything from boredom to stress. Even like this, weak and shaking, his body still felt it necessary to divert blood to sustain an erection all thanks to a brief flicker of imagination and John.

Yesterday had been medicinal, he told himself forcefully, the collision of the Hippocratic Oath and caring friendship, and John had been very much clothed, wet t-shirt slicked to his shoulders and heavy denim dragging at his hips. Sherlock honestly did not think he had been paying that much attention, but it seemed his mind had been recording the details for later viewing.

Quickly, he shoved the thoughts aside as he stepped under the spray, his skin twitching as the water fell across him and ran in curved lines down his back and across the crest of his hips. His arousal was not so persistent that he needed to give himself a helping hand, and to be honest he had become better at ignoring it, at least as far as John was concerned.

John, who would probably be surprised to know that Sherlock got turned on at all. Really, it was both the blessing and the curse of self control. People could be such victims of their own physiology: elevated pulse, pupil dilation, increased breathing rate, wetting their own lips... Sherlock noticed them all, but when he either failed to respond to it in others or attempted to erase all sign of it from his own expression, they decided he was somehow above such things, innocent and virginal.

Sometimes, he wished he was. He was neither as promiscuous nor as reckless with sex as many men his own age, but that did not mean he was entirely dead to it. Masturbation filled the gap most of the time, but his mind had moments of obsession, curiosity and challenge. Instances of trying things just to see if he could... Reaching out just because he wanted.

It was just about sex, never anything more. Previous attempts in his twenties at relationships were best forgotten. They failed as soon as his partner of choice realised he did not magically metamorphose into someone normal and pleasant just because he shared their bed.

Now he would indulge only once in a while. Sometimes to test a theory – sex was a primary motivator, and an endless source of fascination to people in general – and others to simply remind himself that he was not as beyond the physical as he might hope. Human after all.

Shampoo lathered beneath his fingertips, clinging to the oils in his hair and carrying them away as he continued to think. The arousal had ebbed, dulling down to the steady background murmur of his body which he could often ignore with ease, and he dragged soapy suds across his skin almost absently as his lips curved in a smirk.

Really, it amazed him how people could believe he was curious about so many things, yet had never branched out into an exploration of sex. They assumed he was disinterested, asexual, or cold. Even John, the only person whose opinion mattered, seemed to have pushed that first bright spark of attraction to the back of his mind in the assumption that it was something Sherlock did not want.

Sometimes it was tempting to prove him wrong – to show John all those little signs that he kept so well hidden and let him observe that he was wanted. How easy it would be to bend his head one day – perhaps after a chase, or settled in comfort in the confines of 221B – and press a kiss to those lips. He could tease and taste and take and John would – John could...

Sherlock sighed, tipping his head back under the spray and feeling the water glance off his cheeks. No, no that was not how it could be. These past few days with John had been too much – had proved too much about John's tenderness and compassion: the universal truths of his existence.

John would want more, and Sherlock was not sure he had it in him to give. Sex, passion, heat – yes – but John would need love and consideration: all the trappings of a relationship, and it was there that Sherlock's mind found itself stranded. Awash in a sea of potential failure.

Like this, he had John: friend, blogger, doctor, touchstone and foundation. If he upset their balance, their hard-earned equilibrium, then it could only end in disaster. Arguments, abandonment...

No, he could not risk that, could not be left with nothing. He would not go back to a life without John.

Chapter Text

John was warm, comfortable, and utterly surrounded by the smell of Sherlock. It filled every breath with a fragrance that made his heart swell. He could stay here forever, just like this, where the war was a world away and there was nothing to disturb him, safe in Sherlock's bed.

Except that his memory was being unhelpfully blank. He did not remember curling up here, where it smelled of everything he wanted, and gradually his mind began to point out salient facts: Sherlock was not his. He was not there for the sole purpose of John's happiness, and he had never given anything like permission for the boundaries of personal space to become so blurred – what was going on?

John dragged his eyes open, briefly confused by the skewed view of the living room. The lunchtime news was muttering away to itself on the telly, the volume turned down to almost nothing so that the presenters looked like they were playing charades: all tight gestures and grim faces. One of the windows was open a crack, letting in the chill air of Baker Street, but the bright beam of sunlight suggested that at least the clouds had faded away.

He was lying on the couch, alone, and wrapped up in Sherlock's quilt – not in the man's double bed after all. John could not even remember how he got here, but that brief question was brushed aside by the brighter, sharper internal shriek of “Where the fuck is Sherlock?”

'I'm over here.'

John lifted his head a little, his gaze finally settling on where Sherlock was slumped in one of the armchairs. His legs were hanging over one side while the other supported his back, looking for all the world like he was perfectly comfortable squeezing a six foot body into a three foot space. His face was shaven, and his hair was dry but clearly clean, a little fluffy because he had not bothered with any product to tame the curls. He was also wrapped in that blue silk thing, the one that clung to the lines of his body and sent John's thoughts plunging into the gutter every time he saw it. Though this time its sensuality was rather interrupted by the fact Sherlock was clearly dressed in several layers underneath it.

The throw blanket that Mrs Hudson had given them for Christmas was wrapped around him as well, staving off the edge of winter that filled the flat as Sherlock typed away on his laptop: not the fast, thunderous clatter that John was used to, but a slower, lazy fandango with graceful fingers.

'You know, if you ever actually do learn to read people's minds, they won't notice,' John muttered, sitting up and rubbing his eyes.

'You went from completely asleep to predominantly alert with only a 0.7 second interval in between. You were alarmed. You have spent the past few days dedicating yourself solely to my care, therefore the logical conclusion was that you did not know where I was.' Sherlock's eyes met his briefly before returning to the screen. 'You just asked the question without speaking it out loud.'

John smiled. God, it really was good to hear Sherlock being himself again. Explaining the world like it was eminently simple rather than a chaotic tumble of nature and emotion, humanity and civilisation.

'How are you feeling?' He watched carefully, searching for any hint of a lie. It was not easy on Sherlock, but he'd lived with him long enough to know the little tells by now. A slight tightening of the lips, a micro-movement of the eyes up and to John's left, almost but not entirely stifled by Sherlock's incredible control. Both of those were a good hint of untruth, but Sherlock simply sighed.

'Weary. Still aching and very lethargic.'

'The paracetamol's probably wearing off.' John grunted as he got to his feet, padding through to the kitchen as he rubbed the haze of sleep from his eyes. 'I'll make us some lunch and you can have some more. What do you fancy?'

He stuck his head in the fridge, ignoring Sherlock's reply about not being hungry as he glanced over the options. Something small and light would be best, since John was not one hundred percent convinced that the nausea was a thing of the past. Eventually, he settled for some quick-bake crusty bread and chicken soup – more a broth than anything else – clear and inoffensive.

'Have you been awake since this morning?' he asked, tipping the broth into a pan and heating it as the bread cooked in the oven. 'Four hours isn't bad, considering we could barely rouse you twenty-four hours ago.'

'I dozed a bit when I got out of the shower. Not for long. This chair isn't very comfortable.'

'Why didn't you wake me up?' John demanded. 'Or use your bed?'

'I think Mycroft slept in it last night after you got up. My sheets need burning.' Sherlock sniffed, then shook his head as he put the laptop aside. 'And you need rest more than I do. You were exhausted.'

'Sherlock...' John sighed, trapping irritated words behind his lips and swallowing them back. It was a kindness, really, one that his friend had shown him with increasing frequency over the past few months. Empathy for John's weariness and consideration of his needs. Some sociopath. 'You could have used my bed.'

'I'll remember that next time.' Sherlock's voice was rough and warm, closer than John had realised, and he glanced back to see Sherlock had moved to one of the kitchen chairs, his body slumped as he pinged a finger against an empty Erlenmeyer flask. 'Thank you.'

'Common sense,' John replied, still stirring the broth and watching Sherlock with half-an-eye.

'But you don't like other people in your personal spaces.'

'Strangers, Sherlock. I let Lestrade sleep in there, and you're more of a friend than he is. I only complain if you barge into the room like you own the place. Especially at three in the morning when I might be having a nightmare and hurt you by accident.' True, that had only happened once and it had been a semi-emergency of toxic fumes, but the principle still stood.

'While you're waiting for lunch, stand on those.' John jabbed a finger in the direction of the bathroom scales next to their front door. 'Let's see how much we need to feed you up.'

Sherlock eyed the scales as if they were a bear trap, distinctly reluctant, and John eased the heat of the hob down so the broth would not burn. Moving across the room, he picked them up, bringing them into the kitchen so that he could see the display. 'It's necessary. Come on.'

He watched as Sherlock dragged his robe a little tighter around himself, his full bottom lip taking on a petulant pout before he did as he was told. The digital read out flashed for a moment before spelling out its verdict.

'Christ, Sherlock!' John huffed out a breath, glaring at the numbers as if he could will them higher by sheer thought. 'I weigh more than that, and I'm shorter than you. How tall are you anyway?'

'Six foot two.' Sherlock wrinkled his nose at the scales. 'I think I was heavier than that before I was ill.'

'I don't care,' John replied. He was doing the rough BMI calculation in his head and coming up with a number he did not like one bit. 'You might have lost five pounds with the 'Flu, but even before that you would have been too light. As for now, ten stone one is not enough. Bloody hell.'

There was a mutter that sounded like some kind of criticism of Mycroft, and John sighed, turning back to the broth and doling it out into bowls. 'Your brother is not fat. No more than any man who is slightly too fond of cake and has a sedentary job. You only fixate on it because you know it's a weakness of his.'

'One of the few,' Sherlock replied, as if that were a personal irritation. 'I have never been heavy, John. I don't see why you're making a fuss.'

John pulled the bread out of the oven, breaking the mini baguette in half and putting it on Sherlock's plate. 'It's not about being heavy, Sherlock, it's about being healthy. Your body mass index is low, not dangerously so yet, but you need to look after yourself better. A good weight for someone your height and build should be closer to eleven stone than ten.' John frowned before adding, 'at least.'

He watched like a hawk as Sherlock picked at the bread, dipping it in the broth before chewing on it. It was almost impossible for John to stop his mind skating back over mealtimes past, trying to discern Sherlock's eating habits from memory. It was not just that the irritating sod didn't eat during a case – when apparently hunger sharpened his mind – but even in the quiet times his appetite seemed stunted. It could be due to years of neglect. The body was a tunable instrument, at least to some extent. It had probably been existing in starvation mode for far too long. Sherlock's body survived, of course, but it certainly did not thrive.

'You're scowling,' Sherlock murmured, his shoulders shifting as he pulled one of his legs up underneath him, more perching on the chair than sitting on it. 'You're wondering if it's an eating disorder.'

John was already shaking his head. 'Not really. I think it's about being too lazy to eat properly and having a frankly inverted hierarchy of needs. You would probably decide you could do without breathing if it wasn't autonomous.'

'The Work comes first.'

'No, you come first.' John slumped in the chair opposite Sherlock, staring at his own meal unseeingly. Appetite was a tricky thing, different for every person and easily affected by anything from stress to health. 'It's – it's habit, what you do. Something that you've done for years, but quite frankly if you can't solve cases and eat at the same time then you're not half as clever as you think you are.'

Those words slipped out of nowhere, spoken out by the small portion of John's brain that he tended to label as “occasionally cunning”.

'That's not going to work on me.' Sherlock looked amused as he chewed the bread, his eyes sparkling slightly in a way that made John's heart soar. 'Might have more chance if you hadn't spent the last year telling me how amazing I am.' The smile faded, and he picked up the spoon, stirring the broth thoughtfully before he spoke.

'I've always been picky with food. The opposite of Mycroft, who will eat just about anything. Once I was old enough to provide for myself it just – never seemed important. I'd eat, obviously, but one or two missed meals once a week turned into a struggle to remember to eat in a day. I'd get hungry, but it would be gone by the time I actually had time to find food.' He shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. 'Nothing more sinister than being distracted.'

John sighed, eating his own bread as he watched Sherlock sip the soup with a moderate amount of enjoyment. It was not that Sherlock did not take pleasure in a meal once it was set in front of him. He might quibble about it, but childhood finickiness had given way to the sophisticated taste of an adult, merely one who was too involved in everything else around him to remember to eat and who had eventually decided deprivation was no real problem.

'You treat meals like they're a distraction,' John pointed out, 'but if you turned that brilliant mind of yours to the challenge you could eat on a case. For God's sake, we spend almost an hour every day in a taxi. Plenty of time to scoff an apple.'

'Drivers don't like you having food in the cab.' Sherlock smirked at John's sigh, but nodded his head. 'I take your point, but I really can't make promises, John. Food slows me down, diverts blood from the brain...'

'You'll adapt,' John promised, keeping his voice firm. 'Honestly, Sherlock, try, for the next month, to eat the right amount. By the end of that, we'll have a system worked out to make sure you don't necessarily have to stop to eat, and your body will have figured out how to sate your appetite and let you think at the same time.'

He could see the indecision in Sherlock's expression, the unwillingness to let go of old ways and possibly put the Work at risk, and John found himself thinking quickly, trying to come up with something that might appease Sherlock's scientific mind. 'Six small meals a day. It's probably more than you can handle right now, but that means that you'll be constantly digesting.' John smiled, watching Sherlock's eyes narrow thoughtfully. 'Rather than an on/off situation with your stomach and its demands, it will be a constant low level, and you're less likely to get that “need to laze around” feeling after a meal. It should leave your brain free to think.'

God, he sounded hopeful, like a puppy wanting to please its owner, but Sherlock mattered to him. He did not want to dull that diamond mind or drag him down to the standard level, but if there was a way to compromise, then John would seize his opportunity. If Sherlock was not ill and stuck in his care, he was well-aware the detective would never have given him the chance to interfere with his habits. He planned to make the most of it.

At last, Sherlock nodded: a slow, reluctant motion like he suspected the whole plan would fail and was only trying to make John happy, but that was enough. John smiled as he cleared away Sherlock's empty bowl and handed him some paracetamol and lucozade. Unfortunately, getting Sherlock to actually eat was only half the problem. Sustainable weight gain would be slow going, and they would need to start carefully thanks to the 'Flu. Still, at least he had been given permission to try, and that meant he could stop attempting to stuff empty calories into Sherlock by stealth.

'What if I'm honestly not hungry?' Sherlock asked, his low voice inquisitive as John washed up and put the kettle on. 'Are you going to be forcing me to eat regardless?'

'It won't be a problem for long, I imagine,' John replied. 'It's not like I'm going to tie you down and stuff risotto down your throat. It can be something little and light. Even that's better than nothing.' He chewed his lip, wondering if he was about to make a massive mistake. 'If you really decide you can't do it, then tell me and I'll stop trying to help, but promise me you'll give it a chance? Please?'

Sherlock sighed, and John thought he saw the temptation to call it quits flash across his face, but in the end he gave a tiny nod. 'I promise, John.' He rose stiffly from the kitchen chair and shuffled back over to the couch. He did not lie down, exactly, but there was a distinct sag into the cushions. Probably his body demanding rest again, and John carried on with what he was doing, quietly triumphing over small victories.

By the time he had dried the plates and set them to one side, Sherlock had surrendered to his body's needs and wrapped the quilt around his supine form, his eyes already closed and his breathing turning slow and steady. John was left to grab his laptop from where Sherlock had left it, opening up the browser and beginning to research.

Nutrition was not his thing, not beyond the basics, and he found himself quickly absorbing as much information as he could glean. Estimating Sherlock's activity level was a challenge, since some days he would do nothing but lie on the couch and others he would race through London with reckless abandon. Did they average each other out?

In the end he had to work on a best guess situation, calculating metabolic rate and calorie requirements as best he could. Of course, stuffing Sherlock full of doughnuts would fatten him up soon enough, but John would rather aim for something healthy and balanced if he could.

After an hour or so, he sent an email off to an old classmate, one who specialised in diet and eating disorders, asking for some general advice. He was not expecting a quick reply, but was pleased when he received a load of attached meal plans and suggestions. John could not help but grin at her comments about the average adult's poor eating habits. With any luck, he would be able to ease Sherlock gently from the rut of half-starvation he lived in.

By the time John had armed himself with all the information he needed, the afternoon sun was starting to lose its strength. Setting the laptop aside, he began to search the DVD collection for something decent to watch. He was completely lost in his considerations when Sherlock's voice stroked the air, husky with sleep.

'Put on the dark one; the man with the teeth. Pointy teeth.'

John paused for a moment, nearly asking for Sherlock to give him something more to work on before his brain sparked with an answer. That he could guess what Sherlock meant from such a vague description said a lot about how much time they spent in each other's company.

'You mean Sleepy Hollow? The one with the headless horseman, who for most of the film has no head, and therefore no teeth?'

'Yes.' Sherlock grinned as if he thought John had performed a fantastic trick. 'Decapitation makes anything interesting. And he does have teeth, they're just not attached to him for most of it.'

'Of all the films I own, you choose the one with an axe wielding ghost in it.'

'It doesn't try to be too clever, and it's not total drivel.' Sherlock sat up, his hair sticking up at the back as he stretched and made room for John on the sofa. His invitation was blatant, and John felt something twist in his stomach, happy and content but still wanting. Sherlock did not mean anything by it beyond the usual, but it was still something – some kind of privilege – to be allowed so comfortably close.

Watching a film with Sherlock was always a trial in itself. He was never able to simply suspend belief. Instead he seemed to give his compulsion to pick at things free rein. Today though, he was more laconic, his comments kept to quiet, intimate murmurs that made John laugh. Deductions about characters and the actors beneath their masks were put forth without any kind of urgency, and John found himself relaxing easily, Sherlock's long, lean heat at his side, shoulder-to-shoulder.

Outside, the sun went down, and the air coming in from the window took on an icy edge. It felt like too much effort to get up and close it, but before long John found himself abruptly enfolded in the warm, feathery bastions of Sherlock's quilt.

'You're getting cold,' Sherlock murmured, leaning a little more firmly against John's side as if to share out his body heat. 'Not much longer. Then you can get tea.'

'Is that for my benefit or yours?'

'Well, since you'll be on your feet...' Sherlock smirked, and John tried hard to focus on what was happening on screen. It was not the easiest thing in the world, because every nerve in his body had suddenly developed an obsession with Sherlock's warmth. Not febrile any more, but something more solid and steady that made John think of lazy mornings in bed.

By the time the credits rolled, he had totally lost track of the finale, and he really could not care less. Perhaps it was wrong of him to steal these tiny moments, to indulge in fantasies when they were clearly the last thing on Sherlock's mind, but he could not bring himself to feel guilty. He had to get his little pleasures somewhere, after all, and this was mostly harmless.

'Do you want to –'

'Shall I get –'

They both spoke in the same instant, and John looked up at Sherlock, his smile faltering on his lips as their eyes locked and held. His breath caught in his chest, suddenly too tight, because he had not realised they were quite so close. All he would have to do was lean up slightly to take that sensual mouth with his own, and his body practically hummed with the urge.

It was like those moments after a chase, when they were laughing and stumbling and the ebbing edge of adrenaline turned into something different. Except this time there were no criminals, just him and Sherlock, whose gaze dropped to John's lips for just a moment, pupils huge and eyes storm grey.


John blinked and the spell broke, leaving him breathless and confused. What had he just seen?

Sherlock was already getting to his feet, saying something about the tea as he shut the window and shuffled over to the kitchen, leaving John to make some vague noise of agreement as his head spun and his heart raced beneath his ribs. That – that – he hadn't imagined that, had he? Had it really got so bad that now he was imprinting what he wanted to see on Sherlock's expression?

No, no, he knew what that was, fleeting glimpse or not. He might not be as good at deductions as Sherlock, but he would have to be senseless to miss the tight, tense feeling in the air between them. And Sherlock's eyes – God.

He swallowed tightly, pushing back the quilt and groping for the DVD remote, going through the motions before he dared a glance in Sherlock's direction. All this time John had been assuming that his attraction was one-sided, helpless and unreciprocated, but a few seconds beneath that gaze was enough to make him question everything.

Sherlock had beat a retreat as if he had been burned, and John's stomach twisted in knots of confusion. It felt like he was missing something – like he had just been blind-sided by the promise of every damn thing he wanted – but there was some kind of catch that he was not aware of.

He almost said something, almost verbalised the endless questions in his head, but caution held him back. John didn't think he was wrong, but the possibility lingered, and if he was mistaken then blurting out “Do you fancy me?” like a teenager would probably obliterate everything they had. At worst Sherlock would look at him in that “humans are strange” way while the closeness they shared became a chasm.

At best...



He blinked, realising Sherlock was holding a cup of tea out to him. Steam wisped from the rim, dancing in the air of the flat, and John murmured an apology, trying to read a hint of anything in Sherlock's expression as he took the mug, but it was as if it had never happened. There was no vulnerability, no uncertainty, just a bit of puzzlement, as if he thought John was the one behaving strangely.

John noticed that when Sherlock sat down again, he kept a bit of space between them. Not much, just a hand-span or so, but it still caught John's attention. Part of him wanted to get close again and see what happened, but he held himself back by force, focusing on the milky swirl of his tea as his mind searched for answers.

He knew how Sherlock pursued a problem. He gathered evidence and data, wringing the world dry until it had surrendered all the possible facts for judgement. Well, Sherlock was not the only one who could deduce. Maybe John could not tell where someone had been by the mud on their shoes, but he still had enough of a brain to know that this required further study.

So, relaxing back into the sofa cushions, John wrapped his hands around his mug and began to observe.

White skin looked like milk against the dark splash of that blue robe, no longer marked by the high flush of fever. A hint of shadow rested under languid eyes, but he had seen them far worse. Sherlock's lips were cinched into a grimace as he flicked to the news channel, his intelligence evident in the flick of his gaze as he took it all in. On the surface, it was as if nothing had happened – as if John had imagined the entire thing.

Except no, that was not right. Sherlock was more tense than normal, not a relaxed sprawl of long limbs but something more tightly wound. It was barely noticeable, but John could see the line of his sternomastoid muscle tautening under the skin: a bow line of strain. His fingers were also clenched tight around the mug of tea, which John belatedly realised Sherlock probably should not be drinking.

So, nervous then? Uncertain, which was frankly unheard of for Sherlock, but then maybe this was one of those few things he could not deduce with any true level of accuracy. Despite his disturbing tendency to answer questions before they were voiced, Sherlock could not actually read minds. He probably had no idea how John felt, or any idea that whatever desire he may feel was certainly reciprocated.

Words caught themselves in a tangle in John's throat, desperate to be said. Things like “You want to kiss me, don't you?” and “It's fine, because I want to kiss you back, actually. Right now. And I don't care if I catch 'Flu as a result.”

'Yoo-hoo!' Mrs Hudson's titter at the door made John's jaw snap shut before he could voice anything. He shut his eyes as the moment slipped away, lost in the flow of time. Cursing silently, John let out a shuddering breath before casting a fragile, false smile over his shoulder.

'I brought you boys some chicken casserole. Enough for a few days as long as you don't keep it next to anything nasty.' She held up the crock pot in evidence, puttering through to the kitchen and looking approvingly at the relatively clean table before smiling back at them. 'You look better already, Sherlock.'

'John has been taking admirable care of me. Thank you, Mrs Hudson,' Sherlock replied, casting a crooked smile in John's direction.

'Well, don't you go rushing off. You'll only make yourself worse. Oh!' Her eyes lit up, and she fumbled in the pocket of her cardigan. 'That nice girl that helps your brother dropped these off earlier.'

She waved a pharmacist bag in John's direction, and he got up to take it from her, checking the label. It was a decent strength course of amoxycillin, and he glanced over at Sherlock. 'You're not allergic to penicillin, are you?'

'No.' Something odd twisted Sherlock's expression, but it smoothed itself away in the blink of an eye. 'I don't think I'll be needing those, though. I've not coughed for hours.'

'Maybe not, but complications can take days to show. I'm happier to have them on hand.' He turned to Mrs Hudson with a smile, lifting the lid from the casserole pot. The waft of fragrance was perfect, and his stomach gave an earnest groan. He and Sherlock had spent the afternoon in each other's company, and the hours had slipped away like water. 'I'll get this warmed up. Do you want to join us?'

'Oh bless you, dear, but no. I've got bridge with Mrs Turner in an hour. You boys look after each other.' She said it with a quick, suggestive twitch of her eyebrows, and John smothered a smile. Clearly, in Mrs Hudson's mind at least, he and Sherlock may as well have been sharing a bed since they moved in. It was just a pity that Sherlock's heart was not so easy to read.

John turned towards the stove, heating the metal Le Cruset pot and the stew within. He did not hear Sherlock move, and only looked up when there was a rasp of paper from the direction of one of the bookshelves. Sherlock was dragging his medical file from its envelope, and John raised an eyebrow as it was thrust in his direction.

'Read it,' he urged. 'I can't be trusted to know what's important and what's not, and I would rather you were prepared than uninformed.'


'I mean it, John. Please?' He ran a hand through his curls, making the riotous tumble even more unruly before he dropped the file on the kitchen table. 'I want you to know as both my friend and my doctor.' His shoulders shifted in a shrug and he looked away. 'It's logical.'

It was, though John hated to admit it. One or both of them often ended up needing medical help after a chase, and being able to give paramedics basic information could be critical. Yet even with Sherlock's permission it felt like an invasion of privacy. Still, if he was honest with himself, it was unlikely Sherlock would ever divulge the information himself. What had he really been expecting? A heart-to-heart?

Except – wasn't that what this was, in a very Sherlock way? Perhaps he was not talking to John about it, but he had not tried to hide or destroy the file. He had called himself an unreliable source, earlier. Was this Sherlock's way of giving him the information without allowing himself to muddy the waters?

'Fine, give it here.' He held out his hand, feeling the smooth skim of the manila card against his palm as Sherlock surrendered his past to John's scrutiny. He did not say a word as he took John's place by the stove, propping himself up wearily against the counter and staring into the stew as if it held the answer to every impossible question.

John watched him for a moment before dropping his hand to the dossier. It was a print out, not the original small wallet crammed full of tissue-thin paper. No doubt Mycroft had taken it straight from the abysmal new NHS system – although some of it seemed to be printed on superior paper: original private practice notes, perhaps.

It was thick, as well, not a few slips of paper but a veritable tome. Normally John would not expect something like this unless a patient had a pre-existing – and ongoing – medical condition.

'You'd tell me if you were dying of something, wouldn't you?' he asked, feeling something complicated shifting around beneath his ribs, heavy and nauseous.

'I'm sure you would have diagnosed me by now, if I was,' Sherlock pointed out softly. 'Most of that is paperwork from various behavioural evaluations.'

'Can I read those?' John watched Sherlock carefully, taking in everything: the peaky wash to his face and the sag of his body, as well as the edge of something uncertain in his eyes.

Sherlock's answering smile was a little sharp. 'If you like. None of them are actually a current diagnosis, though I suspect you knew that already, didn't you?'

'I had my suspicions,' John replied with a smile, flicking back to the beginning of the paperwork and picking up the birth certificate. Medical records were just a life story, after all. No point jumping in half-way through. He scanned through the details, trying to picture Sherlock as an infant. It was almost impossible, although when John's eyes alighted on Sherlock's full name he could not help the disbelieving snort.

'Your middle name is –'

'Don't say it.' Now Sherlock looked agonised, as if he wished he had gone through the entire thing and blocked out that embarrassing detail. 'My first name is adequate proof that my parents should never have been trusted to christen a child.'

'I couldn't imagine you as anything else,' John murmured. 'But Sherlock Byron Holmes? Really?'

Sherlock winced, jabbing at a piece of chicken in the dinner as if he wished he was stabbing at John's head instead. 'Really,' he muttered at last, giving a sniff. 'Mycroft's isn't so bad. Milton. I think my parents were trying to be literary. I really would prefer it if you kept that detail to yourself.'

John smiled, giving a mute nod. Sherlock clearly hated it, although now he was over his initial surprise, John could see that it suited him. There was something about Sherlock – something more than dark curls and melodrama – that was, well, very in-keeping with the thought of Lord Byron.

He skimmed through the details of Sherlock's early life, noticing that the evaluations began promptly. Clearly even from childhood his mother, at least, was very aware there was something different about Sherlock. Not a worried parent, precisely, but a practical one who seemed to want to make sure she was doing best by her son.

'You didn't speak until you were nearly six,' John murmured, reading through the speech therapist's notes which indicated no suspicion of mental disability, hearing issues or development problems – but rather alluded to the kind of intelligence that makes all adults wary when they see it in children: too sharp and cutting.

'I spoke in whole sentences with multisyllabic words straight away,' Sherlock explained, his shoulders shifting in a shrug beneath the robe. 'Mycroft talked enough for both of us anyway.'

'Keeping quiet until you could be sure you were doing it right,' John said, more to himself than anything else. He did not know much about the psychology of the so-called prodigies. Extreme intelligence went hand-in-hand with anomalies in development. Most professionals never knew whether to label such things as troubling, or merely different.

There were a couple of other medical reports, and John paused at one a year later. Just a note from the emergency room about crushed fingers. At first it looked like Sherlock had simply got in the way of a closing door, and then John noticed it was about both hands at once. 'What happened when you were seven?' he asked, waving the page.

The look on Sherlock's face was complicated, half-smug, half-guilty. 'Mycroft happened. He was learning piano, trying to perfect a complicated piece. I didn't play, but I could read sheet music. I thought he'd gone out when I sat down to try it.'

'You played it better than he could?' John winced; he was fairly sure he could see where this was going. 'And he heard you?'

'Slammed the piano lid shut on my hands. The first and last time he ever physically lost his temper with me.' Sherlock flexed his fingers meaningfully. None of them were crooked or obviously damaged, and John had seen them stroke the most beautiful, intricate pieces from the violin with no difficulty. 'He was jealous and frustrated. Neither of us played the piano again after that.'

John bit his lip, thinking over Sherlock's words. It wasn't like he and Harry had not had similar scuffles, although nothing quite so vicious or requiring them to go to the hospital. Sibling rivalry could be terrifying at times, but there was something Sherlock had said...

'You didn't mean for him to hear you. You weren't trying to show him up.' John looked at Sherlock, who was studiously gazing at the casserole. 'You were just trying to be more like him.'

'A passing phase,' Sherlock said with a hint of promise. 'I'm surprised Mycroft did not take that bit out, actually. It doesn't exactly show him in the best light.'

'Maybe he didn't think I'd notice it among the rest, or ask you about it.' John shrugged, flicking to another page about the hospital stay that Mycroft had mentioned after Sherlock's fall into the pond. There were old x-ray films too, and he held them up to the light, wincing at the obvious shadows that marked both juvenile lungs. 'God, you were ill.'

'I don't remember much of it.' Sherlock's fingers fluttered to his breastbone for a moment. 'Just that it hurt to breathe. Stung and burned.' He shook his head, reaching for plates and nudging aside an empty Petri dish. 'How much of this should I have?'

John put the file to one side, closing it up. There would be time enough to read the rest later, as long as Sherlock's permission was not retracted. For now he would rather focus on the man himself. 'As much as you think you can manage. Take some more paracetamol with it. You're starting to shake again.'

'Elevated fever in the evening is not uncommon during recovery,' Sherlock pointed out quietly before he allowed John to guide him into one of the kitchen chairs. 'You worry too much.'

'I think I worry just enough,' John replied, dishing up and getting them drinks and cutlery. 'Was the piano incident the start of the thing between you and Mycroft?'

Sherlock looked around, reaching out to drag the discarded throw across his shoulders for extra warmth as John put the plate of steaming casserole in front of him. 'No. We never did get on that well. He's always been –'


'Interfering. You know how older siblings can be.' Sherlock stabbed a bit of chicken and ate it without much vigour, despite the delicious traces of wine and herbs in the sauce.

'Yeah, Harry was fairly domineering. Still is, when she's sober, but how does your brother go from slamming your fingers in a piano to – ' he gestured to London beyond the window, implying everything from CCTV cameras to world domination. 'He told me he worried constantly; although I have to admit, he's not the only one. You don't exactly live a safe life.'

'He's addicted to control,' Sherlock replied bluntly. 'I'm a piece in his endless game of chess – and one he can't command with any level of success. He hates that. He attempts to exert his will on me at every possible moment. I'm obliged to resist.' This time the smirk was warmer, and it made John wonder if the quarrelling between the brothers was not so much a duel as a game. 'That's what little brothers do, after all. Besides, if I didn't keep him on his toes he would end up fused to his chair.'

'I bet he still feels guilty about the piano thing,' John said. The small event in Sherlock's medical history was sticking with him, a multi-faceted, if painful gem. It told him a fair bit about the humanity of both the Holmes', who seemed to try so hard to hide the evidence of their sentiment.

'Whenever I mention it he says I should have moved my hands more quickly.' Sherlock pushed his food around his plate before eating another forkful and swallowing. From the look of him, though, it was sleep rather than food that his body really craved. 'I don't think he intended to hurt me. He just wanted me to stop.'

'Were they broken?' John asked, gesturing to Sherlock's hands, the fingers of which were moving with easy competence around the cutlery. 'I didn't see any x-rays.'

'Badly bruised. Mummy was furious.' Now the grin was very self-satisfied. 'It was brilliant. I'd never heard her shout at Mycroft so much. She threatened to take away his allowance.'

'I'm guessing you were normally the one being yelled at.' He could picture it clearly, Sherlock as a young boy, all knees and elbows and endless curiosity causing havoc without anything like true malice.

Sherlock nodded, his face thoughtful. 'Never like that, though. I damaged the house, set fire to the lawn.... That kind of thing. I didn't actually hurt any one. I think it shocked Mummy that Mycroft was capable, even if it was an accident.' He met John's gaze, shrugging his shoulders. 'He didn't mean for my fingers to get caught.'

John emptied his plate, thinking of all the times that he and Harry had a falling out. As kids they had squabbled sometimes: hands and fists and nails all brought into play when things got too much. In the end, John had grown up, and Harry?

Harry didn't. Harry lost herself in an addiction she had been developing since she was a teenager, and there was nothing John could do to stop that. He could save lives on a battlefield and follow a dark-haired maniac all across London, but he could not get his sister to give up the bottle.

Sherlock's fingers were warm on the back of his hand, a simple, light touch that dragged him from his thoughts and left him blinking in the light of the kitchen. It was just a tap, no lingering caress, but John found himself wondering what would happen if he turned his hand and caught Sherlock's in his grasp. Would his flatmate pull away, or move closer?

He blinked the question away, held back again by the sullen creep of uncertainty. Instead he forced himself to think as a doctor as he took in Sherlock's appearance. 'You look tired,' John said softly. 'Eat a few more mouthfuls, and then we'll put you to bed.'

'It's not even seven o'clock yet,' Sherlock pointed out, but there was a heavy, fatigued drag to his voice. 'I'm not a child.'

'No, you're a grown up still fighting off 'Flu. Sleep's the best thing for you.' John watched as Sherlock finally obliged, managing another four mouthfuls of chicken before one need overtook the other. 'Come on then.' He got to his feet, holding out a hand and pulling Sherlock upright, taking a quick moment to rest his palm against Sherlock's brow. There was a bit of heat there, but nothing too alarming. Sherlock was still coordinated enough to walk, and he shuffled through to his bedroom and glared at the sheets there.

'Mycroft's slept in here,' he muttered, glaring at his bed as if it had been poisoned.

'For God's sake, Sherlock. He's not got lurgie or anything.'

'He might infect me with Mycroftness.'

'You're being ridiculous,' John said softly, seeing Sherlock's smile. 'And you know it, now get in.' He nudged him gently down onto the mattress, his hands skimming along the silk that sheathed Sherlock's shoulders before he dragged the quilt up to his chin. John did not miss the faint sigh of relief Sherlock gave when his head touched the pillow. His eyes were already shut, his body accelerating rapidly towards the sleep he so rarely indulged in. ''Night, John.'

'Good night, Sherlock. Sweet dreams.'

He reached out, flicking off the bedroom light and leaving the room bathed in the second-hand glow of street-lamps and the kitchen light. It was easier, in the timid illumination, to let the guise of doctor fall away. Sherlock's face looked endlessly serene: a racing mind brought to temporary rest, and John found himself half-breathless at the sight.

His entire body ached with the urge to clamber in next to Sherlock and lie at his side. John's mind could easily imagine the simple pleasure of wrapping himself around that long body, warm and comfortable with the tempting promise of more on offer. A handful of hours ago, he had been certain that such a thing could never be more than a fantasy.

Now there was hope.

John's heart raced at the potential of what could lie ahead. Perhaps he had been mistaken about what he had seen in Sherlock's eyes earlier, back in the living room, but even if it was, John was more than happy to try and discover the truth.

Time would tell where their path would take them, and John fully planned to enjoy the journey.

Chapter Text

An indignant blare from a taxi's horn cut across Sherlock's dreams, slicing apart the tangled mess of nonsensical images that poured across his mind and leaving him to blink at the ceiling. The metropolitan glow of London bathed the white paint, and the clock on the bedside table told him it was inching toward three in the morning. Beyond the bedroom door there was only peace, suggesting that John had gone to bed hours ago.

Heat curled in Sherlock's stomach as the memory of the previous evening bloomed in technicolour detail. His skin tingled and his heart stuttered as he remembered his own gaze colliding with John's and locking there, helpless and beguiled, as if John had put a spell on him with nothing but a glance. He had been so close. A quick duck of his head was all it would have taken to steal a kiss – to finally have a taste – and he had been disastrously tempted.

Sprawling across the mattress and scowling into the blind blackness of his pillow, Sherlock tried to think rationally. Such things had happened before, on cases, usually. The rushing tide of adrenaline offered the perfect excuse for breathlessness and need turning the air tight. Sherlock often used those times to his advantage, allowing just a hint of desire to shine through the cracks in his control: an essential release.

Last night, there was no such veil to hide behind; just the warm sanctuary of Baker Street, and John pressed warm and firm against his side.

Foolish. There was no other word for it. Being unwell had made him clumsy and careless, reducing the meagre distance of friendship to practically nothing. There was a kind of intimacy in John's compassion: a reliability and permanence that Sherlock had never found in anyone else, and it was as if some kind of vow had been made with no acknowledgement from his mind. His body had found its lover, and now it wanted. His flesh was utterly attuned to John's presence and proximity, and his resolve had swayed.

It only lasted for a handful of heartbeats, that mutual exchange of unspoken desire, but while Sherlock was used to reading it from John – bathing in its presence while mourning the untouchable ideal – John had never noticed it in return. Until last night.

Sherlock swore to himself, quiet and vicious. Of course John would choose to be observant at the most inappropriate time, but he had seen the dawn of realisation. He suspected only Mrs Hudson's timely interruption had stopped John from pursuing the matter, and Sherlock was not sure whether to be pleased or disappointed.

It should be a relief, surely, not to have to explain to John why moving their relationship to a new level was such a bad idea? He should be happy that he had not been forced to utter words that would close that door forever, but Sherlock found himself wondering how John would have responded. Would he have agreed, or would he have added some unknown quantity to the equation of the decision?

Would he have been able to change Sherlock's mind?

Sherlock rolled his head to the side, dragging in a sharp, deep breath as a sensation like trapped helium caught beneath his ribs.

It seemed that now he would never know. John had quieted and Sherlock had cast around for something to cause a distraction. The medical file was an obvious choice, eminently logical. However, he could not deny that surrendering the information to John was a kind of test – although he was not sure which outcome he hoped for. Did he want to drive John away from the precipice of change – force him to retreat with the mass of personal knowledge the file contained?

Did he want to draw John closer still, and increase the already firm bridge of understanding that had built itself between them?

The soft, arrhythmic patter of rain on the windowpane added a counterpoint to the waltz of Sherlock's thoughts. The fringes of sleep clung to him still, dipping him in the warm shallows of a doze as his mind continued its orbit around thoughts of John, and the night slipped by.

At last, the activity of his brain outweighed the lethargy of his body, and he eased his feet out from under the quilt, feeling the pile of the carpet beneath his toes as he wobbled upright. A faint groan caught in his throat as he dragged his hands over his eyes and limped towards the kitchen. John would probably sleep for hours yet, but Sherlock usually loved this time of night. It was the darkest hour before the dawn, where London almost slept and the world was be-calmed.

It was a wonderful time for experiments. He could hear himself think in the hush and relish the flash and spark of his theories. Except now the fireworks of his mind were damp squibs, sputtering into embers beneath the fog of illness. Clearly his last medication was a distant memory, and this was his body in its natural, virus-ravaged state.

Still not pleasant, but it was an improvement on the past few days. He would take encouragement wherever he could find it.

His fingers shook as he popped two tablets free of the blister pack, downing them dry and chasing them with a few sips of water. He almost shuffled over to the sofa to assume his standard thinking pose, but something made his gaze linger on the cereal boxes. They had been left in the middle of the table, and Sherlock could not begin to recall if that was John's habit, or if the man was trying to leave a pointed reminder of Sherlock's promise.

Eating. Tiresome. Yet John had seemed so happy with Sherlock's agreement to treat himself better, and the thought of his disappointment made an uncomfortable weight settle in Sherlock's stomach. It was tempting to simply allow others to care for him; to accept food under duress and make sure everyone was aware how pointless he thought it was, but the insincerity of such behaviour tweaked at his mind.

He had given his word to John. For anyone else his promise would be meaningless, but now Sherlock felt compelled to at least try and keep it.

With a sigh, he eased a bowl free from the cupboard and selected a spoon from the drawer, aware of how very noisy preparing food was. With any luck John would be out of earshot, upstairs and lost in the depths of sleep, but that did not stop Sherlock from wincing at the clink of the dish and the hum of the fridge as he retrieved the milk.

He ate without paying proper attention, folded up in John's armchair as he lost himself in his thoughts. Frustration was building like a monotonous vibration at the base of his skull, and this time there was nothing to blame but the weakness of his own body. He was too spent to drag his muscles through the motions of an experiment. Even something as simple as sitting in front of a microscope felt like too much effort, and that left him at the mercy of his mind's roundabout spin.

It was intolerable to be like this when there was Work awaiting his input. Lestrade was no doubt still struggling with the double-murder, becoming distracted as new cases piled up on him. Rather than being able to provide an answer, Sherlock was stuck inside the walls of Baker Street, where proximity acted as a lens and brought all his nebulous feelings surrounding one Doctor John Watson into sharp, discomforting focus.

No. No. He needed to be out there again, just for a little while. He needed one small hour to reconnect with the puzzle, the chase, the game. That would be enough to remove temptation and remind himself of why Sherlock Holmes did not do sentiment.

John would not cooperate. He had already made it perfectly clear that he intended to ensure Sherlock's full recovery. To be honest, Sherlock would not be surprised if he took Lestrade up on the offer of handcuffs to ensure Sherlock did not leave the flat. No, John would need convincing.

With a quick glance down at himself, Sherlock sighed, wondering if he could present a believable image of health. To a normal doctor it would not be a challenge. Sherlock knew enough about illness and anatomy to know what to hide and what to emphasise, but John was above and beyond the mere level of ordinary. He would conveniently fail to pay any attention to a carefully crafted façade and instead see all the weakness that still lingered deep in Sherlock's bones.

The spoon clanked against the bottom of the empty bowl, and Sherlock blinked down in surprise. The cereal was all gone but for that small, inconvenient dribble of milk that always remained at the bottom of the dish. Poor design. Why did they not make bowls with some kind of funnel arrangement to allow that last teaspoon of milk to be consumed? How had this clearly inefficient model become the cereal bowl standard?

Sherlock scowled at himself, leaning forward to place the failure of a dish on the coffee table and shoving his thoughts ruthlessly back on to more meaningful lines. If he could not convincingly lie to John about how he felt, then he would simply have to do everything in his power to make it truth. A seamless pattern of medication would keep the worst of the symptoms at bay, and getting dressed would probably also lead to a small, psychosomatic improvement in health.

Except that if he started clattering around now, he might drag John from sleep. Normally, he had no real qualms about that. John knew what he was getting into when he took the flat, after all. Sherlock had been very transparent about the pitfalls of co-habitation. Yet after John had devoted so many hours to his unflinching care, Sherlock was in no hurry to disturb his slumber. No, he would wait until a decent hour before he risked rousing John.

He glanced back at the bowl on the table, and then over at the croissants that John had left on the surface. It was a miracle that Mycroft had left any survivors. Really, if he wanted one it would be best to eat it now, before his annoying brother put in another appearance. It was not that he was hungry, he just enjoyed the taste.

Sherlock reassured himself of that simple fact as he padded across the kitchen, the throw around his shoulders and his bare toes curling against the gelid linoleum. The pastry crumbled deliciously as he bit into it, his tongue unconsciously darting out to scavenge the crumbs as he glanced back at the table and saw two files resting innocently on the surface. The first was the case file – oft neglected these past few days – and the second was Sherlock's medical notes.

John had clearly not taken it away to read. Did that mean he had got no further than the innocent tangle of childhood injuries and developmental evaluations? Had he not read on through the thick briar of adolescence and young adulthood?

For one brief moment, Sherlock considered hiding it, or lighting the fire and incinerating the damn thing in the grate. Whatever Mycroft might think, Sherlock was not proud of the road his life had taken. That was not to say he was ashamed of it either, as most people probably would be, but the uncertainty about John's reaction was enough to make his stomach twist sharp and hard.

His fingers hovered over the manila cardboard sheathing the papers from sight, the sleek waxed surface smooth beneath his skin. One quick burst of flame and it would all be gone. John was too honourable to seek the information himself, and Mycroft would not attempt the same ploy twice.

A twitch of his wrist was enough to move his hand across to the case file, and he stuffed the rest of the croissant in his mouth as he flicked the pages open. He had given John permission to read his medical notes, and that was not something Sherlock intended to rescind. John would be hurt if the file was destroyed, and that was one thing Sherlock could not consider. Perhaps John would be angry about some of the ill-advised decisions Sherlock had made in the past, but he would rather face that than the lined slump of disappointment in John's expression if he woke up to find the information gone.

It felt strange – this constantly thinking of another person. Sherlock could not even pinpoint when it had begun, but now a good proportion of the decisions he made were cross-referenced not only with his own wishes and obligations, but those of John. He had never realised it could be so easy to accommodate another, or so difficult to exclude them.

Still, if he told John not to read any more, he had no doubt that John would do as he was asked. He was a better man than Sherlock in that respect, and John's loyalty was something he had come to rely on utterly. In that, he had faith.

With a faint sigh, Sherlock removed himself from the kitchen and temptation, tucking his feet up underneath him as he settled in his armchair and pored over the evidence once more. Perhaps now he would be able to find a crumb of inspiration amidst the chaos of Anderson's ineptitude.

Two victims, one probably the killer of the other. Lovers, as evidenced by the photograph from the beer garden. Jealous man, but the crime was not one of passion which was unusual. It was swift, one cut across the throat, as if the murderer had watched too many horror films and thought it was a quick, clean way to do it. He had not wanted to look into the woman's face as she died. He had not been searching for revenge or justice.

The blood had surprised the killer, perhaps, as had the fact that the woman had not dropped dead in an instant. She would have stumbled, possibly fallen forward onto the bed, but the murderer had not struck again. Panicked enough to recoil, rather than lunge forward and attempt another blow.

He had cleaned the body haphazardly, dressed it and dumped it in an alleyway while some other presence had returned the flat to an immaculate condition. Anderson had found nothing except the blood on the ceiling: a match for Sophie Lattimer.

A few hours later the lover was dredged from the Thames. His killing blow quick and clean, knife left in the wound so the blood filled the body cavity. Quick, emotionless, possibly trained? Hitting the heart was not as easy as the media would have the populace believe. The blade had to be angled up and under the ribs. Far too easy to nick a lung instead and be left with a staggering, choking corpse-to-be.

Professional killer seemed unlikely. They tended to dispatch the victim from behind in an effort to distance themselves. Perhaps a medical professional, or someone with some knowledge of anatomy? Molly would have been able to do it with ease, if she were not such a shy creature. He could have done it too, but then he was far from ordinary, and listing himself as a suspect at this point was nothing but detrimental.

Anderson and Donovan might get excited in an unseemly fashion.

Sherlock glanced back at the photo of the two victims, alive and smiling in the beer garden. It was at least five months old. The air was warm judging by the summer style to their wardrobe, and the time-stamp in the corner showed the sky still light at nine thirty-eight in the evening. Somewhere around the Summer Solstice.

A glance at their expressions showed a relationship in decline. Long-term and familiar: boring. The spark was gone on both sides, which meant a love-based crime was unlikely. Sophie Lattimer was killed because she had something that her indifferent lover wanted. Something that had nothing to do with the body or emotion. A material design, rather than a sentimental one.

Money was not the issue, or the place would have been stripped bare. Sherlock's memories of the apartment were not the sharpest, but he clearly recalled the tell-tale signs of a safe, utterly undisturbed, and a jewellery box with the Tiffany brand on its lid.

No, there was another asset, something he was not seeing. And what about the shoes?

'I hoped you'd still be in bed.'

Sherlock looked up, blinking the haze of words from in front of his eyes to see John standing at the bottom of the stairs. The soft, cheap cotton trousers he wore to bed were slung low around his hips, and the t-shirt, long ago stretched out of shape was hanging low at the neck, revealing the strong line of John's collar bone. His hair stuck up at the most ridiculous angle, and the light dusting of golden stubble was just about visible in the glow from the kitchen light.

'Dull,' Sherlock replied, dragging his eyes back to the file in his hands and trying to focus. His mind obliged, but it was as if John's presence had awoken a sixth sense, something kept beneath Sherlock's skin and locked up in his hind-brain. It appeared completely devoted to ascertaining John's precise location in reference to himself. If he were to shut his eyes, he would still know exactly where John was, and probably where he would be in a few seconds or minutes from that time.

It was a surprisingly reassuring sensation. Distracting, though.

'I estimate I slept for almost seven hours, and dozed for a further two. That's more than adequate.'

'It's practically a record for you,' John agreed, and Sherlock could hear the smile in his voice. 'And you ate breakfast.' There was a moment of silence, and Sherlock could feel John's gaze warming the back of his neck. 'Thank you.'

'I believe I made you a promise,' Sherlock muttered in reply, glancing up from the file to watch John pad around the kitchen, all dishevelled and human. He had never realised that having a flatmate could become something like this – little moments of vulnerability couched in the guise of domesticity. Before John had arrived in Sherlock's life, the idea of sharing his living space with anyone was frankly an intrusion. Now, he could not imagine mornings without John there, clattering around in the kitchen, slow and lackadaisical.

'You don't have a great track record with keeping promises, or I wouldn't still be finding human body parts in the fridge,' John replied, 'or suffering your other experiments.'

Sherlock snorted, shaking his head to himself and returning his attention to the file. 'Irrelevant. Hurry up and eat your breakfast, I need to go to the morgue.' He said it quickly, almost hoping he could get John to agree through miscommunication, but the sudden, stark silence from the kitchen suggested comprehension. Not good.

'No. Absolutely not. I mean it, Sherlock.' It was that special voice, the one where soldier and doctor collided into some magical John-chimera of forcefulness. 'You're nowhere near well enough for that. You should be resting!'

Sherlock stood up, flinging the file aside as he shook his head. 'I've slept, I've eaten, I've taken medication! All I need is one hour, John. One hour to look at the corpses and gather some meaningful data and then I will come back to the flat and submit myself to your attentions.' He faltered, realising that sounded too much like a sexual invitation, and hurried on. 'You can coddle me to your heart's content, but for the sake of your sanity and mine, you need to let me out!'

He flapped his hands helplessly towards the window in emphasis, where the winter's dawn was sluggishly beginning, but John's expression was less than convinced. His arms were folded and his breakfast utterly forgotten as he watched Sherlock, his lips pursed tight. 'You'll exhaust yourself and set your recovery back days.'

'You'll be with me. The moment you decide I'm looking too tired, we'll come straight back to the flat. There is still a murderer on the loose, John.' That got his attention. Sherlock could see him wavering. It was there in the downward flick of his eyes and the slump of his shoulders, and his gaze raked over Sherlock's form, no doubt making his own deductions about the state of his health.

'No arguments?'

'I will bow to your superior judgement as my doctor,' Sherlock promised, trying his best to sound sincere.

'I mean it, Sherlock. I'll only let you do this if you swear you'll do as you're told.' John pressed his lips in a thin line before speaking again. 'No running off to the Yard or chasing down one more clue. The minute I think you're flagging, we'll be heading back to Baker Street.'

'Yes, yes, of course.' Sherlock flapped one hand in dismissal as he lunged for his phone, vaguely hearing John sigh as he moved about getting his breakfast together.

Sherlock's fingers flew over the keys, a frown pulling at his face as clumsiness meant he had to go back and correct some errors before dispatching the message to Molly.

Need to see both bodies relating to Sophie Lattimer murder. Be there in an hour. - SH

'Drink this! You need to stay hydrated,' John requested, thrusting another bottle of lucozade in Sherlock's direction. Clearly he had bought an endless supply. With a grunt, Sherlock twisted off the cap, swigging it back as he wandered through to his bedroom and closed the door before peeling off the dressing gown and the clothes beneath it.

The phone buzzed when he was half dressed. Sherlock finished tugging on his shirt, leaving it undone as he reached out, pulling his trousers over his hips as he checked the message.

Sorry! I've been told by Dr Watson and that nice policeman not to let you near the morgue. Heard you're ill? Get well soon :) Mol xxx

'No, no, no!' Ripping open the bedroom door, he waved his phone in John's direction. 'Text Molly and tell her you'll be with me. She's labouring under the misapprehension she can keep me out of the morgue.'

There was a moment of silence, and Sherlock became abruptly aware that he was not as dressed as he could be. The strip of bare skin down his torso felt hot under the brief flicker of John's stare, and his trousers practically dragged at his hips, as if they thought they had better places to be. The brief silence of John's scrutiny was enough to make Sherlock's stomach twist in a distracted way as heat twitched awake between his legs, and he clenched his teeth tight. This, this was exactly why they needed to get out.

