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It takes years to happen in a moment. 

There’s a fumble of fingertips, a slosh of the liquid, a lurch of gravity, a suspended pause pregnant with shattered shards on the tile. There’s a brief sense that this can be stopped, this can be caught; this hasn’t happened yet after all...

And then the recognition, a half-breath before impact, that it’s inevitable. It’s not the fall; it’s the landing. This will be a moment in time that irrevocably changes the shape of things.

John looks down at the broken teacup at his feet.

Most people think they know what’s going to happen. Perhaps you’ll dismiss this narrative early, thinking it is boring and banal and not worth the distance to that innermost cave. Or perhaps you’ll be too easily impressed and think this is a great story.

Perhaps you’re just looking for a cheap thrill. Well, this one has thrills, but they don’t come cheaply. The Powers-That-Be never gave me any trigger warnings, so I’ll give none to you, save this: Here there be dragons.

In any case, we’re going to follow the rules. Stories have rules, of course, just like chemistry, like biology. Like gravity. Perhaps—if you are an omnivorous reader yourself—you know that there are certain rules that a good story must never break.

It turns out that we’ve been wrong... and right... all along. That’s the beauty of it. That’s what makes this a good mystery.

Back up a bit. Ready the players. Set the stage.

“Tea?” Sherlock asks.

 

...

 

“Yeah, alright.” And John begins to stand; slowly, gingerly. His thigh is mostly healed, but the muscle still tugs at him after he’s been sitting still for a while, which they had. But his friend jumps up first, laying a hand on John’s shoulder briefly as he passes to the kitchen. “No, I’ll get it.”

A late November wind whistles down the corridor of Baker St, hammering an early winter storm against the windows with exceptional violence. They have been tucked up in their respective chairs; Sherlock indexing his crime hard-drive and John nose-deep in a battered copy of The Frozen Pirate. It’s nearing half-nine... John had come by on an earlier errand and, besieged by the storm, had phoned Mary to explain he would be staying the night.

Despite the infrequency of these occurrences—and even less so for the purposes of dangerous cases—John had braced for the reprimand, especially knowing that this night is far to close in time to the previous one to avoid censure. He had lowered his voice, keenly aware of Sherlock’s earshot of this half of the dialogue. I know, I’m sorry, but...

Sherlock had ducked out of the room and disappeared upstairs.

She’s already asleep anyway, you don’t need my...

John had fiddled with the elephant carving on the desk.

Do you really want me to limp to the Tube or cab all the way home so we can spend the evening with our noses buried in our own laptops?!

John had marvelled at the reminder of these exchanges they have; as if playing parts; as if both of them are internally baulking at their boring banality, yet rolling through the dialogue anyway. And yet also not. The slight sensation of a mild drawing and quartering. The wind, howling in the chimney, sounding like a crying child. 

Fine!

Another bargain struck; a small contract. The acquiescence of an ex-assassin, in this game of give-and-take that life necessitates.

Fine.

He had hung up the phone.

Sherlock had returned.

The kettle had whistled, echoing the wind.

The doctor now stretches and stands, shaking out a slight hobbles and tries to walk evenly to the counter. One foot in front of the other.

“I’d have brought it to you,” Sherlock chastises.

“Been sitting too long,” John yawns, deciding to ignore the parental guilt sitting on his heart and allow himself the enjoyment of the quiet evening with an old mate that Mother Nature has decreed. “I need to move. Anyway, you’re still fussing. Stop fussing. It’s unnatural.”

“I’m not fussing. You’re still limping.”

“It’s just psychosomatic though.”

“Ah.”

As they chuckle briefly and Sherlock prepares tea and sandwiches on the board, John marvels at his friend’s demeanour, thinking that perhaps he should try to get shot more often. That particular case had been a three in Sherlock’s estimation—a facile counterfeiting operation with a ridiculous name—when suddenly, it was upgraded to a trapdoor-with-armed-assailant-level-six.

Level nine, Sherlock had corrected, from beside the hospital bed.

Nine?! John had been floating on a lovely cloud of painkillers. Hardly. Not losing your nerves, old boy, are you? John usually only calls Sherlock “old boy” after considerable amounts of alcohol, so Sherlock had reached over and flicked the morphine tap down, to John’s chagrin.

That was your femoral that got nicked, in case your grasp of anatomy is currently beyond you. You could have bled out in four minutes. Sherlock had seemed impossibly pale, even for him, but John remembers musing that it must have been the hospital fluorescents.

Nonsense. I had an excellent nurse.

Your wife is going to shoot me again, Doctor Watson.

Tell Mary it was a five. Six at most.

It’s been almost three months, and John is still reaping the benefits of the consulting detective’s guilt. True, the few cases they have had have been a bit boring, but Sherlock seems to go out of his way to be nice... and there’s now always food in the fridge at Baker St.

“Pickles?” Sherlock interrupts.

“Hmm? Oh, yeah.”

But it’s been longer than three months, John muses, watching the high-functioning sociopath putter. Even before the Garridebs case, Sherlock’s acerbic edge has softened; toward everyone really... even the newly-reinstated Anderson gets a fond look and a simple deduction tossed his way now and again... but John especially.

Abby’s birth, then, John remembers. Perhaps it’s been since then.

At this thought, he feels the slight tug again, jumbled though his definition is of hearth and home. He tries to distract himself with a joke. “Food. Clean floor. Intact windows. This place is bordering on habitable.”

“Mrs Hudson laments your orderly influence. She threatened to advertise for another lodger.”

“May not be a bad idea.” Even you’ve got to get lonely.

“You’re right. ‘Bad’ doesn’t quite begin to cover it.”

“You should get a dog, then. A right old bloodhound.”

“Why?”

“Security. Picking up scents. Keepin’ your feet warm.”

“Knocking over my experiments. Requiring... care.” Sherlock wrinkles his nose.

“Playing with my daughter.”

A smirk. “You get one, then.”

“Can’t. Mary’s allergic.”

“Oh, I see. The truth comes out.” Sherlock looks back up at him, raising an eyebrow that says I know what you’re doing.

“I just hate seeing you...”

They’ve had this conversation before. John is the one who varies it; suggesting various people—though neither women nor, as he had attempted to pry once, men, hold any interest—and now pets. Sherlock is always unflappable in his rejection of the idea of loneliness. John enjoys the constancy; the routine of it... and, he admits, the way the loud and almost comedic indignation assuages the secret remorse the doctor feels. The eye roll, the scowl, followed by—

But this time, Sherlock’s gaze is steady and soft, his words are low and quiet, as he holds John’s teacup out toward him. “It’s nice having you hom—“

He is half-way through the automatic gesture—taking the cup—when the phrasing dawns on both of them and John freezes, his fingertips touching Sherlock’s around the ceramic circumference that is suddenly, maddeningly, too small. John doesn’t ever think of this; the uncanny ability they usually have, despite years of occupying the same cramped spaces, to avoid touching. John doesn’t ever think of this; his own uncanny ability to remember, acutely and without trying, every single time that they actually have: The average human memory is only sixty-two percent accurate on recall are you alright punch me in the face we’re going to need to cooperate let me by he’s my friend.

There’s nothing for it; you’ll need to learn how to dance.

To the best of times, John.

And most recently: It’s nothing, Sherlock. Lips firmed and shaking regardless; two pairs. It’s just a scratch. John’s told himself a thousand times that it must have been the shock settling in; venerating such a wound for the reward of that touch.

John doesn’t ever try to think about these occasions. It’s like a book he owns but doesn’t read anymore; it’s been taken out and then put back on the shelf so many times, the spine is wearing thin. There’s no point to reading it... he knows it by heart and the narrative doesn’t change.

But it has. Now he is frozen with Sherlock’s eyes caught in his own; a half-breath before impact. Hasn’t it?

There’s something I’ve meant to say always.

“...here.” Sherlock corrects himself and looks away, quickly withdrawing his hand in a manner that suggests a confidence in John not to drop the teacup.

Bloody.

Hell.

Sherlock’s phone rings.

 

...

 

A bloody ear. In a bloody box.

Well, John thinks, rubbing at the damp on his neck from his collar, we’ve braved worse weather for more boring cases.

“Your analysis, Doctor Watson?”

“It’s a bloody ear.”

“Domesticity has not dulled your diagnostic senses in the least.”

“Oh, shut-up.”

Sherlock picks up the box and inspects it, turns it, sniffs it. John is concerned for a moment, but thankfully, he stops short of licking it. The younger man takes out his phone and flicks through it for approximately ninety-seconds. “No kidnapping,” he concludes, brusquely, “No murder.”

Lestrade flashes a glance at John.

“I concur,” John says with a grin. Whatever he says.

“Off you go then,” the DI invites the explanation with a wave of his hand.

Sherlock looks at John. I don’t want to be a smart-arse.

John folds his arms and lifts his chin. Oh, go on. It’s been ages.

The consulting detective goes on. For ages.

“...after that, it’s really just a simple matter of histology, but since it’s clear you haven’t sent any part of this specimen to the lab yet, let me pare it down for you. In addition to the blood, which is making up the window-dressing here,” Sherlock holds the small, rectangular container up to Lestrade’s disgusted face and gesticulates a finger around the contents, “they’re going to discover cellular structures from two distinct species...”

Look at you. John feels himself smiling. A mad-man with a box. The smile spreads, like there’s sunlight falling on his face, and he decides he doesn’t care; neither the DI nor the consultant is watching him anyway. My mad-man.

“What did I tell you?” Anderson whispers, from the doorway and well beneath the level of Sherlock’s droning diatribe. “Of course they are.”

John feels eyes on him and tries to peripherally look back without seeming to; his smile fading.

Donovan stands awkwardly beside her newly-reinstated colleague, head tilted toward him in conspiratorial undertones. “I still don’t see it.” Her gaze flicks between the detective and the doctor, frown deepening.

“No, they definitely are, trust me. I mean, they always have been, you know.”

“I think you’re imagining things again, Fan-boy.”

John grits his teeth, turning back toward his friend, steeling himself for the hackles to come up. Sometimes, he swears, the sole function of those two is just to annoy the hell out of Sherlock.

But tonight, Sherlock merely nods them an acknowledgement, as he approaches his conclusion, “...of the cartilage scaffold, and the other being mus musculus, which I will defer to either Rosencrantz or Guildenstern over there...”

“No idea, Freak.”

“Mouse!”

“Excellent, Philip!” Sherlock grins at him fondly and lifts his empty hand up, as if miming the tossing of a high-lob; “Which means...?”

“That ear was grown in a laboratory!” Anderson almost squeals it with delight.

“So there is no kidnapping? No murder?” Sally gives Lestrade a look that says You’re still paying me overtime until midnight. “No crime, other than possibly mischief?”

Sherlock shakes his head, starting to open his mouth, but he’s still catching breath a bit, John notices, from the past ten minutes of fevered oratory.

Anderson turns to Sally triumphantly. “Told you.” His finger wags between Sherlock and John. “They’re always right.”

The doctor looks at the detective, but when their eyes meet—for the first time since the teacup—John quickly drops his gaze to the desk.

“So it’s fine, then,” Lestrade sums up. When Sherlock peers at the DI as if he’s sprouted a second head, he continues, “No one is actually in danger.”

Sherlock turns an incredulous face toward John, muttering, as if they’re the only two in the room, “Has no one been listening to me?!”

“You just said this isn’t a human ear,” Lestrade qualifies. “It’s a genetically-engineered mouse experiment... it isn’t a threat.”

“Of course it’s a human ear! It just hasn’t been on a human head yet! And it’s not genetically-engineered—for God sakes, do you people actually read the papers, or just use them for bird-cage liners?! But that part doesn’t matter right now... focus, Grant—“

“Greg.” Lestrade raises an eyebrow at John. He does that just to annoy me now, doesn’t he?

Mostly, yep.

Thought so.

“—Greg, it’s not the point; the point is: someone—who has the means of acquiring a biologically-crafted transplant ear—has gone to a lot of trouble to make it look like it was an ear that was cut off a real person to scare the living hell out of another real person.”

“Which is...?”

“A threat!” Sherlock bangs the box down on the table next to the DI’s hand, who, obviously in spite of himself, jumps momentarily like the wiggling contents are a live spider.

“Or a prank. Someone taking a piss.” Donovan has joined Lestrade and is leaning over the little box. “Nothing really important.”

“I know everyone is enthralled by the gross mouse ear,” Sherlock placates sarcastically. “Can we get back to the very frightened whistle-blower employee, please? Because I did spend about eight minutes on that part.”

“Ex-employee. And... likely... sender of the package—“

“Allegedly.”

“And from the looks of his sketchy story...“ Greg taps a pile of papers on the desk, “...he is our prime suspect.”

“Oh, for God’s sake...” The self-proclaimed-atheist rolls his eyes heaven-ward. “Anson. The man you want is Anson.”

“The CEO of Wyrley Biotech?! Sherlock, I am not going to arrest a prominent and respected businessman, nor break into a medical research facility in the middle of the night on your mere speculation--“

“Deduction.”

“—whatever. First thing in the morning, we’ll get a warrant...”

“Whoever’s responsible has been tipped off. By morning, all your evidence is going to be incinerated.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t... you know I can’t.” He claps a hand on Sherlock’s shoulder, unfazed by the younger man’s intense stare. “Do you want to have the case thrown out because we didn’t follow the rules?”

The room is silent for a count of breaths, the air as thick as cartilage. Sherlock nudges the box with a resigned twitch of his hand. “You’re right. You have to follow the rules.”

Their eyes don’t have to meet for John to catch the unspoken implication tossed in his direction. But we don’t.

Here’s the thing about Lestrade: he’s smarter than he looks. He’s known his consultant long enough to read between the lines.

“Go home, Sherlock. Wind down. Have some tea.” Please don’t make a bigger mess than you have to.

“Of course, Inspector.” Let’s go, John.

 

 ...

 

“That was...” John turns for the second time, looking out the back window of the cab, “...insane.”

Sherlock nudges his elbow in a turn around gesture. “You’re being paranoid,” he scolds, “We weren’t followed.” But he grins broadly at the doctor gasping for breath beside him, as he catches his own. I know. I miss this too.

He is being paranoid, John knows. Being a new father... not to mention having the new scar on his thigh... has filed down a bit of his tolerance for things that can kill or maim him. But his fears about meeting with semi-armed-and-competent security, ferocious guard dogs and barely-legal mechanical deterrents on the way into the facility had been mostly unfounded.

No. They had, instead, encountered them on the way out.

Still, it was worth it. With the extent of the mess he and Sherlock had made, while simultaneously uploading to youTube and avoiding their own detection on security cameras, there was no doubt that Wyrley Biotech—the London branch, of course—was going to wake up tomorrow in a hotbed of activist outrage.

Better: a download of research logs proving the innocence of the erroneously-primed suspect.

Best of all: the image of the wild-haired rogue-chemist gleefully bent over a lab bench, chuckling to himself while leaving some rough notes for the day staff. Here’s an oldie but a goodie...a better test for the presence of hemoglobin... with two diagrams and a joke! The blue eyes of a hopeless nerd in his element glinted at John in the darkness. Look in your microscopes, fellas. Whoever I am, I’m a genius.

The cab-version of his companion is more subdued, of course, but John can still feel the energy buzzing off both of them. Ridiculously, he wants to move his hand a few mere inches on the seat and see if a spark will jump across. But, instead, he shoves his hands in his pockets.

Conversation, John thinks. Firstly, they have to assume something resembling normalcy, or their cabbie—and this has happened before—may assume they’ve just knocked off a bank and phone it in. Secondly, triumphant-Sherlock quickly leaps over the line toward arrogant-prat-Sherlock, and this may diminish the dangerously rose-coloured glasses that John’s been viewing his partner with all night. “You look mighty pleased with yourself.”

“I am. Aren’t you? Justice has been served.”

“Justice? I think you just wanted to play with their fancy centrifuge for a bit and then have a good run.”

Sherlock, still grinning, takes on a slightly pensive look as he watches the streets pass out the window. “No, I mean it.”

“Rats and sheep everywhere are in your debt tonight.”

“Noble thought, but no. That’s not who I meant.”

John quirks his brow. “You mean that Edalji kid?” Sherlock nods and the doctor continues, “That’s the crux of this one, for you, isn’t it?”

“It was obviously a frame-job.” In the darkness and at this angle, his face is hidden in shadow, but for the periodic nystagmus of street lamps. “I’d browsed his website after Lestrade sent me the details. He was pretty radical in his approach to try to expose his former employer. Garnered a lot of enemies, by the look of the comments sections. Also—in this political climate—I’m sure the colour of his skin didn’t help either.” Sherlock’s voice has grown quieter and slows down for the first time since they’d left the flat; pausing in places, as if he’s word-finding. “But I could... see between the lines. Well. It’s what I do. And I couldn’t pass up the chance to help someone... that I knew was just...”

“...misunderstood? Just an awkward outcast; someone who was—“

“Innocent.” Sherlock turns back to him. “That’s the point.”

Voice steady and soft. And harder than diamonds.

Don’t, John thinks at him desperately. Don’t be everything you were and more. I can’t want this. Not again. Not now. John doesn’t ever try to think of this, but of course he can’t stop himself. The inkling he has had many times and ignored, but none so clear as the night three months ago. The glimpse, over their combined and trembling fingers compressing a nicked femoral, of what lies beneath the great brain.

And again, tonight. A teacup, for God sakes. Despite the evening’s distractions, John’s mind has run a constant loop of I ought to have known why didn’t I see it if only I’d known... It may have been a tragedy, if it weren’t also so damned...

Sherlock turns away again with a flicker in his face that says I know it’s impossible, John internally corrects this to: Actually, no. Not quite. When they exit the cab at Baker Street and Sherlock grimaces at the sight of his limp and actually holds the door for him, John knows they are well-beyond lost to the improbability of whatever remains.

It’s partly the adrenaline that’s still making him jittery, partly the fatigue that it’s masking and partly the adductor muscle that still catches him painfully, but John stumbles on the top step and feels Sherlock’s hands steady him from behind with a gentle pressure at his waist.

“Alright?” The low rumble, closer to his ear than John had thought his tall companion to be on his heels.

John halts, gripping the banister. Then turns.

The detective always prides himself on being able to anticipate what’s coming, so it’s with no small amount of gratification that John takes in Sherlock’s startled breath a half-second before he takes his mouth, his free arm slipping around the wiry frame to provide the support needed to keep them both from toppling down the stairs. To Sherlock’s credit, he recovers quickly, bracing himself against John and even stepping one foot up next to his, leaning into the kiss—though not quite kissing back yet—his hand dropping next to John’s on the rail. They remain like that for a moment, until John begins to worry this has everything to do with balance rather than acquiescence. He breaks it, murmuring, “Good or Not-good?”

Sherlock answers by bringing both hands to John’s face. “Could be better.” This time, the exchange is fully mutual and hungrier and with less regard for balance, as if he trusts John completely not to let them fall. It’s brilliant, actually; with one step separating them, they are nose-to-nose with everything nearly lined up properly. We can blame this on chivalry, John muses with a growing smile against Sherlock’s lips, among a swarm of other fragmented thoughts. See what happens when you actually let me go up the stairs first?

“How so?” John asks, when they break for air, expecting a rapid-fire, full-paragraph critique of this activity, complete with chemical analysis of the pheromones involved.

But Sherlock puts it bluntly against his neck, “Sofa,” and gives him an even blunter shove up through the landing to the doorway. John idly wonders for a moment if Mrs. Hudson can hear the thud of the door they never shut, the click of the lock that they never use, the rustle of coats that they never drop on the floor. He then decides that wondering about the landlady’s auditory range is not going to be conducive to progressive interests—she’s been assuming this for years anyway—and immediately puts it out of mind. This is easy, given that Sherlock suddenly does something with his tongue that is surprisingly intuitive in its amateurish and very endearing clumsiness. John, now back at their usual height differential, reaches up to wind his fingers in the hair behind Sherlock’s ear. He returns the movement in kind at the pale throat that tips back with a slight groan. Somehow, defying physics and anything resembling dancer’s grace, they manage to make it to the sofa... or rather, Sherlock does, with a gangly whmph and flushed cheeks. John makes it to his knees in front of him. He grins at his friend. I don’t mind.

Sherlock’s eyes dart down to John’s hand on his right knee, before briefly saccading back and forth in thought. John spreads his fingers on Sherlock’s thigh slightly, frozen between urges to slide them up and pull them away. Years of clenching fists at one’s side, it seems, lays down a precedent of restraint almost too powerful to be overcome.

Almost.

John doesn’t move his hand either way but presses just a little. “Penny for your thoughts,” he raises an eyebrow, with teeth and tongue to lower lip.

The pale eyes snap back to his. “Déjà vu,” Sherlock croaks. “Vegetable, mineral, animal... I’d had an inkling that you were... trying to tell me something...”

“You could say that.”

“I didn’t kn—“

“No, of course not.” John smiles gently and lets his thumb move in an unassuming circle. “You’re a complete idiot.”

Sherlock places his own hand over John’s and expels chuckle of the genuine kind that wrinkles his eyes. But the look threatens to go under; dragged down by the deer-in-headlights rigidity that accompanies too much data.

Softly, John tells himself, softly.  “Hey...” he tells his partner, commanding the pale gaze back to his own, “...don’t over-think it.” He leans in and kisses him again, lightly this time. For an equally glorious and maddening span of minutes, John moves gradually from cheek to jaw to collarbones, unbuttoning with patient discipline, listening to Sherlock breathe. When the tentative shallowness gives way to ragged pants, John risks slipping the shirt from Sherlock’s back, dragging t-shirt over the dark-curled head, running his hands over smooth shoulders and then down the spine, his tongue exploring the sweat of their earlier exertions in pathways between ribs. A glance upwards rewards him with the sight of closed eyes, head tilted back, poised between a relaxed expression that John has never seen and a trembling tension that is also of a new variety. But when he reaches waistband, hand to lap, the eyes flicker open again. John pauses. In a low voice, he says, “Tell me what you’d like.”

“Tea?” Sherlock asks, loudly from the kitchen.

John’s hand stiffly claws the banister. “Sorry,” he blurts.

The dark head pokes through the landing doorway. “Are you sure you’re alright?”

His throat is almost too dry to answer. “Fine.”

The furrowed gaze pierces him. “I’m not there to catch you this time; come away from the stairs.”

John enters the kitchen, keeping his coat pulled around him. “I am... a bit tired, I guess,” he stammers. Looks at the clock. “It’s almost half-four.”

“Hmm.” Sherlock sets the kettle back down. “Too late for tea, then. Looks like you remain out of luck on that front, tonight.”

The doctor leans on the counter. “Quite,” he says hoarsely.

Sherlock stares at him a moment, an odd look creeping over his face. “Bed, then?” But his tone is completely innocent.

Thank God there are some things you are still oblivious to, John thinks, and suddenly finds his voice. “Yes, I think so. Thanks for making up the upstairs earlier.” He chucks his thumb in the direction of the hall. “I’ll be off, then. Just knackered, you know.”

Sherlock looks away. “Goodnight.”

“’Night.”

John hasn’t actually been up to his room since before Sherlock’s brief and confounding incarceration and is surprised to see by the shadows that, other than an earlier dusting and making of the bed, Sherlock has changed little. He doesn’t turn on the light. He can still find his way and lays down, almost fully clothed.

Almost.

As his right-brain re-conjures the images, his left chastises him that there are a thousand reasons why he has never allowed himself this indulgence before and that they all still hold true. It batters him with the knowledge that this is going to do nothing to alleviate, placate, get-this-out-of-his-system... if anything, it will worsen everything by laying down tracks in John’s own brain attic to boxes that should not be opened. Left-brain pummels him with reservation, pounds him with doubt and pleads with rock-hard, unassailable logic.

Right-brain wins this time. Hands down.

Fine, then, says Left. But don’t tell me you’re actually going to mess up these sheets—

Right-brain is, if nothing else, creative.

“Alright, I give up,” Sherlock admits, as they ride the Tube together, to their mutual departure point. “But it’s obviously a good story, so out with it.”

“Hmm?” John breaks his reverie; their morning journey thus far has been mostly in silence.

“You’re only wearing one sock. The other is, if I’d have to make an educated guess, balled up in your left pocket. It’s something you’re bashful about because you had your coat and galoshes on before I got up. More than that, you planned to leave before I did, because you usually wake me up with the infernal coffee grinder when you’re here. It’s Saturday, so you’re going home, not to work, but you’re exhausted... you obviously didn’t sleep much, yet you’re headed downtown. Probably to buy socks. Probably unnecessary, although Mary can be almost as astute as I am and even if you manage to get your footwear off privately, she may notice beforehand that it’s making you walk funny.”

“As you’re fond of pointing out, I always walk funny.”

“Yes, but this is different,” Sherlock rolls his eyes. “I’ve often thought of cataloguing your various gaits...”

“Well, surely there’s a practical use for that...”

“I never know which minutiae is going to be useful; better to cover all the basis. Now, no more diversions, I want to know what happened to your other sock.” Sherlock raises an eyebrow. “You’re blushing and trying not to laugh right now, so don’t tell me there’s no story behind this.

“Missed the mark,” John explains, without missing a beat or, miraculously, cracking a smile.

“Sorry?”

“Last night, in the loo. You know; I missed, then stepped in it. Don’t appreciate a damp sock today, that’s all. And I am a bit embarrassed about it, if you must know,” he admits. “I... I was shook up a bit after that case and I guess my hand wasn’t as steady as usual.”

“Oh.” Sherlock nods in a that-makes-perfect-sense manner. His expression is completely blank as he adds, “You should have just borrowed mine.”

Keeping his own features completely blank is no small feat. They stare at each other, blinking; both faces perfect tributes to neutrality.

“Socks,” Sherlock clarifies unnecessarily, a moment later, in a flat tone.

The train stops at John’s station.

“Later.”

“Bye.”

 

...

 

Sometimes, even in 221B Baker Street, even under eyes that observe everything, things happen unexpectedly. Sometimes, even under meticulous landladies that do the lino, things go unnoticed. It is months later that Sherlock slides his foot partially under the counter and suddenly hops up on the other one from the painful stimulus. No kitchen chairs are presently nearby—Sherlock has them by the windows for the purpose of drying out various yarns in the spring sunlight—so he limps over to John’s chair and collapses into it, digging out the offending shard. It is barely thicker than a needle, but one edge bears a distinctive enough pattern.

Teacup. He remembers.

That night, shortly after the vessel had met its untimely end, Lestrade had texted and they had run out to the Edalji case. It had not been a long one by their standards, but the run in the wind and rain afterward had been particularly invigorating. The air had seemed sharper; somehow rarefied.

John. There was something more intense about John. Almost as if he knew.

John’s limp had, at that time, nothing to do with psychosis. The sight of it, after a night of breaking and entering and adrenaline, made Sherlock’s chest squeeze with guilt as they had returned to the flat. As he had trudged slowly up behind his friend, it had occurred that this was rarely the way of things; usually Sherlock barreled up them two at a time—with a half-beat for the unpaired seventeenth—and then waited impatiently for John at the top. Or not, depending on his mood. But on that night, Sherlock felt no annoyance for the speed at which they climbed the stairs. It was nice to go slowly; John’s body, warm beneath his cold coat from their exertions, a step ahead of his.

And then John had stumbled at the top stair, and Sherlock had instinctively reached out to steady him. It had only been a moment, but time has no meaning in the mind palace; Sherlock’s neuronal map had barreled down the hall and through the door futilely strung with Do Not Cross crime-scene tape, helping itself to seven separate scenarios before he’d retreated to the kitchen and tackled it to the ground. Mercifully, John had paused in the stairwell, or he might have caught the colour creeping into his pale friend’s face. Though, when Sherlock had called out to him a moment later...

No... he doesn’t know.

Despite the years of tutelage, he is certain that John still sees what he expects to see, rather than observes. When it comes to them, Sherlock is glad of this obliviousness. He wishes it were as easy with others. Their landlady’s remarks are nigh unbearable, now that he has to concede to her insight. And Mycroft. Dear god, how this escapes his comment, Sherlock can’t even fathom. The fact that the youngest Holmes glows like an inexplicable matchbox when the good doctor is in the room appears not to register with his elder... though Sherlock doesn’t tempt fate anymore by crossing all three of their paths often. Perhaps Mycroft just isn’t terribly astute when it comes to these things. Or, perhaps, he just doesn’t care.

Sherlock’s known for ages, it seems. Sometimes he forgets, and sees the whole of their relationship through this lens. The crack doesn’t matter, as he had once thought; in fact, it makes everything clearer. But of course, it hadn’t always been so. He hadn’t known until a particular moment—ironic, Sherlock now muses—involving a champagne glass.

If only he’d known earlier, perhaps things would have been different. If their lives had taken different paths. If there had been an easier way to do this.

‘If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts...’ John is fond of remarking, usually in response to something Abby has offered up in babbling protest. Abby... apple of John’s eye. Unmistakably bearing his nose and ears, even if her hair is an uncanny shock of red.

Extraordinary, Sherlock had taken to murmuring, and fascinating; watching the littlest Watson follow a mobile, prop on all fours, learn to use a spoon. Begin to talk, imitating the sounds and inflections of the adults in her life; the amazing emergence of sharing words, ideas.

But mostly, Beautiful is what he says. And—though he tries not to marry the statements too close in time—she has your eyes too.

“I thought you had no interest in children,” John had said, some time ago, while stacking presents under a tree.

Doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate it. Sherlock had tousled her ridiculous locks as the toddler worked methodically on her block stack. “It’s not her fault that she’s the most interesting thing in your house.”

“I wonder sometimes if she got anything from me,” was Mary’s joke.

“Her brains,” Sherlock had responded quickly, pointing at the letter blocks. “Look. She spelled vaw.”

And John had chuckled. “That’s not a word.”

“Yes it is. It’s the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet.” Upon receiving incredulous looks from both parents, he had added, defensively, “It’s permissible in Scrabble.”

“Even if you’re not Jewish?”

“You’d be surprised what mysteries you can solve with a working grasp of Hebrew.”

Abby had zealously smote the stack with her hand. “Boom!”

A chorus of two; “Bedtime.”

And with vehement shaking of a ginger head; “But... but...”

“If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts...” John had murmured, gathering up the wrapping.

... we’d all have a Merry Christmas. Sherlock leans back in John’s chair in reverie, absentmindedly rubbing his foot. He wouldn’t trade a father’s joy for all the tea in China... and the ache is so familiar now, Sherlock’s learned to live with it. More than that. It’s a part of him that somehow makes him whole; somehow just knowing where his heart lies is enough... the just-knowing is a strange kind of happiness, satisfying enough in its own solitary way.

Most of the time.

It’s usually the silliest of things that bring about these dangerous moments of exception. One time, it was the way John licked his lips before taking a sip of awful Scotland Yard breakroom coffee from a Styrofoam cup. Another, it was that set of steps at the end of the Piccadilly line; probably because there were seventeen. One time... for a reason Sherlock can’t even begin to deduce... it was a goddamned feather.

Today it’s a forgotten sliver of teacup.

Sherlock can still almost count these occasions on one hand, but he’s got better use for the afore-mentioned appendage at this moment. No cases on, except a boring family feud that requires waiting for evidence anyway. He could use a job, but there isn’t one presently available except the devil’s handiwork. As he tips his head back over the backrest and shifts his hips, he reminds himself that this is only going to make the neural connections harder to sever; the roadmaps in the mind palace leading all to the same room.

His phone trills. He ignores it. Transport.

John stumbles at the top of the stairs. Sherlock instinctively reaches out to steady him. Hands to waist, to small of back.

“Thanks,” John nods, continuing on to the kitchen, shucking his coat onto a chair.

“You alright?” Sherlock asks.

“Just a bit shaky. Tonight was... well, intense. Don’t tell Greg. I don’t want anyone to think I’m going soft.”

Sherlock rounds the counter and faces him. “Well, we can’t have that,” he replies, his tone just a slight lilt off of neutral. “Tea?”

John yawns, rubbing eyes and glancing at the clock. “It’s pretty late and it’ll keep me up the rest of the night. Better not.”

In the same tone; “I suppose. If you don’t fancy the idea of being kept up.”

This time, his companion peers at him more closely. “Don’t tell me you’re not tired. Sherlock, we can’t go all night like we used to.”

In reality, John probably thinks Sherlock doesn’t get this type of humour, but in Sherlock’s mind palace, John always sets them up and he knocks them down. “Well, not with that attitude, Doctor Watson.” There is nothing near-neutral about the tone now.

John places both hands on the counter and leans toward him. “What’s gotten into you?”

There are limits to hilarity. Sherlock leaves that one alone. But he keeps a steady gaze on John, slowly removing his gloves and scarf. “What do you mean?”

A snort. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to flirt with me.”

Sherlock flicks his own coat from his shoulders. “Do you?”

“You have no idea what you look like right now.”

“No...” He briefly tongues his lower lip, hoping it’s a reasonable mimic of the movement John often makes without thinking. “I meant... do you know better?”

John’s brow furrows and he tilts his head in that alright-Sherlock-explain-it-to-me fashion.

“You’re fond of reminding me that I am flesh and blood; that I am a living, breathing man with feelings... that I must have impulses...”

“I don’t think I’ve ever put it quite like that.”

“Alternate fantasy. A bit too Gothic. It’s close enough; go with it.”

John shakes his head, smiling in the way he does when trying not to. “Alright then, I’ll bite.” Smirk, on both their parts. “What’s this all about then?”

Somewhere outside of this scene, the phone trills again. John gives the ether a sweeping glance. “What was that?”

“Text. Likely from you; which, I’ll admit, is making me want to answer it. Also possibly someone from Scotland Yard. Or, unlikely, my brother. It had better not be. I’ll kill him.”

