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            Ten months, two weeks, and six days after Sherlock Holmes committed suicide, he broke his nose.

            Or, rather, someone broke it for him.

 

            John had always been fond of anniversaries. It was a bit boring of him, he knew (pedestrian, Sherlock would have complained), but remembrance, he thought, was important; birthdays and holidays, and, especially, what was gone. Dead comrades, dead family, dead friends – John kept them alive in his memory, and he was unabashed about having an extra drink on November 11, or buying flowers with Mrs Hudson on June 15.

            He wasn’t used to having certain anniversaries made redundant. Maybe that was why he reacted the way he did.

            It was instinctual, really. John probably would have punched anyone he found wandering around his flat when he came home, but he wasn’t going to deny that he had a little extra incentive in this particular case. Nice and easy, he didn’t even have to think about it: open door, see intruder; register intruder had killed himself nearly a year earlier; realise deception; react accordingly. He froze in the doorway, and his mouth went slack before forming a grim line, then a snarl. Two steps later, he was watching anticipation morph into fear on well-remembered features, and gathering strength in his shoulder. He swung.

            Sherlock’s nose cracked satisfyingly under John’s knuckles, and the ex-detective buckled, staggered, and folded gracelessly to the floor, trying and failing to support himself on the coffee table. Blood coursed from his nose, dripping between his clutching fingers and onto the carpet, and John couldn’t have cared less about the inevitable stain.

            “You fucking bastard!” he shouted. “What the hell is wrong with you?!”

            “John –” Sherlock started, but John was having none of it.

            “No,” he snapped. “No, this is not about you, don’t you dare try to talk your way out of this! You were dead! You were dead on the ground, there was blood – everywhere, I watched while you –” Realisation struck, and he slowly straightened from where he’d loomed over Sherlock’s hunched form, as if reeling in slow motion. “You made me – you fucking knew, you –” His breath was coming in harsh bursts; Sherlock’s eyes remained on the floor. “That whole time – you knew she wasn’t dying, you sent me away to – to what, to –” Something in him seemed to break, and he almost retched. “That phone call, that was – what were you, stalling? Getting things in place for your big fucking exit? You didn’t mean a word of it –! Were you ever gonna tell me, or is this just some happy coincidence?”

            Gaze still down-turned, Sherlock muttered into his cupped hand: “Am I allowed to speak now?”

            Fury wiped out John’s features, leaving only a thin-lipped blankness behind. His shoulders pulled back, and his spine straightened in clear warning. His next word was an unmistakable order.

            “Out.”

            Sherlock looked up in surprise and fear. “Wh—”

            “Get out,” John repeated, a crack in his calm façade. “You come back in here – you make me watch and you come back here, like this, and you have the guts to try to smart-mouth your way out of this –”

            “John, I understand that you’re angry, but –”

            “You’re bloody right, I’m angry, I’m fucking furious!”

            “And you have every right to be –”

            “Well, look at that, two miracles in one day, what a fucking gift!” John was ranting now, reeling and half-stepping, his hands flying in wide, useless gestures. “Sherlock Holmes, back from the dead and understanding another person’s emotions, Jesus Christ, who’d have fucking thought?!”

            “John, for God’s sake –”

            “Don’t you dare, don’t you God’s sake me, you little shit –”

            “Just let me explain –”

            “Explain?!” John’s attention reeled itself in, focusing on Sherlock’s defiant eyes and bloody nose. “Explain what?! Explain how you deliberately sent me away when you knew you were going to die? Explain how you – what – it was Moriarty, wasn’t it, you fucking – you went up to meet him, didn’t you, that’s what it was all leading to, you think I didn’t go over that day a thousand times in my head, trying to work out why you did it? Bet that’s a nice surprise, John Watson the sidekick was thinking –” He was leaning over now, shouting in Sherlock’s face, every inch of him radiating months of grief and pent-up rage. “So yeah, please, explain to me why you jumped off a building and didn’t die! Explain your wonderful, too-smart-for-this-world reasoning, explain why you didn’t tell me you were alive –” His hands shot out and grabbed fistfuls of Sherlock’s hair and collar, wrenching him up and pulling a yelp of terror and pain from Sherlock’s red mouth. “Why don’t you fucking explain why you made me watch, you sick – fuck – why you made me watch my best friend commit suicide, when it wasn’t even real!”

            At the brink of his anger, John threw Sherlock to the ground once more, tossing him aside like so much rubbish. He stood up straight again, stepped back, his left hand clenched at his side and his right pointing straight out at the still-open door to the flat.

            “I want you out,” he said, an infuriated tremble in his voice. “I want you out of my flat, and out of my life, now.”

            Sherlock wiped at his nose; the bleeding had slowed. “John –”

            “You’re not allowed to speak,” John bit out. “You’re not allowed to look at me, all you’re allowed to do, right now, is get up, and get out of my flat.”

            “John, you have to understand –”

            “I will add a broken rib to that nose, I swear to God –”

            “John, I couldn’t let you get hurt!” Sherlock shouted, in a last-ditch attempt to explain himself. John’s protestations stopped. His face froze. When he spoke again, it was with all the sorrow in the world.

            “Well, you did.”

            After a moment’s horrified silence, Sherlock unfolded himself from the floor and turned to the door. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket (jeans, John registered, unusual), and wiped ineffectually at his hands and face, blowing his nose and grimacing as he headed back to the hallway. John didn’t watch him go, staring instead at another empty space where Sherlock had once been, at the mottled patch of scarlet on his dull carpeting, both hands clenched into quivering fists at his sides. He could feel a lump in his throat, hot tears of anger and frustration, hate and grief.

            Sherlock’s footsteps stopped in the doorway, as if he were mulling over something important, hesitating.

            “You were right,” he intoned into the silence. John froze, and dug his fingernails harder into his palms.

            “Sherlock.”

            He turned in the doorway, watching John’s stiff shoulders. “I was meeting Moriarty,” he continued, cautious but determined, “and I suspected quite strongly that he’d incite me to suicide.”

            “Sherlock –”

            “He had guns trained on you,” Sherlock babbled, as John turned toward him. “You, Mrs Hudson, Lestrade, if I didn’t jump, you’d all have been killed, and I couldn’t –” He watched John’s impetus fail as he wavered on the spot, his face still a mask of blank wrath. “I couldn’t let that happen.”

            Silence fell between them, taut and anxious, waiting to be hacked through. It was John, characteristically, who did.

            “You could have told me.”

            “Any attempt to contact you would have risked all of us,” Sherlock said immediately, expecting the response. “There was no doubt you were still being watched, and I had to disappear as quickly and quietly as possible to avoid any suspicion.”

            John was silent and still as he processed the information, unmoving, unchanging, his burning gaze still trained on Sherlock’s face.

            “You could have let me help.”

            Sherlock shook his head. “No,” he said, with finality. “Not with this.”

            “I thought you trusted me.”

            “With my life, always,” Sherlock insisted. “But not with yours.”

            John said nothing, taking it in. Then –

            “You made me watch.” His breath shook on the inhale. “You called me, you made me – watch.”

            At last, Sherlock averted his eyes. “I didn’t know you’d be there in person,” he muttered.

            “You still called,” was John’s immediate retort.

            Sherlock took a deep breath, closing his eyes for just a moment. “Everyone had to believe it,” he said in a low voice. “Believe that I was dead, that I’d killed myself. To finish Moriarty’s plan. I said goodbye to my best friend, and then I jumped: who wouldn’t believe it? I didn’t mean for you to be there, you were meant to be – at least only on your way back, you –” John’s countenance hadn’t changed, and Sherlock was watching him with worry and fear etched all over his face. “And I wanted to say goodbye,” he finally confessed. His voice was clogged with blood from his broken noise. “I knew what I’d have to do. I’ve spent ten months in hiding, travelling incognito, taking down Moriarty’s network – I didn’t know if I’d ever come back.” He swallowed. “I had to say goodbye to you, however I could. And I thought it would be better for you to do the same.”

            The silence spread between them again, between Sherlock’s down-turned eyes and dripping nose and John’s still and changeless form. His steady gaze wavered once, and he blinked. The tightness fell from his mouth, and his shoulders sagged just a fraction.

            “I hate you,” he said, quiet and sincere. “I hate you, and I hate what you did.”

            “It was necessary,” said Sherlock, without force – “but I regret that it was.”

            “We’re not friends anymore.” It sounded like closure, ten months, two weeks and six days late.

            Sherlock’s voice was hoarse. “I understand.” John’s eyes wandered over his face, inspecting his broken nose from afar.

            “You should set that nose properly,” he said, in the same tone as he’d confessed his hate.

            Startled, Sherlock looked up at him, his eyes sharp and wide. He watched John’s motionless face, and tried to parse his meaning.

            “I... might know someone...” he said tentatively.

            John nodded once, short and sharp. “Light’s better in the kitchen,” he said, tilting his head at the doorway to his right with a detached sniff. “Should have some peas in the freezer.”

            Sherlock took one, slow step back into the flat, half-expecting a reprimand.

            “Shut the door behind you,” said John, as he led the way.

 

            Setting Sherlock’s nose was a less than pretty affair. It involved half a box of bloody tissues and a lot of pained expressions on Sherlock’s part; but John handled it with the efficiency of training and much experience, unaffected by Sherlock’s grunts and groans. He said nothing throughout that wasn’t pertinent to realigning Sherlock’s facial features, and afterwards dug out some ibuprofen and handed it over without a word, and settled a half a bag of frozen peas over Sherlock’s face with a steady hand and inscrutable expression. He cleaned up the tissues on the counter and wiped down Sherlock’s hands and chin with a wet flannel as Sherlock sat and held the peas to his nose and neither man said a word.

            “You’ll take my bed,” John announced as he rinsed out the cloth. Behind him, Sherlock made a half-noise of protest, but John overrode him. “You look like you’ve been through the wars already, and the sofa’ll do nothing for your nose,” he said, matter-of-fact. “You’ll take my bed.”

            Sherlock nodded, winced, and fell still. Turning off the tap, John wrung out the flannel and hung it over the edge of the dish drainer, then turned and leaned back against the bench, folding his arms across his chest.

            “Why’d you come back?”

            Sherlock’s chair faced perpendicular to John, and, stiff-necked as he was, he only turned his head a fraction to glance sidelong at John. He made no attempt at dissimulation.

            “Colonel Stephanie Moran,” he explained, voice muggy and clogged with the tissues in his nose. “Moriarty’s ex-right hand. Skilled sniper, discharged from the army after a big game hunting scandal, she’s personally responsible for twenty-eight murders – that I know of. She’s been chasing me for months while I took down the network; at this stage, it’s mostly about revenge. I followed her back to London and decided it was safer to come clean and have you all on your guard.”