John swallowed, giving two quick blinks before he tore his gaze away and focussed intently on his cereal instead. 'If you keep rushing around the house like a maniac, you're going to be too exhausted to go anywhere,' he pointed out, clearing his throat. 'I'll text Molly, but can it wait for thirty minutes? I'd rather not have to rush all across London before I've had a cup of tea.'

Sherlock huffed, glancing at the clock before giving a grudging nod. 'But no more,' he demanded as he turned around and almost fled back through to the bedroom, doing up his buttons with neat flicks of his fingers. He left the one at his collar open before fastening his trousers and reaching for his suit jacket. Socks and shoes came next, and when he briefly caught sight of his reflection, he had to admit it gave a favourable impression. He looked paler than usual, and a little thinner, but not alarmingly so. Unless people actually knew he had been out of his head with fever not forty-eight hours ago, they would not think he was less than well.

Unfortunately, the only person he really needed to convince would see through it all in a second. How infuriating that John could look at a corpse and observe little more than the absence of life, but he could glance at Sherlock and deduce every inch of his health.

Muttering in annoyance, he sorted out his hair before wandering back out to the living room and reaching for the file again. The spark and flash of excitement about the mystery was there, a little more muted than normal, but the paracetamol was doing its job, leaving him mostly free of distracting symptoms. Unfortunately, a glance at the clock showed that he was already at the peak efficiency of the drug, and the effects would soon start wearing off.

Snatching the box from the kitchen surface, he read the instructions diligently, rolling his eyes at the maximum dosage printed across the back of the box. Taking more now was inadvisable and would only make John cross. Better to wait another hour and hope he could ride out the slump. The last thing he needed was for John to decide to turn the cab around before they even made it to Bart's.

He was tempted to lie on the couch as he waited for John to get ready. He could hear the man bustling around upstairs, no doubt drinking tea as he got dressed. However, as well as wrinkling his suit, there was every chance that if he lay down now he would not feel inclined to get up again. Better to keep moving.

By the time John finally clattered downstairs, Sherlock was glaring out of the window at the street beyond, his back ramrod straight and his muscles beginning to nag at him again. Without a word, he reached for his coat, watching John shrug into his jacket and stuff both the tablets and some snacks into his pocket.

'In case you get hungry,' John said when he caught Sherlock looking. 'You're still ill, remember? You need your energy. Do you even know what you're looking for at the morgue?'

'Anything that ties a third person to both victims. There's some element of commonality that we've missed.' Sherlock tugged the scarf around his neck, and handed John a pair of gloves, giving him a pointed glare. 'Your hand will shake less if you keep it warm.'

'Yeah, yeah. Don't you have any theories about this murder?' John's expression slipped to one of concern. 'It doesn't matter if you don't, you've been ill, it's just –'

'I have plenty of theories, that's the problem.' Sherlock opened the door, gesturing for John to go first. 'Ideas are no good when what I want is an answer.'

Their footsteps fell into easy time as they went down the stairs, and John called goodbye to Mrs Hudson, promising they would be back before long as Sherlock stepped outside and hailed a cab. The air was uncomfortably cold, dragging him back to the first night in the alleyway where it seemed to settle in his bones, and he found himself hunching his shoulders as the taxi pulled to a halt at the kerb.

'You sure you're up to this?' John asked, frowning when Sherlock just nodded and climbed into the cab. 'Fine, tell me about them then, these theories.'

It was tempting to say something cutting, to endure the brief cab ride in silence and give himself some time to think. He normally did most of his talking in the flat, either to the skull or John. Now though, he could sense his thoughts were in danger of becoming overwhelming. Too many trails to follow and not enough time or energy for the pursuit thanks to this damn virus.

'It was not about love, neither of them were,' he began. 'Both killings were dispassionate. The second, more than the first. Ms Lattimer's killer was surprised and somewhat distressed by the death throes. Whoever killed the man was disinterested at best.' Sherlock frowned, the possibilities running through his mind. 'There is an asset. Something at least two people want and Ms Lattimer had.' He rubbed his gloved thumb over his lip, switching his focus from looking beyond the window to see John's reflection instead.

'You think working out what that is will lead us to the killer?'

'Possibly. The problem is that a woman of the victim's station could have quite a number of things others might desire: successful job, money, and, it seems, strong family connections...'

'Oh?' John asked, eyebrows raised until Sherlock picked up the paper a previous passenger had abandoned and showed him the headline about the dead heiress, Miss Sophie Lattimer. 'God, Lestrade's going to hate that.'

'It will mean the case is his focus, at least for now. Lattimer's grandfather was an oil Baron, and the family have taken their wealth from one strength to the other.' Sherlock closed his eyes for a moment, wondering how he had missed the connection. 'I should have recognised her. She deliberately distanced herself from the others to make her own way – not an uncommon life path for a woman of her age from a wealthy background and stubborn blood-stock.'

'Stubborn? How do you figure that one out?'

'Oil barons always are. They're the war lords of the modern age. It takes a certain kind of personality to be successful in such a business, and that kind of thing tends to be ingrained through the generations to some degree.' Sherlock straightened up, shifting his weight to ease the ache starting up in his back again as he turned to look at John. 'Besides, I believe I met the family at one of Mycroft's intolerable functions. They were everything you might expect.'

Sherlock scowled out of the window again, recalling a gruff, large man, well-built but not fat with the kind of gaze that weighed everyone's worth. The victim's father, he assumed.

'Anderson's efforts at collecting evidence were desultory at best. The bodies might be able to tell me something useful. Text Lestrade and ask him to drop off any additional paperwork at Baker Street tonight.'

'Your fingers not working?'

'Phone's in my pocket,' Sherlock murmured, rubbing a thumb over the newspaper page as John grunted and obliged. His fingers pecked over the keys with an intolerable lack of speed, and Sherlock leaned in, reading over his shoulder and drawing in a breath through his nose to sigh.

A John-scented breath that made his mouth turn dry and his heart patter uncomfortably. Damn.

'You okay?'

'Just making sure you're doing it right.' Sherlock managed, hoping that those words came out in the right order and did not sound too flustered as he moved subtly away. 'You always take an eternity. What if it was an emergency?'

'Do it yourself next time,' John retorted, slipping the phone away and tweaking the newspaper free from Sherlock's grasp to read over the text. It was all the standard thing, a fair bit of railing at the inefficacy of the police force and bemoaning the crime rate: as if the death of an heiress was somehow more important than anyone else's murder. 'Maybe it was a sibling after her share of the inheritance. Promised the boyfriend a cut?'

'Unlikely, she only has one: a much younger brother by her father's second wife. An eight year old murderer is not unheard of, but quite uncommon. The step-mother would be a more likely suspect.'

'Lestrade's probably working on the family angle, don't you think?' John asked, his voice so easily curious that it made Sherlock smile.

'Yes, I bet he's enjoying every minute of it. Dealing with the elite always puts him in such a wonderful mood.' He could imagine it now, Lestrade tense and uncomfortable in some nouveau riche pile out in the suburbs, trying to do his job around a growing feeling of inadequacy that the Lattimers would no doubt foist upon him.

'Elite?' John snorted. 'They're not landed gentry or anything.'

'You don't need a title to act high and mighty, John, you know that. Besides, opulent surroundings make Lestrade defensive.' He shook his head, watching the approach of Bart's with careful eyes. 'No, I don't think the Lattimers are behind this, not even the simpering second wife. Not unless we uncover something that might have threatened their stability.'

The taxi's brakes squeaked as the car came to a stop, and Sherlock climbed out, slamming the door and handing the driver a couple of notes before striding towards the hospital. John followed, the paper still clutched in his grip as he jogged to catch up. Their footsteps echoed in tandem as they made their way to the morgue, through institutional corridors smelling like antiseptic and desperation until at last the rubber sealed doors parted beneath Sherlock's hands.

Molly looked up, a quick, tight smile skating across her lips as she scurried forward with her clipboard wrapped close to her chest. 'They're ready and waiting for you, but – I mean – are you sure you're feeling all right?'

'I'm fine,' Sherlock said, quickly cutting her off when she opened her mouth again to speak. 'Have you conducted the autopsies?'

'The woman's is here,' she said, handing over the file. 'The man's next on my list. We've been getting a lot of pressure from the family to release the body...'

'It's part of an ongoing investigation. They'll have to take it up with the Met, but I'll doubt they'll have any luck.' Sherlock came to a halt by the first table, waiting impatiently as Molly unzipped the bag to reveal Ms Lattimer's pallid face. The body had already been processed and cleaned, and the Y- incision was neat and bloodless. Molly's work. Sherlock had seen it often enough.

'Where are her things?' he asked abruptly, noticing Molly twitch in surprise.

'I'll get them for you, but you can't take them away. They're going back to the police.'

'Fine. Open up the other one before you go.'

She did as she was asked, murmuring an apology to John as she reached in front of him and parted the second bag to reveal its contents. 'He's called Gareth Winters. A banker, apparently. Not that you would think it from his clothes. I'll get those as well, shall I?'

Ignoring the keen edge to her voice, Sherlock nodded, turning his back on the Lattimer woman. She had told him almost all she could in the alley, though he would give her a second quick inspection before he left. The man, however, was an unopened book, and Sherlock fully intended to read every part of his story.

Taking out his pocket magnifier, he pushed away the growing drone of aches and pains. Every sensation was disregarded in favour of the Work. This was what he did, this was who he was. It was all about the puzzle.

Except that, working in quiet harmony with his focus, there was the gentle, reassuring sense of John's presence: an unflinching warmth within arm's reach.

Back at the beginning of their time together, it would have been distracting. Sherlock knew it would have divided his attention from the mystery in front of him, but now John simply stood there, silent and stable as the jagged edges of Sherlock's mood were smoothed away by the most unlikely symbiosis of companionship.

John was not an inhibitor but a catalyst, driving Sherlock to ever greater heights of brilliance with soft praise and constant belief.

Briefly, Sherlock looked up, watching John's expression crease in friendly puzzlement at the scrutiny. It was an amazing thought, to realise that another person so outside himself could enable him with such ease, and Sherlock found himself folding the idea away in his mind palace for closer scrutiny: another facet of the enigma that was John.

Later. He would make time for that later. Now, the Work was calling, and Sherlock could not fail to answer.

He had a murder to solve.

Chapter Text

Watching Sherlock work should not have been sexy. He was bent over a corpse, his eyes bright and staring as he absorbed every detail it had to offer, yet John could not help but be captivated. It was not even just a physical thing – Sherlock's coat was hiding most of the view after all – it was who Sherlock was that made John feel tight and tense. Just watching him like this, so utterly himself and brilliant with it, was breath-taking.

They lived in the same world. They walked the same pavements and breathed the same air, but John knew he was never going to see the picture that greeted Sherlock's eyes. Oh, his deductions had got a bit better, but it was trickery compared to talent: an apprentice copying the master.

Every day it was like that first time when all John could do was breathe “Amazing!” and try not to sound too much like an idiot.

Abruptly, Sherlock looked up at him, and John's breath tried to escape his chest beneath the sudden pressure of that gaze. It was not a social look. It was not polite, either, but John was immune to that by now. It was the kind of stare that sidestepped all social conventions and just started reading every secret he'd ever had off the back of his skull. Except Sherlock looked a little puzzled and confused, somehow off-balance, and John almost asked if he was all right.

Yet before he could utter a sound, Sherlock's attention was re-captured by the body of Gareth Winters, and it was like it never happened. John was left standing there, a sensible distance away, watching as Sherlock unlocked the mysteries of the murder. The pocket magnifier was in his hands, catching the light and pitching it around the morgue as Molly hurried back in with a couple of clear bags containing clothes and shoes.

'This is everything. I really didn't find much on either of them, but I took a few samples from her hair, and most of what was on him was from the river.' Her lab coat rustled as she shrugged, smiling in John's direction as Sherlock continued to ignore her. 'I'll um – I'll just leave you to it then.'

'Thanks, Molly,' John called out after her, giving Sherlock a half-hearted glare before reaching for a pair of latex gloves and opening the first bag. Sophie Lattimer's clothes still smelled faintly of the alleyway – rubbish and mud – but he began laying them out, keeping his eyes open for clues.

'Anything?' Sherlock asked, his deep voice relatively hushed. It sounded less hoarse today, which John took as a good sign, but there was a faint edge to those words: a bit too tired and strained.

'I've only just started. What about you?'

'Nothing useful.' Sherlock frowned down at the late Gareth Winters as if he was being bland on purpose. 'He was a man who took a surprising amount of care over his appearance. Professional manicure, waxed chest, extensive cosmetic dental work – unnecessary for a banker. Tan-lines suggest he has been abroad in the past three months, shorts and t-shirt, but it was a city break, not a beach holiday. He wore his watch the whole time.' He held up the man's wrist, showing John the clear band of pale skin.

John retrieved a Rolex from the bag, its hands stopped at nearly four and a few drops of Thames water trapped behind the face. 'This one?'

'Exactly, you would not risk getting sand or sea water in a watch that cost more than twenty-thousand pounds by leaving it on.' Sherlock took the watch, tipping it to the light before looking at the inside of the strap. 'Well-cared for. It constituted a significant investment at the time of purchase which was last year. What do you want to bet that's when he started working at one of the big banks?'

'Dress to impress?' John asked, tugging the jeans and t-shirt that had been on the body from the bag. 'Doesn't quite match these though, does it?' He checked the labels, turning them around for Sherlock to see. 'Topman.'

The expression that flickered across Sherlock's face could only be described as disgusted, and John fought the urge to laugh. Of course, Sherlock knew the full value of wearing the right suit. Nothing he had on today cost under two-hundred pounds. Probably not even his pants.

An image of Sherlock in those black silk boxers he had been wearing when he came down with the 'Flu crossed John's mind, and he swallowed tightly, trying not to let heat flood his face as he turned away. 'Bit odd, isn't it? Two people with serious amounts of money to their name found dead in high street clothes.'

'Yes and no.' Sherlock pointed to Sophie, his voice taking on that quick, punctuated tone he used when revealing his deductions. 'Stubborn young heiress distances herself from family to make her own fortune. A high level job requires a sophisticated wardrobe, but she needs to make the clothes last. Buys cheap high street garments to wear at home. The same goes for him.' He gestured to the body of Winters. 'Needs to inspire confidence in his customers for better opportunities and rapid promotion. Sees his self-image as an investment, rather than pandering to his own vanity. This – this is all about status.'

'So why are they dead? Young and successful, but he kills her, or so we think...' John frowned. 'Did he find out she had a big inheritance that she wasn't using? Lose his temper?'

'No. The murder is all wrong. Anger, revenge, jealousy... They're brutal and vicious. Done face-to-face. You want to see the other person suffer.' Sherlock squinted for a moment, head tipped to one side. 'This was something that was just a job. Something he felt he had to do to further his own social standing. A marriage was not on the cards. Their relationship was luke-warm at best. Convenient.'

Sherlock templed his fingers together in front of his lips, leaning back on the desk at John's elbow. He was close enough that his coat was brushing against John's hand where it rested, a rough scratch of wool as John listened to Sherlock breathe. Those eyes stared off into the distance for a few minutes, unfocussed but intelligent, before he turned back to Winters' possessions and picked up the shoes.

'So why dress in your cheap, old clothes and wear new shoes?' He turned them over, exposing the soles, barely scuffed or marked from the pavements. The leather had been saturated from the Thames, but even John could see it was still stiff and relatively uncreased. 'Pass me hers.'

John reached into the other bag, pulling out the woman's shoe and handing it to Sherlock. To be honest, it didn't tell him much: black, cut to leave the toes exposed... wasn't there a word for that?

'Peep-toe sling-back court-shoe. This season. ' Sherlock turned them over, revealing the sole. Again, it was clean, almost immaculate. 'These have not been worn outside. Nor, I imagine, to work. They can't be more than a week old...'

'And she only wore them at home?' John asked, his confusion escalating as Sherlock's lips twisted into a smirk.

'Breaking them in. She was wearing these shoes around the house to increase her tolerance for the fit and allow them to stretch around her feet. Same for him. Gucci shoes, stiff leather... They changed out of their other clothes to make them last, but they were both still adapting to the shoes, and therefore were either wearing them at the time of their murder.' He gestured to Gareth Winters. 'Or had them nearby for the killer to put on their feet. They were rich enough for high-end shoes, but did not get anything bespoke, so they were not a perfect fit.'

'You can get tailor-made shoes?' John asked, glancing down at Sherlock's feet before looking at his own tatty, shop-bought boots. 'Christ.'

The grin curving Sherlock's lips was a beautiful sight, and John felt his body sway inwards. There was a time when he would have held himself back, but he had theories to test as much as Sherlock did, and he shifted a fraction closer under the guise of taking back Sophie Lattimer's shoe. His heart tripped happily in his chest as, rather than back away or increase the distance between them, Sherlock also inched closer, his fingers brushing John's as he handed back the court shoe.

Even better, John did not think it was a controlled, calculated shift. Sherlock's mind was occupied with the information in front of him. He was already dragging the magnifying lamp closer to inspect Winters' Gucci brogue. No, that gesture was all about subconscious trust, and maybe even desire. Sherlock wanted to be close, and John tried to stifle a smile as warm pleasure trickled through him at the thought.

'The average person has one foot at least a half-size bigger than the other, widths vary, and toe lengths can adjust the fit entirely. How people expect to squeeze their unique appendages into mass-market shoes is beyond me.' Sherlock sniffed, then smiled as he tipped the shoe to the light and pointed out a small smear inside.

'However,' he continued, 'it means Winters was probably wearing these shoes at the time of Lattimer's murder. Droplets of blood on the inside of the upper, but are they hers, his, or someone else's? Molly!'

John watched as Molly scurried back in, her face pulled into a frown as Sherlock asked her to run the blood and see if she could match it to either of the victims.

'It's – it's not really my job but –' She hesitated as Sherlock gave her that slow, lazy smile, his head tilted fractionally to the left and his eyes growing intense. John liked to think himself immune to that look, at least most of the time, but Molly was helpless.

'I know, Molly, but you could do it so much more efficiently than the forensics at the Yard.' He pitched his voice just right, and John winced as Molly blushed prettily, mumbling something that sounded like a promise before she set to work.

'I'm surprised you're not doing it yourself,' John murmured, narrowing his eyes at Sherlock. 'You still feeling all right?'

'Doing DNA analysis wastes too much precious time. I have no idea when you're going to drag me back to Baker Street. Delegation is logical.' Sherlock rummaged through the bags of possessions, pulling out a wallet and keys that belonged to Winters. 'The clothes will be useless. Even if he was dressed at the time of the murder, he will have disposed of whatever he was wearing. He had time to return to his apartment between killing Sophie Lattimer and his own demise.' He faltered, and John looked up into a pale, puzzled gaze. 'Didn't he?'

Seeing Sherlock not in possession of all the facts was a fairly unique experience. Of course, John realised, the illness had interfered with Sherlock's internal clock. 'Probably. They found him at the bottom of Southwark Bridge early on Wednesday morning. Sophie was found on Tuesday evening, but she had been dead for longer than that.'

'And Winters had only been in the river for a few hours from the look of him. He was dead or dying when he went in the water, but the state of him tells us he was not killed at the bridge where he was found.' Sherlock whirled back to the slab, his fingers hovering over the fleshy, bloodless contusions on the body. 'He hit several objects while he being carried downstream. Pass me some tweezers?'

John obliged, leaning over Sherlock's shoulders to watch as he pulled some grit free from a deep wound on the temple and held it up to the light, squinting at it as if he could discern its secrets with the naked eye.

'I need a –'

John was one step ahead of him, already holding out a glass slide. The look Sherlock gave him could only be labelled as approving, and John tried not to feel too pleased as Sherlock moved over to the microscope. This kind of thing was happening increasingly often – a synchronisation where John could anticipate Sherlock's next demand before he even made it. It was one of the few times he ever got anything like surprise from Sherlock Holmes, and John knew he should not be so thrilled by that prospect.

He watched those nimble fingers turn the wheel for focus as he moved around the opposite side of the bench. From this angle, he could see the twin circles of light reflected back through the microscope lenses. They bathed Sherlock's eyes as he pulled back, turning irises bright silver as one eyebrow lifted. 'Portland stone. High calcium content with erosion on one cut face consistent with flowing water. Only four bridges across the Thames are dressed in Portland Stone. Tower Bridge is downstream of where he was found and therefore irrelevant. That leaves Waterloo, Richmond or Chiswick.'

John blinked at the flood of information. Even after knowing him so long, he was amazed at the volume of facts Sherlock kept packed away in his brain. 'Richmond and Chiswick are a fair distance upstream. You think he came all that way?'

'From the state of the body, it's unlikely.' Sherlock did not even bother looking over his shoulder at the corpse. 'He would probably be more battered if not dismembered by river traffic and scavenging, but it's not definitive. There must be something more.'

He flicked his fingers through his hair, a quick rubbing motion that John had seen him do before. It was frustration pure and simple, and John's fingers itched to reach out, but Sherlock was already speaking again. 'That contusion on his head is peri-mortem, received at or just after the time of death. If we can isolate the debris, we have his entry point into the river, and possibly his murder scene.'

He set his eyes to the lenses again, and John heard the faint sound of delight pass Sherlock's lips. He knew it well – that almost orgasmic whisper that meant Sherlock had an answer where everyone else saw nothing but questions.

'Concrete is also present. High rubble density, more aggregate than homogeneous but modern suggesting war-time Britain. That rules out Richmond which was built in 1777. The concrete comes from the core which is underneath the cladding. The bridge is damaged and in need of repair.'

Sherlock's fingers beat a quick rhythm on the focus knob of the microscope before he pulled away. If John had not been watching him work, he would have missed his expression entirely, but John saw the flinch of pain tighten those eyes and a faint grimace pull at Sherlock's mouth. It was the sign he had been looking for, one that meant he stopped being a lab assistant and went back to being a doctor.

'Stop,' he said, soft and determined, reaching out without thinking and catching Sherlock's hand in his own before he could move away. 'You've had enough.'

Sherlock made a tight, aggravated noise in his throat, the frown already dipping his brow and his nose wrinkling in distaste. 'But –'

'No, Sherlock.' John kept his voice steady and utterly unrepentant. He was not going to apologise for putting Sherlock's health before the case. As it was, he had been chastising himself for letting Sherlock leave the flat at all. It went against every ounce of better judgement that he had, and he had not been too pleased with his own surrender. Part of him had hoped that Sherlock would be too exhausted before they even made it to the morgue, but he had been proved wrong. Sherlock could push himself to extremes if he wished, but this time John was not about to let him have his way. 'You promised.'

They stood in silence for a moment, watching one another from opposite sides of the lab bench. From here, he could see the stiffness of Sherlock's expression, that mask he used to hide the emotional tells of his thought processes. Yet it was not a completely blank look: there was consideration there in the faint pinch of his eyes as they raked over John's frame, no doubt reading a thousand things that John did not even know about himself.

'All right. Just let me talk to Molly, and then we can go.'

John's left hand twitched, a tight, sudden movement that made his knuckles ache. He had expected everything from outright confrontation to compromise, but surrender? He frowned to himself, pursing his lips. He was waiting for the catch, the trick, the petulance – something to indicate that Sherlock was not actually being as straightforward as he seemed. Was it possible that he genuinely felt too ill to continue?

He watched Sherlock move over to Molly's side, speaking in a quiet voice that John could not quite overhear. Still, he could observe, and he watched all the conscious, calculated ways in which Sherlock moved his body to get her attention: dominant, alpha male things like leaning into her space and maintaining eye contact except for an occasional, well-timed blink.

Forcing himself to ignore Sherlock shamming his way into Molly's good books, John instead focused his mind on the more subtle clues Sherlock's body gave away.

Sherlock was leaning on one hand. On the surface it looked casual, but John could see the leaching of colour on the edge of the palm, turning the skin white. It suggested he was supporting a fair amount of weight on that one hand: the muscle aches had probably returned full force. The throb of his pulse in his carotid also suggested higher than normal blood pressure, but despite that his cheeks were pale. Definitely flagging.

John put the plastic bags to one side just as Sherlock gave Molly that dazzling, victorious smile – not the real one at all, and John wondered if Molly actually knew what Sherlock's genuine smile looked like. He knew it well – knew that it dawned slowly rather than flicking on like a light switch, evolving from a one-cornered smirk to a true smile which showed just a hint of teeth and made Sherlock's eyes glow.

At last, Sherlock turned away from Molly, burying his hands in his coat pockets as he fell into step at John's side. His movements were as controlled and graceful as ever, but as soon as they were in the corridor those long fingers tangled in John's coat cuff, pulling him up short. 'Tablets.'

John sighed, pulling the packet out of his pocket and popping two capsules into Sherlock's palm. 'Can you eat this as well?' he asked, handing Sherlock an apple. Ordering him to do so would do no good, that wasn't what the whole eating thing was about. He just hoped to remind Sherlock that there was a choice other than malnutrition.

'Shouldn't eat in a hospital corridor. You could catch anything,' Sherlock muttered, but he took it anyway, biting into it and chewing in silence. Their shoes squeaked over the linoleum as they traversed the corridors, unravelling the maze of Bart's interior until at last they stepped out onto the pavement. The apple core was thrown with chilling accuracy into an open bin before Sherlock raised his hand, effortlessly flagging down a cab.

'Baker Street,' John told the driver, casting Sherlock a glare as he gave a suffering sigh, but it was his only protest, and John's concern increased.

'You've done something, haven't you?' he asked, frowning at Sherlock's affronted expression. 'I'd notice if you'd stolen a corpse, but I refuse to believe you'd cooperate so easily. Unless you're really ill?' That last bit sounded dreading, even to his own ears. He had feared that Sherlock might set himself back days by insisting on this little outing, but John desperately wanted to be wrong.

'I'm tired,' Sherlock admitted at last. 'More so than I thought I would be. However,' He reached into his coat and tweaked out a couple of files so John could see their corners. 'I did borrow Molly's preliminary paperwork on both victims.'

Relief bubbled through John's body, and he gave a faint huff of laughter. 'She'll notice they're missing.'

'And she won't say a word. Molly likes being helpful; I simply enable her.'

'You use her, Sherlock, and you know it. Are you sure you're okay, though? I don't feel like repeating the events of a couple of days ago because you pushed yourself too hard.'

'That makes two of us. Don't worry, John, I'm not about to keel over again.' Sherlock reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone, his fingers dancing quickly. 'Molly will text me with the DNA results, and I'll get Lestrade to check the bridges.'

John listened to the muffled click of the keys on Sherlock's phone, watching the quick skim of the road and passing traffic as they headed back to Baker Street. By the time they pulled up at the kerb, Sherlock had put his phone away again and was slumped a little in his seat. Despite his protests, he looked fit to drop, and John already had the front door unlocked by the time Sherlock had emerged from the taxi and stopped at his side.

'A bit of sleep might help,' John suggested, reaching into Sherlock's coat and pulling the files free before he could protest. His knuckles brushed against the vee of shirt at Sherlock's jacket collar, and he resisted the urge to let his fingers splay there over the steady throb of Sherlock's heart. 'An hour will make the world of difference.'

'I'm not an infant; I don't need a nap,' Sherlock grumbled, sweeping through the door in front of John and casting the stairs a faintly miserable look before he climbed them. 'A cup of tea will do. Besides, I can't –' The beep of his phone cut across him, and he dragged it free of his pocket again as he pushed his way into the flat, frowning at whatever message Lestrade had sent.

'Something wrong?' John asked, heading for the kettle as his mind raced. Caffeine wasn't enough to keep Sherlock awake, at least not what could be found in a teabag. Maybe if he could just get him to lie still then Sherlock's body would do the rest and take precedence over the whirl of his mind? It was a faint hope, but one John would work with. It was that or force Sherlock to bed, which would not work out well for either of them.

'He is out in Richmond at the Lattimer's town house, chasing pointless leads. Can't he see I'm giving him an excuse to get out of there?' Sherlock huffed in irritation, pacing back and forth across the living room before perching on the arm of the couch and firing off a reply. He had taken off his coat and jacket, and as John watched he put the phone on the coffee table and rolled up his shirt sleeves, each fold precise.

It was so Sherlock, all that efficiency, and John was struck by the overwhelming urge to ruffle his neat lines and throw those chaotic-but-ordered trains of thought into disarray. He rarely got to see Sherlock properly dishevelled, and the desire to run fingers through those curls and put creases in that smooth shirt was almost too much to bear.

Grabbing the tea, he passed it to Sherlock, suppressing a tremor as, for the second time that day, Sherlock's fingers brushed against his own. They lingered for a fraction of a second, the calluses on the fingertips of his left hand oddly rough against John's skin before he shifted his grip and took the cup.

Were they deliberate, those little caresses, or was it Sherlock being his usual absent-minded self? John had sworn to himself that he would observe Sherlock's behaviour and try to find more clues about how he felt, but how could he be sure? Sherlock had always treated personal space like it was optional, and now John was left wondering if he was reading too much into these moments.

If only he could get Sherlock to look at him again, to see the same heart-stopping desire he had glimpsed the night before. That, he could believe and read with ease, but there had been nothing so obvious in Sherlock's gaze, and now the git was staring at his cup of tea as if he fully planned to read the answer to the case in the tea leaves.

Not that he would have much luck there, since John had used a teabag.

'If the Lattimers are in any way behind it, they won't be forthcoming. Whether they are guilty or not, Lestrade will leave that place wanting to pin the blame on them.'

'He doesn't do that, you know. Greg's a good guy. He can put his personal feelings aside when it comes to a case,' John muttered.

'Can he?' Sherlock mused before glancing up. 'It's irrelevant anyway. Whoever killed Winters was better at it than he was. They knew that by throwing him into the river they would put almost all evidence into question. There will probably be too much contamination.'

Sherlock touched his fingers to his lip, just for a moment, his wrist twisting delicately as he did so. It was a pensive gesture, one John had not seen him use before, and John watched, fascinated, before he realised what it looked like. It was the same movement Sherlock would use when inhaling from a cigarette. It seemed he was experiencing his Pavlovian response to a case: a nicotine craving.

'You'll have to do without,' John muttered, gripping Sherlock's arm without thinking and watching the distracted gaze take on more focus. 'No cigarettes, no nicotine patches. It's the last thing your body needs.'

Sherlock blinked down at where John's fingers manacled the slender girth of his wrist, and John belatedly realised he was rubbing his thumb against the vulnerable underside, his flesh alarmingly brown against the pallid skin.

He almost retreated, but before he could move Sherlock's hand twisted, grabbing John's palm and urging him down until he was perched on their much abused coffee table. Putting down his tea, Sherlock slid down to sit on the sofa so that the points of their knees were pressed together, their feet sharing space like a waltz gone wrong as he propped his elbows on his knees and began to speak.

'It's turned into a two patch problem, John. Completely unexpected. The grit in Winters' head suggests he hit the foot of the bridge with some force at around the time of his death. It did not bleed much at all because of the already fatal wound to his heart.' Sherlock rubbed his fingertip down the bridge of his own nose, his eyes looking at John but seemingly focussed elsewhere as he continued.

'The angle of the gash and fracture beneath suggests it was sustained during a fall from some height, which indicates he was either dropped over the bridge's edge, or stumbled back and fell, but without more evidence I cannot conclusively say that he was killed there. It's all assumption!' He made a tight, aggressive gesture of frustration, and John grabbed his other hand, holding them both steady.

For a moment, he had thought Sherlock was going to say something else, something less about murder and more about them, but of course, the case was everything right now. That was the way Sherlock was, and despite himself, John would not change that for the world. However, Sherlock working himself into a state about it was not going to do them any favours.

'Assumptions are better than anyone else has got. Occam’s razor, right? The straightforward explanation is normally the right one.' He smiled as Sherlock's face did that twitch that meant he wanted to roll his eyes but thought the gesture was beneath him. 'It makes sense that he was dropped from that bridge, or fell off himself. The alternatives are, what, that he was pushed from a height onto something else made of Portland stone and concrete?'

'The composition of more than three hundred and seventy six of London’s monuments and buildings,' Sherlock muttered. 'It's what I'd do.'

'Well let's assume the killer isn't like you, all right?' John suggested. 'If they are, then we're really in trouble. Unless...'

'Moriarty?' Sherlock's smile was thin and cold, but he shook his head. 'I've already considered that, but it doesn't seem his style. If and when he re-enters our lives, I imagine it will be with a bang, not something like this.'

'Another assumption?' John asked, before shaking the question away. 'All right, not him, then it's just another one of us mere mortals. Do the bridges have CCTV?'

'Waterloo more than Chiswick, though both have some camera presence.' Sherlock gently disentangled his right hand from John's grasp, picking up his tea and draining the mug before he eased back. It was not a quick, sharp bid for freedom, but a gentle, almost clinging departure. The fingers of Sherlock's left hand lingered, drifting across John's palm before he lay back along the sofa, his eyes staring fixedly at the ceiling. 'Data. There simply isn't enough data....'

John sighed quietly, trying to ignore his body's pangs at the distance between him and Sherlock. It had been good, sitting there, face to face and so close he could feel all of Sherlock's warmth. Now there was tepid, empty air pressing down cold on John's frame.

He was tempted to tell Sherlock to ask Mycroft for the CCTV footage, but he could sense that would go down like a lead balloon. Sherlock would probably rather wait for Lestrade to get there than suggest his brother could be helpful.

Sherlock was gone already, lost in his own head with blank, staring eyes, and John got quietly to his feet, taking away the mugs and busying himself in the kitchen. By the time he had washed the dishes and risked another glance at Sherlock, he realised those hands had fallen away, resting flat-palmed on Sherlock's chest. Even better, his eyes were shut and his breathing had turned steady as his body over-ruled his mind. Sherlock would be furious about that when he woke up, but John could only be grateful.

However, that left him trapped, unwilling to do anything that may disturb Sherlock from his impromptu nap, and he found himself looking around the kitchen for inspiration. Before long, his eyes fell on Sherlock's medical file, and he only hesitated a moment before easing one of the chairs out from the table and settling into it.

Part of him felt a little guilty as he pulled the paperwork closer, like he should be doing this while Sherlock was awake and aware, but he had given John permission.

The pages skimmed beneath his fingertips as he found the point where he had left off. The pneumonia appeared to be the last illness worthy of any note, and then the batch of files took on a decidedly different slant. The focus shifted away from the body and moved onto the mix of personality and behaviour.

Sherlock was eleven when he first saw a behavioural therapist, too young for a full evaluation, and as John looked over the notes he could not see anything that could strictly be listed as a symptom. There was no consistency to it. Every session the evaluator would list a different set of potential issues, as if they were trying to fit Sherlock into the right box, and every time the suggested diagnosis changed. Sometimes Sherlock was simply placed at different points on the scales of Asperger's, but as he progressed through adolescence the conclusions grew darker, stepping more towards anti-social personality disorders and psychopathy.

The notes became more frantic and alarmist, but still the contradictions continued. The various professionals never seemed able to agree with each other. It was probably the reason no true diagnosis was ever made. They simply had not been able to decide, and Sherlock had chosen the one he preferred.

Except, well, John was no psychologist, but from the beginning there was only one trend, and that was Sherlock's intelligence. They all commented on it, every single professional he came across, and increasingly they used it as a poor crutch to support their diagnoses. They cited the frail link between high IQ and personality disorder too often for comfort, and all the while it was almost as if Sherlock was just – playing?

John was not even certain what gave him that impression, the inconsistency, perhaps, but it was almost like Sherlock went to every new practitioner with a pre-chosen diagnosis and steered them in that direction. As a child he played up his isolation and a dislike of change, as well as a spectrum of other factors, but through his adolescence it became darker and more vindictive. Spiteful, and yes, arrogant.

He sighed, casting a glance at the man asleep on the sofa. It really would not surprise him if Sherlock had done it for entertainment, yet he stopped going to see anyone just after he turned seventeen. Perhaps he grew bored, or maybe he realised that he could convince others of a personality disorder of his choice without providing the supporting paperwork. Either way, at least John now had solid proof that, while Sherlock had spent far too much time with a variety of psychologists, he had no concrete diagnosis.

As far as John was concerned, he was just Sherlock. Different, yes, but not nearly as alarming as the self-applied label of “sociopath” could imply. Sherlock used that word as a scare tactic, something to keep the rest of the world at arm's length. It worked, of course, or had done, until John had seen through it.

Turning the next page, John stopped, his lips pressing tight together as another hospital admission form swam into focus in front of his eyes. It seemed the evaluations were at an end, and another, far more destructive part of Sherlock's life was beginning.

He was nineteen, and the notes spoke for themselves. Narcotics abuse. The blood panel was enough to make John wince, and he muttered a curse as the image of Sherlock, younger, so much more vulnerable than the confident man he knew today came to the forefront of his vision. The hospital stay had been brief, culminating with Sherlock discharging himself against medical advice.

What followed after that was a mixture of reports, spaced out over the years. Some were from rehab, and John distinctly sensed Mycroft's hand there. He could imagine Sherlock's knee-jerk rejection of the efforts. No, he was the kind of person who needed self-motivation to break a habit. That was precisely what Lestrade had given him. Really, John should buy him a drink, no, a whole God-damn vineyard for that: Thanks for saving this man from himself.

But John had not got to that point, yet, that time of life where Sherlock actually stopped dosing up and stayed clean (or so he hoped). He was still caught up in the endless flow of information, the notes about malnutrition, concern over Sherlock's heart and general health. He was killing himself slowly, and John could see it all unfurling before him in a way that made his throat close hard and tight.

Paper turned beneath his nerveless fingertips, and John's blood steadily turned to ice in his veins. At first glance, this report looked like all the others: another mistake, a wrongly calculated high, but there was one thing different. This time, the staff had seen something more. Perhaps there were clues in Sherlock's behaviour this time, or something else which had not been recorded in the file, but the doctor's notes recorded the simple conclusion they had reached.

What had been a continuing abuse of the human body – a stop-start decline of wasted life – had become something else, and showed John a whole new facet of Sherlock's existence.

“Attempted suicide by deliberate narcotics overdose.”

John's breath choked in his throat, as sharp as broken glass while the truth sunk into his mind like tar.

Sherlock – his Sherlock – had tried to kill himself.

Chapter Text

Before he even opened his eyes, Sherlock knew something had changed. He had not even intended to fall asleep, not when there was a murder to solve, but it seemed his body had other ideas. However, after the brief flash of irritation at his own weakness, he began to realise that more was amiss than simple wasted time.

The flat felt different. When he had shut his eyes, it had been warm and safe, filled with John's comforting presence. There had been lingering touches and things unspoken, things that orbited on the periphery of Sherlock's musings on the case and did not impinge, but thrilled him all the same – a dangerous line to walk.

Had John left? No. Sherlock could still feel him. Yet the sensation of warm sunlight had been eclipsed, turning cold and dark, and Sherlock's stomach clenched with uncomfortable anticipation as he lifted his lashes and turned his head.

John was standing at the window, making Sherlock twist uncomfortably to get a good look at him, obtuse from this angle. His weight was leaning against the wall, not comfortably, but like it was the only thing holding him up, and the mug in his hand shook slightly: the returning tremor a sign of obvious distress.

Perhaps another person would be confused at the change, but Sherlock was nothing if not himself. He might be under the weather and cramped from the nap on the sofa, but he was not an idiot. John had read his medical file while he had slept, and that meant he had been marinating in confusion, concern and a myriad of other sentiments for an unspecified amount of time while Sherlock slumbered on, oblivious.

Quietly, he sat up, smothering a wince as his neck complained. John had heard him of course, he had to. The sofa was a noisy traitor, sighing its relief as his weight shifted. Yet John did not turn around or utter a word. He simply kept staring out at Baker Street, his tea steadily growing cold in his hand.

He was a different man, in some ways. Still John, still an enigma – but Sherlock was interested to realise he much preferred the other John – the one who had moved from being best friend, constant presence, moral compass to someone who caught Sherlock's wrist without thinking, who looked at him like he might vaguely understand, who smiled like Sherlock was just a different, better kind of normal, rather than a freak.

'You were twenty-seven.' John laid the fact down as if it were the most important foundation stone in the world, cut from black marble and gleaming with accusation. 'Twenty-seven, and you tried to kill yourself.'

Of course, John would focus on that. Not the issue of him toying with psychiatrists, who all deserved it for being so inept. Not even for the long road of on-again, off-again addiction that carved its path through his young adult life. He concentrated on that point – which was not even a terminus. That was not where the drug abuse ended, it was just the deepest rut in the path. The one that had shaken all of Sherlock's axles and nearly ended him for good.


John sucked in a breath, and Sherlock cocked his head to one side, watching the fingers of that left hand spasm around the mug. He could see the rigidity of shoulders and spine beneath a grey jumper: overcast like John's mood. Sherlock wanted to reach out and touch, to run his palm up the column of John's back and curl comforting fingers over the nape of his neck. To feel John's warmth, because with every passing second, he grew increasingly cold. Not from fever, but from the uncertain, gyroscopic fear that this was where John brought it all to an end.

John's right hand reached up, dragging over his own face like he was trying to scrub the entire day from existence – as if he was trying to unlearn something – but it was to no avail. Sherlock could only see his profile, the fanned lines etched at the corner of his eyes: retired smile lines, disused now. All of his attention was focused on the tautness of John's jaw and the set of his shoulders, watching for the break.

Yet it never came. John did not spin around and walk away. There were no slamming doors or hasty footsteps as he simply departed, as others had done before him. Instead, John leaned harder against the wall, and Sherlock was left perched on the sofa, feeling as if someone had scooped out his insides and left him hollow.

'Why?' John looked over his shoulder, and Sherlock winced to see those blue eyes looking so lost. There was a faint redness around his lids, though Sherlock was hesitant to deduce that John would have shed a tear over this – something that happened long in the past, long before John Watson and Sherlock Holmes knew one another existed. 'I need you to tell me why, because I don't understand.'

Forthright, of course. Was that not John's way? He was not a man for guile and manipulation. He liked things straight forward, and so he spelled it out for Sherlock. Yet it was not a request to share the information, either, it was almost an order. Tell me because I have to know.

Sherlock rose from where he sat, approaching John carefully. The man did not move or try to maintain the distance between them, he just tipped his head up, bravely maintaining eye contact as if he was afraid to look away. It was not something Sherlock could do, not for this. He could not stare John in the eye and say it, though he was unsure why. Instead he leaned against the wall on the opposite side of the window, him and John separated by the width of the glass and the broad sweep of Baker Street beyond.

It was easy to recall that memory, undeleted still. He assumed other people, if they had the ability, would deliberately kick over the traces, but Sherlock had remembered. It was important. Not an experiment at the time – not an effort to see what dying felt like (not good) – but afterwards he could pretend it was, at least to himself.

Though not to John. It was tempting to be dismissive of it, intelligently opaque, but John could be perceptive at all the wrong moments, as he had proven over the past few days. So, the truth, then. All of it.

'It was a convergence of influences,' he said, speaking to the glass, to the phantomesque pedestrians scurrying about their busy, meaningless existences below. 'A number of things encroaching at once, and the world – my world – went wrong.'

'What things?'

Clearly John was not interested in vagueness or metaphor. No, he was a doctor still, a soldier still; he needed facts. 'Lestrade cut me off from crime scenes in an effort to shake me out of my habit some time previous. I tried, but it was difficult. I had nothing to employ my mind, no way to block out the vast expanse of everything by finding some focus.'

He looked blindly at the white splay of his own hand against the much mutilated wallpaper, trying to breathe as the memory drifted across his mind's eye, a gauzy veil of darkness. 'I had been clean for two months – Lestrade insisted on three – and then my father died.'

John froze a little, a noticeable stiffness like permafrost locking in his muscles. Sherlock could almost hear the cogs turning, the cross-references of any previous mention of Sherlock's father with the conclusion that somehow his passing had been traumatic enough for Sherlock to attempt to follow him.

'Wrong,' Sherlock murmured before John could voice a question. 'You think I sunk into deep grief or some other ridiculous folly, and you're wrong. My father was a brilliant man, but he was petty, vicious, and far from proud of me. We barely spoke to one another, and when we did it was a one-sided diatribe of disappointment.'

He clenched his jaw, still remembering all those hateful, hurtful times. Nothing as straight-forward as outright abuse. That, in a way, would have been easier. No, this was more subtle, more emotional. As a boy Sherlock had revered his father, had strived to be somehow wonderful in his eyes, and it had all been a failure. His father made sure he knew that, even as he slipped from life.

'I was urged to his deathbed by Mycroft and Mummy. They meant well, I suppose, but death is not the great cleanser everyone believes. Its proximity does not change people; it does not make them virtuous. My father wasted his last breaths reminding me why I hated him and, more importantly, why he hated me. It was –'

Agonising, but he could not say that to John. It sounded selfish, somehow. His father had died and, rather than grief and mourning, Sherlock's mind had been consumed with the pain of never living up to his father's expectations. Mycroft had mentioned the “bad days” only yesterday morning, but to Sherlock, there had not been many good ones where his father was concerned.

His father's final wish had been to cause pain, and Sherlock was the target.

'It was the last straw,' he said, swallowing against a knot in his throat. 'There were no cases to occupy me, and no one to remind me that everything my father said was –' He shrugged. 'Irrelevant, even if it was true. I did not react well. Mummy and Mycroft were occupied with his funeral. I waited until after, of course. I would have loved to steal the old man's limelight, but that wouldn't be fair to Mummy. Ten days later I put my drug of choice to its deadlier use.'

'Who –' John paused, clearing his throat around his cracked voice as he licked his lips. 'Who found you?'

'Lestrade and his brand new sergeant, who I had never met before.' Sherlock knew his smile was grim. 'Donovan's never liked me since. They thought it was a standard overdose, everyone did at first, but Mycroft asked the right question at the right time and found out the truth. He has always been irritatingly good at that.'

'Question?' John asked, his beautifully expressive face locked in some of the saddest lines Sherlock had seen in their time together.

'He asked what father said to me. Weeks too late, of course, but he asked all the same.' Sherlock swayed closer to the wall, leaning his weight more fully against it. His knees felt too weak to hold him upright any more, his body exhausted despite just waking from sleep. 'Mycroft never suffered father's disdain. He was intelligent without being strange. Did not know the meaning of recklessness, and could act like a relatively normal human being when required. He was an adequate child, and that seemed enough. I wanted to be more, and yet could never be half as much in my father's eyes.'

Sherlock frowned, thinking over his explanation. Even now, years later and speaking of a man long turned to calcium in his caved in coffin, he felt the need to be clear. 'It was not just my father's words that drove me to it. I had generally distanced myself from people, deeming outside opinion as irrelevant to myself, but –' He gestured in a futile way. 'You've seen me bored. You know how I can be. Back then I was the same but – quieter.'

'No shooting the walls?' John asked, and there was a glimmer of something there – strained humour – which made Sherlock’s lips curl at their edges.

'No gun,' he pointed out, his face falling serious again. 'But no, no shooting the walls. No drugs either, which was what I usually turned to when the moods struck. It was just dark, and cold, and scathing. It was easy to get lost and I - I'd had enough.' He shrugged his shoulders, turning back to look at the cars passing by below. It was easier than looking at John's face. His expression seemed so hurt, as if this one aspect of Sherlock's history had blind-sided him entirely. It only served to highlight how little they knew of each other before their lives had collided so thoroughly.

John moved suddenly, and for a brief second Sherlock's heart squeezed tight with fear. This was it. John had reached his breaking point. Sherlock had finally found out what it took to drive John Watson away from his side.

Yet John stepped towards him, not away, and Sherlock stiffened reflexively as John's arms wrapped around him, twin, strong bands of bone and muscle folding around Sherlock's frame. Not to capture or claim, but just there, reliable and unfailing: John proving to Sherlock once again that the consulting detective did not know everything.

John was hugging him, actually hugging him in a faintly desperate kind of way, and Sherlock briefly wondered who it was meant to comfort, him or John. Surprise made him clumsy, but his arms gradually slid around John's shoulder blades, fingers stroking a soft rhythm down John's back. It was not sexual, though the potential was there. This was about something else – shock and friendship, hurt and healing – as if John were somehow apologising for what Sherlock had experienced.

'You prat,' John whispered quietly, his voice muffled by Sherlock's shoulder, the movement of his lips detectable through the thin cotton. 'You bloody prat. I should have guessed something like that after the whole mess with the cabbie, but I didn't think –'

'The cabbie was different,' Sherlock cut in, pulling back so he could at last meet John's eyes. He was not sure what he expected to see there. Mummy's and Mycroft's had both held the same resigned kind of fear when they had found out, as if they had been waiting for it all along. John's eyes were instead intense, examining Sherlock as if he could pluck an answer to all his questions from his face alone. John, Sherlock realised, looked more understanding than anyone else had ever done, as if perhaps he knew something of the same kind of feeling, that folding inwards darkness that blotted everything out until all you could hear was your own hate.

'You were going to take that pill. I was there. I saw.' John's arms tightened meaningfully, as if daring Sherlock to say otherwise.

'It was the correct one,' Sherlock replied with a strong kind of confidence. He had never been able to prove that, of course, but he was still sure, even now. 'And that was about being right – and a bloody awful, but rather convincing cabbie.' He sighed, wondering if perhaps he should step back from John, but the embrace was far too comfortable: sympathy not pity, understanding not fear, and the scent of John was only serving to ground him further in the earnest solace that was Baker Street and home.

He allowed himself to relax a little further, resting his cheek on the crown of John's head as he stared unseeingly out of the window, his gaze lifted to the cluttered horizon rather than the pavement below. He would never have told John about that day of his own accord: of the hour when he had finally filled the syringe and pushed death into his vein, fully aware of his choice.

He could still remember the hit: not a slow seep, it never was. When he wanted a high, his pursuit was relentless. Yet this was like being struck by a fast train, excruciating. He could still recall the first palpitation becoming a dysfunction, falling into arrhythmia as his heart failed. How the blood in his veins had hurt, no longer a strong current but a confusion of eddies dragged around wrong as the muscle that dictated his life spasmed. He could still bring to mind, in that last moment before the darkness claimed him, how the beat stopped in his chest.

For the first time in his life, there had been silence.

Logically, he knew that Lestrade must have already been there, pulling up at the kerb at Sherlock's old residence. Perhaps even halfway up the stairs, an unwitting guardian angel. He had not meant to visit that day – had no real purpose to be there and had not notified Sherlock of his intention. He had simply materialised and forced an unwilling heart to beat while the ambulance was called. He had been forceful, desperate, two cracked ribs that ached for weeks once Sherlock discovered the world again.

There had been resentment, of course. Failure was embarrassing, regardless of the situation, and Sherlock had not appreciated his one effort being thwarted. Even now that the lowest point was long gone, his pride still prickled perversely at the thought that he had not achieved his goal. Even though he was grateful to be alive, chasing criminals and solving puzzles with John at his side, he could not prevent his faint annoyance at the fact that he had been foiled.

'What happened?' John asked softly, his arms loosening to release Sherlock. Warm hands slid down the smooth cotton of his shirt sleeves, John's fingers cupping bare elbows and stroking along Sherlock's forearms before gripping his hands. John probably did not even realise he was doing it, but Sherlock looked down at the contrast of their skin, soft honey tan – faded Afghanistan – and unmarked alabaster – England's pallor. 'Afterwards, I mean. Did you get help?'

Sherlock looked down into John's face before nodding in the direction of the file. 'It's all in there. Mycroft won't have left it out.'

John looked over at the stack of paper on the table, the covers closed and innocuous. Yet there was something in his face that suggested he was looking at a venomous snake, rather than a simple stack of wood-pulp and ink.

'I'd rather hear it from you,' John replied at last, meeting Sherlock's gaze with trusting eyes. 'I know you called yourself an unreliable source but –' He shrugged, licking his lips before he nudged Sherlock back towards the sofa, sinking into it as if he were exhausted and dragging Sherlock down to perch next to him, one leg tucked up under his body and half-turned to face John. 'I just don't need to read it off a page, that's all.'

Sherlock blinked as John's hands released him, leaving his wrists feeling cold, ugly and exposed. He missed the vibrant heat of John's touch, but he kept that to himself as he pressed his lips together and shrugged. 'The doctors were uncertain. Some suspected depression caused by the drug addiction affecting my brain chemistry, others decided it was grief plunging genetically low serotonin levels into an abyss.' He lifted one shoulder helplessly. In the end the why had not mattered, not even to him.

'I saw a therapist at Mycroft's instruction, who was even more useless than yours. I went back to the drugs –' He looked up at John's sharp intake of breath, knowing his own smile was dark and a little dangerous. 'For a while, anyway. About another nine months, I think.' Admittedly, there was a bit of uncertainty in his own head at that point about the precise time-line. 'Just to prove I could. To prove to everyone that, regardless of their every effort, I was still the one in control of my life.'

'There are better ways of doing that, you know.'

'Like joining the army?' Sherlock asked, but without any venom. It irritated him, sometimes, the gloss of lies people put on their actions. They said they did it for Queen and Country, for justice, truth, honour... but when it came down to it, every decision made was an exercise of control. This is my life to live. My life to end if I choose to do so... He seemed to be the only person who did not attempt to deceive himself in that regard.

John sighed, rubbing his fingers over his forehead. 'What made you get clean after that? You – you are clean, aren't you?'

'Dull.' Sherlock flopped back on the sofa, his neck lying against the arm of the couch. 'You know the answer to that, the second part at least. The first bit, too, if you think about it.'

'Sherlock...' John clearly was not in the mood for deductions. His brow was pinched with a frown, probably still just the right side of concerned, rather than angry, but Sherlock knew better than to push his luck.

'I stopped because I wanted to, because eventually Lestrade grew trusted enough in the force to get honestly interesting crimes – and I could help, if I behaved myself. As for being clean now, you know addicts are never cured, John. They do not wake up to realise they can be never tempted again.'

'I'm asking whether you've given into that since then,' John said softly. 'There's a difference between being tempted and actually using. You know that.'

