Actions

Work Header

The Bells of King's College

Chapter Text

The Bells of King’s College

 

PS. I know you two, and if I’m gone, I know what you could become, because I know who you really are. A junkie who solves crimes to get high and the doctor who never came home from the war. Well, you listen to me: who you really are, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about the legend, the stories, the adventures…

Mary’s words go on, but somehow John stops listening. His brain has gone back to I know you two/I know what you could become and then picked up again at Who you really are, it doesn’t matter. What does that mean? What is it that Mary thought they had or have the potential to become, in her absence? Did she just negate whatever it was with the other bit, though, the who you really are… doesn’t matter? He’s uncomfortably aware that Sherlock looked at him there, at the I know what you could become. Does he know what Mary’s voice is referring to? Is it… that? But would Mary have come out and said that? Mary, who was always so scornful about Sherlock, always teasing on the surface, but only on the surface. She knew that there was… potential. Or that there had been or could have been or however one wants to word it, but her jokes on the subject were always just vague enough to avoid specifically coming out and saying it, yet barbed enough to sting. What is she actually saying here? Your personal lives don’t matter; just be heroes and legends and live out the image. Is that it? John doesn’t understand.

The DVD stops playing and the player ejects it. John sits where he is in silence, staring blankly into the space between himself and the machine, turning Mary’s words over in his head. Next to him, Sherlock is uncharacteristically silent. Waiting for him to speak first, probably. He’s always been so careful when it comes to Mary. So unusually tactful, for starters, even in circumstances where tact might have been the last thing John expected from him. Like when Mary shot him in the heart, say. He doesn’t know what to say now. He clears his throat. “How the hell did she manage to send that, I wonder,” he says, with difficulty.

Sherlock inhales audibly. “I’m not sure. I had the same question about the previous one.”

John shakes his head, looking at his hands. “I don’t even know what that was supposed to mean. All that about legends and that.”

Sherlock pauses and John senses that he is weighing his words with some care. “I don’t know,” he says, that same caution there in his voice. “Possibly… she was merely trying to give us both a sense of… purpose.”

“But we already do that,” John says, turning his head and looking at Sherlock now. It occurs to him that he is sitting exactly where he was when he started trying to tell Mary about the affair-that-never-was. He doesn’t know what to do with this thought, though. “I mean, we already solve crimes and all that. We’ve been doing that since long before Mary was around.”

“I know.” Sherlock walks to the window and peers outside through the blinds. “I had the same thought.”

He doesn’t say anything about the other part, the I know what you could become bit, and John privately wonders what he’s thinking about that, but is frankly relieved that he isn’t mentioning it. “Well, I thought you should see it,” he says, a bit stiffly. “I thought it might be important or something. Honestly I don’t even know what she thought was so important in all that.” He glances at Sherlock and catches a fleeting look crossing his face that he doesn’t quite understand. “Unless I’m missing something,” John says, frowning. “Were you going to say something?”

Sherlock swallows and compresses his lips together firmly. “No,” he says.

John purses his mouth. “Sure?”

“Quite.” Sherlock takes out his phone and looks at it, but if he received an alert or email or something, he doesn’t check it. “Where is Rosie?”

“Asleep upstairs,” John says, nodding upward. “She usually naps in the afternoons. Er, would you like a cup of tea or something, since you came all the way over here?”

Sherlock checks the time and shrugs. “I suppose so. Why not?”

This is not particularly enthusiastic, but John ignores it and goes into the kitchen to fill the kettle. Sherlock always gets like this when he’s here, sort of flat and colourless and blandly polite. When they’re at Baker Street, he’s himself, or as much himself as either of them have been since the entire business with his deranged sister trying to kill them all the other week. Things between them are cautiously stable. It feels like a truce more than solid ground, but they’ll get there, probably. John turns off the water and plugs the kettle in, pushing down the twinges of guilt that like to surface whenever he lets himself think about the past year or so. There’s a lot there, and Ella’s been pushing, but he’s not ready yet. There’s too much to unpack and at the moment he’s more concerned with the business of making the day-to-day work than with sorting out all of the shit he’s got to work on.

Sherlock is peering out the window again when John brings the teapot, the bottle of milk, the sugar pot for Sherlock, and two mugs into the sitting room. “Oh, for God’s sake,” Sherlock says with exasperation. “Quick, turn all the lights off. Though he’s probably got infrared scanners on the house or something.”

John feels his face attempt to smirk and grimace at the same time. “Your brother?”

Sherlock sighs in response and turns away from the window. “Let’s not give him any tea.”

“I thought we were being nice to him,” John says dryly. “Given his fragile state and all that.”

“He must really want something,” Sherlock says, waving this off. “Coming all the way out here. You know he thinks that anything past the A501 as being more or less jungle.”

John chuckles at this and goes to answer the door before Mycroft can ring. He manages to time it just so that Mycroft has already raised his hand to push the bell, pulling the door open swiftly enough to startle him. Inwardly, he acknowledges that his own slightly vindictive streak toward Mycroft hasn’t gone anywhere, either. Interesting, that. “Mycroft,” he says peremptorily. “What can I do for you?”

Mycroft puts his hand down, though his eyebrows stay up, and assumes an expression of polite inquiry. “Is my brother here? I assumed he was.”

John scowls a little. “Why would you assume that? He isn’t normally here.” He sees Mycroft about to quibble with this and decides he hasn’t got the patience for it and cuts in just as Mycroft opens his mouth to respond to this, his wide forehead already condensing into frown lines. “But yes, he is at this precise moment. You might as well come in.”

Mycroft takes a moment to register the change in direction, and favours him with an unpleasant smile. “Thank you,” he says, as though it’s an announcement.

John gestures him toward the sitting room. “There’s tea, if you want it,” he says, suppressing a sigh and going to the kitchen for a third mug. Mary had teacups but he’s always preferred to drink tea in larger quantities than that, and Sherlock does, too, so why bother with cups? Mycroft would presumably prefer a teacup, but he’s not getting one.

“What do you want?” Sherlock asks, his eyes boring into his brother’s broad forehead. “It must be urgent, for you to come all the way out here.”

Mycroft opens his mouth to speak, but gets distracted by John plunking a mug down in front of him. “Thank you,” he says again. He waits, but when no one makes a move to fill his mug, he makes a slightly martyred face and pours it himself. “It is and it isn’t. I merely wanted to catch you both at the same time. It’s a bit of a favour.”

“What is it?” John asks, hoping Mycroft will get to his point without too much wasted breath. Sherlock looks at him, their eyes meeting momentarily, then they both return their gazes to Mycroft.

“There has been a series of… unexpected deaths in Cambridge,” Mycroft says, adding milk from the bottle and probably reducing his estimation of John’s level of evolution in the process. “Specifically at one conference centre. They’re spaced out at seemingly random intervals, and so far I have failed to identify any links between the victims.”

Sherlock looks interested in spite of himself. “Where in Cambridge?”

“Chilton College,” Mycroft replies. “It was a college of the university at one point, but has now become a conference centre, very popular for business meetings, trade shows, and conferences. The only unusual feature of the case is the fact that they’ve had six deaths in the past fourteen months alone, which seems high for a single conference centre. Assorted causes of death. Otherwise there are no links apart from the location itself.”

“So you want us to investigate,” Sherlock states, levelling his brother with his gaze. “What aren’t you saying? What are you so hesitant about asking us for?”

Mycroft prims up his mouth and looks down into his tea. “Well… I was hoping you could go for the next longer conference, give you the most time possible. It just happens to work out that the next conference, starting this Wednesday, is a wedding show.”

John is blank. “A wedding show? What’s that?”

Mycroft rolls his eyes. “It’s essentially a trade show or fair where the subject is weddings, everything to do with them, from the food and wine to the décor and colour schemes and clothing and the rest of it. They’re extremely popular and generally attract engaged couples looking for ideas, though I’m given to understand that other parties frequent them as well, such as the bride and her attendants, or the occasional event planner. That sort of thing. So the obvious cover would be… well.” He gives them another of his grimace-like smiles. “You do see where I’m going with this.”

John stares at Mycroft. “You’ve got to be shitting me.”

“It’s the obvious cover,” Mycroft says again, with the merest hint of apology to his tone.

“You want us to pose as an engaged couple,” John says, just to hear how ridiculous it sounds out loud. His mind unwittingly replays Mary’s voice saying I know what you could become. (Stop it!)

Sherlock glances at him, then looks back at his brother. “It starts in two days’ time, you said. When does it end?”

“It’s a long weekend, brother mine,” Mycroft informs him. “It ends on Monday afternoon. You would have six days. If you fail to solve it, you’ll have to find another conference to attend with a different cover story that the staff would find believable. I mean, everyone knows who the two of you are. There is already plenty of speculation in the gossip tabloids about the two of you; hence I think that the engagement story would sell rather well. Two appearances, however, and they’ll know they’re being investigated for sure.”

“In other words, we’ve only got one shot at this,” Sherlock says shortly. “Understood. Is the idea that people stay there, in the conference centre itself? Is it also a hotel, or do people find their own accommodation elsewhere in the city?”

“No, it’s a full package, or this conference is, at least,” Mycroft tells him. “Six days. Can you do it?”

Sherlock reaches for his tea, his eyes still on his brothers’. “That depends. Have you got the files on the six murders for us?”

“We don’t know that they’re murders, not yet,” Mycroft cautions him, but at the same time he reaches into his breast pocket and takes out a USB key. “The six police reports and my staff’s case notes are all here. What little is known, at any rate. I’ve had my staff working on it. If you can find a link between the victims, you’ll have already accomplished more than they could.”

Sherlock snorts. “That wouldn’t be saying much.” He looks at John. “Two days wouldn’t give you much time to make arrangements for Rosie.”

“I’ll work it out,” John says. Rosie is in daycare during the days now, anyway, which has allowed him to take a day or two at the two clinics where he does locum work. For evenings, there are a few different options. He’ll figure something out.

Both of the Holmes brothers are looking at him with slight surprise. “Does that mean you’ll do it?” Mycroft asks.

John shrugs. “I guess so. If people are dying, then we should probably have a look.”

Sherlock gives him a slightly odd look. Mycroft is satisfied, however. He finishes his tea and gets to his feet. “Excellent. I had hoped you would agree. I’ll send you the details of your registration tomorrow morning.”

“Great,” John says. He waits for Mycroft to go, then looks at Sherlock. “What?”

Sherlock’s brows are a little too high, his cheekbones looking unusually hollow at the moment. “Nothing,” he says. “I’m just a little surprised that you agreed to this, given… the details.”

He says this delicately, and John immediately infers that he’s talking about them posing as a couple. An engaged couple, at that. “It’s fine,” he says firmly. “It’s just what we’ll have to say for the case. It’s not as though people don’t already talk,” he adds with a touch of irritation. “It’ll take us weeks to live this one down, but what can you do.”

Sherlock absorbs this for a long moment, then evidently decides not to say anything else about it. “All right, then.” He empties his mug. “I’ll just take this to the sink,” he says, still strangely polite. He rarely cleans up his tea mugs at Baker Street, leaving them for Mrs Hudson. He deposits the mug, then makes for the door. “Wednesday, then. I’ll pass along the details when Mycroft sends them.”

“Sure, all right,” John says. He hesitates. Should he say anything else? He searches his mind for a second, but can’t seem to think of anything. “Wednesday,” he echoes.

Sherlock gives him a half-smile, then leaves without saying anything else.

***

“So, what do we know so far?” John asks as the train pulls out of the station. They’ve found themselves an empty compartment, and with a little luck, no one will wander into their car and join them.

Sherlock is looking at his phone, but sets it down now, looking across at him. “Not much. Six murders, all completely unrelated victims so far. There’s a connection, though. There always is.”

“Unless it’s a serial killer,” John points out.

Sherlock smiles. “Let’s not get our hopes up. No, six murders in fourteen months is a lot, but probably not enough for a serial killer. I’m not even convinced that it isn’t merely repeated cases of food poisoning or something.”

“Six seems too high for that, and conference centres probably get inspected for health and that pretty regularly,” John counters.

“True. Quite true.” Sherlock looks out the window musingly. “Mycroft was, infuriatingly, right: I can’t find a single connection between the victims. I looked at the type of conferences they attended. Nothing. I looked at their backgrounds, home cities, relationships, ages, genders… nothing.”

“Who were the victims?” John asks, curious now.

Sherlock pulls up the file on his phone. “In order of death: Lydia Dharma. Thirty-five, from London, worked as an assistant editor for In Season magazine, whatever that is. Kyle Rosenfeld. Thirty-three, from Brooklyn, worked as a financial advisor for a big American firm. Rowan Evans (female), thirty-three, from Peterborough, worked as a Year 7 teacher. Christina McKenzie, forty-four, from Edinburgh, worked as a pastry chef in a high-end restaurant. Gabriela Baillaora, twenty-six, from Barcelona. Worked as a singer-songwriter and occasional model. Randolph Winters, thirty-seven, from Twickenham. Worked as a photographer.” He looks up. “No links professionally, geographically, not in age, gender, no relationships between any of them that I can see. Nothing.”

“Hmm.” John turns it over in his head. “So… what was that, four women and two men?”

“Yes.” Sherlock watches him.

“Lydia, Kyle, Rowan, Christina, Gabriela, and Randolph. Is that six?” Sherlock nods, so John goes on, just to recap it for himself. “The youngest was what, twenty-six, and the oldest was in their forties?”

“Yes, Christina McKenzie was forty-four,” Sherlock says.

“That’s not very old for any of them,” John observes. “Interesting. And then nationally speaking, we have four Brits, one American, and a Spanish woman, right?”

“That’s it.” Sherlock summarises their professions again. “We have a fashion editor, a financial advisor, a teacher, a pastry chef, a singer, and a photographer.”

“Lots of people in the arts,” John comments. “Except for the financial advisor, I guess.”

“And the teacher. She majored in higher mathematics in university.” Sherlock puts his phone down and looks out the window again, drumming his fingers on the table.

“What sort of conferences did they all attend?” John wonders aloud.

Sherlock goes back to the phone. “Three wedding shows like this one, but statistically that’s hardly a surprise, given their popularity and frequency both. One financial conference – one guess there – then a conference on public speaking skills, and another on business leadership.”

“Who attended that one?” John asks, frowning.

“The singer. I suppose she wanted to get her career off the ground or something,” Sherlock says with a shrug.

“Hmm. All right.” John leans back in his seat. “So what sorts of events are we looking at for the next few days?”

Sherlock rolls his eyes with aplomb and jabs his thumbs at his phone screen. “All manner of clichéd nonsense. There. I’ve sent you the pamphlet. Seems this isn’t just to be a mere wedding show with exhibits and such; there are going to be talks and presentations and workshops and a lot of other wedding-related idiocy.”

John’s phone buzzes with the text and the link, so he picks it up and clicks on the link, careful to keep his face neutral as he does. Sherlock wasn’t nearly this sharp about wedding stuff when he was planning his and Mary’s wedding. The thing is… any discussion of wedding stuff really doesn’t exactly put them in the best of places. He knows. He knows that it always could have been more, that they both mean more to one another than is usually safe to let on, that they’ve never said it, not directly. All three of them knew, more or less, hence Mary’s jabs about it – though she was careful, too, to not articulate it too directly. But it was always present with them subconsciously. Sometimes more overtly, too. Like the day Sherlock jumped from the roof of Bart’s Hospital. You could, John had said, not masking it in irritation or sarcasm, just an open, two-word statement of his rock-solid faith in Sherlock, in his abilities. In both. He’d heard the laugh that was just about a sob on the other end of the line, and though Sherlock’s face was too far away to see, he’d seen it in his head. Dreamt of it constantly for the next two years. Blaming himself for not having said more sooner, for not having convinced Sherlock that no matter what the press said about him, that he would be right there at his side, steady as a rock and there for him every step of the way. No matter what it took.

It was there before that, too. He’d barely been able to disguise his jealousy of Irene Adler, humiliatingly aware of how obvious it was, that both Sherlock and Irene could see it: Irene with amusement and sly but-just-watch-me-take-him-from-you-anyway smugness, the cat who ate the canary. And Sherlock, all but unreadable, faint traces of intrigue hovering about his lips. It had been with them all too heavily in Dartmoor, the forced intimacy of their shared room, the coziness of the fire, the rustic country food, the excitement of having gone away for a case, both of them this time, rather than Sherlock disappearing off to Minsk without him. They’d both known, John thinks now, still gazing at the pamphlet on his phone without taking anything in. They’d neither of them had the first clue what to do about it, though.

And nothing has changed on that score. At this point, so much has happened, so much of it bad, that John wouldn’t even know where to start. It just isn’t possible now, if it ever was. There’s just… too much there. Too much bad blood. They’ve cautiously found tentatively solid ground. They’re friends again, more or less. Despite everything, they’re friends again. There’s a lot of shit that John knows he should apologise for, or apologise better for, but far more than he’s ever even said. And Sherlock is Sherlock, with his secrets and lies and the closed doors in his face. Letting him in here or there but never giving him the full picture. If he’d only just come out and said, that whole year after Rosie was born, I’m going out of my mind with worry about Moriarty and I need your help, need you, then maybe he’d have understood. Been better about it, instead of drowning in his own misery with Mary, with the bed he’d made for himself, yet couldn’t seem to lie in. That affair-that-never-quite-was, but pierces him in the conscience all the same – the fact that it turned out to be Eurus notwithstanding. He should have just sat Mary down and said, Look, I’ve fucked up. I thought I could do this, but I can’t. Let’s be decent about this whole thing and just end it gracefully. Can we do that? For Rosie’s sake?

Then again, there was always the risk that she would shoot someone again if he had.

John sighs, looking out his window.

Sherlock looks across at him without turning his head, his eyes narrowed in speculation, but he doesn’t ask whatever he’s wondering.

John doesn’t know whether to be disappointed or relieved. And now they’re going to a wedding show, of all things, and posing as an engaged couple, at that! Christ. One thing is certain: this is going to be awkward as arse.

***

They emerge into the mid-January sunlight blinking, the square in front of the train station filled with people bustling about. Sherlock checks the map on his phone. “Chilton College is about a fourteen-minute walk. Would you prefer to walk to take a taxi?”

“Oh, we can walk,” John says, tugging at his suitcase, which is struggling a bit over the square cobblestones. “Weather’s nice enough.”

“All right.” Sherlock agrees and falls into step beside him, their suitcases making a small racket behind them until they reach the smoother pavement on the other side of the street. “It’s straight up this way.”

“What sort of room has your brother booked us into?” John asks, unwittingly thinking of Dartmoor.

Sherlock glances at him. “A double,” he says, a bit stiffly. “I was… quite clear on that score.”

John hears the stiffness and thinks, Oh bugger, I’ve gone and hurt him. He clears his throat. “Just checking. What sort of amenities has the place got?”

“It was in the pamphlet,” Sherlock says, but doesn’t take him to task over it. “The food is supposed to be quite good, and they’ve got an on-site gym, a sauna, a steam room, a hot tub – or several, based on the photographs – that sort of thing. And on the Saturday night they’ll be doing a banquet with a dance to follow.”

“Oh, joy,” John says dryly. “I think my dancing days are behind me.” A silence falls following his words, and John is immediately aware that they’re both thinking back to the days of the two of them dancing in the Baker Street sitting room, the curtains drawn, Johann Strauss playing brightly as he giggled over his own mistakes, Sherlock’s voice alternately scolding him or chuckling, his voice wonderfully deep. Both of them liking it a bit too much and trying not to, John trying furiously to keep himself focused on the reason he was doing it: so that he could dance with Mary, at his own bloody wedding. Enough with these distracting, useless other thoughts. It never could have happened, anyway. Sherlock was just too… Sherlock. (And maybe he was just too much himself, too. What a pair.)

“Well, I expect we’ll need to behave convincingly for the sake of the case,” Sherlock says, several minutes later, his tone even stiffer than it was. Then, before John can respond, he looks up at the building set back from the pavement to their right, a wide green in front of it. “Ah. This must be it.” He heads off down the main walk leading up the centre of the green, cutting John off with his suitcase in tow, and John feels slightly reproached.

He sighs and follows Sherlock up the path, then up a flight of stone steps and into a pleasantly musty-smelling old building. He looks around. It may be a conference centre now, but it’s unmistakeably a former college: the flights of stairs with their worn, polished wooden bannisters, the scent of old books, a certain atmosphere of timelessness in spite of the modern-looking upgrades and touches added here and there.

Sherlock speaks rapidly to the desk agent in one of his friendlier fake voices, thanks the registrar effusively, then swings around and fake beams at John while thrusting a key envelope at him. “Here’s your key,” he says, with entirely feigned brightness. He turns away even as the face drops. John purses his lips, looks down at the floor, then follows him toward the lifts, gamely tugging his suitcase behind him. Sherlock is walking much faster, his open coat flapping behind him like wings and he jabs at the up button with his index finger without looking to see whether or not John has followed him.

John bites his lip. It’s going to be even worse once they reach the room. Perhaps he should make some sort of overture, just to show that they’re still on friendly terms, at least as far as he’s concerned. “Looks like a nice place,” he offers.

Sherlock blinks, tilting his head up to watch the numbers descend on the panel above the right lift. “It’s Cambridge,” he says, his voice slightly strained.

John isn’t sure what he means. It’s Cambridge, you numbskull: of course it’s ‘nice’. Probably. “I’ve never been here before,” he says. If that’s some sort of gaffe, not having seen Cambridge before, then so be it: he’s just never got around to it, that’s all. There was never a good moment.

The lift arrives and they get in after waiting for an elderly couple to exit. The doors close and Sherlock glances at him. “Never?”

John shakes his head. “Nope. It’s not as though I went to uni here.” He looks at Sherlock. “Did you?” Somehow, they’ve never talked much about Sherlock’s university days, possibly for the very good reason that John frankly doesn’t want to know too much. He imagines that there were drugs involved. He doesn’t want to imagine the other part, the people that might have filled Sherlock’s life back then. What might have gone on. Jealous, a small internal voice reminds him, nagging. (Fuck off, John thinks back at it.)

Sherlock inhales through his nose and shakes his head. “No. But I’ve been here before. With my family.”

John chances another look at him. “Not recently, then?”

“Not particularly.” The lift stops at the twelfth floor and Sherlock leads the way. “Come on.”

They find their way down a corridor, richly carpeted in burgundy and gold and as antiquated as the rest of the place, the walls panelled in some sort of medium-dark wood that John doesn’t recognise, the lighting incandescent and warm. He looks down at the number on his key envelope. “1224. I think it’s – ”

“Here,” Sherlock agrees, stopping in front of their appointed door. He slides his key out of its envelope and zips it through the card reader, a modern touch almost disguised in faded brass. The lock beeps and Sherlock opens the door.

John trails after him, looking around with slight trepidation. It’s a beautiful room, though. To his relief, there are indeed two beds, queen-sized and draped with ornate bedding that matches the carpeting in the corridor. He peers beneath the bedspread to find a fluffy duvet beneath and feels further reassured. The room is spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows on the wall opposite the door, a large loo covered in marble, a round table in the corner with large, comfortable-looking chairs. Sherlock is already opening his suitcase on the farther bed.

“What’s on the schedule for today?” John asks, just to keep their camaraderie going. He claims the nearer bed by default and begins setting down his things.

Sherlock makes a neutral sound, then tosses a large envelope over onto John’s bed. “There’s our information package, if you want to have a look.”

“All right.” John abandons his suitcase where it is and flops onto the bed on his front. It’s very comfortable, and this is pleasing. “Let’s see what we’ve got here.” He scans the stack of information. “Looks like we’ve got a whole programme lined up,” he comments. “You’re right that this is definitely more than a wedding show. It’s more of a conference. There are even workshops. We could go and learn how to make our own centrepieces.”

Sherlock’s snort shows what he thinks of that particular notion. “At the moment, I’m more concerned about lunch. Are they serving it? It’s already one.”

“Hmm, no. The first scheduled meal is supper,” John says. “That’s when it officially starts, except there’s an orientation session at half-past four. I wouldn’t mind a walk around the town, if you’re game. We could find ourselves some lunch and have a short explore. Or you could show me what’s what, if you still know it well.”

“Yes, all right,” Sherlock says. He takes out his laptop and sets it on the table. “What else is on the agenda?”

“I’m just finding out…” John scans a little further. “There’s a big introduction to the presentations and workshops this evening, then what’s described as a sneak peek at the exhibits. Tomorrow all of the talks and such begin, but we have a choice. In the evening there’s some sort of live entertainment.”

Sherlock makes a sound which is definitely derisive this time. “That will mean some sort of schlocky drivel that my mother would enjoy,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Show tunes and some sort of imitation Vegas-type garbage. I’m not going to that.”

John looks over at him, a reluctant smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, but he fights down the surge of affection that comes with it. The truth is that it’s not exactly his sort of music, either, but Sherlock’s utter rejection of it is nonetheless amusing. “It might not be that bad,” he offers, though he’s not sure why. Perhaps it’s just to get a reaction out of Sherlock.

Sherlock gives him a dark look over the top of his laptop. “Please. I thought you had better taste than that.”

John grins. “I probably do,” he allows. “You hungry?”

“Is that a hint?” Sherlock gets up and closes the laptop. “I suppose we might as well go and find something to eat. What do you feel like?”

“Let’s explore and see what we find,” John proposes. Sherlock agrees, and suddenly it begins to feel like a bit of a vacation as well as a case. They head back down the way they came and ignore the crowds milling about the foyer, queuing to register for the conference, and weave their way down the front steps and back onto the streets of Cambridge’s charming old city. The air is crisp and cool, but not unpleasantly cold and John’s first thought is that this is much better without dragging a suitcase behind him.

They walk toward the centre of the old city, the atmosphere between them becoming relaxed and easy. Sherlock points out landmarks and interesting historic sites, though he doesn’t know what many of them are. They take turns looking things up on the map and reading out the building in question’s identity with interest. They come to the centre and start passing churches – chapels, Sherlock corrects him – all belonging to one college or another. “Though the king of all of them is King’s,” he adds, nodding in its direction.

John looks over and sees the austere twin spires a distance off to their left. “Why is that one better?”

Sherlock shrugs. “It’s rather famous for its music, although none of the other colleges is exactly poor quality, either.” He’s quiet for a bit, beginning to walk again in the opposite direction. “My father liked to go there when we were here. To Evensong, to hear the choir.”

John looks at him in astonishment. “Your family went to church?!”

“Just for Evensong,” Sherlock assures him, the corner of his mouth twisting. “The music is so good that even Mycroft didn’t object very much. Besides, it’s a place to be seen and that. Particularly for the Festival of Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve.”

“Ah.” John glances at him. “And you? Did you like it?”

Sherlock’s right shoulder gives a twitch that might be another shrug. “As I said, the choir is quite good. And the Evensong service is… peaceful.” He stops, nodding at a wooden sign standing on the pavement in front of them. “What about here?”

John is startled by the abrupt change in subject, and privately wonders why, if Sherlock particularly likes King’s College, they’re walking in the opposite direction. Perhaps it’s private, or not something Sherlock wants to share with him. He suppresses an inner twist of self-recrimination and slight frustration, and makes himself pay attention to what Sherlock just said: they’ve stopped in front of a pub advertising lunch until three. “Oh – sure,” he says, not much caring. He was already hungry when they left Chilton College and the fresh air has whetted his appetite to a fine point. The notion of a tall pint of very dark beer and something hot and greasy is suddenly quite appealing. “Yeah, this looks good,” he adds. He’s closer to the door, so he leads the way inside, requesting a table for two. “By a window, if you’ve got one,” he adds.

The hostess leads them to a cozy table for two just under the eaves. “This do you, loves?” she asks cheerfully. She’s about twenty-three, blond and very curvy, and eyeing John with particular interest, though her eyes have also raked appreciatively up and down Sherlock’s long, lean frame.

Perhaps she’s already decided that Sherlock’s out of her league and that she’d have a better chance with him, John reflects dryly. “This is great, thanks,” he says, briskly enough to put her off the idea of trying to flirt with him. The last thing he needs is for Sherlock to get all prickly and closed on him again.

Sherlock ignores her thoroughly, which says that he definitely noticed her interest in John. He pulls the menu toward himself and studies it intently. “Let’s see if they’ve got anything good,” he says.

“I’m getting a beer,” John announces, plucking a much-handled paper list from a stand holding a bottle of brown sauce and the salt and pepper. He scans it and makes a selection, and with that done, is able to focus on choosing his lunch. “What are you thinking of getting?”

“The Cornish pasties, with a salad,” Sherlock says, setting his menu down. “Which beer did you decide on?”

“The oatmeal stout,” John says, and the ghost of a smile almost forms on Sherlock’s face. “What?”

“Nothing,” Sherlock says, a little too innocently. “I was just thinking that you’re not wearing the – appropriate garment for that.”

He’s referring to the jumper which he always labels as ‘the oatmeal jumper’ in slightly derisive tones, yet also with undeniable affection. John swats at his wrist with his menu. “Knock it off,” he warns.

“It would have been thematic, that’s all.” Sherlock is smiling now, but directs it out their window and onto the pavement, people passing by with bags of shopping, groups of tourists being hoarded by frazzled-looking guides.

“I’m not even going to dignify that with a comment,” John says, studying his menu. “Besides, I rarely even wear it anymore. Thought you’d approve of my slight upward trend in fashion.”

Sherlock’s smile fades, his expression turning almost wistful, still looking away from him. “You do wear more tailored clothes now. Both your shirts and your jeans. I have noticed that.” He hesitates, then adds, glancing slantwise at John, “I like that jumper, though. It’s what you were wearing the day you moved in to Baker Street.”

“Is it?” John’s forgotten this, but finds himself rather deeply touched that Sherlock has remembered. Then again, Sherlock made reference to the depth and complexity of his jumpers at the wedding, and combined with their long-running habit of Sherlock making jokes about said jumpers, he’s obviously put considerably more thought into the subject than John has. Self-consciously, he checks the shirt he’s wearing now. It’s black, checked with dark green and navy and he thinks it’s all right. He doesn’t know what to say about the jumper thing, though, so he changes the subject. “Think I’ll have the Irish stew.”

“It’s a good day for stew,” Sherlock agrees. “I’ll have the same beer that you’re having.”

“I always prefer darker beers in winter,” John comments.

“I remember,” Sherlock says, avoiding John’s gaze again.

The moment almost turns awkward, but their server appears then and saves them, taking their order. The beer arrives before the food, and that helps, too. The food, when it comes, is served piping hot and is very good, and John makes a concerted effort to keep things light. “There’s one thing you haven’t mentioned yet, about the case,” he says as they’re finishing up. “How they all died. No links there, either?”

Sherlock frowns and shakes his head. “Not that I’ve seen, though mistakes could have been made… hold on.” He stabs the last bite of his pasty with his fork and eats it, pulling up the file on his phone with the opposite hand. “Lydia Dharma died of food poisoning while attending a wedding show. Kyle Rosenfeld’s rental car exploded upon starting when he left his finance conference, but the police report ruled it as an accident in the petrol lines. Rowan Evans fell over a high railing while at a wedding show. Christina McKenzie died of a heart attack the evening after having left the wedding show where she was an exhibitor. Gabriela Baillaora was outright poisoned while at her leadership conference, at the final dinner, but no one knows who gave her the poison. It’s a cold case. And Randolph Winters was trapped in a walk-in freezer, thought to be part of a photo shoot, while here at a wedding show. It’s unknown how he came to be in the freezer; none of the kitchen staff apparently gave him permission to be there or knew anything about it when questioned by the police.”

John frowns. “That’s a lot of poisonings and kitchen-related accidents,” he points out. “One actual poisoning, one food poisoning case – which could absolutely be an accident; it happens enough whenever mass amounts of food are being produced – and someone locked in a freezer?”

“And yet the other incidents are all wholly unrelated to the kitchen, except that they happened to take place at or just after having left Chilton College,” Sherlock counters. “The rental car explosion, the fall, and the heart attack are all completely separate.”

“There are certain poisons that can also bring on the symptoms of cardiac arrest,” John says thoughtfully. “Perhaps we should start there.”

Sherlock smiles at his phone screen. “I’ve already ordered you the autopsy reports. I knew you’d want to see that one particularly.”

John smiles back, but just then the server appears. Sherlock reaches for the bill before she can ask or John can protest. He watches mutely as Sherlock pays, waits for the server to leave, then says, “You didn’t have to.”

“I know. Don’t be stuffy,” Sherlock says, which is his usual, brisk line. “Come on. I’ll show you the other colleges before we head back. We should still be in plenty of time for the orientation at half-past four.”

John agrees, and they get up and put their coats on and head back out into the crisp, sunny afternoon, and he tries not to think of the fact that there’s nothing he’d rather be doing right now than this, and no one he’d rather be doing it with.

***

The lifts are crowded and the corridors are teeming with conference attendees as they make their way down for the pre-supper orientation, forming a bottleneck in the entrance to the dining room. When they can get near enough to see what’s going on, John sees a large, wedding-style seating chart that people are consulting. There are multiple copies of it, tacked up on the walls here and there, so he makes for the nearest one, nodding at Sherlock to follow him. He scans the poster and finally sees their names, linked together with a scrolly golden heart. He rolls his eyes and turns around. “Looks like we’re at table sixteen,” he says.

Sherlock’s eyes are still on the poster, apparently absorbing its information. “Third row in, left side,” he says briskly. “Let’s go.”

They elbow their way inside, both wearing their name badges as well as their conference passes as dictated by the information packet, and find their way to table sixteen. There are several other people there and they introduce themselves. John attempts to memorise their names, particularly as Sherlock has assumed expression of vague politeness and immediately glazed over once the names start. Marjorie and Jim are a couple in their forties, both plain, round, nice-looking people. Greg and Stacey are in their late twenties and look like they just came from the ski slopes, tanned and fit and enviably good-looking. The fifth person at the table is by herself and introduces herself as Jodie Branson, a wedding planner there on business. John and Sherlock introduce themselves and John is immediately and uncomfortably aware that they’re the only same-sex couple at the table. Well, “couple”, but what does it matter? These people certainly all think it, which is rather the point.

The other people all seem nice enough, though. “Is everyone here getting married?” Jodie asks. “I mean, one could assume, but these events do seem to draw all sorts!”

Marjorie nods. “Yeah, this is a second time round for both of us, and neither of us really liked our first wedding, so we thought we’d have a look at the options out there.”

Stacey smiles at her and reaches for Greg’s hand. “First time for us,” she confirms.

Jodie’s eyes turn to John and Sherlock, full of interest. “And you two?” she asks.

John assesses her for a moment. She’s about thirty-six or thirty-seven, a bit overweight but not at all unattractive, with wavy chestnut hair and large blue eyes behind dark-framed glasses. He clears his throat. “Er, second time for me, first time for Sherlock.”

Greg leans forward. “Divorced?” he asks, his tone one of light curiosity, just probing.

John feels himself tense. “Er, no. She… died.” He clears his throat again. He should say something else, since he’s probably just killed the conversation completely, but doesn’t know what to say.

Sherlock glances at him, then puts his arm casually around the back of John’s chair. “Life is full of second chances, as they say,” he says, his tone uncharacteristically gentle. “It’s been an interesting journey, but we’re here now.”

Jodie’s eyes are very understanding. Perhaps too much so, John thinks cryptically. “I see,” she says. “Have you been engaged long?”

John swallows down some of the tightness, inwardly boggling at Sherlock’s smooth handling of the lingo. “Just a month or so,” he says, then strives to redirect the focus away from them. “What about you two?” he asks of Greg and Stacey, and they begin talking avidly about themselves, from how they met onward, and John relaxes slightly, though he’s very conscious of Sherlock’s casual arm still draped around the back of his chair. How long is he planning on leaving it there? His fingers aren’t touching John’s shoulder or anything, but he can feel the warmth of Sherlock’s arm where it’s touching his back, and is irritated by how aware of it he is.

The arrival of the last two people assigned to table sixteen causes a distraction and Sherlock clears his throat and subtly withdraws his arm as the new introductions are made. The final couple are called Aliyah and Kimberly, both women, John notes with interest and slight relief. Kimberly is older, around forty, maybe, with greying blond hair. She’s amply proportioned and pleasant-looking, whereas Aliyah looks to be around thirty-two, slight and dark-haired, stunning enough to be a model. They’ve only just begun to exchange their story when someone steps up to the microphone and calls for everyone’s attention and begins to talk.

John more or less tunes this part out. The lady at the microphone blathers on and on about the different workshops and exhibits, introduces some of the exhibitors, then walks them through Chilton College’s amenities, then finally announces dinner and explains how the buffet functions, then calls out which table numbers get to start. Table sixteen hasn’t been called, so John leans back in his chair and crosses his arms. “I suppose they’re doing this like a wedding reception would,” he says to Sherlock, who nods.

“I wonder if they’ll follow the same pattern all week or switch it up. God, I hope they don’t serve only typical wedding reception food at this thing,” he says, examining his fingernails and looking bored.

John elbows him. “You’d like all the puddings, though,” he says, only half-joking. Sherlock has a carefully concealed – particularly around Mycroft – sweet tooth that he thinks no one knows about, but John has been well aware of it for years.

Sherlock’s lips purse, but the corners of his mouth are twitching. “Maybe,” he says, noncommittal. He gives John a slanted look. “If they serve tiramisu…”

John grins. “Or panna cotta. Or anything involving chocolate ganache. Or mincemeat tarts. Or basically any flavour of cheesecake. Or – ”

“All right, you’ve made your point,” Sherlock says, a touch defensively, and John snickers.

Before he can respond, however, someone else chips in. “You two are rather adorable,” Aliyah says, smiling their way. “How long have you been together, then?”

John opens his mouth and inhales, unsure as to what to say – he and Sherlock haven’t so much as thought of discussing their cover story. Sherlock beats him to the punch, though.

“Just about six years,” he says smoothly. “It’s our anniversary this Sunday. Of the day we met, at least.”

“Oh?” Jodie leans forward, her forearms resting on the table. “The twenty-ninth?”

John glances at Sherlock, surprised by how quickly he came up with that. “Er, yeah, that’s right,” he confirms.