            John shifted incrementally. “All?” he repeated; Sherlock could practically see his hackles rising.

            “I saw Mrs Hudson this morning,” he explained. “Nearly gave her a heart attack, but she was glad all the same. Lestrade found a letter on his desk yesterday evening, which I confirmed after lunch; he’s spreading the word through the Yard. He looked like he was going to punch me, too, but I think he was mostly relieved. Apparently they’ve been having a lot of trouble with appeals.”

            “You have no idea,” John muttered.

            “Mycroft knew all along,” Sherlock continued, “but that was his fault. I never told him. He contacted me in secret yesterday. But I’m letting the word spread, now. Not hiding it anymore. Moran knows I’m here, there’s no point, and it’s better you all be on your guard.”

            John nodded to show that he understood, and cleared his throat, pursing his lips and adjusting his stance. “Glad to know I was last on the list,” he said, halfway between a mumble and a growl, and mostly directed at the floor. Sherlock glanced at him, then his lap (or, rather, the bag of peas in the line of sight to his lap).

            “Cowardice,” he explained. “Not priority.”

            John looked up, and watched him for a moment. His arms unfolded and his chin jutted up a fraction, and he shifted again, leaning back now with his hands on the edge of the sink.

            “So you’re back then?” he said; and if Sherlock hadn’t been so desperate for an anchor, he could have sworn there was a touch of insecurity in the question. He looked up, fully this time, catching and holding John’s steady gaze.

            “Yes,” he said – and it sounded like closure; ten months, two weeks, and six days late. “I’m back.”

 

            Sherlock stayed at John’s flat for two nights, propped up in John’s bed at night and scampering about town while John was at work, following up leads from his homeless network and the baffled police and returning to the flat every so often to ice his nose. On the second day, he got his financials in order with Mycroft and moved back into Baker Street, stopping off at John’s flat as he came back after work.

            “You’re off, then?” were John’s first words as he shut the door behind him and registered the bag at Sherlock’s feet, stuffed with the few effects he’d accumulated over the last few days. Sherlock nodded, his mouth taut.

            “Back to Baker Street,” he said, aiming for ‘off-hand’ and hitting instead somewhere between ‘awkward’ and ‘emotionally repressed’. He breathed out, and watched his ex-friend. “Are you sure you won’t come with me?” he added, more quietly.

            John scoffed, and headed for the kitchen in search of tea. “Positive,” he grumbled. “I’m happier where I am.”

            Sherlock nodded again from the sitting room, not following John. “I... put the peas back in the freezer.”

            Conspicuously, it wasn’t ‘goodbye’.     

           “Thanks.”

            Needlessly, Sherlock averted his gaze, directing his eyes to the other side of the room and the door to the little bedroom. “Could you –” he began, but, turning back, found that John had heard him before he’d said anything, and was already standing in the doorway to the kitchen, watching him with sad, wounded eyes.

            “Keep in touch, yeah?” he said evenly.

            Sherlock sniffed and nodded, affecting nonchalance. “I’ll keep you updated on Moran,” he said. “She shouldn’t come after any of you, and she’s alone in the city – I’ll catch up to her first.”

            It was John’s turn to nod. He cleared his throat, and his tongue probed at the back of his teeth. He swallowed.

            “Stay safe, yeah?” he said, his voice a little rough.

            “With an international criminal and assassin bent on revenge on my trail?” Sherlock replied, clinging to some last vestige of levity. “I’ll do my best.”

            John nodded, his lips pursed. “All right, get out,” he croaked, nodding in the direction of the door. “Before I break something else.” His smile was stretched, flat and cold, like he’d just admitted to killing a not-very-nice cabbie. Sherlock drank in the sight, and tucked it away for further contemplation.

            “I’ll see you around,” he said quietly.

            John’s mouth pulled into a grimace. “I sincerely hope not.” He breathed, once: in, out. “Get out.”

            Sherlock turned away, and bent to pick up his bag, swinging it over his shoulder and heading for the door. He didn’t look back as he left, and John didn’t watch him go, and the door shut between with a quick click-thud.

           John turned back to making his tea, and listened to the floorboards squeak under retreating steps.

 

            Life, more or less, went back to normal. John went to work and came home, his shifts at the hospital having become regular after months of good service. Sherlock sent the occasional text, keeping him informed of his continued efforts to track down Moran before she did the same to him: every plain, electronically printed word made John’s stomach churn, though with what, he couldn’t say. He felt like he was in mourning all over again, but this time with an added layer of confused anger and joy. He went for a pint with Greg, and they commiserated over the unfathomability of the situation, and, when tipsy, made a toast to broken noses and Sherlockian miracles.

            Six days after Sherlock Holmes broke his nose, John returned to find his flat had been broken into. Again. The door was unlatched and the lock scratched, and John rolled his eyes and held his breath in preparation.

            What he found was not cheekbones and icy eyes, but a woman, in short sleeves and loose trousers, a jacket and ragged bag by her feet. Her dark hair was pulled back into a no-nonsense ponytail, and she leaned against the kitchen counter, peeling a carrot with one of John’s knives. John froze in the entrance to the kitchen, and felt his back straighten as the woman’s deep, brown eyes rose to face him, full of threats and languid mortality.

            “Captain,” she said in greeting, resting the carrot and knife on the counter behind her. Something cold and leaden settled in John’s gut.

            “Colonel.”

            She smiled in approval. “Well done.” Her accent was flat and unidentifiable, from everywhere and nowhere at once. Pushing off from the counter, she drew a pistol from a holster at the small of her back, and turned the kitchen chair – in which Sherlock had sat not days ago, surrounded by bloody tissues and holding a bag of frozen peas to his nose – around to face him. “Sit.”

            It was an order John was not willing to take.

            “What do you want from me?” he asked, even, unmoving.

            “I want you to sit,” she answered coolly, and pulled back the hammer. “Please.”

            John had almost forgotten what it felt like to stare down the wrong end of a gun: the fear and determination were unique, but not unfamiliar. The rush of adrenaline was like seeing Sherlock back from the dead.

            Not taking his eyes off the unwanted guest, John paced past her and lowered himself to the chair. He forced his hands to relax in his lap.

            “Now what?” he asked.

            Her pistol had followed him, aimed squarely between his eyes. “Where’s Sherlock Holmes?”

            “I don’t know.”

            In the blink of an eye, Moran had adjusted her aim a fraction and fired, gouging out a chunk of John’s right arm. He hissed and clutched at the wound, as she returned the pistol to his head.

            “Last I heard, he was back in Baker Street,” he said, through gritted teeth. “If you can’t find him, what makes you think I can?”

            Moran re-adjusted her aim again, and John was just in time to flinch sideways and let the bullet embed itself harmlessly in his kitchen floor.

            “Because I know he’s kept in contact with you,” she said, settling her aim again between his eyes. “And if you don’t tell me where he’s hiding, at least killing you will bring him back out in the open.”

            John looked up and caught her sharp gaze: she was calm, and absolutely serious. He felt the thrill of mortal peril, and remembered just why he shouldn’t be missing it.

            “I don’t know where he is.”

            Moran raised the gun and promptly struck him on the temple. He followed where the blow led him, and kept his eyes on the ground, one hand clenching in his lap, and the other gripping his wounded arm.

            “And if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.”

            The gun came back the other way, striking him around the jaw. John tasted blood.

            “He faked his own suicide, and you’re still protecting him?”

            John looked up at her beneath a defiant brow.

            “From the woman who broke into my house and beat me for information?” he deadpanned. “Yeah, I think so.”

            Rolling her eyes, Moran stepped back and shot him promptly in the side. John flinched, and twitched, and glanced down at the wound. “Useless,” Moran muttered under her breath, holstering her gun. As the pain started to make itself known and blood stained the front of his shirt, John instinctively hunched over his middle, both arms curling over his gut. Stepping around John’s shuddering form, Moran grabbed her bag and stalked from the flat.

            “I’ll be seeing you, Captain Watson!” she called over her shoulder. The door slammed behind her.

            With his left arm still clutched over the wound, John levered himself from the chair, trying to concentrate on keeping his legs steady. He staggered to the kitchen counter, tugging open his shirt, and grabbed a dishtowel, groaning as he pressed it to his side. His hands were bloody, and he fumbled as he pulled his phone from his pocket, calling emergency and praying to no one in particular that the ambulance got there in good time. He settled himself back in the kitchen chair, not trusting his legs to make it back out to the sitting room, and, with help on the way, called the number Sherlock had entered into his phone before he left. It rang six times before he answered.

            “Something’s wrong,” Sherlock said, in lieu of a greeting.

            The pain was increasing now that he had no purpose, and John’s reply was forced through gritted teeth. “Moran found me.”

            There was silence on the other end; then the sudden clatter of abandoned work and hurried footsteps. “She asked you where I was hiding,” said Sherlock, his voice wavering from its calm.

            “I said I didn’t know,” John grunted out. The dishtowel on his belly was damp with his blood, and his shirt was sticking to his back. He choked back a sob as the realisation struck him that there was no one there to save him.

            “John, you’re a godsend, I can’t thank you enough,” Sherlock was babbling. He cut himself off, and there sounded the swish of a coat being donned, then his voice returned in John’s ear. “I’ll have to keep moving. How badly did she hurt you?”

            Aiming for a cynical chuckle, John made a noise in the back of his throat that sounded much more like a choked-in groan. “Grazed arm’ll need stitches,” he said, “and my face is pretty sore.” He pressed his lips together and breathed for a moment, harsh, quick gasps through his nose that utterly failed to calm him. “Bullet through the side,” he finished, “but it could be worse.”

            Sherlock was immediately silent, and still enough that John wasn’t even sure they were still connected until his voice returned, dark and quivering.

            “You’ve called an ambulance,” he said, not daring to actually ask in case the answer was ‘no’. John’s throat did something strange as he tried to scoff.

            “Not an idiot, Sherlock,” he forced out. The pain in his abdomen was spreading, and he dug his heels into the tiles and gripped his phone harder, pressing the towel more firmly into the wound and groaning. “Sherlock, it hurts, it fucki—” he choked out on a half-sob, the vocalisation sending him into a panic. “Jesus, Jesus, Sherlock I can’t do this, Sherlock –”

            “Calm down, John,” Sherlock was babbling. “You’ll be okay, you’ll be fine, I’ll make sure of it, do you understand?”

            Anger swelled, blocking up the panic fogging John’s brain. “S’not up to you, Sherl—” He stopped, and breathed. “Whether I live or bloody die, it’s not up to you.”

