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God, no.”

John Watson stood on the pavement outside St. Bart's, his ears buzzing and his mouth filled with bile. A pool of blood, shockingly dark against the concrete, crawled sluggishly toward his shoes, and he did nothing to move out of its way. The last of the crowd had mostly dissipated after the stretcher had been wheeled inside, with just one young woman casting a final concerned glance over her shoulder before shuffling away. Aside from the blood and the man heaving sickly breaths through his nose beside it, nothing had visibly changed.

And yet.

Something significant had happened, something life-altering (life-ending) and unspeakable, but John couldn't summon the mental energy to examine it yet. The images passed before his unseeing eyes like the crap telly he'd put on for background noise while he blogged, and he let them slide away into his subconscious without a second glance. He was vaguely aware that his head hurt, rather badly in fact, and that his hand was shaking; but the only signal he received from his brain was to stand still, in this spot, and so he did.

He wasn't sure how long he'd been standing there—or how long he would have continued to do so—when a small, nimble hand slipped around his elbow and tugged. He turned his head stupidly, staring down at the hand without comprehending, and Molly Hooper's face craned into view.

“John,” she said, and it shook him partly out of his reverie; he focused on her face, trying to deduce it, trying to read her expression. The wind caught at her scrubs, making his eyes flick reflexively toward the motion, and his stomach twisted violently at the smear of blood down her front. She followed his gaze and made a small sound of distress, turning her body so he couldn't see.

“Is he—”

“You'd better come inside,” Molly said, stepping forward, and unable to form words, he followed.

She deposited him in a chair in the lobby, pushing a polystyrene cup of lukewarm water into his hands. He lifted it to his mouth, lowered it again, lifted it back up. He couldn't seem to drink it. He couldn't seem to do much of anything, actually. How could it possibly be this difficult to exist?

“You don't have to drink that,” said a familiar voice, and fingers lifted the cup gently from his grasp. He looked up to see Greg Lestrade standing over him, pale as a ghost and sheened with sweat.

“Greg,” John said, and then stopped. It wasn't a greeting; he'd intended to say something, ask him something, but the question had left him as soon as he'd said Lestrade's name. It didn't matter, apparently. Lestrade ran a hand over his face as though John had accused him of murder.

“Jesus, John,” he said, his voice shaking terribly. “I can't believe—they called me, and I came straight away—I just—how was I to know?” John didn't have to ask. The resigned expression as Lestrade had placed—him—under arrest; the disappointment in his eyes, the pulsing in his jaw had said it all. Lestrade felt at least partially responsible, and John was inclined to agree with him.

“Doesn't matter, does it?” John asked at last, his voice oddly calm. The ringing in his ears made it all sound far away. Perhaps it was; perhaps this was actually happening to someone else. “You thought he was guilty. Even if you'd known he was—what he was going to do, you'd have done the same fucking thing.” The profanity seemed to startle Lestrade, bringing his gaze up to meet John's, and he clenched his fists.

“I'm a police officer, John,” he said defensively. “Christ's sake, what was I supposed to do?”

John had a few choice ideas for what Lestrade could go and do, but he was prevented from listing them by the abrupt appearance of Mycroft Holmes. He walked into the lobby, arms stiff at his sides, and John straightened; without his umbrella and his arrogant, self-important walk, he was hardly recognizable. Here was a Mycroft in the throes of grief, and John suddenly didn't know how he was going to have this conversation. Molly walked a few steps behind Mycroft, her face streaked with tears. John rose out of his seat as they approached.

“He isn't dead,” Mycroft said without preamble, and John wished he hadn't bothered to stand up; his knees buckled and he caught the arm of the chair just in time to guide himself back into it. At his side, Lestrade let out a whoosh of breath. John peered up at Molly, who gazed back at him through red-rimmed eyes, and found he could not feel relief just yet.

“He is not dead,” Mycroft repeated, as though to remind himself, “but he is in a coma. He suffered a great deal of blood loss and immense trauma to the head. His left shoulder is broken, and his left lung is collapsed. It's a miracle he survived.” Mycroft didn't sound like someone delivering news of a miracle, John thought. He sounded like someone who'd had the rug pulled out from under him. But of course, this was his baby brother; even a frigid bastard like Mycroft was bound to be upset.

Brother. Your own brother, and you blabbed about his entire life to this maniac. Suddenly John remembered why any of this had happened in the first place. He felt a murderous, blinding hatred that seemed to shoot out in all directions at once: toward Moriarty, whose obsession had driven them all to this; to Lestrade, who had so easily lost faith in one who needed it so badly; but most of all, more than he had ever hated anything in his life, he hated Mycroft. Mycroft, who had sold his brother out to the most dangerous criminal on Earth. He found he could not sit here one more instant without physically attacking the man. He stood, anger flowing hot into his limbs and giving him strength.

“Can I see him?” he asked Molly, carefully avoiding eye contact with the other two. She glanced at Mycroft nervously, and John's jaw clenched.

“I'm not sure whether that's a good idea,” she said weakly. “He looks—well—”

“Let John see him,” Mycroft said, and John wanted to punch his name out of his mouth. “He is a doctor, after all.”

“All right, then,” Molly said, and for the second time, John followed in silence.

* * * * *

John stood just inside the closed door of Bart's poshest private room, his left hand gripping and releasing reflexively. A few feet away, there was a bed, and in that bed, theoretically, was Sherlock Holmes. John couldn't see him, though. All he could see was a frail, sunken figure, its head shaven and bundled beneath bandages, the whole body festooned absurdly in tubes and wires and plasters.

The clouds outside the window shifted a little, the sunlight throwing Sherlock's right cheekbone into sharp relief, and that was better: there was the haughty face, the hollows for the imperious eyes. It all looked alien and bare without the fringe of dark curls, but it was recognizable. John stepped closer, then closer, until finally he stood at the side of the bed, gazing down at what had become of his friend.

He heard the door click open, and spoke without turning his head. “Could you give me a moment, please?” he asked in a low voice, afraid to disturb the fragile creature in the bed.

“You don't have to whisper,” came Mycroft's voice. “He's not going to wake up.”

John gripped the bed rail with both hands, fighting to control his rage. “You don't know that.”

“I misspoke,” Mycroft corrected. “I didn't mean to imply he would never wake up, though I am assured the likelihood is slim. I simply meant you would not disturb him by speaking.”

“God, do you ever switch off?” John blurted, glaring at him and making a vague gesture with one hand. “Could you just be a person for once? Is that even possible?”

Mycroft regarded him with an arched eyebrow, then replied flatly, “'You can't just turn it off and on like a tap.'”

“Don't,” John hissed through clenched teeth, “don't you dare stand there and quote him to me. You don't get to—”

“John.”

“Get out, Mycroft.” With effort, John reined in his temper and turned his back. “Just go.”

Mycroft remained silent for a moment, but did not leave. John could feel his rage simmering somewhere in his hunched shoulders; he really was in no mood for the platitudes and double-talk. He found that he wasn't even surprised Mycroft had knowledge of an offhand remark from a private conversation. Nothing was beyond his scope of knowledge—nothing, it seemed, except the depths of Moriarty's obsessive interest in his little brother.

“This was never meant to happen,” Mycroft said at last, and John didn't bother responding, just reached down and touched Sherlock's pulse point with his fingertips. There had been no pulse; he'd been sure of it, absolutely sure—and yet, now, he felt the beat of Sherlock's heart fluttering away in his wrist. He heard the door open and close, and as he sank into the chair beside Sherlock's bed, he thought to himself that Mycroft had been right about one thing—Sherlock's survival had indeed been a miracle.

Now, just one more, John thought. Open your eyes, Sherlock.

Chapter Text

Sherlock didn't open his eyes, not that day, or the day after, or the day after that. John spent three days in the chair at his bedside, leaving only to use the loo or to find food. Throughout the long hours, he slept like a soldier, the way he had in Afghanistan; he dozed frequently, body prepared to leap up at the slightest change in atmosphere, but never fully went under. Lestrade visited once a day, slinking through the door with the deference of a wounded animal, and John pretended to be asleep. Mycroft never appeared in the room again, though John didn't kid himself that a single moment went by without him watching. Molly visited frequently, and John chatted with her once or twice, though he thought he would go mad from her looks of abject pity.

The worst visit by far was Mrs. Hudson's. Upon seeing Sherlock's shaven head, she had burst into tears, reaching out a shaking hand to brush over the mass of bruises on his scalp. She had spent the next hour leaning against John and wondering aloud why Sherlock would do such a thing and didn't he know they cared about him and could all that rubbish possibly be true?John did his best to soothe her noncommittally, not pointing out that he himself wondered all of these things, and that they might never get an answer.

On the afternoon of the third day, John fell asleep in the middle of one of Molly's sentences, letting the cup of coffee she'd brought drop into his lap. He yelped and leapt to his feet, swearing as she scrambled to clean up the spill.

“Sorry, Molly,” he said, crouching to help her. “Just a little tired.”

“You should go home, John,” she pressed, as she had done each day since the—the accident, as John had taken to calling it in his head. (As though Sherlock had just happened to fall off the roof immediately after saying goodbye; John knew the proper word to describe what had happened, but found he couldn't bring himself to use it, not even mentally.) “You're exhausted.”

He shook his head. “I'm fine.”

“You're not fine,” she said, putting a hand over his as he picked up the paper cup; the contact startled him enough that he stopped and paid attention to her. “Of course you're not fine.”

“Molly, I appreciate the concern, but—”

“You need a little time to process. To work through the...shock.” John started to speak, but Molly continued, eyes earnest. “I've got your mobile number, John, and I'll call you the moment anything happens.” She dropped her gaze and fiddled with a coffee-soaked towel. “I know what he means to you.”

John knew he was losing this battle; he was exhausted, his clothes were three days old, and he desperately needed a bath and a shave. Still, the thought of leaving Sherlock like this, of taking the chance that he'd wake up alone—

“He needs somebody to stay with him,” he protested weakly. “Is there anyone who...?”

“I've just come off my shift,” Molly said. “I'll stay here tonight.”

“You don't have to—”

“Go on,” she insisted, tilting her head toward the door. “Can't sit around in wet trousers all day, anyway.” She gave him a tremulous smile, and he found himself returning it hesitantly. With a final glance at Sherlock, he rose and gathered up his coat.

“If anything happens, anything at all—”

“You'll be the first to know.” Molly made a show of settling in the chair, and John sighed.

“Thanks, Molly.”

“You're welcome. Go home.”

* * * * *

John felt so agitated on the cab ride that he was sure he wouldn't be able to sleep, but the familiar smell of the flat and the warmth of the shower acted as a tonic; he'd stepped out of the shower, stumbled up the steps to his bed, and was asleep practically before he'd hit the pillow, still wrapped in a damp towel. The faint noises of the night pressed in around him, comforting in the darkness, and he felt himself drifting pleasantly away.

The next thing John knew, he was standing in an empty, perfectly white space. There was obviously some sort of floor, as he stood on a solid surface and cast a shadow; however, he couldn't tell where the floor ended and walls began, nor where the light was coming from. It was all just space. Well—not all of it. Something sat a few dozen yards away, crouched on the floor. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that it was a person; the person turned slightly, profile coming into focus, and then—

His heart leapt and John ran toward him. It can't be, it can't be, he chanted in his head, but it was; Sherlock, intact and whole, dark curls and long coat and raised eyebrows.

“John?” he asked, rising, and John shivered pleasantly as he felt the voice rumble down to the soles of his feet. “What are you doing here?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” John replied, voice shaking slightly. “Weren't you—aren't you supposed to be in hospital?”

“Am I?” Sherlock asked, looking surprised. “I can't remember.”

John looked around pointlessly. Not the tiniest landmark or deviation from the endless white gave him any indication of where they might be. “Do you know where we are?” It was easier, for the moment, to focus on the problem of where rather than how.

“I've no idea,” Sherlock replied, irritation creeping into his voice. “I've been trying to deduce it for some time now, but there's nothing to observe.” He glanced sideways at John. “Until you arrived, I'd thought I might be dead.”

Dead. It all came back to John at once, and he nearly doubled over from the wave of remembered shock. “Jesus Christ, Sherlock.”

Sherlock leapt up, pointing dramatically at John as though he'd been caught robbing a bank. “Wait,” he hissed through clenched teeth. “John, we're not—you aren't—”

“I'm not dead,” John said, scowling. Sherlock visibly relaxed, but John felt himself coiling tighter with anger. “Neither are you. Not for lack of trying, though, yeah?” Sherlock winced, and John supposed he should've felt guilty, but he was too furious. He barreled on. “What the hell were you thinking, Sherlock? You run into trouble and you just throw yourself off a building? You didn't even give me a chance to help you!”

“John, you couldn't have—”

“And then you make me stand there, and you give me that rubbish about Moriarty and you make me—watch you when you bloody jump, and I saw—” John cut himself off abruptly, rubbing a hand over his face. He felt alarmingly close to tears, but he could not shed them here, could not let Sherlock see how badly he had wounded him. He felt a slight vibration under his feet as Sherlock took a step closer, and then he felt a tentative brush of fingers on his arm. He looked up in surprise; Sherlock's eyes were fixed squarely on his chest, not meeting his gaze. He let his hand drop.

“I didn't mean to die, John,” he said quietly, still staring at John's jumper as though speaking directly to the cables. John inhaled deeply through his nose, let it out, inhaled again.

“Seems a pretty poor idea to jump off a building, then, doesn't it?” he asked acidly.

Sherlock nodded and shifted his gaze above John's head. “I had a plan,” he continued. “It...failed. I wasn't meant to land where I did.”

“On the pavement, you mean,” John added. Sherlock said nothing, just met John's eyes for the briefest of moments before looking away again. John felt the barest, threadiest whisper of relief enter his veins; Sherlock had not been at the end of his rope, Sherlock had had a plan, Sherlock had not felt abandoned in a critical moment and decided to end it all. But something nagged at him.

“Why did you do it, then?” he asked, folding his arms across his chest. “If you didn't want to die, why'd you jump off the roof?”

Sherlock sighed. “I suppose there's no harm in telling you now,” he said. “It was a ruse, John. I intended to fake my death so I could pursue Moriarty's network undetected. Why would they be watching for me if they believed me dead?”

“You could have told me,” John said, his voice underlaid with bitterness.

“I needed your grief to be real.” Sherlock met John's gaze again, his face suddenly wearing an expression remarkably like chagrin. “If you didn't mourn me, if you didn't give the appearance of someone bereaved, they never would have believed it. I needed you to stay behind.”

A terrible realization clicked into place, and fresh outrage, hot and fluid, boiled up inside John's belly. “You weren't going to tell me?” he seethed. “You were just going to go away and leave me thinking you were dead? You unbelievable, insufferable bastard—”

“I planned to come back eventually, John,” Sherlock said in a placating tone, walking backward with his hands slightly raised. John wondered why until he realized he'd been advancing on Sherlock with his fists clenched. He couldn't seem to stop himself. “Dissolving the network shouldn't have taken more than a few years. I would have—”

“A few years!” John didn't think about it, didn't consciously order his body to do it, but his fist swung out and punched Sherlock hard in the face. He went down in a flurry of swooshing coat and flailing limbs, landing sprawled on the odd white floor with one long hand pressed against his cheek and eye. His expression was perfectly stunned, mouth slightly open and visible eye wide.

“Jesus, Sherlock—I'm sorry.” John crouched beside him and reached out to move Sherlock's hand out of the way; either out of shock or genuine deference, Sherlock allowed him to take a look. His cheekbone and temple stood out in livid red, and John knew there would be a nasty bruise there in a few hours.

“We should get some ice on that,” John said. The fury had drained away, leaving behind a bone-deep, wearying sadness. Sherlock raised an eyebrow at him, managing to convey please stop being stupid, John even with a banged-up face. John looked around and remembered: there was nothing here, nothing at all. No ice, then.

“I don't understand,” John murmured. “How did we get here?”

Sherlock frowned. “Think. What's the last thing you remember?”

“You were in hospital. In a coma,” John added, trying to reconcile the broken figure in the bed to the strong, healthy Sherlock before him. “Molly came and spoke to me, and I went home and—oh.” He looked at Sherlock, the last of his hope draining away. “I fell asleep. This is a dream.”

“Don't be dense,” Sherlock snapped. “How can it be a dream? I'm here.”

“That's why it's a dream, Sherlock,” John explained patiently. “You can't be here; you're in a hospital bed hooked up to a bunch of wires.”

“I mean, I'm here,” Sherlock insisted. “You're not dreaming me. I'm real.”

“To be fair, I expect that's what a dream would say.”

Sherlock sighed, exasperated. “And you think I'm egocentric,” he muttered. John smiled a little despite himself, but something seemed strange; the light appeared to be brightening, slowly washing out Sherlock's colors, making him harder to see. John peered down at his own hands and saw they were growing more difficult to make out, too.

“What's wrong?” Sherlock asked, and his voice sounded oddly like a far-away echo, despite the short distance between them. “John?”

The light reached such a strong brightness John was forced to squeeze his eyes shut against it, bringing his hands up to shield himself. All at once, he felt a strong jerk—as though he'd stepped into an elevator that had abruptly started moving upwards—and then—

John awoke in his bed in Baker Street, bright sunlight streaming through the windows. The towel from last night's shower had become entangled around his legs, and felt unpleasantly cold and clammy beneath his thighs. He rolled onto his back, flexing the fingers of his right hand uncomfortably; his knuckles ached. Funny, he thought, I must've hit the headboard, and reached across the bed to check his mobile.

Chapter Text

John was half-relieved, half-disappointed to discover that Molly hadn't phoned him during the night. As he sat in his armchair, sipping his tea, he tried (and failed) not to stare at Sherlock's empty chair, tried (and failed) not to imagine what it would be like if Sherlock never sat there again. He bristled momentarily, remembering that Sherlock had not intended to return to Baker Street for some time—and then shook his head in irritation. It was a dream, Watson, he reminded himself. Can't go getting angry with him for things you dreamed up. Not, of course, that he didn't have plenty to be angry about in real life.

As John left the flat, tugging on his coat, one of Mycroft's distinctive black cars pulled up to the curb. He sighed, made pointed eye contact with the driver, and strode out into the street, hailing a cab. He'd intended to take the Tube, but the sooner he got into a vehicle, the less likely it was that Mycroft's people would manage to drag him into theirs. He climbed gratefully into the cab and glared out the back window as it pulled away.

Almost immediately, his mobile beeped; he pulled it out with a lurching stomach, expecting Molly.

Recognize that you find the idea of my assistance distasteful, but rather pointless to waste money, yes? MH

John shoved the phone back into his pocket with a huff. Waste of money or no, he would be damned if he would let Mycroft sodding Holmes chauffeur him around. There was no guarantee he'd end up at Bart's, anyway: odds were good he'd find himself in an abandoned warehouse, the Tower of London, possibly Siberia. He leaned his forehead on the window and stared out, half-asleep; oddly, he hadn't felt very rested when he'd awakened, and the sound and motion of the car were soothing.

After paying the cabbie and making his way into Bart's, John made a beeline for Sherlock's room. His heart stopped when he saw a knot of doctors clustered around the bed, heads together. Summoning his best Army Doctor Voice, he pushed into the room and approached them.

“What's going on here?” he asked, doing his best to make it sound like an order. The doctors' heads swiveled around, then returned to their discussion, voices low. Sherlock's doctor split off from the group and moved to stand beside John.

“Hello, Dr. Watson,” she said. “It's nothing major, nothing to be concerned about. We've just noticed something unusual and were conferring about the possible cause.” John opened his mouth to ask, but she gestured toward the bed. “Have a look.”

As John slipped between the cluster of people, his stomach dropped. Sherlock's head was turned slightly to the side, the light lowered to shine on his face, and there, spreading across his left cheekbone and eye, was a livid purple bruise. It looked brand-new, not yet yellowed with age, and of course it hadn't been there when John had left the hospital yesterday.

“How did this happen?” John demanded, craning his neck to look for Molly. “Was someone in here?”

“That's the odd thing,” Dr. Reid said. “Mr. Holmes has this room under twenty-four-hour surveillance, and we've watched the tape. Other than Molly Hooper and the night nurses, no one entered or exited the room last night. The bruise just appeared somewhere between four and five this morning. Molly came and alerted us as soon as she noticed.”

“But how could that happen?” John asked again. He flexed his stiff right hand; his brain wanted to examine something, but he ruthlessly shoved the idea away. “Coma patients aren't really my area. What could cause this kind of bruising?” He reached out and brushed his fingers gently over Sherlock's temple, feeling the swelling.

“It's possible he sustained a facial injury in the fall and it didn't manifest until now,” one of the other doctors said doubtfully. “I've never heard of a bruise taking this long to form, but there's no other clear explanation.” The other doctors murmured in reluctant agreement.

“I suppose,” John said. “It's just a bruise, then? It might not be a bad idea to get another scan—”

“Mr. Holmes has already ordered another full round of tests,” Dr. Reid replied. “We'll be performing those shortly.”

“Not shortly enough,” Mycroft snapped suddenly, entering the room behind Anthea. “I believe we have discussed the level of expedience I expect in regards to my brother, Doctor.”

“Of course, Mr. Holmes,” Dr. Reid said, looking startled. “We'll get him in right away.” John stepped back from the bed as it was wheeled away; he watched Sherlock go with a peculiar pang of guilt. As the door closed behind the last doctor, John became aware that Mycroft was watching him.

“I'm glad you got some sleep, John,” he said. “May I ask what's wrong with your hand?” John glanced down and realized he'd been clenching and unclenching it, flexing his sore knuckles.

“No,” John replied shortly, and swept down the hall to the waiting room.

* * * * *

John leaned against the worn upholstery of the uncomfortable waiting room chair, clutching a cup of forgotten coffee with his left hand and staring distractedly at his right. Try as he might, he couldn't think of one logical reason why Sherlock's face would bruise in exactly the spot he'd been punched in John's dream. The only thing he could imagine was that he'd subconsciously known, somehow, that Sherlock's face was damaged, and his sleeping mind had filled in a cause; it seemed like a weak explanation, particularly when coupled with his aching hand, but what other explanation was there? That John had somehow physically encountered Sherlock while asleep and given him the bruise himself?

He made a mental note to find a way to review the surveillance footage without Mycroft's knowledge. Undoubtedly the elder Holmes would give it to him if he asked, but John was determined not to speak to him until Sherlock woke up—if then. Frankly, he felt he could go the rest of his days without exchanging a single word with that oily, emotionless son of a bitch and be perfectly content with the situation. From the corner of his eye, John saw movement: Molly, waving him back to the room. He stood, tossing his cold coffee into the bin, and went to check on Sherlock.

Chapter Text

That night, John dreamt again.

After falling fitfully asleep curled in his chair beside Sherlock's bed (whatever the doctors said, he hated the idea of Sherlock waking up alone, and Molly was working the night shift), John found himself standing in the same white space as the night previous. He squinted, eyes adjusting to the light, and swiveled around.

“Sherlock?” he called. There was no answer. He took a step forward, but leapt back as his foot splashed into a shallow puddle. Looking down, he felt his skin crawl and go cold. The liquid he had stepped in appeared to be blood. Now that he was looking at it, he noticed that the puddle extended a long way; it appeared to be seeping from somewhere to his right. Horrified, he followed it back toward the source, eventually breaking into a run. He couldn't explain the sense of foreboding he felt, but he was sure it had something to do with his comatose flatmate.

“Sherlock?” he shouted again, increasingly frightened. “Sherlock!”

“John!” called a faint, familiar voice, and John went weak with relief. There, just visible in the distance, was a small black blotch, growing larger as it moved toward him. When Sherlock was close enough to make out properly, John slowed to a stop, resting his hands on his knees.

“There you are, John,” Sherlock said as he approached, his face widened in one of his infrequent grins. John always found them faintly dazzling, accompanied by an odd sense of pride at being able to produce that kind of expression in a self-described sociopath. “Where have you been?”

“I—what? I was looking for you,” John replied, feeling a little derailed. “What's all this blood?”

“I mean, where have you been all day?” Sherlock clarified. “I've been bored senseless. This place is absolutely devoid of any intellectual stimulation. Initially this looked promising—” he gestured to the blood— “but there's nothing to be deduced about it.”

“What do you mean? Didn't you find where it was coming from?”

“No.” Sherlock squinted back toward the trail of blood, extending far beyond what John could see. “It just keeps going. I followed it for several hours.”

“That's...weird.”

“Yes.” Sherlock turned his head, and the light hit the right side of his face; John started violently, staring. “What is it?”

“Your face!” John gasped, pointing, as though Sherlock might not know where it was. “You've got a bruise, there.” It was Sherlock's turn to stare; he looked John up and down strangely, then narrowed his eyes.

“Have you managed to delete the blow you administered to my left zygomatic bone yesterday?” he asked, leaning forward. “Or have you been hit in the head yourself?”

“I remember,” John said impatiently. “But it's...that was a dream. You've got that bruise in real life. You—”

“Oh, for God's sake,” Sherlock snapped. “Are you still on about this dreaming thing?”

“Look, Sherlock, I'm serious! You really have that bruise, and nobody knows how—”

“You. Gave. It. To. Me,” Sherlock repeated, voice dripping with annoyance. “Honestly, John, you know how I hate to repeat myself.”

“But how could I hit you in a dream and hurt you in real life?” John pressed, more to himself than anything. “This doesn't make any medical sense.”

“Your continued insistence that this is a dream makes even less sense.” Sherlock glanced around, expression inscrutable; John stepped over the blood and touched his arm tentatively, looking up at the bruise. Sherlock carefully avoided his gaze, and something clicked into place.

“Did I...hurt your feelings?” John asked incredulously. Sherlock lifted his chin and stiffened slightly, a sure sign that John had hit the nail on the head. “I'm sorry, Sherlock, I don't know what to say—I go to bed, I come here, I wake up at home. What else would you call it?”

“I don't know what's happening, John,” Sherlock admitted, and the statement alone was enough to make John's eyes widen. “I can't seem to leave this place.”

“What do you mean—have you been here since last night?” Sherlock nodded absently, and John looked around again. The prospect of spending hours here alone was unpleasant enough; the idea of Sherlock stuck here, with nothing to occupy that frenetic mind, was difficult to imagine. He supposed it shouldn't bother him, given that this was all in his head, but...it was so strange, seeing Sherlock here, awake and speaking and whole. The odd setting (and the distinctly disconcerting river of blood) notwithstanding, this felt more real than waking life, where Sherlock's dark curls and acid tongue had given way to bandages and silence. Sherlock's gimlet gaze slid to meet his, and John realized he'd been staring.

“Yes?” Sherlock asked suspiciously.

“Nothing,” John said, too quickly. “Sorry. It's just...it's sort of, ah, nice, this.”

“You'll have to be more specific, I'm afraid,” Sherlock remarked with a wry smirk. “By 'this' are you referring to the endless white void, the infinite stream of blood, or something else?”

“I mean, just...seeing you. Like this.” Oh, God, he was glad nobody was around to hear him say that; he couldn't seem to form his thoughts into words that didn't make him sound lovestruck. Sherlock apparently agreed, raising one eyebrow in query. “Ah, not what I meant. It's only...you've been out for almost a week. It's nice to just...talk.”

“Are you sure you didn't hit your head?” Sherlock asked, but he looked pleased, the way he did when John praised him for something. “One would think you'd relish the opportunity to get the last word for once.” At the last word, John blanched; Sherlock gripped his arm, steadying him, and John waved him off.

“I'm all right, it's fine.”

“I didn't mean it like that,” Sherlock said, and they fell silent again. In eighteen months of unbelievable weirdness—jumping London's rooftops, hunting giant dogs in secret military bases, being wired into bomb vests, going head-to-head with dangerous dominatrices—this was the weirdest situation yet, dream or no.

“Odd,” Sherlock remarked, as though reading John's mind, “that I am apparently asleep when you're awake, and while I feel very much awake at present, you are evidently asleep.”

John snorted. “I'd call it a little more than odd.” He peered up at Sherlock suspiciously. “You're not saying you actually think this is real, somehow?”

“Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains...” Sherlock trailed off and wandered a few feet away, leaving John to ponder on exactly what improbable truth might remain. He opened his mouth to ask, but Sherlock was beginning to look washed out; he glanced down at the blood and saw it was disappearing into the strange light, too. Time to go, I guess.

“Sherlock,” John called, and he turned; his expression sharpened from distraction to dismay.

“Leaving so soon?” he shouted, his voice already growing faint.

“Seems like it,” John replied, straining to make himself heard. “Sorry!”

“See you tomorrow, I suppose.” John could barely make out Sherlock's farewell before he felt the familiar jerk upward. An instant later he was opening his eyes, cold and stiff in the hospital chair, to see Sherlock's frail form in the bed before him. The contrast was so jarring he had to squeeze his eyes closed for a moment. To his immense disappointment, the Sherlock he saw when he opened his eyes again was the one who'd fallen from the roof, not the chatty, healthy one from his dream. His head ached, and the confusion he'd felt had yet to dissipate. Still, there was one pleasant thought he'd latched on to.

See you tomorrow, Sherlock had said, and thinking back on it, John felt the tiniest surge of something like hope.

Chapter Text

A few hours later, John stood by the window in Sherlock's room, staring out at the rain and dreading his imminent departure into it. Molly would be coming upstairs in a few minutes, having offered to sit with Sherlock while John went to work. Sarah had asked him to come in, and he had agreed with only a little hesitation; honestly, while he thought staying with Sherlock was important, it was interminably dull. He'd needed something to take his mind off his bizarre dreams, if only to make the hours pass more quickly.

The door swung open and John turned with a smile, expecting Molly; instead, Greg Lestrade stepped through the door, and the smile fell off his face. Greg's expression mirrored his own, and he fidgeted for a moment before speaking, as though considering a hasty exit. At last, Lestrade squared his shoulders and spoke.

“Hello, John,” he said. “Sorry, I thought—Molly said she would be here now, if I wanted to come by.”

“She's supposed to be coming up,” John replied.

“Ah.”

They stood in silence for another moment, Greg pointedly looking everywhere except in his direction, and then John heard Greg suck in a massive inhale of breath. “Look,” he started quickly, “I know you're angry, and you've got a right to be, I hate myself for it—but, John, please—”

“Stop.” Lestrade looked up sharply, his face haggard and exhausted-looking. John realized, watching Greg stammer and wring his hands, that he wasn't actually angry anymore; that perhaps he hadn't been for some time, but had just been holding onto a grudge. John felt terrible for not being able to stop Sherlock, but how much worse must it feel to think yourself actively responsible? The guilt was obviously killing Lestrade. “Stop, Greg,” he repeated. “You don't need to explain. I know. It's okay.”

Greg stared at him for a moment, and then sagged with relief, running a hand over his eyes. “I should never have done it,” he said shakily. “At the very least I should've sent someone else. I should have said no. If I had, maybe—maybe he...”

“That wasn't the reason,” John told him, steering Greg gently toward the chair with a hand on his elbow. “He didn't mean to get himself killed. It was an accident.”

Lestrade peered at him suspiciously. “You said in your report that he told you goodbye, and he jumped,” he pointed out. “What do you mean, he didn't mean to kill himself?”

John's face burned, but there was nothing for it now. “It...wasn't meant to be real. He was trying to fake his death so he could hunt down Moriarty's people. It just...went wrong.”

Greg leapt up from the chair again, face deathly white. “Did you know about this?” he demanded, gesturing wildly at Sherlock's prone figure. “Jesus Christ, John, I've been dying of guilt for days—not to mention the paperwork—and he told you?”

“I didn't know about it until Monday,” John insisted, trying to calm Greg. Oh, God, he was going to sound like a nutter. He was a nutter, clearly, if he was actually starting to believe that Sherlock Holmes was somehow talking to him in his bloody dreams—

“Monday?” Greg repeated blankly. “How?” His expression darkened to something thunderous, and he clenched his fist. “Mycroft,” he said simply, as though that were explanation enough. Generally, John thought, it was. He very nearly took the out he'd been provided; it was convenient, perfectly plausible, and pinned the blame on Sherlock's accursed brother, something John felt wholeheartedly in favor of.

But.

Seeing Sherlock in his dreams had been the highlights of John's week, possibly even longer; now that he thought about it, he couldn't remember actually being happy since Moriarty's disastrous trial. He knew it was mad, knew it was all in his head, but somehow he felt certain that the reason he'd told Lestrade was the correct one—that somehow he'd figured out Sherlock's motivations in his sleep. He was not quite ready to consider the possibility that Sherlock could really be interacting with him somehow. Give it a few more days of sitting in here, he thought, and you'll be round the twist from the boredom anyway.

He found himself wanting to confide in someone, to share what had happened to him the last two nights. His first choice of confidant was currently comatose; why not Greg?

“Actually,” John said, “I sort of...dreamed it.”

Greg tilted his head slightly and squinted, as though he hadn't heard correctly. “What?”

John felt tendrils of embarrassment creeping up his spine, but continued. “Look, I know it sounds mad, but I've been having these dreams where he talks to me. Tells me things. He told me about the roof, he had a plan, it just didn't work out right...” He trailed off. Lestrade was staring at him with an expression close to pity, and John felt suddenly mortified.

Greg reached out and patted his shoulder awkwardly. “That's all right, mate,” he said, his voice soft and soothing and not at all like himself. “Little wonder you've been having some weird dreams, is it? You need to get some more rest.”

“Greg, no, it's not—”

The door opened and Molly edged in, closing it behind her. “Look, here's Molly!” Greg said brightly, turning John toward the door. “We'll stay with him now, you go home and get some sleep.”

“It's two in the afternoon!” John protested, feeling himself propelled toward the exit. “Honestly, I'm not tired, I'm just—”

“Work, then,” Greg barreled on, “you should go to work and then get some sleep. Clear your head a little. You've been cooped up in here too long.” Molly looked concerned, glancing between them, but said nothing.

John felt shame and embarrassment roiling in the pit of his stomach; he ought not to have said anything. Greg was right, though, he did have to go to work. He turned to Molly. “I'll be back later,” he promised. “If anything happens—”

“I know the drill,” she reassured him with a small smile, and he found himself thrust out into the hallway. He stood pointlessly for a moment, hands thrust in his pockets; at last, feeling foolish and alone, he set off down the hall.

* * * * *

Locum work did not prove to be the distraction he'd hoped. While he tended to each patient with care, he found his mind wandering. How could a teenager with a cold compete with his catatonic flatmate and weirdly lucid dreams? If Sarah noticed his preoccupation, she said nothing, a fact for which John was grateful. He needed to get through one afternoon without anyone obviously pitying him or thinking him disturbed.

After checking back in on Sherlock, he headed home to Baker Street, sipped absently at a cup of tea and went to bed. Tired though he was, John found he couldn't fall asleep; he was actually excited about the prospect of having another of his dreams, which, perversely, was making it difficult to drift off. He tossed and turned, cast around for something besides Sherlock to think about, and at last fell asleep recounting one of Mycroft's excruciatingly boring lectures. Probably best not to tell him that, he thought sleepily as his eyelids drifted shut.

When he opened them again, John was surprised to see sunlight and feel wind on his face. He turned slowly, taking in his surroundings; he appeared to be standing on a rooftop. His stomach plummeted. No, no, it can't be—

“John?” said Sherlock's voice, startlingly close. He turned to the side and Sherlock was there, peering down at him curiously. He looked too tall—why was he so tall? Looking down at his feet, John saw that Sherlock was standing on the roof ledge, facing in, his heels dangling over open air.

“Jesus, Sherlock, look out!” he barked; startled, Sherlock tipped backward, arms pinwheeling, off the ledge.

Chapter Text

Time was an odd thing, John would think in retrospect.

When he'd watched Sherlock fall onto the pavement the first time, the whole thing had seemed bizarrely, unfathomably fast—one moment Sherlock was speaking to him, the next he'd been wheeled into Bart's and John was standing alone near a pool of his blood. He'd barely had time to register that Sherlock had hung up the phone before he found himself sitting in the uncomfortable chair beside his bed.

But this time, as Sherlock lost his balance and toppled backward, time seemed almost to stop. He saw, very clearly, the tiny amount of grit that Sherlock's shoe scraped from the masonry, spraying out into open air; he saw the pale blue eyes widen to full circles, clear enough to see his reflection in; he saw Sherlock's mass of dark curls spring forward around his face, pushed by the wind and the momentum of his fall. The dramatic coat and scarf lifted into the air, appearing to reach toward John as Sherlock tilted back. John's own hand shot out, but he saw it in extreme slow-motion, the tiny fibers of his jumper sleeve flattening out as his arm sliced through the air. He willed it to move faster; he wouldn't reach him in time, wouldn't be able to stop it, no, no, not again, please—

Unexpectedly, he felt his fingers close around Sherlock's scarf and the left lapel of his coat. John's other hand reached out and Sherlock seized his wrist, a cry of shock escaping his throat. All at once, time sped up again, and John felt himself jerked forward as the full weight of a thirteen-stone man pulled at his arms. Sherlock teetered over the edge, toes just barely scrabbling onto the brick, and with a great heave, John managed to drag him forward. They collapsed into a heap on the roof, chests heaving and hearts pounding.

“What...the hell...were you doing up there?” John panted, waving an arm at the ledge. “You'd think...you'd have learned...after the first time.”

“I wasn't!” Sherlock retorted, rolling off John to sprawl on his back. “I was in that horrid white place, dull, then I blinked and you were here.” He glanced at John over the bridge of his nose, still huffing deep breaths. “You startled me.”

Sorry,” John snapped, still coursing with adrenaline and fear; then, remembering Sherlock's terrified expression, his face softened. “Sorry. I was surprised too.”

They lay there for another moment, collecting themselves. The rooftop was not very comfortable, but John found it infinitely preferable to the white void, and thought Sherlock would, too. He wondered why his dream had gone here, of all places, and why it had apparently summoned Sherlock back to the ledge. If his brain was trying to recreate the scene of the fall, wouldn't Sherlock have been facing the other way? There was no sense worrying about it, he supposed. Not everything had to have significance. Maybe it was just random.

“I suppose I should thank you for saving me,” Sherlock said, bringing him back to the present.

“Wouldn't be the first time,” John replied lightly.

“No,” Sherlock agreed, “it wouldn't.” John let his head roll to the side to look at him; Sherlock's mouth was set, as though he'd said something embarrassing, but he met John's gaze and didn't look away. John felt the peculiar swell of affection that always accompanied emotional displays from Sherlock. They were so rare, and never seemed to be directed at anyone besides John, that he felt somehow privileged to be allowed to see them.

He'd been staring again, but Sherlock didn't seem to mind, apparently content to lie there without speaking. “It's nothing,” John said at last. Sherlock got to his feet, brushing the dust from his coat. John followed suit, groaning at the soreness in his wrist.

“On the contrary,” Sherlock countered, “I've found it rather helpful. Difficult to work when you've been murdered.” John chuckled. He opened his mouth to point out that the first potentially deadly situation he'd rescued Sherlock from had been his own stupid curiosity, he hadn't actually been forced to take that damn pill—but then Sherlock's gaze lit on something over John's shoulder and his face went white.

“What? What is it?” John turned and narrowly stopped himself from screaming; sprawled ungracefully on the roof just a few yards away lay Moriarty, the last vestiges of a grin on his face. He clutched a gun in his left hand, and—wait—was that blood pooling underneath him?

“It's all right,” Sherlock assured John, steadying himself with his hands on his knees. “He's dead; it's just that he wasn't there before. I didn't expect...” He trailed off, muttering deductions under his breath, and walked toward the apparent corpse. He kicked the gun from Moriarty's hand with a look of extreme disgust.

John was beginning to think his heart rate might never return to normal. “I don't get it,” he said. “Why would Moriarty be dead in my dream?” Sherlock rolled his eyes at the word “dream,” but had evidently decided to ignore any mention John made of his somnolescent state. John joined him at Moriarty's side, staring down into the wide, dilated eyes. He looked away when he realized he could see through the open mouth to the roof beneath it.