“But what about your actual anniversary?” Jodie presses. “If that was just when you met, I mean.”

Sherlock glances obliquely at John. “Well, it was a gradual process,” he says, his voice studiously neutral. “There wasn’t a specific date, per se, so we’ve always just commemorated that first day.”

“Right,” John says, after another quick look at Sherlock. “It just made sense.”

“After all, John moved in the day after we met,” Sherlock adds, his tone still one of cultured politeness, not betraying anything further.

That causes a few eyebrows to rise. “Really?” Kimberly says. “Wow. That’s fast.”

“Took me months to talk Greg into giving up his flat and moving into mine,” Stacey says enviously, shooting a dimpled grin at her fiancé.

Greg makes an exaggerated sigh. “And I’ve been chained down ever since. They were good days…”

Sherlock frowns at him. “If you don’t want to be living together, why are you getting married?”

Despite the noise in the large room, an awkward silence descends over the table, particularly once it becomes quite clear that Sherlock wasn’t joking. John immediately jumps into the fray to rescue him (and himself, by extension). He clears his throat. “Er – sorry,” he says. He reaches over and pats Sherlock on the back. “That was a joke. Sherlock’s sense of humour doesn’t always quite, er, register.”

Greg shrugs. “No worries, mate. Fair enough question.” He grins at Stacey, however, and leans over to press a long kiss to her cheek. “Joking, of course,” he assures her, and she swats him, clearly unbothered.

The lady at the podium calls out four more tables then, including theirs. Saved, John thinks with relief. Sherlock gets up and leads the way, not quite waiting for him and not quite leaving without him. John feels a little awkward, having corrected him like that in front of their new tablemates, but he had to say something! They join the queue, John still wondering if he should say something to Sherlock now.

“I thought it was a fair question,” Sherlock says stiffly, just over his shoulder. “I fail to understand why heterosexual men so frequently ‘joke’ about losing their liberty and all joy in life at the prospect of marriage. It’s inherently misogynistic.”

John opens his mouth to say something in response to this, then realises he doesn’t know how to defend it. “I suppose they do do that, yeah,” he admits. “I don’t know. I don’t know why that’s such a thing. I’d say that I suppose it depends on who they’re marrying, but you’re right: it’s pretty universal.” He means to go on and point out that it was still a tactlessly blunt question to ask like that, but Sherlock cuts him off before he can.

You did that,” he says. “With Mary. Not to the same extent, but you still did it. And you talked about how married men always want to cheat. During a case, once.”

John thinks unwillingly of Eurus and the affair he very nearly entangled himself in and feels his lips purse. He can’t deny this. “I suppose I did, yeah.” He hesitates. There’s a lot he could say, if he allowed himself to, about his doubts going in, about how he’d thought he might as well marry Mary, since there didn’t seem to be anything better to do. Since Sherlock was gone, a nagging inner voice reminds him, but he shoves this thought down. He clears his throat. “Perhaps there were reasons for that,” he says tightly.

Sherlock turns around and stares intently into his eyes, his gaze probing John’s. Before he can speak, though, they’re interrupted again, this time by Aliyah.

“Budge up there,” she says, gesturing forward, and John sees that the queue has moved ahead some distance.

“Sorry,” he says to Aliyah, propelling Sherlock forward with a hand on his shoulder blade and speaking to her over his shoulder. “We weren’t paying attention.”

She smiles at him, her rather lovely features becoming even lovelier. “Not a problem. You were busy gazing into each other’s eyes… that’s true love! It’s so nice!”

John gives an awkward laugh, his first instinct – as ever – to deny this, set the record straight, but then Sherlock very pointedly clears his throat. John looks and sees that Sherlock’s mouth is compressed into a tight line, his full lips almost completely nonexistent, a stain of red on his upper cheekbones. Oh. Shit. Sherlock probably thinks that he was not only about to deny their supposed relationship yet again, but also that he’s flirting with Aliyah, and they’re supposed to be engaged. He moves a little closer to Sherlock and shifts his hand over to Sherlock’s farther shoulder blade, his arm around his back. “Sorry,” he mutters. “Was just – being friendly.”

“Yes, well, perhaps you could try convincingly selling our cover story, if it’s not too great an inconvenience,” Sherlock says, his lips barely moving, and John has the sense to glean that he’s truly angry.

“Sorry,” he says again, feeling genuine remorse this time. “I – yeah, I’ll do better. Sorry.”

Sherlock ignores this and moves deliberately out of the reach of John’s arm to take a plate from the beginning of the serving table, passing it to him, then taking another and turning to speak to the servers, assuming a pleasant tone, but the stiffness in his jaw is still there.

John feels a bit badly, but distracts himself from it by engaging with the servers over his choice of dinner. Back at the table, he retreats from the awkwardness with Sherlock and engages Kimberly in a long conversation about her optometric practise and the various clinics where he’s worked, and that’s nice. She’s intelligent and very pleasant. Sherlock seems to be talking to Marjorie and Jim and even passing off a modicum of believable interest in the conversation, so that’s all right.

After a bit, Sherlock gets up and leaves the table without saying anything to him. When he comes back, though, he sets a small dessert plate down on the table and looks at John, the corner of his mouth twisting in a suppressed smile. “There’s tiramisu,” he tells John, a generous slice of it sitting on his plate.

Something about his face is so… he doesn’t know how to describe it, but the suppressed mirth, the mischief hovering around the corners of his mouth does something to John. He feels suddenly engulfed with affection for Sherlock out of nowhere and swallows it down hard. “So I see,” he says, and his voice comes out sounding normal. (Good.) “I suppose I’ll have to go and explore. Though you’ll probably tell me that I’ve put on weight again by the end of the week.”

“Sherlock wouldn’t say that, would he?” Aliyah says, leaning past Kimberly to smile at them, her dark eyes alluring and playful. “Sherlock, you have to be kind to your partner! Besides, he’s so handsome exactly the way he is!”

A muscle twitches in Sherlock’s jaw. “Yes,” he says shortly. “I’m aware.” He turns away from John, eyes on his dessert. “Suit yourself,” he says, his voice too controlled.

Shit. John wants to punch something. He just can’t get it right, and Aliyah isn’t helping, her perfectly innocent attention likely making Sherlock even more touchy. He clears his throat and pushes back his chair. “In that case,” he says, forcing it to come out as lightly as he can manage. He walks away cursing himself and his complete inability to just have a conversation with Sherlock without fucking it up spectacularly. The dessert buffet is long and temptingly laden, meanwhile. John chooses a slice of decadent-looking chocolate torte of some sort, debates briefly, then adds a miniature éclair, and carries it back to the table. He’s got to do better, put on a better show for the others. Sell their cover story. He sits down and notices that his coffee cup has been filled, a splash of milk added, just the way he likes it.

“It’s decaf,” Sherlock says without looking at him, studying the paper programme on the table, before John can ask. “I know you don’t like caffeine in the evening.”

“Thanks,” John says, meaning it. “Here, look what I found. Did you see these éclairs?”

Sherlock’s shoulder twitches in the barest suggestion of a shrug. “Yes.”

“Here, take a bite,” John goes on, holding it up to Sherlock’s mouth.

Sherlock raises his head, their eyes meeting. For a moment his brow furrows, his eyes intent on John’s. Then he seems to give a little, dropping his gaze and leaning obediently forward to take the invited bite.

John watches him chewing and puts the other half in his mouth, more aware of Sherlock than he is of the pastry, the cream, and the chocolate combining in his mouth. He swallows. “Good, isn’t it?” he asks. There’s a tiny smear of chocolate at the corner of Sherlock’s mouth that he can’t seem to stop looking at. (For God’s sake. Pull it together!)

Sherlock picks up his serviette and wipes the chocolate away, nodding. “Yes. Very.” His eyes go to the chocolate torte, the top and back covered with a thick layer of rich-looking ganache. “What else did you find?”

John glances at him and finds that the smirk has returned to Sherlock’s mouth and feels pleased with himself for having successfully got that back. “Thought that might catch your eye,” he teases. He slices off a forkful of it, the prime tip piece, and holds it up to Sherlock’s mouth. He’s going to sell this ‘fiancé’ thing, damn it.

Sherlock’s lips tighten for a moment, as though he’s considering refusing, but then he lets John feed him the cake, this time not taking his eyes from John’s the entire time, and it makes John’s heart beat strangely. It’s almost obscene, the way Sherlock’s full lips wrap around the chocolate, the tug of his mouth on the fork as he pulls the bite away cleanly, and suddenly John’s mouth is full of saliva.

He coughs, then clears his throat, stabbing his fork into the cake again, getting a bigger mouthful than he wanted, but that’s just fine right now. He puts it into his mouth just to occupy himself, aware that his face his hot and hoping it doesn’t show. The cake is divine, the butter and sugar rich on his tongue, the chocolate velvety and smooth. The bitterness of his coffee balances the sweetness perfectly, and suddenly he feels that this conference might not be so bad, after all.

***

After the meal come the speeches. Each exhibitor is introduced, explaining their exhibit and their services, some also talking about workshops or presentations they’ll be leading during the week. Jodie also presents, introducing herself as a wedding planner and explaining how her services work. When they’re finally released from the dining room, they’re given a walking tour of the exhibition corridors and told where to find everything, then they’re released for the duration of the evening. It’s late by then, nearly ten, so John suggests that they have a look at the rest of the facility, then turn in. Sherlock agrees, so they explore the miniature spa and the gym, the on-site miniature cinema, then make for their room.

Once inside, John takes off his blazer and hangs it up in the closet. Sherlock goes back to the round table in the corner where his laptop is and absorbs himself in that, the blueish light from the screen playing across his features. Things feel a little better now, John thinks, pulling out his own laptop. He tosses it onto his bed, then arranges himself on his front and peruses through his email and social media. He likes a few posts, then comments on Ted and Stella’s vacation photos from St. Lucia. He doesn’t even know them well enough to say anything other than a bland comment about how it’s currently snowing in England – careful, as usual, not to give away where they are, lest someone see it and get tipped off that they’re investigating. Social media grows dull. He pushes the laptop away. “Sherlock?”

“Hmm?” Sherlock doesn’t look his way, hunkered over as he peers at something on his screen.

“Have those autopsy reports come yet?”

Sherlock makes a vaguely negative sound. “Not yet. Probably in the morning.”

“Hmm. Okay.” John leaves it, then yawns. “I think I’ll turn in, then.”

Sherlock glances over at him, seeming to register him properly now. “Oh. All right. I can… shut this off, if you like.”

It’s not like him to be so unusually thoughtful, John thinks. “No, it’s fine,” he says. “The light shouldn’t bother me. Don’t stay up half the night, though. I’m sure we have stuff to do tomorrow, though I don’t know what it is yet.”

Sherlock studies him. “You mean apart from the official schedule, which is on your bed,” he says, correctly deducing the underlying cause of the edge in John’s tone.

John crosses his arms without meaning to. “Yes.”

“You could have just asked,” Sherlock says mildly. “It’s not a secret.”

“You could have just told me,” John counters, aware of his chin jutting out as he says it. Ugh. Too confrontational. He turns, picks up his kit bag, and takes it into the loo, but leaves the door open so as not to shut Sherlock out completely, look like he’s ticked off or something, when he’s only a tiny bit irked. He takes out his toothbrush, wets it, and applies toothpaste. As he’s rinsing his mouth, he becomes aware that Sherlock has silently appeared in the doorway behind him, leaning up against the frame with his arms folded across his torso. John straightens up and meets his eyes in the mirror, reaching for a hand towel and patting his face dry with it.

“I thought we could start interviewing the staff in the morning,” Sherlock says, his tone even and not sounding particularly bothered by John leaving that way. “It would give us a start, at least. We haven’t got much else to go on.”

“True,” John says, wondering privately if he should apologise for being a total dick all the time. (But how could he possibly start now, given the entire history of his dickishness toward Sherlock in the past? Never mind, then.) His eyes travel over Sherlock’s long frame in the reflection behind him. Sherlock’s wearing dark grey trousers and a perfectly-tailored, should-be-illegal-ly tight white shirt, crisp and new, and he looks like he just stepped out of a magazine advert, not like someone who just spent the morning on a train and the rest of the day sitting around. He should look rumpled and tired, but even his hair looks perfect. Suddenly John has a brief, vivid fantasy of Sherlock walking into the loo, putting his hands on John’s hips from behind, his mouth in John’s hair, their eyes still on each other’s in the mirror, the heat of Sherlock’s frame pressing up against him… (For God’s sake! Pull it together!) John clears his throat. “You can come in, if you want.” (Jesus. Why did he say that?)

Sherlock shrugs, not uncrossing his arms. “I’m not in any rush. Have you finished? Do you need the – ?” He nods obliquely at the toilet, and John realises like an idiot that he’s forgotten to piss.

“Actually, yeah, I’ll just… won’t be a minute,” he says, his face heating a bit.

Sherlock waves this off and retreats from the doorway, pulling the door closed as he goes.

John meets his own eyes in the mirror as he relieves himself, willing the colour in his cheeks to settle. What the hell has got into him since they got here? He flushes and zips himself away, then washes his hands and leaves the loo.

Sherlock is just pulling on a worn t-shirt over his pyjama pants and John stops short. They both attempt to speak at the same time, John flustered, but Sherlock hastens to reassure him. “It’s – fine,” he says hurriedly, then moves swiftly past John to take his turn in the loo.

John’s face is hot all over again. He should have checked or something first! He gets into his bed, noticing that Sherlock has closed his laptop and switched off the overhead lights, only the lamp beside his bed giving a warm glow to the rather nice room. The bed is deep and soft and immensely comfortable, the comforters and pillows piled high. Usually he prefers a firmer mattress – years of military training, he supposes – but this bed is frankly delightful. He feels as though he’s settling into a cloud.

Sherlock comes out of the loo a moment later and puts his things away quietly.

“These beds are phenomenal,” John says, from the depths of his bedding.

Sherlock turns and aims a smile at him over his shoulder. “Oh?” he says lightly. “How so?”

“You’ll see,” John promises, and Sherlock snickers, amused.

“All right,” he says, coming over and climbing into the other bed. He adjusts himself, pulling the top sheet out from where it’s tucked in and cocooning himself in his own bedding. He lets out a long, deeply-satisfied sounding noise. “Mmmmm. I do see what you mean. Quite.”

John grins. “Told you.”

“You did,” Sherlock allows. He makes the same sound, then turns onto his side to reach for the switch of the lamp. “Good night,” he says simply.

The room falls into almost complete darkness, the curtains open just a foot or so to let in a bit of the streetlight, which Sherlock always prefers. John looks over, but can’t see him in the dark. “Good night,” he echoes, and it’s the last either of them speaks.

Nonetheless, it takes John a long time to fall asleep.

***

John discovers that they are seated with the same people at breakfast, still at table sixteen. He takes care to choose a seat by Jim, arguably the least attractive of their eight tablemates, and determinedly strikes up an incredibly dull conversation that involves hearing a lot more about life insurance than he ever cared to know, but at least Sherlock should be happy that he’s not flirting with any of the women. Sherlock is on his right, with Jodie, the wedding planner, on his other side, and every now and then John catches snippets of their conversation. Sherlock is careful to keep the focus on Jodie and her work, a nicely neutral and socially-acceptable topic. (Good.) John gets up to get a little more bacon from the buffet before it closes, and takes it back to the table to eat with his coffee, which has been magically refilled in his absence. It’s got milk, though, and that was clearly Sherlock again. He smiles to himself; Sherlock is actually far more thoughtful at times than anyone would ever suspect. Well: perhaps it’s only a slight compensation for how incredibly rude or blunt he can be the rest of the time, but at least part of that is a front, John thinks. He’s impatient to get to the point, not wanting to be bogged down by the social rituals that go with engaging with people. Sometimes he’s rude just to shock them into blurting out the truth, and it’s quite effective.

John chews his bacon and reflects that he actually rather loves it when Sherlock is appalling. It’s so refreshing, somehow – and honest, too. So few people just say what they really think. He thinks of Sherlock’s question to Greg about why he’s marrying Stacey if he doesn’t want to live with her and it occurs to him that it’s a completely valid question. It’s just that normally, people don’t ask questions like that.

Breakfast is dispersing as people start drifting off toward the exhibits and workshops. Sherlock clears his throat and turns away from Jodie, who starts gathering up her things. “I thought we’d start with the front desk staff,” he says, in that same, carefully-polite tone that he’s been using throughout the meal so far. “See what they remember about the victims, if anything.”

John nods. “Sure, all right. Now?”

“You can finish your coffee,” Sherlock says, though his cup is already empty.

John downs the rest of his own and gets up. “It’s done. Let’s go.”

They begin with the reception staff, John leading the questioning, showing them photos of the victims and reminding them when they were there, not to mention how they died. When they get to Rowan Evans, the woman who fell over a railing, one of the female employees puts a hand over her mouth.

“I remember that,” she says, looking upset. “That was horrible. I actually saw her, just after she fell.”

This gives John pause and he treads more carefully, not wanting to be insensitive. “Did you? I’m sorry,” he says. “That must have been rough.”

The employee nods, her forehead creasing. She’s in her mid-twenties, probably a student, John thinks. Maybe doing a masters at one of the colleges. “It was pretty gruesome.”

John winces. “You saw her before the police arrived?”

The employee nods, then looks at one of the older women. “It was Brenda who called them.”

The senior employee, Brenda, clears her throat. “That’s right. We followed emergency protocols. As the assistant front of house manager, I helped write the guidelines, in fact.”

Sherlock fidgets, probably already bored of the chitchat. “Did you notice anything unusual at the time?” he asks of the younger employee. “Any reason that might have led to the fall? Was there anyone else present when you found the victim?”

At least he didn’t say ‘body’, John thinks. The employee nods. “There were people just passing through. We thought it was lucky that she didn’t hit anyone when she fell. People started screaming and I heard it from here and went running to see what had happened.”

Her voice begins to tremble and John moves in hastily. “Sorry – what was your name?”

“Erica,” she says.

“You don’t need to talk about it if it’s upsetting, Erica,” John tells her reassuringly. He sends a sideways look at Sherlock, who recalibrates and addresses Brenda instead.

“So there were no other people in the immediate vicinity, apart from passersby?” he asks.

Brenda nods. “That’s right. From what we were able to see, at least.”

“What about on the upper level?” Sherlock wants to know. “Do you have security footage for that area?”

Brenda cringes. “Unfortunately not,” she says. “I can show you where it is… if you want to come with me – I’ll just come around the counter…”

She leads them down the adjacent corridor, which is a walkway from one building to another, glassed in and sunny, lined with potted palm trees, the interior walls hung with artwork from one of the colleges. She stops about forty metres from the reception area, Erica trailing along behind them. “It was about here,” Brenda says. “Ms Evans fell face first, or so the police thought. She was… the body was sort of in a jumble when it landed, though. It wasn’t like a – a belly-flop. I had the thought that she had perhaps been – flailing as she fell. Which was what made me think that it must have been an accident, not, er, not a suicide or something.”

John looks at Sherlock, and they exchange a silent, shared thought. “What about murder?” John asks bluntly, squaring his shoulders and directing the question at Brenda. “Any reason to believe that she definitely wasn’t pushed?”

Brenda pauses and chews at the inside of her lip. “Not that anyone’s proved,” she says reluctantly. “I can’t think why anyone would, though. I was the one who followed up with the police. She was a school teacher, we were told. Year 7, I think it was. And she’d only just been maid of honour in a wedding, someplace fancy, I think, and was here with a friend because she was going to do it again. Be maid of honour. I heard the wedding got postponed after she... Such a shame.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says vaguely. He looks up at the railing above. “Would you take us up there, please?”

Brenda pulls herself together. “Yes, of course,” she says briskly. She turns back to her employee. “You don’t need to come along for this part,” she says, kind now. “Go and help Stephen sort out those mis-programmed key cards, would you?”

Erica ducks her head and goes back to the front desk.

“It was a shock for her,” Brenda says, lowering her voice. “I actually sent her for some counselling afterward. She’s all on her own here, exchange student from Singapore. It hasn’t been the smoothest year here so far.”

She walks as she’s saying all this, leading them further down the corridor, then through a door for which she swipes her security pass, and into a small lift clearly designed for employees rather than guests. “You mean with having had six murders in that time,” John remarks dryly. “Yes, that would put rather a damper on your part-time student job.”

Brenda grimaces. “It’s been awful,” she admits. “It’s – honestly, I have no idea why these accidents keep happening here.”

“And you’re very sure that they are accidents, then?” Sherlock asks, eyeing Brenda. “We know that at least one person was poisoned. The police report was quite clear.”

“Yes, the Spanish singer,” Brenda says, her face still troubled. “I know. I just don’t know why. The others, too… I mean, the man who was trapped in the freezer got in there without anyone’s permission, though no one seems to know why he wanted to take photos in a freezer in the first place, but I suppose ‘industrial’ seems to be a thing these days, especially for wedding photos… the heart attack and the food poisoning have to have been accidents, though, and the car explosion… I just don’t know. That was the American. Perhaps he’d had some sort of legal troubles, or something gang-related… I really don’t know much about it, honestly.”

The lift stops. Sherlock waits for Brenda to exit, then follows her and says, changing tacks slightly, “You said that you’re the assistant front of house manager?”

“Yes, that’s right,” she says.

John glances at Sherlock. “Who is the actual manager? Why’s it you who’s handling all this?”

“Oh no, Alistair has been involved, too,” Brenda assures them. “That’s Alistair Carlton. He oversees the entire managerial team, which is himself, me, the head chef, the chief of security, and the events manager. He’s just got a lot on his plate, and for this particular incident, he was away. A funeral in Scotland.” She stops. “The police say that she must have fallen from here, based on the way she landed.”

John studies the scene. They’re standing in the short end of an L-shaped corridor. The long bit just around the corner is directly parallel to the wide corridor they just came from below, but this part is perpendicular to it, less well lit, essentially just a foyer for the exit from the lift. “So there’s no security camera coverage here?”

Brenda shakes her head, walking over to the main part of the corridor. “The camera is mounted just up there,” she says.

Sherlock turns around and frowns at the lift. “Can guests use this lift? Or is it for employees only?”

“Guests can use it if we’ve programmed it into their cards,” Brenda says. “But we don’t normally give them access, no. There aren’t any rooms on this level; it’s all meeting rooms down that way, and at this end it’s only storage. But this is a hole in our surveillance, apparently.”

“So, someone could have come from that end, but you’d have seen them on the cameras,” John says. “So in essence, they have to have come from the lift.”

“Which means that either it was an employee who pushed Rowan Evans off the rail, having lured her into a security dark zone, or else it was an employee who gave a guest access to this lift for that purpose,” Sherlock says darkly. He looks at John. “I always did suspect it was an inside job.” He turns back to Brenda, fixing her with his gaze. “I want to talk to the rest of your management team, and I want a list of every employee who has access to this lift.”

Brenda gapes a little, but doesn’t argue. “All right – I’ll have that to you by lunch time,” she says, looking very distressed.

They leave her there, taking the long upper corridor back to the central stairs near the bank of guest lifts. “What do you think?” John asks, glancing back over his shoulder to make sure that no one is nearby.

Sherlock shrugs dismissively. “Oh, well she’s certainly not involved. Someone on her staff is, though.”

John agrees. “It certainly seems that way.”

Sherlock takes out his phone and his eyes light up. “Aha! The autopsy reports are here. I’ll forward them to you.”

“Oh, good!” John says. “I want to see the heart attack one in particular. What about the police reports? Have you had a chance to look at the car bomb report yet?”

“Yes, of course,” Sherlock says, pressing the up button. “It was a fairly standard bomb, one that anyone who knew a thing or two about explosives could have put together at home. Rigged to the ignition. Predictable.”

“And the victim – what’s his name?”

“Kyle Rosenfeld,” Sherlock produces instantly, despite rarely remembering the names of living people he’s known for years.

“Right – he didn’t have any enemies that anyone knew of?” John asks.

The lift doors open and there are people inside, so Sherlock merely gives him an oblique look as they go in. Marjorie is one of the people inside. “Oh, hello!” she says brightly. “Not at one of the workshops, then? I am – I’ve just left my reading glasses upstairs and I can’t read any of the screens! So silly of me, I ought to just have a second pair in my purse for when I forget.”

Sherlock blinks at her and John comes smoothly to the rescue, reaching for Sherlock’s hand. “No, we were just having a look at the exhibits and we thought we’d go up to our room to discuss some of our ideas. You know. We’ll be back down in time for lunch.”

Marjorie beams at them. “That’s a good idea,” she says. “Jim and I can’t seem to agree on a colour scheme, so we’re already a bit stuck! He wants orange, and I keep telling him it’s rotten colour!”

“Not for an autumn wedding,” Sherlock says. “Think less orange and more terracotta and rust red. It could be quite nice.”

Marjorie’s mouth falls open. “Wha – how did you know that we were talking about October as one of the possibilities? And actually… that’s rather brilliant! We could do autumn colours, and Jim would think he was getting his way. I adore autumn!”

Sherlock manages to contrive a pleased smile and stern frown at the same time. “Do you mean to say that you haven’t got a date fixed yet?” he scolds. “There’s no point putting the cart before the horse, in that case. Get a date and a venue, then choose your colour scheme accordingly.”

Marjorie looks at him with frank admiration. “My best friend Lila was right – I do need a gay best friend! That is – not to be offensive or anything. I mean, I just – sorry!”

She’s flustered, but Sherlock just gazes back at her, not seeming to comprehend the apology. The lift stops. “Is this your floor?” Sherlock asks politely.

Marjorie looks up at the numbers. “Oh yes – eighth, that’s me! See you at lunch, then. Thanks again – and sorry!”

“It’s fine,” John calls after her as the lift doors close. There are still other people in the lift, so he doesn’t let go of Sherlock’s hand, though he’s feeling extremely awkward about holding it. Sherlock’s hand is warm and dry, and instead of letting his long fingers just hang there limply, he’s actually holding back, his fingers curved around John’s. For once it’s not to grab onto him, pull him back from something, drag him along as they’re running somewhere. They’re just standing here in this lift, holding hands. The lift stops at the tenth and eleventh floors, then finally at the twelfth.

Sherlock lets go the instant the lift doors close behind them. “Come on,” he says briskly, as though everything is completely normal, and John has to shake his head. Of course it is: this is just their cover. Right.

He’s got his card key out before Sherlock has his in hand and reaches forward to swipe it through the reader. “There we are,” he says, going for Sherlock’s briskness. “Now let’s have a look at those autopsies!”

They sit down at the table with their laptops. “You should have them,” Sherlock says. “The fourth victim, Christina McKenzie. That’s the heart attack.”

“Right, yep, got it,” John says, as the file opens. He scans through the report, then skips ahead to the toxicology profile. “Hmm,” he says. “Interesting.”

Sherlock pounces on this. “What is?”

“Calcium glutamate,” John says. “It was found in her blood. It’s prescribed for certain conditions, or to counteract magnesium sulfate, but her potassium levels were normal at the time of her death.”

“So she couldn’t have had hyperkalemia,” Sherlock says, cottoning on at once, and once again John has to marvel at the depth of his medical knowledge. “Could there be any other reason for the calcium glutamate to have been in her blood?”

John shakes his head, still reading. “Not that I can think of. For it to have brought on cardiac arrest, she would have to have been injected with it. I’m just scanning the close-ups to see if I can spot a puncture wound…”

Sherlock gets up and comes around to peer over his shoulder, intent on the photos. “What about that?” he asks as John scrolls onto the fourth page. He points. “There, on the back of the left shoulder.”

John bends forward to have a closer look. “I think you could be right, actually.”

Sherlock straightens up, looking faintly triumphant. “So it was a murder.”

“You needn’t look so pleased about it,” John reminds him, but the corners of his mouth are tugging into a smile in spite of himself.

“Murder is so much more interesting than a heart attack,” Sherlock says, directing a sunny beam at him, wholly unrepentant.

John can’t help it. He grins. “True enough,” he says. “That just means we’ll have to look a little harder into these other ones. I think we definitely need to talk to the kitchen staff about the food poisoning, the actual poisoning, and the man who was locked in the freezer.”

“Quite. I’m just pulling up the police report for the car bomb again,” Sherlock says.

“Great. I’m going to read the autopsy for the poisoning, the Spanish singer,” John says, and they each delve into their screens. Gabriela died of cyanide poisoning; the report is very clear. Based on her stomach contents at the time of her death, it seems that the poison was put into her appetizer, what appears to have been butternut squash soup, going by the individual food elements. Given that it was a conference dinner, John assumes that everyone else at her table was served the same soup, yet no one else died. Police questioned the hotel staff, other people at the conference, and Baillaora’s family, but no one could imagine a motive. Baillaora’s career was just beginning to take off: she was gaining more popularity both in Barcelona and around London, and according to her mother, she had recently started to take wedding gigs, including some in fairly posh locations, yet her career was still so fledgling that it could hardly have been jealousy. John studies the photos of her: she was young and very attractive: slim, petite, very curvy, with sultry dark eyes and cascades of wavy, dark hair. Who might have wanted her dead? John shakes his head and goes back to reread her blood profile.

Twenty minutes later, Sherlock breaks the silence. “Interesting,” he says, an odd tone to his voice.

John is deep in medical files. “Hmm?” When Sherlock doesn’t answer, he looks up. Sherlock is staring at his screen, a slight furrow between his brows, but he almost seems… hesitant? “What is it?” John asks, paying attention now.

Sherlock shakes his head very slightly, his lips compressing. “I don’t know yet,” he says, his face closed.

John frowns. “Sherlock – what have you found, there? What is it?”

Sherlock clears his throat. “It’s – a fingerprint,” he says. “A partial one. No matches were found.”

This doesn’t clear anything up. “And?” John prompts.

This time Sherlock pauses for a longer moment. “And I think I may have seen it before,” he says, very quietly. “I’d – rather not say any more just yet. Not until I’m sure.”

Something cold twists at the pit of John’s belly. “Not – Eurus,” he says, involuntarily shuddering as the vivid (and horrifying) memory of water rising around his jaw and spraying into his face and eyes suddenly comes over him again.

Sherlock glances at him and seems to see directly into him. “No,” he says quickly. “Not Eurus. Relax. It’s all right. Whatever it is – it will be all right, John. Breathe.”

John finds that his entire body has gone rigid. He swallows. “Jesus,” he mutters. “Sorry, I – it’s – still fresh, I guess.”

Sherlock looks almost as though he wants to reproach himself. “I should have clarified,” he says. “There is no overt threat related to – what I think I may see here. I’ll tell you more when I know.”

John could say something terse about Sherlock keeping things from him again, but right now he’d rather just accept this one at face value, he thinks. “Right. Okay,” he gets out, trying to make himself breathe normally.

Sherlock opens his mouth, inhales, then says spontaneously, “Tonight – why don’t we visit the spa facilities, after dinner? We could… try the hot tub. It could be good for your shoulder. Help you relax.”

John looks at him in slight astonishment. Sherlock is setting new records of thoughtfulness all of a sudden, particularly given that he seemingly almost let John drown just a couple of weeks ago. “In the middle of a case?” he asks. Somehow it’s the only thing he can think of to say.

Sherlock doesn’t move. “Why not? We can’t work all the time, and it would help maintain our cover to be seen engaging in the group activities, et cetera. Especially as everyone here knows what we do.”

“Right, yeah,” John says. “Well – all right, then. That could be nice.”

Sherlock gives a small, slightly uncertain smile. “That’s settled, then,” he says. He picks up his phone and looks at the time. “We should go down for lunch. I just need to… send this to my brother.”

John looks at him for a long moment. He could ask. It’s crossed the back of his mind now, but he’d rather not even put it into words. He closes the lid of his laptop and stands up. “When you’re ready, then,” he says tightly, and Sherlock makes a sound to show that he heard.

A moment later he’s shutting his computer and on his feet, too. “Time for lunch,” he says, a little too quickly, and the sinking feeling in John’s gut only deepens.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

Jodie pulls out the chair to John’s left. “This seat free?” she asks cheerily, already sliding into it.

“Be my guest,” John says. “You’re just in time. We’re going in reverse order today, and table seventeen just went up.”

“Nice!” Jodie sounds genuinely enthused. “I saw they’ve got spaghetti squash on my way in. I love that stuff!”

“Do you?” John asks curiously. “You know, I’ve always heard about them and seen them at the shop but I’ve never quite known what one does with them. I suppose I could google it or something, but we tend to just go for the pasta version, usually.”

Jodie snorts. “Not that it shows on either of you,” she says. “Though I imagine all the crime solving and running after criminals keeps you both healthy.”

“Can do, when they’re not shooting at us,” John says dryly, and Jodie laughs. She’s got a good laugh, and he notices that she’s got beautiful eyes. He’s not flirting with her. He isn’t. (He still knows the difference, right?)

“I suppose I should have said ‘fit’,” Jodie says. “So, tell me more about the two of you. You intrigue me. I’d no idea you were a couple until you showed up at the table last night. When are you getting married?”

John flounders. They haven’t talked about this at all. “Er – ”

Sherlock is immediately there, coming to his rescue, an arm dropping casually down around John’s shoulders. “We still haven’t quite settled on the date, I’m afraid,” he says apologetically.

John smiles at him, at least half in silent thanks at the save, and reaches up to squeeze at Sherlock’s hand with his left. “Honestly, we’ve just been busy,” he says to Jodie, letting go of Sherlock’s hand as nonchalantly as he can. “That’s partly why we came to this thing – to get some ideas, start making some real plans.” Time to change the subject. “What about you? Are you married?”

“Me? Oh, heavens, no,” Jodie says. “I’ve got a boyfriend, Dan – we’ve been together forever, four years now, but I just don’t think he’s in a rush to get married. Or possibly ever… sometimes I wonder if it’ll look bad for business, being a wedding planner who isn’t married herself, but what can you do! Sometimes these things just have to wait until they’re ready, right?”

John immediately hears the trace of wistfulness she isn’t quite able to hide, and feels a strong surge of sympathy for her. She’s nice, he thinks. Her boyfriend should pop the question before she gets tired of waiting. She’s a little on the heavy side, but not at all unattractive, with beautiful eyes, and it seems she’s got a booming business on her hands. He’s about to change the subject, ask her something about her work, but then their table is called. The three of them end up in the queue together, though, and Jodie starts talking about spaghetti squash again.

“So you cut it in half for starters, then you scoop out the seeds inside. It looks like there’s not much left after that, but believe me, there’s plenty! I like to rub it with olive oil, sprinkle on some sea salt and pepper, then roast it,” Jodie says. “You put it facedown on some parchment and roast it for about half an hour. Then, when you take it out, you turn it over and just start pulling at it with a fork and it comes off in strands. You’ll see what I mean.”

“Interesting,” John says. He turns to Sherlock, who is standing beside him. “Maybe we should get a spaghetti squash.”

Sherlock smiles, though not very much. Perhaps he’s thinking of the fact that they don’t currently live together. “Perhaps,” he says, rather unconvincingly.

John leans into his shoulder, aiming at reassurance. “I mean it,” he says, lowering his voice. “Let’s get one sometime.”

Sherlock looks at him for a moment, but doesn’t say anything for a long time. “Perhaps,” he says again, and it sounds a little more certain now.

The queue moves ahead then, so John steps away from Sherlock and busies himself with getting them both plates. Jodie says something to him, pointing out the spinach and ricotta vegetarian lasagna – evidently the theme for today’s lunch is Italian – and John makes himself pay attention. She’s nice, he thinks again. So far she’s his favourite of their group of table mates. And as it turns out, the spaghetti squash is delicious. Sherlock comments on it, too. They’ve served it with a tangy heap of fragrant Italian sausage with diced tomatoes and sweet fennel seed and a lot of parmesan, and John goes back for seconds. There’s panna cotta with raspberry sauce and spumoni gelati for dessert and he reflects that he’s going to put on twenty pounds before they leave.

After lunch, under the guise of going to compliment the cooks, they make for the kitchens. “I want to talk to the head chef, but the others could be useful, too,” Sherlock is saying as he shoulders his way through the door.

“Right, got it. Which one is he?” John asks, hard on Sherlock’s heels.

Sherlock gives him a reproving look over his shoulder. “She, John. Her name is Andrea Redding.”

He’s already turned away before John can respond to this, striding ahead. “Hello?”

The kitchen is still humming with activity, though from the looks of it, lunch is definitely winding down. The dishwashers are washing busily and prep cooks are packaging things up. Several cooks are seated around a table, eating, and standing at the central island, a woman in slightly-stained cook’s whites is efficiently sharpening knives. Several people look up at Sherlock’s voice, but she’s the one who responds. “Yes?” she asks, authority clear in her tone. “Can I help you?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, matching her tone. “My name is Sherlock Holmes. This is my – partner and fiancé, John Watson. We’re investigating the deaths of several guests that occurred here over the past fourteen months and need to speak to both you and your staff.”

To John’s surprise, Andrea rolls her eyes. “Oh, for God’s sake, not this again,” she says, irritated. “We’ve already been through everything with the police. I thought these cases had been closed!”

Sherlock fixes his gaze on her and gives a smile which is in no way a smile. “Closed, yes, but never solved,” he says. “Quite a high rate of failure for the same institution, wouldn’t you say? Six out of six unsolved? Surely that warrants a second look.”

For a moment, their eyes are locked together in a silent contest of wills, then Andrea shrugs and gives in. “As you like, then. As you can see, we’re still finishing up with lunch. Why don’t you start with them? I’ve got to get a few things underway for dinner.”

‘Them’ appears to be the group currently eating their lunch and watching the exchange warily. Sherlock gives another non-smile. “Perfect,” he says. “We’ll start with them and work our way around the team as we go.”

“It shouldn’t take too long,” John reassures her. “We’ve just got a few questions.”

Sherlock addresses the entire kitchen and raises his voice. “Is there anyone here who had not yet been hired when Randolph Winters froze to death in the freezer two months ago?”

The water at the big industrial sink is shut off and one of the dishwashers timidly raises a hand.

Sherlock focuses on him. “When were you hired?”

“Three weeks ago, sir.” The dishwasher is just a kid, nineteen or twenty, John thinks.

