"I can't do this anymore."
The words echoed through the small room, spoken quietly but with intent to be heard. To the uninformed observer, John Watson might have been talking to himself. John knew better. As he turned around, he looked squarely at the far corner of the room. Even after years of practice, he still found himself wanting to look past the shadow standing there. But John was a stronger man than that, and automatically he steeled himself against the compulsion. This was too important. He had to make sure that this was understood.
"It was... fine until now. Well, you know it was." He gave a self-deprecating laugh. "But I... didn't mind, Sherlock. I was okay with being shot because it brought me closer to you. And that's not right. I don't want to die."
"Don't you?" Sherlock replied, one eyebrow elegantly raised.
"No! I don't. I want... more. Than just one time." John exhaled and met his friend's eyes. "You must be able to see that in me, can't you? God knows you can read everything else."
Sherlock's mouth twitched. "I can see what you think you want. Won't you miss me, working in some locum? You'll be bored to tears in no time. We both know that. You need me, John Watson. You don't know how to be a doctor without me."
John's blue eyes flashed with anger. "I can't do this anymore," he repeated flatly. He didn't want Sherlock to know that his words had struck a chord, even though he fully suspected that Sherlock was already well aware of that. "Don't come around me. Don't visit my patients if I'm in the room. The only thing I want from you from now on is the knowledge that you're going to keep your distance until you come to collect me."
"And would you like to know when that will be?" Sherlock asked coolly, drawing himself up. He clearly knew the answer to his question, but John felt that it needed to be answered regardless.
"No. I've never asked you for details about when my death will be. I don't want to know." John stared hard out the window, refusing to look back at his friend. Because if he did, he knew that Sherlock would know the truth for what it was: John did want to know. He'd always wanted to know when it would be over. From the time when he was a small child, he'd eagerly anticipated the day when he would die and he could be with Sherlock for even a fleeting moment. But he couldn't keep chasing that dream anymore. After everything he'd seen in the war - John knew better than to let his life go to waste.
The clipped word surprised John, for all that he should have been expecting it. Even after a friendship cultivated over the course of a lifespan, Sherlock still managed to surprise him. He finally let himself turn, but he was facing an empty room when he did. Sherlock was gone, or maybe John just couldn't see him anymore. It would be the first time ever if that was the truth: from the time when he was a toddler and Sherlock had arrived to collect his mum, he'd been one of the few who could see Sherlock Holmes. The man had never frightened him, though, not even when he'd watched with wide eyes as Sherlock touched his mum's chest and she'd gone still and cold.
Now, looking at the empty life waiting for him, John was afraid.
Sherlock refused to be annoyed or upset over this development. As he watched John being invalided back to London, he told himself that he should have been expecting it. John Watson's fascination with death had been unusual from the beginning. He'd always thought that John would lose interest at some point, but he had not anticipated that it would be John's own brush with it that would be the deciding factor. It felt, oddly enough, a little like being rejected. It was not an emotion that Sherlock was particularly fond of, and his visits to every victim - or client, as he preferred to call them - became more perfunctory than ever.
"You're frightening them, you know," Lestrade said wearily one morning. It was cold and foggy, the sun trying but failing to break through the thick layer of smog that had descended on London. He was not surprised to see that Sherlock was back, but seeing him without John was... disorienting, to say the least.
"I'm Death. They're supposed to be afraid."
"But you're doing it on purpose," Lestrade persisted. "You never went in for the whole being scary spiel when you went to see clients who are still alive, Sherlock. You used to get into raging fights with Mycroft over it. I should know, I had to listen to the two of you." He paused, staring at Sherlock intently. "Do you miss him? John, I mean."
By how fast Sherlock swivelled to face him, Lestrade knew he'd struck the nail on the head. "John is a human," Sherlock hissed, the words fairly dripping with vitriol.
"Like that means anything to you. Pull the other one, Sherlock, really. I know you better than that." With a shake of his head, Lestrade handed over a slim black book. Mostly it was all gone digital now, the Lists, but Sherlock got so annoyed with having to use the book that Lestrade didn't even mind having to hand write the lot of it. "There you go. That's all of the weird ones I've had. Pace yourself, yeah, or you'll end up having to deal with the boring ones."