Sherlock was still examining the body as though it were a crime scene, poking and prodding. “Hm?” he asked distractedly. “Oh. I just assumed it was recreating the scene as it happened.”

“As it—” John cut himself off, staring. “Wait. Moriarty was on the roof with you?” At this, Sherlock stopped what he was doing, standing back up with an expression of incredulity on his face.

“Of course he was,” he said. “You didn't know?”

“No,” John answered, feeling suddenly faint. “No one told me.”

Sherlock sighed. “Mycroft,” he said. “Obviously. What's less obvious is why he would keep it a secret. My dear brother's motivations can be, at times, murky.”

And just when John hadn't thought he could be any more furious with Mycroft. He clenched and unclenched his shaking hand. “He's dead, then? I mean—really?”

“Yes.” Sherlock stuck out a toe and rolled Moriarty's head to one side, exposing a large and rather horrific exit wound at the back of his skull. “Killed himself.”

“Why?”

“No idea.” The answer came quickly enough, but John noticed a muscle tensing in Sherlock's jaw as he turned away. It was a small thing, just a little mannerism, but John had learned it tended to appear when Sherlock was lying to him.

“You have no idea? You don't even have a theory?”

“He was insane,” Sherlock called over the wind, looking out at the city. “What good would it do to speculate on his motivations?”

John decided not to press the matter of why; he clearly wasn't going to get anything more out of Sherlock at the moment. He was reminded of a toy he'd been shown as a child by a classmate from the States: a plastic 8-ball that gave answers to questions when shook. Ask again later.

“So you were there when he—when it happened,” John redirected. Sherlock didn't acknowledge the statement, but John took his silence for assent. “That must've been, well. Traumatic.”

“Don't be daft,” Sherlock growled, voice low and irritable. “He was my enemy and now he's dead. What is there to be traumatized over?”

John stepped closer, studying Sherlock's profile. “But you saw it,” he pressed. “Saw him blow his brains out, I mean.”

Sherlock was turning away infinitesimally, trying to keep his back to John; it was almost comical, sometimes, the way he used the kind of arguing strategies usually reserved for petulant seven-year-olds. John rotated with him, aware that Sherlock knew he knew what he was doing. “I've seen plenty of corpses with their heads blown off, John,” Sherlock snapped. “You've seen one, you've seen them all. Once they're dead, it only amounts to so much meat.”

And there it was, John thought. The moment in any conversation where Sherlock became uncomfortable talking about feelings and reverted to the self-proclaimed sociopath act. But for all the times Sherlock claimed John didn't observe, he certainly did now: the tension in Sherlock's shoulders, the set of his jaw, the way he'd locked his knees. He was close to an explosion.

Well, maybe it's time to lance the boil.

“So everyone's just a body once they're dead,” John remarked.

“Yes.”

“It doesn't bother you to see someone you knew...like that?”

“Of course not.”

“What about Mycroft?”

Sherlock snorted. “We're not supposed to giggle at a crime scene, John.”

“What about me?”

Sherlock went very quiet and still; only his coat and hair moved, battered about by the wind. John waited. For as quickly as he could deduce everything about a crime scene, it could take Sherlock a remarkably long time to sort out anything about himself.

“Don't be ridiculous,” he said at last, still motionless.

“'Don't be ridiculous,' of course not, or 'don't be ridiculous,' of course it would, or...?”

Sherlock whirled, all at once, and seized John by the upper arms hard enough to bruise. John had been expecting something of the sort, although the force of the long fingers around his biceps was startling. He stayed still and let Sherlock hold onto him, staring into the narrowed blue eyes in silence.

“Don't be ridiculous,” Sherlock repeated. “That's not going to happen.”

Now this—this John hadn't expected. He'd assumed Sherlock would either admit to feeling some regret at the idea of his death, or clam up and claim not to. It had never entered his head that there was a third option: outright denial. Much more interesting, actually.

“What do you mean? I could just as easily—”

Sherlock leaned forward, his face just inches from John's; John's heart thudded in his chest, unsure of what to do or expect. From this angle, with the afternoon sun slanting low across the city, Sherlock's face was thrown into sharp relief: the ridiculous cheekbones gleaming, the unnerving eyes boring into his from beneath the shadows of his brow. He really was striking—if perhaps not entirely human-looking.

“No one,” he pronounced in an eerie, low rumble, “is going to shoot you in the head.” He glared a moment longer; John, a bit dazed and more than a little frightened, gave a quick nod, and Sherlock released his arms. John rubbed them reflexively, working to get the blood flowing again. Sherlock stalked away, returning to stand over Moriarty.

John genuinely could not hazard a guess as to what his elusive flatmate was thinking. He'd known Sherlock cared about him, of course; the mere fact that he tolerated John's presence in the flat was a high compliment in and of itself. But the depths and shapes of Sherlock's feeling were utterly unknown. John wondered, occasionally, whether Sherlock did actually view him as some sort of pet—lovable, pleasant to spend time with, but ultimately less important than himself. Days ago, when John had stormed out of the Bart's lab calling Sherlock a machine, he'd have said yes, 'pet' is pretty accurate. Today, his arms still tingling, he wasn't so sure.

The sun shifted out from behind a cloud, and something shiny caught John's eye. He stepped close to the ledge to pick it up, and frowned as he realized what it was.

“Sherlock, you've dropped your mobile,” he said. Sherlock turned, and his eyes widened. “There's a little red light on it—has it been—I think it's been recording!”

“Give it here,” Sherlock barked, crossing the distance between them in a few long strides. “Now, John.”

John squinted at him, curious. “Why would it be recording?”

“I'm sure I must've pressed the button by accident. Now, John!”

“By accident,” John repeated flatly, dropping the phone into Sherlock's palm. “Right.” Sherlock checked the screen, pressed something, and deposited the mobile into his pocket.

“Thank you,” he said, and John raised an eyebrow. Sherlock sighed.

“I've said thank you before!”

“Not often,” John countered, grinning. “I'm not surprised you'd be more polite in my dreams.” Sherlock's face turned thunderous, and John immediately felt a stab of anxiety. Oh, bugger. Shouldn't have said anything.

“Dream, dream,” Sherlock chanted, throwing his hands in the air. “You still think you're dreaming! This is patently absurd, John!”

“You won't get any argument from me there.”

“What do I have to do to—” Sherlock paced the roof, agitated; at last, his eyes lit on something, and he scurried over to pick it up. Joining him, John saw it was just a bit of rubbish, a jagged piece of broken bottle, no doubt from some hospital employee nipping a quick drink on the job. Sherlock jerked his sleeve up to the elbow, and John's stomach dropped.

“Sherlock, don't—”

“Perhaps this will finally lay the issue to rest,” he spat through clenched teeth, and dragged the point of the glass a short distance up his forearm, then crossed the cut with another. Blood welled up, shockingly bright against the white of Sherlock's skin, and dripped from his arm to the roof.

“Jesus—why did you do that?” John clamped his hands over the wound, glancing around for something to press on it. Sherlock shook his head.

“It's superficial,” he insisted. “I only wanted to create a wound that would be visible in a few hours.”

“In a few—why?”

Sherlock gave him The Look, the one John hated. “Surely it's obvious, John,” he said, and continued before John could protest. “When you wake up, go and take a look at my arm. See if the mark's still there.”

“This is ridiculous,” John seethed. “You don't have to mutilate yourself to prove a bloody point, Sherlock.”

“No, but it's the easiest way.” Sherlock shook off John's hands and tugged his sleeve down, ignoring the rivulet of blood running down his wrist. “Do let me know what you find out. I'd say you'll have your result sooner rather than later.”

Sherlock was right; the light was brightening, despite the sun hiding behind a cloud, and John had to squint against it. “You're a nutter,” he called. “Completely mental.”

“Says the man who thinks I'm a figment of his imagination. Wouldn't you be the nutter, in that case?”

The light had practically obliterated everything else, and John thought he could hear the faint sounds of morning echoing from very far away—Mrs. Hudson's vacuum, traffic, the rustling of his own sheets. “Fine. I'll check.”

“Good morning, John.”

“See you later, Sherlock.”

Chapter Text

John got out of bed slowly and set about his morning routine. He brushed his teeth, took his shower, made his tea, put on his clothes, read his paper, and carefully avoided looking at the door to Sherlock's empty bedroom. He made his way outside, checked that he'd locked up properly, and set off at a leisurely stroll toward the Baker Street tube station. He did all this calmly, unhurriedly, because there was no way he was going to fling on last night's trousers and leap in a cab just so he could see whether his comatose flatmate was showing signs of an injury he'd sustained in a dream. He didn't even want to hurry. It was absolutely no trouble to not think about it. Maybe he wouldn't check at all. Maybe he'd just casually wait until he, you know, happened to see Sherlock's arm, not looking for it or anything, just—during his normal visit, or—

Oh, fuck it. The moment he made it out of the Tube, John took off like a man possessed. He sprinted the rest of the way to the hospital, ignoring the startled looks and shouts from passersby. He realized he'd missed this; he hadn't gone running around the streets of London since he and Sherlock had been handcuffed together. The thought gave him a slight lurch, but he didn't know how to interpret it, and couldn't spare the time to speculate. He skidded to a halt in front of Bart's doors, trying not to gasp too obviously for breath, and made his way inside with as much dignity as he could muster. The lift ride seemed interminably long, and he fidgeted constantly, earning him a tsk of disapproval from the pensioner in the corner. The moment the doors opened, he strode down the hall to Sherlock's room, wishing (not for the first time) for longer legs. He burst in, ready to make up a load of rubbish to get rid of whoever was currently standing vigil, and was surprised to find the room empty.

Just as well, he thought, and without preamble he seized Sherlock's arm and turned it over. A bandage was wound around his forearm, and while John didn't recall seeing it before, it was possible it had been there—the man was more or less covered in them, after all. He had to be sure.

John fought the urge to glance at the ceiling. He knew Mycroft would see this and wonder what he was doing, but to hell with Mycroft Holmes. With as much delicacy as he could manage, he tugged the bandage aside, revealing the skin beneath.

A small cross, lightly scabbed over, was clearly etched into the skin.

John released Sherlock's arm and dropped into the chair beside the bed, bringing shaking hands to his face. It wasn't possible. It wasn't possible. He was a doctor, and Sherlock was a genius, and both of them knew that it just wasn't bloody possible for two people to share a dream—let alone for the dream to affect their bodies in waking life. It couldn't be happening, and yet it was. He reached over and took Sherlock's hand, running his fingers over the knuckles. How bizarre that Sherlock was right here, yet unreachable—but he would walk and talk and live in John's dream that night.

John wondered whether it would work in reverse. Would dream-Sherlock be able to hear or feel things done to him in reality? He leaned over the sunken form, careful to avoid the wires and lines running everywhere. “Can you hear me, Sherlock?” he murmured. “Tell me later if you can.”

John felt restless; he wanted to see Sherlock, to tell him what he'd learned—even if Sherlock would be insufferably smug when he found out. He thought he could do with some smugness, actually, after so many days of uncertainty and fear. But he'd only woken up a couple of hours ago, and sleep was a long way off. He reviewed the other elements of last night's dream. Why had his subconscious (Sherlock's subconscious, maybe?) chosen the roof of St. Bart's, of all places? And why the other bizarre elements, Moriarty's corpse, the recording phone?

The mobile. John straightened, remembering. It had definitely been recording, and Sherlock had been adamant that John not listen to what was on it. He knew Sherlock had had the mobile on the roof, since they'd shared that gut-wrenching phone call; was it possible it really had been recording? Had Sherlock said something he didn't want John to hear? It was mad, he knew, to go chasing around in the real world after things he'd seen in a dream—but then, his life had gone mad, hadn't it, and it wasn't as though he had anything to lose.

John had just made up his mind when Molly entered. She stopped dead in the doorway for a moment, staring, then hurried forward. “John, what is it?” she asked urgently, leaning down to look into his face. “You look like you've seen a ghost!”

Odd choice of words, John thought, but he supposed she was right; his hands were still trembling with the shock of his discovery, and he guessed he looked pale and clammy. “It's fine, Molly,” he reassured her unconvincingly. “Just tired. Actually, I'm glad you're here. I was on my way out.”

Though she looked as though she wanted to say something more, Molly smiled a little, standing aside so John could stand up. “That's good. Keeping busy at the surgery?”

“Yeah,” John lied. “Lots of patients. I'd better get going.” He pulled on his jacket and paused. “I guess I don't need to tell you to call me, do I?”

Molly settled into the chair with a patient expression. “The moment something changes.”

“Right. Thanks, Molly.”

* * * * *

John spent the cab ride to the Yard gazing out the window. He found that if he kept to his side of the seat and kept his face turned, he could almost feel Sherlock in the seat opposite, tapping away at his mobile. His newfound knowledge had set his mind reeling; leave it to Sherlock to be such a force of nature that he'd actually suck John into his own subconscious. It was not unlike being dragged into the eye of a cyclone, through the day's swirling mass of grief and pain to emerge in the relative safety of his dreams.

Because it had to be Sherlock's subconscious, didn't it? If it was his body that was affected, if the dreams knew things John didn't—about Moriarty, possibly the mobile—it had to be that John was essentially in Sherlock's dreams, not the other way round. John found he didn't especially care. In fact, it was reassuring: surely Sherlock's mind could not be irreparably damaged if he was able to interact so normally with John. The fact that he could only do it while John was sharing his dreams was—well, just a matter of geography, really. John wondered whether he could somehow pull Sherlock from the coma himself, now that he knew Sherlock really was still in there. Had this happened to other people? He didn't remember ever reading about it, but then again, it seemed more like pseudoscience than actual medicine; and besides, he'd not been caught up on his medical journals since Afghanistan. He made a mental note to search later, see if he could find anyone claiming to experience the same thing.

He let his mind wander to their little adventure on the roof, to the panic of Sherlock's near-fall and to its aftermath. The way he had looked at John when he'd thanked him for saving him: it was enough to warm John's heart, even in retrospect. He knew, somewhere in the back of his mind, that it was not normal; flatmates, even friends, didn't stare at each other with that degree of intensity. It wasn't normal to look at a friend as though they had personally arranged heaven and earth for your own benefit. But it wasn't normal to run around after criminals, either; it wasn't normal to gun someone down to save a bloke you'd only known a day; it wasn't normal to swan around Buckingham Palace clad only in a sheet; it certainly wasn't normal to spend your nights gallivanting around someone else's brain, and your days pining for it. Sherlock wasn't normal, and everyone knew it. But John—he wasn't normal, either, and only Sherlock knew that. He suspected it was their essential not-normality that had thrust them together, that had made him laugh helplessly while leaning (sans cane) against the wall of an unfamiliar flat beside a man he barely knew and feel utterly, completely at home.

The cab pulled up to New Scotland Yard, and John brought himself back to the present with reluctance. A few familiar faces glanced up in surprise as he walked to Lestrade's office; he supposed they'd never seen him here without the tails of Sherlock's ridiculous coat swishing three steps ahead of him. He knocked on Lestrade's door, waited approximately two seconds, and then entered, hoping he wasn't interrupting something important.

“John!” Lestrade exclaimed, standing up and coming around the desk. “What's going on? Has something happened?”

“No, no, nothing like that,” John reassured him, smiling. He found it strangely easy to forgive Lestrade, now that he knew Sherlock was still alive in there. “Actually, I wondered if you could help me. I need the number of a client, and it was only in Sherlock's phone. But it's in evidence, isn't it?” He was surprised at how simple it was to lie to Greg; was this how Sherlock felt on a daily basis?

“His phone?” Greg looked puzzled. “No, I assumed you had it. It wasn't on him when we checked his clothes.”

“It was on the roof,” John pressed. “He dropped it on the rooftop after he hung up. You checked the roof, right?”

“Of course we did,” Greg said, looking slightly affronted. “We went up straight away. There was nothing there, just Sherlock's footprints and some dust he scraped off the masonry when he jumped.”

John's stomach dropped. “Then...this is going to sound odd,” he cautioned, and Greg raised an eyebrow, “but there wasn't, ah, anyone else up there?”

Lestrade's gaze sharpened. “Should someone have been?”

“No,” John said, too quickly, “no, just...checking.” Greg glared, clearly suspicious, but John did his best to look innocent. “Never mind, Greg, sorry to bother you. Maybe someone at Bart's picked up the phone. I'll ask around.” He excused himself amid a flurry of protests from Lestrade, and quickly made his way back outside. He needed air.

Standing on the pavement, John thought furiously. Someone had gotten to the crime scene before the Yarders, removed Moriarty (and, presumably, the contents of his skull), taken Sherlock's mobile, and covered up their tracks. John knew of only one person with the resources and speed necessary to accomplish such a monumental feat; what he didn't know was why he would go to all that trouble. The theoretical recording on Sherlock's mobile seemed even more important, in light of the effort that had been expended to hide it.

Resigning himself, John extracted his mobile from his pocket and dialed Mycroft. It rang once, twice, three times. “Pick up, you bastard,” he muttered under his breath. In all the time John had known him, Mycroft had never once seemed to be more than arm's reach from a phone; it would figure that the one time John wanted to speak with him was the one time he refused to answer. He hung up and tried again, fired off an angry text message, but got no response. At last John gave up and made his way to work, fuming. Mycroft Holmes could avoid him for today; he'd see what he could get out of Sherlock tonight, and if that failed, he'd hunt the elder Holmes down tomorrow. Sherlock might be a cyclone, and Mycroft might be the Iceman, but John felt he could rain down a little storm of his own.

* * * * *

John felt oddly drained as he tended to his patients at the surgery. All these spikes in his blood pressure couldn't be good for him, he thought. After tending to a handful of flu sufferers, a man with a rather disgusting foot fungus and, most notably, a toddler with a Lego jammed up his left nostril, he found himself dozing in his chair as the sun went down.

A soft knock on the doorframe woke him from his daze, and he looked up to see Sarah hovering in the door. She smiled at him hesitantly, and he returned it, stifling a yawn.

“How are you, John?” she asked, crossing to stand before his desk.

“I'm fine,” he said automatically, and then the corner of his mouth quirked up. “Sorry. I actually am okay. Worried, you know, but...could be worse.”

Sarah nodded, and John was glad she didn't pry further. His feelings about Sherlock's condition were so muddied as to be completely opaque: anger that he'd jumped, relief that he hadn't died, worry that he wouldn't wake up, happiness and confusion that John got to see him every night...the idea of trying to explain these to himself, let alone another person, was exhausting.

“Are you getting enough sleep?” Sarah asked, and John's gaze snapped to her face. “You look tired.”

No, John thought, I'm not getting enough sleep, not nearly enough. I'd sleep all day, if I could. What he said was, “I am a bit tired, actually. Tossing and turning, you know how it is.”

“Would you like me to prescribe you something?” John's heart sped up. “I don't mean to interfere, it's just that I know it can be difficult, what with all the waiting. If you need some rest, I could...”

John pretended to mull this over for a moment, nodding slowly. “That might not be such a bad idea,” he said. “Just for a bit.”

“I'll write a scrip for some temazepam,” she said, looking relieved—probably, like everyone else in his life, she was just happy to see John accepting help. “Wait around for a minute and I'll get it for you. Then you should go home and get some sleep.”

“I'll do that,” he said. “Thanks, Sarah.” She left the room with a wave, and John leaned back in his chair, happier than he'd felt in weeks. Tonight, he would see Sherlock, and he wouldn't have to leave right away. He would ask Sherlock his questions, tell him what he'd discovered, and with any luck, they would start to piece this puzzle together.

And then, he thought, still grinning, tomorrow he might get to bludgeon Mycroft.

Chapter Text

The temazepam worked wonders, and John had no trouble at all falling asleep that night, sprawled across his bed in Baker Street. He fuzzily attempted to make a mental note to thank Sarah, but it more or less washed away on the sea of consciousness as he floated toward oblivion.

When he came to, he was standing in a dense forest, alone. A light rain fell steadily, pattering onto the leaves in a soothing susurrus. It was remarkably peaceful, and for a moment he forgot why he was there, staring out into the trees. Wherever it was, it seemed to be far away from London; he couldn't hear any of the usual noises of the city, no traffic or sirens. Now that he was paying attention, he couldn't even hear a bird. Only the rain broke the silence.

Had there been any other sound, John probably would have missed the soft gasp behind him—but he heard, and swiveled around. He saw that he was actually just on the edge of the forest, only a few yards in from the treeline. Beyond that, he could just make out a massive building, and in front of it stood a sodden-looking figure in a very familiar coat.

“Sherlock!” he called, making his way out of the trees. Sherlock turned, but John was puzzled by his face; his flatmate was clearly not happy to see him, gazing over his shoulder in trepidation. John's excitement died in his throat. As he emerged into the clearing, however, his confusion turned to awe: they stood in the elaborately paved forecourt of a perfectly enormous building that looked very, very familiar.

“Is this...the Palace of Versailles?” he asked, coming to a stop. Sherlock had clearly been out in the rain for some time; his hair was plastered against his skull, seeming much longer than it normally did, and water streamed from the hem of his coat. The rain seemed much harder out here, without the sheltering trees, and John shivered.

“Not exactly,” Sherlock answered at last, his eyes fixed on the main entrance. John couldn't understand his expression; he looked as though the building had insulted his mother. John took a step toward the palace, and jumped in surprise as Sherlock clamped a hand around his elbow to stop him. He turned his face to John, eyes desperate, and suddenly John understood.

“Oh,” he breathed. “It's...”

“My mind palace, yes,” Sherlock finished, blinking away the water that ran into his eyes.

John looked at the palace again, taking note of its breathtaking scale and intricacy. Of course Sherlock would house the sum of his knowledge in a place like this. He found himself grinning.

“What?” Sherlock demanded.

“Versailles, eh?” John teased, nudging him with the elbow still caught in Sherlock's grip. “Never took you for a francophile.”

“I visited with my grandmother when I was young,” Sherlock said defensively. “I suppose it made an impression.”

“Still. I'd have expected something more...English. Buckingham Palace not good enough for you?”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Mycroft goes to Buckingham Palace,” he retorted, by way of explanation. John supposed it was as good as any.

“Either way, let's go in. It's pissing down now.” He took a step, but Sherlock's grip tightened.

“Absolutely not.”

John sighed. “Sherlock, we've got to go in,” he insisted. “Look at you—you're drenched. You might get sick.” Sherlock's eyes lit up momentarily.

“You believe me, then,” he said eagerly. “It's not a dream.”

“I believe you,” John agreed. “Or, well, I think it is a dream—but it's your dream, not mine. I'm just...visiting. I don't know how.”

As predicted, Sherlock's face took on a familiar smugness; John was almost pleased to see it. “The logistics are unimportant at the moment,” Sherlock said. “It's useless to speculate without facts.”

“Agreed,” John said. “And it's especially useless to speculate while getting soaked to the skin. Come on, Sherlock.” Sherlock didn't budge, his face settling back into unhappy lines. He let his hand drop from John's elbow, and suddenly, John understood the problem.

“You're worried, aren't you?” John asked, raising his voice to be heard over the rain; it really was pouring now. A distant rumble of thunder threatened in the background. “You're afraid I'll see something you don't want me to.”

“I know you'll see something I don't want you to,” Sherlock corrected. “I mean it, John. You don't want to go in there.”

John's heart twisted a little at the idea: Sherlock was so afraid of showing John what was in his mind that he would stand out in the rain for hours rather than let him in. He supposed it must be a very lonely place. He leaned into Sherlock, resting a hand on his elbow; Sherlock gazed down at him, looking miserable. “You know you don't have to do that with me,” John half-shouted over the downpour. “I'm not going to think less of you. We've all got our demons.”

Sherlock opened his mouth—probably to protest further, John thought—but what came out was a sharp cry of pain as something hard and white struck him on the head. John spun, trying to see what it was and where it had come from, and let out a bark of his own as another little object pelted him on the arm. At last, he saw it on the ground: a hailstone, the size of a golf ball. “Sherlock,” John said warningly.

And then, the sky seemed to open up. Hailstones rained down upon them, ricocheting off the paving stones and the building; the air seemed so thick with them it was difficult to see. John's arms instinctively came up to cover his head, and Sherlock hiked his coat up to form a sort of canopy. “Inside!” he bellowed at John, and John didn't need to be told twice. They set off at a run, feet slipping and twisting over the fallen ice pellets, which had begun to pile up against the sides of the building like dunes. John tripped and fell flat on his face, and felt himself hoisted back up by a large hand twisted in the back of his jacket. At last, they reached the entrance—John didn't recall, from his dimly-remembered school trip as a boy, whether there was actually an entrance there, but he supposed Sherlock could remodel however he saw fit—and flung themselves through the heavy, elaborate doors. Sherlock threw his weight against them and they slammed shut, leaving the two men in shocking silence. It was as though the walls were soundproofed; John could see the hail pelting against the windows, but couldn't hear it at all.

They stood in the entrance for a moment, doubled over to regain their breath, and then John collected himself to look around. The doors had deposited them into a magnificent foyer, all white marble columns and soaring ceiling arches, with hallways extending in every direction. John couldn't see any actual light fixtures, but there seemed to be plenty of light anyway. He turned to look at Sherlock, who still had his back to the door, face twisted in dread.

“Sherlock,” John began, and Sherlock abruptly straightened and marched into the room.

“You're here, you might as well have a look around,” he snapped, and swept past John toward the east hallway. He deposited his coat in a heap on the floor without stopping; after a moment, John followed suit, stripping off his sodden jumper for good measure. He felt an agonizing paradox in his guts: he desperately wanted to know what Sherlock's mind palace looked like, what it contained, but he felt somehow as though he were violating Sherlock's privacy. He waffled, hovering in the entrance to the hallway.

A few paces down, Sherlock noticed he wasn't being followed and turned to glare at John. “Well? Are you coming?” John fell cautiously into step just behind Sherlock, trying not to look as worried as he felt.

If John had expected any kind of narration, a guided tour, he was sorely mistaken. Sherlock swept through the halls without so much as a word, and John couldn't bring himself to ask. As they rounded a corner, John bit back a gasp; the walls were stacked, absolutely piled, with body parts in various grisly states. Sherlock glared at John, seemingly daring him to comment.

“Anatomical knowledge,” John said. “You come here when you need to sort out something about a body part, is that right?”

Sherlock's eyebrows came up and he looked slightly mollified. “Yes,” he said simply, and turned to march on. John made sure to keep toward the center of the room, thanking his stars that Sherlock's mind hadn't seen fit to provide a scent accompaniment to the visual.

They passed many chambers with ornate doors, some bearing gilded plates engraved with various cryptic names: “CAT,” one said, and John wondered whether the animals inside would be living or dead; “HUDSON,” said another, and John couldn't be sure whether it referred to Mrs. Hudson, her murderous husband, or, for all he knew, a river in New York. Sherlock didn't stop to show John any of their contents, and John didn't pry.

After passing through a corridor with doors marked “GREENS (SEAFOAM – PHTHALO)” and “OCCULT (PRACTICAL)” (the latter of which John was very pleased to pass up), Sherlock paused at another junction. He looked hard at John.

“I will warn you again,” he said, his voice low and ominous. “If we keep moving, you will see things you'd rather not.” He waited; apparently, that had been a question. John took him by the shirt cuff and towed him away from the junction, sitting them down at the base of a statue of what looked suspiciously like James Bond.

“Sherlock,” he said gently, “do you want to show me these things?”

Sherlock met his gaze, staring as he had on the rooftop. Just as it had then, John's heart sped up. It was a strange sensation, being the focus of Sherlock's scrutiny—as though the pale blue gaze could actually see through him. At last, his flatmate looked away.

“There is...a great deal of darkness in this place,” he murmured. “Things I would much rather forget but, for various reasons, feel it is necessary to remember.” He pushed a finger through the water pooling on the marble, drawing little patterns. “You've heard some of them, John, but you haven't seen. I'm not sure you want to.”

“That's fine, but it's not what I asked,” John pointed out. “What I asked was, do you want to show me?” Sherlock looked confused. “If it upsets you, if you'd rather I didn't see, then we'll go back to the foyer and wait for me to wake up. But if you'd rather you had someone to share it with...that's okay, you know. You don't have to do everything alone.”

“Alone—”

“And know that if you're about to say 'alone protects me,'” John continued, his gaze steely, “I will pick up one of those severed arms and cheerfully beat you to death with it.”

Sherlock let out a bark of laughter, apparently caught off-guard. He sobered quickly, though. “I was going to say, alone is all I've had for a long time,” he corrected. “It takes...some getting used to.”

John marveled. Impulsively, he laid a hand on Sherlock's knee. Sherlock looked at the hand in surprise, but didn't shift away. “I meant what I said,” John replied. “If you don't want to go any further, we won't. But I'm your friend, Sherlock—now, the way you are. I'm not going to judge you for what happened in your past.”

He worried that Sherlock would shy away from all this emotion; instead, Sherlock stared at him the way he did when John said amazing, the way he did when John shot someone. His fingers twitched toward his knee, and for a moment John thought he was going to lay his hand over John's; then, he seemed to shake himself, and stood up.

“This way,” he said simply, and turned right at the junction. John followed.

As they emerged into the next gallery, John thought he remembered it was called the Hall of Kings; it had arched ceilings of white stone and was lined with statues on one side. He started to step forward, but Sherlock placed a hand on his chest.

“Watch your footing,” he warned, “and try not to breathe too deeply. It doesn't affect me, but I don't know if that holds true for...visitors.” John looked down, and didn't know whether to laugh or gasp: the floor was covered thickly in drifts and piles of what looked like snow, but had to be...

“Right,” John muttered, and held his breath. He'd never tried cocaine, and didn't especially fancy the idea of testing it while trapped in the physical manifestation of Sherlock's brain. As they tiptoed along, John examined the statues along the wall; they seemed to be knights, wearing suits of armor and brandishing swords, but they all had the same familiar face: Greg Lestrade's.

“It was Lestrade who cleaned me up,” Sherlock explained, as John nodded mutely. “Arrested me for possession, but Mycroft got me off it, of course. Lestrade, though, he saw what I could do. He asked me to help on a case, as a favor, and...” Sherlock waved a hand absently. “It was better than cocaine, in the end. No less addictive, but certainly fewer physical downsides.”

John wasn't sure if that was precisely true, given the way Sherlock treated his body while working on a case, but he made an affirmative noise anyway. They rounded the corner, and he sucked in a deep breath appreciatively. Sherlock eyed him, apparently curious whether he planned to comment on the Hall of Coke; John didn't, just smiled, and Sherlock led the way. They had been walking for a long time—or at least it felt that way to John—but the storm outside showed no signs of abating. That was fine, John thought. Disturbing or no, he was fascinated by this glimpse into Sherlock's psyche, and he didn't want it to end too quickly.

They passed more rooms with enigmatic names (John stopped to duck his head inside the one marked “ASH,” and Sherlock preened a little at the 243 neatly-labeled boxes arranged around the perimeter) and descended a flight of stairs. Here, the lights were a little dimmer, the décor a bit less lush. As they passed the first door, John saw that it was open—and inset with a small, barred window. He peered surreptitiously into the room. It was empty, but more importantly, it was clearly a cell, not like one of the chambers upstairs. Only a tiny ground-level window provided any light, and there was no furniture save a single wooden chair. John shuddered and hurried to catch up with Sherlock. A few doors down, on the left, he could see that one of the cells was closed; he wasn't sure he wanted to know who was inside, but curiosity won out, and as they passed he rose up onto his toes to look through the window. What he saw gave his heart an odd clench.

A ginger-haired teenage boy—perhaps around eighteen, he had broad shoulders and stubble but hadn't yet lost the last vestiges of childhood fat from around his face—sat stiffly in the chair, staring fixedly out the window. The cell was small, and John supposed he must know someone was watching him, but he didn't turn or move in any way, other than to breathe. But the fact that Sherlock had imprisoned a teenager in his mind palace wasn't what had given John a start. Despite the youth, the angle he was turned, and the dim lighting, John would recognize that profile and posture anywhere.

It was Mycroft.

“Sherlock,” John called, and twenty paces down the hall, Sherlock turned. He hesitated for a moment, then walked back to John, scowling.

“Yes, this is where I keep him,” Sherlock sighed impatiently. “And he deserves it, I assure you.”

“I believe you,” John said. “But...why is he so young?”

Sherlock gazed dispassionately through the bars, as though viewing a particularly dull zoo specimen. He was silent for a long time, and John assumed he wasn't going to answer. When he turned to continue their trek down the corridor, however, he tossed a single remark over his shoulder: “That was the last time I liked him.”

John pulled himself away with difficulty, jogging after Sherlock. He knew, he knew there was no reason to feel any pity for the boy in the room—he wasn't real, for one, and he was Mycroft Holmes, and Mycroft Holmes was a right bastard—but he couldn't help wondering what had happened, what had caused such a monumental rift between them. Was it the simple, inevitable abandonment of the older sibling leaving the nest? John had felt that too, understood how it hurt. Or had it been something fiercer, some sort of bitter betrayal?

He couldn't ask, not right now. Sherlock's patience was hanging by a thread, and John felt one misstep would send him clamming up again. He trailed a few steps behind, stopping again in front of the very last door before a flight of stairs leading back up. It was very unlike the others; in fact, it most closely resembled a door to a walk-in freezer, solid metal with a sturdy latch. A thick metal bar was bolted across it, and a chain connected the door handle to the wall. If there was a way in or out of there, John couldn't see it. There was no plaque on this door, only a single letter, scrawled haphazardly in red spray paint: “M.” John jumped at the sudden sensation of a hand on his arm, and looked up at Sherlock with wide eyes. Sherlock's own eyes were narrowed.

“Do not,” he rumbled, “go in there.”

John shook his head silently and Sherlock released him, continuing up the stairs. There was no need to ask who might be taking up residence in that room. He felt a faint curiosity at what state Moriarty might be in—alive and cackling? Sprawled across the floor with his brains blown out?—but it was outweighed by the overwhelming and much more sensible urge to get the hell away, and so he did.

At the top of the stairs, Sherlock paused; a soft golden light emanated from the floor above, framing him in a sort of halo. “You may want to keep your eyes on the windows,” he cautioned. “This room is...” He seemed to be searching for words.

“Not good?” John supplied, and Sherlock's eyes crinkled momentarily.

“A bit not good,” he acknowledged, and gestured John forward. Curious, John ascended the last few stairs, emerging into the most breathtaking room he'd ever seen. The high, arched ceilings were inlaid with gold and frescoes; massive chandeliers dripped toward the floor at regular intervals; the eponymous mirrors reflected it all back and back and back until it seemed to go on forever. It was more beautiful than he'd remembered it, more stunning than a photograph could ever convey.

“The Hall of Mirrors!” John exclaimed, rotating on the spot. “I don't get it, Sherlock, what's so terrible about this room?” John, personally, was inclined to think it was the nicest in the place, but from Sherlock's expression one would assume it were filled with snakes. (Actually, scratch that—Sherlock was fascinated by snakes; he'd have gone barreling in without a second thought if that were the case.) Sherlock stepped forward, grimacing, and turned his face resolutely away from the mirrored wall.

The effect was so subtle that at first John didn't notice it happening. The mirror reflected Sherlock's form, clothes still clinging wetly to his limbs. But there was something—off—about his face. The sliver of it that John could see reflected, turned away as it was, seemed to be twisted somehow; Sherlock glanced toward John, his reflection followed suit, and John leapt violently backward at the sight of his expression. He had never seen such a look of pure, unadulterated hatred. The Sherlock in the mirror looked like an absolute psychopath, all bared teeth and flared nostrils and flashing eyes. John quickly looked back to the real Sherlock and saw that his eyes were staring back at him; he looked utterly defeated. John realized his mistake a moment too late: Sherlock had trusted him, showed him something he was desperately afraid of, and John had completely cocked it up.

“I'm sorry,” he backpedaled, taking a step toward Sherlock. “It's fine. It's fine, Sherlock, I just—I wasn't expecting it.” He summoned his courage and looked back at the mirror; mercifully, Sherlock was looking away again, so all he could make out was the fairly innocuous back of his head. He let out a breath. “So. This—it shows you, er...nightmares?”

“Not exactly,” Sherlock said shortly, and brushed past John at a brisk walk. John set off after him, and while he truly tried his best to look away—he knew the effect this was having on Sherlock, he didn't want to agitate him further—his eyes seemed irresistibly drawn to the mirror. For the first ten feet or so, Sherlock's murderous expression remained in the glass; then they passed a short section of wall, and in the next mirror, the reflection changed. Suddenly, the Sherlock hurrying along the gallery was a gangly teenager, hunched over with his arms full of books. His eye was blackened, his papers in disarray, and he generally gave the impression of having been roughed up. John opened his mouth to comment, but Sherlock picked up the pace. In the next pane, teenage Sherlock gave way to an even younger version, no older than seven or eight; he sobbed steadily, tears and mucus dripping from his face, and John found he could hardly stand to look at him.

Before the final pane of glass, Sherlock stopped. His reflection reverted to normal, and for a moment John was relieved. But then he noticed: there was a crowd of people just outside the window in the reflection. He turned and looked out the actual window: no one there. John realized with a jolt that even he wasn't reflected in this mirror. It was just Sherlock, who looked—smaller, somehow—diminished, maybe, was the right word. He looked small and sad and very, very alone. John turned to the real Sherlock, who was gazing into the reflection, looking larger but no less sad, no less alone.

Alone is what I have. Alone protects me.

Something was clicking into place, an uncomfortable realization, and it suddenly made sense. “Sherlock,” John began tentatively, “these mirrors...is this—how you see yourself?” Abruptly, Sherlock turned on his heel and stalked out of the room, leaving John reeling in his wake.

Why, he wondered, would someone dedicate the largest room of his personal mental mnemonic to the things he most hated about himself? He could think of two possible reasons. The first was that Sherlock wasn't quite as good at this deletion thing as he pretended to be, and he simply couldn't get rid of these ideas (memories?). That was a perfectly reasonable thought, and would also explain its location, in a highly visible and centrally located thoroughfare so Sherlock would always be reminded of his perceived flaws.

There was another possible reason, though, and it wrenched at John even to consider it. Sherlock was absolutely convinced of his own defects; he clearly saw himself as something other, something not like normal people. Knowing what John knew of his flatmate, it was entirely possible that Sherlock had constructed the Hall intentionally—so that he would have to pass through it, would never be able to forget that he was fundamentally different. John thought that on some level Sherlock wore his strangeness as a badge of pride; but here, deep in his subconscious, it was impossible to miss the pain that radiated from him at the sight of his perceived flaws: mental instability, exclusion, vulnerability, loneliness. It was awful, but knowing Sherlock, John thought it was as likely a reason as any.

He realized he could no longer hear Sherlock's footsteps, and set off at a jog, happy to leave the accursed mirrors behind. “Sherlock?” he called, following the corridor as it wound past endless rooms and windows. “Sherlock?” There was no answer, of course. John's attention was momentarily diverted by an especially bizarre door—“FLENSING”—and in the few seconds he wasn't looking ahead, he slammed into something hard. He stumbled but caught himself, rubbing his bad shoulder where it had made contact, and saw that the corridor ended in a T; he'd run right into the wall at the end.

John peered down the corridor in both directions. To his left, it went up another staircase; to his right, it continued around a bend and out of sight. He called for Sherlock again, but didn't really expect an answer, and received none. Sighing, he headed for the stairs. If Sherlock had reverted to seven-year-old tantrum mode again, he'd likely be trying to hide, and another floor was as good a place as any.