Sherlock looks back at Andrea. “Why was he hired?”

“Because Jason, the previous dishwasher, moved home to Belfast and we were short-staffed,” she says. She changes knives and resumes her sharpening, turning away from them. “Come and find me in the back when you’re finished with the rest. I’ll walk you through the freezer and tell you whatever you need to know.”

“We won’t need you, then, dishwasher,” Sherlock informs the kid, who nods in relief.

“Sherlock,” John says under his breath, meaning about referring to him as ‘dishwasher’, but then, the kid never did say his name.

Sherlock glances at him, but doesn’t ask, moving instead toward the seated cooks. There are four of them, all working their way through selections from the Italian meal. Sherlock pulls out a chair and John goes round to the other side of the table where there’s another free seat. “So,” Sherlock begins, pleasantly enough. “Who have we here? Names, please.” They introduce themselves. Sherlock nods, clearly forgetting each name as he hears it. The last person introduces himself as Phil Roberts, the sous-chef. “Let’s start with you,” Sherlock says. “How long have you worked here?”

The sous-chef answers and John takes notes in his little notebook. Sherlock questions them one-by-one and puts some general questions to the group at large. Their answers are consistent: no one let Randolph Winters into the kitchen or saw him until he was discovered, already dead. They all recall him having been found just before the preparations for dinner began, around half-past three in the afternoon.

“The kitchen is usually closed from two until half-past three,” Phil says. “It’s our break. Usually the only people in here are Andrea or me, unless the pastry chef – that’s Jenny, there, at the counter in the back – needs to be in here for a dessert. She likes to come in when it’s quiet and we’re out of the way. It’s a big kitchen, but counter space is always at a premium, and some desserts are delicate and can’t be disturbed or kept near anything hot, say.”

Sherlock nods. “What was served for lunch and supper that day?” he asks.

Phil looks blank. “Er, I’d have to check… let me go and get the big calendar. One second.” He gets up and goes over to Andrea, who says something containing the word office and Phil hastens off toward somewhere in the back.

One of the other cooks clears her throat. “All I remember is that whatever it was, we must have either had the meat in fresh or already taken it out of the freezer much earlier, because the coroner said he must have been in there for at least four hours, and no one saw him during lunch. So whatever we made for lunch that day also must have been in the fridge already.”

The other cooks nod their agreement. “But that’s why you asked about both meals, isn’t it, sir?” a male cook confirms, and Sherlock nods.

“Yes. Very good,” he says. He lowers his voice. “And what about Andrea and Phil? How are they to work for?”

“Oh, great,” the male cook says, and there are other enthusiastic nods from around the table, John notes. “Yeah. Really good. I mean, you saw her – she can be a bit snappy, but every chef I’ve ever worked under is like that. She’s better than most. And she’s an amazing chef, really, really talented. I was thrilled when I got the job here. We all were.”

“That’s absolutely right,” the female cook corroborates. “Andrea is brilliant, and Phil’s quite good, too. He does most of the training and he’s a little more patient. Andrea can be very kind, too. She has her moods, but when the heat is on, sometimes everyone’s biting each other’s heads off. It’s just how big kitchens like this are.”

This gets wry agreement from the others, too. Phil returns then, turning the pages of a large planning calendar in his hands. “Let’s see, let’s see,” he says. “What was the exact date?”

“The eighteenth of November,” Sherlock says, waiting.

“Okay… lunch that day was a soup and salad bar,” Phil says. “All of the typical stuff, plus cocktail prawns, grilled salmon, grilled chicken, egg salad, tuna salad, and chicken salad. The soups were chicken tortellini and cream of asparagus. We also served baguette and dessert was double fudge brownies, with fruit. Supper that night was honey-roasted ham, roast beef, roasted potatoes, scalloped potatoes, string beans, baby carrots in butter sauce, salads, and gravy. Dessert was chocolate mousse torte and mango white chocolate cheesecake.”

Sherlock is watching him intently. “Which of those items would have been frozen prior to the day of the eighteenth?”

Phil studies the menu and shakes his head. “The beef and ham would have come out of the freezer the night before, and the chicken and salmon at lunch would have come in fresh that morning. I’m the one who does the ordering and we always cook those from fresh. Nothing else would have been frozen; the soups and desserts get made fresh every day, plus obviously any mayonnaise-based salad like those others. Greens and vegetables are always kept in the fridge. No one had any reason to go into the freezer that day, I don’t think.”

John speaks up. “When were the desserts made and where were they kept?”

Phil twists in his seat a little. “Jenny!” he calls. “Would you mind coming over here for a sec?”

Jenny looks up and wipes her hands on her apron, nodding, and comes over. “What’s up?” she asks, her eyes going curiously to Sherlock’s face.

Phil makes brief introductions, then says, “When we do the ham/roast beef dinner, you do chocolate mousse torte and the mango white chocolate cheesecake. When do you make those, and do they get frozen at any point?” He turns to John, nodding toward his notebook, adding, “Jenny pretty much operates on her own schedule and we don’t always know when or where she’s working unless she’s cordoned off a section of the fridge or freezer.”

“I always make the mousse cake in the mid-morning, between breakfast and lunch,” Jenny says. “Then I keep it in the fridge on my shelf there, until midway through supper, because it’s best served chilled. Same with the cheesecake, but I usually make that the night before and pop it into the freezer to keep its shape.”

“And you did this time, too?” Phil asks.

She nods. “Yes, I think so – can’t see why I would have done any differently,” she says. “Why?”

Sherlock studies her. “When do you take it out to thaw?”

“Just before I start in on the mousse cake,” Jenny tells him. “Somewhere between half-past nine and ten, usually. I take it out, move it to the fridge, then get started on the mousse cake. Takes me about an hour: I bake the cake part and while that’s in the oven, I make the mousse and the ganache, then assemble it all and pop it in the fridge, try be to out of the way by half-past ten or eleven at the latest, when the lunch prep starts.”

“So after you removed the cheesecake at about nine-thirty in the morning, no one else had cause to go near the freezer,” Sherlock says. He looks across the table at John. “There’s our window.” He stands abruptly. “Thank you all for your time. Sorry to have disturbed your lunch.”

This apology is a new feature and John would say something approving, but Sherlock is already making his way over to the dishwashers.

“You can go,” he says to the new one, not quite rudely, but only just shy of it. He questions the other one, learns that he knows nothing whatsoever, asks about both Andrea and Phil, and gets the same answers that the cooks gave.

“They can both get tetchy,” he says, looking nervously around should either one of them be in earshot. “Andrea especially, but that’s pretty standard, with cooks. But yeah, they’re good people to work for.”

“All right,” Sherlock says, obviously losing interest. “Come on, John. Time to talk to Andrea.”

They find her in her office, bent over a supplies list. John knocks at the half-open door. “Sorry to bother,” he says politely, but leaves a firm edge to his voice. She’s not going to escape them by hiding out in her office!

Andrea doesn’t try for escape, however. She swivels her chair around to face them. “Come in, gentlemen,” she says, pleasanter now. She crosses one knee over the other and clasps her hands over one of them. She’s taken off her chef’s jacket and hat now, and despite her mussed hair, John notices that she’s rather beautiful – tall and slim with long blond hair that’s bundled into a loose knot at the base of her neck, high cheekbones and a mouth that looks like it smiles and frowns with equal ease. She’s a woman who’s made it in a field dominated by men, John reminds himself. No wonder if she’s got a bit of a chip on her shoulder. She looks to be in her later thirties, but she’d clean up well.

Sherlock clears his throat pointedly, and John immediately gets the point: he was staring, possibly. He coughs. “Er, hello,” he says. “We’ve just got a few questions.”

“I assumed,” Andrea says evenly. She nods her chin at Sherlock. “Fire ahead, then.”

Sherlock asks many of the same questions that he asked the other cooks, then asks about the cooks themselves individually, the dishwasher, the prep cook who was putting plastic wrap over a leftover tray of lasagna. Andrea answers him directly and with detail, not stinting or holding anything back, and John jots it all down in his notebook. Sherlock shifts topics. “And what about Randolph Winters?” he asks abruptly. “What do you know about him?”

Andrea doesn’t flinch. “That he’s dead?” she says. “That he was a photographer, evidently? That’s about it. He was a guest at a wedding conference. We get plenty of photographers at the wedding shows. I’ve never had one turn up dead in my freezer before, though.”

“Must have been a bit of a shock,” John offers.

“You could say that,” Andrea says, rather dryly. She crosses her legs the other way. “We were just about to start dinner and I was checking the freezer for more horseradish root, because suddenly it seemed we were a little low on horseradish sauce. I always make it fresh, but keep the root frozen since we only serve roast beef once or twice a month, depending. At that point, I was just frantic to get dinner served on time. I didn’t have time to feel shock at the moment. It didn’t even really hit me until later on when I was at home.”

Sherlock considers her. “Were you alone at the time?” he asks curiously.

Andrea’s eyes come up to his. “Yes,” she says. “Why?”

It’s not particularly defensive, but John hears something in her tone regardless.

Sherlock shrugs. “Just wondering. You’re not married? No boyfriend?”

“No.” It’s slightly sharper this time. “Not right now.”

Sherlock’s expression doesn’t change. “What happened to the last one?”

“What makes you think there was a last one?” Andrea fires back.

“You said ‘not right now’,” Sherlock reminds her. “Bad break-up, was it?”

Andrea swallows and looks away. “You could say that. He’s an arsehole. A cheater. We were engaged. So if I’m prioritizing my career and steering clear of the dating scene to concentrate on keeping this kitchen up and running, I’m sure you’ll understand.”

This is clearly a sore spot. “My sympathies,” John says, meaning it. He looks down at his notebook and shifts gears. “Can we talk about Lydia Dharma? The woman who died of food poisoning over a year ago?”

Andrea looks wary. “What about her? I spoke with the police when that happened, ages ago. Has something new come up?”

“No, but with six deaths in such a short amount of time, we’re just having a look to see if there’s any connection between them,” John assures her. “Seems that somehow, of all the guests at that dinner, only Lydia managed to contract salmonella.”

Her lips thin. “Yes, unfortunately,” she says, a bit sharp. “I don’t personally check every single chicken breast that comes through the kitchen. I just have to trust that the hotel’s suppliers will provide us with good product for me to work with. As I’m sure the two of you would have cause to know, there’s no way to see whether or not chicken meat has been infected without a lab test.”

Sherlock smiles a little at this, but doesn’t comment on it. “What about the singer who was outright poisoned?”

Andrea shrugs. “What about her? Again, I talked to the police when it happened. I have no idea how or why it happened.”

Sherlock studies her. “Had you ever met either of those women before?”

Andrea doesn’t blink. “No,” she says firmly. “Not in my life. I didn’t meet them while they were guests, either. All I did was my job: I made or oversaw the preparation of food that they both ate. I have no idea who could have poisoned the singer. Were the police sure it was poison and not a food allergy or something? I’ve heard those can develop later in life.”

John glances at Sherlock. “They can, yeah. But the autopsy was pretty clear: she was poisoned. Cyanide. Seems like it was in her soup. It was a butternut squash, from the looks of it.”

Andrea makes a vague gesture. “That could be. We do serve that. If you tell me the exact date, I can confirm the menu, if need be. Otherwise, I really don’t know anything about it. Have you looked into the singer’s background? Maybe she had rivals or something. I really don’t know.”

Sherlock looks at John, their eyes meeting. “All right,” Sherlock says evenly. “Thank you for your cooperation.”

“Any time,” Andrea says, just as evenly, and John starts out of the office.

Sherlock stops and turns back, though. “What was his name? Your fiancé.”

A muscle tenses in Andrea’s cheek. “Ian,” she says. “Ian Marcello. Why?”

“Just curious,” Sherlock says lightly. “Where is he now? Do you know?”

She bites her lip and looks away. “Married, somewhere. That’s all I know. He traded me in for a younger model. Literally. She’s twenty-three, and a model. He’s thirty-seven, a year younger than me. But I went and insisted on having a career and not being twenty-three and all that. I knew he’d cheated at least once before, but then he outright left me. We’d been together for six years.”

“That’s pretty shitty,” John says. He glances at Sherlock, raising his eyebrows, but it seems that Sherlock hasn’t quite finished yet.

“Last question,” he says. “Who besides yourself, Phil, or Jenny could have gained access to your kitchen between the hours of half-past ten when Jenny vacated the kitchen before the lunch rush, and half-past three when the dinner rush began?”

Andrea shakes her head. “Anyone, honestly. We normally lock the door leading into the dining room, but if it’s close to a meal, we need to leave it open to come and go. As you yourselves saw when you walked in. The back door here is always locked. I’m the only one with keys.”

“And these are physical keys, or the programmed key cards?” Sherlock asks.

“Physical keys,” Andrea tells him. “I keep mine with me at all times, but I suppose that doesn’t mean that someone couldn’t have stolen and copied them at some point. Same goes for the dining room door keys.”

“All right,” Sherlock says. “Thank you.”

***

They get out of the kitchen and hit the two major corridors where the exhibits are set up, tacitly agreeing not to speak about the case for the next little while. John puts an arm around Sherlock’s back in an overt effort to make it look as though they’re genuinely an engaged couple shopping around for wedding ideas, and Sherlock responds by putting his own around John, holding onto to the side of his shoulder, and it’s nice, actually. A bit odd to be moving around with someone taller than him like this, but it’s nice. Nicer than it should be, a voice in the back of John’s head volunteers, but he squashes this thought firmly. It’s just a cover, for God’s sake. They sample tiny squares of wedding cake and look at pocket squares and other men’s formal wear, a plethora of flower arrangements for tables, aisles, archways, corsages, and bouquets. They sip champagne and look at venues long enough to discuss the various merits of one over another. They see the one that Sherlock chose for John and Mary’s wedding, and neither of them says anything about it. John turns the page and immediately comments on the next venue, and Sherlock’s fingers tighten very slightly on his shoulder.

Next, they join a workshop on creating your own centrepieces, and it’s not only not as stupid as John figured it would be, but actually surprisingly fun. They join a table with Marjorie, Jim, Greg, and Stacey, and they laugh throughout, particularly at Jim’s wretched attempts to get the ribbon sorted inside the glass vase he’s attempting to line, and applaud for Greg as he manages to finish before any of them, and John feels himself relaxing in spite of himself. To everyone else’s surprise but John’s, Sherlock masters the origami segment of the workshop in seconds.

Stacey gapes at him. “Holy shit! How are you so good at that? I’m still stuck on step three!”

Sherlock treats her to a smirk. “I paid attention,” he says archly, his face gleaming with glee.

John looks at him and wants to engulf him. Instead, he just elbows him. “Show-off.”

Sherlock turns that same archness on him, his brows very high. “I do actually possess some talents of my own. It’s not all youtube.”

John hears the echo of Mary’s dig immediately, and understands that entire dynamic a little better in a flash. “I know it isn’t,” he says, under his breath, then clears his throat and looks at the slightly-mangled wad of folded paper in his hands. “Where’ve I gone wrong, then?”

Sherlock looks at it, too, and tsks. “You folded this bit the wrong way,” he says. John holds it out to him, but he shakes his head. “No. You do it, or you won’t learn. You’re a hands-on learner.” He watches as John sighs and attempts to undo the damage. “Yes,” Sherlock says, not quite leaning into him, but close enough that John can feel the heat of his body. “Now: the other way. Good. Now the points should line up for the next step.”

“Er, Sherlock… can you save mine, too?” Greg wants to know.

“And mine!” Stacey chips in. “Quick, before the lady sees what I’ve done to it!”

Sherlock snickers and goes round to the other side of the table in good humour. John watches, only half paying attention to what his hands are doing. Greg and Stacey are both ridiculously attractive, and to his annoyance, he notes that Sherlock doesn’t seem to mind getting close to either of them. He’s between them, first frowning at Stacey’s crinkled and refolded crane, giving her a word or two of guidance, then peering over Greg’s shoulder to walk him through the steps from the start. He doesn’t touch Greg in any way, but John’s hackles are up nonetheless.

Sherlock stops by Marjorie, too, and praises her on her clumsily-produced bird. “Not bad,” he says, and she beams gratefully at him.

“How’s this?” Jim asks, holding up something that’s much closer to resembling a paper aeroplane than a bird of any kind, and they all guffaw at it.

“Pathetic, frankly,” Sherlock tells him, and everyone laughs again.

John marvels inwardly; if Sherlock is trying to make a point that he can handle social interaction when he wants to, then point taken. It’s all a façade, though, just for the case. Just as his casual touches toward him are. John wonders if Sherlock’s attention toward Greg is all just for show, too, and feels prickly all over again. He leans deliberately into Sherlock. “How’s this?” he asks, holding up his unfinished product. “I didn’t want to go any further without you here to guide me.”

Sherlock gives him an odd, unreadable look, then says, “It’s fine so far. Now fold this part over, toward the centre.”

John was hoping for a slightly more hands-on guiding, but Sherlock doesn’t take the bait. He concentrates on folding the rest of the crane correctly, with Sherlock feeding him instructions, and succeeds in making something passable in the end. “Thanks,” he says, a bit stiffly.

“It’s not half-bad, honestly,” Sherlock says, and gives him the merest ghost of a smile.

***

After dinner, there’s a presentation on fashion trends and when they learn that it’s to be followed by a fashion show of the season’s newest bridal gowns, Sherlock looks over at him and they quietly get up and slip out of the hall.

“It will make sense, both of us being men,” Sherlock explains with a shrug as he presses the Up button at the bank of lifts. “No one would expect us to want to sit through that. If it were men’s fashions… but there’s already an excellent exhibit on that.”

“Right, exactly,” John agrees. “So now… hot tub? Did you still want to do that?”

“Unless you’ve changed your mind,” Sherlock says, a little bit too politely. He’s doing the diffident, slightly-distant thing again.

“No, that sounds great,” John says. “Especially since everyone else is mostly still watching the thing. The fashion runway thing.”

Sherlock doesn’t smile at his idiotic wording. “All right, then. It’s a plan. You brought your – ?”

“Yes, you said to,” John says.

Sherlock glances up at the numbers showing the floors. “Good.” The lift stops and he leads the way out.

Back in their room, Sherlock shuts himself in the loo, saying that he’ll be out in two minutes, so John digs through his things to find his bathing trunks and gets them on hurriedly. He’s just pulling on one of the complimentary robes when Sherlock cracks the loo door, saying his name questioningly. “Yeah, I’m good, come on out,” John says, and Sherlock strolls out. He’s wearing a pair of black trunks cut slim and sitting low on his hip bones and for a second John can’t help but stare. He’s seen Sherlock in practically every state of undress, but since he’s come back from his so-called death, it’s only ever happened once – in the hospital after Mary shot him. Before, it used to happen semi-regularly; Sherlock sitting around Baker Street half-draped in a sheet used to be a regular source of frustration. Only back then, Sherlock himself seemed so unconcerned about his own near-nudity that it almost neutralised it. Now, it feels immediately different – as though Sherlock is as aware of his own body as John is, his eyes sketching briefly over John’s robe, pausing in his step as he realises that John can’t quite manage to take his eyes off him. John clears his throat hard and averts his gaze, his face heating. Sherlock’s body is phenomenal. That’s just got to be acknowledged, if not – Jesus, no!!! – aloud, ever. The way his muscles move under that firm, pale skin is practically sinful, and he’s bulked up in the chest and shoulders a bit since their first year of life together, while his waist is as slim as ever. His stomach is hard and flat and John is simultaneously envious and attracted. He hasn’t even let himself look below the belt, because that would just be – full stop. Just – no.

Sherlock turns away, reaching self-consciously for the other robe, and John steals a glance at his arse and legs and that was a mistake. His face is definitely hot. “Ready?” Sherlock asks, and to John’s ear he sounds a bit self-conscious, too.

“Er – yeah, let’s go,” John gets out, ducking his face to hide his flush and if Sherlock notices, he doesn’t say anything.

He was hoping that they’d find the hot tub empty, but there are already other people there. Two, specifically, and they’re snogging. Sherlock stops in his tracks, seeing them, but then they break apart and call them over, and John sees that it’s Greg and Stacey.

“Come on in!” Greg calls, grinning. “Don’t mind us!”

They approach, setting down their robes and stepping out of the also-complimentary rubber thongs the hotel provided. “Didn’t want to interrupt,” John says, a bit stiff. “Not at the fashion show, then?”

“Nope,” Greg says lazily. “Just taking advantage of everyone else being there – as I see you two are, too.”

Sherlock walks down the steps into the hot water, John behind him, fighting (and failing) to keep his eyes off Sherlock’s arse. “Well, as no one will be wearing a dress in our wedding, we thought we could give it a miss,” Sherlock says, very dryly.

Stacey laughs. “Makes perfect sense. I’ve already got my dress, so I didn’t need it either, and Greg would have been bored stiff.”

“Yup.” Greg confirms this. “Honestly, all this stuff is a bit much for me, but it’s a decent hotel and the food’s good. Town’s charming. It was a good excuse to take a few days off.”

The hot tub is not all that large (there’s another closer to the steam room, still empty, John notices) and his foot touches someone else’s in the water. “Sorry,” he says to Stacey, moving his foot away. “Was that you?”

“It’s fine,” she reassures him, and John tries for a smile. In bathing gear, they’re both even more attractive. Stacey’s wearing a metallic blue bikini, the water on par with her breasts, and with his shirt off, Greg looks like a firefighter. (Jesus.)

Sherlock glances at him, then clears his throat and turns his attention back to Greg and Stacey – to Greg specifically, John notes instantly. “What do you do?” he asks Greg, sounding genuinely interested for once, and his interest irks John.

Greg clearly doesn’t notice. “Well, now I have a boring finance job, if you want to know. Day trading. It’s what I went to uni for, only then I joined the army.” He shrugs. “You know how it goes.”

John frowns. “The army? Which division?”

“Yorkshire Regiment,” Stacey says, answering for him. “Second Battalion, right?”

“That’s right,” Greg says, with his easy smile. “Joined up for Kosovo back in 2008 when they put out the call for recruits in my town.”

John can’t seem to make himself stop frowning. “What rank?”

“Captain,” Greg says. “Why? Are you military?”

“I was,” John tells him, a bit shortly. “Fifth Northumberland Fusiliers.”

“Really? Cool,” Stacey says, smiling at him. “What’s your rank?”

“Also captain, or I was,” John says stiffly. “I was invalided out a few years back.”

Stacey shakes her head. “You poor thing. I can’t even imagine. Where were you stationed?”

“Kandahar,” John says, his shoulder prickling with the ghost of remembered pain just at saying the word. He directs his attention back at Greg. “Other deployments after Kosovo? Or did you leave after that?”

“No, I did three tours,” Greg says. “Afghanistan, then Kenya. Also Kandahar in between those two, but probably after you were there. That’s when I made captain.”

This is almost further injury. Sherlock looks at him. “You made captain on your third tour, right?” he asks, a faintly teasing hint to his voice.

John grits his teeth. “Yes, and it’s rare for med corps to make captain at all,” he points out, his jaw tense.

“Oh shit, of course, I forgot you’re a doctor!” Greg says, sounding genuinely impressed. “Hell yeah, that’s impressive! Way to go, man. I mean, I was just infantry, so – if you lose enough men, someone’s got to advance, right?”

Shit. That puts it into a whole different light. John feels his shoulders untense and he grimaces. “Right, yeah. Sounds like it was rough.”

“You could say that,” Greg says, shrugging. “Usually don’t talk about it much. Just with the therapist. You know.”

Stacey leans over and kisses him on the cheek. “He doesn’t even talk about it with me. And that’s fine,” she adds, reassuring him. “We’ve all got our demons.”

Greg gives her a bit of a smile, then turns the focus back on them. “So, what’s your story? You were married before?” he asks John.

John makes himself nod. “Yeah. It was… not great.” That’s a pretty underwhelming summary; he thinks unwittingly of those long months before the wedding, the constant conflict and attempts to keep himself firm in his decision, the inner agony over choosing Mary over Sherlock, the one life over the other, the arguments with himself that he could make it work. And then that night at Magnussen’s office tower, finding Sherlock with a bullet in his chest, dying before his very eyes. Mary, that night in Leinster Gardens one week later. The dread of going back, feeling the walls crowding in on every side every single day thereafter. Her death, and the way she haunted him even after, for weeks, when all he wanted was to be free of it, free of the guilt associated with every single part of it. The affair that never quite happened, the longing for escape.

Stacey elbows Greg. “Don’t make him talk about that,” she says, then turns a compassionate smile on John. “You said she died… that must have been so hard. But you guys have found each other now, right?”

“Yes,” John says, too quickly. He makes a show of lifting his hand out of the water and finding Sherlock’s knee and squeezing it. “So things are good now.”

“Very good,” Sherlock echoes. John withdraws his hand but Sherlock doesn’t even seem to notice. His eyes trail down Greg’s chest, which is tanned and firmly muscled. “You seem to keep quite fit,” he comments. “How long since you left the army?”

“Just two years now,” Greg says. “I’d met Stacey through friends on my last leave, and three tours was enough. I should have left after Kandahar, honestly, but they needed men, especially officers, so I signed on for Kenya, too. But yeah, I like to work out, keep myself in shape.” He grins at Stacey. “I know she approves.”

“Damned right I do,” Stacey all but purrs, stroking his chest, and it’s only half a joke.

John watches, and notices that Sherlock’s watching it, too, and jealousy flares in his chest like fire. It’s obvious enough to him that Sherlock finds Greg attractive, whereas it hasn’t seemed to even register that Stacey has a body – though he could likely spit out her measurements if asked, in the same way that he could estimate the dimensions of the hot tub itself. Greg, on the other hand, has caught his interest and John is fuming inwardly with both jealousy and a wretched feeling of inadequacy compared to Greg, who has to be at least twelve years his junior and ten centimetres taller.

Stacey turns back to them. “So how did you two get together?” she asks. “I’m not – I don’t want to pry into your wife’s death or anything, John. But I’m curious. I mean, you two have been working together for years, right?”

John glances at Sherlock, his gut still roiling, and nods. “Yes. About six years now.”

Sherlock’s eyes meet his for a moment, then he looks back at Stacey. “Yes, six years,” he confirms. “We’ve been together – officially, I mean – for the past four months. We just call it six years because… well, it’s complicated.”

“Meaning that there were always feelings between you?” Stacey asks, her blue eyes narrowing a little in speculation that’s uncomfortably close to the truth.

Sherlock specifically avoids looking at him now. “Yes, precisely,” he says evenly. “It was simply the – logical conclusion to have come to. Eventually.”

Greg snorts. “You make it sound pretty romantic there, mate. I’m swooning over here.”

Sherlock attempts to smile and frown at the same time, obviously unsure as to how to respond to this, so John hastens to his rescue. “He’s not good at talking about this stuff,” he says, attempting to sound affectionate. Though it’s true enough, not that he would know how Sherlock talks about romantic stuff, since he certainly never has in John’s presence. “It’s just – private,” he adds. “We’re – very happy. That things have got here.”

It sounds completely unconvincing even though he says it very firmly. Stacey smiles at them both anyway. “Well, that’s good,” she says. She looks at Greg and lowers her voice a little. “I think I’m about ready for bed,” she says, in a tone that definitely suggests that she isn’t talking about sleeping.

“Yeah? Okay.” Greg doesn’t argue with this, and they both get to their feet. Stacey gets out first, Greg following, and his orange trunks cling to his arse in a way that should be made illegal. “Let’s let these two logical lovebirds have the place to themselves a little,” he adds, throwing them a grin over his shoulder, and Stacey laughs and calls out a goodnight to them as they make for their room.

Sherlock clears his throat and John notices that his cheeks seem to be a bit flushed. Is it from taking a good, long look at Greg’s arse just now? Or is it the reference to the idea that they might like having the hot tub to themselves? Either way, John’s own face feels hot again and he deliberately shifts further away from Sherlock, now that their audience is gone and they don’t need to look like a couple anymore.

“They seem nice,” he says lamely.

Sherlock’s jaw tenses a little. “Yes,” he says. It’s all he says, his eyes fixed somewhere in the middle distance, going non-communicative.

John wonders if he’s done something to make Sherlock angry, yet again. God, he’s shit at this. He searches his brain for something to say, but can’t seem to come up with anything.

“How is your shoulder?” Sherlock asks, the question coming out with an utter lack of inflection.

“What? Oh… it’s all right,” John says awkwardly. Right: the entire reason they were supposed to be doing this. Sherlock was trying to help him relax. “We can go, if you want.”

Sherlock looks at him then, his mouth falling open a little, as though he was about to say something in objection but then changed his mind before he could say it. For a moment, he lets his gaze burn into John’s, so intense that John can barely breathe. The air between them is so charged that even though there’s a metre of space between them in the fizzing water, John almost wonders if Sherlock might reach out and – strike him, or – kiss him? He can’t even tell. “You’re such an idiot sometimes,” Sherlock says tersely. He sloshes water over the sides of the tub as he gets to his feet. “Yes. Let’s go.”

He’s already stalking up the stairs out of the water, John gaping after him. “Sher – what?”

Sherlock doesn’t bother answering him, though, tying his robe on tightly, shoving his feet back into his sandals, John scrambling to keep up, practically falling out of his own as he hurries after Sherlock. The corridor floods with people just as they pass the auditorium where dinner and the fashion show were taking place, so a swarm of them join them in the lift on their way up and John clamps his jaw shut with frustration. The crowd’s got him pressed up against Sherlock’s arm, tightly enough that he can feel Sherlock’s pulse through his sleeve, and it’s elevated.

The lift stops at every single floor before depositing them and two others at the twelfth storey, and even then John can’t say anything; a couple in their early thirties is evidently staying just across the hall from them. Sherlock swipes his card through the reader and then they’re finally inside their room, in private. “Sherlock – what the hell was that?” John demands. “I know you think I’m an idiot, but where did that come from?”

Sherlock turns around, so suddenly that John’s startled, and instinctively steps back, but the door is right there behind him. Sherlock is right there in his personal space, intimidatingly close, not that John’s intimidated. Quite the opposite. Sherlock’s eyes are intense, pinning him to the door. “John – ” he starts, but then his phone pings in the pocket of the robe he’s wearing. He closes his eyes for a moment, exhales, then takes it out, glancing at the screen. Whatever he sees there makes him change his entire demeanour, deflating him. His thumb swipes across the screen so that he can read whatever he’s got in detail. All the fire seems to go out of his face and body. His eyes flick to John’s almost guiltily. “Never mind,” he mutters, backing away and turning toward the desk, his back to John.

John is still reeling. “Sherlock – what is it?” he asks, noticing only then that his heart is pounding. What the bloody fuck is going on?! With – all of it!

Sherlock only shakes his head, still staring at his phone.

John opens his mouth, trying to figure out how to respond, but nothing comes to mind. (Bloody typical.) “I’m – I’m just going to take a shower, then,” he says, and Sherlock’s shoulder twitches in what might be a shrug. Right, then. Obviously he doesn’t care. John slips into the loo, shuts the door and stares at himself in the mirror. He’s flushed again, his hair mussed wetly over his forehead and sticking up all over the place, and when he takes off his robe he sees that he’s also sporting a bit of an erection. Jesus. That business, right when they got back to the room – what was that? And where did the ‘idiot’ thing come from? What’s got into Sherlock?? He strips off his trunks and hangs them up, his old red ones, and realises that he’s angry and doesn’t even know why. He’s so bloody confused. He turns on the hot water and steps into it a moment later, rinsing off the hot tub water, washing his hair, and having himself a brief but very thorough wank. His head is a jumble of Stacey’s blue metallic breasts, Greg’s hard, tanned chest, but the majority of what’s fuelling the furious speed of his fist on his cock is images of Sherlock – coming out of the loo half-naked, his narrow waist rising into the perfection which is the rest of his body, his arse in those black trunks, those long, muscular legs, the slant of his eyes, and then the door up against John’s back – and he’s not particularly fucking submissive when it comes to sex, but that look in Sherlock’s eyes – John exhales hard and comes, spurting three, no four times over his fist. What was that look? he wonders, breathing hard and letting the water run down over his head and face and chest and still-twitching cock. It’s not as though Sherlock will ever explain it to him, let him in on whatever mysterious process is going through his head this time. He just doesn’t process stuff like other people, and apparently John is never to be privy to whatever it is he’s thinking.

Eventually he shuts off the water and realises that he’s left his pyjamas in his bed. He fastens a small towel (they’re all small) around his waist and cracks open the door, only to find that Sherlock seems to have already shut off the lights. He pauses. “Are you sleeping?” he asks, keeping his voice down.

“No.” The answer comes from deep within Sherlock’s bed.

“Er… okay.” John leaves the light in the loo on, because there’s very little coming in from the window tonight, and quickly locates his pyjama bottoms. He can’t find the t-shirt but it doesn’t matter. He takes the pants back to the loo, dries himself quickly, brushes his teeth, then hangs up the towels and shuts off the light. “Just surprised you’re in bed already,” he says, climbing into his own, cloud-like bed.

Sherlock makes absolutely no response to this, however, not even acknowledging that John’s said anything.

John sighs audibly, then grits his teeth and turns over the other way. He has no idea what’s going on, but it’s frustrating as all fuck.

***

When he wakes, Sherlock is already up: showered, dressed, his hair perfect, typing away on his laptop. John stretches and yawns, then remembers last night. The weird ending to the whole hot tub thing, then whatever it was that almost happened back here. He smells coffee and opens his mouth to say something, but Sherlock beats him to the punch.

“There’s coffee, as you’re awake,” he says, very neutrally.

“What time is it?” John asks, his voice croaky. He could just look, but it’s something to say. “Have I overslept?”

Sherlock picks up his phone and looks at it. “It’s quarter past eight. We can go down for breakfast whenever you’re ready. It opens at half-past, but there’s no rush.”

He delivers all of this with that same, practised lack of inflection to his voice that makes John want to grit his teeth. Sherlock is shutting him out. That’s what that tone says. He’s clearly going with a clean denial that anything odd transpired between them yesterday. Like everything else, then, they’re just not going to talk about it. Ever. Only, sometime down the road, another crack will appear in the façade and something will come leaking out again, like whatever that was last night. John exhales hard and gets out of bed. Fine. Fucking fine, then. He collects a new set of clothes and takes himself into the loo. It occurs to him to wonder if Sherlock might be checking out his bare back, but he probably isn’t. John’s aware that he’s got nothing on Greg, who must spray-tan or something, because how does any English man get that bloody tanned in January, anyway? And besides, Sherlock would probably only notice any excess weight he’s carrying. There shouldn’t be much of that, at least. He shaves and brushes his teeth, glaring at the mirror, then relieves himself and gets dressed. He didn’t even hear the shower. He thinks of Sherlock waking, seeing him there, probably snoring and doing whatever other embarrassing things people’s bodies do in their sleep, then silently slipping past him to shower and get ready without waking him. Sherlock must think of him as such a lump of humanity, with his base needs for sleep, food, sex, and all the other things Sherlock seems to dismiss as entirely negligible parts of life. Though he does like dessert, John reminds himself, though he can’t see how that might be relevant at the moment.

He emerges from the loo, tosses his pyjama pants in the direction of his pillow, and pours himself a cup of coffee from the small coffee maker. “Getting anywhere?” he asks with forced levity.

Sherlock makes an affirmative sound. “Listen to this, John: Andrea Redding may have never met Gabriela Baillaora, but her ex-fiancé did.”

John’s interest catches. He carries his coffee over to the table and sits down carefully. “Oh? How so?”

Sherlock shakes his head slightly. “Not sure how or where, but there’s a photo of them together on Baillaora’s Instagram account. Tell me what you think.” He turns his phone outward for John to see.

John feels his eyebrows rise. “Ah, yeah. I do see what you mean.” The scene is clearly a club or maybe an outdoor patio of some sort: it’s dark, but there are bright lights on and people in the background are dancing and holding drinks. The two people in the photo are Gabriela and a man he assumes is Ian Marcello. Ian’s arm is slung over her shoulders and she’s leaning into him, her cheek pressed to his, smiling into what’s clearly her own camera or phone. He takes a long drink of his coffee, swallows, then asks, “You think they had an affair?”

Sherlock makes a disparaging sound. “‘Affair’ is likely too official a term for it; I suspect a one-night stand.” He withdraws the phone. “If it’s true – and if we’re correct in thinking this, if Redding knew about it, that would give her a motive.”

John nods. “Right, sure,” he says. “But what about the other five?”

“I don’t know yet. But it’s something.” Sherlock picks up his coffee cup and frowns, seeing that it’s empty. “Do you want to go down for breakfast?”

His tone is normal, but the instant they’re not talking about the case, he’s back to that careful politeness and evading John’s gaze. “Sure,” John says. He finishes off the small cup and sets it down. “But the chef – do you really think she’s a murderer, Sherlock?”

Sherlock doesn’t look at him, some sort of internal debate seeming to play out within him. Eventually he says, picking up the information packet that contains the daily schedule, “Not necessarily. But our track record has been… noticeably deficient in that regard.”

John doesn’t quite get it. “In… which regard?”

“In detecting murderers,” Sherlock says, a bit delicately. “Particularly female ones.” He moves off toward the door, not checking whether or not John is following.

Oh. He means Mary, John realises heavily. He doesn’t know what to say to this. He thinks of her line from the last video she sent: I know you two, and if I’m gone, I know what you could become, because I know who you really are. And the other video, the one she sent to Sherlock, where she told him to go to hell, that trace of snarl around her nose as she said it. It’s true: he never once suspected her for what she truly was. If Sherlock didn’t, either, does this mean that their instincts are unreliable when it comes to this stuff? The irony of them doing detective work and not having noticed the murderer in their own lives hasn’t been lost on him. Then, as he thinks this, John wonders if Mary intended this, too – for them to doubt themselves, their work, every part of it. If taken at face value, a lot of what she said could sound rather sweet – almost as though she was trying to commission them into being a partnership in their work (and who knows what else) for life.