Sherlock sighed, fixing his gaze on the ceiling as he thought back. Again it was tempting to be ambiguous, because when it came down to it, such things were none of John's business. However, even as that thought washed across Sherlock's mind, he realised how unfair it was. John was not asking because he was being nosy or controlling. He wanted reassurance. He wanted to know that his trust – and it was trust, to live with someone like Sherlock – had not been misplaced.

'No, John. Despite everyone's occasional suspicions to the contrary, I've not been shooting up behind your back. I've not taken anything of that nature for the best part of four years. Although I doubt anyone else would be inclined to believe that.'

For a minute, he could see the battle on John's face. He wanted to have faith in Sherlock, that much was apparent, but no doubt he was thinking of Mycroft's paranoia, and Lestrade's actions during that fake drugs bust that occurred in their first night together. The DI had made it sound like a much more recent problem, something that had puzzled Sherlock for a while, before he wondered if perhaps Lestrade had been testing John, pushing at him to see if he knew what he was getting himself into.

A test John had obviously passed with flying colours, since he was still here.

'I believe you,' John said at last with a fragile smile. 'Same as I believe that if you ever feel like you did back then, you'll tell me. Won't you?'

Sherlock closed his eyes, letting the question wash over him as he gave it careful consideration. The idea of telling anyone, Mummy, Mycroft or even the distantly orbiting Lestrade had been incomprehensible to him all those years ago. Yet now John was sitting there and asking for faith. Trust worked both way, and while John believed in Sherlock, it had to be returned. He had to hope that if he ever found himself back there, then John would act in his best interests, whatever they may be.

'It's not happened again,' he pointed out, opening his eyes to see John's reaction. Yet there was not much to observe. He simply continued to watch Sherlock, his hands interlocked neatly in his lap as if he were trying to keep himself under tight control. 'Not in the same way. Risking my life is not the same as deliberately attempting to end it.' He sighed before struggling upright again, meeting John's eyes for a moment before giving a nod. 'But if I do, I'll tell you.'

John's shoulders relaxed, the hard, straight line of their bearing turning softer, rounder as he let out a breath. His jaw worked, as if there were still a dozen unspoken words lined up on his tongue, but in the end, all that came out was a rough voiced, 'Thank you, Sherlock.'

'The same goes for you. If you – I mean –' Sherlock cursed inwardly. That he could be so articulate about murder and make such a mess of everything else was a source of endless frustration. 'Tell me, if you need to. Ever.'

Now John's smile was stronger and more genuine, clearly somewhat amused by Sherlock's obvious ineptitude at anything remotely pertaining to sentiment. 'I will, thanks. For that, and for telling me about what happened.'

Sherlock watched him get to his feet, drawing a line under the conversation with every movement of his body as he made his way to the kitchen, picking up the medical file by one corner as if it were one of Sherlock's vile experiments and dropping it back into the bookshelf. 'I'm making lunch. What do you want?'

Sherlock made a gruff sound of indifference, watching John with narrowed eyes. Somehow he felt like the issue was not entirely over. He had told John all he could, but there was something uncomfortable lingering in the air still, something that normal people would probably know how to deal with, but Sherlock could only observe.

'Fine, if you don't have a preference then I'll just make whatever and expect you to eat it,' John warned, observing the contents of the fridge and gesturing towards the coffee table with his hand. 'A text came in while you were still asleep, by the way.'

Sherlock glanced at the clock, noticing the hands hovering over two in the afternoon. There had been plenty of time for Molly to get a result from her tests, and a quick swipe of his phone confirmed his suspicion about the sender.

Blood came back a match for Sophie Lattimer. Hope that's what you wanted! Mol xxx

So, Ms Lattimer's blood had ended up on the inside of Gareth Winters' shoe. Assumptions would be so easy at this point, but all that could be accurately deduced was that he had been in her presence at a time when she was bleeding. One sanguine droplet did not a murderer make.

Still, it was the job of the police to actually build a compelling case. All Sherlock could do was point them in the right direction. Winters had killed Lattimer. It was written all over the inferences of the victim, and no doubt the forensics would back it up once the idiots in the labs got around to processing.

A plate nudged his arm, and he glanced at the frankly monstrous sandwich John was offering him. The bread was a mere afterthought in contrast to the filling, and he narrowed his eyes at it.

'No tomatoes,' John sighed. 'And more ham than lettuce. Vegetables are not poisonous. At least not the ones they sell at Tesco's. Come on, a few bites would be better than nothing.' He surrendered the plate, then settled in the armchair, digging into his own lunch with enthusiasm as he flicked on the news.

Sherlock spared a moment to inspect the interior of his sandwich, but the scent of thick sliced ham and creamy butter detoured around his cynicism and went straight to his stomach, which let out a meek grumble of approval. Wonderful. A few regularly spaced meals and his body was beginning to remember that it had a vote in whether or not food was consumed.

He took a bite, his thoughts still darting around the murders before the BBCs red banner caught his attention.

'It's on the news,' John murmured, turning up the volume.

'Sunday. It's a slow news day,' Sherlock replied, frowning as a picture of Sophie Lattimer flashed up on the screen. It was a few years old from the looks of it, but it was the engagement ring gleaming on her finger, almost out of shot, that made Sherlock pause. A modern piece, not classic. Unusual design, possibly bespoke. Very expensive. It made a statement, not just about the woman being spoken for, but about the man who had laid his apparent claim: confident, involved in the aesthetic, ruthless.

Quickly he grabbed his phone, tapping out a message to Lestrade.

Ex-fiancé could be worth investigation. Also, I need to know what you found at Winters' apartment. - SH

'Seen something?' John asked, gesturing back at the TV before the news reader changed the topic. 'You would have thought they would have used a more recent photo.'

'Not necessarily. The family would have provided the image from before her estrangement, and the media will make their choice with care to highlight her victimisation.' Sherlock licked some butter off his thumb before continuing. 'However, the engagement ring is interesting. Not Winters' style at all, and significantly out of his price range even if he had attempted to con her into marriage. It suggests another connection for the police to explore.'

'Marriage isn't a con,' John spluttered, taking another bite of his sandwich as Sherlock shot him a dark look. 'What? It's not.'

'Yes it is. The concept of equality and sharing, of two halves making one whole is a modern invention, as little as a handful of decades old. For centuries before that, it was simply another form of slavery.' Sherlock glared at his phone, willing Lestrade to text him back before he bit grumpily into his sandwich and chewed before swallowing. 'White picket fences and domestic bliss don't come into it. You don't need rings and a certificate for that.'

The chime on his phone had him lunging for it, and he huffed in disbelief as he read the message.

Ex-fiancé? What flat? All information we have says he lived with Lattimer. - GL

'Idiots,' Sherlock hissed, stuffing another bite of the sandwich in his mouth and pitching the phone aside. 'We need to go out again.'

'No.' John gave a thin, insincere smile and shook his head. 'Your trip to the morgue this morning was more than enough. You need to rest.'

'John –'

'No, Sherlock. I mean it. I don't care if I have to sit on you, you're not going anywhere else today.' John put his plate aside, looking for all the world like he intended to carry out his threat. A tremor of electric thrill shot down Sherlock's spine as his mouth went dry. Would John be as heavy as he looked? Were there still army-trained muscles under those innocent jumpers, or had they faded away with the time spent in London? Was he strong enough to stop Sherlock?

Was he fast enough?

'Don't.' John's voice was low with warning, as well as the faintest hint of laughter, as if he could see that Sherlock was considering making a break for the door. 'I let you go to the morgue this morning, against my better judgement. I'm serious, Sherlock, you're not well enough to go racing off all over the city.'

'But I've slept, John. Nearly three hours wasted!'

'It's not wasted, Sherlock. It's called recovering.' Leaning over the armchair, John scooped a couple of files off the floor, 'Look, you've got Molly's pathology reports. Won't that be enough? If you're still feeling all right tomorrow, then we can go wherever you want and I won't say anything to stop you.'

Sherlock frowned, eyeing the proffered documents with annoyance. As if they could contain anything even remotely useful when there was the unsearched domain of Winters' flat to inspect. At last he leaned forward, snatching the paper from John's grasp and leaning back on the couch. John's smile was satisfied, but short-lived as Sherlock shot him a glare.

'I'll read the files, eat some dinner since you'll no doubt insist, and then go wherever I please this evening.' He allowed his voice to drop, becoming deep with promise.

'And really, John, I would love to see you try and stop me.'

Chapter Text

John scrubbed his hands over his eyes, staring blankly at the kettle as it boiled. Too much tea had passed his lips already today, adding a caffeine headache to the twinge in his right leg, but he needed the comfort the warm drink could bring. At least he wasn't limping – not being so obvious as to draw Sherlock's attentions. He felt like one sharp glance of scrutiny might crack him right through.

The afternoon had ebbed away while Sherlock moved between his laptop and the available files on the murders, his mind racing even as his body seemed to lag, his movements less graceful and fluid than usual. John could see the weariness there, trapped within the outlines of that long frame. Sherlock was pushing himself, and any efforts to get him to sit still for a few minutes went unheeded.

So John was left to the fragile, uncertain spin of his thoughts, all of which revolved around Sherlock's earlier revelations. Seeing the truth written in black and white was bad enough, but hearing the reasons, the details, the facts behind Sherlock's attempt on his own life had left John feeling hollow and shaken, conflicted by juxtaposing emotion: his own shifting guilt and a burning hatred for Sherlock's nameless, faceless father.

John's therapist said he had trust issues, but she had never really touched on the compulsive behaviour he had to take care of those around him. It did not matter that he hadn't yet known Sherlock, or that he had been fighting for Queen and Country in Afghanistan, he still felt the thick swarm of blame. Sherlock had been in need, and he had not been there to offer his help, his presence, a listening ear.... anything that could have stopped silver darting into skin and vein to deliver a self-inflicted death blow.

God, it could have been so different. What if Lestrade had not arrived in time? Did the DI even realise how close Sherlock had come to being nothing but a coffin and a gravestone? Did he know – really know – the life he had saved?

The thought made John's next breath shudder between his lips, and he put his hand over his mouth in an effort to suppress the sound. He kept telling himself that it was all right, that they had reached Sherlock in time and he had never turned back to suicide as a choice, but the thought was a pathetic comfort. Like water circling the drain his mind kept coming back, again and again, to how close Sherlock had been to success. If Lestrade had been five minutes later, all this – all this life John had built around Sherlock Holmes wouldn't even exist.

He would just be John Watson, crippled soldier, trying to get through every day like it meant something, and Sherlock would be gone.

He clenched the fingers of his left hand, blinking his eyes quickly before grabbing the kettle and pouring boiling water over a teabag, nudging the dinner plates that were stacked by the sink aside as he did so. This had to stop. A man could drive himself insane lingering on all that could have gone wrong in his life. What he had now, this friendship or – or whatever it was with Sherlock – this was the reality, body parts and all. And if it meant sticking by Sherlock's side until he took his last breath, a friend and nothing more, John would do everything he could to make sure that Sherlock always had him to turn to.

'Got it,' Sherlock muttered from over by his laptop, already unfolding himself from the chair and striding purposefully across the room.

'Got what?'

He grabbed his coat, shrugging it on. 'Nothing. I need to go.'

Sherlock's words shook John to life, stirring him from the morasses of his own dark thoughts. He moved, planting himself firmly between Sherlock and the door, arms folded and his weight shifted slightly onto his good leg. He should have known after Sherlock's thrown gauntlet earlier that day that it would come to this. He had been awarded a compromise. Sherlock had not simply dashed out the door after lunch, but the past six hours had been spent in a fit of activity. Sherlock had paused only for another dose of paracetamol – the last he could have today, which John knew Sherlock would regret later – and a few mouthfuls of dinner.

'No, you're not going anywhere. I mean it.' He lifted his chin, watching Sherlock look at the door before focusing on John's face, his pupils dilating slightly as he stepped forward until they were toe-to-toe. One eyebrow raised a fraction in challenge, and John licked his lips, not allowing himself to waver as Sherlock spoke.

'Is this you trying to stop me?'

'There's no trying about it,' John muttered. Sherlock could loom all he wanted – if he was looking for surrender he would be waiting a long time.

He saw the moment the decision was made, written in the micro-expressions of Sherlock's face. The tightening of the eyes, the faint shift of his weight before he made to duck around John, hand already outstretched for the door handle. However, John was just as fast, grabbing his wrist, spinning them both around and pressing Sherlock's back against the door.

It was all instinct born of too much time spent in conflict, though he did at least have the presence of mind not to slam Sherlock's stubborn self into the wood too hard. Instead he found himself with both hands locked firmly around Sherlock's wrists, pinning them neatly either side of his head so that Sherlock could not get the leverage to break free. His body moved reflexively, lending his weight to keep Sherlock trapped.

In less than a second, John belatedly realised why this was perhaps not the best idea. He was pressed against Sherlock like a matching puzzle piece, slotting in against Sherlock's taller frame with ease. Heat, alive and natural, not feverish, pressed all along his body. The coat had obligingly fallen open to allow him closer, and he could feel the throb of Sherlock's heartbeat: a drugging rhythm near John's collarbone.

'Brute force, John?' Sherlock murmured, his lips curved in a smile. 'Are you going to keep me here all night?'

'I won't have to if you'd just listen to me,' John pointed out, trying to keep his voice level as Sherlock tipped his head to one side: an attentive motion that exposed the column of his throat.

God, this was – he could just stretch up a little and press his lips to the hollow of Sherlock's jaw. Taste that skin and breathe in Sherlock's scent. The thought made John's mouth water and sent his thoughts scattering, and he felt the silence stretching between them as he gazed at the flicker of Sherlock's pulse.

Faster than usual, John noticed absently, forcing himself to shift his hips ever-so-slightly away from the tempting cradle of Sherlock's body. The flutter of Sherlock's breaths also seemed a little quick for normal resting rate. Was it the 'Flu, or...

He glanced up into Sherlock's face, meeting the intense clash of that gaze. The smouldering heat in John's stomach began to glow brighter as he took in the signs: flushed cheeks, parted lips and the gentle unfurling of pupil in the silver pool of that iris.

Attraction. God, it was written all over Sherlock's face for anyone to see, and John's heart banged hard against his ribs as he stared, triumphant and amazed. He knew he had not been wrong! He knew what he had seen on the couch a couple of nights ago, and there it was: an obvious, undeniable encore.

John licked his lips, moving closer without realising it, but something broke through the fugue, making him freeze. Desire was still there in Sherlock's face, utterly unmasked in a way that left John shaking. Yet behind it there was something else – something that had no place in this situation.

Fearful uncertainty.

Quickly, John shifted away, keeping his fingers around Sherlock's wrists but putting space between their bodies as he scrambled to drag his thoughts back into some kind of coherent order. He wanted this, wanted Sherlock, but not if the man himself was conflicted. It did not matter how much his lips burned with the urge to ask questions or murmur his approval, he couldn't bring himself to utter a word. Not when Sherlock was looking at him like that, torn between evident want and dread, clear as day, practically begging John with a single stare to let it slide.

Clearing his throat, John looked away, ignoring the leaden fall of his heart as he spoke in a rush.

'Look, it's dark, cold and pissing it down with rain. You're still ill, and you're going to charge out there anyway. You don't need to be a genius to realise how daft that is.' He sounded almost normal when he said it, and if Sherlock noticed the strain in John's voice then he did not comment. In fact, John could feel the tension in that taller body relaxing, seeping away as Sherlock stopped pushing against John's grip and simply slumped back against the door.

It was a false surrender. John realised it a second too late and grunted as he found himself twisted around until their positions were reversed, the wood of the door hard against his back and Sherlock's hands pressed gently against his shoulders. It was a much less captivating grip than John's had been. He could have broken it easily, but there was something in the line of Sherlock's body, some gleam in his eyes that told John this was more a game than anything serious. Sherlock wasn't trying to stop John from getting away, he was just trusting that he wouldn't.

'I'll be gone an hour, no more than that. Don't you see, John? The case will grow cold –'

'And you'll solve it anyway. You do it all the time!'

'It's not the same.' Sherlock shook his head. 'And we both know that if you don't let me go, I'll simply wait until you've fallen asleep and leave, when it's darker and wetter and colder outside than it is now.'

He would as well. John knew that from months of experience. How many times had he woken up in the morning to find Sherlock conspicuously absent and, more often than not, up to his neck in some trouble or other?

'Christ.' John shut his eyes, his arguments spent. He had neither the strength nor the right to make Sherlock do as he was told, and John was done trying. For tonight at least. 'Fine, Sherlock, but I'm coming with you. At least that way if you keel over there's someone around to drag you home.'

'Of course.'

Sherlock smiled, soft and warm, and John let out a haggard, irritated breath, snatching his coat from the hook and dragging it on, doing it up before he jammed his hands into gloves. He had been played, and he knew it. Sherlock never had qualms about manipulating anyone to get what he wanted, even John, and this time he was too drained to try and out-think the git. He had probably intended John to go with him all along: it was a compromise without cost, and John wished he could feel more anger than grudging respect at the way Sherlock worked.

At least the rest of it hadn't been fake – the heat in his gaze and the flush on his cheeks. Or so John hoped.

Rounding his shoulders, he followed Sherlock down the stairs, content to ride in the cab with the silent whirl of his own thoughts. It was all such a confusing mess. He had been sure, really sure about the honest desire in Sherlock's expression, but now he was second-guessing himself all over again. Sherlock was always three steps ahead of him, racing off while John trotted along behind, and how could he be certain that Sherlock hadn't just noticed his want and started using it against him? It's what he did to Molly, after all.

Except Molly did not receive gentle, genuine smiles or absent-minded touches. Sherlock, in fact, seemed very careful about that. Yet with John it was all so artless, and he couldn't bring himself to really believe Sherlock was setting him up like that. Not when he had seen it so obvious in Sherlock's face, not a carefully calculated mask but something hot and real.

And now that potential lingered between them still, thick like drug smoke, curling its temptation in John's lungs. Sherlock seemed happy to pretend nothing was happening, although a quick glance over at the other side of the cab did not show John a picture of contentment. Sherlock was tense beneath his coat, one elbow propped against the taxi door and his finger curled under his chin as he stared out at London, clearly lost in thought.

Was he considering the case, or did his mind circle closer to home, back to John?

Pressing his lips together, John stared blindly at the taxi floor. It was no good; he was not like Sherlock. He could not be happy to leave this unexplored, whatever it was. He had to put something into words, even if part of him cringed at the thought. Maybe then he would understand why Sherlock had looked at him like that: all want and hesitance.

Not now, though, not with a case looming over them. John felt like he was cheating, putting it off, but Sherlock's distaste of sentiment was intense at the best of times. John doubted he would be remotely tolerant of it at the moment.

His musings scattered as, at last, the taxi came to a halt, leaving them standing on the rain-soaked pavement and looking up at some of London's more impressive flats. John huddled inside his coat, shivering as he stared up at the apartment building in front of them. The cab pulled away with a squeal of tyres, sending spray up into the air to join the rain that dripped miserably from the clouds overhead. Forget Sherlock, he was going to come down with something if they stood around much longer.

'Fine, we're here. Now where is here exactly?' he demanded, rubbing his hands together and falling into step at Sherlock's side as he moved towards the front door.

'Byranstan Court. Where Gareth Winters had an apartment.' Something jangled in Sherlock's hand, and John saw the keys gleaming where they hung from gloved fingertips. 'One of these should let us in.'

'Where did you –' John sighed, shoulders dropping. 'You nicked them from the morgue, didn't you? Lestrade's going to have a fit when he realises evidence is missing.'

'Lestrade is too busy being twisted into knots by the PR disaster that is the Lattimer family to notice. He wasn't even aware Winters had a flat. He thought he lived with Ms Lattimer.'

'That's not an unreasonable assumption,' John pointed out, trying not to feel too shabby. Of course Sherlock would fit in here, immaculately tailored from head to foot and, thanks to his last dose of paracetamol, alert and aware. In comparison, John felt one step up from the homeless: baggy jumper, wet coat, shivering and tired.

'You think not? How about the fact that there was only one change of clothes for Winters at Lattimer's flat? Or that clearly only one end of the sofa was put to long-term use, judging by the distortion of the cushions? I was ill, and I knew that Winters did not live with Lattimer. They were –'

'Fuck buddies?' John asked, taking perverse delight in watching Sherlock squirm at the crudeness of the term.

'Yes,' Sherlock replied as they approached the front door. 'Perhaps that was not always the case, but by this point their relationship had diminished to mutual gratification and not much else.'

The door onto the lobby was unlocked and opened with ease, the fine polished wood and brass detailing giving way to reveal a marbled interior. A porter's desk stood nearby, mercifully empty, but John doubted they would be stopped anyway. Anyone else would look shy and awkward, guilty even, but Sherlock just breezed in and out as if he had every right to be there.

The lift doors parted, allowing them access into the opulent interior of the small space. John tried not to grimace. There was tasteful, and then there was this: a palace pretender. His reflection cast his own face back at him, and he glared at his hair, spiky and dishevelled from the brief exposure to the rain. He flattened it uselessly, just catching sight of Sherlock's faint smirk.

'Don't know what you're smiling at,' he muttered. 'There's CCTV all over the place. All anyone has to do is look and they'll know we've been here. Lestrade will flip his nut and we'll never be allowed on a case again.' He gestured to the camera in the corner of the lift. 'How do you even know what floor we need, anyway?'

'Mail boxes in the lobby. They give away far too much information, especially when they're pretentious enough to have the names of the owner emblazoned on them in gold leaf.' Sherlock flicked his gaze up to the camera before turning dismissively away. 'As for the CCTV, why would the police need to look at the footage from today? Anything of interest would occur around the time of Lattimer's murder.'

'You hope.' John looked around as the lift chimed and the doors parted, leaving them to step into a narrow corridor. Compared to the lavish surroundings of the downstairs, it was a bit of a disappointment. He'd seen hotels with nicer passageways. A thin and slightly threadbare carpet muffled their footsteps as Sherlock swept along, passing the occasional blank oak front door before reaching the correct one. The key slipped into the lock with ease, and John had just enough time to realise that the last camera they had seen was in the lift before the door swung open and revealed the apartment.

Low ceilings and big windows greeted them, the curtains pulled back to show a panorama of street lit London. There was no alarm system to deal with, and John watched Sherlock's expression smooth over as he took in the details.

To John, it looked lived in: a far cry from the show room clarity of Sophie Lattimer's place. There was mail dumped on the table and dishes stacked by the sink. Some dry cleaning had been left over the sofa and the TV was still on standby. The carpet had not been hoovered in the near past – the crumbs alone told that story – and John would bet anything that the loo seat was still up in the bathroom. Especially if Winters lived here by himself.

'What exactly are we looking for?' John whispered, shifting uncomfortably as he closed the door behind them, sealing off the outside world.

'No one can hear you,' Sherlock replied in a normal tone. 'There's no need for stealth.' He flicked on the lights, pushing open the door to both the bedroom and the bathroom before shaking his head. 'It tells us one thing straight away. Winters was not murdered here and then dragged to the bridge. It's highly probable he met his killer there. We're looking for anything that could help us work out who that might be, and to tie Winters in with Lattimer's death.'

Sherlock moved into the kitchenette, and John could hear the open and close of drawers and the rattle of cupboards. Shaking his head to himself, he began to search through the post, looking around helplessly when all it revealed was a couple of bills and a credit card application. 'A few hints would be good, Sherlock.'

'Names, phone numbers... anything like that.'

John sighed, rubbing his hand over his forehead before flicking through a stack of magazines and looking at the pictures on the wall. While the place was much more homey than Sophie's apartment, there was something hasty about the whole set up, as if Winters was only ever really passing through. The city demanded work at all hours, but still, there was something not quite right about the whole thing.

'Got a laptop,' John called, noticing the sleek Mac on the desk in the corner, in front of an executive “I've got a big office and a small dick” leather swivel chair. He tapped the power button, waiting for the device to start and grunting as the screen came up. 'Password protected.'

'I'll take a look in a minute. Check the bedroom.'

Doing as he was told, John sighed, staring around the uninspiring chamber. It looked like every other man's room he had ever seen, right down to the tissues and lotion by the bed. Tangled sheets and a pillow almost on the floor suggested Winters couldn't be arsed to make his bed in the morning, and the socks thrown in the vague direction of a dirty laundry basket suggested he couldn't wait to fall into it, either. There were no photos of girlfriends, and nothing incriminating lay hidden under the bed.

The dressing table was a clutter of hair product and moisturiser – well, Sherlock had said he took an unusual amount of care over his appearance. Contact lenses as well, so Winters had issues with his eyes. The only thing slightly out of place was a brochure for a new apartment complex. Perhaps he was looking to move out soon?

'Anything interesting?' Sherlock asked, arriving abruptly at John's shoulder and narrowing his eyes at the same glossy leaflet.

'Not much. It just looks like a normal flat.'

Sherlock gave him a brief, exasperated glance, the one he always shot at people who patently failed to see things of note. 'If you say so.' He grabbed his phone, snapping a photo of the brochure before turning away. 'It tells me that Winters was working twelve or thirteen hour days at HSBC, probably in investments. He had time for breakfast, but spilled milk on the surface, tiredness made him clumsy. He did not eat here again until take away Chinese, ordered at nine p.m., receipt still on the table.'

Sherlock whirled around, speaking a mile-a-minute as John listened on, rapt. 'He sought sex with Lattimer but did not stay the night. His recycling bin holds junk mail dated consecutively for almost the past fortnight; he was always here to pick up his mail. Perhaps expecting something.' He gestured towards the living room.

'The television is on but rarely watched as indicated by the fact that his Sky plus box is displaying a “hard drive full” warning light. He records his TV shows but never has time to watch them. Probably only switches it on to check the markets and, more than anything, it tells me he probably murdered Sophie Lattimer with a six inch ceramic blade vegetable knife. The only one missing from the full set in his kitchen.'

'That's –' John blinked, shaking his head. 'Brilliant, as always. Where's the knife now?'

'Probably the same place as his clothes. There's no bag in the kitchen bin, so we need to look outside. Rubbish isn't collected until tomorrow morning. With any luck, the evidence will still be –' Sherlock froze, his head cocked to one side in a way that made John's blood go cold. He had heard something.

'What is it?'

'The lift's stopped at this floor. Have you got your gun?' Sherlock asked, sighing when John shook his head. His coat whirled around him as he turned, snatching the wardrobe open and urging John inside before stepping in himself, closing the door all but a crack.

'All the lights are on,' John hissed, his heart beating hard in his chest as he tried not to trip on the shoes underfoot. 'If someone's coming in here, they'll know they're not alone!'

'The element of surprise will be enough,' Sherlock promised, his words barely shaping a breath as he shifted, wincing at the clatter of coat hangers.

There was hardly enough space for one person to hide in the wardrobe, let alone two, especially with Winters' Gucci suits hanging thick on the rail. Sherlock's chest was pressed against John's, the taller man's head ducked in the cramped space and one hand braced by John's shoulder to balance his weight.

They were breathing each other's air as the enclosed space grew humid, filled with the scent of apprehension and adrenaline. The velvet darkness pressed down on John's skin, only marred by the chink of light that splashed itself across the absurd edge of Sherlock's cheekbone, turning one eye bright silver.

A sharp click from the door to the apartment suggested someone had pushed it open and closed it in their wake, and John bit his lip, cursing himself for leaving his gun behind. He had been too intent on keeping up with Sherlock to grab it, and stupidly he had hoped they were going somewhere relatively harmless, like the morgue or the Yard.

Sherlock leaned in, his movements slow and choreographed, drawing not even a whisper from the fabric occupants of their space as he pressed his lips to John's ear. He framed words like kisses against the shell of cartilage and skin, and despite their situation, a delicious tremor trailed down John's spine.

'One male, roughly eleven stone, unfamiliar with the flat. They've not been here before. They're alone.'

John nodded, swallowing tightly as he stretched up a fraction. 'Two against one?'

'Could be armed,' Sherlock replied, and John drew in a deep breath, trying to concentrate on the actual words rather than the dance of Sherlock's lips against his ear. 'You go high, I'll go low.'

Blindly, John reached out, letting his fingers trail over Winters' clothes until he found what he was looking for. A long, thin ribbon of silk, fatter at one end. A tie could make a perfectly serviceable garotte if necessary, and double up as a decent rope to tie up a potential criminal. It was that or throw shoes at the bastard's head.

He could hear the footsteps now, moving with the slow, careful tread of someone who does not think that they're alone. John pursed his lips, timing his own breaths to the steady swell of Sherlock's rib cage until every rush of air was taken in tandem. Sherlock's hair was tickling John's forehead where he still leant close, forced near by the limited space, and John could only stare into the uncertain darkness, counting each passing heartbeat as the stranger drew near.

Abruptly, Sherlock cocked his head to one side, his spare hand moving to circle John's wrist. 'Wait,' he whispered, a faint huff of disbelieving laughter escaping him as the footsteps entered the room. 'It's Lestrade.'

'What?' John asked. 'How can you possibly know? Sherlock!' That last bit was hissed as Sherlock straightened up and stepped out of the wardrobe with a flourish, earning a very familiar cry of alarm, followed by a string of swear words that John had only heard after a strong night of drinking with the DI.

'Detective Inspector, how good of you to join us,' Sherlock said, barely concealing his mirth at Lestrade, who had lurched back against the bedroom wall, one hand against his chest and the other wrapped around a standard issue truncheon. 'Got bored of the Lattimers at last?'

'Fucking hell, Sherlock!' Greg managed at last, sagging where he stood. 'I should have you in cuffs, for trying to give me a heart attack if nothing else.'

John grunted in agreement. That made two of them. One day Sherlock was going to do something rash and irresponsible and get shot for his efforts. He stepped out of the wardrobe, the tie still gripped loosely in one hand as he kicked a shoe out of his way and shot a glare at Sherlock.

'What are you two doing in here anyway?' Lestrade demanded, his gaze flicking down to the tie in John's hand before lifting to the wardrobe as a smirk crossed his face. 'Or don't I want to know?'

John threw the tie aside, shaking his head in disbelief. 'I was going to strangle you with it,' he said flatly. 'We thought you were someone else – a murderer maybe.'

'How did you know I wasn't?' Greg asked, raising an eyebrow as Sherlock sighed.

'Dull. Now tell me, Inspector, what exactly are you doing here? I thought you were in denial about the existence of Winters' apartment.'

'You seriously expect me to get a text like the one you sent me earlier and not start asking the right kind of questions?' Lestrade looked faintly insulted as he pushed himself away from the wall, groping in his pocket for his phone. 'I know how to use Google as well, you know. Once we actually knew Winters had a flat, it didn't take much to find it, nor a great deal to guess I’d find you here when you weren't at Baker Street. What are you doing out, anyway? I thought you were ill.'

'He is,' John cut in before Sherlock could try and brush off the fact that he was still recovering. 'I'm here under protest, and I plan to drag him back home as soon as possible.'

'So what was so important that it couldn't wait until tomorrow?' Lestrade demanded. 'We could have let you look at the place then. Now I have to call a team and secure the scene tonight.' He pressed his thumb against the call button on his phone, throwing Sherlock a quick, dark look before he gave his orders. 'Yeah, Hopkins. I need a scene sweep. Byranstan Court, as soon as you can.'

'We won't be graced with the marvellous presence of Donovan and Anderson this evening?' Sherlock asked, his voice low and scathing.

'No, because the two of them are currently at Chiswick bridge.' Lestrade looked smug at Sherlock's surprise. 'I told you I'd check them, didn't I? So I delegated. They know what they're looking for.'

Sherlock gave a grunt of disbelief, as if he thought it unlikely that Anderson or Donovan would be able to find the bridge, let alone the evidence that might be in the water at its footings. 'If we waited until tomorrow, you might have been searching the local landfill for the murder weapon, rather than the bins outside. Come on.'

He swept out of the room, leaving John to give an apologetic shrug to Greg as they both followed. 'We did our best not to disturb the scene too much. We've got gloves.' He held up his hands in demonstration. 'The only thing we might have contaminated is the wardrobe.' He winced at the sound of that. 'Because we hid in it, I mean.'

'Yeah, okay. I believe you.' Greg's grin faded away as they stepped out of the flat and walked down the hall before entering the close confines of the lift. His face became serious as he gave Sherlock and John an equally hard glare. 'That doesn't make up for the fact that you're on a scene without my authority.'

'It wasn't your scene, yet,' Sherlock pointed out. 'We were simply....'

'Breaking and entering?' Lestrade challenged.

'Looking for our good friend Gareth Winters, who left us a spare key,' Sherlock corrected, digging in his pocket and reluctantly surrendering his prize into Greg's palm.

'A key which you stole from the morgue. I've already had Molly on the phone. It's a challenge, listening to that poor girl trying to tell me you've wandered off with stuff without her actually accusing you of anything.' He dragged a small, clear polythene bag from his pocket and slipped the key inside. 'Is there anything else you took from the flat?'

'Please,' Sherlock scoffed. 'I'm not an amateur, and neither is John. It's undisturbed. Check Winters' laptop. Perhaps you'll find some evidence of something other than a predilection for bestiality. Could be our only clue, considering his phone is conspicuously missing.'

'Bestiality?' Lestrade asked, blinking and giving a tiny shake of his head. 'No, forget it. I don't want to even know how you know. Phone wasn't on the body. It's probably at the bottom of the Thames.' He turned around as the lift came to a halt, depositing them in the lobby. 'Wait here. I need to talk to the porter, let him know what's going on. They gave me a key to investigate, but they'll want to know why there are going to be police crawling all over their building.'

'Get the CCTV footage,' Sherlock suggested, taking his phone from his pocket and frowning at the screen. 'From both here and the bridge. It's probably too much to hope our mysterious second killer was caught on camera, but perhaps someone made a mistake.'

John rocked back on his heels, thinking longingly of Baker Street's warmth. The ebb of adrenaline had left him more tired than before. If Sherlock were at full health he'd be tempted to leave him with Greg and just go home and crawl into bed, but he could not risk it. Worse, he could feel the night stretching out in front of him, one spent outside in alleys and lurking at bridges while the police did their work and Sherlock put the pieces together – Sherlock's promise of “just one hour” turning into an all-nighter.

He blinked, feeling his eyelids burn. God, but he needed hot tea and bed. Everything felt too heavy, from his head to his leaden feet. Only moments near Sherlock lifted him from the drag of it, elevating him to a new level. The hug they shared earlier, the confusing moment against the door... Even crammed in a far too small wardrobe he had felt himself again, awake and alert. Yet now his mind was thick with fog, overburdened with the weight of the day.

A warm hand curled around his wrist, touching skin in the gap between his sleeves and his gloves, and John blinked up in surprise, finding himself the unerring focus of Sherlock's attention. Those expressive eyebrows were pulled into a frown, and John licked his lips, wondering what Sherlock could see.

'We'll just make sure Lestrade's got the evidence from the bins, and then we'll head back to Baker Street,' Sherlock said abruptly, giving John's wrist a quick squeeze before releasing him again.

John blinked, shaking his head in confusion. 'What about the bridges? Don't you want to –?'

'That can wait. Any real evidence there will have been displaced, and I’m sure that the report will be adequate to prove my theories.' Sherlock's voice was casual, almost indifferent, and totally at odds with his earlier, urgent need to leave the flat.

'Are you feeling unwell again?' John narrowed his eyes, trying to pick out any clues in Sherlock's appearance, but there was nothing to give him away. He was standing up straight, poised and elegant, his bare fingertips flying over the keys of the phone as he punched out a hasty text.

'No, John. I'm fine. You, on the other hand, are not. I can't have my doctor falling ill now, can I?'

John shook his head, raising a hand in a dismissive wave before dropping it back to his side. 'I'm okay, Sherlock. Really, just –'

'Tired. You're still recovering from taking care of me, and your generosity in that regard means your sleep schedule is thrown. Add to that the anxiety of reading my medical file and your failed attempts to keep me at the flat, and it's obvious you're overwhelmed.' Sherlock's lips twitched, a tiny, sad little smile. 'The last thing you need is to end up following me all over London while I try and solve this case, and you won't go back to Baker Street alone. Therefore it's only logical that we both go home.'

Sherlock stopped, perhaps expecting John to argue or object, but he had already given his token protest. Besides, how often could he honestly say that Sherlock put him before a case? He would take what he was given and be damn grateful for it.

'Are you two coming?' Lestrade called from where he was waiting by the door, squinting at the rain that rushed down outside. 'This had better not take long, Sherlock.'

'If you'd rather avoid getting wet we can leave it until the morning, and then you can waste days fruitlessly combing the landfill for the evidence you need.' Sherlock strode out into the downpour and turned left, leaving John and Lestrade to follow on his heels. They splashed through the puddles and avoided dripping gutters, the rain steadily seeping through John's coat before they ducked into the narrow alley.

Here the glow of the street lamps was dim and useless. Instead it was the light from Sherlock's torch that pierced the gloom, cutting a bright swathe as it danced over the bank of bins.

'What are we looking for?' John asked. 'Is he going to have bagged it?' He lifted the lid of one of the bins and pulled a face at the smell of week-old rubbish: table scraps, nappies and God knew what else, all barely contained in bulging black plastic.

'It will probably be double or triple-bagged,' Sherlock called, already rummaging. 'It should have been ditched a few days ago, so it's unlikely to be on top.'

'Wonderful,' Lestrade muttered, pulling out some gloves and slipping them on his hands. 'This is just how I wanted to spend my Sunday. First I'm patronised by the most arrogant prick I've ever met, which is saying something, since I know you, Sherlock, and now I'm digging through this mess.'

'Did the Lattimers say anything helpful?' John asked, trying not to look too closely at whatever had just squelched under his hand.

'All mouth and no actual answers,' Lestrade complained, picking up a rag between thumb and forefinger, giving it a critical look before pitching it aside. 'Rich as bloody anything and rude with it. God save me from entitled dickheads.'

John could hear the thick veins of tired irritation running through Lestrade's voice. Part of him thought that there should be some sympathy for the Lattimers. They had just lost a daughter after all, but from the sound of it there had been little in the way of genuine grief during the interviews.

'Back-stabbers, the lot of them,' Lestrade added, 'But I did find out that the ex-fiancé is a man called Michael Monroe. Amicable break-up three years ago. As far as they know all contact had ceased.'

Sherlock had gone still, a brief moment of calm amidst the flurry of activity as he processed that information. 'Interesting.'

He did not elaborate, and John just shrugged when Lestrade looked at him questioningly. He had no more idea what went on in Sherlock's head than anyone else. Most of the time anyway.

At last, with the rain dripping down his neck and soaking through the uppers of his boots, John tugged free one of the bin bags, rousing a thick, rotten, metallic scent from its interior. 'I think I've got something.'

Within moments, Sherlock was at his side, his torch clenched in his teeth as he unravelled the knot and parted layers of black plastic to reveal the bundle of clothes. Wrapped up in their heart was a ceramic knife, watered down streams of blood still present on the white blade.

'This should be enough to prove Winters killed Lattimer, premeditated as well, since he took the knife with him.' Sherlock surrendered the bundle to Lestrade just as the flash of blue lights indicated the arrival of the rest of his team.

'Now we just need to work out who killed him,' Lestrade replied, his brown eyes pinched. 'Don't suppose you've got any leads on that?'

Sherlock's smile was all teeth. 'I'm working on it. Drop off copies of all the relevant files from both here and the bridges tomorrow morning.'

'What about transcripts of the interviews with the Lattimers?'

A moue of distaste twisted Sherlock's lips, but he eventually nodded his head. 'Everything. Somewhere there’ll be a lead that takes us straight back to the killer, and I plan to find it. Come on, John.'

His fingers caught on John's sleeve, a beckoning, plucking motion as John bade Lestrade farewell and picked his way out of the water-logged alley. Out in the open, the rain hammered down, not a few desultory drips between the buildings but a solid downpour. Within moments he went from being damp to drenched-to-the-skin, and he yanked his collar up around his neck as he followed Sherlock past the police cars towards the main street.

Abruptly, a patch of dry enveloped him, sheltering his head and making him look up in surprise. Sherlock had peeled off his coat and was holding it over both their heads, one arm out-stretched expectantly for John to take the other corner. The scarf hung undone around his neck, trailing low as rain drops gleamed in his hair, bright in the headlights of passing cars.

For a minute, John considered rejecting the offer. Sherlock was the one who was meant to be ill after all, but the thick wool was more water-resistant than John's jacket, and the dense fabric was better than nothing against the elements. At last, John reached up, shifting closer to Sherlock's side so they could both claim its shelter as they waited for an available cab to pass.

'Thanks,' John murmured, trying not to sniff pathetically. 'I hate getting caught in the rain. We should get an umbrella.'

'Steal Mycroft's,' Sherlock suggested. 'I've always wondered if he keeps government secrets in the handle.'

'I thought a sword blade.'

'No, Mycroft's abysmal at fencing.'

John tipped his head to the side, a smile quirking his lips at the thought of an idyllic life where fencing was something people actually did. 'Can you fence?'

Sherlock just gave John a sideways glance and that crooked half smile before he stepped forward, releasing his corner of the coat tent and lifting his hand to hail a cab. John was left bundled in warm, heavy wool as Sherlock opened the back door and scooted across, leaving John with plenty of space to clamber in. The cabbie gave a quick nod of understanding at the instruction to head for Baker Street, and John tried not to obviously huddle into the hot draft that escaped the heating vent.

The close warmth of the taxi was perfect, and Sherlock's coat now draped over his shoulders smelled like rain and London, wool and Sherlock, particularly at the collar, which was currently folded down rather than pulled up in a dramatic ridge. It made John relax, sagging gratefully into the seat and trying not to let his eyes slip shut as they sped towards home.

Before he knew it, the engine was idling once more, and Sherlock was thrusting a ten pound note at the cab driver. John struggled free, shivering in the rain and absently clutching Sherlock's coat closer around himself as he hurried to the door, trying to hide in the small overhang as Sherlock let them in.

His feet left wet prints all up the stairs as he staggered into the flat, reduced to uncertainty by whether he would rather have sleep or a hot cup of tea. Thankfully, the decision was removed from his hands as Sherlock plucked his own coat from around John's shoulders and hung it on the hook before repeating the process with John's jacket.

'Go and get into dry clothes,' he instructed. 'I was serious, earlier. Both of us being ill would be a disaster.'

'But I'm the one who is meant to be looking after you,' John protested, frowning when Sherlock just looked pointedly towards the stairs.

At least Sherlock looked almost completely dry, other than his hair, which was sculpting itself into damp curls. His coat had protected him, whereas John's clothes had let water in at the seams, and his trousers (a fraction too long) had soaked up the rainwater like wicks.

Grudgingly, he did as he was told, forcing himself not to limp up the stairs before closing the bedroom door behind him. The heating had not come on yet, and the room felt chilled and damp, not exactly ideal. John quickly got undressed, spreading out everything, even his socks, to dry. It took only a few minutes to throw on his pyjamas and wrap his terry dressing gown around himself, then he grabbed his quilt and headed back downstairs. He could warm up and then return to bed later, once he felt comfortable enough not to shiver all night.

Back in the living room, he blinked at the flames in the grate, smiling as their heat slipped outwards like hot syrup, taking the chill edge off the air. Sherlock was in the kitchen, and John was surprised to see he had changed out of his suit. Though actually, now he looked closer, he could see that Sherlock was not as well as he had claimed. His shoulders were slumped, the blue dressing gown trailing off one shoulder as he stirred two mugs of steaming tea. His face had taken on a faintly grey tinge once more, and John worried at his bottom lip.

'You should have kept your coat,' he said softly, dumping his quilt on the couch and moving closer to rest the back of his cold hand across Sherlock's forehead. 'Paracetamol worn off?'

'Unfortunately, yes,' Sherlock murmured, looking more than a little irritated at the fact. 'I was going to stay up and look at the case files, but...' He shrugged, handing John his tea and heading for the sofa, shamelessly tucking himself under the quilt and leaving some spare for John. 'I don't think I can focus like this. How long until I'm better?'

The “I told you so” was lingering on the tip of John's tongue, but he swallowed it back as he joined Sherlock , reaching for the TV remote and flipping through the channels. 'If you keep charging all over London like you have been, it could take weeks. If you'd rest...' He let the rest of the sentence wither as Sherlock shook his head.

'I can rest when there's no case.'

'Except you don't,' John muttered, dragging the feather quilt up to almost his chin. He kept the hand with his tea in it free and took a sip, feeling the hot liquid warm him all the way down. It was enough to make him take another, and before long the mug was empty. He set it on the coffee table before leaning back with a sigh and watching a blonde woman twitter on about Britain's historic palaces. Documentaries were educational, and Sherlock was less likely to be so utterly scathing about them.

Now, for example, the peace was furling around them, serene and comfortable, punctuated only by the crackle of the fire and the gentle, melodic voice of the presenter. Gradually, the chill was fading, heat spreading through him as the bite of rainy winter receded from his bones. His leg ached less, as did his shoulder. Each blink was getting slower, his eyes taking longer to open, and he vaguely wondered if he should actually get to bed. But no, he did not want to go back to an unwelcoming bedroom when he could be here instead.

John did not even notice the world around him growing fainter, stretching further beyond his reach. Nor did he feel the quilt being tugged up over his shoulder, wrapping him in a soft cocoon.

The last thing he heard was Sherlock's voice, not simply travelling through the air but rumbling beneath his ear and harmonised by the steady rhythm of another's heartbeat.

'Goodnight, John.'

Chapter Text

It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now as Sherlock lay on the narrow width of the sofa with John, he wondered if perhaps he had made an error in judgement. He had a crick in his neck, and his shoulder felt unbearably stiff. He had been comfortable enough last night when, rather than easing himself out from under John's body and departing to his bed, Sherlock had guided John down so that they could both lie in the slender space available.

John had clearly been drained from the day, a washed out shadow of his former self, and while Sherlock might be unaware of other people's needs in general, he could see John's desire for comfort like a flashing neon sign. Sherlock was used to being required, but only when it came to giving out answers and solving a case. To realise that John wanted him, just him and not the electric crackle of his racing mind was – good. Very good, in a way Sherlock could not quite quantify.

And so he had stayed where he was, sharing space and heat and the measured, steady rhythm of his heartbeat as sleep enfolded them both.

Now weak, pearly light seeped in through the windows, washing out the colours of the room. From the dead embers in the hearth to the hideous wallpaper all was grey except the man in his arms.

Asleep like this John was – well – small. Utterly human, completely vulnerable, and totally trusting of Sherlock not to murder him, draw on him or conduct any experiments. Even Mycroft refused to sleep in the same room as Sherlock if he could help it, due to several rather unfortunate incidents over the years. In retrospect, the chopped liver experiment (a cow's, not Mycroft's) had perhaps been a step too far.

Sherlock blinked, his eyelashes whispering against the couch as he bent his head for a better look at John. This close he could see the different tones in John's ruffled hair: blond and ash and hints of grey with one or two incongruous touches of something warmer, like firelight. He could see every line that life had charted across John's face and feel the press of muscles and skin: a living, beating, breathing body nestled against his own.

And one part of Sherlock's was nudging back, rather insistently.

He shifted his hips, trying to ease the pressure and increase the distance, only to freeze as John made a rough, unhappy sound and clamped himself closer to Sherlock's side. One leg slid between Sherlock's before he settled once more, giving a single little snore before falling quiet.

Inch by inch, Sherlock relaxed back into the couch, aborting any effort to move away. It should be an inconvenience, this den of captivity. There was still a case to solve, after all, but for once the call of the Work had calmed itself to a murmur: a promise that all the mystery would still be there when Sherlock chose to return.

He was content to let it wait.

Perhaps he was more ill than he thought. That, at least, could explain this unusual shift in his priorities: an evolution that placed John as being of equal importance to a case. An interesting case, more to the point. Except that, no, this had been happening all along. With the clarity of hindsight, Sherlock knew this was not a sudden alteration, but a steady reformation. John had stepped into his life and, by the tiniest of increments, Sherlock's existence had changed to incorporate him into every aspect.

It had been unintentional, and now Sherlock was fairly certain it would be impossible to reverse, even if he wanted to.

John's breath huffed across the exposed line of Sherlock's collar bone, making his skin tremble in delight. He swallowed tightly, clamping down hard on the sudden flare of heat that washed through his body and twisted the tension between his legs. He had hoped it was simply a matter of nocturnal penile tumescence, or as John would no doubt crassly describe it, morning wood. However, it seemed in no hurry to fade, and was only growing increasingly urgent.

Not that he could really be surprised. It seemed that, despite the cries of his logical mind, his body was willing to betray him. John's efforts to stop him from leaving the flat yesterday should have been irritating: an unwelcome intrusion on his independence. Instead Sherlock had found himself torn between excitement and dread, undeniably aroused by John's proximity and fearful of where it could eventually lead.

A physical relationship was one thing, but Sherlock stood by his certainty that John would expect more. Worse, Sherlock found himself considering it. With others, he had never really made a conscious choice to attempt a relationship, sex had simply flowed into expectations of more, and he had not resisted. It had never ended well, but then he had never really cared if it did or not, at least until now.

John changed everything, but could it really be any different this time? It was one thing to accept how Sherlock was as a flatmate, but as more?

It did not seem likely.

No, his original thoughts still rang true. Changing the dynamic of their relationship was an unwise move, one that would almost certainly lead to disaster. They were friends, just friends, and that was final. His mind was resolute, even if his body and treacherous, oft-ignored heart seemed to be having other ideas.

Taking a deep breath, he inhaled the scent of John's shampoo, tinged now as it was with the lingering fragrance of London, rain and sleep. Automatically, his arms tightened around that compact body, clutching him closer. His neck ached with the urge to bend his head and bury his nose in John's crown, and Sherlock clenched his teeth as he fought against it.

To be frank, the “just friends” argument was looking a bit suspect. Perhaps very close friends might sleep in one another's company, but would they really be entwined so intimately? Erections, he was sure, should not be involved.

Sherlock sighed, closing his eyes as he tried to calm the heady, heated beat that thrummed through his body. Mind over matter, he told himself firmly, although in this case it would be far easier to instil the tyranny of his mental powers if his flesh was not so utterly preoccupied with John's heavy presence. Sherlock could feel him with every inch of his skin: the tickle of hair at his jaw and the weight of John against his left arm. The sharp, hard lines of his shoulder-blades against Sherlock's palm neatly contrasting with the torpid flesh of John's waist beneath the treacherously wandering fingertips of Sherlock's right hand.

They moved on their own, those pads of sensate skin, exploring thin, cheap cotton and stroking beneath to the vulnerable, unprotected curve of John's abdomen. Hair charted a path in a straight line over the ridges of the rectus abdominus, a promise of hardness beneath the soft yield of John's stomach. The dip of his navel was a brief, humid oasis amidst the dry desert expanse of flesh, and Sherlock closed his eyes, swallowing tightly as he forced himself to stop.

This could not go on, this civil war of body and mind, coupled with a heart's frank betrayal. He needed to make a commitment, one way or the other, and hold his position. Anything else was simply torture, both to himself and to John.

John, who was not blind when it came to matters such as this – who had not only seen all Sherlock's unmasked desire when he had him backed against the door but, it seemed, his uncertainty as well. This time there had been no interruptions to temper the flow of words or questions, yet John had held his silence all the same, saying nothing even as the brief flare of joy in his eyes turned cold with confused regret.

Hurting himself was one thing, but causing John pain was quite another: utterly unacceptable.

John shifted again, his arm moving to lie across the dip of Sherlock's waist, the hand clumsily nestling beneath the twisted silk of Sherlock's dressing gown and finding the slim gap between cotton trousers and the t-shirt he wore. Warm pressure, faintly rough, settled over the line of Sherlock's side, and every nerve came alight.

His spine tried to coil and arch as his breath caught in his chest, trapped beneath the bars of his ribs. Goose-flesh raced over his body, followed by the strafe of heat that pulsed outwards only to roil back: waves over the sand sharp edges of his quivering nerves. The dull weight between his legs sharpened, hardened, no longer merely insistent but keening, and Sherlock's voice caught on a whimpered breath.

How long had it been since another person had touched his body, not out of medical necessity but through the desire to do so? He tried to remember, to cast his mind back to the last person he had bedded in the name of an experiment, but the answer eluded him, the simple act of meeting a need deleted once its usefulness had passed.

He was used to death's cool contact, its frigid presence both at his side and around the victims he saw so frequently, but the heat of John's hand was something different entirely. Not new, not exactly, because while the rest of the world recoiled and kept their distance, John drew ever nearer. Yet other than when dressing wounds or treating illness, there was always the barrier of cloth between them, or any touch was limited to the extremities: heat on the borders of Sherlock's existence.

Now John's thumb swept, just once, over the bottom edge of Sherlock's rib cage before settling to stillness once more, and Sherlock could feel his entire awareness narrowing down to the point of contact. Baker Street faded away, the increasing illumination from outside growing meaningless as his senses sank inwards, relishing the beautiful simplicity of feeling. Not a hurried fumble in the dark, driven by lust and desperation, but something more steadfast and constant: John.

Sherlock had never considered himself to be touch-starved. Such things were a requirement of other people; those driven by the needs and demands of their bodies. Yet as he lay there, his entire being taut and attentive, he found himself questioning his previous dismissal.

His mother's love had been sporadic and distant, his father's non-existent, and Mycroft had been raised in the same mould as Sherlock, shunning the body in favour of mental prowess. Yet John had brought with him something more, and the twisting turns of their lives together had led here, to this point, where a simple, innocent caress could reduce Sherlock to so much agonising need.

However, it was a specific thing, a targeted requirement. It was not just any tactility that he wanted, but John's, as if those capable, surgeon's hands were the only ones that fit into the lines and angles of Sherlock's body. As if, even sleeping and silent, he could type in the code that brought Sherlock's flesh into sparking, shivering life, as stunning and kaleidoscopic as the storm of his mind: not mere transport after all.