John regretted his choice when he reached the top and found another flight. He swore under his breath and continued, suddenly exhausted. It was odd, he thought, how one could feel so much compassion and so much irritation for the same person at the same time. At the top of the second flight, a dimly-lit corridor extended only a few dozen yards; it was markedly less grandiose than the rest of the palace's décor, with lino rather than marble and plain plaster walls. A recent addition, maybe? John wondered. He considered simply sitting down and waiting to wake up—but the thought of leaving Sherlock alone in his vulnerable state, unable to see or speak to anyone for an entire day, nagged at him. He trudged down the corridor, squinting to make out the inscription on the door at the end.

Actually, he realized as he drew closer, there was no inscription; it was a simple builder-grade door, with a paper note tacked to it. The scrawling handwriting was familiar, but untidy enough he couldn't make it out from this distance—but then he could, and he drew up short.

“JOHN,” the note read, in Sherlock's scratchy print.

John felt a peculiar blend of excitement and dread. It made sense that he would have a room in Sherlock's mind palace; after all, they did spend the vast majority of their time together. Surely Sherlock would have filed something away by now. He wondered vaguely whether he should feel insulted at being stored up two flights of stairs and down a barely-finished hallway, but, he supposed, it was better than the dungeon. His fingers twitched toward the doorknob, but he stopped himself: was this considered a breach of Sherlock's privacy? What if he'd tucked away something he didn't want John to know?

All the more reason to look, John couldn't help thinking. The temptation was overwhelming. Finally, after eighteen months of living with the most opaque, evasive man on Earth, John could see physical evidence of what his flatmate thought about him. He hovered there with his hand over the knob, agonized with indecision. One moment he was fully decided: he couldn't betray Sherlock's trust by entering this room without permission. The next, he had fully decided the opposite: he didn't need permission, it was a room about him, and he would likely never get another chance. He shifted back and forth from one foot to the other, considering the options—and the consequences.

Oh, sod it, he thought, twisting the knob, and was so consumed with curiosity he didn't hear the footsteps pounding up the second flight of stairs.

“No, John, don't—” came Sherlock's voice behind him, but it was too late; the door had swung open, and John's foot came down on the other side of the threshold.

He'd been prepared for disappointment. His door was painfully ordinary, down an ordinary hallway, far removed from the opulence and glamour of the ground floor. In a way, he'd thought, it suited him; he was, after all, a rather ordinary man, and must seem especially average to someone as brilliant as Sherlock. He flattered himself that Sherlock did care about him, but still: he'd anticipated something small and unimpressive, perhaps filled with documents about his limp and his shoulder and his skill with a gun.

Instead, he found himself standing in a perfectly enormous room, possibly even larger than the Hall of Mirrors. Walls bearing the same hideous wallpaper as 221B extended out in every direction, and a weathered wooden floor creaked underfoot. In fact, aside from its size, it looked much like the sitting room of the flat. The floor was littered with an assortment of objects: a few feet away, a pile of jumpers had toppled over; beyond that, John could make out the silhouette of his worn armchair. A stack of striped mugs balanced precariously in the near corner. He thought he could make out the tip of his cane on the floor, protruding just slightly from under the rug.

He took a step further, fascinated and awed. Along the near wall ran a set of shelves bearing its own set of items, each one placed as carefully as a museum piece. John reached out and picked up a small lump of twisted metal: the bullet from the cabbie, he surmised. Replacing it, he examined the shelf above. It bore a can of spray paint—John wondered what it was doing there, until his eye landed on the cream-colored ASBO certificate pinned beneath it. He chuckled under his breath. A familiar vest on the lower shelf gave him a brief heart attack, until he realized Sherlock almost certainly wouldn't leave an active bomb ticking around in his brain. Every item on the shelves held some apparent meaning, and John could list most of them: a bright orange blanket from the cabbie crime scene; the worn old hat John had crammed on his head the night Sherlock acquired the deerstalker; even—he bent close to examine it—a wrinkled fortune from a Chinese biscuit.

John wanted to continue examining the shelves, but his eye was drawn upward by a framed photograph on the wall. It was of John and Mike Stamford in the lab at St. Bart's; John was holding out his mobile with a small smile. The first time we met, he thought. Now that he looked, the wall was more or less covered in photographs. From one frame, John grinned in the back of a darkened cab, his face illuminated by his mobile screen; in another, he slumped against the wall of the flat, laughing helplessly. There was a photo of him across the table at Angelo's (with that damn candle), one of his grim-set face behind his gun (pointing it at the Golem, maybe?), one of him—his stomach lurched—clutching Moriarty at the pool, the blood-red sight of a sniper rifle livid against his forehead. John strolled down the wall, staring openmouthed. Some of the photos were funny; there was one extremely blurry one that seemed to be taken from below, and John realized it was from when he'd tossed a drugged Sherlock back into bed after the incident with Irene Adler. Some brought back painful memories, like the one of John's pale, clammy face sagging with relief in a cage at Baskerville.

At the end of the row, John slowed to a stop, because these photos were different. In one, John slept on the sofa, curled tightly into a ball. He recalled that had been during a case, when Sherlock wouldn't sleep and didn't seem to think John needed to either. Another photo showed John with his head thrown back, howling with laughter on the sofa in Buckingham Palace; it seemed oddly cropped, close on his face and excluding most of the impressive scenery. In a third, John sat in the back of a cab, smiling to himself with a crystal ashtray resting in his lap. A fourth depicted his hand in Sherlock's, handcuffs linking them together, during their escape from the law just before—well—anyway, before.

The last photo, John could barely stand to glance at before looking away. It was much further away than the others, John was barely larger than an insect, but he would recognize that scene from any angle. His mobile was pressed to his ear, his other hand raised in a gesture clearly meaning wait, stop, don't. It was Sherlock's view of John just before he'd jumped.

He heard a soft groan a few feet behind him. Sherlock—God, he'd almost forgotten he was there. He opened his mouth to speak, found his throat obstructed, and cleared it embarrassingly loudly.

“Didn't think you'd want to keep that one,” he said at last, indicating the final photograph.

Sherlock was silent for a long moment. “I thought it might be the last time,” he said, and John didn't ask him to clarify. He turned to look; Sherlock was staring fixedly at him, looking just as miserable as he had outside the palace, and John realized with a jolt that this, this room, not the dungeon, not the cocaine, not the corpses, this was what he hadn't wanted John to see. The depths of his sentiment, of his attachment, perhaps his...well. But John couldn't be sure; he decided to give Sherlock an out, if he wanted one.

“No need to look like you've weed on the carpet,” he said lightly. “I suppose you've got a room like this for everyone you know.”

“I don't,” Sherlock replied immediately, and John felt a rush of affection. Such bravery, even when he was terrified, even when John had made it easy for him. Sherlock let out a long, low breath.

“Look, John,” he said, and then time did that strange thing again, that thing where it slowed down to almost nothing. John could see every detail of Sherlock's face in extreme clarity: the few curls that had dried and sprung free from the rest; the lowered eyelashes, casting faint shadows across sharp cheekbones; the shape of his mouth as it formed John's name. He stared, lost in thought.

Something was shifting, something as fundamental and essential as the ground, so that John hadn't even noticed its presence until it started moving. Here was a man for whom John had given up nearly everything extraneous in his life—he couldn't keep a girlfriend; it was only by Sarah's good grace that he managed to hold down a job; he did all the shopping and cleaning and washing up as though he were a bloody housekeeper—and yet, John felt less diminished than he ever had. It was true, from the outside he probably looked like some kind of servant. His therapist would almost certainly classify him as “codependent” (and that was without knowing he'd killed a man for his brand-new flatmate). But it all seemed a small price to pay for the feeling of wholeness, of adventure, of belonging he had found in Sherlock's company.

So, here was this mad, brilliant man, unlike any other, and against all odds he had chosen plain, ordinary John Watson as the person he wanted for his partner—in crime-solving, in domesticity, and, if he was right about the last set of photos, in other ways, too. He had taken John when he was empty and broken, fixed his limp and his loneliness, filled him up with danger and laughter and violin song. And no, he wasn't perfect—but John wasn't either, and even on his worst days Sherlock was still a thousand times better than everyone else. Here was this man, who had given John so much, and now he stood there looking at John as though his heart would break—as though he would lose his only friend, for the crime of daring to reveal the depth of his feelings. It made John ache, that Sherlock had such little faith.

And, yes, fine, he was a man. Definitely a man—taller than John, muscular, always strutting around in those ridiculously expensive suits and shoes that certainly weren't meant for running around the back alleys of London. But he was beautiful, too, and when he smiled it sent a little thrill through John's nerves; and the thing was, what it really was, was this: words like gay and straight had fallen considerably in importance below words like suicide and coma and look, John, and John wasn't sure he could summon the energy to pull them back up. Maybe he would have realized it sooner, but an errant glance here or a fleeting thought there tended to fall into the cracks between I consider myself married to my work and the Woman and alone is what I have, and John could hardly be blamed if he couldn't form a coherent thought with all that rattling around in his brain.

All this crossed John's mind in the space between “Look, John,” and the next words, “I understand if—” Suddenly, time was moving fast again, and before Sherlock could finish his sentence John closed the distance, tugged him down by a fistful of damp shirt, and kissed him.

Sherlock made a noise against his mouth, and John opened his eyes to find Sherlock's wide and staring. John pulled away just enough to breathe, heart hammering.

“But you're—” Sherlock gasped, and John said “Yes,” and kissed him again. Sherlock's mouth was open mid-speech, and John took advantage, running his tongue along the soft inside of Sherlock's lip. Sherlock whimpered and pulled back again with clear reluctance.

“But I'm—”

“I don't care.” He crushed his mouth against Sherlock's, knowing he should be more gentle—had Sherlock ever been kissed before? Surely he had—but he couldn't seem to slow down. He felt Sherlock turning pliant against him, his mouth opening and a soft hum of pleasure escaping his throat. Abruptly, though, Sherlock shoved him away, hard enough that John released his shirt and stumbled back against the shelves. Sherlock stood hunched, breathing heavily with swollen lips, shirt sharply creased where John had gripped it. He looked thoroughly debauched, and John felt a pleasant stirring in the pit of his stomach.

“John,” Sherlock panted, “I don't understand.”

“Deduce it,” John replied, grinning.

“But you don't—I mean, you aren't—”

John stepped closer, and Sherlock held his ground, though there was distinct tension in his face. “Sherlock,” he said deliberately, “do you want to kiss me?”

“God, yes,” Sherlock breathed, closing his eyes. John smiled, raising a hand to the familiar sharp cheekbones, and he opened them again.

“Then stop thinking about it and do it.”

He'd wondered whether Sherlock would feel too awkward, but he needn't have worried; Sherlock didn't have to be told twice. His mouth descended onto John's with a desperation that took John's breath away. His long fingers gripped John's face, sliding into his hair, and John responded with enthusiasm. It was strange, having to tilt his head back, but other than that not so very different from other kisses; Sherlock's lips were as soft as they looked, his tongue insistent, his body warm even through the damp clothing. John's arms wound around his waist and clung tight.

Actually, John amended, it was different from other kisses, but not for the reasons he'd anticipated. No one had ever kissed him like this: like they'd been waiting for this precise moment all their lives. Sherlock's hands clutched him with an intensity bordering on pain, at last letting John feel all the pent-up longing and insecurity he'd been hiding. For his part, John tried to radiate back waves of reassurance and acceptance. You can have this, Sherlock, he said with his lips and his hands, it's all fine. It was better than fine. It was fantastic. He steered Sherlock toward the wall and pinned him against the shelves, stumbling a little as he did his best to maintain contact with that marvelous mouth. Trinkets tipped over and rolled to the floor, but John couldn't be bothered to care, and apparently neither could Sherlock. John broke away from Sherlock's mouth at last, trailing kisses over his jaw and down his neck. As he dropped an openmouthed kiss into the hollow of Sherlock's collarbone, Sherlock blurted, “Oh, fuck.”

A smile tugged at the corners of John's mouth and he pulled away, trying not to laugh. Sherlock stared at him, disheveled and clearly discombobulated, and a low rumble of laughter started in his chest. John's own giggle escaped despite his best efforts, and suddenly they were leaning against the shelves and each other, laughing so hard John couldn't catch his breath. Sherlock's arm slipped around his shoulders, pulling him close, and John subsided. He felt Sherlock's mouth press gently against the top of his head, and closed his eyes.

“Clearly my observational skills could use some improvement,” Sherlock murmured into his hair. “It seems I was mistaken about you.”

“If it's any consolation, I didn't really know it myself,” John admitted. “I never thought you were interested, at any rate.”

“I hadn't planned to be,” Sherlock replied, “but you insisted on being so persistently interesting.” John grinned against Sherlock's shirt, and felt Sherlock mirror the expression. He was so glad, so very glad, that this was turning out to be just like everything else about their relationship: so easy, so comfortable, as though they'd been doing it for ages. Being more-than-friends with Sherlock was apparently just like being friends with Sherlock, with some obvious new benefits. Besides, he thought wryly, everyone thought they were shagging anyway; might as well get the fun out of it. He turned his face upward, intending to say something to Sherlock, but the wall behind him caught his eye: more photographs had appeared. One depicted John, looking a little breathless, stalking toward Sherlock to kiss him for the second time; another showed him laughing in Sherlock's arms just moments ago. He smiled, impressed as always by the efficiency of Sherlock's mental faculties.

“Thank you,” Sherlock said, and John tilted his head, puzzled. “You had that look on your face. You were thinking I was amazing.”

John rolled his eyes. “Don't go getting a big head, now,” he teased. “We've only snogged the one time; I've not had a chance to form a proper opinion yet.”

“Further data needed,” Sherlock agreed. “Let's resume our research immediately.” He bent his head to John's, but John tensed; the familiar white light had begun to blur the edges of his vision. Oh, no, please, come on. He supposed he should be grateful for such a long visit, but the idea of leaving Sherlock right now was intolerable. He pressed his mouth hungrily against Sherlock's, explaining urgently between kisses.

“Sherlock—I'm sorry—it's—time—I've got—to go—”

“It's fine,” Sherlock breathed, though his arms tightened. “Go. I'll be here.” As the light became blinding, John squeezed his eyes shut, hands tight around Sherlock's face. He kissed him one last time and—

John awoke in his bed in Baker Street, tingling lips stretched in a breathless grin.

Chapter Text

Sherlock's doctors were confused again—John less so than the others, but he couldn't exactly add his findings to the discussion. Dr. Reid and two others stood at Sherlock's bedside, relaying the latest on Sherlock's condition to a bored-looking Anthea, who typed relentlessly on her BlackBerry. John was trying to focus on their conversation, but found it a little difficult; his attention kept straying back to Sherlock's face. Certain parts of it in particular.

His own disappointment had come as a surprise when he'd arrived at the hospital that morning. It seemed he'd been holding out hope that Sherlock might have awakened, without even being aware of it. That was absurd, he knew; Sherlock wasn't Sleeping sodding Beauty, and John certainly wasn't Prince Charming. There was no reason he should be awake, except that now John had one more reason to wish he was.

That sober train of thought had made his stomach ball up into a knot and remain that way for the rest of the morning. He found himself wondering whether last night's exploits had been a mistake. It was hard enough that he might yet lose his best friend and flatmate; had he just made it infinitely worse by adding another layer of heartache to the mix? His fingers stroked the back of Sherlock's hand absently. It was cool, nothing like the hands that had pulled him into their fiery embrace the night before—but also nothing like the cold, lifeless hand John had held on the pavement outside Bart's, and so he supposed he ought to be thankful.

“...these spikes in activity seem to come—are you sure Mr. Holmes wouldn't prefer to speak with us personally?” Dr. Reid demanded, as Anthea tapped blithely at her phone. She cracked a smile without looking up.

“No, I'm giving him the necessary information,” she replied. Dr. Reid sighed and continued.

“What I'm saying is, his brain activity doesn't fit the normal profile for a coma patient,” the doctor said, and John snapped to attention. “There are spikes at night as though he's dreaming—”

“Coma patients don't dream,” John said quickly. “They don't have sleep-wake cycles.”

“That's what I'm saying, Dr. Watson,” she replied, apparently gratified that someone was finally listening. “He shouldn't be having these spikes, and I can't explain why. Everything else fits the profile, but there's activity in the entorhinal cortex for a few hours each night—as though he's remembering something, or his brain is filing away new information.”

“Could he be waking up?” John asked, trying not to sound as hopeful as he felt. Dr. Reid shook her head.

“There's no conscious activity,” she explained, “and nothing else has changed. I can't say for sure what it means, but he doesn't seem to be getting any closer to consciousness. I'm sorry, John. I wish I could tell you something more conclusive, but I've never seen anything like it.”

John sighed and shook his head. “I'm not surprised. He's not exactly...like other people.”

She placed a hand briefly on his shoulder, then nodded to the other doctors, who filed out of the room. “Give Mr. Holmes our regards,” she called, and John was impressed at how minimally sarcastic she managed to sound.

With the doctors gone, the clicking of Anthea's phone keys seemed unnaturally loud; the sound reminded him of yesterday's failed attempt to retrieve Sherlock's mobile. As Anthea turned to go without a word, John stepped between her and the door. She looked up in surprise.

“I'm going with you,” he declared, and she narrowed her eyes.

“I'm not free for lunch,” she retorted, trying to step around him. He leaned back against the door, arms folded.

“I wasn't asking you out,” he clarified, at which she raised an eyebrow, “and actually, I wasn't asking. I need to see Mycroft.”

Anthea smirked. “I thought your plan was to never speak to him again?”

“Well, yeah, I would do,” John sighed, “if he would stop meddling in my life, but we both know that's not going to happen. And now it seems he doesn't want to talk to me, so I've got a great opportunity to annoy him.”

Anthea studied him for a moment, then smiled—John thought perhaps the first genuine smile she'd ever directed at him. “Fine,” she said at last. “Follow me.” He did, marveling at the way she managed to walk with her nose in her mobile, sidestepping obstacles and navigating without ever looking up. John kept his eyes firmly on the back of her head, rather than on the impeccably-tailored pencil skirt clinging to her hips. He didn't know what last night's events would ultimately mean for Sherlock and himself, but it was a bit early in the maybe-relationship to be mentally philandering, surely. (And was he the only person around here who didn't have his clothes custom-made? John had never considered himself especially fashionable, it was true, but he felt like a bloody peasant around these people.)

The ride to—well, to wherever Mycroft was currently running the world—was typically silent, and John gazed out the window to avoid making awkward attempts at conversation. Oddly, though, he could feel Anthea's gaze on him from time to time. Had he finally gotten her attention by standing up for himself? He almost chuckled. Naturally, once a bloke goes and does something a little bit gay, the ladies take an interest.

Gay: it was an odd word to hear applied to himself, even inside his own head. After the amount of time he'd spent insisting otherwise, he almost felt guilty. He certainly felt foolish. But then, he supposed, the label didn't precisely apply; he was interested in women, and he couldn't, presently, feel any attraction to other men. Sherlock had, as always, proven himself a member of no category other than his own, and why was John surprised he had insinuated himself into this area of his life, too? It was as though Sherlock couldn't bear being left out of any part of John's life, and so he'd intentionally pushed his way into John's heart (and maybe, if John was being honest with himself, some of his more lurid dreams). John supposed he ought to be angry. He wasn't. He had a vague sense that, when Sherlock woke up, it would make everything easier; at least he wouldn't have to worry about choosing between dates or moonlit runs over London's rooftops. Sherlock's idea of a date likely was moonlit runs over London's rooftops. Of course, it was all a little premature; a handful of kisses in an emotionally-charged area of Sherlock's subconscious did not exactly constitute a relationship. Still, Sherlock didn't do anything by half measures, did he?

No, he wasn't angry. Well: at least, he wasn't angry about that. He had the impression that some part of himself had been permanently left behind on the pavement outside St. Bart's, forever holding up his hand in fear and desperation, and yes, anger. That gesture had said no and don't, of course, but it had also said why won't you let me help you? How can you give up so quickly? Why do you want to go where I can't follow? Knowing that it had been false, that Sherlock had intended to survive, didn't make him feel any better; by his own admission, he'd planned to leave John behind at any rate.

Now that the initial shock of finding himself party to Sherlock's subconscious was wearing off, he found himself increasingly consumed not with the aftermath but with the fall itself. He'd had the distinct impression since the beginning that Sherlock wasn't telling him the whole truth; his strange behavior about the mobile on the rooftop had only exacerbated his curiosity, and now that he knew Mycroft was going to great lengths to hide it, his suspicions seemed to be confirmed.

The car pulled up outside the Diogenes Club, and Anthea gestured vaguely at the door. John paused, blinking. “You're not coming?”

She rolled her eyes. “You've been here,” she pointed out. “How many women have you seen on the premises?”

“Oh,” John said, realization dawning. “Sorry. Ah—bit sexist, isn't it?”

Anthea seemed to have reached her word limit for the day, and declined to answer. John offered a weak “thanks” over his shoulder as he exited, and made his way into the building with as much confidence as he could muster.

Judging by the attendant who met John at the door and escorted him down the hall, Anthea had told Mycroft to expect him. He pulled himself into military stiffness as he entered the room, mentally preparing to argue and threaten and demand until he got his way.

“I know why you're here, John,” Mycroft called by way of greeting, not looking up from his papers. “I apologize. It was necessary.”

“It—what?” John asked, thrown off-balance once again. Just once, just fucking once, he wanted to get the upper hand in a conversation with Mycroft Holmes. “You—how?” Brilliant, Watson. You've proven you know a handful of pronouns.

“You don't really care how, do you?” Mycroft inquired, raising an eyebrow. “What you're interested in, I'd wager, is why.”

“Yes, fine,” John spat. “You hid evidence from m—from the police,” he finished lamely. “Why would you do that?”

“It hasn't entered your head that perhaps the information on that mobile could incriminate Sherlock?” Mycroft asked. “That perhaps he'd told you the truth, and the recording on that phone would only confirm it?”

“No,” John replied flatly, and the corner of Mycroft's mouth raised infinitesimally.

“Loyal until the bitter end.”

“Who says it's the end?”

“Western medicine would deem it likely,” Mycroft said, his gaze boring into John's as though he were searching for something. “A fall from that height, the extent of the injuries, lack of brain activity...you're a doctor, John. You know it's most likely a matter of time.”

John shook his head, clenching and unclenching his fist. “Jesus,” he snarled, “you really are just a complete robot, aren't you?”

“I prefer to think of it as pragmatism.”

“Pragmatism.” John snorted. “Right. Well done. Must be nice, not having to—to feel anything, to care about anyone, because it's not a fucking advan—”

“John,” Mycroft interrupted, and his voice was so uncharacteristically soft it stopped John mid-rant. “I've known since the beginning he was unlikely to wake up.”

“Oh, so that makes it better, does it, knowing—”

“You don't understand. I've known for over a week that my brother was not likely to recover from his injuries. Yet I've elected to spend valuable medical and security resources—not to mention a considerable sum of money—to keep him, in some capacity, alive.” Mycroft lowered his head, and for once he looked like nothing more than what he was: a lonely, middle-aged man losing his grip on the only family he had left. John felt his righteous fury transmuting, twisting uncomfortably into something akin to pity. He hated it.

“I see,” John said at last. “Sentiment.”

Mycroft raised his head again, making eye contact, and John was startled at the depth of sadness in the lines of his face. “Love, John,” he corrected. “Think what you will of me, but I'm not incapable, I assure you.” He rolled a pen back and forth on his desk, apparently unwilling to look at John any further.

“I...don't think that.” He didn't, actually. Mycroft went to insane and terrifying lengths to keep track of Sherlock; it was creepy, inconvenient and occasionally infuriating, but John understood that in a strange way, it was Mycroft's brand of affection. Sherlock's own brand included stealing from Buckingham Palace and making histrionic declarations about light, and why should his older brother's be any less bizarre? Not for the first time, John felt a shudder pass through him at the thought of what their parents must have been like.

“I wish you'd known him as a boy,” Mycroft continued, still toying with the pen. “He was...charming. All the energy and inquisitiveness he possesses now, but...” He smiled sadly. “He hadn't learned his distrust of the world yet.”

John tried to imagine it: adult Sherlock, his Sherlock, all full of deductions and curiosity and verve, but coupled with friendliness and genuine enthusiasm. He couldn't picture it. Somehow, he'd always been under the impression that Sherlock's brilliance stemmed from his obvious pain, or vice versa. It hadn't ever occurred to him that he could fundamentally still be Sherlock without being—well—the way he was, all hard edges and sharp points. It made him sad.

John cleared his throat. “What was it, Mycroft?” he asked, and Mycroft looked up in surprise. “I know it wasn't always like this between you two. What caused it?”

“That's a discussion for another day,” Mycroft answered, too quickly.

“Oh, come on. I've been around your weird family almost two years now, do you really think it's going to surprise me?” He chuckled humorlessly. Mycroft straightened, steepling his fingers on the desk in a move so familiar it made John's chest ache.

“You came here for other answers,” he pointed out, “and I've only enough time to provide them on one topic. So you choose, John. Are you really interested in the sordid past of the brothers Holmes, or would you prefer to find out exactly why my brother threw himself from that roof?” He cocked an eyebrow, a motion which John correctly interpreted as Checkmate.

“Fine,” he sighed. “The mobile, then.”

“A wise decision.” Mycroft bent and fished around in his desk, his voice floating up muffled. “As to why we concealed information from the police, well. Firstly, they were as always underequipped to deal with the consequences of the situation. Secondly, we felt it would be easier for Sherlock to complete his work if Scotland Yard were not also sniffing around the same case.” He emerged, a few stray hairs skewed across his forehead, and held out the mobile. John reached for it, and Mycroft jerked it back.

“I will let you listen to the contents of this recording,” Mycroft said, “and I give you my word that it has not been altered or truncated in any way. But first, I'll need you to agree to three conditions.”

“Mycroft,” John groaned, and Mycroft shook his head.

“Three conditions,” he repeated. “First, tell me: how did you know there had been a cover-up?”

John had been afraid of this; he couldn't think of an answer that made sense without setting off Mycroft's internal lie detector. Best to stick to the truth as much as possible, he supposed. “I knew he'd had his mobile,” he began, “because he'd called me on it. I just didn't realize until yesterday that it was missing. I assumed Lestrade had it, but he didn't, so I knew you must've had something to do with it.”

Mycroft was doing that glaring thing again, trying to divine information John wasn't willing to give. “I see,” he said, obviously not believing a word of it. “That makes sense.”

“The other two conditions?” John stammered, heart pounding. Please, just go with it.

Fortunately, Mycroft did, even if suspicion was still written on his face. “Yes,” he agreed. “These may be somewhat more difficult, but I ask you to try.”

“Okay,” John agreed cautiously. What outlandish task did he have in mind this time?

“First, you must forgive Sherlock,” Mycroft said, throwing John for yet another loop. Forgive him? He was angry, yes, he'd established that, but it seemed like something that would fade away with time, swept up on a current of affection and longing. He never did seem to be able to stay angry with Sherlock for long.

“Okay,” he repeated, no less confused. Mycroft nodded.

“Finally,” he said, “you must forgive yourself.”

“Myself?” John repeated blankly, not sure he'd heard correctly. “For what? What did I do?”

“Nothing,” Mycroft said. “You did nothing wrong, John, but I've often found that personal culpability has little to do with personal guilt.”

“I—okay,” John said. “I don't get it.”

“Promise you'll try,” Mycroft, stressed, holding the phone just out of John's reach. John nodded and swallowed, his throat suddenly dry. Mycroft held his gaze a moment longer, then pressed the mobile into John's hand and stood.

“I'll give you some privacy,” he said, breezing out of the room and leaving a gaping John in his wake. Mycroft Holmes is giving me privacy? he thought, dumbfounded. The contents of the recording suddenly seemed even more ominous.

He raised it and looked at the screen; Mycroft had evidently pulled up the recording already, so he only needed to lift it to his ear and press “play.” Hands shaking, he did, and sank into the chair in front of Mycroft's desk. He could hear the tinny strains of a song playing in the distance, growing nearer, as though Sherlock were walking toward it—and then he nearly jumped out of his skin as a familiar voice spoke. The sound was muffled (John supposed the mobile had been in Sherlock's coat) but clear enough.

“Ah! Here we are at last. You and me, Sherlock, and our problem: the final problem.”

Jesus. John knew Jim Moriarty was dead, but that didn't stop his heart from hammering, his stomach clenching into knots. Had Sherlock voluntarily gone up to the roof to meet this madman? Had he arranged it all, trotting upstairs to dance with fate while John sped furiously away in a cab? He felt a cold stab of horror in his guts; if he had refused to leave, if he had dragged Sherlock with him, would things have turned out differently?

Moriarty was still speaking, and John focused his attention with difficulty. “...been searching for distractions. You were the best distraction, and now I don't even have you, because I've beaten you. And you know what? In the end it was easy.”

John couldn't stop the fresh rage that boiled up hot in his veins. Had Moriarty somehow goaded Sherlock to death? Sherlock wasn't thinking clearly, he was tired and frustrated, agitated by those around him abandoning him—including me, John thought desolatelycould he really be so susceptible to—?

“Now I've got to go back to playing with the ordinary people,” Moriarty continued, disappointment clear in his voice. “And it turns out you're ordinary, just like all of them.” He sighed. “Ah well.”

John heard his footsteps, and he felt an absurd urge to tell Sherlock to run, to go back downstairs where it was safe. Of course, it was much too late for that. “Did you almost start to wonder if I was real? Did I nearly get you?” Moriarty hissed.

Sherlock spoke for the first time, and John nearly dropped the phone, weak with longing at the sound of his voice. “Richard Brook.”

“Nobody seems to get the joke, but you do.” Moriarty sounded pleased. John could count himself among nobody, he supposed; none of this was any clearer.

“Of course.”

“'Attaboy.”

“Rich Brook in German is Reichenbach. The case that made my name.” Oh. Oh. How could John have missed it? He'd searched for the man online, had done his best to track him somehow, and yet he'd never even realized his bloody name was a reference?

“Just tryin' to have some fun,” Moriarty agreed in a nasal, obnoxious voice.

John listened to Sherlock's explanation of how he'd worked out the code, swelling with vicarious pride; the pride was quickly replaced with horror, however, when Moriarty shouted Sherlock down, revealing it had all been simple bribery and extortion. John felt lightheaded. We never even had a chance to stop him, did we? he thought. He was always a step ahead. The amount of effort Moriarty had put into this little game, all for the end goal of toying with Sherlock: it was incredible. It was terrifyingly, insanely incredible.

“Now, shall we finish the game? One final act. Glad you chose a tall building; nice way to do it,” Moriarty continued, snapping John back to attention. When Sherlock spoke again, he sounded as confused and distracted as John felt.

“Do it? Do—do what?” There was silence for a moment, and then he made a soft noise of realization. “Yes, of course: my suicide.”

John's stomach twisted again. No, don't do it, he thought stupidly, don't let him talk you into this, whatever it is, it's not worth it! “'Genius Detective Proved To Be A Fraud.' I read it in the paper, so it must be true.” Moriarty sounded insufferably smug. “I love newspapers. Fairytales. And pretty grim ones too.” You think you're so clever with your stupid puns, John thought furiously, as though that mattered at all.

There was silence for a long moment; John wished Sherlock had taken a video instead. “I can still prove that you created an entirely false identity,” Sherlock said at last.

Jim sighed. “Oh, just kill yourself,” he snapped. “It's a lot less effort.” His voice sounded much closer on the next words. “Go on, for me. Pleeeeeeeeeeeeease?”

There was a sudden flurry of movement against the phone's mouthpiece; John craned his neck as though he might actually be able to see something, cursing himself for his stupidity. “You're insane,” Sherlock hissed.

“You're just getting that now?” Moriarty cackled, and then let out a whoop of what sounded like alarm. Was Sherlock threatening him somehow?

“Okay, let me give you a little extra incentive,” Moriarty said, his voice strangely choked. “Your friends will die if you don't.”

John,” Sherlock breathed, no hesitation. And there it was, and John instantly understood Mycroft's cryptic final condition. John. The way he said it brought tears to John's eyes: even through the tinny speaker of the mobile, he could hear all the layers of that one word. Fear, horror, dawning realization, disbelief.

“Not just John,” Moriarty whispered, just barely audible, “everyone.”

“Mrs. Hudson?”

Everyone.”

“Lestrade.”

Moriarty's voice was breathless, exhilarated. “Three bullets, three gunmen, three victims. There's no stopping them now. Unless my people see you jump.”

All John could hear of Sherlock was heavy breathing; he seemed to be lost for words. So, for his part, was John. The notion of targeting dear, fragile Mrs. Hudson—or kind, brave Lestrade—he felt his free hand ball involuntarily into a fist. John, he had chosen his place voluntarily, and it was no surprise that even now, that place was between Sherlock and a bullet. But the others...

John didn't kid himself, though. He had heard his name come out of Sherlock's mouth, and he knew—knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, knew with more certainty than he'd known anything lately—that Mrs. Hudson and Lestrade would not have been necessary. John would have been enough, because Moriarty said “friend” and Sherlock breathed “John,” almost involuntarily, and in the space of that one word John knew they had already lost the battle. Something dripped onto his fist and John was startled to realize he was crying, tears streaming steadily down and off his chin.

“You can have me arrested,” Moriarty was declaring. “You can torture me. You can do anything you like with me, but nothing's gonna prevent them from pulling the trigger. Your only three friends in the world will die, unless...”

“Unless I kill myself. Complete your story.”

“You've gotta admit that's sexier.”

“And I die in disgrace.”

“Of course. That's the point of all this.” John felt a sob escape his lips and clapped a hand over his mouth, breathing hard through his nose; it was all making sense now, the lies on the ledge, all that effort to convince John everything he believed was false. John felt a tiny, fierce stab of pride, because he had never believed it, not ever for an instant; if no one else had, he at least had kept his faith. But his faith hadn't been enough, had it? He wasn't Sherlock Holmes; it wasn't enough to be right. What good did it do him to be right when Sherlock was—he was—

“Your death is the only thing that's gonna call off the killers. I'm certainly not gonna do it.”

John burned with hatred, and with curiosity for the only piece of the puzzle left unsolved: how did Jim Moriarty go from laughing triumphantly over Sherlock's failure to lying dead on the rooftop, and why, if Moriarty was dead, had Sherlock still jumped? He vaguely heard Sherlock ask for a moment, heard Moriarty acquiesce, but it wasn't until Sherlock started laughing that John really focused again.

“What is it?” Moriarty was bellowing, voice full of rage. “What did I miss?”

'You're not going to do it,'” Sherlock repeated, his voice smug. “So the killers can be called off, then. There's a recall code, or a word, or a number. I don't have to die...” He raised his voice into a singsong, a clear mockery of Moriarty's childish tone. “...if I've got you!”

John's pride rallied again, surging through his veins, feeling absurdly like hope. Yes, Sherlock! he thought furiously. You've got him!

Moriarty laughed. “Oh, you think you can make me stop the order? You think you can make me do that?”

“Yes,” Sherlock replied promptly, his voice low and dangerous, “and so do you.”

“Sherlock, your big brother and all the king's horses couldn't make me do a thing I didn't want to.”

“Yes, but I'm not my brother, remember?” Sherlock whispered, and John could practically see him leaning in for the kill. “I'm you—prepared to do anything. Prepared to burn. Prepared to do what ordinary people won't do. You want me to shake hands with you in hell? I shall not disappoint.”

You're not, John thought, you're nothing like him, he might be a genius but he's not you—

Jim seemed to echo John's thoughts. “Nah,” he said slowly. “You talk big. Nah. You're ordinary. You're on the side of the angels.”

“Oh, I may be on the side of the angels,” Sherlock murmured, “but don't think for one second that I am one of them.”

And that, John couldn't deny. He'd often wondered, when he allowed himself, what had drawn Sherlock toward the side of good rather than evil. In a parallel universe, he could easily see Sherlock and Moriarty working in tandem, a terrible pastiche of Sherlock-and-John. He'd supposed it was just an essential goodness Sherlock had somewhere inside him, mirrored by the essential badness in Moriarty—but what if it wasn't? What if each of them had had some experience, something maybe small but life-altering, that had sent them tumbling headlong down their respective paths?

Moriarty seemed to be considering. “No,” he said slowly, “you're not.” John let out a breath of relief. “I see. You're not ordinary: no. You're me.” John glanced at the screen of the mobile; there wasn't much time left on the recording. How does it happen?! he wanted to shout. Get it out!

Moriarty was laughing, a sound John found infinitely more terrifying than his anger. “You're me!” he repeated. “Thank you! Sherlock Holmes. Thank you. Bless you.”

There was a long pause in which John didn't take a breath; he felt as though he would jump out of his skin. “As long as I'm alive, you can save your friends,” Jim said finally, his voice frighteningly flat. “You've got a way out.” There was a pause, and John wondered frantically what was happening; what were they doing up there?

“Well, good luck with that,” Moriarty finished. Sherlock let out a bark of alarm unlike anything John had ever heard come out of his mouth, and then there was the deafening crack of a gunshot. Sherlock's footsteps stumbled away, and he huffed panicked breaths.

Then the recording stopped.

John sat for a moment, numb. He knew why the recording had stopped, of course; that was when he had rung John, and they'd had their final conversation, nothing but lies. Moriarty had taken the game further than even Sherlock had anticipated, willing to give up his own life to ensure Sherlock's destruction. John let out a harsh, strangled wail of frustration; what was the point, what was the bloody purpose of all this suffering, if Jim Moriarty hadn't even stuck around to enjoy the bitter fruits of his labor? He'd known the man was insane, murderous, but good God: he took those adjectives to another level.

And Sherlock, he thought furiously. He'd stood up there on that ledge and lied through his teeth, and for what? He could have told John the truth; John would have been powerless to stop him either way. And why, why, why had he gone up there on his own in the first place? If he hadn't—if he had let John help—

Friends protect people, John had spat at him, storming out the door for the last time. He'd thought Sherlock didn't understand, that he was essentially still cold, that he was incapable of feelings of the same depth as John's. And John supposed, looking back, that some of the anger had been directed at himself: gullible old John Watson, letting himself feel—things—for a man who would never, ever return them. But in light of this new information, John's last declaration seemed especially foolish. Friends protect people, and Sherlock had done exactly that: he had sent John away, at the cost of his own life and their friendship, to ensure he wouldn't be hurt.

John didn't know how long he slumped in the chair, tears streaming down his face until he was drained. His breath came in broken gasps, and he marveled at the pain in his chest. He wouldn't have thought it was actually possible for him to feel worse, yet there it was: he had his answers, and he felt more despairing than ever. He had placed himself between Sherlock and a bullet, and Sherlock had pushed him out of the way, without John ever knowing the danger was there. Regardless of whatever John had done for Sherlock in the past, this was a debt he wasn't sure he could ever repay.

He straightened abruptly. Unless he could repay it. Sherlock was still alive, whatever Mycroft and the other doctors said, trapped inside his own head. Maybe, with the right approach, he could help him get out. After all, for whatever reason, John could enter Sherlock's subconscious; didn't it stand to reason that Sherlock could exit it? He wasn't sure—this was all so far outside the realm of science and medicine that it felt almost like something out of Harry Potter—but he'd be damned if he wasn't going to try. John stormed out of the club, ignoring the scandalized looks of the other patrons and attendants, and flung himself back into Anthea's waiting car. She seemed unsurprised at the state of him, simply gesturing at the driver and going back to her texts. John's mind raced all the way to Baker Street.

When he arrived home, he took the stairs two at a time, not stopping until he reached his bedroom. It was only early evening, the sun just beginning to set, but he snatched up the temazepam and swallowed a dose without bothering to go get a glass of water. He had to see Sherlock, he needed to see him, and he absolutely wasn't going to wait a moment longer.

Chapter Text

Well, shit.