            “No, no!” Sherlock was shouting now, as the sound of sirens drifted up through John’s windows. “You can’t die!”

            “Sherlock,” John growled, “this isn’t your decision anym—”

            “I spent ten months as a dead man, John!” Sherlock yelled. “Ten months, do you have any idea – I will not have it wasted, do you understand? Ten months knowing that you’d be there, that you’d hate me, of course you would, but you were alive – I won’t see you hurt, I will not let you die!”

            “This isn’t – your – choice!” John spat, through chattering teeth. “Moran’s after you. She’s willing to shoot people for information. That’s all. The rest is my business.”

            “John –”

            “Goodbye.”

            “JOHN!”

            John hung up with a furious flick of his thumb, and threw the phone to the ground, fuming, half in anger, half in pain. He brought his hand to his forehead, breathing hard through his nose, and gripped his fingers in his hair as the thunder of footsteps rang in the hall, and tears threatened to escape the corners of his eyes. The paramedics burst into the flat, calling his name, and he shouted to direct them to the kitchen. Then he was being lifted onto a trolley, and there was a mask over his face, and the faint sting of an IV, and he sank into a painless, angerless dark.

 

            When John woke, it was to an overworked-looking nurse sponging the dried blood from his hairline. John blinked open his bleary eyes, and she glanced down, a stretched smile pulling at her mouth.

            “Good afternoon, Doctor Watson,” she said, her voice warm, but thin. She looked exhausted.

            “Go home,” John tried to mumble; but his throat was dry and hoarse, and there was an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth, and he was quite sure she hadn’t heard him.

            “Hold on, I’ll get you some water,” she said kindly, heading to the side table and pouring water from a jug into a plastic cup. John’s eyes followed her, unfocused, but determined. She came back, dropping a straw into the cup, and raised the head of the bed, and lifted the mask from his face. She supported the base of his skull to help him drink; her hand was warm, and kind, and trembling just a bit.

            “You look awful,” John croaked when he could, as the nurse lowered his head back onto the pillow.

            “So do you,” she replied, setting the cup down on the table.

            “I’ve been shot,” John retorted with an attempt at charm. “What’s your excuse?”

            She gave a wan smile, and replaced his mask. “Been on call for a while,” she explained. “And it’s not easy, being in charge of you.”

            John raised his eyebrows and hummed in inquiry.

            “Apparently you’re in danger – there’s a half a dozen policemen in the ward, and more outside. And you keep some pretty weird company, judging by your visitors.”

            John shut his eyes in mortification and resignation. The nurse read his expression perfectly, and chuckled as she returned to cleaning the blood from his hair.

            “The inspector was nice enough,” she said absently. “And the old lady – she your mum?” She raised the sponge to give him leave to reply: he shook his head a fraction, but smiled beneath the mask. “Well, she was sweet anyway. I’ll have someone call her when I’m done, tell her you’re awake.”

            John braced himself for the addendum.

            “But that man in the coat...”

            Something escaped John’s throat – a laugh or a sigh, he couldn’t tell. The nurse glanced down at him, amused.

            “Right bastard, he was,” she muttered. “Prancing in here and demanding to see you. He didn’t,” she added, in mirthful reassurance. “Said he’d destroy us if we let you die, though. Someone called security.”

            John’s eyes fell shut for a moment, and he shook with silent, tired laughter. Oh, if only he could have seen that.

            “He’ll be back, I’m sure,” the nurse continued, “especially when he finds out you’re awake. Do you want me to put security on alert to keep him out?”

            She looked down and caught his eye, and John was surprised to find that he did, in fact, want to see Sherlock. Somehow. In spite of everything.

            He shook his head again, with a feeling of long-suffering he realised he’d missed, over the last ten months.

            He wanted to hate Sherlock. And he did. But to never want to see him again, to throw him out of the hospital when he’d been shot, when there was a criminal to catch and a job to do – when Sherlock had done the impossible, and answered John’s prayers and come back, however late – he found he couldn’t. He closed his eyes and felt something like the promise of contentment tugging at his heart.

            For all that he hated Sherlock, he didn’t ever want to lose him again. John let the paradox go.

 

            “I’ll kill her.”

            The words were out of Sherlock’s mouth before he’d barely drawn the curtain around John’s bed, sweeping into his little space like a man bent on vengeance.

            “No you won’t,” John croaked from where he lay. Sherlock stopped beside the bed, in line with John’s knees, and glared.

            “You don’t think I could do it?” he snapped, accusatory.

            “I don’t think you will,” John replied. “Big difference.”

            He’d woken up again in the early afternoon, and was informed (by a different, more refreshed-looking nurse) that Mrs Hudson and Greg had been told of his recovery. They didn’t have Sherlock’s contact details, but John had had a feeling the detective knew; and here he was, an hour after John had regained consciousness, fuming by his knees. John watched him brood, and contemplated the grief and anger in his gut: he was little surprised to find it had boiled down to a simmer. More than anything, he was finally happy to see him. Maybe it was just the painkillers.

            “I’m glad you’re alive,” he said out of the blue. Sherlock looked taken aback at the confession, his expression somewhat stunned.

            “I thought you hated me,” he said.

            “I do,” admitted John. He wasn’t smiling, not with his mouth, but he was sure that Sherlock recognised the distinction. The detective’s eyes narrowed in thought.

            “I’m... glad you’re alive, too,” he eventually said, so delightfully unsure that John chuckled, despite the pain that flared through his torso.

            “It wasn’t that bad,” he said. “But I’d forgotten how much bullet wounds hurt.”

            “Yes,” Sherlock said, “you sounded… distressed.”

            John snorted faintly, and shook his head. “Moran’ll probably pay me a visit,” he said, changing the topic – “you should fuck off while you can.”

            “Was that an unsubtle attempt to get rid of me,” Sherlock quipped, “or an honest concern?”

            “Bit of both.”

            Sherlock – fantastically, hatefully, above all, surprisingly – smiled.

            “There are police crawling all over the building,” he said, “and I know Mycroft’s people are watching the place. Moran won’t even try.”

            “So I’m stuck with you, then?” said John, with a straight face, belying his surprise to find that he almost didn’t mind the idea.

            “You’re stuck with me,” Sherlock grinned. “At least until I decide my time is better spent finding wherever Moran’s holed up now.”

            “I’d’ve thought you’d’ve decided that before you even got here,” said John, honestly a little bit surprised, especially after what he’d said on the phone. Sherlock caught his eye and held it, sobering considerably.

            “I did,” he said simply. “And it’s not.” John laughed, trying to relieve the sudden tension in the room, but Sherlock jerked forward a step, as if impelled, one hand darting out to clutch the edge of the bed. “It’s not,” he repeated in earnest. “I meant what I said on the phone, John – the last ten months, all of it, all of it was for you. Lestrade, Mrs Hudson, they were alive, and I was happy with that, but you – I had to come back, for you. Don’t you see?”

            John stared at him, worried and confused and tensing with rising anger. “You could’ve told me,” he said, remembering why he still hated his ex-best friend. Sherlock sighed through his nose, his hand clenching into a fist in John’s sheets.

            “I couldn’t,” he insisted. “I explained this.”

            John’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t like this new you,” he said, his voice low and quiet. “You’re just as much of an arse as before, but with the added bonus of having let me think you were dead – but then you tell me you care, like that’s supposed to make it all better. I don’t think you understand how this works.”

            Both of Sherlock’s hands were clenched into fists now, and his eyes darted up to glare at John. “You’re not the only victim here, John,” he snarled. “This isn’t all about you.”

            John’s brow shot up, his defences rose. “Is that true?” he said. “I might be missing something here, but I’m pretty sure you were the one who made me watch your fake suicide, then let me believe you were dead for nearly a year –”

            “While I was taking down an international criminal network,” Sherlock seethed. “You grieved, yes, but I missed you too, more than anything, and meanwhile, I had to keep my identity hidden, had to infiltrate one of the most secure syndicates in the world.” He was inching closer now, hissing through his teeth like it was a secret. “I spent every night fearing a knife in my back, meals were snatched where they could be, I spent ten months of my life as a hunted man – I still feel their crosshairs on my back!”

            John jutted out his chin to meet him, growling, “Welcome to my world.”

            Sherlock’s face screwed up in rage. “You don’t know what it’s like,” he insisted. John resisted he urge to punch him, knowing he could do little damage in his current state.

            “I really, really do,” he breathed in return.

            Sherlock’s hands twisted into John’s sheets, holding him up under hunched and haunted shoulders as he spat in John’s face: “I had to disappear, do you know how hard that is? I had to leave my whole life behind, to save you, to take down Moriarty’s network; I had to throw myself off a building, for God’s sake –”

            “You didn’t even die!” John shouted, then suddenly Sherlock’s hands were on either side of John’s body, looming over him, his face twisted with anger and grief of his own.

            “I had to watch you, John, before my own eyes, I had to lie there and do nothing while my best friend broke down in front of me –”

            It was the last straw. John thrust himself up on his elbow, his right hand fisting in the front of Sherlock’s coat and jacket. “WELL I WAS THE ONE DOING THE BREAKING!” he screamed. Sherlock’s face froze, and he felt no remorse. “I’ve been in war, Sherlock, I’ve been there, I know what it’s like! And I’m sure you had worse, but you cannot – you have no idea what I went through because of you! You think this –” he nodded down at the bandages around his waist, “you think any of this is because I’m glad to see you? Because I like you? God forbid – you lied to me, Sherlock! Understand that, please, prove to me that you understand what you did! I didn’t tell her where you might be, not because I think you should live – a week ago I still thought you were dead! But the thought of going through that again –” He stopped, mid-rant, as the full realisation of the danger they were in washed over him, the knowledge that Moran was not some petty criminal. She was out to kill them, to kill Sherlock, and she would stop at nothing until she had. John’s arm trembled underneath him, and, exhausted, he fell back, the fingers of his right hand still clinging to the collar of Sherlock’s coat. The detective’s face was shocked, and hurt, and John wanted to do everything he could to make that face reflect the same, hollow grief he’d felt for all those months: to make Sherlock understand what he’d done.

            “I couldn’t do it, Sherlock,” he sighed, all his strength lost in the brief tirade. He heard nurses’ footsteps, and alarmed questions from the other side of the curtain. “I hate you, I’d kill you myself, but – I can’t go through that again. I just can’t.”

            A nurse poked his head around the curtain, asking “Is everything all right in here?” in a concerned, slightly scandalised tone.

            “I want this man out of here,” said John coldly, watching Sherlock’s fallen features and ignoring that his fingers still clung to Sherlock’s clothes. “And don’t let him back in. He has work to do.”

