Actions

Work Header

The Half Life of a Strange Quark

Chapter Text

John Watson sits at the kitchen table, having cleared a space for himself amongst all the experimental detritus, and lets his oatmeal go cold. Since the incident with the Baskerville drug, he’s been on edge. Nightmares of the effect it had on him are bad enough, but it’s the nightmares of Sherlock – Sherlock blind, Sherlock deaf, Sherlock nearly lost to him – that really haunt him. And the nightmares of what he’d done to get him back.

He jumps when he feels a hand on the back of his neck, spins and blinks when he realizes it’s just Sherlock and he’s speaking to him.

Sherlock is fine. Sherlock is right here, all wounds healed, healthy and happy or at least himself, which is the most that can be asked for.  It’s over. Isn’t it over?

“John, did you hear me?” Sherlock cocks his head, looking him over for any evidence of what he might have been contemplating.

“Yes. I mean no, sorry.” John shakes his head to clear it. “Didn’t sleep well. What was that?”

Sherlock's eyes narrow at John but he doesn’t comment. “I said, if you’re going out would you stop by the bookshop later, I’m expecting a special order.”

"Um, yeah. Sure, of course.” John tries to sound normal, then wonders why he has to try. He gets up and goes to put his bowl in the sink, still full.

Suddenly he feels hands on his waist from behind, warm breath smelling of toothpaste on the side of his face. He forces himself not to tense. “But, um, won’t be until this afternoon, is that all right?”

“Fine…” the baritone voice murmurs suggestively against his neck. “I can think of ways to stay occupied until then...”

 John’s heart leaps into his throat as Sherlock pushes him gently, insistently into the edge of the counter.

He wants this but it’s wrong, so wrong. It’s never been wrong before but he’s spoilt it now. What if it happens again, what if he loses it again and hurts Sherlock for real this time?

John forces a weak smile, “Me too, loads of work to catch up on.” He spins around to face Sherlock, kisses him carefully on the cheek, and ducks under his arm before Sherlock can catch him again.

He grabs his laptop and flops into his chair, typing studiously away at his latest piece. It doesn’t work. He manages to pretend for nearly five minutes that his friend isn’t staring at him with unblinking grey eyes, boring into the side of his head. But if there’s man born who can resist that gaze longer, John isn’t him. Swallowing hard he looks up. “Yes?”

Sherlock’s brow furrows at him. “Have I done something wrong?” he asks, in that nearly childlike way he has when he’s out of his emotional depth.

John’s heart constricts painfully. He should have known that’s how Sherlock would interpret his standoffishness of late. “Oh, no,” he breathes. He wants to take Sherlock’s hand but he doesn’t move. “You…you’re perfect. It’s me, I’m just… the past few weeks were frightening, I guess I’m not over it.”

It’s a weak lie and he knows it won’t hold.

Sherlock frowns deeply. “Are you still ill? I know the drug took some time to wear off. Just you’ve been… flickery. And when I touch you, it’s like a hurricane lamp in the storm – flaring and nearly going out. I thought perhaps something I’d said or done when I was… not well…?”

He lets the question hang there, anxiously and it makes John want to cry. He can’t take it anymore, he grabs Sherlock's large, elegant hands and put them to his lips.

“I’m sorry, Sherlock, I’m so sorry you thought for a second this is your fault,” he whispers into them, unable to look the other man in the eye.

Sherlock looks even more troubled at this development. He’s quite used to being the one at fault for relational misunderstanding. This is uncharted territory.

“John,” he offers nervously, stroking John’s shoulder. “Perhaps if we were to go into the bedroom, you could explain it me?”

That’s the problem right there. The physical is how they communicate, how Sherlock shares what he feels and learns how John feels. And now John’s violated that sacred space and he’s not sure if he can ever trust himself to go back there.

John cringes and Sherlock withdraws, hurt.

“No, Sherlock, it’s not…” John pauses. He doesn’t know how to say any of it but he can’t allow Sherlock to think for a moment that John doesn’t want him anymore. He closes his eyes and lets out a long breath, sliding out of his chair to sit on the floor. Sherlock sits beside him, close but not touching, legs crossed, watching John breathe. He waits.

“Sherlock,” John starts again with difficulty. “When you were… at your low point. When I thought I would lose you. I did something unforgivable. At least, I’ve not been able to forgive myself for it. I went to a place I didn’t know I could go, and I almost went too far to come back. I’m afraid… afraid it might happen again. I might hurt you again. I can’t risk it.”

Sherlock’s clear eyes are watching him intently, going from worried to relieved by the end of his speech. He half-laughs, but curtails it when he sees that John is deadly serious. “Is that all? John, I explained to you, it’s fine, you did the right thing. You’re the reason I’m here. You can let it go.” He looks at John expectantly, as if something so simple will fix it.

He remembers the boundless, white hot anger at Sherlock, at the universe for inflicting this on them, at himself for feeling so helpless. He remembers raging at Sherlock, forcing himself on him because he didn’t know how else to reach him, he remembers wondering if he would have stopped, could have stopped.

John’s stomach turns. “No, Sherlock, I can’t. I know, you’ve explained to me it was what you needed and you think that I just knew you so well that I sensed that and here we are so it doesn’t matter. But it does, Sherlock. I always knew there was a monster inside of me, but I never thought it would turn on you.”

Sherlock looks concerned again. “I’ve told you before you didn’t hurt me. You saved me. Why is that wrong?”

John hangs his head, avoiding Sherlock’s eyes. “There were other ways, there had to have been. What I did… that can’t have been the only solution.”

“And what if it was?” Sherlock demands, harshly. “How would you know? I was out of my mind, I needed something drastic to bring me back. I know you think you were just out of control, but you know me like no one ever has. I’m yours and I know you never would have hurt me, not in a way that matters. If you can’t trust your own judgement…trust mine?”

John forces himself to look up at his friend. Sherlock’s face is earnest, and afraid.  He still hates himself for what happened, for what he did, that’s not going to go away in a conversation or in a day.

But Sherlock’s eyes are vulnerable and begging John to listen. Anything else he does would only hurt Sherlock further, and that’s the last thing he wants. There doesn’t seem to be a way to punish himself for this without punishing Sherlock. He doesn’t deserve forgiveness, but Sherlock deserves rejection even less.

Sherlock must be able to see him wavering because he tries again. “May I touch you? Please? You don’t have to control yourself around me, I don’t want you to. I just want you.”

Sherlock’s voice is plaintive in a way John rarely hears and, not without trepidation, John melts. He nods and he can feel the relief pouring off Sherlock as he gathers John in his arms, nuzzling his face into John’s hair. “Mine,” Sherlock whispers almost uncertainly.

“Insecure brat,” John forces himself to say, still shaken from recent events but too selfish to keep putting up walls.

He tells himself it’s for Sherlock’s sake but he couldn’t have kept himself away much longer. The fear has lessened but he still feels the darkness in him and wonders what it will do next. Whatever it is, he won’t let it touch Sherlock again.

Sherlock all but purrs at the insult and John lets himself be manoeuvred into the bedroom, unresisting. Sherlock pushes him back on the bed and straddles him, more gently than usual. He leans down to kiss John’s neck and when John still tenses, just a little, he whispers, “Why don’t you see how you can make it up to me?” and rolls off John to lay next him, eyes wide and guileless.

John hesitates, still not fully sure of himself. But Sherlock is there and warm and wanting and his. He gives in, fully this time, pulling Sherlock to him and once more letting their bodies do the communicating for them.

 

 

It might be hours or days later when they surface, John doesn’t know or care. Sherlock is next to him in their bed, body humming in pleasure and keeping a death grip on John with one hand.

He’d forgotten, somehow, in the mess and the fear and the danger, what it was like to be together. How little everything else mattered. How well they understood each other. Maybe Sherlock was right, about everything.

John sighs happily, almost at peace. “Sherlock,” he says tentatively. “Can we stay here today? Like this?”

Sherlock makes a pleased noised tinged with relief. “Doctor Watson, is that a prescription?”

For the first time in weeks, John grins unselfconsciously. “Definitely.” He pillows his head on Sherlock’s chest, grateful beyond measure to be nowhere in the world but there.

 

 

It is only the next day when the Crown Jewels are stolen, announcing the return of Moriarty. It all ends so fast after that.

They still have months together between the trial and the waiting and the trail of breadcrumbs, and blessedly John at least doesn’t realise it’s the end until almost the very day.  Not until the last second really. He wonders, later, obsessively, if he had realised whether he’d have been able to stop it.

But it still goes too fast, and in hindsight is tainted by Moriarty’s tentacles infiltrating their lives, almost unnoticed at first.

John’s last few days with Sherlock are painful and frightening; he knows something is not right but Sherlock has asked him trust him. And he does. John never believes Sherlock won’t figure out how to catch the villain and save them both, never believes they won’t end up back in 221b holding each other against the cruelty of the world – perhaps a little more battle-scarred, but safe and together.

John goes right on not believing it until Sherlock’s feet leave the roof of the hospital and John is screaming into a mobile phone that connects to nothing. He doesn’t believe it once there’s a body on the ground, and he doesn’t believe it for a long time afterwards. The world moves in sickeningly slow motion around him as he scrambles to his friend’s side and when it starts up again he is standing in the rain, alone, in the place where Sherlock Holmes died.

 

John has the wild urge to put his lips to the pavement and taste the blood, diluted with rainwater, to confirm that it truly belongs to Sherlock.

He’d know, of course he’d know, no two other people could possibly have explored each other more intimately, he knows the taste of Sherlock’s blood, of his sweat, of his tears, of his semen and saliva, of the insides of his mouth and his nose and his ears and his deepest, most private crevices, the smell of his elbows and his armpits and his hair and his toes, there’s not a part of him John couldn’t recognise with all five senses…

But the rain is coming down harder now, and the puddle that was the last of his friend is all but gone. Slowly, the cold water on his face brings him back to his senses, enough to think.

They’d taken Sherlock away, why had he let them do that, he’d been stunned, his head isn’t right, maybe Sherlock is still alive, maybe that wasn’t really him, John had only had a glimpse, he’d been fumbling for the pulse, still reeling from shock and the bump on the head, he might have gotten it wrong, Sherlock could have been taken in for treatment, there could have been a mistake…

John springs into a run and bolts through the A&E doors, almost crashing into the reception desk. “There was a man… just now… a bad fall,” he pants desperately. “Where did they take him? Surgery?”

The receptionist gives him a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, sir, but they took him straight to the morgue. Is there anyone I can call—?”

But John is already sprinting for the elevator.

Molly would straighten it out, she’d know better than to think Sherlock could really be dead, she’d take care of him, he just has to get to Molly and it will be all right again…

He bursts out of the elevator doors and casts around until he finds her face. Molly looks ashen at the sight of him.

“John,” she begins. “I am so, so sorry.”

“Where is he?” John begs. “There has to have been a mistake! Show him to me… why isn’t he here on the table? Did you send him back up once you realised?”

Molly approaches him carefully and the look of pity on her face is sickening. “No, John…I didn’t… He’s not… There was nothing to be done…”

“Then where is he? Show him to me.” John’s eyes light on the door to the autopsy room, behind Molly. “No, don’t tell me you’re that stupid!” he exclaims, and jumps for it.

It’s too soon, they can’t have started already, they’d need his permission, and anyway you can’t do an autopsy on someone still living…

Molly tries to stall his progress at the door. “John, please don’t, it’ll just make it worse,” she cries, blocking his way.

He pushes her away thoughtlessly, too hard, she stumbles back several feet and crashes to the floor. He barely notices, pushing into the autopsy room, holding his breath. It’s empty, clean and scrubbed and silent with the lights turned out, smelling only of antiseptic. John turns around. “Where. Is. He?” he demands of Molly, still on the floor. She cringes and a detached part of him notices that she is crying silently.

“John… I… there was nothing I could do. Mycroft came and took him, just moments before you came down. I didn’t have a choice. But I checked John, I checked and double checked and he was gone.”

John’s knees go weak, and he feels nauseous again, but not from the head wound. “No, that can’t be right… we did all the paperwork together, months ago. To be completely sure that if one of us was injured or... I have his power of attorney, not Mycroft! And he has mine. Nothing could have been done without me! Why did you let Mycroft take him?”

Molly shudders again at the anger in his voice. “John, I swear I tried to stop him, to at least wait for you. But Mycroft had his will. There was an overriding clause in it that in case of death by…by…suicide… the body was to be turned over to Mycroft Holmes immediately, without examination or consultation of the inheritor… of you… I’m sorry…”

“Suicide…the… body…” John feels all the strength and anger begin to drain out of him, leaving him an uncomprehending shell.

Sherlock Holmes would never, could never commit suicide, not now after all they'd been through, why had he jumped, why had he lied to John, over and over, and he wasn’t a body, he couldn’t be a body, he was Sherlock Holmes, a spectacular mind, he could never be stopped or stilled…

John leans against the wall, slumping, unable to quite hold himself up anymore. Molly gets cautiously to her feet. “John, I can’t even tell you…” She puts a hand on his forearm and speaks with a gentle voice, more confident than she sounds normally. “I can only imagine what you must be feeling.”

John’s head snaps up. “What could you possibly know about it?” he hisses at her. “How could you possibly imagine anything that I’m feeling? You had a crush. It didn’t matter.”

As soon as the words are out of his mouth, Molly slaps him across the face, drawing blood with fingernails. He freezes, staring at her furious, determined face and coming out of the insanity that had been possessing him.

“Oh, Christ, Molly. I’m so sorry… I can’t believe I… Did I hurt you?”

Shame floods him, temporarily overriding grief, how had he come to a place of such cruelty, verbal and physical, he’d never laid hands on a woman before, and sweet Molly Hooper, he’d been so blinded, it hurt too much for him to know what he was doing, to think of anything but getting to Sherlock, but that was no excuse…

Molly’s face crumples, and she puts her hand back on his arm. “It’s all right… It’s… I know you didn’t mean it. Any of it.”

It’s too much and he feels a wail building inside of him, something screaming to be set free that can’t be contained only by words. He tries to keep it down, keep it back but something escapes anyway. The force of it, the very thought, unmans him.

“I loved him.” The words are a strangled, choking cry, not much louder than a whisper. Words he’s never said out loud to anyone, words he tried not even to think for fear they might slip out by accident. “Oh, God, Molly, I loved him.”

How he loved Sherlock, how he still loves Sherlock, does it become past tense just because the object of it has, it can’t work like that, perhaps it just transforms into pain, into the terrible burden sitting on his heart, all the joy of it gone now, but the love must go on even if now it’s sharp as needles under his fingernails or jabbed into his spine….

He’s on the freezing floor of the morgue now, collapsed under the weight of it all, back to wall. He’s crying, weeping, gasping huge gulps of air because suddenly there’s not enough of it, tears and snot rolling down his face and he doesn’t care. He hasn’t cried like this since he was a boy, not even when his parents died, not even when his comrades were blown to bits before his eyes, not even when shrapnel twisted hot into his body and he lay delirious in the unforgiving sun waiting to die.

Suddenly he feels a hand slip into his, cold and dry and birdlike. Molly is sat beside him and is leaning her head on his shoulder, squeezing his hand, saying nothing. A distant part of him knows he should pull himself together, that sitting here crying like a child won’t change anything. But he can’t stop and he doesn’t even really want to try, it just pours out in retching sobs and the involuntary repetition of the words “I loved him” between them.

His companion, his partner, his lover, his colleague, his flatmate and bedmate and lifemate, his brother, his comrade in arms and husband of his heart, the man who had saved him and who John had saved, his own very dark thing, and always, forever, before and after anything else, his friend, everything John had, and now he will never have any of those things again…

Molly makes soothing noises but doesn’t attempt to talk him down other than the occasional murmur of “I know you did. Everyone knows you did.”

Eventually John reaches the place where he physically can not cry any longer. As a doctor he understand the exact mechanisms that cause the tears to run out and the tightness in the chest to grow to the point where nothing else can come, but at the moment all he knows is that he feels hollowed out, empty and fragile and sharp as an eggshell. He realises he is gripping Molly’s hand to a point that must be painful, though she has not tried to move, and eases up.

She looks at him with unbearably kind eyes.

“I just don’t understand,” he tells her, hoarsely, voice nearly gone. “He lied to me… he tried to keep me away, then he called and told me everything he’d ever told me was a lie, but that was the real lie, and then he…he… jumped. I can’t believe it. Any of it. I have to find out what really happened. I won’t be able to rest until I know.”

Molly tenses beside him. “John…”

“What?” his tone regains a slight edge.

“I know it doesn’t seem… like him… I can scarcely believe it myself. But he told you things he really wanted you to know. And he… he wanted you to talk to him, he wanted you to be there to see it. I know it doesn’t make sense…it’s so awful to think about… but he needed to you know those things, to believe him. That was his last wish and maybe… you… should.”

John looks at her as if she has just turned into a viper. “Molly, tell me you’re not saying you believe he was a fraud? That he actually just committed suicide. You know him, Molly! You’ve seen him work! How can you even think…?”

Molly looks ill, but she forges on, her voice quavering. “I hate it, I hate the thought but… why would he say all that? Why would he jump off a building if it wasn’t…true… He wanted to confess to you before he did it, he needed you to know. You should…honour… that last request. Let it be. It’s what…what he wanted.” Her last words are barely a squeak.

He pulls his hand away like he’s been bitten, betrayed, feeling nothing but disgust for her now. “I thought you cared about him,” he says, horrified. “I thought you would do anything for him, that you were loyal!”

“I did,” she stutters. “I would… I am. I just… we have to be realistic…”

“No,” John says, scrambling to his feet, unable to bear the sight of her any longer, queasy in her very presence. “No, don’t… don’t you ever speak to me again! Do you understand me? I don’t want to see or hear from you ever again. You’re a disgrace.”