The only problem with that theory is that it’s Mary he’s thinking about: ergo, nothing she ever said could be taken at face value. He’s raged at Sherlock for not always telling him the truth. Mary, on the other hand, told him almost nothing that was true. Looking back, he can see her digs and quips and barbs directed at both Sherlock and at himself with regards to Sherlock. And while Sherlock might not always be the most perceptive about social cues, what he said at the centrepiece workshop yesterday about his skills not all coming from YouTube certainly indicates that he was aware of the sting of Mary’s jabs.

He sighs, not even noticing that the lift has stopped and that they’ve just spent the entire ride in awkward silence, and Sherlock looks sideways at him.

He doesn’t say anything about it, though. The lift doors open and he gestures for John to go first. “There’s a workshop I was thinking we could attend,” he says, and that politeness is there again and John wants to smash his fist through it.

He can’t, though. “Sure,” he says instead, feeling hopelessly defeated by the entire situation.

***

Everyone else is already there when they get to table sixteen.

“Well, look who’s finally decided to come down for breakfast!” Aliyah teases. “Haven’t you two ever heard about the early bird getting the worm?”

Sherlock blinks at her from across the table. “Why would I want a worm?” he asks, without a trace of humour on his face.

For a moment, awkward silence falls. Then Jim guffaws. “I’ve got to hand it to you – you’re hilarious, Sherlock! I’d no idea, from your interviews and that!”

Sherlock smiles very slightly, and John still can’t tell whether or not he even meant that to be funny. He clears his throat. “Er, yeah, which is to say that, er, oversleeping happened.”

Once he’s said it, he can hear how it sounds – he just didn’t want to admit that it’s his fault they’re late to breakfast, but now it sounds like they both overslept and Sherlock might get irritated – more irritated, that is – with him. He’s about to open his mouth to clarify, but before he can, Greg shoots a knowing grin at them – at Sherlock in particular, John notices.

“Late night, was it?” he asks, his tone markedly innocent, but his eyes say otherwise.

Sherlock’s smile grows a little, but instead of denying it, he merely lifts a shoulder as though in demure evasion.

Greg takes it as confirmation and grins. “Hell, yeah! Bravo, mate!”

Sherlock definitely looks a bit smug now and John finds that his cheeks are hot. He’s angry, he realises. Angry and somehow embarrassed, too. Not because the entire table now thinks he had sex last night, but that it was with Sherlock, when they’ve never come remotely close to that. He’s angry because the joke is somehow making a mockery of that entire reality, that he’s secretly always wanted that and now they’re just playing at it and all of these nice people think they’re just as happy as the rest of them, planning their wedding and their future together, when the truth is that when this stupid case is over, they’ll be going back to London, to their own flats and seeing each other two or three times a week as cases come up. John will go back to the drag of his locum work and single parenting, the constant guilt of making other arrangements for Rosie, of loving her but feeling constantly inadequate for the very good reason that he is, that he doesn’t have the heart for the time it takes to raise a child, that he doesn’t want to take that time, that he knows she deserves better.

And now everyone’s smiling knowingly their way (though Jim looks slightly uncomfortable despite his grin), and on top of that, the congratulations are mostly being directed at Sherlock, as though he’s the one who scored, who brought it about. They think that Sherlock fucked him, in other words. And it’s not that that’s a problem, per se, but the implication seems to somehow be that Sherlock got the better of him or something, that the grins are at least very slightly at his expense. To cap it off, Sherlock casually drapes an arm around his shoulders now, and leans in to press his lips briefly to John’s temple.

The surprising warmth of his mouth, the heat of his body and arm, the fact that it’s so immediately addictive, all culminate and make John want to turn instantly into that heat, and perhaps that’s what makes him tense. As soon as the conversation’s turned away from them and onto speculation about today’s breakfast, John turns to Sherlock, drops his voice and says, through a tight jaw, “Don’t get carried away with this whole cover bit, all right?”

He immediately feels Sherlock go rigid, then he stiffly removes his arm without a word, crossing both across his front and withdrawing into himself, his lips compressing.

John debates saying something, trying to decide on what, but his heart rate is still elevated, still angry, and he also doesn’t particularly want to take it back. Posing for this cover story is one thing, but that was a step too far, damn it.

When their table is called, Sherlock neither leaves without him nor waits for him; he simply gets up and walks at a perfectly average speed toward the buffet line, not looking to see whether or not John is with him.

***

The workshop turns out to be a round table discussion on destination weddings. John has no idea why Sherlock picked it, but perhaps it was just to have them seen doing conference activities again, particularly in light of having walked out on last night’s fashion show. Sherlock walks swiftly over to a table where Marjorie and Jim are sitting, along with a couple John hasn’t seen before, and sits down in the empty seat between the two couples. There’s another couple to Jim’s right, then it’s Jodie, and then two more empty chairs.

They could have sat together, John thinks, pulling out the one beside Jodie and sitting down. Clearly Sherlock didn’t want to sit with him. Guilt and self-reproach well in his gut and he pushes it away. He’s fucking this up, as usual. Or is it Sherlock and his erratic, inconsistent behaviour that’s making everything so difficult? He sighs.

Jodie eyes him curiously. “Rough morning?” she asks lightly. “I preferred the waffles on yesterday morning’s buffet, but it wasn’t that bad.”

It’s clearly meant as a joke, so John manufactures a smile and puts it on. “No, everything’s fine. Just, er, a bit tired.” There: hopefully that will be sufficient to let her think he’s backing up Sherlock’s implications about last night without actually saying it, himself.

Jodie nods her head toward a long table set up at the side of the room. “There’s coffee over there, if you like. Tea, too.”

John shakes his head. “I’ll be fine. But thanks,” he adds as an afterthought.

Jodie is still watching him curiously. “All right, then,” she says mildly. “Everything all right, though?”

“Yes, of course,” John says firmly. He turns the focus away from himself. “How are you today?” he asks politely.

Jodie laughs, but doesn’t explain why. “I’m fine,” she reassures him. “This should be an interesting talk. Or discussion.”

John has temporarily forgotten what the subject of it is. “Yes,” he says, then trails off. He clears his throat. “Looking forward to it.”

Jodie gives him a knowing look and pulls a pamphlet from Chilton College over from the centre of the table. “It’s on destination weddings,” she reminds him.

She’s sharp as a tack. John gives a sheepish wince. “Right, yeah,” he says, feeling like an idiot.

Jodie shakes her head a little, smiling nicely. “Sherlock pick this one, then?”

“Er, yeah,” John says, stealing a look across the table at Sherlock. He’s is listening to Marjorie talk with a perfect mask of feigned interest on his face, but something in his eyes cuts John to the quick and he looks away, his heart thudding strangely in his chest. He clears his throat again. “And you?” he asks, the question sounding forced. “Are you interested in having a destination wedding?”

“I’m a wedding planner,” Jodie reminds him, without reproof over his having temporarily forgotten. “It’s my job to be able to plan and advise my clients on all of the possible options out there.”

John decides to double down on his error. “Right, but you might get married one day,” he says doggedly. “What about you and your boyfriend? You’ve never talked about it?”

Jodie sighs. “We have, but he always says he’s not in any rush, and then he’ll talk about how expensive weddings are. Which they are. Even on a budget – I know that better than anyone. But no, if we ever did, I’d want to get married in my own home village with my family nearby. Dan’s from London, but he hasn’t got any close family. Trust me, if he did, I’d have leaned on a sister or his mum or someone to light a fire under him.” She shrugs. “It’s fine. Sometimes I think it’s a bit ironic, but it’s fine.”

John feels a surge of compassion for her. “Well, I hope he gets on with it someday,” he says, meaning it. “If it’s important to you, then he should just man up and propose already.”

“What if it’s not important to him?” Jodie asks, her dark blue eyes seeming to look directly into John’s heart. “I wouldn’t want to marry someone just because he thought that asking me was the right thing to do.”

It’s as though she witnessed his actual proposal to Mary and the uncanny accuracy of her comment nearly takes his breath away. John opens his mouth to answer, but can’t think of a single thing to say. The host of the event steps up to the podium then and begins to speak, sparing him the need to respond, and he’s rarely been so relieved.

The talk is actually somewhat interesting, and the slides make it even more so: the lady talks about the popular destinations, which are mostly tropical ones, and then other places – Paris comes up, New York, and Thailand, too. She talks in a general sense about the logistics of having a wedding far away, then turns things over to discussions at their tables, giving them a list of questions to discuss and share their answers with the rest of the group later on.

“All righty, question number one,” Jim says, assuming the role of leader. “What are some of the pros of having a destination wedding?”

The woman to John’s right, after the empty chair, leans in. “Well, you’d be somewhere nice, obviously. Somewhere you wanted to be. I guess you could even just stay right there for the honeymoon.”

Jodie nods, then says, “And you’d probably keep it small, which could reduce some of the expenses involved.”

“Getting married on a beach sounds nice,” Jim offers.

Marjorie turns to him and pulls a face. “Are you mad? Think of all that sand getting everywhere! In your shoes, in the bride’s dress… it would be such a mess!” She turns to the rest of the table, apologetic. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the beach! But not for a wedding. Not for me, at any rate.”

“That’s a good point, about the sand,” the woman to John’s right says. “I’m Carrie, by the way.”

“I’m Richard,” the man next to her adds.

Everyone says hello and John notices Sherlock just imperceptibly give a sigh. “Next question,” he says to Jim, his tone a bit curt.

Jim consults the screen where the questions are being projected. “Cons of a destination wedding?”

“The cost,” Richard says immediately. “The question of whether or not you fly your guests out, which would be prohibitively expensive, or ask them all to pay that much just to attend your wedding. I mean, they get a vacation out of it, but even so.”

“True,” Jim agrees. “And what if they can’t afford it? Do you pay for some people but not others? How would you decide?”

Jodie looks at Carrie. “What you said before, about being able to stay on site for the honeymoon… what if your guests all do, too? It wouldn’t be very private.”

Richard looks at Carrie. “Like your mother, for example.”

She elbows him. “Stop that.”

“She would, though. You know she would.”

Carrie snickers. “True. I would also think that arranging everything from so far away could get tricky, too.”

Jodie nods again. “It can,” she says. “If you hire a planner, they take care of that. But in terms of visiting your space, even tasting samples, et cetera, then yes, that’s definitely a drawback. And then there’s the question of flying out a wedding dress – for most couples, at least,” she adds, glancing at John. “They notoriously don’t travel all that well.”

John wants to turn the attention away from the two of them. “Have you planned a lot of destination weddings?”

Jodie shakes her head. “Just one, actually,” she says. “And I regretted having taken the job after the fact. Even during the fact, come to think of it.”

Across the table, Sherlock frowns at her. “Why?” he asks.

Jodie purses her lips and thinks about it. “Well… the couple seemed all right when I met them, but the further into the planning, the more I realised that they had very little in common, didn’t like or want the same things, and it just got worse. At the wedding itself, which was in Jamaica, I found out that the groom had left his girlfriend for the bride, and there were friends of his ex there, even right in the wedding party, which I found quite odd, and it was very tense at times. It wasn’t a comfortable situation to be in.”

“What a creep,” Marjorie says.

John thinks of standing in the church next to Mary, deliberately not looking at Sherlock, and suddenly has a vivid image of him stopping the whole thing and getting out before it was too late. Turning around and announcing to the entire church that he was sorry but he’d made the wrong decision, that it was Sherlock all along. Would Marjorie think him a creep if he had? If, instead of reinforcing his decision to marry the wrong person, he’d run off with the one he really wanted to be with instead? He didn’t, though: he went through with it, married Mary. Focused on getting through the day and trying not to let nearly every word of Sherlock’s overly-long speech pierce him in the heart over and over again. He’d disappeared almost immediately after John left him to go and dance with Mary, and that was the last they’d seen of each other for a month. Until John found him, dirty, bleary-eyed, and high in the same smackhouse as Isaac Whitney.

Even thinking about it plunges him back into that same nightmare. John pushes it all back down into the recesses of his brain and sneaks another look at Sherlock, tuning out the bland conversation around him. Sherlock’s face is perfectly composed, but he’s retreated even further than usual from the surface of himself, making neutrally-toned answers when required, his eyes shuttered.

It feels as though he’s an entire ocean away, rather than just on the other side of the table, John thinks, with another stab of hopelessness. It’s too late now. He made the wrong choice and now things are just like this.

***

After the discussion ends, there’s still another hour to go until lunch starts. As the crowd starts leaving the room, John makes his way around the table and shoves his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “So, what’s the plan now?” he asks, going for Sherlock’s level of neutrality.

Sherlock shrugs and doesn’t look at him. “I thought I’d interview the front of house manager. Apparently he’s in today.”

John doesn’t ask how Sherlock knows that. “Okay,” he says uncertainly. Is Sherlock assuming that he’s coming, too? He did just say I, not we. John decides to assume his inclusion. “Are we doing that right away, then?”

Sherlock’s expression doesn’t change. “If you like.” He pushes back his chair and gets up, walking off toward the door without waiting for him again.

John fights the urge to sigh and hurries after him.

Alastair Carlton is in his office and greets them politely. “So you’re here to talk about these deaths, or murders, whichever they are,” he says, after they’ve sat down. “I’m glad to hear it. I’d really like to see some solutions to this. I can’t tell you how much it bothers me to have had so many of these incidents in such a short period of time at our conference centre.”

“Bad for business, is it?” Sherlock asks, a bit acerbically.

If Alastair is put off by his tone, it doesn’t show. “Honestly, it hasn’t made much of a difference,” he says, a bit apologetically. “This is Cambridge: space like this comes at a premium. Most of our clients are just happy if this place is available for whatever they’re looking for.”

Sherlock absorbs this but doesn’t respond. “Let’s talk about your staff,” he says. “Any problems there? Any conflicts or major personal life disruptions?”

Alastair considers this. “Nothing out of the ordinary,” he says thoughtfully. “Nothing beyond the standard, I mean. No disgruntled employees, no firings within the past seven months, no major colleague disagreements.”

“Who was fired last?” John asks.

“It was a part-time kitchen staff member,” Alastair says. “I think his name was Noel Davis. He was a prep cook, started being routinely late for work, not taking instructions well, acting out. That sort of thing. He was spoken to several times, then finally we had to let him go.”

John consults the timeline in his notes. “So that would have taken place just after Rowan Evans fell, or was pushed, from the upper level of the mezzanine.”

Alastair frowns. “I suppose about that same time, yes.”

“Can you confirm the name, please?” Sherlock asks, so Alastair swivels his chair around to face his computer.

He clicks a few times, then nods. “Yes. Noel Davis, born in 1990 in Manchester. He was a student at the time.”

“What about your other senior staff?” Sherlock asks, as John jots this information down. “Tell me about Brenda Armstrong, Andrea Redding, Dale Kresnick, and your head of security, Bob King. This is all of your senior staff, correct?”

John has forgotten who Dale Kresnick is, but his notes refer to him as the events manager. Alastair chats about the four staff members listed, speaking highly of all of them. He can’t seem to think of any problems with any of them, and when asked, he also can’t seem to think of any problems occurring between any guests or between guests and a member of the staff. The entire interview is pretty useless, John thinks, pocketing his notebook as they get up. Sherlock thanks Alastair and they leave his office. “Well, that was a waste of time, more or less,” John mutters as they make their way toward the bank of lifts.

Sherlock’s eyes gleam. “I wouldn’t say so. We need to look into Noel Davis.”

John looks at him in surprise. “Do we? Why?”

Sherlock makes The Face, the one that says that John should already know what he’s on about. “Did you take note of the precise dates, John? He didn’t just leave generally after Rowan Evans’ death – his misbehaviour began immediately after the fact, and he was fired two weeks later. Conclusion?”

John gapes at him. “You think he was involved somehow? A college student/part-time prep cook?”

“I’m not ruling it out.” Sherlock watches the numbers descend, then walks into the lift when the doors open. “I’m not ruling anything out. We have so little else to go on.”

“True.” John waits for the lift to start moving. “That was interesting, what Jodie said about that wedding in Jamaica that she worked at. The one she regretted doing.”

Sherlock shrugs. “I don’t see what’s so unusual about it. People leave their partners for other people all the time. Fidelity is an outdated concept these days.”

John thinks of his own would-be affair and feels stung. Sherlock probably isn’t thinking of him, specifically, but still.

Back in the room, Sherlock turns to his laptop and promptly begins ignoring him. Sitting at the table with him puts them in uncomfortable proximity given the current state of things between them, so John takes his own laptop and lies down on his bed with it. Since Sherlock seems to be occupied, he decides to do some digging on social media to see if he can’t find a little more background on any of their victims.

After some fruitless poking into Kyle Rosenfeld, he breaks the silence. “Sherlock?”

“Hmm?” Sherlock sounds distracted, only half paying attention to him.

“Did you find anything more about the car bomb?” John asks.

For a long moment, Sherlock doesn’t answer. Then he says, “Yes. I’m afraid I can’t discuss it just yet.”

John blinks in surprise and twists around to look back over his shoulder at Sherlock. “What?” He can’t quite believe what he’s hearing. “Why not?”

Sherlock’s lips press together and he looks down at his keyboard. “Just… leave it for now, all right?”

John feels his mouth open a little, and realises that he feels incredibly hurt by this. “Okay,” he says. So now he’s not even to be trusted with their joint, shared work? He lets the silence steep between them, then turns back to his own research, his throat tight. This entire thing is going to shit. Sherlock is pushing him out, excluding him from every part of it. He’d thought things were going to get better now that they’ve got past Mary, past Eurus, but instead it’s all falling apart.

***

After lunch, they return to the room and continue their individual work. John has no idea what Sherlock is working on and isn’t about to ask, not after Sherlock’s last snub. Instead, he throws himself into the exhausting world of social media, searching for traces of any of the six victims on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever else the internet searches suggest. He goes in order, starting with Lydia Dharma. He finds her on Facebook and scrolls through her profile page, then her photos. She was pretty and seemingly well-liked. There are photos of her with various groups of friends – having big group dinners in restaurants, standing in a tightly-packed kitchen under a crooked Happy Birthday banner, everyone grinning. There are photos of her on a beach somewhere, wearing a pretty, floral-patterned dress, sleeveless and summery. She’s barefoot, John notes, thinking of Marjorie’s earlier comments about sand. Is it a photo shoot? The sun is setting behind her and the entire photo is rather lovely. She wasn’t on Twitter, at least not under her own name, and didn’t seem to have any other social media accounts, so he moves on.

A search for Kyle Rosenfeld turns up a photo from his company’s website. When John follows the link, he discovers that the photo has since between removed. Thoughtfully, he keeps the photo open and studies Rosenfeld’s face. He was handsome, only thirty-three, a trace of arrogance to his shoulders and in the well-cut suit he’s wearing. He’s aware that he’s young and good-looking and talented, John thinks. He thinks about asking Sherlock if he’s found anything in Kyle’s bank records, but apart from a LinkedIn account, he didn’t seem to have much social media presence. Maybe Mycroft’s minions did check this avenue, John thinks.

He moves on to Rowan Evans and matches a photo of her from the case file to a Facebook profile. It’s still active, though there hasn’t been any activity since her death. He reads about her, then scans through her photos. There are poses with friends, with a group of what he assumes are her Year 7 students on a field trip to the British Museum, multiple photos of and with her cat (whose name is apparently Purrtricia, which John thinks is ridiculous), and then he stops: there’s a photo of Rowan on a beach at sunset, and it looks instantly familiar. She’s wearing a coral-coloured dress and holding a bouquet of tropical flowers – hibiscus, maybe? Sherlock would know, but John’s not about to ask him – standing just apart from the bride, whose back is to the camera. Apparently beach sunset photos are a trend, John thinks. It can’t possibly be the same beach as in Lydia Dharma’s photo. He opens a new tab and pulls up Lydia’s Facebook account again, clicking rapidly through her photos until he finds the beach one. It looks the same, he thinks, frowning. The sun is very slightly lower in Rowan’s photo, but the beach looks very similar. Then again, most beaches look similar. There’s no caption on either photo, but in Rowan’s, the location is tagged as Runaway Bay, Jamaica. John’s frown deepens. Jamaica – what are the odds? Actually, he realises a second later, the odds are probably pretty high. He just spent the morning learning about how popular destination weddings are, and Jamaica is apparently one of the more popular places to go.

He’s about to click onto the next photo when something else in it catches his eye. What? It can’t possibly be – John peers closer. Rowan appears to be the maid of honour at this wedding – she’s standing right beside the bride and holding flowers, wearing what can only be a bridesmaid’s dress. But the man to the right of the groom is also standing at an angle to the camera, and his young, handsome face is smiling fondly in the direction of the groom. It can’t possibly be Kyle Rosenfeld. Can it? There are no tags on the photo. John pulls up the photo of Kyle from his financial firm and compares them, but the Facebook photo is too small. He saves it for future reference, then searches through the next several photos to see if there are any more from the same wedding. It seems that there aren’t.

“Sherlock,” John says abruptly. “Can I get your opinion on something?”

“Yes,” Sherlock says, not looking up. “What is it?”

“I think there may be a connection between two of our victims. Maybe even three,” John says.

This gets Sherlock’s attention. “What?” He’s on his feet, coming over. “Who?”

“I can’t be certain,” John admits. “But look at this: first we have Lydia Dharma on this beach, here. I don’t know where it is – she didn’t label it, and there’s no location tagged. But it’s sunset and she’s wearing a dress, right? So it could be a photo shoot, but it doesn’t look like that quality of photo, just a candid shot.”

“Right,” Sherlock says intently, bending over the bed to see the screen.

John switches tabs. “Then we’ve got Rowan Evans, also on a beach at sunset, at what’s clearly a wedding. She seems to be the maid of honour, I’d say. And this one is tagged as Runaway Beach, Jamaica.”

He glances up at Sherlock, who is frowning. “Do you think it’s the same beach?”

“That’s my first question,” John says. “But I’m not done.” He changes tabs again, this time to the firm’s photo of Kyle Rosenfeld. “This is Kyle. Pic from his firm.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says. “I’ve seen that one.”

John switches back to the photo of Rowan. “Who’s this, then?” he asks, pointing at the best man.

Sherlock’s intake of breath is swift. “Are you sure?”

“No,” John says quickly. “That’s what I want your opinion on. Is that Kyle?”

Sherlock bends even closer to the screen. “I can’t tell,” he says finally, in frustration. “Not close enough to say for certain. But it definitely looks like him. Send me the photo. I’ll send it to my brother and he can run it through his facial recognition software.”

“All right.” John agrees, and Sherlock moves away again. John feels the loss immediately, and instinctively says something, just to keep the brief (but blessedly civil) interaction going. “Are you getting anywhere over there?”

But Sherlock hesitates again. “I might be,” he says, going vague and careful again. He inhales as though he’s going to continue, but then doesn’t.

Suddenly it’s too much. John feels the frustration all but bursting in himself. “Do you know, I think I’m going to go for a walk,” he says tersely. “Get some air.”

Sherlock glances at him, but neither questions it nor protests nor offers to come. “All right,” he says neutrally.

John hates the neutrality almost more than anything else. He grabs at his jacket and pulls it on even as he’s leaving the room. He gets himself out of the hotel without running into any of the other people they know, and strides out into the brisk January air, aware that he’s walking on the same side of the building that their room looks out on. Is Sherlock standing there at the window, watching him walk away? More likely he’s just glad to have the source of his interruptions gone for a bit. He shoves his balled fists into the pockets of his coat and sets off at a fast, angry pace. He doesn’t think, just walks and walks, following the same route he and Sherlock took two days ago, when they first arrived. Things were better between them then. Sherlock actually volunteered information about himself, and then they had lunch in that nice little pub. That was good. Why can’t things just stay like that between them?

John decides to abandon the main street and turns off onto a narrow side street. Maybe it was too much to hope that things could ever get better. Maybe too much crap has happened at this point. It was so good in the beginning, but the beginning was a long time ago. Nevertheless, regardless of what Mary meant in that video, whatever her insinuations were with that line about I know what you could become, he feels that it’s absolutely true. The thought of Sherlock teaming up with someone else makes him feel like he’s been punched in the gut, actually nauseated. It’s every bit as bad as the notion of Sherlock being into someone like Greg. Someone other than him. Anyone. John unwittingly thinks of Irene Adler, then Janine, and the same mixture of hot resentment and embarrassment comes over him. He knows he couldn’t hide his overt jealousy of either one of them, and he still couldn’t now if the subject were to come up. He doesn’t even know what he was doing, that night that he said all that stuff, about Irene. Was he just trying to put Sherlock off the scent? He doesn’t even know. And now with Greg, the other day… it’s not as if anything would happen there, as Greg seems pretty content with Stacey, but the very idea of Sherlock being into someone, especially a male someone, and it not being him – John comes to a dead end street, sets off to the right, and acknowledges grimly to himself that he could not possibly handle seeing Sherlock dating someone. Especially not a man, somehow. He doesn’t know why that’s worse, but it is.

He walks on and on, and eventually his thoughts stop whirling quite as much. He finds himself on the footpath beside the river. The entire town, at least what he’s seen of it, is intensely charming. There are a few boats out, in spite of the cold weather. People are genuinely punting. It’s the perfect upper class stereotype. It’s also very pretty, even in winter. There are willows drooping gracefully into the river and to his right, the immensity of some church or other is approaching. He checks the map on his phone and discovers that it’s King’s College. “I’ll be damned,” John says aloud, to himself. He didn’t mean to come here, to this place that Sherlock is fond of. Suddenly, and despite everything else, he wishes that Sherlock were here right now. He’d say something like Show me this place you love. I want to see it. Explain why. I want to understand you. Just let me in, damn it. Only maybe he’d manage to find a way to say it better than that. He stands there with his hands in his pockets, looking up at the graceful, old building. There aren’t many other people out on the path, so he isn’t blocking anyone.

A rustling sound from behind him startles him out of his reverie and he turns around, meaning to move out of the way, only to nearly jump out of his skin: a flock of about fourteen swans has come up behind him, wading up from the river, and they’re eyeing him warily. John has never been confronted by swans before, but knows that they can get nasty quite quickly. He turns back in the direction he was going and walks off at a brisk pace, hoping they won’t pursue him. When he reaches the church itself, he spots a path on the far side and takes it, making for the main road. Just as he’s passing, the bells begin to ring overhead, so loud at this proximity that he can feel the sound resonating in his chest. The sound is strangely compelling, and he thinks he can get why people respond to them, not to the command to come to a service, but the inherent charisma of the sound itself. It must be time for Evensong, then. And Sherlock isn’t here to hear it, again – he’s holed up in their room, working on their case. John wonders if they’ll even have time to come here before they leave. Probably not. Like so many other things, this will probably just get chalked up as yet another missed opportunity.

Suddenly he feels guilty for having abandoned Sherlock like that, especially since he’d just started to make some real progress. He turns back in the direction of Chilton College and Sherlock. They’re a team, damn it. It might not be working all that well right now, but he’s supposed to be there: with Sherlock. It’s just how things were meant to be.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Sherlock seems subdued but more or less glad to see him when he gets back. By then, John is thoroughly chilled and just as happy to be back inside. It’s just about time to go down for dinner, anyway, so he washes his hands, blows his nose, and relieves himself, and they set off for the lifts. During dinner, Sherlock doesn’t talk to him or touch him in any way, making conversation with Aliyah, so John winds up talking to Stacey, working so hard to not appear to be flirting with her in any way that he probably comes off completely stiff and unsociable, but it doesn’t seem to matter one way or another to Sherlock, anyway. As soon as the meal is over, Sherlock beckons with a nod of his head in the direction of the exhibits.

“What are we going to look at?” John asks, falling into step beside Sherlock.

“I was re-reading the list of exhibits, and had a theory,” Sherlock says, not bothering to explain said theory. Naturally. “I was going to come down before supper and ask, but I lost track of the time.”

John wonders if Sherlock would have remembered about dinner at all, if he hadn’t come back when he did, and feels badly all over again. “Okay, so what’s the exhibit?” he asks.

“It’s a coordinating service of some sort,” Sherlock says. “It’s just a theory, and I could be quite wrong. There’s nothing to even suggest that there’s any link. But this particular exhibitor is here for nearly every convention…” he trails off, and John has no clearer understanding than he did before.

“Say more,” he prods, as they turn into the main corridor of exhibits. “Which victim are we talking about here?”

“Gabriela Baillaora,” Sherlock says, as they weave around the after-dinner crowd out for a browse. “I followed your lead and had another look at her social media. There’s a photo of her singing somewhere that looks suspiciously like your beach in Jamaica. It’s very hard to tell, because it’s dark in the photo. But the location is tagged as Runaway Beach. I can’t see the date because we’re not Facebook friends, I suppose, but suddenly I wondered if it might be the same wedding. That wedding might be what links our victims.”

“Brilliant,” John says, and Sherlock smiles, not looking at him.

“Here,” he says, nodding toward one of the information tables.

“Hello!” The lady attending it says brightly. “How can I help you? What are you interested in?”

Sherlock picks up one of the pamphlets and leafs through it rapidly. “You’re an entertainment booker,” he states. “Someone who suggests bands and musicians for weddings.”

The lady nods. “Yes. DJs as well, along with string quartets, harpists, pianists, whatever people are looking for. I have a list of agents that I get in touch with for artist recommendations, and there are a few that I book directly, too. One of the jazz bands, for instance, and several of the DJs.”

“I’m interested in this singer,” Sherlock says, holding out his phone to her. “Gabriela Baillaora. Do you know her?”

The lady looks instantly troubled. “Yes, I did, though not well,” she says, and John instantly notices her use of the past tense. “She – ”

“She’s dead, yes,” Sherlock says, his eyes fixed on her. “What do you know about that?”

The lady’s fingers twist together. “Nothing – I think they said she was poisoned. It was awful. It happened right during dinner.”

John glances at Sherlock. “Were you here when it happened?”

The lady nods. “Yes,” she says, her voice shaking. “It was a leadership conference and I was here to present one of the workshops about women in leadership. I’d hired her before, and she was there to learn how to build up her own career. We talked once or twice… my table was only a few over from hers when it started.”

John imagines it; cyanide poisoning would induce foaming at the mouth, vomiting, and fairly immediate death after that, and wouldn’t be at all pleasant to watch happening. He changes topics. “What did you hire her for?” he asks. “Do you have a list of the engagements you booked for her?”

The lady swallows, then nods. “I’d have to check my computer,” she says, hesitating.

“We’ll wait,” Sherlock says briefly, so she stoops down and pulls out a laptop, opening it on her display table and clicking into her files.

“Let’s see here… I booked her for three different events. The last one was when she was last here…I had to call and cancel it. Before that, there was a wedding just north of London, let’s see, that was in May. The one before that, the first one I booked her for, was back in September the previous year.”

“And where was that?” John asks.

“Not here,” the lady says, squinting at her notes. “Ah yes – it was actually in Jamaica! Exotic spot to have a gig, I remember telling her! The couple even paid for her airfare, so it was like a free little vacation – all she had to do was sing a couple of jazz pieces at the reception, and it was out on a beach… I wish I could have gone!”

“Whose wedding was it?” Sherlock wants to know, his eyes boring through the lady’s forehead now.

She flails. “I – I don’t know,” she stammers, flustered by Sherlock's intensity. “I didn’t keep those details. They would have been in Gabriela’s contract, but she said she didn’t need one because she knew them, knew the couple getting married. I think it’s why they paid for her to go.”

John is disappointed, but Sherlock seems satisfied with this. “Good. Thank you,” he says briskly, and is abruptly finished with interrogating the lady. He turns and makes for the lifts again, John hurrying to keep up.

“Sherlock – what – ” Is there any point in even asking? He pushes the button for the lift and turns to Sherlock. “Are you onto something here?”

“Possibly,” Sherlock says. “It’s only a theory, though.”

John wants to ask, but also doesn’t want to. “What are we looking for?” he asks instead.

“More connections,” Sherlock tells him. “Have you found anything on Christina McKenzie? We know she was poisoned. Three poisonings and a freezer incident – someone from the kitchen is definitely involved. It’s only a question of who, and why. But I’m beginning to form a theory.”

John blinks. “Care to share, then?”

Sherlock smiles upward at the numbers ascending toward the twelfth storey. “I’ll show you,” he says.

Back in their room, he goes back to the desk and gestures John into the opposite seat, so John gets his laptop and sits down, waiting.

“I did some searching on Randolph Winters, the frozen photographer,” Sherlock says. “It seems he was rather a good photographer. He won a contest, in fact. For a wedding.”

John stares at him. “Are you serious? The same wedding?”

Sherlock nods. “I haven’t got a shred of proof – yet. But I think so.” He turns his laptop around to face John. “This is the photo that he won with.”

John studies the photo. It’s beautiful. The photo is of a beach under a full moon, the moonlight making a long track over the still sea. There’s a couple standing on the beach, their back to the cameras, their hands clasped, but the bride is looking back over her shoulder toward the camera, her face alight with mirth. She’s very slim and curvy, and going by her face, quite young. All he can tell about the groom is that he’s taller than she is – the silhouette gives nothing else away. “Who is she?” he asks.

Sherlock smiles. “Chrissy Jessop,” he says, as though that’s supposed to mean something to John.

It doesn’t. “Who?” he asks blankly.

“Chrissy Jessop,” Sherlock repeats. “She’s a model, apparently. A young one. She’s now twenty-four, but was twenty-three at the time of the wedding.” He gazes expectantly at John, waiting for him to make the connection.

“A twenty-three-year-old model,” John says slowly. Come to think of it, that does sound familiar. It comes to him. “You mean – this is Andrea Redding’s ex’s wedding?”

“Yes, or at least this photo is,” Sherlock says, looking satisfied that he got there. “I compared the back of the dress with the one in Rowan Evans’ photo, but apparently it’s a very common design. So then I moved onto Andrea, as she’s now the primary suspect, at least in my opinion. The problem is that Andrea doesn’t have a single shred of online presence. Not anywhere, at least not under her own name. The only photo I could find of her anywhere is here, on the Chilton College website. I think it must be her, John.”

“But – why?” John asks stupidly. “Why these specific people? Would she have killed Rowan Evans for having been the maid of honour, and Kyle Rosenfeld for being the best man? And Lydia Dharma just for attending? And Gabriela Baillaora just for singing at it?”

“Possibly,” Sherlock says, steepling his fingers under his chin. “Love is a vicious motivator, as I always say.”

He does say it often, and he’s always right, John thinks. “True. And Randolph Winters was their photographer, clearly. What about Christina McKenzie?”

Sherlock already has the answer. “She’s a pastry chef,” he reminds John.

John gets it. “The cake,” he says. “She made their cake. God. It is Andrea! It’s got to be!”

Sherlock nods. “I think so,” he says. “We also know that Gabriela already knew Ian, due to that night that they clearly – to my thinking, at any rate – hooked up. Apparently that didn’t prevent them from staying good enough pals that he hired her to sing at his wedding to someone else.”

“Plus Andrea even said that Ian cheated on her multiple times,” John remembers. “Obviously he must have cheated with Chrissy, but I suppose at least one of the others could have been Gabriela.”

“Precisely,” Sherlock says. “My only question now is how and why she chose these people specifically.”

John searches for an answer. “Maybe these were just the ones that have ended up here for some reason? I mean, it is a popular conference centre…”

Sherlock blinks at him. “I think you may be right, actually. It would explain why they’ve all happened here – it’s Andrea’s territory. It would also explain the seemingly random timing of the six deaths – they just happened whenever they wandered into her territory. And food is her domain, so the three poisonings would have been easy. They’re just different enough to put off suspicion – food poisoning, the seeming ‘heart attack’, and outright cyanide. The freezer is a nice twist, just to change it up. She would have known when the kitchen would be empty, when no one would have heard a man shouting and thumping from inside. She’s the only one with keys to the alley, and the kitchen door can be locked from within. She said so herself.”

John shivers. “But what about the other two? Rowan, who fell from the upper level, and the car bomb? And surely she can’t be out to kill every single person who attended the wedding – that would make her an utter psychopath, and she didn’t seem like one, did she?”

Maybe Sherlock will tell him whatever he’s not saying about that bomb now, he thinks, but Sherlock shakes his head a little. “I don’t know. Psychopaths come in all varieties. There are still a few missing pieces here. But we’re getting there, John! One thing is certain: if we don’t want to be poisoned, ourselves, we need to make very sure that we seem to be backing off. Perhaps we should interview Phil and tell him that we’ve run into nothing but dead ends, and are just going to enjoy the rest of the weekend.”

John nods. “As for being poisoned… as long as we stick to the buffet, we should be all right. Everything that the victims ate was served to them individually at the final banquet, when Andrea could have personalised her touches to their meals. We’ll just be smart about this.”

“Yes,” Sherlock says. “Good thinking. And tomorrow, we’ll have to attend another workshop, just to sell the act, I think.”

“There’s that dance thing tomorrow night, too,” John reminds him.

“Open bar, at least,” Sherlock says, with half a smile.

“There is that,” John concedes. He looks at Sherlock, who’s already bending over his laptop again, and wishes he could go to him.

He pushes the urge down and opens his own, ready to dig for any traces of Andrea Redding that the internet can offer.

***

Mycroft, bless his occasionally-actually-useful soul, comes through in the early dawn hours. John wakes up to the sound of Sherlock’s phone pinging on their shared night table with the email notification. He blinks and yawns, fuzzily aware of Sherlock doing the same, then turning over in his cloud of bedding to reach for the phone. John puts out a hand and pats around until it finds his own, checking the time. Not quite six. “Mycroft?” he asks sleepily.

“Mmm.” Sherlock makes a vaguely affirmative sound, his voice deeper than usual. “He got into Redding’s bank records. Still working on pinpointing her email address.”

John yawns again. “And?” he asks, already more awake. “Anything there? With her bank stuff?”

Sherlock makes another sound, too neutral to give anything away, then says, “He sent them. I’ll check in a bit. It’s too early.”

John smiles in spite of himself, his eyes still closed. Sherlock never has been a morning person. “Does that mean I can go back to sleep?”

“Yes.” Sherlock sets his phone back down, judging from the sound, and turns over again.

With relief, John burrows deeper into his heap of bedding and the comfort of it carries him off to sleep again within minutes.

When he wakes to his phone alarm going off, Sherlock is already up, dressed, and showered again, and John feels vaguely foolish, as though he’s missed a step. “Sherlock?” he says, his voice croaky.