            The nurse came forward, muttering distinct orders and pulling Sherlock away from the bed. John unlatched his fingers from Sherlock’s coat, but Sherlock caught his hand in both of his own as he backed away, squeezing once in a firm promise. Then he was turning on his heel, and sweeping out into the hall. The nurse drew the curtain behind him, and fussed over John for a while, settling the bed and checking the equipment surrounding him before leaving him in peace.

 

            Mrs Hudson visited later that day, fussing over him and clucking disapprovingly when she heard about Sherlock’s visit. The next day, Greg dropped by, with Donovan in tow, to update him on their efforts to track Moran’s movements. Sally was cordial and determined, and her lip curled whenever Sherlock was mentioned, and John imagined that she wouldn’t have minded breaking Sherlock’s nose herself. The thought made him smile.

            Soon enough, John felt his strength return. Moran’s bullet – whether by accident or design he wasn’t sure – hadn’t hit anything vital, and his surgeon had been good. John admired the stitches on his side when his dressings were changed, and remembered performing just such operations himself, sighing away the Afghani memories when they became too much to handle. He’d gotten a lot better at that since Sherlock had gone.

            John wondered if the exchange had been worth it.

            Eight days into his recovery, the nurses were talking about sending him home, and Mrs Hudson had brought him a pile of clothes from his flat. They sat on a chair near his bed, along with his wallet, phone and keys, tempting him with their promise of normalcy. His strength was returning, and he no longer needed help getting around the hospital when he wanted. Late convalescence made him restless, despite that he knew its necessity.

 

            It was early evening when John got the text.

            His mobile pinged from the chair. John glanced over, briefly considered calling a nurse to fetch it, then dismissed the idea and heaved himself around, swinging his legs out of the bed and shuffling to retrieve the phone. The text was from an unfamiliar number, and consisted of an address, and one word: Help.

            He didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure it out.

            John was dressed within minutes, his hobbling steps gaining strength as he hurried out of the ward. He checked himself out of the hospital with the minimum of fuss, then all but ran from the building and hailed a cab.

            He had no weapon. He had barely healed from his last encounter with Moran. But he was damned if he was going to let Sherlock take her on alone.

 

            The cab stopped a block away from the address. John paid the driver and pushed himself out onto the derelict street. His wounded belly had started to pain him again, but the rush of anticipatory adrenaline took care of it. The cab drove quickly away, and John looked up at the gloomy, brick façades around him. He checked the address on his phone just to be sure, and set off down the street until he came to the right house, crumbling a little at the edges and barely distinguishable from its fellows.

            Setting his shoulders and lifting his chin, John stalked up the short path to the front door. It was already unlatched; he pushed his way in.

            First he checked every room on the ground floor. They were empty, save for a few cobwebs and the occasional, dusty mattress, and the huge scrawls of graffiti on the walls. The stairs were narrow, and squealed underfoot, but John wasn’t worried: both Sherlock and Moran, no doubt, already knew he was there.

            A figure met him at the top of the stairs, in loose jeans and a jacket over a ratty t-shirt, keeping his back to the landing and his eyes – and gun – trained on the room at the front of the house. The door was firmly shut, and no light came from beneath it, but the shining handle and locks spoke of recent use.

            “She’s holed up in there,” the figure – Sherlock – said in hushed tones. “She knows I’ll shoot her before she gets the door half open; but I know she’ll do the same to me.”

            John scowled, and stalked forward, snatching the gun from Sherlock’s hands and muttering, “Well, someone’s gotta do it.” He marched toward the door and, without hesitation, kicked once at the lock, splintering the old wood of the doorjamb. He leapt back as a spray of automatic gunfire erupted through the opening, and Sherlock was almost immediately at his side, slithering into the corner of the hall and keeping his wide eyes on the burst-open door.

            Moran’s gun fell silent. For a moment, no one moved. Sherlock was holding his breath, his chest still by John’s shoulder. The sensation set John on edge.

            Stepping back, gun held before him, John circled the doorway, firing with each, light step and getting a clear view inside. Light from the street filtered through the curtainless windows and illuminated a single mattress, a familiar bag, and a swift, dark form, ducking beneath John’s fire and holding what looked like an automatic rifle. As he stopped on the other side of the door, John heard the clatter of a reload, and cursed his own slowness.

            Though loathe to take his attention from the doorway, John looked up and caught Sherlock’s eye from across the hall. He raised the gun in his hand, and mimed ejecting the magazine and reloading, hiding the question in his raised brow. Sherlock understood, and nodded, pulling a spare magazine from his jacket pocket. John raised his hand, telling him to wait, and refocused on the quiet room.

            Adjusting his grip on the pistol, John fell into a ready half-crouch, and shuffled back and sideways, trying to gain a better view of the room. Immediately, a renewed spray of gunfire exploded from within, and John jumped back for half an instant, waiting for the click of a spent clip. As soon as it sounded, he stepped back into the fray, trying to remember where he’d last seen Moran fall, and fired every last shot, rounding the doorway again to join Sherlock. As soon as he was out of range, John ejected the empty magazine and tossed it aside, holding out his hand to Sherlock for the spare. He reloaded with swift, precise movements, familiar even after months of abstention, and was ready again within seconds, loaded pistol aimed at the doorway and ears and eyes pricked for any hint of movement. From within the room sounded a hiss and a series of grunts – it sounded like Moran had been hit. Another click sounded, and John knew that she too had reloaded.

            Silence reigned again for a moment, as both ex-officers tried to divine their opponent’s next move. Sherlock stood behind John, his left hand on the wall and his right hovering somewhere just out of range of John’s arm, a prepared, mock-comforting gesture.

            It was Moran who broke the silence.

            “Watson!” she shouted; her voice was strained. “How about you and me call this a draw?”

            John clenched his jaw, and said nothing, hoping to God that Sherlock followed his lead. A mirthless chuckle sounded from within the room.

            “Quiet type, eh?” Moran called. “I like that in a man.” John strained his ears, trying to discern her movements. “Means you know when to shut up and listen. Show respect.” John thought he heard the creak of a floorboard, and shifted his weight over the balls of his feet. “And it’s always the quiet ones who know how to surprise you.”

            Praying that his instincts were right, John darted into the room, gun forward and facing around the right-hand side of the door. Moran was directly before him, and he hadn’t loosed a single shot before her rifle was swinging up and knocking the pistol from his grip. Not letting her get any more of an advantage, John followed with his hands as the pistol clattered to the floor, grabbing on to the body of her gun and wrenching as hard as he could, forcing the barrel down and away from his body. They struggled for a moment, before Moran’s elbow swung up, striking John around the jaw. He refused to weaken, though, and, with his left hand still holding down the gun, brought his right palm up to catch Moran’s flying fist, twisting it away and replying with a punch to Moran’s gut. He deflected her next blow with the same arm, but didn’t anticipate the attack from the left, Moran jerking the rifle out of his grip and delivering a crashing blow to the side of his head. Regaining her grip, she took half a step toward Sherlock before John was back on her, clawing at the back of her t-shirt and tearing her around by the shoulder, swinging his fist blindly at her face. He caught her on the cheek, and, in her momentary shock, dragged her back into the room, sending them both tumbling to the floor and the rifle skittering out of her grip. Sherlock leapt into the room after them, and headed for where the pistol had skidded away.

            Moran clearly knew when she was beaten. Catlike, she squirmed out of John’s grip, punching him directly over his healing wound for good measure and drawing a choked half-scream from his throat. Curled up and crying out in sudden agony, he was powerless to stop her as she grabbed her bag and ran, crouched, into the hall.

            “SHOOT HER, SHOOT HER!” John shouted from the corner, as Sherlock, across the room, spun on one knee and fired, once, twice, three times, each bullet spraying plaster harmlessly from the wall. Groaning through the pain, John forced himself to his feet, grabbing the rifle as he passed, and launched himself out into the hall just in time to empty twenty rounds into the opposite wall as Moran ducked and swung herself around the banister and down the stairs.

            “Pistol!” John ordered, running after her and turning at the top of the stairs to catch the gun Sherlock tossed to him. He thundered down and sprinted after Moran’s retreating back, just missing the door as she slammed it behind her. He tore it open, and followed, firing out into the street as Moran darted across it. He followed, tripping off the curb and coming to a halt in the middle of the road, and fired round after round after Moran, who ducked and weaved and staggered forward, and disappeared into a dark alleyway across the street.

            John pulled and pulled at the trigger, until the cartridge was spent and only a blunt, jammed click answered his finger. He stopped and stood, frozen, in the street, as a few tentative heads poked out of neighbouring windows, and the sound of police sirens wailed in the distance. Beneath his furious, searing breaths, John didn’t hear Sherlock approach until he was already at his side, staring in something neither fear nor reassurance, and glancing at the gun still held out and ready. John didn’t resist when Sherlock’s long, cold fingers reached out and peeled the useless weapon from his hands, nor did he react when Sherlock tossed it aside and concentrated all his efforts on wrapping John’s hands up in his own, standing before him, all coatless and unfamiliar, but still alive, oh, still so alive.

            With his large hands swamping John’s smaller ones, Sherlock lowered both their arms, watching John carefully for any signs of an angered reaction. But John didn’t feel angry. His head was throbbing, and his injury screamed in protest, but all he felt was the empty disappointment of a wasted opportunity. It wasn’t until Sherlock’s hands stiffened around his and a sharp gasp hissed through his nose that John let himself refocus on the present.

            “You’re bleeding,” said Sherlock, like the world was ending. John glanced down at his shirt, where a spot of sticky red was beginning to form.

            “Burst some stitches,” he replied. He let his hands twine and tighten in Sherlock’s, helping him stand, as two police cars swerved onto the street, screeching to a halt less than ten metres away. “You should probably call an ambulance.”

 

            As it turned out, Sherlock had also texted Lestrade the address of Moran’s now-useless hideout, and the DI had gathered a small troupe of armed and armoured personnel, arriving just too late to be of service. Within seconds, Sherlock, not releasing John’s hands, had directed Lestrade’s people after Moran, though he seemed unconvinced that they’d have any luck in finding her. Donovan was there too, long since promoted, and led her own team into the building to secure the area.

            “We’ll have to get more people down here,” said Lestrade, approaching John and Sherlock’s hunched forms, “seal off the area, see if we can’t find out anything new.”

            “You won’t have any luck, she’ll have left no trace,” Sherlock snapped, barely taking his eyes off John, who no longer felt quite capable of remaining upright. “Lestrade, we need –”

            “Ambulance is on its way,” he interrupted, reaching them, and immediately sliding his arms under John’s. “Come on, mate,” he murmured, “let’s get you off your feet...”