“Oh.”

Sherlock refocuses. Deductions. John loves deductions. “You haven’t had sex in three months.”

John stiffens. “Sherlock...” he growls, warningly.

“The time prior to that was six. And prior to that was actually before I was shot. Now that incident would’ve been enough to put any couple on a substantial hiatus, not to mention following the act with late pregnancy and then midnight feedings, but you’ve since forgiven—“ Sherlock air-quotes, “—your wife and your child now sleeps through the night. As a living, breathing man with your own impulses, I’d say it’s time to get back in the saddle, wouldn’t you?”

John’s mouth twitches furiously. “You—“

“Especially,” Sherlock adds, provocatively, “since you’re so obviously dying for it...”

Reality-John would have possibly broken Sherlock’s nose or teeth by now, but Mind-Palace-John stops just short of this, as it would ruin the intent of the whole exercise. He does, however, get angry enough to round the counter and get Sherlock by the collar... which is, of course, entirely the point.

“I don’t care what you observe... you never pry,” John hisses dangerously. “Not me; not like that. Whatever game you’re playing, stop it now!”

“I suppose it could just be how she leaves the toothpaste caps off or never changes the toilet paper rolls...”

Sherlock...”

John is walking him backwards into the sitting room with a rough navigation that suggests he cares little if Sherlock stumbles into the furniture.

“...or, perhaps it’s something else. Who knows what’s in that funny little head of yours?”

John braces his legs, making a move to shove him, but the taller man is too quick, pivoting both of them in front of the hearth and slipping a foot between John’s, causing him to trip over backward into Sherlock’s chair. Before he can jump up, Sherlock kneels, bracing hands on John’s knees.

“I am.”

His former flatmate glares at him, panting. “You are...?”

“Flesh and blood.”

John leans forward slowly, cat-like. “You.” he whispers darkly. “Bloody unfinished business is what you are...”

Sherlock grins, intending to dart in and nip John’s lip briefly between his teeth. But a half-breath from impact, he freezes, their off-set noses almost touching, their eyes almost crossed to look at each other. Here, even in a daydream, Sherlock feels the lift-drop of his stomach. The feeling of falling.

It is just like flying. He should know.

John reaches up, skirting his cheekbone with a cautious thumb, as if he expects to cut himself on it. “How long have you known...?”

He swallows. “About two years.”

It aches.

The doctor smiles gently, smoothing a stray curl from Sherlock’s forehead. “Seems only fair, that.”

They chuckle partly through the kiss.

“Got any more deductions?” he asks, when Sherlock finally leans back.

“At least seven.”

“Really.”

“You broke your right wrist in three places when you were a preadolescent,” he blurts, tracing light circles on John’s forearm, not quite sure why this particular anatomic fact is at the forefront of his consciousness, “which started your long-standing and nearly undetectable ambidexterity. Although, that’s probably not highly relevant to the current—“

“Save it.” The glint in John’s eyes returns. “I can think of better uses for that clever mouth of yours.”

The phone trills a third time. Sherlock lets go with an irritated sigh. Having the man’s conjured and real versions conflicting for attention is exasperating.

It isn’t John, however. It’s Lestrade.

First: Are you at home?

Second: Need to talk asap.

Third: Stopping by in a few minutes. Hope you’re there.

Even The Transport needs a few minutes to gear back down. When Greg arrives, Sherlock is at his microscope, evidence of his curtailed indulgence extinguished, but for a slight systemic aggravation.

“Clearly you’ve got news. If you’ve found the red handkerchief, I’ll have it for analysis—“

Greg removes his coat, slinging it on his arm. “I haven’t come from the Boscombe’s.” He places his hands on the counter, tapping twice as if not sure what to do with them.

Settling in. Odd. Lestrade never settles in unless he’s hackling Sherlock about recreationals in the flat, or John’s invited him for one useless social function or another. “You’ve obviously come from a crime scene. New case?”

“Not exactly...”

“You’ve got your badge and firearm. It’s half-eleven. Your pants are scuffed; you’ve been kneeling. You quirk your mouth like that only after seeing particularly troubling corpses. You wouldn’t be consulting me unless it was something suspicious...” Sherlock grins. “And I was afraid it was going to be a dull weekend.”

Greg shifts uncomfortably on his feet. “There’s no case. It was a heart attack; not suspicious. It was initially treated as such though, simply because of who it was.” He pauses, mouth open slightly, faltering, though he’s clearly gathering himself to say more before his consulting detective can jump in again.

The consultant jumps in anyway. “Politician or Royal? Ugh, no, never mind. You’re only wearing your brown shoes. Someone important then; or just someone associated with such? No, no...” He holds up a finger. “Don’t tell me. You’ve come with a puzzle and I could really use one today.” His eyes dart over Lestrade’s countenance. “It’s not an actor or some other glitterati, is it?”

“Sherlock...”

Sherlock grabs the paper from the table, muttering to himself. “I read something this morning about Kincaid... now, where did I see that...?”

“Sherlock.” Something in Lestrade’s voice makes him stop. His gaze revisits the DI’s face. The expression is one he doesn’t recognize, but clearly he’s missing something critical in the awkward and pained way Greg is looking at him. Too bad John isn’t here; he’s better at this sort of—

Someone important then...

Stop.

Pay attention.

Sherlock feels cold. Or associated with such.

Greg lifts a hand gently. “I need to tell you something that’s not going to be easy to hear. Do you, um... want to sit or...?”

“No.” His voice is quick and flat. Out with it. Say it isn’t—

Even in Baker Street, sometimes things happen unexpectedly.

“It was Mycroft. I’m sorry, Sherlock. Your brother is dead.”

 

...

Chapter Text

“Please tell me that he is REALLY dead this time?!” he gasps. He means it half-sarcastically, but it comes out tinged with nothing more than a frayed anxiety.

John approaches cautiously and then crouches next to the motionless form, taking the gun from its hand. His voice is nearer to normal... but then, John’s seen a lot of death; even more than Sherlock. “Yeah. I’d say so.”

“Be sure!”

His friend lifts the body slightly, peering under, then turns his head back toward him. “I can see brain stem.” He then turns to the woman in the doorway. “Jesus. What caliber was that?” The army doctor goes through the physical motions with fluidity, but the shock is showing in his voice and the methodical slowness of his movements.

Mary lowers the rifle and looks at Sherlock.

The startled toddler is still wailing but, incredibly, this is subsiding quickly against Sherlock’s breastbone. He adjusts his grip on her, bending his face to the top of her head with a tremulous shhh. It’s amazing; the scent of her hair is as soothing to him as he hopes that his voice, murmuring her name gently, is to her. He can feel that his own heart, hammering beside her small warm weight, is beginning to lull to something resembling distinctly separate beats. Hush now, Abigail. You’ll be too young to remember this day. Something in his left-brain reminds him that he should hold her out to her parents, but his arms feel weak and he fears dropping her if he moves; his entire body sags like a discarded marionette. With a weak wariness, he moves further away from the edge he’s been perched upon.

Mary stares at him, shaking slightly; “That thing... you did...”

Sherlock imagines her raising the gun again and separating him from his own skull; then moving in serenely to retrieve her blood-and-brain-splattered offspring in his wake. His mind tumbles through the events that have lead them all to this point. No, that can’t be right. Other memories, random and disproportionate, creep in; sped up in places, squished together in others.

The thread is too nebulous; he doesn’t understand. Sherlock fights to remain bipedal while the voices of the past layer themselves over the ringing in his ears. If he didn’t know better, he’d say it was his life flashing before his eyes.

Back up a bit.

Perhaps a bit further, this time.

 

...

 

“Well, Sherlock,” the voice from beneath him gasps, “what have you learned about collateral damage?”

Sherlock chooses to ignore its owner and turns back out toward the plume of smoke in the field below them. He feels sorry. He honestly hadn’t meant for it all to go this far.

He’ll be damned, however, if he’s going to let his brother know that.

The newcomer reaches the top of the ladder, sweating and wheezing slightly and sits next to him, backing up against the pole’s zenith in a manner that suggests that he’s scared out of his wits, yet pretending not to be. Sherlock grins internally. Mycroft hates heights.

To be perfectly truthful, he does too, and feels dizzy and nauseous with the slight sway of the water tower, but a childhood of avoiding his elder’s scrutiny has honed his tolerance for discovering new places that he can escape to. Perhaps it is this that accounts for his recent obsession with flight, particularly with regard to creatures that shouldn’t be able to fly. Sherlock has spent the better part of the summer considering the matter. Though today, unfortunately, the model that he had been testing a half hour ago had proved to be disappointingly unsuccessful... crashing and burning again, this time into an especially dry haystack.

It’s really Mycroft’s fault, Sherlock reasons. If his older brother had simply set aside his ridiculous preoccupations and helped him with the calculations, none of this would have happened. Or, perhaps, his parents. His father had tried; sitting with him for hours, tediously gluing the frustrating wing-struts together, but with a peculiar detachment that hung gloomily over the garden-shed-turned-makeshift-workshop. His mother knows a thing or two about engine combustion that may have proved more valuable, but she has been either short-tempered or constantly busy in recent months. And since there has only been the four of them... well. That’s been the case for a long time now; Sherlock has long given up expecting otherwise and the topic is not one that the family discusses, though they discuss little even in general terms these days. In truth, he should be having the summer of his life, with no one interested in bogging him down in minutia or overseeing his extracurricular activities.

Now, however, Sherlock has achieved the especially notable level of waywardness that warrants retrieval. But Mycroft must be steeling himself for the climb down, as he hasn’t insisted that they do so yet. The brothers sit together on the tower ledge, watching the smoky aftermath play out in the farm beneath them.

“That’s a family’s livelihood that you’ve put in jeopardy,” Mycroft scolds, as he catches his breath.

He responds with a dismissive noise. “It’s just a hobby-farm. And it’s already out. The hose was set up in the yard even before the brigade got here. Almost like they knew I was going to test today.”

“Hmm,” Mycroft deflects.

Convenient,” Sherlock observes.

His brother rubs his brow tiredly, avoiding the pimples around his hairline. “What is it about this particular farm anyway...?”

“The wind. There’s often an updraft funnel just off the dry stonewall slope on the south corner...”

“If your experiments were anything that could be nearly mistaken for success, then the wind’s contribution would be irrelevant.”

Sherlock scowls in silence.

Mycroft waves a sweeping hand over the scene. “Well, once again, your calculations are off. One would think that, with the tendency toward the failed infernos you’ve generated, you would have the good sense to give up—“

“Shut it, lard-arse.”

“Eloquent. I’d love to sit up here debating further with you, but our parents request the pleasure of your presence.”

“No.”

Mycroft’s tone changes. “Sherlock. Mummy is worried—“

“I don’t care what Mum is,” Sherlock snaps, hating the fact that the tremor in his words completely belies their content. He feels his eyes burning and grinds his teeth in a hard swallow. He is not going to cry. Crying is for six-year-olds.

Mycroft is quiet for a moment. “Did you vary the angle of the aerofoils?” he asks, keeping his face turned carefully out over the fields, abuzz with their insects in the heather.

Sherlock chews on his tongue for awhile, unsure if he wants to respond. In the end, he does. “By a quarter turn each.”

“Ah. How about modulating the frequency of oscillation?“

“Yes. Though, perhaps I should have used a figure-eight pattern.”

His brother turns back and regards him thoughtfully. “Well. Perhaps the next time won’t be such a spectacular failure.”

And Sherlock doesn’t even know why he’s saying it... why he would even give the obnoxious prat the satisfaction... but he can’t help it. The words fall from his mouth like stones that he doesn’t want to carry anymore. “It’s stupid. It’s a poor design. It’s too heavy. I don’t know how they do it, Mycroft. I’m never going to figure it out.”

His brother almost makes a move as if he’s going to put an arm around him—which seems to spook them both—and then thinks the better of it; folding his elbows across his knees. But he holds Sherlock’s eyes in his gaze. “And yet... the bee flies.

It strikes Sherlock suddenly that they rarely look at each other like this anymore, but when they do, he has the mysterious sensation that Mycroft can see inside his head. It’s unnerving. He turns away. “I guess so.”

Mycroft scoffs. “Good lord, Sherlock. Never guess.” He nods toward the ground. “Come on. Let’s go.”

As they descend the final few steps and Mycroft hits terra firma with an audible sigh, he uncharacteristically claps a hand on the youngest Holmes’ shoulder. “Do you want to know what I think, little brother?”

And, oddly enough, Sherlock doesn’t shake it off. “What?”

“Ask again for that puppy you’ve been coveting. Despite your antics this afternoon, I don’t think you’ll be denied, given the state of things at present.”

He grins, in spite of himself. “That’s brilliant.”

“Obviously.”

Imbued with the excitement of this prospect, Sherlock takes off, running full-tilt across the field. He lifts his face to the sky and sucks in the wind, enjoying the thrumming sensation of the blood pumping in his veins; just him, alone, against the rest of the world. Mycroft will watch from a distance. As always, no one bothers to keep pace by his side.

 

...

 

There is the wind in his lungs, the hushed sensation of the grass beneath his pounding feet. The sting of an angry gash, thanks to a brief miscalculation and the fence he’s just scaled; a hot trickle on his leg. No matter. The wild thrumming of his heart, running alone.

Except that he isn’t. There is the pattern of footfalls that is becoming distinct in his consciousness; a pace-and-a-half behind his. No trace of limp. Sherlock slows and then stops, leaning against a Scotch fir tree that is a bit further down through the grove, deciding that, on balance, it would be more advantageous to tend to this wound, paltry though it is, and survey the cottage at a later date.

John Watson comes to a halt beside him. “Which way?”

Sherlock gestures. “Left. But I don’t think we’ll catch them now, whoever they are. I didn’t get a good look and they will surely take the mask off to give us the slip.” He leans heavily, perhaps favouring his shin more than he needs to. “We can cut our losses tonight and return another day.”

The army doctor runs a scanning gaze over him. “You’re hurt.”

“Merely a scratch,” he mutters, lifting trouser leg and idly observing his odd pleasure in his new flatmate’s concern of this occurrence; a wound requiring stitches. But damn. He hates hospitals.

“Could take care of that for you,” Doctor Watson offers, gruffly, in a tone that suggests Or not; whatever you’d prefer.

“Suppose it’d be best not to let it fester,” Sherlock responds, equally inflecting indifference; I’m fine either way, but if you don’t mind, then, by all means, please.

They run back out to the main road and catch a bus home. Sherlock marvels at how, in his mind, it is so easy to label it as such; how the crowded flat with the creaky stairs and the tiny kitchen and the ridiculous wallpaper and the ever-pervasive smell of pressed sandwiches has so easily replaced the long-standing precedent of a sprawling country estate and all the brief, unmemorable evictions-in-waiting of the interim. He limps through the sitting room and lights a fire. Just because it’s a cold night. Seems like the thing to do.

Baker Street is soon warm and bright. John lays out a pillow on the footstool and hands Sherlock a glass of amber liquid, setting the bottle beside his kit on the small table between them. “There you are. Take a mo’ if you want, while I clean these up.”

He takes it tentatively. “I don’t usually...”

John looks at him. “You might want to; I’ve got a bit of topical courage for you, but nothing much stronger in my kit at the moment.” He rubs his instruments with antiseptic. “Though if you’re not inclined, I’ll gladly drink it for you.” The solitary detective must have an dubious look on his face, because the army doctor chuckles. “Oh, don’t look so worried. It’s like snooker; I’m actually at peak performance after two and a half.”

Sherlock knocks it back, but nods toward the bottle in a help-yourself manner. “I’m not worried.”

John holds his gaze for a moment, preparing a small syringe. “No. Nothing much worries you, does it?”

“Seems a waste of hard-drive.”

“Should have worried a bit more about that fence.”

He laughs, raising his eyebrows at his battered and bloody shin. “Well, if you ever think I’m getting a little over-confident, you can just remind me of Norbury.”

As they sit in companionable silence, Sherlock muses over the man in front of him, the faint hint of dried sweat on his neck; his hair still slightly disheveled to the degree that such a haircut can actually fall out of ranks. Hands that are soft but steady as they thread the curved needle, hold Sherlock’s ankle, tilting his leg in the light, considering. This is a man who has recently lost all personal and technological privacy, two of his good jumpers to kitchen mishaps and, since there have been no romantic endeavours in the past two weeks, likely the affections of the not-unattractive female that had—regrettably?—found herself trussed to a Chinese escape-artist trap. This is a man that should have, by all accounts, sacrificed his portion of the security deposit and moved out by now.

This man, however, is no stranger to loss; that much is obvious. The mystery of it, Sherlock muses with a wince as sewing starts, is what on earth the convalescent doctor finds to gain in this arrangement.

“...my phone,” John is saying.

“Hmm?”

“You borrowed my phone again earlier. Any chance I could get that back?” He stills his hands, with the first stitch in place, on a slight, irritating tension.

Without moving his leg, Sherlock reaches into his pocket and pulls it out, tossing it onto the table next to the scotch. John nods his thanks and continues sewing. But, half-way through another stitch, he asks, “Password?”

“What?” Sherlock grits his molars, then reaches to pour himself a second helping. This is an inopportune time for conversation.

“My password,” John repeats with a grunt, wiggling the needle around slightly as if he’s looking for purchase. “What is it again?”

“Absolutely pedestrian,” he hisses. “Ow.”

“Pretty sure it was only four digits.”

“It’s your birth month and year.”

John pulls the next stitch rather roughly. “Was.”

Sherlock starts to suck air between his teeth and hides it behind a sip “Mmm?”

“It was. I’ll be changing it as soon as I’m done your leg. Any theories as to what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Something that will take me all of ten seconds to f—Uh!-Christ-John!”

The grin above the needle is rather devilish. “Sorry. That tickle you a bit?” He continues stitching, though with a slightly gentler cadence. “I believe the answer you were seeking was ‘None-of-my-business’.”

“That’s more than four digits.”

John pokes him again.

“None of my business.”

“Now you’re catching on.”

Sherlock bites his tongue through a few more sutures, sipping occasionally and trying to puzzle through the case. Infidelity, he’s fairly certain; or, at least some weird triangle in which one party has failed to dissolve their obsolete marriage. This should be an easy one. He continues to feel oddly distracted though, and not even by the needle... John has apparently made his point and returned to a more professional bedside manner. John’s thumb, however, is slightly behind his ankle, putting pressure on his Achilles. It’s not that it’s too hard. It’s not that it’s too ticklish. It’s just that it’s there. Curious.

Talking, perhaps, would be better after all. “I’ll have to remember to thank Mike Stamford,” he says, “for setting up this advantageous arrangement.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve never had a colleague that could patch up my injuries.” Sherlock suddenly realizes that he’s been looking for an excuse to throw this precise term into their dialogue. Fortunately, his voice is completely neutral and opaque over the descriptor of their relationship. He’s very adept at that sort of thing, of course.

But John glances up with a piercing eye. “Perhaps that’s not quite the right word for us,” he mutters, in a tone that sounds almost apologetic. Before the patient can shake off his muted surprise to respond, the doctor efficiently clips off the suture ends, stands, and retreats to the kitchen. He returns a minute later and tosses a clean cloth and ice pack at Sherlock, before settling back into his own chair with his own glass. He pours, sips and then picks up his phone, tapping through it several times.

After a few moments of silence, Sherlock can’t resist. “Jersey numbers.”

“Hmm?”

“Yours. For something you played in school. Perhaps,” he scowls distastefully, “paired with someone that you also cheered for. Rugby? No... footie.”

John giggles at Sherlock’s contemptuous frown and butchering of the vernacular. “Nope.”

“Alright then. Lottery numbers you always play—“

“I don’t play—“

“Yes you do.”

“Well, it’s not that.” Cheeky grin.

“Date—month and year, mind you; you’re romantic, but not enough to remember the day—of your first...” Sherlock pauses for effect, knowing that the word is going to roll awkwardly off his tongue anyway and plays it up just to see Dr Watson laugh uproariously, “...shag.”

Dr Watson laughs uproariously.

“I will get it eventually, you know.”

John calms himself and stares thoughtfully at him. “It’s nothing.”

“No, no. People don’t think they attach significance to everything, but believe me; subconsciously, everyone—“

“It’s nothing, Sherlock. No password. I just took it off.”

He blinks. “You just... took it off?”

“Well, there doesn’t seem to be much point. And anyway, I know we haven’t known each other very long, but... well. Maybe it’s a military thing. You learn very quickly who you can’t trust. And who you can.”

“And you would trust me?” It’s Sherlock’s turn to laugh, feeling his eyes tighten with genuine mirth, in a way that they rarely do. He means this rhetorically and intends to follow it with a lengthy list of the recent evidence of why such a belief would be a terrible idea on John’s part. However, an unexpected inflection in his voice and the way it hangs in the air between them reverts the point back into a question.

“With my—“ The beginning of response tumbles out so quickly that the taciturn soldier seems to blush as he bites it off and looks down at into his glass. This much has been readily evident since their first meeting: beyond a detectable-yet-restrained irritation about fridge contents, property damage and late-night violin concertos, John Watson plays his hand close to his chest. He’s more likely to hide wounds than disclose them and never discusses his feelings.

He finds that sort of thing difficult.

“First-born,” Sherlock completes for him, trying to ease the sudden air of embarrassment and hoping that it sounds like the joke it is. Although most people, quite frankly, don’t get his brand of humour.

But John’s mouth quirks in a small smile. “Not much of an investment there.”

“Well, you couldn’t have possibly meant to say your life,” the detective snorts. “You invaded Afghanistan, so you’re relatively careless with that. You have few possessions of value, little money and your bank card doesn’t even work half the time.” He shrugs, with a loose, twisting wave of his hand, musing that the scotch must be kicking in; the edges of his vision are warm and fuzzy and John appears slightly bathed in a haloed glow. “I know it’s probably grasping at straws, but...” He gazes at his... what?

What, if not colleague? Friend, after all?

No, too personal. John had been quite clear enough about that. Partner? In the business of crime-solving? Yes, that works.

Partner.

“Perhaps... if I promise to stop dismissing, irritating and endangering the women that you take up with... you will eventually have such collateral, someday.”

There, he’s done it. Surely near enough, anyway. This is as close to apologizing as Sherlock ever gets.

His partner chuckles again. “First-born it is, then.”

 

...

 

John sits on his sofa, a tiny rose-coloured bundle on his left shoulder, and regards him through slits of eyelids. “Hi.”

“Hi.” Sherlock shifts his own, considerably more angular, bundle as he exits the foyer, stepping as quietly as he had just knocked. Halts in the sitting room doorway. “You’re sleeping.”

“I’m not,” the new father mumbles defensively. “Just restin’ my eyes a bit is all.”

He shakes the light February snow out of his hair. “Where’s—“

“Sleeping,” John responds, with slightly more coherence, rubbing his eyes with one hand and laying the other along the bundle’s small back, as he rises to greet his friend. “Upstairs. I’m P.O.D. at the moment.”

“P.O...?”

“Parent On Duty. I try to do as much as I can... though this is a bit trickier since going back to work the last few days.”

“Ah.” They are now standing close in the dim, curtained light. Sherlock takes a small step backward, toward the door, and shuffles the package in his hands. “I’ll just leave this, shall I, and—?“

John shakes his head while waving his left hand, gesturing toward the kitchen. “God no. Come in.” Sherlock notes that the tentative and overly-cautious fumbling of the previous week is, uncannily, already almost replaced with a drowsy confidence. John’s right hand rests lightly on the sleeping infant’s backside, but only just... he looks as if he has carried a baby there all his life and could balance her hands-free if need-be. “Tea?”

The kitchen is a disaster; half-eaten meals on plates and dish towels tossed on every available surface. Sherlock sets his box down on the table and stands at the counter awkwardly.

John fills the kettle. “Thanks for coming by.”

“You texted that it was—“

“It is fine.” He runs fingers through insubordinate hair. “As long as you don’t expect any sort of civilized reception. But it’s not as if I can’t wake up for the crack of nine am.”

Sherlock pauses, then decides that truth is typically the most orienting path to take. “It’s nine pm.”

John looks at him incredulously. “Oh.” He shrugs sheepishly. “Well, you know what they say. You’re never quite asleep and never quite awake.”

So, child-rearing is much like cocaine addiction, Sherlock thinks, though decides not to say, given the fact that his drug usage has been too recently a very sore point. “How is Mary?”

“Okay.” John smiles, as he removes the tea and sugar from the cabinet. “Brilliant, actually.” He chuckles, tilting his head toward the softly-snoring load draped over his clavicle. “And you wouldn’t know it at the moment, but this little one has got a tenacious spirit.”

“Given her parentage and the circumstances of her birth, I would expect nothing less.” Sherlock is still speaking in hushed tones, though his counterpart, he now notes, is not.

John acknowledges this with a slight pat of the bundle’s bottom and a normal-volume remark. “Oh, don’t worry. You won’t wake her. Nothing does when she’s in this mode... except possibly a butterfly flapping its wings in Malaysia. And daring to actually put her down in her crib, of course. I’ll let you know when we figure it out.” He comes over to the table and peers into the box. “What have we here?”

“Just a little something.” Sherlock’s tongue catches on the word little, and suddenly wishes he’d gone instead to one of the silly stores he’d been hell-bent to avoid; where everything in sight is plush and soft and pastel or various shades of luxurious white. Pristine and perfect. Worthy of...

“Mmm,” says John fondly, riffling.

“Obviously not needed quite yet,” he mumbles. “But...”

The doctor raises one of the wooden letter blocks in his hand, his finger lovingly tracing a chipped curve. “Yours?”

“Both of ours, actually.” Sherlock shrugs. “Though, reportedly, Mikey, as he was known at the time, played with them more than I did.”

His friend raises an eyebrow. “And he wouldn’t want to keep them? For, you know; when he has kids?”

They both chuckle as riotously as a sleeping household allows.

“My father found them,” Sherlock admits, “while I was packing up my old chem kit. He persuaded me to hold off a few years on that one.”

“Not a bad idea. But then you can give it to her yourself.” John places the block back in the box. “Well, thank you.” He shifts uncomfortably on his feet. “Would you... erm...”

“Yes?”

And the rose-bundle is shifted and held out to him; as fluidly as a ball in some sport that Sherlock doesn’t play. “Hold her for me, hmm? I have to go, something fierce. My back teeth are floatin’. I’ll just be a minute.”

Uh. No. I’d really rather if... Oh, alright. The answer is yes, then. Because Abigail Watson is suddenly in his hands; improbably light for a being so significant. Sherlock handles her like she’s made of foam and the look that he must have on his face provokes further laughing in his departing companion.

“You okay?” the doctor raises an eyebrow.

“I’m fine,” he gasps. Pressure. Too much pressure? Not enough? Surely if he squeezed too hard, she would react. No, his touch is light. Rigidly, precisely light. But then, what if she moves; would she slip from his grasp? Surely he would react in time. He has excellent reflexes, after all. But then, mightn’t he squeeze too hard...?

“Oh, Sherlock, you’re doing great. I may even have a quick shower. Just...” John’s voice pauses as he disappears into the stairwell.

“Just what?!” Sherlock’s voice is hushed again.

John momentarily peeks around the corner. “Don’t drop her,” he admonishes, with a tone that Sherlock may have been able to identify as jesting, if he could just focus on anything other than the eight pounds ten ounces in his arms...

Abby, for her part, goes right on sleeping, despite the awkwardness with which Sherlock shifts her in his hands. So tiny. And warm... how does something so small generate so much heat? Clearly a mystery of thermodynamics. Should hold her against my shoulder; that will probably feel less strange. Left? Right... no, left was definitely more comfortable. There we are. Over my heart?   Lub-dubs adjacent; one falling in almost double step with the other. Good lord, that’s sentimental. No, it just must be a handedness thing; the dominant wants to reach across. After a few minutes of pacing, he finds himself swaying back and forth slightly, rhythmically, as if this situation is a good excuse to dance.

John returns, in a dressing gown, rubbing hair with a towel. “See? You’re a natural.” Before Sherlock can hand the baby back, he continues, “Christ, look at these dishes. Haven’t even got a couple of clean cups here; can’t keep up to this stuff... She’s okay with you for another minute, yeah?”

“She’s fine,” he says. He is getting the hang of this; it’s not so hard. Abby is—Oh, no, she’s stiffening up; why? Intuitively aware that I have no idea of what I’m doing? Mouth wide open... pain?! Looks like pain, about to cry... Sherlock moves to the sofa, hoping that sitting down will reduce the degrees of freedom that he needs to deal with. Wait. Hmm. Just a yawn. She settles, with a nuzzling motion, into his neck. He leans back against the backrest. There. No cause for alarm.

The tea is made and a few essential dishes are cleaned, and John sits down next to them. He places the cups down on the table in front of them, but leans back into the cushions as well. “You know, I don’t even want tea right now,” he laughs. “I should probably have some to keep me up, but I don’t think it would go well on an empty stomach.”

“I can make you something...”

“No, no.” Before Sherlock can shift, John passes this offer away with a sloppy wave and half-closed lids. “You’re doing the best job, at the moment. To be perfectly honest, I wouldn’t say no to the chance to kip out for ten minutes...” His voice trails off, then he starts briefly, sitting up taller with a sudden drowsy sniff, “That is, if you don’t mind...?”

“We’re fine,” Sherlock says.

Something about the dim lighting, the sod-decorum level of fatigue, or the sudden shift of personality that parenthood brings, has made it possible for the ex-army captain to sink unabashed into a restful heaviness right beside Sherlock’s elbow. As the two Watsons snore peacefully in concert at each of his shoulders and he watches the soft light play on their faces, the younger man muses that the small word he’s just used three times in a row to describe his state of being is woefully beyond inadequate to encompass the mixed bag of emotions enclosed in his ribcage.

Perhaps, as a child, he should have played with the letter blocks more. He’s never, after all, had a good way with words.

 

...

 

It’s really not my fault, he’s thought, several times throughout, avoiding his parents’ gaze. Anyone who asks me to give a speech should know that this is inevitable.

Any address that Sherlock gives, it seems, provokes a distinct series of reactions from the audience. Though, in contrast to the Morstan-Watson wedding, the order is reversed: the awkward anxiety about the off-piste culprit-theorizing came first this time; followed by the baffling out-pouring of sentiment, prompted by statements that he had only intended as factual, not emotional.

He’d begun by Playing Murder. Surely, Mycroft would have expected nothing less.

“...having now considered Mr. Murtagh, that takes care of our extensive list of suspects. Though I’d suppose some of you would think that I’ve deliberately left out one name. I assure you, there is no convenient partiality at play here. I just happen to have a solid alibi.”

I don’t really, of course; I was alone that evening. Look at their faces... wondering if this is a joke. I could have easily killed him and gotten away with it. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, people want to believe there exists enough affection between us to rule out fratricide. Insipid, unimaginative fools. Though I suppose those who know me best would know that I wouldn’t have done it this way.

And anyway. I know that I didn’t do it.

“So, then. On to method. Any kind of physical or electrical force able to cause an infarct of that severity would have left clear evidence for detection. The same can be said of most chemical agents, however, there are, of course, some compounds derived from tropical flora and fauna that would not be easily traced...”

Sighs, shuffling, stifled coughs. Shifting in seats. I don’t care, Sherlock thinks. With the exception of a half-dozen, the lot of you are nothing but a bunch of bureaucrats and sycophants. But then his attention shifts to that half-dozen who are looking at him with, if not surprise, then at least a pained trepidation. And John. His best friend peers at him over the barely subdued wriggling of red curls; a taffeta-clad fireball on his lap that, Sherlock knows, would rather be wearing trousers and bouncing off the walls.   Alright, step it up then.

“However. I suppose we’re not here to discuss my brother’s death, but celebrate his life. Very well, then. In his forty-two years, Thomas Mycroft Sean Holmes accomplished—“

...no doubt countless untold acts of government-sanctioned atrocities that have been covered-up so effectively, they will remain vaulted until Whitehall falls in a post-apocalyptic ruin...

“—more than most people dream of, even though his name is not well-known publicly. A brilliant student, a dedicated civil servant and a pillar of some of our country’s greatest institutions—“

...and, let’s not forget: an unscrupulous, pompous, interfering arsehole...

“—Mycroft made it his subtle life’s work to ensure that the superficial reality the somnambulant public experiences is a placid one. No doubt that his passing has left a power vacuum and even the most naïve and oblivious civilian will soon be feeling the maelstrom of this consequence. Without my brother’s Machiavellian finesse, there will surely come some spiders crawling from the cracks, generating utter mayhem running unchecked. It requires, of course, a great degree of intelligence, planning and diplomacy to wrangle the public figures of our nation and prevent upsets in the delicate balance. Perhaps I can take some credit here; after all, he did cut his teeth on keeping me out of trouble, which, I am told, is no mere past-time.”

Damnit, John, stop looking at me like that; it’s distracting. Ahem. Blah, blah, blah, accomplishments... Now what? A personal touch would be expected, I suppose.

“Having such a long acquaintance, of course, I can say that, as an example of everything one could look up to, Mycroft was...

A rubbish big brother.

Pause. Sherlock stutters and halts, his mind a veritable tabula rasa.

Polite shuffling. Too long.

“...erm...” Say something, for God sake. His fingers fidget restlessly on the blank page beneath them on the podium. He chastises himself that, if said page were not blank, he would probably not be in this predicament. Oh well. Ifs and buts.

He looks at John, expecting to see the nervous discomfort that everyone else wears. But his friend quirks his mouth in a half-smirk at him and Sherlock recalls their brief exchange of a half-hour ago...

I know, I know. Don’t be myself.

Actually, Sherlock...

What?

Maybe you should. It worked out fine, last time.

Sherlock now coughs. “Actually...”

The crowd braces themselves.

