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Cold Burn

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Group therapy is as helpful as you let it be, and that is entirely the wrong thing to tell Sherlock Holmes.

It’s supposed to be compulsory, but after the first two disastrous sessions he’s spared, allowed to read or to wander the grounds in relative freedom for the hour. He runs through the chain of worried phone-calls in his head; rehearses Mycroft’s resigned acquiescence at the end of it. Reprieve granted mostly, he’s sure, because it’s a charade to which Mycroft can’t imagine submitting himself. Sherlock is here a) to rid himself of a physical dependency serious enough to threaten his concentration and thereby his work, and b) to ensure that he doesn’t drag his brother’s career down into scandal by doing something inconvenient like dying of an overdose. (As though he’d ever miscalculate so egregiously. He’s an addict, not a child.) He is not here to become a fulfilled and integrated human being.

It could be worse. The facility is halfway up a hill in mid-Wales—conveniently far from London and interfering brothers (yes, he’s only here through Mycroft’s interfering, but not having to see him every day makes it easier to ignore that fact)—and the other ‘students’ (sounds better than ‘inmates’) have given up attempting to engage him in conversation. Isolation, he can cope with. There’s a box of cold-case folders on his desk; the absence of more immediate stimulation is regrettable, but bearable. (For the moment. They’ll run out soon, and then his brain will begin to eat itself, to race in ever-decreasing circles of need and rage.) Right now, it’s the confinement that’s getting to him.

Front gates are locked, and visitors require a pass to enter. (This place isn’t cheap. Sticking it out in the middle of nowhere isn’t enough; security has to be seen to be expensive.) Grounds: small, and watched constantly by staff. Sherlock can happily shut himself up in a lab with his work, or a bedsit with a steady supply of chemical vitality, for days on end. Being told he can’t leave is different, though—the nerves crawl beneath his skin with the desire to get the fuck out.

(Shouldn’t be difficult. Watchers are no match for one who sees.)

Jackie (fifty-three, unhappily married, alcoholic daughter) takes an extra five minutes on her afternoon tea-break, without fail. Sian (thirty-nine, childless, in the closet) starts to frown and eye her watch as soon as the first of those minutes has passed, twitchy and distracted, as though she’ll fall into a dead faint if she hasn’t had her custard cream by three fifteen precisely. (Plenty of things are habit-forming.) A fence rings the whole building, but looks easily climbable in two spots by someone of Sherlock’s height. One of those is in the farthest corner of the grounds, invisible from the main entrance.

He makes himself inconspicuous, edges slowly toward the corner, waits for Sian to take her hand out of her pocket and glance at her wristwatch. Then he moves fast; out of sight, a quick scramble over the fence, and he’s out.

The sense of freedom is illusory, of course—Mycroft will have somebody dogging his every step, even out here—but at last Sherlock feels able to breathe.


* * *


A cluster of spindly young trees around the entrance to The Firs residential rehabilitation centre (planted after the name was chosen, to lend it credence) gives way abruptly to bare, unforgiving hillside. Scrubby grass; browning ferns; the occasional half-human-sounding bleat of a sheep startling in the quiet. The road that winds up to the centre, just a single carriageway in each direction, is empty, but he can hear cars in the valley below. The sound rushes by muffled, barely-identifiable. On a blustery day it would be lost in the roar of the wind.

The road leads down into a village. (Name deleted. Irrelevant, since he has no intention of actually making a run for it, and besides, there were an unnecessary number of consonants.) Little to interest him down there. A village shop (he’s well-stocked for cigarettes); a Post Office (who would he write to?). Drug abuse is more frequent in rural communities than one might think, but no doubt all the dealers in a twenty-mile radius have already been informed that selling to him is more than their arses are worth.

He turns away from the village, and starts walking.


* * *


There’s a sheep-track that he follows for want of any other feature of interest, and then a tiny grey stone cottage tucked into the side of the hill. A woman crouches in the grass outside it, wicker basket cradled to her body. She wears a long dress and a red hat, the dark plait that hangs down to her waist shot through with grey. She’s picking mushrooms. (Edible rather than hallucinogenic, but Sherlock has little use for psychedelics anyway: a mind like his, already containing whirling multitudes, has no need for expansion. It requires sharpening, focus, a lens to concentrate its intensity into a bright, hot point.)