He turns and flees the morgue, not at a run but at a precise and stiff military walk, letting his body remember how to get him home when his mind is all but gone. He does not see Molly put her head to her knees and begin to weep silently.

Chapter Text

Sherlock enters the morgue, bag of crisps in hand, to find Molly sitting on the floor in the back corner staring straight ahead at nothing, tears staining her face. She doesn’t look at him when he comes in.

“Molly?” he asks uncertainly.

“Why did you make me do that?” she asks, still not looking at him, her voice cold and empty.

“Molly, we agreed…” Sherlock is baffled. “You said you wanted to help me.”

“Not that. Him. He was here.”

“John? But, why… He saw me himself already, why would he--?”

He knows why, of course he knows why, but it's easier to pretend it's all a mystery to him, to not have thought it through, to not be fully culpable for the consequences he’d now set into motion…

Molly finally whips her head round to fix him in her sights. “You tell me, oh great and powerful student of human nature. Why would a man who’s just lost the person who meant the world to him want to see that person again? To say goodbye? To make sure?”

“What did you--”

“I took care of it. I did what I promised, didn’t I?” She cuts him off bitterly. “I gaslighted John Watson and I broke his heart. Just like you wanted.”

“I didn’t want--”

“Then what did you want? What did you think would happen?”

Sherlock makes a frustrated noise. “When are you going to let me get a complete sentence out?” he snarls.  

This is wrong, Molly has every right to excoriate him now, she more than anyone besides John and John could hardly do it, he should shut up and take it, but if he does then it’s true and he’s not ready for it to be true…

Molly jumps to her feet, pink with rage and plants herself in front of him. “You didn’t see him,” she screams. He steps back involuntarily, as she restrains herself – no less furious but quieter. “You were so pleased with yourself, with your little plan, that you didn’t think what it would really mean, did you? Or didn't let yourself think it. Meanwhile, I get to deal with the mess you made. You didn’t have to see him. You didn't have to hear him. The sound he made...”

She shudders, then levels a stare at him that puts ice in his heart. He’s been running on adrenaline for days, hasn’t really stopped to contemplate the results of his actions that he knew were coming. Couldn’t stop, not if he was going to make it out alive.  Keep John alive, and the others. But now it hits him at last what he’s done and it silences him.

“You broke John Watson,” she says softly. “You destroyed that man.”

The truth of this is finally clear and Sherlock finds suddenly that his legs no longer want to hold him up. He grips the table beside him, and Molly looks at him without pity. He clears his throat which is suddenly dry. “Did he… um, did he believe you?”

“That you were a fraud? Of course not. He’s not an idiot and even if he were, he loved you too much."

Sherlock’s not sure which is worse – the verb she used that John never had, had never been allowed to use, or that she used it in the past tense. For the first time, he has real doubts about this plan of his, even though he knows it’s the only way.

Is it the only way, he’s explored every other option hasn’t he, or is that what he needs to tell himself to justify what he’s done, still he couldn’t keep them both safe otherwise, but it could be a lie, he’s been lying to himself more and more, like just now when he told himself this was his first moment of doubt…

The first real moment of doubt had come standing on the roof top of the hospital. Moriarty is dead, John is pleading with him over the phone as he lies and lies about who he is and what he’s done. Lies that sound ridiculous even as he’s repeating them in his most convincing tone.

Sherlock thinks for a moment that he needn’t go through with it – with Moriarty gone and Mycroft’s men capturing the assassins as they speak surely he and his brother are clever enough to extricate him and John from what remains of the trap. It was worth the risk, surely. He can’t bear the ache in John’s voice as it is.

His John, who had been willing to risk his own destruction to bring Sherlock back from the brink of an act like this, betraying everything he believed in just to snap Sherlock out of his own dark spiral, an act no one else in the world could have done for him, an act John’s never really forgiven himself for and might never do, not now, how can Sherlock risk him seeing that go to naught, how can he even consider doing the one thing John would give anything to prevent, even if it’s only in pretense…

But then Sherlock remembers how intricately, how subtly, Moriarty had led them here, to the decision point that wasn’t really any decision at all. How even months ago Moriarty had engineered that moment of what John still felt to be his greatest failure, that attempt to destroy their bond if not themselves. There would be backups, fail-safes upon fail-safes to ensure that if Sherlock reneged whole armies wouldn’t be enough to protect his friends.

The only way…

Sherlock says goodbye, not feigning the emotion in his voice for once, and steps off the roof.

The second moment of doubt, much worse, had come as Sherlock was lying on the pavement, soaked, with John Watson’s fingers groping for a pulse that Sherlock has made certain he will not find. Hearing John’s cries, feeling John’s trembling hands on his skin, smelling the pain and confusion on him while Sherlock tries to stay as still and limp as death, is so much worse than he’d imagined.

He hadn’t imagined, he’d not let himself imagine anything on John’s side of the equation more detailed than John is sad, gets over it, if he had he’d never been able to do what was necessary to save them both, and even if he had, he’d never been able to imagine something as bad as this, John keening like a wild animal in a trap, screaming his name, begging that it not to be so and it’s in Sherlock’s power to make it not so even if it means they’d both be killed instantly it had to be better than this raw agony…

Had it gone a microsecond longer, Sherlock would have given in. He’d have sat up, taken John in his arms one last time and murmured his deepest apologies into John’s sandy hair, holding him as tightly as he could while he waited for the bullets to pierce them both and hoping that in the highly improbable even that there was anything after this, that they would find each other.

But it does not go on. For better or worse, Sherlock’s agents in disguise drag John off of him and bundle Sherlock away to the morgue and the moment is lost.

He’d thought then that had to be the hardest moment, but he had been wrong. Standing here, facing Molly in all her knowing fury as she refuses to let him believe that John is going to be fine, this is the hardest moment.

And it’s starting to become clear that this won’t be the last hardest moment either…

“You knew,” she says quietly. “Of course you knew he would come down here. That’s why you left, so you wouldn’t have to see it.”

“I left so he wouldn’t see me,” Sherlock counters, not bothering to dispute her first assumption this time

“Come off it,” she scoffs. “He wouldn’t have seen you unless you wanted him to. You were hiding from having to watch him come apart, so you could convince yourself he would recover. He won’t, you know.”

Sherlock is still, not moving or thinking, lest he think too much and discover she’s right.

Molly knits her brows at him in the silence. “Why are you still playing his game? He’s dead, you’re officially the cleverest man alive. Why are you letting him win, letting him control you? I never thought you were a coward.”

This puts Sherlock on firmer territory. “Because he’s better at the game than I am,” he tells her and watches her shock at his admission of being anything less than superior to anyone. “Even dead. And the stakes are too high if I lose. I’m not the forfeit here. It’s John… it’s Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson too. And you. You think you got off because you seem insignificant, but they’ll know you helped me and exact retribution on you too. There are contingencies within contingencies to make sure Moriarty wins no matter the odds. The only way to win is to lose and keep losing until no one can conceive of the possibility that you might still be playing.”

He has just lost everything and yet somehow it seems like John has lost more, that’s what he’d planned, wasn’t it, that means this has to work…

Molly has no answer for that, but she’s still fuming. He envies her righteous and futile rage at the injustice of it, her stubborn insistence that this is wrong and there’s another way out. He wishes he had the luxury of sharing it.

He notices her rubbing her right wrist, unconsciously. It’s swollen and red, like she's landed hard on it. She sees him looking at it and hurriedly puts it behind her back.

“It was an accident,” she says too quickly, too late.

“John,” Sherlock says, not a question. Even in her anger at him, she’d wanted to spare him the knowledge of the full extremity of John’s grief.

“He didn’t mean to.” Her voice quavers a bit. “He didn’t know what he was doing.”

So then, this is the hardest moment, hearing what he’s driven John to, a form of madness to hurt a friend, to hurt Molly even through carelessness, even as an accident…

He draws Molly’s arm from behind her back, gently feeling for a break that is thankfully not there. He holds her wrist loosely for a moment feeling the inflamed heat of it in his hand.

“I’m going now,” he tells her. “I’m going to fix this, all of it.” He touches his lips dryly to her injury, a sort-of apology, and turns to go.

“Some things can’t be fixed,” she says softly, without rancour now, to his retreating back.

Sherlock goes a few steps further and then turns back to her. “John,” he asks against his better judgement. “When he left.  Was he… was he limping?”

Molly pauses, then nods once, curtly, not meeting his eyes.

Sherlock processes this for a second and then turns again, forcing himself to walk away in what he hopes is an even pace.

No, this is the hardest moment…

 

 

John can’t go home. He can’t visit the flat full of Sherlock’s things, full of their things together, ownerless now that there is no more them. He can’t possibly go to sleep in Sherlock’s bed, full of the echoes of all their nights together, probably still smelling of both of them, of their last sex, hurried and distant and distracted as it had been. He can’t wash the half-empty tea mug with Sherlock’s lip prints still on it, or put away his experiments or reshelve the last book he’d been reading, still on his chair by the fire.

He wanders the streets in the rain, hobbled by the flaring, phantom pain in his leg, for miles, no idea where to go and not wanting to be with anyone. He knows eventually he will have to go somewhere, though staying in the rain until hypothermia takes him isn’t an unpleasant thought. He shakes it off, with effort.

Though why should he have to when Sherlock hadn't...

He can’t go to Greg.

Complicit, craven, gullible, despicable…

He won’t go to Mycroft. 

He could have stopped all this, but the interests of the crown were worth more than his brother’s life, he’s as culpable as Moriarty and if John ever sees him again…

John thinks of Harry, knowing whatever their problems in the past she won’t question him now, will treat him tenderly and with the love a sibling should show in this situation. But somehow the idea of her treating him differently now that Sherlock is…gone… is worse than any disagreement they’ve had in the past.

He comes out of his reverie, startled to realize two things: That it is nearly dark and that he is somehow wandered back around the city and is standing outside of 221B.

Where else is there to be, really, the only thing worse than being home without Sherlock is being anywhere else without Sherlock….

Mrs. Hudson is, mercifully, out. Probably looking for him. He creeps into the too-still flat that smells faintly of chemicals and tea and the tobacco that Sherlock never quite banished from his life. Trying not to think any more, he collapses on the sofa fully dressed and falls into a restless sleep.

The next day, or maybe the day after that or even many days later - he’s lost his phone and seems to remember periods of aimless wakefulness and meaningless interactions with others about Sherlock and a burial and a will that might all have been dreams for all the impression they made on him - there’s a knock on the door. John hesitates to answer it.

Every time he answers it, every time he interacts with anyone else, it collapses the wave-function, as Sherlock would say, killing the cat, the simultaneously alive-and-dead Sherlock he cultivates in his mind when he's alone will just be dead Sherlock and he won’t be able to pretend he has hope any longer, but it’s not like he’s been doing a good job of pretending so far and he’ll have to face it eventually…

After a too-long pause, John opens the door. The list of people John hopes it is not is very long and includes almost the entirety of humankind. Victor Trevor is not on that list. In fact, he’s not on any list – John had forgotten about him.

The lanky redhead stands stooped in the doorway, looking drawn and worn, no trace of his normal cheer left in him. He looks like a different person, and about a thousand years older. John wonders if he looks that bad. Or worse. He wonders how long its been since he bathed.

“John,” Victor says weakly. “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, but I didn’t know where else to go.”

John wordlessly motions him in and to sit down. He collapses on the sofa, heavily.  

“It’s all lies, of course. You know that, but you might be the only other one who does, really. Without any doubt at all.” 

John nods, a little relieved. So far no one else believed in Sherlock as he did, without reservation or uncertainty. He sits beside Victor, gingerly, still not feeling as if he’s really in his body.

The past days – a week? – are starting to come back to him, with all the accompanying horror of sympathizers and cards and flowers and arrangements which had required his nominal presence and agreement, if not his actual engagement, and everyone pretending they believed in Sherlock, no one daring to say otherwise to his face, everyone, almost everyone lying…           

“I know I shouldn’t impose on you like this,” Victor says. “But I had to come and see… I just couldn’t believe…” He chokes back tears and John awkwardly puts a bracing hand on his shoulder to steady him. 

Before John quite knows what is happening, Victor has thrown his arms around John’s neck and is crying softly into his shoulder.

John finds that he does not mind. He has not broken down again, not since the morgue. He’s been in a fugue and now that he’s coming out of it he doesn’t think he’s capable of crying again, though he knows it would be healthier if he could. But if he started he might never stop again. Victor’s tears stand in proxy for the ones he should be shedding, and he allows himself to pat the younger man on the back comfortingly while it runs its course. 

He’s found himself resentful, even enraged, by the expressions of grief or sorrow or sympathy of others, particularly those who hated Sherlock when he was alive and now feel bad about it, those who were culpable in his death, and even those who genuinely cared about him, how can they dare to think that their pain is common to John’s own, that they even inhabit the same universe...

Victor’s grief he can accept. John's not sure he can believe any grief could be as great as his, but it's of the same quality and sincerity, and John is grateful for it. 

It is a brief, minuscule lifting of the burden to have someone to share this with. John has been carrying not just his own grief at losing Sherlock, losing everything he'd built his life around, but also the grief of a city that does not yet know what it’s lost. All of London is mocking and denigrating Sherlock Holmes, and John carries that pain too, and the pain that will be when they discover they need him and find he’s gone, destroyed by the city he loved and the people he saved. 

And, surprisingly, it’s soothing to be touched. He’s barely allowed anyone to touch him since the day Sherlock died, compassionate hands burning on his skin, kind embraces suffocating him. But Victor’s warmth next to him, his arms around him, the weight of his head on John’s shoulder – it doesn’t hurt. Maybe it’s because Victor needs him, isn't trying to fix him, maybe it’s because he knows Victor loved Sherlock too, or maybe he’s just been too long without sincere human contact.

John hesitantly returns the embrace, still not crying, but letting himself bury his face in the crook of Victor’s neck and relax just the tiniest bit.

Victor smells good, not like Sherlock, but somehow like him as well, and he is tall and slender and his touch is earnest and wanting, it stirs something in John, something that makes him not want to let go, eases the physical withdrawal he’s been going through if only slightly, makes him crave more of it, anything to beat back the worst of the loneliness and grief, even if he knows it’s wrong, no man other than Sherlock has made him feel desire before and even now what he really is desiring is Sherlock, but Sherlock isn’t here… 

He finds himself gripping Victor more tightly, desperately and Victor responding in kind. Before he quite knows what is happening, his lips are on Victor’s graceful, almost-but-not-quite-familiar, white throat and Victor is nuzzling into John’s hair just above his ear.  John's hands are at Victor's trim waist, pulling him closer, feeling his warmth and his rising heartbeat and the raw need coming off him that matches John's own.

He's out of his head, grateful and guilty at the same time, without the will to stop any of it, without the will to care that he's not stopping it…

But Victor finds the will. After another endless second, he disentangles himself from John with obvious reluctance and shifts back on the sofa, putting the barest modicum of distance between them.

“John…” 

John feels his face burning from shame of how easily, how quickly he was willing to hop into the arms of another man to ease his pain, and how he still would if he thought for even a second he could use it to conjure up being with Sherlock again. He doesn't even care that it wouldn’t be fair to Victor, using him as a shadow, a substitute for what John would never have again.

It would be all right if Victor was using him, too...

“I feel it too,” Victor continues, faintly, echoing his own thoughts. John notices that Victor has not let go of his hands and that he is trembling. “I want to… I mean, if I thought that…”

“Yeah,” says John dully, understanding and wishing he didn’t.

“You’re all that’s left of him,” Victor goes on with an incredibly sad smile. “At least for me you are. But I fear neither of us would find what we seek that way.” He brings John’s hands to his lips swiftly and then releases him and looks away.

John nods. Of course, he’s right. And for a moment, John is furious with him for it, for stopping the mistake. But it doesn’t last, because if anything is clear, it’s that the other man is in almost as much pain as he is. He reaches out almost involuntarily and strokes his back with what he hopes is friendly and platonic reassurance.

He's starting to forget what normal human interaction is like, what normal people feel and do and say, is this what it felt like for Sherlock all of the time...

John lets Victor sit there as long as he wants, saying nothing. Finally Victor composes himself, wiping his eyes and nose with a pocket-handkerchief. He sits up straight and runs a hand through his copper hair.

“I’m terribly sorry about that,” he tells John. “Er, all of it.  The last thing you need is another burden. I told myself I wouldn’t get emotional, but once I saw you alone, here…”

John shakes his head. “No. I mean, it’s no burden. It…helps… that you care.”

A pause. “I thought I would go and see the… the grave.” Victor all but gags on the word.

John nods but says nothing. He hasn't been able to bring himself to go there yet, although he knows he must do it eventually. Soon. Not today. 

Victor give him a tight-lipped half smile, getting up and heading for the door. He turns at the threshold. “John, I know as well as you what a futile gesture it is to say that if there’s anything I can do… I’m sure you’ve heard too much of that. But from the depths of my heart if there’s anything you need, ever, no matter what it is, please come to me. And if you need to get away from here, my home is large and I’ll see to it that you aren’t disturbed.”

John thanks him and shuts the door behind him, letting out a long breath of air. Victor is kind and sincere, but being around him is both too tempting and too painful to contemplate right now. But it is a comfort to know that there's someone else out there, loving Sherlock too.

 

 

This is the hardest moment...

Sherlock watches, concealed behind a tree, as John speaks to his grave, tears filling John's eyes and choking his voice. He says things he'd never said to Sherlock in life, never would have, never needed to. He says things that hurt to hear. He doesn't say the word Sherlock was never able to abide, and somehow that hurts too.

John touches the shiny headstone gently, as he had so often touched Sherlock's shoulder. In the way he has when he's struggling to make Sherlock understand something, to reassure them both. And he tells Sherlock not to be dead. To stop all this and come back to him.