Sherlock scoffed and tucked the book under his arm. "Then tell humans to die in more interesting ways," he said primly.
"You're the only spectre I know who refuses to collect a soul unless it's a challenge for you to deduce how they die," Lestrade shot back. "It's not an issue for the rest of us, only for you his highness. Not everyone is going to die from a spectacularly complicated crime, you know."
"Boring!" Sherlock said, turning the collar of his coat up.
"You might think so, but that's the job and you've got to do your lot with the rest of us. Regardless of whether you've got John Watson along with you," he added. The glare that Sherlock turned on him was truly magnificent, and Lestrade was careful to keep still until Sherlock had vanished with a shift of his great black coat.
"Bloody hell," he muttered, running a hand through his silvery hair. Sherlock was in quite a strop, that much was evident. It was enough to make Lestrade wonder mournfully why he'd got stuck with the man. Sure, Sherlock was truly clever when it came to tracking down even the most elusive of souls, and yes there were a lot of souls that they wouldn't have been able to collect without him, but he was such a damn prick about it that it hardly seemed worth the high collection rate his team had as a result.
He sighed, realizing that while he'd been standing there thinking about Sherlock the morning had gone on. He was going to be late with his own collection if he didn't hurry. He pulled out his book and started to flip through the list. It wasn't always organized geographically, which was a bit of a bother. Anderson was mental about doing it alphabetically, and he suspected that it was partly just to drive Sherlock mad. Pity the rest of them were being driven spare in the meantime.
The change in the temperature was subtle, a minor drop that most humans and spectres would have likely ignored. Lestrade knew better. He tucked his book back into his pocket. "You know, it's creepy when you do that."
"If my brother did not insist on being so stubborn, I wouldn't have to."
"Actually, I think it just runs in the family." He turned on his heel and looked at the man who had just stepped out of the shadows, taking note of the crisply cut suit. "Mycroft."
"Collection Inspector Lestrade," Mycroft Holmes said calmly.
Lestrade rolled his eyes. "How many times - it's Lestrade or Greg."
"Greg," Mycroft allowed, a tiny smile playing around his lips. "You called?"
"Well no, technically I didn't. I suppose I would have at some point, though." Lestrade looked off into the distance for a moment. Mycroft likely already knew about Sherlock's split from John Watson. The question was whether or not he was pleased about it. John had been good for Sherlock: for the first time ever, Sherlock had shown an interest in something that was not a complex death or blood. He decided to be frank. "Will this last?"
Mycroft did not pretend to be unaware of what Lestrade was referring to. "John is human," he said, sounding eerily like his brother. "Sherlock is a spectre."
"I know that," Lestrade said impatiently. "Do you think John will come back?"
And there it was, the split second hesitation that revealed far more than Mycroft meant for it to. Lestrade spotted it and realized that Mycroft genuinely had no idea whether or not John would begin courting death again. This time, he was the one who felt the smile crossing his face. He worked hard to hold it back, but judging by the scowl Mycroft had spotted it anyway. He took a smooth step closer, casually shifting his weight until he and Mycroft were standing nearly face to face.
"I'm not sure," Mycroft said finally, sounding as though the admittance pained him.
It was so rare to ever hear those words come from a Holmes that, even though it wasn't what Lestrade wanted to hear, he felt himself relaxing slightly. This was a difficult situation, so he couldn't fault Mycroft for not having an answer. John Watson was rare enough in that he could see spectres, but rarer still because he wanted to be around one. Most humans were afraid of Death. It would figure that Sherlock had stumbled across one of the few who wasn't.
"But you're not going to interfere, right?" he pressed, narrowing his eyes.
"No, Mycroft. I mean it. Even if Sherlock breaks a few rules in the process -"
"- he could kill that man -"
"- one soul is not the end of the world," Lestrade finished firmly.
"You would condone this?"