'I can't do this,' Sherlock whispered to the still air, the admittance of failure shocking, even if it was for his ears only. He was not even sure of what he spoke. Did he mean he could not move closer, or he could not pull away? Both seemed equally impossible, far beyond his capabilities. He could make sense of the most baffling puzzles of civilisation, and yet this, something other people did every day, remained an enigma.

'Can't do what?'

John's soft question stirred the air, and Sherlock felt his body freeze, a violin waiting for the crashing crescendo. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed, his mind racing through the possible answers that lay ahead of him. A lie would be so easy, anything from claiming to be too ill to leave the flat (possibly almost true) to not being able to solve the case (frankly unbelievable), but John was watching him, his blue eyes sleepy yet focussed.

'How long have you been awake?' Sherlock asked, his deflection clumsy and his voice rusty from dis-use. He tried to think back to the moment where John's movements had gone from obviously unconscious to something more overt, but he could not bring the instance to mind. He had been too lost in his own thoughts to pay attention. That said, the fact that John had not moved to extricate himself – his hand still lingering on Sherlock's stomach and his leg perfectly insinuated between Sherlock's thighs – suggested that perhaps neither movement had been entirely accidental.

'My stomach's ticklish,' John murmured by way of reply, a hint of a smile curving his lips as Sherlock tried not to fidget in embarrassment. So John had been awake since Sherlock's ill-advised and impromptu exploration. Either John was a better actor than Sherlock had ever imagined, or he had simply been too oblivious to notice the signs of wakefulness – too absorbed in John's physical form to notice the man inside stirring himself back to the land of the conscious.

Yet John was not protesting, or mumbling in embarrassment, or trying to seek any form of escape. He was lying motionless in Sherlock's arms, his head nestled under Sherlock's chin and his ear pressed over the beat of Sherlock's heart as if there was nowhere else he would rather be. He was also very much not mentioning Sherlock's arousal, trapped as it was between them. Although perhaps that was more out of politeness.

He shifted slightly, and belatedly realised that John was in a matching state. The realisation parched his throat entirely, leaving him tense and breathless. Sherlock's palm itched to shift, to move down and explore this changeability in John's topography – a transient hardened ridge. He wanted to know its shape, its weight, its taste...

Sherlock swallowed, his mouth abruptly flooded with saliva: a saturation following the brief drought. John's thumb was stroking along his bottom rib again, and Sherlock bit his lip as a huff of air trailed over his collarbone. John's breathing, faster and more shallow now, soughed in harmony with Sherlock's own, and he could feel the heat in John's face against his shoulder, flushed and torrid.

'Sherlock?' John's voice sounded tight, almost as if he were in pain, but not quite. The timbre was too deep for that, vocal chords relaxed and swollen by increased blood flow. His hand abandoned Sherlock's ribcage, scraping over tangled silk and cotton until his fingertips were resting against Sherlock's jaw, preventing him with the slightest of pressures from turning away. It was not captivity, nor even the threat of it, yet he could not have escaped even if he tried. 'Sherlock, what can't you do?'

'I –' He stopped, aborted sentences filtering through his mind anew. 'It's – I can't do this. You – it – it will ruin everything. I can't be what you will want.'

John's hand twitched, a brief pulse of movement that made Sherlock's heart stagger, but he did not draw back. Instead John looked as if he were forcing himself to focus – dragging his mind away from the bass, instinctive thud of the flesh to concentrate on Sherlock's meaning. His tongue darted out across his lips, a flicker of paler pink that drew Sherlock's gaze, and he closed his eyes – a fraction too long for a blink – before opening them again.

'What I want,' John husked, 'is you.'

Sherlock's breath caught, his ears ringing with John's words. He had known that already, of course, had seen it written in John's face on more occasions than he cared to count, never acknowledged but always secretly enjoyed. Yet nothing compared to actually hearing the words: a tender sentence that shaped the quiet air of Baker Street. It made his body sing, pressing in as if he could fuse himself with John even as his mind wailed and his voice caught in his throat.

'No, you – it won't be just –' Sherlock trailed off, bowing his head until his brow was resting against John's. It was easier to say if he closed his eyes, if he couldn't see John's eventual realisation that, as always, Sherlock was right. 'Physical desire will not remain static and unchanging. You will want to develop an emotional relationship, and once that fails we won't be able to go back to here – to this. I can't lose this.'

He blinked his eyes open, hating his inarticulacy and the obvious alarm/desire/despair that was threatening to put a whining edge into his voice. His entire body felt as if it were wound too tight, a thrumming, trembling string awaiting John's response. The hand that cupped his jaw had not shifted, resting as it was over the crest of the bone and the pulse-point, and Sherlock belatedly realised that the fingers of John's other hand had knotted themselves firmly in the cotton of Sherlock's t-shirt, clenching the fabric in a tight, relentless fist as if he were afraid Sherlock would bolt.

Yet it was John's silence that Sherlock feared. Every wordless breath stretched the peace, and he did not dare look down at John's expression. Instead he remained motionless: a man awaiting judgement. John would either agree, and this closeness was all they would ever share, or he would argue and push and they would set foot on the road to inevitable disaster: an enjoyable journey, perhaps, but an abhorrent destination where their very duality shattered them apart.

At last, John sighed, and his hand shifted, dropping to Sherlock's shoulder and smoothing down his arm. 'Sherlock, I don't just want this you,' he murmured, seeming to indicate Sherlock's body before his fingertip switched direction, pressing first to Sherlock's sternum and then to the spot in the centre of his forehead. 'I want the you that's in here, as well. I don't – I don't expect you to change. I don't want you to change. Is that so hard to believe?'

Yes. It was. The tendency to alienate people and leave body parts in the fridge were not traits any human being looked for in a romantic partner. Not even a person as unique as John.

'But –'

'No, just shut up for a minute, all right?' The finger transferred itself to Sherlock's lips, brushing softly over their curve before pulling away. John propped himself up on his elbow, looking down at Sherlock with something burning bright and fierce in his eyes. 'I understand what you're saying. You don't want to take the risk of seeing what we could be, because you don't want to lose what we've got. You think it's a foregone conclusion – that there's no way it could succeed.'

He looked hurt at the thought, vengeful as if he could see the pain that every failed interaction and every passing insult had ever written on Sherlock's life. A split second later, the expression was gone, and John carried on.

'But don't you see? All we've been doing, all this time, all this friendship we've got –' He licked his lips, his words stumbling as he tried to explain. 'I know the real you. Why would I walk away from that? Why would I want anything different?'

John was shaking, Sherlock could feel the tremors running through the shorter, broader body next to him. How much must it be costing John to put all this into words?

Sherlock tried to speak, to give the doubts in his mind strength and substance, but his voice appeared to have abandoned him, leaving his lips parted and helpless as John gave him a soft smile, sad at its edges, but not accusing.

'I'm not going to take what you're not ready to give, Sherlock. If you're sure you can't do this, then fine. That's fine. Just, just think about it, all right?'

John nodded, that brief, soldierly gesture that meant his words had run out. His hand lingered for a moment, shaking slightly where it pressed against Sherlock’s ribs, over the thrumming, racing thud of Sherlock's heart before he withdrew. 'I'm – I'm going to take a shower. I don't want to still be in my dressing gown when Lestrade turns up.'

Sherlock blinked, lifting his head to watch John wander through to the bathroom. Not fleeing, not anything like it; in fact, he was giving Sherlock space, as if he had somehow picked up on the keening, confused, vibrato edge to Sherlock's mood and reacted accordingly. He had the strength to move when Sherlock did not and provide distance when it was needed.

John, once again, had proven himself to be unpredictable: above and beyond Sherlock's estimations. He neither pushed, nor became emotionally withdrawn. Instead he had made it clear what he wanted – Sherlock, all of Sherlock and all that he had to offer – and then placed the decision, firm and square, in Sherlock's hands.

Where they went from here was up to him.

John had relinquished control of the situation to Sherlock utterly – an act Sherlock was not certain he would ever be brave enough to return. Yet John was nothing if not courageous, and Sherlock was left to lie in the empty cocoon they had shared, scented of John and want as his thoughts careened and collided with one another in a mess of sentiment.

Happiness, relief, concern, disbelief... they all vied for dominance, underscored by the lingering ebb of his arousal, dulled now by panic and emotional turmoil. Yet with a few simple words, John had once again become a conductor of light, revealing another angle of previously unconsidered perspective.

John wanted him. Not another him, a fake him, a pseudo-human-being of his own creation. John had seen all the ills of which Sherlock was capable, had lived with the mess and the blood and the darkness of his moods and knew the sum of Sherlock's parts, and yet he had not turned away. John believed that they could work, that they would not plunge into mutually assured destruction, that they could be not just friend or lover, but both.

Sherlock sat up, running his thumb over his bottom lip as his mind continued to spin. Was it really possible? The treacherous hope that had curled through him for days began to burgeon, growing stronger with every passing breath, but Sherlock shoved it ruthlessly aside. No, this could not be something born of a moment's unreserved joy. It needed careful thought. For his sake and John's, he had to be sure.

They both deserved that much.

Rising to his feet, he pulled his silk dressing gown around himself, listening to the splash and cascade of the shower. It was all too easy for his mind to distract itself, his thoughts flowing back to hot flesh and soft touches like water finding the lowest point in the terrain.

Denying his lust for John was utterly pointless. The image of him naked beneath the shower's steaming spray flashed across his mind's eye, and Sherlock found himself swaying where he stood, agonisingly tempted to simply cast aside his concerns and join John within the tight, humid confines of the bathroom.

Would he be surprised, pleased? Would he be touching himself?

Sherlock blew out a breath, forcing himself to stride into his bedroom and shut the door. This was the problem – the sharpness of his double-edged blade of uncertainty. Rational decisions were impossible to make amidst a sea of hormone fugged desire. The body tricked itself, the flesh telling the mind lies while the heart's symphony grew discordant and clashing. In all his experience, Sherlock had never found anything to prove that love was more than a mere chemical imbalance in the brain: dizzying, confusing and above all else transitory.

Even if John was certain that he would not grow weary of Sherlock being so himself, there was still the chance that all this could be a fleeting sensation. Something brought on by desire that, once the fizz of testosterone and oxytocin had ebbed, would become boring and insignificant: John's existence quantified at last.

With a sigh, Sherlock sat on the edge of the bed, his elbows on his knees and his head clutched uselessly in his palms. Was it easy for other people? They seemed to fall into these things almost blind, trying on partners like others might try on clothes until they found the right fit. Did they not use their brains at all, or was the average human being trained to ignore the murmuring doubts of logic and confusion and simply follow the breeding imperative in blindness?

'Bathroom's free,' John called, and Sherlock lifted his head to stare blankly at his bedroom door. He would have expected John to sound tense, nervous and conflicted: a changed man. Instead it was just his normal John tones, tinged with the faintest notes of something soft and warm. Sherlock expected him to hover, to nag and seethe in his impatience. It was what Sherlock would have done, after all, with the unanswered question of “Just think about it, okay?” lingering in the air of Baker Street.

But of course, John was not him. He was the opposite: a flawless dichotomy. He yielded where Sherlock pushed and resisted where Sherlock would succumb. He knew John better than this – than all these petty little doubts – and yet that knowledge was inadequate to ease his fears.

Getting to his feet, he strode over to the bedroom door, pulling it open and slipping through to the bathroom, leaving his dressing gown in a trail of silk behind him as he shut the door and peeled off his clothes. The air was thick with moisture, vapours clinging to the mirror in a veil of steam and promising, tropical warmth.

That was what he needed. Linearity. The simple flow of water from A to B, interrupted only by himself often helped to rinse away the extraneous thoughts of his mind. How many times had he stood there, skin pink and lips dewed with moisture as he allowed the rush to distil his thoughts into one, cohesive flow – something he could understand?

Sherlock stepped under the spray and ducked his head back under the cascade, feeling the thoughts shake free of his mind like loose feathers falling from a bird's wing, drifting to rest, useless and forgotten, at his feet. His fingers coaxed through his curls, allowing them to twist, loose and lethargic around the nape of his neck, slicked to his scalp as the tremolo concerto of his thoughts smoothed into something logical and concise.

He was a genius, a consulting detective: solving puzzles was what he did. Perhaps this was not something as simple and straightforward as the cut and thrust of murder, but he was still able to break it apart and examine each component. It was a different kind of case, and one he planned to solve. All he had to do was take the time to observe.

Except, for once, the target of his scrutiny was not the world around him, nor the darting, flickering people that filled it, but the cool blank mirror of the self.

With a sigh, Sherlock bowed his head, hearing the sound of his exhalation amplified in the space around him. It stirred the billowing steam, entwining the whorls in a fleeting moment of ecstasy before they fell apart once more, leaving Sherlock to the percussive simplicity of the false-rain around him. His hands moved in slow, steady strokes, sweeping lather through his hair and across his skin as the twist of his mind slowed to a more manageable waltz.

Part of Sherlock wondered if it was inevitable – if he and John had been destined to make this decision from the moment they met at Bart's. Their instant compatibility appeared to be immune to every excuse (I'm married to my work) and denial (I'm not his date!)

A faint smile curved Sherlock's lips as John's oft repeated protest rang in his mind. What would it be like? Lovers in all aspects? Would it really be all that different, or would it simply be the Sherlock and John they already knew, but with the final barriers removed? They already lived together, after all. Their finances were shared, though admittedly that was more because Sherlock could not be bothered with such things and John fussed if the bills were not paid. John got milk and food and Sherlock occasionally ate said food and cleared away an experiment that caused too much distress...

No, the main difference would be intimacy. Those few, stolen promises of something more would be allowed out into the open. He would be permitted to touch John when he wanted, to explore and map that body that had raced after his for so long, and feel John's passion in return. All that had been pressed against him on the confines of the couch would be available, no longer held separate by the frontier of the dubious platonic.

Sherlock closed his eyes, his hand drifting lower down the water-slick plane of his stomach as his breath hitched in his throat. The questions fogging up his mind receded, falling away beneath the bright burn of memory, instead. A thousand little touches: absent trails of fingertips on the back of his hand, John's palm solid and hard over the cloth of Sherlock's shirt, pushing him back to safety. The scent of him, thicker, darker in Sherlock's mind now and the hard, jutting evidence of John's want pressed against him from just that morning.

A noise caught in his throat as the long lines of his fingers curled around his member and began to stroke, his arousal burgeoning hot and heavy in his palm, triggered anew by images of John. A faint tan turned darker against white sheets; blue eyes turned to storm cloud grey by want; muscles trembling and skin flushed as Sherlock took everything he had to offer.

He could imagine the smell of John, lighter, treble at the juncture of jaw and throat; thicker, heavier in the shadow of his arms and lower, across the toned expanse where fragrance was a mere suggestion before he found his way to John's centre, where it was no longer a mere hint to the air but an essence, distilled for Sherlock's enjoyment.

An image of John with his head thrown back, palms splayed in Sherlock's hair as he worked between John's legs flashed across Sherlock's mind, making a moan tremble in his chest., tight and breathless. He could feel the phantom skim of John's hands moving over his skin, clutching at his shoulders, smoothing down his back and lower, cupping and stroking down in between.

Sherlock's hand was moving faster now, a conductor to the orchestra of thoughts and sensations. The water made each pass slick, turning viscous with pre-come as the buzzing heat pooled in the cradle of his hips and lower back. His knees were starting to tremble, the muscles in his thighs jumping as he lost himself in the scatter of fantasies; shredded imagery with hints of skin and taste, pressure and thrill.

He braced his hand against the wall, the tiles' cool touch lost in the storm that rose up to meet him. Sherlock bit down on his lip hard as his hips jerked, the calluses on his fingertips sending fireworks across his frenulum as the pulse of his release beat through his body and left him, trembling and sensitive beneath the shower's heat.

Weakly, he slumped sideways, bracing his weight on his shoulder as tight, panting breaths slowed to a normal rate and his heart's race slowed. The physical ebbed, replaced once more by the cohesive, logical dominance of the brain, and Sherlock sighed as he rinsed himself clean and rubbed his palm up the nape of his neck.

He did not feel as sated as normal. True, the edge of pressure was gone, but desire still simmered under his skin, an endless font that no quick self-gratification in the shower could abate. How distracting was that going to be? Was this how he would feel from now on, his flesh so undeniably, specifically attuned to John's mere presence that he could not get anything but the slightest relief?

Was that another danger, one he had not foreseen? Would John go from being an asset to a deficit, leeching Sherlock's focus away from the case and the Work?

Muttering a well-chosen curse at the ceaseless rattle of his brain, Sherlock flicked off the shower taps, stepping out and wrapping a towel around his waist as he went through his morning routine with brutal efficiency: teeth brushed, stubble banished beneath the slide of a razor, hair grudgingly tamed until at least he looked like himself – not addled by lust or confusion but as firmly in control as ever.

Only the faint lines around his eyes suggested differently, and he ran his fingers down their ridges, too subtle to be felt by human touch before dropping his hand to his side and heading for the bedroom to find his clothes.

It was like putting on armour, he realised, drawing the line between the Sherlock who woke up with John in his arms and the man who was London's only consulting detective. His shirt whispered over his skin, the buttons quickly manipulated by deft fingers as the rest of his outfit fell into place. Underneath he might still feel like a chaos of dripping, helpless sentiment, but on the surface he looked as capable as ever. Unchanged.

He could hear the clatter of John getting breakfast in the kitchen: the hiss and throb of the kettle and, as he left his room, the faint, de-calibrated hum of the toaster, which had never been the same after Sherlock took it apart for an experiment. It all sounded so normal, as if the world did not teeter on the brink of a choice, and Sherlock found himself hovering hesitantly on the edges of the kitchen, watching John pour cereal and milk into a bowl before stretching out one hand, palm up, with two paracetamol gleaming like pearls amidst the lined skin of his hand.

'Thought you might need these,' John said, nudging a cup of tea meaningfully along the surface in Sherlock's direction. 'You're probably still not feeling a hundred percent.'

Sherlock crossed the intervening space, hesitating for a fraction of a second before dipping his fingertips into the cup of John's palm, tracing ever so lightly over the warm skin before he lifted the tablets free.

His chest felt full of words, his throat thick with their presence, but in the end he could not give any of them shape.

'Thank you.'

It was an ambiguous fragment of gratitude, and Sherlock fully expected John to ask for clarification. He waited for it, the moment when the wound of confusion would be opened in his head again as John demanded an answer: the time limit of patience now expired.

Yet John knew better. It was there in the tilt of his head, the gleam of his eyes and the smile that curled his lips. He stood like a soldier still, braced for the fight, but there was a softness to him that spoke volumes of understanding. He knew Sherlock was not talking about the tablets, but rather the gift of space to think and the time to make the right choice.

'You're welcome, Sherlock.'

Chapter Text

John's fingers pecked over the keys of his laptop, half-heartedly drafting the first page of a blog post. It was never easy, trying to get his thoughts in order, but today it seemed like twice the struggle. Of course, that could have a lot to do with the tall, infuriating, attractive man currently lying on the sofa, his eyes shut and his hands pressed together as if in prayer.

Sherlock looked too good to touch, too good to even exist, bathed as he was in the sunlight coming in through the windows of the flat. His pale skin seemed ethereal and pure as if it were carved from marble, cool and lifeless. That was far from the truth, of course. Even if it were not for the dozens of little touches they had shared, guiding one another through London's streets or treating injuries, the events of that morning were enough to strike the fanciful notion from John's head altogether.

He blew out a quiet breath, his fingers hovering as the memory unfurled happily for his viewing once more: Sherlock's heat stretched out at his side, one strong arm under John's body as the other hand drifted across John's waist, tracing tickling lines of pleasure before pulling away, leaving John with an aching erection and full of breathless, thudding desire.

John had not been the only one turned on, either. The evidence of Sherlock's need had been pressed against John's hip: a hard, firm line that, even now – a memory and nothing more – seemed to burn into his skin. A fresh wave of desire circled in John's stomach, sending tendrils of warmth drifting outwards through his body. His skin felt too tight on his bones, itching and desperate, and he thought a silent curse as he felt himself twitch in the tight confines of his jeans.

One quick wank in the shower this morning had clearly not been adequate, although such simple words weren't quite enough to describe the intense wave of release that had almost dropped him to his knees – all he wanted and somehow still not enough. Every inch of his skin ached for Sherlock as if he had somehow been branded by nothing more than close proximity. How was getting off by himself ever meant to measure up to the idea of Sherlock's body pressed against his own and open-mouthed kisses under the shower's cascade?

Licking his lips, John tried not to think of Sherlock slick from the water, all dark, tumbling curls and knowing eyes. That was really not the kind of image he needed in his head if he wanted to walk straight any time soon. Besides, he was just torturing himself. Sherlock's body might have delivered its message of yearning to John loud and clear, but Sherlock's brain was at odds with the rest of him.

As much as John hated it, he made a good point. There was no such thing as “just sex” for John. Even one night stands were remembered with an emotional fondness, and a no-strings-attached encounter with someone he knew was never something he bothered to attempt. With Sherlock, there was no hope. Their friendship alone made that impossible. He cared for Sherlock whether sex was part of the picture or not, but adding it to the mix was almost all that was necessary to take them from being flatmates/colleagues/friends to partners in every sense of the word.

And if it went wrong, there was no way to turn back the clock. Now, they could carry on like this, comfortable but wanting, or they could reach for the all-or-nothing potential that lay before them.

John had made his choice. God, it felt like it had been made long ago, the moment he stepped into Bart's and met Sherlock's too bright, intelligent, all-seeing gaze. If Sherlock held out his hand, then John would take it. He would follow the bastard anywhere, whether it was to bed, the end of the world or right into the jaws of danger. His therapist would have a field day with that knowledge, but John couldn't question it.

He would take whatever Sherlock was willing to offer, but it was up to the man himself to decide exactly where they were going, and John would have to be blind not to realise that Sherlock was bending all the power of his mind to his considerations.

Perhaps if John did not know him so well, he wouldn't have realised the man's conflict, but he was used to the little tells that made up the myriad of Sherlock's ever-evolving mood. Nothing obvious or unseemly, but the signs were there if you knew where to look. Sherlock's movements were tighter, more controlled but slightly clumsy, as if he were too busy looking at the inside of his head to notice the world around him. He kept re-reading the case notes Greg had brought over this morning, feeding the analytical part of his mind, but it was not the utter focus John was used to, and he found the change fascinating.

The fact that his future happiness relied on the outcome of Sherlock's choice was less than pleasant, but as soon as he had heard Sherlock's whispered confession – his fears of how much they might lose – he knew it had to be up to Sherlock to make the ultimate decision. He could go up against thugs and villains, Moriarty and explosives and show barely a glimmer of fear, but this clearly had Sherlock unsettled all the way down to his core.

There was not anything John could do to help either, not really. Pushing him would only result in Sherlock's withdrawal, and John did not feel capable of seeking some distance. That was why he was sitting here, barely three steps away from Sherlock's prone form, trying desperately to concentrate on something productive and act like nothing had changed.

He blinked down at the keyboard, realising he had not typed a single thing in the past ten minutes. Instead, he been staring at Sherlock, utterly lost in his own imaginings. Thankfully, he did not seemed to have noticed. In fact, John was beginning to wonder if he had fallen asleep, locked in his perfect thinking pose.

'No,' Sherlock murmured, with just a hint of a smile curving one corner of his mouth. 'Are you done trying to do something on your wretched blog? I need you to look something up for me.'

'What's wrong with your laptop?' John asked, watching Sherlock open one eye and locate the device.

'It's over there.' Sherlock did not even stretch out an arm to demonstrate how out of reach it was. 'Besides, I don't want to move. Google Michael Monroe for me.'

'The ex-fiancé? Didn't Greg give you anything?' John asked, already tapping the name clumsily into the search engine before grimacing at the results.

'No, the Yard are too busy processing the mess Winters left behind, both at Chiswick Bridge and the apartment. We may as well see if Monroe can be eliminated from the equation.' One of Sherlock's hands waved in a vague gesture. 'Or if, in fact, he's the one we're looking for.'

'Glam rock musician, wikipedia page...' John muttered.

'Click the UK only link on the left-hand side,' Sherlock said, and John cast him a black look over the top of his screen.

'You could do it yourself, you know,' he retorted, heaving a sigh as the results changed. 'Still a glam rock musician, looks a bit old for her though. A baker in Scarborough and – Oh, this could be him. London-based architect?'

Sherlock tweaked something out of one of the files on the coffee table and stretched his arm over the back of the sofa. His body arched, a languorous, cat-like motion that stretched his shirt, and made John's gaze slide appreciatively down the endless length of him before he leaned forward to twitch the photograph free of Sherlock's fingers.

It was an old picture of Sophie Lattimer, smiling at the camera with her arms wrapped around a tall, blond man. He was about Sherlock's height, but broader, tanned in an artful way. He looked like the kind of person who spent twenty minutes trying to make his hair look like he'd just got out of bed. John's dislike was pretty much instantaneous.

'Looks like a right twat.' He sighed before nodding his head. 'Yeah, this is him. Youngest ever winner of the RIBA five years ago. He was just twenty-seven. Bit of a prodigy. It seems like he designed a lot of the new flats at Canary Wharf.'

'Hmmmm.' Sherlock's voice purred next to John's ear, and he stiffened slightly in his seat. He had not realised Sherlock had even moved – too busy reading to hear the sofa's squeaky sigh. Now he could feel Sherlock's hand gripping the back of his chair, the knuckle of his thumb brushing softly against the bottom edge of John's shoulder-blade through his jumper as he leaned in to read the screen.

John licked his lips, trying to focus on the information in front of him rather than Sherlock's presence, but it was no good. He could feel the warmth radiating from Sherlock's skin, and the scent of shampoo and whatever Sherlock used to stop his curls going insane filled his nose. He could also see the throbbing pulse in the hollow of Sherlock's throat where his shirt collar was undone, its beat a tempting twitch in the concave dimple. Sherlock's voice rumbled, and John swallowed tightly as the sound detoured his brain and went straight to his crotch.

'What?' he asked when he realised he had not picked up a word Sherlock had said.

'It looks like we might have a connection after all,' Sherlock replied, his tone a little curt at having to repeat himself. His shirt whispered in John's ear as Sherlock moved, straightening up and pulling his phone from his pocket. 'The brochure for new apartments in Winters' bedroom was conceptual. They've not been built yet, but look at the company behind them.'

He held out the phone to John so he could see the photo he had taken the previous night. Reaching up his hand, John dragged the device free from Sherlock's grasp, allowing his fingers to brush against Sherlock's knuckles as he did so. He took a moment to appreciate the flare of Sherlock's pupils and the slight parting of his lips, his own heart thumping out a returning message of God, yes, before he tore his eyes away and squinted down at the screen. 'Macmillan and Monroe. So Winters liked one of their apartments. What of it? Hey –'

John sighed as Sherlock scooped his laptop from the table, leaning his hips against the back of the couch as he navigated through the website proficiently. The screen was reflected in his eyes and a frown of concentration pinched his brow. 'I'll make tea then, shall I?'

'Now who's the mind reader?' Sherlock asked, meeting John's gaze appreciatively before returning to the screen. 'Make it quick though, I think we should pay Monroe a visit.'

Obligingly, John wandered through to the kitchen and put the kettle on, drumming his fingers on the surface as he waited for it to boil. Clearly Sherlock had found something worth investigating, but John knew better than to ask. Sherlock could not keep discoveries to himself; he would speak up before long.

He only hoped the same was the case with the situation that seethed between them. Sherlock was not the kind to play coy unless he was shamming. No, genuine interactions were treated with the same directness as everything else. Even this morning, when John overheard the whisper that was clearly not meant for his ears, Sherlock had not tried to be evasive. Perhaps he had stumbled with his words, as he always did when attempting to express sentiment, but he had been honest in a way so many people weren't.

It was oddly refreshing, not having to constantly dance around the unvoiced questions that seemed to fill every social interaction. Sherlock either spoke his mind or ignored the issue, deeming it beneath his notice. In a relationship, that would probably be both a blessing and a curse. He would not have to worry about untangling the constant mess of “I'm fine” and “Nothing's wrong” – the little white lies that made everything so complex. Sherlock would just tell him. Though whether Sherlock would be adequately prescient to read John's social cues and engaged enough to pay attention was another matter entirely. However, John still longed for the chance to find out.

He was not foolish enough to think that Sherlock would change. He would still be the same arrogant, brilliant, mad scientist who left thumbs in the fridge and forgot to pay the bills. He would still call John an idiot and leave him behind at crime scenes, but that was who Sherlock was – that was the man John wanted. It was the other side of Sherlock that held John fascinated, the part he rarely saw. The one that screamed loud and clear that Sherlock was not a sociopath, just a man who knew how to guard his heart.

If everything went the way John hoped, he liked to think Sherlock would let that facet show a little more, at least around John. He was not expecting daily declarations of love, not in words anyway, but rather that Sherlock would no longer restrain himself from showing that he was more than a cold and distant genius.

The kettle clicked, interrupting his thoughts, and John poured the water into the mugs they had used earlier, absently running back through his mind to try and recall if Sherlock had taken any paracetamol recently. Lunch had been about an hour ago, and Sherlock had eaten it with every sign of enjoyment, but had not bothered with any more tablets.

Looking over his shoulder, John narrowed his eyes, trying to judge Sherlock's health in the meek light of London's day and the glow of the laptop. He seemed all right – his eyes bright and alert and his cheeks a healthy pallor – although he was wearing that purple shirt, which seemed to perform magic tricks with Sherlock's looks, giving white skin a warmth it should not really have. His body was also back to its usual fluid grace, leaning against the couch with no sign of pain or awkwardness.

'You feeling all right?' John asked, stirring sugar into Sherlock's tea as he waited for the answer.

'Hmmmm? Oh, yes. Adequate, anyway.' He put the laptop down, ambling over to the kitchen and picking his mug up from the surface, sipping at the scalding liquid with barely a flinch. 'You're not going to try to stop me leaving the flat?'

'It's not really worked too well the last couple of times I've tried,' John pointed out with a grin. 'What are we looking for at Monroe's then?'

Sherlock absently picked up a biscuit from the packet resting on the side, staring into his cup of tea as he spoke. 'One of his projects caught my eye, a re-development in the W9 area. It seems he wants to build on Admiral Walk.'

'That's where Lattimer's place is, isn't it?' John narrowed his eyes, feeling suspicions beginning to prickle at the back of his mind. 'Go on then, what do you know that I don't?'

'It's not just on Lattimer's street; it's a redevelopment of the apartment complex she lived in.' Sherlock smirked as John's eyebrows rose. 'He would have to buy up the land and the buildings on it to be able to make his design a reality. It's a connection we can't leave unexplored.'

'So, what? You think maybe Lattimer got in his way and refused to sell?'

Sherlock gave a single, eloquent shrug of his shoulders. 'Not enough data, hence why we need to visit his office. It could be that the project never got off the ground – a pipe dream and nothing more. Though he doesn't seem to be the kind of man who takes no for an answer. Macmillan and Monroe are known for aggressive acquisitions. It's made them one of the wealthiest design and construction companies in Europe.'

John took a gulp of his tea, cool enough now to drink without burning his throat. 'Aggressive enough to kill someone?'

'I doubt it will be official company policy, John,' Sherlock muttered, the teasing tone in his voice fading away as he continued, 'but if there was more at stake than just a contract...' He shook his head. 'That's why I need to talk to Monroe, and maybe take a trip back to Admiral Walk. Lattimer was not the only one who would need to be bought off if he planned to build.'

'Why go to the effort, though? I mean, I know there's not much space in London, but there's derelict patches. He could build there instead.'

'A RIBA winner?' Sherlock asked, as if that alone spoke volumes. 'Architects that good don't see just a plot of land. The city is their canvas. They find the best spot for their idea and don't let go. Admiral Walk is convenient without being plebeian and, if utilised correctly, could offer some of the best views in London. It's prime real-estate, worth a fortune. That could be how he got Winters on board. Nothing as filthy as money changing hands, but perhaps the promise of an apartment in the new complex?'

John wished he could pretend that real people did not think like that, but he had been too long in the world to believe it. For some, human life was worthless. For God's sake, even the army treated it like currency to pay the price of peace.

'So what do you want me to do?' John asked, setting his cup aside and walking towards the front door, already reaching for his jacket.

Sherlock shrugged on his coat, his scarf curving around his neck and tucked in underneath the thick wool as his eyes met John's. 'Observe.'

'More your thing, isn't it?' John asked, his breath catching in his throat as he realised how close Sherlock was standing, very much in John's personal space for the second time in half an hour. One long-fingered hand reached out, brushing softly against John's pulse as he straightened the collar of John's jacket.

'Oh, I don't know,' Sherlock murmured. 'You have your moments.'

John grinned at the almost compliment as Sherlock dropped his hand and headed for the stairs, his footsteps clattering against the wood before he reached the ground floor and pulled open the front door. 'I can keep Monroe's attention on me while you nose around, chat up the secretary, all those things that you do so well.'

The taxi ride was short and peaceful, and in its own way strangely perfect. Sherlock sat a little closer to John that usual, his thigh pressed softly against John's own, their shoulders touching. There was nothing overt about it, nothing that suggested Sherlock's decision had been made. Instead it seemed like he was trying to reassure John, or perhaps himself, that the closeness was still a possibility – that his fear of taking their relationship further had not already pushed them apart – and John was happy to offer his reassurance with his own weight leaning against Sherlock's side: a joined seam.

The cool London air around Canary Wharf seemed doubly bitter when the cab arrived and they were forced to part, two separate entities once more. John stood on the pavement, trying not to shiver as he looked up at the towering monoliths: London's temples to business and capitalism. The Thames drifted in languid trails around the quays, somehow tamed of its usual silt and vigour to become almost mirror-smooth, and everywhere he looked there were people bustling around, phones clamped to their ears as their shoes tapped over the flawless paving stones.

'It looks fake,' John muttered, eyeing the trees that grew in regular lines down one of the boulevards. 'All of it.'

'It is,' Sherlock replied. 'Regenerated to within an inch of its life. If Monroe was a primary architect here, then you can read a lot about him from the landscape alone.'

John glanced around, taking in the gargantuan, phallic shapes of the towers. 'Compensating for something?'

Sherlock met his eye and they both smirked, glancing away to stop themselves from dissolving into laughter. 'Perhaps, but there's more to it than that,' Sherlock said at last, gesturing to the trees. 'Uniform height, symmetrical, regularly maintained and cultivated. Paving stones following a regular prime pattern. Buildings carefully placed. I expect the ones he built are those two, and that one.' He pointed out a few of the more prominent towers. 'The eye is drawn to them by the flow of the skyline. He's a perfectionist, fond of the aesthetic, extrovert, confident, and arrogant with pride. This place is a creation, and he is its god.'

'Should we have brought some kind of sacrifice?' John asked, shaking his head in disbelief. That Sherlock could get all that from just seeing a place... 'Anything else?'

'Fond of Shakespeare, since there are quotes on all the manhole covers. Narcissistic, as he appears to have written his name on everything.' Sherlock tapped the monogram of “MM” with the toe of his shoe. 'Come on. Let's go and see if I'm right.'

They walked leisurely, crossing the narrow, pristine roads that carved their way through London's little slice of utopia. It was easy to forget, amidst a forest of stone and glass, that there was more to the capital city than this, and before long John felt lost and confused, as if all his senses had been deadened by the constructions around him.

'And here we are,' Sherlock said with a flourish at one of the many buildings. It seemed almost petite in comparison to some of its neighbours, all modern steel and shining, spotless panes of glass. John's reflection stared back at him, looking a bit nonplussed, and he forced a polite, friendly smile on his face as Sherlock strode through the door and towards the reception desk, all leonine power and unshakable confidence. The poor girl did not stand a chance. John saw her glance up and then look again, her hazel eyes ignoring John completely as she watched Sherlock from under her lashes, practically stripping him with her gaze.

'Can I help you, sir?'

'I hope so,' Sherlock replied, giving her one of those charming smiles, genuine on the surface but not quite touching his eyes. 'My name is Sherlock Holmes, and this is my colleague Doctor Watson. I need to speak with Mr Monroe.'

'Do you have an appointment?' she asked, leaning forward a little in her chair with a hopeful, faintly pouting expression that made John turn away to hide a smile.

'I was hoping that would not be necessary. In fact, it's possibly preferable for Mr Monroe if my visit isn't official. It's a police matter.' He pulled an ID from his pocket, giving her enough of a glimpse to notice the Yard's credentials without actually taking in the name or the face: one of Greg's John would bet, pilfered by Sherlock at some indeterminate time in the past.

The woman's lips made a little 'O' of shock, and she nodded obligingly. 'Let me speak to his assistant. I'm sure he'll be able to make time for you.' She flushed prettily at Sherlock's murmur of thanks and began to speak into the desk phone, her voice soft and subtle as John took a moment to look around the reception area.

There were awards on the walls and occasional models, many of which John recognised as modern landmarks in the London skyline. The whole place was tastefully decorated in wood and painted steel, unassuming in a way that suggested it was all very expensive, and he would bet anything that the blooms floating in a water bowl on the desk were fresh and cost a fortune.

He looked back at Sherlock, a thrill of pleasure racing down his spine as he realised that, rather than checking out the room, Sherlock was instead watching him. His pale eyes were intense and fascinated, as if John were far more interesting than anything Monroe and his offices could offer, and John fidgeted under the scrutiny, a crooked smile twisting his lips as he tried not to blush like a teenager. He was nearly forty, for Christ's sake!

'Mr Holmes? Mr Monroe is available to see you and your colleague now,' the receptionist said at last, tucking her hair behind her ear before gesturing to the lift. 'Top floor. His assistant will meet you there.'

'Thank you,' Sherlock murmured, keeping his body turned towards John but looking back at the girl with a smile. 'You've been very helpful. Coming, John?'

With a quick, friendly nod to the girl behind the desk, John fell in at Sherlock's side. The lift was hidden behind wood panelled, brushed brass doors, and Sherlock stood aside to let John in first before following behind, breathing out a little sigh as the doors closed, sealing them inside.

'One day, Greg's going to find out about you stealing his ID,' John warned, watching the smirk ghost across Sherlock's lips.

'He's been oblivious for the past three years,' Sherlock pointed out, 'and it's easier than acquiring a genuinely false police identification. No one bothers to look, anyway. Say “police” and everyone's instantly blinded by the internal monologue of every crime they have ever committed, no matter how minor.'

'I think she was more blinded by you, actually,' John muttered. 'I might as well have been a pot plant or something.'

'It's because you're shorter than her, and she clearly had fixed ideas of what to look for in a potential partner; stature being key.'

John sighed. It really would not be the first time his height, or lack thereof, worked against him.

'Besides, she has problems with fidelity, materialistic attitudes and father issues – not exactly a good prospect. She's looking for a tall paternal figure, and while Monroe is too young to fit that bill I think you'll find the other partner, Macmillan, is a good match.' Sherlock leaned back against the wall of the lift. 'In fact that's probably why someone with a masters degree in information management is working as a receptionist. She's only been employed here for a few weeks – instructions for the phone still taped to the desk – and she's hoping to catch his eye. Not much use to us, except to get us into Monroe's office.'

John grinned at the rather cutting analysis and rolled his shoulders in a shrug, shifting fractionally closer to Sherlock as the lift made its stately way to the top floor. 'That's all right, the person that matters was looking at me – staring in fact.' He licked his lips, ignoring the thrill of butterflies in his stomach as he lifted his chin and met Sherlock's eyes.

The hint of a blush that graced Sherlock's cheeks was enough to make John's heart clench, but it was the heat in his eyes – not shy at all but incredibly predatory – that parched John's mouth. It felt as if all the air had drained from the confined space, but John did not care, because the gleam in Sherlock's eyes – not just flirtatious but wanting – was enough to sustain him.

Sherlock was right; breathing was boring.

The lift doors slid open, and John turned his head abruptly, seeing a large, minimalist office spread out before them. A neatly groomed, brown-haired young man was already standing from behind the desk with a professionally practised smile, and beyond him a pair of double frosted glass doors were shut against the world. John could just make out a tall, shadowy silhouette pacing back and forwards, one arm raised to its ear: Monroe on the phone, and looking agitated if the tight line of his strides was any indication.

'Mr Holmes, Doctor Watson, I'm Mr Monroe's assistant, Lewis Havisham.' He did not look much older than twenty-five, but there was something familiar about him, and it took John a moment to realise he reminded him of Anthea: all efficiency and masks. 'Mr Monroe is concluding some business, but he will be with you in just a moment. Can I take your coats?'

'I'll keep mine, thanks,' John replied, shoving his hands in his jacket pockets even as Sherlock divested himself of both his coat and scarf and surrendered them casually to Havisham.

'Can I interest you in tea or coffee?'

Sherlock's quick glance in John's direction had him changing his answer before it was voiced. He didn't need another drink, but the excuse was something they could use. 'Tea with just a dash of milk would be great, thanks.'

'And you, Mr Holmes?'

'I'm fine, thank you.' Sherlock's air was indifferent and dismissive, but Havisham seemed used to it. He simply nodded his head and walked to the wall, opening one seamless panel to step through into another room.

'Be subtle,' Sherlock warned John quietly, jerking his head a fraction towards the small, discreet camera mounted in the corner where the wall met the ceiling. 'This room is completely covered, no blind spots. Talk to Havisham and leave Monroe to me.'

'Right. Do you reckon they can hear us as well?'

'No obvious signs of audio. The security cameras are probably to protect the safe behind that painting.' Sherlock gestured to something fractal and modern hanging behind Havisham's desk.

The hidden door swung open once more and John was handed a cup of tea, which he took just as the smoked glass doors parted and Monroe himself greeted them.

'Mr Holmes, thank you for waiting for me,' he said with apparent enthusiasm, all gleaming teeth and flawless tan as he shook Sherlock's hand. 'I assume this is about Sophie? Won't you come into my office?'

Sherlock gave a gracious nod as John excused himself to keep talking to Havisham, noting absently that Sherlock left the door open, revealing a slice of a big desk and a sunny view. He could hear the two men speaking but quickly tuned out the words, leaving Sherlock to it while he got on with his job.

'I was wondering if you could answer a few questions for me?' he asked, giving the assistant a sincere smile. 'Nothing ominous, I promise.'

'Of course, although I'm not sure how I can help. If you are here about Ms Lattimer, she and Mr Monroe had parted ways long before I came into the picture.' Havisham slipped a pen back into his desk-tidy and shuffled some papers, drawing John's eye. He could just make out the type face about the sale of a flat on Admiral Walk, and he struggled not to tilt his head for a better look.

'Actually, at this point we're just eliminating people from the investigation. Can you tell me where Mr Monroe was on Tuesday of last week?'

'I think –' Havisham moved with skill and practice, changing the computer screen with the flick of a few keys. 'Yes, Mr Monroe was at the architectural conference in Glasgow from Monday morning and wasn't back in the office again until Thursday.'

'He would have been there throughout?'

'Yes, all day, every day. They go on for hours: lectures, brainstorming, a lot of food...' Havisham tweaked free a glossy brochure from the pile on his desk and handed it over to John. 'This job's as much about networking as it is about draftsmanship.'

John nodded, reading quickly through the neat, white type-face and picking out the salient points. 'Did you go with him? You seem like an invaluable assistant. Must be useful to have someone like you around to help him.'

'I'm more help if I keep the office running in his absence. Normally I would have attended,' Havisham explained, his faintly vacant smile still in place, 'but Mr Macmillan is away on holiday, and we couldn't leave the office silent for three days. Not with so many projects in the works.'

'Oh, business is good then?' John gestured vaguely around the room. 'I would have thought the housing market problems would –' He trailed off, since Havisham was already shaking his head with the air of someone who had explained this to others a dozen times in the past week alone.

'It's a bad time for new builds in most places, but we're involved in regeneration and urban design. At times like this we focus on acquisition, so that when the market recovers we're poised to capitalise with stylish, modern city living.' He held up a finger in a silent request for John to wait as he pulled open a filing drawer that had been organised to within an inch of its life. Within seconds he had pulled free another pamphlet, and this one was familiar. Winters had a copy of it in his over-priced and underwhelming home.

'The only reason I've even heard of Ms Lattimer is because I wrote to her not long ago on behalf of the company, proposing to buy her apartment. It's a prime bit of land, and it would fit in so well with Michael’s New World scheme.' Havisham looked flustered as John gave him a confused look. 'It's his “big picture” idea. He really wants to leave his mark on London.'

'Done a fair bit of that already from what I hear.' John flicked through the leaflet, pretending he had never seen it before as he took in the lavish interiors proposed. 'Did Ms Lattimer accept the offer?'

Havisham sighed. 'She never replied. Now we'll have to wait for her estate to clear before it goes on the market. It could delay us for months.' The young man grimaced, looking apologetic. 'I'm sorry, I don't mean to be so insensitive.'

'It's okay, it's more common that you'd think, especially since you didn't know her.' John tried to sound reassuring. 'How much would these apartments go for once they're built? I mean, out of my price range, obviously, but it's good to see how the other half lives.'

'With luck they'll sell for between nine and twenty-eight million, depending on which floor they're on.' Havisham smiled at John's incredulous whistle. 'Mr Monroe specialises in elite living. Is there anything else I can help you with?' There was something a little sharp about the question, and John could see several email notifications flashing at the bottom of Havisham's screen.

Before he could reply the phone rang, its bubbling, subtle tone effectively bringing the conversation to an end. John motioned for him to take the call and stood back, pretending to examine some of the paintings on the wall as he waited for Sherlock to finish with Monroe.

He was staring at a swirly mess of colour, idly thinking that whoever decorated the office had bad taste in art when Sherlock's voice reached his ears, making him turn his head a fraction to better catch the words.

' – Very amicable, if she kept the engagement ring.'

'Well, Mr Holmes, it was designed especially for her. There was no other finger in the world on which it would look so divine. It seemed – petty – to take it from her.' Monroe's soft, well-spoken voice dropped to a lower register and John frowned, the office around him fading from awareness as he focussed on what was being said. 'I always have an eye for the exquisite, you know. I'm very good at – ah – appreciation.'

John's entire body went tense, easy muscles suddenly like bedrock, pulling his spine straighter and clenching his jaw. Monroe had purred that last part, and it was clear that the target was not the late Sophie Lattimer, but the ever-present Sherlock Holmes. The woman down at reception had been one thing, but at least she was passive in her admiration, all pouts and fluttered eyelashes, and John's stomach dropped as he remembered Sherlock's description of Monroe.

“He doesn't seem like the kind of man to take no for an answer.”

'I'm sure,' Sherlock replied, not inviting or coy, to John's relief, but not antagonistic, either. Of course, if he still wanted answers out of Monroe then he could not afford to give offence, but there was something there, a subtle edge to Sherlock's voice. Perhaps it was John's imagination, but it sounded uncomfortable, as if the tables had been turned unexpectedly. 'Few people would be happy to give up such a significant investment to an ex-partner. How much was it worth?'

Monroe's voice softened further, a rich, dark invitation, and John bristled. 'I honestly don't remember. The price was of no consequence. Money is simply a tool that allows me to get what I really want.'

An image flashed in John's mind of Monroe leaning forward, crowding Sherlock back against a desk perhaps, or simply getting too close for comfort, and he felt the trembling growl of something primitive echo through his head. He tried to stay still, to give Sherlock the space he needed to make Monroe talk, but the thud of his pulse in his ears was too loud and visceral to allow him to concentrate, and his imagination was quickly painting lurid, threatening pictures across his mind's eye.

Mouthing a curse, John shifted, keeping his movements in perfect control as he slipped into the office. He did not have to say anything to announce his presence; he knew his body language did all the talking. His very existence shifted the dynamic in the room, and John kept his face carefully blank as he watched Monroe step away from Sherlock.

He had been lingering in Sherlock's personal space, not at his side but face-to-face, and making a distinct effort to emphasise his broader frame. Whether that was in an effort at seduction or intimidation, John was not sure – perhaps Monroe thought the two went hand-in-hand – but either way Sherlock seemed unaffected. He stood at ease, his weight shifted over on one hip and his hand in his pocket, surveying Monroe's office and the man himself with a clinical gaze.

Monroe's bright blue eyes darted to John, and the smile he offered was shallow at best. 'I hope Havisham was able to help you, Doctor Watson. I was just telling Mr Holmes that it's been years since I've seen Sophie.' He shifted closer to Sherlock again, and John clenched his teeth, refusing to break eye contact. 'She was a beautiful woman, of course.' He looked at Sherlock in blatant appraisal. 'I do so love attractive things, but it did not quite work out.'

John swallowed, putting all his strength into keeping his voice steady and neutral. 'Your assistant was very helpful. He was telling me all about the project on Admiral Walk.' John's hand tightened into a fist as he tried to ignore the desperate, itching urge to throw a punch – anything to stop the prick gazing at Sherlock as if he owned him. Getting into some kind of pissing contest with Monroe was not going to help them solve the case. Besides, as much as he wished it were otherwise, he had no real claim on Sherlock, and no right to be possessive.

'He said you had tried to buy out Ms Lattimer's claim in the building, but you had never received a written response?' he added, throwing the information out into the room and watching Sherlock absorb it with a steady blink.

'I heard nothing from her at all,' Monroe replied, shrugging his shoulders and rubbing a hand up the back of his neck. 'I'd hoped that she would have responded by the time I returned from my conference in Glasgow, but, well, when I got back it was clear why I'd received no response.'

'You were at the architectural event in the Hilton?' Sherlock asked, one eyebrow raised, and John wondered how he got that information before noticing a few receipts on Monroe's desk. Great, while he was trying not to give in to the urge to break the idiot's nose, Sherlock was still doing what he did best, utterly unconcerned.

'I wouldn't miss it. I always appreciate time spent with like-minded people,' Monroe replied, settling in his desk chair and leaning back. He propped one elbow on the arm, his fingers curling in front of his lips as he gave Sherlock another once-over before turning to John, all hard eyes and false smiles.

The two of them stared at each other, neither deigning to look away until Sherlock moved, sauntering over to place himself very pointedly at John's side. Their shoulders brushed, and the shameless, snarling creature in the back of John's brain quietened to feel Sherlock's warmth so close. He would only have to move his hand a fraction to catch Sherlock’s fingers in his own grip but he held himself firm, not even glancing to his right as he watched Monroe's face.

It started as a flicker in the eyes, not so much about comprehension, because he did not think Monroe would be repentant about stealing someone else's lover. No, he was not bothered by the obstacle John might present at all, and the expression on his face was nothing like defeat. Instead there was a passing flash of something like enjoyment, as if Sherlock was no longer simply interesting, but an undeniable challenge.

John did not like that look at all, and he forced himself to glance away, ignoring the bristling of the hairs on the back of his neck as he spoke to Sherlock. The soldier in him wanted to stand his ground, but logic suggested that retreat was a safer alternative. 'Do we have everything we need?'

'For now. We'll be in touch if we have any more questions,' Sherlock promised, every word firm and confident in a way that made John smile. 'Goodbye, Mr Monroe. It's been a very informative meeting.'

'The pleasure's all mine, Mr Holmes.' Monroe got to his feet, his hand outstretched as his face radiated concern. 'I hope you can bring Sophie's killer to justice soon.' The handshake lingered a fraction too long, fingers gliding over Sherlock's palm in brief, blatant promise, only to draw back as John spoke.

'We intend to. Goodbye, Mr Monroe.' John did not try and shake hands; there was a good chance it would result in Monroe nursing broken fingers. Instead, John gave a thin, lethal kind of smile as he stood back, urging Sherlock through the office door with the soft splay of his hand at the base of Sherlock's spine. It was a minor gesture, but it spoke volumes – utterly possessive – and John could not resist one last glance over his shoulder at Monroe.

No words were spoken, but the message was clear.


A sneer twitched on Monroe's lips, but died a second later, replaced with an ugly, twisted frown. It was only when John looked back at Sherlock that he realised why. Those bright eyes were watching him, not condemning or angry – justifiably aggravated at John's overbearing attitude – they were hot and languid, seeming to give an unspoken response of their own that made John's heart sing.


Chapter Text

Sherlock could see the tension in John's body. It was written in every muscle and painted in the sharp, military length of his stride as he urged Sherlock out of Monroe's office and towards the lift. The assistant was greeted with nothing more than a curt nod that looked more like a declaration of war than a gentle farewell.

John seemed intent on getting Sherlock out, as if they were in enemy territory and his mind had fallen back on battlefield strategy. His face was hard, his eyes focussed on the lift doors, and it was only when Sherlock gently clasped John's wrist in his hand that John seemed to come back into himself with a guilty start. Blue eyes gleamed with ashamed apology and something else – something calescent – that set a swarm of butterflies thrashing through Sherlock's stomach.

'I'll be needing my coat,' Sherlock said, trying to keep his voice steady as he took in the appearance of the assistant with a sweep of his gaze. Reflexively, he absorbed the details, taking particular care to note his tan-lines and fingernails as his coat and scarf were surrendered with an insincere smile. The cloud of deductions flowed through his mind, cross-referenced with lightning speed to the case, and he hesitated for a fraction of a second as the new data began to percolate.

Interesting, but not as intriguing as John and his volatile behaviour towards Monroe.

Sherlock was hyper-aware of John standing rigid at his side, his breathing tight and controlled, nasal – angry – but not at Sherlock. His fists were locked behind his back like a warrior at ease, but every pore radiated urgency. Fascinating.

Sherlock was well-versed in jealousy as a motivator. How many bloody pictures of romantic dispute had he seen daubed across London's murder scenes? For all that it protested otherwise, humanity was only one very short step away from the animals: base and instinctual. He had been the target of others' envy before. People sought to bring him down, to make his intelligence less threatening with cruel insults and social exclusion, but no one had ever been like this – acting as if he were something worth claiming.

It was feral, bestial, raw – nothing to do with intelligence or higher thinking whatsoever – and Sherlock's heart pulsed wildly in response, driving hot blood through his veins in viscous, heady surges to pool between his legs. He felt as if someone had lit a fuse under his skin, tracing a path along every nerve and capillary until he glowed with it. Even though he felt flushed, he pulled his coat on: a necessary disguise for the burgeoning erection trapped in his underwear.