It takes everything in him not to obey, to force himself to stand still and watch as John's face crumbles and he turns and walks away. Not limping, but clearly only through dint of willpower. Sherlock watches him longer than he should before turning up his collar and returning to the car.

"I told you you didn't want to see that," Mycroft says. "It doesn't help anything."

No, it doesn't, it burns like liquid nitrogen injected into his chest, but still the things John said about him, to him, faint as like glow-in-the-dark stickers on their last legs, still still fill him with the praise and admiration at their core, down past John's grief, something for Sherlock to hold on to while he's gone...

Sherlock doesn't reply. 

"Have you thought about what you'll do if he's not waiting for you when you get back? Not that it's likely to matter..."

That snaps him out of it. "Of course he'll be... wait, not likely to matter? You think I'm not going to survive this, don't you?"

Mycroft waves a hand with his usual air of condescension, "Of course I do. It's a fool's errand, you're playing right into Moriarty's posthumous hand. You should have let me handle this from the beginning, and now you're in an impossible position. Haring off after the remains of his empire isn't likely to improve things and is, in fact, very likely to get you killed properly this time. But it's far too late for me to do anything about it - you've been very thorough."

"Good, I don't want you to." That sounds petulant, even to Sherlock's ears and the truth is he's depended on Mycroft for a lot and would do even more on this venture. Still, he knows his chances of survival are not high - the last thing he needs is a reminder from his big brother. 

They both fall silent, but Sherlock breaks it. 

"What did you mean about John not waiting for me?"

"You can't tell me you've honestly never considered it. You could be gone years. He hasn't accepted your death yet, not really, but after months or more... he'll move on. He'll have to. You can't tell me you want him to stay stuck, grieving, not living any sort of real life for however long it takes you to track down the rest of Moriarty's network. And if you do die in the process what then? Is he to wait forever?"

"Of course not!" Sherlock snaps, feeling hurt and foolish in the way only Mycroft could provoke. "I just thought... I thought..."

"Oh, I see!" Mycroft's insufferable sarcasm intensifies. "You wanted him to get over it... but not too much. To be okay, but not too okay. Not to build a life he can't walk away from, not to find someone he won't want to leave. And maybe that's how it would be, if he knew you were coming back. But you made spectacularly sure that he doesn't. And even I, dear brother, know that people don't work that way."

Sherlock again says nothing, knowing Mycroft is right and hating him for it. 

"And what will you do, if you come back and he won't forgive you. Won't let you back in his life. Will it have been worth it?"

John would never reject him, never, not permanently, he'd sworn it, of course he'd be quite angry, but he'd have Sherlock back, wouldn't he, never mind that Sherlock has just done or pretended to do any number of things things he swore to John he'd never, a laundry list of the things that would hurt John the most...

"Yes," says Sherlock.

"Well, that's a very noble sentiment. But are you quite sure?  Theory is one thing, practice is quite another."

Sherlock fixes his brother with a venomous stare that slowly fades into simple exhaustion. "You'll watch him?"

"Naturally."

"And if I do die? You'll tell him--"

"I will tell him precisely nothing," Mycroft cuts him off. "Surely you wouldn't wish to put him through all this again?"

He's right again, of course, but suddenly it seems to very final, in a way it hasn't before, in his mind he had, perhaps foolishly, seen himself conquering evil and sweeping back into John's life and, perhaps after a punch and some hard words, to hear how how proud John is of Sherlock, how much he'd missed him, to bask in John's adoring, homey, glow, like a fire banked down low to warm a house through a cold winter...

But now it's real. John is shattered. Sherlock is leaving, very possibly forever, going off to die unmourned in some dark place where no one will ever know. Even if he makes it back, there may be no reunion, no restoration of togetherness. Only separation, separate lives. 

Sherlock swallows these thoughts down hard. 

Mycroft lets him be for a moment while he grapples with this new understanding and then says, with surprising gentleness, "Sherlock, we have to go. If you are going to get out of this city undetected, we can't wait any longer."

Sherlock nods, shaking it off. True or not, it doesn't matter right now. He has to go on. He'd thought it was Moriarty, but now he knows it was really only ever him. He's left himself, left them all, no choice. And that realization is the hardest moment of all. 

The car pulls away from the cemetery and Sherlock forces himself not to look back. 

Despite everything, John is still there, in his mind, a bright spot, not bright enough, muffled torchlight, but not gone out, the one part of John he can keep safe, keep with him throughout whatever comes next, a part that will never leave him...

After a decent interval Mycroft says, "So," in a tone of neutral curiosity that sounds just the tiniest bit forced. "Where will you begin? Do you have a lead? The assassins my men captured ended up annoyingly dead before we could question them."

"I have a name," Sherlock says slowly, thinking back to a case almost a year ago. To a screaming red dye-job who knew more than she should have. "Hanna Mihov."

 

 

John's been trying to ignore it, the pain in his leg. In his thigh. The imaginary wound in the place he had shot that young boy. He hasn't felt it in the slightest since the second day he spent with Sherlock, except for a twinge once when he finally told his friend the story. He's been gritting his teeth and refusing to limp, refusing to take pain medicine, refusing to admit it's back again to anyone. It takes all his energy, but at least the physical pain is a distraction from the emotional pain. Even though that's really just in his head too. 

Admitting it's hurting him again is admitting Sherlock is well and truly gone, had the pain ever stopped, had he just been so enchanted by Sherlock's influence he thought it was gone, forgotten to feel it, and now the spell is broken, it's so hard to know what's real any more, hard to know what had ever been real between them, with the world shouting lies at him, with no one else who understood their language to stand witness for what they were, maybe he had made it all up, if it had been real how could Sherlock have...

At some point, he can't take it anymore. It hurts too much. His leg, that is. He gives up and goes rummaging through the hall cupboard.

After visiting the grave he didn't think he could come back here, had meant to move and escape the prison of memories 221B was becoming, but he'd been drawn to it again, like a wound he can't stop poking, and once again, he had no where else to go...

Somewhere in he'd stashed his cane what feels like a lifetime ago. Was a lifetime ago. Someone else's lifetime. It's filled with boxes, mostly his old things he'd moved there when he'd turned his old bedroom to a lab for Sherlock

The lab, a tangible expression of his commitment to Sherlock, giving up his last refuge to his friend's needs, he's not been able to make himself go in there yet, who knew what was growing in there by now, but he doesn't care...

Shifting the boxes is difficult and the ceiling in the cupboard is low. He feels like he's been at it for an hour when Mrs. Hudson startles him by coming up behind him and bellowing his name.

John jumps, hits his head on the lintel, and curses. Mrs. Hudson looks surprised.

"Sorry, John dear, I thought you were in the kitchen. What on earth were you doing in there?"

"Nothing. I mean... you haven't seen my cane have you? I'm sure I put it away in here ages ago, but I can't seem to find it."

Mrs. Hudson gives him a slightly concerned look. Not that she gives him any other kind these days. "That old thing? You threw it in the bin the week after you moved in, didn't you? I remember because I thought Mrs. Turner might have a use for it but then I thought you might not like it if I took it out..."

"I didn't--" John begins to protest but then stops. 

Sherlock, of course Sherlock had binned it, so sure John would never need it again, that he had cured him, that John would never leave him, arrogant and endearing all together and suddenly it hurts fresh all over again....

Mrs. Hudson can clearly read all this in his face and pats his arm gently before changing the subject.

"I just came up here to tell you've got a phone call, is all. You really ought to replace your mobile."

"There's not really anyone I want to talk to, Mrs. Hudson."

"So you've told me, and so I've told everyone who's called, but he's a persistent one and this is the fifth time just today. I can't have the phone ringing off the hook all day and night, you'll have to see him off yourself this time!"

John sighs. "Who is, Mrs. Hudson?"

"Why, Detective Inspector Lestrade of course. Don't you ever read my notes?"

John goes a little cold inside. "Right," he says, and bangs down the stairway into her flat, grabbing the phone from the table with more force than necessary.

The list of things he wants to say to the DI is nearly endless, choking him, but most of all there's why, why did you let it happen, you were supposed to be be his friend, you were supposed to protect him, protect us, why did you believe those things about him for even a millisecond, why did you let them come for him, why didn't you defend him, why didn't you stop him... 

But asking those questions hurts too much so he settles for yelling into the phone, "Fuck off, Greg. And if you don't fuck off, I'll come down to the station and make you fuck off, got it?"

There's silence on the line for a second, but then, with disarming mildness, Lestrade's voice says slowly, "Well, that's fine with me. I've been trying to you get down here for days. Don't you ever read Mrs. Hudson's notes? I need to talk to you about someone."

The tone takes the wind out of John's sails and to his surprise he finds he's curious as to what could possibly make Greg so persistent in getting a hold of a man he must know hates him. 

"Who?" John asks, warily. 

"A woman. From one of your old cases. Hanna Mihov. Name sound familiar?"

John puts the phone down without a word, calling to Mrs. Hudson for his coat. He grabs it from her, ignoring her questions, and bolts out the door. He doesn't notice that his leg has stopped hurting again.  

Chapter Text

Greg greets John just outside his office. How he’d kept his job after the incidents of the past several weeks John has no idea, but assumes Mycroft is involved. Mycroft seems to have a soft spot for the DI. This thought only makes John more furious at Mycroft, if solely because you can only sustain a certain level of rage at a person directly in front of you that you aren’t allowed to hit.

Greg spreads his hands almost meekly. “John, let me just say how—”

It doesn’t matter what he’s going to say, how sorry he is, whether he believes in Sherlock now or not, how much John liked and respected him beforehand, it’s too late and nothing in the world could induce John to have five seconds’ conversation with this man if it weren’t possibly the only way he might find out the truth…

“Shut it,” John snaps. “You know why I’m here. Let’s get this over with.”

Lestrade winces but is otherwise stoic as he motions John into his office. He sits behind the desk and opens his mouth as if he’s going to try again, but then thinks better of it. He clears his throat and gets to business.

“Hanna Mihov. Alias Lady Sienna Forsythe. Alias Heidi Dunburger. Alias… well, let’s just say that doesn’t even scratch the surface, eh? You encountered her on that counterfeiting case. What did you call it on your blog, The Red-Handed Red-Head?”

Tall, fearless, all fight and sex and lies, she’d made John burn and Sherlock jealous and almost beaten them both in hand to hand combat, and he’d give anything to have Sherlock here and furiously, unfairly possessive of him again like he’d been the night they'd met her…

“I know how we encountered her,” John says through clenched teeth, wondering if he’s actually going to be able to do this.

Lestrade notices his increased tension and picks up the pace. “You know, I'm sure, that she and her organisation were connected to James Moriarty.” He pauses and then says very carefully. “When there was a James Moriarty, that is.”

John finds himself half out of his chair with the urge to leap at the older man’s jugular, but Greg settles him with a hand.

“I’m not saying that he wasn’t…real. Just that all those records disappeared a few days before… well, before.”

Before the world had imploded…

John sits back down warily and nods for him to go on.

“Well, we didn’t hold on to Ms. Mihov long after your case. Powers higher than mine intervened for her release. But we were watching her. Closely. And around the time all the information on Jim Moriarty disappeared, she did too. This file –” he nudges a worn manila folder on his desk toward John. “—is every record we have left of her.”

John grabs it. It’s empty.

“Everything, John. Computer files, paper files, court records, emails, call logs – anything that had any mention of her, her aliases, or even anything she was suspected of being involved in. Completely erased. Things that were only on my personal hard drive, papers in my desk… Even the officers keeping tabs on her were transferred, scattered, with no explanations.”

John can’t help but be interested now.

Sherlock would have gone for this one, Moriarty connexion or not, a clean job, with no clues, no evidence, stonewalled at every turn, impossible to crack, this was his drug of choice, preferred above all others, and in the end, somehow, the one that had killed him…

“Moriarty left Richard Brook,” Greg says carefully. “But Hanna – or whoever was helping her – left nothing.”

John chews his bottom lip, realising how insane this is. “All I know is what I’ve told you before… I can give another statement but otherwise I don’t see how I can’t do anything that the police can’t.” His heart sinks a little. He’d been hoping for something to actually help explain what had happened, what had driven Sherlock to…to the end.

Greg shakes his head and lowers his voice. “We’re all right in here, I’ve learned a thing or two about surveillance, but there are people on the inside, in the force who must be involved with this. What’s more, I’ve been forbidden to investigate any of it any further. As far as my superiors are concerned, Moriarty or Brook or whoever he was is dead and so is… so is Sherlock, and that’s all there is to tell.”

“Greg, if there’s nothing to go on…”

It can’t be the end of it, but there’s no way forward either, not in this case, not in life, not until he knows what happened, which he can’t without solving this case…

“I know it’s a long shot, but you’re all I’ve got. I want to find out what happened as—” He stops short and John can see he had been about to say that he wanted to find out as much as John did but had thought better of it.

“I want to find out what happened,” he repeats. “But my hands are tied. You’re the only who is free to act and who still… believes.”

John looks Greg in the eyes for the first time. They’re earnest, regretful and pleading. And afraid. He finds himself softening against his will, even if he’s not sure he’ll ever be able to forgive the man either.

He’d loved Sherlock in his way, had rescued him before John was around to do, had even helped bring them together, and had certainly saved both their lives more than once, that couldn’t be discounted, but neither could that final betrayal, the failure to save one of them when it had really mattered…

“I’m not a genius, Greg,” he says at last. “I helped Sherlock, I know he worked better with me around, and I’m sure I learned from him. But something like this, with no evidence or leads either of us can discern… I don’t think I have prayer of untangling it without… I mean, on my own.”

“You’re going to try though.” It’s not a question.

John lets out a long breath and nods. “Of course I am.”

What choice, what other path could there be, once it was in front of him it was inevitable, as inevitable as giving himself totally to Sherlock had been from the moment the man had stood in front of him and told him everything there was to know about himself…

Lestrade relaxes a little. “Thank you, John.”

“Let’s be very clear, Greg. I’m not doing this for you.”

The older man rubs his eyes tiredly. “Yeah, I know. Don’t worry, I hate myself most of the time too. Now, do you want to hear what little I know or remember from the file or not?”

John frowns and nods curtly, wondering if he’s putting too much of this on Lestrade.

Lestrade had been lured into a bad position, sabotaged, betrayed by his own, and Sherlock hadn’t been his responsibility, not really, Sherlock had belonged to John and ultimately John had been the one who’d failed to protect him…

“Well, we never had any concrete proof that she was connected to Moriarty, but she all but came out and said it or neither of us would be here. She was a citizen of Bulgaria, although it’s not clear if she was born there. She had forged papers from a dozen countries under scores of names but I’m sure none of those would do you any good at this point even if we had them. Her organisation, or at least the one she seemed to be working for at the time you encountered her, was Belgian. Les Butineuses has basically vanished now as well and it’s not clear how Moriarty was connected to them either…”

“Consulting criminal,” John mutters. “He brought small rackets into the big time. At least until he got bored of them.”

“Yeah, likely,” Greg agrees. “Unfortunately, that’s all I got for you. Except… funny, I just remembered this. The last text she sent from her mobile. When I was searching her, after you boys nabbed her, I saw her phone screen. Right before the whole thing wiped itself. It was just one word. Friesland.”

“Friesland?” John rolls the unfamiliar word around in his mouth.

“Yeah, I remember because I had to google it.”

“What is it? German? It’s not Bulgarian.”

“Dutch. It’s a province of the Netherlands. And the name of any number of companies in the region…a bank, a dairy corporation, a defunct oil company, a non-profit organization for children with disabilities. I ran it down a bit, but nothing suspicious and no connexion I could find to her or… him.”

“Must mean something if that’s the text she sent right before she was arrested,” John points out.

“Yeah. Or the code to wipe the phone. Anyway, that’s it.”

John sighs, not optimistic. “Better than nothing, I guess.”

Is it better than nothing, is all this just a wild, hopeless chase to distract himself from facing reality for a little bit longer, is he just fooling himself that there are even answers to be had, maybe sometimes people just tell you everything you know is wrong and walk off rooftops and that's all there is to it...

After a pause he says, a little stiffly, “Thank you, Greg. I do appreciate this. Really.”

Lestrade visibly cringes at the gratitude, stingy as it is. “Don’t thank me yet. I’m about to make your day. Because now I need to you to punch me. Hard.”

 

 

A few moments later John is being manhandled out of Lestrade’s office, putting up a show of struggle.

“I’m sorry, John,” Greg says firmly, voice rising as a crowd of constables and detectives begins to form around them hall. “But I’ve told you, there’s nothing more we can do. There’s no more case, no conspiracy. You just have to accept that Sherlock Holmes was a deeply troubled man and that’s all there is to it!”

There it is, the kindest version of the common consensus on the most brilliant human being he’d ever met…

It’s all too easy for John to haul back and deliver a roundhouse to Greg's jaw. He pulls it, because his full force can do quite serious damage. But not by much. Not as much as he could have and still been convincing.

“Son of a bitch,” John pants, not needing to act as at least four officers take hold of him, none to gently.

Lestrade waves them off, rubbing his jaw. “Leave it. Let him go.”

They obey, reluctantly, and John straightens his clothes.

“I’m making a choice to assume that, due to recent events, you are not in your right mind. But if you come around here again, I will arrest you for assaulting a policeman, got it? Get out.”

John obeys, wrapping his coat around him and exiting into the freezing twilight.

That hadn’t felt as good as he’d imagined, and he had, in fact it hadn’t felt good at all, of course they were probably both being watched, there wasn’t much choice, but the pit in his stomach reminds him how eager he often is to turn to violence and how devastating the results can be...

He takes the long way back to 221B, needing to clear his head, to wrap his mind around the information he’s just been given. There’s a sense of relief of something to do, after days of inaction and helplessness. There’s a feeling of paralysis in the face of so many unknowns and so little hope of success. There’s a hint of familiar excitement at the mystery and danger he’s heading into, danger he's learned he can’t function without.