Lestrade wanted to fidget. Didn't. Knew Mycroft could read it in his body regardless. "I don't like breaking the rules. You know that. But John has been..." He trailed off and gave his head a rough shake. "John Watson has been good for Sherlock. He doesn't talk about blood anymore. He used to spend his down time with John, deducing the death of just about everyone they met. Now I don't know what's going to happen." He looked squarely at Mycroft, letting the man see the truth in his face. "Yes, this once... I'd look the other way. And I would hope for your brother's sake that you would do the same."
For a moment, Mycroft said nothing. It was not like the hesitation from earlier, which had not been planned. This was one was deliberate. "You can be very persuasive when you want to be."
"I try," Lestrade said, tipping his chin up when cool fingers reached for him. He felt them ghost along the line of his throat and suppressed a shiver. "I've got to be off. Work, you know."
"I do." Still, Mycroft lingered. His thumb rubbed lightly across Lestrade's cheekbone. "I will allow Sherlock to make his own mistake this time."
"That's all I ask," Lestrade replied with a wink, turning his head just far enough to brush a kiss across Mycroft's thumb before he vanished. Mycroft's fingers closed around air and he let out a soft huff of frustration before he allowed his hand to drop back against his side.
Two months after returning to London, John met a girl. Well, a woman. She was about his age, and he certainly did not feel like a boy. She had red hair and a wicked smile in the right light and the sultriest green eyes he'd ever seen. She worked as a primary school teacher, though in her free time she also taught lessons in art and music, and she loved dancing and having fun. They met while she was escorting an ill child to the doctor, and he was taken with her immediately.
Her name was Mary, and he wanted to ask her to marry him.
Four months later, he had the ring.
Four months and a day later, he found out that Mary - who was thirty-three, just as she'd told him - was going to develop an aggressive bout of pancreatic cancer by the age of thirty-five, possibly sooner depending on how well she took care of herself. She would die shortly before her thirty-sixth birthday no matter what remedies the doctors tried. It would be a dreadfully dull passing, surrounded by her family, but not her husband. Or at least, that's how it would be if Sherlock had anything to say about it.
John seriously considered throwing the ring box at him.
"What the fuck are you doing here?" he demanded through clenched teeth. Every single word, rattled off in an imperiously bored tone, felt like it had been seared into his very soul. "I told you I didn't want to see you anymore."
"I thought you would want to know you were making a mistake," said Sherlock, pretending he was thoroughly involved in examining the contents of the beaker on John's desk. It was so obviously a farce that if he had been feeling a shade less murderous, John might have laughed.
"Really? So in my absence, you've suddenly developed a heart?" John said. It was meant to be a cruel remark and it worked, judging by the subtle flinch. He refused to regret saying it. "Did it ever occur to you that maybe I would want to marry her regardless of her impending death? That maybe the few months or years of happiness we would have had would be enough?"
"No, of course it bloody well didn't." Turning away, he leaned heavily on his cane as he limped over to the door to close it. It wouldn't look good for him to be seen shouting at what would appear to be nothing to most of the population.
"I don't want to hear it, Sherlock!" Because now that John knew, he could not forget. He would not be able to look at Mary without hearing Sherlock's voice coldly reciting the date and cause of her death. Already he could see how that knowledge would sour their relationship, haunt him and in turn Mary, and for a split second he truly hated Sherlock Holmes.
"You're angry," Sherlock said, sounding puzzled.
"That's one way to put it, yeah." But already that anger was fizzing away, leaving resignation in its place. "I'm human, and so is Mary. That's just the way it is. We all die at some point." God he loathed saying that. "You can't just - not be with someone because they're going to die."
Sherlock pondered that. "That's very illogical."
John raised an eyebrow. "Do share."
"Your life is pathetically short. The average human lives less than one hundred years. Why would you want to waste your time like that?"
Coming from anyone else, it would've been enough to earn a punch in the face. Coming from Sherlock, it still would've been enough were it not for the look of genuine curiosity. John sighed. "Love isn't necessarily logical. If it were, I'd have learned to stay away from you a long time ago." There was a faintly bitter smile on his face as he reached into his pocket and took out the ring box. He smoothed his thumb over the soft velvet and spoke quietly. "Part of the reason I liked Mary so much is that she's the total opposite of you. When I'm with her, I don't have to think about you."