John hadn't been quite sure, when he'd at last fallen into a fitful sleep, whether he wanted to kiss Sherlock or throttle him for going up to that roof to face Moriarty alone. He'd thought that, before doing either of those things, it would probably be a good idea to have a long, in-depth talk about their situation. (He'd also thought, of course, that Sherlock would immediately brush off any attempts at such a conversation, but he reckoned he'd give it a go.) Not knowing where they'd materialize was a potential complication, but surely it wouldn't be difficult to find a place to just talk. Nearly anywhere would work for that. Nearly anywhere, of course, barring the darkened and forbidding swath of wilderness upon which he'd found himself standing.

Dartmoor.

And of course, no detectives in sight. “Sherlock!” called, turning on the spot and squinting vainly into the dark. “Sherlock, can you hear me?”

John shuddered and tried very hard to remind himself that none of the horrors of Dartmoor had been real (except, he supposed, for the minefield). They'd only been hallucinations brought on by the chemical fog in Dewer's Hollow, and surely Sherlock's subconscious wouldn't be so masochistic as to recreate that, would it?

A low, anguished groan floated out of the darkness, and it seemed John had the answer to that question. He swore under his breath and set off toward the sound, picking his steps as carefully as he could. “Sherlock!” he tried again, stumbling a little. “Keep making noise!”

John,” Sherlock's voice returned, thin and insubstantial over the wind.

“Come on, keep talking!” John picked up the pace, tree roots and fallen branches be damned. Sherlock sounded as though he were in pain, or very frightened, and so there was really only one place he could be. A soft, moonlit glow came into sight about a hundred yards ahead, and John made a beeline. Sherlock moaned again, but otherwise ignored John's instruction to talk.

At last, after taking a few near-tumbles into the dirt, John crested the trail and stood gazing down into Dewer's Hollow. A tremor ran through him; he'd hoped never to see this place again. For a long moment, he was rooted to the spot, lost in memory. A small movement caught his eye, and he zeroed in on it like a hawk: Sherlock, crouched low to the ground.

“Sherlock!” he called. There was no response; Sherlock seemed to have his hands over his ears. John eyed the wave of fog rolling across the path; at last, he decided there was nothing for it, took a deep breath, and plunged in, keeping his mouth clamped firmly shut.

Sherlock wasn't far, and John reached him quickly. He sat on his heels against a rocky outcropping, hands tight over his ears, visibly shaking. John wondered what he was seeing or hearing—was it the Hound, again? Could he not convince himself it wasn't real? Cautiously, he leaned down and brushed his fingers over Sherlock's shoulder. Sherlock jumped violently, but as his gaze traveled up John's body it softened into relief; John smiled as he made eye contact.

Sherlock's face twisted into horror and he let out a high, unearthly scream. It made the hair on John's arms stand up, and he let his air out in a rush of surprise. “No,” Sherlock groaned, scrabbling backward. “No!”

“Sherlock, it's me, it's me!” John said desperately, trying to breathe in as little as possible. “Come on, we've got to get out of here!”

No,” he moaned again, and John was alarmed at how close to tears he sounded. “John, John, I'm so sorry...”

“Nothing to apologize for, mate, let's just go, all right—” He reached for Sherlock's arm, meaning to pull him along, but Sherlock let out another scream and lurched madly away. John pulled in short, shallow breaths through his nose. There wasn't much time; they needed to get out of the hollow, quickly, or he would soon be as senseless as Sherlock. “Damn it, Sherlock, come on!” At last his fingers caught in the collar of Sherlock's coat, and John began to drag him arduously through the leaf litter, ignoring the horrified sounds emanating from Sherlock's throat. There was nothing for it; he was going to have to breathe properly or he'd never be able to pull Sherlock away. He sucked in a deep breath, sending up a silent prayer that whatever hallucination he was saddled with wouldn't be as horrid as Sherlock's seemed.

He tugged Sherlock along for what seemed like forever, out of the hollow and down the path in the direction he'd come from. Sherlock, for his part, helped very little, mostly keeping his hands over his face and moaning incoherently about John and whatever he was sorry for. It broke John's heart a little, hearing Sherlock so terrified, and apparently over something to do with him.

“It's all right, Sherlock, don't worry,” he repeated breathlessly, panting as they made their way arduously down the trail. A gleam in the near distance caught his eye; whatever it was, it was far too shiny to be a tree or a rock, and so he chose that as their destination. As they drew closer, he saw it was a car. Well, better than nothing, he supposed. He'd get Sherlock inside, away from the fog and the wind, and hold him still until he calmed down. At last, they reached the car, and John propped Sherlock up against it for a moment so that he could open the door.

“That's it,” he panted, cupping Sherlock's clammy face in his palms for a moment. He began to stand up, but Sherlock caught his wrists, pinning his hands in place. A tear rolled down his cheek, shining the same silver as his eyes in the moonlight. He seemed fixated on the side of John's head.

“John,” he repeated, his voice calmer but no less broken. “I tried.”

“Tried what?” John urged softly. By way of response, Sherlock slid a hand up into the hair on the side of John's head; he recoiled slightly, fresh tears sliding down his face as he prodded the scalp there. John glanced up, seeing his reflection in the car door, and let out a choked shout of alarm, falling backward out of his crouch and landing hard on his coccyx.

The entire right side of John's head, as well as most of his right eye and temple, was blown away, a gory mess of exit wound. Blood dripped steadily from his hair onto his shoulder, and he reflexively reached up to wipe it away. His fingers came away clean.

You saw what you expected to see. Sherlock's voice in the Baskerville lab came back to him, and John clamped down on his panic. He'd had a breath of the fog, too—only he was in Sherlock's mind, not Dartmoor, and now he was seeing what Sherlock was so desperately afraid of.

Three bullets, three gunmen, three victims. There's no stopping them now.

“Right.” John pulled himself to a standing position and wrenched the car door open—unlocked, thank God. He hoisted Sherlock up gracelessly by the lapels and thrust him into the backseat, tucking all his ridiculous limbs inside before clambering in himself. Sherlock groaned again, and John thought he could hear a hint of affront beneath the fear—a good sign, he hoped. He slammed the car door behind them, startled by the sudden silence. The wind outside was nearly inaudible, leaving their labored breathing the only sound. Sherlock lay sprawled across the seat, chest heaving and eyes wide on John's midsection.

“Right,” John repeated, more gently, and leaned in to brush the hair out of Sherlock's eyes; he flinched but didn't pull away. “Sherlock, look at me, okay? Look up at my face.” With obvious reluctance, Sherlock obeyed; his eyes flickered from John's temple to his eyes, and he licked his lip nervously.

“I'm fine, Sherlock,” he said, doing his best to sound soothing despite the pounding of his heart. “It's only the fog playing tricks on you. I'm perfectly all right.” Sherlock said nothing, only stared at John with uncertainty written across his face. Gently, John took Sherlock's hand in his own; he lifted it to the side of his head and pressed it over his ear. Sherlock tried to pull away, but John kept his hand pinned, rubbing his thumb over the back in small, comforting motions.

“You see?” he asked, mustering a smile. “It's all there.”

“John,” Sherlock said at last, and seemed to melt into the seat in relief. “Oh, God. I thought...it's ridiculous, of course, but I saw...”

“I know. I know. It's okay.” He released Sherlock's hand, but Sherlock didn't pull it away; his thumb stroked John's cheekbone absently. John stayed very still, his eyes roaming over Sherlock's pale face, drinking in the sight of him. After a long while, Sherlock's breathing slowed; he closed his eyes, rubbing his hands over his face with a sigh. He looked terrible, John thought—pale, drawn, with dark circles under his eyes. Take away the hair, and he wasn't much better off than the version of himself currently lying in hospital in a coma.

Just like that, the last vestiges of adrenaline evaporated, giving way to the complex jumble of emotions he'd carried with him into sleep that night. He felt suddenly cold, and folded his arms tightly against his chest, leaning into himself. Sherlock opened one eye.

“If you're cold, you could come over here,” he offered, gesturing to the patch of seat directly beside him. “Share heat.”

“I'm fine, thanks,” John said, not trusting himself to be any closer than he had to be. He still wasn't certain whether he would kiss Sherlock or try to maim him, and neither seemed like an especially good idea just at present. Sherlock squinted at him warily.

“You're upset,” he announced. “Why?”

“I'm not.”

“Oh, let's not bother with that, shall we, so tedious—”

“Why in God's name did you go up to that roof alone?” John blurted, completely and inexplicably filled with hot anger.

Sherlock dropped his gaze. “Ah,” he said simply.

“Because if you hadn't, if you'd actually trusted me, I could have—”

“No, you couldn't. He'd have found a way.”

“And it would have been a lot bloody harder for him! Jesus, Sherlock, did you stop to think for one second that we could have done it together?”

“You told me 'friends protect people,' John. I didn't want—”

“I could have protected you!”

“Doubtful,” Sherlock huffed, and John drew back as though he'd been slapped. Sherlock's eyes darted to John's face, quickly assessing, and he reached out; John stayed back, pressing himself against the door with a fierce expression.

“I didn't mean it that way,” Sherlock explained, letting his hand drop to the seat. “You do protect me, John. Always. But I couldn't let you, not this time.”

“Why not this time?”

“He wanted to get at me in the worst way possible. He was going to hurt you—”

“Oh, and standing there while my best friend threw himself off a roof, that didn't hurt at all—”

“I'm quite certain it would hurt less than a bullet in the brain, John!”

“Bullets in the brain don't hurt!”

“Oh, for God's—would you rather I had let you die?”

Yes!” John bellowed, shocking them both into silence. He hadn't known he was going to say it, not until it had burst out of his mouth; yet, examining it, given the conscious choice between being shot painlessly in the back of the skull or standing there, helplessly watching Sherlock throw his life away, John knew which he would take.

“You don't mean that,” Sherlock challenged, his voice low and dangerous.

“Yes, I do,” John said stubbornly. “Watching you jump...it was...I'd rather it had been me.”

Sherlock slid forward, crowding into John's space. John pressed backward, but the confines of the car had given him all they had to offer, and he was trapped unless he wanted to go back out and brave the fog. The expression on Sherlock's face was thunderous; he looked every inch the psychopath Sally Donovan thought he was.

“So say I let him shoot you,” Sherlock said, his eyes flicking for the briefest of moments to the side of John's head. “It wasn't just you, after all. Mrs. Hudson, Lestrade—would you rather they'd died as well?”

Damn. Sherlock had him there, and he knew it, judging by the hard glint of triumph in the silvery eyes. “They'd die for you, too, you know,” John tried.

“Irrelevant,” Sherlock replied, his voice so quiet it came out just above a murmur. His face hovered just inches from John's. “What I'm asking you is: if you had to choose, would you condemn them along with you?”

John fought against the sudden obstruction in his throat; Sherlock was breathing right in his face, eyes sharp and glittering in the moonlight, and John couldn't seem to think. “That's,” he rasped, and cleared his throat irritably. “That's not a fair ques—”

He couldn't finish his answer, because Sherlock had lunged forward and captured John's mouth with his own. Thank God, John thought fervently, and reapplied his breath to better uses. Sherlock's kisses were almost angry, more teeth than tenderness, and that was brilliant, perfect, because fuck if John wasn't furious. He fisted his hands in Sherlock's hair, eliciting a sharp inhale against his lips; he knew it probably hurt a little, but he couldn't be arsed to care. He got a foot up against the door and shoved hard, toppling Sherlock backward with John between his legs. It brought his hips in line with a rather sensitive area of Sherlock's anatomy, and Sherlock's head jerked back in a breathless moan. John took advantage of Sherlock's distraction to press his mouth against the long, arched column of pale throat. Only the thought of what the medical team would say prevented him from sucking a love bite into that gloriously unsullied skin.

John,” Sherlock hissed, thrusting his hips upward, and John felt as though he'd had the wind knocked out of him. The foreign hardness pressing against his own length felt better than he could possibly have imagined. He was shocked at how blindingly aroused he was; he'd imagined awkwardness, hesitation on his part, but it seemed fury had burned all the heterosexual crises right out of him. Just as well.

Sherlock seemed to interpret his breathlessness as uncertainty, however, and released John's shoulders reluctantly, panting. “John,” he said, his voice husky and dark as treacle, “if you can't—I mean, we don't have to—I'm all right, I mean, if you don't want to do this.”

“Well, I'm bloody well not,” John retorted, and ground his hips down to illustrate his point. Sherlock let out his breath in a rush, his legs coming up to wrap around the small of John's back; his hands scrabbled against the upholstery, and John seized both of his wrists in one hand, pinning them just above Sherlock's head. Sherlock strained upwards, seeking John's mouth, and John resumed kissing him with blistering intensity.

They'd wasted so much time. So many months spent insisting they weren't that, John wasn't gay, Sherlock was just his friend, or—remembered guilt prickled at the back of his neck—colleague. It had all seemed so very important once. Now, with Sherlock's heels digging into his spine and his breath panting hot against John's mouth, he felt like an absolute idiot. The sane, rational, properly English John Watson was saying in his head that they ought to slow down; there were things that needed to be said, decisions that had to be made. But John had never really liked that bloke. The other one, the Watson who followed strangers into Afghanistan and crime scenes and over rooftops and into the realm of their subconscious—John liked that one better, and right now that one was positively consumed with emotion and lust. He shifted more of his weight onto his hands and began working his hips roughly, fucking Sherlock against the seat through their trousers.

He was shocked at how responsive Sherlock was; the man bucked up against him, making an absolutely stunning array of noises into John's mouth, delving his tongue inside and urging John on with his heels. John, for his part, was embarrassingly close to coming, and they hadn't even touched a single button or zip. He was sure Sherlock's posh shoe was leaving a footprint in his lumbar region, and he couldn't have cared less. Here he was, with Sherlock for the first time, and he couldn't muster the self-control to stop himself from rutting against him like an animal.

“Never again,” he growled into Sherlock's mouth. Sherlock bit his lip in response. “Ow! Promise me.”

“You won't get any promises from me,” Sherlock rumbled, arching his whole body against John's. “I did—what I had to do—and I'd do it—ah!—again.”

Medical team be damned. John bit down on the spot where Sherlock's neck met his shoulder, not hard enough to bruise but enough to demonstrate intent; Sherlock let out a bark of surprise. “Never!” he insisted. “You have to trust me.”

“I do trust you,” Sherlock panted, wrenching his wrists free and gripping John's hips, pulling John against him harder. “I do, I—oh—there—God—John!” he shouted, snapping his hips upward and clenching his legs tight around John; the utterly overwhelming feeling of Sherlock's cock pulsing through his trousers sent John over the edge, and with a wordless cry, he came the hardest he ever had in his life.

When he came back to himself, several blissful moments later (minutes? Hours? He wasn't sure) John was draped over Sherlock's surprisingly boneless form, heaving sated breaths as his cheek pressed stickily against Sherlock's neck. Well: not entirely boneless; Sherlock's hip protruded into his stomach in a way that would be painful soon. Long fingers caressed his back and he shivered, overstimulated; he shifted, wedging himself between Sherlock's angular side and the back of the seat. He let out a sigh of contentment.

To his surprise, Sherlock chuckled.

“What?” John asked, craning his neck up to make eye contact. Sherlock glanced down at him with a smirk.

“UMQRA,” he said simply, and arched an eyebrow; after a moment, John's brain caught up, and laughter poured out of him until he could scarcely breathe. Sherlock was laughing too, his expanding ribs jostling John against the seat, but he didn't mind. In the moment, it struck him as one of the funniest things he'd ever heard. Sherlock pulled him up without warning and kissed him again, gentler this time.

“I'm not sorry I did it,” he murmured, “but I am sorry it hurt you.”

John supposed that was the best he was going to get, and at any rate, there was little point arguing Sherlock's future idiocies while he was still firmly entrenched in a coma. The hand on his back resumed stroking, and he was just beginning to notice the unpleasantly cooling mess in his pants when a familiar white light began to blur the edges of his vision. “Oh, damn.”

Sherlock groaned, then stretched. “Just as well, I suppose,” he drawled airily, draping his arms over his head. “I could do with some rest.”

“You?” John retorted, raising an eyebrow. “Ha. I'll have to remember that trick.” Sherlock rolled his eyes, grinning up at the upholstered ceiling, and John pressed a kiss against his jaw.

“I'll come back as soon as I can,” he promised, as the light intensified and filled his eyes.

“See that you do.”

John awoke with a start. His head ached, his pants were slick and filthy, and it was still dark outside; in many ways, it reminded him of waking up after a particularly raucous bender. But dirty pants or no, John grinned to himself in the darkness.

Sex definitely did not alarm Sherlock Holmes. And, it seemed, sex with Sherlock Holmes did not remotely alarm John Watson.

Chapter Text

It took less than eight hours for John's good mood to evaporate.

When he arrived for his daily visit to Sherlock's room, he was thoroughly surprised to see Mycroft standing at the foot of the bed, a few feet away from Dr. Reid and the attending nurse. A sense of foreboding washed over him; surely the elder Holmes wouldn't waste his precious time looking in on his brother unless something was wrong.

“Mycroft?” he asked as he closed the door behind him. “What's happened?”

The doctor glanced up and greeted John vaguely. Mycroft turned toward him, a grim expression on his face, and wordlessly held out Sherlock's chart. John took it, riffling past the first few pages to the more pertinent information. As he read, the blood drained from his face.

“But...I don't understand,” he said, looking between Mycroft and the doctor. “How can his brain activity be declining? He's already in a coma.”

“We had hoped that he might be progressing toward something closer to a vegetative state,” Dr. Reid explained, casting a nervous glance at Mycroft, who had already turned back to the bed. “While he was still completely unconscious, there was a degree of activity in the lower brain stem. That activity has been declining for some time, but it was such a slow decline it was hardly relevant at first. It's happening more rapidly now.” She reached out and took the chart gently from John, whose hands had gone strangely limp. “I'm sorry, John, but he's progressing deeper into the coma. It's...the long-term outlook is not good.”

John felt blindsided, breathless; he groped for the bed railing, leaning onto it as though his leg had gone bad again. No. “That's not possible,” he insisted. “He's not brain-dead.”

“Not yet, no, but if current trends continue—”

“He just needs some time to recover, that's all, he'll wake up!”

“I know this is difficult,” Dr. Reid said patiently, raising her voice a little to be heard over John's protests, “but you need to prepare yourself. We can observe him for a while longer, but the time may be coming to make some difficult decisions.”

John's entire body went cold. “No one is going to be making any bloody decisions,” he said shakily. “We're going to wait until he wakes up. That's it. That's the end of it.”

Dr. Reid was quiet for a moment, glancing again at Mycroft. “You'll want to discuss it among yourselves, I'm sure,” she replied, moving toward the door. “Ultimately, as Mr. Holmes has power of attorney, he'll have to make the call.” She excused herself and exited the room, followed closely by the nurse.

John stared at Mycroft's back; his shoulders were stiff, posture as rigid as ever. His words from their last conversation floated to the front of John's mind. You're a doctor, John. You know it's most likely a matter of time. “You're not going to kill him,” John said at last, squaring his shoulders.

“John,” Mycroft began, but John interrupted.

“If you're even thinking about taking him off life support, you can forget it.”

“You know they're right.”

“They're not right,” John insisted. “Sherlock's still in there, Mycroft. I can't believe we're even having this conversation.”

“Nor can I, and if you wish to be a part of it, I suggest you calm down,” Mycroft said icily. “You have no legal right to make any kind of decision regarding this matter. I am perfectly capable of fulfilling this unfortunate duty alone.”

A shock ran down John's spine. “You—you wouldn't,” he whispered. “Mycroft, you know—you know he would want me here.”

“I do,” Mycroft agreed steadily. “Which is why you remain. But we have to be rational, John. And if you can't do that—”

“This isn't a rational situation!” John interrupted, his heart rate spiking unpleasantly. “He's not an equation, you can't just think this one out like one of your bloody war games!”

“It's perfectly rational. Medically, he is unlikely to recover. Even if he did awake, at this stage in his condition, the odds that he would retain his faculties to the degree he once possessed is exceptionally slim. Do you honestly believe my brother would prefer that sort of existence to a painless death?”

“No,” John said, and Mycroft opened his mouth to speak. “Wait. Let me finish. No, he wouldn't prefer that. I know he wouldn't. But he's still in there, Mycroft. His mind is still intact. He isn't gone.”

“And how could you possibly know that?” Mycroft asked. His tone was polite as ever, but John sensed him losing patience beneath the veneer.

And here was the impossibility, the flaw in his argument. He recalled how Greg Lestrade had reacted to his confession—confusion, concern, pity—and knew that any response he was likely to get from Mycroft Holmes would be even worse. But he had to convince him; Jesus, it sounded as though he'd made up his mind already. He racked his brain, needing a brilliant lie, but he wasn't Sherlock, was he, and all he could think of was the truth—

“John,” Mycroft said sternly, interrupting his useless train of thought; John looked up and saw that Mycroft was giving him a piercing look, so much like the one his brother so frequently gave it made John's heart ache. “I can see you casting around for something to say. Why not the truth?”

“You won't believe it,” John admitted.

“I assure you, John, I am not eager to sign my baby brother's death certificate. If you have any evidence that Sherlock still exists in some capacity, I want to hear it.”

John let out a long breath through his nose. At last, he crossed over to the side of Sherlock's bed opposite Mycroft. His fingers drifted down Sherlock's skin to the neckline of his hospital gown, and he tugged it away; there, just barely visible at the point where neck met shoulder, was a slightly reddened patch. He brushed his fingers over it, the flood of warmth from the memory battling uncomfortably with the ball of ice in his stomach. He was aware that Mycroft was watching his every move with hawklike intensity, but he couldn't bring himself to care.

“I see him,” John began finally, “at night. I thought they were dreams at first, and I guess they are, in a way, but...they're real, somehow, too. He speaks to me, and I know it's really him, because he tells me things I don't know and they turn out to be true. That's how I learned about the mobile,” he added.

“I see.” Mycroft's face was utterly impassive.

“The things we do, they affect him in real life. That bruise he got a few days back?” He prodded at the skin around Sherlock's eye and cheekbone, which was healing nicely, but still faintly yellowed. “I punched him.” John cast a glance at Mycroft, whose expression hadn't changed. “He deserved it,” he added somewhat defensively.

“Undoubtedly.”

“We always show up in different places. Once it was St. Bart's, a few times it was this weird white room, last night it was Dartmoor...” He wasn't going to mention the mind palace, he decided. Assuming Mycroft did believe him—which was a big, big assumption—that could lead to all kinds of uncomfortable questions. “But he's always there when I go to sleep, and he always remembers what happened last time.”

Mycroft nodded silently, staring past John at the window. John stood by the bed with his fingers wrapped around Sherlock's wrist, as though Mycroft would try to physically take him away. The silence grew awkward, then strange, and was bordering on ridiculous when John finally felt he had to speak again.

“See. You don't believe me.”

Mycroft exhaled. “No,” he agreed, and turned away from the bed, rubbing a hand over his eyes.

“Look, I know how it sounds,” John protested weakly, knowing it was pointless. “But I swear, it's the truth. I didn't want to believe it either.”

“I'm sure these nocturnal hallucinations are very convincing,” Mycroft said, retrieving his umbrella from where it leaned against the bed. John felt a stab of desperation; he didn't think he'd ever been so reluctant to see Mycroft go away. “Unfortunately, however, they have no basis in science or reality, and so I'm afraid I can't accept them as evidence.”

“What are you, the court?” John muttered, and dropped into the chair beside Sherlock's bed. His grip on Sherlock's wrist slid, picking up his hand instead; he held it tightly between his own, eyes cast down to the sight of Sherlock's pale fingers in his. He waited for the sound of the door closing, but it didn't come.

“Are you in love with my brother?” came Mycroft's voice suddenly; John looked up in surprise to find the man standing with one hand on the doorknob, watching him. He opened his mouth to give a sarcastic retort, but something stopped him.

Was he in love with Sherlock? He loved him, certainly; he'd known that for many, many months, and he didn't shy away from that. But this burgeoning physical thing between them—it was so new, and as yet confined to the realm of Sherlock's subconscious, he wasn't sure what to call it. He thought back to how he'd felt in Sherlock's mind palace, the first time he'd ever truly seen Sherlock clearly. He thought of the secret corners of Sherlock's mind, things only he had ever been privy to; he thought of the room Sherlock had built there for John, and his desperation that John never see it. He thought of Sherlock's face after John had kissed him, and the way he'd cried John's name when he came.

“I think so,” he said at last. It was hardly an issue he wanted to discuss with Mycroft, but he wasn't a coward. If and when Sherlock woke up, and if he still wanted this thing with John—if it wasn't just comfort borne of loneliness and boredom, if it was real—he was going to do this right.

Mycroft's expression, predictably, did not change; he just nodded absently. Without another word, he opened the door and left the room. The click of the door closing behind him should have been a relief, John knew; each minute he spent with the man seemed to drain the life out of him, but he knew that each minute he kept Mycroft talking was another one Sherlock got to spend alive. Frustration and fury welled up in him, and he found himself fighting against a lump in his throat. He was going to lose this battle, he realized. Mycroft was going to pull the plug, and Sherlock was going to die, and there was not one damn thing he could do about it. He was standing on the pavement below St. Bart's all over again. He dropped his forehead to the knot of their hands and gritted his teeth, willing himself not to lose it again.

Some span of time passed; he thought about ten minutes, but he couldn't be sure. He'd managed to fight back his tears, but his face felt hot and his throat constricted. He was still leaning on the bed with his face pressed against Sherlock's hand when he heard the door open again. Sitting up abruptly, his brows knitted in confusion at the sight of the visitor.

“What do you want?” he asked Mycroft, who was standing just inside the open door, one hand on the knob, as though thinking of leaving again. His expression was one John had never seen before: grief, frustration, and...embarrassment? He wouldn't meet John's eye.

“I had a dog,” he said, and when nothing else seemed forthcoming, John cleared his throat loudly.

“Yes, so do many people,” he prompted irritably. “And...?”

“As a teenager. When Sherlock was a boy. I had a dog. He was rather fond of it.”

John thought he had an inkling where this might be going, but he didn't dare hope. He held his breath.

“Ask him the dog's name.” Without another word, Mycroft turned and left. John sat staring at the door, his heart pounding, mouth hanging open like an idiot. When the nurse returned, John was still in that position, squeezing Sherlock's hand and feeling as though he might fly out of his skin.

“Are you all right?” she asked, her eyes wide. “You look as though you've had a shock.”

“I have,” John answered vaguely.

“Do you need help?” She bustled toward him, but John waved her off. He could feel his face frozen into a perfectly stunned expression, but he couldn't seem to snap out of it.

“No,” he said at last. “No, it's all fine.”

Chapter Text

John had planned to do a great deal of talking when he visited Sherlock that night. First off, he'd ask him about Mycroft's dog, get the answer he needed straight away; then, hopefully, they could discuss Sherlock's condition, maybe pick his brain for any ideas. John was still holding out hope that he could somehow wake Sherlock, drag him back to the land of the living, but he had to admit he was short on actual plans. Perhaps, after they'd discussed the items on his agenda, they could do a bit more kissing. Just a little. Nothing as hasty and animalistic as last night's backseat escapades.

Or, at the very least, they could take their pants off first.

Of course, as with every plan John had made since Sherlock Holmes had swooped into his life, that plan went immediately and spectacularly to shit. When he came to awareness, he felt oddly weightless; his limbs seemed to be floating, and the air drifted around him in swirling eddies. It seemed very dark, but after a moment he realized his eyes were closed. He opened them.

A gasp of surprise rushed out of his lungs before he could stop it.

The lightly swirling friction over his skin wasn't air at all; it was water. He was suspended in the carbuncle-blue water of a swimming pool, toes skimming the floor. The surface was several feet over his head, and just below it, thrashing in an eerily-billowing coat, was Sherlock. He seemed to be struggling fiercely. John set out for the surface, coiling downward and pushing off the floor as hard as he could. He shot through the water, eyes on the choppy ceiling above him.

A moment later, a sickening pain cracked on the top of his head, so hard he saw stars. He reeled back, clutching his skull and squinting up at the surface. He couldn't see anything floating there; what in God's name had he run into? He turned his attention to Sherlock, who was clearly panicked, beating against the underside of the water's surface with both hands, limbs thrashing. His teeth were gritted and his eyes wild, and he met John's gaze with an expression of desperation.

Wait, John thought, back up. How could he be beating against the underside of water?

John reached up his own hand and thumped experimentally; the surface felt solid, as unyielding as a pane of bulletproof glass, though it rippled and churned with the force of their movements. A frisson of fear went through him. His lungs were beginning to burn, and he was going to be in trouble if he didn't get oxygen soon. He turned to Sherlock again, who had given up beating against the strange barrier and was feeling his way along it. After a few yards, though, he seemed to give up; he stopped fighting and turned back to John, defeat written on his face. He opened his mouth.

No!” John shouted, the sound lost in a rush of bubbles. He saw Sherlock's chest rise as he drew a breath, and John felt nearly delirious. No, no, this can't be happening, after all this I'm not going to lose him to a bloody pool—

Sherlock smiled triumphantly. John's fear abruptly switched to confusion. What did I just miss?

Seeing John's expression, Sherlock swam to him, taking one of his hands; he laid it on his own chest and drew in an exaggerated breath, as though getting a physical exam. John clearly felt the rise and fall of his breathing, but Sherlock seemed fine, none of the hallmarks of drowning present on his face. He gestured urgently to John's torso and said something John couldn't hear, but the message was clear: breathe!

Well. Sherlock had rarely led him astray before (or, more accurately, led him astray in a direction he didn't want to go); at any rate, it wasn't as though he had many options. John screwed his eyes shut, opened his mouth, sent up a silent prayer, and took a deep breath.

It was the oddest sensation he had ever experienced. He could feel the water moving in and out of his lungs; some part of his brain registered dimly that it ought to have hurt, ought to have killed him. But the burning sensation in his chest went away, and relief flooded through him as he realized he could actually breathe the water. He opened his eyes to find Sherlock watching him with a small smile. It faded quickly, though, and he returned to examining the barrier at the surface. John, for his part, was ready to write it off as standard dream weirdness, though the fact that it was occurring in Sherlock's subconscious did add a layer of meaning he couldn't quite decipher. He squinted up at it anyway, wanting to give the appearance that he was helping. In reality, he was contemplating how a blow job might feel underwater. A bit early for that, surely, and of course they needed to talk first, but it wasn't as though they could speak right now, could they? And he wasn't going to be the one to bring it up, or anything, but if Sherlock paddled over and decided he'd better have a look inside John's pants, it would be awfully rude of him not to—

A hand on his elbow startled John out of that train of thought, though Sherlock's bemused expression suggested he knew exactly where that train had been headed. He released John's arm and pointed up through the water. John followed the line of his finger, squinting. At first he couldn't see anything significant; then, after a few moments, he made out a group of blurry figures, distorted but clearly standing beside the pool. A glowing red dot caught his attention, and he realized with a quickening of his pulse who they were. One glance at Sherlock's grim expression confirmed he'd seen the same thing: John, strapped into a bomb vest and clutching Jim Moriarty with all the strength he had, and Sherlock standing a few feet away. Though John couldn't see Sherlock-outside-the-pool's expression, he could recall it perfectly from memory—fearful, overwhelmed, surprised, and agonized with indecision. He wondered why they were here; what could Sherlock's mind possibly want to show them about the pool? He remembered it fine, thank you, without having to revisit the horrid event.

Although—it wasn't completely horrid, if he was being honest. Terrifying, yes, and it had made him furious to listen to Moriarty level those threats against Sherlock, make him afraid, make him (for one gut-wrenching instant) doubt his trust in John. But the moment when he'd seized Moriarty and told Sherlock to run, the moment when he'd realized he would willingly die for another person—not just as his duty on the battlefield, but out of a devotion so deep and abiding it had come to define him—it had been bizarrely freeing. It was as though, when his fear for Sherlock's life had flooded through him, it had pushed out any fear he'd had of giving up his own. He'd felt invincible. And, of course, they'd survived. Sherlock had ripped the vest off him with a mixture of desperation, relief and something else John hadn't been able to name, and John had been so overwhelmed by it he'd reduced it to some stupid joke. Stupid, stupid; how much faster might John have realized their feelings if he'd just—if he hadn't—

An explosion ripped through the building, muffled to a subsonic boom below the water, and the air above the surface erupted in billowing clouds of flame. John seized Sherlock instinctively, pinning him against the wall of the pool as the force of the blast shook the concrete beneath them. Shrapnel rained down through the water, leaving trails of bubbles as it cooled, and then John felt something slightly larger drop into the water nearby. He turned to look, and barely stifled a scream: a long, pale hand, undoubtedly Sherlock's, was sinking sluggishly through the water, plumes of red billowing out from the severed wrist. White seared into the edges of John's vision, and he barely had time to turn and reassure himself that his Sherlock was intact (he was, though he stared past John at the hand with saucer-like eyes) before the light consumed his eyes and he awoke.

* * * * *

John's stomach was twisted into knots all the next day. It was unpleasant enough that he'd had to leave things that way with Sherlock last night; when at last he arrived at Sherlock's hospital room and saw Mycroft waiting there, the knots tightened painfully, and he wished he could crawl back to the Tube and go home.

Mycroft looked very much like someone pretending not to believe in something; however, when John miserably reported that he hadn't been able to find out about the dog, and quickly added that he would find out the next time he slept, he saw something like hope leave Mycroft's eyes.

John hated it. All of it. It wasn't fine. It wasn't even close.

* * * * *

He'd gone to bed even earlier that night. The sun was still up when he'd opened the bottle of temazepam. He'd been comforting himself for the last hour with the fact that dreams frequently did things that didn't make sense; it didn't mean anything, didn't say anything about Sherlock's condition. It was just—how had he thought of it before?—standard dream weirdness.

He was beginning to think he was wrong.

When he'd opened his eyes, he'd been bizarrely relieved to see Sherlock waiting for him in the empty white void from their earlier meetings. That relief had been almost immediately squashed, however, when Jim Moriarty had appeared out of nowhere—literally, popped into existence from the air in front of him—and leapt at John with a knife. Sherlock had let out a strangled cry of alarm, but John hadn't had an instant to waste being frightened or even startled—he'd simply dodged Moriarty's lunge, brought his knee up into the suit-clad stomach, then taken the opportunity while Moriarty was doubled over to wrench the knife away and plunge it into his chest. It was all very matter-of-fact, as though it were happening to someone else and John was just watching. Moriarty had looked up at him, made a disgusting sort of gurgling sound, and fallen to the floor—ground—whatever it was.

This was the moment when John began to suspect Sherlock's brain was trying to tell him something.

Sherlock stared at John with unbridled amazement for approximately two seconds before striding over, pulling him up by his jacket and kissing him soundly. John had just begun to recover himself enough to respond when the adrenaline fully kicked in.

“Christ,” he gasped, pulling back, “I know this isn't real, but that felt good.”

“I can imagine,” Sherlock rumbled, sending a shiver down John's spine. Sherlock leaned in again and John's mind raced; there was something he had to remember, something important...

“Oh!” John exclaimed, pulling back again to a noise of annoyance from Sherlock. “I have to ask you, Mycroft asked me—what was the name of his—”

Sherlock suddenly flung John to the ground then, rushing out of his view; John spent a few moments utterly bemused before he refocused his vision and saw Sherlock engaged in furious combat with—wait—that didn't make sense. He glanced at the corpse oozing blood on the floor beside him; yes, Moriarty was still dead, and yet Sherlock was fighting with his exact duplicate not ten feet away. Sherlock had managed to wrestle the smaller man to the ground and seemed to be strangling him, hands wrapped around his neck. Moriarty grinned horribly even as Sherlock choked the life out of him, and John had just opened his mouth to say something—he didn't know what—when something struck his ear with unbelievable force and sent him rolling, colors exploding behind his eyes.

“Careful, John!” Sherlock shouted over the ringing in John's ears, and John leapt blindly to his feet. When he managed to open his eyes, he saw a very blurry Moriarty, poised to hit him again with—wait—was that a cricket bat? John dove as Moriarty swung, catching him around the waist and hurling them both to the ground. He struggled fiercely, finally ripping the bat from Moriarty's clutches and bringing it down, again and again, on the man's throat.

“Oh, this is tedious,” Sherlock snarled from behind him, and even preoccupied with the cricket bat, John heard the unmistakable sounds of another fight breaking out behind him.

“All right, Sherlock?” he called, studiously beating the last vestiges of life out of his foe.

“Fine!” Satisfied that this particular iteration of Moriarty wouldn't be getting up anytime soon, John got to his feet, turning just in time to see Sherlock spear another with a harpoon. In spite of the grisliness of the situation, John found himself biting back a highly inappropriate laugh.

“Guess that pig experiment came in useful,” he remarked. Sherlock raised an eyebrow, panting.

“All of my experiments are useful, John,” he said disdainfully. “Honestly, nothing I do is pointl—look out!”

John whirled, but not quickly enough; he heard the bang before his eyes had focused. Sherlock let out a bellow of rage, and finally John saw what he had seen: yet another Moriarty, standing not ten yards away with a gun pointed at them. His face twisted into a satisfied grin, and John turned back to Sherlock, cold horror freezing over his guts. He was confused, though, to see Sherlock looking completely unharmed; only his stupefied expression suggested anything had happened at all.

“Sherlock, what...” John began, but then a seeping wetness creeping below the waistband of his jeans caught his attention. He looked down and saw a bloom of red, creeping out from the center of his chest through the fibers of his jumper.

“Oh,” he said, and then, stupidly, “I liked this jumper,” and as Sherlock lurched toward him the room spun and dissolved into white nothingness.

Chapter Text

John awoke in a cold sweat, sheets clenched tightly between his fingers. “No, no!” he shouted, clawing at his shirt, tearing it over his head and off; his fingers searched his chest, his back, but there was no sign of a gunshot. It seemed that he, at least, couldn't be harmed by Sherlock's dreams. But Sherlock—

“I have to go back, please, I have to go back!” he cried to no one in particular. He clenched his eyes shut, willing himself back to unconsciousness, but of course it failed; he was more awake than he'd been in months. His fingers shook violently as he snatched the temazepam off the nightstand. In the back of his mind, alarm bells were sounding, reminding him he'd already taken a dose just—he glanced at the clock—four hours ago, that this was dangerous, that he was veering into recreational drug use territory. He silenced them ruthlessly, shaking a dose out into his palm. Most of the bottle spilled out, rolling over the sides of his hand and skittering away across the floor.

Damn it!” John barked, dropping to his knees on the floor and chasing down the pills. He had just retrieved enough for a dose when a soft, warm hand came down on his shoulder and he started. Glancing up, he saw the darkened form of Mrs. Hudson, wrapped in a pink dressing gown and gazing down at him sadly.

“I'm sorry to barge in, John, but I heard shouting,” she said.

He heaved a breath. “I'm sorry to wake you, Mrs. Hudson,” he replied. “I've been having some bad dreams. It's nothing to worry about.”

“I'm not worried about the dreams, dear,” she said, and nudged a stray pill with the toe of her slipper. “But I do worry about these dreadful things. You've been taking quite a lot of them lately, haven't you?”

John straightened, narrowing his eyes. “And how would you know that?”

“I saw the bottle lying open when I came in to do your window.”

“You're not our housekeeper,” he retorted automatically. Mrs. Hudson waved it off with a click of the tongue.

“I'd much prefer you didn't take any more of those tonight, John,” she said, a wavering smile on her face. “If you're having trouble sleeping, come downstairs and I'll make us a nice cup of tea.”

“It's nothing, Mrs. Hudson, I'll just go back to—”

“I'm afraid I'm going to have to insist,” Mrs. Hudson continued. Her voice was sweet as ever, but her gaze was steely, and her toe shifted to cover the nearby pill. John considered his options. He could lie to her, of course, send her back downstairs and take the pills anyway. He could go and have tea to assuage her fears, and then come back up and do what he needed to do. But—he glanced at the clock. Sherlock could be dead by then.