But there’s something else too, something that only gets worse as he walks and thinks and plans how to investigate. For the first time he’s embarking on a case entirely without Sherlock Holmes. And John Watson has never felt so lonely.

 

Chapter Text

Sherlock’s journey to Belgium is cold, loud, and gives him lots of time to think. He supposes he’d better get used to traveling by cargo hold and other less comfortable means of transit.

Mycroft had pointed this out, along with the futility of his plans, when he’d bade him goodbye at the airfield.

“You know Moriarty’s web of criminal associates spreads far beyond the Continent,” he’d said. “South America, Asia, North Africa. And that’s just what we know about. You won’t be safe anywhere. You’ll be lucky to sleep in a bed most nights. And I won’t be able to help you. If I can find you, others will be able to.  See to it that I can’t.”

“Yes, thank you for the comforting reminders,” Sherlock had snapped, turning on his heel and bundling into the cramped cargo space of the small passenger plane.

“You’ll never find them all,” Mycroft had called after him. Sherlock had looked back just long enough to make a rude gesture, and that had been that.

Perhaps that moment would be cause for regret if they really never saw each other, but then again didn’t it just sum up their whole relationship…

And, of course, Mycroft is right – he will never find all of Moriarty’s associates much less bring them to justice. But that’s not the point of this exercise. Criminals are not notorious loyal, particularly past death. But Moriarty would have accounted for that, he would have installed ways to make sure his orders regarding Sherlock stayed in place long after he was gone. That system, whatever it was, is what Sherlock needs to dismantle in order to get his life back.

To get John back…

The criminals and syndicates Moriarty had empowered and bound together had been there long before he had started his career and they, or those taking their places, would remain long after Sherlock was in the ground. He had no illusions of and little interest in purging the world of all organized crime.

But if he can pull a string to unravel the complicated and unnatural system of control Moriarty had put in place just for him, much of it will collapse in on itself. Pre-existing factions will turn on each other, alliances will dissolve, and both Sherlock and the world would be a lot safer.

The problem is figuring out which string to pull. Nearly every case of significance he’s worked in the past two years had Moriarty’s stench on it somewhere, but most of them couldn’t be used in the way he would need to in order to get to the heart of the matter. They were too insignificant or too temporary of a connexion or simply just designed to play with his head.

How much of Moriarty’s career had been about Sherlock, about Sherlock and about boredom, had everything he’d done since Carl Powers been intended to lead to this end, or to a better one in which Sherlock joined him and they took the world apart to see how it ticked, it would be flattering if it weren’t so disgusting, and yet even after all that part of him is still flattered…

The counterfeit case, though, that might have legs. The fact that either Ms. Mihov had managed to extricate herself from the charges or that Moriarty had arranged for it himself meant that she was more talented and more important than most of the other petty criminals that Moriarty had helped elevate. Most of those he cut lose easily at the first hint of trouble. The fact that she had vanished rather than turning up dead suggested that she had power or knowledge or both, and enough of it to protect herself.

Sherlock shifts uncomfortably amongst the baggage, sticking his hands under his arms to keep them warm. The flight would be a couple more hours in this two-engine death trap. Hopefully he wouldn’t have hypothermia at the end of it.

If John was here he’d be warm, but the little ember of John in his mind isn’t enough to warm his body now…

The main problem with following Hanna Mihov’s trail was that she had very efficiently not left one. He could only hope other members of what was left of her organisation had been less tidy, and that he would be able to infiltrate the criminal underbelly of Bruges enough to find something to go on.

One of the most infuriating things about all of this is that he can’t use any of his own carefully cultivated network of informants to track down any useful intel. It was enough of a risk using his homeless contacts in London, but their loyalty had been longstanding and his brother could keep them under observation. In Europe, his relationships were far more tenuous and he could only guess how many of his former people had been turned.

He’ll be starting from scratch, it should be exciting, invigorating, a real challenge, real danger, real intrigue, even as a dead man Moriarty is more of an opponent that most master criminals were over a life time, and the prospect of a hunt fully unfettered should have the blood pumping through him like white-water through a culvert, and yet...

For the first time since St. Bart’s, Sherlock realises he’s slowed down long enough to feel sorry for himself. Or maybe it's just the cold getting to him. But either way, he feels tired and lonely and, he hates to admit...sad.

You look sad when you think John can’t see you, Molly had said to him, when he had finally realized that his death, real or staged, was going to be the only way out for them, at that point he had just been hoping he would only have to pretend to die for a short time, unaware how deep Moriarty’s insanity went, even then not having faced how much he would have to lose…

He reproves himself. He doesn’t have the luxury of this right now. If he is to be successful he can’t afford to think about all that, about John.

About John, never an effusive man, standing small and alone at his grave, his body rigid with all the grief a body can contain…

Sherlock pushes the memory away. He can’t possibly do what lies ahead if he’s dwelling on the past or fearing the future. He takes a deep breath and carefully finds a place for the pain in his mind palace, folding it gently into rooms rarely used. Instead he brings out a version of the truth that can sustain him.

John is safe, John will be fine, Sherlock is going to save them both, it will be a great adventure, his finest triumph, then he will return home and they will be back in 221B and belong to each other again, and the universe will make sense again…

This what he needs to keep in his mind in order to be Sherlock Holmes, to do what he has to do to make it a reality.

By the time he sneaks off the planes in the dark, damp air just outside of Bruges, he is feeling exactly what he should be – resolute and hungry for action.

 

 

 

Friesland. The word rattles constantly in John’s head like a pebble in his shoe. It has to mean something. Even if it was just a passcode, it was chosen for a reason. He’d spent all night searching online and hadn’t gotten much further than Lestrade had.

The obvious reference would be the province in the Netherlands – a meetup location, perhaps? If everything went wrong. But wouldn’t they have chosen somewhere nearer by to regroup? The area’s far too rural to be an important outpost for an international crime syndicate, unless their primary focus is on horses.

None of his other searches yield anything immediately suspicious either. None of the companies or organisations bearing the name seem like fronts, although if there’s one thing he’s learned from his time working with Sherlock it’s that almost anything can be.

This is not his skill, this brainwork, he’s good at running down leads, interviewing people, serving as liaison with the normal-person world, acting as a very calm, understated threat in the background of tight spots and, sometimes, as an active, very un-calm threat in other situations…

Sherlock was the one who could spot the tiny discrepancies, the esoteric inconsistencies, could crunch the terrabytes of data instantly in his head to discern which path to take. How is John supposed to do this without him? Why does he even want to?

Because he has to know…

John closes his laptop, rubbing his eyes, and half-heartedly makes some tea. Mrs. Hudson would do it if he asked – she’d do almost anything for him now – but he can’t bear her face when she looks at him. He gets lost in thought while making it and it comes out too strong, churning his empty stomach. He sits in his chair by the cold grate and sips at it anyway.

He closes his eyes and tries to let his brain disassociate from the moment, to scan over all the information without actively thinking as Sherlock had tried to teach him to do.

Once, for a lark, Sherlock had sat him down to make his own mind palace, well more of a cottage in his case, to show him how to fill it, how to store everything so you could find it again, so that you could run your mind lightly over a long list of facts and what you needed would spring out without hardly an effort, things your conscious mind never would have realized were relevant, John had been atrocious at it and then Sherlock had got frustrated and taken him to bed instead…

John shakes the thoughts away and tries to focus on the case. What little of it there is. He wracks his brain trying to remember any details from the two times he’d run into Hanna or that Sherlock had shared with him about Les Butineuses, but but everything seems either trivial or connected directly with the counterfeiting case.

He remembers Hanna alluding to Moriarty in passing, but in the same shadowy way pretty much everyone else seemed to. This is getting him nowhere.

Relax, John. A deep voice echoes in his mind, so clear he’s not sure he hasn’t just heard it for real.

He hears the indulgent smile in the tone telling him to close his eyes, feels cool fingers on his temples, tries to let facts and thoughts flicker by until something clicked into place…

Moriarty, the consulting criminal. A Belgian crime syndicate with a French name based in a Dutch-speaking city. A rural Dutch province with no apparent connexion to either. A word that could refer to anything or nothing. Maybe that’s where Hanna had gone on holiday as a child. Maybe the small Friesland Bank was really the headquarters of an international counterfeiters’ guild. Or maybe none of it meant anything.

“I can’t do it,” he mutters to himself, but shakes his head and tries again anyway.

Cool hands, warm breath, sandalwood and juniper and skin…

He runs through it all again, trying not to think too hard. This time, just as he’s about to give up, something jumps out at him. Friesland Petrol. A defunct oil company, declared bankruptcy and was sold off a few years ago. But why has that stuck out in his mind all of a sudden?

Something about shipping. Ships, they had tankers. Les Butineuses was primarily a smuggling ring before Moriarty got a hold of them. They’d need transportation for goods, wouldn’t they? 

It seems dubious at best, but it feels right. It feels like something, which is an improvement on nothing.

Good, John. Knew you'd get there. Eventually. 

“Shut up,” he mumbles to the empty room, momentarily pleased at the approval, until he remembers it’s not real.

Okay, he has a lead, what next? He doesn’t know anything about oil companies or ships. This time it comes to him a flash, who can help him with this lead and give him cover for leaving London for a few days without attracting unwanted attention.

He hesitates before texting, but can’t think of a better option.

Victor, need to get out of here for a few days. Clear my head. Offer still open? – John

The reply is nearly immediate.

I’ll send a car. 09:00. – V.

John wonders if he’s taking advantage of Victor’s kindness. But he offered to help and he'd clearly meant it. And what else can he do? He can’t talk to anyone else about this, probably shouldn’t even talk to Victor about it.

He lingers with the dregs of his tea until long after midnight, avoiding sleep. He’d got used to the dreams of war which he was sure now would never fade entirely, but now there were new dreams, more vivid, more heart-wrenching.

Every night now he startles awake, gasping, screaming, heart pounding, either Sherlock lying, falling, dying, while he stands helpless or Sherlock with him again, skin on skin, heat and desire, but ending up aching and empty, he’s not sure which is worse and either way Sherlock’s name is on his lips when he wakes…

At some point he manages to remind himself if he doesn’t get some sleep he’s going to be useless tomorrow and drags himself to the sofa. He still can’t face the bedroom. Sleep comes much faster than it has been for him and whether it’s the effort he’s put in thinking or the distraction of the case, at least tonight his dreams don’t haunt him so.

Maybe simply running himself to exhaustion is the answer, John thinks as he climbs in to the black sedan the next morning, better rested than he’s been in days despite only getting a few hours’ sleep. It certainly seems like he’s about to have the opportunity.

Chapter Text

Once in Bruges proper, Sherlock barely even notices the two nights of sleeping rough before he find an in with the less savory classes. Just as well, it takes him that long to get a good read of the city, to feel it and understand it and become part of it.

It's amazing what bodily degradations his brain will ignore in pursuit of a case, he wishes it would be a little less capriciously obsessive when he wasn't working, at home perfectly tolerant of a kitchen strewn with dirty labware while refusing to accept a misaligned crease in his trousers, not that either of those were likely to be issues again anytime soon...

In early December, the labyrinthine, medieval city is cold, claustrophobic, and aggressively damp. Under other circumstances he might admire the sturdiness and enduring design of the ancient workmanship. As man in hiding who prefers to have a quick exit handy, he finds the habit of streets ending suddenly in high walls or unmapped canals less than charming. Still, the layout could be useful for confounding pursuers, provided it didn't confound him first.

Out of practise, it takes him a little time to craft the right persona to go unnoticed. There's not much to be done about his height or features, but shoddy clothes, a few days’ growth of beard, and a stocking hat, when combined with a stooping, sullen posture, do wonders for concealing his identity.

I could still recognise you, John murmurs fondly in something between a memory and a daydream, and for just an instant he feels warm for the first time in days...

Sherlock spends the time he's not memorising the streets in various uncharismatic drinking establishments, consuming significantly less beer than he makes it appear and answering any attempt at conversation in terse, passable Dutch with a heavy lower-class Parisian accent. It's not hard to discern which of these play host to illicit activities and which merely harbour day-drunk bums.

Laying this sort of groundwork is tedious at best, and Sherlock is relieved when someone finally engages him with something other than a comment about the weather or his chosen beverage.  Late afternoon on the third day a ruddy man sidles up to him at the bar.

"Hoi, hoe gaat het?"

Short, a little stout, well-dressed but rumpled, knife in inner pocket, hard-core alcoholic but not drunk now, here on business, impotent, angry about being impotent, gambles and loses, fights and wins, mostly, moderately clever, not as idly friendly as he's pretending to be... 

Sherlock looks straight ahead without interest. "Het gaat." So-so.

"You look lonely, like you could use a woman, eh?"

Sherlock gestures noncommittally. "Not worth the trouble to find," he says, taking a long draw from his pint.

"Ah, but I find them for you. Young ones, too. You look like you like them young."

Sherlock doesn't let his eyes narrow at this and instead feigns momentary curiosity. "How young?"

"How young do you want?"

Motherfucker, John sparks furiously, ready to tear the man to shreds, and if he were really here Sherlock would let him, but that won't serve either of them at the moment so he puts a quick damper on the magma building up...

He files it away to deal with later and instead shrugs carelessly. "Girls are all very well, but work is better when you're down to your last Euro."

The man nods sympathetically, sitting down beside him. "Can't help you there, friend. You're not pretty enough for my line of work. Try the docks."

The tattered half-gloves he'd scrounged have done their job of both suggesting that he's used to manual labor and hiding his lack of callouses, he'll likely have plenty for real soon enough...

Sherlock snorts. "If you can call that work, at what they pay scabs. Here." Glancing around furtively, he produces a crumpled paper from his pocket that bears a crudely drawn symbol of a bee in a hexagon with a prominent stinger, a drop of poison hanging off the tip. "I've got references. And job skills."

He makes a furtive move to his coat, suggesting he's armed.

The attitude of his companion changes instantly, pulling away from the carefully calculated camaraderie of those in customer service and looking him up and down with a critical eye.

Watch it, he's more than a pimp and pervert, he's a link in a chain, if a minor one, and Sherlock's not sure if that thought is John or his internal monologue, but does it really matter, especially seeing as it's true...

"You don't look the part of the muscle," the man says.

"Sometimes that's whole point." Sherlock meets his eyes evenly, not giving an inch.

After a moment of consideration, the other man nods his tacit agreement. "Well, I don't know where you've been but those lightweights have been off the scene for months. Still, some of their old crew run in my circles and there's always use for a man good with his hands who can keep his mouth shut. Assuming that's you."

Sherlock says nothing in response and after a long moment the other man laughs humorlessly. "Well, try down at De Bebloede Piraat. If there's work to be had for your... skills, you'll find it there. But watch how you flash that symbol - there's a reason they're not around anymore."

He gives Sherlock the address and Sherlock thanks him and drains his drink, clutching his too-thin coat against the chill on his way out.

This is how you torpedo your immune system, Sherlock, this and not having a proper meal since London.

Sherlock ignores that and navigates to the location in the dwindling winter light. He doesn't go in right away. He's not a fool. He's seen how the man had reacted to the emblem of Les Butineuses - his warning was clearly the least of it. Sherlock won't be so careless again.

De Bebloede Piraat looks exactly like the kind of dive one would expect, half underground in a draughty, thick-walled stone building in poor repair, unlike the well-maintained tourist-ready fortifications in other parts of the city. He watches for a good thirty minutes, assessing the kind of people who come and go and from which entrance. Some stay a very short time only - clearly goods or information are exchanged here. Perfect.

Yes, walking straight into the literal den of thieves, always my favorite plan. Especially when you don't actually have a plan.

When he does enter, he does so with the carefully calibrated air of a man who belongs there and knows what his business is, no longer stooped and slow with his gait, not deigning to glance around as he enters. He makes straight for the semi-hidden backroom, the location of which he's calculated by the outer dimensions of the structure and those surrounding it.

He'll have to bluff them relatively cold, given his lack of success with his previous tactic. But if he can get them talking he should be able to get a read on what they need or who they are expecting and go from there. His limbs tingle with adrenaline and he forces his heart rate to lower. Betraying his excitement is the worst mistake he could make in a room of hardened criminals.

And yet the prospect of successfully shamming a gang of dangerous and jaded men with virtually nothing to go on is heady, he'd forgotten how intoxicating it could be, perhaps he’d been domesticated too long, although the last time he'd done it had been for very different reasons and he can't say he wants to go back to those days...

Sherlock's all focus, leaning forward, so ready to absorb every detail of the room and people in it to spin into a serviceable cover that, perhaps predictably, he entirely neglects what's happening the bar area he's just passed through. He has only the barest of prickles at the back of his neck and a small flare of John Watson's indignation behind his corneas to warn him before a field hockey stick connects sharply with his midsection.

I'm not really back here, you know, John snaps in his mind as he spins just in time to partially deflect a disabling blow. Watch your own arse.

Once in fighting mode Sherlock's as capable as John, if not as powerfully destructive. But he's a fraction of a second too slow getting there, and in spotting the second assailant. Despite getting a few good hits in, he's quickly overcome and rendered unconscious by another efficient blow from the field hockey stick to the base of his skull. 

Arrogant fucker, the memory of John informs him just as everything fades to black. 

 

 

It’s late afternoon and already nearly dark when John arrives at Corvin Castle. He can see work on the restoration has progressed since he'd last been here a year and a half ago, but clearly, it’s still an on-going process. The air is freezing and the moorland looks particularly bleak in the twilight.

The idyll of time well spent under an elm tree on a hot summer day, strong arms pulling him out of a cold, dank hole, a warm, lean body curling around his frozen one in an immense bed…

He shakes off the memories and climbs the carved stone stairs. The Victor who greets John in the cavernous hall is subdued, shaking his hand solemnly and offering a weak but genuine smile.