The woman straightens, balancing her basket on her hip, and turns to face him. (Face deeply lined, but no stoop in her shoulders.) She smiles, her beetle-bright eyes intent enough to be either slightly unhinged or calculated to unnerve.

“Good afternoon, Sherlock Holmes,” she says.

So Mycroft’s even enlisted the local nutter. Thorough of him, Sherlock supposes.

“You’ll have a cup of tea with me,” she continues (not a question), and it’s not politeness that makes him shrug and follow her into the cottage. The gnawing hunger for—any—data after the clean beige interior of the rehab centre, perhaps. What he glimpses through the half-open door is a clutter-trove of piled up bric-a-brac, object after object whose history and ownership must be written in the patterns of wear in their fabric and dust on their surfaces. (Nothing relevant, but there’s nothing here for it to be relevant to. It’ll do.)

It doesn’t last him long. She’s a doting grandmother; an eccentric (in the truest sense of the word, never self-applied); prone to superstition. Not ordinary, precisely, but not interesting either. The tea is bitter, made with nettles. Sherlock sets his cup down half-full and gets up to leave.

The old woman fixes him with her bright black eyes. “You’re looking for something,” she says.

He scowls. “I’m looking for anything. I’m bored.”

“Give something to the wind.”

Sherlock turns his head again, and studies her. Her expression betrays little but friendly interest. She says nothing further.

He turns for the door. “Thank you for the tea.”


* * *


He carries on up the sheep-track and comes out atop the hill. The walk takes longer than it ought; he isn’t wearing the shoes for it. There’s a sharp wind blowing up, making his eyes prickle with moisture. Sherlock lowers his head against it and shoves his hands deep into his pockets.

His right hand finds something. Mycroft’s card. (You’ll need my assistance in getting back on your feet in London, no doubt. Try to be mature, and don’t put it off, will you?)

(And for all that show of dutiful, brotherly solicitousness, Mycroft will never dare admit he understands.)

He rips the card in two, then places one half on top of the other and rips again. It’s about as useful a gesture as poking his tongue out—if he doesn’t get in touch, Mycroft’s people will harry him until he deigns to allow a conversation, or just stalk his every move—but there’s a twinge of satisfaction in it nonetheless.

He cups the pieces loosely in his palm. The wind whips them from his hand.


* * *


A fortnight has passed before Sherlock makes his way up the hill again. He’s due to leave the following morning. (You’ve made real progress, congratulations and cautions, the air in the clinic so sickly with praise he could choke and when they examined the body they’d find syrup bubbling into his lungs.) But: escape, London

He supposes he’ll have to stay with Mycroft while he looks for a flat. Not a thought that inspires much enthusiasm.

He skirts the old woman’s cottage; heads up the track, keeping an eye out for loose stones. He’d be missed at the centre quickly enough, but a fall up here could be deadly. The landscape is relentless in its barrenness, and it affords little in the way of distraction—but the air’s sharp and fresh, the hard, rocky terrain a welcome relief from gentle encouragement and beige and soft-voiced platitudes, and best of all, he’s alone.

Until he nears the brow of the hill, at least. Twinge of disappointment: somebody else is up there. At least, he thinks so. Sherlock frowns and squints as he realises he cannot be sure.

The wind in his eyes, perhaps, is what renders the evidence of his senses unreliable. At first, he seems to see a swirling indistinctness, scraps of shadow flocking together into a dark (nebulous, shapeless) patch, and it’s only when he moves closer that they coalesce into the seated figure of a man.

Not a hiker: no pack or waterproof. Not a patient from the clinic, either: Sherlock knows them all by sight (and finds precisely none of them interesting). Not much for him to read at all, in fact.

Late thirties; dressed in jeans and a knitted jumper (but not shivering, despite the wind); small but not skinny, sandy-haired and snub-nosed, ears slightly too big for his head; sitting cross-legged on a rock in just about the same spot where Sherlock stood on his last walk. Nothing that stands out; nothing interesting—except that he’s up here, alone, and apparently not because he’s the sort of masochist who tramps up hills in the freezing cold for fun. The obvious conclusion: he’s escaping something. Like Sherlock.