            Between them, Sherlock and Greg lowered John to the asphalt, where he settled, his breaths hissing through his nose, and didn’t protest as Sherlock fumbled open the buttons of his shirt to get at his injury. Lestrade, meanwhile, tugged off his jacket and folded it beneath John’s head, muttering platitudes on auto-pilot and glancing fearfully at John’s stained side.

            “‘nother shirt ruined,” John forced out. He smiled grimly, lips stretched over bare teeth, spitting blood on jolted exhales. “I should demand compensation when I see her next.”

            “You won’t be seeing anyone except doctors and nurses,” said Lestrade firmly, holding down John’s shoulder as Sherlock peeled away a patch of blood-soaked gauze, “not ‘til you’re properly healed. How’d you get here, anyway?”

            “I texted him,” said Sherlock, staring momentarily at John’s weeping injury before pulling a tattered scarf from his pocket and bundling it up, pressing it against the wound. “I knew you’d need time to gather your troops, but I had no hope of holding Moran off on my own.”

            “Sherlock, he was in hospital,” Greg argued. “Why would you drag him out here to fight a criminal? He got lucky last time she saw him, who knows what could’ve happened!”

            “I needed the help,” Sherlock snarled, pressing harder against John’s belly as the sound of new sirens began to bleed into the scene. “I didn’t want him to come, but he’s all I have!”

            “Still here, y’know,” John groaned from between them. “And I’m happy to help catch her, at any cost.”

            “No!” Sherlock protested, at the same time as Greg shouted “Not your life!” John let loose a choking, grunting growl to shut them up.

            “It’s my life,” he bit through gritted teeth. “It’s already been ruined, I won’t let her do worse.”

            The sirens reached their pitch at that moment, the ambulance squealing and swerving around to park with the rear doors almost facing the little gathering over the wounded man. As the paramedics ran out, Greg stood and dragged Sherlock away, pushing him back into the house to recount what had happened. Out on the street, John refused to be taken back to hospital, demanding that he stay on the scene in case Lestrade’s forces found anything of use in tracking down Moran. He let the paramedics inject only a local anaesthetic, and lay down in the back of the ambulance as they re-stitched his wound. Almost as soon as they were done, he was rising to his feet, ignoring their protests as he tried to get back out onto the road. They managed to manhandle him to at least stay in place, perched on the edge of the ambulance and holding a wad of gauze to his belly. With his blood-stained shirt tossed into a bag and an orange blanket around his shoulders, they let him be, clearing out to report to the hospital that they’d be bringing him back as soon as he started cooperating.

            Meanwhile, Sherlock had re-emerged from the building, snapping at Lestrade and striding out into the street. He gestured impatiently in the direction Moran had gone, clearly explaining that they had no hope of finding her now, then threw his hands in the air and stalked away to pace back and forth across the street, muttering to himself. Greg sighed, and headed back to the squad car to radio for assistance in securing the area and starting a canvass for witnesses, glancing over at John and receiving a stern nod in reassurance.

            With Greg and the paramedics busy, John felt he had little to do. The anaesthetics were wearing off, but the damage was only skin-deep, and the pain easy to bear. He shifted, peeling away the edge of the gauze to check on the wound: the bleeding had almost stopped. John pressed the gauze harder against his stomach and sighed, setting his shoulders and tugging at the edges of the blanket to keep it in place.

            The ambulance lurched slightly on his left. John kept his eyes on the street, and didn’t speak.

            “I’m... sorry,” said Sherlock, in an unusually quiet voice.

            John cleared his throat, and didn’t turn to look at him. “For what?” he said, clipped and precise.

            Sherlock was silent for a moment, as if weighing his options. “I’m... sorry for what Moran did to you,” he eventually said. John’s exhale was just barely a sigh.

            “Wrong answer.”

            “I –” Sherlock sounded like he wanted to protest, but changed his mind. John’s lips pursed. “I’m sorry, that I...”

            “Don’t,” said John, without strength, “just... don’t. Don’t say it until you mean it.”

            “I do,” Sherlock insisted, turning his gaze on John, who didn’t reciprocate.

            “Sherlock, I already can’t trust a word you say,” he said, forcing his voice to remain even, “so you don’t – you don’t say it until you mean it, and even then I probably won’t believe you.”

            Sherlock didn’t reply, pulling back and returning his gaze to the street. John, heedless, checked his wound again, and settled back, his neck stiff and his shoulders straight. It stung when he pressed the gauze to his flesh again, but he relished it, relished feeling something so uncomplicated. His free hand rested on his knee in a loose fist. He still hadn’t looked at Sherlock.

            On a sudden impulse, Sherlock shifted closer, sitting so that their legs were almost pressed together, knee to hip. He slipped the fingers of his right hand around John’s elbow, and when no protest was given, twined them together, sliding his hand down John’s arm so that the insides of their wrists were pressed against each other through the cloth of his jacket.

            Then, as smoothly as he could, Sherlock pressed with his fingertips at the place where John’s knuckles met his palm. He found little resistance. Almost immediately, John’s fingers uncurled, and Sherlock pressed their palms together and gripped, with all his strength and fealty and regret, and what felt like a lifetime of unfulfilled promises.

            Unhesitating, unashamed, John interlocked their fingers and gripped him back. His belly had nearly stopped bleeding, and they were about as far from Good as they could get; but Sherlock was alive – gloriously, miraculously alive – and John could not be resentful of that. He felt like all he had was staked on this, on two hands held tight in the back of an ambulance, swearing to something he thought he’d lost.

            No matter what happens, John thought, I won’t let you die. Not again.

 

            Life, for John, returned to a kind of normalcy he probably should have missed more than he did. After two weeks of extra convalescence, half of which was spent under strict supervision at the hospital, he went back to work. They were happy to have him back, but after the third time Sherlock showed up in the middle of the day to badger John about a case or experiment, he was given a stern reprimand, and demoted to part-time. He had the feeling he was supposed to be disappointed, but all he felt was relief.

            Sherlock had well and truly moved back into 221B. Moran, they all knew, had been shot at least twice by John, and would need time to recover and gather strength and supplies. John still lived in his own flat, and knew that Sherlock was taking cases again, but he didn’t feel the need to join in on every one; in fact, he didn’t think he could have handled it. He was, more or less, happy to see Sherlock when he did – when a particularly difficult or laborious problem was passed to him by the Yard, or his new, trickling stream of private clients – but he didn’t think he’d be able to see Sherlock’s face on too regular a basis without suffering an emotional relapse, and either breaking down or punching him again. Both Holmes brothers were working, in their own ways, with the Yard and the media to recover Sherlock’s public image, and relieve him of any lingering guilt after Kitty Riley’s article and his ‘suicide’, and too much of Sherlock’s time was taken up with hauling his old case notes out of the lumber room upstairs in Baker Street and giving new, official statements to the authorities to help with the strings of appeals under which they continued to sweat.

            So, John continued to work, and to live, and to let Sherlock slowly insinuate himself back into his life. The bloodstain on his carpet hadn’t fully come out, not even after he called in a professional cleaner, but John didn’t particularly mind; he still felt a small thrill of satisfaction whenever he saw it. A month after the last incident with Moran, both Sherlock and John narrowly avoided being pounded into the earth by a crashing, Dutch bi-plane, and, two weeks after that, a three-day case ended with a little girl reunited with her mother, and John falling asleep on Sherlock’s sofa at three in the morning. Each venture found them parting with a handshake and a tentative smile, and a small twinge of regret. John didn’t know that Sherlock had watched him sleep on the sofa in 221B and seriously contemplated ways to kidnap him and force him to stay, nor that, after cases, he usually returned home to type for the thousandth time an email or a text that he never sent.

            John, on the other hand, usually went home and dreamt of falling.

            No matter how much Sherlock just wanted things back to how they’d always been, John didn’t think it would ever be possible. He knew, logically, that Sherlock hadn’t changed – that he’d done what was necessary at the time, and was sincerely regretful of it – but he no longer knew how to trust him. It was like trying to go back to an instrument after years of not playing: he thought he knew how, but when it came down to it, he fumbled, and breathed at the wrong time, and no longer knew how they’d ever worked together in the first place. Texts from Sherlock were to be scrutinised, and, if possible, confirmed with Lestrade or Gregson or, at least, the morning news. He no longer took his gun, even when it might have been advisable – it felt too heavy in his hands, too conspicuous tucked into his belt. Sherlock pointed, and John followed, but he always demanded an explanation, and he refused to answer calls if he was at work, or making dinner, or about to go to bed. No amount of apologies would ever convince John that Sherlock understood the full force of what he’d done, to John, and to John’s life.

           There was only one thing, he knew, for which he’d drop everything, one case that was worth his full attention: Colonel Stephanie Moran. Her disappearing act wouldn’t last forever – she was about as bent on her task as John – and John knew that, even with other cases on hand, Sherlock was always running searches and gathering information from everywhere that he could, ready to go after her the moment she let something slip. Greg had set up a special, temporary unit within the Met to try to track her movements, and John knew that the moment anyone thought they’d found something, every other priority would be dropped in favour of finally taking her in.

            After nearly two months of convalescence, and cases, and stilted smiles, their opportunity finally came.

           

            He got the call at eight-thirty on a Saturday night, a mild, July evening with the promise of rain in the air. Halfway through the washing-up, his phone buzzed from the living room, and he grabbed a towel to dry his hands as he hurried out to fetch it. The number was unfamiliar.

            “Hello?” he answered, frowning.

            “John, it’s me,” came Sherlock’s voice, significantly hushed. “I’ve found her.”

            John’s frown slipped from his face, and he slowly dropped the dishtowel to the coffee table. He swallowed. “Where?”

            “Not far from Baker Street, I should have known,” Sherlock muttered.

            “How’d you find her?” John asked, calmer than he had expected to be.

            “Have you been watching the news?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Ronald Adair.”

            “That was her?”

            “I’m sure of it.”

            John’s lip quirked without mirth. “So she’s a gambler, too?”

            “And a cheating one, at that.” Sherlock paused for a moment, anticipating. “Will you come?” he asked.

            “Whenever and wherever you say,” said John, unequivocal and entirely calm. For the knowledge that Moran was gone? He would’ve gone to the ends of the earth and back again, just to make sure.

            Sherlock’s laugh was soft and rueful. “I knew I could rely on you,” he said quietly. “Meet me at Dorset Square in half an hour. It’s time we finished this.”

 

            The moment John’s cab pulled up on Balcombe Street, Sherlock was at his side, shutting the door behind him and tugging him aside into the shadows of the trees.

            “Have you got your gun?” was his first question, muttered under his breath as they lurked by the fence.