"I'm pleased you’re here. Stay as long as you like."

John nods his thanks. He glances about him. "Actually, is there somewhere private we can talk?" The housekeeper is bustling around the main floor and a man is working on a repair to the archway between the great room and the formal dining room.

Victor raises an elegant eyebrow but doesn't say anything as he leads John to his study, lit with a cheery fire.

"You didn't come here just to get away, did you?" he asks once the door is shut.

John shakes his head, running his fingers through his hair. "I'm sorry I didn't say more, but thought it would be safer to wait and tell you in person."

Safe, he hopes it’s safe here, he hates how paranoid he’s become but he’d never forgive himself for putting Victor in harm’s way, he’s not even sure what the people Lestrade thinks are watching them could possibly looking for now that Sherlock and Moriarty are both dead…

He quickly sums up the events leading up to Sherlock's death, the ones that haven't been publicised, and what he'd learned from Lestrade. Victor listens quietly to his revelations, but with the look of a man who is reining in his feelings with some difficulty.

“I didn’t know he’d confessed to you,” he says, when John is done.

“Lied to me,” John snaps, and instantly regrets it. Victor knows Sherlock was for real as well as he does. He’s on John’s side, and Sherlock’s. “Sorry, I just…”

He’s not the enemy…

“It’s forgotten,” Victor assures him, but his face is pained.

"I have to know why he did it,” John continues. “And why he was willing to let his reputation die with him. This might be the only chance."

Now that he's said it all aloud his logic seems ridiculously thin, preposterous that his shot in the dark deduction could lead to anything, but part of him still won't let go of it, he’s not sure if it’s instinct or just desperation…

To his credit, Victor neither laughs at him or tries to dissuade him, although John can see he's less than convinced. "What can I do to help you? Aside from providing a plausible reason for you to be out of sight for a while."

John shouldn't be surprised that Victor is quick to catch on. After all, Sherlock Holmes had loved him, once.

The sudden stab he feels at this thought does catch him by surprise, he’d not been jealous at the time, had thought the way Sherlock had not-loved him, had belonged to him, was enough, but now that Sherlock’s gone his memory throbs with the unsaid words, and he envies Victor for getting to hear them even belatedly...

"I know it sounds like a stretch... I'm not even really sure what to look for. But my gut tells me there's something to do with the Friesland Petrol company. The shipping division. You were in the business a long time. Do you know them?"

Victor frowns in thought. "Yes, but they went under about five years ago. Assets sold off piecemeal if I recall. I can check it out though, if you think it'll get somewhere."

"Honestly, I have no idea," John admits. "It’s a hunch, nothing more. This could all easily be nothing more than my brain making things up at this point. But it’s what I’ve got to go on at the minute."

Anything, anything to keep hope alive that there was some explanation for all of this…

"Maybe," Victor agrees. "But you have been functionally working as a detective for nearly two years so your hunch is probably worth more than a lot of people's sure bet."

"I doubt it, but thanks."

"You look tired. Why don't you try and get some rest? I'll see what I can find out from my old colleagues in petroleum-world, but it might take a few days."

John nods, feeling suddenly bone-weary. Victor shows him to his rooms. He's relieved to note that they are in a completely different part of the castle than where he had stayed with Sherlock. He’s quite sure that is intentional.

John manages a long sleep which, if not free of nightmares, is more restful than most of what he’s been getting. Even though his intent in coming up here wasn’t just to get out of 221B, he can feel it’s doing him good. Although there are still memories haunting this place, they’re nothing like as numerous or intense, and the scenery couldn’t be more different. It’s quiet too, but not in the empty, hollow way Baker Street has become. Quiet like a church or an abbey. Peaceful.

Baker Street has been stifling him, drowning him in the weight of loss, the emotions and recollections attached to every stick of furniture and piece of glassware, it’s the phantom limb to the amputation of Sherlock’s life from his, he knows it, but he keeps going back…

Victor, although he joins John for meals, seems to be keeping a polite distance. John’s not sure if it’s because he doesn’t want to disturb him or if spending time with John is too painful a reminder of Sherlock. Or perhaps John still presents too much of a temptation in his grief.

Oh, if John believed he could ever lose himself in another person again…

Either way, while John enjoys Victor’s company it is a relief not to be expected to uphold the normal duties of a guest or carry on extended conversation most of the time. He finds that, even if his investigation leads nowhere, he’s glad that he came. Still, after three days of idleness he’s more than ready when Victor finds him in the library to tell him he’s tracked down the disposition records of Friesland Petrol’s fleet.

His blue eyes are bright, he’s clearly pleased with himself and is clutching a computer print-out. And he looks better than he did when John had first seen him again, no longer quite so thin-lipped and ragged. When he speaks, he’s a little breathless.

“It did take some sleuthing, but there’s always records of these things if you can get people to give them to you. Most of the crude oil tankers, the really big ones, were sold to a large oil concern out of Dubai – you wouldn’t know it. The smaller product tankers were mostly scrapped, they were older and not in good shape. A few went to various smaller companies, all names I know, for continued use in their original function. But one, one of the newest ships bounced around a couple fleets until it was bought cheap by a trading company I’ve never heard of and was retrofitted to serve as a cargo ship, registered now out of Turkey. But the company that owns it is based in…” He thrusts the papers in front of John.

“…Bulgaria.” John reads, in astonishment. “It’s her, it has to be!”

Suddenly, a focus to his question, a target no longer just in abstract…

“You were right, John!” Victor agrees.  “The company’s a shell. I don’t know what for, but I’m fairly certain it’s not hauling timber to Greenland or any of the other things its charter claims.”

“Christ, I was right…” John repeats barely believing it. He grabs the papers from Victor’s hand and pages through them.

He laughs incredulously at himself and Victor grins. “So, now what?”

John pauses. He’d been so pessimistic of this leading to anything and unsure what it would be if it did, that he hadn’t thought further than this. But after a moment’s pause he knows with certainty what he’s got to do.

“I need to get on that ship.”

He imagines Sherlock’s thrill at the thought, how much he’d adored it when John when into tactical mode, telling him how bright he looked, basking in John’s reflected sunlight, John had never been able to see it but Sherlock had made it real to them both and now things are always dark for him and always would be…

Victor is taken aback. “John, that sounds incredibly dangerous. If it is really this woman you’ve mentioned, then she is clearly a professional. You don’t even know if she’ll be on the ship, much less if she actually has any idea what happened to Sherlock.”

John shrugs off his concern. “She’ll be there, or she’ll be where it’s going. And if she doesn’t know what Moriarty’s plans for Sherlock were she’ll know who does. She had orders to bring us in when we met her on that case, and if she survived capture and Moriarty’s death there’s a reason other than luck.”

Victor doesn’t argue the point. “Assuming all that is true, how exactly do you plan to get the information out of her? She’s not doing this alone, I’m sure. Nor is she stupid.”

“Neither am I,” John tells him. “And she won’t be expecting me. She’s not the only thing that’s incredibly dangerous.”

The steel in his voice halts further protests from Victor. “All right,” he says. “Then I’ll come with you.”

“No,” John is firm. “I need to do this alone. Please, if you want to help me the best thing you can do is stay here and make sure anyone who cares to know thinks I am as well.”

And if she is somehow involved with Sherlock’s death, Victor doesn’t need to see what’s going to happen to her, John can spare him that at least...

Victor is unhappy at being sidelined, but agrees, unable to break John’s calm, immovable certainty.

“The ship – no name, just a registration number – left Reykjavik two days ago,” he tells John reluctantly. “Ultimate destination of Mersin, Turkey. But it’s scheduled to make port in Inverness on Friday on its way there.”

“Thank you. You’ll never know what this means to me.”

Victor meets his eyes levelly. “I know exactly what this means to you, John.”

“Right. Yeah, of course. Sorry.” John feels a little guilty for shutting Victor out, but Victor’s got no experience with this sort of thing and would only be a liability.

And John’s got to do this alone, this final thing for Sherlock, a more intimate task for a bereft partner than sorting through his belongings or choosing his final resting place, neither of which John had been able to bring himself to do, this mission to find the truth, perhaps killing for him, perhaps dying for him in the process, but a thing not to be shared…

John shifts awkwardly in the long silence that follows. “Well, now I just have to figure out how to get to Inverness without anyone who might be watching noticing I’ve left here."

“I’ve an idea about that,” Victor says after a moment’s thought. “But you probably won’t like it.”

Chapter Text

When Sherlock comes to he is expertly tied to a chair in what he can safely assume from the soured yeasty smell and the muffled noise above is the cellar of the same pub. There are three men in the room, the largest of whom he recognises as his first assailant and all of whom seem to be quite eager to chat with him. He gives no sign of consciousness at first, while he assesses his situation through the hair that’s fallen over his eyes.

Of course, the pimp had warned them he was coming, it should have been obvious that he would do, Sherlock’s really losing his edge, too used to having his own personal soldier with him in a tight spot, always watching his back…

Two of the men are nothing more than thugs. The third is obviously in some kind of position of authority in comparison, but not highly placed in the organisation. Sherlock focuses on him first. He’s youngish but has some battle-scars and stands with an air that suggests formal military training. He’s new to responsibility and not one hundred percent sure of the loyalty of the other two men to him personally.

From his restrained agitation it seems he can’t quite believe his luck in capturing Sherlock, likely assuming him to be some kind of spy for their competition, and from the set of his jaw he’s going to get everything out of Sherlock that he can. He’ll kill if he has to, but is not over eager to execute a prisoner. Not a complete imbecile and won’t act rashly unless provoked to it. Good, Sherlock might be able to work with him.

The two larger men, both beefy and likely slow, can be mostly dismissed from his attention at this time, with the exception of noting that the one with the shaved head who had wielded the hockey stick has a heroin problem and is concerned about his mistress finding out, and the shorter one with the greasy hair has a luxating patella and smokes heavily.

Don’t get overconfident, they took you out before. And you’re still tied up, John points out, crackling with annoyance.

Data received and processed, Sherlock startles purposefully, feigning disorientation and not feigning the throbbing in the back of his skull. “P-please don’t hurt me,” he stutters in shaky Dutch, struggling faintly against his bonds. “Take whatever you want.”

The man in charge is unimpressed. He grabs a chair and sets it a few feet in front of Sherlock, sitting leisurely.  “Tourists don’t just stumble in here,” he says in decent, if plodding, French, having assumed Sherlock’s nationality from the carefully curated contents of his pockets. “And when they do they aren’t carrying this.”

He waves the crumpled emblem of Les Butineuses before Sherlock’s eyes. “Want to try that again? And don’t tell me you were looking for work, neither.”

Sherlock drops the frightened traveler act for a calm-but-dangerous streetwise professional and switches to flawless French. “Very well. I’m looking for someone who works – or worked – for them. Used to be based out of Liège but word is they moved up here.”

The truth, partial truth at least, will serve him best here, obviously not his identity, but who he’s looking for and broadly why, it’s easier anyway with his head pounding and his body stiffening in his bonds…

The man snorts incredulously. “That’s one way to put it. What do you want with them?”

“Just one of them. And my business is my own. I can assure you, however, I’m no friend of their organisation or anyone in it. And I have no quarrel with you.”

Although the man looks unconvinced, he doesn’t become more hostile. Sherlock can tell he’s considering that Sherlock might be telling the truth but is wary of making a mistake.

“That’s as may be. Tell me who you’re hunting and then I’ll decide.”

Sherlock describes Ms. Mihov and is not surprised that the answer is a long string of Dutch profanity before he is even finished.

Of course they know her, not that many women make a career of the international black market and she stands out even then, maybe this will be easier than he thought…

“Should have known. The Bulgarian Beftekkel makes trouble wherever she goes. Until a couple years ago Les Butineuses stayed in Wallonia and we left each other alone. But then they start expanding, moving in on our patch, our business – got some new boss who wasn’t satisfied with the low-risk rackets they had going. And that kut has suddenly got her fingers in everything from here to Britain.” He spits. “What’d she do to you?”

Sherlock pretends to contemplate his phrasing. “Let’s just say I owe her for a bad business deal and if I find her she won’t trouble you again. Where is she?”

The man snorts. “You’re late, then. Les Butineuses dissolved about a month ago, along with a dozen other outfits in the region. I don’t know what happened, but there’s a lot business suddenly up for grabs and a lot of people trying to consolidate power.”

“And your lot is left standing.”

“We keep our heads down, stick to our business, and don’t let our eyes get bigger than our stomachs.”

“Well done you,” Sherlock says dryly. “And the Bulgarian?”

He laughs. “Oh, she made a power grab all right but we sent her packing. Don’t know where, don’t care. Just wish I could have done the little stoephoer myself. One of my boys took a chunk out of her, though.”

“Are you certain you have no idea where she’s gone?”

Desperate, over-eager, he’s gone too far and destroyed what little congeniality he’s accrued based on shared experience, John would have known what to say but he’s gone quiet at the moment, hopefully not forever…

The man gives him a queer, reserved look. “Like I said, I stick to my own business. Which, right now, is figuring out what to do with you.”

“Letting me go is an option,” Sherlock points out. “I know nothing about your organisation and have no interest in it; my only interest is in running down someone you yourself wish dead.”

The other man’s eyes narrow. “Yes, that is convenient… that’s what worries me. You knew where to find us and you know more than you’re telling, about a lot of things, I suspect. Something about this isn’t right, and it’s above my paygrade. The bosses will have to deal with you. Who knows, if you’re as clever as you seem, you might end up with that job after all. Or…” he gestures graphically. “Not.”

Well, it was worth a shot, John says comfortingly. Plan B. Brute force.

Yes, it’ll have to be, his fragile cover won’t stand up against higher levels of scrutiny and the more people who get a close look at him, the greater his chance of being recognised, and that would render this exercise pointless and his friends dead, John dead…

Sherlock inclines his head. “Perfectly reasonable precaution,” he agrees amiably. “I’m happy to go with you.”

“Yeah, you’ll pardon me if I don’t rely on your word. Jan, Willem, hold him.”

Sherlock allows himself to be roughly untied from the chair without a struggle and frogmarched out of the room and through a narrow corridor. He focuses on discreetly flexing arms and legs to restore circulation.

Outside is your chance, wait for that. They’ll take you out the back and through that alley you saw earlier. The wall on the east side is lower, you can get over it more easily than them, it’ll give you a head start.

Sherlock does as he’s told, trusting John’s tactical mind to get him out of this. They get him out in the frigid air and the ringleader moves a few paces ahead, on his mobile. Letting someone know they’re coming or calling for transport.

Smoker, right knee, now.

The thugs have put their guard down just enough at his agreeable captive act that the one on his right is totally unprepared when Sherlock lashes out with a long leg and connects with his trick knee. He goes down instantly. Baldy reacts surprisingly quickly, pulling a knife, but Sherlock is quicker still and has decent leverage. He twists and uses the large man’s momentum against him, flipping him onto the paving stone and suffering only a minor hand laceration in the process.

The ringleader has turned now, cursing and reaching inside his jacket. Sherlock jumps and scrambles over the slick wall and tumbles down the other side just as his captor produces a pistol. He hits the stone hard, the drop being farther on that side than he had calculated, but forces himself up instantly and bolts into the shadows, hoping none of them is committed enough to follow him the same way, or at least that the wall and drop will give them pause.

After a few hundred metres he spots a small footbridge almost invisible for lack of illumination in the area. He takes shelter under it, pulling his legs to his chest and vanishing into the darkness. He waits and hears distant shouting but no footsteps coming closer.

You know you can’t just rely on me to get you out of things, John says as Sherlock inspects the wound to his hand. That was close. I’m just a figment of your imagination, remember, because you haven’t figured out how else to cope with what you’ve done.

“Shut up,” Sherlock mutters fiercely, and is disappointed to receive no answer.

John’s been living in his head since days after they met, he’s always had him there guiding, prodding, criticising, for when the real John wasn’t around, always the comforting bright spot in his mind to keep him in orbit if not actually grounded, why should it be any different now that the separation is long term, it’s not guilt, it’s just convenience…

The continued silence from John is frustratingly eloquent and Sherlock turns his attention to his present situation with difficulty. Getting out of the city will be easy enough, but as for what happens after that he’s mildly surprised to realize that he has no idea. And there's something he has to deal with first. 

 

 

Victor’s right, John doesn’t like his idea. But before he quite knows how it’s happened, he finds himself bundled up in layers of dark clothing and being rowed north along the shoreline to Scotland on the cloudy, moonless night.

Justin, the son of Victor’s cook, is pulling manfully at the oars of the alarmingly rickety rowboat. Home from uni for the Christmas holidays he has, if it’s possible, grown into even more of a behemoth than when John had seen him last. He’d gladly agreed to help Victor smuggle John out of the castle and some ways up the coast, saying he needed the workout in any case.

This plan is starting to feel vaguely ridiculous, who does he think he is, trying to storm onto a ship full of criminals on his own to get answers that might not even be there, it's a long shot at best and a fatal mistake at worse, but he can't just do nothing...

John is not possessed of a weak stomach but lying so low to the water even the smallest waves seem immense and they are hitting them on a diagonal that makes him feel greener with every off-kilter roil. Justin is talking and he tries to focus.

“I’ll take you as far as Eyemouth, Dr. Watson,” he says, barely out of breath after more than a half hour of rowing without a break. “You can catch the first bus into Dunbar and the train up from there. I don’t imagine anyone nasty would be expecting you to turn up that far north?”

“Let’s hope not,” John says, wiping cold sea-spray from his face. Talking seems to help distract from the queasiness so he asks politely. “Uni, eh? Where at and what are you studying?”

“Oxford,” Justin says proudly. “Japanese art of the Kamakura period.”

That'll shut John right up, teach him to judge simple-looking country boys, particularly ones who might well be saving his life, John should know better, only one person who'd ever looked at him had been able to see past the studied normalcy he practised, believed of himself, even...