"You could still come along," said Sherlock. "There's nothing stopping you."
"Sherlock, I - no. I can't." John closed his eyes. He'd never wanted to have this conversation with Sherlock, not when he dealt so poorly with what he called 'pitiful human sentiment'. He'd spent more time with Sherlock while growing up than not, accompanying him on the more interesting collections that were local to London or just listening as Sherlock deduced how everyone in the general area was going to die. There was nothing like watching Sherlock when he was at his most brilliant. John suspected he'd fallen in love before he even knew what love was.
"But why not?" Sherlock was growing frustrated.
"Because you're dead!" John said, losing his patience. "You're dead and I'm not, and I can't - every time I'm reminded of that, that I can't even touch you the way I've always wanted to, it gets a little worse. When I was shot, I wanted... There was a part of me that wanted to die so that I could be with you, and that's not good, Sherlock."
"John." Some sparkle of understanding was beginning to fill the penetrating blue-grey gaze. He came closer and John let him, too tired to bother backing away. He watched silently as Sherlock reached out and lightly skimmed his fingers down John's arm. For a split second, John thought he could feel something: it was like a cool brush of air, a breeze that was centred around his forearm, but it faded too quickly and Sherlock scowled.
"You see?" John said quietly, hating himself for the little jolt of hope that had leapt through him.
Annoyance flashed across Sherlock's face and he spun away with a huff, glaring at the door as though it had done him a personal wrong. "Why didn't you?" he asked at last.
"Why didn't I what?"
"Die. Why didn't you just die when you were shot? This whole thing could have been avoided."
John regarded him incredulously. "You want me to die? Fine, then." He fetched a scalpel from his desk and set it on the edge, in easy reach. He knew from experience that, though it tired him out, Sherlock could focus enough to pick up and move small material objects if necessary. He offered his wrists, heart pounding. "Go ahead."
There weren't many people or spectres that could surprise Sherlock Holmes. John prided himself on being one of those few. He watched Sherlock hesitate and, for the first time in a while, stopped holding back. He let every single emotion running through his body out for Sherlock to see. His shoulders relaxed and the throbbing pain in his thigh and hip diminished, allowing him to shift his weight to a more comfortable stance. He didn't move. He just kept watching as Sherlock picked up the scalpel.
"Do you know," Sherlock said slowly, as though it wasn't costing him dearly to hold the scalpel, "that I have never once been able to deduce how you were going to die?" His face was shadowed. "I've tried on several occasions because I wanted to be the one sent to collect your soul when it happened, but you never cease to stop surprising me, John Watson."
And he dropped the scalpel.
The odd combination of relief and disappointment nearly made John's knees buckle. He remained standing, though he did reach out to balance himself on his desk. "Sherlock... I'm sorry."
"You have nothing to apologize for," said Sherlock, but the words sounded stiff.
"Sherlock -" John stopped, because now he really was speaking to an empty room. He stared at the spot where Sherlock had been for several minutes, throat tight, before there was a knock at the door and then it cracked open.
"John?" Doctor Sarah Sawyer looked at him, then glanced around the room. "Are you okay? Only you've had a patient waiting for you for about twenty minutes now."
John couldn't speak for a moment. He had to clear his throat several times. "Actually, I'm not feeling well. Could you cover for me, Sarah?"
Sarah wrinkled her nose, looking concerned, but nodded. "Of course. It's probably a good idea for you to go home and get some rest. You don't look very good." She smiled playfully. "If I didn't know better, I'd think you had just seen a ghost."
"Yeah," John said, forcing a smile for her benefit. Not a ghost, he thought as he turned to collect his jacket, just someone from another world that he couldn't have.