Sherlock could be dead. Again.

“I'm sorry, Mrs. Hudson,” he said, abruptly snatching his discarded shirt and getting to his feet. “I need to visit Sherlock. I'll be at the hospital.”

“It's four in the morning, John, I'm quite sure visiting hours—”

“Visiting hours don't apply to doctors. I'll be back later, okay?” He gave her a quick smile as he pulled on yesterday's discarded jumper, hoping he was being reassuring. He doubted it, but there wasn't time to stay and fret about it. Mrs. Hudson stepped aside as he bolted for the door, pulling on his shoes as he went; when he disappeared down the stairs she was still standing there, wringing her hands in the dark.

* * * * *

It turned out visiting hours did apply to doctors, a little, when they weren't assigned to the floor (or ward, or hospital) on which a patient resided. The night nurse at the desk, however, looked at him with sad eyes and asked him if he was still going to update his blog, and John gratefully rushed past her and into Sherlock's room. Mycroft, damn him, was apparently making up for lost time; though he hadn't set foot in the room at first, now he didn't seem to ever leave it.

“John,” he said in surprise, standing. “Is everything all right? Do you have an answer for me?”

“No, I don't have your bloody answer,” John growled, striding across the room to Sherlock's bed. The ice in his stomach thawed slightly when he saw Sherlock's monitors, beeping and blinking in reassurance. “He's all right, then? No change?”

Mycroft looked at him strangely. “There's been no change, no. I'm not sure one would really qualify that as 'all right,' but—”

“Yes, thank you for your input,” John interrupted, crossing to the supply cabinet. In these private rooms, all sorts of non-controlled medications lined the cupboards in case of an emergency; it took less than a minute of rummaging before John located the vial he was looking for and held it up, examining the label in the light.

“Stealing from hospitals, now, are we? Really, John, my brother has had a terrible influence on you.”

“It's just antihistamine,” John said testily, digging a syringe out of the drawer. “For allergic reactions.”

“And what are you having an allergic reaction to? Good sense?”

“I'm taking it for the side effects.” He pushed up his sleeve and prepared the syringe, tapping the side with his fingernail. “It puts you to sleep.”

“Are your customary sleep aids no longer working?”

“I was interrupted by a nosy housekeeper.”

“Your landlady would greatly dislike being referred to as such.”

John ignored him, taking a deep breath before plunging the needle into his arm.He flexed the muscles in his hand as he removed it; diphenhydramine was fast-acting, and he'd start to feel drowsy at any moment.

“You don't think the other doctors will notice supplies have gone missing?”

“I imagine the British government has ways of covering things up, if he wants to.”

“And if I don't want to?”

“Then get fucked, Mycroft. Do what you want.” He turned to face Mycroft at last, pushing his sleeve back down. “Look, I know you don't believe me, and you probably don't care, but Sherlock is in there right now, fighting for his life. I've got to get to him, I've got to help him.”

Mycroft gazed at him impassively, then glanced out the window. “I'm losing patience with this charade,” he said. “I regret encouraging you with the question. It was a moment of weakness. Had I any idea the lengths to which it would drive you, I would never have posed it.”

John was beginning to feel the drowsiness tugging at him. He made his way unsteadily to Sherlock's bed, and after a moment of hesitation, climbed in gingerly beside him. “Keep everyone out, all right? Just until I wake up.”

“You're not listening, John. I don't want to see you do this to yourself.”

“He'd do it for me,” John sighed, eyes drifting closed, his head resting against Sherlock's shoulder.

“He'd do any number of self-destructive things for much, much stupider reasons. I wouldn't hold up his willingness to inject himself with mind-altering substances as any kind of example.”

John chuckled softly under his breath. “Keep them out, Mycroft,” he repeated, and drifted off.

* * * * *

Going to sleep with the antihistamine was different than doing it normally; rather than simply losing consciousness and then “waking up” somewhere else, John felt as though he were crossing some sort of border. On one side was Mycroft, the artificial brightness of the hospital room, and Sherlock's bony shoulder poking into his temple; on the other was a soft, warm darkness, a light breeze, and the rustling of trees all around him. For a moment, he worried he might be back on Dartmoor; then, turning, he caught a glimmer of light. He made his way toward it and emerged in the courtyard of Sherlock's mind palace once again.

“Sherlock?” he called, but there was no answer. John looked around for a moment, but he seemed very much alone. At last, he set out for the entrance, pleased that at least it wasn't pissing down this time. There was no sign of Moriarty—or Moriarties, he supposed—but he remained alert, wishing for his gun.

The heavy entrance door closed behind him with an echoing thud, and he thought Sherlock might have heard it. He called his name again, but again received no answer beyond the echo of his own voice. He sighed; it could take all day to find Sherlock in this labyrinth, and he wasn't sure how long his sedation would last.

“How would you find me?” he muttered, glancing around. Sherlock, he supposed, would start with the obvious. He was unlikely to be in the Hall of Mirrors, or the cocaine-filled hallway; he almost certainly wouldn't set foot in the dungeons. He thought back to the last time he'd seen Sherlock—just after Moriarty had shot him, as he bled out into his jumper and fell to the ground. The look of hopelessness on his face was not one that John would soon forget.

Ah. John knew where to go.

He picked his way through the grisly hall of body parts, doing his best to look away, and then wound through corridor after corridor of marked doors. Notable ones this time included “HAIR/FINGERNAILS,” “DOGS (SMALL BREED),” and, horribly, “BRISTOL STOOL SCALE.” John hurried past this last with his breath held, just in case Sherlock's subconscious decided to provide him with smells this time around. At last he reached the Hall of Mirrors, which reflected no great secrets in the absence of their creator. The corridors beyond it passed quickly, and before long he had made it to the staircase leading to his room.

When he reached the top, huffing and puffing, he saw that the door with the scribbled sign was slightly ajar. A sort of flickering, warm light emanated from the inside; as he pushed the door open, he saw Sherlock, hunched in John's chair and silhouetted against the fire in the grate. He hugged his knees, feet up on the seat, and looked very, very young. John stood for a moment, content just to look at him, memorizing the way the firelight caught his curls and illuminated his profile. When he thought he'd waited long enough, he crossed to the chair, then gently brushed his fingers along Sherlock's shoulder. Sherlock jumped a little, then looked up at him, his expression sliding into one of wonder.

“You're alive,” he said, his voice coming out in an uncharacteristic croak. “John.”

“That I am,” John agreed. “So sorry to leave you that way. Didn't have much say in the matter.”

Sherlock unfolded from the chair and rose to his feet, reaching out in the same movement to curl long, warm fingers around John's wrist. “You're alive,” he repeated, as though his vocabulary had been reduced to this one phrase, and buried his face in John's hair. John stood still, stroking the small of Sherlock's back, letting him compose himself; after some time had passed and Sherlock's shaking had subsided, John lifted his head. Sherlock's mouth descended onto John's as his arms wound around him. John kissed him back for a moment, slowly, gently, reassuring him; then, just as gently, he cupped Sherlock's face in his hands and pulled away.

“Sherlock,” he murmured, “before anything else happens: what was the name of Mycroft's dog?”

Sherlock looked absolutely bewildered. “Have I missed something?”

“Sort of. It's important. Mycroft's dog, what was its name?”

“Brolly,” Sherlock said, still squinting at him, “but I don't see what that has to do with—”

“All I needed to know, love,” John interrupted, and kissed him again. His heart felt full to bursting; he could give Mycroft his answer, and if they couldn't get Sherlock to wake up right away at least they could keep him alive. It wouldn't be the end of the world, really, if Sherlock didn't wake up for some time. Mycroft had the resources to keep him on life support, and John could visit him at night, could have this. Even half-real as it was, it was more than he'd ever expected to have.

If Sherlock was still wondering about the odd question, he didn't show it; he seemed interested in nothing but John. His arms tightened, dragging John up onto his toes as he pulled their bodies together, and John could hardly breathe but he didn't mind, there were worse ways to suffocate.

“Moriarty?” John asked between kisses. “What happened to all of them, after I—left?”

“They kept coming,” Sherlock said, his mouth against John's jaw. “I must have killed two dozen of them.”

“But—ah!—the one with the gun—”

“Only had one bullet,” Sherlock breathed. “I took his gun and beat him to death with it.”

“God, you say the most romantic things,” John said, earning a rumbling chuckle from Sherlock that he felt rather than heard. Sherlock set him back on his feet, and John was about to question it when he felt long fingers tugging at the hem of his shirt. He raised his arms, allowing Sherlock to pull it off, and blushed under the intense scrutiny that he was immediately subjected to. Sherlock noticed his expression and reached out, sliding fingertips down his arm. John shivered.

“I was—very afraid, John. I was certain I would never see you again.” His fingers moved to John's belt and began tugging at the buckle. “Now I intend to see all of you.”

John had no argument for that, so he let Sherlock work at his buckle, applying his own fingers to the task of undoing Sherlock's buttons. When Sherlock pushed impatiently at his trousers, John obligingly pulled them down and off, taking the pants with them for good measure. They tangled around his ankles, and he kicked off his shoes with only mild difficulty. Squaring his shoulders, he stood before Sherlock naked, thankful for the flattering lighting. It was difficult not to be a little self-conscious; Sherlock was young and beautiful, and miraculously unscarred given his history of drug use and leaping across buildings. John, on the other hand, was pushing forty, and while he was still in good shape, his middle had gone a little softer than he would have liked. There was also the issue of the twisted scar on his left shoulder, but John thought Sherlock would probably be more interested than revolted, given his obsessive curiosity.

He was right; Sherlock's gaze focused on the scar with hawklike intensity, and he pushed John backwards until the backs of his knees made contact with the armchair. John sank into it with a tiny “oof,” and Sherlock dropped to his knees between John's parted thighs. What felt like half the blood in his body rushed south at the sight of it, but Sherlock seemingly wasn't aware of the implications, or was at least choosing to ignore them for the moment.He braced his hands on John's thighs and leaned up, his face hovering just inches from the old wound. John supposed he should have found it unnerving, but he was used to Sherlock now, and he didn't.

After a long moment of watching Sherlock crane his neck this way and that, apparently gleaning all the visual data he could about the scar, John said, “You can touch, if you want.”

Sherlock glanced up from under his fringe. “I don't want to make you uncomfortable.”

“That's new.” Sherlock huffed a laugh in response, but made no move to touch him. Tentatively, John ran a hand through his hair, and Sherlock made eye contact again. “It's fine, really. You don't have to ask. I trust you.”

At this, Sherlock looked more surprised than their first night together, when John had expressed amazement rather than anger at his deductions. For a moment he looked as though he might say something further, but at last he dropped his head, and probed gently at the scar with his fingers. His face was even closer now, and he appeared to be muttering to himself.

“Suppose you're deducing all kinds of things about it, hmm?” John asked, keeping his fingers in Sherlock's hair (it was just as soft and silky as he'd always suspected). “Need to know everything.”

To John's surprise, Sherlock placed a feather-light, immeasurably gentle kiss against the center of the crater, then dropped his forehead against John's shoulder. “The only thing I need to know about that bullet,” he said carefully, voice muffled, “is that it missed its target.”

John could think of nothing to say to that, so he didn't try; he just pulled Sherlock back up onto his knees, leaned down, and kissed him again. “You're wearing too many clothes,” he pointed out.

“Didn't stop you last time.”

“Ha, well, the circumstances were a bit different, wouldn't you say?”

“Indeed. Last time I only saw you dead. This time I watched you die.”

John's hands stilled on Sherlock's second shirt button. “Sherlock,” he said gently, “is this too much? We don't have to do anything, if you're too upset. We can just—”

“What?” Sherlock interrupted, his voice harsh. “Wait for the next time we're both together, safe, and uninterrupted by armies of madmen?”

“I prefer to keep it to just the one madman,” John replied, aiming for levity. But Sherlock just shook his head and started on his lower buttons.

“I don't know how long I'll have with you, John,” Sherlock said, not meeting his gaze. “I won't waste it.”

John didn't argue, though something niggled at him. He pushed it aside in favor of finishing Sherlock's last button. The shirt fell open, revealing a strip of smooth, pale skin down the center of Sherlock's chest. He didn't know why he was surprised not to see an undershirt; the man's shirts were so tight you could practically see his nipples through them half the time. He pushed the shirt off Sherlock's shoulders, letting his fingers trail along in their wake. Sherlock shuddered.

“Okay?” John asked.

He made a noise of impatience and pulled the shirt off his wrists. “Assume that I am unless I tell you otherwise.”

“Fair enough.” From this angle, John couldn't reach Sherlock's belt buckle. He shifted forward, intending to slide off the chair and join Sherlock on the floor, but Sherlock stopped him very effectively by running his hands up John's thighs. John fell back in the chair, letting his head loll against the back.

“That's it, right where I want you,” Sherlock purred, and John's cock gave a jolt as his warm breath washed over it. He forced his head back up, intensely fascinated to see Sherlock's face hovering just above his groin. When he noticed John watching, he gave a wicked little grin and buried his face in the springy curls there, inhaling deeply. John kept his eyes open with difficulty, though he couldn't stifle the soft moan of longing that escaped his throat. It was replaced with a much louder groan as Sherlock licked an experimental stripe from the base to the tip.

He dropped a kiss to the inside of John's thigh. “You're responsive,” he murmured against the skin. “This should be fun.”

John couldn't have agreed more. “You've—ah!—done this before, then?” he asked, fingers digging into the arms of the chair as Sherlock's tongue swirled over the head of his cock. Sherlock made a noise of assent deep in his throat, and John made a mental note to ask him another question while he had John's cock in his mouth.

“More than once,” Sherlock elaborated, letting John's frenulum rest against his lower lip. “Less than you'd expect.”

“I didn't know what to expect, actually.”

“Less than one would expect, then, for a man of my age.” He flicked his tongue out and swiped away the bead of fluid that had begun to pool there. “But I assure you, I do know what I'm doing.”

“Of course you do, you're brilliant at every—god!” he nearly shouted, as Sherlock chose that moment to swallow him down to the base. Almost literally, John thought; he could feel Sherlock's throat muscles working. It was unbelievable, looking down and seeing those lips wrapped around him, those beautiful eyes peering up at him through a disarray of dark curls. When Sherlock slid up to the tip and back down again, pausing to flick his tongue against the slit, John had to look away to keep from coming on the spot.

“You're incredible,” John said fervently, trying and failing not to bury a hand in Sherlock's hair. “Completely—oh—fantastic, you know that?”

Sherlock hummed again, and yes, it felt exactly as good as John had suspected. His head was bobbing more quickly now, face mostly hidden beneath the mop of hair. John felt the pressure building, hurtling toward the edge in Sherlock's marvelous mouth, and his other hand joined its partner in Sherlock's hair, pushing urgently. “Sherlock, god, you've got to stop, I'm going to—”

Sherlock reared back suddenly, letting John's prick pop from his mouth with a sound that would have been almost comical if not for the ache in John's balls. He surged up against John, fingers digging into his hips, and claimed John's mouth with his own. “Not yet,” he breathed against John's lips. “More.”

“Yes,” John agreed nonsensically, fingers fumbling with Sherlock's belt. It was an awkward position, and he had to stretch his arms nearly as far as he could, but at last he got the buckle undone. Sherlock smiled against his jaw and released John's hips, reaching back to push off his trousers. Just as John's had, they caught on Sherlock's shoes, and in his attempt to disentangle himself he toppled over backward; trying to catch himself, he seized John's calf, and with a short bark of laughter John was pulled off the chair. They wound up sprawled in front of the fire, Sherlock spreadeagled on his back in pants with John straddling his thighs. Sherlock's deep laugh reverberated through John's body, bubbling up in his own fit of giggles.

“We never did learn to act like grown-ups,” John said as the laughter subsided, setting them both off again. The sight of Sherlock giggling on the floor like a naughty schoolboy sent a bright wave of affection through John's chest, and he quickly leaned down to kiss him before he could compose himself. Sherlock stilled beneath his lips, and let out a soft, pained-sounding exhale as John pulled away. He opened his mouth to speak, but the slight shift of John's hips slid Sherlock's erection against his belly, and only a groan came out.

“Is that so?” John teased, arching his back enough to slide a hand between them. As he hooked his fingers beneath the waistband of the pants, Sherlock sucked in a breath, navel going concave against his spine. He didn't tell John to stop, though, so he took him at his word and tugged the pants down. Sherlock's erection sprang free, standing stark and slender against a thicket of dark hair. John hesitated for just a moment; it was one thing to rut mindlessly against another man's penis, a slightly different thing to come face-to-face with it. For a second, he was unsure of what to do. But Sherlock was watching him with barely-concealed apprehension, and John couldn't disappoint him. He took a deep breath, sat back on his heels, and wrapped his fingers around Sherlock's prick.

The reaction was electric; Sherlock hissed as though he'd been burned and fisted both hands against the carpet. John smiled in genuine delight and moved his hand, drawing his fingers experimentally up to the tip. The sight of Sherlock's lower lip caught between his teeth, eyes wide, was one of the more beautiful sights he could recall, and once he got past the initial weirdness of touching a penis not his own, it felt perfectly natural. Sherlock's enthusiasm in the proceedings was infectious, and before long John had leaned over him, bracing himself up with one arm and working Sherlock's cock with the other.

Sherlock clutched at his good shoulder, long fingers digging into the muscle. John's own erection, which had flagged just a little during his tumble to the floor, was beginning to take a renewed interest, and he rocked against Sherlock's leg as he stroked. Sherlock's eyes, which had been clenched shut, flew open.

“John,” he panted, “I want—more.”

“Yes, good,” John agreed again. “What—what do you—”

“Inside,” Sherlock ground out, fingers scrabbling to stop John's hand. “Want you to fuck me.”

That stopped John in his tracks. “Are you sure?” he asked, though his cock seemed entirely certain, thank you very much. “We don't have to—”

“Don't be tedious,” Sherlock ground out. “Of course I'm sure.”

“All right,” John said, a bit breathlessly, “all right.” He leaned forward again to kiss Sherlock, and was rewarded with those long hands gripping the sides of his face as though he might disappear—which, John supposed, was not an unreasonable fear. He certainly felt solid just at present, though. His own fingers tangled in Sherlock's hair, tugging slightly, and he rocked his hips down again. Sherlock gasped.

“Now, John!”

“All right! How do you want to—oh.” His face fell, and Sherlock pulled back to look at him questioningly. “We don't have anything to, ah, use.”

“It doesn't—”

“It matters to me. I'm not going to do this without lube, Sherlock. I will hurt you.”

“There are worse ways to be hurt,” Sherlock purred, hand reaching stealthily toward John's groin. John pulled back, shaking his head.

“Yes, and I think we've explored enough of those recently.” He dropped a kiss on Sherlock's furrowed brow. “There are plenty of things we can do without—”

“Wait!” Sherlock barked, leaping to his feet and spectacularly upending John. “Stay here. Wait.” With that, he barreled out the door and down the hall, completely starkers. The image of his naked arse disappearing down the stairs would probably have sent John into paroxysms of laughter had he not been extremely confused and painfully aroused.

“I'll just sit tight, then, shall I?” he called to no one in particular, and sighed. He felt a bit hot, canoodling in front of the fire as they had been; he looked around for something to prod it with, but there didn't seem to be any fire irons. He wondered whether Sherlock had built it or simply willed it into being. It seemed unlikely that he had ever expended enough effort to actually build something, but then he didn't seem to be able to magically summon lube, so. Perhaps there was always a fire burning in John's room. He turned his attention to the photographs; those were always interesting. As he expected, there were several new ones: John in the back seat of a car on Dartmoor, face twisted with lust and anger; John pinning him against the side of the swimming pool, eyes squeezed shut as the world exploded behind them. There was even one of John smiling down, lit by the fire, just minutes ago.

Oddly, these were interspersed with a handful of blank frames. John looked back along the wall, but couldn't find any other empty frames prior to the first kiss. He supposed that most of the missing moments must be unpleasant, like the hallucination of John's head wound or seeing him shot by Moriarty, so perhaps Sherlock had just deleted them? He'd just made up his mind to ask when a hand slid over his hip, startling him.

“Jesus, Sherlock!” he said shakily. “You scared me.” He turned around, only to come face-to-face with an unmistakable little bottle. Just behind it, holding it out, stood a very smug-looking Sherlock.

“Where in God's name did you get lube?” John asked, flabbergasted. Sherlock chuckled and pulled him close, pressing his still-erect cock against John's hip. That was awfully impressive, too, after presumably running laps around the Mind Palace.

“Second floor, east wing,” he rumbled, nosing at the hair just above John's ear. “I've got a room devoted to various sexual—”

“Yeah, all right, I'm not sure I actually want to know the details,” John interrupted, shuddering delicately. “You found it, good enough for me. Just tell me you didn't pull it off a murder victim or some such thing.”

“Of course not,” Sherlock sniffed. “I conducted a series of experiments.”

“Right. Of course.” He decided to forestall any further discussion of Sherlock's creepy experiments by inserting his tongue into the aforementioned's mouth; the plan proved very efficient, silencing Sherlock save for a low moan of satisfaction. Kissing turned to pawing, which turned to groping, and somehow or other they were back on the floor and Sherlock was slicking lube onto John's fingers with an impatience bordering on desperation.

“Tell me if I hurt you,” John implored, and Sherlock tossed his head as if to dismiss the very idea as ridiculous.

“You won't,” he said, spread out on his back with John kneeling between his legs. John rolled his eyes, but as his experience with anal sex had been limited to one reticent girlfriend who hadn't enjoyed their attempt in the least, he couldn't help being a little apprehensive. Tentatively, he lifted Sherlock's leg, settling his ankle on his good shoulder. At the first brush of John's fingers against his entrance, Sherlock's cock jerked and he let out a breathy little sigh; his hands otherwise occupied, John couldn't hide his smile.

“Yes, all right, it's been some time,” Sherlock grumbled. “Just get on with—oh!”

“Happy to,” John said, a little distractedly; he was busy marveling at the feeling of his finger slipping inside Sherlock. He'd assumed it would be tight, but he hadn't anticipated the heat, the slick softness. It was incredible, but it was impossible to imagine how John would fit in there. He was no monster, but if Sherlock clenched this tightly around a finger...

“Stop worrying about it,” Sherlock ground out, reading John's mind as always. “That's what the fingers are for. It'll be fine; add another.”

“Already? You—”

John.”

John let out an affectionate sigh and obliged, withdrawing his finger to circle around Sherlock's hole before adding a second. Sherlock moaned as the fingers breached his body; John, encouraged, set up a slow rhythm, sliding them in and out with his eyes locked on Sherlock's face. If he'd thought Sherlock was beautiful in the backseat of the car on Dartmoor, it was nothing compared to him now, arched against the floor and gleaming with sweat. His ankle dug into John's shoulder and John turned to press a kiss against it. John adjusted the angle of his wrist slightly, easing the strain out of it, and Sherlock let out a bone-deep moan.

“Ah. Found the spot, have I?”

Sherlock nodded quickly, eyes clenched shut. “I'm ready, John,” he said breathlessly, flexing his toes over John's shoulder. “Come on.”

John's instinct was to argue—the ring of muscle around his fingers still felt impossibly tight—but he knew what Sherlock's reaction would be if he suggested waiting, and so he slowly withdrew his fingers. His heartbeat had raced at the word “ready,” and he felt a bit like a teenager again, about to lose his virginity to Susie Clement in her parents' sitting room while they were on holiday. With a few differences, of course; John was fairly certain that if Susie Clement had lifted her skirt to reveal an erect and straining cock, he would have run screaming from the house. On Sherlock, however, the sight made his heart pound and his own arousal spike.

He shifted Sherlock's hips a little, trying to get the angle right; the tousled curls spread out over the floor made a sort of halo in the firelight. He reminded John of some mythological figure, perhaps one of the more lascivious fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream. John shook himself inwardly; he was getting poetic, and Sherlock wouldn't appreciate it. At last, he took his cock in hand, lined it up against Sherlock's entrance, and pushed slowly inside.

He was fairly certain he was going to die. The groan that poured out of him seemed to come from his toes. The sensation of Sherlock's body making way for him, wrapping him so tightly in its soft, sweet heat, was possibly the most divine thing he'd ever felt in his life. Not until he had pressed in fully, his hips against Sherlock's buttocks, did he trust himself to look down at his face. Sherlock was staring avidly up at him, lips parted and eyes unfocused. When their gazes met, Sherlock let out a shaky exhale.

“Okay?” John asked, his voice strained; it had never taken so much effort to not move, not even when he'd agreed to model for a life-drawing class at uni and a fly had landed on his nose.

“No,” Sherlock replied, his voice tight. Alarmed, John started to withdraw, but Sherlock stilled him with a hand on his hip. “Fantastic. Amazing.”

Relief flooded through John. “That's my line,” he said with a crooked smile, and stroked a hand up Sherlock's thigh. “Can I—”

“Oh, God, move.”

John did. He withdrew until only the head of his prick was still inside Sherlock, held securely by the tight ring of muscle; slowly, he slid back in to the base again. Sherlock hummed approvingly, so he did it again, and again. He wished he could kiss Sherlock—seeing his lips parted and flushed full was utterly tempting—but he doubted his partner would appreciate being folded in half, so he settled for tracing the fingers of his clean hand over those lips instead. Sherlock held John's gaze as he sucked two fingers into his mouth and swirled his tongue over them, and between the sweet tightness of Sherlock's arse and the reminder of what he could do with his mouth, oh God, this wasn't going to last long.

“Faster,” Sherlock breathed around his fingers, and John shook his head tightly, damp hair stuck to his forehead.

“If I go any faster I won't be able to—”

Sherlock released his fingers with a final swirl of the tongue. “I know. Angle down a bit. I'll catch up.”

John didn't need telling twice; he wrapped both arms around Sherlock's raised leg, leaned forward on his knees, and thrust deeply inside. Sherlock made an appreciative noise low in his chest, but not the almost agonized moan John had coaxed out of him with his fingers; he adjusted the angle and tried again, and again, and there—Sherlock bucked wildly, John's name bursting from his mouth as though punched out of him. John grinned and redoubled his efforts, picking up speed until Sherlock was positively coming undone beneath him.

John,” he cried, his whole body coiled tightly as a violin string, and John felt the impact deep in his guts. “Oh, Christ, John, I'm—are you—”

Yes,” John hissed, “I'm there, Sherlock, I'm there, come for me. Show me!”

Sherlock went deathly still for a moment, his body clenched around John so tightly it nearly hurt, and then with an earthshaking groan, he came. Hot spurts of semen striped his chest and belly, and John was seized by a fierce impulse to taste it. He knew he should slow down, knew Sherlock was likely uncomfortably sensitive, but he was so close and he simply couldn't bring himself to stop. He continued to move in sharp, shallow thrusts, the familiar pressure rising again; then Sherlock opened his eyes, smiling at John hazily through lowered lids, and John tumbled over the edge.

He devoutly hoped he wasn't hurting Sherlock, fingers digging into his leg, and he was fairly sure he was shouting, but he wasn't there; he was soaring somewhere above it all, blissed out beyond belief as he emptied himself into Sherlock. At long last he came back to Earth and fell forward, sliding Sherlock's leg off his shoulder as he went. His sweaty cheek wound up pressed into a puddle of Sherlock's come on his stomach, and he supposed he should have found it unpleasant, but he was too exhausted to care.

They were silent for long minutes, catching their breath; Sherlock stroked his fingers idly through John's hair. At long last, Sherlock ventured, “Well. That was...”

“Good?” John supplied, teasing him. For someone of Sherlock's intellect and vocabulary, he seemed to genuinely have no idea how to express satisfaction. He found it oddly endearing.

“I suppose that's as apt a word as any, yes.” Sherlock drew out the last consonant into a long sigh.

“I love you,” John said. He hadn't known he was going to say it; he'd actually planned to comment on Sherlock's sexual prowess, but evidently his mouth had had other plans. He kept his eyes on Sherlock's lower body, unable to quell the tension creeping up his spine.

“Do you?” Sherlock asked, in the manner of someone inquiring about the weather. John thought about it for a moment, but there really was very little to think about.

“I do,” he confirmed, and craned his neck to look at Sherlock's face. “That okay?”

“No,” Sherlock sighed, and this time John waited. His heart was in his throat, but he saw a distinct twinkle in Sherlock's eyes, and at last they crinkled into a smile.

“Amazing,” Sherlock said softly, “fantastic.”

Chapter Text

“Say that again,” Mycroft commanded, his voice low and dangerously soft.

“Brolly,” John repeated, with only a hint of smugness. He was standing in the middle of Sherlock's hospital room, where he'd burst in only moments prior and blurted out the single word. Mycroft, seated in a chair a decorous distance from Sherlock's bedside, had positively frozen, and now seemed to be having some trouble hearing.

“I don't...That can't...What did you say?” Mycroft rasped.

“You understood me perfectly well, Mycroft. Brolly. That was the name of your dog.”

John was so used to straining for clues in the Holmes' brothers faces, he could actually see the progression of Mycroft's thoughts. The initial surprise gave way to full-blown shock, which was followed—to John's elation—by a glance at Sherlock bearing an unmistakable emotion: relief. It was squashed almost immediately, though, and Mycroft rose stiffly from his chair. John was no fan of Mycroft's, but it hurt his heart a little, watching how conditioned the man was to shutting down any kind of joy.

“Where did you get that information?” Mycroft asked. His voice was smooth and oily as ever, but John observed: his arms hung unnaturally at his sides, hands forced open rather than curled into a natural, relaxed curve.

“You know where I got it. You asked me to get it.”

“You can't expect me to believe—”

“You do believe, Mycroft. You wouldn't have asked me that question if you thought there was the slightest chance I could get it anywhere else.” John couldn't help being a little proud of his—in his humble opinion—rather Sherlockian logic.

“There are always variables unaccounted for,” Mycroft insisted, but his resolve was breaking; his voice shook uncharacteristically and his hands were clenching. “He could have told you before he—before. You could have asked someone else—”

Who, Mycroft? One of the relatives Sherlock's never so much as mentioned?”

“John, you are asking me to believe that you are visiting my comatose brother in his dreams!”

“Yes, I am! And I know it's mental, but it's the truth, and you know it for God's sake!”

Where did you get that information?” Mycroft shouted, a lock of hair coming loose and flopping over his forehead. He loomed over John with his fists clenched; John was torn between the natural desire to avoid physical pain, and a much stronger desire to see buttoned-up Mycroft Holmes actually haul off and punch someone.

“You know where I got it!” John shouted back, holding his ground. “God damn it, Mycroft, I know you believe me!”

Mycroft turned a positively alarming shade of magenta and genuinely looked as though he was about to hit John. Abruptly, though, his face went slack, and he dropped heavily back into the chair; its legs thudded against the tile.

“You're right,” Mycroft admitted in a wispy, defeated voice, staring at nothing. “I do.”

Suddenly, John felt a little faint himself. “You do?”

Mycroft nodded disconsolately, still gazing into the middle distance. “It flies in the face of all known science,” he said. “And my judgment is undoubtedly...somewhat clouded.”

“But you believe me,” John pressed, needing to hear it, needing to be certain about this.

Mycroft raised a hand to his mouth, staring off to one side and worrying his lip. His gaze slid to bore into John, and his eyebrows knit together a little. “John. You swear to me that you're telling the truth.”

“Yes. Of course.”

“You swear to me on his life?” Mycroft inclined his head infinitesimally toward Sherlock's bed and steepled his fingers beneath his chin. John squared his shoulders.

“That's exactly what I'm swearing on,” he said, not backing down from Mycroft's searching stare. Without waiting for an answer, he crossed to Sherlock's bedside and ran his fingers over the back of the hand not covered in plasters. This was it, this was the moment. Mycroft was either going to give into hope or deny everything, and John could do nothing but hold Sherlock's hand and wait.

“I believe you,” Mycroft said at last.

John's fingers stilled on Sherlock's skin. His heart felt lighter than it had in weeks. Mycroft knew, Mycroft believed, Mycroft would not pull the plug on his little brother, not knowing he was still in there somewhere. Unaccountably, his mouth tightened and he felt a lump rise in his throat. He shut his eyes tight, squeezing until the heat behind his eyelids dissipated.

“Thank you,” he whispered, gripping Sherlock's hand tightly. Can you feel that, Sherlock? It's all right now. We've got you. We're going to help you.

“So,” Mycroft said, slipping back into his usual manner with an ease bordering on creepy. “We know Sherlock is...intact, in a manner of speaking. The question is how to wake him from the coma.”

John's emotional high faded a little. “Yes,” he said uncertainly.

“I assume you'll have been catching up on your medical journals?” Mycroft asked, his gaze sharpening. “Reviewing the latest research, perhaps?”

“I...well, a bit. I, ah, I probably should read some more,” he trailed off lamely, face burning in shame. Mycroft rubbed his forehead with one hand, and when he spoke, it dripped with such exasperation it approached the tone he reserved for Sherlock.

“No doubt your nocturnal dalliances with my baby brother will have consumed your attention,” he seethed, “but I would think that someone who is both intimately involved in the patient's personal life and also a trained medical doctor might find just a little time to research methods for his recovery.”

“I—dalliances? What am I, a Victorian heroine?”

“Focus, John.”

“I am focused!” he protested, dropping Sherlock's hand and moving to stand before Mycroft. “Don't you think I want him to wake up? I'll do the reading, Mycroft, but it's been a little difficult, between work and hospital and not really sleeping sleeping—”

“A technical term, no doubt.” Mycroft had fished a mobile out of his pocket and was tapping something into it, tilting it away from his face as though he needed reading glasses. Don't need to be a trained medical doctor to diagnose that far-sightedness, do I, John thought petulantly. He was defensive only because he knew Mycroft was right; what had he done to help Sherlock wake up, really? He hadn't done his research, he hadn't kept up on new treatments. He'd been so fixated on staying Mycroft's hand (and, truth be told, on spending time with Sherlock) that he'd utterly pushed aside everything else.

“There,” Mycroft said, pocketing his mobile. “On your way home, you'll phone the clinic and inform them that you're taking a leave of absence. You'll find that money will no longer be of concern for the immediate future.”

“What? What did you—how did you get into my bank account?”

Mycroft fixed him with a pitying look. “Do your homework, Doctor Watson,” he intoned, and the use of his title was not lost on John. “I'll be in touch.” And with that, he excused himself, leaving behind Sherlock, John, and an almost tangible cloud of shame.

* * * * *

Sarah had seemed wholly unsurprised at John's sheepish visit to explain his leave of absence; he was grateful that she hadn't given him trouble about it. He was less grateful for her rather patronizing demeanor when he'd explained the research he was about to embark on.

“It's hard, isn't it, being doctors and not being able to help the ones you really care about,” she'd said, leaning forward in her chair. “You feel like you should be able to fix it.”

“I'm going to find a way, Sarah,” John had replied, slightly defensive.

“Of course you are,” she'd said, and he'd excused himself from the room.

That night, he brewed a pot of tea, ordered in Thai takeaway, and burrowed into his armchair with his laptop. It really wasn't so different from the research Sherlock had him do for cases, he reasoned; it was tedious, involved a lot of frantic hunting through hundreds of Web sites, and he felt completely out of his depth. All in a day's work, really. Sometime after the third article suggesting magnets (dubious), the second describing electrode implantation (dubious and terrifying), and the sixth extolling the benefits of fish oil (less terrifying, but probably not theatrical enough for bloody dramatic Sherlock), John dozed off in his chair, the last of the tea growing cold on the table beside him.

He came to in the woods outside Sherlock's mind palace again. Rain pattered on the leaves, just as it had the first time he'd visited; he wondered for a moment if he was experiencing some kind of subconscious hiccup, if everything was the same as that first time and he might have to do it all over again. But no: a movement to his right caught his eye, and he turned to see a damp and shivering Sherlock coming toward him from the direction of the Palace.

“Oh, hullo,” John called, meeting him halfway. “How'd you know I was here?”

“Your smell,” Sherlock said, removing his wet coat.

John frowned, slightly offended. “My smell?” he repeated, sniffing discreetly at his shoulder. “I do shower regularly, you know.”

“I didn't say your stench, John, I said your smell. Everyone's got one. It's stronger in the rain.”

“Did you arrange the ambience for that express purpose, then?” John asked, laughing, as Sherlock balled up his coat and placed it on the ground. John stepped forward to kiss him, and was surprised when Sherlock turned his head, accepting the kiss on the cheek rather than on the mouth. He felt a twinge of apprehension in his stomach but did his best to quell the feeling; Sherlock had always run hot and cold, and perhaps he was just in a mood.

“If I could arrange it, I'd stop it raining,” Sherlock said, stepping back slightly. “It gets tiresome, only having the one coat.”

“You don't have any more stashed away in your palace?” John was half-joking, but who knew? If he'd managed to find lube, surely there was a room full of outerwear somewhere.

“Don't be ridiculous,” Sherlock replied with an affronted wave of his hand. “This is my coat. There's only one of them.”

John bit his tongue to avoid mentioning the spike in sales of Belstaff greatcoats following Sherlock's rise to fame; at best, Sherlock's selective hearing would kick in and it wouldn't register, and at worst...well, he didn't want to think about the epic tantrum that would ensue if it did. “Right, of course. Sorry, love. How've you—sorry, are you all right?”

Sherlock had tensed noticeably at John's flippant apology, and the knot in John's belly tightened a little. “I'm fine,” Sherlock insisted, though he stepped back again and wouldn't look at John. The expression on his face was one that John hadn't seen since before the fall: carefully-schooled indifference. He nearly gasped when he managed to pin down the moment he'd seen it last—when Sherlock had claimed not to care about Mrs. Hudson, the last time they'd seen each other in person before...

“Sherlock,” John said carefully, “you're not fine. I might not be you, but I can see that. Tell me what's wrong, please. Maybe I can help.”

Sherlock's gaze remained firmly fixed in the distance, and he breathed deeply, as though steeling himself. John waited, the tension building with each silent moment. At last, Sherlock murmured, “I made a mistake.”

“Sorry?”

He raised his voice. “I've made a mistake, John. I was alone and in need of comfort, and I had a moment of weakness.” At last, he turned his head, fixing John with a fathomless stare. “I led you to believe that I was interested in, and capable of, a great deal more than I really am.”

“Now, hang on a moment,” John began, feeling the floor lurching away from him.

“It was never my intention to involve you in this, John. I tried to send you away back on that rooftop, and I should have insisted that you leave the moment I realized you were in my subconscious. But I was weak and selfish, and instead I let you stay, and now I'm afraid I've given you the wrong impression.”

“The wrong impression,” John repeated flatly. Sherlock glanced away.

“You've known me for some time now,” he continued. “Surely you must have wondered, must have speculated, about my lack of relationships.”

“I—yes, all right, I did, but it doesn't matter—”

“You may have thought me unfeeling, incapable of truly loving another person—”

“I never thought that!”

“—and you would have been right.” He looked back at John now, and his gaze held an emotion John had never seen there before; was that shame? “I do care for you, John, but I am not the sort of man who can be in a—a couple.”

We're not a couple.

Yes, you are.

“I've startled you,” John said, struggling to keep his voice even, reasonable. It was all a misunderstanding; he could smooth this over. He could. “I shouldn't have said that I—what I said, last time. We've only been together a little while. It was too soon. I understand—”

“Too soon?” Sherlock barked, a mirthless laugh. It was such a cold sound, so similar to the way he'd spoken just before it happened, John recoiled back a step. “Look around you, John. We're in a hallucination created by my comatose mind. It's too late.”

“Don't say that!” John shouted, his fear morphing suddenly, hotly into anger. “Don't you fucking dare, Sherlock, you're alive and I'm going to—”

“To what? Suddenly advance Western medicine fifty years?” John stared at Sherlock, feeling the wind knocked out of him by the precision of that verbal thrust. “I'm alive only by the continuing efforts of hospital staff, John. I'm not waking up.”