“Sir Trevor is paying the fees,” Justin adds.

“Of course he is,” John mutters.

Victor’s generosity would be cloying if it weren’t so damned earnest, why such a kind, wealthy, and handsome man would be alone still boggles the mind, is it all just pining for Sherlock, and will the same fate befall him, unable to even conceive of another love after this…

After a long pause, he offers, “Would you like me to take a turn at the oars?”

Justin gives him a doubtful look, quite obviously seeing a half-drowned old man in John's seat.

“That’s all right, Doctor,” he says quickly. “You rest up for your journey.”

John takes his advice with bad grace, hunkering down in his sodden clothes and trying with every fibre of his being not to vomit.

 

 

It’s late the next day when John finally fetches up in Inverness, still somehow damp through and completely exhausted. He’d not been able to sleep on the train, anxious about being spotted and about what will happen once he gets on the ship. He pays for a cheap room with cash and forces a few hours of sleep.

In the darkest hours of the early morning, he goes down to the docks. His target isn't hard to locate and, while the gangplank is guarded, the young man standing watch could not look less interested in his duty. He's chain smoking and looking at his mobile most of the time. 

John feels a thrill of excitement at the thought of action again, like old times, spying, hunting, mystery, intrigue but never on his own like this, never without Sherlock there, somewhere, and now the thrill turns suddenly turns bitter...

Joylessly, almost by rote, he makes it past the guard without raising an alarm and, once inside, easily disables the first two men he encounters unawares in the corridor. The third man who rushes from the bridge at the commotion presents more of a difficulty, but his back-up to hand-to-hand combat is a syringe full of ketamine.

He knows she's here, he can sense it, whether it's instinct or an amalgamation of associated data compiled by his brain without his awareness, as Sherlock would have had it...

Hanna is not taken entirely unawares when John finally makes it to the crew berth below the bridge. Perhaps she’d heard the struggling or noticed the resultant too-quietness once her men were down. Either way, when he enters she’s half concealed herself behind a bulkhead and has a crossbow pointed at the door.

John is grateful for quick reflexes and dives as the bolt just misses him. He rolls and comes up close enough to hook a foot behind hers and throw her off balance. She stifles a shriek of pain and scrabbles for the knife in her boot, but John’s already got it off her.

She crouches, ready to fight him unarmed, and he’s got no illusions about how long he’d last against her, even if she is favouring her left leg strongly. But instead he pulls out his Sig and she freezes, then straightens slowly.

She's still glorious, still beautiful, still somehow giving the impression of being in complete control, and under any other circumstances he would have found it almost admirable...

“Dr. Watson,” she greets him cordially, without any acknowledgement of her surprise or the scuffle they’d had. “How lovely to see you again. You really don’t want to use that in here.”

“No,” he agrees. “But I’m fairly unhinged at the moment and willing to take that chance, how about you?”

She gives him a long, measuring look. “Not unhinged enough to trifle with a grieving lover.”

No one else has put it so starkly, it catches him by surprise, this identity he's taken on that is now so obvious to the world...

She spreads her hands in surrender and sits down on the bunk, allowing him to bind her wrists as casually as if he were gifting her with a bracelet. Her hair is shorter than when he’d seen her last, and a dark brown colour. He can detect a faint eastern European accent in her speech now as well.

“What happened to you?” he asks, once she’s secured. He motions to her left thigh with the gun. He can see now she’s been wounded recently, stab wound by the looks of it; it's opened in the fighting and is oozing blood through her trousers.

She looks down as if she'd not noticed before and curses in a language unfamiliar to him. Then she waves it away as if it's of no importance. “Does it matter to you what thieves do to each other? Say I aimed too high and this was my reward. That’s not why you’re here.”

“No,” John agrees. "I’m here about James Moriarty,”

Just saying the name brings back flashes of all the times the man was within John's reach, how he could have killed him at the pool, at Kitty's apartment, outside the Old Bailey, snapped his neck, stopped it all...

“Moriarty’s dead. Or never existed. Either way, you won’t find him here.”

“Then what are you doing? What is… all this?” he gestures, indicating the retrofitted tanker as a whole.

“I suppose you wouldn’t buy that I’m starting a new life as an honest entrepreneur, trying to scrape up a living in the specialty shipping business?”

“Not in the least.”

“Nature abhors a vacuum, Doctor. Particularly a power vacuum. When Moriarty fell, we all grabbed what we could. This is my little piece. Humble, maybe, but I have great hopes for it.”

What was it all for, what had he wanted, if he's dead and all that's left is small people scrabbling for the scraps of his empire...

“So, you’re back to smuggling,” John states. “In an oil tanker. The double hulls, the false space between old tanks – perfect for getting any number of things from point A to point B without drawing attention, right? Christ, you could hide anything in this bloody ship.”

She smiles sourly. “You’ve gotten good at this. Yes, for all the world we’re a legitimate shipping operation, taking unremarkable cargo to unremarkable places at fair prices. We just offer more...personalised...service to a particularly discreet clientele on our way.”

“Like I said, smuggling.  Isn’t that a little mundane for you these days?”

Everything seems mundane these days...

“When all else fails, go back to what you know.”

“So, that’s it. Moriarty’s gone, it’s every woman for herself, network dissolved, end of story?”

“Not very satisfying perhaps, but true.”

John shakes his head violently. “I don’t buy it. There’s more, there has to be. What was that business with Sherlock then?”

She shrugs carelessly. “I am sorry that your friend was not what he appeared to be. He fooled us all.  It must be very humiliating for you.”

Sherlock was a psychopath, Sherlock was diabolical, Sherlock was a criminal, was ill, was troubled, he's heard every possible variation and it makes his blood boil with his helplessness to defend Sherlock's legacy, as he was helpless to defend Sherlock himself...

“Don’t you dare!” John barks, a low and angry warning. For a second there is real fear in her eyes. “You know something. You were one of his top lieutenants, weren’t you? I’m betting whatever plan he had for Sherlock, you know about it. And it would do you to remember that at this point I have literally nothing left to lose.”

Hanna purses her lips and shifts, crossing her legs. “Unfortunately, that is not the case for myself.”

“Would you like me to arrange it?” John’s face is cold and unforgiving.

She stares him down for long seconds and then relents, accepting that he's both serious and capable. “Very well. Moriarty laid a trap for Sherlock Holmes, as you know. And for you, Doctor. He was quite mad of course, but it doesn’t matter because he was brilliant and had more power than you can possibly imagine. He didn’t just want Sherlock dead. He wanted him destroyed, utterly. That’s where you come in.”

“Me?” John is baffled.

“It was really very elegant. He set up a series of orders, meant to last well beyond his own death, ensuring that unless Sherlock Holmes confessed to fakery and died by his own hand, you would die instead. Well, not just you – your landlady and police friend too – but let’s be honest. Who else would have mattered enough?”

The truth of this hits John like a freight train.

His head spins, reels, for the first time since Sherlock had said goodbye it all makes sense, but the kind of sense it makes is too horrible to contemplate, sickening in its twisted perfection…

“My God,” John whispers, more to himself than to her. “Are you certain?”

“As the person in charge of seeing those orders went through…yes, I’m certain.”

As this sinks in John's vision blurs, and in an instant he's crossed the space between them and his hands are around her neck.

He's never felt such raw anger and hatred before, even when his life was nothing but anger, simmering under the surface of the even-keeled, likeable man he portrays, he’s always been so close to going off at the right provocation, and sometimes he has, and sometimes he’s hurt people and killed them, but this is different, worse, targeted, hungry, plasma engulfing a planet, a bullet seeking flesh...

Even injured and with her hands bound she could probably do a fair job of fighting him off, but she doesn't attempt it. Doesn't even flinch.

"Are you going to kill me, Doctor?" she asks in a hoarse whisper, using what little air he's allowing through her windpipe. "You never struck me as a murderer."

"You've misjudged me then," John grunts. "And this wouldn't be murder, it would be justice."

"It's revenge at best, and not even on the person who really deserves it," she croaks, starting to turn blue. "But if it'll make you feel better, go ahead."

Her brazen bluffing only infuriates him more and his fingers twitch of their own accord, tightening.

In his mind's eye he sees himself doing it, strangling the life out of her, it would be so easy, feeling sinews crush and bones crack under his hands, a moment of relief, an outlet for all the rage and pain pent up inside him, it would be cathartic, letting the monster run rampant...

But there's a small part of him holding back. It reminds him of what happened last time he lost control, how close he'd come to hurting the person most precious to him in all the world. And it reminds him that more violence won't bring that person back now.

With agonising difficulty, fighting himself every inch, he lets go, slowly forcing stiff fingers off her throat. He fumbles for his weapon, lest she decide this moment of weakness on his part is a chance to make her move. She doesn't try anything. He's genuinely hurt her; despite her attempt at coolness she's unable to hide her gasping for air and the bruises darkening on her pale skin. She looks deeply shaken for a moment, and then resumes her façade.

"So what will you do with me, Doctor?" Her voice is harsh and laboured. "My role in this ended the moment your friend hit the pavement. But there are others charged with ensuring that that situation, and his public humiliation, remains as permanent as it initially appeared. Moriarty was not a trusting man. He assumed Sherlock would have his own contingencies to preserve his life or at least his reputation. Turning me in to the authorities and exposing the truth could have... consequences for you, and Sherlock's other friends."

John suddenly feels exhausted, like all the air has gone out of him. He is distantly horrified by what he's just almost done, but more than that he's overwhelmed by the magnitude of his loss, of the lengths Sherlock had gone to for him.

For him, of course it had all been for him, he should have seen it sooner, what else could mean enough to Sherlock Holmes to convince him to surrender his life and legacy, John should have known, should have stopped it, hates that he had not believed enough in his importance to Sherlock, even after everything, to see it...

Somehow this knowledge, this proof of Sherlock's utter devotion to him, feels like losing him all over again. He swallows hard to keep himself in check but the feelings must be writ all over his face. Hanna is looking at him intently and, he would swear, with some amount of pity in her eyes.

"You know what," John says, resignedly. "I don't care anymore. Do as you please. Smuggle your goddamn heart out. Build your own empire. I don't care."

He doesn't, he should, but it's not in him anymore, none of it matters, and none of it will change anything that does...

She looks mildly surprised. "I thought you were a crime fighter, Doctor. I thought you solved the cases and brought the bad guys in to face judgement."

"Not any more. That was someone else."

Another man, a lifetime ago, how many lives had he lived now, but only one of them had made him feel like he was alive and it was over now...

He glances around the compartment and his gaze falls on a laptop. He realises she's been trying not to look at it the entire time he's been in the room. "I will be taking that, though."

Hanna hides her panic well, but her smile is forced and brittle. "You won't get anything off it."

John shrugs. "Someone motivated might. And I'm guessing losing the information on it is more than an inconvenience to you."

She says nothing, but doesn't bother hiding the fact that she's livid.

John starts to back out of the berth, gun still trained on her. "I'm sure you'll have that rope off in a moment but I would advise against following me. I didn't kill any of your men, either. Call it even."

Even, it doesn't feel even, but there's nothing that anyone can do to make it even, and he can't risk his other friends’ lives if turning her in really will lead to reprisals, even though he can't think of anything that could be done to himself that's worse than what he's been through...

Hanna nods warily, and John exits, making his way off the ship and losing himself in the predawn bustle of the docks as quickly as possible. He heads immediately for the train station, clutching the stolen laptop under his arm, and wonders how he is going to live with himself knowing that his life was bought with the blood of the one person he never wanted to live without.

Chapter Text

John makes his way back to Corvin Castle the same way he came, brushing dully past Victor's concerned inquiries as he goes straight to his room. He sinks into a restless sleep of jumbled, half-formed nightmares. The next morning, unable to avoid it, he recounts what he's learned to Victor in as little detail as possible.

Victor is horrified and empathetic, but John can't bring himself to accept Victor's assurances of his own blamelessness. Comforting words wash over him like white noise, and he extricates himself as quickly as possible. He refuses the offer of a car all the way back to London, opting for the train, and bids Victor goodbye with a warning not share the information he's learned with anyone.

On the train, John does something he's been avoiding for nearly a month now. He thinks about Sherlock.

Somehow knowing the truth makes it better and worse at the same time...

It hurts more, something he hadn't thought possible, crushing him with guilt and regret. But it also allows Sherlock's loss to fit into a worldview he can accept as reality. A perverted and depraved reality in which supervillains exist and triumph, but somehow less irrational than a world in which Sherlock Holmes, with whom he had shared home and hearth and bed, was a suicidal fraud.

It's like the wound that has been festering inside him these long weeks is finally bleeding freely and cleanly. He feels the madness that's been driving him begin to lift, starts to realize how truly out of his mind, out of his self, he's been.

It will never stop hurting. He will never not feel guilty that's he's alive and angry with Sherlock for leaving him, often at the same time. But acceptance is starting to creep in at the edges, a sense of finality in place of free-fall.

It's late when he gets back to the city, and he goes immediately and circumspectly to Detective Inspector Lestrade's sparsely furnished bachelor flat. He's not there, but housebreaking no longer presents any difficulties for John and he's waiting in the dark when Greg arrives home.

"Christ, John, I could have killed you!" Greg exclaims after John just barely stops the DI from firing at him in the shadows. "When did you get so damned dramatic?"

"When did you start carrying all the time?" John retorts.

"You should talk," Greg mutters, holstering his weapon. "You'd better have a bloody good reason for breaking in here."

"You said to stay out of the Yard," John points out.

Greg grunts and settles into the sagging chair across from him. "I assume this means you ran down that lead I gave you."

John lets out a long breath. "I think it might be a good time to break out that bottle you've got hidden around here somewhere."

Greg looks deeply concerned but doesn't protest and fetches it, along with two glasses. Only after he's poured them both what can only be described as an immoderate portion of Scotch does John begin to talk.

He pushes it away, distant from himself. It's the only way to get through it.

He speaks as if this all had happened to someone else, a stranger, his white knuckles gripping the glass the only outward sign of how hard it is to get out. He relays what Hanna had told him as factually as possible and when he's finished Greg sinks back in his chair, pale.

"He killed himself to save us," John finishes. "You, me, Mrs. Hudson. He wasn't left any other choice."

Greg shakes his head ponderously. "No, not for us. You."

"Yeah. Yeah, I know." For the first time in the conversation John’s hold on his emotions slips and he's nearly overwhelmed.

It wasn't worth it. The life Sherlock left John without him didn't feel worth the life he'd sacrificed.

"Jesus, we have to tell people --" Greg starts, but John cuts him off.

"No. We can't. I don't know what will happen if the truth comes out, but I don't want to find out. This runs deep. Here." He pulls the stolen laptop from his bag and hands it to Greg. "I imagine there’s a wealth of information on various nefarious activities, Moriarty’s and otherwise, on here. It's encrypted, probably very well, but I imagine you know people who know people who can take care of that sort of thing. Do whatever you want with it. I don't want to know."

Mycroft will know what to do with it and Greg will take it to him. But what John's learned changes nothing - Mycroft is still culpable and not to be forgiven.

Greg boggles at him. "John, with that sort of information you could go further. Look what you’ve done with just a scrap. You could track down Moriarty's associates. You might even be able to make it safe to clear Sherlock's name."

"No. I'm done. I got my answer, for better or worse. Now I have to live with it. At least now I can live with it, instead of always wondering. But I can't do this anymore."

He'd decided for sure on the way back, and as soon as he had it had felt...right. The other path was tempting, the thought of devoting himself to vengeance, to destroying everything Sherlock's killer had built. But it wouldn't bring Sherlock home and it wouldn't heal John's heart.

"John--"

"No," he repeats, more firmly. "I'm finished. I'm not a soldier anymore, Greg. I'm not a detective anymore. I'm not a blogger or a partner or a lover or any of those things I was to Sherlock. I can't be. That life can't exist without him, and if I'm going to have any hope of making any kind of life in the future for myself I have to stop pretending that I can ever be those things again. It's finished. I wish it wasn't, but it is."

Greg nods his acceptance reluctantly.  "What will you do?"

"I'm still a doctor. I can still be that. I don't..." he stumbles. "I don't know if I can move past this. But I have to at least...move. Does that make sense?"

"Yeah," admits Greg. "Yeah. It makes sense. And I'll see that the laptop gets to the right people. Not much I can do with it myself, but maybe, one day..."

"One day," John agrees, hollowly.

Maybe Sherlock can be vindicated, eventually, but how much does it really matter for the world to appreciate him if he's gone from the world forever.

Greg holds out his glass. "To Sherlock, then?"

After a hesitation John clinks it with his own untouched one and then drains the drink.

"Sherlock," he echoes. "Bye, Greg. I won't see you around."

"Oh. Right." Greg stands and looks as if he might hug him, but thinks better of it. "Take care of yourself, John."

John gives a faint nod and leaves, stepping out into a fine cold, misting rain. He stands still for a moment, surprised at the effort it's taking him to walk away.

He'll never be over it. He'll never love anyone like he loved Sherlock. He'll never share everything with, be everything to anyone like he was with Sherlock.  He'll never be as completely and hopelessly owned by anyone. But maybe now he can find a way to at least… be.

Finally he squares his shoulders and heads out, back into London. He does not return to 221B Baker Street, and will not for a very long time. 

 

 

 

Sherlock makes it across the border with France to a nondescript coastal village. He risks taking a room with some of his meagre supply of cash so he can catch up on sleep and treat his wound properly. He's so disappointed by the result of his investigation in Bruges that even the front-page story in the paper, about the dramatic busting of a paedophile and child exploitation ring via the expeditious method of its leader being found staked out naked in front of the Stadhuis with the details of his crimes stuffed into his mouth as a gag, can barely lift his spirits.