“...I’ve never had a way with words,” ” he admits, folding his hands over the blank page. “I’m a terrible choice for a speaker today. But I suppose convention insists that this be my role.” He glances at his mother, gingerly dabbing eyes so as to not disrupt her make-up, and his father, looking pale and drawn. He swallows, further avoiding his parents’—well, really, everyone’s—gaze, favouring instead to stare at the tree’s budding penumbra on the lawn around them. “Frankly, I find it confounding, all this pomp and circumstance. The window-dressings and slight-of-hand and frankly, preposterous and futile expense and all THIS—“ he waves an encompassing hand over the flowers and pillars and coffin, “—for the sake of supposedly conveying our appropriate level of sentiment. Those who know me personally... know...”

Molly Hooper lifts her head, her eyes shining.

“...that I don’t really...” Sherlock longs to have anything resembling the expected-of-him emotion to put into his voice, but he doesn’t. It’s completely flat.

I’ll let you know if I notice. Bye-bye.

“...I don’t feel anything sentimental right now. I wish that I did; I truly do. I know that I’m supposed to; I’m required to go through some ridiculous stages of grieving, such that some of you... even those of you who are genetically much further removed than I am... appear to be doing. Perhaps I’m just not made for this sort of thing. I suppose, cerebrally, if I really dig deep, there’s a tiny bit of relief that he won’t be meddling in my affairs anymore. But the truth is...” Sherlock’s calm, firm, even voice continues, ringing disjointedly in his ears; “that I don’t really feel anything at all that my brother is dead.”

There. He’s done it. Been himself. Surely that will have them all scowling and standing up to vacate in droves. No one will ever ask him to make a damned speech again.

But the faces turn toward him; tuning back in... the key half dozen tilting with a sad, fond regard.

“Nothing,” Sherlock confirms for them, trying to make himself clear; to provoke the correct reaction of muted outrage that he’s almost always been received with. “It’s so mind-numbing. I mean... he just died of a heart attack for crying out loud.” He feels his fingers grip the podium’s edges.

“He was the most powerful man in this country and, despite everything I said at the beginning, the balance of probability is that he actually just suffered the Russian-roulette consequences of the poor-lifestyle choices that he made over a decade ago and has been pathetically trying to resolve ever since.” He feels his mouth twist.

It’s so boring and banal. It’s so infuriatingly, maddeningly... ordinary.

“And I don’t care.”

He grinds his teeth in a hard swallow.

“Except. Well. If I’m being entirely truthful...”

Molly and John smile gently at him. Smile, for God’s sake. And he’s the one that’s considered socially inappropriate?!

“...it’s starting to make me a bit angry.”

And now others doing it. Mrs. Hudson and her mammalian sensibilities; even Lestrade and, worst of all, that annoying imbecile, Anderson! Looking at him with a condescension they all probably think is tenderness. Like they all know something that he doesn’t know.

Idiots.

It’s a relief when it’s all over and he’s seen his parents driven carefully away by Uncle Rudy—dressed with a galling conventionality—and he can stand silently at the stone, looking like he needs solitude while the multitudes disperse. At the very threshold of his periphery, the Watsons have a muted domestic over the roof of their vehicle, which ends in a just-barely-louder-than-necessary door closure and just-barely-faster-than-necessary departure.

John soon stands at his side, breathing just barely harder than necessary for a few moments.

“Did you know that the term dead ringer actually comes from race horse terminology and not archaic and overly-paranoid gravesite contingency plans?” Sherlock asks him.

“Are you sure you don’t want to install a bell anyway?” his friend ribs him. “Given the family history with faking one’s death?”

He grins. “Nah. I rigged that umbrella of his to spring open at precisely twenty-after-four. If he’s actually alive, that’ll wake him up.”

John snorts into his hand. “Tell me you didn’t put it in there.”

“Given where I placed it, we’ll definitely hear him yell.”

They giggle for longer than is probably socially acceptable at a funeral, then fall into a peaceful and wordless consideration of the plot, the grounds, the gentle wind. It really is a beautiful afternoon, despite earlier rain. Spring has brashly thrown open the doors of the world; the ground has thawed and the trees have sprouted great green canopies within a scant week’s time. Clearly, Mycroft would already be pulling the strings of the Great Beyond, Sherlock muses, if such a thing were possible. He adopts a contemplative expression; knowing that his friend is still here for his benefit and that he stands a bit closer than he usually would. It’s as good an excuse as any to just be alone with John; even better for the occasion of the uniform, which Sherlock hasn’t ever actually had the pleasure of seeing on his former flat-mate. Suddenly, the sole-surviving Holmes sibling feels very much alive and warm-blooded and desiring of the opportunity to celebrate this vitality...

Not-good, Holmes, he tells himself. At least pretend that you’re feeling something... normal? Human? He closes his eyes and tries to look bereaved. Auf Wiedersehen, Mikey. At one moment, he thinks he hears one very faint thud. He hears nothing else.

After a while longer, his companion says, “It’s almost half-four.”

He nods.

There is suddenly a hand on his shoulder. “I’m sorry for your loss, Sherlock.”

The openness of both the statement and the gesture catches him off-guard. We’re not going to hug, are we? he thinks anxiously. Because, if we do, you might notice some evidence of the effect that uniform has on me... As brilliant as the warmth and firmness of the rare contact feels, he finds himself shrugging it off and making a joke. “Well, it is a terrible burden that I suppose I shall have to bear. Now that I’ve put to rest these physical remains and last year’s electronically-generated rumours, I am officially the cleverest person in the world.”

The soldier at his side bristles slightly, as he always does, with the mention of the old ghost, whose likeness has since been used by lesser criminals. The fact that this is the easily-solved mystery that conveniently brought Sherlock back out of exile is still no where near-enough for John to forgive the original version’s transgressions.  “Moriarty wasn’t smarter than you.”

“Arguable.” Sherlock tilts his head. “But it doesn’t matter now.”

John is quiet for a moment, then chuckles. “Mycroft probably was.”

“Oh, shut-up.”

They stride back along the lawn to where Mrs Hudson is waiting by a rental. Before they fall within her earshot, Sherlock speaks again. “I hope that,” he tilts his head in the direction of where the Watson vehicle had been parked, “was not on my account.”

The doctor shakes his head vehemently. “If not you, it would have been about something else,” he mutters. As with most domestic frustrations, John does not go into detail.

“You really should go home—“

“She can spare me for one night.” His voice is now harsher than usual. “God knows I’ve been the lone P.O.D. for her occasional trips without complaint.” They both stiffen slightly and Sherlock remains carefully quiet. Neither have ever fully believed that Mary has left her coloured past completely behind her, but they have also made no issue of it, in an absence of any evidence to suggest otherwise. It’s entirely probable, Sherlock has reminded John before, that she actually just visits her friends. Sherlock has never investigated this and John has never asked. In their presence, Mary dotes on Abby like a lioness and no one second-guesses her devotion to the child, nor the danger that any interfering body would face.

“Besides,” John now adds, defensively, as if to reassure both of them, “it’s quite normal, isn’t it? To want to... be there for one of your mates, when they’re... erm...”

Sherlock rolls his eyes. “I’m fine. I was just going to pick up a few things from Baker Street, then go to stay the weekend at my parents’ house—“

“I distinctly overheard you telling your mother you were staying the weekend with the Watsons,” John scolds him, with a grin. “What do you think you are, anyway, a twelve-year-old?”

Sherlock halts. Grins as well, as a delightful prospect occurs to him. “I do have plans, but you are welcome to join me. I was approached yesterday by an interesting client. Ms Jessica Challenger has requested that I investigate the matter brought to light by some information recovered her apparently notorious great-grandmother’s diaries.”

“You want to start a case? Now?!”

He gives him an incredulous look. “Why not?” This time, from the relatively safe side-by-side stance, Sherlock claps a long arm around John’s shoulders, squeezing briefly, and then marches on, babbling with excitement. “In 1912, an explorer, two zoologists and an enterprising news reporter made an improbable expedition to a secluded plateau in South America. Now, most of their respective reports account for nothing more than ludicrous fantasy, but one concrete product of their return to Britain was a small cache of very valuable stones. One of the zoologists—a notable brute and misogynist, mind you—was briefly in possession of the treasure to be split amongst the group. He was unfortunately abruptly dispatched in a crime of passion and his guilty wife escaped imprisonment and crossed the Channel. She vanished somewhere on the Continent before the diamonds could be recovered...” Sherlock continues to elaborate on the case.

Diamonds?! Not your usual sort of puzzle, Mycroft’s voice sounds in his head; the first of many such ignorable hauntings.

Hush, Big Brother, Sherlock smiles inwardly. I’m grieving, after all, and could use a good run with my best friend to clear my head.

John folds his arms over his chest, smiling broadly as he listens to Sherlock drone on. Utter mayhem running unchecked, was it?

“...requiring some legwork in Europe, including a possible need for breaking and entering several tombs,” he finishes, smiling back. “I’m to meet with her tomorrow morning to obtain the documents and then will probably need a few weeks to do some research and make some arrangements. Do you think, perhaps in a month’s time, your wife could spare you for a few days?”

“I think,” Dr Watson responds drily, “that between childcare and our part-time nanny, she can spare me just fine. In fact, perhaps a few days apart would clear the air a bit.”

The game is on, then.

Oh, we are going to get into SO much trouble.

 

...

 

It’s a brilliant case.

Sherlock uncovers enough clues to set them on the right paths. Once in Europe, the trail keeps leading them on, necessitating another night’s stay, then another. There’s more than enough opportunities for Sherlock to be clever, a fair amount of running—all the best cases must have running, of course—and a few daring escapes and close calls. Though nothing too close. In truth, Sherlock’s tolerance for things that can kill or maim his partner has been filed down substantially since his daughter’s birth. Fortunately, there is only such a degree of danger that leaves them unscathed but breathless and giddy; both exuberant as they congratulate each other on their exploits, over the fine meals and evening hearths they share in the various foreign locales.

It’s better than brilliant. Frankly, he couldn’t have tailor-made a better case for them if he’d tried.

He almost doesn’t want to solve it, but the evidence from Geneva tells him that they are close to honing in on their objective; a rather out-of-place and neglected burial site outside the village of Meiringen. The pace of their journey and the previous night’s inebriation has taken a slight toll on John; he is still asleep at quarter past seven, sprawled fully clothed on the end of Sherlock’s bed, where their late talk had dwindled under fatigue and celebratory drink. Sherlock hesitates before laying a hand briefly on his friend’s, prompting the bewildered flutter of the slate blue eyes to sleepily take him in.

“ ‘Morning,” John mumbles bashfully, with a lazy smile that breaks like the dawn.

“ ‘Morning,” Sherlock returns. If such a thing were actually possible, he now cares even less about diamonds than he ever has.

They could take the train the entire way, but decide to walk the last few miles, across country. It’s a lovely day, after all; the scenery is splendid and there’s no point attempting their grave-robbing until darkness falls. Before their final hike, they commission the assistance of an enthusiastic local that chats them up over supper. Despite the difficulties in understanding him, the grizzled old fellow is certainly full of helpful morsels of regional history and landmarks. But, with a superstitious air, he refuses accompany them for the last leg of the journey.

“Be sure ready for going swim. And tell NO one,” he warns them pointedly, before departing, in his heavily-accented and hesitant English. “No police; it must be ONLY two of you. Like before.”

John quirks a look at Sherlock. Nutter. No matter. They are certainly happy enough with only each other for company.

And the mausoleum they’ve been seeking winds up to be dry as a bone. In their excitement to find the right crypt, they give the strange comments no further thought.

Torches in mouths, on hands and knees, they search through the stony darkness, shoulder-to-shoulder in the close space. John’s breath is nearly at his neck; their hushed pants echo each other’s. It’s here, it has to be here, Sherlock thinks elatedly, musing that perhaps a stone or two tucked away for Abigail’s future adventures is more than fair as a finder’s fee. He squints, trying to gauge from the eloquent dust level whether this site has ever been previously disturbed. Suddenly, his hand closes around the object he’s been seeking...

But the small, antique cigar tin is impossibly light, for something that should contain twenty-to-thirty large, uncut diamonds. He opens it. There’s nothing but a small feather inside. Sherlock examines it under his light.

“What is it?” John is peering over his shoulder, torchlight bobbing.

“Goose,” Sherlock says, with a sinking feeling.

Wild, he doesn’t add.

He feels suddenly cold.

His phone buzzes, indicating a message. Straight to voicemail. Odd.

One pip.

And a texted photo. It takes him a few moments to realize what he’s seeing; it’s high-resolution, an extreme close-up. Wood grain. Chipped paint. A distinctive notch on the upper curve of the circular letter; unique. Can only be from the one set that Sherlock knows. The image only shows the half-inch diameter point of conjugation of the triangularly-stacked arrangement. The meaning, with painful slowness, coalesces in his brain. He feels, if not hears, John’s sharp gasp beside him as he reads it as well.

I O U

But it is the medium that is the message.

His heart plummets.

Letter blocks.

 

...

 

Time has no meaning; it’s unbearably stretched out. Minutes are small eternities. It’s been several hundred of these since their frenzied flight from the crypt. Maps and timetables hover in the air from his phone to his consciousness, but they overlap and blur in indecipherable algorithms, unreadable by his sluggish, screaming brain. He gives his head a shake. Focus! Sherlock checks the schedules again, trying to reassure himself that the train is now the surest and fastest possible mode for this journey, given the dearth of well-timed flights out of Bern. He laments his lack of connections for government-commandeered planes, knowing full-well that they wouldn’t have been able to use them anyway. He enters their quiet section of the train compartment a little bit after John, to find his pallid friend sitting, staring at nothing, his phone limply in his hand.

“She didn’t answer,” John says numbly. An eon later, he adds, “I know... I shouldn’t have done that.” When Sherlock has no words to answer this, the doctor looks up at him through empty eyes and second-guesses their plans for the umpteenth time. “We should call the p—“

“No, we can’t.” The consulting detective marvels at the autopilot of his own voice. Deep, firm. Almost certain. “If we do, he will know and he will definitely have them killed—“

“He’s going to anyway.” It’s the first time John has actually said it aloud. His voice, which has been gradually fading since they left Switzerland, is quiet and flat and unlike anything Sherlock’s ever heard. “If he hasn’t already—“    

“John.” Sherlock sits across from him and reaches forward, placing his hands around his friend’s wringing fingers, stilling them gently. “Listen to me, please. They are alright; he still needs them alive. It’s between me and him. He doesn’t want you. He doesn’t want any of you. It’s just a game—“

And he finds himself abruptly sprawled backward on the bench, stunned, mouth throbbing, blood rising between his teeth. John stands over him now, fists clenched and shaking.

“It’s not,” John hisses at him, before unleashing the scream, “a GAME!

He freezes. He waits until John turns his back to him, staring out the window into the witching-hour darkness, before briefly closing his eyes and letting the tears well there. When he opens them again, John hasn’t moved. And, fortunately, no concerned Eurostar staff have paid them a visit. Sherlock scrubs at his eyes furtively with a shaking hand and tongues a loose tooth, swallowing the blood in his mouth as quietly as he can, so the slippery noise of it doesn’t audibly coat his next words. “I didn’t mean—“ he begins, softly.

“I know what you meant.” His friend’s voice is quiet again, though no longer empty. He looks back over his shoulder. “Sorry,” he adds, tersely.

Sherlock nods, swallowing again.

The train begins to move, and so do they: alternating in their pacing and sitting, letting the silence eat the minutes with glacier-slowness. After a while, John asks, “The pool. You sure?”

“I’m sure.” I don’t think finding them will be the hard part.

“How is he alive? How did he do this...?!

What’s more than a man?

“Doesn’t matter,” he mutters, faintly. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t...

“We need a plan, Sherlock.”

“Working on it.” I have nothing to go on. Nothing. Sherlock interlaces his tented fingers to try to steady their trembling. Oh Mycroft. I wish you were here.

“If it winds up being all the same,” John says carefully, with a harsh, curling twitch to his upper lip, “I’d like to be the one to kill him.”

“We don’t have your gun.”

“Not going to be a problem.”

They’re both sitting now, facing each other again. Sherlock brings the fingers from in front of his face down; rests his elbows onto his knees. The scant swaying movements of the train is making his head spin and lurch. “Maybe...”

“What?”

Sherlock stares at him desolately. “Maybe... we should... call the p—”

And then John’s hands are on either of his arms. Firm. Warm. “No, you were right. We can’t.” He squeezes his shoulders slightly. “Just... stay focused. Alright?”

“Alright.”

It’s late evening in London, growing dark again, when they arrive at the closed pool. The dimly lit water, as before, casts eerie intersecting lines on the walls. They wait. Probably not very long. It only feels like forever.

Jim Moriarty glides out onto the deck, an unmoving toddler on his shoulder. He smiles broadly at them in greeting, his lips moving slightly. It takes them a moment to catch the softly melodic murmur.

...fleece was white as snow...

Sherlock feels John vibrating beside him. “Don’t move,” he whispers, hoping fervently that such instruction is unnecessary. They are both glowing with laser sights, of course. And John must see what he does: Abby’s muscle tone and posture is that of a little girl sleeping.

Sleeping peacefully, actually. But John’s low voice promises Jim a slow and painful demise. “If I find you’ve—“

’Harmed one hair...’?” He insolently tousles her curls. “Jesus, John. Don’t be so dramatic. She’s tuckered out, that’s all. Fun afternoon with Uncle Jim. Everything her little heart desired.” He cocks his head. “Amazing how trusting they are, after they get out of that playing-strange phase. And how they sleep through anything.”

Where’s—

“Also sleeping. Well. Bit of a chemically-affected snooze, to be honest. There’d be hell to pay if she woke up.” He lifts his gaze skyward thoughtfully. “I wonder which of the three of us would be in the most trouble?” Quirks his lips, and shrugs with a pose that is almost sheepish. “Yeah... it’d probably be me.”

“You coward,” Sherlock hisses. He risks taking a few slow steps forward, while leaving his hand up to his side in a Stay-there-John pose. “This is between you and—“

“Oh, boring.” Moriarty rolls his eyes. “You’re worse than he is. And you sound like the last Holmes I had to deal with... shoddy runner-up for the title of cleverest person in the world.” At this, Sherlock halts in his paces, lip twisting with a fresh rage, but Jim scoffs. “No, no, no, Sherlock, don’t pin that on me, you imbecile; that was the universe just being lazy. He was far more useful to me alive. You wouldn’t believe the collateral that the life of his little brother bought me. And I greatly appreciated access to his resources for the purpose of grandiose stunts.” When Sherlock’s jaw drops slightly, his adversary widens his eyes in mock amazement. “What, you too?!

“We each faked our suicides...” Sherlock says, dazed. Power vacuum.

An upset of the delicate balance.

“...at each other!” The criminal mastermind momentarily forgets himself with a gleeful rise in volume, causing Abby to stir on his shoulder. He rocks her soothingly and lowers his voice. “I’m sorry. You seriously thought you could threaten someone with vague psycho-babble for ninety-three seconds and THAT would convince them to kill themselves? Yeah. Because that’s more probable.”

“Mycroft—“

“—thought he’d forever wrangle both of us. I’m surprised he didn’t die of an aneurism instead.”

Sherlock feels himself baring his teeth. “What do you want?!"

“Just to talk.”

“I--“

Not to you, simpleton.” He lifts his dark gaze past Sherlock. “Doctor Watson. How was your trip?”

John doesn’t answer. Sherlock sees his knuckles whiten further, in their trembled clench at his sides. For a terrifying moment, he fears that the soldier is going to lunge, after all.

Moriarty takes a few sashaying steps across the deck, coming to rest equidistant between them. “Did you know,” he croons sweetly, “that the terms gallant and gallivant are thought to be derived from the same word origin? Hmm. Seems counter-intuitive in this case. Doesn’t it?”

John remains silent, his eyes flitting between his daughter’s small form and her captor’s face.

“You’ve had over twelve hours with nothing to do but consider the matter. Surely some of that time has been spent assigning responsibility for this—“

“Entirely on you.” There is a murderous narrowing of the father’s eyes.

A long pause. “But we all know...” the smile that Moriarty gives him is almost gentle. “...that’s not quite true.”

John swallows.

Sing-song. “Oh well. It was just an idea.” Moriarty turns leisurely back to Sherlock, reaching up with his free hand to tap his own forehead lightly with a flourish. “Gawd... I almost don’t want this game to be over; you two are soooo entertaining. Maybe I’ll just let the three of you leave here alive tonight; we can play again ANYTIME.” The last word is mouthed, with an exaggerated flash of teeth. “Either way; do you want to know how the story ends?” He strokes Abby’s head again.

A terrible consequence of their like-mindedness is that the high-functioning sociopath deduces what Moriarty is going to say, a second before he says it. His heart sinks.

“Someone...” He pulls a gun—John’s—from his coat, holds it up as if considering which one of them to offer it to, “...is going to have to make a choice.”

“Boring,” Sherlock counters. “Now who’s being melodramatic?” But the hoarseness in his throat completely betrays his one true thought. Please, no.

“Yeah, you’re right. Tonight it is, then. Let’s just be done with it.”

He feels John’s eyes darting frantically to him. Plan, Sherlock. Dear, God, you DO have a plan, right?

Sherlock is standing less than two feet from the pool’s edge. He holds Moriarty’s gaze and takes a small sliding step, straight backwards toward it. His voice is dull. “Let’s reduce the choices, then.”

“Oh... good.” The other man’s eyes light with appreciation. “Perhaps I’ve underestimated you. You always seem to find a third option, don’t you, Sherl?”

Sherlock retreats another step. His heels reach the edge. The laser’s glow shifts higher on him, but remains. They consider each other silently.

How do you know I won’t just kill them both after anyway?

Because I DID call the police, you moron. In the absence of my brother’s finesse, you’ll want to get out of here without actual blood on your hands. Besides, neither of us believes in a Heaven or Hell to watch from. After I’m gone, what does the game matter?

I’ll admit; I’m fascinated to see you try it. Do you really think you can?

Let’s find out.

Oh, but it’s not like falling, Sherlock. The mad criminal glances at the water’s eerie surface with an almost child-like curiosity. Once your brain is overcome; don’t you think your instinct is going to kick in? Thrashing and clinging; desperate to breathe...

“Please.” John’s voice is broken and raw in Sherlock’s ears, though it’s not apparent to whom the desperate entreaty is directed.

Without looking at him, Sherlock shakes his head slightly.

And hears him again. “Please—“

“Put my daughter down. Now.”

They hadn’t heard Mary arrive. None of them.

With a brisk movement that suggests an uncharacteristic astonishment, Moriarty pivots. The figure in the black maw of an open doorway across the pool from them steps carefully forward. A red laser-sight falls on her as she does so, but she takes no notice of it. Her own gun is trained on the man holding her child.

“Do it. And I’ll let you walk out of here.”

“Tsk, tsk, Ms. Morstan. You weren’t invited this time.”

“It’s Watson.” Her voice is quiet, but echoes off the pool’s surface toward them. “Put her down carefully.”

“Bit risky, that shot you’re aiming... isn’t it?” his madly-confident tone is still slightly tinged with shock, though he’s recovering quickly.

“Don’t see much of a choice in the matter.”

“How’s your vision?”

“Not at all chemically-affected. Tea drugged with iocaine powder? You’d have to do better than that.” The mother’s smooth words are almost sing-song as well, in a way that sends a shiver up Sherlock’s spine. “Besides. In any case, I’m a pretty good shot.”

“That, you are.” His voice is now deadly and iron-hard.

And so is hers. “On balance, though, I’d rather you put her down. Come on, Jim. Walk out of here. Live to play your silly game another day.”

Moriarty pauses, but then takes three sauntering paces forward and passes the still-dreaming Abby nonchalantly into Sherlock’s trembling arms. The taller man clutches her frantically, keeping his feet planted, but turning her away from the red target that shifts on his torso. She stirs on his shoulder, murmuring in half-sleep.

“Love her name, by the way. Who chose it?” Jim then backs away from them, looking pointedly into Mary’s eyes. His bridled rage has taken on a slight hint of a something else; something unspoken and maliciously joyful. “I think that apostrophe’s going to have to move, though, don’t you?” he adds, mysteriously.

She ignores the question. “Keep walking.”

He acquiesces. “You’re a bit short-sighted, though, aren’t you, dear?” His gaze flickers to the darkened gallery above the pool. “And disillusioned. Oh. And a dead-woman.”

“And I’m one more thing.”

But Moriarty never hears her whisper the word liar. The look that Jim wears, milliseconds before the bullet cherishes his face, is one of surprise.

Abby wakes and wails. John and Sherlock shudder in startled reactions, quickly jerking their attention between their glowing torsos and the gallery, shouting Don’t Move! simultaneously at each other, before turning their shocked faces back to the woman across the water. Mary’s shoulders sag with relief as she watches Moriarty’s body fall. She looks at her husband and deliberately takes a step to the left as she lowers the rifle. The red dot on her own body disappears into the darkness behind her. She then returns to her original position. The dot reappears, wavering slightly. She looks down at it. “Huh. Bit windy up there.”

It takes Sherlock an eternity of seconds to get it. “His snipers aren’t there.”

“Not anymore.” She tilts her head a fraction, beginning to allow herself to breathe heavily. “At least, not in the manner he was expecting.”

John is fidgeting, expecting the sting of a bullet, shuffling his feet as if he wants to move and still unsure if he can. “You...?

“Lucky you two didn’t move very much in the end. And you kept him talking.”

Please tell me...” Sherlock gasps...

And he stands, soothing Abby, while John quickly checks the corpse.

And Mary stares at him.

Shaking slightly. In shock? Relief? Fatigue?

Fury?

“That... thing... that you did...”

Don’t drop her don’t drop her don’t drop...

“...that you offered to do... that was, um... good.” It’s only with the waver in her voice that Sherlock notices she’s paler than he’s ever seen her... and nodding reflexively, fully lowering and then leaning on the rifle weakly, as if her muscles are as drained and non-responsive as his.

John has closed the distance across the deck to them. He takes Abby, who promptly buries her face in his neck. For a moment, with the weight adjust, the two men lean on each other. His breath is next to Sherlock’s ear. “You alright?”

Sherlock has no words. He nods faintly, trying to blink away the black pixels that are eating their way inwards from the borders of his vision.

“Thank you. God... thank you.” And then, John’s warmth is gone; he is striding toward his now-running wife, the both of them embracing and sinking to their knees around their whimpering child.

For what?! Almost getting her killed?! Sherlock suddenly realizes that, in the child’s absence, he is hugging himself, rubbing his arms with the same motion. He stops, trying to collect his wits. Something isn’t right here. Something is still off.

“...were brilliant. You were terrifying,” John is gasping reverently into Mary’s hair, with his weak, nervous laughter that accompanies a close call. “I can’t believe you pulled that off. The way you spoke to him...”

The way he spoke to you.

You weren’t invited.

This time.

Sherlock lowers to one knee, staring at John’s hunched shoulder and Mary’s eyes over it. He loses the sensation of sound for a few moments; thunder rising in his ears, punctuated by his own heaving breath. You. Who are you...?

She stares at him.

Sherlock feels his cheek and jaw twitch with rage and fear. If you ever bring either of them to harm—

But it’s like looking in a mirror.

—either of them to harm, I will END you, she promises him.

And then she does something Sherlock’s never seen her do.

Cry.

“I’m tired,"  she says, in a low, strained voice, thick with emotion, “of having my family be nothing more than collateral damage to a madman.”

Abby sobs in strings of primary consonants, switching from the “d” to the “m” as she’s shifted into Mary’s arms and the crack-shot assassin kisses her soundly. John presses his lips to his wife’s forehead, squeezing his eyes shut as he does so, trembling with relief.

It’s not a game.

Sherlock swallows. His mouth still tastes like blood.

They remain like that a few minutes, collecting themselves. The child’s murmurs subside to weak sniffles, hidden in the side of her mother’s neck. Her father turns from them, circling his gaze back toward the dead man on the deck. He inquires slowly, “What... do you suppose he meant... when he said...?”

It doesn’t matter anymore, Mary implores Sherlock with her eyes.

“John.” Sherlock stands. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”

The soldier stands as well and hovers over his family, his eyes darting around. “We need to go. There will be more of them—“

Mary shakes her head, looking at Sherlock. “I don’t think so, do you?”

The gears are still grinding, trying to catch up. He reaches into his pocket, pulling out his silenced phone, reading the text there. Will follow your lead; 9pm. Hope you know what you’re doing. “You do need to go. Lestrade will be here any minute.”

The Watsons’ incredulous voices overlap each other. “You called the police?!”

“Of course I called the police!” Sherlock shuffles on his feet. “Well. Anderson’s personal voicemail. With precise instructions. Which I knew he wouldn’t check until...”

John looks at Mary with alarm.

But she’s already calming down, standing next to him and rocking Abby gently. “I’m not running. I’m tired of that too.”

“You’ll be investigated—”

“It will be fine,” Sherlock murmurs, standing over the faceless Moriarty and suppressing the urge to give the corpse a swift kick. He glances back at the properly beautiful triumvirate of the family in front of him and sets his voice to be carefully neutral. “She was just a terrified mother whose child was threatened. She managed to make a lucky escape and a very, very lucky shot.”

“And what if they discover the truth—?!“

“John.” It’s Mary’s turn to laugh weakly. “That is the truth.”

 

...

 

It takes a long time to get back home. Though not, John muses, as long as he’d expected. There is, of course, the tired and distressed toddler to consider. And this night’s portion of the ensuing investigation goes smoothly. They quickly but expertly corroborate their respective narratives; choosing some words with care, omitting others with convenience. They provide enough plausible explanations, while glossing over certain details that can be filled in subconsciously by the imaginations of their scrutineers.

They lie, without directly lying. The three of them are very good at this sort of thing, after all.

At Mary’s justification of her skill-set with a subtly-truncated curriculum vitae, Lestrade raises an eyebrow at John. Your wife. I should have guessed.

But now, John is finally seated on the edge of his bed, resisting the urge to check his sleeping daughter again. After nearly forty-five hours of wakefulness, he’s never felt further from the desire to rest. His fingers twitch.

Mary enters, from Abby’s adjacent room. “We should try to get some—“

“Where do you keep the gun?” John asks, softly. His is, unfortunately, in the Yard’s evidence lockers. The rifle from the pool, fortuitously obtained from Moriarty’s men by a not-so-drugged Mary, is also in police storage.

She blinks. “I don’t have a—“

“Yes you do.” It’s been an unspoken bone of contention since Magnussen’s office. Of course Mary would not keep a gun in the house, just as John’s is always kept locked up and unloaded. Of course. They’re not insane, after all. He turns his stony eyes to her. “Get it.”

She avoids actually answering the non-question, choosing to drop to one knee in front of him, taking his hands in hers. “John, listen. There is no one coming.”

He drops his voice a further notch, though the pace is a hushed frenzy. “Why are you so sure? Why are there two junior officers in that security car out front—both either sleeping or watching EastEnders reruns on their phones, likely—what on earth did you tell Lestrade to convince him that this isn’t serious...”

“They’re not the only two. But believe me,” she intertwines their fingers gently, “we won’t need any of them. It’s over.”

“He headed a massive underground criminal organization! If even Sherlock couldn’t rout them all out...”

Headed. I took care of that head, if you’ll recall.”

“He must have had a second-in-command—“

Mary leans in closer, on both knees now, taking John’s face tenderly between her hands. A surprised thought occurs to John, amongst the horde of grim ones, that this is the first time they have touched in this way in months, with the exception of the earlier reactive relief of the pool deck. He slips his arms around her as well, the warmth of her body beneath his hands making his eyes sting.

“What do massive underground criminal organizations care about?”

“I don’t see how that—“

“John. Think about it.”

So he does. “Money. Territory. Power.”

She nods. “Exactly. It really doesn’t pay in any of those things to care about the minutia of the personal lives of two ridiculous men.” 

John stares at her incredulously. “You’re saying...?”

“Honestly: his interest in Sherlock never struck you as a bit too... personal?” She strokes his cheek softly. “I think that, while alive, he was extremely powerful. Dead... well.” She tilts her head to one side. “We probably did a number of people a favour tonight. I don’t think anyone’s going care enough to take up his torch. Do you?”

It’s John’s turn to blink, feeling as if someone is removing gauze from his view. “But I... God. When we got his message. It’s like he was some kind of demon that couldn’t be killed.”

“You saw his face yourself. Or lack thereof.”

He shakes his head, eyes wet. “I know it’s crazy, but I don’t think I’ll easily forget the idea that he could just keep coming back from the dead.”

She squeezes his shoulder reassuringly. “Well, if he does, we’ll just keep shooting him,” she jokes.

Despite enigma-wrapped riddle that is their marriage, there is still something about Mary’s manner that has always had a soothing effect upon him. With a harkening of the first time she had witnessed him weeping, John feels a sudden loosening of the words lodged in his throat. “I thought I’d lost you,” he whispers brokenly.

Something shifts in Mary’s eyes; like a curtain suddenly thrown back, revealing her astonishment that he’s said this, as if it’s the last thing she’s expected. Her scant sway at his words triggers something in their mutual gravity and John slides from the bed’s edge, crushing her to him as they crash to the floor, his lips shaking on her cheekbone. And then, they’re kissing. Not like a couple of old-marrieds. Not like a couple of hush-you’ll-wake-the-baby, did-you-put-out-the-bins, where’s-my-keys, I’m-still-basically-pissed-off old-marrieds.

Not by far.