            “Yes, but I’m not exactly swimming in ammunition,” said John. “You’ve got better connections than me, tell me you saw this coming.”

            In answer, Sherlock patted his coat pockets. “Pistol, and three full magazines for both of us,” he said.

            “How many rounds each?”

            “Thirteen.”

            John nodded, and glanced about them at the nearly-empty street. “Where is she, then?”

            “Huntsworth Mews,” said Sherlock, murmuring it like a secret. “She doesn’t know we’re coming.”

            John nodded. “Then let’s get moving.”

            Sherlock led the way, his coat-tails flaring, and John felt a twinge of nostalgia at the sight. He led them in a wide circuit, passing their destination and approaching again from a new angle. The closer they got, the faster John’s heart hammered, and the harder his expression set, determined and focused and calm. Eventually, Sherlock slowed to a crawl, and pulled John back against the shadows of the squat, brick façades. He pointed up to a set of windows and door facing out onto the intersection.

            “That’s it,” he whispered, “She likes having a clear view of all approaches.”

            John peered up at the building, maybe thirty metres away. He felt the thrill of anticipation in his veins. “How do we get in without her seeing us?”

            “We don’t,” said Sherlock, meeting John’s startled look with grim, thin-lipped resignation. “She used to hunt tigers for sport, John, she knows how to set a trap and she knows how to keep herself safe. She’ll have all entrances covered, and an array of weapons on-hand.”

            Cool, detached, John sighed through his nose and pulled out his gun, ejecting the magazine and checking the clip. Understanding the silent request, Sherlock pulled out one of his spares and handed it over. “Two against one, though,” John said, with a mirthless smirk, tucking his near-empty magazine in one pocket. “And the element of surprise.” He reloaded with ringing finality. Looking up, he caught Sherlock’s eye, and nodded.

            Sherlock took a breath, a final moment of calm, before spinning around and all but marching out onto the street. John followed, scanning the façade of their destination. It wasn’t until they were halfway across that he saw one of the upper windows had been cracked open, and something black and sinister glinted in the gap.

            “Sherlock!”

            The rifle fired, suppressed, and Sherlock stiffened as something struck him in the throat. Without thinking, John was upon him, arms around his middle and dragging him back and down to fall to the ground behind a parked car. He nearly panicked, reaching for Sherlock’s neck, before noticing that there wasn’t any blood.

            Sherlock had already plucked it out: a tiny, hollow dart, needle-pointed, embedded with unerring accuracy in Sherlock’s jugular.

            Snatching it from Sherlock’s frozen fingers, John tasted the end, and quickly spat to one side.

            “Opiate,” he announced, catching Sherlock’s eye. “Strong – you’ll be out in a minute, but it shouldn’t last long.”

            “She knew we were coming,” Sherlock murmured, looking John in the eye. “I’ve led you into a trap.”

            “I’ll be fine,” John snapped, setting aside his gun and emptying his jacket pockets to tug it off. He’d barely extricated both arms before Sherlock let out a soft, weary “Oh,” and listed to one side.

            “No –!” John caught him, and lowered him carefully to the asphalt, folding his jacket underneath his head and arranging him in the recovery position.

            “John…” Sherlock was mumbling. “John, you have to…”

            “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine,” John muttered, taking out his phone and calling speed-dial one. “Greg, it’s an emergency,” he said, the moment the DI answered. “We caught up with Moran. Sherlock’s been drugged. We need backup.”

            It was one of Greg’s talents that he knew a crisis when he heard one, and asked no unnecessary questions. “Where are you?” he asked, a flurry of activity sounding in the background.

            “Corner of Linhope and Huntsworth Mews,” said John. “Bring an ambulance.”

            “That bad?” said Greg, resigned.

            “No chances, Greg.”

            “We’ll be there in five. No sirens, I guess?”

            “No sirens. See you soon.”

            John hung up, throwing aside his phone, and refused to catch Sherlock’s bleary, unfocused gaze. The detective’s breathing was beginning to slow.

            “Just stay here, you’ll be fine,” said John as he emptied Sherlock’s pockets of pistol and magazines. He pulled a notebook from the pile of things from his jacket, and scribbled out a short note, tucking it under Sherlock’s stilled arm.

            Sherlock’s voice was weak, little more than breath, as his eyes slipped closed. “You need to…” he tried to say. “Moran…”

            “Don’t worry Sherlock, I know,” said John, resting his hand on Sherlock’s arm. “I’ll take care of it, you’ll be fine.”

            “She’ll be…”

            “You’ll be fine, Sherlock,” John repeated, leaning closer. “I’ll take care of it.”

            As Sherlock finally went limp, he let out a last, mumbled noise that might have been John’s name. John held his arm just a little bit tighter, and sighed out a breath. With his left hand, he smoothed Sherlock’s curls from his face and ear, and leaned over to drop a faint kiss in his hair.

            “Make it a good one, yeah?” he whispered in Sherlock’s deaf ear. “Make it worth it.”

            With a final squeeze to Sherlock’s arm, John sat back, and methodically emptied his pockets of all his belongings, filling them instead with spare ammunition. He tucked Sherlock’s gun into the back of his jeans, hefted his own in his hands, and pulled back into a crouch. He couldn’t be certain about what Moran intended, but, with the opiates now swimming through Sherlock’s veins, he could make something of a guess. Glancing over the car, he saw the muzzle of Moran’s rifle still poised, focused on where they’d disappeared from view.

            John took one, last look at Sherlock’s slumped, unconscious form, and breathed out.

 

            His movements were as sudden and quick as he could make them. John darted out from behind the car in a crouch and sprinted down the street, expecting at any moment a bullet through his brain, until he was pressing his back to the bricks of Moran’s hideout. He glanced up at the end of the rifle-barrel that he could see over the windowsill, and edged over toward the door. It was unlocked.

           Oh, she had definitely known they were coming.

           Without hesitation, John slipped into the house and up the stairs he found immediately on his left. He knew his destination: the front room, where Moran was waiting with a bullet for Sherlock on the instant that he showed himself. John crossed the hall and walked straight into the room at the front, two windows overlooking the street. Across from him, Moran was crouched in the dark, bag tossed in a corner and rifle barrel resting on the window ledge. She looked up at his reflection in the window, smiling.

           “Hello, Captain,” she said, lilting, like she was enjoying this. “I was wondering when –”

           John had no interest in listening to her gloat. He raised his gun in both hands, and fired, one, two, three times, smashing the window. Moran threw herself aside and rolled behind a desk and chair, the only pieces of furniture in the room, and John side-stepped around them to follow, circling her at a distance, firing all the while. When he ran out of bullets, he simply ejected the magazine and took another from his pocket, reloading and firing again, all thirteen rounds embedding into the desk as he continued to round the corners after Moran.

           He was reloading again when she came at him, snarling and leaping around the table. He fired a shot, but it was thrown wide as she tackled him to the floor, holding down his left hand as the gun skittered from his grip, and whipping out a knife of her own. She had it buried in the flat of John’s shoulder before he could even react – but he wouldn’t let it stay there for long. He swung at her arm with his other fist, dislodging her grip, and tugged the knife out, answering with a stab up into her side.

           Immediately, the hand on John’s arm disappeared, but he wasn’t given time to celebrate. As the knife was pulled from her side, Moran punched him twice in the face, and gripped his head in both hands in order to slam his skull against the wooden floor. Dazed, John curled aside as she rolled off him and reached for her bag, pulling a pistol from its depths. He reached back to take the spare gun from his jeans, but she was already shooting, hitting his leg, his back, his chest, as he brought his hands up and returned fire, shooting blindly through the blood and sweat in his eyes until he’d used up another thirteen. He pushed himself up with his back against the wall under the window, feeling shards of glass crack under his hands, and reloaded.

           But Moran was unbending. In the lull, she darted out like a snake’s tongue and grabbed the knife from the floor, and threw herself after John, who twisted to his feet only for her to grab his ankle and bring him crashing back down. Moran dragged him to her, sticking a knee in his chest and looming over him, with the knife at his throat.

           “D’you know what I’m going to do to him?” she growled, pressing John’s head back under the impetus of her knife. “I’m going to take him back in here, unconscious –” Her knee pressed harder into John’s body, her left hand pinning his right arm – his gun arm – to the floor. “I’m going to tie him up – and then I am going to destroy him.”

           “You won’t,” John forced through teeth gritted in pain.

           “I’m going to spill his guts over the floor,” Moran spat. “I’ll take out his eyes, and carve him into pieces while he can still scream, one piece for every time he got away.”

           “You won’t.”

           “And when he’s finally dead –” she was panting now, with exhaustion and pain and extravagant enthusiasm – “I’ll cut out his heart, and serve it to you on a platter.”

 

           Out on the street, Sherlock stirred. The first thing he registered was the familiar, worn smell of John’s firing jacket, pillowed beneath his head. As he pushed himself up onto his hands, a note slipped beneath his arm. He would have ignored it, but it was in John’s domestic scribble, the same writing he’d used for reminders about the shopping or to label bills as imminently due. It contained six words.

           I’m sorry. But it’s your turn.

           Later, Sherlock would blame the lingering opiates for his slowness. As it was, it took him three full seconds of blank-faced bemusement before he realised what the note meant. He looked up in horror at his former target, Moran’s hideout, as gunfire echoed down the street.

 

           John would take no more. He threw his left elbow into Moran’s ribs, and felt her knife slip, blood-slick now, against his throat. He hit her again, dislodging her knee, and, finally able to breathe properly, shoved her away and sat up after her, bringing his gun up in both hands as she did the same. They fired as one, then scrambled away, simultaneously shooting and trying to evade each other in the confined space between desk and wall. Finally, John got around the edge of the desk and pushed himself to his feet. Across from him Moran was doing the same, her gun coming up to face him. He would not wait.

           Forcing his trembling legs to hold his weight, John took his gun in both hands and fired.

           The first shot hit Moran in the chest. Unyielding, she still staggered to her feet, and tried again to raise her gun.

           The second struck her gut, and left her hunched over the desk.

           The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth rounds were emptied into Moran’s back and shoulders, as her own gun trembled, and fell from her twitching hands. John’s trigger jammed, having exhausted another clip, and he reloaded again, his hands forced into steadiness.

           Four bullets buried themselves in Moran’s chest, as she slipped from the desk and collapsed on her back, her breath coming in thick, wet gasps. Five more John aimed straight at her heart, though his hold was slipping now with his own blurring vision. Four went into her shoulders and throat, and the wood around them, and John wiped hurriedly at whatever was in his eyes.