Sherlock makes a sound to show that he heard him, then adds, “Don’t mind me. I’ve only been up a little while.”

“Oh. Okay,” John says.

Sherlock gets up and comes over from the desk. “We’re getting closer, John,” he says, his eyes sparking as he perches on the side of John’s bed. “Thanks to your discovery last night that Andrea Redding and Christina McKenzie were in culinary school together, we have another connection. And that photo we found of Andrea with Rowan Evans on Evans’ Instagram puts it beyond question, in my thinking.”

“That you found,” John corrects him, rubbing his eyes.

Sherlock waves this off. “Whatever. All we’re missing is specific proof. We’re close, very close – but now my concern is keeping Andrea off the scent. I’d rather not be poisoned or blown up.”

“Again,” John says.

Sherlock looks at him and smiles, a real smile. “Again,” he agrees.

For a heartbeat, John wants to sit up, pull him over by the front of his shirt and kiss him breathless. Maybe Sherlock doesn’t realise how inherently intimate it is to sit on someone’s bed while said someone is actually in it, but every cell of John’s body feels keenly aware of it at the moment. He swallows. “So, what’s the plan for that, then? Putting Andrea off the scent?”

“I’ll tell you, but if you’d like to shower first, you can,” Sherlock offers.

John rolls his eyes, but he’s smiling. “Oh, sure. Build up the suspense and then leave me hanging. Figures.”

Sherlock is still smiling. “I’ve made coffee,” he says, as though offering an olive branch. He stands up and moves out of the way to let John get up.

John’s just as glad; Sherlock’s presence is having a rather visceral effect on him, as ever. He manages to collect his clothes and go by him to the loo as Sherlock’s settling back into his chair, turned away from him, but stops just inside the doorway. “Did you get anywhere with those bank records?”

Sherlock is silent for a moment, then he nods. “It’s almost proof,” he says quietly. “It would take her confession to confirm it, though, and we haven’t got that yet.”

John pauses and looks over at him. “What is it about this that you’re not telling me?” he asks directly. “Every time we come anywhere near the subject of the car bomb, you shut me out. What’s going on?”

A muscle in Sherlock’s jaw twitches, but he doesn’t look away. “I’d rather not say until I have the facts,” he says quietly. “That’s all it is, John. If it is what I think it is, then you’ll understand when you know.”

This produces a swell of frustration thick enough for him to choke on. “Fine,” John says shortly. “Don’t tell me, then. God knows I ought to be used to you keeping me in the dark by now.” He shuts the loo door, sets his clothing down on the counter and yanks off his pyjama pants and t-shirt, leaving them on the floor, then finds a towel and puts it on the lid of the toilet and turns on the shower water. He shouldn’t have snapped at Sherlock like that – right when things seemed to be taking a turn for the better, too, but he just can’t not be frustrated with Sherlock leaving him out like this! Why, why can’t Sherlock just let him in? Every time they make any sort of progress, Sherlock slams up another wall and keeps him out in the cold, in the dark.

John showers angrily, washing his hair and scrubbing his skin red, taking his time about it, just to prolong the entire thing. His morning wood hasn’t gone anywhere despite his rough ministrations, so he deals with that in the same way, still thinking of Sherlock despite his anger, particularly that moment the other night when Sherlock had him backed up against the door. When it’s over, he rinses himself off and shuts off the water. He thinks of skipping his shave, but then remembers that this ball thing is tonight and figures he might as well look halfway decent for it, not that anyone here will care what he looks like, least of all the person he’s here with. He watches himself in the mirror and thinks, I’ll just be civil. We’ve got to solve the case. We can do that much, at least.

When he opens the loo door, Sherlock looks up almost in alarm, his lips parting as though to say something, but John cuts him off before he can, walking over to the coffee maker and pouring himself a cup.

“So, we’re going to throw Andrea off the trail,” he says, a bit curtly but very politely. “What’s the plan, then?”

He turns around to lean back against the counter, his arms half-crossed over his chest, holding his coffee. Sherlock’s lips tighten a little and he looks down, but all he says is, “I thought we’d interview Phil again. Ideally with her there, in the background. We can ask a question or two, but make it sound like we’ve hit a dead end and are just planning to give up and spend the rest of our time here strictly as conference attendees.” He glances up at John to gauge his reaction.

His plan makes sense. “Right, yeah,” John says, nodding. “And then I presume we make ourselves seen in workshops or something again, like you said.”

“That’s it,” Sherlock says. “And we wait to get into Andrea’s emails. Mycroft is working on it. I think that we’ve done about all that we can.”

Something occurs to John. “Sherlock – what about that list of employees who have key card access to that lift?” he asks. “Did Brenda ever get that to you?”

“She did, but it was useless,” Sherlock says dismissively. “It’s literally every employee who works here. And they don’t log the date or time. I’d like to know how the killer lured Rowan Evans up a back lift like that, but I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.”

“And you think it was Andrea who pushed her own friend over a railing like that?” John asks dubiously. “I mean… it seems like it’s got to be her, right? But in that photo, they were laughing, arms around each other’s shoulders… it sure looked like they were good friends, at any rate.”

“It did, yes. I agree, not that I’m any expert on the subject of friendship,” Sherlock says, his voice going a bit stiff. “There is also no obvious link to Lydia Dharma, apart from – probably – having been a guest.” He looks at his watch. “We should go down for breakfast, once you’ve finished that.” He nods toward John’s coffee cup.

John drains it and sets it down. “I’m ready. Let’s go.”

***

They find Phil in the kitchen after breakfast. He greets them in a friendly enough manner, but his eyes are wary. “What can I do for you?” he asks.

“We just have a few more questions,” Sherlock says. He looks around as though in mild frustration at the level of noise from the line and prep cooks tidying away the remains of breakfast, then indicates the back counter where Jenny, the pastry chef, typically works. It’s just down a little way from Andrea’s office. “Let’s go and have a word back there.”

Phil agrees, and John notes that Andrea is indeed in her office, the door open. Phil leads the way there, then turns to them, his arms crossed. “Fire away,” he invites. “Have you found anything more?”

“To be quite honest, we haven’t,” Sherlock says, that same feigned frustration to his tone. “All six deaths, still firmly cold cases. Even if a high percentage of these accidents, or murders, have some obvious connection to the kitchen, there’s just nothing to prove that they were murders. Plus, the other two deaths are obviously unrelated in any way. That alone destroys any theories of a serial killer – the methodology is too different.”

Phil frowns. “Right, yeah. It would seem that way. So does that mean that the investigation is going to be closed again?” He looks over at John.

John makes a point of looking at Sherlock, then back at Phil. “In all likelihood, yes,” he says, as though admitting it with difficulty. “We’re really just asking a couple more questions to tick off boxes, but it doesn’t seem as though anything will come of it.”

“Okay,” Phil says, sounding relieved. “I mean – I really think we’ve got a stellar team here. Andrea and I vetted all of our people thoroughly and feel pretty confident than none of them could possibly have been involved in anything remotely like this. But ask whatever you need to know.”

“Right, okay,” John says, and looks back at Sherlock expectantly.

Sherlock clears his throat. “I assume you checked all of your cooks’ and dishwashers’ criminal records before they were hired?”

“Yes, of course,” Phil says. “It’s standard procedure for us.”

John glances toward Andrea’s office and notices that she’s sitting with her back to them, but there’s no sound of typing from her keyboard. Listening intently, then, he thinks.

Sherlock goes on. “And apart from that dishwasher who moved away, you haven’t had any other staffing changes? No dramas or upsets?”

Phil thinks about this. “Well, actually, there was a prep cook who got himself fired awhile back. Noel Davis. He just started acting out and showing up late and generally being difficult, so we had to let him go.”

John sees Andrea’s chair turn an inch, as though she was about to swivel it around to stand up, then thought better of it. Sherlock never did say anything much about whatever he’s found on Noel Davis; he clams up on that subject, too, same as with the car bomb. (Is that it, then? Is Noel Davis the stumbling block in whatever seems to be tripping them up here?)

“Oh, him,” Sherlock says, waving his hand dismissively. “Yes, Alastair Carlton mentioned him, but there’s nothing there. Just a bad employee, it would seem.”

“Yes, I suppose so, though he hadn’t been,” Phil says. “But if you’ve looked into it…”

“We have, and he’s fine,” Sherlock says firmly. He looks at John, as though in defeat. “Well, I suppose we’ll just have to reseal the case,” he says, with a sigh. “I hate to leave one unsolved, but in this particular instance…” He smiles at John and pats him on the back. “I mean, we also came to get our own wedding plans underway, so it’s not a complete loss. We’ll just make the most of the rest of the conference and continue to enjoy the rest of your delicious meals.”

“And the hot tub,” John adds, to make it sound more convincing. He puts an arm around Sherlock’s back and smiles at him.

Sherlock smiles back. “And the ball tonight,” he reminds John. “But first, I believe we’re late for a talk on choosing the right emcee, so we’ll be off. Sorry to have bothered you again.”

“Of course,” Phil says. “I’m sorry you weren’t able to get anywhere.”

“We were told it was an impossible case to crack coming in,” John assures him. “It’s not entirely surprising. Pity, but sometimes the bad guy gets away.”

“Shame,” Phil says. “Well – if you think of anything else, don’t hesitate. You know where to find us. Meanwhile, do enjoy the rest of the conference! The desserts tonight should be spectacular, too. Jenny always outdoes herself, and I’ve already had a peek at what’s chilling in the freezer right now. No photographers, I promise.”

Sherlock laughs as though this is very funny, though John can hear that there isn’t a trace of real mirth to it. “Good,” he says.

John looks at him, thinking that he should nip this in the bud before the façade fails. As cavalier as Sherlock can seem on the surface when it comes to murder, John knows by now that he actually loathes it and hates when people joke about it. “We’re late,” he reminds Sherlock. “Let’s go.”

They get themselves out of the kitchen, and John drops his arm only then, the warmth of Sherlock’s back imprinted on it.

***

The ball that night begins with cocktails. It’s an open bar, and John’s already decided that this can only possibly be a good thing. He’s already tossed back a few by the time they sit down for dinner, reunited with the rest of the table sixteen crew, and feeling a little more relaxed about the entire thing. As Sherlock has said, there’s little more they can do about the case at this point, so they might as well make the best of the rest of this thing. Sherlock is drinking, too. When they spotted the bar, John steered them toward it and asked Sherlock what he wanted. He shrugged and said he didn’t mind one way or another, so John pressed it and Sherlock said, possibly remembering the stag night, not beer. So John ordered them both gin and tonics, playing it safe, and Sherlock had seemingly liked it well enough to agree to a second one. They’ve mostly only ever drunk whiskey together before, and not often then. Sherlock doesn’t like having his senses dulled, after all, and John’s had his own issues with dulling them a little too much through alcohol, but that’s well in hand and tonight is meant to be fun, damn it.

“Is this thing still a buffet tonight?” Greg wants to know, craning his head around to check for servers approaching with canapés or something, but Stacey elbows.

“Yes, so you’re going have to move your lazy arse and get your own food,” she tells him, and he laughs.

“Not going to get it for me, then?”

“Not on your life,” Stacey says sweetly, her eyes narrowing, and Greg kisses her.

“Oi, get a room,” Jim says good-naturedly.

“Ah, you’re just jealous,” Greg teases him. “There’s plenty to go round, Jim, don’t you worry. C’mon, give us a pucker, there!”

Laughter ensues, and John relaxes still more. They go up to get their food and that’s good. He helps himself to a large array of salads, baked salmon covered in lemons, a leg of chicken tikka, roasted potatoes, a crusty roll slathered in butter, and green beans crunchy with toasted almonds. The conversation around the table is lively and the wine is flowing. Things feel okay with Sherlock at the moment. Tentatively okay, maybe, but he’ll take it. He loses track of the conversation for a bit, unbuttoning the top button of his shirt. Sherlock said they should err on the side of overdressed rather than underdressed, and John agreed with a sigh and put on the only suit he’s brought along, but at the moment both of their jackets are hanging over the backs of their chairs. He’s wearing a navy shirt with a charcoal suit, and Sherlock’s wearing a perfectly-tailored white shirt with a black bespoke suit, cut so well that the sight of him in it is enough to make John’s eyes ache. Neither of them is wearing a tie, though. John drifts, drinking his wine and thinking about Sherlock’s arse in his suit trousers and only tunes back in when he becomes aware that someone’s said their names.

“You know,” Stacey says, leaning in, “I almost wouldn’t know you two were a couple if you hadn’t said. Well, and come here, I guess. I mean, you don’t wear rings, you’re not terribly affectionate with each other, you never really touch much…like, now and then, but not as much as one would expect, given that you’re engaged and all that.”

It’s definitely a bit of a challenge. John doesn’t give an inch of ground. “We’re very private people, that’s all,” he says.

Aliyah and Kimberly exchange a look. “It’s true, though,” Aliyah says, her honey-sweet voice taking the sting out of it. “I would have thought you two were just friends, or colleagues.”

Sherlock doesn’t budge, either. “Well, we’re definitely engaged,” he says neutrally. “We’ll wear rings once we’re married.”

“But when will that be?” Marjorie chips in, looking worried. “I mean, you haven’t even settled on a date yet…”

“Nor have you,” Sherlock reminds her, still pleasant enough.

Jim clears his throat. “Actually, we have, if you want to know. Autumn wedding, like you suggested, in fact.” He nods at Sherlock. “The fourth of October, about nine months from now. We just booked our venues today.”

For a moment this provides a welcome distraction as everyone else exclaims in congratulations, but then Stacey brings the focus back to them. “Don’t think you’re getting off that easily,” she says, twinkling at them. “With the two of you, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

This gets another round of grins and chuckling. Sherlock stares at her. “What is that supposed to mean?” he asks.

Stacey raises her eyebrows in challenge. “Give us a kiss,” she says. “Then I’ll buy it.”

John finds he can’t look at Sherlock, though suddenly his presence at John’s right is impossible to not be acutely aware of. “Don’t be ridiculous,” he says uncomfortably. “You can’t just put us on the spot like that.”

Kimberly crosses her arms. “I’m calling your bluff, too,” she says. “You’re just posing. You’re here investigating a case. You’re not really a couple at all.”

“Yes we are,” John counters immediately, aware that it’s too fast, too defensive. “We’re here to plan our wedding. We just haven’t found a venue we like yet.”

“Bullshit,” Greg says easily. “Give us a kiss and we’ll take your word for it. If you’re really engaged, it shouldn’t be so hard, anyway.”

John opens his mouth to protest, the heat rising in his face, then catches and looks at Sherlock, not wanting to say something that will hurt him yet again. Sherlock meets his eyes, uncertainty all over his face, and John changes directions mid-stride. “Oh, for God’s sake,” he says, giving in. He puts a hand on the back of Sherlock’s neck, leans in, and kisses him on the mouth.

Sherlock’s lips are unusually soft and warm. For a split second, he doesn’t react – stunned, possibly – but then his lips tighten against John’s and it’s instantly the most magnetic and addictive thing that John’s ever experienced. Their mouths fit together like pieces of a puzzle and it feels way better than it should. He meant to just peck Sherlock briefly on the lips, but somehow he finds he can’t make himself pull back and stop the kiss. His mouth seems to be glued to Sherlock’s and Sherlock isn’t pulling away, either. He’s gripping Sherlock’s neck, their mouths pressed together, Sherlock leaning into the kiss as much as he is.

The cheering jolts John out of the moment and he pulls back abruptly, red-faced for more than one reason, and he can’t bring himself to look at Sherlock. “There,” he says, not quite making eye contact with anyone else, either. “Satisfied?”

“No tongue, but I’ll take it,” Greg says, grinning. “Nice one! Okay, you two. You’re off the hook. I’m sold.”

“Sorry,” Aliyah offers, giving John a small smile. “That was nice to see, though.”

“Convinced?” Sherlock asks her, avoiding John’s eyes in turn. “Or will we need to copulate on the table to prove ourselves to you?”

Jim guffaws with slightly-awkward laughter. “Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!” A server comes by to refill their glasses, and Jim nods, pointing at all of their glasses. “I think we could all do with a refill about now!”

John’s face is still burning, and he downs the rest of his wine so that the server can refill his glass, and notices that Sherlock does the same.

“No, of course not,” Aliyah is protesting to Sherlock’s sarcastic question. “But you could hold hands or something. You two are never lovey-dovey!”

“I told you, we’re just private about that sort of thing,” John says, stabbing at a slice of almond with one tine of his fork.

“Oh, relax,” Sherlock tells him, and makes a show of taking his right hand, the one that’s not occupied with the fork-and-almond hunt, clasping it right there on top of the table in plain view of the rest of them. He still doesn’t meet John’s eyes, though, clearing his throat inconspicuously, and John doesn’t object to it.

To be fair, he doesn’t want to in the slightest. That kiss is still burning on his lips and at the moment, the only thing he wants is to kiss Sherlock again. Right here, if need be. He doesn’t even care. Sherlock’s hand is warm and dry and even this small thing is making him feel like he’s fourteen again, his heart thumping, the colour still high in his face.

There’s a pause between dinner and dessert, and someone goes to the microphone and begins talking about this and that. John isn’t really listening. Both the wine and the kiss have warmed his cheeks, and holding Sherlock’s hand isn’t anywhere near enough contact to satisfy him at the moment. Sherlock leans forward, letting go of his hand, so John follows him, casually putting an arm around his back and leaning into him. Sherlock doesn’t respond overtly, but he doesn’t stiffen or pull away, and John thinks he catches the merest hint of a smile lurking at the corners of Sherlock’s mouth (God, he wants to kiss that mouth again!) and Sherlock seems to be trying a little too hard to look casual about the whole thing. John picks up his wine glass and drinks again, desperate to occupy his mouth with something in lieu of the thing he really wants.

When their table is called to go up for dessert, Sherlock reaches for his hand without looking at him, their fingers linked together this time, and John holds it firmly, silently trying to communicate his openness to this – posing for their cover, of course, but at the moment he’ll take whatever he can get. There’s something wrong with his filters, but the kneejerk I’m-not-gay-and-this-would-never-work-anyway alarm isn’t going off for once. Sherlock leans in unnecessarily close in pretence of discussing their dessert options, and all John can think of is how close he is, the warmth radiating off him through that delectable white shirt, his breath on John’s ear and cheek. They make their selections and go back to the table, walking closely enough that their arms are touching. John manages to eat a slice of chocolate cream pie and a square of cherry cheesecake without doing anything too untoward, and Sherlock watches him obliquely, slanted looks out the corner of his eye that set John’s face burning again.

The dancing bit starts sometime after that, loud music blaring from the speakers, and people flood onto the dance floor. “Are you two going to dance?” Aliyah asks as Kimberly pulls her to her feet.

“I don’t know,” John says, privately resolving not to move an inch if it would mean him being any further from Sherlock than he currently is, their upper arms pressed together. “I only know how to waltz, and this is definitely not waltzing music.”

Aliyah laughs at him. “Don’t be silly,” she says. “Anyone can dance to this!”

She waits expectantly, and Sherlock looks at him. “We’ll survive,” he says breezily. “Come on, John.”

Just like that, he’s hauling John to his feet and tugging him in the direction of the dance floor, not letting go until they’re on it, facing each other. There’s not much space to do more than move vaguely in time with the music. Sherlock isn’t touching him in any way, but they’re close, very close, right in each other’s personal space. John can’t even look directly at Sherlock, or else he won’t be able to stop himself from kissing him again, he thinks.

The songs blur together. The wine helps loosen him up and he follows Sherlock’s lead, moving in parallels with him, and somehow it works every bit as well as their waltzing used to. Sherlock taught him to lead, but he was really the one leading all along – coaching John into how to direct him, how to step into the role he was supposed to be playing. In the end, who was leading, then? (Would it be like that with them, sexually? Sherlock showing him how to take charge, giving himself up to John’s lead? Then again, that moment where Sherlock had him backed up against the door of their room was surprisingly enlightening in terms of how open he might actually be to Sherlock overtly leading, too.) But this dancing, right here and now – this just feels natural. They’re perfectly in sync. There are more people on the dance floor now, pressing in around them, and John can feel the tug between them almost magnetically. Neither of them has stopped thinking about that kiss since it happened. He knows this as clearly as one of Sherlock’s deductions spelled out for him in plain sight, and he can feel it viscerally. If he were to just look up into Sherlock’s face, which is angled down toward his, it would just happen. Nothing would be able to stop it at this point. He can feel Sherlock willing him to look at him, everything about him drawing John in unstoppably. He’s just thinking about maybe actually saying something when Sherlock does it first.

“John…” he says, his voice low, but nonetheless audible in spite of the music. He trails off, though, uncertain, but John can hear and deduce the other thing he can hear in Sherlock’s voice without a single shred of doubt for once: desire. There’s nothing uncertain about that part – only the question itself.

He does it: lets himself look directly into Sherlock’s eyes for the first time since the kiss, and the intensity of their eye contact goes through his chest like a lance. That, and he was definitely not wrong about Sherlock’s intent, even if he hasn’t put it expressly into words. Sherlock’s pupils are definitely dilated and the expression on his face is pretty damned clear. Maybe John needs to be the one to step up and actually say it, then. “You want to… get out of here?” he asks, letting every ounce of weight he can muster settle onto the words, so that Sherlock won’t be able to miss his drift.

Sherlock swallows, then nods, and John’s pulse trebles.

Without a word, they turn and leave the dance floor and the dining hall, finding and gripping each other’s hands, half-hidden behind their legs as though it’s a secret, which is silly considering that being engaged is their actual cover story, but John isn’t thinking rationally at the moment. There are dozens of people milling about in the corridor in front of the lifts, so Sherlock casually lets go of his hand and presses the up button, but John would swear that he can feel the impatience beating off him in waves. The lift arrives. John goes in first, putting himself in the corner by the number panel and waiting for Sherlock. Sherlock stays by the door, but reaches out to press and hold down the door close button until it’s shut all the way, his eyes pinning John to the lift wall with enough intensity to burn directly through him the entire while.

The door closes at last and John reaches out and hauls Sherlock over by the front of his shirt, but Sherlock was already moving toward him. Their mouths meet violently, all gasping breath and desperate suction, hot and wet as their tongues come together and John realises that he’s been at least partly hard since sometime on the dance floor. Their hands are wild, touching and gripping each other’s backs and shoulders and faces, then John abandons all restraints and puts both hands on Sherlock’s arse, heedless of the security camera angled down at them from the opposite corner. Sherlock moans raggedly into his mouth, pressing himself up against John. The lift stops at the twelfth floor and they stagger out into the corridor, all but sprinting to their door.

Inside, it’s even wilder, their kissing practically frantic, an unchecked dam of stuff that’s been held back for way too long now spilling out between them. They’re tearing at each other’s clothes, stopping only as they get distracted by kissing and touching whatever they can get their hands on. They’re swaying together in the middle of the room, half-naked, pelvises pressed together, the sound of gasping breath filling the room. “Come on – get this off,” John pants, attacking Sherlock’s incredible neck with his mouth at the same time, tugging at the waistband of his trousers, and Sherlock nods feverishly, making a sound of assent.

“You, too – I want – ” He cuts himself off to kiss John again, as though he can’t even help himself or restrain the urge any longer, even as he strips off his trousers at the same time.

“What do you want?” John needs to know this, needs to hear it. He’s down to his pants, yanking off his socks.

Sherlock grasps him by the shoulders and looks down at him, at the erection straining against his underwear, the light blue material spotted darkly with wetness. “I want to see you,” he says, then does that thing where he glances up at John through his lashes, half hesitant and full something else, something that’s both seductive and charming as hell, and the combination goes straight to John’s knees.

He doesn’t know what to say, so he takes Sherlock’s face with both hands and kisses him breathless. They’re moving in unspoken, utterly understood agreement to Sherlock’s bed, Sherlock backing them toward it, or else John’s the one leading – it doesn’t matter; it’s the same thing – and falling onto it, the ridiculously poufy bedding getting pushed out of the way. Sherlock is on his back with John on top of him, his hands on John’s arse, holding John to himself, their cocks straining together through their underwear, their mouths devouring one another’s. John’s rubbing himself against Sherlock unabashedly, but realises that he should probably check in about now. He lifts his mouth off Sherlock’s long enough to look into his eyes. “Yeah?” he asks, rubbing Sherlock’s full lower lip with his thumb.

Sherlock nods. “Yes,” he says, very clearly, his eyes very blue at the moment. He slides his hand down the back of John’s underwear, cradling his entire cheek with his long fingers. “Take – take these off,” he requests, his voice only just above a whisper.

It’s a bolder move than John might have thought him capable of, at least in this particular arena, and his cock gives a throb of need in response to Sherlock’s hand gripping his arse. He nods. “Yeah. Okay. Yeah.” He puts his mouth back on Sherlock’s, and then Sherlock leans up and turns them over so that they’re facing each other, all four of their hands pushing the last remaining layers away, and then (oh God, finally) John reaches for Sherlock’s cock and closes his hand around it just as Sherlock reaches for his. They’re kissing again and it’s as hungry as it was before. The way Sherlock is touching him is ungodly, the perfect amount of pressure and speed, and a spike of unwelcome jealousy makes itself known again. Who else has Sherlock touched like this, that he’s got so good at it? God knows John’s thought about it, but he’s never actually done this before, not with another man. The thought of Sherlock being with anyone else this way is enough to incite him to genuine fury, and he kisses Sherlock even harder, taking back the lead and climbing onto him, thrusting against him. It’s so good – he’s never felt this good in his entire life, which is a frustrating thought, but at the moment he doesn’t care. “Sherlock – we need – ” he pants out against Sherlock’s mouth, and Sherlock actually gets it.

“Here,” he says, reaching back and clawing at the drawer handle of their shared nightstand until he’s successfully retrieved a small tube from inside.

John goggles at it. “Is that – yours?!”

Sherlock gives a modest shrug. “So it would seem.” His lower lip is rosy and wet from John’s mouth and this only deepens John’s hunger to kiss him again.

He thinks unwittingly of Greg and the jealousy deepens, unreasonable as he knows it is. “Give that here,” he says. He gets the cap off it and Sherlock squeezes a generous amount into his palm, then puts it back on the table, watching him almost warily.

Or maybe it’s just expectantly. John rubs some on himself, his cock so hard it’s fit to burst, then looks down as he strokes the rest over Sherlock’s unfairly perfect cock. It is. It could be a bloody model for cock sculptors or something, its form and length and girth all as perfectly proportioned as the rest of him is, and it moves in his hand as he strokes it, flushed and full and quivering against his palm. Sherlock swallows audibly and John glances up at his face. Sherlock’s lips are parted, exhalations gusting over them as John touches him, the colour high in his cheeks.

Well. At least he’s not totally out of his depth, then, even not having touched any cock other than his own before. He’s glad to see that Sherlock seems to like it, and goes a little harder. “Like this?” he asks, his voice low and as seductive as he knows how to make it.

Sherlock nods, his eyes finding John’s and locking onto them. He reaches down and takes John’s hand, shifting it lower, his knees falling open, his eyes on John’s the entire time, and when John gets it, it hits him like a load of bricks.

“You want me to – ?” he asks, but he already knows the answer.

Sherlock nods again and swallows. “Please,” he requests, and the single word nearly undoes John completely, because there’s literally not one damned thing that he wants more than this.

He clears his throat. “Yeah. Okay.” He keeps his eyes on Sherlock’s as he starts, his lube-covered fingers massaging his hole, then slipping inside, first one, then another. God. The heat of Sherlock’s body is unexpected, the grip around John’s fingers intoxicating. Sherlock is breathing hard, sweat gleaming on his forehead, but he doesn’t seem to want it to go any more slowly. John’s three fingers deep when Sherlock produces a condom from somewhere, the crinkly packet suddenly there at the heel of John’s hand. John looks at it, the questioning dying on his lips even before he can ask it. That confirms Sherlock’s intention beyond question, then. “Yeah, all right,” he mumbles, agreeing to the condom. “Who even knows who you’ve all been with?”

Oops. He didn’t quite mean to say that out loud, but Sherlock travelling with lube and condoms makes him feel even more jealous than he did before when he was overtly flirting with Greg. Did he come here hoping to score with someone? Another conference guest or something like that? He glances at Sherlock, ripping the condom packet open with his teeth, hindered by his slippery fingers, and only just catches the shadow of a flinch cross Sherlock’s face. Should he say something? John opens his mouth, debating it, then decides he doesn’t want to kill the mood. Just push past it, then.

“How do you want to do this?” he asks instead, reaching for Sherlock’s cock again. “Like – this?”

Sherlock hesitates, then turns onto his front, dislodging John’s hand. “Perhaps this would be – easiest,” he says, his words slightly muffled, his knees bent under him, arse elevated, his face down on the sheets.

“Okay,” John says. He can hardly believe this is happening. The warm, golden light from the bedside lamp seems to match the warm, golden glow of the wine and arousal coursing through his body. He fits himself into the space between Sherlock’s knees, guiding his cock to the heat of Sherlock’s body, bending over him. “You ready?” he asks, lowering his voice, his mouth close to Sherlock’s ear.

Sherlock nods. “Please,” he says again, and the word practically guts John again.

He pushes himself as slowly as he can make himself go into Sherlock, that same grip he felt on his fingers convulsing and shuddering around his cock. It’s the best thing he’s ever felt in his life and he’s biting his lip to keep from losing his load on the spot. He looks down to see Sherlock’s perfect arse stretched around him and moans at the very sight of it. He’s buried to the root now and Sherlock’s back is heaving as he pants against his arms. “You all right?” John gasps out, only just barely holding it together.

Sherlock makes a sound which John can’t decipher one way or the other. “Just – give me a moment,” he gets out.

“Oh – of course,” John says, stroking Sherlock’s sides as the muscle spasms begin to let him. After a little, Sherlock assents, and then it really starts, slowly at first, John’s entire body shuddering as Sherlock’s body squeezes around him, then faster and faster as his need to go deeper and harder mount rapidly, his entire body aflame with desire. It’s a blur, the grip of Sherlock’s body around his aching cock, the sounds of their bodies slapping together, the tightening noose of the pleasure circling his limbs and torso and especially his cock. John’s thrusting frantically, drowning in how incredibly good it feels, and they’re both moaning loudly – he reaches down to find that Sherlock’s already jerking himself off, but he relents in a huffed exchange of question-and-assent and lets John do it, burying his face against his arms as John’s fist flies over him.

Sherlock’s entire body spasms hard and then he’s filling John’s fist with hot fluid, breath choking out of him in shuddering gasps, and that does it – John grips Sherlock’s left hip with his other hand and plunges into him four more times, and on the fourth it happens, the orgasm bursting out of him like a rocket launching, flooding out of him and into the condom. He’s still thrusting all through it, more and more of it coming out of him even as Sherlock’s cock goes on jerking and spasming in his hand.

When it’s finally over, John finds himself slumped onto Sherlock, weak and spent as a limp rag. He grabs for the top of the condom, holding it in place as he pulls himself out of Sherlock at last, and turns halfway backward, dropping it into what he hopes is the bin, but he doesn’t really care. He turns back to Sherlock, curling himself half-around, half-on top of him, his arm around Sherlock’s chest, pinning him to himself. “God, you’re phenomenal,” he slurs into the back of Sherlock’s neck.

Sherlock makes a deeply-contented, sleepy sound, and finds his fingers, slipping his between John’s. “You, too,” he says, his voice unusually deep and mellow.

John pushes a thigh between Sherlock’s, pressing it up into his spent balls, loving the soft warmth of them against his skin. “You okay?” he murmurs, his eyelids sagging.

Sherlock makes another sound, not quite as contented, but generally fine-sounding. He’s falling asleep, John thinks. Well: that makes two of them. Between all the wine, and that truly astounding, earth-shattering orgasm just now, he’s about to pass out, himself.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

John wakes alone.

He’s disoriented for several minutes, his head pounding. Sunlight is streaming harshly in through the window and into his eyes. Where is – John looks around, then remembers. Last night. He’s in Sherlock’s bed, a tangle of fluffy bedding wound around his feet. He’s naked and very much alone: Sherlock is not in the bed, and John feels immediately certain that he’s not in the loo, either. He’s gone.

This does not bode well. John thinks uneasily back over the events that led to them finally breaking through their own barriers and stumbling into bed together – the forced kiss at dinner, the subtle touching all throughout that followed, dancing together, then Sherlock saying his name and him overtly asking if Sherlock wanted to come back here. The kissing in the lift. It was all good, right? They were on the same page about it all, weren’t they? John specifically remembers having asked the question, lying on top of Sherlock in their underwear, and Sherlock’s unmistakeably clear yes. And the sex itself was spectacular. John’s cock gives a twitch just remembering it. Best he’s ever had, by a wide margin, and judging by the sheer amount Sherlock came, not to mention the sounds he made at the time, it seems like it was pretty good for him, too. It was his idea that John should penetrate him – him who brought out the lube, the condom, who took John’s hand and redirected it further back in explicit, if unspoken, invitation. And then they fell asleep together, Sherlock in his arms. So what went wrong?

John sits up, untangling his feet and swinging his legs down over the side of the bed. He rubs his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose, smacking his dry mouth a few times. Clarity does not come. His phone doesn’t seem to be anywhere… he gets up and finally locates it in the pocket of his suit trousers, inside out on the floor near the door. He shakes them out and hangs them over the back of his chair at the table in the corner, then checks his phone. There’s nothing from Sherlock. He plugs it in to charge and stumbles into the loo for a long, hot shower and several paracetamol tablets, washed down by a tall glass of cold water that he drinks in the shower.

Afterwards, it occurs to John to check the time. It’s nearly ten. He’s missed breakfast. Belatedly, he realises that they both forgot their suit jackets at dinner, hanging from the backs of their chairs. He should go and get them. This is avoidance of the much larger and more pressing issue, namely where Sherlock is and what the state of things between them is now, but it’s something to grasp onto in the meantime. He pulls on a black jumper and his jeans, then socks and shoes and puts the rest of his scattered clothing from last night away. Sherlock’s is nowhere to be seen; evidently he quietly tidied up his own things before he disappeared, whenever that was.

John finds the dining hall mostly empty, just a few employees setting up for lunch around the serving tables. He weaves his way through the maze of tables to table sixteen, but their jackets are both gone. It’s quiet. Unwittingly, he remembers Randolph Winters’ death, and their deduced fact that he must have been locked in the freezer around this time of the day. It’s entirely plausible, he thinks. There’s hardly anyone around. The walk-in freezer is located at the far end of the kitchen, well away from anywhere that anyone out here might have heard him yelling and thumping from the inside.

“Can I help you find something?”

The voice startles him and John turns sharply. “What? Oh, sorry,” he says belatedly. The person standing there is Erica, the Singaporean exchange student from the front desk who witnessed the immediate aftermath of Rowan Evans’ death. “Er – Sherlock and I forgot our jackets down here last night, at the ball. I just came to see if I could get them, but they don’t seem to be here…”

Erica is reassuring. “That happens pretty often. Don’t worry, they would have just hung them up on the racks over there, probably. Let’s go and see.”

She leads John over to far wall to the left of the kitchen door and he spots both their suit jackets on the otherwise empty rack right away. “Oh, good,” he says. “Sherlock would hate to have lost this.”

Erica smiles. “No problem,” she says. “I’m glad we found it.”

“Forgot your jackets?”

The cool voice catches John off guard again. God, he’s off his game this morning! He wheels around and finds Andrea standing there, wearing a clean set of chef’s whites, her blond hair woven into a braided bun. “Yeah,” he says, bracing his shoulders without meaning to. Her presence, particularly the silent approach, has put him on edge. “We, er, left sort of quickly once the dancing started, if you catch my drift,” he adds, with a rueful half-smile. To his own surprise, he finds he isn’t even slightly ashamed of anything that happened last night, or of admitting it. The realisation comes as something of a relief.

Andrea smiles, too, though not very certainly. “The open bar often has that effect on our guests,” she says lightly. “Getting anywhere with your case?”

John shakes his head. “No, we told Phil yesterday that we’ve had to abandon it. There’s just not enough to go on. It’s fine, honestly. Sherlock and I were coming to this thing anyway, because we’ve been too busy to get any planning done on our wedding, and we only have today and tomorrow left. It’s just I haven’t seen him yet today, so… I’m off to see what he’s up to.” He hesitates. What if Sherlock’s disappearance actually has nothing to do with them, and everything to do with the killer he’s currently chatting with? He decides to give a light verbal probe. “You haven’t seen him, have you?” He wonders if he should check the freezer, but surely she wouldn’t be stupid enough to use the same method twice. If it is her – they haven’t got a shred of proof yet. Just a very convincing motive, and a lot of evidence that happens to fit the theory.

Andrea shakes her head. “No, not today. Phil said you came by yesterday, but I didn’t even notice – I was up to my eyes in details for tomorrow’s send-off lunch. That’s the one with individualised servings, so it means a lot more planning in terms of special modifications. Always takes me awhile.”

Never trust an alibi that comes with too many details, John can hear Sherlock saying in his head. He also specifically remembers Andrea listening acutely during their staged conversation with Phil. He suppresses the sarcastic urge to ask if any of those ‘special modifications’ might involve a chicken breast left to go severely off, or an arsenic garnish in someone’s pudding. “Right, makes sense,” he says, nodding sagely. “Well – ” He gestures with the jackets draped over his arm. “I’d best be off. See you later, maybe.”

Andrea smiles, and it strikes him again that she’s quite beautiful, in a cold sort of way. The façade is difficult for her – she’s obviously a straightforward person, unlike Mary, who knew how to play just about any part without a hint of struggle, or any conflict regarding her own past. Andrea has to work at it. She was probably a fairly decent person before the life event that caused her to make the choice to become a serial killer. Now he hears an echo of Sherlock again, as he makes himself walk at a firm, but moderate pace out of the dining hall, not liking the thought of having Andrea at his back: Love is a vicious motivator.