With a brief nod of farewell to the assistant, Sherlock allowed John to lead him towards the lift, noticing with a thrill that John let him in first, blocking the line between Monroe's office and Sherlock with his body. He jabbed his finger into the “down” button ruthlessly, and only once the lift doors slid shut did John's shoulders drop a fraction and he lifted his eyes to meet Sherlock's.

They stood in silence, staring at each other as the air turned heavy and thick. Sherlock licked his lips, his breath catching as John's gaze followed the movement. The urge to step back, to tilt his head in invitation, let John crowd him into a corner and simply take him was almost overwhelming. It did not matter that Monroe's efforts had left Sherlock utterly indifferent, or that John's jealousy had no strong foundation; the fact that John still behaved as if that imbecile was a threat left Sherlock dry-mouthed and trembling.

John's voice was a whisper, low and wrecked as his gaze raked over Sherlock's body, moving all the way down to his toes and back up again as if he could brand him by sight alone.

'Should I apologise?'

The words filled the air with rough silk, and Sherlock drew in a deep breath as if he could inhale them. John was not talking about showing Monroe any kind of remorse. Sherlock was aware that the world could end and John would still rather break the architect's nose than offer anything like a truce in the unspoken war. Instead he was asking if Sherlock thought his behaviour inappropriate (yes, but Sherlock adored inappropriate) or something he should regret (No. Never).

'What do you think?' he asked, intensely aware of the rumble of his voice in his throat, low to match John's. He shifted forward, looking down into John's eyes and reading the twist of John's moral compass, thrown off course by the undeniable strength of his baser reactions. John felt that he ought to apologise, but that did not mean that he wanted to, or that he would not react in exactly the same way should the situation ever repeat itself.

He could smell the scent of John's shampoo and the faintly warm fragrance of his skin: a blend of shaving foam, soap and essence-of-John. They were toe-to-toe, Sherlock's coat falling open in a dark curtain around them as the lift eased its way downwards.

'No,' John murmured at last, his eyes dropping to linger on Sherlock's lips again as if hypnotised. 'No, I'm not sorry for getting you away from him. He can't have you.' John glanced away for a moment as if penitent. 'I mean, if you wanted him I wouldn't stop you. It's not – I'm not like that, but you don't, do you?'

Sherlock blinked, wondering if John was looking at a different world than the one he observed. He had seen Sherlock's look in the doorway to Monroe's office, had recognised it for what it was, yet he was still voicing the question. What must it be like to be normal? To doubt the evidence of your own eyes so readily?

John was trying to impress upon Sherlock that he was not controlling, and that he could move above his deeper, possessive instincts, but why? Society might deem his behaviour intrusive, but since when had Sherlock cared what people – idiots, all – thought?

The answer came to him suddenly. False extrapolation. John was drawing on reactions to his behaviour in previous relationships, applying them to this situation and reaching an erroneous conclusion. One that was probably exacerbated by his uncertainty over the status of their – what? Friendship? Relationship? Partnership?

All of the above?

'Monroe is a cretin who treats lovers as possessions, not because he cares for them and fears losing them to another, but because they reflect well on his status and appearance. That was the reason for the breakdown of his engagement with Ms Lattimer, I imagine.' Sherlock took a deep breath, trying to sort through the chaotic urges that raced through him – from the low, heady hum of simple desire to the complicated treble of wanting to comfort John and ease away his uncertainties.

'His interest in me is superficial at best, and mine in him is non-existent. He's – He's not you.'

The smile on John's face could have lit up half of London, and Sherlock breathed a shaking sigh of relief at the sight. He had feared his inability to communicate sentiment to John – getting caught up and tangled in his words and making everything worse. It happened so often in social interactions, where bare-faced truth was unacceptable and graceless, yet John could comprehend what he meant.

John always understood, or at least made an effort to do so. How many others had ever bothered to go to such lengths?

Whatever John's response may have been was cut off by the slide of the lift doors, and a familiar voice let out a sigh. 'Fancy seeing you two here.'

Lestrade did not sound remotely surprised. In fact, there was a smug element to his words, as if he had come to Canary Wharf with the intention of tracking them down rather than seeing Monroe. 'So, have you been saving me time or making my life more difficult?'

'As if you need to ask,' Sally cut in, folding her arms and frowning at the two of them. 'Did we interrupt a domestic?'

Sherlock glanced back at John, realising how close they were standing: John still bristling from the whole Monroe débâcle and Sherlock looming by sheer dint of his greater height. It was a tableau where attraction could easily be mistaken for antagonism by an outsider, and Sally would find it far easier to believe that Sherlock had incited John's anger rather than affection.

'No,' John replied with an empty smile, stepping out of the lift. He kept his voice quiet so that the receptionist couldn't hear. 'Monroe's a dick, but he says he was up at an architectural conference in Glasgow at the time of the murders.'

Lestrade nodded, pulling a notebook from his pocket and scribbling in it as Sherlock added, 'It was at the Hilton. Heavily attended and reliant on networking, it's probably a firm alibi.' He narrowed his eyes, thinking through the details before he spoke again. 'Pay particular attention to whether or not he socialised in the evening. It's plausible he could get down to London and back on the last and first trains, but it would mean he was missing from the bar that night and breakfast the next day.'

'Anything else?' Lestrade asked.

'He's not the murderer.'

'What?' John asked, giving Sherlock an incredulous look. 'Why not?'

Sherlock read the amazement on John's face, and sighed. 'He has big hands, bigger than mine.' He held out his palm, fingers spread in obvious demonstration. 'According to the police file, the knife found in Winters was a broad blade scalpel, short-handled. If Monroe had stabbed Winters, the resistance of the flesh would cause his hand to slip forward, off the handle and onto the blade. There's no sign of injury on his palms or fingers, so whoever killed Winters would have hands no bigger than yours.'

'So why am I even checking his story?' Lestrade asked.

'Because you'll want a warrant for his computer and phone records, and holes in the alibi might allow that,' Sherlock replied in a bored tone. 'Just because he did not hold the blade that killed Winters doesn't mean he's not involved.'

Sally rubbed a hand over her brow, scratching at her temple before glaring at Sherlock. 'So, what? Monroe's the mastermind and someone else is doing his dirty work?'

She made it sound like one of those films that John was so fond of, with the unlikely gadgets and espionage where the world was always shamelessly cold-war black and white. 'Possibly, or he may have unintentionally provided someone else with adequate motivation to take drastic action on his behalf. Finding out whether he is guilty or not is your job, not mine.'

'A bit of help wouldn't go amiss,' Lestrade muttered, rubbing at his right eye as he glared down at his notepad. 'Anything else?'

'The old engagement ring. Find out if it's among Lattimer's personal effects,' Sherlock instructed, narrowing his eyes as he considered the trinket. It could be a superfluous detail: detritus of sentiment clogging the field of view, but it could also be the key to unravelling the bizarre knot of this murder.

'We ruled out theft as a motive. All her valuables were still there.' Lestrade looked to Sally for confirmation, and she gave a single nod. 'Her safe was still full and her jewellery box hadn't moved from the bedside table.'

'Including the ring?' Sherlock sighed when Lestrade shrugged. 'Rich families like to give gems as gifts because they're investments rather than liabilities. A Ferrari loses value every second you drive it, a diamond pendant accrues worth,' he explained. 'She probably had a number of necklaces and other items, and it's clear that theft was not the motive because various expensive pieces were still present.'

He waved a hand, vaguely indicating the office upstairs and the man within its walls. 'However, Monroe let her keep the engagement ring. If it's missing, then its removal was both deliberate and targeted. That fact alone would put greater importance on her relationship with Monroe in relation to the case – enough to take him in for questioning.'

'Don't forget the redevelopment,' John added. 'That's what brought us here in the first place. Whichever way you look at it, Monroe seems to be up to his neck in all this.'

'Care to tell us about it?' Lestrade asked, folding his arms and glaring pointedly at Sherlock. 'You shouldn't even be here anyway. How did you get him to see you?'

'He's cooperative,' Sherlock lied smoothly before beginning to explain. 'Winters had a leaflet for a new conceptual development on Admiral Walk, a re-build of the block in which Ms Lattimer had an apartment. It's one of Monroe's big projects, but for it to go ahead he needs to buy out the current owners and occupants.'

'Bloody hell.' Lestrade nodded glumly. 'It sounds more and more like he might have a good motive after all.'

'Both Monroe and his assistant say an offer was made to Ms Lattimer, but she was murdered before she had the chance to reply.'

'You think they're telling the truth?' That was Sally, who was at least equally suspicious of everyone she came across.

'We can find out easily enough,' Lestrade said before Sherlock could offer any kind of scathing response. 'We'll check Lattimer's phone records, her computer and all that. See if she's been in contact.' He sighed, flicking his notebook shut and meeting Sherlock's eye. 'The knife we found yesterday is definitely the murder weapon. Along with the clothes, it's enough to conclude that Winters killed Lattimer, but working out who finished him off is turning out to be more difficult than we thought.'

'Didn't you find anything at the bridge?' John asked, his arms folded as he shifted his weight onto one hip, fractionally closer to Sherlock.

'We know he fell into the Thames at Chiswick because of the damage to the bridge and what Sherlock found on the body. He was in good nick for having travelled downstream so far, but that's more luck than anything else. We just don't know who stuck the knife in his chest.' Lestrade closed his eyes for a moment, clearly tired. Overworked. It made Sherlock wonder how many crimes slipped by unsolved because the officers involved were too exhausted to see the evidence. 'We've got no CCTV of anything amiss at the apartment or the bridge, and nothing but shit from the Lattimer family. We were coming here looking for new leads – '

'Which we found for you,' Sherlock pointed out, glancing over his shoulder as the lift doors whirred closed and it began to ascend, summoned to another floor. 'It should be enough to keep you busy for a while. Come on, John.'

'I suppose you want to know what we find?' Lestrade called after him.

'You'll tell me,' Sherlock replied, smirking to himself as he pushed open the door. 'You do want to solve the case, after all.'

John's stride matched his own as they picked their way back through the sterile urban paradise. The street lamps were beginning to glow now that the sun had departed its arc in the sky: another short winter's day brought to an end.

Out here, amidst the bustle and rush of London, Sherlock half-expected the hot, tempting sensation from the lift to dissipate, torn apart by the sensory input of the world. Yet it lingered on, a thick, taut bowline linking him to John that intensified as John spoke: a sonogram reading his voice in smooth curves and jagged lines.

'Are you sure Monroe didn't do it? I would have loved to see him go down for this.' John glanced up at Sherlock, his nose wrinkled and his lips twisted in a way that made Sherlock smother a smile.

'He might still find himself facing jail time. While you two were snarling at one another I was reading his computer screen.' He glanced at John to see an open, curious expression. 'Even if he has nothing to do with the murder, this investigation could well end him. There's plenty of evidence of creative accounting all over his spreadsheets. He's skimming from his business partner.'

John huffed. 'Doesn't surprise me. Greedy git. I still think he's behind the killings though. Even if he didn't do it himself, surely he's going to know someone who could do it for him?'

Sherlock rolled his shoulders in a shrug, raising his arm to hail a cab. 'Possibly. Did you find out anything of use from the assistant?'

'Not much.' John stepped forward, clambering into the taxi that stopped at the kerb and waiting until Sherlock was seated before he continued. 'Havisham stayed behind to keep the office running, and business is good. That's about all I got, other than the fact he thought Lattimer's death was an inconvenience because it would make the sale of her flat go more slowly.' He looked at Sherlock curiously, perhaps wondering if he was going to pull a rabbit out of a hat with those few crumbs of information.

'Anything else?'

'Talked about Monroe's architectural “vision” a lot – the usual company spiel, you know? As if he thought people like us might be looking to buy one of their places in the future. Do you know how much they sell their apartments for?' Sherlock just gave him a patient look, watching John roll his eyes and smile. 'Of course you do. As if we could ever afford to spend millions on a London flat.'

'I doubt the speech about the properties was to entice you to buy,' Sherlock replied smoothly. 'I heard some of it – it's one of the reasons I left the door open. He was trying to impress you with Monroe's status and emphasise the gap in social standing. Trying to make you feel inadequate.'

'What – why?' John spread his hands as if to indicate himself in well-worn jeans, a slate blue jumper and an unremarkable jacket. 'I'm not exactly threatening.'

Sherlock leaned closer, keeping his voice low so that the driver could not overhear as he murmured, 'Anyone who's seen you handle a gun would say otherwise.'

John's response was both unexpected and instantaneous. A delicate tremor ran through his body and he sucked in a breath, a faint flush warming his skin as he turned to grin at Sherlock. His eyes were cobalt and his pupils large, unabashed with desire, and Sherlock felt its answering pull re-ignite in the pit of his stomach. Their noses were almost touching, their breath mingling, and when John's tongue darted out to wet his lips Sherlock could almost taste him.

The cabbie cleared his throat pointedly, shooting them an unforgiving glare in the rear-view mirror. Sherlock returned it with an icy scowl as John pulled away.

He was tempted to deliver a cutting remark about the driver's clearly failing side business when a rumble from his stomach cut through the air. The noise was partly to do with the want sitting low in his gut, but mostly it was brought on by the fact that lunch had been hours ago.

A quick, sideways glance at John showed him smothering a smirk, and Sherlock sighed. 'Angelo's?' he asked.

'Are you going to eat something?' John's lips parted in a grin when Sherlock nodded. 'You're paying.'

'As if Angelo ever makes us pay,' Sherlock replied, leaning back in his seat and giving the cabbie one last, disdainful look before he turned his attention out of the window. Looking at John was too tempting. Every glance seemed to pull at him, trying to reel in his hapless body, and Sherlock had no wish to be thrown out by one of the city's more bigoted cab drivers. Instead he watched the world spin past: his metropolis caught in its own giddy dance as his thoughts turned inwards.

Once, it would have been so easy to lose himself in London's dark, forgotten places where crime still lay rank and black in every shadow. Before John, there had been moments of temptation. He had wanted to walk away, disappear from the radar and slip, unknown but knowing into the grim underbelly.

Maybe he would have shone a light into that gloom, but even now he could not be sure he would not simply have revelled in it. Perhaps, in some respects, Moriarty had been right. They had been alike, once. There had been the potential for Sherlock to turn to criminality if only for the challenge, but not since John.

The addition of a single item to the equation changed it utterly: properties altered by one simple variable. He should have resented it, this impact and influence, but how could he? How could he begrudge John? After all, it was not that John changed him, but that he made Sherlock want to fine-tune himself: recalibration for heightened efficiency.

Remodulation for deeper understanding.

Sherlock blinked, ignoring the red gleam of the traffic lights as his mind continued to turn, multiple trains of thought clattering along different tracks, occasionally bisecting but never coming to a halt. The storm of the case still flickered, almost background noise in his head as the issue of him and John slipped to the fore. He had been examining the idea in his mind all day, turning it over in every spare moment, yet he had not found a new perspective.

All the same issues and doubts lingered on, nagging at him with sharp teeth of concern, and with each passing hour Sherlock realised that there was no way he could be certain of the outcome. Even with his brilliant mind, he could no more tell the future than anyone else, not beyond basic pattern recognition, and if there was one thing that defied logical progression, it was sentiment.

He was forced to conclude that the only way to be sure that a relationship between himself and John would work was to experience it. To be reassured with every day – every moment of peace and passing conflict – that it was something that could last.

John had told him it was his choice to make, and then mutely reminded Sherlock at every opportunity that really, there was only one answer. He had expected demands from John on both his time and mental capacity. He had dreaded the fact that John would want to talk, to rake it over the coals and try and dismiss Sherlock's concerns, but he had done no such thing.

He had remained himself, but more so. Steadfast and strong, but seemingly reinforced by Sherlock's quiet confession that there was something – some potential that they could both see – rather than a one-sided attraction.

Then there was the confrontation with Monroe. Even just the memory ignited a thrill across Sherlock's skin, making his clothes feel abruptly too tight and his body swollen. It had shown him a side of John with which he was not previously familiar.

Oh, John had been protective in the past, vicious, at times, in the pursuit of Sherlock's safety, but that was something different. The threat was not to his life, but something far more intimate, and John's response had been taut control and lethal force simmering beneath a thin guise of civility. Sherlock was not certain what was more arousing: John's intellectual restraint or the fact that his more primal instincts had clearly been so close to ripping that control to shreds.

All for him.

'Oi, here you are,' the cabbie called, pulling Sherlock from his thoughts. He paid the man precisely, stubbornly offering no tip as he and John climbed out and began the short walk to Angelo's, falling naturally into step as the first few dots of rain began to fall from the clouds that had built up overhead.

They had just crossed the threshold of Angelo's when the heavens opened, sending a downpour crashing down onto London's towers and barren, concrete ground. 'Timed that well,' John said appreciatively as they were shown to their usual table in the window, the panes of which were now dotted with crystal trails of water that glowed red and white from the lights of passing cars. 'How long do you reckon it will be before we hear back from Greg?'

Sherlock shrugged out his coat, shaking his head briefly. 'That depends on how easily they can get a warrant and how desperately the Detective Inspector needs some sleep. We might hear back about the ring tonight, but it'll probably be tomorrow.'

John reached for the menu as Angelo greeted them with his usual boisterous cheer, and Sherlock noticed that there was no objection to the candle. All the old protests had died, it seemed, and Sherlock glanced out of the window to hide his smile.

'I know you want to pin these murders on Monroe,' he murmured, keeping his voice low as he remembered John's previous requests to keep all discussions of crime, blood and body parts away from the hearing of other patrons, 'but I think we're looking in another direction.'

'You've got suspicions?' John asked, his gaze shifting from the menu to focus intently on Sherlock. 'Come on then, who do you think did it?'

Sherlock shook his head. 'No, I can tell you who it wasn't, but not who it was. Not enough –'

'Data,' John finished for him. 'Well, if it's not Monroe then my money's back on someone in the family. Maybe they heard about the generous offer for the flat.' John shifted his cutlery to one side, the metal chiming softly. 'Did she have a will? If not then everything automatically goes to next of kin. Perhaps they decided they could absorb her independent fortune into their own.' He looked up with a smile of thanks as Angelo poured them both some wine and took their orders. 'They have got another heir, after all, and I bet they didn't take her estrangement well.'

Sherlock watched a raindrop race down the glass of the window before turning to look at John. 'True, but Ms Lattimer's wealth was insignificant in comparison to that of her father. However you look at it, the risk of scandal if the murder was discovered outweighs the gain. If the family were involved, then it was purely emotional, rather than financially motivated.' Sherlock shifted his weight as he sighed in frustration. 'I feel like I'm missing something.'

'You'll solve it,' John replied, his voice strong with utter confidence as he snagged a bread roll from the basket and put it pointedly on Sherlock's plate. 'Eat that, your stomach's disturbing the other customers.'

'It's not that loud,' Sherlock muttered, but he did as he was told. It was as if his fingers and hands, lips and tongue were under John's control rather than his own, breaking up bread and eating it to calm the increasing threat of his stomach. 'It's your fault anyway. I used to be able to go days without food.'

John rolled his eyes. 'Which is so wonderfully healthy.' His sarcasm fell away as he continued, 'You're still recovering from 'Flu, remember? Just because you feel all right doesn't mean your body is back at one hundred percent, yet.'

'I've managed to survive the day with no paracetamol, and I don't feel worse for wear.' Far from it, actually, though Sherlock deeply suspected that had more to do with John's constant, tempting presence than Sherlock's overall health. The faint nag of lingering aches had little sway over him when it felt as if molten iron bled through his veins, bright and burning and drawing him ever-closer to John as if magnetised.

John made a doubtful humming noise, scrutinising Sherlock's face as if searching for any sign he was being less than honest. It could have been a doctor's gaze if it weren't for the underlying heat, fires banked for now but oh-so-easy to stir back into life again.

Sherlock's heart jolted in his chest as he realised how easy that would be – how much power John had surrendered to him with every simple, unspoken admission of desire. All it would take was a slight touch, or a tilt of his head and the right words murmured and John would be in the palm of his hand, sprawled out in his bed, led blindly through the world's oldest dance...

Yet perhaps surrender was not the right word. That suggested a dominant force, a victor and a vanquished, which could not be further from the truth. No, this was not a war, but an allegiance. There was no upper hand to be had, and Sherlock tried to recall if he had ever felt that way about anyone before. Had he ever trusted them enough to place himself as fully into their hands as they did him?

There would be no holding back from John, even if he wanted to. It would simply be impossible. John was too good at seeing everything that Sherlock showed the world and all that he hid away. Perfectly observant.

And Sherlock found himself breathless all over again with the need to be known.

He wanted to race back to Baker Street and get John behind closed doors. To tell him, show him in every undeniable way that, finally, he understood. There was no right answer, no true choice to be made, but even if there were, then Sherlock's answer had become clear: yes, yes, yes.

The urge was almost overpowering, a firework racing down his spine and shooting through his veins. If they had not already ordered, he might have succumbed, but instead Sherlock shifted in his seat, reaching for his patience as he took a sip from his glass. The heady flavour of wine – grapes, sunlight and the faintest hint of baked Mediterranean earth – exploded across his tongue, doing nothing to ease the dizzy spin that swirled through him.

Under the table, his knee brushed against John's. It was a passing touch, innocent but somehow laden with significance, gone in a second. Except that, soon enough, he felt John's leg press against his, a warm length of flesh through the twin fabric of their trousers: a mirror reflection given their positions opposite one another.

One glance at John was enough to show that it was deliberate and meaningful. Approval was written in the soft, narrow curve of his lips and the glow in his eyes, enhanced as it was by the candle's coy light.

Sherlock did nothing to shift away. In fact, it seemed as if his body moved on its own, following some unwritten choreography with no conscious thought, moving to reflect John's relaxed posture as his mind buzzed with his revelation. Part of him wanted to blurt it out there and then, but the words sounded awkward in his head, and he found himself swallowing them back, turning to safer conversation as his heart raced.

'I'm not the only one who has been worse for wear this week,' he pointed out, changing the focus of his gaze to examine John on a more physical level, looking for tired shadows or lines of weariness. Yet there was nothing to be seen. John was his normal, strong, dependable self, and only the faint stamp of stress from the meeting with Monroe did anything to mar his obvious serenity. 'You were exhausted yesterday.' Sherlock glanced away. 'Too much time spent taking care of me and not enough looking after yourself.'

'I'm a doctor,' John replied, leaning back as a plate of steaming pasta was placed carefully in front of him. 'And your friend. A few hours of missed sleep is nothing I can't handle. You've trained me into it more than med-school and the army combined.'

'I don't hear you complaining,' Sherlock replied with a smile, thinking of all the times the two of them had whittled away the hours of darkness in pursuit of evidence. 'Unless you have to be at the surgery the next morning, of course.'

'Yeah, it's amazing how upset people get when their GP dozes off in the middle of an appointment.' John's grin was infectious, a bright glimmer of mirth. 'I don't know how you do it. How have you trained yourself to survive on so little sleep?'

Sherlock picked up his fork and began to eat his own meal, one elbow propped on the table in a way that would have made Mummy hiss at him about his manners. He swallowed a mouthful as he considered the answer. 'It's not a matter of adjusting a pre-set behaviour. I've never needed as much rest as everyone else. You know the eight hours a night people ramble on about is an ever-changing ideal.'

'Yeah, but I've seen you go days without getting your head down, and you're no worse for wear at the end of it.' John copied Sherlock's position, both of them leaning in across the table. It was a fractional adjustment, but Sherlock could still sense the intimacy of it, the narrowing of the world to just the two of them, as if Angelo and all the other diners weren't there at all. 'A bit more manic, if anything.'

'Normal behaviour,' Sherlock pointed out, covering his mouth with his hand as he realised he was still chewing. 'You should know that. I can't imagine you got regular hours of sleep in Afghanistan.'

John shook his head, twisting the handle of his fork in his left hand so that the metal sent little glints of light dancing across the windowpane before he answered. 'Hours of mind-numbing boredom interrupted by insane adrenaline surges. You got used to it after a while – always being on the edge like that.'

'So you know that anyone deprived of a regular sleep pattern will go through decreasing cycles of wakefulness and lethargy, increasing in intensity but reducing in duration until –'

'Until the person shuts down somewhere inconvenient, like slumped over a microscope.' John gave Sherlock an amused look. 'At least this week has shown me that your body is still in charge sometimes. The 'Flu knocked you out completely.'

Sherlock grimaced. 'Unfortunately. I could have solved the case days ago if I hadn't been stuck on the sofa.' He could pretend all he liked that if John were not there, he would have continued dragging himself to crime scenes, but the reality was undeniable. He had been utterly helpless in the throes of the fever, and the thought of struggling through without John's care was enough to send a wave of coldness through him.

'Everyone's entitled to get ill sometimes. It happens to the best of us,' John took a sip of his wine. 'You recovered quickly. More so than I thought you would.'

'Thanks to you,' Sherlock replied, gifting John with a soft smile that was readily returned. 'I – I do appreciate it. It was – good. I know I'm not an easy patient.'

John's huff of laughter was muffled, but earnest, and Sherlock shot him a half-hearted glare. 'Bit of an understatement, but, believe it or not, I've had worse. Far worse.'

Sherlock cocked his head in enquiry, listening with interest as John told him of various patients, both on the battlefield and off it, who always had the doctors and nurses cursing in frustration. It was fascinating to listen to him talking with such enthusiasm and animation, switching from the sand-whipped stone of Afghanistan to the sterile hospital wards of Bart's with fluid ease, encompassing the kaleidoscope of his experiences. More than once Sherlock asked questions about the more unusual cases, losing himself happily in a conversation that, a few months ago, he may have eschewed as useless.

Yet how could he ignore it when each sentence enhanced John's detail, improving Sherlock's understanding of him by the tiniest, most precious increments? He found himself listening, rapt, as John spoke, barely noticing as his plate became empty and the candle dwindled down between them, wallowing in its own wax.

The topic changed and shifted, flowing with comfortable ease from medicine to crime scenes, playful games of deduction and muffled giggles at some of their guesses. The tide of patrons ebbed and flowed, providing them with a constantly changing arena, but Sherlock spared them only a glance, gleaning everything in a second before returning his gaze to John to deliver his verdict.

Gradually, the wine was depleted, and their conversation took on more hushed, quiet tones. John was toying with his almost-empty glass in the middle of the table, and with every twist of the stem, his knuckles brushed lightly against Sherlock's fingers where they rested near the salt shaker: shared space in the no man's land between them. The minuscule touch was sending jolts of electricity back along Sherlock's arm, but it was nothing compared to the raw flow of gratification from the obvious admiration in John's gaze.

'The rain's stopped,' John said at last, looking out of the window and then glancing around the restaurant, which was steadily beginning to empty as the night wore on. 'Ready to head home?'

Sherlock nodded, rising to his feet and holding out John's jacket, helping him into it before reaching for his own coat. Angelo's cheerful farewell followed them out of the door as London's cool air curved around them both. Sherlock doubted that the chill had much to do with the shift of their bodies closer to one another, John's shoulder nudging against his arm with every stride as they picked their way across the rain dappled pavements.

'It really doesn't take you long to deduce someone, does it?' John asked. 'Back at the restaurant you were only looking at people for a heartbeat. One second and you see everything.'

'Not everything,' Sherlock replied, thinking of the Harry/Harriet mistake – one among many. 'It just seems that way. There's so much information on display that most people block it out from a young age. They have to, or they'd be overwhelmed.'

'You just never learned to ignore it?' John asked, looking doubtful of his own words, as if he could not believe there was any skill that Sherlock would not wish to develop.

'I never wanted to. I found my own ways of handling the input, and as I grew up I learned how to read it.' He thought of those few, intermediate years when he had thrown his youthful curiosity into comprehending all the tiny details available to him, unpicking their meaning for his own pleasure and amusement in a frank and earnest effort to understand everything around him. 'Without my methods, there would be no such thing as a consulting detective, and nothing for you to blog about.' Sherlock pulled a face. 'I would probably be working for Mycroft.'

'No, you wouldn't,' John said with a smirk. 'You'd be doing something just as brilliant somewhere else.' He flushed then, a faint pink tinge that was about more than the wine as he ducked his head and scratched at the back of his neck. 'Still, I'm glad this is where we ended up.' He waved a hand, indicating all of London and its criminal elements. 'It's hard to imagine myself doing anything else, now.'

'You would have found something,' Sherlock replied, reading the doubt on John's face – seeing there the possibility of what could have been: a quiet practice beyond London's sprawl, an emaciated half-life of trying to care. Perhaps he would have been happy, but he would never have been the whole John Watson again. Sherlock had given him that as much as John had offered his own admiration and support, allowing Sherlock's brilliance to bloom in the light of his appreciation.

Reaching out, he squeezed John's fingers briefly with his own, clearing his throat and looking away as he murmured, 'I'm glad you didn't have to, though. This – I didn't think getting a flatmate could lead to this.'

John's hand tightened around Sherlock's, dragging him up short and making him turn, connected along the length of their arms by their joined grip. John's weathered face wore an uncertain expression, blended through with desperation and determination in equal measure. He licked his lips, lifting his chin as he met Sherlock's gaze.

'What is this – exactly?' He swallowed tightly, a quick shake of his head making Sherlock ease back towards him, turning to face him fully. The small expanse of rain-drenched pavement shrunk to nothing between them, eaten up by the single stride necessary to close the distance. 'I understand if you need more time to think, I do. It's just –' He shook his head, clearly lost in a morass of unspoken words, but Sherlock thought he could fill in the gaps.

After all, he had been able to see all John's hope and desire and possessive, desperate need, and he had no doubt that something similar had painted its picture across his own features. Perhaps John could not read the murderer's identity in a corpse's silent story, but if the past week had taught Sherlock nothing else, he knew that John had all the powers of observation necessary when it came to Sherlock. John knew him better than anyone else, and he must have seen Sherlock's choice by now – unspoken as it was. All he needed was confirmation.

'It's – I –' Sherlock cursed himself inwardly as the words failed him, caught behind the irrational knot of bitter fear and clamouring, whining hope that was tangling beneath his rib-cage. Impossible.

At last he let out a shivering breath and lifted his hand to John's chin. It took only the slightest pressure for John to tilt his face up, artless and obliging, his eyes huge and dark as Sherlock lowered his head and pressed a kiss to John's mouth: soft but not exactly chaste. It was a prelude and request, an answer and a question all in one, and anticipation shivered down Sherlock's spine at John's gasp of indrawn breath, followed by a low moan that shot straight down between his legs.

John's fingers tangled in Sherlock's coat as his lips parted, tongue darting out to trace the curve of Sherlock's mouth. The flash of heat was enough to tempt Sherlock's lips open, to taste John properly – wine, herbs and John's unique flavour that somehow reset all the switches in Sherlock's head, bringing the kind of calm, isolated focus that only cocaine had given him in the past.

Except now it was not a case that held his attention, but John. His strong frame was pinned against him, trapped as Sherlock’s spare arm slipped around John's waist. The other lingered at John's jaw, not applying pressure but simply resting against John's thudding pulse – another anchor – insignificant in comparison to the slick contact of lips and tongue, the sharp nip of teeth at his bottom lip making him growl in appreciation.

John's fingers shifted up the back of Sherlock's neck, tunnelling through his hair and tangling the curls in his grip, firm enough to guide and shift, but not to pull. The simple movement was enough to press them closer to one another still, John's body straining up against Sherlock's as London's rush faded away around them. The city's noise was wiped into irrelevance as sensation overwhelmed Sherlock's mind, leaving him lost and breathless, needing air but wanting John more.

At last, he broke back a fraction, blinking his eyes open to gaze down at John, taking in his flushed face and swollen mouth, shoulders heaving a little with each breath.

'Bloody hell.'

A huff of laughter escaped Sherlock's mouth, stolen away by John's lips as they pressed over his again, testing and tempting. It was as if he could not quite believe what was happening and had to reassure himself through taste and touch, through the drag of fabric separating their skin and the furtive, desperate press of hands.

'We should –' John moaned as Sherlock cut him off, swallowing the words as if they were the sweetest sustenance and stroking across John's tongue with his own before releasing him again. 'Oh, God, if we don't get back to Baker Street we're going to get arrested.'

'For a kiss?' Sherlock murmured, his lips tilting in a smirk as he caught the look in John's eye and felt the temperature in his blood spike, increasing the pressure in his trousers and sending a new swarm buzzing along his spine.

'I plan to do far more than kiss you,' John promised roughly, his eyebrows raising in brief question. 'If that's what you want?'

Sherlock lapped at John's mouth, catching the thin, flushed line between his teeth in a gentle, teasing nip. 'What do you think?' He canted his hips forward, knowing John would probably be able to feel the hard contour of flesh that had risen to his bidding through the thick wool of the coat. He could certainly feel John's answer amidst the tempest that had grown between them.

'I'll – I'll take that as a yes,' John managed, a bright grin flashing across his face as he finally dragged himself away, catching Sherlock's hand firmly in his and giving him a meaningful tug along the street.

John's impatience was easily shared, tempered only by the bubbling, evolving urge to touch each other. Their footsteps were clumsy and drunken, not out of place in London at this time of night, but the wine Sherlock had consumed was not nearly as intoxicating as the shimmering, trembling incandescence that threatened to overwhelm him.

It was as if his body had slipped its leash, shunned its chains and attuned itself utterly to John's shorter, equivocal frame. His fingers itched to trace the lines of bones and muscle, flesh and the hidden roadways of veins, to learn and map every contour of John's body, but at the same time his hands shook, unreliable cartographers currently held at bay by far too many clothes.

John was no better, Sherlock could feel the tension running through him like a violin string pulled to breaking point across the arch of its bridge. Palm to palm and fingers entwined was only the tiniest fragment of relief, and hungry kisses stolen in their staggering progress only served to make Sherlock's breath catch and his mind cloud over.

At last the familiar black door of Baker Street stood before them, and Sherlock searched in his pocket with numb fingers to drag free the keys, painfully aware of John pressed against him as if distance was a cardinal sin. A panting, disbelieving laugh bounced between them as Sherlock struggled to get the lock undone, almost falling into the hallway as the door finally gave way and was closed behind them by the kick of John's foot, blocking out the world.

Within a heartbeat, Sherlock found himself pressed back against the wall, John's body hard and urgent against his. Those surgeon's hands plucked at the buttons of Sherlock's coat and tugged at his scarf in a desperate effort to get at the skin beneath.

His mouth charted a wet line along Sherlock's jaw, and Sherlock slid down the wall a little, angling his body so that John was within easier reach and he could capture that perfect, darting tongue with his own and let John lay his claim. Snatched breaths and soft, wet, filthy sounds caught between them as his hands struggled with the zip of John's jacket before slipping beneath, scrabbling at the bulk of the jumper.

'Boys, it's – oh!' Mrs Hudson's exclamation cut through the air, and Sherlock stifled a laugh as John flinched away, looking both mortified and perfectly ruffled. His hair was sticking up from the passage of Sherlock's fingers and his jacket was falling off one shoulder. Not nearly as debauched as Sherlock would like, but the impression was promising none-the-less.

'Oh, you two!' Mrs Hudson was blushing, her expression caught firmly between a reprimanding scowl and a delighted, twittering kind of smile that suggested Mrs Turner would be hearing all about this tomorrow. 'You have a flat and two bedrooms for that kind of thing!'

'Sorry, Mrs Hudson,' John mumbled, except that judging from the smile twisting his lips he was trying not to laugh, and the hand tangled in Sherlock's coat was still holding on, firm and unashamed. 'We'll, erm, we'll just –'

'I'll leave you to it, and if there are any suspicious stains on my wallpaper tomorrow it will be coming out of your rent.'

She vanished back into her flat, leaving them both to slump against each other, caught helplessly between laughter and lust.

'Oh my God,' John murmured, glancing back at Mrs Hudson's closed door before tugging Sherlock towards their flat. 'Come on, let's get upstairs before anyone else interrupts.'

Sherlock did not need any encouragement. The seventeen steps passed beneath their graceless feet as they hurried up to their door. The flat stood perfectly empty, dark but for the glow of the street-lamps beyond the windows , and Sherlock flicked on the switch, the bulb flooding the room with its light and leaving him and John watching each other, beguiled.

It felt like a final chance, one last opportunity to change his mind, but Sherlock was happy to let it slip by ignored as he reached for John, his hand smoothing down the column of his neck and the curve of his shoulder to push the jacket off him onto the floor.

'Are you sure about this?' John asked hoarsely, his fingers hovering over the blue ribbon of Sherlock's scarf where it hung in disarray around his throat. 'We could – We don't have to –'

'John,' Sherlock murmured, his voice deep and rough to his own ears as he swept his bare thumb across John's lip. 'I'm sure. Now for God’s sake take that jumper off.'

John's breathy laughter huffed across his face. 'You're still in that bloody coat!'

With a smirk, Sherlock peeled his scarf away, dropping it to the floor before flicking open the last buttons of his coat and letting it slide to fall in a pool of wool around his feet, tangling with John's jacket where it lay. It was not much of an unveiling, and John had seen him in far less, but that did not stop John from lifting his eyebrow in obvious, earnest appreciation and pulling Sherlock close, burying his nose in the hollow of Sherlock's throat and inhaling with a groan,

Sherlock's eyes fluttered closed, his Adam's apple bobbing as the hot flash of John's tongue over his pulse had his hands clenching uselessly. His fingers plucked at John's jumper, finally shifting up to the warm, hair-dusted nape of his neck and up over the back of John's skull to press him closer as he tilted his head back in surrender.

The movement pushed their hips together, and Sherlock's moan harmonised with John's worshipful curse as the slow, aching grind set nerves alight, flashing and sparking in loops of positive feedback through Sherlock's body. The sensation made him snarl, his fingers tightening their grip before skimming down John's body over coarse wool to the ridge of denim between John's legs.

'Fuck!' John whimpered, his body rocking as Sherlock palmed the length of him, shamelessly charting this unknown with heavy pressure and the grinding heel of his palm. Within moments, John was rutting against him, hips twisting in a tattered motion as he clenched his jaw. 'Sherlock –'

He swallowed his own name from John's lips, his tongue slipping beyond the blunt edge of teeth to slide against John's, tasting him anew before he pulled back, dragging heady, swollen kisses down over the rough rasp of stubble to the smooth line of John's throat. His tongue flickered over the first damp dew of sweat at John's pulse, tasting the hint of salt, cataloguing all he could as John's fingers moving in a faltering dance across the buttons of his jacket and the shirt beneath.

Rough fingertips dragged a line down Sherlock's chest where the shirt exposed his skin, making him moan aloud and nibble fretfully at the line of John's collar, blocked from further exploration by the damn jumper.

'John,' he rasped, tugging at the wool, John's tight sounds of bliss washing through him like sea foam, turbulent and dangerous. With an inarticulate noise, Sherlock pulled back, grasping the hem of the garment and peeling it free from John's body, up over his head and along his arms until it could be pitched aside, hated for all its normality. The t-shirt John was wearing beneath followed suit within seconds, and Sherlock felt a shudder of something like relief as he could finally touch John's bare skin.

His hands traced the planes of muscles, counting down the straining cage of John's ribs and thumbing the jut of John's hip at the top of his jeans. Their kisses were growing increasingly desperate, feverish and wet as taut, urgent sounds fell between them.

John tugged viciously at the shirt that was still draped across Sherlock's shoulders, undone but still on, and the fabric whispered as it slid down Sherlock's arms. For one brief moment the cuffs manacled his wrists, depriving him of John before he could scrabble free and resume his exploration.

'B- bed,' John managed, moaning at the ceiling as Sherlock tongued the blade of his collarbone. 'I'm too old for the floor. Bed, Sherlock, please.'

He did not get the chance to acquiesce because John stepped back, making Sherlock whimper at the sudden absence. His entire body twitched forward, resuming contact even as John reached out to clutch at him.

He guided them through the flat, toeing out of his boots and tripping over them in his haste as Sherlock tried to do the same without actually releasing his hungry touch on John.

'God, careful,' John choked. 'I don't want to have to take you to A and E with a broken ankle.' His words faded as Sherlock pressed his body flush against John's, urging him back step for step towards the waiting door of the bedroom. He scrabbled at the light switch, barely noticing the flood of illumination as John's fingers caught in his waistband, dragging him down to the mattress.

Their twin noises of desire were obscene as they pressed against one another. Sherlock trembled to feel John's frame laid out beneath him, writhing as his hands skated up Sherlock's arms and across his shoulders, fumbling at the notches of his vertebrae and curving around his ribs.

Sherlock snarled as the wandering of his fingers was interrupted by the coarse denim of John's jeans, the sound increasing in volume when the simple fly proved too much for him. Basic mechanics were irrelevant when all his brain could think of was the symphony of flesh and the race for release.

John's laugh was quiet as he bucked his hips, shoving Sherlock gently aside until he could pop the buttons undone and Sherlock could grasp at the fabric, pulling both trousers and underwear down John's hips to reveal his prize.

'You're overdressed,' John stammered, his entire body shaking as Sherlock's fingers cupped and stroked, finally feeling the slide of velvet skin over a strong, steely core. 'Very, very much overdressed. Oh, Christ!'

Sherlock hummed as his tongue trailed up the throbbing column of John's cock, lapping to taste where the salt was at its strongest before closing his lips around the head: another, different kind of kiss that had John keening, his hips quivering with the urge to thrust and only held back by the strength of his restraint. His fingers twisted in Sherlock's hair, holding tight but not pulling as Sherlock bobbed down, relishing the flavour of John at its most intense.

A quick tug from John had Sherlock releasing him with a pop, and he gasped in surprise as John used sheer strength to flip them over. He snarled as he captured Sherlock's mouth with his own, his hands smoothing down Sherlock's hips to yank at the fabric of his trousers.

'Not like that –' John husked at last. 'Not – I want to -'

'Fuck me?' Sherlock whined, his stomach fluttering as John stripped his trousers and socks away. He pulled back briefly to kick off his own jeans and underwear before lying back over Sherlock's body, gloriously naked and insistently hard.

'Yes.' John's agreement sliced through the air, full of longing as he caught Sherlock's mouth for a long, deep kiss. Bold fingers trailed down Sherlock's stomach before wrapping around the ache of his erection, thumbing at his glans and making Sherlock's back arch in a helpless quest for more.

'Please tell me you've got lube and condoms in here somewhere?' John asked, his words nothing but a breathless whisper as if talking any louder would be his undoing.

'Drawer,' Sherlock replied, reaching out to grope blindly for the tube of lubricant and a small, square foil packet. A brief flash of gratitude that he was prepared drifted through his head before being blown away by John's touch once more, eradicated under the buzzing wave of yearning that raced outwards from the steady, hungry glide of John's fingertips up and down his shaft. 'If you – ah – keep doing that this will be over far too soon,' he warned, reaching helplessly for John and groaning in frustration when he leaned back, kneeling between Sherlock's legs with a smirk.

'Want me to stop?'

'I want you to start!' Sherlock growled, hooking his heel around John's back and giving an insistent nudge that made John's thighs flex.

'Bossy,' he said fondly, the click of the lube cap gunshot loud. 'I've ah – not done this with a man for a while, not since uni. If I hurt you -'

'You won't.'

'If I do –'

Sherlock rolled his eyes. 'I'll tell you. Since when have I ever suffered through any – oh!'

His words died in his throat as John's slick finger slid back, the pad teasing at his opening in maddening circles before finally, finally breaching him. His muscles clench in brief, shocked pleasure before he forced himself to relax and welcome in John's careful touch. His moan harmonised with the rough, appreciative sound John made, and the lave of John's tongue at the inside of his thigh, biting and marking, was enough to have Sherlock clutching helplessly at the sheets, impaling himself on John's finger.

'Easy,' John murmured, his right hand splaying across Sherlock's stomach, fingers swiping through the dewy pre-come that dotted his skin. 'I've got you. Another?'

'Yes,' Sherlock moaned, not caring how undone he sounded as the stretching sensation thrilled along his nerves. There was a brief, passing moment of discomfort before John's fingers began to work, reaching up and crooking forward until they brushed over his prostate in an electric slide that had his eyes rolling back in his head and his breath coming in sharp, startled, desperate pants. His legs jerked up towards his body in a brief spasm before another finger circled and slipped inside, scissoring carefully to widen him further. 'John!'

Kisses trailed luxuriously across his hips and erection, emphasised by the gentlest nip of teeth and the occasional heady swipe of John's tongue. Sherlock did not care about the noises he was making: little rumbles of desire and frustration in counterpoint to the grind of his body and the useless clutch of his hands.

John was too far away to grab properly, at least if he wanted him to carry on what he was doing, and Sherlock could not decide if he wanted more of John's clever fingers or the thick heat of John's cock. Another flick over his prostate coupled with the shameless tease of John's mouth on his tip had Sherlock whimpering at the ceiling, trying to fight off the rip-tide of want that threatened to overwhelm him.

He wrapped his legs shamelessly around John's waist, pressing with his heels in a mute command. The absence of John's fingers left him abruptly bereft before he heard the crinkle of the condom packet and the quiet hiss of John's breath as he applied it to himself.

'Ready?' John asked, sounding half-gone, his palms skimming down Sherlock's shaking thighs. A grin flashed across his lips when Sherlock's only response was another press with his heels, an undeniable urging until he could feel John's heavy, hanging erection pressed to him, the swollen head pushing forward until the ridge slipped in with a jerk.

'Fuck!' John choked, his voice an almost-sob as he braced his weight over Sherlock, eyes squeezed tight shut in worship. His hair was sticking up in all directions, and his lips parted around each straining breath as he eased inwards. Sherlock forced himself to focus on John's expression, taking in every detail as the slow, painfully pleasurable stretch of John pushing into him filled his body with ghostly ripples.

'All right?' he whispered, trying to grip John's shoulders, his fingertips exploring the web of the scar rapturously as he shifted his hips and groaned.

'Aren't I meant to be asking you that?' John asked, dragging his eyes open and staring down at Sherlock like he could not quite believe who he had in bed with him. 'Fuck, look at you. You're gorgeous. Ah!' He bit his lip hard as Sherlock flexed in unguarded encouragement until John started to shift, drawing out only to surge in again, seeking with each thrust until he hit the perfect angle and Sherlock's voice tore itself free from his throat in unrestrained delight.

He touched John everywhere he could reach, brushing up the straining, trembling length of his arms, curving his fingers over his shoulders and down, across the sensitive nubs of John's nipples. He wanted to record it all, to map every inch and memorise every single one of John's reactions, but it was as if his brain was offline. His mind was blank and receptive to nothing but the feel of John inside him and the sparking ecstasy that mounted with every second. It felt like every breath was pure passion, edged with the scent of sweat and sex and John.

Abruptly John shifted, and Sherlock keened as the angle changed, still good but pulling him back from the edge. John whispered an apology, returning obediently to brace himself over Sherlock on both hands. 'I want to touch you,' he confided softly. 'Can't stay like this and stroke you at the same time.' John's voice caught as Sherlock's hand shifted to oblige. 'Please, Sherlock. Come for me?'

As if he could say no. Words had abandoned him utterly, flung aside as irrelevant as the tide of ecstasy swelled to breaking point. John's body was a humid wall over him, the core between their legs slick and blazing where their bodies joined, and Sherlock wrapped his fingers around himself. He tried to match John's thrusts, but they were rapidly losing their rhythm, thrown to tatters as John approached his own peak.

He was moaning praises, Sherlock's name on repeat like a prayer, and the hoarse sound of it was the last spark Sherlock needed to drag him over the edge. John's name was a wrecked cry on his lips as his climax raced through him, clenching every muscle tight and shuddering as hot stripes spilt on his stomach and over his pumping knuckles.

John's tight shout was almost lost in the storm of sensation, and it was a moment before Sherlock had sense enough to feel the twitches of John's release seated deep inside him, straining forward in completion as their panting breaths fill the stillness of the bedroom.

Dreamily, Sherlock reached out, slipping one hand up John's forearm as his body quivered, overly sensitive to the weight of John inside him and alive at every point where John's flesh touched his own. Weakly, he loosened his legs from John's waist, lead-limbed and lethargic in the best possible way, a muted chuckle bouncing in his chest at the stunned, dazed expression on John's face.

'That was –'

'Mmmm,' Sherlock murmured in agreement. He wrinkled his nose in slight discomfort as John slipped out of him, disposing of the condom in the nearby bin before collapsing back onto the mattress at Sherlock's side, sounding breathless and content. 'Superb.'

John grinned at the lascivious praise, looking too tired to even move as Sherlock ran a finger through the mess on his own stomach and looked around for his underwear to wipe himself clean. 'We could shower?' John suggested, but he sounded as if getting up was the last thing on his mind, and Sherlock was inclined to agree.

'Tomorrow,' he promised, pitching his boxers over the side of the mattress and turning towards John, reaching out to grab his hand and drag him closer until they were sprawled together in the middle of the bed.

John nuzzled at the slowing pulse in the hollow of Sherlock's jaw, one arm slung across his chest as his leg snaked in between Sherlock's thighs. His voice was rough in the air, making a delicate shiver race through Sherlock's skin anew, quieter now, less urgent, but delicious all the same.

'So we're – we're doing this?' John asked, his thumb rubbing back and forth across Sherlock's sternum over the slowing thud of his heart as if he were conducting the orchestra of Sherlock's existence.

The thoughts and fears of all that could go wrong still lingered: hazy, faint shadows in the sunlight of his sated mind. Yet they were outshone by the potential of all that he and John could have together – all that they could be for each other, both now and in the future – and this time the words came easy.

'Yes. If it's what you still want?'

Sherlock watched as John smiled, the fan of his sandy lashes drifting closed as the warm promise of his whisper reached Sherlock's ears.

'God, yes.'

Chapter Text

Consciousness found John gently, unfurling over him like warm ocean waves as the last shroud of blissful sleep drifted away. He felt lax and content, curled up in the cocoon of Sherlock's bed with the heavy sprawl of another body half across his back. He could feel the soft tickle of curls against his skin and the whispering rush of every breath that lapped in and out of Sherlock's chest.

A grin broke across his lips, which still felt a little kiss swollen and savaged by the lingering scrape of Sherlock's teeth. In fact, various parts of him ached in a way that made him feel both smug and about ten years younger. He should have known that if running around the streets of London with Sherlock Holmes brought him back to life then sex with the man would blow his mind.

The memory of the previous night bloomed in full, and John drew in a sharp breath as heat flared along his veins and made his skin tingle. Clumsy touches, desperate kisses and Sherlock in all his stunning glory. All that sharp focus intent – not on a case – but on John, as if he were the richest, most brilliant puzzle Sherlock had ever come across.

God, it had been like a dream: everything John wanted and thought he could never have, willing and keening for him, splayed open as if there were nothing else in the world that Sherlock needed. If it were not for Sherlock's warm weight sprawled across him, John would have suspected it was just another – albeit vivid – fantasy, like so many others that had painted themselves across the canvas of his slumber.

Except that what they had shared last night had not been the simple flash of lust, quickly sated. All day, ever since the meeting in Monroe's office, Sherlock had been looking at John as if he were a starving man and John was a feast. It had been the same glance of desire that John had seen before, back at the flat, but amplified a hundred-fold, not just warmth but scorching, blazing need.

He had known in the lift that something fundamental had begun to shift: the first tremors before the earth shook and the world changed forever. Where he had once seen uncertainty in Sherlock's face, there had been the flash of reckless passion instead. Those incredible, cosmic kaleidoscope eyes darkened to the colour of storm-whipped tropical seas, communicating so much emotion with the flicker of a gaze.

John had expected Sherlock to be scathing about his possessive display in Monroe's office, to flaunt his independence like so many of John's partners had done before, but he had been wrong. Instead it was as if the spark of Sherlock's desire had found ignition, burning bright, surprised and pleased at John's behaviour, even if it was out of line.

Then, after that, moment on moment passed where John could feel the pull of the bow line between them. Something tugged beneath his ribs, bringing him closer to Sherlock at every opportunity. There had been the taxi ride, where the temptation to steal a kiss had left him shaking and oblivious to everything else. Then there was the entire evening at Angelo's, watching Sherlock's mouth as he spoke, half-hypnotised with every word.

Yet for all that – the beguiling want, Sherlock's slick heat, the incredible sex – it was what the act promised that lodged in John's mind and made his heart feel swollen and inundated with joy. Sherlock had made his choice. He had decided to risk everything they had – their friendship and loyalty – in the hope for more, and John planned to make sure he did not regret it.

'I can almost hear the cogs turning in your head,' Sherlock murmured, his voice brought down half an octave by sleep. The tones of it did wonderful things to John's body, making his lungs feel too full of air and increasing the pressure between his legs where his arousal was trapped between his body and the mattress.

John hummed in agreement, far too satisfied and content to vocalise a response. Christ, this was perfect. He wanted to preserve the moment forever. Just him and Sherlock, together at the start of something new.

The tip of Sherlock's nose nuzzled the skin between John's shoulder blades, butting against him like cat before Sherlock stretched, all long limbs and naked, sliding skin. The sensation of it was enough to make John's lazy, laconic interest grow far more focussed, especially when the undeniable ridge of Sherlock's erection nudged against his hip – not demanding, just there.

He had no wish to let that go to waste.

Gripping Sherlock's wrist, John dragged and rolled, chuckling at Sherlock's surprised 'Oof!' that ended with Sherlock on his back on the mattress and John half on top of him instead. Both of them were perilously close to the edge of the bed, but John really could not bring himself to care. How could he when he had the wonderful length of Sherlock, tall and graceful and artlessly splayed beneath him, almost as pale as the sheets but for the lingering flush on the crest of his cheekbones and the burn of his eyes?

Sherlock raised one eyebrow, a tease and a challenge all at once. A rough noise caught in John's throat as Sherlock's legs moved, twisting so that they were scissored together, undeniably cinched in a way that left absolutely nothing to the imagination.