Timing, not-good, John thinks, and doesn’t care; breathing in her hair, her skin, her hitching gasps under his mouth. He doesn’t remember the last time they were both as mutually ragged with want as they are now. But it’s more than the just deviant needs of danger-junkie Watson that his left-brain usually rebukes him for. These are somehow also mixed up with the memory of Mary rocking their child, of Mary putting basil in the bread she bakes because she knows he likes it, of Mary wearing a black toque with a silly pom-pom—who else would wear a toque, for Christ's sake?—and John smiles fondly against his wife’s soft throat and marvels at how he’d ever questioned this as the most natural thing. Of course they should, in an hour of trouble, instinctively seek each other’s comfort.

Of course.

So he’s surprised, a few minutes later, when he’s beginning to subvert their bothersome clothing, that Mary suddenly stills beneath him. He halts as well, initially alarmed and listening. No; there is no sound other than their hushed pants and Abigail’s quiet nearby snores.

But it isn’t that. Mary shuts her eyes and presses her lips together. “John. I—“

He waits, with the feeling of something just slipped from his grasp.

“Can’t.” This one word is cracked. She swallows, returning to her own, level voice for the ones that follow. “Sorry. Just not now, okay?”

His slicked fingers twitch in defiance, just barely, in their place. Woman, you’ve got to be kidding me. But he begins to withdraw. “Did I--?”

She keeps a steady gaze with him, even though her explanation is tentative. “No. I want to, I truly do. We’ll come back to this, I promise, but I can’t right now. It’s just been a really long, difficult... Weird. Day. Don’t you think?”

He does. It’s pretty hard to argue with that.

They stand up, collect themselves awkwardly, take quick turns in the bathroom, prepare for sleep. Meeting again at the foot of it, John glances at the bed that they’ve recently sporadically and methodically shared. “Should I--?”

She purses her lips together. “Stay. If you want. I’d like...” She sighs, the narrative completely failing her this time.

“...me to just hold you?” John completes, with a half-smile.

She wrinkles her nose. “Yeah, but don’t make me ask you like that.”

“If anyone inquires, I’ll tell them it was my idea.”

In the warm darkness, they murmur I love yous and I knows. John sinks into a peace in his heart and rests with his nose at her nape, his arm around her waist. He feels like laughing, like crying, like praying for forgiveness and gratitude as immense as the sea. My beautiful child, safe and sound and four strong walls around us. The life I thought I’d lost in a day given back to me, even though I don’t deserve it. My beautiful wife; officially the cleverest person in the world.

He hears Mary smile against the pillow. “Captain. Try to holster that gun, will you?”

John chuckles and shifts his hips slightly. “Sorry. Just a reminder to dream of me. Maybe you’ll wake up wanting to pick up where we left off.”

 

...

 

John Watson is no stranger to nightmares.

More times than he’d rather count, he’s woken in a sheen of sweat and a net of sheets; a cry in his throat that he isn’t sure whether it has just happened, or is just about to. He seems to always be trapped in-between, in the vacuum, in something that has stolen his voice. He’s quietly drowning in it.

In recent years, it has often been a rushing torrent of air... or, perhaps, a lack thereof; the eye of the storm. A falling, sucking funnel; a lurch of gravity. Dark wingspan spread above him. Time and time again, he drowns, in that shattering before the impact.

Sometimes it’s sand. A billion shifting grains that lodge in his eyes, his ears, his throat, his lungs, his veins. The wind washes over the sifting plains until the air is ground; the ground is air. Slick with blood and turning the sand to mud, he writhes in it, trying to swim to a surface that won’t emerge. Breathless and buried.

Sometimes... rarely enough now, but still... it’s just pain. Shaking, shaming, squeezing, sickening. A bend bend bend unbelievably bent until nopleaseiwon’teveragainSNAPHe drowns in tears; drowns in the silence that follows them.

It’s never actually been water.

Until now.

Nebulous threads of light; a liquid cross-hatch of patterns emerge. Waves, ripples, displacement. Darkness. Depth. John’s limbs thrash in the cold thickness. He opens his mouth and his lungs fill with it, as he tries to implore the shape just beyond his grasp to reach for him. He isn’t sure whether he swims up or down, whether he’s trying to rescue or be rescued. He isn’t sure whether the cry has just happened or is just about to.

But the name. It’s not Mary’s. 

It’s never Mary’s.

The world is suddenly solid. Ankles shackled in sheets. He claps a hand over his mouth. Surely not.

“What’s wrong?” she asks softly, from beside him, in a voice that does not even remotely sound just-woken.

“Nothing.” He wipes his eyes in the pitch of their room. “I’m alright.”

 

...

 

It seems that Mary is correct. The Yard investigates, but processes her story without complication. It really isn’t fair, but generally, women—mothers, to be exact—have a slight biological advantage in navigating these sorts of matters. Whatever the reason, John is thankful.

And no one comes to kill them.

The boys check up on each other, as best mates are wont to do, of course, after a brush with death.

“How’s Mary?” Mrs Hudson’s voice is loud and bright in John’s receiver.  “How’s the little one?”

He smiles.  It’s her third time calling him in as many days.  “Fine.  They’re fine.”  He isn’t sure how much Sherlock has revealed, if anything at all, and so keeps the details vague.  “How is your lodger?”

“Still not at home.  Staying with that lovely detective friend of yours.  Guess he has some room...” she switches to her gossip-whisper “…what with the divorce and all.”  And then, returning to louder-than-necessary conversation, “Keeping him out of trouble.  They’re getting on fabulously, I’m told.”

John’s ears detect the faint hint of violin, as if coming from above Mrs. Hudson’s kitchen.  “Is that Tchaikovsky I hear?”

“Oh.  That.”  She pauses.  “I’ve got the radio on.”

“Ah.”

“Love Auntie Beeb, you know.  So much better than what I had to endure in the States.”

“True.”  He coughs.  “If you see him… erm.  Well.  I hope his tooth is feeling better.”

She lowers her voice again and, this time, it’s admonishing.  “For shame, John.  I’m your landlady—“

“Former.”

“—not your messenger,” she scolds him quietly.  “You both have your own phones.  Use them.”

But John is busy.

Busy with a holiday; the three Watsons drive along the Welsh coast, enjoying the seaside and staying in small, out-of-the-way places.  They are greeted with smiles and told what a charming family they are. It’s delightfully uneventful.  What could possibly ever happen in Wales?

Busy with the surgery upon his return.  Patients have piled up with their various mundane complaints and… well, their piles.  It’s delightfully boring.  It’s the safest job in the world.

Busy with reading stories and assisting the toddling steps of the only one who, fortunately, appears uncannily unscathed by the recent events.  Abby only notices and questions the sudden disappearance of her favourite blocks, but John has packed them back in the box, unsure of when he’ll be able to bear the sight of them again, if ever. They enroll in parent-and-tot swimming lessons.  Abby is learning to blow bubbles and everyone they meet tells him how precious she is.

He and Mary continue to glance over their shoulders and jump at small noises and large shadows, but the nerves lessen with each day. It drives them into a more companionable routine than the past year of their marriage. They do not revisit the bedroom floor—nor the bed, the shower, the kitchen counter or any other plausible surface—as John had hoped, but the polite normalcy works and it’s relieving; tinged with a new respect for the way they can rely on each other in the ways that life necessitates.

We’ll figure it out, he thinks. We have the rest of our lives.

Busy is good.  If he’s busy, he almost forgets how arduous it is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It helps, this balancing act, with managing the voices in his head that tell him to take his daughter from her childcare and his wife from her job and sit with them in a bastion of hearth and home, brandishing his clenched fists against all the dark things that could surround them. And the others. The ones that tell him to throw open the shutters and scream at the wind.

If he’s busy, he almost forgets that he wants to split Sherlock’s lip just to see the blood run. And to have an excuse to stitch it.

If he’s busy he almost forgets that his four walls do not protect absolutely everyone that he loves.

It is four weeks and two days since the pool, when John finds himself sitting at his desk, phone in hands.

Where are you?

He’s not expecting an answer now; he’s just floating the general question out on the ether... Sherlock will respond to it when he sees it, which could very well be—

At home.

Creaky steps and tiny kitchen, wafts of sandwich-air; ridiculous wallpaper. John smiles in relief, in spite of himself. I’ve not seen you since...   He stops. Changes the last word to something else.

In ages. You alright?

The phone indicates that Sherlock is typing. Typing, typing. Whatever the response is, it’s definitely detailed—

Yep.

John waits.

When there’s nothing further, he asks What are you up to tonight?

Minutia.

Come by for a visit then.

What for?

John sighs, reminding himself that this is no different from Sherlock’s usual oblivious bluntness, and then smirks, guiltily considering the potential exchanges that could follow.

Or I’ll come there, I wouldn’t mind seeing Mrs H. I’ll set up the telly, we could watch a match.

86 minutes of sheer-boredom interspersed with 4-8 minutes of near-boredom. Your team is about to get knocked out on penalties. Pass.

A film then? I could pick up that Nolan one I told you about.

Yankie garbage. An exasperating dream-within-a-dream plot device with a grating horn-blast soundtrack. I can feel my neurons expiring already.

Fine. How about I cuff you to the bed and just shag you senseless, you insufferable git?

Don’t see the point.

To get laid, idiot. To let loose. To GET OFF. John chews on the inside of his cheek. To kick at the darkness until it—

He doesn’t type any of this, of course, especially not the truth that would be obvious to anyone but Sherlock Holmes: You almost died, right in front of me. Again. Just let me be with you. I don’t even care how.

Best to stick with the suggestion that Sherlock never refuses.

Could do a case.

There is a long pause.

John adds, Nothing crazy. Just a three, or whatever. Surely you’ve got something boring in your inbox.

No response. Either Sherlock has gotten tired of the conversation or he’s lit some minutia on fire and is looking for the extinguisher.

Okay. Well, I’m off early from the surgery on Thursday. Why don’t you see what Lestrade’s got in the unsolved files and we can—

But as he is typing this, Sherlock’s reply comes.

I think we should take a break from cases, John.

 

...

Chapter Text

There are more cases, of course.

This is Sherlock Holmes, after all—the famous detective in the funny hat—and his assistant, Doctor John Hamish Watson. They solve mysteries. The very fabric of what they are isn’t going to change stripes in the eyes of all the world just because some upstart narrator comes along to put different words in their mouths.

So, of course there are more cases.

It begins with Mike Stamford.

“You’d better come to the hospital,” he tells John on the phone, after the tense moment of the quick and awkward salutations that befit acquaintances who haven’t seen each other in ages, and of one who carries ill tidings. “It looks like he’s gotten himself into a bit of trouble...” And before John can barely squeeze out his insistence that he hasn’t been welcome lately to assist in any of Sherlock’s experiments, Mike clarifies; “No. Not the lab.”

John enters the hospital room to find the amateur detective supine with a deathly pale visage beneath a fever-sheen and blood-blistered cheeks. He pauses to quickly skim the chart on the door and confirms, with dread, what Stamford had relayed. In an instant, he is at his friend’s side. “Sherlock?” When he receives no answer, and notices that the finger-tip heart monitor has slipped off, the doctor reaches for the lifeless hand, fearing that he is too late. “Don’t leave me again, you unbelievable bastard.” The dearth of pulse at the wrist wrenches something free inside John and tears spill hotly down his cheeks. He brings the cool fingers of the dying detective to his shaking lips and sobs his never-before-spoken regrets against it, no longer caring who may overhear and that people will talk.

“Not the confession I was looking for today,” the deep baritone startles him, “nor the confessor. But, on balance, I suppose this is a much better outcome than exposing the unethical field-testing practices of Viadoxic Pharma Incorporated.”

John is speechless with shock and rage. It’s at least half a minute before he can choke anything out and, when he does, all he is able to articulate is; “Squash ball?”

Sherlock reaches sheepishly into the armpit of his hospital gown.

By straddling the patient in the bed and enclosing hands about his throat, John truly intends only to murder him. But Sherlock is suddenly even more sheepish; blushing in a way that is apparent even beneath the make-up and against the dusky discolouring that the pressure against his carotids brings, as the hardness between them suddenly solidifies in the doctor’s consciousness.

“You said such sweet things—“ the patient gasps, in explanation, trying futilely to cross his legs.

“I’m going to kill you,” John promises.

Sherlock manages to wrest a hand free and hold it up between them, as if he’s mildly worried about his nose and teeth. “Now, wait... before you do something you’ll regret...”

“I think that ship has sailed, Sherlock!”

“...were you even listening to a single thing that I said?!”

John blinks. “Viadoxic?”

“Not relevant.”

“Field-testing.”

“Closer.” Sherlock tilts his head up and kisses him, tentatively, beside his mouth. “Better outcome?

For the next few minutes, it is a very good thing that the patient is, in fact, not actually wired to any of the monitors.

“Stop,” John gasps against Sherlock’s open mouth, their bodies refusing to do anything resembling the command in the slightest. “We have to stop.”

“S’rry,” Sherlock mumbles, shutting his eyes and turning his face to the left. “Perhaps I was correct. If we just don’t see each other anym—“

“Not always,” John clarifies. “Just right at this moment...”

“Oh.”

“Because a nurse is probably going to look in soon.”

“Right.”

“And I passed a small man in a very important-looking suit on the way in. Pretty sure he was looking over your file.”

Sherlock’s reply is lost in ambivalent and wet-sounding vowels against John’s collarbone.

“If you don’t pull it together,” the doctor persists, “the game is going to be—“

Up.” Accompanied by a skyward thrust of hips against John’s and hopeless snickering by both of them. But somehow, they manage to detangle themselves. Sherlock looks down along himself. “You’d better stall them.”

“You think?!”

“Oh, yes.” He twitches in the tented sheet with a mischievous grin. “If this gets reported as a side-effect...”

“...they’ll sell more than Viagra.”

More snickering. But as their laughter—and other side-effects—fade, Sherlock’s improbably blue eyes take on a wistful longing. “Did you really m—?“

“Every word.”

Footsteps echoing down the hallway.

“And not just because you thought I was—?“

“Not just.”

“I do too, you know. Always.”

“We are complete idiots.” John shakes his head. “What are we going to d—?”

“Case,” Sherlock hisses, shutting his eyes.

“I hope you’re happy,” John thunders over his shoulder as the door opens, his fingers deftly working at the sleep-feigning patient’s IV. “He’s febrile and tachycardic. He’d be dead if I hadn’t stopped this drip! How many unwitting patients have you subjected to this type of reckless off-label use...?”

And so, the consulting detective and the army doctor proceed to prove something ridiculous about Viadoxic Inc’s manipulation of tropical neurotoxins in their aggressively-promoted antibiotics.

And so, there are more cases.

They try to talk about it, but of course neither has ever had a good way with words. They try to keep it professional... to keep it purely collegial... only to discover that it’s not just the thrill of puzzle-solving and the prospect of a good run that gets their blood pounding.

But they are Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

They solve mysteries.

The next time, there’s the case where they think they have several hours of stifling underground darkness to endure—just the two of them—in the vaults below the Coburg branch of the City and Suburban Bank, waiting for the team of robbers to make their appearance. Sherlock is in a terse mood, coiled tighter than clockwork and fidgeting like a stalled second-hand. John considers attempting conversation, but decides it’s only going to result in an argument that will have them forgetting themselves and giving away their presence to their unsuspecting quarry. Besides... he can think of better uses for his quiet tongue, and the whisper of loosened trousers and bared skin hardly makes any noise at all. In the dim glow of their small torch, he watches his partner’s head tilt back and his throat open in a silent, startled oh of pleasure as John’s mouth closes around him and Sherlock’s vast lens of analytical attention zeros in on a few inches of flesh.

Lamentably, it is only a few minutes before a faint hint of distant digging sounds and light through the cracks between the stones curtails this experiment.

Sherlock, flushed and weak-legged, barely able to stand, stammers out; I had... NO idea... it... felt that g—

Do you see now? John whispers. This is why people do this sort of thing.

The knees, Sherlock gasps.

What?!

The knees of your trousers, he ejaculates, unfortunately only in the oratory sense of the word, through broken breath.

Christ, John mutters. What do I care what bank robbers think?

They proceed to daringly solve the case. It’s something ridiculous about an association of red-heads.

Then there’s the one where they’re bound by duty to travel farther afield, due to a the queer behaviour of a wealthy spinster and her brother. Since they’re in Somerset county with a few hours to kill and the fishing is reportedly good, they attempt Sally Donovan’s suggestion of a more wholesome activity for a couple of blokes. A heated dispute about appropriate bait results in an accidental soaking of most of John’s clothing. After this, it just makes sense to find a respectable inn to clean up and dry out in comfort. The only available room is one that could only generously be called quaint. The towels are threadbare and diminished by years of repeated washings. The walls are decked out, floor-to-ceiling, in a slightly garish yellow-rose print. To John’s eyes, Sherlock actually appears momentarily shy and reluctant, as he sits on the corner of the bed and begins to launch into a rapid-fire elucidation of the dual connotations of the flower’s significance in Victorian times. But this is soon forgotten... as is also the case, the dietary habits of trout and pike, the entire west wing of the Mind Palace, and perhaps even the entirety of Sherlock’s own name... several minutes later, when John reaches between their bared bodies and strokes them together in a confident grip. This time, neither is quiet. In the end, Sherlock wins, both by a few seconds and possibly a few decibels, demonstrating an impressive acquaintance with words that John has rarely heard him deign to utter in previous dialogues.

What were you... saying before... about the... patterns of the wall-paper? John teases, as they collapse on the Green Dragon’s heinously-decorated and now thoroughly-debauched bedspread.

Huh? Sherlock gasps articulately, mussed hair spread damply on the pillow. Don’t r‘member.

See? And John loses half of his own response to breathlessness...why people do this... into Sherlock’s nape.

And so, they solve the Shoscombe case too. Something about a curious incident with a dog that barks (not to be confused with one that doesn’t... the devil, as always, is in the details).

But wait... hold on a mo’.

You honestly didn’t think it would all be that easy, did you?

Ifs and buts.

In fact, none of it actually happens that way.

Back up a bit. 

It happens like this...

 

 

...

 

 

Mike Stamford does call John. John does race to the hospital room. And Sherlock does look like bloody hell; a slicked forehead, dark-hollowed eyes, reddened cheeks and crusts around his lips. He breathes like he’s not long for the world.

John sighs. He reaches over and adroitly withdraws his thumb from Sherlock’s temple. “Vaseline?” Then, the corner of his mouth. “And beeswax... clever. Well, I suppose the residents and nurses are keeping their distance, given how infectious you look. Morons. How long did you honestly think you could keep this ruse up before someone found your squash ball?”

Sherlock’s fingers twitch and he keeps his face still and his voice quiet through his rapid-fire rebuttal. “I only need another ten minutes on this drip to prove that the use of this treatment is a reckless rush-to-market product that will result in the deaths of at least ten percent of the patients it is used with.”

“And what if you wind up being one of the ten percent?”

“Not a chance; I don’t have a heart condition and I also have the antidote in my other armpit. Although that outcome might have actually proved my point a little better—“

“You might have informed me,” John scolds, stopping the drip and feeling a mixture of relief and irritation but absolutely nothing resembling arousal. “I may have been able to advise you better, you know; since you’re hell-bent on being an under-cover patient.”

“Well I’m not NOW,” Sherlock glowers at him, wiping the rouge from his cheek and tilting his head over John’s shoulder to indicate the figure in the doorway.

“I should have you arrested for mischief and slander,” the short, balding, suited man tosses at him. “But watching you play your silly game is endless fun.”

“Not endless, Mr Smith.”

“Good day, Mr Holmes. Get out of my hospital, before I call security again.”

Sherlock appears to remain aggravated with John for the bungled case, as the two have minimal contact until late summer, and a text entices the doctor to collaborate on an unusual mystery.

“Why don’t we just go down there?” John asks, feeling bored, watching the closed-captioned security feed, from their safe location in the brightly-lit room that is stories above where the criminals are making their laborious basement excavations. He stands fidgeting, leaning on the table, with Sherlock at his side. And Lestrade. And agent Jones, assisting on the case. And... some other fellow, his name momentarily escaping John; a thin, sad-faced man.

Sherlock scoffs in his direction; “What for? Unnecessary risk... we’re about to get them on tape.”

Lestrade rubs his hands gleefully together. “Not like the Waters gang... it’s like this Clay fellow has never heard of security cameras. Still. Imaginative bloke. Might have pulled it off, in another century.”

John ribs Greg. “Wouldn’t it be more fun to be down there, though? Get them right when they burst through that wall?”

“I’m not quite sure why you’re here,” the thin man—Merryweather, the bank manager, John suddenly remembers—turns to him.

“I... was invited,” the doctor stammers defensively. “I’m another consulting detective...”

“Nope,” Sherlock interjects shortly.

John looks at his tall friend, who does not return the glance, and remembers their previous texts.

I don’t need you to come, I just wanted your opinion on the probability of recessive alleles on the 16th chromosome.

Surely you can Google that? What about the bank? Should I bring my gun?

Your personal experience, then. No, do not bring your gun. It’s not big or dangerous. In fact, don’t come at all; I wasn’t trying to recruit you.

“I’m his blogger,” he corrects. “I’m indispensible.”

Lestrade nods his assent. Merryweather looks dubious.

“I help out a bit,” John concludes.

“Closer,” Sherlock concedes.

On the screen, the stone wall of the bank’s basement vault cracks with torch-light and a delicate white hand slips through. John breathes an elated yes though his teeth.

“Go get ’em, boys,” Lestrade mutters into a radio.

The five men stand around the crowded, brightly-lit room, as the aftermath plays out on the television.

“So, that’s it, then,” John narrates, awkwardly.

“It would seem so.” Sherlock puts on his coat and nods to Lestrade, Jones and Merryweather. “Later.”

John follows him out the door. “Bye.”

The streets are abuzz with revelers in the late-July Saturday evening. They share a cab, since they are initially going the same way. Seems like the thing to do.

“Aren’t you hot in that thing?” John swirls a finger in the direction of the ever-raised coat collar. “This summer has just been... oppressive.”

Sherlock ignores the comment and attempts chatting, as always, in a trying-to-be-anything-but-awkward tone. “How’s Mary?”

“Fine,” John answers. He masticates the thought for a few moments. “Alright, I guess.”

Sherlock nods, but says nothing.

“I don’t know if she would tell me if she weren’t,” John adds, quickly, almost under his breath. “Lately, we’re like ships that pass in the night.” He’s not sure if it’s out of resentment or guilt or just run-of-the-mill loneliness that he offers this admission. He’s not sure why he’s offering it. Sherlock doesn’t understand these things and never spends a shred of thought considering them. John switches gears. “Abby’s growing like a weed.”

“Given the ultimate height of both of you, I’m sure that will taper off in no time,” his companion responds, but with a smile in his voice, as he keeps his head turned away from John.

“Bedtime is still an epic battle,” he adds, chuckling. “Every night, we’re lucky if she goes down by half-nine. We’ve tried lullabies, mobiles, that white-noise machine...”

“Birds,” Sherlock says.

“Hmm?”

“She likes stories about animals,” he reminds John. “Especially birds.”

“I do tell her stories,” John replies indignantly. “It keeps her up even more.”

“Time better-spent, though.” John hears the smile deepening, and an under-breath of something including the apple and the tree. Sherlock speaks up again; “She just doesn’t want to miss anything.”

She misses you, John thinks, but does not say; as he recalls Abby, pouting and resolute one day: Other house! John had responded gently, You only have one house, to which his daughter had insisted, The one with the fire. He says instead, “She is still obsessed with the fireplace at Baker Street. We don’t have one. May have to borrow yours, come Christmas-time.”

“I will probably spend Christmas with my parents,” Sherlock intones, “as that responsibility now falls to me.” He turns his head a fraction. “Of course, you still have access to the fireplace with your key, unless you’re willing to give it back...”

John pulls his phone from his pocket and taps through it, wondering if this is an off-handed comment, or if Sherlock is genuinely asking for the key’s return. “I’ve been meaning to text you... case request for you, from the website. Somewhere called Shoscombe Place. Could be interesting.”

“You’re still checking the website?” Sherlock asks, incredulously, but takes the phone in hand for a moment. He scans through the text, then browses the internet for a minute or two, finally handing the phone back to John. “Not worth the drive.”

“Are you sure? It’s just two hours; we could be there and back in an afternoon.”

“Sure. Bankrupt taxidermist brother is pretending that his recently deceased sibling is still alive for the sake of an unclaimed lottery ticket. I’ll email the local force an anonymous tip.”

John huffs out a shocked laugh, but doesn’t doubt the veracity of his genius friend’s deduction. They’ve seen stranger things, after all. “Perhaps you could attach a link to the trailer for Weekend at Bernie’s.”

“Weekend at...?”

“More Hollywood refuse.”

“Hmm.”

John looks down at the phone, hesitant to pocket it. “Even so. Quick case; quick money. And an excuse to go fishing. I hear the pike’s good out there.”

“Why would I want to go fishing?” Sherlock asks, furrowing brow and turning toward him.

“Have you never been?”

“Not in years.”

“We should. It’s relaxing.”

The blue gaze pierces his. “Don’t you think it’s a bit far away from your wife and daughter?”

John bristles. “It’s a day trip,” he repeats. It’s been months. This is the first time I’ve left their side for more than an hour or so to see you in MONTHS, he thinks harshly, in Sherlock’s direction. What should we do, hmm? Cower in fear for the rest of our lives? “Mary would be fine with it,” he justifies.

“She’d probably rather spend the weekend as a family,” Sherlock counters, and John suddenly feels like a suspect under a spotlight. “Are you sure it’s actually Mary’s fault?”

He knows exactly what Sherlock means, but the question falls dumbly from his lips anyway. “What is?”

“The ships’ passing.”

They stare at each other, the air in the cab reverberating between them, as if in the concussions from a slap.

Don’t, Sherlock. Don’t you dare.

The cab pulls up at Baker Street.

You choose her.  

Sherlock gets out without another word.

 

 

...

 

 

He ascends the steps, ignoring the squeak of the third and the drone of one-sided prattle from 221-A. The weekly gossip call to Mrs Turner, no doubt. He stands in his own entrance, casting a sweeping look over the various projects he has set up all over the flat. Aerofoil-scaffold models, wingspan-to-weight ratio calculations.

Minutiae. Boring.

A cursory look in the fridge, with the surprised realization that he’s hungry. Ugh. Though not hungry enough to eat the only contents; half a container of a week-old curry take-away and a tentacled jellyfish specimen; probably poisonous.

He listlessly picks at the pile of papers on the kitchen table, procured earlier in the week from Lestrade’s new and delightfully naïve secretary. Case files. One typed report nags at his consciousness and, though he’s read it twice already, his eyes scan through the text, as if hoping to see something between the lines that he’s failed to see before. Missing person, V. Trevor, age 34. Believed lost at sea... Bereaved partner’s insistence of foul play and watercraft theft... previous harassment complaints but no leads.

Not-boring. But the threads are still too nebulous. Sherlock needs more information.

He checks his email, and then his other emails under his various other names. As if in anticipation of his desire, an invitation awaits.

July 30, 1:30am. Your in.

Excellent. Sherlock smiles, but feels his mouth twist a bit, in abhorrence of much more than the unfortunate grammar. Oh well. Time to add a splash of colour.

In the bathroom, he catches an off-angled view of himself in the mirror as he removes his shirt; sees the purplish gashes that he almost forgets about, as they are only visible when he looks over his shoulder. Tonight, he pauses, neck craning, to consider them in his reflection in the glass. The inventory makes him wince a bit, but he admits that the nearly three-year old road map of torments does add credibility to his current persona even more than the rest of the look will. He makes a mental note to pick a relatively-harmless, mettle-proving fight and make sure his shirt is removed for it. He grins at himself, with the said-mettle that he doesn’t feel, baring his teeth; the left upper incisor still chipped.

What’s the proper word?

Bad-ass.

His eyes drift upward and he returns to facing himself. Remove shirt, but never remove hat? No, too risky. All hats must come off at some point, after all, and his quarry will pay more attention than the subordinates did. Yet still, as he raises them to his head, his fingers pause in the small scissors from the cabinet, momentarily frozen in an old memory.

Don’t fuss over it, Victor had said, helping him dust off and straighten his coat in a manner that was unsolicited, though not unwelcome, and oddly personal for an acquaintance of mere minutes. “You’re too pretty as it is.” The statement had been one that should have been uttered in a jocular chiding tone, but somehow wasn’t.

No, I’m not, Sherlock had responded, but stopped fiddling with his hair and had dropped his gaze to his feet, unable to look directly at the owner of the wayward bull terrier.

Who had laughed, in a hearty, spirited way. And as Sherlock had attempted to shamble lamely away, dripping blood from somewhere near his Achilles, the cheerful young man had offered an easy arm out to him.

C’mon, then. What class were you going to? At least let me help you with that limp.

As Sherlock now recalls the long-ago conversation, he has the distinct sensation of realizing that he’d missed something.

As is his M.O.

I’m not in the habit, he had said at the time, of going off with strangers that call me ‘pretty’.

Apparently, the fellow uni student had missed the cold hard factualism of the reply, and had introduced himself, so that they weren’t ‘strangers’ anymore. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard it before, Victor had then grinned at him, gently taking his arm. Or tell me that you get up out of bed in the morning with your hair that perfect.

Sherlock now swallows a not-boring lump in his throat. He raises the shears once again, hardening the eyes that watch him from the mirror.

Right, then. Into battle.

 

 

...

 

 

By the time John completes the rest of his cab journey, the irritation has burned out, leaving a familiar, tired hollowness in its wake. He’s right, he thinks, realizing that his friend’s expression had not, in fact, been accusatory or judgmental, but simply flat and factual, as it forever is. He’s always right.

He gets out a few miles early, deciding to walk the rest of the way to clear his head. Mary’s not expecting him yet; he had explained he was going to Baker St and would be late... and would possibly even be away the next day, should the next case require them to drive out to Somerset. She had only minimally protested, as if it were out of force of habit, just as John had left his home earlier that afternoon under a habitual mantle of mild defiance. Now, he rambles reluctantly along the stretch of shops and cafes that borders their suburb, his thoughts remaining in 221-B, but coiled around a knot of shame.

You only have one house, John chastises himself firmly, feeling like a stranger that belongs in neither. His feet, which have been shuffling one in front of the other, grind to a halt. He realizes that his leg actually hurts; that it’s been making his gait asymmetrical. He leans on a lamppost for a moment.

It’s just a scratch, he’d said, and actually meant it. Now, he recounts the multitude of shocks of the past six years. And yet, I still try to follow him, like some half-wit. What the hell is wrong with me?

His dreams—both of the day and night variety; of stolen moments in secret or darkness—are just fantasy. John doesn’t actually fear ever slipping down this slope. This would be the case even if the object of John’s affections had not suddenly decided to down-grade him to colleague with scant and sporadic contact—and don’t think I don’t realize what you’re doing, Sherlock—it would be the case regardless. John’s had years to practice his careful restraint; he’s far too adept at this sort of thing.

But it’s more than that. It’s because it isn’t what he really wants... stealing, secrets. Darkness. Not for any of them.

In his head, Sherlock’s desperate voice; What do you want?!

Cases, John thinks, a good run. But this is not entirely true either. Fishing. A rambling walk, in silence or not. Hearing you scrape your bow across the strings. Breakfast. Anything, Sherlock. Are we not even friends anymore, either?

The image of one or the other of them hospital-gowned and IV-tethered pops unbidden into his head. It’s likely an artefact of John’s recent injury and Sherlock’s as-yet-unsolved Viadoxic investigation, but it reminds John how frivolously they have toyed with death and how inevitable it is. Maybe it’ll be another bullet. Or being too close to a blast centre. Or maybe, John muses, as they’ve both apparently lost all taste for dying in a blaze of glory, it’ll just be because they both grow very old and face the finality of boring and banal reasons that normal people find themselves in hospitals.

I see now, Sherlock says quietly, twining his thin fingers into John’s; his voice almost deep and even, his breath almost calm... almost as if he’s not actually afraid anymore... as if he’s immeasurably relieved not to be alone... why people do this sort of thing.

So, you see, Mr Holmes... John ribs him gently from his position, tightly at his side ...but do you understand?

Oh, shut up, Dr Watson. Lips against temple tenderly; firmed and yet shaking. Sherlock’s hair, thick and curly as ever but bright, shining silver; tickling John’s ear. John turns his head and gazes into his partner’s eyes; surrounded by creases, but young none-the-less... eyes that glow, like an inexplicable—

“You’re looking at the wrong one, mate,” a laughing voice from beside him says.

The woman that’s almost walked by, with a crisp pace and a gaggle of friends, is Sally Donovan. She pauses, smiling a greeting at John and tilting her head toward the building that he’s been lost in thought next to. In a series of advert posters on the wall, models are showing off the satin-sheen of their complementary crimson wares. The one on the left is curvaceously sporting Ann Summers. But John’s off-in-space stare, he realizes now, has been on the chiseled Aware-Soho-clad one on the right. He steps back and hopes he isn’t blushing; the stark dichotomy of sex mere feet from his face, yet miles from his consciousness.

He turns to the off-duty sergeant, hackles rising—you narrow-minded bint—but then bites it back. She’s looking at him shyly and attempting, however poorly, to be genuinely funny in acknowledging him. He’s reminded of the fact that she’s been going out of her way to be nice since Sherlock’s mock-demise. He forces a smile of his own and raises a charming brow at Sally & Company. “I was just contemplating how they’d look on me,” he explains smoothly.

The ladies giggle. Sally nods appreciatively. “I knew it. Somewhere under all that conservative plaid, is a pair of red pants.”

He continues to grin, with perhaps too much teeth. “Donovan, you have no idea.” You really don’t.

“Don’t get too excited,” Sally tells her friends. “Mary’s a lucky woman.”

“Abby finally fits into that jumper you got her,” John changes the subject, which makes it easier to keep the set of his mouth in something resembling pleasant. “Looks adorable on her.”