John was pleased though, and his approval had suffused Sherlock with a happy radiance that had sustained him throughout a very long night time trek across soggy fields and an actual stolen ride on an actual hay truck to the border, now settled in the back of his mind as a small, satisfied lightbulb of bliss...

Dispensing poetic justice to perverts and courting John's goodwill was all well and fine, but it didn't further his task of getting to the heart of Moriarty's plots. In fact, he's no better off than he was upon leaving England and it's disheartening. Perhaps Prague might yield some leads, there'd been numerous Czech connections to his first tussle with Moriarty but that had been more than a year ago, and most had evaporated.

His head is still hurting from two nights before and his body is sending him the signals that let him know he's pushing it too far and it's going to give out on him if not tended to. Reluctantly, he gives in and allows himself another day and night in bed to recover before making any decisions on what to try next.

The last time he'd done this, John had been with him to sustain him and nurse him with far more than food and sleep, this is a poor substitute for that sort of refreshment, he aches for John's touch, the comfort and release of his body, it seems so long ago already...

Despite the deprivations, when Sherlock wakes the next morning to a knock on his room door, he does feel significantly improved.

"Pas de nettoyage, merci," he shouts, trying to disentangle himself from the bedding. 

The knock comes again and Sherlock groans, wrapping the sheet around himself and stalking to the door. He opens his mouth to repeat himself, but it's not the maid. It's a young boy in a courier outfit, who hands him a package.

How had someone found him, he'd been careful, hadn't he, panic rips through him, if he's been identified then nothing mattered, his friends were likely already dead...

Sherlock shuts the door on the boy without acknowledgement or thanks. He pulls the curtains shut and rips open the padded envelope. It contains a data stick, a burner phone, and a note on paper he can quickly identify stationary from the offices of MI6: "Hide better."

Sherlock relaxes minutely and forces himself to have a normal breakfast in the dining room before walking down to the beach, where he won't be overheard. He dials the pre-set number in the phone and is completely unsurprised by the voice that answers.

"That's you dead, little brother. You lasted 6 days, 3 hours, and 47 minutes. Even I thought you'd make it outside a week."

"Very funny. You're using the vital intelligence resources of the British Crown to toy with me now?"

"I'm quite serious. If I'd been anyone else, you would be dead. And it didn't take any resources but my own to find you. Stop being sloppy and think. This isn't a game."

"Of course it's not a game, so what are you playing at?"

“I’m not the one taking holiday at the seashore when there’s work to be done.”

Sherlock bites back a response and waits.

Baiting Mycroft is like breathing at this point, an autonomous function of his mouth, but perhaps it's better not to overly antagonise the only person in the world who might be able to get him out if things go pear-shaped, at least not more than he absolutely has to in order to live with himself...

“I take it my point has been made. The data stick is a gift from John Watson. He has no idea of course,” Mycroft forestalls Sherlock’s rush of questions. “He’s picked up some bad habits from you, went a bit rogue and got luckier with intel than I dare say he knows. It came to me circuitously and I believe it will be of great interest to you.”

“John’s all right?” Sherlock demands.

“Is that really all you think of? Yes, John is all right. For a given value of all right in which the person in question has had their life destroyed by their nearest and dearest. He won’t go off on his own again, so I hope you get what you need from this.”

Sherlock feels the sting of the rebuke. “Thank you, brother,” he says stiffly and not entirely without sarcasm.

“Destroy this phone. Get the data off the drive and destroy it too. And for pity’s sake find a better cover than Wayward Youngest Son of Italian Businessman Sent to the North of France to Dry Out Where He Won’t Embarrass Anyone. Your Italian is ghastly and your skin won’t take the sun. Stick with the northern ethnicities.”

“Anything else?” Sherlock growls.

“Yes. I perused it briefly and it contains more than enough evidence to clear you from suspicion and prove the existence and culpability of James Moriarty. Should you miraculously survive this endeavour, I will of course leak these details discreetly to the press prior to your return so that you are not jailed immediately for murder.”

“How thoughtful of you to make an effort.”

“I still doubt I’ll need to.”

“Lovely to hear from you, too.” Sherlock ends the call and snaps the phone in half. It makes a satisfactory cracking sound. He adds salt water for good measure and then stalks back to his lodgings to sweet-talk the landlady into the use of her clunky old laptop. He plugs in the data stick once he’s safely in his room.

It’s immediately apparent that it contains, if not everything he needs to complete his task, then more than enough to get started. Bank details, of payments, of accounts and holdings that Moriarty had used to control his vast and convoluted network of paid spies and killers tasked with following his directives long after his demise. And the less-than-innocuous roster of a ship making port in Turkey in three days’ time.

Sherlock grins for the first time in weeks. The game is on.

Don’t be chuffed, be focused, John chides. Knowing who to fight is one thing, beating them is quite another.

Sherlock cheerfully ignores him as, after committing the relevant contents to memory, he wipes the data stick and the landlady’s hard drive for good measure. He returns it to her with thanks and pays his bill.

Turkey. At least the climate will be an improvement. 

 

 

 

To her credit, Ms. Mihov barely blinks when he’s there to greet her as she disembarks from her ship. For an instant she rises on the balls of her feet like she's going to flee, but then changes her mind and walks boldly up to him.

“Mr. Holmes. I had a feeling this wasn’t over, although I can't say I was expecting you to show up. I suppose I should have known. No need for threats - I know what you have and I know when I’m beaten.” Her voice is deeper, raspier than he remembers.

Is she playing a game, trying to get him off his guard, no, with the contents of her laptop he could destroy her totally, she knows it's not worth it...

She goes with him to a café busy enough that no one will overhear them. They sit and Sherlock orders two strong coffees.

“You really ought to tell that man you aren’t dead,” she comments idly. “If only for the safety of others.”

Sherlock cocks his head, uncomprehending, and she pulls down her polo-neck to reveal deep and livid finger marks.

Pride and worry war for dominance over the lengths John had gone to, if he'd gotten all the way to her he must know at least why Sherlock had jumped, it would be safer for him not to but it's still a relief that at least he's not out there wondering if their whole life had been a lie...

“Well?” she demands. “I assume you’re not going through all this just to kill me, and you already have all the information I had.”

“I very much doubt that,” Sherlock replies and she doesn’t deny it. “I suspect there’s still quite a lot you can do to aid me in my work.”

“And what’s to stop me from alerting the people with instructions to make sure you stay dead that you very much haven’t?”

“Self-preservation, Ms. Mihov. Which seems to be your motivating force above all else. Moriarty’s not the only one capable of setting up a resilient trap. I assure you would not survive my second death by more than 24 hours. I know all your bolt-holes and accounts, and so do my associates.”

Well, Mycroft's associates, but no need to go into that...

She seethes quietly and with grace.

“I’ll take that as acceptance,” he tells her, not bothering to hide his smugness. “And, I assure you, when you’re done helping me, you’ll be allowed to disappear and make your way however you can. Provided, of course, you continue to keep your mouth shut.”

She jerks her head in assent. “I seem to have no choice. It’s true, what he used to say. Love is the most vicious motivator.”

Sherlock looks at her sharply, remembering uttering those words himself once. It sends a chill down his spine.

Of course Moriarty had been watching him, even then, it had been start of their courtship really, shouldn't be a surprise, yet he shudders at what else, what other private moments, he might have seen, violated by mere observation...

“Love has nothing to do with it,” he says coolly. “But I suggest you don’t test me.”

“Likewise,” she says. “Now, let’s get this over with.”

 

 

 

 

The days crawl by for John, time seeming not to pass at all sometimes. And yet, somehow, he looks up every once in a while and discovers it’s been a month, six months, a year. He’s opened a practice, become successful – possibly because he works every instant he’s awake – bought a small flat, made a handful of friends. Somehow, he’s moved on and the pain of missing Sherlock has moved with him, like a thorn in his side, always hurting but so familiar now as to go unnoticed for long periods of time.

No, not unnoticed. Unheeded, perhaps. At the back of his awareness but never able to be completely banished from it.

It’s only at night that it still pains him sharply, when he starts awake and reaches for someone who isn’t there. But one day, someone is there, if not the one he was reaching for. Someone who’s not just a distracting tumble, which he finds he's lost his taste for. Someone who loves him, fiercely, protectively, abundantly. Someone, that he discovers to his amazement, that he is able to love.

She’s funny and sarcastic and smart. Kind, but also a little mean and more than a little weird, and she slides into his life before he has a chance to question it or feel guilty. She makes him laugh, and more than that, she makes him happy. Really happy. And the hole Sherlock left in his life doesn’t hurt any less for all that, but somehow the two things manage to co-exist, which is a good deal better than it was before.

And one day he looks up and realises it’s been two years since Sherlock Holmes died. And that what he thinks about most is spending the rest of his life with Ms. Mary Morstan, this strange and wonderful creature who rescued him from the darkness he’d thought was to be his lot permanently.

And he does love her. It's a quieter, easy type of love. Steady but not all-consuming. The kind of love that you can live with, not the kind that burns you from the inside out. Even if he'd have burned to ash if given the choice.

So he makes his peace with Sherlock, with the life they’d had together. He visits the grave for the first time since he'd said goodbye. He makes it up with Mrs. Hudson for the years of neglect, of not being able to face her. He visits 221B and offers to help, finally, clear it out. He does the things he was supposed to have done two years ago to close out that chapter.

And it works. Or very nearly. John feels better, ready to take the final step and ask Mary to be his wife. Amazingly, the anniversary seems to have inspired the press as well and investigative reports surface at last, clearing Sherlock of all wrongdoing. It's bittersweet, but once John is satisfied he's not about to be murdered as a result, it makes him feel even more confident in his decision. Like the burden of keeping Sherlock's memory is no longer just on him. 

In retrospect, John thinks days later in his bed, rubbing his split knuckles as Mary snores beside him, he really ought to have seen it coming. 

 

 

 

 

Ms. Mihov’s use to Sherlock had indeed been great, although of short duration. She’d known more than he'd originally hoped and held no loyalty to Moriarty in death, but it didn’t take long for word that she was compromised to spread. Sherlock had been forced to release her from his service to prevent her murder after only a few weeks, but was quite confident that she wouldn’t trouble him again.

Still, he estimates that her assistance likely reduced the time he'd needed to spend dismantling Moriarty’s handiwork by nearly a year. But as it was, it had still taken him two. Longer than Sherlock had hoped, and he’d come nearer to death more times than he preferred. But he’s alive and, mostly, intact.

His brother’s timing had been impeccable, as usual, although Sherlock would have preferred an extraction prior to the beating. Still, the combination of his success in destroying the last vestige of Moriarty’s influence and the prospect of returning to London, to John, to home is heady. He’s massively pleased with himself, impatient, and in a good mood for the first time in as long as he can remember.

Mycroft tries to warn him that it’s not as simple as he thinks when it comes to John, but Sherlock brushes him off.

Of course John will be angry, John will be furious and all lit up with it, like he’s full of New Year’s sparklers, he’ll swear and fume and probably take a crack at Sherlock, and then Sherlock will take him to bed and make it up to him, make them understand each other again, and John will fill him up with warmth and light and melt away the past two years like they had never happened…

Treating it quite so lightly had probably been a mistake, Sherlock reflects as John’s taxi pulls away, leaving him vainly attempting to staunch the flow of blood from his nose. But he’d been so high on his accomplishments, on being free again, as high as any drug had ever made him.

Still, John’s initial reaction had been within expected parameters. It was only after John had been pulled off him that Sherlock had realised something was off. John wasn’t relenting once the first rush of anger had been spent, roiling and bubbling like the Earth’s molten core. And there was a woman with him, seeming both concerned and also somehow enormously entertained by them. She looked like she wished she’d brought popcorn.

It had taken him a while to even notice her, to catch on that she was John’s date and much more than that, and there was something about her that was interesting, interesting like John had been interesting the day they met, something about her data that didn’t add up, perhaps most of all because she seemed to be on Sherlock’s side for no reason he could think of…

But he doesn’t really have time to devote to contemplating her – Mary; he’s surprised to find he’s retained her name – when the important thing is getting his life back. Which means getting John back, among other things.

Sherlock recalibrates to the concept that John may need a bit more time than he’d initially calculated and sets about to restore the rest of his existence to its proper order. He dislikes change unless it’s his idea, and this forced sabbatical had definitely not been in that category. The sooner he can get everything back the way it was, the better.

He indulges his theatrical side in revealing his return to his other friends and derives some satisfaction from their reactions. Although admittedly, given Mrs. Hudson’s age and health, he probably should have chosen a more subtle entrance back into Baker Street. Still, no harm done.

Lestrade had hugged him, tightly, what he imagined people meant when they used the word brotherly, although not of course what he had ever meant by it, and it was surprising, the more so that it seemed to be not just out of relief from whatever guilt he’d been carrying but genuine affection, and more still that Sherlock had not hated it…

No sooner has Sherlock gotten Mrs. Hudson calmed down, sent her to bed with a generous dose of "soother", and installed himself back in his own flat, than he has a visitor. It’s well past midnight and he knows from the first step in the hall instantly who it is.

John doesn't knock, he just opens the door and stands at the threshold, a lick of flame against the darkness behind. Sherlock had half expected this, though not so soon, and he stills - not moving or breathing for fear of extinguishing the fragile moment.

He waits for John to speak, to step inside, but John just stands there. Silent. Sherlock approaches him slowly, cautiously, but speaks in a light-hearted tone. "Are you here to work me over some more? Because personally I'd say a strangling, a punch to the mouth, and a broken nose was a pretty thorough job. But if you're not done..."

John's face is iron and unreadable. He doesn't move or respond and Sherlock comes to a stop just in front of him.

John is so incredibly bright, brighter than Sherlock's ever seen him or maybe just that it's been so long, a rocket trail, a lightning strike, a thousand flashbulbs all at once surrounded by a halo of pure shimmering gold.

He puts out his hand a few inches from John's face, letting the blazing aura dance around his fingertips.

"Why are you here, John? I've said sorry. I'll say it again, a thousand times. You can berate me more if it helps. I'll stand here and take it. But wouldn't it be better if we just..."

Sherlock moves his hand down to brush the side of John's face, but John slaps it away with astonishing speed.

"Don't," he hisses. "Don't ever."

Sherlock recoils, retreating to the other side of the room and John finally steps inside and closes the door behind him.

"I don't know what you thought would happen when you came back," John says in that clipped tone which means he's finding it difficult to physically restrain himself. "But even you can't have been arrogant and callous enough to assume that you could just..."

He breaks off with a noise of disgust. "How can we ever be that again? Why do you think I would let you touch me?"

"John, I know, it was... wrong of me. I know you're angry. But I'm home now. It's over."

John ignores him. "You come back after all this time, giddy, proud of yourself like it was all a great lark. Was it all a game to you? Just one long, convoluted practical joke? Is that what I was?"

"No!” Sherlock panics. This is not at all how it is supposed to have gone.  “Of course not. I didn't mean to... I should have thought. I didn't know what to do after everything, how to say..."

He makes a frustrated sound at his inability to explain properly.

If only they were touching, John would understand, would read his genuine regret and sorrow in his stance and his musculature and his hands…

"I thought maybe it wouldn’t be so difficult if it was all a game." He throws himself down into his chair and winces as his bruises hit the upholstery too hard.

Concern flickers across John's face, the first sign of any emotion other than anger he's given. "What happened? That's not from me."

"No," agrees Sherlock, shifting to relieve the pain. "I was tortured. Several times actually, but these are the fresh ones."

John gasps despite himself and snaps into doctor mode. "Let me take a look," he demands, approaching.

Sherlock raises a hand. "They've been tended to, I assure you. Don't trouble yourself."

John opens his mouth to argue, but stops himself, withdrawing again. "I should go."

"I'm still yours," Sherlock tells him before he can move. "And you're still mine. We said forever."

They had, over and over, and if he'd taken himself back again it was only temporary, only partial, he'd still really belonged to John all this time even if John hadn't known it...

The rage returns to John so suddenly it hits Sherlock like a punch in the stomach.

"Forever doesn't last beyond death," he snaps.

"I'm not dead!"

"You were. Coming back now doesn't change that. You were dead for two years, and you annulled any chance we might have had the moment you threw yourself off that roof. When you convinced me you had committed suicide and broke every single promise you ever made me!

"I didn't --"

"You promised," John cuts him off bitterly. "That you would never shut me out again. That you would try to remember what your death would do to me. And that if you really, truly had to jump, that you would let me jump with you. Or don't you remember? You made so few promises. And as with everything, you were very thorough when you decided to break them.

He remembers, sitting injured together in a cold rain, bleeding and screaming at each other until he'd finally understood, until he submitted and accepted that he wasn't the only one who could need so intensely, who could be completely devoted, that he owed John the chance to be those things too, owed John the sacrifice of not pretending his choices didn't affect anyone, and then he'd promised not to do what he had now done in the worst and most final of ways...

"I never meant to--" Sherlock starts, but John stops him with a look. "Do you want me go away and never trouble you again, then?"

"I didn't say that."

"Then what do you want?"

"I want it to have never happened, Sherlock! I want you to have made a different choice. You act like it was the only choice you had, but it wasn't. I can think of a dozen ways you could have managed that situation without destroying my life."

"I was trying to save your life!"

"Then you really didn't think it through. You seriously can't understand, can you? What the past two years were like for me. After everything that..." John makes an angry, frustrated noise. "Christ, I thought it was all my fault, that if I'd died you wouldn't have. And now you're just back and I find out that you could have stopped it all at any time. Every single day you were gone, you made the choice to keep me in pain."

"And worst of all, worse than all of that put together," John continues, "is that in the end, when it came to it, you didn't trust me. You trusted your brother, your homeless friends, Molly, and God knows who else, but not me. After all we've been through, after all we've been to each other, you didn't trust me. And you never have, not really.

"You're right, John," Sherlock says evenly.

"I'm sorry?"