'Oh, God,' John murmured, shutting his eyes for a brief second to relish the feel of Sherlock this close, so very close and threatening to break his brain all over again. 'Can I –?' His hand drifted meaningfully down Sherlock's side, his skin trembling as Sherlock's clever fingers began to play him like a symphony, dancing over ribs, sweeping down his back and lower to cup and squeeze.

'Do you really need to ask?' Sherlock's voice rumbled, thunder purring between his chest and John's like the words could make themselves heard without passing through the air.

John arched his spine, grinning as Sherlock's head fell back, his eyes closed and his lips parted at the sweet ache of the grind – the evidence of how much they both wanted to go again trapped between their hips, tortuously good.

'John, please.'

Well, who was John to say no to that?


'Shower,' Sherlock said some time later, like someone who had heard of the word but was currently having trouble remembering why it was important. He was lying across John's chest, a solid burden for such a slender man, his skin dancing and twitching as John's thumb stroked idly up and down the column of his vertebrae. 'We really need to shower.'

Yes, they did. The mess between them was rapidly beginning to adhere them together, and John smothered a smile. He had forgotten that sex could be like that, not just about the give and take of pleasure, but something playful, teasing, he-on-me-on-he and no real rhyme or reason to it but so good all the same. That was the difference, John supposed, between sex with almost-strangers, three dates and he still knew nothing about them, and sex with the flatmate who'd been driving him mad for more than a year and knew how John took his coffee.

'Move then,' he suggested, giving the taut line of Sherlock's waist a gentle prod and huffing a sigh of laughter when his only response was a sated kind of grunt. If anyone had asked him a month ago how he thought Sherlock behaved in the midst of afterglow, John would have struggled to picture it. In truth the answer was that Sherlock was pretty much like everyone else: blissed out and lazy with it, though perhaps he was more cognizant than most other people. John could almost see the continuing race and flash of thoughts beneath that crown of unruly dark curls, which were currently a cloud of frizz, a little flattened on one side. 'Really, you need to sort out your hair before anyone but me sees it. It's not leaving anything in much doubt.'

'You're the one that made a mess of it,' Sherlock pointed out, finally lifting his head from where it had been resting against John's chest and giving him a focussed glare. His eyes drifted up to John's crown, and a hint of a smug smile curved Sherlock's lips. 'Besides, yours is no better.' He reached up, giving one of the tufts a thoughtful tweak before letting out a sigh and peeling himself away from John.

'Ugh,' John grunted, wrinkling his nose at the sticky patina on his stomach before lifting his eyes and watching Sherlock stretch. He really did seem to go on forever, svelte muscles stretched over the hard, strong lines of his bones. The doctor part of John was relieved to see that, despite the 'Flu's savage attack, Sherlock did not look as emaciated as he could have. Here and there was a suggestion of an angle, a bit too sharp for comfort: the crest of a hip bone and the ridge of his shoulder-blade, but what John noticed most was the potential of Sherlock's body.

He had already proven himself to be fairly strong. John had seen him in close-quarter alleyway brawls, which they found themselves in more often than he cared to admit, yet there was more to it than that. Sherlock knew how to use his body – its height, its weight, its apparent frailty – to his advantage.

In an honest fight, John was fairly confident his muscular strength would exceed Sherlock's, but it probably would not take much for that to change. A few more regular meals would give the muscles something to build with, and the lifestyle Sherlock kept – running all over London and rarely shying away from an altercation – would probably do the rest.

John's eyes travelled down the plane of Sherlock's back, a confused tangle of a wince and a smirk catching on his face when he noticed the bruises on Sherlock's hips and arse: four fingers and a thumb on each side – a testimony to John's enthusiasm.

'I'm not the only one marked,' Sherlock murmured, and John lifted his gaze to realise that Sherlock was watching him over his shoulder, his mercurial eyes bright and the corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk. 'You might want to wear something with a collar, or borrow a scarf.'

John's fingers flew to his neck, and he stifled a groan as he found the faintly tender bruise left by Sherlock's mouth at some indeterminate point in the night. 'At least yours are easy to hide,' he groused, flicking back the sheet and getting to his feet to get a good look in the mirror. As love bites went, it was actually surprisingly delicate, although whether Sherlock had deliberately been gentle or simply become distracted before pulling too much blood to the surface, John was not sure.

At least it was close to his collarbone. Not too obvious. John was not bothered about people finding out, though he would bet anything the others from the Yard would have a field day, either smugly knowing (Greg) or obviously repulsed (Anderson, the git). Still, there were more mature and stylish ways of telling the world he was shagging Sherlock Holmes than swaggering around with his lover's teeth marks on his neck.

John's mind tripped back, lingering on the word “lover”. Part of him was still jangling with the euphoric surprise of it – that what he and Sherlock were to each other had taken this step into the realms of the truly intimate. It was impossible to get closer than they had done the previous night and this morning, and that thought was enough to make John's stomach jolt with lazy pleasure.

Of course, the whole thing brought a new slew of challenges to the table. It upset the balance in the best possible way, but they would still have to take time to find a new equilibrium, and John frowned. It was not that either of them would stop being what they were before. He would still nag Sherlock to eat and complain about the mess, and Sherlock would still dissect things on the kitchen table and risk his life in stupid ways, but now there was another facet to all that.

Sherlock had already made it pretty clear that sex was something he did and enjoyed, but how often? He did not normally sleep for long, either, and yet he was still in bed when John woke up this morning. He did not want Sherlock to start changing, to do things that made himself unhappy for the sake of hanging on to John, but at the same time John did not want to drive him away with too much or too little of anything.

He looked up as Sherlock shifted, opening his bedroom door and sticking his head out to give the living room a critical look before he sighed and pulled the door open wider. 'Checking for Mycroft,' he said by way of an explanation when John raised an eyebrow. 'I half expected him to be out there gloating.'

'How would he –' John did not even bother finishing the question as his mind caught up with what his mouth was going to say. Of course Mycroft would know. John would probably be getting the “Break his heart and I'll break your legs” talk in some abandoned car park somewhere before the end of the day. Although knowing Mycroft perhaps mere broken legs was wishful thinking.

'There is no way we managed to avoid his cameras yesterday. No doubt one of his drones will have brought the footage to his attention.' Sherlock did not sound particularly upset at the prospect of his brother seeing them sharing – God, more than just a few chaste kisses on London's pavements. If anything it was his normal annoyance bleeding through his tones as he stepped out into the main flat nude and headed towards the bathroom.

'Sherlock, what if Mrs Hudson comes upstairs?' John asked, looking around Sherlock's room before grabbing the blue silk robe and wrapping the luxurious fabric around himself. He sighed in irritation when the sleeves fell over his hands and the hem came half a foot further down his legs than it ever did on Sherlock, almost draping on the floor. 'Lanky git,' he muttered.

He dithered at the threshold to the bedroom, wanting to slip into the shower with Sherlock but unsure where that personal boundary lay. In the end he found himself turning towards the living room instead, stifling a laugh at the slick of garments they had left in their wake. It really did not leave much to the imagination. Either his and Sherlock's clothes were entwined where they lay on the floor or had been pitched over various pieces of unwitting furniture. At least their underwear and trousers were in the bedroom, but it did not take a deductive genius to read the story of everything else that lay strewn around.

With a sigh, John started tidying, folding items haphazardly before hanging his jacket and Sherlock's coat on the hook by the door. As he did so, something buzzed, and he glanced down at Sherlock's coat pocket, seeing the tell-tale light of his phone's screen in the dark fold. Reaching in, he tugged it free, noting the message and the time it had been received. Early morning.

Greg's name was as plain as day, and John knew it had to be about the case. For one, brief moment he thought about putting the phone away again, hiding it in the coat and denying all knowledge, because whatever Greg had to say would bring the Work to the fore once more, and this brief oasis of just the two of them would be over.

But no, he couldn't do that. If he thought about it, he did not even really want to. Solving mysteries was what Sherlock did – what made him who he was. Holding back information about a case wasn't just selfish, it was a direct violation of the trust Sherlock had shown him by agreeing to this in the first place. Besides, it was as much a part of his life as Sherlock's now, a bizarre threesome with the Work, and John doubted he could resist its call much more than Sherlock could.

Wandering over to the bathroom door, he realised that it was open, wide and inviting. He could just make out Sherlock's silhouette behind the shower curtain, face upturned to the spray of water as the steam billowed into the room.

'Text from Lestrade,' John called, hearing Sherlock's hum of interest. 'The ring's missing. They've taken Monroe in for questioning.'

Sherlock leaned around the curtain, a faint frown on his brow as he gave John's words some thought. He could see the tempest of calculations and deductions in Sherlock's eyes, bright and unmistakable, utterly unmasked, and despite his convictions John felt his heart sink a little.

'Monroe won't be helpful. Are you coming in or not?'

John blinked, eyebrows lifting involuntarily as Sherlock vanished behind the curtain again. He should have known that while he dithered and stewed in uncertain silence about personal boundaries, Sherlock would simply blunder through and be so frankly, mercilessly himself about it. Not that the man could not use guile; John had seen the coy, subversive way Sherlock worked when he was shamming his way into someone's good books, but clearly he felt any such thing with John was unnecessary.

Shrugging out of the robe, John kicked it aside and stepped under the spray behind Sherlock, murmuring happily as the hot thrum of water struck his skin, followed by the smooth slick of Sherlock's palms welcoming him with enthusiasm. They chased soap lather across the planes of John's chest and down, and John tried not to sag as his muscles all but hummed beneath Sherlock's touch.

The intimacy of this – of letting Sherlock clean him and returning the favour with clumsy, shaking hands – was making John feel almost dizzy. Sex was one, wonderful thing, but this was another matter entirely. Something that spoke of a different kind of trust and rarely had a place in the budding stages of a relationship, where some boundaries still existed.

It was as if, through the simple act of making a choice, Sherlock had pulled down every twisting barricade that remained between them, and John was helplessly happy to return the favour. There was so little he held apart from Sherlock anyway, even before this, and trying to put up any kind of fight now seemed not only counter-intuitive, but almost sacrilegious.

There would be new boundaries – things shaped by moment and mood that might move to give them some distance and remind them both that they could exist as separate entities – but now was not the time for their construction. With every sweep of Sherlock's hands it felt as if there were a reaffirmation of a promise, and John reached up for a kiss, all too content to enjoy the moment.

'Close your eyes,' Sherlock instructed as he lathered John's hair. John smiled as he felt the pads of those fingers lingering on the different sections of his skull – occipital, parietal and temporal bones – like he was mapping it out for future reference, or perhaps wishing he could dig through skin and bone to the brain beneath and pluck John's thoughts free.

'You do know I can do this myself?' John asked lightly, opening one eye to see Sherlock giving him a doubtful glare. 'S good though.'

'Mmmm.' Sherlock's hum was resonant in the confined space, bouncing off the tiles. 'It helps me think.'

'About the case?' John's shoulders dropped as Sherlock's ministrations turned briefly to his neck, unravelling faint little knots of tension in the tendons there. He gasped as Sherlock's arm abruptly shifted down to his waist, almost bodily picking him up and switching their positions so that the full stream of the shower rained down on John's body, sweeping away the lather and leaving him spluttering.

'Partly. I was reading the files while you were asleep last night, trying to find something we might have missed, but it's all just – facts. I feel as if we've got all the pieces but are missing the glue.' There was the faintest trace of defensive uncertainty in Sherlock's voice, and John opened one eye to try and read his facial expression.

Blank. Deliberately blank. John knew Sherlock's masks well enough by now to notice the control smoothing out any hint of what he might be thinking. No help there, then, so John was left to his own deductions. Was Sherlock thinking that John would judge him for not having the answer to the case?

No, Sherlock had never apologised for that before. He had confidence in his deductive abilities. This was something else.

John had not noticed the files in the bedroom. Tidiness was not one of Sherlock's character traits – normally he left documents and photos from crime-scenes everywhere – so did that mean he had deliberately gone to put them away at some point, to hide them from John? Did he think that John would disapprove, or try to force him to rest rather than work?

'I thought it was a bit unlike you to sleep all night,' John said with a grin, feeling the faint relaxation of Sherlock's body where it stood so close to his and enjoying the thrill of triumph that his guess was correct. 'I'm not going to mind if you decide to get up and do experiments at three in the morning, as long as they're not on me.'

'I wanted to stay with you,' Sherlock pointed out quietly, as if the admission sat uncomfortably, 'but I don't sleep for long. Four hours, maybe, unless I've been up for days.'

'When you occasionally crash spectacularly.' John reached out for the nearest bottle of shampoo, flicking his fingers in a “come closer” motion and giving Sherlock a glare when he ducked his head low. He wasn't that short; he could have reached Sherlock's hair without the man bending his knees. Still, at least this way he did not have to stretch as he ran his fingers through wet, serpentine curls which clung lovingly, wrapping themselves around his fingers before sliding loose. 'Were you asleep when I woke up this morning?'

'Dozing,' Sherlock supplied, arching his neck a little and pushing his head into John's touch as if seeking out more contact. Something which John filed away for later use. 'And thinking. We have about three minutes before the hot water runs out.'

John glanced up at the shower head before budging Sherlock around, arching his back to avoid the cold tiles as they switched positions, and groaning in pleasure when that just pressed their bodies flush against each other. Desire pulsed anew, a sluggish beat without any urgency, and John saw Sherlock smirk before he murmured, 'Maybe later. I estimate we have less than an hour before Lestrade arrives. If you wanted to keep the change of our relationship from the people at the Yard then being found in flagrante might give them some clues that even they can't miss.'

John reached up, flicking some shampoo from Sherlock's temple before it could slide into his eye. He watched the water weigh those curls into a temporary straight slick of black before Sherlock turned off the taps and swept the drips from his hair.

'Do you want to keep it from them?' John asked, stepping out of the shower and throwing one towel to Sherlock before dragging another through his own hair and then wrapping it around his waist. Hiding what they were to each other was not really what John had in mind, but the idea of the outside world intruding on this – of somehow casting their own judgement or acceptance like it even mattered was enough to make him scowl into the steam-fogged mirror.

'I fail to see its relevance,' Sherlock replied, reaching for his toothbrush and bumping John lightly aside with his hip so that there was space for them both at the sink. 'It's not going to change much on the scene itself, and most of them think we have been sleeping together since that first case. What was it you called it?'

'A Study in Pink?' John grinned as Sherlock pulled a face, momentarily silenced by the act of brushing his teeth. 'All right, so since Mrs Hudson already knows, as does Mycroft, everyone else can find out whenever, yeah?'

Sherlock spat in the sink and wiped his mouth. 'What about your sister?'

John grimaced, grabbing his own toothbrush and effectively delaying his answer. Sherlock met his eye in the mirror, blatantly knowing but non-judgemental before he padded out of the bathroom, leaving John with his thoughts.

God, telling Harry. That was something he was not looking forward to. He had never enlightened her about the occasional bit of experimentation at university, not because he feared her reaction, but because it wasn't any of her business. None of them had been long-term, and so he had kept it to himself.

This though, this thing with Sherlock, it was serious. It had been since day one, and now their relationship was entering a whole new sphere, and John could sense the potential of just how important it could be. That was the kind of thing you told your family, even if you knew they would blow up in your face.

Not because his chosen partner was a man, Harry did not have a leg to stand on in that regard, but rather because of who that man was.

Rude, arrogant Sherlock, who saw through everyone in a heartbeat; who was a bloody battlefield – life with death one step behind. He was the creator of John and destroyer of himself, sometimes, and John could almost hear Harry’s voice in his head, slightly slurred but concerned all the same.

'Oh, John. Him? I should have known from your blog, but him? He'll break you.'

It would be the beginning of a thousand little comments that questioned him and Sherlock. Subtle seeds of doubt and uncertainty planted in fertile soil. No. Harry could wait. There was plenty of time for him and Sherlock to find an even keel – for this new turn to gain its strength and stability before other people started trying to rock the boat.

He finished cleaning his teeth and rinsed the sink before filling it with water, wiping the last traces of steam from the mirror as he set about shaving. He listened with half an ear to the sounds of Sherlock padding around the flat, seemingly doing three things at once. He could hear the occasional, staccato tap of laptop keys underscoring the boil of the kettle, and the moments of almost silence suggested he could be getting dressed as well.

John's suspicions were confirmed a moment later when Sherlock nudged his way back into the bathroom, shirtless but otherwise dressed. He was rubbing at the shadow of stubble on his chin, his eyes unfocussed and his thoughts no doubt racing at a thousand miles an hour.

Absently, John dried his face before pressing a quick kiss to Sherlock's shoulder. It was a tiny gesture of affection, a little way of testing the waters about what was allowed and what wasn't. John expected Sherlock not to notice, or perhaps to draw away a fraction, but instead he rested his head briefly on top of John's, thumbing at the jut of John's hip above the towel before releasing him again.

'Hurry up and get dressed. We need to find out some more about this missing ring.'

'What about Greg?' John asked, already padding towards the stairs that led to his room. 'Thought you said he would be here soon?'

'If he hurries, he'll catch us before we go,' Sherlock's voice called back. 'Not that he has anything important to add.'

With a shake of his head, John did as he was instructed, taking his abandoned clothes with him and nudging his way into his room. It seemed oddly cold within the bland walls: a far cry from the warmth of Sherlock's bed.

John found himself puttering around, getting dressed in a haphazard, distracted way, his thoughts mashing and blending together in a tangled mess of happiness and uncertainty. He had what he wanted, he had Sherlock, and now they just had to work out how to keep each other.

Drawing from past relationships was clearly not the way to go. They both had some experience, John probably more than Sherlock, but he suspected both of them had always followed the more linear, standard progression that went from meeting someone to sex in short order and then, possibly, began to blend the lines of coexistence.

Except that John's longest relationship was eight months and had ended with his TV being thrown out of a third-storey window, and Sherlock...

Sherlock was a mystery. There had been others, obviously. Sherlock knew what he was doing when it came to sex. Not in a choreographed, studied way, but thoughtful and tormenting and...

John blew out a breath, trying to drag that train of thought to a halt before he forgot all about the case and Greg's imminent arrival and just dragged Sherlock back to bed.

Experience was not something Sherlock lacked, and John tried to ignore the little prickle of jealousy at that. Really, what right did he have? Yet there was something about some of Sherlock's fears and uncertainties which suggested that at least one partner had been more than a quick, experimental shag.

Someone had stuck around long enough to start leaning on Sherlock to change, to start trying to impinge their will upon him and force him into a mould he was never going to fit. Their efforts had left their marks, and John chewed his lip unhappily as he pulled on his socks, grunting in irritation when he realised one was inside-out.

Relationships could make or break a person, change who they were for better and worse. John had not been a naturally possessive man, but the trait had materialised by the time he was in his mid-twenties, burgeoning after a few too many “just friends” of his lovers had turned out to be much more than that. His career choices only enhanced the urge. Being a doctor was about healing, but a soldier's job was defence of the realm: his territory.

As for Sherlock, he seemed intellectually far above such basic urges, but he was a man who loathed failure in himself. It was painful to think of him, younger, perhaps less sharp than he was now, attempting a relationship that was doomed to fail simply because his partner could not accept him as he was, and then probably blaming himself when they walked away.

John shook his head, trying to cast the thoughts aside before finally tugging on his jumper and padding back downstairs. Dwelling on the possible problems he and Sherlock faced would not do him much good. They would have to be dealt with when and if they ever arose. For now he planned to enjoy what they had found and make the most of figuring out exactly what they could be.

A mug of tea was waiting for him on the side, and John raised an eyebrow in surprise. He could count the number of times Sherlock had ever made him tea on one hand, and two of those were in the past week. It was a change he could get used to.

'Found anything?' he asked. Sherlock was leaning on the table, fully dressed with his palms braced on the flat surface as he stared at the laptop screen, an empty plate by his right hand.

'The ring's not just a designer piece; it was a challenge to make it.' He pulled free the photo of Sophie Lattimer and Michael Monroe, and John took a moment of pleasure in realising that the man had at least put on some weight in the intervening time. Too many big dinners at architect conventions, probably.

Sherlock pulled out his pocket magnifier and held it over the ring, letting John squint at the piece of jewellery. 'The way the diamond is crafted. You don't get that just anywhere. See the petal burst in the middle? It's called the Eternal Cut. It's time-consuming, challenging and expensive. It's also a patented technique.'

'Specific to one jeweller?'

'Garrard's. They include several royal families among their clientèle, which gives you an idea of the value.' Sherlock clicked a link, bringing up the address. 'I imagine they still have the paperwork for Ms Lattimer's ring.'

John nodded, setting about making himself some breakfast as he watched Sherlock continue to read. 'How will that help us find out who arranged the murders?' he asked, sprinkling sugar on his cereal and taking a bite before swallowing. 'Monroe already said its value didn't matter to him. It was a means to an end, and if whoever took it cared about its worth they would have pinched all the other stuff as well.'

Sherlock gave him a warm smile, openly approving, and John returned it easily before he heard the sound of a knock on the front door and Lestrade's voice echoed up to them, greeting Mrs Hudson.

'Only forty minutes' Sherlock murmured with a frown, talking about the time they had been out of the shower. 'Monroe was even less helpful than they hoped.'

Mrs Hudson tapped at the door, and John could have sworn that the simple sound had distinct undertones of smug delight. More noticeably, rather than pushing her way into the flat regardless of no response, she waited until John called out, 'It's open,' before leading Greg across the threshold.

'Problem?' Sherlock asked, and John winced in pity at Greg's miserable expression. He looked like he had been through the wringer, his shirt creased and his tie crooked. There were obvious lines of tension around his eyes, and John found himself reaching for the paracetamol and flicking the kettle back on without a thought.

'Only just got out of bed?' Greg asked, nodding towards John's cereal bowl. 'Lucky sod.'

John caught Mrs Hudson's knowing smile and smothered one of his own as their landlady winked behind Greg's back and bade them farewell.

'I take it you're not getting much sleep?' John asked, keeping his voice neutral and trying not to feel as if the mark Sherlock had left on his neck, now thankfully hidden by his collar, was glowing a bright, damning red through his clothes. 'Take these, they'll help the headache.'

'Christ, is it that obvious?' Greg rubbed his hand over the back of his neck before sagging onto the sofa, staring blankly at the coffee table. 'You were right, Monroe's a dick. His alibi checks out, but he's already got a lawyer.'

'The missing ring got you a warrant,' Sherlock surmised, finally leaning back from the laptop and turning his attention to Greg without so much as a good morning. 'What did you find that made you take him to the station?'

'Phone-calls between himself and Sophie Lattimer, on both the office phone and his mobile, as well as some – well – rather intimate text messages. From him at least.'

'She didn't reciprocate?' Sherlock narrowed his eyes, clearly digesting that information.

'Strictly business from her. She had no plans to sell the flat, and from the looks of what we found on his computer, Monroe needed that project to come through. He's got significant debts –'

'And he's been skimming from his partner to pay it off. The purchase of the flats would make it easier to hide what was missing,' Sherlock mused. 'A few “errors” in the price paid for one or the other, a couple of thousand here and there and no one would know what was going on.' He nodded as if that were blatantly obvious, seemingly ignorant of John and Greg staring before sharing a glance of equal parts amazement and disbelief. 'But killing Lattimer wasn't necessary to help with that situation. It's a tangential detail at best.'

'What?' Greg asked plaintively, accepting the cup of tea from John and swallowing the paracetamol. 'It sounded like motive to me.'

'You saw his computer; how many other occupants of Admiral Walk had accepted the offer of sale?'

'Seven of the fourteen owners, but other than Lattimer the other six remaining are still considering the offer, all of them in a favourable light. She's the only one who seemed to be standing in his way.'

'The sale of those seven should be enough to hide the fact he had been stealing from the business. If he could conceal it before the end of the financial year, five months away, then he would get away with it.' Sherlock shook his head as he paced in a tight, agitated line. 'Lattimer's flat, while necessary to his project, was not essential for him to protect himself from losing his job and his reputation. He didn't need her dead, at least not yet.'

'Need and want aren't the same thing,' John pointed out, but he could see what Sherlock was getting at. 'What about the ring?'

'Monroe's got no clue where it is,' Greg added. 'Doesn't seem to care, either.' He pulled out a photo from the file in his hand and held it out to Sherlock. 'He provided this when asked, but he's got nothing else to say about it.' He rubbed a hand through his hair, scowling at the floor. 'In fact, generally, he's not answering anything much. Asking plenty of questions about you, though, Sherlock. Seems you made an impression.'

John hid his grimace behind his mug, letting his gaze flick briefly over to Sherlock. At least he seemed disinterested by the information, but that did not stop John wishing a silent curse on Monroe and his predatory ways. He wasn't even sure the bastard would back off if Sherlock told him to, and that thought alone was enough to make John's shoulders hunch in defensive anger on Sherlock's behalf.

Sherlock, however, was too busy studying the glossy A4 photo of the ring. Even John could admit it was a significant piece of jewellery, broad and bold, modern in design, and from this angle the Eternal Cut that Sherlock had mentioned was clear. The centre of the main diamond looked like a star-burst. The damn thing was probably worth more than most people would pay for a house.

'I need to go to Garrard's. Keep Monroe busy for another hour or two if you can. Threaten to have some accountants look at his spreadsheets; that might help him cooperate. I'll meet you at the Yard.'

'Garrard's?' Greg asked, looking at John for an explanation.

'They made the ring,' he replied, taking away Greg's empty mug and smiling as the DI got to his feet with a groan. 'Not sure what we're going to get from them, but Sherlock seems to know what he's doing.'

'Don't let Monroe go until I've spoken to him,' Sherlock added, already shrugging into his coat. 'Come on, John!'

John shot Greg an apologetic look, setting down his mug and reaching for his jacket. 'You can see yourself out, yeah? It's just –'

The DI waved his hand. 'Go, or he'll have left without you. For God's sake try and keep him out of trouble, all right?'

John's only response was a quick, weary kind of smile before he trotted down the stairs and stepped out onto the pavement, where a taxi was just pulling up. Sherlock tugged open the door, standing back to let John in before following, sitting on the edge of the back seat. 'Albermarle Street,' he instructed, drumming his fingers impatiently on his knee.

This was a facet of Sherlock that John knew well. Not the vulnerable man ravaged by 'Flu, nor the loving creature so newly discovered and already cherished, but the Consulting Detective, a dozen paces in front and lost inside his own head, following whatever rattling rails of deduction had caught his attention.

With a quiet sigh, John relaxed back into the seat, letting the relative peace fold around him. Surprisingly, he was not bothered by Sherlock's distance, or his absorption with the case. If anything it was a reassuring sign that Sherlock was not going to try and modulate his behaviour to suit John. He would rather have Sherlock being himself than some façade constructed for his own enjoyment.

Beyond the window, Portland Place inched by, followed by the chaos of Regent Street. It would probably have been quicker to walk rather than face the lunch time traffic, but the sunlight was gradually beginning to fade behind threatening clouds, and by the time the taxi came to a halt it had started to drizzle in a fine, penetrating mist that left John pulling a disgusted face.

'Not far,' Sherlock promised. 'Come on.'

'Are you going to tell me what we're looking for?' John asked, blinking in surprise when Sherlock shrugged.

'Can't be certain. There was the hint of an inscription on the photo of the ring.'

'An endearment of some kind?'

'Possibly, or it could be something more material, like a safe combination, or a bank vault location.' Sherlock frowned. 'I wouldn't put that kind of thing past Monroe. Whatever it is, something made the ring special. As far as we can tell, Winters had no interest in it. Whoever cleaned that apartment had the opportunity and, it seems, the desire to take it. We find the missing jewellery –'

'And maybe we find our murderer,' John finished, lengthening his stride to keep up with Sherlock. 'So, what? You're just going to waltz up to the jeweller and ask to see the receipt?'

Sherlock grinned over his shoulder, not something false, but the real one that made John's heart clench and practically demanded reciprocity. 'I may be owed a favour,' he replied. 'Helped them out with a diamond smuggling problem once.' He gestured up to the large, corner building, its windows gleaming and the red flag over the door fluttering in the wind.

A couple of polished steps led up to the open doorway, and Sherlock swept in as if he owned the place, leaving John trying not to look as if he were lost amidst discreet displays of jewels probably worth more than he would see in his lifetime. Even the décor looked expensive, with marble floors and burgundy walls. Casual draperies and leafy plants gave the whole place a modern, colonial feel, and there were a number of leather-seated consultation areas, no doubt where the rich and famous held design meetings for their gem of the moment.

Nothing had a price tag on it, as if the mere mention of money was too repulsive to consider. Really, that told John all he needed to know about Garrard's: out of his income bracket, and out of his league.

And of course, Sherlock managed to look like he came in here every week for a new set of cuff-links – or would have done, if he had use for such things.

'Sherlock!' someone cried in enthusiastic greeting, his East End accent enough to make John twitch in surprise. He had expected plummy tones of Eton and Harrow in a place like this, but the man currently striding towards them looked a bit more pirate than posh.

The bohemian bloke hurried towards them, grinning widely. He was built like a rugby player, and the crooked tilt of his nose suggested a break that had healed badly, but the whole rough look was rather thrown off by the flouncy white shirt he wore. He clasped Sherlock's hand happily in his. 'What are you doing here?' he asked, dropping his voice a little and raising one eyebrow. 'Thought you'd been cut off?'

John raised an eyebrow at that, although his surprise was short-lived. Mycroft was a fair indication that Sherlock's family was wealthy, even if Sherlock himself did not appear to have access to the same funds. Still, the thought that the Holmes' could actually have that kind of money to spend was more than a little alarming.

'I'm not buying, Marcus. This is my friend, Doctor Watson. John, Marcus De Veras.' He waited as John's hand was caught in a friendly grip before continuing, 'We need some information.' Sherlock pulled free the photo of the ring and handed it over. 'This is one of yours.'

'Yeah, yeah, you're right. Eternal cut, can't be anyone else's.' Marcus tilted the photo, his friendly smile taking on a professional edge. 'Bespoke, too. It's a modification of the six-two-six.' He gestured to one of the displays, where a single diamond ring gleamed in solitary splendour. It was all ice and gleaming metal, whereas the one in the photo had emeralds and sapphires at the cardinal points of the central diamond, interrupting the outer ring of smaller, dazzling gems. 'And I know who commissioned it. I remember him. Bit hard not to.' Marcus scratched his head, checking around for customers before he muttered, 'He was a right twat.'

John tried to hide his laugh behind a cough, but judging from the knowing look in Marcus' eyes, he had not had much success.

'What about the inscription?' Sherlock asked, his glance at John brief but amused before Marcus gestured for them to follow him, leading them away from the sumptuous frontage into the back, where the rooms looked like a cross between a forensics lab and a forge.

'I can't remember off the top of my head. Inscription's not my department, but we should have the designs here.' He stopped by a small filing cabinet, twisting a key in the lock and dragging it free. 'Has it been nicked?'

'It's definitely missing,' John supplied, watching in fascination as one of the jewellers, a young woman with three rings through her lip, carefully applied some kind of gemstone to what looked like an industrial power lathe. 'Was it worth stealing, or is that a stupid question?'

'Depends who you ask,' Marcus replied. 'To the average person on the street, hell yes. To the customers we normally get in here, it's small change. Not so much about money as it is about looks. The client also purchased the design, which means we can't replicate it for anyone else, not in that configuration. It's one of a kind.'

He pulled out a file and handed it to Sherlock with a flourish, watching with intelligent eyes as Sherlock skimmed through the paperwork, stopping at the design sketches.

'Amor Vincit Omnia?' John read over Sherlock's shoulder. 'Not a combination then. What does it mean?'

'Love conquers all.' Sherlock scowled, and John could understand the mixture of distaste and confusion on his face. 'Sentiment.'

'That doesn't seem like Monroe's style,' he muttered. 'I mean the conquering bit I could understand, but it's just... Maybe he was different back then?' John asked, shrugging his shoulders. It was hard to pair the image Monroe presented with someone who would engrave something so idealised on the inside of an engagement ring. 'Was that what he originally intended to be written?'

'Seems like it,' Marcus replied, taking another look at the police photo, his brown eyes squinting as he tried to decipher what could be seen. 'There's nothing else it could be? No different meaning?'

Sherlock shook his head, glancing at the clock nearby before handing the file back to Marcus. 'It's the name of a Caravaggio painting, currently on display in Berlin, but in this context it would seem its meaning is clear. A declaration of his intention to be the only thing of importance in Ms Lattimer's life.' He glanced at John. 'Perhaps not so unlike him after all.'

'Want me to keep an eye out for it?' Marcus asked. 'We keep tabs on the pawn shops around here for any of our pieces. They turn up now and then, normally stolen and fenced.'

'Thank you,' Sherlock said. 'You've still got my number?'

'Naturally,' Marcus said with a smile, raising his voice as they walked away. 'Hope you find it!'

John waved his farewell, following Sherlock back out onto the main shop floor and down the steps to the pavement outside. The cool air brushed against his cheeks, making him huddle in his jacket as the fine drizzle caught in his hair. 'Are we still heading to the Yard?'

Sherlock blinked as if emerging from deep thought, a puzzled frown marring his brow as he looked over at John. 'Yes. Why were you jealous of Monroe and not Marcus?'

John faltered, looking briefly back over his shoulder at Garrard's before meeting Sherlock's gaze. 'Should I have been?' His voice sounded a bit too tense around those words, and he cleared his throat, shaking his head before Sherlock could answer. 'No, never mind. Monroe was treating you like an object. My reaction was – it was as much about being protective as it was about – other things. Marcus just – wasn't. He wasn't even –' John looked over his shoulder again, feeling unbalanced. 'Was he? I mean you and him – ever?'

Sherlock's smile was a bit crooked, as if he were almost laughing at John's expense. 'No, definitely not. While his body language was different to Monroe's, his manner is very engaging. I wondered if you would find it threatening, that's all.' He paused for a moment, before adding, 'Jealousy is not easily quantifiable.'

'Well, it's not very rational,' John pointed out. 'Everyone reacts differently.'

Sherlock stopped, turning to look at John. It was not a cursory glance, but the kind of intent stare of amazement that made John feel like he had just handed Sherlock the answer to the meaning of life. 'They do, don't they?' Sherlock grinned, grabbing John's shoulders and giving him a little shake. 'John, you're brilliant!'

'I – what? Where are you going?'

'The Yard. Come on!' Sherlock hailed a cab, shifting restlessly from one foot to the other as he waited for it to draw to a halt, restless and eager in a way that made anticipation tighten in John's gut.

'But what are you going to ask Monroe?' John asked as they climbed in. 'Is it to do with the inscription? Have you thought of something?'

'I'm not going to ask him anything.' Sherlock rubbed his thumb over his own lip thoughtfully, staring down at the taxi's floor before meeting John's gaze. 'An emotional engraving on the ring is unexpected, but perhaps it's still got something to do with the deaths of Lattimer and Winters. The dispassionate nature of the murders means I've been focussed on property and money, value and worth, but there is something else!'

John raised his eyebrows, shrugging his shoulders as he waited for Sherlock to enlighten him.

'Sentiment, John.' Sherlock grinned in a way that never spoke well for innocent bystanders. 'I need to conduct an experiment.'

Chapter Text

The scent of institutional cleaner and stale coffee swirled in Sherlock's nose as he strode into New Scotland Yard, paying no mind to the manned desk as he headed towards Lestrade's office. John was marching along at his side, and it was clear from his expression that his patience at waiting for Sherlock's explanation was wearing thin.

Sherlock paused at the edge of one of the open plan rooms for the lesser constables and sergeants, taking in the nuances of sound in the air: telephones, turning paper, muffled voices and the hum of the photocopier. Perfect.

'It's about time you showed up.' Donovan's voice cut through the chatter, and Sherlock looked up at her briefly as he pulled his phone from his pocket. 'We can't hold Monroe any longer, so if you want to talk to him, you'd better hurry up.' She looked tense and irritated, as if the case had ground her down, and a quick glance at her knees told Sherlock all he needed to know.

'Anderson on holiday with his wife, is he?' he murmured, smirking as Sally growled and spun around, stalking off with her hands clenched into fists at her side.

'Sherlock,' John murmured, but his disapproval was only a faint thread running under his words. When it came to Donovan and her insults, John appeared to be of the opinion that she deserved at least some of what Sherlock threw her way. 'Are we following her, or what?'

'In just a minute.' Sherlock punched a number into his phone and hit the button to dial, listening to it ring. The tinny buzz echoed three times before the phone was answered, and Lewis Havisham's voice travelled smoothly down the line.

'Macmillan and Monroe. Mr Monroe's office. Lewis Havisham speaking. How can I help you?'

'This is Sherlock Holmes calling from Scotland Yard,' Sherlock replied, not bothering with a greeting as he kept his words clipped and professional. 'Mr Monroe has been helping us with our enquiries. Unfortunately, he left his vehicle in a no-parking zone, and his private transportation is unavailable. I imagine he would appreciate your assistance in returning to the office.'

John cast Sherlock a baffled look, one eyebrow fractionally lifted and his lips parted as he listened to Sherlock lie by skilful omission. It was an art, telling people just enough to allow them to incorrectly fill in the blanks, and John's appreciation was obvious when an impressed smile curved his mouth.

'I'll be there as soon as possible,' Havisham replied, setting the phone down with the barest hint of a goodbye and Sherlock allowed himself a grin, feeling the case begin to slide into focus. It was not solved yet, but that? That was promising.

'Are you going to tell me what's going on?' John asked. 'What's this experiment?'

Sherlock turned away, his hand lifting to give a dismissive wave before he halted, a faint warning sparking in his mind. John was not overly fond of such things in general, and this exercise in particular may cause upset. Ideally, he would like to keep John's reactions as genuine as possible, but the changed status of their relationship was something that drew a new consideration into the tangled knot of his deductions. What Sherlock saw as a necessary omission John may believe was something more threatening – something that might make him reconsider the steps they had taken last night.

John was fundamentally an honest man, and not a very good actor, but perhaps it was time to enlighten him as to Sherlock's plans and allow him to polish those skills.

'I suspect that Havisham is more than Monroe's assistant,' he explained at last, considering each word with care. 'Or would like to be. When you were speaking to him yesterday, the tone of his voice changed when discussing Monroe's vision for the city, and he called him Michael in a manner that suggested more than simple respect. It sounded –' Sherlock shrugged. 'Intimate.'

He watched John nod, still listening intently as he continued. 'I thought nothing of it until the inscription on the ring began to hint at the potential for something emotional, rather than financial as the cause of the murders.'

'You said it wasn't a crime of passion – that Ms Lattimer's killing was all wrong for that.'

'Clinical, indifferent, almost mercenary,' Sherlock agreed. 'because Havisham didn't kill her. However, he may have been the person who enticed Winters to do it for him. Then he could finish off Winters, who was merely a tool to him, in the same disinterested fashion.'

Sherlock narrowed his eyes as he considered his own words. 'It's only a possibility, but Havisham is a player who should be considered. Most employees dragged out to collect their boss like a chauffeur would breathe a sigh of irritation at the very least.' Sherlock straightened his coat. 'Havisham was already getting to his feet, keys in hand. His voice was tense, concerned – '

Sherlock watched the grimace twitch across John's face, eyes cast down and to the left as his nose wrinkled a fraction in thought. 'Maybe he's just a friend?'

'Their ages and social differences make that unlikely. I imagine that either they are lovers initially brought together by strong feeling, or it's one-sided attraction and Monroe is ignorant of it.' He frowned, lips twisting in a grimace. 'That's why I need them both in the same room, preferably while I'm there as well. If I can entice the same kind of behaviour from Monroe that he displayed yesterday, Havisham's reaction could tell us all we need to know.'

John's non-verbal response was instant: rounded shoulders, scowling, and if he were a dog his hackles would have been raised. Part of Sherlock was fascinated by it, while another was equally thrilled and resigned. Clearly sleeping together had not lessened John's animalistic tendencies, but enhanced them. Before, he had been protecting a potential claim. Now he was defending a verified one.

Sherlock leaned in closer, keeping his face deliberately clear of emotion to anyone who may be observing him, but pitching his voice low, for John's ears only. 'It's you who was in my bed – in me – last night. You put those bruises on my hips, not anyone else. This is for the Work. Do you understand?'

He caught John's eye, taking in the flare of his pupils and the faint hitch to his breathing. No doubt his body was responding to the flood of memories that Sherlock's words had invoked, and Sherlock found himself watching, endlessly fascinated.

Eventually, John nodded, his voice taut through his clenched teeth as he muttered, 'There's got to be an easier way to do this. One that doesn't involve you laying yourself out on a plate for Monroe.'

'You make it sound like I'm going to bend myself over a filing cabinet for him,' Sherlock replied, watching the pained twitch of John's face and realising that was the wrong thing to say. 'If I'm right and there is anything more than a professional relationship between Monroe and his assistant, it will be obvious. The correct word could be enough to give us all we need, and you'll be right there with me.'

'Won't that make a mess of things?' John asked. 'It doesn't matter if I know you don't mean anything by it. Monroe will think you do, and I'll still be standing there wanting to break his face. I'm not exactly an indifferent observer.'

Sherlock lifted an eyebrow, surprised. He had thought that telling John his intentions would put John's mind at rest – reassuring him that there was nothing like genuine emotion involved. Instead he was more on edge. It seemed John would not need to feign an envious reaction to Monroe's potential advances. Interesting.

'On the contrary,' he replied at last. 'Havisham's response may be enhanced by the presence of another person in the same emotional sphere.' Sherlock's lips twitched in a faint smile when John looked like he was trying to work out what he meant. 'He will feel more comfortable showing possessive behaviour if there is someone else nearby doing the same. It will validate his own reaction. Now come on, I need to get Lestrade to tow Monroe's car, or they might suspect something.'

'Wait.' John's hand shot out, gripping Sherlock's arm and pulling him back around to face him. 'This morning, you were at a loss with this case. I know you do this all the time – this flash of inspiration – but what caused it?'

'Amor Vincit Omnia,' Sherlock replied with a grin. 'And you. The sentiment on the ring is a powerful one, but very true: a vicious motivator. Yet it was you who said that everyone responded to their own jealousy differently. My initial thought was that there was no obvious significant other in Monroe's life to care for his behaviour, and then I remembered Havisham talking about Monroe to you yesterday.'

'You got the idea from Havisham calling him “Michael”?' John blinked, his brow cinching into a frown.

Sherlock hummed in agreement. 'Then there are his hands. New manicure with short clipped nails, ink-stain on his right index finger from a fountain pen and slim, small palms and fingers. The perfect size to hold a broad-blade scalpel.' Sherlock shrugged, keeping his voice low as he tugged John's sleeve, encouraging him to follow as he walked through the corridors. 'By itself that's an irrelevant detail, but imagine if Havisham overheard some of those telephone conversations between Monroe and Lattimer.'

'So, what, he went into a jealous rage?'

'You said it yourself, John. Everyone reacts differently. Yesterday you would quite happily have punched Monroe in the nose at the very least. Violent and visceral.' Sherlock waved a hand expansively. 'Havisham may have simply been a little more forward-thinking than you. More prone to planning.'

'And more murderously inclined,' John muttered, flicking his fingers to catch Greg's eye through the tiny window in the door and putting a restraining hand on Sherlock's arm to stop him from barging in. Yet there was something like acknowledgement in his voice, as if he could imagine a situation where possessive murder would become a possibility. 'This is all theory and supposition, Sherlock.'

'Lestrade's arrested people on less.' Sherlock shrugged. 'If necessary I'm sure I can get the proof. Whatever happens, I need you to watch the assistant, all right?'

John blew out a breath through his nose, an unhappy sound, but he nodded at last as the door finally opened and Lestrade stepped out, giving Sherlock a quick, dark look as he muttered, 'Can I get rid of him now?'

Sherlock glanced over Lestrade's shoulder, noticing Monroe lean forward to catch his eye. A smile danced along the architect's lips, and Sherlock allowed his own mouth to tilt in response, automatically falling into role as his gaze took in everything. Nothing had changed about Monroe: polished, pressed suit, immaculately ruffled hair – there was nothing new to be found there, but the lawyer...

Recently divorced, judging by the white band where a ring had been, and his face was set into that pedantic mask of lawyers everywhere, but there were signs of strain at its edges. A faint line of sweat beaded along his hairline, and his lips were bracketed by tight lines: annoyance, or something else? He kept fidgeting with his tie as if it were too tight. Wrong colour for the suit he was wearing: a gift. Well-worn despite its inadvisable hue – a meaningful present from someone important to him, but not the wife. An ex-lover, much missed.

The lawyer's eye flickered towards Monroe, and Sherlock's eyebrow lifted in interest.


'Unfortunately Mr Monroe's personal vehicle has been towed,' he said to Lestrade, adding a hefty weight to his gaze so that the DI would get the hint. Back in the room, he heard the lawyer sigh in annoyance and Monroe bluster in complaint. 'Mr Monroe's assistant is on his way.'

'Right,' Lestrade muttered, rolling his eyes at Sherlock before jerking his head at Donovan, clearly knowing she would take the required steps to make Sherlock's lie into a truth, albeit grudgingly. 'Thank you for your help, Mr Monroe. I'm sorry for causing you any inconvenience.' Lestrade sounded like the words were forced out of him as he stepped back, allowing more room in the doorway.

'I'm glad I could be of help to you and Mr Holmes, Inspector,' Monroe replied, his voice smooth and cultured. His tone was firm but polite, with a hint of warmth around Sherlock's last name.

Behind him, the lawyer pulled a face, looking a little sick, as though he remembered that tone being directed at him. Yet it was not a jealous expression, but one of self-loathing, as if he were chastising himself for hopeless daydreams. Monroe's spurned lover then, but one who blamed his own inadequacies for the end of the relationship rather than the new target of Monroe's affections.

The thought that Lattimer could have been a blind behind which Monroe could hide his male lovers crossed Sherlock's mind, but then he recalled Lestrade mentioning provocative texts and phone-calls to the victim. There had clearly been something there, although when a man like Monroe used sex as a weapon, it was challenging to calculate genuine affection from power-play. Either way, previous male lovers made it more likely that he and Havisham were involved, and increased the chances that the assistant felt Lattimer needed to be removed from the equation.

'Could you show me the way out, Mr Holmes?' Monroe asked, all seductive smiles, and Sherlock heard Lestrade's irritated snort as he led the lawyer in the opposite direction to sort out some paperwork. However, the DI's disdain was not nearly as obvious as John's humming tension, which had not abated since Sherlock had mentioned his plan.

The urge to soothe him was all-encompassing, making the blood pulse in Sherlock's fingertips with the desire to reach out and trace the tense lines of John's shoulders – to reassure him time and again that there was nothing to fear. However, jealousy was far from rational, and Sherlock knew that inciting it was unavoidable. He needed to know if he was on the right track with Havisham before wasting time chasing non-existent leads. The Work made its demands, and John would have to wait.

Later, Sherlock promised himself. Once they were back in Baker Street, familiar territory, he would remind John that this was all a masquerade – a mimicry of emotion held in a quest for new evidence.

He made a show of glancing at his watch – Havisham should be here in less than five minutes – before gesturing with his hand. 'Shall we?'

Monroe fell into step at his side, syncopating with the ease of someone to whom the game of social cues came naturally. It effectively left John to follow on behind, and Sherlock forced himself to focus all his attention on the man at his side rather than allowing it to flow back to the one person who really mattered.

'I feel I must apologise,' Monroe murmured, false sincerity thick in his words and his voice quiet so that Sherlock had no choice but to lean close to hear. All it took was a fractional tilt of Sherlock's head, exposing his throat – interest both intellectual and sexual on display – and Monroe continued with a smile. 'I should have informed you of Sophie's contact with me, but I was concerned it would muddy the waters of the investigation if I implied there might be motive where none existed.'

Idiot, Sherlock thought to himself, but he kept the word caught under his tongue as he gave a slow, understanding smile. 'I'm sorry you were inconvenienced, but I'm sure you can appreciate our need to investigate every avenue.'

'Very thorough of you,' Monroe said with a hint of a purr, as if he were trying to make everyday conversation into an invitation. John could do better with just a glance. 'I have to say, Mr Holmes, I had no idea that the police force made a habit of recruiting men of your obvious calibre. I'm impressed.' Monroe shifted closer as Sherlock came to a halt in the lobby of New Scotland Yard, noticing a sleek car pulling up to the kerb. 'I'd love to know more about you. Would you –' He paused, and now the expression on his face was a fraction from a leer, as if he thought he had already won. '– join me for coffee sometime?'

It was timed perfectly. There was Monroe, very much in Sherlock's personal space, maintaining eye contact as if he thought he could hypnotise him with a pair of forget-me-not blue irises (John's were nicer, more steel, less false innocence). Everything about him from his expression to his posture was cultivated to captivate Sherlock's interest – blatant and obvious – as the doors parted to allow Havisham into the building.

All it took was a coy little tilt of his head and a glance up through his lashes, and Sherlock felt the atmosphere go tense. He could not see Havisham from this angle, and he prayed that his trust in John had not been misplaced.

One, two steady beats of his heart, and Sherlock shifted back, knowing that the damage was done as he pasted a smile on his face. 'Another time, perhaps, Mr Monroe.'

A flash of dangerous disappointment skated across Monroe's gaze, too subtle for anyone but Sherlock to see, and he felt himself tense. 'Of course, I mustn't keep you from your work,' Monroe replied with a hint of a patronising smile, utterly guiltless. He did not act like a man whose lover had just caught him trying to chat up someone else, but was that because he was unaware of Havisham's feelings, or because he simply did not care? 'Good day, Mr Holmes. I hope I'll be seeing you again soon.'

Sherlock took the opportunity to glance at Havisham, taking it all in with a flicker of a glance and feeling the first bloom of triumph in his gut. John would have seen more, but even now that the moment had passed, emotion had stamped itself in the subtle edges of Havisham's stiff face and body. His shoulders were rigid, and the hand around the car keys was clenched into a fist. The polite smile on his lips was more of a grimace, and even if it weren't for all those little tells, one glance at his eyes would have been enough.

Cold, hard hate – all of it angled in Sherlock's direction.

As soon as Monroe walked past him, Havisham fell into step at his heels, not bothering with so much as backwards glance. His strides, however, were sharp and concise, carrying him quickly away from the brooding building of New Scotland Yard and into the sleek car waiting just outside. The engine revved as it pulled away: an angry foot on the accelerator, and Sherlock allowed himself a quick, triumphant smile before he turned back to John.

'You were right,' John said. His arms were still folded across his chest, but his shoulders were slowly starting to relax as Sherlock moved to stand at his side. 'The moment he walked in, it was written all over his face.'

'And, like you, it was aimed at the interloper, rather than his partner. Monroe had no part in Havisham's anger.' Sherlock narrowed his eyes, trying to assign relevance. 'He views Monroe as blameless. That rather suggests there is no established relationship between them.'

'Not necessarily,' John cut in, already shaking his head. 'Don't you ever get jealous?'

Sherlock paused, thinking about the string of various women who had traipsed through John's life, and men as well, at some point in the past, judging by his lack of hesitance in bed. Was he jealous of them? Had he been, when they had John's attention and he didn't?

'Yes, but –' He tried to find the words to explain that such things had never blocked out his thoughts nor reduced him to a baser instinct beyond a certain pettiness. He had remained rational throughout, and the feeling had soon been stifled. 'Not in the same way.'

'Right.' John sighed, scratching his ear as if he wasn't sure how to explain. 'Even in an established relationship, some people have a tendency to put their partner on a pedestal. They act like they can do no wrong, so even when they're the ones flirting, it's still the recipient's fault. That's the way Havisham looked at you, as if you were to blame for catching Monroe's attention.'

'Is that how you feel?' Sherlock asked curiously, wondering too late if perhaps John would not appreciate the question. Others hadn't, before, acting as if it was something he should already know – as if he should be able to read not only their minds but their hearts as well. However, John was already shaking his head, and the first hint of an honest smile bloomed on his face.

'No chance. I've lived with you for too long. I know exactly how human you are – and how fallible.'

Sherlock pulled a face at that, his nose impulsively wrinkling in disgust, but the offence given was minimal. Besides, it was hard to argue with John's reasoning, especially since he had borne witness to an alarming number of experiments taking unexpected turns.

'What next, then?' John asked, tipping his head as he waited for a response. 'All we've managed to prove is that the assistant's the jealous type.'

'We talk to Lestrade,' Sherlock replied, his coat swirling around him as he turned to walk deeper into the building. 'His warrant probably doesn't extend to cover the assistant in any way, but perhaps there'll be something telling at Monroe's office.' He smiled at John. 'And while he and Donovan are busy with that, we can examine Havisham's apartment.'

John huffed a breath, half laugh, half reprimand, but he did not bother to voice his doubts. 'Do you know where he lives?'

'Give me three minutes with Lestrade's computer, and I will.'

Sherlock glanced over at John, noting the lingering stiffness of his shoulders and the spasmodic clench of his fist. He was smiling, but there was a hardness to his jaw and something uncertain in his eyes. A brief flash of concern darted across Sherlock's mind, and he glanced around before snagging John's sleeve, punching in the code to one of the Yard's many locked doors – obvious from the wear pattern – and pushing John into the room beyond.

'Sherlock, what are we –' John's words died as Sherlock ducked his head, scraping his teeth softly over the thin line of John's mouth before lapping with his tongue. The kiss was meant to be for John, a quick respite and a taste of reassurance until the case released them back to the privacy of Baker Street, but instead Sherlock found his mind going quiet, switching to standby as this – this simple act – became the complete focus of his attention.

There was so much to explore and catalogue, from the faint dryness of John's lips to the first hint of stubble beneath Sherlock's fingertips. The taste of him – tea, toothpaste and John – and the warm, strong weight of his body against Sherlock's. He could feel tight muscles softening, losing their knots and growing languid as Sherlock's hand cupped the back of his neck, moving in soft, teasing circles.