“Oh, but she is adorable,” the normally standoffish cop gushes to her companions. “You should see her hair. And sharp as a tack. The last time John had her at the Yard...”

And as Sally continues to recount Abby’s last visit—without recounting why that visit occurred, of course—the three other woman coo and smile, listening to her description of how the curious little girl had proceeded to serve Lestrade pretend crumpets while adeptly relieving him of a pair of his hand-cuffs.

John wonders now if the ginger-locked munchkin is already sleeping or, in fact, still battling bedtime. More than he’s wanted anything in his life, he suddenly wants to just sit with a story and imitate a chorus of animal noises in the quiet of Abby’s room. He nods his goodnight to Sally and her friends and shuffles off.

The curtains of the front sitting room of their townhouse are open. Through them, John notices Mary by herself on a sitting-room chair, perched as if carved by Rodin. What on earth is she doing? he thinks, then realizes she’s reading something in her hands. Her face is open and soft, unguarded in a way that John rarely sees. She looks tired. Possibly worried; possibly sad...

She looks beautiful, he thinks suddenly, and means it. In something akin to the way he’s supposed to.

You chose her.

John stands, unseen, on the street, as if needing her to glance up... needing an invitation to his own house. Although he doesn’t want to do what he should want to do at this moment—elicit an evening of quiet romance with his wife—the idea of never doing so again aches like a raw wound, worsened only by the idea that this current state of their being is mostly due to his own hesitance in the matter. And partially Mary’s, he thinks ashamedly, probably because she’s worried that you’re shagging an ex-drug-addict on the sly. He tries to remember the last time—before the night after the pool—that they had been remotely intimate, and finds that he can’t.

It’s not like it would have been the LAST time ever, John tells himself firmly. That would be ridiculous. The mustered vigour of his silent promise drifts on an undercurrent of other painful thoughts. If it was... if I’d known... would I have savoured it a little more?

He enters, trying to be as quick and quiet as he can. Mary is still sitting, a cheery welcome upon her face. A magazine is in her hand, almost as if it has been there for ages, as if there had been no fluid brush of her hand in the return journey from the desk drawer. The pale triangle of a paper’s corner barely protrudes from the drawer’s edge. John keeps his eyes carefully away from it and meets her gaze. “Hello.”

“Hello. You’re home.” Not Your home early or Didn’t expect you home so soon. Such things would be too obvious, and Mary is far to adept for that sort of thing. She’s glad to see him, as any wife would be, of course. “How was the robbery? Foiled, I hope.”

“Utterly. It’s a good thing I was there.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah, I brought coffee. All good stakeouts require coffee.” The embarrassment of the inadequately-numbered and untouched pair of take-away cups on the security office’s desk pops into his head. He brushes it away and tips his head in the direction of the stairwell. “She’s down?”

“She’s down, but probably not out. But content enough, it seems, with Badger for company.”

John smiles. “I’ll just look in.”

Abby is nestled in her big-girl bed, as the crib has been recently disassembled; the bars had become more of a mere suggestion, rather than a deterrent. John lays down next to her, breathing in the scent of the top of her head. She greets him with sage-like eyes and a voice that is not even remotely just-woken. “Hi Daddy.”

“Hi sweetheart.”

“Mommy’s still here?”

“Yes, she’s downstairs. Go to sleep.” He recalls their park visit of the previous morning; the feeling of his daughter’s hand in his. The laughing, swinging weight of her suspended, like a bridge, between him and the hand holding her other one.

“And Daddy’s here.”

John swallows. “Yes.” It’s just inventory, he knows; they do this every night. Badger will come next, and then Ratty and Mole... thank goodness they make every stuffie imaginable these days, he thinks. Perhaps Paddington will be included, if she’s in the mood. Then Cup, Clock, Chair and Lamp. It’s the developmental phase she’s in, of course; setting order to her world. All of the players in their proper places.

Four walls around me.

He kisses her forehead. “Go to sleep.”

When she finally does, he whispers that she means more to him than anything, while silently thanking the ludicrous fantasy of the universe that there is something about love that is simple, perfect and true.

He descends the stairs back to the kitchen, to find Mary elbows-deep in flour and yeast. “Bit late for starting that, isn’t it?” He frowns in sudden remembrance. “Didn’t you bake some yesterday, anyway?”

“Oh, I’m just in the mood.” She thumps the giant dough ball around in her hands; Mary’s never surrendered enough to use the bread-maker. “Besides. Can always freeze a bunch of loaves for later. Might do a some casseroles this weekend too. You don’t always have to cook breakfast-for-dinner, you know, when I’m not ar—when I’m out.”

“I’m a firm believer that breakfast is good at any time of day.”

“Well, you seem to be raising an omlette-eater. Some days, I can’t get her to eat anything else.”

He belatedly realizes that his next question completely out-of-place, given that she’s betrayed nothing much out of the ordinary. “Are you alright?”

“Fine.” The dough takes a slightly firmer pummeling, but her expression is seamless. “This’ll take me a while. You may as well not wait up.”

Conceding this with a response about doing a bit of reading in bed, John re-enters their sitting room under the guise of looking for his new reading glasses. He stands next to the desk, fingers twitching on the edge. The corner of paper is no longer showing from the drawer.

When I’m not around.

What had it been; an invitation to some immoral enterprise? A heist... a contract kill? “Dear Ms. Morstan. Please forgive the intrusion on your normal life and our antiquated method of correspondence, but we require someone of your particular talents. If you accept, make an X in chalk on your front door...”

Perhaps simply a confirmation. “Thank you for your interest in our services, ma’am. Rest assured that the tall annoying one will trouble you no longer...”

He looks over his shoulder, reassuring himself that he’s not in Mary’s line of sight. Go upstairs, John, he tells himself.

Perhaps it was nothing more than a love letter.

“My darling... ditch the doctor; he’s obviously a confused deviant who’s pining for the tall annoying one. Bring your lovely daughter and come away with me. If you accept, make an X in chalk on your front door...”

John’s fingers close around the handle.

Don’t. You can trust Mary.

Or just don’t anyway. Here be dragons.

He opens the drawer. 

And finds... that, other than the few stubs of crayons that it previously contained... it’s empty.

Of course it is.

 

 

...

 

 

The wild thrumming of his heart, running alone.

He’s cornered; out of options... the next roof is too-far away and he doesn’t have enough room for a proper run-up, but there’s nothing for it, Sherlock inhales the sharp mid-autumn air and pumps his legs like his life depends on it—which, of course, it does—and leaps...

Noit’stooFARyoufoolThisisITandJohnwillcrybucketsandbuckets...

...and smashes into the eaves, ripping a gash open on his shin as he scrambles for purchase on the shingles, listening to the distant shouts of his pursuers. As he reaches the apex of the roof and begins to slither down the other side, several of the shingles he’s just vacated explode in a volley of shots, but no one dares follow and gamble the five-storey fall to the concrete below.

Mercifully, the next roof is closer, and the next. Sherlock keeps running like a deer until there’s enough of a buffer between him and his hunters to risk plunging down a fire-escape before further descent into the Underground at King’s Cross. The crowd is still fairly dense, even for this late hour, and he makes his way through it, gradually shedding layers and stealing a new cap. He switches stations three times and ducks into the toilets at both Green Park and Blackfriars—needs must, when the devil drives—once to clean his shin and once to wash his hands AGAIN before finally doubling back on the Central line and reemerging half a block from St. Paul’s, making his way through the streets again.

The events of the evening follow him like ghosts.

Thanks for joining us, Seven. Hope your info will be as useful as last time. An outstretched hand, a tilt of head, an offering. Something smoked; surely some gateway to something else.

He had refused; not desiring; no, no desire at all. More important matters at hand. Sir. You’ll wanna see this in private.

They had moved to a more interior, more intimate sanctum.

The cops have some leads on this hit. They’re fixing to round up some of your boys.

The man had glanced at the printed photo. Oh yeah. I remember that bugger. Disgusting. Prob’ly pretty rich, though. Nice boat. He had spit on the paper. Let ‘em. Don’t lead back to me.

His right eye had twitched, but it hadn’t betrayed his carefully-bemused smile. Surprised you remember. Bet you’ve killed dozens of these degenerates.

A hand had clapped on his tall shoulder; too familiar and too trusting; too quick. But then, Seven’s earned this trust; proven his mettle in a matter of months. Smart bloke; valuable.

I’ll tell you something, newbie. You’re like me; you’re goin’ places. Give the orders and let the dumb cubs do the dirty work. Me? I’ve only ever killed two men, myself.

“Seven” had been unable to stop the sneer spreading like oil beneath his nose. Me too. The small blade coming out of concealment had made no noise, and the man suddenly in his arms had made next to none; a bubbling choke. Years of experiments in morgues and of consulting with a doctor have given him a appreciable grasp of critical anatomy. He’d eased the body to the floor; avoiding the spray and making sure the dying of the light in the eyes had snuffed out before beginning his subversive departure.

Well. Now it’s two, anyway.

He now climbs a fire-escape and returns to the rooftops. He knows that there’s no way he’s been followed—he has long-eluded anyone on his trail—but is loathe to return home and still feels the urge to glance over his shoulder. Stop it, idiot. There’s no one there.

Come down at once. Mummy is worried.

Sherlock scowls and climbs higher.

Finally succumbing to fatigue and failing breath, he sits against a gable and rests his elbows on his knees. St. Paul’s squats in his sight-line like a rotund judge, in disparagingly benign yellow light. A flock of pigeons flutters around the pinpricks of late-going tourists on the square below and Sherlock vaguely wonders if they all shouldn’t be roosting at this time of night. He rubs his fingers nervously, picking at his nails. Out, out brief spot, he thinks.

“Candle,” his best friend corrects him, dusting his trousers and sitting next to him. “It was one out for the spot. Two for the candle. I don’t know why; maybe one for the sound and one for the fury. Is that what this is all about, by the way... sound? Or fury?”

A waste of hard-drive. You’re not here.

“You’re an idiot,” John says, “and you’re getting grade school references mixed up. You should read more.”

“Because it’s so enlightening? So illuminating?” A scoff, at nothing. No one to hear him, except the pigeons, perhaps. “So stimulating?”

“No.” the other man takes his hand, sliding fingers easily into his. Even though John has never touched him exactly this way, Sherlock marvels at how easily the palm-to-palm feeling of it is conjured. A gentle squeeze; a brief turn-off-the-light-when-you-come-to-bed gesture. A cheeky grin. “Because it’s boring.”

He’ll be damned.

He stands, slipping out of the grasp and stepping close to the edge, knowing that the apparition’s namesake would hate this. “You know that I don’t cope well with boring.”

His former flat-mate looks up at him, wearing a soft expression that recalls long nights reading in their respective chairs, breakfasts, begrudging acquiescence over chores; a myriad of the minutiae that had actually made up the majority of their lives together. John turns his emptied hand palm upward, holding Sherlock’s gaze sadly. “Is this what we are now?” His fingers are shockingly darkened with thick blood.

“You’re not here.” Sherlock turns away. “There is no we.

And even though he knows he’s alone, he keeps his face turned out over London and ignores the spot where John doesn’t sit. He rubs his thin cold fingers, feeling the blood that isn’t there.

Is this what I am now?

On the side of the angels, but not one of them. Or perhaps an inverse, a shadow. A dark seraph; his protective wingspan spread over the city below. He takes a deep breath, his chest swelling with it, his scapulae flexing as if shaking out a shielding expanse of black feathers.

A champion of the goodness that he can never be.

 

 

...

 

 

“I think he’s cracking up,” Lestrade says gravely.

John raises an eyebrow.

“I mean... more than usual. I mean stark, barking mad. Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed?!” Greg takes a sip of his pint.

“I’ve not seen him much since the bank job,” John admits, and, at the DI’s surprised look, John qualifies, “Busy. You know, with the practice... and...” He runs fingers through his disheveled hair and rubs his ear, indicating the water remaining in it from the swimming lesson he’s just returned from.

“Yeah, the little tyke.” Chuckle. “Don’t wish those days away; you’re going to miss ‘em once they’re over,” he advises John. “She’s with Mary now?”

“She picked her up from the pool. They’re having a girl’s night.” It suddenly occurs to John that conversations about his family often sound phrased as if to suggest co-parenting and he wonders how much his friends are able to deduce from this.

The pub is beginning to fill up with the after-work Friday crowd. A couple are decked out in costumes, preemptively ready for Monday’s Halloween celebrations. They mutually raise their eyes to the telly for a moment and Lestrade scowls as the Arsenal midfielder takes a dive in replay clips of a recent match. But he then returns to his point at hand. “I’m hoping you can talk to him. I’m a bit worried he’s going to get hurt or worse, to be perfectly honest.”

This isn’t the tack John had expected. Cracking up, sure, he’s noticed, but in more of the isolated, sleep-all-day, microscope-all-night kind of cracked, which is generally harmless and self-limiting. “What do you mean?”

“You don’t think the stuff he’s flirting with is a bit dangerous?”

John almost laughs out loud. “You’ve got to be kidding me. When you said ‘worried’ I thought you meant that he’s retiring. I mean... the last time I was actually in Baker St was in June and all we did was spend an hour analyzing a bowler hat, for Christ sake.”

“That’s all he’s mentioned?”

John scans through his inventory of the past six months. “The Oxford exam scam,” he rolls his eyes a bit—dull— “Yeah, even his on-again-off-again pissing contest with Smith has been a bit tame. He’s in danger of getting sued, but...” John shrugs. “I think that final business with you-know-who really scared him.”

Greg looks around, assessing the proximity of other bar patrons and then carefully pulls out a folder, showing John the contents. “So he’s never spoken of the Gloria Scott?” He taps a copy of an older news article with the picture of a not-so-modest pleasure-craft.

“No. Never.”

“Lost at sea. Vaguely suspicious, though not enough to reopen the investigation. Was owned by a former friend of Sherlock’s.”

John tries not to double-blink on the word friend, as well as the attractive olive-skinned subject of the missing persons photo. He notices, by way of the DI’s wry smile, that this reaction has not been missed. “Yeah, I only met him the once. Nice guy; pretty accepting of our mutual’s quirks.” He takes a swig and then completes, “Didn’t approve of Sherlock’s drug use, as I understand it, and they parted ways.”

“So Sherlock’s looking for him now?”

Greg shuffles the papers. “No. I think he’s avenged him.” The article on top now describes rising rates of gang warfare and breaks down the details of several prominent London groups.

’Lion’s Mane’?” John reads.

“Local faction of Soldiers-of-Odin types. Newer, smaller territory, but more radical. At least they were.” He taps the police photo of a severe-looking man with a shaved head. “Their leader was recently eliminated... supposedly by an infiltrator from a rival group.”

John skims through the papers. “I don’t see a connection between the boat and the gang...?”

“Neither do I.” Greg leaves the unspoken thought But who WOULD see one? hanging in the air between them.

“You know Sherlock’s involved in this?”

“No. It’s just a feeling. But I’ve seen him a few times since the bank.”

“And?" 

The DI finishes his pint and gathers up the papers. “And he’s always wearing a hat.”

 

 

...

 

 

Mrs Hudson is not at home when John arrives at Baker Street.

Which is not unusual. Mrs Hudson is often not at home; it’s a little known fact. She does have that sister to visit on occasion. And then there’s Mr Chatterjee, of course. Magnussen may have known nothing of Martha’s porn preferences, but to assume that snow on the roof means no fire in the chimney is a rather ageist attitude, don’t you think?

And it wouldn’t matter if she were home or not. John has the key that he’s never returned.

And the upstairs tenant has never changed the upstairs locks.

Until now.

 

 

...

 

 

John enters his own townhouse, wondering if there is anything that can alleviate the disappointment and nagging anxiety that he feels.

He is immediately assaulted by a large cardboard box that pokes him in the knee with a plunger and a slightly muffled voice proclaims the hesitant syllables of “ex... te... meh... NATE!”

He smiles, dropping to one knee and peering through the cut-out hole at the top. “Oh no!” he cries. “What have you done with my Abigail?!”

A stifled giggle. “Here, Daddy.”

Mary comes around the corner into the foyer. “She’s having trouble staying in character, but if we can just get her to hover, it might end up being somewhat scary.”

It’s always a blessing to see one’s childhood fixations recycled into the next generation. John taps the box and grins. “I love it. Bit impractical, though, isn’t it?”

Mary shrugs. “Well. I don’t sew.”

Abby shrieks and toddles around in a circle, before careening off into the sitting room and collapsing side-ways next to the sofa. She squirms out and crawls around, seeking wayward crayons that may be hidden beneath.

“I don’t think she’ll want to go that far anyway,” John says. “Just the neighbors.” There are a few younger children in their neighborhood, which is just as well... John’s found it easy to make the switch to celebrating Halloween. He’s had his fill of Bonfire nights for a lifetime. “Put the kettle on, will you?”

On her way to the kitchen, Mary tosses the comment out nonchalantly, “Oh, that reminds me. Remember that I’ll be away Wednesday and Thursday, so Kate’s ready to mind her if you need it.”

And thus begins the next dual conversation, John thinks, his briefly-elevated mood taking a dive. His brain proceeds to fill in the blanks with unspoken sentiments in both of their voices.

“Refresh my memory: where are you going?” This is the first time you’ve mentioned it.

“To Cecily’s. I did tell you.” I’m being deliberately vague so that you feel like you’ve forgotten, John.

“Ah. Overnight?” Isn’t it funny that you and ‘Cecily’ are so close, yet I’ve never met her?

“She’s having a small procedure done and doesn’t have anyone to stay with her, so I volunteered.” How could you possibly argue against an act of kindness for a friend?

“Another one?! I hope she’s alright.” See, I’m not an idiot, Mary.

“She’s fine.”

Stonewall.

Fine.

“I’ll be going to Baker Street Monday then,” the words ring sharply in John’s ears and he hates how petty they sound, despite his best efforts to keep his voice dispassionate. “After trick-or-treating. There’s something I need to do.”

It might be his imagination, but Mary seems to hold his gaze a moment longer than usual before retreating to the kitchen. “Fine.”

To avoid the awkwardness of the silence, he sits on the sofa and watches Abby attacking the side of her make-shift robot overlord with the crayons. She smiles at him as she proceeds to cover the cardboard entirely in red scribbles with her right hand before switching the wax stub to her left. John lets his mind wander as she seamlessly switches back and forth; contemplating the palette of possibility that a child presents... not yet pigeon-holed into the silos of right-brained creativity and left-brained calculation.

“I don’t think she’s decided which she prefers,” his wife says softly from the doorway and John starts, unaware that he’s been watched.

But it feels like a peace offering, and Abigail is generally a safe neutral zone for discussion.

“Who knows?” John chuckles. “Maybe she’ll be a south-paw like me,”

“You’re not really left-handed,” his wife points out bluntly.

“I’m...” John is surprised and suddenly annoyed; likely more, he realizes, than her comment warrants. “Ambidextrous, then.”

She almost doesn’t let him finish the word. “Not always.”

Mary’s correct, of course. An onslaught of wrist fractures—for a reason that only two Watsons know and have never spoken of since—had restrained his arm to a cast for the better part of his twelfth summer. Feeling the need to spend it out-of-doors and loathing to be completely confined to a bench, he’d quickly learned to pitch left... and found that the development of this skill transformed him into a more desirable player in the eyes of his peers. Over the years, he’d found a secret satisfaction in being able to use either, convincingly and interchangeably, as circumstances dictated. This had proved especially advantageous in combat situations. He chews the inside of his lip. It irks him that his wife has apparently effortlessly discovered something that even Sherlock has never noticed. “Most people don’t know that.”

“I’m not most people.” The knowing-smile of the ex-assassin does nothing to stave off his annoyance.

“I throw and write with my left. I eat with my left. I—“

“You shoot with your right.”

“I can shoot with either.” John realizes he’s been proud of this. Versatile. A good attribute in a soldier.

“When you aim to kill,” Mary says quietly, and no longer with anything resembling cheek, “you shoot with your right.”

John stares at Abby, watching and not-watching her streak a spectrum of colours across the box. “Why does that even matter?” The unintentionally-aloud question is soft and target-less.

Mary takes a deep breath. “John...”

The kettle shrieks, and John pivots on his heel and darts into the kitchen. As he spends several frustrated minutes unsuccessfully looking for the tea, he hears his wife carry their daughter off to bed.

After several minutes more, he gives up looking and decides he doesn’t feel like tea after all.

 

 

...

 

 

Mrs Hudson is home on Halloween, of course, if for no other reason than to keep an eye on the hooligans of Baker St in their All-Hallows exploits. John finds her at the front window of 221-A muttering about the fact that perhaps Sherlock was right about the doors although also musing why that’s never occurred to him before with all the goings-on here is beyond me.

It isn’t hard to procure the spare key, though it is hard to get his former land-lady to keep her voice down, and John soon fears that he’s surely lost all element of surprise.

There is a faint hum that John can’t identify, as he reaches the top of the stairwell, his hand sliding up the familiar banister. It does not appear to be anything in the kitchen... from the doorway, he can see Sherlock only has his microscope set up on the table, and no other apparatus nearby that would make such a noise.

Suddenly, though, something else has his full attention.

“What the hell have you done to your hair?!” John gasps.

Sherlock is halfway down the upper stairwell and is looking at him, like a deer in headlights, as if John has managed the improbable and caught him off-guard. He is frozen in mid-step with one hand held, palm-up and cupped against his chest, as if carrying some tiny, delicate object. His curly locks are gone; closely clipped... self-inflicted, John thinks, by the uneven way it’s growing in at the sides. And dyed; the darkness of it is too flat and severe... as if this is not the only artificial colour it has recently been, and this is simply a slap-dash attempt at restoring it to form.

“Disguise,” John realizes.

“Yep. Costume party at the Yard Saturday night.” Sherlock snaps to motion, continuing on past him to the kitchen and resuming his usual position at the microscope.

John doesn’t even have to call Fibbing; his smirk does it for him.

“Okay. I just felt like a change—“

“Must have been a hell of a case,” he ignores the lies. “Despite all the ridiculous things I’ve ever seen you wear, you’ve never touched your hair.”

The thin lips behind the scope’s eyepieces twist with a hint of humour. “Molly likes it.”

The doctor laughs. “No, she doesn’t.”

“Alright. I’m just trying to put her off, then.”

“Well, that ought to have finally done it. Poor dear.”

“Hmm.” Sherlock is poking delicately at something beneath the lens with a fine pair of tweezers. After a moment, his hand fists and thumps on the table. “Damn it.” He gets up, dumps the tiny contents of the slide in the trash and, without a further word, stomps off upstairs again.

In his absence, John casts a disapproving gaze around the flat. The limits of his orderly influence have finally been surpassed; 221-B now looks roughly similar to its state of being when John had first laid eyes on it. Or perhaps a bit worse. Curiosity gets the better of him and he looks in the bin.

Dead bees. Well, mostly dead. One of them squirms slightly.

Since there’s a big difference between mostly dead and all dead, John recoils sharply, recalling a childhood trauma.

“Have you ever been stung?” Sherlock asks, returning with a cupped hand again.

“No. Harry’s allergic. She almost died when we were kids.” John tries to recall if he has ever mentioned this, but his friend is not paying much attention anyway; glancing between the slide he is preparing and one of the kitchen drawers. He musters an even voice. “But it’s not necessarily genetic...”

“But it can be,” Sherlock says flatly.

“Where are you getting th—“ John starts to ask and then chuckles, “Isn’t it getting a bit cold to be keeping experiments up on the roof?” The blue gaze drifts upward momentarily, in the direction of said roof... but also, John realizes, his old room. He snorts. “Hudders is going to kill you.”

“I have simply ordered a box of maniacs,” Sherlock intones, as if he’s come up with the turn of phrase himself.

John smiles. “‘The Arrival of the Bee Box’. Plath.” He shrugs at his companion’s surprise. “She’s one of Mary’s favourites. I’m surprised you know it. Isn’t knowledge of literature a waste of your hard-drive?”

“Someone told me I should read more.” The literary detective gives him a shouldn’t-you-be-leaving-now? look.

But the doctor holds his ground and scours his memory for old odds’n’ends. “One can no more approach people without love than bees without care...”

“...such is the quality of bees’,” Sherlock completes, with a grin belying an enjoyment of this.

“Tolstoy.”

“Bravo. How about this: ‘They give daily instruction in the science of geometry.’”

“I don’t know that one.”

“Poe.”

“You’re dissecting bees and brushing up on depressing writers.” John raises an eyebrow. “Perhaps Lestrade was right... you are going mad.”

Sherlock sits down and glues his gaze to the eyepieces again. “So you’re here at the request of my handler?”

John pulls the newspaper article from the DI out from inside his coat and slaps it down on the table next to Sherlock’s instruments. “Hell of a case,” he says pointedly.

“That wasn’t me.”

“Says the man with the Fourth-Reich haircut.” When this comment goes unanswered, John folds his arms across his chest. “Greg has a theory that you killed a gang-lord.”

Greg has a theory that dwarves can commit murder-by-javelin-through-an-airduct.“

“I believe him.” John pauses, considering how this sounds, then, hoping he hasn’t lost the gravity of his tone, clarifies, “About the gang-lord.”

The amateur detective remains silent a moment. Then quips, “Well. He wasn’t a very nice gang-lor—“

“Are you OUT of your bloody mind?!

Perhaps it’s their current height differential, but Sherlock seems to shrink a bit, suddenly submissive and placating. “Okay, you’re right.” He avoids John’s gaze, poking at the insect on his slide. “Look... it got out-of-hand and, if you must know... scared me a bit. I’m looking forward to some nice, quiet research...”

“That would be encouraging, Sherlock, if I knew you weren’t lying through your perfect teeth.”

The detective glances briefly at him, as if to say No, not so perfect now. He doesn’t, though the air in the room is beginning to become changed. “You can see that I am deeply engaged in an entirely safe investigation of the mysteries of bumblebee flight, so you can be on your way back h—“

The edge in John’s voice serrates both of them. “Why does it always have to be all-or-nothing with you, hmm?” They are perilously close to having an outright argument with the words they never say, and John finds himself welcoming it. “Why do you need to regale an audience with every last detail about something like a damn bowler hat but not even consider enlisting some back-up in something this dangerous?”

The pale eyes narrow now; a slight twitch at the base of the right one. “Are you upset, Doctor, because I recently endangered myself, or because I didn’t include you?”

“That’s not the point—“

“Isn’t it?” Sherlock stands again, the heat in his face beginning to match John’s. “Has it not occurred to you that perhaps there are some things I’m not willing to risk? The Watson family being one of them.”

“We’re not idiots, Sherlock. There’s ways of managing those risks, you know.” Such as enlist some goddamned back-up, or, better yet, just solve actual mysteries and leave the gang-busts to MI5.

“Says the man who’s continuously wound up being a play-thing at the whim of a dangerous sociopath anyway.”

John knows this insidious fear well; forever back from the dead. But he is really dead this time. It’s impossible. He wishes he could eliminate the memory of Moriarty from his friend’s brain. “That threat is over, Sherlock.”

“Not in our minds, it’s not.”

“So, what, then? You just unburden yourself of your little helpmate because you think that every case we do is too risky?”

“Need I remind you what nearly happened during our last real case togeth—“

“That was NOT a real case!” John yells, the suddenness of it startling both of them. They stare at each other in mutual shock over the table.

In remembering it... the web of deception... the elevator-drop breath Sherlock had emitted upon opening the cigar tin... their panic-sickened journey home... the malicious taunting over his daughter’s head...

Gallivanting.

John feels his hands ball into fists. I refuse to say his name, he thinks, fervidly. I will NOT invoke that ghost in this room. Part of you still admires him like a genius opponent and you think that sick deception was some kind of game with fair footing. Sherlock’s expression remains one of stunned disbelief, so John, with a lowered voice, tries to explain firmly, the words clumsy on his tongue. “You know that was just a... a perversion of what a real case is. A twisted idea of what we really are. You know that, Sherlock.”

He’s dead. Let him stay that way.

John braces for the counter-attack, but Sherlock steps away from the table, backing up until he’s leaning against the counter instead, and drops his gaze to his feet. When he speaks again, after a span of breaths, the wind has entirely left his sails. “But how do you kill an idea?” he asks, faintly, in the rare way that suggests he hopes John can answer, since he cannot.

The idea that you and I have actually done anything wrong? That this overdue insight and terrible timing is somehow our fault? That I deserve to have my daughter taken from me for it?! But as John actually puts the ideas into words within his brain, he suddenly realizes that, even though these guilts and fears have lived him for months, they aren’t in Jim’s voice. In his mind, they are spoken in the voice of friends, of colleagues. His father. Strangers on the street.

His own.

And it’s ridiculous.

John is surprised to find that—uncannily—it’s Mary’s words that are now there instead. Though a different context, he hopes he can somehow convey the same level of comfort to the man in front of him. “Maybe you can’t kill an idea, Sherlock. Maybe it doesn’t matter how many times we shoot an idea, it’s always out there somewhere; it doesn’t ever die...”

Sherlock swallows and begins to turn back toward him.

“...but even if not, we’ll just keep shooting it.” He attempts a small laugh. “I mean, hell. That will at least eventually change the look of it, right?” John calls to mind Moriarty, faceless. As always, it’s a less disturbing sight to him than a fatal gun-shot wound should be.

Sherlock shuts his eyes. His jaw works as if he’s clenching his teeth. He nods blindly, lowering his face again.

God help me, John thinks. You... with your cheekbones. And your bright eyes and your clever fingers and your damn nonsense. I will never stop loving you.

It’s on the tip of his tongue. If his friend looks up; looks up with that laser gaze that reads every unspoken story written on John’s skin—look up right now damnit—there’ll be no hiding it and John doesn’t care to; he’s weary of lying. Come hell or high water or, likely, both.

Look at me. Please. Really look.

But Sherlock appears absolutely aghast, eyes glued shut. He slumps a little against the counter and, as his dressing gown parts with the movement, John notices the that he’s slighter than usual and wonders if he’s remembering to eat with any regularity. The white of the shirt beneath it makes his skin seem even paler; he seems impossibly old and young at the same time.

And suddenly, John feels incredibly selfish. Don’t be alarmed, Mycroft had said long ago, but Sherlock is... of course he would be. Sherlock Holmes: who can’t abide the messiness of sentiment. Who doesn’t trust himself to be close to anyone. Who can’t fathom caring for a dog, let alone a child. Who was near-fatally shot by the very woman that occupies John’s bed. Sherlock: who looks every bit right now like someone who wants to be swallowed whole by the earth, or sprout wings and fly away. The fly in the ointment is a picture of cleanliness, next to the irrational disarray that is John Watson’s heart.

Softly, he reminds himself.

“Sherlock,” John says quietly. “Please just answer one question for me...” As the gaze lifts to him, John almost loses control of his features, but carefully bridles his face into neutral. He tries for a small grin, letting his eyes dart over his friend’s haircut. “You didn’t also get a tattoo, did you?”

We’re cool, right?

Sherlock takes a moment, but quirks the side of his mouth up slightly. “Not this time.”

We’re cool.

John nods. They talk for a few minutes more, making silly superficial plans... promises of normalcy; promises of being boring for each other, at least for a little while.

We’ll figure it out. We have the rest of our lives. 

As he begins to descend the stairs, John offers the casual farewell that is typically used by his friend. “Later.”

 

 

...

 

 

I’ve had far too much of this, John said.

Me too.

The semi-prone form near the other end of the mattress rolled slightly to lay the bottle on the floor, then rested his silvered blonde head back on his arm, staring at Sherlock. Am I in your bed, or are you in mine?

Does it matter?

No, I s’ppose not.

Sherlock began to get up to make the switch, but fell back momentarily at the head of the bed, his own head and limbs muzzy.

John chuckled, as he watched his friend struggle. Guess we’ll jus’ have to sleep t’gether, then. He grinned to himself as if he’d made a secret joke.

Sherlock blew air out his perfectly intact teeth. You prob’ly think I don’ know what that means, but I do.

Oh, do you?

Yep. It’s when two people who like each other stay in and keep one another warm in draughty Swiss hotel rooms.

They laughed. Then smiled. Then looked at each other. Too long.

That’s what I was suggesting, neither of them dared to say.

I have to go to the bathroom, Sherlock said instead. Once precariously there, he shut the door and stared at himself blearily in the mirror.

His thoughts flip-flopped. It wasn’t. It was.

At least I hope it wasn’t.

But I wish it was.  

He waited a long time, hoping that John would fall asleep before he returned, or hoping that he’d at least pretend to... and wishing that he wouldn’t... and knew full well what it all meant.

 

 

...

 

 

The feet descend on the stairs.

With what is usually John’s farewell, Sherlock answers him softly. “Bye.”

Baker Street hums quietly.

He remains standing, leaning on the counter, feeling slightly light-headed, trying to remember the last time he’s eaten. After a while, he begins to wonder if John had really been there, or if he had imagined it all. The moted shafts of October light from the curtained windows had cast their conversation in an unearthly quality. The sight of John’s smile—the one he wore when Sherlock had been able to bring himself to look at his friend again—almost remains, Cheshire-cat-like, in his mind’s eye. It reminds him of that morning; the last one, the one before everything went wrong. John’s cheeks creased by the bed linen, his eyes blinking sleepily and his mouth stifling a yawn.

Sherlock’s desire to touch that mouth... to trace its lines and taste its soft laugh... lodges beneath his sternum and draws inward on his flesh and bones like a black hole. His head sinks, his shoulders weak with longing.

Perversion. That’s not a real case.

But that doesn’t make any sense; why would John say so? This entire concept was one that Sherlock would have never spent a single neuron considering until the moment the ridiculously-jumpered man with a limp had smiled at him over a candle and said, simply, matter-of-factly; It’s all fine. And even though it would still be several years until the penny fully dropped, that had been the moment that the deepest part of him had stopped feeling Not-okay.