He goes back to the room to hang up their jackets, but it’s thinly-disguised hope of finding Sherlock there, having a brief exchange of explanations of who was where and when, then ideally having some sort of slightly-awkward, but overall good conversation confirming that what happened last night was good, that they’d both be up for continuing this sort of thing for the indefinite future, and then at some point they’d kiss again, and maybe even solve the case together.

But the room is empty, unchanged from when John left it. He checks his phone again. Still nothing. He hesitates, then types a text with his thumbs. Where are you? He waits for a moment or two to see whether Sherlock has seen it, but there’s nothing. He stands there for a bit, then jumps as his phone buzzes in his hand. It’s not a text, though, he realises immediately: it’s an email. From Mycroft.

John walks over to the table and opens his laptop to read the email there. Mycroft’s missive is short and to the point: We’ve pinpointed Andrea Redding’s current email address, in use for the past eleven years. Full text is enclosed in the attachment. Every message sent or received. MH John opens the attachment and stares at it. Eleven years’ worth of emails! “Jesus,” he mutters aloud. He wishes Sherlock were here to disseminate the information with him (at the very least). Well, he can get a start on it, anyway. He copies the text into a document, thinks about it, then decides to search by names, starting with ‘Christina’ for lack of a better idea. He finds an invitation to a party that simply says Christina and Rick are coming, so bring lots of red!, then several short, light exchanges between Andrea and – he checks the email address – it’s definitely Christina McKenzie. Most of these are questions about exam materials, one about the technique of making crème brûlée, and other school-related topics. The last two, however, are decidedly acrimonious in nature. Andrea’s message begins:

Christina,

I just heard a rumour that you’re doing the cake for Ian and his whore’s wedding. Please tell me that’s not true. Please tell me that you wouldn’t do this to me, after all this time. I know you always got on with him and I never asked you to choose sides even when he destroyed my life and left me for her, but please tell me that you wouldn’t actually do this, support them like this. I hope it’s just a rumour and that’s it way off base. Put my mind at ease, would you?

Andrea

PS: We still on for catering the Bessingtons’ fortieth next month? I think they’ve confirmed the date for the nineteenth, at their country house.

Christina’s response was sent three days later and reads:

Andrea,

I was afraid that you would react this way. I’m only going to say this once: I’m a pragmatist. This isn’t about making a choice between you and Ian, or “supporting” anyone. This is a job, and you know as well as any of us that I could use the money. So yes, I’m taking the free trip to the tropics and baking a cake. That’s all it is: a cake. You’re my friend and I know how hard this is for you, but you can’t possibly expect me to put friendship ahead of business. Life just doesn’t work that way.

I understand if you need some time to process this. I’m still on for the Bessingtons’ do if you are.

Christina

There is no response on Andrea’s side. John finds no further references to her, or emails from her after that point. The exchange was sent about two months before Ian Marcello’s wedding to Chrissy Jessop. John checks the list of murder victims and chooses Lydia Dharma, searching her first name. He comes across an early exchange, an email Andrea sent to inform her contacts of her new email address, then nothing until two weeks following the wedding. There is a singular email from Lydia to Andrea, reading:

Hey Andrea,

I was just thinking about you and hope you’re doing a little better. The wedding was really nice, actually, and Jamaica was beautiful. I think you need to accept it and move on. I heard you were upset that I went, but I was friends with Ian, too, and didn’t want to choose sides. I know you and I go way back, but I don’t see any reason why I can’t be friends with both of you. I’m actually coming to Chilton College for a conference in a few weeks. I know you’re busy, but maybe we could go for a drink and talk about it? Think it over and let me know. I really think it would be best if you let this go, though. It isn’t healthy to stay bitter forever. Anyway, you’ve got my number, so text me or ring me up and we’ll figure something out.

Lydia

John checks the date of the email again. Andrea didn’t respond to this, at least not in her emails, and Lydia died three weeks later at the conference. He glances at the door, though he knows it’s only paranoia making him think that she would come up here. Besides, he could definitely overpower her. She’s tall, but he’s not exactly defenseless. He does a third search, this time for Rowan, and comes up with many, many results. They were very good friends, it seems, and corresponded pretty frequently. He reads through years’ worth of correspondence between them, then reads through a rapid decline of Andrea’s relationship with Ian, her suspicions that he was cheating, followed by confirmations, including a link to the photo that Gabriela posted on her Instagram account with him, and Rowan’s sympathetic responses.

Sympathetic to a point, at least. As John reads, he definitely detects a cooling on her side as she gradually distances herself from Andrea’s increasing downward spiral of anger and emotional outbursts as the break-up ravages through her life. The sheer amount of anger makes for uncomfortable reading, but John gets it, somehow. Not that it excuses murdering six people, but it’s still somewhat understandable. The inevitable ruction comes when Andrea blasts out a tirade against, surprise surprise, Kyle Rosenfeld, who apparently lied to her to cover up Ian’s initial philandering with Chrissy. Rowan responds quite coolly, revealing that she and Kyle met at the engagement party – which Andrea was not previously aware that she’d attended – and become involved with him. The friendship dissolves rapidly after that, Andrea becoming even more broken and nearly incomprehensible in her rage.

Poor woman, John thinks. She needed help and certainly didn’t get any from her friends. Love is a vicious motivator, indeed. And then her long-time friend not only ditched her, but went on to be Chrissy Jessop’s maid of honour at the wedding that should have been Andrea’s, on that beautiful Jamaican beach in the sunset. He gets it, the motive, or at least the feelings behind it. But then to lay her plans, waiting as these people one by one strayed into her path, and calmly, coldly planned and executed their murders… Well, maybe not the car bomb, but whatever Sherlock knows about that, he hasn’t seen fit to tell him. There’s something odd about that, about Sherlock’s reluctance, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time he’s withheld information from John.

John sighs. He thinks about searching for Randolph Winters, then decides that the connection there is obvious enough. Winning a photography contest with his photo of Ian and Chrissy would have been enough to make him a target of Andrea’s need for vengeance. He checks the time and realises that it’s time for lunch, starting in five minutes. Sherlock is generally punctual for these meals… since he hasn’t come back to the room, maybe he’ll come to lunch? Somehow John feels dubious about this, but he gets up and goes down, anyway, hoping against hope that he’ll run into Sherlock on his way there. He doesn’t, though, and Sherlock isn’t at table sixteen, either. He pulls out a chair and sits down at a place that has empty chairs on either side of him should Sherlock turn up. It would be more than a little awkward to have their first morning after encounter with a few hundred other witnesses watching, but right now he’d take it. He checks his phone again. Still nothing. His text to Sherlock says it was delivered, but hasn’t been read yet. He sends another one. Coming to lunch? I got Mycroft’s email. Maybe talking about the case will break the ice. He waits, staring at the screen and willing Sherlock to at least read it, but nothing happens.

“You all right?”

John looks up, startled for the third time so far today. It’s only Jodie, though, looking at him with concern. “Er, yeah,” he says, but it comes out pretty unconvincingly.

Jodie doesn’t buy it, studying him critically. “You want to talk about it?” she asks, keeping her voice down so that the others won’t hear it.

John glances at them. So far only Kimberly, Aliyah, Marjorie, and Jim have arrived, but they’re all busy chatting with each other. He hesitates. “Er…” He’s not sure what to say.

Jodie’s kind face is gentle. “Come on,” she says, easily, not pushing. “Let’s go up and get our food, then go and sit over there at one of the unassigned tables. I’ve seen other people doing that. It’s Sherlock, isn’t it?”

John chews his lip. “What makes you say that?” he asks, his defences up.

Jodie’s eyebrows rise. “Well, I’ve got a few theories on that score, and besides, he’s not here, is he? Do you know where he is?”

John frowns at her. “No, I don’t,” he says a bit sharply. “Why? Do you?”

Jodie isn’t put off by his rudeness. “No,” she says, her tone still easygoing. “Hence my thought that you might need someone to talk to. It’s up to you, though. Open offer. But no pressure.”

Their table is called. John finds himself hastening to keep up with Jodie, falling into step beside her. “Er, all right, then,” he says, under his breath. “I guess if you have any insights, I could use them about now.”

Jodie smiles. “Let’s get some food, then,” she says. They go through the buffet line, then John follows Jodie over to one of the smaller square tables set up over at the side of the dining hall. “So,” she says, picking up an egg salad sandwich and eyeing him across it. “Sherlock’s disappeared, has he? I haven’t seen him all morning.”

John stabs at a shell in his pasta salad. “Neither have I,” he says, staring moodily at the noodle. “I’ve texted him but he hasn’t even read them, much less responded.”

“Hmm.” Jodie sounds thoughtful. “The last time I saw him was last night when the two of you slipped out, there.”

John eats the shell, chewing it along with her observation. “You saw that, did you?”

“Yup. Pretty clear what happened after that. It’s whatever came before it that’s been a mystery to me,” Jodie says.

“What do you mean by that?” John spears a bit of celery on one tine of his fork but doesn’t eat it.

Jodie gives him a slightly pointed look. “You know that I work with couples for a living, right? Not to brag, but I’m pretty good at what I do. I wouldn’t have called you on it, but it’s been pretty clear to me from the start that you two aren’t a couple, or weren’t before last night, at any rate. You’re obviously here to work on a case, and it makes sense that you would be posing as an engaged couple at a wedding show. That’s just obvious.”

John’s mouth feels dry. “So it was obvious to you that we aren’t in love?” he asks slowly, the words like dust on his tongue. The thought makes him feel more desolate than he imagined it could.

Jodie’s forehead creases. “That’s just the thing,” she says thoughtfully. “I wouldn’t have necessarily said that, either. At times I felt like you were almost both suffering from unrequited feelings for each other, yet there was this barrier there all the time. Last night was the first time that I didn’t see it there. Once the rest of them egged you into kissing to prove yourselves – which I found interesting, since I deliberately hadn’t been saying anything about my suspicion that you weren’t together at all – but once they made you kiss, suddenly you wanted to touch each other. The magnetism was all there like before, but this time neither of you was resisting it.”

John thinks of the other touches they’ve deliberately staged this entire time and realises that Jodie must have seen through all of them. “That’s… an interesting comment,” he says, still trying to digest it.

“To be honest, though…” Jodie pauses and takes a bite of her sandwich. “You might not like me saying this,” she warns, looking at him directly.

John waves this off with a forkful of pasta shells. “Go ahead. I clearly need all the help I can get in figuring this out.”

“Well…” Jodie looks at him plainly. “Here’s the thing I’ve especially noticed: while you both seemed to want whatever finally happened last night, unless I’m wrong about that having happened, what I particularly saw was that Sherlock is in pain. He seems to be constantly trying to hide the fact that he’s immensely hurt, and you’re the one hurting him.” She sees his face and adds, “Sorry – that may be way out of line. I’m just saying what I’ve observed.”

John feels a bit as though she’s just punched him in the gut and it takes him awhile to work out what to even say. “I… you really saw that? I mean… he’s definitely been irritated with me more than once since we got here, but…”

Jodie eyes him over her water glass as she takes a sip. “Definitely,” she says. “Sorry, John. Probably not what you wanted to hear. And I could be wrong there, but I don’t think I am. It’s pretty clear to me that he’s in love with you, and I can’t tell whether it’s mutual or not. Sometimes I think it must be, from the way you look at him and act around him, but other times you almost seem to be hostile toward him. It’s the way that he reacts to it that makes me think that must be right, because I don’t know you very well at all, but he does. I see little flickers of it, just for a split second, and then he tucks it away behind that façade of his again. And then there are the ways he looks at you when you’re not looking. Until last night, at least, when you were both doing it and almost not even trying to hide it anymore.”

John feels sick. He’s hungry, having missed breakfast, but he can’t swallow past the tightness in his throat. “Oh God,” he says inadequately.

“You also flinch when he touches you,” Jodie adds quietly. “Well – not ‘flinch’, exactly, but your shoulders do this thing, like you’re annoyed that he did it, or like you’re trying to shake him off. I think that if I’ve noticed, a detective like him has to have. So I don’t know what went on last night after you two left the room hand-in-hand, but I can certainly guess. My only questions are why it never happened sooner, and also what happened last night that might have triggered this disappearance. What went wrong?”

John shakes his head. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t. I’ve been asking myself. I mean… you’re right. Er, things did happen. And – I thought that it was all quite – er, mutually wanted and that. And – it went quite well, as far as that’s concerned. I don’t know. I don’t know.”

Jodie surveys him thoughtfully and stabs a forkful of caesar salad. “Everyone came out of it satisfied, I take it?”

John coughs, but she seems perfectly at ease talking about this stuff. “Er, yeah. I mean… with two men, it’s pretty easy to tell that way…”

Jodie laughs. “So it would seem. Pity it’s not more obvious with women… my Dan has to ask every single time, the idiot.” She sounds fond, though. “Well, maybe you should think it over, see if you can think of anything that might have made him think that it was a bad idea. It seems pretty clear that he’s avoiding you. Have you solved your case, by the way?”

John squints at her. “I guess there’s no point in trying to deny that we do have one.”

“None at all,” Jodie says easily. “That, and I’m here at least once a month. I’m aware that there have been some pretty tragic deaths. I even knew one of them, the young singer who was poisoned. Not well, but I knew who she was. She once sang at a wedding that I planned.”

“Did she?” John frowns. “That seems oddly coincidental… By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask: that wedding you talked about the other day at the workshop, the destination one you said you regretted having done. Whose wedding was it?”

“What?” Jodie looks confused, then remembers. “Oh, yeah – that was the same wedding, in fact. What were their names? It was in Jamaica, a place called Runaway Bay.”

John leans in, lowering his voice, his eyes going automatically to the kitchen doors. He doesn’t see Andrea, though. “Was that Ian Marcello and Chrissy Jessop?”

“That’s the one,” Jodie says, staring at him. “How did you know?”

John shakes his head. “It’s the connection,” he says. “In our case. We’ve got almost all the pieces put together now. We’re just missing the proof.”

Jodie is still frowning. “It wasn’t one of those two, was it? I mean, the guy seemed like a piece of work – a cheater, from what I heard from some of the guests there, but I wouldn’t have pegged him as a murderer. And the brainless twit he married could no more have planned a murder than made a speech to the United Nations. I heard he left his fiancée for her. But murder?”

John scowls and looks away. “I’ve learned the hard way not to ever assume that someone you think you know is definitely not a murderer,” he says shortly, and begins eating again. His brain is a jumble of Mary, the case, Andrea Redding, and whatever is going on between him and Sherlock, though the last one hurts too much to think about directly. Not here. Not now.

Jodie is surveying him with sympathy. “I won’t ask,” she says. “And listen – I’m sorry if anything I’ve said has been out of line. I think that most of the others buy your cover story, especially after last night. But I’d been noticing this thing ever since you arrived. It’s like he’s got hypersensitive to being hurt by you and any little thing just sets it off and then he retreats, right? Get all stiff and non-verbal. Sometimes you do say these little things that I’m sure aren’t meant to hurt him, and yet they seem to.”

John feels hollow. “Like what?” he asks, not tasting the roast beef he’s just put into his mouth.

Jodie has to think about this. “Oh, I don’t know… like explaining his behaviour to people. I get why – he says some odd things, but then his face does a thing when you intervene and clarify – to rescue him, I assume. Save him from a social gaffe. But he’s definitely aware when you do it that he’s said something out of line, and even though you’re being nice and trying to save him from whatever social disaster he’s about to create, he seems to take it as a direct rebuke. Again, I don’t know either of you all that well at all. It’s just what it looks like to me.”

“You don’t know us,” John says sharply. “We’ve always been that way.”

If Jodie is stung by his snapped response, it doesn’t show. “Perhaps that’s why it’s built up, then,” she says with a shrug. “If that’s always been your dynamic, perhaps you never knew that these things you do hurt him. People reach their limits after a time. Whatever happened last night has obviously left him with some doubts, if he wasn’t there when you woke up this morning, and hasn’t been seen or heard from since.”

John can’t think of a single rebuttal to this. He reaches for his cup of tea and takes a long sip. It’s cold now.

“Meanwhile, I think that the other big question you need to ask yourself now is what it is that you would have wanted to happen this morning,” Jodie goes on, watching him carefully. “Or what you want to happen once you find him. I think you might need to sort that in your head before anything else, and definitely before you do see him again. You’ve got to figure out exactly how you feel about what happened, and about him..” Jodie leans back. “Anyway, I think I’ve said enough,” she says, as nice as ever. Her plate is empty, whereas John’s is still two-thirds full. “Time for me to zip it and leave you to think it over. I’ve got to go and work on my big presentation just before the closing lunch tomorrow. Ironically, I’m actually using a bunch of material from that very wedding you mentioned. It was a strange marriage but still a beautiful event, you know? Anyway, I’m glad that it finally happened for you guys last night. I think that you two would make a great couple if you could work things out. I hope you do.”

She gets up, tactfully leaving him alone, but John finally snaps out of his moody reverie in time to call her back, saying her name. She turns, holding her plate, eyebrows lifted, and he says, “Thanks for that. All of it. I mean that.”

Jodie nods, smiles again, then waves and strides off.

John slowly finishes his meal by himself and thinks of the desserts table, but that only makes him think of Sherlock and feel a bit sick all over again. Where is Sherlock right now? Has he eaten today? John knows very well that he’s perfectly capable of going for days at a time without eating, but he hates the thought of him missing out, somehow. That’s a deflection from the vastly larger issue, again, but it seems as though his mind is only capable of grasping at the smaller pieces of it.

He goes back to their room, hoping again that maybe Sherlock will be there, but of course he isn’t. He doesn’t know what else to do, so he goes back to the emails and starts reading from the most recent on backward. They’re dull, though, nothing much out of the ordinary. John does notice that Andrea’s emails all got shorter and more terse, direct to the point, than her pre-Ian catastrophe emails, which were longer and chattier. The warmth is gone. He changes methods after awhile, wishing again that Sherlock were here to disseminate it faster – he would see whatever needed seeing in a heartbeat, but on his own, John’s just got to slog through it at his own pace. He makes a cup of coffee, then carries on, scrolling through to read the emails within a few weeks of each murder, in case there’s anything enlightening there. Surely that’s got to be faster than just reading every single email Andrea ever wrote.

He’s been reading for almost another hour when he finds something. Six weeks before Kyle Rosenfeld’s rental car exploded, Andrea sent an email to someone called Samantha Jones, and once he singles out the chain of responses, it makes for fascinating, if troubling reading. It begins on Andrea’s side, but the conversation clearly originated somewhere else:

The price you quoted is fine. I just want to know that it will be done quickly and preferably painlessly. Can you give me that assurance?

It’s a strange email to send, no greeting or sign-off. The response reads:

Yes. Don’t trouble yourself about the details. It will be done as agreed. You will receive a confirmation when the job is done.

To this, Andrea wrote back one week later:

I’m not sure about this. Your method for the second seems rather brutal. Isn’t there any other way? Besides, I don’t like how close this puts it to me. He works in my kitchen, after all. Can’t you place him as a bellhop or something?

Samantha Jones turns a bit nasty in her response to this:

Don’t go getting cold feet. The payment is non-refundable, and the job will be done. Don’t fool yourself into believing that you’re a better person than you are. You want to tell yourself that this isn’t who you really are, but who you really are doesn’t matter. You’ve made your choice. Grow a pair and deal with it. The first job will be done next month. For the second, it depends on the specific timing of the event in question. Your second target will be receiving a 50% off special offer for the event she’s already looked at more than four times, including the registration page. If it goes as planned, that will take place in May. At that point, you can do what you like with the employee in question. Fire him or keep him on if he’s any good. Your choice. But there’s no going back now. It doesn’t work that way. Tell yourself whatever you need to hear to sleep at night. Works for me every time.

Delete this email, as always.

There are no further exchanges, and John feels cold. Is this it, then? Proof? Andrea obviously engaged a killer to take out Kyle Rosenfeld, as bomb-making seems rather outside her skill set. And the killer, or perhaps she was merely a contractor, placed a killer in Andrea’s kitchen as a prep cook to kill someone the following May, which lines up perfectly with Rowan Evans’ death, the departure of the prep cook shortly after. These are only two deaths that aren’t specifically connected to the kitchen, John realises. Though the prep cook – Noel Davis, according to his notebook – is yet another link to Andrea. These emails were obviously deleted, but for Mycroft’s spooks, nothing would be permanently irretrievable. This was foolish, a rookie mistake, which confirms his thought that Andrea was not a killer before this. She poisoned Lydia Dharma, got away with it, then grew bolder. Someone, somewhere, put her in touch with this Samantha Jones character, whom she then paid to deal with the best man and maid of honour who lied to her and betrayed her.

But the part that’s got John’s gut in knots is this, from Samantha to Andrea: You want to tell yourself that this isn’t who you really are, but who you really are doesn’t matter. Who you really are doesn’t matter. It’s word for bloody word, John thinks, staring at it. It could be a coincidence, but Sherlock would scoff at that notion if he were here. Samantha Jones. John waits a moment or two, then calmly, determinedly begins a diligent search for her online. Twenty minutes’ fruitless searching proves what he already suspected: Samantha Jones does not exist.

Or rather, she did, only he knew her as Mary Morstan. Mary is the one who killed Kyle Rosenfeld and sent a killer in to lure Rowan Evans up to the balcony to then push her to her death. She was paid for it. Negotiated it calmly, subcontracted whoever it was who killed Rowan. This all happened in the window of time between Rosie’s birth and Mary’s death. They were together, John living under the same roof, and Mary was still calmly, coolly taking jobs and carrying them out, right under his nose. Grow a pair and deal with it, she told Andrea, whose conscience was making a valiant effort to rise up and back out before it was too late. Only she’d already killed one person herself. There’s no going back now, Mary warned. Tell yourself whatever you need to hear to sleep at night. Works for me every time. The payment had already gone through, and Mary carried out the jobs. And then Andrea just… carried on by herself. Took Mary’s advice to heart, seemingly, hardened herself, and went on getting her vengeance on Ian and Chrissy and everyone who supported their marriage.

John feels heavy and sick at heart. Sherlock knew, then. That’s why he wouldn’t talk about either the bomb or Noel Davis. He got hold of Andrea’s financial records from Mycroft and put it together, traced a payment to Noel back to Mary or something like that. The partial fingerprint on the bomb that he recognised: it has to have been Mary’s, and of course he didn’t want to say so before he was sure of it. And when he was, things between them were precarious at best and the last thing he probably wanted to do was to force John to realise that Mary was still every inch the unrepentant killer she’d been all along, right up to the day of her death.

The room is very quiet. He can’t escape thinking about Sherlock now, about what’s happened between them, what it’s supposed to mean, what it means that Sherlock has disappeared on him and won’t even read his texts. He must think that it’s hopeless, then, John thinks. He pushes his laptop away, then gets up and goes to stand at the window. The day is cold and grey, a dreary late January day. Sherlock must be out there somewhere in it, but doing what? Thinking what? Feeling what? Why did he leave this morning?

John thinks of Jodie telling him that he needs to figure out what he himself is feeling and wanting, and he feels blank. He knows he’s avoided looking this directly in the eye for a long time now, but he’s always known. There was always an attraction, at the very least. “Bullshit,” he says aloud, his breath fogging on the cold window. He knows very well that it’s always been more than that. They’ve come right out and said it, Sherlock in the most public way possible. They love each other. That’s no secret. The question is how they each meant it when they said it. John was careful to frame it in comparison to the woman he was about to marry, as though they were equivalent but qualitatively different: his fiancée and his best friend. The best friend definition was meant to make it safe, to take out the obviously problematic bit with it, with telling the person you’re closest to that you love them when you’re actively planning to marry someone else. He never had got his head around that, for probably the very good reason that it was bullshit then, too. He’s said all of the things that are meant to justify it, make it seem less gay, less like he’s overtly in love with Sherlock. But now, if he looks at it plainly and just asks himself the question, how can he possibly avoid coming to the obvious conclusion that he’s loved Sherlock for a very long time, and still does, in spite of everything that’s happened by this point?

“I can’t,” John says under his breath, another circle of fog forming in front of his lips. He wanted what happened last night. He’s wanted that in shameful secret pretty much since the day they met. He’d thought Sherlock was a nutcase, to be sure, but that never stopped him from noticing how ridiculously attractive he is. His body is basically perfect, he moves like a model, all long-legged grace and just enough arrogance to push it into being stupidly hot. And that’s just the outside: paired with his incredible intelligence, his charm, his charisma, his unexpectedly thoughtful moments, and a thousand other aspects of his personality, his entire being, that he can’t even quantify in words… John sighs. Yeah. All right: so, definitely in love with Sherlock, then. Admitting it to himself feels less monumental than he’d thought it might. Possibly because it’s been about the worst-kept secret from himself that he’s ever had. He’s thought about kissing Sherlock thousands of times by this point, and far more besides. He knew that Mary was right when she said I know the two of you… I know what you could become. They all knew. It’s just that he and Sherlock must have both decided ages ago that it was never going to happen. That it never could.

But obviously it could, because something definitely happened last night. Does that mean that Sherlock’s wanted it all this time, too? Or now that it’s happened, is he reconsidering? Thinking that he was right in thinking that it would be a terrible decision? If he were here, they could actually talk about it. John thinks about what Jodie said about Sherlock seeming to be in pain all the time, and the thought smites him in the chest all over again. It’s true. He feels it instinctively: he hurts Sherlock all the time, over and over again. And it’s gone on forever. That’s true, too, no matter how he bit her head off when she suggested that. He thinks way back to the early days of his blog, and the fight they had over that, Sherlock rolling his eyes and saying, Oh, you mean ‘spectacularly ignorant’ in a nice way? John’s also said a lot of nice things about him over the years, but he knows how it’s the negative things that stick. He thinks of all the times he’s corrected Sherlock’s behaviour, frequently saving them both from immensely awkward situations developing, and winces to think that each time he did it, Sherlock was stinging inside. He could have helped, too – could have tried explaining to Sherlock why the thing he said had been tactless or rude, but the truth is that he’d always rather liked having something that he was specifically better at, being able to make little jokes about it with Lestrade and the rest, at Sherlock’s expense. Or else he walked out – didn’t even stick around to have it out properly, work on resolving anything, and finally it’s Sherlock who’s had enough of it and walked away. He hadn’t realised that Sherlock might have cared about what he said, that it didn’t just roll right off him. He knows that Sherlock cares more about things – and people – than he’s let on, and he knows that Sherlock cares a whole lot about him, but he’s got stuck on feeling like the victim. The person that Sherlock leaves out, doesn’t confide in, doesn’t let in on his own thoughts and feelings. He’s got completely hung up on that, twisting himself in circles of rationalisations of his own indignation, in feeling justified in how upset and angry he was with Sherlock.

He remembers the letter he made Molly give Sherlock, after Mary died, and lets his head drop forward, thudding against the window. Jesus. That was terrible, what he said in that. And it was an act of aggression toward Molly, too, making her give it to Sherlock. He’s always been irritated by Molly’s crush on Sherlock, as though she ever had a fighting chance, but he treated her like competition, even when he was married to Mary and officially not competing for Sherlock, himself. He’s been a right dick to her, honestly, as bad as Sherlock has been, or even worse. No yeah, definitely worse, John thinks. God. What is wrong with him? And that letter. That letter is possibly the single worst thing he’s ever done to anyone. And on top of that, all of the blame he laid on Sherlock – unjustified, undeserved blame at that – and Sherlock just silently absorbed it without complaint. Accepted the weight of it, and nearly let it kill him. Would have, had John not seen what he was doing at the last possible second and prevented it. He sees it baldly now: just how much of it Sherlock took. Maybe he agreed with John’s letter and thought he had to, that he deserved it.

And yet Jodie still seems to feel quite certain that Sherlock is in love with him. John thinks over everything that’s happened just since they’ve been here. Their awkward hot tub night, that strange confrontation that happened here in the room, after. What was that? Why did Sherlock suddenly snap at him like that? John re-thinks the entire scene: Greg and Stacey were there, and Sherlock was flirting with Greg. Was he, though? Or was John just reading that in, out of his own jealousy over how good Greg looked? No, Sherlock definitely seemed interested, he thought. Maybe his own perceptions about that kind of thing aren’t reliable. Maybe he’s too paranoid about Sherlock to be able to judge that accurately. But then Greg and Stacey left, teasing them about having the place to themselves, since everyone else was still at the fashion show. What happened next? He thinks hard, trying to remember. Right: he shifted away, feeling awkward, then Sherlock asked how his shoulder was doing and John took it as him asking if John was just about done, and said that they could go if Sherlock wanted to. That was about when Sherlock seemed to get angry, told him he was an idiot and got out of the hot tub. Had he been hoping that something would happen between them, since they were alone and already most of the way naked, far away from London and their usual lives? John gapes a little at the notion, which hadn’t even occurred to him at the time, but given how much Sherlock seemed to want what happened last night, it’s definitely a realistic possibility. But then John said the thing about how they could go if Sherlock wanted to, and Sherlock got all frustrated and stomped off. And back in the room, he was about to say something, about to explain, but then he got an email and wilted visibly. Was that the email confirming Mary’s involvement? John wonders. The timing would be right. Was that a reminder to Sherlock that Mary was still very much a factor keeping them apart, that introducing new information about her to John wasn’t likely to be well-received (and the messenger always takes the brunt of such news), and that it really was pointless to think that anything could ever happen between them, regardless of the hotel, the opulent room, the hot tub, the charm of the city…

Looking back at it now, John thinks that his theory fits. When he came out of the shower, Sherlock was already in bed, the lights turned out, but not sleeping – Sherlock, who rarely sleeps at all when they’ve got a case on. If ever he’s seemed depressed to John, that was certainly it. Though he never saw Sherlock’s reaction to his terrible letter, either. Or perhaps he did – weeks later, when Molly pronounced him weeks away from death.

John exhales hard. He doesn’t deserve Sherlock’s love. This is patently clear. And yet, after everything that he’s done to dissuade Sherlock from loving him, Sherlock still wanted it last night, wanted him. Kissed him like he’d been waiting for six years to do it. Six years – John stops in his tracks. What’s the date today? He checks his phone and it hits him like a brick in the head. It’s the twenty-ninth of January. Their anniversary. That’s what they’ve told the others here, but it’s true: they met six years ago today, precisely. John still remembers Sherlock’s very first words to him, that brief, slanted look out of Sherlock’s eyes in the lab at Bart’s, taking in more information about him than anyone’s ever seen in him before, and then the oblique question, Afghanistan or Iraq? John remembers his own gaping wonder at Sherlock’s explained deduction in the car, remembers falling for Sherlock just from his wink, remembers Sherlock advancing on him in the sitting room, asking if he’d care to see a little more trouble, John practically hard in his jeans over his proximity, the velvety depth of his voice, and then laughing together later over Lestrade’s stolen badge, running through the streets and over the rooftops, all to end up collapsing against the front hall of Baker Street, breathless and laughing until it hurt. I should have kissed him then, John thinks, his chest aching over it. Because I already loved him then. It’s been six fucking years, and I’ve loved him all that bloody time, including every single minute of those years when I thought I’d lost him forever.

There’s no more time to lose, because he’s already wasted six years, and somewhere in this city, Sherlock is hurting, thinking that it can’t happen, that it’s hopeless. Maybe he’s already decided that last night was a mistake. John hopes not. Their kiss at the dinner table is still tingling on his lips, the very magnetism of it, neither of them seeming able to make themselves stop it. And then in the lift, the instant the doors were closed, the floodgates breaking open between them, now that they were finally acknowledging it, finally letting themselves do what they’ve both wanted for so long. Shutting themselves here in their room and no one putting the brakes on, slamming up walls or defences to keep it back, finally touching and touching and not stopping themselves, stumbling into Sherlock’s bed together, asking and confirming, and then Sherlock taking his hand and moving it in clear signal of what he wanted: for John to be inside him. John boggling at the fact that he was already fully equipped for the situation.

Suddenly he remembers what he said, in his jealousy: Who even knows who you’ve all been with? He said that aloud, didn’t he? Yes – he remembers the briefest shadow of something coming over Sherlock’s face at it. And then Sherlock deciding that he’d rather turn away from him for the rest of it, John entering him from behind, unable to see his face.

Shit. Was that it? Was that what wrecked it? His thoughtless, stupid words, suggesting that Sherlock always travels prepared to have meaningless sex with strangers or something along those lines? It was his pointless jealousy over Greg – a person who’s very much happy in his own relationship and wasn’t even flirting with Sherlock to start with – that prompted him to say that, but John knows that his own jealousy of anyone who so much as breathes in Sherlock’s general vicinity is what’s to blame here. What a thoughtless thing to have said! And right in that moment, too, after Sherlock had specifically, if non-verbally, asked John to be inside him, the most vulnerable, revealing thing he could have possibly requested. Shit. That was definitely it. Because otherwise, it could have been a culmination of them finally, finally getting there, finally managing to allow themselves to kiss, to admit their attraction, even their love, had John not gone and said that stupid thing!

That was it. John feels sure of it. And maybe that was the breaking point: after years of taking John’s criticism, both implied and overt, of accepting blame he never deserved, of having John walk out on him every single time things got difficult, of him flinching away from Sherlock’s touch even to maintain a cover story – maybe this last thing was the final straw and he’s decided that he just can’t take any more of it, but doesn’t know what to do about it. John closes his eyes, his gut writhing in guilt and self-loathing.

He’s got to find Sherlock. It can’t wait any longer. It’s beginning to get dark and Sherlock is still out there, still not talking to him, unable to even be in the same room as him. He’s got to find him and apologise – for all of it – and make this right. He needs to tell Sherlock that finally, only six bloody years late, that he loves him and is ready to admit it to both of them. That he wants this, actively wants Sherlock. Wants to claim him, instead of just getting petty and jealous when it seems like other people are trying to put their claim on him, too afraid of God only knows what to make a move of his own – that is, if Sherlock will have him. If it isn’t too late now.

John turns away from the window and grabs for his coat. He checks his phone again in the lift, but of course there’s still nothing. He manages to avoid the people beginning to trickle down for dinner – it must be after six, then – and plunges out into the cool night. Now that it’s twilight, the day doesn’t seem so grey. The clouds are almost mauve, heavy with snow, but John isn’t looking at the sky as he hurries along. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he can’t just sit around waiting any longer. He’s walking toward the centre of the old city, but this time he doesn’t turn off toward the river, keeping to the main streets. Where would Sherlock have gone? He reaches the same place they came to on their first day, when they turned right and found that little pub for lunch, and goes that way again. He sees the pub and is nearly a block past it when somewhere behind him, a bell begins to ring. John stops in his tracks. Is it the same bell that nearly deafened him the other day when he was out walking? It’s hard to say, but he thinks that it is: it’s King’s College Chapel.

Without even thinking about it, he turns around and begins to walk toward it. Somehow he just knows: that’s where Sherlock is. He actually checked the service times the other day when he walked past the doors and thinks that it’s got to be too late in the day for there to be Evensong now. Maybe the bell is ringing to signal the time. It doesn’t matter and he doesn’t care. Sherlock is there, he’s sure of it. He makes his way doggedly down the pavement, not seeing any of the people he passes, and finally makes his way to the church.

The big doors are unlocked and he slips into the cool, dim, vast space. The chapel is unexpectedly long, the area for public seating lined with chairs rather than pews, but there’s still a long central aisle leading up to the front. There a very few people inside, but there are some: a few tourists, a couple of employees quietly arranging this or that, but John has eyes only for the lone person sitting about two-thirds of the way back on the left side, about four chairs over from the aisle. His head is bowed forward, his shoulders slumped as though in defeat, and suddenly John’s heart is in his throat.

He moves forward, his shoes hardly making any sound on the polished black and white tiles. Now that he’s finally found Sherlock, he’s massively relieved, but also nervous, not sure how to start, what to say. He goes into a row two back from Sherlock’s and quietly sits down one chair over and waits, his heart thumping, wondering how the hell to begin.

The silence lengthens. Sherlock hasn’t moved, but John feels certain that he knows he’s there. After an agonisingly long time, Sherlock finally speaks, his voice low, his tone dry. “I assume you haven’t come here to pray.”

John clears his throat and it seems to echo in the rich acoustic, making ripples in the heavy silence. “Er, no,” he says. “I was looking for you.”

“Took you long enough to find me.” Sherlock is quiet, the words nonetheless very clear. He’s still bent forward, elbows on his thighs, his long fingers clasped between his knees.

John winces. “Yeah, I know,” he says. “Far too long. Six years too long.”

A new sort of stillness comes over Sherlock. Then he says, “I didn’t think you’d remember that.”

“Took me awhile on that one, too,” John says, grimacing internally at his own inadequacy. He shifts. “Did you come here for Evensong?”

“No.” Sherlock definitely sounds bitter. “The service was at half-past three. Like everything else, I was too late.”

“Shit, I’m sorry,” John says, full of self-recrimination. He clears his throat again and tries to force the words out. “Look, you know what crap I am at this stuff, and I don’t know what to say that would ever be enough to say it all, but I’ve got to start somewhere. I’m sorry, Sherlock. So sorry. For all of it. For it taking so long. For not seeing it sooner. For going back to Mary. My awful letter. For blaming you. For all of it.”

Sherlock turns now, looking back at him, his eyes dark and intense in the dim lighting. “Mary killed Kyle Rosenfeld,” he says starkly. “Have you put that together yet?”

John nods. “Yes, I know. I read through Andrea’s emails. I get why you didn’t want me to know. I do. I’m sorry I was such a shit about you not telling me.”

Sherlock exhales and looks away. “I’ve only ever withheld information from you for your own sake,” he says, looking up at the stained glass windows to the right above them, his profile to John. “This one time was the only instance of having done it for my own sake, too. I didn’t think you would like finding out and I didn’t want to be the one to tell you, when I was frankly hoping that we could finally begin to move past some of – of the obstacles.”

He doesn’t specify what the obstacles having been blocking, but it’s definitely a reference to them, John thinks, his heart beating faster. “I know,” he says. “And I’ve been useless on that front, too. I know that now, and I’m sorry.”

Sherlock shakes his head and looks down at his hands. “I don’t know what to do with that.” His voice is bleak and John’s heart gives another stab.

“Sherlock – ” He leans forward now, his arms braced on the chair in front of him. “Where have you been all day? Why did you disappear on me like that?”