“I think you're getting better,” John said desperately, knowing it was transparent but grasping anyway.

“Don't lie to me, John, it doesn't suit you and it never works—”

“Then don't you lie to me!” John bellowed, seizing Sherlock by the front of his shirt. “Do you remember what happened last time you did that, Sherlock? You stood on that fucking ledge and you lied through your teeth, and I didn't have a single clue why. It scared the hell out of me, and now you're doing the same damn thing!” He heaved a breath, not trusting himself to look at Sherlock's face.

“John—”

“Shut up! I'm not finished. If you don't want me that's fine, if you want to sulk around on your own that's your bloody prerogative, but you owe me an explanation and so help me, Sherlock, I am going to get it this time.” He looked up at last, but Sherlock's expression was unreadable, locked down. With difficulty, he loosened his grip on Sherlock's shirt; the damp fabric stayed balled up where his hands had been.

“Please, Sherlock,” he implored, lowering his voice with difficulty. “You owe me that much.”

Sherlock regarded him for a long moment; then, without warning, he seized John's wrist, turned on his heel, and set off through the forest at a fast clip, dragging John behind him.

“Sherlock, what—?”

“You wanted an explanation,” Sherlock growled, steps slowing as they reached the edge of the forest; John could just make out the looming mass of the Mind Palace, coming into focus through the trees. “You'll have it.” He stopped abruptly at the treeline and shoved John ahead of him, both hands on his shoulders. John squinted for a moment, focusing against the misty rain, and then gasped.

“Oh, God. Sherlock.”

“Yes.”

“When did this—when?”

“Just a few hours ago, I think.”

John stepped forward, a hand brushing absently over his mouth, and gaped in horror at the ruin of what had once been the far wing of the Mind Palace. It looked as though the structure had simply given out; the rest of the building remained perfectly sound, but the collapsed wing had scattered debris all across the forecourt. John could make out a handful of women's shoes, a scavenging hedgehog, and a battered teddy bear among the rubble.

John rubbed a hand over his face and turned back to Sherlock. “And you can't—”

“I have no recollection of anything housed in that wing,” Sherlock said, voice completely devoid of emotion, “even to recall what categories I've forgotten.” His shoulders slumped, and John noticed for the first time just how haggard his face looked. “So you see, then. It is too late.”

John stiffened. “Last time I checked you had a pretty massive amount of palace still standing,” he reminded him. Sherlock's gaze hardened and turned on John.

“Yes. And what will happen when the rest of it falls?”

“It won't come to that.”

“I'll wake up, then, will I, and at best I can hope to be average, dull, ordinary—”

“Don't, don't use that word—”

“—and no one will ever again have use for me—”

“I'll have use for you!” John interjected desperately, wrapping his fingers around Sherlock's forearm, but Sherlock shook him off.

I won't have use for me!” he roared, sending the hedgehog scrabbling back into the pile of debris. John felt a ringing in his ears that had very little to do with Sherlock's volume. “I won't live that way, John. I won't be stupid like everyone else. I'd rather die.”

“You won't. Sherlock, you couldn't be like everyone else. You're—you.”

“Not without my mind, I'm not,” Sherlock said, sounding utterly defeated. “I mean it, John. Better to die in my sleep than wake up a simpleton.” He squinted into the distance, apparently fixated on something in one of the palace windows. John glanced over his shoulder but couldn't tell what he was supposed to be seeing.

“I've been resolved for some time. I was ready,” he continued, not looking at John. “But it's...more difficult, when you're here. I keep thinking...”

John waited for him to finish, but no further explanation seemed forthcoming. “Thinking?”

Sherlock seemed to remember John was there, and turned toward him with the eyes of a sleepwalker. “It's time for you to go home, John.”

“No,” John retorted immediately, reaching out to him again. Sherlock put his hands around John's upper arms, steadying him, and looked him straight in the eye.

“I'm sorry.”

“Don't do this,” John whispered.

“You've got to stop coming here. Without you I can almost bear it, but when you're here...” Sherlock shook himself. “It's too difficult. You make me want to...stay.”

“That's a good thing!”

“No it isn't, John. I need to be alone.”

Anger pricked at the corners of John's eyes, hot and gritty. “In case you hadn't noticed, I don't exactly come here on the Tube,” he ground out. “It's involuntary. And I don't get to decide when I wake up, either. So it looks like you're stuck with me.”

“I've been thinking about that,” Sherlock said, his grip tightening on John's arms. “It's my subconscious, so the logical idea would be that I could force you out, if I so chose.”

“I don't think it works that—hey!” John barked, as Sherlock gave him a sharp shake. He squinted hard at John, apparently not finding the reaction he'd hoped for, and shook him a second time. And there it was: for one heart-stopping instant, John's vision flashed white and the sound of the rain was garbled, like a scratch on a DVD. He went deathly still in Sherlock's grip.

“No, Sherlock,” he said, fighting to keep his voice steady. “I'm serious, do not do that ag—”

Sherlock's answering whisper cut across John's speech as clearly as if he'd shouted it. “Goodbye, John,” he said. For the briefest moment, John could see Sherlock's face twisting in anguish; then, he shook John again, and the world disappeared in a flash of white.

Chapter Text

John awoke violently, propelled forward by an unseen force. “Fucking hell!” he howled, falling, and landed hard on his knees on the floor in front of his armchair. Pain shot up his thighs and he braced himself on his hands, eyes screwed shut and teeth gritted. When the pain had subsided enough to open them, he was greeted by the sight of his laptop, apparently flung to the floor during his rude awakening and now lying in several pieces.

“If you survive this, Sherlock,” he seethed aloud, “I'm going to kill you.” Anger and hurt coursed through his veins, throbbing in his bruised knees and his aching head. What the hell was Sherlock thinking, sending him away? Did he really think John could just go about his business and forget? “I'm not the one with brain damage,” he added acidly to himself, then immediately felt guilty. The absurdity of regretting a remark no one could hear was not lost on him, but it did little to assuage his guilt. Lowering himself gingerly off his knees, he squinted at the clock. Through the dim light creeping in from the window he could just make out the time. Half five. A bit early to be getting up, but not outrageous.

When John had managed to straighten his legs, he hobbled into the kitchen, where he stood contemplating the kettle as it boiled. The shock of seeing Sherlock's mind palace begin to crumble had lit an entirely new kind of fire beneath his arse. He had to work out a plan, and soon, before the rest of it followed and Sherlock's brilliance was lost to history. He supposed the gaps in the wall of “his” room made more sense now; perhaps Sherlock just couldn't remember. That thought stilled him as he dunked his tea bag. He'd forgotten parts of John; what was to stop him forgetting the rest? What if, somehow, he did wake up, but he stared up at John with the eyes of a stranger?

It didn't matter, John decided, resuming his tea preparation. No matter what Sherlock knew when (when) he woke up, John would be there beside him. He'd follow the bloody man around with flash cards if he had to. It wasn't as though they'd known each other especially well when John had started gunning people down for him, at any rate.

And what if—John seemed powerless to stop the train of hypotheticals running through his addled head—what if Sherlock remembered, remembered practically everything, but he'd meant what he said? What if he hadn't been speaking only from fear and self-defense, but he genuinely did not want John? The thought made his stomach lurch again, as though the floor had suddenly dropped.

No. John couldn't believe it. The way he'd looked at John, the way his body had responded to him—these might be trivial signs to anyone else, but this was Sherlock, and nothing he did was trivial. He felt strongly for John, maybe even loved him. But even so, John decided, if he woke up and wanted things back the way they'd been before...they could cross that bridge when they came to it, he supposed.

He shook himself from his reverie and picked up his tea. There was no sense dwelling on what would happen when Sherlock woke up if he didn't formulate a plan for getting him that way. Upon his return to the sitting room, John did his best to piece together his broken laptop, but it was a lost cause; the screen was cracked and when he pressed the power button, it emitted a pitiful grinding sound and died. John tossed it back to the floor, groaning; then, resigning himself, he crossed to the desk and pulled Sherlock's laptop from the pile of rubbish. Getting it plugged in and started up was simple enough, but John found himself stymied by the password screen. Knowing Sherlock, it was extremely likely that any password he would choose would be a random string of letters and numbers. If only he could ask the bloody buggering son of—

John sighed and fiddled with the laptop for a few minutes, putting in any semi-meaningful string of characters he could think of. Fortunately, unlike Irene Adler's phone, the computer didn't seem to have a limit on attempts. Following that train of thought, John tried john, smirking at himself even as he typed it. It failed, unsurprisingly, and John leaned back in his chair, rubbing his hands over his face.

Another idea struck him, equally as silly as the last, but John sat forward and typed it in anyway. As he pressed Return, the computer whirred to life, allowing him access to the desktop. John sat for a moment, stunned, as a flood of warmth spread throughout his chest.

Ridiculous man, he thought, his anger melting away.

The password was hamish.

* * * * *

John was beginning to remember why he'd become a combat medic rather than a research physician. Research was dull. John had read what felt like the entire Internet's collective knowledge about coma treatments, and he was no closer to finding anything plausible. Out of desperation and sheer boredom, John phoned the hospital and asked them to start giving Sherlock fish oil. Perhaps it wasn't dramatic, but it certainly wasn't going to hurt him.

Feeling as though his eyes would cross permanently if he read another word, John sprawled out on the sofa and switched on the telly. The sun had begun to set, and the room was lit primarily by the flickering of the screen. He barely registered what was happening on the program; something involving cars moving very quickly, but John's thoughts were focused on what he was going to say to Sherlock when he saw him tonight. Would it be best to try to convince him he needed John's help? Or should he simply point out the stupidity of telling John to go away when he was clearly going to show back up every night, like it or not? Should he try to kiss some sense into him, or should he back off for the time being?

As it turned out, John needn't have worried. He didn't dream of Sherlock at all.

* * * * *

“Fuck,” was the first word out of John's mouth when he woke the next morning. Before he'd even opened his eyes, his mind had registered that something very, very bad had happened. It was the first night he'd gone without seeing Sherlock since the dreams had begun, and John could hardly bear to contemplate what it meant.

Briefly, he contemplated taking something to go back to sleep. But if something was happening to Sherlock's brain, if it was deteriorating further, he could do more good by researching a solution than he could by throwing a tantrum in Sherlock's subconscious. Feeling as though he might explode if he went through one more Internet search, he showered, gulped down a bit of toast and made his way to the library.

The day's research went better than the night before, if only marginally. He did find a few treatments that seemed plausible, and even made a few phone calls to the doctors associated with them, but at the end of the day he hadn't found anything to his satisfaction.

The doctor who'd restored consciousness to a patient using implanted electrodes said, “I wish I could give you more hope, Doctor Watson, but I'm afraid the patient from that study does not lead what one would consider a 'normal' life. He doesn't require a feeding tube and he is able to communicate in English, but any recovery beyond that is unlikely.”

Out of desperation, John phoned the doctor who'd used magnets, who said, “Yes, the results were quite encouraging. The patient is now able to communicate 'yes' or 'no' using blinks or mouth movements. We've given him a twenty percent chance of long-term recovery. Very encouraging indeed.”

A doctor who'd worked with a team using ketamine to awaken coma patients said, “Yes, the therapy has been very useful in resetting the link between sensory neurons and the brain. The worst part, of course, is coming off the drug. It's highly addictive and the patient must be given a high dose, so dependency issues do arise in some—hello? Are you still there?”

A fourth doctor, one who'd been involved in a study using sleep medications to wake patients, didn't answer or return John's calls. As he rode the Tube home that night, John leaned his head against the wall, feeling very defeated, very small, and very alone. His mobile rang and he reached for it out of habit, realizing only after he'd already pulled it from his pocket that no one he wanted to talk to was currently alive and awake. It was Mycroft.

After a moment's hesitation, John thumbed the phone off and jammed it back in his pocket. He spent the whole walk home from the station looking over his shoulder for black cars.

* * * * *

The morning after John's second night without dreams of Sherlock, he lay in bed and stared at the ceiling for nearly an hour.

It was like losing him all over again.

* * * * *

That day, John phoned anyone and everyone he could find tangentially relating to coma treatments. He tried the sleep-medicine doctor again. He called the fish oil doctor. Reckoning the situation was bizarre enough to border on magic anyway, he called a holistic healer, but hung up after the third ring—magic or no, there was no way Sherlock Holmes would allow himself to be dragged back into consciousness by a bearded man wielding crystals.

At one point, throwing professionalism and privacy to the wind, he actually tracked down several of the patients mentioned in news items about the various treatments. He stood outside the library with a paper bearing phone numbers in one hand and his mobile in the other for nearly fifteen minutes, but he could not make himself do it. No matter how badly he wanted to save Sherlock, there were boundaries; these people didn't deserve to be interrogated by a desperate doctor for answers they likely couldn't provide. His mobile rang as he was talking himself out of the call, and he nearly dropped it in surprise. Mycroft again. He shoved it back in his pocket, swearing, and set off for the pub.

It was unproductive, unhelpful and childish, but John needed to get pissed. Fortunately, a rather raucous group of rugby fans had taken over most of his local, and so he went unnoticed in the corner; he wasn't feeling up to speaking with anyone but the bartender. Four beers into the night, that plan was shot to hell by the approach of a really very attractive woman, who stood just the other side of his table and contemplated him over the rim of her wine glass.

“That's an awfully sad face for a Friday,” she commented, mouth quirking up at the corner. “Anything I can do to help?”

John laughed mirthlessly. “You a noted brain surgeon?” he asked, setting his empty glass aside and motioning to the bartender for another.

“Afraid not, no.”

“Then I s-seriously doubt it.”

“I've got other skills,” she countered, leaning on the table. “I'd be happy to show you.”

“Not interested, thanks,” John said, craning his neck to watch for the arrival of his next beer. He very nearly missed the look of hurt that flashed across the woman's face—nearly. He sighed, turning back to her and wishing he could just not give a shit, like Sherlock. As much as John protested when Sherlock said it, it really was very tedious being pleasant, sometimes.

“Look,” he slurred a little, gesturing to his empty glasses, “you seem very nice, but I'm on a bit of a mission tonight, and I'm really not gonna be much use to anyone. So. Sorry.”

She eyed the row of glasses critically, then glanced up at him from beneath her eyelashes. “Are you actually dying, then?” she asked, her voice skeptical.

“Not me, no. My...” John paused for a moment, considering the drops of beer at the bottom of his glass. “My boyfriend.”

Instantly, her posture changed from one of suggestion to one of sympathy. “Oh, I'm so sorry,” she clucked. “You poor thing. Is there no hope for him, then?”

John sighed and slumped back in his chair. “I don't know,” he admitted. “I'm doing everything I can, but. Well. They're saying it's, you know. Lost cause.”

“Do you think it's a lost cause?” she asked. John opened his mouth to say no at once, but then thought on it for a moment. She seemed to understand; she didn't press him.

“No,” he said at last. “But it's, ah, complicated. The others, they think it's time.”

If she wondered who “the others” were, she didn't let it show. She reached across the table and patted his hand. “Don't give up,” she said. “Try everything. You'll always regret it if you don't.”

John squinted at her for a long moment, barely registering the bartender as his next beer was placed on the table between them. Once upon a time, she'd have been exactly his type; she was pretty, kind, and extremely available. Just at present, though, he felt nothing beyond a vague gratefulness that she'd listened to him babble. At last, he stood (nearly upending the beer as he knocked the table) and said, “Would you 'scuse me, please?”

In the quieter back hallway to the loos, John spread out a piece of paper and flattened it against the wall with one hand. With the other, he dialed, and pushed SEND before he could lose his nerve. It rang out for what felt like ages, and then a cheery-sounding female voice advised him to leave a message.

“Yes, hi,” John began, cursing himself for the incredibly smooth start. “This is John. Doctor John, Doctor John Watson. I'm a doctor. I have a patient that, well. He's in a coma. I'm trying to wake him up but it's, ah, hard. I wanted to speak with you about the drugs, the, er, the zolipem. Zoldipem. Ah, bugger, I can't get it but you know the one. Please ring back at your earliest convenience. Please, it's very important. All right, then.”

John left his number and hung up. He tottered back to the table and finished his drink. He sat and stared at the rugby, and then he began to sober up, and then the mental replay of the voicemail he'd just left caught up to him.

“Oh, fuck.”

* * * * *

When John woke the next morning, he hadn't dreamt of Sherlock, he had left a highly inadvisable voicemail with the potential to wreak havoc on his professional reputation, and he had given himself an absolutely splitting hangover. It seemed to him that he had three options: get up and resume research (after a hot shower, some painkillers and a cup of tea), get up and admit defeat to Mycroft and the doctors, or lie in bed for a bit and perhaps have a bit of a cry. John had just settled on option three when his mobile rang. He barely bothered to glance at it before silencing the ringer; Mycroft again.

The trouble was, the phone wouldn't stop ringing. He'd no sooner rolled onto his side than it rang again; he ignored it, but nearly as soon as it stopped it started again. He considered silencing it, but odds were that one of Mycroft's lackeys would show up on his doorstep sooner or later. With a heavy sigh, he rolled over and answered the phone.

“Mycroft.”

“Doctor Watson.” The honorific was not lost on John. “How goes the research? I assume you've been thoroughly swamped, since I haven't heard from you.”

“Yes, I've been busy,” John said, squeezing his eyes shut and willing the pounding behind them to subside. “Lots of reading, lots of phone calls.”

“Any progress to report?”

“A few promising leads,” John lied. “Look, Mycroft, I'll be happy to go over them with you later, but I was just about to dash out the door and—”

“In your pyjamas, John? Poor form.”

John's eyes flew open. “Hang on, have you bugged the flat again?”

“'Again' implies there was a period of time in which it wasn't, John. How is Sherlock these days—or rather, I suppose, these nights?”

“He's fine,” John said, too quickly, and cursed himself. There was silence for a long moment on the other end of the line; John waited, cringing, until Mycroft spoke again.

“You haven't seen him.” It wasn't a question.

John let out his breath in a rush. “All right, not for a day or two, but he's fine, okay? Last time I saw him he was traipsing around his Mind Palace in a snit. In his element.”

“His Mind Palace?” Mycroft repeated, his voice unnervingly sharp and interested. “You've been, then? Tell me, how—”

“Nooooo, no no no no, no,” John interrupted, shaking his head though Mycroft couldn't see (or could he?). “No, Mycroft, I mean it. You are never, ever going to hear one word about what goes on in there. You've bugged his flat; I won't help you bug his head.”

“Oh, have it your way,” Mycroft sighed, as though it were all beneath him. “At any rate, John, I do wish you wouldn't lie to me. You're abominably bad at it.”

“What makes you think I'm—”

“Please don't insult my intelligence. I need to speak with you in person. I'll expect you in Sherlock's room at one o'clock sharp.”

“Mycroft, I really am busy,” he tried feebly. “Can't it wait?”

“I thought you'd prefer a request over another abduction,” Mycroft continued, as though he hadn't heard. “Do consider your options and make the sensible choice.” With that, the line went dead. John let the phone thud onto the bed and rolled his head to glance at the clock; eleven o'clock. That meant he had to get out of bed and shower in the very near future if he wanted to make it in time (and he wasn't entirely sure he did want to, but it was probably futile to pretend he wasn't going). After another few moments of self-pity, he heaved himself to his feet and plodded off toward the shower.

* * * * *

John was still toweling the water from his hair when the phone rang yet again. Thoroughly aggravated, he snatched it up and answered it without bothering to look at the screen. “For fuck's sake, Mycroft, leave me alone! I'll be there once I've had my bloody tea!”

“So sorry,” said a slightly shocked-sounding female voice from the earpiece. “Have I rung at a bad time?”

“Oh, God, I'm so sorry,” John exclaimed, thudding his forehead against the bathroom wall. “I was expecting someone else—ah, sorry, who's this?”

“My name is Shyama Kulkarni,” she replied, and John racked his brain for that name as she waited. “You called me last night?” she prodded. John nearly died of humiliation and shame on the spot.

“Oh, God.”

“Yes, you've said that,” she said mildly. “You remember, then.”

“Ah, bits and pieces,” John admitted, his ears burning. “I'm extremely surprised you rang me back, actually. I must've sounded like a nutter.”

“A bit,” she agreed. “It isn't every day that one receives a call about a rather painful family matter from a complete stranger. Especially a doctor and, if you don't mind me saying so, one who sounds quite drunk.”

“But you called back,” John said, realization dawning. “So...”

“I called because no doctor would get that drunk over the declining health of a patient. Particularly if you worked with coma patients frequently. So, I don't think he is your patient, or at least not only. You must love him very much, to be so distraught.”

Sherlock would adore this woman, John thought admiringly. “You're right,” he sighed. “Absolutely right. He is my patient, but really he's my...ah...” John wasn't sure what word to use; the woman was older, and he wasn't sure how forward-thinking she might be.

“He's yours,” she said simply, and he felt a wave of gratefulness wash over him.

“Yes. That's...yes.”

“You phoned me because you wanted to know how the treatment worked with my son. Yes?”

“I did. If you're comfortable speaking about it, of course.”

“Do you know how it works?”

John nodded, though of course she couldn't see him. “In theory, yes. The patient receives a very large dose of zolpidem, enough to flood the brain. Zolpidem is an inhibitor, but in this application it works to inhibit the part of the brain that's inhibiting the rest of it. That should allow the patient to wake up and interact normally. Again, in theory.”

“You're correct.” Mrs. Kulkarni let out a long breath. “In the case of my son, it did wake him. He displayed normal behavior only several hours after the treatment was administered.”

“That's fantastic!” John's heart thudded in his chest. To read about a success in a medical journal was one thing; to hear it straight from the horse's mouth (or the horse's mother) was another thing entirely. He was so lost in his fantasies of awakening Sherlock, he nearly missed what came next.

“Of course, it did not last forever.”

The floor dropped out of John's stomach with breathtaking speed. “No?” he croaked at last, barely able to form the sound.

“No. Anand was awake for only a few hours, but they were the happiest of my life.”

A few hours. What could John and Sherlock do with that amount of time? Would it be worth it? He pictured watching the light fade from Sherlock's eyes, pictured losing him again. The thought nearly tore a sob of frustration from his throat.

“What happened when he...?”

“When he fell back into the coma?” John had to hand it to Mrs. Kulkarni—she seemed to have come to terms with it. Her voice was warm but businesslike, not betraying any emotion. “It was terrible, very terrible. It was not like falling asleep, as they had told us it might be. Rather it seemed as though he had been trapped, and something pulled him back in. I had the thought—it is very silly—but I thought that if only someone could go in and lead him out.”

John's head snapped up, his heart starting again. He could hear the blood rushing in his ears. Mrs. Kulkarni was waiting patiently at the other end of the line, clearly giving him a turn to speak, but he couldn't speak; all he could think of was the labyrinth of Sherlock's mind. They'd traversed it together—if anyone could help Sherlock find his way out, John could, couldn't he? Medically, it didn't make any sense, but then nothing about the situation did. If they could just get John into his dreams again—

“...still there? Doctor Watson?”

“I'm so sorry,” John breathed, snapping back to reality. “Yes. You've been so helpful, Mrs. Kulkarni. I can't thank you enough.”

“Shyama, please,” she insisted. “Was that all you wanted to know? I don't feel I've told you very much. Less than the articles, certainly.”

“I was hoping for a more, ah, personal perspective.” John winced; he hoped that didn't make him sound like a completely insensitive arse. Of course, he was the one who had called a grieving mother whilst drunk to dig up her son's medical history, so perhaps the impression wasn't entirely false.

“I understand. I'm glad I could be of help to you. Will you try the treatment with your patient, do you think?”

John thought back to the images his mind had called up a few minutes before. He thought of Sherlock opening his eyes, blinking and searching until his gaze settled on John. He thought of the slow, wide smile spreading across the pale face. He thought of talking with Sherlock, holding his hand as they laughed, pressing a kiss to his knuckles. He thought of telling him how much he loved him. And then, he thought of sitting and watching while Sherlock left him again, while he was drawn inexorably back into the darkness, never to return.

He thought of Mrs. Kulkarni, watching her Anand disappear into those same shadows.

“Can I ask you,” he began, knowing he'd already asked too much, “knowing what you know—knowing that your son would be awake for a while, and then he'd—well—knowing all that, would you do it again?”

Shyama was silent for a long moment, then let out a breath. It was slow but steady, and spoke volumes about the fires through which she had walked for her son.

“Yes, Doctor. Without a doubt, I would.”

John mirrored her silence with his own.

“That's all I needed to know,” he said at last.

Chapter Text

Mycroft was begrudgingly impressed. John was beginning to understand why he so infrequently allowed anyone to surprise him; the expression looked foreign and uncomfortable on his face.

“My assistants had come across the technique in their own research, of course,” he was saying, as John sat on the edge of Sherlock's bed, holding his hand. “Calling the patient's mother, though—that's not something I would have expected of you.”

“It's what Sherlock would have done,” John said, not looking at him. He was busy studying Sherlock's face, imagining those eyes opening once again.

“Yes, I know. I'm not entirely convinced he's been a good influence on you.”

John snorted but otherwise ignored him. “So you agree,” he pressed. “The zolpidem is the best option.”

“Unless we intend to wait for the fish oil to kick in,” Mycroft said dryly; he'd thought it ridiculous when John had started Sherlock on it. “It's risky, but it does seem our most viable option. I'm not convinced, however, of your secondary plan.”

John scowled; he'd known Mycroft would be difficult about that part. The secondary plan was John's idea, and consisted of putting himself under deep sedation, in an attempt to reenter Sherlock's subconscious without as much danger of being booted back out. He would find Sherlock, somehow convince him that everything was going to be fine, and together they would find a way out for good.

“Come on, Mycroft,” he sighed, “it's not going to hurt anything, is it?”

Mycroft raised an eyebrow. “I can think of two ways, without giving it much thought, that your plan could 'hurt something.'”

“Go on, then.”

“First,” Mycroft said, adopting the pedantic tone he used to lecture Sherlock, “if Sherlock's brain is badly damaged, and you enter it, it's possible you could be injured or trapped.”

“I got hurt in one of his dreams before,” John pointed out; he'd filled Mycroft in on the strangest of the dreams once it became clear they were on the same side. “I just woke up. It wasn't a big deal.”

“True, but you were not under heavy sedation at that point. It's unlikely you could wake up from anesthesia simply because your dream went poorly.”

“What could possibly happen to me?”

“We don't know, John, that's rather the point,” Mycroft replied testily. “There is no way to be sure of the effect Sherlock's subconscious could have on yours while in that state.”

John opened his mouth to rebut, but Mycroft actually made a good point; he hadn't considered that angle before. “All right, I'll take it into consideration. And the second?”

“Rather more pragmatic. If Sherlock does wake up only temporarily, as with young Mr. Kulkarni, and you are still under sedation—”

“I could miss it,” John finished, realization dawning. “Oh, God. I hadn't thought.”

“Clearly,” Mycroft sighed, as though John were a bigger disappointment than he could bear. John considered for a moment, mulling the options over again. There really wasn't much to consider, in the end.

“Then I'll tell him—whatever I need to say,” John said firmly. “Before.”

Mycroft tapped his umbrella on the ground, studying John with the piercing gaze so much like his brother's. “Fine,” he said at last. “We'll try it your way. When will you be ready to—”

“Now,” John interrupted. “Today.”

“This isn't a lark, John,” Mycroft sneered. “Don't you think you might take just a little time to prepare?”

“I've been prepared,” John retorted. “For ages. Fuck's sake, Mycroft, I'm not going on an expedition in the Antarctic. I can't take anything with me.”

“All the same, finding a medical team who are not only willing to perform a completely experimental and highly dangerous treatment, but also to administer medically unnecessary anesthesia to a second party, does take some time.”

John stood. “Stop stalling, Mycroft,” he said. “We both know you could've had them here twenty minutes ago if you wanted to.”

“I'm aware,” Mycroft replied smoothly. “And so, what might we deduce from the fact that they did not appear at that time?”

John rolled his eyes. “Will it make you happy if I sign a notarized fucking report? 'I, John Watson, do solemnly declare that on this day I bore material witness to Mycroft Holmes' displeasure.' I get that you don't like it, Mycroft. But it's time. Let's go.”

“I do think—”

“I said, let's go,” John repeated, in a voice he hadn't used since Afghanistan. It was a voice that made dogs sit and men jump to their feet. It was, he dimly recognized, a voice that prior to this incident he would never in a million years have thought to use on Mycroft Holmes.

But as the British Government pulled out his mobile and began to dial without another word, eyeing John warily, John decided he might have to rethink that policy.

* * * * *

As it shook out, the best Mycroft could (or was willing to) arrange was the next day. Though it frustrated John to wait, the professional part of his brain reminded him that it would be better in the long run; he'd have a less miserable time waking up from sedation if he'd fasted for a while. He went reluctantly home to Baker Street and made a cup of tea before remembering he wasn't supposed to be drinking anything, then sat staring into the empty fireplace, mind running in circles.

On the one hand, the idea of finally doing something—anything—to help Sherlock was an enormous relief. Regardless of what happened, John would have done his best, and in theory he knew he should be able to live with that. In practice, though, he knew he couldn't. If it failed—if Sherlock sank back into the darkness where nobody but John seemed able to follow, and for the last few days not even him—John was going to leave that hospital effectively in pieces. It was small wonder Sherlock had rejected the whole messy business of emotions for so long, he thought.

John thought back to his room in Sherlock's Mind Palace, to the empty frames on the wall. In the aftermath of the Palace collapse, he hadn't really had time to think about it, but now it made sense. If Sherlock was losing parts of his memory, it wasn't likely his brain would be able to form new ones. If he woke up, would he even remember what had happened between the two of them in his dreams? The thought plunged John beneath a fresh wave of grief. He'd loved being Sherlock's friend, had been willing to rearrange his entire life to accommodate the man's tall, spindly, demanding presence. But now that he'd had a taste of more...how would he feel, if Sherlock had forgotten? Could he go back to following Sherlock around, helping him with cases and making him eat, and bringing home a different woman every week or so?

He knew he couldn't. Not if he was being honest with himself. And at any rate, Sherlock had cared for him since long before the fall; the photos in his Mind Palace were proof of that. If Sherlock had forgotten, John resolved, he'd do whatever he could to make him remember. Or, at the very least, they could start over together. Even if Sherlock was only awake for a few hours (John forced himself to confront the possibility, though it turned his stomach), he would not go back into that darkness believing himself unloved.

For the first time since leaving the hospital, John was forced to consider Mycroft's idea—that he might not wake up in time to speak to Sherlock. It was a terrible thought, but an unavoidable one; unless he was deeply sedated, there was no guarantee that John could stay in Sherlock's subconscious, especially during the upheaval created by the zolpidem flood. (Of course, there was no guarantee either way, but John liked his chances better under anesthesia.) If Sherlock woke up with no recollection of their relationship, how could John be sure he knew before he fell back into the coma?

Springing from the chair, John rifled through his desk for pen and paper. He would write Sherlock a letter, and he'd do it before he let his emotions overwhelm him. It took four false starts, but at last he managed to put the words on paper, clumsy though they were.

Sherlock,

If you're reading this, it means you're awake, and I'm not. I'm sorry I can't be there to tell you these things in person, but I'm so thrilled you've woken up. I always knew you would. You're miraculous in a million ways every day, why wouldn't you be this time?

You and I have been through a lot of adventures together, and I wouldn't trade them for anything. I don't know if you remember the most recent ones, but either way, please know this: you are the best and most brilliant man I've ever known. I know why you lied to me, I know you didn't have a choice, and while I don't think I'll ever get over watching you fall, I know I can never repay you for what you've done for me. You've said heroes don't exist, but I know that's not true. I have one.

I've been trying so hard not to write this, but I don't think I can stop myself. So: please stay awake. Please please please don't go again. I don't know if you can control it, I don't know how it works, all I know is that if you leave me again I won't be able to bear it. I wasn't there when you went up to that roof and I can't forgive myself for it. So if I can ask you for one thing, just one more, please: don't go where I can't follow you. Not again.

I'm sorry. That's not really fair, but there it is. Anyway this is all just stalling. The thing I wanted to say, really, is this: I have never loved anyone the way I love you. Depending on how much you remember, that may come as a bit of a shock, but it shouldn't really. Everyone else knew from day one. Angelo knew and he'd only known me for five seconds. Don't worry. It's not your fault you missed something so obvious. Everyone's an idiot sometimes. Even the great Sherlock Holmes.

I love you. Even if you forget everything else, don't forget that.

Stay awake. I'll see you soon.

JW

It was a crap letter and he knew it; half incompetent, sappy rambling, half pitiful begging. He ought to crumple it up and throw it away, he thought, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to do it. One way or another, Sherlock ought to know—and with any luck, John would be able to tell him in person. He brushed away the damp that had collected at the corners of his eyes, folded the letter, placed it in his jacket pocket, and—knowing full well he'd never get to sleep—went upstairs to bed.

* * * * *

“Now this device,” the anesthesiologist said, slipping the pulse oximeter over John's right index finger, “will help monitor the saturation of oxygen in your blood, and notify us immediately in case of a sudden—”

“Yes, as I've mentioned several times, I am a doctor,” John interrupted loudly, glaring over the man's shoulder at Mycroft, who leaned against the windowsill looking thoroughly amused.

“—drop in O2 content,” he continued dreamily, utterly ignoring John, as he had the first four times he'd interrupted. “Meanwhile, the electrodes on your chest will monitor your heart rate and—”

“You're certain, absolutely certain, that this is the man for the job?” John asked Mycroft. “Out of the entirety of the British medical world—this one?”

“I assure you, John, you've nothing to worry about. He's quite brilliant at his job. And more importantly, he has very little interaction with people outside of a professional capacity, so he's unlikely to reveal any...unnecessary details of his employment.”

“You use him for this kind of thing often, then?” John asked, wincing slightly as the IV needle entered the back of his hand. The anesthesiologist kept talking, a steady murmur in the background of their conversation.

“Actually, I more frequently use him to administer sodium thiopental,” Mycroft replied airily. John stared; Mycroft smirked. No way to know if he's joking, John thought, but probably not.

“Yeah, well, don't go asking me any sensitive questions while I'm going under,” John muttered.

“Don't tempt me, Doctor Watson.”

“I mean it, Mycroft. You never know what'll come out when you get someone talking under the influence. Hell, I could just start spouting off about Sherlock's private life. Did you know—in bed—your little brother is an absolute—”

“Yes, thank you, that'll be quite enough,” Mycroft said blandly, but John noted a tiny flush of pink at the tips of his ears. “Duly noted.”

Chuckling, John reached over with his free arm and pulled his jacket off the nearby chair. He lay in a bed identical to Sherlock's, set up facing his, nearly touching at the foot. Apparently, Mycroft had been sure to tell him, it had been very tedious and complicated to get two beds into the room without unduly distressing the medical staff. John noted, with interest but without much hope of learning why, that said staff were conspicuously absent now. John tugged the letter from his pocket, then held it out to Mycroft.

“This is for Sherlock,” he said, unnecessarily. “If he's awake and I'm not, and it looks like he's—well—like he might—”

“Yes,” Mycroft said simply, and reached out to take the letter. John jerked it back with a pointed look.

“You won't read it,” he said, doing his best to make it sound like an order rather than a question. There was precious little he could do if Mycroft did read it, but he preferred to maintain the fiction that some part of his life was still private.

“Oh, all right,” Mycroft sighed, rolling his eyes. John placed the letter into his outstretched hand, then settled back against the pillows. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the barmy anesthesiologist preparing to push the sedatives into his IV.

“We'll begin the zolpidem flood when you've gone under,” the man said, the first useful thing he'd said all day. That was just about it, then: letter delivered, IV inserted, hospital staff coerced, Sherlock prepared...but...

“Oh, wait,” John said, glancing around the room. “I haven't signed the consent form.”

“Beg pardon?” Mycroft asked distantly, staring out the window. John felt the cold rush of the drugs entering his bloodstream. He shot a glare at the anesthesiologist—really, did wait mean nothing to these people?—but the man just puttered about with the machines, blissfully unaware.

“The consent form? The bit of paper saying it's OK to drug me and I promise not to sue you?”

“Oh, that won't be necessary.”

John stared at him. “Mycroft, it is necessary,” he insisted, already feeling woozy. “If something goes wrong, you'll need it to prove I've agreed to this.”

At this, Mycroft turned to regard John with a raised eyebrow and a thoroughly unsettling smile. “My dear John,” he said, growing faint as John's vision began to darken, “why on earth would it be necessary for you to have agreed?”

Chapter Text

John had been anticipating a crossover similar to what he'd experienced under the influence of diphenhydramine—a gradual transition from one world to the next. But heavy sedation, it seemed, was a different animal. He remarked mentally on this difference as he hit the ground at high velocity, the wind knocked out of him before he'd even opened his eyes. A groan escaped him, face-down in the dirt.

Dirt. Dirt!

John scrambled to his feet, heedless of the pain in his ribs or the damp soil clinging to his face. A few haphazard swipes with his sleeve and a couple of blinks to clear away the post-collision haze, and he found himself standing in a very familiar forest at twilight. A wave of relief washed over him, so intense it made him feel light-headed, and he fell back against a tree, grinning foolishly. He'd made it back. He'd made it! Sherlock was alive, and John had found his way back into his subconscious. John was going to find him, and they would be all right. Taking a moment to collect himself, he inhaled deeply, savoring the scents of the forest: damp undergrowth from a recent rain, ancient evergreens, the autumnal smell of smoke.

Smoke?

For the second time in as many minutes, John's senses became aware of something before his conscious brain did, and he found himself hurtling toward the Mind Palace as fast as his feet would carry him. A pinprick of light grew into a luminescence that seared his eyeballs, and as he shot out of the forest, his blood turned to ice despite the sudden heat.

“Oh, God, no!” he shouted helplessly, gripping his hair with both hands. “Sherlock!”

The Mind Palace was a towering inferno, billowing smoke into the fading evening. The fire seemed inexplicably to have started in both wings; the previously-ruined portion was now ablaze, and at the extreme other end, flames had burst out of the windows. The middle portion, where John and Sherlock had entered previously, seemed to be mostly untouched—yet.

Sherlock!” John shouted again, wheeling where he stood. There was no sign of him outside, and—he squinted hard—he couldn't see him silhouetted against any of the windows, thank God. John was momentarily paralyzed with indecision. Was it possible Sherlock could be somewhere else? Hiding in the forest, perhaps, or round the back? Or should John plunge inside and begin searching rooms before the fire spread too far?

John shook himself, squaring his shoulders. This was no time for John, the English gentleman. This was a time for Captain John Fucking Watson, Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers, and he was going to do a fucking perimeter check because that was the sensible thing to do. He'd have to do it quickly, though, or risk further damage to the Palace before he found Sherlock. Feeling slightly more in control, as always, with a plan of action, John set off at a run toward the less-ruined wing of the palace.

The fire really was shockingly loud. It burned so hot John found he couldn't go within ten yards of it comfortably. His instinct was to strip off his jumper, but he knew to leave it on; the wool could offer some meager degree of protection from flames, if he was forced to come into contact with any. He'd forgotten how dark it could make things, with all the smoke billowing overhead. He squinted against the darkness as he ran, searching for any sign of life. A few animals had escaped and ran off into the gardens; he saw a stag, a few squirrels, and what looked suspiciously like a peacock, but no humans.

As he rounded the corner and ran along the back wall of the palace, John scanned the gardens. The fire hadn't yet spread to this area, and it was much quieter without the roar of the flames. Briefly he considered searching the gardens, but decided against it; if Sherlock was out there, he would keep for a few minutes. If he were trapped inside the Palace, he'd need John's help much more. The back wall was rapidly coming to an end, and John's heart sank; if he wasn't back here, that likely meant he was either close to the ruined wing—which was, of course, on fire—or somewhere inside. The thought of entering the inferno sent a chill down John's spine, but there was nothing for it: he was going to find Sherlock, and if he had to singe his eyebrows off to do it, so be it.