No. That threat is over. Change the look of it.

Colleagues. They are colleagues that solve crimes. Friends even... fine. But anything else stands opposed to the pure cold reason that John is married and a father and has never—save perhaps, the briefest tonguing of his lip and the occasional well-past-inebriated remark—indicated that he would jeopardize the starched and proper orderliness of his life for the sake of a sociopathic ex-drug-addict. John Watson; who has a lovely daughter to think of. Who cares if people talk. Who is—if there’s anyone out there that still cares—not actually gay.

I heard you. Just keep shooting. Never give in to it, and someday, I will just forget that I ever felt this way.

He reaches absent-mindedly for the drawer that has been needling at his consciousness; pulling it open, without meaning to. On the top of the cutlery in it, is the syringe that he’d mentally assured himself was there a thousand times during John’s visit. Epinephrine. Just in case.

But I can’t, John; I’m not as strong as you are. This idea is going to live in me for the rest of my silly little life.

And there’s also the package at the bottom of the drawer, beneath a collection of minutiae; the package that he’s not thought about... that he’s refused to think about. A souvenir of the exploits that had brought him into the Lion’s Mane. He doesn’t even remember taking it. He doesn’t even know why he did.

Just in case.

Numbness. Numbness is what he needs... surely that’s better than this irrational and debilitating and thoroughly dangerous emotion. Surely just once would be justifiable, if it serves to remind him how to forget; how to empty his mind. Just once. Only once.

If you are anywhere near this sort of thing, you can call... you can talk to me. Damn it, Sherlock, I care about you, and I know that you—

“Oh, brother mine. What have I always told you?”

He leaves the drawer and walks into the sitting room, turning towards the hearth. The table in front of it, between the two chairs, is almost too small to hold the folding board it supports and the dozens of brightly-coloured pieces resting on the top. He drones out his answer, his brain on autopilot; “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”

The seated figure reaches forward and shifts a small, defensive red cluster from Kamchatka to Yakutsk. “Indubitably. Though you know I was referring to your drug habit.”

Sherlock frowns. “I don’t have a drug habit.”

“Yet you can’t explain why you have heroin in your kitchen.”

I took it for evidence, he begins to retort, then amends this to For analysis. The pale blue eyes, that are not unlike his own, pierce him in the curtained gloom. Sherlock bites his lip. I took it just so I could kick at the darkness, he thinks, but he’ll be damned if he’s going to let his brother know that.

Instead, he responds, “It’s been almost two years since I have. What makes you so sure that I’m going to use it?”

“If your personal history weren’t enough,” Mycroft rolls his eyes, “the fact that you’re arguing with yourself and now using my likeness to do so is a sure sign that your sobriety should be in question.”

“I’m not high.”

“Not yet. Though I’d say your blood-sugar’s way off, based on the tangibility of this hallucination.” The elder Holmes leans back, regarding him stonily. “The sleep-deprivation probably isn’t helping either.”

The younger snorts, folding his arms. “See what happens when you’re not here to tell me when to eat and go to bed?”

Stop it,” Mycroft snaps, deepening the lines on either side of his abruptly flared nostrils. He waves a hand over the board’s map. “I don’t have time for your insolence, Sherlock. Can’t you see that I’m busy?”

Sherlock’s fingers dig into his own ribs, from their tucked positions at his sides. “You know, I’ve always hated it when you make yourself at home in his chair.”

“If he could hear me, I’d shout for him to come back. He’s the only person that’s ever kept you willingly straight.”

The figure that is suddenly in Sherlock’s opposing armchair fingers a blue piece thoughtfully, hovering his hand above the expansive monstrosity that was some fool’s idea of the Ukraine. “Dear me, Mycroft. Poor phrasing.”

Sherlock feels his spine and all four of his limbs jolt, as if he’s just stepped unexpectedly off a curb.

Jim grins up at him. “Oh, honestly. Why are you always so surprised to see me? Don’t you know what I am yet?”

Shot, Sherlock tries to recall. Shot three... no, only twice. Still, that’s got to be enough to at least change the look of you. But Moriarty’s face certainly looks intact.

Mycroft eyes his opponent, as a cobra would a mongoose. “It was a mistake to ever engage with you. Your involvement is growing tedious.”

The shorter man trades in a canon for a few horses from the tray beside the board. “Yeah, so I hear. The multitudes want more of you now. Fan favourite. People love all that sentimental stoicism.”

“Do be kind and put that fourth wall back up. There’s enough layers here already, wouldn’t you say?”

“Quite.” Jim nods in Sherlock’s direction. “Your little brother is right, you know. You over-extended yourself and now winter is coming.” He raises an eyebrow at Mycroft and places more pieces on the board. “You really should’ve made a stronghold in Africa or South America. Canada, maybe. But no one ever wins this thing by coming out of the East.”

“If you don’t mind, I was taking an intermission from our game to try to persuade my misguided sibling to destroy the large quantity of poison sitting in his cutlery drawer.”

“Seems a waste of your time. Though I guess you do have an eternity.”

The taller man’s response bears fangs. “He can’t very well protect the people he loves while his brain is addled, can he?”

“On the contrary. It heightens his perceptions and thought processes. Imagine how brilliant he could be if he could just formulate the correct solution.” Moriarty looks at Sherlock almost affectionately. “Though, I wager he won’t be smart enough. Just three months away from lethal overdose, do you think? Or two?” He then frowns at the board. “Are you just going to sit there, hoping to roll sixes, Mikey, or are you ever going to go on the offensive?”

Sherlock rubs his eyes, backing away into the kitchen.

Mary regards him from the table, nodding in the direction of the two geniuses trading little plastic men before the hearth. “How long do you think they’ll keep trying to play,” she chuckles, “before they realize they’re missing these?” Abby sits placidly on her lap, stacking three dice in a triangular arrangement on the table in front of her.

“It’s not a game,” Sherlock murmurs.

Mary tiredly rests her chin for a moment on her daughter’s curls. “You know, Sherlock... sometimes I think that if I had only...”

“...waited just a bit longer before pulling the trigger...” he fills in for her.

“...it would have saved me a lot of headaches,” she completes, rubbing her temples.

He swallows.

“You can’t ever protect him,” she says gravely, “from the most dangerous person he’s ever known.”

“I know.” His hand hovers over the drawer’s handle.

How many times, Sherlock? How many times can you screw up before he walks away from you for good?

“Don’t worry,” she promises, “I’ll look after him for you.”

Sherlock casts a sweeping glance over his beloved flat and the imaginary figures it contains. The tall man that he forever strives to disobey. The short man that he forever strives to outsmart.

The woman that he strives ever to trust. 

His fingers close around the cool slim glass. “That’s my girl.”

 

 

...

 

 

In storytelling, things that come in threes are generally important. Once is chance. Twice is coincidence. Three times, however...

When this concept is applied to a triumvirate of heralds or messengers, it is invariably the Third that wields a particular, rousing power that succeeds where the first two fail.

“John, you need to do something.”

“Mike and Greg thought so too, but they were wrong.” He pauses in his efforts of de-tangling a light-strand that has come precariously close to devious little fingers and gives his shouldered phone his full attention.

For the past two months, he and Sherlock had fallen into a comfortable almost-normalcy... a small case here and there... a promise to spend the holidays together. This had been curtailed at the last minute by parental insistence of Holmes’ family unity. There had been scowling and eye-rolling. John would have been content, were it not for the nagging feeling that his friend’s behaviour was meeting his expectations with algorithmic precision.

Still. John needs to hear her say it, to know that it’s not just in his own mind. He plays devil’s advocate. “He’s not been gone that long, has he? I mean, he’s done this before... taken off for hours or days at a—“

“It’s different. I’m worried.”

“Did you find anything?” The stockings haven’t been hung yet, so he sock-puppets one of them to distract his daughter long enough to finish this conversation.

“No, of course not. But do we ever? That isn’t quite it, though. He’s different. I’ve never seen him like this; it’s unusual.”

“Define unusual.”

Her voice, through the phone, is a bit strained. “It’s just that he’s been... well tidy. Although not too tidy; I found a possum tail in the icebox. And, before he left, he was a bit polite to me. Although not too polite...”

“So he was being Sherlock.”

Mary pokes her head out from the kitchen with a look at him that says Are you actually considering going out TONIGHT?

The voice on the phone continues, “Yes, he was being Sherlock. He was... precisely...specifically... being usual Sherlock.”

“You’re telling me you’re concerned because he was acting like himself.”

Her sigh is audible. “Yes. Acting.

“How do you know he wasn’t just—“

“John Watson, for God’s sake, go and look for him!”

John taps the phone receiver with his trigger finger. He tries to make the joke sound off-handed; “Sometimes I think we wouldn’t survive without you, Mrs. Hudson.”

“It’s broadly my function, dear. Just don’t tell him I said that.”

 

 

...

Chapter Text

Baker Street is silent and dark, other than the faint glow of Speedy’s strings of lights below and the muted strains of Good King Wenceslas from some late carolers in the street. The bustle of the day is buried under a dusting of winter, as the stores have long-since closed and London has gravitated en masse to hearth and home.

John wanders through the familiar rooms again, feeling a bit like a thief in the quiet flat. His calls and texts have gone unanswered. He’s already searched the most likely bolt-holes. And some of the unlikely ones.

The bees, as the silence and the relative calm of Mrs Hudson would suggest, are long gone. Replaced with feathers, it seems; the desk and table are covered with them. Post-Its with Sherlock’s notes, scattered throughout. Locations, dates. Casework, John thinks. This is normal.

Though the sorting methodology, while always elusive to John, seems somehow less... methodological.

And the penmanship is barely decipherable. Which only happens when Sherlock is in an extreme hurry. Or...

He stands, at the top of the stairs, trying to decide what to do next. He could be anywhere. How am I supposed to—

There is a barely audible thud from the pavement outside the door below. John carefully descends and opens it on the inert form splayed on the deserted sidewalk in the snow.

“Sherlock.”

Not inert, John realizes, leaning closer: shivering violently. As he places his hands on him, Sherlock starts to roll over and rise. “J-jj—“ His teeth clatter brutally in the attempt.

“You’re drenched to the bone,” John gasps, hauling him through the doorway. “What the hell were you—“

Despite John’s help, Sherlock falls to his knees at the foot of the stairs. “Cc-csss...”

“Oh, spare it!” John thunders at him. “I should have known... what with you isn’t a case?!” He reaches for his coat pocket, fumbling for phone.

“John-n.” Sherlock’s eyes bore into him as he squeezes John’s wrists painfully. John can see every facial muscle straining to achieve the illusion of control, but he has to hand it to him; the words come out clearer. “M’f-fine. Just-t... need... tt-tt-to get warm. P-pplease...”

They stumble up the stairs.

John runs the water while Sherlock discards his coat, then pauses, trembling fists in shirt material, as if lacking enough fine motor control, or just loathe to remove this protective layer, freezing though it is. “Leave them,” John instructs him, indicating his clothing. “They’ll warm up and insulate you; better than bare skin. Get in.”

“T-tt-too hot!” Sherlock gasps, but John coaxes him into the tub.

“It’s not; it’s barely lukewarm. Just feels that way. This isn’t going to be pleasant, I’m afraid, but we’ll do this slowly.”

Sherlock nods, or at least seems to, then winces, squeezing eyes shut as John soaks the back of the shirt with the handheld showerhead, keeping the spray on him, but moving it around gently as he gradually increases the temperature. Sherlock hugs his knees, burying his face between them. John gives him a few minutes but as the shudders abate somewhat, he decides to prompt a discussion, still debating whether he should phone an ambulance.

“If you’ve got your tongue back at all, perhaps you’d care to explain?”

“T-tt-hames...”

“Yes, I can smell that. What were you doing in it?”

“Thought I f-found...” The raggedy man under the spray clenches fists in an frustration that would be comical if it weren’t for the image of his near-lifeless form in the snow that still haunts the doctor’s conscience. “Ppp-ainted over, b-but... Thought I... c-could reach the... h-hull from... the dock. F-ff-ell in.”

John rolls his eyes. “This was so pressing, you had to attempt it yourself?”

“It was a level t-two case. With a... slip-pp-ery... dock.” Sherlock lifts his head and tosses it in the joking manner he uses when John is worrying too much. John notes, however, that he hasn’t made eye contact since entering the flat.

“Are you injured?”

“No.”

“Did you hit your head? Black out at all?”

“N-no...”

“Look at me.”

His waterlogged friend shakes, hunching shoulders, re-tucking his face between his knees with a muffled burst of forGodsakesssI’mjustCOLD!

Look me in the eyes,” John snaps the command, “and tell me you did not take anything today.”

He hesitates a moment, but then peers up. “I haven’t.”

Pupils are near normal... perhaps a bit wide, John thinks, but not blown.  He snaps on the second light.

Sherlock squints briefly but remains staring at John obediently, though scowling. His eyes take a definite delay in reaction. “Hyp-pothermia also... causes dila—“ he starts.

“Oh, are you the doctor now?” John returns the scowl. It occurs to him that he has no idea what time it is, but it may indeed be into the wee hours and Sherlock has a knack for technicalities. “Are you using?”

“I j-just told you... I haven’t-t-t-aken anything to—“

“Sod today. Yesterday. Last week; whenever. Are. You. Using?”

Sherlock holds his gaze. He repeats the earlier jaw-clench of heroic proportions and his voice is almost steady. “John, I swear to you... on my life... that I am not. I f-fell in the river. That’s all.”

“You fell in the fucking river and decided to walk home. What’s wrong with you?!”

“Oh, Sherlock!”

John turns. He had not heard Mrs. Hudson come up the stairs.

Sherlock addresses both of them, tiredly lowering his head again. “It’s a... long story. One I am... perfectly hap-p-py to... explain later.” His hands are trembling, but he reaches to take the showerhead from John, hugging it to his shoulder and turning the taps to warmer.

As Mrs. Hudson puts the kettle on, John flings the soggy Belstaff over the radiator. When the tea boils, he encourages her back downstairs. “It’s late.”

“Will he be alright?” she asks softly, in departure.

“I think so.”

“You should take him in...”

“His pulse is a bit fast, but other than that he’s seems fine. The shivering is a good thing; it’s a really bad sign when that shuts off. He’ll be more comfortable if we deal with this here, than bother with another journey outside. I’ll keep an eye. If he doesn’t seem normal—“ John almost sighs at the word, “—after warming up, I’ll take him.”

He gathers several clean towels and a few layers of Sherlock’s comfortable slumming clothes before reentering the bathroom. He sets the teacup down at the tub-side. “Sip this.”

Sherlock is fumbling, with still-wavering hands, to attempt to open the shampoo while keeping a grip on the handheld. His mouth is pursed in irritation with the fingers that refuse to obey him; with arms that, despite attempts to raise them, seem magnetically stuck to his chilled flanks. The bottle slips out of his grasp and he curses.

John kneels at the side of the tub. “Here.”

“You don’t have to—“

“Well, it’s not like I’m going to put product in it for you afterward, Princess,” John teases, raking soapy fingers through the still closely-shorn locks before Sherlock can protest further.

He doesn’t however. Hugging the showerhead to his chest now, he leans into the scrub slightly and closes his eyes. Through neck and skull, John can feel the vibration that has subsided somewhat but still wracks Sherlock’s thin body. John tries not to think about that body—timing, Watson, definitely Not-good—nor about the way that Sherlock almost sighs and tips his head back into John’s hands with a vulnerable compliance that he rarely shows.

It’s the longest shampoo that John’s ever given—though that doesn’t say much; Abby, being the sole other recipient, doesn’t extensively tolerate such an assault on her vivid, flame-coloured tangles—and it may very well be the longest Sherlock’s ever had, by the way he prompts quietly, an odd twist to his mouth; “People will talk.”

John grunts and takes the handheld to rinse the suds. “Then it’s high-time we uninstall the cameras from our bathroom,” he jokes. Your bathroom, he corrects himself immediately, but decides that externalizing the rectification will only highlight the discomfited way it makes him feel. Pulling the plug, he says, in a carefully off-handed tone, “Are you able to get your things off? We should drain this dirty water; fill it with clean.”

Sherlock shakes with a sudden vehemence that contrasts the baseline shivering. “Too cold. You were right... about the extra layer...”

“I brought you an extra towel; we’ll sub it out for your clothes and soak it with warm water...” John almost chuckles for your dignity as much as your temperature. Not that the military lifestyle is typical, but his former flat-mate is particularly private; John banishes his sole glimpse of Sherlock’s Buckingham-Palace-bared skin from his mind and attempts his best impression of a jocular and indifferent pal. His hands betray him, however; he squeezes out the remainder of the water from the curls that have started to grow back at Sherlock’s nape and then runs his fingers momentarily across his back; part reassuring pat, part gesture of assistance for the thin but thoroughly plastered shirt if required...

...and then freezes. “Dear God, Sherlock, what on earth—?“

Near-immobile until now, Sherlock suddenly explodes to life. Before John can register the movement, he pivots, grabbing John’s wrist and facing him with a snarl, his eyes blazing. “Don’t.

They sit motionless, ceramic tub-wall between them. Perhaps it’s the damp frazzle of uneven hair; perhaps the raw, gawky paleness... or perhaps the way he looks like he wants to peck John to death... but Sherlock is every bit something newly hatched and ferocious.

But he breaks the stand-off first, turning away and letting go of John’s arm. “Oh, go ahead, then. It’s not as bad as you’re probably imagining now anyway.” The derision in his voice doesn’t hide the shamed slump of his shoulders as the reactive tension fades.

When it is worse, John bites his tongue to keep from sucking in a breath. The crisscrossing lines that he had thought were merely wrinkles in the dark fabric are briefly exposed to show what he’d been able to determine tactilely; thick welts of old but angry-looking scar tissue from shoulder-blades to hips. He gingerly helps Sherlock out of the shirt, draping the clean towel around him and dousing it with the warm spray to curb the shivering. He clears his throat. “Where...?”

“Serbia,” Sherlock replies curtly; smothering the next question with a When-do-you-bloody-well-think? edge in his tone.

John nods. Behind the tub-wall, below Sherlock’s view, he clenches his fists.

Sherlock remains still for a span of moments, then straightens up his neck. His voice takes on its familiar haughtiness as he shifts to remove his trousers but pauses on the ah-hem; “If you don’t mind...”

The doctor nods again, backing out of the bathroom. “I’ll just be...”

His friend’s voice is empty. “Go home, John.”

But, of course, John doesn’t. He tidies the kitchen, hangs up Sherlock’s scarf. Phones his wife, bracing for the fight.

It catches him off-guard when she asks, with a flat tone that he cannot read at all; “Is everything alright?”

So much so, in fact, that it takes John a moment to switch gears in answer and he hopes this doesn’t make it sound like a lie. “Yes... yes. You know him. Got himself in a state requiring medical observation.”

There are other people that can do the observing, Mary doesn’t say this time. “Alright then. Will you...” her tinny voice on the phone sounds far away, “...be back tomorrow?”

This is so much better than arguing.

And, somehow, so much worse. “Of course I will.”

“If you’re not going to be, can you let me know? I mean... she’s too young to really know exactly what day it is yet... we can always do the tree stuff anytime... but I just—“

Somehow, in the last half hour, he’d forgotten what day it is. He’d actually forgotten. John imagines himself clapping an idiotic hand to his forehead in comedic hyperbole. World’s Worst Father. He repeats; “I’ll be back.”

“Call me if not,” Mary repeats as well.

As he hangs up and paces the sitting room, contemplating building a fire, he hears the water draining from the tub and the thud of Sherlock’s door. He waits a long time in the hallway before the foolhardiness of this out-weighs the foolhardiness of knocking. “Sherlock?”

When he gets no reply, he enters anyway, directing in what he hopes to sound like a firm statement; “I’m not leaving.”

Sherlock is in bed, curled away from the door, covers drawn over all but his dark crown. John waits, hand gripping the door knob almost painfully, fighting the urge to lie down and drape himself around the tortured spine. There’s nothing for it; need to warm you up. Can’t let you freeze to death. John absent-mindedly rubs his arm while he recalls several names that he’s heard his father and most commanding officers—though not all—use for such activities, and looks down at his feet. In his internal doctor’s voice, he chides himself that, pleasant though he may find the prospect to be, Sherlock is probably raising his core temperature quite adequately without a snuggle from his best mate.

“I do hope you realize that your intentions are entirely objectionable and only fulfill your irrational needs, not mine,” Sherlock mumbles from beneath the duvet.

Sorry?!” John is glad the room is dark and Sherlock is looking away.

“You’re thinking about dragging me to a hospital. Making me endure cold cabs, cold waiting rooms and cold nurses. I’ll pass, thanks. I’m fine.” There is not quite a stammer, but something about Sherlock’s consonants is still tremulous.

John risks sitting behind him, hand to his shoulder. “You’re still shivering,” he points out.

“Ran out of hot water,” his friend explains. “I keep telling her to install a bigger tank.”

The doctor’s ears detect something else in Sherlock’s exhalations. “Did you take in a lot of water?” he asks, obviously not meaning in the tub.

The consulting detective is silent, but the wheeze in his lungs betrays him in the quiet room.

John tries again. “You really should be observed overnight, Sherlock. Delayed drowning is—“

“Easily detected by an off-duty physician without a stethoscope.”

“So you don’t really want me to go away, then?”

A pause. “Well, it’s pointless to argue with you once you’ve made up your mind,” Sherlock grumbles. But as John starts to get up, he actually lifts his head. “Are you going?”

“To get my chair.”

“Don’t be ridiculous; you’ll wreck your back.” Another pause. “This bed is Queen-sized, after all.” Followed by what, to John’s ears, is either an auditory indicator of delayed drowning or a slight giggling snort.

John chuckles. “I draw the line at spooning you for heat transfer.”

“I will break all the bones in your arm alphabetically, if you try.”

“Duly noted.”

“And you leave in a few hours. You have better things to be doing in the morning.”

The truth occurs to John. “Your parents aren’t expecting the pleasure of your company, are they?”

A slight pause. “Not from Oklahoma.”

The doctor sighs, feeling more than a mild drawing-and-quartering. “You know, you should just c—“

Capitate...” Sherlock growls.

“Fine.”

The night is still.

John lies, on top of the covers, and listens to the rise and fall of his companion’s breath. He has twice shaken himself from the verge of sleep when Sherlock suddenly speaks again.

“I almost drowned.”

“Hmm? Yeah, I think that was my earlier point...”

“When I was twelve.” His voice is not drowsy but there’s a kind of somnolent drawl to it that John can’t identify. He waits quietly for more. Sherlock pauses almost a full minute before continuing, “There was a large culvert near our property. I used stand on the bridge and watch the water enter it; it was hypnotic. My brother knew... he’d warn me away from it all the time. That just made the draw stronger, of course. I knew my family couldn’t watch me every second. ”

John stares at the ceiling and chews on the inside of his cheek, wondering about the other scars Sherlock carries that he knows nothing about.

“One spring, when the water was particularly high, I decided to try to swim it... to see how fast I could come out the other side. It was dark. So dark... I thought my eyes would adjust to it, but they didn’t. I thought I’d get used to the cold too. I suppose I did, in a way; it was almost impossible to feel anything. It was deeper in places than I’d assumed; there must have been a cistern. I got sucked down underneath and couldn’t figure out which way was up. It was terrifying at first. And then, not so much. Tiring. I remember...” Sherlock coughs, and pauses again. “My arms and legs were burning and all I could think was that it was all for naught... I was swimming in the wrong direction. Not-swimming was starting to seem very attractive.”

This time, when he goes wordless, John prompts, “But you kept swimming.”

It almost seems as if Sherlock will say nothing further on the matter. John hears him swallow, hard, twice. Then; “I didn’t really care what happened to me. But suddenly I... I just... I wanted to be home.”

His voice is slightly nasal, but then again, that’s what a dunk in the Thames will do for you.

“What happened?”

“My hand caught something.” Sherlock rolls to his back and they are both staring at the ceiling. “A grappling line that someone had installed.”

“Hmm. I wonder who.”

“He started early,” the youngest Holmes confirms.

They lie in silence, shoulders not touching.

“Sherlock...” John finally dares to venture softly.

No answer.

“It’s... It’s okay to miss him, you know.” He glances sideways.

Sherlock has fallen asleep.

John rolls to face him. Draws the covers that have slipped slightly back up. Decides against risking multiple fractures but leaves his hand next to his friend’s shoulder, noting that the tremors have almost subsided. 

He is monitoring, after all.

 

 

...

 


 

Stories are a bit like chemical formulae. They are pieced together by following a certain set of predictable laws. These are rules that you know, even if you’re unaware of it. They mirror something in your biology. First, establish the structure. Seek to form a bond.

Some artists would argue that true art is meant to be random and unfettered; that creative writing would be stifled by such methodological bounds. I tend to disagree. I find exquisite beauty in intuitively knowing the order of things. The rules you can break. The ones you cannot. (But then... I did start out as a scientist.)

Good stories have both skin and guts. When there’s a hole ripped through them, both have to be repaired. It doesn’t matter how smooth the scar is... if you don’t deal with the guts, the audience will know. It’s about keeping everything in balance.

Unlike chemical equations, however, most stories balance with more than two parts. Some would suggest that a three-act structure is best; some say five. This particular one, as modeled by an unforgettable bard from that nation of herbivores, is no different. (To say that nobody in slash really does this properly would be complete rubbish. Many can do it as well as the Powers-That-Be.) Call to adventure. Dispatch the threshold guardians.

Approach the cave. And so on.

At the moment, however, an intermission is permissible. 

Let’s all go to the lobby.

 

 

...

 

 

They are so used to the not-saying of what they’re thinking, that it comes surprisingly easy; sliding into this new dialect. They simply use other terms instead. It’s like telling two stories at once.

“You are asking... mmm... just begging, really... for trouble.” John’s voice low, teeth to Sherlock’s shoulder, both flashing pale in the midwinter night’s darkness. Hands dragging down spine, deft and hard and pointedly disregarding the scars.

I should have been there with you.

“Then... by all means, show me some...” Sherlock’s fingertips gripping, digging into, thigh muscle; the normally melodic string of his voice frayed on the edge of his breath. “Do you think I’m... unh... made of glass... or are you just getting tired?”

I couldn’t have borne it if you were.

Most of the time, they don’t talk at all; substituting the action for the narrative, or using words only for what is logistically necessary. John marvels at the way his partner, normally so verbose in illumination, is able to get his points across so expertly without language.

Like the next one.

The one when they are jaw to jaw and Sherlock’s now heated body shifts under him slightly, one hand between them, aligning and pausing, the other reaching blindly for the bedside table drawer and finding the items there by the crinkle of the package... every movement suggestive of premeditation.

At the pause in John’s movements, Sherlock presses his mouth below his ear and whispers tentatively, “Not-good?”

John leans back, staggered slightly by the sight of dark curls and bruised lips; the sea-coloured eyes that are endeavoring to peer slyly up at him and almost succeeding. “You sure?”

The feigned guile abates momentarily with a shamed flicker. “I only ever used my own needles,” he explains, rapidly. “We should probably use this anyway, but I have been tes—“

“That’s not what I meant,” he answers as quickly, though relieved; both that this is true and that Sherlock has offered this admission without the necessity of John asking.

Uncertainty; a touch of hurt, beneath a shrug that attempts to appear indifferent. “Well, if you’re not up for it—“

John silences the gibe with a swipe of tongue and tries to distract him for a minute. You’re not the only one that needs to process, sometimes. This, however, coupled with the undulation of the younger man’s hips, does nothing to assist forestalling. “Slow down. You need to be...” He pulls back again, shifting both of them on the mattress. “Ready. And it might be easier... if you, um...” John blanks on choosing the words carefully enough to suggest a general knowledge without admitting the lack of personal edification. Instead, he gently nudges Sherlock’s ribcage in a roll-over gesture.

His partner, who has—so far—deferred to John’s suggestions in these matters, holds firmly. “But then I can’t see you.”

Don’t say it.

Not aloud, anyway.

“Hope you’re not indexing my expressions.” John smiles, swallowing the three words that they’ve never given each other in sequence.

“Mirror.” Sherlock tilts his head up, setting his lips to the side of John’s skull, leaving the silent phrase there like a series of brands. “Next time, we’ll have to get a mirror.”

There’s nothing for it; we’ll need to learn how to dance.

And then John proceeds to do exactly what he feared Sherlock would... observes and analyzes and catalogues the expressions that flit over his partner’s features. They are all familiar; the flushed elation, the mischievous curiosity, the—nearly—hidden anxiety... of being exhilaratingly out of one’s depth. The reflections of his best friend’s pain and joy are not strangers to John’s eyes, but this arrangement is novel, and accompanied by a dialogue that begins with soft sounds and ends in hard ones.

Great stories keep you up all night. You can’t stop yourself even if you tried; even if you wanted to. You devour great stories; barely holding back from tearing the edges, in the urge to go onward. You savour them; lingering in cherished passages, in the wish for it all to never end. You ebb and flow with them; you hold your breath at times; you laugh out loud at others. Some wouldn’t make it by most censors... but it’s even better when certain things are left up to the imagination, isn’t it? Great stories challenge you to take what you need and to give back in return. They don’t have trigger warnings; they shock the hell right out of you by showing you what you’ve always known.

But if you’re very, very lucky, sometimes you come across a good story. One that brings you right to the edge of that deeper well and says

You.

Look down.

Now... fall.

Afterward, John doesn’t dare to speak first.

Mercifully, Sherlock does. “See you’re... not the only one... that can devise something new.”

John huffs a laugh into the curls beside his partner’s ear. “I hate to... be the one to... break this to you...” he chuckles, still gathering lungfuls and willing his heart to slow down, “...but there is substantial historical evidence to... suggest that some men have been doing this for ages.”

“Some.” There is a softening; an easing slip, and then Sherlock rolls away onto his stomach, before turning both gingerly and languidly toward him again, something triumphant—and something else—in the vaults of his gaze. “But not you,” he teases.

It’s too pointless to argue and too obvious to accuse his companion of the same, so John flips down onto his back, sighing at the ceiling and swiping his brow on a forearm. He decides to take a moment—sod-the-damn-sheets—and catch his breath before Sherlock either devises Round Three or suddenly decides there’s been enough indulgence of their respective transports and bounds up from the bed to return to the feathers he’d been cataloging. Back to work.

Though how types of birds are going to help you determine the culprits is beyond me, John muses, but he trusts that Sherlock, as always, will figure it out. He’s simply the catalyst for inspiration and this out-of-the-blue intermission is no different. A dark part of his heart needles at him that this is just a diversion; a momentary digression from whatever puzzle that Sherlock’s mind continues to wrap itself in, and all the messy crack-in-the-lens consequences to follow will be John’s to wrestle with alone...

So he’s surprised when he feels a weight against his chest, the scrape of lashes where it blinks against his ribs. A damp warmth of breath, in a restful cadence that suggests staying put. John opens his eyes and looks down, daring to slide his arm around the scarred shoulders.

Well. Speaking of new.

Sherlock says nothing for a long time, but his hand splays on John’s breastbone, slender fingers drumming with a lazy rhythm, like tapping out a code. Or, perhaps, playing music. John begins to notice the cold; loathe to allow Sherlock to become chilled again, but more-so to disrupt this, knowing that his friend will likely get up at any second...

“You’ve done this before.” It’s a quiet rumble beneath John’s own throat, in a tone that he can’t quite identify.

“I thought we just established—“

“All but,” Sherlock clarifies. “As for the rest... familiar territory.”

John isn’t sure how to answer, so he waits silently. For a long moment, it appears that Sherlock has given up the thread, but then he continues, “Not extensively though. Not so much as to gain a reputation or anything.”

Now it’s his turn to tease. “You seemed perfectly satisfied.”

But that isn’t Sherlock’s point. He pauses again, but then continues in a low drone, his fingers tracing small latitudes over John’s heart, painting his skin with words. “The first time caught you—somewhat—off-guard and you dismissed it as circumstantial; the adrenaline rush; the close quarters with opportunity... and mortality. But that changed over time. Your sister knows, even though you’ve never spoken about it. Few others do. You think you’ve been fine with it... as you put it when we first met... for a long while. That’s somewhat true, but it’s not the whole story. You would have never let something like this see the light of day, but not because you’re a prude or a coward, John Watson. You like to tell yourself that the reason that you were always cautious and restrained was practicality’s sake...”

John swallows.

“... but it’s really because of this.” Sherlock’s hand traces a tentative line over John’s right wrist, but—as if he knows better than to comment there—quickly skates up to the whorl of scarred skin on his other shoulder. “The last time... before me... was very shortly before you got this...”

John grips his fingers suddenly and Sherlock lifts his head. Their eyes glint at each other in the darkness. The night before, actually, neither of them say. For a long pace of breaths, it seems again that Sherlock might drop this line of deduction, but then he finishes, with a maddening mix of both disdain and tenderness, “There’s a small part of you... the same part, incidentally, that insists on revisiting that damned Book this time of year... that irrationally, superstitiously and very erroneously correlates the two events.”

Every fiber of John’s being wants to push him away; to get up and leave this conversation. Instead, he reaches for the sheet, drawing it up around both of them, staring Sherlock down as he does so. “Extraordinary,” he breathes, in an awe-filled tone.

His friend’s brow furrows.

John narrows his gaze playfully. “Yeah. That was quite extraordinary. Amazing really.  Oh... and piss off.”

Sherlock grins and lays back down on his back, leaving John to prop up on one elbow beside him.

“You know, two can play this game.”

“Hmm?”

“You’re analyzing.”

“It’s what I do.”