Don't interfere. The words danced through Lestrade's head even as he shadowed John Watson through London. If Mycroft knew where he was, Lestrade would never hear the end of it. Hell, if Sherlock knew where he was... But Lestrade tried to push those thoughts aside. He was tired of this, of seeing Sherlock latch onto each collection like it was going to make a bloody difference. None of them did, of course. Even the trickiest, most entertaining collection was solved in the end, and that left Sherlock right back where he had started: alone. It was going to be that way until Sherlock either got over John or...
Until Lestrade interfered, apparently.
"I know you're there," John said.
Lestrade stopped, discomfited. He'd been following John for much of the day, getting a better feel for the man without Sherlock's interference. As far as he knew, John had been unaware of his presence. But as soon as John had turned down the path to the park, his steps had slowed. He'd been searching for a place where he was alone, Lestrade realized belatedly. His respect for the doctor abruptly rose several points. He said, "Then you can also probably guess why I've come."
John turned around slowly, leaning heavily against his cane. "Well, you're a collector so you've got to be here because of Sherlock." He paused, and a thin line grew between his eyebrows. "Or it's time for me to die. Though I rather expected Sherlock would come for me when the time came..."
"It's not your time," Lestrade said instantly. He narrowed his eyes at John, trying to see. It was difficult, looking into a human's soul, and because it was always open to interpretation and interference there was a chance he was wrong. But he thought that John had a good few years left on Earth, unless he chose otherwise or someone else got in his way. He cleared his throat. "And yes, I'm here because of Sherlock."
"Is he alright?"
"Yeah. Well, as fine as Sherlock Holmes can ever be."
A very small smile twitched briefly at John's lips before it slipped away. "Why are you here, then? Don't tell me Sherlock's changed his mind."
"Killing me," John said, so casually that for a moment Lestrade just blinked dumbly at him.
"Killing you?" he repeated, thunderstruck.
John shrugged. "I told him he had to decide," he said in a voice that was obviously meant to be hard. Instead he just sounded intensely weary. "I can't deal with him being around all the time and not being able to do - well, to do anything that I want. So. I told him. He either had to kill me and give us that moment or stay away."
"Jesus," Lestrade breathed. Now he knew for certain that he had made the right decision in coming. Sherlock must have been truly besotted to not have taken John up on his offer. Fresh human blood, willingly offered... that was like the ultimate rush. Sherlock would never receive another offer like it. And Lestrade knew without a doubt that there was a time when Sherlock would have taken John up, no question. He would have torn John apart and gorged himself on the blood that was like an intoxicating drug to their kind.
But he hadn't. He'd walked away.
"What?" John said, looking at him strangely.
"I," Lestrade said, and then paused. "So you're in love with him, then. With Sherlock, I mean."
An embarrassed flush seeped into John's face. He said nothing.
"Because there might be an answer to this. But you'd have to be for it to work."
John kept looking at him. He'd relaxed a little, though, the wary tension in his muscles easing. "Yeah, I guess I am," he said with a bitter smile. "God, what that says about me..."
It said a lot of things, Lestrade thought, not the least of which was that John Watson was an idiot in his own right. "You know that to be with Sherlock, you can't be alive anymore."
"Yeah. I figured that."
Lestrade gave him an expectant look.
"Oh." John blinked and glanced away, as though searching for answers on the grass. "I haven't got anything keeping me here, if that's what you're asking. My sister's an alcoholic. I haven't spoken to her in over a year. My fiancée and I recently broke up." His jaw tightened briefly, blue eyes deep with pain. "But then, it's not like Sherlock really cares either."
"That idiot," Lestrade muttered, because yes now he knew where things had gone wrong. It was just like Sherlock to make it seem like he was being a prick about the whole situation instead of explaining himself. The idiot had never learned that not everyone functioned on the same level that he did. And yet, there was a tiny part of Lestrade that still felt sorry for him. It was that part which propelled him to speak. "John, I'm going to be frank. Sherlock's in love with you. Really in love. Quite madly, I should say. He's driving me around the bend without you. So if you love him, and you'd be willing to consider giving up your life but not dying, then maybe we could do something about it."
John's mouth hung open. He seemed to be speechless. Finally, he said, "But - can you do that?"