The man turns around as he approaches. Sherlock opens his mouth to inform him that he really needn’t feel obliged to make conversation.

“About bloody time,” the man grumbles, before he can. Not local; English, southern. “Have you got any idea how long I’ve been sat around waiting?”

Sherlock blinks at him, actually surprised, for once. “Do I know you?” he asks. (He doesn’t; he’s never forgotten a face in his life. He can hardly be blamed for drawing out the moment, though. This is already the most interesting conversation he’s had in weeks.)

The man gives him a Look, equal parts incredulous and unimpressed. “I should hope so. You brought me here.”

The obvious inference, if he’s here because of Sherlock, is that he’s one of Mycroft’s people. But that doesn’t fit. Mycroft’s lot mostly make a token effort at self-concealment, and they certainly don’t wear beige woolly jumpers.

Sherlock runs through the list of other possibilities, discards the ones that depend upon his own fallibility, and comes to a ‘most likely’. Delusional disorder? (Frequently characterised by emotional over-investment in the false idea. Overt challenges to it are unlikely to be effective, and may provoke hostile outbursts.) (Sherlock doesn’t particularly care.)

(And besides, there is something—)

“It makes no difference to me whether you believe your story or not,” he says, “but my memory’s undoubtedly better than yours, and I don’t recall meeting you. You should probably just tell me who you are.”

The man rolls his eyes, as though Sherlock’s the one being unreasonable. “I haven’t got a name yet. Not in the sense you’d understand it. That has to come from you.”

His voice is perfectly level, perfectly calm. He could be explaining the function of a Sky box to an elderly relative. No twitches, no nervous glances. No tells. He believes what he is saying. Delusion, then. (But. But?)

“You’re asking me to name you,” Sherlock says, slowly. He doesn’t bother to keep the implied you’re insane out of his voice. (The man doesn’t appear violent, and in any case, Sherlock has the twin advantages of reach and youth over him; he shouldn’t pose any danger.)

“You have to. You called me here.”

“I very much doubt it.” Sherlock fishes his phone out of his pocket and holds it up. “Not even charged.”

“Not on the phone.” The man shakes his head. Shades of irritation in his voice now; an implied disbelief at Sherlock’s ignorance. Sherlock is unused to being on the receiving end, and it gives him pause. “You give something to the wind, the wind brings you what you need.”

“And that would be you, would it?” It comes out slightly harsher than intended. The stranger may be raving mad, but Sherlock would still rather talk to him than to anybody down at the centre. The word need, though—the idea that it could be applied to him, that anyone else could presume to know how—works its way beneath his skin and rankles there. Besides, anyone who insists on anthropomorphising the weather deserves everything they get.

The man raises his eyebrows; looks as though he’s about to say something further. A brief passing of something—surprise? disappointment?—over his face, but then he just shrugs.

“Maybe not,” he says. “Alright. I’ll be off, then.” He gets to his feet and takes a step forward. Sherlock tenses despite himself, and perhaps the man reads some subtle tell of defensiveness in his stance, because he holds his hands up in a placating gesture and half-smiles. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I’ve just got to give you this.” He reaches into his trouser pocket and holds something out on the flat of his palm.

Four scraps of card. The one on top has half a telephone number on it.

Sherlock snatches them; examines them minutely. The rips are accurate, to the best of his recollection They smell of cigarettes, like the insides of his pockets. (The man’s fingers are free from nicotine stains, his nails clean.) “Where did you get these?” he demands.

“I already told you,” says the man.

Sherlock’s coat begins to flap about his legs: there’s a cold wind blowing up. It stings his ears, creeps in at his collar to chill his throat.

“Bye, then.” The man sounds sad. Why does he sound sad? They’ve only just met.

Sherlock looks at him through narrowed eyes. Then he blinks, and frowns.

The man is beginning to blur around the edges. The wind whips at him, and a scrap of shadow detaches itself and flutters away. And though the man is right in front of him, Sherlock suddenly can’t say with any certainty what colour his eyes are. The man smiles ruefully, and Sherlock cannot recall the sound of his voice. He spoke only seconds ago. This is—

“Wait,” Sherlock says. “John.”