“It’s what you do to show you’re clever. To prove you’re smarter and better than other people. To gain the high ground in any situation.”

Sherlock rolls his eyes away, but John is undeterred.

“You’re well aware that it rubs people the wrong way, but you don’t actually enjoy that aspect as much as you claim to. When you were younger, it made you downright miserable, actually. But you can’t seem to help yourself. It’s like your damned coat collar. You probably actually believe that if you just turn it up, no one can see when you’re scared to death and not sure of anything.”

The naked detective remains still; staring darkly at a large crack in the wall, as if he expects or even wishes that something will come crawling out of it.

“You knew well enough to plan this,” John continues, “and yet—“

Sherlock suddenly shakes his head vehemently. “No.”

“No?” He raises an eyebrow, tilting head toward the bedside table and the package there; his movement clear enough even though Sherlock isn’t looking directly at him. If not me, then...?

The expression on Sherlock’s face is suddenly so young. No one, if not you. Surely you know that. “Not planned. Just...” He squirms under John’s gaze and, rather than admit ‘hoped’, instead tries to joke. “It was a possibility. We are complete idiots.”

“That, we are.” It’s John’s turn to trace along Sherlock’s sixth rib, as he stares at his friend’s face in profile, analyzing the mix of bridled joy and fear in the features there. “You haven’t done this before,” he concludes, correct in both the former and latter context. He braces for the scowl and retreat.

Sherlock maintains his silence for a long while, then raises to mirror John’s posture. “I haven’t done this before,” he echoes quietly.

Though both are true, they are obviously no longer talking about the former. “Me neither,” John agrees. He smiles gently, thumbing Sherlock’s cheekbone before kissing him there, leaving the sentiment unspoken. “Which is fine, by the way.”

They don’t ever get up to catalogue the feathers, though the high-functioning sociopath does devise a clever use for one of them. It is near dawn before they speak again, at least in coherent sentences. John stands by the window, watching the rose-glow creep along the brickwork. “You were wrong about one thing.”

Sherlock answers with a say-it-isn’t-so snort as he does up his shirt buttons in front of the shower. “And what would that be?”

The light of day. John hesitates, as he always does. Clenches his fists. Then, as always, says something else. He can’t seem to do this yet... not even here... not even in a dream. Timing, it seems, is everything. “Harry doesn’t know,” he substitutes.

“Yes, she does.” Sherlock snorts again, beginning to depart to the kitchen. Then he turns back, his appearance abruptly changing; his eyes hollowed, his face startlingly ghostlike, the husk of his voice cracking anxiously on a word that John can’t make out.

“What did you say?!”

Door,” Sherlock rasps, as he fades from John’s view.

The walls bleed back into darkened reality and, as ever, John wakes up with a name on his tongue that begins with soft sounds and ends in hard ones.

 

...

Chapter Text

“—the door...” Sherlock rasps.

It’s barely above a whisper, but it jolts John awake. The room is completely dark; it is still before dawn. “Sherlock?”

“Locked in,” his bedmate mumbles from beside him. “I can’t even find it. Can’t even... it was here before...”

John props up on one fully clothed arm and leans over. “You’re just dreaming. Open your eyes; it’s not real.”

Sherlock is speaking in a muted tone, but arms twitching, trapped in sleep in a way that suggests he is shouting, at least in his own mind. “John. Can you hear me?”

“I’m right here.” John rises from his place on top of the blankets that still bundle Sherlock and pulls them free, shaking him. “Wake up.”

His eyes open. He grips John’s arms, staring wildly.

John raises him to sitting. “You’re still shivering,” he observes. It’s worse than before. “You can’t possibly still be—“

You.” Sherlock’s voice is shockingly full of venom. “I thought you were gone.” He shoves John roughly and stands, unsteadily backing away from him. “Why are you never gone?!”

The temperature of his hands leaves brands on John’s skin. He stands as well, turning on the light. Sherlock blinks and covers his eyes. He’s sweating profusely.

Fever, then? “It’s good I stayed.” John feels the dread building. “We should have gone in. We’re going now.” He grabs Sherlock’s dressing gown from the door hook and steps toward him.

“Stay the HELL away from me, Short-arse,” the wide-eyed man hisses at him, nothing muted about his tone now. John recoils briefly, but quickly talks himself down from the knee-jerked bruised-heart and musters his face and fists into Captain-mode. He starts to provide the one-time offer of choice—cab or ambulance?—when Sherlock suddenly looks up, above both their heads, and fearfully yells “John!” as if calling up from the bottom of a well.

Alright. Play along. “I’m here.” He doesn’t move though; he lets Sherlock set the stage.

Sherlock looks down toward his feet, running a hand through tangled hair, desperately. John hasn’t seen him this panicked since the train bomb, before finding the off-switch. “It’s flooding. I don’t know how... I can’t find the door and it’s flooding...”

“Where are you?”

He looks at John, as if finally recognizing him, a cast coming over his face. Takes a quivering step towards him. His voice goes faint again. “Room at the bottom of the stairwell,” he murmurs, before passing out.

 

 

...

 

 

By the time he’s admitted, John wishes Sherlock would just stay passed out. Instead, he insists on vacillating among various levels of consciousness, nausea, belligerence and nonsense.

At the moment, he is berating the intern attempting to hook up the EMG in their room in triage. “This man...” Sherlock stutters through a clattering jaw, pointing at John sloppily “...is an army doctor. He can tell you what... you’re doing wrong. Look. Your wires... are all crossed.” For the second time, he grabs the leads and plucks them off. The intern narrows his eyes, gritting his own teeth.

“Stop it!” John snaps, grabbing his wrists and pining them down. “Sherlock, it’s fine and let him!”

His friend’s eyes loll towards him. “John,” he whispers frantically, as if only the two of them can hear, “he’s making me nervous... very, very, dreadfully nervous...”

The seething rage he feels, the army doctor reminds himself, is not solely for Sherlock. He’d chosen to ignore it; that voice in his head that reminds him that his best friend is, after all, a lying, sociopathic drug-addict, however high-functioning he may be. This is John’s fault really, for not bringing him in earlier... the anger is his to own too.

But mostly, it is for Sherlock.

“...you think I’m crazy,” the unbelievable bastard is now muttering, rapid-fire, to the intern, “but you won’t when I describe the wise precautions I took. Not a drop. All in the...”

“You’re alright, buddy,” the intern answers, not masking his irritation in the slightest. “We’re going to get you what you need.”

Sherlock’s lower eyelids twitch. “What I need,” he reiterates an earlier sentiment, “is a pencil.”

John blows air out through his teeth. The prior near-stabbing incident is not going to be repeated. “Just tell us what you took.”

“That’s not the point,” the patient sulks. The nurse gets the EMG running and the machine begins to pip. Sherlock turns to it. “Merely a cricket,” he glowers, menacingly.

The rate shows up on the machine. It’s faster than John had thought possible. The intern barks an order for the IV at other bustling nurses.

For a few minutes, Sherlock is quiet. John is trying to listen and follow the activity around them—adding the odd suggestion, while trying to not step on toes—when he feels a tug on his sleeve.

“What?”

“I think... we’ll get our chance in a moment...” Sherlock says, conspiratorially, in a low tone. “You distract the little one...”

This time it’s not overheard, but John scowls, turning away. “If you’re not going to give us any useful information, then shut it,” he hisses coldly. In the corner of his eye, he sees that Sherlock’s is beginning to shake again, and wincing with the force of it. The hand remains fisted painfully; white-knuckled in the material of John’s coat. Good, John thinks meanly, I hope it’s agonizing. But after a minute, he relents and gently pries the fingers open enough to flatten Sherlock’s hand out between his own, holding it steady through the spasms. A minute more, and the tremors subside slightly.

Sherlock peers at him, glassy-eyed. He’s getting tired; the paroxysms have been gripping him periodically for over an hour now and the strain is beginning to show in his face. He sniffs—sinus congestion, as expected—and murmurs something that sounds like prophet, bird and devil.

“Say again?” John sighs.

Shorn and shaven,” he quotes, reaching up to stroke John’s upper lip with his thumb. John jerks away, just as the intern returns to the bedside. Sherlock’s eyes dart furtively between the two of them. “No, wait... I’ve gotten that mixed up.” The EMG hammers impossibly faster.

“We’re going to have to sedate you,” the intern tells Sherlock, reaching for the IV. “You’re just going to have a little rest, okay...”

John raises an arm between them. “Wait a minute. Shouldn’t you just wait for the bloodwork? We don’t even know what he took in the first place...”

“Who are you, again, exactly?”

“My blogger,” Sherlock interjects. “He’s inpisdensible to me...”

“I’m his doctor. Where is your attending?”

The other man raises an eyebrow, just perceptibly. “Nice that you make house calls.” He ignores John’s question.

The alarm on the EMG pings. Sherlock claws his hands at the leads, shouting, “Tear up the floorboards!” Before both doctors can intervene, the IV is out too and everyone in the room is engaged in the tussle.

The high-functioning addict gets a couple of good hits off, before the combined strength proves too much for him. Sherlock writhes and twists miserably as John manages to pin him, though sideways, his arm hanging awkwardly in the gap between bed and cart, floundering in the mess of items on its lower shelf. “Sherlock, please,” John begs, “be still...”

After another minute of struggling and chaos, they manage to subdue him. Someone nearby mutters something John barely overhears about everybloodyyearwiththesewonderful-life-types. Sherlock winces again as the nurse reinserts the IV, but stops fighting. John gradually loosens his grip. Sherlock shifts his own over John’s coat, hand-over-hand, as if it’s a grappling line. When he snags on the pocket, he stops, gripping so the material pulls painfully on John’s neck. He says something that John doesn’t catch.

There are suddenly more people in the room. And hands on John’s shoulders. Voices. Directives.

“I’m not leaving,” John says, firmly. The security guards move him roughly. He appeals to his on-duty counterpart; “I’m trying to help you, for God’s sake...”

“You’re winding him up,” the intern snaps, with a get-him-out-of-here head nod.

John...” Sherlock gasps, then is silent, convulsing violently.

“And restraints for this tosser,” is the further directive he hears muttered faintly over Sherlock’s body, as John is dragged from the room.

“Seizure,” John murmurs, more to himself than to the muscle that pull him to the hallway. Then he finds himself shouting, not caring who stares in their direction, “He’s not fighting you, he’s seizing!

But it’s soon apparent that the best way to help Sherlock is to calm down and regroup. Getting hauled off to a security office is not going to help matters. John paces in the waiting area, nails digging into his palms. An eternity later, the intern exits the room. John strives to keep his posture neutral, but hears the tension in his voice as he chases after him.

“What happened? Is he alright?! Is he—?”

“I can only give that information to his next-of-kin.”

“I’m his doctor!”

The other doctor starts to walk away, but John catches the smirk and the under-breath of bet-you-are and the impertinent sot is soon pinioned to the wall. John raises his left hand, thumbing his wedding band in front of the startled man’s face. “Alright, I lied.” His voice is deadly. “I’m a doctor and I’m his partner, you bigoted little shit. Go get your attending. Now.”

When the supervising physician asks to speak with him in private, John braces for a diatribe about hospital conduct, but she asks instead, “You’re willing to assist with executive decisions, in the event Mr Holmes is unable—“

“Yes. He would—“

“He did,” she interrupts, holding up a small square of paper. John swallows as he takes it, unfolding twice. Pencil. Sherlock’s scrawl; shaky, almost unreadable: J Watson = nok.

And a list.

Or the start of one, John thinks, as there’s only two and a half items before the scrawl trails off. There must be more. When he asks, the attending confirms this, adding to John’s worst fears with a staggering inventory. “Hopefully, he’ll alright now with the benzo and rehydration,” she concludes, “though, it would have been better if he’d come in earlier. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Is he conscious?” John tries to keep his voice even. “Can I see him?”

“Sedated at the moment. Yes, of course you can. If you’ll answer a few more questions first though, it will help me determine a course of action.”

“I don’t understand,” John says numbly. “Some of what you mentioned isn’t even hallucinogenic—he’s a trained chemist for God’s sake, he knows what he’s doing—"

“I don’t think he was terribly aware about much of what he was doing tonight, or perhaps for much longer. He’s been at this a while. A lot of what we’re seeing now is actually also withdrawal. Combined with the hypothermia, it’s not surprising you couldn’t tell...”

Shut it. I couldn’t tell, John wants to scream, because I’m a complete idiot.

But her manner is quietly compassionate. “Dr Watson... I have to ask you some questions that might be hard to answer. Has your partner been depressed for very long?”

“He’s...” John blinks. “He’s not...”

“Has he ever attempted suicide?”

He lets out a humourless laugh. “What, this... no. No, no... this is recreational... albeit carried away, but no. He does this all the time.”

And you just lay there and let him spoon-feed you his bullshit. Enjoyed the cuddle, hmm, Watson? Felt like you were really bonding?

“You said he’d jumped in the Thames.”

“Yes, to scrape hull samples from the side of a boat...” John realizes how this sounds and stops, shaking his head. You don’t understand. He’s not like other people; he doesn’t feel things that way... “Look, this is Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective. You’ve probably heard about him... he...”

“Yes, I have, actually. Jumped off a building a few years back?”

“Onto an airbag.”

She raises an eyebrow at him, but doesn’t argue. Instead, she tries a different tack. “It sounds like a rather reckless existence.”

John tilts his head in a can’t-argue-with-you-there fashion.

“And stressful, I’d imagine.”

“I don’t think he sees it that way. He’s been doing it most of his life. The only reason he survived until I came along was probably because of his older brother.”

“Has his routine or lifestyle changed drastically in recent months...?”

His Arch Nemesis finally bit the dust. Does that count? John stalls, shaking his head.

“... or has he suffered any losses?” she continues to prompt.

“His... older brother.”

It probably doesn’t, but John imagines that the look on her face reads as You’re his partner? You moron. But her voice is carefully neutral as she describes options, referrals; including several facilities and programs John is vaguely aware of. She ends with, “We can encourage, but it would mean more coming from you.”

John rubs the bridge of his nose tiredly. “You have no idea how little my opinion on this issue has mattered.”

When he is let back in, the room is quiet, other than the now subdued blips of machinery. Nurses intermittently pass in and out. Sherlock lies sleeping, his head drooped slightly to the right, sweaty curls plastered to his forehead. His skin is almost translucent and, John thinks, despite the shadow of stubble and the lined cheeks, there is something about him that seems perpetually twelve years old.

He unties the now-unnecessary restraints from Sherlock’s wrists and tosses them to the floor. “You need a better haircut,” he mutters, standing beside him. “And there might be some more comments about us in the papers again that we’ll need to discuss.” He fights the urge to stroke the uneven wisps from his friend’s brow. Instead, he shoves his hands in his pockets.

Feeling something that hadn’t been there earlier.

Paper. Shaky scrawl in pencil.

Sorry.

John clamps his eyes shut, staving off the sudden flood that wells there. His teeth sink into his inner lip until he tastes iron. As he lays one hand on the bedrail, he notices that it’s shaking.

But then, unlooked for, there’s a calm prompt in his mind. John, listen.

Sherlock’s words, but not quite his voice. Somehow neither, but both of theirs, together. Something new.

Be calm and answer me. What is he?

A liar... he thinks to himself darkly, cracking a narrow glance at the man in the bed, through the film of bridled tears.

No. As ever, you see and do not observe.

...and the infuriatingly beautiful genius that completely confounds me, blinds me, overcomes me. He will drive himself mad. And I will follow along after...

Not in this room. Right here, right now: what is he?

John opens his eyes.

The monitor pips. Sherlock’s hand, nails bitten to their quicks, is resting, curled like a dead insect on the sheet. His pulse thrums in his pale wrist. With the barest of rattles, his chest rises and falls.

A patient.

With a sniff and a brisk nod, Dr Watson sits.

This time, Sherlock.

My way.

 

 

...

 

 

There are three things that are fundamentally misleading about the axiom If you love something, let it go.

The first is the implied singularity of the action, as if it’s something considered, decided and then executed once. The reality is often much more arduous. It requires committing to the same choice again. And again. Sometimes, thousands of times.

Sometimes, thousands of times in a single day.

“Why are you still here?” the patient growls, without looking at him.

John ignores the question. “You lied to me,” he says wearily.

Sherlock pauses a long moment before responding. He’s exhausted as well; the residual paroxysms have finally burned out, but taking all muscle reserves with them. His closed eyes sink in their hollows; his lips are chapped from biting back bile. His voice, however, is his own again; a smooth rumble, “Technically...”

“To hell,” John’s takes on a deadly tone, “with whatever loophole you’re using to justify this.” As it suddenly occurs to him what that loophole likely is, he adds; “Swear on my life, next time.”

“I didn’t mean for... ” Sherlock opens his eyes, but his stare is through John, not at him. “I was stupid,” he murmurs, flatly. “Won’t happen again.”

“On that, you and I entirely agree. Let’s see if we can agree on how.” John tosses the pamphlet and referral note on the bed.

Sherlock finds the energy to scoff deep in his throat and turn further away.

“Deduction.” John continues. “Mycroft made you try this before. So. How long did you last?”

Cold voice. “Four days.”

“The program is four weeks.”

“I’ll die of boredom before then. Is that what you want?” Sherlock musters his best disdain-laced intonation. Acting normally.

“You should go straight from here. I’ll drive you, if you want.” John picks up the bag at his feet that he’d gone back to Baker Street to pack in the earlier hours. He tosses it casually onto the bed. It lands with a whumph on Sherlock’s knees. “And then I’ll pick you up there. If you’re still there in four weeks, that is.”

Sherlock blinks—it’s brief, but telling—John recognizes the flash of insight that accompanies his friend’s eyes when suddenly seeing a solution. It’s immediately masked again; real-Sherlock, behind precisely-Sherlock. The difference is subtle. John never would have caught it, in the infancy of their friendship. “Excising my demons through communal boo-hooing and arts-and-crafts?” he scoffs. “I refuse to subject myself to that insipid pseudo-science again.”

John flips the radiator-dried Belstaff from the crook of his arm to the top of the bag. “You have until five to decide. You’re discharged. Don’t have to go to rehab but you can’t stay here.”

“I’m not going to rehab.” His voice is diamond-hard.

As John’s is soft. “Well. It’s up to you.”

This causes Sherlock to furrow his forehead quizzically, the fight going out of him slightly with the realization that John isn’t fighting back. You’re giving me a choice?

We all make choices, Sherlock.

The second misleading thing about the ridiculously mawkish statement is the impression of the very action itself. Letting go implies an open gesture; palms upward, fingers extended. As if releasing a damned dove in the air. The inspirational-poster-and-slogan industry has it all wrong. It is often, in fact, the exact opposite: a pinning of one’s arms to one’s sides. A clenching of one’s fists; a biting of the tongue. Letting go sometimes means just holding on. It is inaction, in action. It cannot be anything less.

“Four weeks,” John repeats.

Sherlock discards the papers on the bedside table, without looking at them. “We both have better things to do,” he replies curtly, his cheek moving as if chewing on something.

The fact that John realizes that Sherlock is actively attempting to make him angry is not entirely preventing this result from occurring. “Do you know what your god-daughter is doing right at this moment?” he glowers.

“You’re well aware that I detest that term—“ the other retorts nastily.

“Do you know?”

“No.” The shrug/eye-roll is almost his I-don’t-care posture.

Almost.

“Neither do I.”

The patient stares out the window, hands clenched. Mouth in a firm line. “Go home, John.”

His voice has risen a notch. “I plan to. At this particular moment, YOU need me more than she d—"

There are canines and bile in the clipped response. “I don’t need you.”

You don’t fool me anymore. John sighs and then starts again slowly, traces of anger draining. “Most days, I will make the right choice, Sherlock. The best one that I can, at the time. Then someday, sooner or later, maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll get it wrong and let one of you... or, likely, both of you... down. But I can’t ch—“

“Just. Go. HOME!” Sherlock snaps, but his voice breaks on the last consonant, like an echo down a well. His red-rimmed eyes fall back upon John’s for the first time in hours; before he catches himself, looking down, his throat bobbing. Sorry... sorry, again.

Sorry.

Look...” John says, before deciding to say it, with the distinctive feeling of a cup having just slipped out of his grasp. And his friend obeys. They stare fully at each other, both fidgeting in their respective surprise at doing so, each snared in the other’s gaze across the white sheets. There’s faint hospital noise around them; people talking, because that’s what people do. The silence is filled with it. John realizes that, at his sides, his nails are biting into his palms. He opens his hands, leaving them hanging just out of reach of the foot of the bed, and finishes, “...you know it’s not that simple.”

“Why not?!

Left-brain screams at him. Now?!

“What are you looking at?” he prompts Sherlock quietly.

“A little girl’s angry father.”

Years of silence... and we’re going to do THIS...?!

“That’s just what you expect to see. Look at me and try actually observing this time.”

Sherlock begins to crumble under his gaze. “My... best friend,” he answers weakly, blinking and stuttering.

...now.

John tongues his lower lip with a light huff of air.

Right-brain wins.

“Closer,” he admits. Surprised, at how firm and calm his voice is.

Neither turns away.

How long have you known?

Too long.

Sherlock swallows, gazing at him desolately, the façade dissolved.  “God help me, John; I can’t solve this. I don’t know how—“

“It’s okay.” John lets himself—just slightly—smile. In the way he always wants to and almost never has. “I have no idea how to turn these silly little lights off, either.”

In spite of themselves, caught off-guard, they both chuckle a bit.

What now, then?

I don’t know, Sherlock. One step at a time. Keep swimming.

The third misleading thing is something that most people never get the privilege to realize.

It has to do with the second part of the statement; the part that deals with ownership... as if such things can be owned. This coin is double-sided; the one side suggesting a frivolous and naïve trophy; the other, a hollowness, a loss. The former side negates a mature understanding of the emotion in question; the latter invites the image of a despaired resignation. Overall, it implies the idea that the power of love is dependent on an outcome... and that if the desired outcome does not come to pass, it makes a person half-empty, rather than whole. Something that makes one weaker, rather than strong.

When, in fact, in some cases... nothing could be further from the truth.

“Four weeks,” John says, once more.

They set their shoulders. And nod in agreement.

As John leaves the hospital, he feels the uncanny strength in the legs that carry him away from Sherlock and muses; people who do not know this about love are, perhaps, doing it wrong.

 

 

 

...

 

 

 

Rehab is boring.

They have one exchange only. Sherlock, curled on his side in bed, bathed in the blueish cast in the darkness, smiles and replays it like a favourite TV show.

Giving up already?

Not this time.

Alright, then. WHERE are you?

What do you mean? Sherlock could almost hear the wheesh of irritated air between John’s teeth.

Floor security called me. They found a dummy in your bed. In your room.

I am in my room.

Bkr St?

Nope. My new one. #122 across the hall. Previous tenant discharged themselves today. I saw an opportunity. Better view.

There had been a long pause. In the first reading, Sherlock had worried that would be the end of it.

Ok prove it.

Sherlock had risen, tip-toeing to the door. Cracked it softly. Watched the hushed hub-bub of facility staff at the kitty-corner door and tried to angle the camera phone for the best vantage point.

<<< photo: sent >>>

Lol. Bored, are we?

It’s not so bad. I’m loving Arts n’ Crafts.

They don’t really call it that, do they?

Creative Therapy.

Ah.

Another pause.

You’re okay then?

And again, Sherlock had been the one to type-erase, type-erase; taking entirely too long to key in three letters.

Yep.

The phone had then remained silent for so long that Sherlock had almost fallen asleep, before it vibrated in his hand; jolting him to wakefulness.

Are you actually allowed to have your phone?

Goodnight, John.

Night.

There is no further contact. Sherlock doesn’t expect any. John is probably worried that Sherlock will try to talk him into some kind of escape plan. Sherlock is just as worried that John is right.

Four weeks. Well. Three and a quarter, now.

And then what? Sherlock tries not to wonder, as futilely as holding breath. He turns it like a coin in his mind; wonderful, terrible. Somehow just knowing makes it infinitely better.

And worse.

Hope is a monstrous thing perched in the heart of a great intellect; Sherlock has run every conceivable scenario seven times each so far and each serves only to solidify the fact that, unlike the embellished fictions of his mind palace, reality will not be so neat. There is no way over, under or around this problem and through leaves a swath of collateral damage that he fears they won’t be able to wash from their hands. And yet, every time he closes his eyes, he feels the brush of feathers; he hears the tune without the words.

I should have killed this faster, he thinks, for the thousandth time, trying to pinpoint the moment the This all started.

John Watson, his fingers on Sherlock’s stone, voice faint across the silent cemetery. No one will ever convince me you told me a lie.

I shouldn’t have tried to be clever. No one could be this clever.

John Watson, gazing fearfully up at him, phone to ear, from behind the ambulance bay. You could.

I should have run.

John Watson, newly without his cane, catching his breath as they stand shoulder-to-shoulder at the bottom of the stairs. That was insane.

Stiff-jointed on the uncomfortable mattress, temples throbbing, scalp itching and skin still prickling with occasional bouts of nausea-sweat, Sherlock handles the memory like it’s made of crystal and smiles into the pillow like there’s sunlight falling on his face.

“I warned you not to get involved,” his constant companion reminds him. “Caring is—“

“I know,” he responds automatically. “I’m not stupid.”

“Wherever do you get that idea?” The smirk that never fades. Will never age.

But in just over six years, Sherlock will finally catch-up. “Shouldn’t you be wallowing in a circle of vile slush somewhere? Chatting up Ciacco?”

“How generous of you. Not somewhere deeper, immersed in ice?” The chiding tone comes from the shadows; just beyond the edge of the younger man’s vision.

“As always, you over-estimate your own importance.”

A soft laugh. “Well. Perhaps I’m on some earthly Mount instead. And, perhaps, at just one terrace below your lofty destination...“

“Stop it.”

“...though, greed and gluttony aside, you could really have your pick of them, couldn’t you?”

He rolls his eyes at him in the darkness. “I can’t remember. I never read the whole Comedy anyway; I only Wiki’ed the main bits.”

“Not your usual field of interest.”

“Well, it was for catching a self-righteous serial killer.”

“No, you were just trying to predict the end of that American film.”

“Oh, right.” He almost laughs for a moment, enjoying the banter, in spite of himself.

They fall into silence. John says it’s okay, Sherlock thinks, and I do, but decides not to say it aloud. Partly, because his brother must know it anyway; as he knows everything. Partly, of course, because this is not a real conversation and Sherlock suddenly realizes he does not want to be overheard talking to himself. But mostly, it is because the combination of the awful mattress and the withdrawal nausea and the loneliness that is eating at his brain and Sherlock is afraid of everything that may follow the admission like a floodwater: And I also miss what I didn’t even KNOW I was missing, Mycroft... but you were right; I need to STOP this chemical defect... it makes me weak because I’m not above it all, I’m not like you and I’m not...

“Sorry,” his brother says.

Sherlock snaps his attention back to the face in the darkness, blinking a double-take. For months now, their conversations have been one-sided in a guise of two, and his sparring-partner has never gone off-script like this. “What?!”

“I’m afraid I’ve over-estimated you.”

More in-character, but still not the words Sherlock would have chosen at this juncture. Who the hell is writing this dialogue?! “Oh? How did I fail this time, in your estimation?”

“You’re still having trouble conquering your greatest adversary.”

Sherlock feels a stab of dread. I watched him take a bullet through the mouth. Three times; twice that should have counted. I watched John kick him off a cliff. Hell, I watched you try to wipe his armies from a map, after I thought I’d done the same. He brings his fingers to his temples. Out there. In here. It doesn’t matter. He never dies. He tries to keep his voice cool; sarcastic. “I did the whole “visited by three spirits” thing at Hallowe’en instead. Please don’t tell me he’s coming next.”

Mycroft sits in the chair beside the bed. Despite the shadows, Sherlock can almost make out his face. “Perhaps... if you get a little help from the cleverest person in the world... not this time.”

“So you’ll get rid of him, then?” the addict jokes, hoping it doesn’t sound plaintive. An sudden observation occurs to him. Mycroft doesn’t have his umbrella. It’s odd seeing him without it.

“No, but it doesn’t matter anymore.” His brother folds his fingers thoughtfully. “Besides. He isn’t the adversary I meant.”

“Who did you... oh. Obvious.”

They regard each other quietly. When the elder Holmes speaks again, his voice has a quality that the younger has never heard in it. Doubt. “Sherlock. You’ve tried to lock it away. You’ve tried to poison it and tried to drown it. What on earth do you think you’re going to do next time... carve it out?”

“It’s not something you would understand.”

“I wish you’d surpass my understanding of such things. I always warned you not to get involved, but I was wrong. You’re close, but you’re still not quite getting it yet. You see, but you don’t observe.”

“Observe what?”

“Well, in a different way... me.”

“You are the perfect example,” the patient scoffs, “that any attempt at sentiment is a futile exercise.”

It’s stupid; a poor design.

It’s too heavy, Mycroft.

“You think I didn’t care.”

“No, on the contrary.” He sits up, leaning forward, thinking pointedly in full volume, in the apparition’s direction. Despite outward appearances, you did love me. Of course I know that. You kept me out of trouble... or tried, anyway. You taught me just about everything I know and that wasn’t entirely out of your own enjoyment of playing the teacher. You were proud of me... even when there was nothing to be proud of. Sherlock shifts his shoulders unconsciously, feeling the weight of the draped coat that wasn’t his, in another bygone episode of over-dose. He looks down at his hands.  You spent untold resources protecting me. You were... afraid. Of losing me. He emits a bitter sound with his silent thoughts.  You should have followed your own advice. You should have realized how pointless it all was. Did you ever get anything other than hurt as reward for your efforts? You were perfectly correct in your constant reiteration that caring was NOT an advantage—far from it—and yet still, you always...

Oh.

He looks up to find he is alone. Of course he is.

And yet.

The bee flies.

He smiles softly.

“Thank you,” he says.

Out loud.

 

 

...

 

 

John puts one foot in front of the other. And then again.

And then again.

Familiar territory. He walks, he talks. He works. Shops. Sneezes. He’s done this before; these motions of just live; just live your silly little life.

But this time, it’s different.

This time, there is the razor’s edge between a paralyzing sadness and a profound joy and the only way that John can maintain his balance is to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Each time he feels himself shifting slightly off neutral, into either future or past, he pulls back to the moment to ground himself.

There are, as always, patients waiting to be seen. But this time, it helps... it makes sense: this moment-to-moment focus keeps up the balancing act of his life. This time, John steps through the door of his practice with eyes that observe. There is the desperate patient with the undescended testicle that finally receives a diagnosis; a rare developmental condition, that explains his other, previously unreported and confounding, symptoms. There is the man who comes in with piles, but leaves not only with a prescription for this but also a caution to curb his drinking and tests ordered for the heart condition that he obviously has. There is the young woman with the case of thrush, but when John’s gaze alights on her, he notices that midnight feedings aren’t the only thing this new mother is struggling with and takes the extra time necessary to talk her into counseling and, perhaps, out of an abusive relationship.

This time, despite anything else John may be, he is a doctor. And he has a job to do. This is the stuff that would be boring and banal, but for a new-found appreciation of the beautiful mystery of it... of how a perfect stranger can have the answer to a question that someone didn’t even know they were asking. Of how all our stories are written on us, silently, in the words we never use. Of how realizing this can sometimes change—and even save—a life.

And this time, there is the child with uncanny red hair and a cascading laugh, that he reads to sleep each night and thus, she pervades his dreams.

And this time, there is the small matter of the crime that John’s committed this very afternoon, between surgery appointments and hospital rounds, in the name of a necessary procurement of information.

Well. Necessary confirmation. Part of him had already known. A reminder of how frivolously they toy with death.

And how inevitable it is.

One foot, then the other. Some would call it avoiding the elephant, but John hopes instead that each silly little step that he takes through each day brings him closer to something real, inch by inch. With each one, a quiet, dignified strength grows in him that is tied to neither outcome. He’s never felt more alone in his life, and yet, he doesn’t feel lonely. Before, John lost track of moments; this time, he lives in each one and each one is rarefied, golden-edged. This is the difference. The terrible beauty and exquisite curse of not-having, and yet, having...

Choice.

At this particular moment, he stares openly at his reflection in a glass partition, musing that perhaps this entire debacle is less a chase of culprit and more a case of identity. It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t have the answers yet. He reminds himself that—at least this time—he’s finally asking the right questions.

“You...?”

The familiar voice is beside him, but beyond the reflection’s edge.

“...or me?”

John blinks.

“Not sure which of us got here first,” the voice explains. “But you look like you’re still deciding.”

She tilts her head in the direction of the counter.

He nods. “You go ahead.”

Molly places her order then casts a shy look at John over her shoulder. “I don’t care what he says; the pork here doesn’t put me off.” While they both laugh, John tucks his hands in his pockets and takes a step back. The white-coated pathologist adds, “Not having anything?”

He is encroaching on the supper hour, having come here after work to follow up various community patients that are just out of one operation or another. He stares up at the menu. “I’m just not hungry at all right now,” he admits. “I mean, I should be... I know I should eat something; it’s been ages...” He’s not sure why he’s babbling, but her placid manner seems to have that effect on him, “...and I will be hungry later; I know, but at the moment...”

She picks up her tray. “That’s okay. Just sit with me anyway.”

As they take a table by the window, John realizes that it’s the first time he’s ever been alone with Molly Hooper and grasps for some topic of conversation other than the obvious. “I’ve only ever had the pasta here...”

“How is he doing?” she raises an eyebrow, unwrapping her utensils.

So much for that idea. “I’m not sure. He’s not supposed to have a mobile, so...” John pauses. “How did you know?”

“He’s been texting Greg off and on,” Molly gestures off-handedly with her fork between bites. “Trying to solve the Sutherland case. In absentia.”