"No," Lestrade said reluctantly, slipping a hand into his pocket. His PDA was there, and it only took the press of a button. This was the part he hated. "But I know someone who can."
Because Mycroft was an utter prick at times (a trait that he and his younger brother shared in common whether the two of them wanted to admit it or not), he refused to come to them. Normally that would have irritated Lestrade. The man had a bloody annoying history of showing up where he was not wanted, so the least he could do was show up on the rare occasion he was wanted. But in this case, he refused to let himself be bothered by what was essentially an act of childishness. He just tracked Mycroft's location on his PDA, and then led John to the right place. He'd almost forgot how absurdly slow it was to travel by human standards. It seemed to take forever.
"This is it? This is where we're going?" John said sceptically, regarding the warehouse with a raised eyebrow as he emerged from the cab. The cabbie looked at him in frank disbelief, apparently figuring that John was talking to mid-air. By the time John turned around to pay, the cab was already speeding off. John stared after him. "Was it something I said?"
"It doesn't matter," said Lestrade. "Come on."
He walked into the warehouse confidently, knowing that they were being watched even though there was no sign of Mycroft's guards. John followed close behind, the only sound his footsteps and the tapping of his cane. Lestrade had to consciously remind himself to find doorways that John could go through, because to lose him in here would mean John's death. And not in the good way. He slowed his pace as they came to the main room and the man who was waiting for them, leaning lightly against a black umbrella as though they were having a casual get together.
"Ah, Doctor Watson," Mycroft said, ignoring Lestrade completely. "How good of you to make it."
"Hello, Mycroft," Lestrade said. "Lovely to see you, too."
"Do I know you?" John said.
"This is Sherlock's brother."
"There's two of them?" John looked briefly horrified. Lestrade's opinion of him rose another several points.
"Now," he said in an undertone, "you know why I really wanted to make sure you were in love with Sherlock."
"Yes," Mycroft said, because of course he'd heard, he always did. "I have to admit, I find it rather difficult to believe that you've fallen in love with Sherlock Holmes. He's not the sort of man easily loved. Of course, I'm sure you already know that." He walked closer, steps long and languid, hips shifting in a deliberate way that made Lestrade step aside automatically. "You've been following him around for years like a puppy. You're so very ordinary, and yet my brother has yet to grow bored with you. So what is it about you that makes you so interesting?"
John did not step back. He stood his ground, even when Mycroft stopped inches away and stared at him. "I guess," John said quietly, "that's none of your business."
Mycroft remained silent for nearly thirty seconds. Lestrade felt like clapping, though of course he didn't. Still, the expression on Mycroft's face when he turned his head indicated that he knew exactly what was going through Lestrade's mind. His mouth was twitching faintly. "And do you realize what it would take?" he inquired, voice still bland and vaguely threatening. "The sacrifice you would need to make?"
"I've made a good many sacrifices over the years," said John. His eyes were darting between Mycroft and Lestrade.
"But never one like this." Mycroft paused. He looked at Lestrade, and their eyes met. "If you truly believe you love my brother, there is a way you could be with him. It breaks rules, laws. You will be tied to him. Should the two of you decide to separate, that will be the end of you." He pivoted to face John. "Sherlock grows tired of things that he once found interesting. He gets bored quickly. I would think wisely before making your decision."
His movement was quick: a press of a button and the umbrella popped open. John's hands flew up to cover his face, and when they dropped to his sides a few seconds later it was evident he had no idea that Lestrade and Mycroft were still there. He blinked several times and looked around the room, but even when Lestrade waved right at him John's expression did not change. And after a couple minutes of fruitless searching, John rolled his shoulders back and sighed. He turned and began limping his way out of the room.
"What," Lestrade said, "the hell was that?"
"Insurance," Mycroft said mildly. "Don't give me that face, Gregory. You know how Sherlock is."
"Yes I bloody well know!" Lestrade practically shouted. He was tempted to try throttling Mycroft. It would be therapeutic, even if it was useless. "I'm the one who has to deal with him all the fucking time. And you might have just chased away the one person who makes him bearable!"