           John threw away another spent magazine, and reloaded, with short, sharp bursts of movement between staggering waves of pain. He looked down on Moran: she was drowning in her own blood, shivering and writhing as much as she could, as she pulled her knife up in a final attempt at attack.

           As still as he could, John held his aim. He took three, short, harsh breaths, then forced the fourth out into in a steady, calm stream.

           His final bullet went straight through the centre of Moran’s forehead.

 

           The silence that fell was almost deafening. John could barely stand, though he tried, with held breath and hands gripping gunmetal like a lifeline. Within seconds, though, pain and fatigue overwhelmed him. His pistol clattered to the ground, twelve unspent rounds falling beside their intended victim. His control on his breathing shattered in a spray of blood and spit, and he swayed and staggered back a few steps before crumbling sideways and catching himself on the desk. His quivering arms would not hold him, and John sank to the floor. He fell quickly, unable to prop himself up on the desk, and twisted about until he lay face-down on the floor, his bloody hands trying and failing to push him back up.

           Downstairs, the front door crashed open, and a thunder of footsteps approached on the stair, along with a hoarse and desperate cry.

           “John!”

           The sound he made would never have passed as a laugh, but it was, spat into the floorboards as John mustered his strength. He raised himself on trembling arms, though his legs and body were reluctant to respond, and he couldn’t raise his head, not even as Sherlock’s bounding steps burst into the room and he tumbled to his knees beside him. He caught John in his arms, one under his back, the other tucked around and under John’s head, shielding his body as if there were anything left to endanger him.

           “John –” he started, but he didn’t seem to know how to finish. His eyes were darting down John’s shattered body, taking in his injuries and visibly baulking at the sight. “Lestrade!” he screamed over his shoulder. “Paramedics, upstairs, now!”

           Immediately, Sherlock’s focus was back on John, who, in his turn, had simply let his head fall aside in Sherlock’s grip, so he could feel the wool of his coat on his cheek.

           “John, John no, this isn’t –” Sherlock was rambling. “Why would you do that, why? She was in here, she knew we were coming, you should’ve –” He stopped, and it sounded suspiciously like he was on the verge of tears. A shuddering intake of breath supported the theory, and, just to confirm, Sherlock gripped John closer and curled over him, and as he rocked them both just an increment, something hot and wet fell upon John’s cheek. It did nothing to dilute the blood that was falling from his forehead, but, he supposed, it was a start.

           “You’re –” As soon as John made the decision to speak, he regretted it, blood clotting in his throat and nose and chest and sending him into paroxysms of coughing and pain. Sherlock’s coat was going to be ruined.

           “Shh, no, John, don’t speak, don’t –” Sherlock was saying, in a quivering attempt to soothe them both, his fingers smearing the blood across John’s temple. “Just –”

           “You’re all right,” John croaked as the coughing stopped. He wished he could look Sherlock in the eye; as if in answer, Sherlock pulled back, unfolding John from him just enough to catch his gaze in horror.

           “You’re all right, Sherlock,” John repeated, as the clatter of more footsteps approached.

           “John –”

           “‘m sorry.”

           “No, John –”

           “‘m all right.”

           “No, no, no…” Sherlock moaned it like a litany, a prayer to God, to anyone, to himself, as Greg finally arrived, and dragged him away to let the paramedics get to John. Within seconds, John had been lifted onto a trolley, and carried away to salvation, though in what form, Sherlock didn’t want to consider. He let himself be pulled back into Lestrade’s arms as the DI crouched behind him and watched the medics wheel John away, one hand on Sherlock’s shoulder and the other arm gripped around his chest. Sherlock’s legs were thrown before him like straws, and his left hand lay limp across his lap; but his right, stained red with John’s blood, was clasped over his mouth like a vice, holding in what felt like not a stream, but a flood of terror and grief, a refusal to accept almost as strong as his screaming despair.

           With John gone, there was no choking, no groaning, no mumbled final words. The clatter of the paramedics had been swallowed up by the ambulance, and the rest of Lestrade’s team was still outside. Moran was dead, bullet-riddled and silent in the corner, a knife still held in her slack fingers.

           In the middle of it all, Sherlock breathed, unsteady, over the iron tang of blood, and Lestrade held him like a child, and knew that no platitude would help.

 

           Mycroft ensured a private room for John in Intensive Care. When he finally came out of surgery, he was settled into the broad, glass-fronted room, with its dull, pale walls and shiny floor. He looked far too small in the bed, swathed in bandages and swamped by beeping, hissing, humming machines. Greg, Sherlock and Mycroft were already waiting, and a quick flash of Lestrade’s badge was enough to allow Sherlock into John’s room. Greg and Mycroft stayed outside as the doctor rattled off a list of John’s injuries and Sherlock let the door fall shut behind him.

           “Shock and severe trauma,” the doctor was saying, looking down at her clipboard. “Thirty-eight percent blood loss. Concussion, multiple cuts to the head and face, and a minor skull fracture.”

           Mycroft was impassive, both hands resting on the umbrella before him, while Greg fidgeted and glanced between the doctor and the room before them.

           “Minor laceration on the throat.”

           Inside the room, Sherlock slowly approached the foot of the bed, his gaze open and unbroken, and rested shaking fingers on the rail.

           The doctor took a breath. “Multiple bullet wounds to the chest and abdomen, severe stab wound in the right shoulder, gunshot to the right thigh, grazes to the arms, torso and legs varying from minor to severe.”

           Sherlock’s hands now gripped John’s bed, as if it were all that was keeping him upright, his eyes glued to John’s still and almost lifeless form.

           “Collapsed lung,” the doctor continued. “Punctured stomach, kidney, and small intestine.” She flipped back over the pages of the clipboard with solemn finality.

           “She never hit his heart, though,” said Greg in a low voice, as Sherlock began to tremble. Before their eyes, the detective dropped his head, his shoulders heaving, and sank to his knees, until his head rested on his crossed arms on the rail of John’s bed.

           “Somehow,” said Mycroft dispassionately, “I feel the metaphor is apt.”

 

           Molly performed the autopsy on Moran. The phrase she used, when she handed a copy of the report to Sherlock beside John’s hospital bed, was “well and truly dead”. Sherlock appreciated it.

           Mrs Hudson came and went, along with Lestrade, and a slow stream of Yarders and friends of John’s, from university, or rugby, or the army, or work. They appeared with cards and flowers and words of sympathy, and left with sad faces and solemn shakes of the head, and mumbles of how he was “such a nice bloke, really, it’s such a shame…” After two days of waiting while nothing happened, Sherlock was driven half-mad, and retreated to Baker Street to distract himself with experiments and cataloguing the events surrounding Moran’s death. He took a certain relish in writing up the particulars, finding in them the finality of an obituary. Nevertheless, he stole a pager from one of John’s doctors, and kept a constant eye on it in case of any developments.

           In the background, Mycroft quietly made the charges of assault and manslaughter disappear. He obtained for John a license to carry a concealed weapon, and a brand new Sig P226. Sherlock gave his official statement to the police, outlining Moran’s numerous crimes, and giving what evidence he could. To his eternal frustration, she had been a very good assassin, and more often than not left next to no trace of her involvement.

           John did not wake up.

 

           On the fifth day of waiting, John’s body rejected the tube helping him breathe. Sherlock’s stolen pager blared into life halfway through his investigation into an incident in South Korea in which he suspected Moran’s involvement, and within the minute, he was in a cab and promising triple fare if the cabbie ignored certain basic road rules. He arrived at the hospital in time to watch the lull in activity, as doctors and nurses drifted away from the room and John was left with one less machine. Sherlock cornered one of the doctors as he was leaving.

           “He’s breathing on his own now?” he asked, demanding affirmation, explanation, reassurance. John could have given them to him, had it been anyone else. It had always been John who had known these things. Medical school did that to a person, he supposed.

           “It’s a good sign,” said the doctor, with a practised smile, “but I wouldn’t get too excited. It could still be a number of days before he wakes up.”

           “But he will wake?”

           “His chances are much higher than before,” was the ambiguous reply. Sherlock snarled, and released the man, striding into the room as he left to stand by John’s bed. The cannula was a striking mark across his cheeks, and the oxygen mask a bulky covering, but it was nothing compared to the mess of tubing which had obscured his face before. John’s mouth was slack under the plastic, his lips just parted, and though the machines around him beeped out assurance of his life, Sherlock couldn’t help but think that he looked far too dead already.

           “Wake up,” he ordered, as if John could hear him, and would immediately reply, throwing off the chilling disguise of a dying man and smiling ruefully up at him with all his anger and bravery and eternal long-suffering. As it was, John lay where he was, unconscious, unmoving, unassuming and unreal. He was too pale, too still, too lifeless for Sherlock to bear. He sat beside him for only a matter of minutes before throwing himself out of the chair and back to Baker Street, where he determinedly buried himself in his papers, and tried to forget about John’s beating heart and filling lungs and quiet, fragile survival.

 

           On the seventh day, John woke.

 

           It was brief. By the time Sherlock got the official call, halfway between 221B and the hospital, John had already fallen back asleep. It was reported that John’s chances of a full recovery were high, now, and that his only words had been a hoarse, mumbled “How is he?” before he succumbed once more to unconsciousness. The doctors had been baffled, chalking it down to the drugs and head wounds; Sherlock, however, knew better. The twist in his gut told him so.

           He was already on his way, however, so Sherlock decided to stay. He rattled off a text to Lestrade to keep him informed, and called Mrs Hudson to explain the situation in as few words as possible. When he finally made it to John’s room, the man looked almost peaceful. The number of machines surrounding him had dwindled since Sherlock had last been there, and there was something in the fall of his limbs which more resembled ordinary sleep than comatose unconsciousness. Sherlock slipped out of his coat and arranged himself in the chair beside John’s bed, tucking his knees into his chest and wrapping his arms around them, and sinking into a long meditation. Unwittingly, he fell asleep, slouched sideways in his chair with his head resting on the mattress beside John’s hip.

           Three hours later, he woke to John’s fingers toying with the curls that had fallen over his forehead. It took him a moment to register the movement, and then another to recognise who was behind it. After that, it was a split-second’s inference as to what that meant, and Sherlock was bolting upright in his chair, all thoughts of tiredness forgotten.

           “John!” he blurted, through sleep-slacked lips, and was greeted with half-open, dark blue eyes, and the smallest, mask-free crack of a smile.

           “Hullo.”

           Now that he was here – now that John was finally awake, and looking at him without anger or grief, but with pure, drowsy affection – Sherlock found that he’d rather lost his tongue. He gaped, and stared, and ran a thousand blank lines through his head, before settling on something that he felt more or less summed up the situation

           “You nearly died.”