“Oh,” he replies, nodding with his understanding. In addition to the younger woman’s apparent inside knowledge of police matters, John also notices the casual ease with which she’s using the D.I.’s first name. And that she’s put on about two-and-a-half pounds. He smiles warmly at her. “I see.”

As if catching John’s insight, Molly inspects her plate demurely and deflects, “I think he’ll stick with it. This round of rehab, I mean.”

He looks out the window. “I don’t know. I hope so. But I can’t...” He’s not sure how to finish the thought; how to decide what he can and can’t do for Sherlock. Or what he won’t. Most days, I will make the right choice. John’s mind clouds over momentarily with the past and future. Then someday, sooner or later... It happens; these reminders of how eliminating the impossible actually feels impossible.

“He’s better off than before,” she informs him, in a way that reminds John that Molly has actually known their mutual friend for a lot longer than he has.

“How so?”

“He didn’t have a best friend last time. You’re a much more motivating influence than his brother, believe me.”

John chuckles for a moment, but shakes his head. He’s watched Harriet do this sort of thing for too many years to cling to false hopes.   “Doesn’t work that way.”

“What do you mean?”

“It can’t be for me. Can’t be for anyone.” He shrugs. “Has to be for him.”

They sit in silence, eating and not-eating.

Molly finally breaks it, changing the subject. “Are you finished your rounds?” She tips her head in the vague direction of the morgue. “Want to come down afterwards and see something?”

“Interesting case today?”

Her eyes spark in the way that belongs only to hopeless nerds in their element. “Congenital dysplasia of the corpus callosum.”

“Neat.”

“I know, right?! I’m preparing some sections for histology. He died of an allergic anaphylaxis; read a label wrong. His family donated his brain to the University. Said it’s what he would have wanted.”

“Do you know anything about him? Hemiplegic?”

She shakes her head, chewing. “Supposedly not. Walked and talked; no obvious signs. Was a maths professor, actually; hence the academic connection. But a bit of an odd character, history says. As one is somehow bound to be, I suppose, if the left brain and right brain can’t work together properly. He was some kind of genius-level savant with calculations, but only if spoken aloud. Couldn’t read numbers, apparently. Couldn’t dial a phone to save his life.” The colloquialism rolls off her tongue, but then she leans forward and adds pointedly, in a quieter tone, “Literally.”

It’s not professional, but John feels his mouth twitch with the suppressed smile, and he has to bite back the juvenile joke Quick, quick! Can someone please tell me...

And by her barely restrained grin, he can tell that Molly is thinking it too: ...the number for 999?!

Within a few breaths, they are both outwardly chuckling, wiping eyes and raising eyebrows at each other: Not-good, Doctor. Yes, but rather funny.

Molly sets down her fork. “I’ve always wondered what it’s like. Professional curiosity, I guess.”

“Hmm? What, having an atypical brain?”

“No. Dying.”

“Oh.”

“Or a near-death experience.” She gazes out the window. “I asked Sherlock once. But he didn’t want to talk about it. Just told me I’d been brilliant... whatever that means. Which is fine; not my business.” She turns back to John. “But... fascinating, right? I mean; can you imagine what it must be like?!”

John realizes he’s been absent-mindedly rubbing his shoulder. “I don’t have to.”

“Oh.” Her face falls. Not my business.

“No, it’s alright,” he quickly waves off her unspoken apology. “I don’t mind.” And strangely, he doesn’t... though this is the first time since his injury that this willingness to talk about it has been the case. “It was, erm... well, unlike anything I’d ever felt. Not surprisingly, I guess.”

“How were you...?”

He taps his scar. “War. Shot. Wasn’t painful. At least not then. Wasn’t frightening either; that was the stranger part. I remember feeling that I should be afraid. I remember noticing with acute detail how much blood I was losing. Remember thinking: ‘Huh. This is new.’”

Molly listens quietly.

“A lot of it was probably what you’d expect. That whole life-flash-before-your-eyes thing. Except it’s not flashing; it seemed to take ages. It was like time was slowed right down; then sometimes sped up, then backwards, forwards, squished together in places, drawn out in others. Time didn’t have any meaning, really.” John speaks slowly, trying to find the right words for something that has none. “But I remember realizing that it was gradually getting darker. Quieter. I was losing things; memories, sensations. Faces. Voices. Inch by inch. It still wasn’t frightening, it was just...” He pauses, noticing that his arms are folded over his chest and unfolds them, laying his hands lightly on the table. He continues speaking, though no longer directly to Molly and also not knowing what he’s about to say, as if he is remembering the experience for the first time. “Like everything I’d ever known was going away, little bits at a time. Until the last inch. The very last one remaining. And in that one, all there was... was just...”

When she coughs slightly, John realizes he’s been silent a while. But now he knows how this story ends. He’s been wrong... and right... all along. It’s on the tip of his tongue.

Whatever remains.

“...me.”

However improbable.

He smiles.

Right.

“John, there’s something I should say... I’ve meant to...” Molly is fidgeting uncomfortably.

He almost laughs out loud. “Go on, then.”

“I lied to you. For two years. I saw how sad you were, and I still—“

John realizes that, although this had stopped being a sore point for him long ago, he had never really considered the other side of it until now. “It’s okay.” He reaches across and touches her hand. “It’s fine.”

“I don’t know why you should ever trust me at all, frankly.”

He straightens up, clearing his throat. “Well, frankly, Molly Hooper... you’re a terrible liar.”

Her expression is mostly relief, mingled with a touch of offense. “Really?”

“Oh, yes.” John grins at her. “You’re normally so bad at it, I would have never suspected. That’s why you fooled everyone.” He stands, picking up his coat from the chair-back. “That’s the problem with a good heart, I guess.”

She stands as well, tilting cheek to shoulder in an unsuccessful attempt at hiding her blush. As they leave the cafeteria together, she chucks a thumb toward the elevator. “Coming down?”

John shakes his head in farewell, stepping toward the exit. “Sorry to miss it. But there’s something else I need to go do right now.”

She nods, in a knowing way, continuing on. But a moment after parting, she calls out to him. “John.”

He pauses.

“No matter what happens, don’t think that what you’ve done for him doesn’t count.” Molly bites her lip momentarily, as if she thinks she ought not to say it, and then decides to anyway. “It’s in the way he looks at you, when he thinks you can’t see.”

“What way?”

“Happy. Even when he’s sad.”

 

 

...

 

 

Families are abominable things.

They are offensive, impertinent, sticky and ticklish sorts of things. Loud and obnoxious reminders of the inescapable chains to your biology.

So when there’s a group session that families are invited to, Sherlock tells himself it’s for the best... that having none is his get-out-of-session-free card... and isn’t so much nicer to sit in the lounge by the window alone? Yes. Yes, of course. Peace and quiet.

“…someone for Holmes... named Watson...” he overhears the desk clerk say.

He whips around, his neck protesting with the snap of the movement.

Mary strides the length of the room and sits across from him.

“Sorry to disappoint.  For a moment there, you lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Looking out the window is suddenly enormously compelling.  “I’ve always hated Christmas,” he scoffs, offhandedly deflecting the cheeky barb that he hopes is less intentional than the glint in her eye makes it seem.

“No, you haven’t.”

Sherlock keeps his reactionary smile inward.  Mary, Mary, quite contrary.  She’s right of course, as she often is, and right in a way that no one – not even John – sees into him.  Initially, he had somewhat enjoyed this feature of his best friend’s wife, but it has been two years, seven months, three weeks and one day since Sherlock has felt little toward Mary that isn’t laced with doubt.  He is acutely aware that the last entirely private exchange between the two of them was mostly one-sided, as all he’d been able to do with a tube down his throat is nod and breathe.  Sherlock? You don’t tell him. Now, he coughs slightly. “To what do I owe the honour?”

“It’s the centre’s ‘Family Day’, is it not?”

You’re NOT my family, Sherlock almost retorts, but bites it back.  Not simply because the recent years have softened his social edges… Sherlock only deals in truth and he suddenly realizes that she is, at least in his mind palace, categorized in that same convoluted corridor.  He deflects again, “My parents are abroad and I saw no reason to burden them with this.  Mycroft is, as you know, indisposed.”

“I’m sure he’d come if he could.”

“Well, it’s highly inconvenient, I’d imagine.”

In his peripheral vision, Sherlock notes that Mary also turns to follow his gaze out the window.  “Peaceful scenery.  No media hidden in the shrubbery?  Perhaps you could get one of your stalkers to come in and be part of your healing process. They’re probably wondering what on earth you’re doing in here.”

The reception desk has been quiet lately, but for the better part of Sherlock’s first week, the facility’s administration had likely lamented their newest admission’s celebrity status.

“I’m excising my demons,” Sherlock dead-pans. “Rebalancing my karma.”

“Your fans can’t possibly believe you’re that boring.”

“My fans prefer the fiction that my entire life is an unforgettable adventure. They would never believe how boring the majority of it actually is.”

“Oh, really?”

“Oh yes. Hours peering into microscopes. Reading. Cataloguing minutiae. Nothing that would ever make the news. So... you’re here because...?”

Mary ducks the question again. “So you’re just having a solitary cuppa while everyone else gets their kumbayayas out?”

“It would seem.”

“Could work on your papier mache, I suppose…”

Sherlock doesn’t hide the slight smile in time.  “Alright, that was a bit funny.”

“I try.”

“Try harder.  You’re stalling.  Why. Are. You here?”

Her pause makes him turn back to her and see the hesitation on her face that he had missed during her arrival.  She opens her mouth to start and then shuts it again, now breaking her eyes from him.  Rarely has Sherlock seen Mary off-balance.  It’s never good when she is. 

“We need to talk.  About John.  Well, obviously about John.”  The words come out in a rush. 

He waits, beginning to feel his own jitteriness creeping up his spine and resists the urge to snap  What about John?

Mary sighs impatiently, as if it should go without saying. “About your feelings for him.”

Oh.

That.

Sherlock is unsure about how long it takes his thoughts to coalesce back into language.  Longer than milliseconds.  Longer than he’d like, apparently, by Mary’s expression.  When they do, the first thing that surfaces in the King’s English is Get off my sheet.  He cannot imagine ever feeling more naked in his life.  This is, to put it mildly, not what he’d been expecting. But then, with Mary, it never is... he should know this by now. Further thoughts that could actually form vocal words refuse to come together and leave his parted lips.

“And his for you,” she adds.

Alright, more naked.  Definitely more naked.  Sheet to the wind.  Definitely more milliseconds than he’d need to portray ambivalence. He tries anyway.  “I don’t know what you’re—“

“Fibbing.”

John, what have you done? The question begins to fall out of his dry mouth before he can prevent it. “What has he—?”

But Mary immediately confirms what Sherlock had thought to be invariably true of the taciturn doctor. “Nothing. He hasn’t. I’m sure he doesn’t realize that I know.”

He tumbles through a dozen responses, discarding each with mounting implausibility.  Clever girl.  But as the time ticks by, he notices that he feels too balanced in karma—and frankly—too tired to lie about himself. What would John say?  Sod this.  His eyes return to rest steadily on Mary.  “You could be mistaken,” he says evenly.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you blush before. So, no… I don’t think I am mis—“

“Not about me.”  Sherlock is surprised at how firm and calm his voice is, despite the enormity of this initial out-loud admission.  He sets his shoulders, feeling simultaneously stronger, weaker and infinitely naked, marveling at the power of three little words.  His voice wavers only slightly with the next two.  “About him.”

“Alright, then, Master of Deductions.” Mary tilts her head and gives him a pointed look. “Think about it for a moment and tell me that he isn’t.”

“He...“

“Has anyone ever told you that you’re not actually a good liar?”

“You’re the first,” he snaps, feeling his eye twitch.

“There’s a lot riding on the state of our marriage, Sherlock. The current situation is... inconvenient.”

Inconvenient?! Sherlock barely restrains himself from thundering at her. Woman, do not appall me when I’m in withdrawal. His mind scans through the whole of their acquaintance, needling at the various blurry details that he’d given up trying to solve. What is he to you? Who marries someone that quickly anyway? He is not able to restrain his next comment, immediately hating how insipid the question is and how ragged his voice sounds when he asks it: “Do you actually even love him?”

She regards him impassively, mouth a thin line, before forging forward without really answering, “There’s a lot for him to consider... Abby, of course. And the mortgage. His practice...”

This conversation is banal and boring.  It infuriates him how banal and boring this is.  He looks away, letting her prattle on as he gazes out the window at a boiling ocean of cold rage. He can barely listen to her.

“…not stand in his way.  I mean, I’d rather that he be the one to decide, but I suppose…”

He tunes back in, feeling another sharp snap of the proverbial sheet.  “What?” he counters, intelligently.

“I’d rather he said something first,” Mary repeats.  “I see him working himself up to it and then considering all the practicalities. I see him pick up one of Abby’s things and torture himself back into silence. I’ve tried to bring it up, but... well, you know what he’s like.”   

In the buzzing static of his ears, Sherlock swears he can almost hear the slow-motion thud of his blinking eyelashes. “You.  Uh. Mean…?”  The confounding lack of ability to articulate remains.

And transfers to Mary.  She open-shuts-mouth again and makes a you-know-what-I-mean wave of her hand.  It ends in an open gesture; palm upward, fingers extended. As if releasing a dove. They stare at each other in silence.

This conversation is not boring.  And has taken entirely too many twists and turns in as many minutes. Sherlock swallows, feeling the need to say something.  Something logical, rational... Something that can structure his internal state.

“Oh,” he says.

Mary nods.

Little that isn’t laced with doubt.  He eyes her warily.  “Why? Why now?”

“Because it matters now.” She smiles slightly, sadly, as if at some private joke that isn’t actually funny. “You were right.  I didn’t. Not really… not the way that you do.” She cocks her head to one side.  “But I also do, of course.”  She gives him a barbed stare that easily reads as Don’t you dare question that.

Sherlock waits, not daring to say anything.

Mary gaze shifts to something just beyond his shoulder. “I grew up... well, never mind. Let’s just put it this way: with very little that was real.” She rubs her fingers against thumbs, slowly. “I don’t want the same for my daughter.” She shifts in her chair. “And recent events have changed my perspective on a few things. It matters to me now. I’m sorry it didn’t... before.”

With silver bells and cockle shells.

She leans back, taking out an envelope from her coat’s breast pocket, holding it a moment, then flicking it across the table to him.

Hospital logo. Addressed to Mary Watson. Sherlock unfolds it silently.

This won’t change John’s feelings,” she continues. “Not ultimately; we all know that.  But it will muddy the waters if he figures this out. Which he probably will, and soon.” 

Test results. Physician’s jargon. Stage definitions.

“I don’t want to watch that happen. I can’t be bothered with muddy waters these days and soon, I won’t have the energy for it. The make-believe has worn thin on us already. I’m sure you can see that.”

Dispassionate medical terminology. Phrases of neutral commiseration. But there’s a certain sub-text within the narrative.

Get your affairs in order.

“This isn’t… There are worse... prognoses…” His throat is strangely tight. Sherlock is generally terrible at this sort of thing, and finds that having the emotion that usually eludes him does not help matters after all. He clears his hoarse voice and tries again. “This is not necessarily a death sentence, Mary.”

Bitterness is a paralytic, but love...

“Oh, this isn’t about how I’m going to die, Sherlock.” She chuckles.  “It’s actually about how I want to live.”

...love is a much more powerful motivator. 

“Either way. For however long I’ve got.”

Sherlock has no words.

“I don’t think it’s possible for the three of us to carry on the way that we have,” Mary continues, tenting her fingers. “And so. What is it you always say? Eliminate the impossible...”

He gazes at the woman across the table from him, feeling as if they’ve finally met for the first time.  She does have your brains; I’m sure of it. But also your cheekbones and your chin, mixed in there, with John’s features. Why didn’t I see that before? He then smiles at her softly, before realizing that this expression is dangerous… the slippery slope of relief mingled with regret, of grief mingled with joy, is tugging painfully at the corners of his mouth and eyes. Not-good or Good? He looks down at his hands, keeping his face locked in a careful tribute to neutrality. He’s very, very adept at this, after all.

“Oh, stop it,” Mary huffs. “You’re not actually going to cry, are you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Thank God.” She rolls her eyes.

The lawn is serene; the bushes waving in the breeze. They sit in silence for a long while, politely ignoring the shimmer of each other’s averted gaze.

“Abby...” Sherlock begins uncertainly, after the moment ages well enough.

“Needs to know that she’s loved. Needs to know that she’s strong and capable. And needs to know that what she sees around her is true.” She casts a look at him that suggests she can mysteriously see inside his head. “That’s about all that children really need, when it comes down to it. Wouldn’t you say?”

He looks down at his hands. “I guess so.”

“Well don’t guess.” She thinks for a moment. “But you should also probably lock up your Bunsen burner too. And keep some decent food in the fridge. Sans parties du corps, s’il vous plait.”

“Of course.”

“And she does NOT go out on cases,” Mary adds firmly.

“Nothing more than a three,” Sherlock confirms solemnly.

“Your threes have a habit of becoming nines. NO. If I’m not around... Well. Just leave her downstairs, if you can’t bloody well restrain yourselves. Lord knows that woman’s got more sense than the two of you put together.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

A slightly awkward moment. There was bound to be one.

“And if you fuck around with his—“

“I won’t.”

“—I will shoot you. I mean it. I’m planning on beating this thing, Sherlock; I may still be around.” She nods in the direction of his aorta. “If you mess this up, I swear, I will shoot to kill next time.”

Sherlock smirks. “You did shoot to kill, didn’t you?”

She does as well. “Yeah, maybe a bit.”

They risk a full grin at each other.

She then swirls her finger around in the air between them, indicating the conversation they are having, then touches the paper. “You don’t tell him.”  When he doesn’t answer, she holds him to it, giving the letter a slight tap, before returning it to her pocket. “Sherlock?  You don’t tell John about me. Not right now.” 

He frowns. “Mary, I don’t think—“

Sherlock. Don’t think. No thinking. My terms on this.”

After a pause, he nods.

A suspended pause.

Pregnant with broken shards on tile.

Most people think they know what’s going to happen.

 

...

 

Chapter Text

Dale Pike sits across from a Chorus of furies that have been droning on in unison for some time.

“…and when she gives the thumbs-up, the horns are RIGHT behind her head…”

“Weak tea,” Pike mutters.

Voices as One; “Beg your pardon?!”

She pulls a face, setting the cup back into its saucer and reaches for the sugar, looking around for something to stir it with. “Hasn’t steeped nearly long enough. Sorry. Go on?”

“And then there’s the other devil references, all the skip codes, the red lens-flares…”

“Grasping at straws.”

“What did you SAY?!”

Pike’s reaching ineffectually for the coffee straws on the beverage tray, then gestures at the woman sitting closest. “Do you mind?”

Who glares at her. When she opens her mouth, her voice buzzes with the Hive-Mind. “You’re sock-puppeting again, Pike. You promised.”

“No.” Pike stands up momentarily and gets her own straw. “You lot have no personal features. You’re just a construct of an Opinion.” She stirs and licks. “As am I, really. Are we no longer allowed to debate opinions?”

The Chorus turns inward and buzzes angrily to itself. Pike thumps her fist on the table with a Gawd-I’m-trying-to-HELP-you eye-roll. “Hold on a mo’, will you? Do you really think I’d risk all this just for the sake of taking a piss at you?!”

A Legion of voices. “You’re of the opinion that ‘Evil Mary’ is a poor theory?”

“No, it’s a great theory! Probably mostly correct. But I’m of the opinion that this show is masterful at letting people see what they want to see.”

“Kettle.”

“Point.” Pike grins appreciatively.

“You don’t think a woman—or maybe, a mother—can be a villain?”

“On the contrary.” She raises a demonic eyebrow.

“You fear that the idea would be ill-received by the masses, then?”

Pike tugs her short skirt and smooths her long jacket. “I don’t give a solitary shite what the masses think.” She then looks at them pointedly. “Though I’d agree that baseball bats studded with nails are ridiculous. The real AND the metaphorical.”

The Chorus flutters, agitated. “We never advocated for THAT. We're not responsible for the irrational actions of other people. They took our words and exaggerated them and added to or twisted their meaning.”

“Gee.” Pike takes a long, placid sip of her tea. “Can’t imagine what that must feel like.”

“Oh, shut up.”

She leans forward again, levelling out an olive-branch hand. “Look. Let’s be careful, or we’ll argue ourselves into amnesty for TPTB’s freedom of expression… and that is NOT my intention.”

“What IS your intention? To make a case for Good Mary?”

“No. To make the case for Good John.” She pokes the table with an indignant finger, like it’s a map. “'Go read a children’s book', indeed… it’s a theme older than time. Firing a gun doesn’t make a hero. Following along doesn’t make a hero. What does?”

The voices chatter, but this time, discordantly. Individual responses are almost lost in the din. But then she hears the word she knows. And some that are even better. She smiles. Finger to nose. Points.

Fascinating, she thinks. They’re not what she’d assumed at first… not at all. A Hive yes, but all Queens. And Kings. And Queens. They are mad-bonkers bat-shit beautiful. She wishes she’d come earlier and gotten to know them better.

“All I’m saying is this: We’re zoomed-in too close.” Pike leans back, folding hands behind her head and puts her feet up on the table. “We gotta zoom-out now, cuz we’re gonna miss the whole picture. And I can tell you what most people think of us in just. One. Word.”

And because Pike’s a complete idiot that likes to poke the bees-nest, she starts to open her mouth; her tongue lifted, tip to the roof of it, and—

“WHO,” yells a voice from the doorway, “let you all in MY boardroom?”

Everyone turns to look.

Sue casts a disapproving eye over the feet on the table, her gaze drifting up the calves that have known deep snows and the thigh muscles that could stop a bullet. It comes to rest on the dyke’s pale face.

“You in show business?”

“No, ma’am,” Pike says meekly.

“Then get your friggin’ feet off the table!” Sue clips away with refrains of SECURITY! echoing behind her down the hallway.

The Chorus begins to disperse. Most ignore Pike (which is, of course, probably for the best). But one pauses to chuckle at her.

“You just puppeted Sue Virtue again.”

Cheeky grin. “Yeah. I don’t think she cares though.”

“You’re not a revolutionary, you know. You were here in such a trivial capacity. You’re just a dork that doesn’t even know how to use the seashells.”

They are both suddenly covered in noise and dust as another younger woman, riding an elephant crashes through the wall. Gorgeous; a brown-eyed Boudicca, younger than she looks. “Whassup, Pike!” she yells. “Are you sure you’re not just being trite? How could it possibly work out for EVERYBODY? What if you’re just a sucker for happy endings?”

“Oh honey.” Dale makes a winky face. “I know when I’m in one.”

Chapter Text

Here’s the thing about Mary: she keeps you on your toes.

Mary’s function, as always, has been to be that pivot point, that catalyst for change. This new Mary is strong and decisive. Bold and thrilling. She’s a bit of the unexpected. She plays with your anticipations, then turns everything on its head.

She ripped a hole through the skin and guts of this story; she can repair both. These things can’t be left up to the boys to figure out. They are a couple of idiots, after all.

It really isn’t fair, but generally, women—mothers, to be exact—have just a slight biological advantage in navigating these sorts of matters. Caring for a newborn helps us to understand how we are all so very improbably perfect; it helps us to realize what the next generation should be taught to observe. That crack in the lens is like the crack in everything; it’s where the light gets in.

Mary thinks, sadly but fondly, about the ridiculous men in her life. They’ve been close... so close... to getting it. That it’s not ultimately about knowing what you’d kill for. Or knowing what you’d die for.

It’s about knowing what you’d live for.

Every day. Of your silly little life.

And Mary doesn’t give a single solitary shite about her function. As the new text suggests, she’s got a story of her own, that exists beyond this narrative. She is what she is. She will be, long after. It’s not the worst prognosis, after all.

Sherlock’s eyes, as he had nodded agreement before their parting, had held something other than total compliance, but Mary is too tired to worry about it tonight. She knows that he will attempt to out-maneuver her at some point and she will deal with that when that time comes. As is their M.O.

She comes in from the cold. Sees, by the remnants of John’s trademark breakfast-for-dinner on the stove, that her husband has long-since arrived and dismissed their sitter. Hears Abby’s muted voice upstairs, a rambling toddler’s summation of a bedtime story; John’s following it in quiet tones.

“—not a duck?”

“No, sweetheart. He wasn’t really a duck.”

Giggling. “Silly story.”

“Yes. Yes, it certainly is.”

There are the sounds of a child settling to sleep. In a few silent minutes, John comes downstairs. They face each other; a counter between them. “That was a long time to get milk. Where were you?” he asks, evenly.

“Library. Got wrapped up in a new book they had out on the shelf.”

“You could have signed it out.”

“Forgot my card.”

He nods, conversationally. Stalling. “What was it?”

“It was called ’Trigger Warning’. Short story collection. Absolutely brilliant. There’s one about a Japanese apiarist. And a poem about a witch.”

“Ah.” He’s got his hands carefully placed on the counter; a certain set to his shoulders. These are prepared words. “We need to talk.”

Here we go, Mary thinks. Sooner than she’d expected. She sets her face to be carefully neutral; prepares to fill in the blanks, as needed.

He coughs slightly. “Things have been a bit... strained. Between you and I. For a long time... I don’t think that’s a secret.”

She risks nodding agreement.

He continues, voice growing in firmness. “I’ve been thinking, long and hard, about this. I’ve made my choice. I made it ages ago, actually.”

But.

Here’s the thing about John.

He’s smarter than he looks.

He reaches into his pocket. Then unfolds and holds up a paper; hospital logo in the corner.

She freezes.

“I’m not leaving,” John says.

DamnthatRIDICULOUSman, Mary thinks, hurriedly shoving her hand into her coat, but immediately realizes two things. One; she still has her envelope, two; John is holding a different one. The original. “Where did you—“

“Dr. Bell is an old friend of mine.”

Mary snorts, “Isn’t it illegal to share medical information without the patient’s permission?”

“Well, I didn’t strictly say that he knew about the sharing.”

“Since when is it legal to obtain it, then?”

“Since when do we trouble ourselves with legalities in this family? You should have told me about this.”

“I am used to dealing with things—“

“Alone. Yes, I’d imagine.” He reaches across and takes her hands gently. “I am sorry; I shouldn’t have pried. But you have to admit... I have every right to be sensitive when it comes to you and the suspicion of clandestine activities.”

More than you actually know, she almost replies; biting her lip to keep from saying it, before trying a different tack. “John. I know what kind of man you are—“

“Oh, SHUT UP a minute. You know this sort of thing is difficult for me.”

She shuts up.

John takes a breath. “I am not leaving,” he repeats. “I have a feeling that there are problems in your near future that you would rather not face alone, Mrs Watson, despite what you tell yourself and everyone else.”

Mary looks down at their hands, stifling the nod of her head that had begun without permission from her brain. John comes around to her side of the counter, keeping her hands in his. They sit on the stools there, gathering themselves.

“As for after,” and both of them swallow, though John continues; “which, there damn-well will be, Mary, you’ve beaten far worse than this... but I need to tell you this now: I will still always be there for you. Always.”

He releases her hands, then clenches his fists briefly. Then opens his fingers, then flattens them on the counter.

And then.

“But not all of me.”

Slips his ring off.

“That’s already been the case anyway and I can’t change. Even if I tried; even if I wanted to. There are other reasons that I could hide behind—not the least of which being that you once put a bullet in my best friend in order to continue lying to me and we’ve never really covered the topic of why that was necessary—“ His words speed up, growing in tension.

Mary bites her tongue. It doesn’t matter anymore.

And then slow, loosening again. “—but we both know that even that it isn’t the reason; the reason existed long before I met you. I don’t think it’d be easy to say so even now, except that you obviously know anyway. We’ve both gotten tired of the make-believe and soon you won’t have the energy for it. Admit it... you’ve been working yourself up to tell me the same thing.”

For a moment, Mary wonders if John has actually somehow managed an eaves-drop on her earlier conversation... but then dismisses the idea at the honesty in his face. They often use the same expressions by default; they have become, in the way that life necessitates, very dear friends, after all.

“This,” he taps the medical note beneath their hands, “is not going to make us any better at it... if anything, it will make us much worse. We’re not very good liars, Mary. I think we owe it to each other to be something that’s real. At the least, we owe it to Abby. I do love you and I am not leaving. But I’m staying, for the time being, under different terms. Because you know that... that I’m not...”

And this is where John’s words begin to falter.

A precedent of years of restraint, it seems, is such a powerful thing to overcome.

“...in this case, as ambidextrous as you thought,” Mary finishes for him out loud. She tries to drum up a shred of surprise and finds her voice completely even anyway. “I see.” She takes the ring from the counter and folds it into her palm.

His smile is sad. “I’m sorry. But you did see it. And you married me.”

They sit quietly, hand over hand.

He looks momentarily so remorseful that Mary starts to jump in and console, wanting to give John the right words.

But they die in her throat. She suddenly knows that they aren’t hers to choose for him... that he’ll find them for himself, when the timing is right... as she watches the change that dawns over his face.

Naked and weaker.

And infinitely strong.

Me.

Here’s the thing... many people in the world thought that the Powers That Be were giving us a great story. The truth is, the world doesn’t need another great story. It just needs a good one. The key to the mystery, is the one that you can’t read from the headliner but you know in your heart.

This story is also John’s.

His terms. On the fire then. She owes him one.

She hugs him, laughing softly, eyes wet on his shoulder. “You’re both complete idiots, you know.”

“Yeah. I know.”

 

 

...

 

 

And so.

There are more cases, of course.

There’s the one where the dynamic duo finally takes down the corrupt and unscrupulous Viadoxic Pharma Inc. Frankly, it is quite epic, but we wouldn’t have enough word-count to get into the details here.

And then there’s the one where Sherlock discovers the bizarre reason for the disproportionate number of gingers in Abby’s preschool. As you may have already surmised, it’s a ridiculous story.

And then there’s the one where they actually do go fishing. In all likelihood, John gets a damp sock and they both end up walking funny, but you’ll have to read about that from someone else.

My apologies for taking any of you along with me on the ludicrous indulgence that this narrative was (but let’s be honest: if you’re reading this, it’s because... for whatever reason... you are choosing to). This little fiction has mostly been about the time between the cases; this stuff is boring and banal. Hours of staring into microscopes; reading, cataloguing minutiae. Of toddling steps and learning to swim. Of contemplating bees and flight.

(Of just a hint of a promise of a god-damned cock-tease of maybe... someday... actually getting to finally HAVE that fucking cup of TEA...)

But solving mysteries isn’t always a blaze of glory, you know; sometimes it’s an arduous process of puzzling things out. The world doesn’t make this easy, but if we’re very, very lucky, we get the chance to live through a moment in time that changes everything. It’s a moment that lets us read the words that are written on us, when a perfect stranger holds up a mirror. It’s a moment that can take us from being Not-Okay and show us that, in fact, we’re Fine.

It is extremely improbable that this story will ever reach its intended audience, but if it does: Thank you. I was so alone. And I owe you... well. You know the rest.

But I digress.

It’s a moment that we were waiting to be given.

And then.

A fumble of fingertips, a slosh of the liquid, a lurch of gravity.

A suspended pause. Shattered shards.

A sense that this has been stopped; that this has been caught; that this hasn’t happened yet after all...

But now I see. Years led up to it, and it was inevitable.

I’ve already landed.

And this moment is Mine.

John will take the steps to the Bart’s lab rather than the lift; partly to stretch his legs, partly to think. There are seventeen, after all, between the floors—it’s a little-known fact—so the rhythm is right.

On the way, he will think about the science of deduction. About how noticing the little things can tell you everything. He’s about to pay the master of it a visit... albeit, unannounced, unsought... but that shouldn’t matter. It’ll be written all over him. He won’t have slept well. Will have, however, phoned his sister. Shirts will be folded, ready and packed. New toothbrush. Shorn and shaven; blade, not electric.

Date tonight.

May-day.

Sherlock’s now had the better part of a decade to gather data; he can read John like a newspaper. John’s hoping he’s not going to have to actually use words; this sort of thing has always been difficult for him.

Though he will, of course, if it comes to it.

Has it ever occurred to you, the good doctor could say, that there really should have been an easier way to do this?

Oh, I don’t know, the response might be, Then it may not have been such an unforgettable adventure.

True. It was certainly that.

And nothing less would have been acceptable, my dear Watson, in order for us to become everything that we are.

Which is, Holmes?

Men out of our time.

And they would laugh. Because, despite all the tragedy, it’s mostly just been a bit comedic, don’t you think? How these two survive.

Ah. I see. Is that why you think that people do this sort of thing, then?

Not entirely, Doctor. A hint of a smile. I think I understand now. But why don’t you show me anyway?

But this is the 21st century.

And this time, I’m telling you my truth. It happens like this:

Sherlock’s gaze flickers up as John enters the lab; it flickers over him, reading him. He is bent over the lab bench in front of the microscope, preparing a slide; pipette in hand. The room is still. The drop trembles on the tip.

“You still working?” John asks.

The younger man’s voice is almost toneless. “Not married to it.” Their eyes lock.

The moment before impact. John takes a step towards the bench. He considers dragging Sherlock by the lapels up onto it and, in process of laying them down, sweeping it clean; all glassware clattering to the floor in a satisfying crescendo of shards on the tile.

For the moment, however, he shifts his pack on his shoulder and nods, in a manner that is almost off-handed, toward the slide. “What are you looking at?”

But Sherlock doesn’t break his gaze from John. He expels a small, surprised laugh of the genuine kind that wrinkles his eyes... eyes that glow, like an inexplicable matchbox, with the words they’ve never given each other.

Yet.

He gives John his answer.

“Something new.”

 

...