John's tongue mimicked the motion, sliding against Sherlock's in a hypnotic glide as his fingers slipped beneath Sherlock's coat, grasping at his hip and rubbing at the line of his waist. John's tight gasp of appreciation when Sherlock broke back was a firework straight to Sherlock's crotch, and he rested his brow against John's as he caught his breath.

'Thank you,' John whispered, his lips curving in a genuine grin as he nudged Sherlock's nose with his own. No need for an explanation there, then. John really could be surprisingly astute. 'I think I needed that.'

'You weren't the only one,' Sherlock replied, surprised by the honesty of his own statement. In his previous efforts at relationships, offering any kind of reassurance, verbal or physical, had seemed almost pointless to him, but with John it was different. John tried to understand him – tried to comprehend the complexities of his behaviour and appreciate them for all their abnormality – and Sherlock found himself eager to help in the endeavour, rather than bored by John's occasional insecurities.

The noise John made in his throat was a bizarre mixture of surprise, happiness and something lower and more predatory. 'Come on. Before I decide to take your earlier suggestion and bend you over a filing cabinet.' He gestured to the archive units around them, drab tones of olive green in the gloom. 'Might get arrested for that kind of thing.' Sherlock tried not to smirk at John stretching up, almost on tiptoes, to flick his tongue temptingly at the corner of Sherlock's mouth before pulling away again and giving him a nudge in the direction of the door. 'The sooner we solve this case, the sooner we can get back home and finish what you just started.'

He could not argue with that kind of logic, and Sherlock pulled the door open, stepping back into the corridor and blinking in surprise when he saw Lestrade leaning against the wall opposite, his arms folded across his chest and something undeniably smug painted across his expression.

'Busy as always, Lestrade,' he said in a cool, indifferent kind of voice, which would have been far more effective if it were not for the fact that John had gone bright red at his side.

'I could say the same for you.' The DI raised an eyebrow, looking meaningfully at John before catching Sherlock's gaze and rolling his eyes. 'I'm tired, not blind.'

'As am I,' Sherlock replied, jerking his head towards the file in Lestrade's hand and deliberately cutting off the conversation. 'What's that?'

Lestrade straightened up, tapping the manilla file against his hand for a moment before holding it out in surrender. 'Found it in Winters' pocket. Not much of it left after the dunk in the river, but maybe you can make something of it.' He pulled the dossier back as Sherlock reached for it, the smirk that had been threatening to spread across his face blooming full force. 'Took you long enough.'

'I don't know what you mean,' Sherlock replied airily, thinking back to his and John's conversation in the bathroom. He should have realised that Lestrade would pick up on the change so quickly. Of course, being caught coming out of a dark room looking – he glanced at John – flushed and somewhat dishevelled did make it rather obvious.

'Don't play dumb; it doesn't suit you,' Lestrade said firmly, thrusting the file into Sherlock's hand. 'Look at it in my office.' He scratched his eyebrow as Sherlock began to move away, already examining the photo beneath the plain covers before Lestrade's voice made him hesitate. 'John, a word?'

Sherlock glared over his shoulder at the DI, who simply gave him a faintly enigmatic smile in return. 'Predictable,' Sherlock muttered. 'I'm sure Mycroft will be warning John off soon enough. You needn't bother.'

'What makes you think I'm warning him off?' Lestrade asked. 'He knows better than anyone what he's letting himself in for. He'll be with you in a minute.'

Sherlock met John's eyes, watching him give a one-shouldered shrug. Lestrade got on well with John. They met down the pub for drinks sometimes, friends of a sort, but Sherlock was still uneasy at being summarily dismissed from a conversation he had no doubt would revolve around him in some capacity.

After a brief moment, he gave a sigh and turned away, shouldering aside the door to Lestrade's office and closing it behind him. Departure really was his only option. He just had to hope that John would freely share whatever Lestrade had felt necessary to convey. At least with any luck whatever they were discussing would give him all the time he needed to break into Lestrade's computer and get Havisham's address.

Keeping one eye on the windows to Lestrade's office, Sherlock got to work, his fingers racing over the keys as he guessed at passwords. It was not a challenge. The MET were more strict than most, but there was plenty of personal paraphernalia in Lestrade's office, enough to give Sherlock the educated guess-work he needed.

He was into the relevant program in under two minutes, and he quickly filled in the details before scribbling down Havisham's last known address. A mid-rent part of the city, and a far cry from the elite apartments he helped to sell. Not unexpected. A quick glance at the residential history made Sherlock raise an eyebrow. He had been listed as being on a university campus no more than five years ago, yet his stay there was brief. A drop out, perhaps. Intriguing.

Voices approaching from the hallway had Sherlock exiting back to the password screen with a few brief clicks and pocketing the address. The urge to eavesdrop at the door and pluck the answers to all his questions from the air was almost overwhelming, but Sherlock clenched his teeth. Bit not good. Not that he cared for Lestrade's sake, but John was entitled to something like privacy, even if Sherlock hated the thought.

Easing back in Lestrade's chair, he propped his feet on the desk as he forced his attention back to the photograph Lestrade had given him. It showed a piece of paper, tatty and fibrous around its edges where the Thames had inundated its threads. The fold lines were obvious, small enough to go in the back pocket of someone's trousers, and there was a faint blue wash to the paper where it had been in Winters' jeans. The words were mere shadows on the page, illegible and so-far unprocessed, but it told Sherlock enough. The paper was plain but thick, with a dense GSM measurement. High quality.

It looked like a letter of some kind, hand-written, which was unusual, and important enough for Winters to keep in his pocket. There had been indications that he had been expecting something in the mail, and in today's age of email and instant communication, the postal service was a surprisingly discreet way to deliver more incriminating messages. A paper trail could be destroyed, whereas emails were surprisingly tenacious.

The office door opened, and he glanced up to see John and Lestrade walk in, both with open, relaxed postures. The smile on John's face was fractionally embarrassed, but good-natured, and Lestrade just looked knowing, as if he could read Sherlock's desperate curiosity with just one glance. He shoved Sherlock's feet off his desk and jerked his thumb in a clear indication for Sherlock to vacate his chair, which he ignored.

'Does your warrant extend to Monroe's office?' he asked, deliberately not giving Lestrade the satisfaction of asking what he had been discussing with John. It was fairly obvious, anyway: a hint of "be careful" with a fair sized chunk of "I knew it would happen eventually" and a trace of vague reassurance along the lines of "I don't care who you shag." None of it necessary, but all of it probably expected.

'Yeah, why?'

'This paper is distinctive.' He gestured to the bottom right hand corner, where the discolouration from the river had revealed a faint pattern in the weave. 'Water-marked. Might be worth seeing if it came from Macmillan and Monroe's.'

Lestrade grunted, taking the photo and squinting at it before nodding his head. 'Okay, I'll see what we can find. You got anything else for me?'

'Ask me again at the end of the day,' Sherlock replied, getting to his feet and heading for the door. 'Oh, and don't bother reporting to Mycroft about John and I; I'm certain he already knows.'

'Of course he does,' Lestrade replied with a sigh. 'Look out for each other. And Sherlock?' He smiled when Sherlock glanced back over his shoulder. 'Congratulations. Be good to him, won't you?'

Sherlock just sighed, giving one curt nod of his head before sweeping into the corridor. He waited as John bade Lestrade farewell and followed him out. Those eyes met Sherlock's with a hint of a smile in their depths before skating away, as if he were afraid that one glance would mean the whole world knew everything they had shared.

'That was fairly embarrassing,' John said after a moment, letting out a deep breath and trotting to catch up with Sherlock as he moved along the corridor.

'Let me guess: he wanted to make sure you knew what you were letting yourself in for, promised to be there if you ever needed someone to talk to, and reassured you that sleeping with a man would not be an issue.'

John stopped, and the expression on his face was teasing, amused, and more than a little bit joyful – not at all what Sherlock expected. 'I think this is the first time I've ever said this to you, but you're completely wrong.' A bright laugh escaped John's lips when Sherlock stopped abruptly, staring at him in surprise. The sound was quickly smothered, and John shook his head. 'Did you actually deduce that, or did you just make assumptions?'

'I was trying to deduce a murder,' Sherlock pointed out, his irritation smoothing itself into something more placid when John's shoulder bumped against his own. 'What did he say, then?'

'Well, everything you just said was there, but unspoken. Greg's a friend; he doesn't have to tell me any of that.' John's smile slipped a little, and he cleared his throat. 'He just told me to be careful, that's all, and that I should pass the message on to you.'

'Careful of each other?' Sherlock asked, 'Or careful of people who might use what we have against us?'

'Both, I think.' John rounded his shoulders, tugging his jacket closer as they stepped out of the building into London's cool, damp air.

'It would be nothing new,' Sherlock said as he hailed a cab. 'Moriarty already knew exactly how to hurt us both.'

'Yeah, but it's something most other people don't have to contend with,' John pointed out, and now there was a tense note to his words. 'Most couples don't have to worry that their partner's going to be kidnapped, or strapped to explosives or...'

Sherlock turned to John, ignoring the impatient blare of the waiting taxi's horn as he gripped John's shoulders. 'It would be a concern whether we were flatmates or husbands, John. It's been a part of our lives from the moment you walked into Baker Street, and even if I stop now and never solve another case, the threat wouldn't leave us.'

'I know. God, I'm not asking you to stop.' John shook his head, quick and fierce, and this time his smile had more power to it: ruthless and lethal. 'I'll never ask that of you, and I don't think that's what Greg expected, either.'

'Oi, do you need a cab or not?' the waiting driver shouted, and Sherlock wrenched the door open, snapping out his instructions as John settled next to him.

'He just wants to make sure we take care of each other, that's all,' John said at last, glancing out of the window. 'I'm his friend and you're his –'

'Meal-ticket,' Sherlock cut in ungraciously, sighing when John gave him a dark look.

'You know that's bullshit, Sherlock. Cases might have brought the two of you together, but he cares for you, and not just as the line to his next promotion. I've seen his face when you're hurt.' John's fist tightened on his knee, as if the very thought of injury was too much to consider. 'He panics, pure and simple.'

Sherlock did not reply; there was no point. John was right, and they both knew it. Lestrade's interference, and his cautions, were well-meant. A little nudge to remind them that perhaps he and John had more to cope with in their lives than most new couples.

On the surface, the advice to take care of each other seemed somewhat trite, but Sherlock doubted that Lestrade's meaning was as superficial as one might expect. It was a hint from someone who could see them from the outside. A nod to Sherlock to remember there was something else in his life other than the Work – to try not to forget John in those heady, dizzy moments and remember that John had needs which should be met, like food and sleep and simple affection.

To John, the advice probably had different connotations. After all, John already looked after him in the physical sense, ensuring sustenance and rest wherever possible. No, the DI was more likely to have given John a guileless reminder that Sherlock was different from the general populace emotionally, as well as intellectually, and that the templates from previous relationships were unlikely to have much bearing on the future.

As if John had not already worked that out on his own.

A nudge against his wrist made him look away from the window and back at John, who was watching him with his head tipped to one side. 'Thinking about the case?'

Sherlock shook his head, turning his hand over to give John's fingers a quick squeeze. 'No. Lestrade.'

'Does it bother you that he figured it out?' John's thumb rubbed back and forth against Sherlock's skin, not particularly erotic or enticing, but warm and comfortable in a way that Sherlock realised he could grow to thoroughly appreciate. He had never had the chance to see John be particularly demonstrative with a lover other than himself, but the need for physical contact went both ways. Early stage bonding behaviour.

It was... pleasant.

'No. If he hadn't been so tired this morning and fighting off a headache, he would have realised it as soon as Mrs Hudson waited at the door rather than sweeping in. He's good at reading changes in patterns.' Sherlock frowned at the traffic lights currently blocking the taxi's way forward, shifting restlessly (and with a faint twinge of discomfort from the previous night's activities) in his seat.

'He won't tell anyone else. Said it was no one's business, not even Mycroft's.' John's faint grin was wholly approving. 'Perhaps he's not as far under your brother's thumb as you think?'

'Lestrade's job is to tell Mycroft if I turn up at a case high, end up injured or am otherwise suffering,' Sherlock replied. 'He has two older siblings of his own. He doesn't say any more to Mycroft than he would want his own brothers to know about himself.'

'Funny how so many people you know are too loyal to take money from your brother to spy on you,' John mused.

'Mmmm, although only one threw their lot in with me within hours of our first meeting,' Sherlock added, watching John lift his chin in moral pride. 'The others took time, and there are still those who would sell me out in a heartbeat for a five pound note.'

'Anderson and Donovan?'

'The former, certainly.' Sherlock retrieved his wallet as the taxi pulled up to the kerb. 'Donovan has strong morals and moderate intelligence. She might think twice. Possibly.'

John grunted as he climbed free from the cab, waiting for Sherlock to pay before looking up at the uninspiring building in front of him. 'Neither her nor Lestrade will think too kindly of you when they figure out you sent them to Monroe's office on a wild goose chase while we came here.'

'And they would have been even more aggravated if I led them to a dead end.' Dragging his coat tighter around his shoulders, Sherlock gestured for John to go first. 'We're just confirming some suspicions, nothing more. Besides, we know Havisham's at work, so we shouldn't be interrupted.'

'Good, because my bloody gun is back at the flat.'

Slipping his hand under his coat, Sherlock pulled free the brutish shape of the Browning from where it nestled at the base of his spine. A quick flick of his fingers slipped it cautiously up his sleeve, well out of sight of any pedestrians or CCTV cameras. He moved his hand to the small of John's back, up under his jacket, and transferred the weapon to its more familiar home at the waistband of John's jeans.

John felt the slip of skin-warmed metal and gave Sherlock a sharp look of surprise. 'When did you get that?'

'While you were shaving. I know you always feel better going into a situation armed.' Sherlock tugged at John's sleeve, bidding him to follow as they approached the unremarkable apartment building on the corner of the street. 'I would have given it to you earlier, but I thought you might be tempted to shoot Monroe in the head. It's been digging into my back for hours.'

'Loaded?' John asked, grinning as Sherlock shot him a disbelieving look. 'Sorry, just checking. So you're not expecting trouble, but you brought the gun anyway?'

'Trouble has a tendency to make an appearance whether I expect it or not.' Sherlock looked at the apartment door, noting the basic lock. The list of buzzers showed clearly that L. Havisham lived in number six, and the other names all looked well-worn and entrenched.

Shamming their way in was probably inadvisable, as Havisham may be the type to chat with his neighbours, and Sherlock pulled free his lock picks before setting to work. John moved instinctively to shield him casually from the view of passers-by, his face no doubt innocent and unremarkable as, one by one, the tumblers slipped free.

Pushing the door open, Sherlock stepped into the small front hall, taking in the terracotta and cream tiles – original late Victorian – and the narrow, climbing stairs off to the left. The windows were narrow and high, and there was an interesting, aged fragrance of engine oil in the air.

'It's a bit of a far cry from Monroe's elite apartments, isn't it?'

'It's a conversion. Something old and industrial, judging by the smell and the pillars.' He gestured to the large trunk of painted iron that curved up to the roof, more about function than design. 'Could be an old factory of some kind turned into flats, considering the scent of oil that's probably imbued into the brickwork.'

'No lift,' John muttered, glancing around. 'No CCTV either. What floor do we need?'

Sherlock set off up the steps, answering through movement as they climbed past slender windows looking out over shady alleyways and occasional neo-vintage mosaics placed in the walls by the renovators. The stairwell echoed with their quiet footsteps, but there was no other sound within the building. It was probably empty, its occupants more likely to be young professionals than families, but Sherlock still checked the corridor before he stepped out onto Havisham's floor.

The lock on the front door was quickly dispatched, and he reached into his pocket for his gloves before carefully easing it open, training all his senses on the rooms in front of him as John's presence warmed his back.

Silence pressed down thick and heavy: no dripping taps, no clanking pipes and no obvious sounds of human occupation. The front door opened onto a hallway/study, with a computer desk and chair tucked in one corner and shelves crammed full of books lined the walls. Bare wooden floors carried his first footstep like a drum-skin, and Sherlock deliberately eased his weight forward, trying to stay quiet as he looked around him.

Whatever Havisham may or may not be, he had taste. It was present in his design choices: complimentary colour palettes, good use of textures... He seemed to have missed his calling in interior design. Alongside the books were various bits and pieces: a glass fishing float shining emerald green in the light from the window, a piece of interesting driftwood, an old compass, long defunct...

'He's spatially obsessive,' Sherlock whispered, hovering a finger over the books, noticing a range of topics. To a linguist, there was no rhyme or reason to his cataloguing, but in an aesthetic sense there was a clear level of organisation. 'They're ranked with increasing size towards the door to give the room a faint illusion of size.'

'Bit of a bookworm, too,' John replied. 'There's everything here from travel books and fiction to some on anatomy.'

'Classics?' Sherlock looked over his shoulder, seeing John shake his head. 'What then?'

'Course books. A few years out of date, but fairly modern.'

Sherlock nodded to himself, breathing a sigh of relief as another piece of the puzzle slotted neatly into place. 'He was living in university halls five years ago. The books suggest he was studying biology, or possibly even first year medicine. I would guess he did not make it through the second term. The blow that killed Winters was clean and swiftly done – no messing around. It suggests a basic knowledge of anatomy.'

'Or he Googled it,' John pointed out, moving closer to Sherlock's side and examining the various trinkets on the shelves before moving on. 'If you can find out how to make a nuke online, a quick murder's not going to be much of a challenge, is it?'

'No,' Sherlock admitted, a smile breaking across his lips as his gaze alighted on a polished wooden box, highly decorative and on display. There was a discreet metal seal pressed into the lid, bearing the entwined snake form of the caduceus. 'This, however, might be a bit more damning.'

He opened it carefully, revealing the set of scalpels contained within. They were good quality, new, rather than vintage, and undoubtedly a gift to be displayed in such pride of place. However, there was one noticeable gap in the line-up of tools which whispered about more than just murder. 'The broad-blade scalpel is missing. I imagine we'll find it in the evidence locker at the Yard – the one they pulled out of Winters' chest.'

'And he left the box in plain sight?' John whispered in confusion. 'I thought you said he was forward-thinking. That's a stupid mistake to make. Did he get cocky?'

'No,' Sherlock whispered, touching his hands briefly to his lips before turning to John. 'No, he made a mistake. These are maintained and well-cared for. Whoever gave them to him was an important person in his life.' He gestured to the books again. 'Someone proud of his university place. He knew that they were good blades with which to kill someone, sharp and strong. He would also have known that leaving it in the body would mean there was no blood spatter to speak of, but he meant to retrieve the knife. It was too sentimental to leave behind.'

He spun around, his eyes moving towards the short flight of steps that led to the rest of the flat before darting back to John. 'I don't think Winters was ever meant to fall in the river. He probably wasn't even meant to die at the bridge. Something made Havisham panic.' His eyes fell on the desk, clean and bare of any of the usual clutter, and he gestured towards the rest of the flat. 'Search the other rooms. See if you can find that ring.'

John nodded, moving with the trained stealth of a soldier on dangerous patrol as Sherlock began to open drawers, his fingers drifting over but not touching the contents. Everything was neatly aligned and perfectly organised, meticulous, just like the cleaning of Lattimer's flat. In fact, there was the same feeling in Havisham's place – picture perfect.

The last drawer he opened was empty but for a pad of paper: thick, creamy and luxurious. Sherlock quickly flicked on the desk lamp, tugging it free and tilting it to the light. It was difficult to be certain, as he had not been able to examine the letter found in Winters' pocket directly, but it looked like a good match. Even better, he could see indents from the last thing written on the missing page: a pen pressed down hard in anger charting its message through more than one sheet.

A sharpened pencil stood next to a fountain pen in the desk tidy, and Sherlock briefly remembered the ink stain on Havisham's finger as he grabbed the pencil and placed the graphite flat against the page. He shaded over the paper with firm, broad strokes so that the message written beneath showed in relief: A curt letter to Gareth Winters arranging to meet at the bridge to discuss his “additional financial demands”.

'Got you,' Sherlock whispered before raising his voice. 'John?'

'Sherlock, you need to see this!' John sounded strong and smug, and Sherlock turned away, marching through the kitchen where a flat pack cabinet lay half-constructed and neglected. There were various screwdrivers and hammers strewn around, including a couple of battery-operated power tools. They seemed to have been abandoned in a hurry, no doubt when Havisham had realised Winters had become a liability.

Carrying on through to what he assumed was the bedroom, he took in the bland walls and untouched bed with a sweep of his gaze. 'Winters blackmailed Havisham. He clearly decided he should get more for killing Lattimer. If Havisham had not planned to kill him before, he certainly did after that.' His gaze lingered on the undented pillows, a frown hovering on his brow. 'It looks like Havisham's sleeping elsewhere,' he commented as he approached John's side. 'The sheets are freshly pressed, but slightly dusty. He's not been here for a few days,'

'Probably not since killing Winters,' John agreed, pointing into the drawer he had opened by the bed. He had not disturbed the contents; he did not have to, because nestled in the corner was a dark green velvet box with the name Garrard's embossed across it. With one quick motion of his gloved fingers, Sherlock opened it up, revealing the missing engagement ring.

The buzz of Sherlock's phone in his pocket cut through the peace of the flat, and he dragged it out from the fold of fabric with a frown, opening the message as John leaned over his shoulder to read it.

“Monroe and Havisham left the office five minutes before we got here. They're not at Monroe's flat either. No sign of any matching paper. Where are you? - GL”

He and John stood silently, side-by-side, staring down at the small screen and the message it contained. Seconds passed as their racing thoughts shuddered to a halt, refocussing on the here-and-now, rather than the shifting theory of the case.

'If they're not at the office, then where the hell are they?'

Sherlock looked up to meet John's puzzled gaze, his eyes closing in a split-second of disbelief as another noise reached his ears. Drifting through the air from a couple of rooms away was the unmistakable jingle of keys in the lock, and the steady, solid sound of a door's latch springing free.

'They're here.'

Chapter Text

John stared at Sherlock in disbelief, frozen for a split-second by indecision before he turned towards the window. 'We can use the fire escape!' he hissed, his fingers wrapping clumsily around the latch to drag it open only to find it stubbornly immovable. No matter how hard he heaved, it wouldn't budge, and he mouthed a curse as he realised the window was locked and there was no key in sight.

Double-glazed, it was strong and steady, but it would break if he threw something at it hard enough. John looked around frantically for an impromptu missile before Sherlock grabbed his arm, already shaking his head as he dragged John close to whisper in his ear. 'If we break out now, then whoever is out there will know they're not alone. If Havisham has any sense he'll destroy the evidence and flee the country. We might never catch up with him!'

'He's a murderer, Sherlock,' John pointed out, shaking his head as he twitched the Browning free from where it was tucked in his jeans. 'And Monroe is probably with him, which won't do us any favours. Can't we hide?'

'Where?' Sherlock asked, gesturing around the sparsely furnished room. There were no cupboards, no dark quiet corners – there was not even any room under the bed. 'The only way out is through them. We're armed. I doubt they are.'

Sherlock moved across the bedroom like a ghost, his footsteps making no sound on the carpet. He pressed his back against the wall to the left of the door, well out of the way if someone kicked in the panel. The right side remained free for John to lean against, shielding his body but giving his dominant hand a full range of movement to aim his gun at anyone who might try and cross the threshold.

Glancing back at the window, John thought for a brief, longing moment of escape and safety, of gathering reinforcements and taking the chance that Havisham got away, but Sherlock had already made up his mind. He wouldn't follow John, and there was no way he could leave Sherlock behind. No, they were in this together, and John slumped against the wall, licking his dry lips as he waited.

A sudden absence of sound made them both pause, and John watched Sherlock's eyes close for a moment, his expression one of self-loathing before he whispered, 'I left the desk lamp on and the drawer open. Whoever it is will know the flat's not empty.'

John nodded once in understanding, not bothering to reply as he strained to hear any noise from the rooms beyond. The thud of his heart was loud in his own ears, easily ignored after years on the battlefield. A faint prickle of sweat gathered in his hairline, but he paid it no mind as he focused every sense on the space beyond the four walls within which they stood.

A slow, creeping, half-muffled beat echoed over the hard wooden floor, quiet but not silent, and John knew footsteps when he heard them. Opposite, Sherlock held up two fingers: a silent instruction that Havisham was not alone. In all likelihood, Monroe was with him, and John forced the questions in his mind to fall silent. He didn't care if Monroe was innocent of the murders or the mind behind them. He did not need answers to make sure that he and Sherlock got out of this in one piece. Right now, that was all that mattered.

His hands were rock steady, every muscle braced and tense, prepared for a fight. Sherlock was no different, a soldier in his own urban warfare. There was something clenched in his right hand that John could not make out, but it was not his job to check that Sherlock was armed. He had seen him take down a much bigger man with nothing but a bottle opener once. He had to trust Sherlock to handle himself.

Breathlessness folded around them: a cloying, oppressive kind of calm that set John's teeth on edge. It did not matter where in the world he was. Whether he was wearing fatigues or jeans and a jumper, this was the part he hated most – waiting. The tension increased with every passing heartbeat as his body primed itself for battle, taut and twisted over a rack of adrenaline and desperate for relief from the screeching anticipation.

There was a faint noise: a rough scrape of something on wood, and John frowned over at Sherlock, reading the uncertainty there – not enough data. He could not deduce the cause of the sound, nor the clanging, tense silence that hovered in its wake.

Soldiers learned to put stock in their instincts, and John's gut was writhing – twisting with little, sickening tremors that made him want to curse. Every sense was screaming about an ambush, about an enemy with more knowledge than any mere civilian should have. There should be arguments, whispered debates and discussions to coordinate their plans, not the unearthly calm of two people who knew precisely what they were doing: a well-oiled machine.

Or perhaps one person in the lead and another who simply knew when to do what they were told.

In the space between one breath and the next, the silence thickened, increasing to breaking point. John felt the moment when the tension snapped all the way down to his bones.

The door exploded inwards, a hefty kick slamming it back. John twitched as something shot forward into the room, slender and bright in the uncertain light, not a bullet but some other kind of projectile. Hot on its trail came Havisham and Monroe, taking advantage of the split-second hesitation to surge through the bottle-neck of the doorway.

Sherlock was quick, smacking something down on Monroe's head with a satisfying crack, but the man only stumbled, rising again with a snarl as John aimed the gun, safety pulled back and fingers competent on the trigger.

Pain exploded through the back of his right hand, sharp, visceral and utterly unexpected. It was enough to cut through his concentration for a fraction of a second, his fingers flexing in shock, and Monroe leapt, smashing his fists down onto John's arm as Sherlock launched himself at Havisham.

John's pistol landed on the carpeted floor with a muffled thump, a few dots of blood splattering down to stain the pile. He barely noticed as he ploughed his left fist into Monroe's jaw. He followed it quickly with a jab of his right that made pain screech up his arm, radiating outwards from the long, silver object protruding from the back of his hand: a thick carpentry nail.

John spat a curse as Monroe grabbed his wrist and wrenched him close, slamming his head into John's nose. Blood spurted down across his mouth, but John licked it aside, already changing the direction of his stagger and tackling Monroe around the middle. The air left the man's chest in a satisfying rush as they fell to the floor, their punches clumsy and uncoordinated as they both struggled for the upper hand.

'Stop it!' Havisham's voice was a shrill cry. 'Stop it, or this is going to end badly!' The voice was high – frightened and unstable – and John's next punch hesitated as he realised precisely what was happening.

A nail gun was clasped in Havisham's trembling hand, its clumsy, plastic form shivering like a frightened animal, but it was not aimed at John. Instead the sharp end of the nail was pressed against Sherlock's temple, the point drawing a sketchy, bloody line in the pale skin as Havisham's fingers pulled at Sherlock's hair, holding him, snarling as he was, in place.

From point blank range, that nail could be as lethal as any bullet.

John froze, his mind flashing in a brief panic of Sherlock-Sherlock-Sherlock even as Monroe's fist hurtled into his jaw, crunching his teeth together and making stars explode across his vision.

He sprawled backwards, the nap of the carpet rough against his cheek as his vision lurched, sick and unsteady. His muscles trembled with the need to coordinate, to bloody move before Sherlock's brilliance was brought to the end by a thin sliver of metal punching through his skull.

Yet he only managed to prop himself upright before he became aware of the black muzzle of the gun, his gun, pointing at his face. It did not tremble or stutter, only wavering slightly with the fast twitch of the pulse in Monroe's wrist, and above it was the hard grin of a man who loved the power of being armed. John knew military experience when he saw it; he would guess the Territorial Army, but all thought fell still as Monroe spoke.

'You were never going to get in my way.'

John had no time for more than a flinch as the man's hand lifted, the Browning tilting upwards as the butt smashed into his skull, bringing with it a quick, blank wall of darkness.

Lights out.


The pain hit him first, scrabbling at the sable veil of oblivion with crunching, grasping claws. His throat felt greasy with nausea, and everything from his throbbing temples down to his shoulders ached with a grating, sharp discomfort. John almost groaned in misery, but he caught the sound back just in time, waiting for his shaky memory to translate the prickling edge of fear-danger-careful that lingered in his body into something he could use.

Havisham. Monroe.


Something moved at his wrist – a distant sweep of sensation – and it took him a moment to parse. Smooth skin brushed at his pulse, pressing desperately to the throb of it beneath his skin. They must have read his wakefulness in the rhythm, because long fingers gave his wrist a silent squeeze: a reassurance and warning all in one.

Oh, thank God. Sherlock. It had to be. John could feel the calluses from the violin strings on the plump pads of his fingertips. A second later his suspicions were confirmed by the dark, tense rumble of Sherlock's voice. 'You're more likely to shoot yourself than me if you keep waving it around like that.'

'Shut up, you –'


Havisham's voice first, John realised, tense and scathing but with a hint of something uncertain beneath. The second was Monroe: fierce and strong.

John's sluggish brain was steadily gathering together pieces of the puzzle, and he tried to keep his breathing steady, his head lolling forward onto his chest as he took stock. He was sitting on the floor, his legs spread out in front of him with the tight bind of something around his ankles. Most of his weight was slumped against Sherlock, who appeared to have been arranged so that they were back-to-back.

John's wrists were also tied – too tight, actually – he could still feel blood dribbling from around the nail in the back of his hand, which throbbed in sulking time with his heart. He estimated he had not been unconscious for more than ten minutes, since it hadn't clotted properly.

Sherlock's hands were wrapped around his, and judging by the chill in his fingertips, he was also restrained. Finally, something heavy banded around John's waist, and he risked a peek to see it was electrical flex, the kind that might attach a lamp to its plug, insulated and thankfully not connected to any kind of current: impromptu rope, then, tethering him to Sherlock and vice versa.

Well, at least they were together, and not dead – though John could feel the nebulous “yet” hovering like smoke in his mind.

'You'll have to kill them,' Monroe said, his words chilling in their logic. He sounded distant and dis-associative, as if this was just a job. John had heard that before. Soldiers did it, because it was easier to kill some poor sod whose only crime was to be wearing the wrong uniform if you didn't connect with the situation: pull the trigger and move on.

'But –' Havisham whined, and there was real fear there, transmitting itself down the faint rattle of the gun John presumed was clasped in his hands. 'But –'

'We can't just let them go,' Monroe reasoned, his words softening to become almost tender. 'You've done so well, but they'll ruin everything for us. They'll follow you, take you away from me... You need to do it now, and quickly, or you'll miss your flight!'

'Going somewhere?' Sherlock asked, and John thought he heard a hint of that sound – the one that meant he had figured something out: the last of the case's haze falling into focus. Even when tied up and with a pistol pointed at his head, Sherlock clearly couldn't be anything but himself. He still wanted answers: wanted to put the case to bed even if he had to die to do it.

However, John could feel the tension running through the body at his back. He could sense hard muscles pulled tight and those sharp scapula slightly spread as if Sherlock were a tom cat trying to puff himself up – large and intimidating. Or perhaps just big enough to keep John's smaller frame safe at any cost.

John held in a sigh, fighting the temptation to work his jaw as he gripped the fingers of his left hand tight around Sherlock's thumb, trying to convey I'm here and I’m not going anywhere without you with just a touch. Their bodies and the folds of Sherlock's coat hid the movement, and at last John opened his eyes just a crack, taking in what he could of the scene as Havisham growled at Sherlock to shut up.

'You're not even with the police,' he snapped, but it was a soggy sound. 'I looked you up. You're just some private detective who thinks he's got it all figured out.'

'Consulting detective,' Sherlock murmured. 'And I know exactly what happened. Probably better than you do. You did it all for Michael, because you love him.' The sheer disdain dripping from the word “love” was oozing and thick. 'But you still haven't figured it out, have you? He's been pulling your strings – doing everything that he could to make you dance to his tune without letting you hear a single note. He's still doing it now, giving you the gun and telling you to pull the trigger.'

John heard an indrawn breath, not from Havisham, but from Monroe, and he finally lifted his head to get a better look at their captors. Monroe was staring, his expression flooded with that slow, dawning horror John had seen a hundred times before on so many different faces, when people realise that no secret was safe from someone like Sherlock.

Havisham was frowning, the gun hanging lax in his hands as his skin turned pallid and sweaty. Monroe must have given up the weapon after he knocked out John. The nail gun was by Havisham's feet, the cartridge spent, and John could see a pattern of silver dots in the wall and ceiling. It seemed as if the fight had gone on without him, and something cold ran down his spine. Christ, was Sherlock hurt? His last memory was of the nail gun pressed against the faint concave of Sherlock's temple: death in potentia, and now he tried to pick up any sign that Sherlock was in pain.

Yet there was nothing but smooth confidence in that voice as he continued to speak, building a palace of deduction from the foundation stones that John already knew. 'It started off small, dropped hints here and there. My guess is that you saw a picture of the ring first – a detailed image on old insurance documentation, maybe. That's the kind of grunt work I can imagine Monroe asking you to do – shredding confidential things like that.'

There was a pause, and John watched Havisham's face carefully, seeing the tiny, frightened flicker of acknowledgement there.

'You'd never heard of Ms Lattimer, but you saw the inscription, and that was enough to spark your jealousy.' Sherlock took a breath, and John felt his fingers pluck at the mess of knots tied behind their backs, flexing and dancing in an effort to untangle them. 'She'd had him, all of him, and she threw him away, but even though you were so loyal, so faithful, you knew he would never put a ring on your finger. Too inconvenient. Isn't that right, Michael?'

'Don't call him that!' Havisham demanded, moving forward to smack the barrel of the Browning down hard with a painful, crunching noise. Sherlock rocked with the blow, and John winced at the sound of him spitting as red specks stained the carpet.

'Careful,' Monroe shouted, stepping forward and tugging the weapon free from Havisham's hand, switching it back to his own controlled, professional grip. 'You'll hurt one of us if you don't watch it!'

'He saw how possessive you were – are, even now – and he put it to good use,' Sherlock growled, and John could tell he was still glaring at Havisham, leaving John to stare at the blunt line of the pistol in Monroe's hands.

'Lewis, it's not true.'

'How do you know?' Sherlock asked Monroe, his voice a smooth purr, predatory and superior, despite the fact he was tied up and helpless on the floor. If they got out of this, he and John were going to have a long, involved discussion about preservation instincts. 'I haven't said what you did, yet.'

For the first time, Monroe faltered, the faintest crack beginning to show through his confidence. 'Nothing. I – I didn't do anything!'

The gun was pointing at the floor now, and John eyed it, wishing he could lunge forward and disarm Monroe, turning the tables back in their favour. However, he was still stuck, tied up and trussed together with Sherlock. He could feel the slip and stumble of Sherlock's fingers on the bloody electrical wire at their wrists – thin like earthing cable. It was hopeless; they needed something sharp...

Abruptly, Sherlock's hand shifted, brushing over the long protrusion of the nail that stabbed into John's hand. It was questioning, apologetic and desperate all at once, and John sucked in a deep breath as their thoughts came into line. Fuck, this was going to hurt.

Biting his lip, John twisted his left hand clumsily, giving Sherlock's wrist a squeeze and hoping he could read the agreement there. At least the damn nail hadn't gone all the way through, but John could feel from the throbbing, hollow pain and the grate of bones that it was embedded half into the back of his hand between the extensor tendons. He was not even sure Sherlock would be strong enough to pull it out.

'He fed your insecurities,' Sherlock continued, speaking to Havisham. 'It probably started as a game, a power-play, but when Ms Lattimer came back on the scene – determined and obstructive – Michael realised he didn't have to get his hands dirty to get her out of the way. How many phone-calls did he let you overhear?' A strong grasp wrapped around the nail in John's hand, and he braced himself, trying to focus on Sherlock's voice as, steadily, he began to pull and agony shot along John's nerves. 'Two, three? Did he leave his mobile phone out so that you could see the messages he sent her? Perhaps you thought you were being stealthy. Watching him for his own good?'

Sherlock's fingers slipped before reclaiming their grip, and John clenched his jaw tight, trying to keep his face impassive. Not that it mattered. Havisham and Monroe were staring at Sherlock as if hypnotised – both horrified – but in Monroe's gaze there was the nausea of exposure, while Havisham's features bore the growing shadow of doubt.

'You didn't expect him to be so clever, though, did you, Michael?' Sherlock asked, as the nail finally slid free. John hoped that the rough noise in his throat could be contributed to anger, rather than pain. His entire hand thudded like a bruise and hot blood dribbled down his knuckles. 'You expected him to do it himself, didn't you? A fit of jealous pique, and that's two inconvenient lovers out of the way. One dead and the other in jail.'

'What?' Havisham whispered. His face was grey while Monroe shook his head in numb denial. Abruptly, the pistol jerked up again, a snake waiting to strike as it wove between Sherlock and John, pointing at one, then the other.

John's breath caught in his throat and ice ran down his spine as Monroe's voice finally escaped him in a rough, desperate rasp. 'Shut up. Just shut up. You've got it all wrong. All of it. You're a pretty face, Mr Holmes, but you're not as good as everyone says you are.'

'Oh, I think I am.'

John could feel the clumsy rub and stab of the nail at the insulated wire around his wrists, scratching at his skin as often as the makeshift rope. Still, the plastic was beginning to weaken, and he kept his arms taut and steady as he pulled against it, doing all he could to subtly help Sherlock set them free.

'Michael used you, the same as he uses the man who's his lawyer. Men are toys to be picked up and discarded on a whim, but a wife? That's worth something,' Sherlock said, his voice soft but firm as he spoke to Havisham, successfully dragging all the attention away from John and back onto himself. 'Lattimer was the only one he ever felt anything genuine for. Love conquers all.'

Sherlock's head moved in a sharp shake, as if he were chastising himself for not seeing it sooner. 'Everyone said the breakup was amicable, and maybe it was on the surface at least, but underneath I bet Michael was furious. You already loathed her as a nameless, faceless woman from his past, and when she turned up again, dredging up all those old feelings, he pushed you to react.'

'He did it himself!' Monroe croaked, his voice cracked and almost feral in a way that made John sweat. 'Using that prick Winters, killing him! I never suggested anything like that!'

'You didn't have to.' Sherlock's fingers slipped over the plastic at John's wrists. John could feel the blood – his and Sherlock's – making it slick and treacherous, but Sherlock persevered until, at last, the tension slackened. It was painfully tempting to move his arms, but the motion would be too obvious, and he forced himself still as Sherlock spoke again.

'Havisham was clever enough to commit murder by proxy and hope that no one would ever trace it back to him. Then Winters demanded more in the way of payment. He had a lot to lose. Telling people he committed the murder wouldn't work well in his favour, but he was the desperate type.'

John shifted one hand carefully, trying to grab the nail so he could set Sherlock free. The press of fingers to his wrist stopped him, nudging him away from Sherlock's bound arms and towards the thick, poorly tied flex that was wrapped around their waists, binding them to each other. It did not take John more than a moment to get the message. Sherlock was relying on him to get himself free so that John could act while he remained bound, very much the captive.

'Winters would have taken you both down with him if you called his bluff,' Sherlock added. 'He thought he'd be safe, that you wouldn't kill him because you didn't have the guts to murder Lattimer yourself. He was wrong, though, wasn't he?'

John risked a glance over his shoulder, taking in Havisham's trembling body as he carefully shifted his arm towards the knot at his side. His breath was trapped in his throat, waiting for Havisham to notice his movements and give a cry of alarm, but the man was lost. His eyes had taken on the glazed look of someone whose entire world had fallen apart, and for the first time John was glad it was Monroe who had the gun. If it was in Havisham's hands, both he and Sherlock would be dead by now: the words Havisham clearly did not want to hear silenced out of desperation.

'He asked for too much,' Havisham said at last, his tongue moistening his dry lips as his hands clenched at his sides. 'Said that the new flat wasn't enough – that one of our apartments was inadequate.'

'How dare he?' Sherlock murmured, and John nudged him with an elbow, mutely begging him not to incite their captors further. 'So you thought you'd get him out of the way. You had a plan to dispose of the body so it would never be found: probably something from one of those forensics shows you watch so much – the DVDs are on your bookshelf.' Sherlock's tone was almost admiring. 'That's how you knew what to do to clean Lattimer's apartment so thoroughly, but Winters said something at the bridge – something that made you furious. You stabbed him there and then, and he fell into the river, taking your scalpel with him.'

Havisham's shoulders went lax and his eyes drifted closed, his nostrils flaring as he dragged in a defeated breath through his nose. 'He said – he said that bitch Lattimer told him that Michael used people. Everyone, even me.'

His chin jerked up suddenly, as if he had been slapped, his eyes darting around the apartment like he had never seen it before. 'But he was wrong,' he managed, his teeth drawing a bloody, ragged wound in his bottom lip as he bit into it. 'You're, you're not like that, are you?' he asked Monroe. 'They're lying, just like he was!'

'No, we're not,' Sherlock cut in before Monroe could answer. 'You both came back here to destroy the evidence: the other scalpels, the ring, everything. You were heading to the airport next. He is playing you. Did you think he would be getting on a plane with you? Didn't you listen to him? “You'll have to kill them.” “You'll miss your plane.” There is no we in this endeavour at all.' Sherlock's voice grew softer, almost bored, as if it were all so predictable. 'He'll give you a cheque, if he hasn't already, and you'll never see him again.'

John saw, out of the corner of his eye, Havisham's hand drift down to his pocket, touching the fabric and drawing a rustling, papery sound from its interior as Sherlock's words sank in.

'Shut up!' Monroe's snarl echoed around the apartment just as the knot unravelled beneath John's shaking fingers. There was no time to think about the fact that his feet were still bound, or that he was still half tangled in a nest of loose cable, not when the barrel of the Browning swung with cold, deadly purpose towards Sherlock's head.

John lunged, feeling Sherlock get yanked over behind him as he tackled Monroe around the knees. The shot was hideously loud, but Monroe was already falling, the bullet flying upwards rather than across, and Havisham's reedy cry of alarm was lost amidst the din.

The pistol skidded away on the floor as John grappled with Monroe. His muscles strained against the bonds that were still wrapped around his legs, and his head pounded with a raucous pain that harmonised with his aching hand. Bloody smears charted their way over Monroe's shirt and suit as John stretched for the weapon, spitting a vicious curse as Monroe elbowed him hard in the temple and sent him slumping sideways.

Havisham hit the ground with a shout, tripped up by the kick of Sherlock's feet. Even as John leaned all his weight against Monroe, trying to keep him down, he saw Sherlock tear through the wire on his wrist with the nail and lean forward to rip the cable from his own legs.

In that split second of distraction, Havisham lunged for the gun.

'Sherlock, look – umph!' John's cry was muffled by Monroe's clumsy palm scraping across his face, gouging and smothering as John's hand pushed at Monroe's chin, trying to force him off. With a vicious snap of his jaw, John bit down on Monroe's thumb, tasting a fresh burst of blood before Monroe pulled back with a howl.

Another shot cut through the air, thudding into the brickwork of the far wall. Everyone fell still, locked in a frozen tableau: John and Monroe on the floor, and Sherlock a few paces from Havisham's side, bloody hands raised in surrender and his gaze intent.

'Get away from him!' Havisham spat, the weapon in his hand weaving as the muzzle wavered between John and Sherlock, unable to cover them both at once. 'You, move!' He flicked the Browning in emphasis, and Sherlock's lip twisted in a sneer as he took a step closer to John, subtly blocking the line of fire.

'Well done,' Monroe wheezed, struggling to his feet and reaching out. 'Come on, let's finish these two off and get you out of here.' His hand hovered, palm outstretched and trembling as the seconds dragged by, but John could not see anything like trust in Havisham's expression. Instead there were deep lines around his eyes and across his brow, and his jaw was working furiously as he shook his head.

John shivered beneath the tide of adrenaline, still propped up on his elbows as cold sweat dried beneath the thick barrier of his jumper. He wanted to move, to tear the wire that still trapped his legs away and neutralise the threat of the entire situation, but too much hung in the balance. Havisham was too twitchy and unpredictable, the weapon in his hands twice as dangerous as sweat-damp fingers fluttered on the trigger.

'Is he right?' The strained whisper of Havisham's question filled the room in a rush of ragged silk, hitching on his stuttering breaths. He gestured to Sherlock with the gun, waving it around in a way that would have John's firearm safety officer in the army screaming in fury. 'Did I – Did I get too inconvenient for you?'

'No!' Monroe shook his head in a fretful line. 'He's trying to turn us against each other. Come on, we're in this together. I said I'd help you, didn't I? Said I'd get you out?' He nodded, clearly trying to get an echo of the same response from Havisham. 'That's what I'm going to do, because I love you.'

John glanced across at Havisham before shifting his knees up a fraction, trying to reach the clumsy knot that still held his legs pinned. Sherlock saw, because even in a situation like this there was hardly anything that slipped past his notice, and John watched him lean to the left, effectively blocking Havisham's view so that John could free himself.

'Then why aren't you leaving the country with him?' Sherlock murmured: the voice of doubt in the silence of the room. 'You've made sure that everything is your assistant's fault. You've set up everything so that he could take the fall for you, and if he ever came back to find out why you didn't join him, then the police would be waiting and you could move on with your life.'

He turned his head a fraction, directing the next question to Havisham. 'It's almost ingenious. There won't be anything to tie Michael to their deaths, will there? He never told you to do it, not explicitly. Even now, if this went to court, it would be a struggle to convict him. Your word against his.' Sherlock's shoulders jerked in a shrug. 'At worst he would be an accessory helping you destroy evidence, at best he's an innocent bystander. You'll go down for life while he walks free, and I bet your side of the bed won't stay cold for long.'

A smile curved Sherlock's lips, his face locked in a cold, disinterested mask. 'You've been together, what, two years? Tell me, Michael, when did you sleep with your lawyer? Six months ago, or was it nine?'

'What?' Havisham spat, his head twisting back to Monroe, and even John could read the thick smear of guilt on the architect's face. He looked sick, as if he were seeing every nuance of his constructed plan falling apart at his feet.

'I – I don't know what you're talking about!'

'Yes he does,' Sherlock promised, and John watched as he eased a fraction closer, feeling his heart rise in his throat as he finally understood Sherlock's plan. He was trying to make sure that Monroe and Havisham were too focused on each other to pay attention to their prisoners. He was going to try and get the pistol out of Havisham's hands. John's pulse raced into double time as he braced himself for the moment when Sherlock pounced.

Quickly, he turned his attention to Monroe, the muscles in his legs coiling inch-by-inch as he shoved aside the giddy, rolling nausea. John forced himself to focus on the architect: bloody from John's wounds, bruised from the punches they had shared, and his hands still held out for the weapon that Havisham clearly had no intention of giving up.

'I – he – he meant nothing to me. It was just –'


John leapt as the gun fired, a piercing percussion in the enclosed space. His arms wrapped around Monroe's knees, but the bigger man was already a dead weight. As soon as he hit the floor John saw the red wound in his forehead: a bloom of fury and jealousy brought about by the bullet's aim.

Havisham was sobbing: great heaving, choking sounds from where he was curled on the floor, crumpled at Sherlock's feet. The gun was in Sherlock's hand, pointing at Havisham's head. John could see the fine tremble in those shoulders, twitching with the surge of adrenaline, but other than a few scrapes and bruises Sherlock seemed unhurt, and John allowed himself to take the first steady breath for what felt like hours.

'Are you all right?' Sherlock demanded, and John was gratified to see there was nothing emotionless in that expression now. Bright, piercing eyes darted around John's face, cataloguing every injury. His body shifted like a metronome, as if he were desperate to move to John's side but did not dare leave Havisham unguarded. 'John?'

'Been better,' he managed at last, glancing blearily down at bloody knuckles and the narrow hole in the back of his hand. John flexed his fingers experimentally, clenching his teeth at the ache of it, but at least everything was still working. Adrenaline was steadily ebbing away, leaving him dizzy and faintly sick with a grinding agony in his head. 'Might have a concussion, but it could be worse.' He tried to smile, but it came out in a grimace as he eased himself gracelessly to his feet.

He did not even notice the pitch of the room until there was a strong arm around his waist. He narrowed his eyes at Sherlock, who had darted closer, keeping the Browning levelled at Havisham with one hand and holding John up with the other.

'Not how you hold a gun,' John pointed out, plucking at Sherlock's fingers where they clenched around his ribs and trying to get him to grip the weapon properly. There was already one corpse in the room, and John did not want that number to grow.

'Havisham's not going anywhere,' Sherlock promised, and what he saw in one brief glance made John inclined to agree. The man was broken, a string-less marionette. His skin was pallid with shock and nausea, his eyes glazed and unfocussed. He was too busy staring at Monroe's body and the growing spread of blood that seeped into the carpet to think of escape. If John was more with it, he would have covered the face of the corpse, but he did not have it in him to move again. All he could do was lean heavily against Sherlock's shoulder, feeling the living, breathing thrum of him transmitting itself through his skin.

The flicker of blue lights bounced off the walls of the flat and the sound of engines reached John's ears, making him squint towards the window. He thought he could hear shouting, and Sherlock glanced down at the weapon in his hands before looking at John. 'Someone must have reported the gunfire. They'll have to take it in as evidence, seeing as how Havisham shot Monroe with it.'

John looked at the loyal, squat shape in Sherlock's palm before nodding steadily. 'Could be worse. Could've been one of us instead.'

Sherlock's arm tightened around him, brief and painfully fierce, and despite the ache of his head and the throb in his hand, John returned the gesture: a quick, silent promise that he was still there at Sherlock's side.

The police brought chaos with them: shouted demands and questions as Sherlock flicked the safety on the gun and kicked it away, his hands raised and empty as John copied the needless gesture. Within moments, Greg and Donovan walked through the door, grim-faced and utterly unsurprised.

'Who am I arresting?' Greg asked, nodding at one of the constables as Sherlock gestured towards Havisham. 'Are you going to fill me in?'

'It can wait. John needs to see a paramedic.' Sherlock's response was firm and solid, a decree set-in-stone kind of voice that John had not heard him use more than a handful of times since moving in to Baker Street. 'All you need to know for now is that Havisham stabbed Winters and shot Monroe.'

Greg's gaze met John's, probably looking for any hint of guile in his face. Sherlock could hide or display almost any emotion he chose, but John was an open book – especially now. Whatever Greg saw was clearly enough, because he gestured for one of the medics standing by the door to come into the room.

He barely looked old enough to be out of training, and John let himself be guided back to the bed with bad grace, answering banal questions about his focus and wincing at the light that was flickered into his eyes. Gloved hands wiped away the worst of the blood, bandaging his hand and probing gently at his head. Both would need x-rays, but the very thought of hospital, antiseptic and the fuss of his fellow professionals was enough to make John's shoulders wilt. He just wanted to go home and crawl into bed – preferably with Sherlock by his side – and reassure himself that they had both made it through this wreck relatively unscathed.

Sherlock was explaining things to Greg and Donovan, answering questions in a restless, impatient tone while Havisham's hoarse, gasping breaths continued to punctuate the air. Forensics would need to deal with Monroe's body, to catalogue the mess of evidence that had been found and interpret it correctly. What a nightmare.

'We can't just let them go!' Donovan snapped, making John lift his head to stare at her blearily. 'Both of them were here. For all we know one of them could have pulled the trigger!'

'No.' The faint word ghosted through the chaos of the flat, somehow loud despite its weakness. 'No. I – I did it.' Havisham's lips were pressed together so hard the pink flesh was bleached out to white, as if he were trying to hold back the confession while tears coursed down his cheeks. Yet his jaw moved again, his mouth forming the words as another shuddering sigh left his chest in a rush and his gaze lifted to stare at Sherlock. 'You were right about everything, weren't you? I just didn't see.'

John watched Sherlock's face, noticing the brief, clashing flicker of emotion there, all gone too quickly to be read before he muttered, 'Neither did anyone else.'

Greg made a tight, tired sound in his throat, scrubbing his hands over his face as he looked from Sherlock to Havisham to Monroe's cooling corpse. He appeared to reach a decision when Sherlock inched closer to John, his hip on level with John's head, the perfect height to sag against. 'Look, Donovan, get him to the station.' He jabbed a finger at Havisham. 'Get him processed, take his statement, find him a lawyer if he wants one. I'll deal with these two.'

'At the hospital,' Sherlock interrupted. 'If it really can't wait until tomorrow.'

'No, it can't bloody wait,' Greg grumbled, his hard glare looking a bit more pitying now as John began to shiver, weak and drained in the wasteland left by adrenaline's ebb.

He twitched as something warm and heavy furled around his shoulders, wool whispering with promises of sanctuary and home. It was Sherlock's coat, still carrying the temperate climes of his body with it and far better than any shock blanket. Something in John stirred a little – soldierly pride, he did not need to be coddled – but he did not have the will to protest. Besides, it looked like Sherlock needed to offer the comfort as much as John wanted to receive it. He was holding it together, but anger, tension and fear may as well have been written in six-foot high letters all over him. The unshakable Sherlock Holmes, rattled at last.