There’s no significance behind it; there isn’t time for that. It’s just the first name that comes into his head. He has spoken without thinking. (He never speaks without thinking.) But the wind dies down abruptly.

The man—John—blinks at him. Smiles. “Well,” he says. “That’s a start.”


* * *


John still needs a surname, of course. Sherlock supposes he ought to make a slightly less arbitrary choice, this time. He concentrates upon the task because the rest of his mind is in disarray, because what he’s just seen is impossible, and means either that he can no longer trust the evidence of his senses—in which case he’s ruined—or that the world is something other than what he thought it was.

Neither of those possibilities is welcome, but he thinks that the second might be slightly more bearable.

Details. He lives in the details. He can work with them while his mind digests what he has seen, while he allows the dust of his old assumptions to settle. So, names. ‘Holmes’ is out of the question, of course. He could pass John off as a distant relative (as opposed to what? a man who the wind swapped me for a few scraps of card?) to Lestrade and Mrs Hudson, but Mycroft would insist on sticking his nose in eventually, and then the whole thing would come tumbling down.

Eventually, he settles on one of his GCSE history teachers. Mr Watson was of unremarkable intellect, but he always answered Sherlock’s questions to the best of his ability, directing him to the appropriate section of the library where his own knowledge ran short. Where the rest of the staff tore out their hair and called in his parents to meetings and eyed him with barely-suppressed distaste, Mr Watson displayed a kind of fond resignation. He wanted to help his strange pupil, Sherlock is fairly sure, and just regretted that to do so very effectively was beyond his abilities. His own deficiencies never led him to resent their absence in others. Something in John’s manner calls him to mind.


* * *


They sit facing one another on the train to London. Two tickets, first class, were waiting to be collected at the station. Sherlock checks his phone. Mycroft hasn’t been in touch yet.

Sherlock no longer feels dizzy with the impossible. The dust has settled, and his mind hungers. He wants to take this new reality apart and know it; know how it is, has come to be, possible.

“Where did you come from?” he asks.

“The other side of the wind,” says John. Then he screws up his face in surprise. “Or Surrey, apparently.” He looks at his hands. “I’m taking form. Starting to remember things, even though they didn’t happen.”

“Your other memories—are they still intact?”

“Yes. I think so.”

Sherlock nods. “Good. What did you do, back there?”

“I was a healer. And a fighter, once.” John pauses momentarily, eyes unfocused. Then his gaze clears. “Army doctor. Translates okay.”

“Can you show it to me? The place you came from?”

John shrugs.

(“Cobwebs,” he will say, many months later, at the tail-end of a sad, strained New Year’s Eve. “You can see it in cobwebs. Right before the wind blows them away.”

He’ll say it as though offering comfort, and Sherlock will go to his room and close the door.)


* * *


Now: Sherlock has work and a new home and a flatmate, and John has an imagined past that he remembers as if it’s real—that comes to him in pieces, springing to mind when questions are asked. Often, John will turn to him afterwards, frowning, and say, “Oh, I knew that all along.” Sherlock has no doubt that, if a situation were to call for it, an alcoholic sister would materialise out of the woodwork; staid, shrunken, solidly middle-class parents; old soldiers who have never met John Watson, but who remember him patching up their wounds and joking with them in the mess.

John always looks at Sherlock as though he expects him to understand, and Sherlock does, and finds that he’s not as surprised by it as he perhaps ought to be. Things only Sherlock can see are not unusual—half the pertinent details of the world fall into that category—but this

This: John looks like the realest and most solid thing Sherlock has ever known, now. Hard to imagine him made of scraps of shadow that threatened to break away and flutter down a hillside. There are a few things, though. A flicker of something ageless and feral in his eyes as they chase through the streets (something hungry, something so familiar it looks inhuman). The way he stands at the window on cold nights when wind roars through the city, and listens, and goes—briefly, momentarily—to a place where Sherlock can neither reach nor read him.

Sherlock hates that. It makes him want to go to John and take his hand, and he doesn’t know whether he wants to pull John back to his side or step up onto the window-ledge along with him, lean forward into the winter and let the wind blow both of them away.