Sherlock shrugs. “I’ve been walking,” he says vaguely. He opens his mouth as though to say something else, then changes his mind and subsides into silence.

“But why did you leave this morning?” John presses. He’s done avoiding this subject. They’ve been intimate now, damn it – it’s too late to pretend this isn’t happening, or hasn’t happened. He’s been inside Sherlock, touched him absolutely everywhere. It’s too far gone to turn back now, and he’s finally ready to own what he feels, and tell Sherlock. Nonetheless, he hesitates when Sherlock makes no move to answer him, and makes himself ask the question, wincing. “Was it – what I said, last night? When you, er, gave me the condom?”

Sherlock’s lips tighten a little, and he doesn’t look at John. But then he nods, just a little, and John feels shame prickle over him like flame breaking out over every pore of his body at having his suspicion confirmed.

God, I’m sorry!” It comes out too loudly, but he can’t help it. “I shouldn’t have said that – I don’t even know why I did! I don’t – think of you like that, of – whatever that implied.” He’s not even making sense, but it doesn’t matter. “I’m – it’s just me, my stupid jealousy – I don’t think you’ve – no, that’s not right. Let me try again: it doesn’t matter to me who you’ve been with before. It doesn’t matter one bit, and I’m furious with myself for having said that tactless shit. Especially when I’m always so hard on you for being tactless with people. Like I’ve even got a leg to stand on there – I’m so sorry, Sherlock!”

Sherlock swallows. “I can see how it must have looked, given that I… had those things. You must have wondered. But the truth is…” He stops and turns his head toward John, but doesn’t raise his eyes to meet John’s gaze. “You’re the only person I’ve been with,” he says, very quietly. “That’s the truth, John. The only one.”

John feels both shocked and ten times worse than he did before, wanting to sink through the gleaming tiled floors. He bends forward and covers his face with his hands. “Fuck,” he says, with strength. “I am such piece of shit.”

“The only one I’ve ever wanted to be with, for what it’s worth,” Sherlock adds, and John drops his hands.

Their eyes meet, Sherlock’s steady and sure, not shying away from this admission. In spite of his internal misery, John’s heart swells at this. “Do you mean that?” he asks, and Sherlock nods.

“You’ve always been the only one for me,” he says, as though making a confession. “I never thought it would happen. Never… tried to bring it about. But it’s very much the truth.”

“But you’ve always – ?” John stops, because Sherlock is nodding again. “God – me too, Sherlock! Always. From the very beginning. I was just too stupid to see it, too – pigheaded to admit it to myself, much less anyone else. And then everything got so fucked up. Your ‘death’, then Mary, then Eurus… not to mention everything I’ve done to make things even worse. I’ve hurt you so many times. I – I’ve only just started realising how much and how often and I feel like such a prick. I’m sorry.”

Sherlock shakes his head, half-turned toward him, his arms resting on the back of his chair. “I hardly made matters any better, myself. I hurt you, too. Kept you in the dark too much. Shut you out, didn’t tell you enough. And when I – when you thought I had died… you suffered. I know that. I’ve felt very much that I deserved your anger. That I should count myself lucky that you’ve been willing to stay friends with me at all. We’re neither of us very good at this, it would seem.”

“Total rubbish,” John says, and Sherlock actually laughs, just a little, but the sound of it makes John love him all the more. “Listen,” he says intensely. “I’m through with dodging this, avoiding it, postponing it, wrecking it, and most of all, with hurting you in every way possible. If you’re amenable, I want a fresh start, starting now. The only thing Mary has ever been right about, concerning you and me, is that we always could have been this, if we’d let ourselves. I don’t think it’s too late. I’m saying it now: I want that. I want you. I want this. Last night was amazing, up until the point when I kind of ruined it, and I’m so sorry that I did. Can we just – try again?”

Sherlock makes the same face he made in the hospital when John realised he’d smuggled in a fourth recording device, slightly devious and completely lovable. “Last night wasn’t all bad by a long shot,” he says, giving John that sly, playful glance through his lashes that makes John weak in the knees every time, but then the expression fades. “I just – when you said that, it made me think that the profound thing I thought was happening was actually strictly physical in nature, that you still don’t trust me and never will, and while I still wanted that, in the morning I just – it didn’t feel like enough. And I wasn’t sure that I could live with it only being that. I didn’t know what to do, and I didn’t think I could face you until I’d worked out what to say or do about it.”

“No, I understand, completely,” John says vehemently. “But it was that. I just – hadn’t got all the way there yet. I have now. I mean it, Sherlock.” He takes a deep breath. “The truth is that I love you, and I have for a long time already. I just – couldn’t see it clearly until today.”

Sherlock swallows visibly. “I love you, too,” he says, his voice slightly unsteady, but his eyes are on John’s, unwavering and blue.

John wants to vault over the chairs, but he’s very much aware that they’re in a church. “Let’s – go outside,” he says, his throat tight, and Sherlock agrees. They meet in the aisle, Sherlock finding his hand, and they hasten out the door and into the night. John is about to stop and turn to him, but there are students and tourists still milling about nearby, and Sherlock has other ideas.

“This way,” he says, setting off down the walkway and fitting his fingers in between John’s. “There’s a spot I’ve been wanting to show you.”

“Okay,” John says, privately resolving that he’ll go absolutely anywhere with Sherlock without argument and thrilled that Sherlock is showing him one of the spots he loves, that he wants to share it with him. The chill seems to have faded a little, and it’s begun to snow prettily, thick, fluffy, Christmas card snow, wetting the pavement and settling in Sherlock’s dark curls. He tightens his fingers in Sherlock’s and Sherlock smiles at him as they’re walking.

“It’s just up here,” he says, nodding with his chin in the direction of the river, which is to their left, and he leads them onto a stone footbridge spanning the Cam. At the moment, it’s entirely deserted.

It’s perfect, John thinks. He turns to Sherlock when they reach the centre, still holding his hand, then reaches up with his free one to cradle Sherlock’s face, his thumb on Sherlock’s cheekbone. Their eyes meet for a moment, then Sherlock puts his hand over John’s, then bends and kisses him. It begins slowly, their lips pressed together, then Sherlock lets go of his hand and puts both arms around John’s shoulders, so John steps closer and wraps his arms around Sherlock’s back, holding him tightly. Their mouths open, breath mingling, tongues touching, tentatively at first, then with growing passion and hunger. It goes on and on, neither of them caring a fig about being seen by passersby, but no one comes along. They have the bridge to themselves, standing there in the falling snow, embracing without shame, without holding back, and it’s the best John’s ever felt in the whole of his forty-one years. Last night was already a revelation about how hungry for this Sherlock actually was, but now the full weight of it is bearing down on them both. John throws himself into it, pouring everything he’s finally letting them both feel into the kiss, and it’s so good. He feels whole in a way he’s never felt before in his life.

A rustling sound distracts them both and they break apart, startled. “What – ” Sherlock starts, then begins to laugh. “Oh. Oh my.”

They’re surrounded by swans – possibly the same flock that took John by surprise the other day. “Oh, Jesus,” he says, as they’re somewhat hemmed in on all sides by swans, dark eyes watching them warily on every side. “Er – I wonder if they think I’m trying to kill you or something.”

Sherlock smirks. “If you are, I approve of your chosen method. Never mind the swans. I need to kiss you again.”

John feels a smile take over his face, and is about to say something to express his agreement, but then Sherlock’s mouth is on his again before he can and he forgets the swans, the snow, all of it. They kiss and kiss, and the swans don’t attack them or honk at them, and much later, when they’ve finally surfaced for air again, Sherlock’s mouth looking deliciously well-kissed and rosy, John sees that the flock has wandered off to the far side of the bridge, making their way down the bank and into the icy waters of the Cam. Somehow he feels like it’s a good omen, like the swans have come to check on them, and given their blessing. It’s stupid and he’s not going to say it out loud, but the feeling persists nonetheless.

“I can’t believe this is actually happening,” Sherlock murmurs, putting both hands on John’s face and leaning his forehead against John’s.

“I know,” John says, holding Sherlock’s wrists and smiling into his eyes, his thumbs rubbing over Sherlock’s hands. He must look like a lovesick idiot, but he doesn’t care. “But it is. It finally is.”

“I’m sorry, too, for what it’s worth,” Sherlock tells him, his voice low and warm and unusually open. “All of those things I couldn’t tell you. Being so prickly with you this whole week. All the rest of it.”

“No, I get it,” John says. “I completely get it.” He lets go of Sherlock’s wrists and leans up to kiss his cheeks one at a time, then his mouth again, for the pure pleasure of being able to now. “I’m the one who married someone who shot you, then went back to her and all that. I’m the one with much more to apologise for. All of those times I walked out on you, both physically and in other ways, when I should have stayed and talked. Worked things out with you. I should have, and from now on, I always will.”

Sherlock shakes his head, putting his hands on John’s shoulders. “Was I any different, hiding from it in other ways, making myself unreachable and shutting you out? We’ve both had a hand in this, John. I’ve long thought that I had far more to apologise for than you ever have.”

“We’ll have to agree to disagree on that one,” John says, his lip twisting, hands resting on Sherlock’s waist. “You’ve more than compensated for your part. I’m still working on my end of it, but I swear I’ll get there, if you give me a chance. The other night, though, in the hot tub – it probably could have happened then, but then I went and got – like how I get, and wrecked that, too.”

“I admit, I was hoping that maybe the… inherent intimacy of the setting might help,” Sherlock confesses. A large snowflake lands on his eyelashes and he blinks, and John reaches up to wipe it gently away with his forefinger.

“I was in a snit of jealousy over bloody Greg,” he confesses. “It sounds so stupid when I say it out loud, but there it is. I’m sorry. I’ll work on that, too.”

Sherlock actually smiles at this, though. “I’ll admit that I was actively trying to make you jealous. It rather backfired on me, though. But then I rather showed my hand after that, too, reacting the way I did.”

“Not that I had any clue why at the time,” John says ruefully. “I did manage to guess that maybe that was why today, though. So bloody late to figure everything out, though. That stuff you brought – the condoms, the lube – was that in hopes that it might finally happen, with us?”

Sherlock shrugs a bit modestly. “Who else? Though it was a rather farfetched hope, particularly given the way you reacted to my brother informing us that we’d be posing as an engaged couple. Still. I just – wanted to be prepared. Just in case.”

John shakes his head. “God, I’m an idiot!”

Sherlock dimples roguishly at him. “Would it be too forward to admit that I’m in active hope of it proving useful again in the rather near future?”

A rush of blood plunges south in John’s body and he has to swallow. “Absolutely not. Please be as forward as you want. I love that – love hearing you tell me what you want out loud. And yes to it coming in useful again!”

Sherlock claims his mouth again, the kiss unapologetically deep, their tongues halfway down each other’s throats, Sherlock’s hands stroking possessively over his back, and John’s in heaven, his arms wound as tightly around Sherlock as he can get them, his heart blazing. After a longish while, Sherlock pulls away, his pupils flooding his irises. “I’d suggest going straight back to our room, but…” He hesitates. “You might not even believe what I’m about to say, but I’m actually ravenous. I haven’t eaten all day.”

“I was wondering,” John allows. “I’ve only eaten lunch, myself. Let’s find ourselves a nice restaurant and have a proper date, shall we? And then – ”

“And then we’ll go back to our room and you’ll ravish me properly,” Sherlock says, with so much relish that it should be indecent, but John couldn’t possibly care less.

“Deal,” he says, his own voice coming out lower than usual, and Sherlock takes hold of his face and kisses him breathless all over again.

The restaurant they find is a chop house on a main street not far from King’s College. They order venison shoulder for two, with mashed potatoes and roasted carrots all drowning in a rich gravy and drink a bottle of red wine with it, followed by banoffee pie, and John thinks of Sherlock’s abiding fondness for almost anything sweet with deep affection. By silent agreement, they don’t talk about the case, focusing only on themselves and all of the things they should have said much earlier. After Sherlock’s paid, they find themselves back out in the falling snow, walking hand-in-hand back toward Chilton College, talking over their first meeting again.

“You thought I was a madman,” Sherlock says whimsically, his fingers threaded through John’s again, the gesture amazingly affectionate for someone normally so reserved. “You said so in your blog.”

“I remember,” John says, chuckling. “But you changed everything, you know. My life was – grey. Bleak. You came in and gave it colour and fire and meaning again. Once I tried to tell you that Mary had done the same thing, but the truth is that she was never much more than a stopgap measure. Something to dull the constant ache of missing you. Because I never stopped, you know. I never stopped wanting you, wishing you were there with me.”

Sherlock’s cold fingers tighten a little. “Nor I you,” he says. “I missed you terribly while I was away. More than I expected to. It – surprised me, at the time, even knowing that I felt the way I did. It took me a long time to recognise it, too, you know. To acknowledge fully that it was what it was.”

“I’m glad we’ve finally got there,” John says, as they turn down the main walk leading up to the doors of Chilton College. “And today, too. It seems fitting.”

“It does,” Sherlock agrees, but there’s something else there in his tone, something that sets off John’s warning bells. Sherlock stops at the foot of the steps leading up to the big double doors, turns to face him, and takes a deep breath. “John…”

He stops and a stab of unease making itself known in John’s gut. “Yeah?” he asks, stepping closer to Sherlock. “What is it?”

Sherlock swallows. “This is a serious question: I know that you – no. That’s not what I mean to ask. Do you really think that it’s possible to – to try for this, now? You don’t think that you’ll change your mind, or that it will evade us again the instant we return to London and our usual lives? I mean, here in this setting, it feels very real, very plausible, but once we’re back and you’re back at your flat and I’m at Baker Street… it’s not that I doubt your – sincerity, but – forgive me if I seem… wary of believing it all the way.”

“Listen,” John says, very firmly, taking both of Sherlock’s hands. “I don’t want to go back to the way things have been, you at Baker Street and me out at the flat, living separate lives. From here on in, I only want there to be one ‘life’: the one you and I share. I’m in this all the way now, and I want to be wherever you are. I want to come home, if you don’t mind my extra baggage.”

Sherlock frowns back at him. “Why would I mind? I want you and Rosie there.”

“It will be very complicated,” John warns him. “Having a baby about is no joke.”

“I’m aware of how babies function,” Sherlock says dryly. “I’m not that hopeless a cause.”

“No – I didn’t mean to suggest that you are,” John says hastily. “I just – I hate that there’s anything that will make things difficult. More difficult,” he amends.

“I don’t care,” Sherlock says, almost forcefully. “All I want is for you to be there. Whatever it takes.”

John’s throat grows tight. “Well then, steel yourself, because I’m never going back to Mary’s flat again. I need to be with you, and I’m not giving this up for anything. As for changing my mind, there’s no chance whatsoever. I know it took me forever to get here, but I’m here now and I’m not going back on that, either. I love you and you’re stuck with me, okay?”

A muscle twitches in Sherlock’s cheek. “For good?” he asks. John nods, but Sherlock doesn’t wait for him to speak. “Good,” he says, and kisses John fiercely, engulfing him with his arms, and the heat of him, his very proximity, set John’s very skin and heart on fire. He kisses back as strongly as he knows how, snow gathering on his hair and wetting his face, but he couldn’t possibly care less. After what feels like an age, Sherlock pulls back, his eyes glowing. “In that case… forgive me if this is somewhat premature, but… what would you say if I were to suggest that we come back here in one year’s time? King’s College, and Evensong?”

John frowns. “Yeah, sure, but we don’t have to wait that long. Don’t they have Evensong pretty often?”

Sherlock hesitates. “That’s… not what I’m asking. I mean on this date, specifically.”

John’s brain puts the pieces together and the breath stops in his lungs. “Oh my God,” he says, stunned. “Are you proposing to me?”

Sherlock’s mouth does that thing again, almost playful, but more hesitant. “I know it must seem sudden, but we’d have a year, and the others have been pressuring us to choose a date…” he trails off, biting his lower lip.

John almost can’t speak. “Yes – yes, of course! I would marry you here and now, if you wanted that! But do they let people get married during Evensong?”

“I don’t know and I don’t care. I’ll make Mycroft make it happen,” Sherlock says stubbornly, and John begins to laugh, laughing right into their next kiss, his eyes unabashedly wet by the end of it. It feels like an unbelievable dream and he can’t get anywhere near enough of Sherlock right now. It feels practically illegal, just holding him and kissing him without limits like this, not holding back, not trying to deny that he wants it more than anything he’s ever wanted before in the whole of his life. It feels so good to finally drop the pretence, especially given how much he can feel that Sherlock feels for him, how very much Sherlock wants him in return.

Sometime later, he makes himself break off the kiss. Sherlock is warm in his arms, but the night around them is growing cold. “Let’s go inside,” he murmurs, brushing snow out of Sherlock’s curls with his bare hands. “I want a do-over on last night.”

Sherlock’s mouth quirks at the corners. “It was right quite good, in spite of that one hitch. On the strictly physical side, I had absolutely no objections.”

“I want to make it up to you on the other side, then,” John insists. He takes the lapels of Sherlock’s coat and kisses him one more time. “Besides,” he murmurs. “I’m beginning to be in something of an indecent state. Not that I care about that particularly, but…”

“Oh?” There’s something arch in Sherlock’s tone. “And here I thought you were the expert on social propriety.”

John snorts. “Hardly. That’s the big myth here. It always has been. But enough about that. I want to see how fast those fingers of yours can get me naked again. I was rather impressed by your dexterity last night.”

Sherlock gives him a look that nearly undoes every string in his body. “As was I by yours,” he says archly, and John nearly trips over the steps in his haste to haul Sherlock up them.

The security guards must be having fun at their expense, John thinks fuzzily as they attack each other in the lift again. It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t care one bit what anyone thinks anymore. All that matters is this: Sherlock kissing him as though he needs John’s mouth more than life itself. He’s got Sherlock backed into the wall and Sherlock’s hands are on his arse below his jacket, gripping and squeezing and John can feel himself hardening in hair-trigger response. Now that he’s finally stopped trying to deny it, he can see easily how many times per day, per hour that he’s actively desired Sherlock, been ridiculously attracted to him, and of course it’s far more than that. Sherlock is the most important person in his life and has been since the day they met, and he’s absolutely through with denying either of them this life-giving, soul-feeding thing they’ve both been craving for literal years now.

They trip over themselves in their haste to get into their room, John’s heart pounding as they kiss ravenously, Sherlock bent over him, arms around him, fingers stripping away whatever piece of clothing they land on. John gets his entire forearm down Sherlock’s trousers without bothering to unbutton them first, dying to get his hand on Sherlock’s cock again, and Sherlock groans into his mouth, his breath hot.

“John – let me – ” Sherlock interrupts himself to kiss John again, as though he can’t help himself, then rapidly gets the button and zip undone, all four of their hands wrestling Sherlock’s trousers and underwear off. Sherlock steps out of them, pulling off his socks, and John takes the opportunity to shed his already-opened jeans, too.

Sherlock’s eyes turn predatory, watching this. His cock is hard and pointing directly at John, which John loves, and his own is trying to bore a wet hole through his underwear to get at Sherlock in turn. He gets his socks off, then Sherlock reaches for him, a hand dropping immediately to wrap itself around John’s cock, his mouth on John’s already, and John makes a sound he’s not even trying to prevent into Sherlock’s mouth, the feel of Sherlock’s tongue against his connecting directly with his cock. He’s touching Sherlock, too, his cock heavy and hard in his hand, and for a moment they just stand there, kissing and stroking each other, but John wants to make it better for Sherlock than this, and makes himself break off the kiss after a minute or two to transfer his mouth to Sherlock’s long, pale throat, hands caressing his sides. “Let’s go to bed,” he says, his mouth at the junction of Sherlock’s jaw and ear, and he feels Sherlock nod.

Sherlock tugs him toward his own bed again and pulls John onto him. John crawls onto him and kisses him over and over again, then shifts lower to resume what he was doing before, kissing Sherlock’s throat and chest, his mouth working over Sherlock’s nipples, which peak against his tongue in gratifyingly instant response. John traces his lips and tongue over the smooth planes of Sherlock’s abs, the hollow of his navel, marvelling at the feel of him breathing, his stomach expanding and contracting sharply when John moves lower still. “John – what are you – ”

It’s not quite alarmed, but nearly. John looks up at Sherlock, who’s propped himself up on his elbows, his lips parted, worry knitting his forehead. “I want to,” he says, as reassuringly as he knows how. “I want to make you feel good.”

Sherlock doesn’t look reassured. “You don’t have to do this,” he says, self-consciousness all over his face.

John finds the fingers of Sherlock’s left hand and twines his into them. “I want to,” he repeats gently. “I want to start making some new patterns, ones where I treat you the way you deserve to be treated.”

Sherlock’s lips tighten. “You don’t have to apologise by – by doing this. I don’t want that.”

John realises his mistake. “Oh God, no!” He shifts back up so that he’s lying beside Sherlock, putting an arm around his middle. “It would never be that,” he says, his voice going both rough and tender at the same time. He touches Sherlock’s lip with his thumb. “I want to make you feel good, that’s all. Not as – compensation. Because I love you and I want to do things for you. God – I’m dying to try this, if you want to know. Getting to touch you in any way at all is just – and I’ve been fantasising about this particular thing for years. Actual years, Sherlock. Let me do this for you. Please.”

He can’t help it; he presses his lip to Sherlock’s chest and jaw, and actively feels him weakening. “Actual years?” Sherlock asks, turning his head to look John in the eyes.

John nods. “Almost had a go on the stag night, if you want to know. Might have saved us a lot of trouble if I had.”

Sherlock’s mouth twitches into a smile. “What about you, though?” he asks, not specifying, but he doesn’t need to.

John smiles. “Don’t worry about me. Just – let me do this, okay?”

Sherlock hesitates, then nods. “Okay,” he says, and it comes out only just above a whisper.

John starts over again, but goes a little slower this time, persuading Sherlock with his mouth and hands to relax and enjoy this. He can feel Sherlock trying hard to, though, and silently applauds him for it. When he fits himself back into the open vee of Sherlock’s long, perfect legs, he reaches for Sherlock’s hand with his right again and looks up at him. “I love you,” he says, very plainly, and strokes Sherlock’s thumb knuckle with his thumb. Sherlock’s lips part, but he doesn’t wait for him to say it back, taking his cock with his left hand and bringing it to his mouth. Sherlock’s cock is even better close up, the exact right length and thickness, perfectly formed. John runs his tongue around the rosy head and feels the shudder that runs the length of Sherlock’s spine. Liking this, he kisses and licks his way down the length of Sherlock, then rubs it a few times before bringing it to his mouth and taking him inside. Sherlock’s entire body jolts and his knees tighten instinctively around John’s hips and arse, breath sucking in hard. He’s quivering, but doesn’t protest as John begins to suck, mindful to keep his teeth covered and his tongue very much in play, remembering to use his free hand and liking the way Sherlock’s fingers are tightening in his other one. There’s a tang of salt on his tongue, Sherlock’s foreskin sliding along the hard length of him as John grips and squeezes. He’s panting, open-mouthed and starting to moan as John works his mouth over him, loving the taste of him to an almost indecent degree. No one else has ever tasted this, he thinks with fierce triumph, yet at the same time feels an irrational rage that Sherlock has waited this long to feel this, to have someone want to do this for him. To know that he deserves it, too, without any sort of prerequisite of compensation or apology, that he’s worth doing this for. John sucks and licks and bobs his head over Sherlock, sensing that he’s getting close and wanting to bring him over the line. Sherlock’s legs and hips are moving, his stomach hollowing and filling as he pants.

“John, I’m – I’m going to – ” he gasps out, his other hand pushing warningly at John’s head, but John makes a sound of specific encouragement, knowing that it will reverberate into Sherlock’s flesh, and goes harder still. Sherlock makes an agonised sound, pulls his fingers out of John’s to grip his hair with all ten fingers, his body writhing off the sheets, and then the warm rush floods John’s mouth and the breath bursts from Sherlock’s throat as he comes hard, sounding almost agonised, his voice ragged.

John busies himself with swallowing it all, wanting fiercely to show Sherlock that he does trust him, that he knows and trusts that Sherlock would know his own physical status and trusts that he would have said something if a condom had been necessary for this. But he didn’t, so John is swallowing down his release in full confidence that it’s all right, his hands dug beneath Sherlock to grip his arse as his cock twitches in his mouth.

Sherlock’s body sags against the sheets at last, spent, and John moves up and kisses his jaw and face feverishly, letting Sherlock pant through the aftermath, his own, jutting erection almost forgotten. It’s achingly hard for Sherlock and craving his touch, but it can wait. It doesn’t even matter. All that matters is that Sherlock know how much he wanted to do this, liked doing it, that nothing spoils it now, makes him feel unworthy or that it was a bad decision to allow himself to be this vulnerable.

“That was so hot,” John murmurs, stroking Sherlock’s chest obsessively. “You’re phenomenal. I can’t wait to do that again. God, your cock is fantastic!”

Sherlock reaches up and grips John’s hand, still breathing hard. “That was incredible,” he manages, sounding dazed. After a moment, he collects himself and turns onto his side, facing John. “Now you,” he says firmly, and John nods, not wanting to deny him.

“Okay,” he says, and Sherlock swoops in and claims his mouth again, his hand curling around John’s deeply-flushed, ridiculously hard erection. John exhales hard through his nose. Sherlock’s very proximity is an incredible turn-on, the heat and scent of him surrounding John, and he seems to know instinctively exactly how to touch him, how hard, how fast he needs it. After a moment or two, John’s breathing too hard to kiss and pulls away, his head falling back as Sherlock strokes him expertly. He was already so aroused that it never would have taken long, but Sherlock is so good – and he knows damned well that he’s not going to say a single word that might make it sound like he doesn’t believe that this is the first time Sherlock’s done this, because he does believe it – and besides that, Sherlock could easily ask him the same thing about his very newly-minted blow job technique, which was based on nothing but ones he’s received in the past. Either way, he’s in heaven, writhing right at the brink of his orgasm, feeling so good that he never wants it to end, yet also can’t wait for it any longer – Sherlock turns his face into John’s neck and sucks hard, and John comes hard, shouting and spraying his release everywhere, bucking uncontrollably into Sherlock’s fist, his own squeezing it, pumping himself upward as come shoots out of him, and they’re both a mess by the time he’s finally done.

There are stars in his vision and he’s gasping when he comes to himself, Sherlock wrapped possessively around him. John strokes the arm that’s lying across his chest and attempts to wrap his satiated brain around the concept of forming words. “Wow,” he says, and it falls rather pitifully short of how incredibly good the whole thing felt.

Sherlock seems to like it, though, inching closer still, and John turns into it and pulls Sherlock to himself, overlooking the sticky mess between them. “I do see your point,” Sherlock says, his face and eyes serious, gazing into John’s.

“Point?” John still can’t manage coherent speech.

Sherlock doesn’t appear to notice or care. “About doing things for… your person. I want to do a lot more. Starting with what you did.”

John feels a silly smile stretch across his face. “We’ll try anything and everything you want to try,” he promises.

“And you,” Sherlock says. His face is still very serious. He looks down between them. “We’re a bit of a mess.”

This is an understatement. “True,” John admits. “Let me get a flannel.” He bestirs himself with reluctance and pads naked into the loo to find something to clean up with, and comes back with two warm, wet hand towels, giving one to Sherlock as he climbs back into bed. “Sorry. This is all me.”

“Only because you swallowed,” Sherlock says, giving John a slanted look so full of smoke and sly play that it’s nearly enough to get John hard again.

He can hear the real question, though. “I did, yeah,” he says, tossing his flannel away and slotting his legs in between Sherlock’s again, tucking an arm around his abdomen. “Without a single qualm, I might add.”

Sherlock searches his eyes. “I’m clean, you know. I was tested in Culverton Smith’s hospital. And I’ve never – ”

“I know,” John interrupts gently, quickly. “I know, Sherlock. I believe you. I’m sorry. I still can’t believe I actually said that shitty thing last night.”

“Let’s forget about it,” Sherlock decides. “I’d much rather talk about other things rather than rehash the same territory over and over again. Self-flagellation is definitely a mood-killer.”

John lets his expression turn playful. “Oh, are we still curating a mood here?”

“Absolutely. The night is young, and we haven’t even got to the – materials I brought along yet,” Sherlock says breezily, which makes John laugh, which in turn makes Sherlock start kissing him again, which he doesn’t mind or resist in the slightest.

After, John pulls back, his hand still cupping Sherlock’s face. “I can’t believe you actually want to marry me,” he says in genuine wonder. “I mean – are you sure?”

“Yes. Extremely,” Sherlock says. “Did you think I was just – asking on a whim?”

“No,” John says hastily. “I just – and it’s not too sudden, not at all. Not when it’s already been delayed for this long.”

Sherlock’s thumb tracks over his cheekbone. “I’ve known I wanted to marry you since the day you married someone else,” he says, his voice low and very serious. “And it just – never stopped. I want to publicly lay claim to you. Invite all of London to witness it. Whatever it takes.”

John’s chest squeezes almost painfully around his heart, but he makes himself answer lightly, so that he doesn’t start bawling or something. “If we get married at King’s College during Evensong, that will be a sizeable chunk of people right there,” he points out, smiling around the tightness in his throat.

Sherlock chuckles. “Good. Perfect. I suppose it’s a bit backwards, but we’ve done everything out of order. Moving in together before having a relationship of any sort, even friendship.”

John agrees. “Getting engaged before having even exchanged blow jobs. Yeah, I do see what you mean.”

“We haven’t precisely ‘exchanged’ them just yet,” Sherlock says, with a suggestive lift of his eyebrows. “But as I said, the night is young.”

John thinks of their case, and deliberately doesn’t mention it. The case can wait. This is too important, and it’s been waiting for far too long already. “That it is,” he says. He can feel that Sherlock’s already getting hard again, and the very knowledge of it is having the same effect on him, feeling Sherlock’s erection growing tangibly against his thigh. “About that stuff you brought along,” he says. He pauses, but he already decided this a long time ago, too – that where Sherlock is concerned, previous limitations, barriers, and other hesitations simply need not apply. And now, there is absolutely nothing that John would ever deny him. Never again. “We haven’t used it so far, but we could. We definitely could. I thought, though, that you might be a little sore from last night…”

He trails off and waits for Sherlock to get it, get what he’s offering. It takes a moment, but then Sherlock’s expression goes from confused to startled, his eyes widening. “I am a little sore,” he admits reluctantly. “But – ”

John finds himself oddly nervous about saying this out loud. “I’ve actually… it’s not the first time I’ve thought about it,” he says, clearing his throat. “And the other night, after the hot tub, when you had me backed up against the door, there – er, yeah. That definitely confirmed that I’d be… interested in trying this, if it’s something you think you might like?”

Sherlock’s lips press together a little. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says, every bit as self-conscious as John is. “I wouldn’t want to hurt you…”

John searches his eyes. “I didn’t know what I was doing last night, either,” he points out. “That aside, do you think you might want to?” Sherlock hesitates, so he hastens to add, “I mean – we don’t have to do that at all. There’s no rush on any of this, ever. We don’t need to use that stuff.”

Sherlock’s lips compress again. “What I’d really like is to – explore a little,” he says. “Touch you. Look at you properly. In detail. Could we start with that and see where it leads?”

“Yes, absolutely,” John says, his heart thudding strangely. They’re both new to this, he thinks. In a way it’s almost a relief. He finds Sherlock’s fingers and winds his through them again. “We’ll explore together,” he promises, and Sherlock bends forward to kiss him again, a long, slow, poignantly sweet kiss.

It ends up being the best night of John’s life, by a vast margin. Sherlock explores to his heart’s content, prodding into every nook and cranny of John’s body, the very depth of his interest so pronounced that it takes away any of the potential for self-consciousness on John’s part. It’s a heady combination of being delicate, yet eager, a bit tentative, yet their mutual desire for it, the sheer amount of naked want makes John’s very skin seem to ache all the more for Sherlock’s touch the further he goes. Sherlock’s hands are stroking almost reverently over his thighs now, thumbs and fingertips digging a little into the muscle, tongue and lips following as though trying to map every inch of John’s body with his tongue. He’s lying half on top of John, his erection pressed up against John’s right calf at the moment, this just adds to how incredibly aroused he is.

Sherlock transfers the intense scrutiny of his gaze to John’s cock now, tipping his head to examine it from this angle and that, and it’s making John all the harder. “This,” Sherlock says, as though stating a well known fact, “is exquisite. Utter perfection.”

John’s chest and cock both swell, the latter twitching visibly against his lower belly. “That might be painting it a bit thick,” he tries, but the truth is that he’s pretty damned tickled by this.

“Nope.” Sherlock makes the p pop the way John’s always secretly loved. “No debate about it. Not that I’ve much to compare it to in terms of living, breathing bodies, but – I’m quite certain.” He bends his curly head to it, inhaling, then running his nose from John’s balls to the head of his cock, which makes John shiver, and then Sherlock applies his tongue and he exhales louder than he meant to. Sherlock’s eyes flick instantly up to his, still licking at his head as though it’s a sweet, but there’s question in his eyes.

“It’s – that’s – that feels amazing,” John stutters out, actively preventing himself from pushing into Sherlock’s mouth, demanding more. He grasps at the sheets with all ten fingers and holds on hard.

Sherlock’s eyes crinkle and smile at him, his mouth occupied with sucking at John’s leaking head. He sucks and licks for several glorious minutes, then pulls back in favour of studying John’s tingling balls for a long moment before putting his lips and tongue to those, too, following with his long, delicate fingers.

John attempts to make himself breathe, even loosening a fist from the sheets in favour of getting his fingers into Sherlock’s curls. “God, I love you,” he says, the words coming out spontaneously, without forethought.

Sherlock looks up at him, then smiles after half a moment. “Likewise,” he says. He shifts upward a little, his hand still cupping John’s balls, and hesitates. “John… may I?”

He doesn’t specify, but his fingers slip further back, and it becomes very clear what he wants to do. John nods, his eyes riveted to Sherlock’s. His heart is pounding, feeling strangely vulnerable in a way he’s never experienced before. “Yeah,” he says, his voice coming out a bit hoarsely. “D’you – do you want the – ?”

Sherlock nods, so John feels around until his hand comes across the lube, and he gives it to Sherlock in silent accession to this. Sherlock accepts it from him, swiftly gets some of it out and tosses the tube aside. He moves up higher, so that his face is next to John’s now, his fingers still loosely cradling John’s balls. “I want to see you,” he says, like he did last night, his expression sombre.

John looks into his eyes, his heart still pounding. “I’m here,” he says.

Sherlock kisses him. It’s a long, slow, incredibly tender kiss and makes John feel as though he’s turning inside out. Sherlock’s hand strokes over his cock, which feels heavenly, then rubs a little at his balls before drifting back to press tentatively right there, at the entrance to his body, and it feels like the most intimate thing John’s ever experienced. He’s never let someone touch him here before, never let himself be made this vulnerable to anyone, and suddenly he realises with a bit of an epiphany that he’s as virginal in this as Sherlock is – in opening himself this far to anyone. He can feel that same tentative, yet very deep want in Sherlock, too, that he’s quivering with it as they kiss. His middle finger slides into John, up to the knuckle, and John breaks away from the kiss, panting. “Okay?” Sherlock asks, his eyes very concerned.

“Very – oh God, God…!” John is torn between the dual sensations of being breached, laid bare, and how unexpectedly good it feels at the same time.

Reassured, Sherlock makes a hummed sound of deep contentment and bends his head to kiss John’s throat, allowing him to pant and moan freely. John can feel how quickly Sherlock’s heart is beating, too, his pulse thudding through his skin, his cock wet where it’s pushing against John’s hip.

When Sherlock’s got two fingers worked into him, he does something with his wrist and suddenly John’s right on the edge, gasping. “Sherlock – stop!”

Sherlock’s hand stills immediately. “Wha – ”

“I’m – I’m too close!” John is too desperate to try to filter this, and Sherlock actually moans in response.

“John – I – ” He’s clambering onto John in sheer need, the hardness of his cock pushing against John’s, and John echoes his moan and digs his fingers into Sherlock’s phenomenal arse, rutting up against him. They kiss hard, mouths bruising each other’s, and it feels so good – a tidal wave of pleasure is surging within John, and it could happen pretty quickly from here, if he let it…

“Sherlock – ” The name is all breath, but Sherlock’s eyes open, still thrusting against him in almost painfully pleasurable movements. He makes a sound in question, and John somehow manages to get the words out. “Do you want to fuck me?”

He’s never asked anyone this before, never dreamed of offering himself this way, but he wants it – he knows that perfectly well right now. He wants it very much, and he wants it from exactly one person, right here and right now. Sherlock’s breath catches. “Wh – why are you… I – ” He stops, seeming confused about what to say.

Now that he’s said it once, it’s easier to say it again. “Do you want to fuck me?” John repeats, hands rubbing over Sherlock’s back and arse. “Because I – I want you to. I want that. But only if you do.”

Sherlock swallows, his face flushed with arousal. “I – we don’t have to,” he begins, obviously torn.

This makes John smile, strange as the moment is for it. “It’s not rocket science, genius,” he says, though he keeps his tone gentle. “I’m asking if you want to fuck me. Be inside me. Come inside me. All of it. Because I want you to. And it would be so easy – you’d only have to move an inch or two, and then you’d be in me.”

Sherlock’s cock throbs against his, and he seems to be unable to speak. Their gaze holds for a moment, exquisitely charged, and then he nods, his lips parted.

John reaches over and finds the lube, still uncapped, and manages to squeeze some into his hand. He rubs it directly onto Sherlock’s cock, which hardens still further in his hand, then guides it to where it needs to go, his eyes on Sherlock’s the entire while. Sherlock pushes himself slowly, slowly inside, gasping in lungfuls of air that he can’t seem to exhale again, his hips shuddering forward in sheer, unfiltered need, and John wills his body to relax enough to allow it, feeling pierced, spitted, invaded in the best of ways, as Sherlock’s cock fills him. It’s absolutely incredible, though, this sensation of being completely joined to Sherlock is a way he’s never experienced before. This is a brand new experience for both of them, he realises, even as he gasps, sweat beading at his temples, hands pulling Sherlock even deeper into him, his knees gripping Sherlock’s sides, one foot hooked under his arse.