'Thanks,' he murmured, clutching the wool tighter around himself. The coat was a bit damp at the cuffs, soaked with the bloody results of Sherlock's clumsy ministrations with the nail. They both had matching wounds on their wrists, shallow but plentiful, and John reached out, turning Sherlock's hands palm up so he could get a better look.

'I'm fine,' Sherlock promised. 'This hurt worse.' He flexed his knuckles, and John saw the deep scrapes and punctures on the fingertips of Sherlock's right hand. 'The nails are cheap, mass-produced and covered in sharp edges, not just at the point. Easier to cut through the cables, but not so good on my fingers.'

'You'll need a tetanus shot,' John muttered, closing his eyes for a moment. 'We both will. At least.'

'Come on,' Sherlock murmured softly, stepping back to let the paramedic retreat before helping John up from the bed, supporting his wobbling, uncertain weight with an unflinching presence at his side. He let John move under his own steam, for which he was grateful, guiding him with gentle nudges and murmured words back down the stairs to the ground floor.

There was a brief discussion about whether an ambulance was necessary, but John blew that idea out of the water. Ambulances were for the bleeding-to-death, the unconscious, the uncooperative and, sometimes, Sherlock. Not him. 'I'm not that bad,' he protested, already aiming himself towards Greg's vehicle. 'Besides, they'll need it for the body. You can't prop a corpse in the back of a police car.'

'What's left of Monroe could be tied to a roof rack for its trip to the morgue for all I care,' Sherlock growled. 'They'll take him away in a forensics van. The ambulance will get us there quicker.'

'No, Sherlock,' John replied, his smile feeling weak and crooked on his face as he read the tattered, concerned lines of Sherlock's expression. 'If there was anything to worry about, the paramedic would have insisted.'

'The sooner you two stop arguing about it, the sooner we can get to hospital. Come on.' Greg held the door open, and John let Sherlock ease him into the back seat, trying not to obviously slump against Sherlock's frame as he climbed in next to him. Normally the world would end before Sherlock got into a police car, but it seemed for some things – for John – he would make an exception.

The scent of stale coffee and a faint trace of cigarettes teased his nose, and John tried to ignore the dizzy whirl of his head as he shut his eyes, propping himself up shamelessly against Sherlock. Beneath him, the car rolled and swayed, moving steadily through London's streets, and John made himself focus on the man at his side, assuaging the last, irrational edges of his fears with the input of his senses.

If he turned his face just so and nuzzled at Sherlock's neck, he could smell the salty-slick of sweat, a faint copper tang of blood and, beneath all that, the ghostly memory of soap and shampoo – hot water and strong hands. It made him smile to think that their shared shower was only that morning, a few hours ago. He should have known that the chaos of their lives would not pause even when their relationship underwent such a shift in its essentials.

He could also feel the beat of Sherlock's heart: steady, if a little fast. He counted the twitches beneath the pliable skin of Sherlock's throat. Ninety-eight beats per minute – lingering stress. His deduction was supported by the tension he could feel in Sherlock's body, not just in the arm wrapped protectively around his shoulders, one hand cupped around his upper arm, but in the lines of his back and the tight, controlled swell and fall of his ribs.

'I'm all right,' John murmured. 'Get worse than this chasing people through alleys.'

'Getting punctured isn't normally par for the course,' Sherlock replied, lifting the shoulder that John was leaning on a fraction: a soft, indolent roll of flesh and bone. 'Don't go to sleep.'

'I'm not. I know. Doctor, remember?'

'Concussed doctor.' Sherlock's hand shifted, resting as light as a butterfly against John's hair. There was no pressure there, just a shielding presence. Deadly strength radiated outwards as if he thought John might be crushed by the lightest contact. Though considering the way his head felt now, John could almost agree with him. Monroe had hit him a few times too many, concentrating on the weakness his initial blow had caused. Nothing felt broken, exactly, it was just that the solid dome of his skull felt a bit tender, more egg-shell than armour-plated.

'Here we are,' Greg said, pulling the car to a halt and climbing out. 'We'll get John patched up, and then you can start telling me exactly what you thought you were doing.' He sighed, slamming the door behind Sherlock and John with a bit more force than necessary before following them inside. 'Honestly, I tell you to look after each other, and the very first thing you do is confront a murderer. What is wrong with you two?'

'That's what we've always done,' Sherlock retorted. 'And we did not confront a murderer, we were confirming a suspicion. Havisham and Monroe were meant to be in their office with you.'

'Yeah, well, clearly not.' Greg shook his head, pinching at the bridge of his nose as John talked to the receptionist. It was a simple matter of speaking in a quick, clear voice to get Sherlock added to the queue as well. He might not be obviously suffering, but John couldn't treat anyone in this state, and Sherlock wouldn't do it himself. Best to get a professional to check him over while they had the chance.

'Waste of time,' Sherlock said softly. 'I'm just scratched and bruised, nothing worse.'

'I saw you wince getting in and out of the car,' John replied, sinking into one of the chairs. 'Ribs hurting?'

Sherlock simply pursed his lips, his arguments clearly held back for another time as he slumped at John's side. He wasn't quite sure who was propping up who, but John let himself stare, glassy-eyed and weary, as Sherlock and Greg's conversation washed around him.

It was challenging to focus on the individual words. Instead, he read the tones of voice. Greg: steady and patient, tired but with the faintest hint of pride as well – pleased that they had solved the crime even if their methods left a lot to be desired. Sherlock: tense still, worried for John and probably frustrated at the case. Normally, there was a solid, straightforward answer about who was the real villain and evidence to back it up.

This time, it wasn't quite that black-and-white. Yes, Havisham had managed to get Winters to kill Lattimer, and then finished him off. He'd even pulled the trigger on Monroe, but Sherlock had been right. Monroe had been using Havisham, pushing at him, driving him to take actions that, maybe, he never would have done without Monroe's subtle influence. And there was nothing they could do to prove that.

His thoughts continued in the same vein as he was shown through triage, then radiology: whirring, clicking machines, gentle questions and competent hands. Sherlock was there for some of it, bullying his way along at John's side through sheer force of personality. It was only when they dragged him off to be treated himself that John was left alone, irritated, fretful and shamefully uncooperative. Doctors never seemed to make good patients. By the time he'd been given stitches, jabs, bandages and a course of antibiotics, as well as some boringly thorough instructions on wound care, he felt ready to storm out, whirling Sherlock's coat dramatically behind him.

'Can I take him home now?' Sherlock asked from the doorway, the impatience in his tone underlined by something more tender as he caught John's eye, seeming to read his annoyance with just the flicker of a gaze.

'You'll be there to keep an eye on him?' the nurse asked, smiling when Sherlock nodded. 'Then, yes. If he starts vomiting or loses consciousness, bring him straight back. Sleep is fine, but you need to make sure he can be roused.' She turned back to John with an apologetic smile. 'I know you're aware of all this, Doctor Watson, but it's more than my job's worth if I don't tell you. The damage to the bone in your hand is minimal, but you need to take extra care to keep the wound clean. Antibiotics to be taken four times a day, and paracetamol and ibuprofen as necessary, okay?'

'Thank you,' John replied, trying his hardest to sound civil as he took the paper bag of tablets she offered and slid off the bed, directing his gaze at Sherlock. At least the dizziness had stopped and he could get a good look at him. There were a couple of stitches at his temple, and an impressive bruise bloomed across one cheekbone. His bottom lip had been split, and he was holding himself stiffly, leaning more to his right than his left.

'Nothing's broken,' Sherlock promised, taking his coat from John's grip. They walked with a slow, measured pace towards the reception, where Greg was sitting on a chair, staring at his notebook with a frankly miserable expression. 'I'm just bruised. You're the one that came off worse in this fight. All mine are just –' Sherlock waved a hand to indicate his long, lanky frame. 'Superficial.'

'Thank God,' John muttered, closing his eyes for a long moment as he let relief wash through him. Despite everything, they were both still alive. He had been sure, at more than one point, that one or both of them would end up on the receiving end of a bullet. Only now, bloody and bandaged but mostly whole, was he beginning to realise that the danger had passed. 'Where to now?'

'Baker Street,' Greg replied, getting to his feet. 'Sherlock filled me in, and your statement can wait. No offence, but you both look like shit.'

An exhausted laugh bubbled in John's throat, and he nodded his head in grateful agreement. Sherlock's fingers curled gently around John's unharmed hand, and he allowed himself to relish the warm contact as he was led like something precious away from the hospital's cloying, antiseptic grasp.

Back towards the sanctuary of home.

Chapter Text

The door of 221B closed behind Sherlock, blocking out the world and capturing him and John within the confines of their flat. After the rush and bite of the confrontation with Monroe and Havisham, the peace sounded almost alien – just another evening in London – and Sherlock slumped back, his head pressed against the hard wood as he struggled to sort through the tangled mess of feelings that twisted through his body.

Adrenaline had left him at last, removing the thin veil that obscured the drone of aches and the high, treble sting of split skin from his awareness. Still, it was not the pain that left Sherlock feeling breathless, as if the bruised prison of his ribs were too confined for his heart and lungs. He kept recalling the sound of the gun cracking into John's skull and the dying flicker of consciousness in those blue eyes as he slumped to the floor. For one, sickening second, Sherlock had thought John was dead, and even now the aftershocks of that terror kept stirring along his frame, flaying his nerves and choking his mind with oily, slick shadows.

Desperately, he sought John out with his gaze, taking in the exhausted slump of his shoulders as he shrugged out of his jacket, plucking at the cuff to manipulate it over the bandage on his hand. John was alive, even if the fight with Monroe and Havisham had left more than its fair share of marks.

Other than the obvious hole in his flesh, there was the thunderous blemish of the pistol whip against his temple, one which matched its mate on Sherlock's cheekbone. Another storm-cloud of discomfort lay at his jaw: Monroe's fist gifting its silhouette to John's skin. There would be more, Sherlock knew, beneath the bloodied mess of John's jumper and shirt, and he ached with the urge to find them all – to chart their boundaries and soothe them away.

'Here.' Sherlock stepped forward, undoing the popper on the cuff of John's jacket so that the sleeve would slide off without taking the nurse's careful binding with it. With a few efficient tugs, he swept the offending garment off of John's shoulders, leaving it to fall on the floor before he brushed gentle fingers along John's chin, skirting the edge of the contusion with a whisper of a caress.

John clutched the collar of Sherlock's shirt, strong and capable as he tugged him down and stretched upwards at the same time, making the kiss more of a desperate collision than something loving. For a few seconds, all Sherlock could do was ride it, feeling the surge of John's tongue and the pressure of his mouth – tasting fear and desperation, the faintest copper hint of blood and antiseptic – before he gathered enough of his wits to respond.

Wounds ached, distant blooms of pain like fireworks on a far-off horizon as Sherlock pressed his body to John's: chest and stomach, hips and thighs as if they could somehow fuse. John's quiet moan was as much about relief as pleasure, and Sherlock trembled in response, briefly lost amidst a sea of sensation and sentiment.

Carefully, like a man leading a shy partner in a dance, he slowed the kiss, blunting the frantic edge of it to something tender and promising. At last, they unwillingly parted, heads bent together, breaths shared as they simply stood in the circle of each other's arms.

'I thought they would kill you,' John managed in a gruff voice, the words trembling as he set them free. 'All the time you kept talking – pushing them like a prat – I was just waiting for the gunshot.'

Sherlock shook his head, closing his eyes for a moment and swallowing tightly before leaning back to get a better look at John's rumpled face. 'I was trying to keep the gun aimed at me. Monroe almost shot you where you lay on the floor. Only Havisham's panic stopped him. I had to keep you out of his sights as much as possible.' He glanced down, taking in the bloodied wreck of John's jumper. 'He'd already done you enough damage. Is all this yours?'

John wrinkled his nose at the mess of fractal spatter across the wool, closing his eyes wearily before shrugging his shoulders. 'I don't think so. I did manage to hit Monroe once or twice. Some of it should be his.'

'We could sell it to the Tate Modern,' Sherlock murmured, tracing one particularly interesting arc: an upper-cut causing a wound to the mouth of an opponent.

'I don't think everyone would appreciate your taste in art,' John said, but there was a smile in his voice as he freed himself from Sherlock's arms and plucked at the wool, then lifted a hand to the gash at his temple. It was a small break in the skin, held together with steri-strips, but the bruising around it was significant. There was no way he was going to get the tight collar over his head without aggravating the wound.

'The jumper's beyond saving,' Sherlock promised, gesturing at the rip in one of the cuffs and the stains. 'I'm sure you can buy yourself something else harmless in grey oatmeal in a day or two, but for now...' He picked up a pair of shears off the table: the kind used in accident and emergency to remove motorbike leathers from crash victims. He had borrowed them from the morgue years ago and had never seen fit to take them back. Scissors that could cut through almost anything were too useful to simply return to their rightful home. 'May I?'

John looked surprised that Sherlock had bothered to ask permission, rather than simply slicing the garment away. 'Go for it,' he said with a resigned sigh, tilting his head up and exposing his neck – so utterly trusting – as Sherlock moved the scissors from the collar down to the hem, leaving the wool to bare its threads and shift easily from John's arms.

'You've not exactly escaped unscathed,' John pointed out, reaching for the vee of Sherlock's jacket lapel. 'I think your shirt's had it. You've bled on it.' John's gaze quickly darted around Sherlock's face, a frown gathering on his brow as he failed to find a wound that corresponded to the blemish.

Realisation was like a lightning strike across John's expression, and Sherlock's lips curved at one corner as he saw the veil of weary exhaustion shift. John's fingers, which had been clumsy on his own clothes, suddenly found some element of finesse as he flicked Sherlock's jacket open. He did not even bother to shove it off Sherlock's shoulders before he slid the top four shirt buttons open, parting the fabric to reveal the large dressing taped to Sherlock's chest.

'I didn't notice this,' John managed, brushing a light touch along the edge of the bright white square. He looked devastated, as if letting such a thing pass beneath his notice was a cardinal sin, even in the midst of fighting for his life.

Gently, so as not to hurt John further, Sherlock linked their fingers together, trying to transmit reassurance through a simple touch. It was the act of a second to bend his knees slightly, forcing John to meet his eyes by altering their relative heights. 'It's fine. It barely even needed medical attention: Three nails that didn't penetrate more than a quarter of a centimetre. They didn't have the force required to make an impact on my sternum. Havisham's weapon of choice was alarming, but its range was rather poor.'

The tremor that ran through John's frame was entirely involuntary, and Sherlock watched as he scrubbed at his face, seeing the wince as he touched the bruises and stirred them back to life. 'Where did Havisham get a fucking nail gun anyway?'

'He was putting a cabinet together in the kitchen; I saw it on my way through. It was a simple domestic power-tool put to a more cruel use.' He touched the bandage over John's hand again before shifting his attention to John's shirt, which bore a faint shadow of the same blood spatter that had marked his jumper. 'We need to get this off. I – I need to see that you're all right.'

The confession rasped its way up his throat, shaking in a way that Sherlock knew revealed too much about his current state of mind. Every time he thought of Havisham pulling the trigger or Monroe throwing a punch, a fresh wave of cool sweat bloomed across his skin. Part of him was aware that this yearning was driven by instinct: something more base and animal than his logical mind would normally acknowledge, but it was hard to give a damn when his hands shook with the need to make sure that John would not suffer any long-term ills from the afternoon's assault.

John's smile was tired, but genuine, and he jerked his head towards Sherlock's chest as he fumbled clumsily with his own buttons. 'You too. I was unconscious for a good part of the fight. I need to see what else you're hiding from me.'

Sherlock was faster than John, unimpeded by bandages, and he did as he was told with barely a second thought, shrugging free of his jacket and peeling off his shirt. The cotton whispered over the shallow scratches at his wrists, catching on the raw edges of the deeper ones on his fingertips before it fell to the floor, leaving him standing in his trousers as he stepped forward to help John.

'Will your hand be all right?' he asked quietly. John had not said anything about permanent damage, but the doctor was never particularly forth-coming about his own injuries. 'The nail was not exactly removed by a skilled medical professional.'

John lifted his uninjured hand to trace the edges of the marks that littered one side of Sherlock's ribs; two punches from Monroe and a sharp kick from Havisham. 'It missed the tendons, which is the most important thing. As long as it doesn't get infected, it should be fine. As for removing it, you did a good job. You didn't pivot it, you just pulled. No extra damage done.' His gaze lingered on the evidence of violence dappled on Sherlock's flesh, his face pinched. 'What happened?'

Sherlock finally got John's shirt out of the way, sighing at the additional thin cotton that now impeded his view. It was like a particularly frustrating game of pass-the-parcel. At least the neckline of the t-shirt had seen better days, and it slipped over John's head easily as Sherlock peeled it off to reveal the expanse of John's chest and stomach, mostly unharmed. It seemed Monroe had concentrated his efforts on John's head instead.

His palms moved of their own accord, tracing the soft, slight give of flesh over muscle and mapping out the lines of John's ribs as he gently probed, looking for any secret pains. John just huffed a faint sigh of something like laughter, rolling his shoulders and stepping closer so he could wrap his arms around Sherlock's waist and rest his head on Sherlock's shoulder.

He could hear John taking deep, steady breaths through his nose, drawing in the scent of Sherlock as if his life depended on it. Dimly, he realised John was reassuring himself of Sherlock's welfare as much as he was proving that John would be all right.

In all honesty, both of them had received worse in their time together. Death had been a closer companion, but that was before they had acknowledged what they were to each other. Being lovers did not change the intensity of concern – Sherlock knew he would have been just as afraid for John's well-being if they were still in the realm of friendship – but it did make the threat cut closer to the bone, somehow. It was not that they had more to lose. A death would have been as devastating a week ago as it was today, but there was an extra facet: a heartbreak that could be openly acknowledged rather than hidden away.

'Talk to me?' John asked softly, the words shaping themselves against the sensitive skin of Sherlock's throat and making him draw in a breath at the sensation. Yet the hums of pleasure from his nerves were quickly over-ruled as he sensed uncertainty in John's voice. He did not sound secure and comfortable. Now, when Sherlock stopped looking for injuries and paid attention to John as a whole, he could feel a scythe edge of tension in John's frame, making his shoulders coil and his spine tighten beneath Sherlock's touch.

'You're worried about something,' he stated, frowning to himself as he tried to read John's mood without the visual aid of his expression. 'Something to do with me.' The frown became a scowl as he attempted to understand what was going through John's mind. Had he said the wrong thing, or was it something he had failed to put into words or actions? He had been so intent on making sure that John was all right, but had Sherlock neglected something of John's welfare in his urgency to reassure himself?

'What did I do?' He deliberately kept his words flat, wincing at how cold they sounded, but it was better than the vibrato whine which wanted to tear itself free of his throat.

'Nothing.' John stepped back, looking up into Sherlock's face and clearly seeing a host of information there. Shaking his head, he cupped Sherlock's jaw, mindful of both their injuries as he gave a weak smile. 'I keep worrying you're going to decide this is – we are – that it's a mistake; that's all.'

Sherlock pulled a face, his nose wrinkled and his lips pinched in a moue of distaste which made John laugh, then grunt in pain as his head protested. 'Why would I do that? In what possible way could being with you have become a disadvantage since this morning?'

John's brow was pleated with concern, his mouth shut tight but moving as if he were chewing over his words. 'Some people might think that the fight with Monroe and Havisham demonstrated our attachment was more of a weakness than a strength,' he pointed out softly, drawing his bottom lip in under his top teeth before releasing it again. 'A distraction.'

'We are not “some people”,' Sherlock pointed out ruthlessly, resting his hands carefully on top of John's and nudging at John's forehead. 'We had concerns for each others' safety, but how is that any different from what it was a week ago, or a month, or more?'

He felt John slump, as if a great tension had been released. How long had John been dragging that concern around with him? Since walking in the door of Baker Street? Leaving the hospital? Havisham's arrest?

John closed his eyes for a moment, and the smile that curved his mouth could only be described as grateful. 'I wasn't sure you would see it that way.'

Sherlock turned his head, pressing a soft kiss to John's bandaged palm. 'Do you think things would have happened differently in that apartment if we weren't lovers? You would still have hesitated when Havisham held the nail gun to my head –' Sherlock smiled when he felt John's grip tighten a fraction. 'And I would still have insisted we stay and fight.'

'It's not like we had much choice there,' John pointed out. 'And you were right. Havisham, at least, was already on his way out of the country. If we'd turned away, then there was a good chance the case would have remained unsolved.'

Sherlock was already shaking his head, stepping back and giving John's good hand a quick squeeze. 'It would have been half-solved,' he corrected as he turned away, clumsily hanging up their coats and wincing as his aching ribs protested. 'I would have known enough about Havisham's involvement. Monroe's guilt, however –' He sighed, cuffing one hand through his hair and wincing as another, unnoticed lump on his skull twinged. 'I might never have realised his full role in the whole thing.'

'You had suspicions, though. You did from the start.' John rubbed fitfully at his eyes again, looking bleary and shaken now that Sherlock had left his side. 'I don't think anyone would have guessed exactly what he was doing. It's not even like there was any proof of it.'

'No, it was just there in every word he said to Havisham.' Sherlock sighed, turning back to John and forcing aside the angry, self-loathing spin of his thoughts. There would be time to hash over the aspects of the case later – to try and find the clues he missed – but for now there were more important things to occupy his mind.

John had spent almost every waking moment over the past week taking care of Sherlock, nursing him without fail through the ebb and flow of 'Flu's assault and never leaving his side. Now he wanted to return the favour. Perhaps he could not wipe away the pain that the injuries caused, but he could still bring comfort. It was easy to see the jangling, chaotic, exhausted clash of John's mood, and a simple extrapolation to know what would soothe it. Close proximity offered reassurance, and the warm depths of Sherlock's bed would bring respite.

'Come on,' Sherlock urged quietly, taking John by the shoulders and guiding him through to the bedroom, feeling the smaller man relax back into his grasp as he kicked the door closed in their wake. 'Do you want anything? Something to eat or drink? Do you need tablets?'

John sat on the edge of the bed as meek as anything, no sign of a fight in him as he shook his head and toed off his boots. 'Can you – will you stay with me for a bit?' he asked, and Sherlock could see the need there, half-hidden behind a gentle air of apathy, as if John did not want to force him to linger if he had other places to be.

'I had no intention of being anywhere else,' Sherlock assured him, stripping down to his underwear and inspecting a bruise on the side of his knee that he couldn't recall receiving. There was the pattern of a shoe tread picked out on his pale skin – another kick, then. Havisham's, judging from the smaller size. The man may have been used by Monroe, but there was proof enough that he was vicious in his own right, and Sherlock's faint pity for him was rapidly bleeding into disdain.

With a grunt, he reorganised the pillows, making a little bank against the headboard before settling back against them, half-reclined. His body was tired, but his mind was rapier-sharp and wide-awake. He would find nothing like sleep in the coming hours, but it was sorely obvious that rest was what John needed.

Grabbing one spare pillow, he laid it out so that it rested between his legs and on his stomach before gesturing for John to climb on top of him.

'What about your ribs?' John demanded. 'I'll squash you.'

'Just get in,' Sherlock ordered. 'My chest will be fine. You want to sleep, and I want to hold you without hurting you. This works.'

For a minute, he thought John would argue. The three-way war of doctorly concern, soldierly pride and the simple desire to be as close to Sherlock as possible was written all over the lines of John's expression. In the end it seemed that the latter only managed a narrow victory. 'If it hurts –'

'It won't,' Sherlock promised, grunting slightly when John's weight settled against him, tentative at first, his back to the pillow and his head resting on level with Sherlock's heart. It made it perfectly easy to slide his palms down over John's shoulders and onto his chest, fingers splayed and wandering, idly curious, through the faint sprinkling of body hair across John's skin.

Gradually, he felt John relax, turning his head slightly to press one ear over the steady rhythm of Sherlock's pulse as muscles uncoiled, allowing him to melt back against Sherlock's body. The pillow separated them slightly, but it provided extra cushioning and made sure Sherlock's ribs merely twinged, rather than ached. It also meant John would probably be comfortable enough to go to sleep.

'You didn't answer my question earlier,' John murmured, his voice rumbling through his chest and transmitting through the skin of Sherlock's palms.

'Mmmm?' Sherlock was busy tracing lazy, thoughtful circles around John's left nipple, only stopping when John's palm rested softly over the top of his hand, trapping him.

'What happened while I was knocked out? You clearly kept fighting.' John turned over so his stomach was pressed to the pillow, bestowing another kiss on the square of dressing that hid the three slender, discoloured holes from sight.

Sherlock winced, remembering the boneless slump of John's body and the bright flash of horror-cum-fury that had arced through his body, forcing him into action. 'I went for Monroe, leaving a fair amount of my hair behind in Havisham's grip as I did so, but he was too surprised to hold on or fire the nail gun. I managed to land one good punch on Monroe before he grabbed me.'

The hot splay of a large palm around Sherlock's wrist was a phantom memory, but he clearly recalled the twisted leer on Monroe's expression and the way that the man had purred in his ear as he struggled. His mind had been too full of desperation – the need to break free and get the Browning – anything to make the situation secure so he could check on John.

'We grappled with each other,' he continued at last. 'I ended up facing Havisham with Monroe only partially blocking the shot. We were on the other side of the room from him, over by the window when he pulled the trigger.' He reached down, tracing the adhesive strip at the edge of the dressing before letting his hand fall back to John's shoulder.

John, however, was captivated by the cotton pad, staring at it as if it were a snake waiting to strike. Slowly, his fingers moved to one corner of the tape, pulling at it lightly at first, and then increasing the pressure. 'I want to see,' he said, blunt and firm as Sherlock dropped his hands to his sides. 'I know you say it's nothing, but –' He shrugged his shoulders in a jerky motion and bit his lip, waiting for Sherlock's permission to continue.

With a nod of his head, he gave it, watching John steadily peel the tape aside and lift away the dressing to reveal three holes. They looked worse than they felt, black pits amidst dimples of angry purple and red, but he had no doubt they were smaller than John's injury.

'The nails fell out on their own when Monroe slammed me back into the wall.'

'Then what?' John had gone very, very still, looking up from his scrutiny of the wound with narrowed eyes. 'What did he do to you?'

'Nothing, he just held me in place,' Sherlock replied, freeing the dressing from John's fingers and taping it back in place. 'Well – he might have said something, but I was too busy trying to knee him in the groin to pay attention.' Sherlock trailed his fingers down John's spine, unconsciously soothing him with little strums and strafes. The movement made the cuts sting, but it was worth it to feel John's tense strength hum with such power beneath his touch.

'Monroe had dropped the gun, and Havisham had run out of nails,' Sherlock continued. 'You saw the room. It was littered with the things. He wanted to hit me but was frightened of injuring Monroe, so his aim was poor at best. It was only when Havisham picked up the Browning that I ran out of options.'

'That's when they tied us up?' John asked, eventually settling himself back down against Sherlock's chest, his hands brushing like feathers up and down Sherlock's ribs before dropping to settle at the waist of his boxers possessively.

'I was surprised,' Sherlock confessed. 'I thought they were far more likely to kill us and be done with it, but Havisham needed some convincing, and Monroe had to make us secure while he did it. That's about the point where you woke up. You missed ten minutes, if that. Hardly anything.'

'It was enough,' John muttered, his shaky sigh whispering through the air as Sherlock rubbed circles at the nape of John's neck. He brushed through the dichotomous texture of John's hair – blond strands smoother, more fine, those few peppering greys more coarse to the touch. 'What if they killed you while I was unconscious? What if I had woken up to find you dead?'

Clumsy questions fought for dominance in Sherlock's mind, neither sensitive nor particularly intelligent, but he quickly shoved them aside. It was too easy to imagine the reverse being true – too jarring to picture himself returning to consciousness to find John a staring corpse, rather than the living, breathing essential creature he was now. While one fragment of Sherlock wanted to analyse John's fears, to test and catalogue his reactions, another realised that there were some things for which there was no time and place – no experiment needed and no theory to prove.

'You didn't,' he said instead, bending his head awkwardly to try and rest his cheek on John's crown. 'I wasn't. We're all right.'

'I like cases better when they don't end up with more dead bodies than they started with, to be honest,' John said, a faint hint of laughter in his voice. 'I should be grateful it was only Monroe who ended up with a bullet in his head.'

'He got what he deserved.' Nothing in the world could have kept the brutality from Sherlock's voice, and he traced his thumb over the curve of John's ear. 'The courts would never have found him guilty of any wrong-doing besides skimming accounts.'

'You're – angry for what he did to Havisham?' John asked, frowning up at Sherlock in puzzlement.

'No.' Sherlock shook his head, cradling John's body close as he shimmied down the bed and stretched, dragging at his trousers where they lay on the floor and pulling his phone free from the pocket. 'Havisham was a fool for letting himself be led, although perhaps there's something else there – some underlying issue that could work in his favour during trial.' He bit his lip, opening a new message to Lestrade and typing with his thumb as he repositioned himself.

“Get psychiatric evaluation for Havisham before prosecution - SH”

It was not much, but Sherlock saw John's smile as he craned his neck to read the message before Sherlock sent it. 'In the end, Havisham placed his trust in the wrong person, and he was used as a result,' Sherlock explained. 'I just wish there was some evidence. Something to show the world that Monroe was a manipulator – a murderer in his way – not just a petty crook, and definitely not a victim. He used people. I'm beginning to wonder if Lattimer was the only one who saw that.'

'Justice doesn't work by degrees of separation,' John pointed out softly. 'Mostly because you can't prove the influence that people have over others. Monroe never directly hurt either Winters or Lattimer.'

'I know,' Sherlock replied.

'And in the end, he got the ultimate punishment – another murder on Havisham's list.'

'I'd have called it an execution,' Sherlock murmured. 'That's what you do to criminals, isn't it?'

John had gone quiet, his eyelashes casting brief flashes of sensation across Sherlock's skin with every blink, but he could make out a puzzled frown on John's brow, an interesting landscape of furrowed flesh from this angle above him. When he eventually spoke, it was with the careful, tentative pace of a man in a minefield, uncertain whether or not the ground beneath his feet would explode in deadly wrath or remain stable.

'You – you said Havisham was easily led.' He licked his lips, and a flash of hot breath drifted across Sherlock's chest as he waited impatiently for John to continue. When he did, it sounded like the words were dragged out of him: a blade pulled free of a wound to leave him bloody and broken.

'Did you know that he would shoot Monroe? Is that – is that why you kept talking? Were you pushing him so that Monroe would get some kind of punishment?' John levered himself up, a wince dancing across his face as his hand no-doubt protested, but his gaze met Sherlock's without flinching as he sat back on his heels, painfully distant despite being only an arm's length away.

Perhaps some people would be outraged at such an accusation, but while fear trembled along Sherlock's nerves, he knew that John was not voicing an unrealistic notion. More than anyone else, John knew the way Sherlock worked. John knew he had no problem manipulating other people to get what he wanted; the only thing that separated him from Monroe was where they drew the line. There was a vast difference between flirting with Molly for body parts and toying with a lover's jealousy to incite murder.

'I kept talking so that you could escape, and to delay the moment that the gun was turned on us,' Sherlock replied, sitting forward and reaching out for John's shoulder, sweeping over the strong, solid curve. 'I tried to push at Monroe, not Havisham. It was him I was trying to unsettle.' He swallowed nervously, pulling his hand back to scratch at his ear before lifting his chin. 'However, I'm not going to pretend for even a second that I'm sorry Monroe's in the morgue.'

For a moment, John just stared at him, painfully still. Only his eyes moved, sweeping across Sherlock's face and searching for a hint of a lie. He looked as if he wanted to believe him, as if his trust was desperate to ease the way forward, but it still took a few moments for the doubt to fade.

At last, John bowed his head, his shoulders heaving with a deep breath as he pinched the bridge of his nose. 'No, no neither am I. I'm – Sorry – I –'

Sherlock interrupted him by clasping John's forearm and pulling until they were sprawled together again, still propped up by the pillows. His ribs ached at the motion, but Sherlock pushed the pain aside. He was happy to take some discomfort if it meant he could reassure John.

'Don't ever apologise for knowing what I’m like,' he ordered. 'You're the only one who really does.'

'For implying you're someone like Monroe?' John demanded. 'If I know what you're like then I should know better, shouldn't I?'

Sherlock narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at the window, framed as it was by the white fall of the curtains: London's urban decay caught in a glass canvas. 'I am like him.' He hushed John's automatic protest. 'People can be so very easy to push and pull in the right direction. I know I'm capable of killing someone, the same way I know exactly what to say to get you to help me hide the corpse. The difference is that I don't put that knowledge to use. Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.'

Silence filled the bedroom then, not tense or accusing, but soft with relief. There was understanding caught within its folds, and when John looked up at Sherlock one eyebrow was raised. 'You know, if I didn't already know that “high-functioning sociopath” thing was crap, you pretty much just gave yourself away with that.'

'Mummy would be pleased,' Sherlock replied in a lethargic voice. The steady skim of his palms around John's shoulders and down his back continued as Sherlock's heartbeat returned to normal: raw alarm fading to something manageable. He was not sure what had shaken him more, the fact that John had read the possibility of him manipulating Havisham to pull the trigger, or the knowledge that, for a few seconds, Sherlock had considered it.

Yet in the end, rattling Monroe had shaken Havisham in equal measure. The gun had been fired, the deed was done, and if he and John had survived as a result, then Sherlock could not bring himself to regret any of what had happened.

'I'm sorry,' John whispered, nestling against him. The brush of his lashes against Sherlock's chest suggested he had closed his eyes, and steadily his weight began to sag into Sherlock's body, pinning him to the bed as the sleepy words spilled forth. 'Not sure I'd care even if you had made Havisham kill Monroe.'

'Yes you would,' Sherlock replied, closing his eyes and forcing himself to relax. 'That's who you are.'

There was no answer, and Sherlock smiled as he glanced down at John's placid profile. Perhaps it was not the best position to sleep in – Sherlock was fairly sure he would have a stiff back within the next two hours, but right now there was nothing in the world that could drag him away from this man.

Beyond the window, London's early evening twilight gave way to true night, pocked as always by the dapple of street-lamps and the flutter of car headlights in the road below. The single bulb Sherlock had switched on cast enough illumination for him to read by, but the ancient treatise on the world's first poisons was not holding his attention as it should. He kept finding himself captivated by the man sleeping against his chest. The pillow had slipped, leaving them skin-to-skin, and he could feel each deep, steady breath and the thud of John's heart like a metronome.

Every hour or so, he made sure John could be woken, letting his eyes find their focus before urging him back to sleep again. This time, though, it seemed like John was coming around by himself. Probably because Sherlock's stomach had started growling, growing increasingly loud as the minutes passed.

He felt John's smile before he saw it. The warm roundness of John's cheek swelled against his chest, and a whisper of a kiss drifted over Sherlock's skin followed by a hot flash of tongue. 'Think you need feeding,' John mumbled, his voice creaking as he stretched and blinked himself awake. 'Did you sleep at all?'

'I'm not tired,' Sherlock replied. 'Besides, someone had to make sure you weren't going to slip into a coma.' He nudged at John's ribs gently, easing his weight away and to the side. 'You need to eat something too, and take some medication. How's your head?'

John sprawled on his back, scratching absently at his bare belly with his uninjured hand as he scowled at the ceiling. 'Better than it was.' He propped himself up on his elbows, and Sherlock could feel the weight of John's gaze up and down his back as he got to his feet, stretching and wincing as his ribs whined at him before reaching for the blue robe. 'You getting take-away?'

Sherlock made a non-committal sound in response, glancing over his shoulder and seeing the consideration in John's face. He was clearly debating whether to follow Sherlock, unwilling to let him out of his sight. Sherlock could share the sentiment, but John looked good lounging there in the nest of Sherlock's sheets. The white fabric was tangled around his waist, giving him a debauched air. For God's sake, Sherlock's bed had never looked so good, utterly transformed by John's presence into something enticing.

Bending over, Sherlock skimmed his hand along John's neck and over his ear, tangling carefully in short, blond hair as he guided John's face upwards. The thin, firm pressure of John's mouth parted languidly, and the moan that caught in his throat was enough to make Sherlock lean unconsciously inwards, straining closer as John's grip wove into his curls, changing the angle and deepening the kiss.

One hand, the one without the bandage, shifted downwards, skimming the edge of Sherlock's robe. Strong fingers pushed it aside, sparking heat across Sherlock's skin as they dropped lower over his boxer shorts to the hardening length trapped in their confines.

'Hmmm,' John purred, breaking back with a grin as his grip curled and squeezed, making Sherlock sway. 'I could get used to this. Maybe I should get a concussion more often.'

'Don't you dare,' Sherlock croaked, trying to drag as much of his mind back together as possible. Amazing, really that John could do this to him, break him apart with so much ease. 'That concussion is the reason you're not putting that to good use.' He looked meaningfully down at his own crotch before glancing back at John. 'I might break you.'

A wicked smile curved John's lips and one eyebrow lifted in a challenge. 'Is that a promise?'

'Don't tempt me,' Sherlock growled, pulling back before John could put his bewitching hands on him again and make him forget all about things such as head injuries, medication and food. With a haughty flick of his robe, he padded out into the kitchen, his dramatic exit rather ruined by the wobble in his step. John's warm laugh followed him out, and he smothered a grin as he tried to focus on anything but the perfect, magnetic pull of his attraction.

A package by the front door caught his eye, and he frowned at the Harrod's logo on the side before striding over and peering at the contents. There were high quality honeys and jams, a squat, plain brown box half-hidden amidst the padding, and a dossier with government details on its cover: Mycroft.

A note with Sherlock's name on it was lying in pride of place, and he snatched it free, scowling at his brother's elegant handwriting as if it were a bizarre, primitive cypher.

Dearest Brother,
It seems that congratulations are in order. I knew you would get there eventually. Take good care of Doctor Watson. I know he will never fail you.

Sherlock rolled his eyes, pitching the note towards the bin before pulling free the plain container and lifting the lid, raising one eyebrow. Mycroft normally gave gifts of sweet things, something Sherlock would object to if he weren't so fond of honey, but the glistening jars now seemed like a cover for something far more worthy.

Turning back to the bedroom, he ambled through the door and put the box down at John's side. 'Mycroft's been around. He left this for you.'

John looked at it doubtfully, probably weighing the likelihood of whether it was something pleasant or deadly inside. Technically, it was both, but Sherlock simply shook his head. 'It won't bite. I already checked.'

He hovered on the threshold as John removed the lid, the frown melting away into a knowing grin as he pulled the Browning free of its confines. It was not the same one Havisham had used to shoot Monroe, but nor was it shining and new. It was a serviceable weapon, one that looked like it had seen its fair share of battle, and it was clear even from a distance that it fit into John's grip like a matching puzzle piece.

'It's amazing what a minor official in the British government can do,' John said, turning the gun over in his palms, learning its lines anew before he noticed something written on a slip of paper at the bottom of the box. He pulled it out, reading it with one eyebrow raised before holding it out for Sherlock to see.

“Look after him, John.”

'Do you think that means I don't have to suffer “the talk” with him?' John asked hopefully, putting the pistol away and leaning over to slide it under Sherlock's bed before slumping back into the pillows.

'Maybe. He'll be disgustingly smug when we see him next.'

'Then perhaps we should be grateful he's leaving us in peace, for now at least.' John glanced across the dim room at Sherlock, his head cocked to the side. 'Are you all right?'

Sherlock blinked, dragging himself away from vague thoughts of how best to irritate his brother at their next meeting and smiling at John. 'Yes, I'm fine. Dinner.'

Whirling back out to the kitchen, he gave the contents of the fridge a critical look. The food John had purchased who knew how many days ago while Sherlock lay on the brink of fever was passing its prime. However, there were some strips of steak that still looked good, and he quickly considered his options before gathering together ingredients.

He was tempted by the thought of take-away. It was easier and less mess, but everything he could think of – all their usual favourites – held no appeal. Besides, he was hungry now, and who knew how long delivery would take?

Reaching for the frying pan, he checked it was clean before setting it on the hob. He moved without really thinking, chopping the slightly withered onion and the vaguely damp mushrooms and adding them to the melted butter. Pasta was set to boil and the meat added along with some spices, releasing a succulent scent that made his stomach growl anew.

It reminded him of late nights before John, doing this: times when even the most loyal provider of free food would have turned him away and his transport's howls of complaint could not be ignored. He had cooked things in an effort to prevent food poisoning, not caring how it tasted. It was not that he did not know the chemistry of flavour and texture – there was something scientific about the perfect meal: chemical compounds artistically arranged – but the act of it bored him with its predictability.

Mummy would probably imply that meant he was not pushing the horizons of his cuisine, but there was no mystery to be found in the bottom of a frying pan, not unless it had been used as a murder weapon.

Turning around to grab a can of evaporated milk, he flipped the pan lightly, shifting the contents around with a sharp flick of his wrist to prevent them burning. Moving the skillet off the heat, he counted to thirty: just enough time to let the pan cool before he added the thick liquid. Proper dairy cream would be better, but unless the milk had performed non-toxic miracles, they didn't have any.

Strong arms around his waist made him twitch, and he looked over his shoulder to see John staring at what he was doing.

'You're cooking,' he said, giving Sherlock a quick, questioning look. 'I've lived with you for more than a year. I didn't think you knew what a frying pan was for.'

'I don't normally bother,' Sherlock replied, pulling a face as John grabbed a fork and stabbed a piece of meat. 'Can't you wait five minutes?'

'Checking it's edible,' John said without a hint of apology, dripping some creamy sauce on Sherlock's dressing gown as he blew on the strip of steak to cool it down. 'Bearing in mind I once caught you making tea in a beaker that you had used for blood samples only an hour before.'

'I washed it beforehand,' Sherlock pointed out, watching John's face change from somewhat doubting to surprised delight as he chewed. Sherlock rolled his eyes, checking the pasta was done before draining the water away. Quickly, he stirred the penne into the meal, which was still cooking in the frying pan, before doling it out into dishes and pressing one into John's waiting grasp.

'It's basic Stroganoff,' he explained. 'Quick, easy, and one of the few meals I can be bothered to put together. Don’t expect me to turn into some culinary master just because you've discovered I am capable.'

John was already chewing his first mouthful, his expression torn between a threatening glare and something far more flatteringly rapturous. 'All this time we've been eating take-away,' he said after he swallowed, 'and I could have been having stuff like this. Why didn't you tell me you could cook?'

'Dull,' Sherlock provided, a grin tilting his lips as he reached out to wipe some sauce from John's cheek before grabbing his own bowl. 'Mummy likes to cook. She taught me and my brother enough to survive. Mycroft's too busy, and I have more interesting things to mix in containers than ingredients.'

'Like blood and acid?' John asked, sinking into one of the chairs at the kitchen table as he continued to eat with every sign of enjoyment. Sherlock had to admit that this – preparing a meal for someone else and seeing their appreciation – was a previously unexplored facet of the whole process. He was not about to put on a toque and devote himself to culinary art, but perhaps he could be persuaded to cook more than twice a year if it meant experiencing such enthusiasm from John.

Leaning back on the counter, he tucked into his own dinner, briefly enjoying the hint of paprika and the thick creamy sauce. It was a good meal, but tantalising his taste-buds was never really the point of eating. All he wanted to do was silence his demanding stomach.

A comfortable silence settled over the kitchen, both he and John too busy eating to speak, and before long their bowls were empty. 'That was brilliant,' John said with a grin, as earnestly as if Sherlock had just solved a complicated triple murder right before his eyes. 'Can't believe you've been holding out on me.'

'It didn't seem relevant,' Sherlock explained. 'We get free food all over London, and we don't have to wash up afterwards. ' He threw a look of disdain at the dirty pans before turning his back, focussing instead on the paper bag that John had brought home from the hospital. Opening it up, he took in the contents: packets of pills and shrink-wrapped dressings for treating John's wound.

'Take these,' he instructed, shaking out a painkiller and an antibiotic. 'How often are you meant to change the bandage?'

'At least once in the morning and once at night,' John replied, glancing down at his hand and picking at the cloth wrapped around it. 'Normally I'd leave it a bit longer, but punctures are difficult. It's easy to drag infection down into the wound.'

With a faint sigh, he accepted the glass of water Sherlock got for him and downed the tablets, chasing them with one last lick of sauce that he gleaned from the dish with his fingertip. The taste was awarded with an appreciative hum, and Sherlock realised he was staring, his thoughts temporarily derailed by the innocent seductiveness of watching John lick his own finger.

'Stop it,' he warned, his voice a deep rumble that made John's eyes darken as Sherlock took the bowl away from him and turned back to the kitchen table. It was still relatively clean and free from experiments, as he had not had the chance to get any under-way since his recovery. It would be fine to use as a work surface while treating John's hand, at least for a while.

Carefully, he laid out everything they would need before moving to the sink, scrubbing his hands as thoroughly as he could without deepening the cuts on his fingertips. At last he decided they were clean enough and turned back, reaching for John's injured arm. 'Tell me what to do?' he asked, pinching carefully at the bandage and spooling it free.

Inch by inch, John's skin was revealed, dark blues and blacks mottling their way across tendons and knuckles. Sherlock winced in sympathy, feeling a fresh, bright fury at both Havisham and Monroe before he eased away the dressing. The wound itself was almost minor in comparison to the marks around it: a ragged, deep hole amidst tempestuous hues.

'Antiseptic,' John said, holding out the sealed wipe for Sherlock to undo. 'Then dry it and bandage it again. Easy enough.'

'But difficult to do by yourself,' Sherlock added, manipulating each finger of John's hand with the lightest of touches and watching the tendons shift. He dabbed at the puncture wound with the antiseptic wipe, keeping his grip secure and comforting as John hissed in pain. 'Sorry.'

'No, it's got to be done,' John replied, the words ground out through his clenched teeth as Sherlock soaked away the excess fluid and opened a clean dressing and bandage. 'Start at my wrist to anchor it in place, and then move up my hand.'

Sherlock did as John instructed, watching the angry colours of the injury steadily vanish beneath the clean white swathe of the bandage. He pressed a touch to the bare edge of John's palm, unconsciously moving in tiny, soothing spirals before he finished up and threw away the soiled dressing.

'Thanks,' John said with a smile. 'Not just for this, but for dinner and –' He gestured towards the bedroom in mute indication of their nest and the comfort it offered. 'I, uh, I needed all this.'

'So did I,' Sherlock promised, smirking as he belatedly noticed that John was wearing Sherlock's red robe. The sleeves were rolled up to expose his forearms and the hem fluttered close to his ankles. It looked ridiculous and brilliant all at once.

'You know it won't be like this after every case?' Sherlock asked, watching John's face carefully for any signs of disappointment. 'Don't you?'

John nodded, giving Sherlock a crooked grin as he reached out to catch his wrist and pull Sherlock closer. 'I know. To be honest, I wasn't expecting this much. I thought you'd be off reading the case file or looking for the next puzzle to solve, and that's fine.' John tightened his grip as if he could instil Sherlock's faith with mere physical contact. 'I don't know what I can do to make you believe me, but I mean it when I say I don't want you to change. I want what you want, whether that's rooftop chases, violin at three in the morning, or sharing a bed. All right?'

Warmth coiled under Sherlock's ribs, making the next breath come a little easier as he nodded his head in mute acknowledgement. John was right, it was hard to believe that anyone could be content to take the precious little that Sherlock had to offer. Yet John had always been different, breathing “amazing” where other people spat “freak”, and it only made Sherlock want him more.

He glanced towards the bedroom, thinking longingly of returning to sheets scented of him and John, of warm arms and warmer kisses. However, before he could suggest they retreat, a knock on the door downstairs echoed through the flat.

A quick glance at the clock made him frown, and he exchanged a glance with John as Mrs Hudson twittered a welcome. He would recognise Lestrade's footsteps anywhere, and he raised an eyebrow in John's direction. He was not concerned if the DI saw him in his robe, but John might feel differently about being found draped in Sherlock's spare and not much else.

'Go on,' John urged, tugging the belt tighter around his body. 'It's not like he doesn't know we're together anyway.'

Sherlock pulled the front door open before the knock came, watching Lestrade sway on the threshold in surprise. He looked like a man whose night had gone from bad to worse. Yet there was a hint of a smile on his lips as he took in the sight of Sherlock and John. 'I hate to interrupt,' he said with a flicker of a grin, 'but I need to talk to you.'

'You can't honestly have come over here at nine at night for my statement?' John asked in disbelief.

Sherlock watched Lestrade shake his head and lean against the door-frame, running his hand through his hair. 'No, no. Havisham confessed to everything,' he told them. 'All of it: Winters, Lattimer, Monroe.... the lot. I'll still need to get your side of things, but it can wait.'

'Is he getting a psychiatric evaluation?' Sherlock asked, waiting for Lestrade to nod his head. 'Do you think it will do him any good?'

'Not in a traditional sense. He's lucid and logical, with no obvious tells of serious mental issues. Maybe if they can find some evidence of something that makes him more easy to manipulate than others, it might reduce his sentence by a year or two, but that's a big maybe.'

Lestrade shook his head as if he were trying to pitch away the buzz of his thoughts, rubbing a hand across his brow. 'Actually, the reason I came over is that I could use your help. We had a murder about five days ago, gruesome, but nothing we couldn't handle.' He shrugged, the lines around his eyes deepening as he winced. 'We thought we'd caught the guy, but we've just had two more corpses turn up the same way. Dissected and packaged up in ice-cream containers.'

'A serial killer?' Sherlock asked.

'An escalating one,' Lestrade confirmed. 'And we've got the wrong man. Think you're up to it?'

Sherlock almost agreed without thinking, his mind already off and racing, but the thought of John pulled him up short. He would never hold Sherlock back – never insist he stay at home when the Work was calling – but if he went tonight then John would accompany him.

A quick glance showed him that John was already looking towards the bedroom, probably thinking of clothes and a gun and London's cold night air. He was already prepared to follow wherever Sherlock led despite a concussion and worse.

Yet he did not want to drag John out into the harsh edges of the city again, not so soon after a narrow escape – mere hours after returning from the hospital bloodied and pained. The Work demanded his attention, but it was John who needed it.

A compromise, then.

'I'm not in a fit state for crawling all over a crime-scene,' he stated flatly, thinking fast. It was only a partial lie. If it weren't for John he would ignore his ribs, but the two of them were hardly at their best. 'Bring over the case-files tomorrow. All of them. I'll take a look and see if I can catch your killer. Anderson's not on forensics, he's on holiday with his wife, so there's a chance the photographs will be intelligible for a change.'

He expected an argument from Lestrade, a desperate plea in the name of justice or something trite. What he was not prepared for was the fleeting but blatant approval that crossed the DI's face, as if he could read every thought in Sherlock's skull and was pleased with what he saw.

'You sure?' he asked, and there was a hint of something clever in that tired voice: another little unspoken test. 'We've not had one like this for a while.'

Sherlock pursed his lips, his mind dancing from blood, particulates, puzzles, murder to John, safe, warm, home, but in the end his choice was obvious. There would always be more crime, more hate and killing. Perhaps not like this one, but there would always be a mystery to solve. John was less of a certainty – love a far more rare occurrence in Sherlock's life – and something to be treasured as a result. He could leave any day, whereas the Work would never be complete.

'I'm sure,' he said firmly. 'Get some sleep, Lestrade, if you can. I'll look at the case first thing tomorrow.'

The DI nodded, his shoulders straightening as he eased his weight upright. 'All right, Sherlock, thanks. I'll be here in the morning. Sleep well, you two.' With a crooked grin, he turned and trotted back down the stairs with a heavy tread.

Sherlock heard his farewell to Mrs Hudson and, a minute later, the rev of the car engine as Lestrade pulled away, off to try and make sense of the latest brutality. He expected to feel frustrated, restrained somehow by his own refusal, but to his surprise there was not even the faintest hint of guilt.

He had made the right decision.

Turning to look at John, he realised he was the subject of intense scrutiny, not hard or calculating, but amazed, as if he had done something beyond belief. John's blue eyes were wide, the lines of weariness faded now and the corners of his lips tilted in a smile as he stepped closer. 'I thought you said your ribs didn't hurt.'

'They don't. Not enough to put me off a crime scene, anyway. It just seemed like the best excuse.'

'So, why aren't we –?' John gestured to the door, blinking in surprise as Sherlock closed the last of the distance between them, his fingers hovering above the gash on John's head before dropping to trace the thin line of John's mouth.

'The case doesn't need me. Not right now. You do.' Sherlock swallowed, licking his lips as he stared into John's eyes, seeing so much emotion there that he could never begin to name it all. 'I need you. This. Here.' He gestured vaguely to Baker Street, their home, their sanctuary. 'Whatever's out there can wait until tomorrow.'

It was not much, as declarations went, but everything from the deepening lines at the corner of John's eyes to the blissful tilt of his lips made it seem like something far more. He heard the words Sherlock said, and he knew what they meant. He gave them no deeper implication than Sherlock intended, and no less credit than they deserved.

'Thank you,' John murmured, his happiness making him look ten years younger as he stretched up to capture Sherlock's mouth with his own. His hands traced the column of Sherlock's throat and the sweep of his shoulders as if he were trying to memorise the moment forever, and all Sherlock could do was lose himself, allowing the rest of the world to fade away – inconsequential for a time.

He had always worried that one day, the Work would lose its appeal. He feared that the crimes would become mundane and repetitive and the thrill would fade. Then John had turned up in his life, a mystery disguised as a very ordinary man, and they had fallen into one another's orbits as if it was the way they were meant to be.

Now he stood here, his body singing, his mind diamond-bright and calm as he licked at John's lips and pressed his way inside, feeling the threads of his existence unravel and weave themselves into something new – something better.

There would always be the Work, not the challenger to their strength but the glue that held them together, but now there was more to life than the next crime. What he and John were to one another – what they had come to share – was the greatest mystery, and Sherlock's heart thrilled at the thought of spending the rest of his days trying to solve it.

The road that lay ahead of them may be dark and unknown, but, together, he and John could light one another's path.