"Have I?" There was a glint in Mycroft's eyes. A familiar one. Lestrade groaned and started re-thinking how intelligent an idea it had been to interfere in the first place.
"Oh hell," he said at last, resigned, "you've got that look."
Mycroft simply smiled.
"There's a way to fix this and you didn't tell me?"
Sherlock straightened up from the body of the female victim slowly. He hadn't done his job yet, too involved in examining the frankly fascinating wound pattern in her chest, and she was bleeding out slowly. Besides, until he - or someone else, someone who had not been the cause - knew how she died, he would not be able to collect her soul. "I wasn't aware that there was anything to be fixed," he responded.
"You're such a bastard," said John.
"So I've been told." Sherlock turned and looked at him, performing a quick scan of John's face and body. He sounded annoyed, but he didn't look it: there was a marked lack of tension in his shoulders, and he wasn't standing the way he did when expecting confrontation. Something had happened that Sherlock was unaware of, and that was... unexpected.
John just shook his head with obvious exasperation. "When I said you could kill me," he said, "and you walked away, I thought that was it. I thought you didn't... I didn't know there was another way - why didn't you tell me?"
Understanding struck, and Sherlock sucked in a breath he didn't really need. "Lestrade," he muttered. Only one person would take it upon themselves to interfere in a way that did not mean driving John back into the arms of the living. "What did he say to you?"
"He took me to meet your brother."
And Mycroft! Once he'd solved this crime, Sherlock was going to devote the next several hours to making both of them sorry. "You shouldn't listen to either of them," he said, twisting back around and crouching beside the body. "Lestrade is an idiot, and Mycroft is only marginally more intelligent."
"From what I gather, you're the idiot here." John's voice had gone impossibly indulgent and fond. Sherlock stiffened as he added, "I'd like to know. What the other option is. Mycroft said we would be connected. I don't know what that means."
"No," Sherlock said. It could've meant a lot of things. No, I will not explain. No, you don't need to know. No, there is no other option. He wasn't sure what he meant, maybe all of the above.
"Yes," John said firmly, gently. "Sherlock, no more running away."
"You don't understand!"
"Then tell me, you git."
"It would - end you," Sherlock said aggressively, rising up to his full height again. He towered over John, but that didn't seem to be helping. "For good. Permanently. I was trying to protect you."
"Nope, try again." John shook his head. "You were protecting you by not letting me make an informed decision. Because if you really didn't want me around, then you would've made it clear years ago. You have no problem in telling people to leave you alone." His blue eyes were warm for the first time in months. "Didn't you think I'd want - that?"
This was the time when Sherlock could have said no, and both of them would have understood what it meant.
He said nothing.
John nodded. "Tell me."
"You could become my -" in the fraction of a split second hesitation, he searched through and discarded several words, finally settling on "- assistant. Forever. Until something happened to me."
"We would probably dissipate into nothing," Sherlock said. "Considering that there is no after-life."
"Coming from a consulting soul collector, I have my doubts." John huffed a laugh. He came a couple of steps closer. For the first time - and how had Sherlock failed to notice before? - the fact that he was missing his cane became blatantly obvious. "I. I would like that. Being with you. Really being, I mean. Not being on the outside anymore. Is that. What you want?"
Being speechless was a relatively new experience for Sherlock. He collected words, wielded them as highly effective weapons against those who couldn't possibly keep up with him, and it wasn't very often that they failed him. John was the one person who seemed to be able to consistently cause that. He stared at John for a long, silent minute, eyes narrowed slightly as his mind raced. This was, this was it. If he said no, John would walk away. He could see it in the subtle shifting of John's hips, the way he stood on the heels of his feet.
But if he said yes.
"I like the violin," he said. "I play it. Loudly. Cases come before everything else. And I used to drink human blood."
To his credit, John did not flinch. "Since I won't be human anymore, I'm guessing it won't be an issue."
Sherlock did not smile, but his lips did twitch. John seemed to take it as the former, because he grinned. The expression took years off of him, made him look like the young resident Sherlock had once known. He had to look away. He bent down and placed a hand on the victim's chest, collecting her soul with a clench of his fist. The body twitched and then went still with her dying breath, and Sherlock slipped the soul into the small glass container that he always carried. John watched, fascinated, because even after all this time he had yet to grow tired of watching Sherlock.