"I said you're right. I didn't trust you. I didn't trust you not to come after me. I didn't trust you to not get yourself killed trying to protect me. I didn't trust you to stay where you were and not get yourself captured and tortured and used as bait and slaughtered to punish me! Don't you understand? I couldn't have that happen. I needed you safe."

"You selfish bastard!" John yells, loud enough to wake the neighbours. "You put me through exactly what you were too cowardly to risk yourself. It was never about keeping me safe, it was always about you, what you needed, you complete, unreserved arsehole!"

He'd never thought about it like that, at the time it had seemed the only way, inescapable, inevitable, the best thing for them both, but maybe it was only ever the best thing for him, maybe he'd never believed that John's attachment could really equal his own, that he could have meant that much to John, really, was it selfish to put his own need for John's absolute corporeal safety above anything, above John himself...

Sherlock can say nothing in his defence and is starting to realise that he shouldn't try.

"I would have done anything you asked of me, you know," John continues, no longer yelling and his voice low and unsteady in a way that is physically painful to hear. "If you'd asked me to wait for you, I'd have waited until hell froze over. If you'd asked me to follow you I'd have given up everything and plunged after you into the unknown, for as long as it took. If you'd asked me to die for you I would have stood there and let the sniper take his best shot at me. But you asked me to let you go. And I did."

Sherlock is stunned into silence. He scrambles for words while John goes to the door without looking back him. Just as John is reaching for the doorknob, Sherlock manages to get something out.

"You were always with me, John. I could always see you in my mind, like a lighthouse, even if it was far away. I never stopped talking to you and listening to you. While I was away I learned what it meant to be truly lonely for the first time, but you were always there and it was the only thing that saved me."

John's whole body stiffens and when he turns again to look at Sherlock his face is as cold and furious as Sherlock's ever seen it. "Sherlock Holmes, fuck, completely and permanently, the fuck off!"

John slams the door to the flat behind him and Sherlock slumps back in the chair and closes his eyes.

Chapter Text

John storms out of 221B into the night, flexing his hands stiffly. He'd wanted to hit Sherlock again, but it clearly didn't do any good. The bastard probably liked it. His anger at Sherlock has only grown over the course of the evening, as his mind began to process exactly what all had gone into the deception, how much conscious effort it had taken to leave him to his grief for two years.  

But a small, traitorous part of him is sky-high, thrilled, happier than he's ever been and delirious with the relief from guilt that comes with knowing that his friend is alive. And that part of him wants him to march right back in there and start kissing Sherlock and never, ever stop. 

He pushes that thought away. Even if he can ever forgive Sherlock for putting him through actual hell for the past two years, and even if he is capable of opening himself up again like that, body and soul and heart, there's more to think about now. It was one thing to throw himself into Sherlock Holmes' orbit without restraint when he was friendless, homeless, aimless. When he had nothing to lose and everything to gain, not truly understanding what he was binding himself to until it was far too late to want to escape. 

Mary pretends to be asleep when he slips back into bed and he pretends to believe her. He's grateful that she doesn't question his night time excursion, although she teases him mercilessly once they're both up. Especially when she catches him shaving off his moustache. And sharing the link to his old blog with her had definitely been a mistake. 

Some of the things he'd written make him blush. He'd thought he was being subtle at the time. Hopefully Mary hadn't caught on. 

"Why are you pulling for him?" John asks after breakfast, as they both collect their things for the day. "You know what it did to me when...when he left."

Mary kisses him and hands him his bag. "That's why I'm pulling for him." 

John frowns and looks at her sternly, and she grows more serious.

"John. I love you. But ever since I've met you, you've always been sad. Even when you were laughing, even when we were on holiday, even when everything was fine. You were still sad. I could see it, just there."  She touches the outside corner of his left eye, lightly. "But you're not sad now. You haven't been since last night. You've been hurt and confused and a little homicidal. But not sad. So yes, I'm pulling for him because I prefer to never see you look that way again. Okay?"

John snorts grumpily. 

"You might be able to convince other people you aren't happy about this. You might even be able to convince yourself. But that won't work on me." She grins, kisses him again, and heads out the door. 

Her confidence only annoys him, along with the growing sense that she might be right. But even if she is, it's not that simple. He can't just let it go like that, no matter how much Mary - and Sherlock - think he ought to. It takes time.

Of course, the very fact of recognising that it's going to take time is an acknowledgement that he's going to, eventually, forgive Sherlock. That makes him even more annoyed, and a long day at work in which he can't seem to stop obsessing over how angry he is with the detective doesn't help matters. Finally, after he's quite spectacularly mistaken one of his odder patients for Sherlock in disguise, he gives up. 

Not wanting Mary to know how right she was, he waits until she leaves before, against his better judgement, heading back to Baker Street. He contemplates the door, not sure exactly what he's going to say to Sherlock or what he wants from him. He's not even sure he's going to go in, really. But before he can decide, the choice is made for him.

Next thing he knows, he's struggling for consciousness and bound in a cold, dark place that is beginning to fill with smoke. He can't move or cry out, can't make sense of where he is or how he got there, and can barely hear the muffled sounds of people around him, somewhere out of sight. He feels damp and realises he's lying on leaves and bracken, twigs and sticks poking him.

It starts to get hot, painfully hot, and he moans, still half-conscious and partially paralysed. Distantly he hears his name and it takes all his effort and every scarce molecule of air in his lungs to call out in response.

Not even that long ago he would have been resigned to death. But now there's more to fight for than there has been in a long time and the fear he feels at the thought of dying is shocking in its intensity. 

In a moment strong arms, familiar arms are grabbing him, drawing him out of the bonfire and dragging him to the safety of the cool church lawn. He blinks smoke and the haze of the drugs out of his eyes and looks up fuzzily into the faces of Sherlock Holmes and Mary Morstan. Their expressions mirror each other; in equal measure frantic, frightened, and tender. Between the ordeal of the fire and the ensuing cognitive dissonance, it's too much for him and the world goes black. 

 

 

 

John wakes up to the unmistakable smell and sound of a hospital room. Familiar voices are talking but it takes a moment for him to make the sounds resolve into words. 

"Really, Sherlock, they said he'll be fine. He just needs rest and fluids." Mary's using her professional voice on him, the one she reserves for flighty patients and children. 

John hears the sound of pacing on linoleum and the tap of fingers against a thigh. "They checked his brain? That bump on the head --" 

"The minor-est of minor concussions," she cuts in smoothly. "Here, why don't you sit down? I'm sure he'll be awake soon."

"No. No, I would just-- I mean, he shouldn't be upset again just now. I should go."

Sherlock is unnerved. He hid it, but John knows what he sounds like when deeply discomfited. Like he isn't sure what would be worse - losing John or facing him.

"Sherlock." Mary's voice is kind and firm, and John hears him pause at the threshold. "He will be fine. And he'll be round, I'll see to it."

John waits until the footsteps have retreated to open his eyes. Mary fusses appropriately over him and calls the doctor. It's only a few more hours before he is released home to her charge. 

"You should have seen Sherlock!" she tells him a little gleefully, as she sets him up to convalesce in front of the telly, with firm instructions not to move off of the sofa. "He was like a great mother hen. Wouldn't leave you for a second - barely let even me near you till you'd been looked over. Don't torture him too much longer, John. He did save your life."

"You both saved my life. And let's not forget I somehow went two entire years without a single attempt on it. Sherlock Holmes returns and it's what? Three days before I'm embroiled in some kind of terrorist scheme and being roasted alive just to warn him off the case?"

"Oh shut up, you love it."

He doesn't love it, he just doesn't know what to do without it.

He scowls. "And what should I take from the fact that my loving fiancée is so pleased that I'm finding myself in mortal danger?"

"Maybe she's just that confident in your ability to get back out again. One way or another." He rolls his eyes, but she puts up a hand before he can reply. "John, you're more alive right now than I've ever seen you. I'll tolerate as much danger as you need to keep you that way."

He has nothing to say to that, and changes the subject. 

The next day, clearly outnumbered between Sherlock, Mary, and his own subconscious, he gives up. He goes round to Baker Street and doesn't even give Sherlock too much of a hard time about everything. 

A little needling, and it comes out more affectionate than he intends. Old habits are hard to break. He'd better be careful or Sherlock will get the wrong message. Or, worse, the right one.  

Sherlock is polite, nervous, and as apologetic as he gets. He's a little disconcerted by John's lack of aggression and just barely hopeful. Solicitous, he draws John into the case and before John knows it he's sitting in his old chair, running through clues and scenarios like no time at all has passed. 

And then Sherlock is off and running and John follows him without thinking about it.

Without thinking about Mary.

As they chase down the lead, sneak into the Tube, and nearly blow up themselves and Parliament, all he can think about it how completely and totally right everything feels again. Even when Sherlock pulls the second worst prank in history on him, convincing him they're both about to die in an explosion just so he'll spill his guts and say Sherlock is forgiven, John doesn't even have it in him to be really angry.

Because it's Sherlock, exactly, perfectly, eternally. It would never occur to him that's it a bad idea to use fear and trauma to extract the words he wants to hear out of John under false pretence, because why should that matter if they're true? It's everything John loved and hated about Sherlock all in one perfectly awful moment and it feels so fucking good. 

 

 

 

They give their statements and once things begin to die down no one pays attention to them, although they haven't been released officially. Sherlock, suddenly, impulsively, grabs John by the hand.

"Come with me," he orders, and John does. And he doesn't pull his hand away.

Sherlock leads them through the dark, away from the tracks and up the stairs to the half-finished portion of the abandoned station, turnstiles glinting dully in the faint emergency lights that inexplicably still glow here. John says nothing, but his eyes say he knows what Sherlock is about and that he's going to let him.

In a flash, Sherlock has John backed unresisting to the cold tile of the wall and John is pressing up into him with equal intensity, hips jutting into Sherlock's thighs and stomach warm and soft against Sherlock's pelvis. John rises on his toes to reach Sherlock's mouth with his own, his hands sketching the lines of Sherlock's body as if to remind himself, and then running them underneath Sherlock's greatcoat, clutching at the small of his back, his shoulders. John lets out something between a sob and a moan, barely audible, and allows Sherlock to work a knee between his thighs.

The rush of relief Sherlock feels at the physical assurance now of John's forgiveness, at having the small, solid form in his arms again, at the heat and smell and taste of John in his senses, is so strong it takes him by surprise, threatening his composure. He channels the wave of feelings into the physical, crushing John closer, tangling their legs and arms, ready to shred John's clothes off him with bare hands if necessary.

So long, an eternity since they have been together, since they have been one, cleaved by necessity, the hardest choice Sherlock's made in his life and maybe the most wrong, for two long years now he's touched and been touched only in violence, there's been never enough light or warmth, now it feels as if he's swallowed a star or maybe is being consumed by one, but it doesn't matter because there is John again and that's who it was all for, mostly, and he'll never have to let go again...

When, after only brief moments, John jerks back, pushing Sherlock off him, it's like having a limb amputated without warning - numb and disorienting at first, then unbearable. The distance between them is worse than on their first reunion, now all the more hurtful for those few seconds of intimacy. John is panting, holding him at bay with body language that is at once screaming hungry desperation and violent rejection.

Without intent, Sherlock finds himself moving back to John and then halting, several times before he manages to still. He forces his body to stand obedient, several feet away, and yet he can feel his whole self inclining towards the doctor.

"Sherlock, I can't," John manages. "I forgive you, I do. But I can't do this again."

He takes a step back, opening what might as well be chasm between them.

Sherlock shakes his head, uncomprehending. "Please, let me try..."

Let me try to fix it, let me try to make it up to you, to please you, to hold you and swear never to let you go again, to communicate to you the depth of my longing and regret, to make up for years in a single night, to spend the rest of my life making it up, to give you comfort, to take comfort, to be us again...

John looks away.

"So that's it," Sherlock whispers, stunned.

John continues, careful but resolute. "I've built a new life, Sherlock. It took a long time and it's not what I hoped for once. It came from the worst pain I've ever known. But it is a life. I have a home of my own now, and a practice. And Mary. I need to keep those things.

"Mary."

He'd foreseen John's return to relations with women was a possibility, a likelihood even, had been prepared to forgive that small betrayal as recompense for what he'd done, magnanimous, he'd reminded himself that John thought he was gone forever and that, believing this, John shouldn't be expected to forsake companionship and physical relief for years in his absence, proud of himself for forcibly reining in his possessiveness and jealousy, it had never occurred to him that any female attachment might not be immediately dispensed with upon his return... 

"You like Mary!"

"Yes. She's utterly charming, reasonably clever, and almost foolishly kind. And that is completely irrelevant to what this is about."

"What it's about is you and me and what you did. And the consequences. And Mary is one of those consequences."

"So you're punishing me with her."

"No! You don't understand. Mary was... the first person I could talk to. The only person, really, who would just listen and never judge. About you. About us. About what it was like. I needed someone, desperately. I had no one. And then she came along and she was there for me. Really there."

"You told her everything -- ?"

John shakes his head ponderously. "Not everything. Jesus, that part of it I couldn't even bear to think about, much less talk about. Even with her. I tried to forget. But I could talk about the rest. I think she suspects there was more to us but she never says anything. Because she loves me, Sherlock. And I... I love her. I love her more than I ever thought I could love someone again."

"And what about me?" Sherlock demands, sharply.

"Well, that was never really allowed to be part of the conversation, was it?"

The words are a slap and, Sherlock distantly realises, a deserved one.

He'd refused it when offered, shut it out fiercely, not allowed John to even say it, never counting what that cost, adamant that it wasn't relevant to what they had, and now fitted to someone else it feels like nothing less than the greatest loss of all...

John winces at himself. "I'm sorry, that was... spiteful."

Sherlock nods his acceptance and John runs a hand through his hair.

"I can't do it again. I can't be your lover or your keeper, and you can't be my world. That part of me is gone.”

“This is the end?” Sherlock asks. “Goodbye?”

John is quiet for a long time. Too long. He’s wavering, flickering unsteadily and for a moment he looks like he’s going to take Sherlock in his arms again despite what he’s said. But instead he gathers himself up, straightening into the stance and mien of the self-controlled soldier and making it impossible for Sherlock to know what he’s thinking.

At last he says slowly. “I don’t want it to be. So what I'm asking you, however unfairly, is if you and I can walk out of this tunnel and be what we were at the beginning. Partners, friends, colleagues. But that's all. If you can be genuinely happy for me and let the past lie. It's the only way. It might be cruel of me to even ask and if it's too much, then we can part ways. But I'd rather have something than nothing, even if it can't be everything. Can you do that for me, Sherlock?"

It is cruel, and unfair, monstrously so, but not more than what he's done to John and having no John at all isn't an option, he's surprised to find that past it all there is a place in him that can do it, that he can be what John needs him to be because John asks it, and not just to pretend to be, he wonders what it means that he can set aside his own desire like this, it doesn't make sense but it's what's to be done...

Sherlock nods, slowly. "Do you want me to delete it?"

"No! No. Just... tuck it somewhere out of the way. If that helps."

Sherlock does. It's too much to banish completely and he doesn’t really want to, but he lets it recede into a corner of an attic room until it starts to feel like something that happened to other people, like a closed book instead of a movie on a loop. There's still a tightness in his chest, a dull ache, but he makes himself think of John, of working together again, of being home, of cases and chases and corpses and it lightens a little. He smiles faintly at John, and it's genuine, if restrained.

John inspects him carefully, warily, looking for a chink. He looks worried, now.

"Sherlock, I think--"

Sherlock shakes his head. "It's okay, John. I mean it. I'm fine. I'm not shamming this time."

He's not, even if it's not entirely free of pain, being back with John, seeing John whole and happy, it's good, he can live like this, forever if necessary, because it's better than what was before John and better than what was when they were apart and better than it would be without John at all, it's the only gift he can give John, the only way he can show his devotion and somehow it's all right, and if it's also a little bit not he can ignore that...

John frowns, unconvinced. "I shouldn't have asked this of you. It was wrong of me. Maybe it's best if we just--"

"No. I owe you this. I can do this. It's good, it's better. I won't accept the alternative."

 John says nothing but his face is gravely concerned.

"Let me do this for you. Please. I'm choosing it. You were right, it's the only solution."

At last John nods, looking relieved. He puts a hand on Sherlock's forearm. "Okay."

Sherlock inclines his head and cocks an eyebrow. "We should get back before they think we've been eaten by giant tube rats. Not that that wouldn't be entertaining, but I supposed we have put the police through their paces enough for one day." He turns and starts walking back to the track.

John grins and it almost touches his eyes. "Agreed. I was thinking we should have a little celebration at home. I mean, at Baker Street. You know, that we're not all dead. Have Molly and her chap. I was thinking I'd ask Mary round too, so everyone could get to know her."

This last is said carefully; a test.

"Yes, I think so," Sherlock agrees. "Having everyone together will be pleasant."

"That... wasn't actually sarcastic, was it? Are you sure I haven't broken your brain?" John's starting to look worried again.

Sherlock shakes his head, stopping and looking solemnly at him. "John, I learned a lot of things while I was away," he says in a low voice. "Many of them were terrible. And while I will never be what you could call a sociable person, I have learned to... appreciate the things I have. Lest I lose them."

“Yeah,” John agrees. “Yeah, all right. Let’s go.”

They walk together back to the track, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson.

It is, very nearly, enough…

It’s not until much later, after the party and the champagne and far, far too much talk of weddings, that Sherlock replays the scene in his head and realises that when John had touched his arm, his fingers had not been still. They had been ever so slightly tapping, coding as they once had when he had been blind and deaf and John’s Morse descriptions had been his only window to the world. A silent apology, one that nearly undoes all his careful mental work converting their relationship back into a platonic one.

MY NIGHTMARE. I’M SO SORRY.

 

 

This series will be concluded in "The Heat Death of the Universe".