Instead, he picks up his violin and plays the most mournful pieces he knows until they drown out the howling of the wind. Until John turns from the window, the shadow lifting from his face, and back to Sherlock.


* * *


Things that he knows:

John is a fighter.

Sherlock stands in a deserted classroom holding a white pill between his fingers, and Jeff Hope drops to the floor in front of him with the left side of his face drooping like unfired clay. Neither of them has swallowed a pill yet. Hope is dead on arrival at the hospital.

John’s quiet as they walk home together. His face betrays him, though. Minute muscle twitches that might indicate—not guilt, no. Secrecy, though. Sherlock watches him carefully.

“Do you know where the word ‘stroke’ comes from?” John asks him, later again. “In the medical sense, I mean?” Sherlock shakes his head.

“Irrelevant,” he says, but he looks it up. John wait patiently while he clicks through online dictionaries, and when Sherlock glances back at him—not quite disbelievingly—and says, “You’re a fairy,” he just shrugs.

“Call me that in public and we’ll never hear the end of it,” he says. “But that’s one word for it, yeah.”

Sherlock shrugs. “A guardian fairy is probably more useful than a guardian angel. Far less compunction about fighting dirty.” He turns back to his laptop, but he doesn’t miss the small smile that quirks John’s lips, the protectiveness behind his eyes. (Not a warm, fuzzy thing but a weapon, sharp as a flint.)

“Don’t know what you’re on about,” says John. “Want some toast?”


* * *


John is a healer.

There’s a chase and an alleyway and a slicing motion of the suspect’s arm, and Sherlock has been 36—48—72 hours without sleep now and so he twists away a split-second too late to evade it. A heartbeat’s numbness before the cold burn of pain in his side. A tear in his shirt; the skin beneath scored and beginning to seep blood. The wound is narrow, almost neat. He looks down at it as though from outside himself.

Surprise and detachment: distracting. Disabling. If he’s preoccupied with his own physical state, looking in upon himself, he can’t see, can’t—

John is beside him, then. Steady, practiced hands tugging up his shirt; steady, practiced eyes inspecting the wound. (Not practiced in this world; not with human flesh. Sherlock trusts them anyway.) Warm.

“Alright,” says John. “You’re alright.”

His voice is as steady as everything else, betraying no hint of a lie. The suspect is on the ground, an officer cuffing his hands behind his back.

“It’s shallow,” John decides. “I can stitch this up at the flat. Don’t expect you want to go to hospital.”

Sherlock shakes his head. “Station first. I need to question—”

“Oh, no way. He’ll keep until morning.” Quick glance at Lestrade for confirmation. “Come on, you. Home.”

Sherlock doesn’t follow instructions, take sensible (but slowing; hampering; maddening) courses of action. He is never ridden roughshod over. But.

A swift weighing-up of his options. The (certainly guilty) suspect: an ordinary killer motivated by ordinary avarice. He’s seen it a hundred times.

He’s never seen John heal, though he has seen John kill. For the sake of balance, he supposes, he ought to remedy that.

John grasps his arm to lead him home. Something beneath the warmth of his hands tingles like an incipient frost.

And again, later, when they are on Sherlock’s bare skin and John’s lips move around words in a language he doesn’t know, and cold, shining gossamer-strands—the sharp cold of an ice-pack, not the cool of a salve—knit together the edges of the cut. Sherlock watches John’s mouth and his throat goes dry, and elation and panic twist together inside his chest.

The suspect is quite gone from his mind. He’s not bored, though.

John chivvies him into bed and fetches him a glass of water, and must read some flicker of excitement or uncertainty in Sherlock’s face, because he bites his lip and says, “Will you sleep alright? I mean, do you want me to stay?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Honestly, John,” he says. “I’ll be fine.”

He already knows he has better things to think about than sleep.


* * *


John is his.

“Could you leave?” he asks one evening, apropos of nothing. (The pool was a week ago; it’s apropos of everything.) “If you wanted to?”

“Why?” says John. “Are you planning on making me want to? Because you already had a good go with that head in the fridge, and—”

“Don’t avoid the question.”

John shrugs. “The wind blows you what you need. Or where you need to be. Not sure if there’s much difference.”