"You know what happened, then?"
"Her husband," said Sherlock. "Obvious."
John looked at the body before he looked back up at Sherlock. "This is going to be different."
"Good different?" Sherlock asked cautiously before he could stop himself. Because there was a lot, wasn't there? That John was leaving behind. Something of that must have shown on his face, because John's eyes softened.
"Brilliant different," he said confidently.
There was something innately reassuring in the way that John looked at him. Sherlock swallowed and reached out a hand, and before he could second guess the silent invitation John's hand was already sliding into his. It took a lot of concentration to make them connect for that instant, less than a second, a beat of time.
Fortunately, that was all it took.
In between one blink and the next, they were gone.
"Preening," said Sherlock Holmes, "does not become you."
Lestrade fought to keep from smiling like an idiot and suspected that he was failing miserably. "That right?" he said casually, glancing over at the man standing not a foot away from them. John Watson winked at him while fiddling with something hidden in the palm of his hand, and Lestrade lost the battle outright. He grinned.
Sherlock rolled his eyes. "The List, if you please?" he said, extending a hand.
"You mean you're finally ready to get back to work?" Lestrade checked. It had been almost a week since Sherlock had shown up for cases, and the break had been... nice. Relaxing. But also stressful because there was a serial killer loose in London, and several bodies had piled up in the morgue that still had souls trapped inside, souls that were caught in that weird in-between limbo when the body was dead but hadn't really died yet.
"Yes," Sherlock said, patience dropping by the minute, and Lestrade gave in. He handed the book over and watched as Sherlock delved into it.
"Are you okay?" he asked quietly. He couldn't get a good look at what John was holding without being blatantly obvious, but he hoped that it wasn't anything that would get them all into trouble. Knowing Sherlock, that's probably exactly what it was. He tried to remember why he'd wanted Sherlock back in action again.
"Yeah, I'm fine," John said, looking amused.
Lestrade glanced at him. He wondered if that was true. "Now that you're dead," he said as casually as possible, "and you've been cursed with an eternity of chasing this mad bastard around, do you think that you could try to keep him under control?"
John barked out a laugh. "I'm not a miracle worker."
"It was worth a shot," Lestrade said with an exaggerated sigh. "At least try to get him to check in on occasion."
"I make no promises."
"John!" Sherlock said sharply, snapping the book shut. "We've got to go. Now."
"See you," John nodded at him, and as he walked over to Sherlock Lestrade finally saw what he was clutching in his left hand. It was a magnifying glass, the sort that would easily be carried around in a trouser pocket. It looked suspiciously like the one that Sherlock used on a regular basis. John's fingers closed tight around it, and he leaned into Sherlock as they vanished.
"They're so cute together it's almost sickening," Mycroft said.
To his credit, Lestrade did not jump. He did not. "You know what, you're right. They are cute," he agreed, thinking that he would need to point that out to Sherlock at some point in the near future. He turned around and smiled insincerely. He knew why Mycroft was there. "You were right, okay? You were right, you insane, smug prick."
"I'm not sure what you're insinuating." Mycroft idly inspected his umbrella.
Lestrade shook his head. Mycroft knew damn well what he meant. He'd known exactly what to say to drive John into Sherlock's arms. "It must be exhausting to put so much effort into pretending that you don't care," he said at last.
"Caring is not an advantage."
"After all this time, I thought you were smarter than that." It was easy, too easy, to curl a hand around Mycroft's tie and yank him down.
"We are not cute."
"No, we're not," John agreed mildly, "but they are."
Sherlock huffed and spun away, growing bored of spying. He'd already deduced what was going to happen next, anyway, and he did not want to stick around to watch. "Can we go now?" he said, verging on a whine. "There's a serial killer, John, and he's killing people without me -"
Laughing, John decided that Lestrade had the right idea and silenced Sherlock in what turned out to be a surprisingly effective way.