The back of the palace ended, and John rounded the corner to face the ruined wing. The flames were higher in this area, the clouds of smoke making it nearly black as night. Focused on scanning the near distance, John paid no attention to his immediate surroundings—and so, had it not been for the faint sounds of thumping coming from inside them, he wouldn't have noticed the doors to the cellar at all. He skidded to a halt ten feet past, straining his ears; when he heard another thump, he backtracked, dropping to his knees beside the ancient wood and pounding on them.

“Sherlock!” he shouted. “Sherlock, are you in there?”

The reply was too muffled to make out, but it came nevertheless: there was a person in that cellar. The doors were bolted shut with a massive iron latch, covered in rust. When John pulled it, though, he felt the tiniest bit of give. Leaping up, he braced his feet on either side, gripping the bolt with both hands and throwing his weight against it. It made a terrible grinding noise and shifted scarcely half an inch; he repositioned himself and did it again, again, again. Sweat poured down his neck and soaked his jumper, and his shoulders ached with the force of his tugging, but John barely registered any of it. He was determined, more single-mindedly than he ever had been in his life, and every tiny sliver of bare metal that emerged from beneath the rusted latch was like a little victory.

At last, heaving back with all of his strength, John pulled the bolt free. He promptly tumbled backward and sprawled across the flagstones, but was back on his feet in an instant, wrenching the door open against its protesting ancient hinges. It fell open in a shower of dust and grit, and a coughing face squinted up at John in the sliver of filmy light.

It was Sherlock, filthy and bedraggled but unmistakably, breathtakingly alive. John found himself grinning in spite of everything, and Sherlock mirrored his expression; John reached out his hand to help him up, and Sherlock dallied before taking it.

“Thought you'd listened to me,” he said, clearly aiming for levity, but John heard the fear behind his words.

“Nah,” he said, mouth quirking up at the corner, “I'm not an idiot.” Sherlock's answering smile was the most beautiful thing John had seen in days, and when he finally took John's hand, John nearly had to close his eyes from the relief. “I should have known better,” Sherlock was saying. “You can't seem to keep yourself out of—oh!”

John was momentarily baffled by the hard jerk on his arm as Sherlock pulled him down into the cellar. The thundering crash and rush of heat that ensued moments later, however, began to fill in the picture. Wincing on the packed earth floor, Sherlock sprawled inelegantly beneath him, he opened one eye and looked up at the doorway. A burning chunk of the roof cornice, bigger around than John's torso and longer than he could see, had fallen across the opening. Had Sherlock not pulled him down, John would have been crushed, or burnt, or both. He got to his feet shakily, helping Sherlock up and glancing him over for bruises.

“You're not hurt, are you?” he asked. Sherlock shook his head, rubbing at his hipbone. His coat was absent, his sleeves rolled up; John got the impression he had been pounding on that door for a while. “Isn't there another way out?”

“I can't remember,” Sherlock replied, grimacing. “It was too dark to find one, but I'd be surprised if there wasn't. Have a look around.”

John wished he could take a moment to just touch Sherlock, to reassure himself that he was all right, but he knew there wasn't time. He settled for brushing against him as he crossed to the wall, heartened by the fact that Sherlock leaned into the brief contact. They searched in silence for a few moments, squinting in the dim light provided by the burning cornice.

“Aha!” Sherlock exclaimed at last. “John, help me with this.” He gestured to a heavy-looking crate; with their combined weight, they were able to shove it out of the way. Behind it, a tiny opening glowed with light from whatever room connected with it.

“Let's go,” Sherlock said, crouching, but John stilled him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Me first,” he said. “The fire could have spread to that room.” He didn't smell smoke, but you never knew. Sherlock shook his head, though, and moved to go through.

“It's my brain. I'm more likely to remember directions, and there's no reason for you to put yourself in harm's way unnecessarily. I'm going.”

“Right,” John said, and hauled Sherlock unceremoniously away from the opening by his shirt collar. As Sherlock sputtered with indignation, John seated himself in front of the tunnel, blocking it with his back. He leaned in and forced Sherlock to make eye contact, summoning Captain Watson for the second time that night. “Here's the thing. Of the two of us, only you—it's been confirmed—can be physically harmed by what goes on in here. If you'll recall, I was shot in the bloody stomach and woke up just fine.”

“John—”

“I wasn't finished. You might be under the impression that we're working together right now. That's not accurate. This is a rescue mission, Sherlock. We’ve pumped you full of highly experimental drugs, and I am here to get you out. I'm not going home without you. Your only job is to stay alive and help me look for a way out. That means you are going to do what I tell you, and under no circumstances are you going to risk getting yourself hurt. Whatever happens to me, you're going to let it happen.” Sherlock opened his mouth, but John barreled on. “You might find it distasteful. You might find it disturbing. But it isn't going to hurt me in real life, so let it go.”

Sherlock stared at him for a long moment, then gave a short nod. John squinted against the flickering light.

“Sherlock, are you blushing?”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Sherlock snapped, his voice coming out gratifyingly hoarse. John chuckled and darted forward to press a quick kiss to his cheekbone before turning and making his way through the tunnel. It was a tight squeeze. He thanked his stars that Sherlock was such a beanpole; if he'd been of a weight remotely proportional to his height, he'd never fit through it. It was, however, mercifully short, and John was peering out into the next room before he'd had time to become really uncomfortable.

The good news, it turned out, was that the fire hadn't spread to this area yet. The bad news was that they'd emerged in the dungeons. The light that had seemed so bright when viewed from the cellar now looked murky and cold, and judging by the thunderous noises coming through the ceiling, every living thing in the building was fleeing the floors above. John helped Sherlock to his feet as he came through the opening; despite what he'd said, he was clearly a little worse for wear after John's tumble into the cellar. John stood back, watching as Sherlock considered their options. At last, he gave a jerk of the head, and John followed him to the right.

“The main entrance seemed OK,” John said, jogging a little to keep pace with Sherlock's strides. “Fire hadn't spread there yet. If we can get there, we should be able to make our way out.”

“It'll be safest to stay down here until we reach the northeast stairwell. If we can make it there, we should be able to reach the entrance fairly easily, provided the flames don't spread too quickly.”

“Let's go, then,” John agreed, and broke into a measured run. Sherlock followed, and for some time the trip was uneventful; they passed empty cells and locked ones, and John kept his eyes averted so he wouldn't be tempted to peek inside. He didn't want to think of the people trapped within those cells, even if they weren't real and—as Sherlock had pointed out—they deserved it. As they approached an intersection, Sherlock pointed ahead.

“Turn right when you reach that cross corridor. From there it's only a few more turns and we'll be within sight distance of the stairwell.”

“Got it,” John confirmed, and rounded the corner. He skidded to a halt, however, as an oven-like blast of heat hit him full in the face: this corridor, several yards away, was on fire.

“Well, there's that plan,” he sighed, and behind him, Sherlock let out a growl of frustration. John felt his wrist seized and then Sherlock was tugging him in the opposite direction, left from the corridor they'd just exited.

“We can still get upstairs this way,” he said, releasing John's wrist and breaking into a run. “There are four stairwells in this wing; that was the most convenient, but not essential. We'll need to move quickly, though, if the fire's spreading down here.”

“Agreed,” John replied, sneaking a glance at his face. If Sherlock was distressed by the fire's rapid spread, he didn't show it. But of course, John thought, he rarely showed anything he didn't explicitly want to. He refocused his attention on the corridor; he could help Sherlock more by looking for their escape route than by coddling him. Sherlock took a series of twists and turns, and John hoped he remembered where he was going, because this was a new area and John was utterly out of his depth. At last, just as John's side was beginning to develop a stitch, Sherlock pointed again.

“There!” he said, a note of triumph in his voice. “The stairwell, just there. It'll put us in the east wing. Not ideal, but we can make our way to the entrance from there.” They sprinted the last dozen yards, clattering noisily up the stairs, and at last emerged into one of the door-lined hallways. A thick haze of black smoke roiled near the lofty ceiling, but it hadn't descended enough to cause trouble breathing; John thanked whatever powers might be listening for Sherlock's sense of drama. If he'd kept a Mind House or a Mind Flat, they'd be roasted by now. Sherlock set out at a brisk walk to the right, gesturing for John to follow.

“How did you get into the cellar in the first place?” John asked, the thought just now occurring to him.

“I just appeared there, more or less,” Sherlock replied, eyes fixed on the corridor ahead. “I don't have any recollection of going there, and I'm not sure why I would, at any rate. Nothing in there of particular use, just data I can't delete.”

“Can't delete?”

“Yes, John. Some things are more persistent than others. Names of childhood teachers, the occasional song that's been stuck in my head, that sort of thing.” John took a moment to be entertained by the idea of a grumpy Sherlock, going into his mind palace to stuff an offending pop song into the cellar. He wisely kept this image to himself.

“So when you say you just appeared there,” he pressed. “Where were you before that?”

Sherlock gave him an odd look. “In the forest,” he said slowly, as though it should be obvious, “with you.”

John stopped in his tracks. “Wait,” he said, thunderstruck. “You showed up in the cellar right after you kicked me out?”

“Yes, why is that—John, keep moving!”

“But I was gone for three days,” he insisted. “You can't have been trapped in the cellar that entire time.”

“I'll admit that I don't have a clear grasp of time here,” Sherlock bit out, voice simmering with annoyance now, “but I assure you, that's the last thing I remember before the cellar. Let's go, John.”

John resumed following Sherlock, but turned this over in his mind as they moved along. “I can't believe you were stuck down there for three days,” he said, shaking his head. “That must have driven you completely mental.”

“It wasn't an experience I'm eager to repeat, no.”

“How long before I showed up did the fire start?”

“As I've said, I couldn't tell time especially well. However...” Sherlock trailed off as they turned the corner, and John let out a groan. The corridor was ablaze, paint blistering and doors falling off their hinges. This hallway, he recognized—a plaque reading “DOGS (SMALL BREED)” lay on the floor, smudged with smoke, just a few feet away. He hoped said dogs had had the good sense to flee before the fire spread. There wasn't time to waste worrying about it, though; the fire was quickly consuming the carpet beneath their feet. John felt a fresh trickle of sweat soaking the collar of his jumper.

“Quickly,” Sherlock barked, and turned back the way they'd come. There was no time for conversation now; they ran in grim silence, bypassing the stairwell they'd taken to come upstairs without comment. John wished this corridor had a window, so he could see how far the fire had spread outside. Too quickly, Sherlock stopped in front of him, John barreling into his back and narrowly avoiding knocking the both of them over. John didn't have to look past him to understand why; the heat coming from around the corner was enough. Sherlock snarled wordlessly, his hands balled into fists.

“Back downstairs,” John said, turning; when Sherlock didn't follow, he yanked at his elbow. “Another stairwell, Sherlock, come on!” At last, Sherlock followed silently, his footfalls John's only indication that he was still there. The air was hot, now, and the smoke lower. They needed to get downstairs quickly, or risk being caught in a flash of superheated air. He resolutely did not think about the risk of the floor above falling on them; they had quite enough to worry about without adding the inevitable structural damage to the mix.

As they descended the stairs, it became clear that the dungeons were no longer the safe space they had been. A haze of smoke floated above them, and John tugged Sherlock into a half-crouch as they made their way along the corridor. The air, while still cooler than the blaze above, was uncomfortably warm, and John had to wipe sweat out of his eyes with the sleeve of his jumper.

“The next stairwell,” he repeated, raising his voice to be heard over the flames upstairs. “Sherlock, we need to find the next stairwell, the closest one.” Sherlock stared at him, wide-eyed, and shook his head.

“The next one—John, it's not good—it comes out—”

“It doesn't matter where it comes out,” John interrupted desperately. “Sherlock, this place is filling up with smoke. We have to get to the nearest stairwell or we'll suffocate down here.”

Sherlock looked back and forth, wild-eyed, and finally gave a sharp nod; he set off in the only direction they hadn’t yet explored, moving as quickly as he could without raising from his crouch. John followed close behind, glancing over his shoulder now and then to check for spreading flames. It was getting harder and harder to see down the corridor, and John prayed Sherlock remembered where they were going. A glint of something metallic caught his eye through the smoke, and he squinted briefly before he understood what it was. His stomach gave a lurch.

It was Moriarty’s door. That meant the stairwell, the one Sherlock had been so reluctant to use, would deposit them directly into the Hall of Mirrors. John wasn’t overly enthusiastic about visiting it again himself, but their options were limited, and it beat dying of smoke inhalation in the dungeons. As they drew closer to the stairwell, John looked up, suddenly remembering what lay behind one of these doors.

“Sherlock,” he called, and then louder, “Sherlock!”

“Hm? What?” Sherlock asked, not turning.

“Sherlock, Mycroft’s in there,” he said, gesturing toward the fourth door from the end; he thought he remembered that was the one. “We can’t leave him, he’ll die.”

Sherlock rolled his eyes. “Not really, John,” he reminded him. “It would take more than a hallucinatory conflagration to kill my brother, unfortunately.”

“I know, but—” John couldn’t say it out loud; it wasn’t what Sherlock needed to hear right now, but he worried Sherlock wouldn’t remember Mycroft if he burned up in the fire. John was by no means Mycroft’s biggest fan, but he was all the family Sherlock had, and he had helped them in his way. Beyond that, the idea of leaving a teenage boy to die in a fire was a bit much for John to contemplate.

Sherlock eyed him for a long moment, then let out a long-suffering sigh. “Fine,” he snapped, “but now, hurry.” He moved aside so John could pull open the door; John was surprised to see that it was unlocked. He looked to Sherlock questioningly, but the younger Holmes kept his eyes fixed firmly on the opposite wall. Without preamble, John burst into the cell. Mycroft sat just as he had before, staring out the window. He didn’t seem to have registered John’s presence at all.

“Mycroft!” John shouted, coughing a little. “Mycroft, come on, the palace is on fire. We’ve got to get out of here, let’s go!” He stood and put a hand on Mycroft’s bony shoulder; Mycroft turned his head and looked at him at last, but his eyes didn’t show the slightest hint of recognition or understanding.

“Mycroft,” John tried again, giving him a little shake. “Come on! We—” The smoke caught at John’s throat, and he doubled over, coughing. Before he’d caught his breath, a hand was on the small of his back, urging him down toward the floor.

“John,” said Sherlock’s voice near his ear. “It’s a lost cause. We have to go, now. Leave him.”

“But he—” John cast another glance at Mycroft, who had gone back to staring out the window.

“I know. We’ll leave the door open. All right? He can go if he likes, but we have to go now.”

John nodded and gave Sherlock’s hand a quick squeeze before urging him toward the door. He couldn’t afford to get sidetracked; getting Sherlock out had to be his top priority. Still, he couldn’t help casting a final glance at Mycroft, staring sadly out the window, as they left. Someday, he would have to get the full story from Sherlock on what exactly had happened there.

They emerged back into the corridor and made for the stairs as fast as their legs could carry them. Twice, John reached forward and nudged Sherlock’s head lower; he couldn’t help it, he was too tall, but the corridor was filling up with smoke rapidly and John was not going to lose him, not now, not to something as pedestrian as smoke inhalation. They reached the stairs, ignored the horrible pounding coming from Moriarty’s door, they started the ascent; John couldn’t see, he was afraid to draw a breath, his eyes burned, but then—there it was—

Sherlock emerged into the Hall of Mirrors, John hot on his heels. Here, they could breathe again. The smoke was a haze far above them once more. John gulped air in relief, clutching at Sherlock’s arm. When he’d managed to compose himself, John looked outside, and felt his stomach plummet into his shoes.

“Sherlock—”

“I know. I see.” Sherlock stared out the window, his mouth a grim line. The entire perimeter of the palace, as far as John could see, was on fire. It didn’t seem to have spread to all the interior rooms, and John still couldn’t make out the main entrance from their current vantage point, but the visible portion was completely ablaze. He couldn’t even tell what was burning—some of the fire seemed to have spread to the bare ground itself. Of course, he supposed, there was no reason Sherlock’s subconscious constructs would have to adhere to the laws of physics, but it would’ve been polite.

“It’s all right,” he insisted, aiming for a light tone. “We don’t know that the entrance is blocked. For all we know, it could be untouched. Let’s just get out of here, all right? Take it as it comes.” He started toward the far doorway, then doubled back to retrieve Sherlock, who had stayed where he was. “Come on.”

Sherlock seemed to snap out of it, following John without complaint. They had nearly reached the doorway, John craning his neck to look for flames down the next corridor, when an ominous grinding sound came from the ceiling above them. Almost without thought, John leapt back, shoving Sherlock behind him; half a second later, an enormous section of the roof caved in exactly where they’d been standing, crashing to the ground in a shower of sparks.

Fuck!” John shouted, his nerves shot. “Fucking hell!” He seized Sherlock, who’d only let out a sort of horrified wheeze, and forcibly spun him toward the opposite doorway. “Sherlock, go, go!”

It was the longest few dozen yards of John’s life. He seemed to see everything in slow motion: the flames licking at the windows, which he felt sure would shatter any moment; the black smoke billowing up from behind them; the gaping chasm in the roof, ringed with fire and practically promising further collapse; Sherlock’s hair, glowing orange in the firelight and swept back by the force of his running. Their feet pounded across the parquet floor nearly in tandem, John lagging two strides behind as always. Ten feet from the other doorway, John’s foot caught on a stray chunk of roof rubble, and he slipped, sprawling hard across the floor with an oof of surprise.

Sherlock was out the door and five strides down the hall before he noticed John was no longer with him, and he whirled, searching with terrified eyes. At last, he saw John, and started back toward him. John reached out—but then, he heard a familiar cracking sound.

“John!”

“Sherlock, NO!” John bellowed, just as another section of roof caved in between them. “Sher—aagh!” A piece of the burning roof had landed on his arm, and his jumper smoldered. He beat at it with his other hand, then, impatient, stripped the damn thing off and flung it on the pile of rubble. Fortunately, the heat didn’t seem to have reached his arm, and the T-shirt was cooler, at any rate. He leapt up, squinting through the smoldering ruin.

“Sherlock! Are you all right?”

“John? John!” And there he was, looking panicked and sweat-drenched, but apparently unharmed. John sagged with relief, leaning over to brace his hands on his knees.

“God, that was close. Good job you made it out, yeah?”

“John, stand back! It’s higher on this side; I can jump it. I’m coming over.”

“Stand—no! Sherlock, you can’t! Remember what I said? You’ve got to keep moving, you’ve got to find a way out.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, John, I’m not leaving—”

“That’s an order, Sherlock!”

“I’m a civilian, you can’t order me!”

“That’s—just—wait, will you?” John moved as close to the wreck as he dared, reaching out a beseeching hand. “Sherlock, you can’t. You have to get out of here. If you don’t find a way out, this will have all been for nothing, do you understand?” He flinched violently as another section of roof fell in, further away by the sound of it. “Please. You can still find a way.”

“But you—”

“It won’t hurt me,” John insisted, doing his best to sound reassuring. “Not for long, anyway. And I’ll wake up just fine.” Being burnt to death wasn’t precisely the way he’d have chosen to exit Sherlock’s mind, but he didn’t have much say in the matter, he supposed. “Go on, Sherlock. I’ll see you when you wake up.”

He turned away before Sherlock could respond; it would be better if Sherlock couldn’t see his face, couldn’t read the fear in his eyes. The Palace was falling to pieces around them, and for the first time, he was truly afraid Sherlock wouldn’t wake up. The dawning terror threatened to overwhelm him, and he clenched his eyes shut for a moment, trying to will himself calm. He was so lost in his thoughts, he very nearly missed the sound of running footsteps; he turned just in time to see Sherlock take a flying leap over the burning rubble, landing in a sloppy but effective somersault on John’s side.

“Sherlock!” he shouted, rushing to help him up, or possibly to shake him. “What the hell are you doing? I told you, you’ve got to leave me! You can’t—”

His shouting was effectively cut off by Sherlock seizing him around the waist and kissing him, their bodies pressed together from knees to noses. It was absolutely mad; Sherlock’s mouth tasted of smoke, the heat from the encroaching fire pushed against them like a physical force, and the echoing rumble of faraway collapse rang in John’s ears, but he clung to Sherlock and kissed back like never before. He was so angry, but so grateful, and so afraid, but so filled with desperate hope—

At last, Sherlock released him, though he kept his hands on John’s hips. “I won’t be leaving you,” he rumbled, his mouth millimeters from John’s ear. “That isn’t going to happen. You may as well save your breath; you may need it soon.”

“Sherlock,” John insisted, though his will to protest was waning, “I told you, I won’t die, not for real. You can. How are we going to get you out now?”

“Listen to me very carefully,” Sherlock said, taking John’s face in his hands; his skin was hot and dry, and John dimly registered that that wasn’t a good thing, but he did as Sherlock asked. “Whether I live or die—no, wait—either way, I’m going to do it with you. I will not have what is very possibly one of my last memories be of you burning to death. Do you understand? I threw you out once, and you’ve bashed your way back in using some sort of chemical battering ram—what did you give me, by the way, so I can be sure to have the world’s remaining supply jettisoned into space?—and so I’m afraid I do have to insist that I get my way in this one small thing.”

It took every ounce of John’s willpower not to comment on “this one small thing.” As if you ever don’t get your way. What he said, though, was, “Zolpidem.”

Sherlock’s brow furrowed. “The sleep medication?”

“It’s an inhibitor,” John explained distractedly, surveying the damage around the room. “The theory is that it’ll inhibit the part of the brain that’s inhibiting—inhibiting—”

“If the theory is written as eloquently as your explanation, I’m not surprised it’s worked this well.”

“Sherlock,” John said, “zolpidem inhibits the part of the brain that’s inhibiting the rest of it.”

“All right, but—oh! John—”

“The part that’s inhibiting it—that’s here! Don’t you see? You said you showed up in the cellar three days ago, and the fire started just before I showed up. It started when we began the zolpidem flood! The part of your brain that’s inhibiting the rest of it is this part. That’s why we can’t get out. That’s why it’s burning down now. The trauma, though—it shouldn’t have affected the memory center; that’s not the right—”

“The hippocampus contains neural stem cells that activate in response to injury,” Sherlock recited, his eyes unfocused as though he were reading it rather than thinking it. “The brain’s resources may be temporarily diverted to the task of developing those stem cells into working nerve cells. John—”

“But there has to be a way out, then,” John insisted, looking around again. “If the zolpidem is taking effect, there has to be—”

“JOHN.”

“What, Sherlock?” John asked wearily, turning to face him. Sherlock wasn’t looking at him, though; he was looking straight ahead, into the last mirror, the one that showed Sherlock all alone.

But it didn’t.

In the reflection, John could see the building on fire; he could see the throngs of people and animals milling about in the gardens; but most importantly, the biggest change of all, was that Sherlock was no longer reflected alone. John stood beside him, staring thunderstruck back out of the mirror. Sherlock’s expression was one of polite confusion, as though he expected someone to be along shortly to explain the change.

“I’m in your mirror,” John said stupidly.

“Yes, you are,” Sherlock confirmed, sounding dazed.

Without turning his head, John reached over and took Sherlock’s hand. He watched as the reflected figures did the same. Behind them, in the mirror, he could see another section of roof starting to buckle, and the windows looked oddly shimmery; he thought they were about thirty seconds from shattering. The last chance to act had arrived, and as John stared at their reflections in the mirror—his own, gazing back at him steely-eyed, and Sherlock’s, looking down at John as though he were somehow more interesting than a building on fire—certainty struck him like a bolt of lightning.

“Sherlock,” he said slowly, “do you trust me?”

“Bit of an odd question, given…” Sherlock gestured at the mirror with his free hand, but John shook his head.

“I’ve got an idea, but it’s going to seem mental.”

“Oh, that’s no good. I prefer my last-ditch hallucinatory fire-escape plans be grounded in established military protocol.”

John punched Sherlock lightly on the arm, but smiled. “Cover your head,” he said, then added, “prat.” Sherlock did as he was told, lifting his free arm over his face, though he fixed John with a questioning look. John shifted his weight, preparing to run. His grip tightened on Sherlock’s hand, and he received a reassuring squeeze in return. Finally, just as he heard a telltale groaning noise from the roof above them, John charged forward, running straight for the mirror.

“John,” Sherlock called, stumbling behind him. “John, what are you—John!”

They crashed into the mirror at a full tilt, John throwing his good shoulder forward to absorb the blow. Rather than slamming into the wall behind it, however, they found themselves tumbling through it in a shower of broken glass and sparks. John’s eyes, which had squeezed shut just before the impact, opened to a sea of blinding whiteness. He hit the ground (or lack thereof) with a grunt, followed by a louder one as Sherlock fell on top of him.

They lay there for a moment, catching their breath and taking in the silence. John could feel Sherlock’s heart hammering through his shirt. At last, John lifted his head and glanced around. The Palace had disappeared entirely; not a trace of their exit remained. Only a handful of mirror fragments scattered into the near distance gave any indication that they’d come from elsewhere. The cool, still air was one of the most delicious things John had ever felt; it wrapped around him like water in a pool, soothing his overheated skin and clearing the ash from his lungs. Gingerly, John stood, dislodging Sherlock. The heap of sweaty, sooty clothes and curly hair at his feet gave an indignant groan.

“Come on, Sherlock,” he said, reaching down to tug at the nearest limb he could find. “Up.”

“Too tired,” Sherlock grumbled. “Later.”

“Just to get away from the glass, love. Then you can lie back down.”

Sherlock got to his feet, moaning in the manner of someone being forced to do hard labor, and plodded a few steps away before sitting heavily on the ground again. John glanced him over a little nervously, but didn’t see any obvious injuries; it seemed he was just exhausted. He sat down beside Sherlock, gathering him into his arms and guiding the tousled head to rest against his neck. Sherlock gave a little sigh and closed his eyes, fingers toying idly with the hem of John’s T-shirt.

“We made it out,” John said softly.

“You made it out,” Sherlock corrected him, tiredness seeping into his voice. “I just followed.”

“It was a rescue mission,” John reminded him. At this, Sherlock tilted his head back, peering up at John from beneath heavy lids.

“You’ve been on a rescue mission since the day we met,” he said. “Since that time with the cabbie. You always saved me.” His eyes drifted closed again. “Thank you,” he murmured.

John had no response to this; he couldn’t think of any words to express the overwhelming emotion that rose up in his chest. He settled for pressing a kiss to Sherlock’s forehead, staying there a while to breathe in the warm, sooty scent of him.

A little while later, Sherlock stirred. “I feel strange, John,” he said. “Almost as though…” He shifted in John’s arms, and John loosened his grip to give him space. Sherlock lifted a hand, squinting at it. “Is it my imagination, or is that—”

“You’re fading,” John interrupted, sitting up in alarm. “You’re—Sherlock. I can see through you.”

“Is that a good thing, do you think?” Sherlock’s eyes met John’s, and the fear in them squeezed at his heart. “Is that supposed to happen?”

“I don’t know,” John answered, looking him over. It was just like when John had woken up before; like when the light had become so bright, he’d had to squint against it. Only now, it was just Sherlock who was growing faint. John, it appeared, was as solid as ever. “You might be—you could be waking up.”

“John,” Sherlock said, seizing John’s face in his hands with sudden desperation. “Everything that happened in there, with the—the fire, the collapse, the empty spaces—I don’t know what I’ll remember. I might not remember any of it.” He swallowed visibly. “I might not remember—this.” He gestured between the two of them, and John understood what he meant, had felt that fear himself.

“It’s all right,” John reassured him. “It’s okay.”

“It’s not all right!” Sherlock insisted. “If I wake up...you have to make me remember. Do whatever you must, just, please, John…” He pressed his lips to John’s face: cheekbone, brow, mouth. John noted with alarm that it was actually difficult to feel Sherlock now. “Don’t let me forget. I don’t want to forget.”

“I know,” John whispered, trying to be soothing despite the tremor in his voice. “Don’t worry, Sherlock. I’m not going anywhere. I promise.”

Sherlock was so faint now, John could see the sweat on his own arm through Sherlock’s torso. “John,” he said, sounding faraway and wispy, “I never told you—I—”

“Don’t,” John insisted. “Not now. Tell me when you wake up.” Despite his best efforts, a tear rolled down his cheek, dripping onto his sooty wrist and leaving a clean blotch there. He ducked his head to wipe the track away. “I’ll be waiting.”

When John looked up again, Sherlock was gone.

He didn’t know how long he sat in the infinite white void, letting tears stream down his face. Sherlock was right: it was hard to gauge time here. With no one to see, John allowed himself to cry. There were tears of fear and of heartbreak, unsure if he would ever see Sherlock again. There were tears of relief, for at least he hadn’t let Sherlock die in that burning prison. And there were tears of simple exhaustion, the basic loss of emotional stamina after such a prolonged period of anxiety. Every emotion he’d felt in the past two weeks flowed out of him, leaving him drained and hollow-feeling. At last, the tears subsided, and with nothing better to do, he lay down. Letting his head loll back onto the solid nothingness, he replayed his last moments with Sherlock, over and over, until they became a sort of tonic and he drifted to sleep.

* * * * *

When he first became aware that he was waking up, John heard voices. At first they were nothing more than a soft, murmuring noise, tapping gently against his ears like a bird against a windowpane; then, gradually, he became aware of the words, and the person speaking them.

Nothing ruined a nice gentle awakening like Mycroft Holmes.

“...not sure,” Mycroft was saying. “I’d think he should have been awake by now.”

“If he’s going to wake up,” said a familiar female voice—Anthea, he realized.

“Is that really necessary?” Mycroft asked, his voice strained.

“Sorry, sir. I only meant—”

“It’s all right. We knew there was a risk, certainly. It was all very unscientific.” He sighed. “Still, one can’t help but feel…”

“I know, sir.”

John hadn’t yet opened his eyes, but already felt as though he might be sick. Sherlock hadn’t woken up? But John had watched him fade away into nothingness—if he hadn’t woken up, that meant he was—oh, God—

“You can stop shaking your head,” Mycroft said, in a strange tone—irritable, certainly, but there was something else there too. “You’ve already made your thoughts on the subject clear.”

“He’s coming,” said a third voice, gravelly and hoarse. “He said he’d be here.”

John’s mind abruptly screeched to a halt, the inside of his brain as white and empty as the void he’d just come from. Not a single coherent thought took shape; his heart seemed to stutter in his chest.

“I do wish you’d read the letter.”

“I’ve told you, Mycroft, I won’t. John can tell me himself. When he wakes up.”

At the sound of his name, John’s brain came back online. There was only one person on Earth who made his name sound that way: like an endearment, like a song, like a benediction. He opened his eyes.

Sherlock was looking back at him.

 

Chapter Text

“You see, Mycroft, I told you,” Sherlock rasped as John stared, wide-eyed and unmoving. “He’s awake. You can go now.”

A movement from the side caught John’s attention and he glanced toward it reflexively, breaking eye contact with Sherlock at last. Mycroft had stood, gathering up his effects. John blinked, bewildered; was Mycroft Holmes actually going to accept an order from his little brother without protest?

He was taken aback even further when Mycroft dropped a hand onto his shoulder, looking down into his face. His mouth remained in its usual impassive line, but his eyes crinkled just slightly; it was, perhaps, the most genuine smile John had ever seen on the man’s face.

“John,” Mycroft said simply. “My thanks.”

“I may choke on the sentimentality,” Sherlock warned from across the room.

Mycroft straightened, rolling his eyes, and turned to depart. He paused at the door, glancing at Sherlock one last time.

“I trust we have said all that’s necessary,” Mycroft said, almost hesitantly.

“And then some,” Sherlock agreed, but without heat. “I’m fine, Mycroft. Please.”

John wasn’t entirely sure he’d actually woken up. Sherlock saying please; Mycroft leaving the room without complaint—it was all too strange. He stared after Mycroft for a moment, feeling dazed.

“John.”

He turned to find Sherlock regarding him with an expression of mingled worry and amusement. “You haven’t said a word,” he continued. “Are you ill?”

“No.”

“Are you injured?”

John pondered this, testing his limbs and rolling his neck. Everything seemed to be in order. “No?”

“Are you, for some reason I’ve undoubtedly missed, angry with me?”

“Wha—no!”

“Then may I ask,” he continued, with the pacing of someone speaking to a very slow child, “why you are still over there and not over here?”

Oh, God. Suddenly it sank in that this was real: Sherlock was awake, he was alive, John wasn’t dreaming; the Sherlock in the bed across from him might be stubble-headed and festooned with plasters, but even like this he was a thousand times more beautiful than the best version John’s imagination could conjure, better than the most perfect dream. John launched himself out of bed so forcefully it sent the wheels skidding back a few inches, and then he was clambering up onto Sherlock’s bed and crawling in beside him, and then—he stopped, inches away from taking Sherlock’s face in his hands.

“What is it?” Sherlock asked, and gave a wheezy chuckle. “I’ve had my teeth brushed.”

John laughed, a little hysterically; his emotions all felt amplified, building like the noise a microphone made when held up to a speaker. “It’s not that,” he said. “I just don’t want to hurt you.”

“I’ve never felt better.”

“And…” John trailed off, unable to put his fear into words. It seemed like Sherlock remembered; he certainly remembered their last conversation, at any rate. But did he remember the rest? Did he remember look, John, the backseat of a car on Dartmoor, sprawling on a rug in front of a fire? Did he remember amazing, fantastic, and—more than anything—did he remember I love you?

“John,” Sherlock said, voice gentle even beneath the rasp of disuse. John brought himself back to the present with a concentrated effort. Sherlock grimaced just slightly, and John was confused until he realized that a heavily bandaged left hand was straining upward, unable to move more than a few centimeters above the bed. John caught Sherlock’s hand, and at Sherlock’s urging, lifted it to his own face. Sherlock smiled, giving a slow blink of satisfaction and rubbing his thumb unsteadily over John’s cheekbone.

“Some of the details are a little hazy,” he admitted, reading John’s mind as always. “But I remember the important things.”

“Like what things?” John whispered, wishing he could stop trembling.

“I remember you,” Sherlock breathed.

That was enough for John. His mouth descended onto Sherlock’s in what could scarcely even be called a kiss; he was too full of emotion to be gentle, too desperate to get close. Sherlock’s mouth opened beneath his in a hoarse moan, the fingers of his left hand stroking John’s hip with jerky, uncoordinated movements. John knew he should slow down, back off; Sherlock’s muscles would have atrophied a little during their weeks of disuse, and he wouldn’t be able to move much yet. He couldn’t seem to stop, though, and as Sherlock’s tongue delved into his mouth, he decided firmly that he didn’t want to.

It wasn’t a dream, it was real, and all of John’s senses felt heightened—Sherlock was warmer beneath his hands, his lips softer as John ran his tongue over them, his noises of approval rumbling pleasantly through John’s chest. The latter seemed to divert John’s blood flow to more southern regions, and he broke away, gasping, as he adjusted his trousers.

“Sorry,” he said, wincing. “Not the right time.”

“I disagree,” Sherlock drawled. “If I could move my arms and legs, you’d be naked already.”

That was not helping the situation. John drew back a bit, sliding further up on the bed so he could slip an arm under Sherlock’s shoulders; Sherlock turned his face toward John and rested his head on his chest, letting out a little sigh of contentment.

“How long?” John asked vaguely, but Sherlock understood.

“About an hour,” Sherlock rasped. “It was the longest I’ve listened to Mycroft speak since I was a teenager.”

John’s mouth quirked up in a wan smile. “Sorry if I gave you a fright,” he said. Sherlock’s head rolled back and forth; it wasn’t much of a movement, but enough for John to feel.

“I had faith in you,” he said. John twined their fingers together and Sherlock’s eyes fluttered closed. They opened again as John tensed involuntarily beneath him, and Sherlock gave him a questioning look.

“I’m sorry,” John explained, embarrassed. “It’s just...I’ve spent so much time looking at you with your eyes closed lately. I can’t quite shake this feeling that you’re going to disappear.”

Sherlock’s fingers tightened around John’s. “I told you,” he murmured, “I won’t be leaving you.”

John smiled, his cheek pressed against Sherlock’s hair. “I’m surprised you remember that,” he said. “I thought the fire might have sort of...wiped out those memories.”

“I remember the fire. I rather wish I didn’t.” He coughed a little, clearing his throat. “Or rather, I would, if it weren’t for your very memorable display of heroism.”

John scoffed. “Let’s not get carried away,” he protested.

“Nothing doing. You were magnificent.”

“I had very selfish reasons, I can assure you.”

Sherlock chuckled. “Fortunately for you, saving lives tends to be viewed through the lens of altruism, no matter the motive.”

John had nothing to say to that, so he just wrapped himself tighter around Sherlock and settled into a pleasantly groggy cuddle. The tiny movement of Sherlock’s finger tracing patterns on the back of his hand was reassuring, and the knot of tension in his stomach eased for the first time in weeks.

“John?” Sherlock said at last.

“Yes?”

“Could I...would it be all right if I read your letter?”

John cringed inwardly. “It’s rubbish, Sherlock,” he protested weakly. “I wrote it when I was scared half out of my mind and thought I might never see you again.”

“Then it’s probably honest,” Sherlock pointed out.

“Yeah, but—”

“Please?” Sherlock asked, and how could John refuse? He dislodged himself just enough to reach the bedside table and retrieve the rumpled envelope there; with trepidation, he opened the letter, unfolded it, and held it in front of Sherlock’s face. Sherlock stroked his thigh with two fingers, a gesture of thanks.

John kept his eyes firmly averted, his face red. He’d never enjoyed watching people read what he wrote—part of the appeal of keeping a blog, he supposed. And of course, he’d never written anything half so desperate and slapdash as this. When he dared to glance down, he saw Sherlock’s eyes moving across the page, his mouth open just slightly in concentration. He settled back in, leaning his head against Sherlock’s hair and being careful not to move the page.

Fingers tapped against his leg again. “John.”

“Yeah.”

“Look at me.”

John placed the letter on the bed, on the other side where it wouldn’t be crushed, and propped himself up on one elbow. His face was inches from Sherlock’s, and when he looked into those unearthly eyes, he was shocked to find them glassy with—were those tears?

“Sherlock, I—”

“Same,” Sherlock interrupted, his voice sounding throaty and constricted. “It’s the same for me, John. It always has been.”

“I—” John swallowed. “All right. That’s good.”

“I’m so sorry to have put you through this. If there had been any other way—”

“I know. I know. Don’t.”

“It was the hardest thing I’d ever done.”

“Jumping?”

Sherlock’s head rocked back and forth on the pillow. “Lying to you.” A single tear escaped his eye; John brushed it away. “I thought it would be...easier for you. If you hated me.”

It was John’s turn to shake his head. “Not possible.”

“You were angry.”

“I was,” John confirmed, though he kept his voice soft. “Because I knew you were lying and I didn’t know why. When you jumped I wasn’t sure I’d ever know.”

“I’d have come back for you,” Sherlock whispered. “I’d have explained.”

John’s heart clenched, remembering how Sherlock had told him only a few years. “I don’t know,” John said, aiming for levity. “You might’ve gotten used to it—not having someone following you around, nagging you to eat and sleep, scolding you for your messes—”

He was startled to feel Sherlock’s fingers clamp around his wrist, and looked down; his arm was shaking with the exertion and his face was pale, but he had managed to lift his hand on his own. John lowered his wrist, hoping to take the strain off. Sherlock’s eyes blazed, and he shook his head again.

“From that first case...that first night, when I saw you walking out of the school, and I realized it was you who’d shot the cabbie...I knew it was going to be you. You, or no one.”

“That soon?”