“Then you—”

He leaves his statement hanging in the air, because right before he finishes it he realises it sounds too much like a question. (Like a plea.)

John answers by crossing to his side and tugging at his sleeve until they’re facing one another. Then by kissing him.


* * *


The wind blows you what you need. Ridiculous. Impossible. But.

But. He finds himself thinking that a lot, these days.

Sherlock eliminates the impossible. That’s how he works. And he finds that he no longer wants to.

Eliminating the impossible would involve eliminating John, and John, now, is a fixed point. The thought of dislodging him leaves Sherlock spiralling rootless through marbled eddies of data and sentiment, his mind no longer surging forward with the relentless speed of a freight train but seething like a whirlpool, dragging him inexorably down to lightless (sightless, mindless) depths. He must recalibrate his concept of the impossible, instead. Either the world or his understanding of it is wrong, and while the former seems more likely (and, frankly, less disquieting), only the latter is within his power to change.

And—besides all that—John was right. Before Sherlock ever knew it, and before John made it true. He needs.

John suggested to him, once, that he’d thrown away Mycroft’s phone number—a link to his biological family—because he was looking for a new kind of family. But there’s more than blood and DNA and obligation in the way he needs this, needs someone to love him so hard it threatens to tip over into violence. The kind of love that wants to take him apart, to dissect him with eyes and hands and mouth and cock. (Sherlock can relate.) To bind his wrists with filaments of silvery fire that burn like snow (that leave marks with the pale shine of long-healed scars, faded by morning); to press lips to Sherlock’s own, to his temples, his hands, his chest. (Kisses that are ionized air, the vibration of a speaker turned up so loud it’s overwhelming—it’s tectonic—it reverberates in your chest and it moves the continents of you.)

John does all of it with a gentle, amused smile—as though this is nothing extraordinary, as though this is not a paradigm shift—and with slow, careful, thorough hands. John’s hands understand the seriousness of the situation, even if John’s mind has no hope of comprehending it. John kisses his eyelids and runs fingers through his hair and mouths his cock and tongues his arsehole and by the time John fucks him he’s shaking with needing it so much. His mind doesn’t switch off, but it floats away into irrationality and metaphor; he spills out from the core, over bed-sheets and shed clothes and entwined limbs. This is—he is—starved and uncontainable and desperate and no better than the ordinary people, the ones who trudge through the world with their minds tangled up in jealousy and sentiment, in where is the next fuck coming from? And it’s (perfectly) ironic, isn’t it, that a man from another world should have brought him back down to earth, and he laughs and then stops himself with all the force he has left, hands balled into fists, nails digging into palms, and shoves away from John with a disgust risen in his throat like bile.

John blinks up at him, eyelids sleep-heavy. “You alright?”

Sherlock knows he is staring; knows he must look mad, hair stuck up with sweat, wide-eyed and panicked in the dark.

“No,” he growls. “No. What have you done to me? What have you done?” His breath runs out all in a rush, and by the last word his growl has faded to a gasp.

And all John does is sigh deeply and watch him quietly, and at last reach out and offer him a hand to hold. And Sherlock hates it and hates himself for it and takes it anyway, and his shivers of disgust recede, as slow and unstoppable as an outgoing tide.

He wakes before John does. He finds that he no longer hates. His panic has faded into the distance; he could look at it and find it ridiculous, if he so chose.

And still he needs.


* * *


They are a broken man from London and a broken man from the other side of the wind, and they fit together not with the ease of jigsaw pieces, but with pushing and shoving and struggle, and a wearing-down of jagged edges. They make a sort of whole.

But then Sherlock is standing on a hospital roof and John in the street below him.

John reaches a hand out towards him, and Sherlock sees his fingertips shimmer silver-white, remembers the cold burn of them on his skin, and he knows that he may have won Moriarty’s game but he has lost, lost, lost. He feels like screaming.

“Don’t, John,” he says into his mobile, and hangs up.

“I’m sorry,” he says into the wind.


* * *


“I owe you so much,” John says to his headstone, and the wind carries the words to Sherlock where he stands on the fringe of the cemetery.

“Why?” he says in surprise. “I was the one who called you.”