When Sherlock is fully buried in him, he stops, breathing hard, and still unable to speak, his eyes on John’s, and it feels as though he’s seeing directly into him, John thinks, feeling almost dazed by the intensity of it. “Are you – all right?” Sherlock gets out, after a moment or two, and John nods.

“Yeah,” he says, only just above a whisper. “Yeah. I’m – I’m good. You can – ”

Sherlock nods, too, getting it, and he shifts his weight to his left arm to stroke John’s face, his fingers trembling. “I don’t – want to hurt you.”

“You won’t,” John vows, and when he hears it aloud he hears himself saying something else, too, a far larger statement about his faith in Sherlock, about them, that they’re finally past hurting each other now.

Sherlock begins to move, and it’s like nothing John’s ever experienced before, either physically or emotionally. The urgency returns swiftly, his cock getting all the way hard again in seconds, and soon enough Sherlock is driving into him with rapidly-escalating need, panting over him, their eyes still on each other’s. John can hear himself moaning, not even trying to hold it in, and Sherlock’s teeth are digging into his lower lip. He shifts his weight a little, changing angles, and suddenly it’s there again, the bloom of pleasure flaring and glowing within John like a sun, and desperation breaks over him. The orgasm is about to crash over him and he can’t control exactly when or how it will. His hands are scrabbling against Sherlock’s back, frantic words and sounds babbling out of him, but Sherlock gets it, his hand suddenly there around him, jerking hard, and John comes so hard that he loses consciousness for a moment or two, his throat hoarse, come spurting out of him in thick jets, and Sherlock is plunging into him, his body wound tighter than a spring, his voice all breath. He surges into John hard and goes rigid, liquid warmth flooding John’s body as he cries out, and it’s so powerful that John’s cock manages to jerk out another burst, too.

It’s many minutes before they’ve managed to pull themselves together enough to speak. John feels as though he’s died and come back to life, his legs limp, hands moving over Sherlock’s long back, Sherlock’s face buried in his neck, his breath hot on John’s skin. It feels different now, John thinks, his brain slowly coming back online. Now it feels like they’re really engaged, like they’ve successfully broken through to the other side of everything that’s been holding them back, everything that’s blocked this from happening for six years now.

Sherlock is still inside him, his cock softening tangibly, surrounded in the release that’s sliding out of him, but John finds himself relishing every single bit of it. It feels balanced now. Last night, it was him in Sherlock – him and his thoughtless words both, but never mind that now. They belong to each other now, in every possible way. John stirs, turning his head and putting his lips in Sherlock’s hair. “That was the very best thing I have ever experienced,” he says, still breathing hard, but meaning it with all his heart. “I love you. I love you so much.”

Sherlock makes an inhuman sound into his shoulder, his arms coming around John, lifting him away from the mattress and holding him to himself in a fierce, wordless embrace, which John returns with every ounce of his strength.

It’s the best night of his life, by far.

***

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

John wakes with Sherlock’s arms still around him, though they’ve loosened in sleep. Last night rushes back to him in pieces – finding Sherlock in King’s College Chapel, kissing him on the bridge, the swans all around them, coming back here and everything that happened after that: them undressing each other, hands all over each other in fumbling, unpractised want, John sucking Sherlock off, Sherlock touching him after, and then Sherlock’s exploration of his body after, winding up with Sherlock inside him, and one of the single best orgasms he’s ever had. His cock twitches just thinking about it, already hard and pressed up against some part of Sherlock’s body. And as he lies there, blinking the fog out of his eyes and thinking over the events of last night, he realises with relief that there’s not one scrap of him that feels even the slightest bit of shame over what’s happened between them. He wouldn’t be embarrassed to have anyone – or everyone – know that Sherlock was inside him last night, or how incredible it was. That they’re together now, together for real, not just for show, that they love each other and that it’s going to last forever – at least if he’s got anything to say about it.

The relief is palpable. John is so glad to discover that he’s finally managed to get his head out of his own arse, that he’s not having some sort of panic attack about the whole thing this morning. He knows it’s going to feel a bit odd at first when they start acting like a couple around people who actually know them, as opposed to strangers, but he also wants people to see them that way now, wants them to realise that they’re together, that they love each other. The kneejerk reaction to deny it seems to have evaporated completely, and for both Sherlock’s sake and his own, John is profoundly grateful. It took so long: he’s always wanted it, yet always got in the way of allowing it to happen, too afraid of so many different factors: that people would ridicule him, both over being attracted to men, and over Sherlock specifically, that Sherlock would be careless with his heart and break it, that even if it did happen, it would never be what he might need from it – that Sherlock would prove to want it less than he did, either emotionally or sexually or both. John thinks about all of this, and realises with still more relief that all of these fears have disappeared, too. Somewhere in his long think yesterday, standing at the window, he finally realised that he wanted this, wanted Sherlock, more than anything else. None of his internal objections were valid anymore. On the contrary: he discovered that Sherlock had far greater grounds for doubting him. But now, hopefully, that’s all behind them. The threshold has been crossed.

Sherlock is lying draped over him, heavy and relaxed in sleep, his back rising and falling steadily, the fluffy blankets halfway down his long back. His head is lying on John’s shoulder, and John’s heart gives a fierce throb of feeling as he remembers that Sherlock proposed last night – rather casually, but in absolute earnest – and he said yes! They’re going to get married. Somehow this rather spectacular detail just seemed to blur into the rest of the amazing things that happened last night as just a natural occurrence amid all the other talking they did. Of course they should get married; it just makes sense. But thinking of it now, it strikes John with renewed wonder and a thrill of joy so poignant it takes his breath away. After everything, Sherlock not only still wants him, but even wants to marry him. He’s that sure. John spontaneously hugs Sherlock for the sheer pleasure of being allowed to, letting everything he feels course through him like electricity, and loving the warmly intimate embrace of their naked bodies relaxing together like this.

Sherlock’s breathing shifts and he stirs, waking, his mouth smacking once or twice. “John?” His voice is scratchy and sleepy, yet apparently John is still the first thing he thinks of, and this makes John’s heart expand enormously.

“Yeah,” he confirms, nuzzling his face into Sherlock’s hair. “Right here.” He rubs his hands over Sherlock’s back and lets himself squeeze again, holding Sherlock to himself.

Sherlock makes a long, very contented sound, then raises his head to focus blearily on John’s face. “This wasn’t just a very good hallucination, then.”

John just smiles, refusing to be baited by this. “Nope. Afraid not.” His hands roam further south, massaging the delectable, firm curve of Sherlock’s arse.

Sherlock makes that same sound and arches against him. “Don’t stop that…”

John gives a laugh that comes out lower and randier than it should have. “Should have known you’d be insatiable once you discovered this.”

“Not this,” Sherlock corrects him, his voice low and private and warm. “You.

John’s heart attempts to turn over in his chest. “Same, as it happens,” he manages to get out around the stupid tightness in his throat, but it doesn’t matter – Sherlock lowers his mouth to John’s then and they kiss for a long moment that ends up spinning out into an even longer kiss following, their bodies waking quickly. Sherlock turns onto his back and pulls John down onto himself, their bodies already shifting and pressing themselves together. There’s a murmured exchange, then a smear of lube to ease the way, and then they’re rocking together. John’s thrusting in an accelerating rhythm, Sherlock’s fingers dug into the meat of his arse, hard enough to remind him of what happened there last night, and the very thought of it is enough to push him right to the edge. He breaks off the kiss, gasping, Sherlock arching off the sheets, a leg twined around John’s hip, and then it’s all breath and frantic agreement between them, urgency driving them faster and harder until Sherlock makes a loud, almost agonised sound, his head tipping back to expose his long, pale throat, and then his body jerks, the spurt of his release following. John can feel it through his balls where they’re rubbing against Sherlock’s, and it’s enough to send him over the edge, particularly once Sherlock grasps him and rubs hard, his thumb pressing right into John’s leaking slit, and John’s body responds by erupting wet heat into and all over Sherlock’s fist and knuckles.

He slumps against Sherlock, his body spent, their stomachs expanding and contracting together, the room filled with the sound of them breathing. “God,” John pants into Sherlock’s collarbone. “You’re phenomenal!”

Sherlock makes a deeply satisfied sound, agreeing, his voice an octave lower than usual. “So are you.”

John doesn’t have the energy or desire to counter this, so he doesn’t. They lie there together, recovering and waking up slowly, quietly revelling in each other, in having found this, and it’s without doubt the best morning after John’s ever experienced, too. After a little, he shifts sideways into the crook of Sherlock’s arm, leaving an arm and leg draped across Sherlock’s thigh and abdomen respectively. “This feels unbelievable,” he says, not checking his words or the wonder he’s not even trying to keep out of his voice.

“Mmm. I was just thinking that,” Sherlock says, his long fingers slipping into John’s hair and stroking. “I keep thinking I’ll wake to find that this was all just an unrealistic dream.”

“But it’s not,” John says, tilting his head up so that he can see Sherlock properly. “We’re here now. Now that we’ve found it, we’re not going to lose it.”

Sherlock cranes his head so that he’s looking into John’s eyes. “You’re very sure of that, aren’t you?” he asks after a moment, letting his own wonder seep into his voice. “No doubts at all?”

“Not a one,” John says firmly. “Like I said, you’re stuck with me now.”

Sherlock smiles, but then it fades a little. “Last night… I was very much in earnest when I asked you to marry me, though I realise I didn’t quite come out and say it in those words. Are you… were you entirely serious when you accepted?”

John blinks at him. “Did I not sound serious when I snogged the life out of you just after I said yes?”

Sherlock stifles a smile that attempts to escape. “No, you did,” he says. “I’m just… checking.”

“The twenty-ninth of January, King’s College,” John says. “I don’t care if it’s a Tuesday. That’s the day we’re getting married. We can even shop for rings while we’re here at the conference, if you want. We’ve got the afternoon to visit the exhibitions. Although,” he adds as an afterthought, “I suppose that depends a bit on whether or not we solve the case.”

Sherlock frowns a little. “Have we not solved it already? I rather think we have…”

John props himself up on one elbow to look down at Sherlock. “Have we? We haven’t even talked about it since the day before yesterday.”

“You said you got Mycroft’s email, with Andrea’s emails,” Sherlock says. “I think those make it fairly clear, don’t you?”

“Oh, she’s definitely the murderer,” John agrees. “But are the emails enough proof?”

“Close enough,” Sherlock says. “We can push and get her to confess.”

John smiles. “You can push and get her to confess, you mean. You’re brilliant at that.”

“A little too good at pushing people’s buttons,” Sherlock says, his mouth twisting a little. “Norbury. I haven’t forgotten.”

John leans over and kisses him for a long moment. “Forget Norbury,” he murmurs. “That wasn’t your fault and I was utterly in the wrong for blaming you the way I did. I’m sorry. You’re brilliant. It’s one of the things that makes you so good at what you do.”

“At the expense of other skills, perhaps,” Sherlock says dryly, but some of the tension has left his body again.

John thinks of the way Sherlock was socialising with the others during the centrepiece workshop. “Nonsense. I know very well that that’s only a cover. You just want people to think that you lack social skills so that you can get away with behaving the way you want to.”

Sherlock’s eyes do something that makes his heart pang. “You do understand me,” he says, his voice a bit tight.

John nods, feeling that same edge come into his own throat. “I’m – starting to, Sherlock. I promise I am.”

Sherlock’s arms tighten around him and he presses his lips into John’s hair, seemingly not able to say anything in response to this. Or so John thinks at first. “I love you,” Sherlock says, the words muffled in John’s hair.

The edge grows even sharper. “I love you, too,” John returns, holding Sherlock tighter still. God, what an idiot he’s been! He puts a hand on Sherlock’s face and angles it down to his and kisses him for a long, wonderful while, feeling as though he’s floating, as though the hotel room around them has disappeared entirely, that the only thing that exists is this. He’s never fallen this hard in love, and it’s not just the rush of falling for the first time – it’s the bone-deep joy of having finally realised a love he’s felt and wanted and not been able to admit to or have for years and years, and the having of it now is the best thing there could possibly be. Every movement of Sherlock’s lips and tongue and arms and body is a confirmation that he feels it just as deeply, just as hungrily, and John is drowning in it in the best of ways.

Some vague amount of time later, they bestir themselves. “I suppose we should talk about the case,” Sherlock says, almost reluctantly. “I could use a shower, however. Come with me. We can talk about it there.”

John grins. “Okay,” he says. “Why not?”

“It’s more efficient,” Sherlock says, pushing back the fluffy bedding and getting out on the far side, heading in the direction of the loo.

John makes no attempt to drag his eyes off the perfection which is Sherlock’s naked arse. “That’s the very least of reasons I would have given, but sure, let’s go with saving on water, by all means.”

Sherlock tosses a look over his shoulder that goes directly to John’s balls and makes them tingle, his smile half-shy and half-definitely-not-shy-at-all, and it’s knee-weakening. “Whatever works,” he says, and John gets out of bed and chases him into the shower.

They wash each other’s bodies and hair and it’s playful and a bit silly, only a little self-conscious on either side. “Have you ever done this with anyone before?” John asks, rinsing conditioner out of Sherlock’s silky locks, slicked down and straight in the water.

“Clearly not, given my utter lack of experience apart from the past two nights – and this morning,” Sherlock says. He opens his eyes. “So, about those emails – did you read all of them?”

“No, not by a long stretch, but I read a lot,” John tells him. “Why?”

Sherlock’s face is rather serious. “Did you see the exchange between Andrea and one Samantha Jones?”

“You mean Mary,” John says, his voice coming out a bit harsh. He clears his throat and pushes his hair back to keep water from dripping into his eyes. “Yeah, I saw those.”

Sherlock looks as though he doesn’t know whether to look self-reproaching for having brought it up, or proud that John’s cottoned on. “I’m glad you put it together for yourself,” he says. “That part, at least.”

“Here’s a question,” John says. “Do you think that Andrea would ever venture beyond this place? I mean, so far the people she’s killed have all ended up here for one reason or another, spread out over time. Do you think she’d ever leave to hunt someone down? And what are the chances of any of the other wedding guests, or people involved in it, ending up here?”

Sherlock makes a thoughtful sound. “Difficult to say. So far she hasn’t left, but surely there are other guests with whom she must hold a stronger vendetta. It already seems rather coincidental that six people involved have come here, though I suppose it’s a rather popular place to hold a conference.”

“Especially a wedding-themed one,” John points out. “I just wondered. I mean, obviously she’s got to be charged and prosecuted. She’s murdered six people.”

“Or hired them to,” Sherlock agrees. “If we could access Mary’s finances under her Samantha Jones alias, that would be the proof. It’s clear from Andrea’s bank records that a payment was made, but it doesn’t show where it’s gone. Then again, a confession could remedy that.”

“She seems to have been a fairly decent person before it all happened,” John says. “She just let that thing warp her completely. But that decency might still be in there. I think we could lean on that to get the confession.”

“Precisely,” Sherlock agrees. His face is angling down toward John’s. “I’m clearly not the only brilliant one here…”

It’s an overt bid for a kiss and John doesn’t refuse it, reaching for Sherlock’s growing erection at the same time, and the rest of the shower ends up being rather unproductive as far as the case is concerned.

***

It’s almost half-past eleven by the time they’ve got dressed and made a plan for the day. Since today’s lunch is the final meal of the conference, the first order of business is definitely joining the rest of their group, whom they haven’t really seen since Saturday night’s ball. In the lift, John reaches over and firmly takes Sherlock’s hand, and Sherlock looks over at him and smiles, a faint air of triumph hovering about his mouth, his fingers tightening in John’s.

“All in, then?” he asks lightly, but John knows better than to believe the levity.

He squeezes back. “You know it,” he says, and Sherlock bends and kisses him as though he can’t prevent himself from doing it, pulling back just before the lift doors open on the main floor.

They stroll hand-in-hand into the dining hall, John feeling like a conquering hero returning to the battlefield of his victory. Their tablemates exclaim at seeing them, and for five minutes all they do is field questions about where they’ve been, which they handle vaguely enough until Greg leans over and jabs a finger at them.

“‘Sorting yourselves out’, you say,” he says. “Translation: you were either fighting or off shagging this entire time. Which is it?”

Sherlock glances sideways at John, so John smiles. “Bit of both, if you really want to know. Though considerably more of one than the other.” There. Not a single twinge of discomfort. Instead, all he feels is pride, and better still, Sherlock’s fingers tighten a little in what might be silent relief that John didn’t deny it.

Greg grins and Stacey cheers. “I knew it,” Greg announces. “You two look pretty disgustingly happy.”

John’s smile grows, and he realises that now that he’s got over his ridiculous jealousy, he rather likes Greg. It’s a refreshing feeling. In fact, everyone at the table is beaming at them, even Jim, who might have been the only one there uncomfortable with the subject of them going at it, but he looks genuinely pleased for them, too, and John beams back at them, his fingers still twined with Sherlock’s on the table. The only person missing is Jodie, and she’s the one he really wanted to have see them like this. He wants to tell her that he took her words to heart, that they fixed things. He remembers that she’s got a big presentation to make before the final meal is served, and looks around for her.

There she is – in the corner of the stage, bending to plug something in. He checks the time. It’s quarter to twelve and the emcee lady goes over to say something to Jodie, who nods, stands up, and taps something on her laptop. John feels a jolt as a large photograph of Ian Marcello and Chrissy Jessop appears on the screen, the setting Jamaican sun framed perfectly above their heads. It’s very similar to the one which Randolph Winters won the photography contest with and was obviously also taken by him, only here, the sun is still higher in the sky.

The emcee steps over to the podium. “Hello, everyone!” she says cheerily. “I’m glad to see you’ve all remembered to come a little early for our last meal together! We’ve partnered with Jodie Branson, whom we’ve already met earlier as our local wedding planner extraordinaire, to pull together some of the ideas that you’ve seen presented this week, to show you various snapshots of what your weddings could look like. Jodie has compiled a beautiful slideshow, so we’ll invite you to sit back and relax, and take in all of the many options that are out there for your special day!”

She goes on, but Sherlock nudges him. “Look,” he says, under his breath, nodding toward the kitchen door.

John looks over as surreptitiously as he can, and sees that Andrea is standing just outside the doorway, her arms crossed, eyes narrowed. He’s never seen her outside the kitchen during a meal before, but that doesn’t matter: she’s staring at the photo of Ian and Chrissy with overt hatred. Then she turns and goes abruptly back into the kitchen.

The emcee talks for several minutes longer, reminding everyone of the check-out procedures and a number of other things that John tunes out, then finally invites Jodie to come over to the microphone. “Hello!” she says, smiling out at everyone. “As Arlene said, we’ll be wrapping up this conference as of five in the afternoon today when the exhibitions close, but as this is our last meal together, we just thought this would be a nice way to remind you of the wide variety of wedding styles there are out there. I don’t want to bore you, so we’ll get right to the slideshow… oh, what’s this?” she asks, as a server approaches the foot of the steps leading up to the stage.

John watches as he says something inaudible, at least to him, and hands her a glass of water. Jodie thanks him, but warning bells immediately begin to jangle in John’s gut. He inhales, his fingers clamping around Sherlock’s, but Sherlock is faster. “Jodie, DON’T!” he shouts, letting go of John’s hand and already on his feet.

It’s too late: Jodie has already tipped the glass to her mouth and taken several sips. John finds himself on his feet, too, his mouth open in horror. Sherlock says his name with urgency and John snaps into action. Right. Right! He’s already moving, running between the tables. He sees Jodie turn white and collapse as he navigates through a particularly narrow passage, the glass falling onto the stage and smashing, vaguely registers someone give a small scream. “Get me a medical kit!” he barks at the emcee. “Now!!” He’s helpless without it and knows immediately that his own is much too far away, stuck in their room on the twelfth floor. “Sherlock – ”

Sherlock nods at him before vaulting onto the stage, saying Jodie’s name. She’s already non-responsive, only semi-conscious, foam beginning to form at the corners of her mouth. John feels himself filling with impotent horror, horror that she’s going to die and there isn’t a damned thing he can do about it. They owe her, he thinks numbly. He never even got a chance to tell her that. “Call an ambulance,” he tells a conference guest, who immediately takes out his phone and dials the number. It probably won’t matter. Jodie’s eyelids are fluttering, the foam already thicker as Sherlock steadies her on her side, waiting for the vomiting to begin.

“Here, let me help,” a male voice says urgently.

John looks at him, dazed. “What?”

The man is holding a leather satchel and brandishing a syringe. “I’m a physician,” he says, his accent American. “This is the newest cyanide antidote on the market – it was just approved for use back in the States a couple of months ago. Would you mind, Doctor Watson?”

John shakes his head and springs back. “No – by all means!” He follows and holds Jodie’s arm steady as she begins to vomit into a wastebasket Sherlock has somehow got from someone, and takes the alcohol wipe being offered by the unknown doctor, tearing it with difficulty but getting Jodie’s arm swabbed. “How can you be sure it’s cyanide?” he asks, peripherally catching Sherlock saying something low and urgent into his phone at the same time.

The other doctor shakes his head. “I’m not,” he says grimly, prepping the syringe. “But it’s obviously poison of some kind, and this is worth a shot, isn’t it?”

John nods, still feeling numb. “Yes – of course. Thank God you’re here.”

“Wait until we see if it works,” the other warns, dextrously injecting the antidote. “Depending on the concentration, she may still suffer long-term nerve damage even if she survives.”

“And of course the glass broke,” John returns, feeling helpless rage surge within him. He glances at the door to the kitchen, but of course Andrea is nowhere in sight. He looks at Sherlock and they exchange a long look of shared dread. He looks back at the unknown doctor. “So what is it?” he asks, nodding at the antidote.

“Hydroxocobalamin,” the man says. “I’m actually on my way to a conference to talk about its use here in the UK – we’re lucky I just happened to be passing through and had it on hand! It will need to be administered for the next ten minutes continuously. Meanwhile, has her next of kin been informed?”

“Er – ” John reaches over with his free hand and carefully retrieves the mobile he can see outlined in the pocket of Jodie’s trousers. She doesn’t use a passcode, thank God, so he thumbs open her list of contacts and scrolls until he finds a name listed simply as ‘Dan’. He looks around, but Sherlock is already ahead of him.

“I’ve got her,” he tells John, reaching over to take charge of steadying Jodie’s arm as the antidote is administered.

Their eyes meet. “Sherlock – what about – ” John asks urgently, keeping his voice down and nodding toward the kitchen.

“Already on it,” Sherlock tells him briskly. He nods at the phone in John’s hand. “Call him. She’ll want him to be here when she revives fully.”

If she revives fully, John thinks but doesn’t say: Sherlock already knows. “Does this thing actually work?” he asks the other doctor, his tone a little more confrontational than he intended it to be, but the man nods.

“If it’s actually cyanide,” he says. “I don’t suppose we’ll known until she’s been fully examined.”

“Actually, I’ve collected a sample,” Sherlock volunteers, holding up a tissue upon which he’s managed to sop some of the spilled water. “Once I’ve tested it, we’ll know what the poison and concentration were.”

John gives him a look so grateful that it could pass for a kiss, and Sherlock absorbs it and the glimmers of an almost-smile hover about his mouth. John gets to his feet and walks a few steps away, making the call.

Dan answers on the second ring. “Hey babe,” he says casually. “How was the presentation?”

John clears his throat. “Actually, this isn’t Jodie,” he says. “My name is John Watson and I’m calling to tell you that Jodie has just been poisoned. Don’t panic – she’s having an antidote administered as we speak, and the chances are strong that she’ll survive this, but if you could get here as quickly as possible, I know she’ll want to see you.”

“Poisoned!” Dan is loud. “What the hell! Is she all right?”

John winces. “Not yet,” he admits. “But we have high hopes that she will be. Where are you located? I know this is a lot to take in, but you’ve got to focus, for her sake. Are you far away?”

Dan sounds stunned. “No – we’re just on the northwestern edge of Cambridge. I’ll come right now – where exactly are you? The dining hall?”

He sounds as though he knows Chilton College rather well already. “That’s right,” John tells him. “Come as quickly as you can.” He disconnects before having to explain the obvious reason why Dan needs to hurry, and goes back to Jodie’s side with Sherlock, hovering anxiously. He feels helpless not being in control here, but at the moment he’s more than grateful for this American doctor and his new antidote and overall presence of mind.

The kitchen doors open then and Phil walks out with Andrea, whose hands seem to be tied behind her back, and Brenda stops them at the kitchen door. “That’s far enough,” she says grimly.

Sherlock looks at John, who looks at the other doctor. “Can you carry on?” he asks. “We’ve got the poisoner.”

“Yes, go ahead,” the doctor invites, so John gets up and follows Sherlock, jumping off the stage and weaving rapidly between the tables again.

“The police are on their way,” Sherlock informs Andrea, almost pleasantly.

Her eyes dart around at the seated guests, all of whom are staring at her, mouths open. “Could we not do this here?” she requests, her chin jutting out defiantly.

Brenda looks at Sherlock. “My office is free. I’ll have the police meet us there, if you like?”

Sherlock agrees, and they surround Andrea and march her out, a murmur of speculation rising in crescendo as they go.

Brenda unlocks her office and stands back. Sherlock goes in first and points imperiously at a chair. “Sit.”

Andrea sits. “I have no idea what this is about, and I plan to sue this conference centre into the next century for the humiliation you just subjected me to in front of hundreds of guests. My professional reputation is something that can’t be restored through financial remuneration. I haven’t done a single thing wrong and you don’t have one shred of evidence against me. This is a complete sham, and I – ”

“We’ve read your emails,” John interrupts, thoroughly fed up. It’s blunt as hell and he doesn’t care.

Andrea has a ready response. “Complete breach of privacy – I’ll add that to my list of – ”

“Stop.” This time it’s Sherlock who cuts her off. “Just stop,” he repeats. His eyes are very intense, his lips set. “We know what you’ve done. We know who you’ve killed, and why. We’ve got Noel Davis. We know who Samantha Jones is. Your emails are more than enough evidence. Please don’t insult our intelligence by clinging to some notion of either ignorance or innocence. You’ve killed six people, and just attempted to murder a seventh. Are you really going to try to deny it?”

Andrea closes her mouth and swallows.

“Good choice,” John says rudely. “I hope you’ve got a lawyer. You’re going to need a good one.” He shakes his head. “Seriously, though, how did you think you wouldn’t be caught? Were you just going to go on killing every single person who had the audacity to attend Ian and Chrissy’s wedding if and when they happened to attend a conference here?”

A muscle twitches in Andrea’s jaw and she looks down at her lap, her hands still bound behind her back. “None of those emails prove anything,” she says, but it’s defiant, the confidence fading.

“I think that any jury would find them convincing enough,” Sherlock tells her, his lip twisting.

“Here’s what I don’t get,” John says, leaning back against Brenda’s desk. “You seem like you were a fairly decent person before all of this happened. I get it: that was extremely rough, him leaving you for someone like Chrissy like that. But to go from that to murder? And your own friends, too. I get that they betrayed you. I would have been incredibly hurt by that. But murder? And then you nearly did the right thing, got yourself cold feet when it came to hiring Samantha Jones for the car bomb that killed Kyle Rosenfeld. You nearly backed out, there. If you’d stopped then, you’d still have killed Lydia Dharma – someone you’d known since your school days – and you’d have had that on your conscience for the rest of your days. But then you doubled down – you committed to Kyle’s murder, or paying someone for it, at least, went through with the hit you put out on Rowan Evans, too – your own best friend – and then you just kept killing. Gabriela Baillaora. Randolph Winters. Your friend from culinary school, Christina McKenzie. And now you just tried to kill Jodie Branson, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Do you know that she actually told us about Ian and Chrissy’s wedding, and said that she regretted having taken the job? That’s all it was for her: just a job. She didn’t know them. She didn’t betray you. All she did was plan a wedding. Did you know that?”

Andrea shakes her head and blinks, tears making a film over her eyes. “No,” she says, very softly.

“You tried to kill her,” Sherlock interjects harshly. “With the very same cyanide supply that you had on hand for Baillaora’s murder. Do you deny it?”

Andrea swallows again. “I… I think I need a lawyer,” she says, all the fight going out of her.

Brenda stirs. “This is frankly unbelievable,” she states, staring at Andrea. “How long have we worked together? Run this place, planned the events, gone over menus? And right under my nose, you were the one murdering our own guests, the very people whose safety and comfort we’re responsible for, and undermining this business and its reputation – and that’s not even talking about the actual murders that you’ve committed! Have Alistair and I not been there for you every step of the way, through your terrible break-up? I know he offered to pay for counselling, and I wish you’d taken it! I’m beyond horrified by this. I trusted you. I thought I knew you. Turns out you were someone else entirely.”

The tears slip out of Andrea’s eyes now and run down both cheeks and she doesn’t try to answer, trying very obviously to stifle her reaction to this and failing.

“You killed them,” Sherlock says, his voice and eyes boring holes through Andrea’s face. “Just say it. You killed them.”

For a long moment, Andrea doesn’t react. Then she bows her head and nods, the tears falling faster.

Sherlock is satisfied. He turns to John. “That will do for the police,” he says briskly, then glances at the door. “Speaking of which.” He moves past John to open the office door. “Gentlemen,” he says, graciously enough. “We’ve just had a confession. The internal security system has captured it all on tape for your convenience. This is Brenda Stevens, the assistant front of house manager. I’m sure she’ll be able to assist you with that. Meanwhile, I’ll send over the relevant files, or my brother will. Good day.”

John stops leaning on the desk and follows Sherlock out into the corridor. He looks back over his shoulder at Andrea, every inch the image of a broken woman, doubled over and weeping openly now. As he turns back, Sherlock catches his eye.

“What you said was brilliant,” he says, putting an arm around John’s shoulders and pulling him close to press a kiss to his forehead. “That’s what got the confession. You were the one to get it. And thanks to your social media savvy, I’d really say that you were the one to solve this case.”

“We did it together,” John says, but Sherlock’s arm is warm and feels like tangible comfort. Somehow this one has disturbed him more than some cases have: seeing a woman go from decent person to serial killer is chilling. What’s left for Andrea? A lifetime prison sentence and endless, consuming bitterness at the seeming injustice of the world? He thinks of Mary again, of the relentlessness of her utter refusal to feel remorse for her crimes, the list of which John will never even know or have to face. Would she have ever cracked in the end, given in to her own conscience? Did she even have one? He’ll never know now. But in the end, it doesn’t matter, because he’s finally got where he needs to be: with Sherlock, in the way that all three of them always knew that they could – should – have been all along. He tightens his own arm around Sherlock’s back and decides to reaffirm what he just said. “We solved it together, even though we weren’t functioning very well as a team. We’re just that good.”

Sherlock smiles fondly down into his eyes. “I suppose we are,” he says, and begins to lead them away from the office, where Andrea is being formally charged and cuffed. “Let’s go and see how Jodie’s doing.”

Jodie: John’s stomach drops. “Yes, let’s,” he says worriedly. “Sherlock – I meant to tell you before – she talked to me yesterday, got me to see how much I’ve been routinely hurting you. It was something I needed to hear, and I never even got the chance to tell her how much it helped, or what she did for us.”

“You will,” Sherlock promises. “Come on. The paramedics are here, see the ambulance outside, there? And that American doctor was so quick with the antidote. She only took a sip or two. We’ll see.”

They let go of each other as they head back into the dining hall, and John’s heart gives a sharp squeeze of relief as he sees Jodie sitting up on the edge of the stage, an unknown man who must be Dan sitting beside her with his arm around her shoulders, an entire team of medics surrounding them. “Oh, thank God,” he says with relief.

They make their way over to the stage. Jodie is weak but recovering well, and Sherlock turns over his sample of the cyanide solution to the medical team for testing. “They’ve told me I should be okay,” Jodie tells them. “We’ll see if there’s any damage. But they said you caught the person who did this?”

John glances at Sherlock. “Yeah, we did,” he says. “She’s being arrested as we speak. In fact, it was the ex from that wedding you regretted doing, Ian Marcello and Chrissy Jessop’s. She was the chef here.”

Jodie’s jaw drops. “Andrea? She was his ex?”

“So it would seem,” Sherlock confirms. “She’s the one who was behind the deaths that have been taking place here. All of the victims either attended or were actively involved in the wedding. We should have seen that you were in danger sooner.”

Jodie still looks shocked. “Wow – I never would have imagined that! Not that I knew her well, but I come here regularly, as you know!”

“It shouldn’t be a problem any longer,” Sherlock says. “Meanwhile…” He looks around and finds Phil hovering anxiously nearby, noting the restive nature of the assembled guests, as it’s now twenty past noon. “Is lunch still good to go?” he asks.

Phil nods. “The sooner it’s served, the better, but otherwise, yes. Are you sure it’s safe? When I got your call, I didn’t know what to think.”

Sherlock jumps onto the stage and goes to the podium, tapping the microphone, which is still on. “Excuse me,” he says politely. He points at the photo of Ian and Chrissy, still projected on the screen from Jodie’s laptop. “Does anyone in this room know either of these people?” There is silence, the guests frowning and looking at one another. “It’s important,” Sherlock says, still quite pleasantly. “Did anyone here attend this wedding? It’s fine if you did, but if so, we should speak privately. Anyone?” No one volunteers. “Very well, then,” Sherlock announces. “Lunch will be served imminently. Apologies for the delay.”

He steps down and nods at Phil, who sets off briskly toward the kitchen, and John pulls Sherlock to himself with one arm, squeezing. “Well done,” he says fondly as the chatter rises around them with relief and renewed enthusiasm.

Sherlock smiles back, his arm curling instinctively around John’s shoulders in return, and John almost thinks he would kiss him right there in front of everyone. Not that anyone’s paying any attention to them anymore, but Jodie clears her throat before anything can happen.

“So, you two,” she says, her interest piqued as though she didn’t just very nearly die thirty minutes ago. “I take it things are – better?”

“Very much so, thanks to you,” John says, grateful to have the chance to tell her. “Thanks again for helping me get my head out of my arse yesterday. We’re actually engaged for real now, and – ” He stops and looks at Sherlock. “We haven’t talked about this, but I’m sure we’d agree that we’d like you to do our wedding, if you’re free one year from yesterday.”

“On your anniversary!” Jodie’s eyes are glowing, and John isn’t surprised that she’s remembered. “I would love to! Oh my God, how romantic!”

She sounds so pleased that John can’t help beaming like an idiot at her. Sherlock has something else on his mind, though. “Life is too short to keep missing opportunities,” he says, a bit cryptically. He looks at Dan, who’s been sitting there with his arm protectively around Jodie’s shoulders this entire time, gives him a pointed look, and manages to tap his left ring finger without Jodie seeing.

Dan gets it and nods, taking the cue perfectly. “Speaking of which,” he says, and stops to clear his throat. “Jodes – I know this is years late in coming and I’m sorry. I’ve just got to say that. But I want you to know that I’ve had this planned for ages already and I’m going to do it properly – but I thought I’d lost you today and it’s just put everything into perspective. I don’t think it should wait a single day longer. You’re everything to me. You’re my whole life. Will you marry me? I’ve got a ring at home, and I’ll do this right, like I said, but I’ve got to ask now, before we lose a single minute more.”

Jodie’s eyes fill with tears. “I thought you would never ask,” she says, her voice turning shaky. “Yes – of course, you idiot! I’ve wanted to marry you for years!”

Dan puts his arms around her and hugs her tightly. “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long,” he says into her hair, and Sherlock’s arm tightens around John’s shoulders.

“Come on,” he murmurs. “Let’s say goodbye to the others and then get out of here. I don’t particularly want to eat here, do you?”

“No,” John agrees, a bit dryly. “Tell you what – let’s go back to that nice little pub. And then I’ll tell you what I’ve got in mind for the rest of the day.”

Sherlock looks down at him and smiles. “Sounds like a plan.”

***

A silence rich in expectation, contemplation, and a sort of peace that John has very rarely experienced before settles in the long nave of King’s College Chapel. The priest rises and begins to speak, the words of the liturgy for Evensong ancient and well-worn in his mouth, and John instantly understands the inherent appeal of the service. He half-listens, more interested in the way Sherlock’s fingers are intertwined with his, seated in what they think are the chair Sherlock was sitting in last night and the one to its right. His service booklet is on his knees, untouched. He doesn’t need it. It’s enough just to be here with Sherlock, at long last. It’s half-past five, and outside the daylight is already fading, the day giving over to night: the perfect time for Evensong.

O Lord, open thou our lips,” the priest sings.

And our mouth shall show forth thy praise,”, the choir sings back.

O God, make speed to save us,” comes the priest’s voice again, very clear and steady.

O Lord, make haste to help us.

It’s beautiful, John thinks. No wonder Sherlock likes it. He drifts in daydreams, letting the words of the chant roll over his ears, and then the Magnificat starts. Sherlock told him that it’s a particularly nice setting, the Stanford in G, and the soloist’s voice is high and clear and exquisite. The sound of the organ reminds him nostalgically of childhood and the occasional times his mother would drag him and Harry to church for Midnight Mass at Christmas, or sometimes Easter Sunday. He almost snickers, imagining Harry’s reaction if she were to see him actively attending a church service now. That doesn’t matter. He couldn’t possibly care less what anyone thinks of him for doing this with and for Sherlock. This place has become infinitely special for them, and will only grow more so – despite his initial astonishment, Mycroft has already secured permission for their wedding to take place in three hundred and sixty-four days’ time, right here in this very space.

And besides all of that, it’s just plain pretty. Sherlock’s fingers are warm in his, and John steals a look at his face. It’s relaxed for once, his eyes closed as he listens to the choir, his mobile mouth soft, his expression peaceful. John rubs his thumb lightly over Sherlock’s, just enough to remind him that he’s there, and that he’s promised that he always will be. No more walking out on this. When they leave Cambridge, they won’t be going their separate ways – him to the suburbs and his lonely life with Rosie, Sherlock back to Baker Street, each of them wrestling with his own struggles and demons. From here on in, they’ll have each other.

They’re going home.

*