“Always.” Sherlock held his gaze, not looking away, and John knew it was the truth; there was no reason to lie anymore, and nothing left hidden at any rate. He leaned in, letting his eyes drift closed, and kissed him.

It was nothing like the last kiss. They took their time, slow and gentle, breathing each other in and sharing the simple pleasure of being awake and alive. John’s hands roamed, one winding around Sherlock’s waist and the other cradling his head, but all the fierce desperation of earlier had drained away; this was about connection, about reassurance, not about sex. He was perfectly content to just lie here, with Sherlock warm and solid and comforting beneath him, for as long as the universe would let him.

Sometime much later, Sherlock broke away. “You were brilliant, you know,” he murmured, his mouth turning upward. “With the zolpidem. How did you figure that out?”

John grinned, embarrassment tinting his cheeks. “Ah, by harrassing a grieving woman,” he said, and Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “Well, at first I was researching on your laptop—”

My laptop?”

“Yes, I’m afraid you broke mine, you git.” John laughed at Sherlock’s perplexed expression. “Let me start from the beginning.”

For the better part of an hour, John recounted the story, from his first bewildering dream all the way through his arrival at the blazing Mind Palace. He talked about Greg’s disbelief, Mycroft’s question, Mrs. Hudson’s intervention; he explained his research, and the fateful phone call to Mrs. Kulkarni; the horror of listening to the recording on Sherlock’s mobile, and the tense, fragile partnership he’d forged with Mycroft. When he was finished, Sherlock kissed him again, and then launched into an explanation of his own: the strange circumstances that had led up to his confrontation on the roof; the confusion and fear of waking up alone in a completely empty space; his joy at being reunited with John, and the endless boredom of the hours between visits; the terrible fear that he might be losing his mind, a fear that had driven him to push John away.

“I should never have said those things to you,” he murmured, eyes roaming over John’s face. “I was afraid, and I acted hastily.”

“I know.”

“I didn’t mean a word of it.”

“I know. It’s all right.”

“I’ll make it up to you,” he insisted, and John was alarmed to see his eyelids drifting closed. “Someday, I will.”

“Sherlock? Open your eyes, okay?”

“Tired,” he sighed. “I need to rest, John.”

“You—no, please, Sherlock, you can’t—” John struggled horribly with himself. On the one hand, Doctor Watson knew that a recently-awakened coma patient needed sleep to rebuild connections in the brain, and would more than likely have periods of wakefulness interspersed with longer periods of sleep for several days. On the other hand, John kept hearing Shyama Kulkarni’s voice in his head, saying, Anand was awake for only a few hours, but they were the happiest of my life.

“John.” He pulled himself back to the present with great effort, and found Sherlock was looking at him from under heavily lidded eyes. “I am not leaving you again.”

“Can’t you just—please, can you stay awake a little while longer?” He knew he was begging and it was unfair, but he couldn’t stop himself; the mere thought of watching Sherlock fall back asleep made him feel as though he needed to breathe into a bag. “Just a few more minutes?”

“Stay with me,” Sherlock murmured, wrapping his fingers around John’s wrist again. “Don’t go. I promise, I won’t be long.”

John was petrified, but he couldn’t deny Sherlock. He dropped a kiss onto his mouth, lingering for just a moment, and then slid down to rest his head on Sherlock’s chest. “I love you,” he whispered.

Sherlock gave a rumble of assent low in his chest; it reverberated through John’s cheek, and though it did little to soothe his fears, he clung to it like a life raft. “Come back,” he breathed.

“I will, John,” Sherlock promised, and almost before he’d finished John’s name, he was asleep.

John spent the next hours in a hellish sort of limbo, desperately afraid that Sherlock would never wake up again, but knowing he needed to get his rest. He kept his eyes fixed firmly on the monitor displaying Sherlock’s vitals, the rest of his attention focused on the chest rising and falling beneath him. In spite of himself, Sherlock’s steady breathing and the reassuring line of his heartbeat on the monitor soothed him, and at last he drifted off to sleep.

* * * * *

He didn’t understand. They’d done this part, they’d escaped; why was he back here again? John stood on the flagstones outside Sherlock’s Mind Palace, heart pounding in terror as he watched it burn again. This time, the entire building was on fire, entrance and all, and he set off at a run toward the back wall before he’d even had time to think.

It took just as much effort as last time to wrench the cellar doors open, but when at last they gave way, there was no Sherlock waiting behind them. He dropped inside, calling Sherlock’s name and checking every nook and cranny just in case, but the room remained stubbornly devoid of consulting detectives. He wrenched the crate away from the wall, and a gasp of horror escaped him: where there had previously been an opening to the next room, now there was only a stone wall.

John turned and fled up the stairs, barreling around the corner and along the back wall, looking for another entrance. As he passed the windows that looked in on the Hall of Mirrors, a movement inside caught his eye, and he stopped in his tracks. Sherlock stood in the middle of the room, entirely surrounded by heaps of burning rubble, unable to escape. John shouted his name, heedless of the glass between them; incredibly, Sherlock turned his head, meeting John’s gaze. He looked neither frightened nor relieved, only inexpressibly sad.

“Sherlock!” John shouted again, searching the ground frantically. “Sherlock, back away from the window! I’m coming in!” A stone planter several yards away caught his eye, and he ran to snatch it up. When he came back with it, Sherlock was standing in the same place, apparently unaware of the fire spreading all around him. John shouted for him to move again, and pantomimed throwing the planter, but Sherlock didn’t react.

“Sod it,” John ground out, and flung the planter with all his strength at the window. It bounced off harmlessly, leaving not even a scratch behind.

“What the hell!” John bellowed, and picked it up for another try, and another. Every blow, no matter what angle he tried it from, glanced off as lightly as if the planter had been made of polystyrene. As he looked up again, he saw that a bit of burning roof had fallen on Sherlock’s shoulder, and his suit was on fire. Sherlock seemed not to notice, eyes still fixed on John.

Sherlock!” he screamed, giving up on the planter and throwing his weight against the window as he’d done with the mirror. “Sherlock, wake up!”

“Wake up!”

“Come on!”He threw himself against the window again, with the same result, and backed up for another try; the fire had spread to Sherlock’s arm. “Wake up!”

“John! Wake up!”

“What?” John faltered on his third charge, wheeling around in confusion. “Who said that? Sherlock?”

John!”

All at once, John sat up, heaving air into his lungs as though he’d been drowning. His hands clutched blindly at whatever was in front of him, finding purchase on something made of fabric; as his eyes came into focus, he saw that he was in the hospital room. “No, no!” he shouted, fighting to get to his feet. “It’s Sherlock, he’s trapped again, he’s going to—”

“John, I’m here!” A pressure around his wrist tightened—he hadn’t noticed it before, panicked as he was—and shook him lightly. “John, look at me, I’m all right.”

With extreme effort, John turned his head, and realized that he was gripping the front of Sherlock’s hospital gown; as his eyes traveled upward, he saw the arm that was currently clutching his wrist, and above that, Sherlock’s face, drawn and pale.

“I’m all right, John,” he repeated slowly. “You were having a nightmare.”

“A nightmare?” John repeated blankly. “But you—you weren’t—”

Sherlock rolled his head from side to side. “I woke up half an hour ago. I’m fine.”

All at once the adrenaline left him, and John fell against Sherlock on the bed, wrapping shaking arms around his waist. “Oh, God,” he said. “An actual nightmare. I’d forgotten all about regular dreams.” He felt Sherlock’s lips press against his hair, and his heart rate instantly slowed.

“How long was I out?” John asked.

“Almost six hours.”

“Six hours!” John’s heart rate spiked again.

“You were very groggy, John. We both were.”

“No, I know, it’s just…” John sat up, grinning at him like a loon. “Sherlock. Anand Kulkarni, he’d fallen back into the coma long before now. Do you think—”

“Don’t jump to conclusions, John,” said Mycroft’s voice from the corner, making him jump nearly out of his skin.

“Jesus! How long has he been there?”

“Since before I woke up,” Sherlock answered, sounding half amused, half irritated. “Couldn’t get him to bugger off.”

“Forgive me for showing an ounce of brotherly concern,” Mycroft said, with one of his tight smiles. “I hardly think we’re out of the woods yet.”

Sherlock sighed impatiently. “Stop being so cheerful, Mycroft. It doesn’t suit you.”

“Your sarcasm is reassuring.”

“Then be reassured, and go away.”

Mycroft and Sherlock eyed each other for a long moment, apparently engaged in one of their incomprehensible, silent Holmes showdowns. John stayed where he was, pressed up against Sherlock’s side, and pretended not to notice. At last, Mycroft sighed and stood, scowling.

“Bold of you to cast aspersions on my cheerfulness,” he said, turning to the door. “You spent so much time sniveling from ages six to nine, keeping you in handkerchiefs was a full-time occupation.” John rolled his eyes; of course the Holmes children would use handkerchiefs. Probably monogrammed, too. “You drove Mummy to distraction.”

“Mummy—” Sherlock began, but Mycroft cut him off with a wave.

“It was meant in jest, Sherlock. Don’t trouble yourself about it.” With that, he stepped out into the hallway, Anthea joining him a few feet from the door. John settled back against Sherlock, but something was wrong; his muscles felt tense all over. John looked up into his face and was shocked to see it bone-white and staring.

“Sherlock! What’s wrong? Should I call the nurse?” He reached for the call button, but Sherlock stopped him with a hand on his back.

“I can’t remember our mother,” he said.

* * * * *

Several hours later, the Sherlock who lay beside John bore little resemblance to the one he’d woken up with. He’d become withdrawn, his head turned to one side and staring out the window, and gave only one-syllable responses to John’s attempts at conversation.

“Okay,” John said wearily, running a hand over his face as he glanced down the list he’d made. “So, of the eighty-seven doors I can recall, you remember the contents of fifty-nine of them. That’s, what, about three-quarters?”

“Two-thirds,” Sherlock corrected tightly.

John’s stomach lurched. “That’s not so bad,” he said softly, “considering. That was an awfully huge fire, Sherlock.”

“Considering,” Sherlock repeated dully. John felt helpless, panicked; this was exactly what Sherlock had been afraid of, exactly what had driven him to push John away.

“Will you drink some water?” he asked, taking the cup from the bedside table. “Dr. Reid said we need to watch out for dehydration. Here.” He held up the cup, but Sherlock turned his head the other direction, silently refusing.

“All right, later. What can I get you right now?”

Sherlock ignored him, and all at once, something snapped in John’s chest. “Hey!” he barked, and Sherlock’s head turned toward him as quickly as if John had moved him himself. “Is that it?” he demanded.

“Is what it?”

“After all that, after everything we went through, are you just going to give up now? All those things you promised, was that just noise?”

Sherlock stared at him. “John, my memories are gone.”

“No they bloody aren’t. You remember Lestrade, you remember me, you remember Irene sodding Adler—so pleased she made the cut, by the way—you remember your cases, at least the ones I knew about. You’ve got retrograde amnesia stemming from a traumatic brain injury. A few things are bound to have gotten lost.”

Sherlock blinked as though he were dealing with a particularly dangerous madman. “‘A few things?’” he repeated, eyes hard. “I can’t remember my childhood. I can’t remember my research. My entire livelihood depends on keeping my mind ordered, John. How am I supposed to work if I don’t know where to find anything?”

“You’ll rebuild it!” John insisted, fighting for patience. “The doctor said—and I saw in my research—your memories could come back. Anytime. It’s called spontaneous recovery, and it’s very common—”

“Oh, please, John. Don’t patronize me.”

“Stop it. You know I’m right. I’m not going to let you lie here and wallow. We’re going to focus on getting you physically well, and then we’re going to leave this accursed building and go home, and I don’t care if we have to re-index all 240 kinds of tobacco ash, you’re going to get better.”

“243.” John looked at Sherlock sharply, and Sherlock looked back, his brow creased in confusion. “I’ve corrected you on that before.”

“Yes, you have,” John said, and couldn’t help smiling a little. He lowered himself onto the bed beside Sherlock, resting a hand lightly on the spot where his neck met his shoulder and stroking idly with his thumb. “You see? It’s all still in there, Sherlock. You just have to remember where it is.”

Sherlock kept his eyes fixed somewhere around John’s chest for what seemed to be a very long time; then, at last, he turned his head and pressed his cheek against John’s hand. “You’re right,” he murmured. “I’m sorry.”

The panic in John’s chest eased, and his smile broadened. “It’s fine, love. It’s all fine.”

“I’m a little overwhelmed,” Sherlock admitted. “It’s difficult to get my thoughts in order.”

“Don’t worry. It’ll pass.” He brought his other hand up to Sherlock’s face. “And I’ll help you remember whatever I can.”

“It’s funny you should say that,” Sherlock rumbled, looking up at John from under his lashes. “I seem to have forgotten what your mouth tastes like.”

“You don’t say,” John replied, and leaned in to remind him, very thoroughly.

Chapter Text

They returned home to Baker Street just over a week later, John hovering behind Sherlock as he laboriously made his way up the stairs. Daily physio had restored the use of Sherlock’s limbs, but their strength still wavered, and his other injuries had of course not yet healed: the broken shoulder, the bruised ribs, the slight singeing around his edges that had so baffled hospital staff last week. It was only by a virtual act of God—or, to split hairs, Mycroft Holmes—that Sherlock had been allowed to come home so quickly. His treatment plan had called for another week at least, though John doubted very much that the nurses would miss him. John had assured and reassured and re-reassured the doctors that he would keep a close eye on Sherlock in their stead, and they’d believed him.

Not that they had any reason not to; he’d been firmly attached to Sherlock’s bedside, or Sherlock’s own side, nearly every waking moment. Clothes from the flat had mysteriously appeared (jumpers and jeans for John, dressing gown and pyjamas for Sherlock) while they slept one night, and several more times after that. It had taken Sherlock three days to regain full use of his good arm, and once he had, he’d been utterly back to normal: gesturing dramatically, ordering hospital staff about with an imperious flick of the wrist, scattering papers over the entire surface of the bed and anywhere else he could reach. The papers were, for the most part, old case notes (including a handful of printouts from John’s blog, much as Sherlock complained about it). They’d tried to jump-start his mental recovery by reading over old cases, with varying degrees of success.

One of the other things that Sherlock did with his arms, though, was not at all like the flatmate John remembered: every night, when John’s yawns began interrupting his sentences, Sherlock carefully put aside his papers and reached out to tug John into his bed. John went willingly, gratefully, tucking himself along Sherlock’s good side and resting his head on the bony shoulder. Though he wanted Sherlock’s health back to normal, of course, he would miss this: Sherlock sleeping regularly, waking up in the morning to smile at him with half-lidded eyes. John wasn’t naive enough to believe that schedule would continue once they returned home.

He’d just started to get used to Sherlock sleeping. For the first few days—the first week, really—the sight of Sherlock’s eyelids drifting shut had sent him into a panic, which he did his best to conceal (with the expected amount of success). Once, Sherlock had been particularly heavily asleep, and hadn’t awakened when John had said his name: first a whisper, then at normal volume, and increasingly loudly and anxiously until it was essentially a shout. His fears had managed to spiral completely out of control by the time Sherlock responded to his shaking, and he’d had to sequester himself in the corner to ride out the ensuing panic attack for the next twenty minutes.

But here they were, ten days on, and John was cresting the top of the stairs with a hand on the small of Sherlock’s back, and a wave of such fervent gratitude washed over him it made him weak in the knees. He’d been so close to never seeing this again: Sherlock, standing in the middle of the sitting room and looking around as though he’d never left. Only the absence of curls and presence of a sling gave any indication that anything had happened at all. He could almost believe that it hadn’t.

Did he wish that it hadn’t? Horrific as the whole episode had been, he couldn’t say with certainty that he did. He’d had a lot of time to examine his heart over the last week, and he honestly wasn’t sure he would have realized it on his own—Sherlock’s feelings for him, his own for Sherlock. Would he ever have believed it, without the evidence (literally, in the case of the paint can) staring him straight in the face? Would he ever have noticed how deep his affection ran, had he not been pining for Sherlock’s company for weeks?

Sherlock turned to look at him, his face backlit by the window, and smiled: small, but brimming over with warmth. And John realized how little it mattered. Regardless of how it had happened, they’d got here, and—crossing the room to wrap his arms around the man he loved—he found he couldn’t regret a moment of it. He turned his head to smile up at Sherlock and found his mouth immediately covered by a softer, cooler one. John returned the kiss, closing his eyes and humming with pleasure, but when Sherlock’s hand slipped beneath his jumper and made for the waistband of his jeans, he pulled away with a shake of his head.

“Afraid not, love,” he said, keeping his arms around Sherlock but his arse securely out of reach. “You’re exhausted. There’ll be time later.”

“I’m not exhausted,” Sherlock purred, nosing behind John’s ear in a distinctly unhelpful way, “and there’s time now.”

John chuckled, sliding an arm around his waist and arranging Sherlock’s weight more comfortably over his shoulders. “There is. But I’ve been kindly pretending not to notice how much you’ve been leaning on me ever since I came over here; I’m not completely unobservant, you know.”

“I should have known better than to teach you my methods,” Sherlock grumbled as John began to steer him toward the fireplace. “Oh, John, I think the sofa might be bett—what?”

John realized he’d made a face, and his cheeks flamed. “Nothing,” he said quickly, turning Sherlock away from the chairs. “It’s nothing.”

Sherlock glanced from John to the chairs by the fire, and his gaze softened. “Ah,” he said. “Yes, I think the chair will be best after all.”

“No, it’s silly—”

“John. Please.”

After a moment’s hesitation, John helped Sherlock to his chair and deposited him gently into it; Sherlock swept his good arm toward John’s chair, eyes crinkling, and John sat. He was simultaneously embarrassed and grateful: Sherlock had, with his usual acuity, understood John’s desperate desire to see him sitting there, the rightful occupant of the chair that had sat empty for so long. It had been a symbol of John’s loneliness for weeks, bleak as a headstone, prematurely left in Sherlock’s memory. The sight of him sprawling carelessly over the worn upholstery, eyes drifting over the collection of junk on the mantel, filled John with such a sense of home it brought a lump to his throat. Sherlock kept his eyes averted, letting John drink it in without comment, and John lost track of how long they sat in comfortable silence.

Eventually, the pattern of Sherlock’s breathing changed, and John noted with some surprise that he’d fallen asleep. He was slumped down in the chair, long legs tumbling over into John’s space and head turned to rest on the back of the seat. Tentatively, John shimmied down in his own chair and reached out with his feet, resting them on the leather cushion beside Sherlock’s hip. It really was quite comfortable, he thought. His gaze roamed over Sherlock’s sleeping profile, settling at last on the new crop of hair that just barely covered his skull. In the back, one or two ends had grown long enough to hint at the barest suggestion of curl; he lingered over these, mentally calculating how long it might take until—

“It’ll grow back,” Sherlock murmured sleepily, one eye cracked and a lazy smirk on his lips. John chuckled, letting his eyes drift shut, and nudged Sherlock with a toe.

“I know,” John sighed, already half-asleep himself. “I know.”

* * * * *

They passed a week or so in relative quiet, reviewing old cases and ignoring the elephants in the room. It had become a bit crowded, though, as there were three. First, there was the security detail that Mycroft had pretended not to station outside, and which John and Sherlock pretended not to notice when they looked out the window; as Sherlock was demonstrably not dead, and Moriarty’s snipers had yet to be apprehended, it was pointless to pretend their lives weren’t in imminent danger. Sherlock spent long hours poring over every note and every scrap of information he’d ever managed to collect on Moriarty’s network, even going so far as to voluntarily consult with Mycroft over tea twice. John was given to understand that Lestrade was under similar protection, and Mrs. Hudson had conveniently “won” a three-month subscription to a grocery delivery service, thereby removing most of her need to leave the flat.

Second, there was the absolutely staggering degree of sexual tension that permeated every inch of the flat. John had been unwavering in his refusal to sleep with Sherlock until he’d regained his strength, but he managed it only by wanking at least twice a day. Sherlock scowled at him whenever he trotted off to take one of his increasingly frequent showers. The truth was, John was dying to touch him—his memories were spectacular, of the nights they’d spent together in Sherlock’s dreams, but they’d never been together for real, with the clarity of waking life. He needed to know how it felt, needed it like he needed oxygen, but he also needed not to hurt Sherlock. And so he maintained his distance, breaking it only to give a quick kiss or to curl chastely around him as they slept.

Third, of course, was the matter of Sherlock’s memory. The case notes had helped fill in some gaps, as had Sherlock’s conversations with Mycroft, but plenty was still missing. Once, John had made an offhanded joke about Anderson, and Sherlock’s blank look had been replaced almost immediately with one of feigned amusement. It tugged unpleasantly at John’s heart to see Sherlock hiding from him, covering up the holes in his memory, but he went along with the ruse. He was confident that Sherlock would eventually recover, and if he didn’t, well, it was a good thing John had spent nearly two years trailing after him like a puppy, wasn’t it? Nobody knew more about Sherlock Holmes than John Watson—at present, not even Sherlock himself.

On this particular day, Sherlock had wanted to go for a walk (flanked discreetly by Mycroft’s security detail, and only on a predetermined route, but still—it was a change of scenery) and John had agreed, sticking close to Sherlock’s side in case his legs had a rebellious moment. They had meandered a handful of blocks away from Baker Street, enjoying the rare sunny day, when Sherlock suddenly gestured at a passing woman walking an Irish Setter.

“Did I ever tell you about Brolly?” he asked, turning his head to follow the dog’s progress.

“Only his name,” John said. “We didn’t have time for much more than that.”

“He was that breed. Technically he was Mycroft’s dog, for hunting, but truth be told I don’t think Mycroft had the stomach for it. The dog always preferred me, at any rate.” He chuckled, a low rumble that never failed to send a shiver of pleasure down John’s spine.

“He had good taste, then.”

“Obviously. I’m not sure he was particularly intelligent, as far as setters go. Once, he snapped a wasp out of the air and ate it; his lip swelled up like a balloon.” Sherlock gestured to his own face, inflating one cheek and widening his eyes comically. John laughed so hard, he nearly missed what Sherlock said next.

“My mother was furious; she’d been just about to leave for a weekend at her sister’s, and instead she had to rush Brolly off to the veterinarian. I caught her giving him a bit of ice lolly later, though. She always was kind to animals.”

John stared at him, a grin spreading slowly across his face; he felt as though his heart might leap out of his chest. At last, Sherlock turned to look at him, and his brows knit in confusion.

“What?”

“Your mother,” John repeated.

“Yes, what about—oh,” Sherlock said breathlessly, his own face lighting up. “Oh! John!”

John squeezed his good arm affectionately. “Just needed the right trigger, eh?” he asked. “You see? It’ll all come back to you sooner or later. Maybe we’ll—hey!” He was cut off midsentence as Sherlock seized him and spun him around, marching him back in the direction they’d come.

“Retroactive interference, John,” he barked by way of explanation. “According to Briggs and Ekstrand, memory consolidation is enhanced when the subject sleeps immediately following the absorption of a new fact.”

“God, you’re sexy when you quote the British Medical Journal,” John said, grinning as he hurried along in Sherlock’s wake.

“Only then?”

“Ha, I wish. You’re far too sexy for your own good generally.”

They made it back to Baker Street and barreled up the stairs, Sherlock scowling impatiently at the guard stationed outside Speedy’s. The moment they made it into the flat, John found himself propelled toward Sherlock’s bedroom without hesitation.

“Not that I’m complaining—” he interjected, stumbling a little as Sherlock shoved him through the bedroom door, “but I’m pretty awake, love, I don’t think I’m going to be very helpful for sleeping.”

“Oh, I disagree,” Sherlock rumbled as the backs of John’s knees hit the bed. “I think you’ll be very helpful.” Without ceremony, he gave a little push to the center of John’s chest, sending him sprawling back over the sheets. John didn’t have much time to catch his breath; Sherlock followed almost immediately, pinning him to the bed with a knee between his thighs, and dropped his mouth to John’s throat. John’s cock had leapt to attention and his hips had arched up almost before he had time to register the movement.

“Sherlock,” he panted, gripping the sheets to keep from clutching at Sherlock’s shoulders, “I don’t think this is a good—”

“No,” Sherlock mumbled against the skin of John’s neck. Somehow, he’d managed to shove John’s coat off his shoulders, and the slight chill of his hand maneuvering under John’s shirt left him gasping.

“‘No?’”

“No. I’ve had enough of waiting. I’m going out of my skull, John.”

“But your shoulder—”

At this, Sherlock sat back just slightly, bracing himself up with a hand on John’s chest. “John,” he asked carefully, “do you want to have sex with me?” His slight hair was mussed, his cheeks flushed, and his lips pink and swollen from their assault on John’s stubbled throat, and of course there was only one answer.

“God, yes.”

“Then stop thinking about it and do it.”

John did. He surged upward and recaptured Sherlock’s mouth, one hand cradling the back of his head, one wrapped securely around his waist. Sherlock shoved his coat off the rest of the way (helpfully, he’d only had one arm in a sleeve in the first place) before turning his attention to John’s shirt. His deft fingers warmed rapidly as they worked against John’s flushed chest, and within moments an impatient hand was shoving at the layers of shirt and coat tangled around his shoulders. John lifted off the bed just enough to push everything down his arms and fling it to the floor, then wrenched off his T-shirt for good measure; this earned him a noise of satisfaction from Sherlock, who kissed him as though his life depended on it. (Maybe it did, John thought; John’s life certainly seemed to.)

Almost before he knew it, John felt his trousers unfastened and a long-fingered hand slipping inside. He let out a thoroughly embarrassing noise and clapped a hand over his mouth; immediately the hand in his pants withdrew, tugging at his wrist.

“Now, none of that,” Sherlock scolded, smirking. “I want to hear everything, John.”

“Yes, good,” John babbled stupidly, desperate to feel those fingers around his cock. Sherlock grinned and returned his mouth to John’s throat, and—yes, oh, thank God—freed John’s erection from his trousers. It was all John could do to keep from rutting up against Sherlock’s belly; everything felt sharper, clearer, more real than it ever had before. Sherlock’s fingers stroked lazily up and down his length, and fuck, a simple touch hadn’t felt so good in years. Sherlock’s grip tightened, spreading the fluid that had gathered at the tip, and John’s hips bucked up into his fist involuntarily. A low rumble of amusement ran through Sherlock’s chest, and he slid his mouth to just below John’s ear.

“I want to fuck you,” he murmured into the skin of John’s neck, and a frisson of anticipation ran down John’s spine. “I want to feel you. Can I…”

“Yes,” John blurted, any nervousness obliterated by the sheer force of his lust. “Yes.”

It took some maneuvering, with one of Sherlock’s arms out of commission, but after a few moments of shuffling and adjusting, John found himself nude and on all fours on the bed. Sherlock knelt behind him, running his good hand down John’s spine; John thought he could feel the piercing gaze as it roamed over him.

“Shouldn’t we get some of your clothes off?” John protested weakly, face flaming; it was a bit embarrassing to be laid bare like this, vulnerable, while Sherlock remained fully clothed.

“Oh, I don’t think that’ll be necessary,” Sherlock purred, the click of the lube cap punctuating his speech. “It’d take an awfully long time to get around my sling, after all.”

“Mhmm, I’m sure,” John said, rolling his eyes; Sherlock was clearly enjoying John’s vulnerability, and John wasn’t about to start arguing with him. He dropped his head onto his arms as he felt a kiss against the base of his spine—then jerked it back up as he felt another kiss, lower.

“Sherlock,” he began, not sure whether he was going to ask a question, protest, or beg, but all words left him as he felt Sherlock’s tongue flutter over his entrance. When that tongue circled and then pressed, ever so gently, against his hole, he wasn’t sure he could have remembered his own name.

“Oh. Oh my God.”

The tongue left for a moment and John felt grinning lips press against his thigh; then, before he had a chance to beg for more, it returned and set to work in earnest. John focused on keeping his legs under him as Sherlock worked his tongue inside. It was filthy—if he’d been asked, John wouldn’t likely have included it on a list of acts he’d wanted to try—but it was simultaneously about the hottest thing he’d ever had done to him. He never wanted it to end.

“Sherlock,” he moaned, as Sherlock’s tongue stroked in and out of him. Sherlock hummed a little in satisfaction, and John nearly jumped out of his skin. The tongue withdrew, and John almost sobbed in frustration—but then, it was replaced with a slick finger, and his bereft noise turned into a groan.

“All right?” Sherlock asked, and John nodded mutely. It was all right—would be more than all right, in fact, if Sherlock would give him more. He said as much.

“Impatient,” Sherlock chided, but he added a second finger, twisting a little as he pushed into John. John had expected it would hurt more; he supposed the rimming had made things quite a bit easier. He filed that away mentally to try on Sherlock next time.

All at once, it hit him: there would be a next time. He no longer had to go to sleep crossing his fingers, hoping he and Sherlock would show up somewhere relatively safe and private, or at the very least together. Now he could go to sleep and dream of whatever inane thing his mind cooked up, because he would wake up beside the man he loved, and if he wanted to kiss him or hold him or make love to him—because he was being particularly brilliant or beautiful or just Sherlock—he could do that. Neither of them were going to fade away when the time limit was up. They were here, and solid, and real, and Sherlock’s fingers inside him were at once absolutely heavenly and not nearly enough.

“Now, please, now,” he said incoherently, and Sherlock hissed “yes,” and almost immediately the fingers withdrew; he heard a zipper, a brief fumbling of clothing, and there was something much blunter pressing against John’s entrance. John’s fingers scrabbled in the sheets, searching for something to ground him as Sherlock pushed forward. He was so focused on trying to relax, he nearly (though, thankfully, not entirely) missed the strangled little noise Sherlock made as the head of his cock breached John’s body. John could have summoned a few noises of his own, he thought, but he didn’t trust his voice just at present. The feeling was strange and, yes, slightly painful, but at the same time his body craved it in a way he’d never felt before. Belatedly, he realized that Sherlock was trembling, and then realized that he had stopped moving, fully buried inside John.

“Are you all right?” John asked, voice strained, and Sherlock blew out a shaky laugh.

“I should be asking you that, I think,” he replied, fingers tightening on John’s hip.

“You’re the one shaking.”

“Yes, well. It’s a bit—ah, difficult—to hold still.”

“Then don’t,” John said, and pushed back against Sherlock to encourage him. It was supremely odd to feel the cloth of Sherlock’s pants against his bare arse—but, in a strange way, it was hot, too. He craned his neck around to watch Sherlock’s face as he slid almost entirely out, then back in to the hilt. Sherlock’s head was tilted back, eyes closed and lips parted, and oh, God, yes, definitely hot. On the next thrust, Sherlock pushed in a little harder; the sudden jolt of pleasure up John’s spine was enough to obliterate the last of his nervousness.

“Do that again,” he panted, and Sherlock obliged. “Oh, God. Harder.”

“John,” Sherlock rumbled, so low John swore he could almost feel it in his arse. He picked up the pace, good hand wrapped around John’s hip. John pushed back against him, head hanging down between his arms, seeking just the right angle; it was so close, he could feel it, he just had to shift a little and—

“God, Sherlock!” he cried, as all of his nerves lit up with pleasure. “There, just there, don’t stop—”

“Never,” Sherlock growled, “never—ah, John—”

“Yes,” John agreed, to what he wasn’t sure, and closed a hand around his cock. The sensation was incredible, of being both filled beyond belief and yet unable to get enough; with every thrust of Sherlock’s cock, the pleasure coiled tighter; this wasn’t going to last much longer. He worked to time his strokes with Sherlock’s, so close, so close—

“John,” Sherlock gasped, “I love you,” and John came with a shout, emptying himself in spurts over the sheets. Through his haze he felt Sherlock thrust again, once, twice, and then he was coming too, his good arm wrapped around John’s waist and his open mouth pressed between John’s shoulderblades. John held perfectly still, let the warmth flood him, as they came down from the clouds. At last, Sherlock rolled off into a boneless pile on his good side; John sank to the mattress beside him, carefully avoiding the rapidly-cooling mess on the duvet. He pressed a kiss to Sherlock’s collarbone through the open collar of his shirt, and smiled against the skin there.

“Bet you wish you’d got naked now,” he remarked, and felt Sherlock’s answering chuckle against his lips.

“Or at least into my pyjamas,” Sherlock agreed lazily. John glanced up and saw that his eyes were already drifting shut.

For the first time, it didn’t worry him at all.

* * * * *

“—ludicrous,” Sherlock was hissing, storming around the sitting room in his dressing gown and gesturing viciously with his bow. “Absolutely unacceptable. The ineptitude is staggering, completely ridiculous—”

“Yes, you’ve mentioned that, love,” John called from the kitchen. He finished stirring the sugar into Sherlock’s tea and picked up both mugs, trying to hide his smile as he headed back to the sitting room. “A few times, in fact.”

Sherlock whirled on him and pointed. “And you! You’re a doctor, John, how could you let them do this to me? Have you forgotten every moment of your medical training?”

“I know you’re Superman, but it actually does take time to regain strength after you’ve broken a bone, Sherlock. Or several bones, actually.”

“I was in a sling for six weeks!”

“Yes, during which time your shoulder was just hanging there, losing muscle mass.” He set Sherlock’s mug on the coffee table, carefully avoiding the mass of papers scattered across it. “What did you think, that you were going to get the sling off and be able to play for hours again right away?”

Sherlock gave only a huff in response, but the longing way he fingered the pegs of his violin was answer enough. John took it from him, gently, and laid it back in its case.

“Sherlock,” he said softly, taking his newly sling-free hand and intertwining their fingers, “it’s going to take a while to recover. You’re doing really, really well. Don’t get discouraged.”

Sherlock made a noise that could have been assent or dissatisfaction, John couldn’t be sure; but he stepped forward and rested his cheek against John’s hair, and John assumed the worst of the tantrum was probably over. He wound an arm around Sherlock’s waist and held tight. At long last, he felt Sherlock relax against him and let out a sigh.

“At least I’ve got you to keep me occupied,” Sherlock murmured into his ear. John shivered pleasantly.

“You’d be lost without your blogger,” he reminded him, smiling.

“Ah, yes,” Sherlock agreed, nosing at the skin below his ear. “We may need to talk about revising that title.”

John clutched at Sherlock’s good arm to steady himself. This was getting ridiculous; they’d gone at it not three hours ago, and here he was. “What did you have in mind?”

“I’ve never thought ‘lover’ was a word to be used outside of romance novels, and as neither of us is a fifteen-year-old girl, I think ‘boyfriend’ is probably off the table as well.” He drew back, studying John’s face; the corner of his mouth quirked up as he took in John’s flushed expression. “How do you feel about ‘partn—’”

Sherlock’s text alert went. His resulting eye-roll was so comically overwrought, John couldn’t help but laugh. The look on his face once he pulled out the phone and glanced at it, though, made the laughter die in John’s throat.

“Sherlock?” he asked, leaning to see the screen. “What is it? Everything okay?”

Sherlock looked at him, then turned the phone to show John. It was a text from Mycroft.

We’ve found him. Mumbai. Car will arrive at 9 AM tomorrow.

“Who’s…”

“Moriarty’s sniper,” Sherlock said, pocketing the phone. “Well. One of them, anyway.”

“Ah.” John glanced around the room, both dying to know and not sure he really should. After six seconds of silence, curiosity won out. “Which—”

“Yours.”

“Right.” Sherlock was studying him now, brow slightly furrowed; John turned to stare at the fireplace. “So...you’re going to Mumbai, then.”

“It seems so, yes.”

John closed his eyes, steadying himself. Rationally, he knew that Sherlock would never truly be out of danger; catching criminals was what he—they—did, and it was dangerous, and they both loved it that way. Another part of him, though, wasn’t quite ready to send Sherlock back out into the fray just yet, not when he’d come so close to losing him forever. Mycroft had said there was very little trace of Moriarty’s men; John supposed he’d been counting on more time.

“The clinic is almost certainly going to sack you,” Sherlock said wryly, and John whipped around to stare at him. “You won’t make it back to work before you retire, at this rate.”

John felt a slow grin spread across his face, flooded with relief. “I’m coming along, then, am I?”

“Don’t be an idiot, John, of course you are.” His smile faded; a flicker of doubt clouded his expression. “If you want to, I mean. I’d assumed…”

“Oh, I want to,” John reassured him. “You might need me to put a bullet in someone.”

Sherlock smirked. “You’ve got a number of skills I plan to make use of, John.”

“Is the great Sherlock Holmes reduced to cheap innuendo now?”

“Could be dangerous,” Sherlock purred, stepping close again.

“Yes, all right, you’ve got me,” John sighed, rolling his eyes and kissing him. After a moment, Sherlock pulled away, letting his hand drift down John’s arm to tangle with the fingers there. He studied John, eyes roaming over his face, and John returned the gaze for as long as he could before he began to feel self-conscious.

“What is it?” he asked, with a nervous chuckle.

“I’ve got you,” Sherlock repeated, peering at John from beneath his eyelashes.

“Yes.”

“You said I’ve got you. I just…” Sherlock glanced away, a smile breaking across his features. “I still can’t quite believe it. You and I. This.”

“Us,” John corrected, and Sherlock turned that smile back to him, now so radiant it almost hurt to look at, like staring into the sun.

“Us,” Sherlock agreed.

John planted a brief peck on his jaw, then released his hand and crossed to the sofa. As he sat and began to put on his shoes, Sherlock’s brow creased in confusion.

“Going somewhere?”

“I’ve got a quick errand to run,” John replied, with a reassuring smile. “Not far, and I’ll have Mycroft’s detail with me. You should stay here, get some sleep.”

Sherlock’s eyes narrowed, scanning back and forth as though trying to read John’s mind; at last, with a huff of frustration, he picked up his tea. “Fine. I suppose you’ll tell me later.”

“Promise,” John said, and winked on his way out the door.

* * * * *

The next morning, John swore freely as he made his way down the stairs, carrying his own bag—a light duffel containing a few sets of clothes, a mobile charger, and some ammunition—and Sherlock’s, an enormous rolling suitcase containing what felt like several corpses’ worth of weight. (He fervently hoped the weight was not in fact caused by several corpses, but one never quite knew with Sherlock Holmes.)

“I said I would help, John,” Sherlock called airily after him.

“First of all, you’re still recovering, and second, no, you wouldn’t,” he grunted. “You only offered because you knew I would never let you.”

“I offered because I knew you’d moan about it later if I didn’t.” Sherlock caught up to John and leapt nimbly over the clanking suitcase, continuing down the stairs ahead of him and giving his doctor a minor heart attack.

“SHERLOCK! Do you mind not breaking any more bones for a while? Do you think you could do that for—”

“What’s this?” Sherlock called from near the door, hand on the knob.

“What’s what?” John called back, feigning ignorance and setting the suitcase blessedly on its wheels at the bottom of the stairs.

“What’s this, John?”

John drew up beside Sherlock, looking over the taller man’s shoulder at their reflection in the floor-length mirror he’d purchased the night before. He took a moment to enjoy Sherlock’s bewildered expression before stepping forward to lay a hand on his shoulder. Sherlock’s eyes went to the hand in the reflection, then flicked up to John’s, questioning.

“Just a little reminder,” John said softly, a smile around his eyes. “You aren’t alone anymore.”

Comprehension dawned on Sherlock’s face, and his lips parted; for a moment, John thought he might speak, but he only swallowed, and then again. His hand came up to cover John’s, and they stood staring at each other in the mirror in silence.

“Thank you,” Sherlock said at last, his voice coming out croaking and hoarse. He cleared his throat, then tried again. “John. Thank you.”

John leaned forward and pressed his face to the fabric of Sherlock’s coat, inhaling against his shoulder; then, feeling steadier than he had in months, he pressed a kiss there and straightened. He reached out to open the door, and gestured grandly for Sherlock to go first.

“Right behind you,” he said with a smile, and Sherlock returned it.

“Always,” Sherlock agreed, and they stepped together into the sunshine.