* * *


Sherlock finds himself looking into cobwebs. Collecting dust in the corners of cheap rented rooms; trembling and dew-heavy on hedges in the morning. Spun by orb weavers and funnel-webs, common house spiders and black widows (he narrowly avoids a nasty bite from a latrodectus hesperus outside Seattle). He breathes on them to watch the silvery threads shimmer and shake. Sometimes the light catches them and they shine like pale fire, and his wrists ache.

He tries to keep records. The types of web in which he sees things; the light; the time of day. The number of times that day (week, month, year) he has thought about John. He looks for patterns; tries to systematize what he sees.

It’s absurd, that he’s trying to think scientifically about magic. This whole situation is absurd. That he is in love is absurd.

He never catches more than a glimpse. Remote mountain hamlets; endless cities bristling with spires like spikes of frost, their rooftops glittering with ice and snow. Wind howling through bare rocky passes. Faces, sometimes.

Never the one he’s looking for.


* * *


Still, somehow, he’s not surprised when he returns to London and finds that nobody has seen or heard from John Watson in three years.



* * *



He catches the first train out of Paddington station the next morning. Nothing to stay for.

(London, Scotland Yard, cases, the work.)

(Long since ripped away from him. Nothing to stay for.)

The sheep-track worn into the side of the hill is as steep and stony as he remembers. It’s drizzling lightly; he keeps his balance, but his shoes threaten to slip on the rocks and send him tumbling at any moment. The wind is cold. The old woman’s cottage is lightless, door closed, garden overgrown.

There’s nobody at the top of the hill. Sherlock stands facing into the wind. He pushes his hands into his pockets and finds them empty. Laughs, and the wind whips it away; it doesn’t reach his ears.

“I’ve got nothing to give you,” he says.

“You already have,” says a voice behind him.


John. Smiles at him.

It’s a sad smile—and really, Sherlock expected no less—but not in the same way John looked sad the first time Sherlock saw him here. Sherlock knows this look. He sees it a lot these days, mostly in the mirror. The worst is over, it says, but that means that the worst happened.

“I don’t have to stay, you know,” says John, and this isn’t what Sherlock was expecting. He doesn’t know what he was expecting—a kiss or a punch or a curse, maybe, though he’s not stupid enough to think he could predict for sure. He opens his mouth, then realises he has no idea what to say.

“You wouldn’t know the stories,” John goes on. “Even if you’ve heard them, you’ve probably deleted them. But there tends to be a pattern, when one of you lot calls one of us into your world. The fairy wife—they’re not always wives, but those seem to be the ones that get remembered—gets to go back to her people when her husband strikes her. That’s the tradition. Thing is, stories tend to be a bit literal. A blow doesn’t have to mean you punching me in the nose. Wilful deception is definitely reasonable grounds.”

“You won’t,” says Sherlock, and it sounds like a plea. He doesn’t—can’t—care.

“Do you know how old I am?” John asks him. “I don’t. I remember castles being built and men riding horses and when the cities were so thick with smog you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I’ve got a good few hundred years on you, I reckon. And do you know what? Now I don’t know how to be anything but yours.”

Sherlock squeezes his eyes shut. Opens them again and they sting. “I’m yours.” The words come out low and raw. It’s the hardest thing he’s ever had to say. “You know that. You’ve always known that.” And, when John doesn’t reply straight away: “You must know that. I only came back for you, John, I—”

“I know,” John says, gently. “The wind blows you what you need. Or where you need to be. Sherlock. I needed you as much as you needed me. I still—well. I wanted to ask you something.”

Sherlock cannot read his face. John holds out his hand.

The wind is rising.

John’s eyes twinkle at him, then. Cold fire, not yet extinguished by the dull weight of sorrow. (Not cold at all.) “It’s dangerous,” he says.

It’s a test, Sherlock realises. A challenge. (Obvious, but perhaps necessary.) Can he put himself at John’s mercy, the way John has been at his these five years? Can he trust John, and hope for more honesty and care than he has been able to give?

(Can he admit that he needs it?)

John. Scraps of shadow fighting solidity; struggling to break free and fly off beyond the wind. The realest thing he’s ever known, the only one that has ever been completely his own.

It’s no choice at all.

He takes John’s hand.