           John’s eyes slipped into a slow blink, and his smile widened just a fraction. “That I did,” he said, his voice rough from disuse and intubation. “Did a sight better than you, at that.”

           Sherlock thought back to John’s note, and frowned in protest. “You didn’t do it out of spite,” he demanded. John was too good, too practical, for such recklessness.

           “No, but it helped.” John’s breath hitched, and Sherlock recognised for the half-laugh that it was. Pushing himself out of his chair, Sherlock stepped closer, gripping the edge of the bed.

           “Why?” he asked. “Why did you do it?”

           John shook his head an increment, looking down and away in rueful patience. “Thought you wouldn’t get it…”

           “The last thing you said to me,” Sherlock insisted, leaning closer – “the last thing, before you went in by yourself, I heard it, you said – you said to make it worth it. Make it good. Make what good?”

           John looked up, and if a half-conscious man could express admonishment, that was exactly what he was doing. Sherlock could almost see the full expression in his mind.

           “Life,” John croaked. “Your life.”

           “It wasn’t worth yours,” Sherlock said bluntly. “You shouldn’t have gone in there, it wasn’t worth it.”

           John laughed again, a few twitches of his chest. “You don’t get it, do you?” he said. “You just don’t get it.”

           “You hate me, you said it yourself,” Sherlock protested.

           “But you’re still back,” said John, insistent. “You don’t get it, you’re back. That’s all I wanted, for nearly a year. You lied to me, you were nothing short of cruel, but you’re back. I wasn’t going to let her take that away again. Not for anything.”

           Sherlock stared at him. He knew he’d been willing to give his life for John’s, in Moriarty’s game, had that been his only option – but to actively march into the same room as someone as deadly and hell-bent as Moran was more than sacrifice: it was suicide. Yet John was so plain about it as to make it look simple. The easiest decision in the world. It baffled Sherlock, and shocked him, that such devoted loyalty was ever to be found in a member of the human race.

           But then, John had always been extraordinary.

           “And now it’s my turn,” Sherlock muttered, remembering John’s note, and finishing the thought out loud. “To know what it’s like.”

           “Well –” John looked around at the hospital room, and the swathes of bandages covering him. “Almost.”

           Sherlock followed his gaze, surveying John’s body – his broken, damaged, slowly-healing body – and remembered the aching, screaming terror that he’d felt at the sight of it, bloody and collapsed on the floor of Moran’s hideout. Of all the things he’d envisioned John had gone through in his absence, never could he have imagined that much pain.

           “Do you get it now?” said John quietly, reading his thoughts on his face. Somewhere at the back of his mind, Sherlock bristled at his own tricks being turned against him. “Even if you were fighting for your life, at least you were doing something. I spent ten months trying to rebuild my life, with that always underneath. Do you understand now, how hard that was?”

           “I’m sorry,” Sherlock rasped, through the lump in his throat. “I didn’t, I didn’t mean –” He caught John’s eye, but couldn’t possibly stand the raw sadness that he found there, and glanced away, watching instead John’s hand, still and limp at his side. Without thinking, Sherlock reached out to grasp it with both of his own, and felt a weak grip in return.

           “I’m so sorry.”

           “I know.” John swallowed, and held Sherlock’s hands tighter. “It’ll be all right.”

           They stayed there, linked at the hands, for a long moment, John’s heart monitor beeping a slow and steady rhythm under it all. After a while, John looked down at their hands, and laughed again, a short burst of air.

           “What?” Sherlock frowned.

           “Aren’t we a pair of right idiots,” John remarked, smirking. “Both of us tried to die for each other, and neither of us actually managed to get it right.”

           Sherlock let out a surprised bark of laughter, then, as he caught John’s eye, dissolved into helpless giggles, borne along on the weary harmony of John’s chuckling.

           “We should probably give up trying,” he quipped, grinning.

           “Lost cause,” John agreed, with a weary smile. “No point.”

           Sherlock laughed again, and held John’s hand all the tighter.

 

           They must have made a strange sight, the two men in a private hospital room, one a small, beaten survivor and the other tall and seemingly unbroken, holding on at the hands and laughing at absurdities; but the tableau was warm, to them, and familiar in its own way, and neither would have exchanged it for the world.

 

            A month later, when John had finally been let out of hospital, there was no question of where he would go. At the very least, he still needed almost constant supervision. He was mostly self-sufficient, but also slow, one-handed, with the cane, and often aching, and he tired all too quickly. Though no one would ever have expected Sherlock Holmes to play nursemaid, he offered up 221B as an infirmary without hesitation, and promised with such intensity to take care of John that no one dared to question the offer.

            So, on John’s first day out of hospital, Sherlock commandeered one of Mycroft’s cars (and drivers) and personally picked John up to take him back to Baker Street. John had arranged for his things to be moved over from his own flat the same day, supervised by his old friend Murray on one end and Mrs Hudson on the other, and the last of his boxes was just being carried up the stairs when Mycroft’s car slid up to the curb outside Speedy’s. Sherlock shot out as if electrocuted, and sped around to open John’s door for him and help him out.

            Jostling through the straggling pedestrians, Sherlock tugged John into the building, shooing away the last of the movers and shutting the door firmly behind them. Mrs Hudson descended the steps, and, upon seeing them, let out an overjoyed yelp and hurried down the final flight.

            “Oh, John!” she cooed, taking him into her arms and patting his back as a tired but brilliant smile spread across the doctor’s face. “Oh, it’s so good to have you back, dear, you know, Sherlock’s been driving me mad without you around – you’ve been so brave, John, I hope he’s thanked you well and truly!” This last was delivered as she pulled away, and sent a scathing, tearful glare at Sherlock over John’s shoulder. Sherlock looked utterly affronted at the accusation, and John laughed.

            “I think we’ve come to some kind of understanding,” he said, grinning. “It’s good to see you too, Mrs H.”

            “I had them put your things in your old room,” said Mrs Hudson, launching into a familiar, slightly rambling, tone. “The furniture’s been put mostly to rights, but I wasn’t sure how you wanted it – if you need something moved, I’m sure Sherlock will be obliged –” She smiled wickedly up at Sherlock, and John barked with laughter again. “Anyway, your things are mostly still in boxes, I wasn’t sure what was what, or if you wanted me snooping around anyway; but I put fresh sheets on the bed, so it’s all set up for you.”

            “Oh,” John began, but Sherlock beat him to it.

            “John won’t be sleeping upstairs.”

            “Oh?” Mrs Hudson glanced between the two of them, then her eyes widened in shock. “Oh! But I thought – you two haven’t –!”

            Sherlock rolled his eyes as John sighed.

            “No, not like that,” John protested, as Mrs Hudson watched him quizzically.

            “The stairs, Mrs Hudson,” said Sherlock, in a tone of reproach. “I don’t think John will appreciate an extra flight morning and night in his condition, do you?”

            “Oh!” Mrs Hudson seemed relieved, one hand on her heart and the other fluttering through the air. “I was going to say!” she cried. “You two have always been so adamant whenever people assumed, it did seem a little sudden!”

            John shook his head, but he was smiling just a bit. “I really need a cuppa, Mrs H,” he said, in a soothing, doctor’s voice. “D’you mind if we head upstairs now?”

            “Oh, of course, sorry, silly old me!” Mrs Hudson clucked, stepping out of the way. “Do you want me to bring you something, some supper later on, or…?”

            “No, no, thank you,” John said, with a hand on her arm. “Bit of peace and quiet’s all I really want, don’t bother.”

            “Of course, of course.” She smiled happily up at him, and held his shoulders again for a moment. “Oh, it really is so good to see you up and well again, John.”

            “He’s not well yet, Mrs Hudson,” Sherlock snapped, sweeping past and up onto the steps. “Come on, John, I’m not sure you should be on your feet this long.”

            John snorted, and shook his head. “And when exactly did you get your medical degree, Doctor Holmes?” he quipped, limping up to the stairs. He dropped his right hand to the banister, and assessed the challenge, sucking in a breath. “Give us a hand, would you?” he decided, looking up at Sherlock. In an instant, the detective was back beside him, taking the cane from his left hand and supporting him under elbow and palm. Slowly, laboriously, they made their way up the stairs, John taking them one at a time in deference to his damaged leg. By the time they stood on the landing, John’s breath was coming harsh and quick, and he was leaning heavily on Sherlock’s arm.

            Handing back John’s cane, Sherlock darted into the sitting room and cleared a path for him through the debris – papers, mostly, and scattered furniture, and the occasional, stolen evidence bag. When the way to John’s old chair was clear, Sherlock stood back, and watched him limp carefully up to the doorway, looking about like a stranger, though it had hardly changed since he’d last visited; nor, indeed, since he’d lived there.

            Hissing an exhale through his nose, John’s shoulders fell a little in exhaustion.

            “Well, that was harder than I expected,” he muttered, mostly to himself. Sherlock latched onto the sentence immediately, flinching forward from where he stood by the desk.

            “Will you be all right getting around the flat?” he asked, harried. “For meals and such? I don’t suppose it’s a very good idea to have you moving around too much. We can probably arrange for the physical therapist to visit you here –”

            “Sherlock, calm down,” John sighed. Sherlock startled, and fell still. “Moving’s good, moving helps,” John continued.“It’s just exhausting.”

            Sherlock’s fretting was quite loud, despite that it was internal. John stepped further into the sitting room, shuffling over the threshold, then stopped again with a sigh.

            “Sherlock –” he started, unsure of what he wanted to say. Sherlock, though, was a self-proclaimed genius, and on occasion decided to prove it. With a careful, slightly solemn expression, he took three, slow steps into John’s space, allowing him time to object or move away. He placed his hands on John’s arms, avoiding where he knew fresh scars had just begun to heal. John kept his eyes forward, staring, unseeing, somewhere around Sherlock’s shoulder.

            Then, with a sigh that sounded more like a purge, John stepped forward. His right arm rose to encircle Sherlock’s waist, and, as Sherlock’s hands slid around to his back, he dropped his cane, and pulled the detective in with both arms. His hands were light on Sherlock’s back, and his arms tight around his body, while Sherlock’s own grip held him upright and steady, easily allowing for the imbalance in John’s weight as he favoured his injured leg. John tucked his head under Sherlock’s chin, cheek to collar, and closed his eyes against the rest of the room. In return, Sherlock curled his hands tighter around John’s back, and bowed his head, and let his own eyes slide shut in favour of monitoring John’s breathing and heart rate, wonderfully easy to gauge in such proximity. He didn’t ever want to leave this embrace, with John warm and quiet in his arms, so extraordinarily alive, yet so deeply still, like he’d been searching forever for a place where he could rest.

            John, for his part, believed he might just have found it.